Saturday, April 28, 2012

The not-so-fine art of saying no

[Image taken from here]

Earlier today, I had to say no to a big favor that somebody asked of me at work, after considering his request for a few days. I can't go into the details here, as I try to keep a certain distance between my blogging and professional lives. But maybe I can try to talk about it a little here in the abstract, and see if we can extract a couple of yogic insights from this little episode.

So, how to talk about this in the abstract? Well, let's just say that this person asked me to do him an official favor that would have significantly boosted his chances of advancing in his career... oh, and in case you're wondering, the favor in question is something that is totally ethical and legal; no shady dealings going on here :-) In other words, he wasn't trying to make me any offer I couldn't refuse.

This was NOT the person who asked me for the favor :-)
[Image taken from here]

From the very beginning, when he first asked me for the favor, at least three red flags came up immediately in my mind, which practically screamed "Nooooo!". These red flags were (in no particular order of importance): (1) Said person's professional qualifications do not merit my doing him the favor in question, objectively speaking, (2) My own area of specialization and his are so far apart that I am, strictly speaking, not in an appropriate position to do him this favor.

I understand that all this is really abstract and vague, but I really don't want to go into the details here. I hope you understand. But personally, the real deal-breaker for me was (3) I'm quite sure he was perfectly aware of (1) and (2). Despite that, he still asked me for the favor. Why? Because he thought that, being of the same race as him (he's also Chinese), I would be more sympathetic and more likely to help him out.

In other words, he was playing the race card. And truth be told, he didn't play this card too badly at all: The main reason why it took me so long to say no was that I could see certain similarities between his position and mine; similarities which initially inclined me to be sympathetic and to say yes. And I guess it also didn't help that I am really a nice mild-mannered Chinese guy living in a state that is somewhat ironically known for its niceness (ever heard of Minnesota Nice?). But given (1) and (2), I knew I simply couldn't say yes in good conscience: I knew that if I did, I would resent and possibly even hate myself for a long time to come. So I said no.

I can't say this strongly enough: I really, really fucking hate it when people try to play the race card with me. Gives me a really, really bad taste in the mouth: The sort of bad taste that no amount of mouthwash will get rid of.

Is there a nicey-nicey yogic moral to this not-so-nice story? I thought there would be, when I first started writing this post... I had in mind some kind of feel-good b.s. about the importance of setting boundaries... also, wasn't there something somebody recently said about Ashtanga being the yoga of no? But now I somehow feel it would be all too easy and glib to be all clever and new-agey smooth, and try to gloss over this matter with all this feel-good b.s. In any case, I'm not in the state of mind for this right now. The bad taste in my mouth is still too raw... Ha! maybe a couple of glasses of red wine might help to wash it out? Who knows? In any case... I think you are probably tired of hearing this rant (another bad blogging day here...). Or maybe it's my ANUS symptoms flaring up again? (see this post for the stinky details about ANUS) In any case, I guess I'll sign off for now. Have fun.      

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Truth, subjectivity, Mysore, and the practice

"The absurd is the measure of the intensity of faith in inwardness. There is a man who wants to have faith... He wants to have faith, but he also wants to ensure himself with the help of an objective inquiry and its approximation-process. What happens? With the help of the approximation-process, the absurd becomes something else; it becomes probable, it becomes more probable, it becomes extremely and exceedingly probable. Now he believes it, and he boldly supposes that he does not believe as shoemakers and tailors and simple folk do, but only after long consideration. Now he is prepared to believe it, but lo and behold, now it has become impossible to believe it. The almost probable, the very probable, the extremely and exceedingly probable: that he can almost know, or as good as know, to a greater degree and exceedingly almost know--but believe it, that is impossible, for the absurd is precisely the object of faith, and only that can be believed."

Soren Kiekegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript    

A few days ago, I finally got around to reading the New Yorker article about Ashtanga Yoga by Rebecca Mead that was published in 2000. Many thanks to Steve over at the Confluence Countdown for providing a link to this article in a recent post; I had wanted to read this article for the longest time, but did not know how to access it without subscribing to the New Yorker (being the cheapie that I am, I simply wasn't willing to renew my lapsed subscription to the magazine just to read this article).

Being a somewhat regular New Yorker reader, I find the tone of the article to be very much in keeping with the periodical's usual left-of-center skepticism towards any movement that is spiritual and/or religious, especially any such movement that involves the participation and endorsement of Hollywood celebrities. I would have even gone as far as to pronounce this a healthy skepticism, if--and this is a very big if--it weren't for the fact that I happen to be personally involved in the movement: As most of you know, I am only a Mysore trip away from being a full-fledged card-carrying Ashtanga Fundamentalist... well actually, let me amend that! In my excitement about my upcoming Mysore trip, I have forgotten that you don't actually have to have been to Mysore to be a legit Ashtanga Fundamentalist (see this post); please accept my apologies here.

