Thursday, August 30, 2012

That sweet, delicious burning sensation in backbends; Yoga Blog Award

Practice this morning was very nice and refreshing. Especially the backbends. After dropping back and coming back up three times, I succeeded in grabbing my heels in Chakrabandhasana for about two breaths. And then I tipped my center of gravity a little too far back, lost my balance, came down onto my forearms, and ended up in this position:

 You probably already know this, but this is Mr. Iyengar in this position, not me.  By the way, I think the Iyengar folks call this pose Chakrabandhasana instead of the version with the forearms off the ground. Oh anyway... what's in a name?
[Image taken from here]

Bummer. It would have been nice to have been able to stay in Chakrabandhasana for the full five breaths. But I was happy anyway, not least because the whole time I was in the backbend (and earlier on, in Kapotasana as well) I could feel that sweet, delicious burning sensation in the quads and psoas, the sensation that tells me that I am really engaging those muscles. 

Ever since I started paying more attention to the even distribution of weight between the inner and outer feet, and to really extending and lifting the spinal vertebrae out of the pelvis (see this post for more details), I have been feeling the burning sensation in the front body more intensely. It's a very sweet and delicious sensation. Really. I think it's only in Ashtanga (and maybe in certain body-building circles too, but I can't be certain of this, as I'm not into body-building...) that people would think of describing a burning sensation as "sweet and delicious". But it really is sweet and delicious. Besides, would you rather have a burning sensation in some other part of your body, like, say, when you're urinating? (Need I say more?)

In fact, my fascination with this sweet and delicious burning sensation in backbends has grown to the point where this sensation is seriously competing with depth as the thing that I most look forward to in my backbend practice. Do I value getting deeply into the backbend more, or I do value this sweet burning sensation more? I don't know, actually. But really, this is probably an academic question, because the two are actually very closely related: The more your quads and psoas burn, the more you are engaging them. Which also means that, all other things being equal, your backbend is much more likely to be deeper. So getting deep and getting burnt are virtually two sides of the same coin, if you think about it this way. So yes, get deeply, deeply burnt :-)


Earlier today, Yoga in the Dragon's Den was honored with another blog award: The Institute for the Psychology of Eating has named this blog one of the Top 100 Yoga Blogs of 2012. To see what other of your favorite yoga blogs are on this list--I see that Grimmly, Claudia and Christine have also been similarly honored--check out this website.

What more should I say here? I suppose I should probably make an acceptance speech here (you know, thank my father and my mother and everybody else that has ever existed for making this possible...), but I just don't have the energy right now. I guess I'll just say this: Many thanks to all of you who have read and are continuing to read and/or comment on this blog, giving me the motivation to keep writing, whether or not there is light at the end of the tunnel (I hope there is...). I'm very honored that people would care enough about the random ramblings of an Ashtanga Fundamentalist to read, comment on, and even honor his writings. Namaste. Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavantu.       

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why don't I ever wake up with my leg behind my head?

Or in Kapotasana, for that matter. Last night, I had another bizarre dream. I seem to be having a lot of these lately (see, for instance, previous post). And I know you probably aren't particularly interested in reading about my dreams, but right now, I think they are probably more interesting to read about than my practice. My practice is not bad; it's chugging along, but there's nothing particularly ground-breaking to report on the practice front, so unless you really want to hear about every single little sensation I had in every single asana, I'll spare you the details.

So, last night's dream. This one is not about yoga, but is about martial arts. In fact, the whole dream feels a bit like a Bruce Lee movie or a video-game. Or maybe it is what a video-game based upon a Bruce Lee movie would feel like, if one were ever made. Anyway, this is how it goes:

I find myself on the roof-top of a tall building. Somehow, I need to break into the building, which is heavily guarded (very Bruce-Lee-movie-esque). And the only way into the building is by going into and down this long plastic slide that looks kind of like a slide at a water park, except it's dry. So I slide down the slide. As I am sliding down, I hear movement behind me; somebody (probably somebody evil) is coming down the slide behind me.

As I come out of the slide and emerge into a room in the building, I look behind me, and see that the person following me is this bald wiry guy with a little beard. He is holding what looks like a giant unfolded paper clip in his hands; somehow, I know that he kind of loops this giant unfolded paper clip over the neck of his victims, and strangles them that way. The funny thing is, I know that, and yet I allow him to do that to me. So I get strangled by the giant paper clip, and die. Game over. But somehow, I get to push a restart button somewhere (yeah, just like in a video-game), and I get to fight the guy again. This time, I snatch the paper clip from his hands before he can do anything to me. I stab him with the sharp ends of the paper clip, and kill him.

