Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More ruminations on tight asses, and Eddie Stern's take on the whole thing (the article, not the asses)

A couple of days ago, Eddie Stern published what I thought was a very well-written response to the now-infamous NYT article by Deb Schoeneman about... gosh, what exactly was it about? Something about doing Ashtanga and getting tight asses? My memory is getting pretty short these days: Could there be a connection between right-brain-functioning and left-knee-health? No good, no good...

Anyway, as I was saying, Eddie Stern published a reply to that article. You can read the whole article here. There is one part of Eddie's piece that really speaks to me. If you have read that NYT article, you might remember that at one point, Schoeneman remarks that "It [Ashtanga Yoga] is widely believed to have been created for adolescent boys and tends to attract former drug addicts and Type A personalities…”

Responding to Schoeneman's remark, Eddie quotes his friend Margaret Loeb, who writes:

"In a world with ADD and sensory dis-integration as not only discreet pathologies but symptoms of an over stimulating culture, Ashtanga yoga offers brilliant tools to gain mastery, focus and mental stability.  The fact that the achievement would suit young boys, former addicts and type A personalities is not testimony to its failure but rather to its success. There is in fact abundant evidence that yoga reduces anxiety, improves cardiac functioning, posture and mental focus. For many people who do yoga, without it they would be more likely to use drugs, more likely to need therapy, more likely to have difficulty managing their emotions.  The physical benefits of yoga are a bonus."

I am quite impressed by Loeb's remarks here. I think she has succeeded in putting into words what I have felt quite strongly the whole time. I'm not sure if I'm a type A personality, but I certainly have an anxious streak, and I really wouldn't be surprised if somebody were to tell me that I probably have an addictive/OCD streak as well (although I have never been tested for any of these things). Ashtanga, as most of you know, gets quite a bit of bad press in the yoga world for being an allegedly asana-oriented practice that feeds the ego (and not much else). And it doesn't help that the people who tend to be drawn to Ashtanga (the Type A personalities, especially) are probably the last people on earth to need an ego boost. Or so the argument goes.

What is perhaps less obvious is that the practice, with its intensely physical and all-consuming nature, serves to innoculate type A or addictive or OCD personalities against other things; things which can do a whole lot more harm to bodies and psyches than being obsessed with, say, binding in Marichyasana D. The practice allows people who would otherwise have a tendency to direct their minds and bodies in destructive directions to channel these energies towards something tangibly constructive which they can relate to and grasp on their emotional level; something like asana. 

And of course, in the process of so doing, one might just acquire a tight-ass as a bonus. Tight asses, by the way, are way over-rated: for one thing, having a tight ass really gets in the way of back-bending. If you don't believe me, just try scrunching and tightening up your ass the next time you try to get up into Urdhva Dhanuarasana. Then try the same pose with a softer ass. Feel the difference.        


It seems that backbending has re-emerged as a topic of discussion in the blogosphere, so I'll use this topic as a launching point to get myself out of my recent blogging funk.

Sereneflavor, Grimmly and Boodiba have all recently blogged about backbending. The latter two have also made some cool videos of their backbending exploits. I have not made any such videos, although I do know that a picture of me in Kapotasana has recently been making the rounds on the web. I've also learnt that said picture has apparently been re-blogged on a gay site... I'm not sure what to think about this. I've nothing against gay people. But still, it's a little bit unsettling (not to mention creepy) to consider the possibility that my backbending likeness may be the subject of some guy's fantasy right this moment... I guess this teaches me something: One has no control over whatever content one posts online. Let it go.

So, as I was saying, backbending. With my left knee being... (how should I put this)... out of optimal Ashtanga performance mode, I have recently found myself focusing more on my backbends. In particular, I have been working on reducing the level of splay in my feet when I drop back. In a recent post, Frank suggested that a certain amount of splay is to be expected if one's thighs naturally turn outward. The idea is not to allow the feet to turn outwards more than the degree to which one's thighs naturally turn outwards (does this make sense?); if one's feet turn out more than the angle to which one's thighs are turned out, the knees get compromised. Which gives me an additional reason to work on reducing the amount of feet-splay in the backbends, since I need to do everything I can to protect the knees at this point.

Here's a little discovery I made during this morning's practice. I discovered that rather than just drop back immediately after first coming up from Urdhva Dhanurasana, it is useful to hang back for two or three times before actually dropping back. I discovered that doing these two or three hang-backs brings more of the backbend into the muscles of the front body, which somehow also results in less feet-splaying. There is also an added benefit: When I finally allowed myself to drop back after these two or three hang-backs, I was able to walk my hands to touch my heels more easily, probably as a result of the added front-body opening. I still can't get into Chakrabandhasana unassisted, but maybe if I keep working on this, I will be able to do this one day.

Alright... that's all for now. More later.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Blogging Ennui: What I blog about when I have nothing to blog about

Hello Blogosphere,
                                I'm just writing to let you know that I am still alive and kicking, even though I haven't blogged much the last few days. I don't really know why, but I couldn't seem to get motivated enough to write much about anything. There is, of course, that NYT article about that ex-Ashtangi who claims that Ashtanga didn't do much to get her a tight ass. Ho hum.

And then there was that big hoo-ha about Lululemon's latest shenanigan (all that Ayn-Rand-who-is-John-Galt business). To be quite honest, I just don't get what the fuss is about: I've never had any illusions about what Lululemon is, i.e. a big corporation that tries to make a big buck (and does so very successfully, I have to say) under the guise of the "yoga lifestyle". So I really don't understand why everybody in the yoga world seems to be so up in arms about what Lulu is doing: Why is it so shocking to many folks that Lulu has chosen to blatantly trumpet its brazenly capitalistic outlook on its shopping bags? If anything, we may even commend Lululemon for being so honest, where other corporations try to disguise or draw attention away from their questionable practices by jumping on the free-trade-label bandwagon. Not that there's anything for Lulu to brag about being free-trade about (free-trade ambassadors? Hmm...) Anyway, excuse me for saying this, but I really think that anybody who thought any differently about Lulu's capitalistic motivations from the get-go (and are now scandalized by the whole John-Galt affair) is clearly being naive. Wow... how many people did I just offend?

Hmm... are my days as a blogger numbered? I mean, if this whole trend of not finding anything interesting worth blogging about is any indication, I may have to take a break from blogging soon.


But I guess I should stop ranting. Maybe I'll tell you a little about what I did over the Thanksgiving break. Well, I had a quiet and relatively uneventful time. I spent much of the time reading. Over the weekend, I read The End of the Beginning, by Harry Turtledove. Turtledove specializes in the sub-genre of science-fiction known as alternate history. Alternate history novels basically invite the reader to imagine a world in which a particular historical event had turned out differently (e.g what if Germany had won WWII, what if the Japanese had followed up the bombing of Pearl Harbor with a subsequent invasion of the Hawaiian islands).

The End of the Beginning is part of a series of two novels which is set in an alternate universe in which the Japanese followed up the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an invasion of Hawaii. After occupying Hawaii, they install a puppet King and Queen of Hawaii. There are a number of characters in Turtledove's story; some of them are actual historical figures, and some of them are totally fictional characters. Turtledove does a really good job of depicting the trials and tribulations of these characters as the war affects their lives. There is the Japanese commander who planned the whole attack and invasion, who carries on an affair with the Queen. There is a U.S. Army officer who becomes a POW, and who is forced to do hard labor under terrible conditions. And there is his ex-wife, who is forced into prostitution by the Japanese Army. All in all, Turtledove is a good storyteller, and this is a very absorbing read. Well, you may not find any of this very interesting, but I'm bit of an amateur history buff myself. 


I guess I should also say a little about my practice, since, well, this a yoga blog, after all. Nothing much to say here, except that I have basically resolved to really follow the "any sensation is too much sensation" rule when it comes to my left knee. I've decided that I really need to do this in order to give me the best chance of healing completely and quickly (well, "quickly" is a very relative term when it comes to knee injuries...).

