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...     


  1. HA HA HA

    I take the main message to be everything in moderation. I feel change is definitelly what it has brought, and a feeling of openess, especially for people with no teachers nearby. I've learned a lot of things from the cybershala, feels it needs to be used wisely, and agreed with Rose about information diets once in a while!

    I dont think you are a Sith Lord, picture made me laugh :-)

    1. Thanks for not thinking I am a Sith Lord :-) I think what you said about heeding Yoga Sutra 1.33 over at YogaRose is very wise. I have also found the cyber-shala to be very useful for supporting my practice. I definitely think it would be more difficult to practice by myself if I didn't have the cybershala.

      Btw, has Sharath given you any questionable-looking potions to drink since you got there? I thought he might, since you are such a prolific blogger...

  2. ok, so now is the time where you make "AshtangaGeek" T-shirts and sell them'll make a killing!:)Then u write ur book...."oh, he's the t-shirt guy" you'll be cyber-famous:)
    Love the post btw:)

    1. I really like the T-shirt idea :-) And maybe the book's title can be "Do Ashtangeeks know whether it's snowing in Japan?"

    2. LMAO!! Too Funny my friend, too funny Sayonara:)

  3. You're so right about the yoga studio (non) social life - I spent a few years going to classes and learnt the names of my teachers only. I hardly exchanged two words with anybody else. But then, that was in Norway too, where people are verrrry private and shy. So even though blogging is definitely a way for me to geek out on yoga, especially as I don't have a single friend who also practices Ashtanga (as far as I know, maybe somebody is keeping a secret from me? or maybe I just haven't announced my yoga geekiness loudly enough?), and I also don't go to a yoga studio very often. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it I'm not sure I would even know how to have a conversation, orally, about yoga... The few times I've talked to fellow yogis we've mostly talked about other things, and maybe just touched on the practice in a very general way. So maybe the cybershala is a way for shy yogis to geek out?

    Anyway, great picture to go with that, can just imagine them getting on their mats in a minute to do their practice... :D

    1. "But then, that was in Norway too, where people are verrrry private and shy."

      I don't think that's just in Norway. It was pretty much the same way at my teacher's shala in Milwaukee, until my last few weeks there. Then everybody somehow discovered that I was moving to Minnesota, and I got a few invitations to go to coffee (which I happily accepted). Which opened the door for a little real-time Ashtanga-geeking :-)

      I do have a few friends in real life whom I can geek out about Ashtanga with, but they don't live close to me. And I also think you are right that, for the most part, most real-world conversation among Ashtangis tend to be about other things. The practice is only talked about mostly in a very general way, as you said. Unless, of course, somebody has an injury or something unusual like that. Then we have a different story. In any case, barring circumstances like that, the cybershala is a precious resource for yogis )shy or not) to geek out.

  4. Here is another thing. Even if you have a wonderful capable teacher, you should not overwhelm this person with every question or curiosity you have, particularly if he/she has a full roster of students. It is also awkward to ask a fellow student while we are changing and making preparations to leave or start practice. So the cyber alternative is just a godsend to collect, share and find information we need without becoming a pest.

    1. Yes, this is true. Most of the time, people who go to shalas (including myself) have things to do and places to go to after practice, so it is not appropriate to hold people up just because I want to geek out about this or that. And it also does take time to learn who has geeky inclinations and who doesn't :-) So yes, overall, I have to agree that the cyber alternative is "just a godsend to collect, share and find information we need without becoming a pest."