Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Homeward Bound (?)

Do I know the way home?
Am I homeward bound?
Where is home, anyway?
A place on a map?
A certain point in time?
A state of mind?
Some barely emoted emotion?
Some barely dreamed-about dream?
All of these?
None of the above?
Who knows?

I look around the train
At familiar faces that have turned unfamiliar;
I look out the train
At station names that have changed beyond recall,
At a route that has altered beyond recognition.
Where is this taking me?
Or am I not supposed to be here
In the first place?

A little neither-here-nor-there yoga story

Once upon a time, there was a woman named Okin Carmegorg. She lived in a big city where she went to school. She worked out regularly at a gym. At the gym, she learnt about these classes they were offering called yoga classes. She had no prior experience with this thing called yoga, but she found the sight of people standing on their heads fascinating. So Okin decided to sign up for yoga. After a few classes, she decided that she liked yoga, so she started taking classes at a yoga studio.

The studio she went to specialized in this particular style of yoga called Gatashan yoga. Now, Gatashan is a very physically rigorous and demanding form of yoga involving a set sequence of postures linked together by a very specific number of breaths. Now Okin was somewhat flexible, but she wasn't particularly physically strong. As a result, she really struggled with the postures that required her to balance her body weight on her arms. Indeed, a few of her (male) teachers actually told her that she would never be able to stand on her arms in this lifetime.

Nevertheless, Okin was undaunted, and kept working on her practice. She also went to India, the birthplace of Gatashan yoga, and studied with the Guru of this tradition. After a few years, the Guru authorized her to teach this system. After another few years, she became a certified teacher.

Wanting to bring this yoga to more people, she opened a studio in this place called Imami Beach. Many people took up the practice, and experienced many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits. And then she realized that she would be able to reach out to more people--people who otherwise wouldn't be able to meet or practice with her regularly--if she made instructional videos that were easily available online on YouTube. In an attempt to reach tweens and other individuals of the non-yoga crowd, she also made this video called "Yoga Girls of Imami Beach." That video wasn't so well-received, but she didn't let that bother her, and instead went on to make more instructional and practice videos. And many people (including the author of this neither-here-nor-there story) benefited from the clear instruction in these videos.

Meanwhile, there existed a group of individuals called bloggers. There are many ways to describe bloggers, but it probably wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to say that bloggers are basically individuals whose minds are so active and chattering that they couldn't keep the contents of their chattering minds to themselves. So what do they do? Well, they blog! Needless to say, the exploits of Okin Carmegorg did not escape the attention of these bloggers with their ceaselessly chattering minds. These bloggers formed many differing and conflicting opinions about the actions of Okin, especially the "Yoga Girls of Imami Beach" video. Some bloggers also formed this curious habit of fixating on the fact that Okin has this curious habit of teaching and practicing in short shorts and tube tops. (Which is more curious, teaching and practicing in short shorts and tube tops, or fixating on teaching and practicing in short shorts and tube tops? Well, this is a hard one...) In any case, the bloggers formed many diverse and conflicting views on Okin's actions. Some thought that she was a good teacher whose actions and intentions were misunderstood. Some thought that she was a good teacher who had sold out and commercialized herself and the tradition which she purported to represent. Some thought she had a super-big ego, which was, of course, a very unyogic thing to have in yogic circles. Yet others were undecided.

In the meantime, Okin continued to do her thing, bloggers continued to blog their blogs, waves continued to rise and fall in the oceans, and the sun and the planets continued to move in their assigned orbits.

Isn't this a very silly neither-here-nor-there story? :-)     

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Practice report, cranky computer, ontological argument for the existence of God

First, a little practice report. I did second only up to Karandavasana today. So it appears that I have gotten my Karandavasana muscles back (after yesterday's less than stellar "performance"; see previous post for more details): I landed the duck on my first attempt! Coming back up still seems very far away. After being on my upper arms for five breaths, I tried with all my might to lift up, and my knees lifted off by, maybe, half a millimeter? And then my strength gave out, and I had to simply come down into padmasana. I think coming back up has lots to do with landing the knees closer to the armpits; I have the feeling that one gets more leverage that way. Will keep trying.

A very strange thing has been happening with my laptop at work. From time to time, it would take the longest time to start up. But whenever I bring it in to the campus IT office for the IT people to look at it, it would work perfectly fine! It happened again this afternoon. I brought my once-again-slow-to-start laptop in to IT, and it worked perfectly fine once I tried to get it to repeat the problem there. Which is starting to make me look very silly, since this was already the third time I brought it in! I'm starting to believe that computers are like cranky pets; they act up when they want you to take them out for a walk.

Anyway, because of my computer issues, I had to prepare and teach my classes today the old-school way, i.e. using the chalkboard. Which is a very interesting experience. On the one hand, I didn't particularly enjoy getting chalk all over my hands, or the sound of chalk scraping the blackboard (yeah, that sound really disturbs me...). On the other hand, however, there is just something almost magical about writing things out physically; it's almost as if the act of writing physically reinforces certain grooves (samskaras?) of knowledge in one's brain, and causes knowledge to sink deeper into the grooves of consciousness. I also had the feeling that my students paid more attention when they had to read and follow words that are written on a physical surface in real time, than if they simply passively stared at words on a projector screen. Sometimes, I think that less technology makes for more learning ;-)

In any case, in my Introduction to Western Philosophy course today, we discussed St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for the Existence of God. Here's my formulation of his argument:

1. Things that exist in reality are greater than things that exist only in the understanding.

2. A non-believer in God (a "fool") understands what is meant by the phrase "a being than which none greater can be thought."

3. For the fool, a being than which none greater can be thought exists only in the understanding (since he does not believe that such a being exists in reality).

4. But if a being than which none greater can be thought exists only in the understanding, then it is possible that there exists a being which is greater than such a being (i.e. a being than which none greater can be thought, which exists in reality, and not just in the understanding).

5. Therefore, if a being than which none greater can be thought exists only in the understanding, then such a being would be at the same time a being than which none greater can be thought, and also not a being than which none greater can be thought.

6. But this is absurd, for something cannot both be and not be a being than which none greater can be thought.

7. Therefore, the fool is wrong: a being than which none greater can be thought cannot exist only in the understanding.

8. Therefore, a being than which none greater can be thought has to exist not just in the understanding, but in reality as well.

9. God is the being than which none greater can be thought.

10. Therefore, God exists.

I don't know what you think of this argument, but we had a lot of fun in class putting this argument together, taking it apart, and thinking through its implications. Perhaps if you have a spare moment, this might also be a fun argument for you to contemplate :-)  

Monday, August 29, 2011

Practice report, a little meditation on humor

First, a little practice report. I wanted to do the "full schlep" (full primary and second to Karandavasana) this morning, as I felt that doing this would set a strong tone and really build up my stamina for the rest of the practice week. But there simply wasn't time: I had a meeting at work at 9 a.m. So I simply did second only up to Karandavasana.

Gosh, two days of not doing Karandavasana certainly has made this posture "rusty" for me. I did four attempts at the posture: The first three times, I got into Pincha Mayurasana, got my legs into Padmasana, and then crashed to the mat when I tried to lower the lotus onto my upper arms. It was only on the fourth attempt that I was barely able to land the duck. And even then, it was shaky, and my lotus was probably only a few millimeters from my elbows. Oh well... better luck next time, maybe?


