Monday, January 30, 2012

Should Yoga Hurt? Or, how to do Kapotasana and not die from back pain

This post is a response to Steve's recent post on this topic over at the Confluence Countdown.

First, allow me, as a non-native English speaker, to bring your attention to a linguistic/semantic issue here: The trouble with the word "hurt" is that it encompasses an entire universe of physical and mental phenomena, all of which probably have nothing very much in common with each other, other than their propensity to induce some kind of noticeably strong unpleasant sensation in you. For instance, when you get passed over by your boss for a promotion--or, in an Ashtanga context, when you get passed over by your teacher for that next pose in the series--it "hurts." And when you are doing a pose that gets into your psoas really deeply, that burning sensation also "hurts." And then again, when--Shiva forbid--you tear your hamstring at the attachment and walk funny for six months or more, that "hurts" too.  Of course, the "hurt" in each of these cases refers to a different kind of thing with different causes, and may be good or bad for you.

But that's precisely my point. What kind of hurt are we talking about here? In a sense, it may not matter. Anybody who has attended any of David Williams' workshops will know his more-or-less famous words, "If it hurts, you're doing it wrong." Plain and simple. Well, if Williams is right (and why shouldn't he be? After all, he was one of the first westerners to go to Mysore and study with Guruji, and he's been practicing longer than I have been alive), then my practice is seriously wrong, because I cannot in all honesty say that my practice has never hurt before.

But now that I know that I am doing it wrong (or at least, have done it wrong before), what am I going to do about it? One option is to quit Ashtanga forever, and maybe take up one of the new trendy yogas that Steve has outlined in this recent post. But I'm not quite ready to do this yet (maybe when I turn 60, instead of doing the rishi series, I will switch to one of these new trendy yogas; if they're still new and trendy at that time, of course :-)). So what to do? Well, the only thing to do, as I see it, is to talk asana: Go into the specifics of the physical practice, and see how to make it not hurt (or at least hurt less). I'll start with something Steve says in his post. He writes:

"Which of us hasn’t had a teacher stand on us in Baddha Konasana? What about that last little stretch in Marichyasana D or Supta Kurmasana? And, judging from the noise folks make in Kapotasana, I suspect it isn’t exactly pleasant." 

Wow, this is quite a lot to chew on. Well, first, I've actually never had a teacher stand on me in Baddha Konasana. So I can't say anything about this. What about that "last little stretch" in Mari D and Supta K? Well, speaking from my own experience, I have found that if one wants to get deeper in either of these postures, it's actually more productive to work on either the hip-opening postures that come before these postures in primary, or spend more time working on hip-openers outside of the practice altogether (longer holds in Baddha Konasana, double-pigeon, etc.). I have found that pursuing either of these strategies is ultimately more productive (and less hurt-inducing) than trying to "inch" one's way into that last little stretch while in the posture itself.

What about Kapotasana? Ha, now we're talking about a whole world of hurt. First, I'm not a natural backbender; Kino once told me half-jokingly that Ashtangis can broadly be divided into two types: people with open hips and stiff backs, and people with open backs and stiff hips. I fall into the former type. Not being a natural backbender, I have to work pretty hard in backbends to get the hips far enough forward so that I can get into the psoas rather than just the lower back, and get my upper and middle back to open so that more of the backbending comes from my upper and middle back rather than solely from my lumbar spine.

Nowhere is this work more apparent than in Kapotasana. Although I have been doing Kapotasana for almost two years now, I still have to "hang" for a few breaths before I dive for my feet in Kapo (depending on the condition of my spine on a particular day, "few" can be anywhere from three to five to ten breaths). The sensation of waiting for whatever it is in the spine that needs to open to open is not exactly pleasant, but I wouldn't categorize it as "hurt" either.  It's just... not pleasant. And it's probably not pleasant because it's not a position that my usually-hunched-forward-over-a-computer-or-steering-wheel body finds natural.

But I did go through a period when Kapotasana hurt. Like hell. Here's the whole story. I was first given Kapo by my teacher at his shala in Milwaukee. Within a few weeks, he managed to assist me into grabbing my heels. At that time, I had yet to be able to stand up from dropping back (I guess my teacher isn't traditional in this way). And then something in my lower back started to hurt, and my teacher suggested that I stop doing Kapo for a few weeks, and work on really being able to stand up from dropping back. His theory was that my inability to stand up indicated a lack of strength/stability somewhere in the spine, and that lack of strength/stability was causing my lower back to hurt. Sounds like a very reasonable theory, I thought. So I stopped doing Kapo for a few weeks, and focused my attention on dropping back and standing up. After a few weeks, I started doing Kapo again. After another couple of weeks, I was able to grab my heels on my own, by first landing my hands on the ground, and then walking them until they grab the heels.

And this was when things started to hurt big time. For about two weeks after I began to grab my heels by myself in Kapo, I would wake up every morning with really bad back pain. It was so bad, that I had to slowly crawl out of bed and kind of crawl/walk to the bathroom. At the same time, my teacher was in Mysore, so I couldn't ask him what to do to stop the hurt. One obvious way to stop the hurt is, of course, to simply stop doing Kapo, or maybe not go so deeply into the posture. But I discovered that not going so deeply into the posture actually made the back hurt even more (don't know why). And I was too stubborn/crazy to stop doing the posture altogether; it's things like this that make me think that many Ashtangis (at least this Ashtangi) are crazy egomaniacs; I mean, any normal person would have just freaked out and stopped doing it, right? Maybe even write everything up and send it to the NYT for a wreck-your-body-worthy article. But not this crazy Ashtangi. But even this Ashtangi couldn't endure the indignity of having to crawl out of bed every morning. So I had to find some way of reducing the hurt... no, I didn't take any painkillers or drugs or steroids. Instead, I suddenly thought of a posture sequence that I learnt from Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane on Maui a few years ago. Eddie and Nicki did not say anything about this sequence's ability to reduce back pain, but somehow, in my pain, my mind/body managed to make the connection between my present hurt and this sequence. Anyway, here's the sequence:

(1) Get into Mandukasana. Stay in Mandukasana for five to ten breaths.

Mandukasana, back and front view
[image taken from here and here]     

(2) From Mandukasana, transition into Uttanasana (standing forward fold). Stay in Uttanasana for about 5 to ten breaths. 

Repeat (1) and (2) three to five times, or as many times as desired, until back pain subsides. 

So, for about a week or so, I would do this sequence first thing in the morning. After a week or so, the back pain went away. So I have Eddie and Nicki to thank for saving my back and allowing me to continue doing Kapotasana to this day. I have reproduced this sequence here for anybody out there who may find this useful someday. After all, Kapotasana is a formidable posture. We need all the help we can get while working with it. To this day, I still don't know the exact anatomical reasons for why this sequence was so helpful in relieving the back pain that I experienced when first working with Kapo. Maybe somebody like David Keil would be able to explain why... At any rate, it's not always why something works that matters. What's important is that it works, right?

Wow. What a post. What started as a response to Steve's remarks on hurt has morphed into this long post about how to do Kapotasana without killing yourself. This is one of the funny things about blogging: You start out intending to write one post, and then the post kind of takes on a life of its own, and becomes a totally different creature. Oh, well; all in a day's blogging. I'm a little blogged out now, so I guess I'll sign off. I hope you find some of this to be useful in some way.  

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sh*t Ashtanga Yogis Say

Just watched this latest video by Kiki. Pretty funny. Does anybody know which series has that pose where you drink chai while balancing with one leg behind your shoulder?


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Being with the universe with needles in me; Is Ashtanga only for teenage boys?

Earlier today, I went for my twice-a-month acupuncture session. The acupuncturist who was working with me today had just completed a 200-hour yoga teacher training, and we chatted briefly about yoga while she was inserting needles into various parts of my physical body (can't remember the last time I had a yoga conversation with somebody who was sticking needles into me...). She is still in the process of finding a yoga style that works for her personal practice, and she had learnt from the other acupuncturist that I practice Ashtanga, so she took this opportunity to find out more about Ashtanga from me. Here's how part of the conversation unfolded:

Acupuncturist: I heard somewhere that Ashtanga was originally developed as a practice for teenage boys who are physically strong and have lots of energy, and that because of this, it is not suitable for those of us who are not teenage boys to practice Ashtanga daily.

Nobel: Uh, yes, it is true that people do say that. But the idea behind Ashtanga isn't that people need to be able to do full primary the very first time they step into a shala. If you learn Ashtanga in a traditional mysore class, you are taught a couple of postures each time you are there, and you basically do as many (or as few) postures as you can, according to your capacity. Some people eventually do full primary or beyond, some people do half-primary, others are somewhere in between. Whichever way, it's fine. You do whatever you can. 

Acupuncturist: That's interesting. I'm the kind of person who tires easily. Which is why I think that perhaps the thing for me to do is to alternate between doing a powerful practice such as Ashtanga one day, and doing a more gentle restorative practice the next day, and so on. That way, I can build up strength and energy without over-straining myself.

Nobel: I think that's a good way to go. I think I might be the opposite of you, energy-wise. Several years ago, I went to a restorative class in the morning, and felt very lethargic and tired the rest of the day. I feel that Ashtanga gives me that morning energy boost that no other practice has been able to give me. Actually, come to think of it, I probably practice Ashtanga more for the energy boost than for any other reason. The postures are really secondary, in this sense. And samadhi? Well, it comes when it comes. No point thinking too much about it.

The conversation pretty much ended at this point. I decided that, given the context, it would be very inappropriate for me to try to sell Ashtanga too much (if nothing else, you don't want to even remotely come across as being pushy when you are lying more or less spread-eagled, and somebody is hovering over you with needles!). So she proceeded to stick the rest of the needles into me, and left me to "be with the universe." Actually, I have come to enjoy being with the universe with needles stuck inside of me. It actually feels like a sort of restorative practice in and of itself.

