Thursday, March 31, 2011

Confessions of a yoga groupie

This morning, I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana. I had to crank up the heat in my apartment a little higher today (up to 75 degrees fahrenheit); it was quite cold this morning, as it snowed all last night. Seriously... it's still snowing on March 31st? Some wise guy once said that winter always turns to spring... well, he forgot to add that sometimes it takes longer.

Practice this morning was surprisingly good, despite (1) the fact that I had to stay up late last night to pack for my Richmond trip, (2) I had to practice on a green Gaiam mat, as I had already packed my mysore rug in my suitcase. The higher heat level in the apartment probably helped. The pace of practice was faster this morning, and I felt warmer, stronger and more flexible. Kapotasana felt a little easier than usual.

After practice, I showered and went down to the coffeeshop in my apartment complex for a quick espresso before going to campus. The barista saw me carrying the green Gaiam mat. She asked me if I was going to a yoga class. I said, "Well, kind of. After school today, I'm going down to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I will catch a flight early tomorrow morning to Virginia to take a yoga workshop." I realized immediately that none of this was making any sense to her, because she had this really baffled look on her face. "What kind of a madman flies to the other end of the country just to take a yoga class?" She must be thinking.

This was when I realized that some kind of special explanation was needed. And then, a light bulb came on in my head. I said, "I have a favorite yoga teacher. She is teaching a workshop in Richmond, Virginia this weekend, and I am attending it. You see, I'm basically a yoga groupie; when I'm not working, I fly around the country taking workshops with my favorite yoga teachers." This explanation did the trick; I had barely finished when a look of understanding mingled with admiration and awe (and, perhaps, also a little envy at my jet-setting lifestyle) lit up her face.

And then she told me that she had been thinking of starting yoga, but has back issues, and is intimidated by all those power yoga classes. I suddenly remembered this local yoga teacher I had run into at that same coffeeshop the other day; she was just starting to teach classes in the area, and was struggling to get people to attend her classes. I pointed to a flyer that she had put up on the bulletin board in the coffeeshop, and suggested to the barista that she get in touch with this teacher. I said that since she doesn't have many students now, she'll probably be in a good position to work with her on a one-on-one basis, and help her address her specific issues.

I feel good about what I did and said to the barista. I feel that I have helped a struggling yoga teacher to possibly get one more student, and hopefully, in this way, advance the movement of yoga (even if not Ashtanga yoga) here in the upper midwest.

As I mentioned, I'm heading out to Kino's workshop tonight. I don't know if I'll have time to post anything over the weekend. We'll see. But I'll definitely share what I can when I get back next week, if I don't get to post this weekend.

May the Force be with you.    

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My humble entry for the YJ Talent Search

I see that the YJ Talent Search has been attracting a lot of attention in the yoga community. Is it a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know; I could launch into a neo-Marxist critique of the whole enterprise, but I just don't have the energy for it (it's a little late in the day).

Instead, I'll try to say something interesting about it, something that relates to myself. I did not submit my picture. Why? Because if I did, my profile would look something like this:

[No Picture; there is simply no one posture that can do justice to the immense energy that is emanating from my every pore at every second]

Nobel Ang
Style: Proto-Ashtanga (see Years Practicing for more details)
Teacher: Patanjali
Years Practicing: 999 and counting (I am actually a thousand-year-old Himalayan yogi who has assumed the corporeal form of a Chinese guy).
Inspired by: Everything and Nothing.

Well, now you know why I didn't enter the contest. I would so have blown the competition out of the water, it would not even be funny.

A little practice report

Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana this morning. Had to start practice earlier this morning (at 5:45 a.m.; I usually start around 6:30 or 6:45 a.m.), because I had a faculty meeting at 9 a.m., and I wanted to have enough time to shower and get some espresso at the coffee shop.

I tried my best to get through the practice as quickly as I could without sacrificing awareness, but the whole thing still took 2 hours and 15 minutes. It's probably because I didn't want to give up the 5-breaths-on-the-inhale, 5-breaths-on-the-exhale thing. I think you tend to stay longer in postures when you consciously make an effort to do this 5-on-the-inhales-and-exhales thing. But I highly recommend it: It does wonders for your ability to be present in the posture. And it's especially hard to do in a posture like navasana (need I say more?). In fact, in navasana today, I was so spaced out from doing the 5-breaths-on-the-inhales-and-exhales thing that when I got to what I thought was the fifth navasana, I couldn't be sure that it was really the fifth or if it was only the fourth (after all, one navasana feels pretty much like the other after the first one). So I did another one for good measure; which means I probably did 6 navasanas. Gosh, were my quads burning...

But all this is probably just as well. I'm heading out to Kino's workshop in Richmond this weekend, and the first session (Friday evening) is led primary. And Kino has famously inherited Guruji's habit of counting out navasana really... really... slowly...

Kapo this morning was very nice and deep. The rest of second also went nicely; Pincha felt strong, steady, and bandhaful. 

And of course, if you do have questions that you are burning to ask Kino, email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com. In particular, I 'm going to focus my interview with her this time on how the yamas and niyamas apply to the practice, and how the practice helps us in observing them better. So in particular, if you have questions in this area, please get in touch with me.

Back to work now. It's amazing how much I have to get done between now and tomorrow night, when I fly out.  

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's in a (Sanskrit) name?

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet"

In her latest post on backbends, Claudia observes, "I like to say "Ustrassana" (yoga jargon for camel pose), it sounds very Sanskrit, scholarly and respectful."

Being a full time Ashtangi, I have also taken to the practice of referring to almost all asanas by their Sanskrit names. The only exceptions for me are downward dog and upward dog, simply because it is easier to say "downdog" and "updog" than to say Adho Mukha Svanasana and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. But, at least for me, I actually find it easier to refer to almost all the other postures by their Sanskrit names than by their English names. In fact, I don't even know what the English names would be for some postures. For instance, what is English for Marichyasana D? You can call it "Sage Marichi pose D", I suppose, but if you do that, you are already using Sanskrit anyway! And it's actually less cumbersome to add "asana" after Marichi' than it is to go through "Sage Marichi pose D". And I suspect that this is true of many other postures too; the English translations would probably be either super-cumbersome translations (for instance, "Half-Bound Lotus Western-facing posture") or new-fangled names that tell us nothing about the posture itself. So, for me at least, it makes more sense to stick to the Sanskrit. Moreover, Gregor Maehle says somewhere that when you say the posture names in Sanskrit, you invoke certain effects on the energetic/pranic level that can't be invoked merely by using English translations.

But I sometimes wonder if non-Ashtangis/non-yogis would think us snobs for using Sanskrit. Indeed, one of the more oft-cited things that put some beginners off in yoga classes is the excessive use of Sanskrit. But if you are an Ashtangi, your usage of Sanskrit is probably way past excessive, by many non-Ashtangis' standards.

Not that any of this should matter. I mean, there may be certain times in life when one has to be a snob, and this might very well be one of them.     

Monday, March 28, 2011

A little practice report: It is possible to do a full practice on a not-so-good stomach

Warning: This might be TMI for some of you. But I decided to write about it anyway, because it might be useful information for some of you who have to make the decision as to whether or not to practice on a day when you are feeling less than fully well. 

I woke up with a bad stomach this morning. Had to run to the bathroom immediately after I woke up to, well, discharge the somewhat watery contents of my bowels into the toilet. Not sure why this happened. It could be a stomach bug. Or it could be the fact that I had forgotten to turn on the heater in my apartment last night before I went to sleep (cold weather sometimes does things to my stomach). Or was it something I ate yesterday?...

Whatever it was, I found myself having to go back to the bathroom a few minutes later to repeat the same discharging process. By this time, I was debating whether to practice, or to take a rest day. If I practiced, there was a chance that an "accident" might happen at a moment when I have less control of my bandhas. After a few moments' deliberation, I decided to take the chance and practice anyway. After all, I was already up, and I didn't feel the need to get more sleep; in any case, sleep probably wouldn't be very peaceful, given the state of my stomach.

