Thursday, June 30, 2011

Coffee and the practice: A few scattered musings on the Elixir of Immortality

[Image taken from here]

"Black as the devil, Hot as hell,
Pure as an angel, Sweet as love."

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord

Happy Moon Day! Since this is the new moon, you are probably not practicing. Quite possibly, you might be sitting somewhere, enjoying a nice cup of coffee. This is, in fact, what I am doing right now: As I write this, I am sipping my regular morning double espresso :-)

It seems, then, that for many of us, coffee is just as much a part of our daily lives as our practice. In fact, one can even argue that coffee is actually more a part of our daily life than the practice: We don't practice on moon days, but we still drink coffee! For those of us that drink coffee, that is... If you are one of the lucky few who are not in any way dependent on this substance, well, you have my greatest respect: If I were wearing a hat right now, I'd take it off to you :-)

In case you are wondering, this is NOT me taking off my hat to you.
[Image taken from here]

It appears that there are different opinions as to the merits of coffee, even within the Ashtanga community. Many of us know Sharath's famous saying: "No Coffee, No Prana!" I also read something somewhere where somebody claims that Guruji once called coffee the Elixir of Immortality, or something to this effect.

However, many Ashtanga teachers have expressed reservations about the place of coffee in relation to the practice. Matthew Sweeney writes:

"Some individuals also like to drink coffee first thing in the morning, both to aid the bowel movement and to wake up from feeling tired. That is, coffee is used to do both these things rather than actually addressing the issue. First of all, the question of why you are tired should be addressed. Secondly, if you are, either go to sleep earlier or practice later. If you drink coffee to help practice, then it can be said that what goes to practice is not you, it is the coffee. My point here is not to condemn coffee. It is a part of life and may be relatively supportive. I use it here as an example of the illusions you have that may need to be addressed." (Sweeney, page 21)

Gregor Maehle takes an even stronger position on the effects of coffee on practice, claiming that caffeine consumption actually has a direct effect on the physical practice itself:

"Coffee is a stimulant that mobilizes and expels prana that otherwise is used to stabilize the pelvis. This is not a moralistic statement but is based on observation. Over the years, most of my students who had a tendency to have a twisted or imbalanced pelvis were those who insisted on continuing their coffee habit. Decaffeinated coffee or tea does not appear to have the same destabilizing effect." (Maehle, footnote no. 16 on page 125)

Whenever I read Maehle's words here, I can't help but wonder just how he supports this claim. I mean, a variety of physical and psychological factors can contribute to pelvic imbalance: How does he succeed in isolating caffeine consumption as a decisive contributing factor, among all these different possible contributors? I'm not saying he's wrong: I'm just wondering out loud.

In any case, why is there such a divergence in opinion about the merits of coffee? In my now-famous (ahem!) post, "Coffee and Siddhis: A Fantastic Tale", I propose the fantastic hypothesis that perhaps the coffee that the Jois's brew and drink is imbued with some special yogic power, or siddhi, and thus possesses some special properties that ordinary coffee (the kind that Maehle is referring to) lacks: In other words, the coffee that Sharath brews and drinks gets the prana flowing and focuses it, while the coffee that the rest of us drink totally messes up the prana and throws the pelvis all out of whack! (Disclaimer: This is only a fantastic hypothesis. I am not making any scientific claims here. Definitely do not start throwing rotten eggs (or spilling stale coffee) at me.)   

Another possible reason for this divergence might lie in one obvious geographical fact: Both Sweeney and Maehle are from Australia! Perhaps there is something about the atmospheric conditions down under which affects the composition of prana in coffee when it is brewed in that part of the world, so that (perhaps) coffee that is brewed in Australia has certain prana-scattering effects that are not found in coffee in the rest of the world! (Disclaimer: Again, I mean this as a purely fantastic hypothesis. If you are from Australia, please do not take offense. Uh oh, am I going to start losing Australian readers? Well, if you are an Australian Patriot (or whatever the Aussie term for this is, excuse my ignorance), please feel free to challenge this claim :-))

Yet another possibility is that coffee affects different body-types/dosha-types differently. Perhaps, depending on your body-type/dosha-type, coffee can either really get your prana on in the morning, or really mess up your prana flow. I think this sounds somewhat plausible, although I have no scientific/ayurvedic evidence to back it up.

So it seems that the jury is still out (and will probably be out for a very long time to come) on the effects of coffee on our overall health and well-being in general, and on our practice in particular. So if you are a coffee-drinker, please continue to enjoy your daily cup/s of coffee. If you are not a coffee-drinker, well, continue to not drink coffee (duh?).

Come to think of it, this may be a good place to conduct a poll (I seem to be in a poll mood lately; polls are fun, aren't they? :-)). You will see a coffee poll in the top right-hand corner of this blog. Please take a moment to cast your vote.

Last but not least, I think this is also a good place to indulge in some pretentious poetry writing. In this spirit, I present you my latest coffee poem (written pretentiously in old English, to boot):

Ode to that Exotic Black Beverage from Distant Shores

Hail Ol' Coffee!
What Thick Black Brew
Hath from Distaff Shores
To Yonder Coffee-table Traveled?  
Some like Thee Black,
Others have Thee with Cream
And possibly some Sugar.
Some Hail Thee as the Elixir of Everlasting Life,
Others Revile Thee as a Prana-scattering Scourge.
Art Thou Boon or Bane to Ashtangis with their Stupid O'Clock Morning Routines?
If Thou Art Boon,
Wherefore Art Thou not Universally Loved and Revered?
If Thou Art Bane,
Wherefore do so many swear by Thy Thick Luxurious Body and Richly Textured Skin?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I've split!

 [Image taken from here.]

Well, the full story is actually a bit more complicated than that. But the title of this post succinctly expresses what I did with my practice this morning: For the first time in more than a year, I stopped doing primary, and did only second series up to Karandavasana.

If you are new to Ashtanga, you might be wondering: What's this splitting business about? Well, here's a useful, if somewhat cheesy analogy. You can think of your practice as being like a banana split. Suppose your present practice consists of primary up to, say, Navasana. Think of the standing sequence and the finishing sequence as constituting each of the two banana halves, and the primary postures you have been given so far (up to Navasana) as the ice-cream (this includes the three scoops of ice-cream, the cherries, the whipped cream, and all that good stuff). Sounds yummy, right? :-)

As you progress in your practice, your teacher will give you more postures (i.e. more ice-cream). At some point, you will find yourself doing full primary (i.e. Utkatasana to Setu Bandhasana. More experienced practitioners out there will probably be thinking: What, Utkatasana? I thought Dandasana is the first posture in the primary series! Well, I'll explain this shortly. For now, just play along with me.). So anyway, when your teacher deems you ready, he or she will start giving you second series postures (Pasasana, Krounchasana, and all that good stuff). As a result, your practice will get longer and longer: What used to take just half an hour (when you were just doing the Suryas and some standing postures) now takes two hours or more. Since you are a householder (I think), you probably can't afford to spend like, three hours everyday doing this practice. Besides, too much of a good thing can also sometimes be a bad thing. If you think in terms of the banana split again, you will see that if there is too much good stuff between the two banana halves, the banana halves will not be able to contain it, and the ice-cream and assorted good stuff will start spilling over, making a mess of your life! Same goes with the practice...

So, when your teacher has given you a certain number of second series postures, he or she will decide that you are now ready to be "split", that is, you are now ready to practice only the second series postures you have been given, and to practice primary only on Fridays (or whatever your last practice day of the week is; mine's Saturday.). Exactly where in second series you get split will depend on the teacher's judgment of your readiness: Some students get split at Ekapada Sirsasana, others (like me) don't get split till Karandavasana.

