Friday, December 31, 2010

A Deathly New Beginning

Greetings Fellow Blogosphere Inhabitants!

As we are at the threshold of a new year (actually, if you do not live in North America, the New Year probably has already arrived for you: In that case, Happy New Year!), I feel this inexplicable urge to make some half-baked, neither-here-nor-there remarks to usher in the new year. So bear with me.   

So... (ahem!)... We are in the last few hours of 2010, awaiting, with bated breath, the arrival of 2011. At the same time, many of us are experiencing the deadening cold of winter: As I write this, it is -2 degrees fahrenheit out here in northwest Minnesota.

This is a time of deathly new beginning. Death of what has come to pass, and the beginning of a future whose form is taking shape in every single instant of the present; a future whose exact dimensions still elude the intellectual, grasping mind.

This is a difficult time, to be sure; we have to let go of the things that have passed, and the expectations that these things have conditioned our minds to work with. At the same time, it is also an exciting period of new growth and fresh possibilities, and the more we can let go of expectation, the more we can be open to the opportunities for growth that these new possibilities present themselves.

More concretely, I can't help feeling that this season of deathly new beginning also manifests itself in the practice. From reading various blogs over the last few days, I get the sense that quite a few blogosphere inhabitants are facing big changes in their practices, both on and off the mat. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for navigating these changes, but I am confident that whatever each person chooses to do to respond to these changes will result in a deepening of his or her own practice, and that it is only a matter of time before the growth that results from such a deepening blossoms into a much more joyful, integrated practice, both on and off the mat. As some wise guy once said, winter never fails to turn to spring.

Of course, as we go about this process of deepening, we must not forget the deep power that makes all this possible: The Force! With this in mind, I would like to share some more wise words from Kino:

"When you practice yoga you embark on a jedi mind training that teaches you how not to get so caught up in past experience that your future is absolutely determined by it while at the same time using your real world experiences to teach you both on and off the mat. Yoga asks you to reflect on the past as a learning device, not as an absolute future determinant. It would be naive simply to say that there is no past and no future without a firm understanding of just how to live in the present moment. The epiphany moment that wipes away painful past experiences and opens the door to a new way of being happens in one instant and is the culmination of many years of hard work and determination. This moment of transformation is grounded in the past while reaching toward the future and yet must happen in the “now”. Growth often manifests with seeming light speed but this effervescence is actually dependent on years of learning spent on the tight rope between past, present and future."

Ha, it looks like I am unearthing more and more Ashtangis who are closet Star Wars geeks all the time :-)

But seriously, whether or not you make New Year's resolutions, the dawn of the new year is a good time to reaffirm our commitment to our individual practice, because we never know when the "aha" moment (whatever this means for you: Achieving a particular posture, becoming more self-fulfilled, or attaining the siddhi of teleportation...) will arrive in our journey of practice. But we can only witness this moment if we show up and are present when the moment chooses to manifest itself. So, the bad news: There is no shortcut. Gotta show up everyday. However, the good news is: Practice, and all (whatever "all" means to you) is coming.

May the Force be with you.  

Thursday, December 30, 2010

What exactly is the place of asana in our practice? Or, why I might be becoming a Kino groupie

I have been following with intense interest the past few posts on Boodiba's blog. I wanted to comment on a couple of the posts, but I couldn't find a way to say something that isn't trite. So I thought I'll just write a blog post myself. But I hope you find a way to work through the ennui you are experiencing, Boodiba. The Force is always with you.

Following the exchange on Boodiba's blog brings up a deceptively simple question: "What exactly is the place of asana in our practice?" It's all too easy to respond with the "official line", and say something like, "Asana is not important. The most important thing is to breathe and to be aware of everything we are doing, both on and off the mat. The asana is just a means towards this end. Fixating on the achievement of asana brings up pride, ego, and all the other things that get in the way of self-realization."

Fair enough. I buy that (I really do). But the fact is that asana is a prominent part of the ashtanga life, at least if you measure it by the number of hours the "average" practitioner spends on asana practice a week:

6 days a week X an hour and a hour to two hours a day = 9 to 12 hours a week.

That's a lot of time to be spending on something that is "not important"! This is going to sound really crass, but imagine if we were to all get paid at least the federal minimum wage for all the hours of asana we do each month? It won't be a fortune, to be sure (it probably won't even make rent for me), but it'll still be a sizeable chunk of change, especially if you multiply that by the amount we would "earn" in a year. And this still doesn't do justice to the anguish that we experience with trying (and "failing") to achieve particular postures (dropping back/standing up, raja kapotasana, you name it), or to the emotional upheavals that accompany having to accept and work with physical limitations and injuries. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we seem to be expending a lot of physical and emotional energy on something that is "not important", that is only supposed to be a means towards an end. So why do we torture (if I may use this word) ourselves so?

An unsympathetic "outsider", who is "uninitiated" into our "ashtanga cult" would probably look at all this, smile in a somewhat amused and disdainful way, and say, "Why put yourself through all this? Don't you think your life would be easier (and probably happier) if you were to ease up on trying to achieve dropping back/standing up/rajakapotasana (or whatever)? If the point of your practice is to achieve peace of mind/self-realization, why don't you just do some sitting meditation? Or go take a walk in the park? After all, it's not as if you are going to suddenly become an enlightened being the moment you succeed in dropping back/standing up or getting rajakapotasana..."

I have an answer to this unsympathetic outsider. Well, sort of. I would probably respond by saying that although asana is "not important" in the bigger scheme of things (even though we spend a lot of time doing it), it is an invaluable tool that helps us to learn about ourselves and who we really are: In the process of striving to get our bodies to do and achieve things that seem physically impossible, we are forced to confront the ugliness that arises in ourselves in this process, accept it (yes, the ugliness) as part of ourselves, and then see what we can do to work with this ugliness and live fulfilling lives in spite of the presence of this ugliness. Is this a good reply to the unsympathetic outsider? I don't know. Well, it will have to do, because I can't think of anything better (and I want to have a reason to continue doing my practice everyday!).

Actually, there is something Kino recently wrote that really speaks to this issue. Speaking of Kino, I had a really weird dream last night. I dreamt that I was taking her workshop somewhere. Instead of leading us through a practice, Kino first had us lie down on our mats with our eyes open. And then, while we were still lying down, she somehow conjured up this holographic image of a woman. The holographic woman then spoke to us, and got us to do a series of unfamiliar movements in the reclining position. Later on in the dream, I found myself standing in a corner of the studio where the workshop was taking place, feeling a little cheated out of the workshop (Gosh, Kino, I didn't pay all this money to be entertained by your silly holographic monkey tricks!). I tried to do the primary series, but found that I had become so fat/bloated that I could barely even get into Trikonasana! (Well, there's actually a biological explanation for this one: I ate 3 slices of pizza before I went to bed last night).

But all this is neither here nor there. Like you would care about the content of my dreams (Am I becoming a Kino groupie, by the way? I'm even dreaming about taking her workshop...). Anyway, here's what Kino has to say about the seeming paradox of achievement in the asana practice. I suppose some skepticism on your part may be inevitable ("Come on, you're Kino MacGregor. It's easy for you to say this"), but if we try to put this skepticism aside, I think what she says is very true and wise:

"Along the road to the realization of impossible postures yoga teaches us that the real impossibility we strive towards is no mere physical form, but is a state of inner peace that is completely imperturbable. The consciousness of eternal peace is the classically paradoxical comprehension that the real goal is in essence the journey itself. In order to “get” anywhere along the lifelong spiritual path of yoga one of the most basic lessons is to realize there is nowhere really to go. This letting go is the release of attachment and desire that leads to a truly peaceful state of mind... You will know that your happiness is not dependent of the achievement of the outcome and therefore be truly happy.