But back to the conversation. From this conversation, I learned a couple of things. First, I am reminded that many people out there in the "greater yoga world" hold the view that Ashtanga is something that should only be practiced by teenage boys; I have heard this view years ago, but since I "move" mostly within Ashtanga circles these days, it's been a while since I've heard anybody articulate it. The cynical part of me always thinks that people who hold this view are really thinking: Since yoga is hardly the sport of choice for teenage boys in the west, Ashtanga is too rigorous for any real-life yogi, and therefore should not be practiced if you want to stay in one piece, stay sane, etc. Well, I don't know, there may actually be some truth to this. I sometimes feel that I may be a little bit insane...

Through this conversation, I also learned what the main thing is that brings me to the mat every morning: The energy boost that comes from the practice. No matter how tired I feel when I get up in the morning, I always feel so much more energized by the time I finish the practice. To me, the practice is like an energy-creating machine: I go into it with little or no energy, give out so much energy while doing the practice, and yet always come out at the other end with more energy than when I started. How is this possible? Pretty amazing, don't you think? If nothing else, it shows that you don't have to be a teenage boy to experience the power of this practice.

What's perhaps even more amazing is that if I did not have this conversation, I probably would never have thought to articulate the reasons that bring me to the mat every morning. Isn't it amazing how conversation can serve as a mirror into your thoughts and your inner life in this way?

Friday, January 27, 2012

Why we all suck at yoga (and why we should be okay with sucking)

In his recent post, Steve over at The Confluence Countdown writes:

"I don’t believe that the lesson of yoga is to learn that I’m perfect the way I am or to accept my place in the world or anything of the kind.

It’s a modern form of Tapasya, an attempt to burn away “the bad fat,” as we read in Guruji’s Yoga Mala, in both its literal and figurative forms. It’s hard. It’s rough. It’s grueling.

And, apparently, I still suck at it."

Much of what Steve says here resonates with me. I also agree that the purpose of yoga isn't to learn that I am perfect as I am; or maybe I am perfect, but to get to that perfection, I need to burn away a little "bad fat." Which is what the practice is for. And it takes a while (actually, according to Guruji, it takes Dirga Kala--a long, long while) to burn away that bad fat. And in the process, one gets to see the badness of that bad fat in all its glory (ego, assholeness, etc.).

Actually, I suspect that this is one of the main sticking points that separates Ashtangis from other yogis. If one does the Ashtanga practice daily, one cannot help but see all that "bad fat". And once you see the bad fat, you can't ignore it; which means that you will almost inevitably think that you "suck." I'm guessing that's probably why so many Ashtangis come across as being self-critical, even self-judgmental, in their writings: Writings on many an Ashtanga blog are filled with reports about how one's practice on or off the mat is still lacking in this or that area, and how this or that area needs more work.

I, of course, am a constant contributor to such writing. So much so, that not too long ago, a commenter on one of my posts remarked that devout Ashtangis are not peaceful and very judgmental. I have to say that there's something very funny about being accused of being devout (maybe yoga is a kind of religion, after all) and not peaceful: It's a little bit like being accused of not being happy... I mean, what do you want me to do, be more happy?

In any case, I don't think Ashtangis write like this in order to be intentionally unpeaceful and judgmental. It's the stuff that the practice forces you to see in yourself; and if your writing is "real", it will reflect this stuff. Stuff which induces in you a perpetual sense of "sucking." I think David Garrigues made pretty much the same point when he said something to the effect somewhere that the practice induces a constant sense of disappointment and failure. And perhaps failure and disappointment aren't such bad things if you face them down on a daily basis: They simply become the fabric of your existence and a constant reminder of how much work there is to be done. To use a very cliched expression, it is what it is.

So if everything I just said is correct, then Ashtangis are suckers for sucking: We know that every day's practice is going to leave us with a sense of sucking, but that doesn't stop us from showing up on the mat everyday, and sucking anyway. And sucking is okay. Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is showing up. Well, I think if he practices Ashtanga, he would be saying, "99% of success is showing up and sucking."  If you don't suck (or think you don't, at any rate), then, well... then you probably don't need to practice Ashtanga. Yay!


In other news: Anybody know what happened to Susan? It appears that after posting her latest post earlier today, her blog kind of disappeared. I mean, the blog is still there, but it seems to have been emptied/deleted of all its posts. Susan, if you are out there reading this, can you respond (comment on this post, or otherwise get in touch with me)? I don't mean to sound self-important or anything, but I would really hate to lose touch with a fellow Ashtanga blogger whose writings I really enjoy.    

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Mysore Question: Themes, Theses and Anti-theses

It seems that the Ashtanga blogosphere never tires of posing (and trying to answer) the "Why Go to Mysore/Why go to the Source?" question.Which is great: If nothing else, it gives me more material to Ashtangeek about :-) 

In the course of reading the many responses that have been given to this question over the past few weeks, I have noticed that there are at least three main themes that run through all these responses. Each theme can be divided into two parts, a thesis and an anti-thesis:

Theme (1) : The Magic of that room at KPJAYI

Thesis: "You should go to Mysore because it is the source of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. There is a certain magic to practicing in that practice room at KPJAYI that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere."

Anti-thesis: "Sure, there may be a certain magic in practicing in that room, but the experience is really no more magical than practicing anywhere else: When it comes down to it, the magic is in the practice, not in any particular physical place. If you think that your practice will magically transform just because you are at KPJAYI, or that you will somehow magically emerge from that place a much more self-realized being, well, you're just misguided."

Theme (2): The Magic of India/the Motherland

Thesis: "The experience of traveling to India/Mysore transforms you fundamentally, in a way that cannot happen if you simply study with an authorized or certified teacher where you are."

Anti-thesis: "Sure, the experience of traveling to India/Mysore may transform you radically, but what is really doing the transforming here is the experience of a different culture, not anything related to the practice. If you were to go to, say, Italy, and immerse yourself in its culture like you would immerse yourself in the culture of India, you will also experience the same transformation. Guaranteed, or your money back :-)"

Theme (3): At KPJAYI/The Source, you get unparalleled instruction in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

Thesis: "Studying Ashtanga at KPJAYI is like attending the Harvard or Yale or MIT of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. You are studying with this guy (Sharath) who has spent 21 years living and studying with Guruji, and who is totally dedicated to the life work of his grandfather. It is as close as you will ever get to studying with Guruji himself."

Anti-thesis: "These days, there are so many people studying at KPJAYI (as many as 400 at one time) that you are unlikely to get much individual attention from Sharath. What good is being in the presence of somebody who has studied for such a long time with Guruji if you can't get him to pay you much attention? Besides, with so many people there, the whole place has become at least as much a socializing hotspot, a.k.a Club Mysore, as it is a place of serious spiritual pursuit. Why spend all that money and time to travel halfway across the world just to socialize with a bunch of people and get entangled with one another's chitta vrttis? Moreover, you are much more likely to get more individualized attention if you study with an authorized or certified teacher where you are, where the classes are almost certain to be so much smaller."

If you read this blog regularly, you probably have a pretty good idea where I stand with regard to the three themes above. So I'm not going to repeat myself here. Instead, I'll just sign off here, and leave you to ponder and draw your own conclusions about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the theses and anti-theses in the three themes. If you think that there is a theme I have left out, or if you just have something to share, I'll love to hear from you. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Breath, receptivity, injury, and turning the ego inwards

I was just watching David Garrigues' latest blog post, and the two videos that he has embedded in the post. Wow, the man is like a walking Encyclopedic Ashtanga Exclamation Mark! I really want to go study with him someday. I hear that he is now in Kovalam teaching a workshop. While I, of course, am here in this snowbound tundra of the upper midwest. Why, oh why does everybody seem to be in India except me?

But lamenting and complaining isn't going to get me anywhere. So I'm going to try to say something useful here. Back to David G's post. I've only seen the first video (I plan to save the second one for when I have a little more time later today). In the post and the video, David talks about the relation between receptivity and effort in the practice, and how breath helps us to become more receptive in the midst of effort.

In the first video, he talks about one very common experience that many Ashtangis have: You are in a vinyasa, inhaling up into upward dog. And then suddenly, in the middle of updog, you discover that your lungs are full, and you just can't inhale any further! What do you do? Stop breathing? David's answer is surprisingly commonsensical: Take an extra breath (duh!). When the questioner asks further, "But should we try to finish updog in one breath?" David's answer was, "Yes, but you need to work on the ability to do so."

The idea, as I understand it, is to do your best to follow the vinyasa breath count, but not to force it. Due to many different reasons, every breath that we take will naturally be different in length and duration. And for the same reasons, every updog and downdog will also feel different. It certainly won't help matters to try so hard to make your breath so long that it starts to feel unnatural and forced.

But as I was watching the video, it also occurred to me that even though every updog and downdog is different, there is also a certain distinctive kind of feeling that accompanies both updog and downdog. Here's how I think of it: Doing yoga is kind of like withdrawing into the bottom of a well. Whenever I do updog, it kind of feels like I am using the inhalation to float up to the top of the well to get some fresh air. And when I go into downdog, I feel like I am going back into the bottom of the well to reground and recenter myself for the flight "up" into updog and into the next posture in the sequence. At any rate, this is the image that occurs to me as I was watching David's explanation in his video.

There is something else in David's post that really speaks to me. He writes:

"The deepest person within each of us knows the larger, more comprehensive nature of things beyond the limited appearance of things that the ego and senses apprehend. Learning to identify ourselves with this greater perspective is the subject of receptivity. When we use our ego and senses to become aware in an inward direction, we will find that there is a sort of knowing that has its own direction, its own intelligence, its own necessity to fulfill something through us. And so in a practical, on-the-mat way, receptivity is the sustained effort to give up control enough to receive the wisdom that lies within our inmost core. And then to follow the direction of this wisdom with as much trust as we put in our ego and our ideas and feelings of how we control or shape our lives through our choices."

