Tired of Brexit? Just Breathe – and Take Back Control!

It’s a long time since I’ve blogged about yoga.  Back in the day, I was posting about some yoga technique or philosophy on a weekly basis, but since I’ve stopped teaching the writing has taken over and now, when I’m asked to say what this blog is about, it’s hard to answer.  The tagline is ‘life and thoughts of a self-underemployed writer,’ and I guess that’s as good a description as any, though I’m not sure I’m ‘underemployed’ any more as I work basically office hours, 9-5-ish, Monday to Friday.  I’ve also got over the tendency to consider what I do as ‘not validated’ unless it is published: when you first start to write it’s very hard to justify the time spent doing it, and if years go by and you publish nothing that feeling can become almost unbearable.

The ultimate validation is to find your authentic voice.  I’m not saying publication doesn’t matter but I think it’s more likely to come once you discover your true voice rather than striving to be a copy of something else.  Still, it’s a loooooooooooong process: like Miles Davis said, it takes a long time to sound like yourself:


None of which, I now realise, has much to do with the title; as I see that I’ve written several paragraphs very much not about breathing.  I have problems with breathing, as do a lot of people: I have asthma and rhinitis (like hay fever only not seasonal) and although I don’t often get a full-blown asthma attack I can feel short of breath sometimes.  The rhinitis is more of a pain really, consisting of a blocked and runny nose and frequent sneezing.  But hey ho – it could be worse.  I could have leprosy or syphilis.  I could be in a wheelchair having to prove to ATOS every couple of months that my amputated legs are still amputated and haven’t grown back.

So: what can I say about yoga breathing?  I have written essays on it; entire books have been devoted to the subject – but for me the most exciting thing about working with the breath is that it gives you control.  You want to take back control?  Learn to breathe and you can control your heart-rate and blood pressure.  You can slow down your thoughts and calm your emotions.  Stuck in a traffic jam?  Cut up by some arse in a BMW?  Been nice to someone who was rude in return?  All these things tend to raise the blood pressure and agitate the mind, and doing something so simple as merely focussing on the breath can really help.  Try some of these ideas:




Just breathe – it really is better than Brexit.

Kirk out


A Tragedy of Perfections

It occurred to me at stupid o’clock this morning when my brain had done its usual thing and whacked me over the head repeatedly to keep me awake, that the opposite of a Comedy of Errors would be a Tragedy of Perfections.  That struck me as a nice idea, and I began to ponder what a tragedy of perfections might involve.

The crossword is a case in point.  I may have mentioned before that I do the Guardian cryptic every morning to get – I was going to say, to get my brain in gear but as I said it’s already in top gear and revving hard – well, to get the verbal juices flowing and to sharpen my sense of what words are and how they work.  Cryptic crosswords are very useful for poets, and if I ever teach a creative writing course I will recommend them to my students.  But of course part of the joy of a cryptic is the puzzle.  If it’s too easy it’s not so enjoyable: likewise if it’s too hard.  Most of the time I get through OK but sometimes I’m stuck, and then those few blank spaces torment me.  Oh, if I could only get this crossword finished!  But here’s the thing: five minutes (or half an hour) later when I finally get it, my immediate reaction is disappointment.  It’s finished.  No more puzzle.  Now I have to wait till tomorrow.

And I guess that’s what I mean by the tragedy of perfection.  One of DH Lawrence’s characters (I think it was Birkin in Women in Love) said of the place where he was living: ‘Now that my rooms are complete I want them at the bottom of the sea.’  And that is the tragedy of being human; that we strive to complete things and when they’re complete we feel heartsick.  It’s like that old Chinese curse: ‘May your every desire be instantly fulfilled.’  We must have something to aim for, else what is the point of our lives?  Or, to put it another way, ‘a man’s reach must exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’  (that’s Robert Browning, from this poem:


I like Robert Browning: he’s very direct and conversational.  But I digress.)

