Thursday, January 31, 2013

Getting published, Pomp and Circumstance, and the Pink Umbrella Man

A couple of days ago, a student in one of my classes asked me if I knew any philosopher who held the view that we can never really know who we really are (I'm guessing she was probably fishing for information that might make her look smart at parties.).

My first thought on hearing this question was, "Gosh, you have pretty much named every single philosopher worth his or her salt, starting from Socrates all the way to Sartre!" But I didn't say this; I kind of waffled a little, and gave her some neither-here-nor-there response (the only other alternative I could see would be to subject her to an impromptu lecture on the history of western philosophy right there and then, and I wasn't quite ready to do that...). She replied by smiling politely ("What a intellectual wimp this guy is; can't even give a straight answer to such a simple question!" she might well be thinking), and we went on with the rest of the class.

The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that this student had not realized the magnitude of the question she had unwittingly stumbled upon in her quest to be the life of the party. Let me give you a very recent example from my own life which will illustrate this philosophical conundrum. Earlier today, I was notified via email that my paper on procrastination (for more details, see this post) had been accepted, with minor revisions, for publication in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal. This is, to date, my first "real" publication. Which makes me now an officially published scholar! [Cue Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance.]

Needless to say, I am feeling very pompous and self-important right now. But here's what's really interesting: Looking back, I realize that the bulk of this paper was written in the first half of last year (2012), when shit was really hitting the fan in my professional life. It's really interesting, because as far as I was concerned, all I could see at that time was the shit that was hitting the fan. But unbeknownst to me, underneath the shitty surface, creative forces were brewing and percolating. So you could say that I did not know the full extent of what was going on in my life at the time, and therefore, you could also say that I did not know myself.

And indeed, if we think about this a little more, when do we ever really know ourselves in the entirety of our inglorious being? All we ever see most of the time are the surface ripples of our everyday being. Perhaps, in moments of unusual lucidity (maybe when you are in your deepest Kapotasana), we might get a glimpse of the subterranean depths underlying everyday being. But for the most part, we just kind of get swept around by things on the surface, and go with the flow as best we can, while the subterranean depths continue to do their work on us...

I'm not entirely sure what else I can say about all this right now, other than to congratulate that student for hitting on the right question, even if she did this with the not-so-noblest of intentions... Well, maybe I'll go eat a big Mexican dinner, and indulge in my self-congratulatory pompous state of mind while it lasts (as you might already know if you read this blog regularly, I don't get to experience these states of mind all that often). More later.


In other news: Speaking of pomp and circumstance, I just stumbled upon this Youtube video featuring the Pink Umbrella Man of Santa Cruz, California. I've never heard of him before, but apparently, he's like the local meditative sage of Santa Cruz. Check this out:

Intriguing, don't you think? One of the commenters on this video said that he used to be a college professor... wonder what happened? Did he finally see the light, saw the futility of the whole academic rat race, and decided that experiencing enlightenment is much more valuable than talking and theorizing about it? But why the pink umbrella outfit?

Anybody reading this from Santa Cruz? Care to fill us in about this person?


In yet other news: I will be attending an Ashtanga workshop with Randa Chehab, the owner of Down to Earth Yoga in Bozeman, Montana, on the weekend of February 15th to 17th. Randa has just returned from her annual studies with Lino Miele in Kovalam, India, and will be sharing her knowledge with all who come to the workshop. I just got off the phone with her, and she is really excited about having me there. I am also very excited, not least because this will be my first Ashtanga workshop in almost two years. I will try to share my experiences there on this blog after the workshop. Stay tuned!   

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Is there anything wrong with asana for asana's sake? Or, Ode to Fancy Asanas

I just read this very illuminating and entertaining post that Shanna wrote about whether there is anything wrong with doing asana for asana's sake. Here's Shanna's take on this sticky issue:

"...what the hell is wrong with sometimes doing the the asana for asana's sake? The human body is a beautiful and amazing vehicle that we are only leasing for a short time. Not  having fun with it and testing its limits is like owning a Bugatti (one of the world's fastest cars), and never driving it past 50 mph because going from A to B does not require it." [for a visual of what a Bugatti actually looks like, check out Shanna's post]

To this, I would add: Unlike a Bugatti, which can presumably run for a very long time if you take good care of it, there are probably only a certain number of years the human body can do fancy asanas (whatever your personal definition of "fancy" might be). So all the more reason to do fancy asanas (and enjoy doing them) while your body still can. The key, of course, is to do asanas and enjoy doing them without becoming attached to their perfection, or becoming attached to the idea of holding on to them and being able to do them forever. This, I think, is the ultimate life lesson to be gained from doing fancy asanas: In life, one will have and experience nice/fancy things. There is no need to deny them their place in the sun. Enjoy them when you have them. But be prepared also to gracefully relinquish them when it's time to let them go. At the end of the day, it is better to have and then to lose/not have, than to not have had at all. Because if one has never had anything, how can one learn to lose gracefully and with equanimity?

But perhaps some people might still insist that asana is nevertheless unnecessary for our practice. Surely, it may be said, if the goal of yoga is self-realization, and the goal of asana is to make the body a fit vehicle to pursue this goal, surely we wouldn't need to be able to, say, put our leg/s behind our heads in order to render our bodies fit enough to pursue such a goal? So isn't asana then redundant/unnecessary, even from the point of view of yoga? I love Shanna's response to all this. She writes:

"If you really want to get in the weeds, there are a lot of things we do in our lives that are totally unnecessary.  If we are going to cut out "unnecessary poses", lets cut out all the other unnecessary stuff too. Get rid of your computer,tablets,TVs, I-phones, & other technology gadgets. Narrow your clothing down to two or 3 outfits and a pair of shoes. Get rid of your yoga mats, blocks, & straps because really you can practice yoga without them. Cut your diet down to Kale(it has protein, calcium, omega 3 &6) and water because that is about all you need to live. When you have sex, only do it doggy style or missionary because that is all is really necessary to procreate. Only have one child because that is really all you need to continue your line. This ridiculous list can go on and on. The point is, there are alot of unnecessary things we do in life just because it is harmless, fun, exhilarating and we love it." 

I couldn't help laughing out loud when I read this, especially (I have to admit) the part where she writes, "When you have sex, only do it doggy style or missionary..." Hmm... why doggy style as opposed to any other position? Are there any scientific studies out there that show that doggy leads to a higher procreation rate? Anybody know anything out there? But well, since this is a yoga blog and not a sex blog, I'll leave it at this. But I can't help being curious, nonetheless (things like this sometimes make me wonder if I should start a sex blog to explore trivial sexual questions like this one... is writing a sex blog somehow incompatible with writing a yoga blog?).

But I digress. I guess I'll end here by saying that I am in agreement with Shanna that there is nothing wrong with doing asana simply because "it is harmless, fun, exhilarating and we love it." So long as we also work at not being attached to them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Patron Saint of Yoga in the Dragon's Den, Hanumanasana, seeing/flirting with other yoga

Last Saturday afternoon, on the spur of the moment, I decided to do some lunges to open up my psoas and quads, which were feeling a bit tight from sitting too long in front of my computer (yes, this is a common occupational hazard of blogging ;-)). I looked around a little on Youtube, and found the above video by Kino, whom Grimmly refers to affectionately in a recent post as "the treasured patron saint of the Home Ashtangi." Speaking of patron saints, I have recently also begun to wonder if Kino might not have become the unofficial patron saint of Yoga in the Dragon's Den as well; if you look at the blog labels at the bottom of this blog, you will find that "kino" comes up the second most number of times, after "practice." But maybe I shouldn't say this, lest somebody out there sees me as being a Kino-worshipper (which, in the minds of some of her detractors, may well be akin to being a devil-worshipper...). Hmm... does making a famous Ashtanga teacher the patron saint of one's blog constitute an "Ashtanga crime"? ;-)

But enough of these random ramblings. As I was saying, I did some lunges last Saturday afternoon. After watching Kino's video above, I did a few Surya As to warm up, and then proceeded to do a few of the lunges in the sequence featured in the video. But by about halfway through the sequence, I felt that my psoas and quads were already so open. And then a possibly criminal thought occurred to me: "You know, since you are already so open, why not do something more... advanced? Like, you know, Hanumanasana?"

