Friday, March 30, 2012

David Robson on practicing to the correct vinyasa count

I just read David Robson's latest post on Elephant Journal about doing the practice to the correct vinyasa count. If you practice the primary series to the correct vinyasa count, you can actually complete the practice in an hour and five minutes (those of you who have practiced to Sharath's led primary CD, or better yet, have done led primary in Mysore with Sharath, will know what I'm talking about here).

But trying to do the practice to the correct vinyasa count is such a humbling experience. Well, at least for me, it is. For me, the attempt to keep up with the vinyasa count reveals with brutal honesty how I often consciously or unconsciously "cheat" in the practice by taking extra breaths to get into more challenging postures or to do fancy stuff like floating or jumping back with straight legs (yes, these things cause you to "cheat" in the practice, because most mortals--well, at least this particular mortal--have to take at least one extra breath to do such fancy stuff, which messes up the vinyasa count). In this sense, the vinyasa count really calls me out; it's saying to me, "No fancy bullshit, my friend: Just do the practice!"

But back to Robson's article. It's such a great article. I learnt so much from his words. The following passages really stand out to me:

"...more struggle often seems to create an opportunity for more mindfulness. My practice is just as often about the discrepancies in the vinyasa as much as it is the times I actually match the count. Both experiences are mired in citta, and can provide the same opportunities for observation and non-attachment.

However, while I don’t have to be able to do floating jump backs, or get into Marichyasana D in one breath to gain the benefits of the practice, I do have to try as hard as I can—whether I can do it or not, the vinyasa count does matter. The count keeps me focused on the breath and in the present moment. And it is only by striving to match the vinyasa that the deep, internal heat of tapas, and its corresponding purification, will come.

In Ashtanga we work at our personal edge every day. That work is to balance sincere effort with ease and surrender. The vinyasa frames our experience during practice, limiting our focus to the prescribed breath and movement. But we also need to apply non-attachment, vairagya, to the experiences that practice yields.

I believe that the unattainable quality of the vinyasa count and the never-ending difficulty of the poses are designed to cultivate softness as much as strength. We need the ideal, the strong rules of the practice to direct and focus our energy. And we also need to accept the results of our efforts, whatever they are, with equanimity. When both sincere effort and non-attachment are present in our practice, correct vinyasa might just happen."

I totally agree with Robson here, especially that last paragraph. Very often during the practice, I tend to get a bit too attached to the physical outcomes of the postures. When that happens, a lot of chitta vrtti is aroused ("What?! How come I can only just barely catch my fingers in Supta Kurmasana today? Oh no, am I getting fat?! But I practice everyday, and do my best to limit my intake of potato chips. Why is this still happening to me? Why?!..."). Keeping to the vinyasa count is the practice's way of telling us that none of any of this really matters. Just breathe and move, and all is coming. It's like this with the practice. And it's also like this with life. In a word: Vairagyabhyam. Non-attachment.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The History of Yoga Mats, Haruki Murakami, 1Q84, and Kino Shorts

In a recent post, Steve over at the Confluence Countdown offers us a concise history of the modern sticky yoga mat. According to Steve's research, the first historically-recorded use of a sticky yoga mat was by Angela Farmer in 1982. Steve writes:

"She [Farmer] seems to be credited with being the first person to grab a piece of “carpet underlay” — you know, that multi-colored squishy material — and cut it down to size. She did so when teaching in Germany in 1982, and when she returned home to England, the idea caught on in her local yoga scene. Her father then worked with the German manufacturer, and voila! The first yoga sticky mat (apparently in white) was born.

Hugger Mugger gets the nod for being the first mass producer or yoga mats, sometime in the early 1990s. In other words, 20 years ago."

So the first mass-produced yoga mats came on the scene only, what, 20 years ago? Who knew? You know, this is kinda weird: I can almost swear that I've seen vintage videos of people doing yoga in the 50s or the 60s on sticky yoga mats! Well, this is probably just my mind projecting a reality that never existed... isn't it funny how we often see the reality that we want to see? I should write a post on this some day... In any case, all this musing about the origin of the sticky yoga mat got me really curious, and I decided to do a little research on my own. Not being as industrious as Steve is, I confined my research to looking for old yoga videos on Youtube, to see if people back then really did not do yoga on sticky mats. One of the videos I found was this video featuring this very charming lady by the name of Lilias Folan. Apparently, she was really big back in the early 70s, with her very own show on PBS. Check this out:

And it's true: They really didn't have sticky yoga mats back in the 70s! You may have noticed from the video that Lilias uses one of those bulky foldable gym mats. I mean, you would think that if they had yoga mats back in the day, a yoga celebrity like Lilias would have been using it, right?

As I was watching the video, another thought struck me: Lilias probably was to many yogis and yoginis of the time what somebody like Kino is to many of us now. Back in the day, they didn't have Youtube, so having your own program on PBS was probably the closest thing you can get to being a teacher that uploads her videos on Youtube. Interesting, no? 


Maybe I should change the topic now: Some Lilias fans out there may be getting angry with me for comparing her to Kino even as I write this, and may be leaving some angry comments on this post... 

