Saturday, April 30, 2011

A new beginning, and some teaching advice needed

"In all things there are the essentials and the non-essentials.
In all matters there are ends and beginnings.
One who knows the order of these things
Gains proximity to the Way."

Confucius, The Great Learning (my translation)

I would like to share with you something exciting that is happening, and to seek some advice from those of you experienced teachers out here in the cybershala.

This week, I started my own little Ashtanga community here in Moorhead, Minnesota. On Wednesday and yesterday (Friday) evening, I got together with a couple of friends and started teaching them Ashtanga. Neither of them have any prior experience with Ashtanga (one of them attended a few Sivananda classes in India for a couple of weeks), and I am teaching them in the traditional mysore style, one posture at a time. I did not have the benefit of learning Ashtanga this way myself, and would like to help others have the benefit of such an experience.  I'm really excited about this new beginning.

All we did on Wednesday and yesterday evening were 5 Surya As and 5 Surya Bs. That took more than half an hour. Because they were new to yoga, I had to do the postures with them, so that they have a visual to follow. And one of my friends (let's call him D) is quite out of shape, and we had to stop after every couple of Suryas for a couple of minutes so he could catch his breath. All in all, both of them really enjoy doing Ashtanga, and we plan on continuing to do this a couple of times a week. I will also be encouraging them more and more to practice at home by themselves as well: I held off on stressing this aspect of the yoga journey, because I didn't want to intimidate them with too much too soon :-)

D is not very flexible. When he goes into Dwi position in Surya A, for example, he has to bend his knees so much that his butt is touching his heels, and he is basically in a squatting position rather than in a standing forward bend. Here's the dilemma: I can choose to either (1) Get him to use blocks placed at the highest setting, and rest his hands on the blocks so that he can straighten his knees more and get more into his hamstrings, or (2) Get him to bend his knees to whatever degree he needs to in order to get his hands in contact with the mat, in order to facilitate the subsequent transition into chaturanga.

I chose (2), as I decided that it is probably more important to get into the flow of Surya A than worry too much about accessing the hamstrings. Moreover, I figured that with time, his hamstrings and leg muscles should open up enough for him to eventually straighten his knees more. Besides, one problem with using blocks is that since the blocks are set at the highest setting (because of his level of flexibility), they will have to be moved to the side before he can transition into chaturanga, which disrupts the flow of Surya A. He also does not have sufficient upper-body strength at the moment to do the standard chaturanga (which means he needs to bring his knees to the ground first); I feel that having blocks in this situation will only complicate the picture. Which is why I chose (2).

So what's the problem? Well, maybe there is no problem at all: Maybe I'm just not used to seeing somebody with so limited flexibility as to need to go all the way into a squat in Dwi position. Maybe (2) is the best option, given the way things are now. But I'll like to solicit the opinion of those of you who have experience teaching Ashtanga, especially those of you who have experience teaching less flexible people. What would you do? Any feedback you can offer is greatly appreciated.  
      

Friday, April 29, 2011

Kino on jump-throughs and jump-backs

Yesterday, I emailed Kino, asking her for her opinion on the relative merits of jumping through with straight legs versus jumping through with crossed legs. She has very generously and speedily replied to my email with her thoughts on this matter. With her permission, I will share her thoughts below. I hope you will find this to be of benefit to you in your practice. This is what she says:

"Jumping through with crossed legs or bent legs can both be very beneficial. One is not more correct than the other. In fact a student once asked R. Sharath Jois why he does not jump through with straight legs in his DVDs, to which he said, "Never bothered to learn." Different students may find different benefits from each method at different times in their practice. For example, many students want to learn how to jump back and jumping through with crossed legs helps build the neurological patterning and strength needed to reverse the movement and jump back. The most common way to jump back is with crossed legs so in order to practice jumping back it just makes sense to jump through with crossed legs too. While on the other hand if you want to learn how to more easily move into a deep forward bend or perhaps give yourself a lighter jump through to rest between certain very challenging postures the straight leg jump through may be best for you. Either way what often happens when students become habituated with the movement of jumping through is that they often do not pay careful attention to each step. Make sure that whichever method you choose you keep your hands planted firmly on the ground the whole time, that you create a solid structural foundation through the upper body, that the pelvis is aligned so that both legs are involved in the motion equally and that you control the landing with as much grace and ease as possible."

Why I am not splitting yet

"It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams." 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana this morning. Yes, I have decided to hold off on splitting for now. I will consider making the split into second only and working on karandavasana when I get to the point where I can get into a hands-free padmasana in shoulderstand without any discomfort in my knees at all. For now, the long practice continues. Many thanks to all of you who have taken the time to comment and offer your feedback and suggestions in my recent posts on splitting.

Of course, the other option is to split right now, and do second only up to pincha mayurasana (and add on karandavasana when I feel ready). This is, in and of itself, a respectable option. In fact, I did this for a few months last year before I was given karandavasana. So why am I not doing this now? The simple answer might be that I am too attached to primary :-) But the not-so-simple answer is that I believe that my body needs the hip-opening and internal-heat-building that doing full primary offers me. If one goes into second "cold" immediately after standing, one's hips are less open and one has less internal heat than if one were to go into second after having done all of primary. This might not really matter in the backbends up to kapotasana, since having slightly less open hips does not affect one's back-bending all that much, if at all. But one really feels the difference when one gets to the leg-behind-head postures: All the hip-opening that is generated by primary really helps one to do Ekapada Sirsasana (and all the other LBH postures) more safely and effectively (especially because I went into Supta Kurmasana from Dwipada earlier on, in primary, and so had already put my leg behind my head once earlier in the practice). Whereas if one were to split, one would be going into the LBH postures "cold" without the benefit of primary, which might, at least in my case, increase the risk of "borrowing flexibility" from and injuring the SI joints.

The other reason why I am not splitting yet might be that I don't really feel the strong need to move "forward" in the practice. In his recent post, Patrick talks about "second-time-pose-garnering". The idea is that all the second series postures I am doing right now, I am not doing for the "first time"; I "lost" them once due to injury, and have "regained" them in the last few months. I think there is something about doing "regained" postures that causes one to approach them with a certain degree of care, respect and patience (and maybe even a certain amount of fear and trembling, dare I say :-)) that one might not have when one is in the "first flush of youthful impetuousness", and doing them for the first time. I think this is especially true of something like Karandavasana: It, along with Kapotasana, demands that the practitioner approach it with the greatest care and respect, and not rush headlong into it.

Once again, thank you for listening in on this monologue. I do realize that you really must have other more pressing things on your horizon, and may not be all that interested in the twists and turns of my (non)splitting adventures.  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jump-throughs and jump-backs: An Ashtanga Story

"Nobody deserves your tears, but whoever deserves them will not make you cry."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Grimmly's last two posts about jump-throughs and jump-backs (I'm going to use "JTJB" as a shorthand for jump-throughs and jump-backs for the rest of this post) are very informative and stimulating (on many levels). As usual, these posts have sparked an interesting conversation (Are we on the same page on this, Grimmly? :-)) So, being the piggy-backer that I am, I'm going to say a few things here about JTJB, and how my experiences with it has shaped my practice.

(1) I think it is no exaggeration to say that JTJB is the single most distinctive feature of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. I do not know of any other style of yoga that employs JTJB quite so ubiquitously in transitions from one posture to another. I mean, when was the last time you saw anybody do JTJBs in an Iyengar class? (Note to reader: This is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I'm not putting down Iyengar or any other style of yoga. So don't start throwing metaphorical eggs at me...) JTJB, along with vinyasas between postures/sides, form the "glue" which hold the postures and the practice as a whole together in Ashtanga.

(2) JTJB is also quite possibly the single most spectacular and eye-catching aspect of the physical practice of Ashtanga. I vividly remember the first time I saw somebody do a jump-through. I was in grad school at the time, and had just started doing yoga. One of my first yoga teachers was a fellow grad student who had been practicing for a number of years. A few of us would get together with him on Saturday mornings in a local park in Gainesville, Florida to do yoga for a couple of hours (we called it Yoga in the Park). He did not teach any one particular style of yoga, but would basically get us to do whatever sequence he came up with on that particular day. One morning, he was in an Ashtanga mood (I didn't know what Ashtanga was at that time), and suggested to us that we should try to link all the postures we did that morning with a vinyasa and JTJB. Of course, none of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about, so he had to demonstrate. He did a posture (I think it was Paschimottasana) for five breaths, lifted his feet and hips off the ground, hovered there for about a second, shot his legs back into chaturanga and did a vinyasa. And then he lifted himself effortlessly into the air from downdog, crossed his legs, and floated through into a seated position. All of us gathered there were speechless. The two thoughts that immediately occurred to me were: (1) "He must be very strong in his upper body to be able to pull this off", (2) "Gee, it must hurt to bump or scrape one's feet/butt/whatever on the ground on the way through..."

On that particular morning, I found JTJB to be simply too intimidating and impossible, given where I was in my practice at that time. So I basically "chickened out", and did the postures by walking back and forth through the vinyasas. It was at least a few months after this point before I learnt that it was "okay" to jump forward and land on one's feet, and then sit down. And it was about a year after that that I finally managed to jump through (Even then, I was still scraping my toes on the mat on the way through, but I didn't care :-)). And it took yet another year or so beyond that point before I mastered the jump-back.