As many of you who are familiar with the sequence of Ashtanga postures will know, Hanumanasana (a.k.a. the western split) occurs in Ashtanga at the end of the third series. And I haven't even completed second series! But, overcome by the devilish influence of my criminal mind, I decided to give Hanumanasana a shot anyway (the posture, by the way, is not new to me: In my pre-Ashtanga days, Hanumanasana was one of my favorite postures. But I have not performed the pose since becoming a "law-abiding" Ashtangi.). I proceeded to do it on the first side, with the right leg extended out in front of me. It was... alright. Didn't get very deep into it; there were probably two or three inches remaining between my groin and the mat. Given that I had only done Surya As and a few lunges for warmups, I also decided not to push my luck; whenever I do Hanumanasana, which is not very often, there is always, in the back of my mind, that story of a young Mr. Iyengar ripping his hamstrings in this posture because Krishnamacharya ordered him to do it, and Iyengar had not mastered the posture at the time. So I always approach Hanumanasana with a certain degree of fear and trembling :-)

But then I tried the second side. I extended my left leg in front of me, slid it forward, and voila! the entire length of both my legs and my groin were touching the mat! Which came as a surprise to me, because historically, my right leg had always been the more flexible leg. But even though I was doing the full expression of the pose on this second side, I wasn't feeling as comfortable in it as I would have if I were warmer. So I stayed in the posture for five rather short breaths, and then exited the posture. And then I went into a brief savasana to complete this mini-practice.

So on that afternoon, I did two things that are not "kosher" in Ashtanga: (1) I did a posture I have not been "given", (2) I did it out of sequence. Hmm... does this mean I was seeing other yoga? Or perhaps just flirting with/kissing other yoga? I don't really know the answers to these questions (or maybe I do, but I refuse to admit that I do...). But maybe you do? Feel free to share your thoughts on this and other matters, if you have any.          

Monday, January 28, 2013

Guruji, Coffee, Prana, Light on Yoga

I just read Guy Donahaye's latest blog post, in which he discusses what he knows of Guruji as a person, and also says a few things about the infamous "No coffee, no prana" mantra that is so often attributed to Guruji. Guy begins by making some general observations about Guruji:

"...we have to recognize that Guruji was not a renunciate yogi sitting in a cave but a family man with his likes and dislikes and even pleasures. Guruji loved coffee as well as chocolate, gold, gems and many other material things. That is not to say he was overly attached, but though an extraordinary human being he was also an ordinary one.

I think this is one of the reasons we were attracted to him. He lived life and experienced pleasures and pain, ups and downs, but in all this he generally displayed equanimity...." 

Guy then says the following about the relationship between Guruji, coffee, and prana/apana:

"So Guruji did have some attachments and one of these was coffee, Sharath also loves coffee (and so do I). But if we look at what is designated as yogic food, coffee is definitely not considered to be sattvic - rather, we have to say coffee is rajasic in nature. It is completely antagonistic to meditation and the limbs of yoga and stimulates extroverted rather than introspective activity.

The word rajasic is often used pejoratively to describe someone who is unstable, passionate and unsavory in some way, but the word rajas simply means movement or action. To understand the meaning of yoga, some familiarity with the Gunas is required. The three Gunas are principally the qualities of mind, whereas the three doshas are the qualities of the body. Rajas, tamas and sattva - these are the qualities of mind - rajas means activity or disturbance, tamas means inertia or ignorance and sattva means tranquility and intelligence...

No coffee no Prana?

This was one of Gurui's humorous quips. It is a joke and not meaningful, but unfortunately has been taken up as one of his catch phrases.

There is a common misconception about Prana. Prana is not energy as we usually think about it. We do not absorb Prana from food or respiration as is commonly stated. In fact Prana is not even equated with inhalation, but rather governs exhalation. Physical energy absorbed from food is not Prana. Prana subsists on a different plane. Prana is the vehicle through which Purusa (spirit) animates the mental and bodily functions - it is the life force.

Prana enters the physical body at conception and leaves at death. It does not increase or decrease with respiration, eating or physical activity. It's actions in the body are facilitated by the qualities of the foods we eat or the actions we take but its quantity is not changed by or equivalent to the amount of food we eat or the air we breathe. Prana is subdivided according to its functions in the body and mind. The undifferentiated Prana can be equated to sattva - it's inclination is to move up or remain in the head region, whereas, when we are inclined towards extroverted activity it moves down, as does tamas - as it moves down it is called apana. Apana governs inhalation (which is a downward movement in the body) as well as elimination of waste products through urination, excretion and menstruation. For most yoga practitioners, coffee is used for the impact it has on going to the bathroom before practice. Hence rather that stimulating Prana, coffee changes Prana into apana."

I have to admit that I am one of those people who have the kind of misconception about prana that Guy mentions above. I've always thought of prana rather simplistically as life energy, and coffee as a substance that somehow creates more prana in the system.

But if Guy is correct (and if I understand him correctly), then each of us is born with a fixed amount of prana in this life. The difference lies in what we do with ourselves to facilitate its actions in the body and mind in a productive manner. When we move around and do things--as we surely must do in order to function in this world-- prana becomes apana, and apana is manifested, in turn, either as activity (rajas) or as inactivity (tamas). The key, as I understand it, is to find ways and means to move apana in such a way as to facilitate lightness and intelligence (sattva) in our being rather than ignorance and inertia (tamas).

I'm honestly not entirely sure that I really get all this: I'm still kind of thinking things through and trying to process stuff as I am writing all this (you could also say that I am trying to move whatever apana that is in my head in the direction of light and intelligence rather than in the direction of ignorance and inertia!). But I think at least one thing remains clear: Even if Guruji did not literally mean that coffee is prana, it may still be a good idea to drink it before practice, if doing so will help you to achieve lightness of bowel and body before you start practice :-) Perhaps in this way, coffee can literally help move apana in the direction of lightness, by helping you to overcome whatever inertia might be in the bowels and achieving that much-desired pre-practice bowel movement. Now, doesn't this give new meaning to Light On Yoga? :-)

[Image taken from here]

P.S. Note to Iyengar practitioners: Please do not be offended by my rather , uh, light treatment of this classic by Mr. Iyengar. I'd be happy to issue an apology and perhaps even remove that last line, if you so desire. But why take things more heavily than we need to? 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

An Open Letter to Sharath about Kino's Mysore video

Some of you may be aware that Kino has recently been on the receiving end of some negative reactions, both in social media and in the "real" world, over a video about practicing Ashtanga yoga in Mysore that she made about six months ago. Apparently, some Ashtangis who were in the video were offended because Kino did not ask for their permission before filming them doing their practices (for more details about the whole thing, see the January 22nd posts on Kino's Facebook page). Anyway, here is the video in question:

I cannot speak for anybody else's feelings, but as far as I am concerned, the video is very well-made. It is both aesthetically captivating and very educational. If nothing else, it gives somebody like me who has yet to make it to Mysore a close-up and intimate view of what practicing in Mysore is like, and conveys very powerfully the spirit of going to the source of this practice to deepen one's practice.

Based on what I feel, and on my desire to support Kino in her wonderful work that she is doing, I recently decided to write a letter to Sharath expressing my support for Kino's action with regard to this video. Kino has also graciously given me permission to publish this letter here, so that more people can understand what is going on, and her intentions in making this video in the first place. So here goes. 


A Letter about Kino MacGregor's video about practicing Ashtanga Yoga in Mysore

Dear Sharath,                     
                     I practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, and I live in the United States. I have been a student of Kino MacGregor for the past two years. I live in Pocatello, Idaho, and practice mostly by myself at home, as I am not close to any Ashtanga shala. But I travel to study with Kino whenever I am able to. She is a very dedicated teacher who has given much of herself for the well-being of her students, and in order that more people can come to take benefit from this wonderful method that Guruji has given us. Personally, I also hope to go to Mysore to study with you in the near future, when I have overcome my career and immigration problems in this country.

I am writing you today to voice my support for a video about Mysore that Kino made about six months ago. I attach the video to this email.

I recently learned that some Ashtangis have been offended by this video, ostensibly because they were filmed doing their practices in the shala without their permission. I cannot speak for other people, but I really feel that this video is a wonderful production that is both aesthetically beautiful and educationally valuable. As somebody who has never been to Mysore, I cannot tell you how much I have learned about what practicing at the shala is like from watching this video, and how much this video has strengthened my desire to go there myself someday. From the many positive comments about this video that are on the Youtube page, I believe many people also feel the same way as I do. As such, I believe this video does a great service to the Ashtanga community around the world.

