Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fun with the English Language: An Idle Thought

I'm sitting here in my office playing an online game of chess, waiting for my opponent to make the next move.

An idle thought just occurred to me. So in English, we have words for all three meals ("breakfast", "lunch", "dinner"), but we don't have words for all of the meals that are between these meals.  Think about this:

If a meal occurs between breakfast and lunch, we call it "brunch."

But what about a meal that occurs between lunch and dinner? Shall we call it "dunch"? Or maybe "linner"?

And how about a meal that occurs between dinner and breakfast? I know that we usually call it "supper" or "midnight snack", but that doesn't quite cut it. If we are going to follow the rules that we did with "brunch", shouldn't we call it "dreakfast" or "binner"?

Things like this make me feel that English is a very idiosyncratic language...

Some food for thought (pun totally intended), don't you think? 

Two modes of asana practice

An interesting incident happened during practice this morning ("interesting" may not be the best description, but I can't think of anything better, so I'll go with that).  I was just beginning the standing sequence, and my girlfriend (now she's officially banned from reading this blog, hahaha...) also happened to be in the room, doing the morning Buddhist prayers. I got into trikonasana on the first side, and experienced a very satisfying "pop" around the area of my hamstring attachment/tailbone (not very anatomically precise, I know, but I think you know what I'm talking about...).

The "pop" caught her attention. She stopped what she was doing, and said I should try a particular variation of trikonasana she had been practicing. Recently, she had been taking classes with a Kripalu-inspired teacher, and the teacher had been working with her on a sequence that is designed to slowly get her into Hanumanasana. Anyway, she came over, and adjusted me in trikonasana. She got me to raise my torso slightly higher than it usually is, so that my fingers were no longer grabbing my big toe. And then she told me to rotate my torso so that I would have the same hip alignment as I would have in Virabhadrasana I. I was thinking: Why would you want to do Virabhadrasana I in Trikonasana? I mean, if you want to get the effects of Vira I, why not just do Vira I? But I went along with it anyway. The whole thing felt... off. Whatever the merits of trying to do Vira I in Trikonasana, they cannot (in my humble opinion) substitute for the usual hip and chest-opening benefits of my usual Trikonasana. So I told her I prefer the conventional ashtanga Trikonasana instead of this hybrid.

And I so went back to doing my usual Trikonasana. But then she told me that my spine wasn't as straight in the ashtanga Trikonasana (there's a slight S-curve in the lumbar region) as it is in the hybrid. Arrgghh! Why does it matter if my spine isn't freaking straight as a ramrod (or "stiff as a poker", as Mr Iyengar would put it in Light on Yoga). Okay, so my trikonasana probably won't make the cover of Yoga Journal anytime soon. But (again, in my humble opinion) the point of asana practice isn't primarily to look a certain way in postures. The energetic/prana component is just as, if not more important. That's where the flow of the breath, the holding of the big toe, and the drishti come into play.

But I kept all these thoughts to myself, and just went on with the practice. But this incident brings up a related thought. It occurs to me that there are at least two modes of asana practice:

(1) Asana practice as a means to "achieve" a particular desired asana. In this mode of practice, one performs a certain sequence of asanas with the intention of achieving a particular posture (for example, hanumanasana, kapotasana, some arm-balancing posture, or whatever the desired posture is). In this mode, one's practice usually consists of a series of carefully chosen postures, each designed to either strengthen or open the areas of the body needed to perform the desired posture successfully. For example, a sequence that leads up to hanumasana might consist of standing postures, hip/hamstring-openers, and a few backbends. In this mode, one is also likely to "tweak" or "play around" with "traditional" postures (such as Trikonasana) in an attempt to maximize whatever effects one wishes to get out of these postures (whether it is actually effective or not is, of course, an entirely different story..).

(2) Asana practice as a moving meditation/breath practice. Traditional ashtanga practice fits this mode. In this mode, one uses the various challenges of the asana practice to make one focus on the breath and the demands on the mind/body in the particular moment. The performance of a particular posture is an event in and of itself; the posture is not performed in order to "get" some other posture further down the line. So, for example, in performing Marichyasana B, I focus on the demands this posture makes on my mind/body in the moment. I am not doing it in order to get a deeper Marichyasana D, although this might very well be a by-product. In this mode, every moment, every posture is an end in itself, not merely a means to the next more challenging posture.

Of course, modes (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive. As you probably have noticed, doing Marichyasana B first does actually put one in a better position to do Marichyasana D (imagine doing it the other way around!). So there might be a sense in which mode (1) can help one to perform mode (2) better. Moreover, sometimes being in mode (2) can inadvertently help one to achieve a particular posture: If one focuses more on doing Mari B properly when one is doing Mari B (rather than worrying about Mari D), one is more likely to have achieved the necessary hip-opening when it comes time to do Mari D, all other things being equal. And I don't mean to say that being in either mode is necessarily "better" than the other. I think both are equally respectable ways of approaching asana practice. But I can't help feeling that the effects on one's mind/body are quite different, depending on which mode is the mode that one is more often in. Hmm... so maybe one mode (or at least being in one mode more of the time) might be "better" than the other, after all? Intriguing, intriguing...

If you have any thoughts on this matter, I would love to hear them.      

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jazz and the art of yoga

In a recent interview, the jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter said,

"I like to say that playing jazz gives us humanity in that it presents us with the challenge of not knowing what is going to happen. And not knowing what is going to happen has to do with improvisation. There is an element of fear of the unknown or fear of something different. Hesitancy and reticence to certain degrees create the monster called fear.

On stage, it's something like being vulnerable--we forget music lessons. We want to depict moments of struggle--to have the audience see us struggling and then break out of those moments and create victory. Reaching for something that transcends the temporary and unpredictability of life. Tragedy is temporary. But the mission is constant. Playing jazz gives us courage to challenge and conquer any difficulties even under unexpected circumstances."