(3) JTJB is actually very healing and strengthening for the back if done properly. I learnt this the hard way. If you have been reading my last few posts (especially the ones about splitting), you will recall that I messed up my SI joint really badly last June. Around that time, I thought I had mastered the jump-through: I could jump through with straight legs, even if at least one of my legs (I think it was the right leg) wasn't always perfectly straight. There is a pitfall that many practitioners (including yours truly) tend to succumb to when they think they have "mastered" the straight leg jump through (I'm going to call this SLJT from now on). At some point, if one is not careful, one's SLJT tends to become sloppy, and the SLJT becomes a kind of jump and slide from downward dog into the next posture, kind of like a baseball player sliding into base (image courtesy of Susan :-)).

What's wrong with this, you may ask? Well, for one, Ashtanga is not baseball, and there is no Ashtanga equivalent of a home-run (as far as I know). But, more seriously, doing the jump and slide version of SLJT causes one to pay less attention to engaging the bandhas to do the jump-through; one ends up relying more on sheer momentum, which leads to strain on the lower back muscles (and SI joint issues, and all kinds of unpleasant things).

So, around the time that I injured my SI joint, I had succumbed to this pitfall of jumping and sliding into postures (come to think of it, this may have aggravated my SI joint, but this is another story). In the first few days after my injury, my body quickly showed me who's boss, and any attempt to do that jump and slide thing resulted in excruciating pain. So I had to start from square one (actually, it's more like square zero...): From downdog, I had to very very gently push my legs off the ground, cross my feet in the air, and hold them there for as long as I can as I did my best to bring them through my arms into the next posture. This is, of course, a whole lot more difficult than simply jumping and "sliding into base." For weeks, I had to land on my butt and feet way before I got through my arms. But gradually, I discovered that this seemingly extra-difficult way of jumping through is actually a gift: Because I couldn't jump and slide, but had to slowly hang and lift myself through, I had to engage my bandhas more than I ever had. In the process, I perfected my cross-legged jump-through (CLJT). As of right now, I can jump through slowly with crossed legs without touching or scraping my toes against the mat at any point. And by the way, my SI joint is much, much better :-)

Moral of the story: Sometimes, something that is slower, less glamorous and even, God forbid, painful is actually a gift, if one gives it some patience and time and perseveres. Of course, I do not wish injury upon anyone; but the cool thing about Ashtanga practice is that it gives you a way to work through injuries and issues and come out stronger on the other side, if you stick with it.    

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Going to Mysore? Getting Authorized?

"If I knew that today would be the last time I’d see you, I would hug you tight and pray the Lord be the keeper of your soul. If I knew that this would be the last time you pass through this door, I’d embrace you, kiss you, and call you back for one more. If I knew that this would be the last time I would hear your voice, I’d take hold of each word to be able to hear it over and over again. If I knew this is the last time I see you, I’d tell you I love you, and would not just assume foolishly you know it already."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Grimmly's recent post has sparked a lively conversation about going to Mysore and getting authorized. As usual, I'm going to piggy-back on this conversation, and say a couple of things here.

I have previously written quite a bit about my feelings about going to Mysore (see this post). For me, the Mysore bug, if I may call it that, is something that arises more intensely at certain times more than others. When I wrote that earlier post about going to Mysore, I was going through this very intensely contemplative phase in my personal life/practice. Right now, the intensity seems to have subsided somewhat (being in the middle of the semester, and having a ton of things to do probably also helps to take my mind off too much existential Ashtangic ponderings). In addition, the fact that I have gotten so much valuable guidance from great teachers in this country in the past few months (especially Kino) has also given me a sense that perhaps, just perhaps, going to Mysore might not be so vital to the continued development of my practice as I thought it was.

But what do I know? After all, I have never been to Mysore, and there might be certain irreplaceable experiences that one can only get in Mysore. So maybe I should not say any more about this issue. I'll just make a couple of rather obvious observations here, and see if these get us anywhere. So here are my humble observations:

(1) One does not need to go to Mysore to practice Ashtanga. I think this is true even if one's intention is to practice Ashtanga in its "pure form", as it is practiced and taught in Mysore. Of course, you need to take this observation with a pinch of salt, since I have never been to Mysore, and have no first-hand experience to back this claim up with. But given the number of authorized and certified teachers in North America and Europe (and the rest of the world) who are committed to teach the tradition as they have been taught (and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity in this area), I think we are in pretty good hands on this count.

(2) One does not need to get authorized or certified in order to teach Ashtanga. Being authorized or certified indicates that one has been entrusted (I don't know if this is the right word, but this will have to do) with the responsibility and the expectation that one will teach the Ashtanga tradition as it has been passed down to one by Guruji and Sharath at the KPJAYI. But this does not prevent someone who is not authorized or certified to teach and pass on the tradition out of his or her own spontaneous desire to share it with others. Nor, in my opinion, should people be prevented from doing so.The first person who taught me the primary series was not authorized (she had been to Mysore once). And she was no less a good teacher for not having been authorized. And although my desire to teach yoga has somewhat lessened in intensity in the past couple of years (this will take another post to talk about), I will be most happy to share this practice with whoever wants to learn and practice it.

Of course, none of this is meant to put down the value of going to Mysore and/or getting authorized. And I do not know when I will finally make that trip to Mysore, and if I will ever get authorized. But really, if we think about it, there are too many things we simply don't know, and will probably never know until the appropriate time comes. I don't know if I will ever get to third series. Actually, in light of my recent posts, a better question to ask would be: Will I get to do Karandavasana in the near future, or even ever again in this lifetime? I don't know. Actually, come to think of it, every morning, when I wake up and step on my mat, I don't really even know if I will make it past the standing series. I just take things breath by breath; miraculously, even on my most tired days, things always open up, and I always find the energy to go forward.

So when all is said and done, going to Mysore and/or getting authorized is great, but not having these things will not (and should not) stop one from practicing and gaining the benefits of the practice. Once again, do your practice, and all is coming. 

Then again, you probably already know all these things anyway. Thanks for putting up with all this repetition ;-)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Some musings on a movie and the place of yoga practice in our lives

Over the Easter weekend, I saw the movie Never Let Me Go. I hesitated to write about this movie; it's so powerful and well-executed that I couldn't get it out of my head for a while after the movie, and I risk doing it a gross injustice by writing about it. But I need to get this movie out of my system, and I think writing about it might help. Warning: The following contains serious plot spoilers. If you intend to watch the movie, and do not want to know what the movie is really about, read no further. 

In order to get a sense of what the movie is about, let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose you are a kid who attends what seems, to all appearances, to be a very fancy and select English boarding school. You are never allowed to leave the school grounds; there are rumors about terrible things that supposedly happen to kids who try to leave. But in any case, not being able to leave the school does not seem to your young mind to be such a big deal. The school provides you with everything you can possibly need, and all your waking hours are occupied with classes of all kinds to keep your mind and body in the best possible shape (music lessons, art classes, physical education classes, you name it). The teachers at the school also seem to take particular care in your health: "Keeping yourself healthy inside is of paramount importance", one teacher constantly reminds you. You form close bonds with your schoolmates, and life seems, well, good.

Then one day, you discover a terrible secret: You, along with all the other kids at the school, are actually a clone who has been created and raised for the specific purpose of having your vital organs harvested (the euphemism is "donated") as replacement parts for what are considered "real" people when you come of age. There is no escaping this fate: It is only a matter of how many donations you go through (it seems that the maximum number of donations any clone can go through is four) before you "complete."

The movie follows the life of three individuals (played very superbly by Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield) who attended this school, and depicts their attempts to make sense of and come to terms with their not-very-long lives before they "complete". As we follow these three persons through their lives, from their seemingly idyllic childhood at the boarding school through their early adult lives and eventual "completion", we empathize and feel for them as persons; persons who just happened to have been made for a very specific purpose. As an aside: One plot-hole in the movie, in my opinion, is that there was never any kind of explanation given as to how the greater public (the "real" people) can ethically justify cloning and using what are clearly thinking and feeling persons for such a hideous purpose. But maybe this is a conceit we the audience are supposed to accept and just kind of go along with...

The movie is powerful: Several reviewers have commented that they were so overcome that they couldn't say anything for a while after the movie ended. One question the movie brings up is: What is a complete life? After all, as Carey Mulligan's character in the movie observes, it is not clear if her fate is really so different from the fates of "real" people; after all, she observes, "we all complete."

The movie not-so-subtly brings up this question: What should a complete life consist in? Should it consist simply of having gone through a biological life span, having long or short it is? Or is there a way to live a fulfilled life, over and above simply "completing"?

A rather dark thought occurred to me as I think about these questions: There is a sense in which we are all "donors." We don't donate organs (at least not when we're still alive), but we donate other aspects of ourselves to the world around us as we go through our daily lives. We expend our lives donating our energies to things that we deem to be worthwhile: Work, family, hobbies, favorite causes (does yoga fall into this category?). And when we run out of energy to donate, we die (or "complete").

On an even grimmer note, when it comes down to it, is the yoga practice simply a way for us to live healthier lives so that we have more energy to donate, so that we can "defer" the inevitable moment when we run out of energy and have to "complete", whether we like it or not?

