Monday, October 31, 2011

Practice, change, (not) burning the candle at both ends, coffee, and how one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens

Practice this morning was... interesting. First, I got up at my usual early-morning hour and did my Buddhist prayers. And then I realized that I felt very, very tired. So I went back to sleep for a couple more hours before getting back up to practice.

This morning, I did not-quite-full-primary: By that I mean I did primary up to Navasana, then skipped to Baddha Konasana. I'm not going to bore you with the blow-by-blow details of this morning's practice. Suffice to say that I modified a lot: I did no half-lotuses at all on the left knee. Which meant Janu Sirsasana in place of Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana on the second side. Which meant I modified all my Marichyasanas to work around the injured left knee. These modifications seem to have an effect on my inner focus. Perhaps because the modifications feel unfamiliar to me (full disclosure: I have actually never modified any of the Marichis in my practice up to this point), there is a lot more stopping to think about how best to modify this pose or that pose, and therefore less flow. Which meant that there was more space for extraneous, non-practice-related thoughts to creep in. Whereas with the regular no-injury practice, one kind of just zips through the whole thing without too much thought. But I suppose this is part of the process of change and adjustment, and when all is said and done, change is the only constant in the universe. One cannot avoid this truth: Ultimately, the only thing I can do is to embrace it, roll with the punches, and deal with change as best as I can. Or I can kick, scream, and fight it. And be very unhappy.

Huh, it seems that I am boring you with blow-by-blow details of my practice, after all? :-) Anyway, my plan right now is to work with this not-quite full-primary for the next couple of days. Then maybe add in the core primary postures (Bhujapidasana, Kurmasana, Supta K) over the next few days, if my body allows it.


One other thing that injury has taught me is that this practice gives you much, but it also asks a lot of you in return. (David Garrigues writes about this point very eloquently in this post.) Among other things, it asks that you structure your entire daily life around it. Structure your work around it, structure your play and rest around it. What this means is that if you do this practice, there is no room for burning the candle at both ends. You can't expect to, say, go clubbing and drinking every night and get up at 5 or 6 a.m. to do this practice, and expect to do this practice for very long.

Which is a sticking point for me. Well, I don't go clubbing and drinking (although I do have a bottle of beer after dinner some nights). Nevertheless, I do burn the candle at both ends, in my own way. Ever since middle school, I have conditioned/trained my body to go on six hours of sleep every night. By and large, it has not interfered with my daily functioning (at least not in any way that I notice). Sometimes, however, on days when I have been doing more things or not sleeping so well the night before, I get up feeling really tired, but I just go ahead and practice anyway, because I always feel awake and better after practice. And besides, one can always sleep when one is dead, right?

But recently, I have also started to wonder if lack of sleep might somehow translate to less awareness on the mat. Which leads to poorer judgments/choices. Which leads ultimately to injury. Does this mean I need to consider sleeping more? I don't know.  


On to a happier topic. In her recent post, Claudia writes about how her recent lack of a regular Ashtanga practice and her TCM treatment seems to have the combined effect of causing her to lose her desire for coffee. She writes:

"One day I woke up wanting tea instead of coffee. That had not happened since 2008 when the ritual of coffee was wiped out from me. I think it might have something to do with the TCM re-balancing my energies and my body becoming more aware of what coffee does to it.

So what is one to do about the Ashtanga (almost) mantra "no coffee no prana"? I am changing it, of course... [to "No Tea, No Prana"]."

Interesting. Well, here's my theory about what's going on. Perhaps Ashtanga practice stimulates a very special kind of prana flow; a flow that is very different from the prana flows stimulated by other kinds of yoga or mind-body practices. Let's call this special flow the Ashtanga Prana Flow (APF).

This being the case, when Sharath says "No Coffee, No Prana", he really means, "No Coffee, No APF." Or, to put it another way, Sharath could be taken to be saying, "If one drinks coffee, one can activate the APF." It is actually possible to express this in terms of a classical logical argument form:

1. If one drinks coffee, one can activate APF.
2. One drinks coffee.
3. Therefore, one can activate APF.

This argument follows by modus ponens. But if you have taken a philosophy class, you will know the saying, "One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens." So the same argument can also be expressed as a modus tollens:

1. If one drinks coffee, one can activate APF.
2. One is not activating/cannot activate/does not wish to activate APF.
3. Therefore, one does not drink coffee.

All this might seem very dorky (but I am a dork, so deal with it :-)), but I think it tells us something about what might be going on in Claudia's case. Since Claudia has recently stopped practicing Ashtanga so regularly, she is not activating the APF; she might very well be activating other kinds of equally beneficial flows, such as chi flow from her TCM practice, but that is another story. In any case, since she is not activating the APF, she probably also does not feel the need to drink coffee. And her body basically responds to this change in her life by sending her brain messages that she does not need to drink coffee. Which is why she now does not want coffee, but wants tea instead. Indeed, it could even turn out that tea (Chinese tea?) activates chi flow. Maybe a TCM master somewhere would also tell us, "No tea, no chi"? But this is a topic for another post.

I realize that all this is probably way more complicated and convoluted than it needs to be. But maybe this is what happens when you have an injured Ashtangi blogging. All that energy that would normally be devoted to practice now needs to go somewhere else :-)

Saturday, October 29, 2011

First acupuncture session; Yoga in the Dragon's Den turns one!

Had my first-ever acupuncture session today. A couple of people have suggested acupuncture as a treatment modality for my knee (see previous post for the, ahem, bloody details). By a very interesting coincidence, the TCM place near my home was having an open house today, so I decided to just show up, and see what they have to offer. Then again, maybe it's not a coincidence: Maybe the universe knew I was going to mess up my knee this week, and specifically arranged for them to have the open house today? :-)

So I made my way to the TCM place this afternoon. There was a pretty good crowd there, mainly local holistic health afficionados. Which gave me mixed feelings, since there was a possibility of running into fellow yoga teachers or students, and possibly contributing to Ashtanga's bad rep simply by my presence ("What are you here for? What, you busted your knee doing yoga? And you practice what kind of yoga? Ashtanga?" [insert knowing I-told-you-Ashtanga-is-bad-for-you-but-you-wouldn't-listen smile]).