I hope you will take all this into consideration, and regard this project in a favorable light, even though a few people are offended by it. Personally, I also feel that if these people were offended, they could have contacted Kino and voiced their feelings to her personally, rather than publicly jeopardize a project that is offering so much to so many people who are not able to go to Mysore at this moment.

I thank you for reading this email and considering my opinion. I hope to meet you soon.

Nobel Ang
Pocatello, Idaho

Sometimes I feel like I live in a cocoon

Following my previous post about reading Hemingway in Hooters, I got very curious, and decided to go online to find out if there are any Hooters restaurants outside of North America. To my astonishment, I discovered that there are actually a whole bunch of Hooters outside the U.S., and furthermore, that the first Hooters restaurant outside the United States was actually opened in Singapore (where I was born and grew up) in 1996! Did you know that? But why would you? But still, things like this make me realize that I live in a sort of cocoon/bubble. But then again, I've never really been a big fan of wings, so why would I know this? Well, I guess it's just a bit disconcerting to suddenly discover that something that I thought was unique to North America had actually existed back where I came from the whole time...

Ha! Now I'm starting to wonder if there's a Hooters in Mysore too... or is this too sacrilegious a thought to even entertain? If so, please accept my apologies. Actually, this is probably impossible, given the rather strict dress codes of Indian women. What was I thinking? In any case, even if, per impossibile, there were really a Hooters in Mysore, what would they serve there? Vegan wings?

At any rate, it must be the late hour that has prompted this post that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with yoga. Yoga in the Dragon's Den will soon return to its yoga content/programming. Please try to ignore this disruption, and continue to stay tuned.       

Friday, January 25, 2013

How Ashtanga turns you into a boring homebody; Or, don't go to Hooters if you want to read Hemingway

Practice this morning was great. Since the beginning of this week, I have been gradually re-incorporating second series back into my practice after doing primary only for the last month in order to adjust myself energetically to my new habitat. This morning, I did full primary and second up to Bhekasana. In Bhekasana, I went really deep, and got a really nice therapeutic stretch in my left quads. Which was especially nice, because honestly, I was a little nervous about reincorporating Bhekasana, because I had injured my left knee before in this pose. Goes to show that the same asana can be either healing or damaging, depending on whether you approach it with sufficient respect.

Practice this morning was also great in part because I did not end up going anywhere last night. I had wanted to go somewhere where I could sit down, have a glass of wine or a beer, and read without being seen as weird. But it's actually not so easy to find such a place. I mean, who goes to a bar or restaurant to read? Things may be different on the other side of the Altantic, but I can't remember the last time I saw somebody in this country go to a bar or restaurant just to have a drink and read (well, actually, I can remember such a time. See below for more details.) And, as far as I know, none of the coffeeshops in this college town where I'm now at serve alcohol...

Oh no, one more Ashtanga criminal confession here: I drink alcohol! Help... Actually, here's something else that might provide more ammunition to aspiring Ashtanga-bashers out there: Apparently, after you have practiced Ashtanga for a while, you lose the ability to celebrate your birthday like "normal" people do. You just kind of sit at home, drink wine or beer, read, and/or write inane blog posts like this one which people may or may not bother to read. In other words, Ashtanga turns you into a boring homebody with no life!

But, truth be told, I'm more inclined to think that this may be more a problem with our culture than with Ashtanga. I mean, what does it say about a culture that sees going somewhere to have a beer and read as "weird"? Or is this just me and my projections? I don't know...

But I like to think that I'm actually speaking from personal experience here. Here's a story that may be worth telling. Back in the fall of '99, when I was still a, ahem, strapping young man, I attended the University of Texas at Austin for one semester as an exchange student. That was the first time I lived in this country by myself; before that, I had only been to these United States once, with my parents on a vacation when I was thirteen...

Anyway, here's the story:  On a certain fateful fall day in Austin, I wandered into this nice little restaurant with the word "Hooters" emblazoned in bright orange over the door. I had absolutely no idea what Hooters was about at that time, so imagine my, well, pleasant surprise when I saw the uniform of the servers; you must also remember that I was at that time a hot-blooded young man who had no idea what Brahmacharya was... (btw, if you do not live in North America, and have no idea what Hooters is about, this might give you some idea.) Perhaps it was the picture of the owl in the Hooters emblem, but I was under this naive impression that this was an establishment that would be friendly to people who like to read while eating or drinking. So I ordered a bunch of wings, sat back, whipped out a book (I even remember that it was Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms"), and started reading away. A few minutes later, a shrill voice above my head chirped, "No sleeping in here!" In case you're wondering, no, it's not the owl: It was one of the pleasantly-uniformed servers, ostensibly reminding me in her dixie accent (is this politically correct?) what the purpose of the establishment was (or, in this case, was not). I was such a dork, I actually said, "No, I'm not sleeping; I'm reading (what, you can't see?)!" I can't remember what happened after that; I have this picture in my head of her slinking away with a little pout on her face, but this may be a totally reconstructed memory/fantasy with no connection whatsoever with any true remembrance of things past...

I don't know what the point of this story is (Don't go to Hooters if you want to read Hemingway?). Anyway, this is becoming an all-over-the-place, neither-here-nor-there post. So I probably should quit now, while the going is still (relatively) good. More later.     

Thursday, January 24, 2013

'Tis the season...

For dissing/bashing Ashtanga and/or the Ashtanga Police, at least if this recent post on Elephant Journal by Jean Marie Hackett is any indication. I couldn't help chuckling to myself and also at the author of the post as I read it. You know, this Ashtanga-bashing/Ashtanga-police-bashing thing, it seems to be a seasonal thing in the blogosphere. Over the past couple of years, I've noticed that there are certain times every year when Ashtanga or Ashtanga-police bashing seems to be very prevalent in the yoga blogosphere. Then it kind of goes away, only to resurface in some form or other later in the year. And actually, it's not all bad; I actually find a lot of it to be very entertaining, especially when people use relationship language (falling in/out of love with Ashtanga, breaking up with Ashtanga, seeing other yogas, etc., etc.) to describe their tumultous relationship to this practice that we all love... oh wait, maybe I shouldn't speak for all who read this blog. Well, let me amend that, then: this practice that I love. How's that?

Anyway, quite a few people in the blogosphere (including Patrick and sereneflavor) have already said quite a bit about this latest round of Ashtanga muck-raking, so I won't say much more here. I'll just say two things here to Jean Marie Hackett, and to any other aspiring Ashtanga muck-rakers out there:

(1) If you want to eat dinner late (and eat a very heavy one, at that), please consider inviting me. I don't publicize this very much, as I am supposed to be an Ashtanga fundamentalist, but I am actually one of those "Ashtanga criminals" who often eat dinner pretty late (i.e. after 7 p.m.) Why? Because I just can't stand going to bed hungry. It hasn't really affected my practice too much, although I sometimes wonder whether I would have been able to get it up in Karandavasana by now if I quit eating dinner so late. Oh well. As they say, you gain some, you lose some, right? :-) But anyway, if you are also an Ashtanga criminal like me (and I am using this term in a tongue-in-cheek manner, just so you know), and you feel like having a partner in gastronomic crime will help you to feel less guilty about being so criminal, please, please invite me to dinner (gosh, how much more shameless can I get at trying to get myself invited to dinner?).

(2) I suspect that life will be easier if we take things just a little more lightheartedly. I mean, the practice is hard enough as it is. Why make it harder by beating yourself up for every little thing that you do that may not conform to the exacting standards of the so-called Ashtanga Police? You eat meat? Okay... so what? Maybe you will quit eating meat sometime in the future, when you are ready to do so. Or maybe you won't. One way or the other, life goes on. You get to live another day, and (maybe) practice another day. You are seeing other yoga? Who cares? I mean, is yoga-infidelity even a crime? Anyway, you get the picture. Nobody is a perfect Ashtangi. So what sense is there in trying so hard, and then beating yourself up when you "fail"? Unless, of course, you are one of those people who enjoy mentally flagellating yourself. In which case I don't know what to say to you (Uh... get some help, maybe?).


