Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Karandavasana. Not so bad.

This morning, I tried Karandavasana for the first time in almost a year. The whole thing went quite well, considering that I did not originally intend to do Karandavasana when I first began my practice this morning.

Basically, I did full primary and second up to Pincha Mayurasana. After I got out of Pincha, I thought to myself, "My knees are feeling quite good today. And I think I still have some energy left to do another forearm balance. And since I have been doing all those lotuses in headstand over the last week or so, I feel pretty confident about my ability to do lotus in an inverted position. Moreover, I already have come all the way to Pincha; why not go a little further, and give Karandavasana a shot?" And so up I went. I tried the pose three times. Here's a quick breakdown of the three attempts:

(1) Went up into Pincha, and then slowly closed my right knee joint. As I was trying to move my right foot to my left hip crease, I lost my balance, and had to come back down.

(2) Basically the same result as (1).

(3) After resting in a kneeling position for about 30 seconds or so, I gave Karandavasana another shot. This time, I had better luck. I succeeded in moving my right foot into the left hip crease without losing balance. And then I moved my left foot on top of my right thigh, and got into lotus. Still balancing on my forearms, I then tried to slowly move my knees to rest on my upper arms. But about halfway down, I lost control of the speed of the descent, and I almost came crashing down. I say almost, because I somehow managed to regain a little control just before my knees hit the mat, and lifted my hips just enough for me to land semi-gracefully in a seated padmasana. Is there a name for this pose? Sitting Duck Posture, maybe?  :-)

Basically, I thought this wasn't so bad for a first Karandavasana attempt in almost a year. Tomorrow's a moon day, so I'll try again on Thursday. If you have any feedback/suggestions/advice, I would love to hear them.

This is NOT me in Karandavasana.

Calm Before the Storm

Image taken from here

Calm before the Storm.
The atmosphere pregnant
With the burden of yet-to-be-possible Possibles,
With the fruit of yet-to-be-expected Expectables.
Oblivious to the impending Deluge,
The train of everyday mundanity chugs on unceasingly,
Steaming inexorably towards its own self-contained Utopia.

Nobel Ang
8:43 p.m. CDT May 30th 2011

Monday, May 30, 2011

A few thoughts about the practice and Memorial Day

'Life is a struggle with ourselves; it is a tug-of-war between moving forward and slipping backward, between happiness and misery. We are changing constantly, but the real issue is whether we change for the better or the worse, whether or not we succeed in enlarging our narrow, self-centered focus to take a broader view...

True individuality and character never come to full flower without hard work. I feel it is a mistake to think that who you are right now represents all you are capable of. If you passively decide, "I'm a quiet person, so I'll just go through life being quiet," you won't ever fully realize your unique potential. Without having to change your character completely, you can become a person who, while still basically quiet, will say the right thing at the right time with real conviction. In the same way, a negative tendency toward impatience could be developed into a useful knack for getting things done quickly and efficiently.

But nothing is more immediate, or more difficult, than to confront and transform ourselves. It is always tempting to decide "That's just the kind of person I am." Unless we challenge this tendency early in life, it will become stronger with age. But the effort is worthwhile in the end, as I believe that nothing produces deeper satisfaction than successfully challenging our own weaknesses. As the Russian author Tolstoy wrote, "Supreme happiness is to find that you are a better person at the end of the year than you were at the beginning."'

Daisaku Ikeda, Human Revolution

At 5 a.m. this morning, there was a great tug of war between the sleepy part of my self, who wanted to stay in bed, and the practice-oriented part of my self; I'm happy to say that after a brief struggle, the practice-oriented part somehow got the upper hand, and I got up to practice. This happened even though we (my fiancee and I) went to my friend D's place last night, had a big dinner of black bean burgers, and stayed up way past my bedtime.

It's always a bit of a struggle to keep up the practice during holidays weekends. I suppose I could have been a hard-ass last night about insisting that I needed to go home early to go to bed so that I can get up to do my practice in the morning, but I decided that that would make me a bit of a wet blanket; moreover, D's wife is in India visiting her parents, and I sensed that he really appreciated us spending time with him, so I decided to take a bit of suffering myself, and just make do with a bit less sleep.

Since I started doing yoga, I can't help noticing something. It seems that in this country, many people's lives are so tied up with their jobs that work is the only reason they have for getting up early in the morning. I get the sense that they seem to have a hard time understanding why anybody would be so sado-masochistic as to wake up super-early to do something called "the practice" when they can easily sleep in. Maybe I am sado-masochistic in this way, but I would rather lose an hour or two of sleep in order to get up early to do the practice (there are limits to this, of course). I don't know why, but when I wake up later, I always feel that some vital rhythm is lost; whereas if I get up early to practice, even if I lack an hour or two of sleep, I always feel that the energy that the practice gives me more than makes up for it.

So despite going to bed very late last night, I still got up early to practice. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. It was a good practice, not least because I could literally feel the practice detoxing my body. Whenever I eat too much the night before, my practice the following morning tends to be very gassy. So it was this morning. In many postures, especially deep twists like Mari C and D, and Pasasana, there were a lot of spontaneous gas emissions, a.k.a. farting. It would have been very embarrassing if this had happened in a shala, but fortunately, I practice by myself :-) Is all this TMI? If it is, try to pretend you never read this paragraph. My apologies: I should have warned you beforehand.

Since today is Memorial Day, I feel the need to indulge here in some, ahem, moralizing. For me, I feel that the practice reiterates one basic truth: The most profound and meaningful war worth fighting-- and, in my opinion, the only war worth fighting--is the war with our own negativity. And I think those of us who commit ourselves to the practice everyday are fighting this war on a daily basis. The war between slough and sleepiness on the one hand, and commitment, on the other; between sheer force of habit, on the one hand, and a dedicated practice that leads to ever-deepening thought and action, on the other. I really feel that the world can really become a better place if more individuals can engage in some kind of practice (it doesn't have to be this practice) that fosters and encourages introspection; a practice that allows one to see that confronting and overcoming one's inner demons is a task more arduous than vanquishing any external enemy. I can't help feeling that unless this happens, no amount of celebrating Memorial Days would get humanity anywhere.

Before I sign off, I'll leave you with a couple more things. James has written a very thoughtful and penetrating post about war and Memorial Day. Whatever your political persuasions may be, I think his post is definitely worth a read. At the risk of sounding even more preachy than I already am, I'll also leave you with this poem from Wilfred Owen:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Feedback needed about a yoga moral dilemma

Well, this is not exactly serious enough to merit "moral dilemma", but I thought if I titled the post this way, you will be more likely to read it (yes, I'm so evil...). Am I right? :-)

So here's the so-called moral dilemma. I'm not losing sleep over this, but it has been bugging me from time to time over the last couple of days. This is what happened. In the last couple of months, I have been toying with the idea of starting to teach yoga again. I used to teach at a local yoga studio in Florida when I was in grad school, but after I got my PhD in 2009 and started a "real" job, I decided to stop teaching yoga and focus on my own practice. The reasons for this decision are many and very involved, and would take another post to really go into, so I'll skip them here.

Anyway, recently, I finally decided to come out of my self-imposed "yoga shell" and start teaching yoga again. On Tuesday, I met with C, the owner of a local yoga studio (the same studio that I wrote about in this post) to talk about possibly teaching an Ashtanga class once a week at her studio.

[Big Disclaimer: You probably already know this if you read this blog regularly, but I'm going to say this again anyway. I am not an authorized teacher, nor have I ever been to Mysore. I have decided to teach anyway, because I really feel that in my part of this country, many people can get to know and benefit from this practice who may otherwise never know about this practice. So, despite my lack of credentials (and probably, ability), I have decided to step up to the plate and share what I know with whoever wants to try this practice. If you want to throw electronic eggs or stones at me, go right ahead. I will endure...]

Wow, I have written four paragraphs, and I still haven't told you what my dilemma is? I apologize; I don't mean to squander your cyber-attention in this way. I'll get to it right now. So C and I were talking about what to name my class. She told me that over the years, there have been a few teachers who have taught Ashtanga classes in the area, but only a few people showed up to these classes. However, when these teachers changed the name of their classes from "Ashtanga" to "Vinyasa Flow", the number of people attending these classes suddenly shot up. C doesn't really know why this happened; she thinks that maybe there is a lack of education in this area about what Ashtanga is, and maybe people only hear about Ashtanga's bad reputation (the injuries, the super-physically-intense nature of the practice, etc., etc.), and so decided to stay away from any class that has the word "Ashtanga" in its name.