I think you see where I am going with all this. This all really leads to one question: What is the place of yoga practice in our all-too-finite lives? Is the practice something that gives us more energy, so that we can get more out of this finite lifespan before we "complete"? If so, it looks like we have two alternatives: We can either decide that this is too depressing (and get very depressed about it), or we can try to embrace this reality, and decide that if these are the parameters of our human condition, the only thing we can sensibly do is to use the practice (and whatever other resources we have) to put us in the best possible position to make our finite time here as fulfilling as possible. But what, then, counts as "fulfilling"? Uh oh, another can of worms... I don't know. Let me venture to say that perhaps life is fulfilling only if one can create some useful meaning out of it, and creating this meaning, whatever it is, is something we need to do if our lives are to be in some sense fulfilled and not just "complete".

Heavy thoughts these are, but perhaps not too inappropriate for the Easter weekend?      
    

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A little monologue about closing the knee joints

"What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I did full primary this morning (my rest day is Sunday. Which brings up a superstitious thought: Does my not being able to get into padmasana upside down without my hands somehow have something to do with resting on Sundays instead of on Saturdays? I wonder if there is some astrological reason somewhere? Just wondering. But I'm probably just being superstitious.)

As I was doing all the padmasana and half padmasana variations this morning in primary, I tried to work on Frank's suggestion to try to engage the hamstrings to close the knee joint without using my hands. I wasn't entirely successful, but I made an interesting discovery: It appears that I can close my left knee joint more easily than my right. With my right leg, there's always a small gap between the heel/Achilles Tendon and the underside of the thigh, despite my best efforts. This gap becomes bigger as I move the right foot towards the left hip crease, so that by the time I actually get the right foot to the vicinity of the left hip crease (it never actually made it there, not without my hands having to intervene), the right knee joint is fully open.

Although there is also a tendency for the left knee joint to open as I move the left foot toward the right hip crease, I seem to have more success keeping the left heel/Achilles Tendon close to the left underside of the thigh, so that it is possible to actually get the left foot into an almost perfect half-lotus without the intervention of the hands.

So, it appears that there is some kind of an imbalance in my left and right sides. Whatever muscles are needed to bring the foot into half-lotus are more well-developed on the left side than on the right. Interesting, don't you think?

I think I'll continue to work on trying to close the right knee joint with as little intervention from the hands as possible. This seems like a worthwhile project.

Thank you for listening in on this knee-joint-closing monologue :-) 

Friday, April 22, 2011

To Split or not to Split?

"No medicine cures what happiness cannot."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

These words by Gabriel Garcia Marquez have nothing to do with the topic of this post. I'm just on a Garcia-Marquez-quoting streak; unless one of you has had enough and tells me to stop, I will probably begin my posts for the next few days with a Garcia Marquez quote :-)

On with the topic of this post. In the last couple of weeks, after returning from Kino's workshop, the idea of splitting my practice and doing second only has come up on my radar screen more than a few times (right now, my daily practice consists of full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana).

As I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts, Kino offered to give me Karandavasana during the Richmond workshop. She also suggested that once I start working on Karandavasana, I can stop doing primary everyday, and just work on second. At that time, I declined, citing knee-tweakiness issues (for more details, see this post). I basically told her that while I have no problem getting into padmasana and all its different variations in a seated or standing position, provided I pay careful attention to alignment (in practical terms, that means using the hand to close the knee joint first before moving it into padmasana), I don't have the particular flexibility that is needed to close my knee joint without using my hands. Speaking in asana terms, this means that I can't get into padmasana without using my hands to manipulate my feet into position.

Kino's suggestion is that I should work on getting into padmasana without using my hands from Sarvangasana (shoulderstand). The idea is that in this posture, one can try to get into padmasana without using the hands, but one also has the option of recruiting the hands to help out if needed--an option which is, of course, not available in either Sirsasana or Karandavasana itself, for obvious reasons. So getting into hands-free padmasana from shoulderstand serves in this way as a "training wheels" version of getting into karandavasana: Once I can get into padmasana without hands in Sarvangasana, I can then move on to actually working on Karandavasana. 

Frank has also helpfully suggested that my not being able to get into padmasana upside down without my hands probably has to do with lack of quadricep flexibility. I think this is an interesting suggestion, although on some level, this doesn't really add up: I can bring my heels (and on "good" days, even the entire soles of my feet) to the ground in Bhekasana.

But something really interesting happened during practice this morning. During the finishing sequence, I tried to bring my right foot into half-lotus from shoulderstand again. I managed to get the right knee joint to close without using my hand, but when I moved the right foot towards my left hip crease to go into half-lotus, the knee joint opened up again (why wouldn't it stay closed? Mysterious...). So at this point, I basically have a right leg that is in a half-assed version (excuse the language, but there's not other way to describe this) of half-lotus. I could either (1) recruit my hands now to close the knee joint, like I usually do, and then bring the left foot into padmasana, or (2) bring the left foot into padmasana with the right foot still in this half-assed half-lotus, and risk tweaking one or both knees. For some reason (I was feeling adventurous today), I chose (2). I brought the left foot into padmasana with the right-foot still in that half-assed half-lotus. For a couple of seconds, there was some discomfort in the right knee as it shifted back to accommodate the left foot, but that sensation passed, and I ended up in padmasana. Not a particularly deep padmasana (mainly because of that not-fully-closed right knee joint), but recognizable as such, nonetheless.

What all this means is that, at least in purely objective terms, I have fulfilled the criteria that Kino has set for me to start working on Karandavasana (and get off doing primary everyday). No excuses now, right?

Well, maybe... At the risk of sounding very lame, I'll share a couple of things here. You can decide whether these are excuses or valid reasons.

So here's the story: Around this time last year, I had also gotten to the same point in my practice. I had started working on Karandavasana with my teacher in Milwaukee, and had splitted off from primary at that point. Due to several reasons, I injured myself in a couple of places: I tweaked my right knee joint in karandavasana, probably because I couldn't close that knee joint fully while going into the pose. In addition, I also messed up my SI joint big time: This has nothing to do with karandavasana. It probably happened because I over-zealously tried to put my leg behind my head on days when my hips weren't open enough. My teacher also suggested that another contributing factor to these injuries could also be due to the fact that I was in the process of moving to Minnesota at the time. Moving and other life changes bring up strong emotions, which usually leads to bad judgments on the mat... I wish he had told me this before the injuries occurred, but oh well....

Anyway, to cut a long story short, because of these injuries, I had to scale my practice back to primary only: In fact, in the first few days of my injuries, it took me more than two hours just to get to Kurmasana, and jumping back was impossible, because it pulled on those muscles near the SI joint that had been inflamed, resulting in excruciating pain. (Note to reader: If you happen to be new to Ashtanga and are reading this blog, please do not be frightened away from Ashtanga; things like this happen only to certain reckless people... You can easily avoid these injuries if you practice with care.) After a few ups and downs, it took me about three months to get back to the point where I could do kapotasana again, and another two or three months to get back up to Pincha Mayurasana. Which is where I've been for the last couple of months. My SI joint has, for all intents and purposes, recovered, knock on wood (I still sometimes feel a little "off" sensation in the left SI area at the beginning of practice, but I have since found ways and means to work this out). My right knee, as I mentioned, has recovered to the point where I can get into padmasana and its variations with proper attention to alignment. But Karandavasana... ah, Karandavasana opens up a whole can of worms...

Of course, I suppose none of the above is in and of itself a good reason to not at least try working on Karandavasana, objectively speaking. But well, maybe I'm not always objective.

Ha! That was a lot of talking to myself. And I still don't know where I'm going with all this. I suppose the question in a nutshell is: To Split or Not to Split? Or: To Karandavasana or not to Karandavasana?

Well, I think I'll end this post with some other interesting news. I was looking at my stats earlier today, and I discovered that somebody has discovered my blog using the search keywords: "A man who does yoga is not a man." Funny, isn't it, considering that he stumbles upon the blog of a (not)man who does yoga as a result of this search? Just thought I'd share.            

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Practice report, some musings on the nature of practice

"Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but...life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

I have increasingly come to feel that Garcia Marquez's words here describe my practice very well. There is no one day or one practice which "gives birth to" and defines what my practice is for me once and for all; rather, life (and the continuous changes in my mental and physical state that it brings up) obliges me to continually do the practice, and in so doing, redefine and give birth to new understandings of what the practice means to me.

I felt this especially strongly during this morning's practice. For some reason, I felt really worn-out and tired when I woke up this morning, and the prospect of doing my usual daily practice (full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana) was very... unappealing, to say the least. I'm not entirely sure why I was so tired (I went to bed at a reasonable hour last night). Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I went to that Moon Day class in Minneapolis on Sunday (see this post) rather than take rest (Moral of the story: Always take rest on Moon Days. You need it, even if you don't think you do.)

When one is tired in the mornings, one's options stand out in sharp relief against one another. At the moment when I was preparing to step onto the mat, it was either (1) go back to bed, or (2) step onto the mat and practice anyway, and see if I can find a way to iron out the tiredness from my limbs and joints. There is no in-between.

