Friday, June 29, 2012

Yogic Menage a Trois, Restraint and Creativity

[Image taken from here]

The fire restrained in the tree fashions flowers.
Released from bonds, the shameless flame
dies in barren ashes.

Rabindranath Tagore

Somewhere in the second half of primary series during practice this morning, these words from Tagore floated into my mind. I can't remember exactly where and in which posture these words came to my mind. This is probably not important anyway, but if I have to hazard a guess, I would go for either Baddha Konasana or Upavista Konasana (or one of the other Konasanas that dot the second half of primary); deep external hip rotator releases usually release correspondingly deep and interesting thoughts. 

Why did these words come to mind? I'm not entirely sure (do we always know why particular words or thoughts occur to us at any particular given moment?), but again, if I have to hazard a guess, I would say that it probably has something to do with this conversation that has been going on lately in the blogosphere about whether Ashtanga is sufficient to meet all our physical (and maybe even mental and emotional) yoga needs, about whether it is "healthy" to "see" other yoga at least some of the time... Well, here's an idea: How about a menage a trois? You know, like maybe you see Ashtanga in the morning, and then go see another yoga in the evening? Actually, isn't this what Grimmly does? Except I think it's the other way around for him: He sees Vinyasa Krama in the morning, and Ashtanga in the evening. So Grimmly is actually a practitioner of yogic menage a trois! Who knew? Ha! Count on me to take cheap shots at Grimmly while he is on his two-week practice/study retreat :-) Moral of the story: Don't leave your blog unattended for two weeks? But really, I don't mean any of this in a bad way; one has to do whatever it is that rocks one's yogic boat. After all, life is too short not to do Whatever Works.  

Btw, I highly recommend this movie.
[Image taken from here]

But coming back to those words from Tagore that occurred to me this morning... over the last few years, I have heard so many people complain about how rigid or "incomplete" Ashtanga is, and jump ship to some other style of yoga (for some reason, Anusara seems to be a common ship to jump to; I'm not sure if this is still true today, though...). One common complaint is voiced in the following way: "I dislike/hate Ashtanga! It's so rigid! Why do I have to do these postures in this particular sequence, and no other? I hate forward bends and hip-openers! Why do we have to do so many of them in the primary series?"Another kind of complaint, which typically builds upon the foregoing one, is that Ashtanga (or at least the primary series) is imbalanced, that its emphasis on forward bends and external hip openers overdevelops certain muscles at the cost of others (a commonly cited example is the psoas and other front-body muscles needed for backbending), that its repetitive nature is probably bad for the knees/wrists/shoulders if practiced over a long period of time. And there are probably many other complaints about Ashtanga, too many to go into here. 
 
I'm not here to try to defend Ashtanga against these complaints. If nothing else, I'm quite sure my fellow Ashtanga Fundamentalists in the blogosphere have already done a very thorough job in this area, one that I cannot hope to surpass. Rather, what I would like to do here is to draw our attention to the spirit behind the seemingly rigid and constraining outer form of Ashtanga. I would like to suggest that the seemingly rigid, repetitive and "boring" nature of Ashtanga practice actually fosters freedom and the blossoming of the spirit rather than restrict it. When one has to get on the mat and do the same series of postures day in and day out for what seems like an eternity, without the option of doing some other postures that one would prefer to do, one is made to stay in the present moment and face directly the challenges--physical, mental or emotional--that these particular postures throw up in one's path. When one is restrained by a limited number of options, one has to find creative ways of working with those options. And it is this creativity that is the flowering of true freedom. I could be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure that even if one were to jump ship to a different style of yoga, one would still have to devise a productive practice structure to "restrain" oneself and work within. Because without these restraints, one is left without boundaries. And without boundaries, the flame of creativity has no space within which to express itself productively, and runs the risk of exhausting itself and dying in barren ashes.      

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Good Food, heavy practice, more tamas, deeper backbends (?)

Disclaimer/Warning: The contents of this post will probably reveal all too clearly that I am very much identified with my body, its perceived shape the morning after eating certain rich foods, and its ability to get into certain asanas. Which means that I am probably very much a victim of body-identification/asana-identification/whatever-other-identification there is out there. Or maybe I simply am doing too much asana, as Steve over at the Confluence Countdown would say. If you suffer from any of these identifications as well, and would rather not read this post, I understand: Don't read. If you choose to read this, do so at your own peril. I will not be held responsible for any aggravation of any symptoms of your identification. Consider yourself warned.

So here's the story. Yesterday evening, my fiancee and I went to the local Indian restaurant for dinner. Neither of us was particularly hungry, so we decided to share an entree. Which sounds like a wise choice, except that we both tacitly assumed that just because we were only eating half an entree each, we were therefore entitled to eat more appetizers and side dishes. So this is what we ended up eating: We had Gobi Manchurian (flour-battered spicy cauliflower) and garlic naan bread for the appetizers, and we shared the entree, which was Palak Paneer (pureed spinach with cheese). If you would like a visual, we had:

[Image taken from here]
 
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[Image taken from here]
 
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[Image taken from here]
 
Looks yummy, right? I thought so too. But if you are an Ashtangi, you will know that one can engage in such indulgences at the dinner table only at a rather hefty price: A difficult, heavy-going practice the next morning. Of course, one can avoid such suffering by simply skipping practice, or doing a much shorter practice and then calling it a day. But being the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am, I decided to put myself through the self-flagellatory routine known as primary plus second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. Oh boy, I felt the heaviness from the first few Surya As: I just barely managed to lift myself off the ground after Trini to float (if I can even call that a float) back into chatvari. The heaviness subsided somewhat once I got past the standing postures and into primary, but the effects of last night's dinner definitely continued to make themselves felt. I had to take a couple of extra breaths to get the bind in Mari D on the first side. And the jumpbacks definitely felt less light than usual.
 
But here's a surprise: The backbends were actually deep and felt more stable. In particular, Chakrabandhasana today was almost a breeze. After the third dropback, I walked my hands to my feet, and then hooked my right fingers around the right ankle. And then I simply did the same thing with the left hand: Walked it further in, and hooked the left fingers around the left ankle. And held the whole thing for a good solid five breaths. When I came up, I could scarcely believe what I just did. 
 
Now here's a theory I have: Eating more food makes one heavier and more full of tamas, which is not so good for doing most asanas, but is actually very good for doing deep backbends. Why? Because by making the body heavier, tamas helps to anchor the body to the ground. This is particularly useful in Chakrabandhasana; the more the body is anchored to the ground, the less likely it is to just spring up like a jack-in-the-box
 
And I think I may actually have some evidence for this theory. Before we go on to view the video below, I would like to first issue a general apology to Iyengar people out there: I am not doing this to make fun of Mr. Iyengar or any Iyengar practitioners. It's just that, well, sometimes a visual does speak a thousand words, doesn't it? Anyway, take a look at the following video. In particular, notice the series of deep backbends (the successive dropbacks, Kapotasana) Mr. Iyengar performs around 40 to 60 seconds into the video: 
 
 
I'm guessing that Mr. Iyengar must have been at least in his 70s when he performed those backbends (I wonder if he still does them today?). And as you can see, he is, well, not thin... again, I don't mean this as an affront to Mr. Iyengar or to Iyengar people out there, but well, it is what it is, no? Could it be that whatever it is that is tamasic and weighs down the body also actually helps to anchor the body in deep backbends? As I said, this is just a totally random theory I came up with. Feel free to weigh in on it (no pun intended). 
 
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In other news: In order to help me get over my recent disappointment at not going to Mysore, I have decided to go to an Ashtanga retreat organized by the fabulous Angela Jamison of Ashtanga Yoga Ann Arbor. The retreat itself is on Sunday July 29th, but I plan to arrive there a few days before to practice and soak in the sights and sounds of the beautiful city of Ann Arbor. Actually, I am also thinking about turning this trip into a Grand Ashtanga Midwestern Road Trip (sounds pompous, no? :-)), where I travel through a few Midwestern states to practice (and blog) at several shalas before arriving at Ann Arbor. But I'm still waiting for a few things to fall into place before I decide if I want to do this ambitious road trip. But I'm definitely going to Ann Arbor, one way or the other.  
 
