Friday, July 29, 2011

Back to the surface, decompressing



This is my first day back in Moorhead from Matthew Sweeney (MS)'s workshop. This morning, I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana in my practice room. As I practiced, I tried to recall MS's adjustments and directions in various postures, particularly the backbends of the Intermediate Series. I have mixed feelings to be practicing by myself again after a few days of mysore practice with MS and fellow workshop participants. It feels good to be practicing by myself, listening closely to everything that is arising in my mind and body; but I also miss the feeling of being given constant feedback under the watchful eye of MS, not to mention the powerful camaraderie of practicing alongside others who are on the same journey.

Coming back from a workshop always feels like returning to the surface after a deep-sea diving trip--a diving trip to the inner recesses of one's mind, body and spirit, where one discovers things that one never knew existed. Some of these things are beautiful, wondrous hidden (sunken?) treasures; others are scary sea monsters or skeletons one never knew were buried in the depths. In either case, having known of their existence, one can no longer undo or unlearn this knowledge, but must live with it, and do one's best to learn and grow as much as possible from this knowledge.

But first, one must decompress, and allow oneself to readjust to the atmosphere at the surface. Which is what I am doing now. There is actually also another level of decompression going on: Coming back from a big city to this little corner of the midwest always requires a couple of days of readjusting, on my part. As I write this, my inner ears are popping with the atmospheric change. :-)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Final day of MS workshop: Laghu Vajrasana, the paradoxical nature of the practice

Mysore this morning with Matthew Sweeney (MS) was great. A couple of "highlights":

(1) As per MS's suggestion, I skipped primary today, and went directly into Intermediate from the standing and balancing postures, doing Intermediate up to Pincha Mayurasana. Which made my practice a lot shorter: I estimated that the whole practice took about an hour and fifteen minutes, as opposed to my usual two-hour practice. You would think that this would make the whole practice easier. Well, not true: There is something about doing second series only that is really intense. I'm not quite sure why this is so; maybe it's because the mind and body did not have the benefit of having been "warmed up" from doing primary. In any case, I was totally winded when I exited Pincha Mayurasana, and had to pause for a few breaths to catch my breath before going into backbends. After practice, Bill, who was practicing next to me, remarked that this was the first time during the workshop that he actually heard me breathe!

(2) In the middle of Laghu Vajrasana, MS stopped me and asked me to redo the posture while grabbing my ankles, not my calves. Here's the backstory: For more than a year, I have been doing this unorthodox version of Laghu, where I repeat the posture five times. The first time, I go into the posture in the standard way: Grab ankles, bring top of the head to the mat, hold for five breaths, come back up. For the second, third and fourth reps, I grab my calves, bring my head to the mat on the exhale, and then inhale to come back up. For the last rep, I grab my calves, bring my head to the mat, hold for five breaths, and then come back up. I do this because Gregor Maehle, in his book on the Intermediate Series, says that grabbing the calves in Laghu allows for a deeper backbend.

Anyway, MS came along when I was doing that last rep, and told me to redo the posture while grabbing my ankles (I'm guessing he did not notice that I had already done the posture four times ;-)). I did as he said: Which meant that I did Laghu six times! Miraculously, I somehow still had enough energy to go into Kapotasana after that and grab my heels!

After the practice, I explained to him that I grabbed my calves in Laghu because I was following Maehle's suggestion in his book. MS responded by saying that Maehle is simply wrong. He explained that the basic purpose of Laghu is not a backbend, but to strengthen the quads and the front body in general. Grabbing the calves makes it easier to come up, which also undermines the quad-strengthening function of this posture. He also remarked that it is possible to turn Laghu into a chest-opening backbend by grabbing the knees instead of the ankles; but doing so turns the posture into a backbend, making it no longer a quad-strengthening posture. Seen in this light, he continues, grabbing the calves is the worst deal of all: One gets only 50% of the chest-opening afforded by grabbing the knees, and only 50% of the quad-strengthening afforded by grabbing the ankles, making it a neither-here-nor-there posture. I think this explanation makes a lot of sense. I'm learning something all the time. :-)

**************** 

After practice this morning, I shared with Bill a recent conversation I had with my friend D in Fargo. As you might recall from my posts a couple of months ago, I had started teaching D some Ashtanga recently (see, for example, this post). We haven't done too many postures; I have only taught him Suryas A and B, and a couple of standing postures. Recently, when I told D I was coming to Minneapolis to attend the workshop with MS, he asked me what new things I can possibly learn in Ashtanga, given that I had already been doing yoga for two hours everyday, six days a week for a few years. So I had to tell him the whole Ashtanga deal: That there are six series of postures, and I am now somewhere in the middle of the second series, etc, etc. I also told him that there are probably less than five people in the entire world who have mastered all six series of postures. I had not told him all this before, because I didn't want to intimidate him. Anyway, here's how the conversation unfolded from this point:

D: Oh, so you are only at the second series... You have a very long way to go, don't you? 

Nobel (grins sheepishly): Yeah...

D: So, do you want to master all six series one day?

Nobel (grins even more sheepishly): Yeah, I suppose it would be nice to be able to do that, but I really don't care. I'm quite happy where I am. 

D (with a very puzzled expression on his face): ....

I then tried to relieve D's puzzlement by explaining that even senior teachers like Kino (to use an example) are "only" at the fourth series. Honestly, I don't think this did much to relieve his puzzlement, but it was the best I could come up with at the time.

I don't know what you make of this brief conversation; to me, it illustrates the paradoxical nature of Ashtanga practice, and perhaps even of yoga practice in general. We "insiders" know that despite the apparently linear progression of the six series of postures, they are really not there to serve as any measure of enlightenment or self-realization (despite Ellie's claims to the contrary :-)): Being able to put one's leg behind one's head and go into a deep twist at the same time (or not) is not a measure of spiritual development. But from the above conversation with D, I get the sense that it is not always easy to explain this to non-Ashtangis. After all, they probably wonder (understandably), "Why have a linear progression of postures if this progression is not an objective measure of "progress" in any really meaningful sense?" I believe that herein lies the paradox of Ashtanga practice: It is linear and yet not linear at the same time. 

Ah, well... I think I have mused enough for now. All in all, this has been a very wonderful few days in the City of Lakes. Now all I need to do is get in my car and drive and hopefully, get back to Moorhead at a decent hour. More later.      

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Mysore Report, Perfect Ashtanga Body, Sex Drive

First, a little report about this morning's mysore session with Matthew Sweeney (MS). For starters, I am still working on the four areas that he identified yesterday (see previous post). In addition, another interesting thing happened as well. Somewhere in the Janu Sirsasanas (I think it was Janu B, but I can't be absolutely sure), MS came up to me, and asked me how far in the Intermediate Series I have gone. I answered that in my home practice, I usually go up to Pincha Mayurasana (Yeah, I know, I said in some previous posts that I had started working on Karandavasana, but certain issues have arisen recently that have prompted me to cut out Karandavasana for the time being. More on this in another post).

