Friday, September 30, 2011

Where does Bruce Lee end? Where do you begin? Is there even a "you" in the first place?

Derek Parfit (b. 1942)
[Image taken from here]

"When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others."

Derek Parfit

Who or what am I? Is there even an "I" in the first place? If there is no "I", how should I live my life? The philosopher Derek Parfit has spent his entire life and career asking and trying to answer these questions.

To get a sense of what Parfit is up to, consider this rather fantastical thought experiment. Suppose a crazy scientist were to begin replacing your cells, one by one, with those of Bruce Lee at the age of thirty (We should also suppose, further, that the scientist has somehow managed to preserve Bruce Lee's body in perfect condition all these years. And really, it doesn't have to be Bruce Lee. Just pick your favorite dead celebrity.).

At the beginning of this cell-replacement procedure, the person who is receiving the cells would clearly be you. After all, you minus one or two of your own cells, and plus one or two cells from Bruce Lee would still be you (I would think). At the end of the procedure, the person who emerges would clearly be Bruce Lee. But is Bruce Lee minus one of his cells (and plus one of yours) still Bruce Lee? What about Bruce Lee minus, say, a hundred of his cells, and plus a hundred of yours? The question here is: At what point during the procedure do you cease to be you and become Bruce Lee? It seems very difficult, if not impossible, to try to pinpoint when exactly in the procedure this change of identity occurs.

Many philosophers throughout history have wrestled with problems of this kind, trying not very successfully to pinpoint the moment of identity change at various points in the procedure. Parfit, however, draws an interesting conclusion from this thought experiment: Perhaps the very fact that we cannot pinpoint any particular moment means that there is really no such thing as personal identity in the first place. There is really no Bruce Lee, and no you! Personal identity is, at most, a convenient fiction that we employ to get through our everyday lives. In our everyday lives, we say that this particular bundle of physical parts and properties and psychological characteristics is you. And that bundle of physical facts and properties and psychological characteristics who "died" in 1973 after the filming of Enter the Dragon is Bruce Lee. But when we try to pinpoint where one bundle ends and another bundle begins, as we did in the thought experiment above, we get stumped. Which suggests, according to Parfit, that there is really no such thing as a distinct person or self called Bruce Lee, or a distinct person or self called [insert your name here].

The bundle that is "Bruce Lee" locked in mortal combat with the bundle that is "Chuck Norris"
(Can you tell where Chuck ends and Bruce begins?)
[Image taken from here]     

If there is no enduring further fact that we can point to and identify as our "self", over and above the multitude of physical and psychological facts and properties that we commonly associate with "you", what implications would this have for how we should go about living our lives?

Parfit, for one, finds the discovery that there is no further fact of self or personal identity to be a very liberating one. If there is really no self, then there is also really no such things as "my" life or "my" possessions, beyond their utility as convenient fictions to facilitate everyday life. Perhaps more importantly, the prospect of death will probably be less frightening if there is no "self" or "I" that actually dies. Parfit sees it this way:

"My death will break the more direct relations between my present experience and future experiences, but it will not break various other relations."

Even if there is no "I", various other relations will still persist between "I" and others after my death. People will (hopefully) remember me. They may also be influenced by my writings or thoughts (including, perhaps, those that are found on this blog ;-)), and conduct their lives and take actions in accordance with such influences. In this way, the "I" that never really existed in the first place will, paradoxically, continue to live on via other people's memories, thoughts and actions. Parfit concludes:

"This is all there is to the fact that there will be no one living who will be me. Now that I have seen this, my death seems to me less bad." 

Very interesting, don't you think? I find Parfit's views very fascinating and intriguing, and his arguments very compelling. But there is a part of me that is reluctant to accept the idea that there is really no "I". Well, I don't know. I guess I'm going to take the weekend to mull over all this a little more :-)

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is a yogasm?

I read with great interest Roseanne's recent post on this thing called a yogasm. As the term suggests, it is supposed to be an orgasmic experience that some people have experienced while doing yoga. Reportedly, a yogasm is something that feels like an orgasm, except it happens during yoga practice, and may be triggered by certain postures and/or actions, such as mula bandha. Since I know nothing about yogasms (and have obviously never had one), I'll start by quoting a few testimonies of people who have reported having them:

(A) “The first time it happened to me I was in Sharon Gannon’s class at Jivamukti, and I was in forward bend,” says Kelly Morris, a yoga instructor with a cult following at the Shala Yoga House in New York City. “I was breathing and concentrating and suddenly, ‘Whoa!’” (From The Daily Beast)

(B) 'In New York City, a woman who chose to remain nameless talked to The Daily Beast about experiencing a yoga orgasm at Pure Yoga, a fancy studio on Manhattan’s Upper East Side owned by the Equinox fitness chain. “I was in lotus pose, focusing on breathing and lifting the muscles of my pelvic floor,” she said. She wasn’t prepared for what happened after her instructor pressed his body against her back and synchronized his breath with hers, lifting her ribs as she inhaled, and pushing down on her thighs as she exhaled. “I was tingling all over!” she gushed.' (From The Daily Beast)

Incidentally, her instructor is a certain Marco Rojas. Apparently, he is a teacher of some repute in New York City. I know nothing about Rojas, or about whether his teaching style has anything to do with being able to bring about orgasmic experiences in practitioners. But if you know something, please share.

(C) Haleigh Forbes relates the following experience, which happened at an Ashtanga class in Utah:

"I walked into the newly opened studio and it was alive. There were 30 people there for the same reason I was, ready to engage our bodies in our passion. It was the perfect non-tense, non-pseudo, mingle of yogi’s. The practice started. Throughout the practice there was laughter, intense focus, audible breathe, sweat, and recognized bliss. The practice ended.... As we all joined together in ‘namaste’, I felt it…YOGASM! I felt hyper. I was in the right place. I was where I needed to be." 

Forbes then goes on to elaborate on the nature of the yogasmic experience:

"You don’t have to be living in Utah or suffering from a lack of studio time in order to experience a yogasm. A yogasm will come in different ways for everyone. Perhaps you just kicked up into handstand for your first time, or you successfully took your first ujjayi breathe. The best part?  You are not born with a predetermined amount of yogasms -- you can have any many as your beautiful self creates."

Well, that last part is pretty cool: One is not born with a predetermined number of yogasms! (Yay!) One can have as many as one's beautiful self can create, or as many as whoever is running the cosmic yogasm machine deigns to bestow upon one, whichever is the case.

This is assuming, of course, that (a) yogasms are real, and not some yoga equivalent of an urban legend, (b) that anybody can achieve a yogasm.

(b) is already starting to seem doubtful: The three experiences quoted above seem to suggest that only women can experience yogasms (what's up with that?). But of course, three is admittedly a very small sample size, so this may not be so.

I am unable to come to any definitive conclusions about yogasms right now. But as with many other things, asking the right questions is usually a step in the right direction. So I'll conclude this rather neither-here-nor-there post with a few questions:

(1) What exactly is a yogasm? Is it something that happens on a purely energetic level, or is there some measurable physiological reaction/symptom that can indicate that one is experiencing a yogasm? Or, to put the question another way, is a yogasm physiologically the same thing as a regular orgasm, except that it is triggered by certain yoga practices?

(2) Is it only women who can experience yogasms? Or are women just somehow more likely to experience yogasms than men? If so, why? Is the reason physiological, energetic, emotional, or all of the above?

(3) Does the practitioner undergo some kind of permanent physical, emotional or spiritual change as a result of experiencing a yogasm? In other words, after one has, uh, yogasmed, is one no longer the same yogi/yogini as before? If so, how is one different?

(4) Is a yogasm something that happens as a result of deliberate practice? Or is it something that can only happen to one by the grace of Shiva/Krishna/whoever's running the cosmic yogasm machine?

(5) Is a yogasm something one should properly strive for in one's practice? Or is it a more or less accidental byproduct of the practice, something that makes no real difference to the overall quality of one's practice? Or worse, is it an unnecessary distraction from the real purpose of the practice?

(6) Is it possible to have a yogasm without knowing that one has had one?... Well, actually, I'm starting to think that this is a pretty dumb question: If one can't have a regular orgasm without knowing that one has had a regular orgasm (even if one does not know that that thing that one has just had is actually called an "orgasm"), how can one have a yogasm without knowing that one has had one? But I'll leave this question up here anyway, in case you have anything to say about it.

