Monthly Archives: November 2008

Meditation explained

Again – the brilliance of WordPress. I am still -hopefully- locked up in a temple near Chiang Mai. I thought I might explain to you what I know of what I may go through when I am inside.

Firstly, Wat Ram Poeng is a well known temple for its meditation retreat, as you can stay from 10 days to 6 weeks. The recommeded introductory course is actually 26-days. Vipassana Kammatthana, or insight meditation is practised in this Wat. It is described as a personal experience of mental development. Whatever your faith (or lack of) you may meditate, on your path to becoming a better person. The technique taught is a way to prepare a path for a peaceful life through the clear understanding about oneself.

There are strict rules, and discipline is expected from all student. Meditators should not speak (unless to their teacher for their daily reportings), make eye contact with others, have any physical contact, read, write, listen to music, smoke, sleep during the day, use the telephone, use the internet, and chew after midday.

The days have a routine:
– 4am: wake up Gong, practise of meditation begins.
– 6am: Gong rings for breakfast. Late comers will not be served. Alms food is sacred, prayers are chanted before the meal. Take time to chew and eat. Then you may wash or bathe. Practise starts again.
– 10.30am: Gong for lunch. As for breakfast. Practise starts when food as been eaten.
– mid-afternoon: Reporting to teacher, schedule depends on teacher.
– 10pm: Sleeping may begin, while dressed in your white clothing.

The four foudations of mindfulness are the Mindfulness of body (bodily actions and sensations, including pain), Mindfulness of One’s feelings (contemplating the happiness/suffering/neutrality of now), Mindfulness of the Mind (i.e. thoughts), and Minfulness of the Objects of the Mind (mental recognition of activities: while we think, we must be mindful of thinking). The way to approach meditation is by Acknowledgement , i.e. realising what is going on, not analyzing it, not dwelling on it, simply acknowledging and letting go. To be conscious of what we are doing physically and mentally in the present moment. The 5 hindrances are desir, anger, laziness, restlessness and doubt.
The reason behing the strict routine, is that continuity is important so that the momentary concentration of meditation may occur. To be mindful from waking, through the day, until sleeping. To acknowledge our daily activities, so the mind does not wander or get disctracted.

The goals of meditation are to:
_ purify the mind,
_ to get rid of sorrows and lamentations,
_ to get rid of physical and mental sufferings,
_ to understand the truth of life,
_ to extinguish suffering and gain Nibbana.

Obviously you may obtain all these goals with regular practise of meditation, a 10-day retreat will not do it! But it is a good way to start…

That’s for the theory, now for the practical…

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Preparation for meditation

You did not think I would leave you with no reading material whilst I was busy meditating, did you? Thanks to wonderful blog, I can write stuff in advance and choose the day I want it put online.

After my week of fasting, I slowly went back to solids starting with fruit (papaya and fresh coconut), then vegetables (steamed and organic) and then carbohydrates (rice noodles). My body was starting to readapt to food, even though the carbs bloated me a little, and I feel nauseous after a meal. I have kept to snacks rather than meals actually, because my stomach has shrunk so does not allow to eat large quantities.
I feel good, my skin is clearing up, and the notorious purple shades I have under my eyes are nearly gone.

Actually I decided to consult a Chinese Doctor here, because my teachers at school said there was a particular good one in town, and a consultation costs 200 Bahts, which would be about 4.5 Euros (just under 4 pounds) (wow I’ve just realised it is nearly 1 euro to the pound! If only it had been like that when I was studying in London…)
So I went on Friday, on my last day on liquids. This Doctor is a short, tiny, Thai woman with Chinese features. We sat down and talked a little about France, Osteopathy, the Chi Abdominal massage course, my teachers at Sunshine, Chinese Medicine etc. After a quick case history, she took my pulses on the right and left wrist (radial artery, at several different places along the blood vessel), and observed my tongue.