Okay... so I am a card-carrying Ashtanga Fundamentalist (some day, I should write a post about what exactly makes an Ashtanga Fundamentalist an Ashtanga Fundamentalist...but this will have to wait). Being the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am, I find it more difficult to approach this article with the usual detached interest that I would normally approach any kind of reporting about spiritual or religious movements. Why? Because there is an entire universe of difference between observing a spiritual or religious movement from the outside as a disinterested outsider, and looking at the same movement from the inside, so to speak, as somebody who has a significant emotional/psychological stake in it. Consider the following excerpt from the article:

"A good number of the students I met were first-timers in India, and some of them thought of visiting Mysore the way a devout Catholic regards a trip to the Vatican... Most of the students had made sacrifices
in order to practice yoga: once you become an Ashtangi, I was told, you don't want to go out at night, you don't want to eat rich meals or drink alcohol; your non-yogic friends start thinking that you are no fun. One of the constant topics of conversation among the students was whether you could have a satisfying yoga practice and also have a more conventional life: a job, a home, a spouse, a family. The general consensus seemed to be no."

From a purely objective point of view, many things in this passage are probably true. For instance, it is probably true that many people who make the trip to Mysore for the first time go with some level of expectation that it would be a life-changing experience on some level (otherwise, why bother?); I'm not quite sure what to say about the comparison with the Vatican, though. It is also probably true that many (if not all) of the lifestyle changes (giving up meat and alcohol, going to bed early) that Ashtangis undertake are regarded as sacrifices, even austerities from an "objective" outside perspective. I don't quite know what to make about that part about having a more "conventional" life... I mean, many Mysore-going Ashtangis that I know do have families and spouses and jobs... sure, it is a big challenge to juggle all of this and go to Mysore every year, but, well, what life doesn't have challenges? But I suppose we also have to remember that things were very different back in 2000, when this article was written: We have to remember that in pre-911 and pre-great-recession days, the "conventional life" (which, I'm guessing, also includes having a "real" job, a car and a mortgage, and all that good stuff) held far more sway in the minds of most people than today... (need I say more?)   

In any case, I get the sense that somebody who previously knew nothing about Ashtanga would quite probably conclude after reading this article that Ashtangis very likely belong to some bizarre cult whose members undergo ridiculous austerities (i.e. imposing great restrictions on their lifestyles and diet) in order to go to some little city in South India, where they wake up every morning at some ungodly hour to do a set of very strenuous physical exercises that may or may not be good for one's body and mind, under the watchful eyes of this Indian guy they call "Guruji"... Oh, and speaking of Guruji, here's a description of the man:

'When he is asked about yoga, Jois doesn't dwell on God or the possibility of enlightenment. Instead, he talks about how yoga is good for maintaining physical health. He seems to regard the global spread of his discipline as only to be expected, given its efficacy. There's much about the popularity of Ashtanga, though, that Jois doesn't like, and the thing that he seems to like the least is other people making money from his system. Jois has a particular animus against Beryl Bender Birch, the author of the popular book "Power Yoga," a very accessible guide that is based upon the Ashtanga series. "Only money-making," Jois told me sternly. (In reply, Birch says, "My objective was to bring this system to mainstream America, to a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise have been comfortable trying yoga. As far as I can see, we have all benefitted from it.")'

Again, I have a feeling here that somebody who previously knew nothing about Ashtanga would quite probably conclude from reading this and other descriptions of Guruji in the article that Guruji is nothing more than a money- and power-loving (or even, dare I say, money- and power-hungry) self-made guru.

And really, who could blame the reader for having such impressions of Ashtangis and Guruji? To be quite honest, I probably would myself, if I didn't know any better. And one certainly can't accuse the reporter in this case of shoddy reportage; indeed, in the best tradition of empirical, fact-checking reporting, she actually spent some time in the spring of 2000 in Mysore, immersing herself in the Mysore Ashtanga culture. So, what gives?

What gives, in my opinion, is the difference between the detached outsider perspective, which observes and weighs everything through the lens of material gain and profit, and the insider perspective of the practitioner, which sees everything through the eyes of faith and devotion to a practice that is sacred. (Yes, yes, I do know that faith has a bad rap here in the west (see this post), but just go along with me for now. And then you can disagree later if you want to :-)). Seen from the perspective of material gain and profit, the whole idea of the Ashtanga practice and the Mysore "pilgrimage" is totally absurd: Who in their right mind would forgo meat, alcohol and lots of sex (not to mention sleep), and spend a substantial amount of money on a regular basis to go to this little Indian city to practice yoga? Yeah, these people who do these crazy things do look healthy and have a nice glow to their skin (then again, so do many cult followers...), but surely there must be ways of getting this healthy look and nice glow without subjecting oneself to such austerities (ever heard of a tanning salon?).