So I started practicing. There were a few close calls during the standing postures and the first few postures of primary, but the bandhas prevailed :-) I got through primary, and then second. Actually did a very nice heel/ankle-grabbing kapotasana. Got all the way to Ardha Matsyendrasana before deciding to wrap up the practice.

Moral of the story? I guess it is that it is possible to practice on a bad stomach, if one is conscious of the bandhas. In fact, having a bad stomach forces one to be more conscious of bandha engagement from moment to moment.

For now, I'm going to eat less today, and let the digestive system clear out whatever needs to be cleared out.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Avidya, Power, Corruption

I decided to follow my own advice at the end of my previous post ("A little meditation on power"); I'm now at my local Barnes & Noble, reading the latest issue of Yoga Journal (interesting cover too, I must add :-)).

I've noticed that my Yoga Journal reading pattern has changed considerably since I became a full-time Ashtangi. These days, I don't pay much attention to the asana columns (except occasionally, when I need a few alignment tips). Rather, I tend to zero in on the "Wisdom" column, to see what nuggets of yogic wisdom I can glean. This column is written by Sally Kempton. I don't know much about her, but she writes very well; and (who would have known) she actually has some insightful things to say about my present thoughts about power and corruption.

In her article ("Who do you think you are?"), she discusses the yogic concept of avidya. "vidya" means "seeing" or "wisdom" or "knowledge" in Sanskrit; the English word "video" is a cognate of "vidya". The prefix "a" indicates a lack or absence. "Avidya", then, means lack of wisdom/knowledge, or the inability  to see. Kempton elaborates:

"Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality. The core ignorance we call avidya isn't a lack of information, but the inability to experience your deep connection to others, to the source of being, and to your true Self."

At Yoga Sutra II.5, Patanjali tells us four ways in which avidya might arise in us:

"Mistaking the transient for the permanent, the impure for the pure, pain for pleasure, and that which is not the self for the self: all this is called lack of spiritual knowledge, avidya." (Translated by B.K.S. Iyengar)

We can gain some understanding into the nature of power and corruption by pondering this passage. Think about the last of the four manifestations of avidya mentioned by Patanjali: Mistaking that which is not the self for the self. Suppose I'm talking with somebody at a party, and I say something that really impresses that person ("Wow, that's a brilliant observation! I never thought of this matter in this way."). So something came up in my mind, which I then put into words, which that person found astute or clever. But then I go on to identify myself with the thought, and conclude that it is I who is actually brilliant. I have gone from "That's a brilliant observation" to "I'm truly brilliant"; in the process, I have mistaken an impermanent thought in my mind for my true self.

Perhaps a similar process occurs in one who becomes corrupted by power. He does a couple of good things for people around him, they hail him as a savior/hero ("That was a great thing you did for us!"), and he comes to believe that it is he who is truly great. He goes from "That was great thing to do!" to "I'm great, and therefore infallible." Again, we have a case of mistaking an impermanent thought for the true self.  

But herein also lies a danger in the yoga practice, especially asana practice. It is all too easy to confuse whatever achievements we have made in asana with our true self, mistaking an impermanent state of affairs (our present level of flexibility or strength) for our true self.

So how does one get out of this loop? I think that simply recognizing that this loop exists and cultivating awareness of it is the first step to being free of it. Once I realize that I am not my brilliant thoughts or my asana achievements (or whatever), I can then begin to see that perhaps losing those things or not getting credit for them does not really matter.

Hmm... but if none of these things (brilliant ideas, material achievements, asana achievements) matter, what does? Any thoughts on this?  

A little meditation about power

It's been an uneventful and meditative weekend. I spent a good part of the weekend grading papers and reading A People's History of the United States. I highly recommend this book. It tells the history of the United States from the perspective of the poor and disenfranchised, and offers a refreshing alternative to the standard history-textbook accounts of politicians as liberator-heroes, and explains in sobering detail the disconnect that people have been feeling between politics as represented in the media and the average person's everyday experience of socio-political reality.

All this makes me think about human nature. They say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Which implies that the more power one has, the more likely one is to become corrupt and out of touch with the everyday sufferings of everyday people. Which is interesting, because many of the most powerful figures in history started out as everyday people. Such persons often possess a keen understanding of the situation around them, which enables them to inspire others to gather around them and bring about substantial social change. However, once they become powerful themselves, they seem to forget the sufferings of the people who brought them to power, and put in place laws and policies that inflict violence upon and add to their sufferings. What is it about having a lot of power that changes people in this way? Or maybe it is not the having of power per se which changes people; perhaps it is the process of getting that power that changes people's motivations?

All of this gives rise to one thought: Is it possible for a human being to become powerful without becoming corrupt? This question is relevant not just to the powerful in society, but to each one of us. Most of us, I take it, are not absolutely powerful. But we do have some power, whether it is over our loved ones, our subordinates at work, our students, or somebody else. Which means that there is a possibility that we may use this power in a way that benefits ourselves at the expense of those over whom we have power. In a word, we have the potential to become corrupt (maybe I already am). Is there a way to enjoy (is this the right word? I don't know) this power without becoming corrupt?

Of course, one might resort to the standard yogic answer to this quandary, which would be something along the lines of, "Power is only power when you perceive it to be power. If you choose to love your fellow beings unconditionally, and try to act from this choice, then you are not exercising power over them." Well, fair enough. But we know that too many abuses have been carried out in the name of love ("I love you, so I don't want you to do x, y, or z", or "I love you, so I don't want you to be x, y, or z, and if you love me, you should listen to me, and not be x, y, or z"). So perhaps love (or at least, what counts as love for many people) does not prevent abuse of power and corruption.   

What can I do about any of this? I don't know. Hmm... maybe I shouldn't read such depressing books and think such depressing thoughts. Maybe I should just go pick up a copy of Yoga Journal or something. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Some thoughts on poetry and being emotionally transparent

Last night, I attended a poetry reading on campus by David Mason. Professor Mason teaches at Colorado College, and was appointed the Poet Laureate of Colorado in 2010. It was a very interesting and insightful reading. He's a really unassuming person who is able to dig deep into his personal experiences and come up with powerful emotions and strangely absurd, yet touching poem-stories. Here's one of the poems he read last night. It relates his experience of trying to help his late father, who had Alzheimer's, to use the toilet:

Fathers and Sons

by David Mason

Some things, they say,
one should not write about. I tried
to help my father comprehend
the toilet, how one needs
to undo one’s belt, to slide
one’s trousers down and sit,
but he stubbornly stood
and would not bend his knees.
I tried again
to bend him toward the seat,

and then I laughed
at the absurdity. Fathers and sons.
How he had wiped my bottom
half a century ago, and how
I would repay the favor
if he would only sit.

                              Don’t you
he gripped me, trembling, searching for my eyes.
Don’t you—but the word
was lost to him. Somewhere
a man of dignity would not be laughed at.
He could not see
it was the crazy dance
that made me laugh,
trying to make him sit
when he wanted to stand.

(Reproduced here from the online New Yorker, September 28, 2009)

As I was listening to the poem, it struck me how he was able, within the space of a few lines of verse, to render in intimate detail what must have been a very emotional event with a certain poetic sensitivity: A sensitivity which allows him to express a very personal life event, making it understandable to a third party (the reader) without glossing over its emotional significance.

After the reading, I asked him if it is possible that poetry enables the poet to process certain raw emotions, while also perhaps creating new ones at the same time. He agreed with my suggestion, and adds that poetry allows him to access and in a sense experience certain experiences of other people that he might otherwise not ever be able to experience.

He also remarks that he almost feels as if he is an emotionally transparent being who has no independent emotional life of his own: The emotions he feels and gives expression to comes from the things, events and persons that his poetic sensibility touches.