I hope the above cute story helps with understanding what splitting is about. :-) On to my story. As I was saying, this morning, I split my practice for the first time since I got injured last year and had to scale my practice back to primary only, and build everything back up from there (see this post for more details). But as I was also saying, it's a bit more complicated than that. I did not split the traditional way. Traditionally, when one is split, one goes into second series immediately after Parsvottanasana. However, not all teachers advocate this traditional way of splitting. Matthew Sweeney and Lino Miele suggest that it is useful to continue to do the two balancing postures (Utthita Hasta Pandangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottasana) in one's daily practice even after one has split. Sweeney explains the rationale behind this view:

"When practicing Intermediate or Advanced asana on their own, the traditional practice is to stop doing standing postures after Parsvottanasana and to commence the vinyasa for that series from there. However, it is advisable to keep practicing the two balance postures that follow it, particularly Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana. As this asana is found to be difficult for many students, it is useful to practice it every day. Also, the first full vinyasa for Primary begins with Utkatasana. That is, Utkatasana is in fact the first primary posture, not Dandasana. As the vinyasa for Pasasana is almost exactly the same, the Intermediate sequence can be begun the same way as Utkatasana." (Sweeney, page 14)

So, to sum up, there are at least two different views of splitting out there:

The Traditional view: Go into Intermediate from Parsvottanasana.

The Sweeney/Miele view: Go into Intermediate from Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana.

This morning, I went into Pasasana after Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. In other words, I followed the Sweeney/Miele view. Personally, I think there is another advantage to splitting this way: Doing Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana gives me an opportunity to practice half-lotus from standing, and thus open up the external hip rotators. If I were to go into Intermediate without having done Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, I would have to go into Padmasana "cold" immediately after Kapotasana (to go into Supta Vajrasana), without the advantage of having had the same opening. As I am still not confident enough in my present level of hip-openness to feel comfortable about going into Padmasana "cold" from Kapotasana, I think that this way of splitting serves me well.

I have also consulted Kino about this. Her response is that although it is not currently traditional to split in this way, if I feel that this way of splitting is helpful and beneficial to me, I should do it. As a caveat, she added: "Just know that if you go to Mysore or if you take Sharath's classes you would not do these two postures. Sooner or later your hips will also be open enough to go straight into lotus after kapotasana too.

That last sentence is nice to know :-) As for the sentence before that... well, I suppose by "take Sharath's classes", she means Led Intermediate. Hmm... I am definitely a long way from being able to survive (or even do) Led Intermediate with Sharath. I mean, imagine getting into Kapotasana in one breath? "Supta inhale, hands on your hips. Ashtau exhale, arch back and grab your heels..." But in any case, it's still very nice to know that there is somebody out there who actually thinks that this is a real enough possibility for me to be worth mentioning in black and white :-) 

Kino also suggested that if I don't feel comfortable splitting "full-time" right away, I can transition into it gradually: I can do the "whole shlep" (primary and second up to Karandavasana) on the first two days of the week, do second only on three days, and do primary only on the last day. I think this is a very good suggestion. I will do that for the next few weeks, and see how things go from there. 

Alright, I guess I'll sign off here. I was planning on going into great detail about how my first split practice went, but that would make an already long post even longer (Just a brief note here: I actually managed to grab my heels/ankles in Kapotasana without having all that internal heat generated from doing Primary beforehand. Pretty cool, don't you think?). 


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How can one be spiritual without hitting somebody over the head with spirituality? (I don't know the answer)

“Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.”

Mahatma Gandhi

A couple of days ago, I had a very interesting and revealing conversation with my fiancee; let's call her K. In order for the conversation to make sense to you, I need to start by telling a rather long, meandering story. Please bear with me; I can't seem to resist any excuse to tell stories :-)

Here's the story. In the summer of 2007, I spent three weeks on Maui attending a three-week asana intensive at Eddie Modestini's and Nicki Doane's studio. Eddie and Nicki are both authorized to teach Ashtanga by KPJAYI. In addition, Eddie was one of the first individuals in this country to be certified to teach Iyengar yoga; I hear that back in the day, the Iyengar certification process was very rigorous (it probably still is), and only a few people got certified to teach the Iyengar method. Eddie and Nicki combine their expertise in both these systems to create Maya Yoga, which is a very intelligent blend of the Iyengar and Ashtanga methods. If you ever have a chance to study with them, you should (especially on Maui; there's some really powerful energy on that island that brings out the stuff in you; but I should leave this for another post); their teaching is totally mind-blowing and life-changing in a very authentic and no-nonsense way.

But I digress. Back to my story. Actually, I'm going to need to digress a bit more; but trust me, everything comes together. You'll see. By the spring of 2007, I had been practicing yoga on my own for a couple of years, stringing together my own asana sequences from Light on Yoga (I had yet to become an Ashtangi at that time). But I was getting to a point where I felt that if I was going to get anywhere in my practice, I had to go study with a real teacher. So I did a bit of research, and took classes at a couple of workshops and conferences. I took Eddie's and Nicki's workshop at a yoga conference in Miami, and was really impressed by their systematic, no-nonsense approach to the practice. I decided that I needed to study with them for a more substantial period of time. After a little more research and reflection, I decided to go study with them on Maui. At that time, I was a poor grad student (I am still not rich, but that's another story). What's worse, the department did not assign me any classes to teach that summer, which meant I had to go an entire three months with zero income. But something in me told me that this was a opportunity to go for broke and really change something in my life (if not now, then when?), and show those eggheads (i.e. my fellow grad students and some professors, who regarded my new-found passion for yoga with a mixture of bemusement and suspicion, and believed that I was irreversibly morphing into some kind of new-agey/hippie type) that my life was so much bigger and much more powerful than working on miserable dissertations and publishing books and articles that maybe a hundred people around the world will read (if one is lucky). Oh no, this post is in danger of spiraling into an angry rant against academia. I better stop here...

Okay.. Ahem! Back to the story (what story?!). Well, as I was saying, I was faced with the prospect of having no income for the entire summer, and yet I wanted to go to Maui very badly. I think you can see how crazy this would sound to any clearheaded, rational-minded person ("What?! You have no money, and yet you want to go to Hawaii for three weeks for a yoga vacation? Get real, dude!"). So I humbled myself, and asked my dad for money for the airfare. At the same time, I managed to get into a work-trade agreement with Eddie and Nicki; basically, I would take the asana intensive for a reduced rate in exchange for doing work around the studio and on their property. I also managed to secure another work-trade agreement from a nearby farm, which allowed me to stay there for $10 a day for the entire three weeks (no small matter for Maui, where hotels can easily run two or three hundred dollars a night) in exchange for performing small chores around the farm. And I managed to put together a little money to spend on food and miscellaneous stuff (like going to Nancy Gilgoff's studio for Mysore classes on my off days :-)) So, if you are thinking of going to Maui, but don't know if you have the money, remember my story :-)

I learnt lots of things from Eddie and Nicki during those three weeks (this will again take another post or two, so I won't go into this here). At the same time, I also met some interesting people on the farm. Again, I realize that I can probably spend an entire post describing all the people that I met on that farm, but that would have to be, well, another post. For the purposes of this post, I'll just describe two people I met. These are two middle-aged women who live together on a nearby property. They sometimes come over to the farm to hang out. Over the course of a few days, I learnt that one of the women was a Yoga-Alliance certified teacher; she was certified by this organization called Phoenix Rising Yoga, which is a therapeutic form of yoga which I know nothing about. Together, the two of them were working on turning their property into a retreat space. They were planning on organizing and selling retreat packages to vacationers; for a fixed fee, the participant in such a retreat would be treated to beautiful accommodations in an idyllic natural setting, with gourmet meals, and twice-daily yoga classes, among other things. Which sounds wonderful. Except that during the course of one of my conversations with them, one of them (I can't remember if it was the yoga teacher, or the other woman) suddenly paused, and asked me if I minded her smoking. I should have been more honest, and said I did (I can't stand cigarette smoke). But being the nice Asian dude that I am, I smiled in what must have been a very mild-mannered and unassuming manner, and said, "Go ahead." Argghh... don't I hate myself at times like this... Anyway, the two of them took out their cigarettes, and basically started puffing away like chimneys right there and then. I know I'm being really judgmental, but do you see the disconnect here? We basically have two people who profess to be into holistic lifestyles, and are in the business of selling such a lifestyle to others, puffing away like walking chimneys! Well, I don't know; maybe in some alternative Hawaiian universe, smoking is good for you. What do I know?