I chose (2), and am glad I did. The first couple of Surya As were kind of rough, but when I got to Surya B, I quite literally felt that I had a new body. There's something about working with a physically tired body that forces you to pay attention to every little sensation that comes up in the course of the practice. In this case, the first time I came up into Virabhadrasana I this morning in Surya B, I felt some new sensations in the back of the hip of my extended leg that I have not felt before. It was like a popping sensation in the hips, but not quite so dramatic (there was no "pop" sound). But it was refreshing and invigorating nonetheless.

The practice went on. I got through primary. As I was getting out of Setu Bandhasana, I asked myself, "Should I just do primary today? After all, I'm supposed to be tired today, right?" But then I thought, "Well, you made it this far, doing a few more postures won't kill you (well, kapotasana might, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it)." And so I plodded on through second. I had a space-cadet moment in the backbends: I went into Laghu Vajrasana without doing Ustrasana. I realized it after I got up from Laghu, "rewound" and went back and did Ustrasana, and then did Laghu again. Kapotasana didn't kill me, although I seemed to be a little tighter today: Had to hang a few breaths longer than usual before I felt confident enough to dive and grab my heels.

Did that chicken-out exit from Pincha Mayurasana again. I have to keep working on this.

All in all, it was a very good practice, despite the slow start. Kino offered to give me Karandavasana at her workshop a couple of weeks ago, and told me that once I start working on Karanda, I can cut out primary and do second only. Hmm... very tempting, but I think I'll stick to my long practice for now. It's good for the mind/body, as you can see.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A little conversation at work (take whatever you want to from it)

I had an... interesting conversation with somebody at work today. I'm not going to say who he is or how he is related to me; I try to keep my work and my personal/blog/yogic life separate as much as possible. I also try my best not to bring up things that are political on this blog. But sometimes, things come up at work that have existential messages that are of interest to my personal life and yoga practice. And they also just happen to be political in nature. And since this is primarily a blog about my yoga practice and my life, I thought I'll share what happened.

This individual was sharing with me his views about what he sees as the hypocrisy of left-wing media and public personalities (Al Gore and his SUV driving and ownership of large homes came up as an example). He went on and on about how he believes that there is no solid evidence for global warming, and that all this talk of global warming and climate change is just one big conspiracy to (1) incite fear in people, and (2) make a lot of money for a few individuals.

Being in my professional capacity, I felt that I needed to at least give him the space to say whatever was on his mind. So, for a good few minutes, I listened, occasionally chiming in with a few things here and there. As I listened (and he continued talking), it occurred to me that this was an individual who (1) was pretty angry at something in his life (I'm not quite sure what that is), (2) was hoping and looking for approval from his audience; as he spoke, he kept looking at me to see what kind of reaction he was getting from me.

I basically kept a slightly smiley poker-face the whole time, because (1) I honestly didn't know how to respond to some of his claims (I happen to think that global warming and climate change is NOT a hoax, but not being a scientist, I couldn't come up with the hard evidence to answer his claims), and (2) I figured that it really wasn't about proving who was right or wrong anyway. It was about... getting a sense of where he was coming from, and where his life was at. And for that, I needed to listen.

Well, at least I tried to, for as long as I could. The breaking point came when he started going on about how all this profiteering by environmentally conscious "green" groups was driving up the cost of gas (at least, this is what I think he was saying; I really can't reproduce this any better), and how all this talk about how environmentally conscious and green European nations are is really just another part of the green agenda to oppress us all, and how the sharp rise in the cost of gas is taking away our inherent freedom to drive and go wherever we please.

I responded, "I don't have any hard proof for or against climate change, but I have lived in countries where public transportation is a lot more developed than in this country, and I can say that the freedom of more people to travel widely at an affordable price is much more valuable than the freedom of one individual to get into his car and go wherever he pleases. I really think that this whole being-able-to-get-into-your-car-and-go-wherever-you-please-whenever-you-want kind of freedom is overrated. I love driving, but really, if I have a choice, I would gladly give up the latter freedom for the former."

Does this make me socialist and "anti-liberal/American"? Well, maybe... but what the heck, I'm so tired of all this label-slapping and name-calling. The bottom-line, as far as I'm concerned, is that if I can make somebody else's life a lot better without sacrificing anything of comparable significance on my part, I ought to do it. And I just don't think that driving around in a fancy car (although I do have a car that is not so fancy) and looking good is that important compared to having something that will enable millions to get around quickly and efficiently (Have I ever told you that I am an advocate of public transportation?).

At any rate, what I said pretty much ended the conversation right there and then. He smiled awkwardly, and picked up his motorcycle helmet. I felt the need to say something... nice, so I said, "Great talking with you." He said, "Likewise", and left the room.

Another interesting day at work... Not a bad way to make a living, don't you think? :-)     

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Some Frank comments and rants from an Ashtanga Fundamentalist

An interesting conversation has sprung up on Claudia's blog in response to her latest post about the poll that she recently conducted about the popularity of Ashtanga. As usual, I will jump in here with my two cents'.

Frank, one of the commenters on Claudia's post, said some really interesting and thought-provoking things, so I'm going to "steal" his words here (and in the process, "violate" Asteya :-)), and use them as a jumping-off point to express my own views. Frank observes:

"Ashtanga requires a committment to some extent. It also requires getting over the idea that it is or will be boring because you're doing the "same thing" every day. This might be the biggest issue. People like creativity and mixing things up... People generally don't want to have to put in months or years of work just to be "allowed" to practice Pincha Mayurasana or Handstanding (in particular) or the cool arm balances of 3rd Series..."

I really relate to this. One of the things that kept me from becoming a full-time Ashtangi for so long was my perception that doing the same thing everyday was boring and probably unbalanced as well. The idea of doing the same thing everyday goes against much of the conventional wisdom of sports medicine, which holds that one should work different muscle groups everyday. It was only when I met my teacher and decided to just "take the plunge" into doing primary everyday that I began to see that repetition is the only way to cultivate perfection and a spirit of equanimity in the face of whatever the practice (and life) has to throw at us. So I can understand why people would see this "Ashtanga thing" as boring. It literally took me a leap of faith to be able to see things from the other side, so to speak, and appreciate the beauty of this practice.

Frank continues: 

"Most people who like working on those things I mentioned have a certain amount of shoulder strength (which I've always lacked), which makes those things easier for them (thus why they like doing them), but it makes back-bends harder, and practing arm balances/handstands only makes back-bends even more difficult.... If you have strong shoulders and can do Pincha or free-standing handstand without a problem, why do Ashtanga, a practice that will likely force you to be stopped at Kapotasana (or earlier) for months or even years? Unless you're willing to "detach" from those arm balances and allow your shoulders to open up for back-bends first, Ashtanga is going to be a really hard sell."

This is a very well-taken and thoughtful point. I have never been particularly attached to arm balances, but I do have a certain amount of upper-body strength and some openness in the hips, which means that those fancy arm balances in 3rd (Vasisthasana, Visvamitrasana, Astavakrasana etc.) came quite easily to me. I still have pictures of me in Astavakrasana from my pre-Ashtanga days (no, you won't get to see them here :-)), and at the risk of sounding very immodest, they're not half-bad.

On the other hand, I've never been a natural back-bender, and never had a desire to be "good" at backbends. Probably because of this, I could never understand why people were so obsessed over, say, grabbing their heels in kapotasana or touching the foot to the back of the head in Ekapada Rajakapotasana. This, combined with my facility in those fancy arm-balances, made me feel for the longest time that Ashtanga had nothing to offer me. However, as I related in an earlier post, one can only make so much progress doing only those postures one is "good" at. At some point, I hit a "stuck" point in my yoga practice beyond which I couldn't progress. And then I met my teacher, and decided to just give this "Ashtanga thing" a shot. The rest, as they say, is history... Well, not quite, but you know what I'm saying :-)

Frank continues,

"Really, people in the West don't want a system or a method; they just want to do a bunch of fun things and sweat out last night's pizza and ice cream in the process.. I think many people had bad experiences with super-hard-ass teachers. If those people came across Ashtanga teachers who were more welcoming (not needing to change or dumb-down the practice, but just not having a drill-sergeant or otherwise nasty attitude from the first moment), I think many more of those people would stick with it."

Well, I know at least one Ashtanga teacher who is neither super-hard-ass nor has a drill sergeant attitude: Kino! At the risk of sounding like a shameless Kino groupie, I have to say, from having taken two of her workshops, that she has a very accommodating attitude, and is willing to work with whatever issues people have (injuries, etc.) and challenge them to grow their practice where they are at.

As for doing a bunch of fun things and sweating out last night's pizza and ice-cream... At the risk of sounding like a fundamentalist, I'm going to say a couple of things that I have observed about some yoga practitioners in this country. I think many yogis see yoga as a welcome break from the rigidity of "conventional" fitness modalities (aerobics, running, etc.). They find the accommodating and all-embracing atmosphere in many yoga classes to be a welcome change from the sort of drill-sergeant fitness classes that they had previously been exposed to before they came to yoga.

Which is very well and good. More power to yoga for this. But as I said, at the risk of sounding like a Yoga-Sutra-thumping yoga fundamentalist, I venture to speculate that these yogis may have overlooked two things:

(1) Like anything else that is worth doing in life, yoga practice demands great disciplined effort on the part of the practitioner.

