Monday, February 28, 2011

How useful are yoga DVDs to yoga practice?

I just read this article on Elephant Journal about the (dis)value of yoga DVDs in cultivating a yoga practice. The writer argues that effective yoga instruction is characterized by three components:

1.      Intimacy: Yoga is more than a technique. It is a way of being. And that way of being can only be learned by being in proximity to it. You don’t learn yoga so much as you absorb it.
2.     Interactivity: Yoga requires feedback. As students of yoga, we cannot see ourselves clearly. Mirrors provide only a reflection. Only a teacher can see us as we are help us align with our true nature.
3.     Individuality: Yoga is adaptable in order to meet the needs of different people in different contexts.  Muscle-bound manual laborers in the Yukon perform postures differently, have different needs, and require different instructions than lithe ex-dancers in New York City.

DVDs, by their very nature, fail to deliver any of these three components. Therefore, DVDs fail as a mode of yoga instruction. 
I think the writer is correct in his observations, and I suppose for most seasoned Ashtangis, this whole issue is moot anyway. Whether you practice in a shala or by yourself at home, you are working with a preset sequence of postures (primary, second, third, fourth, or beyond), and if you're trying to maintain drishti, the last thing you need is to be distracted by somebody with a big voice on a TV screen :-)

But as with many other things, I think the answer you get regarding a particular issue depends very much on the question you ask. If the question is: Are yoga DVDs a good mode of yoga instruction? The answer would be no (for the reasons stated above). However, if the question is: Can yoga DVDs serve a positive function within the yoga practice? Then the answer is more complicated.This is so, because even if yoga DVDs are not in themselves a good mode of yoga instruction, there are other things they can do. Here are a few:

(1) They can get somebody who is new to yoga interested in yoga, and become motivated to delve deeper. While this is not in itself a substitute for working with a teacher, it can get the curious individual started on a path which would eventually lead to him or her finding the yoga style and/or teacher that works for him or her. As a matter of fact, we have a living example of this: In her latest post, Christine talks about how it was a yoga video that got her started on her yoga journey.

(2) They can give somebody who is new to yoga an idea of the different styles, teachers and possibilities out there. When I first started doing yoga in grad school, I was a "yoga sponge": I went to all the yoga classes I could afford, which was not that many, considering my budget. Later on, I became a yoga teacher at the local yoga studio, despite my total lack of certification (flashes mental birdie at Yoga Alliance here :-)), and was able to go to all the classes there for free. But this is another story for another post. But as I was saying, when I first started doing yoga, I was a sponge trying to soak in everything that could possibly be learnt about every school of yoga under the sun. Since I couldn't afford that many classes at that time, DVDs were a useful way for me to get a sampling of the different major styles out there.

(3) They are a way for people who don't have the time and/or money to take classes to continue to do yoga. Especially in these economically challenging times, this is very vital. Yes, there are the three pitfalls listed earlier, but I believe that some yoga (no matter where it comes from) is better than no yoga. Actually, I also believe that the only cure for yoga is more yoga, but this for another post :-)

(4) They are a way for people who are self-conscious (because of their perceived body size, because of their perceived lack of flexibility, or whatever) to get started on the yoga path. Again, the three pitfalls apply, but again, I also believe that some yoga is better than no yoga.

(5) They can help one to stay connected with one's teacher if one cannot meet the teacher regularly. I'm speaking from personal experience here. Somewhere around the beginning of 2007, I decided that just going to any yoga class I could go to and practicing from DVDs just wasn't cutting it. I had to study with a "real" teacher. So that summer (2007), I went to Maui to study with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane for three weeks. In my less-than-desirable financial situation at that time, I had to ask my dad for help with the airfare, and I lived on a farm for $10 a day in exchange for helping out with stuff around the farm. It was a very eye-opening experience in many ways (more material for another post :-)), and I learnt many many things from Eddie and Nicki. But I can't afford to fly to Maui too often (I still haven't been back there, to this day). A few months after Maui, I stumbled upon Nicki's Intro to Ashtanga DVD at the local Border's. I immediately bought it. When I played it in my apartment, I couldn't help smiling the moment her voice came on: It totally felt like I was back on Maui. A little update: I did manage to go to Nicki's workshop in Indianapolis last winter (2009). I hope to make it back to Maui one day :-)

So yeah, yoga DVDs aren't all bad. For a while, I practiced with them on a more or less regular basis, for the reasons above. However, I did eventually get to the point of "DVD fatigue". I just felt that the postures and sequences in yoga DVDs tend to be either (1) so unchallenging and repetitive that one tends to lose interest after a while, or (2) very challenging, but lacking any systematic way to build up to them. I felt that I needed a practice that would challenge me constructively, that would regularly give me a sense of "constructive failure", if this makes sense. And I felt that the environment at the studio I was teaching at wasn't really giving me this, either. Don't get me wrong: The teachers and students there were all wonderful and supportive people, and I made many wonderful friends there. But I think what sometimes happens when one has been a teacher for too long is that people start seeing you as "the teacher", and consciously or unconsciously become unwilling or unable to challenge your understanding of the practice, and your own practice stagnates as a result. I felt I was at that point. By a fortuituous turn of events, I moved to a new place (Milwaukee) and encountered my teacher, who got me into a regular mysore practice. And it was mysore Ashtanga practice that got me out of this rut. I had "dabbled" in Ashtanga-inspired sequences (and even did the primary series occasionally) before that, but it was regular mysore practice that made me really understand the power and beauty of this practice: This practice that brutally and honestly challenges me everyday. Yet within this brutal honesty lies the seed of real growth.

Huh, another long ranting post. And I started out only intending to talk about yoga DVDs :-)         

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Biutiful: A little film review of sorts

Well, this is really more an outright film recommendation than a review. I saw Biutiful last night. Very powerfully poetic film. Javier Bardem (I think he's now officially my favorite non-American actor) plays Uxbal, a single father who is suffering from terminal cancer and only has a couple of months to live. He takes care of his two young children, and also runs this shady business which tries to set illegal Chinese and Senegalese immigrants up with under-the-table employment opportunities. The whole movie is very beautifully made. One feels this super-heavy sense of tragic inevitability from the opening of the movie. You know he's going to die from the very first frame; there's just no getting around it. But you stay with the movie anyway, because you want to see how he discharges his various commitments and obligations to people around him, and comes to terms with the fact of his own mortality, and the various complex feelings that this brings up.

Warning: You probably shouldn't watch this movie if you are having a very bad day.

But in a way, the movie isn't just about Uxbal; it's about us. Yes, you and me. Because we are terminal too: We are all going to die someday. Perhaps there might even be a sense in which he is in a better position than we are. At least he knows his "time limit"; we don't. I don't know whether I am going to die tomorrow or fifty years from now.

Gee, this is getting a bit heavy. Anyway, I highly recommend the movie. Just don't watch it on days when you are looking for some stand-up comedy.

May the Force be with you.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Practice report, some "dirt" on primary vs. second

Practice was good this morning. A few noteworthy "highlights":

(1) I have been consciously trying to put into practice both Kino's and Susan's advice to broaden across the lower back in the forward bends in primary, especially in the Janu Sirsasanas. I really feel that it is helping with my SI joint. Very cool.

(2) Second series was very nice today. In Dwipada Sirsasana, I managed to get my legs more snugly behind my neck. In fact, I think I got my left foot to touch the C7 spinal vertebral (basically, the lowest cervical vertebral before the thoracic spine begins). Or maybe it was C6; not 100 hundred sure. At any rate, the foot felt really snug behind my head/neck, and I could actually hold my feet there while pointing the feet (most days, I have to flex the toes to hold the feet there). Cool. Much opening happening, I sense.

(3) Fell over during my first attempt in Pincha Mayurasana. Quite unusual for me. I haven't fallen over in Pincha for almost a year now. Oh well... Did the yogi really fall from pincha if nobody saw him fall? :-)

Anyway, I got up and tried again. The second time around, I got into it and held it effortlessly for 10 breaths (hahaha, "revenge" is sweet :-)).

(4) In the finishing sequence, as I went into Pindasana from Urdhva Padmasana, I tried to bind my wrists. Somehow, I lost my balance and rolled over to one side. Felt this not-so-nice sensation in the neck. Immediately righted myself. Didn't feel anything amiss after I got out of the posture. Must be careful. Seems that today is not a good balance day for me. Wonder if there is an astrological reason for this?

I read with interest the following remarks by V/Hidden Ashtangi in her recent post:

"I once had a blazing argument with you-know-who because she insisted that Second Series is easier than first and I snapped back that hmmm, yeah it could be if you don’t do it every day and you modify the key poses."

For the record, I have no idea who "you-know-who" is in the passage above, and I don't need to know :-) I am quoting V here because over the years, I've also heard various people say basically the same thing: That second series is in some sense "easier". Well, in my opinion, it might feel easier if you (1) are a "natural backbender", (2) Have tight hips and/or hamstrings that might limit you in forward bends. This is actually one of my girlfriend's pet peeves with Ashtanga ("who is it that decides that we have to do all these forward bends before we can do the backbends?") Hush, hush... whatever I say on this blog stays in this blog, understood? (3) are unable and/or unwilling to do the jumpbacks and jumpthroughs in primary, and (4) if you modify and/or do the second series postures "selectively", i.e. you skip certain postures and/or do not perform them with the vinyasa.