When I first read these words, I was struck by how similar the process of making music is to the yoga practice: If you replace "playing jazz" in Shorter's words with "doing yoga", you get a perfect description of the yoga practice!

Every time we get on the mat, we are faced with the challenge of not knowing what is going to happen: We do not know what today's practice is going to be like, and what kinds of things are going to come up in our bodies and minds. So we have to improvise: We observe what is going on breath by breath, and adjust our practice accordingly, moment by moment. We accept what is happening, become totally open and vulnerable to everything and anything the practice throws our way. We struggle both physically and mentally with postures that evoke fear and anxiety in us. But if we stay in the struggle, we will find the moment and the space to break through and win over our fear and anxiety. The "tragedy" of pain and discomfort is temporary. But the mission--courageously and fearlessly confronting the unknown and overcoming the challenges that the practice presents--is eternal. This is true of jazz, of yoga, and ultimately, of life itself.   

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Buddhism, the challenges of life, and practice

Hello fellow blogosphere inhabitants,
I hope the Thanksgiving weekend has been treating you well, and that you are weathering the potential dramas associated with the holiday season with grace and fortitude. Of course, if you do not live in the U.S., then this is just another weekend for you. In that case, I also hope that you are enjoying your weekend.

I just came across this passage from the writings of Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist thinker and poet whom I have great respect for, and I think it describes in a very poetic way what is probably going on in many areas of our lives right now, both on and off the mat. I thought I'll share it with all of you:

"Buddhism uses the example of flowering fruit trees -- cherry, plum, peach, etc.--to illustrate how each person has a unique mission in life. A cherry tree fulfills its purpose by blooming and bearing fruit as a cherry tree... It never imitates the blossoms of other flowering trees or wastes time being jealous of them. Rather, it patiently bears the frosts and snows of winter, drawing energy from the earth itself, pushing its roots deeper into the soil. Then, with the arrival of spring, in a burst it unleashes all the life force that it had been storing up, sending forth countless blossoms." (Daisaku Ikeda, A Piece of Mirror and Other Essays)

We are going through all kinds of challenges in our lives right now: struggling with a new pose or trying to get a particular pose in our practice; struggling to work with injury or pain; struggling with family drama/issues; and so and so forth. But from the perspective of Buddhism (and yoga as well), nothing happens for nothing. In other words, everything that happens in our lives has meaning. I am facing a particular challenge in my life right now because it is part of my unique mission in this life to win over this challenge and "bloom" in the particular way that only I can. Same applies to you. Whatever you are going through right now (whether it's an injury, pain, or a particular issue with family members) is there to help you become that most wonderful person that only you can become.

Seen from this perspective, we have everything to be thankful for; even our problems, because without them, we would have no impetus to grow and bloom.

So, let's continue to enjoy our lives and our practice!      


Friday, November 26, 2010

Spontaneous emissions, Kapotasana discovery

I practiced this morning with my friends Brenda and Derek. They run a yoga and art studio in Fargo, North Dakota. I live on the Minnesota/North Dakota border, so Fargo, ND is only 2 blocks from where I live in Moorhead, Minnesota. And in case you are wondering, Fargo looks nothing like it does in that Coen brothers movie.

But I digress. As I was saying, I practiced with my friends Brenda and Derek this morning. They have what they call Open Practice on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It is not mysore class, because nobody is assisting and adjusting anybody. You just go in and do your own practice, whatever it happens to be. Most days, I practice at home, because I need to get to campus. But it's always fun to be able to go and practice with them, if only because a change of practice environment is always interesting. Brenda and Derek are also ashtangis, so it's a really wonderful and supportive practice environment.  Check out their studio.

Practice this morning was very nice, except for some... gassiness. I ate a little too much at Thanksgiving dinner last night, and there were certain, uh, spontaneous emissions at certain points in the practice. Especially during those wide-legged forward bends. I think my practice this morning would have made for a good Adam Sandler comedy. Speaking of guy/body functions humor, another small digression here: If you like reading about a beginner's journey through the yoga practice, as told from a guy's perspective, check out Neal Pollack's latest book, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. It's absolutely hilarious, yet thoughtful and very real at the same time. 

All of this was a little embarassing, but I know Brenda and Derek well enough to know that they weren't bothered by these emissions. Moreover, there's actually a Chinese saying: "Loud farts rarely stink." Chinese people have been around for so long, we have come up with handy sayings for just about anything that can possibly happen in the universe.

But other than the spontaneous emissions, practice was great. Flowed seamlessly through primary. I also made a very nice discovery in kapotasana. I discovered that if I allow myself to hang for a few breaths while moving my hips forward a little more at the same time, I can actually create enough opening to be able to land my hands directly on my feet. And then they only have to travel a very short distance to grab the heels. In the past, I always had to land my hands on the mat, and then walk them to the heels.

Maybe in time, I might be able to land my hands directly on the heels themselves. Then I won't have to walk at all. (Guruji: "Do your practice, and all is coming.")


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, and a little Confucian wisdom

First, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you fellow blogosphere inhabitants! May your day in the "real" world be merry and bright. May your life and your practice be guided in the most productive and joyful directions. And, of course, may the Force be with us all.

Today is also my friend Cathrine's 60th birthday. Happy Birthday, Cathrine! I love it when people turn sixty, because it gives me an excuse to show off my modest knowledge of the Chinese classics :-) Confucius actually has something interesting to say about turning sixty. Here are the words of the Master:

The Master said, "At fifteen, I had my mind bent on learning.
"At thirty, I stood firm.
"At forty, I had no doubts.
"At fifty, I knew the decrees of Heaven.
"At sixty, my ear was an obedient organ for the reception of truth.
"At seventy, I could follow what my heart desired, without transgressing what was right."

