Saturday, December 31, 2011

Why I am a bad Buddhist (and why I practice yoga)

Over the last few days, I have been reading and thinking about early Buddhism (i.e. the Pali Canon), and comparing them in my mind to Advaita Vedanta in preparation for one of my spring philosophy classes. One big difference between Buddhism and Vedanta (I think many would argue that this is the chief difference) is over the existence of self. Vedanta holds that there is a greater universal Self of which we are all a part (simply put, this means that ultimately, I am you and you are me, and there is no separation whatsoever between us. The trick is to find a way to realize this with our entire being; hence Self-realization.)

Buddhism (at least early Buddhism), on the other hand, holds that there is really no self at all. Self, the Buddhist would argue, is a convenient fiction that we use in order to live our everyday lives in society. Ultimately, says the Buddhist, all there is is an endless stream of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses of these things. The notion of a self, as it is conventionally understood, is simply a useful label we conventionally assign to a certain bundle of feelings, perceptions, volitions, and consciousnesses, because we have discovered that doing so allows us to conduct our practical existence in a way that is productive and fruitful. Suffering, the Buddhist holds, arises because we forget this simple fact--that what we call the self is simply a convenient fiction, nothing more--and over-identify with it. Notice that I said "suffering", not "pain". According to the Buddhist, pain is inevitable in human existence; suffering, however, is optional, and arises to the extent that we over-identify with the fiction of the self.

Which is all very well in theory. Despite my best efforts, however, I just can't bring myself to believe that there is really no such thing as a self. Very often, the first emotion that assails me when I wake up in the morning is anxiety. I'm not going to bore you with the lurid details of just what exactly I am anxious about. But they all boil down to one thing: Anxiety/angst and fear over what may or may not happen in the future. And it is pretty obvious (at least to me) that if one experiences anxiety/angst/fear, one must believe that there is a self to which these bad things may or may not happen in the future. In other words, one is being a "bad" Buddhist. Or, to put the same point more personally, I am being a bad Buddhist.

Come to think of it, maybe this is why I practice yoga. Assuming that my present yoga practice is based on a Vedantic worldview (hmm... is yoga still NOT a religion? Something to think about here, no?) which posits that I am part of a greater cosmic Self, it might be that I am attracted to yoga because of the prospect of someday attaining self-realization and becoming one with this Self; the image that comes to mind here is that of a drop of water (me) rejoining the great ocean of Self.

I wonder if all this means that from a spiritual point of view, I am trying to have my cake and eat it too: Might it be that I am trying to reap all the benefits of the Buddhist view of not believing that there is a self in everyday life (so as to avoid the existential suffering that arises with over-identification; something I haven't been too successful with thus far) while also having the assurance that I ultimately belong to and am part of something greater (the Self)? How long can one keep up this neither-here-nor-there spiritual position (if indeed, it is even possible in the first place)? Hmm... what a mess.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Blogging, being real, (not) shooting from the hip

So I look around me in the yoga blogosphere, and see that bloggers are coming up with posts to reflect on the year, or recollect the best 32 or 15 (or however many) blog posts of 2011. And so and so forth. Which is wonderful. More power to all of you hardworking bloggers who go to all the trouble to come up with such posts; I really mean this, I'm not being snarky or anything.

As for me, well, I just don't have the energy to do things like this. I'm kind of an in-the-moment, writing-things-on-the-fly kind of blogger: Most of the time (i.e. about 99% of the time), I don't know today what I am going to blog about tomorrow (and this is true of today as well; right now, I have no idea what I am going to blog about tomorrow). I am just not the kind of blogger who has, like, 5000 blog ideas running in his head at one time. Heck, most of the time, I have trouble even just holding on to one idea. Maybe this is a kind of rebellion against the super-structured academic environment which I am supposed to be a part of. I don't know; I'm not going to try to psycho-analyze myself here.

But I do try to do one thing on this blog. I try to write in a way that is real and not (or at least not too) fake. I don't pretend to be an authority on shit (because chances are I'm not). But I do always try to write exactly what is on my mind, in a way that does not offend (too many) people. If there is one phrase that captures what I aspire to, it would be: No bullshit, just tell it like it is. Of course, being the kind of person that I am, I seem to lack the ability to just shoot from the hip. Most of the time, you will find that whatever I write has tons of qualifications (ifs, buts, on the other hand, this being the case, etc.). But well, I am what I am, and it is what it is. As I say, I do my best.

I've always been a fan of the late George Carlin. I think he has this quality of shooting from the hip and telling shit like it is that I always admire, but can never quite emulate, whether in speaking or in writing. So I thought I'll end this post with a couple of clips by Carlin on--what else--bullshit. Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Mysore Dream, and some neither-here-nor-there musings about Mysore

The end of the year is a time for reflections on the year that has gone by. For many, it is also a time for setting goals or intentions for the year to come. Since this is an Ashtanga blog, it seems appropriate to use this blog to reflect upon developments in my practice, and in life as it relates to the practice this past year.

Let me start by talking about one thing that I definitely have not done this year: Go to Mysore. If you practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (or even if you don't), you will know that Mysore, India is the birthplace of this style of yoga. As such, among many an Ashtangi, Mysore is regarded as the World Capital of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and going to Myore to study at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) is seen by many an Ashtangi as an important rite of passage.

This brings up the question: Rite of passage for what? One certainly does not need to go to Mysore in order to practice Ashtanga, or even to teach it (although one does need to be authorized or certified by the KPJAYI in order to, well, be an authorized or certified Ashtanga teacher). So it is kind of hard to pin down just what going to Mysore is supposed to signify. Having said this, however, I think it is safe to say that going to Mysore definitely signifies a strong desire on the part of the Ashtangi to deepen his or her practice by seeking it out at the source (or the Mothership, as it is sometimes called).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that I have written about this topic a couple of times in the past (see this post and this post). And if you are familiar with what I have written about this topic, you might be cringing right about now. You may be thinking to yourself: Oh no, he's going to go all existential-angsty about never having been to Mysore and all that jazz again... help! But not to worry; I like to think that I am now past all this angsting. Besides, if I go to Mysore one day, I go. If I don't, I don't. Either way, no amount of angsting is going to change anything, I would think. So I may as well stop angsting. What I'm going to do here is to share a little dream about Mysore that I had recently (a few weeks ago). It was a pretty interesting dream. I don't know what it means. If you are into dream interpretation, I'll love to hear your interpretation of it. By the way, it just occurred to me that Ashtanga is the only style of yoga in which I have dreamt about the practice and its birthplace and its guru: I have had a few dreams about Guruji over the years, although I have never met him in real life. I like to think that this signifies that I have some kind of strong and powerful bond with Ashtanga that I don't have with any other style; for instance, before I became an Ashtangi, I did my own Iyengar-inspired practice, but to this day, I have never dreamt about B.K.S. Iyengar or Pune. Or maybe this is just me being self-important. In any case, here's my recent Mysore dream:

"In the dream, I was in Mysore with my fiancee. We were living in this really luxurious and well-appointed house in a very fancy neighborhood of Mysore, and this house is supposed to be within walking distance of the shala. (I really don't know if there really is such a fancy neighborhood in Mysore within walking distance of KPJAYI; in any case, my dreaming mind succeeded in convincing me that there was such a neighborhood in Mysore, and that we were living in a fancy house in such a neighborhood.). It turns out that the house belongs to this really well-to-do Caucasian couple who live there only at certain times of the year. They have very generously rented the house to us for a very affordable price for the duration of our stay in Mysore.

So anyway, in the dream, it was early Friday morning, and we were planning on going to led primary with Sharath at the shala. But we couldn't remember whether led primary started at 7 or 8 a.m. (I know that it starts way earlier than that in real life, but whatever: This is a dream.). So we tried looking up the information online. It turns out that there were two computers in the living room of the house. We each got onto one computer, and started looking up the information online. Somehow, instead of looking up the information online, I started watching this video-clip. In this clip, my teacher in Milwaukee was explaining in great detail his wake-up routine when he is in Mysore. He was wearing this funny-looking headgear which looked like a cross between a turban and a beanie (a turbnie?!). Anyway, in the video, he jumped out of bed wearing this turbnie, and started doing Kapalabathi while seated on the floor of his room. He was doing it so rapidly and intensely that his eyes started glowing! I was transfixed by the video, and forgot for a few minutes that I was supposed to look up the start time for led primary online. In any case, we couldn't find any information online about what time Friday led primary started at KPJAYI.

