Sunday, December 22, 2013

I am officially an intellectual masturbator

At a party a couple of days ago, I got into a verbal/intellectual sparring match with a colleague from political science. I'm not going to bore you here with the intellectual/philosophical details of the exchange: Suffice to say that he is a postmodernist, and I'm not (if you really want the details, email me, and I'll try my best to reconstruct our exchange).

The exchange did not last more than 15 minutes, but given the passion with which he and I both held our respective views, plus the lateness of the hour and the effects of a few drinks, the whole thing quickly became intense, in a not-so-good kind of way. From the beginning of the conversation, I sensed that he was pushing my buttons, and my grad-school training kicked in. Grad School 101: When somebody pushes your buttons, push back, and find a way to draw some intellectual blood. As you can well imagine, passions flared quickly. Objectively speaking, I was way out of my depth; the last time I read postmodernism was in grad school, when I read a little Deleuze, and maybe a little Derrida, so I am not exactly in the best position to go into a debate with somebody who actually wrote his doctoral dissertation on these guys.

But I wouldn't give in without a good fight. So I tried to play a game of intellectual aikido/taichi with him; whatever I didn't understand (which was a lot), I simply rephrased in terms of what I do understand (phenomenology/existentialism), and then threw back at him as intellectual projectiles. And whatever I couldn't convert into intellectual projectiles, I simply dismissed with a stockphrase like, "Well, it is all very well to talk about this, that or whatever, but you really don't understand that such-and-such-and-such..." and then quickly moved the exchange back to familiar terrain.  

An artist's impression of me throwing intellectual projectiles... well, just kiddin'
[Image taken from here]

As silly as the above strategy sounds, it must have worked, because I succeeded in seriously annoying him. I must have struck him as a seriously arrogant and pompous ivory-tower academic, because it got to the point where he simply pronounced everything that I was doing as intellectual masturbation. At this point, a friend who was standing by and observing the whole exchange must have sensed that things were on the verge of getting ugly, because she came up to me and said she was tired, and asked me if I could give her a ride home. I had to agree to her request, because I was the one who gave her a ride to the party earlier in the evening. So I turned to my interlocutor, told him that it was a pleasure speaking to him (was it, really? Hmm...), and that we should continue this conversation. He simply looked intently at me, and then pronounced, "This is not necessary. I am willing to stake my PhD on this."

Wow. Really? So after all this intense passion and name-calling, all he was willing to stake was a paltry piece of paper? Well, this shows us a few things, doesn't it? Ah well, what do you do?... As for me, I am now officially an intellectual masturbator. You know, come to think of it, this is not such an insult, after all: At least I get to orgasm...        

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Death, suicide, and the time of the year

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer."

Albert Camus

A few days ago, I learned that the local mechanic to whom I usually bring my car for oil changes and other routine repairs had died; he had taken his own life. Yesterday, I got together with a few friends who also were his customers, and discussed the circumstances surrounding his suicide. One of them told me that she had heard that his business had not been doing well lately, and suggested that as a driving reason behind his suicide. I didn't say much in response to this, but mulled over this for a little while. For some reason, this just didn't strike me as a satisfactory reason. I mean, sure, many people have taken their own lives because of financial or business problems, but there are also many others who have suffered similar problems in life, who have nevertheless found ways of coping and finding reasons to continue living on this earth. So looking to external circumstances to try to explain why somebody would decide that continuing to take the trouble to stay alive simply isn't worth it anymore simply doesn't shed light on this issue. I believe that Camus is expressing a similar sentiment when he remarks on the act of suicide:

"An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had greatly changed since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it... It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering."

I think Camus expresses a whole bunch of things about this topic in a much more eloquent fashion than I ever could (at least in the foreseeable future), so I shall not offer too much commentary on his words, but allow them to speak for themselves. But I would like to relate something else that happened last night. Last night, I got together with some colleagues for some drinks. For some reason or other, the topic turned to suicide (there is no correlation here with my earlier conversation with my other friends; besides myself, there is no overlap between these two groups of people). It turns out that among the group of us (there were five of us in the group), everybody except me had thought of taking their own life at some point or other in the past. When I raised the only "dissenting" view, and said that I have honestly never contemplated killing myself before, even in my darkest moments, everybody else was really surprised.

After a brief silence, somebody in the group who knew his Camus quoted the above passage about suicide being the one truly serious philosophical problem, and not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps the reason why I hadn't thought of killing myself was because I hadn't thought seriously enough about my own life. I responded by biting the bullet (no pun intended), "Yeah, maybe that means that I haven't been taking my life seriously enough (big fucking deal!)..." I think the group was rather stunned by my non-attempt to rise to this challenge, because there was yet another brief silence. After about thirty seconds or so, another person (probably for lack of something else to say) simply blurted, "It must all the yoga you are doing!"

Well, honestly, I do not think that yoga practice is an automatic suicidal-thought-suppressant: If you want to kill yourself, you probably will, whether or not you do yoga. I can only say that, so far, I have been fortunate (?), in that even in my darkest hours, there is always this strong undercurrent of something (survival instinct?) that moves me along, so that the thought that living is more trouble than it is worth has never crossed my mind; or if it did, I only entertained it as a hypothetical intellectual possibility, and never with the existential force of a real life possibility.

 But then again, maybe I really shouldn't be jinxing myself by talking about such things so cavalierly. For all I know, tomorrow, or even the very next hour, may be the first time I ever seriously think of killing myself. Ah, morbid thoughts, morbid thoughts... There must be something about this time of year that brings such thoughts into the minds of so many. Well, but I can at least say that this is probably more authentic and less shallow than all that forced holiday cheer that is so prevalent in so many other quarters...

Anyway....       

Monday, December 16, 2013

Kino on the balance between alignment and the inner experience of yoga

After writing my previous post, I decided to ask Kino herself what she thinks about this whole alignment-in-Ashtanga issue. I emailed her, and she got back to me within the hour. Which is very admirable, considering her very busy schedule. Her answer is brief but very illuminating, and she has also very generously allowed me to share it here on this blog. This is what Kino says:

"Alignment is not an end in and of itself. The purpose of good alignment is to facilitate a deeper inner experience. If you focus on alignment as the end goal then it diffuses the true power of yoga. The method of yoga is essentially also very simple. In Utkatasana the knees are bent and the hands are up. The depth with which Western teachers, including myself, describe the inner experience of energy and alignment is something that Guruji and Sharath have always left up to the individual to directly experience for themselves. This way each student has the framework for direct perception of the inner body and ultimately their true self and there is more room for variety, experimentation and modification. Sharath is the first person to say that he does not have a beautiful practice according to Western standards. Yet at the same time if you ask him if alignment is important he says yes, for sure, to prevent injury and help the energy flow in the body. I think the key is to find a balance between emphasizing the physical over subtle and disregarding the physical for the spiritual."

I hope you find her answer as illuminating as I have.  


Hot spring Ashtanga talk, the place of alignment in Ashtanga

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from grading papers and exams, and went with a group consisting of a few colleagues from various other departments to a mineral hot spring about 45 minutes from where I am in Idaho. It's funny how it took me almost a year of being here in Idaho to finally make it to a hot spring. But, as they say, better late than never, right? :-)

It was a pleasant afternoon. We spent more than three hours soaking in the spring and chatting about many things. As the only philosophy person in the group, the "responsibility" has fallen upon me over the last few months to be the provider of witty semi-philosophical banter whenever we meet up (the group of us meet together regularly for drinks at a local brewery). Hmm... come to think of it, this may be one of the main reasons why I haven't been blogging much lately: Perhaps most of the verbal-expressive energies that I previously expended on this blog are now taken up with providing witty banter for those around me, so that there is less wit left to spare for this blog.

Anyway, during those three hours in the spring yesterday, one interesting and unexpected topic of conversation came up... yes, you guessed it: Yoga! I don't normally talk about yoga to my students or colleagues, but sometime in the course of those three hours, one of my colleagues started doing some yoga-like stretches in the water (at one point, she looked like she would probably have gone into the full expression of Prasarita Padottanasana A in the water, if it weren't for the fact that she couldn't breathe underwater...), so I couldn't help remarking that she seemed to be doing some yoga poses. Upon further questioning, it turns out that her sister is a yoga teacher in a major city in the Pacific Northwest, so she knew a few things about the ins and outs and ups and downs of the typical yoga scene in a big city (too many teachers running around all over the place trying to scrap together a living by teaching too many classes, possibly compromising one's own yoga practice in so doing, etc., etc.).