                                                                                           Confucius, The Analects, trans. by James Legge
Who knew that you have to wait till you're sixty before your ear can be "an obedient organ for the reception of truth"? So if Confucius is right, then my ear is still a disobedient organ. Which means you should excuse me if you find that I am not understanding your blog comments correctly :-)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Yoga and the N word

No, not that N word. I mean "Nazi."

In the, um, aftermath (don't you like the sense of gravity this word evokes? I must be getting seriously self-important :-)) of my November 19th blog post ("Is the Practice a Controlled Form of Torture"), Fran sent me this very thought-provoking and insightful article.

This article set me thinking about the number of times (which is quite a lot) that I use the word "Nazi" more or less casually in daily conversation. Actually, it pops up quite a lot in yoga conversations too. For example, people sometimes speak of certain Iyengar or Iyengar-inspired teachers as being "Alignment Nazis". The first person whom I heard use this word was one of my first yoga teachers (who, incidentally, was Jewish); he was talking fondly about his favorite Iyengar teacher. I myself have described certain ashtanga teachers as being "Vinyasa-Count-Nazis": You know, the kind of teacher who insists that you get into Marichyasana D within the prescribed vinyasa count, even if doing so would seriously compromise the depth of the posture.

I suspect that, for every single aspect of the yoga practice that one can think of, there is probably somebody out there who has already coined a "Nazi" term to describe a teacher or practitioner who focuses almost obsessively on that aspect. But here's the question I'm thinking about: If using the word "Nazi" is considered insensitive or politically incorrect in at least certain cultures, places or contexts, does that mean that we yogis should never use the word "Nazi" to describe anyone or anything, no matter how lightheartedly or seemingly harmlessly?

I'm going to stick my metaphorical neck out (no, you may not have my physical neck: I need it for my yoga practice) and take the first shot at answering this question. Flouting the rules of good philosophical argument, I'm going to begin by baldly stating my personal opinion, and then see if I can defend it. Well, here's my opinion: I am not convinced that we should never ever use the word "Nazi" outside of its original context. In other words, I seriously have difficulty seeing why we should refrain from calling somebody an "Alignment Nazi" or "Vinyasa-Count-Nazi" simply because there are people in certain parts of the world who associate the same word with something terrible. Here's my reason: For me (and, I suspect, for many other people), "Nazi" means "somebody who is almost obsessively focused on a particular aspect of a particular thing", not "brutalized, mechanized killer of millions." I do understand that the word "Nazi" continues to evoke great fear, anguish and pain in certain parts of the western world today. I am not an advocate of knowingly saying things to deliberately hurt or cause people anguish. I will never use that word at all if I am in the presence of somebody whom I know will be greatly offended or hurt by hearing that word.

But doesn't using certain words only in the presence of certain people and not others make me, at best, a hypocrite, and at worst, guilty of adhering to a double standard (actually, I honestly don't know which is worse)? Well... I don't think so. Common sense and decency dictate that we shouldn't use particular words or mention certain things in the presence of a particular person or group of persons if we know that those words or things will seriously offend or hurt the person or persons in question. I will go further, and say that common sense and decency dictate that we have a responsibility to try to know the people we are interacting with as best we can, so that we avoid saying things that might hurt or offend them. But common sense and decency do not dictate that the use of a certain word has to be fixed to a certain historical and cultural context, and that new meanings cannot be invented and used for this word. Common sense and decency also do not dictate that we do not have a right to use particular words to refer to ideas and concepts in a way that differs from the way these words were used in the past, so long as we do our best to do so in a way that is respectful to those who have been hurt or can be hurt by particular meanings of these words.

One might respond to all this by saying that there is probably no way to invent new meanings for a particular word without insulting and offending people for whom the "old" meaning still rings true. Well, if this is true, then I am perfectly willing not to use the word "Nazi" ever again. Okay... so maybe I'll say "Alignment Totalitarian" or "Vinyasa-Count-Totalitarian" instead of "Alignment Nazi" or "Vinyasa-Count-Nazi" (I'm really not sure this is any better, actually, but hey, at least I'm trying...). But maybe you see the problem that is emerging here. Language use is a creative process. For me at least, a big part of the beauty of language lies in the fact that people constantly find new ways to give new meanings to existing words, using them in ways that were not previously used before. If we were to dictate that a particular word cannot be used in a particular way by a group of people in a certain time or place because that word meant something very hurtful or terrible to another group of people in another time or place, wouldn't we be restricting the creativity and freedom of the first group of people? And where do we draw the line? There are probably any number of seemingly innocuous words used in everyday conversation that could evoke something very hurtful or terrible to some person or group of persons somewhere. If we are truly concerned with respecting the feelings of these persons, shouldn't we curtail the use of these everyday words as well? I think you see where I'm going: Something that starts with a well-meaning attempt not to hurt certain persons can snowball into an infringement on the freedom of expression of many other people. 

Well, I think I have defended my humble opinion to the best of my ability. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.       

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A little test post

First, my apologies for the way my previous post turned out. I usually break my posts into (hopefully) readable paragraphs, but there was some kind of annoying formatting problem that caused my last post to come up as one big chunk of text. It probably had something to do with the fact that I had cut and pasted the Laozi quote from somewhere else. Which somehow threw the formatting out of whack.

I was (and am still) very bummed out, because I spent an entire hour writing that post (arrghh...).

So, this is a test post of sorts, to make sure that whatever is responsible for the formatting of my blog posts is still functioning properly.

Uh... what else should I say? Well, the day after tomorrow is Thanksgiving. Whether you plan on spending it with family, with friends, or with yourself, and whether you plan on having a "real" turkey (as in the animal), a tofurky, or no turkey at all, I hope you will have a most joyful and restful holiday. May your day (and your practice, if you are practicing) be merry and bright (do I sound like Irving Berlin already?).