Well, I guess I'll leave you with these questions. If you have anything to say about them, I'll love to hear from you. Remember, if you don't feel comfortable revealing your identity, you can always comment anonymously: I don't have to know who you are.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dream Journal: Eating a Sausage McMuffin at McDonald's, dream within a dream

I really don't find this appealing at all (but in my dream, I did)
[Image taken from here]

Hmm... I don't have anything earth-shattering to write about today (when was the last time I did, anyway? :-)). But I did have a very interesting dream last night. So maybe I'll take a cue here from Claudia's post about dream interpretation a couple of days ago, and relate my dream.

So here's the dream (in italics):

I am in Singapore (where I was actually born and grew up in). I am sitting with my fiancee in a McDonald's near a beach. I am eating a Sausage McMuffin and a hash brown, and she is just sitting there, watching me eat. As I am about to finish the last of the McMuffin, I suddenly think to myself, "Wow! I'm actually eating something from McDonald's, and I actually enjoy it! But wait! What am I doing eating this? Aren't I supposed to be vegetarian? And what am I even doing in a McDonald's? I haven't been to a McDonald's in years!"

At this point, my fiancee gets up to go to the bathroom. I finish my McMuffin and somehow fall asleep at the table. While sleeping, I dream that my fiancee has returned from the bathroom (yes, a dream within a dream!). In the dream-within-a-dream, she sits back down in front of me, and says to me, "You seem to be putting on weight." Upon hearing that, I give a start and start looking myself over. And yes, I do seem to be bigger, I think to myself. And then I wake up from the dream-within-a-dream, and find myself back within the original dream. In the original dream, my fiancee "really" returns from the bathroom. I tell her about the dream I just had. I can't remember her reaction, but I think she seems amused. 

And then I woke up (or maybe I simply have no recollection of the rest of the dream). There are a few things that I find interesting about the dream:


(1) Even though I found it strange in the dream that I was in a McDonald's eating a Sausage McMuffin, I did not recall ever finding it strange that I was in Singapore, a place I have not been back to in years. Still less did I find it strange that my fiancee was there too, since she has never been to Singapore in real life.

(2) I do have a certain fear of McDonald's, and of the fat-making potential of McDonald's food. When I lived in Singapore (and in my first couple of years here in the U.S.), I ate so much fast food, it was not even funny. I probably weighed about 30 or 40 pounds more than I do now. A whole bunch of things happened (long story) which eventually led me to give up fast food, give up meat, and adopt a more healthy lifestyle. So the dream mirrors certain things that are going on in my life. I'm not entirely sure what the dream is trying to tell me. But I hope that writing this dream out might be helpful in that regard.

(3) I find the dream-within-a-dream very interesting and intriguing. It's like the movie Inception. I do not know if there is any general significance associated with dreams-within-dreams. If you know something in this area, I'll be happy to hear it.

Well, I'm going to restrict myself to just relating my dream and commenting minimally on it for now. I think I need a bit of time to process this dream. If you have any suggestions on how to interpret this dream, please share. If you don't feel comfortable commenting, you are also welcome to email me.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

New Moon; Energy; Teachers: Do you demonstrate postures and/or practice along with your students in your classes?

If you are a practicing Ashtangi, I send you my moon day greetings. If you aren't a practicing Ashtangi, well, I send you them anyway, since a new moon does not cease to be a new moon just because one doesn't practice Ashtanga. Being an Ashtangi does not a new moon make :-)

Wait, was that last sentence even coherent? I don't know, really; I don't have the time to analyze that now anyway. Perhaps the lower energy level brought about by the new moon has caused me to lose some analyzing power/energy. And perhaps this lower energy level is compounded by the lack of practice today...

Well, a little confession is in order here: Actually, I "cheated" this morning, and did a mini-practice consisting of a couple of hip openers, and three Surya As and three Surya Bs, just because I'm actually teaching my class this evening, and I just can't walk in and teach a class with my body all tight and stiff. Of course, if I were a little more evolved, this wouldn't matter. After all, the teacher is not supposed to do or demonstrate any postures while teaching; he/she is only supposed to use verbal instructions to guide the students through the class, ala Sharath and Guruji. But I always find myself having to demonstrate something at some point during the class; especially in a beginning class, where people may not know what's going on. But perhaps this is just an excuse on my part: I'm sure the best teachers are those who can get even an absolute beginner into whatever posture they need to get into by using only verbal instructions. Some years ago, I remember reading something by Maty Ezraty, in which she says that she never demonstrates anything in her classes, even if her students ask her to, because demonstrating postures puts one at greater risk of injury, no matter how warm one might be.

I have to keep this in mind. In the meantime, I will try my best not to do/demonstrate too much in my classes. Maybe someday I'll get to the point where I can just sit on a bar stool at the front of the class and give out perfectly intelligible instructions from there. In the meantime, well, I'll do my best with what verbal abilities I have.

Maybe I'll throw this out there as a question to all of you yoga teachers in the blogosphere: In your classes, do you demonstrate postures and/or practice along with your students? If so, how much of this do you do? What are your views on demonstrating and practicing along with your students? I'll love to hear what you have to say.

Wow, blogging is such a wonderful thing: I started this post intending only to rant about my low level of energy on new moon days: Look where I am now. I suddenly found new energy just by blogging and thinking through things as I blog ;-) More power to blogging!

Monday, September 26, 2011

In Memoriam: Wangaari Maathai (1940--2011)

[Image taken from here]

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Wangaari Maathai

'Dr. Maathai... conceived of her Green Belt Movement out of compassion and concern for the future of her children and her homeland of Kenya. She applauds the noble, ordinary women who participate in the movement as "foresters without diplomas." Their committed solidarity and steadfast efforts in their communities are not only preventing the desertification of Africa but also raising consciousness of environmental issues in the minds of people the world over. Their service to humanity and the Earth far exceeds that of any national leader. Lawmakers should take note of this fact, recognizing the wisdom, spirit and actions of the people with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, however, the elite who lead the world's nations--the politicians, the bureaucrats, the academics--tend to look down on such popular movements.'

Buddhist leader and poet Daisaku Ikeda on Wangaari Maathai's life and work


I just learnt earlier today that Wangaari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and scientist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died Sunday from ovarian cancer. She was 71. Here's a description of her life and work, excerpted from the Green Belt Movement's website:

"In the 1970s Professor Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work representing women academics in the NCWK, she spoke to rural women and learned from them about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans—especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.

Professor Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

As GBM’s work expanded, Professor Maathai realized that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures. The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Professor Maathai initiated campaigns that halted the construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi, and stopped the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest, just north of the city center. She also helped lead a yearlong vigil with the mothers of political prisoners that resulted in freedom for 51 men held by the government.

As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Professor Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified by the Moi regime. Professor Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment."

Reading this description of Professor Maathai's life and work, I was really struck by her keen insight that poverty and environmental destruction are indicators of deep human problems such as "disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures". But rather than allow herself to be defeated by this observation, she came to the conclusion that if she could get people to work together to reverse the damage done to the environment, they could find a way to empower themselves, stand up to powerful and corrupt authorities, and build a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

We have much to learn from her. Perhaps, in some way, our personal practices can also become "trees" of personal growth, allowing us to cultivate the strength and the insight to work together with others productively, empower ourselves and others, and stand up for what is right and good around us. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spreading the Ashtangic Word: Thank you, Claudia!

Today, I taught my first introductory Ashtanga workshop here in Fargo-Moorhead, at the first yoga festival in this area. It was a great success, at least as far as I was concerned.

Ten people attended the workshop. I started by giving a mini speech about what Ashtanga is about, including a couple of minutes dedicated to debunking the myth that Ashtanga is only for fit and flexible people. We then had some fun (well, at least I did) chanting the opening invocation: At first, people were a little self-conscious about mouthing something in Sanskrit whose meaning they do not know. But I encouraged them with a line from Kino: "Don't worry, be crappy!" It worked, and everybody went along with doing the opening chant as best they could. (Thanks, Kino!) I think doing the opening chant really got the class off to a powerful yet meditative rhythm: Following the opening chant, we did the Suryas and the entire standing sequence, and then the first two postures of primary. I ended the class with a modified finishing sequence, and a shortened version of the closing invocation (only chanting "Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu").

But to me, the greatest part of the class was being able to give everybody who came a copy of Claudia's book, 21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice. As most of you already know, this is a really wonderful book in which Claudia does a really great job of explaining the many aspects of this practice, in a way that is totally accessible to a complete beginner. 

