Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Long live Cylon-free Ashtanga blogging

I just finished watching all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica: About half an hour ago, I consumed completed the last episode of season 4. So they found Earth... well, sort of. I won't spoil it for you by telling you more.

The Last Supper
[Image taken from here]

All in all, I think it was a beautiful ending to a very well-told story, although I can't help feeling that more explanation of what exactly happened to Starbuck would have been nice. But then again, I suppose there's something to be said for not over-explaining things.

The feeling I have now is like the feeling one gets when one finishes a good book: You don't want it to end. But as the oft-repeated cliche goes, all good things have to come to an end... Well, I guess the upside is that we can all now look forward to some serious Ashtanga blogging (do we even know what that means anymore?) without all this neither-here-nor-there rambling about Cylons that has been all-too-characteristic of my blogging in the last couple of months. Yay. Long live Cylon-free Ashtanga blogging!  

Calmness, enoughness, and the possible renaming of a blog

This morning, I woke up to a very peaceful feeling in me. There was this quietly calm, joyful sensation that the universe is taking care of me, that there is absolutely nothing to worry about. Which, I can assure you, is not something I feel often; most days when I wake up, I'm either assaulted by a whole bunch of thoughts and worries ("What the hell am I going to do about X? Or Y? Or Z?..."), or I am fighting the urge to just go back to bed (this has been made worse these past couple of months by my online chess-playing and Battlestar Galactica watching, which have jointly conspired to deprive me of much-needed sleep). In either case, the practice does wonders in focusing and calming my mind, and energizing my body: I suppose you can say that the practice does to me what the Energizer battery does to the Energizer bunny.

This is what the practice does to me on most days.

But as I was saying, when I woke up this morning, I felt neither exhaustion nor mind-assaulting worry. All there was was this beautiful sense of being in sync with the universe. I'm not sure why this is. I certainly didn't do anything out of the ordinary last night: I watched my usual couple of episodes of BSG, and played a couple of games of online chess (badly, I might add), and then went to bed like I've been doing for the past couple of months. Hmm... could it be that I am actually one of the Final Five, and this feeling of calm is actually a precursor of things to come? Well, this would be nice, but I need to stop deluding myself... 

In any case, when I stepped on the mat this morning, I felt this feeling of calmness surround my entire being like a halo. Sounds dramatic, I know, but I'm not usually this dramatic, so I think you can allow me a little dramatic license every now and then :-) In any case, this feeling of calmness was so all-pervading that when I finished five Surya Bs, I suddenly had this sense that I had done enough on the mat for today. I was very tempted to just end my practice right there and then, but I continued anyway; I'm still not sure if it was ego or sheer force of habit that caused me to continue the practice past that point (probably a little of both). I ended up doing my usual practice (full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana).

Now I can't help but wonder: What if I get this sense of calmness and enoughness frequently from now on, or even everyday? Does this mean that I might one day stop practicing asana altogether? Well, we all will one day stop practicing asana (if nothing else, death will stop us), but that's not what I mean. I mean, what if this feeling of enoughness persists to such an extent and frequency that I no longer feel the need to do any more asana? Well, if that happens, what will I blog about? Science fiction and philosophy, probably (actually, come to think of it, I am already blogging about these). And then I will have to rename this blog Science Fiction and Philosophy in the Dragon's Den. Hmm. Doesn't sound half as catchy as Yoga in the Dragon's Den. Oh well.   

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

There are only twelve Ashtangi models; or, what Battlestar Galactica might teach us about Ashtanga

In a previous post, I set forth this theory that Kino and quite possibly all long-time Ashtanga practitioners are Cylons. More precisely, they (we?) are Cylon sleeper agents; they/we think they/we are human, but are in fact Cylons who have been placed here on Earth to fulfill a role in God's grand plan. A little background story here for those who are not initiated into Battlestar Galactica lore: Cylons believe in God, although there is some dispute among Battlestar Galactica fans as to whether the Cylon God is also the God of the human Judeo-Christian tradition.

But let us leave this academic dispute for another time. The reason why I have brought this Cylon-Ashtangi  theory up again is because some recent developments in the Ashtanga blogosphere seem to have provided further support for this theory. The ramifications of this theory are considerable. For one thing, if this theory is true, it would prove the critics of Ashtanga right: Ashtanga is really not for everybody. It's only for Cylons. Which makes a lot of sense, if you think about it: Critics often charge that you would have to either be a teenage boy or inhumanly strong or flexible (or inhumanly able to take a ridiculous amount of mental and physical punishment, six days a week) in order to do Ashtanga regularly. Well, if all regular Ashtangis are in fact Cylons (even if they don't know it), this would prove the critics right, because Ashtangis would then be quite literally not human.  And come to think of it, don't the behavior of teenage boys often make us wonder whether they come from another planet? Well, wonder no more...

But where's the evidence for this theory, you may ask? I'm getting there. Let's start from the beginning: In Battlestar Galactica, there are a total of twelve Cylon models. For most of the series (up to the end of season 3), only seven out of these twelve were revealed. Here are three of the models:

From left to right: Models six, three and eight. 
[Image taken from here]

The remaining five models (a.k.a. the Final Five) were only revealed at the end of season 3. A key reason for this revelation was that the Final Five had an important role in God's plan: They are supposed to show humans and Cylons the way to the promised land, i.e. Earth.

Okay, so what has any of this to do with Ashtanga? Well, earlier today, Erica over at Ecstatic Adventures of the Exuberant Bodhisattva alerted us to a very important fact: There are presently seven types of Ashtangis. As a result of recent events in the Ashtanga blogosphere, Erica's Mula Bandha exploded (I hope you're okay, Erica), and God revealed the seven Cylon models Ashtangi types to her in a dazzling vision. According to Erica/God, these seven types are:

1. Those who ask for oral sex postures and those who don't.
2. Those who kiss and tell talk and write about their practices, and those who don't.
3. Those who come to yoga able to do chaturanga, and those who come grabbing their ankles in backbends.
4. Those with bad knees, and those with bad backs.
5. Those who don't eat past four p.m. and those who grab slices of pizza on their way back from the bar.
6. Those who practice during their periods and those who use their moon time to gather their menstrual fluids and store them in the refrigerator amongst the peanut butter and the jam and the vegan mayonnaise.
7. Those who eat vegan mayonnaise and those who think that soy is the devil, but so are eggs, ("Yegs, very bad," as Guruji was once quoted), and well, maybe I have already mentioned food a couple too many times.

Erica also advises that regardless of which type you fall under (or do not fall under), there is only one thing to do: "Do whatever the fuck you want, reconsider every once and awhile, and then do whatever the fuck you want again."

This is actually very good advice, in light of what we have learned from Battlestar Galactica. If what your type is is already predetermined by God, what would be the use of fighting it and trying to be any different? You would just be imposing unnecessary suffering on yourself. Just surrender to your type, and in the words of a famous Cylon, "Do your practice, and all is coming."
   He's probably wearing those shades to hide those Cylon eyes.