Anyway, MS looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, "You should try to conserve as much energy as you can today, so you can maybe do more second series postures. Don't rush through primary or anything; just don't use up so much energy; maybe do the vinyasa on only one side." (These were not his exact words, but they are pretty close.) MS has very astutely perceived that my vinyasas (jumping through and back in slow motion, without touching my feet to the mat in either direction) consume a lot of energy in my primary; that, combined with the fact that I am the biggest sweat-hog in the universe, causes me to burn a lot of "fuel" during primary; I guess you can say that I am the Ashtanga equivalent of a Hummer ;-)

In any case, I agreed with his suggestion, and then... guess what? I continued to jump through and back on both sides anyway! Why? Well, for one, there is something about jumping through and back that allows me to straighten out my limbs after doing each posture, which feels quite good. After mysore, I discussed this with Bill (see previous post for who he is), and discovered another reason why I continued to do the vinyasas even after MS's suggestion: There is something very addictive about vinyasas. I don't surf, but I suspect that doing vinyasas between practices maintains a flow and a wave-like rhythm to the practice, which is quite addictive, in the same way in which surfers might be drawn to and be "addicted" to the feeling of riding a wave. I don't know if this makes any sense, but at any rate, this is my theory.

******************

After mysore, the four of us (Bill, Ellie, Monica, me) went to the same place for breakfast (again, see previous post). Over breakfast, a number of interesting conversation topics came up. Here are a couple:

(1) Is there such a thing as a Perfect Ashtanga Body? Yeah, I know that this is probably not politically correct Ashtanga conversation, but hey, I've never claimed to be the epitome of political correctness. Anyway, after a very interesting (and often hilarious) back-and-forth among the four of us, we decided that the Perfect Ashtanga Body (PAB) needs to have the following characteristics: 

(i) Long arms: Very useful for jumping through and jumping back.

(ii) Short legs: If you have short legs, forward bends will be easier, as you have less leg distance to cover before you touch your hands to the ground. Short legs also make putting your leg behind your head easier, since you have less leg to haul behind your head. 

(iii) A broad chest, and a torso that is longer than your legs: Having a broad chest allows more chest-opening to happen, making for impressive back-bending. Also, from a pranic point of view, having a broad chest and a long torso may also enable you to store more prana, which is a great thing. 

After a little more discussion, the four of us agreed that somebody with a PAB would probably look like this: 

 [Image taken from here]

To be sure, Spongebob's arms could probably be a little longer; but other than that, I would think that if there ever were a contest for the PAB, Spongebob would probably beat all the David Swensons, Richard Freemans, Kino MacGregors and (sad to say) Matthew Sweeneys of the world hands down, wouldn't he? :-) Hmm... Somebody needs to get Spongebob to an Ashtanga class right this moment.

(2) What is the effect of regular Ashtanga practice on the sex drive? We had a discussion on whether regular Ashtanga practice (especially Intermediate Series, with its nervous-system-purifying/kundalini-raising effects) would have any effects on the sex drive, if any. We couldn't come to an agreement on this matter. But I think there are four possibilities: 

(I) Sex drive increases.
(II) Sex drive decreases.
(III) No change in sex drive. 
(IV) Sex drive neither increases nor decreases, but one achieves greater control over one's sex drive. 

Another complication may be that the results may differ for both males and females. In any case, I think this is an interesting topic for a poll. With this in mind, I have set up a new poll in the top right-hand corner of this blog. The poll question is: "Which statement best describes the state of your sex drive since you began practicing Ashtanga?" But if you don't practice Ashtanga, you can also participate; just replace "Ashtanga" with "yoga" or whatever style of yoga you practice. I think this will be an interesting and edifying poll. And of course, the poll is totally anonymous; nobody (not even I) will know who you are. So you need have no worries about revealing your identity. I hope you can participate :-)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Yoga and Bhoga in the City of Lakes

Mysore with Matthew Sweeney (MS) this morning was intense and good. I did full Primary and Intermediate up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. I got some good adjustments, and learnt a few things today from MS:

(1) In the Suryas, I have always taken considerable pride in being able to lift my body off the ground from trini position with straight legs to kind of float back into chatvari. This morning, however, MS stopped me in the very first Surya A, and basically told me that I was using too much upper-body strength to jump/float back. This is roughly what he said, "You are doing a dead-lift back into chaturanga, which is good. But this means you bend your elbows too early, which causes tension in the shoulders." So he basically had me bend my knees to jump back, keeping my elbows extended the whole time while I land in plank; only then do I bend my elbows to go into chaturanga. Which of course, doesn't look quite as pretty, since that meant I landed in plank with a very audible thud, rather than softly and directly into chaturanga. But well, I guess progress isn't always pretty, is it? I'll keep working on this.

(2) It turns out that I "sit" too deeply into the pose in Virabhadrasana II. Which causes my hips to go out of whack. Here's what I mean: In Vira II, you want to keep your hips squared to the side. If I sit too deeply into the pose (i.e. bend the front knee beyond a certain point), my hips end up facing more forward than squared to the side. Which deprives me of the hip-opening effects of the posture. Of course, there are some people who can both sit deeply in the pose AND keep the hips squared to the side. Well, I'm not one of them. So MS got me to come up higher in the posture, so that I can maintain the sideways orientation of the hips. He suggested that I should not sit more deeply than I can maintain the sideways orientation of the hips. Actually, I have kind of sensed this issue all along; but sometimes, you need a senior teacher to point these things out to really bring them to the forefront of your attention.

(3) In Intermediate, MS stopped me in Parsva Dhanurasana, and asked me to repeat that posture. He got me to point my toes more and turn the feet inward, while moving the hips forward. This resulted in much more of the backbend going into the front body (i.e. quads and psoas). Which is intense, but very good for front body opening. Ha! So I have been cheating in Parsva Dhanurasana this whole time... who knew? I think this action really helped my Kapotasana: As I was exiting Kapotasana, the front of my thighs were so intensely engaged, they almost went numb!

(4) During the dropbacks, MS came up to me and told me that I have this tight/unopened spot somewhere in my mid-back. Here's the backstory: Yesterday, during the backbend session, I told him that I sometimes feel this twinge in my right lower back if I go into a backbend after my body has rested for a couple of minutes after doing some backbends. This is usually not a problem in mysore, since one doesn't usually stop to rest in mysore between backbends. But I really felt this issue during yesterday's workshop, because workshops, by their very nature, are so start-and-stop. MS said that, judging from what he saw of my backbends, he thinks the issue is probably either in shoulder tightness or tightness somewhere in the upper/mid-back. So today, during dropbacks, he had a closer look, and diagnosed the issue as a mid-back issue. He says that it will take a bit of work over a certain period of time to open up this area. Which is not that surprising, backbends being what they are. What's really interesting is that something that is felt as a twinge in the lower back should actually have its origin in the mid-back. Interesting, don't you think?

******************** 

Well, that was a lot of yoga. Now on to some bhoga (material or sensory enjoyment). As we might say, "All yoga and no bhoga makes Jack a dull yogi" (I suppose the female version of this would be, "All yoga and no bhoga makes Jill a dull yogini" :-)). After mysore this morning, a few of us went to this local breakfast place for some much-needed nourishment. I can't remember the name of the place, but the food was really good... Well, don't just take my word for it. Here are a couple of pictures to back up my claim:

The before shot: 
Left to right: Me, Monica, The Perfect Ellie, Bill

The after shot (hmm... where did all that food go?)
Left to right: Same as above, plus a little more food in each body.