'Tis also the season for a little self-reflection. You see, I turned 37 today. Yes, I was born on January 24th 37 years ago. So I am now officially in my late thirties. Scary...  Ah, what have I accomplished in 37 years on this planet?... I didn't even do anything today to celebrate. I just went to campus as usual. Taught my usual Thursday morning class, and then did jack shit for the rest of the day.

But something very nice did happen this morning. After class, a student came up to me, and told me I was doing a great job. She liked how I seemed to be pretty good at handling tough questions from what she saw as difficult students. I told her that I actually love being put on the spot by "difficult students"; at any rate, I actually think the best philosophy students are "difficult" students, people who simply won't stop firing questions at the teacher. In any case, I'd rather people ask me tough questions than have to lecture on and on to a class of unresponsive students.

You know, it's things like this that make me feel that teaching philosophy is worth the trouble, even if my present career outlook is very tenuous and uncertain. I've always believed that if you try to do what you do well today, tomorrow will take care of itself.

That said, maybe I will go have a big dinner to celebrate anyway. I might feel like shit during practice tomorrow. But I know I won't be alone... :-)      

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

David Garrigues on Guruji, pain and injury; Sharath on not being able to go to India

I just watched this recent video by David Garrigues, in which he talks about the place of pain and injury in Ashtanga yoga. He starts by talking about aligning the shoulder girder properly to prevent shoulder injuries. But he then switches gears and declares that there is a certain karmic component to injury; as he puts it, "you cannot have a long intense relationship with Ashtanga yoga without some kind of injury happening." Injury may arise in the course of your Ashtanga career due to moments of carelessness, genetic weaknesses, or the presence of certain lifestyle factors that impinge upon your practice, or other factors that are simply beyond our control. Whatever the case may be, we should not think that it is "wrong" to be hurt, or that being injured in the course of practice is somehow a yogic sin. David also brings up some funny Guruji stories about injury and pain; I won't go into the details here. I'll leave you to listen to them for yourself in the video.


I just read this very detailed report of Sharath's latest conference (Sunday January 20th). Here's something from the report that really struck a chord with me:

"One student asked Sharath what one is to do if they cannot afford to come study in India, but want to have and maintain a dedicated practice. I loved his answer to this question. We can afford cell phones and nice meals, nice clothes, etc but we cannot afford yoga? He spoke of so many of his students who make tremendous sacrifices to come study with him each year, bringing their children, sacrificing many things to ‘find’ the money to come to India and study with him b/c they want to learn the truth of what is yoga, they want to learn this practice properly under his guidance. If so many of these people can do, everyone can do. So many families coming now brining their children, uprooting their lives to come learn proper practice, to understand this yoga, to show their dedication for this practice, this lineage – if parents can make such tremendous sacrifices and bring their children, it is possible for anyone to do. He chuckled and advised someone to skip one meal per day for some time until they saved enough for the trip."  

Hmm... now I can't help but wonder what Sharath would say about not being able to come study in India because of immigration and career issues? I have a few pictures in my head as to what he might say, but I'm not going to put it out here just yet, since I don't know him personally, and it is rude (not to mention fruitless) to guess what people would say to your personal situation when you don't know them personally. But I can't help wondering, nonetheless...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Can yoga deliver us to a promised land beyond the intellect? Or, a not-quite-review of Carol Horton's Yoga Ph.D

I just read this Elephant Journal review by Jay Winston of Carol Horton's book, Yoga Ph.D (which I, incidentally, have not read, but will hopefully do so soon, when my procrastinating self gets around to it). Since I haven't read Carol's book, I can't really say anything about it, much less recommend it to you. But the title and subtitle of the book ("Integrating the life of the mind and the wisdom of the body") sounds too intriguing and intellectually tantalizing not to make it worth a read at some point. So, well, I guess I am recommending the book anyway. :-)

But back to Winston's review. Like me, Winston also first began practicing yoga in graduate school. It seems to me that the things that drew him to yoga, as well as his motivations for practicing, are quite similar to mine. For instance, Winston writes:

"I first got into yoga as a graduate student—more specifically, a graduate student on the edge of losing the mind I was trying so hard to cultivate...

To bleary bifocaled eyes, the local studio seemed a calm happy oasis in the harsh, deconstructive deserts of my overly intellectualized existence. In place of the valorization of the intellect above all, body and spirit—whatever the hell that meant—were nurtured. From a place where distance from one’s subject was considering essential, on the mat, knowledge was largely experiential, the test subject always oneself. In stark contradistinction to a milieu where it would be embarrassing to admit that I found the books I planned on dedicating my life to studying personally meaningful or moving, feeling was held in higher esteem than thinking. Never mind that I hated downward facing dog.

Still, it wasn’t until after I got fed up and left academia that my practice got serious. And then, crotchety intellectual that I remain, I couldn’t help but start thinking about it, and soon realized that, yes, it is probably a good thing to try to feel more and think less if you’re seriously going to try and swallow the ludicrous affirmations and blatant contradictions that pass for so much of popular yoga philosophy.  (And, y’know, seriously, in a society where most people are doing their best to avoid knowing about looming environmental catastrophe because it’s depressing, what could be more appropriate than making a conscious effort to think even less so we that can enjoy the simple pleasures of our conspicuous consumption?)"

There is much here that speaks to me personally. With the benefit of some hindsight, I can say that one of the main things that attracted me to yoga in the first place was my perception that in the yoga practice (and in yoga blogging as well) heart matters as much as mind, if not more. As Winston puts it, "feeling was held in higher esteem than thinking." As yogis, we do not hold feelings in high esteem in order to psychologically or psychiatrically evaluate them at a detached intellectual distance; at least, we are not supposed to do that. In other words, there is no intellectual agenda. Or, to put it in yogic terms, we simply let ourselves be in the present moment with our feelings without evaluating or judging them.

If I may be so bold as to speak for other people, I believe that it is this apparent lack of an intellectual agenda that attracts many people in our overly-analytic world--a world which holds that anything that is of value or that is worth taking seriously has to be analyzable in materially-quantifiable terms--to yoga. Actually, come to think of it, this may also explain why the majority of people who practice yoga in this country are folks who have a certain amount of formal education. Many of these people may also possess advanced degrees (I happen to know one of these people very, very well...). Which stands to reason; people who are most likely to be disenchanted and distrustful of intellectual agendas are people who have spent a big part of their lives following or even contributing to these intellectual agendas, and who have realized that no amount of materially-quantifiable intellectualizing can get us anywhere close to the ultimate nature of reality, or help us come to terms with our place in the order of things, whatever that might amount to. It is in such a space of disenchantment with and distrust of the mind that yoga enters into these people's lives, and promises a more heartfelt and heart-ful way of exploring and understanding self and reality.

The obvious question to ask here would be: Has yoga delivered on its promise? Or, to borrow a biblical image, has yoga succeeded in delivering us to this promised land where the mind is free from the shackles of material analysis, a land where words, thoughts and deeds supposedly flow from the depths of truth--a truth that is just as obvious as, yet is much deeper than, say, 2+2=4?

Although I have not read Yoga Ph.D, I hereby shamelessly surmise that questions such as the above are among some of the many interesting issues that Carol tackles in her book. At least, this is what I gather is going on in the book from reading Winston's review. Yes, I am essentially reviewing a book I haven't even read, based on a review of the same book by somebody else! Talk about intellectual integrity (or, more precisely, the lack thereof...).  

But since I have shamelessly started this not-quite-review, I may as well finish it. Quite naturally, the above questions raise yet more questions: Is yoga even a reliable vehicle for getting us to the promised land, in the first place? If it's not, is it then just another exercise-wellness fad clad in ancient-looking clothing? Is yoga really just aerobics or Pilates with some Sanksrit nomenclature thrown in? Twenty years from now, will people look at us yoga practitioners in the same way in which we look at adherents of, say, step aerobics today (just so you know: I have nothing against step aerobics per se)?

But let's be a little more optimistic: Let's assume that yoga is not an exercise-wellness fad clad in Sanskrit clothing. Let's just naively assume that most yoga practitioners today (as well as their teachers and gurus) are all engaged in a good-faith attempt to preserve and pass on a tradition that has been handed down to us from the wisdom-filled depths of antiquity (again, just so you know: I am not assuming that anything that is from antiquity is by default filled with wisdom.). And finally, let us also suppose that these teachers and gurus have done a pretty competent job of passing down these teachings and traditions.