As the conversation progressed, I also let on that I used to teach yoga in a studio in Florida. This prompted my colleague to ask, "Oh... do you intend to teach yoga again sometime in the future?" I replied, "Well, ever since I started doing Ashtanga full-time, I have been feeling less and less qualified to be a yoga teacher." This reply drew puzzled expressions from her and her husband, so I had to basically start from square one, and explain the ins and outs of traditional Ashtanga practice (what Mysore style practice is, how it is different from "conventional" yoga classes, how the only way to really get authorized to teach Ashtanga is by going to KPJAYI and getting authorized, and so on and so forth). I like to think that I succeeded, through this explanation, in conveying to them the spirit and the gravitas of traditional Ashtanga instruction and practice, because they seemed impressed by my dedication to this powerful tradition (at least, I think they looked like they were; I'm not always the best reader of people's facial expressions...).

The husband then asked me whether Ashtanga pays a lot of attention to precise and proper alignment. "Well, we believe that alignment is important, but we don't quite make such a big issue of it as Iyengar." And then, of course, I had to go on to explain to him the main differences in emphasis between Iyengar and Ashtanga.

Who would have thought that my first visit to a hot spring in Idaho would have consisted of me giving a talk on Ashtanga yoga? Life is pretty strange, isn't it? :-)

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Oh, and speaking of alignment, after I came back from the spring yesterday, I went on Kino's FB page, and watched this instructional video by Sharath on the proper vinyasa for Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana A and B that she had posted there. I wanted to re-post the video here, but for some reason, it wouldn't show up on my Youtube search. But the video has been around for, like, a thousand years by now (I just haven't had much time to watch, post, or review yoga videos lately, due to the real-world demands for my services as a wit ;-)), so I'm guessing most of you know which video I'm talking about here. If you don't, just go to Kino's FB page; it's in one of her posts from yesterday.

I'm sure that anybody who has even so much as taken a glance at Yoga Journal covers over the last ten years of that illustrious publication's history would know that Sharath's physical alignment in the video is not going to put him on the cover of YJ anytime soon (and that, I suspect, is putting it rather mildly). And this fact is certainly not lost on Kino's Facebook readers either, as a couple of commenters have quite unceremoniously noted. I don't normally quote FB comments on this blog, but these couple of comments are so hilarious, I just can't resist "sharing" them here:

One commenter writes: "...so different than what we do in America. if I stayed up that high in any of my warrior poses my instructor would be on my ass like a fly on poop. he sure does float forward and back gracefully though."

A second commenter, piggy-backing on the first, continues: "Clearly he is the expert but I'm with the other person, he's on his toes in urdhva mukha svanasana, his arms aren't straight above his head, his knee is past his ankle and not at a 90 degree angle in virabhadrasana and the outside blade of his foot is clearly not down, his utkatasana is really high...it's hard seeing this video when I struggle and have instructors drill proper form in class. Is form not as important as it's made out to be or is the form im being taught not really correct? Or bc he's just so awesome he can afford to cheat a lil? :-)"

Well, Sharath, as we all know, is quite awesome. But even so --and I'm not saying any of this with any intention of starting an Ashtanga-vs-Iyengar blog war here--we still can't deny that if Sharath had performed the same Utkatasanas and Virabhadrasanas in any "conventional" yoga class here in this beautiful land of America, any YA-certified teacher worth his or her salt would have descended on Sharath like "a fly on poop", as the above commenter so eloquently put it (nothing like a good poop reference to get a point across ;-)), and it is doubtful that he would have made it through even the first five minutes of class without being the butt of many a well-intentioned adjustment. 

So, the million-dollar question: Just what is the place of "proper" alignment in Ashtanga? Is alignment also important in Ashtanga, only maybe not as important as in Iyengar? Or is the idea that drishti and bandhas have so much more primacy in Ashtanga, so that, so long as one is really focusing on those things, transgressions in alignment (even major ones, if Sharath's video is anything to go by) can be overlooked? I suspect that maybe the only person who can really speak to these questions is Sharath himself. But since it is really unlikely that I will be able to get him to comment on this post, I'll just leave you with these questions. If you have anything to say on this, please do. I'd love to hear from you.     

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Peddling yoga wares, practicing when you don't feel like it

Starting from sometime around a couple of months ago, my email inbox (the one attached to the hotmail account listed in the top-right-hand corner of this blog) became inundated with tons of promotional emails from yoga retreat centers, marketers of cool yoga/enlightenment T-shirts ("wear our tee, and you will experience more-or-less instant enlightenment... or at least look super-good!"), and even vegan cookies.

I'm not at all annoyed by all this spam; most of the time, I just chuckle to myself ("Wow, they actually think I can help them make a milllion dollars by selling or promoting their products!"), and then delete them without even bothering to read. I'm guessing that, since I'm not a famous yoga teacher (or even an un-famous one), all these assorted peddlers of yoga/enlightenment wares must have gotten my email address from this blog. Which adds even more to the irony, since I have hardly been posting over the last few months, and when I do, it's usually shit about my personal practice and/or my own personal idiosyncratic stories about things and happenings in my immediate little environment. Hardly the sort of thing that would make me a famous yoga presence.

Anyway, the mere presence of all these emails from yoga ware peddlers wouldn't have warranted breaking my by-now-usual blog silence (as I said, most of the time, I just delete these emails without a second's thought), were it not for the fact that somebody recently directed me to this Elephant Journal post by Harmony Lichty, an authorized Ashtanga teacher living and teaching in Victoria, British Columbia. In her post, Harmony said something that resonates with my experience in this area. She writes:

"There is a beautiful, glowing, tantalizing, nymph-like monster called “The Business of Yoga.”... If you’re at all interested in yoga, I’m sure you have already come face to face with her. She is obvious and yet somehow still deceptive. Agitating our minds and seducing our desires, she is invoked whenever business mixes with yoga, which is pretty much unavoidable these days.

Recently, I’ve been bombarded with messages from various sources all saying that, as a yoga teacher, you need to find some angle to market “your unique talents and abilities.” Lessons on using the right catch phrases and how to sell yourself will help to create more buzz.

Of course, everyone has the miracle solution on how to do this, and for only $9.99 you can download the latest e-book that will change your life!

Whether it is YouTube or Facebook, what seems to matter most is how you brand yourself and I fear that all of this advertising is merely another distraction that keeps moving further away from the essence of what yoga is supposed to be about..."

I think that Harmony's fear is quite well-founded, but I'm not going to go into a long rant here about how this whole business-of-yoga business takes us away from the essence of yoga; I'm sure the yoga blogosphere already abounds with plenty of erudite articles written on this topic by a whole bunch of--who else?--smart yogis. But I do want to share what Harmony has to say about what real yoga practice is about, because, again, what she has to say really speaks to me:

"It seems obvious, but it must be said: yoga is not about the clothes or the mat, nor is it about the way we look or even the way we feel. It is actually not a hobby or an activity to keep you occupied in your spare time, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, it is not simply a class you can drop-in to or drop-out of.

Yoga is a way of life...

It is meant to permeate our entire existence and shine the light of awareness into every corner of our lives. That is, if we can just get out from under the pile of stuff we are hiding in.

Yoga is a process of self-transformation...

Yoga is a discipline.

It is a discipline that works to renovate your mind, body and habits.

It can be challenging and frustrating.

Some days you won’t feel like getting out of bed to meet yourself on your mat or your meditation cushion.

Some days you won’t want to look in the mirror of your life choices to experience the veracity of how they are affecting you. Yet, when you do begin to clean the dust off your inner mirror through a regular practice, you will feel better for it...

Practice. Serve. Love. Repeat.

Try getting up and practicing without anyone watching, without fancy clothes or your favorite mat, without any goal in mind except to sink deeper into your own present moment awareness of breath. Practice as best you can on any given day, regardless of how you feel or how you look—this is the yoga.