But in order for me to really convey the significance of this, I need to relate a little back-story here. About a month ago, when I learnt that I have been scheduled to teach at this festival, I came up with the idea of inviting Claudia out here to Fargo-Moorhead to promote her book and speak about the Ashtanga practice in general. I broached this idea to the festival organizers, and they were really excited about this, and were very eager to have Claudia here to speak at the festival. I was also very excited, not least because it was Claudia who originally turned me on to blogging: After I moved to Fargo-Moorhead last year, I felt quite alone in my Ashtanga practice, as there is no Ashtanga shala here. This, along with my SI joint injury, caused me to turn to the internet for support and community. After a couple of google searches, one of the first things I stumbled upon was Claudia's blog. I soon found myself reading and commenting on many of her posts. Eventually, I decided: Since I have so much to say about the practice, why not start my own blog? And so I did: I started this blog last October. And before I knew it, I was posting something almost everyday.

So I was really excited about being able to finally meet in person the person who introduced me to the blogosphere. However, as most of you already know, Claudia came down with Lyme disease, and had to cancel her trip here at the last minute. Needless to say, I was quite bummed out (as was she), but I think this is for the best: Lyme disease is not something to mess with, and one needs all the rest and medical attention one can get if one is to effectively work with and eventually recover from this condition. Despite this, however, I really feel that Claudia did much to contribute to the success of our yoga festival here. She very generously sent over 60 copies of her book to the festival, and I could tell that everybody who received a copy today was really excited (I mean, when was the last time you got a book about yoga for free just for attending a class?); I can really sense that some lives are seriously being changed as a result of coming into contact with this book... 

Now this is probably pretty obvious to you by now, but I'm going to say this anyway: I owe much to Claudia. If I had not stumbled upon her blog, my practice (and probably my life in general) would have been a much more lonely path. And I would have just been content with doing my own practice in my own little practice room: It probably would not have occurred to me to summon the courage/thickness of skin to try to teach Ashtanga, as unqualified as I am (actually, it still remains to be seen whether this yoga teaching charlatan's re-emergence into the yoga teaching world is a good thing or a bad thing; but we'll leave this for another post :-)). 

And of course, if I hadn't stumbled upon her blog, you wouldn't even be reading this now. Not that this matters, necessarily: I'm sure you would have found better things to do with your time anyway than to waste a perfectly beautiful fall afternoon reading the rantings of a Chinese Ashtangi living in the upper-midwest :-) 

But I see that I'm starting to go off on one of my totally useless digressions. So I'll sign off here. Once again, thank you for everything, Claudia. Please get well soon. I'm praying that you will soon find the appropriate healing modality that works best for you, and kick this Lyme thing seriously in the ass.

Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Some practice notes from this morning's full primary

Did full primary this morning. Having made the switch (i.e. split) to doing second only and doing primary just once a week for a few weeks now, I now notice some interesting things about primary:

(1) Primary is actually more challenging on the muscular-skeletal level. Well, actually, second is also very challenging on the muscular-skeletal level: All those backbends in second definitely work the muscles of the front-body and the ribcage, and Karandavasana... well, need I say more? :-) But I guess what I'm trying to say is that primary works the gross muscular-skeletal structure more exclusively, especially with all those vinyasas. And I sweat way more in primary than in second. Which might also mean that primary is more challenging on the cardio-vascular level. But the interesting thing is that even though I sweat more in primary and feel my gross muscular-skeletal structure being worked more, I am actually able to maintain a fairly even breath throughout all of primary. Whereas I am always super-winded when I exit Karandavasana in second. So it is possible for something to work your cardio-vascular system less (at least if measured solely in terms of amount of perspiration) and yet demand more on the level of the breath. Interesting, don't you think?

(2) Having done second only for the rest of the week, I have forgotten how much harder it is to go into finishing backbends from primary than from second. In second, one's back is always more or less opened from having done Kapotasana, even if Karandavasana tends to have a shoulder-tightening effect. So the finishing backbends are quite accessible.

The same cannot be said about going into the finishing backbends from primary. Even though I went into the finishing backbends the Kino way today (i.e. do one Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Posture), then one set of three Urdhva Dhanurasanas, then another set of three UDs. During the third UD of the second set, try to walk the hands towards the heels and catch them. And then try to stand up from there.), my shoulders (or mid-back, I'm not entirely sure) still felt very tight. During the third UD of the second set, I walked my hands towards my heels, but my shoulders were so tight that my elbows collapsed to the mat before my hands could touch my heels, and I had to lie back down. I had to do a third set of three UDs. And it was only on the third UD of this third set that I finally managed to touch my hands to my heels and stand up. There is a silver lining to this "cloud", though: As a result of all this hard work, my quads were worked really good.

(3) At the end of practice, I looked at the time. Despite my backbend drama, I still managed to finish the whole thing in less than an hour and a half. It's nice to know that switching to second only has not diminished my stamina in primary :-)    

Friday, September 23, 2011

Is the universe indifferent?

[Image taken from here]

“I look up at the sky, wondering if I'll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don't. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn't be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative often self-centered nature that still doubts itself--that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I've carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I'm not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I've carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.”

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

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers. I don't quite know how to characterize his writing. All of his novels and short stories feature ordinary people who start out facing seemingly ordinary everyday issues (cat getting lost, a teenage boy running away from home, etc.); issues which quickly metamorphosize into bizarre, surreal situations in which the everyday gets inextricably mixed up with the other-worldly, in which the protaganists (and the reader) are forced to question the very meaning of their everyday existences.

I often feel that Murakami's writing is yogic without the woo; through his writing, he induces the same kind of subtly powerful soul-searching and reflection that yoga practice often brings up. However, he does not pull any punches in doing so. He does not pretend that the universe is anything more than an indifferent spectator of the foibles and flaws of the human condition. Yet through it all, there is a certain compassionate tone that underlies his writing, making what might otherwise be unbearable seem bearable, even funny. My favorite novels by him are The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. I highly recommend them.

Murakami's work brings up one question for me: Is the universe indifferent to human suffering? What is the yogic perspective on this question? I suspect that many newcomers to yoga are attracted to yoga because yoga, at least as it is presented in the west, often gives one the impression that there is a universe that is inherently compassionate, nurturing and caring; all you have to do is to evoke the appropriate mantras, and maybe light the appropriate kind of incense, turn on the appropriate kind of soft lighting and soothing music in yoga class, and that all-pervading feel-good feeling will wash off onto you and follow you everywhere when you step off the mat and into the world.

Ashtanga practice, of course, is nothing like that. There is no music, and (usually) no incense. All you can hear is the sound of your own breathing and those of others (if you practice in a mysore room), accompanied by the incessant chattering of your own chitta vrtti, which tends to get louder and more persistent when you approach postures that you find challenging. All you can smell (if anything) is the smell of your own sweat and that of others (again, if you practice in a mysore room). And there is no teacher to lead the class and tell you that everything is all good and will be okay. You have to listen to your own breath and body, and judge for yourself if anything is not so good or not so okay, and then decide how to respond.

With all of this responsibility placed squarely onto the practitioner, one sometimes wonders where the universe stands in all of this. This is especially so when one is facing difficulties in the practice (injuries or illness, major life changes which bring up strong emotions, etc.). Amid the frustration and sweat and tears, looking up at the clouds (or, in this case, looking up at the ceiling of the practice room) for a glimpse of kindness, one seems to see only one's own frustration reflected back onto oneself. And the only things one can do is to either get off the mat and call it a day, or continue to stare inside of oneself, see all the ugliness that is there in all its full glory, accept it for what it is, and try to work with it as best as one can. In such moments, one cannot help (at least, I cannot help) but wonder: What is the universe doing? Is it just standing around somewhere, spectating with benign indifference at my clumsy attempts to come to terms with myself? If the universe is kind or compassionate, where is this kindness or compassion?

And these moments where one senses the universe's seeming indifference do not end when one gets off the mat. One feels them in everyday life too; in particularly, one feels them especially acutely in those moments where one feels that despite one's best efforts, things seem to be going in the reverse direction: It's as if one's inner computer is offline and disconnected from the rest of the universe, which seems to continue to hum merrily along while one vainly spins one's wheels in the ditch of futility.

Fortunately, most of the time, for most of us, the universe seems to be operating in a state of at least tolerable connectedness to us. It might still be indifferent, for all we know; and we know that there are always problems and issues lurking in the background. But we get by. Seen in this light, perhaps the Ashtanga practice is really a sort of magnifying glass. When one is on the mat, one deliberately places oneself in a situation where one has more opportunities than usual to get offline with the universe; these opportunities most often present themselves in the form of injuries, illness or even challenging postures. The challenge here is whether one can maintain a certain level of composure and equanimity in the face of such "offlineness" and disconnectedness. Will I face these "offline" and disconnected feelings, learn to be with them, or will I simply stand up, get off the mat, and [insert your favorite "comfort activity"]?