So let's change the topic. On a related note, one of Haruki Murakami's lead characters in his novel 1Q84 is a fitness instructor. She goes to her clients' homes to give them private lessons, and often brings a yoga mat to these sessions. But if Steve's research above is correct, then it appears that Murakami may have committed an anachronism, since mass-produced yoga mats technically would not have existed in the year 1984, which is when the novel is set... But wait! Actually, the novel was set in the year 1Q84, which is 1984 in an alternate universe (actually, this is not totally accurate; it's probably closer to the truth to say that time was "sidetracked" from 1984 to 1Q84. But whatever. I can't possibly do this notion any justice here. Go read the novel.). So maybe it's possible that mass-produced yoga mats existed in 1Q84, but not in 1984? Interesting... Well, maybe all this is interesting only to me. Like you care, right? Wow, I really must have no life, if I am spending my time blogging about little anachronisms in Haruki Murakami's novels. But seriously, I highly recommend 1Q84, if you haven't already read it. It's worth the time and the effort to plow through the almost 1000 pages. A little word of warning, though: If you are the sort of reader who likes every single detail in stories to be very clearly and rationally explained, and every little subplot to be neatly tied up at story's end, this may not be the novel for you. Reading this novel is a bit like a meditative exercise: You kind of have to go with the story, accept things that are not rationally explained (perhaps because they are not rationally explainable), and kind of go with the flow. Actually, doesn't this sound like yoga? :-)


In other news: Erica over at Ecstatic Adventures of the Exuberant Bodhisattva has honored me and my blog with the Liebster Award. Liebster is German for "favorite", "dearest", or "beloved". Along with the award, she has sent me a free copy of her recent book, I Let Go. Thank you, Erica! I am very honored and humbled to think that people actually think enough of me and my random musings to give me an award :-) 

In her remarks on awarding me this honor, Erica writes: 

"Nobel is a fellow Ashtanga Fundamentalist whose musings I enjoy thoroughly.  Unlike me, he abstains from crotch jokes, but prepare to be delighted with some insightful scatological philosophy.  Other than that, however, Nobel’s writing is very reverent and eloquent.  I particularly appreciate his detailed and honest account of his own practice.  As far as I can tell, Nobel and I are at similar places in our practices, at least anatomically.  For this reason, I can relate to his struggles and victories.  Also like me, Nobel aspires to be a yoga bum and he is somewhat of a Kino MacGregor Groupie.  One day I hope that Nobel and I are able to follow our Yoga Bum dreams, perhaps together.  In the mornings we will do our practices and spend the day sitting on the beach is some holy seated position, wearing Kino Shorts of Course."

I endorse everything that Erica says about me here, except that last part about wearing Kino shorts. No offense to Kino or her shorts; in fact, I think they are beautiful, and I also think that Kino, along with many other people, look really good in them. But I can never imagine myself in Kino Shorts. Ever. At least not in this body. I mean, look, when was the last time you saw an Asian guy with thick tortoise-shell glasses wearing this: 

A bit hard to imagine, no? :-) But then again, they say that yoga makes the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant. So I suppose anything's possible, in the end: Maybe the first siddhi I will gain from the practice will be the siddhi of looking good in Kino Shorts. Unlikely. But Possible.

Wow. This was a very all-over-the-place post. From the history of yoga mats, to Lilias Folan, to Haruki Murakami and 1Q84, to Kino Shorts. Quite a tour de force, wouldn't you say? :-)

Kino on the energy and magic of Mysore

Kino read my post yesterday about her latest Elephant Journal article and going to Mysore (or Timbuktu). She has the following to add to what I wrote, and has given me permission to share it with the blogosphere. She writes:

"There are many people who get bored with their practice while in Mysore because they miss all the "tricks" they normally throw in or are asked to practice what they consider to be "boring" Primary Series. But, going to Mysore is something special beyond the physical. You do have surrender to the depth and power of the practice and stay long enough to get past your boredom, irritation, uncertainty and whatever else comes up. Even if you open your heart and mind to a deeply transformative experience somewhere else it will never be the same as what you experience if you open your heart and mind to a deeply transformative experience in Mysore. There is an energy about the shala there, the city, the history and of course, Guruji and now Sharath as a teacher that is not replicable anywhere else. It is the magic of Mysore."

I don't have too much to add to what she says here, except to say that it is quite timely, given all the recent  conversations about how the atmosphere in Mysore today is different now that Guruji is no longer there. Well, maybe it's not so different, after all; the person may no longer be around, but the spirit and the energy remains. Namaste.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kino on handstands, cheap tricks, and going to Mysore (or Timbuktu)

I just read Kino's latest post on Elephant Journal. It begins with an entertaining story about Kino bracing herself for a pick-up line: I'm not going to reproduce that story here; you can go read the actual post yourself :-) But I'll like to share the following lines from the later part of her post:

"All the handstands, acrobatic jump throughs, deep backbends and exciting postures are all just cheap tricks, but the miracle of the practice is no joke. The gravity of what happens underneath the physical through the practice of yoga is something that is incredibly hard to explain in words. It borders on the ineffable because the magic of yoga happens exactly when you touch the divine within yourself.
When your mind shifts awareness to the highest nature of spirit, the physical body heals, transforms and changes. But if you get caught in trying to master only the superficial tricks of the practice, you run the risk of preventing the experience, the magic, that is at the heart of yoga...

If you are not willing to let the experience of learning how to do a handstand literally turn your perspective on the world upside down, then a handstand is just a handstand. But if you are willing to let the process challenge your attachments, humble your ego and unlock compassionate strength then the process of yoga is happening. It is your choice what you focus on through the practice."

I really feel that this last paragraph really captures the essence of the asana practice. If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a while, you will no doubt notice that there is a certain paradoxical nature to the asana practice: It demands that you work really, really hard on a physical level to achieve some very specific physical outcomes, be it mastering a jumpthrough, getting into a deeper back/forward bend, or mastering a handstand. Indeed, I sometimes think that if somebody were to just randomly stumble into a mysore room and observe everything that's going on, that person might very well get the impression that all that's going on is a bunch of rather scantily-clad people doing gymnastic moves in a rather amateurish manner, accompanied by some unusually loud breathing. Because that's really what's happening, on a purely physical level.