At work this morning, somebody made a wisecrack about Hurricane Irene. He expressed disappointment that Irene did not turn out to be a larger disaster for the country, as a larger disaster might just destroy enough infrastructure to force the US government to finally rebuild and overhaul our antiquated infrastructure. Everybody chuckled or smirked. Hmm... I think it is only in an academic setting that people can find such jokes funny. I can easily think of many settings where I wouldn't even think of making such a joke.

But this whole thing really got me thinking about the role of humor in our lives. The different forms it can take (slapstick, dry, dark, deadpan, Woody-Allen-style, self-deprecatory, etc.) and the appropriateness of these various forms in different social or professional settings. Under what circumstances can humor be helpful as a mode of communication, or even in getting certain points across that would otherwise come across as awkward or forced in any other delivery mode? Humor often also has an important role in communicating spiritual insights as well. As Nathan over at Dangerous Harvests recently observed, spiritual humor, if done well, has the power to succinctly and clearly bring out profound insights, in a way that a long essay or blog post cannot accomplish. But humor is a double-edged sword: If executed poorly or in an inappropriate setting, it can backfire and make one look really, really bad, as the recent Elephant Journal yoga video fiasco amply demonstrates (I'm not going to link to it here, if you know what I'm talking about, you know what I'm talking about...).

Perhaps more insidiously, the kind of humor that is being exhibited in a particular place is a sort of gauge of the kind of socio-political environment one is in. For example, the person who made the wisecrack at work this morning obviously gauged (correctly) that the socio-political sensibilities of his audience were such that they would laugh (or at least not be unduly offended) at his joke. More generally, I believe that it is no exaggeration to say that when you are in unfamiliar company, one of the first things that can cue you in to the kind of crowd you are with is the flavor of the jokes they are making: Yes, you can tell what kind of person someone is by the jokes he/she tells and/or laughs at.

Which makes the whole Elephant Journal yoga video fiasco all the more interesting. I really wasn't intending to comment on this fiasco when I started writing this post, but the funny thing is, blog posts often have a life of their own; I started out intending to just write a short blurb about my practice and a little observation about my day, and look where I am! (Gosh, I can't even remember the last time I wrote a short post...)

Anyway, about the Elephant Journal fiasco: I think it is an interesting mirror of the self-conception (or lack thereof) of the publication as a whole. I mean, first, somebody who contributes to EJ obviously saw the video somewhere, and gauged the socio-political climate over at EJ to be such that it would be well-received. So he or she decided to post it on EJ. He or she was probably thinking that people would get a good laugh at it, and that would be that.

Boy, was he/she wrong. Well, some people (including, quite notably, the chief editor of EJ) did seem to have a good laugh at it. But others were not so amused. Yet others (including, I believe, many who were regular subscribers or readers of EJ up to that point) were upset. Which indicates that the person who originally posted it had a very different socio-political sensibility from many readers of EJ. If we compare EJ to a person, and you can tell the kind of person someone is by the jokes he or she tells and/or laughs at, then, well, given the kinds of jokes that a sizeable portion of the editorial team and writers at EJ do laugh at (and at least think would be funny to their readers), then maybe we can tell what kind of a publication EJ is by the jokes that get posted there? Or not... I don't know. I ask questions for a living, I don't pretend to have answers. Feel free to draw your own conclusions ;-)  

Friday, August 26, 2011

The practice, questions and answers

"I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don't hate anything."

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell

As I read these words from Rilke, I was struck by how aptly they describe the practice. Many of us are conditioned from a young age to try to know the answers to all questions. I guess this probably begins in elementary school, where one is expected to know everything that is in the lesson for that particular day, so as to be ready to spout out the answer when called upon by the teacher. I can't help feeling that this mindset carries over into the rest of our lives, where we are supposed to know what to say or do in any situation that we are in at work, or with our friends or family: We tacitly assume that there is some kind of guide book for everything in life which tells us the right answers, and the right things to do or say all the time.

In many ways, the practice turns this mindset on its head. Sure, there is a set sequence of postures, and we have teachers who can guide us and advise us on the most productive ways to approach different aspects of the practice, based on their experience. But ultimately, our practice is our own, and the journey is one that we can only experience on our own. This is especially true when difficulties arise in the practice. When injuries, life changes or medical conditions make it necessary for us to modify our practice, for example, the question "How/what is the best way to go about the practice right now?" is a question that we have to face on our own every single moment, and the answer is not always easy or readily forthcoming. Very often, a fair amount of working with different approaches to the issue and adjusting one's own life and/or practice is needed, and the specific answer that is best suited to one's own situation can only arise after a lot of honest reflection and creative struggle. Sometimes, the best answer may take months or even years to emerge. Perhaps the thing to do, then, is to live as fully as possible in the process of questioning. Try our best to find the answer today, but do not be too disappointed if no answer arises today. Then get up tomorrow, and try again. And again the day after. And perhaps one might just come to enjoy the process of continual questioning. And the answer, when it comes, might very well flow unnoticed into the deepest parts of one's life, so that one unknowingly comes to live the answer for which one is searching. As always, do your practice, and all is coming.     

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Aesthetic experience and the yoga practice

This post is part of an ongoing series of posts that I just started about yoga and philosophy of art. I have discovered from my previous post on this topic that there are interesting parallels as well as differences between yoga and art. Because of this, I think it is worthwhile to continue blogging on this topic (I also got some interesting comments on my previous post, which really encouraged me to keep thinking and blogging about this :-)). Moreover, with the beginning of the school year, time is tighter, which means there is less time for blogging. So it is very useful for me to be able to find ways to bring my academic work and my blogging together.

So, in my philosophy of art class today, we discussed Monroe Beardsley's views on what an artwork is. For Beardsley, an artwork is "something produced with the intention of giving it the capacity to satisfy the aesthetic interest." One has an aesthetic interest in something if one receives (i.e. views, listens to, contemplates, apprehends, watches, reads, thinks about, peruses, etc.) something with the intention of obtaining aesthetic experience. 

Which brings us to the question: What is aesthetic experience? According to Beardsley, aesthetic experience is experience that is characterized by "a sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing received, an intense affect that is nevertheless detached from practical ends, the exhilarating sense of exercising powers of discovery, integration of the self and its experiences."

Hmm.... all this is a bit abstract. To make this a little more concrete, suppose you are contemplating a painting by Vermeer, say, Girl with a Pearl Earring

Girl with a Pearl Earring
[Image taken from here]

In contemplating this painting, one might pay attention to and appreciate the contrast of light and dark in the painting, the subdued colors that are chosen for the clothing the girl wears, as well as the choice of a black background, all of which serve to highlight the face and the intimacy of her gaze. In contemplating the play and effects of these formal qualities, one gets transported into the world of the painting, and achieves a temporary "sense of freedom from concern about matters outside the thing", and becomes temporarily detached from whatever practical concerns one may have. And yet, at the same time, such a detachment from practical concern, rather than leading to a sense of fragmentation, actually leads one to feel more in control of one's powers of discernment and discovery, and leads to a feeling of integration with something bigger than one's mundane self and mundane concerns. 