Well, there are no easy answers. But on a very, very different note, here's some other news: I will be in Portland, Oregon on the weekend of November 4th to 6th. I will be presenting a philosophy paper on procrastination at a philosophy conference at Lewis and Clark College. There aren't too many jobs in which you can get paid for thinking, writing and speaking about procrastination :-) It's things like this that make me feel that academia is a nice place to be in, despite whatever other issues there might be with it (I'm not going there...). Well, maybe the universe isn't so indifferent to me, after all :-) Anyway, I expect that my schedule will be really packed during the day. But I'm hoping to be able to go to at least one early-morning Ashtanga class while I'm there. So I'm going to start looking online for Ashtanga studios in the area. If any of you out there live in Portland or the surrounding area, and would like to hang out with me/practice with me/tell me about interesting places to practice Ashtanga/tell me about interesting places to eat at/whatever, please get in touch with me. I'll love to hear from you.            

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of the Ashtanga practice is to turn us all into ninjas; some idle musings

To see what I mean, first check out this video:


Lately I've been wondering: What really is the point of doing this Ashtanga thing? You know, you get up at stupid o'clock, maybe drug yourself with some coffee (or your personal stimulant of choice, whatever that may be), and then drag your barely conscious body/mind to the mat, put yourself through some funny actions called Surya Namaskars (most of the time, you are namaskaring to a sun that hasn't even risen :-)), and then twist, stretch and bend your body into interesting shapes while most of the rest of the world remains blissfully asleep and ignorant of your labors. If one is lucky, one gets to do this every morning for 20, 30 or even 40 years (excluding moon days and rest days). Then, sooner or later, age catches up, and you will either have to greatly modify, scale back or even abandon the asana practice altogether.

So all this doing, just to have to give everything up in the end? Of course, the official party line tells us that this is kind of the whole point of yoga anyway: There is really no point, when it comes down to it. At least not in any tangible sense. Things come, things go. One can accept it, work with it, and be happy and find peace. Or one can resist it, and create unnecessary suffering for oneself and others.

Fair enough. But what if things are actually not what they seem? What if, unbeknownst to us, there really is a tangible point to all this asana practice? What if this Ashtanga practice is really a process that secretly turns us into... ninjas? As I observed in my previous post on bandhas, there are many similarities between uddiyana bandha and accessing the hara in martial arts. And, as you can see in the video above, being able to activate uddiyana bandha translates into a very useful skill in the ninja world: Perhaps this skill comes in handy when a ninja needs to, you know, infiltrate a house whose floor is planted with sharp iron stakes or nails or something.

What if, unbeknownst to all of us, what we know as the Ashtanga organization (i.e. KPJAYI) is actually a front for training ninjas, and the entire six series of the Ashtanga system is actually a training system that enables the practitioner to progressively develop the relevant ninja powers, while also progressively screening out those candidates/practitioners who don't have what it takes to become ninjas? Well, you know, if you don't make it as a ninja (i.e. if you don't progress beyond, say, third series in this lifetime), then the Ashtanga practice is just a mind/body meditative practice for you. But if you make it to fourth series or beyond, then you secretly get inducted into a secret society of ninjas:

 Kunoichi (female ninja) being inducted
 [Image taken from here]

Hmm... could getting certified really mean getting certified as a ninja? Hmm... could Kino actually be a ninja?

But what do I know? These are just the idle musings of an overstimulated brain. Besides, I seriously doubt if I will make it past third series in this lifetime. So I really have no way of knowing, one way or the other.

Well, actually, now I'm getting a little worried: Have I said too much? I hope I don't get ninja-ed tonight...

[Image taken from here]

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What is the best way to explain the action of Mula Bandha to somebody who is new to Ashtanga?

I just started teaching an Ashtanga class once a week at a local studio. For various reasons, I have decided to call it "Vinyasa from the Ground Up" rather than Ashtanga; but the class is very much Ashtanga through and through. Last night, for instance, three people showed up, and I brought the class through the Suryas and standing postures up to Prasarita Padottanasana A and B. I then ended the class with a modified finishing sequence (substituting Bridge for Urdhva Dhanurasana, having a shortened shoulderstand sequence, no headstand, and a simple crossed-leg seated posture in place of padmasana).

Although this is not a mysore class, I plan to teach as closely to mysore style as possible. Which means that I will introduce one or two new postures a class. I think this is a good way to go. It might get a bit challenging as new people arrive later on; maybe when I get to that point, I'll have to get these new people to stop at certain points in the sequence while the rest of the class move on with the postures they have learnt. Hmm... what will these new people do in the meantime? Watch while the "older" students do their postures? I don't know, I'm sure I'll think of something. If you have any suggestions, I'll love to hear them.

What I have done so far (last night was only my second class) is simply bring students through the postures on a purely postural level. I emphasized the breath, drishti and basic alignment, but I did not go into the finer points, like the bandhas. I just thought that somebody who is new to Ashtanga probably already has enough things to contend with, as it is. Perhaps I can talk about the bandhas when the students have come a few more times, and are more comfortable with the sequence.

Talking about the bandhas has always been an interesting topic for me. Different teachers use different descriptions when trying to tell students to engage the bandhas, especially mula bandha. And honestly, I have yet to find a completely satisfactory way of explaining the bandhas, especially mula bandha. Here are a few ways of explaining mula bandha that I have encountered so far:

(1) Squeeze/contract your anus: Guruji is reported to have explained the bandhas in this way. I do not think this is a very helpful explanation. For one, spoken with a certain South Indian accent, "Contract your anus!" is liable to be misheard as "Contact Uranus!" Which would leave the beginning Ashtanga student very bewildered, to say the least ("Wow, who knew that practicing this yoga involves getting in touch with extra-terrestrials?"). 

Joking aside, there are other more practical problems with this explanation. To begin with, strictly speaking, simply contracting the anal sphincter is actually ashwini mudra, not mula bandha. Secondly, anatomically, the action needed to activate mula bandha actually involves a subtle lifting of the perineal muscles; squeezing of the anal sphincter is at most a by-product of this action, and not the action itself.  Moreover, I get the sense that new students tend to overdo the squeezing of the anal sphincter: The result is that other surrounding muscles that do not need to be squeezed or contracted get contracted too, resulting in unnecessary muscular tension and tightness.   

(2) Do the same thing that you would do if you were trying to stop the flow of urine while peeing: This is probably a better way of explaining the bandhas. But--and maybe this is just my body--I have actually tried stopping the flow while urinating, and I am quite sure that while the muscles needed to stop the urine flow are used to engage mula bandha, the actual engagement of mula bandha requires a more subtle action than simply stopping the urine flow. This, at least, is what I feel from my own experience.  

(3) Engage Uddiyana Bandha, and Mula Bandha will tend to follow: Personally, this explanation actually works best for me. I'm not quite sure why, but there's something about gently drawing in that spot about two inches beneath the navel (i.e. engaging Uddiyana Bandha) that also tends to cause me to engage mula bandha almost without being conscious of it. Perhaps it's because I used to practice martial arts, and engaging uddiyana bandha has a lot in common with the actions that are needed in order to access the hara or dantien in Japanese and Chinese martial arts, respectively. Because of this, uddiyana bandha has always been more readily accessible to me than mula bandha. This simultaneous engagement of uddiyana and mula bandhas is most pronounced when one tries to jump back. In order to even try to lift off the mat into Lolasana, one has to engage Uddiyana Bandha (even if one has no idea that one is doing this). This engagement of uddiyana bandha, in turn, also almost automatically causes one to engage mula bandha. Try it; you'll see what I'm saying.   

(4) Do the postures regularly, and you will find yourself naturally engaging the bandhas with time: David Williams is a proponent of this naturalistic approach towards the breath and bandhas. A few years ago, at a workshop, somebody asked him how to breathe during practice. Instead of giving a technical explanation (closing the glottis, Darth Vader sound, etc, etc.), Williams simply said that all one has to do is to keep breathing, and everything else will just fall into place. If I remember correctly, he gave the same response when asked about the bandhas as well: Just breath evenly throughout the practice, and bandha-engagement will come naturally.

These, at any rate, are the explanations of mula bandha that I know about. If you have other explanations, I'll love to hear them. I'm still undecided as to which one I will use when it comes time to explain mula bandha to the students in my class. Maybe I'll use (3), since that is the one that appeals most to me personally. But we'll see.   