And then I get to opponent number 2 (again, just like a video-game). This guy is like an old-school karate master. He is dressed in a karate uniform, and politely insists on us having tea together before starting the fight. So we sit down at a nearby table, and sip some tea together. But it's hard to enjoy the tea when you know you're either about to get your ass kicked or kick the other guy's ass. But I go along with him anyway, and try to enjoy the tea as much as I can. I take a closer look at him, and realize that he's really well-built and muscular, and kind of looks like Carter Wong from Big Trouble in Little China:

Carter Wong in BTLC
[I can't locate the source of this image. If this image belongs to you, let me know, and I will acknowledge you. No need to sue my pants off :-)]

Anyway, Carter and I continue to drink tea and make small talk, but the whole time I'm thinking: Damn, I'm so fucked! My Tae-Kwon-Do skills are so rusty, I'll be lucky to even last thirty seconds in a fight with him.
We finish the tea, and it's time to fight. Somehow, I expect Carter to charge at me. But instead, he kind of just keeps circling around and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, waiting for the right moment to attack. Which is really unnerving. I decide that rather than play this circling and waiting game, I'll just go ahead and attack first. So I yell, and lunge forward with a right roundhouse kick at his face. He sidesteps to avoid the kick, and then...

And then I woke up to discover my right leg extended into the air in a roundhouse kick position!
Yes, I woke up in this position. Bizarre, right? 
[Image taken from here]

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: It sure would have been nice to know the outcome of that fight with Carter. Well, maybe next time :-)... But seriously, you think I can even last thirty seconds? In any case, I can't help wondering: If I'm flexible enough to wake up in a roundhouse kick position, why don't I ever wake up with my leg behind my head? Or in Kapotasana... Oh well.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Year of No Workshops or Intensives, a lucid yoga dream, kungfu for hermits

Of late, the Ashtanga blogosphere seems to be abuzz in a festive, "workshop-ey" mood. Grimmly will be going to Richard Freeman's workshop/intensive in London in a couple of days. And a couple of days ago, Micqui mused on her blog about going on the perfect Ashtanga yoga world tour.

As for me, this year appears to be shaping out to be the Year of Home Practice. Which is really an euphemism for the Year of No Workshops or Intensives: None of the grand Ashtanga travel plans that I made earlier this year have taken shape. The Mysore trip fell through. So did my plan earlier this summer to go study with Angela Jamison in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And judging from the way things seem to be panning out, it is very unlikely that I will get to go to any workshops for the rest of the year: Money and time seem to be in rather short supply. But maybe I shouldn't condemn my prospects in this area in this way just yet: Things sometimes have a way of working out. We'll see.

But as far as things have gone this year, it seems that I have out-Grimmlied Grimmly.... I mean, even the famous Grimmly, he of Ashtanga Vinyasa Krama Yoga at Home fame, is going to a workshop in a couple of days. Whereas I--with the exception of a couple of trips down to the Twin Cities to practice at the Yoga House--have been practicing exclusively at home this entire year. Hmm... maybe I should rename this blog Yoga in the Dragon's Den at Home...


Hmm... this post is shaping up to be too much of a poor-me, pity-party kind of post. So let me see if I can change the topic a little. Well, let's see... How about this? I actually had a really strange yoga dream last night. Let me try to, ahem, regale you with the details of the dream. And maybe if you're into dream interpretation, you can also try your hand at giving me some suggestions as to what the dream might mean, given the present state of my yoga life. So here goes:

I am in Florida, in the home of this Kundalini teacher who used to teach at the same yoga studio that I taught at when I was going to grad school in Florida. A bit of background information here: This teacher isn't a typical Kundalini teacher. I mean, she doesn't wear a turban, nor does she have any Sikh name. She typically shows up for class in a dance leotard, and she has great asana prowess (at least as great as mine, hahaha...). Well, actually, I really don't know enough about Kundalini to know whether the typical Kundalini teacher wears a turban and/or has a Sikh name, so I may be unwittingly perpetuating a stereotype. My apologies to all of you Kundalini people out there. If you know something about this, please share.

