Thursday, September 26, 2013

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Backbends, candy and nuts, upcoming book reviews

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

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


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


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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Sleep-deprived half-tick-tocks

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Got handstanded this morning

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

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

Saturday, September 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bozeman, Lino's workshop

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

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

More later.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

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

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

Nobel: Hey, it's you!

K: Nice to see you!

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

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

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

K: I agree!

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

K: Yep.

Nobel: See you soon!

K: See you.

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

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

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

Saturday, September 7, 2013

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

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

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

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

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


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

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