Sunday, January 30, 2011

Answers needed for an important question for vampires

As part of my ongoing preparation to someday teach yoga to vampires, I have decided to start thinking about possible questions that aspiring vampire yogis may have about the yoga practice. Since I am still a relatively new practitioner, my knowledge of yoga philosophy is very limited. As such, I would like to solicit the help of the cybershala to answer these questions. So to begin, here's one very important and difficult question that I believe a vampire would have about the yoga practice: 

"I've been told that in yoga, the first of the yamas or ethical precepts is ahimsa, or nonviolence. Many human yogis take this to mean that one should not harm other living beings. Some even go so far as to renounce the eating of meat. But I need to drink blood in order to survive. How can I practice ahimsa?"

Please be generous with your answers.  

Weird Vampire Yoga

In light of my recent vampire posts, I got really curious as to whether there are actually vampires out there doing yoga. So I went searching for vampire yoga videos, and found this on Youtube. To be honest, I'm not very impressed. For one, the video is not very high-quality. I also don't think any vampires out there who are trying to get started on yoga would find this to be of much help. But I post it here anyway, just in case you find it entertaining.

P.S. Maybe I should make my own vampire yoga videos. I might be able to tap a niche market :-)

No Coffee, No Prana, Dream Journal

Today is my rest day from practice, so I have nothing to say about practice. Well, actually, I did do a few Suryas this morning in order to open my hamstrings and hips a little; I "cheat" myself of my rest days this way by sneaking in a few Suryas :-)

Although I didn't practice this morning, I did manage to prove Sharath's "No Coffee, No Prana" hypothesis, in a way. I had a double espresso, and then I had this really cheesy and greasy giant tomato pesto bagel (it seems that in the midwest, everything is extra giant-sized and cheesy...). It was so greasy that I felt I needed to wash it down with something after I ate it, and water alone wasn't enough. So I ordered another double espresso. Less than ten minutes after that second double espresso, I felt this familiar, powerful churning sensation in my bowels, and I had to go to the bathroom right away (I won't tell you what happened in the bathroom; I have more taste than that). So coffee does get the prana moving; at least enough to put the digestive system into overdrive :-)

So, as of right now, I've had four shots of espresso. Feeling too wired up to do any "serious" work right away, so I may as well blog. What should I blog about? Well, I did have another very vivid dream last night, so I'll write about it (this blog is fast becoming a dream journal!). So here's the dream:

My girlfriend and I have moved to Portugal, because I got a teaching position at some Jesuit college there, and she got a job teaching elementary school kids at the same college. [Why Portugal? One of my first yoga teachers in grad school, B., was from Portugal, and he taught me lots of things and had a powerful influence on my practice. So that's probably why.]

So the college has a really interesting setup. It turns out that my office is only a few doors away from our bedroom. It also turns out that one of my colleagues here in Minnesota has also moved to this college, and has his office right next to mine, just like it was in Minnesota.

Anyway, on this particular morning, my girlfriend goes out to her classroom. Somehow, I am with her too. The kids are seated at their desks, just like in any regular elementary school classroom. But then I notice something strange: Some of the kids have gray, transparent skin! Then it occurs to me that these kids are ghosts. These ghost-kids are really loud; some of them are laughing loudly for no apparent reason, others are bawling. The human kids are really disturbed and distressed by these ghost kids; some of them start crying. 

Then I make my way to my office. Somewhere along the way, I get into a vehicle to go somewhere. I am sitting in the backseat next to this guy whom I have never met before. He turns to me and tells me that they are going to arrest me and detain me for questioning [Who's "they"? I've no idea. What do "they" want to question me about? No idea either.]. We arrive at this little building that looks like a police station. A couple of men dressed in black-and-white uniforms and armed with automatic rifles walk toward our vehicle. The man next to me produces a pair of handcuffs and handcuffs me. I notice something unusual about the handcuffs, but I can't place my finger on why they are unusual. 

I get out of the vehicle, escorted by the man and the armed guards. The man leads me into this room with a desk and a mattress on the floor. He tells me to rest and sleep well, because starting from tomorrow morning, they are going to interrogate me for six days straight, and I won't be getting any sleep at all for those six days [Gee, are they going to water-board me as well? I wonder]. I must have look worried and/or distressed, because the man's tone of voice softens somewhat, and he assures me not to worry, this is all "standard practice." [How is that any assurance?] 

The man then leaves the room. I examine my handcuffs again, and discover why they are unusual. Although they are locked with a key just like a standard pair of handcuffs, they are made of leather, and are fastened together by velcro! Which means that all I have to do to get out of the handcuffs is to stretch my fingers a little and unfasten the velcro! For a moment, I thought about unfastening the velcro, getting out of the handcuffs, and then escaping by breaking through the window. But then there are still those armed guards out there: How am I going to get past them? Besides, this whole velcro-handcuff thing just looks too easy: It might be a setup. So I decide to wait and see how things develop before making any further escape plans. 

I decide to lie down on the mattress and get some rest. Shortly after that, my girlfriend comes into the room [how did she get in?]. Apparently, it is already the next morning [time flies when you are having fun, doesn't it :-)]. She says we should do our Buddhist prayers together and do some yoga before the interrogation starts. So we do our Buddhist prayers, and then do some sun salutations and standing postures. 

I can't remember what happened after this point, but I woke up soon after that. Strange dream, isn't it?  

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dream Journal: A recurring dream

Last night, I had one of these recurring dreams that I have from time to time. I notice that I tend to have them more when I am going through periods of transition. I'm not going to talk now about what this transition is that I'm going through right now; I believe in telling things in the right place, at the right time. I'll just focus on relating the dream (or at least as much of it as I can remember) for now.

Before I actually relate the dream, I need to tell you a couple of things about my life in order for the dream to make sense to you. I don't usually talk very much about this part of my life (you'll soon see why), but you really need a few facts to make sense of my dream. So here goes. Between the ages of 17 to 18, I went to this very nice and prestigious junior college in Singapore ( I was born and grew up in Singapore). I suppose this would be the equivalent of the last two years of high school in the United States. The thing is, one who attends such a junior college is expected to, at the very least, make it to college. In fact, many people who graduate from this junior college end up getting very prestigious scholarships to attend top universities around the world (Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, you name it). Due to certain emotional and psychological issues that I was struggling with at the time, I only did just barely well enough to make it to the local university, which was deemed to be very disgraceful in that kind of environment.

In such an intensely competitive academic environment, it wasn't good enough that one gets good grades. One was also expected to have a stellar record of participation in extra-curricular activities. Some people fulfill this expectation by being on the track team or the debate team, or the drama society. Others sing in the choir. But serving in the Students' Council (I suppose they call it Student Government in this country) is widely regarded to be the most prestigious extra-curricular activity. The kids who were in Student Council were widely regarded to be the cool kids who always knew what they were doing, who could somehow get stellar grades while (1) partying like crazy, (2) spending ridiculous amounts of time working on Student Council projects.