Where is the yoga in all of this? Well, if one were to adopt a very liberal understanding of yoga, and simply understand yoga in terms of "union of mind and body with something that is greater than oneself", then one might say that being fully absorbed in the aesthetic contemplation of a painting is a yogic experience.
But here's another interpretation. In a comment on my previous post on this topic of art, Ellie made the following suggestion about the relationship between the asana practice, the yoga practitioner, and art:

 'if in art there is an artist and an audience, and going with my supposition that yoga is an art, then perhaps the "artist" is not the practitioner but the yoga itself, and the audience is the practitioner. The "art" of yoga draws out the emotions from the practitioner that need to be released.'

I think her suggestion fits very well with Beardsley's view of what aesthetic experience is. The idea, as I understand it, is that the yoga practice draws out the emotions in the practitioner that need to be drawn out and "processed". As a result of such "emotional processing", the yoga practitioner comes to experience a sense of freedom from matters outside the practice, and experiences a certain detachment from practical concerns. Such detachment, paradoxically, leads the practitioner to feel more in control of herself, and more in touch and integrated with something greater than herself, in much the same way in which the contemplator of a painting might feel a similar sense of integration.

Of course, I suppose one difference between contemplating a painting and asana practice is that in asana practice, a much greater amount of physical effort needs to be expended in order to arrive at that feeling of integration, compared to the amount of physical effort required in contemplating and appreciating a painting. And it may be quite difficult to imagine how challenging asanas (like, for example, Kapotasana) can ever have this integrating effect. But perhaps the more accomplished one becomes at working with a particular asana, the more one will be able to feel this integrating effect, so that perhaps, one day, doing Karandavasana will come to feel as integrating and empowering as contemplating and appreciating a painting. When will this happen? I don't know. As Guruji would say, "Do your practice, and all is coming..." 

Anyway, just some thoughts here. I hope you had fun reading this :-)      

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yoga certifications, consumer demand, and the will to systematize: A little analysis of a phenomenon in the yoga community

"I mistrust all systemizers and avoid them; the will to systematize is a lack of integrity."

Friedrich Nietzsche

I have been reading with great interest Claudia's recent post on yoga therapy. In her post, she voices her concerns about the increasingly high costs of yoga therapist training, and the increasing amount of government enforcement and licensing of yoga therapists. She sums up her concerns very nicely when she writes:

'my fear is that it [the International Association of Yoga Therapists] could turn out to create rules so that for anyone to do yoga therapy, he or she would have to go into a university program that would charge 30K/year which, at least in the United States, where the cost of college has risen 10% higher than inflation since 1977, seems to be the standard for "specialty qualifications".'

I greatly sympathize with Claudia's concerns. In my opinion, this noticeable trend towards greater formal professional specialization in yoga therapy (and the accompanying rise in costs and the creation of a rigid hierarchical structure) has a lot in common with the parallel trend towards a greater emphasis on formal certification among yoga teachers in the fitness and wellness industries. In both cases, there seems to be a movement towards greater emphasis on creating a systematic structure of certified recognition of individuals who work in these areas. The worry that Claudia and many others (including me) have is that this greater emphasis on system and structure may create a situation in which people will come to see certification as the be-all and end-all of becoming a yoga therapist or yoga teacher. Inadvertently, this may also eventually result in the formation of a hierarchy in which those who lack these certifications are automatically seem as less qualified or inadequate to teach or practice yoga therapy, whereas those who have these certifications will automatically be seen as qualified or competent, regardless of their actual level of skill or experience.

I do not have any solutions to this quandary (if I do, I will be out there doing something about this, and not just sitting here blogging :-)). But I would like to offer a little analysis of this issue, and hopefully, say something illuminating in so doing. In my opinion, there are two factors that have contributed to this quandary:

(1) The demand for some form of formal certification on the part of the general public: Having lived in this country for 10 years, I observe that American consumers love formal certification and recognition. I suspect that this is probably true of all developed/industrialized countries, but I generally try as far as possible to speak only from experience, and since I have lived in this one industrialized country for the last ten years, I'll limit my claims to this country. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing to love. If you are shopping for organic food, for example, you would want to have some kind of guarantee that the food you are buying is indeed organic, and you may not have the time or the resources to actually physically track the food from the place where it was grown all the way to the grocery store. The "USDA Certified Organic" label comes in handy here: It serves as a guarantee given by a (hopefully) qualified agency that your food is indeed organically grown.

Here's another example: If you are new in town, and are looking for a mechanic to do some work on your car, you would also want to have some kind of guarantee that the mechanic possesses a certain level of competence in working with cars. Hence finding an ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified mechanic is usually a good place to start: All other things being equal, the ASE certification serves as a guarantee given by a (again, hopefully) qualified agency that the mechanic you are dealing with has the expertise to competently work with your car.

I can go on and multiply examples infinitely, but I think you get the picture (if you neither buy organic nor own a car, just invent an example on your own: I'm too lazy to come up with more examples :-)). Let us now shift our attention to the new yoga student (the "consumer" of yoga, if you will) who is looking for a good yoga teacher to teach her yoga. She has heard much about the wonderful mind/body benefits of yoga, but knows nothing about yoga otherwise. Where is she to begin? If she is a typical American consumer, she will probably be thinking: Is there some kind of official guarantee that the yoga teacher/s I encounter will have the expertise to give me competent yoga instruction? If everything that she knows about yoga comes only from sports and fitness magazines or from "official" yoga publications like Yoga Journal, she will most likely come to the conclusion that only Yoga Alliance certified teachers have the expertise to give competent yoga instruction. I know this, because I have read more than one fitness magazine which explicitly tell the reader that in looking for a "good" yoga teacher, one should first ask to see the teacher's Yoga Alliance certification.

If you have been following the recent conversations in the blogosphere about yoga teacher trainings and certification, you will know the problems and issues in this area. So I won't rehash them here (if you haven't... well, at the risk of being very immodest, you can start by reading my recent post on this issue :-)). What I'm trying to say is that, for better or for worse, American consumers often use official certifications as their starting point for finding reliable goods (including "reliable" yoga teaching). And my theory is that Yoga Alliance stepped in to fill this demand on the part of the consumer. Of course, if you have practiced yoga for any length of time, you will know that yoga teaching is not a simple consumer product whose production can be monitored and/or quantified by such official mechanisms. But we can't blame the consumer for not knowing this. (Or can we? :-))

So far, I have only been talking about yoga teacher certification. But I am quite sure that the same issues also apply to yoga therapist certification. I'm too lazy to spell it out here (had a long day at work), but I think if you substitute "yoga therapist" for "yoga teacher" in everything I just said above, you will get what I am saying.      

(2) The will to systematize: As I just mentioned, Yoga Alliance stepped into the economic vacuum created by consumer demand for official certification. In order to create a credible (or at least credible-looking) certification system, the people who come up with the certification standards need to present these standards in the form of a coherent hierarchical system: Jump through such-and-such hoops, and you will be certified at the 200-hour level. Jump through another set of hoops, and you will be certified at the 500-hour level. At this rate, I really won't be surprised if a few years down the road, we have a new level in the structure (Jump through such-and-such hoops, and you will be certified at the 1000-hour level...).