Anyway, back to my dream. So as I was saying, I am in the home of this leotard-wearing-asanaly-powerful Kundalini teacher. For some reason, I decide to start doing my practice right there in her living room. So I set my Mysore rug down, and start working my way through the Suryas. And for some reason, there is a woman next to me whom I've never seen before who is doing Pilates on a Pilates mat. And for some reason, I suddenly decide to find out what time it is. I look at my cell phone, and discover that it is four in the morning. Upon discovering the time, I immediately realize that none of this can be real: I never wake up that early to practice, and even if I do, why would I go all the way to this teacher's living room to practice? And that was when I realized I was in a dream (I believe this is called lucid dreaming?). But I made no attempt to wake up, and decided to just go with the dream, and see what happens. As an aside: If you ever find yourself in a lucid dream, and decide you want to wake up (maybe you don't like the way the dream is going, or whatever...), just drop back into a backbend in the dream. Yes, drop back. Even if you actually can't do a dropback in your waking life. Trust me, it works every time (I've tried it before).

But back to the dream. As I was saying, I decided to go with the dream, and see how it unfolded... where was I? Oh okay, I look at my cell phone, and discover it is four in the morning. So I continue with my practice, right there in that teacher's living room. And I discover that my body is unbelievably stiff and tight: My hamstrings and hips were all tight and out of alignment in Trikonasana! Damn! Should have woken up! But I continue with my practice anyway. And then the teacher approaches me, and tells me that she is going to go practice at the studio with a friend. A few minutes later, her friend arrives. And this friend turns out to be this guy whom I used to hang out and watch kung fu movies with in Florida. Hmm... I didn't even know they knew each other... are they seeing each other or something? Kundalini Woman, Kungfu Movie Dude... Quite a couple, don't you think? They'll probably end up having a kid who goes on to create a hybrid style called Kundalini Kungfu, hahaha...

Well, okay, I think I'm probably straying into the realm of the politically incorrect, maybe even into the realm of the downright disrespectful. Again, apologies to all of you Kundalini folks out there. You wouldn't take the rantings of an Ashtanga Fundamentalist too seriously, would you? In any case, I can't remember what happened after this in the dream, but I'm pretty sure I woke up soon after.

End of dream.


I hope you find the dream entertaining. And if you have any interpretations, please feel free to share. I guess I'll also say one more thing about my lack of yoga travel this year. Even though I have been pretty much stuck in my little corner of the upper midwest yoga-wise, I have to say that I have made a few breakthroughs in my asana practice, especially in floating in the Suryas and in my ability to grab my heels in Chakrabandhasana by myself, although the latter still comes and goes. In addition, I have also successfully practiced with and am healing very well from a couple of injuries (the knee injury that I sustained last year, as well as my strained trapezius dating from a few weeks ago). So all in all, practice has been good, even if I haven't been to any workshops. Maybe this is as it should be. Maybe all Ashtangis need to go through a period of extended self-practice in order to consolidate what they have learned. Wasn't it Richard Freeman who said somewhere that Ashtanga yoga is kungfu for hermits? Well, greetings to you from a crazy upper-mid-western Chinese hermit :-)      

Friday, August 24, 2012

Authorization and the Ashtanga Mafia

This blogging business is a funny thing. Recently, I have found myself going for days without writing a single post. But then this is my second post for today. It really does come and go, the blogging muse...

But I'm writing now because I just read this really honest and funny and heartfelt post on Patrick Nolan's blog about going to Mysore and getting authorized. Patrick relates how when he first started practicing Ashtanga, he asked his teacher, Greg Nardi, what he needed to do in order to teach Ashtanga. In response, Greg explained that:

'in our thing (please forgive the gratuitous mafia movie reference) the only way it could happen is that I would have to schlep over to India not once, but several times at least, my response was understandable-- "Fuck that, I'm going to sign up for the 200 hour teacher training at the 23rd street yoga shala."'

Eventually, Patrick did go to Mysore, and has now completed his third trip there. He writes:

"In addition to my time with Sharath, I have been extensively trained by teachers of international renown.  I teach yoga full-time for a living and am solvent in doing so.  My asana practice is somewhat strong.  I have a grasp of, and a keen interest in, yogic philosophy.  But I am still not authorized.  Didn't happen this trip.  I was pretty fucking bummed when Sharath didn't call me into his office after my last practice this morning.  Although this disappointment is something of a taboo, I confess this freely and openly.  We're supposed to go to India to learn from Sharath for its own sake, not to be chasing a certificate."

I really like Patrick's brutal and uncompromising honesty concerning his own feelings ("was pretty fucking bummed"...) about not being authorized. I think that talking about authorization in this open and honest way takes a lot of the mystery and emotional charge out of this delicate issue.