Incidentally, Angela has also informed me that the best Iyengar school in the country, the Ann Arbor School of Yoga, is located in Ann Arbor (duh?). Now this makes me a little nervous: I might get kidnapped by some Iyengar people and put into Kapotasana for, like, five hours in retaliation for what I just wrote in this post. Note to self: Gotta watch my back more (no pun intended) when I'm there. Also gotta be more careful what I say on this blog.    

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Yoda at the bookstore; Or, why I might be choosing Yoda as my Ishvara

First, a few quotes and a snapshot of the man himself (okay, he's not exactly a man. Whatever: You get the idea...):  

"Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed, that is."

"To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are."

Yoda

"When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not, hmmm?"
[Image taken from here]

So why might I be choosing Yoda as my Ishvara? First, a little story. I spotted this little Yoda doll at the local Barnes and Noble bookstore yesterday:
 
[Image taken from here]

For some reason, the sight of the doll totally cracked me up. And then it occurred to me that this might be a cool thing to have on the dashboard of my car... Well, you might not think it cool, but hey, people have been known to display way weirder things on their dashboards. Anyway, I took the doll and walked over to the cashier to purchase it. It was the lunch hour, and there was a long checkout line, serviced by only a couple of totally overwhelmed cashiers. As I waited in line for my turn, the woman in front of me fumed, turned to her husband, complained, "Can't they get more cashiers out here? This totally sucks!" And then proceeded to fume some more. 

I tried my best to muster some sympathy for the woman (although I have to admit that in that situation, it is quite a bit harder to muster sympathy for the woman than for the overwhelmed cashiers). And then a thought suddenly occurred to me, "Don't they check out purchases at the cafe section of the store as well? Why don't some of these people who are waiting so impatiently try bringing their purchases to the cafe? Actually, why don't I bring my purchases there?" With that thought, I immediately proceeded to the cafe with my Yoda doll. And, lo and behold, there was practically nobody there, except for one person who was getting some coffee. I went up to the counter, and asked the barista if I can pay for my Yoda doll there. She said yes, and I was out of the store in less than a minute, while the folks in that long line at the main counter continued to fume. Hmm... perhaps I should have performed a public service by going over to them and suggesting that they also try checking out their purchases at the cafe. But I have this feeling that such a well-intentioned suggestion might not be taken well by these fuming people, who might see my good intentions as an attempt to try to tell them what to do. So I went on my way. 

This might sound cheesy, but I can't help feeling that my holding the Yoda doll imbued me with the powerful flow of the Force, so that I was a little more attuned to my surroundings, and was able to see possibilities that others around me could not. But seriously, I really think that this little episode is a beautiful illustration of the power of radical acceptance. When one fully accepts what is going on around one without any judgment, previously unseen possibilities open up in one's life: In this rather mundane example, because I was able to fully accept what was going on without judgment, the possibility of a much speedier checkout at the cafe opened itself up to me. Pretty cool, don't you think? Or maybe it was Yoda acting through me...

In any case, the Yoda doll now sits on my dashboard. May it channel the Force into all my driving experiences, allowing me to be a more fully accepting driver who is driven (no pun intended) not by anger, greed or power, but by the power of full acceptance of the Force. 
 
Actually, I am even considering making Yoda my Ishvara (Ishvara Pranidhana, or "Surrender to God", being the fifth of the five yamas, the other four being Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (Perseverance), and Svadhyaya (Study of One's Self).) At her Yoga Sutra lecture during her Richmond workshop last year (see this post), Kino said that although Ishvara Pranidhana is commonly translated as "Surrender to God", one does not need to worship a particular god or deity in order to practice Ishvara Pranidhana. What one needs to do, however, is to surrender or devote oneself to something bigger than oneself. This something can be the Christian God, Allah, Krishna, or something non-personified such as a particular conception of Divinity or the Universe. In fact, Kino observes, one might not even have a name for this something, and that's totally fine. What is important is that one make a conscious decision at some point to devote one's actions to something that is bigger than oneself. According to Kino, Ishvara Pranidhana is so central to self-realization that Guruji once said (I'm paraphrasing), "There can be no yoga without surrender to Divinity."
 
So if Kino is right, then there should be no problem with devoting or surrendering oneself to Yoda, right? The only problem might be that Yoda is not, strictly speaking, bigger than myself: I'm quite sure if he were a real-life character, I would be quite a bit taller than him. But he is not a real-life character, and he represents all that is good and powerful in the Force. Besides, I have heard from some sources that Yoda is also an accomplished yoga teacher, as evidenced by the following: 
 
[Image taken from here]
 
So what do you think? Is Yoda a kosher Ishvara to Pranidhana to? 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mechanics, Priests, and Hanuman

This morning, I got up quite a bit earlier than I usually do, and was done with my practice before 7 a.m. Why did I get up so early? Because I had to bring my car to the shop. The check engine light came on a couple of days ago, and the idling was really rough whenever the car came to a complete stop at a stop-light or stop sign: It's almost as if the car were rocking out to its own little tune while waiting for the light to change. Which may have been amusing and entertaining for the car (assuming, of course, that cars are the sort of thing that can get amused or entertained), but it scared the daylights out of me. But just a while ago, the mechanic called me, and told me that all that was needed was a spark plug change, which didn't cost nearly as much as I had imagined it would.

If you don't know what a spark plug is, you are not alone: I don't either... well, actually, let me look it up real quick on Wikipedia (what would I do without this all-knowing oracle of digital knowledge? Gosh, how did people even survive in the pre-wiki Dark Ages?!...). So according to Wikipedia, a spark plug is "a device for delivering electric current from an ignition system to the combustion chamber of a spark-ignition engine to ignite the compressed fuel/air mixture by an electric spark, while containing combustion pressure within the engine."

Wow. I just realized that I still don't have much of an idea what a spark plug really is after reading this description like, five times. Oh, well. But let's change the subject a little: Let me try to explain the origin of my ignorance about cars. I only started driving after I moved to this country (about 11 years ago), and virtually everything (which is not much at all) of what I know about the insides of cars comes from all the times when my car broke down, and my mechanic had to explain things to me using words that I never even knew existed: transaxial, spark plug, head gasket, fuel injector, starter, timing belt, serpentine belt, struts... none of this means much of anything to me. If I had to pop open a hood right now and identify these various parts to save my life, I would be so totally dead.

And maybe it's just because I'm not mechanically inclined, but I get the sense that I'm not alone: I get the sense that many people (especially--pardon the stereotype--women and men of, uh, foreign origin...) also share my ignorance of car anatomy. Isn't it funny, though, how the inner operations of something that so many of us rely so heavily upon in our daily lives should be such a mystery to so many of us? Sometimes I think that the power that mechanics have over us is almost frightening: For many of us, they are, for all intents and purposes, a veritable priesthood, a select group of semi-divine beings that are privy to the inner secrets of these things called cars; things that more-or-less miraculously get us from point A to point B most of the time. Except for the times when they break down. And then we bring them to the neighborhood priest--I mean, mechanic--who then fixes it and makes it (almost) as good as new. And when we ask them what was wrong with our cars, they mumble some incomprehensible technical mumbo-jumbo made up of a combination of some or all of the words I mentioned above. Then we meekly nod our heads in agreement (are we in a position to disagree?), and obediently hand over the money to get our precious cars back.

Your friendly neighborhood priest (say, is that a wand he's holding?)
[Image taken from here]

And really, is all this really so far from the truth? I mean, what exactly do mechanics do to "fix" our cars? How many of us actually stand around and watch every single thing that our mechanics do while they are working on our cars? For all we know, they may just go into some secret room in the shop while we are away, mumble a series of secret chants that are shared only between mechanics/priests; chants which have the magical ability of getting our cars running again. And then they come back out and spin a whole story in technical mumbo-jumbo to make the whole thing sound scientifically legit to our scientific-explanation-attuned ears and minds. But really, if you think about it, we have no way of knowing what really happened in the shop while we were away, if the mechanics really did the mechanical things they say they did to our supposedly-mechanical chariots...

Hmm... this is supposed to be a yoga blog. But so far, I have practically written an entire post without even mentioning the word "yoga"! Well, let me try to see if I can somehow relate all this to yoga... Aha! Let's try this. Many of you who are reading this are probably familiar with the story of Hanuman: You know, the part in the Ramayana where he flew from Sri Lanka to the Himalayas in a single leap to try to find some special Himalayan herbs to try to heal the wounded Lakshman. He couldn't identify the required herbs (too many things growing on the Himalayas, I imagine), so he lifted the entire mountain and leapt back to Sri Lanka with it. As you probably know, the pose Hanumanasana is named after this famous leap.