So far, I have been able to verify (1) to (4) partly by secretly looking (by committing drishti violations) at the practices of these people who tell me that second is easier. Through my observations, I have noticed that at least one of conditions (1) to (4) (usually more) apply to them. Ha! So now you know I commit drishti violations.

But often, I don't even need to commit drishti violations to know these things. For example, at my teacher's shala in Milwaukee, I heard this woman who does second series tell somebody that second is easier than primary. And then, a few weeks later, she was behind me during practice, and I heard her asking the teacher for help in doing jumpbacks in primary.

Another such "revelation" occurred during the asana clinic at Tim Miller's workshop in Miami a couple of years ago. As an aside: Tim is famous for these clinics. I highly recommend you attend one such clinic, if you haven't done so before; you can learn a lot about the "down-and-dirty" stuff of how to make postures work for you at these clinics. But I digress. Anyway, at this particular clinic, a woman came up to Tim, and told him that because of a hamstring injury, she has stopped doing primary, and only does modified second, i.e. she does the backbends, and does the leg-behind-the-head postures only on one side. Tim's response was: Avoidance is not the answer. He then proceeded to show her how to work on the primary series postures in such a way as to gradually encourage healing of the hamstrings (I don't remember the full details, but a big part of it consists of consciously bringing the heads of the thighs closer together and really working uddiyana bandha).

So you see, I'm really not this evil person who goes around digging up the dirt on other people's practices. It's just that when you have been practicing for a little while, and have been around, so to speak, you can't help picking up on these things. Anyway, I share these things here partly because I know there are folks in the cybershala who struggle with injuries and issues; hopefully, you might find all this to be of some use.

Huh... I was only planning to write a brief practice report, but it has ballooned into this long post. Oh well. It is what it is.

May the Force be with you.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The unexpectedly intrusively mysteriously sensual nature of touch

As I was sitting in the campus cafeteria earlier today, preparing for my afternoon class, something interesting happened. I was sitting at a table, and my back was facing this woman at the next table, whose back was also turned to me. Which is really a very long-winded way of saying that our backs were turned to each other :-)

I was sitting there reading this book when suddenly, I felt something brush against the nape of my neck. It felt sensual and yet intrusive at the same time: I sensed a certain deliberateness in the movement of whatever it was that was touching my neck, and the feeling itself would have been pleasant, if I had been expecting it. It's as if somebody I knew had snuck up behind me and caressed the back of my neck. But who the hell could it be? My girlfriend was at work miles away, and none of my students would have the nerve to do that; at least, I like to think I inspire at least that much respect.

I immediately whirled around, expecting to give whoever this audacious violator of my personal space was a piece of my mind. I came face to face with the woman at the next table, and she apologized in an embarrassed fashion. It turns out that she probably had reached her hands back to stretch, and did not realize that I was sitting so close behind her.

Weird. I don't have any reason to doubt that she had sincerely mistakenly touched me (I know this is a very cheesy way to put it, but bear with me :-)). But still, there was something... electric in that one instant of contact that was both intrusive and oddly sensual at the same time.

This brings to mind something that Stephanie said in a comment on my post last week about yoga and creative/sexual energy. Commenting on adjustments in a mysore class, she says,

"I don't think it's the placement of the hands, or the position of the posture, that makes a teacher's adjustment sexual. It's the 'charge' of the touch that makes an adjustment seem sexual, in my experience. No matter where or in what pose the hands may be touching."

I totally agree with this, in light of what happened to me today. Except that I have never felt any touch that was "charged" in this way within the context of a yoga class. Maybe it's because I've always had the good fortune of having teachers who have much control over the "charge" of their touch (how one goes about controlling this, I have no idea). The only time I can remember an adjustment bringing up strong feelings within me was during this particular class in Florida a couple of years ago. It was a class I regularly attended, and I knew the teacher well (or so I thought...). Anyway, around this time, she had just started doing her teacher training with this particular big yoga organization (I'm not going to name names here), and had what she thought were many fresh and exciting ideas about alignment to share with her class. So she came up to me in downward dog and tried to adjust my shoulders in this particular way that I felt was totally counter-intuitive. I don't remember the exact alignment details now, but apparently, my body must have been resisting her adjustment on some level, and "not getting" it. She asked me to go forward into plank (gosh, I hate this neither-here-nor-there posture: In my opinion, it's a half-assed pose that is neither chaturanga nor downward dog), and then proceeded to adjust me into downward dog from there. I don't know how else to describe this, but the whole posture just felt... wrong, and I wanted to yell at that very moment: "Get your hands off me, you [whatever]!" In any case, the "charge" of that touch during that adjustment, if there was one, was a very negative one. The adjustment wasn't painful, and it would have been a stretch to even say that it was uncomfortable. But it just felt... wrong.

But I digress. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I have never, to my knowledge, experienced any touch that was particularly sensual within the context of a yoga class. But what happened today also shows that touch is a very mysterious thing. It seems that we don't always have control over the "charge" or "message" that our touch conveys to people around us. Well, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. After all, we don't always have this control as far as the other senses are concerned: Think, for example, of the many misunderstandings that have arisen from somebody mistaking the tone of another person's voice, or the "meaning" of another person's glance. So why should we be expected to have this control over our touch?       

Some random observations about my immediate environment

I don't know if this is just me, but I sense that there is a lot of nervous/anxious energy in the air and in my environment right now. Or was it something I did in my yoga practice this morning? But I did my usual full primary + second up to pincha mayurasana, and nothing seemed amiss. I didn't throw out my SI joint or any other part of my mind/body, as far as I could tell; also, as far as I could tell, there wasn't any particularly noteworthy psychic energy shift.

As I said, it could just be me; maybe I'm the one who's nervous and/or anxious, and am projecting it on everyone around me. But I sensed it around me the moment I stepped into my office this morning. I always leave my office door open, and I couldn't help sensing that everyone seemed to be walking just a little faster and more hurriedly. And then, about twenty minutes ago, a student came to my office with a very nervous expression on his face. He gave me his paper, which I had just graded and returned to him yesterday (I gave him an A). I was thinking to myself, "Hmm... is he coming to me because he's unhappy with his grade? Uh... does he think he deserves... something more than an A?" Anyway, I asked him to take a seat. He told me that he was really nervous because he had not turned in the first draft of the paper, and was worried that his grade was going to suffer because of that. I asked him if he had the first draft with him somewhere; if he did, he could just turn it in to me right there and then, and everything will be taken care of. He said he never wrote the first draft. I thought about it for a moment: "Well, if he could write a good paper without having to draft, why should I worry?" So I told him not to worry about the draft (I mean, you got an A for the final paper, why should I obsess over the fact that you didn't turn in a draft?). Ha.... the knots we all tie ourselves into worrying about things. Can't blame him, though; I probably would have been the same way in his position, knowing what a worrywart I can be sometimes. But still, gosh! Why all this crazy nervous energy?

And then, just two minutes ago, this other student came into my office, looking very sickly. She told me she had the cold/flu (she's been having some kind of cold/flu on and off for the last couple of weeks; actually, I noticed that a number of other students have also been similarly stricken) and wouldn't be able to come to class today. I thanked her for letting me know, and asked her to rest well at home.

Hmm... so there are two different "bugs" in the air. A physical one (whatever cold/flu bug that has struck down so many of my valiant students as of late) and a mental/emotional one (whatever anxious/nervous energy that is causing people to tie themselves into worry-knots).

Is there a particular astrological explanation for this? Anything interesting happening in the planets and stars this week, astrologically well-versed folks out there?

Or are the aliens arriving soon? Are they using these bugs to incapacitate as many members of the human race as they can, before they land and conquer this planet? Or maybe the world will end on December 31st 2012, and all this is just a premonition?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Practice report: The subtle workings of pride, ego and expectations

Whew! The past couple of days have been very hectic. Stayed up till 2 a.m. last night/this morning to finish grading a bunch of papers. Which led to a dilemma this morning: Should I still try to get up early to do my practice, or should I sleep more? I think the reasonable/healthy answer would have been "sleep more". But I'm not always reasonable or even healthy: For better or for worse, I just couldn't stand the thought of having to go about my day without my practice. So I got up at 5:30, did my Buddhist prayers, and started practicing at 7. Yes, I am a crazy-ass type A person this way. 