Once your self-worth is separated from the outcome of your actions you win your freedom from emotionality blurring your integrity along the way. Yoga asks you to learn that who you are is grander, larger and more connected than you ever dreamed and that you are only yourself when you rest in this higher awareness. When you remain non-attached to the results of your actions you also have more space to think through the process with clarity and be open to the solution when it presents itself. The greatest teaching of yoga is also the greatest paradox of life. If you want something so badly that it makes you a lesser person for wanting it you will also hold yourself apart from your goal by the very intensity of your desire. At the same time you must commit yourself fully to any process in order to get the results you want. Solving the riddle of just how much effort, luck, openness, thoughtfulness and perseverance to put in is the mystery of life. Yoga teaches you how to walk this thin red line between belief and impossibility, goals and attachment and temporality and eternity with grace and ease. Thus, by doing yoga you also learn how to master the game of life."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Where the mind is without fear

This is my favorite poem by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). It was written by Tagore before India achieved independence, and expressed his vision of how a new, awakened India should be like. As I was reading this poem again recently, it struck me that there is a sense in which the poem isn't addressed so much to a country as to an individual person. In particular, the lines of the poem give vivid expression to the kind of qualities that we strive for in our yoga practice.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action ...
Into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, 1912

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Falling on my face

Fell on my face during this morning's practice. After my fifth navasana, I lifted my body off the mat, and attempted to lift up into handstand. I got my hips to where they were directly above my shoulders (or so my prioproception tells me; I obviously couldn't see my shoulders at that moment), and then extended my legs up into the air. They actually stayed up (exciting!). Then I tried to extend my arms to lift up into handstand. For some reason, my arms gave way, and I fell on my nose/mouth. Fortunately, my apartment is carpeted, so no teeth were lost (FAQ: How many Ashtangis have false teeth as a result of accidents during the practice?).

I just got some useful advice from Boodiba/Queen of the East Village about how to work on this transition. Thank you Boodiba! Will go at it again tomorrow. 

This is, in my memory, the second time I have fallen on my face during practice. The first time was earlier this year, at my teacher's shala in Milwaukee. I was trying to come down in Karandavasana, and my arms gave way as well. That resulted in a slightly bruised upper lip. My teacher's response wasn't so sympathetic: He smirked, and said, "This won't be the first time." Turns out he was right.

But there is a positive side to this whole story. For those of you out there who have great fear of falling on your face, I am living proof that it is not all that bad. Oh well, maybe I shouldn't jinx myself by saying this: There's still tomorrow morning's practice.  

Musings on mysore rugs

First, some wonderful news: My new mysore rug just arrived from 

This may not mean very much to you, so a little back story is in order. Well, my trusty old mysore rug (which I also bought from barefootyoga a couple of years ago) has served me well. So well, in fact, that it even has holes in it. In particular, there is a big hole where I place my left foot in downdog (probably means I put more weight in the left side of my body). So I decided that it was time to get a new rug. The front of my new rug looks like this:

 Pretty cool, eh?

What am I going to do with my old rug? Well, for a moment, I entertained big plans of giving it a royal farewell for having seen me through my practice for the past couple of years. I briefly fantasized about setting up a huge funeral pyre and chanting the Gayatri Mantra while consecrating it to the flames and sending it on its journey to mysore-rug-heaven.

Such a plan is, of course, highly unexecutable: Besides the obvious difficulty of starting up a fire of this magnitude in this cold weather, I would also probably get arrested for creating a public hazard! So I had to settle for a more humble retirement plan for my old mysore rug. It now sits outside the door of my apartment, serving as a doormat. If my mysore rug was a sentient being, it would probably be lamenting: "What a hard life I've had! In my prime, I was stepped and sat upon everyday by the resident yogi, and drenched all over in his sweat (and God knows what other noxious bodily fluids and emissions). Now that I am old and not so useful, my life has become even harder: Everyone steps on me now!"

Thankfully, mysore rugs are not sentient beings, at least not to the best of my knowledge (Imagine somebody like Peter Singer arguing for the liberation of mysore rugs, or somebody fighting for the civil rights of mysore rugs? "We will not be stepped upon or treated as doormats any longer! We have a dream...").

But seriously, if you practice ashtanga and do not own a mysore rug, I highly, highly recommend that you get one. It will seriously change the dynamics of your practice. Because a mysore rug is not sticky, you have to work so much harder in the standing postures, which gives your feet and bandhas a good workout. Moreover, I suspect that there is a certain level of mystique associated with a mysore rug, especially if you should decide to indulge in some yoga tourism (see my December 22nd post about the perils of doing this) on moon days: Just imagine how you would stand out from the plebeian yoga masses when you swagger into a studio and unroll your classic mysore rug while everybody else is sitting on those rubber things they call mats...

Maybe I should consider moonlighting as a sales rep for Barefoot Yoga :-) 

Monday, December 27, 2010

A little meditation on... shit

I have so much to say about my life today that I actually need to post twice on the same day! Well, maybe this makes up for the fact that I did not post on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

There is a nice little locally-owned coffee-shop on the ground floor of my apartment complex. It's a very pleasant thing to have, especially at this time of year: I get to have my espresso without having to venture out into the cold weather. As a matter of fact, I am actually sitting in the coffee-shop right now writing this post.  I like to come here on days when I don't have to teach, and spend entire afternoons blogging, reading and writing.

The coffee-shop also has bathrooms right next to it in the hallway. Which is a great convenience. But sometimes, accidents happen. A couple of hours ago, I needed to go to the bathroom. I stepped in the bathroom, closed the door behind me, and, lo and behold, the toilet was clogged up with human excrement! (I'm not good with euphemisms, as you can see...) Thankfully (and somewhat mysteriously), the smell wasn't exactly over-powering (note to self: not all shit is equally stinky). I was able to stop my gag reflex before it even barely started forming at the pit of my stomach. Keeping my head turned away from the direction of the excrement, I pushed down on the flushing lever, hoping to exorcise this demon of stink (even though it really wasn't that stinky). That didn't help; in fact, it almost made the problem worst, because the water level in the toilet rose, threatening to spill its unsavory contents beyond its confines (of course; the toilet was clogged up. What was I thinking?!).

At that point, I decided that enough was enough; surely I had performed my civic duty by enduring the not-so-stinky stinkiness and attempting to flush the shit down. So I went back to the coffee-shop, told the barista what I saw, and asked if I could use the ladies bathroom. She very kindly agreed.

So what has all of this to do with yoga? After all, this is supposed to be a blog about yoga. Well, on a purely physical level, I am really convinced that doing deep backbends strengthens or allows one to more easily access the deep muscles needed to suppress the gag reflex. I don't know the exact anatomical reason for this, I just feel it. Secondly, on a more existential level, I think the practice helps one to be a little more present when shit hits the fan (no pun intended), so that one is not mastered by one's most immediate visceral reactions, and is at least in a position to try to do something  to help the situation. Well, actually, I'll make a little confession here: After I stepped out of the bathroom, I remembered that there was a plunger right next to the toilet. If I had been more present, I would have been able to suppress my gag reflex even more, and use the plunger to take even more productive (again, no pun intended) action. But of course, I did not: I basically fled the scene.

All of this imbues me with even more respect for janitors and toilet cleaners in general: How can they face the same shit everyday? Well, okay, they actually face different shit everyday, but you get my drift. Perhaps toilet cleaning is also a form of yoga practice: Maybe being able to stare human excrement in the face without gagging/puking is just as, if not more difficult than doing kapotasana? Hmm...

Which brings me to another thought. Why do we find human excrement so uniquely repulsive? It might be because it is stinky, but that can't be the whole reason: As I mentioned above, not all excrement is equally stinky. I suspect that if by some miracle, all the excrement in the world were to suddenly cease to be stinky one day, we would probably still experience the same level of repulsion as we do today. And, what makes this repulsiveness even less explicable is the fact that it is produced by the human body. So we are basically repulsed by something that is produced naturally by the body.

Well, I have to interrupt this train of thought now, because I suddenly need to go to the bathroom again. Uh oh...     

A little practice report, interpersed with some ruminations about the practice

Practice this morning was great. Did primary and second up to supta vajrasana (don't feel up to messing with all the second series leg-behind-head drama). Here are a few "practice highlights":

(1) When I started practice this morning, my SI joint was feeling a bit... (how should I put this)... off. I could feel that familiar and not so nice sensation of its being slightly out of place as I was stepping into Virabhadrasana I on the left side in Surya B. There was also that slightly "off" feeling in the lower back as I jumped forward from downdog into uttanasana. But somewhere between the beginning of the seated postures and Supta Kurmasana, the problem corrected itself. I know this because I was able to do the dwipada sirsasana entrance into Supta K without any "off" sensation in my lower back. Reminds me yet again that primary is first and foremost a therapeutic practice (yoga chikitsa, "yoga therapy").

Reminds me also that the important thing is to practice, no matter what postures I can or cannot do on a given day, no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable the practice is. In her most recent post, Loo says,

"I made it to the shala this morning and it helped settle me down. Reset my internal gyroscope. I got on my mat and just breathed in, breathed out. Moved my arms this way, moved my legs that way. Found myself responding to the rhythm and coming back to a sense of normalcy..."