I believe that there is one way to wade through all the distracting illusions that deceptively disguise themselves as yoga and that is to go deeper into our own personal sadhana, spiritual practice..."

What Harmony says here really speaks to me because most of the time, I practice by myself at home; I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of days I have practiced with other people in the past year (most of these few days occurs during the times when I travel to attend workshops with senior teachers). And I definitely do not wear fancy clothes when I practice; in fact, I typically practice in my briefs (TMI? My apologies...). I mean, really, why even bother to put on yoga shorts when nobody's watching?

And also, I quite often make myself practice on days when I seriously don't feel like getting on the mat. For instance, last night, a couple of friends from work invited me to their place to hang out and play chess. They proceeded to offer me wine, which I could not resist, and I drank a couple of glasses too many. As you can probably imagine, I felt rather groggy (no hangover, fortunately) when I woke up this morning, and almost fell asleep standing up! I made myself roll out the mat and practice. My body movements felt really sluggish; throughout the standing postures, it felt like I was moving through a thick karmic sludge. But I somehow managed to make myself go through my usual practice (half-primary plus second up to Karandavasana), and definitely felt much better at the end of the whole thing, and was happy that I made myself do it anyway.  

None of any of this is really ground-breaking or earth-shaking; I'm sure most of you out there also have plenty of experience with making yourself practice on days when you just don't want to. But, as Harmony would say, sometimes the obvious is what needs to be said.    

Friday, November 29, 2013

The non-being of coming-back-up-in-Karandavasana

"The world does not disclose its non-beings to one who has not first posited them as possibilities."

Jean-Paul Sartre

I haven't been posting very much lately, probably not because there is nothing to blog about. The truth is, I can probably find something blog-worthy every single day if I want to. But between teaching classes and reading and thinking and doing a whole bunch of other things, I just haven't been able to find the extra desire to set down on this space whatever fleeting observations about my inner and outer life that occur to me from time to time.

Or, to look at things from a different angle, we could say that, from the point of view of a regular visitor to this blog, somebody who "comes" here regularly in the expectation of finding a new blog post, the absence of a new blog post fixes this blog in its evanescence. This absence haunts this blog, so that the visitor, on scanning the blog and finding no new posts, finds at the same time that the rest of the blog (the older posts, for instance) disappears and decomposes successively into the background. And it is against this ground-- this "soil", if you will--of the decomposition of the rest of the blog that the absence of a new blog post raises itself as an absence, as a nothingness, as a non-being.

But I am definitely being very grandiose and self-important here. For one thing, I am presupposing the non-non-being of regular visitors/readers of this blog who actually come here regularly expecting to find new posts. And it is only in the worlds of these visitors--if any such exist--that the non-being of a new blog post is disclosed as something in the world. Or, as Sartre would put it, the world only discloses the non-being of a new blog post to those who have first posited such non-being as a possibility.

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I suppose I should switch gears now, and try to move away from my existentialist musings, and talk about something else. Although, come to think of it, to talk about something else is to not talk about some other thing which could otherwise have been talked about. Thus, nothingness pervades and is the necessary condition for any kind of choice; in this case, the choice of choosing to talk about one particular thing rather than another.

Hmm. So we see that existentialism isn't a mood that one can just snap out of. Ah well. So be it. But let me just say a few things about the state of my Ashtanga practice the last couple of days. Yesterday being Thanksgiving, I decided to, in the spirit of the holidays, gift myself the gift of a new posture--Karandavasana. Well, actually, Karandavasana isn't exactly a new posture for me. But I haven't being practicing this posture for about a year now, ever since I moved here to Idaho and decided to rebuild/reset my practice in a new place. But yesterday morning, as I was getting into Pincha Mayurasana, this thought suddenly hit me, "Hey, you haven't tried Karandavasana for quite a while now. Why don't you give it a shot, and see if you are still impotent?"

I listened to that thought, and gave Karandavasana a shot for the first time in a long time. Well, it turns out that I am still impotent; still can't get it back up: I could get into Pincha and get my legs into lotus while in Pincha. And then when I tried to lower down, I kind of wobbled a little, and had to bring the crown of my head onto the mat to prevent myself from falling over, before slowly (or not-so-slowly) lowering my lotus to my forearms. I held the lotus there on my arms for five breaths, but coming back up was, well, not coming.

I tried the pose again this morning, with the same outcome. Coming back up, still not coming.

I haven't been thinking too much about this whole thing--well, then again, maybe I have, if this is the first thing I am actually blogging about after not having blogged for, like, forever. But I was reading Sartre last night (yes, I know, I spent Thanksgiving reading Being and Nothingness...) when it suddenly occurred to me that the world would not have disclosed the non-being of coming-back-up-in-Karandavasana to me if I had not first posited such a (non)being as a possibility. I mean, think about it: Millions of people in this world who cannot do Karandavasana (and to whom it would probably never occur to even attempt to put their bodies into such a funny position) wake up every morning, and do whatever it is that they do in the morning, and then get through the rest of their day, all without the possibility of the non-being of Karandavasana ever being disclosed in their worlds. Why is this so? Well, because it has never occurred to them to question, "Can my body do Karandavasana?"

All of which proves the truth of the age-old adage, "What answers you get depends on what questions you ask the universe." Gosh, am I sounding wise, or what? Well, good people, I think I'll sign off here for now. Happy Black Friday. May your Friday be as black as the espresso I just drank :-)                  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Eating anything that crawls, swims or flies

Earlier today, I was chatting with a friend. She was trying to plan what kinds of food to cook for her family for the coming week, and was running out of ideas. In an attempt to get me to give her some ideas, she asked, "What kind of food do you like to eat?" I was about to respond by saying things like Indian food, Thai food, etc., but then I stopped myself: It occurred to me that she wanted suggestions on things that she could cook at home given her culinary expertise (i.e. typical North American housewife cooking skills--somewhere above mac-and-cheese, but not at bistro or restaurant level, and definitely not at the level of restaurant-level Indian or Thai food).

Seeing that she wasn't getting much out of me in the way of culinary suggestions, she tried a different tack: "Well, what would you ask your mom to cook for you if she were in town?" Ha! Actually, this is an even harder question for me. Firstly, my parents live on the other side of this planet, and I don't get to see them that often. Secondly, I've never had the sort of relationship with my mom which involves me asking her to make my favorite foods whenever I'm in her presence. Not sure why this is so; for as long as I can remember, when I lived under the same roof as my parents, I basically just ate what they cooked. This might have to change the next time I visit them, though: Having been vegetarian for the last four years, I don't think I can (or even want to) revert to the omnivorous diet that is so ubiquitous of Chinese cooking. There is a (Chinese) saying that the Chinese eat anything that crawls, swims or flies. And I know, from personal experience, that this is literally true. And without being preachy or all-high-and-mighty, I really don't want to go back to eating things that crawl, swim or fly.

But I digress. Back to my conversation with my friend. Rather than go into a long discourse about the ubiquity of Chinese cuisine (as outlined in the previous paragraph) and possibly bore her, I decided on what I thought was a more straightforward response. "Well," I said, "I actually don't know what I would ask my mom to cook for me. The last time I saw my parents, I was still a meat-eater. But neither of my parents are vegetarian (actually, nobody else in my family is), so I honestly won't know what to ask them to cook for me when I see them [Note to self: I need to start thinking about this at some point.]."

Needless to say, my friend didn't quite know what to make of what I said. I can't really remember what she said after this point, but I'm pretty sure she (or I) changed the subject, and the conversation went in a completely different direction.

Not the most interesting thing to blog about, I know, but this is my life right now. Just another day...      