But here's something else to think about: If Battlestar Galactica is correct, this would mean that there are five more Cylon/Ashtangi models that have yet to be revealed, and who will only be revealed to us when the time is ripe for us to go to the Ashtanga Promised Land (hmm... but what is the Ashtanga Promised Land?). I, of course, have not the slightest idea who the Final Five Ashtangis are. But I can always speculate: 
 She is quite possibly one of the Final Five.

But there's only so much speculation I can indulge in before I start pissing God off. So I'll stop here. Besides, it's getting close to that time of the day: Time for my nightly dose of Battlestar Galactica. More later.           

Monday, July 29, 2013

Yoga, dodgeball, spirituality

It's been almost a month since the conclusion of the Encinitas yoga trial. As most of you know, the judge in that trial ruled that there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching yoga in schools; yoga, Judge John Meyer said, "is similar to other exercise programs like dodgeball." Therefore, yoga has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. Therefore, the teaching of yoga in schools does not violate separation of church and state. Therefore, children can go ahead and enjoy yoga in schools without fear of spiritual or religious indoctrination. Yay.

But things are a bit more complicated than that, as most of you know. Many thoughtful observers of this trial have concluded that this verdict represents a Pyrrhic victory; Carol Horton, for instance, has written a very thoughtful post on the implications of such a victory. The victory is Pyrrhic, because while the court has ruled that yoga may be taught in schools (which is great), it has also, by characterizing yoga as being no different from something like dodgeball (along with all the unhappy memories of grade school P.E. classes that this word brings up for those of us who were not-so-socially-well-adjusted non-jocks), thrown out the yogic baby with the bathwater (which is not so great). Yoga, as most of us who have had any exposure to it will attest, is anything but non-spiritual: I suspect that even casual yoga "users" who only attend one yoga class a week at their local gym or health club will readily attest that yoga is more than just stretching (or dodgeball). To simply say that yoga is just stretching (or dodgeball), then, is to seriously misrepresent what yoga is about.

But with the legal-political culture of this country being what it is today, the only way to make yoga kosher within the legal structure is to characterize it as a spirituality-free and all-religion-friendly exercise/stress-reduction modality (this blog, incidentally, has also been lauded as a Transcendental Site for Stress Reduction. I'm still not sure what the "transcendent" means here... but anyway.). The only other alternative, it seems, would be to admit that yoga is spiritual. And therefore religious, according to Candy Gunther Brown. And therefore in violation of separation of church and state.

Something has gone very wrong somewhere. But what exactly? Well, for starters, we get the sense that this kind of (falsely) dichotomistic thinking ("Yoga is either only exercise, or it is spiritual and therefore a religion") fails to do any justice to the richness and complexity of lived yoga experience. I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure that the average person who decides to start yoga at her local gym or yoga studio does not walk into her first yoga class thinking, "This yoga is ONLY exercise and stretching. If I should start feeling anything during or after class that cannot be reduced to or explained in terms of the effects of exercise, I'm going to stop doing yoga. Because I only signed up for exercise and stretching; I didn't sign up for any spiritual-religious indoctrination."

Hmm. Or maybe what all this means is that yoga studios need to start getting all new students to sign a spirituality waiver form before they start classes ("I, the undersigned, acknowledge that in doing yoga, I am willingly exposing myself to possible transformation that goes beyond and cannot be explained in purely physical terms. If said transformation occurs, I will accept full personal responsibility for it, and will not hold X Yoga Studio liable for said transformation or any effects thereof.").

But here's something else to think about: What is so bad about spirituality or spiritual transformation in the first place? Well, one might say that spirituality is "bad" because spirituality is religion, and the teaching of religion violates the separation of church and state; or, perhaps, violates the freedom of religious belief of the individual, in the case of the unsuspecting student who walks into a yoga studio or gym expecting to get only exercise, and gets more than what she signed up for.

Hmm... fair enough. But what if one cannot truly be a human being without first being a spiritual being of some sort? To be truly human (as opposed to being only biologically human) is, among other things, to recognize that all these other blobs of flesh and bone that I am surrounded by are persons of moral standing. And it seems to me that no amount of scientific analysis can explain why I should treat these blobs of flesh and bone in a way that accords with their moral standing as human beings: Why, for instance, I should not steal from this particular blob even if I am pretty sure I can get away with it, or why I shouldn't torture that particular blob even if doing so will give me great pleasure.         

So if we assume that the purpose of education isn't just to cram scientific and technical knowledge into students' brains, but to foster individuals who can function productively and constructively as human beings in human community and civilization, and if one cannot function in such a way without being a moral being who recognizes the moral standing of oneself and one's fellow human beings, and such recognition is ultimately a fundamental conviction that cannot be reduced to scientific terms, wouldn't this mean that cultivating a sense of spirituality, far from undermining the goal of education, is actually an important--arguably, the most important--ingredient to any process of education that is worth the name? And wouldn't this mean that cultivating a sense of spirituality that enables the student to recognize and respect the human-ness of everybody around her is (or should be) a key component of educational systems?

What does all this mean for the doctrine of separation of church and state, that doctrine which we Americans--no wait, you Americans (I've lived in this country for so long, I often forget I'm not a citizen)-- hold so dear? Well, it probably means that spirituality can and should be taught in schools, even if it violates the separation of church and state. After all, what is more important: Fostering true humans beings, or adhering to some abstract doctrine? But this is probably not going to fly. After all, what self-respecting parent would willingly risk exposing her kid to the dangers of Hindu indoctrination in the guise of spirituality cultivation?

But maybe there is another alternative, one that would, admittedly, require us to get outside the only-exercise/only-religion dichotomy box that the legal system has put us into. Maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as non-denominational, religion-free spirituality? But to have this kind of spiritual, we--or any rate, the legal system--would have to accept that there is such a thing as spirituality that is not religious; we would have to accept that something can be spiritual without being religious. Are we ready for this?    

P.S. It just occurred to me that there is actually yet another alternative. Maybe exercise in itself is spiritual. Which means that dodgeball is spiritual. Come to think of it, there are probably important spiritual lessons to be learned from being terrorized by your more socially-well-adjusted grade-school peers during P.E.. Dodgeball as spirituality? Zen and the art of dodgeball maintenance? Somebody should write a book...   

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Stoic philosophy, yoga, and how not to blame the gods

Earlier today, I read some Stoic philosophy, both for my own edification and with the intention of teaching it as part of my fall Introduction to Ethics course. I had read some Stoic philosophers back in grad school, but it's been a while since then. Back then, I had not started practicing yoga. Now, after having started practicing yoga, I am seeing many striking parallels between Stoicism and yoga philosophy. The Stoics place great emphasis on living in accordance with nature. To them, the universe is a rational place that is governed by reason. This being the case, for a person to live in accordance with nature/the universe is for her to cultivate and fully develop her rational nature. In order to do this, we need to align our desires so that we desire only things that are up to us (having certain attitudes towards things around us, having certain likes and dislikes, holding certain judgments of good or bad about things and people, etc.), and not desire things that are not up to us (social status, material possessions, the well-being of our loved ones, what other people think of us, the state of our physical bodies, etc.).