Thanks for the beautiful words, Loo! They really capture what I feel about the power and beauty of the practice. I am also reminded of something my teacher once quoted Guruji as saying: "The only bad practice is no practice." Over the course of the last couple of years of my journey of practice, postures have come and gone, and the practice is easier on some days, harder on others. But the practice is like life: It is a river of breath that flows from moment to moment, day to day. To step on the mat is to step into this river and allow it to carry me wherever it flows. Heraclitus famously said that you can never step into the same river twice. In the same way, no two practices are alike. The river of our life/practice changes and morphs everyday. But we have a choice: We can choose to tune in to this powerful river, be conscious of where it is flowing, and try to harmonize our lives with it. Or we can choose to be blissfully (or not so blissfully) ignorant of this flow that is greater than our individual egos, and yet so deep within ourselves.

(2) I hope I'm not jinxing myself by saying this, but I really feel that I am getting quite close to being able to lift up into handstand after the fifth navasana. A little back-story is in order here. A few evenings ago, I was clowning around with trying to get into handstand from bakasana. My girlfriend saw what I was doing, and suggested that I first try shifting my hips so that they come directly over my shoulders before trying to bring my knees off the arms. I tried and didn't succeed, but I could feel how this way of approaching the transition would be useful. So today, I remembered this little tip after my fifth navasana. Instead of simply trying to straighten my arms up after lifting my butt off the ground, I also tried at the same time to shift my hips so that they come more in line with my shoulders. And then I extended my legs backwards. And, wonder of all wonders, my legs actually stayed in the air for about 2 or 3 breaths before gravity pulled them down to the ground. I can't tell how far away from the ground my legs were when they were in the air (didn't have a video camera handy), but my proprioception (or, at any rate, however much of it I have) tells me that they were avout 45 degrees from the ground. I hope this is true. Pretty cool, eh?

(3) During dropbacks and standups, I tried to remind myself to have the same level of openness in my front body that I had in kapo. You see, I think I suffer from "kapo-tunnel-vision". I'm not quite sure how else to put this, but basically, I have no problem opening my front body enough in kapo to grab my heels, even if I have to hang for quite a few breaths to get my body to open up. But once I'm done with kapo, my mind/body tends to tell itself, "Yay! The hardest backbend of the practice is over! Now I can just chill out and relax!" As a result, I tend  to just kind of plop down into the dropbacks. Because I don't open my front body enough, I always have a little trouble trying to re-find (is this even a word?) the front-body muscles that I need to stand back up. So it usually takes rocking back and forth a few times before I am able to stand back up. But today, I kept reminding myself to open my chest first before dropping back. It really made a difference. I still had to walk my hands a little closer before I could stand up, but it felt easier. During the third dropback, I walked my hands all the way to the heels, and the distance didn't even feel as long as usual. Some day, some day, I will have a totally effortless dropback and standup. And then I will be the king of the yoga universe [Insert evil kungfu master laugh here].

Sunday, December 26, 2010

What yoga posture would you like to die in?

Yes, I do understand that this is a rather morbid question to be asking, especially on the day after Christmas, no less. Well, the fault is not entirely mine: I got the inspiration for this question from Arturo's latest blog post!

So yes, I totally admit that this is a very morbid question to be contemplating. But as James Bond famously said,

"You only live twice:
Once when you're born
And once when you look death in the face."

Whether we like it or not, death is the only event in our lives that we can be dead certain about (no pun intended) after we are born. And like birth, we have no control over the manner in which we are going to die. But here's the difference: While we were not reflective beings before we were born (i.e. while we were in the womb), we are reflective beings before our moment of death. So we can at least set some kind of intention, which would hopefully direct our life in such a way that it will tend towards the direction in which we want it to end, rather than not.

Hence my question. Since my favorite activity (and presumably, many of yours too) is yoga, I would think that it would be better, all other things being equal, to die doing something that I love doing than to die doing something that makes me miserable. If your favorite activity is not yoga, this question still applies to you: What aspect of your favorite activity would you like to be "caught" doing at the moment of death?

Well, I'll take the plunge myself first. I would NOT like to be doing kapotasana (or some other backbend) when I die. Even though my kapotasana actually looks pretty good (I know, I'm being very immodest), I actually have to make a lot of effort to keep my breath even and my body in that position in kapotasana; I have yet to actualize "Sthira Sukham Asanam" in this posture. If it already takes me so much effort to keep myself steady in the posture when I am alive and kicking, I can only imagine how terrible it must be to use every ounce of my last breath on earth to hold myself in this very demanding posture. Yes, I know I do look pretty good in this posture, but who cares about looking good when one is dying?

I think I would much prefer to take my last breath in some forward bend or hip-opener like paschimottasana or even padmasana. Actually padmasana would be nice; I'll both look and feel good :-)

My apologies if this topic is very morbid. I promise that I will come up with more cheerful topics in subsequent posts. But if you are not too offended by the morbidness of this post, I would love to hear your views.         

Thursday, December 23, 2010

1:69 p.m.

It is the first day of school. It is a nice sunny afternoon in some strange unfamiliar place (looks like Florida, but I'm not certain). I am walking towards campus, going to teach my first class of the semester. The thing is, I have no idea what time the class is supposed to meet, so I'm trying to get to campus as quickly as possible, so that I can find out what time my class meets (why didn't I find this out at home?... Frustrating...). 

Anyway, I continue to walk as fast as I can. I glance at my watch. It says 1:69 p.m. Okay... at least I know what time it is. I finally arrive on campus. I walk into the philosophy department, and ask Miss G, the department secretary, what time my course meets today, how many courses I am teaching this semester, and what days and times they meet (Gosh! Why don't I know all this? Disturbing...). For some reason, she seems totally unfazed by my total lack of organization and preparedness for the first day of class. She pulls out the course catalog, and shows me my course schedule at this little college in Florida. So I'm in Florida... Wait a second. What on earth am I doing in Florida? Am I not supposed to be teaching in Minnesota? And isn't Miss G supposed to the department secretary at my college in Minnesota as well? What's going on? 

Anyway, she shows me the course schedule, and I realize that I am teaching 3 courses this semester. Not a bad course-load, I think to myself. And they all meet in the afternoon, so there is no need to rush out of the house in the morning after practice. And then I realize something else that is strange. This college has courses that meet at 11 p.m.! Hmm... Who would want to enroll in a course that meets at 11 p.m.? Some night owls? Weird... 

Weird.... And then, from some far off corner of space-time, I hear this shrill, persistent ring-tone. A sound that is totally out of place, yet somehow familiar. Gee, isn't that... my cell-phone? 

And then I suddenly found myself lying in bed in my apartment in Minnesota. I reached over and pushed the "off" button on my cell-phone alarm. It is 4:30 a.m. on Thursday December 23rd, my cell-phone tells me. Hmm... so this whole thing was a dream.

I got out of bed, got myself a drink of water, and walked around my apartment. I thought a little more about my dream. In particular, I kept thinking about that one thing in the dream that should have cued me in to the fact that I was dreaming: 1:69 p.m. Why didn't I notice that obvious disconnect with reality there? Why wasn't I more.... lucid?

Well, maybe from now on, my watch will be my totem (like in the movie Inception). Whenever I am in doubt as to whether I am awake or dreaming, I'll look at my watch, and see if it says something irregular, such as 1:69 p.m. But wait a second. There are a couple of problems with this strategy. First, I don't own a watch in real life. Well, this should be easy to solve: Looking at the time on my cell-phone should do the trick too (duh!). But secondly (and more importantly), what if my mind fails to register the disconnect with reality in dreams, just as it did in this dream? What if my mind operates according to a different logic and subscribes to a totally different conception of reality while dreaming, so that 1:69 p.m. appears to be a perfectly normal time to my dreaming mind? What then?

I have no answer to this problem. Oh well. Time to start doing my morning Buddhist prayers, and then on to my asana practice. Let's just hope that I'm not dreaming that I am doing my practice as well... Wait, am I actually writing this, or am I only dreaming that I am writing this? Uh oh...


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Grouchy Ashtangi goes on a Little Moon Day Adventure into Yogaland; or, the possible perils of yoga tourism; or, why I hate plank

I hesitated to write this post, because it kind of borders on talking bad about other styles of yoga (remember ahimsa: non-harming). But, then again, this actually happened; it is what it is, I'm not making anything up. Moreover, I won't name any names.