And boy, is it hard to practice this way. There are so many padmasana variations in primary, that it is quite shocking how different one's practice becomes when one cuts out all these variations, even if only on the left side. I will even venture to say that this is even harder than, say, working on landing Karandavasana. At least in that case, you just do one pose, maybe fall, then move on. But working with injury... gosh, the injury permeates the entire practice, turning the practice into a totally different monster (did I just say "monster..."?). Sometimes, I get the feeling that more than half the primary series is designed to make fun of my present condition. Okay, I'm probably taking things too personally. But what has to be done has to be done, and what I need to do right now is to do everything I can to make the practice healing and not hurting. So it is.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Tight asses, beach bodies, energetic openings, being a samadhied asshole (?)

Some recent posts in the blogosphere (and more generally online) have caused me to ask some fundamental questions about the practice of Ashtanga yoga: What exactly should one aspire to in doing this practice? Is it alright to practice Ashtanga only for the purpose of getting a tight ass, for instance? And I don't just mean people who are new to the practice, who may quite understandably be attracted to the practice because of such "tight-ass considerations" (one irony here is that making one's ass too tight (i.e. if one clenches the buttocks too much) may make backbends difficult and even injurious. But this is a topic for another post). If this recent article in the NYT is any indication, even long-time "advanced" practitioners may still be motivated by "tight-ass" or fitness considerations.

Which is totally fine, as far as I am concerned. If doing this practice for the sole purpose of getting a tight ass or beach body (or whatever ass/body) works for you and rocks your boat, more power to you. After all, didn't this particular South Indian gentleman, one Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, famously declare, "Do your practice, and all is coming"? The "all" here, I suppose, should include tight asses and beach bodies, don't you think?

But I suspect that many people out there may look at the tight-ass-motivated Ashtangi and shake their heads in disapproval, saying that our Ashtangi here should be aspiring to more exalted things. After all, if our friend here has "advanced" to second or even third series, shouldn't he or she have totally transcended any ass considerations, and be striving for higher, less body-oriented goals?

What might be these goals be? Energetic openings might be one possible candidate. The trouble with energetic openings is that, for one, they are not things that you can necessarily will or intend to occur at particular times or places in the practice (then again, is there anything in the practice--or indeed, in life--that works this way?). For another, according to Owl, it is quite possible that:

"most westerners intuitively slow down their own transformation by half-assing the concentration, relaxation, diet or drste. At first, some rajas or tamas intake (emotional, dietary, mental) may act as insulation." 

As somebody who half-asses these things in more ways than I can count (or am conscious of), I think I can understand at least some of what Owl is saying here, even if I may not fully appreciate what my half-assing is preventing me from experiencing (or insulating me from, if one wants to put a more positive spin on it... it's very much a matter of perspective here, I suppose :-)). If many other Ashtangis in the west are in the same position as me, then it looks like if one is to have any chance of experiencing any kind of energetic opening, one would need to eliminate those things in one's concentration, relaxation, diet or drste that are causing one to half-ass one's practice. Which is possible, I suppose, but definitely no mean feat.


Long story short: Striving for/aspiring to an energetic opening is probably counter-productive, and would probably lead to a lot of unnecessary suffering from unfulfilled expectations.

So striving for/aspiring towards energetic openings as an explicit goal of practice is out of the picture. What other possible candidate/s is/are left? What about Samadhi, that holiest of holy grails of yoga practice? After all, if one is going to forego tight-ass considerations as a motivation for practice, one may as well strive for the highest possible yogic goal. But samadhi turns out to be a little more complicated than might be apparent at first glance. Yoga Sutra 1.17 describes four forms of Sampragnata or distinguished samadhi:

"Thorough knowledge
is accompanied by inquiry
into its four forms
analytical thinking about an object,
meditative insights on thoughts,
reflections into the nature of bliss,
and inquiry into one’s essential purity."

translated by M. Stiles

According to Swami Shyam, these four forms of samadhi culminate in an inquiry into bliss during which there is an awareness of peace and joy, and a lack of awareness of words, meanings, time, space. At the same time, there is also an awareness of the fluctuations of asmi, the source of ahamkara, or ego.

Commenting on this passage, Swami Satchindananda further cautions that the practice of samprajnata samadhi must be pure and selfless or else the practioner or sadhaka will abuse their new found powers and abilities.

I find Satchindananda's words here very interesting: If one does not practice samadhi with pure and selfless intention, one will abuse one's newfound powers in this area. This means that it is possible for one to attain samadhi while having impure intentions and being selfish. In other words, it is possible to attain samadhi and still be a total asshole! Which means that one can be a self-realized asshole!

Interesting... But if one is going to make all these efforts to attain samadhi and still remain the asshole one was, why bother? Why not just stick with tight asses and beach bodies? At least one would have less things to worry about that way.

Maybe I have discovered a certain paradox; let's call this the paradox of samadhi: One starts out the yoga practice being an average asshole. In order to overcome this asshole nature, one embarks on the practice of yoga, aspires to and eventually attains samadhi. However, if Satchidananda is right, then it is quite possible that one could still be an asshole after attaining samadhi. A samadhied asshole, but an asshole no less.

Or maybe the goal of yoga practice isn't actually to stop being an asshole, in the first place. Maybe it's just this: Do your practice, and all is coming (and even if you are an asshole, it is still coming...). Shows what I know, right? :-)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving: A few neither-here-nor-there musings

So today is Thanksgiving (if you live in the U.S. of A, that is; if you live anywhere else, it's just another day). As much as I think this is not a bad country to live in (after all, I'm still here, after all these years), I've never really bought into the whole Thanksgiving myth, that whole story about the pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower and all that; for one, whoever came up with this story seems to have conveniently forgotten that Spaniards had already been in this country at least a couple of centuries earlier. Or maybe the point wasn't to celebrate who came first, but something else? Shows how much I know the history of this country, doesn't it?

In any case, this is no place or time to engage in any kind of academic head-banging about the origins and meaning of Thanksgiving. If you celebrate Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving! If not, well, celebrate anyway and be happy! Moreover, from the point of view of an Ashtangi, the timing couldn't be better: Tomorrow's the new moon. Which means you can eat all you want (maybe get drunk too, if that's your, uh, glass of wine), and sleep in tomorrow! No point practicing: If the Ashtangic lore is to be believed, your body will be sluggish and all tomorrow, it being a new moon. So you may as well go with the flow, weigh your body down with lots of fuel, and let it be as sluggish as it wants to be!

So go forth, my friends. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. If this is a bit morbid for your taste... well, there's more truth in it than we might want to believe. After all, seen from the perspective of an entire life, we do eat, drink, and be merry (hopefully, more often than not). And then we die. So why not have all the merriness we can, while we can? What we don't use, we lose, no?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Kino on strength, effort and surrendering to the process everyday, and my not-so-glorious five steps back

I just came across this very nice Youtube video of a talk and asana demonstration that Kino did at a recent workshop in New Orleans. The asana demonstration, which is in the second part of the video, is great, but I think her talk is even greater! Don't get me wrong; Kino's asana demonstration is beautiful and effortless, as it always is. But there's always a part of me that goes, "Okay, but this is Kino, right? What else can you expect?"

But her talk is a different story. Here are a few gems:

(1) "I don't need it to be easy, but what I want is a way that I can work on it today." Even though most of us know that Ashtanga is not a quick fix for anything, many of us are still consciously or unconsciously conditioned by contemporary consumer culture, and expect things to happen relatively quickly in our practice. So that if we, say, aren't able to master the jump-back in three months, we decide that our bodies aren't cut out for jumping back.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Everything is possible, but we need to trust the process, be prepared to give it time (lots of it), and things will happen when they do. Hard for many of us to swallow in the heat of the passion of the practice on the mat, but that's just how it is.

