Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Might chess have something profound to teach us about life?

I made the above video yesterday on a spur of the moment after a chess game with a friend. Is chess some kind of mental aikido? Or is it simply a very complex but ultimately useless intellectual pastime? Or both (i.e. might the most profound things in the universe be things that are ultimately useless)?

Who knows?

As you can probably tell, this video and this post have absolutely nothing to do with yoga... unless one takes into account the fact that chess is commonly believed to have originated in India, where it was originally called Chaturanga.


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ashtanga, being beautiful in an 80s kind of way, yamas and niyamas

Earlier today, I had just finished teaching my morning class at the University. Walking down the hallway toward my office, I overheard one student telling another student that her sister has a flat butt, and that somehow made her beautiful "in an 80s kind of way." I, of course, have no idea what it means to be beautiful in an 80s kind of way, although I think having big hair might come into the picture at some point.

I also just read Erica's latest post at Ecstatic Adventures of the Exuberant Bodhisattva. In it, she talks about how her pen pal is worried that practicing Ashtanga will make her butt disappear. I now have this mental image of a person with a missing butt wandering the streets of some major Canadian city. (Headline in a major Canadian daily:" Ashtanga did this to me...").

But anyway, put what I said in the last two paragraphs together, and what do you get?... Ashtanga makes you beautiful in an 80s kind of way! Now, do I have a flat butt? Is it disappearing? I'll go look at the mirror after this...


Speaking of Erica, I skyped with her on Monday night. It was very pleasant. From her, I learned a lot about her wonderful time in Mysore, and about Sharath's charismatic presence. She updated me about a lot of the gossip that is going on in the Ashtanga Facebook-Twitter-sphere. A lot of this news is really new to me, as I don't have either a Facebook or Twitter account. No particular reason for this; I just never felt motivated enough about being a part of either social media community to make myself sign up for an account.

Anyway, the gossip was interesting, and it showed me that we Ashtangis like to gossip just as much as anybody else on the planet. In fact, we can probably hold our own against the most vociferous marketplace/workplace-water-fountain gossipers. Nothing wrong with that. I think gossip is like the verbal equivalent of junk food; indulge, but don't indulge too much, and certainly don't consume only that to the exclusion of all other sources of intellectual nutrition.

But since this is (still officially) a yoga blog, I also need to play the being-a-PC-yogi card, and pose the eternal question: Does gossip violate any of the yamas or niyamas?... Argh, how the hell would I know? Am I a yogic sage? And speaking of which, what is so bad about violating some of the yamas and niyamas at least some of the time anyway? Ernest Hemingway, for instance, was really into bullfighting and drinking a lot. I don't know about drinking a lot, but bullfighting certainly violates ahimsa. Now imagine if Hemingway were to take up yoga during his lifetime and then decided to give up watching or writing about bullfighting because he wanted to be a good yogi and observe ahimsa... wouldn't that be a loss to the world? Can you imagine The Sun Also Rises minus all the bullfighting and bullfighters?

So what am I trying to say? Maybe the yamas and niyamas are a bit overrated? Ha! That's probably why I've kinda stopped blogging seriously about yoga for such a long time... maybe, in some corner of my mind, I've always had this suspicion that as wonderful as yoga may be in many ways (which is why I am still practicing), there's really such a thing as too much of a good thing, even with yoga. Maybe a universe with some ahimsa violations in it is a better place than one in which everybody is a perfect ahimsa-observer?...

What do I know? :-)   

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Has anybody out there seen Sense8?

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm referring to the new Netflix original scifi series that premiered on June 5th, written and executive-produced by Andy and Lana Wachowski (yes, the people who brought us the Matrix) and J. Michael Straczynski. In a nutshell, the story is about eight previously unconnected people from different parts of the world who suddenly find themselves connected to one another telepathically, becoming capable of sharing one anothers' thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. Meanwhile, there is a mysterious quasi-governmental organization that is trying to hunt them down, for some reason that is not made clear in the series.  