Just across the street from where I live is a yoga and pilates studio. Essentially, it's the kind of generic mom-and-pop studio that offers pilates and one or two classes in every major style of yoga (hot yoga, candlelight yoga, thai yoga, hatha, beginner's yoga, and there's even an Intro to Ashtanga class).

My girlfriend takes classes there regularly (she has one of those month-long, renewable membership passes). I've taken a couple of classes here and there, but I mostly stick to my own home mysore practice. I suspect this would probably make me a bona fide Ashtanga snob/fundamentalist in many yoga circles, but this is for another post...

Anyway, on Monday evening, I decided to go with my girlfriend to the evening candlelight yoga class; I figured that since the next day was a moon day, I could indulge in some yoga tourism.

Bad idea. The studio was dimly lit by candlelight (hence the name, I think), and there was this guy at the front of the room accompanying the class on his guitar (is this a staple of candlelight yoga classes?). I honestly didn;t care much for the music. I'm used to practicing in silence, but I didn't have any difficulty tuning out the music by focusing on my Ujjayi breath (my girlfriend later complained that she could hear my Darth-Vader breath more clearly than the music. Hmm... backhanded compliment?).

Oh, wait. I still haven't explained why this whole thing was a bad idea. Here's what happened. The teacher had us begin the class lying down and tuning in to the breath. While we were in that position, she started quoting something she had read about love and how believing in the power of love makes everything possible. Maybe it's just me, but why can't people trust the practice more? I mean, if the practice works, it's going to work whether or not you try to embellish it with nice quotes from here, there or God-knows-where. If the practice doesn't work, no amount of quoting from here, there or God-knows-where is going to get you anywhere.

But I haven't gotten to the disastrous part yet. After savasana (after savasana? hmm, seriously...), she got us to come up into downdog. From downdog, she got us to move forward into plank. We held the plank for about 10 breaths, and then she asked us to lower into chaturanga. As I was lowering into chaturanga, I felt this painful twinge in my lower back somewhere around the left SI joint. I still don't know what happened, but I suspect that my alignment was off in plank, and that somehow did something to my SI joint, which I had a prior history of issues with. Anyway, I somehow managed to maintain control of my muscles, and made it through to chaturanga, and then did a vinyasa. She moved us through the same sequence a few more times. Fortunately (and I don't know the explanation for this) the pain lessened with each successive sequence until it went away completely by the time we did the last round of what she calls sun salutations.

As I said, I don't know exactly why what happened happened. But here are a few possible explanations:

(1) My SI joint wasn't in good alignment (I had been sitting for hours in front of a computer before the class), and this particular downdog-plank-chaturanga-updog-downdog sequence made the misalignment painfully obvious (no pun intended).

(2) I wasn't engaging my bandhas enough to protect my lower back while in that sequence (who thought up that sequence, anyway? It's so... never mind.)

(3) Plank is a useless posture that does more harm than good. This is not just my personal opinion. For instance, at an asana intensive a few years ago, Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane declared that, "Plank does not exist in our dictionary." Their view is that while it is theoretically possible to hold plank with good alignment, it requires too much work and attention to achieve this "perfect plank"; moreover, any deviation from this "perfect plank" puts the lower back at risk (from collapsing). Moreover, they claim, one can attain the same benefits from a properly-executed chaturanga as from a perfect plank. So plank is, strictly speaking, redundant: Why go to the trouble to invent a pose which merely duplicates the benefits of chaturanga (as far as I can remember, neither the Yoga Mala nor Light on Yoga even mentions plank as a distinct posture)? But this is just me quoting "expert opinion." I understand that many people out there swear by plank. And after all, millions of people probably do plank everyday, with no visible ill-effects. So who am I to say anything? So take this for what it's worth (or not).  

But every story has to have a beginning and an end. So back to my story. Fortunately, it ended well (at least as far as I know). We went on to do a few backbends (ustrasana, urdhva dhanurasana), and I used these backbends to get my SI joint back into place (whew!). We then did a few arm-balances, and (yes, this is totally my ego speaking) I had the chance to dazzle the class with my powerful arm-balancing ability: At one point, the teacher was so impressed by my floating into bakasana from downdog that she came over and said, "Nice!" I replied "Thank you" while still in bakasana.

So what's the moral of the story. I'm not sure. Maybe it's this: If, like me, you are an Ashtanga Fundamentalist who is working with SI joint issues, you should be wary of indulging in yoga tourism!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Asana and movement in dreams

In her latest post, Yyogini wrote a very detailed and thoughtful review of the movie Inception (if you haven't seen it, you really should), and shares her thoughts about how the themes in the movie relate to the yoga practice.

The movie revolves around a group of "dream experts" who try to implant or incept certain ideas into people's subconscious minds by constructing elaborate dreams and getting people into these dreams, so that they will act on these ideas and bring about certain desired outcomes after they wake up. In the movie, the group (led by Leonardo Dicaprio's character) constructs an elaborate multi-layered dream, and attempts to implant certain ideas into the subconscious mind of an heir to a communications empire by getting him into this dream.

But the purpose of this post is not to review this movie (read Yyogini's review; it's much better). What I want to explore here is the idea of implanting or incepting ideas in our subconscious minds, especially as it pertains to an asana or movement practice. Have you ever had dreams in which you were doing asanas or some kind of movement, and the results were different in the dream than it was in real life? Actually, Claudia wrote a post a few months ago about this subject. I've had many dreams in which I was doing asana or some kind of movement practice, and the results were very different from what it was in waking life. Here are a few of them:

(1) I've had dreams in which I was in headstand, but somehow, one of my legs wouldn't straighten, no matter how hard I tried. It almost feels like the leg is crippled or something. And then I woke up, and realized that I was sleeping on my side, and the leg in question was pinned beneath my upper leg, so that no matter how much muscular effort I made, it couldn't straighten!

(2) A few years ago, I had this dream where I was in this yoga workshop taught by a senior Iyengar teacher (I won't tell you who she is :-)) We were all sitting on chairs arranged in a circle around the room, and she was in the center of the circle. She turned to me, and asked me to put my leg behind my leg. I did, and strangely, the entire leg felt like it was made of jelly; there was no resistance at all. It felt like all the bones and tendons in the leg had suddenly disappeared! It totally creeped me out. (Full disclosure: At that time, I could put my leg behind my head in waking life, but there was always resistance from the hip muscles and the hamstring, not to mention the resistance incurred by propping my neck against my leg.)

(3) A couple of years ago, I had this dream where I was at a dinner party. I was sitting at a table, across from a friend. We were chatting, when he suddenly laughed and asked me, "Do you think it's possible that we might be in a dream?" And that was when I realized that I was dreaming! I suddenly had this strong desire to get out of the dream. For some reason, I knew that if I did a backbend right there and then in the dream, I would wake up. Still sitting at the table, I arched all the way back. Just before my hands touched the ground (I really don't know how this is physically possible, because I was sitting in a chair with a back!), I woke up!

(4) This one is my favorite. I dreamt that I was at this big sports stadium, preparing to take part in a Tae Kwon Do tournament (Full disclosure: I studied TKD for a number of years in my teens.). I did a jump, and realized that I could stay airborne for a really long time before coming back down. So I jumped again. This time, I kicked the air behind me while still airborne, and discovered that I could propel myself forward in the air by doing so. I swept the air forcefully in front of me, and discovered that doing so propelled my body forward as well. Basically, I realized that I could "swim" in the air by manipulating the air currents in this way. I just "swam" higher and higher, and before I knew it, I was "swimming" high up over the city. Pretty cool, eh? The whole thing felt so real that for the first couple of minutes after I woke up from the dream, I actually believed that there was a way to "swim" in the air!

(5) I've also had more than a few dreams in which I floated effortlessly into handstand from a sitting position or from bakasana (I'm still working on these in waking life).

Dreams involving movement and asana are so fascinating, aren't they? Do you have dreams like these? If you have any interpretations of such dreams, I would love to hear them too. 