By some fluke, I actually got into the Students' Council. Well, actually, it's probably not entirely fair to call it a fluke: I do have a pretty good speaking voice, and what was considered to be some fairly impressive public speaking skills; as far as I'm concerned, this basically consists of having the ability to walk up to a big group of people, open my mouth, and say what's on my mind (more or less) without quaking. Which, to most young people in this country, is no big deal. But I don't think I'm generalizing by too much when I say that to most Asians, being brought up in relatively socially conservative environments, having such a skill is kind of... unusual. How did I acquire such a skill? Long story (for another post). For now, I'll just continue with the present story.

So, coming back to the present story: I originally had no intention to run for the Student Council, but one day, the out-going president of the student council came to our class, and gave a big pep talk about how it is so important to serve one's school, and all that bull. Of course, I was young, impressionable and gullible enough to believe and get fired up by all that. So I put my name on the ballot, told a few friends I was running, and did very little (actually, almost no) campaigning. The only thing that helped me to win was my ability to think and speak on my feet. During election day, there was a Q&A session for all the candidates; I was able to put this ability to good(?) use, did what I thought was a very decent job of answering in complete sentences whatever questions were fired at me. And, lo and behold, I got elected. At least, I can't think of any other reason why people would care to vote for me.

The next year and a half in junior college was sheer hell. Unlike my fellow student councillors, I had neither the ability nor the interest to get good grades while partying and socializing a lot and spending ridiculous amounts of time on Student Council projects. But being the young, impressionable person that I was, I tried to go along with things anyway. So I partied and socialized quite a bit, neglected schoolwork, and partied and socialized some more, which led me to neglect my work even more. My grades suffered, which caused me much distress, which caused me to not put a lot of effort into student council projects. Which led my fellow councillors to see me as a slacker with an attitude problem. The worst thing was, I was unwilling to get out of the situation by quitting the student council, because I had this weird sense of moral/professional obligation: I felt that since I had been elected to serve my fellow students, I had to stick it out to the bitter end somehow. Which was, of course, bull. And which only contributed to the downward spiral that I was in. Eventually, my parents decided that some "intervention" was in order, and they made me quit anyway. I had just enough time to get my academic act together, and did just barely well enough to make it into the university.

Wow, that's a lot to be saying just to set you up to understand what my dream was about, isn't it? So, as I was saying, this was such a terrible part of my younger life, that I still have nightmares about it. Last night's dream was one such nightmare. So in the dream, I was kind of back in junior college. I say "kind of", because in this dream, the reality of my present waking life and the past had somehow been jumbled and mixed together. In the dream, I was physically my present self. I knew that I have a PhD and am a college philosophy professor. But somehow, I needed to go back to that junior college and retake some classes (why? I don't know. But dreams are strange like that...) So I was back in junior college, retaking those classes. And somehow, somebody had put me on the ballot for the upcoming Student Council election without my knowledge. Oh no, not that same thing all over again, I thought to myself. And then, it was election day, and I found myself sitting in the main plaza of the college with this girl whom I used to work pretty closely with on Student Council projects. We were sitting there waiting for the election results to come up on this big jumbotron screen. And there it was: I had been elected again. A few friends came over to congratulate and chat with me. I found myself worrying about how I was going to fit my studies and my morning ashtanga practice into the crazy schedule of Student Council activities. I can't remember what happened after that. But I do remember having this terrible feeling of free-floating anxiety/depression just before I woke up ("what the hell's the use of having a PhD and teaching philosophy at a university if I still have to go back and take courses at that stupid junior college?!"). And then, thankfully, I woke up.

Gosh... I'm so glad I do yoga, and have my morning practice to look forward to.             

Vampires, Creative Comparison and Questioning

Over the last couple of days, I have been presenting my vampire argument (for details, see my January 25th post on vampires and abortion) to my students in class and soliciting their feedback on it. Surprising result: Most of my students do not think that vampires are persons. Maybe I'm out of touch with the intuitions of undergrads, but I thought we would have no problem agreeing that vampires are persons. I have always thought that, other than the fact that they have "special" dietary needs and that most of them (except the ones in Twilight) can't go out in sunlight, they pretty much are able to think the same thoughts and have the same conversations as all of us. In my opinion, we can think of them as persons with certain disabilities (cannot be exposed to sunlight) and special dietary needs.

When I asked a student why she didn't think vampires were persons, she hesitated a little, and then said, "Because they don't have heartbeats." And then I asked, "But what about Edward in Twilight? Do you consider him not to be a person just because he's a vampire?" She was stumped for a little bit, and then gave what I thought was a very psychologically interesting answer. 

I'll tell you what this psychologically interesting answer is in a little bit. For now, I'll like to say a few things about what the student has said thus far. I think the response and reaction of this student explains a few things, and also opens up a whole bunch of questions about how people think about things in general. It appears that for many people (for many of the students in my class, at least), in order for a living being to count as a person, it has to be a living human individual. Which means that even if someone seems to think and behave in exactly the ways we would normally expect persons to think and behave, that someone would still not qualify as a person in their eyes if he or she is not a living human being.

But what about Twilight? Would Twilight fans say that Bella was in love with a non-person? I doubt it: How much of a love story can you get out of somebody falling in live with a non-person? Rather, I think most Twilight fans (which includes at least some of my students, I suspect) would say that Bella was in love with a person who happens to be a vampire. 

But now we seem to have a contradiction: Most people think that one needs to be human in order to be a person. At the same time, they seem to be willing to say that somebody like Edward in Twilight is a person, even if he is not human... How does one square the proverbial circle here?

Which brings me to the psychologically interesting answer that my student managed to come up with after being stumped by her teacher (me). She said, "Well, yes, Edward is a person, but that's okay, because Twilight is not real, it's only a story."

Hmm... So people are willing to suspend their usual beliefs about what counts as persons in movies and works of fiction. Which seems perfectly acceptable, on one level. After all, one can argue that the beauty of fiction is that it allows us an opportunity to entertain ourselves by suspending our usual beliefs about things in everyday life.

But here's something to think about: What if the beliefs we hold about things in movies are actually better-justified beliefs than the beliefs we hold in everyday life? This is not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, when we watch movies, we tend to be in a mental space where we are temporarily free of the mundane worries and cares of daily life. In such a space, we are arguably in a better position to entertain new ideas and ways of seeing reality that might be more congruent with how things actually are in the actual world. If my student's response is any indication of how people in her age group (white, upper mid-western lower-to-middle middle class female in her late teens to early twenties) and cultural milieu think about and see things, it would suggest that many young people today (makes me sound very old when I talk like that...) might be a little too comfortable with drawing a very tight line between what they perceive to be fantasy and what they perceive to be reality.

In many ways, of course, the ability to draw this tight line is a virtue. We are familiar with what happens with people who do not draw such a line at all. But perhaps this line is a double-edged sword, so to speak: Although it can protect people from confusing fantasy with reality (and having delusions of grandeur, or worse), it can also prevent people from creatively comparing certain things that they experience in the fantasy world with certain things in their immediate socio-political environment. This lack of creative comparing and questioning might explain why my student could not go from thinking, "Edward is a person who is a vampire in the Twilight universe", to "If non-humans can be persons in fictional universes, what is there to prevent non-humans from being persons in the actual universe, if they meet certain conditions? Is being human really necessary for being a person? If there are certain universes (such as the Twilight universe) in which being human is not a necessary condition for being a person, why should it be a necessary condition in ours?"