This really sets me thinking. I wonder if the yoga practice has something of a similar effect on the practitioner. Through the practice, we are able to stand back from immediate sensory experience, witness things and events around us, and in doing so, feel them with an acuity and sensitivity that was not there before. I wonder if this also makes us a little more emotionally transparent, in this way?

Just wondering, as usual.    

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Practice report, a little meditation on pain, injury, and the second arrow

Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana this morning. A couple of practice "highlights":

(1) For the past few weeks, I have been noticing that (knock on wood, or whatever it is that needs to be knocked on) my SI joint has been getting steadily better. For the past two or three weeks, I have been feeling no pain or discomfort in leg-behind-the-head postures. Sometimes, during the Suryas, I might feel something strange in the area of the left SI joint, but it goes away once I get into standing. In the Suryas, I have noticed that working on lifting the body off the ground from trini position before jumping back into chatvari really helps the SI joint. I'm not quite sure why this is so. My theory is that the bandha-engagement and whatnot that is needed in order to lift up from trini position provides traction to and strengthens the lower back muscles around the SI joint area, thus giving the SI joint some much-needed support. Well, this is coming from a half-baked (less than half-baked, actually) anatomist. If any of you anatomists out there have any better explanations for this phenomenon, please share. Also, if any of you out there suffer from SI joint pain, this might be something you can work on. Even if you cannot actually lift up from trini position, I suspect that just trying to engage the bandhas needed to lift up (without actually lifting up) would also have the same beneficial effect on the muscles around the SI joint.

Speaking of SI joint issues, I have also noticed that the cybershala does not seem to have any adjectives to describe SI joint pain or discomfort. I mean, we speak of "tweaky knees", "gimpy hamstrings", or "gimpy shoulders", but we don't say "[insert adjective] SI joint." Is this because SI joint issues are relatively less common? Just wondering.

(2) There have also been a couple of asana achievements in the last couple of weeks. First, I succeeded in floating/jumping into Bhuja Pidasana without touching my feet to the ground (see my March 22nd post for the juicy details :-)).

Secondly, I have finally achieved the "headless headstand" in the last couple of weeks. This is really just a fancy way of saying that I have finally managed to do Sirsasana with my head off the ground. Although I still have to bring my head down to the ground in Urdhva Dandasana (but I'm working on becoming "headless" here as well :-)). It's really interesting how much more I am working my arms when my head is off the ground in Sirsasana. I suspect the energetic effects are different too, but I haven't detected any noticeable difference in my overall energy levels. If any of you out there have anything to share about this, I would love to hear from you.

But the interesting thing is, I'm not that impressed by my asana achievements. They just... came. What really impresses me and makes me really grateful and happy at the same time is my recovering SI joint (or at least I think it's recovering... again, knock on wood). It's so nice to be able to do so many postures without pain, or fear of pain.  

This brings to mind a familiar Buddhist story. You know, the one where the Buddha says that whatever painful event happens to you is the first arrow, but your adverse reaction to the first event is the second arrow. The idea is that while we cannot avoid the first arrow, we have a choice to avoid the second one. The trouble is that most of us consciously or unconsciously choose to get hit by the second arrow, thus multiplying our pain and inflicting a lot of unnecessary suffering on ourselves.

This story applies to yoga injuries and pain as well. In a sense, the physical injury itself (whether it's a knee, shoulder, or SI joint issue, or what-have-you) and the accompanying physical pain is the first arrow. I say "in a sense", because there's obviously a way we could have avoided the injury and pain, if we knew better alignment, took better care of ourselves, etc, etc. But given our state of mind/body consciousness at the moment when the injury was sustained, it is fair to say that the physical injury itself and the accompanying pain was unavoidable, for all intents and purposes.

But the second arrow--the "arrow" of our emotional reactions--is avoidable, at least to a large extent. But many of us (including me) throw ourselves into the path of this second arrow; indeed, we sometimes do things that bury this arrow deeper and deeper into the wound. I remember that in the first couple of days after the SI joint injury, instead of finding ways to adjust my practice to accommodate this physical limitation, I actually tried to push my body through my usual practice, and my body had to show me who's boss (through excruciating SI joint pain). And then I went through this brief period of asking my SI joint, "Why? Why are you doing this to me?" But of course, my SI joint has done nothing; if anything, I'm the one who has done something to it.

But this is where I'm going to take a different spin on this Buddhist story. Perhaps the second arrow was necessary and, in a sense, unavoidable as well, because one needs to get hit by the second arrow in order to learn some valuable lessons. In this case, I think the second arrow serves to shatter an illusion; it shatters the illusion that the mind is always the boss of the body. I have a feeling that in western culture, we are socialized to see the mind and body as being separate, and to see the body as being in some sense subordinate to the mind. Mind commands, "Body, do X!" and the body obeys. But yoga shatters this illusion. If my hips are super-tight, and my mind says, "Body, get into padmasana!" Body will send a pain-message back to the mind. The mind can override this pain message only at the cost of great damage (blown-out knees) to the body and ultimately, to the mind as well.

So what is the moral of this long story? Hmm, I'm not sure. Maybe the moral of the story is that some second arrows cannot be avoided :-)   

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is Ashtanga Yoga really increasing in popularity?

Warning: This is the latest of a series of recent posts in which I shamelessly piggy-back upon Claudia's posts. Gosh, am I running out of ideas myself? Am I glad I don't do this for a living...

Anyway, I read with great interest Claudia's latest post and accompanying poll on the popularity of Ashtanga yoga. If you haven't already done so, please fulfill your Ashtangic duty and vote. Stand up and be counted! :-)

So the question the poll asks is, "Is Ashtanga Yoga increasing in popularity?" As of right now (1:05 p.m. CDT), 14 people have voted "Yes", 7 have voted "No", and 1 voted "Maybe."

Honestly, I'm rather surprised by the results (I'm one of the seven who voted "No"). But maybe I shouldn't be so suprised. Here's why. Poll questions by their very nature have a certain element of ambiguity built into them, and this one's no exception. When one asks, "Is Ashtanga Yoga increasing in popularity?", one could mean one of at least two different things. One could be asking,

(1) Are more people getting exposed to and coming to know about Ashtanga Yoga (through popular media, celebrities, etc.)?

Or one could be asking,

(2) Are more people starting to practice Ashtanga yoga? (By "starting to practice", I just mean attending an Ashtanga class somewhere somewhat regularly (maybe one or twice a week). I don't mean that people have to commit to a 6-day-a-week mysore practice.)

(1) and (2) are of course related: It may very well be that more people are starting to practice Ashtanga Yoga as a result of getting exposed to and coming to know about Ashtanga Yoga. But the two questions are distinct from each other.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, to dazzle you with my not-inconsiderable powers of intellectual perception and acuity, of course! But jokes aside, I have a hunch that of the 14 people who voted "Yes" so far, some of them have (1) in mind, and others have (2) in mind. Whereas when I voted, I had (2) in mind. My opinion is that, even though more people may be getting exposed to Ashtanga, the number of people who are starting to practice or already practicing hasn't increased, but has stayed more or less the same, or may even be decreasing. I have my own reasons for this opinion, but I don't have the time to go into this here. I need to go prepare for class now. Maybe I'll write more later.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts about this, I'll love to hear from you.    

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Practice report, faith in arm balances

Practice was good this morning. Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana. My arms (especially the triceps) feel pleasantly sore now. It's probably because I have been paying more attention to jumping into arm balances, especially Bhujapidasana. It's only in the last couple of weeks that I have finally mastered the art of consistently jumping/floating straight into Bhujapidasana from downdog without touching my feet to the ground. It's kind of funny when I think about it: I've always had problems jumping straight into Bhuja P, even though I have been jumping/floating straight into other arm balances like Bakasana and Astavakrasana from downdog for years (For the record: I don't do third series, but I sometimes fool around with Astavakrasana :-)).