I listened, and nodded in understanding. And then she dropped an unexpected bombshell. She asked me most sweetly, "So, I'm sure you would be okay with not calling your class "Ashtanga" at the start, wouldn't you? Maybe sometime in the fall, when you are more established, you can run a six-week series of classes called "Intro to Ashtanga" or something along these lines. I think this would give people a smoother way to adjust to Ashtanga."

To my surprise (and horror), I actually said yes to her proposal. And I said it without thinking, almost as a reflex (there is a part of me that really hates myself for being such a yes-person. But maybe you can forgive me: After all, as you can see, I was caught off-guard.).

So where's the dilemma? Well, there's a part of me that feels that not calling my class an Ashtanga class when this is really what it is amounts on some level to a betrayal of both what I stand for and the practice itself. Sure, one may say that a name's just a name. But I believe that what we choose to call ourselves is a very powerful reflection of what we stand for and what we dare to do and believe in in this world. Besides, if there really is a lack of education here about what Ashtanga is about, wouldn't not calling something Ashtanga when it is just add to this lack of education?  Moreover, I seriously don't care if just one or two people come to my class, so long as they are interested in giving the practice a try. But of course, C doesn't see it this way...

But there's also a part of me that says that in business, we sometimes have to compromise in order to get a foothold and move forward in getting what we want. And besides, C has been around in this area much longer than I have, and may very well know many things about the temperament and attitudes of the locals that I am ignorant of. So her proposal may turn out to be a wise one.

In any case, I just emailed C my class description. In it, I am very explicit that my class is going to be based on the Ashtanga Vinyasa Method and the Tristana system. In this way, I try to remain true to what the class will be about (I intend to teach Ashtanga the traditional way, posture by posture).

Maybe I'm overreacting to all this, I don't know. Any thoughts on this?   

Just what is this Yogas Chittas Vrtti Nirodhah?

In a recent article on Elephant Journal, Michael Stone relates his early experience with yoga practice:

"When I first started practicing Yoga, I thought the practice would lead to a cessation of thinking altogether. I also imagined that I’d be able to somehow leave my body, especially since my body was in pain. It was surprising when I began to realize that the practice of sequential Yoga postures, combined with full breathing and the stillness of meditation, actually stabilized the chattering of my mind and body long enough so there was room for my more difficult and challenging habitual drives to arise. What was left when my mind became almost still was not quietude but discomfort—and the discomfort certainly didn’t feel like oneness."

I think many people, like Stone, also think that the practice would enable us to stop thinking or stop engaging in any brain activity altogether. I wonder if this may be partly because Yoga Sutra 1.2, "Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah" is usually translated as "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness." Which might lead us to think that in order to attain the state of Yoga or union, one must attain a state in which all conscious activity ceases. But if you think about this a little more, you realize that this simply cannot be the right interpretation of this passage: For one, the cessation of all conscious activity is the medical definition of being comatose! It doesn't seem right that the goal of our practice should be to become comatose!

Indeed, as Stone relates, as the chattering of the Chitta is stabilized and as one approaches Nirodhah, what arises is not cessation of conscious activity. Rather, one then becomes conscious of the difficult and challenging drives that guide our day-to-day behavior; drives that we may not be conscious of beneath the typically ceaseless chattering of the Chitta. The consciousness of these drives leads to intense discomfort and perhaps, even self-loathing. It is what we decide to do at this moment that determines how far and to what extent we can carry out the work of yoga. During her Yoga Sutra lecture at her recent Richmond workshop, Kino observes that Chitta actually has three layers:

(1) Ahamkara: We can think of this as the ego, the part of Chitta that identifies things in the world as "I", "me" or "mine".

(2) Manas: This is the intellect, the information-processing and cognitive part of Chitta.

(3) Buddhi: This might be thought of as a higher intelligence. Buddhi is capable of transcending Ahamkara, and responding to the information processed by Manas in a way that is most appropriate and enlightened.

Given this three-layered structure of Chitta, the objective of yoga practice, then, is not to stop the functioning of Chitta; indeed, as mentioned above, this is neither desirable nor possible unless one is comatose. Rather, the objective is to get Chitta to function on the level of Buddhi rather than on the level of Ahamkara. Ahamkara, as we know, is the "I-making" part of Chitta. As such, when the Chitta operates mainly on the level of Ahamkara, it is preoccupied with Prakruti (phenomenal experience): It has to, in order to distinguish which part of phenomenal experience is "I" or "mine." In order to bring about the Vrtti Nirodhah of Chitta, Chitta needs to be refocused, so that its attention is on Purusha (True Self). In so doing, the Chitta also comes to make decisions from the level of higher intelligence (Buddhi) rather than from the level of ego (Ahamkara).

I think all this speaks very well to our experience, both on and off the mat. On the mat, there are many opportunities and forms for Ahamkara to arise ("If I just push a bit harder, this posture will be mine!", "Why can't I get this or that posture or look like so-and-so or such-and-such in this posture?", or even "Why haven't I had this or that earth-shattering experience/sensation that so-and-so talks about all the time?"). Perhaps the thing to do is not to get rid of Ahamkara, but to be aware of and recognize the workings of Ahamkara for what they are, and realize that we have a choice to decide whether to go along with Ahamkara or find a more appropriate way to respond to our experience. I think having this realization is the first step to accessing and acting from Buddhi.

Well, I honestly feel that I am getting a little out of my depth here. I feel that I have reached the limit of what I can safely say about this subject without making things up on my own, and possibly corrupting your perception of the yoga practice (talk about prakruti...). So I think I should sign off here, and leave you in better hands. Below is the full video of Kino's Yoga Sutra talk in Richmond. I hope you will learn much :-)


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Uddhiyana Bandha at the Dentist's

[Image taken from here]

I just found a new situation in which engaging uddhiyana bandha comes in handy: At the dentist's. I just went to the dentist for an examination and cleaning. The cleaning part was okay, but the examination was another story. Since I was a new patient, they had to do this super-intensive series of eighteen X-rays of the teeth and the supporting bone structure. Which meant that the hygienist had to insert this bulky plastic strip into my mouth at least eighteen times. I think this strip carries the film; I'm not sure. In any case, when one is in the dentist's office, one is reduced to a puny order-following patient. Very humbling existential experience...

So as I was saying, the strip had to be inserted into my mouth at least eighteen times. And quite a few of these eighteen times involved putting the strip in very awkward positions in the mouth relative to the palate and the tongue. Which makes one (at least it makes me) feel like gagging. At the same time, however, I was in a reclining position, with my head tilted back. Which put me in a slightly backbended position. Which means that it was quite easy for me to pull in the space between the navel and the pelvic bones, and engage uddhiyana bandha. Pretty cool, don't you think? And it's a good thing that I did, because I'm quite sure that engaging uddhiyana bandha made all the difference between being able to pull back the gag reflex and suffering an embarrassing gag. And of course, I got an extra opportunity to work on uddiyana bandha :-)

So the next time you go to the dentist, you might also want to use the time spent in the dentist's chair as an extra practice session of sorts (or not).

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Headstand Lotus; or, why you should keep practicing even if enlightenment is a scam

I've noticed that I haven't written about my daily practice for a while, so I'll start with a practice report. I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana this morning.

During the first two or three Surya As, I felt this "off" sensation in my left SI joint. But I recalled Kino's words on engaging the bandhas and firmly grounding the feet during forward bends (see this video), and the sensation went away by the end of the Suryas: Another small proof that the practice, if done mindfully, can heal and strengthen.

I stumbled while getting into Parivrtta Parsvakonasana, and had to step back to Samasthihi, and get into the posture all over again (I was on my mysore rug, so no sticky mat to blame this time. Bummer :-))

The rest of the practice was energizing, refreshing and pleasant. In the finishing sequence, I had a little breakthrough with getting into padmasana upside down. In shoulderstand, I succeeded in getting my legs into padmasana without using my hands. Which wasn't really that surprising, as I had been able to achieve this on and off for the last couple of weeks.

And then I decided on the spur on the moment to try to replicate the same feat in headstand. I bent my right knee, succeeded in closing my knee joint completely (yay!). I then moved my right foot into the left hip crease, and moved my left foot on top of my right thigh... and voila, I was in padmasana in headstand! My hips felt a lot more open in headstand than in shoulderstand, and the lotus was easier to get into here than in shoulderstand. I think that's probably because my hips had already been "warmed up" from getting into padmasana in shoulderstand. The headstand lotus felt light and easy. Probably didn't look anything as spectacular as Grimmly's Water Lotus, but hey, I take what I can :-) Can't ask for too much in my first headstand lotus in more than a year, can I? :-) And oh, I have no spectacular pictures to show you here; it didn't occur to me to take a picture of myself :-)

So I succeeded in getting into padmasana in headstand without blowing my knees out. What does this mean? Well, if you have been following my adventures in (not)splitting over the past month or so, this means that I am a lot closer to getting karandavasana: In fact, if I had wanted to this morning, I could have lifted my head off the ground into pincha mayurasana, and then try to lower my knees to my upper arms (which, for those of you who are not doing second series, gets one into karandavasana). But I decided not to push things too far: There is a Chinese saying, "Things go in the opposite direction if one pushes too much." (物极必反, if you read Chinese).