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Pavlov and the Ashtanga Gene

In his latest post, Grimmly describes his somewhat on-and-off relationship with Ashtanga as a Pavlovian one. Grimmly, for those of you who do not read his blog regularly (I highly recommend it; he offers a wealth of information on asana, and a lot of insightful meditations on the other limbs of yoga practice), originally started out as an Ashtanga practitioner. Somewhere along the line, he encountered Vinyasa Krama (VK) and the teachings of Srivatsa Ramaswami, whom he now regards as his primary teacher. For a while, he practiced both VK and Ashtanga at the same time. Recently, he has declared his move away from Ashtanga, and has declared himself to have committed full-time (more or less) to VK.

However, like a former lover who has left deep impressions (scars?) in the depths of one's being, the ghost of Ashtanga refuses to be so easily exorcised from his life, and Grimmly now experiences an almost-subconscious Pavlovian pull towards Ashtanga. In his latest post, he writes:

"I felt like one of old Pavlov's dogs with Virabhadrasana as the little bell... Now, as a rule, in VK [Vinyasa Krama] you tend to do the asymmetric postures before the Seated paschimottanasana ( actually not a rule at all, very few rules in VK) but no, virabhadrasana and you just HAVE to jump through into paschimottanasana anything else feels wrong, just plain wrong... I'm brainwashed, one warrior pose, OK two, and I'm salivating for those paschi endorphins, gimmi my treat and gimmi it now master Pavlov."

Hmm. Well, Grimmly, if I may be permitted to offer some unsolicited advice regarding your, uh, predicament: Do not resist. For resistance, as the Trekkies would say, is futile. Embrace the fold of Ashtanga, and thou shalt live long and prosper ;-)

[Image taken from here]
 
But joking aside, I really think that Grimmly is onto something when he describes the pull of the Ashtanga practice as a Pavlovian thing. Over the course of my Ashtanga practice career (which is not long at all), I have heard stories of people who practiced Ashtanga for a while, and then jumped ship to some other style (Anusara seems to be a favorite ship to jump to, from the accounts I have heard. I don't know why this is so.) However, for every "jump-ship" story that I have heard, I have also heard at least one other story of some Ashtangi who got burnt-out/sick/disillusioned with the practice (either due to injury, changes in personal life circumstances which made it difficult to get up at stupid o'clock to practice, or sickness at the repetitive nature of the practice), stopped practicing Ashtanga for a while, but then felt the draw of the practice again, and came back to practicing Ashtanga. 
 
So it seems that there really is something to this supposedly "boring" Ashtanga that nevertheless draws many people (including me) to the mat regularly. Perhaps the Ashtanga sequence is like a funny "Yoga-DNA-mirroring sequence", in which different postures or combinations thereof trigger the "Ashtanga gene" in different people. For example, perhaps Grimmly has a "Virabhadrasana-followed-by-Paschimottasana" gene. For Grimmly, perhaps, doing Virabhadrasana I and II triggers something in his "yoga-DNA" which compels him to have to do Paschimottanasana. And doing Paschimottanasana unlocks the rest of the "Ashtanga gene sequence" buried in his yoga-DNA, so that, almost without knowing it, he kind of goes on autopilot and continues doing the rest of primary series from there. 
 
And perhaps many other Ashtangis also possess a similar "Ashtanga gene" which is triggered by their unique "favorite" postures or posture combinations within the Ashtanga sequence. For one person, the triggering combination might be the Viras followed by Paschimottanasana; for somebody else, it might be, say, the Parsvakonasanas followed by the Prasaritas. For yet another Ashtangi who does second series, it might be Parsvottanasana followed by Pasasana. So that no matter how burnt-out/sick/disillusioned these Ashtangis get, there is always that particular combination of postures to which they alone are susceptible to, lurking in some corner of their yoga-DNA waiting to be triggered. And once it is triggered, the Ashtangi finds himself or herself going back to doing Ashtanga, despite his or her conscious protestations to the contrary. 
 
This, at any rate, is my theory: Once you have done Ashtanga for even a short while, it quite literally gets under your skin, all the way to your DNA structure. So that, no matter how you try to avoid doing it, one way or the other, it gets you :-) So really, why resist? Resistance is futile. You will only be assimilated ;-)       

Monday, September 19, 2011

Bowing to some dude's lotus feet, surrender, and the practice

I have been reading with great interest Ellie's latest post about the Ashtanga Yoga Opening Mantra. As we know, the first line of this mantra is "vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde", which can literally be translated as "I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru."

I can imagine that this line might bring up some anxiety among some Ashtangis. After all, one of the first things that newcomers to yoga learn is that yoga is not a religion, that yoga practice is compatible with any religious affiliation (or none at all, for that matter). Seen in this light, the idea of praying to the lotus feet of some dude called the "supreme guru" may be seen to be inconsistent with the idea that yoga is not a religion.

But there is a way to resolve this seeming inconsistency. Ellie writes:

'“I pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru” is not necessarily a command to pray to the feet of an individual that we think of as our guru, but is a metaphor for the practice itself. By thinking of the practice as the guru, we surrender ourselves to it and look to it for guidance. In this usage, surrender is not a quality of weakness; rather, it means fearlessness, trust, and confidence.'

Thus, to "pray to the lotus feet of the supreme guru" does not necessarily mean to submit to a person or personalized entity. Rather, what we are doing is surrendering and placing our trust in the life-transforming process that is the practice, with the confidence that the process will lead us to a place of greater self-awareness and realization.

All this also brings to mind the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana, one of the five niyamas of yoga (the other four being Saucha, Santosha, Tapas and Svadhyaya). Ishvara Pranidhana is commonly translated as "Surrender to God". Which tends to bring up the same theistic anxieties for many yogis as the idea of praying to the lotus feet of some dude one barely knows :-) At her Yoga Sutra lecture at her Richmond workshop back in April, Kino clarified this issue by stating that Ishvara Pranidhana does not have to entail surrendering to some personalized deity. What it does entail is that one must place a certain fearless trust and confidence in something greater than oneself (see this post for more details). Kino also emphasized that such an element of fearless surrender is necessary if one's practice is not to degenerate into an ego-building, advanced-asana-accumulating exercise.

This is interesting, because if we put everything that has been said above together, then it seems to me that the Ishvara or "God" in Ishvara Pranidhana can actually be the practice itself. In other words, to surrender to God could entail nothing more drastic than simply placing fearless trust and confidence in the practice itself, and following it where it brings your life. I think this is pretty cool. Do you?   

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Upper body and core strength building, the old-school Ashtanga way


The topic of building core strength in yoga practice has resurfaced lately in the blogosphere. For instance, in his latest post, Patrick gave a very detailed review of his experiences and thoughts at a workshop he recently did with Brock and Krista Cahill.

I don't know much about the Cahills, but I do know that regular practice of Ashtanga offers many opportunities for building core strength. A lot of it starts with the basics. In particular, the Surya Namaskars and the vinyasas between postures (especially working on jumping through and jumping back) is really effective for building core strength. In particular, if you are really intensely into building serious upper-body and core-strength, you should try doing what I call the super-updog-downdog transition: Basically, when you go from updog to downdog, instead of going straight from updog to downdog, you first go back into chaturanga from updog. And then, from chaturanga, you push back up into downdog. Trust me, this really works your upper-trunk (especially the latissimus dorsi) and core muscles. I'll confess that I don't have the energy/discipline/whatever to do it regularly, but it's seriously hardcore stuff. In the video above, you can see Chuck Miller doing it at 1:05-1:07, 2:54-2:55, and at 4:47. Maty does the same thing at 2:20-2:24 and at 4:37. Give it a try, and tell me if it works your core :-) If I were a better yogi, I would try it myself (but I'm not).

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Prana, Apana, "Boards don't hit back"

Did full primary this morning, Sunday being my rest day. I'm starting to notice a subtle difference in my energy on days when I do primary and days when I do second only. On days when I do full primary, like today, I feel that my energy level is more subdued: This doesn't mean that I have less energy, it's just more... well, subdued: I generally feel more like sitting still and observing the world than participating too much in it. Whereas on days when I do second only, my energy seems to be of a more outgoing nature: I feel like moving more quickly, I feel like being more in the world. I suppose the closest yoga terms to describe this difference would be the difference between apana (downward-flowing energy) versus prana (upward-flowing energy). Which kind of makes sense, because it is generally held that forward bends are more apanic and "cooling" in nature, whereas backbends are more pranic and "stimulating" in nature. And second series, as many of you probably know, has many backbends. Do any of you out there who do second notice this difference in energy, or is it just me?

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

I have been on a bit of a kungfu movie binge over the last couple of days. Watched a kungfu movie last night. And today, during breaks from grading papers, I also watched a few classic Bruce Lee movies on Youtube.