Since I didn't post yesterday, I'm going to write about both today's and yesterday's practices at the same time, mainly because there were actually more interesting things happening in my mind and body during yesterday's practice, whereas this morning's practice was nice but quite uneventful. On both days, I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana. Two "highlights" from yesterday's practice:

(1) I had a space-cadet moment in which I almost went into Supta Kurmasana before doing Kurmasana. After Bhujapidasana, I leapfrogged my feet over my arms and put my left foot behind my head. And then I realized, "Wait, there's something that supposed to come before this... Kurmasana!" I had to "rewind": Moved back to downward dog, leapfrogged my feet over my arms, and got into kurmasana. Hips felt very open yesterday (and today as well). The heels popped up off the ground almost effortlessly. That's probably why I was so anxious to get my feet behind my head :-)

(2) The leg-behind-head postures in second felt easier both yesterday and today, probably because the hips are more open. Don't know why they are more open. Hope they stay this way :-) But I also have been trying to keep in mind both Kino's and Susan's suggestions to broaden across the lower back, so as to create more space for the sacrum to settle more comfortably in these postures, so that the sacrum is not compressed. I think this is coming along quite well.  Thank you Kino and Susan :-)

At some point during yesterday's practice, I also had a mental "click" moment. It's one of those moments where you have a little insight or epiphany about some aspect of your life and yourself. In both middle and high school, my favorite classes were language classes (English and Chinese classes). This is because unlike, say, physics or math, language classes were not "how to" classes where you learnt particular formulas or techniques for doing something. Rather, you learn language in a more discursive, interactive way. I like these classes because they provided me an opportunity to express my views about certain things. I remembered that I was almost always the first one in the class to raise my hand when the teacher asked for our opinions on anything. So much so, that one of my Chinese language teachers once jokingly remarked that if I had been born twenty years earlier, when language teaching was more pedantic and less interactive, I would have been ordered out of the class by the teacher! Traditionally, Chinese language instruction consisted of the teacher reciting particular lines from the Chinese classics, and the students repeating the lines after him or her. By the time I was in middle and high school (in the early 90s), things had changed drastically; by this time, Chinese language teachers had by and large adopted western methods of language teaching, which were more interactive.

It was in these language classes that I cultivated the ability to speak my mind about things, and developed my public speaking abilities. Because I was relatively fearless in speaking my mind compared to my classmates, I usually ended up representing the class in speech competitions and debates. I also was in student government in both middle and high school, which often had not-so-desirable effects on my academic performance (see my January 28th post for more details on this).

What was this to do with my yoga practice? Well, during practice yesterday morning, that Chinese language teacher's remarks inexplicably floated into my consciousness. This happens to me quite a lot in practice: Very often, in the middle of practice, some event that happened long ago or something that somebody said long ago would just pop up in my mind for no apparent reason. Usually, they just emerge momentarily in my mind, and then re-submerge into the uncharted depths of the unconscious. This time, however, this thought sparked a realization: I realized that this desire to speak my mind is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I think it serves a positive function, in that it enabled me to express in words things which would probably have otherwise remained unexpressed. I also humbly hope that by giving expression to this desire, I am able to inspire (or at least entertain) people around me. On the other hand, however, being able to step up to the plate and speak my mind often marks me out in the eyes of others as a "representative", somebody they can look to to represent and advance their interests. This is, of course, a good thing in and of itself. The trouble is that when this happens, I cannot help but feel the expectations that people place on me, and automatically try to rise to the occasion by working very hard to fulfill these expectations. Often, this means that I end up pushing myself in ways that may not be beneficial to me in order to be the "perfect representative", the "ideal student", the "good boy/man."

I have realized that this tendency manifests itself in my asana practice as well. Thinking back, I realized that this tendency was a major contributing factor to my recent SI joint injury. When I was practicing at my teacher's shala back in Milwaukee, I was one of the more "advanced" practitioners asana-wise. Quite a few people came up to me to tell me that I had a beautiful practice, especially towards the end of my time there. This spurred me to push myself harder, to the point where I wasn't listening to my body as closely as I should have, recklessly pushing forward at times when backing off would have been the wiser option. Which is, of course, a recipe for injury. Isn't it interesting how our egos work on us in such insidious ways?

Which is why my intention during practice now is to take everything breath by breath, moment by moment. I still challenge myself a lot (I'm too hard-wired this way not to); but hopefully, I have learnt to see and listen better to where my mind and body are at any given moment in the practice, and to adjust my practice accordingly. And hopefully, this also translates into being more aware of where my mind and body are in my life off the mat.               

Monday, February 21, 2011

Practice report, and some musings about the nature of mysore practice

I did full primary and second series up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. Very mentally purifying practice, especially after the sensory overload over the weekend (see my last post). Felt this beautiful connection between mind, breath and body. The dropbacks and standups somehow felt more fluid than usual. I tend to have this habit of faffing a little in the dropbacks: I would drop back, and then walk my hands closer to my feet a little before trying to stand up. I think this deprives me of momentum. I think it is easier to stand up when I trust my back more, and just use a combination of quad muscles, momentum, and back muscles to bring me back up the moment my hands touch the ground.

I read with great interest Evelyn's recent post. She observes:

"I think the "serious" atmosphere (ie: focused atmosphere) of a Mysore room can be intimidating to those who enjoy a more social setting. But it distresses me when I hear of someone thinking Ashtangis aren't friendly or that things are too serious. (note: some Ashtangis are assholes, but you know what I'm sayin') Does everything have to be smiley-smiley spiral your joy all the time? When I think of what's going on in a Mysore practice, I think of a group of people who are making time in the day to be quiet. No tv, no phone, no texting, twittering, facebooking, no blogging, no computer, no talking. What a relief, right? Just breathing."

I couldn't agree more with this, especially the last few sentences. Perhaps some people are so accustomed to the sensory overload of everyday life that they feel out of place and "weird" when they go into an environment that is not sensory-overloaded; a mysore class, as we know, is the anti-thesis of sensory-overload (sensory-underload?).

Or perhaps some people are not used to being in an environment where everyone seems to be so intensely focused on one thing and one thing only; of course, we all know that we can still be distracted in so many ways, even in a mysore class (drishti violations, swan divers, varters, noticing boners, etc.), but at least one most obvious source of external distraction (i.e. banal human interaction that often passes for friendly conversation) is taken out of the picture. And that's great, because for me, the most powerful distractors that come up in the practice often stem from within my mind (brain-chatter). Imagine how much harder practice would be if one had to deal with external chatter as well as internal brain chatter?

I remember being drawn to mysore practice since my very first time in a mysore class. The very first time I stepped into a mysore class (this was more than three years ago), I felt this spirit of silent community and camaraderie that permeated the whole room. There's this beautiful paradox: Everybody is doing their own practice. Yet, at the same time, everybody is encouraging everybody else in the room simply by doing their own practice. I felt that it was such a refreshing change from the teacher-centered environments of most "conventional" classes, where many teachers, in my opinion, have the tendency to become a little preachy and (dare I say) even self-important, because they are always the center of attention and are so used to being so. I know, I used to teach in a yoga studio :-) In a mysore class, the teacher stands by the sidelines, and assists and gives the student feedback when necessary. I feel that, in this sense, mysore practice really brings out the idea of the teacher being somebody who serves the yoga community, rather than the other way around.

And I believe this sense of community extends beyond the physical confines of the shala. Due to where I live, most of my practice these days is self-practice, but when I step onto the mat every morning and do the opening invocation, I am reminded that I am part of this powerful and wonderful community of Ashtanga practitioners; a community that transcends boundaries of time and space.    

Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavantu.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Some very unyogic thoughts on my first Chuck E Cheese experience

Yesterday was a day of great sensory overload. A very un-yogic day, in many ways, but I had a few interesting insights from it as well. Besides, it provided an interesting departure from my usual quiet routine of doing yoga, teaching classes, preparing for classes, grading papers, domestic chores, and (of course) blogging. Now you know how very unglamorous my daily life is :-)

Anyway, back to what happened yesterday. Yesterday afternoon, to be more exact. My girlfriend teaches preschool kids (2 to 4 years of age) at a local Montessori school. Yesterday afternoon, one of her kids was having his birthday party at the local Chuck E. Cheese's, and she got invited to attend. Since I had never actually been to a Chuck E. Cheese's (if you've never been to one as well, here's their official website), I decided to tag along as well, out of curiosity about what kids today consider to be good, clean fun.

The moment I stepped into the place, I felt like I had been transported (actually, "teleported" might have been a better word) to a different planet. The whole place was filled with kids (mostly around 3 to 6 years of age) running up and down. There was a big area filled with video game machines and other machines you play for a token or two (there's got to be a generic name for these games, right? What is it?). There were kids at each of these machines, and they were all mesmerized by the sounds and flashing lights emitting from... everywhere.

We made our way to the birthday party area, where things were already set up for the birthday party. The kid and his parents, as way as several other kids and their parents, were already there. I took a few minutes to look around and try to soak in the atmosphere, the sights and sounds of the place. I usually try to do that when I'm in an unfamiliar environment.

It was around this time that I had an interesting realization. Almost nobody there seemed to be really enjoying himself or herself. The parents certainly had that look on their faces that clearly said, "I'd rather be fishing/watching TV/going for a drive/doing yoga(?) than be at this crazy, over-stimulated place. I wouldn't be here if it weren't because the kids wanted to be here." What about the kids? Well, I think children are very interesting creatures. They seem to have this amazing ability to soak themselves into the moment when they are really into something. I saw many kids either being totally absorbed in the game machines, or mulling around the huge, larger-than-life-sized Chuck E. Cheese employee dressed as Chuck E. Cheese. But I don't get the sense that the kids were enjoying themselves there more than they would have been at, say, a playground. At least, this is my observation. Maybe you should take this last statement with a grain of salt, since I don't have any kids myself. But at any rate, this is my sense of things.