Asana as an Exercise in Not-doing

           We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
           But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
           We turn clay to make a vessel;
           But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
           We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
           And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
           Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
                                                                                     Laozi, Dao De Jing, trans. Arthur Waley When Laozi wrote these lines*, he probably wasn't thinking about yoga practice, but I think that the spirit of these lines aptly describe productive asana practice. Over the last few years, I have increasingly come to feel that a productive, sustainable asana practice is as much about not-doing as it is about doing, as much about surrender as it is about effort. For me, this is definitely true of forward bends. And I suspect that it applies to backbends as well. Consider forward bends. As a beginning yogi who could barely touch my toes, I was told that the secret to progressing in forward bends lay in lengthening the hamstrings and/or extending the spine and making it "straight" ("find the backbend in the forward bend" was an instruction I heard a lot). From a purely bio-mechanical point of view, these instructions might make sense... well, maybe not: I could never (and still can't) see how a spine can possibly be absolutely "straight" in a forward bend. If you look at a picture in Light on Yoga of Mr. Iyengar in Paschimottanasana, you will see that his spine is NOT completely straight (and I don't see the backbend in the forward bend either). I don't remember how Sharath's spine looked in Paschimottasana on the Primary Series chart, but I suspect it's not absolutely straight either. But all of this is neither here nor there. The point I want to make is this: Whatever the merits of these instructions are on a purely bio-mechanical level, they are ultimately of limited use, and may even be counter-productive in helping the practitioner progress in his/her asana practice. For one, lengthening the hamstrings suggests lengthening against some kind of resistance: The image is of a sort of tug of war between one's will-power/strength and one's hamstrings. Carried to its logical conclusion, this instruction leads people to unconsciously tug or yank on their hamstrings in an effort to get deeper into the forward bend. This might not be so harmful in standing forward bends, where gravity is helping one into the posture, but continually doing this in seated forward bends puts one at risk of hurting the hamstrings, especially the relatively fragile hamstring attachments.  In addition, practitioners may also feel discouraged by what they see as limited progress in forward-bending postures caused by what they perceive to be a lack of length in their hamstrings. More importantly, as Kino pointed out at her recent Chicago workshop, focusing exclusively on the hamstrings neglects the fact that a forward bend involves not only the hamstrings, but the entire back side of the body (consider the meaning of paschimottasana, "intense west/back side pose"). In order to do a forward bend effectively, one has to bring as much of the back body as possible into the picture, not just the hamstrings. How to do this? These are Kino's suggestions: (1) In standing forward bends, ground through the four corners of the feet. In seated forward bends, ground through the sit bones. At the same time, in poses like paschimottanasana, continue to "ground" through the four corners of the feet (imagine there is actually a ground to ground through). (2) Engage the bandhas. In particular, focus on the drawing in of uddiyana bandha during the exhale. When one regularly does (1) and (2) in practice, the spine will naturally unfold into the forward bend over time. One thing that might immediately catch your attention here is that Kino says nothing about the hamstrings. Nothing about working to lengthen the hamstrings or to make the spine "straight." What this suggests to me is that forward-bending is as much about not-doing as it is about doing. To be sure, we need to do a certain amount of work (ground through the feet, engage the bandhas). But in my (humble) opinion, there is a sense in which the main part of the "work" of forward bending is not "done" by us. In grounding through the feet and sit-bones and engaging the bandhas, we are not actively pushing or pulling ourselves into the forward bend: We are only preparing and setting the conditions for the forward bend to unfold naturally. The deep forward bend for which we yearn will occur when it occurs; the most we can do is to set the stage for it by doing the necessary preparation. Any additional doing on our part will only get in the way of the posture's natural unfolding. Or, to use Laozi's imagery: Any additional turning of the clay or building into the space within the vessel will only make the vessel less able to do its work as a vessel. All of this brings to mind something that I once heard Eddie Modestine say: "I try as a teacher to get out of the way of the yoga." I wonder if something like this is what he had in mind? I hope I'll get a chance to ask him one day. I can't say as much about back-bending. For some reason (probably because I have been working on the primary series much longer than on the second series), I always find that I can speak more coherently and at greater length about forward bends than about backbends. But if my experience so far with kapotasana (and the backbends leading up to it in second series) is any indication, it seems to me that a similar dynamic occurs in backbending. There are certain things that we can do to prepare and set the stage for the deepest expression of the posture to unfold (I have in mind such actions as internally rotating the thighs, drawing the sternum towards the ceiling, etc.). But the posture itself will unfold when it unfolds. Any additional pushing on our part will be to no avail, and might even be counter-productive and harmful. I suspect that a similar balance between doing and not-doing also applies to productive arm-balancing. But I know even less about arm-balancing, so I probably shouldn't venture to talk about how and whether this doing-not-doing dynamic applies in arm-balancing. If you have any thoughts about this, I'll love to hear them.    *This is not, strictly speaking, correct. As with many ancient texts, nobody really knows exactly who wrote the Dao De Jing. But it has traditionally been attributed to Laozi.                

Monday, November 22, 2010

Practicing (and Walking) in a Winter Wonderland

First, a little weather report. It is officially winter here in Northwest Minnesota. I woke up this morning and looked out the window to see every car in the parking lot wrapped under a generous blanket of snow. It's snowing heavily and eleven degrees here, and will probably remain this way for the rest of the day, if it doesn't get colder.

Needless to say, my practice room was quite a bit colder this morning. Took a bit longer to warm my body up in the suryas, but once I got past that, the practice actually felt very nice and refreshing. The cold makes me move more slowly and carefully, but the payoff is well worth it: Whatever flexibility I gain during the practice is real flexibility, not heat/hubris-induced bendiness.