She diagnosed my major problem: I am damp. More precisely, my spleen is particularly damp, as well as my left kidney. This is often constitutional, and the treatment is long and tedious because most of is concerns lifestyle changes.
The first thing to change, is to live and work on the ground floor, and never above. Also, I must not live near a river, a lake or the sea, as these are all damp environments that would make my condition worse. Lastly, I should avoid cold/icy and sweet drinks and foods. This one is easy, since I don’t like ice cream or cold drinks.
However, the water things could prove a little difficult, and the ground floor well that’s close to impossible if I see my future in a city.
The Doctor said that is I followed those changes, my dampness would get better within 10 to 15 years…

She encouraged me to follow my ambition, and go to China to find out more about Chi and Chinese Medicine. Also, she said that it might be an idea to visit her at a time when I am not fasting, so she can see what my body is like in “normal” circumstances. I will see when I return from meditation.

The followind day (Saturday), I cycled to the temple of Wat Ram Poeng, about 8km South West of Chiang Mai, to check out the surroundings and the meditation course. The monk in charge of the foreign meditators’ office told me there was a space for an introductory 10-day course starting on Monday. He gave a little explanatory booklet for me to go through, and asked whether I had understood everything.
I understand everything, I am ready for this, and from Monday I shall be meditating for 10-days. Or trying to anyway.

One of the requirements of most Buddhist temples, is that the meditators wear only white: trousers/sarongs, tops, and underwear. After a quick “wardrobe” check, I realise I had none of the above. The clothes can be purchased directly at the temple, but the underwear should be bought beforehand. Anyway I don’t see myself buying a bra from a Thai Monk.

So I took my faithful bicycle, and went all the way out of town to Tesco Lotus, the Thai version of the English Classic. The superstore is impressive. It is massive, the carpark is enormous, and on it are hundreds of cars, thousands of motorcycles, and tens of Thais doing Aerobics.
I park my bike near the entrance and bravely enter this major symbol of globalisation. Inside, beauty shops claim to make Asian skin “whiter than white”, Dunkin’ Donuts makes a very Thai Donut on a stick, Starbucks Coffee is thriving with spotty teenagers and the amp behind Ronald Mc Donald pumps out loud music.

I make my way to the first floor, where the main Tesco area is. The reason I went to Tesco, is that I don’t know the word for “knickers” or “bra” in Thai, and that I know for a fact that at the clothes markets around Chang Mai there is not my size.
Once I get to the right department, I realise that Tesco does not make my size either. I check the cheap Tesco Value area, the expensive “Sloggi” Bridget-Jones type pants, and the random shaped thongs. Nope, nothing will fit. Many shopping assistants try to convince me that the Triple-X-L synthetic lacy red thong would suit me, but I do not think it would be appropriate for my meditation retreat. She even whips out a calculator from nowhere, and offers me a 25% discount on it if I buy it immediately. Out of habit more than anything, I try to get the price down, and then I realise that: A) I don’t want it, B) it does not fit me anyway and C) We’re in a supermarket and we’re bargaining? What is going on here? So I walk away and escape in the washing powder/baby products aisle.

I wait a few minutes before I head back to the Ladies section, really wondering what I am going to do about this underwear situation. The white clothes I will get are bound to be transparent, and I don’t want a monk to be offended by my black knickers. So I look for something suitable in my size. And that’s when it all comes clear! I run around the place hoping for them to even exist in Thailand, and yep they do. Ladies Boxer Shorts! I am amazed. They look like something an old lady would wear over her knickers. They are cotton, white, ample and… they fit me! I grab a few.
Next to it are white tank tops… they fit me! I grab a few of those too. And I run away with the lot, as I see that one of the shopping assistants has spotted me and is walking hurriedly in my direction. This time I escape in the live fish section. I make sure my perfect white undies don’t get splashed by the overactive fish swimming in the shallow basins. And make my way to the checkout. For a grand total of 308 Bahts (so less than 6 Euros, 5 Pounds) I have underwear in which I can meditate. Genius.

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The night before the day after

Tomorrow, I am starting my 10-day meditation retreat at a Temple called Wat Ram Poeng. I have prepared for this retreat by doing a hardcore detox: a 5-day fast, with slow return to solid foods. My body feels cleansed and my mind is ready for the challenge to come.