The employees certainly didn't look like they really really wanted to be there. They were going about the place, setting things up, trying to put up a show of trying to put up a good show. Which, in my opinion, says something: If you really are putting up a good show, you shouldn't have to look like you are trying to put up a good show, should you? Here's a case in point. We got to the "big" moment when the Chuck E. Cheese employee dressed as Chuck E. Cheese got to the front of the party area to lead all the birthday parties... Oh, I forgot to mention that there were three birthday parties for three different kids going on in the same room at the same time! Isn't this a little bizarre? I mean, how would you feel if you were one of the birthday kids? Or maybe it's just me? Maybe in these hard times, nobody can afford the luxury of hosting a birthday party at a restaurant exclusively for their own kid anymore? I don't know...

But I digress. So the Chuck E. Cheese employee dressed as Chuck E. Cheese got to the front of the party area, and started leading everybody in the signature Chuck E. Cheese birthday song. The employees went, "I say Happy, you say..." And everybody else (including me) is supposed to go, "Birthday!" I noticed that the employees were just mechanically going through the motions of leading everybody in this cheesy (no pun intended) birthday song. Or am I the only one in the room that notices this? Hmm... They probably have done this, like, a thousand times (and what's worse, they totally look like they have!) And then immediately after the birthday song, one employee goes to the head of each party table and starts cutting the birthday cake for all the birthday guests.

Maybe I'm being very cynical, but the whole thing seems to me like a production line: "Okay, we're going to let you guys hang out here in the party area and do whatever you like for about an hour or so, and then we're going to come around and lead you in the special Chuck E. Cheese birthday song (with an appearance by Chuck E. Cheese himself, of course!), and then we're going to cut your birthday cake, and you're going to eat it ("yes, you get to have your cake and eat it! How cool is that?"), and then you're going to get the hell out of here, so that we can clean up!"

And then the thought struck me: Maybe this Chuck E Cheese experience is a microcosmic parody of human existence as a whole! Think about this: "You're going to come into this world. For the first year or two, you can sort of hang out, chill with your fellow babies/newbies to this world. And then you're going to pre-school, elementary school, junior high and high school, where you will study all these boring subjects, whether or not you want to. And then, if you're lucky, maybe you get to go to college. If you're lucky again, you graduate (and you better do it and get the hell out in four years or less, unless you want to spend the rest of your life paying off student loans!). And then if you're lucky, you get to be part of the daily grind we call working life. And then if you're lucky again (very lucky, in fact!), you get to retire. And then you get to get the hell out of life (and maybe go to hell, depending on your religious beliefs and/or whether you've been "good")! And again, maybe if you're lucky, your children will clean up the mess you left behind :-)."

Well, this has been a most un-yogic rant. But maybe I should try to end this on a somewhat more yogic note. Well, this might present a job opportunity for all of you yoga teachers out there who are thinking of teaching some corporate yoga classes. You might want to think about going to your local Chuck E. Cheese's, and offering corporate yoga classes to their employees. They certainly look like they can use some yoga, working day in and day out in this super-over-sensory-stimulated environment. You will most certainly be doing much good. And of course, if you haven't actually been to a Chuck E. Cheese's yet, I highly recommend that you do. Maybe you should just crash some kid's birthday party on some Saturday afternoon. (Just say you are the second-cousin of so-and-so's first cousin's second cousin's grandson. They won't know, especially if you sing the Chuck E. Cheese birthday song with a lot of gusto :-)).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why do we practice?

I thought I'd take this full moon day, a day of rest from our ashtangic labors, to ponder and hopefully say a couple of useful things about this question. A deceptively simple question, with a deceptively simple "official" answer. I believe the "official" answer would be something along the lines of, "We practice so we can bring out our highest, most self-realized being."

But what is my highest, most self-realized being? Is this something I attain when I am finally able to go into, say, kapotasana without the slightest bit of physical effort or mental anxiety? Or does it come when I am finally able to do viranchyasana? A moment's thought will tell us that the answer to these questions has to be "no." For one, I might never be able to do Viranchyasana in this lifetime. Even if I am able to, I might get to a point where old age and/or changes in my physical condition make me no longer able to perform that particular posture. Then what? Does that mean that at that point, I lose my most self-realized being?

I can go on and on. But I think you see where I am going: Despite the fact that we spend a lot of time on our asana practice, one's asana achievements probably has little (if anything) to do with how self-realized we are in the final analysis. So, the same question stares us in the face: Why do we practice? Or, more precisely, why does our practice take the precise form it does (i.e. asana), when the condition of this practice has little or nothing to do with the condition of our self-realization? If anything, the asana practice presents numerous pitfalls into which we can easily stumble, and which can derail us from the spiritual path. Narcissism ("look at me in such-and-such asana"), frustration and obsession over injuries and/or postures we cannot do, obsession over how we look (both on and off the mat), obsession over what we put or do not put into our bodies. The list goes on and on. It is too easy to (mis)identify these things with the practice itself while mouthing that official line and deluding ourselves into thinking that we are becoming more self-realized. Or maybe I'm being too harsh: Maybe the truth is that we are becoming more self-realized, even in the midst of our obsessions. Maybe the obsessions are phases or stuff we need to get through in order to understand who we really are (as opposed to what we happen to be going through at particular points in life/practice).

Here's my take on this question. Perhaps self-realization, whatever it is, is not something that hits you as an epiphanic bolt of lightning while you are in, say, padmasana one day during your practice. Perhaps it involves more of a deep understanding of our place in the order of things, and occupying that place and playing a certain role in that order with deep contentment. I remember this thing that I read many years ago, when I picked up B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga for the first time. I am paraphrasing here (I don't have a copy of Light on Yoga on me right now), but I think Mr. Iyengar said something to the effect that the purpose of the asana practice is to strengthen and purify the body so that it becomes a powerful vessel in the service of the Lord. Even though I do not believe in a personalized deity, this line really struck me when I first read it. In my personal opinion, I feel that if one sees the Lord as  being inherent in every living being, then we can take Mr. Iyengar's injunction here as a reminder that practice is something that we do so that we can serve our fellow living beings better. Don't quote me on this, but I think Guruji would agree. In a recent blog post, David Robson has this to say about the practice:

'Ashtanga Yoga is “householder yoga.” It is a practice for those with family connections, and social duties, not a practice for monks or renunciates. For Ashtangis, our practice on the mat is a means to help us live better lives off the mat. We limit the formal practice to two hours or so each morning so that we can meet our obligations in the world. Our healthy bodies are only vehicles to help us along this path. In reference to asana practice without higher intentions, Guruji  wrote, “It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant body building.”'

Robson continues,

'The Bhagavad Gita states, “One who outwardly performs his social duties but inwardly stays free is a yogi.” We cannot practice detachment by avoiding life. If we haven’t made any real connections, what is there to detach from? Healthy relationships require a lot of work. If we can devote ourselves wholly to the work, without attachment to outcomes, we manifest our higher nature in the service of others.'

So perhaps liberation or self-realization can only emerge amidst our "bondage" to our daily responsibilities. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, "Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree." Similarly, from the perspective of the practice, true freedom or self-realization can only emerge when we are firmly rooted in the "soil" of our daily responsibilities and connections.

Happy Moon Day! 

Korean Drums

Q: What's harder than doing an intense backbend?

A: Doing an intense backbend while striking a drum, and maintaining the same exact rhythm and movements as somebody else who is also doing an intense backbend while striking a drum!

I wonder if these women do yoga too? Happy Moon Day!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yoga is the new golf (?)

I just read this New York Post article via YogaDork. I really don't know what to make of it. Rationally speaking, I should be happy. If yoga is indeed the new golf, i.e. if it is indeed the new "in" way for colleagues to bond after work, or for new hires to earn extra brownie points with their bosses, then more power to yoga, right? Moreover, I remember that back when I first started yoga years ago in grad school, I basically became a "yoga-vangelist", and tried, to no avail, to get my fellow grad students and professors to start doing yoga too. They responded by politely declining, and then privately labeling me a "yoga nut". Whatever. I've been called worse things before.

But to get back to the present story, it seems that, rationally speaking, if yoga is indeed the new golf, I should be overjoyed and happy, especially in light of my past failures and frustrations with trying to get people to do it, shouldn't I? So why am I not overjoyed and happy (okay, I just realized that "overjoyed" and "happy" basically mean the same thing. Verbal overkill. My apologies...)? Well, I'm not sure. Somehow, this seems to reinforce my recent perception that the popular media has a way of cheapening and vulgarizing everything that yoga is about. So now, yoga is a way to bond with/brown-nose your boss. In addition, according to one of the people interviewed in the article, "advanced yoga practitioner" is also "bullshit that one can put at the bottom of your resume", something that "automatically marks you as slightly alternative, creative and modern" (Huh! Why didn't I think of putting this on my CV?).

Hmm... maybe I should put this at the bottom of my CV:

"Special ability: Is able to fold himself in half, bind himself into a pretzel, and contemplate the opening of his own anus. Very useful ability for counteracting certain anal-retentive tendencies that are commonly found in many corporate and academic work environments."

Maybe this would automatically mark me out as "slightly alternative, creative and modern"?

Practice report: Practicing while feeling under the weather

Did the same practice this morning that I have been doing for the past couple of weeks: Full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana.