But let's get back to what started this whole post: The conversation I had with K a couple of days ago. I basically told her the above story of these two, uh, holistic women, accompanied with my judgmental tone of voice and disapproving looks. I was relating this story, and basking in my moral victory and feeling of being spiritually superior, when she stopped me short, "But don't you think that other people could say the same thing about you? You don't smoke or eat meat, but you do drink beer and eat tons of potato chips! What do you think somebody would think if you told them all about the wonders of Ashtanga, and then they catch you drinking?" That stopped me short. Somewhere in the depths of my being, I could hear a loud crashing sound; the sound of the imposing edifice of my supposed spiritual superiority crumbling to the ground, demolished beyond any hope of reconstruction...

Of course, if I had been a little quicker on my feet, I could have responded with something like, "Yeah, but at least I'm not trying to sell anybody any kind of holistic lifestyle, and trying to look all holistic and shit! I just do my own little practice in my own little body, and try to share my practice with whoever wants to do it." But alas, being quick on my feet has never been one of my strong suits. So I basically spent the next hour in this really bummed out and deflated/busted state of mind; I eventually succeeded in pulling myself out of this state by putting a Woody Allen movie into the DVD player, and sitting in front of the TV for a couple of hours with a beer and a bag of chips! Well, so there you have it: You can basically describe me as a Chinese guy who does Ashtanga, drinks beer, eats potato chips, and watches Woody Allen movies (I actually have a friend who thinks I am the Woody Allen of Singapore, which I think is a very high compliment ;-)).

But what disturbs me is that for at least a moment, I had fallen into the trap of using my perceived spiritual superiority as a club to hit somebody over the head with. I could be wrong about this, but I suspect that many spiritual or holistically-minded people out there also fall into the same trap; consciously or unconsciously, they have a tendency to use their own perceived spiritual superiority as a club (or even baseball bat) to hit others over the head with.

Is there a way to overcome this tendency? Do you have any tips or experiences or interesting stories to share?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Traditional Mysore method vs. Led class method: How did you learn Ashtanga?

If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a little while, you are probably familiar with the difference between these two methods of learning Ashtanga. In the traditional Mysore method, the student comes to the teacher as a complete beginner and learns the primary series one posture at a time, starting with Suryanamaskar A. In the led class method (which, I suspect, is probably the way the majority of students in the west first encounter Ashtanga), the student jumps into a led full or half (or less) primary class, and goes along with the pace and the postures as best she can. Over time, by coming repeatedly to the class, the student will hopefully pick up the order of the postures, and start her own practice.

Matthew Sweeney has this to say about the traditional Mysore method:

"...the traditional method of learning Astanga yogasana begins with the mind as much as the body. When a complete beginner learns Suryanamaskara, he or she repeats it until it is committed to memory, that is, body memory rather than just intellectual memory. Self-practice begins with the first class. It does not really matter how well (physically) the individual does it; there should be no judgment on how it looks. Memorising the practice is vital. This is often more confronting for a beginner than physically doing it." (Sweeney, page 7)

However, Sweeney continues:

"This is not to say that this is the only way to teach Astanga yoga. It is common for many students to do led classes for the first few years as a way to become physically acclimatised. However, self practice is the most effective way for a student to remember. If beginning students are shown thirty postures in the sequence, they will only remember the first and the last posture (maybe). If they do just two postures at their own pace, they will remember them both. The slower it goes in, the deeper it penetrates." (Sweeney, page 7)

Sweeney then goes on elaborate on the rationale behind the traditional Mysore method:

"Repetition is a key aspect of learning. As the postures are committed to memory there is a corresponding level of trust in the body: you know what you are doing, you know what comes next. There is no anxiety anticipating what the next thing will be. The physical aspect begins to develop with a gradual increase of flexibility and strength as the body and mind synchronise. It is most important to focus on the process rather than the outcome." (Sweeney, page 7)

I totally feel and appreciate Sweeney's words. However, I did not learn Ashtanga by the traditional method, as much as I wish to be able to say that I did so. I started my yoga practice by doing postures from B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga. I did this Iyengar-inspired practice on my own for a couple of years, making up asana sequences on my own based on Mr. Iyengar's recommendations in Appendix I of his book. By the time I went to my first Mysore class, I was physically capable of doing almost all of the postures in the primary series (I couldn't bind on the second side in Mari D, and I had trouble rolling up in Urdhva Paschimottasana). Because the teacher in that first class was sharp-eyed enough to see this (and was kind enough to keep "feeding" me postures, as I had no idea what posture came after what posture), she didn't bother to put me through the traditional method; which meant that I ended up doing the full primary series at my very first Mysore class. Totally useless factoid: This was actually on Maui, at Nancy Gilgoff's studio. However, Nancy was away teaching a workshop, and her assistant was teaching the class that day. I wonder what Nancy would have done with me :-)

So, for better or for worse, I did not learn Ashtanga by the traditional Mysore method. After that first class, I was so embarrassed by the fact that I did not know the sequence (I also felt that I was hogging the teacher's attention, which made me feel even more embarrassed) that I immediately went to a bookstore later that day and got hold of a book on Ashtanga. I then spent a couple of hours each day over the next few days memorizing the primary series. By the third or fourth (or fifth, I can't remember exactly) day, I had the entire sequence of postures memorized.      

Today, I still wonder how things would have been different if I had learnt Ashtanga the traditional way. I also understand that the larger fitness community is quite divided as to whether Ashtanga is really an appropriate form of yoga for people who are totally new to yoga. Just the other day, for instance, I came across this fitness information website that offers a general survey of the different styles of yoga out there. The author of this website suggests (in so many words) that Ashtanga may not be appropriate for beginner yogis, especially those who are inflexible and/or out of shape. When I read things like this, I often wonder if the authors know anything about the traditional Mysore method of learning Ashtanga. If they are basing their claims solely on led classes (and beginners' experiences of feeling overwhelmed and/or disoriented in such classes), then it is understandable that they would think that Ashtanga is unsuitable for beginners.

Anyway, this is an interesting topic (at least for me), and I think this is also a good time to do something I haven't done in a while: A quiz! So I'll leave you with the following questions:

(1) Did you first learn Ashtanga by the traditional Mysore method, or by going to a led class?
(2) In either case, do you wish that you had learnt Ashtanga via a different method? Why or why not?

If you feel that answering quiz questions is too personal and/or time-consuming, you can also vote! I have just started a poll on this question on the top right-hand corner of this blog. This is the first time I have ever conducted a poll on this blog, so it'll be really cool if you can participate :-) Of course, you can also answer these quiz questions (by commenting) AND vote! In fact, I personally highly recommend this; I love hearing what you have to say :-)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Matthew Sweeney on Female Sexual Issues

I said I was going to write a post summarizing Sweeney's views on female sexual issues, as a complement to my earlier post on his views on male sexual issues. So here goes. As I have no first-hand experiential knowledge of female sexual issues (for obvious reasons :-)), I'm pretty much just going to report what he says here. Any commentary on my part will be quite minimal.

The general recommendations that he makes about Brahmacharya apply to females as well (see my earlier post on male sexual issues on more details on this). Sweeney writes:

"For women, intercourse combines both prana (intake) and apana (discharge). The four basic phases of the moon greatly influence the degree to which a woman is feeling sexual. The asana practice should support and coincide with each of these phases, with a slightly (or greatly) different emphasis for each.

