Sunday, October 16, 2011

Swara, First ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, Occupy Fargo, and my first time as a sign-holding protester

This has been a most exciting and eventful weekend here in Fargo-Moorhead. Two very cool things happened to me: I was part of the first ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, and I became a sign-holding protester for the first time in my life :-)

First, the mysore class. In order for the story to make sense, I need to begin from the beginning. So here goes: On Saturday and this (Sunday) morning, I had the great fortune of attending a workshop with Casey Palmer. Casey is an Ashtanga teacher based in Portland, Oregon, and is the owner of Near East Yoga in Portland. My friends Derek and Brenda, who are his students, invited him here to teach at their studio in downtown Fargo.

Casey began his Saturday morning class with a lecture, and then led us through half-primary. A key concept that he focused on in his lecture was the concept of Swara. Swara is a concept in Indian music. It refers to the seven notes of the Indian classical music scale. I suppose the closest equivalent concept in western music would be the octave. The basic idea here is that Swara is a circular, not linear concept; when you get to the last note of the scale, you begin again at the first note.

The same idea informs Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. As you do the postures, you inhale and then exhale. At the deepest point of the exhale, you inhale again. If you keep the inhale and exhale even and steady throughout the practice, you manifest swara; in this sense, what postures you do or how "well" you do them is totally secondary.

The same idea can also be applied to the community of practitioners. In the first stages of a yoga community's formation, there might only be the teacher and perhaps one or two students. The teacher, out of a sense of responsibility and love of the practice, shows up no matter how many students come to the class. Over time, more students start to understand and share the same passion for the practice, and begin to come to class more regularly. Through coming to class, they support the community, and the community gradually grows. The growth and continued flourishing of the community also embodies the circular concept of swara: The teacher supports the students' growth and contributes to the community. In return, the students respond by coming to class and supporting the teacher's efforts and the community. And the community, in turn, nurtures the student. This circular swara relationship involves every single person who has anything to do with the community, from the teacher to the experienced student, all the way to the new student who steps into the shala for the very first time.

Initially, I was only planning on going to Casey's Saturday morning class. But at the end of the Saturday morning class, as I was chatting with him, he asked me if I would be coming to the mysore session the next morning. I told him that I wasn't sure, as I needed to be somewhere at noon (This, by the way, is true: I am not much of a white liar :-)). Casey responded by suggesting that I could just come, do my practice and leave right away: The important thing is that, through my presence, I can do something to support the community. As he said that, I remembered the concept of Swara that he was just talking about, and so I decided to come back for mysore the next morning.

This morning's mysore practice was wonderful. There were about twenty of us in the practice room, under Casey's watchful guidance. For more than half the people in the room, this was their first ever mysore experience. In fact, according to Derek and Brenda, this was actually the first ever mysore class in Fargo Moorhead!

What this meant, in practical terms, was that Casey spent most of his time helping the newbies. As a result, I did not get many adjustments (a couple of adjustments in downdog in the first couple of Surya As, and a nice assist to help me get deeper into the twist in Mari C). Nevertheless, I'm really happy I went and practiced, and was part of this historic event :-) The energy in the room was simply fantastic. A lot of it was newbie energy, characterized by earnest questions about how to do this or that posture, what posture comes next in the series, punctuated by good-natured giggles over trying for the first time bizarre-looking postures like Garbha Pindasana. You know, for "oldbies" like me (and maybe you as well), many of the postures are so familiar that we sometimes forget how bizarre they can look and feel to somebody who's doing them for the first them. For instance, it's not every day that the average person gets to fold his or her legs into lotus posture, use his or her sweat to lubricate the arms, then try to squish the arms through the folded legs. And then, to top it all off, roll around like a ball for five to nine times. It's a pretty bizarre action, if you stop to think about it.