What are kungfu movies doing on a yoga blog? You may ask. Well, according to the official history of the Shaolin Temple, much of Chinese kungfu is supposed to have originated from yoga (for more details, see this post).

But really, who needs an excuse to watch kungfu movies? They're fun to watch (at least, I think they are; you may disagree), and they make you (at any rate, they make me) want to get off your ass and kick some ass! The perfect remedy to too much apana :-) And you also get some very memorable lines from kungfu movies. One of my all-time favorites is "Boards don't hit back." Here's the scene in Enter the Dragon where it came from:

   

Friday, September 16, 2011

The body reminds us of what the mind has already forgotten


I just watched this video of an interview and a backbend demonstration by Anne Nuotio. I don't know much about her, except that she is an Ashtanga teacher based in Helsinki, Finland.

What she says in the interview really speaks to me. Nuotio says that the physical body has a memory that is activated by yoga. In particular, the intense nature of the Ashtanga practice has the tendency to bring these forgotten or repressed body memories to the surface. Some of these memories surface as pain--pain that the body had amassed at some point in the past, but has forgotten. The practice brings these to the surface and forces one to deal with them.

In my experience, I feel that this is especially true of backbends. Sometimes, despite one's best intentions with maintaining good alignment and form, one still feels pain in backbends, especially with intense backbends like Kapotasana or dropbacks. This pain is not bad pain. A couple of teachers I have studied with have alluded to this pain. For instance, at his Minneapolis workshop in July, Matthew Sweeney said at one point that very often, pain that is felt in backbends actually points to an issue that can lead to future injury. This being the case, backbends give us an invaluable opportunity to address the issue now, rather than in the future, when it surfaces as injury. A few years ago, Eddie Modestini made the same point to me in a rather less elegant way. He said, 'Well, if you still have an "ouiii!" sensation in backbends after you have done your best with alignment and all that, then maybe the "ouiii!" sensation needs to be there!'

Last but not least, in light of all the Ashtanga and senior-teacher-bashing that has been going on in the blogosphere lately, maybe I should end this post with a disclaimer: Please, please, I am not telling you to go inflict pain and injury on yourself in backbends. Please take care of alignment and be responsible for your practice (Ashtanga has a bad enough rep, as it is...). I'm just saying that not all pain in backbending is bad pain.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On Virtuosity and being "yogic" (or not)

First, a few words about my practice this morning. Nothing extraordinary happened. I did second only up to Karandavasana. I did notice, however, that on average, my breaths tend to be shorter when I am doing second series than when I am doing primary. This is probably an indication that I haven't gotten to the point where second is easy for me yet. But that's okay. It is important to be with what is: If it is indeed the case that my breaths are shorter in second series, then they are shorter. I think Matthew Sweeney said somewhere in his book Astanga Yoga As It Is that trying too hard to keep the breath long and even may actually have the effect of producing strain in the body and mind, which totally defeats the point of lengthening the breath in the first place.

I just read this very thoughtful article on Recovering Yogi by Alice Riccardi. She writes:

'More and more yoga students are becoming proficient at asana at an earlier age (see the Yoga Journal feature article “21 under 40”), perhaps due to better teaching and alignment methodologies, along with the fact that human beings are now generally more interested in physical health than they were ten years ago. This current atmosphere is giving rise to the focus on asana as a virtuosic endeavor with a lessening interest in yoga as a practice.

Years ago, when I was a dancer, I remember having the epiphany that just because someone has good technique, does not make him or her a good dancer. It is the content they bring to their dancing — not just their ability to perfect the execution of the movement — that makes their dancing inspiring.

Similarly, in yoga, the continual focus on doing more and more difficult asana or becoming “good” at it has begun to take the pleasure out of doing yoga for the simple enjoyment of doing yoga and reaping the benefits that come from that approach. Instead, we have yet another endeavor at which we need to excel, and if we cannot, we might as well not do it. Or we instead exchange our enjoyment for workshops on how to get better at it and accumulate more knowledge about it.'

I think Riccardi has hit a certain nail on the head. It is definitely possible to become so preoccupied with "achieving" asanas (or achieving a particular form in an asana) that one loses the sense of simple joy and appreciation of the practice itself. And I have a feeling that Ashtanga, with its fixed series of increasingly challenging postures, is frequently a target of this "asana-virtuosity-for-its-own-sake" charge.  The charge, as I understand it, is that many Ashtangis, in their ongoing quest to achieve the ideal expression of this or that asana, or to be "given" the next asana in whatever series they are practicing, tend to identify their practice (and indeed, their very self-conceptions) with their "success" or "failure" at such "achievements". This leads to over-identification of the practice with asana, which leads, in turn, to over-identification with the body, which leads, in turn, to over-identification with a certain conception of self. Which is, well, not yogic.   

Such a charge is rightly made, in many cases. I'm quite sure I have succumbed on many occasions and in many ways to such over-identification. But here's something to think about: Does a desire to work on and attain a certain level of mastery in asanas necessarily have to lead to over-identification? Does the fact that I want to be able to, say, land my lotus on my upper arms in Karandavasana today necessarily mean that I am staking my entire self-conception on the ability to perform this action? Not necessarily: Asana "achievements" are like achievements in any area of material life, in many ways. For example, I can accept that my performing well at my job and getting a promotion is not the be-all and end-all of my life, or even of my career; I can accept that my not getting that promotion that I really want does not mean that I am a bad, "useless" worker or person. But accepting this does not give me less of a reason to really go all out and give what I want (the promotion) my best shot. Similarly, I can accept that failing to land my lotus in Karandavasana does not make me less of a yogi or person or whatever. But accepting that does not give me less of a reason to really go all out and give that posture my very best shot.

Indeed, if I try to be "yogic" and try to deny that I want something when I actually do want it, I would be acting in what Sartre calls "bad faith": I would be denying the facticity of my present set of desires by trying too hard to transcend them (for more details on Sartre and facticity and transcendence, see this post). The key, I think, lies in being able to say, at the end of the day, that I have done my best to try to achieve what I was going for, even if what I was going for does not define who I am. Why? Because if we cease going for things, we cease being human. And what good is being all "yogic" and s%$t if one ceases being human in the process?

Hmm... I hope all this doesn't come across as being confrontational or apologist. I certainly didn't mean to come across this way. But really, here is the paltry two cents' way of summing up my thoughts thus far: Yes, go ahead, acknowledge the impermanence of existence, the physical body, and what have you. But don't stop trying very, very hard to get what you want. Because if you do, then you stop being human. And if you stop being human, then you cannot be in the present moment. Because to be in the present moment is to be in our embodied human condition. Which would totally defeat the whole point of being "yogic' in the first place.       

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Last Empress, savoring every drop of practice and life

This morning's practice was very interesting. I got up feeling very sleepy, and did not feel like getting on the mat. As I went to the bathroom before starting practice, it suddenly occurred to me that there are people in this world who quite literally have no time to themselves, let alone a couple of hours in the morning to do yoga. Two examples came to mind:

(1) A few months ago, I was chatting with a colleague. He told me that during the first year after his daughter was born, she fell sick a lot. He and his wife had to get up many times during the night, and bring their daughter to many doctor visits. Between going to the doctor, getting up to feed her and/or change her diapers, and work, there was barely even time to sleep, let alone do anything else. He told me that at one point, his wife only had time to go to the bathroom once during an entire 24-hour period. I'm not sure what his reaction would have been if I had told him that I spend up to two hours every morning doing nothing but breathing, contracting my anus, and bending myself into funny shapes on a yoga mat.

(2) These past two days, I have reading The Last Empress by Anchee Min. It is a historical novel about the life and times of the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, who effectively ruled China for close to 50 years during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century by serving as regent and advisor for two successive young emperors. For much of the twentieth century, historians have painted Tzu Hsi as a power-hungry, corrupt woman who would stop at nothing to secure as much power and wealth for herself as possible. Indeed, I remember that in high school, people would often use the term "Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi" to describe somebody (usually a woman) whom they see as being power-hungry or even just bitchy.