The trouble is that people who are good are jumping through Yoga Teacher certification hoops aren't necessarily good yoga teachers (again, the reasons for this are many, and have been treated at great length in recent blogosphere discussions, so I won't rehash them here). The trouble, also, is that like many of the people on the board of directors of the IAYT (as Claudia pointed out in her post), many of the people who are on the board of directors of Yoga Alliance have the words "PhD", "M.D." and "MSW" after their names. Don't get me wrong; there is nothing inherently wrong with having these titles after your name (I, for one, have the words "PhD" after my name in my professional capacity). But as somebody who actually has one of these titles after my name, I feel that I am in a position to point out a couple of tendencies that people with such titles tend to manifest:

(i) People with such titles have a penchant for creating systems and systematizing: I'm not saying that all such people have such a penchant. But in general, higher education in this country trains its graduates to put things neatly into categories and present them to the hoi polloi in a way that may or may not make sense to them (if it makes sense, great; if it doesn't... well, that's why they're the hoi polloi, right?). Hmm... I'm letting my cynical streak get the better of me again. But in any case, categorizing and systematizing isn't always a bad thing: I think a lot can be said for the presence of clear standards in many facets of our contemporary society. However, the danger arises when one tries to systematize a millenia-old body of knowledge like yoga, and attempt to quantify its various aspects into neat categories of one's own devising. In so doing, one runs the risk of watering down and possibly even distorting the integrity of this body of knowledge; I can't help feeling that this might be what Nietzsche had in mind when he says that "the will to systematize is a lack of integrity"... (I'm just speculating here, don't quote me on this; I'm no Nietzsche scholar.) 

(ii) The public in general tends to trust people with such titles after their names, whether or not these titles are actually relevant to what it is that they are purporting to do: In order to ascertain the truth of this claim, all you have to do is to go take a look at the credentials of the people who are on the board of directors of both YA and IAYT, and ask yourself whether their titles actually make them good certifiers of yoga teachers and therapists. Make your own judgment. I shall say no more in this regard.

But I do have a personal story to share. Years ago, when I was still in grad school, a fellow grad student who knew that I was a yoga teacher (he didn't know, of course, that I was actually a yoga teaching charlatan) told me half-jokingly over a few beers that if I couldn't succeed in getting an academic position after I graduate, I can always teach yoga; all I have to do is make sure that I include the fact that I have a PhD in all my fliers and promotional materials, and I would definitely make it big in the yoga world. After all, he added, most people, upon seeing the words "PhD", would automatically assume that the individual in question is an "expert", even if whatever he has a PhD in has absolutely nothing to do with whatever he is trying to do or teach.

Of course, we all know that things are not quite so straightforward in the "real" world. But it's significant to note that my friend was only half-joking, i.e. he was probably joking about the part about making it big as a yoga teacher, but was dead serious about the fact that people tend to almost unquestioningly trust people with fancy titles after their names... Well, as usual, I'm just telling a story; feel free to draw your own moral from it.

Gosh, this is a long post... as always, thank you for reading all this, if you made it this far :-) As I said earlier, I don't have any solutions to this quandary of yoga certification. But as always, I love writing and talking about things. So if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you. 


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kapotasana, Art

This morning, when I was doing my practice, my fiancee came into the practice room when I was in Kapotasana. She said, "You look so beautiful in this pose!" (I hope this does not mean that I ONLY look beautiful in Kapotasana...). In any case, I was quite happy to hear that from her; in fact, come to think of it, I may even have stayed in the posture for a couple of breaths longer as a result of that compliment :-)

What happened this morning was a rare occurrence. Usually, by the time I get to Kapotasana, she is already out of the house. So most of my Kapotasanas are solitary Kapotasanas (philosophical question: Did Nobel really do Kapotasana if there was nobody around to see him do it? You know, as in "Did the tree really fall in the forest if nobody saw it fall?"). As are most of my Karandavasanas. Not that that is anything to write home about...

This is actually related to a question I have been pondering lately: Is yoga an art? My gut feeling is that it is an art, in the sense that the yoga practice involves a process in which the yogi allows his or her body, mind and spirit to be "sculpted" and changed by the practice.

But some thinkers may not agree with my view. Today, in my philosophy of art class, we discussed the views of R.G. Collingwood. Collingwood's view is that the primary role of art lies in the expression of emotion. The artist, in performing or displaying his work, seeks to use his performance medium (whether this is a musical performance, a novel, a poem, or a painting) as a vehicle through which to express certain emotions to his audience, evoking empathy and understanding on the part of the audience.

It seems to me that on Collingwood's view, yoga would not be art. In practicing yoga, the yogi does not seek to use whatever he or she is doing (whether it is asana, pranayama, or other actions) as vehicles to express emotions or to evoke empathy or understanding on the part of the onlooker, although this can sometimes happen (as it kind of did with me this morning). For the most part, yoga practice is an inward-looking solitary enterprise, in which the practitioner does what he or she does, whether or not anybody else notices or empathizes or understands what he or she is doing. At least, this is what I understand practice to be about.

Or maybe Collingwood's definition of art is simply too narrow. Maybe yoga is art in some sense after all, just not in the particular sense that Collingwood has in mind.

Well, this is just me recording my random thoughts and musings about things. If you have anything to add, I'll love to hear from you. If not, that's cool too. Thanks for reading :-)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Practice, Karandavasana, Solitude

Did the "whole schlep" this morning: Full primary, and second up to Karandavasana. Figured that I'm going to need all the yoga I can get, this being the first day of the semester, with all the anxiety and nervous energy that seems to infect everybody and everything on campus at the beginning of the semester.  Moreover, I actually have an evening class to teach today, so it's going to be a long day. All the more reason to squeeze in more practice in the morning.

Did some good work on Karandavasana this morning. Had to do two attempts, as the first attempt was a crash landing in Padmasana. The second attempt was much stronger. I paid more attention to the breath and bandhas, and succeeded in landing somewhat higher above the elbows than my last few Karandavasana attempts. I tried to lift back up after five breaths. I think I succeeded in lifting my knees an inch (or maybe half an inch) off my elbows before everything just gave, and I had to exit the posture by coming down into padmasana. Is this the beginning of my getting back up into Pincha Mayurasana, or is it just, well, a fluke? Only time can tell. We'll see how the next few days unfold.


Many storms have brewed (and are still brewing) in the blogosphere in the last week or so. They are about many diverse issues, many of whom I have little first-hand knowledge of. So I am not going to comment on them, at least for now. I'm just going to try to stick to writing about my own thoughts about my practice and my own experiences. I feel that times like this remind me of the fundamental purpose of yoga blogging: At least for me, yoga blogging is essentially an extension of my yoga practice in the "real" world, both on and off the mat. As such, I feel that a chief purpose of yoga blogging lies in bringing that feeling of oneness and mindful solitude that we gain from our practice on the mat, and doing our best to translate that feeling into words on a blog post. This, at least, is my vision of what yoga blogging is about; I suppose others may disagree. As such, whatever we would not do in our "real-life" practice on and off the mat, we would also not do in the blogosphere. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, but maybe things are not always so simple.