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kino on Pain and Injury, and some thoughts on Ashtanga's bad rep

I just read an article that Kino MacGregor recently published on her website about pain and injury in the yoga practice. Being somebody who is highly egoistic and who has the tendency to just "push through" uncomfortable sensations and pain, her words hit me like a bolt of lightning on a warm summer day (I know, I know, this might not be the best image, but I can't think of anything else better right now); they are very wise and sobering at the same time. Since many of us have worked with or are working with injuries and pain in the practice, I thought I'd share them here with everyone, with a little commentary from me. Kino says:

"It is not enough to feel pain and push through; actually pushing through some types of pain is pure insanity. Instead pain is your teacher on a much deeper level that forces you to dig deep into the heart of yoga... Pain is your motivation to learn healthy alignment, better technique and more efficient movement patterns. If the way that you approach your physical body leads to injury and suffering it generally indicates that it is time to use that sensation to motivate yourself to try a new method of movement. Many people take their first experience of pain in yoga as a sign to change styles of yoga, but if the deeper question of technique and alignment is not addressed the same injury will just reappear later. If you can recognize pain as a signal to retrain your movement patterns to an empirically sound method then you will find a new freedom in your yoga practice. Rather than jumping ship from one style of yoga to another the best course of action is to use your rational mind to learn a new approach to the postures and movements that give you pain. Discovering a healthy use of the body and making small adjustments to your approach will alleviate pain caused by unhealthy movement patterns. If you listen and change your approach the pain eventually disappears. When yoga says that pain is your teacher it does not ask you to plow through blindly. Instead pain is your motivation to make the changes in your technical approach to movement in order to be healthier and ultimately free from the kind of pain that will injure you."

As I was reading this passage, I thought about how ashtanga "enjoys" a bad rep among certain segments of the yoga community. I don't know the exact cause of this bad rep, but I think there are a couple of possible reasons for it. First, I think a big part of this bad rep has to do with the fact that people hear so many stories of ashtangis (myself included) who get this or that injury from doing this or that posture. I think it is quite understandable for people to react this way. A big part of the responsibility actually lies with myself: It is I who has injured myself because I did not bother to listen to what my body was telling me, to use my rational questioning mind to "learn a new approach to the postures and movements" while "making small adjustments to [my] approach [that] will alleviate pain caused by unhealthy movement patterns."

Looking at the same matter from another angle, we can also see whatever pain the practice brings up in our bodies as messages telling us that our bodies need to move in some other more optimal and efficient (and less painful) way. In this sense, pain is a teacher; it helps us to take the necessary actions to be more at home in the practice. If we react to pain by "jumping ship" to another style of yoga, the underlying imbalance or unhealthy movement pattern that caused the pain won't simply go away: It just stays right there, waiting to resurface at some other time and occasion.

This brings me to another possible reason for ashtanga's bad rep. It is usually expressed in this way: "I dislike/hate ashtanga! It's so rigid! Why do I have to do these postures in this particular sequence, and no other? I hate forward bends and hip-openers! Why do we have to do so many of them in the primary series?" But I think there is a reason why the postures of the primary series are arranged the way they are: They are arranged in that way to challenge us to "learn a new approach to postures and movements", to find a way to work through a particularly demanding sequence of postures with optimal comfort and minimal pain. The Yoga Sutra says, "Sthira Sukham Asanam", which can be translated as "Asana is steady exertion with ease, comfort without dullness." In my opinion, the challenge of the ashtanga vinyasa system is to enable the practitioner to attain sthira sukham asanam within the constraint of a set series of postures. Far from limiting our freedom, this constraint actually gives us a well-defined space within which we can fully realize the power of our mind and body by squarely and unflinchingly confronting and surmounting our limitations.

Of course, there is a sense in which anybody can find his or her own freedom if he or she were to just fashion a sequence of postures consisting only of postures with which they are totally comfortable, which they can easily work with. The question is: How much would such "freedom" be worth? The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, "Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree." Similarly, we can see the demands of the primary series as the "soil" through which our mind/body has to break through in order to attain true freedom; a freedom which is deeply and firmly rooted in the soil of tapas, a freedom which can stand tall and firm in the face of the winds of adversity. Conversely, I think we would be well-advised to be wary of any promise of "freedom" which purports to give us liberation without the trials and tribulations of constraint and boundary. Such freedom, enticing as it may seem, may come only at the price of depriving us of the valuable soil which we need for our growth.    

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Some totally useless ruminations on the sacrum

The recent spate of discussion surrounding the issue of sacral nutation/counternutation in the blogosphere had many a yogi/yogini bent all out of shape (no pun intended) trying to use differing terms to describe what is essentially the same phenomenon.

At the risk of stirring up still more... discussion, I'm going to share a few things related to this whole issue that will hopefully give us some interesting new perspectives.

First, a few totally useless factoids about the sacrum (courtesy of wikipedia, which is of course not a scholarly source, but then again, I'm not a medical doctor, so what the heck):

(1) The word "sacrum" is derived from the Latin sacer, "sacred", a translation of the Greek hieron (osteon), meaning sacred or strong bone.

(2) Since the sacrum is the seat of the organs of procreation, animal sacrums were offered in sacrifices.   

(3) The sacrum is noticeably differently-shaped in males and females:

"In the female the sacrum is shorter and wider than in the male; the lower half forms a greater angle with the upper; the upper half is nearly straight, the lower half presenting the greatest amount of curvature. The bone is also directed more obliquely backward; this increases the size of the pelvic cavity and renders the sacrovertebral angle more prominent.
In the male the curvature is more evenly distributed over the whole length of the bone, and is altogether greater than in the female."

(4) There is much debate over this, but some evolutionary biologists believe that the sacrum is an evolutionary vestige: It served the useful function of stabilizing the tail back when our ancestors still had tails (hence "tailbone"), but no longer serves any function in the human body. As I mentioned, this is a very contentious issue, as there are at least an equal number of scientists who believe that the sacrum still serves a vital function by supporting certain internal organs and the perineal muscles.  

Actually, factoid (3) is not totally useless to us yogis and yoginis. There is a longstanding myth in yoga circles that generally, yoginis tend to be more "backbendy" than yogis. Confession: I myself played a part in perpetuating this myth. Back in grad school, when I first started going to yoga classes, I would notice that almost all the people who were proficient in backbends in class were women. Over lunch after yoga class, a few fellow male yogis and I would exchange notes, and we all agreed that, for some reason, women generally seemed to be more backbendy. I wonder if (3) might lend some scientific basis to this myth (or not). Any thoughts on this?

Last but not least, I will end by saying something obvious: Whether we like it or not, the sacrum is here to stay. It's not going anywhere! So, we might as well celebrate its presence in our bodies. With this in mind, I have composed a poem (written pretentiously in old English) to celebrate this, uh, occasion:   

Ode to the Sacrum

Hail Os Sacrum!
Thy Sacred Presence
Hath graced the spinal base of Homo Sapiens
For many a Millenium.
Thy workings hath been the source of constant wonder;
Might thou be an Evolutionary Vestige
Or is thy working yet shrouded in Mystery
Its full functioning to be revealed
To us mortal minds only with the passage of Time?
Art Thou a Boon or Bane
To the backbendy practices of many a Yogi and Yogini?
If Thou be a Boon
Wherefore art thy workings so Inscrutable and Unfathomable?
Wherefore do Yogis and Yoginis fall all over themselves
In valiant attempts to unravel the secret workings of thy Nutation and Counter-nutation? 
If Thou be a Bane
Wherefore hath Evolution not acted sooner
To banish thy baneful presence from our all-too-mortal spines?    

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Snowfall in the night

Gentle snowfall in the quiet of night
Cocoons a world in a stillness of white
A traveler departs
A universe untouched
But for the white sound of blackness on light

Nobel Ang, 7 p.m. CST, December 15th 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

What is this mysterious animal called Sacral Nutation?

In her recent post, Claudia asked a question that has been at the back of my mind for some time now: What is Sacral Nutation? I have been practicing a whole bunch of backbends (including, of course, the famous kapotasana) for some time now, but I honestly still don't know if my sacrum is actually nutating (Is this the right verb? Well, you know what I mean...) in those backbends.

There is, of course, no shortage of authoritative and detailed anatomical descriptions of sacral nutation out there. Gregor Maehle, for example, describes it as involving the sacrum moving forward relative to the pelvic bones, almost independently of the pelvic bones (I don't have his book handy here, but this is what I remember).

But honestly, I think there is one problem with just relying on anatomical explanations; they are practically useless from an experiential point of view. I mean, unless one knows what sacral nutation actually feels like in the body when one is doing a backbend, no amount of anatomical description, no matter how detailed, will help. This is particularly true in a backbend, because one can't see where one's own sacrum is in space when one is in the backbend. So what we need is a description of what sacral nutation feels like in the body of the practitioner.

