Monday, August 11, 2014

Video of me doing Hanumanasana; visiting Ernest Hemingway's grave in Ketchum, ID

Sometime last week, I messed up my SI joint while doing second series; I think I was overzealous in getting my leg behind my head, trying to do so on a day when my hips weren't particularly open. I had read and heard somewhere that doing Hanumanusana is beneficial and therapeutic for bringing the SI joint back into alignment, so for the past couple of days, I have been doing this pose as an "extra-curricular" thing outside of my practice, even though I am far from being at that place in my regular practice (I know that in Ashtanga, it properly comes at the end of third series.). 

This extra-curricular practice has been going quite well so far; if nothing else, my SI joint is definitely feeling better. This morning, I also made a video of myself doing said pose, just for the heck of it. And since videos are arguably made to be shown, I have also posted it on Youtube. Here it is:

As you may have noticed, I am not wearing yoga shorts in the video; I'm basically doing the whole thing in my briefs, which is my usual daily practice attire (if you can call it that :-)). I hope you are not offended by this. If you are, well, this is only my second yoga video in all my years of practice (the first can be viewed here), so you can be assured that you will not be treated to the sight of me doing yoga in my underwear on a regular basis. I just thought, "Well, what the hell, I did my yoga practice in my underwear when I was staying at my parents' in Singapore earlier this summer, and even they--being the socially conservative Confucian folk that they are--were totally cool with it. So why should the enlightened readers of my blog care what I use to cover my, ahem, vital body parts, so long as they are covered?" Right? :-)

You may also notice that my breaths in Hanumanasana are rather short. I don't think Grimmly would approve of this, but this being a quick show-offy demo video (I really do have other things to do in the day), I decided that I could afford to have slightly shorter breaths. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the video, and are not unduly offended by the lack of appropriate yoga clothing. 


Speaking of yoga clothing, I wonder if Lululemon sells men's yoga shorts? If they do, are they priced affordably? I have a feeling I know the answer to the second question... But anyway, I bring up Lululemon because I was in Ketchum, Idaho this past weekend, and they actually have a Lulu store there. A Lulu store smack in the middle of rural Idaho? Who would have thought? But then again, Ketchum/Sun Valley isn't average small-town America. Ketchum and neighboring Sun Valley are well-known tourist resorts, and many celebrities have pricey homes in the area. So, come to think of it, it really is no surprise that Lulu has a store there. 

While in Ketchum, I paid a visit to the grave of one of its better-known residents, the writer Ernest Hemingway. Here's a picture of the gravestone: 


I had recently reread The Sun Also Rises, and was very moved by Hemingway's rendering of the existential and moral crisis of the so-called Lost Generation. So visiting the grave was a kind of pilgrimage for me. The grave is located unassumingly in a public graveyard, and there are no prominent signs in the town to guide you there, so it took me a bit of asking around to find my way there. The whole process of asking around is in itself an interesting story, and I can probably write an entire post on it, but well, let's save that for another day. The present day is not getting any younger, and I need to go get a few more things done before this day is over.

More later.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Established facts, scientific studies, reality, and aliens; and where to practice if you are in Singapore

Gee, I haven't blogged in what seems like forever... well, five weeks, actually, which may as well be forever in the world of blogging. So what's new with me? (Not that you would care, but this is my blog, so I may as well say something about me). In the last post, I reported about being in Singapore for my brother's wedding, catching up with people and places I haven't seen in thirteen years. Well, I've been back in the U.S. for more than three weeks now. I'm getting back into the grind of academic life, by and by. Actually, the main reason why I'm blogging now is because I'm procrastinating about preparing for my summer class, which starts next week. Pretty sad reason to resume blogging, don't you think?

But I suppose I should try to say something more... substantial. How about... aliens? As you may know from a couple of posts in the past (for example, this post), I believe that not only do extra-terrestrials exist, but that at least a couple of them have been living on this planet for at least the last fifty years. Well, last weekend, I expressed this belief to a friend, and added that at least one former leader of a G8 nation has publicly declared that aliens have been on this planet for the past fifty years (for more information, see this International Business Times article).