Fortunately, none of this happened. I did run into this one yoga teacher, but all she did was greet me, and then go on with her business (hmm... what could she be here for?...). I then noticed some signup sheets, and discovered that they were offering community acupuncture for $10 a session. I immediately signed up for acupuncture.

Within a few minutes, the acupuncturist--a mild-mannered middle-aged guy with glasses who also turned out to be one of the owners of the place--ushered me into the acupuncture room, where he had me recline on a lounge chair. He asked me if there was any particular reason that brought me there. I told him about my knee. He felt around my left inner knee, trying to locate the place where the inflammation was, but couldn't find the inflammation. This is when I learnt one more thing about my knee: Apparently, it only inflames after I have been walking or standing for a while or doing weird things to it (for example, Bhekasana). Why don't knees inflame when you want them to? :-)

In any case, he proceeded to go about leisurely sticking needles in a few places on my arms and legs. He stuck two needles in my left inner knee, and three needles on my right elbow (he later explained that the meridian points on the left inner knee is related to those on the right elbow. Interesting...) After sticking the needles in me, he left me to myself, and went out to attend to other clients.

For the first few minutes, I did not feel very much. And then, after 10 to 15 minutes, I started feeling this heavy yet warm sensation in my left hand. I also noticed that the three needles on my right elbow were quivering non-stop. Interesting. All in all, I probably was in the room for about 20 to 30 minutes before he came back in to remove the needles.

I felt this feeling of powerful calm both during and for about an hour after the session. Immediately after the session, I thought I felt a nice warm sensation in my left knee. All in all, my first acupuncture session was a very positive experience. It remains to be seen what this will do to the knee. But I really like the powerful feeling of calmness I felt. I am also quite impressed by the laid-back energy of the place. I have to say that this is quite different from the rather more upbeat energy that one encounters in most yoga studios.


[Image taken from here]

In other news: This blog turns one today! It was on October 29th, 2010 that I wrote my first post on this blog. Time flies when one is having fun, doesn't it? Well, Happy Birthday to you, Yoga in the Dragon's Den!

I named this blog after one of my favorite 80s' kung-fu movies, Ninja in the Dragon's Den. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a ninja when I grew up. And then I discovered Ashtanga, and realized that being an Ashtangi might be the closest thing I can ever get to becoming a ninja; which makes me feel less bad about messing up my knee :-) In any case, here's the final fight scene from Ninja in the Dragon's Den. It's pretty badass. Enjoy!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Injury: Back to Square... One? Zero? (I really don't know)

I hate to have to admit this on the blogosphere, but I think I better, since I always try to write in a way that is real and not (or at least not too) fake. So here it is: I officially injured my left knee. Probably did something to the meniscus. Which is rather ironic, in a way, since I have always thought it the stronger side. This, on top of the fact that I have a sore throat right now and can barely speak (but can still blog :-)) makes for a very interesting time.

I think the whole knee issue started a few weeks ago, when I decided to try going into Utkatasana from a squatting position in Surya B. The first few days I tried this, my left knee felt sore. And then my SI joint went out. So I switched to doing primary and the first few backbends of second to try to straighten out this issue. The SI joint healed, but the soreness/tweakiness in the left knee joint persisted. Basically, I discovered that postures which involve closing the left knee joint and bringing the left foot close to the left hip (Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottasana, Krounchasana, Bhekasana) tend to aggravate the left knee. Things got somewhat better on Wednesday, which was a moon day, presumably because I didn't practice and the body got to rest. And then during yesterday's practice, I definitely pushed past my limit in Bhekasana (I'm one of those people who can get the entire sole of the foot to the ground in this pose, which is a good thing when you are not injured. If you are injured, well, not so...), because my left knee felt really stiff after practice. (Why do I do this to myself? Ego. Guilty as charged...) 

And, to add insult to injury, when I got off the bus to campus yesterday, I jumped off the bus, landed on my left foot, and immediately felt that something was very wrong. For the rest of the day, I couldn't put pressure on the left foot while walking without feeling pain in my inner knee. Walking up the stairs is fine, but walking down the stairs hurts. I felt around my left knee, and found this tender spot on the inner knee. No good, no good. I spoke with a couple of people about this, and they suggested that I go get an MRI and get it checked out. It looks like I don't have a choice with this one; did I ever tell you that I dread/hate going to the doctor's? But what to do? 

This morning, I did a shorter practice: Primary up to Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasa, then skip to Baddha Konasana, followed by the rest of primary and finishing. I noticed a few things:

(1) When I stepped out into the standing postures (Trikonasana, Parsvakonasana, etc.), I felt pain in my left knee, as if the stepping out movement was pulling on something in the left knee.

(2) When I got to Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, I really hesitated about doing the posture on the left side, but decided to try going into it very slowly on the left side. There was some discomfort closing the knee joint, but it closed, and I was then able to get into half-lotus. As I went into half-lotus, I felt something shift in the knee joint.

After I did Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana, I decided, on a whim, to try the stepping out movement again. This time, it did not hurt. It appears that whatever was hurting the knee the first time had something to do with whatever it was that had shifted in the knee.

(3) I skipped the Marichyasanas today, because the act of closing the left knee joint combined with twisting or bending forward causes pain in that knee. Would one way of modifying the Marichyasanas be to not close the knee joint completely and/or not bend forward or twist fully? If any of you out there have any suggestions on this, I would live to hear them. 

So, this morning's practice was not great, but it was definitely healing. A few minutes after practice, I tried walking down the stairs in my apartment, and discovered that my knee did not hurt anymore. Which is good, because otherwise I won't be able to leave the house today. But injuries are really a bummer... 