I guess something needs a little explaining here: Why "The Perfect Ellie"? Well, this arose out of a conversation that took place during the meal. I'll try to reconstruct it as best I can. Basically, the conversation started with a discussion on asana (how many more things can four Ashtangis talk about?). Bill and Monica started by discussing just how central having the "perfect asana" and being able to do third series is to the practice (none of us at the table do third). We kind of went back and forth between the "You can do anything if you set your mind to it and put in the necessary effort and lifestyle changes" school of thought and the Official Party Line ("It doesn't matter how far you get in the physical practice, so long as you breath, maintain drishti, observe the yamas and niyamas, etc, etc."). At some point, Ellie said (probably only half in jest), "Of course you need to get to third (maybe even beyond) in order to achieve Full Enlightenment and Full Perfection!" And then somehow Monica, in all sincerity, started talking about what a great teacher Ellie is, and how her adjustments are so perfect (well, I don't know about Perfect, but having been the recipient of a couple of these, I can attest that they are really good :-)). So, basically, this is how we came up with the moniker "The Perfect Ellie". By the way, if you take a closer look at the pictures, you might notice that Bill is positively glowing; this is doubtless a result of sitting next to Ellie and absorbing some of that Perfect energy. :-)

Well, I guess that's all for now. I'm going to try to see how much more bhoga I can squeeze out of the rest of the day before tomorrow morning's yoga ;-) 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Day 1 of MS workshop: Does Carbo-loading apply in Ashtanga?

It is now 9:50 p.m. CDT on Sunday evening. I am in my hotel room, slumped over my computer as I write this post. I believe this physical and energetic slump I am experiencing right now is caused by two things: (1) The soreness in my quads, caused by all the backbending and other stuff I did in Matthew Sweeney (MS)'s two workshops today, (2) The big dinner I had at the Rainbow Chinese Restaurant a couple of hours ago; the effects of the carbohydrate-induced stupor have yet to wear off. I hope this will not have an adverse effect on my mysore practice in the morning at 6 a.m.

Ah, food, glorious food! You are probably questioning the wisdom of my eating a big dinner in the evening when there is mysore so early in the morning. Well, your questioning is justified. But here are a couple of mitigating factors: (I) As there were only a couple of hours between the two workshops today, and the afternoon workshop was a backbend workshop, I did not think it would be wise to eat a big lunch before doing deep backbends. So I only had a juice and a small cup of soup for lunch. As wonderful as yoga is, man (or woman) cannot live on yoga alone. So I had to eat something substantial at the end of the day. (II) Back in the day when I did some long-distance running, there was this concept of "carbo-loading" among runners (I don't know if this is still a credible idea in the running world; I'm out of touch with developments there): The general idea is that one should "stock up" on carbs a few hours (or even the day before) before a big run, in order to give the body the energy it needs for the run. I wonder if the same idea applies to Ashtanga too? If you see a two-hour mysore session as a "big run" of sorts, would this same idea not apply too? If you have any thoughts on this very ad hoc theory of mine, I would love to hear it :-)

Well, this has been a very ranting post. And I have said nothing so far about the two sessions at the workshop today. Well, as many of you already know, MS is well-known for creative sequencing, for thinking outside the Ashtanga box, if you will. This definitely shows in the sessions today, especially the one on backbends. It's quite surprising how where backbends are concerned, doing less may sometimes be more: For instance, he had us do a whole bunch of hangbacks instead of attempting the full dropback. It's really surprising how much more work you end up doing with your front body if you slowly and deliberately hang back, rather than just allow yourself to kind of just flop back to the ground; which probably explains my sore (wordplay: MY...SORE) quads right now. Hmm... I wonder how things will be like in mysore in the morning. Well, I guess we'll find out in a few hours... For now, I need to go to sleep, and hopefully, that big Chinese dinner will digest itself in the meantime. We'll see. Stay tuned.   

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Spirits and Sound, and Matthew Sweeney

It is now 10:18 p.m. CDT. I am now in Minneapolis. I arrived here a few hours ago, and will be attending Matthew Sweeney's workshop at the Yoga House from tomorrow (Sunday) to Thursday.

There is no mysore session tomorrow. The morning session is an introduction to Intermediate, and the afternoon session is on backbends. Since my rest-day is Sunday, and I actually did full primary this morning (needed the practice for the four-hour drive down here), this means that I basically have no rest day this week. I'm really curious as to how Sweeney will conduct the session on Intermediate. I will try to post on this tomorrow, and share whatever I learn with everybody.

While I'm at it, I may as well give you a little food review too. This evening, I had dinner at this place called Cause Spirits and Soundbar. The quickest way to describe it would be to call it a bar and restaurant, except that it seems to also be a popular local concert venue; I take it that it is a pretty happening place in this city. When I was there, the whole place was packed with lots of hip-looking concert-going people (you can probably tell that I don't belong in this crowd, can't you? ;-)). Well, I basically tried to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. I found myself a booth, and ordered a beer and tofu-and-peppers sandwich. The latter is really good (actually, the beer is too, but I take it that most sattvically-minded folk out there would have little interest in such tamasic beverages, so I'll leave this part out :-)); it's basically a big chunk of breaded fried tofu in a burger with peppers melted in cheese. Sounds delicious, no?

Well, this is going to be a really brief post. I'm going to try to get some rest now, to prepare myself to receive Mr. Sweeney's teaching in the morning :-) Will write more later. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

I dare somebody to try this in a mysore room (or better yet, try this in Mysore, in front of Sharath)

[Image taken from here]

This post is inspired by Grimmly's latest post, "Would I be welcome at your shala?" In his post, Grimmly, in his usual powerful yet subtly subversive style, wonders whether his hybrid Ashtanga-Vinyasa-Krama practice would be acceptable in a traditional mysore room.

I would like to carry this idea of hybridization in a mysore room even further. An article in the August 2011 issue of Yoga Journal reports the latest craze among Anusara yoga practitioners: Hoop-yoga! Yes, doing postures like Natarajasana (pictured above) while balancing a hula hoop on some part of one's body! Gosh, what kinds of things wouldn't Anusara people do? Okay, I must qualify: I really have nothing against Anusara. But this is really a bit... out there to me. What, asana alone isn't challenging enough? Since when has asana become a game of gymnastic one-up-manship (or one-up-womanship, in this case)?  I mean, what's next, doing balancing postures while perched on the edge of a tall building?

Okay, I'll stop ranting here. But seriously, I really wonder what kind of a reaction a hoop-yogi or hoop-yogini will get in a mysore room. Picture this: You are on your mat in your shala, doing your practice. Along comes this Yoga-Journal-model-perfect yogini, who unrolls her mat next to you. You are super-absorbed in your practice, and scarcely notice her (you have formidable pratyahara powers). But then, suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you notice that the yogini in question is doing Natarajasana (wow, she's that advanced in her practice, she doesn't even need to do the Suryas...). And you also notice this circular thing spinning around her balancing leg. It's a bird..., it's a plane... no, it's a.... Hula Hoop! How can this be? Despite your formidable pratyahara powers, you just can't stop staring at her in slack-jawed bewilderment. You also start looking around the room to see what your teacher will do in response to this unusual practice (to say the least), but your teacher is nowhere to be found...

The above episode, while seemingly surreal and outlandish, is not inconceivable (hey, I just conceived it!): In fact, it may be coming to your shala very soon! Watch for it.

Now try to imagine the very same scenario, except that it's now unfolding at the KPJAYI in Mysore, under Sharath's watchful eye. Even I cannot imagine what Sharath's reaction would be. Can you?   

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A few thoughts about the completeness of the practice

"You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life's procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.
When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music.
Which of you would be a reed, dumb and silent, when all else sings together in unison?
Always you have been told that work is a curse and labour a misfortune.
But I say to you that when you work you fulfil a part of earth's furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was born,
And in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life,
And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret.
But if you in your pain call birth an affliction and the support of the flesh a curse written upon your brow, then I answer that naught but the sweat of your brow shall wash away that which is written.
You have been told also life is darkness, and in your weariness you echo what was said by the weary.
And I say that life is indeed darkness save when there is urge,
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love;
And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God.
And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching."