In any case, I guess I should stop sermonizing here. I'll like to share with you some words from Rilke which I feel really expresses the sort of state of being that we yogis aspire to:

"...there is only one solitude, and it is vast, heavy, difficult to bear, and almost everyone has hours when he would gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial or cheap, for the tiniest outward agreement with the first person who comes along, the most unworthy. But perhaps these are the very hours during which solitude grows; for its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But that must not confuse you. What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours - that is what you must be able to attain. To be solitary as you were when you were a child, when the grownups walked around involved with matters that seemed large and important because they looked so busy and because you didn't understand a thing about what they were doing.
And when you realize that their activities are shabby, that their vocations are petrified and no longer connected with life, why not then continue to look upon it all as a child would, as if you were looking at something unfamiliar, out of the depths of your own world, from the vastness of your own solitude, which is itself work and status and vocation? Why should you want to give up a child's wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are a participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from...

What is happening in your innermost self is worthy of your entire love; somehow you must find a way to work at it, and not lose too much time or too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people. Who says that you have any attitude at all? l know, your profession is hard and full of things that contradict you, and I foresaw your lament and knew that it would come. Now that it has come, there is nothing I can say to reassure you, I can only suggest that perhaps all professions are like that, filled with demands, filled with hostility toward the individual, saturated as it were with the hatred of those who find themselves mute and sullen in an insipid duty. The situation you must live in now is not more heavily burdened with conventions, prejudices, and false ideas than all the other situations, and if there are some that pretend to offer a greater freedom, there is nevertheless none that is, in itself, vast and spacious and connected to the important Things that the truest kind of life consists of. Only the individual who is solitary is placed under the deepest laws like a Thing, and when he walks out into the rising dawn or looks out into the event-filled evening and when he feels what is happening there, all situations drop from him as if from a dead man, though he stands in the midst of pure life."

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Old School or New Wave?

I did full primary this morning (Sunday is my rest day). After a few days of doing second only, primary feels "the stranger", as Grimmly recently put it. The sequence just didn't seem to come as naturally as it used to. At one point, I almost skipped a posture: I lay down immediately after Baddha Konasana, thinking that Supta Padangusthasana came after it! And speaking of Baddha Konasana, whatever hip muscles that are needed to bring my chest to the ground in that posture weren't as open as they used to be: I felt quite a bit of resistance as I went into the posture, and just barely managed to get my chin to the ground. Hmm... so I guess the muscles that are needed in order to get into a deep Baddha Konasana are different from those needed to put the leg behind the head in second series?

Hmm... I don't suppose you'd care for all these details about the current state of my practice, would you? Well, let's change the subject slightly to something that might hopefully interest you more. If you have been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I recently split my practice (i.e. started doing second series only, up to Karandavasana, in my case). I have also been posting quite a bit about my efforts in working with Karandavasana. In writing these posts, I have been working with the assumption that it is right and natural for an Ashtangi to split his or her practice once he or she has been given a certain number of postures in the second series (or whatever new series he or she is currently working on).

In a few comments on my previous post, Bindy offered a different perspective on this matter. She says that in the "old-school" way of learning Ashtanga, when she was learning the primary and second series, she had to do all of primary and second up to whatever posture she had been given at any given time; it was only after she had been given all the seven headstands in second that she was allowed by her teacher to do second only (I believe I am representing your views correctly thus far, Bindy. Please feel free to jump in if this is wrong :-)). Bindy also added that doing all of primary plus a substantial chunk of second has the advantage of building up one's stamina and preparing one for the rigors of daily second series practice. As someone who spent months doing all of primary and second up to Pincha Mayurasana, I definitely can see the merit of this view, especially the part about building stamina. I also think that all the forward bends and hip-openers in primary served as very good preparation for the leg-behind-head postures in second. Even now, I still do all of primary and second up to Karandavasana one or two days a week, and I can definitely feel the difference in hip-openness between these days and the days when I do second only.

But of course, as many of us know, these days, the standard practice--the "new wave", if you will--seems to be to split people somewhere between Dwi Pada Sirsasana and Karandavasana. At least, this has been my experience with all the teachers that I have studied with thus far. I suppose this is done for a couple of reasons. Perhaps the "old-school" way is simply too grueling and exhausting for most people. I also think that this has something to do with Sharath's recent statements that practice should not be longer than two hours at a time. The idea, I think, is that this practice is supposed to be a householder's practice, that most people who have jobs and families and lives and such simply cannot be expected to carve out 3.5 hours in a day (or more) to practice.

My purpose in writing this post is not to say that either the "old-school" or the "new wave" is better. As I mentioned, there are clear strengths to both approaches. I'm sure there are people out there who subscribe to either approach, and we should all do whatever works for us. But being the Ashtanga geek that I am ("Ashtangeek"?), I can't help musing about these things. So, I'm really not writing this post to take any position or make any particular point. But if you have any thoughts to share about this matter, I'll love to hear what you have to say.     

Friday, August 19, 2011

Intermediate as a series of psycho-somatic puzzles; the Return of the Yoga Teaching Charlatan

First, I'll say a few things about my practice. I did second only this morning up to Karandavasana. Have been doing second only for about three weeks now (except on Saturday, when I do full primary). Had another little breakthrough in Karandavasana this morning. For the first time in recorded history, I was able to land the duck (i.e. landed my lotus knees on the backs of my upper arms) on my very first Karandavasana attempt. Which meant that I did not need to do a second attempt. Well, I probably could have done a second attempt if I really wanted to, just to see if I would have better luck coming back up. I still can't quite find the leverage/strength/whatever-is-needed to go back up to Pincha after I have landed the duck. Will keep working on this.

I have realized that the trick to landing the duck lies in striking a balance between establishing a snug, stable lotus in Pincha Mayurasana, and rushing to come down. If one stays too long in lotus in Pincha Mayurasana, one wastes energy; energy that could have been put to good use in activating the muscular control needed to land the lotus. On the other hand, if one rushes to get the lotus to the upper arms, one simply crashes to the ground. The key to finding the balance between holding too long up there and coming down too soon, I have discovered, lies in the breath. For the last few days, I have been using my breath to guide my lotus down to my arms. Starting from lotus in Pincha: Inhale, stay, exhale, curl/lower the lotus towards the arms a little more. Keep repeating this process until the lotus touches the back of the upper arms. Very good exercise in Uddiyana bandha, I must say. On average, it's been taking me about four or five breaths to get from lotus in Pincha Mayurasana to landing the duck. I'm quite sure that this way of landing the duck probably ends up taking more breaths than the standard vinyasa count. But well, it is what it is. I got to work with what I can do at this moment. Maybe when I get stronger/more proficient at Karandavasana, I will be able to reduce the number of breaths I need to take to land the duck. In any case, I don't see myself doing led second anytime soon, so no need to worry too much about this, I think.   