I believe that at least one implication of this lack of the ability for creative comparison and questioning is clear: Somebody who lacks this ability is able to learn about how things are only through direct observation and experience, or through being told by some expert or authority that this is how things are. We live in a world that is increasingly fragmented, where most information comes to us from second- or even third-hand sources. Given this social climate, opportunities for getting knowledge through direct observation and experience are increasingly few and far between. This means that somebody who lacks the ability for creative comparison and questioning is, for the most part, condemned (I did hesitate before deciding to use this word, but I don't think it is too strong a word, given the stakes) to learning from expert knowledge and perceived figures of authority. And we know where this leads.

Hmm... what started out as a random observation about how things are seems to have degenerated into a rather gloomy post, one that has nothing to do with yoga, to boot. Well, let me see if I can turn things up a little. Good news for all of you vampires out there: There is a cure for your condition! For more details, see the movie Daybreakers. Even if you are not a vampire, you should still see it: It's my favorite vampire movie to date. I won't spoil the movie for you by telling you any plot details. And if this is any reason to see the movie, we have a fellow ashtangi as one of the stars of the movie:

Willem Dafoe plays a cured vampire in DayBreakers

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Practice report, and some musings on leg-behind-head postures

Practice this morning was very interesting. I got up in the morning and did my Buddhist chanting before I got on the mat. As I went into Surya A, I felt this "off" sensation in my left SI joint. I can't think of any other way to describe it. It's not painful. It's just this dull feeling that something is somehow... off in that part of the body. It feels like somehow the sacrum is not aligned properly with the back of the pelvis (which is precisely what SI joint misalignment is!). But I decided to go with the practice carefully, and see if I can use the practice to straighten this out.

It didn't get better, but it didn't get worse either. Throughout the standing sequence, I could feel the "off" sensation there in that part of my body. Well, actually, it did get somewhat better in primary. I'm not sure why. Maybe something about the way I do seated forward bends/hip-openers helped to put the SI joint back into alignment to some degree. Took a chance with Supta Kurmasana, and got into it from dwipada sirsasana. Probably not a very wise thing to do when one's SI joint is acting up, but I must have been feeling brave/reckless. And then, the moment of reckoning: Garbha Pindasana. Why "moment of reckoning"? Well, in the past, whenever I did something to my SI joint in Supta K, I'll feel the effects in Garbha: Rolling up and down would aggravate the misaligned place, and would be accompanied by this deep pain in the lower back/SI joint area. But today, I didn't feel anything unusual at all in Garbha (yay!). Which means my SI joint is probably in better shape than I thought.

Went on to do full primary, and then second. Backbends felt great. As I was doing laghu, I suddenly thought about Susan's comment on this blog the other day, about how she sometimes goes into child's pose for a little bit before going into kapo. I actually thought about doing this myself for a split second. I wasn't tired or anything, I was just thinking about it. But I knew that wasn't a good idea: Going into child's pose before such a challenging posture would deprive me of my momentum, and make it harder to do kapo (Susan, you are a bad influence: "Bad Woman!" :-) [Insert Guruji accent])

After Ardha Matsyendrasana, I decided to go further, and ended up going all the way to Pincha Mayurasana. The leg-behind-head postures felt okay, but not great. My hips didn't feel that open, and I thought I felt something in the SI joint on the second side in Ekapada Sirsasana. But I am not feeling any unusual pain or discomfort after the practice, so it's probably not anything serious (then again, the day is still young... better not jinx myself by saying this too early).

And what's really cool is that I finished the whole practice (full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana) in just slightly over 2 hours. So I think I might not go crazy after all (if you don't know what I'm talking about, see Claudia's post about Sharath's conference remarks about the recommended length of practice time).

I've noticed something interesting about the effects of second series on my body. Whenever I do the leg-behind-head postures, I am a lot more hungry after practice. Right now, I am sitting in the coffeeshop in my apartment complex. I just had a double espresso, a banana, and a very buttery and chocolatey chocolate croissant. That last thing is really good, but I don't want to know what goes into the making of it; probably lots of bad, bad stuff. The same thing happened the last few things I did leg-behind-head postures too: I just felt I needed more food throughout the day. I wonder if leg-behind-head postures stimulate the digestive system more than other postures? Will I get fat if I do leg-behind-head postures everyday?    

Got to go prepare for class now. More later. May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Practice report, floating, and some random thoughts on out-of-body experiences in the practice

Did full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana this morning. When I started my practice, I felt this slightly tweaky sensation in my left elbow joint, which worried me a little. As I went through Surya A, the cause of this sensation started to dawn on me. In the last week or so, I have made an interesting breakthrough in my Suryas: I have succeeded in doing that cool, "floaty" move where I lift my body slightly off the ground in trini position before going into chatvari position, so that the entire movement looks more like I'm kind of "floating" back into chaturanga rather than jumping back. I don't know how well I'm describing this, but hopefully you get what I'm saying: You see Richard Freeman and David Swenson (among others) doing this in their videos. I suspect that my movement still has some "jumpiness" in it that needs some working on. Maybe I'll make a video of myself doing this one day, and then I'll find out.

In any case, I think the tweaky sensation in the left elbow is caused by the fact that I tend to shift my left wrist ever so slightly on the mysore rug when I jump/float back, and this shifting causes instability in the wrist and elbow joints, which leads to that tweaky sensation. My hypothesis seems to be confirmed during practice today, because I made a more conscious effort to avoid shifting my left wrist, and the tweaky sensation eventually went away as I went further into the practice.

Anyway, I'm pretty excited about being able to finally start floating back. The feeling is, well, almost magical. Speaking of magical, you should check out Cathrine's latest blog post about magic moments in yoga practice and life in general. I'm honestly feeling just a little bit envious of her :-), because I've never had any really magical moments in my yoga practice so far. As I mentioned in my post about backbend epiphanies, I'm not the sort of person who gets epiphanies or flashes of light during deep backbends. Cathrine and a few other people I know have had out-of-body experiences during savasana and other postures. I wonder if the ability to get out-of-body experiences during practice is also a siddhi? If so, this is one siddhi I really hope to get one day. Do any of you out there also get out-of-body experiences during practice?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Abortion, Vampires, and Yoga: Some randomly-strung-together thoughts

I am sitting in the campus cafeteria right now, preparing to teach my medical ethics class, which meets in slightly under an hour. The topic we are covering today is abortion. Yes, a very divisive topic in this country, as most of you probably are aware. In addition to running my students through the usual pro- and anti-abortion arguments, I have also come up with what I think is a creative way to think about this issue. Specifically, I am going to get my students to think about this issue by thinking about vampires.