Notice that David does not say that we should get rid of our ego (like this is even possible). Rather, he says that we should "use our ego and senses to become aware in an inward direction", to "find that there is a sort of knowing that has its own direction, its own intelligence, its own necessity to fulfill something through us." It is in the nature of ego to want to extend and to achieve, to want to make this or that "mine", "my own." Anybody who has ever over-extended or injured himself in the course of practice knows where this can lead :-)

But I think David is suggesting that perhaps we can harness this same extending, achieving drive of the ego, and shine its light inwards and use it to attain greater self-understanding. In other words, the same ego that can over-extend outwards can also be made to turn inward and help us to understand our minds and bodies better. Recently, a teacher gave me some interesting advice in working with my knee. He wrote,

" allow yourself the coming time to learn what your knee likes to do (rather than what you like your knee to do for you) and in that process expect no linear line ahead. you'll most likely be surprised of what you can do, as well as of what you cannot do. also, your knee will be sensitive to weather, sleep, diet, emotion and so forth."

The first time I read these lines, I almost cracked up. It reminds me of something a former U.S. President once said ("Ask not what your knee can do for you--ask what you can do for your knee!"). Very simple, commonsensical advice, really, but not always easy to follow. But I think the same idea as what David was talking about in his post applies here: Rather than allow the ego to indiscriminately extend outwards, try to get the ego to listen and find out what the body needs, and work accordingly.

Alright... I think I'll sign off here. Can't write much more without overextending myself and violating blogging drishti (I guess the same rules apply to Ashtanga blogging as to practice :-)). As always, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you.          

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A little meditation on money, and the fact that some have more of it than others


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:   
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,   
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Philip Larkin

[Note to reader: Please excuse the funny paragraph formatting in what follows. Blogger is acting up again.]

I have some very mixed reactions and thoughts after I first read Larkin's poem. One of my first thoughts was: I don't know what you are talking about, Mr. Larkin. I definitely am not one of those people who have enough money lying around for money to reproach me with letting it lie there wastefully.

But on the other hand, I think Larkin is also right about a few things. He's right that money "clearly... has something to do with life." More accurately, I think it is safe to say that what one does with one's money speaks volumes about the kind of person one is. For instance, it is obvious that "you can’t put off being young until you retire"... and yet I see many people saving furiously for retirement while at the same time neglecting to do the things that they need to do if they are to have a reasonable chance of living long enough to enjoy their retirement when it comes. It is also obvious that you can only "bank your screw" for so long before you get to the point where no amount of money in the world will buy back your ability to screw... but maybe this is not such a big problem these days; after all, when Larkin was writing, there wasn't yet such a thing as Viagra, was there?

Oh wait! Isn't this supposed to be a yoga blog? What is all this talk of screwing doing here? Shouldn't I be talking about, say, Brahmacharya instead? Well, yes, I suppose. So try to forget that I said everything I just said in the last paragraph. But back to Larkin and money. I think there's one really obvious fact that Larkin forgets to mention in his poem: Money is something that some people have (a lot) more of than others. Unless you, uh, have been living under a rock for the last few years, you wouldn't need me to tell you how the economic and political events of the last few years have made this fact all too painfully obvious.

But maybe the obvious doesn't always need to be painful. Maybe, as a society or collective, we will someday get to a point where the fact that some people have a lot more money than others will cease to be a bone of contention and resentment. After all, if I can be happy with what I am (and, by extension, with what I have), why should I care that you have so much more than I of this substance called "money"?

Right now, I'm guessing you are probably thinking that I am being very, very naive (or maybe just very, very high; which I can assure you I'm not; unless, of course, it's possible to get a high from teaching philosophy classes). Well... let me see if I can change your mind. I'll tell you a story, a true story of something that happened to me recently. Last week, at a department meeting, my department chair announced that our college has at its disposal a pretty generous fund that has been donated by some pretty well-to-do alumni (I don't know the full details here, but this is what I gathered it was.). This fund is to be used for "teaching enhancement activities", which could mean a lot of things. But my department chair suggested that inviting some well-known speakers/authors to campus to give talks/book-signings would be a good use of these funds. Sounds good, I thought to myself. So I suggested to everybody at the meeting that we invite this well-known writer who has had a couple of his books made into movies with big-name actors in recent years (I'm not going to tell you who this writer is, but here are a few hints: He's Jewish, lives in New York City, and one of his movies stars Elijah Wood. Do any of this ring any bells?... No, it's not James Altucher. Think harder...). Anyway, everybody present at the meeting thought this was a good idea, so the responsibility fell on me to follow through with this idea and find out the logistical details of what it would take to get this writer to campus (what's his speaking fee, etc, etc.).

After doing a little research, I discovered that he is represented by a big-name speaker agency, and that I would have to call this agency in order to book him for a speaking engagement. So I called the agency yesterday. The guy on the other end of the line--who, I later found out, was actually a vice-president of the agency--was very nice and sounded very enthusiastic, and offered to email me more specific info about this speaker. A few hours later, I called his email. And one of the first things I found out was that to get this writer to campus, we would have to pay him a speaking fee of $25,000 (US dollars, of course) plus first-class expenses (first class airfare, first-class accommodations, first-class everything...). I forwarded the email to my department chair, who promptly replied and informed me that this is a no-go: We would have to spend the entire fund (and more) if we were to get him here! So, no deal. End of story.   

One of my first thoughts upon learning of this writer's hefty speaking fee was: Whoa! Many people don't even make that much in a year. And this guy gets 25K just to go some place and say a few words! The world is a pretty funny place, ain't it? And from here, it would have been all too easy to go down that rabbit hole of resentment/indignation/anger that characterizes so much populist sentiment lately ("Why do the 1% have so much, and the rest just peanuts?! Why is the world so unfair?! Why?!...").

But I think there is a way to not go down that rabbit hole. There is a way to look at the material prosperity of some people without invoking the usual populist sentiments. Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance. In fact, I am quite sympathetic to it (see this post). But I also think that resentment/indignation/anger that goes too far often ceases to be a force for good, and becomes a forces that simply breeds more resentment/indignation/anger, to no clear purpose. I think we also see this same pattern of resentment/indignation/anger reproducing itself to no clear purpose in the recent blog-storm over that Equinox Yoga Video... Anyway, at the risk of sounding very reactionary, I would like to suggest that there is a time for pulling back such sentiments, and regarding the same things which may otherwise cause us anger in a different light.

And I suggest that this instance may be one of those times. Here's one way to look at this writer's material prosperity. He is a creative worker, an artist. And through some hard work and a bit of luck, he has gotten himself to a point where through his creative work, he is able to bring joy and meaning into the lives of others, and is also able, at the same time, to draw forth a certain form of material energy into his life (i.e. money). Personally, I would much rather somebody like him enjoy this material affluence than, say, some Wall Street banker (Well, I suppose some may argue that being a successful Wall Street banker is an art form, but whatever... this is for another post). And if somebody like him can enjoy such prosperity through creative work, doesn't this bode well for the rest of us creative souls out there (remember that being a yoga teacher is also a creative endeavor)? Doesn't this suggest that there may just be enough prosperity (and justice) around in the universe for many more that are like him to tap into? Rather than resent him his wealth and prosperity, shouldn't we celebrate it instead? Perhaps the obvious fact that some people happen to have a lot more money than others need not always be a bone of contention and resentment; if nothing else, we must also look at who it is that is having that money.

Have I succeeded in changing your mind?       

Monday, January 23, 2012

May you have a mind like the moon

[Image taken from here]

Happy Moon Day! May you have a mind like the moon!

Wait... why would anybody want to have a mind like the moon? You may be thinking. Why would anybody want a mind that is full on certain days, empty on others, and half-full on yet others? 

But this is not what I have in mind (no pun intended). "Mind Like the Moon" is an expression in the Japanese martial arts (Tsuki no Kokoro, in Japanese). The idea is that when facing an opponent in combat, one's mind needs to be like the moon, calmly watching over everything in the environment in the present moment, so as to be able to react instantly and appropriately to whatever is being thrown at one. 

This concept applies not just to combat, but also to everyday life. The idea is that if one is fully present in the moment, one will be able to calmly observe everything in one's environment, and respond and interact with the environment accordingly. 

You can probably see the parallel with yoga practice here. In our practice both on and off the mat, we work on cultivating a state of full awareness of everything; things in the environment, as well as sensations within our bodies and the endless chitta-vrtti-feed that is our consciousness. In this sense, I suppose we can say that our minds become moons that shine on things both within and outside us.

Enjoy your moon day, and may you cultivate a moon-like mind :-)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The use of cheat sheets in learning primary series

Yesterday morning, I went to my friends Derek's and Brenda's studio in downtown Fargo for Saturday morning mysore. I did full primary. I observe that my left knee seems to be getting better: Over the last few days, I have discovered a way to get into half-lotus and lotus with little to no discomfort. But I need to remind myself to go slow with these things. The knee is a tricky creature.

Being somebody who practices mostly at home, I can definitely feel the difference between home and shala/studio practice. When I practice in a studio/shala, my pace almost always picks up. Yesterday, for instance, I got through full primary in about an hour and twenty minutes. Which is nothing to write home about, considering that Sharath's led is, what, an hour and five minutes? But it's still at least ten minutes shorter than my usual home primary series practice.

