Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Unauthorized and Uncertified Hometown Ashtanga Teachers; Yoga in the Dragon's Den enters the Terrible Twos

I just read this recent post by Shanna Small, titled "Ode to the Unauthorized, Uncertified Hometown Ashtanga Teacher". In a refreshingly straightforward and candid voice that makes me smile at many points, Shanna tells us why she believes that there is a place in the Ashtanga world for Ashtanga teachers who are neither authorized nor certified by KPJAYI. Shanna writes:

"Technically, you are not supposed to teach without the blessing of the Jois family. There are many good reasons for that which I will not go into for this blog. However, Have you seen the authorized/certified teacher list? None of those people live in Nutbush Tennessee,Elba Alabama or Charlotte North Carolina. If you are fortunate enough to have the money, time and babysitters available to travel, that is awesome. However, the average person does not.   

This brings us to the old argument that got many people kicked out of Sunday School . Is it possible for a person to be a Christian & know Jesus if they are never exposed to Christianity & can these people get into heaven? I am not saying that Ashtanga is the way to heaven, but if it is, & we all sit around and wait for a certified/authorized teacher to bless us with their presence, most of the world would wind up in the fiery pit."

What is the moral of Shanna's story thus far? Well, one conclusion we can draw from Shanna's story might be that if you happen to live in Nutbush Tennesse, Elba Alabama or Charlotte North Carolina (or Moorhead, Minnesota, for that matter), you would do well to get your ass ASAP to Mysore to study at the KPJAYI, so that the lack of authorized/certified teachers in these places will soon be rectified!

But I suspect I'm missing the point here (and deliberately so :-)). Shanna's point, as you can see, is that since there are only so many authorized and certified teachers around (and they tend to congregate in large urban centers, for some reason), people who live in smaller cities will not benefit from their presence and instruction. Rather than have all these people wait to do Ashtanga in their next lifetimes (and burn in some fiery pit in the meantime :-)), it would be far better for teachers who are not (yet?) authorized or certified to step up to the plate, so to speak, and offer the gift of Ashtanga to all these people who would otherwise never encounter it. Shanna expresses this point very eloquently when she writes:

"How are people to learn about Ashtanga and experience its benefits if they don't have access to it? Unauthorized teachers exist because there is a hole. There are areas where people want it and there is no one to teach it. It is not about fame, glory and money. Those who come in it for that quickly drop off because the dedication needed to practice Ashtanga doesn't appeal to the average yoga student. Those teachers who venture out to teach traditional Ashtanga are in it for love. 

I am a hometown yogi teaching without the Jois family blessing.  Like many, I fell in love with the practice & it changed me. People came to me wanting to know what I was doing different in my life. When I told them Ashtanga,they wanted to learn it so I taught them thus lighting the fire for many. Without the  hometown Ashtanga teacher, Ashtanga would not have spread the way it did & many people would never have realized its benefits."

But some people might say, "Look, I don't live close to a shala or to an authorized or certified teacher. But I already have my own Ashtanga home practice, and I love practicing at home; it does wonders for me. Why should I care about whether people around me do or do not do Ashtanga, so long as I myself do it and keep the flame alive?" Shanna has some, uh, not-so-nice things to say about these people (do "these people" include me, I wonder?):

"It is always funny to see the Ashtanga snobs come out of their caves when the authorized/certified teachers come into town. What they don't realize is that without the hometown teachers, these people wouldn't be here. There wouldn't be a demand. The hometown teachers created the buzz and lit the candle that drew the workshop attendees to the light. These are the creators and change makers.

But what impact does the Ashtanga snob have on the world? The person who refuses to share their practices or energy with others because of righteousness and superiority? They say they make this choice because they are true to the tradition, but how does their behavior actually help the tradition?"

Hmm... these are very strong and thoughtful words here. As you might know if you have been reading this blog for a while, I tried to make a foray into teaching Ashtanga for a while last year, but things didn't quite work out (see this post). Shanna's words here give me more food for thought in this area. Personally, I don't feel ready or in a good position to teach Ashtanga right now, mainly because of things in my personal and work life. But perhaps, from the viewpoint of Ashtanga, teaching others isn't just something that one chooses to do at one's leisure; perhaps, as Shanna points out here, there is a bigger reason and bigger purpose to be served by teaching others and leading them to the light of Ashtanga yoga. Well, I can't say much more now, because with many important matters (like this one), there comes a point where words become superfluous, even meaningless; you either do it or don't do it, that's all. But I'll keep all this in mind.    


But let's move to some less weighty matters for now. Exactly two years ago on this day, I wrote my first post on this blog: Which means that Yoga in the Dragon's Den is now two years old! Happy Birthday, Yoga in the Dragon's Den! Many thanks to all of you for reading this blog and keeping it alive with your presence :-)

But this also means that this blog might be entering a difficult period of its existence: The Terrible Twos! So this may be a good time and place to issue a warning:

[Image taken from here]

Well, there isn't that much more I can say right now. We'll just have to wait and see what terrible things come out of this blog in the coming year...  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

99% percent similar; or, how some people who watch yoga videos may not be seeking yoga instruction

Yesterday evening, I attended a book reading by an author whom we ("we" as in the philosophy department, of which I am a member) invited to campus. I was half expecting (more than half-expecting, actually) to see a smug, pot-bellied middle-aged white guy read dourly and dryly through a section of what he thought was his great book, and answer a few questions in a perfunctory, smug manner. Although I am definitely guilty of stereotyping here, stereotypes, like rumors, often have a grain of truth: Over the years, I have encountered more than my fair share of philosophers who actually fit this stereotype.

So I was very pleasantly surprised to have my stereotype broken last night. The author in question (I'm not going to tell you who he is, because I try to maintain a certain separation of blog and work here, but if you really want to know who this guy is, email me, and I'll tell you...) turned out to be this unassuming Bostonian who has written a few novels that take a humorous, slightly irreverent, yet ultimately charitable view towards things religious and spiritual. As I listened to him read sections from his very entertaining prose and interact with the audience, I couldn't help feeling, in light of all those wonderful things that happened in the yoga world in Encinitas lately, that perhaps too many of us take ourselves just a little too seriously, that perhaps, when all is said and done, life and its contradictions might be just a little more bearable if we learn to laugh at ourselves and also laugh with others.

There was one thing the author said that I found to be quite insightful. He was telling us that he is basically a political junkie, and listens to late-night talk shows hosted by people from every point on the political spectrum. Listening to these shows often make him sad, because he realizes that when it comes down to it, we are actually 99% percent similar to each other, but people like talk show hosts (and probably politicians too, with the aid of the media) really exploit the remaining 1% that make us different (our socio-economic backgrounds, religions, political persuasions, sexual orientation, etc, etc.) to sow fear and division among us. The result is a very divided country in which people talk at each other rather than with each other. Which is not to say that our differences are not important (they are), but why allow these differences to make life more difficult than they need to be?

Honestly, I can't say that I can always see that we are 99% percent similar; truthfully, even as I am writing this now, there's a part of me that finds it difficult to believe that I, a Chinese-guy-born-and-grown-up-in-Singapore-who-moved-to-the-United-States-when-he-was-twenty-five-who-does-Ashtanga-and-stopped-eating-animals-some-years-ago-who-also-teaches-philosophy-who-likes-double-espresso-and-still-sometimes-has-cravings-for-fried-chicken-or-fish-and-chips-even-though-he-has-ostensibly-stopped-eating-animals, can actually be 99% similar to you who are reading this now. But the more I run this 99% similarity thesis, as I shall call it, through my head, the more I sense that it is true: Over and above our differences, we are probably much more similar to one another than different.

Here's something else I heard on NPR the other day that also reinforces this 99% similarity thesis. This economics professor at some Ivy League university conducted an experiment in which she got a random group of people with very different socio-economic backgrounds and political persuasions to come together in a room (now, why don't I ever get to conduct cool experiments like this that make it onto NPR? ;-)). After a round of introductions in which everybody told everybody where they are from, what they do, etc., they were all assigned to try to solve a problem together. The economist reports that all these people were able to work together amiably, despite their differences. The basic idea is that if you get people to sit down face-to-face and talk about things together, people can often set aside their differences and find workable solutions to common problems. Which is, of course, a bit hard to believe sometimes, given all the differences that are being aired everywhere in seemingly every corner of the mass media during this election season.


I'm not sure what I'm really trying to say in this post. Maybe I'm not really trying to say anything in particular; just thinking and writing aloud, as I often do. And maybe, if you happen to be on the east coast and are sheltering from Hurricane Sandy (I hope you're alright; but I'm guessing you must be, if you can read this), my random thinking-aloud musings here might just offer you a modicum of comfort and companionship in this, uh, dark and wet hour.