(2) Five steps forward, Four and a Half Steps Back: Actually, if Pema Chodron is right, for the first couple of years of practice, it's more like five steps forward, five steps back. And then you progress to five steps forward, four and a half steps back. And if you're wise, you'll celebrate that half step forward rather than brood over the four-and-a-half-steps back.

(3) This has nothing to do with the video, but Kino emailed me last week to ask about how I am doing with my knee. I am very grateful--touched, actually--that she would take time out of her very busy schedule to ask after me. When I first got injured, I had emailed her for advice, and she had been very generous and unstinting with her suggestions and advice as well. I think she's a really great person. I'm very grateful to be able to learn from somebody like her.


All this brings to mind a recent conversation I had with a friend. Some time ago, I had taught this friend Surya Namaskars A and B and a few standing postures, and had told him that there are six series of postures in the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system. I also shared with him that I am only somewhere in the second series (for more details, see the second half of this post).

Anyway, during a recent gathering with some friends, the topic of yoga came up, and my friend brought up the fact that I had been practicing yoga a couple of hours everyday for a few years now. He then threw what he thought was a wisecrack at me: "But how come your yoga still sucks even after all these years of practice?" (I supposed he meant, "How come you are still only at second series after all these years?") I laughed at the supposed wisecrack and said self-deprecatingly, "Well, I am a person of limited talent. What to do?"

To be quite honest, it didn't even occur to me in that moment to be offended. After all, my friend sees yoga as one of many possible ways of keeping fit, and not so much (if at all) as a spiritual practice: To him, it made perfect sense that one can be "better" or "worse" at yoga, just as one can be better or worse at, say, tennis or racket-ball. And of course, if I were a self-realized yogic saint, I would have stayed unruffled and unoffended. But you know how remarks like this often have a way of festering and snowballing, so that the sting comes long after the remark has already been delivered? Well, this is kind of what happened with me (it probably also doesn't help that given the state of my left knee (which he did not know about), I was probably more conscious of my physical limitations than I usually am). Anyway, my first thought when I first felt the sting of the remark was something along the lines of, "Yeah, easy for you to say: Spoken with the true arrogance of somebody who's never used his body for anything much else than eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom!" No really, think about this: Have you ever noticed how many couch potatoes and other largely sedentary beings have this curious tendency to be overly critical of and to put down any display of physical ability that is anything short of Olympian? (Couch potato: "What? He can only jump this high? My grandmother can do better!" Nobel: "Really? Let's see your grandmother do that...")

Well, I probably should stop ranting about this. In any case, what can I do? The only productive thing to do, when all is said and done, is to let go and try to happily acknowledge that I am now in the five-steps-back phase of my practice. The only thing to do is to acknowledge this, go back to the mat, and practice. And then, after long time, all is coming.   

Monday, November 21, 2011

Reading Dick, time, practice

I spent a big part of the weekend reading Time Out of Joint, a science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick. I've never read anything by him before (I was going to write "I've never read any Dick before", but I thought that would have been in very bad taste... but hey, I've written it anyway, albeit parenthetically. Sigh...).

In any case, this is the first book I've read by him. I've heard lots of good things about him; apparently, a number of movies (Total Recall, Minority Report, Adjustment Bureau) were adapted from his novels. I'm not going to spoil the story for you by telling you what the book is about. But let me just say this: If Time Out of Joint is any indication, it seems that Dick's novels are not very fast-paced; the screen-writers who adapted his novels probably took a lot of liberties with the story, and spiced up the plot with lots of action scenes so that people like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon would look good in them. But if you can get past, say, the first fifty pages, the plot thickens, and you get so sucked into the story that you can't do anything else. Including blog; which explains my blog-silence over the weekend :-)

How can you possibly have time to get lost in a sci-fi novel when you have, like, a million other things to do? You may ask. Well, the same question can be posed about blogging as well: How can I possibly have time to blog when there are a million more, uh, "productive" things I could be doing? What about yoga? How can I possibly have time to spend a couple of hours each morning doing this thing called Ashtanga when I could be using that time to, say, write a book that will blow somebody's mind, or at least get more sleep?

The list of such "How can you possibly have time..." questions goes on and on indefinitely. The correct answer is probably "No, I don't have the time for any of this, objectively speaking. But I choose to do these things anyway. Why? I don't know... because I can't imagine not doing them?"  Or maybe it's because I instinctively know that a life spent not doing these things, while possibly more "efficient", would probably not be as fulfilling as this life. 


Practice this morning was quite good. Here are a few highlights and thoughts:

(1) In the Suryas, especially Surya B, I think I am increasingly getting the hang of floating back and forward into Uttanasana. For a while, I have been able to lift up into trini and kind of plop back into chatvari. It's only in the last couple of days that I started to figure out how to do the reverse (floating forward into Uttanasana). I think the trick is to pretend that I am jumping through, but lower my feet at the last moment, so that I end up landing in Uttanasana instead of jumping all the way through. The trick, I guess, is to pretend to such a degree that your body actually believes that it is going to jump through, and then trick your body, and lower your legs to the ground at the last moment. I'm still unable to hover above the ground just before I land, the way people like Kino and David Robson are able to, but not to worry; do my practice, and all is coming... :-)

(2) I think I am making progress in locating the spot in my mid-back that is not open in backbends (at his Minneapolis workshop back in July, Matthew Sweeney told me that my mid-back needs opening; see this post). I'm not exactly sure how and exactly when this happened, but something last week, while going into Kapotasana, it suddenly occurred to me that my mid-back is really lower down my back than where I previously thought it was. Pretty funny when I put it into words, don't you think? That I shouldn't know where my mid-back is, when it has been on my body my entire life! But I think this is what makes yoga practice so intriguing; it's one thing to be able to locate the mid-back on an anatomical diagram, or even to touch your own mid-back in an everyday setting. But to be able to bring forth the prioproceptive awareness to actually know where it is and get it to open up during a backbend... now that is an entirely different ballgame.

In any case, as I was saying, sometime last week, I suddenly had this awareness in kapo that my mid-back is actually lower down my body than where I thought it was; with this awareness came the realization that I had been spending too much energy trying to open that which does not need to be opened further (my upper back), neglecting that which needed to be opened more. Over the last week or so, I have been working on bringing more awareness to this new-found place. I think it's causing my kapotasana to open a bit more easily.

(3) My left knee is not 100 hundred percent recovered, but it's better.     

(4) Lately, I've begun to wonder if breakthroughs in practice can sometimes be a double-edged sword. For instance, I discover a new way to open up something in my body, which leads to a breakthrough in one area (say, floating in the Suryas or landing Karandavasana). But unbeknownst to me, the breakthrough causes me to use certain muscles or to move my body in a certain way, creating imbalances in some other part of the body. Which might then lead to injury. Which then requires scaling back the practice to heal the injury and hopefully, going back to the same place in the practice at a later point in time with a wiser and more balanced mind-body. If this is correct, then it seems that "progress" in practice might often be a 2-steps-forward, 1-step-back kind of process. Do any of you out there have this feeling?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Can we be truly free? Being a basketball star, yoga, and liberation

In my philosophy class yesterday, we discussed the problem of freedom. Specifically, we focused on this question: If cultural determinism is true, can we really make any genuinely free choices? In other words, if our ideas, worldviews and reactions to events in the world are all ultimately determined by the society and cultural environment in which we are a part of, can we really have freedom in any meaningful sense of the word?

Here's an example I used in class to illustrate this question: Suppose I decide tomorrow that I don't want to be a philosophy teacher anymore. As interesting as talking with students about philosophy can be, I decide that ultimately, teaching philosophy in a university enables me to have only a very limited impact on the lives of people and on society as a whole. I want to do something else that will enable me to have a much more direct impact on people's lives, that will inspire them in a much more direct way. I decide that the best way to do this is to become an NBA star. Yes, you heard it right; NBA as in National Basketball Association. I decide that nobody could fail to take notice of a severely shortsighted, five-foot-eight Chinese guy who is nevertheless able to dunk. And once people take notice of me, they will get curious about how I got to be in the NBA, and will want to interview me on all kinds of late-night TV shows (Larry King, Jay Leno, etc.). And then I will be able to unleash my inspirational words and teachings on the public. Since way more Americans watch TV than take philosophy classes, I figure that if I can get to this position of great eminence, I will be able to make many friends, gain many fans, and influence and positively inspire the lives of millions. Great idea, no?

