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.             


  1. One of the key arguments in allowing the teaching of religion in schools is that it promotes the beneficial aspects of religion, not sectarianism. Allowing children religious freedom permits them to gain a level of spiritual enlightenment, and keeps them away from the temptations of peer pressure and gangs. A poll published by the New York Times in 2001 showed a majority of Americans believed if more people were religious there would be less crime and immorality.

    1. Thanks for commenting, upvc windows. I don't think there is any problem with teaching religion in schools, if by "teaching" we mean getting students to learn about the basic belief systems of various religions without proselytizing to them or trying to get them to convert to any particular religion. If this is what you mean by "religious freedom," I have no problem with that.

      As for that NYT poll, I'm really not sure what to make of it. Personally, I know at least as many non-religious people who are not criminal or immoral (there is also the question of what "immoral" means) as supposedly religious people. And besides, just because the majority of Americans think a certain way about a particular issue doesn't mean they are all correct in thinking this way. Majority rule doesn't mean the majority is always right. Ever heard of the tyranny of the majority?

  2. I often wonder why people overlook the fact that southern California is notorious for being ultra conservative/republican compared to the rest of the state. San Diego County is overwhelmingly republican. Mitt Romney's primary residence is in La Jolla. Yes California also has a rep for being laid back, sometimes shallow, but not when it comes to the land where mega churches got their start. I don't think they appreciate the competition, whether it is real or imagined.

    1. Interesting, sereneflavor. I didn't know this fact about SoCal. But a friend of mine who used to live in SoCal told me recently that California is the nutcase/fruit-basket of the country; which means that California is the place to go if you want to get a fair sampling of nuts and fruitcakes from every point along the socio-political spectrum! Californians out there who are reading this: Don't start bashing me for saying this: I'm only quoting somebody else!

  3. This isn't surprising - I'd expect to see that reaction anywhere, not just SoCal. Why? It's their children - parents are at their most vulnerable emotional edge when it comes to their kids. No one wants their children participating in something the parents themselves don't understand. Most parents know next to nothing about yoga - especially something that sounds like ashtanga yoga- and what they do know is littered with prejudices from their own moral/religious upbringing. Whenever our school introduced something potentially controversial (which is just about everything that relates to students now) a town meeting would be held to explain and show the community exactly what the curriculum entailed. Parents were also invited to drop in to any class at any time to observe. Perhaps being more pro-active with the community (and doing the chants in english) would ease most of the parents' fears and misconceptions. Some won't 'get it', but that's ok. Their offspring can do something else. Hike, plant trees, bang on drums, etc. Whatever floats their parents' boat.
    BTW- Kabbashtanga sounds pretty cool. Great analogy!

    1. Glad you liked the Kabbashtanga analogy :-)

      Yes, I definitely think that better PR would have smoothed things over more. Doing the chants in English sounds very cheesy to me (but I'm probably biased); besides, I really don't think it's going to help matters, at least if you are going to literally translate that reference to a thousand-white-headed serpent. So in my opinion at least, better to simply cut out the chants...

  4. I agree. That's something that can be added in later. I wonder if the 'Jois Foundation' (the Jones') would go along with it, though. After all, they insist on 'authenticity'. In Encinitas, no less.

    1. To be fair, Encinitas probably did not seem like such a bad place to the Joneses to be "authentic", it being the birthplace of Ashtanga in America and all. But as I said in my post, Encinitas is still in America, and moreover, San Diego County is actually overwhelmingly Republican, as sereneflavor pointed out above.

      My personal theory is that the Joneses suffer from what I would call "moral flat-footedness." I actually wrote a post on this some time ago:

      Probably not a nice thing for me to be saying about anybody, but hey, it's probably a good explanation for the lack of PR on their part.

      I was thinking about sending them my resume to see if they might want to be hire me as their PR/fruitful conversation person, but I think all these not-so-nice posts I have been writing about them just about blew my chances in that area :-)