The general idea is that if we desire only things that are up to us, we will always be rational and in accord with nature, and will always be happy. To illustrate, let's use a yoga example: Suppose you are doing your asana practice today. You want very much to be able to do a straight-legged jump-through (it doesn't have to be a straight-legged jump-through (SLJT); just substitute your most-desired asana here, and you will get the picture). You do everything you can possibly do to prepare your mind and body to put yourself in the best possible position to achieve this pose (you watch Kino's jump-through videos three million times, do a bunch of preparatory postures, engage your bandhas, breathe in accordance with the vinyasa count, etc., etc.), but alas, you are still unable to achieve the SLJT today. According to the Stoic, you ultimately have no control over whether or not your body achieves the SLJT today (although you can do your best). What you do have control over is your judgment or reaction towards this state of affairs. If you believe that that which is not up to you (achieving the SLJT today) is up to you, and you desire it so badly, then you will be very miserable and upset. But if you are able to desire only that which is up to you (having a more accommodating attitude towards achieving asanas while doing your best everyday), then you will be happy, and nothing can make you unhappy.
I use the example of asana because, well, this is a yoga blog. But according to the Stoics, this idea of desiring only the things that you have control over can be (and should be) applied to everything in life, including big things like losing your job, retirement savings, or loved ones. But, you may ask: It is one thing to not desire not losing one's job or savings, but to not desire not losing one's loved ones... how can one do that? Well, here's a little tip from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

'Never say about anything, "I have lost it," but instead, "I have given it back." Did your child die? It was given back. Did your wife die? She was given back. "My land was taken." So this too was given back. "But the person who took it was bad!" How does the way the giver asked for it back concern you? As long as he gives it, take care of it as something that is not your own, just as travelers treat an inn.'

Hmm.... Interesting. But I doubt that Epictetus's message here will be well-received by most Americans. After all, we are used to paying for stuff with what we see as our own money, and we strongly believe that what we are paying for, others have no right to take away. For instance, we believe that so long as we are making regular payments on the car/house/whatever, the bank has no right to take it away from us. If it did, it would be committing an injustice against us, and we can sue them! Similarly, I sometimes also wonder if people have the same kind of attitude towards losing loved ones: If I lose my wife/significant other/close relative unexpectedly even though I am a good man/woman who is doing everything right, wouldn't this mean that I have been unjustly treated? How can anybody or anything have the right to "repossess" my wife/significant other/loved one if I am doing everything right? Don't I have the right to sue whoever's up there? Epictetus has this to say in reply:

"The most important aspect of piety towards the gods is certainly both to have correct beliefs about them, as beings that arrange the universe well and justly, and to set yourself to obey them and acquiesce in everything that happens and to follow it willingly, as something brought to completion by the best judgment. For in this way you will never blame the gods or accuse them of neglecting you. And this piety is impossible unless you detach the good and the bad from what is not up to us and attach it exclusively to what is up to us, because if you think that any of what is not up to us is good or bad, then when you fail to get what you want and fall into what you do not want, you will be bound to blame and hate those who cause this."  

Well, this sounds like great advice. The only problem is that based on my personal experience, many Americans I know, if they believe in God (or the gods), tend to see God (or the gods) as somebody who takes a personal interest in their well-being and happiness. And if God (or the gods) is looking out for me, how can he rightly take away that person who is most dear to me? It just doesn't add up.

If you have been following everything closely so far, you will probably have figured out what Epictetus's reply to this would be. He would say that God (or the gods) is actually arranging the universe well and justly and is looking out for you; you just have to have the right attitude to see things in the correct light! If you are seeing things in the correct light, you will see that even if God were to take away all your loved ones, you will never be unhappy, because in order to be happy, all you need to do is to only desire the things which you can control. And since losing your loved ones is something that is beyond your control, you need to stop desiring not losing your loved ones. And then all will be well, and you will see that God is good, and that everything that happens in the universe happens in accordance with his best judgment. Problem solved.


I see that all this is rather heavy-going stuff. Let me see if I can end with something lighter. Well, take a look at this other passage from Epictetus: 

"It shows a lack of natural talent to spend time on what concerns the body, as in exercising a great deal, eating a great deal, drinking a great deal, moving one's bowels a great deal or copulating a great deal. Instead you must do these things in passing, but turn your whole attention toward your faculty of judgment." 

Well, the part about exercising a great deal concerns me a little, as I do asana six days a week. But then again, I never practice for more than two hours a day, and there are twenty-four hours in a day, so I think what I do doesn't count as "exercising a great deal." As for the rest, don't they remind you of the yamas? The general idea is: Eat, but don't eat too much, drink, but don't drink too much, shit, but don't shit too much, have sex, but don't have sex too much (and presumably, also don't have sex with too many people at the same time...).  

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Is fortune a woman who needs to be beaten into submission? A few thoughts on Machiavelli

Warning: This post contains content that is sexist in nature. If you are offended by sexist content, read no further!

"For we see men, in those activities that carry them towards the goal they all share, which is the acquisition of glory and riches, proceed differently. One acts with caution, while another is headstrong; one is violent, while another relies on skill; one is patient, while another is the opposite: and any one of them, despite their differences in their methods, may achieve his objective... This happens solely because of the character of the times, which either suits or is at odds with their way of proceeding... If the times and circumstances develop in such a way that his behavior is appropriate, he will flourish; but if the times and circumstances change, he will be destroyed for he will continue to behave in the same way...

I conclude, then, that... men flourish when their behavior suits the times and fail when they are out of step. I do think, however, that it is better to be headstrong than cautious, for fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her. And one sees she more often submits to those who act boldly than those who proceed in a calculating fashion. Moreover, since she is a lady, she smiles on the young, for they are less cautious, more ruthless, and overcome her with their boldness." 

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Over the past week, I have been filling in a gap in my philosophy education by reading Machiavelli's The Prince. For a whole bunch of reasons (I have never officially taken a political philosophy course, I have always felt Machiavelli to be crass and well, evil, compared to people like Kant and Aristotle, who write about seemingly more lofty things), I had, until last week, never read any Machiavelli.

To my great surprise, I found myself immensely enjoying what he has to say. If you are not familiar with The Prince, it is basically a handbook on how to attain power and glory and hold on to it. Machiavelli had written it with the aim of presenting it as a gift to the Medici family, who had newly risen to power at the time. The entire book is infused with an "ends-justify-the-means" morality; which means that for the aspirant to power, promises can (and should) be broken, opponents can (and should) be killed (although it is generally ideal to try to do most of your killing at the beginning of your rule, and to refrain from killing thereafter, in order to prevent being hated by your subjects), wars should be waged if they are advantageous, and so and so forth.

