Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mysore practice with MS, talking shit about others, ahimsa, samskaric tendencies

As I have been doing for the last couple of days, I'll start by giving a little report of my mysore practice with Matthew Sweeney (MS) this morning. I did a shorter practice than usual this morning. MS came up to me at the beginning of practice, and suggested that I should do primary up to Baddha Konasana, and then go straight into second. I did as he suggested and ended up doing second up to Supta Vajrasana, and found that I have more energy left over at the end of practice (i.e. I didn't feel so wiped out) than I normally do. A couple of interesting things also happened during today's practice:

(1) In Supta Vajrasana, MS told me to do lotus the other way (left foot in first instead of right). That felt a bit weird, especially the bind (I had to bind the right foot first, and then left). I think his purpose behind this is to balance the right-foot-always-first-in-padmasana doctrine, which many people (including Norman Blair in his recently popular article) argue results in imbalances. In this way (in addition to many others), MS is not a traditional teacher.

(2) After dropbacks and standups, as I was decompressing my spine in Paschimottasana, MS came over and suggested that I should start working on handstands, in preparation for eventually being able to do the tick tocks (or is it tic-tacs?). I came out of Paschimottanasana, and kicked up into handstand. MS came over and assisted me, and told me to arch my back. I tried to do so, but felt this twinge down my left lower back, and just couldn't arch my back any further. (As I mentioned a couple of posts before, I have issues with going into a back bending action immediately after a forward bend). So we had to abort the handstanding today. Well, at least I'll be better prepared tomorrow.

(3) MS suggested that tomorrow, I should go into second immediately after the standing postures and the two balance postures (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana). Ha! So I'm splitting after all... Well, we'll see what happens tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the last day with MS. I can already feel the ennui that is creeping up on me as I approach the end of my yoga vacation... ah, very soon, I will be leaving the City of Lakes, and heading back to my little corner of the midwest! All in all, I must say that MS is a very good teacher. He has this uncanny ability to see certain things with your body, and then get you to make a couple of seemingly small and innocuous adjustments that cause you to work harder than you ever did in a particular posture. Very powerful.

In addition, I have also made some good friends at this workshop. This morning, over breakfast with Ellie, Monica, and Bill, I gave both Monica and Bill a copy of Claudia's best-selling book, "21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice" (I gave Ellie a copy a couple of months ago, when I first met her). I think this has been a most memorable few days, on the whole. 

Well, here's the other shoe... Although this workshop has been quite wonderful on the whole, a couple of things have also happened over the last few days that have given me much food for thought:

(I) Yesterday evening, a few of us from the workshop went to dinner at this local restaurant. At one point, the conversation turned to something that is not so pleasant: Senior-teacher-bashing. Two people at the table related this experience they had of going to this particular senior teacher's studio in some big city. At one point, one of them got to Supta Vajrasana in Intermediate, and the other decided to help assist (For those of you who are not familiar with Supta Vajrasana, see this post). Just as they were doing the posture, the senior teacher in question stormed across the room, and yelled at them, "Who told you you can do this?" Quite understandably, these two individuals were very upset and traumatized by this senior teacher's behavior.

(II) The other incident was, in my opinion, not so understandable. On the morning of my first day at MS's workshop (Sunday morning), I stopped by the coffeeshop next to the studio to get some espresso before the first session began. As I sat down to drink my espresso, I couldn't help overhearing two workshop participants at the next table talking about Kino and her recent projects. They started by talking about her infamous yoga-girls-of-Miami-Beach video, and then turned to her recent instructional videos. Since they did not yet know that I was a fellow workshop participant at that time, I had the dubious advantage of being able to listen in on the conversation without interruption. The tone of the entire conversation was quite negative: In addition to the de rigeur expressions of outrage and scorn at the tackiness of the Miami-Beach-video, much scorn was also directed at the instructional videos ("Does she really expect people to work on those things at home by themselves?"). In addition, there were also a few attacks on her character, which are too unsavory to reproduce here.

Being somebody who has benefited much from Kino's instruction and who knows her personally, I felt (and still feel) very strongly about what they were saying. For a moment, I felt that I should open my mouth and speak up for her. But I decided that it was too early in the workshop to be making enemies (is there ever a good time to make enemies, anyway?). Besides, in my humble opinion, the fact that somebody is being attacked often means that that person is doing something of great value. There's a Chinese saying, "A great tree attracts gale-force winds." So I decided to swallow my feelings of outrage (along with my espresso) and just try to let things go. Besides, what have those people who attack her accomplished themselves?

But all this brings up a bigger issue. I could be wrong about this, but it seems to me that Ashtangis are particularly prone to talking shit about other Ashtangis (in case you think I'm getting on my high horse, I have found myself guilty of this too; in fact, I am probably doing this right now by writing this post...). A fellow Ashtangi once told me that the practice has the tendency to shine a flashlight on all the shit that is in your life and bring it all up to the surface, forcing you to confront and deal with it. I wonder if talking shit about other Ashtangis is also a manifestation of this phenomenon, so that in the course of becoming more self-realized or enlightened (or whatever), many Ashtangis have to go through a phase of talking shit about their fellow Ashtangis. But we seem to have a problem here: It can be argued that in talking shit about somebody, one commits violence against the person whom one talks shit about, and probably also commits violence against oneself, by poisoning one's words and thoughts with such shit. Thus, it can be argued that talking shit about others violates ahimsa, and also deepens certain already-deeply-entrenched samskaric patterns within one's life.