Vampires? What do vampires have to do with abortion? Stay with me, I'm getting there. As with all interesting things in life, we need to start at the beginning. To begin with, the standard secular anti-abortion argument (I say "secular" because I don't see any need to bring God into the picture; things are messy enough as they are) goes something like this:

(1) The fetus is a person from the moment of conception.
(2) A person has a right to life.
(3) Any action which deliberately terminates a person’s life infringes upon a person’s right to life.
(4) Since abortion deliberately terminates the life of the fetus, and the fetus is a person, abortion infringes upon the fetus’ right to life.
(5) Therefore, assuming that it is wrong to infringe upon somebody’s right to life, abortion is wrong, and may not be performed.

The standard strategy for somebody who disagrees with this argument is to challenge (1), and argue that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception. Many of you are probably familiar with how these arguments go, so I won't belabor this here. But the general idea is that if one can provide compelling proof that the fetus is not a person from the moment of conception, then the whole anti-abortion argument falls apart, and abortion is permissible, at least during the period of time when the fetus has not yet become a person. 

But this strategy is not so satisfactory, not least because it tends to entangle both parties in these messy debates about what counts as a person and what doesn't, and when the fetus acquires the characteristics that qualify it as a person. A bolder, and in my opinion, more effective strategy is to question whether terminating somebody's life always constitutes violating that person's right to life. In other words, to adopt this latter strategy is to argue that there might be certain circumstances in which deliberating terminating a person's life does not amount to violating that person's right to life. Several philosophers (notably Judith Jarvis Thomson in her seminal paper "A Defense of Abortion") have adopted this strategy to justify abortion in at least some cases. The general idea is to show that there are at least certain cases of abortion (such as, for instance, cases in which the woman's life is endangered by the pregnancy) which do not violate the fetus' right to life, because having a right to life does not entitle one to being kept alive at any cost. Therefore, at least in such cases, abortion is permissible. 

All of this is quite abstract. But I think there is an interesting way to show that terminating somebody's life does not necessary amount to violating that person's right to life. Think about vampires. You don't have to be a Twilight fan to agree that vampires are persons. They seem to exhibit all of the cognitive and reflective abilities that human persons possess. Indeed, we might even think of vampires as persons with very special dietary needs! Suppose somebody believes that vampires should never be killed, because they are persons, and we need to respect their rights as persons. They might argue this way: 

(1) A vampire is a person from the moment of conception (i.e. from the moment they first became vampires).
(2) A person has a right to life.
(3) Any action which deliberately terminates a person’s life infringes upon a person’s right to life.

(4) Since killing a vampire deliberately terminates the life of the vampire, and the vampire is a person, killing a vampire infringes upon the vampire’ right to life.                          
(5) Therefore, assuming that it is wrong to infringe upon somebody’s right to life, killing a vampire is wrong, and may not be performed.
      I think that most of us would surely disagree with this argument. We would say that even if vampires are persons, there have to be at least certain situations in which killing a vampire is the right thing to do (for example, if a vampire is trying to have me for dinner!). If you have been paying attention :-), you will also notice that this argument is exactly the same in form and structure to the anti-abortion argument at the beginning of this post. Which goes to show that simply being a person does not entitle one to not be killed. Simply because a fetus is a person does not automatically make aborting it wrong. To be fair, it doesn't automatically make aborting it right either. But this goes to show that rights are not magic bullets that the anti-abortionist (or anybody else) can just use to prove whatever they want to prove.
Whatever your individual views on abortion might be, I hope you find the above discussion edifying and useful in some way or other. But what has any of this to do with yoga? Well, practically anything in life can be related to yoga, and this is no exception. We can think about yoga in relation to vampires. If vampires really do exist, would they need to practice yoga? If everything we know about vampires is correct, vampires never grow old and die. So it seems that they wouldn't need to practice yoga for the health benefits; they just need to make sure they drink enough blood! But maybe some vampires might decide to practice yoga anyway, because like humans, vampires also have worries, and practicing yoga would also enable them to have greater equanimity in the face of stressful situations and life's many worries ("Where is my next vial of blood going to come from?")
Here's another question to think about: If a vampire starts practicing yoga, would he or she need to give up drinking blood in order to practice ahimsa? After all (unless there's a synthetic substitute for blood, like in the HBO series True Blood), vampires need blood in order to live, and the only way for them to get this blood is by killing humans (or by turning these humans into vampires in the course of drinking their blood...). 

Should there also be classes that are exclusively for vampires? And maybe yoga DVDs made exclusively for vampires (the latest Rodney Yee video to hit the shelves: "Yoga for Vampires and Other Undead Citizens")? This seems to make sense, because if vampires and humans are in the same class, vampires might get too tempted by the sight of human flesh and the prospect of human blood... 

But this would mean that some vampires would need to be trained as yoga teachers. And some human yoga teacher would need to train them (Rodney Yee? Hmm...). Wouldn't this be putting that teacher at great personal risk to life and limb? 
Well, I don;t have any answers to these questions. But I'll leave you with them, and see if you have any interesting answers to them. Remember, this is not a laughing matter. If you have taken Philosophy 101, you would know that just because something has never happened before does not mean that it will not happen in the future: Just because there are no vampires around today (at least not any that we are aware of) does not mean that there will be no vampires in the future. We need to be prepared for all possible contingencies.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Coffee and Siddhis: A Fantastic Tale

Disclaimer: Before you read the rest of this post, and possibly accuse me of being disrespectful, irreverent, and/or downright blasphemous, let me say a couple of things here: While most of the contents of this post feature events that actually happened and people that actually existed (and still exist), a significant portion of the post (especially the story about siddhis) is sheer fantasy, the product of an over-excited, over-caffeinated brain (mine). The reader will be well-advised to exercise his or her personal discrimination in discerning the difference between fact and fantasy in what follows. The author will not be held responsible for any consequences that might arise for the reader's life and practice as a result of reading this post. If you do not agree to this disclaimer, read no further! But hopefully, you will agree to this disclaimer, and we will all have some fun in the name of good, clean entertainment.   

First, a little pop quiz. What is the relation between this

Photo by Tom Rosenthal

and this?

If you have been following the recent conversations in the blogosphere about coffee in the ashtanga practice, the answer should be obvious: No Coffee, No Prana!  

Claudia's most recent post features a lot of valuable information that Sharath gave in conference about lots of questions pertaining to the yoga practice and life. The last part of Claudia's post pertains to Sharath's comments on the role of coffee in the practice, in which he repeated his by-now famous quote: "No Coffee, No Prana!" According to Claudia, this is what Sharath said to do before practice:

"Drink half a cup of coffee! No coffee no prana!"

Claudia continues, "There is a very famous vedic (?) saying for Brahmans about how they are fond of food, he jokes he is fond of coffee.  Those were his [Sharath's] words, I am just paraphrasing a little."

Claudia then goes on to relate a very interesting back story:

"Sharath said that his grandfather would wake him up at 4 in the morning every morning and give him a cup of coffee.  Students would be arriving and he would be making coffee for the whole family.  One time his son Manju came to visit and on the second day he did not want the coffee.  Jois said OK, and left him alone. About a week later Manju was asking for coffee again..."