As I was practicing at the studio yesterday, I also noticed something interesting, despite my best efforts to maintain drishti (it seems that I am not doing very well in this department lately, both in the cybershala and in "real" life :-)): I noticed that most of the people practicing around me yesterday were still learning the primary series. Quite a few were looking at "cheat sheets" placed next to their mats. Which is cool; I think we should all use whatever method works for us when learning. But there's also a part of me that can't help feeling that it must be pretty disruptive to the flow and rhythm to be bending or squatting over to look at a piece of paper every couple of postures.

Which made me reflect on my own learning experience: How did I learn the primary series back when I first started practicing Ashtanga? I attended my first mysore class in the summer of 2007 on Maui, at Nancy Gilgoff's studio (House of Yoga and Zen). At that time, I had just completed Eddie Modestini's and Nicki Doane's three week asana intensive at their Maui studio. After the intensive ended, I spent a couple more days on Maui, and then spent a few more days in Honolulu visiting a friend. I used those last couple of days on Maui to do some yoga tourism, and decided to visit the legendary Nancy Gilgoff's studio. Nancy was away teaching a workshop in Europe, and one of her assistants was teaching the class. I didn't know the order of the primary series at that time, although I was familiar with the individual postures from my own Iyengar-inspired practice. The teacher was very kind, and simply kept standing around and telling me what the next posture was. So, in a space of a couple of days at Nancy's studio, I had gotten a pretty good idea of the order of the postures in primary, even if I did not get the exact order down.

And then I went to Honolulu. During the few days I was there, I went to mysore every morning at Purple Yoga. Again, the teacher there was very nice, and very kindly told me what the next posture was when my memory failed me. Since I didn't have very much to do in Honolulu during those few days, I would spend part of the afternoon at a nearby bookstore, where I found a book on Ashtanga yoga. I can't remember who the author of that book was now, but with the help of that book, I succeeded in memorizing the postures in the primary series, so that by the time I left Honolulu a few days later, I had the primary series down pat. I guess it also helps that I am quite good at visualizing things in my head and committing them to memory in this way.

Because of my rather unique learning experience as detailed above, I had the good fortune of never having to use cheat sheets when I first started learning Ashtanga. But what I saw yesterday got me thinking about how it must be like for many other people who are beginning their journey of Ashtanga yoga practice.

As I haven't really been to that many shalas, I really don't know what the norm is at different shalas for beginners who are learning the primary series. Is it "normal" for beginners to learn by looking at cheat sheets? I have heard stories of certain teachers who discourage the use of cheat sheets, but I'm not sure if these teachers are the norm or the exception. So maybe I'll leave you with a few questions here:

(1) If you practice at a shala (or used to), is it common for beginning students there to use cheat sheets to learn the primary series?

(2) What is your teacher/s's policy on the use of such cheat sheets?

(3) Do you have any personal opinion on the use of cheat sheets? Did you learn primary using cheat sheets?

As always, I'll love to hear what you have to say.            

Friday, January 20, 2012

Infants, knowledge, and why we may not know our yoga

Yesterday, in my theory of knowledge class, I had a discussion with my students about what knowledge really is (what else can you really talk about in a class like this, anyway?). One interesting question that came up was: Is it possible to have knowledge without having any concepts?

Right now, you may be wondering: What has any of this to do with yoga? Why are you writing about this on a yoga blog? But stay with me a little: I'll get to the yoga part in due course.

Here's an example that we thought about during our class discussion. Consider an infant who has yet to learn and speak any words. This infant is being breastfed by its mother. We can imagine that every time it is being lifted to its mother's breast to be breastfed, the infant will experience a certain series of sensations: a sensation of warmth and firmness as it touches its mother's body and starts suckling on its mother's breast, a sensation of warm liquidity as it feels the milk from the mother's breast flow into its mouth, a sensation of sweetness as it tastes the milk.

Here's the question: Does the infant know that it is obtaining nourishment through this process? The students and I had different answers to this question. My students believe that even though the infant does not have the words to describe its experience, it knows that it is obtaining nourishment: If the infant is being breastfed regularly, it will become intuitively aware that this is the process it goes through (or rather, this is the process its mother puts it through) when it is feeling hungry, and that the succession of sensations described above always results in the feeling of hunger going away, to be replaced by a feeling of being sated. Thus, the infant knows that it is obtaining nourishment, even if it does not have the words and concepts to describe and label this experience.  

I understand where the students are coming from, and am actually sympathetic to their view, on some level. But on another level, the stuffy analytic philosopher in me refuses to accept that the infant knows anything in any meaningful sense. Here's why: If one is to be able to say that one knows something, one must be able to explain or give an account of what it is that one knows. If I say, for instance, that I know that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is good for my health, I should be in a position to be able to explain how I know this to a friend who asks me why eating fruits and vegetables is good for my health. There are several different ways to go about explaining this: I can appeal to personal experience, and tell my friend that my overall health has improved since I started eating more fruits and vegetables. Or I can appeal to expert opinion, and refer my friend to some books on diet and nutrition that purportedly offer scientific support for my claim. Either way, I am giving an explanation of why I claim to know what I know.

But why is it important to be able to give explanations for what one claims to know? Well, because if I can't give an explanation for what I claim to know, then for all we know, I may just be lucky. Even if I can't give any explanation for why eating fruits and vegetables is good for me, I may still turn out to be right that eating fruits and vegetables is good for me. But if so, then my being right is a matter of being lucky. And surely we wouldn't want to say that something as important as knowledge should be left up to luck and chance?  

Which brings us back to the infant: Since the infant does not have the words and concepts to describe and label the various sensory experiences, and to try to explain why those experiences are related to obtaining nourishment, it cannot give any explanation of what is happening when it is being breastfed. Which is another way of saying that until the infant acquires the relevant words and concepts, it really does not know that it is obtaining nourishment when it goes through the experiences it goes through in being breastfed.

Maybe you are thinking: Why are you picking on an infant who does not have words or concepts? Surely there is something... low about using words and concepts to charge an infant with not having knowledge when the infant cannot possibly be in a position to use words and concepts to defend itself against this charge? Well, if this is what you are thinking, then I think you misunderstand my intentions. I'm not being snarky or meanspirited here and picking on infants. I am really just trying to show that one cannot have knowledge without words and concepts. And I don't mean "not having knowledge" in a meanspirited or derogatory way: In other words, I don't mean "not having knowledge" in the sort of mean-spirited way in which one may accuse someone of being ignorant or dumb or whatever. I'm just saying that if I happen to be right that words and concepts are indeed necessary for knowledge, then since infants (and other beings that do not possess words and concepts) do not possess words and concepts, they necessarily do not have knowledge.

I said that I was going to try to relate all of this to yoga. Well, I was; I was going to try to say something about how all this might show that we don't actually know yoga when we do our daily practice, because a big part of our daily practice on the mat consists of visceral experiences that we may not (yet?) have the words or concepts to describe and characterize. So, perhaps, when we are on the mat, we become like infants, in a way. Again, please, I don't mean this in a snarky or derogatory way. But I'm a little too blogged-out right now to write much more about this yoga connection. So I'll have to leave things at this, and maybe (?) write a follow-up post to this in the future. Please forgive me: I think I just baited and switched you in reading a long post about philosophy!

In any case, when all is said and done, it is not always clear that being in a state of not having knowledge of the world is such a bad thing. Consider, for instance, the sentiment expressed in the following poem by Tagore:

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
And the restless water is boisterous.

On the seashore of endless worlds
The children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand,
And they play with empty shells.
With withered leaves they weave
Their boats and smilingly float them
On the vast deep.
Children have their play on the
Seashore of worlds.

They know not how to swim,
They know not how to cast nets.
Pearl-fishers dive for pearls,
Merchants sail in their ships,
While children gather pebbles
And scatter them again.

They seek not for hidden treasures,
They know not how to cast nets.
The sea surges up with laughter,
And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
Death-dealing waves sing
Meaningless ballads to the children,
Even like a mother while rocking her baby's cradle.
The sea plays with children,
And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
Tempest roams in the pathless sky,
Ships are wrecked in the trackless water,
Death is abroad and children play.
On the seashore of endless worlds is the
Great meeting of children.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

C'est la vie

I really shouldn't have watched that Equinox yoga video. Once I did, the floodgates were thrown open, and I found myself reading stuff that yogis and yoginis of all stripes have been saying about the video, throwing my blogging drishti even more off... Maybe this means that I never had any blogging drishti, to begin with. But whatever.

Anyway.... I really only have this to say:  Let's face it. Whether we like it or not, the yoga world is divided into two groups of people: (1) Those who look good wearing very little, and who also possess the uncanny ability to float from handstand into Bakasana, and then back into handstand and into lotus, all the while wearing very little, and (2) everybody else, who either lack said ability, or who is unwilling to exhibit said ability while wearing very little.

For reasons that are really not very mysterious, many people who belong in group (1) have a proclivity to display said ability on videos. You can say what you like, but I'm afraid nothing you say or do (short of, I don't know, stationing yourself at every possible location in which such videos might be made, and physically stopping these people from making these videos) is going to change anything. C'est la vie.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Video that rocked the yoga blogosphere

Earlier today, I finally caved in to popular blogosphere pressure, and violated my blogging drishti... I went and watched that Equinox Yoga Video! You probably know what I'm talking about: Most of you have probably already seen it, so there's no point pretending it doesn't exist. Here it is. Enjoy.

I guess I may as well say a couple of things about it, while I'm at it. When I was watching it, the very first thought that struck me (I swear!) was: Hmm, she has a very impressive practice. My handstand isn't half as effortless as hers, and I'm nowhere close to getting Urdhva Kukkutasana.

But I really don't get those close-up shots of her... crotch and butt. Nor do I get the rear shots. I wonder if this might be an Iyengar influence? I went to an Iyengar workshop several years ago, and the teacher kept telling us to "feel the skin peeling away from your buttocks, and moving towards your heels." Or at least that's what I think he said. So maybe the close up butt shots are a nod to the Iyengar people out there who are watching this video? But then again, what do I know about Iyengar? Iyengar people out there, please forgive me if what I just said blasphemes your lineage and guru. I will perform a couple of extra Surya Namaskars tomorrow morning by way of apology.

