Thursday, May 31, 2018

Practicing with contacts, drishti

It's been forever since I last posted on this blog. At least, it feels that way. But I think the following experience is worth sharing, and thus worth posting here.

A couple of days ago, I got fitted with a pair of contact lenses from my eye doctor. I have worn glasses since I was 8, and have never worn contacts before. But a few weeks ago, I got sick of my glasses always sliding down my nose. So I decided to take the plunge into wearing contacts at the ripe old age of 42. I'm slowly starting to get the hang of putting in and taking out the contacts, so it's slowly becoming less and less of a big production every time I have to take them out or put them in.

Small factoid: I discovered that if I take a slow, deep breath, and practice the movement of pulling my eyelids away from my eye before actually handling the lenses themselves, I get better results, i.e. the lens won't land in some weird corner of my eye instead of on my cornea (where they are supposed to be), and I won't have to use the eye plunger to fish it out. Which is very important for me, since I am still very new to this business of sticking things in my eye, and I try not to put more things in/on my eyes than is strictly necessary. I call all this the yoga of contact lenses :-)

My new friend the contact lens remover, aka eye plunger.

But I digress. The main thing I want to tell you about here is this. This morning, I tried doing my practice with my contacts for the first time. I did full primary to Laruga Glaser's video on Youtube:

 I really like her voice a lot, and she has this really powerful yet reassuring presence. Have any of you guys ever met her or taken classes with her? I am very open to taking a class/workshop with her if the opportunity arises. But I digress again. Back to my story: It was my optometrist that suggested practicing with contacts; he thinks that if I practice with contacts, there will be less eye strain than if I were to practice without any kind of visual aid at all, which is what I have been doing for the last six years. Basically, less eye strain = less prescription increase over time = better for me and my eyes.

To be honest, I was kind of apprehensive about his suggestion: What if my contacts fall out during practice, and I land on them and smash them?. But I decided to give it a try anyway. To my surprise, practicing with contacts actually improved the quality of my practice. I could see better. Which means I could focus my drishti better. As a result, the entire practice felt more focused and energizing. Which proves again that drishti makes a whole universe of difference to the practice. I was especially apprehensive about Sirsasana: Will my lenses stay in place when I am upside down? They did! To be sure, they don't focus so well when upside down (contact lens makers probably don't practice yoga), but they still focus well enough to see.  

All in all, I am very happy about my new ability to see without glasses, especially during practice. I stopped wearing glasses during practice six years ago, because Matthew Sweeney suggested to me that if I can't see so well during practice, it promotes pratyahara. Which may well be true, but perhaps this is a situation in which gaining drishti power more than makes up for whatever loss of pratyahara there might be, wouldn't you agree?

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Question: What is the meaning of Life?

Jean-Paul Sartre: "Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning that we give it." (Existentialism is a Humanism)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Chess, existentialism, and boredom

I was just rereading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground in preparation for the Existentialism course that I will be teaching again in the spring. It's an absorbing read, and yet every few pages I'd get a bit restless, and feel the urge to put the book down and play a game of online chess.

That was when I was suddenly struck by the difference in mood and outlook between chess and philosophy. Chess promotes--almost forces--a very positivistic and certain outlook on the universe. In the world of chess, there is only one, crystal clear final goal: Checkmate your opponent. All the pieces move according to fixed rules, and ideally at least, they all work together to bring about this one goal in the most efficient way possible. The knight never pauses to ponder the meaning of his existence ("Am I just a being that moves in an L-shape? Or can I transcend my knightness and become more than that?"). The queen never questions her undying loyalty to her king, and will not stop at anything--even self-sacrifice--to achieve the all-important goal of annihilating the enemy king. There is no room for existential musings in the game of chess.

Philosophy, as you might guess, is quite different. For the existentialists in particular, to be alive is to be thrown into a world in which one is constantly uncertain, constantly struggling to discover one's role/s in this world, continually negotiating (and re-negotiating) the meaning of this role/s. It is in this spirit that the Underground Man, the protagonist of Notes from Underground, declares that an intelligent man is not and will never be a man of action. To be a man of action, one must take something as the first cause and justification of one's life (money, honor, love, etc.). Secure in the conviction that this first cause offers, one's mind is then at ease, and one is able to act and feel with complete confidence and without the slightest trace of hesitation.

The intelligent man, however, sees an infinite regress where the man of action sees a first cause. Because of this, the intelligent man lapses into inertia, and has no motivation to feel and act in the way in which the man of action does. The intelligent man can still make himself feel and do things, but he only does this because he doesn't want to be bored.  