At this moment, we looked at the clock, and saw that it was slightly after 7 a.m. Which means that if led primary started at 7 a.m., we were late. But we decided to take a chance anyway, and started out for the shala. We made our way through the neighborhood, which consists of a series of well-kept paths winding among lush landscaped tropical vegetation and ferns. A few minutes later, the shala came within sight. It was a beautiful colonial-style house, in a similar design as the house we were staying in. I was really excited at finally being able to practice in the shala, even if I was going to get chewed out by Sharath for being very late. But then, at this very moment, I suddenly remembered that the shala does not look anything like that in real life. And that was when I woke up from the dream."

      This is NOT how KPJAYI looked like in my dream.
[Image taken from here]

So, well, I hoped you enjoyed my telling of my rather strange dream. If you have any thoughts and/or interpretations, I'll love to hear them.

Greg Nardi on physical pain (and what to do when you experience it)

I just came across this Youtube video in which Greg Nardi explains the different kinds of instances in which physical pain comes up in the practice, and how best to respond to them. It's really amazing how much information he packs into just four minutes of real time. I hope you find this useful.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Scotch, yoga practice, reality, and the wisdom of Philip K. Dick

Before I go on with this post, I should issue a disclaimer here: In writing this post, I am not endorsing alcohol consumption (or excessive alcohol consumption). Nor am I implying that practicing Ashtanga and drinking a lot go together. Indeed, I believe that most readers of this blog are probably much more highly evolved beings than I am--beings that are probably way beyond the antics I will describe in this post and in the previous one. However, not being so highly evolved, I find myself prone to excesses such as the ones I will describe in this post and in the previous one. Since I try to tell things in my life like they are in this blog and not pretend to be more (or less) evolved than I actually am, you will hopefully bear with these details of my not-so-evolved existence, and (hopefully) enjoy the story I am about to tell. 

So here's the story: At one point during Christmas dinner at my colleague's place the day before yesterday--roughly, at around the point when I had had my second margarita and was about to down that shot of scotch, but was still sober enough to know that I had had too much to drink (see previous post)--I thought briefly about what reality is. Is there one common reality that we all have access to and experience in the same way in our different minds and bodies? Or do our different minds and bodies, with their uniquely different histories, experience very different realities? If the realities we each experience are each uniquely different from everybody else's realities, how and to what extent are we successful in communicating these different realities to one another?

At this point, you may be thinking: Woah, wait a second! Back up a little... How exactly did you get to thinking about reality in the middle of a Christmas dinner (being intoxicated may admittedly have something to do with it, I suppose, but surely that can't explain everything...).

Well, okay, I guess I do owe you some kind of back-story here. So, around the point when I had had my second margarita and was about to down that shot of scotch, but was still sober enough to know that I had had too much to drink, I started to ask myself if I should perhaps pass on that shot of scotch and call it a night. After all, I rarely drank that much, and I still planned on waking up at a reasonable hour the next morning and doing my regular yoga practice (which is presently full primary and second to Ardha Matsyendrasana), if that was indeed still possible given the state I was already in. Eventually I decided to cast such concerns aside, and just go for the scotch anyway. Why did I do that? One reason may simply be that I was looking forward to the warm feeling that scotch produces in my insides, at least for a few minutes: Compared to this, the fuzzy endorphin high that comes after many an Ashtanga practice seems quite far away. But another reason was that I wasn't confident that I would be able to sufficiently communicate the full weight and reality of my reasons for passing on the scotch to anybody who might think to question my choice. Here's how such a conversation might look like:

Q: Why are you passing on the scotch?

Nobel: Well, I need to not drink any more, so that I can get up in the morning without a nasty hangover and do my yoga practice.

Q: But can't you just sleep in and skip your practice this once?

Nobel: No...

Q: Why not?

Nobel: Because I love my yoga practice too much. I feel good when I'm doing it and afterwards. And besides, it makes me a better person and brings me further along the path of self-realization... [insert big speech about the therapeutic and purifying effects of the practice from Yoga Mala, or wherever.]

Q: Uh, okay...

Given the way most exchanges occur in polite society, it is very possible that the conversation will end at this point, with Q simply accepting what I say (or at least pretending to), and perhaps giving me a somewhat sour, Nobel-you-are-such-a-wet-blanket look. But it is also possible, although not very likely, that the conversation might continue with the following:

Q: So you say that you feel good when you are doing yoga and afterwards. But if you drink the scotch, you will feel good and warm and fuzzy RIGHT NOW! Who can beat that?

Nobel: Yeah, but drinking too much is bad for you [insert another big speech about how excessive alcohol consumption leads to all kinds of terrible health effects that cause one to die eventually.]

Q: Okay.. and if you do yoga everyday, eat organic all the time, and abstain from drinking alcohol, you will live forever, or at least not die of some weird form of cancer? And besides, what's that I hear about yoga practitioners breaking their necks and backs and busting their knees? Hmm.... does doing yoga really give one a better quality of life?

Nobel [grins sheepishly]: Uh...

Of course, the conversation doesn't have to end here: If you are a better speaker than I am, you can probably think of all kinds of interesting ways to respond to Q here. But I guess what I'm trying to get at is that Q and I inhabit two different realities. For me, reality is such that what is "good" in my life are things like yoga, organic vegetarian food, and the occasional session of excessive alcohol consumption. For Q, reality is such that what is "good" in his life are things like sleeping in, eating lots of meat (organic or otherwise), the not-so-occasional session of excessive alcohol consumption, and whatever else rocks his boat. And I suspect that I could try talking to Q until I'm blue in the face, and I probably still wouldn't succeed in arriving at this magical Yoga Journal moment when Q will realize the, ahem, folly, of his way of life, renounce it, and instantly embrace all things yogic and organic. And, to be fair, I also suspect that if Q were to try to do the same thing with me from the other direction, he could try talking till he's blue in the face, and probably wouldn't succeed in arriving at some magical... Sports Illustrated moment when I realize the folly of my wet-blanket ways, and instantly embrace red meat, cigars, and fast cars. In other words, we can say that Q and I live in two different realities, and it is not clear that we will each be successful in communicating to each other (much less converting each other to) each reality.

Which, of course, brings up the big question: What is reality? In his essay, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later", Philip K. Dick wrote, ""Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Very nice, Dick. But this is really not very helpful for our present purposes, if you think about it: Both Q and I would equally accept Dick's definition of reality, and continue to adopt our respective chosen lifestyles. For me, the benefits of doing lots of yoga and eating organic and vegetarian do not go away even if I were to stop believing in them. Neither, for that matter, would the pitfalls of such a lifestyle (busting one's knees in padmasana, breaking one's neck in Sirsasana, breaking one's back in Kapotasana, etc, etc.). The same thing goes for Q and his lifestyle: The benefits of eating red meat and smoking cigars and drinking excessively not-so-occasionally would not go away even if he were to stop believing in them. Neither would the corresponding pitfalls of such a lifestyle. So at the risk of sounding very cliched, we can say that my reality is just as real for me as Q's is for him. At least according to Philip K. Dick. 
So what gives? What is the moral of this neither-here-nor-there story? I don't know, really. Maybe do whatever rocks your boat, for tomorrow we all die, one way or the other.      

Monday, December 26, 2011

Boxing Day Musings; Morning-after-Christmas practice

Happy Boxing Day! I hope your Christmas has been as restful as mine; more on mine in a little bit. So, just before I started writing this post, I got to wondering why the day after Christmas is called Boxing Day. When I was younger, my theory was that Boxing Day is so named because maybe people have so much energy after having so much fun and eating so much good food during the Christmas festivities that they had to burn off some of this excess energy by engaging each other in boxing matches.

Santa and his reindeer partaking in Boxing Day festivities
 [Image taken from here]

This theory is, of course, wrong. As I got a little older and became a little more sensible to the ways of the world, so to speak, I came up with another, more sensible theory. I theorized that Boxing Day is so named because when people wake up the day after Christmas, they are suddenly confronted by all this junk (most of which has no other use other than during Christmas) lying around; junk which is often bought with money they really don't have. Rather than let all this useless Christmas stuff lie around, they promptly started putting them into boxes, either to be stored for use next year or to be disposed of in some other way. Hence "Boxing Day."

Well, it turns out that neither of these theories are right. According to Wikipedia, that all-seeing, all-knowing digital oracle of our cyber age (Ode to Wikipedia: "Oh Hail, Thou exalted digi-brain that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, How benighted and conditioned by extreme ignorance my existence would be without thy grace; Grant me now the power of your Wikified glory!"), the correct explanation of Boxing Day is as follows: 

"Boxing Day is traditionally a day following Christmas when wealthy people in the United Kingdom would give a box containing a gift to their servants."