Lord Hanuman in action (don't try this at home...)
[Image taken from here]

Well, anyway, this story of Hanuman was one of the first stories I heard when I started practicing years ago. Although I know that this event (probably) never actually happened, I still can't help thinking how wonderful it would be if I were to one day acquire Hanuman's powerful ability to leap a thousand miles in a single leap: I would so totally get rid of my car if I acquire this power! Then again, how can we be sure that no yogi or yogini has ever acquired this power? I mean, think about this: Have any of us ever seen Kino driving in a car? 
 
Could this actually be how she gets around?
[Image taken from here]

Something to think about, no? Anyway, while you are thinking about this, I'm going to sign off for now. Got to go get my car back from the shop :-)

Saturday, June 23, 2012

What do we do with people who try to quit the Church of Ashtanga?

Disclaimer: Before you read the rest of this post, and possibly accuse me of being disrespectful, irreverent, and/or downright blasphemous, let me say a couple of things here: While this post features existing famous yoga teachers and makes certain religious references that you may be familiar with, any remarks made here about these teachers are meant to be taken in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. I certainly have no intention of making any statement about the real-world religious beliefs of these teachers (or of anybody else, for that matter). As such, anything I say in this post should be taken with a pretty large grain of salt. If you find yourself unable to do so, you can try (1) taking a few deep breaths, (2) doing your yoga practice, (3) taking a trip to the bathroom, and seeing if your possibly overly-tightened mula bandha will release of its own accord, (4) going to the kitchen, and making yourself swallow a large grain of salt, or (5) try forgetting you ever read this post in the first place. If none of this works, and you still feel upset... well, you can try sending me an angry email. But I may or may not respond, and you may or may not feel better after writing said email...

If you do not agree to this disclaimer, read no further! But hopefully, you will agree, and we will all have some fun in the name of good, clean entertainment.

So here goes:       

A couple of days ago, Steve over at the Confluence Countdown pondered whether Ashtanga might be a cult. I'm rather undecided on this matter; maybe it really is one. After all, don't I often refer to myself as an Ashtanga Fundamentalist?

But I've recently also begun to wonder: Even if Ashtanga is not a cult, might it not be a religion, a church of some sort? Why do I think this? Well, recent conversations in certain quarters of the Ashtanga blogosphere have left me with such a feeling. To put it more precisely, I get the sense that some ardent Ashtangis approach the practice with the fervor and conviction approaching religious faith. For instance, a commenter on one of Yoga Gypsy's very stimulating recent posts about "breaking up" with Ashtanga commented that when she made the decision to "leave" Ashtanga, she got a lot of flack from other Ashtangis for deciding to do so.

Which leads me to wonder exactly what kind of "flack" she got. Was it just garden-variety flack, i.e. getting teased by other Ashtangis, getting the "cold shoulder", not getting any more invitations to parties hosted by Ashtangis (like we party a lot, anyway...)? Or did this "flack" consist of something more... systematic? Did they send in some senior teacher to give her a big pep talk about why Ashtanga is the best yoga style since sliced bread, and that she would be really losing out on the fast track to Self-realization if she chose to leave? Maybe, unbeknownst to all of us, there is a secret group of senior teachers that run around the world talking to "quitters" or "deserters", trying to get these lost sheep back into the Church of Ashtanga of Latter Day Yogic Saints. And maybe they have been doing this for so long, they have even developed a modus operandi, which can be divided into two stages:

Stage (1): Talk Therapy: They get some senior Ashtanga teacher who really knows his Yoga Mala/Bhagavad Gita/Yoga Sutra, and who is really good at parlaying such knowledge into everyday language, to talk the quitter's ear off. Besides being able to talk somebody's ear off, this person should also be somebody who is personable and easy to relate to. Having a nice, winning smile is a big plus:

Elder Miller in action
[Image taken from here]

I don't have any figures here, but I wouldn't be surprised if Elder Miller has single-handedly prevented hundreds, perhaps even thousands of devotees from leaving the Church of Ashtanga with his absorbing lectures on yoga philosophy. But sometimes, even the best is not enough: There are times when even the most eloquent speakers can't do much to change somebody's mind. It is at these times that a picture says a thousand words... or rather, a demonstration says a thousand words. Which brings me to the next stage of the process:

Stage (2): Powerful/Impressive Demonstration of Yoga Prowess: They get some senior Ashtanga teacher who is renowned for his/her asana prowess, and who is really good at giving demonstrations, to give the would-be quitter a personal demonstration. The underlying message here is: Look, you have already come so far in your practice, and invested so much time and effort. Don't you want to at least get to third series before your earthly body turns to dust, and you go up to the Brahma heavens to meet Guruji? Here is a senior teacher who is frequently assigned this important task: 

 Elder MacGregor in action
[Image taken from here]
 
As with Elder Miller, I don't have any figures, but again, I wouldn't be surprised if many devotees have been saved from the path of quitting the Church by a glimpse of the promised land of Vrischikasana.

Indeed, the combined effects of stages (1) and (2) have probably prevented countless would-be quitters from straying off this wonderful fast track to Self-realization that is the Ashtanga practice. However, as we all know, for every powerful talker and impressive asana demonstrator out there, there is probably at least one quitter who is, well, totally dead-set on quitting, and whose mind, ears and eyes are totally impervious to any kind of visual and verbal persuasion. What can we do with such hard-headed lost sheep? Well, in all honesty, probably nothing. Maybe they will find their own, albeit slower, track to Self-realization. Maybe they will be enticed by the blissed-out countenances of Anusara practitioners, and find their bliss there--a bliss that may, admittedly, be tainted by the recent fall from grace of their supreme guru, but why judge the quality of somebody's blissed-out experience by the state of one's guru? Or maybe they will find some measure of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness--along with weight loss, fitness, and a very well-sculpted ass-- in the newly emergent Latin nation of Zumba? Who knows?
A recruitment poster for the newly emergent Latin nation of Zumba
[Image taken from here]           

Friday, June 22, 2012

Practice, Still Point, Presence, No Dancing

"At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
The inner freedom from the practical desire,
The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,
Erhebung without motion, concentration
Without elimination, both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood
In the completion of its partial ecstasy,
The resolution of its partial horror.
Yet the enchainment of past and future
Woven in the weakness of the changing body,
Protects mankind from heaven and damnation
Which flesh cannot endure."

T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

During practice the past two mornings (today and yesterday), I decided to continue to work on bringing more inner body awareness into the asanas and the transitions between them. I decided to do this despite the fact that in my last post on this issue, a couple of commenters have mentioned that maintaining this awareness is difficult and impractical to do for a practice like Ashtanga, in which one is continually moving from one posture to another. Tom has also pointed out that Richard Freeman, for instance, gets around this problem by not sticking so closely to the "orthodox" sequence of postures in Ashtanga and introducing extra postures.

I'm too much of a stickler for orthodoxy to try the Freeman route, but I remain unconvinced that there is no way to bring more inner body awareness into a constantly moving practice like Ashtanga, even within the confines of the "orthodox" sequence. Some people may think that because Ashtanga practice consists of almost-non-stop movement, there is no "still point" for the mind to focus on and bring inner body awareness to: I'm guessing this is what at least one of the commenters on the last post has in mind.

But here's another way of looking at this matter: Even if everything is constantly in motion in the practice, might it not be possible for the mind to designate its own still point? I'm thinking this is ultimately what the drishti or gazing point is for in the practice: Even though everything is constantly moving, so long as one fixes one's gaze on the indicated drishti, one can achieve stillness in the midst of constant motion. But here's something else: I also think that another possible still point the mind can focus on is any particular part of the body we are trying to "open up" or bring more awareness to. Here's a personal example: When going into Kapotasana, my mid-back has a tendency to open less than my shoulders/upper back and lower back. By bringing the "mind's eye" to focus on the middle back while going into Kapotasana, more awareness can be brought there. And in so doing, the mid-back becomes the still point of the posture while going into Kapotasana. And then, after I have gotten into the posture, I usually need to remind myself to engage the quads/psoas more, rather than simply use the back muscles to hold the posture. Thus I now bring my mind's eye to focus on the quads/psoas, and in so doing, make the quads/psoas the new still-point of the posture. The general idea here is that the still point of the practice--indeed, of even one particular posture--is something that is constantly changing. Although the still point is constantly changing from moment to moment, what makes it the still point at any given moment is the fact that the mind attains one-pointed focus by bringing attention to bear on it at that given moment in time, thereby attaining Presence. Beautiful paradox, don't you think? ;-) 

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In addition to this realization about the still point, there was one more tangible benefit from bringing more inner body awareness into the practice yesterday and today: On both days, my Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana felt very stable: There was virtually no dancing.