Be that as it may, I can already see and feel some tangible physical benefits from my work on Karandavasana thus far. For one thing, I am able to feel more strongly, and have more control over uddiyana bandha. I also think that I may finally be starting to get some of the action needed to perform nauli kriya (is this what it's called?). Yesterday morning, after practice, I was looking at myself in the mirror (yeah, I do have a narcisisstic streak...). On a whim, I decided to try sucking in my belly, and then to see if I can move it around in a circle. It worked! The movement wasn't very conspicuous, but it was definitely noticeable. Not that this matters, since nauli is not part of my daily practice. But it's kind of fun to do anyway ;-)

Just thought I'll share my latest practice insights with you (not that you really care anyway...). In his recent post, Grimmly writes that he sees his journey through the second series as involving a warrior narrative, as a process which involves "confronting and defeating one foe (read posture) after another such that I've never, until now, been able to relax with the series." I think this is a compelling narrative, and it was true for me for a while; confronting and working with Kapotasana certainly felt like climbing a tall mountain for a while. Right now, for me, Kapotasana (and of course, Karandavasana) are still challenging postures, but I feel that something has subtly changed in my relationship with these postures: Without being fully conscious of it, I have increasingly come to see them not as foes/things to be conquered or defeated, but as psycho-somatic puzzles to work through. The idea for me is that each posture in the second series is a puzzle or combination lock which can gradually be opened if one obtains the appropriate key to work with and "open up" the posture. For me, the key to opening up Kapotasana lies in hanging back for as many breaths as I need to until I see my feet, and then diving for them: For some reason, seeing my feet is the "cue" which tells me that the posture is ready or "fully cooked". Of course, I am quite sure that taking those few extra breaths to hang back probably is a violation of the strict vinyasa count, but whatever; as I said, I don't see myself doing led second anytime soon. And the key to landing the duck in Karandavasana, as I mentioned, lies in using the breath to engage the bandhas to guide the lotus towards the back of the upper arms. Now all I need to do is to find the key that will unlock the secret to getting back up into Pincha Mayurasana...


In other news: I am going to be teaching an Ashtanga class at a local yoga studio here in the fall, after a two-year hiatus from yoga teaching (or, perhaps more precisely, charlatan-yoga-teaching). I am not an authorized teacher, nor have I ever been to Mysore (although I hope to make the trip there in the near future). But I'll do my best to share whatever I know and practice with whoever wants to learn. Or as the Japanese would say: 頑張ります (がんばります) (Ganbarimasu: "I do my best!") 

For personal reasons (for one, what self-respecting yoga teacher would call himself a yoga teaching charlatan?), I'm not going to post my teaching schedule or teaching location on this blog. But if you happen to be or live in my part of the United States (i.e. Moorhead, Minnesota or Fargo, North Dakota), and would like to come to my class and/or practice with me, feel free to email me at siegfried23 at hotmail dot com 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

From Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke

"Read as little as possible of literary criticism. Such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are clever word-games, in which one view wins , and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentation, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!"

translated by Stephen Mitchell

Love, discipline, necessity? What gets you to practice?

"You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must", then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose."

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Rilke's words here were addressed to a nineteen-year-old military student. This student, an aspiring poet, discovered that Rilke spent a year at the same military school that he was attending, and wrote to him for advice about his writing. What followed was a beautiful five-year correspondence between the two men, in which Rilke honestly and freely shared his thoughts about art, poetry, solitude and life.

As I was reading the above excerpt from Rilke's first letter, I was struck by how much the sort of attitude Rilke has towards poetry resonates with the mindset with which I approach the Ashtanga practice. I have long felt deeply that the practice is an art; not art in that kind of rarefied sense in which one produces something of aesthetic value that is then subject to appreciation or criticism. But art in the sense that in doing the practice, one goes into oneself, and surrenders one's previously conceived self to the process that the practice entails, and accepts the new self that is continually being sculpted and re-sculpted, however ecstatic, exciting, boring, uncertain, or even painful this process may at times be. Such an attitude of surrender need not entail giving oneself up to a personified higher power or being (although particular individuals may choose to do so). Rather, in my opinion, this surrender involves a certain courageous acceptance of what is, and an openness to work with what the practice and life may throw at one, embracing what needs to be embraced, discarding what needs to be discarded.

A common question that has come up in discussions of the practice, both in the blogosphere and offline, is: What motivates you to practice? What motivates you to take a considerable chunk of time out of your already full life and dedicate it to this practice, this activity that, beyond perhaps enabling you to someday touch your toes, put your legs behind your head, stand on one arm [insert one's favorite asana here], does not seem to yield that much in the way of practical benefit? Sure, one will probably become more flexible or physically stronger, attain better health, and feel better about oneself as a whole. But none of these benefits are things that can only be attained through doing the practice.

Some people might say it is self-discipline that enables one to get on the mat. Perhaps this is true for many people. I also admit that a certain degree of willpower is needed to get myself to take that step onto the mat, especially on days when I am feeling tired or a little under the weather. But one would think that discipline can only go so far in getting one to do such a physically and psychologically strenuous activity six days a week for years and years.

Others might say that it is love of the practice that gets one onto the mat. I think there is some truth to this as well. But I can't help feeling that whatever it is that keeps one going through the tough times of the practice (illness, injury, other commitments, etc.) is something that is more than some nice, fuzzy feeling that one feels for the practice. I will be the first to admit that I don't always feel this nice, fuzzy feeling when I bring my half-conscious mind and body onto the mat in the morning.

Maybe one would say that love in its truest and deepest sense is more than just a warm fuzzy feeling, that in any love that is not merely faddish infatuation, there is a deeper level of commitment involved ("through thick and thin, till death do us part..."). Genuine love of the practice involves just this kind of deep commitment, one might say.   

I have much respect for those for whom such love is the motivating force behind their practices. But what motivates me is something different. At the risk of sounding very grandiose and self-important, I feel that for me, what gets me to practice (and to stick with it so far) is something akin to what Rilke calls a necessity. Just as a poet, heeding the call of some inner vision of which he or she may not even be fully clear about, might feel the necessity to write and give expression to this vision, I feel that the practice calls out to me even in the times when I least feel like practicing, so that I heed the call and step onto the mat anyway, and try my best to embrace whatever unfolds from that point. In the process, I give my all to the practice, and try my best to accept and embrace what arises from this process.

Well, maybe it's time I turn away a little from all this introspection, and turn this post into something that involves all of you. So I'm going to end this post somewhat abruptly, and leave you with a few questions: What drives you to get on the mat and practice? Is it self-discipline? Love? Some kind of artistic necessity? Some combination of all these? Or something else? 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Practice, Karandavasana, Jesus freaks, looking young and moving old

Practice this past couple of days has been interesting. Both yesterday and today, I did second only up to Karandavasana.

At his recent Minneapolis workshop, Matthew Sweeney said, "Backbends are like pancakes. The first two are rubbish." Well, I think a similar thing can be said of my Karandavasana right now: The first one is... well, not exactly rubbish, but definitely not great. During both yesterday's and today's practices, I attempted Karandavasana twice. Both days, the two attempts played out pretty much the same way:

First Attempt: Get up into Pincha Mayurasana. Get legs into padmasana. Try to come down slowly, but crashes instead into a seated padmasana.

[Rest for a few breaths, and then...]

Second Attempt: Get up into Pincha. Get legs into Padmasana. Try to come down slowly. Better luck this time: The lotus actually moves in slow motion towards my upper arms. This morning, I actually succeeded in coordinating the downward curling movement of the lotus with my breath (inhale stay, exhale lower/curl. Keep repeating until the lotus lands on the upper arms...). But I am still landing the lotus too low, i.e. too close to the elbows, and too far from the armpits. Which makes coming back up difficult, if not impossible. Which meant that all I could do was stay perched on my arms  for five breaths, and then exit to the floor. I guess what I need to do is to stay up and curl the lotus in/forward even more, and not be in too much of a hurry to land. That way, I'll be more likely to land higher. We'll see what happens tomorrow.