Being skeptical, my friend proceeded to ask me a couple of probing questions ("If this thing is so top-secret, why would this former leader spill the beans in public?", "What motivation would our leaders have for hiding their existence from us, if indeed they exist and have lived on this planet for the past 50 years?"). I tried my best to answer her questions ("Well, he probably wants to make sure the world knows about it before he goes to the grave with it", "The aliens are very likely to be harboring technologies that would make us no longer dependent on fossil fuels and much more immune to the business cycles of capitalism, and people in the military-industrial complex and those in power certainly do not want that to happen...").

Being a rational person who sticks only to established facts and scientific studies, my friend wasn't too impressed by my responses ("In order for your answers to be credible, multiple conspiracy theories would have to be true... are you willing to buy all those theories?"). And being the nice polite-conversation kind of person that I am, I decided not to press things any further, and we switched to a more neutral subject of conversation.

But this exchange with my friend really got me thinking. There's nothing wrong with sticking to established facts and studies, in and of itself. But I'm just not convinced that these facts and studies are the only ways to find out about reality. After all, people in power are in the business of making sure that the established facts and studies that the general public has access to are precisely and only those facts and studies that they want us to have access to. In other words, the established facts and studies that we have access to may well reflect only the part of reality that a small group of people want us to have access to.  

So this whole alien thing seems to be a no-win situation. If aliens exist, and if the aliens themselves or those in power do not want us to know about their existence, they would make sure that, beyond eye-witness accounts here and there by people whose sanity is cast in doubt, no evidence of their existence ever makes it into the public sphere, and so there would be no chance of their existence ever becoming an established fact or the subject of a scientific study. In such a case, established facts and scientific studies wouldn't be much good in helping us to track reality here. If, on the other hand, I am wrong, and aliens do not exist, then their existence would obviously never become an established fact or the subject of a scientific study. But then we would have no way of being certain that these established facts or scientific studies are indeed telling us all there is to know about what is out there. So, one way or the other, established facts and scientific studies aren't all that helpful to us in this case.   

Which means that, as far as the question of the existence of aliens is concerned, just because something is not an established fact or supported by some scientific study is not in itself a reason to dismiss it out of hand. Which suggests that there has to be some other way of gathering facts about the universe in which we live. One way is to see and experience things for yourself. If you have actually seen an alien (say, if you have been abducted by one), that would be a good reason for you to believe that aliens exist. But then again, you would probably have a hard time convincing somebody like my friend, because she would probably think you hallucinated the whole thing up while going through some other traumatic experience that is more terrestrial in nature (maybe you really got abducted and raped by humans wearing alien costumes...), and your hallucinating something up obviously wouldn't make it an established fact or supportable by a study.

Well, I wasn't really planning on going on this big rant about aliens. Maybe my sanity is in doubt here. Maybe I am slowly going bonkers, and the subjects of my blogging are the first symptoms... hmm, must be all that tropical air in Singapore. But I believe that in addition to established facts and scientific studies, there is at least one other way of getting reliable information about the universe: The testimony of reliable and sincere people. After all, if you think about it, most of our knowledge of so-called established facts and scientific studies come from sources that we take to be sincere and reliable: How many of us really have the time and resources to verify every single established fact with our own five senses, or to read every single scientific study out there? Most of the time, we read the papers, watch the news, listen to experts that we trust, and take it that they are not pulling the wool over our eyes. If we are alright with doing this with information concerning everything else in the universe, why not with aliens? I mean, if you read that International Business Times article that I linked to above and watch the accompanying interview with Paul Hellyer... well, the guy definitely has solid credentials (former top leader of a G8 nation), and he seems to be a sincere and clear-headed person, not some rambling lunatic. So... why not give this whole notion of aliens being around another honest hearing?