With improved practice, also including various pevic floor/meditation exercises, a woman can increase her awareness of menstruation and ovulation. Both of these cycles will become more refined and ideally pain free. In particular, the depletion of energy associated with the loss of blood will become less and less. Blood flow should still occur (until menopause) but without the negative mental and physical side effects. Do not focus solely on the menstruation aspect of the cycle. Place equal emphasis on ovulation. As your awareness of both halves of your cycle increases your system will harmonise.

During intercourse pay more attention to the cervix, the mula bandha and the ovaries. Accentuate the upward movement of your energy on the inhalation. Through awareness of this lower region and the lower two chakra, you can begin to access the microcosmic orbit, channelling your sexual energy to the higher centres. As you begin to balance a healthy sense of your own boundaries with surrender to your own primal energy, right-relationship manifests. That is, as you begin to fully trust yourself, trust in your sexual partner will then develop correspondingly." (Sweeney, page 22)

I really feel that these last two sentences are very insightful, and apply equally to both males and females. Sweeney then concludes:

"The integration of your lunar polarities is the feminine aspect of raising kundalini. Sexually this will tend to manifest as multiple, sustained orgasms. The combination of the refined masculine and feminine sexual process co-creates more choices regarding sexual activity and conception.

The asana practice can adversely affect your sexual capacity. Through continuous practice, profuse sweating and intense concentration, you might often feel tired, depleted and unmotivated sexually. Alternatively you may feel a heightened sense of sexuality and be tempted to perceive the practice in a purely sexual manner. These are passing phases, but if they persist it is important to either change the practice, or at least change your attitude to the practice. Do not use the practice as an escape from dealing with what is, from dealing with your own sexual and sensual issues. Come into contact with your own sexual experience and enjoy the process as it is."

I hope all this is beneficial and helpful to you in some way. May the Force be with you.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Practice report: Led Primary with Sharath, the vinyasa count in Mari C and D

I did Sharath's led primary this morning for the first time in many months. I had to do primary at my own pace after I tweaked my right knee when moving to Minnesota last year, and going into, say, Marichyasana D in one vinyasa count was quite simply impossible (at least, not possible without tweaking my knee even more).

So it was with some apprehension that I put the CD into the player, and heard Sharath's voice come on. My knee has recovered to the point where I can get into padmasana and all its variations in primary without any pain or discomfort if I pay attention to alignment and not try to push through things. But thus far, this has been true of my own practice, at my own pace; it still remained to be seen whether this would hold up to Sharath's strict vinyasa count. Moreover, Sharath's led primary is 68 minutes (including opening and closing chants; yes, an hour and eight minutes!), and my own full primary has never been shorter than an hour and twenty minutes. Will I have the strength and stamina to survive Sharath's relentless pace?

Well, things turned out much better than I expected on the strength and stamina front. I kept pace quite easily with Sharath throughout the whole thing. When I got to the closing chants, I was just a little bit breathless, but otherwise, the whole practice was nice and smooth. I am surprised at this; maybe all that full primary and second up to Karandavasana has been really helping me to build up my strength and stamina, without my knowing it? Interesting.

There was also another interesting discovery. This one is about the vinyasa count. It turns out that this whole time, I have been operating under the mistaken assumption that I have two vinyasa counts to get into both Marichyasanas C and D. I have been thinking that the count is "Sapta: Inhale, jump into the posture, Ashtau: Exhale, bind + 5 breaths". Turns out I was wrong. For Mari C and D, it is simply Sapta: Inhale, jump into the posture, bind. And then the counting starts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5...). The first time I got into Mari C this morning (on the first side), I was unaware of this, and actually found myself thinking: Hey, wait a minute, Sharath! You forgot Ashtau! And I found myself fumbling to get my wrist as he started counting, "one.." 

But when I think about it a little more, this vinyasa count for Mari C and D makes sense, actually: Since there is no forward bending involved in Mari C and D, why would you need Ashtau to bend forward into the posture? Of course, this makes things a bit more challenging for me. Now I know that if I want to follow the vinyasa count strictly, I really only have one count to jump into the posture and bind in Mari C and D.

Well, I just realized that unless you are an Ashtanga geek like I am, you probably won't find any of the things I said above interesting. But well, this being a yoga blog, I should talk about my practice at least some of the time in order to maintain a certain level of authenticity, shouldn't I? ;-)

In other news: I actually have a question that I hope at least some of you out there might be able to answer. Over the last couple of months, I have noticed that a post that I wrote quite a few months ago titled "Coffee and Siddhis: A Fantastic Tale" has been consistently getting pageviews from visitors. Which leaves me quite surprised, since I do not know of any websites or blogs that link to this post (I even did a google search on it to find out). I'm not complaining, of course: I love it when people read my blog posts, no matter how they get to them! :-) But I'm still mystified: How do so many readers know to find this particular post? Do any of you out there have any answers to this? Just curious.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Joy and Sorrow

[Image taken from here]

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater."

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.

When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet

Untying the knots of our being: Matthew Sweeney on the granthi, bandhas, and the practice

I spent yesterday evening and part of this morning reading Matthew Sweeney's exposition of the three granthi (knots) in our being, and the relation of these granthi to the bandhas. Since his exposition is still fresh in my mind, I thought I'll share it here, along with a little commentary here and there by yours truly :-) And yes, I did say yesterday that I was going to share his views about female sexual issues. I have not forgotten that; all is coming :-)

The three granthi, or knots, relate to the body, emotion and mind respectively. They are:

1. Brahma granthi: This granthi is situated at the muladhara chakra and also governs the svadisthana chakra. This granthi deals with the most solid nature of our being, "bodily issues as basic physical health, genetic history, physical liveliness, sexuality, pro-creation and the kapha dosa. It is concerned with the deepest desires and instincts." (Sweeney, page 27).

2. Visnu granthi: This granthi is situated in the heart or anahata chakra, and governs the manipuraka chakra also. This granthi "deals with both caring for the self and caring for others." In this way, it combines the functions of both the manipuraka and anahata chakras: The manipuraka chakra deals with survival on a personal level: "food, digestion, work, nourishing the self and the pitta dosha." The anahata chakra, on the other hand, deals with "caring, relationship, connection and community." (Sweeney, page 27). In short, the Visnu granthi governs and regulates both the survival of the self, and the peaceful co-existence of this self in community with others. 

3. Siva granthi: This granthi is situated at the third eye or ajna chakra, and also governs the throat or visuddha chakra. This granthi "deals with both thought and speech; the mind and its activities." It is connected with the vata dosa. Sweeney notes that issues with this granthi are commonly manifested in "[a]n overactive or underactive intellect, disconnection from the physical body, becoming emotionally numb, continuous talking, or inability to communicate." (Sweeney, page 27) [Nobel: Yikes! This sounds disturbingly like me...]

If you are not familiar with the chakras and their locations, this picture might be helpful:

[Image taken from here]

In most human beings, each of these granthi has varying levels of disturbance, "from illness, to addictions, to mild pain and anxiety" (hence "knot"). One is able to untie these knots when one is fully conscious of the granthi, when one has accepted and integrated the polarities in one's life. (Sweeney, page 27).
I guess you are probably thinking: Where does our practice come into the picture? According to Sweeney, the tristhana (asana, breathing and drishti) can be seen as aids to help us untie the granthi:
"The postures begin to purify the lower granthi (body), ujjayi breathing begins to purify the middle granthi (nervous system or emotion) and the withdrawal of the senses inherent in the dristi begins to purify the upper granthi (mind). From the perspective of the breath the inhalation brings life to the hidden areas of the body, blind spots and tensions stemming from the granthi. The exhalation releases tension, calming the mind. As the breath purifies, tensions release, the mind calms and the granthi begin to dissolve.