I have been somewhat binge-watching this series over the last few days (by "binge-watching", I mean an average of two episodes a day, which, I'm sure, is a very conservative rate of media-consumption by the standards of most binge-watchers....), and have watched 10 of the 12 episodes in Season One thus far. I've been really enjoying it. I think it does a really good job of using the theme of telepathy to explore empathy among individual human beings--in particular, individuals who are LGBTQ--in a way that does not exploit or make light of these individuals' lives or experiences. I really think the Wachowskis and Straczynski are breaking new narrative ground here; with Sense8, they are doing for millennial politically-aware-character-driven drama what the Matrix did for sci-fi action movies.

The main characters in Sense8
[Image taken from io9.com]

As is hopefully very clear from the above, I am a great fan of this series. I hope there will be a Season Two, and I can't wait for it to come out. But there's one thing that kind of disturbs me about the series. There are three non-Caucasian characters (played by Tina Desai, Aml Ameen, and Bae Doona). While I think that the story arcs of these three characters are really compelling, engaging and real, I also notice that they all have one thing in common: They don't seem to have much of a sex life. I mean, yes, it is true that two of these characters (Desai's young Hindu woman character, and Bae's character, a Korean woman brought up in a patriarchal family) hail from very traditional Asian households. But coming from a traditional upbringing shouldn't deprive one of a sex drive, should it?

 [Warning: Spoiler alert coming! Read no further if you do not want to be spoiled!]

This sexuality disconnect between the Caucasian and non-Caucasian characters becomes very glaring at the end of episode six, when five of the eight main characters (namely, the Caucasian ones) engage in a psychic orgy. What is a psychic orgy? Well, you know, having sex with somebody via telepathy, without having to actually be in the other's physical presence... how is this possible? The hell would I know, I'm not a psychic! But I digress. My point is, why aren't the non-Caucasians in that orgy? And this isn't just a sexual issue: If this orgy is not just a melding of bodies, but of minds and consciousnesses, could the absence of the non-Caucasians in this scene be interpreted as a sort of political statement about non-Caucasian consciousnesses?

What do you think? Any thoughts on this?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hell is... Hawaii?

"Hell is other people."

Jean-Paul Sartre

In my Introduction to Philosophy class this morning, I discussed the Problem of Evil with my class. Over the centuries, it has been formulated in various ways by various people, but the gist of it is simply this: If God exists and He is all-powerful and morally perfect, how could He allow evil to exist in this world?

Before I could get very far into the discussion, a middle-eastern student jumped in and proclaimed, "Evil has to exist, because God created this life as a test for us to see if we will do evil and go to hell, or if we will do good and go to heaven!" Well, here's a little bit of background information: There are many students from the middle east who are taking my class presently; in fact, they form the majority of the students in the class. They are devout Muslims (or at least appear to be), and I think some of them take pity on the fact that I, an atheist (they don't really see Buddhism as a religion, since Buddhists are Godless people), am doomed to burn in the fires of hell, and so they see it as their God-given mission to speak to me about God whenever possible, and hopefully save me from eternal hell-fire.

Anyway, back to the student. I replied with one of the standard responses to this line of thinking: "But if God is really all-powerful, you would think that He would create us to be better people, so that we would all pass the test with flying colors and go to heaven, wouldn't He?" But that didn't get me anywhere. He insisted that a test wouldn't be a real test if God made us all passers. Somebody has to fail and burn in hell for the test to be truly meaningful; there have to be real consequences, you know.

After some more back-and-forth and a bit of meandering here and there, I decided to try a different tack. I said to the class, "Okay, here's the deal. In order for things to be fair, a punishment must be proportionate in degree and kind to the crime or sin committed, right?"

The students agreed to this.

"Unlike, say, murder," I continued, "going against God is not a physical sin, but a mental or spiritual sin. If this is so, then the appropriate punishment should also likewise be mental rather than physical, right?"

The middle-eastern students looked dubious (I actually suspect that some of them may not even have thought of this mental-physical-punishment distinction before today), but nodded their heads anyway.

"So if going against God is primarily a mental sin, then God should punish us not by sending us to burn in hell (which would be physical punishment), but by sending us to... Hawaii!"

