I've been doing yoga about as long as I've been knitting, a couple decades. As I've been doing more of both lately, I've been thinking about their obvious relationship. It seems to me that both can help each other along in very significant ways.
Knitting is pretty universally recognized by its practitioners as a form of meditation, which is one of the important levels of yoga. The simple repetitive motions, which become pretty mindless with practice, definitely induces a happy state of wandering mind. If you need to practice focus, a stitch pattern that needs counting takes the place of a mantra. Breathing is definitely encouraged throughout, and a calm state always helps it along. When all goes well, a few rows will drop you into a state of calm happiness which is the best meditation can ever hope to achieve. Knitting is definitely good practice for people who for whatever reason find formal meditation hard to do.
But another aspect usually overlooked is the mere act of sitting still. One of the big traditional points of asana practice is to make the body fit for sitting still in meditation for long periods. Anyone who's strayed into the wrong workshop for them can testify that sitting on the floor for hours can be a lot harder than the most strenuous asana practice. While knitting can share some of the characteristics of stressful sitting that we usually associate with things like office work, we can influence its practice to lead to a better state, All the usual common-sense advice to make sitting better for you applies, and can smooth over any physical discomfort and lead to a more meditative state.
There is plenty of sound ergonomic advice out there to make sitting for long periods less hard on the body. Sitting in a comfortable chair, with a straight back, under good light, are all very important. We like sitting slouching at the bottom of the couch as much as everyone else, it emphasizes that 'I'm neglecting other things for my own fun' aspect, but that shouldn't be done for hours on end. We also enjoy the occasional session of social knitting in bars, but the lack of light can make that very stressful on the eyes, and loud music can make it self-defeating on the social level, not to mention literally deafening. Make sure also that if you're going to be talking on the phone while knitting you do so with headphones, not by crunching your neck on the receiver. In addition, any general yoga practice will help you maintain a straight back and will make knitting more enjoyable, and keep it from becoming a liability instead.
You might start a knitting session with some gentle warm-ups of the joints affected. Slow rotation of the wrists and elbows would be a good start. Slow neck rolls and a few shoulder shrugs would also prepare you to hold your arms up for a long while. If you have any problems in this area, try supporting the elbows with pillows, somewhat like breastfeeding mothers do. For another often-neglected part, it only takes a second to rubs your hands together till they're warm, and cup them over your (bare) eyes till all the warmth is absorbed. Repeating these exercises at any break would also be helpful. And of course knitting loosely will help prevent all sorts of tension as well as make your finished products better.
The most important advice about knitting sessions in my opinion is to not make them quite so long, and to take frequent breaks, even if they just consist of briefly getting up to change the music or to make a cup of tea. Apart from the sitting issues, remember that hand muscles are very small, and mostly type II, ie slow-twitch muscles that have more to do with skill and stamina than with bursts of speed. What this means is that they must be trained slowly, you can't knit right off for 4 hours at a stretch like some beginners do. If you feel any ache at all, it's time to stop for the day! And if you only feel an ache the next morning, you should still pay attention to reducing session time, at least till you're fully recovered.
At the very least you should give yourself a quick wrist shake and eye-cupping at the end of any session, to help the most-affected parts. A better hand-rub would be appreciated too. And a drop to the floor for a few mindful cat movements would loosen up your back. Place your hands and knees on the floor directly under your shoulders and hips. Inhale while arching your back, all the way to raising your head. Exhale while rounding your back, dropping your head. Go slowly with your breath, feeling the movements ripple from the tilting of the pelvis.
Scheduling a full yoga practice after a long stretch of knitting would help straighten any kinks out of your back. For the long term, I am particularly fond of downward-facing dog, which among many other benefits helps strenghen muscles in the upper back and so makes maintaining a straight back much easier.
Even if you don't have much time, it would still be a good idea to do at least one chest-opening pose at the end to help counteract the effects of sitting and holding the arms up in front. Even if you're tired, a restorative version of our favorite reclining butterfly pose would be easy and restful. It needs a good bit of props, but it's easy to setup: sitting on the floor, lie back on a bolster placed right against your lower back, along your spine, with a folded blanket about lower rib level, and maybe a little extra pillow under your neck. Fold your legs up near your butt so the soles of the feet are facing together, and let your knees fall open (maybe supporting your thighs with a couple extra blankets if this doesn't come easily). A silk eye bag is a luxury that'll also help relax your poor overworked eyes. Sit this way just a few minutes, and you'll end up both refreshed and straightened.
If your neck and shoulder area is the most troublesome, you can use the same bolster to do a simple restorative fish - sit at one end of the bolster, lie down with your spine on it, slide back till the top of your shoulders are resting firmly on the floor. Your arms can be either open at shoulder level or down along your sides, palms up, to help the shoulder opening.
I also love a simple legs-up-the-wall pose to restore sluggish circulation, and to lower blood pressure if you ran into some unexpected trouble. Put your butt on a bolster or pillow, as close to a wall as you can get (the butt, not the bolster), and leave your legs straight up till you're melted into the floor. In all cases, a firmly rolled-up bath towel is a good substitute for a bolster if you don't have one.
For extra credit, one should also look at the yamas, which are sort of basic guidelines for a healthy lifestyle, both on a social and personal level. There are some obvious applications of those to knitting.
Peacefulness, toward self and others. Be gentle with your own hands and body, not knitting so frenetically as to injure yourself. Encourage others to do the same. Another aspect is not to get too competitive, with others obviously but also with yourself. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a project that's not a challenge once in a while. Try not to get pulled into flame wars on your favorite net forum, no matter how strongly you feel about the topic or personalities involved, and certainely don't start them.
Truthfulness. Give credit where it's due, don't pretend you invented things you picked up in your readings, even if the sources are unknown to your audience. Be honest in any reviews that you share, don't let personality issues with the source overwhelm the things that you should be talking about, whether positively or negatively. Teach things fully and completely, putting in every detail to help others' success.
Honesty, or more exactly non-covetousness. Respect the spirit of copyrights: don't distribute others' designs as if they were your own, take time and at least put in a significant amount of effort if you're going to re-do someone else's idea, acknowledge them in the write-up. Stores that sell designs they copied for free from the net fall squarely into the category that should be working on this concept. On the other hand, many struggling small stores have theft rates that rival Wal-Mart's - what's up with that?
Moderation. Listen to your body and work within reasonable limits. Especially don't push too hard to finish a project, make softer deadlines for yourself if you must have any. If there is a deadline, make sure you realistically evaluate how much work the project will take, allowing extra time for unplanned events, and downshift to an easier one if necessary. Try not to let yourself get guilt-tripped into making presents for everyone, especially near-strangers like your co-worker's neighbor's new baby or your roomate's boyfriend's mother.
Detachment. Cultivate modesty about your skill and/or productivity. Teach others your tricks fully and completely when they ask, especially if you expect the same in return. Truly let go of finished presents, not using them as leverage for pulling strings, not criticizing how they're used or not, or how they're washed. Remember the process is itself enjoyable, no matter how much you love the finished product.
First published: 9/5/04
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