But maybe this is what everything comes down to: Different people come at things from very different angles. Or, to to put it in a more fancy way, different people see reality with different lenses. And if we forget that our differences are due in large part to the different lenses that we wear to see reality with, and forget that underneath the lenses we wear, we are really all quite similar, we end up believing that we are really very different when we are not.

Since this is supposed to be a yoga blog, here's an example from yoga that might illustrate this point. Kino, as many of us know, has posted many, many instructional yoga videos on Youtube; so much so that I recently speculated that if the human race were to suddenly become extinct tomorrow, alien archeologists will probably stumble upon her videos a million years from now, and be able to learn Ashtanga yoga from these videos. But I'm digressing; as I was saying, Kino has made many instructional Youtube videos. One of them which has received many views recently is the one on Yoganidrasana below:

Kino, as you can see, demonstrates and talks us through the posture with admirable ease and clarity of instruction. However, it appears that not everybody who has viewed the video thus far was looking for yoga instruction; this is very obvious if you look at some of the comments on the actual Youtube post (two of which actually made it to the "top comments" section).

Kino herself has noticed this, and has remarked wryly on her Facebook page, "So many views in such a short time. Not sure everyone is watching for yoga, though." A couple of her concerned Facebook followers have also noticed this, and have advised Kino to remove these "unacceptable and offensive" comments. 

I'm not here to advise Kino on what to do; I'm sure she will do what is right and most appropriate. I just think that this example illustrates what I was saying, in a rather weird kind of way. Whoever made those comments could just be a little "crazy" (as one of Kino's followers puts it). Or, for all we know, they could actually be trolling the internet in a sexually-charged state of mind, and certain yoga postures--especially Yoganidrasana, which bares and offers the pelvic region to the heavens--might strike them as being inviting in a sexual manner. For all we know, there might even be porn videos out there that feature some of the, ahem, characters in exactly this posture (I don't know this for sure, one way or the other; remember, I'm a yogic prude...). 

So if my above speculation is correct, then the people who left these "unacceptable and offensive" comments may actually sincerely mean what they say, as creepy as this might sound to some of you. Is this a good thing? Well, the answer is probably no, if acting out one's sexual fantasies using instructional yoga videos (especially those with Kino in them... yikes!) is, well, inappropriate. But here's another way of looking at this matter: What if, just what if, these instructional videos happen to be the online sex-troller's first real exposure to yoga, as unlikely as this might sound? What if, after watching these videos, the sex-troller starts to ask, "Hmm... could there really be more to this body position than as a position for sexual activity?" And this question then leads him (or her) down a path of inquiry which eventually leads him (or her) to become a serious student of yoga? In other words, what if being exposed to these videos causes the sex-troller to put on a different set of lenses, so to speak, and see the same physical things in a different light? Unlikely, I know, but hey, crazier things have happened on this planet... 

At any rate, at least this much can be said: Kino may be doing way more good in the world with her videos than she suspects...                  

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The academic conference gauntlet, driving in a snowstorm and bandhas, and Cloud Atlas

It has been a most interesting weekend. Not so much in a yoga kind of way; although, come to think of it, if all life is yoga, how can anything not be anything in a yoga kind of way? So I guess what I was trying to say is that the weekend wasn't interesting in a yoga-on-the-mat kind of way.

But it was an interesting weekend, anyway. I spent Friday and Saturday down in the Twin Cities (that's Minneapolis and St Paul, for those of you who don't live in the United States), where I presented my stem cell research ethics paper at a philosophy conference for the first time ever. It was quite well-received, and I got some useful and constructive feedback from a few people who also work in bioethics, although they had to put me through the usual academic-conference gauntlet (being grilled, being subject to powerfully voiced objections delivered in an intimidating professorial tone of voice, etc.) before they offered the constructive feedback. That's okay; there's probably a nicer, less ego-driven alternative to this kind of academic conference gauntlet, but I'll take what I can get right now. Can't expect the world to change overnight. Besides, wasn't it Gandhi who said that you need to be the change that you want to see in the world?

My presentation also went well in another way; only one person got upset by what I was presenting (for another example of somebody getting upset by my, ahem, dangerous ideas, see this post). This person actually said to my face, "You would do well to change the thesis of your paper..."

Now, I've read this particular turn of phrase ("You would do well to do such-and-such") many times in print, but to actually hear it spoken to me in person is quite an experience, to put it mildly. In any case, at a post-mortem of my presentation conducted at the post-conference reception (lubricated by a few glasses of red wine), a few colleagues and I agreed that this person probably got upset because she misunderstood what I was saying. Which made me feel better about her feeling upset... uh, well, this is not a good way of putting it, but I hope you get what I'm saying, which is that although upsetting people is always not a good thing, it is better that people get upset not because of what I said, but because of what they think I said. Does this make sense? I hope it does...


I must be boring you with the boring details of my professional life... I mean, isn't this supposed to be a yoga blog? So let's turn to something more... yoga. After the conference last night, I had to make the four-hour drive back up to northern Minnesota. Along the way, I stopped for some great Indian food at an Indian restaurant in St Cloud; if you're ever in St Cloud, Minnesota (why would you be, I wonder?), check out the Star of India.

Well, that was the good part of the journey. The bad part happened after dinner. In the last fifty miles of the drive, it started snowing pretty heavily. The snow was pelting my windshield, and I couldn't see more than ten feet in front of me. At the same time, the road was so thick with snow that I couldn't see the lane markers. Which meant that I had no idea whether I was straddling two lanes at once or worse, in danger of driving into a ditch. I had never driven through a snow-storm on the Interstate before (I grew up in the tropics), so this was definitely an experience, to put it mildly. At first, I wondered if it was safe to continue driving, and I thought about stopping; but then if I did, I wouldn't know how long the snowstorm would continue to rage, and I might either (a) get snowed in right there on the Interstate, or (b) get hit from behind by somebody who's hauling ass (but who would haul ass in a snowstorm?), or (c) both (a) and (b).

So I decided that my best option was to continue driving. I slowed down to about forty miles per hour, and kept as close to the road shoulder as I could without actually getting onto it (as you probably know, you can "feel" the road shoulder by the grinding sound your tires make when they are on the road shoulder); that way, I knew I was still on the road, and was in no danger of driving into the ditch.

The whole time, I was holding on to the steering wheel firmly without gripping it too tightly; if you grip too tightly, you won't be able to maneuver well, and won't be able to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-changing conditions on the road. So, what has any of this to do with yoga? Well, I think Kino said in some video somewhere that the bandhas are like the steering wheel of the practice; you engage them, and use them to bring your body where you want it to go in the most efficient and effective way. And perhaps what is true of driving in a snowstorm is also true of bandha-engagement; you need to engage and "hold" the bandhas firmly without gripping too tightly; if you grip too tightly, you become a tight-ass (literally), and you won't be able to respond quickly and effectively to the ever-changing conditions that the road of practice constantly throws at you.

So yeah, who knew that driving in a snowstorm can teach us a thing or two about asana practice (and vice versa ;-))?


While I was in the Twin Cities, I also bought myself a copy of the novel Cloud Atlas. As you probably know, the movie adaptation, starring Tom Hanks, Halle Perry, Jim Sturgess, Zhou Xun and Bae Doo Na, among others, came out this weekend. I heard some good reviews on NPR, and decided to buy the novel and read it first before watching the movie. Anybody seen it yet?

In any case, here's what the back cover of my copy of the novel says about David Mitchell, the author:

"A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokovian love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky."

With such a description (especially the comparisons to Murakami and Dick, two of my favorite authors), how could I resist buying the novel and setting myself back US$15? ;-) Let's hope it lives up to its back cover... Maybe I'll post reviews here as I read it.

More later. Oh, and if you live on the anywhere on the U.S. eastern seaboard, be safe: Stay out of Sandy's way.    

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Talking to birds in Kapotasana, making the transition from led practice to Mysore style, and Wonder-Breading Yoga

During practice this morning, I tried speaking to the cockatiels again while holding my heels in Kapo. I didn't say anything profound, just some rather inane things like "Hello birds, where are you?" I did this, because I recently came up with this theory that if I can speak in complete sentences (albeit rather short and probably creepy-sounding ones, if anybody were around to hear them) in a more or less even tone while in the depths of Kapo, then my breath must be pretty even, and I must not be doing too badly in the pose. Maybe I should even give this thing I do a name: The bird-speaking test for proficiency in Kapotasana.  