This may also apply to the greater goal of yoga practice, enlightenment. In her latest post, Claudia writes:

"I think I am beginning to get it. There is no enlightenment, it is a scam.

We can move closer to identifying with the right thing, the pure consciousness that inhabits no space."

I have to admit that I found what she wrote here rather baffling the first time I read this. I mean, if enlightenment is a scam, if there is no such thing as enlightenment, then what would moving closer to pure consciousness amount to? Very puzzling, don't you think?

But here's my humble take on this: Perhaps this is puzzling only if we think that enlightenment is some kind of end-point, some kind of ultimate state in the practice where everything just kind of comes to a permanent stillness.

But maybe it is neither possible nor desirable to attain this permanent stillness. Perhaps reality is something that is changing moment to moment, like a river that flows endlessly. And just as one can never step into the same river twice, one can also never see the same time-slice of reality twice. To attain pure consciousness, then, is not to see something as never-changing, but to have the ability to see reality clearly in its ever-changing moment-to-moment flux, and to move and act from moment to moment in accordance with what one sees. This applies whether one is trying to decide what to do at a given moment in one's asana practice, or whether one is trying to navigate the stirring currents of life's vicissitudes.

At any rate, these are the randoms musings of a finite being trying to navigate the river of conditioned existence. I'll leave you with something here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Luciano Pavarotti sings "La Donna E Mobile"

I have recently started listening to opera again. I have never really been an official "opera buff"; I can't list all the works of Puccini, or tell you who sang what part in a particular performance of Turandot in such-and-such-a-year, for instance. But I have always loved the sound of operatic singing; I'm not sure why, but there's just something about the sound that moves me and gets my blood racing in ways that other genres of music can't. And being somebody who used to sing in a choir, I really understand how much talent and sheer hard work goes into singing these pieces, which require great mastery of the breath and voice.

Breath. This is the one thing that singing and yoga practice have in common. Through his mastery of diaphragmatic breathing, a great singer can scale the heights of the greatest arias, in much the same way in which control of the breath and bandhas enables the yogi to move effortlessly through space and time.  Also, as you can see from this video, Pavarotti has some serious drishti going on :-)

The late Luciano Pavarotti is one of my favorite opera singers. I don't know much about his personal life, but I really feel that he has done a lot of good in this world and inspired millions through his work. In this way, the world is a better place because he lived. I think this is also what we aspire to as yogis and as human beings.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Is Yoga a Sisyphean Undertaking?

[Image copied from here]

"The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor...

But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

I have been reading Camus's The Myth of Sisyphus to prepare for my fall classes. At the same time, I also just read Megan's recent post about the doubts and fears that we encounter in the course of doing our daily practice. So I've decided to bring these two things in my life (Camus and yoga) together, and see if anything insightful and useful comes out of my random musings.

According to legend, Sisyphus was an ancient Greek king who defied the gods by capturing Death, so that humans would not have to die. In return, the gods punished Sisyphus by making him push a huge rock up a mountain; every time the rock reaches the top of the mountain, it rolls down again, and Sisyphus would have to start rolling the rock up the mountain all over again. This seemingly futile process would continue for all eternity.

The image of Sisyphus rolling the rock up the mountain eternally has become associated in the popular consciousness with painful, futile labor, so much so that the American Heritage Dictionary defines "sisyphean" as "endless and unavailing, as labor or a task."

Camus, however, has a different take on the story of Sisyphus. To Camus, Sisyphus is the ultimate existential hero. He is fully conscious of the inherent meaninglessness and endlessness of his undertaking, yet he accepts and fully embraces this. It does not matter to him that there is no greater goal that he can hope to attain, no greater meaning he can hope to fulfill by rolling the stone up the hill with all his might. All that matters is that he is fully absorbed in the task immediately before him, so that every little detail of this task, "each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world." He does not need any god or greater being to reward his efforts; the very process of struggling towards the heights is enough to fill his heart, with or without the blessings of the gods.

I like Camus's interpretation of "sisyphean" much more than the standard American interpretation. To Camus, Sisyphus' task, although devoid of ultimate meaning, is far from unavailing and futile. Through his radical act of interpreting his labor on his own terms, Sisyphus has, in Camus's eyes, succeeded in creating a universe of meaning for himself where none had existed before.

Is yoga a Sisyphean undertaking, in Camus's sense of the term? I think the answer is: Yes and no. No, because unlike Sisyphus' task, which is inherently devoid of any greater meaning, the yogic journey involves Ishvara Pranidhana, or surrender to a power greater than oneself. In so doing, the yogi looks to this power (whatever it might be) to imbue his yogic endeavor with ultimate meaning.

However, there is also a sense in which the answer is yes. In order for our daily yogic labors to make sense for ourselves in our own unique time and circumstance, we need to recreate for ourselves what the yoga practice means to ourselves in our particular place and time, if we are to be able to sustain and continually find refreshing perspectives to allow ourselves to keep growing in our practice. Megan writes:

"...many times my mind finds room to question, to consider, as I inhale my arms up for that first Surya Namaskar, that perhaps this is not the best idea.  After all, I'm already tired and I've got the whole series ahead of me.  I might need the energy later.  I should probably just take a nap/have a snack/read a blog instead (hint, hint...). [Nobel: I got the hint, Megan. I'm even quoting your blog :-)]

This tendency for skepticism in the face of obvious truth has been the source of a number of personal revelations thoughout my (relatively few) years of practice.  Sometimes it feels as though I'm stuck in a wheel, learning the same lessons over and over.  Until one day when the lesson is somehow not merely learned but absorbed, assimilated into my being.  Another veil falls and a new and vivid world appears before me.  Sometimes the veils fall and flutter softly to the ground, and sometimes they must be roughly torn away."

Like Sisyphus, if we are to be able to begin to roll the yogic rock up the hill of practice every morning, we need to find the energy to cast off the veil of ignorance and slough that tries to prevent us from getting on the mat every day. Some days, this may be easier to do, other days it may be harder. But one way or the other, the journey of practice is a journey of continually finding inspiration and energy where none existed before, creating meaning and refreshing perspectives where there was only slough and sleepiness. In this way, to do the practice is to be an existential hero.

Before I sign off, I also want to take this opportunity to point out an interesting karmic connection here. Megan lives and teaches in Austin, Texas. Incidentally, Austin was also the first place I lived in this country: I attended UT Austin for one semester in the fall of '99 as an exchange student from Singapore. It was at UT Austin that I met Professor Robert Solomon. It was in his Existentialism class that I first heard about Albert Camus. Unfortunately, Professor Solomon has since passed away. Fortunately, he has inspired and touched the lives of many students, one of whom shamelessly continues to write and blog about philosophy, yoga and practically everything under the sun that occurs to his not-always-fully-lucid mind (I'm sure you know who this guy is: I'm not going to name names here...)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Six Important Lessons From Yogi Victor

Hail the latest celebrity yoga teacher... Yogi Victor! Can't wait to pack my bags and go take a workshop with this guy :-)

I wonder which yoga style this guy is trained in, and where his studio is located... apparently, according to the video, his studio is called the Yoga Spot, and it's somewhere in Texas, I'm guessing? Well, if any of you guys out there know anything, let me know.

In any case, this video is so hilarious (and insightful, in a very off-beat way) that I had to watch it three times. These are some important lessons I learnt from Yogi Victor:

1. You should evacuate your bowels between 4 and 6 a.m.

This is very insightful, especially in light of my recent post on bowel movements, and the interesting conversation it sparked. Wow, this Yogi Victor must be psychic or something: How did he know that I had been thinking about bowel movements?

Remember, you need to make sure your pipes are cleaned everyday between 4 and 6 a.m. Otherwise, you might not be able to put your leg behind your head (or your head behind your leg, for that matter).

2. Lunch is one of the worst things you can do to yourself.

Lunch is one of the worst things you can do to yourself... next to breakfast and dinner! Which means that if you desire to attain the greatest heights of yogic power, you should stop eating! But if one stops eating, then what would one be evacuating when one evacuates one's bowels? Well, residual toxins, of course! Which is why it is all the more important that one stops eating! If one keeps taking in all that bad stuff, how is the real work of evacuating toxins ever to begin?
3. Yoga mats in certain places in Texas have "Welcome" printed on them. 