Patrick concludes his post by saying:

"One's ability to carry on and convey the message of our lineage should be assessed by Sharath and Sharath alone.  To bring back the mafia analogy, chain of command is very important our thing.  Sharath seems pretty deeply intuitive to me.  I resolve to trust his judgement in these matters, and to keep returning to Mysore, authorization or no."

I like the Mafia analogy. If I may extend the analogy even further, I guess I must be a Mafia foot soldier, since I have yet to go to Mysore :-) Well, hopefully someday in the future, I will go to Mysore, rise up in the ranks of the Mafia. And then maybe (just maybe) one day Sharath might call me into his office and make me an offer I can't refuse...

[Image taken from here]

But wait! I'm not supposed to expect to get that offer. Okay, never mind. Forget I said that. But I hope you get that offer soon, Patrick. Maybe next Mysore trip? :-)  

On teaching yoga and being a "role model"

I just read Bindy's latest post, in which she commented on this recent article on MindBodyGreen titled "I Love Yoga... But It Didn't Help Me Love My Body." I haven't been following much news or yoga trivia online lately; I've been focusing on and blogging mainly about my own personal life and practice. But I think this article brings up a couple of issues that are worth thinking about.

As you can probably tell from the title, the author of the article, "a high-energy former collegiate athlete", relates her own story about how yoga hasn't helped her to overcome her body image issues, despite whatever other good things it may have done for her. I don't feel like I should argue with her experience. After all, when all is said and done, yoga is probably like everything else under the sun: It works for some people in some ways, it works for others in other ways, and it simply doesn't do anything at all for others. And I probably have body image issues of my own too, so I won't comment on what she has to say about body image issues either.

What I do want to comment on is this rather innocuous thing she said somewhere in the middle of the article:

'As a yoga teacher and a soccer coach – two positions in which I want to be a positive role model – I often end up feeling like a failure if I look in the mirror and think, “Eh.”'

What's with this need to be a "positive role model" in yoga? I mean, sure, if you are looking at being a yoga teacher on a purely professional level, then being a yoga teacher is, in this way, very much like being a high school math teacher or a gym teacher. A math teacher teaches math, a yoga teacher teaches yoga. Just as a high school math teacher would want to model certain behaviors or attitudes that her students would hopefully emulate, a yoga teacher as a professional would probably also want to model certain behaviors or attitudes that her students would emulate. On a purely technical physical level, these might include things like proper alignment in asana, proper breathing, etc. And on a slightly less physical level, these would also include things like having a love for the practice. And perhaps there are also things that the teacher should not model, such as showing favoritism to particular students, fraternalizing with particular students, or having inappropriate sexual relations with students.    

And the list of things that one should role model or not role model as a professional yoga teacher goes on and on. I suspect that one can probably write an entire book on all these things, if one cares to do so.

Now is it just me, or are you starting to feel that talking about all these things to model or not to model as a professional yoga teacher is getting a bit exhausting? If, like me, you are also starting to feel a bit exhausted from thinking in this way, but don't know why you are feeling this way, please allow me to enlighten you (I know, I'm being very immodest today. Please bear with me...). Well, here's why this way of thinking is so exhausting: Being a yoga teacher is more than just being a "professional". It is true that on a purely practical everyday level, yoga teachers, like anybody else who tries to make a living teaching something, need to be held accountable for their actions and practices in the classroom. Hence there need to be standards governing yoga teaching as a profession, standards which tell teachers what they should or should not do or model, and which protect students and teachers alike.

But ultimately, being a yoga teacher is more than just a profession. It is ultimately a... I don't have a name for what I am trying to describe here. Well, let me put it this way: When was the last time you heard somebody say that she wants to be a yoga teacher so that she can be a positive role model as a yoga teacher? Doesn't this just sound... weird? I mean, in the universe in which I live, people decide to be yoga teachers because they have personally felt the power of the practice within their own lives, and they feel a strong desire or calling to share this powerful thing with others. It just so happens that the way to go about doing this is to become a yoga teacher, and to accept all the responsibilities and roles that come with being in this position. It is only when the individual decides to take this step of sharing her practice with others that all these considerations of adhering to certain professional standards and being a role model comes into play. Not the other way around: People don't want to become role models, and then decide to become yoga teachers because being a yoga teacher fits this mold of being a role model. Or at least they shouldn't: I dare say that anybody who thinks in this way--who puts becoming a role model before being somebody who simply loves the practice and wants to share it with others--is setting herself up for occupational burnout. How can she not, when she is preoccupied all the time about what she should or should not do, or what she should or should not role model? And this seems to be what is going on with the author of this article. And maybe, just maybe, it could also be aggravating her body image issues ("Am I looking as fit and healthy as I should be? Am I as slim and lithe as I should be? Do I look like I care too much about being fit and healthy and slim and lithe? Oh no! What should I do?! What should I think?!...").