For the record, I don't know what the Official Ashtanga Policy is on speaking to animals (or speaking to anything, really) during practice. I don't know if the Ashtanga police will arrest me (or maybe, let me get away with just a citation) for such incorrect method. But I really think there is some truth to this theory of mine: I mean, if you can't communicate with birds during a pose that is named after a bird, well, what good is your yoga practice? :-)

It also just occurred to me that this is one of the little advantages of practicing at home: If I try doing this in a shala, people will quite definitely think I'm nuts. In a shala, the problem will be compounded by the fact that there are no birds there. Which means I will probably have to try speaking to my neighbor while in Kapo ("Hello, so-and-so, what are you having for breakfast after practice?"...).  Which would quite definitely be creepy.

That said, however, there are good reasons for practicing in a shala. Especially if you are seriously thinking about making the transition from a led practice to Mysore style practice. Speaking of which, Kino just made a video about this topic:

I think Kino admirably answers the question in a way that is thoughtful and sensitive to where the student who posed the question is probably coming from: A place of uncertainty, of thinking about taking what seems to be a big step into unknown territory. If somebody were to pose the same question to me, I would probably say something along the lines of, "Sure! Of course you are ready! Mysore Style is traditionally supposed to be the way people learn Ashtanga anyway. So how can you not be ready? You are never more ready, nor will you ever be more ready, than you are right now!"

Which sounds like a nice, pat answer on the face of it, but is probably a bit disingenuous, since I myself did not learn Ashtanga the traditional Mysore way; for more details, see this post. Which is also why I think Kino's suggestion (give it your best shot and really commit to it for one month, and then see what it does to you) would probably do a much better job of reaching the student where he or she is (as opposed to where I would like he or she to be) and setting that student's mind at ease.


A recent post over at the Babarazzi discusses a rather bizarre but perhaps understandable phenomenon: Some yoga teachers in this country (I'm not naming any names here) have adopted this interesting practice of de-culturing or whitewashing yoga; as in, washing it of its Sanskrit nomenclature and other hocus-pocus elements, thus making it supposedly more friendly to white people... well, I mean to say, some white people.

If you read this blog regularly, you probably know where I stand on this issue, so I won't rehash my views here (Is a white-washed Ashtanga Fundamentalist still an Ashtanga Fundamentalist? That's a hard one...). I'm just going to say two things here:

(1) If Americans white-wash yoga in America, wouldn't people in other parts of the world follow suit? The Chinese will then start yellow-washing yoga, Africans, I'm guessing, will also start black-washing yoga, and maybe people in the middle east will then start brown-washing yoga... actually, I have this feeling that the Chinese will probably be quite happy to keep yoga as it is; in my personal experience, Chinese people and culture have always had this syncretistic, pragmatic attitude towards things foreign to them ("You want me to chant this Vande Gurunam thing before I can take practice? Sure, why not? If it enables me to tap deeper into the benefit of the practice and also look kinda exotic in front of my friends, what's the problem?"). But I can't speak for African or Middle-eastern people. But maybe all of this is not a problem, anyway: If there are white-washed and yellow-washed and black-washed and brown-washed (and whatever-other-color-washed) yogas, wouldn't this make yoga more colorful (literally)? So yeah, go ahead, white-wash away. Just don't make me white-wash along with you. I like my vande gurunam the way it is ;-)

(2) But here's another, possibly more significant problem with this white-washing business: Ever heard of Wonder Bread? If you haven't, it looks like this:

[Image taken from here]

When Wonder Bread first appeared on the market some 90 years ago, it was hailed as the best thing since... sliced bread. However, over the decades (despite claims by Wonder Bread advocates that Wonder Bread contains at least 8 essential nutrients, and recent attempts to come up with enriched versions that supposedly contain more calcium and vitamin D), more and more members of the discerning and health-conscious public have come to realize that, despite all its wonders, Wonder Bread lacks many of the minerals and nutrients found in old-school home-made bread.

The moral of the story, I guess, is that when you mass-produce white bread, you almost inevitably suffer a loss in nutritional value. Now could it also be that one can mass-market and white-wash yoga and strip it of its "hocus-pocus" elements only at the price of losing its original "nutritional value"? Could the white-washing of yoga be the yoga equivalent of Wonder Bread? In white-washing yoga, are we in effect Wonder-Breading it, reducing it to a much less "nutritious" shadow of its former self?

I don't know... but I do know that all this talking about Wonder Bread (and probably also all the leg-behind-head postures that I have been practicing) is making me very, very hungry. So I'm going to go get some food now. More later.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Coping with Injuries: Some Practical Suggestions, by Michelle Ryan

Sometime last month, I invited readers of this blog (that includes you :-)) to submit guest posts about practicing with injury and using the practice to heal from them. I'm very pleased to report that Yoga in the Dragon's Den now has its very first guest post. In response to my invitation, Michelle Ryan has very generously written a long guest post, which you will have the pleasure of reading below.

But first, a few things about Michelle. Michelle is the owner and director of Florence Yoga in Northampton, MA (I just realized I actually don't know how to spell MA in full...). She has been practicing Ashtanga since 1997. Among other things, her studio boasts a big beautiful Ganesh statue. I have yet to see it, but I hope to someday go there and practice in front of it; I have a good feeling that my practice will improve by leaps and bounds when I do so :-) If you are ever in the area, please think about stopping by her studio to practice.

I guess I've said enough. I should let you read what Michelle has to share below. She combines her knowledge of the Ashtanga practice with an intimate knowledge of Ayurveda (especially the Ayurvedic concept of Dinacharya, or "daily routine") to fashion a comprehensive path towards greater well-being. Enjoy!


Coping with Injuries: Some Practical Suggestions
by Michelle Ryan

So, you’ve gone to Ashtanga class, and at some point in the practice, you forgot to breathe, lost your concentration, or pushed a bit too hard and you feel a sharp pain. Or, you were chopping wood, or raking leaves, or walking an overzealous dog, and you go inside and notice "something" hurts. You’ve pulled or strained something, and you are unsure if you should do your practice.

Approaching your practice with an attitude of self care is vital at all times, but especially when you are injured. The practice is a brilliant means of bringing you health and wellbeing, a way to clear and revitalize your mind and body, when approached wisely and compassionately. You should feel buoyed and energized, not depleted and discouraged, by your practice. A compassionate, non-striving approach goes a long way.

But, we have bodies, we can use them rigorously, and sometimes we get hurt. Here’s what I do when this happens, and it’s based on the Ayurvedic concept of “dinacharya” or “daily routine.”

(A couple of disclaimers: with any injury or pain in yoga practice, especially if it’s chronic, it’s best to talk to a healthcare professional to determine whether or not the pain is something more serious. Yoga can help and even heal the body, but you must be certain your injury is not something more serious, that may require Western medicine. Also - I am not an expert on Ayurveda. I have had this post fact-checked by one of my students, Kim Jorczak, who is a trained Ayurvedic Consultant - and I owe much of my original information to my friend and teacher, Christine Hoar, who has shared these strategies with me over the years.)

Very succinctly, Ayurveda, the “sister science” of Yoga, was developed in India over many centuries to help us put our bodies into harmony with nature’s rhythms. The easiest way to think about these rhythms is to imagine that our bodies are like clocks, where every system of the body has a time period of optimum function. Aligning your choices with the optimum times of when and what to eat, when and how long to sleep, when to do mental work, and when to be physically active, and then following the regimen regularly, on a daily basis, along with awareness of the season, is the basis of Ayurveda. It can have a profound effect on maintaining and even enhancing our health and wellbeing, especially as it gives us the means to do so naturally, without resorting to panaceas that only mask or treat the symptoms.

Our bodies like routine - and rituals. Just as doing a daily asana practice becomes something we begin to look forward to and benefit from, dinacharya - daily routine - will also be something your mind and body will benefit from, too. Dinacharya follows the Ayurvedic tenet that as long as we live in harmony with daily and seasonal rhythms, our body and our minds will respond by being more healthy and well as a result, giving us the means to live in balance.

My personal dinacharya helps me manage those aches and pains that inevitable arise through the rigors of the practice. Besides my 5-6 days of asana and pranayama practice each week, I practice the following methods of self care every day:

  • going to bed and getting up at the same time 
  • scraping my tongue 
  • using a neti pot 
  • dry brushing before I shower 
  • doing uddhiyana kriya (not necessarily ayurvedic, but it really helps your digestion to do this) 
  • sesame oil self-massage (especially ears, hands and feet)

In addition, I eat moderately and healthfully, according to my ayurvedic constitution, at optimum times for my digestion. I also drink warm water or herbal tea throughout the day, and have cut way down on fats, sugars, wheat, and most animal products.