Anyway, I'm not sure why I went on this big rant about aliens. It's not as if anybody's paying me to do this. Well, I suppose I should say something about yoga, since this is ostensibly (still) a yoga blog. Well, what about this: I am happy to report that I did not miss a single day of practice the whole time I was in Singapore. My family was kind and gracious enough to put up with my getting up early six days a week to do this super-sweaty yoga practice. Oh, and speaking of sweaty, boy, did I sweat! Because of the heat and the super-high humidity in Singapore (it's tropical), I sweated like I've never sweated before. By the third or fourth Surya A of every practice I did in Singapore, I was totally drenched in sweat. Somehow, that made me practice at a much faster pace. One morning, for instance, I actually got through full primary in an hour and five minutes. I don't think even Sharath's led is that fast... The other upside is that because of the heat, my muscles warmed up really quickly, and practice was a breeze: Which probably explained the super-fast pace of practice. And also, because I was so sweaty, Garbha Pindasana was a breeze: My arms just slid through my legs like there was nothing there.

While in Singapore, I also went to a shala once. The Yogashala is located in the Chinatown area, and I had a really enjoyable practice there. James  Figueira, the principal teacher and owner, gave me some really cool tips about my backbends. I also brought my mom there. The last time I heard, she is still going there once every couple of weeks, and trying to do the practice by herself at home; last time I heard, she told me that they have moved her up to Trikonasana. Anyway, now you know: If you are ever in Singapore, you have a place to go practice if your immediate environment isn't so accommodating for you to do your practice in ;-)

Alright, I think this is enough blogging for somebody who hasn't blogged in, like, forever. More later.      

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Singapore, home, and the unburdening of promises that have outlived their relevance

I'm in Singapore right now. I came here last week to attend my younger brother's wedding, and will be here for another couple of weeks before I head back to the U.S.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that for the longest time, I have been experiencing a lot of fear about coming back to Singapore, or even thinking about the place itself (for more details, see this post). So why have I decided to come back this time? Ostensibly, it was because of my brother's wedding. He sent me an invite a few months ago, and even somebody as hard-headed and hard-hearted as yours truly cannot resist the pull of some basic familial obligations (along with some guilt-tripping on the part of my parents).

But on another, deeper level, there is a more powerful reason for my being back this time. On some level, I have decided that it is time for me to really come to terms with certain things from the past, that if I am to move forward confidently with my life in a way that is free and unencumbered, I need to come back here and squarely face up to the baggage that I have been carrying with me from the past. I'm not going to bore you with the details of what exactly this baggage consists in: That would take another long post or two, and I'm not in the mood to write that much at the moment, anyway. Suffice to say that there were some promises that I made to certain people many many years ago, and I have been burdened with guilt over the fact that I have not fulfilled those promises and have therefore betrayed these people. Anyway, I met up with these people over the last week. All of them understand that my life is now in a very different place from where it was years ago, and that it would be unreasonable to hold me up to those promises. Actually, a few of these people were surprised that I even felt guilty about the whole thing, as they themselves could barely even remember me making that promise to them!

I understand that all of this is probably very vague and probably very unsatisfying, from a story-telling point of view. But as I said, I don't feel like writing a whole other post explaining the content and background story of these promises. And in any case, I feel that the explicit content of the promises do not matter so much as the emotional and spiritual anguish involved in holding on to something that has outlived its relevance, and the liberation that comes from finally letting go of these things.

Right now, I feel a lot more free and confident about moving on with my life. One thing that has really bothered me a lot in the past few years is the question of where home is. On the one hand, nothing can change the fact that I was born in Singapore and have gone through many irreplaceable formative experiences and encountered so many wonderful people here. But ever since coming to the U.S., I have also had many other experiences and met so many people that are just as irreplaceable. I have always been uncomfortable with the notion, held by many people, that home is only the place where you were born and where most of your family is. I think that there is something to this notion, but this cannot be the whole truth, because I also believe that as a person evolves and grows, what kind of place he comes to call home must also evolve and change. This is especially true if he has moved to a place that is different from his birthplace, and has allowed that place to irrevocably shape who he is as a person.

Because of these considerations, I have, after much reflection and soul-searching, come to the conclusion that I am a person with two homes: Singapore will always be my home, but the United States is also equally my home. For me, there is no other way, because I simply cannot bring myself to put down one place in order to elevate the other. I have tried to do this in the past, and the result has always been a lot of unnecessary emotional anguish and suffering. What all this means is that I have to grow to become somebody whose life and heart is big enough to encompass both these places, whose life is big enough to enable him to truly become a man of the world. 