So I emailed Kino earlier today, in search of the answer to this nagging question. To my great joy, she responded earlier this evening. Here's what she says,

"Sacral Nutation is something very important for deep backbending. You need to tuck your tailbone in order to send the pelvis forward over your feet. But if you tuck your tailbone too strongly then you will flatten lumbar spine and prevent you from going deeply in backbends. It's a fine balance. Only with strong moola bandha and uddiyana bandha combined with a careful flexion of the back muscles will you actually be able to nutate the sacrum. When you do it will feel like an allowing and a releasing into a depth in the inner space of your pelvis and magically more space around the lumbar spine and sacro-iliac joints."

The last sentence is the key: One needs to feel the openness in the inner space of the pelvis. This is important, because it is physically possible for one to achieve a deep backbend by flexing the lumbar muscles and gluteus maximus too much without engaging the bandhas. When one does this, backbending becomes very laborious and difficult, and lower back pain results. So, sacral nutation and deep backbending involves combining the work of the gross muscles (what Kino calls the "careful flexion of the back muscles") with the work of the finer musculature (the bandhas). 

I hope this is a helpful contribution to unravelling the mystery of sacral nutation. If you successfully nutate your sacrum in a backbend, your backbend might look a little like this: 

At the risk of being very immodest, this is, of course, yours truly in the famous kapotasana :-)

Practice Report: I think I am officially becoming left-hipped

Greetings, fellow tubes of flesh! (If you don't know what this means, check out Cathrine's latest blog post)

I don't have that much to say today, so I think I'll just give a practice report. Well, actually, I do have some interesting things to say about today's practice. Practice this morning was good. I went at a good pace through the suryas and the standing sequence. I wasn't speeding through the practice (I rarely do when I'm practicing by myself); the pace was, in the words of Loo's latest post, "purposeful, like a draft horse pulling a plow back and forth making tidy, even furrows." (Very beautifully said, Loo!) I did have a space-cadet moment at the end of the standing sequence, when I went directly into Virabhadrasana II immediately after Virabhadrasana I on the first side (somehow, that just felt like the right and natural thing to do). But other than that, practice was good; the hips and hamstrings opened up very nicely in primary.

Second series was really cool today. Had to hang for quite a few moments to get the chest to open enough for me to grab my heels in kapotasana, but the subsequent chest-opening was... priceless. I decided to take a chance today. Instead of stopping at Supta Vajrasana, which is I what I had been doing for the last few weeks, I decided to forge further ahead, and got up to Ekapada Sirsasana. I hadn't been doing Ekapada Sirsasana since I messed up my SI joint (and probably a couple of surrounding muscles as well) back in June. I had just been doing primary, and then doing second up to whatever posture I felt safe doing (usually Supta Vajrasana). But today, I was feeling quite open, and decided to just see if I can put my leg behind my head without incurring the wrath of the injury/pain demon. So after Ardha Matsyendrasana, I very slowly moved my right foot in front of my face. No hip tightness. Good. Then I slowly moved the foot behind my head. No pulling or tearing (yikes!) sensation. Even better. To be sure, the hamstring did feel a bit tight. But no bad sensations or damage whatsoever. In any case, the hamstring tightness is probably due to the fact that backbends (especially laghu and kapo) tend to shorten the hamstrings.

I stayed in Ekapada Sirsasana for 5 breaths, and then vinyasa-ed out the classical way (keeping leg-behind-head, lift body off the mat with both hands, then kick the free leg back, then release the leg that is behind the head to come into chaturanga). Did the same thing on the other side. Another surprise: It actually feels easier on the second side. Ha! My left hip is now officially more open than my right. How can this be? I'd always been a right-hipped (as in "right-handed") person. Well, as they say in these parts, it is what it is.

So, practice today was very good. It looks like everything does indeed go in cycles. One gets a pose, gets injured/loses it for whatever reason, and then gets it back again. Does this mean that I am going to get injured and/or lose Ekapada Sirsasana again in the future? Uh oh...

But then again, what the hell? Aren't we all just tubes of flesh anyway? What is the difference between a tube of flesh that can get its tube-leg behind its tube-head, and a tube of flesh that cannot?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Time, circular and unredeemable: A little meditation on the nature of time

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

Lately, I have been meditating quite a bit on this idea that time is circular. I will come right out and admit that I have never been sympathetic to this idea. I have heard this idea repeated to me many times by many people, but until recently, I have never really bought this idea. I mean, today is December 13th 2010, and yesterday was December 12th 2010. If time is circular, does that mean that one day, December 12th 2010 will roll around again? And no, don't tell me that December 12th 2010 will round again in some alternate universe. That doesn't count (in my opinion, that's a cop-out); in order for time to be circular, it must be that December 12th 2010 will roll around again in this universe. If one cannot show that this is going to happen, then the idea that time is circular is simply bunk. It's probably some piece of new-age bulls*@# invented by somebody who simply doesn't want to accept that time has passed. At least that was what I thought. 

Recently, however, a couple of things have happened that have caused me to see this idea in a new light. First, in a recent post, Claudia wrote, "Time is circular, all things go in cycles." It is the phrase "all things go in cycles" that caught my attention. Lately, I have been seeing more cycles in my life and in things around me. Not that they weren't there before; it just didn't occur to me to see them in this light. We see cycles in the natural world. The passing of the seasons follow a cycle; farmers follow this cycle, and plant and harvest at specific times during this cycle, year in and year out. The migratory patterns of birds also follow a cycle; they fly south and return north during specific times of the year, year in and year out.

Yesterday, while doing my morning Buddhist chanting, I had another realization: Human endeavors also follow cycles, even if we are not always aware of them. For instance, I recently noticed that, in my academic work, I keep returning periodically to working on the same topics at more or less regular intervals. Each time I return to working on a topic, I bring with me new insights that were not present before, insights that have had the time to germinate and form while my mind was away working on other topics. For instance, I had been reading and thinking on and off about the issue of weakness of will for a few years now. But recently, my mind came back to this issue again, and discovered insights and correlations that weren't present to it before. Every cycle of going away from and returning to the topic presents the mind with an invaluable opportunity to germinate and form new ideas, just as every cycle of planting and sowing allows the farmer to harvest a fresh crop in the fall.

Asana practice follows cycles too. Every daily practice is a cycle, one in which we reap the benefits of the practice and at the same time put forth fresh efforts that will blossom in their own time. There are times when we may seem to be hitting plateaus, in which no visible progress seems forthcoming despite our best efforts at mastering, say, dropbacks or some other posture (name your "favorite" posture). But these are precisely the times when one needs to be patient and not lose heart; these are the times when one is sowing the seeds for the posture to blossom in its own time.

If we think about it, human relationships follow cycles too. Perhaps we have been trying very hard to reach out to somebody whom we have been having a hard time relating to. But our efforts are important acts of sowing, even if the fruit does not seem to be forthcoming. Again, the best thing to do (indeed, the only thing we can do) is to be patient and keep trying in a way that is true to ourselves.

Why is it so difficult for us to see that life and the universe moves in cycles? I think that a big part of it has to do with the way in which contemporary society is organized. Contemporary society is organized along more or less linear lines. If you want to get such-and-such result, you need to do A,B, and C by a certain deadline (Implication: If you don't meet the deadline, something terrible will happen to you, and then you're screwed, and then the world as you know it will end for you...). This linear structure can easily lead one to think that all that matters are one-time efforts at getting short-term results: If the result I want doesn't materialize, I'll just "move on", and try something else. Hopefully this something else will lead me to the thing I want. If not, I'll try something else again. And so and so forth. And many people (including I) find this exhausting, because then life seems to be merely an endless series of trying different "something elses" that may or may not get you what you want. And even if you do get what you want (a new job, a new car, a new partner, you name it), something else that is even more desirable will present itself on the horizon again, and before you have had time to fully enjoy the thing that you just acquired, you are off chasing another "something else".

Where does this lead us? For one, we are better off seeing the world and the universe in a cyclical rather than a linear fashion. If everything is part of some cycle or other, then nothing is useless and no effort that we make is ever wasted. Everything that we do, however small, contributes to some cycle or other, even if we cannot see how. Every single little thing, every ounce of effort is the seed of some unforeseeable future; every single moment is thus unredeemable, in Eliot's words, because every effort made in every moment has its irreplaceable place in the cycle to which it belongs.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christine, Alternate-Christine, and weakness of will: A philosophical analysis of a common everyday practice phenomenon

I’ve recently been reading and thinking quite a bit about the issue of weakness of will. I’m doing this with a view to writing a philosophy paper about this issue at some point in the future. But weakness of will is actually also relevant to the yoga practice, so I thought I’ll write about it on this blog as well. Warning: This post is very long. But I just don’t think I can do justice to this issue without devoting a lot of space to talking about it.