The three bandha are inextricably linked with the three granthi. As Sri T. Krisnamacharya once said, the bandha are not something you do, but a blockage to be removed. In other words, the granthi and the bandha are aspects of the same trio and the term lock or knot is synonymous. The term bandha on one level means the physical contraction of a specific part of the body to re-direct energy. That is, by holding the asana in a centred way, the physical knots of the body untie. On a deeper level the bandha energy only becomes unlocked when the granthi are untied. It is stressed that awareness is crucial, that at this level the bandha are almost entirely psychological rather than physiological. That is, the physical practice of the bandha is very much secondary to self awareness and self acceptance and in some cases may hinder them.

The contraction of the mula bandha is not a physical contraction at all. It is the raising of energy and awareness through the muladhara chakra into the susumna nadi. In terms of the granthi this seems to imply the purification of the body, which certainly helps. More importantly, it is complete acceptance of the body as it is. This may appear paradoxical at first, but one condition does not prevent the other. It is acceptance that promotes true purification rather than the other way around." (Sweeney, page 28)

As I was reading these paragraphs, I was struck by a realization. We may speak of "purifying the body/nervous system", or "untying knots". Such a way of speaking implies that certain things (purification of the mind/body, untying of knots) happen as a direct result of our efforts. But this is not true. The practice, strictly speaking, doesn't do anything. It puts us in a place where we can see ourselves for what we truly are. When we see ourselves for what we truly are, the knots will untie themselves, and true lasting change becomes possible. Sweeney continues:

"True change is made possible when you are in contact with what is, when you realise what you are. It does not occur when you try to become something you are not. This is delusion. With the latter there can only be a constant war between the desire for what you should be and what you are. This is one of the more troubling truths that most yoga practitioners have to deal with. No amount of asana or pranayama or meditation practice will make you a better person or hasten your development. Nothing will. For there is nothing better than being what you are, right now. This is the only way the bandha are truly activated and the knots untied.

The practice can only bring you into yourself if it is done with awareness. Awareness is the only key ingredient, all other processes are secondary. Awareness must involve some kind of contact with what is, or it is illusory. The practice helps to maintain this contact with reality. It is important not to slide into the path of least resistance or to avoid what is difficult....

Complete acceptance is not tamasic or withdrawn and apathetic. Neither is it rajasic, that is actively seeking to purify the body or mind. It is sattvic, the balanced state beyond duality. Transcendence also indicates surrender to a higher principle, or God. No matter what difficulty, disease or problem arises, the multiple layers of its existence should be understood and embraced. The difficulty has a benefit, somehow, a purpose for that time and place. Disease becomes transformed and absorbed into the greater quality of gratefulness. Acceptance brings with it a degree of purification but the disease may still remain. Everybody grows old and dies. By accessing the timeless here and now, the ageing process is slowed and the individual remains forever young at heart...

The idea that asana practice will eventually bring about a perfect state of health is problematic. Asana practice may make you stronger or more flexible, but in some areas it might not. Some change will always be there, but the form that change takes is beyond your control. To keep hoping that the future will bring perfection or even a moment of happiness is a problem which only self acceptance can resolve." (Sweeney, pages 28-29)

I can say more, but I really think Sweeney has said what needs to be said very succinctly, and anything else I can add will probably be quite redundant. So I'll leave you here. Have fun, and may the Force be with you :-)


Thursday, June 23, 2011

More Yoga Bum Ruminations: An Addendum of sorts to my earlier Yoga Bum post

Yikes! I must really be a yoga bum (or at least a yoga bum wannabe) if I am actually posting for the second time today. But I just can't resist this, so bear with me.

About an hour ago, Yyogini wrote a post in response to my earlier post about being a yoga bum. Being a much more careful writer than I am, Yyogini went and looked up the dictionary definition of a bum, which is:
"person who avoids work and sponges on others; loafer;idler."

My first reaction on seeing this definition was: Yikes! I certainly have no intention of wanting to be (or insinuating that anybody is) a loafer/idler who sponges on others. Well, perhaps "bum" wasn't such a good word choice on my part, to begin with. What I really meant was something like, "somebody who does not have to work (in the conventional capitalistic sense), but still gets all of his or her needs and wants taken care of." I really don't know what the appropriate word to describe such a person might be: Maybe something like "Yoga Dude" or "Yoga Dudette"?

In any case, some of you out there might still think that I am indulging in wishful thinking. Well, maybe... But think about this: If the United States government can shell out billions of dollars everyday without even blinking, just to send young people halfway across the world to kill and be killed (i.e. the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), what can be so wrong with paying one person a measly one hundred grand a year just to live in peace with his fellow human beings? Is this really that much to ask, in the bigger scheme of things?

It may also be worth pointing out that many senior Ashtanga teachers were probably labeled as wishful thinkers when they first started trying to teach and share yoga with others. A few years ago, at a workshop in Florida, David Williams shared about how he would teach yoga in a park, and had to pool money together from his students in order to pay for the plane ticket for Guruji's first trip to Encinitas. 

Gee, this is becoming a big preachy post, so I guess I'll sign off here. But before I do so, I should say a couple more things about where I got this idea of being a yoga bum/dude from. A few years ago, I read Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. I understand that Yogananda is a controversial figure in the spiritual community, and I honestly still don't know what to make of the many siddhis that he describes various yogis as having in the book. But in reading the book, I was really struck by his whole-hearted passion and conviction in the power of yoga, the belief that if one practices hard and sincerely enough, the universe will take care of one. Well, what's a hundred grand a year in the face of that kind of conviction? 


Matthew Sweeney on the practice and sex for men

My copy of Matthew Sweeney's Ashtanga Yoga As It Is arrived in the mail yesterday. It's been a very interesting read so far. The book is not a beginner's guide to Ashtanga, or a how-to-do-such-and-such-asanas book. Rather, it is geared towards people who have had some experience with the practice, and would like to know more about the finer aspects of the practice; things that are often alluded to by teachers and practitioners, but not often discussed. So, for the next couple of weeks, starting with this post, I will be periodically posting about certain topics and things that he discusses in the book, and sharing my thoughts and feelings about it. And I will keep doing it, unless you get tired of it and ask me to stop ("Nobel, move on to something else already!"). If you have any thoughts or feelings that you would like to share, but do not feel comfortable commenting, you can also email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com.

As I said, the book deals with many details of Ashtanga life that are not covered much in other books on Ashtanga (at least to my knowledge). One of the topics that Sweeney deals with very skilfully and in much detail is the topic of sex. He has very detailed things to say about both male and female sexual issues. In this post, I will say a couple of general things, and then talk about what he says about male sexual issues (I'm actually also a bit biased, since I'm male :-)). In an upcoming post, I will then talk about his views about female sexual issues (stay tuned).

Sweeney has a very interesting perspective about Brahmacharya. Ever since I started practicing yoga, I have sensed that Brahmacharya is a very contentious and polarizing issue. In my understanding, there are at least two competing views of what Brahmacharya means in the yoga community:

(1) In order to practice Brahmacharya properly, you must be celibate (no sex or masturbation).

(2) In order to practice Brahmacharya properly, you must use your sexual energy wisely. Only engage in sexual relations with somebody with whom you are in a committed relationship (there is, of course, quite a bit of leeway as to what "committed" really means; if I commit myself to person A today, but suddenly find myself mysteriously drawn to and wanting to commit to person B tomorrow, does this mean that I can have sex with A today, and B tomorrow? But this makes this view of Brahmacharya sound like a Woody Allen movie, so I'll not go further here.)