And yet we also know that's not the whole story. What matters is not just what you do, but with what spirit you do it. Am I reaching for my heels in Kapotasana just to get that ego gratification that comes from getting my heels in Kapotasana (I may as well 'fess up here, and admit that I am not beyond such ego-gratification)? Or can I allow the process of reaching for my heels to be a sort of surrender, an exercise in challenging my attachments, humbling my ego, and unlocking compassionate strength? Therein lies the paradox of the asana practice: What appears to be extreme physical exertion and striving from an external perspective can actually be a tool for transformative surrender.

I'm now going to take this discussion in a rather different direction. At the risk of flogging what may be a very dead horse (there's got to be a less Ahimsa-violating analogy here...), I'm going to draw your attention to a striking parallel between Kino's words and something that we have been talking a lot about recently in the blogsphere: Going or not going to Mysore. (You should have seen this coming... well, it's still not too late to stop reading now :-)) Where is the parallel? To see this, simply replace "learning how to do a handstand" in that last paragraph with "going to Mysore". Here goes:

"If you are not willing to let the experience of going to Mysore literally turn your perspective on the world upside down, then going to Mysore is just, well, going to Mysore. But if you are willing to let the process challenge your attachments, humble your ego and unlock compassionate strength then the process of yoga is happening. It is your choice what you focus on through the practice."

Although I have yet to go to Mysore, I have always suspected that going to Mysore isn't just about going to a physical place and practicing in a particular shala under a particular teacher (Sharath or Saraswati), although these are wonderful things in themselves. I suspect that a big part of the experience lies in getting way out of one's comfort zone, letting go of what one is or was, and laying oneself bare on many levels (physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual), allowing the experience of practicing and living in a very strange and unfamiliar place to change one in ways that one cannot anticipate. I think this may be part of what Owl has in mind when she writes about being a zero. In this sense, the physical act of going to Mysore is like the asana practice: It's not just what one does, but with what spirit one does it. 

But I suppose somebody could probably respond to all this by saying, "Well, if it's just about going to a foreign place and getting out of your comfort zone, how is going to Mysore to practice different from going to, say, Paris or Timbuktu?" Well, aside from the fact that the KPJAYI is not in Paris or Timbuktu, I'll say that there probably isn't that much of a difference where you go; again, it's a matter of with what spirit one goes where one goes. I suppose it is possible to go to Timbuktu (I've never been there, and know nothing about the place: I basically just pulled this place out of my mind's a%%; if you are reading this, and happen to be from Timbuktu, please feel free to call me out, and educate me about the intricacies of the place. I'll humbly accept whatever you have to teach me), stay there for a couple of months, do the practice while there (or not), and have a totally transformative experience. There. I said it. So it appears, in the final analysis, that there is nothing particularly special about going to Mysore after all.

Oh well. There's a part of me that feels that I should probably write more, and try to say something about why practicing in Mysore might be very different from practicing in Timbuktu. But since I have never been to either of these places (yes, I'm an armchair Ashtangi... how about that?), I think any such attempt would be in bad faith. And besides, today is clearly not a good blogging day. My mind is running all over the place, as you can see, and it would be very unfair to subject you to more of my chitta vrtti if you have been kind enough to actually read this far. So I'll sign off now. More later.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Is there one "solitary" place to practice?

An interesting conversation has sprung up in the comment thread to Grimmly's recent post about places to practice. In the post, after showing us a video from the recent Ashtanga Yoga Confluence, Grimmly goes on to remark:

"I don't know though, cringed a bit at the shots of the resort [where the Confluence was held], just as uncomfortable with that as with the sardine packed shala in Mysore.

It's me I know, I have some warped and twisted hangup that yoga is a private, solitary practice that belongs in forests or on mountainsides, deer parks and yes, caves, ever the romantic. And if you haven't got a cave handy then you make one yourself in some corner of your abode. A householder you may be but for an hour or so (or four) you get to be a cave yogi too."

Very interesting. And then, presumably in order to support his views on solitary home practice, Grimmly goes on to quote the following passages from Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda and the Hathayogapradipika commentary by Jyotsna of Brahmananda:

'3.1 Places to practice Yoga
The following places are superior; a place with plenty of water, a fertile place, a place where there is a bank of a holy river, where there are no crowds, a clean solitary place _ such places are superior. in such a place yoga can be practiced'.
Krishnamacharya Yoga Makaranda p33.
12. He who practices Hatha-Yoga should live alone in a small math (monastery) situated in a place free from rocks, water and fire to the extent of a bow's length and in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom.

13. The math should have a small door, and should be without any windows; it should be level and without any holes; it should be neither too high, too low nor too long. It should be very clean, being well smeared with cow dung (a natural antiseptic) and free from all insects. Outside it should be attractive with a small hall and a raised seat and a well and surrounded by a wall. These are the characteristics of a yoga-matha as laid down by the Siddha-s who have practiced hatha-yoga.

14 living in such a monastery (the Yogin), being free in mind of all cares, should practice only yoga all the time, in the way taught by his Guru.'
 The Hathayogapradipka commentary by Jyotsna of Brahmananda

Well... I realized that I basically just reproduced the whole of Grimmly's post here, except the Confluence video! Shows how original my blogging is these days, doesn't it? :-)

In any case, I really don't know what to make of these passages from the Yoga Makaranda and the HYP commentary. First, consider that passage about living  in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom... Do I live in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom? Well, probably not; not if by "virtuous and well-ruled", you mean something like a zero percent crime rate. In any case, is a "kingdom" that is "ruled" by a Democratic administration more virtuous than a Republican one? Or maybe, if you happen to live in the United Kingdom (no pun intended), you would presumably be asking the same question about the Tories versus Labour. Anyway, I guess what I'm getting at is: What the heck is a "virtuous and well-ruled kingdom"? And if I don't happen to live in a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom, what do I do? Move to another kingdom? Start an armed revolution, and install a virtuous and well-ruled kingdom in its place? Wait... doesn't that violate Ahimsa? I'm really clueless here.