Because yesterday was a moon day (and because I ate two huge slices of pizza yesterday and had a tall glass of beer--gotta be careful here: Cold weather always induces me to eat too much), I thought I would just do primary and maybe second up to Parsva Dhanurasana. But when I finished Pasrva D, the usual "superstition" arose again. A voice inside me was saying: Hey, you still have quite a bit of gas left in the tank... Don't you think it's kind of sacrilegious to stop now? So onward I marched to Kapotasana. Kapotasana wasn't exactly easy today (had to hang for a few breaths before the chest would open), but it was decent. Felt good.

Had to walk in the snow to the bus stop today. As I standing there waiting for the bus (which, mercifully, arrived within five minutes), a thought occurred to me: It is said that eskimos have somewhere around 200 different words for snow. Why don't we Ashtangis have 200 different words for the myriad different sensations (both pleasant and unpleasant) that arise during practice? We talk about "opening", for instance. But surely the sensation associated with feeling your hips open in Utthita Parvsakonasana is very different from the sensation of feeling, say, your chest open in Dhanurasana. Yet we use "open" to describe these two arguably very distinct sensations. Food for thought...

Changing the subject, I'll like to introduce all of you to a new inhabitant of the blogosphere: My dear friend Cathrine. We went to school together in Florida. Like me, she is a PhD-wielding academic, and is a person of considerable wit, wisdom and compassion... hmm... can you tell that I'm shamelessly using her to promote myself? I wonder what Kant would say about this... But I try not to say things unless they happen to be true (more shameless self-aggrandizing...) But seriously, please check out her new blog, If wishes were horses.It is a really wonderful thing to have one more voice in the blogosphere.


Sunday, November 21, 2010


Below is my translation of one of my favorite poems, by the Chinese writer Bing Xin (冰心). Couldn't find a better translation of it online, so I thought I'll try my hand at translating it myself. I hope you'll enjoy it.

Is the reality within the dream,
Is the dream within the reality,
Is the tear-filled smile of recollection.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

More ruminations/follow-up from my last post

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to offer your insightful thoughts and comments on my previous post. I don't know if I can respond to all of your comments in a way that does justice to their insightfulness, but I'll try.

Fran, I like the distinction that you make between the 2 questions. In writing the post, I was probably being insensitive to the fact that torture commonly refers to the kind of unspeakable physical and mental suffering that, unfortunately, still occurs daily in this world, and which, unfortunately, is often perpetrated by people who claim to be fighting for freedom and good. My apologies for this insensitivity, although there is actually still a part of me that continues to wonder whether what we call physical discomfort/effort and what we commonly refer to as torture might not be different points on the same spectrum. (Perhaps there is only one way to find out: Get somebody to water-board me! But I'll pass on that...) So I'll have to leave my wondering at this.    

But fortunately, I don't have to settle the "what exactly is torture" question in order to ask my question. I can easily rephrase my question in my previous post as: Why on earth are we subjecting ourselves on a daily basis to something that is so difficult and challenging, and which, for many of us, causes so much physical and mental discomfort, and possibly even pain? (Hmm... I think you can already see that this way of putting the question simply doesn't have the in-your-face provocative quality of my orginal question :-))

Cathrine, I like your answer to the question, which is that we do this in order to achieve greatness, however that might be construed among different practitioners.

Another possible answer, inspired by OvO's comments, is that the practice gives us a safe space in which to allow our self-loathing and other negativities (or the Dark Side, if you are a Star Wars geek) to surface, and to examine these negativities without necessarily acting upon them (in Star Wars parlance: To experience what it is like to be a Sith Lord without actually morphing into a Sith Lord). So in this sense (if I understand you correctly, OvO), the practice acts as a sort of mental/emotional elimination process: Just as physical waste that is not eliminated from our bodies will fester and make us sick, mental/emotional baggage that is not discharged from our lives will also "fester" and hinder us from becoming fully realized human beings.

But we also know that the mental/emotional elimination process is by no means easy and smooth sailing. Sometimes, it may be that the particular method of practice that we choose to engage in (ashtanga, zen meditation, bikram, or whatever your chosen method is) is working on us so intensely that we have to put the brakes on it, so to speak, and re-engage the process at a later time, when we feel more ready. Or we might have to re-evaluate, and decide whether this particular process/method is the right process/method for us. All of which brings up another question: How do we know when it is time to (1) keep working with the process, or (2) put on the brakes for a little bit, and come back to it later, or (3) change to a totally different method/process altogether?

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Is the practice a controlled form of torture?"

This question occurred to me as I was listening to NPR in my car this morning. Somebody was interviewing somebody who had written a book on the experiences of victims of torture. I didn't listen to the program long enough to glean any details about who was doing the interview, and who was being interviewed, or even the exact nature of the subject nature. But at one point, the interviewee posed an interesting question: If he was the one being tortured, how long would he have lasted before he "broke"? His answer: Not very long.

This brought to mind a particular thing that Bikram Choudhury said in his book, Bikram Yoga. Referring unapologetically to his 90-minute asana routine as a "torture chamber", he goes on to ask, "What would you rather do, suffer for 90 minutes or suffer for 90 years as you live your life without a truly healthy body and without realising your potential?"

Whatever else one might think about Bikram and his accomplishments (I'm trying to find a more neutral term to describe his actions in this world, but I can't), one cannot deny that there is there is some truth in what he is saying here. I'll go even further and say that his words aptly describe the ashtanga practice as it is experienced at least some of the time. I would like to be able to say that every single one of my daily practices is an uninterrupted session of unadulterated bliss, where I transcend all the limitations of my physical body and sit blissfully in padmasana or extend lightly and effortlessly into kapotasana. But that would be disingenuous: As you can tell from my many kapotasana posts, my asana practice is far from effortless. It is even less effortless when one is trying to work with injury: Finding that place of productive discomfort where one can work the body to its limits without aggravating the existing injury takes a lot of careful effort and patient perseverance. At such times, one has to walk the tightrope between excruciating pain, on the one hand, and unproductive sloth and exasperation, on the other.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that at least part of the 90 minutes (or however many minutes your practice takes) of the daily practice is spent in a torture chamber. Within this "controlled torture environment", one brings both the body and the mind to its limits and tries to somehow find the space to take five long deep breaths and focus on the drishti in the midst of such challenging circumstances. It is controlled torture, because it only lasts for five breaths, and the poses that cause the most torture are usually surrounded by other less intense poses which take away some of the hard edge of the torture. But it is still torture, at least if one defines torture as a situation in which one deliberately subjects the mind/body to tremendous amounts of physical and mental stress.