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

This particular article by Norman Blair is currently making the rounds of the Ashtanga (and probably also the non-Ashtanga) blogosphere. Many thoughtful and interesting blog posts and comments have been posted about it. Which makes me really hesitant to say anything about it: What else can I possibly add to the great numbers of wise voices that have already made themselves heard?

But if I may give my very honest opinion, although I think the article itself is very balanced, thoughtful and well-written, I really don't think that the themes brought up (pain, injury, the perceived intense athleticism of the practice vs. spirituality in the practice, physical flexibility vs. possible mental rigidity, "Is the practice by itself a complete spiritual practice, or does it need to be complemented by some other spiritual practice (sitting meditation, etc.) in order to address the other seven limbs of yoga?") are anything new. They have been brought up in discussions in the blogosphere in one way or another, at one time or another.

It seems to me that discussions about the Ashtanga practice in the blogosphere are like the phases of a pendulum; the tone oscillates between phases of enthusiasm about the practice, on the one hand (these phases typically take the form of enthusiastic posts about how to work on particular asanas or particular aspects of the physical practice, or how the practice relates to other areas of everyday life), and phases of skepticism or even pessimism about the intensely physical aspects of the practice and its possibly detrimental effects on the mind, body and spirit (these phases typically manifest in posts that question the point of the practice, or question the adequacy or completeness of the practice, or posts whose overarching tone is something along the lines of "If this practice can lead to so much pain and/or injury, and probably by itself leads us no closer to enlightenment/samadhi/whatever-your-desired-highest-state-of-being-is, why bother to do it?").

I could be wrong about this, but I sense that we are in one of these skeptical/pessimistic phases right now. Of course, this is a very vague statement to make, and it's also probably a generalization which doesn't do justice to the many of us who are enjoying and gaining much from our practices on the mat right now. But I believe that it is possible to kind of get a sense of the general state of the blogosphere from where I am in it. And that's what I am doing. I'm just giving a barometer reading of the state of the blogosphere from my corner of it. It's not good or bad or anything; it just is.

But I didn't write this post just to make some vague generalizing remarks. I'm actually going to give my own very personal take on one of the questions that Blair brought up in his article: "Is the practice by itself a complete spiritual practice, or does it need to be complemented by some other spiritual practice (sitting meditation, etc.) in order to address the other seven limbs of yoga?"

My very personal answer to this question is: No, I personally do not feel the need to complement the practice by having a sitting meditation practice or some other spiritual practice. I do kind of have a sitting practice of sorts; I do my Buddhist prayers in the morning for about an hour before I start my practice. But I've been doing this for years before I even knew about yoga, and I wouldn't consider it a sitting practice that is meant to complement or supplement (whatever the word is) my Ashtanga practice. I was drawn to Hatha yoga in general, and to Ashtanga in particular, because of the physicality of the practice; actually, I still am. The intense powerful movement in the practice coupled with the tristana system (breath, posture and drishti) is an exercise in paying attention to what is going on in the moment. To me, that's all the meditation I need.

I suppose many people out there might disagree with me on this. Well, that's fine. Actually, some time ago, a fellow Ashtangi tried to convince me of the merits of having a sitting practice by saying something along the following lines, "There is a limit to how far you can go in the asana practice. Most people never make it past primary, and even fewer people make it to third or fourth, let alone fifth or sixth. Since there is such a limit to how far asana can take you, it makes sense to have a sitting practice."

Well, this argument didn't make much sense to me when I first heard it, and it still doesn't. Yes, I know that there is a limit to how far I can go in the asana practice. As a matter of fact, I don't know if I will ever make it to third in this lifetime. I also know that there will come a time when age will catch up with me; when that time comes, whenever that might be, I will quite definitely have to greatly modify my practice. Hopefully, when that time comes, I will be able to relinquish or modify my practice with a spirit of grace and surrender, and with as little kicking and screaming as possible :-)

So where does having a sitting practice come into the picture here? Is it to remind me that there is a limit to how far I can go in the asana practice, that there will come a day when I have to modify or even relinquish this practice? But I already know this, and I don't need a sitting practice to tell me this; and I really don't think any amount of sitting will prepare me for that moment of truth when I need to deal the death blow to my physical practice... okay, I'm being over-dramatic here; I simply mean the moment when I need to modify and/or relinquish the practice.

Maybe the idea is that even though Ashtanga, if done properly, is supposed to be a moving meditation, people often get so caught up in the physicality of the practice that they get their egos all puffed up, and forget the moving meditation part. Or the problem could also be that people get so familiar with the practice that they just kind of space out and let their minds wander all over the place during practice, and again forget the moving meditation part.

Well, I should say that the ego problem is not unique to moving practices like Ashtanga. As Norman Blair very astutely points out, the ego can also rear its ugly head in sitting meditation communities as well (comparing your own meditation experiences to others who have had sartori/nirvana/out-of-body/whatever-the-desired-transcendental-experience-in question-is, comparing your ability to sit for a long time with that of another practitioner, etc., etc.).

As for the problem of spacing out during practice, here's one thing that will take care of that: Injury or physical difficulties with postures. Don't get me wrong: I am not advocating injury. I'm not the sort of practitioner who wears injuries like badges of honor... seriously, I am very bewildered by all these references in the blogosphere to this mythical figure of the "hard-core", sado-masochistic Ashtangi who delights in hurting himself or herself, and who, well, wears his or her injuries like a badge of honor. Just where do people get this caricature from? In all my time practicing Ashtanga (which is not that long, I admit), I have never met such a practitioner. All the teachers and practitioners I have met have been individuals who try their very best to take care of themselves and others around them. But maybe I just have been very fortunate, I don't know...

But I digress. What I'm saying is, even though injuries should be avoided at all costs, there is really nothing like working with an injury to ground you in the moment and prevent you from spacing out. When you are practicing with an injury, paying very close attention to how you get into and out of postures at every moment is the only thing that stands between you and excruciating pain. Such close attention makes all the difference between having a good practice and a (excuse the language) torture session. Again, I want to stress that I am not advocating that you go out there on the mat and injure youself. But let's face it: Whether we like it or not (hopefully, you do), Ashtanga is a very strenuous physical activity. This being the case, it is quite likely that many practitioners will have to work with injuries or other physical limitations at some point during their practice career. But we can also look at this from another angle: These injuries or physical limitations present invaluable opportunities to really be present, to really appreciate just how many iotas of consciousness you can squeeze into one moment. Actually, you don't need injury to get into this state; you can achieve the same state if you just pick any posture that you really have a lot of trouble with, and see if you can work with that posture repeatedly and observe the many funny sensations and feelings that come up without backing away from them.

Is this state as transcendental as sartori/nirvana/out-of-body/whatever-the-desired-transcendental-experience-in-question is? I don't know; I've never experienced any of the states in question. But honestly, I don't really care. I can only work with what I have here. Which is that I know that the practice has done me a lot of good, and will probably continue to do so for a while to come. The only thing to do is to get on the mat every morning, do the work of this practice to the best of my ability, with as much joy and love for it as I can muster. Everything else is Maya; or maybe, as Guruji would say, everything else is coming.                