If this seems like a lot to do, it’s not, really. It only takes me 30 minutes to get ready every morning, including my daily cup of chai, before I head out the door. It has become my way of managing my health every day, and the results have been very positive. I began doing these dinacharya practices, in addition to my yoga practice, 7 years ago, with Christine's guidance. While I had a daily asana practice, I wasn’t fully healthy: my blood pressure was considered “borderline” high, and my cholesterol was above 200. I was overweight by about 15 lbs, had chronic back pain, debilitating allergies that were leading to asthma, and Reynaud’s syndrome, an auto-immune related disorder that effects circulation, and is a pre-cursor to more serious autoimmune disorders.

I just went to the doctor a few weeks ago for a complete “work up,” and every test fell well within the “normal” range. My Reynaud’s is gone (it disappeared about 5 years ago); I fortunately never developed asthma; my weight and BMI are within normal range, and my cholesterol and blood pressure are excellent; I still have some seasonal allergies, but they are not as debilitating or year-round as they once were. I no longer suffer from back pain. I am very healthy - and I attribute it to these dinacharya practices that I have added to my Yoga asana practice.

This may sounds very self-satisfied, but I am very humbly grateful to my dinacharya routine, and thank Christine for her kindness and wisdom in sharing it with me. Your routine may be different, and I highly recommend that Ashtanga practitioners meet with a qualified consultant to have their own Ayurvedic evaluation, and be given a dinacharya routine specific for you and your body type.

Now, some additional things - some Ayurvedic, some not - that I do when I am injured - My mantra is “decrease inflammation, increase circulation.”

  • Ice the injury to decrease inflammation. 
  • Put sesame oil on the affected area at night, before you sleep. Gentle massage brings stimulation and circulation to the injury, which ultimately speeds up the bodies natural healing process, and doing so before you go to bed is very effective, too, as you sleep more deeply, which helps promote healing.

  • If you have worked particularly hard in a class and know you’ll be sore later, take an Epsom salt bath that evening, before the oil massage. Epsom salt has long been associated with helping to decrease muscular pain and inflammation. You will sleep like a baby after this warm bath, which again, promotes healing. Follow up with a bit of sesame oil massage on the affected area before you go to bed (wear old clothing, as the oil can stain.)

  • Consider trying an interesting “hybrid” homeopathic/herbal anti-inflammatory ointment called Traumeel. It’s also available in an internal “tincture” form. It includes arnica and a variety of other herbal anti-inflammatories. It’s effects are helpful in decreasing muscle and joint pain. I have had success with Traumeel in the past - and know of many other students and friends who have had the success with this product as well. (My mother, who suffers from Fibromyalgia, swears by it.) It’s good to put it on right after you injure yourself, so keep some handy when you practice, just in case!

  • If you are not allergic to ibuprofen (as I am - and I kind of dislike suggesting this), but it may help to take some for a limited time to help with the inflammation. Do not become dependent on it, however, as it is only a panacea - and can wreak havoc on your liver if you take it for long periods of time.

  • Reduce caffeine, alcohol, sugar and fats in your diet. This can be hard, but it’s necessary. For me, a vegetarian diet is best for promoting healing and renewal - you may be different. 

  • Eat more pineapple - it is great for reducing inflammation. Juicing is great, as well, since the micronutrients you get from one 16oz. glass of freshly juiced veggies and fruits are concentrated and easier to consume than eating the original large amount of veggies.
  • For old injuries where there is scar tissue, hot castor packs work wonders. (I used these on my C-Section scar about 5 years post-partum, and it dissolved the scar tissue from the incision.)

  • If you can afford it, get good body work from a qualified professional. The modalities I personally prefer for injury are acupuncture, shiatsu and deep tissue massage. Do what makes your body relax and renew. It’s worth the cost to give this gift of to ourselves. 

  • Talk to a qualified Ashtanga teacher to see what else you can do in your practice to promote healing. Modification of postures is preferable to re-injury, and it’s the wise yogi who does this. Also, study the anatomy of the affected area - I have found this is very helpful in giving me a greater understanding of what I should do in my asana practice to prevent further damage, and also future injury.

Although there may be an understandable desire to “take a break” from practice to heal the pulled muscle, I’ve found that after a short rest of a day or two to let any swelling subside, it’s better to continue my practice, albeit, carefully. In general, it’s also better to practice for shorter periods of time, but more regularly, because you will feel less sore and depleted when you practice gradually, adding a little more every time you practice. 

I use the asana practice to promote healing. I listen to my breath and intuition even more as a guide and make sure to explore alternatives and modify postures that would exacerbate the injury. Following Primary series carefully, moving through the postures and ending my practice if a posture is not working or feels like it exacerbates the injury, is wisest. The next day, I go through the series and only add a posture when there isn’t pain associated with it. If it hurts, I close my practice. Each day, I do a little more, adding postures as they become comfortable. I may get “stuck” on a posture for some weeks before being able to move on.

Patience is key to this slow and steady approach. It can feel like you are going back to square one - you may only be able to do Suryanamaskar at first - but this method can work to resolve longstanding issues in your body. You have your whole life to practice and explore - what’s the rush?! Pushing to “fix” yourself with the practice by doing it as you “think” you should be doing it, or as you were doing it before the injury, is counterproductive. Trust the practice, because it’s healing, but trust your intuition too. If something hurts very badly, or makes you feel worse afterwards, STOP. Don’t keep doing it. Close your practice for the day. Take rest. The Ashtanga Police will not arrest you for taking good care of yourself.

Finally, see this amazing  man and definitely watch this amazing woman's story; both of these videos offer a refreshing, inspirational perspective on the Ashtanga practice and the potential of our minds and bodies.
Injuries can be humbling and frustrating, no question. But, I suggest, you will find greater clarity, depth, humility and acceptance of what “is” when they do happen to you. It's then that the true yoga practice can begin.       

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to get up for yoga, and do it; more thoughts on Encinitas and Jois Yoga

If you practice Ashtanga, you will know that there are two major obstacles that we commonly have to overcome in order to have a wonderful practice. The first is getting out of bed (for tips on how to overcome the soft seductiveness of your bed on mornings when you just don't feel like getting up, see Angela Jamison's recent post). The second is what I call pre-practice doubt. This doubt often arises from certain physical sensations that we may have, or certain emotions that we may be feeling just when we are rolling out the mat. Common examples include: "I'm feeling a little down/angsty today, and I have, like, a million things to do today... maybe I'll skip practice today", "There is this funny sensation in my lower back. I think doing Surya Namaskars today might just be the straw that breaks this camel's back. Better skip practice today..." You get the idea. There is something very funny about that moment just before we step on the mat: It seems that every possible doubt, every possible reason we could have for not doing the practice surfaces at that precise moment. Wonder why? The simple answer, I guess, is that we are mere mortals who are trying very, very hard everyday to do this crazy practice that seems almost superhuman at times.

But there's hope for us mortals. I just read this very refreshing post by Sarah Hatcher, in which she shares a wonderful solution to pre-practice doubt: Invite your teacher to join you! Sarah writes:

"I too have my own struggles with my practice, yet with dedicated, concentrated, and uninterrupted effort and with devotion, this tears through much of my doubts and struggles... To turn the shakti fire back on, I used chanting to get me focused which set me back on track.

Invite Guruji into the room before you do your practice. And once you have chanted, "Vande gurunam..." and you know he is there, invite other teachers who have inspired you into the room as well. This will create a safe environment where you know you are cared for and not alone. Then it is not just you practicing, it is with them and under their guidance."

Very nicely said. Sarah puts into words what I have been feeling a lot whenever I do the opening chant, but haven't quite been able to put into words myself. I have always felt keenly that doing the opening invocation is a way to set a powerful intention for the practice, to remind ourselves that the practice is not just physical exercise, that the practice is really a practice that connects us to something greater than our intellects and egos. Sarah's words above bring out another dimension to the role of the opening invocation; as she puts it, the opening invocation is literally an act of invocation in which we honor and invoke the presence of Guruji and all the teachers that have helped us embark on this wonderful path of practice, so that with every practice, we are surrounded and protected by their wonderful supportive energies. 


Speaking of the practice being spiritual and more than just physical exercise, I can't help thinking about the Encinitas-School-District-Jois-Yoga-parents-concerned-about-Hindu-indoctrination controversy. My apologies for the long referent here; I just can't seem to find a way to refer to the whole thing that isn't overly sensational or that does not prejudice one party against another (I thought about variously calling it "The Great Encinitas Yoga Debacle", "The Great Jois Yoga Debacle", or better yet, "EncinitasGate", but all this just sounded too sensational; remember, I'm not a journalist who's trying to sell a story...). 

In any case, the Confluence Countdown, our de facto provider of all breaking Ashtanga news, has done a really wonderful job of covering the entire controversy in a lot of detail, so I won't rehearse the latest developments here. I just have two things to say about this whole thing: 

(1) It appears that there is a lot of talking past each other on the part of all the parties concerned. The aggrieved parents charge that Jois Yoga/the school district is indoctrinating their children in Hinduism. Jois Yoga and, more recently, the Universal Society of Hinduism (which has also jumped into the fray) respond to these charges by saying things like, "But yoga is good for your health! It helps with obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, and all that bad stuff that sedentary modern living does to our bodies."