There have been some interesting side effects of practicing second only up to Karandavasana. One positive side effect is that my Pincha Mayurasana has become stronger. In the past, I used to have to kick up into Pincha. But for the last week or so, I just walk my legs in, and lift one leg strongly off the ground. And somehow, the lifting action of that leg pulls the other leg along; and all I have to do from that point is to find the balance point to maintain the forearm balance. Pretty cool, don't you think? :-)

There are also other... interesting side effects, mostly from working on Karandavasana. My upper arms (especially the triceps) are quite sore. The muscles directly under the scapula/shoulder blades (don't know what these are called) are also aching. Here's what's kind of cool: My abdominal muscles are also sore. I think this is probably from curling the lotus towards the upper arms. Maybe if I keep doing Karandavasana, I will finally get those six-pack abs ;-) There's also something else: My glutes are sore too. Hmm... what posture/s in the second series work the glutes? Can't think of any...


I went on campus yesterday to prepare for the fall semester, which begins here next week. I have to say that wearing "real" clothes (i.e. working shoes/boots as opposed to flip-flops, a shirt with a collar as opposed to a T-shirt) and moving around in them takes a bit of getting used to, after a leisurely eight weeks of summer break. Well, had to do it. There was a breakfast reception in the morning with a big university official, and I haven't gotten to the point in my career where I can be totally comfortable meeting my administrative superiors in flip-flops and shorts (there are actually professors who seem perfectly comfortable in these; got to take my proverbial hat off to them ;-)).

Another interesting thing about the beginning of the semester is meeting new students. Not just students in my classes, but students who are moving around campus in general, with their sprightly steps and bright fresh-from-summer energy. I actually had an interesting encounter with one of these students. I was walking slowly (actually, "lumbering" might be a better description) towards some administrative office, trying to get some admin stuff straightened out (won't bore you with the details here), and very close to suffocating in my boots, cotton shirt, and the 90-degree heat when I saw this student approach me with a big smile on his face. Dressed in jeans, a tight T-shirt, and what looked to be fashionable tortoise-shell glasses, he stopped me and asked, "How are you?"

From his appearance and his accent, I surmised that he was probably an international student of South Asian origin (I couldn't place his accent more precisely). I'm embarrassed to say this, but my first reaction was to try to figure out an exit strategy! My experience for much of my life has been that when people stop me in the middle of the street with big smiles on their faces, they usually want something from me. For example, when I lived in Singapore, I would usually get stopped in the middle of the street by these Jesus freaks with big smiles on their faces: Their smiles are so big, I can see them a mile away; I try to avoid making eye-contact, but it almost never works. Before I know it, they are right in front of me, asking me how I am, and then asking me if I have heard the good news: That our Lord Jesus Christ is our savior who died for our sins. And then I would either have to tell them I'm not interested in hearing the good news, or (on a bad day) I would engage them in a big religious argument about why God probably doesn't exist, and that even if he did, he probably wouldn't send his only son down to us in this fashion. Which makes for a conversation that is not exactly pleasant...

In any case, due to such Jesus-freak encounters and others of a similar nature, I have unknowingly become conditioned to regard any stranger-with-big-megawatt-smile encounters with suspicion. But this encounter turned out very differently, to my rather pleasant surprise. Here's how it went:

International Student (IS): How are you?

Nobel: Uh... good.

IS: Where are you from?

Nobel [Thinks to himself: Wow, this is new...]: Uh... Singapore?

IS: Wonderful! Are you also a new international student here?

Nobel: Uh... no. [Short awkward silence, as I try to decide what to say, if anything.] Well, I actually teach here... I mean, I am a professor in the philosophy department.

IS: Oh, how wonderful! I am a new student from Pakistan.

Nobel: Oh, wow... well, welcome to X University.

Well, I am not such an evolved being as to be beyond flattery; I was pretty pleased that he actually thought I looked young enough to be a new student! (Is this the Ashtanga practice? Or is it just a matter of having young-looking genes? I don't know...)

Before we parted ways, we shook hands. He had this really interesting and charming way of shaking hands... How should I describe this? Well, it's kind of like he's shaking your hand and bowing at the same time. At the same time, his other hand (the one that is not in the handshake) was placed on his hand-shaking forearm in a small gesture of supplication. The entire gesture conveyed a sense of being reverent without being fawning, of being humble without being subservient. I found that very fascinating and refreshing: I can't recall the last time I saw somebody pull off a gesture like this in this country.

And so off we went on our separate ways. But our paths crossed briefly again a few minutes later. I was walking back towards my office, trying to get my aching-from-Karandavasana-and-almost-suffocating-body to move through the summer heat when he and a friend practically flew past me! They weren't running or anything; they were just striding confidently along and chatting at the same time. He was wearing sneakers, and his friend was wearing what looked to me like light walking shoes. Ha! I thought, what good is looking young, if one can't keep up with the people whom one is supposed to look the same age as? Oh, well... what do you do?          

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Ashtanga-bashing, and doing whatever it is that rocks your boat

Maybe it's just me, but it appears that a wave of Ashtanga-bashing has recently been on the upsurge in the blogosphere. There is that article by Norman Blair (reproduced here in its entirety on Grimmly's blog; thanks Grimmly!). I recently wrote a post about it; basically, I think that although Mr. Blair does an admirable job of trying to maintain a balanced perspective, nothing that he says in that article is really new. The issues that he brings up (incidence of injuries among Ashtangis, focusing too much on the physical to the exclusion of the spiritual, the problem of an inflated ego, to name a few) have all being discussed ad nauseum in many discussions, both on and off-line.

Well, at least Mr. Blair tries to maintain a balanced perspective in his writing. Others do not seem to even possess this basic quality of literary decency. A couple of hours ago, I read this post on Elephant Journal by Peter Sklivas. Mr Sklivas's thesis, as I understand it, is that only naturally supple athletes can practice Ashtanga, whereas Bikram and other Hot Yoga styles are equally accessible to all, whether one is naturally athletic, or has a "plum-shaped body". In trying to support his position, Mr Sklivas makes all kinds of unsubstantiated (and quite likely unsubstantiable) claims about Ashtanga. Here's one that ranks lower (in my opinion) on the oh-my-god-this-is-so-bad-I-can't believe-that-somebody-actually-dares-to-publish-this scale:

"But I swear there’s way more genetic sorting going on with Ashtangis than Bikram yogis."

Hmm... is he saying that there is some secret genetic sorting/screening lab at KPJAYI (or at some other undisclosed location) that screens people for whether they have bodies/genes that are suitable to practice Ashtanga? Sounds like the kind of stuff that makes for juicy conspiracy theories... but the practice as I know it is not a conspiracy theory.

Whatever happened to honoring other people's practices (even if they do not happen to do the same yoga style/spiritual practice as you), and viewing them in a fair and balanced light? Whatever happened to ahimsa? Or maybe one doesn't need to observe the yamas if one practices Bikram or Hot Yoga? Interesting...