Here's one person who probably never dances in UHP; if she did, she would have fallen into the Hudson.
(Sorry for the cheap shots I have been taking at you in this and the last post, Claudia. But I'm guessing you are probably evolved enough not to be bothered by such cheap-shotting ;-)) 
[Image taken from Claudia's blog]

I don't write much about UHP, but I've always been a dancer in this pose: For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, it means your body sways and shifts all over the place while in this pose; a very dangerous thing to do in led class, as you might crash into the practitioner next to you and pose a safety hazard :-). Honestly, it's almost a miracle that I have yet to kill anybody in led class with my dancing... Anyway, what all this means is that UHP has always been a pose that I approach with this get-it-over-with-quickly-so-I-can-do-more-exciting-poses attitude. Which is another way of saying that UHP is a not-so-favorite pose of mine. Now you know :-) But here's what's really cool: Both this morning and yesterday, my UHP was very stable. No dancing at all. I'm thinking that all this focus on inner-body awareness has had the effect of making my feet more stable. I don't want to jinx myself by saying any more than I have to here, but I'm cautiously optimistic that this whole inner body awareness thing is doing a lot of good for my UHP.

So yeah, what can I say? Inner body awareness (and with it, Eckhart Tolle and Taichi and all the chi-cultivating disciplines) rocks!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ashtanga, P90X, and pulling a Claudia

A few days ago, Claudia wrote a very informative post titled "The Definitive Guide to All Yoga Styles". Strictly speaking, she did not succeed in covering ALL yoga styles (she admitted as much towards the end of the post), but it was very informative nonetheless.

As with many of Claudia's posts, an interesting conversation unfolded in the comment thread between her and several commenters. One commenter mentioned that he had been practicing this thing called P90X; he found it so challenging that his legs would "would shake uncontrollably because [he] had to keep certain poses for a few seconds." Claudia responded by saying, 'Oh the P90x... that just by its name sounds like the "get fit quick" kind of thing... not yoga...  funny that you could not get through it...'

I really love how Claudia is able to be so diplomatic and respectful, and yet still maintain the ability to critique something so sharply at particular times. But there's a part of me that can't help wondering if some people out there may not take Claudia's short critique as well as I did. In other words, I wonder if there may be some P90X devotees out there who think that Claudia may be unjustly putting down their beloved system. For the sake of convenience, I'm going to call what Claudia did "Pulling a Claudia." (No offense to you, Claudia: I mean this in a good-natured, humorous way. I really do.) Why would I think that P90X devotees would be offended by Claudia's pulling a Claudia? For one thing, you might notice, for instance, that the P90X guy whom Claudia pulled a Claudia on never responded to Claudia's pulling a Claudia. Now this may or may not mean anything in and of itself: It could just be that the guy was busy and simply did not get around to responding. Maybe, unlike somebody like me, he has better things to do than follow comment threads on people's blogs, and then write meaningless blog posts on said threads... But I still can't help wondering, nonetheless.

But back to P90X. I actually have a personal story to share about this "Extreme Home Fitness" system. A couple of years ago, I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a self-styled fitness enthusiast... is there such a thing as a non-self-styled fitness enthusiast, anyway? I mean, is there an official organization that certifies "fitness enthusiasts"? Hmm... what would that be? The National Association of Fitness Enthusiasts? National Association of Fitness Freaks? What about Fitness Freaks United? Actually, that would make for a very interesting acronym: FFU! Think about that... But anyway, back to my story. As I was saying, I was chatting with my self-styled fitness enthusiast friend. She knew that I practiced this kind of yoga called Ashtanga yoga, and she decided to tell me about what she did to keep fit. The general idea is that P90X consists of 12 different "diverse and extreme" workouts (these includes things like Shoulders and Arms, Cardio X, Ab Ripper X, to name a few), and the yoga component is called Yoga X. Why "X"? I'm guessing that "X" means "Extreme", which means that Yoga X is, well, not your mama's yoga.

Anyway, we kept chatting. As the conversation progressed, I realized that she didn't really know what Ashtanga yoga was. We happened to be standing in front of my computer, so I went online and dug up a chart of the Ashtanga Primary Series. Then I showed her a picture of me in this second series pose:


[I've been waiting for the longest time for an excuse to post this picture! Talk about body identification...] 


When she saw this picture, her jaw dropped: "Uh... and you say you have been doing yoga for... how long?!" We proceeded to chat for a while more about yoga, and this and that. And then she told me she was going to go home to work out. Well, I hope I inspired her to go do some yoga. Then again, who knows? It is equally possible that I may unwittingly have pulled a Claudia on her by indirectly critiquing P90X ('Look, can P90X get you into this backbend? How can it be "real" yoga if it can't?...') One way or the other, I'll never know. We never talked about fitness after that. Maybe she picked up on my Ashtanga Fundamentalist vibe from that one conversation, and decided to avoid talking with me about anything yoga or fitness-related from that point on...

Anyway, I guess I should try to soften my Ashtanga Fundamentalist image. At any rate, I certainly did not write this post to put down P90X, or any other fitness system, for that matter. I mean, life is short: If getting a tight ass and ripped abs through an extreme home fitness system is what rocks your boat, then more power to you. One word of unsolicited advice here, though: It is very, very unlikely that when you are on your deathbed drawing your last breath, you will regard the achievement of a tight ass and ripped abs (if you still have a tight ass and ripped abs at that time, that is...) as your crowning achievement in life, the achievement that will enable you to go forth and face whatever lies in the hereafter with perfect equanimity and no regrets. But then again, I suppose the same can be said of Kapotasana as well: I highly doubt that at the moment of death, I will regard being able to grab my heels/ankles in Kapotasana as the crowning achievement of my life. But then again, who knows?...

But in any case, I think it would be very unjust of me not to make this post a bit more balanced, and make at least some attempt to say more about what P90X is about. Well, as they say, a (moving) picture says a thousand words. Here's a video of a P90X enthusiast doing his Yoga X workout at home:


I can't help noticing that his alignment could use a little work here. But then again, my own alignment is far from perfect (Have you ever noticed that I don't ever post videos of my own practice?). Which makes me feel that people like this guy and Grimmly and Claudia who post videos of their own practices online are very courageous individuals.

From watching this video, I also notice something else that makes Yoga X--and, for that matter, probably every other "extreme yoga system"--different from Ashtanga. If what we see on the video is any indication, it would seem that Yoga X is basically a souped-up version of power yoga (extreme power yoga?). There are longer holds in the standing postures, with more variations in each posture, the main objective being to target certain muscle groups, enabling the individual to quickly achieve a tight ass or tight leg muscles (or tight whatever). Whereas in Ashtanga, the Suryas and the standing postures are there to serve as the foundation of the practice, getting one's mind and body ready for the rigors of whatever series one goes on to practice after standing. The idea in Ashtanga, as I understand it, is to use the standing postures to open both the physical body and the mind (through establishing an even breath) for what is ultimately a spiritual practice, rather than to get a tight whatever (although getting a tight whatever is often a by-product :-)). Actually, come to think of it, this may ultimately be what makes Ashtanga different from power yoga and its variants. But don't quote me on this: This is just me thinking aloud here.     

At any rate, these are my thoughts. Have any of you out there practiced both P90X/Yoga X and Ashtanga? What are the similarities? What are the differences? Please feel free to share.      

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Is it possible to be totally present with the body while doing the practice?

I'm guessing that some of you out there might be getting a little sick of reading my quotes from Eckhart Tolle in my posts over the last two weeks. Well, if you are... I'm sorry that you are. But I blog about what I am thinking about, and what I am thinking about at any given moment is often informed by what I am reading at the time. But I don't just randomly quote what I am reading either. I try to pick quotes that are more or less yoga-related, or can be related to the practice in one way or another.