Now, do these people think the parents are stupid (or--to use a word I've seen somewhere--idiots)? I mean, I'm pretty sure that these parents know that the physical aspects of yoga, like many other physical activities, can help with various health conditions. These parents, as we know, are concerned with the issue of the spiritual/religious aspect of yoga. More specifically, they are concerned that Jois Yoga/the school district have overstepped the Church/state boundary, and are indoctrinating their kids in Hinduism. And yet as far as I can see, neither Jois Yoga nor the Universal Society of Hinduism have done or said anything to address this issue. Or is their silence on this issue an implicit admission of guilt? Are they basically sidestepping the issue by harping on the physical benefits of yoga? 

Well, I don't have any answers here. But I can certainly see why these parents are pissed. I would be too, if I keep asking a particular question, and keep getting answers to a different set of questions.Oh well, but what to do? In this funny land of America, it seems to be common practice for politicians and public figures to avoid answering questions by deliberately talking past each other. Maybe this is what they teach politicians and public figures in Political Survival 101... who knows? 

(2) We keep talking about the spiritual and religious aspects of yoga as if they are one and the same thing. But are the spiritual and religious aspects of yoga really one and the same thing? I consider my practice to be spiritual in nature (I do the opening and closing invocations, I refer to the postures in Sanskrit, I see the practice as (hopefully) bringing me to a place that is beyond my ego and intellect, etc., etc.), but I haven't become a Hindu (at least, I think I haven't) just because I see my practice in this spiritual way. 

In any case, I really do believe that one can participate in something in a spiritually engaging way without being a part of the religious tradition from which that thing arises. As an example, consider works in Classical or Baroque music. Many of the works of Bach, for example, were originally commissioned and composed to be played or sung during church functions, and Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" contains clear references to God. But most people today, I take it, would have no problem with accepting that we can enjoy, perform, and be profoundly moved by these pieces of music without having any particular religious beliefs. And if being profoundly moved by a piece of music is not a spiritual experience, well, I don't know what is. 

In a similar manner, perhaps we can also see doing the Ashtanga practice as being akin to playing a piece of music (actually, PJ Heffernan once used precisely this analogy to explain the practice to a group of beginners at the beginning of led primary). The primary series (or any other series, for that matter) can be seen to be a song which is composed of individual "notes" (the individual postures). And the vinyasa count is like the musical notation which tells you how long to sustain each note. And just as musicians often feel the spiritually transformative effects of the music they are playing even if they themselves have no particular religious beliefs, in the same way, Ashtanga practitioners also feel the spiritually transformative effects of the practice that is linked together by the vinyasa count and which opens and closes with the opening and closing invocations, even if they themselves have no particular religious beliefs.

In this way, Ashtanga, like music, is spiritual without being religious. Now I'm probably being very immodest here, but I really can't help wondering: If the Jois Yoga Foundation had conducted an information/dialogue session with the parents before implementing their yoga program in the school district, and had explained why yoga is spiritual but not religious in the way I described above, would things have turned out differently? I really don't know... I like to think they would have, but I'm also not inclined to be optimistic about this, with so many people being as emotional and set in their own views as they often are today, and with the prevailing anti-intellectualist climate in this country today ("Who has time for your fancy scholarly distinction between the spiritual and the religious? Besides, how do we know the spiritual isn't just a "gateway drug" to the religious? You know, start the kids out with yoga or Hinduism Lite, and then slowly bring them into more and more hardcore Hindu stuff; by the end of the year, they'll all be performing pujas to that elephant god, like any good Hindu...").

Hmm... I really don't know how to end this post, so I guess I'll just end here. (Moral of the story: If you don't know how to end a post, simply stop writing. Right now.) As always, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear your thoughts on this.              

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Procrastination, Romnesia, and other ills of our information-saturated age

Now and then, I read blog posts about procrastination, written by bloggers who suffer from this, ahem, terrible scourge of our information-saturated age. Well, if you suffer from this affliction, there is now hope: You can hire somebody to slap you whenever you procrastinate! Talk about tough love... This is exactly what blogger Maneesh Sethi has done: He recently went on Craigslist and hired a woman to be his "slapper". For $8 an hour, the woman will sit beside him at a designated place (in this case, a cafe) and slap him whenever she notices him looking at things on his computer that is not related to his work (for more details, see this article). Here's a video of the slapper in action:

Intense, huh? Well, personally, I'm not sure if hiring a slapper would work so well for me. Here's why: 

(1) Although I do procrastinate quite a bit, I actually have something to show for my procrastination. Last year, I actually wrote a philosophical paper on procrastination and presented it at a few philosophy conferences around the country. In the paper, I compare procrastination to standard accounts of weakness of will (or akrasia, if you prefer the Greek term). My view is that procrastination is different from weakness of will, because while weakness of will assumes that what one is being weak-willed over (say, having more ice-cream than you should be having, or sleeping with somebody you shouldn't be sleeping with) is a bad thing, procrastination can actually be a good thing and lead to good outcomes in some cases, such as writing an academic paper on procrastination! 

I have since submitted the paper to a philosophy journal, where it is now under review. Hopefully, it will get published, and then I will be able to join the illustrious ranks of published philosophers :-) Oh, and if you want to read the paper, email me and I'll send you a copy. 

(2) I can say that at least half of the posts on this blog were written when I was procrastinating and not doing my "real" work. So at least half this blog owes its existence to procrastination! I don't know if this is a good thing. You decide. 

(3) Having said all this, if you need a slapper, please consider hiring me. Well, then again, maybe not: I have developed a fair amount of upper-body strength from my Ashtanga practice, and you might end up getting more than what you paid for. Talk about value for money... Never mind. 


Speaking of afflictions of our age, President Obama recently identified another such affliction: Romnesia! Check out his recent speech in Fairfax, Virginia, in which he describes the symptoms of this painful condition and what you can do if you find yourself thus afflicted: 

Well, now you know what my political views are. I've never said I'm apolitical, anyway. In any case, not being a citizen of these United States, I can't vote in the upcoming elections. But still, what needs to be said, needs to be said.

Alright... I've procrastinated enough. I need to get back to my "real" work now. More later.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Kapotasana: Some practice notes

It seems that I can never say enough about Kapotasana; actually, talking about Kapo seems to be becoming my default thing to do when I find myself running out of yoga-related things to blog about... well, actually, there are a few very interesting things happening at work right now that are yoga-related in a very bizarre kind of way. But I try as much as possible not to talk about work directly on this blog, and I have yet to find a way to talk about these interesting things indirectly. So... let's just talk about Kapo.

I recently wrote about how Kapo seems to be becoming more difficult for me, probably as a result of the shoulder-strengthening/tightening effects of adding the three leg-behind-head postures to my second series practice. It turns out that the solution to this issue is, quite simply, patience and time. And I mean this in two ways. First, as many of you out there who do second series know, the shoulder-tightening effects of the LBH postures and the arm-balances (i.e. the infamous Karandavasana) is supposed to be temporary, and one should, ideally, get back the depth of one's backbend in time. So if one just continues to practice jusdiciously and carefully, the shoulders or whatever-it-is-that-is-tight should open up with patience and time.

But there is also a second, more immediate sense in which one can apply patience and time to the practice of Kapotasana at a time like this: Simply hang in the posture for a few breaths (or more) longer, rather than dive for the feet right away. This is what I have been doing over the last week or so. On most days, I would hang for up to 10 breaths and bring as much awareness as possible to the mid/upper back at the same time. I would only go for the feet when I can see at least one of my feet in my field of vision (ideally, I should be able to see both of my feet all the time, but I think my mild scoliosis causes my back to open up unevenly, so that one side of the back opens up more than the other. At any rate, this is my theory...).

The interesting thing about hanging in the posture longer like this is that when I actually go for the feet, I can pretty much get the heels right away, without having to grab the toes or mid-soles first and then walk the hands to the heels. I have also noticed that hanging in the posture longer allows me to lengthen and stabilize the breath more, so I am not huffing and puffing like a cow (although I am still not as at ease as Kino was in that video I posted last week...).

Yesterday, I even tried speaking to the cockatiels while holding my heels in Kapo, and I am pleased to report that my voice actually came out sounding quite normal and even. Which is a big improvement from a couple of years ago... I can still remember when I first started doing Kapo a couple of years ago: I was in the posture at my teacher's shala in Milwaukee. Somebody on the other side of the room saw me in the pose and said to me, "Nice work!" I said "Thank you!" in response, and was horrified when my voice came out as this weird-sounding croak (who knew that Kapo can turn you into a frog?). Which elicited a big laugh from everybody in the room. Yes, I sometimes double as the class clown when I'm in a shala (usually without intending to...)