As you might expect, the Middle-eastern students, none of whom have been to Hawaii, were totally flummoxed: Why would Hawaii be hell? Why would lazing on the beach and drinking pina coladas all day and going to Luaus at night (not to mention the sight of bikini-clad female bodies all the time) be hellish? I explained, "Well look, no matter how wonderful the beach and pina coladas and Luaus are, you can only do that for so long before you start getting bored and wanting to do something different. And if you are sentenced to be there and can't ever leave, then sooner or later, you will come down with what the islanders call 'Island Fever'. [Five-minute segue to explain Island Fever] So the suffering will not be physical, but purely mental or spiritual. Now, don't you think that would be a good place for God to send non-believers to?"

None of the Middle-eastern students bought my argument. They all left class feeling even more puzzled than before ("Hawaii? Hell? Really?"). By the way, I am actually speaking from personal experience here. Back in the summer of 2007, I actually spent a month in Hawaii while studying with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane at their studio on Maui. I really enjoyed studying with them, but maybe because I am really not a beach-and-sunshine person--and maybe also because of my fellow campers at the farm I was staying at, whose uncritical quoting of Eckart Tolle-esque new-agey sound-bites really got on my nerves--I got really, really bored after about a week or so. I looked forward to yoga class every morning, and then retreated somewhere to read a book after class was over. So I probably would, like, die of Island Fever within three months if I were to actually live on Hawaii permanently.   

My first post in more than five months, and I'm blogging not about yoga (not directly, anyway), but about philosophy. Or more precisely, the teaching of it. Ah well. Cest la vie.

* "Waikiki Beach, Honolulu" by Cristo Vlahos - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG#/media/File:Waikiki_Beach,_Honolulu.JPG

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Kino on Yoga, Intense Seinfeld-like Emotions and Leg Behind The Head

I just watched the video below, in which Kino talks about something that many of us who have done the Ashtanga practice for a while would be able to relate to: Strong emotions that arise during practice. If you do this practice regularly, you would inevitably encounter times during practice when strong emotions come up. These emotions could range from anger, sadness, feelings of inadequacy about a particular aspect of your life, etc, and they often arise when you are about to attempt or go into a particularly challenging pose.

But in my case, what usually arises is not a particularly strong emotion, but some totally trivial episode in my recent life. For example, I often find myself mentally replaying some particular recent life episode just before I go into a challenging pose like Kapotasana or Karandavasana. Very often, the episode in question is some totally trivial yet somehow personally significant thing--usually something stupid that I recently said to somebody, or something stupid that I recently did, which I am not proud of--and it would just spontaneously replay itself in my mind as I am attempting to get my feet into a lotus position while balancing on my forearms in Karandavasana, or as I am walking my fingers to grab my heels in Kapo.

Well, if it is true that yoga poses activate certain parts of our bodies that store certain feelings, then Kapotasana and Karandavasana must activate the part of my body that stores Seinfeld-like episodes. Not sure if this is a good thing...

Anyway, I suppose I should stop editorializing here, and leave you to enjoy Kino's video. Enjoy!   

Monday, November 3, 2014

Yin, Yang, and breath as harmony between the two

The Way gave birth to the One;
The One gave birth to two;
Two gave birth to three [these three are yin, yang, and chi or life energy];
The three gave birth to the myriad creatures.
These myriad creatures, in turning away from the yin, embrace the yang;
Infusing themselves with breath (chi), they achieve harmony between yin and yang.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 42, trans. Nobel Ang (the letters in the square brackets are my own annotations)

Earlier today, I sat in on my colleague's Asian Philosophy class. He is covering Taoism this week. During class today, we were reading Arthur Waley's translation of the Tao Te Ching (TTC), and I couldn't help feeling that Waley's particular translation was too... verbose, and too... English.

This is just me, of course. Waley is a remarkable person who taught himself classical Chinese and classical Japanese while working at the British Museum in the early part of the last century. Using his self-taught knowledge of these languages, he then went on to translate a large number of Chinese and Japanese classics, including the Tao Te Ching.