Now here's the million-dollar question: If, despite the best efforts of these gurus and teachers, yoga still does not succeed in delivering us sincere yogis from the shackles of materialistic analysis, where does the problem lie? Is it because we as practitioners haven't worked hard enough at freeing ourselves from our minds and their assorted chitta vrtiis? Or does the fault lie with the teachings themselves? Could it be that, just as many western bodies are not able to sit in lotus posture for hours (or maybe even at all) due to the nature of our culturally-conditioned physical environments, many western minds are also not structured in such a way as to be able to operate without engaging in discursive thought and analysis about the world around them due to the nature of our culturally-conditioned social environments? If this is true, then if a westerner is ever to succeed in fully integrating the yogic teachings into her life and free herself from discursive thought, she would have to overcome centuries, if not millenia, of cultural conditioning.

Which brings us to yet another question: Is it worth overcoming our cultural conditioning just so we can attain self-realization, or whatever the final goal of yoga practice is? I mean, if some people are correct in holding that cultural conditioning is part of our "cultural DNA", then we would have to basically transform ourselves into beings that are unrecognizable by our native cultures in order to attain the final goal of yoga. If cultural DNA is an integral part of our identity, as some people out there claim, this would mean that in becoming yogis, we are in an important sense discarding certain important parts of our identity.

Well, as always, I'm just thinking aloud here: I ultimately do not know if any of the things I said above is true. I know this sounds like a cop-out: I basically just said a whole bunch of things and made a whole bunch of hypothetical claims, and then tried to absolve myself of intellectual responsibility by saying that I don't even know if they are true! But maybe intellectual responsibility is a little overrated... Anyway, maybe if you read Yoga Ph.D, you will find some answers to these questions there :-) On this note, I promise to read it someday soon...        

Update: Erica has just informed me that I am actually quoted in Yoga Ph.D (see comments below). Since my ego cannot stand knowing that I have been quoted in some book without wanting to know what I am quoted on and how, I went ahead and placed an order for the book on Amazon just a couple of minutes ago (circa 4:30 p.m. MST, January 21st 2013). Hmm... this makes me wonder how many other people out there have quoted me in their works without my knowing it... Moral of the story: If you want people to read your book, quote them! On a different note, this probably also means that you will actually get to read a proper review of Yoga Ph.D on this blog in the near future. Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ashtangarabbits, shy persons, and... powdermilk biscuits (?)

Earlier today, I read this article in the New Yorker about a bunch of task websites that have sprung up in the past few years. These sites allow busy people (like you, for instance) or people who lack the will-power to get things done to hire task-doers to either get these things done on their behalf, or to motivate and prod them to do these things; for instance, if you need a little help getting motivated to do your taxes, you can hire somebody to sit with you while you do your taxes (and make you do them, if necessary). One such website is As the name suggests, if you need to get things done in a jiffy (or need help getting motivated to get them done), you can post a task request on this website, and a Task Rabbit in your area will respond with a bid (which is usually a fairly reasonable price). If you accept the bid, you will then pay for the service/s rendered upon completion of the service. Here's a video description of how TaskRabbit works:

Pretty cool, don't you think? But what has any of this to do with yoga? you may ask. Well, I have been thinking that there must be yogis out there who would like to start a regular practice, but who, for whatever reason (lack of motivation to practice by themselves, too shy to go to a studio or shala, etc.) have not been able to do so. This being the case, maybe there is a market for Yogarabbits (or even Ashtangarabbits); these are people who will, for a fee, go to the aspiring yogi's home at a certain fixed time of the day (or night) and either practice together with the yogi, or otherwise motivate the yogi to practice in their presence ("You do!")... I mean, seriously, why not? If you can pay somebody to sit around and make sure you do your taxes, why not pay somebody to be around to make sure you do your practice?

Hmm... I'm actually toying with this idea of moonlighting as an Ashtangarabbit now... I think this might be a good thing to do for somebody like me who doesn't feel ready to teach, but who thinks that he may yet have something to offer the Ashtanga community. But I don't know if there are enough aspiring Ashtangis around where I am to warrant putting myself out there like that. But I can't help thinking about this, nonetheless.

Well, maybe if you live in a bigger urban center where there is a bigger Ashtanga community, you might want to think about becoming an Ashtangarabbit, and, in so doing, give shy persons the strength they need to get up and do what needs to be done (gee, where did this line come from...?). Just a thought.

P.S. Well, I don't want to be accused of plagiarism, so I guess I better come clean about where that shy persons line came from. Have a look at the video below, especially 0:14-0:17. Yeah, now you know I'm a Prairie Home Companion fan...

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Butterflies, dreams, and lapsed practices

[Image taken from here]

"Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly, and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly, I waked, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."

Chuang Tzu, trans. by Herbert A. Giles

Last night, I dreamt that I had missed my daily Ashtanga practice, and for a rather mundane reason, at that: In the dream, I was staying at my parents' place, and I had to get up super-early in the morning to run some errands, and couldn't squeeze in any time to practice during the rest of the day. In fact, I got the sense in the dream that I had missed practice for more than one day, because I remember feeling very angry with myself for missing practice yet again.

But then I woke up from the dream, and although I was feeling quite tired, I still was able to get myself to the mat and do my usual practice. So am I a regular Ashtanga practitioner dreaming that I was a "lapsed" (I don't mean this word in a negative way, I just can't think of a more apt description right now) Ashtanga practitioner? Or am I in fact a lapsed Ashtanga practitioner dreaming that I am a regular, "unlapsed" Ashtanga practitioner? Heck, am I actually writing this, or am I dreaming that I am writing this? And are you actually reading this, or merely dreaming that you are doing so?

Here's another thought: Whichever world turns out to be the dream world and whichever the "real" world, what is the relation between the dream world and the so-called real world? Is the dream world a world whose existence depends on, and is in some sense parasitic upon the "real" world, so that if there were no "real" world, there would be no dream world? Or is the dream world a sort of parallel universe which is just as real as the "real" world? Is there another me out there, a "lapsed" Ashtangi existing in a parallel universe whose existence is just as real as the me that is now writing this? If so, is this other universe a universe that goes on just like ours, whether or not we are aware of it? If so, are we still justified in believing that our "waking" world is somehow a "better" or "more coherent" world than the dream world?

Ah, so many questions, and no answers, as usual...     

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Do you shower after practice?; Reality as surface current and undertow

Classes started here in Idaho yesterday. Between getting to know where everything is on campus and how things work and preparing for classes, there hasn't been much time to stop and think about too much, much less blog. Practice has been something which I get done with in the morning, and then it's time to shower and get dressed and go to campus...

Speaking of which, I seem to remember reading somewhere (it may be a recent report on a recent conference with Sharath, though I cannot be sure) that Sharath recommends showering before practice; the idea is that practice is not exercise, but a spiritual offering, so it is good to practice with a clean body (saucha). I also remember reading somewhere that it is common practice for many people who practice in shalas to shower before arriving at the shala for practice, and then change into a new set of clothes before going straight to work from the shala.

Maybe it's just me, but I just can't get around the idea of not showering after practice. It just seems to me that the idea of not cleaning myself after sweating so much, and going out to face the world with a possibly stinky and sticky body just seems... icky. And besides, as much as I like to believe otherwise, I am pretty sure that my sweaty body is not odor-free, and it would be wrong and inconsiderate to impose the, ahem, fragrance of my body onto others around me. Perhaps one day, when I finally stop eating garlic and onions and adopt a strict Pandava diet, I might then consider not showering after practice. But for right now, I'll stick to cleaning myself after practice.

What about you guys out there? Do you normally shower after practice? Or are you totally comfortable with just changing into a fresh set of clothes and going off to work from home or the shala? If the latter, have you ever had feelings of stickiness or ickiness come up during the course of the day? Just curious. If this is too personal to share, please feel free to comment anonymously.


On a different note, I have discovered that there is something about beginning a new semester (especially beginning a new semester in a new place) that brings this fresh flowing energy into my life. I go to my new classes, get a new bunch of students excited about philosophy (hopefully, they will continue to stay excited when the mid-semester grind kicks in...), and in the process, get myself excited about philosophy all over again. The external reality of my career situation (for more details, see previous post) has not changed one bit, but somehow, this external reality seems less pressing, almost less significant in the face of the fresh energy of learning that I am presently swimming in.