So yeah, patience and time is the solution to tightness in Kapo (and probably to many other things as well...).   

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Energetic Imbalance, Ashtanga practice, pranayama, and predominantly male abuses of power

Recently, I have been thinking quite a bit about what the Ashtanga practice does to us. Not so much on a physical level, but more on an energetic level. These are things I have thinking about since I first started writing this blog, and probably even before that: At any rate, I definitely have been thinking about them since I started doing the second series backbends and feeling their subtle energetic effects more than two years ago.

These thoughts are not very well-formed, but they revolve around a few questions: Is there a particular kind of person (maybe a Type A anal control freak) that is most commonly drawn to Ashtanga? Does the practice ameliorate and "mellow out" these individuals' "negative" qualities? Or does it make these qualities more pronounced; for example, if one is already a Type A anal control freak, does practicing Ashtanga make one even more of a Type A anal control freak? Or is the story a little more complicated: Perhaps the practice brings out the Type A anal control characteristics of the Type A anal individual, making them more pronounced, so that the individual can see these "negative" traits in all their ugly glory, come to terms with their dark side, and eventually, after Dirgha Kala, finally be able to purify themselves of these "negative characteristics"?

Being a neophyte on the Ashtanga path, I do not have answers to these questions, and also do not feel all that qualified to write about these things. But I write anyway, because writing and thinking aloud is what I do ;-)

But yesterday, I came across something that might shed some light on these questions. I was reading this recent post that Linda over at Linda's Yoga Journey wrote about the most recent yoga scandal to hit our, uh, otherwise pristine yoga community; in case you don't know about the scandal, let me just say that it involves an individual whose first name rhymes with "bathtub". I'm not going to talk about it, because although I do feel for those who were harmed in this case, I don't know enough about what's going on to say anything with any authority (actually, when was the last time I actually knew enough about anything to say anything with any authority?... but I think you get the point).

Anyway, as I was saying, I read Linda's recent post about this scandal. In this post, she shared a very interesting and thought-provoking message from one of her readers. Here's part of the message:

"These yoga practices can very often and easily drive up combinations of energetic imbalance that predictably result in such situations. I used to wonder why so many of these yoga gurus would end up in scandals, if they are supposed to be models of “enlightenment”, but now I can see that it is not at all surprising.

Because yoga is primarily a “fire path” (with practices designed to move shakti upward through the spinal and central channels and out the crown), males in particular are susceptible to these problems.  Most men are already somewhat imbalanced toward this “fire” direction, as opposed to most females, whose “water” (cool) energy tends to flow downward more easily and are thus more naturally grounded when practicing yoga...

[This imbalance] often results in sexual activity because of the unconscious nature of its manifestation. When you’re not grounded at all and you’ve bypassed your lower chakras to shoot out the crown, those lower centers tend to act on their own.  And it can also result in various forms of male/female domination, abuse, and control."

As is clear from the context, the person who wrote this was trying to shed light on why the recent scandals (the one involving the "bathtub" guy and another earlier this year, which involved somebody whose name can be rendered in Spanish as "Juan Amigos") happened by talking about the energetic effects of yoga practice. But I also can't help feeling that all this is also relevant to the above questions that I have been having about Ashtanga practice; as many of you know, the goal of Ashtanga practice, from an energetic point of view, is to get Kundalini to awaken from its dormant state at the base of the spine and to rise through the sushumna nadi to come out through the crown chakra. In particular, the backbends and leg-behind-head postures in second series are supposed to work together by generating the creative tension in the spinal column to encourage this upward movement of Kundalini.

Seen from this perspective, I wonder if all this may also be related to the reason why we don't start pranayama practice in Ashtanga till after the practitioner has finished third series. Maybe this no-pranayama-till-completion-of-third-series rule acts as a sort of safeguard against the kind of energetic imbalance mentioned in the comment above. As you know, pranayama practice works directly with the nervous system; while the benefits of pranayama are great, the stakes are also higher. If you mess up asana practice, you mess up your body. Which is pretty bad, but fixable. But if you mess up pranayama practice, you mess up your nervous system. Which is, well, really, really bad.  You might go crazy, or become afflicted with the kind of energetic imbalance mentioned in the message above. 

Seen in this light, perhaps there is a method to the apparent madness of Ashtanga. Perhaps there is a reason why we are not "allowed" to start pranayama till after we have mastered third series, as crazy and unreasonable as this may seem ("Why do I have to freaking be able to stand on my hands and put my feet in lotus at the same time before I can be allowed to do a few freaking breathing exercises? Where's the sense in this?!").

Well, here's where the sense may be: Perhaps the idea is that a practitioner whose nervous system has become more grounded as a result of practicing both primary and second series would be better equipped to guard against the kind of imbalances mentioned above. So in this way, the order of the Ashtanga series and the no-pranayama-till-completion-of-third-series rule can be seen as "energetic safeguards" that serve to protect the practitioner from himself or herself.

At any rate, this is my theory. Nobody has yet endorsed it (or refuted it, for that matter), so don't take this as the Ashtanga Gospel Truth. But here's something else that may be interesting and related. A fairly reliable source recently told me that over the course of his/her long practice career, he/she has met some male Ashtanga teachers who have definitely abused their positions of power as teachers. I have not practiced Ashtanga long enough to be able to verify these claims independently, but I trust this source. Anyway, the upshot seems to be this: If abuses of power caused by energetic imbalances can occur even with the energetic safeguards that are in place in Ashtanga, how much worse would they potentially be if these safeguards weren't there? 

In saying this, I am not saying that Ashtanga is "better" or "superior" to other styles or lineages of yoga because it has these safeguards. I'm sure that other styles also have their own energetic safeguards, or some such equivalent. At any rate, I don't know enough about other styles or lineages of yoga to talk about them here. I can only talk about the style that I practice. And even then, I suspect that I may be going way out of my depth here. But I thought I'll put my thoughts out here anyway; maybe we can still learn something from one another by thinking and discussing together; after all, there's a Chinese saying that can be translated roughly as "Three incompetent generals can outsmart one military genius." (If you read Chinese, the original saying is 三个臭皮匠顶个诸葛亮. Ha! Now you know how bad I am at translation :-))

Anyway, I feel myself starting to wander off into neither-here-nor-there territory. Which is a clear sign that I should sign off now. Well, as always, it was fun writing this; hopefully, you will have at least half as much fun reading :-) If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.    

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Leg-behind-head postures, German Chocolate Cake, Earl Grey, and Keira Knightley

As you may know, my daily practice now consists of primary up to Supta Padangusthasana and second up to Yoganidrasana. I have recently expounded on the possible appetite-boosting effects of leg-behind-head postures. As it turns out, these postures may also result in a craving for sweet things and caffeine. It could also be, of course, that I am in an environment (a coffeeshop) where such things are quite readily available. But I'm also pretty sure that I did not desire such things as much as I have started to recently.

In any case, this is what happened. A little over an hour ago, I went up to the counter and ordered a large slice of German Chocolate cake (which I, thankfully, ended up not being able to finish) and a big cup of Earl Grey: I have this funny idea that all these quaint-looking English people in period movies (think about Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice) never get fat even though they have tea and scones and cakes all the time because they drink endless cups of Earl Grey, thus washing the fat-making components of all these sinful desserts down their throats and out their digestive tracts. So I decided that some Earl Grey might mitigate the damage that the German Chocolate cake might do to my, ahem, figure. 

Hail Keira, wherefore art thou so willowy?
Might endless cups of Earl Grey be the secret behind thy ever-so-slim frame?
 [Image taken from here]

Yikes! I just realized that I may be perpetuating a stereotype of English people. My apologies to all of you readers from the fair British Isles (I know there are many of you, thanks to Feedjit :-)). During practice tomorrow morning, I will perform a couple more Surya Namaskars (both A and B) and maybe put my head a few seconds longer behind my head by way of apology.

But perhaps the LBH postures by themselves also accomplish the same effects as Earl Grey. Perhaps the LBH postures stimulate appetite, but also make the digestive organs work more effectively at the same time, thus counteracting the fat-making effects of such dietary evils as German Chocolate cake. At any rate, I can hope... Otherwise, there's always Earl Grey :-)   

Monday, October 15, 2012

Religion, being religious-minded, and copping out; some neither-here-nor-there thoughts

As many of you who read this blog and a few others know, a number of parents whose children are attending school in the Encinitas Union School District complained last week to the district's trustees about the yoga program initiated in the district through a grant from the Jois Foundation, calling it religious indoctrination. A few bloggers have written about this incident, including Steve, Grimmly, and yours truly

As is usual and perhaps understandable in a matter like this, emotions ran a little high, and a fair bit of name-calling ensued. The aggrieved parents alleged that the yoga program was a covert attempt at religious indoctrination; a few parents who did a bit of research on the Jois Foundation and Ashtanga yoga were especially concerned that the program was an attempt to indoctrinate the children in Hinduism.