I have been thinking about Sharath's endorsement of coffee and some of the contrary opinions that other yogis have held about the same thing. (For a description of the possible schools of thought that exist out there about the relationship between coffee and yoga, see my January 6th post on this topic.) Even among Ashtangis, there is quite a bit of divergence about the effects of coffee on the practice. Gregor Maehle, for instance, does not seem to endorse coffee quite as wholeheartedly as Sharath. In his book Ashtanga Yoga: The Intermediate Series, he claims that:

"Coffee is a stimulant that mobilizes and expels prana that otherwise is used to stabilize the pelvis. This is not a moralistic statement but is based on observation. Over the years, most of my students who had a tendency to have a twisted or imbalanced pelvis were those who insisted on continuing their coffee habit. Decaffeinated coffee or tea does not appear to have the same destabilizing effect." (Footnote no. 16 on page 125)

Personally, I find this statement a bit mystifying. For one, just how did Maehle come to this conclusion? I mean, I'm sure there are tons of other people who have instability issues in other joints (knee, shoulder, hip, etc.). Are their instability issues also caused by coffee consumption? If not, how is Maehle able to isolate the pelvis, and conclude that only the pelvis is affected by coffee consumption? If he were able to isolate the effects of coffee on the pelvis, how did he accomplish this? (Did he do some kind of a long-term controlled experiment in his shala? Hmm...)

But the purpose of this post is not to investigate Maehle's claims. I just couldn't suppress my curious and skeptical mind. Instead, I'm going to try doing something a bit more fun. I have a story that might explain why Sharath and Maehle (and many other yogis) have such divergent views about coffee.

The basic premise of my story is very simple. The coffee that the Jois's brew and consume is a special kind of coffee that is very different from any other coffee anywhere else on earth. They are able to brew this special coffee because of certain siddhis that they possess. In order for this story to make sense, a little back story is in order. There is a secret hidden within the ashtanga system, one that is revealed only to certified ashtanga teachers and beyond: As one gets to certain advanced stages of the practice, one acquires certain siddhis or transcendental powers. These siddhis are not made known to the public because Guruji did not want people to start practicing ashtanga for the wrong reasons. As will be clear in what follows, these siddhis are superhuman powers which can cause great harm and suffering to humanity if they are in the wrong hands ("With great power comes great responsibility..."). Moreover, the practitioner has absolutely no control over whether or when he or she acquires these siddhis. He or she just wakes up one morning, and finds that he or she mysteriously has them!

Briefly, these are the siddhis, along with the approximate stage in the practice at which many practitioners are granted them. The stages are approximate, because some practitioners get them earlier, some later, and some never get them at all.

1. Superman Vision: It was James who first alerted me to the possible existence of this siddhi, and who got me started on my investigation. This is quite possibly the coolest and most spectacular of the siddhis. It allows the practitioner to (1) have x-ray vision that enables him or her to see through objects, (2) emanate heat-rays from his or her eyes that can burn through the toughest metals on earth. Here's a demonstration of this siddhi by a famous ashtanga practitioner:

Pretty cool, eh? This siddhi is often granted to practitioners who have completed at least the 3rd series, and who are at least halfway through the 4th. Symptoms that can indicate you have this siddhi: (1) You wake up one morning, and your eyes feel warmer than they usually do. When you gaze at somebody for more than 2 seconds, that person flinches/grimaces in pain, and averts his or her eyes. (2) You start seeing things in people you would rather not see (but you can't help seeing them anyway), or you start treating people as if they are transparent (because as far as you are concerned, they are!).

2. Limited teleportation: As with superman vision, this siddhi is also often granted to practitioners who have completed at least the 3rd series, and who are at least halfway through the 4th. This siddhi enables the practitioner to instantaneously transport himself or herself to any particular point within a confined space, such as a room or a shala. As you probably figure, this is a very useful siddhi for mysore teachers. Used in combination with superman vision, this siddhi allows the teacher to see anywhere in the room, and mysteriously and instantaneously materialize in front of unsuspecting ashtangis when they are about to do the postures that they are most anxious about. I personally believe that Kino MacGregor possesses both superman vision and limited teleportation. For my account of this, see my guest post about my experience in Kino's workshop on Claudia's blog.

3. Transmutation of substances: This is a very cool and useful siddhi. It comes in stages. At the highest stages, it allows the parctitioner to instantaneously and radically transform the chemical structure of any substance within his or her field of vision. Practically speaking, it means that the practitioner can transform rocks into gold (Do I have to explain why this is a very useful siddhi to have?). However, there is only a very small handful of yogis throughout history who have attained such an advanced stage of this siddhi. At a lower stage, it allows the practitioner to alter the pranic effects of a particular substance. Coffee is a prime example. It is this siddhi that enables Guruji and his family to alter the effects of coffee on prana, and brew a special kind of organic coffee that gets the prana going, whereas ordinary coffee (the kind that Maehle talks about) just scatters your prana all over the place and leaves your nervous system (and your pelvis) totally out of whack.

In light of this siddhi, we can piece together a more complete picture of what actually happened with Manju. Manju grew up drinking the siddhi -powered-coffee that Guruji made, which enabled him to have all his yogic prowess. After he moved to the States, Manju discovered that no other kind of coffee had the prana-focusing power of the Jois brand. So he gave up coffee. When he went back to Mysore to visit, he forgot about the special power of Jois coffee. Which is why he at first declined the coffee. But after being there for a week, and feeling the yogic powers emanating from the rest of the family, he finally realized what he had been missing all these years, and came back to drinking the special Jois' brand coffee. Which might explain why Manju's teachings seem to be very much in demand in recent years (he got a new boost in his yogic prowess from drinking Jois coffee again).

So, Sharath's quote should be more accurately rendered as "No (Jois) coffee, No prana!"

Hmm.. No wonder I still haven't completed second series after all this time...

4. Becoming indistinguishable from one's guru: This is also a very cool siddhi. I also believe that Kino has this siddhi (see, again, my account of Kino's workshop for more details). Symptoms that can indicate you have this siddhi: (1) You start speaking in terse aphorisms that may not be grammatically correct ("Bad Man/Woman!", "Do your practice, and all is coming", "Why fearing, you?", "When you coming Mysore?"), (2) You begin to speak in a distinctively South Indian accent, much to the puzzlement (and possible amusement) of your friends.

You probably already know this, but I feel that it is my personal responsibility to remind you of this again: Although these siddhis are very cool things to have, the object of yoga practice should not be to acquire things (and when all is said and done, siddhis are also things). So do not fret if, like me, you have none of these siddhis: Do your practice, and all is coming!   

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Art, expression of emotion, and the yoga practice

Taught my first Philosophy of Art class this morning. Very stimulating and refreshing, especially for me, because I am not an aesthetics person (my area of specialization is supposed to be ethical theory and moral psychology).

We discussed R.G. Collingwood's views about what art is. According to Collingwood, art is closely tied to the expression of emotion. The artist is a person who gives unique expression to a particular instance of a particular emotion at a particular point of time.