To use a very cliched phrase: Where's the love? Where's the heart that burns for the practice in any of this? But maybe I simply live in a very different universe from the one everybody else seems to be inhabiting. Does this mean I'm crazy? Or maybe everybody else is...         

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The connection between the feet, the pelvis and the spine in backbends

Over the last week or so, I made a very interesting discovery while practicing dropbacks and standups. Quite simply, it's this: How evenly you distribute your weight in your feet during dropbacks directly impacts the quality of your backbend.

This is how I came upon this discovery. Over the last week or so, I found myself paying more attention to my feet during dropbacks. Why did I suddenly start paying attention to this part of my body during dropbacks? Well, no particular reason, really. It's just that, after you have been dropping back and standing up for a while (in my case, it's been more than two years since the first time I dropped back and came back up successfully), you stop treating dropping back and standing up as this thing in the practice to be gotten over with quickly. And once you stop seeing it as something to be gotten over with quickly, you also start to stay in and with the pose more, and pay more attention to the sensations created by the placement of various parts of the body.  And if you are walking your hands towards your feet in backbends (like I am), you can't help looking at the feet :-)

And so it was that sometime last week, I noticed that over the last two years, I have had a tendency to place more weight on the inside rather than on the outside of the feet (I think the technical term for this is "supination", although I'm not 100 percent certain about this, and I'm feeling too lazy to google it right now :-)). I think I do this because I try too hard to rotate the thighs inward, so much so that I supinate the feet in order to bring the thighs closer together.

Anyway, the moment I noticed this tendency last week, I asked myself, "Hmm.... is this right? Shouldn't the weight be evenly distributed on the feet in all postures, including backbends?" The moment I pondered this question, I decided to try shifting more of the weight onto the outside of the feet, in order to balance out the weight placement. The moment I did this, the quality of the backbend changed: Somehow, I could feel more of the backbend in my front body rather than in my back.

This morning, I made another discovery. As I walked my hands towards my feet in dropbacks, I reminded myself again to try to shift more of the weight to the outside of the feet without sacrificing the inner rotation of the thighs. I discovered that once I did that, it also became easier for me to lift my vertebrae out of and away from the pelvis, creating more space in the spine. This gave the entire backbend a lighter, more expansive feeling, not to mention protecting the vertebrae from compression.

One of my teachers, Eddie Modestini, always emphasized that the feet are the foundation of the asanas, and that if you take care of the feet, everything takes care of itself. I always thought that applied mainly to standing asanas. But I guess it applies to backbends too. Then again, if you think about it, dropbacks and standups are also standing asanas. Pretty cool, don't you think? ;-)     

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fish & Chips, or Ashtanga?

Happy New Moon! I hope all of you moon-day-observing Ashtangis out there are taking a well-deserved break today from your Ashtangic labors.

I don't know what all of you moon-day-observing Ashtangis out there do with the extra couple of hours that you supposedly gain on a moon day; hours that would have been spent on the mat on a non-moon-day. For me, the answer is: Absolutely nothing. I often have fantasies of getting a couple hours' more work done on moon days, but somehow, the fantasy never materializes: I wake up at pretty much the same early hour (I figure there's plenty of time to sleep more when I'm dead), do pretty much the same things, minus the practice (sometimes, like this morning, I sneak in a few Suryas anyway, because I just can't bear the thought of going through the day with a stiff body unlubricated by the practice; yes, I often think of the practice as a lube-job for the body and (hopefully) the mind... Guruji: "Body not stiff, mind stiff."). The really bizarre thing is that when midday rolls around (like right now), I find that I haven't really accomplished much more than I would have accomplished on a regular practice day. Bizarre.

Actually, come to think of it, there is one thing that I do more on moon days than on regular practice days: I seem to read more blog posts and articles online. Ha! Maybe that's where the extra couple of hours goes to... Mystery solved. This morning, I read this article by Thad Haas on Elephant Journal. Haas laments that in the get-rich-and-get-famous-quick D.I.Y. culture that characterizes so much of the contemporary American yoga scene, we see "the rampant proliferation of brand new self-stylized breeds of yoga... on an almost weekly basis." The result is that everybody wants to be the next yoga sensation/rock-star/guru, and humility and respect for tradition is quickly thrown out the window.