But of course, there is a very practical problem: How am I supposed to transform this five-foot-eight Chinese body--a body which, I may add, has no aptitude whatsoever for ball games--into a high-jumping, basketball-dribbling-and-dunking-NBA-star body? But well, this is a philosophy thought experiment, and in philosophy thought experiments, money is never an issue. Which means that, at least in theory, I can hire the best basketball coaches in the country and spend all my waking hours training until I acquire the requisite athletic abilities and the basketball skills. Which means that, at least in theory, only time and a shitload of training stands between me and the athletic prowess and basketball skills of Michael Jordan.

Can you see the resemblance between this

And this?
 [Image taken from here]

But here's the problem: Even if I succeed in becoming the greatest basketball sensation since Michael Jordan, and go on to inspire millions on Larry King with my philosophical abilities (yes, a philosophical basketball star. Think about that :-)), it will still be questionable whether I will have done anything really significant. After all, it can be argued, my breaking out of my present mode of existence (being a philosophy professor) and becoming a basketball star, as radical as this may seem, is still very much an action that is conditioned by the cultural and social environment of which I am a part. After all, if I did not live in this time and age and in this part of the world, it would never even have occurred to me to want to become an NBA star. Indeed, I probably got the very idea of becoming an NBA star from watching NBA stars on TV. Which means that even my radical act of reinventing myself has its roots ultimately in mass media, which is, of course, the biggest purveyor of social and cultural norms in contemporary society. So here's the question: If even this act of radically reinventing myself is ultimately an act that is conditioned by social and cultural norms, and therefore not genuinely free, is there any action we can take that is truly free? Right now, I don't have a definite answer to this question, although I'm leaning more and more towards "no."


What has any of this to do with yoga? You may be wondering. Well, although we don't usually couch it in these terms, what we ultimately after in yoga practice is also freedom. Whatever form of yoga we practice, the ultimate goal is moksha, or liberation from the chains of samskara, or the karmic grooves that have defined and bound our actions thus far.

But here we are in a somewhat similar predicament as my NBA-star-wannabe alter-ego: None of us would have encountered yoga if we did not live in the time and place that we do now. This is true whether you first encountered yoga by seeing it on TV, through the introduction of a yoga-practicing friend, or by randomly picking up a copy of Yoga Journal on some newsstand somewhere. You may argue that your yoga practice today and your present understanding of it has evolved to the point where it has transcended these humble beginnings. Fair enough. But even if this is true, it still remains the case that you would probably never have encountered yoga if it weren't for the fact that you live in this culture and society with its various norms and values. Even if you are one of the relatively few people who first started doing yoga on some hippie commune somewhere, and you now practice some obscure and highly esoteric form of yoga that is not accessible to mainstream society, it still remains true that you are a member of a subculture, and insofar as all subcultures originally arose as reactions to a perceived establishment or "mainstream culture", you are still, by extension, a product of the norms and values of this time and age. In other words, we are very much limited and conditioned beings. How, then, can we be truly free?      

Thursday, November 17, 2011

To eat meat or not to eat meat? Or, Confessions of an Egotistical Vegetarian

The issue of eating or not eating meat (and the accompanying issue of whether one can eat meat and still be a proper yogi) seems to have resurfaced recently, both in the blogosphere and in my everyday environment.

First, my everyday environment. A couple of days ago, I was ordering my usual lunch (a veggie sandwich on wheat bread) at the campus cafeteria. As the server was putting my sandwich together, the guy next to me in line remarked, "Oh, you have no meat in your sandwich!" From the baffled tone in his voice, I think he meant something along the lines of, "Dude, you forgot to put meat in your sandwich!" This being the upper midwest (and a rather rural part of it, at that), the idea that somebody could eat a sandwich without meat in it probably still strikes many people as quite strange, to say the least. In any case, this is how the conversation between me and this guy unfolded from this point: 

Nobel: "I'm vegetarian."

Guy: "Really? I could never imagine going without meat. How long have you been vegetarian?"

Nobel: "About two years."

Guy: "How do you feel, not eating meat for so long?"

Nobel: "Well... I feel lighter. But really, most days I don't even think about it anymore. I've not eaten meat for so long, I barely even notice I'm not eating meat." 

Guy: "Very interesting."

And we then went our separate ways.   


The same issue has also recently emerged in the blogosphere as a topic of discussion. First, Grimmly recently blogged about his journey from vegetarianism to non-vegetarianism, and back to vegetarianism. Grimmly's story is very authentic and inspiring. You should check out his story, if you haven't already done so.

Bindy also ends her recent post about her wonderful trip to Akron, Ohio with an account of these delectable cheeseburgers that she ate at an old-school burger joint, the kind "with waiters who run out to your car to take your order & return quickly with a tray that hooks on to your window just like in the 50s. you eat in your car."

Anticipating the possibility of the vegetarian/vegan police/PETA activists leaving snarky comments in her comments box, Bindy continues,

"i know many of you who read this blog are probably repulsed by this, but i eat meat because when i was a vegetarian for 7 years, i got sick ALOT. since i began eating meat-the exact same year i started doing yoga-i haven’t been sick since. not all bodies are meant for the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle.
even though i know many of you will anyhow, don’t judge me. i myself am not fond of vegans but i try not to judge either."
Well, Bindy, I am certainly not repulsed by your account (and pictures) of the delectable cheeseburgers. And I think it is probably true that not all bodies are meant for the vegan/vegetarian lifestyle. If eating meat (and lots of it, to boot) is your, uh, piece of steak, then more power to you!

Personally, I don't think I would have become vegetarian if it weren't for the Ashtanga practice. Two years ago, I moved to Milwaukee, and became a full-time Ashtangi when I started going to morning mysore at my teacher's shala. At my teacher's recommendation, I decided to try not eating meat. To this day, I still don't really know why I listened to him: Many, many people have tried to persuade me about the wonders of vegetarianism before that, including a couple of (in my opinion) rather misguided big-name yoga teachers (I'm not going to name names here...) who resorted to cheap scare-tactics like showing PETA videos (you know, the kind with graphic depictions of chickens getting their beaks cut off), but I had basically ignored them, and continued merrily eating meat, especially my favorite meat dish, fried chicken. It probably also doesn't help that I was brought up in a culture (Chinese culture) whose members have been known to eat anything that crawls, swims or flies. Which, if you think about it, is an evolutionary advantage, since this pretty much means that Chinese people will probably never die of starvation due to lack of food in foreign environments :-) So growing up, meat was as much a part of my life as, I don't know, apple pie and cereal might be to the lives of others. Growing up, I used to think that the only people who didn't eat meat were (i) Buddhist monks and nuns, (ii) people with certain medical conditions. I suspect that many Chinese people still think this way.

But I digress. As I was saying, I still don't know why I listened to my teacher, where so many have tried to persuade me but failed. Maybe it has something to do with his no-bullshit way of going about it ("If you stop eating meat, you can get deeper into Marichyasana D!"), but I almost immediately decided to start by limiting myself to eating meat once or twice a month. After about a month of doing this, I realized to my surprise that, except for the occasional craving for fried chicken or Friday Fish Fry, I really didn't really miss meat all that much. And I also discovered that not eating meat allowed me to feel (and be) lighter. Which really helps a lot when you are getting up early to put yourself into things like Mari D and Pasasana six days a week.