Oh, and by the way, I am not writing this post to glorify injury or to advocate wearing injury like a badge of courage/honor/whatever. Injuries, as you can see, suck. But maybe they are part and parcel of the process for some people (i.e. me). So I will do my best to swallow my ego and try to learn from this. In the meantime, between my knee and my sore throat, you may find me posting less over the net few days. Not that you'd care, necessarily. But just thought I'd let you know :-)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ashtanga practice and chronic medical conditions: Some thoughts

In a recent interview that was published on Elephant Journal, David Robson answers a few common questions about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. One of these questions is:

"ii. You need to be physically fit already to practice Ashtanga, fact or fiction?

David: It is a demanding practice and I don’t believe anyone should start by doing the entire primary series. To just do a led class, I think it could be pretty hard for most people and most beginners. Things like age, overall health, strength and flexibility may impact how quickly someone learns the practice, but these factors become insignificant over time. You have to take the time to let your body adapt to the practice and you gradually build up at your own pace. The mysore-style teaching format is really the perfect way for a beginner to learn yoga, as it starts from scratch and develops according to the abilities of the individual. I totally believe that anyone can practice and take benefit from Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga."

I think David's response is short and sweet, and gets to the gist of what Ashtanga is about. But as I was reading his response, something else occurred to me: What about people who come to the practice with chronic medical conditions? I'm thinking of conditions like lupus, asthma, diabetes, certain heart conditions, HIV/AIDS, etc. Personally, I'm confident that a regular Ashtanga practice done at a pace that is appropriate to the condition of the individual would help with these conditions in the long term. However, from my own experience with working with a few such individuals, I have discovered that in such cases, the problem isn't so much a physical problem as a psychological one: The individual concerned may not readily see the value of committing to a practice that takes time to develop and deliver results. This is especially problematic when the individual expects yoga to be a therapy that can specifically and quickly target his or her specific ailment almost like a laser beam, and improve (or at least significantly alleviate) the condition quickly.

But as David mentions, in order for Ashtanga practice to be effective, you have to do it regularly, "take the time to let your body adapt to the practice", and gradually build the practice up at your own pace. In other words, as we Ashtangis all know, the practice is not a quick fix for anything: One has to have patience, and the results will come when they do. But in my limited experience in working with people with chronic conditions, it seems to me that such individuals tend to expect results fairly quickly. And really, who can blame them for that, given the suffering and anguish they have already gone through with other treatment modalities, and given a western medical culture that promises quick fixes and straightforward solutions for practically everything under the sun ("take this drug, and you will be better right away", or "undergo this or that procedure or surgery, and that part of your body will soon be good as new")? I could be wrong about this, but I don't think Ashtanga practice can credibly promise to, say, lower one's blood sugar by x number of points, or fix that heart condition that one has been suffering from for so many years within x number of months. As I said, I could be wrong about this, but I just don't think that Ashtanga's therapeutic effects always manifest themselves in this immediate way.

If I am right about all this, then there seems to be a disconnect between what Ashtanga practice can do, and what individuals who come into the practice with certain chronic conditions expect from the practice. To put it very bluntly, these individuals have expectations that Ashtanga practice may or may not be able to fulfill. And I don't mean this in a bad way: I believe we all have expectations in one form or another going into almost everything in life. It's part of what it is to be human to expect clear-cut results from our investments of time, effort or money. The trouble, as I see it, is that Ashtanga does not deliver on our expectations in a linear, straightforward manner, and I suspect that the last thing that individuals who come into the practice seeking relief from chronic conditions want to hear is that the practice takes time to manifest results.    

As of right now, I don't know how to go about bridging this disconnect. Maybe I need to find a way to "sell" the benefits of Ashtanga better, instead of just telling people bluntly that things take time. I don't know.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pedicures, the Ashtanga practice; Is there a higher purpose to blogging?

In a recent post, Bindy commented on a recent Elephant Journal article titled "Top 10 reasons why Ashtanga is the Hardest Yoga Practice." From reading the article, I gather that the author is also an Ashtangi, one who is trying (not very successfully, I'm sorry to say) to think of some tongue-in-cheek reasons why Ashanga might have a reputation of being "hard" or "badass." The most striking reason she gave (which was also the one that Bindy took most issue with) was that jump-throughs and jump-backs (JTJB) ruin her pedicures.

I don't have much to say about the EJ article myself. About JTJB possibly ruining one's pedicure, well, as some very wise person used to say, "The only cure for yoga is... more yoga." This applies to the case at hand as well: The only cure for ruined pedicures (if it is true, that is, that JTJB indeed ruins pedicures) is more practice, so you can perfect the JTJB and not scrape your feet/toes against the mat, and possibly ruin your pedicure. Actually, just talking about this makes me very tempted to go make my very first instructional video on how to JTJB without touching your feet to the mat :-). May be coming soon. Stay tuned.

As for Ashtanga being hard or badass, I've blogged about this topic on a few occasions, so I won't say too much else here. I'll just say this: When it comes down to it, Ashtanga is no more "hard" or "badass" than any other life-changing practice which requires a lot of effort, time and dedication on the part of the practitioner. The same can be said of, say, practicing to become a concert pianist, martial artist, or anything else that is transformative, really. And we do frequently say that martial artists are "badass" (I'm not sure if we say that of concert pianists, but the same idea applies). Q.E.D.


In addition to the immediate issue that prompted Bindy's post, an interesting conversation also ensued in the comments section of her post, which brings up a few interesting issues. I thought about commenting in that comment thread, but I decided that it would be better for me to write my own post about it, rather than go manifesto on Bindy's blog. So here goes.

In response to a commenter who remarked that Bindy's post was the product of "someone who was not happy with herself and who in all likelihood held a lot of repressed anger too close to her heart for too long, but doesn’t want to let it go because she’s not sure who’ll she be without it", Bindy replied with the following:

"yes-i DO have a chip on my shoulder. but i’m still extremely compassionate believe it or not. who cares what i think? it’s just a rant. i’m hoping if my writing is too abrasive for anyone, they just stay away from this blog. just like astanga. if all you can do is complain about it, there are thousands of other yoga styles that you can go to."