I could probably say more about this whole emotional and spiritual journey here, but I guess I'll stop here for now. Maybe I'll share my thoughts about being back in the place where I was born after 13 years (yes, I've been away for 13 years...).

One of the first things that hit me during my first few days in Singapore was: The whole island is one big freaking shopping mall! Everywhere you turn, there is some kind of shopping mall or other. So much so, that one can't help but wonder if the people in charge built the subway system (the MRT) simply in order to make it easier for people to go all over the island to shop at the different shopping malls! As you can well imagine, this, combined with the very high population density--there are more than 5 million people packed into 276 square miles--makes the entire place a very crowded and tightly packed concrete jungle. One of the first things I noticed upon arriving here was that many of the open spaces that I used to know as a young person growing up here have since been filled up: It seems that every square inch of open land here has been developed or is been developed into some kind of shopping mall, office building or condo. I'm not even going to tell you what I feel about all this, because, well, who wants to go there?

But thankfully, some places and people have stayed the same. Yesterday, I had lunch and tea at Holland Village with a good friend I haven't seen for a very long time. It was I who suggested meeting there, and the moment I got there, I remembered why I missed that place so much. The whole place has this laid-back, bohemian feel to it, and it has preserved this feel after all these years. To be sure, there are a whole bunch of new shops and restaurants that I don't recognize, but there is something about the way the streets are generously laid-out and the relaxed attitude of the locals that cue you in to the fact that the character of the place is very much alive and well after all these years. We went to this restaurant, ate lots of Indian food and shared a bottle of white wine, and talked the entire afternoon about our remembrances of things past and plans and hopes for the future. My friend, who was a young lady the last time I saw her, is still a young lady, plus a husband whom she is happily married to and a very adorable young daughter, both of whom I have yet to meet. It is great to finally see somebody who has constantly been in my thoughts all these years, and to see her so happy and fulfilled in life.


I've also had the opportunity to share my Ashtanga practice with a few friends. One of my friends saw that Youtube video of me doing primary series (if you haven't seen it, check out this post), and remarked that what I am doing is a good set of physiological movements that activates all aspects of the system. However, he continued, it is too tough for common folk in the street, and it probably doesn't help that many Singaporeans (yes, that's what you call people from Singapore) are overweight because Singapore is blessed with too much food (most of which is very delicious, but also very bad for you). I can't help feeling that what he says here is also a good description of Americans. Hmm... and I call both places home? Wonder what that says about me? :-)

Sunday, April 6, 2014

God, Nothingness, and Chess

I think this blog is fast (or not-so-fast, considering how little I post these days) becoming an everything-else-except-yoga blog. First, I haven't been posting as much. And when I do post, my posts seem to have less and less to do with yoga, and more to do with, well, everything else. But what do I do? Life flows like a river, and I don't have too much control over how the river meanders on its course. So the only thing to do here is to, well, go with the flow.

Among the everything else that has been occupying my life, philosophy is one of them. Why? Well, I don't know, maybe because I happen to teach it? :-) And since philosophy and philosophical issues seem to be permeating my life, I suppose I'll talk about these here.

I've been reading a lot of Sartre's Being and Nothingness lately, mainly because I'm teaching Existentialism this semester. As I mentioned in this post, a quick-and-dirty way of summing up Sartre's view would be: "Existence precedes Essence." As one of the key philosophers in the existentialist movement, Sartre holds that we humans are born or "thrown" into this world. And once we are thrown into this world, we are then saddled with the absolute freedom and absolute responsibility for defining who and what we are. Thus, unlike man-made objects like chairs and tables, which came into this world with a predefined purpose or essence, we humans came into this world first, and then are forced to create and define our own essences or purposes. And human life is such that we always have to make life choices, and these life choices are such that in making them, we continually recreate ourselves. Thus, to be human is to continually and endlessly create our own essences and purposes.