What, then, is the answer?  How do we deal with this utterly perverse tendency?  I’m going to turn to yoga philosophy now and specifically to the concept of karma yoga.  Karma is a term everyone knows nowadays – or thinks they know, anyway – and yoga is something every second person practises.  But karma yoga has nothing to do with yoga postures; it is a way of doing everyday tasks which somehow helps you to wriggle free of this endless cycle of desire and frustration – the tragedy of perfection.  For example: suppose I vacuum the sitting room carpet.  As the machine hoovers up the dirt I feel a great sense of satisfaction at the instant swallowing of every bit of dust and fluff (and don’t get me started on the hair-balls which can only emanate from OH’s head).  The task is done: I switch off the vacuum which dies with a satisfied sigh.  I look around me.  I see that it is good.  But! five minutes later someone walks in with dirt on their shoes.  The sofa is moved, scattering fine toast crumbs over a wide area.  Snacks are eaten.  People enter and leave.  OH pulls out tangles of hair and drops them on the floor (and nobody can tell me otherwise).  And in no time at all my (yes, MY) lovely clean carpet is covered in filth.  And if I’m not careful I can get quite miffed about it.

Karma yoga gives a way out of this.  First, when you undertake a task it is done without end-gaining; in other words, without attachment to the results.  This isn’t the same as not giving a toss; it means that if the vacuum doesn’t suck properly or you get interrupted or if for some other reason the carpet is not as clean as you’d like it to be, you don’t sweat it.  At the same time the job is done with focus.  You’d be amazed how much more quickly a job can be finished when you focus your whole attention on it.  Last year when digging the garden I was totally oppressed by how much work there was to do and was unable to concentrate on a little bit at a time.  This year I have made a conscious decision to focus only on what I’m doing and to let go of perfection – and guess what?  I’ve done four times the work in half the time.

That’s all for today folks.  Now to edit this post and make it perfect…

Kirk out





Wish I Was Here

Am I here?  Are you here?  Are any of us actually here?

No, that’s not a philosophical question about the reality of this life; it’s a comment on the fact that many of us are, for much of the time, not fully present.  We are distracted.  We are talking to someone and a text arrives.  ‘I’d better get this,’ we say.  Why?  Or we are looking at a terrific view and our first thought is to take a photo and upload it to Facebook.  Why?  What could be better than just appreciating the view?  Or we are walking to work past a magnificent magnolia tree (it’s that time of year right now!) and we don’t notice it because we’re in a hurry or thinking about that meeting or phone call or email.  It’s spring, people!  But do we notice?

I first started to change my bad habits when I lived in Madrid.  It became clear to me that I wouldn’t be there forever; so I made a conscious effort to notice things: the architecture, the sky, the light, the art; everything I came across.  There is beauty everywhere, even if you live in a dump, as the film ‘American Beauty’ shows in that scene with the carrier bag.  Carrier bags are not considered to be beautiful, but they can be: look at the picture above and try to get past your feelings of disgust at the way plastic pollutes the world.  Is it not beautiful?  It flies in the wind with its own grace.  There’s beauty in everything if you want to see it.  But in order to see it you have to stop and look.

Much has been written about the desirability of doing one thing at a time.  If I was having dinner with someone who was continually on their mobile, I’d walk out: similarly to arrive at a beautiful location and just take photos is an insult to the location.

When I began to study yoga I was introduced to the idea that happiness comes from concentration.  By concentration I don’t mean a ‘Rodin’s Thinker’ style screwing up of the attention but an unbroken flow, like when you’re completely absorbed in a book or film (or person).  This, I learned, is the reason why new things make us happy – because we focus on them completely.  They absorb us.  But that soon fades and if we’re not careful we seek the next new thing, instead of learning that it’s the focus that matters, not the thing.

So in order to be happy we merely have to be present.

Are you here?

Kirk out

Yes! I Remembered! It’s ‘Be Insecure’ Day

It’s the first Wednesday in the month and for once I’ve remembered to be insecure.  I have to remind myself these days because I’m not half as insecure as I used to be.  I care a great deal less about what people think of me, and agonise a good deal less about whether they publish me.

So what – I hear you cry – has brought about this extraordinary state of affairs?  Well, it started with a pancake.  We used to have soya pancakes due to my daughter’s egg allergy, but since she’s left home we’ve reverted to the eggy variety: and as I was mixing, some thoughts were churning in my mind about Lent.   I have often in the past given something up for Lent but we are now so hard-up that the kind of things I used to give up (chocolates, TV, meals out, having a car, etc) I have perforce given up for good.  So the thought of renouncing yet another luxury did not appeal: take away my chocolate digestives and life is just not worth living.  And as the first pancake frazzled in the pan I had a brainwave: why give up something nice?  Why not something negative?  That, after all, is the idea of Lent: not spurious self-sacrifice but giving up those addictions and attachments which hold you back.  Like, say, insecurity and self-doubt.