So, what to do? I don't know, I don't have the answers to many things (including this one). Just thinking (and venting) aloud here, as always.     


  1. I think it's human nature to talk shit about others, Ashtangi or not. Singaporeans talk shit about other Singaporeans/nationalities, food bloggers do the same about other food seems to be innate to our sense of self-righteousness, peppered with insecurity, jealousy, and whatever else, to talk shit about others. I don't agree that the act of talking shit itself is part of the journey to enlightenment, but the awareness of it perhaps. Recognizing that it's happening (whether you're doing it or others are) and letting it be, not repressing or 'feeding' the habit.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with MS! He's another teacher that I'd love to study with someday....

  2. I agree with Savasnaaddict about talking shit - in group, out group, we need to know where we stand and who's with who, and then strengthen those groups. But I do hate it, and find it really difficult if a conversation turns that way.

    Of your two examples, I don't feel like the first is talking shit, exactly (though of course I don't know the exact words and tone), I think that sort of conversation can be important in terms of helping some people stand up for themselves, and/or be aware of what is and isn't acceptable in a yoga class, from both students and staff.

    The second definitely is though. And it's a tricky area - it's fine to not like someone's style, or teaching, or whatever, but there's a way of expressing that, without it having that feeling of violence about it.

  3. Hi Nobel, thanks for offering the book, don't know about best-selling but I like you saying that, it makes me feel like it could be :-)

    As per the points you bring up, I have given a lot of thought to this, gossiping is SO HARD TO STOP... I know cause I catch myself sometimes and wonder, what about all that yoga training? what is wrong with me!

    but one thing I have noticed is that when I say something negative about someone what I am saying really is that I HAVE THAT NEGATIVE THING, meaning we are more prone to notice our own faults in others rather than in ourselves.

    This is also, of course, a fantastic way to stop the gossip... whenever I find myself critizicing others I stop and ask myself: Where do I do this? and that tends to shut me up nicely... but it is not always possible... human nature like Ragdoll and SA say up here too...

  4. Oh one more thing, I really want to meet Sweeney now!

  5. Hello Ragdoll,
    yes, I think you are right that the first case is not a case of talking shit; people do need a safe space to share their experiences, pleasant or otherwise, in order to learn and grow.

    savasanaadict and Claudia, I agree that it is very hard to not gossip about others, especially when others are doing so. And I think both of you are right that awareness of this is a first and important step to real change in this area.

    Claudia: I'm sure your book is on its way to becoming a bestseller :-)

  6. A wise person I know once said that when you point a finger at someone, there are 3 fingers pointing back at yourself! I don't always remember this, but I'm glad when I'm reminded ... :)

  7. there was a teacher of mine in SF who was famously difficult. she would not have blurted out the question you mentioned of "who told you you could do that pose?" but more than once she would ask a similar question in the form of a koan, such as, "how do you decide to do that pose?" such a question cannot be answered logically because the structure of the sentence is awkward. so it would leave me in a wide eyed gaze, unable to respond. i imagine it was better than the controlling question by the senior teacher you mentioned. a more tactful question would have been, "have you been given this pose?"

    teaching is hard. it's not glamourous. if you have a difficult teacher, but need to work with the teacher, then you have to try to understand the teacher in order to have a relationship. of course, you're talking about the relationship of the length of a workshop, if that is the length of time that the teacher saw the student, if the teacher is difficult, the pain will be over in a few days.

  8. Hello susiegb, I like what you said about three fingers pointing back at you. Very true indeed ;-)

    Interesting, Arturo. I don't know how I would have reacted if I were confronted by a zen koan in the middle of a mysore class :-) Yes, teaching is hard and usually unglamorous. And since I was not there at the time and place the senior teacher said whatever he said, it is impossible for me to know why he said what he said, and what kind of relationship he has with the other students in his shala.

  9. very true, Arturo. It's hard being a teacher. It's even harder to be a sensitive teacher. By sensitive, I mean, being aware.

    I've not been blogging cos I'm feeling under the weather. All the yoga that I'm doing now is Chandra Krama. And for the moment, that helps.

  10. Yes, yoginicory. Teaching is definitely a lot of work, and it takes especially a lot to be a sensitive teacher. I hope you feel better soon.

  11. I believe that people have the right to think different than others... as one of the people who was participant in both conversations, I can assure that there was no disrespect of any kind, just a different opinion and way of seeing things. I respect Kino and her teachings as well! Moreover, I believe it to be disrespectful to be eavesdropping when you are part of a group and not say anything!
    I may not be doing fourth series, but I have accomplished a lot in my life and don't compare myself to Kino or anyone else. My family and friends, my profession as a teacher and the love I give and receive ARE my most significant accomplishments I have and am very proud of!

  12. Hello Anonymous, thanks for sharing.

    You said, "My family and friends, my profession as a teacher and the love I give and receive ARE my most significant accomplishments I have and am very proud of!"

    That's wonderful! I'm very happy for you :-)

    You also said, "I believe it to be disrespectful to be eavesdropping when you are part of a group and not say anything!"

    Technically, I do not believe I was eavesdropping because (1) in the first conversation, since we were at the same table, the only way for me to not hear what you were saying would be for me to either shut my ears up, or totally zone out. I am not in the habit of doing either, as I think THAT would be truly disrespectful, (2) in the second conversation, the proximity of me to you and the volume of your conversation was such that I couldn't not hear what you were saying even if I chose not to. You can't fault me for not being able to help hearing something, can you?

    In any case, if you think it would be better for me to speak up, well, maybe I'll try that next time :-) If there is a next time, that is...