(2) Any yoga tradition worth its salt encompasses a great body of wisdom that is beyond the limited intellect of the individual practitioner. In order to access this great body of wisdom, it is important to embrace the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to God) and to have a guru. Without Ishvara Pranidhana, one's practice can easily degenerate into an ego-boosting exercise. The guru, being somebody who has seen the light of ultimate reality even if only for a moment, is somebody who has the capacity to lead the practitioner from the darkness of ego to the light of liberation.

If we put (1) and (2) together, we'll see that although yoga is an accommodating and all-embracing practice, it is not ultimately an "anything goes" or a "you can do whatever you like so long as it feels good or right for you" system. True freedom -- freedom from fear, freedom from the limitations of one's ego -- cannot come about just by having the liberty to do whatever the heck we want.

My apologies if this is beginning to sound like an angry rant, but I think there exists this fundamental misunderstanding of what yoga is about in the hearts and minds of many a yogi and yogini. As I understand it, the purpose of the Ashtanga practice is not to bore or torture us with its fixed sequences, but to give us a fixed space within which we can take a hard look at various aspects of our selves as they arise. Because the practice is so fixed, there is no place to escape to when things come up, and one is made to face them and work through them in a creative and productive way. In this sense, the physical constraints of the practice might very well be its greatest gift to us. I'm not sure if this same effect can be achieved by a "do whatever feels good/right to you" type of vinyasa practice.

Whew! That was quite a rant, wasn't it?        

Monday, April 18, 2011

Minneapolis trip report/yoga class review, and the elusive durian

This past weekend, I was visiting in Minneapolis for the weekend. Here are some highlights from my trip.

First, I attended a couple of classes at the Yoga House. I went to two classes there: Saturday morning's led primary, and Sunday morning's Moon Day class. The studio is located on the second floor of a strip mall, and is small and cozy. The practice room has a statue of Ganesh at the front. Ganesh, as many of us know, is the Remover of Obstacles; a very apt deity to have on your side when doing something as demanding as Ashtanga practice :-)

When I went to the led primary class on Saturday morning, the teacher leading the class asked me if I have done Ashtanga before. For some reason that I don't totally understand, I was kind of caught off guard by the question, and simply answered yes. I've always fantasized about giving some totally outlandish answer, or even pretending that this is my first Ashtanga class ("Wow, you bound both sides in Mari D... and this is your first class?"), but I never seem to have the presence of mind to be able to give such an answer at the crucial moment, so I always kind of waffle a little, and then say yes.

The led primary was very nice. This teacher seems to be "old-school": She does 5 Surya As and 5 Surya Bs (as opposed to Sharath's 5 As and 3 Bs); which suits me perfectly, because that's how I do it in my home practice too (I'm also old-school in this way). I feel that those two extra Surya Bs really do make a difference in opening the hips and building up precious internal heat. When it came to Garbha Pindasana, she also does nine rolls instead of five. Since I have become so used to doing five rolls, I actually completed the circle in five rolls, and spent four extra rolls simply rolling back and forth in the same position. Which is actually very therapeutic for the back :-) I also got a few useful adjustments in one of the first few downdogs of Surya A, as well as Janu Sirsasana A and C.

The Moon Day class was... interesting. Even though it was supposed to be a Moon day class, it was in some ways more physically challenging than regular Ashtanga practice. Basically, we did primary series, with a few modifications, and  with some second and third series postures thrown in for good measure. Here are a few of the interesting modifications from primary:

(1) In Surya B, instead of holding downdog for 5 breaths, we have the option of doing Vasisthasana (side plank) for five breaths on the side of our own choosing.

(2) Instead of doing all five navasanas in a row, they are interpersed throughout the practice, so that in some postures like the Janu Sirsasanas, instead of doing vinyasas between sides, we do navasana between sides. In the fifth navasana, the hands are in reverse namaste on the back instead of being extended forward.

(3) From Triangmuikapada Paschimottanasana, lift the heel of the extended leg off the ground, and go into Krouchasana for 5 breaths. 

(4) Instead of doing the usual progression from Mari C to Mari D, the two postures are kind of interposed together. Here's how: First, you go into Mari C with the right knee bent. Hold for 5 breaths. Then bring the bent knee into half lotus, bend the extended leg, and go directly into Mari D on the other side. Do a vinyasa, go into Mari C with the left knee bent. Substituting "right" for "left" and "left" for "right", repeat the same thing on the other side.

These are interesting variations, and are quite creative too (especially (4)), but I probably won't do them regularly, because I'm too much of an Ashtanga purist. Besides, I don't know if there can ever be a creative variation that gets you into kapotasana more... creatively :-)

Overall, I highly recommend the Yoga House. If you are ever in Minneapolis, you should definitely check it out.

In other news:

(1) While in Minneapolis, I stumbled upon the highly elusive tropical fruit known as durian in a Vietnamese supermarket on Nicollet Avenue. (Claudia: I found it!) The durian is a highly divisive fruit. It emits a distinctively strong and penetrating smell; some people regard the durian as fragrant, while others find the same aroma overpowering and offensive.

As somebody who grew up eating it, I enjoy it a lot. However, others do not share my opinion. For example, according to Wikipedia, chef and author Anthony Bourdain describes the fruit thus: "Its taste can only be described as...indescribable, something you will either love or despise. ...Your breath will smell as if you'd been French-kissing your dead grandmother." Travel and food writer Richard Sterling says, "its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelled from yards away. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia."

Of course, as they say, a picture says a thousand words. Here's a picture of the infamous fruit:

Picture taken from this website.

I thought about buying a couple of them, and bringing it up here to Northwest Minnesota, so that the locals can have a little, uh, cultural experience. But I thought better of it :-)

(2) Kino has very graciously posted my recent interview with her at her Richmond workshop on her website. It is titled "An Interview with Kino by Nobel on the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga, the Yamas, at Ashtanga Yoga Richmond." If you haven't already seen it, check it out.

That's all for now. More later.






Friday, April 15, 2011

A practice report of sorts, traveling Ashtangi alert

I woke up this morning at my usual time (4:30 a.m. CDT). Immediately after I woke up, I realized, "Hey! Isn't this Sharath's last day in NYC? Since it is 5:30 a.m. in NYC, I have a full hour before led primary with him starts... Maybe I can try doing that cyber-practice thing, and do led primary with him and all my cyber-shala mates? That would be really cool, wouldn't it?"

I turned on my computer, and that was when reality set in. I had a slow internet connection at home this morning; my wireless device couldn't get a 3G signal... Yes, yes, I know many of you guys probably already have 4G or maybe even 5G, and I'm still stuck in the dark ages of 3G-dom... So, to cut a long story short, I had to give up the idea and simply do my usual practice, which is pretty kick-ass, by the way (primary and second up to pincha mayurasana). Soon after I started practicing, it started snowing outside. It's still snowing now, by the way... See, my practice is so powerful, it can even move the heavens...

Oh well, I guess the only time I'll get to practice with Sharath will be when I finally make it to Mysore, whenever that might be.

In other news: I thought I'll take this opportunity to issue a traveling Ashtangi alert as well. I'm making a weekend trip down to Minneapolis this weekend. I intend to go to led primary at the Yoga House in Minneapolis tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m. I don't know if anybody who reads this blog lives in Minneapolis and/or goes to the Yoga House. If you do go to led primary there tomorrow morning, please come up to me and say hi. I like meeting cyber-shalamates in real life. If you don't know how I look like, see my recent interview with Kino (I'm that Asian guy with glasses who wouldn't stop talking).

Just thought I'll throw this out there.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Practice report, an unusual theory about why 5 rolls instead of 9 in Garbha Pindasana

I did my usual practice this morning (full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana).

As I was doing Garbha Pindasana, I thought about the five-rolls-instead-of-nine rule. Five rolls is actually doable; one just has to make a bigger angle every time one rolls. But I'm curious nonetheless: Why? Why five rolls instead of nine? As I understand it, Garbha Pindasana means "embryo in the womb pose". 9 rolls can be taken to represent the 9 months it takes a human fetus to gestate. So why the change to 5 rolls, given this rich symbolism?

Well, here's a possible theory, although this is really "out there". Maybe the change is made in order to reflect advances in medical science. After all, in ancient times, fetuses have to gestate for nine months. If they come out any earlier, their chances of survival are very slim. But with advances in medical science, it is now possible for a fetus to be delivered prematurely and have a reasonable chance of survival. I read somewhere that it is even possible (although very difficult) to enable fetuses who are delivered at 20 weeks (5 months) to survive. Hence 5 rolls (5 months). Maybe even Ashtanga has to keep up with the times. But fetuses that are delivered prematurely have to be incubated. So one does Garbha 5 times and goes into the body of the rooster (kukkutasana) to get incubated! But this still doesn't make sense. If one is going into kukkutasana to get incubated, doesn't this mean that one would have to hold kukkutasana for longer, in order to achieve the incubatory effect?

If you think this whole theory sounds outlandish, it is! Maybe those of you in New York City who are going to Sharath's class tomorrow morning can ask him what the rationale is behind this five-rolls-instead-of-nine rule? Isn't tomorrow his last day in NY, anyway? Just a suggestion...