People often say that chess is a thinking man's game. I'm not so sure I agree. For me personally, chess is the only thing right now in my life that I can lose myself completely in. When I play chess, the demands of the chessboard absorb me so completely that I stop thinking about everything else. Temporarily at least, I become a man of action. I believe that if there ever comes a day when I lose this feeling of being completely lost in the game while playing chess, that day will probably be the day that I quit chess. Then again, that's just what I believe right now. What do I know?  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Yoga, Life, Chess

Wow, I realized that I haven't written anything on this space for more than a year now. No particular reason for this; maybe for whatever reason, blogging ceased to be a thing in the past couple of years, as Angela so astutely observed in her latest post. Along with it went my motivation to blog. And besides, when all is said and done, life is to be lived, not blogged about. So I stopped blogging.

But after reading Angela's latest very thoughtful post, I decided to write something here again. Does this mean I'm going to start blogging regularly again? I don't know (who does?). But maybe I'll start by telling you (whoever you are) what has been going on in my life recently, and then we'll see what happens:

(1) I'm still doing the Ashtanga practice six days a week. These days, I mostly just do primary, except for certain days when I add on second up to Kapotasana. Don't know why this is so; I guess I like the constancy of primary. And also, I seem to have lost the ambition to go on to third (or sixth) series. And I don't talk much about the practice to anyone; it's just this thing that goes on in the background of my life, like an engine that keeps things going without drawing much attention to itself.

(2) After many years of anxiety and angst, I finally got my green card. I am now a permanent resident of these United States (yay!). What's really funny is that when I actually got my green card, it was a bit anticlimactic. Back when I first started the application process a couple of years ago, I told a friend that when I finally get my green card, I'll be so ecstatic that I'll probably go get shit-faced drunk. But on that fateful evening two months ago when I opened my mailbox and found my green card there, I was happy (more relieved than anything else, actually). And then I said to myself, "Okay great, now you can go sleep." So I just went to bed. How's that for anti-climactic?

But anti-climacticism aside, I am seriously really happy that in these uncertain times, there is still a place for me in this country. So I will go back to saving the world with even greater appreciation than before :-)

(3) Over the past year, the one thing that has really been taking up a lot of my non-teaching time is chess. I have basically become a chess nerd (not sure how else to describe what's going on). Since the beginning of 2016, I have played in a few chess tournaments. From a purely objective point of view, my performance has been mediocre. Seriously, there have been times after tournaments when I thought I was going to quit chess forever, so upset was I by my crushing defeats. But somehow, after a couple of days, the love of the game always brought me back to the chessboard.

Here's a recent picture of me playing at a tournament in Twin Falls, Idaho:

I don't know if you can tell, but I was losing, and in the midst of great mental suffering. My opponent was a young boy of 11. How about that?

What attracts me to chess? Besides the fact that it is a very complex and beautiful game (there are actually more possible chess games than there are atoms in the physical universe), it is also a great way to keep you real and grounded. In a chess game, losing focus for even a moment can lead to a blunder that will result in defeat.

Moreover, as some famous chess player once said, "It's not enough to be a great chess player. One must also play well." It doesn't matter if you are a complete novice or a grandmaster. When the pieces are set up at the beginning of the game, both players have an equal chance of winning or losing. It doesn't matter if you have won ten thousand games in the past, every single game is a new beginning, a new adventure, one that comes with the risk of defeat and the opportunity of victory. Unlike many other fields (for some reason, art and philosophy come to mind here), one cannot simply bamboozle the other party with big words or grand theories. In chess, the proof is always in the playing. If one believes oneself to be a great player, one must prove it on the board in actual play. In this way, chess keeps one real and requires that one constantly become vulnerable by exposing oneself to the continual possibility of defeat. It's inherently anti-bullshit.  

All in all, perhaps we can say that chess has become my other yoga practice. BTW, many scholars believe that chess originated in India, where it was called Chaturanga. Sound like a coincidence?

Anyway, that's all I have to say for now. Good night, and good luck.    

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The anything-goes culture, philosophy, chess, and yoga

It is the end of the semester here at the university that I teach at. For a professor like me, it is that time of the semester when one gets to grade lots of exams in a very short time, post the exam grades online, and then (at least in my case) get a few unhappy/angry emails from students who think that they deserve a better grade on the exam. Why do they think they deserve a better grade? Well, here are a couple of fairly typical reasons that these students offer: "I have answered all the questions on the exam, so I deserve to take A" [note: the grammatical error here was in the student's original email, so I have preserved it here in its entirety for maximum dramatic effect], "I have been getting As or A-minuses for the earlier papers in the course, and I need a better grade on this exam in order to get an A in the course, so I deserve a good grade for this exam." 