In any case, the rest of Mr Sklivas's brief article is so ludicrous that I am not even going to waste space (and time) reviewing it here. (I've probably wasted enough, as it is...) And maybe this is just me again, but it seems that Elephant Journal has been publishing a larger-than-usual number of this kind of articles lately; articles that are, at best, purely stream-of-consciousness and at worst, outright combative and inflammatory. Now, I will be the first to admit that I have also written my fair share of inflammatory posts, and I'm not proud of them. To me, the blogosphere is a place to engage in rational and balanced conversation about issues that concern us as spiritual practitioners and as human beings. We may not always agree with each other (actually, we usually don't), but I think the least we can do is to make an honest effort to portray our interlocutors in a light that is balanced and fair. This being the case, I really don't see what kind of contribution articles of this kind can make to such conversation, beyond stirring up outraged responses (such as this one).

Well, that was quite a rant I just made. As with all my posts, I am going to try to end this one on a somewhat more positive note. So I guess I'll end by pointing out a few obvious and hopefully useful things about us. Here goes:

1. Life is short.

2. Within this short life, different people find different things to do to make some sense and meaning of their lives.

3. Some people do yoga. Others meditate. Others find meaning and joy in establishing close relationships with people around them. Others eat only organic food, and try to encourage others to do likewise. Yet others smoke copious amounts of weed. Yet others smoke like chimneys and drink like fish. Yet others do all of the above.

4. Whatever it is one does, i.e. whatever rocks one's boat, one thing is certain: No matter what we do and how much and how assiduously we do it, we will all eventually grow old, get sick and die (hopefully not too painfully). Nothing is going to change this.

5. This being the case, it makes a lot of sense to do whatever rocks your boat to your heart's content. It makes very little sense to put down whatever it is that rocks other people's boats; unless, of course, it rocks your boat to put down whatever it is that rocks other people's boats. In which case I have nothing to say to (and hopefully nothing to do with) you. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kino doing the first few postures of the Ashtanga Third Series

This is a video of Kino doing the Ashtanga Yoga Third Series. It's actually her daily practice, not a demonstration; watching the video, one can feel the honest effort and dedication involved in maintaining the practice as a daily devotional relationship, not just as something that is cool and nice to look at. Enjoy!

A little asana sequence for reducing blood sugar

I did some yoga with a friend a couple of days ago. He is diabetic, and we went online to look up asanas that are useful in stimulating the pancreas/increasing insulin production. And then I strung these asanas together into something that somewhat resembles the Ashtanga sequence: We did Suryas A and B, and a few standing postures at the beginning, and ended with Yogamudra (and savasana, of course). The sequence seems very effective: He measured his blood sugar at the end of the practice, and found that it had dropped by more than a hundred points!

Of course, this was just one session, and since it wasn't a controlled experiment, we have no way of knowing if other variables may have played a part in lowering his blood sugar. But even though we have no conclusive proof as yet that this sequence actually plays a direct role in lowering blood sugar, I still think that the results were encouraging enough to warrant my sharing this sequence here. If you know anybody who is diabetic, and is interested in yoga as a treatment modality, the following sequence may be a starting point. I emphasize starting point, because being the Ashtanga Fundamentalist that I am :-), I still think that ultimately, the Ashtanga Primary Series is probably the best thing to do to treat all diseases of the physical body. But not everybody is ready to do full primary from day one; and perhaps many people, for one reason or another, may not be ready to invest the time or effort to learn the primary series mysore style, posture by posture. This being the case, this sequence may also give one a taste of what one may encounter in Ashtanga, and will perhaps encourage the individual to seek out the Ashtanga Primary series. In any case, here's the sequence:

1. Surya Namaskar A (5x)

2. Surya Namaskar B (5x)

3. Utthita Trikonasana

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4. Utthita Parsvakonasana

5. Prasarita Padottanasana A, B, C, D

Prasarita Padottanasana A
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Prasarita Padottanasana B
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Prasarita Padottanasana C
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Prasarita Padottanasana D
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6. Standing wind-relieving posture

I don't have a picture for this posture. But it basically involves standing on one leg, bending the other knee, and bringing that knee to the chest (kind of like a standing version of Marichyasana A). Hold for five breaths, then repeat on the other side. The idea is to put pressure on and stimulate the abdominal organs, especially the pancreas.

7. Tree pose

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8. Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana

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This posture may be attempted if the individual in question has sufficient hip flexibility: The pressure of the half-lotus heel has a massaging/stimulating effect on the abdominal organs, including the pancreas. If the individual in question does not yet have sufficient hip flexibilty, skip this posture for the time being.

9. Vajrasana

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In order to enhance the pressure on the abdominal organs, a further variation of Vajrasana may be performed. Staying in Vajrasana, curl the hands into fists. Place the fists in the hip creases, and fold forward. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.

10. Virasana

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11. Double Pigeon Posture

12. Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana

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As with Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, this posture may be attempted if the individual in question has sufficient hip flexibility. Otherwise, skip this posture for the time being.

13. Ardha Matsyendrasana

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14. Dhanurasana

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This posture is useful for the pressure that it places on the abdominal organs, especially the pancreas.

15. Salamba Sarvangasana

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If individual in question is not yet able to achieve the full expression of the posture with the body perpendicular to the ground, propping the body at a 45-degree angle off the ground (or whatever angle is attainable) works too.

16. Matsyasana

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17. Sirsasana

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If individual in question is as yet unable to do to full expression of the posture pictured above, he or she can try working with Sirsasana prep:

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Although the picture above shows an individual doing sirsasana prep against the wall, I personally do not recommend using the wall: It makes one too reliant on the wall for balance, and causes one to neglect cultivating the core strength needed to eventually do the full expression of the posture.

As an additional prep for Sirsasana, one can also use the following posture to build up strength in the upper body. This is sometimes called the dolphin pose:

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Here are some directions for getting into dolphin. Start in downward facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana). Bring the elbows to the ground, keeping the legs extended. Try to gaze forward. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.

18. Child's pose

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19. Wind-relieving posture

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Hold the posture for 5 to 10 breaths, and then repeat on the other side. If you want to, you can also go on to do the posture with both knees bent towards the chest.

20. Yogamudra

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The traditional expression of this posture involves getting into full padmasana, binding one's hands behind one's back (as pictured above), and then folding forward. If the individual is as yet unable to perform padmasana, sitting in a cross-legged position, grabbing one's elbows behind one's back, and then folding forward also works.

21. Savasana

So, this is the sequence in full. If any of you out there have any suggestions about how to improve the sequence and/or additional postures that have a stimulating effect on the pancreas, I'll love to hear from you. I'll also like to leave whoever's interested in trying this sequence with some unsolicited advice:

(1) If you do not see results immediately (i.e. after a day or two), do not give up. Give this sequence a try (i.e. do it everyday) for three weeks before you decide. As some wise guy once said, do your practice, and all is coming :-)

(2) When you get to the point where you are fairly proficent in all the postures in the sequence, you may also want to add vinyasas (chaturanga-updog-downdog) between all the seated postures. This will work your upper body more, and enable you to develop your practice in a more balanced fashion.

May the Force be with you.