Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Practice, Karandavasana, Jesus freaks, looking young and moving old

Practice this past couple of days has been interesting. Both yesterday and today, I did second only up to Karandavasana.

At his recent Minneapolis workshop, Matthew Sweeney said, "Backbends are like pancakes. The first two are rubbish." Well, I think a similar thing can be said of my Karandavasana right now: The first one is... well, not exactly rubbish, but definitely not great. During both yesterday's and today's practices, I attempted Karandavasana twice. Both days, the two attempts played out pretty much the same way:

First Attempt: Get up into Pincha Mayurasana. Get legs into padmasana. Try to come down slowly, but crashes instead into a seated padmasana.

[Rest for a few breaths, and then...]

Second Attempt: Get up into Pincha. Get legs into Padmasana. Try to come down slowly. Better luck this time: The lotus actually moves in slow motion towards my upper arms. This morning, I actually succeeded in coordinating the downward curling movement of the lotus with my breath (inhale stay, exhale lower/curl. Keep repeating until the lotus lands on the upper arms...). But I am still landing the lotus too low, i.e. too close to the elbows, and too far from the armpits. Which makes coming back up difficult, if not impossible. Which meant that all I could do was stay perched on my arms  for five breaths, and then exit to the floor. I guess what I need to do is to stay up and curl the lotus in/forward even more, and not be in too much of a hurry to land. That way, I'll be more likely to land higher. We'll see what happens tomorrow.

There have been some interesting side effects of practicing second only up to Karandavasana. One positive side effect is that my Pincha Mayurasana has become stronger. In the past, I used to have to kick up into Pincha. But for the last week or so, I just walk my legs in, and lift one leg strongly off the ground. And somehow, the lifting action of that leg pulls the other leg along; and all I have to do from that point is to find the balance point to maintain the forearm balance. Pretty cool, don't you think? :-)

There are also other... interesting side effects, mostly from working on Karandavasana. My upper arms (especially the triceps) are quite sore. The muscles directly under the scapula/shoulder blades (don't know what these are called) are also aching. Here's what's kind of cool: My abdominal muscles are also sore. I think this is probably from curling the lotus towards the upper arms. Maybe if I keep doing Karandavasana, I will finally get those six-pack abs ;-) There's also something else: My glutes are sore too. Hmm... what posture/s in the second series work the glutes? Can't think of any...


I went on campus yesterday to prepare for the fall semester, which begins here next week. I have to say that wearing "real" clothes (i.e. working shoes/boots as opposed to flip-flops, a shirt with a collar as opposed to a T-shirt) and moving around in them takes a bit of getting used to, after a leisurely eight weeks of summer break. Well, had to do it. There was a breakfast reception in the morning with a big university official, and I haven't gotten to the point in my career where I can be totally comfortable meeting my administrative superiors in flip-flops and shorts (there are actually professors who seem perfectly comfortable in these; got to take my proverbial hat off to them ;-)).

Another interesting thing about the beginning of the semester is meeting new students. Not just students in my classes, but students who are moving around campus in general, with their sprightly steps and bright fresh-from-summer energy. I actually had an interesting encounter with one of these students. I was walking slowly (actually, "lumbering" might be a better description) towards some administrative office, trying to get some admin stuff straightened out (won't bore you with the details here), and very close to suffocating in my boots, cotton shirt, and the 90-degree heat when I saw this student approach me with a big smile on his face. Dressed in jeans, a tight T-shirt, and what looked to be fashionable tortoise-shell glasses, he stopped me and asked, "How are you?"

From his appearance and his accent, I surmised that he was probably an international student of South Asian origin (I couldn't place his accent more precisely). I'm embarrassed to say this, but my first reaction was to try to figure out an exit strategy! My experience for much of my life has been that when people stop me in the middle of the street with big smiles on their faces, they usually want something from me. For example, when I lived in Singapore, I would usually get stopped in the middle of the street by these Jesus freaks with big smiles on their faces: Their smiles are so big, I can see them a mile away; I try to avoid making eye-contact, but it almost never works. Before I know it, they are right in front of me, asking me how I am, and then asking me if I have heard the good news: That our Lord Jesus Christ is our savior who died for our sins. And then I would either have to tell them I'm not interested in hearing the good news, or (on a bad day) I would engage them in a big religious argument about why God probably doesn't exist, and that even if he did, he probably wouldn't send his only son down to us in this fashion. Which makes for a conversation that is not exactly pleasant...

In any case, due to such Jesus-freak encounters and others of a similar nature, I have unknowingly become conditioned to regard any stranger-with-big-megawatt-smile encounters with suspicion. But this encounter turned out very differently, to my rather pleasant surprise. Here's how it went:

International Student (IS): How are you?

Nobel: Uh... good.

IS: Where are you from?

Nobel [Thinks to himself: Wow, this is new...]: Uh... Singapore?

IS: Wonderful! Are you also a new international student here?

Nobel: Uh... no. [Short awkward silence, as I try to decide what to say, if anything.] Well, I actually teach here... I mean, I am a professor in the philosophy department.

IS: Oh, how wonderful! I am a new student from Pakistan.

Nobel: Oh, wow... well, welcome to X University.

Well, I am not such an evolved being as to be beyond flattery; I was pretty pleased that he actually thought I looked young enough to be a new student! (Is this the Ashtanga practice? Or is it just a matter of having young-looking genes? I don't know...)

Before we parted ways, we shook hands. He had this really interesting and charming way of shaking hands... How should I describe this? Well, it's kind of like he's shaking your hand and bowing at the same time. At the same time, his other hand (the one that is not in the handshake) was placed on his hand-shaking forearm in a small gesture of supplication. The entire gesture conveyed a sense of being reverent without being fawning, of being humble without being subservient. I found that very fascinating and refreshing: I can't recall the last time I saw somebody pull off a gesture like this in this country.

And so off we went on our separate ways. But our paths crossed briefly again a few minutes later. I was walking back towards my office, trying to get my aching-from-Karandavasana-and-almost-suffocating-body to move through the summer heat when he and a friend practically flew past me! They weren't running or anything; they were just striding confidently along and chatting at the same time. He was wearing sneakers, and his friend was wearing what looked to me like light walking shoes. Ha! I thought, what good is looking young, if one can't keep up with the people whom one is supposed to look the same age as? Oh, well... what do you do?          

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