But we get a very different story, as many of you probably know, when we switch to the insider perspective. From this perspective, what draws us out of bed and onto the mat--and maybe, out of this country and into Mysore--is this powerful belief that this practice works for us on a deep level. Because of this belief, we willingly dive into the seeming absurdity of subjecting ourselves to uncomfortable positions, both physical and mental. We willingly subject ourselves to the absurdity of organizing our lifestyles and daily schedules around this thing that we do in the morning (or evening, as the case may be). Why do we submit ourselves to such absurdities? I'm not sure why we would, unless we believe that doing so would change us on a deep and meaningful level.

So what are we supposed to take away from all this? What is the moral of the story, if there is one? Well, I probably should leave you to decide this for yourself. But I'll venture to say this much: Perhaps in certain things in life, we simply cannot hope to get at the heart of the matter by adopting a disinterested, "objective" perspective. Perhaps, as Kierkegaard would say, some of the most important truths in life are purely subjective.          

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Vinyasa, mindfulness, and non-attachment

In her latest post, Claudia considers the relationship between Vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga from several different angles. I think this is a very interesting topic, and I'll say a couple of things here as well.

In the yoga world at large, the word "vinyasa" is most often encountered in the context of a "vinyasa/flow yoga class." Because of this, I suspect that for many folks in the yoga world, the word "vinyasa" means something like "movement with breath." Indeed, I have been to a few vinyasa classes where I have heard the teacher explain to the students that vinyasa means "movement with breath". For others, "vinyasa" has become synonymous with that chaturanga-updog-downdog transition between postures that make up the "glue" that links postures together.

Neither of these understandings of vinyasa are wrong. But they do not get to the essence of what vinyasa is about. So if you will, allow the wise yogi of the Dragon's Den (ahem!) to enlighten you about the true meaning of "vinyasa". (see, this is what happens when I withdraw into the Dragon's cave and abstain from blogging for a few days; I emerge from the cave with fresh wisdom :-)) Well, actually, wise I am not, but I may still know a thing or two :-) Anyway, some years ago, I attended a vinyasa conference in Miami Beach organized by the illustrious Jonny Kest (it was here that I first met Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane, which prompted me to make a subsequent trip out to Maui to study with them, which subsequently led to my getting into Ashtanga; but this is for another post.). By the way, if you have never been to a yoga conference or festival, I suggest that you should try to go to one, just for the experience. It's a veritable yogic smorgasbord where one encounters all kinds of interesting characters spanning the entire range of the yoga spectrum: From feel-good new-age-types to trance-dance-devotees to yoga-rock-star-wannabes/groupies to soccer/yoga moms to holier-than-thou Ashtanga Fundamentalists who consciously or unconsciously think that if you are not doing Ashtanga six days a week and eating vegetarian, you must be an inferior breed (whoa... look who's talking here...). I can't promise that it is necessarily the best learning environment if you are the sort of yogi who is deeply focused on one style of yoga, but from a sociological/anthropological point of view, a yoga conference/festival is a very good place to survey the bizarre character-types that populate the North American yoga subculture. Definitely something one should experience at least once in one's yoga career.

Wow, I just digressed majorly. How did I get from talking about vinyasa to going on this spiel about yoga conferences and festivals? Let's get back on topic. Well, as I was saying, I attended that vinyasa conference in Miami Beach some years ago. While there, a famous teacher (I don't remember exactly who this is; maybe it was David Life?) gave a talk in which he explained that the word "vinyasa" can be broken down into the Sanskrit words "nyasa", which means "to place", and "vi", which means "in a mindful or intelligent way". So "vinyasa" means "to place in a mindful or intelligent way." Applied to yoga practice, then, vinyasa refers to a sequence of postures that have been mindfully or intelligently strung together, with the breath of the practitioners acting as the mala (string of prayer beads) linking all these postures together in a continuous, uninterrupted flow.

In a similar vein, Gregor Maehle defines vinyasa as "[s]equential movement that interlinks postures to form a continuous flow. It creates a movement meditation that reveals all forms as being impermanent and for this reason are not held on to." (Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy, 294) Maehle's definition brings to light another important dimension of vinyasa in asana practice: Being a practice that is informed by the continuous flow of the breath, it is a practice in which one pays attention to the moment-by-moment changes of the breath and the body. When we pay such attention, we will also adjust our practice accordingly from moment to moment, and not be too attached to a particular form or ideal expression of a posture. Thus vinyasa can be seen to be closely linked to vairagyabhyam, or non-attachment.

I'm offering my two cents' here, as always. Feel free to share anything you have in mind at this moment.        

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Balancing on your hands and in life, and a matter of perception

I mentioned in my previous post that I seem to be going through a dry spell in my blogging lately. So, in an effort to break the dry spell, I'm going to try to go back to basics: Basically, I'm going to try to focus more on the nuts and bolts of the physical practice, and see where I go from here. Asana may not be all there is to yoga, but it is definitely the starting point and, in that sense, the foundation of the practice; well, at least in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (I can't speak for other styles). I think one of my teachers used to say, "If you can't even keep your hands firmly grounded on the mat, how can you talk about being grounded in other areas of your life?" I really think this line very succinctly expresses the spirit of asana practice in Ashtanga Yoga; the physical practice is a training ground for life, both on and off the mat.