Then again, maybe it's not so funny. When I think about it a little more, the reason for this discrepancy is actually quite obvious. What it comes down to is a certain lack of faith. In order to successfully jump straight into Bhuja P, there is a moment in the jump through when one needs to extend the legs a little in order to hook them around the upper arms. I've always had this mental block about this extending/hooking movement. One needs to have some faith that one's arm, leg, and lower back muscles will be strong and coordinated enough to pull this movement off. And up till about two weeks ago, I didn't really have this faith.

So what caused the change? What caused me to suddenly have this faith in my arm, leg, and lower back muscles? I don't know, really. There wasn't any aha! moment of epiphany. I only remember telling myself during one practice two weeks ago, when it came time to go into Bhuja P, "You really should try jumping and hooking your legs around without touching the ground. You can do it." I tried, and did it. But then again, I had been telling myself this same thing for the last few years, and this time didn't seem any different; at least, there was no difference that I was consciously aware of. So, what gives? I don't know. This is one of these enduring everyday mysteries of the mind/body.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Practice report, and a few thoughts on the measure of enlightenment

First, a little practice report. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. This being my first full practice in two days (Saturday was a Moon Day, and Sunday is my designated rest day from practice), it was refreshing and harder at the same time. Some postures (in particular, the forward bends and arm balances) felt very fresh after two days of rest; others, especially kapotasana, felt harder. This brings to mind something that my teacher once said: The hamstrings have much longer muscle memory than whatever the muscles are (the psoas, perhaps) that are used in deep backbending. I can go for a few days without doing forward bends or hip-openers, and still feel quite open in those areas. With deep backbends.... well, it's a different story.

I read with great interest Claudia's recent post about the measure of enlightenment. Claudia quotes Deepak Chopra's latest tweet,

"The measure of your enlightenment is the degree to which you are comfortable with paradox, contradiction and ambiguity"

I know nothing about Chopra's teachings, so I'm going to take the liberty of understanding this particular quote purely at face-value apart from its original context, and stick out my neck to say a couple of things about this business of enlightenment. 

I don't have a handy definition of what enlightenment is, but I have a strong feeling that, whatever it is, it must involve being effective in the world. What do I mean by this? Being effective in the world means being able to respond to anything that life throws at you in a way that is appropriate and which creates the greatest value for all parties concerned. Sometimes this involves standing back, observing and taking a receptive attitude in order to learn more about what's going on. At other times, what is called for is the ability to understand the situation from as many points of view as possible, and to respond in such a way as to accommodate everyone's diverse interests. At yet other times, being effective in the world demands that we be able to perceive injustice or inequity, whether to ourselves or to others, and to speak up or take decisive action to protect ourselves and others. 

If I am correct in thinking that enlightenment, whatever it is, involves being effective in the world in the ways mentioned above, then I'm not sure if simply being comfortable with paradox, contradiction and ambiguity is sufficient to make one an enlightened being. It seems to me that one can be so comfortable with the sense of paradox and contradiction that often accompanies great injustice and inequity that one fails to speak up or take action at the decisive moment. Think, for instance, of the sense of contradiction that occurs when one sees somebody being persecuted politically or at the workplace, or on account of race, gender, or sexual orientation. It seems to me that throughout history, the people who have stood up against persecution are precisely those who felt really uncomfortable with the sense of contradiction or cognitive dissonance that is stirred up by such injustices or inequities. This sense of being uncomfortable makes them feel that it is wrong to stand around and say or do nothing when others are being persecuted or are undergoing great suffering. 

Of course, as I said, I don't have a definition of enlightenment. Maybe, for all I know, enlightenment has absolutely nothing to do with being effective in this world. Maybe when one is enlightened, one becomes some kind of otherworldly being, so that the injustices of this world do not matter any more. But if this is true, what value is there to being enlightened? What good is being enlightened if one ceases to be an effective human being? 

I'm just thinking aloud here, as usual. I don't have any conclusions one way or the other. If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.       

Sunday, March 20, 2011

A little Moonday weekend report

This Moonday weekend has been a restful and relatively uneventful weekend. I didn't practice yesterday. Sunday being my designated rest day, I didn't practice today either, although I did a few Surya As and Bs (that doesn't count :-))

I went on a big information binge this weekend; I basically took in a lot of information, in the same way in which somebody might binge on sugar or potato chips (oh, I like potato chips too, and I had a number of those this weekend :-)). I guess that's what happens when one doesn't practice; the extra time and energy has to go somewhere.

The interesting thing about my information binges is that I tend to gravitate towards taking in information that is not exactly cheery. Two cases in point:

(1) On Friday night, I watched this German movie, The White Ribbon. I like German movies, because I studied German for a couple of years in school, and although I don't speak it well, I really love the guttural sounds of the language and the gravity of its cadence (I also happen to think that French is overrated, but I'll leave it at that :-)). Watching German movies and listening to people speak German brings back a lot of wonderful memories for me. I hope I can go live in Germany for a little bit someday; maybe I'll get my German back that way. Anyway, the movie is about the repressive experiences a group of children went through in a little German village on the eve of WWI. For example, the pastor of the village is this really staunch disciplinarian who punishes his children for small infractions by making them wear a white ribbon on their arms (hence the movie's title) to remind them of their guilt and of the importance of purity and innocence. The movie is essentially a study in the psychology of childhood repression. Although the director doesn't say this directly, there is a suggestion that a close link exists between this repression and the subsequent atrocities that many Germans went on to commit during the two world wars.

(2) Yesterday evening, I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. I had been wanting to read it for the longest time. Basically, Zinn tells the history of the United States from the perspective of common people, especially people who have been oppressed or subject to persecution. It's very refreshing yet sobering at the same time. Not an easy read, but it definitely gives an important alternative perspective to the way history is normally written, which is from the perspective of the rich and powerful in society. I think every college kid needs to read this.   

That was a lot of information to take in over a weekend, don't you think? I'm so looking forward to getting back into the swing of my regular practice tomorrow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

In Memoriam: Larry Schultz 1950-2011

I learnt recently from one of my teachers that Larry Schultz, the founder of Rocket Yoga, passed away on February 27th 2011.

I don't practice Rocket Yoga, but from what I understand, it's supposed to be a kind of "accelerated Ashtanga". The Rocket Series (there are three: Rocket I, Rocket II, and Rocket III) begins with Surya A and B and closes with the traditional Ashtanga finishing sequence, but incorporates postures from the second and third series into its sequence.

As I said, I don't practice Rocket Yoga and I've never taken a class with Schultz, so I can't tell you more about Schultz and his work beyond what I said above, but he sounds like a really dynamic and wonderful teacher, from what I've heard about him from people who've studied with him. So the yoga community is one wonderful teacher less. Please remember him in your thoughts, prayers and intentions.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I don't quite know what to write about today. The weather here in Northwest Minnesota is starting to get warmer (sunny and 25 degrees), and spring is hopefully around the corner at last. Perhaps sometimes the best things that can be given us cannot be expressed by words or grasped by hands. They are gifts that can only be experienced in their moments of spontaneous unfolding. With that, I leave you this poem by Rabindranath Tagore:

by Rabindranath Tagore

O my love, what gift of mine
Shall I give you this dawn?
A morning song?
But morning does not last long -
The heat of the sun
Wilts like a flower
And songs that tire
Are done.

O friend, when you come to my gate.
At dusk
What is it you ask?
What shall I bring you?
A light?

A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?
But will you want to take it with you
Down the crowded street?
The wind will blow it out.

Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,
Be they flowers,
Be they gems for your neck
How can they please you
If in time they must surely wilt,
Lose lustre?
All that my hands can place in yours
Will slip through your fingers
And fall forgotten to the dust
To turn into dust.