I enjoyed my day off by visiting the Doi Suthep, a temple on a sacred mountain 20km North of Chiang Mai, one of the most sacred Buddhist Wats in Thailand. I enjoyed some quiet time, before returning to bustling Chiang Mai for a massage appointment.

The massage therapist, the same as I has seen last week, was very happy with the results a week on. My muscles are softer, more supple and generally less painful. My left shoulder is enjoying her newfound mobility, and I have been stretching it everyday to keep it that way. She was impressed with my daily Yoga classes, stretching, fasting and going to meditate from tomorrow.

She herself used to be a nun (after being an aerobics instructor and before doing massage) and taught Vipassana meditation. She told me a few things which have been very helpful as preparation, and may even help me in the process of the retreat.
To help me further, she has worked on my lower body mainly, to open up my hips and soften my thighs to help with the lotus sitting position. And wonderfully, after 2-hours of painful yet rewarding massage, I can sit confortably cross-legged. I am hoping this will help me focus more on my mind and less on my aching body.

This evening, I am going to the night market to buy some white clothes for my retreat… and enjoy my evening meal, my next one will be in 11 days.

So Long my Internet friends. Wish me a good and enjoyable journey.

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Chiang Mai: Advanced Thai Massage, Abdominal Chi Therapy and fasting

It’s been nearly two weeks since I got to Chiang Mai. I am staying in a wonderful guesthouse in the old city, use a rented bicycle as my main mode of transport, and have made lots of new friends.

The Advanced course is over, I have a beautiful diploma to certify that I have passed the required level set by the State of Thailand to call myself a Thai Massage Therapist.
Now for something completely different… After a well deserved weekend, including 2 lazy morning sleep-ins, wonderful luncheons with my girlfriends and massage; I got myself back to school on Monday morning, especially early…

On the Sunday afternoon, I received a massage from Ms. V, a very famous personality here in Chiang Mai, as she uses a very special technique called the “nerve touch massage”. And yes, it is as painful as it sounds. She basically plays the nerves like one may play the guitar cords, and it’s a bit… unnerving (no pun intended) and particularly painful.
I asked her to focus on my shoulder injury, since it still does not have the mobility and confidence the other one has. She was quite perplexed as to why it took such a long time to heal. She got to work on my cervicales, thoracic cage, shoulder and down my arm.
I did shed a tear for the work she did on the web between my thumb and my index finger on the left side. Horrendous pain!

When I got up, not only could I move my arm in all directions (I broke my clavicle in 2 places, with a displacement one and a half year ago) but it felt free and normal! The predomimant feeling was actually the lack of feeling: the tension had simply disappeared. I was impressed.
Of course she told me I had to use the arm, and do specific exercices everyday and for a while if I wanted the mobility to stay. I’ve been swimming in Thailand, and she suggested Yoga also.

So I applied her advice the following morning. 7am is yoga class at the Sunshine School… A very early start, especially that I am not a morning person. ANyway I made it,only to discover that I was the only one attending, and I got personal tuition with the sweetest teacher I have ever met. She is very tolerant with my lack of flexibility. Compared to a Westerner, I amactually relatively flexible. Compared to Thai people, I am the stiffest person they’ve ever met. She is very patient and teaching me the basic moves of Ashtanga yoga. I am told it is not the best way to start Yoga, but it suits me because the other types I find just too boring.

After a good hour of yoga, a cold shower and a rice soup, I was ready to go to my Chi class. Chi is the name for energy in Chinese Medicine. It is very different from Thai. Chi travels along meridiens (that are slightly different to the Thai ones) and have trigger points (much like the ones Baaw taught me) that correspond to organs or specific diseases.

It is very interesting stuff. The techniques are easy for me, as they resemble the ones I have learnt at osteopathy school in my visceral class. I have impressed everyone with my knowledge of visceral anatomy. Even the teacher. And that’s a problem because I know more than her on that point, and her knowledge is, well, bad. So once I got over this frustrating point, I have really enjoyed the course.