Sigh... what would I do without Wikipedia, this instant dispeller of ignorance?

In any case, since I am neither wealthy, nor do I live in the United Kingdom, nor are you my servants, I shall have no gift-laden boxes to give you :-) (But if you do live in the United Kingdom and are wealthy, please get in touch with me right away; I might consider becoming your servant :-)).


Although I have no gifts for you, I will still (hopefully) regale you with a brief account of my Christmas Day (mis)adventures. Yesterday, I went with a couple of colleagues and their family members to see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. It was alright. Never been a big Sherlock Holmes fan. But I really think that Robert Downey Jr. is a good actor.

After the movie, one of my colleagues hosted Christmas dinner at his place, and invited us over to partake of the festivities. I definitely had too much to drink (a few glasses of red wine, a couple of margaritas, and a shot of Scotch). And I definitely felt it the next morning. I didn't have a hangover, but between the time I woke up to do my Buddhist prayers and the time I made it to the mat for practice, I had to go to the bathroom to move my bowels three times to get rid of whatever it was that was moving around in my system (TMI? My apologies...). Curious. Could it be that excessive alcohol has a delayed laxative effect on me? Or could it be that knowing that it is about to start practice, my body put itself into auto-detox mode? Whatever the case might be, it seemed to work: Practice this morning, when it finally got started after all these trips to the bathroom, was quite smooth. Did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana, and everything went quite nicely. I'm not going to bore you with the blow-by-blow details of the practice, so I guess I'll sign off here. Happy Boxing Day!   

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Melancholia: A rather inappropriate review; Happy Christmas/moon day

[Image taken from here]

Last night, I went to the local movie theater to see Lars von Trier's latest film, Melancholia. Overall, I enjoyed it; although "enjoyed" is probably a rather inappropriate word for such a heavy-going film. The basic premise of the film is that a rogue planet, Melancholia, is fast approaching Earth on a collision course, bringing about the imminent end of all life as we know it.

Given this basic premise, the film is divided into two parts. The first part portrays the wedding party of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Justine suffers from depression, and her depression gets worse as the party unfolds, culminating in a series of tragi-comic events that result in the unraveling of the newly-weds' short-lived marriage. The second part of the film portrays events shortly after the wedding. Justine, who has become severely depressed, comes to live with her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and their young son Leo in their big house (in which, incidentally, the wedding party was held in the first part of the film). As Melancholia approaches Earth on what may or may not be a collision course (I won't spoil the story for you here, although by this point in time, you can probably find lots of spoilers everywhere you look online ;-)), the four of them face this possibly-impending doom in starkly different ways. Claire gets more and more upset as the planet approaches, while Justine becomes less depressed and more calm, even upbeat, in the face of possibly-impending-death. Indeed, this seems to be one of Lars von Trier's main points in the film: That depressed people are often able to remain calm and unruffled in the face of great disaster, because they have been through so many bad things that "[t]hey already know everything is going to hell." (for more details, see this article.) Hmm... is there a yogic lesson here? Something about expectations, maybe? Could depressed people actually be more yogic, in this sense?

Personally, I highly recommend this film, although it is probably not for everybody. It's definitely not the kind of film to see if you are looking for some kind of feel-good movie to get you into a festive holiday mood (to say the least). As a study in emotion (especially those pertaining to depression and alienation) and an examination of human nature under great duress, this film is a superb work.

Oh, and on a somewhat lower-brow level, if you are a guy, you may also be interested in the fact that this is the only film (to my knowledge) in which one gets to see Kirsten Dunst fully naked. I know, I know, this is a rather crass reason to go see a movie, but hey, surely you won't begrudge me a little eye candy in return for all this heavy-going emotional stuff, no?

Miss Dunst in her, uh, full moonlit glory
[Image taken from here]


In other news: Today is Christmas Eve (like you didn't know that already...). Happy Christmas and Merry New Moon!

[Image taken from here]

I've also been wondering how and whether the folks in Mysore celebrate Christmas, and how they celebrate it there. Quite a number of Ashtangis are down there right now, studying with Sharath. Among them are Kevin, Kino and her husband Tim. It must be pretty interesting to celebrate Christmas (if they do celebrate it) in Mysore, don't you think? Just thinking aloud here. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Ashtangic Holiday Blues; or, how I almost lost my front teeth this morning

First, a little practice report. I had to start my practice earlier this morning, as I had to get my fiancee to the airport by 9 a.m. for her flight to Florida... yes, she's going to Florida to visit her dad, while I'm stuck in this little midwestern town for the holidays! How can this be?! Aren't I supposed to be this super-jet-setting-aspiring-yoga-bum who flies all over the place to take classes with his favorite teachers? Well, I can probably explain the chain of events and choices that led to my present grounded state, but it's way more detail than I (and probably you) would want to go into. So let's just stick with talking about my practice...

So, as I was saying, practice this morning. This morning's practice was a bit lackluster, asana-wise. You may be thinking: How much more lackluster can your asana practice be, when you are already modifying most of your half-lotus poses on one side, and not doing padmasana altogether? Well, not to brag or anything, but despite the lack of padmasanas in my practice for the last month or so, I still can do some pretty cool stuff: Grabbing my heels/achilles tendons in Kapotasana, binding at my hands in Supta Kurmasana (with my legs snugly behind my head, no less), wrist bind in Pasasana, dropping back and standing back up, etc., etc.

Yeah, I know, yoga is not supposed to be about asana achievement, but you got to admit that asanas are fun. And besides, as most of you probably know, asanas come and go; despite our best efforts, shit happens, and sometimes the shit that happens results in your having to modify asanas (because of, say, a busted knee; don't even get me started on that...). So it makes a lot of sense to enjoy your asanas while you have them. Because life is unpredictable. Enjoy what there is to enjoy, suffer what there is to suffer. And do your asanas (or whatever modifications of those asanas you can do) no matter what. If this is not yoga, well, I don't know what is.

Wow, I said I was going to talk about my practice this morning. And I still haven't done so! Okay, I'll do it now. So, in practice this morning, I only got my fingers in Supta K. And while doing the standard exit from Supta K, I lost my balance while transiting from Titthibhasana to Bakasana, and nearly landed on my mouth! I still don't know exactly how this happened, but somewhere between Titthi and Baka, I found myself plunging mouth-first towards the mysore rug, and it was only a last-second intervention on the part of my arms (I somehow managed to regain my chaturanga at the very instant my mouth touched the rug) that saved me from losing my front teeth!

And to add insult to the proverbial injury, in Pasasana, I barely managed to bind my wrists on the second side. Why did all these things happen in my asana practice today? I didn't think I ate too much yesterday; although, come to think of it, my fiancee did bring home a bunch of Ferrero Rochers that the parents of a few of her kids at school (she teaches Montessori) gave her as holiday presents. Even though I do not have a sweet tooth, I nevertheless had three Rochers after dinner last night, just to show that I'm not some super-anal Ashtangi who can't even have a few sweets :-) Could it really be that having just three Rochers could affect my (again, not to brag or anything) asana prowess? I wouldn't think so... but then again, what do I know?

 Could these things really have caused me to almost lose my front teeth this morning? 
[Image taken from here]

 In any case, the fact of the matter is that I did not lose my front teeth this morning (in this universe, anyway: There could be a parallel universe in which I did not regain my chaturanga in the nick of time this morning, and am now walking around with two (or more) missing teeth. But hell, I'm sure glad I don't live in this universe...). So it's better not to brood over what could have been, especially if what could have been could have been way worse than what is. So I need to end this post with some semblance of holiday cheer. Where to find holiday cheer? Well, here's something. Most of you probably have already seen this Yoga Girls video that has been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately (believe it or not, I only just saw it this morning; seriously, who has time to keep up with every single viral video out there these days?...) It's not exactly high-brow yoga literature, but we don't need to be high-brow all the time, do we? Anyway, here it is, if you haven't already seen it; if you have seen it, well, see it again anyway.

In the meantime, I'm going to go eat more Rochers; since tomorrow is a moon day, there's no danger of falling on my mouth and losing front teeth :-) 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sharath on bandhas, teacher trainings, and my thoughts on all this

I was just reading the latest blog entry on Suzy's Mysore Blog 2011-12. Suzy relates in great detail Sharath's answers to various questions during conference in Mysore on November 27th 2011. Here are a couple of things that jumped out at me:

(1) Suzy writes: "In conference on 6th November 2011 Sharath spoke about the 3 things that are very important in asana practice – the posture, the breath and the gaze point. He explains here why he didn’t mention bandhas: because bandhas should be practised all of the time, not just in asana, but also whilst walking and sitting. When you practise like this then the body develops strength."