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower's scent startle you
Into sudden wondering-
Let that displaced moment
Be my gift.
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly, spilled
From the thick gathered tresses of evening
A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent

Truest treasure is fleeting;
It sparkles for a moment, then goes.
It does not tell its name; its tune
Stops us in our tracks, its dance disappears
At the toss of an anklet
I know no way to it-
No hand, nor word can reach it.
Friend, whatever you take of it,
On your own,
Without asking, without knowing, let that
Be yours.
Anything I can give you is trifling -
Be it a flower, or a song.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Practice, nuclear plants, and being an asshole

I sense that there is a lot of tension and anxiety in the blogosphere over what is going on with the nuclear plants in Japan. I know nothing about nuclear plants, nor am I in a good position to adjudicate between the different opinions of different experts about the real extent of the present danger.

And I suspect that many of us are in a similar position. We care, but we don't have a way of getting involved in the whole thing from a distance without adding to the maelstrom of anxiety, fear, panic and negativity.

So what is one to do? I am reminded of something that David Williams said a couple of years ago at a workshop in Florida. Somebody asked him what the purpose of the practice is. He said (I'm paraphrasing), "Everyday, you do your practice. After savasana, you get up from your mat and feel really good about yourself. The goal is to hold on to this feeling of goodness for as long as you can before you revert to being an asshole. Maybe today, you can only keep this feeling for 10 minutes. Maybe tomorrow, you do slightly better, and you keep the feeling for 11 minutes. Or maybe you do worse. But the idea is to keep trying."

What has this to do with the nuclear plant problems? Nothing much, and yet everything at the same time. Nuclear plants are created by human beings. Which means that the nuclear plant problems are also man-made problems. I'm speculating, but it is entirely possible that the "asshole nature" of human beings has something to do with the engineering or environmental issues that led to the present problem.

So in a sense, the problem with the nuclear plants is simply a larger-scale version of something that we're all familiar with: The asshole nature of human beings (including that of yours truly) leading to problems in relationships among human beings and with the environment. There probably isn't that much most of us can do directly about the nuclear problem, unless you happen to be a nuclear physicist or engineer. Or unless you possess the siddhi of being able to fly and lift radioactive things that are thousands of times your own body weight without suffering radiation damage, in which case you should fly to Japan right now, lift the offending reactors from the ground, fly them to the sun and then dump them there; in which case, come to think of it, you are also going to need the siddhi of being able to survive in a vacuum and being able to withstand millions of degrees of heat and radiation... hmm... how many lifetimes of yoga practice is this going to take?

But I digress. I guess what I'm trying to say is, there's not much we can do directly about this big nuclear problem; so we probably will do better to focus on the "small nuclear problems" that are around us (Am I doing my best and creating value in what I am doing in my own life and in my relationships with others around me? Or am I being an asshole? If I am, what can I do to stop being such an asshole?)

Hmm... I've gotten into sermonizing mode again, without realizing it. Well, I'll leave you with the Ashtanga closing chant. It's a lot shorter than the opening invocation, but I think it's really meaningful; it's especially meaningful that we chant it at the close of our practice. To me, it  is a reminder that in a sense, the real practice begins when we get off the mat, and we should try to use as much as possible of what we've learnt on the mat, and apply it to our off-mat lives:

May all be well with mankind.
May leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred.
May people everywhere be happy.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Could FAFF stand for anything? A little postscript to my previous post

After I wrote my last post, I couldn't help but wonder where the term "faff" came from (does anybody know?). In any case, the smart-ass part of me decided to try to come up with a clever-sounding acronym using the word FAFF. So here's one (excuse the language): Fucking Around, Free Form

If you don't like attempts at clever acronyms, or are offended by less-than-fully-decent language, just ignore this post.

Why do we faff? Some random musings

Unless you are a "perfect" yogi, you will have faffed to varying degrees at various times during your journey of practice. In a recent post, Arturo describes this phenomenon vividly:

"what is faffing during home practice?
Sun Salutation A, first one.
go to the bathroom.
Sun Salutation A, second one.
rearrage clothes; remove socks.
Sun Salutation A, third one.
Go turn on the laundry machine;
it was filled during yoga warmups.
Sun Salutation A, fourth one.
scratch, blow nose, clean ears.
Sun Salutation A, fifth one.
practice how to explain in Chinese to the bank that the grocery store kept my ATM card when i made a purchase on Sunday and i did not notice until yesterday. can they help me call the store to identify my card?
Sun Salutation B, first one.
decide on lunch plans..."

Most of us (I'm guessing) probably do not faff to this extent, but we do it in some way, shape or form, even if it is just holding downward dog for one or two breaths longer in the Suryas.

So why do we faff? Do we faff despite knowing that faffing detracts from the practice in some way and is therefore not good for us? Is faffing simply a manifestation of an undisciplined mind that needs to be channeled? Or do we faff because deep down, we do not really believe that a faff-free practice is best for us? In other words, does faffing serve a certain purpose of its own, so that a faff-free practice is not really all it's cracked up to be?

Or might faffing perhaps be the universe's way of telling us that something about the way we are doing our practice (or the environment in which we are practicing) is not conducive for our personal growth? Might faffing be the universe's way of telling us to pause for a second, reassess our priorities (or environment) before going on?

I don't have any answers to these questions; I'm just wondering out loud. If you have any suggestions, I look forward to hearing from you.  

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Practice report, and a little spiel about hypothetical worries

First, a little practice report. Did full primary and second series up to pincha mayurasana this morning. The practice was great. I felt this very intense and nice (yes, intense and nice) stretch in the radial (outer) side of my quads while in Tittbhasana C. It's definitely a little muscle that most postures can't get into. Felt really good.

I am very happy and grateful to be able to do my practice every morning, especially at this time of great fear, anxiety and panic. I sense this both in the lives of people around me, and in the news about the world at large. For one, there is the fear that has been generated (no pun intended) about the nuclear reactor in Japan (for more details, see Claudia's very informative recent post on this). I know nothing about nuclear plants, so I shall say nothing more about this here.

On a more personal level, I also feel fear in the lives of people around me. A couple of days ago, a friend was sharing with me his fears about his career. The details are too involved to go into here (moreover, I want to respect the privacy of others); basically, his present supervisor is leaving for another job, and they are in the process of hiring a new supervisor. After looking at all the credentials of all the candidates who are interviewing for the position, he realized that all of them come from highly competitive backgrounds. Because of this, he's really worried that if one of them gets the position, he will be really hard on him and demand much more from him performance-wise. Gosh, and I said I wasn't going to go into details? Well, at least I didn't name names, or specify which field my friend is in :-)

I don't know what to make of all this. On the one hand, I totally empathize (or at least try very hard to empathize) with what people are going through; I probably would be feeling the same things if I were in my friend's position. But on the other hand, I just can't help feeling that there's something a little... self-indulgent about this kind of fear. You are worrying about what a hypothetical future supervisor is going to demand of you (and about whether you hypothetically will be able to meet this hypothetical supervisor's expectations)? When there are some very actual problems going on in the world that are probably much more worthy of attention?

What has all this to do with yoga? Well, I think the cool thing about yoga, at least for me, is that it helps me to get some perspective on stuff around me. I totally empathize with my friend, because I have had mornings when I would wake up with all kinds of frantic negativities about all kinds of hypothetical situations. But the practice gives me the ability to really see that what is hypothetical is really just hypothetical, and that no value can be created from worrying about things that may or may not happen. More importantly, the practice puts me in a position where my actions are in sync with what I can see. And the key to this is even inhalation and exhalation. I think Mr. Iyengar said somewhere that breath is important in yoga practice, because breath is the interface between our gross physical bodies and our energetic bodies/nervous systems. This is why yoga practice is not just positive thinking; I can think all I want and try to psyche myself into not worrying about hypothetical things. But thinking alone is useless, unless I can find a way to get my body and nervous system to actualize what I intellectually think and understand. And even inhalation and exhalation in the yoga practice (together with the postures and drishti; basically, the whole tristana package) is what enables me to bring my mind and body into sync with each other, so that I can more readily translate what I intellectually understand (the futility of worrying about hypotheticals) into action (actually not worrying about hypotheticals, and taking more concrete, positive action that will better myself and the world around me).

In other news: I am also trying to get my friend to do yoga.

May the Force (and not hypothetical worries) be with you.     