The favorite example of weakness of will among philosophers (probably because so many philosophers smoke so much, it’s not even funny) is that of the smoker who knows that smoking is bad for her, but nevertheless accepts a cigarette offered to her. After smoking the cigarette (or maybe even while smoking it) she might say to herself, “I really should have refused this cigarette; I know smoking is so bad for me. But I couldn’t stop myself from doing it at that particular moment.”

Many of us do not smoke, and so may not be able to relate so readily to this example. But we yogis are not immune to weakness of will either. Here’s an example that might hit closer to home. In her latest post on her blog, Christine wrote,

“Getting out of bed is hard!... Discipline alone would not have gotten me out of bed this week. Only love of the practice could manage to drag me out to the studio, turn on the space heaters, and nudge me into the first surya namaskara.”

Christine, of course, does not suffer from weakness of will; she heroically overcomes her desire to stay in bed, and does what she knows is good for her (the practice). (Disclaimer: I am not saying that sleep is bad. If you need more rest because you are tired or not feeling well, then the thing that is good for you would be to stay in bed. I have in mind days when one is not feeling tired or under the weather, and does not need more sleep.)

But things may not always work out this way. It is quite possible that, in some alternate universe, there could be another Christine – let’s call her Alternate-Christine – that suffers from weakness of will. Alternate-Christine hears the alarm ring, hits the snooze button, goes back to sleep, and does not wake up again till it’s time to get ready to go to work. As she is getting ready for work, Alternate-Christine might be feeling somewhat remorseful, and think to herself, “I should have just dragged myself out of bed this morning when the alarm sounded. I know the practice is so good for me, and my body needs it so badly. But I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed at that moment. It was so nice and cozy under the covers!”

This might sound a bit harsh, but Alternate-Christine suffers from weakness of will: Just as the smoker succumbs to her desire to smoke even though she knows that the good thing to do is to refuse the cigarette, Alternate-Christine succumbs to her desire to stay in bed even though she knows that the good thing to do is to drag herself out of bed and onto the mat.

If Alternate-Christine knows that the good thing to do is to drag herself out of bed, why did she fail to do so? After all, it seems that both Christine and Alternate-Christine know that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, but only Christine actually gets out of bed, while her alternate-universe counterpart continues to stay in bed. Could it be that perhaps Alternate-Christine’s knowledge is somehow less perfect than Christine’s, and this lack of perfection is what explains her failure to do what she knows to be good for her? If Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is good for her is indeed less than perfect, in what way is it less than perfect?

Philosophers from both the eastern and western traditions have interesting things to say about Alternate-Christine’s predicament. Their views can basically be divided into 3 camps: 

(1)   Aristotle would say that Alternate-Christine knew both before and after the crucial moment (the moment when she hit the snooze button) that the good thing to do is to get out of bed. However, at the crucial moment, either (i) her strong desire to stay in bed causes her to experience a “black-out” in her reasoning abilities, so that she becomes “blind” to reason and fails to see that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, or (ii) her strong desire to stay in bed causes her to experience some kind of “short-circuit” in her reasoning ability, so that, at the crucial moment, she mistakenly thinks that the good thing to do is to stay in bed, even though she knows before and after the fact that the good thing to do is in fact to get out of bed.
In either case, the general idea is that Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is good for her is imperfect because even though she knows most of the time that the good thing to do is to get out of bed, at the crucial moment, this knowledge fails to “connect” with the appropriate action (either because of a “black-out” or a “short-circuit”).

(2)   The 12th century Chinese Confucian scholar Zhu Xi declares:
“To do what is good, one must know what is good one hundred percent. If one only knows it ninety percent and there is ten percent uncertainty, that ten percent uncertainty will be the cause of not doing what is good.” (Zhu Zi Yu Lei, trans. by Xinyan Jiang)
Zhu Xi would say that the problem is not that Alternate-Christine experienced some kind of “black-out” or “short-circuit” that caused her to fail to act according to what she otherwise knew very well. The problem, Zhu would say, is that her knowledge was flawed in the first place: Because she only has ninety percent certainty that getting out of bed is the good thing to do, the remaining ten percent uncertainty creeps in at the crucial moment and prevents her from doing what is good for her.

(3)   The American philosopher Donald Davidson would disagree with both Aristotle and Zhu Xi in diagnosing Alternate-Christine’s problem. According to Davidson, there is absolutely no failure of knowledge at all. Alternate-Christine had perfect knowledge of what the good thing to do is the whole time, even during the crucial moment when she hit the snooze button. Why, then, did she fail to do the good thing while the real-world Christine succeeded? Davidson is not entirely clear on this point (and I can’t send him an email to ask him to clarify, because he passed away in 2003), but this is what he might be getting at: Even though both Christine and Alternate-Christine knew perfectly well at the crucial moment that getting out of bed is the good thing to do, Alternate Christine’s desire to stay in bed was much stronger than Christine’s. The strong desire “pushed” her to act in a way that went against her better judgment. But if Alternate-Christine’s knowledge of what is the good thing to do was so perfect (as Davidson claims), how can this perfect knowledge exist side-by-side with a strong desire to do something that goes against this knowledge? Where would such a strong desire come from, in the first place?

I can write more. But I think this is a good place to stop, and take stock of things. Which of the 3 views above speak more to your personal experience? Please feel free to weigh in. I will be most delighted to hear anything you have to say.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Yoga of Kungfu and the Kungfu of Yoga

fivefoottwo sent me a very interesting article in the NYT Opinion Pages titled "Kungfu for Philosophers", by Peimin Ni. Thanks, fft! This gives me another opportunity to generate a blog post by piggy-backing off something. Yay! (Maybe I should rename this blog "The Yogic Piggy-backer"! How does that sound?)

The article is a very insightful and well-written mini-treatise: Starting with the subject of kungfu, Professor Ni goes on to discuss how the kungfu practitioner's attitude represents an entire worldview, one that is quite diametrically opposed to the rationalistic worldview that characterizes much of western philosophy. But I'm not going to write a review of the article here: You're probably better off reading the article on your own, and forming your own impressions of it.

Rather, I'm going to use the article as a launching-point for my own musings about yoga and kungfu.In a nutshell, I think there is a very real and meaningful sense in which yoga is a form of kungfu and kungfu is a form of yoga. To begin with, the Chinese characters for kungfu (功夫) do not refer exclusively to the system of Chinese martial arts that most of us are familiar with. 功夫 can be literally translated as "skill that is attained as a result of consistent hard work." In fact, in everyday Chinese speech, it is used in this second sense at least as much as it is used to refer to the martial arts. So, for instance, we might say of a great chef that his cooking displays kungfu, or we might say of a skillful driver that his driving displays kungfu. Moreover,it is also interesting to note that in Chinese communities, both great chefs and great kungfu masters are addressed by the same honorific title, "Shifu." (literally, "teacher-father.")

As a side note, there are also instances when "kungfu" can be used in a derogatory manner. For instance, if I think that somebody is wasting too much time and effort trying to reason with a person who is being unreasonable, I might say that he is "expending too much kungfu" with that person.

Am I boring you with all these details about the Chinese language? Please excuse me: I get a bit carried away. But bear with me: I promise I'll get to the yoga part soon. 

But to become a master of kungfu (whether as a master of martial arts or as a great chef) is to become more than just a skillful practitioner of a certain set of fighting or cooking techniques. After all, there is a reason why we speak of martial arts rather than martial technique, and why we speak of martial artists rather than martial technicians. One cannot properly practice kungfu without exposing oneself to a particular way of seeing the world, and being changed as a person. To attain mastery of kungfu is as much about attaining an entirely new worldview and allowing this worldview to change one as a person, as it is about mastering particular martial arts techniques. The art of kungfu, as Professor Ni observes, is characterized by

...its clear emphasis on the cultivation and transformation of the person... A kung fu master does not simply make good choices and use effective instruments to satisfy whatever preferences a person happens to have. In fact the subject is never simply accepted as a given. While an efficacious action may be the result of a sound rational decision, a good action that demonstrates kung fu has to be rooted in the entire person, including one’s bodily dispositions and sentiments, and its goodness is displayed not only through its consequences but also in the artistic style one does it.