In other practice news:

(1) In second series, I have discovered that one can jump into bakasana B with much more control if one takes a very slow, deliberate inhale and retain one's inhalation at the exact moment when the knees touch the back of the upper arms. I don't know why, but doing this gives me better control of the whole jump movement, and there is not that wobbling and struggling to hold oneself in bakasana.

(2) Also in second series, I am still working on landing in chaturanga from pincha mayurasana. The landing is still heavy and unbalanced: I tend to land on one hand (I can't remember which hand it is) before the other.    

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Desire Champagne Bubbles


Desire rises unbidden 
Effervescent champagne bubbles  
Frothing on the surface of consciousness.
Just as quickly as they appear
They fizzle
Leaving the briefest of aftertastes
On the bewildered tongue of 
Scarcely-anticipated Anticipation

Nobel Ang, 4:41 p.m. CDT, April 13th 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A few scattered thoughts on change and evolution in the Ashtanga practice

A lively conversation has sprung up in response to both Claudia's and Megan's recent posts on changes in the way Ashtanga (in particular, the primary series) is practiced. I thought I'll jump in here as well, and give my two cents' on this matter.

I have noticed these changes as well (particularly, the change from nine rolls to five in Garbha Pindasana), but I have never found them to be shocking or dramatic. But then again, that's probably because I am a relatively new Ashtanga practitioner (I only became a "full time Ashtangi" sometime in the middle of 2009), and my teacher (now you know who he is, he who shall not be named :-)) only got authorized a couple of years ago. By that time, the five-rolls-instead-of-nine rule in Garbha was already well-established. And although I had dabbled in Ashtanga before 2009, and vaguely remembered that it used to be nine rolls and not five (doesn't this sound delicious? Rolls? As in bread? :-)), since I was only a dabbler, the change did not really bother me much.

Actually, come to think of it, the change that bothered me more was the change in drishti in the primary series forward bends from the navel to the toes. I clearly remember being at Tim Miller's workshop in Miami in May 2008, and being told by him that the drishti in Paschimottasana and all the primary series forward bends is the navel, so that in all those postures, one ends up doing a semi-Jalandhara Bandha with the chin and the chest. This agreed with what I had been doing in my own Iyengar-inspired practice up to that point. Mr Iyengar doesn't talk about drishti in his Light on Yoga, but I'm quite sure that in Paschimottasana, he is photographed with his chin down towards his chest.

And then I met my teacher in 2009, and one of the first things he corrected me on was the drishti in all those forward bends, telling me that I should be looking at the toes. I told him about what Tim said, and his response was, "I always go with what Sharath says." End of conversation.

It took me a while to get used to this looking-at-the-toes-in-the-forward-bends thing, but I eventually got used to it. And once I got used to it, I saw that it made a lot of sense from an energetic point of view. I feel that looking forward (as opposed to looking down) has the effect of lifting one's energy, making it easier to transition to the next pose, whereas looking down has the effect of drawing the energy down/inward, so that one has to exert more of a psychic effort to draw the energy back up to transition to the next posture. I don't know if any of this makes sense from any objective point of view, it's just how I feel subjectively.

As to Megan's question, "Why and how does the series get changed?", well, I honestly don't have any answer to this question. My own take on all of this is quite un-Ashtangic, "If something works for you, do it. If it doesn't, try to make it work. If it still doesn't work, well... then do whatever it is that works for you." I mean, what's the worst that can happen? :-) It's not as if some Ashtanga Police are going to barge into your practice room/shala and strip you of your Ashtangic powers if you don't do things the "right way"... 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Why aren't aliens in the YJ Talent Search?

I just came across this interesting blog post by Nikki Wong about the Yoga Journal Talent Search. Wong opens her post with these words:

"Nowadays there’s yoga for everything:  yoga for stiff guys, yoga for golfers,
yoga for kids, yoga for cancer, yoga for athletes, yoga for seniors, yoga for
curvy people, even yoga for dogs… how about yoga for black people?"

I think these are very insightful and thoughtful remarks. She then goes on to observe that:

"There has been a recent controversy over Yoga Journal’stalent search for their next cover model.  Yogis of color (not white, tall,
skinny, blonde, bendy, and perfect) have been up in arms over the contest
claiming YJ is sending bad messages to the rest of the population who doesn’t
fit their ideals of what yoga is about."

I really feel that Wong's post is a commendable effort to extend issues of social justice to the realm of yoga. However, despite her best efforts, Wong has not mentioned one group of living beings that can benefit from (and in fact, are already benefiting from) yoga: Aliens! No, I don't mean aliens as in "humans who are not citizens of the United States"; I mean extra-terrestrial beings. 

Recently, our team of yoga investigators here at Yoga in the Dragon's Den (YDD) have uncovered a startling truth: The aliens have arrived! For years, they have been secretly orbiting the Earth in specially designed invisible spaceships which are invisible both to the naked eye and to the most sophisticated human radar.

But if these alien ships are invisible, how can you guys possibly detect them? You may ask. Well, there are a few yogis here at YDD whose yoga practices are so advanced that they have developed the siddhi of being able to see things that are invisible to both the ordinary human eye and human radar.

But I digress. Back to our story. Over the years, these aliens have been secretly observing and learning about human culture from their spaceships; occasionally, they have also made a few landings on our planet, and even collected a few human "specimens" (and you thought all those stories of alien abduction were just stories...).

Along the way, many of these aliens have also discovered the benefits of yoga, and have taken up the practice on their own. Here are some secret pictures of aliens doing asana, taken by our team of intrepid investigators at considerable risk to life and limb:

  Here's a female vulcan in Bakasana (pretty impressive, eh?)
[Image taken from this website]

Here's another alien from an unknown race in Padmasana. 
[Image taken from this website]

Last but not least, those of us Ashtangis out there may be interested to know that aliens have also discovered the joy of Mysore practice, as the following picture amply illustrates: 


[Image taken from this website]

Our investigators went to great risk to take this picture. They had to make a quick escape immediately after taking this picture, as they were discovered by the giant alien in the tuxedo in the background (presumably, he's the alien yoga guru). In any case, this picture provides ample proof that at least a few aliens out there have mastered the primary series. I'm sure Guruji would be very happy if he could see this, wouldn't he?
So the big question is: Why aren't any aliens represented in Yoga Journal's Talent Search? After all, if yoga really is for everyone, it should also be for aliens; if so, they should also be invited to participate in the Talent Search. And so far, to the best of our knowledge, we have yet to see any alien yogis among the YJ Talent Search entries.

We here at YDD do not know why no aliens have thus far been represented in the Talent Search. Needless to say, we feel that this is a terrible injustice to these aliens, who have been practicing so consistently all these years. We venture two possible theories as to why this is the case:
(1) Alien yogis do not feel comfortable participating in a Talent Search organized by humans. They feel that since most voters are humans, their chances of making it to the top five are very slim, to say the least. So they decided not to participate. Besides, participating would mean revealing their presence on Earth, making them possible targets of attack by human supremacists.  

(2) Some alien yogis have in fact sent in their entries, but Yoga Journal, with its usual bias in favor of skinny white female human yoginis, have ignored their entries, and simply thrown them into the trash.  Moreover, the editors at YJ may also be thinking that it would be too shocking for human yogis and yoginis to learn that aliens are also practicing yoga.

We do not know which of these theories is the correct one. Nevertheless, if we are to be the yoga practitioners that we profess to be, we should put into practice our belief that yoga truly is for everybody, human or otherwise. We should extend an invitation to our fellow non-human yogis, and invite them to participate in the Talent Search, shouldn't we? Well actually, maybe not; if it turns out that YJ has been actively suppressing these alien participants, the appropriate response would probably be for all of us to boycott this contest altogether: How can it be right to support an organization that discriminates so blatantly against yogis on the basis of their extraterrestrial origin? 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

So what is a Type A Ashtangi to do? Some wisdom from the Yoga Sutra

A few days ago, I wrote this post exploring the relation between being an Ashtangi and having a type A personality. I got some interesting and varied responses. Some people (including me) are of the opinion that the practice can make one less type A (or at least B.5) over time. Others are of the opinion that the practice may make the type-A-ness worse for some people. Yet one other person commented that it is possible to be both type B and yet possess characteristics commonly associated with being type A (being ambitious, aggressive, businesslike, competitive, etc.).

Very interesting. But all this makes me wonder: What would the Yoga Sutra have to say to type A people? Of course, in posing this question, I may be assuming that being type A is a bad thing. And it's not always clear that the personality traits associated with being type A are necessarily always destructive ones; maybe there are times when being ambitious, businesslike and competitive are desirable and useful traits to have.

However, as many of us know, one of the yamas or ethical precepts of yoga is aparigraha or non-grasping. If being ambitious, businesslike and competitive are associated with grasping, then it seems that a person who has less of a grasping nature (and thus, less type A) would be more able to observe aparigraha, and would be more likely to live a fulfilling life.