In her latest post, Bindy further elaborates on her views about blogging:

'...every time i write an “offensive” post i go through some mental torment. should i be saying these things? why am i saying them? am i too harsh? am i supposed to pretend to be the perfect yogi just in case people judge me? thing is this. people are going to judge me no matter what i say. i’m trying to let go of such things & just be me. does this mean i’m making an ass out of myself? maybe. it sure wouldn’t be the first time.

i can’t write like the perfect yogi because i don’t even consider myself a yogi. yoga is part of my daily life, but i don’t embody what other’s say is “yogic.” and i refuse to pretend, like SO many others. that would make me a hypocrite.'

I think Bindy's point is well-taken in and of itself. If there is no other purpose to blogging other than simply to give expression to whatever happens to be on one's mind on any particular day at any particular time, and if one happens to be in a particular state of mind which makes an ass out of oneself (at least in the eyes of others), then the right and appropriate thing to do would be to simply vent and write whatever it is that makes an ass out of oneself. Indeed, if writing anything else other than what happens to be on one's mind at the moment would be merely pretending to be what one is not, then the only right thing to do would be to simply vent and write whatever it is that is on one's mind, even if doing so makes one an ass: The only other alternative would be to be a hypocritical ass in yogi's clothing.

But is there no other purpose to blogging other than simply to give vent to and express one's raw emotions at any given moment? Is it true that the only alternatives are to give vent to one's raw emotions, or be a hypocrite? Personally, I'm not so sure about this. At the risk of sounding very naively yogic, I would like to say that I see blogging as an extension of my yoga practice; I see it as a place where I try to translate whatever I do on the mat into an off-mat medium. What this means is not just that I try to apply the yamas and niyamas (non-harming, non-stealing, truthfulness, etc.) to my blogging. This also means that, just as I try to make my yoga practice something that adds to my life, I also try to make my blogging "practice" something that adds to my life, rather than take away from it. David Garrigues expresses this point very nicely in a post he wrote some time ago. At the risk of being very unoriginal, I'll like to quote him here at length:

"As we all age we see how challenging it is to continue to practice in such a way that our bodies and minds stay truly strong, fit and supple.  Other priorites come along to replace the fire, zeal, and devotion we have for practice.  It is tempting to let ourselves off the hook thinking that asana is for youth.  That somehow being intensely physical has a cut off point-perhaps it does for some of us.  But for many of us, the discoveries we make as we flow though our sequences continue to feed our body’s, minds, and souls.  And we continue to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to really go into our asana practices.  We also realize more and more the extent to which we have to give up other things.  This is the key if you want to have a fruitful serious asana practice, you must know it and fashion your life and choices to ensure it.  There really is limited time and thus limited things you have available to put your energy into.  The reality is that Ashtanga Yoga asks much of you; it gives you much but also asks much...

Do you see it?  What is holding you back, from going further, I’m talking about things that truly don’t belong there.  Not things in your life that do belong, like a great job, relationship, children, art and such, ultimately, those things feed you and your soul in just as necessary ways as your practice does.  I’m talking about the things only you’ll know what they are.  The expendable parts of your life that you are choosing to divert your energy into...

Funnel your energy towards the real heart of what you want to share, create, and become– unswerving, able to keep the target in your sights. You’ll see a major shift in your experience, new found energy for what you want will arrive to help you."

David is talking here about the asana practice in Ashtanga, but I really feel that his words apply to blogging and to everything else in life as well. The fact of the matter is that we have limited time and energy in this world. Given this fact, we can choose to do things that feed us and our souls. Or we can choose to do things that drain our energy and time, leaving us empty and, well, drained. The difference does not just lie in what  we do, but also in how we do the things we do. This applies to the asana practice. It also applies to all our activities off the mat, including blogging. It makes a difference whether I make an effort to blog about things that bring out a better part of myself and which are, hopefully, of service to others. I'm not doing this because I want to pretend to be what I'm not: I'm doing this with the awareness that service to others is ultimately service to myself. That which feeds others and their souls ultimately also ends up feeding me and my soul. By this logic, it also follows that if I write something which puts others down, I am ultimately also putting myself down, making me less of a person than what I am capable of being.    

Well, I think you get what I'm saying. Besides, if I say more, I'll probably end up sounding too preachy and moralistic and high-horsey. So I'll sign off here.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

"We are all heroes, and silence is our kryptonite!"

Earlier today, I stumbled upon an Occupy Event here in Davenport, Iowa, without intending to.

Here's the chain of events that led up to it. After giving my presentation at the philosophy conference this afternoon, I attended another presentation. The presenter was giving a presentation on theodicy: If you are not familiar with this term, it basically involves an attempt to reconcile the existence of God and the problem of evil in this world, i.e. how can there be an omnipotent, morally perfect God when there is so much suffering brought about by human and natural evils in this world?

After listening to that presentation... I bailed! Yes, I know that probably makes me a bad philosopher, but I simply find it impossible to justify spending an entire perfectly beautiful fall day indoors, when I am in a city that I have never been to before. I just felt that I should explore the city a little while there is still some daylight. Besides, I have heard so much about the beautiful Davenport riverfront (the Mississippi river runs through the Iowa-Illinois border, and separates Davenport, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois); it would be a shame not to see it.

So I, ahem, sneaked out of the conference venue (not that there were any philosophy police to catch me ;-)), got into my car, and drove down to the riverfront. The riverfront is indeed beautiful. But an even more interesting sight greeted me. As I drove along the riverfront, I saw a group of people seated in chairs in a bandshell by the river, listening to what I thought was a band concert. I got out of my car, and heard a spoken word poet reciting an inspirational poem to the people sitting in the bandshell: "Now is the time to speak up. I know that the pen is mightier than the sword. I know that we are all heroes, and silence is our kryptonite!"

[Image taken from here]

Hmm... silence is our kryptonite? Interesting, I thought, as curiosity drew me closer and closer to the bandshell. As I approached it, I saw people carrying signs that said, "We are the 99%", etc. And then it hit me: This is an Occupy event! After the poet recited his poem, a few other speakers took the podium, and spoke about their own feelings and thoughts about being the 99%. The audience listened appreciatively, interjecting with enthusiastic applause now and then. I learned from the speeches that earlier in the day, there had been a march organized by the local Occupy movement across the Centennial Bridge linking Rock Island and Davenport, and that this rally was actually the second part of the day's events.