But of course, you must have noticed that I have said nothing so far about the alleged sexual objectification/leeriness of this video (which, I take it, is what has been getting so many cyber-yogis up in arms lately), or the fact that said yogini is practicing while her significant other/lover/roommate (?) remains sound asleep. I guess he must not be all that into yoga, no? :-)

Anyway, a lot has been said about the alleged sexual objectification/leeriness in this video, so it probably won't serve any purpose for me to add my voice to the fray here. Instead, I'll just leave you with a question:  Assuming that the video indeed sexually objectifies (at least one) women, can it still be a good yoga video? In other words, should the sexual objectification/leeriness content of the video (assuming that it has such content) take away from the quality of the asana practice depicted in the video?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Transmission, "cheating", and the Grimmly Phenomenon: More Ashtangeek Musings

There are so many insightful points that Kiri Miller brings up in her paper on virtual transmission and visceral practice, that I find myself still having lots of things to say, despite having written an entire post about the cybershala yesterday. So I guess I'll just keep saying what I have to say, until the well runs dry, so to speak... actually, knock on wood! May the well of blogging wisdom at Yoga in the Dragon's Den never run dry... Om.

One interesting issue that Miller brings up in her paper is the issue of possibly "cheating" on one's teacher in Ashtanga. I am putting "cheating" in quotation marks, because I want to leave it an open question as to whether one can actually cheat on one's teacher. Miller writes:

"Watching these videos also gave me the uncomfortable feeling that I might be cheating on my teacher. Ashtanga students are not supposed to start experimenting with advanced asana of their own accord. On the other hand, the structured nature of ashtanga makes it particularly well suited to independent practice, amateur-to-amateur pedagogy, and online discourse among a dispersed community of practitioners."

Indeed, the issue of possibly "cheating" on one's teacher opens the door to the possibility of another, broader kind of "cheating": "Cheating" on the tradition as a whole by learning and doing the practice wholly outside the traditional context of a face-to-face teacher-student relationship. As with the first kind of "cheating" (cheating on one's teacher), I am also leaving it an open question here as to whether one can actually "cheat" on the tradition. Anyway, Kiri cites Grimmly as a possible example of this form of "cheating":

"Grimmly is an ashtanga student without a teacher—an impossible contradiction to many practitioners, but one that is getting more possible all the time... As Grimmly developed his home practice, some of his choices posed challenges to ashtanga orthodoxy. For instance, when Grimmly blogged about his decision to begin learning the second series of asana, one commenter told him that he should not be learning any intermediate asana before he could stand up from a backbend: “Then and only then you start to add intermediate to your existing primary. Your teacher would give you each new asana as he saw your progress. . . . Traditionally in India, yoga has been learned from teacher to student, not from a book or video. It’s really not right to decide to give yourself postures.”

Before I go on, I should say this for the record: I am not accusing anybody of anything. First, I think that Grimmly is a great yogi. I really feel that his personal story of how he started out as an overweight 43 year old man who basically taught himself yoga, and changed his entire life and worldview, is an inspiration to all. I certainly would never accuse him of being a cheater in any way. Nor am I accusing Miller of accusing Grimmly of being a cheater.

Now that we have that out of the way, I would nevertheless like to pose a couple of questions here:

(1) Is it possible to "cheat" on one's teacher in Ashtanga? If it is possible, what exactly is so bad or wrong about such "cheating"?

(2) Is it possible to "cheat" on the tradition as a whole? If it is possible, what exactly is so bad or wrong about such "cheating"?

Let's think about (1). It seems to me that the notion of "cheating" on one's Ashtanga teacher involves, at its core, a certain sense that one has shown disrespect for one's teacher by learning or experimenting with postures the teacher has not officially "given" one. There also seems to be some blurriness with this notion of "cheating". For one, it does seem that "cheating" on a less senior teacher by"getting" postures from a more senior teacher is more kosher than the other way around. A prime example of this would be something like this: Suppose I were to be given a certain number of postures (say, second up to kapotasana) by a particular teacher. And then I go to Mysore, and I am given more postures by Sharath (say, second up to dwipada sirsasana: I'm not saying this is going to happen, I'm just giving an example...). And then I go back to my "home" shala, and practice second up to dwipada, using the fact that Sharath has given me the postures as justification to do so. In this case, even if I were "cheating" on my original teacher, it wouldn't be as "bad" as if I had "gotten" the postures from a teacher that is less senior than my original teacher, right?

I apologize if all this is very convoluted and wordy. I try not to write like this most of the time. But anyway, back to my example. Maybe you'll think that my example is not a good one. After all, Sharath is... Sharath. He represents the Source of the lineage right now. How can getting postures from him constitute "cheating" on anybody? Well, maybe not... But if we consider Guruji as being (so far) the one and only guru of the Ashtanga lineage, then Sharath is just a senior teacher. So if we substitute "Sharath" in my example above with "Tim Miller" or "Kino MacGregor" or with whatever your favorite senior teacher is, the question I am asking is still pertinent. The question then, is: If you get new postures at a workshop/intensive/whatever from Kino/Tim Miller/insert-your-favorite-senior-teacher-here, and then go back to your home shala and practice these postures in the presence of your original teacher, this "cheating" wouldn't be as bad as if you had "gotten" the postures from a teacher that is less senior than your original teacher, right?

Why isn't this "cheating" as bad? There are several possible answers. It may be because the senior teacher is commonly seen to be somebody who is more experienced as a teacher than your less senior original teacher. Whereas if you were to "get" postures from Youtube that you had not been given by any teacher, and practice them on your own, that would be a different story. Because Youtube is not a teacher. And what is wrong with learning postures from Youtube rather than from a teacher? Well, there is the question of safety: If you practice a new posture by yourself, your chances of getting hurt are probably higher, all other things being equal.

But maybe it's not just a question of safety. After all, who can guarantee that any teacher, no matter how senior, will be able to ensure that you perform a posture in complete safety? Perhaps the real issue is that if you "get" postures from Youtube rather than from a teacher, then the transmission of the posture is not done in accordance with tradition (which supposedly holds that yoga should be taught face-to-face, from a teacher to a student).

Which brings us to (2). And this is where the "Grimmly phenomenon" comes in. Grimmly, as we know, has drawn considerable flak from traditionalist Ashtangis for having learnt at least the first two series of Ashtanga all by himself, from books and videos. The charge of these traditionalists, as I understand it, is that Grimmly has gone against tradition by learning Ashtanga and giving himself postures from books and videos rather than by going to a "proper" shala and receiving instruction the "proper", "traditional" way. Ah, Grimmly, why you so improper?! Do you not fear the might of the Ashtanga police? :-)

But seriously, supposing that Grimmly has indeed flouted tradition or "cheated" on it (is it possible, by the way, to cheat on something that you may not even have a relationship with in the first place? Something to think about, no?)... Supposing that he has, what would be so wrong with it? Could there not be possible scenarios in which such "cheating" is okay, maybe even the right thing to do? Think about this fantastic scenario: Suppose all Ashtangis in the world today were to suddenly drop dead from some mysterious illness tomorrow (and that includes me, unfortunately. Actually, come to think of it, it would probably also include you; you must be an Ashtangeek to actually have the patience to read this super-long convoluted post...). Also suppose that, by some unfortunate coincidence, a big earthquake were to happen in Mysore tomorrow, and the KPJAYI were to be buried under tons of rubble, so that all knowledge of Ashtanga were to be lost to all humanity.

Now imagine that, a thousand years from now, a group of archeologists were to go to what is now Mysore, and unearth the remains of what was once KPJAYI. These archeologists will then discover pictures of Guruji and Sharath (they will probably also discover a coconut stand that was demolished just before the earthquake, but that's another story...). Along with these pictures, they will also discover copies of Yoga Mala, and come to realize that a wonderful thing called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga existed a thousand years ago, before all humanity lost knowledge of it and became a whole bunch of sedentary overweight couch potatoes...

Anyway, suppose one of these archeologists decides that something so wonderful as this Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga should never be lost to humanity again. So this archeologist decides to teach himself Ashtanga from Yoga Mala. Now, would this archeologist now be "cheating" on the tradition, since he is teaching himself Ashtanga through a book, and not through a live teacher? I'm guessing the answer is no, but maybe I'll leave this up to you to decide.

Whew! This has been a super-long, very convoluted post. If you made it this far, I really, really thank you for putting up with my all-over-the-place writing style. Well, if you have any thoughts on (1) or (2), I'll love to hear from you, as always.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Cybershala, Ashtangeeks, and Ashtanga Sith Lords

I have been following with great interest some of the discussion that has arisen in the Ashtanga blogosphere as a result of the recent publication of Kiri Miller's paper, "Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala", on her blog. Many thanks to Grimmly for posting the cybershala part of the paper on his blog, and bringing this very intriguing paper to my attention.

In her paper, Miller explores how the emergence of the cybershala has shaped the practice of many an Ashtangi. She observes that:

"An overwhelming number of yoga blogs, videos, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and other forms of online social media now constitute a “cybershala” of ashtanga yoga practitioners—many who work with teachers regularly, others who are cultivating a practice as “home ashtangis” (cf. Finnegan 1989 on “hidden musicians”). Yoga bloggers face a challenge familiar to ethnomusicologists and dance scholars: how can one communicate kinesthetic, multisensory experiences without bodily presence and a shared sensorium?"