Now, it's perhaps easy and even tempting for us yoga folks to respond to these parents by saying that they are over-reacting, intolerant people who are motivated by "the simple stupidity of being afraid of something just because it’s different" (just so I don't get accused of plagiarism, this is where this line comes from). Some may also say that these parents' responses are motivated by fear and ignorance of the unknown, that these parents do not understand that it is possible to be spiritual without being religious, that although Ashtanga yoga may have a spiritual/religious bent, practicing Ashtanga does not turn one into a Hindu or into a follower of any particular religion.

But I think this is precisely the sticking point: Is it really possible to be spiritual without being religious? Or, to try to put it more precisely, is it possible to have a spiritual orientation in our own lives without subscribing to a fixed system of established beliefs? Furthermore, does just any fixed system of established beliefs count as a religion? Suppose I am an atheist who nevertheless strongly believes in certain moral principles ("Do not kill unjustly", "Do not steal", etc.) which I have established for myself through self-reflection, and from which I never deviate for even a single moment. Am I then a religious atheist? Or is this an oxymoron?

Or maybe it is not enough simply to believe strongly in a particular set of principles and live one's life by them in order to qualify as religious. Maybe in order for a set of beliefs to count as religious beliefs, it also needs to prescribe belief in something greater than yourself, something which extends beyond physical reality (God, Krishna, the Universe, the laws of karma, what-have-you...) to which you are in some way accountable.

But if this is true, wouldn't this mean that to practice yoga is in fact to be religious? After all, we all know that "correct" yoga practice extends beyond the mat: We are supposed to also practice the yamas, niyamas, and all the other limbs in addition to just stretching our bodies and trying to perform gymnastic-looking feats on the mat. And unless you believe that you are accountable to something that is greater than yourself, why should you bother to not harm others, not steal from others, or not sleep with whomever you please? If you were to somehow find out tomorrow that God or Krishna is dead or that the laws of karma were merely something that the Buddha dreamt up while taking his daily morning poop or that the universe is in fact a cold, benignly indifferent place (as Camus would have us believe), would it still make sense to practice the yamas and niyamas? Would it still make sense to refrain from harming others, not steal from others and not sleep with whomever you please if at the end of the day, you are just going to disappear into dust, period?

But I digress. To come back to the original issue, although I have not done an official study on this, I get the sense, from talking with yogis and yoginis over the years, that most yoga practitioners actually believe that there is something out/in there that is greater than the selves of which they are aware on a physical level. Many have come to yoga precisely because of this: They are disenchanted with the traditional established religions (in most cases, Judeo-Christian religions), but refuse to believe that there is ultimately nothing out/in there. And yoga (at least the way it is practiced in the west) offers a non-threatening way of affirming that there is something out/in there without having to subscribe to a fixed belief about what it is that is actually out/in there.

So perhaps we can say that many yogis are people who are religious without subscribing to any particular established religion. Perhaps we can say that many yogis are people who have been unhinged from the religion in which they previously believed, but still retain a religious bent of mind and spirit. I suspect that there are many people out there who would say that this is trying to have one's religious cake and eat it too. In particular, in a recent article on the CNN belief blog, Alan Miller goes as far as to call people like yogis "cop-outs". Miller writes:

"Those that identify themselves, in our multi-cultural, hyphenated-American world often go for a smorgasbord of pick-and-mix choices.

A bit of Yoga here, a Zen idea there, a quote from Taoism and a Kabbalah class, a bit of Sufism and maybe some Feing Shui but not generally a reading and appreciation of The Bhagavad Gita, the Karma Sutra or the Qur'an, let alone The Old or New Testament."

Before I go on, I have to say that I can't help noticing that Miller's entire article smacks of a certain Judeo-Christian-centrism; notice, for example, that in the quote above, he prefaces his reference to the Old or New Testament with "let alone." But well, I don't have the time or energy to pick a fight over a small thing like this. Anyway, Miller continues:

"So what, one may ask?

Christianity has been interwoven and seminal in Western history and culture. As Harold Bloom pointed out in his book on the King James Bible, everything from the visual arts, to Bach and our canon of literature generally would not be possible without this enormously important work.

Indeed, it was through the desire to know and read the Bible that reading became a reality for the masses - an entirely radical moment that had enormous consequences for humanity."

I take it that what Miller is saying here is that since Christianity is so interwoven into western history and culture, and has given us such good things as the visual arts, Bach, much of the existing western literature, and the printing press, etc., we should therefore embrace Christianity and what, become Christians?

Excuse my French, but this is f*%king bullshit! Okay, okay, let me take a breath and calm myself down... Okay, I'm back. First, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity has also given us some pretty bad things (the Inquisition, the Crusades, to name a couple...), even if Miller is totally correct that Christianity has given us all good and no bad, it still wouldn't follow that we ought to shed our so-called cop-out religiosity and embrace Christianity. Why? Because Philosophy 101 teaches that you cannot derive an "ought" from an "is": Even if it is true that Christianity has done so much good, it does not follow that we ought to become Christians. If you don't follow this, let me use another example. Going further back in history, we also know that ancient Greek civilization has given us wonderful things like philosophy, the first natural sciences, democracy and astronomy, to name a few. Well, does this mean that we ought to start worshiping Greek Gods? (Actually, that might not be such a bad idea. New Ashtanga opening mantra: "I prostrate myself to the almighty Zeus, whose lightning bolt ever threatens to strike at my ignorance from the heights of Olympus, shattering my illusions and freeing me from the poisons of my ever-so-conditioned existence. Omm...")       

But anyway, I think you get the picture: One cannot arrive at any conclusions about what to worship or how to live our lives from facts about the world. So where does this leave many yogis? This leaves them in a position of knowing (or at least strongly believing) that there is something out/in there, but they have not made up their minds or committed to what exactly is out/in there. And I'm not sure if this is such a bad thing. It may not be the most comfortable place to be in, existentially speaking, but it's at least honest.


Yikes! That was a major, major digression. Now I can barely remember what I set out to say at the beginning of this post. Well, yes, about those parents in Encinitas who are concerned that a bunch of copped-out-yet-religiously-minded-yogis (who nevertheless claim not to belong to any religion) are indoctrinating their children in Hinduism, thus violating the doctrine of separation of Church and School District. Are their concerns well-founded?

Let me start by pointing out the obvious. How can people who truly and honestly do not belong to any religion be capable of indoctrinating their children in Hinduism or whatever other religion? If something is to count as an attempt at indoctrination, there must be an indoctinator/s who know exactly what they believe in and who is trying to spread these beliefs to those they are trying to indoctrinate. And I just don't think this is true of most yogis in this country. Sure, some yogis do choose to become Hindus and perform daily pujas and whatnot. But this surely cannot be true of most yogis, even hardcore Ashtangis.

But it is one thing for you and I to know all this. Now try explaining all this to these parents. Where would you even start?        

Getting stronger beyond obstacles and scaling walls

I just watched the above video, in which Kino talks about confronting and working with our limitations in the practice. It's a brief video (slightly over two minutes) which is probably excerpted from one of her workshops. A key point that she brings up here is that when you get to the point in your practice when you are pushing yourself to do something that is impossible or simply not happening, this is the point where you are actually growing and progressing. So rather than be discouraged, you have good reason to be happy that you are progressing.

I think the same lesson applies to many things off the mat as well. Daisaku Ikeda makes a similar point when he writes:

'When you encounter a wall, you should tell yourself, "Since there is a wall here, a wide, open expanse must lie on the other side." Rather than becoming discouraged, know that encountering a wall is proof of the progress that you have made so far. I hope that you will continually advance in your Buddhist practice with this conviction blazing ever more strongly in your heart.'

He is talking about Buddhist practice here, but Buddhist practice is life, so even if you don't consider yourself a Buddhist, you may still find these words useful and valuable. Which is why I have decided to share them here. Happy Moon Day!  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Doing Led Primary to Sharath's count; Ashtanga, Kabbashtanga, and the separation of church and school district

This morning, I did full primary to Sharath's led primary CD. Sharath's led, as many of you know, is done in strict accordance with the traditional long vinyasa count; which means that in Supta Pangusthasana, for instance, he counts all the way up to Chatur-vimsatihi (twenty-four), and he gets through the whole of primary in a brisk 65 minutes.