But Waley never visited either China or Japan, and never learned modern Chinese or Japanese. Which may be why I couldn't help feeling that his translation had a certain detached scholarly tone to it; a tone which somehow failed to convey the vibrancy and flowing immediacy of the Chinese language, as it would be felt and understood by somebody who has a more immediate immersion in the culture.

Which is what prompted me to do my own translation of the above passage from the TTC. I actually know quite little about Chinese philosophy, and certainly have less scholarly depth in this area than Waley. But I feel that maybe, in my own small way, I can make up for the lack of scholarly background with a more immediate and intuitive love of the language and how it speaks to me. Hence my translation above.


But I didn't write this post just to talk about translation. The above passage is one of my favorite passages from the TTC, and I feel it to be very relevant to what I was talking about in my previous post. The light and dark sides of ourselves (yin and yang) exist in a symbiotic and mutually dependent relationship. We cannot fully experience one without experiencing the other. In turning away from the dark (yin), we embrace the light (yang). But in order to turn away from the dark, one has to first be in the dark. In order to embrace the light, one has to first embrace, and then turn away from the dark. There cannot be one without the other.

What's also interesting is that we harmonize the two by infusing ourselves with chi or breath or life energy. Chi, as many of us know, is pretty much the same thing as prana. And since the yoga practice is a process of infusing our lives with prana, this also means that the yoga practice is ultimately a practice of harmonizing the yin and the yang, a practice of getting in touch with and harmonizing our dark and light sides.

Isn't this interesting? But as I said, I'm no expert on these things. I'm just musing aloud here, because this is what a blog is for. If you have any thoughts, I'll love to hear them.      

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Going beyond good and evil, getting one's heart cracked open

"The great epochs of life come when we gain the courage to re-christen our evil as what is best in us."

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

We all dislike and are uncomfortable around self-righteous people. Well, at least I am. And I know many people who also dislike and are uncomfortable around such people. But before I go on to say anything else, let me just add that I myself have also been guilty of being self-righteous at many points in my life; some of those times have, incidentally, occurred in my writings on this blog.

But why do we dislike self-righteous people? It can't just be that they are annoying, although they are. It can't just be that they make us uncomfortable, although they do this too. Nor is it that they often happen to be right about the things they are self-righteous about, although, unfortunately, this is also often the case. I believe that, on a deeper level, we dislike and are uncomfortable around them because we feel that they are trying too hard to show the world (and themselves) that they are right. We suspect that underneath all this trying too hard, there lurks a certain disingenuousness (there is probably no such word, but I can't find a more appropriate one here). It feels like on some deep level, they probably don't believe enough in what they are proclaiming, and all this trying too hard is an attempt at overcompensating for this deep lack of conviction. Maybe they are hoping that if they can convince others around them of the truth of what they proclaim, they would also be able to convince themselves by proxy.

But this also means that self-righteous people are ultimately uncomfortable with themselves, with their own potential for evil--with their dark side, if you will. This may be why many young people who are passionately devoted to a particular cause or religious belief tend to be self-righteous about it. It may be that even in the arrogance of youth, they are able, on some deep level, to sense that their conviction in the lofty ideal that they so passionately try to believe in is, in the words of Elizabeth Lesser, "a brittle and untested ideal." And so they overcompensate for this brittleness by putting more fire and brimstone into their affirmations of this ideal to others.

But being self-righteous and judgmental is really not something that happens only to young people; after all, we do find that many older people can also be self-righteous and dogmatic about their ideals and beliefs. Being self-righteous is not something that happens only to a particular age group or race or sexual orientation; it does not discriminate, it is an equal-opportunity employer. It is a state of being that arises whenever one knows deep down that one does not believe deeply enough in the moral or religious ideals one professes, and tries to cover up this lack and overcompensate for it by judging others for being lacking in this ideal. In her book, Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser talks about this in the context of an extra-marital affair that she had:

"Some will call my dance with the Shaman Lover just a clever name for an extramarital affair. Before I took the plunge with him, I would have had the same reaction. I would have been unsparing in my judgment of those who could be so deceitful, so morally lazy. I would have wondered if they knew the difference between right and wrong. Now I know that "right" without "wrong" is a brittle and untested ideal. Now I know that when we show only our light side to the world, our shadow grows restless, sucking into itself much of our energy and passion. In order to release my trapped energy and awaken my best qualities, I had to engage with my shadow. I had to see how everything that I judged and feared in others was also in me. I had to be broken open so fully that my whole self was laid out before me to own and to forgive and to love." 