But anyhow, I read something in A New Earth yesterday that really pertains very directly to the practice. Tolle talks about cultivating inner body awareness as a way of moving beyond identification with the body. Through cultivating inner body awareness, you can gradually shift your attention "from the external form of your body and from thoughts about your body--beautiful, ugly, strong, weak, too fat, too thin--to the feeling of aliveness inside it. No matter what your body's appearance is on the outer level, beyond the outer form it is an intensely alive energy field."

Tolle continues:

'If you are not familiar with "inner body" awareness, close your eyes for a moment and find out if there is life inside your hands. Don't ask your mind. It will say, "I can't feel anything." Probably it will also say, "Give me something more interesting to think about." So instead of asking your mind, go to the hands directly. By this I mean become aware of the subtle feeling of aliveness inside them. It is there. You just have to go there with your attention to notice it. You may get a slight tingling sensation at first, then a feeling of energy or aliveness. If you hold your attention in your hands for a while, the sense of aliveness will intensify... Then go to your feet, keep your attention there for a minute or so, and begin to feel your hands and feet at the same time. Then incorporate other parts of the body--legs, arms, abdomen, chest, and so on--into that feeling until you are aware of the inner body as a global sense of aliveness.'

Lying in bed last night, I tried this exercise in inner body awareness, starting with the hands and feet and then moving into the rest of the body, as Tolle suggests. It felt really good to be so aware of the entire body. Actually, the feeling is a bit similar to the kind of calm feeling that I get during my acupuncture sessions. I'm starting to think that this inner body awareness may be what Taichi practitioners are trying to cultivate when they work on cultivating chi or life energy during their Taichi exercises. Very interesting.

This morning, I also tried to see if I can bring the same level of inner body awareness to the practice. Starting from Ekam position in Surya A, I brought my attention to the hands as I raised them over my head. And then to the hands and the feet as I went into downward dog in Shad position. I was able to maintain a reasonably high level of body awareness throughout Suryas A and B. And then, without quite knowing it, I lost this awareness as I went into more challenging postures. I realized that, without knowing it, as I got further into the practice and encountered more challenging postures, my focus had shifted from simply being aware of the body to using the body to do this or that posture. In other words, I had shifted from a state of simply being to a state of doing; in so doing, I was no longer so aware of the body as it simply is. Or, to put it in slightly more fancy terms, I was no longer with the is-ness of the body in the present moment.

Herein lies the dilemma: For most of us, the practice consists of postures of varying degrees of physical difficulty. Thus it seems that for most of us, the only way to be totally aware of the body as it is in the present moment without asking or expecting anything of it would be to stop the practice at the precise moment when it becomes physically challenging. But that would mean that most of us would have to do practices that are way shorter than what they are right now. For me, I might have to stop practicing somewhere around Utthita or Parivrtta Parsvakonasana! I mean, I'm not sure if it would ever be possible for me to do, say, Kapotasana while being totally present in every part of the body as it is without asking or expecting anything of it. Then again, isn't this what Sthira Sukha Asanam ("Asana is effort without tension, relaxation without dullness") mean? Maybe it will come one day. Dirgha Kala...

Do you have any thoughts on this? How do you balance (i) being with the body in the present moment and (ii) getting the body to do this or that challenging posture in the practice?    

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moon Day Poll; Ashtanga and the Art of Sports Car Maintenance (and ninjas)

Happy Moon Day, Ashtangis! If you are not an Ashtangi, and are reading this, Happy Moon Day anyway! For those you who are Ashtangis, I hope you are taking a well-deserved break from your Ashtangic labors, and indulging in whatever it is that you indulge on days when you do not have to (who said you have to, anyway?) spend one and a half to two hours bending yourself into all kinds of funny shapes. Hmm, really: What do Ashtangis do with the couple of extra hours that they have on Moon Days? Here are a few options that come to mind:

(a) Sleep a couple extra hours;

(b) Play video games (Somebody should seriously come up with a Wii version of Ashtanga for hardcore Ashtanga OCD folks; that way, if you, say, can't grab your heels in Kapotasana in your regular practice on the mat, you can try to "achieve" it on Wii. True, it's not the same as nailing the posture on the mat, but hey, you got to take what you can get :-));

(c) Read books (on Ashtanga or other subjects);

(d) Spend more time blogging (or spend more time reading Ashtanga blogs like this one :-));

(e) Have coffee or tea (with oneself or with others);

(f) Have sex (with oneself or with others);

(g) Some of the above;

(h) None of the above.

Actually, this looks like good material for a poll! So let's do it. In the right hand corner of this blog, you will see a poll with these eight options. As usual, polling is anonymous; not even I will know what you choose. So feel free to choose honestly, and to your heart's content.

************

Recently, it seems that a certain corner of the Ashtanga/yoga blogosphere has been abuzz with intimations of Ashtanga infidelity: This blogger has courageously confessed to Ashtanga that she is "seeing other yoga". Hmm... I'm pretty sure I know what Guruji would say about this:

 Bad Lady!
[Image taken from here]

But seriously, I'm probably not doing much justice to this particular blogger's sentiments in "cheating on" Ashtanga, which I thought she very eloquently expressed. She writes: 

"You see, I'm not a dogmatic person. I don't have a religion, and I don't subscribe to the idea that any one system is better than another. Yet when I was introduced to you, Ashtanga, that sense of superiority was somehow present in the subtext. Now, I know that you're saying "it's not my fault I'm misinterpreted!" - and you know what, you're right. It's not your fault! But somehow that's the message that slipped through - "Ashtanga is like the ferrari of Yoga", one teacher said to me. The implication being that other 'vehicles' will get you there (wherever there is!) all the same, but that Ashtanga will do it faster. And with a bit more panache, perhaps. And I admit, when I first come to the practice, I certainly felt a bit of that turbo charge from the fast pace of the sequence and all those vinyasas! But I've come to a time where I'm suddenly thinking that a Ferrari is maybe not the only car that I need, because really, a Ferrari is only good if you have perfectly smooth, wide roads - say, a healthy, fit, injury-free body.  To be honest, I'm more of a 4x4 girl myself - because life is not a smooth ride, and I'd happily sacrifice a bit of speed to make sure that I have enough flexibility to deal with anything that comes along!

And that's the thing, Ashtanga. In real life, I think that in order to be effective, a system has to be able to evolve and change. But in Ashtanga, there is no evolution of the system. We are taught that the system is perfect as it is, that it is enough, that it cannot be changed or modified."

Interesting. Let me start by talking about the Ferrari analogy. Honestly, speaking from my own experience, I'm not entirely sure that I would describe Ashtanga as a Ferrari (or any other kind of sports car). Maybe there is a certain "turbo" element to the whole thing, at least from the outside: Those jumpbacks and jumpthroughs sure look pretty impressive and "turbo-charged" to an onlooker. But this is just an appearance; and appearances, as we know, are deceptive. Beneath the facade of speed and panache lies a long, painstaking process; a process marked by many plateaus (brought about by physical limitations, pains, or injury), punctuated by the occasional spurts of "progress" or "achievement" (i.e. you "master" a particular pose, get a new one, do an "old" one with greater ease and less effort, or get one-tenth of an inch deeper in a challenging pose).

I guess I'll say this: If Ashtanga is a sports car, it is a very high-maintenance sports car, one that breaks down quite a lot. In fact, if what I said above about plateaus in the practice is any indication of what most Ashtangis' practices are like, I would go so far as to say that breakages are the norm rather than the exception in the practice. So why bother to practice? Why not choose an "easier", "lower-maintenance" vehicle? In order to answer this question, we need to consider another, related question: What should we do when we encounter breakages (plateaus, injuries, pains) in the practice? What is the most productive attitude to take toward these breakages? Even though he doesn't practice Ashtanga (at least not that I know of), Eckhart Tolle actually has something to say about this. He writes:

"Whatever you cannot enjoy doing, you can at least accept that this is what you have to do. Acceptance means: For now, this is what the situation, this moment, requires me to do, and so I do it willingly... For example, you probably won't be able to enjoy changing the flat tire on your car in the middle of nowhere and in pouring rain, let alone be enthusiastic about it, but you can bring acceptance to it. Performing an action in the state of acceptance means you are at peace while you do it. That peace is a subtle energy vibration which then flows into what you do. On the surface, acceptance looks like a passive state, but in reality it is active and creative because it brings something entirely new into this world. That peace, that subtle energy vibration, is consciousness, and one of the ways in which it enters this world is through surrendered action, one aspect of which is acceptance."