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Force Choke Hold: The Whole Truth

I promise I'll stop posting all these silly posts about the Force Choke Hold after this one, and get back to regular serious yoga blogging :-) But this one is too good to resist... well, at least if you are a Stars Wars geek. We'll begin with the classic demonstration of the Force Choke Hold by Lord Vader himself:


Pretty badass, don't you think? But as I was watching this video, a puzzling question occurred to me: Why did Vader obey Grand Moff Tarkin's order to him to stop choking the poor officer? Is Grand Moff Tarkin of higher rank than Vader? (I don't think so, but I could be wrong...). Fellow Star Wars geeks out there, please enlighten me :-)

But here's the whole truth behind this whole Force Choke Hold business, according to Robot Chicken:


Well, now you know what to do if you are thinking of employment options on board the Death Star :-) 

May the Force be with you.

What happens when airport security tries to scan or pat Darth Vader down?

This probably has nothing to do with yoga, but I stumbled upon this picture by googling "Force Chokehold", and found it absolutely hilarious! Well, you might not find it so funny if you are not a Star Wars geek...

[Image taken from here]

I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky

[Image taken from here]

I am like a remnant of a cloud of autumn uselessly roaming in the sky, O my sun ever-glorious! 

Thy touch has not yet melted my vapour, making me one with thy light, and thus I count months and years separated from thee.

If this be thy wish and if this be thy play, then take this fleeting emptiness of mine, paint it with colours, gild it with gold, float it on the wanton wind and spread it in varied wonders.

And again when it shall be thy wish to end this play at night, I shall melt and vanish away in the dark, or it may be in a smile of the white morning, in a coolness of purity transparent. 

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali

Monday, July 18, 2011

What is the Yogic Response to "Are you Japanese/Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese?"

This is one question that I get from time to time from total strangers. And I suppose I will continue to get this question for as long as I live in this country; unless I do a Michael Jackson, of course. (uh, is this politically correct?)

The latest such incident happened yesterday. Here's the backstory: If you follow soccer, you'll know that the US Women's Soccer Team lost to Japan in the final of the FIFA Women's World Cup. The two teams tied at 2-2 after overtime, and the game went to the Japanese after a nail-biting, heart-breaking penalty shootout, despite the most heroic efforts of Hope Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper, to hold the fort (yeah, now you know which side I'm on...:-)).

The heroic Hope Solo (yes, I might be becoming her groupie :-))
[Image taken from here]
 
Anyway, we (my fiancee and I) watched the game at a local diner. After the game, we went shopping at Target. While we were strolling around the store, this middle-aged guy (if this is at all relevant, he's white, probably locally mid-western, and looks to be somewhere in his fifties or sixties) came up to me out of nowhere (or so it seemed to me; I'm not always conscious of where people pop out of in my surroundings) and asked me with a big smile, "Are you Japanese?" I immediately put up my default response to this question, which is to say nothing, and pretend that I am either deaf and/or do not speak English at all. I just kept on walking, as if he did not exist. He was starting to look really bewildered by the total lack of a response on my part ("Hmm... I guess Japanese people really don't speak English, do they?"). My fiancee (again, if this is relevant, she's white and American) felt really awkward, and responded by answering on my behalf, "No, he's not." The guy seemed to relax a little, and explained his reason for the abrupt question, "Well, you know, the Japanese just won the World Cup!"
 
Now what is that supposed to explain? Even if I were Japanese, would it follow that I must definitely support the Japanese team, by some kind of default? And I'm actually kind of glad that I did not answer his question: Not only would I have to tell him that I'm not Japanese, but I would also have to explain why my sympathies lie with the U.S. team, and not with an Asian one.
 
Anyway, my fiancee thought that I overreacted, and was being an asshole. Well, maybe I was. After all these years, I still don't know how to respond to something like this, or to situations where people would just come up to me and say something in Chinese/Japanese/Korean, and expect me to respond. (In these kinds of situations, I also adopt my default response, which is to basically pretend that I don't understand what is being said, and just keep walking on).  
 
Of course, in almost all of these cases, the people who do these things actually have good intentions: They see themselves as trying to reach out to somebody who clearly looks different from them. Which makes the whole thing even more difficult for me. In my opinion, there are a few ways I can respond in these situations:
 
(1) Ignore them, and pretend that I either don't understand what is being said and/or am deaf (which is usually my standard response). 
 
(2) Tell them that I am not Japanese, and explain to them what I am. And, if I have the patience, maybe give them a mini-lecture on why it is so inappropriate and ignorant to ask this question of a perfect stranger. But honestly, I just don't have the patience to give this lecture to a perfect stranger...
 
(3) Respond with a question of my own: "Why should it matter to you what my race/ethnicity is?" But unless one is able to pull this off with a certain level of panache, one is apt to come across as confrontational with this response. Which is why I don't use this response.
 
After all these years, I honestly still don't know what the yogic response would be in such a situation. I guess the thing to do would be to respond in such a way that accords with ahimsa, or non-violence. But how should one respond in such cases without inflicting violence on the questioner who, after all, started out with good, albeit misguided intentions? Any thoughts on this?       

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ashtanga and the Dark Side: The Confessional Musings of an Ashtanga Sith Lord


If you have been reading this blog for a while, it will be no secret to you that I am a Star Wars geek. I think that there are a lot of similarities and parallels between the journey of the Jedi knights and the journey of the Ashtangi. Just as the Jedi taps into the Force to bring out his or her fullest potential and use his or her powers to make the universe a better place, as Ashtangis, we strive through the daily practice to move our lives and selves in the direction of greater self-realization and in this way, bring out the best in ourselves and others.

However, even though I see these parallels, up till now, I haven't quite been able to succinctly explain how exactly these Jedi themes relate to our yogic journeys, beyond a few silly, off-the-cuff remarks here and there :-) Of particular significance is the notion of the Dark Side: If there is this negative, shadow aspect of the Force that ensnares the unsuspecting Jedi aspirant, it seems equally intuitive that there is also a similar Dark Side to the Ashtanga journey. And it seems to me that if there is such a Dark Side, we would do well to have some awareness of its nature, if only to be better prepared to face it.

But what exactly is the Dark Side of this practice? Recently, I came across a very insightful and eloquent blog post which addresses this question. At the risk of being very unoriginal, I'm going to quote this post at some length:

"It goes without saying that ideally our paths toward self-realization would be simple and straightforward.  But, this is not the nature of the journey.  Arguably all paths that engage their participants in an authentic search for the self are riddled with pitfalls akin to the “Dark Side.”  To complicate matters further, we embark on our journey flawed and laden with our old baggage.  This is why we need to seek the guidance of those who have traversed the troubled waters before us, because we can’t do it on our own.  However, this seeking does not solve the issue.

Powerful as they are our guides and masters cannot wave their magic wands and lead us from temptation. Those expert guides and gurus, try as they might, cannot walk the path for us.  They can merely show us the way and hope and pray we are wise enough to follow their guidance.  And yet, despite our most sincere desire and efforts to listen and understand, so many of us, probably all of us on some level, come to our mats very much like Luke, with our guns/old ways drawn to fight the enemy within...

...what is the “Dark Side” of Ashtanga?  Undoubtedly there are as many as there are practitioners, but I would say that there is one which beguiles more Ashtanga practitioners than others.  From the very beginning of one’s Ashtanga practice there is no denying the focus on the body.  You step on your mat and from the first Suryanamaskar you are breathing, twisting, jumping, lifting, contorting and sweating through every minute.  Clearly, with practice one can find peace, calm, control and even surrender therein, but the body is always there... You are learning to transcend the body by going deeper and deeper within it, and herein lays the trap.