Bandhas should be practiced all the time... I have been thinking about this quite a bit lately, and I have identified one big block of time in my day where my bandhas are almost certainly not engaged: When I am sitting in front of the computer, doing, among other things, blogging! Isn't this ironic, blogging about Ashtanga yoga while not engaging the bandhas?

Anyway, here are a couple of questions I have about this. Are there certain postures in daily life (such as being hunched over a computer) that are inherently not conducive to bandha engagement? Or will consistent daily Ashtanga practice eventually get our bodies to the point where we can engage the bandhas at any time of the day, in any position (including being hunched over a computer)? This seems at least possible to me: After all, some asanas (Baddha Konasana B, for instance) actually require one to assume a rounded-backed seated position and engage the bandhas at the same time.

Or, to approach the same issues from a bigger perspective: Guruji famously says, "Do your practice, and all is coming." Well, in this case, does "all" mean "giving up sitting hunched in front of the computer" (or at least spending less time doing it)? Or does "all" mean acquiring the ability to both sit hunched in front of the computer and still engage the bandhas? I hope it's the latter, but what I do know? Any thoughts on this?

(2) Sharath says: "Now you can do a 200hr teacher training and get a certificate to become a yoga teacher. How is it possible? It is nonsense. Put the certificate in the dustbin. You need to dedicate yourself to yoga, you need to research many things in yourself to get the knowledge. It only comes if you have passion in you."

This is probably the clearest refutation of teacher trainings that Sharath has uttered thus far, at least to my knowledge. And I agree with the spirit of what he is saying: Svadyaya (self-study) is definitely not something that one can carry out in 200 hours, and it would be foolish to think that one can become a "yoga expert" just by having done 200 hours at some teacher training program at some studio.

But perhaps some of us may be thinking: With all due respect, Sharath, it is very easy for you to say something like this; after all, you are not the one who has to try to make a living as a yoga teacher in this crazy land of America. As many have observed, many studio owners (as well as yoga students) in this country take the letters "RYT" to be a magic stamp that magically bestows upon one the powers of a "certified yoga expert" (whatever that means). It is one thing to respect tradition and be true to one's lineage and all that, but what is one to do when having or not having the letters "RYT" after one's name can make all the difference between whether or not one succeeds in scraping together a living as a yoga teacher?

Well, even though I am no longer in the yoga business (see this post), I will be so bold as to venture to suggest a way out of this dilemma. The Bible says, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Mark 12:17) Applied to our present dilemma, this means that the good Ashtangi who yet desires to make a living as a yoga teacher in this crazy land should render to the yoga masses (i.e. studio owners and the average yoga student) the things that are theirs (i.e. do that 200 hour training, if that's what you need to get your foot in the door, so to speak). At the same time, the Ashtangi should also render to the lineage/tradition the things that are the lineage's/tradition's (i.e. accept that you are somebody who is perpetually a student on the Ashtanga path, and do not allow the "RYT" label to mislead you into thinking that you are a "teacher of Ashtanga.").

This, at any rate, is my proposal. But then again, maybe most Ashtangis out there are already doing this. Well, then I'm just stating the obvious, am I not? Oh, well...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tim Miller on Yoga Practice

I just came across this short Youtube video where Tim Miller talks about what the yoga practice is for. A couple of interesting points:

(1) At 0:30-0:34, Tim describes daily Ashtanga practice as a form of daily hygiene, like brushing your teeth or taking a shower. I cracked up when I heard this; way back in grad school, when I first started practicing yoga daily, I would often explain the place of yoga practice in my life to my friends by telling them that to me, yoga practice is as important as taking a shower: You do it everyday, you may not talk about it for the rest of the day, but it's vital and central to your life.  I don't think any of my friends understood me much at that time ("what? taking 2 hours for a shower?!"); I'm guessing they probably still don't. But it's nice to hear Tim say the same thing. Pardon me for being immodest, but great minds think alike, no? :-)

(2) At 2:00-2:20, Tim talks about how it is important that we practice with Vairagyabhyam; not to be confused with Viagra; although, come to think of it, if you have Vairagyabhyam, you may find it easier to achieve the same effect that you were trying to achieve with Viagra in the first place. But this is for another post :-) Anyway, as I was saying... Vairagyabhyam is usually translated as "non-attachment." In my opinion, non-attachment is probably the single most powerful thing that will keep one practicing for a long time. If one is not attached to the results of the practice, then, well, one just practices. And all is coming.

And while we're on the topic of Tim Miller videos, here's one from the early days of him and a few others practicing with Guruji in Encinitas. Enjoy!


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Totally Useless Information: Sex Injuries (and their resemblance to another category of injuries)

Here's a piece of totally-useless-but-nonetheless-interesting information that I came across just a few minutes ago while trolling the web for, well, useless information. Let me begin by giving you a little quiz. Which popular activity produces, in order of frequency of occurrence, the following injuries?

1. Pulled muscle
2. Injured back
3. Carpet burns
4. Cricked neck
5. Bashed elbows/knees

If your answer is "yoga", well... you're wrong. The correct answer is: Sex. (see this article for the full details.) Isn't it interesting, though, how closely sex injuries resemble yoga injuries (with the exception of carpet burns, of course; but now I wonder, might it also be possible to get "yoga mat/mysore rug burns" from doing too much yoga? :-))? I wonder what this says about the nature of yoga practice? Or the nature of sex?    

Book Idea: 21 Strange Things Ashtangis Say to One Another, and a few random backbend musings

Earlier today, I read with great interest Claudia's latest post about her Revelation Back-Bend Moment, and the comments to that post. Congratulations, Claudia, on finally feeling your inner thighs!

Btw, has it ever occurred to you what strange things we Ashtangis congratulate each other on? I mean, can you imagine what kind of reactions we would get from somebody who just happened to be listening in on "everyday Ashtanga conversation" in a public place? ("Hmm... what's there to congratulate about feeling your own inner thighs...?")

Actually, if you think about it a little more, you will realize that Ashtangis frequently say things to one another that will sound outright weird, maybe even a little risque, to somebody who is not in the Ashtanga "cult". Here's another example: One day, you run into a shala-mate on the street. This is the first time you have seen her outside the shala. And you say, "Wow, this is the first time I have seen you with clothes on!" Can you imagine the heads that will turn in a public place upon hearing this line? I think somebody needs to publish a collection of such conversations among Ashtangis: Conversations that would seem perfectly normal within the context of Ashtanga, but would be totally weird in any other setting. Perhaps such a book can be titled "21 Strange Things Ashtangis Say to One Another." I think this will sell like hot cakes. See, here's another way to make money in the Ashtanga world :-)

But all this is a big digression (I seem to be digressing a lot recently). I meant to write about backbends. So, let's get on topic. Claudia's post reminds me that backbends are a very powerful tool for getting to know one's own body better. I recently blogged about how I was recently able to find that elusive spot in my mid-back that needs to open. Along with that, I also discovered that hanging back with straight legs first rather than just dropping back right away has the effect of enabling me to feel my thighs and psoas more and engage them more in the action of backbending. In these ways, I feel that backbends are quite magical; they transform bodily knowledge that was previously only theoretical (in the sense that we theoretically know that we have inner thighs and mid-backs and psoases) into actual experiential knowledge: It is one thing to know theoretically that you have a mid-back or inner thighs, or even to be able to point them out on an anatomical diagram. It is quite another to be able to feel them working in their full intensity in your own body. Again, as Guruji would say: Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory.        

Monday, December 19, 2011

Devotional gymnastic assholes

Practice this morning was great. Still modifying most of my half-lotus postures, except Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana and Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana; the idea is to work on getting into these postures slowly, taking as much time and as many breaths as are needed, and try to move into them by using the external rotators and the adductors rather than just muscling into them; the general idea is to initiate the action from the hips/core rather than from the knee. I figured that if I can teach my body how to get into these first two half-lotus postures effectively and safely, I can then apply the same lessons to all the other half-lotus and lotus postures in primary and second. This approach seems promising so far. I'll write more about this as things develop.  

On the backbend front, there are some interesting developments. Over the last week or so, as I bring my mind's eye to focus more on opening in the mid-back, I have been able to get deeper into Kapotasana. This morning, I managed to grab that area where the Achilles Tendon ends and the calve begins on both legs (is there a name for this part of the lower leg?).