Which brings me to the question: Why are we doing this to ourselves? I mean, isn't it true that only psychologically sick people torture themselves?

Well, one alternative is to accept Bikram's implied answer to his own question, which is that we torture ourselves now so that we can (hopefully) live  to 90 with a healthy, disease-free body and realize our highest potential. I think there is some truth in this, but it still doesn't get to the root of why one would struggle so much with the drama of kapotasana or dropping-back (or whatever your "favorite" posture is); nor does it account for the anguish and disappointment one often feels when one seems to be making no progress towards achieving a pose. After all, if I do live to the age of 90 and die with a disease-free body (what would I dying from if my body is disease-free, I wonder?), I probably wouldn't care at that time whether or not I would be able to drop back effortlessly into kapotasana on my dying day, would I? This is a little morbid, but this actually might not be such a bad way to go: Getting into your "favorite" posture, and then expiring in that position...

But I digress. Let's get back to the main point. Which is that I still don't have a satisfactory answer to the question: Why on earth are we torturing ourselves everyday? 


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Some thoughts about practice

Practice has been very refreshing the last couple of days. Granted, it is not physically perfect: My SI joint still  bothers me a little in a few postures in primary. But even in these postures, I feel that my body is actually working productively with the injury and pain, rather than being oppressed by it. I feel that my body is slowly growing through the pain and discomfort.

Yesterday morning, I had a really great experience in the second series backbends. Perhaps because of the approach of winter, the environment in the practice room feels very still and quiet (maybe because the birds and insects of the summer and fall have departed?). When I got into Dhanurasana, I could literally hear the silence of the room. I'm not quite sure how to describe this, but it feels like I am being submerged in the silence that is all around me, and I am swimming through it. This submerged feeling definitely added a very unique quality to kapotasana. There was still the usual emotional and physical upheavals in the pose, but the silence enveloping the pose seems to make it a little less intense, almost like one is doing the pose underwater.

This experience prompted me to look for some writings that might shed some light on it. I ended up re-reading a brief passage from B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Life. I really love Mr. Iyengar's writing style, and his description of various aspects of the journey of practice. It's really interesting how so many things that he says about the practice is totally applicable to ashtanga, even though there is this widely perceived difference between Iyengar and Ashtanga in the yoga community. I thought I'll share his words with you here:

"When you do the asana correctly, the Self opens by itself; this is divine yoga. Here the Self is doing the asana, not the body or brain. The Self involves each and every pore of the skin. It is when the rivers of the mind and the body get submerged in the sea of the core that the spiritual discipline commences. There is no special spiritual discipline. When there is passivity, pensiveness, and tranquility of body and mind, do not stick there, but proceed. Here the spiritual experience in yoga commences... what I teach is spiritual practice in action... I use the body to discipline the mind and to reach the soul. Asanas, when done with the right intention, will help to transform an individual by taking the person away from an awareness of just the body toward the consciousness of the soul. Indeed, as I often say, body is the bow, asana is the arrow, and the soul is the target.

An asana must be righteous and virtuous. By righteous I mean that it must be true. You must not cheat or pretend. You must fill every inch of your body with the asana from your chest and arms and legs to the tips of your fingers and toes so that the asana radiates from the core of your body and fills the entire diameter and circumference of your limbs. You must feel your intelligence, your awareness, and your consciousness in every inch of your body.


By virtuous I mean that is must be done with the right intention, not for ego or to impress but for the Self and to move closer to God. In this way the asana is a sacred offering. We are surrendering our egos. This is supreme devotion to God (Isvara pranidhana)...
In this way, you will work from your heart, not your brain, to create harmony. The serenity in the body is the sign of the spiritual tranquility. As long as you do not feel the serenity in the body, in each and every joint, there is no chance for emancipation. You are in bondage. So while you are sweating and aching, let your heart be light and let it fill your body with gladness. You are not only becoming free, but you are also being free. What is not to be glad about? The pain is temporary. The freedom is permanent."


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Upavishta Konasana to Handstand while balancing on a bed of nails

Hello everyone,
                         I know you're probably not as much a kungfu/ninja movie fan as I am, but you really have to check this out. This guy gets into handstand from upavishta konasana, while balancing on a bed of nails. Bad ass, man!

P.S. You can ignore the rest of the clip after he gets into handstand, unless you are a ninja movie geek like me.


Evangelistic thinking

Danielle made an interesting comment in response to my November 14th post ("Dinner Table Politics, A Little Practice Report"), which involved one of my dinner companions trying to get me to have a taste of his steak. She writes:

"This doesn't just happens to vegetarians....I've met evangelical vegans/vegetarians who try to bring me over to the 'good side' which I find horribly annoying, similar to religious zealots who keep trying to spread their 'Good News' without regard for personal beliefs."

I think it is no exaggeration to say that our culture has an evangelical streak. Basically, some people are so convinced that what they are doing is right/good, that they believe that anybody who is not doing what they are doing must be either wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in their lives. They thus see themselves as having this sacred mission to bring this thing to their benighted fellows.