I was a bit hesitant about practicing all the way to pincha this morning, because I was feeling a bit under the weather. I had this unpleasant feeling at the back of my throat (the kind that tells you a cold might be coming) and was feeling a little tired. But I remembered a couple of my teachers' advice about practicing when under the weather. A couple of years ago, David Williams said at a workshop that the primary purpose of the practice is to increase the flow of prana in the body; so, unless one is so deathly ill that one can't get out of bed, one should do whatever practice one can do, and then quickly bundle up in blankets and go into savasana. The idea is that because practice increases the flow of prana in the body, it actually helps with the healing process. My teacher in Milwaukee (now you know who he is :-)) advised that the only time you shouldn't practice is when you have severe, uncontrollable diarrhea, because in that state, any loss of control of mulabandha would create a very unpleasant mess :-) So, unless you have severe, uncontrollable diarrhea and/or are deathly ill, you should practice whatever you can, and then have a good savasana.

Which is what I did this morning. I decided to take the practice breath by breath, and see how far I can go. It turns out that for me, "practice whatever I can" brought me all the way through primary, and second up to pincha, which is my usual practice anyway :-) And I did it in about 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is a very respectable pace for me. Actually, according to Sharath, this might mean I might go crazy soon, since I'm taking more than two hours, but whatever, I'm not in Mysore, so it doesn't count :-)

A noteworthy incident occurred in dropbacks and standups. My fingernails were a bit long, and as I walked my hands further in to stand up, they were scrapping uncomfortably against the rug at one point. I was worried taht they would snap. Now that would be really uncomfortable :-(. Need to remember to trim my nails soon. Fortunately, tomorrow's a moon day, so I have a extra day to get that done :-) 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Practice report, and a little meditation on the not-so-silent silence of the blogosphere

This morning, I did full primary and second up to Pincha Mayurasana. No, there were no "porny" sensations in either kapotasana or yoganidrasana (see my previous post for more details).

Ever since I started blogging, I have noticed that certain things that I have read in blog posts or in bloggers' comments would pop up in my mind at various points in my daily practice. Very often, these things have nothing to do with the particular postures I was doing or the particular sensations I was experiencing at that particular point of time. They're just... mental flotsam that float up to the surface of consciousness, seemingly without my volition. In particular, I have noticed that they tend to pop up a lot during particularly challenging postures, especially kapotasana, especially at the moment when I first arch back. All these random passages that I remember from blog posts here and there tend to pop up in my consciousness at this moment. If you could look inside my head at this moment, you would probably see this kaleidoscope of words and thoughts and sounds :-)

I usually don't try to shut these thoughts up. I know from experience that it is far more productive to just acknowledge them and go on with the postures anyway. They usually tend to subside immediately after kapo.  Interesting, isn't it? It's like kapo is this magnet that draws up all these blog-voices from the depths of my sub-conscious and dumps them on the shore of consciousness for the waves of the rest of second series to wash away :-)

What's even more interesting is that even though the blogosphere is a largely silent medium, I tend to "hear" these various posts and comments as voices when they pop up. So, without being fully aware of it, I end up imagining how different bloggers sound like, even though I have never heard most of your voices. I think it is a human tendency to want to hear voices. So much so that we imagine voices where there are none. I sometimes think that if I were to live on a remote space station by myself somewhere in deep space, and the blogosphere were my only means of communication with the rest of the universe, I would be living in a silent world that is not quite so silent, because I would invent voices in my head for the blogs that I read. That would be such a poignant and at the same time intriguing scenario, wouldn't it?  

That said, I hope to hear all of your voices in person one day. So far, I have only heard the real-world voices of Cathrine, Christine, Claudia and Patrick :-)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Practice report, Confessions of a Yogic Prude

First, a little practice report. I did full primary and second series up to Pincha Mayurasana this morning. Practice was great. And I did it on less than 4 hours of sleep: I went to bed at my usual time last night, but some agitating thoughts (too involved to go into here) kept me up for more than a couple of hours. So it's possible to have a great practice with very little sleep. Probably not something to be done often, though...

On a different note, I've been noticing that there has been a lot of... (how should I put this) sexualizing of yoga in both the blogosphere and in the mainstream media lately. At the risk of sounding like a highly repressed prude (well, maybe I am a highly-repressed prude, but if so, I am what I am...), I'm going to say that I find all this sexualizing both rather amusing and... unnecessary. I mean, I really don't see what all this sexualizing talk is supposed to add to our understanding of life and the practice (but then again, I might be a repressed prude, so what do I know?).

What are you referring to, you may ask. I'll give a couple of examples. The NYT style section, for instance, features a recent article by Emily Rueb about the experiences of yoga students and teachers with adjustments. The article opens by relating the experience of Claire Dederer. Remarking on the awkwardness with sexuality that can arise in a yoga class, Rueb writes:

"This is especially true in yoga class, where getting into a camel pose, for instance — thrusting your hips forward while kneeling — can feel, well, a bit “porny,” as Claire Dederer put it in the prologue of her memoir, “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.”  The self-consciousness that Ms. Dederer felt performing said porny poses is one hurdle that can get in the way of achieving inner peace."

Before I give you my humble comments on this passage, let me share another excerpt. This one is from a recent Elephant Journal article by Brooks Hall. In this article, Hall relates a couple of sexually-charged experiences she had during yoga:

"I remember discovering my nipples hardening in Warrior 2 (I was/am fascinated with how this yoga pose—shown in the above picture—activates the energy of my body!), and another time seeing a guy trying to persuade his boner to go down after a hands-on adjustment from the teacher in a Mysore-style (self-guided) yoga class. Yoga can be exciting on many levels.

Is sex totally removed from yoga and everyday life? Sometimes it seems as if that is what’s supposed to be true."

At the risk of being the yogic prude who is guilty of trying to totally remove sex from yoga and everyday life, I am going to stick a certain part of my body out (I mean my neck; gosh, what are you thinking?!) and say a couple of things. I respect everything that Dederer, Hall, and Rueb are saying. As I will mention later, I think that Hall, in particular, makes some very insightful points in her article.

At the same time, I have some... reservations about the above examples. I certainly can't argue with their experiences; different people have different bodies, and so feel different things in their different bodies. I'm just going to talk about my own experience with my own body. I have never felt "porny" (does this mean feeling like one is in a porn movie? Or feeling like one is a porn star?) in Ustrasana, or any other backbend. But now I'm starting to wonder if it might be possible for some people (or for me at some point in the future) to feel porny in kapotasana. I find that hard to imagine. When I'm getting into the posture, my body and mind are working so hard, that being "porny" is the very last thing on my mind. Well then again, I suppose anything's possible. For all I know, tomorrow's practice might feature my first ever porny kapo. I'll keep you guys posted on this.       

As for nipples hardening in Warrior 2, I've definitely never felt that... but wait, I'm a guy! Okay, never mind, forget I said that. Again, I can't argue with Hall's experience, but it looks like in order for her second experience to happen, two conditions would have to obtain: (1) She would have to be looking pretty closely at said guy-with-boner, which would constitute a drishti violation (but then again, I'm not the drishti police...), (2) She would have to be looking so closely at a certain part of the anatomy of said-guy-with-boner that she actually notices the boner. Granted, not all boners are created equal. Some boners are probably easier to notice than others, for obvious reasons (need I say more?). But still, I would imagine that it must take a certain amount of attention to certain things (and a noticeable lack of attention to other things in the practice) to notice things like this. Or maybe I'm just missing out at all the action that takes place under the seemingly-placid surface of mysore classes. Well, as I said, I'm probably a prude :-)

But to be fair, Hall does make a couple of insightful points. She concludes the article by saying:

"Sex permeates life; we can use sexual energy for sex, or we can use it to fuel other passions like our good work in the world, but this energy is working in the background of all of life’s activities."

If "sex" here is simply another way of saying "creative energy", then it looks to me like the same point can be made by using the word "sex" only once. Consider this:

"Creative energy permeates life; we can use creative energy for sex, or we can use it to fuel other passions like our good work in the world, but this energy is working in the background of all of life’s activities."  
Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against the word "sex" or sex itself. But maybe you already think I am a prude, and this isn't helping matters. Well, it is what it is... To me, all this just seems to reinforce the age-old adage: Sex sells. And yoga (and yoga-blogging) is no exception.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Does guilt have a place in the practice, or in life in general?

I have my own answer to this question, which is: Ideally, no. Having grown up in a culture in which shaming or "guilting" people into doing things is such a big part of everyday life, I am aware that it can be an effective tool to get people (and even myself) to do things. But I just think that the emotional/psychological baggage created by guilt can't be good for one in the long run. So a few years ago, starting from around the time when I began to do yoga, I resolved that, even though I am far from being a perfect human being (are there perfect human beings out there? Please get in touch with me: I want to get to know you :-)), I am going to try my best to live life on my own terms, for better or for worse, and to try not to look back and feel guilty about stuff I could have or should have done. As an aside: Yes, I know that there is technically a distinction between shame and guilt, and some anthropologists characterize Asian cultures as being "shame cultures" rather than "guilt cultures", but I think that shame at some point or some level translates into guilt on the part of the individual, so I am not going to distinguish too much between shame and guilt here. I'm just going to treat them as two different manifestations of what is essentially the same phenomenon.