The teacher is a little bit “airy-fairy” but it’s not surprising as we are working on meridiens, rather than actual physical points. We’re doing some wonderful techniques, and she brings a lot of case histories and talks about her “miracle” patients. I have not heard her use that name, but that’s what I like to call the people that see such a difference after treatment they want to kiss my feet/marry me/give me lots of money.

The problem with working only on the abdomen 6h a day, is that is gets sore. We get traditional Thai Herbal Compresses at the end of the day, but it’s not enough. And my gut have been playing up. And it’s horrible to be worked on after breakfast or lunch. So I got an idea. A fast.

I have been eating foods that are very different to what I am used to, since I only stick to Thai food here (very different from a lot of tourists who seem to alternate between pizzas and burgers) and I’ve been doing well gut-wise so far. But it seemed like the right time to really flush out my system and strengthen my immune system. The course is not really challenging, so it is ok if I am feeling a bit weak or tired.

Monday was my detox day, I had very simple foods with basic rice soup in the morning, broth for lunch, and a non-spice mushroom soup for dinner. Tuesday I started on water. Yoga felt wonderful, I could feel my body in a very intense way.
Wednesday was more difficult. The second day for me is the tough day. I felt dizzy as soon as I stood up, felt weak in the legs and generally felt ill and nauseous. I could not cope with Yoga so my teacher gave me a relaxing face massage instead. My classmates helped me out too, and after class four of them were working on me, massaging my feet, doing herbal compresses on my tummy and chest, and working on my head and neck. Wonderful feeling.

Today was my third day on water. I felt much better than yesterday, even though we stuck with Yoga on the floor (no standing poses) and I got another neck massage! I am spoilt!
For lunch, I diluted two tablespoons of filtered, organic beetroot juice into my glass of water, if felt great! The afternoon passed smoothly, as the change of taste helped me out.
Tonight I was treated to more herbal compresses, and one of the girls treated my legs. The warmth I felt down my legs as she was working was astonishing. Such a big effect after only a few minutes… This girl is very talented, she studies with one of the masters here in Chiang Mai and is very special.

Tonight, I will stick to water, and tomorrow I may start having more diluted juices. I found a great organic shop close to school where I can purchase them very cheaply.

Tomorrow is the last day, I guess we will have an examination on what we have learned this week. I am not particularly worried as the hands-on stuff is easy and I’ve been working on the theory and doing homework every night of the week.

What I particularly appreciate about this class and the group of people I am doing it with, is that here everyone has that particular sensitivity I seem to have developed. Feeling heat from the patient is normal, getting pins and needles in the hands and feet, having flashes… is part of everyday treatment life. The teacher actually diagnoses from smells, she can smell a bad gall bladder, or an enlarged kidney… Which is amazing! And it’s not the farts she’s smelling! It’s the general body odour, and the specific smells on the person.
Today, she worked on a guy who must be in his sixties – an American hippy I have a lot of respect for, who went onhunger strike against the Vietnam War and now lives in India – who has a weak heart valve. As she worked on the heart area, this insane smell of burnt filled my nostrils. She mentioned it also, most the others could not smell anything. I checked the Chinese Medicine chart: burnt smell corresponds to a burned out heart, like in heart failure or weak valves. Wow.

I am in awe with all the small things I have discovered so far this week. Not so much the techniques, or even the course; but this first approach to Chinese Medicine and the wonderful people I am surrounded with is the best way I could have spent my week.
I love the idea that I am not a freak… and I feel like I am touching one of the reasons I came out here and took this year for in the first place. I am starting to get answers, and I will continue my research in Chine directly, after my travels to Australia and the Aboriginals.
The prospect is so incredible exciting!

And of course I miss my family, my friends, my lifestyle, my job, my patients, French food… but what I have found out about this week, learning to know about this part of me, makes it all worth it.

Next week, and once I have resumed to normal eating habits, I have planned to go even deeper and really find out more stuff about myself: I am going to do a 10-day silent meditation retreat in a temple outside Chiang Mai.
Apparently, the rules are strict: everyone must wear white at all times, no music, no books, no talking (except to your tutor once a day, to see how you are getting on), no chewing after midday (which means food is served only in the morning, and that’s very basic vegetarian food) and lots of quiet time.
After the last marathon few months, planning my departure, learning lots and getting treatment by many different people, so time alone will do me good. Which means from Monday I will not have any Internet connexion for 10 days approximately, so no freaking out!