There were people of all ages at the rally, although it seems that compared to the crowd in Fargo (see this post), the average age of the crowd here seems to be somewhat older. Somehow, I sense that the people in this part of the country are gentle, down-to-earth people; people who have decided that enough is enough, and that the only viable option is to speak up. Which, again, totally discredits the mass media's portrayal of Occupy Event participants as hippies who never shower or get haircuts.

See you later... (next life?): A random musing on nothing

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Davenport, Iowa, doing a little last minute preparation for my conference presentation this afternoon. When I walked in here half an hour ago, the place was really crowded, and I couldn't find a place to sit. An older couple--they both looked like they were in their seventies--invited me to join them at their little table. I thanked them, and accepted. But by the time I got my coffee, a nearby table had opened up, and I moved over to the now-available table. Nevertheless, I made a little small talk with the couple, and then they got up to leave. As he was leaving, the man patted me on my shoulder and said, "See you later."

This is, of course, a perfectly routine thing to say to anybody from whom you are parting company, whether that person is an old friend or a very new acquaintance (as in this case). Nevertheless, I couldn't help wondering: Hmm... see me later? Uh... when? Given that I don't even live in this state, and we didn't exchange contact information, the chances of our paths ever crossing again are unlikely, to say the least. Considerations like this, of course, don't stop people from saying "See you later" to other people whom they will probably never meet again (at least not in this lifetime).

What is the moral of this little neither here nor there story? Well, nothing (or maybe everything, depending on how one sees it). Just a random musing on a random event on a random day.    

Friday, October 21, 2011

On the road, Supta Vajrasana rant

I'm on the road today, on the way to Davenport, Iowa to present a paper about procrastination at a philosophy conference tomorrow (Saturday). In order to make the whole trip less onerous (it's a 10-hour drive if I drive nonstop from Moorhead, MN to Davenport, IA), I stayed in Minneapolis last night; which means I still have a 6-hour drive ahead of me. Quite a drive, yes, but can't be as bad as driving 10 hours straight, can it? So here I am, sitting in a coffeeshop in St. Paul, typing out this post before I hit the road.

The nice thing about stopping over in the Twin Cities is that I get to go to mysore practice at a shala before hitting the road again. This morning, I went to the Yoga House in Minneapolis for mysore practice. I decided to do this, even though I only had four hours of sleep. Why? I don't know: Because I'm crazy?

In any case, it was a great mysore session. It was a very small group this morning; it was just me, one other student, and the teacher. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. I got a few good adjustments and assists (and no, I really don't think an assist is a prop...). I got an especially valuable assist in Supta Vajrasana.

To be quite honest, Supta V is my "lazy" pose, the one that I just kind of do in my daily practice: I typically do the posture to my best approximation, write a mental check mark next to a mental list of second series postures, and then move on to the next exciting posture. There are a few lame excuses I can give you for my less-than-fully-enthusiastic attitude towards Supta V:

(1) If you normally practice alone (as I do), it is very difficult to do the posture yourself, unless you prop your lotus knees under a low table or bench, and use it to support you as you go into the backbend. But I don't have a table that is low enough (or so I say), so I normally just go into bound lotus and try to bend as far back as I can without rolling backwards, and then move on to the next more exciting posture.

(2) At his Minneapolis workshop back in July, Matthew Sweeney told me that my body seems to have a puzzling disconnect when performing Supta V: It's like the lower part of my body is not transmitting energy to the upper body, so that when I bend back, the lower body (i.e. the bound lotus) gives. He wasn't quite sure why this is so, since I am neither inflexible nor not strong. Well, if even the great Matthew Sweeney is puzzled over my non-performance in this posture, can anybody reasonably expect more of me in this posture? :-)

(3) Since Supta V comes immediately after the formidable Kapotasana, I always end up subconsciously telling myself that I am entitled to a little break after all that work in Kapo :-)

But I digress. As I was saying, the teacher gave me an especially valuable assist in Supta V this morning. She also suggested that I could work on only going as far back as I can while still being able to come back up (i.e. don't rest the crown of the head on the ground). I thought this was a good suggestion, and thanked her for it.

Alright... I need to stop procrastinating about making the drive to Iowa and actually hit the road very soon if I want to get to Davenport at a reasonable hour. I had a mocha and some crostinis and cheese curds as I was typing this post... (Btw, if you live or are visiting in the Twin Cities, you really should check out this coffeeshop--Kopplins Coffee in St Paul. They do really good coffee.) Oh, I was saying, the crostinis and cheese curds... well, they are really good (at least, they were really good when I was eating them :-)), but I feel so totally saturated with oil and fat now; who was it who said that Ashtanga practice makes us make better food choices? (obviously not true for me today...) Hmm... maybe a six-hour drive will do me some good (or not)? We'll see. More later. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Should one practice along with one's student/s? Is an assist a prop?

Did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. The postures themselves were respectable, but the energy level was rather low, and I had to move at a slower pace than usual. This may have something to do with what I did in my class last night. Last night, one person showed up for class. As this person is quite new to Ashtanga, I decided to demonstrate more than I usually do as I led him through the primary series. I was also inspired by sereneflavor's comment on one of my recent posts, in which she said that there is nothing like visual inspiration to get newbies to understand directly where the practice can take them. So, before I knew it, the Ashtanga spirit/demon had taken over me, and I ended up doing the practice with him, all the way to Janu Sirsasana A, with vinyasas on both sides all the way through. Although it was less than half primary, and I actually felt quite good after the class, I woke up feeling quite tired this morning. I guess I need to manage my energy better if I am going to continue to teach and do my own practice at a sustainable level. If any of you seasoned teachers out there have any advice/suggestions as to how to manage this, I'll love to hear from you. Of course, one very obvious solution is: Do not, under any circumstances, practice along with your students. Or, if one were to cast this in the form of a commandment: Thou Shalt not practice with thy student! But other than this obvious solution, if you have any other suggestions, I'll love to hear them.