Speaking of keeping the hands firmly grounded on the mat, here's a video of Maria Villella talking about keeping the hands firmly grounded on the mat in jumpthroughs and jumpbacks. I don't know much about Villella, but if this video is any indication, she definitely knows her stuff. Check this out:

I really agree with her remarks at around 0:50 that "fingers are more for steadiness and balance." I think the fingers are often overlooked in jumping through and back; many people I have observed over the years tend to think that it is the palms that are doing all the work, and are not aware that the fingers can serve as invaluable "brakes" and "steering pads" to control the direction and momentum of the jump. In this way, an action which seems so static on the outside (keeping the hands grounded on the mat) is actually a dynamic process of continually negotiating the weight distribution between the palms and fingers on a mini-second-by-mini-second basis. Pretty interesting, don't you think?

I also really like her remark (somewhere around 1:10) that being able to balance on the hands is the result, not the focus of a dedicated practice. A very nice reminder of the importance of Vairagyabhyam (nonattachment) to the practice.

Well, and here's another impressive demonstration of balancing on the hands from Briohny Smyth of the Equinox videos fame. This one will probably raise a few eyebrows, and send more than a few panties into a wad (pun very, very intended) in the yoga blogosphere, but I always believe that we can learn something useful from anything. So, may I humbly suggest that you put aside your preconceptions, and check out the following video:

If you remember that blogstorm about the Equinox video that flared up in the yoga blogosphere some few millions years ago, you will remember that a lot of cyber-fire was directed at the close-ups of Briohny's body during that storm. But if you watch the above video in a certain way, you will see that these close-ups can actually serve a pedagogical purpose, from an asana intructional point of view. Specifically, the close-ups of her belly (at 0:28--0:30, and at 1:20--1:22) serve as a great illustration of the engagement of Uddiyana Bandha that is really key to maintaining the integrity of the postures. In addition, even the infamous butt shots serve a couple of pegogical purposes here: (1) They do actually give a pretty good picture of good alignment in updog, and (2) also give a good picture of the extent of lumbar flexion needed in order to go from Bakasana up into handstand.

As with many other things in life, a lot of what is actually going on is very much a matter of how we perceive things, don't you think? Beauty (or the lack thereof) is very much in the eyes of the beholder, no?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is yoga supposed to make the world a better place? Or, what shutting the anus-gate can do for you

I've been going through a dry spell in my blogging lately. Just can't seem to find anything that I feel motivated to blog about. I do have a few ideas here and there, but they don't seem to connect up into anything really coherent and blog-worthy. And it probably doesn't help that a lot of what is recently being blogged about in much of the yoga blogosphere just leaves me with a sense of ennui and futility. There is all that buzz about what is sometimes referred to as "the other A-Yoga" and its founder, Juan Amigos (excuse my Spanish), and the related scandal/s, which some clever blogger has christened "Anusgate". Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that any of Juan Amigos' brahmacharya-violating activities are excusable or right. Nor am I playing down the very real suffering of the folks who are at the receiving end of his activities.

But let's face it. No amount of well-intentioned reporting or scrutiny or analysis of the scandal in the hope of not repeating something like this again--which, I take it, is the reason why so many bloggers have been so righteously up in arms about this whole affair--is going to make a difference, in the bigger scheme of things. Why? Because (1) People practice yoga, (2) Some of these people are assholes, (3) Sadly, for some of these assholes, no amount of yoga will cause them to cease being assholes. I think some wise guy somewhere once said that if you are an asshole who does yoga and nothing is changing for you, then you are, well, an asshole who does yoga. Takes one to know one, no? :-)

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Unless we can come up with some kind of comprehensive psychological test that can screen people for assholic predispositions--quick, somebody come up with some fancy name for this predisposition... Aha! What about this... Asshole Nature Unified Syndrome (ANUS)--and then bar these ANUS sufferers from ever practicing yoga in their lifetimes, for fear that they might become celebrity yoga teachers who will then go on to unleash their brahmacharya-violating shenanigans on unsuspecting nubile (or not so nubile) females (or males, for that matter), unless we are willing to go to such lengths to prevent any potential ANUS-afflicted people from rising to positions of power and prominence within our otherwise very pristine and pure yoga community, we will probably have to be resigned to the fact that nothing we say or do will prevent the emergence of ANUS-afflicted celebrity teachers. In other words, history will repeat itself, whether we like it or not. We can either choose to deal with it (i.e. try to wise up, see ANUS-afflicted persons for who they really are, and try not to fall for their shenanigans), or we can choose to make a big hoohah about it the next time another ANUS sufferer strikes.