That's the thing about asana practice sometimes; you "lose" something, but "get" something and "progress" in another area. Interesting, don't you think?

But there is really no such thing as a bad practice in Ashtanga. We have a tendency to judge and differentiate between "good" practice days and "bad" practice days. "Good" days are commonly thought of as days on which the practice flows smoothly and seamlessly, when one's breaths and movements are (relatively) smooth and unencumbered, and one's mind is not full of "monkey thoughts". "Bad" days are, well, everything that good days are not. But in the bigger scheme of things, even so-called "bad" days are actually good days. I think Guruji once said, "The only bad practice is no practice." In his latest post, Patrick expresses this very nicely when he writes:

"And in this way, devotional practice is regular practice, because there's nothing to gain or lose. I still get sore (annamaya) but it's the energy management (pranamaya; and with it, hints of emotional management) that really happens. Annamaya contains, runs with, alongside, pranamaya, and it's more and more, now emotional energy that is cracked out of fascia, anger at my household situation, mourning about my father earlier this year, anxiety about the holiday travel with my family's chronic weird communication and suburbanity, other things. Practice is not ABOUT these things, but I am about these things, and I learn this in practice. I see my own noise better. I hear the jam band that is my emotional/physical/energetic state, over the bass note of practice's equanimity."


"I see my own noise better"... I like that. Do we become better people when we are able to see our own noises better? I think the answer is yes, according to the Official Yoga Party Line. If you are able to see your own noises better, you will be able to achieve a certain level of detachment/distance/separation from your own noises, and you will then be able to make more conscious, "yogic" decisions, rather than simply react to those noises. Problem solved. 

Several years ago, at an asana intensive, Nicki Doane approached what I think is the same point from a slightly different direction. She said something to this effect, "If one has a beautiful asana practice, but is an asshole off the mat, then one is merely doing gymnastics."

I suppose one way to respond to Nicki's words might be, "Well, what's wrong with doing gymnastics? It's at least good to look at, if nothing else. Think about it: Any asshole can be an asshole, but it takes something to be a gymnastic asshole..." But of course, being the nice Asian guy that I was (and hopefully, still am), it did not occur to me at that time to muster such a comeback. Sidenote: I will seriously pay a lot of money to see the expression on Nicki's face if somebody were to muster such a comeback. If you are planning on doing this soon, please let me know :-)

Hmm... that wasn't very nice, Nobel. I wonder what's wrong with me today; I've been in a rather subversive mood the whole day. But anyway, I guess what I was trying to say (before I got sucked into that subversive digression) is that according to the Official Yoga Party Line, what Nicki is implying is that if one hopes to get more out of the asana practice than mere gymnastics, one needs to do something more with the asana practice than simply strive for physical perfection. Or, as Kino would say, one must "make the transition from a fitness oriented approach to yoga into a devotional one."

Sounds good. But maybe things aren't that simple... What do I mean? Well, in the course of making that transition to a devotional approach to the practice, one often has to radically change one's lifestyle habits and schedule. These changes do not just affect oneself: They also affect people close to oneself. For instance, your significant other may start noticing that you are no longer willing to stay up late to, say, watch movies or hang out or partake in other, uh, more intimate activities. Or you may start turning down perfectly legitimate requests from your friends to help them out with certain things at certain hours of the day, because you either have decided to set aside those hours for practice, or you have decided that you need to be getting certain of your own stuff done by a certain time if you are to get to bed by a certain hour so that you can get up and do your practice at a certain hour tomorrow. (How do I know about all these things, you may ask?...)

And might it not be possible that the friends and loved one/s you have turned down in the course of this transition might see you as an asshole for being this way? Oh well, maybe you don't have this problem. Good, good... But what if you are one of these unfortunate souls who do face this kind of dilemma?

On one level, it is probably things like this that have rightly or wrongly earned Ashtangis the reputation of being uptight/anal/dogmatic/judgmental/whatever type A personalities. So, one solution is obviously to "let go", "get a life', and don't be so uptight/anal/dogmatic/judgmental/whatever. Well, okay, but I can't help feeling that one can only "let go" so much before one throws out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (sorry, can't find a less violent metaphor...).

Anyway, I think this is becoming one of those posts where I'm not quite sure where I'm going, or how I'm going to end. So I may as well end now, while I'm still semi-lucid. But I guess you can see that there is some kind of a paradox here, which is something like this: In the course of trying to move towards a devotional approach to the practice (which would, if everything goes according to plan, make one less of an asshole), one becomes the asshole that one is trying not to become. Interesting, don't you think?   

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Pianist: A little movie review

Last night, I saw the movie The Pianist. The movie is based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist and composer who lived through the German occupation of Poland during World War II. Based on Szpilman's memoir of the same name, The Pianist portrays Szpilman's courage and resilience in surviving the holocaust, and vividly depicts how his love of music helped see him through this dark period of humanity.

The following is probably the best scene in the entire movie. Hiding in a deserted building, Szpilman (played by Adrien Brody) was discovered by a German officer. When the officer discovers that Szpilman was a pianist, he asks him to play something on the piano for him. Szpilman does so, and the officer was so moved by his playing that he spared his life, and even went on to help him survive the rest of the war by allowing him to hide in the attic of the building and giving him food regularly. Gee, talk about being able to play to save one's life...

And this is Szpilman himself, playing Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Minor:

Friday, December 16, 2011

Pain, by Kahlil Gibran

[Image taken from here]

Your pain is the breaking of the shell
that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break,that its
heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

And could you keep your heart in wonder
at the daily miracles of your life, your pain
would not seem less wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept the seasons of your
heart, even as you have always accepted
the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity
through the winters of your grief.

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

It is the bitter potion by which the
physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink
his remedy in silence and tranquillity:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided
by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter
has moistened with His own sacred tears.

- Kahlil Gibran

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The psychology of injury in Ashtanga: Some thoughts

I just watched the above video by Kiki, in which she talks about some useful ways to modify the practice to work with and help to heal wrist injury.  If you are working with injuries or other issues in the wrists, you might find this useful.

Not being a very experienced practitioner, I don't have any specific anatomy or posture tips to offer for practicing with injuries. What I would like to do instead is to say a few things about the psychology of injury in yoga, specifically Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. A lot has been written about the common injuries that Ashtangis have sustained in the course of practice, and how to go about treating those injuries and/or modifying one's practice to work with those injuries. All this is valuable and useful information, of course. But I have noticed that very little has been written about what I call the psychology of injury, i.e. the mindsets and attitudes that Ashtangis with injuries tend to adopt. I'm not talking about the mindsets and attitudes that lead to injury: We are more or less familiar with this (ego, pushing too far beyond one's limits, neglecting to listen to certain signs from the body, etc, etc.). What I am interested in talking about are the mindsets and attitudes that Ashtangis tend to have when they have an injury. I have noticed that very little has been written about this area. I'm not sure why this is. But I personally think this is an important area to discuss and think about. After all, according to yogic philosophy, the mind and the body are ultimately one entity. If this is so, then what goes on in the mind inevitably manifests in the body. This being the case, it seems to me that the sort of attitude or mindset one adopts when one is working with an injury will have a direct impact on how effectively one heals from the injury.

Since I hurt my knee more than a month ago, I have had the good fortune of communicating with a few Ashtanga teachers who have worked with injuries at one time or another in their practice careers. They have offered me a lot of helpful advice and specific suggestions. Through my discussions with them, I have noticed that Ashtangis who sustain injuries in the course of their practice tend to adopt one of two attitudes towards their injury:

(A) The Badge of Glory Attitude: As the name suggests, Ashtangis who adopt such an attitude display their injuries almost proudly, as signs that they are super-dedicated or devoted to the practice; so dedicated that they quite literally sacrifice their bodies to the practice. I must admit that while I have heard lots of stories about such Ashtangis, I have never actually personally met such an Ashtangi. Maybe they don't exist anymore. I don't know. But if the stories I hear are reliable, then such Ashtangis have at least existed at one time or another.

(B) Shame/Embarrassment: Quite a few Ashtangis are either reluctant to talk to others about their injury, or keep their injuries secret altogether, because they feel shame and/or are embarrassed about their injury. Why are they ashamed or embarrassed? According to one of the teachers I communicated with, this may be because they are embarrassed about being seen as "not evolved enough" to be able to practice without sustaining injuries. Perhaps they are also embarrassed/ashamed about adding to Ashtanga's bad rep: They are embarrassed/ashamed about becoming another example of why Ashtanga is a dangerous/injury-inducing practice ("What? You busted your knee/shoulders/broke your back doing Ashtanga? See, I told you this is a dangerous style of yoga to practice, but you wouldn't listen, etc., etc."). I can personally attest to the presence of such attitudes of shame/embarrassment among Ashtangis: I struggle with these feelings myself.