To carry the swimming image further, we can think of it this way. I am presently swimming in an ocean of reality. On the surface, there is a powerful fresh current, the current that carries the energy that one experiences at the beginning of an academic semester. But below the surface, there is another current, an undertow, if you will. This is the current that carries the energy of my overall career situation. I don't feel it quite as acutely at the present, because when one is swimming in the current of the fresh energy on the surface, when one is really needed at one's workplace (even if not on a permanent basis), one does not really feels the sharpness of the undercurrent. But I suppose the undercurrent is still there.

Here's one question I have been pondering: Which current is more real? Is the surface energy more real, because it is concretely what is happening in front of my eyes right now (as opposed to the many what ifs and whys and hows that characterize the somewhat murkier undercurrent)? Or is the undercurrent more real, because the surface energy will fade at some point, leaving the undercurrent to resurface?

I hope this is not too vague and woo-ey. But sometimes, analogies and images are a good way to get across a point that would otherwise be too fluid to describe directly.  

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Questions with no answers

Yesterday, I found out that I had not made the shortlist for a tenure-track academic position that I had interviewed for about a month ago, and which I was, frankly, pretty excited about. In his email to me, the hiring manager (that's really not his official title, but I want to try to keep things vague here, so we'll go with this) was quite diplomatic: He told me that although I had not made the shortlist, nobody is really out of the running yet, since there is no objective way of knowing whether they will like the people who are now on the shortlist. But really, I think we know how these things go; who are we kidding?

When I first got the news, many, many not-so-positive thoughts went through my head, but they all boil down to a few very simple words: Why? Why me? (Or rather, why not me?) For the past few years, ever since I got my PhD, academia has been like this big ship that is sailing on stormy seas, and I am like somebody who is just clinging onto the side of the ship with the skin of my nails, just a hair's breadth away from being washed overboard. Which brings up another why question: Why can't I find a more secure position on this ship? How much longer do I have to stay in this precarious position? Or perhaps the better question to ask is: How much longer can I stay in this position, before even my nails give out?

Some people have suggested to me that objectively speaking, what I need to do is to make myself more attractive to employers. At my stage of the game, this basically means getting stuff published in peer-reviewed journals. Well, I'm working on that, but it's not always the easiest thing to do when you have to move every couple of years (or less), and to teach a whole bunch of classes to pay the bills when you're not on the move.

A few people here and there have also suggested that maybe a career change is in order. Well, I don't know about that. What else can I do? Teach yoga? Now, don't get me wrong: I have the greatest respect for all of you yoga teachers out there who are making an honest living while contributing to the physical and emotional well-being of many people around you. But the whole idea of running from one studio to another and teaching classes that people want me to teach (which may or may not be Ashtanga classes) just to pay the bills seems to me to be, in the end, simply the yoga version of what I am already doing right now in the academic world. I'm just not sure I want to jump out of one pot just to land in another frying pan, to put it very bluntly.

Moreover, on a more immediate level, I'm not sure how I can continue to stay in this country if I'm not in academia (there's a whole bunch of employment-visa-related stuff that I don't feel like going into right now). I suppose you might ask: Why do you want to be in this country? Aren't political boundaries simply man-made constructs? Shouldn't you be able to make good wherever you go, if you are a good person?

All these are good questions and valid points, and I'm not sure I have good answers to them. Suffice to say that having spent the majority of my adult life here, I went through a lot of important life experiences here. Moreover, I'm actually pretty sure that I wouldn't have formed the connection with yoga and practiced it the way I did (much less write this blog) if I had never come to this country. I know that none of these are ultimately decisive reasons for wanting to live in these United States rather than anywhere else. But when I ask myself: Where else would I rather live? I find myself not having an answer to this question.  

Well, I'm sure you can already see that this is not a very uplifting post. I can go on and on about this (because I actually do go on and on about this in my head all the time when I'm not on my mat), but all this will do is bring up a whole bunch of questions, questions which I don't have any good answers to at this point in time. So I guess I'll leave things at this.

But here's another way of looking at all this. Perhaps I have to grapple with these questions in the same way in which I have to grapple with, say, Karandavasana on the mat (or in the same way in which somebody else might have to grapple with Mari D or Supta K, or with whatever challenging asana there is out there). Just as the way to master Karandavasana hasn't opened up for me yet, perhaps in the same way, the answers to these questions haven't opened up for me yet. So the only thing to do is to keep forging forward (or hanging on with my nails) just a little more, and wait. And wait. Not that it makes things any easier...    

Friday, January 11, 2013

All-or-nothing; Or, the perils of putting yourself on Youtube

I just read Patrick Nolan's latest post, in which he relates an incident that came up with regard to the Ashtanga instructional videos he has made with Kino (they are very helpful, by the way; you should check them out, if you haven't already). Patrick writes:

"My teacher Kino had re-posted some of the instructional videos we made together and so I re-read the disparaging comments about my physique made by some lonely shit-heel out there in cyberspace.  The same sequence of gut reactions that I had the first time I read the comments played themselves out again.  First, amusement at the comments, which are actually pretty funny.  Then, some self-doubt and body image insecurity came up in spite of myself.  I know I'm not obese or even overweight by most any criteria, but neither could I be an underwear model.  One or zero.  "If you ain't first, you're last," as Ricky Bobby said.  Then, annoyance at the guy who made the comments, but that turned to compassion for him when I did a personal inventory.  I want what I have, so I have what I want.  While I can't say for sure, I'm guessing that this is probably not the case for the person who has to tell people, anonymously in a youtube comment stream, about his six-pack abs and chiseled arms."

As a veteran of, ahem, one youtube yoga video (if you haven't already seen it, you can see it in this post), I think I can relate at least to some of the things that Patrick brings up here. I think I'll start by saying this: It takes a great deal of courage to make a video of yourself doing yoga and to put yourself out there in that way (especially if your name is not Kino MacGregor :-)). This is even more so if your intention in doing so is to help others with their practices, and give people who would otherwise not be able to go to a yoga class the opportunity to get some much-needed yoga instruction. I mean, think about this: If you are just making a video of yourself doing, say, the primary series (now, I think I know somebody who just did this recently...), all you have to do is do the primary series while the camera is rolling, and be sure to place the camera at such an angle that it tends to show your body from a flattering angle. Whereas if you are making an instructional video, you inevitably have to place your body in some rather awkward and frankly, not-so-flattering positions while you demonstrate the finer points of the posture to your viewers...  

But anyway, I went over to Youtube earlier today, and looked at the offending comments that Patrick talks about. While, like Patrick, I can't say for sure, I am actually more or less certain that those comments came from a place of insecurity, inadequacy, and uncalled-for negative judgment on the part of the commenters. Why else would anyone feel the need to put somebody down for not having the body of an underwear model?

Which brings me to the whole "If you ain't first, you're last" mindset that seems to pervade much of our contemporary capitalistic culture. This is basically an all-or-nothing mindset: "You either have a job, or you don't", "You either are a movie star, or you're not", "You either have an underwear-model-worthy body, or you have a crappy-looking body..." I could keep on multiplying examples, but I think you get the picture: Either you have something that is great and exalted and worthy of public exhibition and praise, or you have... nothing.

Anyway, in my humble opinion, I think that a big part of our yoga practice (or of any spiritual practice worth our time, for that matter) lies in freeing ourselves from this kind of all-or-nothing mentality. Because as much as our mundane capitalistic world today wants us to believe otherwise, life is not all or nothing. What is life about, then? Well, that's a big question to try to answer here, but I like to think that among other things, it is about making choices: We can choose to focus on our practices, and not pay too much attention to what others may or may not say about us. Or we can choose to do the opposite, and buy into the all-or-nothing mentality, and severely limit our own life-horizons in the process. The choice is ours, and it is one that we continue to re-make and reaffirm everyday.

Anyway, I guess what all this means is that you probably won't be seeing any instructional videos from me anytime soon (I'm not sure you want to, anyway...). So, if you had subscribed to my Youtube channel in the hopes of seeing such videos from me, well, I'm sorry to disappoint. Hey, it's still not too late to unsubscribe, you know...

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Perfect Blogging Weather

Darn, these Idaho folks are strong! How can she get by with wearing so little in this weather?