But you may ask: Why do you have such a fatalistic view of things? Isn't yoga supposed to make us better people, and the world a better place? Well... I used to really really believe this. But now I'm not so sure. Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests recently wrote a very interesting post about why yoga isn't changing American society. A couple of commenters on that post have remarked that as powerful as yoga may be on an individual level as a tool for self-transformation, it is simply not the sort of thing that is designed to instigate social change: An asshole who practices yoga assiduously and attains samadhi is simply a samadhied asshole (samadhied ANUS sufferer?), nothing more, nothing less. On a related note, Nathan also observes that "yoga, in particular, has little to no history of being a practice used to actively fight oppression and envision better societies." If Nathan is right, then to expect anything else from yoga would be an exercise in barking up the wrong spiritual tree.

Which is not to say that yogis cannot be social activists who productively use certain insights from their yoga practices to try to better their communities (think about what Gandhi accomplished with Ahimsa). But it is a mistake to believe that there is a tight conceptual connection between "correct" yoga practice and social activism, and that social activism is somehow "built into" the very concept of being a yogi, so that one cannot be a yogi without being a socially progressive social activist. Unless we want to institute some kind of ANUS-detecting test to prevent certain people from practicing yoga, it is going to be a fact of life that yoga practitioners will fall on every point of the moral-political spectrum.


But is there no hope for ANUS sufferers? Is there no light at the end of the long and dark ANUS tunnel? Well, fret not, fellow ANUS sufferer (although I have not been formally diagnosed with this syndrome, I have consistently displayed enough symptoms to cause to me to have good reason to believe that I have it). If you practice Ashtanga, you will know there is such a thing called Mula Bandha. Among other things, consistent practice of Mula Bandha will enable you to achieve greater control over the anal sphincter muscles. While I do not have any concrete scientific proof, many practitioners I have spoken with have told me that along with such greater control comes greater ability to withdraw one's senses from the external world, making one less susceptible to the seductive sights and sounds of this world. In other words, one attains pratyahara, or withdrawal of the sense-organs. And there is some reason to believe that with pratyahara comes greater ability to resist things like nubile females (or males). So yoga works, even if it may not make the world a better place. Or, to put the same point in somewhat more poetic language: Consistent yoga practice serves to activate pratyahara, which allows us to better control the gateways of the senses, protecting one from undue sensual stimulation.

Actually, on a related note, here's an interesting linguistic fact. If you know Chinese, you will know that the Chinese word for anus, 肛门 (gangmen), literally means "Anus-gate". Coincidence? Hmm... anyway, if you don't mind a little unsolicited advice from your not-so-wise friend here... actually, speaking of unsolicited advice, I have recently gotten into a bit of trouble with a couple of esteemed bloggers over my generous online proffering of unsolicited advices. But I'm not the sort of person to let these things get in the way of my offering still more unsolicited advice. But really, why take things so personally? Being unsolicited, you are totally free to take my advice for what it's worth, or simply ignore it. But I digress. Here's my unsolicited advice: If you know what's good for you, you will probably do well to keep the gate of your anus well shut (except, of course, when biological exigencies dictate that you must absolutely open it to let stuff out...). It will work wonders for your pratyahara and help to prevent diarrhea, both the physical and verbal kinds.

May the Force be with you (and your anus).      

"Walk, walk, walk", then "Drag, drag, drag"

I just watched the following video of Kino teaching the jumpthrough to all levels of practitioners at her ongoing workshop in Koh Samui, Thailand. I think this video really speaks to her ability to break down and teach what is probably the single most ubiquitous (and perhaps, to some, also the most intimidating) move in Ashtanga Yoga to beginners in a way that is accessible and non-threatening. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The greatest transformation in fitness history

I just saw the video below at YogaGodess. You have to see it. It's simply jaw-dropping inspiring!

What do you think? I usually try to be skeptical when I see ads or videos claiming that so-and-so lost so many pounds in so many months, but this one looks too real to be fake: Several times during the video, I actually cringed when Arthur fell out of postures (especially the part where he fell out of headstand and bumped his back against the wall). I know nothing about DDP Yoga (they say it "ain't your mama's yoga"), but it definitely seems to be doing some serious good for some people out there. More power to it! Anyway, maybe the next time you don't feel like getting on your mat to practice, try watching this video. Honestly, if this doesn't inspire us to practice, I don't know what will...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Suffering animal sounds, difficulties in the practice, and the question of love (again)

I just read Kino's latest article on Elephant Journal. Lots of good stuff in it. Among other things, she writes about how yoga practice is like Navy Seal training (yes, Navy Seal training!), and how we can apply four important mental tools from Navy Seal training to help us when we face difficult postures in the practice.

I'm not going to talk about those four tools here (you can go read the article yourself ;-)). What I'm going to do here is share a few passages from her article that really speak to me, and say a few things here and there, like I always do. At the beginning of her article, Kino tells us a story about one of her students in her weeklong Mysore course: 

" the class that I was leading there was one student who made a small whimper every time a posture or movement was difficult. When I asked her if she was in pain she would invariably say no, just that she felt it was really hard. This sound came out of her in a subliminal manner without her even realizing it. This little whimper also came directly before she would quit and give up on the challenging movement.