To illustrate what Tolle is saying here, let's apply his insight to a common occurrence in the practice: Injury. Sometimes, despite our best efforts at alignment/healthy movement or listening to our bodies, we still get injured in the course of the practice, because bodies are physical things, and physical things break. One could react to the injury by resisting it, asking "Why? Why me?!", and then proceed to either (a) try to deny the existence of the injury by simply pushing through the pain, or (b) give up the practice altogether. As anybody who has worked with injury in the practice knows, neither (a) nor (b) are productive responses. (a) is not productive, because it subjects one to more unnecessary pain, and can possibly aggravate the injury. (b) is also not productive, because although not practicing might mean no pain (at least temporarily), whatever it is that caused the injury in the first place is not being addressed, and the movement pattern that caused it will continue to lurk in the mind/body, setting the stage for possibly more pain and injury in the future. Here, one can't help recalling Tim Miller's famous words: "Avoidance is not the answer."

A more productive response would be one of acceptance. In this state, one tries one's best to practice with the injury, either by modifying and/or moving around the pain, even if doing so is not pleasant physically and mentally. By doing so, one not only allows healing to take place on a physical level; one also becomes able to understand the mind/body connection better with regard to this part of the body, and is able to bring the light of consciousness to bear on this part of the body. In so doing, one is able to gradually undo the deep-seated samskaric pattern that led to pain and injury in the first place, leading to healing on a deeper level.

When we understand that the most productive attitude to take towards pain and injury (and, for that matter, any kind of plateau-inducing phenomenon) in the practice is one of acceptance and surrender, the question of "Why bother to practice?" also answers itself: Although there are many obstacles and plateaus in the practice, these obstacles and plateaus are what make the practice "real" and meaningful. Working through these obstacles and plateaus presents a valuable opportunity to practice the surrender and acceptance which lie at the very heart of yoga. Indeed, I think we can even go as far as to say that these obstacles and plateaus constitute the raison d'etre of the practice: Without obstacles and plateaus and the surrenderful attitudes of acceptance that they demand, we may just as well be training to become gymnasts or acrobats. Or ninjas. Now don't get me wrong; ninjas are way cool. In fact, my childhood dream was (and probably still is) to become a ninja when I grow up. But we'll see...

This is who I want to be when I grow up (the male version, of course)
[Image taken from here]
 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The yoga of bowling; or, what Barack Obama can teach us about bowling and life

I went bowling yesterday with my fiancee and a friend. It has been quite a while since the last time I bowled, and we had a lot of fun. We played about 5 or 6 games. The first two games were okay. I only started getting into form in the last couple of games: I scored a double strike followed by a spare in the second last game: Funny how things only start to get exciting when it's time to go, isn't it? ;-)

On the face of it, bowling seems like the furthest thing from yoga. After all, on a purely physical level, yoga practice involves taking the body through a wide range of asanas and bringing the joints and muscles through a wide range of motion, whereas bowling seems to simply involve doing the same set of actions over and over again: Walk up to the lane, pick up the ball from the ball-feeder (I think that's what it's called), walk down the lane with the ball, take aim, release ball, and hope for the best. Then go back to your seat, watch your friends/opponents bowl (and secretly hope they mess up ;-)). Then rinse and repeat.

But if you have ever bowled more than a couple of games at a time, you will know that to be able to bowl well consistently (or, at the very least, be able to not land one's balls in the gutter all the time) requires a certain consistency in physical technique. This consistency in technique is, in turn, best achieved if one has a clear mind which is not perturbed by things going on around oneself ("Damn! Why is my friend/opponent scoring strikes and spares all the time, while my balls keep going into the gutter?!").  Oh, and in case you don't bowl, and don't know what a gutter ball is, here's a demonstration: Here's then-senator Obama bowling a gutter ball in Pennsylvania back in 2008:

Well, I guess this shows that a great president does not necessarily a great bowler make :-)

The parallels between yoga and bowling become even more pronounced as one goes further into the game. Throughout the course of a bowling session, one may be required to make changes to one's technique and equipment in response to changes in one's physical condition as the session progresses. For example, a heavier ball is harder to lift up and roll, but once released, it also tends to be more stable, and tends to stay the course better than lighter balls, which tend to be more sensitive to changes in one's wrist direction at the moment one releases the ball. With this piece of information in mind, it is usually a good idea to start the game with a heavier ball, and then switch to a lighter ball after a couple of games, when one's hand is a little more tired. In order to know when it is appropriate to switch balls or make adjustments to one's technique, one needs to be mindful of what one's body is feeling at any given moment.

All in all, I think that one is much more likely to enjoy bowling (and even bowl well) if one pays attention to one's physical condition and technique, but at the same time doesn't take oneself too seriously. Remember: It's just a game. And if even Barack Obama can score gutter balls... well, we're in good company :-) Take heart.

Last but not least, it would be very improper of me to talk about bowling without mentioning one of my favorite movies of all time: The Big Lebowski. I highly recommend this movie. This is one movie that might actually change your life :-) Here are a few of my favorite characters from the movie:

[Image taken from here]

 [Image taken from here]

Friday, June 15, 2012

Yoga brings me to my knees

Literally. During the finishing backbends this morning, I tried to follow Kino's instructions in her recent video as closely as possible in order to grab my ankles in Chakrabandhasana (see this post). First, I grabbed my left ankle while keeping the right hand firmly grounded in the mat. Then I grabbed my right ankle while keeping the left hand firmly grounded in the mat. Finally, I walked both my hands towards the ankles and grabbed them. I succeeded in grabbing both ankles for one (maybe two) breaths, before I felt something pull my entire body forward... Next thing I knew, I found myself on my knees, like a samurai waiting to be beheaded.

[I was going to insert a picture here, but all the samurai pictures I could find on Google images were either too gory, or too cheesy. So you have to use your imagination here :-)]

Isn't it rather gory (not to mention ahimsa-violating) to compare backbending to getting beheaded? Well, yes. But not necessarily in a bad way, I think. In his book on the Intermediate Series, Gregor Maehle talks about how doing the leg-behind-the-head postures in the Intermediate Series can be compared to a beheading on a symbolic level: Bringing the leg behind the head can be seen as an act of "beheading" one's ego, because being egoistic is often associated with living in one's head. In this way, doing the LBH postures can be an expression of humility. 

I think the same thing can be true of deep backbends too. Because they demand every ounce of our attention and focus (and sometimes bring us to our knees!), doing backbends can also be an exercise in ego reduction. Think about it. No, really...

Think about it.
[Image taken from here]

******************

Speaking of ego, Carol Horton recently wrote a very thoughtful blog post about what it takes to be a "successful" yoga teacher in North America these days, where "successful" is used here in the sense of "being able to attract big numbers of students to their classes, teach nationally or even internationally on the yoga circuit, sell DVDs or other tie-ins, etc."

She identifies four qualities that teachers need to possess in order to be "successful" in the contemporary North American yoga scene: 

(1) Kick-Ass Asana

(2) Good Looks

(3) Charisma

(4) Business Savvy

For a detailed explanation of what exactly these four things mean, see Carol's post. But I'm guessing that, with the possible exception of charisma, everything else is pretty much self-explanatory. While these qualities are in and of themselves ethically neutral--as Carol notes, the teacher who is able to float from crow to handstand "may have the personal qualities of a saint, an a-hole, or anything in between"--mainstream culture tends to hold them up "as an indicator of what’s valuable, aspirational, and admirable". And teachers who possess these qualities can easily exploit gullible students who think that possessing these qualities is all there is to being a "great" yoga teacher, and go on to wield these qualities as weapons with which to manipulate, dominate and dis-empower these unsuspecting individuals. 

Which is true. Sadly, we all know that such manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment has happened, and is probably happening even as I write this. And these things will probably continue to happen into the future, unless we want to go so far as to come up with a set of super-stringent rules and regulations to try to regulate the yoga "industry", and erect barriers to entry that bar people who can perform kick-ass asana, are good-looking, have great charisma, and have business savvy from ever becoming yoga teachers. Which means, among other things, that Kino will be barred from teaching for life! Or, at least, for as long as she is capable of performing kick-ass asana, is good-looking, charismatic and has business savvy...