No offense to those of you from Texas, but if the King of the Hill says so, it must be true, right? :-) 

4. Breathe through your feet.

Now, this is new! So nostrils grow on our feet too? Who knew? Actually, come to think of it, this might be the secret to getting Karandavasana: If you can breathe through your other nose (the one on your feet), then you can take in more prana than the average yogi. And this is an especially useful skill to have in an upside down position, when your feet are actually higher than your head, and are in a better position to take in air (if you know how to use those feet-nostrils, that is...). Gee, another reason to sign up for one of Yogi Victor's workshops, so I can learn how to activate these feet-nostrils :-) 

5. It's not working; it is.

Need I say more? 

6. Most men desire control; yogis control desire. 

Ditto my comments on point 5. 

Oh, and one more thing: Anybody know where I can get Yogi Victor's new relaxation tape of him making ocean noises? :-)

Gosh, this Yogi Victor is so life-changing! I learnt more in four and a half minutes than I have ever learnt in my entire yoga career before that!

Note to reader: You know this whole thing is a joke, right?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yoga, Smoking Cigars and Judgment Day

“I shall tell you a great secret my friend. Do not wait for the last judgement, it takes place every day.”

 Albert Camus

There used to be a yoga studio just across the street from where I live here in Moorhead, Minnesota. It was a small, independent "mom-and-pop" studio located in a new up-market-looking building. The studio offered classes in a variety of yoga styles, as well as Pilates classes. I only went to a couple of classes there, and that was because my fiancee went to classes there regularly (she had a monthly membership there), and so I tagged along a couple of times. As far as Ashtanga goes, they did have an Intro to Ashtanga class, but I figured that I could get more out of my daily practice than from this class: According to my fiancee, the class was taught by this well-intentioned middle-aged guy who peppers his classes with platitudes like "It's not about the postures", "It's about the journey, not the destination"; seriously, I need to do my practice, not listen to somebody preach about how to do the practice while I am doing the practice. But maybe I'm being judgmental here. All in all, it's a great thing that somebody is stepping up to the plate and igniting the flame of yoga, especially in this part of the country. So who am I to be sitting on the sidelines and judging others' efforts?   

But all this is neither here nor there. A couple of months ago, the studio had to move out of that building. I'm not quite sure what the exact reasons were; according to the local grapevine, it had something to do with the high rent of the building space. Fortunately, the studio has since relocated to a smaller, less swanky space about half a mile away. There is now a smaller range of class offerings, but I think the important thing is that it is surviving and keeping the flame of yoga alive, no matter how small.

Here's what's interesting. In the space that used to house the yoga studio, a new business is now being set up; in fact, as I'm writing this, I can look across the street and see workers loading furniture and stuff into the space out of a big truck. Guess what this new business is? I'm sure you'll never guess in a million years. It's a... cigar shop! Yes, what used to be a yoga studio is now a cigar shop.

How should one react to this development? It is all too easy to go off on this big hackneyed rant about how unhealthy lifestyles and habits are easier to sell and capitalize on, and how they can be more easily made to seem appealing to more people. After all, doing yoga actually takes some effort and doing, while taking a drag on a cigar takes a lot less work, and seems to offer more pleasure, at least in the short term.

But I think there's a more interesting and hopefully, refreshing way to look at this development, especially in light of recent developments in the blogosphere and in the "real" world. Here are a couple of thoughts:

(1) In a comment on a recent post by Yyogini, Sereneflavor paraphrased Michael Stone's explanation of mula bandha. Stone said that "those of us who had smoked a cigarette or whatever would recognize the upward movement the pelvic floor makes when you inhale smoke." I am not advocating smoking anything, but if this is true, then it is quite possible that what smokers are craving are not cigarettes or cigars per se, but deep breathing: Taking a long drag on a cigarette or cigar is the only way they know how to take a deep relaxing breath. Which is probably why so many smokers claim that smoking relaxes them.

So perhaps this cigar shop plays the exact same role in the lives of certain members of the community that the yoga studio plays in the lives of others: It gives them access to what they need in order to attain a certain relaxing experience. Again, I'm not advocating smoking anything: All of you politically-correct yogis out there, hold off on your eggshells and stones.

(2) As many of you already know, many fundamentalists claim that today (May 21st 2011) is the Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever. If this is true, then I may already be dead/undead even as I am writing this. Or maybe I am one of the unfortunate souls who have been left behind here on earth? If so, I am in good company, because as I look around me, many people are still around, going about their daily business. Or maybe these people are just empty shells of their former selves; maybe their souls have already ascended to wherever-ascended-souls-go-to, leaving their earthly bodies behind to continue with the clockwork motions of daily life? Quite possible, but I guess I'll never know one way or the other.

This is where the cigar shop comes into the picture. If we have indeed entered the Age of the post-Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever, then it means that those of us who are left behind are now condemned to live forever on this barren earth with no hope of any possible salvation for eternity. Which means that it probably won't make any difference what you do or do not do to take care of your body. Which means that it's not going to make any difference to your body whether you seek to achieve a relaxing experience by means of doing yoga or by means of taking a puff on a cigar or cigarette: One way or the other, your body will last forever.

So why am I still doing the practice? Why put my body through two hours of sweat and suffering (did I just say this?) in the name of self-realization when I might very well be able to achieve the same thing through puffing away on a cigar?

Again, I'm not advocating smoking anything. If you are thinking of throwing an e-stone at me, remember this: Let he who is without samskara cast the first stone. (Since we are now in the Age of the post-Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever, I feel that I can't properly quote Jesus anymore).   

Friday, May 20, 2011

Some random thoughts on orgasmic yogic experiences

This post is inspired by Claudia's latest post.

Notice how I have worded the question. If I had asked, "Can yoga give you an orgasm?", the answer would be a straightforward no, at least as far as I'm concerned. To this day, I have never experienced an orgasm during practice, at least not the biological kind (I take it that this is what we mean when we say "orgasm", right?).

But if the question is, "Can yoga give you an orgasmic experience?", then things become more interesting. I'll start by making a couple of random observations:

(1) Towards the end of the Ashtanga, NY documentary (by the way, if you haven't seen this, I highly, highly recommend it), an Ashtangi who was interviewed (I don't know his name) said something along the lines of "On a good day, the practice is better than the best sex you've ever had." I can't tell whether he was speaking in jest, or whether he was serious, or whether he was only half-serious.

(2) Warning: The following information might be TMI. But here we go: I have noticed a significant decrease in my overall sex drive for the last year and a half or so, which is roughly how long I have been doing second series. Maybe this is not a bad thing in and of itself: I suspect that I used to think about sex too much anyway, and having to think about it less as one goes through the day may not necessarily be a bad thing. And of course, it is also possible that this may have absolutely nothing to do with practicing the second series: I may simply be getting old (yikes!).

But I can't help thinking that maybe, just maybe, practicing the second series is doing certain things to my sex drive. Is this cause for concern? Should I go see a doctor about this? Then again, it probably won't be of much use: The doctor will probably say, "If yoga is causing you to have lower sex drive/less interest in sex, and you want to continue to have a healthy sex life, you should stop doing yoga!" But I don't want to stop doing yoga.

But I digress. What do (1) and (2) mean, taken together? Maybe nothing. But if we assume that the Ashtangi in the Ashtanga, NY documentary wasn't just joking, maybe yoga practice on a "good" day really is better than the best sex you've ever had; and maybe this is because the practice directs your sexual energy to some other place; a place that cannot be reached by ordinary sexual activity, a place where you experience the psychic/spiritual equivalent of an orgasm--in short, an orgasmic experience. Hmm... Where could this place be? How does one know if one has been there? But maybe this is a useless question to ask. After all, you don't need me (or anybody else) to tell you when you've experienced an orgasm (the biological kind): You just know what it is when you experience it. So why should I need anybody to tell me when I've had an orgasmic experience? Shouldn't it also be something that I would know and recognize once I've experienced it? Isn't the very fact that I am even asking this question now proof that I have yet to experience it? 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

You can't eat yoga, but it sustains you

"You can't eat hope,' the woman said.
You can't eat it, but it sustains you,' the colonel replied."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Met with my friend B yesterday evening to do some Ashtanga. B was one of the two friends who did yoga with me in this post.

The events leading up to the practice session were quite interesting, so I'll relate them here. We were supposed to meet at 6:30 p.m. at my place. I waited till 7 p.m., and he did not show up. I called him, and it turned out that he had come home from work, decided to take a short nap, and ended up sleeping through the appointed time. I told him he could still come over if he wanted to. So he did. When he got to my place, he told me that he had been on a self-imposed diet of bread and water the last couple of days, because he was trying to "detox" from having eaten so much rich food the last couple of weeks: He had been traveling a lot the past couple of weeks due to work and family commitments, and when he travels, he tends to overeat.