So really, I don't have any particularly noble or high-minded reasons for becoming vegetarian. The chief reason is my Ashtanga practice: I love doing the practice too much to let something like fried chicken get in the way of Mari D or Pasasana. Which is probably a very bizarre and egotistical reason to go vegetarian to most people in the so-called normal world ("What? You give up fried chicken and Filet Mignon just so that you can twist yourself into funny shapes every morning? Have you lost it?"). But hey, I'm sure people do even stranger things for way stranger reasons all the time...

In any case, since my reasons for being vegetarian are not very high-minded (in fact, they are actually rather egotistical, if one equates asana achievement with ego), I'm not in a position to hit anybody over the head for not being vegetarian. Nor do I want to. Having been on both sides of the vegetarian-omnivore divide, I don't think being or not being vegetarian puts one in a better or worse position to become a self-realized being. As a matter of fact, I hear that His Holiness the Dalai Lama eats meat too. So if you are a meat-eating yogi/spiritual practitioner, you are at least in good company :-) 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Practice, knee, warm fuzzy sensation in padmasana; What really happens in Savasana

Practice this morning was quite interesting. For the past week or so, I have been doing this rather unusual combination of primary and second series postures: Primary up to Supta Kurmasana, and then second to Ardha Matsyendrasana. The ostensible reason is to avoid taxing the knees too much, while slowing building back up to my pre-knee-injury practice. Truth be told, this choice of practice doesn't really accomplish this purpose: The only knee-taxing pose it cuts out is Garbha Pindasana. Who am I kidding?

But I do try to be a good injury rehabilitator. In place of Janu A, B, and C, I do three Janu As throughout. And for the past week or so, I have been quite judicious about going into any half-lotus poses very slowly, trying my best to follow the "any sensation is too much sensation" rule. Truth be told, some range of motion has returned to the left knee, and I have been able to get into half-lotus without too much discomfort.

So far, one of the hardest things about working with injury is the constant back-and-forth between ego and my, uh, more sensible mind, especially in any postures that involve going deep into the knee joint. The ego wants to keep exploring how far I can go without further injuring myself. The more sensible part of the mind (the part that says "any sensation is too much sensation") says to back off, and to play it safe. Well, so far, it seems that my ego and my sensible mind have met each other halfway. Sensible mind allows some sensation, but no pushing through pain. I am cautiously optimistic that I am not doing anything to make things worse, and am giving the body the space it needs to heal.  

The last couple of days, I have also managed to very, very slowly get the left heel to the ground in Bhekasana without pain. The trick, it seems, is to move the foot as close to the hip as possible, and resist the temptation to try to get further in the pose by moving the foot away from the hip and torquing the knee. But who in their right mind would do anything like this? You may ask. Well, I would (or at least I did, until I learnt the hard way that knees are best not tweaked in particular directions). 

Well, I don't suppose you want to hear too much more about my injury rehabilitation... Well, here's something else that might interest you. In the finishing lotuses today... by the way, I have also discovered that if I get into padmasana with the left foot first, there is some discomfort for about 5 seconds, and then the discomfort goes away, and the pose becomes almost comfortable. Why is this so? I don't know. But as I was saying, in the finishing lotuses today, I felt this nice warm energy emanating from my palms when my hands were in Jnana Mudra. It's almost like there was this little light warm fuzzy ball on my palms. Interesting. I wonder what this is? Chi? Prana? Body warmth? The last time I felt something like this was a few years ago, when I was just messing around with this Taichi move that I had learnt. I was putting my palms a few inches apart from each other, and moving them around as if I were holding a little ball between them. And lo and behold, I actually felt a warm fuzzy sensation between the hands, as if there really was a little ball between them! The sensation this morning was just like that, except that it was less intense. Anybody have any explanation for this sensation?


On a lighter note, I found this funny savasana video on Youtube:

Well, now you know is actually going on in the studio/shala as you lie blissfully dead to the rest of the world in savasana ;-)

Monday, November 14, 2011

Am I among the ranks of the "opened"? Some random musings about energetic openings

In her most recent post, sereneflavor touched upon a topic that is seldom discussed (and even when it is discussed, only discussed in passing, in a if-you-have-experienced-it-you'll-know-what-I'm-talking-about kind of way) in the Ashtanga blogosphere: Energetic openings.  Here's sereneflavor's own recent experience of an energetic opening:

"...the teacher moved my legs in two opposing and impossible directions during Virabhadrasana 11 and I felt a scary crack in my sacrum (I think) then, lots and lots of space to stretch in opposing directions!"

I think it's really cool that sereneflavor has chosen to write about this aspect of the practice; of course, it's even more cool that she has experienced such an opening, and is now initiated into the ranks of the "opened". I offer her my heartfelt congratulations.

But having said this, I would also like to use her post as a launching pad for my own agenda :-) I may be wrong about this, but it appears to me that energetic openings are widely regarded as an esoteric aspect of the Ashtanga practice: An energetic opening is something that can only be experienced, and is not something that can be taught verbally. It also appears to be something that sets apart practitioners, so that practitioners who have experienced an energetic opening are almost seen to have been initiated into some kind of semi-mystic experience, and are, in this way, seen as more "advanced." Or, at the very least, as "opened". 

As I said, all this is just my opinion: It could be that I simply haven't had the good fortune of meeting enough people with whom I can talk openly and coherently about energetic openings. But perhaps, as I have often done in the past with other topics, I can use this blog as a launching point to start a little conversation about energetic openings, and learn something concrete about this topic in the process.

Actually, sereneflavor's experience cues me in on a couple of things in my own practice. I think it is possible that, without being aware of it, I may be experiencing openings quite regularly in my daily practice. Here are a couple of examples:

(1) On most days, when I come up into Virabhadrasana I in Surya B, I feel a pop/crack (it's something between a pop and a crack; maybe I should call it a "prack" :-)) somewhere in my sacrum as I fully extend my spine and reach my arms up to the sky. It's not uncomfortable at all; in fact, it's quite pleasant, and I have come to anticipate this prack: I feel that it opens up my lower back in a good way.

(2) Almost every single time I lower into Kapotasana, I feel a prack in my sacrum when I reach a certain point in the backbend. It's not quite as pleasant as the one in Vira I. It's rather uncomfortable, but not painful. And once I get pracked, it becomes possible for me to go deeper into Kapo. It's almost as if my spine is changing gears, and the prack is the sound of the gears changing, allowing the spine to switch from not-so-deep-backbend mode into deep-backbend mode. My experience so far tells me that this prack is a good thing that is therapeutic for my spine (although I sometimes wonder if a chiropractor would disagree with me). Well, maybe my spine needs some transmission fluid to make the gear-changing more smooth... Ha! Think about this: No Transmission Fluid, No Prana!

Anyway, here's what I'm wondering: Are my experiences in (1) and (2) examples of energetic openings? Or are they merely physiological phenomena that can be explained in purely anatomical/physiological terms? More generally, are energetic openings purely energetic or pranic in nature? Or can they also be explained in anatomical/physiological terms? Anything you have to say about this (really, anything) will be greatly appreciated.        

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Haruki Murakami, practice and fairness

Here are some more insightful words from Haruki Murakami:

"...if I don't do anything I tend to put on the pounds. My wife's the opposite, since she can eat as much as she likes (she doesn't eat a lot of them, but can never turn down anything sweet), never exercise, and still not put on any weight. She has no extra fat at all. Life just isn't fair, is how it used to strike me. Some people can work their butts off and never get what they're aiming for, while others can get it without any effort at all.