But in order for this process of continual self-creation to be possible, there also needs to be a parallel process of self-negation or self-destruction. Why? Because self-negation or self-destruction introduces a nothingness into our lives, and this nothingness is necessary as the empty space within which we can then have room to create our new selves through our life choices. Without this nothingness, continual self-creation would not be possible. Thus, Sartre goes on to stress that this nothingness is the very condition for any possibility of being, or creation. Hence his famous saying: "Human being is the being through which nothingness comes into the world."   

But if we originally and continually create ourselves through our continual self-negation, then there would be no space and no need for God. The traditional Judeo-Christian conception of God holds that God is a self-creating being, a being that creates itself from its own nothingness. But as we can see from everything that I just said above, this conception also turns out to be a perfect description of human being as the being through which nothingness comes into the world. Thus, if there really has to be a God, then we are Gods! We are our own Gods! (Yay!...)


I suppose I might owe you an apology for subjecting you to an unsolicited lecture on Existentialism. But there is some method to all this madness. I'm actually preparing you for a personal story. For some reason, I have recently been encountering quite a few people in my environment who have been asking me if I believe in God. I'm not sure why this is so; maybe I look like the sort who is in need of some salvation. In any case, some of these well-meaning people are Muslim students from the middle east (there is a sizable contingent of middle-eastern students on my campus). Some are also good Christian folk from the local community.

Which is probably not all that surprising, considering that this is Idaho. What is somewhat surprising is the way this question pops up sometimes. Yesterday, for instance, I was playing chess with this guy at the local Starbucks. Somewhere in the middle of our second game, he suddenly asked me if I believed in the Almighty. I'm still not quite sure why it would occur to him to ask me this question in the middle of a chess game; a game which he was, by the way, losing quite badly. Maybe he thought that my superior chess prowess might be the result of divine intervention. Or maybe he thought that invoking divine authority might cause me to succumb to a bout of Christian charity, and be merciful to him in his darkest hour on the chessboard.

I, of course, honestly answered no to his question. Upon hearing my reply, he paused for a moment, and then said, "I have noticed that many college professors do not believe in God. Well, to each his own, I guess." I smiled and left it at that. If this were a more appropriate occasion, I might have gone on to subject him to the above lecture on the Existentialist view of (non)God. But I suspect that that probably wouldn't have gone down well. Besides, who wants to be subject to a lecture on Existentialism in the middle of a losing chess game?


But all these well-meaning recent inquiries about the state of my belief in the Almighty have also led me to ponder another issue. It occurs to me that many people divide the world into two halves: Those who believe in God or some kind of all-powerful creator, and those who don't. I think this is a very unimaginative and impoverished--not to mention divisive and polarizing--way of seeing people and the universe in which we live. And it's not only Muslims and good Christian folk who see the world in this way. Atheists and many supposedly free-thinkers do this too.

But then again, maybe we don't just do this with belief in God. Maybe we do this with many other things too. For instance, somebody else might see the world in terms of whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or whether one practices Ashtanga yoga or some other non-Ashtanga form of yoga. It is all too easy to see and understand the world in such ready-made divisions, isn't it?   

What am I getting at here? I don't know, probably nothing in particular. After all, what good is a blog for, if not as a space for going on and on (and on) about everything and nothing in particular?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Flow state, art, beauty, and yoga

One of the courses I am teaching this semester at the university is Philosophy of Art (a.k.a. aesthetics). Over the past couple of months of teaching this course, I have been trying to read more novels and listen to more music in order to get myself into a more... artistic state of mind. After all, if you only philosophize about something, but have no intuitive experience of the thing in question upon which to base the philosophizing, then the philosophizing becomes a bit fruitless, doesn't it? (Now, who was it who said that "concepts without intuition are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind"?...)