...I had this sense that if she could gain control of this part of her nervous system then she would gain strength and clarity in her practice and perhaps also in her life. When we talked about the relationship between her “suffering animal” sound and quitting when postures were difficult she said that the sound must be subconscious because she wasn’t even aware of it.

When we returned to the practice and worked on one of the hardest movements for her, a deep backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series, she was steady and calm, quiet and focused and actually able to go through the whole movement with strength. By concentrating the mind with the power of yoga she was able to rein in the involuntary urge to give up, give in, whimper and quit when things were difficult."

Hmm... why does something keep telling me this "deep backbend from the Ashtanga Yoga Intermediate Series" is Kapotasana? ;-) Well... because what other deep backbend from Intermediate Series is so notorious for inspiring so much fear and anxiety and, in this case, "suffering animal" sounds? (For a first-hand account of the emotional dramas that often accompany the performance of Kapotasana, see this post.) And if it is indeed Kapotasana we are talking about, then the yogini's emission of the "suffering animal sound" is totally understandable: If you do kapotasana in your practice, you know what a formidable posture it is.

But back to what Kino is saying. She continues:
"We all have our sounds of suffering: a grunt, a whimper, an exhale through the mouth or just a slouchy posture.

When these arise as a knee-jerk reaction to what you are experiencing and you allow that reaction to guide your actions, this pattern has a dangerous hold over you. To a larger degree the lesson of yoga is about gaining control over the nervous system when you stand in the face of panic, pain, stress and challenge. In this way yoga is actually meant as a training of the mind to prepare it to face adversity with a balanced emotional state.

If you have the energy to make a noise and grunt, you have energy to give to the posture or movement. Instead of just releasing the potency of the moment in a sound, try to direct your energy inward to the inner body and utilize the urgency of the moment to delve deeper within.

What you do when faced with these feelings will largely determine how you are able to adapt and move forward in your life.

If you collapse, quit, give up and give in to the suffering animal inside of yourself rather than train the mind to be steady and calm in the face of pain or danger than you are setting yourself up for failure. In order to work through painful and difficult circumstances the mind must learn how to be strong and balanced, clear and compassionate."

This passage really speaks to me. I feel that these words express very eloquently why we bring ourselves to the mat every morning and put ourselves through so many physical challenges. Actually, I would also like to add to Kino's list of things people do when they get to their "least favorite postures": One of my teachers told me that when she got to her least favorite posture, she would always consciously or unconsciously find herself getting up from the mat and taking a bathroom break!

But seriously, I really think that there is a lot of truth in Kino's observation that "If you have the energy to make a noise and grunt, you have energy to give to the posture or movement": Whether we are aware of it or not, every little action that we take or word that we utter releases energy. Actually, this is true of all our actions in the world at large, but our practice on the mat amplifies this fact and brings it to our attention in a way that is hard to ignore; unlike in off-the-mat life, where we often have the option of tuning out difficult feelings or sensations by distracting ourselves with all kinds of things in our surroundings, we cannot simply ignore or "tune out" the very uncomfortable sensation of not being able to breathe comfortably when we are in a challenging posture like Kapotasana. The practice forces us to face difficult situations, and make a conscious choice as to how we are to use the energy that we have. We can choose to release that energy in the form of a sound or gesture that expresses our fear, anxiety or frustration; or we can choose to move that energy "inward to the inner body", and use it to help us navigate the challenging posture. In this way, yoga can be likened to a Jedi training, both on and off the mat.

Actually, if we think about it a little, all this also sounds very much like pratyahara. We usually define pratyahara as withdrawal of the senses, but insofar as what we direct our sense-organs to often determines where our psychic energy goes, pratyahara can also be understood as a withdrawal or turning inward of psychic energy. So, in this way, working with difficult postures with equanimity and presence of mind through maintaining steadiness of breath is also an exercise in pratyahara. Pretty interesting, don't you think?


All this also makes me think about the recent conversation in certain quarters of the Ashtanga blogosphere about the question of whether it is possible to love the practice and still do the practice "right". It seems to me that if everything I (and Kino) said above is right, then the answer has to be: Most absolutely! If the practice is such a wonderful training ground for our minds and spirits, what's not to love about it? Sure, the practice is not all roses and whatnot (what's the correct expression here?), but then again, life isn't all roses and whatnot either. Should we cease to love life just because it is not all roses and whatnot? Should we cease to love people we love just because life with them is not all fun and games and fireworks? (I'm hoping your answer to all these questions is no :-)) The practice (and life) can be very difficult at times; indeed, if we take our lives (and practices) seriously, the difficult times may very well outnumber the joyful ones (or maybe it's just that the difficult times always feel longer...). But why make it harder by not allowing yourself to love it?

Grimmly recently commented that I may be overloading my readers with too many videos in my recent posts. But videos are fun! And Kino does make some pretty good videos. So, at the risk of overloading your senses with even more visual content (Ha! Talk about pratyahara...), I'll end this post with one of my favorite Kino videos. Enjoy!