You might be thinking: So why do you even bother to write this post, if you already have an answer to this question? Well, recent posts in the cybershala have made me think about this question again. Here's an example. In his recent post, Grimmly alludes to this thing called "injury guilt". This is what he says:

"I'm sure experienced teachers are wonderful at helping their students with their injuries in the shalas but I can imagine said students often feel a bit of a bother and an imposition, injury guilt, however much they're told that's why the teacher is there and welcomes the break from the monotony."

I think I can relate to at least some of what Grimmly is saying here. I injured my SI joint big time last June, and while this happened after I had moved away from my teacher and was no longer practicing in a shala, I still felt frustrated and yes, a little guilty that my practice was not pain or injury free. If the idea of practice is to achieve Sthira Sukham Asanam ("Asana is comfort with stability"), my practice was definitely lacking in the Sukham ("comfort") department. I remember that in the first couple of weeks of the injury, it took me more than two hours (and a ridiculous amount of sweating) just to get through primary. There was also the guilt associated with not practicing well enough to avoid injury. And then there was the guilt associated with feeling this guilt (second-order guilt?). I can go on and on with this whole thing. But I think many of you know what I'm talking about here, so I'm going to leave it at this. I guess the question is: Is such practice/injury-related guilt something that gets in the way of the practice, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level? 
Guilt also surfaces in the practice in a more mundane everyday way. One might feel guilt at having missed practice, or at faffing around too much, or at not giving one's perceived best in particularly challenging postures. And of course, one may also feel guilty about feeling guilty (again, second-order guilt). Again, the question is: Is such guilt something that gets in the way of the practice, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level?
And of course, there is guilt that manifests in our lives off the mat. Guilt at not being a good enough son/daughter/father/mother/husband/wife/teacher/student/you-name-it. Moral guilt at having done something morally wrong, or not having done something morally good enough. Existential guilt. The list goes on. Again, the same question: Is such guilt something that gets in the way of a fulfilling life, and should therefore be avoided? Or does this guilt somehow serve a positive function at some level?
I have already given you my answer to all these questions at the beginning of this post, and am curious to hear what you think.    

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kino on the practice, Maya and the matrix

In response to my previous post on the Ashtanga tradition as a matrix, Grimmly has very helpfully pointed out to me the limitations of understanding the tradition and practice in these terms. But I think there is another slightly different sense of "matrix" which can still be useful in understanding what our practice is about. This other sense is the sense of "matrix" that we are all familiar with from pop culture: The matrix as an illusory world/mind-trap that we need to see through and transcend.

To begin to see how this sense of "matrix" applies here, consider the concept of Maya in yoga philosophy. According to yoga philosophy (at least as I understand it--I am no expert in Indian philosophy), the "real" world as we perceive it through our six senses (the five sensory organs plus mind, which synthesizes the sensory input from the sensory organs into coherent perceptions) has no existence independent of us. The "real" world is Maya, or existence that is conditioned upon the projections of our minds. This world, in other words, exists and is "real" to us only because of the meaning that our minds have assigned to it. We could say that Maya is a self-imposed matrix. Unlike the pop culture version, malevolent aliens are not required to imprison us within this matrix: Our sensory perceptions, and the accompanying self-limiting conceptions that we foist upon these perceptions, do a pretty good job of keeping us confined within this matrix.

In a recent article, Kino MacGregor has this to say about Maya:

'Part of the dream of reality includes the illusion of time and space, the belief in the individual ego and personality and pain, suffering, obstacles and ignorance. These are experienced as real, but in essence are not real. Empty, devoid of meaning other than which we assign to it, the world of mind and matter is merely a reflection of a deeper truth hidden from view. The only true reality is the subtle luminosity that hides under the emanations that populate the “real” world. Much effort along the path of yoga involves delineating the individual soul or “Purusha” from the manifest world of illusion, know as “Prakrti”.'

The question that naturally comes up at this point is: How do we go about identifying this Purusha or individual soul and extricating ourselves from this illusion of conditioned existence? Or, in pop culture terms, how do we get out of the matrix? One natural response might be to somehow find a way to "shut off" our sensory perceptions, which are the source of Maya. After all, if I succeed in somehow shutting off my sense perceptions, then Maya simply won't able to arise. No sense-perceptions, no Maya. Problem solved.

Well, things are not quite that simple. I mean, short of killing myself, how long can I possibly shut myself off from sense-perceptions? Even if I succeed in doing this for a time (as Descartes claims to have done in the first two Meditations), I still have to re-emerge into the world of sensory perceptions and contend with Maya sooner or later. Therefore, forcibly shutting oneself off from sensory perceptions is not a feasible solution to this problem.

Perhaps the solution lies in going in a radically different direction. Perhaps the way out of the matrix (the red pill, if you will) lies not in shutting oneself off from it, but in unflinchingly confronting and understanding the deeper nature of one of its most intense and deeply-ingrained manifestations: Pain. It is with this in mind that Kino continues,

'Suffering experienced in the world is felt as real while simultaneously there is a deeper peace within. In fact pain in the world of conditioned existence is the only way out of the false belief in its eternality. For when misery stems occurs it is essentially a key that opens a door to true heartfelt spiritual yearning. The practice of yoga asks you to take every pain and every joy that arises as a clue to help you deconstruct the code of “reality” and find the latent interface below. Once you begin to see through the illusion of Prakrtic world into the true nature of being there is a chance to gain lasting freedom. Traditional yoga philosophy postulates that we have more than one lifetime and that our patterns, both good and bad, accumulate over the transmigrations of the soul across millennia. It is this larger lifecycle pattern that we hope to transform from cycles of pain into pathways toward liberation. Painful life experiences that stem from a blockage in the subconscious mind will recreate the same unfortunate scenario until the core issues is resolved.'

Accordingly, Kino concludes,

'The first step along the path of yoga is not brilliant illumination. Instead it is a humble acceptance that our best efforts may only lead to a lessening of old painful patterns. If we are diligent, enthusiastic and committed to our practice we can reshape the habit pattern of the mind to think better feeling thoughts. By reprogramming the subconscious strata within the yogi’s mind becomes more clear, peaceful and free. The ability to live a better life, that is a life more free from suffering and more filled with love, indicates progress along the spiritual path.'

The goal of yoga practice, then, is not so much to get out of the matrix. Rather, the thing to do is to stay within the matrix, understand its workings and how they function to produce all kinds of sense-perceptions within us, and then utilize this understanding to "reprogram" the way our subconscious minds interpret these perceptions in such a way that our existence within the matrix is "more free from suffering and more filled with love."

This, at any rate, is how I understand the goal of our practice. I thought I'll share these thoughts, especially in light of the fact that quite a few yogis in the cybershala have been struggling with both physical and emotional pain recently (then again, who doesn't struggle with these things?). I hope that you will find these random thoughts illuminating in some small way.

Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu.          

Friday, February 11, 2011

A short meditation on the matrix of Ashtanga

Recently, Loo wrote a very interesting post about Jois Yoga and the concept of Ashtanga as a matrix. I'm going to run with this concept, and use it to meditate a little on the nature of the Ashtanga tradition and practice. Introducing this concept, Loo writes:

"Ashtanga has lost its main Guru, but all this really means is that the model has shifted from a hierarchy with Guruji at the head, into a matrix, with Sharath being just another one of the very gifted and fine teachers carrying on the lineage."

There is a contentious issue here, and I may as well bring it up right now, so that we can get it out of the way. The issue, as I understand it, is whether the lineage (1) should properly be passed down in a hereditary fashion, or whether (2) it should properly be passed purely from guru to student, regardless of whether or not the student is biologically related to the guru.

I personally lean towards (2), and I think Loo does too. But I believe that the matrix concept is something that adherents of both (1) and (2) can find common ground on, as I hope to show in this post.

To say that the Ashtanga tradition constitutes a matrix is to say that it contains a core framework of yogic doctrines and practices, one that can be clearly articulated to every practitioner, whether this person happens to be someone who has been practicing for his or her entire life, or whether this person is an absolute beginner who is stepping into a shala for the very first time. This matrix is passed directly from guru to student, and from the senior student-teacher to newer students. It serves as the "vessel" through which the timeless teachings of yoga can be passed from one individual to another, transcending differences of time, culture, familial, ethnic and national affiliation, as well as differences in individual personalities, quirks and idiocyncrasies (hmm... have I left out anything else that the matrix is supposed to transcend? :-))

All this talk about the matrix can quickly become very abstract. Fortunately, in the Ashtanga tradition, the matrix is built into the very nature of the practice itself: The practice, with the six fixed series of postures, is itself a matrix. I believe that Krishnamarcharya made it this way so that after he was gone, his successors would have something very concrete to work with, and can readily pass the practice on in this concrete form to future generations. And so it is up to Sharath and the senior teachers today (and maybe to a lesser extent, we ourselves) to pass on the practice to others in this very concrete form. People will come and go, but the practice will endure. And the matrix, which is built into the very structure of the practice, ensures this.