As I am a philosophy teacher, I cannot resist putting everything in formal syllogisms. Essentially, we might characterize evangelistic thinking as follows:

1. I do or am x, and I believe that x is a really good thing.
2. If x is a really good thing, it must be as good for you as it is for me.
3. Therefore, if you are not doing or being x, you must be wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in your life.  
4. Therefore, you should do or be x. (And it is my sacred mission to make sure that you do or be x.) 

x can be practically anything that anybody can be evangelical about: eating meat, not eating meat, accepting Jesus Christ as our savior, and even yoga. Yes, yoga. I shall say more about evangelistic thinking in yoga presently. For now, I want to say something about the syllogism above. If you look at it carefully, you will see that 3. does not follow from 2. Which is to say, even if it is true that x is just as good for you as it is for me, it does not follow that if you are not doing or being x, you must be wrong, seriously deluded, or lacking something very important in your life. In short, just because I happen to be right about something doesn't mean anyone who is not into what I am doing is wrong.

Unfortunately, many people in this culture do not seem to appreciate this simple fact of life, which leads to a lot of unnecessary friction and conflict in human relationships. Moreover, I really think that evangelistic thinking is counter-productive anyway: Very few people I know actually start doing something as a result of being evangelized to. In fact, I know too many people (myself included) who are seriously turned off by evangelizing.

Unfortunately, yoga is not immune to evangelistic thinking. I am a case in point. When I first started doing yoga five years ago, I was a yoga freak (I mean "yoga freak" in the same way in which some people refer to "Jesus freaks."). I felt (and still feel, by the way) that yoga was such a wonderful thing, and simply couldn't understand why more people weren't doing yoga. I started seeing everybody around me through yoga-therapeutic lenses: If so-and-so would only try yoga, he would have better posture, if so-and-so would only come to a yoga class, she would feel so much better about herself, if so-and-so would let me do yoga with him, I'm sure his back would feel better. And so and so forth. Basically, I spoke about yoga to practically everybody I came across (even to my professors, who were convinced that I was morphing into a yoga nut, that I was going to join a hippie commune somewhere, and never get my PhD), and tried to get everybody to do yoga. It took me a while to realize that people around me were either giving me strange looks, avoiding me (because they know they are going to get preached to about yoga), or deliberately starting polite conversations with yoga ("how's your yoga going?"), with the intention of skilfully steering me off the topic of yoga at some point.

In short, I had become a yoga fundamentalist/evangelist. When I realized this, I also realized that--despite whatever nice yoga conversion stories you might read about in, say, Yoga Journal--most people weren't going to do yoga by hearing me preach to them about it. Something else (I'm still not quite sure what this something else is) has to happen in their lives, over which I have no control. Perhaps the best I can do is to try to let the practice work on me--be the change you want to see, as Gandhi says--and let people know that I am there for them when they finally choose to "see the light" (yes, it's the yoga freak in me speaking again!).

I have also been on the receiving end of some pretty intense (and unpleasant) yoga/holistic-living evangelism. A few years ago, I was at a yoga conference in Miami. On the final evening of the conference, one of the main organizers gave a closing address. I have struggled long and hard over whether to reveal her identity here on this blog, but I think it's unnecessary: If you've been around a little bit in yoga circles, you'll know who I am referring to soon enough. If you don't know who she is, I don't see any reason for me to be coloring your judgment of her here, since my aim is to use this real-life example to illustrate a point. 

Anyway, she is one of the co-founders of this big yoga school that is really big on advocating animal rights, veganism/vegetarianism, and social-political causes in general. She came up to the front of the room to give her address, and in a charmingly disarming manner, asked us if it would be alright with us if she took a few minutes of our time to show us a "little video" (who could say no to that?). The video turned out to be one of those PETA videos (you know what I'm talking about: the ones that depict great animal suffering, and humans delighting in their suffering). I wasn't a vegetarian at the time, and I was pretty miffed at what she was doing. I was already quite sympathetic to vegetarianism/veganism at that time, but I felt that using such "shock-and-awe" tactics to get a point across was, at best, in bad taste, and at worse, insulting our rationality and intelligence: Does she think we are children who need to be scared into doing or not doing something?

What miffed me even more was the question-and-answer session that followed. The room was obviously filled with her followers, who lapped up every word she said. But at one point, this middle-aged guy raised his hand and politely asked what she thought about eating free-range meat. She dismissively told him that eating free-range meat is just like eating factory-farmed animals: It is murder, and murder is wrong. The guy left in a huff. She then went on to point out that to be vegetarian or vegan is to do something very radical in our society, but it is also to return to the roots, because "radical" comes from "radish", which is a root.

Well, I still haven't figured out what we are supposed to returning to the root of (if you know, please enlighten me), but I should get back to the main point of this post, which is evangelistic thinking. The main point is that evangelistic thinking simply doesn't work. I did eventually become a vegetarian, but my "conversion" did not come from watching PETA videos or hearing some polemical speeches: I simply found that not eating meat made it easier to do my practice. Evangelists are (mostly) well-intentioned people, but they do not realize that their evangelism only contributes to the conflict and divisiveness that already pervades so much of contemporary society. I believe that what we need as a society is more rational discussion, dialogue and deliberation. Unfortunately, many evangelists find themselves resorting at one point or another to catchy sound-bytes, slogans and caricatures, all of which get in the way of the rational discourse that we so desperately need as a society. We need to be informed, not persuaded, and evangelistic thinking gets in the way of this need.                 


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Day of the Vrttis

Damn! What a day! This has been a day of much vrtti (or fluctuations, if you are not familiar with Sanskrit). Where do I even start telling this story? Well, I think I'll start from the beginning, or at least what I perceive to be the beginning.

It all started when I was doing my practice this morning. Practice was good, and there were two notable incidents:

First incident: I had a space-cadet moment in the Marichyanasanas. I did Mari A, and then went straight into Mari D from there! I must have been spacing out (I was probably thinking about something that happened in one of my classes yesterday), and wasn't paying much attention to the sequence of postures. After Mari A, I put my left foot in half-lotus and right foot flat on the mat, and then, instead of bending forward to go into Mari B, I twisted into Mari D! I remember thinking: Hey, this feels good, but...different. I actually stayed in it for at least 2 or 3 breaths before I figured out that I had gone into Mari D before its time! I promptly exited the pose, "rewound" and went into Mari B. Then I went through the Marichyasanas in their proper order. But that meant that I ended up doing Mari D twice on the first side. Has this happened to any of you before?