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sein und Zeit, Kapotasana, Titthibhasana

As you can tell, I haven't posted much on this blog (or any other blog) lately. Have I been busy? Well, yes, in a manner of speaking. I have been reading quite a bit lately, and busy turning my attention inwards in that way. Specifically, I have been rereading Heidegger's Being and Time (the last time I read it was many years ago, in grad school) in preparation for my class on Existentialism in the spring, which I will be teaching for the first time. I can't really explain it well, but there's just something about reading B&T that makes me very pensive and contemplative and inward-turning, causing me to minimize my present-at-hand relations with the world. And you have to admit that writing a blog is a very present-at-hand kind of activity, at least for me. Oh, I guess I haven't explained what "present-at-hand" is. But in order to explain what presence-at-hand means, I would have to get into a present-at-hand relationship with presence-at-hand (does this give you a hint of its nature?). And I don't feel like doing this now.

Suffice to say that there is just something about reading a text very carefully, deliberately and slowly that causes a kind of inward turning in the reader; or at any rate, in this reader. There does not seem to be much to show for all this inward turning, at least for now. But well, it is what it is.

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But I do have a couple of cool things to say about practice. As of right now, I'm still doing half-primary plus second up to Pincha Mayurasana. There hasn't been much to say about practice for most of the last few weeks; for the most part, it's just been showing up at the mat, doing one's best, and then getting on with one's day.

But in the last couple of days, a couple of pretty cool things have transpired on the mat. Firstly, my breath has been very long and expansive in Kapotasana these last couple of days, where it is usually rushed. I don't want to jinx myself by writing about this here, but two expansive-breath-Kapotasana-days are so rare to come by in my practice (actually, I can't remember the last time my breath was expansive in Kapo for two days in a row), I must be doing something right. Maybe it's the Heidegger? ;-)  

The other significant practice development is that I have been successfully binding in Titthibhasana B the last couple of days. It's really nothing to write home (or write here) about; it's just barely clasping the fingers. But still. I hope this means that my shoulders are finally opening up.

Alright, that's all I have to say for now. More later.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Would you like to make me a little less lonely?

Earlier today, I was at Starbucks, reading Nietzsche and preparing for my class tomorrow morning. Yes, this is the first time I am officially teaching Nietzsche in my Intro to Ethics class, and I am quite excited about it. Oh, and by the way, I got my class to watch two episodes of Battlestar Galactica earlier this week (those two episodes which involved Starbuck crashing on that moon, and the crew of the Galactica mounting a search-and-rescue mission for her). I'm happy to report that most people seemed to really enjoy it.

But back to what happened earlier today. After reading Nietzsche for about an hour, I decided to take a little break. So I got out of Starbucks, and went for a little walk in the strip mall where the Starbucks was located. Probably because of the demanding nature of my second series practice earlier this morning, and probably also because of the fact that I was wearing some rather heavy walking shoes, I found myself unconsciously walking in a rather slow and deliberate manner in order to conserve energy. I also found myself walking up and down that same strip mall for 15 minutes, because there really wasn't anywhere else to go.

To a bystander, I probably looked rather preoccupied, maybe even a bit sad and lonely, because this middle-aged woman suddenly came up to me out of the middle of nowhere (or so it seemed to me), and remarked, "You look so lonely and sad. It must be hard to be so far from home. Unlike me: All of America is my backyard! Anyway, I've always wanted to go to Hong Kong... great banking industry!"

And then she walked away as suddenly as she had appeared. Hmm... Hong Kong? Banking? I'm guessing she must be referring to HSBC. Which is probably all that some Idaho hill-billy would know about Hong Kong, come to think of it...

What's even more interesting was my reaction to what she said. When I first heard what she said, my very first instinct was to go on the defensive ("How the hell do you know I'm from Hong Kong or from Timbuktu, you $%^#@?"). But I stopped myself from going there, because in some corner of my mind, I was entertaining the possibility that she might be some kind of psychic, or even a holy woman dressed as an Idaho hill-billy who has somehow decided to appear here in Pocatello, Idaho, to test my faith and to possibly magically grant me some siddhi. Best not to offend her, in case she is really a holy woman, I thought to myself.

My second instinct was to say something naughty, like "Well, would you like to make me a little less lonely...?" But, being the sort of person who is generally not quick on the uptake, she was already gone by the time I had come up with this reply in my mind. Come to think of it, if she really was a holy woman, it probably was a good thing that I did not say this, anyway. Being naughty with holy women is generally not a good way to go.

Then again, come to think of it, perhaps I really did look sad and lonely: Reading Nietzsche does that to you. And I think all the backbending I do also puts me in a rather pensive, somewhat sad state of mind at least some of the time. Not sad in a crying-your-eyes-out kind of way. But there's just this sense of accessing and coming into touch with certain feelings and emotions that you did not even know were there, and feeling them.

Anyway, what do you do?... Just another day, I guess...          

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Practice report, what gives?

Haven't been able to get myself to post here at all the last few weeks (wonder why?). It's only now, when I am procrastinating about doing something unpleasant (hint: what do college teachers do a lot of during midterm?), that I finally decided that writing a blog post is probably a little bit less unpleasant than having to do what I am procrastinating about doing.

Since this is supposed to be an Ashtanga blog, I suppose I'll start by saying a few things about my practice. Over the last couple of weeks, I have increased the number of second series postures in my practice while scaling back on primary. Here's the story: After coming back from Lino's Montana workshop last month, I incorporated half tick-tocks into my practice (see previous posts for more details on this). After a few days of doing this, it occurred to me that if I am strong enough to do half tick-tocks, I am probably strong enough to re-incorporate a whole bunch of second series postures back into my practice. Well, here's a little background story: when I moved to Idaho earlier this year, I scaled my practice all the way back to primary only in order to avoid injury. Since then, I have added back a few second series postures, but only up to Ardha Matsyendrasana.

But anyway, after I "received" the half tick-tocks from Lino last month, I started feeling like I might be up to doing more second series postures. I emailed Kino to ask for her opinion on this. She said that if I was feeling energetic after doing whatever I was doing at that point in my practice (which I was), that meant that I was ready to add on more postures. She suggested adding up to Pincha Mayurasana while at the same time scaling back to doing only half-primary in order to focus more on second series. 

So for the last two weeks, I have been following her suggestion, and doing half-primary followed by second up to Pincha. The first few days of this new practice were very interesting (well, actually, it still is, but that's another story). The first couple of days, I had to relearn how to balance in Pincha after not having done it for a year: The first day, for instance, I only managed to find my balance in Pincha on the fourth try.

But the biggest challenge thus far is probably Tittibhasana B. The first couple of days, I found that I couldn't bind in this pose. I consulted Kino about this, and wondered if this was due to added adipose tissue (as Gregor Maehle would put it). But somehow I didn't think that weight/girth was the issue: I can bind both sides in Mari D and Pasasana. Kino suggested that I work on lengthening across the shoulder girdle in the Marichyasanas: She thought it possible that a whole year of doing mainly primary series may have strengthened my rotator cuffs (which is great) at the expense of shoulder flexibility (which may be not so great). So I did accordingly, and tried to visualize my shoulder girdle lengthening across my leg when binding in the Marichyasanas.

The results have been mixed thus far. On "good" days like this morning, I can bind in Tittbhasana B (only at the fingers, wrist-clasping no coming yet...). On not-so-good days, I simply resign/accept the fact that the bind is not going to happen, and I walk up and down five times, looking very silly and foolish while doing so. Well, I suppose this means you won't get to see a video of me in Tittibhasana B anytime soon. But no worries. As some famous Cylon once said, "Do your practice, and all is coming."

"Do your practice, and all is coming." 

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

So I hear that in the last couple of weeks, there was a pretty big debate in some corners of the Ashtanga social-mediasphere/blogosphere around the question of whether unauthorized teachers should be "allowed" to teach Ashtanga, and whether authorized teachers who have supposedly signed some agreement at the time of their authorization not to teach TTs/workshops are breaking their contracts by teaching TTs/workshops.

I was going to write a long-ass post about this, because PJ Heffernan, one of the participants in this dialogue, is a teacher whom I have studied with and whom I greatly respect. But then I decided against it, since I am neither an authorized teacher nor an unauthorized teacher who is trying to teach Ashtanga. I decided that there is just too little skin in the game for me to justify getting myself involved in this debate, which may or may not be about anything important in the end. And it probably isn't, judging from the way things seem to have blown over... I mean, in the end, it's just about a few people blowing off some steam. When the steam/smoke clears, what do we get? The people who believe one thing will continue to believe and do their thing, and the people who believe the opposite will continue to believe and do the opposite. So what gives?