But when I think about it, having the kind of body that easily puts on weight was perhaps a blessing in disguise. In other words, if I don't want to gain weight I have to work out hard every day, watch what I eat, and cut down on indulgences. Life can be tough, but as long as you don't stint on the effort, your metabolism will greatly improve with these habits, and you'll end up much healthier, not to mention stronger. To a certain extent, you can even slow down the effects of aging. But people who naturally keep the weight off no matter what don't need to exercise or watch their weight in order to stay trim. There can't be many of them who would go out of their way to take these troublesome measures when they don't need to. Which is why, in many cases, their physical strength deteriorates as they age. If you don't exercise, your muscles will naturally weaken, as will your bones. Some of my readers may be the kind of people who easily gain weight, but the only way to understand what's really fair is to take a long-range view of things. For the reasons I give above, I think this physical nuisance should be viewed in a positive way, as a blessing. We should consider ourselves lucky that the red light is so clearly visible. Of course, it's not always easy to see things this way."

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

As somebody who used to be at least 20 to 30 pounds heavier than what I weigh now, I can totally relate to Murakami's words here. And without being totally conscious of it, I have also, like Murakami, come to see the fact that I tend to put on weight relatively easily as a blessing rather than a burden. If I didn't have this physiological tendency, I would probably not have gone out of my way to find ways and means to keep myself at a healthy weight and size, and would quite definitely not have embarked on the path that led me to Ashtanga practice.

And I personally think Murakami's quite right that regular exercise can slow down the effects of aging. Here's a personal example: Just yesterday, I was chatting with a fellow faculty member in the coffeeshop that I usually do my work in. We had run into each other many times before at this coffeeshop, but this was the first time we actually struck up a conversation. I assumed from the very beginning of the conversation that he knew that I was also a faculty member at the same university. So we were chatting, and he asked me which department I was in. "Philosophy", I replied. And then he asked me who my academic advisor was. At first, I thought he had misspoken, and was meaning to ask who my department chairperson was. So I told him who my department chair was. He said, "No, I mean the person who advises you about what courses to take each semester." And then the realization struck me: He had been thinking I was an undergrad the whole time! I had to clarify and tell him that I was actually faculty. And he exclaimed, "Wow, but you look so young and vibrant! You must take very good care of yourself! All the other guys in philosophy are so, so..." He faltered, looking for the politically correct expression. "So much older", I completed his sentence for him, thereby saving him the trouble of having to find a diplomatic way of saying what was on his mind.  And I also realized that, if I were a more savvy businessperson, this could also have been a very good opportunity for me to advertise my yoga class to him ("Yes, I take good care of myself by doing yoga everyday! Speaking of yoga, would you be interested in taking a yoga class...").

But enough of talking about myself. Coming back to Murakami's words, I think his words apply not just to maintaining body weight and staying fit and healthy. They apply as well to asana practice. Whether we like it or not, many of us are less well-endowed in certain aspects of the practice compared to other practitioners: For instance, some people naturally have less open hips than others, some are less back-bendy than others. Due to certain lifestyle habits, some practitioners may also have certain muscular-skeletal or nervous system issues that make them more injury-prone in some parts of their bodies than other practitioners. As Murakami notes, very often, life just doesn't seem fair: Some people just seem to glide through their asanas, progressing steadily and seemingly unstoppably through the various series, while other lesser mortals seem to crawl along in the lower reaches of primary.

But perhaps, as Murakami suggests, "the only way to understand what's really fair is to take a long-range view of things." Seen in this light, the fact that this or that limitation or issue or injury stares us so squarely in the face is a blessing: It presents us with an invaluable opportunity to understand our bodies and its imbalances more intimately than somebody who's never had to struggle with these limitations. In the process, we gain more body awareness and wisdom, and discover how to do this practice in a way that keeps us strong, flexible and balanced for the rest of our lives in this body. In this way, what originally appears to be unfairness or injustice is in fact a certain unique kind of fairness, a fairness that we can understand and appreciate only through the day-to-day and moment-to-moment struggle of consistent practice. So perhaps there is more fairness in the universe than meets the eye :-) 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Some random thoughts on Haruki Murakami, lifestyle changes, the yoga practice, and teaching yoga

During my trip to Portland last week, I bought a few books for myself. I figured that if I read a little bit of these books everyday, I might be able to trick myself into thinking that I'm still on vacation when I was no longer on vacation. So far, it's worked. :-) It's really interesting how taking just a few minutes out of my everyday life to read something unrelated to work really refreshes me and gives me a new perspective on my everyday life. One might even say that a good book is a portable vacation :-)

Right now, I'm reading Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It's his memoir about his thoughts about writing and running, and how they intertwine and define his life. There are many things he says in the book that really speak to what I feel about life and the yoga practice. For example, he writes:

"People are at their best at different times of day, but I'm definitely a morning person. That's when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don't take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax and don't do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early. This is the pattern I've mostly followed up till today. Thanks to this, I've been able to work efficiently these past twenty-four years. It's a lifestyle, though, that doesn't allow for much nightlife, and sometimes your relationships with other people become problematic. Some people even get mad at you, because they invite you to go somewhere or do something with them and you keep turning them down.

I'm struck by how, except when you're young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don't get that sort of system set by a certain age, you'll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set up so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn't this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority?...

In other words, you can't please everybody."

Murakami's words here remind me of what I went through when I first started practicing yoga. I was in grad school when I went to my first yoga class, and from my very first class, I knew that this yoga thing was something I wanted to do for a long, long time. (For more details, see this post). Soon after that, I quickly realized that if I was going to keep doing yoga everyday, I was going to have to change my lifestyle, go to bed earlier and get up earlier; like many academics I knew at that time, my life revolved around getting papers graded and getting research done (actually, it still does...), and I would often stay up very late to finish papers or write. You can say that yoga single-handedly turned me into a morning person.

Around this time, I remember chatting with a grad student from one of the so-called hard sciences. I told her that I spent a couple of hours doing yoga every morning. She responded by asking me in a slightly derisive manner how I could possibly have the time to spend a few hours everyday on nothing but yoga, and added, "Perhaps I need to switch my major to philosophy!" [Read: Unlike people in the hard sciences, who work very hard all the time and are very disciplined, philosophy grads are just a bunch of pot-smoking, yoga-practicing hippies...] To her, as to many other grads, spending a few hours a day on anything not remotely related to work was just an unjustifiable waste of time (of course, she conveniently forgot that many academics, including those in the hard sciences, spend a lot of hours on things that are somewhat related to work (going out for drinks with colleagues, for instance) but which are probably not very productive in the long run either).

In any case, I somehow managed to resist reacting to her not-so-polite jab (maybe the yoga was already starting to work, even at that time). Instead, I replied that although work is important, it is just that: It is work, and even if I should have to drop out of grad school (God forbid!), I would still be able to find something else to do. But yoga is something I intend to do for the rest of my life. So which is more important? I can't remember her exact response to this, but I think we basically engaged in a little more polite banter before she slinked away. Well... you can't please everybody, right?

But it's not all bad. The cool thing about changing your lifestyle and worldview is that although it is difficult in the beginning (i.e. getting snubbed by people, or becoming the subject of not-so-polite jabs), if you keep at it, you'll realize that even your friends start to change: They will start to see the value of your new lifestyle and come to respect it. Those who don't will gradually drift out of your life, to be replaced by others who do. So, you lose some, you gain some. :-)

Murakami continues:

"Even when I ran my bar I followed the same policy. [It turns out that Murakami ran a jazz bar for a number of years before he became a full-time novelist. Who knew?] A lot of customers came to the bar. If one out of ten enjoyed the place and said he'd come again, that was enough. If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn't matter if nine out of ten didn't like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. This is what I learned through running a business."