Kungfu, then, is not just about doing certain things with certain techniques. The actions and techniques have to issue from a certain artful personality and disposition. What the technique is and what it accomplishes are, in a sense, of secondary importance compared to the nature of the person who performs it, and the way the performance of the technique shapes the performer, who, in turn, influences the subsequent artistic development of the technique. There is actually a scene near the beginning of Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee's character describes martial combat as involving a dance between the martial artist and his opponent. Seen in the light of these words, there is reason to think that Lee did not intend for this scene to be purely for entertainment: He might well have been trying to use the medium of entertainment to convey something of the spirit of kungfu. 

This is all very nice, you might be thinking, but where's the yoga? Let me begin by making a little observation: I think that if we were to replace "kung fu" in Professor Ni's words above with "yoga", we get a very nice description of the yoga practice. There is a very important sense in which like kungfu, yoga is not just about performing techniques (in this case, asanas) in a technically proficient manner. If this were so, then cirque du soleil performers would be yoga masters. Just as (if not more) important is the way in which the performance of the asana shapes the performer, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. To practice yoga is to surrender one's own self to and allow it to be shaped by a certain worldview. To paraphrase B.K.S. Iyengar (I don't have the quote handy), it's not just that yoga allows one to see things differently; rather, yoga transforms the seer, so that one cannot help but see things differently. Well, I think I just butchered Mr. Iyengar's prose; his original words are way more elegant than the way I just put them. But you get the picture.

By way of a little digression, here's an interesting little piece of legend: According to the official founding legend of the Shaolin Temple, which is well-known as the birthplace of most of the Chinese martial arts, the martial arts practiced at the temple actually owe their origin to the arrival sometime in the early 5th century of the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma. According to this legend, upon arriving at the temple, Bodhidharma noticed that the Chinese monks had become physically weak and out of shape from sitting in meditation for hours on end. He thereby proceeded to teach them some yoga exercises (I'm picturing Chinese monks doing kapotasana :-)), and the monks' health improved as a result. Over the centuries, the monks then proceeded to build on and modify the original yoga exercises that Bodhidharma taught them, adding combat applications to them (the Shaolin temple is located in the mountains of Northern China, and defending themselves from bandits and other unsavory characters was a very urgent necessity), resulting in what we know today as Shaolin kungfu. So if this legend is true, then Shaolin kungfu effectively originated from yoga! Since most styles of kungfu practiced today are either derived from or are heavily influenced by Shaolin kungfu, one can basically say that kungfu originated from yoga!

But we need a little reality check here. This legend has recently been discredited by scholars, who have found evidence that martial arts were already being practiced at the Shaolin temple before Bodhidharma arrived (Darn, scholars always spoil everything, don't they? Can't believe a nice story even if I want to...).

But many people continue to believe this legend, even if it's not true. And I think this is at least partly because when one observes and compares the practices of yoga and kungfu, one cannot deny that there is something yogic about the kungfu practitioner's approach to using the martial art techniques as a means to self-cultivation and self-realization, just as the yogi or yogini uses the asana practice as a way of attaining greater Self-knowledge and realization. The two paths have amazing parallels, even if they cannot be shown to have a common starting point.       

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Help needed

Attention all blogosphere inhabitants!

My friend Cathrine has requested help/advice from the cyber-shala about an issue that she is facing in her practice. She has given me permission to solicit feedback from all of you. Here's what she said:

"I have been trying to master Navasana and I think I may have aggravated my sciatica. Could this be possible? And if so, what comparable poses could I do that don't rely so much on balancing on my tailbone to get to my abdominal muscles?

I am doing a lot of Gomukhasana to relieve the pain in my sciatic nerve and that is helping a little (ouch- I sit a lot during the day)but I need core work while I recover.

Thanks in advance for any help! Cheers, Cathrine"

You can reply to Cathrine by your comments on this post (she reads my blog regularly). Actually, I'll also take this opportunity to publicize her blog further. Do stop by her blog and visit for a bit if when you get a chance.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mundane worrying, weakness of will, and procrastination

Ragdoll/Ashtanga Academic ended her latest post with these thoughtful lines from the 8th century Buddhist scholar Shantideva:

"Why worry if you can do something about it,
and why worry if you cannot do anything about it?"

These are very thoughtful lines, so I thought I'll piggy-back off them, and come up with a blog post from here.

Since the things we worry about are things that we either can or cannot do something about, we really have no reason to worry about anything at all, if we follow the logic of these lines. But I'm going to humbly beg to differ with Shantideva here, and suggest that the problem may be a bit more complicated than this. To begin with, I think that most of the time, the part of our minds that is doing the worrying is not the part that listens to reason. I suspect that, even at the very moment when we are worrying ourselves sick about something, we probably know that we have no reason to worry, logically speaking. But we go on worrying anyway.

Why do we worry when there is really no reason to worry at all, objectively speaking? One possible explanation may be what Aristotle calls akrasia, or weakness of the will. Our minds are capable of understanding the directives of reason (in this case, the directive would be something like "Do not worry; there is no reason to worry, one way or the other."). A perfectly virtuous mind would be, among other things, a mind that acts in perfect accordance with reason. This, at any rate, is Aristotle's view. But our minds do not always act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests. We may know perfectly well that something is the right thing to do, or that a particular attitude is the right attitude to have, and yet fail to do the thing or adopt the attitude in question. A smoker may know perfectly well that smoking is very bad for her, and yet continue to smoke. In the same way, we may know perfectly well that we have no reason to worry about anything at all, and yet continue to worry.

But knowing that I suffer from akrasia is only part of the picture. The million-dollar question (okay, maybe it's not worth a million dollars, but I think it's worth a lot, at any rate) is: Why do I suffer from akrasia? Why do I continue to worry, even though reason tells me there is no reason to?

One possible reply is that we are not purely beings of reason; we are also creatures of emotion. There are things, events or individuals in our lives that evoke such powerful emotions that reason is seemingly powerless in the face of them. If I know that somebody whom I care deeply about is in a dangerous place or going through a very difficult time, and there's nothing I can do to help that person, telling myself that worrying won't change anything probably won't stop me from worrying. Aristotle probably has something to say about situations like these too, but I won't try to go into this now. For one, I am not an Aristotle scholar, and trying to say something useful about this would require too much research on my part. Besides, I don't feel like turning this post into a lecture about Aristotle anyway.

So I'm going to take this discussion in a slightly different direction. I dare say that a lot of the time, the things that we worry about in our day-to-day life are more pedestrian or mundane in nature. I'll just call this mundane worrying. Mundane worrying is not triggered by big life-changing events or extreme situations. Rather, it comes out of the grind of daily life. Here's an example: Is the bill payment that I just mailed out going to get there on time? Will I get slapped with a late fee? If I get slapped with a late fee, will the people at the billing company listen to my explanation if I call them? What if they don't believe my story? And so and so forth. Mundane worrying has a tendency to just spiral on and on; one worry leads to another, snowballing into a big mass of not-so-positive energy.

Mundane worrying is closely connected to another phenomenon of daily life: Procrastination. Let's use my bill-paying example again. Chances are I got myself into this unpleasant situation because I procrastinated: I could have avoided all this worrying about the payment not getting to where it needs to get to on time if I had just somehow made myself mail the payment earlier. So procrastination is, in a sense, the cause of my mundane worries. I assume that we can all agree that there are many similar instances  in daily life in which procrastination gives rise to a lot of unnecessary mundane worrying.

So the next million-dollar question is: Why do we procrastinate? (Okay, maybe you don't procrastinate. In which case, you can happily stop reading this post here, if you've actually followed me this far. If, like me, you also procrastinate, then read on. It gets better. I promise.) If we follow the logic of Shantideva's words, and procrastination is something we can do something about, then we have nothing to worry about; all we need to do is to stop procrastinating. But again, I think the matter is more complicated than this. For one, I believe that many procrastinators suffer from a form of akrasia: I know perfectly well that procrastination is bad for me (just as a smoker might know that smoking is bad for her), and yet I continue to procrastinate. So we cannot understand why we procrastinate until we understand why we do not act in accordance with what reason tells us is in our best interests.

Grreat. It looks like I have just been going around in a big circle: We fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better (akrasia), and worry even though we really have no reason to. We fail to act in accordance with reason, because we procrastinate when we should know better. And we procrastinate because we suffer from akrasia. And we suffer from akrasia because we fail to act in accordance with reason, even though we know better.

Hmm... This doesn't seem to be getting anywhere, and I'm getting really exhausted. But let me see if I can at least end this post on a somewhat brighter note. Here's T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Have I known anything? Actually, yes: I need to stop procrastinating, and get to grading my students' papers!b