As a result of his bread-and-water diet, he told me, he was feeling really hungry and weak, and he took a nap in order not to have to feel the hunger. He then tried to weasel out of our yoga session; he offered to buy me a slice of pizza and a beer at a local pizza place. [Note to reader: Unlike many other Ashtangis, who are much more observant in making sure that they do not eat past a certain hour (for more details, see the comments on this post), I am sadly lacking in this area. Which may (or may not) explain why I have yet to complete second series.]

In response to his offer, I observed matter-of-factly that if we go for pizza and beer, the whole yoga plan would basically go to shit. (Which was, of course, precisely his intention.) He chuckled somewhat sheepishly, and I assured him that the nice thing about doing Ashtanga is that (a) he will be so occupied with the breath during the practice, he will have no time to feel hungry, (b) the practice tends to have an appetite-suppressing effect, which means that he will probably not feel so hungry after the practice.

I don't think he bought my story; but seeing that I would not back down in the face of gastronomic temptation, he reluctantly gave in. We did a short practice: 5 Surya As, 5 Surya Bs, Padangusthasana and Padahastasana. After the practice, he said he didn't feel hungry anymore. He also told me that he had been to a few Sivananda classes in India (he's originally from India), and always felt ravenous after those classes. [Another note to reader: In case you are wondering, I have absolutely nothing against Sivananda. I have great respect for that lineage.] As he left my apartment, his face was exuding a post-yoga glow, and he smilingly told me that he was going to stick to his bread-and-water diet for a couple more days, and that we should get together to practice again soon.

Moral of the story? Hmm... maybe it's this: You can't eat yoga, but it sustains you :-)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Mysore rug, Manduka, or generic sticky mat?

Hmm... I said in an earlier post today that I was having a really full day today (and I did: Taught two classes back to back. And they went really well, at that :-)), and yet here I am, writing my third post of the day! How is this possible? Do I, like, have a life?

This post is inspired by something that happened in practice this morning. As I mentioned in my earlier post today (see this post), I had to use a Gaiam sticky mat for practice this morning, as I had to put my mysore rug in the dryer. And I found my balance considerably compromised during the standing postures; I almost tripped in Trikonasana, because my left heel got caught by the stickiness of the sticky mat as I was turning it to go into Trikonasana on the first side. Tripping in Trikonasana... how embarrassing! (Like anybody's watching, right? Headline news in tomorrow's NYT: World-famous Ashtangi Nobel suffers embarrassing trip in Trikonasana. Loses 10 Ashtanga Power Points.)

But seriously, this incident reinforces my long-held belief that when it comes to Ashtanga practice, nothing is as reliable as a mysore rug. (Of course, it is also entirely possible that my balance this morning was exceptionally bad. But I refuse to believe this...) A mysore rug gives you just the right amount of grip, so you don't slip; but it doesn't have so much friction as to make the mere act of shifting your heel a near-acrobatic endeavor. Moreover, I like the feel of cotton on my feet.

But I am aware that not everybody shares my opinion on this. Many Ashtangis seem happy with their Manduka mats (some even swear by it), and others seem content with a generic sticky mat. I don't mean to be rude, but how do you people do it? Or do I really need to work on my balance?

What if the practice were one big two-hour-long daily placebo?

I couldn't help having this thought after Yyogini forwarded me the following video. Well, I'll continue to practice anyway: I have long decided that even if the practice does absolutely nothing for me (beyond enabling me to do kapotasana and put my legs behind my head), I'll still do it anyway. Why? Because it's fun! Well, maybe not always... But it's certainly a lot better than just hearing the alarm every morning and/or hitting the snooze button, and dragging my sorry ass out of bed and to work right away. Got to have a reason to wake up in the morning. And it might as well be the practice :-)

Gee, I hope I'm not spoiling anybody's mood and/or stepping on somebody's cyber-toes by saying everything I just said. Maybe not everything can be blogged about. And maybe thoughts like these fall under this category. But whatever. Have fun with the video!

A practice report, real quick

I have a really full day ahead of me today, so this post is going to be quite short.

I'll just focus on talking about my practice. This morning, I did full primary and second up to pincha mayurasana. Wow, it really takes a bit of effort to get back into the swing of things after a moon day. My hips didn't feel terribly open in primary. For instance, in Baddha Konasana A, it took a couple more breaths than usual for me to bring my forehead and chest to the ground.

Oh, and there was one minor annoyance: I put my mysore rug in the washer yesterday, but forgot to then put it in the dryer. Which meant that my mysore rug was not ready for use this morning, and I had to practice on a sticky mat. I almost tripped over in Trikonasana (yes, Trikonasana! Can you believe that?). There's something about sticky mats: I find them too sticky for my feet to shift on them smoothly. But it seems that I am the only person who has this issue. Everybody seems happy with their Mandukas and such.

By the time I got to second series, my hips had become way more open. Pasasana was nice (wrist bind). So was kapotasana (heel-grab). LBH was nice too. By the time I got through Pincha, though, I was totally wiped out. Not just in the sense of being breathless (I can recover from that very quickly), but in the sense of... how should I put this? It feels like somebody had taken a giant spoon and scooped out my innards, leaving me totally all empty and transparent inside. The funny thing is, it's not a bad feeling at all, once I sit with the feeling for a little bit. It actually feels... cleansing and detoxing.

Okay. Got to go now. I said this was going to be short, right? :-)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What is the relationship between our practice and the timing of our bowel movements?

Warning: If you are squeamish about issues related to bodily functions, you may not want to read this post. I will do my best to talk about things in a way that is not too explicit, but I thought you should be given fair warning anyway.

Happy Moon Day! I thought I'll take advantage of this break from our Ashtangic labors to talk about a particular issue that is very close to us (because we all have to do it to stay alive) and yet not very often discussed; at least, I do not know of any substantial blog or even real-world discussion that addresses this issue.

So what's the issue? Different people refer to it in different ways. Some people call it "Number 2", others call it "moving the bowels". Less politically-correct folks might call it "taking a poop", or "taking a shit". But they all refer to the same phenomenon (I think): Essentially, it is what you do when you go to the bathroom to expel the solid waste products of your digestive system.

Are you still reading this? Are you in danger of forcefully expelling the contents of your breakfast from your mouth? If you are, my apologies (but I did issue a warning, remember?). In any case,  thank you for staying with me so far.

The question that I want to explore in this post is: What is the relationship between our practice and our bowel movements? I think this is a very important question, not least because many of the postures in the primary series are supposed to have beneficial effects on digestion and elimination (for more details, see Claudia's recent post on the benefits of particular postures in the primary series). If the practice is supposed to have beneficial effects on digestion and elimination, would it be more beneficial for us if we were to move the bowels before we start our practice, or would it be more beneficial to do so after practice? In my personal experience, I have found that on mornings when I move the bowels before practice, I am able to go into the practice with a certain feeling of lightness and ease (The Unbearable Lightness of Being... hahaha! Excuse the tasteless joke here, I just couldn't resist it). But I wonder if this feeling is only psychological: On days when I go into practice without having moved my bowels, my practice really doesn't feel any more heavier or more difficult: So far, not moving my bowels in my practice has not made going into twists or deep forward bends or kapotasana more difficult (another tasteless joke: Shit doesn't get in the way!).

But I have discovered that if I do not move my bowels before practice on a certain day, it is usually a little more difficult to get my bowels to move for a while after practice. I think this is because all the bandha-engagement that goes on during practice has the effect of contracting the muscles that need to release in order to facilitate bowel movement. So usually, I need to drink some espresso after practice and sit around for a bit before the bowels will start moving again.

My apologies if all this is TMI for you. But hey, we are all humans who need to eat, sleep and poop (hopefully everyday): If we don't talk about this, what can we talk about? I'll like to hear your thoughts on this matter. If you don't feel comfortable discussing this in the blogosphere, feel free to email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com.

Monday, May 16, 2011

More Meditations on the Core

"The stillness in stillness is not the real stillness; only when there is stillness in movement does the universal rhythm manifest."

Bruce Lee 

I have gotten some very thoughtful and insightful responses to my previous post about whether the Ashtanga practice is sufficient by itself for a core-centered practice. As such, I feel that this topic deserves further exploration.

At least a couple of commenters (among them Christine and Helena) on my previous post have mentioned that through practicing Ashtanga, one is able to slowly go from the outside to the inside, so to speak. When one first begins practicing Ashtanga, one might be lacking in muscular strength, and might try to make up for this lack of muscular strength by muscling through postures; which is, of course, ironic, but both life and practice are full of ironies, as we know...