In recent years, however, scholars have dug up new evidence to suggest that this picture of Tzu Hsi may not be an accurate portrayal of her as a person. For one, they have discovered that many twentieth-century historians rely almost exclusively upon either dubious second- or even third-hand accounts of western journalists or diplomats (who have a motivation to paint her as a power-hungry despot in order to justify the imperialist agenda of the western powers) or the accounts of Chinese politicians and thinkers (who also have a motivation to paint her as a power-hungry despot in order to justify overthrowing the feudal system she is seen to represent). These scholars have also come across court records of the time and accounts written about her by people close to her, that suggest that she is just a person who is trying her best to rule a country as best as she knows how, and to balance the conflicting demands of many citizens to modernize and industrialize China, on the one hand, and the demands of her xenophobic ruling family, who basically want to keep western influences out of China for as long and as much as possible, on the other. Given all these conditions, and given who she is (a woman in feudal China), she had to do the seemingly ruthless things that she did.

Gee, I just gave a big historical account here without intending to :-) Anyway, in her novel, Anchee Min paints Tzu Hsi in a sympathetic light, giving us an account of a woman who is trying to balance her roles as a mother, widow, and the effective ruler of a country that is wracked by many problems. Her day-to-day life is spent juggling all these roles, and it is only when she fell sick and had to rest that she had the leisure to get up when the sun has already risen (i.e. sleep in). Again, I wonder what her reaction would be if somebody had come up to her and told her that the best way to solve her country's problems (and her own) is to take a couple of hours and do nothing except breath, contract one's anus, and bend oneself into funny shapes on a yoga mat...

Anyway, that was a major digression. I had meant to say something about my practice! So I'll say a couple of things about it here. After these thoughts occurred to me in the bathroom, I realized how privileged I was to be able to have a couple of hours to practice. So I decided to do what I can, and do my best to savor every moment on the mat. The practice started slowly. I was feeling quite sore and tired. But my body warmed up as the practice got underway. And I actually somehow managed to land the duck in Karandavasana on my first attempt, despite my supposedly tired and sore state. Isn't it funny how sometimes what you think is a "bad practice day" actually becomes one of your best practices?

Anyway, speaking of savoring one's practice, Kino recently wrote a very beautiful piece about Sharath's views on savoring the practice like a cup of coffee. She writes:

"Sharath actually likened the practice to drinking a cup of coffee. He said that he looks forward to that first cup of coffee in the morning and makes a conscious effort to relish and enjoy it. The practice, he said, should be just like that too. You shouldn’t just do the practice just to do it and get it done, you should enjoy your practice every day. My takeaway from this speaks deeply to the mind training of the Ashtanga Yoga method. You can go through the motions of the practice just like you can chug a cup of coffee in the morning because it’s part of your routine. Or you can consciously choose to savor each sip of your life. You can choose to train your mind to enjoy every moment of your practice just as you can choose to focus on the positive elements of every life experience. Sharath quoted Yoga Sutra 2.48: Tato Dvandva-anabhighatah, that states that when the yogi’s mind is strong peace is maintained in the face of opposites such as pleasure and pain or attachment and aversion. In order to avoid getting hooked into the cycle of suffering the equanimous mind is a crucial development along the spiritual path of yoga. If you are always running towards pleasure, running from pain, fighting against aversion and fighting for attachment then the very motion of your actions will fuel the wheels of karma and further bind you into conditioned existence. But if your mind is strong and you consciously choose your path as appreciation, joy and gratitude for every sip of life, then your freedom is already evident in each moment both in your practice and in your life."

You can find the full article here. Well, got to go prepare for class now. May you fully savor whatever it is you are doing now, whether it is drinking coffee, practicing, reading blog posts, or working ;-)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Full moon

I've been feeling quite bloated for most of today. The feeling is just beginning to subside in the last hour or so. It probably has something to do with getting home late last night from the Twin Cities (way past my usual bedtime). It probably has something to do with the fact that I ate an overly-large late lunch/early dinner just before making the drive back up here. It probably also has something to do with the fact that I stayed up late last night to read, taking advantage of the fact that today is a moon day, and I could sleep a little later. It  probably also had something to do with what I actually read : I read a passage in my book about a nineteenth-century young Chinese emperor who died of smallpox.I'll spare you the gory details here, but suffice it to say that they did not help me to go to sleep.

And I suppose it probably had something to do with the full moon. At any rate, I felt so bloated and sleep-deprived when I woke up this morning, that I decided to do a light practice anyway (3 Surya A, 3 Surya B, and padmasana), even though this is a moon day. I decided that practice would actually make me feel better. And it did, to some extent. But I also decided to stop there, since it was the full moon, and I didn't think I should push things too far. I also wonder if the full moon may also have aggravated this bloated feeling, in the first place; after all, if the tides are higher during the full moon, and the human body is 70 percent water, wouldn't the full moon also "raise the tide" in the human body, so to speak, and aggravate whatever bloatedness was already there?

I think there is a little conundrum here: The full moon may make one more agitated and/or full of fluid, even bloated. If one does not practice, it is hard to relieve this agitated state. But if one practices, one risks overextending/overexerting, and possibly injuring oneself. Funny situation, no?   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

First public duck landing, Mangala Mantra

I am writing this post from Minneapolis. Yes, I made a trip down to the Twin Cities again this weekend. The ostensible reason was because my fiancee's birthday is coming up (on Tuesday), and it would be nice to leave town to celebrate. But really, I'm just looking for an excuse to go to a place that is more, uh, metropolitan and densely populated than my little corner of the upper midwest. So here I am, sitting in a coffeeshop and blogging.

These last couple of days, I have been going to morning practice at the Yoga House. Which is always a treat, as I get to practice with other people, and am reminded that there are other real people out there who, like me, also get up at stupid o-clock to put their bodies into funny shapes and sweat like animals :-)

Yesterday (Saturday) morning, I went to led primary at the Yoga House. I think there is this misconception out there among some Ashtangis that if you do second series (or beyond), primary is supposed to easy-peasy, a walk in the park. Well, whoever thinks this ought to have been at yesterday morning's led primary here. The teacher leading the class made us do three Utkatasanas (instead of the usual, perfunctory one), and I could have sworn that Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana felt way longer than it usually does when I do my own practice. By the end of standing, I was totally drenched in sweat. Makes my own primary practice seem like a walk in the park :-)

During mysore this morning, I did second only up to Karandavasana. Got a good assist from the teacher in Supta Vajrasana, which was wonderful, because practicing by myself at home, I rarely get an assist in this posture. Made three Karandavasana attempts:

(i) The first attempt was absolutely embarrassing: I kicked up into Pincha, and then almost immediately fell over! I rarely fall out of Pincha; to think that one of these rare occasions had to happen in "public" :-)  Yeah, I know, if I'm truly a self-realized Ashtangic saint, I'm supposed to be beyond embarrassment; well, I'm not.

(ii) I got up from the ground as nonchalantly as I could after the not-so-graceful fall (the "fall from grace", if you will :-)), and then made my second attempt. This one was slightly better. I got into pincha, got my legs into lotus. But I couldn't land the duck, and crashed rather unceremoniously onto the mat.

(iii) Urrgh.... how can I fail to land the duck in public? So embarrassing! So I made a third attempt, and finally landed the duck. No, magic flowers did not rain down from the heavens; nor did the statue of Ganesha at the front of the room wink at me, as far as I could tell :-) I didn't realize this at the time, but this was actually the first time I had landed the duck by myself in public (i.e. as opposed to during my solitary home practice). Not that anybody seemed to care, or even noticed. But still, it was quite an event for me. I still couldn't come back up. But I'll keep working on this.

After practice, the woman who was practicing to my left came up to me, introduced herself, and told me that I have a beautiful practice, and that I was practically defying gravity. I almost responded by asking, "Well, is falling over from Pincha Mayurasana and crashing onto the mat in lotus posture part of 'defying gravity'?", but stopped myself at the last moment. Nor did I muster the presence of mind/panache/guts/whatever to reply with my outlandish response :-) I basically just gave my usual default response ("Thank you"). We chatted for a couple more minutes, and the conversation turned to how long we have been practicing. I suggested that if one does the practice everyday, six days a week, the practice will get into one's bones sooner or later, and wonderful things will happen. (Hey, I'm not just saying this, I actually believe it... You know, "Do your practice, and all is coming...")

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As we all know, today is the 10th anniversary of September 11th. It's also been slightly more than 10 years since I came to this country (I arrived in Florida to begin grad school on August 3rd, 2001). I feel that so much has changed in both my personal life and in the life of this country; at the same time, so many things have remained the same. Although I have not gone through the heart-rending experiences and events that so many have gone through as a result of September 11th, 2001, I can't help feeling that my having being here all this time and trying to live my life as best as I can has somehow caused the trajectory of my personal life to become inextricably linked in some inscrutable way with the destiny of this great land.