And then there is that passage about the cow dung... seriously? Smearing cow dung around your practice mat/mysore rug? (Need I say more?)

Well, if you think all these musings here sound very silly, well, they are! Because whenever one takes an ancient text and tries to interpret and implement its instructions literally, one ends with silly consequences, at the very least. Or one might end up with worse and more tragic consequences, if one is enough of a fundamentalist... (This coming from an Ashtanga Fundamentalist? Go figure.)

Now think about this: If it is silly to interpret the passages about the well-ruled kingdom and cowdung literally, might it not also be silly to interpret literally the part about living and practicing alone in a solitary place free from crowds?

Might it not be that perhaps, just perhaps, the Makaranda and the HYP are not supposed to be interpreted literally? Maybe "solitary place" does not refer to a physical location where you go to be literally alone; maybe it refers to a state of mind? Could it be that with the right concentration (think drishti), one can be solitary even in a very packed mysore room or resort room (or even in Mysore itself)? Conversely, if one lacks the right concentration, one might very well find oneself beset by all kinds of unsolitary thoughts even in the solitude of the deepest cave.

I must clarify that none of this is meant to say that one kind of practice place is "better" or "more appropriate" than others. Due to my circumstances, I have a mostly solitary home practice. And I know that Grimmly also has a solitary home practice, and has benefited many people through his blogging (and videos) of his practice. (I have a suspicion, though, that Grimmly's solitary practice is more voluntary in nature than mine, which is more or less imposed by circumstances, but this is beside the point here...). But I wouldn't say that my practice (or Grimmly's) is "better" or "more concentrated" (or more "drishtified", if there is such a word) than the practice of somebody who goes to a shala. Ultimately, I think it is the intention of the practitioner that makes all the difference. This brings to mind the following lines from Kipling:

"If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!"

If you substitute "talk" with "practice" and "crowds" with "a crowded shala/Mysore/resort room" in the first line, you'll get the picture: perhaps equanimity/drishti/whatever belongs not to the person who can only practice in one kind of place, but who can practice and keep his or her equanimity/drishti/whatever wherever he or she happens to find himself or herself in.

Just my two cents', as always.         

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ashtanga blogging, practice, and language as the house of Being

The recent discussions over going to Mysore (or not) have brought up a lot of interesting perspectives from lots of people in the Ashtanga blogosphere regarding what might be called the Mysore Question. But in addition to all these interesting responses to the Mysore Question, all this intense discussion has also brought to the surface certain fundamental questions about the purpose of blogging. Why do we blog? What is the relationship (if any) between our blogging lives, our practice, and our everyday lives off the mat? Is there supposed to be any coherent relationship between these things in the first place?

These questions are especially significant for Ashtanga bloggers. As we know, Guruji famously said that "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory." There are many ways one can interpret this, but one way to interpret this is to understand Guruji to be saying that too much theorizing/discursive thought takes away from the practice, which is essentially something to be experienced and felt, not overly discoursed about.

If this is true, then there seems to be an inherent tension between being an Ashtangi and being an Ashtanga blogger: One is basically writing and discoursing about something that is not meant to be written and discoursed about (at least 99% of the time). So what should somebody like me do? Shut down this blog? Well, I'm not quite prepared to do this just yet...

But here's a slightly different way of approaching this issue. It is an undeniable fact that human beings are beings of words and concepts. We make sense of the world and find our way in it by comprehending and manipulating words and concepts. So perhaps we can think of words and concepts as signposts that guide us in our interactions with the world and with one another... wait! Actually, this is not correct: Words and concepts have to be more than merely signposts. I mean, can you even begin to imagine what a world without words and concepts would be like? I don't know about you, but I can't: It's like trying to paint without brushstrokes, trying to conceptualize without concepts. Thus, the relationship between words and concepts, on the one hand, and the world, on the other, cannot be like the relationship between signposts and the things that they signpost. It's not like you can just wake up one day and say to yourself, "From now on, I'm going to live in a word-free and concept-free world!", and then set about removing words and concepts from your life in the same way in which you might remove all signposts from a place which you already know very well. You can't do this; Just try it, if you don't believe me: It's not just that you would have to stop speaking to anybody (that is the easy past), you would have to totally stop thinking, because it is impossible to think of anything without framing what you are thinking of; and you can't frame anything in your mind without concepts.

What all this means, I think, is that words and concepts are not just things that signpost a world that is otherwise word- and concept-free. For us humans at least, there is a very real sense in which words and concepts are our world, so that any world without words and concepts would simply not be a recognizably human world.

Okay Nobel, you may be thinking, but what has any of this ruminating on word/concept/world to do with what you started off talking about (Ashtanga blogging and practice)? Well, my apologies for the digression (although, as you will presently see, this digression is actually necessary). Let me just start (again) by making a rather prosaic observation: The Ashtanga practice is an activity that is done in this world. Which means that doing the practice is a way of being in the world, as Heidegger might say. At any rate, as something that is in this world, the practice is something that we cannot make sense of without words and concepts, even if many of those words and concepts are in a language that is quite different from the language of our everyday industrial world. Actually, this underscores the importance of words and concepts all the more: The words that we take so much for granted in our practice (yamas, niyamas, tapas, samadhi, to name a few) refer to concepts that constitute a different reality from the sort of industrialized model of physical movement that you find in gyms and other places of recreational movement. At the risk of sounding like the Ashtanga Fundamentalist which I actually am, this is why if you try to strip Ashtanga of all its "yogic" or Sanskrit trappings, and try to present it insipidly as a form of "exercise to invigorate the mind, body and spirit" (think Power Yoga), you lose something very vital to its identity: The Sanskrit words and concepts that we use to talk about our practice are not just signposts for things in the practice; signposts that we can discard and replace with other signposts. There is a very real sense in which these words and concepts are the practice. As Heidegger would say, "Language is the house of Being." I'm no Heidgger scholar (actually, I'm no anything-scholar, but this is something for another post :-)), but I can't help feeling that Heidegger may well be talking about the practice here: There is a very real sense in which the words and concepts that describe our practice are structures which house the practice. Without these structures, the practice would have no home, and would be condemned to roam the wilderness of unintelligible primeval chaos. Ha! You didn't know that Guruji was a Heideggerian, did you? :-) (I hope I'm not being disrespectful here.)