I can't help feeling that the same thing applies to teaching yoga. At the risk of sounding very dogmatic, what this means to me is this: One should stick to teaching what one practices, and not go out of one's way to change one's content to please the student and make the class more "palatable" or "enjoyable" for the student. In other words, if you teach Ashtanga (that's the only style I can talk about, since it's what I practice), you should teach it as closely as possible to the way you practice and were taught. Adding fancy stuff like soothing music or mood lighting or incense, while probably not a bad thing in itself, probably won't do very much for the quality of your teaching. In my (humble) opinion, we are here to deliver something to the student (the Ashtanga method), and so long as even one out of ten students "get" it and appreciate it, we have succeeded. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that we should go out of our way to antagonize or alienate people. But at the same time, I can't help feeling that a lot of these yoga classes out there that try to make yoga fit the lives of people who otherwise wouldn't have anything to do with yoga (think "yoga for wine-lovers", "yoga for chocolate-lovers", "yoga for sex-lovers"... okay, I really don't know if there is a "yoga for sex-lovers" yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's already on somebody's business horizon somewhere...) are barking up the wrong tree. They might attract lots of curiosity-seekers and be successful in the short-term, but I'm really not sure if they will ultimately do yoga (and themselves) any favors in the long term.

I suppose many people out there may disagree with me on this point. But even if you see yoga purely as a business, it still remains true that a business that tries to be everything to everybody usually ends up being nothing to anybody. Same goes with yoga: If one tries too hard to make yoga something for everybody, one ends up teaching something that works for nobody.

Just my two cents', as always.    

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Are we the asanas that we perform?

The answer to this question is quite clearly no; asanas, as all of us good yogis and yoginis know, is just one of the eight limbs of yoga practice, and what asanas you can (or cannot) do should not be confused with how "yogic" you are, or how "advanced" your practice is.

Fair enough. But this funny thing called the internet does very funny things to people's perception of yoga practice, and asana's place in it. Here's an example. Earlier today, in his comments on my previous post, Frank told me that a picture of me in Kapotasana that I had posted on this blog last year had been re-blogged here on this tumblr site:

I'm the guy with the green shorts in Kapotasana, just below the center of the page. Well, okay, in case you can't find it, for whatever reason, here it is:

Pretty cool, eh? :-) I actually have mixed feelings about my, ahem, famous Kapotasana picture being circulated on the web and preserved in electronic form for all eternity (pompous much?). On the one hand, I am very honored that somebody actually thinks my Kapotasana worth preserving for posterity to look at. On the other hand, there is a certain strangeness about seeing yourself in an asana on somebody else's website, especially if the viewer can't see my face in the posture. It is quite possible that most of the people who visit that site and see that picture will know me only by the shape of my body in that particular posture; they won't even recognize my face if they see me walking down the street! Pretty bizarre, don't you think? Isn't there something vaguely pornographic about this? (Please don't make me spell out exactly why this is vaguely pornographic: I don't want to have to reveal how much I actually know about pornography on this blog...).

This thing called the internet is indeed a very strange and bizarre creature...

Practice report: Second series backbends, knee

During practice on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, I re-introduced the second series backbends into my practice for the first time in two weeks, since I injured my left knee a couple of weeks ago. After not having done these backbends for a couple of weeks, they feel different in my body. Especially Laghu Vajrasana and Kapotasana. It appears that I haven't lost any backbending flexibility: I am still getting my heels in Kapotasana. But the feeling in these backbends is different now from what it was before two weeks ago. On both days, I felt this powerful pulling stretchy sensation in my quads (almost painful, but not quite) in both Laghu and Kapo. On Tuesday, I also felt this achy sensation in my thoracic spine after coming out of Kapo. I think these are good signs: It seems that whatever it was that was hurting my knee is somehow also making my front body work harder. Which also makes me wonder: Is whatever it is that is hurting the left knee related to some kind of front-back muscular balance in my body?

In any case, as a result of this re-introduction of backbends into my practice, I have been walking around with sore quads these last couple of days. I think that means I walk around with legs that are more extended, with less bend at the knees (because bending the knees more when you walk also activates the quads more, I think). I don't think anybody around me is actually noticing anything about the way I walk ;-) But hey, I much prefer walking around with sore quads than trying to walk with painful knees; the latter is very not fun.

As for the left knee, I am cautiously optimistic that it is getting better. During yesterday's practice, I took a chance, and got into the finishing lotuses with the left leg first. The sensation in the knee as I folded the left leg into lotus was more of an intense achy sensation than a sharp pain, and it passed after about a second in lotus. This seems to me a good sign that something is healing. But I should probably be more cautious here, and try to follow Megan's "any sensation is too much sensation" mantra. It's just that I'm always curious as to how far I can move things without hurting myself; and sometimes, as they say, curiosity kills the cat :-)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Stillness, Time, Unfinished Thought

[Image taken from here]

A quiet Tuesday morning.
A foggy stillness hangs over time's placid surface.
Yet just below the surface,
Covered only by the second-hand's blanket-thin ticking,
White noisy silence
Ripples with the buzzing static of an unfinished thought.

Nobel Ang, 1:40 p.m. CST, November 8th 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

Weekend in Portland, Palak Paneer, a feast for the senses

This past weekend, I was in Portland, Oregon. It was a most stimulating and refreshing time. I was officially there to present my paper on procrastination at Lewis and Clark College. That presentation was well-received.

But unofficially, this weekend also gave me an opportunity to explore a city that I have long heard good things about, but had never had a chance to visit (until now). I also had the chance to meet Tom, a fellow blogger who reads and comments on this blog. Check out his new blog.

I met Tom and his four-year-old son Orion for breakfast on Friday morning. Over breakfast, in between Orion's displays of his toy T-rex's amazing flexibility (that has got to be the most flexible T-rex I've ever seen :-)), we chatted about many things relating to life and spiritual practice. One theme that came up a lot in our conversation is the difficulty of striking a balance between disciplined commitment and knowing when to let go. If one is always grasping and striving in whatever one does ("when will I touch my heels in Kapotasana?", "when will I get to third series?", "when will I get x, y, or z to happen in my life?"), one can easily become rigid and dogmatic; practice and life then becomes this big, joyless, painful austerity. But if one lacks any kind of discipline, and just "goes with the flow" all the time, one cannot create anything of lasting value either; one just has a little bit of this and that, with nothing much to show for anything.


It's definitely not easy to find this balance between disciplined commitment and letting go. And I don't have the answer to this dilemma. But I certainly did a bit of letting go this weekend. I had one really wonderful culinary experience. On Saturday evening, I went to Plainfields restaurant. It is an Indian restaurant located a few blocks south of Burnside and SW 21st Ave in Portland.

It has a very unusual appearance for an Indian restaurant. It doesn't look ethnic or anything like that. The restaurant is housed in a  nineteenth-century Victorian house; from the outside, it looks more like a residence than a restaurant. The interior of the restaurant is decorated in the colonial style. As I sat down at my table, it felt more like I was sitting in somebody's dining room than in a restaurant. The server (who, it turned out, was also the owner of the restaurant) handed me the wine list, which lists an astonishing array of wines of various vintages. Being a person who knows very little about wine, I simply picked a glass of Merlot, and sipped it slowly while waiting for the entree to arrive and listening to Beethoven's sonatas (I can't remember the last time I went to a restaurant that played non-easy-listening classical music).

For the main dish, I had Palak Paneer (spinach with Indian farmer's cheese). I really like their way of preparing Palak Paneer. If you are familiar with Palak Paneer, you will know that it typically consists of cubes of paneer immersed in a thick creamy spinach puree.

Well, the Palak Paneer at Plainsfield is nothing like this. In place of the pureed spinach, you get a whole bunch of lightly-cooked locally-grown greens (spinach, kale, and chard), mixed with paneer and topped with a generous helping of fresh mushrooms. As I was eating, I could feel the food reinvigorating my senses as well as nourishing my body. I don't usually make big judgments like this when it comes to food, but I will say without hesitation that this freshly-made, locally-grown palak paneer totally kicks the ass out of your typical neighborhood-Indian-restaurant palak paneer, with its spinach puree made from spinach that has probably been frozen for God-knows-how-long.

After the entree, I was so impressed with the food and the ambience of the restaurant that I ordered a small glass of port to finish off the dinner (I almost never have after-dinner drinks). My dining experience at Plainsfield reminds me of a truth about great dining that I had long forgotten: A great dining experience is a therapeutic feast for the senses. It is certainly not the mechanically shoving-food-into-your-mouth-as-quickly-as-you-can-and-then-leave kind of experience that characterizes so much of what passes for eating in so much of my life. Unfortunately, in my rather fast-paced daily life, I seem to have forgotten this.