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Some thoughts on faith and the practice

"The faith waiting in the heart of a seed
promises a miracle of life
which it cannot prove at once."

Rabindranath Tagore

In my previous post, Megan left a very thought-provoking comment about the relationship between faith and the practice. I think her comment brings up some interesting issues that are worth pondering a little about. Megan writes:

"It seems to me that faith would be detrimental to the yoga practitioner who seeks truth. Faith is a reason to stop asking questions. Faith is an easy way out. Why have faith in a method of practice that is wholly, by its very nature, experiential? My practice is an experiment, both in daily application and in the grander scale. I do this practice and, more specifically, follow THIS method because I am curious, not faithful, about its effects."

I responded by saying that it is quite possible that Megan and I understand very different things by the word "faith". My understanding of faith is based on the Sanskrit word Shraddha, which is usually translated as "faith." B.K.S. Iyengar defines Shraddha as

"trust which comes from revelation, faith, confidence, reverence."

More recently, Kino, in the video above, defines Shraddha more colorfully as "faith to believe in yourself as a divine spark held in the world."

On either definition, faith as shraddha does not preclude inquiry or asking questions. Quite the opposite, in fact: Shraddha encourages active questioning and experimentation based on a spirit of love and trust in the practice, serving as a firm foundation upon which we can freely explore the many joys (and pains) that the practice has to offer. 

On a somewhat different note, Megan's comment has also caused me to wonder if many yogis and yoginis in the west are somewhat apprehensive and hesitant about embracing the concept of faith in the practice, because of the connotations with organized religion and its excesses that the word often conjures up (Note to Megan: I'm not saying this is where you are coming from. I'm just using your comments as a starting point for my neither-here-nor-there musings...). Perhaps the hesitancy has something to do with associating faith with unquestioning belief in a greater power or authority. But I do not think that faith as Shraddha asks us to believe unquestioningly. Rather, my sense is that Shraddha acts as a sort of counterweight to the natural human impulse to explore, expand and experiment; by grounding our minds and spirits in an attitude of love and trust for the process, it protects us from the excesses of ego, which often rears its ugly head when we are preoccupied only with acquiring more knowledge and things. 

These are my two cents', as always. If you have any thoughts on any of this, I'll love to hear them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

All can take practice; what's love got to do with it? (Answer: Everything)

I just watched the video above, in which Kino talks about who can practice yoga in her usual no-nonsense yet unpretentious manner; indeed, I often have this feeling that she gets all the s@&t she gets online (and offline as well) precisely because she is not pretentious enough, because she doesn't assume this holier-than-thou persona and manner of speaking that some people who call themselves yoga masters do...

But enough of this. I'm sure you don't read this blog just to listen to my (non)-analyses about why some yogis talk shit about other yogis... So back to the video. One reason I really like the video is because Kino alludes to one of my favorite Guruji quotes: The one where he proclaims, "Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, all can take practice. Only lazy man cannot practice."


So all can take practice (except lazy people). But what is it that keeps all coming back to our mats every morning, except Saturdays (or whatever day your rest day happens to be) and moon days? The practice, as we know, is not easy; it challenges us on so many levels (physical, psychological, mental and emotional). Why do something like this six days a week, if nobody is forcing us to do so? 

I think the answer--at least my personal answer--lies in one word: Faith. Faith that the practice will bring us to a better place and make us better people than we believe ourselves capable of being; faith that the practice will reach us wherever we are, and heal us on the various levels that need healing.

And I also believe that along with faith comes a certain love of the practice. Not the kind of love that makes you jump for joy every single moment, but the kind of love that grows from a certain confidence and faith in the object of one's love, the kind of love that transforms both the lover and the beloved.

By the way, if you are a regular traveler in the Ashtanga blogosphere (I sometimes wish we get frequent flier miles for the number of blogs we visit :-)), you will know that a lively conversation is happening in some quarters about whether it is possible to love the practice and still do the practice "right". Questions that have been posed in this conversation include, '"What are they doing that allows them to “love” this?', 'Are they doing it “wrong?”' (See, for instance, this post)

As an aside: Personally, I think a lot of this conversation involves a lot of clever-sounding word/ego games, trading on small distinctions between "devotion", "trust", and "love", and similar words. Distinctions which don't seem to me to make a difference, in the bigger scheme of things... Then again, I'm no yoga scholar, so maybe they do make a difference, in the end... What do I know? In any case, I'll just like to offer a little word of unsolicited advice here to any who would care to listen: Before you make a distinction, it might be a good idea to ask yourself, "Am I doing this out of genuine curiosity and love of the practice and my fellow beings? Or am I doing this just to show that I am 'clever' and capable of making such distinctions?"

I probably do such things myself, so I am in no position to judge. But since I have probably been there and done that, I thought that is all the more reason for me to say something here.