Okay... I see that I still haven't gotten to talking about Ashtanga blogging and practice. Damn, I do digress, don't I? Okay... let me just bring your attention to another prosaic observation: Guruji did not say, "Yoga is 100 percent practice, 0 percent theory." Why didn't he say that? In my humble opinion, I think it is because that 1 percent theory is a small but not insignificant part of the practice. If I am correct in saying that the words and concepts of the practice constitute a home for the practice, then a yoga without theory would be... homeless! Which brings me (finally) to Ashtanga blogging: Insofar as blogging involves using words and concepts to talk about and describe the practice, Ashtanga blogging can be seen as a sort of housekeeping: In judiciously using words and concepts to clarify and reflect on various aspects of the practice, the Ashtanga blogger is maintaining and keeping the "house" of the practice in good shape. In so doing, he or she is helping to provide and maintain a sound and safe structure for others to maintain their practices.  In this way, the Ashtanga blogger contributes to both her own practice and those of others. Actually, approached in a certain way, there is also a sense in which Ashtanga blogging is a practice in itself. In my opinion, skilful and effective blogging often demands creative insight, a certain willingness to be vulnerable and to open oneself up to whatever the universe/blogosphere may throw at one, a certain love of oneself and one's fellow beings, and a certain amount of fearlessness--all qualities which we associate with Ashtanga practice. Actually, Owl said something in a comment on her most recent post that really expresses what I am trying to convey here. So maybe I'll end this post with her words:

"Blogging is dangerous. We can just face the fear of having one’s “self” compromised. No big thing. The only reason I delete comments at all is when community - a more fragile unity - gets strongly compromised."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Practice, transitions, limitations

Yesterday (Saturday), I went to morning mysore practice at my friends Derek and Brenda's studio in downtown Fargo, ND. Derek and Brenda have been running this mysore class, which meets once a week (Saturday morning at 9 a.m.), for close to 4 months now. Now that I'm talking about it, I should also give it a little plug: If you are ever in Northwest Minnesota/North Dakota on a Saturday morning (why would you be? But that's a question for another day...), please think about stopping by and practicing here. I try to go whenever I can make it; since I mostly practice at home, it is quite a treat to be able to go practice with others at least occasionally. I always feel that I build up more heat and tapas when I am practicing alongside others.

After practice, I chatted with Derek for a little bit. Brenda and he just had a baby girl a couple of weeks ago, and Derek was sharing with me about how they have been sleeping rather irregularly, waking up whenever the baby wakes up (I'm guessing that those of you out there who have children might be able to relate to this...), and squeezing in an hour or even a half-hour of practice when the baby takes a nap. He also said that they might even bring the baby to morning mysore in a couple of months. Now that would be pretty cool, wouldn't it? I mean, when was the last time you saw a baby in mysore class? :-) And just imagine what the earliest memories of this baby would be when she grows up... ("My earliest memories are of mom and dad bringing me to this funny room smelling of incense, where people do funny things like jump back and forth, fold themselves into half, and put their legs behind their heads. And then there's this little picture of this little old Indian guy (Guruji) at the front of the room...")

Anyway, as I was listening to Derek, it also really struck me how his present practice experience really brings into sharp relief the nature of the practice. If you have been practicing Ashtanga for a little while, you will know that it is only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that Ashtanga yoga is the yoga of "no": The practice confronts you with limitations everywhere you turn. Whether you are a relative "newbie" who is working on the standing postures or whether you are an "advanced" practitioner in the depths of third or fourth series, there is plenty in the practice to challenge you physically, mentally and emotionally: By bringing your body to places that you did not previously imagine it capable of going, subjecting it to postures that you may not even have previously imagined it capable of attaining, your ability to maintain equanimity and a spirit of humble acceptance is also being pushed to the limit.

The demanding nature of the practice becomes even more apparent in times of transition or major life changes: These can range from physical practice-related issues such as injuries or pain, to big life changes such as having a new member of the family. During these times, the limitations that the practice throws at one becomes even more pronounced: Over and above the inherently challenging nature of the practice itself, one also has to work with the pain or discomfort imposed by these changes.

So why do so many of us continue with the practice in the face of all of these challenges both inherent to and outside the practice? Well... one possible answer is that we are all suckers for pain and punishment: Perhaps it is really true that dedicated, "hardcore" Ashtangis are all a bunch of sadomasochists; a bunch whose numbers are increasing all the time, by the looks of it (as they say, "A sucker is born every minute")...

But I personally prefer to believe that there is much more to this practice than just enduring pain and punishment. In particular, I like to think that there is great value to be found in voluntarily and courageously confronting our limitations on a daily basis. In her latest post, Magnolia Zuniga shares this quote from the I-Ching:

‘Limitations are troublesome, but they are effective. If we live economically in normal times, we are prepared for times of want. To be sparing saves us from humiliation. Limitations are also indispensable in the regulation of world conditions. In nature there are fixed limits for summer and winter, day and night, and these limits give the year its meaning. Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man's life needs the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.’