I think that Haas's article is very insightful. I am in much agreement with his view. I highly recommend you read the article, especially the thoughtful conversations that follow in the comments thread. But I am in a light mood today, and am not in a state of mind to discuss such weighty matters at any length. So, if you don't mind, and at the risk of trivializing what is a very serious issue, I would like to take this post in a slightly more tongue-in-cheek direction (Hmm.... I am the only person I know who prefaces his own jokes; I wonder what that says about me?).

Earlier today, I was walking around my neighborhood, and walked past this nice bistro that serves American cuisine (steaks, fish and chips, etc.). I almost never eat there, because almost nothing on the menu is vegetarian-friendly. As I walked past the bistro this morning, I saw that they had put up a sign on the sidewalk advertising today's lunch special: Fish & Chips for $8.50. Would have been great value for money if I actually eat fish, I thought to myself. Actually, truth be told, fish & chips used to be one of my favorite dishes back when I ate meat and seafood, and seeing the sign actually brought up a momentary visceral craving for the texture and taste of beer-battered fish... yum! But I kept walking, and the visceral sensation soon passed.

But this also got me thinking: If fish & chips is such a big thing here, and yoga is not (as I related in this post, yoga studios in this part of the country seem to have a lot of difficulty getting off the ground, or getting anywhere at all, for that matter), might combining yoga and fish & chips do the trick? I know, I know, I can already hear all of you yoga purists out there groaning and pointing your (fish?) fingers at me ("What?! First Yoga and Wine, then Yoga and Chocolate, then Yoga and Wine and Chocolate, and now Yoga and Fish & Chips?!"). But think about this: Maybe some enterprising yoga teacher (me?) could pair up with this restaurant, and offer a yoga class at which fish & chips (and beer?) will be served after savasana. Actually, this idea is not half as bad as it sounds, from a yoga point of view, especially if the yoga in question is Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and if the class is offered at least three times a week, because how long can one continue to eat fish & chips while continuing to do Ashtanga? Not very long, I dare say; sooner or later, the students will have to choose between one or the other: Either (a) continue to eat fish & chips three times a week, and give up Ashtanga or (b) continue to do Ashtanga, and give up fish & chips (or at least eat it less frequently). Of course, there is a bit of a gamble here: There is always the possibility that everybody will just decide that Ashtanga is too hard, and just opt for fish & chips instead! So hopefully, more people will end up choosing (b) over (a). So yes, there is a substantial gamble involved in such a venture. But then again, what major undertaking in life isn't a gamble? If you don't gamble, you can't win...

This or Ashtanga? Mmm... my mouth waters just looking at this picture...
[Picture taken from here]

Anyway, these are my half-coherent thoughts on a Moon Day. May you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy rambling them off. Then again, one of these days, I might just muster up the courage to approach the owner of the bistro with such a business proposition. After all, you would think that at least some of those people who are enjoying their fish & chips in there right now must feel at least a little pang of guilt at their indulgences, and might perhaps be wanting for some kind of physical exercise that would help them to detox, right?

P.S. No fish (or any other kind of aquatic life) were harmed in the writing of this post.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Practice on the path of recovery, some thoughts about the opening and closing chants in Ashtanga Yoga

Since I haven't posted for a week (why have I been so unmotivated to blog lately?), I suppose I'll start by saying a couple of things about my practice here. My strained trapezius (see previous post) is recovering slowly but steadily. I had to cut out chakrasana for a couple of weeks; a few days ago, I "regained" this beautiful transition pose. After not being able to do the pose for a couple of weeks, the sensation of rolling through the pose smoothly without the least bit of pain or strain on the upper back feels simply heavenly. It feels like getting to know and feel the pose all over again. From reading Ashtanga blogs over the past couple of years, I know that there are lots of Ashtangis out there who really dislike chakrasana: Many people think that it is very flashy and "show-offy", but is ultimately a useless pose that doesn't serve much purpose except get you from a supine position to downdog in a flashy, "show-offy" kind of way...

Well, I'm not going to mount any kind of defense of chakrasana here. I really don't know enough about the ins and outs and origins of chakrasana to say anything much about it. But I'll just say this: If something feels good, and also has the added advantage of making you look "cool" or "glamorous" or whatnot, why not do it? As it stands, very few postures in the primary series are really cool-looking or glamorous anyway; so why not take what you can get? :-)

But back to my injury recovery. As I was saying, I've pretty much re-introduced everything, except for the fact that I am still modifying chaturanga: I basically bend my elbows to whatever extent possible to lower into the pose, and then bring my knees to the ground to rise up into a modified updog. It seems that it will take a little longer for my arms to be able to bear weight with my elbows fully bent. The interesting thing is that, weight-bearing postures with arms straight (Bhujapidasana, Kukkutasana, etc.) are not a problem at all. Oh well. It is what it is.


