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.    


  1. Loved Cloud Atlas, I originally picked it up a few years ago because it had the most beautiful pink and metallic silver wave print on the cover and had to have it. Took me a while to get past the first story though, but man what a book. Have since tried to lend it to many people and am eagerly awaiting the film. I've read they've gone a very good job with the adaptation, and is one of the most expensive independent films made to date. Wonder when it'll hit Japanese cinemas! Enjoy the book.

    1. I'm actually reading the first story now. The language is a bit... quaint (?), but I actually like the story; in particular, the story-within-a-story format (for example, when one of the characters was recounting the history of the Maori and Moriori) is a clear nod to Haruki Murakami.

  2. Cloud Atlas was my favorite read this year. I'm glad I read it before the movie hype, even though I am a huge Wachowski fan. Looking forward to reading about your impressions.

    1. Thanks sereneflavor. I have a feeling you will hear about my impressions pretty soon...

      Stay warm and safe from Sandy.

  3. Cloud Atlas is an amazing tour de force; of Mitchell's books, though, I'd first recommend _Black Swan Green_, which is a poignant bildungsroman; and then, his _Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet_ will really blow you away with its subtlety, scope, and historical perspective.

    1. Thanks for the book suggestions, Dave. Will check them out :-)

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