This is the view from the window of the coffeeshop I am at now. If you look carefully, you can actually see the snowflakes falling. This is the sort of weather that makes you not want to go anywhere; who wants to have to drive through snow, especially if you don't have snow tires? Which makes for perfect blogging weather: Since I don't want to go anywhere, I may as well sit down in a corner with a little espresso, and blog away. Which is what I have been doing for the past couple of hours: Hence the high level of output on this blog today :-) 

By the way, I know that this weather is the exact opposite of the weather in some other parts of the world... say, Mysore. But all of you folks in Mysore right now, don't get me wrong: I do not envy you your warm weather, because (a) I will make it there someday, and (b) there is nothing like cold snowy weather to really pin your ass down in a certain place and make you really write and think. 

I'm sure you can already see this is a totally neither-here-nor-there post. Moral of the story: This is what happens when you put a digital camera in the wrong hands :-) Anyway, enjoy the weather, wherever you are. I hope you are in a warmer place. Or not.

Finding my place in the world; Is radical acceptance possible, or a good thing?

"The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it."

V.S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River

For the past few days, I have been trying, in my own way, to find my place in this little corner of the world in which I have found myself as a result of my, ahem, academic peregrinations, if you would excuse the rather grandiose turn of speech. The few people I know here (mostly my new colleagues and administrative staff) have been very kind and very helpful in helping me get settled; in particular, they have offered a lot of sympathy in the face of the relative slowness of the bureaucratic machinery in getting me processed into the system. I mean, I'm supposed to start teaching on Monday, and I don't even have a campus email account yet! Come to think of it, the whole thing is actually a little bit bizarre: Come Monday, I will have to walk into a classroom and face a bunch of students who know the ins and outs of this place a whole lot better than I do.

But I really can't complain. Despite the abovementioned inconveniences, the fact of the matter is that I am getting to do something that is very engaging and fulfilling (teaching and talking about philosophy) and, well, getting paid for it. I don't usually talk too much about work too much on this blog, but it is what it is. This blog is about my yoga practice, and about my life as it relates to yoga practice, and the fact of the matter is that right now, my work (or rather, getting ready to do my work) is occupying a big place in my life.


But maybe it's a good idea to change the subject a little, anyway. During the last few evenings, I have been reading V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River for my bedtime reading... Actually, I'm not quite sure if this even qualifies as bedtime reading: I have been so tired the last few evenings that I've only been able to read a few pages at a time before falling asleep, often while still holding the book in my hand! As a result, my grasp of what's going on in the book is quite fragmentary; I'm not sure how much of the "big picture" I'm really getting. But Naipaul has this uncanny ability to perceive and then to put into words certain insights and feelings that I have felt at some point or other, but have never been able to express quite so eloquently. But then again, this is why he's a Nobel-prize-winning novelist, right? :-) Anyway, here's a passage that really speaks to me:

"...from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance... And that was the beginning of my insecurity. 

I used to think of this feeling of insecurity as a weakness, a failing of my own temperament, and I would have been ashamed if anyone had found out about it. I kept my ideas about the future to myself, and that was easy enough in our house, where, as I have said, there was never anything like a political discussion. My family were not fools. My father and his brothers were traders, businessmen; in their own way they had to keep up with the times. They could assess situations; they took risks and sometimes they could be very bold. But they were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives. They did what they had to do. When things went wrong they had the consolations of religion. This wasn't just a readiness to accept Fate; this was a quiet and profound conviction about the vanity of all human endeavour. 

I could never rise so high. My own pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It was the price for my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the cares of the earth."

As I mentioned, this passage speaks to me personally. Like Naipaul, most of my family are also businesspeople, and having what is commonly known as business acumen involves, among other things, having the ability to assess people and situations quickly, and to know when to commit to something and when to pull out of a questionable-looking situation. Sometimes, this ability to see and assess things might be little more than a "gut feeling" on the part of the business-person, a strong feeling that something is just "right" or "not right." What this also means is that detaching oneself from things and considering them from a certain intellectual distance is probably quite foreign to the modus operandi of a businessperson. Which is not to say that the same person cannot be both a businessperson and also possess a detached, intellectual frame of mind. But I suspect that such a person would have to compartmentalize these two parts of his or her mind, so that she is sometimes in businessperson mode, sometime in intellectual mode.

But all this is neither here nor there. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the reason why I'm a philosophy teacher and not a businessperson is because, unlike many other people in my family, I tend to dwell more in a detached state of mind rather than being buried deep in the thick of things in the way that businesspeople have to be in order to survive in the business world.


But I also wonder if this passage from Naipaul might not also speak to what goes on in the lives of many of us who are yoga practitioners in the west. I'm not quite sure how to express what I'm about to say properly. But perhaps we can think about it this way: Even though yoga is not a religion, I get the sense that practicing yoga in India involves subscribing to a certain worldview, a certain sense of how the world works. Perhaps the Indian yoga practitioner who is also a householder is one who does his practice, whatever that might consist in, and is also at the same time buried deep in his householder duties. He does not stand back and consider the nature of his life, because he has the conviction that whatever the ultimate nature of his life might be, all human endeavor is ultimately in vain. Perhaps we can call this mindset "radical acceptance", for lack of a better term.

I cannot really say with any certainty that this mindset of radical acceptance accurately captures the worldview of "true" yoga practitioners in India, since I have never actually been to India or practiced there (although I do hope this state of affairs will change soon...). But let's suppose I am correct in my speculation about the mindsets of Indian yoga practitioners. If I am correct, then I would also say that there is an unbridgeable gap between this mindset and what I might call the "western yoga mindset". This is true even if, like me, you are somebody who practices mostly at home and eschews what we think of as "popular yoga studio culture." Even if, like me, you believe that what is most important in your practice is not the brand of your yoga pants or the shape of your Manduka mat or how many advanced asanas you can or cannot do, but that the most important thing is to immerse yourself and give yourself fully to the practice and let it transform you--even if you believe all this, there is probably still an unbridgeable gap between your mindset and the mindset of radical acceptance. Why? Well, for one thing, I can tell you quite honestly that I am not prepared to believe that all human endeavor is vanity. I still believe that something in this world (even though I'm not quite sure what exactly it is) really, really, really matters, and that it would be in bad faith to just believe that nothing matters at all. Or, to put it another way: At the end of the day, I am not prepared to surrender everything to whoever's really running the show, to adopt that sort of exalted pessimism that might allow some men to do wonders. Because I'm not sure I want to. I am me, and you are you. Why should I pretend that what I am as opposed to what you are is ultimately a matter of indifference?

But thus far, all I have done is talk about my own reactions and feelings to this whole thing. Maybe you feel differently. Maybe unlike me, you are totally, totally comfortable with radical acceptance. If so, well, more power to you! I'm just not sure I can say the same thing about myself.     

Anyway, speaking of getting buried in life, I need to get back into the thick of finding my place in my new corner of the world right now. So I guess I'll spare you from having to read more of my random ramblings for now. More later.            

Monday, January 7, 2013

Practice on mushrooms and wine

Practice this morning was great, but I felt a little heavy, and binding in Mari D took a bit more effort, because I ate and drank too much last night. One of my colleagues at my new workplace hosted a dinner party to welcome me to the department. Gosh, he's a really great cook. He cooked up a huge Indian feast consisting of: A vegetable and potato korma, mushrooms boiled in some delicious sauce whose ingredients elude me, a bean dish whose name I do not know, raita, and basmati rice. There were six of us at dinner, but I'm pretty sure he made enough food to feed twenty! Wanting to be the gracious guest (which really wasn't too difficult, considering just how delectable the food was), I went back not only for seconds, but even for thirds! The conversation ranged from movies to Haruki Murakami; lubricated by a few too many glasses of wine, it flowed very smoothly and was very lively. At one point, one of the attendees and I even had a lively debate about the merits of 1Q84.