And moreover, the whole "burnt seeds" post that started off the whole thing (I'm too lazy to link to it here, but you can find the post on David Garrigues's blog) just has this annoyingly grating whiney tone to it ("Although I have not been to Mysore and am not authorized, I have studied with a whole bunch of burnt seeds who have. So I should be written into the lineage, and am worth something. If you don't recognize me to be part of the lineage and don't write me into it, you are being elitist/unfair/whatever. Yadayadayada..."). 

Gosh, who the hell is it that writes people into lineages, anyway?... Is it just me, or do we Ashtangis have this tendency to want, dare I say crave, recognition of our worth from others? Why do any of this matter, anyway? I mean, whatever you choose to recognize me as (or not recognize me as), nothing is going to stop me from stepping on my mat every morning and chanting the opening invocation and doing the practice. So again, what gives? Or maybe Ashtangis in the west are all products of the self-esteem movement ("If you don't recognize me to be part of the lineage, my self-esteem will suffer, and if my self-esteem suffers, I won't be able to practice properly, and you are to blame for it..."), and this whole burnt seeds thing is just an extension of the need for self-worth/self-esteem...

Ah well, what do I know? I said I wasn't going to write a long-ass post about this whole thing, but as it turns out, this is becoming long-ass-ish. But I should stop procrastinating and get to doing some real work, the sort of work where I really have some skin in the game. More later--whenever later might be these days.          

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Practice bloopers, the primal potency of breath, movement and vinyasa

During practice this morning, something which had never happened to me before happened: In Prasarita Padottanasana C, while trying to bring my interlaced fingers to the ground, I lost my balance, fell forward, rolled over and landed in that region somewhere between my butt and legs. It didn't hurt at all, but I think it would have been pretty funny to watch, if somebody had been watching. I'm not sure why this happened this morning, when it has never happened in all these years of practice, but I won't try to analyze this here. This makes me think that somebody should maybe put together a Youtube video consisting of practice bloopers (falling out of the prasaritas, falling out of handstand/headstand, landing heavily on one's butt when jumping through into Bhujapidasana... can anyone think of anything else?). Might be fun to watch :-)

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

Tim Miller's latest post on his blog is a great read. He relates his struggles with his Monday evening Intro to Ashtanga class. The entire post is very insightful, but the first few lines caught my attention:

"For the past 25 years I have been teaching an Introduction to Ashtanga Yoga class every Monday at 5:30pm.  This class began when we opened the North County Yoga Center in 1988 as my attempt to initiate beginners into a practice that is very challenging on many levels simultaneously.  Over the years I have attempted to present the practice in a user-friendly format, but if the practice is watered down too much it loses its primal potency."   

That last sentence ("if the practice is watered down too much it loses its primal potency") struck me as being a very apt description of what the practice is about. There is something about moving the body in accordance with the breath and a strict vinyasa count that gives a primal, potent transformative character to the practice. In her book, Sacred Fire, Kino observes that you can't beg, borrow, or fake your way through transformation (I'm paraphrasing here, as I don't have the book with me, but I'll be doing a proper review of the book here soon, so stay tuned). The only thing to do is to move and breathe with the vinyasa count as honestly as you can, and let the practice transform you on its own terms.

At his Montana workshop this past weekend, Lino emphasized the same point as well. He said that, in the early days of his studies with Guruji, he knew nothing about the vinyasa count; he didn't even know the names of the poses! He didn't have to, because he had memorized the sequence of postures, and all he had to do was listen to Guruji's instructions on when to do what during practice. The whole time, Guruji was saying a whole bunch of things in Sanskrit (what we now know as the vinyasa count) that nobody understood anything about. Somewhere in the early nineties, Lino began to spend more time studying with Guruji and asking him questions about the practice and the vinyasa count. And this led eventually to his publication of that book detailing the vinyasa count of the primary and intermediate series which is now almost a bible among many Ashtangis. By the way, Lino has published a new book, which I purchased at his workshop. This new book has the vinyasa count for primary, intermediate, as well as Advanced A and B. It also has a Q&A section at the beginning, in which Lino talks about his experiences with the practice and with Guruji. Perhaps I'll try to share excerpts from this book in future posts.

Anyway... that was a whole bunch of neither-here-nor-there thoughts about everything and nothing about the practice and vinyasa and breath. Maybe I'll have more to say later, but for now, there are a whole bunch of things that I need to get done for the day. So I'll leave you here with these thoughts.    

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Backbends, candy and nuts, upcoming book reviews

This morning, I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana, followed by three UDs and dropbacks and standups, and then went on to commence my daily adventures in half-tick-tocking, doing three half-tick-tocks and standing-up. The tick-tocking itself was more or less the same as yesterday's experience, except that I managed to hold the handstand for a couple of seconds on the second attempt. But considering the fact that I did the second series backbends before coming to tick-tocks, this is probably the most amount of backbending I have done in a single practice. Like ever.

Speaking of second series, I actually did not do any second series at all during the two self practice sessions at Lino's workshop this past weekend. Part of the reason was because I somehow felt it to be more respectful to do only primary in front of a teacher whom I had never practiced with before. The other part of the reason was that I was feeling like I wanted to take it easy and not over-extend/over-exert myself, especially because there's always this tendency to want to impress senior teachers (at least, I have this tendency...). So the primary-only rule was my way of counteracting this tendency. But now, after the workshop, I'm beginning to second-guess my decision here: I can't help but wonder if Lino and his assistants might not have given me some really useful feedback on second series if they had been able to see my second series practice. Ah well... what was that saying?... "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas."

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

I have definitely been feeling the effects of all that backbending today. My quads (especially the left quad) have this nice sore, achy sensation. And there's also this emotional feeling of being open. When I went down to my car to drive to campus, I couldn't help feeling that the sky seemed especially clear (even if it wasn't) and the air especially crisp and fresh (even if it wasn't). So much so, that I couldn't help standing there in the middle of the road and looking up at the sky for a couple of minutes. Then suddenly, I heard a low rumbling sound behind me. I turned around, and saw that it was my neighbor trying to drive past me. I quickly got out of the way. Hmm... yoga does ruin your life, doesn't it? It might cause you to almost get run over by your neighbor :-)

***************    

In other news: Kino has just very generously sent me copies of her books Sacred Fire and The Power of Ashtanga Yoga, along with a CD of chants by her. Hopefully, I will be posting reviews of these books on this blog pretty soon. I know that I am very much behind the bandwagon (is this the correct expression?) on this: Both her books have been out for a while now, and probably millions of people have already reviewed them. But you must know that I am not usually in the reviewing products business; over the last year or so, people have approached me several times to review their products and/or websites on this blog, but I have always declined, because, well, this is not a yoga-product-reviewing website. But Kino is different, because she is, well, Kino. So stay tuned for these upcoming reviews.   

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sleep-deprived half-tick-tocks

I did my practice this morning on about three-and-a-half-hours of sleep. I got back from Bozeman last night at around eight-thirty in the evening. Which wasn't late at all. But I was feeling so jacked up from driving four-and-a-half hours that I just couldn't go to bed right away (being handstanded and half-tick-tocked by Lino earlier in the day probably didn't help either). So I dropped in on a friend, and we drank wine and shot the breeze till past midnight.

I probably could have slept in a little (my first class didn't start till nine), but I was so excited by the prospect of trying the half-tick-tocks that Lino "gave" me that I didn't want to skip practice, even if that meant losing some sleep. So I got myself up at the usual un-Godly hour of four-thirty, did my Buddhist prayers, and hit the mat.

I did full primary, then three Urdhva Dhanurasanas, then three dropbacks and standups. I then proceeded to do the half-tick-tocks. I decided to go balls-out with this, and told myself I'd just kick up into handstand and try to see if I can land on the other side without breaking my back (or breaking something else).

It didn't go too badly at all. My landing wasn't very controlled; there was a pretty loud thump, and the left foot seemed to be taking more of the impact than the right. But I landed on my feet in UD, walked my hands towards my feet a little, and then stood up. I then rinsed and repeated the whole sequence another two times, for a total of three attempts. The subsequent two attempts were exactly the same: Landed more on my left foot than my right, but I landed in UD, and stood up alright.