Which is probably just as well, because given the way the day unfolded, I probably needed that extra Mari D. Which brings me to the second incident: Around the time I was in Bhekasana (I can't remember the exact moment), my cell phone rang (actually, it vibrated, but I can hear the vibration).

Anyway, my cell-phone rang/vibrated (possible new word: "rangbrated"). First, I was surprised: Who would call me before 9 a.m.? I deliberated for a moment whether I should pick up. But I decided to stick to my established yoga practice phone policy, which is simply: Never pick up the phone during yoga practice. I learnt this policy from Maty Ezraty years ago, and decided that it is a good policy to follow. Yoga time is strictly personal care/development time, and nothing, absolutely nothing should disturb it (except maybe when the practice room is on fire!). Even if it is my family calling from halfway around the world with some emergency (real or otherwise), I decided, half an hour won't make that much of a difference. And besides, I was too close to kapotasana, and I needed all the focus I can get. As it turns out, this was a wise decision, because if I had actually picked up the phone right there and then, I would have been so riled up that I probably wouldn't have made it through kapo, and for a very stupid reason, at that.

So I went on to finish my practice--kapo today was deep and good, btw, almost deserving of a blog post all by itself, but this is for another blog post--before returning the call. It was from the rental car company that I had rented the car to drive to Iowa in. I had turned in the car at the airport last night. Nobody was at the rental counter, so I simply dropped the keys into the drop-box, and filled out a form saying that there was no damage to the car. They looked over the car in the morning (probably just before they called me and almost interrupted my powerful yoga practice), and claimed to have found a "ding" (what the hell is that, anyway?) on the body of the car, just above the rear passenger wheel well. I insisted that I had looked over the car both when I first got the car on Friday and just before I turned it in last night, and found no such damage. But they insisted that the car was my responsibility until they checked in the car (the contract says so). Then I asked them: Well, what about your responsibility? You weren't there to do a walk-over of the car with me, and now you insist that there's damage (and I'm not even there to see it!). How can I know you didn't just put a "ding" there yourself just to screw me over? He responded in an admirably professional, detached tone that they have no reason to be malicious and screw people over. Hmm... I should look over my business ethics course material again and think about that statement...

Anyway, the thing about corporate people (my apologies to all of you corporate folks out there, I promise I'll stop ranting presently, after I get this out of my system) is that you can't win an argument with them, especially if the contract is on their side (whatever happened to the good old "customer is always right" philosophy?). So, I fumed on the line for a little longer, but couldn't get anywhere. So I had to call my auto insurance company to file a claim. Fortunately, my insurance policy covers rental cars as well, so I don't have to pay a single cent for the supposed damages. I knew this all along, which is why I chose not to buy any of their bullshit coverage, which would have cost me an additional hundred-plus dollars on top of the cost of actually renting the car, but this is still a freaking hassle: I wasted the entire morning, and a significant chunk of the afternoon after my class talking to the rental car and insurance companies, and faxing paperwork to the insurance people. In fact, everything got settled just a few minutes before I started writing this post.

What's the moral of the story? I don't really know, honestly. Maybe it is simply: (1) Corporations are evil, but one needs to deal with them, (2) Never, ever interrupt your yoga practice to attend to any householder responsibilities. Everything else can always wait (except, of course, if the practice room is on fire, in which case you need to get out of whatever pose you happen to be in-even kapotasana-and get your ass out of the room, (3) Maybe one needs to do extra repetitions of Mari D (or hold it longer) on stressful days or during stressful times of one's life. 


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dinner Table Politics, a little practice report

It's just a little after noon on Sunday afternoon. I'm sitting in a little coffee shop here in Grinnell, Iowa. I need to hit the road very soon if I'm going to get back to Minnesota at a reasonable hour tonight, but I thought I'll write something here before I do that.

After the conference yesterday, I had dinner with 3 other conference attendees at a meditarranean restaurant. The food was great. I had lentil soup, a chickpea burger, and a piece of baklava for dessert.

There was some interesting dinner table drama that reminded me of a recent post by Evelyn from "Kapo is my Bitch", in which she talked about the reactions of non-vegetarians to the dietary choices of vegetarians and other "healthy eaters." Among the 4 of us at dinner, two of us were vegetarians, two were non-vegetarians. One of the non-vegs ordered a big juicy filet mignon. I have to admit that it looked very juicy, something I probably would have ordered in my non-veg days. Anyway, the guy with the steak was trying to get both of us vegs to have a taste of the steak ("It's that good, it's worth not being vegetarian for just a minute! What happens in Grinnell stays in Grinnell: I won't tell anybody else you broke your veg vows!"). The other veg gave in and had a small piece of the steak (he claims that he does have small servings of meat on "special" occasions; apparently, this is one of them). I said that I have to decline, because I have to appease the yoga gods tomorrow morning during my yoga practice. Apparently, this got me off the hook; he didn't press me anymore.

Gee, it seems that people have this perverse desire to see and delight in the "fall of grace" of vegetarians. What's up with that?

I thought I'll give a little practice report here as well. I did primary in my hotel room this morning (didn;t feel up to any kapo drama today). I was wondering how my practice would be, given that I ate so much yesterday. It was surprisingly light and powerful. I got the wrist bind in Mari D on both sides. Got a border-region-between-the-hand-and-wrist bind in Supta K. All in all, a very light, powerful and refreshing practice.

Okay, I need to stop procrasinating and hit the road right away, or I'll never get out of Corn Country.