Monday, March 14, 2011

Practice report, and some thoughts about doing yoga without any clothes on

First, a little practice report. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. At the beginning of practice (during the Suryas), I had a very "faffed" mind: I wasn't faffing physically, but my mind was all over the place. I had a really busy weekend, and a lot of things that happened over the weekend kept coming into my mind. So much so that in a couple of Surya As, I actually forgot to count my breaths in downward dog, and probably ended up holding downdog for way more than five breaths. It was well into standing sequence before I could start to rein in my wondering mind.

The rest of the practice felt really good. My body was a little less flexible after a rest day (my rest day is Sunday); at the same time, however,  it was also rested and felt... new. I always feel this creative tension between relative lack of flexibility and newness especially strongly in the first kapotasana of the week. This morning, for instance, it seemed to take longer to open the front body into kapo (I still got my heels, though :-)). But once I got into the pose, I really felt that the body had received a much needed opening. Very refreshing experience.

I just read with great interest Claudia's most recent post on Naked Yoga. Claudia remarks:

"Naked Yoga pushes my buttons, it is THE one place where I hear myself come all out and with enormous self-righteous entitlement scream "that is NOT yoga". Why?  There is no lineage behind it. Uh oh, lame excuse...

Frankly I find the path of the eight limbs very hard as it is, I cannot see how being naked in class could help, regardless of the graduate-level amount of concentration anyone could muster. But that is my understanding of yoga. Clearly not everyone's."

Very interesting and honest response, Claudia :-) I honestly don't know what to make of Naked Yoga. It is probably true that there is no lineage behind Naked Yoga; although, for all I know, there might very well be sadhus practicing naked by themselves (or maybe in very small groups) somewhere in the Himalayas.

But I suppose that's really not to the point: The whole point of Naked Yoga, as I understand it, is for people to practice naked in front of other people in an otherwise conventional yoga class setting with all the usual yoga postures and instructions. To describe it in purely physical terms, it's basically ordinary yoga minus clothing. At least that's how I understand it; I've never actually been in a Naked Yoga class. If anybody out there knows more about Naked Yoga, please share.

Be that as it may, I have little to offer in the way of answers or useful insights with regard to this phenomenon. But I do have a few thoughts, which I'll share here:

(1) If Naked Yoga is really conventional yoga minus a couple of pieces of clothing, why does the absence of these couple of pieces of clothing make such a powerful emotional statement? After all, many Ashtangis (especially male practitioners) already practice with very little clothing. Why would taking off one or two more pieces of clothing make such a great difference?

(2) One answer to question (1) might be: Well, because removing that last one or two pieces of clothing exposes the genitals, which are "private" in a way that other body parts are not. Which brings up an interesting side question: What makes private parts so private, in the first place? But setting this question aside, one can also go on to argue that being able to see somebody's genitals in class might sexually arouse one in ways that might not happen if these private parts were covered. Maybe this is true, although I personally believe that very often, arousal arises more from what is covered than from what is exposed. In my opinion, the tantalizing factor in skimpy clothing arises more from what they conceal than from what they actually expose. So, if this is correct, then if you expose everything, nothing is then concealed; and since nothing is concealed, the tantalizing factor would no longer arise. At any rate, this is my opinion. I have not done any systematic research on this :-)

(3) Perhaps the idea behind Naked Yoga is to put people in a place where they are pushed out of their comfort zones by being literally stripped of everything they might possibly cling to in order to give themselves some kind of identity in everyday life. I think for many of us, our everyday identities are consciously or unconsciously tied up with the clothes we choose to wear, with the garments we choose to use to cover our bodies. If we take these markers of everyday identity away, we are then forced to focus on what is essential: Our bodies, our minds' reactions to our bodies, and the practice.

(4) Here's one possible reason why Naked Yoga isn't more popular than it actually is: If more people were to do Naked Yoga, wouldn't Lululemon sales seriously take a beating? For all we know, there might be a Lululemon lobby somewhere that actively works to make sure that Yoga Journal and most yoga publications give as little exposure to Naked Yoga as possible. This is just my own little theory, but I just thought I'll include it here for fun :-)

Well, these are some rather ill-formed and preliminary thoughts on Naked Yoga from a yogic prude :-) If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear them.

In other news: I will be attending Kino's workshop in Richmond, Virginia on the first weekend of April (April 1st to 3rd). I will be doing another video interview with her. I'm going to try to make this interview cover more basic questions about yoga philosophy and the methodology of Ashtanga yoga. I'm in the process of putting questions together. If you have any questions you would like to ask Kino, you can email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com. I can't promise that I will ask every and any question you want me to ask, but I'll do my best to fit everything in.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Why do people not flush the toilet after they have used a public bathroom?

In this post, I am going to explore one of the enduring minor mysteries of everyday existence: Why do people not flush the toilet after they have used a public bathroom? Before I proceed with this post, I think I should issue a few warnings:

Warning (1): This post probably has little if anything to do with yoga. So if you are looking forward to some nuggets of yogic wisdom from the yogic sage of the Dragon's Den (ahem!), well, then maybe you shouldn't read this post. I don't want to give you any false expectations. Remember, though: Expectation is the surest road to unnecessary suffering. Ha! So maybe this post has something yogic in it after all... 

Warning (2): This post contains references to things that happen or that are sometimes found in public bathrooms. If you are offended by such descriptions or references, you probably shouldn't read this post either.

Warning (3): This is really more of a disclaimer than a warning. I have no intention of starting a whole string of bathroom posts in writing this post. I understand that it has been the trend in the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks to focus on one very small aspect of daily life (tiny shorts, for instance) and to generate a whole slew of posts from this one small aspect of human existence. I have no intention of doing this.

Well, now for my post proper. I am now sitting in the coffeeshop in my apartment complex. A few minutes ago, after having enjoyed a strong cup of double espresso, I found myself having to go to the bathroom. Fortunately, there is a public bathroom in the hallway next to the coffeeshop, so I didn't have to travel too far to fulfill this most basic of biological functions. Not so fortunately, however, immediately after stepping into the bathroom, I found that somebody had peed and not flushed the toilet after having done so (I did warn you that this post wasn't going to be very sanitized). I was about to flush the toilet, when a thought occurred to me: Is the toilet stopped up? If the toilet was indeed stopped up, then not only would pushing down on the flushing lever not clear away the offending liquid, but might make things worse by raising the liquid level, possibly causing the liquid to overflow the banks of the toilet bowl ("Attack of the Noxious Yellowish Liquid"... Yikes!).

But I decided to take the gamble anyway, and pushed down on the flushing level. And lo and behold, the toilet worked perfectly, and the liquid that had issued forth from the bladder of the previous occupant of this room was no more. So the flushing mechanism was working perfectly. Which meant that the previous occupant had not flushed the toilet after he had used it. Why hadn't he? Some possible explanations:

(1) He was in a very big hurry to get somewhere, and did not have the time to flush. Possible, I suppose, but how much time can one lose by spending that extra fraction of a second to push down on that lever?

(2) He came from a particular civilization or planet in which it is customary for people to leave the flushing to the next user/occupant of the bathroom. Again, this is possible, I suppose. If this is true, then I am grateful that what he left behind wasn't something more... solid.

(3) He intensely dislikes me (in fact, he might be one of the many people who have read this blog recently, and got very offended by its contents) and somehow knows that I am going to be in the bathroom after him. So he decided to leave me a "parting gift."

(4) He simply couldn't care less about flushing the toilet. After all, he might be thinking, since the bathroom is public property, there is no problem with leaving the flushing to other members of the public. Hmm... interesting logic.

Well, if you are still reading this post, and haven't been revolted by its contents thus far, maybe you can offer your suggestion as to which of (1) to (4) is the most likely explanation? Or if you don't think that any of (1) to (4) is a likely explanation, maybe you can offer your own? 