So I now have more confidence in my ability to land in UD from handstand without killing myself. Now I'll have to work on staying in handstand for a second or two longer, and on having a softer landing. Will keep you guys updated on this as things progress (or not).

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Got handstanded this morning

I suppose the more correct expression would be to say that I got stood on my hands during this morning's practice with Lino. But even this sounds wrong. But anyway, here's what happened. Towards the end of this morning's self practice with Lino, I did three Urdhva Dhanurasanas and three dropbacks and standups. Then I crossed my hands in front of my chest and waited for Lino to come over and drop me back. Lino came over, and asked me if I ever did handstand before. I said no; which is not, strictly speaking, true. I do play with handstands outside of practice now and then, but I knew that Lino was referring to going up into handstand and then dropping back into UD, so I simply said no, this is not part of my regular practice. Anyway, Lino asked me to give it a shot. I kicked up into handstand, Lino caught my feet and guided them part of the way down to the other side, so that my landing into UD from handstand wasn't so hard. And then he stood me up from UD. We repeated this handstand-UD-standup action three times. Then he dropped me back and stood me back up five times, before I went into the finishing sequence.

Now I'm wondering if I should incorporate this half-tick-tock sequence (I'm guessing this is what it's called) into my regular home practice, now that I have a senior teacher's blessing to do it. But then again, I won't have anybody at home to help me to cushion the landing into UD from handstand, so I am a bit hesitant. I suppose I'll come to a decision about this soon. But in the meantime, if you have any feedback and/or suggestions about this, I'll love to hear them.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Q&A, meeting blog readers: Further dispatches from Lino's workshop

Ha! I can't believe I am actually writing my second post in one day, after going for weeks where I would write once a week (or less). But it's been a great day here in Bozeman, Ashtanga-wise, so I thought I should write all this down somewhere before the mood leaves me.

So after lunch today, we had our second session with Lino, which was a Q&A session combined with some pranayama towards the end. Like many other senior teachers, Lino has his fair share of amusing Guruji stories, which he told in his Italian-accented English, complete with priceless lively gestures and facial expressions. I won't try to relate any of these here, as it is impossible to do justice to them in writing; you have to be there in the moment to hear them.

In addition to his Guruji stories, Lino also fielded many questions from the workshop participants. I asked him a couple of questions myself. One question I asked was about whether I should sweep my arms out to the side when coming up into Virabhadrasana A in Surya B (see previous post for more details on this), as I am afraid of hitting the person next to me if I do so. Lino replied by saying that when one sweeps the arms out to the side, one takes in more oxygen, and the pose also has a more energizing effect when done this way. As for the possibility of hitting people, one just has to be more aware of where other people are and what they are doing, in order to prevent hitting them.

All in all, the whole Q&A session was very engaging and enlightening. I'm very sure that all who were there benefited much from Lino's experience and insights.   

After the Q&A session, we had a little party in the parking lot of the building where the studio is in. There was a band playing, and lots of good food. I asked Lino if he would take a picture with me, and he agreed:




I'm guessing you know which one is Lino...

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

For me, one of the coolest things about going to Ashtanga workshops is meeting the readers of this blog unexpectedly. Just before the Q&A started this afternoon, I was sitting in the studio when I overheard a woman behind me talking about some woman named Sarah who lives in Scotland and who practices Ashtanga.

My ears immediately perked up. I turned around and asked, "Do you mean Sarah Durney?" She said yes, and asked me if I know Sarah. I said, "Yes, but only online: I read her blog and she reads mine, but I've yet to meet her in person." "Oh... what's your blog?", The woman asked. "Yoga in the Dragon's Den," I replied (now that I think about it, maybe I should have lied and told her I was Grimmly, just because I'm such a big fan of his blog... do you think I'll be able to pass myself off as an Englishman? :-p). 

Anyway, she replied that she reads my blog. She had visited Sarah in Scotland last month. Sarah told her about my blog, and suggested that she should look out for me at Lino's workshop, since I am the only person who practices Ashtanga (so far as I know) in Pocatello, Idaho... Oh, I suppose I should tell you who this person is: It's really rude to keep referring to someone as "the woman". She is Gretchen Arguedas. She teaches Ashtanga at Sage Yoga  and Wellness in Boise, Idaho. So if you ever find yourself in Boise and want to find somebody to practice with, you know where to go :-) 

After the workshop, I went with a bunch of Ashtangis from Boise and Missoula to a local restaurant for dinner and drinks. Here's Gretchen and I sharing a bottle of wine: 

Well, now you have proof of the fact that I am indeed a bad yogic influence :-) I basically go everywhere influencing people to drink beer and wine...

I am now cautiously optimistic that this workshop may have restored my faith in the value of blogging. I mean, isn't it really cool that people who would otherwise never know one another can be connected by a bunch of electronic signals? Well, I'll leave you with this thought. I should probably sign off now, and try to have an early night, so I can be in the best condition for self practice with Lino in the morning.

Self Practice at Lino's workshop, Saturday September 21st

It's now about 9:20 a.m. in Bozeman, MT. About an hour ago, I finished self practice with Lino and his assistants at his workshop here at the Ashtanga Yoga School of Montana, and am now chilling and writing this post in a coffeeshop.

Self practice a.k.a. Mysore was good. Lino seems to be a very unassuming, no-nonsense kind of person, and he and his assistants do a very good job of working the room and giving adjustments/assists. I got a few interesting adjustments. In addition to the de rigueur adjustment in downward dog that pretty much everybody gets in the Suryas, I also got a few interesting pointers:

(1) In Surya B, one of Lino's assistants stopped me and asked me to redo both Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana A again, and told me that the arms should sweep outward to the sides as they arc up to the final overhead position. Over the last couple of years, I have gotten used to kind of just moving the arms straight up overhead from my torso, mainly for fear of hitting the person next to me if I sweep my arms out to the side. I wonder if there is some kind of anatomical or energetic effect that one can get from sweeping the arms out to the side that one can't get from simply moving them straight up overhead from the torso. Hmm... maybe I'll ask Lino during this afternoon's Q & A.

(2) In Padahastasana, Lino came over and asked me to get out of the posture. He then informed me that my feet were too wide in this pose; without being really conscious of it, my feet have been way wider than hips width in this posture. He told me that the feet should not be wider than the hips. Point taken :-)

(3) As this was my very first time practicing in front of Lino, I decided to just do full primary today. I assumed that also meant that for backbending, I should just do three Urdhva Dhanurasanas, then go into Paschimottanasana. Which is what I did.

But I suppose I should have known better than to think I can get away so easy. When I was in Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), Lino came over, pointed to my feet, and said, "Down! Down!" At first, I thought he meant that my feet were too far over my head in shoulderstand, and that he wanted me to move my feet so that they were more in line with my shoulders. So I tried to follow accordingly, and moved my feet as much above my shoulders as possible without having to get out of shoulderstand. But he still said, "Down! Down!" Which was when I realized that he wanted me to exit shoulderstand altogether. So I exited shoulderstand, and got to my feet. This is roughly how the conversation proceeded from this point: 

Lino: "Did you do three dropbacks and standups?"

Nobel [Ha! Busted!]: "No...I did three UDs and then Paschimottanasana."

Lino: "Okay. Now you do three dropbacks and standups. When you are finished, then you cross your hands in front of your chest like this [he showed me the crossed-hands-in-front-of chest position], and wait for me to come drop you back."

Nobel: "Yes." [What would have happened if I said no, I wonder?...]

So I did as he instructed. And after the three dropbacks and standups, he came over, dropped me back halfway five times. On the fifth time, I dropped my hands all the way to the ground, and he stood me up. And then I went into Paschimottanasana. End of story.

I've noticed that this workshop has attracted a lot of people from all over North America. I drove four-and-a-half hours to get here from Idaho. I noticed somebody who had driven here from Arizona, which is at least ten hours away. And a few other people drove eight hours from Saskatchewan, Canada. Which is not all that surprising, considering Lino's stature as a senior teacher, and the fact that he doesn't come to North America all that often.