At any rate, this is what Sweeney has to say about Brahmacharya:

'The practice of brahmacharya is undeniably useful; particularly to understand your own sexual tensions and your relationship to others. Periodic celibacy can increase awareness of sexual prana and tends to increase the energy flow to the higher centres. To repeat, it is a practice of awareness and observation, rather than control and restriction. Brahmacharya is translated as "teacher of the soul".' (page 22)

The last two sentences are key here. The ultimate purpose of practicing brahmacharya lies in teaching the soul to cultivate awareness and observation, not in controlling and restricting it. As such, depending on the individual and his or her unique circumstances at any particular point in time, either (1) complete celibacy or (2) wise, judicious use of sexual energy could be appropriate. Sweeney sums it up in this way:

"Sexual issues vary for each individual. It is your relationship to your own particular sexual process that should become clearer whether you engage in intercourse, masturbation or celibacy. Each individual should work with their own unique sexual process. By understanding and integrating the full power of your own sexual drive and desires, you will no longer be manipulated by your own hidden, unconscious and conflicting needs; self-expression rather than self-suppression." (page 21-22)

Very interesting. But what do you do if you are a guy, and you do decide to have sex? Sweeney continues:

"For a man, there may be a need for increased sexual control, whether in complete abstinence or in delayed ejaculation. To an extent greater control is useful, but this should always be tempered by an ability to let go and surrender to the natural process. The masculine is empowered through surrender to and fulfillment of his own primal energy. Focus on the process rather than the goal. The sexual experience for a man usually culminates with apanic elimination: ejaculation. If this is over indulged then tiredness, depletion or exhaustion may result. The asana practice should help with both sexual control and an increase in energy that supports the sexual process. During intercourse pay attention to the perineal area, the mula bandha and your breath. [Nobel: Turns out that Sharath is right: It is possible to engage mula bandha 24/7... even during sex :-)] Accentuate the upward movement of your energy on the inhalation...

By becoming aware of the base two chakra [the muladhara chakra and the svadisthana chakra], and the ability to feel the energy moving along the central channel, you can then begin to practice what is called the microcosmic orbit, of channelling the physical sexual energy to the higher centres... Various effects such as increased sensitivity, waves of bliss and heightened states of consciousness may begin to manifest. Almost as a side effect, the capacity to orgasm without ejaculation will become possible. This does not imply that ejaculation (or masturbation) is in any way wrong. It is becoming conscious of this letting go process and its consequences that will make a difference. You will be less inclined to be reactive and engage in sex or masturbation due to stress or incapacity to relate and more inclined to be pro-active and expressive. The cultivation of sexual energy is a creative and powerful process." (page 22)

I will admit that a big part of what Sweeney says in the second paragraph is over my head and beyond my present capacities (although my teacher in Milwaukee once told me that practicing the second series backbends encourages prana to flow into the sushumna nadi, or central channel, which may be relevant to what Sweeney is saying here. But this is still over my head.). But at any rate, I thought I'll share whatever I've learnt to the best of my ability. Hopefully at least some of you out there will find all this insightful and beneficial to your life and practice.

May the Force be with you.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Death, Kapotasana, Silence

“I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather... Not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

 Wil Shriner, comedian

Claudia just wrote a very thoughtful post about death. Following the time-honored tradition of piggy-backing on other people's posts, I am going to jump in here and say a few things too.

You may be wondering: Why are you writing about death just one day after the summer solistice? Isn't this a bit of a downer? Well, it sure doesn't feel much like summer here in Northwest Minnesota: It's been in the 50s and low 60s (that's about 12 to 16 degrees celsius, for those of you living outside the United States), and raining for most of the last couple of days. So you can blame the weather (and maybe, Claudia's post too :-)) for putting me in this pensive state of mind.

I'll start by telling a story. At the university where I teach, there is a large community of Nepali students. A few of them actually take my classes, so I personally know quite a few of them. One evening a couple of months ago, I ran into a group of them in the campus cafeteria, and we started chatting about stuff outside the classroom over dinner (which is usually dangerous territory for a teacher to venture into with students, especially if the teacher is relatively close in age to them, as you will soon see; but alas, I am young and naive...). Out of politeness, I started asking them questions about their culture and home country, and--perhaps because, like them, I am also not originally from this country--they seemed to be very at ease, and were very open in sharing with me many of their feelings and thoughts about many different things in the U.S. as compared to their home country.

At one point, the conversation turned to their post-graduation plans. I turned to one of the students, and asked her whether she intended to stay in the U.S. to work after graduation or to return to her home country. She told me that she wants to work for a few years in the U.S. after graduation, but she will quite definitely want to return to her home country after that. I asked her why. She hesitated and did not respond. It seemed as though there were something she felt strongly about, but she wasn't sure if it would be appropriate to give voice to whatever she was thinking. After a couple of awkward moments, this other more out-spoken student jumped in and blurted out, "Who wants to grow old and die in this country? In this country, you work so hard till you retire (if you're lucky enough to be able to retire), and then your children leave you in a nursing home somewhere, and you die by yourself. Whereas in our country, we take care of old people, and they never die alone. In our country, the adults take care of the young, and the young take care of them when they grow old. This is something Americans will never understand." She then went on to relate with great pride how her parents had worked very hard and made many sacrifices so that she could come to this country for school.

I listened to her as best as I could, trying very hard to keep a straight face. In my mind, I struggled with whether I should point out to her the rather one-sided nature of her views: It is true that many people in this country put their parents in nursing homes, but this does not mean that they don't care about them, you shouldn't make such hasty generalizations, etc., etc. But I just couldn't muster the heart to do it: It is really very difficult to contradict someone who believes in something with the entire force of their being. And besides, I had this uncomfortable feeling that if I were to contradict them on something that they cherished so deeply in their hearts, they would think that I was simply trying to use my authority as a professor to put them down (ah, the pain...).

But we should come back to the topic of death. There is that one line that student said that keeps coming back to me: "in our country, we take care of old people, and they never die alone." Well, is this true? Is it really possible to not die alone?

There was a time when I also shared this student's belief. I also used to believe that the best way to die is to die surrounded by friends and family, so that the event of my death will not be borne by me alone, but will be shared by others. And perhaps in this way, the burden of my mortality will be easier to bear. But does being surrounded by people whom you are close to make the death any less your death? After all, no matter how much others love and cherish you, no matter how much they wish to be a part of your demise, nothing will change the fact that it is you who is dying at that moment, and nobody can do your dying for you: Ultimately, it is you, not them, who must go forth--alone--to face that unknown space that we label the Hereafter. In short, death is the one event in life that we must face in utter solitude... actually, it is misleading to even call it an event, since an event presupposes a state of affairs that can be shared and co-experienced by more than one person. But death, death is the one (and probably only) thing in life that we must face in utter alone-ness.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I think all this may help explain why I often experience this fear and anxiety when approaching deep backbends in yoga (especially Kapotasana). There is a sense in which Kapotasana is like death, except you get to the other side, and live to tell the story. It is like death, in the sense that nobody can feel the intense sensations in Kapotasana with you or for you: It is you who has to do Kapotasana and experience the intense sensations involved. Others can help you in certain ways (assist you, encourage you, even cheer you on, if this rocks your boat), but it is you who must take the plunge, bend backwards into God-knows-what-territory-awaits-you, and do the posture. Nobody can kapotasana for you, just like (well, not just like, but you get the idea...) nobody can do your dying for you.

Well, I think I'll stop here. I know this is kind of abrupt, but while I can say a lot more about Kapotasana, there is really not much more I can say about death without sounding like a preacher or something. And I think it was Wittgenstein who said that that which cannot be said must be passed over in silence. And so I'll leave you here with the sound... of... silence...


Practice Report: Interesting Discovery about Closing the Knee Joint

Well, this may not be all that interesting to you if you are not as obsessed as I am with closing the knee joint comfortably and safely, and all the little actions that go into Karandavasana. But maybe some of you may find this little insight to be useful at some point (or not), so I'll just relate it here.