Enough of my practice for now. I understand that there are folks in the blogosphere who think that blogging in detail about practice is not cool, not enlightened, or not-whatever. But with us Ashtangis, the physical practice is the starting point of the yoga journey. If one doesn't talk about the practice at least some of the time, one would risk throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, wouldn't one?

But maybe it is not a good idea to bore you with extended talking about the practice. Well, let's talk about something else that we do everyday: The opening and closing chants in Ashtanga. Over the weekend, I had a little discussion with a friend about the relationship between my Buddhist practice and my Ashtanga Yoga practice. One thing that came up was the issue of whether doing the opening and closing chants conflicts with the spirit of the Buddhist practice, which is essentially a practice that does not endorse the worshiping of gods or particular figures. I explained that the purpose of the opening chant is not to worship Patanjali, but to acknowledge, honor and offer thanks to him for making it possible for us to practice this wonderful yoga, and that the purpose of the closing chant is for us to set a clear intention to use this practice to do good in the world once we get off the mat. I'm not writing this because I feel any particular need to justify my practices, but maybe some of you out there may also face this kind of inquiry from curious friends. And maybe my experience here may be useful to you here in this regard.

Earlier today, I also read this article on Elephant Journal about making sense of Ashtanga chants. The author, Rocco Marinelli, argues that doing the opening and closing chants is not just a matter of going through the motions and getting it over with; what you feel when you do the chants can make a big difference to your experience of the practice. He writes:

"The opening chant is a prayer of gratitude and cultivating these feelings leads to more positive emotions. It sets a foundation of mindfulness and compassion on which we practice. We pause to give thanks to our teachers and to reflect on the poison of conditioned existence. Complementing this is the closing chant when we should be cultivating loving kindness and compassion.

It’s one thing to read a translation and to understand the words, but to recite it in class and to feel its meaning can be more difficult. If we become self-conscious because of a fear of correct pronunciation, we can feel ill at ease, doubt may kick in, rendering the chant vacuous...

The words we chant have as much effect on our mind as asana does to our body. They stretch the brain like utthanasana (forward bend) stretches the hamstrings. In that sense, if we’re not feeling anything as we chant then we’re not practicing at our edge."

Marinelli then goes on to suggest a Memory Palace visualization technique that involves bringing up certain images while doing the chant; images that can help us to cultivate these feelings of gratitude and loving kindness. Personally, I find this technique to be rather cumbersome and unwieldy; the whole idea of having to visualize particular images with particular lines of the opening chant strikes me as being rather tedious and mentally exhausting! But maybe it'll work for you: Read the end of his article for details about how to use this technique.

But I definitely agree with Marinelli's general point that "[t]he words we chant have as much effect on our mind as asana does to our body." Although time-wise, the opening and closing chants take up a much shorter proportion of our practice than the performance of the asanas, they are no less important on this account: They remind us that we did not invent the practice, and that the practice is ultimately more than just physical exercise, that we have a responsibility to use the practice and its benefits in a way that bring happiness to all living beings rather than the opposite. Easier said than done, I must say, but I suppose the chants are there to remind us to keep trying :-)          

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Injury: Healing ourselves through the direct personal experience of Ashtanga practice

I haven't been blogging very much lately. However, from reading various Ashtanga blogs, I get the sense that quite a few Ashtangis in the blogosphere are presently working with injuries, soreness, pain, or other physical issues in the practice. I'm also working with an injury at the moment; a couple of weeks ago, I strained my trapezius. For the last couple of weeks, I have been modifying my chaturangas and holding downward dog for longer breaths during the practice. It's not always an easy process, especially because I am so used to just moving briskly through the practice and keeping as close to the vinyasa count as possible. But modifying and slowing down the practice opens up a totally new way of understanding and relating to my body and mind, and is very healing in its own way. In this way, injury can be a valuable teacher.

Along these lines, I was just reading something from an article that Kino wrote a couple of months ago. Speaking about what it takes to be an effective teacher in a Mysore room, she writes:

"Ideally, Mysore Style teachers have gone through a kind of deeply individual journey where the obstacles to true practice have presented themselves and the teachers have used the practice itself to work through these difficulties. Sometimes people have a beautiful practice just because they are good at asana, but they have not experienced a healing journey through the practice.