So that was my decision: for six and a half weeks I would give up self-doubt.  The little voice that undermined my confidence and poured cold water on my dreams, would be shown the door.  But how? I hear you cry.

Well, there are various methods, but I chose to write affirmations.  Every day I would write at least 108 affirmations focussing on positive things (Why 108?  I’ll tell you in a minute).  I would write, for example, ‘I feel secure’ or ‘I am a good writer.’ (I mostly phrase things in the present tense to make them seem more real.)  After a while you start to feel it working – but then the doubts creep in – so to combat this I created a ‘doubt cloud’:  I squiggled a cloud-shape on the page and imprisoned all the niggling doubts inside it.

Writing – or repeating – affirmations is a technique I learned from yoga.  Traditionally yogis repeat a mantra; a word or short phrase in Sanskrit; and instead of counting they use a mala, a sort of longish rosary containing 108 beads.  The number 108 is held to be significant because it has so many denominators: it’s divisible by 3, 4, 6,8, 9 and 12.

Self-doubt and insecurity are the plague of the artist.  We need the critical voice but it comes in much too soon – at the start of the work rather than towards the end.  We need it when we’ve finished the first draft, but it pops up when we’re just beginning – and sometimes before, filling the blank page with dire prognostications.  For example, when I started writing again in 1981 I wrote a sentence or two and then underneath commented ‘too wordy and Dickensian.’

Consider the difference between these two poems:


Christopher Robin is going.
At least I think he is.
Nobody knows.
But he is going –
I mean he goes
(To rhyme with “knows”)
Do we care?
(To rhyme with “where”)
We do
Very much.
(I haven’t got a rhyme for that “is” in the second line yet.
(Now I haven’t got a rhyme for bother. Bother)
Those two bothers will have to rhyme with each other
The fact is this is more difficult
than I thought,
I ought –
(Very good indeed)
I ought
to begin again,
But it is easier
To stop.

This poem is written almost entirely by the critical voice.  There is no flow because Eeyore’s critical voice never shuts up.  Compare his effort (and I mean effort) with this flow of Pooh’s:

What shall we do about poor little Tigger?
If he never eats nothing, he’ll never get bigger.
He doesn’t like honey and haycorns and thistles
Because of the taste and because of the bristles.
And all the good things which an animal likes
Have the wrong sort of swallow or too many spikes

But whatever his weight in pounds,
shillings, and ounces,
He always seems bigger because
of his bounces

Piglet wonders whether the shillings ought to be there.  ‘They wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them,’ Pooh explains.  And there you have it.  Eeyore never gives anything a chance to ‘come in because it wants to’ and so his poetry never gets off the ground.

If I’ve learnt one thing in writing poetry, it’s this: you may have intentions.  You may intend to write a poem about snow, or autumn, or a garden.  You may intend to write free verse or a sonnet or a limerick.  But the poem has intentions too – and if you are wise, you’ll listen to them – and not your insecurities.

And here’s the link to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group:


Kirk out

Is This a Piece of Your Brain?

I’m just reblogging this for Mark because it came up in conversation: also because we’ve been watching ‘Fawlty Towers’ yet again and marvelling…

Sarada Gray

No, I haven’t gone all ‘Basil Fawlty’ on you


– I was just thinking this morning, at some point between 5 and 6 am (groan!) about how the mind compartmentalises things.  To whit: yesterday I washed an old eiderdown for which we have no daily use though it comes in handy for chair covers etc – and I was wondering where to put it as we have no space.  I settled for folding it and sticking it on top of an already-teetering pile on the wardrobe.  Then in the night I had the usual thought about needing to put another cover on the mattress as it has got into the bad habit of poking me in the ribs at night rather like a bad marriage (ho ho).  Then at approximately 5.15 I had one of those ‘Duh!’ moments when you realise that two narratives which have been going on…

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I’ve been thinking, as you do, about concentration.  Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘concentrate’.  I mean, as an injunction not as a noun relating to some beverage or other?  Well, I’m willing to bet it’s something like this:

Isn’t it?  When we think of concentration, we think of a ‘screwing-up’ of the will; a compelling of the attention, a forcing of the mind: an attempt to jolly-well make the brain focus on one thing.  This is of course impossible.  No amount of tension and compulsion can make the mind focus: all it does is set up an equal and opposite reaction in the other direction.  What happens as soon as you say ‘concentrate!’ to yourself in that way?  The mind refuses.  No thanks, it says, I think I’ll just go for a wander – and like some aboriginal Australian gone walkabout, off it goes and there’s no bringing it back.