As you probably figured, neither (A) nor (B) is a productive or healthy attitude to have towards injuries. (A) causes one to not listen to one's body during practice, and to do things that might well lead to more injury in the future. It may also give people the impression that Ashtangis are supposed to have a gung-ho attitude towards injury ("If you're not breaking your leg, you're not working hard enough!"), and may either lead people new to the practice to do things that are harmful to themselves, or turn people away from Ashtanga altogether.

(B) is not a productive attitude to have either. If one is embarrassed and reluctant to talk about one's injuries, one might end up suffering in silence, making what is already a difficult experience more unnecessarily difficult. It is also harder for such an individual to seek help. Perhaps more importantly, injury can be a valuable learning experience both for the individual and for others who may benefit from hearing about experiences of injury healing. If one does not talk about injury out of shame or embarrassment, one deprives oneself and others of a valuable learning experience.

Please don't get me wrong: I am not saying all this to chastise or single out people who choose not to speak about their injuries. I'm not trying to start any kind of "Let's Talk about Injury Until the Cows Come Home Movement". Nor am I trying to start any kind of witch-hunt, or anything like that. Your body and mind (and mouth) are yours and yours alone, and it is totally up to the individual to decide what is the best course of action to take. I am just observing, based on my own experience, that neither (A) nor (B) are productive attitudes to have, because both of them ultimately do no good to either the practitioner or to others around him or her.

What, then, might be a more productive attitude to adopt towards injury? Here's a suggestion:

(C) Acceptance of injury as part of the process leading towards wholeness: One of the teachers that I communicated with was able to use the asana practice to heal a knee injury over a couple of years of careful and patient practice. He shared the following with me:

"It was a long process that took a lot of awareness and had many ups and downs.  The challenge for me was that as it started to feel better, I would inevitably begin to push beyond my limits and suffer a setback.  The pain can be a real indicator that wakes up awareness of an area.  So, much of my work was first and foremost in the area of awareness.  I had to learn not only how to be aware of my limits, but to discern the different muscles, tendons, and other tissues that were at play in a certain movement.  For me it was anything involving a half lotus.

In my case, I had to specifically learn how to stretch and lengthen the adductor group and the quadricep group in these poses while engaging the hip flexors.  It was just a gradual process of learning to discern what to engage and what to stretch and doing my best not to confuse the two.  Over the course of a couple of years, it was like going from blind to sighted with regards to that particular part of my body...  It was a real lesson in listening to my body.  What I didn't do was to skip poses.  I would instead allow as long as I needed to get into poses, and modify if necessary or not go as deep as I was used to going...

This, in my opinion was key to my recovery since it allowed me to address the underlying imbalance (short adductors and quadriceps) that I believe caused the injury in the first place.  This approach is not for everyone, and it took a lot of time and patience.  I often times doubted my process and had fear and anxiety around it, but it was faith in guruji's advice that kept me going.  I don't believe there should be any shame in injury or getting surgery.  These pains and injuries that come up are part of a much larger process leading towards wholeness.  I believe that these imbalances live in our body and cause tremendous suffering either consciously or unconsciously by the ways in which they limit our life experience.  It would be nice if we were tuned in enough to move towards harmony and balance without the injuries and pain, but at least in my case, I have had to learn the hard way periodically.  However,  I am always grateful for the chance to grow and learn and I believe that I am better off having addressed these imbalances."

Before I go on, I should issue a little disclaimer here: I included a lot of details that are specific to this particular teacher's injury-healing process, because I feel that these details are needed in order to convey the depth of his process. However, I must emphasize that none of the above is intended to be any kind of medical advice and/or specific advice on how to practice. As the teacher himself stated above, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to practice issues: This is especially true when one is working with injury. Please be advised accordingly.     

Having said this, I think the gist of this teacher's account lies in the insight that injury and pain are necessary parts of the journey of practice for many people (including yours truly). If one happens to be one of the fortunate practitioners who never have to work with pain and injury through the course of the practice journey, that's great (such a person would probably have to be somebody who has practiced yoga for many lifetimes before this one). But if you are, ahem, a mere mortal like me, take heart: Injury is not the end of the world, or the end of your practice. It is, in many ways, a new beginning.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Backbends, moving from the center, asana practice as artistic interpretation

In the last couple of weeks, I have been devoting more attention to backbends in my daily practice. In particular, I have been working on opening the front body more in dropbacks. For the longest time, whenever I get to the dropbacks, my mind always consciously or unconsciously says to itself, "Ah, dropbacks! Last set of intense poses before the sweet release of the finishing sequence. Quickly do the dropbacks and standups, and get them over with!" As a result of this way of thinking, I always had the tendency to kind of just rush through dropping back and standing up, with the result that they are usually kind of sloppy. 

In the last couple of weeks, however, instead of simply rushing through the dropbacks and trying to get them over with, I have been spending more quality time with them, by doing more with less: Less dropping all the way to the ground, and more hanging back and opening. Instead of just ritualistically dropping all the way to the ground and coming back up three times, I have been doing three hangbacks and then only dropping back all the way to the ground on the fourth and final time, walking my hands to touch (and hopefully, one hand, grab) my heels. This is what Kino does at the mysore sessions at her workshops. It's a good way of building strength and flexibility in the front body, especially in the psoas and in the quads, especially if you keep your knees extended (or as extended as possible) the whole time. Keeping the knees extended (or as extended as you can make them) has the effect of really getting the backbend into the quads and the psoas.

Seen from the outside, hanging back instead of dropping back may look less intense, and it may look like one is doing less work. But looks are deceiving: By engaging the psoas and the quads and opening the front body more, one is actually moving more intently from the center than if one were to simply drop back for the sake of dropping back. This brings to mind something David Garrigues wrote a couple of months ago:

"Generally speaking in our daily practice we can get sucked in by the lure of our fantasy about the forms of the asanas in sequences... In our fantasy of what we will look like and how good it will feel we overextend ourselves in our efforts to achieve what we consider to be the end goal or final pose. Our excursions take us too far away from the center where the skeletal support is, where our breath really does lead the way– where we make optimal use of our muscles and organs and where our brains are situated properly to minimize reality obscuring ego striving.

For example, to go for a drop back and be unheeding of the position of the skeleton in order to get your hands to the floor is a long term mistake. In the short term there might be a thrill, a sense of accomplishment and a sense of maximizing progress. a feeling like you are working at the edge so you will improve and be an intense student... How strict are you going to be? How close to center are you going to stay? How many props (please note: only if necessary and desired and under certain, specific conditions) are you willing to use to remain close to center, close to principles?—We want to explore the foundational principles of the positions and see how those principles will always lead back to that central asana that has so many important names—but actually is unnameable—"

David's words here are priceless: Definitely something to constantly ponder and come back to.


On a slightly different note, it has recently occurred to me that asana practice has many similarities to artistic interpretation. Just as the same piece of music played by two different musicians can give rise to two different works of art, no two individuals will ever realize the same asana in the exact same way. For instance, Urdhva Dhanurasana expressed in my body will never be the same as Urdhva Dhanurasana expressed in your body.

Actually, this difference in interpretation also shows up in the way different yogis assimilate the same yogic insight. Take for instance, David's words above about moving from the center. Two different yogis may both perfectly understand these words. Yet they will both apply these words differently to their own bodies, and adapt them to fit the needs of their minds and bodies in order to make these words work for their bodies. The first yogi may have longer psoas and quad muscles, and may be able to go deeper into the posture, or even drop back all the way to the ground right away and still move from the center. The second yogi, by contrast, may have tighter psoas and quad muscles, and may need to not drop back all the way in order to work more from the center. In this way, we can say that the two bodies "interpret" the words differently. Indeed, this interpretation difference is necessary in order for the asana practice to be fruitful and productive for each individual.     