Whatever else one may think, I think it is safe to say that the emergence of the cybershala can be seen as a boon to many a yoga geek. YogaRose, for instance, writes:

"I am quite intrigued by the questions that Miller is raising for Ashtanga practitioners because I live in the middle of the Mitten State. Here in Lansing, Mich., even though there is no dedicated Ashtanga shala, I  have fine access to Ashtanga classes and teachers, and I have friends who are as enamored of the practice as I am. But…I don’t really have anyone to consistently geek it out with, if you know what I mean. And even if I were in New York City or Encinitas, it’s not really fair to ask of anyone to be available — by phone, by email, whatever — when it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep and I want to discuss more research postures for supta kurmasana (sleeping tortoise). (Who has that? Even if your significant other practices, can you really wake them up during your insomnia to talk more Ashtanga?) Anyway, when I started blogging more frequently, I started getting more engaged with the Ashtanga community via blogs, Twitter and Facebook and, yes, YouTube. It was like having a community full of people who understood me — where I didn’t have to justify (like I on occasion have to do with non-ashtangis) how I don’t get bored by doing the same sequence day after day — especially now that I’m practicing six days a week."

I totally relate to what YogaRose is saying here. As a yoga geek/closet-aspiring-yoga bum, I often find myself having many thoughts about the practice. Some of them are about the nuts and bolts of how to work towards particular asanas, others are about how different aspects of the practice relate to different areas of spiritual and emotional matters in daily life. Over the course of the 15 months or so since I began blogging, I have noticed that the cybershala offers a space for sustained contemplation and discussion of things related to the practice in a way that real-life shala culture often doesn't. I could be wrong about this (or it could just be my relatively limited experience of practicing in a "live" shala), but I get the sense that real-life shala culture tends not to be very conducive to discourse about the practice itself. In the shalas that I've been to, people show up, do their practice, and then leave. In such an environment, it may well be several months (if at all) before you even learn the name of the person who practices next to you everyday. This is true, even if you may, ironically, be very intimately acquainted with many aspects of that person's body: For instance, you may have acquired a very thorough knowledge of that person's breathing pattern in particular postures, how he or she moves into and out of particular postures, and (God forbid) even the distinctive smell of that person's body and/or deodorant, so that you probably can identify that person with your eyes closed. But you don't even know that person's name!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that traditional shala culture, by its very nature, encourages the fostering of non-verbal knowledge of the practice over discursive verbal knowledge. Perhaps this has something to do with Guruji's "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory" dictum. In any case, even if you were to stop in the middle of practice to ask the teacher questions, you would more often than not get only very brief answers regarding how to perform particular postures or alignment. It's very, very unlikely that you will get to geek out with the teacher about, say, the pros and cons of doing the straight-legged jump-through versus doing the cross-legged jump-through. Indeed, doing this will probably disturb the peace of the other practitioners and also take the teacher's attention away from other practitioners who need his or her support, and thus constitute bad shala etiquette.

Seen in this light, perhaps the cyber-shala provides a much-needed outlet for Ashtangis like me with a geeky, discursive bent of mind to indulge their geeky impulses; it enables the Ashtanga geek (Ashtangeek?) to discourse endlessly about the myriad ways of getting bound in Supta Kurmasana, or about the many trials and tribulations of second series. I think somebody should do a study on whether Ashtangis with a geeky bent of mind ("Ashtangeeks") are more likely to be active participants in the cybershala... In any case, I think we can say that the cybershala is arguably a boon to the Ashtangeek, for the above reasons.  

But could such a boon contain within itself the seeds of a bane? What do I mean? Well, I just said that the cybershala "enables" the Ashtangeek to geek out endlessly about the intricacies of practice. In doing so, could the cybershala be enabling a particular pattern of behavior that may not be so desirable for the Ashtangeek's sadhana? I don't know if you have had this experience, but I sometimes find myself thinking about particular things that were said in the blogosphere during practice. This is particularly true when I approach postures that are challenging, and that have either been discussed a lot in the blogosphere and/or of which many videos have been made. Some of these thoughts may be useful to the practice, especially if they involve particular pitfalls or alignment details to be mindful of. But I also have to admit that other thoughts may not be so constructive, and may indeed add to the chitta vrtti that already characterizes the mind of the Ashtangeek ("Oh, why do I take so many breaths to get into Kapotasana, where Ashtangi X only took, like two breaths to get his heels in the same posture?", "Why isn't my jumpback to Chatvari position in Surya B as smooth as our friend Ashtangi Y's in her viral Youtube video? Why?!").    

So perhaps, as useful as the cyber-shala may be for the Ashtangeek, dangers also abound, and the Ashtangeek must proceed with caution, lest he or she be sucked into the Dark Side of exceeding the 1 percent theory quota. Maybe I already have done so, given the amount of Ashtanga blogging that I do... Uh oh, could I actually be an Ashtanga Sith Lord?
Ashtanga Sith Lords chilling after a powerful morning practice
[Image taken from here]

Well, this is probably not a good place to try to answer this question. If I really am an Ashtanga Sith Lord, quitting the cybershala now probably won't do much good (the damage is probably already done). Maybe the only way to reverse Sith-Lordhood is to go to Mysore; maybe Sharath has already heard of the dangers of the cybershala, and has concocted a special anti-cyber-shala potion that he will make me consume upon arriving there, which will magically cause me to lose all desire for blogging (btw, is this true, all of you bloggers who are now in Mysore? Did you consume any mysterious-looking and funny-smelling potion upon arriving at KPJAYI? It's probably labelled with some obscure-sounding Sanskrit name that you can't recognize...). 
In the meantime, I intend to continue being a part of the cyber-shala, and to regale (?) you with my neither-here-nor-there musings about anything remotely related to the practice...     

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Did I really take out the trash?

[Image taken from here]

I seem to remember
taking out the trash in the snow earlier today,
Seem to remember
the snow-white trashy sensation
of little dumpstery flakes of snow flying in my face
as I lift and then slam shut
the snow-covered lid of the dumpster.

But really,
did I really take out the trash?
Well... I think so;
the trash can in the kitchen is empty,
filled only with the whitely sceptic scent
of a fresh snowy-white trash bag.
And I really seem to remember that white trashy sensation
of little dumpstery snowflakes falling on my face.

But did I really take out the trash?
Or is the white trashy dumpstery snowflaky sensation merely the residue
of a perception that never was,
a little flake of falsehood pointing seductively
to a universe that exists
only in the snowy recesses of imagination?

Nobel Ang
1:40 p.m. CST
January 14th 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

Some neither here-nor-there musings on a downcast, snowy Friday afternoon

It's almost 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon. I'm sitting here in front of my computer, musing over a few things that have occurred to me over the course of the week, both from the blogosphere and from "real" life. Hmm... maybe I should start a weekly series of such "Friday Afternoon Neither-here-nor-there Musings." In any case, here are my musings on this donwcast, snowy Friday the 13th:

I. There are siddhis that you probably don't want to have

This occurred to me yesterday during my Buddhist Philosophy class. I was relating the story of Gautama Buddha's enlightenment. According to legend, at the moment that he attained enlightenment, Gautama was able to see all his past lives. A student raised her hand, and asked me if there were any special meditation or yoga techniques that one can practice to attain such knowledge of one's past lives. Now, if I had been a little quicker on the uptake, I would have recognized this moment as an opportunity either to:

(1) Promote Ashtanga Yoga ("Yes, there is a special series of yoga exercises called the Primary Series." If you practice this series continuously for a thousand days without any interruption (except Saturdays and moon days), you will gain the siddhi of seeing your past lives at the end of the thousand days. Wanna try? I can teach you...")


(2) Become the leader of a new cult, The Being-Able-to-See-Your-Past-Lives-By-the-Grace-of-Guru-Nobel-Fellowship: Maybe I would ask her to close her eyes, then walk over to her, place my hand on the crown of her head, and ask her if she feels a warm sensation there. She would presumably answer yes (how can it be otherwise, when a hand is on your head?), and I would say that if she allows me to perform this Past-Life-Knowledge-Transmission-Technique on her head continuously for one thousand days straight, she will gain the siddhi of seeing her past lives at the end of the thousand days.

But of course, not being so quick on the uptake, I missed this great opportunity to perform (1) or (2), and simply told her that although I don't know what the Buddhist answer to this question is (I really don't), I do know that from the perspective of yogic philosophy, being able to see your past lives would probably be a siddhi that is granted to the yogi by Shiva/Krishna, and is something that is beyond the yogi's control. At least, I think this is what the answer is.

At the same time, I was also thinking to myself: This is one siddhi that you seriously may not want to have. I mean, are you really prepared to receive the full knowledge of what you were in all your past lives? What if you were to discover that you were a serial killer in one of your past lives? What if you were a cold-blooded killer who raped and mutilated hundreds or even thousands of people before killing them? Wouldn't this knowledge be a heavy burden to have to carry around for the rest of your present life?

I don't know where I'm going with this. As I said, this is a very neither-here-nor-there post.

II. Is there a better way to blog? 

If you have been paying even a little attention to the yoga blogosphere in the last week or so, you will know of that infamous NYT article about how yoga can do some not-so-nice things to your body (and quite possibly, your mind too). Many bloggers have responded (and are still responding) to article, including senior teachers and yours truly (in putting myself and "senior teachers" in the same sentence, I'm not saying I'm a senior teacher. I'm just saying that I responded to the article. Please, I'm not that grandiose..).

Many of these responses are very well-written, and I think they all do a good job of presenting a more balanced picture of what yoga really is, in a way that the article in the reputable NYT has unfortunately failed to do. Nevertheless, over the last few months, I have started to notice a recurring pattern in the yoga blogosphere. The pattern goes something like this:

1. Somebody publishes an inflammatory article or blog post. The content of such blog posts or articles vary widely, but they are generally articles or blog posts attacking a certain yoga style or even a particular yoga teacher. Examples include that Elephant Journal post by that Sklivas person alleging that Ashtanga is only for the super-fit, or that article about how Ashtanga practice messes up one's pedicure. More recently, there was that NYT article about how Ashtanga is not the best thing to do if you want a tight ass. And then there was also Kinogate 1 and Kinogate 2. 