Incidentally, here’s a good joke in a film I once saw (can’t remember which one):

American tourist wants to take photo of Aboriginal Australian bloke on a beach.  He holds up his hand.  ‘You can’t take my photo like that!’ he says.

‘Oh, sorry!’ she says, stricken with guilt.  ‘You believe it’ll take away your soul!’

‘No, man!’ he says.  ‘You got the lens cap on!’


The mind is like Pooh in the story where Owl is telling a long, long tale of his relatives and his mind just wanders, listening to the sounds of the forest until Pooh finally falls asleep.  ‘Concentrate!’ you keep telling it, but it keeps wandering off.

In yoga we have an expression for it.  We call it ‘the monkey-mind’ because it dashes here and there, gathering and snatching at whatever it can see.  And just like a monkey – or a small child – the mind needs to be trained.  It needs to be trained with patience, and with love.  So that whenever you become aware that the mind has wandered off, instead of yanking it back again and yelling ‘concentrate!’ you just gently bring it back to where it was and carry on.  Sometime you have to do this over and over; but with time the mind becomes able to focus for longer and longer periods.

And that brings me to the yoga theory of concentration.  In yoga concentration is not a compulsion or a screwing-up of the attention.  In yoga, concentration is defined as an unbroken flow of attention from the mind to the object of concentration, like a beam of light, if you will.  When the beam is broken it can be ‘switched on’ again.  No compulsion, no punishment, just an unbroken flow.  There’s an ease and grace to it which Rodin’s Thinker entirely lacks.  He’s unhappy; he’s tense: he’s concentrating!

So in yoga we have this unbroken flow of attention which we call concentration and it leads quite seamlessly to a state wherein you are absorbed in the object of attention; in a certain sense you become one with it.  And this state is known as meditation.

Is it easy?  No.  It takes practice and dedication to develop concentration and enter a state of meditation.  But there’s a kind of ease to it; a kind of grace which we call ‘effortless effort.’  So give it a try some time: sit and focus on your breath, or just look at a magnolia tree – they are wonderful right now.  It’s about being present in the moment.  This is your life, so live it!

Kirk out



Under Thorpe Cloud

Now, I’m not what you might call a fitness freak.  Every time I pass the gym on Upperton Rd and look at the row of people all cycling towards me without getting anywhere, I feel like laughing.  Joggers are more liberally-sprinkled on our pavements than lamp-posts, but I think jogging is a form of torture and marathons an extreme form.  On the news, both national and local, there are daily reports of outlandish feats of endurance raising money for this or that; but I don’t begin to comprehend why anyone would want to put themselves through something like a triathlon.  My leisure time is taken up with reading, watching TV, drinking beer with buddies and listening to music.  And when I go on holiday I enjoy a gentle walk; a stroll along the beach, a little light climbing perhaps, a bit of a swim.  Nothing too demanding.  Yet the last two church holidays I’ve been on have involved rather over-enthusiastic types who think nothing of shooting up a steep mountain the moment they’ve pitched their tent.  Such as this one:

which I declined to ascend at that point as I’d spent all night in a freezing tent and had to get up twice to pee.

The beach holiday, years ago, was much nicer.  Still on the first morning I wanted nothing more than to laze in the sun and hope my children didn’t drown themselves.  But it became clear that a group of these said hardy individuals were planning to latch themselves onto a rope for the purposes of pulling a bus along the promenade!  Why they would wish to do such a thing when they could be soaking up the sun, was a mystery to me, and when they had all charged up the shingle yelling ‘huzzah!’ I expressed my view to someone sitting near me.  ‘They’re bonkers, aren’t they?’ I said.  ‘Why don’t they just sit and enjoy the sun?’

She gave me a look, part-sorrow and part-anger.  Turned out she was just putting her trainers on so she, too could dash up the shingle and go pull a bus!!  I ask you!

But recently all this determined non-climbing and non-bus-pulling has started to catch up with me.  Living where we now do, I need to cycle a fair bit to get around; and so I’m having to supplement  my usual diet of fairly gentle yoga and sporadic walking with some good hard chugging up slopes and down again.  I’m getting better at it; and the other night when it was cold and wet I actually broke into a spontaneous jog!  Whatever next?

Better save me a bus, I guess…

Spring! workshop tomorrow, folks at the Embrace Arts centre.  Our workshop starts at 12 so see you there!


Kirk out