This morning was the first time I had done Sharath's led in more than a year. After I injured my left knee around this time last year, I didn't dare to do Sharath's led again for a long time. For one, I didn't think my knee would appreciate trying to get into lotus or half-lotus in one or less vinyasa count in the state it was in; of course, I could have modified and did all that good stuff, but I figured that I might do better modifying while not going in strict accordance with the vinyasa count, to give my knee a little more space and time to heal.

But this morning, I finally mustered the courage to take Sharath's led CD out of its place in the cabinet and put it into my computer. I was a bit nervous, and told myself I'd do my best to keep up with the count, and maybe modify here and there if necessary.

It turned out that no modification was necessary at all. I think that over the last year of healing, my body/mind had somehow found a way to open and engage the necessary muscles while getting into lotus or half-lotus, so that this morning, I found that I could get into half-lotus in all the relevant postures without feeling like I was pushing or rushing myself into them, and still somehow keep to Sharath's count. I also tried out my floating techniques in Suryas A and B, with very interesting results. It turns out that if I lift my feet off the ground in Trini first before floating back into Chatvari, I actually have to stay suspended in that position with my feet off the ground for an entire breath while waiting for Sharath to call out "Chatvari" (duh...). Now, a full breath might not seem a long time, but it kind of is if you are really engaging your bandhas to generate the lift necessary to keep your feet off the ground.

But there is an upside to this as well. While lifting off (and staying lifted) in trini position may seem like a lot of work from an observer's point of view, from my point of view, engaging the bandhas so intensely so early in the practice actually sets a good rhythm of moving from the center for the rest of the practice. As a result of this early bandha engagement, the rest of the practice comes quite a bit more easily even at Sharath's pace, because it becomes easier to keep the bandhas engaged and to continue moving from the center once you start doing so from the very beginning.

Still, not having done full primary to the strict vinyasa count for such a long time, there were a couple of things that threw me off for a loop. For instance, in Marichyasana C and D, I forgot that according to the traditional count, you are supposed to get into the posture immediately after you jump your legs through in Supta, whereas in almost all the other postures, Supta is when you jump through into the posture, and then you have Ashtau to try to get your legs and hands snugly into whatever position they need to be in before Sharath starts counting. Come to think of it, I don't think I have ever been able to get into the bind in Mari D on the Supta count; I always need an extra breath to get the bind. Which means that by the time I am actually in the posture, Sharath has already counted "one". And in my experience, different teachers kind of find different ways to deal with the strictness of the vinyasa count. For instance, the few times I have done led primary with Kino, she always kind of fudges the vinyasa count a little when it comes to Mari D, and gives you an extra breath or two to get into the posture before she starts counting. I know a couple of other teachers out there who do this too. But Sharath is Sharath: He is the lineage-keeper, so he has to be strict about the count, even in Mari D; whether or not I can keep up with him is well, my problem.

But all in all, Mari C and D aside (actually, even these two postures were wonderful... so what if I can't bind Mari D within the Supta count?), the rest of the practice was very refreshing and brisk, like a double-shot espresso. When I first started doing full primary to Sharath's count a couple of years ago, I always felt really winded at the end of the practice. This morning, a couple of years later, I was still a little short of breath after Uplutih, but there was also this general feeling of being refreshed and recharged, just like the sort of feeling one gets after downing a double shot of espresso. I think the single biggest difference was the fact that I had engaged the bandhas more and moved more from the center from the beginning of practice. Ha! This gives a new twist to Sharath's famous saying: "Got bandha, no need for coffee!"

So all in all, even though I didn't make it to Mysore this year, I like to think that if and when I do, I'll be a little more comfortable doing led primary with Sharath :-)


There is another interesting thing about doing led primary with Sharath. At the beginning and end of practice, he doesn't just do the opening and closing invocations. Before practice, he also does this invocation honoring the guru (can' t remember how it goes) before launching into the opening mantra. At the end of practice, after the closing mantra, he also chants "Sahanah Vavatu" and this other chant to Ganesh (I also can't remember how exactly this goes; there is "Ganapati" in it). Which is very nice. I did whatever chants I could follow (the opening and closing mantra, and "Sahanah Vavatu"), and just listened along to the other chants that I didn't know.

All of this brings to mind this recent post by Steve over at the Confluence Countdown about the complaints launched by a group of parents against the Encinitas Union School District concerning the new yoga program launched recently in schools within the district as a result of a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation. Despite statements from district officials that there was no religion or religious indoctrination involved, seven district parents and a lawyer have insisted that the program pushed Hinduism on children and violated religious freedom.

Given that I wasn't actually present when the yoga classes for the children were conducted (duh!), I probably shouldn't be saying anything one way or the other about this situation here. But I'm going to, anyway, because I love sticking my head (and neck) into all things Ashtanga :-) This is what I think: If the teachers teaching the classes (who, I take it, are probably sponsored and affiliated with the Jois Foundation) were teaching it in the exact same way in which they would teach a regular led Ashtanga class at Jois Yoga or some other traditional shala (with the opening and closing chants, and all that good stuff), they would be crazy and naive not to expect any push back or resistance!

I know, this is Encinitas, but Encinitas is still in America, and America, as we know, is a place where people take the idea of separation of church and state (or in this case, separation of church and school district) very seriously. To get a sense of where I'm coming from, imagine this: Suppose a bunch of Kabbalah followers were to invent a series of exercises that they claim were very good for your mind and body. Let's call this system of exercises "Kabbashtanga." Suppose, further, that Kabbashtanga were to become the next big thing in the spirituality business, becoming even bigger than Ashtanga, because Madonna has now switched allegiances from Ashtanga, and has become the poster-girl for Kabbashtanga; presumably, she now has a Kabbashtanga body:

Check out these Kabbashtanga biceps!
[Image taken from here]

Now suppose the Kabbashatanga exercises also open and close with some obscure chants in some ancient Hebrew tongue that had long been lost; a group of senior Kabbashtanga teachers claim that this tongue was revealed to them in a collective vision as a result of their dedication to the Kabbashtanga practice. They require everybody to do these chants at the beginning and end of every practice, in order to honor the spirit and tradition of Kabbashtanga. However, they also claim that doing these chants is not religious, and does not mean that you are converting to Kabbalah. It's just, well, honoring tradition.

Now suppose you live in Encinitas (or anywhere in the United States, for that matter). Your child is enrolled in the local school district, which has started a Kabbashtanga program as a result of a generous grant from Madonna and her fellow Kabbashtanga enthusiasts. Would you feel secure that the doctrine of the separation of church and school district has not been breached? I don't know, maybe you would; maybe you are one of those very open-minded people who are perpetually generous of spirit and mind, and who is willing to put your faith in the good sense of the school district officials. But surely we cannot expect every single parent to have this same attitude; surely it would be understandable if at least a few parents were to become a little suspicious and uneasy that Kabbalah may have been force-fed to their children...

I'm guessing you can see the parallel here with the Ashtanga program in Encinitas. Like you, I know that yoga is not a religion, and that chanting the opening and closing chants does not turn one into a Hindu (is Hinduism even a religion, in the first place? Well, I can't go into this here; this would be too much of a digression...). I have also had my share of frustrations with getting people to do the opening and closing invocations in the practice (see, for instance, this post). But let's face it. We live in this funny land called America. And in America, if you try to get people to chant something which is not in English in a secular setting (which, I'm almost certain, is what transpired in that yoga program in Encinitas) and which, to add insult to injury, translates into something along the lines of prostrating to a serpent with a thousand white heads, I'll be damned if you don't get any resistance. In fact, I'm actually a little surprised that only seven parents complained.

So what to do? In the grand tradition of offering unsolicited advice that this blog has increasingly become known for, let me suggest this: When in Rome (or in America), do as the Romans (or Americans) do. Or more to the point: "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21)

Why am I quoting the bible here? Well, replace "Caesar" with "the state", and "God" with "Ashtanga" (even though Ashtanga is not a religion), and you will see my point. If making a few changes and removing a couple of things (like, for example, Sanskrit chants about a serpent with a thousand white heads) makes Ashtanga a little more accessible and palatable to people in a secular setting and avoids unnecessary conflict, why not do it? If these people then want the "full" Ashtanga experience, they can then go on to take classes at a traditional shala, and maybe listen to Elder Miller expound further on thousand-headed serpents and that funny little snake that lies sleeping at the base of the spine, waiting to be awakened by our wonderful practices. This way, everybody wins. What's not to love about it? 

Well, I guess I should sign off now. When I start quoting the bible on a Saturday afternoon, I know I've gotten into a serious sermonizing mood. And who wants to hear anybody (even an Ashtanga Fundamentalist) go on and on like this on a beautiful Saturday afternoon? So I'll leave you with these thoughts. If you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you, as always.