Perhaps nothing is a better reminder of what this date can mean for us than our daily practice. In particular, on this particular day, the Mangala Mantra that we chant everyday at the close of our practice symbolizes the hope of all Ashtangis and all human beings in general for everlasting peace, and our shared aspiration to make the world a slightly better place through our practices. Here's the Mangala Mantra, in translation:

OM
May all be well with mankind.
May leaders of the earth protect in every way by keeping to the right path.
May there be goodness for those who know the earth to be sacred.
May people everywhere be happy.

And here's Sharath chanting it:


Namaste, and May the Force be with You.
   

Friday, September 9, 2011

Practice report: Do I have delusions of grandeur?

Practice this morning was nice. I won't bore you with the blow-by-blow details of everything that I did. I'll just say something about my currently most challenging posture: Karandavasana. I landed the duck on my first attempt this morning. But it almost did not happen: After I got my feet into lotus from Pincha, my balance suddenly felt a little wobbly, and I almost fell over. I've only fallen out of lotus in Pincha once, and it's (a) not pretty, and (b) makes a loud thud which attracts everybody's attention if you are practicing in a shala. But as the saying goes, the bark is louder than the bite (or something to that effect): It really doesn't hurt much.

In any case, I managed to right myself this morning at the crucial moment, and prevented myself from falling over. But I spent so much energy trying to stop my fall that I didn't have much left over to do a controlled duck landing. So my lotus went from the apex of the Pincha to my upper arms like a rapidly descending elevator, and I thought I was going to crash onto the mat for sure. But somehow, I managed to slow the descent by just a little bit at the very last fraction of a second, and I landed on the very, very edge of my upper arms, just barely a fraction of a millimeter above my elbows. So I technically landed the duck, even if it didn't look pretty :-)

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Many Ashtangis have reported having strange dreams when starting second. I've been doing second for more than a year now (excluding the few months when I had to go back to doing primary only because of my SI joint injury). In the last few weeks, I've been having some really wacky dreams. I've always had interesting dreams (at any rate, I tend to remember many, if not most of my dreams). But in the last few weeks, the wackiness factor in my dreams has really gone up.

Last night, for instance, I dreamt that I had somehow time-traveled 200 years into the future. And it turns out that Earth 200 years from now is exactly like it is in the video game Halo. If you don't play Halo, here's the premise, roughly: Sometime in the not-too-distant future, humankind goes out into space and colonizes many planets. In the process, we come into contact with an alliance of alien races called The Covenant. The Covenant believe in this bizarre religion which teaches that humankind is a scourge to the universe which must be exterminated at any cost. Thus begins a great war between humans and the Covenant. In the process, the humans develop a special genetically-enhanced group of super-soldiers called Spartans in order to fight the Covenant. And of course, I'm sure you can totally see how this is a great excuse for a big special-effects-laden shootout/video game ;-)

Anyway, in the dream, I was training to be a Spartan. On my first day of training, I was given a bizarre-looking gun which looked suspiciously like a Playstation controller. I had no idea how to fire it, so I asked the instructor, an athletic, attractive woman, how to fire it. She told me to push this button on the top of the gun-controller. I did, and the reinforced glass window in front of me instantly shattered. There wasn't any sign of any laser beam or anything like it: The gun-controller had simply emitted this powerful force-field which instantly shattered the glass window. Very cool, I thought to myself. Then the instructor turned to me and informed me that I had technically fired a weapon when I wasn't supposed to; in military terms, it meant that I had misfired, and would be subject to a court-martial and then dishonorably discharged. "What?!! But you were the one who told me to push that button", I tried to argue, to no avail; she simply ignored me and repeated that I would be court-martialed, and then dishonorably discharged. What the..., I thought to myself. Bummer! Now I won't get to be a Spartan! And then I woke up.

I don't really know what this dream signifies, as I'm not much of a dream interpreter. Maybe I subconsciously have delusions of grandeur? Maybe I subconsciously have a funny desire to be some kind of a savior of humankind? Who knows?

Do I have delusions of grandeur?
[Image taken from here]

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In other news: I have added three new features to this blog:

(1) I have added a welcome message at the top right-hand corner of the blog with my email address. Recently, a couple of readers have expressed a desire to get in touch with me personally, and have had difficulty finding my contact information. Hopefully, this will make it easier for them and for anybody who wants to get in touch with me from now on :-)

(2) Just below the welcome message, I have listed the top 5 most read posts since I started writing this blog (in October 2010; wow, it's going to be the one-year anniversary of this blog soon :-) Time flies when you are having fun, doesn't it?). Personally, I do not think they are my best work (if you would indulge me a little, that is, and allow me to immodestly call what I do on this blog "work" :-)), but for whatever reason, many people have read them. So I thought I'd share them here.

(3) Last but not least, I have also added topic labels at the bottom of this blog. This will hopefully make it easier for readers who would like to read about specific things or topics I have written on.   

Many thanks for taking the time to read my random musings. I hope you will continue to do so ;-)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Practice report, 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory

Practice this morning was nothing to write home about, to say the least. In the first Surya A, I felt this tightness in the left hamstring, near the attachment. Which is always something to be careful about, because the majority of hamstring tears/injuries occur near the attachment, which is the weakest part of the muscle.

I worked slowly and carefully with the hamstring, doing an extra Surya B to try to slowly work it out. The tightness persisted through the Suryas, and the first few standing postures. But when I got to the Prasaritas, things got a lot better. There was still a slight "off" sensation, but other than that, it seemed to have opened quite nicely.

Because of this less-than-fully-powerful start to my practice, I thought of doing primary only. But I went ahead and did second anyway. Why? I'm not sure; probably a combination of stubbornness and curiosity about how my mind and body can function under less-than-ideal conditions. Not the best kind of curiosity to have, I admit: It sometimes gets me into trouble.

Second proved doable. Kapotasana felt harder than normal, although I still got my heels. Surprisingly, leg-behind-head wasn't hard at all, despite my worries about my left hamstring. And then Karandavasana... today is definitely not a good Karandavasana day. Made four attempts, and didn't land the duck a single time. Finally convinced myself that it wasn't going to happen today, and moved on to finishing.

So all in all, today's practice was somewhat lackluster, physically speaking. But that's practice. Some days one floats along like a butterfly, other days one crawls along like a caterpillar. But butterfly or caterpillar, one practices. And then, all is coming.

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Along with the latest incarnation of Kinogate has sprung up a side discussion about the "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" doctrine (for more details, see the comments in this article).

In the discussion, Nathan remarked that,

"Perhaps the 1% theory view is part of the problem. When people don’t take the time to learn the philosophy and spiritual teachings behind the physical practice, and then actually allow that to become embodied in their lives, you get all sorts of junk coming out. Including a hell of a lot of flaky yoga, and sometimes equally flaky judgements."

Interesting. Let me begin by noting that Guruji said, "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." I'm quite sure he did not say, "Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." Which means that he intends for this statement to apply to any kind of yoga, not just Ashtanga. I know this makes me sound like some kind of an Ashtanga Fundamentalist, but before you get mad and start hurling such accusations at me, take a moment to consider the matter: Guruji also did not say that "Yoga is 99 percent physical practice, 1 percent theory."   

What all this means is that, according to Guruji, whatever kind of yoga you practice (Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, etc.), no amount of theoretical understanding is going to get you anywhere if you do not spend a lot of time and energy devoting yourself to practicing whatever you have learnt, however much or little that may be: As a general rule of thumb, for every one ounce of energy and/or time that one invests in theoretical study, one needs to invest 99 times more of that time and energy into practice. Hence the "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" doctrine. This applies whether practice for you consists of doing the primary series (or whatever series you are working on), devotional chanting, doing good works, or meditating on particular scriptures. In Ashtanga, you simply can't "get" the philosophy and spiritual teachings behind the physical practice without doing the physical practice. I think David Williams said somewhere that before you do the practice, the theory is useless; after you do the practice, the theory is obvious.

I think the trouble here is that there is some kind of an artificial divide going on: People who think that the so-called spiritual aspects of yoga are more important tend to think that getting too much into the physical practice causes one to shut off the mind/consciousness, leading to "flaky yoga" (hmm... not quite sure I know what this means, but whatever...). I can't help feeling that such a way of looking at yoga belies a tendency to draw an artificial line between the "physical" and "spiritual" aspects of the practice, when one cannot properly be separated from the other: Done properly, the physical is spiritual (and probably the other way around too...). Any attempt to artificially separate and divide the two runs the risk of turning yoga into a cerebral exercise.

These, at any rate, are my paltry thoughts on this issue. And no, I do not think that whatever I write on this blog counts as that "1 percent theory" that Guruji talks about. This is just me running my mind off in a random, musing fashion.