 Barred for Life
(Gosh, why is she still smiling?)
[Image taken from here]

But on the upside (?), this also means that the only person you will be left with is--me! As you can see from my description of my practice this morning and my other practice reports on this blog, I am far from being able to perform kick-ass asana. Nor am I good-looking (at least not in the conventional sense.) Nor do I have business savvy, considering what I do for a living (Remember the adage: "Those who can't do..."). Am I charismatic? Well, probably not. Carol quotes Max Weber, who defines charisma as: 

"a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities…not accessible to the ordinary person."

Well, I certainly do not possess any such "certain quality". (Need I say more?) 

But this isn't supposed to be a post about why I am the only person alive who can be a yoga teacher. So let's try to get back on track here. As I was saying, unless we want to go so far as to erect barriers to entry that prevent people who possess the qualities that Carol mentions from ever becoming yoga teachers, it looks like we are stuck with being in a position in which manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment of unsuspecting yoga students by "famous" yoga teachers will happen and will continue to happen into the foreseeable future...

But so far, we have only looked at one side of the equation: We have been focusing our attention on teachers. What about the students, the unsuspecting gullible hoi polloi who get themselves into such positions whereby they are subject to such manipulation, domination and dis-empowerment? Is it possible that they--or we, since we are students too--may also have a responsibility for their choices of which classes to take, which teachers to study with, and (perhaps) which lineage to follow? After all, it is commonly said that, "When the student is ready, the teacher appears." Could it be that all these good-looking, kick-ass-asana-performing, charismatic and business savvy A-holes have appeared in the guise of yoga teachers, and are able to use their skills and talents to manipulate and dominate unsuspecting students because for better or worse (for worse, probably), these teachers are all that these students in question are ready for at this point in time? Just a thought: I really don't have any answers here. But as one of my favorite yoga teachers would say, "Think about it..." 

Think about it; no, really...
    [Image taken from here]   

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Playbook of Life, "right" action, and planting rice

At the risk of flogging what is by now a very dead horse--sorry, I can't seem to think of a less ahimsa-violating metaphor--I would like to say a few more things about my probably-not-happening-this-summer Mysore trip (officially, I'm supposed to be there from July 1st to August 1st; so, until July 1st comes and goes, I'll continue to refer to it as "probably-not-happening" rather than simply "not happening", out of a somewhat desperate hope that something might somehow materialize to make the trip possible at the last minute...).

But back to what I was going to say. Michelle left a very thoughtful comment on my previous post about this probably-not-happening-this-summer trip. She writes:

"...consider that there is never a "right time" for anything that is really "big" or profound in our lives, or that could change the course of our lives. These experiences seem to arise - to use your word - organically. They happen when they happen, and sometimes planning way ahead for them isn't possible - i.e. falling in love; having a child, finding your dream job."

These are very wise words. When I first read these words, the first thought that struck me was that perhaps we as a society or culture have overused the word "right." What do I mean? Let me start by telling you a story. I have this feeling that as a society or culture, we are conditioned to think that there is a set of rules somewhere that applies universally to every situation we may face in our lives: Just apply those rules correctly, and we will automatically know what the right action to take will be. It's almost as if somewhere, someplace, God (or whoever it is that runs this bad reality show we call "life") has written this Playbook of Life which contains an exhaustive set of rules that can be applied to every conceivable situation in life. Want to land your dream job? Follow steps A, B, and C on page x of the playbook, and you will get that job for sure. Want to find the love of your life? Follow steps D, E, and F on page y, and you will find the love of your life waltzing into your previously mundane and meaningless existence. Want to be a perfect parent? Consult steps G, H, and I on page z. And (in my case) want to know whether this summer is the "right" time to go to Mysore? Follow steps J, K, and L on page w...

Do you own a copy of this?
[Image taken from here]

And so and so forth. We are conditioned to think that in every conceivable situation in life, there is a "right", Playbook-sanctioned action that will land us dream jobs, find us our loves, turn us more or less magically into perfect parents, or tell us when the right time to go to Mysore is. Depending on who you are and what your background is, the Playbook may take many forms. For some people, the Bible or some religious text functions as such a playbook. For others, it may be what their parents or grandparents taught them growing up, while for yet others, it may be loyalty to a country or organization. For some yogis, it may even be the Yoga Sutra.

Anyway, whatever concrete incarnation one's Playbook happens to take, the general idea is the same. If you don't know what the "right" action to take in any situation is, then either you don't know the Playbook well enough, or you haven't tried hard enough to do what the Playbook says you should do. Or maybe you simply haven't grown old enough: There is this idea that the older we grow, the more pages of the Playbook will be revealed to us, and we will be "wiser" people who are better able to do the "right" things.

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But what if this Playbook is merely a figment of our ego-fueled-imagination? What if it never actually existed? What if there is no such thing as the "right" action in any situation? What if there are no steps A, B, C, or D,E,F, that we can follow to get what we want in life?... I can keep multiplying these "what ifs", but I think you get the drift here. If you don't, then no amount of "what ifs" will get the point across anyway; in which case, I'm sorry I wasted so much of your time making you read this post :-)

But if you get the drift, then the next question is: Where does that leave us? If nothing--not even, say, the Yoga Sutra--can tell us what the "right" thing to do in any situation is, what are we to do? One answer is quite simply: Nothing. There is nothing to be done. Here's something from Eckhart Tolle:

"If you are not spending all of your waking life in discontent, worry, anxiety, depression, despair, or consumed by other negative states; if you are able to enjoy simple things like listening to the sound of the rain or the wind; if you can see the beauty of clouds moving across the sky or be alone at times without feeling lonely or needing the mental stimulus of entertainment; if you find yourself treating a complete stranger with heartfelt kindness without wanting anything from him or her... it means a space has opened up, no matter how briefly, in the otherwise incessant stream of thinking that is the human mind. When this happens, there is a sense of well-being, of alive peace, even though it may be subtle."

But what has this feeling of being present, this feeling of spacious well-being or alive peace, to do with doing anything or nothing? Tolle continues:

"Presence is a state of inner spaciousness. When you are present, you ask: How do I respond to the needs of this situation, of this moment? In fact, you don't even need to ask the question. You are still, alert, open to what is. You bring a new dimension into the situation: space. Then you look and you listen. Thus you become one with the situation. When instead of reacting against the situation, you merge with it, the solution arises out of the situation itself... Then, if action is possible or necessary, you take action or rather right action happens through you. Right action is action that is appropriate to the whole."

Taking a cue from Tolle, I would like to make a little suggestion here: Perhaps the time has come in our society or culture where the idea of "right" action is no longer very helpful in navigating this crazy reality show called modern life. Perhaps it is better to speak of appropriate action, action that is appropriate to the whole at any given moment. But how can I know whether my action is appropriate to the whole at any given moment? After all, it's not as if I can call time out and go hide in a corner and ask the universe, "What is the action that is appropriate to the whole at this moment?" any time a decision needs to be made. Well, I don't know of any easy answers to this quandary here; I'm also still trying to figure out this bad reality show myself. But the following story from Mencius might be of some help here:

"There was a man from Sung who pulled at his rice plants because he was worried about their failure to grow. Having done so, he went on his way home, not realizing what he had done. “I am worn out today,” said he to his family. “I have been helping the rice plants to grow.” His son rushed out to take a look and there the plants were all shriveled up. There are few in the world who can resist the urge to help their rice plants grow. There are some who leave the plants unattended, thinking that nothing they can do will be of any use. They are the people who do not even bother to weed. There are others who help the plants grow. They are the people who pull at them. Not only do they fail to help them but they do the plants positive harm”  

Moral of the story? Do not be the kind of person who either (i) pulls at his rice plants, trying to help them grow faster, or (ii) simply neglects the plants and don't even bother to weed. In any situation, if we are to take the action that is appropriate to the whole, we need to look, listen, and know what we are dealing with. Pull what needs to be pulled (the weeds), then back off, and give the important things (the "rice plants") the space they need to grow and flourish.

Pull the weeds, then back off.
[Image taken from here]

Actually, this applies to asana practice as well: Although we may not know this, most of the "work" that we do in asana is done with the intention of removing obstacles and giving the body the space it needs to express the asana naturally (think about, say, opening the front body to facilitate backbending). And this is also true of many other things in life too. The idea is: Do what needs to be done, then back off, and get out of your own way. Easier said than done, I know. But we do our best :-)       

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Yoga Teacher Barbie, and a little gallery of Famous Yoga Teacher Action Figures

Disclaimer: Before you read the rest of this post, and possibly accuse me of being disrespectful, irreverent, and/or downright blasphemous, let me say a couple of things here: While much of the content of this post feature existing famous yoga teachers, any remarks made here about these teachers are meant to be taken in a light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek manner. If you find yourself unable to do so, you can try (1) taking a few deep breaths, (2) doing your yoga practice, (3) taking a trip to the bathroom, and seeing if your possibly overly-tightened mula bandha will release of its own accord, (4) try to forget you ever read this post. If none of this works, and you still feel upset... well, you can try sending me an angry email. But I may or may not respond, and you may or may not feel better after writing said email...