Until then, I am making the most of my time, I will be visiting temples this weekend to decide which I like best, getting back to delicious Thai food, but only after a day or two of juices and fruit, simple foods and probably no meat until I finish my retreat. Since we won’t be eating much at the Temple, I am glad to be fasting now, so as to keep my stomach nice and small and not get hungry all the time!
I have talked to other people who have done it before, and they said the food eating patterns were actually fine.

I am looking forward to it all, I am learning so much about so many things! It makes me tired and I get to bed around 9pm… Feels fantastic.

This is a video of one of the masters in Thai Massage in Chiang Mai, to give you an idea of the sort of stuff I am learning here.

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Advanced Thai Massage and Loi Krathong

Now I have a new visa for Thailand, I am free to roam… So my first task is following an Advanced Massage Course at the Sunshine School in Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand).

I am being taught by a great teacher, who has studied with the masters of Thai Massage and has a very successful established practise in London, Thailand and all over the world.  Patients you may have heard of  include Thierry Henry, Madonna and the Queen Elizabeth II.
We are a class of 6, all from different backgrounds, differents countries and different approach, but everyone can speak English and is very motivated to learn Thai Massage. We learn a lot of different techniques, from toes to head, via the abdomen. It’s very interesting. I am getting answers to my many questions.
I am asking about the theory behind the Eastern way, the reason for each technique, background information, extra anatomical landmarks and importantly about “Magic Hands”…

A Mother and her son setting off a Lantern

A Mother and her son setting off a Lantern

What is also very exciting is the festival that is going on in Chiang Mai and Buddhist Thailand at the moment, called Loi Krathong. It celebrates the 12th full moon of the year (which will be tomorrow). It is a chance to celebrate light, life and… food!
Everyone makes “Krathong” which are little floaty things made from banana tree trunk, banana leaves, flowers that form a basket. Inside are placed 3 incense sticks, a candle and a coin. These are lit and let to float on the river.
If the Krathong capsizes, you will have bad luck the following year (unless you make more, until one floats correctly). If it meets and bumps into someone else’s, who will find your soulmate. If it comes back towards you,  there is something on your mind that should be said or something should be done.
Finally, if it floats away happily, you are blessed by the Gods.

I have made my Krathong, and I will be going to the river tonight to place it on the river Ping and see what my fortune is. I still have tomorrow and the day after to get busy and make other Krathongs to change my fate.

My Krathong!

My Krathong!

My Krathong on the water!

My Krathong on the water!

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Lao massage

Massage in Lao, as in other south eastern countries, is used in everyday life for relaxing and treating aches and pains. It is usually practised in the family circle, and the tradition is taught from generation to generation. Depending on the problem, the massage focuses on one part or the other of the body.

It always starts on the back, following the energy lines, looking for blockages and working on them with deep pressures, manipulation techniques and tendon flicking (with a thumb contact, passing rapidly over a tendon makes it flick which acts directly on the muscle spindles, making the muscle relax). Then the massage therapist attends to the lower limbs, one at a time, starting with the left foot first (as in Thai) and working up the leg. Then the same is repeated on the right.

After that, the person lies on their back, and the massage continues on the feet and legs, left then right.
This is where Lao massage differs (according to my short experience in the country) from others, as the thoracic and abdominal parts are not treated at all. The arms are next, starting with the left hand and working up, then the same on the right.
The therapist sits cross-legged behind the head of the patient and cradles the head to work on the neck, scalp and face. This is completely taboo in Thailand, as no one must ever sit behind the head, not point feet in the direction of it!

The last position is the sitting one, where neck and head are the main focus. The last move is a double handed clapping technique, which vibrates through the spine and the skull.

There are very few stretching techniques, and from the masssages I received, the techniques are very (very) pleasant. The therapist takes care to not hurt the patient, or work sensitively and with consideration on the painful areas (whereas the Thais and Chinese just go for it!!)