But as one becomes stronger on the muscular-skeletal level, one also begins to realize that moving and working solely from the muscular-skeletal level is not the most effective or safe way to practice; one then begins to pay more attention to engaging the bandhas more intensively, and not just "part-time." To me, this represents one of the most beautiful paradoxes of the practice: Once one becomes "good" at doing something a certain way, one also discovers that there is in fact a "better" way of doing the same thing. One then has to discard what was previously thought to be the "good" way, and begin again as a beginner at trying to master the "better" way. In this way, the practice makes perpetual beginners of us all.

Indeed, I think it is even possible to distinguish the various different series of postures in the Ashtanga method by the progressive demands that they place on bandha engagement; as the practitioner progresses further in the Ashtanga series, she needs to engage her bandhas more intensely and constantly if she is to be able to perform the postures safely and effectively. On this note, David Garrigues relates the following story that Sharath shared in a recent conference: 

"Sharath related a story about how he asked Guruji about the difficulties he was having with a challenging section of an advanced series postures. This set of postures requires you to alternate between opposing postural patterns (ie extreme extension to flexion etc) without a warm up, without the hand holding type of continuity of first or second or even third series offers. Guruji told Sharath it was only possible to master this sequence by achieving a strong Mula Bandha. This story lit up the point that you practice Mula Bandha to strengthen your base, your center so as to be able to choose more freely both physically and psychologically,  and thus not get caught in one kind of pattern or groove. You become oriented and strong in the middle, in your core, and become capable of switching between patterns, even extreme opposites with relative ease."

There might seem to be a chicken-and-egg issue here: If bandha control is required in order to do the Ashtanga practice safely and effectively, wouldn't the beginning Ashtangi who has little or no control of the bandhas be setting herself up for strain and injury? We need to engage the bandhas to practice safely and effectively, but we will never be able to learn how to engage the bandhas effectively and safely unless we step on the mat and practice. So what is a good Ashtangi to do?   

I think this is where the inherent wisdom of mysore-style practice becomes apparent. Mysore-style practice is designed in such a way as to enable the practitioner to progressively move from postures that one can somewhat safely do using only muscle power (I emphasize "somewhat safely", because I believe that in order to do even these relatively basic postures safely in the long term, one needs to engage one's bandhas) to postures that demand more and more constant core/bandha work from the practitioner. In this sense, the practice is truly a practice: It is an ongoing practice in progressively gaining more and more control over one's core, both on and off the mat.    

I can go on and on, but I guess I'll stop here. It's getting late in the day, and man does not live on blogging alone: He also needs to eat and get some sleep. What might be the moral of this whole story? I don't know... maybe this means that it is better for an absolute beginner to Ashtanga to go to a mysore class than to a led class?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is Ashtanga practice by itself sufficient for a core-centered practice?

Recently, the subject of core work/engaging the core in yoga practice has come up in the blogosphere, sometimes tangentially, sometimes more directly. For example, Megan's recent insightful post on the difference between yoga and Pilates has sparked an interesting conversation on the relative merits of the two disciplines. In a recent article in Elephant Journal, Sadie Nardini also suggested that many yogis have superficial practices, i.e. practices that do not engage and come from the core, but basically consist of disparate and disjointed movements of various parts of the body. Nardini claims:

"...there’s a lack of depth to many people’s practices, physically, but also on every other level of being. If we’re not touching our cores on the mat, it’s likely that we’re challenged by issues of inner strength and stamina outside the studio too.

Many yoga practitioners are practicing from the outside in and the sky down, instead of the much more powerful directions of inside out and earth up. And I’m glad they are, at least when they come to me, because it’s so incredible to turn a pose inside out and watch people finally, and near-instantly begin to rock their Crow poses, handstands, Warriors and so much more."
Why is it so important to work and move from our core in asana practice? Nardini offers one obvious answer:

"If you want to do yoga when you’re 90–or even in a year, you’ll be smart to stop relying on outer body muscles and your joints to do this practice."

All this talk of moving and working from the core is really compelling and impressive (I'm not being sarcastic--I really mean this!). However, being a semi-hermetic Midwestern Ashtangi who mostly practices by himself, except for short trips here and there to study with senior teachers, and whose knowledge of anatomy is far from extensive, I can only approach this issue from the perspective of my own Ashtanga practice and experience. So the question I would like to pose here is: Does the Ashtanga method, especially its focus on engaging the bandhas, possess the resources to give a practitioner a core-centered practice? Or, to pose the same question more straightforwardly: If one practices only the Ashtanga method (and practices it correctly, of course!), would one be able to achieve the kind of core-centered practice that Nardini talks about? Or does the Ashtanga practice need to be supplemented with another mind/body practice in order to achieve such a result (What would this supplementary practice be? Pilates? Taichi?)?

From my as-yet-limited experience with Ashtanga, I personally feel that if one pays close attention to the breath, drishti and bandhas in practice, the core will take care of itself. I feel this from my experience in developing my jumpthroughs and jumpbacks (JTJB). I feel that, over the last couple of years, my JTJB has become less muscle-intensive, and my breathing during JTJB has also become less constricted (although it is still not as relaxed as when I am standing in Samasthihi; but maybe I'll get there some day :-)). The other day, for example, as I was jumping through into I-forgot-what-asana-in-primary-series, I could actually feel a certain softness in my triceps; I could feel that what was really "powering" my jumpthrough wasn't sheer arm-power, but something... deeper than that. I take this as a sign that, if I keep mindfully working on my bandhas in all postures and transitions, my practice will one day become almost completely core-powered and be much less muscle-powered than it is at present.

Does any of this make any sense? I hope it does; I'm basically just writing off the top of my head (then again, I almost always write off the top of my head these days; but this is a topic for another post).    

I guess I'll leave you with the question which started this post: Is Ashtanga practice by itself sufficient for a core-centered practice?     

Friday, May 13, 2011

Faith, the practice, and making the impossible possible

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.”

Rabindranath Tagore

Faith has a bad rep in much of the western world. This is probably because for many people, the word faith conjures up images of blindly obedient followers of some charismatic leader/teacher figure. Often, these followers are so blindly faithful that they become oblivious to the excesses of the leader/teacher, and end up getting abused and exploited. 

But I think that the practice teaches us that faith need not be blind. Rather, the eye of faith enables us to see the light of the dawn where reason sees only the absolute darkness that precedes it. And the really cool thing about the practice is that one doesn’t even have to really believe in it in order for it to work. All it asks is that we take the first step and put in the work, and the results will come, whether we believe it or not. And gradually, as we see results, we learn to trust the practice. Which leads us to put in more work. Which leads to even more results.

Over the last few months, as I developed my practice mostly by myself in this corner of the Midwest, I have become more and more convinced that the practice is first and foremost an ongoing exercise in faith: Faith in the practice, faith in its life-opening potential. Every morning, as I step onto the mat, I muster faith in the power of the practice. A big part of this faith pertains to things that are very immediate to me at the moment: Faith that the practice will deliver my half-conscious body from a place of sleepiness to a place of ever-awakening strength, power and suppleness; faith that with each successive vinyasa, I will become physically stronger, mentally more resilient, and spiritually more open and embracing; faith that the practice will heal my physical injuries and enable me to tap the strength to progressively challenge my inner demons.

But I feel that the greatest reward of the practice does not lie so much in particular results. I feel that a bigger reward of the practice lies in its life-opening effects: Through challenging our bodies on a physical level, we are able to tap into something bigger and deeper within ourselves, and discover that we are capable of much more than we think possible, if we don’t give up on ourselves along the way. In her latest article, Kino MacGregor describes her own experience of this process:

“In my own physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga strength was pure magic for me. I can still remember the sensation of my shoulder collapsing when I first trip to a simple plank position. Even worse was the sensation of falling out of headstand every day with a loud crashing sound for eight straight months. The experience was so devastating that I doubted my ability to ever build strength in my body at all.

Until the day when I began to experience the connection between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body I had no way to build a path towards the results that I wanted. One day the magic of the physical movement suddenly revealed a hidden inner realm of mental, emotional and spiritual strength. In essence my physical weakness was a kind of manifestation of the worldview that I held deeply within. I believed myself to be weak and so I was. I believed in my limitations, my feeling of “less than” and my doubt. Plagued by insecurity not only could I not lift my body weight off the ground but I could also not stand up for what I believed in. I had to learn true spiritual strength, self confidence at the deepest level and connection with my own inner divinity before the physical movement that I wanted within my practice would unfold. The first step was that I had to cultivate a belief in the possibility that I, with all my weakness, would someday be strong. I was so weak that I had accomplished teachers give up on.