But anyway, to come back to the 'is it possible to love the practice and still do the practice "right"' question, my personal answer is: Absolutely! If you have no love for the practice, but make yourself do it everyday anyway, doesn't that make you a sado-masochist? Of course, again, I'm no yoga scholar; for all I know, there may be some obscure passage in the Yoga Sutras or the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (or wherever) that says that yoga is the practice of sado-masochism. In which case I would be doing the practice wrong. Well, then, so be it. But as far as I'm concerned, love has everything to do with it.     

Mysore, getting there, Montessori

I think this blog is fast becoming a place where I only post updates about my progress in getting my a%% to Mysore; I don't seem to have much else to say these days (or, more precisely, have much inclination to say much else), in between my personal and work life, and trying to get everything together so I can be in Mysore come July 1st. I mean, I guess I can write about my practice (Here are some "highlights" from this morning's practice: It was cold here this morning (the temperature dropped to somewhere in the 20s after a few glorious days in the 50s). I just barely managed to bind in Supta Kurmasana (maybe the first thing Sharath will say to me when he sees me in Mysore will be, "You need to reduce weight!"), but somehow still managed to bind my wrists on both sides in Pasasana (how can this be? Maybe Pasasana, despite being in the second series, is actually more forgiving to adipose tissue than Supta K... who knew?).

If you are rolling your eyes right about now, I totally understand. Who wants to hear some OCD Ashtangi obsess about the minutiae of binding in Supta K versus binding in Pasasana? Well, maybe I'll switch gears, and see if I can regale you with my Mysore preparations. Actually, I'll try to regale you with my fiancee's Mysore preparations. No, she is not going to Mysore to study at the KPJAYI: She practices Ashtanga here and there (she talks about really getting into Ashtanga so she can get an "Ashtanga Body"...), but she is not crazy enough to want to go to Mysore just to be able to wake up at some ungodly hour to go to a funny studio called a shala to be adjusted by some Indian guy and his assistants.

But she has nevertheless very kindly decided to come to India with me, to see if she might be able to do some kind of training with a Montessori school while I'm doing my yoga thing (she's a Montessori teacher). Last night, we found out that there's actually a couple of Montessori schools in Mysore. She called one of them, and spoke with the director. The latter asked her to send her a formal email explaining why she wants  to do the training with them. She did, and we are now waiting with, uh, bated breath to see what they'll say. I think it would be really cool if we can be in Mysore together; I'll get up to go to the shala every morning, while she goes to do her training. It'll be almost like our life here, transplanted to another continent. Interesting, don't you think? 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Accepted (and a question)

This has been a crazy busy--and, if I may say so, a rather stressful--week at work; I don't want to go into the details here, as I try to keep a distance between my blogging and work life. Suffice to say that it is busy (and stressful) enough to keep me from doing much blogging. But not busy or stressful enough to stop me from doing my daily practice. At any rate, I have always believed that the more busy/stressful one's life is, the more one needs to practice.

But I am also writing to share an exciting piece of news here. This morning, I received an email from KPJAYI telling me that I am now confirmed to study with Sharath from July 1st to August 1st in Mysore. Now all I need to do is to do whatever it takes on my end to get my a%% (along with a print out of the confirmation email, a photocopy of my passport & visa (1 each) and 1 passport size photo...) to KPJAYI by July 1st.

Actually, I have a question here for those of  you who have been to Mysore. I get the sense that it is probably a good idea to get there at least a few days before, to acclimatize oneself to the environment, right? Right now, I tentatively plan to get there on the 28th or 29th (I am planning to go to Singapore for a couple of weeks before that to visit with my family), but something tells me that a couple of days may not be enough to get settled down enough for Sharath's gruelling instruction. What do you think? Any suggestions/advice will be greatly appreciated. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Maybe we'll meet in Mysore (?)

This post is inspired by Grimmly's recent post. Unlike Grimmly's post, however, this is NOT an April Fool's joke (too late in the day for that, anyway...).

I wasn't originally planning to share this with the cybershala at such an early stage in the game, but after seeing Grimmly's post, I just couldn't keep my cyber-mouth shut any longer. So here goes: Yesterday, I submitted my online application to study at the K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI) for four weeks this summer (July 1st to August 1st).

As I said, this is still very early in the game: I am honestly still not 100 percent certain that I will make it there, as I have a whole bunch of issues in my personal and professional life that need to be taken care of. But I decided that it is important to try to take a step forward, no matter how small. In any case, there will probably never be a "perfect" time to go to Mysore; if not now, then when?

I am not writing this to pressure anybody to do anything, but I do know that there are some of you out there who have been mulling over this same thing for a while now. All I'll say is this: Perhaps, just perhaps, we might meet in Mysore this summer? Meet me in... Mysore (?)...


In other news: This has been an unusually busy and hectic weekend for me. As a result, I have not been able to respond to those of you who have taken the time and trouble to comment on my last two posts. My apologies. The comment-responding service here at Yoga in the Dragon's Den will resume very shortly. :-) Thank you for your patience and kind consideration.