So why would a supposedly yogic yoga practitioner like me--who is supposedly devoted to such high-minded ideals like ahimsa and satya and all that good stuff--enjoy reading such a crass book? Well, to be very honest, I derive a certain wicked pleasure from contemplating all that bad stuff that people do to gain power and hold on to it; the pleasure is probably enhanced by the fact that I am not made of stern enough stuff to actually do shit like that. So yes, there is something voyeuristic about all of this. Actually, I also believe that many people, if they are honest with themselves, would also admit that it is this kind of voyeurism that attracts them to works such as these and also perhaps gangster movies like The Godfather.

Perhaps more significantly, I also find Machiavelli's willingness to call a spade a spade very refreshing. Over the years, certain moral theories have always rubbed me the wrong way, because I always had the feeling that there is something disingenuous about them. Take, for instance, Aquinas's Just War Theory. However you cut it, war is an evil (how can it not be, when it involves sending a whole bunch of young people to kill another bunch of young people whom they would otherwise have nothing to do with?); why try to make it sound noble by calling it just? Machiavelli, on the other hand, simply tells it like it is: Throughout The Prince, he never pretends that it is moral to kill people or break promises, or incite your subjects to fight wars they wouldn't otherwise fight, or curry favor with those whose goodwill you wish to secure. He is simply saying that if you want to gain and hold on to power in this world that is filled with wicked and self-serving people, this is what you have to do, whether you like it or not.   

As for his rather politically incorrect remark that fortune is like a woman who needs to be beaten into submission... hmm, where do I begin? While I am not advocating beating women (or men) into submission, I also can't help feeling that Machiavelli might be on to something here. I mean, do you sometimes get the sense that the course of our lives are decided largely by how decisively and, dare I say, aggressively, we act on something at a particular crucial moment?

Let me give you a very mundane example. I was recently talking with a friend. She was happily married for many years to this guy with whom she had a couple of beautiful children, and whom she still thinks of as a great guy (they recently had an amicable divorce because of certain circumstances beyond their control; I won't go into the details here). Out of politeness, I asked her how they had originally met. She told me that he was a regular customer at this restaurant where she worked as a server many years ago. She had initially disliked him; she thought he was loud and obnoxious and arrogant. One day, when he was there with some friends, his friends dared him to go up to her and ask her out on a date. And he did. And she said yes, in order not to embarrass him in front of his friends. The rest, as they say, is history ("I found out that he wasn't the asshole that I thought he was, that he was actually pretty smart, and that we actually had a lot in common...").

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: Imagine what would have happened--or rather, not happened--if our friend hadn't decisively screwed up his guts and gone up to her and asked her out, facing the very real risk of public rejection and humiliation in front of his friends? Well, he would have deprived himself (and her) of many years of happiness, and a couple of beautiful people would not have come into existence. Or, to use Machiavelli's language, if he wasn't headstrong enough to beat and strike the iron of fortune at the decisive moment (i.e. when she is hot), he would have missed out on the opportunity.

This, of course, is just one very mundane example. But then again, what use is philosophy if one cannot use it to shed light on our mundane lives? Anyway, maybe you will agree with me, maybe you won't. But I think I have said enough for now. Maybe I'll go read some more Machiavelli... This is fun.       

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The vinyasa count, keeping one's teachers in mind: A few thoughts on self-practice, and a couple of totally useless chess observations

Earlier today, I was chatting with a friend at the coffeeshop that I normally hang out and do my work at. He was telling me that he went to bed at 4:30 this morning (I won't tell you why he did that, out of respect for his privacy). I replied that that was the exact time I got out of bed. Which is not exactly true, strictly speaking; I did sit in bed for a few minutes before I finally succeeded in lifting my ass out of bed (seriously, somebody needs to come up with a vinyasa count for getting out of bed in the morning: Ekam, turn body over; Dwe, swing legs over bed; Inhale, exhale there; Trini, stand up...). But I decided I did not need to overwhelm my friend with so much information. "In any case," I continued, "this means that at least one of us is conscious at any given moment of the day. Interesting, no?" Which drew a chuckle from my friend.

This little conversation with my friend brought my attention to one interesting fact: With the exception of trips here and there to study with various teachers, it has been more than three years since I have practiced at home, without the benefit of frequent practice at a shala, and the benefits of continued regular attention from a teacher that this brings. How have I been able to keep up this demanding practice throughout all the inevitable physical, mental, and emotional ups and downs that accompany the journey of practice? Two things stand out to me right off the top of my head:  

(1) Keeping to the vinyasa count to the best of my ability: One benefit of practicing regularly (once a week, in my case) to Sharath's led primary CD is that, over time, you start to get the vinyasa count down. For instance, in the seated postures of primary, you jump through into the pose on the first side on "Sapta", and after doing both sides, you end up on "Vimsatihi" with many postures. In the last few weeks, I have actually been counting the vinyasa count in my head as I move through the postures. I have found that doing this helps to keep me focused and prevent too many extraneous thought (i.e. monkey mind) from intruding. There is something about counting that prevents one from faffing and/or obsessing too much over postures. This is true even if I do end up giving myself one or two more breaths to get into Marichyasana D and Garbha Pindasana. Esepecially the former: I have yet to personally see anybody who can get into Mari D and bind in Sapta without taking one or two extra breaths. But I guess this is not the point: I think the idea behind keeping to the vinyasa count is that it reminds you that the practice is really a flow, and that you just have to keep on moving and breathing.

(2) Keeping in mind my teachers: Most of the time, I do this without even consciously trying to do so. For instance, in the first couple of downward dogs in Surya A, I sometimes find myself imagining one of my teachers (say, Kino) adjusting me. I often also find myself imagining one of my teachers squishing me in Paschimottanasana. I can't help thinking that it is little things like that that show that the practice is ultimately a communal experience; one feels the power of the Ashtanga community even if one is practicing by oneself most of the time. I also suppose that people who have met Guruji and formed a personal connection with him might imagine Guruji adjusting them or talking to them in his heavily South-Indian-accented English ("Why fearing, you?") during the course of their daily practices. But since I have never met Guruji, I can't know this for sure. By the way, this is also one of the reasons why I did not post anything on this blog yesterday (Guru Purnima): Although I certainly owe much to Guruji for being able to do this practice, I can't honestly say that I have a personal connection to him, and writing an homage to somebody I have never met just seems a little disingenuous.

Anyway... I don't really have much else to say here. I just thought I'd record a few practice thoughts here (For what? For posterity? Are a bunch of aliens going to dig this up and read it a few thousand years from now, when I am gone? :-)) before I eat some dinner and watch my nightly dose of Battlestar Galactica (I'm starting season 4 tonight... yay!).


Oh, and just in case this interests you, I made a couple of observations while playing chess with a friend earlier today: Isn't it interesting that the most powerful piece in chess is a woman (i.e. the queen)? Isn't it even more interesting that if you find the enemy queen very close to your king, somebody very bad is probably going to happen to you (i.e. an impending checkmate)? Moral of the story: Having a woman close to you is trouble... unless she is on your side!