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Yoga Sutra 1.2 says, "Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah", which is usually translated as "Yoga is the cessation (nirodhah) of the fluctuations of consciousness (Chitta)." At her Yoga Sutra lecture at her recent Richmond workshop, Kino brought up something interesting about this sutra. While "nirodhah" is commonly translated as "cessation", this is not, strictly speaking, correct. The goal of the practice isn't so much to stop our minds from working as to direct our minds in a different direction. Specifically, the point of practice is to direct the mind so that its gaze is directed inward and becomes connected with purusha, or True Self, and away from prakruti, or phenomenal experience. According to yoga philosophy, suffering and delusion arises when one confuses that which is ephemereal and impermanent (prakruti) with that which is authentic and true (purusha). To liberate oneself from this confusion, one needs to turn one's attention away from all things in the world and the psychological reactions that they evoke, and turn inward and seek out purusha, which is eternal. The practice, especially the tristana, encourages the introspection which is necessary for such an endeavor. The person who is proficient at such introspection is one who lives in the phenomenal world, assumes all the tasks and responsibilities associated with being a person of this world, and yet, being one who is devoted to the contemplation of purusha, is able to enjoy freedom from attachment to the outcomes of these tasks and responsibilities.  

In light of this, we can see that the practice, if done consistently and properly, has the power to free one from the bondage of excessive attachment to outcomes of our actions in the world. Or, to put it in the terms with which I started this post, it has the power to free one from the tendency of excessive grasping, and in this way, alleviate type-A-ness.    

Friday, April 8, 2011

Back to the unglamorous grind of daily practice (and why this is not a bad thing)

Practice this morning was good. I'm not going to bore you with the blow-by-blow details of my experiences in various postures. Suffice to say that I am working on a few different things that Kino brought to my attention during the workshop. One of these is to resist the temptation to resort to the "chicken-out" way of getting out of pincha mayurasana (for more details, see this post). This morning, I successfully fought this temptation; the resulting jump-back exit wasn't pretty: I didn't fall on my face (thankfully because I was looking forward), but I kind of flopped my whole front body onto the mat instead of landing gracefully in chaturanga. Well, I figure that if I keep doing this day after day, my body will eventually get it and my arms will kick in at the right moment to prop me into chaturanga. There's a Chinese saying, "The fool who tries a thousand things inevitably comes up with something useful." Incidentally, Kino once said (I'm paraphrasing here) that if you are a yoga genius, you will master a posture after a thousand attempts, whereas if you are not a genius, you will need ten thousand attempts to master it. So a Chinese fool is a yoga genius! Interesting...

There's one thing I've noticed about my practice during and after going to Kino's workshop. For some reason I don't completely understand, my pace of practice is always faster at a workshop. During both the mysore sessions at Kino's workshop last weekend, I got through my usual practice (full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana) in slightly under two hours. Whereas now, back at home, I've reverted to my pre-workshop speed (two hours and twenty minutes, give or take three minutes). I call this the "Senior Teacher Effect." There's no other explanation for this, since I did not make a conscious effort to speed up my practice during the workshop.

I've noticed that my practice rhythm has followed a certain cycle for the last year or so: A relatively long period of mostly solitary home practice, punctuated by a short workshop with a senior teacher, which is then followed by another long period of mostly solitary home practice, during which I try to digest everything I learnt at the workshop. Which is not very glamorous, because there are inevitably spells of time during which I encounter plateaus, or injuries or mysterious pains that need to be addressed and worked out.

But rather than see these spells of time as undesirable experiences to be avoided, I have gradually come to see them as necessary components of the journey of practice. We have a tendency to focus on the moments of epiphany, the aha! moments which light up our otherwise seemingly mundane lives and practices. But we tend to forget that behind every aha! moment is a necessary period of physical and spiritual incubation, without which the moment would be impossible. Actually, Kino expresses this process very nicely in one of her writings. So I guess I'll leave you here with her words:

"At first yoga is life and you cannot get enough of it. Yoga reconnects you to long forgotten inner realms and you somehow fall in love with yoga. Yet if your yoga practice evolves into a daily, lifelong relationship it is almost inevitable that at some moment you will get bored with it. The insatiable hunger for as much yoga as possible will shift and change to a space where you will be absolutely full of it. This period of lackluster levels of initiative often comes ironically as a result of your full immersion in the yoga world. While this is a crisis stage where many practitioners quit yoga, change teachers or switch styles of yoga it is actually a place where the yoga practice itself has a unique opportunity to work on the deepest levels of the subconscious if you stay with it.

Anything done repeatedly over a long period of time has the potential to get boring, route and mundane. One of the main reasons why the initial glow of the romance period of yoga fades is because the practice has actually managed to sink down and penetrate a deep layer of consciousness. At this stage boredom is actually an obstacle to spiritual growth not just an annoying thing to face each day on the mat. If you have the courage to move through it just on the other side of boredom is deep and lasting peace, unity with yourself and the strength and determination to live with integrity. Boredom is an important maturing phase of the journey inward and one that is only experienced by a practitioner who has already committed themselves to the daily practice...

When yoga changes from strange and exotic to normal and ordinary you have succeeded at turning yoga into lifestyle commitment rather than a mere passing fancy. If you tune into the feeling of boredom when it arises it can lead you to the realization that your daily practice has reached a whole new level of awareness within. This usually means that you now have access to a subconscious level. Once you experience this deeper stage of awareness boredom is a natural hurdle to cross as your system gets used to living in a more peaceful state...

Injury, repetition and simple difficulty naturally bring up boredom and if you move through this state when it arises you will allow yoga to powerfully transform your life far beyond any mere series of postures. When yoga is just as mediocre, mundane and miserable as the rest of your life it really begins to teach you how to make peace with your life. Romantic poet William Blake says that a true test of the human spirit is to find innocence through experience and it is exactly this seemingly impossible state of union that yoga asks you to tap into on the inner spiritual path. Just on the other side of the apparent ordinariness of your experience is actually a much deeper understanding of yourself, your body and your yoga practice. When you can see the beauty of all life shining with the power of creation regardless of time or location yoga has worked its magic through you. Beyond the wow phase of yoga you confront the monotony of doing the same practice everyday and if you stay with your yoga practice through this inevitable period you will one day tap into a limitless wealth of wisdom. You have to do your yoga practice so much so that it is not special anymore so that you can learn to experience a kind of specialness that never fades and a beauty that is truly eternal."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Interview with Kino MacGregor in Richmond, Virginia, April 2nd 2011

At Kino's Richmond workshop this past weekend, I had the great pleasure of sitting down with her and chatting with her about the yoga practice. Specifically, I asked her some questions about the yamas (ethical precepts) and how they relate to our lives and practice. Here's the link to the interview:

http://mediamill.cla.umn.edu/mediamill/embed/106862

There are a couple of things you should know about before you watch the interview:

(1) The interview is almost 40 minutes long (because I just can't stop asking questions :-)). So unless you plan on watching the interview over a few blocks of time, you might want to make sure you have 40 minutes to spare.

(2) The interviewer in the video (that Asian guy with glasses) is me. You may already know this, but just in case :-).

Last but not least, many thanks to Kino for giving so generously of her time. Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is there a relation between being an Ashtangi and having a Type A personality?

This question has been at the back of my mind for a while now, but Claudia's recent post ("You can't always get what you want") made me think about it a little more. So I thought I'll share some thoughts here.

So, is there such a relation? If there is, what is this relation? Do people become more type A as a result of practicing Ashtanga? Or are type As attracted to Ashtanga because something about the very highly structured nature of Ashtanga practice draws them to it like bees to honey? And if Ashtanga indeed attracts type As, what happens to these people after they start practicing? Do they become even more type A? Or does the practice somehow mellow and humble them, causing them to become less type A (maybe they become type B.5, as Claudia so cleverly suggested)?

These are intriguing questions. But before I say more, it is probably useful to try to get clear about what exactly we mean by type A and type B. This is where Wikipedia, that most hallowed of (un)scholarly sources, comes in handy (Gee, how did we get by in the pre-Wikipedia Dark Ages?). According to the all-knowing Wikipedia-oracle:

A Type A individual is one who is "ambitious, aggressive, business-like, controlling, highly competitive, impatient, preoccupied with his or her status, time-conscious, and tightly-wound. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving "workaholics" who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence."

By contrast, person with type B personalities "are generally patient, relaxed, easy-going, and at times lacking an overriding sense of urgency."

If the practice enables people to become more patient, relaxed and easy-going, then maybe we can say that type A people become more type B (or type B.5) over time, as they develop their practice. I like to think this is true in my case. The practice, by its very physically demanding nature, forces me to accept and work with my body's limits. I realize that if I can't do, say, karandavasana today, no amount of being aggressive or controlling will get me anywhere. In fact, more often than not, being controlling and aggressive on the mat results in unnecessary pain and injury. In this way, the practice has a way of molding one's personality into one that is more accepting of limitations, and that is more willing to work with what is, rather than strive instinctively and un-reflectively for a perceived state of perfection all the time.

But maybe things aren't that simple. I have this inner perception of the practice doing certain things to me, making me less of an asshole and more of a... saint? Well, maybe not saint, but at least less of an asshole. But that is only how I see myself. What if type A or type B are not absolute states of one's being, but are relative to different aspects of one's life as a whole? What if it is possible for me to be type A (controlling, aggressive, ambitious) in one area of my life but type B (patient, relaxed, easy-going) in another aspect of my life? And what if one is type B on the mat (i.e. patient and relaxed with regard to achieving or "getting" postures) but type A in all other areas of life? What if, due to consistent practice, I have learnt that being impatient and trying to control things on the mat is not productive, but I continue to be type A in my off-mat life, because that's how I have always done things, and I have always attained results in the real world by being this way?