One even told me that I would have to wait many lifetimes before performed some the arm balances that I do nearly every day now. Yet, I had to believe in my own dream and work towards it every day, even when I was the only one who left who had faith.” [You can read the whole article here.]

I have to confess that when I read this passage for the first time, I actually tried to picture Kino collapsing her shoulders in plank or falling from headstand; no image came up in my mind! I find it hard to even imagine Kino—she of the deep and powerful backbends, and totally effortless arm balances—not being able to do these postures. But there was indeed a time when she perceived these postures to be impossible, and it was faith in the practice, and in its ability to make the impossible possible, that made all the difference in her practice and life.

How does this faith work to change our practice and our lives in more concrete terms? Kino speaks of experiencing “the connection between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual body”, and of the physical practice revealing “a hidden inner realm of mental, emotional and spiritual strength.” I think those of us who have worked with arm balances can attest to the truth of this. In order to successfully execute an arm balance, one has to understand a little paradox: True strength does not come from muscling one’s way into a posture. Rather, the strength to lift oneself off the ground comes from finding the space to bring the hips and the lower extremities closer to the upper body. 

In order to create this space, we need to engage the bandhas. When one engages uddhiyana bandha and draws in the space between the pelvic bones and the navel (see Kino’s recent video on forward bends for more details on this drawing-in movement), one creates space; space which we can then use to help draw the lower body closer to the upper body. Once we learn how to engage the bandhas in this way, we discover that having big arms has absolutely nothing to do with arm balancing. It’s really all about finding space and using it effectively. And the process involved in engaging the bandhas and creating this space is an intensely mindful process that involves paying close attention to how we mindfully direct our breath to create the space that we need in order to achieve the results that we want.

It is in this way that the practice progressively reveals to us the intimate connection between the physical, mental and spiritual layers of our being, and that deeply accessing one layer brings about powerful effects in the other layers. The connection may not be apparent to a casual observer, but once felt, its reality and immediacy cannot be denied. And once we feel and understand this connection, we can also apply this insight to our lives off the mat. We begin to see that living well and being effective in this world is not a matter of having huge amounts of time and money; rather, it is a matter of being able to devote the time and resources that we do have towards things that really matter. And the practice helps us to progressively develop the ability to see what these things are.       

Nobel to the rest of the blogosphere: Test post

"Art is the expression of the self. The more complicated and restricted the method, the less the opportunity for expression of one's original sense of freedom. Though they play an important role in the early stage, the techniques should not be too mechanical, complex or restrictive. If we cling blindly to them, we shall eventually become bound by their limitations. Remember, you are expressing the techniques and not doing the techniques. If somebody attacks you, your response is not Technique No.1, Stance No. 2, Section 4, Paragraph 5. Instead you simply move in like sound and echo, without any deliberation. It is as though when I call you, you answer me, or when I throw you something, you catch it. It's as simple as that - no fuss, no mess."

Bruce Lee

This is a test post: I'm back! Wow, this blogger outage has taught me how much blogging is a part of my life: My life for the last 24 hours or so has felt quite... different without blogging. Moreover, I know many of you out there only through blogging. Imagine if the blogosphere were to be down forever (knock on wood...)... I would lose touch with many of you out there.

Anyway, I'm back, as are all of you. I posted this pretty cool Youtube video of Vladimir Horowitz playing Schumann's Traumerei on the piano. I'm not going to re-post it. I'll just wait for the blogger people to restore it. Enjoy it when it comes back on.

In the meantime, have fun with that Bruce Lee quote. Why did I post a quote from Bruce Lee? Because he's cool! I'm actually a big Bruce Lee fan. I'm going to write a post some day about Bruce Lee and yoga. I also read this comment somewhere on the blogosphere by somebody who said that she didn't know Bruce Lee had quotes! Gee, did you think Bruce Lee was just a mindless kungfu machine? I'm not offended; I just think that, since I'm a Bruce Lee fan, I have a responsibility to set the record straight :-)

I have some more substantial posts coming soon. For now, I'm just happy to be back in the blogosphere, wrecking more havoc :-) 

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Schumann's "Traumerei", played by Vladimir Horowitz

It's been a really long time since I heard music that literally stops the flow of time. If you can, take a couple of minutes (it's only 2 minutes and 29 seconds, and it's totally worth it; trust me...), stop what you are doing, sit down in a quiet space, and listen to this. It'll change your day.

P.S. I wouldn't recommend doing your practice to this music, though. It might bring up some powerful emotions, and you might injure yourself. Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Kino on forward bends, and how I can finally see myself practicing on video

Below a Youtube video of part of Kino's recent workshop in Richmond, Virginia, which I attended. It is a short clip of the first part of her Sunday afternoon session on hip-openers and hamstrings. She gives a really good explanation of how to engage the bandhas and ground through the feet to bring yourself deeper into forward bends. I was in the audience, somewhere to her right (like you care, right?).

Anyway, this video was filmed by the people at iHanuman. The video of this full two-hour session, as well as videos of the Saturday morning mysore session and the Saturday afternoon lecture on the Yoga Sutra at the workshop, will all be available for download on iHanuman's Digital Download Store sometime this summer. Can you tell that I'm really excited about it? Why? Because I just realized that I have actually never seen myself practice on video before! I know, shocking right? In this day and age, where practically everyone in the blogosphere has videos of themselves practicing.

Anyway, I think I'm going to have to purchase those videos when they come out, just so I can finally see myself practicing. But enough of my rambling. Here's Kino on forward bends. Enjoy!


Fear, anxiety, and backbends

Intense backbends can induce fear, anxiety and claustrophobia (among other things) in the yoga practitioner. Why do they do this? There are a probably a whole bunch of complex physiological and biological explanations for this; but from my very non-expert point of view, I believe that these reactions are closely linked to the fact that in backbending, we are asking the body to do something that it does not normally do in the course of daily life. In so doing, we are accessing certain muscles (some of which we may not even previously know existed) and moving particular joints in ways that they may not be accustomed to. Furthermore, in certain kinds of backbends such as dropbacks, we are also relying on these muscles and joints to do the work that we need them to do in order to support us in the passage through uncharted space, and bring us safely to the "other side" (i.e. landing on our hands, as opposed to on our heads). Since one cannot do all these things to one's body without also doing things to one's mind, anxiety, fear and claustrophobia would naturally be the mental correlates of this physical movement into unfamiliar territory.

So how can we safely and effectively navigate this fear-inducing domain of intense backbending? I just read something by Kino that may be useful in this regard. She writes:

"During the process of opening your spine, hips and shoulders in backbending, some common negative emotions are fear, anxiety, sadness, claustrophobia, suffocation, and anger. Some common positive sensations are joy, happiness, trust, release, surrender, peace, heightened energy flow and true power. One of the first lessons along the spiritual path is that when you’re confronted with life’s greatest challenges, you must learn to stay where you are and not run away. Yoga Sutra 2.1 defines Tapas as accepting pain as help for purification. You only purify yourself when you stand directly in the fire and choose a new path over escapism, denial and running away. It’s a powerful choice to stay amidst the intense fear that pain in any of your joints evokes.

This is of course not to say that you must power through and push past all your feelings of pain and anguish. Instead the process of accepting your experience of pain in postures like backbending is more about learning simply not to run away and to listen. Often what created the pain in the first place is a kind of fight with reality. The path of yoga teaches you to release your inner resistance. When confronted with intense pain that makes you want to get out quickly, the best remedy is simply to take one more breath. This will give you a pause between the stimulus of pain and the automatic reaction to run away. If you try to hammer harder or grit your teeth and bear it, you’re not actually accepting the pain. Instead when you resist and fight pain, you’re only pushing against it to try to get it to change. If you run away from an experience, you literally move away from it in fear. Life contains suffering and when you come face to face with it the only choice is to accept it, surrender to it and allow it to teach you one breathe at a time.

You cannot change your emotions, your thoughts or your physicality like a light switch. You cannot go from a stiff spine to a flexible one overnight. Yoga teaches you to accept reality as it is first and then in that state of acceptance see what change is possible. Working with healthy alignment, qualified teachers and time-honored methods, you have the power to change your reality breath by breath, day by day and year by year with your slow, steady perseverance over a lifetime. Perhaps the greatest gift of this practice is the chance every day to know just a little more peace."

I hope this might be helpful to some of you out there. You can read Kino's entire article here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What is the place of fear in the practice?

This post is inspired by Claudia's latest post about fear and its effects on the practice. Claudia writes:

"Although I know I can probably come down from a headstand, for some reason I have not attempted it... I call it " lack of time, it does not go here in the series, it could hurt me, may bring bad karma to jump around" and other, pretty silly excuses...