In the course of listening to a lot of great music, I have had the opportunity to witness (on Youtube) many beautiful performances by many wonderfully talented artists. As I do so, I can't help noticing that in many of these performances, it is not just the music being produced that is beautiful. The performer, being fully immersed in the music with her entire being (I suppose this may be what some people call a "flow state"), takes on a certain beauty in her facial expressions, and in the way she moves as she plays her instrument. To give you an example, have a look at this performance of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto in D by Sayaka Shoji. The whole performance is kind of long (almost 38 minutes), and you might not have the time to sit through the whole thing, but if you just watch the first 10 minutes, you'll know what I'm talking about:

After watching this performance for, like, the twentieth time, I still can't decide what is more beautiful: The expressions on Shoji's face, or the music that she is actually playing. But this much seems to be true: Being in a flow state (and if Shoji wasn't in a flow state when she was performing that piece, I don't know who is) is not just something that is experienced by the person who is in that state, but is also often something that we the observers can observe by looking at the person. And if Shoji's case above is anything to go by, it would seem that being in a flow state is not just a beautiful experience for the person experiencing it, it is also a beautiful and inspiring experience for those of us who get to see the effects of that state on the person's face and body. So... yay! More power to flow states! 

But since this is (still) a yoga blog, I suppose I should try to relate everything I just said to yoga. Well, many of us who have doing this practice for a while will readily attest that yoga practice in general (and Ashtanga practice in particular) is quite conducive for producing this flow state in us during practice. If nothing else, the very flowing structure of the vinyasa count ("Ekam, Dwe, Trini...") encourages less (over)thinking and more movement and flow. And I'm pretty sure many of us have at one time or other experienced this kind of flowing feeling of being at one with the practice in the moment of practice.

And this is a very beautiful thing. But at the same time, there is also this perception that yoga is different from the performing arts because yoga practice is somehow personal in a way that the performing arts are not. Perhaps it is because of this perception that openly performance-oriented displays of asana prowess tend to be frowned upon in the yoga world. As a result, there seems to be this tacit consensus among the politically-correct yoga public that if and when teachers or students do poses in public, it should be primarily for educational purposes, i.e. either to show students how a pose is done or to demonstrate a pose in order to educate the public about the benefits of yoga. Doing poses in public without such an educational aim in mind is seen as "showing off" and merely "feeding the ego" (and we know, of course, how bad feeding the ego is in the eyes of the yoga public).

But what if public performances of yoga, like public performances of music, can also have the effect of inspiring the audience with the beautiful sight of somebody who is in a flow state? Imagine if Ms. Shoji were to one day decide, "Hmm... I don't think I'm ever going to perform in public again, because performing in public is showing off and feeds my ego, which is bad for my spiritual development." If she were to decide this (and follow through with her decision), wouldn't the music-loving public be deprived of a wonderful source of beauty and inspiration? After all, we know that great art does not just consist in taking in the art with one of our senses; as we have seen, a big part of the beauty also comes from watching great performers immerse themselves in their art as they perform. In the same way, might it not be the case that at least part of the beauty of yoga comes from seeing your favorite teachers or practitioners perform the poses that they do? Speaking of favorite teachers, here's a recent video of Kino performing lotus handstand in public:

Actually, I don't know just how "public" Kino's performance is in this case, since there doesn't seem to be too many people watching (unless we include the Youtube audience as being part of the "public" in this case). But anyway, I think you get what I'm trying to say here...

But yes, I am aware that yoga and music are not the same thing. After all, yoga is spiritual in a way that music is not (But wait! Do we really want to say that music is not spiritual?...). So maybe public performances of yoga are "wrong" in the way that public performances of music are not. But still... oh well, what do I know? 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The onion and the hereafter

Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling emotions in a more intense kind of way. These feelings can be described as a sort of muted melancholic feeling that originates somewhere deep in the gut. It's not the "can't get out of bed" kind of depressed feeling that some people who are depressed report feeling. Rather, it's more like a deep melancholic feeling that feels like an undercurrent that is undercurrenting everything else that I may be feeling or going through. And honestly, the feeling is not entirely unpleasant. It feels like tapping into something deeper within myself, wherever "deeper" may be. I also feel a bit like an onion whose layers have been peeled away, exposing deeper parts of myself that I may not have aware of before.

I think the occurrence of these feelings has something to do with my second series practice, but I have no objective way of proving this. It may, of course, also have something to do with the fact that I am reading existentialist writers (Sartre, Heidegger, Camus) very intensively and closely in the course of teaching my Existentialism course. But again, I also have no objective way of proving this.  