First, a little back-story. If you have been following my posts about splitting and closing the knee joint (see this post and this post), you will know that one of the issues I have been struggling with is how to close the knee joint and get into padmasana upside down without using the hands. For anatomical reasons that I don't fully understand (Frank has suggested that this may be due to lack of quadricep flexibility, but I don't think this is true in my case: I can bring the entire soles of my feet to the mat in Bhekasana), whenever I bring my right heel to the back of the right thigh to try to close my knee joint, it never closes completely, and I have to recruit my hands to get the heel to cover that last half an inch or so in order to close the knee joint completely. 

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I discovered a little trick to get around this problem. Suppose you are in shoulderstand, and you are trying to close your right knee joint in preparation for Urdhva Padmasana. You bring the right heel to the back of the right thigh. If you are like me, there will be a gap of about a half-inch or so between your heel and the back of the thigh. This is where the trick comes into play: Instead of trying to squeeze the heel directly towards the thigh (this won't work anyway, if you are me) or recruiting your hands, you kind of move the right knee out towards the right while inching the right heel further into the left hip crease. The funny thing is that doing this action somehow does the trick: Somewhere between the outward motion of the right knee and the inching of the right heel towards the left hip crease, the right knee joint actually closes!

I don't know if anybody else out there would find this little trick useful (or would even care; this probably won't even make Grimmly's list of yoga party tricks...) But remember, you are dealing with a yoga-geek here ;-)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tooth Filling, Eating with a Half-Numb Mouth, Karandavasana

"Imagine going to the dentist every day to get the same tooth filled until he gets the filling right, except he never gets it right, and you have to keep going back... Like lifting weights at the gym, Ashtanga could be really tedious, but there was no arguing with the results. When I took non-Ashtanga classes at other studios, the postures suddenly seemed a lot easier and calmer, and I was able to push myself deeper. On off days, I started doing the sequence by myself at home. Muscles began to appear where they'd never appeared before."

Neal Pollack, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude

If Pollack is right about practicing Ashtanga being like getting a dental filling, then I had two dental-filling experiences today:

Dental Filling Experience #1: I woke up this morning, and did what is now my usual practice (full primary and second up to Karandavasana).

Dental Filling Experience #2: Earlier today, I actually went to the dentist to have a tooth filled. Nothing major, the dentist insists, just a little cavity that is better filled than unfilled (yes, now you know I probably eat too many chocolates and potato chips for my own good...). But still, he put me on local anesthesia. Even now, as I am writing this post almost three hours after the filling, the right side of my mouth and tongue (yes, the right half of my tongue!) is still numb.

Which is the more intense of the two experiences? Right off the top of my head, I would say #1. Unlike having a tooth filled at the dentist's, you cannot do Ashtanga with anesthesia: Which means that the Ashtangi has to face and experience full on, in the raw, all the sensations, pleasant and unpleasant, that the practice brings up. Well, I do know that some Ashtangis out there practice on painkillers (Grimmly actually did a poll on this a few months ago), but that's another story. The whole point of Ashtanga practice (and any kind of yoga practice, really) is to be present with whatever feelings-physical, mental or emotional-that you are experiencing at any given point in time, and it would be quite impossible to be present with a feeling that has been anesthesized away, wouldn't it?

Besides, there are real practical-life dangers to being anethesized. At the end of my dental appointment, I asked the dentist if it was okay to eat. He said yes, but that I should be extra careful with the right side of my mouth; since that side of the mouth lacks sensation, it is quite possible that I might unknowingly bite the right tongue or right lip, resulting in injury.

I decided to put off eating for as long as I could, since my half-numb mouth was feeling weird, even without anything in it; for instance, swallowing felt strange. So I went home, and puttered around the apartment for close to an hour. Finally, I started to feel really hungry, and decided to make myself a sundried-tomato omelette with toast and eat it anyway. Oh, by the way, even the sensation of hunger feels different with a half-numb mouth. Somehow, the hunger seems to be emanating from deeper inside myself. It seems that a big part of what we ordinarily experience as the feeling of hunger is actually mouth-feel (the feeling of the tongue craving certain tastes, the mouth feeling dry, the palate feeling a certain way, etc., etc.). With the mouth half-numb, these mouth-feel sensations become much less pronounced, and one gets to feel the deeper bodily sensations that make up hunger; sensations that are normally obscured by the mouth-feel... Who knew?

As I started eating my omelette and toast, I began to notice red marks on the toast. Hmm, I thought to myself, who knew that they make sundried tomatoes with artificial coloring these days? By the way, aren't these supposed to be organic sundried tomatoes? The food industry is certainly in a very bad place if even organic foods have artificial coloring... And then I noticed the same red coloring on the mug I was drinking from. And then everything dawned on me. I went to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and realized that somewhere along the way, I had bitten my lower lip without knowing it, and it was now bleeding! But I went on to finish my meal anyway: The one thing that is worse than being a bleeding mess is being a hungry bleeding mess!

But I suppose I should stop talking about my dental-culinary misadventures (like you would care to read a phenomenological exposition of eating with a half-numb mouth, anyway. But maybe the moral of the story is: It is not a good idea to eat with a half-numb mouth). Let me turn our attention to happier matters. Well, sort of... I'll say a couple of things about my Karandavasana practice this morning, and then regale you with a video of somebody (not me) doing Karandavasana. In his recent post about Karandavasana, Grimmly writes,

"We all have a tricky posture or two we're working on and get a little obsessive about, sometimes the whole practice seems to revolve around that one pose, leading up to it, apprehension building and then afterwards we just want to rush through the rest of the practice as if practice ended with that one posture."  

I think this very aptly describes my practice. As a matter of fact, I actually obsess and get anxious more about Kapotasana than about Karandavasana. This is so, even though I am supposed to be more proficient in Kapo than Karandavasana: I have been grabbing either my heels or ankles consistently in Kapo for months now, but my Karandavasana is... well, more on this presently. It's funny; there's just something about a deep backbend (especially Kapo) that makes me a bit apprehensive every single time I approach it, even though I have been doing it regularly for months now. Whereas with Karandavasana, I am aware that it is a physically very challenging posture, but I just go up to the posture, give it my best couple of shots, and then move on. I suppose you can say that I am better able to foster an attitude of non-attachment to Karandavasana than to Kapo.

In any case, here are my two Karandavasana attempts today:

Attempt #1: Went up into Pincha Mayurasana, got my feet into lotus, lost balance, and landed in a seated padmasana.

Rested in a kneeling position for a few breaths, and then:

Attempt #2: Better luck with this one. Went up into Pincha, got my feet into lotus, and held it there for 10 breaths before releasing the feet from lotus, and coming down with my feet flailing in the air like a dog falling from a tall building. Hmm... maybe I can work on this exit too.

Here's a video of David Robson doing Karandavasana:

Pretty cool, eh? Do you now know why I never post any videos of me attempting Karandavasana? :-)

In other news: I have added three new features to this blog: 

(1) There is now a google search engine on the top right-hand corner of this blog, that enables you to search this blog for anything you desire. I installed this after a friend recently told me she was searching my blog for posts I have written relating to SI joint issues, and was having difficulty finding the relevant posts. Hopefully, this search engine will make things easier for anyone who wishes to conduct similar searches. 

(2) There is now a Feedjit Live Traffic Feed on this blog. This doesn't serve any immediate functional purpose; the only thing it has been doing so far is to delude me into thinking that I'm this world-famous blogger who brings great joy and meaning into the lives of many around the world (and maybe even beyond it; perhaps extra-terrestrial beings read my blog too... who knows?).

(3) At the request of a friend who has been having difficulty commenting on my posts, I have now changed the settings of this blog to allow for anonymous comments. So those of you out there who have been yearning to say something on my posts, but who, for whatever reason, do not want to be identified, your dilemma has been resolved!