That's all I have to say for now. I'm probably going to chill here for a few more hours till this afternoon's pranayama and Q&A session. Maybe I'll visit the used bookstore next door. Bozeman is a really nice town to visit. More later.          

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bozeman, Lino's workshop

It's now around 10: 45 p.m. I am in Bozeman, Montana. I got here a few hours ago, in preparation for Lino's workshop tomorrow morning (for more details on Lino's workshop here in Montana, see this post). Just learned that I am in the earliest batch of Mysore practitioners (actually, Lino calls Mysore "self-practice", but whatever... Tomato, Toe-Mah-Toe, all the same) tomorrrow morning at 7 a.m. And I just broke two cardinal Ashtanga rules: (1) I ate after 9 p.m., because I was just too hungry on arriving in Bozeman, and (2) I had two glasses of wine.

Will there be enough time for the wine and the food to be metabolized into my system by 7 a.m.? Well, there's one way to find out :-) I may or may not post about Lino's workshop while I'm here. Really can't seem to find much motivation to blog these days. But we'll see.

More later.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I am a bad influence (and a bad Ashtangi too)

Today, on the way to teach one of my classes on campus, I ran into a colleague (let's call her K). Here's how the conversation roughly unfolded:

Nobel: Hey, it's you!

K: Nice to see you!

Nobel: Hey, me and Sam (a mutual friend) are meeting at the brewery for Happy Hour at 5 p.m. today. Would you and C (K's partner) like to join us?

K: Sure, why not? We're actually supposed to attend our first yoga class at X yoga studio tonight, but what the hell, there's the rest of the semester to do that, right?

Nobel: Yep. I know I probably shouldn't be saying this [K happens to know that I practice Ashtanga], but you should save the yoga for when things get really stressful later in the semester. And besides, one can do yoga alone, but one shouldn't get drunk alone, no? :-)

K: I agree!

Nobel: Or alternatively, you can do a few Surya Namaskars first before coming to Happy Hour. Who says yoga and beer do not mix? :-)

K: Yep.

Nobel: See you soon!

K: See you.

Given that this is supposed to be a yoga blog and I am supposed to be this dedicated Ashtangi, you can totally see why I am being a really bad yogic influence on K. Moreover, Sharath recently said in some interview somewhere that drinking alcohol goes against yoga... I also seem to recall this blog post somewhere by somebody who said that sticking to a six-day-a week Mysore practice precludes joining her friends for Happy Hour. Well, I am definitely not that somebody; I practice six days a week, but that somehow hasn't caused me to stop going to Happy Hour.  

But then again, maybe if I give up beer, I might finally succeed in getting into Mari D on Sharath's vinyasa count, or grabbing my heels in Kapotasana within the vinyasa count. Or maybe I will finally stop creating all this bad yogic karma, and start scoring enough good yogic karma points to finally make it to Mysore. But maybes are, after all, just maybes. And getting together to drink beer and shoot the breeze is definitely fun. What's a whole bunch of maybes compared to a definitely?

Actually, this may also explain my blogging funk. It's hard to be all yogic and high-and-mighty about being a  good Ashtangi when one is openly and directing contradicting the present lineage-holder, don't you think? Ah well...     

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Double rainbows, the non-virtues of blogging, and Lino's upcoming Montana workshop

Wow, it's been more than two weeks since I wrote anything here. I haven't been that busy, although the beginning of the academic year does bring with it its share of things to make one run around a little more than usual. I think the more significant reason for not blogging is a certain sense of ennui with online interaction: Recently, the idea of churning out a whole bunch of blog posts that are read by a whole bunch of people that I probably will never meet just seems... old and unsatisfying. Why go through the effort of doing that when we can interact with "real" people in real time?

But I see I'm being a downer here. So let's talk about something else. Well, what about this: Yesterday evening, I met a couple of friends for beer at a local brewery. When we came out of the brewery, it was drizzling, the sun was casting a very surreal light on the town, and there was a double rainbow in the sky! It was the first time that I had ever seen a double rainbow. One was brighter and more vivid than the other, which seemed to be a sort of shadow of the first. The brighter one was so full of color and vivid, and stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. Again, this may also be the first time I have actually seen a full rainbow that stretches from one end of the horizon to the other. Should have gone to the other horizon to see if there was a pot of gold there :-) Anyway, my friend took a picture of it, and I have asked her to email it to me. Maybe I will post it here soon.
 
Well, here's another problem with blogging: I just spent an entire paragraph painstakingly describing an experience whose essence has already been carried away and covered in the mists of time: No amount of vivid description will ever bring back that moment. So there is a certain futility about the whole process of blogging (and maybe even the very act of writing in general): We are trying to bring back something that is gone forever, using tools (words) that are hopelessly inadequate to the task. True, there is such a thing as great writing, but one gets the feeling that even great writing does not so much reconstruct the moment as create a new, virtual moment, one that exists only in the consciousness of the reader.

Update: Here are the pictures my friend took of the rainbows:







What do you think? In the bottom picture, you can see a hint of the second "shadow" rainbow. Probably nothing like actually being there and seeing the rainbows for oneself, but still better than just writing about it: As they say, a picture paints a thousand words...

 
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In other news: The weekend after next, I will be attending a workshop with Lino Miele in Bozeman, Montana. This is Lino's only trip to the US this year, and he will be teaching at the newly-opened Ashtanga Yoga School of Montana, which is run by his student Randa Chehab. I am very excited to have this opportunity to meet and study with Lino. If you are unfamiliar with Lino, have a look at my favorite Lino video:


Maybe I will have more useful things to say after attending Lino's workshop, and maybe that will get me out of my present blogging funk. We'll see. More later.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

Post-practice, post-coffee poop; constipation as the mother of philosophy

I think it really shows how uninspired my blogging has become, that I should be reduced to blogging about something that is the byproduct of a byproduct of practice. But then again, all we ever have is this moment in time. The past has gone, the future is yet to be. Only this present moment is really real. Well, at this moment, I am feeling that almost-indescribable feeling of lightness that comes from having taken a substantial poop after having my post-practice espresso. So I thought I'd report this feeling right here, right now on this blog before it gets swallowed up in the river of time.

I suppose that, ideally, according to the Ashtanga Party Line, one is supposed to have done one's pooping before practice, not after. Well, actually, truth be told, I did manage to poop a little before practice this morning. But I sensed that that wasn't all the poop that my body had to produce today. Rather than dwelling on the fact that my body wasn't particularly poop-productive and wasting precious practice time, I decided to just go ahead and practice anyway, come what may. And, as they say, good things come to those who wait. The combination of practice and coffee conspired to give rise to the substantial poop that I had just taken a few minutes ago. Ahhh.... Gives new meaning to "No Coffee, No Prana", don't you think?

I sometimes wonder if at least half of the great philosophers of the western tradition were constipated when they wrote their great works. I don't have any particular reason for thinking this; I'm just speculating. But then again, when was the last time you saw any philosopher smile in his or her portrait? They always look stern and, well, maybe a little constipated. This makes me wonder: If they had pooped more frequently, would they not have been in the state of mind to produce the great works they did? After all, the shit that is in there has to come out one way or the other. If it doesn't come out through the anus, it probably gets sublimated and comes out through the... pen. So, could it be that something as banal as constipation might actually be the mother of philosophy?   

I have no idea why I wrote any of this. As a matter of fact, I will probably come to regret having written this post if I become a great philosopher one day. And then I will have to delete this post, and try to pretend it never existed... but then again, if my theory is correct, and I continue to be as poop-productive as I am now, how will I ever be constipated enough to achieve philosophical greatness? It really is a chicken-and-egg question (or is it really an anus-and-poop question?), isn't it?    