The emphasis here is on expression: Expressing emotion is to be distinguished from giving vent to an emotion or merely describing it. Take, for instance, the emotion of love. If one were to simply give vent to the love that one feels, there wouldn't be a work of art. All we would see would be the physical signs that accompany love: Longing gaze, parted lips, raised blood pressure (?) etc. On the other hand, if one were to simply describe the emotion by saying something like, "I love x very much", or "I am in love with so-and-so", one would be placing this particular emotion that one feels at this very moment into an intellectual category (the category labeled "love") while failing to convey the uniqueness and specialness of this particular feeling that one is feeling right now.

To give expression to an emotion of love is to tread the middle path between giving vent to the emotion and merely describing it. It is to maintain sufficient conceptual distance between oneself and the emotion, so that one does not simply vent the emotion. At the same time, in order to be able to express an emotion, one must not distance oneself so much that one ends up just describing the emotion. To express an emotion is to render in language the particular emotion that one feels in terms of the effect that this emotion has on one's perception of things around one. An example might be the following excerpt from Lord Byron's She Walks in Beauty:

She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.


What has any of this to do with yoga? Well, I have always felt that yoga is an art form, in addition to being a physical and spiritual practice. I think that there is a sense in which asana constitutes a language by which we give expression to certain things. What are these things that asana is supposed to express? Consider this particular quote from Dharma Mittra: 

"Yoga practice is an act of adoration to the Lord. You do it because it has to be done. If you have this mental attitude, your selfishness disappears and the benefits come."

Yoga practice has to be carried out with an attitude of adoration and love. It does not have to be love of any particular deity, but there is a certain love present nonetheless, a love which is neither abstract description nor mere venting. Rather, it is an emotion that we give expression to by allowing the practice to sublimate whatever fears or anxieties we may bring to the mat. For example, on many mornings, I begin the practice with all kinds of fears and anxieties about the day ahead running amok in my monkey mind. But by committing myself to the practice in spite of these mental and emotional fluctuations, I am able to uncover and bring to the surface of my consciousness a feeling of joy and love: Joy at being alive and kicking and practicing, love of the practice and all that it does for my mind and body. 

With that, I shall sign off here, my friends. May our actions and practices be motivated by joy and love for all living beings (even if this is not always apparent!). May we never speak or act from hatred.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Practice, and musings on the place of teacher and self-feedback in the practice

Did my practice this morning with my friends Derek and Jim at Derek's art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo. This guy who came to the studio a few times last year (I don't know his name) also joined us for practice this morning. He looks new to the practice (I noticed that he had a posture "cheat-sheet" next to his mat), and he was walking through rather than jumping through. But it's all good. And who am I to judge his practice, anyway? For all I know, he might have some medical or physical condition that prevents him from jumping through and back. And besides, the most important thing is to practice: What or how much you actually do is secondary. (Guruji: "The only bad practice is no practice.")

I did full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana. It's great to practice with others, especially because I got some help with Supta Vajrasana from Derek. It's really hard to go down and come back up in Supta on one's own, at least for me. In my case, especially, probably because I have mild scoliosis, the right side of my body has a tendency to "lead" and land on the ground before my left side when I do Supta Vajrasana on my own. Having a spotter is very helpful in counteracting this tendency.

But practicing with others also has a downside. Because I am the furthest along in the practice among the four of us asana-wise, my ego tends to rear its not-so-pretty head, and I can't help feeling that a significant portion of my practice today (especially my faster-than-usual pace) was motivated by a drive to impress ("see how I can float through into my postures, and jump back without touching my feet to the ground..."), and not only by the pure love of the practice. Whereas, when I practice at home, even though I also drive myself pretty hard, the driving is not really driven so much by ego; I mean, nobody's going to be there to see me get into that ankle-grabbing kapotasana (except maybe Lord Shiva, if he happens to be looking down in my direction from Brahma heaven). I like to think that when I practice at home, I am driven more directly by a pure love of the practice.

All this gets me thinking about the contrast between my practice now and my practice when I was at my teacher's shala when I lived in Milwaukee a year ago (well, I might as well tell you who he is: Here's his shala's website). Right now, I mostly practice on my own. In Milwaukee, I would go to the shala two or three times a week. Reflecting on that time now, I think there are advantages and disadvantages to practicing in a shala compared to practicing at home. When I practice in a shala, I have the advantage of constant feedback from my teacher and shalamates, so it's easier to know when my practice is going too fast or too slow, or if I'm pushing myself more than is appropriate for where I am in the practice. Also, because the teacher is there to decide when I am ready for a new posture, that kind of keeps my ego in check, and I am protected against giving myself postures before I am ready for them and hurting myself.

The flip side is that one can become too dependent on the teacher and the atmosphere of the shala to keep one's practice going. I never had any problems motivating myself to practice at home (I practiced at home on days when I couldn't make it to the shala), but I know people who do not have a home practice, and only practice at the shala. I'm not judging them: It is what it is, and they probably have their own issues or reasons which make it very difficult for them to practice at home. But I still can't help feeling that there is a tendency among some people to almost use the shala and the teacher as a sort of crutch for the practice. Am I being a bit harsh? Tell me if I am.

For me, there is also an advantage to practicing all by myself. Because I do not have my teacher around to see my practice, I have to try to grow an extra set of eyes outside my body, so to speak, and try to assess my own practice from an observer's perspective. I have to pay more attention to what my body is feeling and telling me, and make decisions based on that feedback. Is that slightly off-sensation in my SI joint a sign that I should back off from certain deep forward bends, or should I proceed very slowly and carefully? Is that tweaky sensation in my knee today a sign that I should not go into padmasana, or is there another way to get into padmasana that does not aggravate whatever is causing the tweakiness? Every little thing that comes up in the practice is a judgment call I have to make, and I have to constantly tread the fine line between doing too much and hurting myself and doing too little and not getting as much out of the practice as I can. It was especially difficult in the beginning; soon after I moved here to Minnesota, I did something to my SI joint from trying to put my leg behind my head on a day when my hips weren't open enough (trying to "borrow flexibility" from my SI joint; bad idea). I basically had to build my practice back up from primary: the first couple of days after the injury, it took me more than two hours just to do primary! Right now, I've built my practice back up to Supta Vajrasana; on "good days", I even go up to Yoganidrasana or Tittibhasana.

In a way, then, what might be seen to be a disadvantage in my case has actually become an advantage: Not having a teacher around might mean that I do not have a ready source of immediate feedback, but it has made me develop a more acute and sensitive self-feedback system of my own. So nothing is all good or all bad in this world. But of course, I am still working to get myself to Mysore, so I can get some good feedback from Sharath.

Wow, that was a lot of rambling about some very minute aspects of my practice. I apologize if this bores you. May the Force be with you.      

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Practice, and some random musings on backbend epiphanies

Did full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana this morning.