So if you do not agree to this disclaimer, read no further! But hopefully, you will agree to this disclaimer, and we will all have some fun in the name of good, clean entertainment.    

So here goes. In my recent online wanderings (now that I'm probably not going to Mysore, I have found more time for such idle cyber-pursuits :-)), I came across this interesting development: Yoga has apparently become so mainstream that even Barbie is practicing! Yes, as in the Barbie dolls that you used to play with as a kid (if you are female, that is... wait! maybe there are guys out there who play with Barbie dolls too! If so, my apologies for this omission. But anyway...).

Mattel has recently launched a line of yoga teacher Barbie Dolls as part of Barbie's "I Can Be..." Collection. Check this out:

    [Image taken from here]

If I were a more socially/civically-minded yoga blogger, I would be going off right about now about how this "Barbie-fication" of yoga represents another step in the lamentable co-opting of yoga by the Great Capitalist Evil Empire. But alas, I am only a yoga geek--an Ashtangeek, to be more precise--who has neither the capacity nor the intellectual patience for such sophisticated commentaries. 

So I'll leave this commenting to more sophisticated bloggers out there, and just let my Ashtangeek nature take over here. Well, when I first saw this new line of Barbie dolls, the Ashtangeek in me immediately took over, and I wondered: I wonder what the range of motion of this doll's limbs are? As you can see in the picture, Barbie can do Natarajasana. I wonder how much external hip rotation she has. Can we get her into padmasana? Or even downdog? After all, what good is a yoga teacher doll if she can't model actual asanas for kids to play with and maybe be inspired by? Makes me want to run out to the nearest Target store right now and get one such doll for myself, just to find out... Well, then again, probably not a good idea. I'll probably get funny stares from the staff at Target. Maybe one of them may even follow me to my place, only to discover me manhandling the doll into all kinds of weird positions. And then he/she will probably call the cops on me (Tomorrow's NYT headlines: "World-famous Ashtangi Nobel arrested for performing unnatural acts on yoga teacher Barbie Doll.")

But seriously, I've always been fascinated by action figures. Used to collect Star Wars action figures when I was a kid. I'm pretty sure the Star Wars action figures I had then didn't have enough range of motion built into their joints to be able to do most asanas. I wish they would re-release a new set of action figures with greater range of motion: I'm sure kids would dig them, and a whole generation of kids would then be exposed to the wonderfulness of yoga... Actually, it seems that somebody out there has already thought of this idea. Check out Boba Fett's asana practice: 

[Image taken from here]

He has a very nice shoulder-stand! And his bakasana is pretty kick-ass too, don't you think? It totally makes sense that galactic bounty hunters should take up yoga. After all, running around the galaxy bounty-hunting is very hard work; one needs to have a way of re-charging/rejuvenating the body regularly. What better way to do this than through a regular yoga practice?

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And while we're on the topic of action figures, I've always felt that somebody out there should release a set of Famous Yoga Teacher/Yoga Master action figures. Each of these should come with a built-in special feature that can be activated by pushing a little button or lever somewhere on the action figure itself. That special feature should be some particular asana or quirk the teacher in question is known for. I think these action figures will totally sell like hot cakes (at least, I'll totally buy them!)

Here are a few ideas: 

(1) B.K.S. Iyengar action figure

Since Mr. Iyengar has been around for a while, we will probably need to make two different action figures of him to do justice to his presence:

(a) The first one will be a replica of him from his younger days, maybe from around the time Light on Yoga was published in the sixties. This first action figure should be of him wearing only yoga shorts, and will look something like this: 

[Image taken from here]

Special Feature: By pushing a special lever somewhere on the figure's body, you can get the action figure to perform 108 dropbacks and standups. Well, I guess in order for this to work, we would also have to build a battery-operated mechanism into the action figure which can then move the spine in the required way when the lever is pushed. Ha! And then the package can say, "Batteries not included." :-)

(b) The second one will be a replica of Mr. Iyengar as we know him now. This one will feature him wearing his trademark dhoti, and will look something like this:

[Image taken from here]

Special Feature: By pushing a special lever somewhere on the figure's body, you can get the bushy eyebrows to move up and down in an intimidating way, thereby approximating a stern glare. This action figure is highly recommended for Iyengar practitioners who practice mostly at home, and who have difficulty motivating themselves to practice: Whenever you feel like faffing/slacking off, just push that lever, and it will be as if Mr. Iyengar were actually in the room, glaring sternly at you. Very invaluable motivational tool. Totally worthy investment :-)

(2) Pattabhi Jois action figure

As with Mr. Iyengar, since Guruji was active in the yoga scene for such a long time, I feel that it is only appropriate that we come up with two different action figures of him to do justice to his presence. 

(a) The first one will be a replica of Guruji from his younger days, and will look something like this: 

[Image taken from here]

Special Feature: I can't seem to think of any right now. Any ideas?

(b) The second one will be a replica of Guruji in his later years, and will look something like this: 

Pretty badass, don't you think?  :-)
[Image taken from here]

Special Feature: By pushing a tiny button somewhere on the action figure's body, one can activate a built-in voice player that will play one of Guruji's famous aphorisms ("Bad man!", "Why Fearing, you?", etc). The voice player can even be set on repeat, so that the action figure will repeat the same phrase at regular intervals.

This action figure is highly recommended for Ashtangis who practice mostly at home, particularly those of us who are working with a particularly challenging posture (dropbacks, Supta Kurmasana, Kapotasana, etc.). Whenever you get to a challenging posture that induces great fear in you, all you have to do is set the Guruji action figure to keep saying, "Why fearing, you?" over and over again. It will then feel just as if Guruji himself were in the room!

(3) Kino MacGregor action figure

Although Kino hasn't been around for quite as long as Mr. Iyengar and Guruji, she is a great teacher who has done a lot of good in the Ashtanga community and in the yoga community at large. Which is why I feel she should be honored with her very own action figure. It might look something like this:

 [Image taken from here]

Special Feature: By pushing a tiny lever somewhere on the action figure's body, you can get the action figure to perform one of the deep backbends that Kino is famous for, such as this:

[Image taken from here]

This action figure is highly recommended for those Kino groupies out there who do not have the time or money to go to so many Kino workshops in a year. If you put this in your practice space or room, and activate the special feature every morning, you will be extra motivated to go the extra mile in your practice.

(4) Bikram Choudhury action figure

I don't practice Bikram yoga, and know very little about the man, other than whatever I have read from blogs and online articles. But Bikram yoga is very popular, and seems to be rocking many a yogi's boat; I personally know a few people who swear by it. So I guess Bikram must be doing some good out there, despite all the franchising lawsuits and all that publicity that has been surrounding him. I suppose in order to do justice to his presence, a good Bikram action figure should feature him in his trademark outfit: Speedos, topknot, rolex watch, and headset. Such an action figure should look something like this:

Action figure of girl in Paschimottanasana not included. 
Accessories (yellow water bottle, towel, and mat) sold separately.
[Image taken from here]

Special Feature: By pushing a tiny button somewhere on the action figure's body, one can activate a built-in voice player that will play one of Bikram's famous quotes (Bikram yogis: You know what I'm talking about.). I don't know how many Bikram yogis actually practice at home ( I would suppose it must be pretty hard to heat your practice room up to 105 degrees...), but if there are any such at-home Bikramites out there, this action figure will serve as a great motivational tool to motivate you on those cold mornings when you just don't feel like getting out of bed :-)

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Well, I think I'll call it a day for now, and wrap up this post here: I'm pretty blogged out, and need to go get something to eat. I know that there are too many famous yoga teachers out there that I have not been able to include in my gallery of action figures. To those of you famous yoga teachers out there whom I've left out, please do not be offended. If you are, well... there's nothing I can do about it. Well, maybe I'll write a follow-up post to this in the near future, and try to include more teachers. But till then.