Just my two cents', as always. :-)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The business of yoga, and my (non)place in it

Earlier today, I received an email from the owner of the yoga studio at which I have been teaching Ashtanga for a couple of months (wow, it's been a couple of months already? Time flies when one is having fun, doesn't it? :-)) The email was sent to the few of us who teach yoga classes at the studio. She informs us that starting December 31st, she will no longer be leasing the studio, because the class numbers thus far have not been enough to support the cost of leasing the space. Since she did not specify any further plans to relocate/find a new place to house the studio, I take the email to be a euphemistic way of saying that she is closing down the studio. So starting from December 31st, I will once again no longer officially be a yoga teacher, and will be devoting more time to my practice and self-healing. Which is good for me personally.

Nevertheless, as I was contemplating this development earlier today, I couldn't help noticing how there always seems to be a certain disconnect between yoga as a personal practice of self-realization/self-care, and yoga as a business. For the last couple of months, there have never been more than three people showing up for my class on any one evening. In fact, most of the time, it's one or two individuals. But these one or two individuals show up almost every week; which means that the practice (or at least the way I teach it) speaks to them enough to get them to keep coming back. In my opinion, I feel that this is a success. When I first taught yoga years ago in grad school, I was constantly preoccupied with how many people showed up for my classes. But since I became an Ashtangi, I had decided that if I were ever to teach again, I would try to stick as closely to the Ashtanga method as possible, no matter how many or how few people show up. Thus, I feel that if I can get even one person to appreciate the method and make it a part of his or her life, I would have succeeded. And I have.

But of course, things do not work this way from a business point of view. From a business point of view, there are real financial concerns to address. From such a point of view, a yoga studio is worth running only if its operations can generate enough revenue to cover the overhead costs. And the main way for a yoga studio to generate said revenue is through students (unless, of course, the studio chooses to do something lucrative in addition to its regular classes; something like, say, a Yoga Alliance sanctioned Teacher Training. But let's not go there now, okay? :-)). Anyway, what all this means is that if a yoga class does not bring in enough students, it is not a success, from a business point of view.

Some of you seasoned teachers who are reading this are probably thinking: Duh! All this is so obvious! How can we survive and pay the bills if we don't have enough students?! What planet do you live on, Nobel? (Answer: Maybe I'm from Mars. My skin seems to be turning redder by the second as I write this...) And of course, I totally anticipate and understand this reaction on your part. All I can say is: Gosh, I'm glad I don't teach yoga for a living. I'm glad it's "only" a practice for me. To all of you yoga teachers out there, you have my most sincere respect. I take my hat off to you.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

If yoga is not a religion, why are so many religious types freaking out about it?

The above video by Kiki has been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately. Kiki responds to recent claims by a former Vatican exorcist that practicing yoga is Satanic. I think that Kiki makes some very insightful points here, and I'll like to use them as a launching point to think a little more about these issues. 

Is yoga a religion? First, I'd say it depends on how one defines "religion." If one defines "religion" very broadly to include any set of basic beliefs that any individual can use to guide his or her life, then yoga is a religion, insofar as many yogis do use the yoga practice and the ethical precepts of yoga as basic guides with which to conduct their lives. But by this definition, many other things that we do not normally consider to be religion would also qualify as religion. For instance, if I believe that making a lot of money is the most important thing in life to the exclusion of everything else, then we might say that money-making is my religion, in this sense. Or, to use another example, if I passionately believe that football is the most important thing in life, to the extent that I believe that my life wouldn't be worth living if I miss Monday night football, so that I arrange everything in my life around Monday night football, then one might also say that football is my religion.  

But I'm sure that the people who claim that yoga is a religion (and a Satanic one, at that) do not mean religion in such a broad sense. For these people--and, I suspect, for most people--for something to be a religion is for it to have a certain public organized aspect: In order for a religion to be a religion, it must espouse a publicly proclaimed set of beliefs involving adherence to a specific power or agency beyond the physical. It must also have an organized hierarchy, which typically involves some type of clergy, or at least some kind of formal organizational structure with a clear chain of command.

Yoga, as many of us know, does not fit this narrower, organized sense of "religion." Ishvara Pranidhana, the fifth of the niyamas, does prescribe some kind of surrender to a power greater than oneself, but it does not specify exactly what that power is. All it says is that some form of acknowledgement and devotion to something greater than oneself is needed if one's practice is not to degenerate into an ego-building exercise. Ishvara Pranidhana does not specify exactly what that greater power must be, leaving the practitioner free to practice yoga in tandem with his or her existing religious beliefs. Since yoga, unlike religion in the organized sense, does not specify the higher power or agency that one must surrender to, it is quite possible for one to simultaneously be a practicing yogi and be a practicing Protestant Christian/Catholic/Buddhist/Hindu/Jew/adherent-of-whatever-other-organized-religion-is-out-there.

So yoga is not a religion; at least not in the organized sense. In fact, if everything I said above is true, if somebody were to come into the yoga practice with a pre-existing religion, Ishvara Pranidhana would probably help that person cultivate the traits that would enable him or her to become a more effective practitioner of his or her pre-existing religion. So at least in principle, it looks like we should have a win-win situation: Somebody takes up yoga, enjoys the yoga practice, and becomes a better practitioner of his or her religion at the same time. Problem solved, right?

Well... maybe. If the problem is simply that the people who believe that yoga is a Satanic devil-worshipping religion believe this because of sheer ignorance or misinformation about the nature of yoga, then we can easily solve the problem by simply educating these people; perhaps we can get all these people to read this blog (and then my stats will shoot through the roof overnight, and I will finally get closer to my life-long dream of becoming a yoga bum ;-)).

But something tells me that the problem is not that simple. I mean, think about it: If a nobody like me can know about all the things that I just wrote above, why should we think that all the religious leaders who spout such anti-yoga propaganda are genuinely ignorant about what yoga really is? To be sure, some of them may be genuinely ignorant (if so, direct them to my blog: I will happily enlighten them, free them from the bounds of conditioned existence, and, in the process, make them better practitioners of the religions they profess to lead :-)).

But what if--just what if--at least some of these religious leaders actually know the truth about yoga? After all, it is not inconceivable that at least some of these religious leaders may have at one time or another "infiltrated" a yoga class in order to find out just what this whole yoga thing is about. Sidenote: Yoga teachers beware: You never know whether that over-eager brand-new student in the front of the room may actually be a "religious spy" sent over from some big religious organization/mega-church... hmm... actually, this may make for a great future post: 32 Tell-tale Signs That Somebody in your Yoga Class is Actually a Religious Spy :-) Maybe Claudia should write this post one day. She's good at these "32" posts.

But I digress. What I'm trying to say is, it is quite possible that at least some of these anti-yoga-propaganda-spouting religious types know the truth about yoga: That it is not a religion in the organized sense, but is really a set of bodily and spiritual practices whose goal is to, in Kiki's words, enable us to "have a calm, clear collected mind so that we are able to view the world around us with a sense of objectivity, rather than looking on the world, and be subjected to all of our psychological and emotional colors."

But if these people know the truth about yoga, and know that yoga is not an organized religion that is out to "compete" with them for followers, then why are they still spouting all this propaganda? Why are they still threatened? I think the answer is quite clear if we think about Kiki's words again. Yoga, as Kiki says, enables us to "have a calm, clear collected mind so that we are able to view the world around us with a sense of objectivity, rather than... be subjected to all of our psychological and emotional colors." Having a calm, clear collected mind and viewing the world objectively enables us to function more effectively as human beings in the world, allowing us to see everything in our lives in a wholesome perspective. This includes the religious beliefs and worldviews that we have held up to this point. When we can see our religious beliefs and worldviews from this vantage point of objectivity, we are able to see which of these beliefs work for us and enable us to live fulfilling lives, and which do not. We will then naturally keep those beliefs which work, and discard those which do not. In so doing, we come to realize that religion should exist (if it should exist at all) to serve individual human beings and further the human condition, not the other way around. It is in this way that yoga makes us better and more effective practitioners of our previously-existing religions. As such, the purpose of yoga, as I understand it, is not to supplant religious belief. Indeed, taken in its best sense, yoga enriches and gives renewed meaning to the religious impulse which seeks to make sense and meaning of human finitude in the face of a seemingly meaningless cosmos.

But could it be that these religious leaders do not want any of this to happen? Could it be that the last thing they want is for their followers to have a calm, collected mind which enables them to see the world (and them) objectively? Could it be that they would rather keep their followers in the throes of their own psychological and emotional colors, so that they can use these colors against them, and continue to manipulate them from a place of fear and control? After all, if everyone were to see the world objectively, everyone would see that there is no reason to believe that there is any sky-cake or sky-baklava or sky-anything. Oh, wait: I forgot that you may not have seen the Patton Oswalt standup skit below. Well, in this case, I guess I'll end my post with a video, since I started with one. Enjoy!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Is it possible to compartmentalize Ashtanga in one's own life?