Practice was good. Primary was strong and smooth. Grabbed my ankles in kapotasana today. Made me think of Grimmly's recent post about how deep backbends feel. To me, kapotasana always feels very intense in a good way. I don't consider myself a natural backbender, because I don't feel as comfortable in a deep backbend as I feel in a deep paschimottanasana. So for me, backbends are very much about getting the body (and mind) to go beyond what it is comfortable with, to boldly go where my body/mind hasn't gone before. It doesn't matter that I have been able to grab my heels consistently and my ankles occasionally for the past few months: Every single kapotasana is a new challenge for my mind/body. There is always a point where my mind/body questions itself: Are you sure you are up to this today? I have found that the way to "silence" this questioning by the mind/body is to not play its game. Basically, I listen and acknowledge the mind/body's question, and then forge on slowly and steadily anyway. I hang back for a few breaths and open my chest till I can see the tips of my toes at the edge of my vision (this is probably a drishti violation, but whatever: I got to do what I got to do. I find this less laborious than just diving down right away and walking that seemingly interminable expanse of mysore rug to my heels). Then I dive and walk my hands to my heels/ankles.

In his recent post, Grimmly wrote that when he gets into a deep backbend,

"I don't get any of the bells and flashes of light, the epiphanies, ekstasis, buckets of tears or kundalini rising, perhaps guys are wired differently."

I basically have the same experience as he does, except that I'm not going to commit to that part about guys being wired differently (don't want to start a gender backbend war on my blog... How many more people can I afford to offend anyway, in light of my recent posts?). Truth be told, I really don't know anything about the wiring of guys vs. gals in backbends (or any other kinds of postures, for that matter), so I'm really not in a position to say anything about this. 

But as I was saying, I basically have the same experience as Grimmly does in deep backbends. I have never, to my knowledge, experienced any kind of epiphany/bucket of tears/kundalini rising... Is it possible to experience the kundalini rising without being aware of it? I don't know. If you know something about this, please share.

Of course, anybody who has taken Philosophy 101 knows that just because something hasn't happened before doesn't mean that it will never happen. For all I know, my next kapo might be the epiphany-magical-experience-kapo. Maybe at the very instant that I grab my heels or ankles, Lord Shiva will descend from the heavens and grant me the boon of teleportation. And then I will be able to go to Mysore right away, and be in one of those very nice Mysore pictures that Claudia and Skippetty regularly post on their blogs! And I'll be able to teleport myself back here to Minnesota every day just before my classes meet. Now that would be pretty cool, wouldn't it?    

But, magical experiences and epiphanies aside, I like to think that practicing deep backbends has a certain effect on one's overall disposition and character, even if I can't scientifically prove it. I feel that, around the time I started doing deep backbends regularly, I also became able to manage fear better in my daily life. I feel that I have become better able to face the uncertainties and unknowns in my life, acknowledge the challenges that they pose, take the necessary actions to address them as they arise, and simply go on with my daily life and handle the tasks and responsibilities of daily life without over-thinking things and succumbing to the fear of the unknown and uncertain future. Of course, as I said, I have no way to prove this with certainty: It's not as if I can do a controlled experiment with my life :-) But I feel it, nonetheless... (Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon: "Do not think, feel...")

Got to go teach my class now. More later. May the Force be with you.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Practice report, and some neither-here-nor-there musings and observations

Did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. "Chickened out" of the leg-behind-head postures again :-)

Decided to make this a slower practice today, because there were so many thoughts swimming through my Monkey Mind. Decided to try practicing what Eddie Stern told Claudia: Five counts on the inhale, five on the exhale. It took a bit of work in the beginning, especially in the standing sequence (Monkey Mind kept going: "Come on! Haven't you stayed long enough in this posture? Don't you want to get to the exciting postures of Primary and Second series?"), but once I tell my body that it's staying there for those five long breaths, no matter what, the Monkey Mind realizes it has nowhere to go, and gradually shuts up.

During my practice, one thought came to me. From my blog posts of the last few days (you know what I'm talking about, I'm not going to stir everything up again here), I learnt one interesting truth: In this country, any issue that is worth thinking about/potentially life-changing is a divisive one. Abortion, capital punishment, education, fat acceptance (you name it). Why? I don't know. Maybe it is the nature of the people of this country (sorry, I know it is probably politically incorrect to speak like this, but I believe in telling-shit-like-it-is...). Maybe, in yogic terms, it is because all the parties who are involved in these issues have deep samskaric grooves in their lives, and these samskaras manifest themselves in our speech and actions. If this is true, then something else also becomes obvious: If deep and entrenched disagreements arise because of samskaric factors, then resorting to rational argument and scientific proof can have at best limited effect in bringing about change for the better in this world (whatever "better" means to you).

Of course, this does not mean that I will give up my telling-shit-like-it-is style of blogging; if anything, you can look forward to more of this style in the near future! But I also recognize that for true change to occur, we must try to really understand why people say what they say, not just the logical or scientific reasons for their utterances. In other words, we need to understand the existential/emotional motivations that drive people to say the things they do and hold the positions they do. As some wise person once said, "What's the use of being right if you are not happy?" This is something I am still very much working on.

On a lighter note, I thought I'd share something that happened on my way to campus today. On the bus today (my girlfriend and I share one car; she takes the car, and I take the bus), I sat beside this older gentleman. We started chatting about how beastly the weather is (it's presently -9 degrees fahrenheit, -29 with windchill). As we got to my stop, and I got up to leave, he said, "Don't study too hard and burn your brains out, young man!' I was quite amused (and frankly, flattered!), and didn't bother to correct him and tell him that I was faculty, not student. In fact, this happens to me so much that I don't even bother to correct people anymore. I get things like this when I talk to random people in coffee-shops ("Oh, what are you majoring in?") and in all kinds of random places. It's a little bit more awkward when this happens in professional settings. For example, on one of my first days at work at my previous university in Milwaukee, this grad student came up  to me and asked me if I was a new grad student! I had to tell her rather sheepishly (Why sheepishly? Hmm.. I don't know) that I was the new Visiting Assistant Professor. And then it was her turn to get sheepish, as she fumbled for an apology...

As I said, I don't get offended by people thinking I am a student. If anything, I am actually a little amused and flattered (I mean, I'm turning 35 soon, and I apparently can pass off as somebody in his twenties :-)). But nevertheless, I sometimes wonder why people think I am a student. Well, I have a few possible theories:

(1) The obvious one (I think): I look younger than I actually am (Yay!). Maybe I should post my picture on this blog, and then you can decide if this is true.

(2) People in this part of the country (the upper midwest) don't meet many Asians, and so they have difficulty telling how old an Asian is when they see one. 

(3) The way I dress: I dress appropriately, but I don't walk around in a suit and tie, or anything that makes me look "professional". But this can't be it: Most professors here don't wear suits or ties on most days either, and they don't get mistaken as students (at least not to my knowledge).

(4) I don't look "distinguished" enough: There's probably not very much I can do about this, if this is the reason. I sometimes think that I might look more "distinguished" if I grow a big beard and a big belly (but then my practice will go to shit... no more binding in Mari D or Pasasana. So no, I won't go there...).\

(5) I have a small build: Again, there's not very much I can do in this department. Maybe investing in a pair of elevator shoes might help, but probably not by much.

Well, enough musings for now. Got to get ready for class (at least my students don't mistake me for a student :-))    

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why are there more people outside of India now practicing Yoga than inside of India? David Williams' thoughts on this

This post is inspired by Claudia's January 16th post, "How come there are no Indians in the Mysore Shala?"