I welcome all anonymous comments, even snarky ones. But be warned: If you post snarky anonymous comments, you run the risk of (a) being mercilessly shot down by yours truly (I usually feel less bad about stepping on the cyber-toes of somebody whose identity I do not know; anonymity is a two-way street, you see...), or worse, (b) being altogether ignored by yours truly (and looking silly as a result).

Remember: With great power (to post anonymous snarky comments) comes great responsibility (for the consequences of said comments).


Monday, June 20, 2011

Confessions of a Closet Yoga Bum

"Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life."


Disclaimer: Before you go on to read this post, and possibly get some mistaken ideas about what I feel about my professional life, I should make one thing clear: I am presently productively employed. I am quite happy with my job, and the meaningful interactions and numerous opportunities for self-development that I encounter everyday in the course of my work. (Of course, if you happen to be a Marxist, you will probably say that I am suffering from false consciousness, but hey, this is a yoga blog! As such, this is no place to engage in Marxist debates about the nature of work in capitalist society.)

Now that we have gotten this out of the way, I would like to tell you a little story. A couple of months ago, I was having a conversation with a friend (let's call him H). The topic turned to the question of what we would really want to do with our lives if money, putting food on the table and all that jazz were not an issue. Without too much hesitation, I said that it would be really nice if somebody could pay me, say, a hundred thousand dollars a year just to do yoga everyday (and maybe also blog about it).

Fast forward a couple of months later. Yesterday, I met H again, and this topic came up again. Here's how the conversation went (roughly):

H: "Oh, I remember what your dream job was, the last time we spoke: Don't you want to open a yoga studio and teach yoga, and make, like, a million bucks doing it?"

Nobel: "No, you misunderstand... I want to just do yoga and get paid, say, a hundred thousand dollars doing it. If this can happen (I don't know how this is going to happen, but this is not the issue), I'll be very happy." 

H: "Oh, so maybe you want to make this super-yoga-video that will go viral on the internet, and maybe go around the world, give a whole bunch of yoga talks, and make a lot of money?"

Nobel: "No..." [Thinks to himself: "Why don't you get it, H? Opening yoga studios and teaching and making viral yoga videos and giving yoga talks, while wonderful in themselves, are still WORK! What I really want is to just do yoga, not have to work at all, and still make a lot of money! Is this really so hard to understand?"]

Can you tell that there is a certain disconnect between what I was trying to express, and what H was thinking I was trying to express? And really, I don't think we can blame H for not understanding what I was trying to get across. After all, in our contemporary capitalistic society, the predominant paradigm is: "You don't work, you don't eat." How can such a society have any place for bums (yes, even closet bums who masquerade as respectable working people) who only want to do yoga and get paid?

But well, there you have it: Now you know what I not-so-secretly want with my life. When I first started practicing yoga, I really looked up to all these celebrity teachers flying all over the world teaching big classes and having hordes of adoring followers, I mean, students, and I thought: Wow! Wouldn't it be so nice to be like one of these teachers? But over the years, through my interactions with a few of these teachers, and through listening and observing things around them, I have come to realize that being a celebrity teacher is actually a lot of work. I mean, how would you like being in one time zone today, and being in another one tomorrow, and still being expected to give your adoring students everything that they perceive you to be? This can't be easy work, can it?

But this realization did not change my love of yoga, and everything that it has done for me. So right now, what I not-so-secretly want (it's not secret anymore, because you are now reading this, and are thereby complicit in my desire; ha! now you are in on my, ahem, "secret" :-)) is to just be a yoga bum, practice to my heart's content, and still get paid a Sh%*load of money!

Well, if you think all this sounds hopelessly naive, it is! But unless you, uh, have been living under a rock somewhere over the last few years, you won't need me to tell you about the failures of capitalism in allocating human resources. In our present far-from-ideal capitalistic system, many of us have "real" jobs which we are more or less happy with; but we also have dream vocations. Now ideally, if resource-allocation in the capitalistic system were perfect, most peoples' "real" jobs would also be their dream vocation. Why? Because in an ideal capitalistic system, the invisible hand of the free market would work in such a way as to ensure that somebody who genuinely wants to do something in his or her life and has a passion for it will produce something that is of value to others; others will then pay for whatever it is that this person produces, and this person will then be able to make a decent living doing whatever it is that he or she is passionate about.

But of course, we know that things mostly do not work in this ideal way at present (indeed, when was the last time it mostly worked this way?). Because of this, most of us are unwilling to part with our "real" jobs in pursuit of our dream vocations because we perceive, rightly or wrongly, that we may not be able to put food on the table and pay our bills if we do so. Indeed, as imperfect as the system might be in so many ways, it is very successful in at least one area: Indoctrination/socialization. Most of us (including, I think, my friend H) have being socialized to believe that there is NO respectable way of being in this world that does not involve making a lot of money by selling something that the masses want at this very moment in time.

Of course, I also know that there are some fortunate people out there for whom their "real" jobs also happen to be their dream vocations. Well, I congratulate you on your good fortune. But this post is written primarily with lesser mortals like me in mind...

Or maybe I'm the only person who thinks this way... After all, I suppose one might say that if I were a good yogi, I should trust that the universe would provide me with all the abundance that I seek, and I should therefore go forth boldly and do whatever it is that my heart desires. And so and so forth. Well, maybe I'm not a good yogi, in this way...

Wow, that was a lot of ranting over not very much. Well, if you made it so far, thank you so much for reading this post :-)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An Audio Interview with Matthew Sweeney (and my thoughts on it)

In order to prepare for my upcoming workshop with Matthew Sweeney in Minneapolis in July, I have been trying to find out as much as I can about him (Yes, I so totally fit into the stereotype of a Type-A-Ashtangi...).Yesterday, I ordered his book, Ashtanga Yoga As It Is on Amazon. Earlier today, I also stumbled upon this really amazing audio interview with him on yoga peeps.

I should probably just sign off, and let you listen to the interview itself. But being a type A person who loves to editorialize :-), I can't resist sharing a couple of things Sweeney says in this interview that really speak to me:

(1) The Qualities needed to be a yoga teacher are: (i) having a genuine desire to teach, and (ii) having the capacity to be with the student and give unconditionally without judgment. 

(ii) really jumps out at me. I may be generalizing here, but I really think that anybody who has ever tried teaching anything to anybody (not just yoga) will have had certain expectations of their student; along with these expectations comes a desire for the student to be more like this or like that (desiring that the student master this or that technique, or become "better" at doing this or that thing). And I think there is a very delicate balance between having healthy expectations of the student and imposing one's ego on one's student, and wanting to remake the student in our image, without being mindful of where the student is in his or her own learning and practice. I, at least, experience this in my own teaching (both yoga teaching and academic teaching). And I think Sweeney does a really good job of addressing this dilemma.

(2) The secret to being injury-free lies in "...being able to allow yourself to rest when you need to, and yet also being able to get yourself to practice even when you don't feel like doing it." 

I think this is a very timely thought, in light of the conversations that have sprung up recently in the blogosphere about this issue of striking a balance between being lazy and pushing too hard.

(3) To think, "I need to be non-violent" is in itself an act of violence. 

This doesn't just apply to non-violence. Anytime we say to ourselves, "I need to not be X", or "I need to stop being so X", we are trying to become something other than what we are in the present. When we do this, we are not able to accept ourselves as we are right now. And this gives rise to more inner tension and strife, and ironically, makes it even more difficult for us to overcome our negative tendencies. The key, according to Sweeney, is to first accept whatever you are right now (being angry, being violent, being X) without judgment. The funny thing is, once you do this, you will find that the negative tendency in question actually lessens in intensity and ceases to have such a powerful grip over you. The idea is to find a way to strike a balance between being unconscious and ignoring the negative tendency, and fighting the tendency and not accepting it.

Alright, I need to stop editorializing (uh oh, am I failing to practice self-acceptance here?), and let you enjoy the interview. Well... enjoy!