Anyway, these intense episodes usually occur off the mat and at seemingly random times. For instance, I was in a restaurant a few weeks ago, and the in-house TV was playing a documentary about the 1994 attack on the figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan. I suddenly found myself feeling very sad (and yes, I will even confess that I felt a lump in my throat...) for Kerrigan, even though I normally don't feel too much for the trials and tribulations of celebrities, being the normally cynical person that I am.

I have communicated with a couple of my teachers about this phenomenon. They have encouraged me by telling me that this is 100 percent normal, and that I should continue with my practice. They also suggested that I learn to appreciate and love these moments, and to see them as windows into a deeper place within myself (probably somewhere in the liver... just kiddin').


Recently, I have also been struggling with a very simple question: Is there life after death? Or, more specifically, do we need to believe that there is some kind of existence after death in order to be an effective Buddhist or yoga practitioner? I know that Buddhism and yoga are two very different things (whatever clever new-age-ists out there may say), but this much at least seems common to the two traditions: Both traditions seem to presuppose that this worldly existence is not all there is, that something, whatever that may be, persists after our earthly bodies have expired and decomposed.

Of course, none of this should be any concern to you if you practice yoga simply for "stretching" or to stay in shape. But if you take any of the accompanying spiritual mumbo-jumbo (karma, purusha, the five koshas, to name just a few) even a little bit seriously, I simply cannot see how you can then call yourself a yoga practitioner and not believe in some notion of an existence beyond this one.

So what's the problem here? Well, maybe there isn't a problem. One could simply accept the minimal amount of metaphysical baggage that your community deems to be kosher, and continue to merrily do one's asana practice as is. You know, maybe believe in some kind of afterlife, just don't commit yourself to too many specific details, so that when you die and go to wherever you go, and find out that the details are not quite what you thought they were, you can quickly adapt and be on the right side of the fence :-)

The problem arises if you have a slightly more rationalistic bent of mind, like me, and if you have always had the suspicion that any talk of the hereafter (even if it is packaged in cool-sounding shit like karma and purusha and emptiness and whatnot) is a kind of intellectual opium designed to pull the wool over your unsuspecting eyes and make you more likely to listen to people who want to control your life and tell you what to do. The problem is also compounded by the obvious fact that nobody (at least nobody that I know) has actually been to the other side and seen what is actually in the hereafter. So if you tell me that there is karma and purusha and a bigger purpose beyond the ken of our intellect that can guide us to a better place, my first question would be, "How do you know this? Have you been there?"

Oh well. I really don;t know what else to say at this point. This is really just me talking my head off, as you can see. If you have anything to say, feel free to comment. If not, I hope you have fun reading and thinking stuff through with me. It's all good, one way or the other.     

Monday, February 3, 2014

Floating pigs, (eating) shrimp, ducks, and progress in Karandavasana

Warning: This post contains descriptions of dead animals being chewed to bits and then burnt. It also contains what is commonly referred to in the blogosphere as food porn. If you are offended by any of these things, read no further!


Over the weekend, I made a trip to Boise with a couple of friends from work. While there, we decided to go on a Vietnamese food binge, because there are no Vietnamese restaurants in Pocatello, where I live. Everything went well on Saturday, not-eating-animals-wise: We went to this nice Vietnamese bistro in downtown Boise for dinner, and I had a really flavorful tofu dish, and my meat-eating friends got to indulge their share of pho and boiled beef.

But things took an interesting turn on Sunday morning. For brunch, we went to this hole-in-a-wall Vietnamese place in a more... industrial part of town. I took one look at the menu, and knew that this was going to be difficult: There were no tofu or other meat-substitute dishes listed on the menu. Still, I decided to try my best to find something that does not have meat in it (we needed to be somewhere immediately after brunch, and I did not think it appropriate to make an issue by alerting my friends to the apparent absence of vegetarian options on the menu). Under "Appetizers", I saw something called "Spring Rolls". It doesn't say anything about the presence of meat in it, so I ordered it. Then under "Noodle", I saw something called "Noodles with Egg Rolls" which, again, does not say anything about the presence of meat. I asked the server about whether there was meat in any of these two items. In halting English, she told me what was in them. I couldn't really understand what she was saying, but whatever she said did not sound like any kind of meat. Just to be sure, I asked her if there was shrimp (some Asians do not consider shrimp to be meat) in any of these dishes, and she said no.