[Image taken from here]

P.S. If you think this is a sexist observation, let me know, and I will consider (although I cannot promise) keeping such observations strictly to myself from now on. 

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yoga asana practice, chess, freewill, and life

I just watched the very beautiful video above by the latest humanoid Cylon model Kino. In the video, Kino talks about how her practice has evolved from simply throwing herself around on the mat to being a practice of listening to the body and tuning in more to the subtle body. Definitely worth a watch. Hmm... I also can't help wondering where (or whether) pain comes into the picture here? :-)


What's the next best thing to watching beautiful asana videos? Watching beautiful chess videos, of course! Below is a video of James Altucher playing a game of speed chess with the under-17 Argentinean chess champion at the Argentinean chess club. Damn... I'll probably have a heart attack if I had to play at this speed! Definitely breath-taking to watch; or jaw-dropping, as Claudia would put it. Or maybe both jaw-dropping and breath-taking; first, your jaw drops, and then you stop breathing... In any case, check this video out (I can't seem to embed the video (I've spent the last hour trying), and it wouldn't show up on blogger's youtube search box; arggh, technology...).

In her recent post, Claudia ponders the  relationship between chess and yoga. Have you ever wondered if there is a relationship between chess and life and freewill? Isaiah Berlin has this to say: 

"The world is a system and a network: to conceive of men as 'free' is to think of them as capable of having, at some past juncture, acted in some fashion other than that in which they did act; it is to think of what consequences would have come of such unfulfilled possibilities and in what respects the world would have been different, as a result, from the world as it now is. It is difficult enough to do this in the case of artificial, purely deductive systems, as for example in chess, where the permutations are finite in number, and clear in type--having been arranged so by us, artificially--so that the combinations are calculable. But if you apply this method to the vague, rich texture of the real world, and try to work out the implications of this or that unrealised plan or unperformed action--the effect of it on the totality of later events--basing yourself on such knowledge of causal laws and probabilities as you have, you will find that the greater the number of 'minute' causes you discriminate, the more appalling becomes the task of 'deducing' any consequence of the 'unhinging' of each of these, one by one; for each of the consequences affects the whole of the rest of the uncountable totality of events and things, which unlike chess is not defined in terms of a finite, arbitrarily chosen set of concepts and rules. And if, whether in real life or even in chess, you begin to tamper with basic notions--continuity of space, divisibility of time and the like--you will soon reach a stage in which the symbols fail to function, your thoughts become confused and paralysed." 

Isaiah Berlin, "The Hedgehog and the Fox"

The moral of the story seems to be this: Even if we have freewill, the sheer multitude and complexity of the minute causes that make our lives what they are today would make it impossible for us to know how things would have turned out if we had taken this action rather than another, or made this choice rather than another. Unlike chess, there is no way to go back and play out the alternative scenarios that would have unfolded from these alternate actions and choices. But... what if, unbeknownst to us, there really is a great but ultimately finite number of causes of our actions and choices, so that life is really like a big chess game? And what if there were a way to "go back" and "play out" these alternate life scenarios? Hmm... sounds like there is a movie to be made here...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

James Altucher on the daily practice, the idea muscle, yoga, Claudia, and college

About an hour ago, I had the great pleasure of sitting down to a Skype interview with James Altucher. I have long been a fan of his blog. In addition, he has also recently released a best-selling book, Choose Yourself. In this interview, we chat about a whole range of topics, including the Daily Practice, exercising the idea muscle, the influence of yoga on his work, the influence of Claudia on his work, and his views on college (couldn't resist this last one, since I actually teach college :-)). Anyway, the full interview is reproduced below in its entirety. I hope you will enjoy it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hedgehogs, foxes, bad poets, yoga; upcoming interview with James Altucher

Besides playing online chess and watching Battlestar Galactica (you can read about my exploits in these areas by reading whatever few posts I have written in this month and the last), I have also been spending a large part of the summer reading stuff that I haven't had time to read during the course of the regular school year. Right now, I am reading Isaiah Berlin's famous essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox", which is a very accessible and engaging analysis and commentary on the life and work of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, in particular, of his novel War and Peace. I am having so much fun reading it, that I am now inspired to go reread War and Peace.

Anyway, earlier today, I came across this rather long passage from "The Hedgehog and the Fox" which I find very intriguing, fascinating, and... yogic in nature; yogic in the sense that it alludes to this larger medium or reality which is beyond rational analysis but yet is all around us, kind of like the way in which water is all around the fish which swim in it (now, that was a pretty bad metaphor, wasn't it? Talk about bad poetry...). In any case, if you would like to read the passage, here it is:     

"We--sentient creatures--are in part living in a world the constituents of which we can discover, classify and act upon by rational, scientific, deliberately planned methods; but in part (Tolstoy and Maistre, and many thinkers with them, say much the larger part) we are immersed and submerged in a medium that, precisely to the degree to which we inevitably take it for granted as part of ourselves, we do not and cannot observe as if from the outside; cannot identify, measure and seek to manipulate; cannot even be wholly aware of, inasmuch as it enters too intimately into all our experience, is itself too closely interwoven with all that we are and do to be lifted out of the flow (it is the flow) and observed with scientific detachment, as an object. It--the medium in which we are--determines our most permanent categories, our standards of truth and falsehood, of reality and appearance, of the good and the bad, of the central and the peripheral, of the subjective and the objective, of the beautiful and the ugly, of movement and rest, of past, present and future, of one and many...

Nevertheless, though we cannot analyse the medium without some (impossible) vantage-point outside it (for there is no 'outside'), yet some human beings are better aware--although they cannot describe it--of the texture and direction of these 'submerged' portions of their own and everyone else's lives; better aware of this than others, who either ignore the existence of the all-pervasive medium (the 'flow' of life), and are rightly called superficial; or else try to apply to it instruments--scientific, metaphysical--adapted solely to objects above the surface, and so achieve absurdities in their theories and humiliating failures in practice. Wisdom is ability to allow for the (at least by us) unalterable medium in which we act--as we allow for the pervasiveness, say, of time or space, which characterises all our experience... It is not scientific knowledge, but a special sensitiveness to the contours of the circumstances in which we happen to be placed; it is a capacity for living without falling foul of some permanent condition or factor which cannot be either altered, or even fully described or calculated; an ability to be guided by rules of thumb... where rules of science do not, in principle, apply. This inexpressible sense of cosmic orientation is the 'sense of reality', the 'knowledge' of how to live...

We cannot describe it in the way in which external objects or the characters of other people can be described, by isolating them somewhat from the historical 'flow' in which they have their being, and from the 'submerged', unfathomed portions of themselves to which professional historians have... paid so little heed; for we ourselves live in this whole and by it, and are wise only in the measure to which we make our peace with it. For until and unless we do so (only after much bitter suffering, if we are to trust Aeschylus and the Book of Job), we shall protest and suffer in vain, and make sorry fools of ourselves (as Napoleon did) into the bargain." 