Recently, Grimmly posed the question: Is an assist a prop? As always, Grimmly's interesting question has generated a lively conversation on his blog. Claudia thoughtfully commented that an assist is a prop, but at the same time "is more than that".

I think this is right. I would go further, and say that an assist is, in a sense, superior to a prop. Why? Used properly, a prop serves two functions: (1) It enables you to get into a certain modification of a particular pose that you might not be able to get into while maintaining proper alignment without the prop, (2) It enables you to feel and "get" the required opening that one needs to get to perform the posture effectively.

Let's take Kapotasana as an example. There is a tendency for many practitioners (including me) to bend too much at the lumbar spine and/or the shoulders in this posture, while not taking enough of the backbend in the thoracic spine. The effective use of a prop (say, doing a preparatory backbend with a block wedged between the shoulder blades) can function to remind the practitioner to take the backbend more into the thoracic spine.

However, in my opinion, the trouble with props is that over time and with repeated use, there is a tendency for the practitioner to come to rely too much on the prop to open the area/s of the body that needs to be opened; when this happens, the practitioner consciously or unconsciously comes to see the prop as a purely mechanistic device to be used in a mechanistic way to passively open a certain part of the body in order to "get" to a particular posture. When this happens, the energetic flow of the asana is overlooked. The same thing tends to happen when one uses blocks for forward folds or to rest the lower hand in Trikonasana: There is often a tendency to lean into the block, and in this way, neglect the energetic engagement of the bandhas that is integral to the effective performance of the posture.

Seen in this light, an assist is "superior" to a prop simply because the assistant is alive whereas a prop is "dead". A properly trained and sufficiently perceptive assistant understands that the purpose of the assist is to enable the student to feel the energetic flow of the asana while developing the strength and engagement necessary to eventually perform the posture unassisted. With this understanding, the assister can provide feedback to the practitioner consistently, reminding the practitioner to keep working on cultivating strength and engagement.

That said, I think it's possible for assistants to over-assist. For instance, sometimes people can so dependent on being assisted into a particular posture that they may not develop the strength to get into the posture themselves. Because of this, there is good reason to give assists sparingly: For instance, at her Richmond workshop in April, Kino told me that it is better to let people struggle with Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana at least a couple of times rather than just rush over and support them from the beginning. Same goes with Kapotasana: If one never had the opportunity to try and get into the posture on one's own, regardless of how deeply one gets, one might never develop the strength and muscular and energetic awareness needed to perform the posture effectively.

This, at any rate, are my two cents/rupees/yen on the topic.    

Monday, October 17, 2011

Swara, Circularity, God: A little meditation on everything and nothing

I just took a few minutes to reflect on what I learnt from Casey's workshop over the weekend (for more details, see previous post). As I was reflecting, I suddenly remembered a little thought that occurred to me during yesterday morning's mysore session with Casey. Somewhere in the middle of primary series (I can't remember which posture), it suddenly occurred to me that the concept of swara encapsulates very nicely what I see as the main difference between western and eastern philosophy, and by extension, western and eastern ways of understanding the world and our place in the universe.

As I mentioned in my previous post, swara is a concept that originated in Indian music; a concept which expresses the circularity of all phenomena. Just as one starts over at the first note of the musical cycle (the octave) after playing the last note of the previous cycle, exhalation is followed by inhalation, which in turn is followed by exhalation. The ending of a sound is followed by silence, which is then followed by the beginning of a new sound. Destruction is followed by creation which, in turn, is followed by another act of destruction. This circularity is important, for without it, all events and phenomena would be congested into a great cluster-fuck of non-flow (excuse the language, but there's really no more apt expression I can think of here), and creation and destruction--indeed, the very flow of time itself--would simply become impossible.

Because much of Indian philosophy subscribes to such a circular worldview, there is no need to postulate the existence of a personified deity that is omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect. I suspect that, to a mind that is attuned to the concept of swara, the idea of a Judeo-Christian God would seem very strange; such a deity makes sense only within the context of a linear time-space continuum, in which things must have a definite end and a determinate beginning. Which, of course, brings up all kinds of intractable theological and philosophical problems (if God created the universe, who created God? Is Judgment Day really the end of time? Etc, etc.).

If one believes that all phenomena and events are cyclical and circular in nature, then one nicely sidesteps all these problems.

Well, just a few thoughts on everything and nothing, as always. :-)  

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Swara, First ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, Occupy Fargo, and my first time as a sign-holding protester

This has been a most exciting and eventful weekend here in Fargo-Moorhead. Two very cool things happened to me: I was part of the first ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, and I became a sign-holding protester for the first time in my life :-)

First, the mysore class. In order for the story to make sense, I need to begin from the beginning. So here goes: On Saturday and this (Sunday) morning, I had the great fortune of attending a workshop with Casey Palmer. Casey is an Ashtanga teacher based in Portland, Oregon, and is the owner of Near East Yoga in Portland. My friends Derek and Brenda, who are his students, invited him here to teach at their studio in downtown Fargo.

Casey began his Saturday morning class with a lecture, and then led us through half-primary. A key concept that he focused on in his lecture was the concept of Swara. Swara is a concept in Indian music. It refers to the seven notes of the Indian classical music scale. I suppose the closest equivalent concept in western music would be the octave. The basic idea here is that Swara is a circular, not linear concept; when you get to the last note of the scale, you begin again at the first note.

The same idea informs Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practice. As you do the postures, you inhale and then exhale. At the deepest point of the exhale, you inhale again. If you keep the inhale and exhale even and steady throughout the practice, you manifest swara; in this sense, what postures you do or how "well" you do them is totally secondary.

The same idea can also be applied to the community of practitioners. In the first stages of a yoga community's formation, there might only be the teacher and perhaps one or two students. The teacher, out of a sense of responsibility and love of the practice, shows up no matter how many students come to the class. Over time, more students start to understand and share the same passion for the practice, and begin to come to class more regularly. Through coming to class, they support the community, and the community gradually grows. The growth and continued flourishing of the community also embodies the circular concept of swara: The teacher supports the students' growth and contributes to the community. In return, the students respond by coming to class and supporting the teacher's efforts and the community. And the community, in turn, nurtures the student. This circular swara relationship involves every single person who has anything to do with the community, from the teacher to the experienced student, all the way to the new student who steps into the shala for the very first time.