Friday, March 11, 2011

The fire of the practice, desires and spiritual hunger

First, a prayer and a moment of silence for all those affected by the tsunami in the Pacific. Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu.

I practiced with my friends Derek and Brenda at their art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo today. It's really a treat to be practicing with someone, as I mostly practice at home by myself. I don't know if it's the group energy generated by a few people practicing together, or if it's because the studio is quite a bit warmer than my practice room, but I was sweating a lot by the time I got to the prasaritas (when I practice at home, I usually only start sweating when I get to the seated postures of primary). Which meant that there was a lot more internal fire, or agni, going today. Which was very cool.

Speaking of agni... We know that one of the physical benefits of practice is to stoke the agni, and in so doing, improve the digestive and other bodily functions, resulting in a healthier body. This is especially true of primary series: All the forward bending and twisting puts pressure on the abdominal organs, which has a very therapeutic effect on the workings of the internal organs. Hence the Sanskrit name of primary series: "Yoga Chikitsa", or "yoga therapy".

But there is also a spiritual fire involved with the practice. I think it is no exaggeration to say that, for many practitioners, it is this spiritual fire burning within themselves that motivates them to get on the mat and practice, day after day. This spiritual fire can manifest as a sort of hunger for something. For many, it may start out as a hunger or desire for something quite mundane, such as a desire to become fitter, or to have a nicer body, or even a desire to meet hot chicks/dudes. But then, I think many people who enter the practice with such desires find that these desires are slowly transformed into desires for things that are less tangible or physical. And the practice has a very "sneaky" way of bringing about this transformation, so that this often happens with the practitioner being only barely conscious of the change. But the really interesting thing is that, wherever one is along the journey of practice, one's desire is uniquely one's own. My desire to, say, meet hot chicks when I first began practicing is a desire that I experience as uniquely my own. This is true even if there are many other practitioners who have the same kind of desire at the exact same moment in time: Their "hot chick/dude" desires are uniquely theirs, and mine is uniquely mine. And when my desires are transformed through the practice, they also become transformed in a way that is uniquely me, even if other yogis might go through similar processes with their own practices. Because of this uniqueness, change, when it happens, is really and authentically mine. I can't fake it: Indeed, there is no point in faking, because what is there is there. What isn't there, simply isn't.

I think that, throughout this whole process, the underlying hunger that drives the practitioner is the same. In the beginning, this hunger manifests itself as desires for rather tangible things that are in some sense external to oneself (desires for a hot body, hot chicks/dudes, etc.) And then, through the fire of the practice (it turns out that agni doesn't just purify the body, it works on the mind too), these desires are "melted down" and transmuted into desires for spiritual growth, for greater communion and connection with the universe and all living beings, and ultimately, for greater self-realization. But throughout the whole process, there is this deep hunger, and it drives the practitioner on his path, whether or not he or she is always fully aware of it. As David Garrigues remarks:

"Ashtanga is for the hungry, the ones who have something gnawing inside, the ones who honestly aren’t happy accepting complacent norms. Ashtanga is for those who are alive with intense feelings that there are worlds to discover, worlds that are found by reaching passionately inwards for expression that will contribute to personal and collective healing." (Many thanks to Pakistani Ashtangi for sharing this quote on her blog :-))

I also think that at some level and in some way or other, this hunger also manifests itself as a desire on the part of the practitioner to bring about some kind of change in the world around him or her; change that progressively reshapes the world in ways that make it more conducive for other living beings to embark on this same process. Sometimes such change can be brought about in rather inconspicuous ways, sometimes it requires making waves and challenging norms, whether these norms are the norms or traditions of one's own family or culture, or the laws of an entire nation (civil disobedience is one such example). One way or the other, change that happens within the individual will inevitably manifest itself in change in the individual's attitudes and actions, and further, in changes in the external environment. I pray to be an agent of such change, however small or big, and to support and help others who are on this same path.

Gee, that was a lot of sermonizing, wasn't it :-)? May the Force be with you.      

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why do Ashtangis switch to other styles of yoga?

First, a little "weather report." It appears that the blog-storm which tore through the blogosphere last week (you know what I'm talking about) has yet to die down. It has simply taken on a slightly different form, with different sound-bites. SSDD (Same Shit, Different Day). In one of my responses to one of my commenters in a post last week, I predicted that the storm hadn't lost its force (or, as Grimmly puts it, it "still seemed to have some legs in it"... hahaha!), and that we might very well be in the eye of the storm. Well, turns out I was right. Gosh, don't I love being right :-) [Ego rears its ugly head here...]

But I shall say no more about this matter. What I needed to say, I have already said. The rest must be passed over in silence... Silencio.

Instead, I'm going to stick my neck out here, and follow up on my earlier post about why we practice Ashtanga, and the nature of the practice. I got some very interesting responses to my little questionnaire at the end of that post (Thanks for sharing, everyone who responded :-)).

In what way am I sticking out my neck? Well, here's how. In her response to Christine's follow-up post on my post (how long-winded can I get?), Yyogini observed that there are a number of yoga practitioners who started out practicing Ashtanga, and then drifted away to practice other styles. She is quite curious about their reasons for switching styles, and has set out on a mission to find out why. I wish you all the best in your mission, Yyogini, and look forward to hearing about your findings :-)

In the meantime, I'm going to stick my neck out and venture a few preliminary observations of my own about why ex-Ashtangis switch styles or "jump ship". I understand that the word choice of "ex-Ashtangi" doesn't sound very nice (can't think of anything nicer-sounding right now), but I really don't mean anything derogatory by "ex". Please believe me: How many more people can I afford to offend, anyway?

In any case, I sense that this is a sensitive topic, one that needs to be handled with finesse and care. And I may not be the best person to do this, especially in my present state of mind (I just had two big slices of pizza and a big mug of beer :-)). But being the proverbial fool who often rushes in where angels fear to tread, I have decided to tackle this topic anyway, at my own peril. To begin with, here are some observations I have gathered from talking to some ex-Ashtangis over the years. From what I have learnt, two common reasons for ex-Ashtangis switching from Ashtanga to some other style are:

(1) Some injury forced them to either stop practicing or modify the practice in a way that they found to be unacceptable;

(2) Some particular postures (backbends are a common example) which are too unpleasant/challenging in an unpleasant way.

Sometimes, I think it is also a combination of (1) and (2): A particular injury or issue resulting from a particular challenging posture forces the practitioner to either have to stop practicing or modify in a way they deem unacceptable. So they switch styles. I have also observed that Anusara is a common style to switch to. Don't know why. It's just my observation.

I don't know how true all this is. As I said, they are just my observations from having being around in the yoga world, and picking up on stuff around me. Yes, I am the yogic fly-on-the wall :-)

Perhaps I should also end this post with a little questionnaire. For those of you out there reading this blog who are ex-Ashtangis (if there are any such), I would be really grateful if you can take the time to answer the following questions:

(1) What made you stop practicing Ashtanga?

(2) What style are you practicing now? How does this style serve your mind/body needs better than Ashtanga?

(3) Do you think your Ashtanga practice has influenced the way you practice your present style in any way, shape or form? Why or why not?

(4) Do you think there is any possibility that you might return to practicing Ashtanga in the future? Why or why not?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A breathing practice: Equalizing inhalation and exhalation

Yesterday, I went on the KPJAYI website. In the section explaining the basics of the practice, it says,

"Breathing is rechaka and puraka, that means inhale and exhale. Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Breathing in this manner purifies the nervous system."

Very simple instructions, right? Keep the inhalation and exhalation even and of equal length while doing the postures, and you will purify your nervous system (yay!). But this is not always easy to do during practice.

During my practice this morning, I kept this passage in mind, and tried my best to keep the inhale and exhale of equal length. I didn't have too many problems with this during primary (I slipped during Supta Kurmasana, but was able to quickly get back into the flow of the breath), but it was in second series that maintaining this evenness of breath became a real challenge for me. In the first few backbends of second, I started noticing a tendency for my breath to quicken, and for the exhalations to come in short bursts of air. Things got to a head in kapotasana. By the time I got my ankles in kapo, my exhales were coming out in really short bursts.