2. A few brave bloggers rise up to the challenge of debunking whatever erroneous claims that were made in the article or blog post in question.

3. The article/blog post and the first few responses to it set off a series of after-shocks that reverberate through the yoga blogosphere. Before you know it, every blogger that is worth his or her salt (including, again, yours truly: I leave it up to you to judge whether I am worth my salt...) has jumped into the fray, and has his or her own more-or-less unique take on the issue. Although truth be told, some takes are probably more unique than others. But I'm not supposed to say this. So pretend you never read this last line [wink].

4. The after-shocks, in turn, set off a further series of after-after-shocks. And if the after-after-shocks are strong enough, we may even have after-after-after-shocks. And so on, until there are no more shocks.

And then everything is relatively peaceful in the blogosphere, until the next inflammatory post or article comes along. Then repeat steps 1 to 4.  

I'm not sure if this is necessarily a bad thing. After all, people have been writing inflammatory stuff and stirring up s&%t ever since humans learnt to read and write. And so long as humans have chitta vrtti, at least some of this chitta vrtti will spill out of the minds of humans and onto the printed page (or the internet). So perhaps all of this is in the natural course of things. But still, I can't help but wonder: Could be there a different (and maybe, better?) way of life in the blogosphere?

I also don't know where I am going with this. As I said, this is a very neither-here-nor-there post. But I thnk you for bearing with me and reading all this, as always.   

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Practice report, Jiva Bandha; What can I write a book on?

Practice this morning was... interesting. It had been a very mild winter so far... till today. As I stepped on the mat this morning, I definitely felt the cold; I later learnt that the temperature outside this morning was somewhere around 5 degrees fahrenheit (-15 degrees celsius). And my practice room isn't the best-heated room in the apartment. The cold definitely made a difference flexibility-wise: In the first few Suryas, my hamstrings were cold and tight, and it wasn't till somewhere around Parsvotttanasana that I felt truly warm and open.

But I think that practicing in colder weather has its advantages too. Because my body is tighter, I have to work with the tightness and perceived lack of flexibility, bring more consciousness to the breath, and move with greater awareness; whereas in a warm environment, there is a tendency to just allow yourself to kind of "melt" into the softness of the muscles and joints. As I moved through primary this morning, I made a conscious intention to breathe more evenly and freely, and also to practice Jiva Bandha, i.e. lightly pressing the tip of the tongue to the center of the roof of the mouth. I learnt this Bandha from Nicki Doane a few years ago (she said that she learnt it from Richard Freeman). It's supposed to do two things: (1) On a physical level, pressing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth prevents jaw tension. It is simply impossible to do this AND clench the jaw at the same time (try it: You'll see what I'm saying :-)). (2) On a pranic level, keeping the tongue in that position helps to conserve prana and prevent prana leakage.  

Practicing Jiva Bandha is especially useful when it comes to challenging postures. In Kapotasana this morning, I made a conscious effort to practice Jiva Bandha. I didn't get deeper into the posture, but the quality of the posture was different: I was able to breathe a little more fully, and the posture as a whole felt more free of tension.


In a comment I posted on Claudia's recent post on avoiding Yoga Jet Lag, I half-seriously remarked that Claudia's experience "gives us another reason why we should all try to write a book." Claudia rather unexpectedly responded to my comment by saying, "Nobel, yes good idea, your book, can't wait!"

When I first saw Claudia's response, I simply smiled, and didn't think too much of it. But earlier today, I started giving the idea a little more thought: I have been writing this blog for more than a year now. I might be able to use some of the material in this blog to generate a book (just like Claudia used material from her blog to generate her by-now best-selling book, "21 Things to Know Before Starting An Ashtanga Yoga Practice" :-)). But I'm very much a blogging-on-the-fly kind of blogger: I almost never plan in advance what I'm going to blog about. This being the case, my blog posts are kind of all over the place: I basically just blog about anything yoga-related that happens to strike me as interesting on any given day. So, there are no central organizing themes in my blog posts (other than the fact that they are all related to yoga in one way or another). So what should I write a book about (if I'm indeed going to write one)? What are the central themes in this blog that are worth drawing together and putting into a book?

Well, let's see... here are a few off-the-wall possible titles/ideas (I'm being facetious, just so you know):

1. How to Mess up your SI joint, Bust Your Knee, (Almost) Break Your Back in Kapotasana, and Live to Tell the Tale

Who would want to read a book with this title? Hmm... but maybe if I write this book, the NYT will want to publish an excerpt of it (you know what I'm talking about; don't make me link to that NYT article again). And then I'll be famous (and maybe rich too?); but this fame will come only at the price of selling out the yoga community and becoming Yoga Public Enemy #1. So, not a good idea.

2. Random Confessional Musings of a Crazy Chinese Ashtangi in the Upper Midwest

Will anybody be interested in reading a book with such a title?  

3. Confessions of a Crazy Chinese Douchebag Who Hangs Around Coffee Shops (and Secretly Scorns Strange Old Men Who Mistake Him for Being Japanese)

A book like this would at least be a true account of something that actually happened. But again, would anybody want to read a book with a title like this?

Speaking of which, here's something I'm really curious about, being a non-native English speaker: Can anybody tell me the difference between "asshole" and "douchebag"? I tried asking my students in class this morning, and we all had a great time laughing and thinking about this distinction, but in the end, nobody could come up with a satisfactory answer.

4. Why I Haven't Been to Mysore Even Though I Practice Ashtanga Yoga 

I have written a few posts on this. But I'm not sure if there is enough material to generate into a book. Besides, I'm also not sure if anybody would be interested in reading something like this.

5. The Collected Wisdom of Kino MacGregor

Looking through my posts, I've noticed that many of them involve things that I have learnt from Kino, either in person at her workshops, or via email correspondence. There probably is enough material to turn into a book. But if anybody is going to write a compilation of Kino-wisdom, it should be Kino herself! It would be very weird for some other person to write a book like this, wouldn't it? Besides, I have heard somewhere that Kino herself is in the process of publishing a book. So why steal her thunder? (remember Asteya (Non-Stealing)...)

But seriously, any of you regular readers out there have any ideas about what I could write a book on, if I should decide to use material from this blog to write a book? If you have any ideas at all (doesn't matter how off-the-wall), I'll love to hear from you. I'm not yet committed either way (to writing or not writing). But I would like some ideas, so I can think about this some more. Many thanks in advance.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yoga and the art of movie-watching

Although this blog is primarily about yoga, I sometimes also write movie and food reviews. Why? Because I do watch movies and eat food (I have yet to attain the siddhi of surviving only on prana), and there is no other public medium where I can readily express my views about these things. So although movies and food are not the central themes of this blog, I do write the occasional movie and food review.

Very interestingly, it seems that my recent review of Melancholia has unexpectedly been generating a lot of traffic for this blog; so much so, that it is now of the most read posts on this blog! Who'd have known? I'm guessing that many a Kirsten Dunst or Lars Von Trier fan have inadvertently stumbled upon this blog by googling "Melancholia", "Kirsten Dunst", "Lars Von Trier", or some combination of the three.

When I first discovered this, I was inclined to just file it away in my mind as one of the funny things that happen in a blogger's "career", if you may call it that: Occasionally, you write these posts that you don't expect anybody to read, and voila! It becomes a big traffic-generating source for the blog. But as I pondered this matter a little more, I couldn't help wondering: Could there be some kind of subtle connection between yoga and movie-watching? Could watching movies be a yogic experience in some way? If one defines "yoga" broadly as a process of union with something greater than oneself, could watching movies bring about such a union?

I pondered these questions a little, and then set them aside. And then, yesterday, I came across this recent New Yorker article by Anthony Lane. Most of the article consists of a review of a couple of recent movies (Melancholia among them). But there is one passage that speaks to the questions I was pondering. Lane writes:

"There’s only one problem with home cinema: it doesn’t exist. The very phrase is an oxymoron. As you pause your film to answer the door or fetch a Coke, the experience ceases to be cinema. Even the act of choosing when to watch means you are no longer at the movies. Choice—preferably an exhaustive menu of it—pretty much defines our status as consumers, and has long been an unquestioned tenet of the capitalist feast, but in fact carte blanche is no way to run a cultural life (or any kind of life, for that matter), and one thing that has nourished the theatrical experience, from the Athens of Aeschylus to the multiplex, is the element of compulsion. Someone else decides when the show will start; we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will. The same goes for the folks around us, whom we do not know, and whom we resemble only in our private desire to know more of what will unfold in public, on the stage or screen. We are strangers in communion, and, once that pact of the intimate and the populous is snapped, the charm is gone. Our revels now are ended."

Most of this passage, as you can see, is a critique of home cinema, which I am very sympathetic to; I'm one of those people who get really peeved at having my movie-watching experience interrupted. But I also find it very interesting that Lane describes the traditional movie-going experience (as opposed to the home cinema experience) as one involving "compulsion", in that "we may decide whether to attend, but, once we take our seats, we join the ride and surrender our will."

If Lane is right (and I think he is), then going to the movies involves an act of surrender. For a couple of hours, you leave everything else that is in your life at the door of the movie theater, and immerse yourself fully into the universe of the movie that you are watching. You become a fly on a wall in the world of the protagonist; for just a couple of hours, your physical body exists only in order to facilitate this fly-like immersion in the movie universe. You become a part of something bigger than yourself, namely, an alternate universe. We might even say that being fully immersed in a movie is, in this sense, a sort of out-of-body experience.

