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.          


  1. Hey Nobel! I JUST watched David FB friend:):) I absolutely adore him and what he has to say and how he makes it applicable to our practice.....wanna go to his in depth intensive in late April to early May it's at his studio in Philly, it's 8 days......ah can u imagine?:) it's (cough) $1400 just for the week not counting travel, lodgings and of If ya go by Claudia, it's about $2500 for everything for 1 month in friggin Mysore:) Pretty steep, but I'm feelin...the guy's worth it:) he is certainly a treasure to the Ashtanga community. Hope your knee is doing what it likes:) Be well Nobel:)

    1. Wow, this is a tough call... As you say, David is a great treasure to the Ashtanga community, which makes shelling out the money to go to his intensive totally worth it. But I imagine that all the money I will be spending in Philly after airfare, lodging and food, will probably be somewhere around $2500, which is enough to be in Mysore for a month!

      Then again, the semester here doesn't end till early May, so it's going to be really hard to take time off to go to Philly for a week anyway. So in a sense, the matter's already being decided for me: Mysore or bust!

    2. Totally get it:) We actually leave for the UK(family events) on May 11th, I think the intensive ends like May 3rd, a little close. Check his website cos he does do a bit of traveling around the country.....yeah, I'm with you, I think:) Mysore or's hoping it's not bust:)

    3. I'll go check out David's website soon. Maybe I can make one of his other workshops stateside. And yes, I do also hope it's Mysore and not bust :-)

  2. David's a real character, he spent a weekend at our shala last year and I really enjoyed learning from him. He's full of enthusiasm and wild, crazy energy which could either be received (heh) as fun or weird. Also that guy can sing, I hear he was part of a band in WA way before his yoga days.

    1. "which could either be received (heh) as fun or weird"

      I choose fun :-)

      Hmm... does he sing during the workshop?

    2. We had a kirtan session on the last evening of the workshop so I imagine there'd be at least one such session or two at his workshops.

  3. There's a longer blog post in me about all of this, but for the moment, a few thoughts.

    1. The cost of the plane flight, and further- insideowl mentioned the Karmic cost of jet fuel.
    2. I'm sure Sharath is a great teacher, but so is David Garrigues. I've never studied with Sharath other than to practice along one of the broadcasted classes from NYC last Spring. But David is amazing and, perhaps, better able to convey the essence of the power and beauty of this practice in English.
    3. There are truly great teachers here in America. I'm not sure I buy into the necessity of going to India for certification. David Swenson, Kino MacGregor, David Garrigues, and a whole lot of others who love and teach this practice are a lot more accessible. Some certified, and some not. I think of Mysore as the Harvard or Yale or McGill of Ashtanga yoga. Nice if you can get there, but a lot of us get great training at less prestigious schools. Beryl Bender Birch is another.
    4. Finally, you might get a lot more personalized attention at David Garrigues' intensive. I read that there were 400 people studying in Mysore right now. I once took a weekend intensive at Kripalu with Shiva Rea. There were probably 150-200 yogis in a huge room. When there's that many people, you don't get a lot of one on one attention from the lead teacher, you spend more time with the assistants.
    5. All that said, I'd love to go to Mysore myself- just to experience it all. But with little kids and a full life, I don't see it happening for about 10 years.

    1. Hello Deborah,
      thank you for bringing up so many good points here. You should definitely write a more detailed blog post on this. I think it will benefit and inspire many people.

      Yes, I agree with you that David is quite probably linguistically and culturally closer to me than Sharath (which is kind of ironic, since I'm Asian...). Which has obvious advantages when it comes to teaching and learning the practice. And yes, I think it is also true that one will probably get a lot more attention from David than from Sharath, due to the smaller teacher-to-student ratio.

      But sometimes, I also can't help feeling that there are advantages to learning from somebody who is not like you (for lack of a better way to put this); you are forced to make a bigger effort, focus on the non-verbal aspects of the instruction (which may be the important part, since yoga is 99% practice).

      And then there is the Mysore Magic factor, which is hard to deny.