This leaves me wondering about how much my mind gets on the way of my legs going behind my head for example, or me dropping back from standing, which is totally within the confines of primary series and where my mind can come with no further excuses...

"just do it" , yeah, I have tried that, not happening...

I have resorted back to "it is what it is and it will come when it might" ...

I am also not buying that anymore...

Am I falling asleep here? What is it I need to understand?"

Perhaps many of us can relate to this. There is very often in our practice a particular posture, sensation or body part that brings up particularly strong feelings of fear or anxiety; feelings that our rational minds try to rationalize by presenting us with excuses not to attempt the posture.

What should we do about this troublesome thing called fear, this raw feeling that seems to pop up at the most inconvenient places in our practice, and which prevents us from being the "best" yogis/yoginis we can be?

As usual, I'll venture to give my own answer here. I believe that fear is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe that in most circumstances in life (including during yoga practice) fear can be a useful thing to have, if one is able to condition oneself to experience the fear appropriately and to react to it in a way that is appropriate and productive. In this regard, I think we might be able to learn something useful from somebody who lived a couple of thousand years ago. According to Aristotle, 

"...it is in the nature of things to be destroyed by defect and excess, as we see in the case of strength and of health... both excessive and defective exercise destroys the strength, and similarly drink or food which is above or below a certain amount destroys the health, while that which is proportionate both produces and increases and preserves it. So too is it, then, in the case of temperance and courage and all the other virtues. For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash..." (Nicomachean Ethics, translated by W.D. Ross)

According to Aristotle, if one is to be courageous and to live well, one must constantly navigate a path between extremes: One must not be fearful of and run away from everything; but one must also not be rash, and uncritically and blindly meet every danger. The thing to do is to condition oneself to use fear as a sort of "emotional radar" to alert oneself to the dangers before one, and take the appropriate action.

Does all this talk of being courageous and taking one's stand and not meeting every danger have anything to do with our practice? One might ask. In my opinion, yes. I have come to realize in the last few years that to do the practice is to constantly navigate a path between extremes. To get the most out of one's practice, one must not be so fearful that one "runs away from" and not attempt things just because they seem new to one's experience or frightening or unsettling. I think many Ashtangis would agree with this. After all, Guruji famously says, "Why fear?" (Or is it "Why fearing, you?")

But what about the other extreme? Are there dangers in one's practice that one should not rush into? I think so. In order to illustrate my point, let's think about something I am very familiar with: Injury. I recently came across this very insightful quote by the Iyengar teacher Julie Gudmestad:

"...as you or your student look at building or rebuilding a yoga practice after an injury, it's important to be honest and present with how you deal with pain. It's rarely appropriate, while working with an injured joint, to "push through the pain" unless you are under the guidance of a trained professional. Instead, work at the point where you have significant sensation of stretch, or even discomfort—if you don't push a little into the scary place, you won't make any progress—but not so far into discomfort that you generate resistance in your body or mind. Holding the breath is a sure sign of resistance, as is the tightening and guarding of muscles trying to protect themselves from injury during an overaggressive stretch." (Quote taken from this blog)

According to Gudmestad (and according to my personal experience of working with injury), skilfully working with injury involves navigating a path between extremes: If one does not work the "scary" joint or muscle that is injured, one makes no progress towards healing. But if one pushes too much, to the point of holding one's breath or tightening one's muscles, one risks aggravating the injury.

But what has all this talk about navigating between extremes to do with fear in our practice? I think that just as fear in our daily lives can serve as a warning of possible dangers in our environment, a feeling of fear in the practice can also serve as an alert signal that tells us that we are moving into very unfamiliar territory, that we should be mindful and be alert to possible dangers and pitfalls. If we "overreact" and run away from that which is unfamiliar and which brings up the feeling, we lose the opportunity to navigate the situation/posture/whatever skilfully. If we simply rush headlong into the situation/posture/whatever without paying attention to what we are feeling and experiencing, we open ourselves up to unpleasant consequences like injury or unnecessary pain. The path between these two extremes lies in staying with the breath and listening to every sensation that comes up, and using these sensations to ask ourselves questions and make decisions moment by moment as we are in the situation/posture/whatever: Is this sensation a "good" pain or a "bad" pain? What can I do to reduce the sensation, if it is a bad pain? What does my quick breathing here signify? Why do I have tightness in my facial muscles? Do I need to change the way I do this part of the posture? Notice that if we are in either of the two extremes (running away or rushing headlong and not feeling anything), we simply will not be in the position to ask ourselves these questions.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fargo-Moorhead Little Ashtanga Community report, teaching faux pas, suggestions needed

"The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Hmm... I sometimes wonder if our practice is also like that. You go to bed at night. When you wake up in the morning, your mind/body feels tight and stiff, and you do the practice to "rebuild" your mind/body back up before breakfast... Uh, okay, maybe some of us practice in the afternoon/evening, so this doesn't apply. Never mind. Forget I said any of this. I try too hard to be clever sometimes; besides, what do I know about being married?

On to the actual topic of this post. Yesterday afternoon, I met with two friends to do some Ashtanga again. We met at my friend D's place in Fargo, ND (you might remember D from this post). D, as you might recall, is not very flexible; he had to bend his knees till his heels touched his butt in order to get into dve position in Surya A. I decided to get D to try V's suggestion. V's suggestion was to:

"have him bend his knees a bit and place his hands on his knees or shins, for Dve. Then for trini he looks up and for chatvari he can do the squat before stepping back."

I started by demonstrating this to D. I placed my hands on my knees. And then, from there, I exhaled all the way and bent my knees till my hands touched the ground, and stepped my feet straight back into chatvari position. Which means that I totally forgot about trini! How did that happen? Well, for instructional purposes, we did the Suryas without the Sanskrit vinyasa count; they were so new to the practice, and I had so many instructions to give about even the most basic of things, such as how to get into downward dog, that bringing in the Sanskrit count only served to make things more complicated for them. I intend to bring in the Sanskrit count later, when they are more familiar with the movements. But the trouble with me, as I discovered yesterday, is that I rely so much on the Sanskrit count myself in going through the Suryas (I count to myself in my head when I do my practice in the morning) that when I have to teach without the Sanskrit count, I mess up the order. So I basically demonstrated (and had D do) Surya A with this super-long exhalation, starting from bending forward into forward bend (i.e. dve position) all the way to chatvari. And I didn't even realize my error till we were done with Surya A, and were doing Surya B! What a faux pas. I guess this shows that I am an auditory learner, since I can't seem to keep track of the order of the postures in the Suryas without mentally reciting the vinyasa count to myself.

Surya B was interesting too, in a different way. On the spur of the moment, I decided to try to keep the pace of Surya B going. So I told both my friends/students that we were just going to go through all 5 Surya Bs without stopping, and that if they get tired at any point, they can just go into Child's pose and rejoin the flow when they feel ready. D had to go into Child's pose after two Surya Bs. He stayed in Child's pose for the duration of the entire third Surya B, and rejoined us for the last two Surya Bs. I thought that was a really good effort on his part.

During the course of doing the Surya Bs, I noticed that D had a tendency to turn his wrists inward during the transition from chaturanga to updog, so that in updog, all his fingers are pointing inward. I'm not entirely sure what the reason for this is, but I suspect that he does this in order to try to compensate for a lack of upper body strength; perhaps for him, turning the wrists in somehow makes pushing up into updog easier, at least psychologically.

I brought this to his attention, and demonstrated how the hands are supposed to stay flat and stationary throughout the whole vinyasa. I explained that moving the hands during the vinyasa results in uneven pressure and strain on the wrists. I think he understood what I was saying, although I also think that, realistically speaking, it's probably going to take him a bit of time to change this movement habit (as we all do with our movement habits). Any of you have any suggestions about how to minimize any possible damage to his wrists in the meantime? I have already suggested to him to come down onto his knees in chaturanga, and he is already doing that.

At the end of the practice (as with the previous two sessions, all we did were five Surya As and five Surya Bs), D got up early from Savasana and started walking around the house before rejoining us for the closing namaste. I was really a bit worried that the pace of the Surya Bs might have been too fast for him, and he was feeling restless and/or discouraged. But I met D over lunch today, and he told me that he really thinks that the practice is beneficial for him. He said that after the last two sessions, his usual desire to overeat and indulge in junk food became a lot less strong, and he noticed that he tends to eat healthier for the rest of the day after these two sessions. Isn't this cool? I think this is immediate proof that the practice changes us from the inside out. He also told me that he has found a couple of videos of Surya A and B by Luke Jordan (anybody knows who he is?) on Youtube, and has started doing the Suryas with these videos in the morning.

This is really neat. I can feel that very, very slowly, one new practitioner at a time, the practice is starting to take root here in Fargo-Moorhead.