Initially, I was only planning on going to Casey's Saturday morning class. But at the end of the Saturday morning class, as I was chatting with him, he asked me if I would be coming to the mysore session the next morning. I told him that I wasn't sure, as I needed to be somewhere at noon (This, by the way, is true: I am not much of a white liar :-)). Casey responded by suggesting that I could just come, do my practice and leave right away: The important thing is that, through my presence, I can do something to support the community. As he said that, I remembered the concept of Swara that he was just talking about, and so I decided to come back for mysore the next morning.

This morning's mysore practice was wonderful. There were about twenty of us in the practice room, under Casey's watchful guidance. For more than half the people in the room, this was their first ever mysore experience. In fact, according to Derek and Brenda, this was actually the first ever mysore class in Fargo Moorhead!

What this meant, in practical terms, was that Casey spent most of his time helping the newbies. As a result, I did not get many adjustments (a couple of adjustments in downdog in the first couple of Surya As, and a nice assist to help me get deeper into the twist in Mari C). Nevertheless, I'm really happy I went and practiced, and was part of this historic event :-) The energy in the room was simply fantastic. A lot of it was newbie energy, characterized by earnest questions about how to do this or that posture, what posture comes next in the series, punctuated by good-natured giggles over trying for the first time bizarre-looking postures like Garbha Pindasana. You know, for "oldbies" like me (and maybe you as well), many of the postures are so familiar that we sometimes forget how bizarre they can look and feel to somebody who's doing them for the first them. For instance, it's not every day that the average person gets to fold his or her legs into lotus posture, use his or her sweat to lubricate the arms, then try to squish the arms through the folded legs. And then, to top it all off, roll around like a ball for five to nine times. It's a pretty bizarre action, if you stop to think about it.

On another note, Casey mentioned to us that oldbies also contribute to swara just by doing their practice: By doing my practice in the practice room, I allow the newbies to get an idea of where the practice can take them, and what is possible through this practice. I am happy I was of service in this way :-)

Casey hopes that we can start a regular rhythm of having mysore classes here in Fargo-Moorhead, even if just one day a week. We'll work on this.


On Saturday afternoon, after Casey's workshop, I attended the local Occupy Fargo demonstration in downtown Fargo. It was held in front of the US Bank plaza on Broadway, just across the street from Derek and Brenda's studio. There were somewhere between 50 and 100 people at the event; a modest turnout, by New York or even Twin Cities standards, but the energy was simply amazing. There were people of all ages and races, and everybody was in high spirits. I ran into a fellow Ashtangi, and chatted with him about practice for a few minutes, right in the middle of the event (can you tell what an Ashtangeek I am?).

And then I ran into a couple of my students from my classes at the university. One of them had made some signs, and offered me a sign which said, "Still waiting for that money to trickle down." I hesitated for about half a second; being a prim and proper Asian guy with a rather prim and proper Asian upbringing in the prim and proper island of Singapore, I had actually never been part of a demonstration before; all my youthful memories of demonstrations involved seeing TV footage of South Korean students getting blasted with fire hydrants and teargas, and scattering like bugs before a huge predator...

In any case, as I saying, I hesitated for about half a second, and then smiled and took the sign. I thought, "What the heck, there's always a first time for everything, right? And besides, I can probably use my considerable breath control powers if I ever get attacked by teargas."

My anxieties proved totally unfounded. As we stood there holding the signs, many motorists drove by and honked their support. To pass the time, my students and I even got into a discussion about Plato and his views on democracy while smiling and waving at motorists. There were a couple of cops around, but they seem, if anything, to be quite sympathetic to our cause, and did nothing to disrupt us.

So with this, I did two firsts this weekend: I was part of the first ever mysore class in Fargo-Moorhead, and I became a sign-holding protester for the first time in my life :-) I can't help feeling that participating in an Occupy event is also swara; by participating in a non-violent peaceful demonstration like this, I demonstrate my support and solidarity for the community (the 99%). In return, the 99% also supports and strengthens my conviction in the power of non-violent protest based on peaceful coexistence and dialogue. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

"Keep it smart, Keep it non-violent, Keep it growing": Marianne Williamson speaks out at Occupy L.A.

I just saw this video of Marianne Williamson speaking at Occupy L.A. over at Claudia's blog, and was so impressed and inspired that I decided to post it here.

The first one minute of the video is disrupted by a technical difficulty; they had to get her another mic, as the one she started out speaking with was not loud enough. But if you stick through that first minute, you will be rewarded with really good stuff.

One thing that she said really stood out to me: American capitalism has lost its ethical center. If this is not a yogic statement, well, I don't know what is. The parallel with our yoga practice couldn't be more obvious: Whatever our particular yoga style, in our daily practice, we step onto the mat in order to center ourselves, so that we can live in accordance with the yamas (ethical precepts) and niyamas (spiritual guides) for the rest of the day. Seen in this light, we can say that the Occupy movement is a movement to shift the ethical orientation of the entire country (and with it, the entire world) back in accordance with the ethical ideals of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and non-greed. As I said, if this isn't yoga, I don't know what is.

So, at the risk of sounding very preachy, let me say this: Whether you are on the street, at home, or at your workplace (or anywhere else), please direct your thoughts, words, and/or actions to the success of this movement. This is not a political movement. It is a spiritual movement against unnecessary human suffering.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Some random musings about Occupy Wall Street

Unless you have been living under a rock or in a state of cryogenic hibernation for the last month, you know about the #Occupy Wall Street movement; a movement to take back America (and, perhaps by extension, the rest of the world) from the 1% who control a disproportionate amount of its wealth, and redistribute said wealth more equitably among the remaining 99%. Right now, the movement has spread to many North American cities, and many other cities around the world have either followed suit or are following suit.