Needless to say, an Ashtangi cannot indulge in so much decadence without having to pay the price for it on the mat the following morning. But even though practice this morning was a little heavy-going, I still managed to get through full primary (complete with dropbacks and standups) in an hour and twenty minutes. I guess this means there is some horsepower in this little Asian engine :-)

I'm going to have to sign off now, as I have to go take care of some stuff at my new workplace. If last night's dinner is any indication, I think I will flourish here in Pocatello. Oh, and a mental note to myself: Must get the recipe for that delicious mushroom dish from my colleague.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

First practice in Idaho, practice space, the trash can of conditioned existence

Did my first practice in my new apartment here in Idaho this morning. I did full primary to Sharath's led primary CD. When I first woke up, I was feeling rather anxious about the many things that need to be done and seen to in my new place and role, but I felt so much better after practice. As I came out of savasana, I felt both very grounded and very powerful at the same time. Or, as Grimmly puts it in a recent post, I felt "outward facing as if I could take on the world at the same time." There's also something about hearing Sharath's familiar voice over my computer ("Janu Sirsasana ye-A, Supta inhale...") that was very comforting and reassuring at the same time. It felt like he was saying, "Just follow the vinyasa count, trust the practice, and everything will be okay." That I find Sharath's voice and instructions to be very familiar and reassuring is actually pretty funny, if you think about it, considering that I've never even met him. I wonder how it would be like when I finally meet him.

Anyway, I thought you might also be interested in seeing my practice space. When I first stepped into my apartment yesterday, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that the kitchen and dining area actually had hardwood floors. A very pleasant change from the totally-carpeted apartments I have been living in till now. When I saw this, I decided immediately that I'm going to make the dining area my practice space. It also helps, of course, that I don't have a dining table to take up the space with. This is how my practice space looks like:

It might not look like anything special, but I can't tell you how happy I am to be able to practice on a hardwood floor after all these years of dealing with squishy carpets. Oh, and you may also notice the trashcan in the corner. Definitely not a regular shala fixture :-) Well, may the practice be the spiritual trashcan that disposes of all my poisons (samsara halahala). Om...

I'm going to have to keep this post short and sign off here, as I have some exploring of Pocatello to go do. More later.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Yellowstone, and Garbha Pindasana troubles

Ah... I am finally in Pocatello, Idaho. I got here a few hours ago, checked into my new apartment, carried whatever little belongings I have into the apartment; I basically packed only whatever I could fit into my Mitsubishi, which is not very much at all, for this move. What this means is that besides a bunch of clothes, some kitchenware, some toiletries, and my computer and camera (and yoga mat and rugs, of course), I have nothing else to fill my apartment with! Which presents a good opportunity to meditate on the Buddhist concept of emptiness, I suppose. But I think I'll go thrift-store-shopping tomorrow, and see what I can pick up.

I'm happy to say that the trip from Bozeman to here, which took four and a half hours, was relatively smooth and uneventful. Well, I did have to drive through some mountain roads in Yellowstone National Park. And since I have little experience driving through mountains, I was probably driving quite a bit below the speed at which seasoned mountain drivers are used to: A few times, some impatient driver behind me would ride my ass for, like, fifty miles, and then pass me at the earliest opportunity. Oh well... but I did manage to stop at a nice little turn-out and take a couple of pictures of Yellowstone:

 There is supposed to be a frozen river here, which I did not quite manage to capture.

In the foreground of this picture is, of course, my trusty Mitsubishi. 

What do you think? Pretty cool, don't you think? But the most beautiful pictures were those that I did not manage to take. A few times during the drive, I would pass through stretches of road lined with evergreens on both sides, with the mountains in the distance, and the sun casting intricate patterns of light and shadow on the road. But it was simply impossible, not to mention unsafe, to stop in the middle of the road just to capture these scenes. Things like this really give me a renewed admiration for photographers who can simply perceive and then capture instantaneously such fleeting poetic moments on film. For me, the poetry would have to just live in my head and in my memories...


I was feeling a little tired when I first started writing this post. But all this writing and thinking has given me a second blogging wind, and now I feel like talking about yoga again. What to talk about? Let's talk about an asana that I've noticed many people having difficulty with: Garbha Pindasana. Before I start, I guess I should say that I am not trying to make light of the very real difficulties that many people face in this posture. What I'm trying to do, rather, is to talk about the difficulties that folks have had with this posture in a light-hearted manner, with the hope of shedding some light on this posture. I understand that it is widely seen as bad form to make light of a posture that one has little difficulty with, and you might hate me for doing this (although I hope you don't), but really, why make a difficult posture more difficult by taking everything so seriously?

Anyway, here's what I have to say. Over the past few years of practicing at various shalas and reading blog posts on this asana, I have noticed that people who experience difficulty with Garbha tend to fall into one of two categories:     

(1) The beachers: These are people who, after getting their hands through into Garbha, manage to do two or three rolls, and then roll over and become unable to get up, like a, well, beached whale. Hence the name. 

(2) The jerkers: These are people who, after getting their hands through into Garbha, do a series of very quick, jerky movements which are supposed to be rolls, but never quite generate enough momentum to complete the circle and come up into Kukkutasana. 

I personally witnessed a jerker in action recently. At a recent shala that I practiced at, there was a jerker next to me. I couldn't help noticing her jerking, even though I wasn't wearing my glasses and couldn't see so well. Part of me wanted to stop my own practice, walk over to her, and suggest to her that maybe if she would try curling herself deeper into a ball and then try to use her bandhas to roll more slowly and deliberately, she might be more productive in this posture. But I was afraid she would think me nosy; besides, it kind of goes against shala etiquette to give people asana suggestions when you are not the teacher, right? So I left it at that. But the image of her jerking frantically and frankly, futilely in Garbha stuck in my mind. This, combined with some recent posts on difficulties with Garbha that I read in the Ashtanga blogosphere, made me decide to write about this, at the risk of being the object of public outrage. 

Like the other core postures of Primary (Mari D, Supta Kurmasana, etc.), getting proficient in Garbha takes a lot of work. But I really think that curling more snugly into a ball and engaging the bandhas and breath more (as in: Exhale, roll down, inhale, roll back up) to facilitate the movement really makes a difference in being able to work productively with the posture. Or, as Kino would say, use the pelvis as the steering wheel of the posture. Here's her video on this posture: 

As always, Kino has a way of boiling a very complex thing down into a readily accessible image (in this case, using the pelvis as the steering wheel). And she also gives some useful tips about what to do if you find yourself beached. 

Alright, that's enough blogging for today. I think I'm going to try to get some sleep now in my less-than-full apartment. More later. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

I am a wuss, and didn't even know it

I just saw this report on The Raw Story about a discussion on Thursday morning's segment of Fox & Friends about 'whether yoga was a sport and if “stupid parents” were turning their children into wusses by teaching them to be yogis.' I can't embed the video clip from the original program here, but you can view it on the report I linked to above.

The hosts of the Fox program spoke with motivational speaker Larry Winget about this alleged wussification. Winget believes that yoga is not a sport, and is convinced that yoga is part of "a trend that is the wussification of America." However, Winget also said sarcastically, "I think Yoga’s amazing, I think it’s wonderful... I’m going to say that because I don’t want all those yoga Nazis coming after me on this thing."

After I watched the clip and read the report, I really didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. I wanted to laugh, because none of the things that the people on the program said about yoga was new or even interesting. Of course yoga isn't a sport; who in their right mind would think that? Well, actually, I guess ABC News would; check this out. Well, that tells us something about the quality of journalism over at ABC, doesn't it?

I also wanted to cry, but not because I might be a wuss. I wanted to cry, because if this particular program is representative of the general quality of the news sources in this country, then the intellectual health of this country is in pretty bad shape. I mean, if you think about it, this is really what the people on the program are arguing:

1. Yoga is not a sport.
2. Yoga is "just stretching".
3. If kids do no sports, but only do yoga, then they will go grow up into wusses.
4. Being a wuss is bad.
5. Therefore, doing only yoga and not doing any sports is bad.

The hidden assumption here, of course, is that if kids do sports, they will not grow up into wusses, but will instead grow up into fine upstanding citizens. Which feeds very well into this American myth that kids who grow up playing sports tend to be socially better adjusted and are therefore, well, not wusses. But a myth is just that: A myth. I'm pretty that there are at least as many kids who did not play sports growing up, and who grew up just fine.

Anyway, I just don't have the energy here to dissect any further the problems with this argument that the Fox people are putting forth. But maybe you can see why this might be cause for crying: If so many people are getting just sound bites from news networks, and do not have the opportunity to think things through, the intellectual health of this country is in trouble. If anything, we should probably worry more about the Foxification of this country than about any alleged wussification. In any case, not being a wuss might be overrated: What's so bad about being a wuss, anyway?

See, wusses can be cool too...
[Image taken from here]