Could it be that many of our limitations, far from merely restricting our freedom, are really there to help us understand ourselves--our unique strengths, as well as our inherent weaknesses--better? In so doing, we acquire the ability to move and act more effectively in the world, and be of service both to ourselves and to others. Seen in this way, Ashtanga practice is really a practice that enables us to work constructively with these limitations so that we can move more effectively with greater self-understanding, both on and off the mat. In this way, the limitation is actually a gift; without it, we wouldn't have a place to start to work on and transform ourselves. 

Ha! I just realized that the tone of this post has subtly shifted into sermon/preaching mode without my being quite aware of it ("Welcome to Yoga in the Dragon's Den's Sunday sermon. You may not get enlightened or acquire any siddhis from listening. Heck, you won't even get any coffee! But you will at least leave with a bellyful of words and ideas that may or may not mean anything. Chew on it. Amen/Namaste."). I guess this means that I have reached the limitations of my blogging prowess for now. So I'll sign off now. More later.            

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mysore Antipathy?

"And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."

Friedrich Nietzsche

Unlike certain bloggers whom I greatly admire, I have yet to master the skill of alluding to a sensitive issue without speaking about it directly. Nor do I seem to be able to camouflage the issue I wish to speak about amid layers of descriptions of things that are unrelated to the issue at hand. Since I lack these skills, I'll just have to speak about what I wish to speak about directly. Perhaps you'll bear with me; if you won't... well, then just don't read the rest of this post :-)

From reading certain blog posts about the recently-concluded Ashtanga Yoga Confluence and communicating with certain Ashtangis, I have picked up on an interesting phenomenon that has arisen of late within the Ashtanga community. It appears that quite a few people who attended the Confluence have perceived a certain undercurrent within the Ashtanga community. Very simply put, the issue concerns a divide between those practitioners who have been to Mysore (and who implicitly or explicitly acknowledge Mysore as the Source of the practice) and those practitioners who haven't, who have no interest in going, and who presumably do not see Mysore as the Source of the practice. InsideOwl, who has been to Mysore several times and who also attended the Confluence, describes the issue this way:

"When I told people in Mysore that I got to attend AshtangaCon, only a handful had heard of it. Of the 600-odd practitioners I brushed past during December, January and February, most are way outside the AshtangaCon orbit. So I told them about it. Every single person I told expressed excitement and envy—how inspiring to meet all these teachers in the tradition. And you’ll see a lot of old friends. What a great time. To put it lightly, this was not the attitude of many people in San Diego when I mentioned I’d just spent the winter in Mysore with Sharath.

So… in Mysore, people imagine their counterparts across the ocean and express delight, curiosity, inspiration and respect. In San Diego, the vibe toward Mysore is very different."

Owl, whom I greatly respect, is coming at the issue from a certain perspective (which I also greatly respect). But being somebody who has neither been to Mysore nor attended the Confluence, I want to try to reframe the issue in language that is as neutral as possible. Yeah, I am aware that there are lots of very smart people out there who believe that value-free, "neutral" observation is a contradiction in terms and therefore an exercise in futility. Fair enough. But I'm going to try anyway (and then you smart people can tell me where I've gone wrong :-)). So here goes:

It appears to me that there is a certain antipathy on the part of certain Ashtangis at the Confluence towards the idea of going to Mysore. Or maybe the antipathy is directed not so much at the idea of going to Mysore, but at the place itself; perhaps it is directed at the idea that Mysore is or should be the Source of the practice ("Why should this place halfway across the world, which I've never even been to, be the Source of this practice that I do everyday? What has this place to do with me?"). Or it could even be that the antipathy is directed at certain individuals in Mysore.

I don't know which of the above possibilities is the case; maybe it's a combination of two or more of these possibilities? Actually, I don't even know if "antipathy" is the right word to use in describing this feeling. Is it too strong a word? Or too weak? At any rate, I think that "antipathy" would at least be a less biased--and hopefully, more neutral--word choice than "negative": I'm quite sure that the Ashtangis who have this feeling have very good reasons for feeling this way, and I don't want to give the impression that there is a clear-cut "right" or "wrong" side to take in this issue.

So, if it's okay with you, let us proceed on the hypothesis that "antipathy" correctly and aptly describes what these Ashtangis are feeling about Mysore/going to Mysore/certain individuals in Mysore. This being the case, I suppose the next question to ask would be: Why do these Ashtangis feel this antipathy? I'm going to take a cue from Owl again here. She has this to say to these Ashtangis:

"Do whatever you want, but for godsakes don’t miss the good stuff out of misplaced skepticism, fear, or for the sake of other peoples’ battles."

If Owl is correct, this suggests that the feeling of antipathy is motivated by a certain fear, distrust, and/or skepticism, although it's still not entirely clear at this point whether or not the fear/distrust/skepticism is misplaced. What is it that motivates this fear, distrust or skepticism, assuming it's there? In other words, fear of what? Skepticism about what?     

One possible answer is that the fear is a fear of being judged. Perhaps an Ashtangi may have, at some point in her practice career, received some less-than-favorable response when she admitted to her Mysore-returned colleague that she has never been to Mysore: In the words of one commenter on Owl's post, the Ashtangi in question may well have "seen eyes drop away, or looks of barely hidden disdain, have felt the hesitation to connect, and observed frozen smiles" when she said, “No, I’ve never been to Mysore.”

If this is correct, then a big part of the antipathy may well be a kind of backlash towards an earlier antipathy (intentional or unintentional) on the part of those who have had the opportunity to go to Mysore towards those who, for one reason or another, have not made the trip. In this way, perhaps whatever antipathy that is presently being felt towards Mysore by these Ashtangis is well-founded and justified.