On a personal level, this matrix gives us a way to access and express an age-old body of yogic wisdom in a very immediate and visceral way. We step into this matrix everyday when we step onto our mats. Heraclitus famously said that we can never step into the same river twice. This is true, but there is still something about the nature of the body of water that I am putting my foot into now that allows me to say that I am standing in the same river as the one I stepped into yesterday. In the same way, we never step into the same practice twice. And yet, there is something about the nature of what I am doing today that allows me to say that I am doing the same practice as I was yesterday. It is the matrix, expressed in the form of what we know as the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, that ensures this continuity. And in my opinion, this continuity is important because it allows us to grasp in a concrete form a reality that would otherwise be inscrutable and inexpressible. This continuity, expressed in the form of the matrix, serves as the interface between our finite selves and the infinite power and wisdom of the yogic river.   

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Would this picture make a man want to do yoga (Probably not, but why does it matter?)

I read with great interest Loo's recent post/field report about Jois Yoga, and I was planning on writing a long post about the whole Ashtanga Matrix concept (see Loo's post for more details). But it's been a long day, and I need to go eat (yes, man does not live on yoga alone), so this will have to wait.

In the meantime, I'll write something shorter and more plebeian. So for those of you who no longer subscribe to Yoga Journal, this is how the cover of the latest issue of YJ looks like:

Before you try to sue my pants off for copyright infringement, allow me to cover my ass first (no pun intended): I got this picture from the latest post on YogaDork.

Would this picture make a man want to do yoga? As a guy (who does yoga), I would say: Probably not. I don't know many guys out there who would be attracted to yoga by the sight of some guy in Lotus pose with his hands in God-knows-what mudra. And speaking of his hands: What's he doing with his hands, anyway? Is this a scene from one of those old-school samurai movies where the guy has just plunged a knife into his chest, and the blood is about to, like, spurt out of his mouth? Sorry, morbid thought...

But seriously, I think the whole recent series of posts on YogaDork about whether yoga is dude-friendly enough (and whether we should try to make it more dude or bro-friendly) is, uh, lame. Why? Well, here's my take on the whole thing in concise argument form:

1.      There are men in this world today. (duh!)
2.      Some men do yoga, some men don’t.(duh!)
3.      The men who do yoga today may do yoga tomorrow, or they may not. (duh!)
4.      The men who do not do yoga today may do yoga tomorrow, or they may not. (duh!)
5.      Dude-friendly yoga/Broga (whatever that means) may get some men who do not do yoga today to do yoga tomorrow, but it probably will not get all men who do not do yoga today to do yoga tomorrow.
6.      And that’s totally cool.:-)
7.      Why?
8.      Because just as we do not expect all women to do yoga, we also should not expect all men to do yoga. If we do, we would be setting a double standard, and we would probably be sexist.
9.      Being sexist is bad/no good.
10.  So therefore, it really doesn’t matter if the men who do not do yoga today still do not do yoga tomorrow.
11.  Need I say more? :-)  

I apologize if this post is not very deep/profound, and is a bit ranty (is this even a word?). But it is what it is.

May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Practice report: The Bandhas as the keystone of the practice

Practice this morning was good. Had to get up and start practicing earlier, as I had a department meeting at 9 a.m. Did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana.

Primary was good. I remembered that back in June, when I had to scale back my practice to primary only because of my injury, my teacher told me that I should add on second series postures only when I get to the point where doing primary has become as easy as taking a walk in the park. Well, I don't think I fully followed his suggestion: I added second series postures back on sometime around September, and my primary definitely wasn't a walk in the park at that time. But right now, I think I am getting closer to that point. I have noticed that when I tell myself at the beginning of practice to take everything breath by breath, and to try not to have too many expectations, my primary is smoother and more pleasant. And so it was today.

Had a couple of interesting insights and incidents in second. I got my ankles in kapotasana today, and I really felt that I had gotten really deeply into my quads and psoas while in the posture. I could definitely feel my quads and psoas while in the posture, and after I came back up, I felt this pleasant "slow burn" sensation in my quads. Very nice :-).

In Yoganidrasana, I suddenly remembered my teacher's advice that I should try to slow my breathing and relax into the posture. After all, yoganidra means "yogic sleep", and it would be most inappropriate to breath heavily while in sleep! The moment this piece of advice came to mind, I started consciously lengthening my inhales and slowing my exhales. It definitely made the posture feel more repose-ful (is this even a word :-))

Pincha mayurasana also felt different today. I had only started doing pincha again a couple of weeks ago, and it definitely took me at least the first few times to be able to find the muscular control needed to stay in the posture without wobbling. Today, something new happened: I felt that I wasn't just muscling my way into staying up in the posture. Rather, I felt that my bandhas were kicking in more, and working to stabilize my posture. The whole posture felt light, and my shoulders felt like they were actually going to lift up into the air, and not simply working very hard to hold everything together. Very cool feeling. I was reveling in this feeling, and probably reveled too much, because after exactly five breaths, I lost balance, and had to come back down!

This brings to mind something that a friend and fellow ashtangi said to me some time ago. She told me that we can think of the bandhas as the "keystone" of the posture. In classic Roman architecture, the keystone is the wedged-shape stone piece at the apex of a vault or arch. It is the final piece that is put in during construction, and enables the arch or vault to bear the weight of the larger structure of which it is a part. Therefore, although it is physically a small part of the building, the keystone actually plays a key role in holding the arch and the rest of the building together.  Without the keystone, the arch, and probably a big part of the building itself, would collapse.

Here's a famous keystone. Can you identify where it's at? :-)

The same thing can be said of the bandhas. Although the bandhas do not constitute a big part of the physical space of the posture, and the action of the bandhas is very subtle, whether or not one engages the bandhas can make all the difference between whether one "collapses" into the posture (leading to strain and injury to the physical body in the long run) or whether one is able to hold the posture lightly and productively, and reap the full benefits of the posture. This is true in standing postures (especially in trikonasana, where collapsing places undue stress on the knee of the front leg), in backbends (think about a light, "bandha-ful" backbend as opposed to a backbend that collapses and compresses the lower back), and in arm balances (compressing and straining the shoulder in pincha mayursana as opposed to lifting through the bandhas).

Well, something to ponder and ruminate about, isn't it :-) ? Got to go now. May the Force be with you.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Prcatice report, some thoughts on drishti and being your own boss, and a story of a little self-transformation

Practice this morning was very good. I did full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana, finishing in two hours flat. A very respectable pace, as far as I'm concerned.

As I got into Dhanurasana, I felt something in my left SI joint. How should I describe this feeling? Well, think about it this way: On a scale of 1 to 10, if very dull ache = 1, and searing/owie! sensation=10, then whatever I was feeling would be somewhere around 5 or 6. Not bad enough to make me stop practicing, but enough to let me know that something was going on, and I need to pay attention. I felt it especially keenly in Dhanurasana. It seemed to subside just a wee bit in Parsva Dhanurasana, and stayed at that level of intensity in Ustrasana. Doing my "unorthodox Laghu" (Going down, holding 5 breaths and then coming back up, and then going down and coming back up without stopping for 3 or 4 times) seemed to help, as the sensation subsided even more, but I could still feel something in that area in that last Laghu.

Then came the moment of truth: Kapotasana. Should I back off or even skip kapo altogether today, or should I forge on? I decided to forge on (I'm a kapo junkie). I looked up at the ceiling, drew my sternum up skyward as much as possible, and then arched back, waiting for the tips of my toes to emerge at the edge of my field of vision. The whole time, there was still that "off" sensation in the left SI joint, but I somehow succeeded in convincing my mind/body that it's going to be okay, just forge on. When I saw my toes at the edge of my vision, I dived for them, and then walked my hands to my ankles. Stayed in kapo A for about 5 to 10 breaths, and then did kapo B for 5 breaths before coming back up. And then on to Supta Vajrasana. It was only when I got out of Supta Vajrasana that I noticed that that sensation in my SI joint was gone! Who would have known? Conventional wisdom, I suspect, would have told me to back off kapo ("If your back hurts, wouldn't bending it in that intense way hurt it even more?"). But maybe Ashtanga is not conventional in this way. Or maybe I don't yet have a full understanding of how second series works on the body and nervous system. Any thoughts on this phenomenon?

Throughout my practice today, I also thought about a couple of things recently written by some wise bloggers :-) In her latest report on Sharath's conference, Claudia wrote that Sharath had this to say about drishti or focus point of the eyes:

"[Sharath] elaborated on how our minds get distracted, how we are thinking about our wife or girlfriend when we should be focused on the practice, and how the focus point helps in bringing us back into the practice, into the moment, into deepening our asana, and into making the practice better."

Well, I don't think about my girlfriend that much during practice, but I do think about lots of totally irrelevant and random stuff :-) I noticed myself doing this a few times during practice today, and brought my attention back to the drishti and to the present moment. I really think that this continual process of bringing ourselves back to the drishti and to the present moment helps us gradually become the boss of our minds rather than let our minds boss us around (see Hidden Ashtangi's recent post for more on this insightful point). The idea is that over time, this mastery of our mind will spread to our off-mat life as well, and we become more present and more effective individuals in our daily lives.