I just read Kino's latest article on her blog. She writes:

"One other crucial shift must happen in order to facilitate the transition into full immersion in the yoga tradition. You must make the transition from a fitness oriented approach to yoga into a devotional one. By getting this subtle shift you will gain consistency and regularity in the way that you do your practice. A daily spiritual ritual where you take time to connect internally to a deep sense of yourself requires dedication. The requirement to practice six days a week is meant to develop the kind of mental, spiritual and devotional determination needed in order make progress along the internal path of yoga. If yoga is meant to be a life long commitment to inner peace it behooves yoga practitioners to practice as much as they can. If you only practice when it is convenient or when you feel good then yoga is more of a hobby then a lifestyle. But sincere spiritual practice has never been a leisurely activity if it is to produce the results of awakening. True spiritual practice is an unbroken commitment to do everything it takes to see the deepest truth there is. It is not something you can choose to look at only on Monday and Wednesday for an hour and pretend it does not exist for the rest of the week."

There is a lot of stuff to chew on in this very insightfully written paragraph. To begin with, Kino talks about the subtle shift that occurs in the practitioner from a fitness-oriented approach to a devotional approach towards the practice, and how making this shift is necessary if the practitioner is to stick with the practice for the long haul and make genuine progress along the internal path of yoga.

My teacher in Milwaukee has also expressed the same point. He used to say that Ashtanga is not the kind of yoga that one can "dabble in": One either gets totally seriously immersed in it and allows the practice to transform one, or one eventually lets go of the practice and moves on to something else. From my own personal experience, I feel that this is very true. Even if one initially approaches the practice from a purely physical fitness point of view, as one does the practice over a period of time, one is bound to encounter obstacles. These can range from purely physical obstacles like injuries or limitations that cause one to get stuck at a certain posture for a prolonged period of time, to psychological obstacles caused by changes in one's personal life. I think that when one encounters such obstacles, one inevitably asks oneself: Why am I doing this practice, if it isn't as enjoyable as it used to be? Depending on how one answers this question, one will either stick with the practice or move on to something else.

But nevertheless, I sometimes find myself wondering: Is it possible for one to be a lifelong/long-term Ashtanga dabbler? Is it possible that there may be people out there who decide that they are only going to go for certain physical aspects of the practice, and maybe restrict their practice to only, say, two or three times a week? What do they do the rest of the time? Well, they don't exactly pretend that Ashtanga doesn't exist during that time. They just, well, do other things, i.e. engage in other activities (run, play tennis, eat lots of not-very-healthy food, drink like fishes, have lots of sex... the list goes on.). And then when it comes time for that twice- or thrice-weekly Ashtanga class, they go to Ashtanga class. And then they go back to running or playing tennis or eating lots of not-very-healthy food or drinking like fishes or having lots of sex. And so on. 

Anyway, I guess my question is: Is it possible to compartmentalize Ashtanga in one's life in this way, in much the same way in which many people compartmentalize work, family, exercise, etc, and treat those things as particular "parts" of their lives? My own personal answer is no (as you probably figured); for me at least, the practice is such that it permeates many areas of (actually, probably all of) my life at the same time, whether I like it or not. But I often wonder if this is just me; for all I know, there might be people out there who have "successfully" kept this Ashtanga thing out of the rest of their lives. And there's probably nothing wrong with that: When all is said and done, it is your practice, and you alone must decide what kind of a relationship the practice should have to the rest of your life. But if Kino is right, then it seems that in the long run, one can only compartmentalize Ashtanga (assuming this is possible, of course) at the price of not making Ashtanga a genuine spiritual practice. After all, as I understand it, one common motivation for compartmentalizing anything is to locate it within a convenient, neat place within one's existing lifestyle, so that it fits nicely into a particular slot within this lifestyle, enabling one to do that thing at one's own leisure. But real spiritual practice, as many of us know, is like life: It is often very messy and complicated, and cannot be fitted into any nice categories. At least, this is my opinion: Many may disagree.

So where does all this leave me? Well, I'm not sure. This seems to be one of those posts where I just keep going on and on and on, and suddenly find myself running out of things to say :-) So maybe I'll leave you with this question: Do you think it is possible to compartmentalize the Ashtanga practice? I'll love to hear from you, as always.    

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why I enjoy my yoga practice now, even though it's so much harder

Earlier today, I read Pakistani Ashtangi's latest post, in which she ponders the questions, "Do I enjoy yoga? Why do I do it?"

Her post really speaks to me: Without being totally conscious of it, I have also recently been asking myself the same questions, particularly after I injured my left knee. There have never been any dramatic moments (I'm generally not the sort to engage in theatrics). But as anybody who has ever worked around an injury in the practice will probably agree, injury presents the practitioner with challenges on two levels:

(I) Pain and limitations on the physical level: There are clear physical limitations (in terms of postures to be modified or even avoided for the time being) on the practice imposed by the injury. Even many postures that are "kosher" to do probably will be accompanied by a certain level of discomfort.

(II) Pain and limitations on the mental/ego level: Along with physical limitations come the effect of these limitations on the ego. The ego always wants to go further than is physically safe (at least mine does); it always thinks it can somehow enable the body to get away with doing this or that inappropriate modification or posture just this once without aggravating the injury. And (at least in my case; I can't speak for anybody else) a big part of the practice then becomes this process of wrangling with the ego and not letting it have its way. In my particular case, it also doesn't help that I probably have a higher pain threshold than many other people. Which means that it is possible for my ego to override even pain where other egos would have just backed off.

I will even come right out and confess that dealing with (II) has been by far the more challenging part of my practice journey over the last month or so than (I).

I wonder if all this is more information than you want to know :-) In any case, over the past month or so, I have found myself asking myself on more than one occasion: Why am I still doing the practice? Why am I practicing, if it seems like only one of two things can come out of the practice on any given day: (1) I listen to my ego, and hurt myself more/take longer to recover (bad), (2) I don't listen to my ego, which crushes my ego (also bad, since as much as I like to be able to say that the ego is not a part of me... well, it is.).

Given (1) or (2), it seems to me that any sane person would probably just say, "Why don't you just take a break from practice, and get more sleep?" There is, of course, an obvious answer to this question. As studies in sports medicine have shown, except in cases where one is so severely injured that one can't move, total bed rest is in some ways just as risky as pushing through pain and injury. After a period of bed rest, the body becomes de-conditioned and thus, more injury-prone. So it is actually healthier both physically and psychologically to practice around an injury than to not practice at all. 

But while this answer makes a lot of sense from a medical point of view, I feel that it still misses some important thing that is really motivating my daily practice. I feel that this answer somehow fails to capture that missing something which gets me on my mat every morning despite my physical limitations. And I think PakistaniAshtangi's post goes a big part of the way to capture what is in my mind. She writes:

"I really enjoy the way it makes me feel, physically and mentally, after practice. Often even during, now that I think about it. Interestingly, and with the risk of getting into over-share territory here, I’ve even had times in Savasana when I was struck by the similarity of that feeling to that of post-orgasm – which says something about how intensely the practice sometimes affects me, physically. There’s a thorough feeling of well being after practice that I don’t quite get from any other physical exertion that I’ve tried. And I think that that physical state is deeply connected to the mental calmness one gets after practice too – it’s like I’ve been run in the washing machine, spun vigorously in there to get the last dirty water out, then shaken out powerfully (like my mum used to do it, snap SNAP!) to straighten out the wrinkles, and hung up to dry all relaxed and content in the bright sunshine. I don’t think I could get one without the other."

The practice definitely gives me a powerful feeling of groundedness and well-being that no other physical exertion (or non-exertion) can offer. In my case, I would also like to add that there is an ironic way in which my injury actually adds to the feeling of groundedness. I think B.K.S. Iyengar says somewhere that asana practice is an inward-looking practice, because the very process of paying attention to one's body and what it is going through takes one's mind away from whatever else might distract it, and grounds it radically in the present moment. I think this is all the more true when one has to work around an injury: How can it not be, if the difference between attention and inattention at any moment might mean the difference between excruciating pain (and more injury) and a productive, healing experience? To practice around an injury is, in this sense, to practice on a knife edge. But the knife edge can also be a gift, since it forces one to pay more attention than one otherwise would have.

Well, thank you for listening in on this monologue. I should probably end this post with a disclaimer: I am not glorifying injury. There are many ways to find this knife edge of mindful awareness, injury being probably the least desirable one.