But what if being justified is not enough? At the risk of sounding like I am speaking from a yogic moral high horse (because I probably am), I'm going to say something really obvious here: Being justified is not the same as being... happy. Is it possible that in the midst of feeling this antipathy (and being totally justified in feeling so), one might be missing out on some "good stuff", as Owl puts it? What might this "good stuff" be? I don't really know; having neither been to Mysore nor the Confluence, I'm probably the least qualified person to say anything about this. But think about it this way: Could it be that in having this antipathy and allowing this antipathy to guide one's choices and decisions with regard to the practice, one may be unwittingly allowing this antipathy to shut oneself off from a certain other way of seeing things--one which could possibly open up an entire other universe of possibilities?

Maybe all this sounds very vague and abstract. To make it less so, perhaps I'll say something about how I personally feel about this going or not going to Mysore business. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you will know that (a) I have never been to Mysore, and (b) I really want to go someday (hopefully sooner rather than later). I have great respect for those who have made the trip and for the great sacrifices that many of these folks have had to make in order to keep returning there. But on the other hand, I do not feel any the less adequate or "legit" as a practitioner just because I haven't been to Mysore, and I definitely do not think that one's practice is somehow less complete just because one hasn't been there... Actually, come to think of it, this may be the sticking point. I often feel that many of us in the west have this sort of all-or-nothing mentality regarding many things in life: If you have done something or gone somewhere, then you are IT. If you haven't, well, then you're NOTHING. At the risk of over-simplifying things (although, I suspect, not by much), I have this suspicion that this kind of all-or-nothing thinking may be a big driving force behind this feeling of antipathy that so many feel: Perhaps the antipathy is a sort of defense mechanism, a response to some consciously- or unconsciously-held feeling that if one hasn't been to Mysore, then one's practice is NOTHING. In order to counter this nagging feeling of nothingness, the Ashtangi in question erects a line of defense against it: "But look, we have this wonderful Ashtanga community in San Diego/New York/Boulder/[insert your favorite big city] led by senior teacher so-and-so. Who needs Mysore?"

I'm not saying that anybody out there actually subscribes to this defense mechanism: I'm just thinking aloud, as always. In any case, as with the fear/distrust/skepticism factor, this defense mechanism may very well be well-founded and justified. But again, is being justified the same as being happy? Consider the following alternative: What if there were a way of holding the feeling of not having been to Mysore, or even the feeling of not ever wanting to go to Mysore, without having to justify this feeling by erecting any kind of fear/distrust reaction or defense mechanism (and the accompanying feeling of antipathy)? Perhaps if one could just sit with these feelings without erecting any further justificatory reactions or defense mechanisms, one could be just a little less... antipathic (is this even a word?) and maybe, just maybe, a little more... happy?

Maybe all of this is a little too easy for me to say; after all, although I have never been to Mysore, I also have never had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of eyes dropping away, looks of barely-concealed disdain, or frozen smiles. I'll even confess that I may be speaking here about things that I know little about (since, to repeat for the umpteenth time, I haven't been to Mysore, nor was I at the Confluence). But I love talking and thinking about things, especially things that directly concern the practice and the evolution of the practice. If you have any thoughts about any of this, I'll love to hear from you.           

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Yoga is like taking a Sh*t

Disclaimer: If you are easily offended by bathroom humor, poems about bathroom humor, cross-references between yoga and things that happen in the bathroom, or irreverent cross-references between the sayings of Guruji and things that happen in the bathroom, READ NO FURTHER! But if you have a slightly stronger stomach (i.e. full engagement of mula bandha and uddiyana bandha), then you might find the following interesting, maybe even funny...  

So anyway.... I was just reading this poem about meditation and taking a sh*t over at YogaDawg, and realized instantly that the same things could be said about yoga! So I have taken the liberty of substituting "yoga" for "meditation", and coming up with a new poem. Here goes:

"Yoga is like taking a sh*t; it’s personal.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; no one else can do it for you.

Doing yoga is like taking a sh*t; though it’s natural, you may have to train yourself to get the urge.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; people who like to talk about how they do it all the time are often annoying to others.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; some people like to light incense while they do it.

Doing yoga is like taking a sh*t; you can do it anywhere but some places are better than others.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; you can force it, but it’s more effective when you relax and let go.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; no matter how much you do it, you’re never really done.

Yoga is like taking a sh*t; if you take it too seriously, you’ve missed the whole point."

What do you think? Personally, this poem aptly expresses my sentiments about recent happenings in yoga, both in the blogosphere and in the "real" world: I think we may be taking things a little too seriously (maybe we are analyzing things too much?), and missing the point of the whole thing. 

Now try something else: While you still have the poem fresh in your mind, think about a few of Guruji's famous aphorisms: 

(1) "Do your practice, and all is coming [out?]."

(2) "Yoga is 99 percent practice, 1 percent theory."

(3) "Why fearing, you?" 

Do you now see Guruji's sayings in a new light? Indeed, (2) is now more true than ever, in light of the poem: If you have never practiced sh*tting/yoga, no amount of theory will help you understand it! And of course, (3) is also more true than ever: What's there to fear about taking a sh*t?

So remember: No matter what happens, keep practicing (sh*tting?). Because sh*t happens. But so does yoga.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Haruki Murakami, Ashtanga practice, and teenage boys

"Most people are not looking for provable truths... truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from...

If a certain belief--call it "Belief A"--makes the life of that man or this woman appear to be something of deep meaning, then for them Belief A is the truth. If Belief B makes their lives appear to be powerless and puny, then Belief B turns out to be a falsehood. The distinction is quite clear. If someone insists that Belief B is the truth, people will probably hate him, ignore him, or, in some cases, attack him. It means nothing to them that Belief B might be logical or provable. Most people barely manage to preserve their sanity by denying and rejecting images of themselves as powerless and puny."