I have thoroughly enjoyed the Lao massage, but unfortunately the schools that specialize in teaching it are rare. It is a family tradition, and foreigners are not expected to want to learn this way of treating. I have heard of schools in the capital city, Ventiane, but I will not have time to visit them on this trip. I choose to focus on Thai techniques, as I am starting to get a good basic knowledge. My next courses of “Advanced Therapy” and “Abdominal Thai treatment” start November 10th.

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Trekking to the hilltribes in Laos

Photos have been uploaded unto facebook, please check this link, even if you are not a member:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=76020&l=95acf&id=671740139

I arrived in Vieng Poukha, a Lao village a few hours away from the Thailand border. A generator provides electricity during a few hours in the evening, there are a few shops, a tiny hospital and a school. More importantly there is a governmental trekking office, with guides trained by the European Union in eco-tourism.

Mr. HongThong was to be our guide, as we formed a group of 4 falangs (tourists) and 2 guides for a 3-day trek in the Laos mountains. We walked about 30km in total, and it was a truly incredible experience.
Besides the actual hiking in luxuriant tropical rainforests, our guide introduced us to the local people. He expertly spoke 6 local languages, translating for us and explaining to us a lot about local culture.

The first people we ran into were the Akha. They were harvesting rice in a field, as they prefer this type to the one you find in rice paddies. They practise a “slash and burn” type agriculture on the mountains of the North of Burma, Thailand and Laos. We helped them collect the rice, shared a cucumber and continued climbing.

Akha picking rice

In the afternoon, we crossed a river in which we bathed, before arriving to the Akha village we were going to spend the night in. They have a “community lodge” there, that tourists can use. The bare minimum: a house on stilts, a bamboo-leave roof, mats on the floor and mosquito nets. No running water, no electricity. Our guides cooked rice and tea on a fire, and we ate a basic meal, before meeting the King.

The village shaman is also known as “the King”, as he is also at the head of the village. His main role is to take the important decisions for the Akha people, as well as do the rituals and ceremonies for the local traditional animism. He also knows the herbal remedies and special ceremonies to treat the sick.
He is helped in his task by the big O. Opium.
When we met him at dusk, around 6pm, he could hardly stand. His pupils were dilated and his eyes could not focus. He had great trouble speaking, and he did not notice I was a woman so shook my hands (women should never be greeted in this way in Akha tradition! I was not offended…)
We each had 2 shots of “rice-whisky” as our welcome gift, and a chat at him. He did manage to kick his comatose to answer a few of our questions, but did not teach me anything new on local traditional medicine.

As we got back to the lodge, 4 Akha girls were waiting for us. They were to give us a traditional welcome Akha massage. The Akha are historically farmers and gatherers, and traditional massage is given to aching bodies after long days in the fields, or in this case after our first day of trekking.
I was so excited at the prospect of finally finding out about traditional massage from the hilltribes. And I was not disappointed.

The Akhas originated from Mongolia, and have migrated South until they reached Laos. The massage is done with no oil, with the receiver dressed in a sarong. First, I was made to lay on my front, and the teenager started working on my legs and back. The “choreography” from bottom to top and back again was repeated many times, always in the same order, always with the same speed and intensity.
I could see that the other girls were working in similar ways and at the same speed.

The girls were using thumb presses, as in Thai massage, as well as “springing” of the spine, which is a manipulation technique of the thoracic spine. However I did not feel they were following lines that I was familiar with, i.e. the Thai Sen lines.

We turned on to our backs almost simultaneously, and the girls continued their work on the front, working on the arms and then finishing on the legs. A few stretches, especially on the knees (extension and hyperextension mobilisation)

The result was effective, but made of unusual techniques I had never seen before, with a mix of Thai (thumb presses, especially on certain sen lines on the back of the legs), and then I guess some Chinese type acupressure and stretches.

The following day we continued trekking, through the mud… as a tropical storm exploded in the sky and onto us. And we came across some wildlife of Laos: leeches! I only got bitten once, but I retrieved about 30 from my boots, trousers and socks.

ps: I would like to add more photos, but the connection here is very bad. Next time maybe?

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