According to yoga, the source of our suffering is our ignorance regarding our true selves.  In short, we are ignorant of the fact that we are not material beings, but spirit souls embodied in the material world.  With the practice of yoga, our “liberation” lies in coming to understand and realize our constitutional position as spiritual beings.  Ashtanga’s rootedness in the body serves to easily capture those who fail to see through the allure of the material to the point where they can find themselves becoming very powerfully enticed, swayed and influenced in the direction of the body, the very thing we are meant to realize we are not.  This can lead one to become further and further entangled in the sources of their suffering until it might be said that one is actually hurting himself with the practice.  Here I have in mind something beyond the occasional injury which accompanies any strenuous activity, although this is a very real possibility, but more a desire, subconscious or otherwise, to punish oneself with a gruelingly intense physical practice...

So, instead of being led toward an inner peace, the practice creates a relentless barrage of “you are not good enough,” “you are not strong enough,” “you are not thin enough,” “you are not flexible enough,” reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecies marketed to us by society at large.  This, in turn, serves to solidify the grip of the ego on the already fragile mind creating a situation in which the practice supports false notions of the self resulting in identification with the outward manifestation of the practice.  Your identity becomes entangled with the practice until you and your practice become non-different.  In this condition, the practice affords the practitioner a daily opportunity to indulge himself fully in the bodily self.   Often, one find himself wrestling with this on a day when the practice has failed to live up to his expectations and the rest of the day is ruined."

My very first reaction upon reading this was: Crap! This totally describes me. If extensive identification with the body and the tangible physical results of the practice is what it means to "go over to the Dark Side" in Ashtanga, then I am so totally a Sith Lord! I am super-obsessed with deep-backbending, for one; I am also not above taking pictures of myself in asanas and posting it online, for another (see my previous post). The only thing I haven't done is master that Force Chokehold... If you are a Star Wars Geek like me, you know what I'm talking about: I mean that ability which allows a Sith Lord to strangle somebody from a distance, without having to physically touch that person. Hmm... very useful ability to have to teach that asshole who just cut me off in traffic a lesson [insert evil kungfu master laugh].

Oh no, what did I just write?! Isn't this supposed to be a yoga blog? Why am I having these violent thoughts about strangling people? Well, now you know that I am not actually the accomplished Ashtangi I pretend to be in my more enlightened-sounding posts, but am actually a Sith Lord in Jedi's clothing :-)

But seriously: If there is indeed a Dark Side to the practice, what should we do about it? Is there a way to avoid it? The problem is, if we are doing the practice in an honest, authentic way, we will have to face our Dark Side at some point or other if we are to genuinely progress and mature in the practice. In her latest article, Kino writes that working on backbends:

"requires a heroic willingness to go to the scary places inside and face the sometimes paralyzing fear that surfaces the moment you try to bend over backwards. While not always rational the fear that arises in intense and deep backbends it is almost always a deep cleansing of the nervous system. Whenever you face fear a stringent application of the conscious, meditative mind will give you the tools needed to move straight through the fear."

While Kino is writing specifically about backbends, I think her words here apply to the journey of the practice in general as well: If one is unwilling to go to and in a sense, be with the dark and scary places in one's practice, one cannot hope to move through these places successfully, and truly mature and grow as a practitioner.

Thus it seems that facing the Dark Side is not an optional thing in our yogic journey. Each of us will face it at one time or other if we stick with the practice for a while. Remember Guruji's words, "Do your practice, and all is coming." Well, who knew that "all" also includes the Dark Side? :-)

All this brings up a compelling question: If all of us have to face our Dark Sides at one point or another, how deeply can we go with our Dark Side and be with it before we get irreversibly swallowed up by it?  

Well, I really can't write any more about this topic for now. As someone who is deeply mired in the Dark Side, I can only write about the Dark Side. Any attempt to try to guide you through this Dark Side would be very disingenuous on my part: Even though I am a Sith Lord, I have at least this much decency left in me :-)

But if you have any thoughts and suggestions about how to pull me (and others like me) out of this cesspool of the Dark Side, I would love to hear them :-)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Asana!

In a recent, by-now-famous post on Elephant Journal, Carol Horton argues that the blogosphere has the potential to enable yogis living in an increasingly fragmented world to connect and discuss issues that are common to our experiences as yogis. In this way, the blogosphere has the potential to enable yogis living in this day and age to practice the other seven limbs of yoga in what has become a predominantly asana-centered western yoga culture.

I agree with all of this. But one cannot deny that the blogosphere is also a great place to talk about asana, and sometimes share asana pictures :-) This morning, my fiancee took some pictures of me in various asanas. Not being one to keep these things to myself, I've decided to post them on this blog and share them with all and sundry. I should remind you that I do not have perfect alignment. So if you are new to Ashtanga, please do not use these pictures as any kind of reference point. Just enjoy them (or not), and then go on with your practice and day :-)

Utthita Parsvakonasana

Marichyasana D
 Ekapada Sirsasana
Ekapada Sirsasana
Ekapada Sirsasana B
Jumping back from Ekapada Sirsasana

Padamasana
I wasn't in a backbendy state of mind/body today, so there are no backbend pictures (If you want to see a picture of me in Kapotasana, though, see this post). 

Well, that's all for right now. May the Force be with you. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Practice, bathtub drain stoppers, and going all the way

[Image taken from here]


In her latest post, Claudia writes about how her reading of Charles Bukowski moved her to get on the mat and do her practice on a day when she really didn't feel like practicing. Bukowski writes:

"If you're going to try, go all the way. 
Otherwise, don't even start...
All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it."

Well, I'm going to add something here: Sometimes, doing the practice is like unstopping a very stuck bathtub drain stopper! I had this experience last night. Just before I went to bed, my fiancee told me that she was taking a bath earlier that evening; after her bath, she tried to unstop the bathtub drain stopper to drain the water, but the stopper wouldn't budge: Which meant there was a large pool of stagnant bathwater sitting in the bathtub. When she told me this, I listened; but probably because I was so sleepy, the full import of what she was saying did not register in my mind. 

Sometime a couple of hours later, I got up to go to the bathroom, and saw the stopped-up bathtub for myself. And that was when it all fully clicked: Having a stopped bathtub meant that I wouldn't be able to take a shower after my practice tomorrow. Which meant that I would have to go through the rest of the day all sticky and sweaty and such. Which would really, really suck. That thought moved me to get a pair of pliers and get to work immediately unplugging the stopper right there and then, even though it was probably 1 a.m. or some such ungodly hour. After a couple of tries, the stopper wouldn't budge. And I got really, really mad, reapplied the pliers, and pulled and pulled at the stopper as if my life depended on it (in a way, it did, since my yoga practice is a very big part of my life). It probably took me about twenty minutes to half an hour of furious pulling before the stopper finally came loose, and the bright blessed sound of water draining began to fill the room... Who knew that the sound of water draining could be so beautiful? 

During that half an hour of battling the stopper, many thoughts came into my mind. Some of them were entirely petty ("Why on earth do people need to take their stupid baths, and stop up bathtubs, when they could easily have showered?!). But one though came up very strongly: "If you really want something to happen, you got to go all out, and give everything like there's no tomorrow--no, like there's no next moment, even. This is what differentiates people who get S&%t done from people who don't." 

And the same thing applies to the practice too. After I was done struggling with the bathtub, it took me a while to go back to sleep. Something in me wondered if I should just skip practice in the morning (I needed to do a super-early practice, as I had somewhere to go in the morning); but then the same "bathtub voice" came up: "If you really want to get the practice done, you got to go all out, and give everything like there's no tommorrow, like there's no next moment. Everything else is illusion, everything else is Maya. Sleep? Well, you can sleep when you're dead." And so, with that thought, I got up and did my practice. 