On another note, Casey mentioned to us that oldbies also contribute to swara just by doing their practice: By doing my practice in the practice room, I allow the newbies to get an idea of where the practice can take them, and what is possible through this practice. I am happy I was of service in this way :-)

Casey hopes that we can start a regular rhythm of having mysore classes here in Fargo-Moorhead, even if just one day a week. We'll work on this.


On Saturday afternoon, after Casey's workshop, I attended the local Occupy Fargo demonstration in downtown Fargo. It was held in front of the US Bank plaza on Broadway, just across the street from Derek and Brenda's studio. There were somewhere between 50 and 100 people at the event; a modest turnout, by New York or even Twin Cities standards, but the energy was simply amazing. There were people of all ages and races, and everybody was in high spirits. I ran into a fellow Ashtangi, and chatted with him about practice for a few minutes, right in the middle of the event (can you tell what an Ashtangeek I am?).

And then I ran into a couple of my students from my classes at the university. One of them had made some signs, and offered me a sign which said, "Still waiting for that money to trickle down." I hesitated for about half a second; being a prim and proper Asian guy with a rather prim and proper Asian upbringing in the prim and proper island of Singapore, I had actually never been part of a demonstration before; all my youthful memories of demonstrations involved seeing TV footage of South Korean students getting blasted with fire hydrants and teargas, and scattering like bugs before a huge predator...

In any case, as I saying, I hesitated for about half a second, and then smiled and took the sign. I thought, "What the heck, there's always a first time for everything, right? And besides, I can probably use my considerable breath control powers if I ever get attacked by teargas."

My anxieties proved totally unfounded. As we stood there holding the signs, many motorists drove by and honked their support. To pass the time, my students and I even got into a discussion about Plato and his views on democracy while smiling and waving at motorists. There were a couple of cops around, but they seem, if anything, to be quite sympathetic to our cause, and did nothing to disrupt us.

So with this, I did two firsts this weekend: I was part of the first ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, and I became a sign-holding protester for the first time in my life :-) I can't help feeling that participating in an Occupy event is also swara; by participating in a non-violent peaceful demonstration like this, I demonstrate my support and solidarity for the community (the 99%). In return, the 99% also supports and strengthens my conviction in the power of non-violent protest based on peaceful coexistence and dialogue. 


  1. Nice weekend! And great to learn about Casey in Portland.

  2. Thanks Claudia! Yes, Casey is a wonderful teacher. Great presence.

  3. My favorite post of the day so far! It is so true about seeing advanced students do their thing, it is visual inspiration and it cannot be communicated otherwise.

    As for your play by play of your first demonstration, it was so good I got a visual while reading it.

  4. Yes, sereneflavor. Sometimes I get so preoccupied with trying to explain things verbally to people (basically because that is what I am by professional training) that I forget that there are times when a visual says a thousand words. Ashtanga practice is one of these times. Casey is a really good teacher. I look forward to practicing with him again when I go to Portland in a few weeks.

  5. This is just beautiful to read. And inspiring too. Have never heard of the concept of 'swara' but it makes so much sense, not just for yoga but for everything else in life.

  6. Awesome Nobel! Here's to first time experiences!

    Funny this concept has been on my mind lately, seeing how every practice for me is a first time experience, different and often deeper than any previous practice, but always new. And looking at how to carry this awareness into every moment of every day, learning how to see even habitual actions as fresh and new. I guess the trick will be to keep it this fresh even when I'm not such a newbie anymore...

    Glad you enjoyed Casey's visit and got to experience one of his talks. I feel very lucky to have stumbled into his studio a few months ago.

  7. savasanaadict, I had never heard of swara before this past weekend either. It's such a beautiful concept, and explains so much.

    Thanks for sharing, Tom. If my own experience is any indication, my sense is that when you are not such a newbie anymore, every practice will still be new, for various reasons: new and challenging postures to work on, changes in your physical and mental condition from day to day, and (God forbid) imbalances and injuries. But one way or the other, the practice is never boring :-)

    Casey's a great guy. He's so unassuming, yet has such great presence.