Having thus ascertained the absence of meat (and shrimp) from what I took to be a reliable authority, I went ahead and ordered the spring rolls and the noodles with egg rolls. A few minutes later, the noodle dish came. I bit into the spring roll, and felt this stringy, slightly rubbery texture which had to be pork. Ha! Do Vietnamese people not consider pork to be meat (or is there some place on this earth where pigs grow on trees?...). But I ate it anyway, because not to do so would involve either eating nothing of the dish or eating only the noodles, and I really did not feel like loading myself with only empty calories in the morning.

A couple of minutes later, the spring rolls came. They looked something like this:

 [Image taken from here]

As you probably notice, one does not need x-ray vision to see that there are shrimp present in these rolls. But I decided to eat them anyway, because, what the hell, I have already eaten pigs, so why not shrimp?
And besides, these shrimp (who probably don't have central nervous systems in the first place) are apparently already dead, so they can't possibly suffer any more from my putting them in my mouth, chewing them to bits, and then burning them in the inferno of my digestive fire. 

I should also report that both the pork and the shrimp do not taste half bad. So if you are a meat-eater and love Vietnamese spring rolls, Boise isn't a half-bad place for Vietnamese food. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of this particular restaurant... I know it has "pho" in it, but that's not terribly helpful, is it? I mean, there are probably like a million Vietnamese restaurants with "pho" in their names... 


So, to sum it all up, yesterday morning, I (knowingly) ate meat for the first time in, like three or four years. And I don't even have a particularly good excuse for violating ahimsa, beyond the rather prosaic fact that I don't want to have to not eat what I have ordered, and possibly insult the good people who run that little Vietnamese restaurant in Boise, Idaho. 

Naturally, I was very curious about what effect eating meat would have on my practice this morning. Quite surprisingly, the answer is: Not much. The vinyasas were floaty as usual (not to brag or anything, but people have said this about my vinyasas, so I am just reproducing their compliments :-)). Which is proof that even if pigs can't fly, they might at least be able to float when ingested by an Ashtangi. What's even more surprising was this morning's Karandavasana. For maybe only the second time in my not-so-long Karandavasana career, I was actually able to lower the lotus to my forearms with control: Rather than simply crash down onto my forearms, I was able to kind of slowly, with control, move my knees from the apex of the pose to my forearms. But coming back up is still not coming. But that's alright, I'll take what modest progress I can make.

Hmm.... this is intriguing. Could ingesting shrimp actually help me to better impersonate a duck (as you know, "Karanda" means "water fowl" or "duck")? What is the relation between shrimp and ducks/water fowl? Do they, like, love each other in nature? Hmm... well, here's a question for you second series practitioners out there: If scientists could somehow scientifically prove that eating shrimp would improve your physical performance of Karandavasana (like they would care, but you know, this is purely a thought experiment), would you start eating shrimp? This question assumes, of course, that you are a vegetarian. If
you aren't, well, then it is moot. No judgment or anything. Just curious. I already kind of know what the answer would be, anyway. But just for the sake of sheer curiosity (and fun), I'm going to set up a poll for this
question in the right-hand corner of this blog. Come to think of it, it's been a very long time since I ran a poll here. So if you are (1) vegetarian, and (2) practice Karandavasana regularly, think about taking
a second to answer this poll. 

Oh, and just so you know: I have reverted to my non-animal-eating ways. The only thing that might possibly tempt me into eating shrimp again would be, I don't know, dim sum (ever heard of shrimp dumplings?)? 


Speaking of (not) eating animals, below is a very recent music video from the person who first inspired me to stop eating them. I studied with PJ Heffernan at his shala for a year when I lived in Milwaukee, WI. PJ's practice and teaching are both awesome (as you can see from the video), and his fierce devotion to Sharath and Guruji is even more awe-inspiring. Enjoy!