If you are not a millenial or younger (actually, even if you are...), you should have no problem hearing the tone of entitlement that practically saturates these "reasons." Apparently, there exists a universe in which one is entitled to a good grade in an exam just by virtue of having answered all the questions in it, no matter how irrelevant to the question or--let's be honest here--bad those responses are. Of course, it probably doesn't help my case that philosophy has a reputation among some undergrads (and probably many members of the public as well) for being an anything-goes discipline. As one of my former students recently put it to me, "If philosophy is just about your opinion, how can there be a wrong answer? If there is no wrong answer, how can one possibly get anything less than an A in a philosophy course?"

Unfortunately, there is such a thing as a wrong answer in a philosophy exam (I'm going to set aside the question of whether there are wrong answers in philosophy as it is done outside of academic exams; that is too much to go into here). Simply put, the wrong answer is whatever answer it is that fails to provide the information that the question is asking for. For instance, if the question asks you to explain Sartre's view of the Other, and how the appearance of the Other affects your freedom, and you go off on some big rant about how you and the Other are One, and how this Oneness shows that everything in the universe is connected, then your rant, no matter how beautifully written a rant it is, simply fails to answer the question, and you will get a D on that response. (It's a D and not a F, because I simply don't have the heart to outright fail somebody who has taken the time and effort to write a long response).

Perhaps this is not obvious to many people, but in the serious academic study of philosophy, there are right and wrong answers, just as there are right and wrong answers in the serious academic study of mathematics (or in the serious academic study of anything else, for that matter). Perhaps this point is not obvious to many people because unlike the concise signs and formulas and equations that make up the language of mathematics, the language of philosophy is simply ordinary English (or whatever other human language it is that one chooses to study philosophy in). As such, perhaps people get the impression that philosophy is just words on a page, and since anybody can write words on a page, anybody can do philosophy well. Therefore, anybody can get an A on a philosophy exam just by putting words on a page. (Does this argument follow? I don't know, you figure this out for yourself :-)).

In any case, I believe that it is because of everything I have said above that philosophy gets a reputation (a bad one, on my opinion) for being an anything-goes discipline. And somebody like me who argues otherwise tends to be dismissed as an elitist, undemocratic, crusty ivory-tower academic.

But I beg to differ. I think that philosophy done properly (as in, philosophy that has right and wrong answers) is more profoundly democratic than any kind of anything-goes version of it ever could be. For instance, if one does not get Sartre right, and instead thinks that anything one says about Sartre goes just because one says it, wouldn't that run the risk of committing the injustice of misrepresenting Sartre's thoughts and ideas? And what good is democracy without justice? More broadly, what I am trying to say is that in an anything-goes culture, nothing significant or important will ever get said, because in such a culture, people will progressively lose the ability to discriminate and understand what is important and what isn't. You can call such a culture "democratic" if you like, but again, what good is this kind of democracy if it does nothing to help people to discriminate and understand what is right or wrong or what is important or not? What good is a democracy in which one is allowed to say whatever one likes, but in which one no longer has the tools with which to understand what is worth saying and what isn't? In such a "democracy", it is only a matter of time before we get to the point where the only people who are listened to are those with the loudest voices or those with the most resources/money. Unfortunately, these two groups of people tend to be the same individuals (ever heard of Donald Trump?). Such a "democracy", in other words, quickly degenerates into an authoritarian society in which individuals are judged not by the worth of their ideas, but by how loudly and flashily they present themselves and appeal to others.

The paradox, as you can see, is that an anything-goes culture which tries so hard to be democratic quickly gets to a place where it becomes very, very undemocratic. Perhaps we are already there (again, Donald Trump...). I don't have any solutions to this paradox. I am only a blogger/novice philosopher, not a pundit. But there is some reason to hope. Two of the things in my life right now--yoga and chess--are the very antithesis of this anything-goes spirit. If you claim to be good at chess, for instance, and you aren't, your lack of ability in chess will quickly be exposed. There is no such thing as anything-goes in chess; the only thing that "goes" is whatever strategy or combination of tactics it is that enables you to win. Similarly (and perhaps less obviously) in yoga, whatever goes is whatever combination of yoga practices and lifestyle that allows you to live a more fulfilled and productive life in your community. If it doesn't help you to do that, either you are doing it wrong or whatever it is that you doing is wrong in the first place. And actually, this applies even to something as mundane as asana. Despite all the bad press about "asana-fixation" that have been published in the yoga blogosphere in the last ten years, the fact still remains that there are productive (and therefore "correct") ways to do an asana, and less productive and even damaging (and therefore "incorrect") ways to do the same asana. Forcing your knees into padmasana when your hips aren't yet open enough is an example of the latter.

So, at the risk of sounding very immodest, perhaps there is a solution to this paradox of the anything-goes culture, after all. The solution lies in this question: What do yoga, chess, and philosophy done properly have in common? Answer: An attitude of humility, informed by the awareness that the only thing that goes is whatever works to address the problem at hand. Anything else simply won't cut it.             

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? :-)