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tuesdays with Nobelji, days of leisure, and the Holy Grail

Happy Moon Day, folks! As you are reading this, you must no doubt be taking a well-deserved break from your Ashtangic labors, doing whatever it is that you do on rest days such as this. I actually did not take a complete break from practice this morning; when I woke up this morning, I was feeling so tight and stiff that I felt that I had to do a few Suryas in order to get through the day. And I did. Perhaps this is a sign that the practice has somehow "hardwired" itself into my system, so that I can't start my day without it. Or maybe this is a sign of not being able to foster non-attachment from the practice; I don't know, whatever works, I guess. These days, I'm starting to think that all this emphasis on non-attachment is really a bit overrated, anyway.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my rate of blogging over the last month has been averaging at around one a week. What's even more interesting is that these once-a-week posts tend to fall on a Tuesday. Makes me wonder if I shouldn't perhaps rename this blog Tuesdays with Nobelji (as in Tuesdays with Timji). But then, of course, I have nowhere near the presence of Tim Miller, so this is probably just me and my grandiosity speaking.

In other news: My days of leisure, of playing online chess and watching seemingly endless seasons of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix, are about to come to an end. The new academic year here in Idaho will begin next week--oh, I guess I never mentioned on this blog that I have been offered a teaching position here at Idaho for another year. Apparently, the good people here have decided that I am not halfway bad as a teacher of philosophy, and have decided to use the services of this itinerant teacher-scholar for another year. Which gives me another year of gainful employment while I continue my quest for that Holy Grail of academia, a.k.a. the tenure-track position. Oh, and speaking of Holy Grail, let's have a quick look at this little clip from what one of my colleagues has termed the Greatest Creation of the Human Mind:


Watching this clip makes me wonder about the state of the blogosphere. I wonder if the blogosphere is also a sort of anarcho-syndicalist commune, minus the voting by two-thirds majority.

But anyway, I see that I have digressed majorly. As I was saying, my days of leisure are coming to an end. Which is just as well. It may well be in the order of things that a good man (or woman) must put the resources from which his prosperity arises to good works, if he or she is to remain in good standing with whoever or whatever is running the universe. This brings to mind these words of Kant: "so paramount is the value of a good will, that it ought not to escape without notice, that an impartial spectator cannot be expected to share any emotion of delight from contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being whom no trait of a good will adorns." (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals)

So it shall be. But in the meantime, I see that this post has been about everything and nothing at the same time. Maybe I shall have something more substantial to say in the next post, whenever that might come (next Tuesday?). In the meantime, enjoy whatever is left of the summer.   

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pain is the House of Ashtanga

[Spoken with Yoda voice] Ah, a very funny thing this blogging is. For most of this month, I have just been averaging about one post a week. But then suddenly, this is the second post for today. The blogging muse is indeed a fickle creature...

Just a few minutes ago, I stumbled upon this article by Anne Finstad, in which she describes Ashtanga yoga as a "House of Pain." As you probably remember, about a month ago, David Garrigues published his by-now-famous blog post on the inevitability of pain in the Ashtanga practice (it's so famous that I'm not even going to link to it here; I bet you have probably read it, like, a thousand times by now). In response to this post, the entire Ashtanga blogosphere was aflame (or should I say "inflamed" :-)) with passionate discussions about whether pain is good/necessary in a "real" Ashtanga practice, how many kinds of pain there are, whether the pain that comes from practice is similar to the pain that comes from poetic creation, and whether some senior Ashtanga teachers might be Cylons (this last one is, of course, entirely my own contribution to the conversation :-)).

Anyway, this article by Finstad is definitely worth a read. She talks about her own experience of pain in the practice in a very honest, heartfelt, no-hyperbole kind of way:

"There was a long time for me, the practice just hurt. I spend my first trip to Mysore having torn a hamstring insert before going. It meant a lot of adjustments from Guruji and made me wonder what was wrong with all of us — especially me. It was not an ideal spiritual journey. It was pure raw pain and it was not only painful it was exhausting. I really was suspicious that Pattabhi Jois was a crazy man and we were all crazy for going to India to go through this. And as many will tell you, he didn’t really explain much to you, he just did it. So there was a great deal or room to wonder.

The thing was, and thank God, that part of the practice wasn’t forever. This magic thing happened where after five years of practice my hips opened. After seven years of practice, my knees stopped hurting. And as people will tell you or you can see if someone sticks with the practice over time and through these things, the body is made new.
It’s not a perfect transformation in all cases and the limits of it are dictated by how we take the practice. But as much as we let it the practice will change us for the better."

One of the first things that hit me when I read this was: "Damn, seven years of knee pain!" Most ordinary human beings I know would probably bail after like, five seconds of knee pain. Seven years? Gosh... But Anne has more to say. Here's the upshot of pain in the practice, according to Anne:

"I am writing this to say that everyone at some point has an experience of pain. We each have an attitude towards our own pain. To me the practice is a good way to start looking at how we approach pain. This discussion isn’t always comfortable, but it is one that a lot of us need to have. To work out how to not seek it, avoid it, or fear it. It’s going to happen, this pain. Just like life is going to happen. Sometimes it calls on us to do something, and sometimes we just need to let it be what it is and not try to fix it.

What the practice teaches me is how to let go of fighting the pain — to move on and through it without hanging on or becoming identified with it. To let pain become another sensation that educates me, to change my behavior, or to accept what is.

This, rather than just putting my foot behind the head, is yoga."

I hope you find Anne's article as edifying as I do... but--and I'm pretty sure you are already suspecting this, but I have to say it anyway--this also means that Anne Finstad is probably also a Cylon. How else could anybody live with knee pain for seven frakking years? 

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But here's a different way of looking at this whole pain-and-Ashtanga-yoga business. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously proclaimed that "Language is the house of Being." I'm no Heidegger scholar, and am therefore unable to tell you what Being is (maybe Grimmly can, but he's on the beautiful island of Crete, soaking in the sunshine and taking in wonderful yoga instruction from Manju... and who wants to read and talk about Heidegger while on vacation?). But as a very convenient (albeit somewhat bastardized) shorthand, you can think of Being as being akin to the Tao or the Force of Star Wars.

So language, according to Heidegger, is the place where Being/Tao/the Force is most at home, and reveals itself most readily to us. But this revealing cannot take place by trying to wrench meaning out of words by linguistic analysis. Being can only reveal itself to us when we are open enough in our being for language to unfold itself through us. Heidegger's favorite example is that of the poet. The poet does not work with language by analyzing it or trying in some way to force meaning out of it. Rather, he allows the muse to speak to him and, in so doing, becomes an open conduit through which language and Being unfolds itself through him.

If none of this makes much sense to you, it's not you: It's probably a combination of the fact that I am both not a Heidegger scholar and also a very bad poet. But where's the connection to Ashtanga here? Well, consider this: What if Pain is the house of Ashtanga? In other words, what if it is through the language of pain that the truth or Tao or whatever of Ashtanga reveals itself to us? In other words, could it be that Pain is the House of the Being of Ashtanga? Yeah, I know, all this is very awkwardly put (I told you I was a bad poet...), but hopefully, you get my drift here.

But if all this is true, wouldn't this mean that practicing Ashtanga is a form of poetic creation, so that in practicing Ashtanga, we are doing poetry with our minds and bodies? Ha! So the pain of Ashtanga is really akin to the pain of poetic creation, after all. Well, shows what I know, right? ;-)     

Sharath in Copenhagen


Most of you probably have already seen this video which was first posted on Youtube three days ago. As of a few minutes ago, it already has more than 8000 views. But I thought I'd post it here anyway, in case you haven't seen it or want to see it again. In this video, Sharath discusses what the practice is about, and the place of asana in the yoga practice. There are a few new stories he hasn't previously shared before (to my knowledge). For instance, there is that very entertaining story of him doing kapotasana in a tent in Africa while a lion is prowling outside; I did not know he has been to Africa.

But many of the things he shares here are not new, but are worth listening to and pondering over again, if only to put our personal practice and struggles into perspective. For instance, he recounts how he used to get up at 2:30 in the morning to drive across Mysore to practice alone with Guruji. Nobody except Guruji knew what he was doing, but he did this for years anyway. Gives me a new perspective on my home practice; I don't get up at 2:30, but I have to admit that there are days when I get up and think to myself, "Really? I really have to put myself through all these physical contortions again?" At moments like these, it's good to remember that there are others who have been on, and are still walking on, the same path.

Anyway, that's enough editorializing from me. I hope you enjoy the video.