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been intently reading 1Q84. Which may explain my lower level of blogging activity. I've been enjoying the novel so far, but it's a pretty intense read, not easy to get through. To begin with, it's almost a thousand pages, and it appears that Murakami is trying to squeeze every idea he has ever had about the world, every bizarre plot device and development, and every strange or interesting character he can think of into these 900 plus pages. You almost have to be a little ADD to be able to keep up with all these things. The novel is a love story, science-fiction tale and detective/mystery story all rolled into one. Personally, I kind of feel the love story (which is basically the central story-line tying everything else together) to be a bit of a distraction from the many interesting themes that he brings up. But then again, maybe Murakami is trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Who knows?

Anyway, the above passage from 1Q84 really speaks to me. I think there is much truth to the idea that most people (including, probably, myself) prefer to believe in beautiful narratives about life and the universe than to confront certain painful truths, especially if these truths contradict the beautiful narratives they want to believe.

Actually, this is kind of related to what I wrote about in my previous post. Think about it this way. We basically have two beliefs here:

Belief A: Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys.

Belief B: Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys.

If you have been reading this blog for a while and/or know a few things about what many in the greater yoga world think about Ashtanga, you won't need me to tell you that many in the greater yoga world subscribe to Belief A. There are many possible reasons why people might subscribe to Belief A. One possible reason might be misinformation or indoctrination (I would personally call it "brainwashing", but I get the sense that I've already upset enough people as it is...). For instance, I hear that certain very reputable big name yoga studios which conduct teacher training programs all across the country actually tell their teacher trainees that Ashtanga was originally designed for young boys to channel their hyperactive energies and focus their minds. My acupuncturist, who recently completed a 200 hour training program with one such studio (apparently the program is designed in such a way that upon graduation, the graduate will be qualified to teach, among other things, Ashtanga/Vinyasa classes), also voiced the same belief to me when she heard that I practice only Ashtanga (see this post).

In addition, I also have a hunch that perhaps people subscribe to Belief A because it makes life easier for them, in a sense. What do I mean? Well, if it is indeed true that Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys, then if you are not a teenage boy, you have a perfect reason (excuse?) not to practice Ashtanga: It gets you off the hook, so to speak! Well, okay, maybe there isn't any hook to get off of, in the first place, but I think you see what I'm getting at: The general idea is that if there is a belief that makes your life a little easier, why not believe it?

So why don't I believe Belief A? For one thing, because I really don't think it's true. And I also happen to be an Ashtanga Fundamentalist. And it is actually easier to be an effective Ashtanga Fundamentalist if you believe that Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys: Otherwise, you will basically be going into every practice with the idea that you are doing a practice that was designed for somebody else's body. This can't be healthy, energetically speaking.         

Anyhow, I think I've written enough for now: I have quite probably reached my daily one percent theory limit, and need to get on with other things. So I'll sign off for now.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Interesting Factoid: Ashtanga was not designed for teenage boys

Wow, it's actually been a week since I last posted anything on this blog. What happened? Well, nothing. I just thought I'd take a couple of days off from blogging last weekend. Those couple of days became a little longer, and before you know it, it's been a week! Which is probably just as well: I probably couldn't find anything worth blogging about, anyway...

But now that I'm back, I think I'll flex my blogging muscles by sinking my teeth into this most persistent of Ashtanga myths: Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys. I really don't know what to say about this, except to simply deny it outright: No, it's not. Here's an immediate piece of evidence to the contrary: I'm 36, and am practicing.

But then again, I may not be the best piece of evidence. After all, I'm only, like, one-third to half-way through second series (how far along in second is Ardha Matsyendrasana, anyway?), and I've had to work through my fair share of injuries and other obstacles even to get this far. So fine, don't use me as evidence. Well, let's try another tact: As Steve mentions in his latest blog post, the great Eddie Stern recently proclaimed that this myth is simply not true: Both Krishnamacharya and Guruji taught people of both sexes at all stages of life. As Guruji famously proclaimed, ""Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, all can take practice. Only lazy man cannot practice." We should also understand that by "man", Guruji also includes "woman" here. Which means that the only people who cannot practice are lazy men and women :-)

Actually, here's another independent source which busts this myth. During my interview with Kino in Richmond, VA last April (see this post), she related the following story. Back in the day when they were still practicing at the old shala in Mysore, an old man showed up one morning at the shala with what appeared to be his wife (it later turned out that the man was in his nineties, and the woman was his daughter, who was in her seventies). Anyway, the old man had come to the shala to see Guruji because he had heard that Guruji was a great yoga teacher. The man had been diagnosed with a heart condition, and the doctors at the hospital wanted to perform surgery on him. The man decided that he did not want to undergo surgery, and he came to see Guruji in the hope that Guruji would be able to teach him yoga to help with his condition. Guruji agreed, and immediately set about teaching him.

Notice that Guruji did not say to the man, "Sorry, my friend, I can't teach you: This yoga is only for teenage boys." Why didn't he say this? Well, because Ashtanga is not only for teenage boys!

That said, it is probably true that if you did not start Ashtanga as a teenage boy, your chances of getting beyond, say, third series are probably not very high. But I'm okay with that: One only needs to do primary series to get the therapeutic benefits (yoga chikitsa) of the practice, and I'm happy and grateful to be where I am.

I'm also aware that some supposedly distinguished yoga scholars like Mark Singleton and Norman Sjoman support the view that Ashtanga was designed for teenage boys. Well, I don't know... (have these distinguished gentlemen tried doing the practice themselves, I wonder?) But really, would you rather believe Guruji and his words and actions, or the words of some supposed scholars who think they can tell you stuff just because they have read some books and spoken with some people? Besides, these days, it seems that almost anybody who cares to sit down and write something and cite a few sources here and there can call themselves a yoga (or whatever) scholar. And besides, if Sjoman and Singleton really think that Ashtanga is only for teenage boys... well, nobody's telling them they have to practice Ashtanga, right? They can always go practice Anusara, no? :-)