If we try to affirm only the good in ourselves without also acknowledging, embracing and ultimately forgiving the evil, we would never really know ourselves fully and deeply, and "good" and "evil" would just be labels that we slap on particular actions or attitudes that we have at different times. Unless we acknowledge and embrace the evil within us and bring it into the light of consciousness, it will only fester in some dark corner of the soul. Alienated, it will either cause us to "act out" at some unforeseen point in the future--in which case we would have to confront and acknowledge it anyway--or it will stay hidden in the darkness for the rest of our lives, and cloud the soul as resentment, bitterness, and a certain sense of malaise towards all life.

It is only by acknowledging, embracing and forgiving this evil that we can ultimately become a wholer (again, there's probably no such word, but what the heck) version of ourselves, one who has gone beyond good and evil, and from whom love, creativity and joy flow ceaselessly like a mountain spring.


But all these are ultimately just big words if we don't actually do the work of allowing ourselves to be broken open and to face what comes out of this brokenness. And this is also where the Ashtanga practice comes in. If you have been practicing for a while, you will know that the Ashtanga practice isn't just about getting onto the mat six days a week and working up a big sweat while putting your body into some funny positions. You will no doubt have heard--and probably also experienced for yourself--that the practice on the mat is ultimately about giving ourselves an opportunity to confront our fears, our dark sides, in a relatively safe and controlled environment.      

I recently had the opportunity to experience this for myself firsthand. As you will know if you have been reading this blog for some time, I recently made a trip back to Singapore, where I'm from, after not having been back there for thirteen years. In order to convince myself to make the trip back there, I had to confront a whole bunch of fears and emotional baggage within myself (see this post for more details). The trip itself was a lot less terrible than I expected it to be (which shows that a lot of the fear was actually more in my head than anywhere else), and I'm glad that I made the trip and was able to reconnect with many friends that I have not seen for so many years. After I came back to the U.S., I also went through a bunch of emotional issues in my personal life; due to the rather sensitive nature of what I went through, I'm not ready to share them publicly on this blog yet. But suffice to say that going through and trying to work with these issues brought me to a place of vulnerability that I have not been in a while. Some days, I felt that I was going to lose my mind.

At the same time that I was going through all this, I felt a certain emotional textural shift in my second series practice. For my regular daily practice, I do half primary followed by second up to Karandavasana. Looking from the outside, my practice hasn't changed much over the last two or three years. I still haven't mastered Karandavasana; I can land the duck, but still can't quite come back up (a.k.a. Karandavasana Impotence). And second series as a whole is still very physically challenging and effortful for me. But over the last few months, I have found that the texture of this effort has undergone a subtle shift. While I still have to put in a lot of physical effort to get through my second series practice, this effort somehow feels more heartfelt, like it comes from someplace deeper inside of me. Less ego, more heart.

I emailed Kino and shared with her the above experiences in my practice and my life. She responded with the following:

"If you mean to say that Second Series is cracking your heart wide open then that is exactly what it should be doing... love is so big that it sometimes needs to break our limited notions of self before it has the space to move in. Second Series does just that—it breaks our hearts so that the new expanded terrain is big enough for love to embrace all the aspects of our life."

I don't think it is a coincidence that Kino uses the same words--breaking/cracking the heart open--that Elizabeth Lesser uses to describe the process of embracing the dark side within herself. Ultimately, any spiritual journey worth the name is a warrior's journey; we are warriors of the spirit , warriors who, allowing our hearts to be broken open, bravely venture within to confront, embrace and ultimately forgive our inner demons.

This is also why any genuine lasting change in the world must begin from the inside, from within the hearts of ordinary human beings who are at the same time spiritual warriors. Warriors who patiently trust in the fire of their own practice to burn through all impurities, using these impurities as the fuel, the force to power deep inner change.    

May the Force be with you.