I have my own theories as to the answer to this question, but I'll keep them to myself, since I don't feel I'm in a position to say anything really illuminating about this (This is rare; it is not often that I keep my views to myself...). Rather, I'll share David Williams' thoughts on this. In a 2002 interview with Guy Donahaye, Williams remarked that, "I believe more people outside of India now are practicing Yoga than inside of India." 

When Donahaye went on to ask him why this is so, Williams replied, 

"A lot of people in India didn't have the leisure time to do it, for one thing. A huge amount of the population works for enough food to feed themselves and their family that day and they are working from dawn to dark. Also, at least with this system of yoga, it was only taught to brahmins up till we sort of released it to the rest of the world and prior to, say, the 1960s, yoga was kept pretty much a secret. The guru taught the disciple and there was a lineage and, before mass communication, one person would learn one yoga system in their life, if they got introduced to Yoga. Now all of that has been blown wide open with mass communication and videos and all of that."

I just thought I'd share this, since you might find this to be of interest.    

Practice report, and a couple of related thoughts

Did full primary and second series up to Supta Vajrasana today. Finished in slightly under 2 hours (Am I getting a little obsessed with how long my practice takes?). Here are a couple of practice "highlights":

(1) I bound my wrists on both sides in both Marichyasana D and Pasasana today, but the wrist bind in Mari D seems to take a little more effort today (needed to "squeeze/twist" into the pose more in order to get the wrist bind).

This probably had something to do with what I did and ate yesterday. Yesterday, we went with a couple of friends to Olive Garden for a late lunch. Had a bowl of vegetarian minestrone soup, and a five-cheese baked Ziti (lunch portion) for the main course. Also had a glass of Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling. Gosh, I was so full after that, it's not even funny. Took me three hours to get over the "bloated" feeling. Didn't have to eat anything for the rest of the day.

Moral of the story? I think it is this: If you want to have a consistently fabulous daily ashtanga practice, avoid Olive Garden! But seriously, this reminds me of what Kino said at her Chicago workshop. The Ashtanga system doesn't have any dos or don'ts: There are no explicit dietary and lifestyle rules in Ashtanga. All it does is recommend that you do the practice everyday, 6 days a week, for however much or however little you choose. It is possible, in theory, to have a big steak dinner (or have a big late lunch at Olive Garden!) and then do the practice the next day. But if I do this, the body and the practice has to work so much harder in order to detox and clean out all that bad stuff (which is probably what happened with me this morning).

But such a practice rhythm is unsustainable for most people (who wants to be struggling with Mari D and huffing and puffing through the vinyasas every morning, for all eternity?). So the practitioner eventually gets to a point where he or she has to make a choice: Either change the diet/lifestyle to fit the yoga practice, or change the yoga practice to fit the lifestyle. It turns out that, our bodies being the way they are, it is easier to do ashtanga if one eats less (or no) meat and eats light than if one eats, say, a filet mignon. It is, of course, possible, to take the other course: Change the yoga practice to fit the lifestyle... (Need I say more?)

Does this make me an Ashtanga fanatic/fundamentalist? If one defines "fundamentalist" as "somebody who is willing to change and arrange his or her life around one thing which he believes very strongly in/is very passionate about", then yes, I am so totally an Ashtanga fundamentalist!

(2) Another interesting development with the ongoing saga of lifting into handstand after the fifth navasana. Tried to lift into handstand after fifth navasana again today. Did the same actions: Lifted my butt off the ground after navasana no. 5, moved my hips so that they were directly above my shoulders, and then extended my legs up into the air (I'm not sure if they were perpendicular to the ground, but I think that even if they were not, they were pretty close). I balanced on my bent arms for a few breaths (still working to straighten them). Then my arms bent more, and my nose touched the ground. For about 2 or 3 breaths, my body weight was distributed more or less evenly between my arms and my nose (Did I just discover a new pose :-)?) And then I dropped my legs to the ground to chaturanga. Hopefully, this nose-balancing thing means that I am closer to extending up into handstand. Or maybe not. We'll see.     

Saturday, January 15, 2011

A little practice report, and a follow-up to my previous post

Started my practice later than usual this morning. I usually start practicing between 6 and 6:30 a.m. on weekdays. My rest day is on Sunday, so I practice on Saturdays too. Having to start my practice later (woke up late this morning) made me appreciate the importance of starting early. When I start my practice later, it's harder to bring myself to the mat. There are all these voices in my head clambering for my attention ("Hey, it's already 10 a.m., shouldn't you maybe skip practice today, or at least cut it short? There are so many other things waiting to be done... You sure you have time for this Ashtanga thing?") When I start early in the morning, my mind is somehow quieter.

Did full primary today. The voices in my head started quieting down as I headed into the standing sequence, and the entire practice flowed smoothly and seamlessly. Still can't lift fully into handstand from navasana, but at least I didn't fall on my face :-) Will continue working on it.

Last night, I made a trip to the local Barnes and Noble to read that Yoga Journal article ("Measure for Measure") that Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga was so up in arms about (I gave up my YJ subscription years ago). I really don't see what is so shame-inducing about the article. The article starts with the author making a trip to the office of Linda Bacon (yes, the Linda Bacon who is the founder of HAES; apparently, she's a nutrition professor at the City College of San Francisco, and also has a clinical practice as a health/body image consultant.).

Anyway, Bacon tells the author in the plainest terms what nobody has had the guts to say to her face thus far: She is fat. (Yes, she actually uses the "f" word.) This starts the author on a journey of self-reflection about her eating and lifestyle habits. She changes her yoga practice from an Iyengar-style-long-holds-in-postures-type-practice to a vinyasa flow practice. In the process, she listens to her body more, and realizes that she had been eating more food than her body needs (she realizes, for example, that she had unknowingly gotten into the practice of eating out of sheer habit rather than out of hunger). In order to change her lifestyle to one that is more in line with what her body needs, she starts to monitor and keep track of her food intake more closely; keeping a food diary, measuring out her portions (hence the title of the article). And she ends up losing more than 20 pounds. In the process, she also discovered that asanas which she used to find very difficult (twists, inversions, etc.) became much easier.

As I was saying, I don't see where the shame-inducing/humiliating part of the article is. If anything, the article is a nice blend of both yogic and scientific common sense. Somebody comes up to me and says I am fat. I can choose to blow that person off, or I can choose to consider whether what that person says is in any way reflective of the reality of my situation. Either way, I have to face the consequences for my choice. Choosing to blow somebody off for calling me fat isn't going to change certain very basic things about how reality works. Whatever words we choose to use to describe body shapes, the basic scientific truths remain: Biology doesn't care whether I am "fat", "curvy", "round-bodied", "chunky", "big-boned", "[insert your favorite euphemism]". The more pounds I pack on, the harder my body has to work, and the harder my body has to work, the more likely premature wear-and-tear of the internal and external biological systems will occur. We can choose to accept this basic scientific reality, and work with it as best as we can; or we can choose to deny this reality at our own peril. It seems that somebody we know may have chosen the latter path.