Yeah, I'm crazy like that. Thanks for reading this, if you made it this far :-)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Guruji: A few thoughts and a personal tribute

[Image taken from here]


I just watched this really engaging and insightful video that David Garrigues posted earlier today in honor of Guruji. In the video, David discusses the teacher-student relationship in yoga at some length, in his usual seemingly-off-the-cuff-yet-very-engaging style.

I became a full-time Ashtangi sometime in the middle of 2009, when I met my teacher in Milwaukee. It was also around that point in time that I started referring to Sri K Pattabhi Jois as "Guruji". Which is a rather strange thing to do, in a way, since I never had the chance to meet him; which is also why I had desisted from referring to him as "Guruji" before that point. "Guruji", as we all know, is a term connoting great respect and affection; how can I possibly have any great respect and affection for someone I have never even met?

This is a question that bugged me a lot (actually, it still bugs me a little now, if I allow myself to think about it too much). But in the last couple of years, I have become more and more comfortable with using the term "Guruji". There are a few reasons for this:

(1) Even though I have never met Sri K Pattabhi Jois and established any kind of personal relationship with him, I practice the method established by him and Krishnamacharya everyday to the best of my ability. I believe that through these efforts, I am able to gain some understanding, however modest, of the kind of person he was, and the work that he has done in this world. And since I practice this method everyday, I owe him a great spiritual debt, and it would only be appropriate to express this in some way.

(2) Even though I have never met Sri K Pattabhi Jois, I believe that I have established a powerful connection to him and his legacy by studying with people who have studied with him; people who have shaped, and continue to shape my practice.

(3) Towards the end of his video, David mentions that it is so important to have a teacher that if you don't have a teacher, it is important to invent a teacher in your head, so to speak, and dedicate your practice to him (these aren't his exact words, but I think I'm not too far off). In light of this (and in light of (1) and (2)), I happily dedicate my practice to Sri K Pattabhi Jois, without whom I won't be practicing whatever I'm practicing now. 

For these reasons (and probably others which have yet to occur to me), I offer this humble post as a tribute to Guruji. Thank you Guruji, for everything: For the joys, jubilations, pains, struggles, and sweat and tears that this practice has given me.      

Some musings about polls, moon days, and a little moon music

Greetings, fellow Ashtangis, yogis, yoginis, and assorted friends! If you are an Ashtangi, you are probably observing the full moon either today or tomorrow; I am aware that, depending on where in the world you live and how you calculate the moon cycle, there is some variation as to when the moon day is observed. I am observing the moon day today. In any case, Happy Moon Day!

First, a word or two about my polls. It appears that two more people have voted on my coffee and practice poll today, bringing the total number of voters to 58 in the closing hours of this poll. Once again, thank you for voting! (Gosh, do I sound self-important, or what?)

I also just looked at the results so far of my new desert-island-coffee-tea poll (if you haven't already done so, please take a moment to vote :-)). It appears that one person has the siddhi of creating potable water out of thin air. Yeah, that's really my purpose for conducting this poll: I have long been curious as to whether there is a person existing in this world today who possesses such a siddhi. I would like to learn from this person how to acquire such a siddhi. Well, if you happen to be this person, and wouldn't mind imparting this siddhi to one more person, please feel free to email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com. I promise I won't abuse this great power :-)

Since today (or tomorrow) is a moon day, I guess I'll say a few things about the tradition of observing moon days in Ashtanga as well. Many Ashtangis observe the moon day in one way or another; some do not practice altogether; others do a shorter or lighter practice. I personally think it is a good idea to observe it in some form or other; Ashtanga is such a physically demanding practice, it's good to be able to take a little break and allow the body to rest and "reset" now and then :-)

There have also been many different views as to the exact significance of moon days. Many believe that because our bodies are 70 percent water, the phases of the moon have a direct effect on the condition of our bodies and minds, and that it would therefore be a good idea not to practice (or at least do a lighter practice) on moon days. Others do not ascribe the same significance to moon days. If I remember correctly, Eddie Stern wrote somewhere that the tradition of not practicing on moon days came about simply because many rituals were performed on moon days, and the time required for their performance made asana practice simply unfeasible on those days.

Matthew Sweeney has some interesting things to say about moon days as well. He writes: 

"It is traditional not to practice asana on the full moon or the new moon. The days preceding the full moon cause an increase in fluid in the body, an internal tide, and generally an increase in energy. As this tends to cause overstimulation, intense practice is not recommended. The days preceding the new moon (sometimes called the dark moon) cause a decrease in fluids in the body. As a tendency there will be less energy, the joints more dry and so an increased chance of injury. Of the two it is less problematic to practice on the full moon rather than the new moon. The twenty four hours preceding the exact time that the moon is at its peak (brightest or darkest) is the day not to practice. That is, if the moon is full at 2:04 a.m. on Monday, do not practice on the Sunday before. At 2:05 a.m. the moon is already waning and so practice after 2:04 a.m. on Monday is advisable." (Sweeney, page 22)

Hmm... I wonder if there is somebody out there who sets their alarm clock for 2:05 a.m., so they can jump out of bed and practice after the moon is at its peak :-) Sweeney continues:

"The waning of the moon (becoming darker) is a reducing, eliminating, apanic process. The peak of the dark moon is a time to start new ventures and it is renewing. The waxing of the moon (becoming brighter) is an increasing, accumulating, pranic process. It is a time for activity and consolidation. Pay attention to the phases of the moon and become aware of these effects on your body. This should be real rather than imagined! Do not pretend that the moon has no influence on you, whether you are male or female." (Sweeney, page 23)

I hope you find these words useful. I'll leave you here with some music about the moon. Here's Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Enjoy!


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How would you describe the relationship between coffee and your practice? A Review of Poll Results, and the beginning of a new poll

First, a hearty thank you to all of you who took the time to vote in my coffee and practice poll. As of right now, with less than 24 hours to go, 56 people have voted, and the results are as follows:

"I need to have coffee to get on the mat in the morning!": 11


"I have coffee after practice.": 21


"I am not a coffee drinker.": 9


"Sometimes I drink coffee, sometimes I don't: Coffee is not essential to my daily life.": 15

Thus, it appears that a sizable number (although not a clear majority) of respondents have coffee after practice. But the other three groups are also well represented. Thus, if these responses are any indication of the coffee-drinking practices of Ashtangis in the wider world, then it seems that there is no one predominant relationship between coffee-drinking and Ashtanga practice in the Ashtanga community. It seems that we Ashtangis come in all shapes and sizes when it comes to coffee-drinking :-)

A few commenters on my previous coffee post have also pointed out that some yogis do not drink coffee, but swear by chai. Very interestingly, Laruga has also recently posted a poster about the comparative health effects of coffee versus tea. I reproduce it here:

Uh, okay... apparently, I'm having some trouble getting blogger to display the poster in the same glorious dimensions that Laruga has on her blog... never mind, just go look at the poster on her blog, and then come back here :-) I've learnt one interesting factoid about coffee from this poster:
 
"Scientists believe that chemicals found in coffee could be used to make new drugs to treat heart disease and insomnia."

Who would have known that something found in coffee, of all things, can actually have the potential to treat insomnia? Pretty mind-blowing, don't you think? :-)

Well, in light of this whole coffee versus tea thing, I think this might be a good time to start a new fun poll. It's in the top right-hand corner of this blog, as usual. The question is: "If you were marooned on a desert island, and tea and coffee were the only things available to drink (sea-water is not potable), what would you drink?" There are four possible responses. As usual, there is no right or wrong response. Have fun!