Isaiah Berlin, "The Hedgehog and the Fox"     

Reading this passage, I can't help getting the sense that there is a certain futility to yoga blogging. When one writes about yoga, one is using linguistic tools (words) to take apart and give expression to something (whatever the experience of yoga involves) that ultimately cannot really be taken apart and given full linguistic expression to. To write or blog about yoga, then, is to try to measure the depth of a large body of water while being submerged in the water itself... hmm... another bad metaphor here. Ah, but what can you expect from a bad poet? Perhaps what this means is that the best yoga bloggers are (good) poets. Because poets do not use language to try to take apart reality; rather, they open themselves and allow language to flow through them as water flows through a vessel. Thus, through them, language reveals/un-conceals reality rather than fragment it. Now who said this? Heidegger? Hmm...


But there is really no use crying about what a bad poet I am, is there? So I'm going to switch gears here, and give you a headsup about an upcoming event here on Yoga in the Dragon's Den. James Altucher has very generously agreed do a Skype interview with me on this blog. The actual interview will take place via Skype tomorrow (Thursday, July 18th) at 12 p.m. EDT. Very soon after the interview, I will post it on this blog, for your entertainment and possible edification. I hope you will enjoy it; if nothing else, it is really not too often that you get to witness a Chinese guy living in Idaho having a conversation with a Jewish guy in New York over God-only-knows-what; well, actually, I anticipate that most of the interview will center around James's ideas in his latest book, Choose Yourself. But given the way past interviews on this blog have gone, anything is possible. So stay tuned...      

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pain, yoga, Cylons

A lively exchange on pain and the Ashtanga practice has sprung up recently at the Confluence Countdown. As with most such lively exchanges, commenters come from all points on the pain/practice/sadhana spectrum. Some people agree and resonate wholeheartedly with Bobbie's view that pain is part of the growing process and sadhana associated with the journey of the practice. Others feel that Bobbie is setting up a false dichotomy between pain/long-term sadhana on the one hand, and no-pain/no-sadhana, on the other. These people feel that Ashtanga is not, and should not be an all-or-nothing proposition, that it is possible to practice Ashtanga and still lead a relatively "happy" and pain-free existence.

As for me, I'm not sure how I should even start talking about this, or if I should even talk about this at all. One problem I've noticed with exchanges like this in the blogosphere is that people tend to talk past each other. One person would say that pain is good and necessary; another might say that pain is bad and should be avoided. But are both people talking about the same thing when they talk about pain? It seems to me that in these exchanges, there is a lot of jumping around between different concepts while using the same word. For instance, at times, Bobbie is referring to the physical pain from her degenerating disks; at other times, when she says "pain", she seems to be referring to sometime more emotional, maybe even existential, like when she compares the pain that arises from the practice with the pain of poetic creation. I'm not sure what to make of this myself. I'm no poet (even though I sometimes try to write bad poetry), but I would be cautious about linking the experience of one process (Ashtanga practice) with another (writing poetry) so liberally; the two are, after all, distinct from each other. And even if there are similarities between the two processes, why tag on more baggage onto our practice than is already there? But well, what do I know about all this? As I said, I'm not a poet...

But in any case, what I'm trying to say is this: In this exchange, there clearly seems to be an equivocation between different senses of the word "pain". Bobbie, as we have seen, switches quite liberally between two different senses of that word. And God only knows how many other definitions of pain the various commenters are working with. Which, as we can imagine, is not too helpful for useful conversation.

But enough of complaining. Let me try to see if I can say something useful for once. Well, I'll just state the obvious. If you have pain of any sort (whether it's the physical kind, emotional/existential kind, or any other kinds that are out there), you have a few options:       

(1) Ignore it;
(2) Push through it; 
(3) Find ways to practice and live with/around it;
(4) Seek professional help, either from a teacher, medical practitioner, psychotherapist or.... poet (?) or.... philosopher (?)

I should also add that these options are not mutually exclusive. For instance, it is possible to find a way to live with/around the pain while seeking professional help at the same time. In any case, we are all adults (whatever definition of "adult" you choose to go by), and are free to choose and live with the consequences of whatever option we choose.

But of course, I should also add that things will probably be a lot easier if you are a Cylon. If you are a Cylon who suffers from unbearable pain (of whatever kind) arising from your practice, you can just kill yourself and then download into a new body; if you don't know what I'm talking about, watch Battlestar Galactica. But would Cylons need to practice yoga in the first place? Well, I don't know; but Cylons have been known to practice taichi on their basestars. Here's a model 8 doing taichi in the nude:


If some Cylons practice taichi, it stands to reason that there must be other Cylons out there who practice yoga. Maybe even Ashtanga? Hmm... might Kino be a Cylon?

 Could this be the latest humanoid Cylon model?

Maybe that's why she is so strong and flexible... Heck, maybe all long-time Ashtanga practitioners are Cylon sleeper agents; they think they are human, but are in fact Cylons who have been placed on earth to assume the cover identities of yoga practitioners and teachers. But why would whoever's in charge of the Cylons want to place Cylons here as Ashtangis? Well, how would I know? I'm not a Cylon. Or am I? Yikes... 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Interview with Nichiren Buddhist musician Ife Sanchez Mora

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I will be doing a Skype interview with alt-rock musician and fellow Nichiren Buddhist Ife Sanchez Mora. After overcoming a few technical and scheduling challenges, I am very happy to finally be able to present the interview here. I hope you will enjoy it.

Before you see the interview, I should say a few things about Ife. In her work, Ife blends several different musical genres, including rock, blues, country and funk, to create her own unique and refreshing sound. To give you a taste of her work, here's a video from her recently released album:

In addition to her musical career, Ife is also a practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, and has been a member of the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI) from birth; both her parents, prominent Detroit musicians Francisco Mora and Teresa Mora, have been practicing Buddhists since before she was born. In addition to Buddhism, Ife also practices Bikram yoga, and credits both her Buddhist and yoga practices with helping her to stay grounded amidst the vagaries and stresses of the highly competitive music industry.    


I should probably just shut up and let you see the interview already. But there are still a couple more things you need to be aware of (please bear with my long-windedness). I had originally intended to do the entire interview as one long Skype video session. Unfortunately, I only had the trial/demo version of the Skype recording software: Because of this, I was only able to record two five-minute-long segments of what was actually a 30-minute-long interview. So, in what follows, you will only be able to see 10 minutes of the actual Skype interview. The missing part will be filled by me below in text form. My apologies for this inconvenience. I have just purchased the full Skype recording package, so hopefully, you will be able to see the full length of all future Skype interviews on this blog (Moral of the story: Don't be a cheapo. Get the full version of whatever you have.). 