And then something very interesting happened. I started telling myself in kapo, "Try to see if you can control the out-breath more, so that not all the air comes out in one short burst... See if you can kind of "drag" out the exhale a little." And my body actually listened! I managed to slow down my exhalation, so that it was almost (though probably not exactly) equal in length to my inhalation. The moment that happened, I also discovered that I could feel that posture more in the front of the body, especially the quads. Which is a very good sign, since it meant that I wasn't compressing my lower back muscles.

I really feel that this lengthening of the exhalation also benefited my finishing backbends. After three dropbacks and standups, I walked my hands to my heels. I still can't catch my ankles on my own, but I can touch my heels; so it's not quite chakrabandhasana, but something approximating it :-) But something cool happened today. It took fewer walks of my hands to reach my heels, and once there, I could actually see my heels out of the corners of my eyes. Very cool. I'm quite sure that it has something to do with my better control of my breath today.

So here are a couple of insights from today's practice:

1. Getting the inhalation to be the same length as the exhalation takes conscious work, especially in the backbends (at least for me).

2. The more one can get the inhale and exhale to be of equal length, the more deeply one can get into postures. I'm not entirely sure why this is; probably because the more equal in length the two parts of the breath are, the less agitated one is likely to be. My teacher once told me that the tendency among beginning students is to take big gulps of air on the inhalation and expel the air quickly on the exhalation, which tends to make the mind more agitated, both on and off the mat. So if one can equalize inhalation and exhalation, and thus reduce the agitation of the mind, the body also becomes more relaxed and flexible, allowing one to go deeper into postures (especially challenging postures like kapotasana).

All of this reinforces my conviction that the practice is first and foremost a breathing practice. Pretty cool, eh?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Some reflections on Ashtanga and the journey of yoga practice

Lately, I've been thinking about the nature of the Ashtanga practice, and how and why I came to practice Ashtanga. There are many questions that come up in the course of my reflections, questions such as: Do all Ashtangis go through the same experiences and processes in the course of encountering and starting the journey of practice? Are there common themes that run through all such encountering-and-beginning-Ashtanga stories? Or is every practitioner's story very different from every other practitioner's, so that there are no commonalities at all? Is Ashtanga for everyone? If it is not for everyone, what kinds of persons is it for? Why do some people begin with some other style of yoga, and then gravitate towards Ashtanga? Why do others go in the opposite direction, beginning with Ashtanga and then gravitating towards other styles? Do these movements to and away from Ashtanga simply reflect what is going on in the individual's life, and what he or she needs for his or her individual journey? Or do they indicate something deeper about the nature of the yogic journey itself?  

These are big questions, and I cannot pretend to even begin to have answers to them. But I think they are no less worthy of reflection for being big. Maybe I'll begin by sharing a few things about my own journey of practice. 

I'll start by talking about the three things about the Ashtanga practice that really resonate with me: Structure, Simplicity, and Surrender. There is a clear structure, and once you have memorized the postures, there is nothing to think about: Simply do the same postures day in and day out. Some days you will be or feel more flexible and strong, other days less so. But if you keep on with the practice, there is nothing to worry about: All is coming. The practice, by its very nature, demands surrender within effort and effort within surrender: One tries one's best at every posture (effort), and if one doesn't "get" a particular posture today, there's always tomorrow's practice (surrender). It doesn't really matter whether I happen to be feeling tired or full of energy on a particular morning: Either way, I start with the suryas, take everything breath by breath, and see where the ocean of breath/prana takes me on any particular day. Because the postures are always the same, the only thing I can do on any given day is my best: There is less psychological space to "cop out" by saying that I am tired, because even if I am feeling super-tired on a particular day, I just do what my energy level allows me to do on that particular day, which almost always turns out to be much more than I think I can do when I first start out.  David Williams once said at a workshop that the primary purpose of the practice is to increase the amount of prana in the body. In my experience, the practice has this "sneaky" way of increasing one's prana almost without one's noticing it. Even on a "low-energy day", if I start out by telling myself to take everything breath by breath, each passing breath I take slowly increases the amount of prana in my body, so that by the time I get through the standing sequence, I find myself having a lot more energy than before the first Surya A, and I end up doing my usual practice anyway.

But here's what interesting: I didn't always feel this way about the Ashtanga system. I started my yoga journey by teaching myself postures from Mr. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. Early in my journey, I had met a few Ashtanga practitioners, but I wasn't impressed by what they said or did. When they told me that Ashtanga practice consists of doing a set sequence of postures every day, I remember my first reaction being: Why? Isn't the mind/body changing everyday? And if it is changing everyday, wouldn't it need a different sequence of postures everyday to meet its different day-to-day needs? At the same time, all the Ashtanga practitioners I knew at that time were pretty new to the practice, and were struggling with what I felt were pretty basic postures (for example, Parivrtta Trikonasana and the Prasaritas). I know, I have this arrogant streak... But hey, I never said I was a yogic saint, so cut me some slack :-) In any case, all this led me to see Ashtanga practice as a rather futile attempt to try to fit one's body into postures that one is not ready for; it seemed to me at that time that coming up with a specific sequence that is specifically tailored to the needs of one's particular mind/body would be a more productive way to proceed.

Anyway, to cut a very long story short, all these considerations were what prevented me from getting into Ashtanga for a long time. And even now, looking at what I just wrote, I can see how these considerations kind of make sense, on a theoretical level.

But theory is just that: Theory. What works in practice is quite a different story. For the longest time, I did my own custom-made daily home practice, strung together from various places (Yoga Journal, Light on Yoga, and a few other miscellaneous sources). I even "dabbled" with Ashtanga now and then, doing the primary series or parts of it a couple of days a week. This whole arrangement worked for a couple of years. But eventually I got to a point of burnout: There was simply a limit to how far I could go by just stringing together random postures on my own. At some point, I started to feel that I needed something that could challenge me in a more tangible, systematic way. And even though the answer to this need was right in front of my eyes, in a way (I had known about Ashtanga since the earliest days of my yoga journey), it took meeting my teacher in Milwaukee to get me started on the path to a regular mysore practice.

Once I started doing mysore practice everyday, things just clicked: I started seeing the same things in a different light. I began to appreciate what I used to see as blind repetition to be constructive practice, for I began to understand that repetition is actually a very effective way of getting the mind/body to really engrave a particular movement pattern into its memory banks. Repetition is the only way one can progressively free the mind/body from the vicissitudes of past conditioning, by not giving it too many options or ways to run away from the necessity of having to squarely face its own weaknesses and perceived limitations. I also began to have more compassion for the limitations of others. I began to understand that what I used to see as futile attempts to fit one's body to a sequence of postures are actually courageous, honest attempts on the part of the practitioner to challenge his or her limitations little by little, day by day, even if the process of such striving is far from glamorous.

But I can only speak for myself. I know that there are many people out there who see Ashtanga as a very boring, repetitive, and even dangerous and injury-inducing practice. I don't know if their reasons for holding such views are the same as those I used to have, or if they have their own unique reasons that are informed by their own individual unique experiences. I can only understand the practice through my own experience.

But perhaps we can learn from each other. Perhaps we can gain some insight into the nature of Ashtanga practice and the yoga journey as a whole by sharing our own stories with one another. Whether you presently practice Ashtanga or not, please feel free to share. So in this spirit, I'll leave you with a few questions:

(1) Do you presently practice Ashtanga?

(2) If you do, did you start your yoga journey by practicing Ashtanga? If not, what caused you to "switch" to Ashtanga?

(3) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, why not? What are your reasons for not practicing Ashtanga? (Feel free to say anything you want to. There is no "Ashtanga Secret Police" :-))

(4) If you do not practice Ashtanga now, would you be open to practicing it in the future? Why or why not?

I look forward to hearing your views, and to learning as much as possible from what you have to offer.