Of Gods and Dogs

I was just reading Bindy's latest post, and was suddenly inspired to write the following silly poem. I get into these silly moods from time to time :-)  

Disclaimer: If you are a religious person, and are offended by comparisons between the Almighty and members of a certain animal species, well, don't read this poem (Quick! Close your eyes right now...). I reserve my right to literary expression, however limited my literary powers may be.

[Image taken from here]

'Dogs just "are"',
writes one blogger.
If dogs just "are",
Is God just "is"?
After all, what is "God", but "Dog" in reverse?
Ought we to let sleeping dogs lie?
Well, then,
What about sleeping Gods?

Nobel Ang,
3:20 p.m. CDT
July 13th, 2011

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How would you react if you got a Yoga Parking Ticket?


Granted, I'm probably preaching to the choir here; I take it that most people who would bother to read this blog are yogis and yoginis. But after watching this video, and seeing that most of the people in the video (including the hosts) are not exactly thrilled at the prospect of getting a parking ticket with yoga poses on it, I decided to get your opinion on this. What would be your first reaction if you got a parking ticket with yoga postures printed on it? Would you be ecstatic? ("Wow, the world must be becoming a better place if even parking attendants are doing yoga!") Pissed? ("This totally cheapens/vulgarizes the practice!") Indifferent? ("Yeah, whatever... If you were so yogic, why would you even give me a parking ticket in the first place?") 

What Intermediate has done to my life thus far

I'll start by saying something about this morning's practice. During practice this morning, I had the chance to do a deeper exploration of Kapotasana. There wasn't any particular reason or occasion for this, but a couple of things I have experienced lately have prompted me to try to refine my backbends. I'm not talking so much the external physical expression of the posture; rather, I'm talking about the quality of my breath while I'm getting into and staying in the posture. For months now, I have been able to consistently grab my heels/ankles in Kapotasana, and in Urdhva Dhanurasana, I am able to drop back and stand up (although the standing up part is often far from graceful; but that's another story). But I have noticed that my breathing in deep backbends tends to be rather short and labored. Two recent events have brought this to my attention:

(1) During my most recent practice at the Yoga House in Minneapolis, my friend Ellie very helpfully brought to my attention the shortness of my breaths during backbends while she was assisting me with dropbacks and standups;

(2) While watching Kino's recent video about learning Kapotasana (see this post), I noticed that the model in the video did not show the slightest strain in her breathing while in the posture (unlike me, who is usually huffing and puffing like a cow... (do cows huff and puff, anyway?)). Yes, yes, I know we are not supposed to compare ourselves with other practitioners, much less somebody who has made it as a model in the ever-illustrious Kino Macgregor's teaching video. But still, the contrast is just too glaring not to notice...

In any case, these two events have prompted me to try to pay more attention to slowing my breath in kapotasana and other deep backbends. This morning, I had a little revelation in this area: It occurs to me that the shortness of my breath in deep backbends may have quite a bit to do with performance anxiety. Who are you performing for? You may ask. Well, nobody in particular. But I have a tendency to approach kapotasana with anxiety over how deeply I am physically going to get in the pose on that particular day. And I think that anxiety somehow spreads and manifests itself in the quality (i.e. shortness) of the breath. But things were a bit different this morning. Right from the beginning of practice, during the Suryas, I told myself, "Take your time. Take as long as you need to practice. There is nowhere to go, nowhere to be." I'm not going to try to analyze how I came up with this thought (it'll take too much time), but the really cool thing is, the moment I started thinking this, time kind of slowed down, and I felt like I was moving underwater.

Of course, the whole practice wasn't like that; there were many challenging moments (I won't bore you with them here.) But when I got to Kapotasana, some of this "being underwater" feeling stayed with me, and I basically told myself, "Look, you have been grabbing your heels/ankles/whatever all this while, so you probably will grab your heels/ankles/whatever today as well. So why don't you stop obsessing over whether you will grab your heels/ankles/whatever, and just breath and try to experience being in the backbend as much as you can?" I kept this thought in my consciousness as I worked on steadying my breathing and arching back into the backbend. I stayed in Kapotasana A for ten very deep breaths (probably the deepest breaths I've had in Kapo in a very long while). The interesting thing is, whenever I am able to breathe deeply in Kapo, I can feel the work of the posture shifting from the lower back to the front of the body (the quadriceps and the psoas), making the posture so much more satisfying and therapeutic... Oh, and I don't know if this still interests you, but yes, I did get my heels/ankles/whatever.

Intermediate series is very challenging. I think it is very demanding because it doesn't just demand things of the body; it sort of plays with and challenges the mind and nervous system as well. In a recent post, Claudia writes:

'I have heard of many practitioners breaking into tears, losing weight and bursting into anger while starting the nadi sodhana series, the "nerve cleansing, intermediate series"...'

I can attest to at least a couple of the things that Claudia mentions here. After I had been doing Kapotasana for a couple of months, I started noticing a couple of interesting things in myself. On the one hand, I felt that my overall energy level was more balanced: I had a more consistent level of energy throughout the day (less slumps, etc.). I think this is because energy-wise, the backbends provided a much-needed counter-balance to my previously forward-bend-oriented practice (Primary series, as you know, consists mostly of forward bends and hip-openers; also, being a person who has quite open hips and hamstrings, my pre-Ashtanga practice also tended to favor forward bends and hip-openers). On the other hand, the stimulative energy provided by the backbends also made me more sensitive and more likely to react strongly to things and people in the environment that I perceived to be unjust or wrong: For better or for worse, I found myself more likely to (over?)react to things or people that I felt were giving me s%@t (excuse the language).

On a less extreme level, I also found myself less willing to settle for something that was just given to me. I had started doing Intermediate series at my teacher's shala around the end of Fall 2009. At the same time, I was scheduled to teach early morning classes every day during the following semester (spring) at the college I was teaching at at the time. Which meant that I would not be able to continue to go to mysore classes during the spring. I was kind of bummed out about it for a while. Then one morning, after a particularly powerful and inspiring practice at the shala, I felt so good that I started thinking to myself: "Why do I have to accept things as they are? Why can't I at least try to do something to change things around so that I can continue to do what rocks my life (morning mysore)?" So I did what was, to my knowledge, quite unthinkable for a first-semester fixed-term junior faculty: I wrote to my department chair and asked if I could be re-assigned classes at a later time in the day, so that I could go to yoga! (Yes, I said yoga.) To my surprise, he agreed, and we managed to work things out. Of course, none of this might strike any of you as anything really remarkable; after all, in sheer employment terms, all this really amounted to was a request for a change in schedule. But to me at least, it was a big thing, and I can't help feeling that it had something to do with working on those backbends...  

Hmm... as always, I have succeeded in talking about one thing, and moving from that to talking about something else altogether. But at any rate, that's my story. And who are we, but the stories we tell ourselves and others? As Gabriel Garcia Marquez would say, "What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it."

At any rate, I thought I'll leave you with some words from somebody who is further along the path of practice. Matthew Sweeney offers us a bigger perspective from which to view all these things that second series does to us. He writes:

"The Intermediate sequence is called nadi sodhana meaning nervous system purification. This sequence begins with back bends, followed by their counterpart, legs-behind-the-head. The opposing nature of these postures creates a resonance in the nervous system. The second half of the sequence deals with both strength and more calming asana. Intermediate can be overstimulating at first. It is essential to get rest and decent sleep after practicing it. Strange dreams, heart palpitations and insomnia are common, often on top of bodily aches and pains." (Sweeney, page 9) 

Do you have anything to share about what this thing called Intermediate series has done to your life? I would love to hear it :-)