I often wonder if this kind of "out-of-body" experience is what draws movie-lovers to the movies. Perhaps, without being fully aware of it, they are seeking a kind of yogic experience; an experience of surrendering their wills, even if only for a couple of hours, and becoming part of something bigger than their individual egos.  In so doing, the moviegoer also allows herself to be subtly altered by the world in which she has immersed herself, and emerges from the experience a slightly different person.

Interesting, don't you think? :-)

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Five Stages of Yoga Geekdom

[Image taken from here]

I just read Yyogini's latest post. In it, she talks about how she responds to well-meaning queries by her friends about her yoga practice in social situations. She writes:

'...I believe that people want me to casually talk about my yoga progress, with a sense of humor, and maybe some gossip, as if I were reporting about my progress in, say, salsa dancing or figure skating: "Oh it's going great! I fell on my butt soooooo many times but I just mastered pirouetting on one foot last week!" "I'm so much more flexible now that before I started yoga. I used to not be able to touch my toes, and now I can almost do a split!" "OMG, there's this one yoga teacher who is super hot! Men who practice yoga have such nice bodies! I go to his class all the time, and he's the only teacher who can get me into a handstand! You should come try his class with me sometime! He has the most sexy voice ever and you'll feel so relaxed in this class!" "My butt is so much perkier now after all the yoga I've been doing. It's super awesome. The yoga inversions help reverse the aging effects that gravity has on a woman's skin and boobs! I feel younger than ever before!"'

I totally relate to everything that Yyogini writes about here. Although I am a yoga geek, I am nevertheless not totally oblivious to the social expectations of non-yoga-geeks in polite conversation. Like Yyogini, I am aware that most of my friends are not interested in hearing about things like "how I'm trying to burn through my samskaras with metaphoric/energetic fire generated by breath and postures", or about how I am still able to practice with an injury, and the kinds of modifications and adjustments to my life and practice that I have had to make. In other words, most people in social situations are not interested in the nitty-gritty, not-so-pretty details of how you do your yoga practice. Rather, they consciously or unconsciously expect you to regale them with entertaining stories/anecdotes of your yoga exploits (preferably with at least a little bit of sexually-charged content thrown in, as Yyogini relates above). Nobody (well, at least nobody who is not also a yoga geek) wants to hear about how you are lengthening your adductors or hamstrings in hip openers and forward bends, or how you are bringing more awareness to your thoracic spine in backbends (yawn...).

I suspect that many people who read this blog will be able to relate to things like this: Who, after all, would take precious time out of their precious day to read this thing called "Yoga in the Dragon's Den", and sit through not-so-pretty accounts of practice reports, injuries, and other random musings about minute aspects of yoga practice, if they did not have at least a streak of yoga geekiness? (To my, ahem, loyal readers: Many thanks for reading my random writings. Please continue to do so. :-))

But Yyogini's post has also prompted me to ponder another question: How does a yoga geek become a yoga geek? Or, what are the stages one goes through in the transformation from average man/woman in the street to full-fledged yoga geek? Through my own observation, I have come to the tentative conclusion that the transformation involves five stages:

(1) The yoga zealot/evangelist stage: This characterizes the first phase of many a yoga geek's career. Yyogini describes this stage very vividly:

"When I first started yoga, I couldn't stop talking about it, whether people wanted to hear about yoga or not. Like a zealous religious fanatic, I would shove complementary yoga passes into people's hands and try to get them to come to a yoga class with me."

At this stage, the yogi/yogini simply cannot understand why the whole world isn't doing yoga: After all, if yoga is such a great thing, and does all these wonderful things to one's mind, body and spirit and makes the world a much better place for everybody, and somebody out there is actually NOT doing yoga, wouldn't that person have to be either ignorant about yoga or seriously not thinking straight? The yogi/yogini thus concludes that it is his/her Shiva-given mission to go out there, get the yoga word out, and save all these suffering souls from the darkness of their ignorance/unstraight-thinking by bringing them the gift of yoga. Amen/Namaste.

More often than not, the zealot/evangelist stage is precipitated by some kind of personal event or issue that brings the yoga zealot/evangelist into the presence of yoga, and which convinces him or her that yoga is the panacea that will cure most (probably all) of humanity's ills. Such a personal event or issue is often something relatively mundane and specific, such as wanting to become more fit, build more muscle tone, lose weight, back issues, or seeking to find hot chicks or hot guys (For my personal story, see this post). The general idea here is this: Somebody seeks a solution to a relatively mundane and specific issue, and finds the solution through yoga. Having found in yoga the cure for his or her personal issue, he or she then learns a bit more about yoga, and concludes that "if yoga can cure me, it can cure you (and everybody else) too." Thus, an evangelist is born.

(2) The somewhat-mellowed zealot/yoga-evangelist stage: At this stage, the yogi or yogini, while still zealous and very enthusiastic about yoga, has also begun to realize that many people are just not that into yoga. Or, at any rate, he or she is probably not going to be the one to get them to see the light of yoga and bring them into yoga's presence. Yyogini describes this stage in this way:

"Over time, I learned that most people have strong mental resistance against trying something new. Some people didn't enjoy physical education in high school and concluded that all physical activities suck, period. Others seemed to think that I would be so inconsiderate that I would take them to an advanced yoga class when they are not that active in their day-to-day lives (or maybe they think all yoga movements are too advanced for them). So I stopped mentioning yoga in social situations."

At this stage, the yogi/yogini still talks about yoga and tries to get people to go to yoga classes, but only does this with close friends and/or people whom he or she knows to be at least somewhat receptive to trying something new.

Interestingly, such a mellowing of the evangelical drive is often accompanied by a deepening of the yogi/yogini's own reasons and motivations for practicing. At this stage, the yogi or yogini may find himself or herself forgoing certain things that would have appealed to him or her previously, much to his or her surprise.

Here's a personal example. A few months after I started doing yoga in grad school, I decided to try asking this woman (let's call her Miss X) out on a date. I was single at that time, and had been thinking of asking Miss X out for a while. On the morning of the day I planned to ask her, I was chatting with a fellow grad student on campus. In those days, I was somebody who pretty much wore his heart on his sleeve, and had no compunctions about sharing his romantic exploits (or lack thereof) fairly freely with people around him.

Anyway, on this morning, as I was chatting with this grad student, I wondered aloud whether I should ask Miss X out on a hot date on Wednesday evening, or whether I should go to my usual Power Yoga class instead. Hearing this, she replied, "Wow, if you are actually trying to choose between power yoga and going on a so-called hot date with this woman, this woman must not be so hot!" Her reply stopped me in my tracks: I realized she was right. But I asked Miss X out on a date anyway. The date, it turned out, wasn't exactly sizzling hot: There just wasn't that much chemistry between us, and there was never a second date. Hmm... should have gone to power yoga instead.

I meant to use this example to show how, at this stage, things that would have usually appealed to the yogi/yogini (in my case, going on a hot date) are now being foregone in favor of yoga practice, which indicates that the yogi/yogini's practice is starting to deepen. But maybe this is not such a good example after all; it could just be that I simply didn't find Miss X to be as hot as I thought I did. But could it also be that the yoga practice had subtly transformed me by this point, so that what I perceived to be so hot in the past wasn't so hot anymore? Anyway, there's no way I'm going to be able to answer all these questions here. But the general point I'm trying to make (i.e. that the yogi/yogini's practice tends to deepen at this stage of yoga geekdom) still stands. Well... maybe we should just move on to the next stage:

(3) Baptism-by-fire stage: My apologies if this sounds really dramatic, but I can't quite think of a better way to describe this. At this point, the yogi/yogini has been regularly practicing yoga for a while (this could be anything from six months to a few years), and is being regarded by her friends as a "longtime yogi/yogini"; so much so, that most of her friends can no longer think or speak of her without the word "yoga" popping up in their heads or mouths.

At this point, some kind of obstacle or challenge will arise to test the "faith" of our yogi/yogini. This could be something purely physical, such as an injury or a plateau in the asana practice. Or it could be some kind of psychological or emotional issue brought up by a combination of the practice and certain lifestyle changes. At any rate, the yogi or yogini may either (1) struggle with these obstacles, and find a way to modify the practice in order to continue the practice in the face of these obstacles, or (2) stop practicing for a while, and come back to the practice after addressing the obstacles, or (3) stop practicing altogether, and do something else (Pilates? Taichi? Gymnastics? Note to reader: I have nothing against Pilates or Taichi or gymnastics. I think they are all cool.) Whatever the case may be, after going through this baptism of fire by obstacles, the yogi or yogini's life and practice will no longer be the same as it was.

(4) Yoga Geek: If the yogi or yogini sticks to her practice (i.e. if she chooses (1) or (2) above instead of (3)), she will attain a certain level of confidence in her practice, and will be more sure than ever in the ability of the practice to burn through obstacles in her life. This confidence will inspire her to seek to learn more from teachers whom she perceives to be further along the path than she is. She may even structure a lot of her major life decisions around yoga (for instance, an Ashtangi may give up a well-paying job in order to have the freedom to travel often to Mysore). In the eyes of others (and probably, herself as well), she will have become a yoga geek.

(5) Samadhi/Self-realization (?): Having never experienced samadhi, I can't say much about this stage. But if the yoga sutras and other classic yogic texts are to be believed, at some point, the yoga geek will attain this stage (Guruji: Do your practice, and all is coming.).

In laying out these five stages, I'm not saying that they apply to every single yogi or yogini. I suppose it is possible that at least some yogis or yoginis were never evangelical about their practice. It is also very possible that many yogis or yoginis may go through some of these stages (especially Stage 3: Baptism by Fire) more than once in their practice careers. But I think these five stages pretty accurately describe the yogic journey of many a yoga practitioner/geek. Do they describe yours?