Here's the first segment of the interview. Ife talks about her early life and how she came to choose the path of music:

In the second segment, Ife shares how her supportive family, her Buddhist practice within the SGI, and her Bikram yoga practice have all helped her to grow and develop as a musician:

What follows below is the subsequent part of the interview that was not captured by the Skype recorder:

Nobel: It's interesting that you mention that you practice Bikram yoga, and the place of alignment within this practice. Since this is a yoga blog, I would like to ask you a technical question. I have heard a few stories of people who have injured themselves while practicing Bikram yoga, either because the heated environment of the Bikram studio causes them to push themselves beyond reasonable limits, or because the fast pace of the practice causes them to be less aware of what their bodies are going through. But you also seem to be suggesting that alignment plays an important role in Bikram yoga. This is something I am not aware of, since I have never practiced Bikram yoga. Can you tell us more about the place of alignment in Bikram yoga?

Ife: Sure. In every class, my instructor takes care to ensure that students pay attention to proper alignment while moving through the sequence of asanas. It is unfortunately true that people have injured themselves in the course of the practice. It is also true that this may have something to do with the fact that Bikram can be done competitively. But ultimately, the practice isn't just about pushing yourself physically; it is ultimately a therapeutic practice, and many people have healed themselves on many levels through doing Bikram yoga.

Nobel: Thank you for sharing your yoga practice with us. Sometime last year, you gave a very beautiful interview to Tricycle magazine. In that interview, you said:

"I really feel that Buddhism has taught me how to have appreciation. I think for every human being, appreciation in daily life is key. Through having appreciation for everything, you're able to expand so much as a human being, with your heart and your spirit and your mind. As a creative person especially, you really look to that expansion in order to be able to create, because the creative process is so intense. It takes a lot of digging deep within yourself and pulling things out while you don't really know what you're digging for or what you're pulling out."

What a vivid and beautiful description of your internal creative process! But I also wonder whether, in the course of this expansion and digging and pulling, have you ever pulled out certain unpleasant things from your life (painful past experiences or memories, etc.)? How have you been able to use your art to transmute these painful experiences? I ask this question because a lot of your music touches on the experience of women who are in painful or addictive relationships. Can you share this part of your creative process with us? 

Ife: Definitely. In Nichiren Buddhism, we have the concept of transforming poison into medicine (Japanese: Hendoku Iyaku). The idea is that through the Buddhist practice, any painful experience ("poison") can be transformed into something that helps you to grow as a human being ("medicine"). This concept definitely applies to this part of my creative process. For example, when I was working on my latest album, I was going through a difficult time in my marriage. Through renewed dedication to the Buddhist practice and a serious process of reflection, I was able to transform this painful experience into something that helped me to find new grounds for expressing myself creatively in my music. As a result, many people who have listened to my latest album have told me how much the music speaks to them personally and touches them on a deep level. I believe this is possible because of the process of transformation that happened within myself as I made the music.      

Nobel: Wow, thank you so much for sharing this deeply personal part of your experience as an artist and human being. Before I let you go, I have one more question for you. In order for you to become who you have become, there must be mentors and formative influences in your life that have shaped who you are today. Can you tell us who your mentors are?

Ife: Absolutely. My grandmother Elizabeth Catlett is a big source of inspiration in my life. She was a renowned political painter who has received honorary degrees from more than 70 prestigious universities and Ivy League institutions in this country and around the world. Her work has been featured in the most prestigious African-American art collections around the world, and she has also been named one of Oprah Winfrey's legends. She accomplished all this at a time when discrimination against African Americans and women was rampant. Whenever I find myself stuck or facing a deadlock in my life, I would ask myself, "What would Grandma do?"

Heidi Pollyea, an Atlanta, Georgia based singer and songwriter is also a great influence in my life. When I first started out as a musician, I was shy and did not have a big voice. I took voice lessons with Heidi, who taught me how to find my voice and give expression to my potential.

Don Lawrence also helped me to develop my musical abilities, and use it to productively further my career in the music industry.   

Nobel: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I hope we get to speak again soon.

Ife: Thank you. 

Death, past, present, and future

“Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.” 

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace


A couple of days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about death and dying. Our discussion centered around these questions: Why are we so afraid of death? Are we afraid of no longer being around, of no longer being conscious of what is going on in this world? Or are we afraid of no longer being in the lives of people we are close to and care about, of no longer being a part of events, of being condemned to being perpetually referred to in the past tense ("Nobel was generally a great guy when he was around, but he can also be an asshole sometimes..."), of being unable to speak for oneself?

I won't bore you here with a blow-by-blow account of how the conversation went (I don't really remember, anyway). But by the end of the conversation, I came to the conclusion that what many people are really afraid of is not so much death itself (and the cessation of existence that accompanies this event), but the process of dying, i.e. the process of pain, discomfort and indignity (say, the indignity of being unable to do even routine everyday things like going to the bathroom without needing the help of others) that precedes the cessation of existence for many people. In our everyday lives, we tend to think of death--if and when we do think about it--as this sudden "poof" instant where we just, you know, "poof" and vanish from existence like a bubble that has popped. And perhaps, if death really does happen in this sudden "poof" kind of way, we would not fear it as much as we do. But of course, we know that very few of us will have the good fortune to die in this sudden and painless way. Many of us will probably have to undergo a certain degree of pain and suffering, and God forbid, indignity on the way to death.

But let us just suppose for a second that we have a way of ensuring that death will be painless (perhaps because technology has advanced to the point where everybody can be assured a quick and painless death when our time on this earth is up, perhaps because society has advanced to the point where physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia has become widely socially acceptable, etc.). Even if we have a way of ensuring this, there is still a problem: We don't know when exactly we are going to die. And so we won't know when that moment will come when we will have to be separated from everything and everybody that we care about in this world.

There are those who say, in response to this problem, that this is why we should live every single day as if it were the last day of our lives. This is very beautiful advice in its own way, but it does not address a basic disconnect between what we are as human beings and the fact of our own mortality. Human beings do live in the present, but the present only makes sense against the background of the past, and the plans and projections that we make for the future. Right now, for example, you are reading this particular paragraph that I am writing in this present moment. Even as you are reading this, however, some part of your mind is simultaneously working to assimilate this particular paragraph to everything that has come before. At the same time, another part of your mind (or maybe it's the same part, I don't know; I'm no psychologist) is making some assumptions about what I am going to say next. What I'm saying is this: Unless you are actively assimilating the present into the past as you perceive it, and also projecting into the future at the same time, you won't be able to read and comprehend anything effectively.

This applies not just to reading and comprehending text, it also applies to reading and comprehending life. We cannot even begin to make sense of ourselves, our lives, and our place in the universe (or whatever it is that you call that thing which is much bigger than yourself) unless we continually assimilate the present into the past and project it into the future (which is kind of why I think that the whole idea of living only in the present is a pretty idea, but is ultimately misguided new-agey talk; but I won't go into this now).

But I need to get back to the problem of death. So this is where the problem of death comes in: Since we don't know when we are going to die, we also cannot know when we will have to stop projecting into the future. Here, of course, the living-fully-in-the-present people will say, "Ah, but this is why you need to live each day--no, each moment--as if it were the last day or moment of your life. If you do this, then you will be able to stop projecting into the future." Again, very beautiful advice, but again, this doesn't address the sheer reality of human experience, which is that being human (or, at least, being human among other humans) necessarily involves projecting into the future and making some at least minimal assumptions about what that future will look like. Even if you decide that you are going to kill yourself tomorrow and are going to give away all your possessions today, you still have to make plans about who to give to, and assume that the people whom you are giving to will be around long enough to receive what you have to give them. And just making this assumption is itself a projection into the future. So one simply cannot live as a human without some measure of projection into the future.