One of the key tests for an Ashtanga Yoga Mysore teacher is an injury. Many students love the practice when it’s easy, but a true teacher is one who knows how to work with the practice when it’s easy, difficult and average.

Working with injury in your own body helps build the direct personal experience that gives you compassion, information and technical tools to help students heal and work through the same types of things. The best teachers understand how to work with the Ashtanga Yoga method when students have energy and potential, pain and injury, and balance and anxiety."

Kino is writing here about Mysore teachers, but I think what she says also applies to all of us Ashtangis who are not Mysore teachers, not least because whenever you are practicing, you are ultimately your own teacher. This is true whether you are practicing in a shala/Mysore room, or whether you practice mostly at home by yourself, as I do. Seen in this light, by learning to work with injury and eventually healing yourself through the practice, you are effectively teaching yourself the practice through direct personal experience. This can only happen if we bravely face our injuries, understand them for what they are, and use them to teach us to adopt more healthy and effective movement patterns that will serve us better in the long run. Through my own experience with working with injuries, I have discovered that the Ashtanga method teaches us to take the middle path when working with injury: Instead of either freaking out and quitting the practice altogether or just pushing blindly through injury and ignoring obvious pain signals, it is far more productive to intelligently adapt the structured nature of the Ashtanga practice in such a way that is most healing to our body at any particular point in time. Exactly how we do this will depend directly on the nature of the injury in question and the state of our body and mind on a particular day; we may need to explore and play around with modifications, or with different ways of entering and exiting various postures. But if we keep working with this process of working intelligently with the practice, we will eventually acquire a wonderful gift: The gift of greater knowledge of our bodies and minds, and greater ability to heal ourselves on a deep level. This has been my experience thus far.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Life is really very simple... or is it?

I haven't been able to get myself to write anything on this blog for more than a week. Last week was a very frustrating and angst-filled week, filled with, well, lots of frustration, angst, and yes, fear about what might or might not happen in the future. I don't particularly feel like going into the details here, because I don't feel like retelling this story, not even to myself. So I'll have to keep all this vague for now, if you'll bear with me here.

But yesterday, I had a very interesting realization. I was walking around the Hallmark store in the local mall, shopping for gifts for a friend, when I suddenly realized this: Life is really very simple. We need to eat. We need to have clothes to wear, and a roof over our heads. We also need to do something we love at least once or twice a day, and have at least one person in our life that we can share everything and anything with without fear of being judged. If we have all these things, life will be good. We do not need anything more. 

I'm still not quite sure how this realization hit me: Maybe there is something about the feel-good vibes in a Hallmark store that does this to me (Hallmark Therapy? :-)). But here's the question: If life is really so very simple, why is it so complicated? For instance, why do we worry about having a job, and then once we get a job, we worry about whether we will be able to do well enough in the job to not get fired? "Well, because you need to eat," somebody might say, "And if you don't work, you don't eat." Maybe this is true. I can't argue with this. But I can't help feeling that something seems to have gone terribly wrong somewhere along the line. Originally, human beings got together and dwelt together in communities because doing so enabled them to protect and take care of one another, so that human life is not so much at the mercy of wild beasts, bad weather, and other unpredictable acts of God. A natural result of this dwelling together is a division of labor among the members of the community, according to the aptitudes and inclinations of each member. A person who finds himself drawn to making shoes will make shoes, and sell them to others in the community in exchange for food or money with which to buy things which he wants or needs. A person who has a talent for singing or dancing will become a singer or dancer, and will be supported by the donations of the people who come to see him sing or dance. And the same goes for whatever other profession or vocation we can think of in human society (including yoga teachers :-)): The basic idea is that one produces or provides something of value for the community, and is supported by the community in turn.

Maybe you will say that this view of how we humans came to dwell together is too simplistic and Utopian. Maybe. But I like to think that it is not too far from the truth, even if it is a little simplistic. So what gives? What has gone wrong? Why do so many people feel that they have to push themselves to produce more and more (and more) at their jobs, or risk losing their livelihoods if they do not push themselves this way? Why does the treadmill of production get faster and faster every single day? Maybe because there are more and more people alive now than ever before, with more and more needs and wants than ever before? Maybe so. But I'm not convinced that this is the real answer. In any case, what the real answer to this question is is not the issue: The issue is, how long can we keep up this cycle of producing more and more?

Hmm. I don't know what else to say here. As always, I have many many questions, but no answers.