Actually, being able to achieve some level of mastery over my mind was probably the first tangible benefit that I derived from my yoga practice, back when I first started doing yoga six years ago. Here's one very memorable incident from that time that really underscored this benefit. At that time, I was living in Gainesville, Florida. I am a Buddhist, and I was acting as the local facilitator for some Buddhist activities in our local area. In my facilitating role, I had to travel to Jacksonville, which is about an hour and a half away, a few times a month to meet up with other facilitators (this is due to the way the organization is structured geographically around major regional cities; too complicated to go into here). As I was in grad school at that time, there were periods of time when I couldn't make it out to Jacksonville for weeks at a time. Anyway, on this particular evening, I drove out to Jacksonville for one such meeting after not having been out there for a few weeks. Incidentally, I had just gone to my first official yoga class the day before (see my earlier post for details of my adventures at this first class :-)).

Anyway, I arrived at the meeting place in Jacksonville. A few other facilitators who lived in Jacksonville were already there. The moment I stepped into the place, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, two women speaking to each other in lowered tones and casting glances at me. I knew intuitively that they were talking shit about me ("Oh, he finally bothers to show up after having the cheek to not come for so long...") Don't ask me how I know this (guy's instinct?); well, actually, even though they were talking in hushed tones, I still overheard bits and pieces of what they were saying, and one doesn't need a PhD (I didn't have one at the time anyway!) to fill in the blanks from there.

In any case, my first reaction in the first couple of seconds of overhearing what they were saying was to resort to my usual self-pitying downward spiral ("Why can't people be nicer/more understanding? Maybe I must really suck as a person if people are talking shit about me... Why? Why?!"). But then something really cool happened. Another, more authoritative voice emerged in my head: "Why should you listen to these people? You are here of your own free will because you believe that what you are doing here tonight will make the world a better place. You are practicing Buddhism because you want to become happy; you are not practicing for these people. So why worry about what other people say?"

To be sure, I had tried telling this to myself on a few occasions in the past before, but this time, there was something in me that was strong and confident enough to actually have the courage to believe this. It is no exaggeration to say that at that moment, I believed more fully than I ever had in a long time that I am the master of my own life and happiness, and that nobody can take that away from me, no matter what they say or do. It's such a liberating feeling. And since this happened on the day after I had gone to my first yoga class, I really can't think of anything else that could have sparked this small yet powerful inner transformation. And to this day, I still believe that it was this little transformation of the way I saw myself and my place in the world that made me stick to my yoga practice through its ups and downs and twists and turns (no pun intended). Yoga has made me a better Buddhist, and, in turn, a better person.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Since when has Facebook become a scholarly source? Or, why I think Facebook is turning our brains to shit

I try to avoid expressing my socio-political views on this blog, but what I just encountered is too ridiculous to keep to myself. At least, it's ridiculous to somebody of my sensibility. So bear with me as I rant and possibly, rage in the rest of this post.

I don't have a Facebook account. Never have, and don't ever intend to. I have this conspiracy theory that Facebook is part of a big evil plan on the part of those in power to prey on the need for attention and validation on the part of the hoi polloi, get the hoi polloi addicted to constant visual stimulation, and then progressively rob them of their power of verbal reasoning and speech. In other words, I believe that Facebook is part of an evil plan to turn our brains to mush. I have kept this opinion to myself so far, because I have no systematic way to prove it.

But today, something happened that seems to validate my theory. I was grading a student's paper. The paper seemed to be very well-written, and I was enjoying myself reading her clear writing and concise reasoning. Until I got to this particular section of her paper. She quoted the following "famous equation found in Facebook." I have no idea that it's a famous equation on Facebook, since, as I said, I don't have a Facebook account (Maybe some of you know this equation?). Here's how the equation goes:    

"No study = fail (1)

Study = No fail (2)

No Study + Study = Fail + No fail  (adding equation 1 and 2)

Study (No +1) = fail (1 +No)

Study = fail"

As I understand it, if we were to translate (1) and (2) into English, we would get:

"If you don't study, you will fail.

Therefore, if you study, you will not fail."

Anybody who knows even a little logic will know that this is nonsense. Even if it is true that if I don't study for a test, I will fail it, it does not follow that if I study for it, I will not fail. There are a million and one reasons why I can study for a test and still fail it. Actually, who needs logic to see this? Commonsense is more than enough, don't you think? I'm not even going to bother critiquing the rest of this "famous equation."

Which means that Facebook (or whoever is behind Facebook) is robbing us of our most basic common sense. We are being slowly drained of our ability to think for ourselves. In its place, people are given this false sense of security in what they think is right and wrong ("If everybody thinks this way, and I also think this way, then I must be right.").  So much so, that college students have the audacity to cite Facebook as a scholarly source!

Well, if you are a big Facebook fan, sorry to rain on your parade. Please ignore these random ramblings of an ivory-tower academic. Do not let his ramblings make your Facebooking less merry and joyful. After all, the man doesn't even have a Facebook account! What does he know? You may go back to your Facebooking now. Thanks for taking the trouble to read through what must be a very unpleasant few paragraphs. May the Force be with you.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Practice report, imagined outlandish response, and some musings about the nature of the practice

I practiced both yesterday and today (Sunday is my rest day). This morning's practice was good, but quite uneventful. Basically, I did full primary, and it went very smoothly. I felt that my breath, drishti and bandhas were working in sync with one another, and I got through the practice with minimal faffing. End of story.

Yesterday's practice is more interesting, in the sense that there is more of a story to tell. I practiced with my friends Brenda, Derek and Jim at Brenda's and Derek's art and yoga studio in downtown Fargo. I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana.

In addition to the four of us, there were two more people. One of them was new to the practice, so Jim practiced with him, leading him through primary. The other person is a yoga teacher who teaches at the yoga studio across the street from my place. He was doing his own Iyengar-inspired practice, and had a blanket, a couple of blocks, and a strap by his mat, which was next to mine. The morning practices at Derek's and Brenda's are called Open Practice, which means that anybody can come in and do pretty much whatever they want to do. Most of the time it ends up being a Mysore class of sorts because most of the time, there are just the four of us (Brenda, Derek, Jim and I).

But yesterday was different, because this yoga teacher came in and did his Iyengar-inspired practice. It kind of gives the whole studio a very interesting eclectic atmosphere. He was doing his practice next to me, and I think if somebody had filmed the whole thing, it would have been quite an interesting demo of the differences between the two styles. I mean, here's me, continuously flowing in and out of postures through the vinyasa, and then there's him next to me, staying in one posture for minutes at a time with some prop or other, then getting out of the posture, rearranging props, and then getting into another posture. Maybe it's just me, but I thought there were certain postures in which he was breathing quite rapidly and loudly, especially in the backbends and arm balances. And maybe this is just me again, but I thought his breathing in those postures was louder than mine (and I'm supposed to be the ashtanga practitioner. What's going on?) Hmm... I didn't know there are "Darth Vader breathers" in Iyengar too; I thought this is purely an ashtanga phenomenon...

My practice went very well. Primary was smooth and pleasant, and second was good too. I got an assist from Jim in Supta Vajrasana, which was really cool. I am also feeling less discomfort in the leg-behind-head postures, and I feel that my body is working productively in those postures.

The Iyengar guy and I finished our practices at around the same time. As we stepped outside the studio, he told me I have a marvelous practice, and that he really likes the way I float through my arms to transition in and out of postures. I thanked him, and for lack of something to say, I told him he had a beautiful practice too. After all this time, I still don't really know how to react when people tell me I have a great practice, so I always default to my "automated response", which is to return the compliment :-)

Maybe next time I should try saying something really outlandish. Something like this: "Yeah, you know why my practice is so marvelous? Because I am actually a very well-preserved thousand-year-old yogi from the Himalayas. I taught Ramamohan Brahmachari. What, you never heard of him? Well, he's Krishnamacharya's guru. Which makes me Krishnamacharya's Parama-guru. Which makes me Mr. Iyengar's Parapara-guru. Which makes me your Parameshti-guru! Speaking of which, why aren't you prostrating yourself at my lotus feet? Don't you want my blessings?"

These outlandish thoughts aside, I have noticed that many non-Ashtanga practitioners' response to Ashtanga practitioners tend to fall into one of two categories: (1) A certain misplaced reverence for athletic/gymnastic abilities ("wow, you can float through your arms/grab your heels in that ridiculous backbend/put both your legs behind your head"), or (2) A perception that Ashtanga is a very physically aggressive practice that is all about the achievement of postures and ego-boosting, and nothing much else.

I admit that I probably have unwittingly contributed to (1) and (2) in my own ways over the last few years. But over the last few months of mostly self-practice, I have gradually and increasingly come to realize that the Ashtanga practice is first and foremost a breath-driven practice. Whether you are an absolute beginner doing your very first Surya A or whether you are practicing second or third series (or beyond), the things that make the practice a practice are the same few things: Breath, drishti, bandhas. The postures almost take care of themselves if one focuses on these things. Despite whatever my ego tells me, the point of the practice is not whether or not I accomplish a particular posture. The point is whether I can do the posture while maintaining even breath, drishti and control of the bandhas. This is true whether I am doing my very first Surya A, or whether I am trying to get into Dwipada Sirsasana. In either case, I am trying to achieve one-pointed focus (ekagrata). In this state, there is no place for aggressive behavior or mere achievement of gymnastic postures (of course, my ego disagrees, but that's another story). So (1) and (2) are misconceptions of the practice; misconceptions that, I suspect, have the unfortunate effect of keeping people away from the practice.