You may say this is ultimately impossible, that ideally, the practice should permeate all aspects of one's life and make one a better person. I like to believe this is true too. But we all have heard of artists who are very adept and masterful at their art, but who are assholes in their personal lives. So if we think of yoga as being in a sense an art form, what would prevent some yogis from being the same way?

As usual, I'm just thinking aloud, with no real answers to any of these issues. If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mysore at Kino's Workshop, Part II: Pincha Mayurasana, fear of falling on one's face, and saying no to karandavasana

In my last post, I said that I went through some struggles in the mysore sessions at Kino's workshop. A lot happened during the mysore sessions; rather than bore you with the details of every single little thing that happened, I'll just focus here on two things: My experience with Pincha Mayurasana and my non-experience with Karandavasana.  

(1) Pincha Mayurasana

With some guidance from Kino, I just barely managed to pull off the standard pincha mayurasana jump-back exit to chaturanga. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, this basically involves transitioning to chaturanga from pincha mayurasana without touching one's feet to the ground before chaturanga (and without landing on one's face in the process, of course). Sorry if all this sounds very convoluted; I guess I need to find a more concise way of describing this transition.

First, a little back-story. For the last couple of months, I always "chickened out" whenever I came to this transition in my home practice. Whenever I was done with pincha, I would just lower my feet to the ground, and then move into chaturanga. I guess I was afraid of landing on my face, and possibly flattening my already flat Asian nose :-) 

Anyway, on the first mysore session at the workshop (on Saturday morning), I basically did the same "chicken out" move after pincha. In what appeared to be a coincidence, Kino walked by my mat about five seconds after I did that move:

Kino: You did Pincha Mayurasana?

Nobel: Yes.

Kino: Did you jump back from Pincha?

Nobel: Uh.... not really.

Kino: Why don't you do Pincha again? I'll help you with the jump back.

Nobel [Silently groans to himself]: Sure...

Have you ever noticed that senior teachers usually don't notice your most impressive postures, but almost always catch you when you try to skip those postures that bring up the most fear in you? So, I dutifully went back up into pincha, and guess what? I did that chicken out move again, because I still couldn't bring myself to try to pull off the standard exit, despite the presence of Kino. Kino advised me to try the following: Before doing pincha mayurasana, do modified chaturanga (chaturanga with the forearms on the mat). From modified chaturanga, push the elbows into the mat, and hop back into regular chaturanga. The idea is that this is supposed to serve as a "training wheels" version of the real transition, since in this version, the feet are on the ground the whole time, and one can manage more effectively the fear of falling on one's face. She suggested that I should do this for three times before actually trying the real transition during my next practice. I thanked her for this tip, and went on with the rest of my practice.

When I got to pincha mayurasana during next morning's mysore, I decided to simply go for the actual transition without going through the training wheels version, as Kino had suggested the day before. I don't know what made me do this. Maybe it was sheer ego; maybe it was the fact that a senior teacher was present, and I felt motivated to do more than what I considered to be my maximum (I call this the "Senior Teacher Effect").

In any case, I went up into Pincha, stayed there for five breaths. I then pushed my elbows into the mat, and lifted off. And then the weirdest thing happened. My nose touched the ground very briefly, but then it kind of... bounced off the ground, and I landed perfectly in chaturanga. And no, my nose did not become flatter :-) I was so surprised by what just happened that I made this weird surprised sound (I don't know how else to describe it). Kino came up to me, and asked me if I succeeded in doing the jump back. I said, "Barely..."

(2) Karandavasana

Then she said, "You want to try Karandavasana?" Normally, I would have jumped at the chance to get a new posture. But I told her that my knee was feeling a little tweaky, and I don't know if it's wise to risk trying to do padmasana while upside down without using my hands in this state. This is actually true; some months ago, I tweaked my right knee while attempting karandavasana. As of right now, it has recovered to the point where I can do padmasana and all its variations without pain or discomfort if I enter the postures with proper attention to alignment. But I don't yet feel ready to try to get into padmasana while in pincha mayurasana. She said that I should work on slowly trying to get my knees into padmasana in shoulderstand without using my hands. Once I've succeeded in doing this, I will be ready to attempt karandavasana safely. I thanked her for the suggestion. I'll work on this.

Well, this is the first time in recorded history that I have actually said no to being given a new posture, and to a senior teacher at that. How's that for being self-realized? :-)

I can write more, and there's so much more I would like to share, but I'm getting hungry, and need to go make some food. Maybe I'll write more later (or maybe not :-)).

Monday, April 4, 2011

Mysore at Kino's workshop, Part I: Kapo drama

I am sitting here in Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, waiting for my connection. There's more than 2 hours to go before my flight, so I thought I'll take the time to blog some more.

I'll share some observations here from my mysore experience at Kino's workshop this past weekend. A lot happened during the mysore sessions at this workshop (which is why this post is only Part I; Part II is coming soon :-)) There were two sessions, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Which is really cool, because I felt that I got to work with Kino more than during the Chicago workshop back in October, which had one mysore session.

Generally, I felt more grounded and at ease this time around, probably because: (1) Ashtanga Yoga Richmond is a much smaller studio than Moksha Yoga in Chicago, so there wasn't so much of that kind of crazy energy that you get when you have, like, a hundred people trying to do mysore at the same time. Things somehow felt more relaxed and laid-back here (being in the South helps too, I guess), (2) I have already worked with Kino previously, so there wasn't such a strong drive to impress (for more details about this, see my guest post on Claudia's blog detailing my experience at the Chicago workshop).

Anyway, on both days, I did what I usually do in my home practice (full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana). The really nice thing about having practiced by myself all these months is that my pratyahara (ability to withdraw my senses from the external environment) is much stronger than before. For most of the practice on both days, I just went through whatever I was doing, with a few adjustments from Kino here and there. Mostly, I was able to focus on my breathing and drishti, and not get distracted by what others were doing around me.

Except when people around me were experiencing kapotasana drama. To be sure, kapotasana is a very challenging posture, and most of us experience drama of some sort or other when we get to this posture in the practice. But I cannot help thinking that some people's kapo-dramas are more obvious and, uh, dramatic than others'. At this workshop at least, it seems that there were a few cases where the kapo-drama was so obvious and dramatic that I just couldn't help noticing it (or maybe my pratyahara needs more work...). So even though it's kind of sacrilegious to be talking about one's observations of other people's practices during mysore, I'm going to just report what I couldn't help observing despite my best pratyahara efforts. This is what happened with at least a few Ashtangis during mysore this weekend when they got to kapo:

(1) Ashtangi gets to kapotanasana, and basically freezes there in a kneeling position.

(2) Kino comes by, and asks, "Kapotasana?" Ashtangi nods or says yes.

(3) Kino then asks, "Have you tried getting into kapo by yourself?" In more than a few cases, the Ashtangi would say, "no". In one case, the Ashtangi actually said, "I've never ever gotten into kapo by myself before." In this particular case, the Ashtangi in question was right behind me, so I think my pratyahara failure can be excused :-p

(4) Kino: "Why don't you try getting into kapo by yourself a couple of times first? Then I'll come back and help you." Ashtangi agrees (like she has a choice, right?), and gingerly tries kapo a couple of times on her own.

(5) Kino comes back, and assists the Ashtangi in kapo. I couldn't see what was going on, but I can certainly hear the drama. Basically, this consists of Kino assisting and giving verbal instructions ("bring your hips/pelvis forward"), and repeating in a deeper-than-usual and powerful voice, "Crawl your fingers, crawl... keep crawling." Sometimes, this is also punctuated by grunts on the part of the Ashtangi. On one occasion, I can almost swear that I heard giggling (Gee, it's actually possible to giggle in kapo? I guess I'm learning something all the time...)

I know this is kind of evil, blogging about other people's kapo dramas. Actually, I have my own kapo dramas as well, but most of it is in my head. Personally, I try to externalize as little as possible; in my personal experience with postures, the more you externalize your internal dramas, the bigger and worse it gets.

I later learnt from Kino that her policy of adjusting in kapo is that she insists that people give the posture at least two tries themselves before she steps in to adjust. The reason, she told me, is because she believes that ultimately,the strength and flexibility to do the posture needs to come from within. If people get adjusted all the time, they won't have opportunities to cultivate this strength and flexibility.

Which means that I never got any kapo adjustments from Kino. On both days, I simply hung back and opened my chest for a few breaths until I could see the tips of my toes in the edge of my vision, which is basically the same thing that I do during my home practice. And then I dove and got my heels. Which means I didn't have to do kapo a second time. In fact, on both days, Kino barely even noticed that I did kapo. On the first day, for instance, as i was preparing for Supta Vajrasana (the posture immediately after kapo), Kino asked, "Have you done kapo?" I said yes. And then she asked, "You grabbed your heels?" I said yes again, and smiled in a way that probably came across as being more than a little smug (ego...).

From reading this post, you might easily get the impression that my mysore experience at this workshop was very effortless. Well, this is far from the truth. In an upcoming post, I will relate my mysore struggles in this workshop. Stay tuned.