I can't help thinking that, seen from this perspective, my recent injury may actually be a boon: It forces me to scale back and slow down my practice (and maybe, by extension, my life in general), giving me more time to "taste" the varied flavors hidden in life's small moments.  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Displacement, real-world and dream-world

Last night, I had a dream. It's actually a recurring dream: The nitty-gritty details are different every time, but the main themes and images are the same. I'm going to call these dreams feeling-of-displacement-dreams. They begin with me being with family and people I have not seen in a long time, and places I have not been to in a long time. And they always, invariably end with anxiety, fear and a feeling of being stuck; all of which are associated with family, and people and places I have not seen in a long time.

But last night's dream one such dream. I dreamt that I was halfway across the world (in Singapore, if you must know :-)), meeting friends that I have not seen in a long time. Such dreams can usually be divided more or less neatly into two parts.

Part 1: A nice setting and mood. I am hanging out or doing stuff with my friends, and we are enjoying ourselves, being totally immersed in the moment.

Part 2: Many anxious thoughts suddenly assail me: What the hell am I doing here? Aren't I supposed to be back in the States like, now? Hasn't the semester already started? And wait, I only bought a one-way ticket! Is there time to catch a flight back before the semester starts back up? And what about my immigration documents? Are they in place? 

In all these dreams, once Part 2 sets in, the whole dream is basically... fucked: Everything kind of spirals down into a whirlpool of overwhelming anxiety, and I wake up shortly after. In fact, the feeling of displacement is so strong that I sometimes need a moment after waking up to reorient myself to the reality of my waking life.

Last night's dream was one such dream, as I mentioned. But there was a different twist to it this time. Specifically, Part 1 was different this time: I was having a strong disagreement with my friends, and ended up disagreeing with them in a very disagreeable way (i.e. I was being an asshole). And the gathering/encounter ended on a bad note. And then Part 2 set in. But the dream did not end with Part 2 this time. As I was worrying about how to catch a flight back to the States, etc., I found myself walking along the street. I walked right into the path of two people who were taller than me, and who exuded an aggressive hostile energy. I decided that turning around and trying to run would probably make me even more vulnerable, so I continued walking toward them. As I got close to them, I think one of them tried to grab me, but I managed to wrench myself free. Then the other person whipped out a pair of scissors, and tried to stab me with it. I reached out my hand and succeeded in grabbing the scissors from him. He then produced another pair of scissors, and made a motion as if to throw the scissors to the ground. I thought that meant that he wanted to fight me unarmed, with no weapons, so I immediately threw the pair of scissors I was holding to the ground. Then I realized I had been tricked: He was only making as if to throw his scissors onto the ground, but was still holding on to them. Great, I thought to myself, how much more gullible can I get?

At that same exact moment, I heard footsteps behind me. I whirled around, and realized that another two hostile attackers had arrived on the scene. Great, I thought. Now I am really, really fucked. Four to one. What are my chances? My heart racing, I turned back to face the first two attackers.

At this very moment, I woke up with my heart racing, my eyes staring straight up at the ceiling. I looked at the time on my cell-phone. It was only slightly after 1:00 a.m. Darn... It felt like so much time had passed in the dream world. Yet there's still more than three hours to go before it's time for me to get up. How can this be?


I've always noticed that I tend to sleep less well the night before a trip: It's probably excitement and pent-up anxiety, as well as the stress associated with (real-world, real-time) displacement. Right now, it's 7 p.m. CDT, and I'm sitting in the departure lounge at the airport in Fargo, waiting for my flight to Portland, Oregon: I'm presenting a paper at Lewis and Clark College this weekend. I think it will be a fun trip. But I must remind myself not to try to burn the candle at both ends. I always try to pack in too much when I go on trips.

I don't have a proper way to end this post. So I guess I'll just sign off here. Maybe I'll blog this weekend in Portland. Maybe not. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tantric Turd: A little meditation on the wonderful Tiger Balm

In a recent post, Claudia wrote about the wonderful Tiger Balm. If you are unfamiliar with Tiger Balm, it is a heat rub that can be used to relieve pains and aches associated with muscle strain, joint pain, arthritis, rheumatism and backaches: You can see why it is popular among many yogis, especially those from Asian countries. Indeed, Claudia observes that "If you've been to a yoga retreat with international students coming from Asia you probably have seen those little bottles of Tiger Balm." It can also be used to relieve sinus congestion and headaches. It was originally manufactured in bottle form, but in recent years, it has also been made as patches that you can simply stick onto the affected area.

 Tiger Balm in bottle/potion form 
[Image taken from Claudia's blog]

I've never used the patches, but I remember using the potion as a kid, rubbing it onto bruises that I sustained from this or that childhood activity (no, I didn't climb trees or do any of those things that active kids do; I was basically this clumsy chubby kid who was always bumping into things and getting "injuries" as a result.).

In potion form, Tiger Balm has a strong but not unpleasant smell; it's basically a very strong herbal smell that is very distinctive and unmistakable. Which is not surprising at all, given that it is common knowledge that Tiger Balm is made from many herbs and spices.

However, after reading Claudia's post yesterday, I went and did some research on Tiger Balm online, and made some... interesting discoveries. First, according to Wikipedia, Tiger Balm "also contains Bengal Tiger urine as well as fecal matter, proven to prevent swelling when applied to strained muscles."

Very interesting. If Tiger Balm really contains tiger turd, why doesn't it smell like... turd? Perhaps the manufacturers found a way to mask or eliminate altogether the turd smell. Which makes good business sense: Who would want to buy and apply onto their bodies something that smells like shit?

But what's even more interesting is the theory behind the whole thing: Something that is originally filthy and base (tiger turd) can have beneficial effects when processed and used in combination with other substances. I know many very intelligent and well-educated people who would scoff at this idea of using excrement to treat disease. And really, I'm in no position to judge, one way or the other. But let's just pause and think about this a little more: This idea of using something that was originally filthy and base to treat disease and illness... isn't there something very tantric about the whole thing? I'm no expert on Tantra, but I understand that a central idea of tantra involves embracing that which is originally base or filthy, and using it to empower ourselves and attain a higher level of being. In her most recent post, Claudia wrote:

"our understanding of tantra in the West is skewed and it would be more tantric of us to eat our own excrement than to have sex in the name of finding the tantric experience, which is pure b/s."

Well, if you use Tiger Balm, you are not eating your own excrement, but you're pretty close: You are rubbing the excrement of another animal on your body; a body which is, in turn, a producer of excrement. So if you use Tiger Balm, you are practicing Tantra, whether or not you know it.

But of course, many of us in the west associate Tantra with sex rather than with shit. Fair enough. Well, as a matter of fact, Tiger Balm also has some interesting sex connections. Here are a couple of interesting factoids (sextoids?):

1. According to the Toronto Sun, "Gerard Depardieu came to Robert De Niro's rescue when he failed to keep an erection during a scene for Italian epic 1900 - by solving the problem with a concoction of Tiger Balm and water"

So Tiger Balm also has Viagra-like properties. I should keep this in mind. I may find this useful someday. :-)

2. According to Wikipedia, "Tiger Balm is sometimes used in the context of BDSM sexual activities to intensify sensation."

Who knew? :-)

More power to Tiger Balm!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beggarly Heart, by Rabindranath Tagore

[Image taken from here]

When the heart is hard and parched up,
come upon me with a shower of mercy.

When grace is lost from life,
come with a burst of song.

When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides shutting me out from
beyond, come to me, my lord of silence, with thy peace and rest.

When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner,
break open the door, my king, and come with the ceremony of a king.

When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, O thou holy one,
thou wakeful, come with thy light and thy thunder.