Death abruptly thwarts any and all such projection and lays it to waste by bringing the projector (you) out of the picture abruptly. And the problem is that we don't know when this abrupt thwarting will happen. Which brings up an interesting question: Suppose there were a way for each of us to know when exactly we are going to die (don't ask me how exactly this is going to come about; I'm just supposing...)? If we can somehow know when exactly we are going to die (without knowing how), wouldn't this make our lives a little easier, by taking a lot of the guesswork out of when we need to get all our shit done before we disappear from this world? Wouldn't this make our lives easier, by giving us a final deadline by which we need to make something out of our time on this earth, or simply get whatever we want to get done on this earth done? So I guess what I'm asking is: Wouldn't it be a good thing if we can know when exactly we are going to die?

Well, I've just about said all I have to say on this topic, at least for now. How to end? Well, how about a poll? I haven't conducted a poll on this blog in a while. So, in the top right-hand corner of this blog, you will find a poll with the question: If there is a way of knowing when exactly you are going to die, would you want to know? Feel free to participate. A little morbid for a poll question, I suppose, but if we can't talk and think about death, what else can we meaningfully talk and think about?                

Monday, July 1, 2013

On being Cylon, speciesism, religion, and yoga

Earlier today, I was telling a colleague--I'm going to just call him R from now on--about my ongoing Battlestar Galactica (BSG) binge (for more details, see previous post). As he was unfamiliar with the basic premise of BSG (he's a middle-aged Canadian gentleman who is not that into sci-fi... speaking of which, Happy Canada Day, if you are reading this from Canada), I had to quickly explain the general story arc of BSG to him (we're talking about the 2003 remake here; the story is slightly different in the 1978 version): Once upon a time, somewhere in deep space, a bunch of humans who make up the Twelve Colonies of Kobol lived more or less happily on a bunch of planets. According to the holy scriptures of these humans, there is a thirteenth colony of humans who live on a planet called Earth, but nobody knows where Earth is, or whether it even exists. Anyway, the humans lived more or less happily in these twelve colonies until one day, the Cylons--a cybernetic race originally created by these humans to be their servants but who later rebelled and went off to form their own civilization--launched a surprise attack on the twelve colonies, which resulted in the near-extinction of the human race. The surviving humans (about 50,000 people) fled the Cylons in a bunch of rather shoddy spaceships (shoddy compared to the Cylon ships, that is). Led by the battleship Battlestar Galactica, they set off on a long journey across the universe to find Earth. Will they succeed? I don't know, I'm still watching to find out :-)

All this must be rather boring if you are already familiar with BSG. My apologies. Anyway, immediately after hearing my synopsis, R, who is well-known for his irony-laced sense of humor, remarked, "So, I take it that the Cylons are the good guys, right?" I was taken aback by this remark for about a quarter of a second, but then quickly saw where he was going with this. This is roughy how the conversation proceeded from this point:

Nobel: Ah yes, I see what you're saying. The humans basically created a slave-race of cybernetic robots to serve their rather trivial interests. All the robots did was rebel and fight back. Which is something any self-respecting race would do.

R [smiles and nods enthusiastically]: So you are on the side of the Cylons?

Nobel [smiles sheepishly]: Well, rationally speaking, I probably should be on the Cylons' side. After all, if we are willing to put aside the fact that they kill humans (like humans don't kill humans, anyway...), they do have a few strong arguments going for them. For instance, many Cylons are deeply religious: They believe that since humans are so fracked-up and corrupt, it is God's will that Cylons should be brought into this universe (by humans, no less: Which shows that God has a very interesting sense of poetic justice) to destroy humans, so that the universe will become a better place. A sort of moral Darwinism, if you will. To be sure, this argument is probably compelling only if you believe that there is a God or some kind of universal agency that is responsible for meting out justice in the universe. But it may still be a great argument if you replace "God" with either your favorite universal-justice-meting-mechanism, or with some notion of the survival of the morally and physically fittest.

Oh, and actually, there is also one more thing going for the Cylons. Since Cylons are basically a bunch of robots, they are, by default, in possession of perfect health and perfect cognitive abilities. Which means that Cylon society does not suffer from the kinds of problems associated with the allocation and distribution of scarce social goods (health care, for instance) that plague human society. After all, who needs insurance or a public health-care system in Cylon society? So, to be a Cylon is to be morally perfect, and also be in possession of perfect health and mental ability. What's not to love about that?   

R: Okay, very nice... so why aren't you on the side of the Cylons?

Nobel: Because I'm human! I hate to have to admit this, but I'm basically what Peter Singer would call a speciesist: I am somebody who favors the interests of my own species over that of another, just because they are a different species, just because they, well, look different from me... Well, actually, that's not even really true in the case of the Cylons. The latest Cylon models actually look and feel human (and rather attractively so, if I may add...):

The latest Cylon models
[Image taken from here]

Contrast these with the earlier robot model, a.k.a. the Centurion:

[Image taken from here]

And actually, while poking around online a little while ago, I also found this very useful chart that gives a quick overview of the evolutionary history of the Cylon:
Hmm... from toasters to hot blonde? How's that possible?
[Image taken from here]

Okay, I realize I've digressed majorly here. Anyway, to come back to my conversation with R... by the end of said conversation, I found myself running out of good reasons not to take the side of the Cylons, as they are obviously the physically, intellectually, and morally superior race... I'm going to have to seriously rethink my human allegiances now. By the way, what this also shows is that the writers of BSG are also a bunch of speciesists: Despite the very obvious flaws of the humans, they are still depicted as the good guys in the series. 


I suppose I better change the subject before you get bored by my BSG ramblings, if you aren't already. So, on a totally different note, it appears that yoga has scored a legal victory over a bunch of religious Cylons people. Earlier today, San Diego Superior Court judge John Meyer ruled that the Encinitas Union School District's yoga program (which, as most of you know, was initiated with a grant from the Jois Foundation) does not endorse any religion, and may be allowed to continue.

If you read this blog regularly, you know my position on this case, so I shall not belabor you with a further exposition of my views here. But now I can't help wondering if this entire case might not be a Cylon plot. After all, Cylons look like us (only they are a bit more physically attractive), and believe in a monotheistic religion; this being the case, it is very possible that Cylons might well regard yoga and its spirituality-imbued movement practice as an affront to God. Notice also that the "it's just exercise" argument is not going to work against Cylons: They already have perfect health, and won't need the exercise. Hmm.... could the NCLP be a Cylon front organization? Could those perfect-looking conservative Christians really be the latest Cylon models? Uh oh, I think I may have said too much here... well, I think I'll sign off now and go eat some dinner. And maybe watch more BSG. More later.