I have been thinking about and trying my best to observe this movement from my corner of the midwest. I have so far hesitated to say anything about it on this blog, for a few reasons. First, I suffer from what might be called "observer's guilt". I thought that since I am not actively participating in the movement, anything I say about it would be at best lacking in street cred and, at worst, hypocritical. I mean, if I really passionately believe in something, I should be in the trenches (or in this case, on the streets), and not just commenting on it from the relative safety of my home or office, shouldn't I?

Secondly, I did not get the sense that the occupy movement had any clear objectives as to what exactly it is that they want to achieve, beyond bringing about an end to the current system of wealth and capital distribution. And I had always been suspicious of mass movements without a clearly articulated set of objectives. 

Thirdly, I hesitated to comment on what I saw as a sensitive and polarizing topic; I have recently become a little weary (and wary) of blog wars, preferring instead to blog only about things that pertain directly to Ashtanga yoga practice. Blog wars, in my opinion, serve little purpose other than to inflate a few egos and hurt a whole bunch of people's feelings. To what end?

But this last reason turns out to be quite unfounded. Over the past few weeks, I have observed that there have been relatively few posts about this movement in the yoga blogosphere. The few posts that did emerge (examples include posts by Roseanne at It's All Yoga Baby, Carol at Think Body Electric, and Yoga Dork) have received either scant comments, or downright snarky and dismissive comments which question what kind of a place yogis could possibly have in a socio-political movement like this.

Well, seriously, what kind of a place could yogis and "spiritual" people have in a movement like this? Here's one answer that Michael Stone offers in a guest post on IAYB:

"Žižek, the protestors [of Occupy Wall Street], the Buddha and Shitou share a common and easily forgotten truth: We cause suffering for ourselves and others when we lose our sense of connectedness. We are the 99 percent but we are dependent on the 1 percent that control forty percent of the wealth. Those statistics reflect grave imbalance in our society.

Of course people are taking to the streets. In the U.S. 44.6 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for over six months. Long-term unemployment at this level is unprecedented in the post second world war era, and it causes deep strife in communities, families and people’s health.

This movement is also showing the power of non-violence. Non-violence, a core precept in my own Buddhist practice, is not an ideology. It’s the power of facing what’s actually going on in each and every moment and responding as skillfully as possible. The depth of our awakening, our humanness, has everything to with how we care for others. Our sphere of awareness begins to include everything and everyone. The way we respond to our circumstances shows our commitment to non-harm...

If we can trust in the space where, on the one hand, we are fed up with economic instability and ecological degradation and, on the other, we value interconnectedness, we are doing the same thing collectively that the meditator does on his or her cushion. We are trusting that something loving and creative will emerge from this space that we create. It’s too early to say what that may be. It won’t just be a rehashing of an ideology from the past. These are new times and require a new imaginative response."

In short, if we believe that the sufferings of others are not unconnected with our own suffering, if we believe that true happiness and prosperity is not something that one can or should obtain at the cost of somebody else's preventable suffering, then we have a place in a movement like this. And the presence of such economic and spiritual imbalances is reason and objective enough for this movement. 

As Stone points out, we may not know at this moment what exactly will emerge from this space of protest. But I think that there are certain pivotal points in one's own life where one just has a very powerful gut feeling that something has gone terribly wrong and needs to be changed, and that some powerful action needs to be taken to bring about that change, even if one does not know exactly how that change is going to happen, or what will emerge as a result of that change. I think the same thing applies to the life of a society, and on an even larger scale, the world. Seen in this light, it is no accident that there is this collective "gut feeling" that has moved so many people from all walks of life into the streets of the major cities of the world, carrying on the non-violent work begun by people like Martin Luther King Jr.: King, incidentally, was in the process of planning a march on Washington D.C. to demand more equitable working and living conditions when he was assassinated.

Perhaps some people are skeptical about the movement because of the involvement of high-profile celebrity yogis like Seane Corne. I do not know that much about Corne's work (although I have heard lots of good things about it). But I believe that the more the movement is able to bring in people of varying levels of socio-economic status and wealth, the better it will serve the movement. In fact, I will even go so far as to suggest that the power and credibility of the 99% will be furthered bolstered if it is able to get at least a few members of the 1% to join its ranks. Because, as naive as this might sound, I think that this is the best proof of the power of non-violent assimilation. Because I personally think that this is the best alternative to class warfare and the violence that inevitably accompanies such warfare. 

Well, I need to be somewhere now. Maybe I'll write more later. So I'll have to leave you with the above thoughts, which are admittedly, rather hastily formulated. But at any rate, they are my honest thoughts. And that's perhaps what's most important, in the final analysis. I'll leave you with this final thought for now: As much as I still feel rather guilty about just writing and commenting about this movement from the relative comfort of my office, I figured that saying something here is better than not saying something (after all, didn't they say that the pen is mightier than the sword? ;-)). So here goes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What do you do with all that sweat?

I have been thinking a bit about this question since my previous post. If you practice Ashtanga, chances are you will sweat at least some, at least some of the time. I personally know one person who can get through all of second without breaking a sweat (or at least not noticeably), but such a person is, I take it, a somewhat rare case. So most of us will sweat during practice to varying degrees, anywhere from a light film on the skin to a puddle/mini-lake on your mat or the space in front of it. To my mind, these are some of the possible things one can do with one's sweat:

(1) Wipe it off with a towel.
(2) Wear a headband/bandanna/some other kind of sweat-absorbent headgear.
(3) Do nothing; just allow the great gushing rivulets of brine to flow off your body in all their glory.
(4) Rub it back into your body.

To be sure, this list probably does not exhaust all the possibilities: For example, one can also (at least in theory) lick oneself off like a cat. But I'm not going to go there...

As Kimberly said in the video I posted yesterday, (4) is what is traditionally prescribed: It is supposed to unleash the fountain of youth. Interesting. The trouble with this, as with so many other aspects of Ashtanga practice, is that there is no scientific basis for this: To my knowledge, no long-term studies have been done to date about the effects of rubbing sweat back into one's body.

Of course, just because something doesn't have a scientific basis does not mean it doesn't work. In fact, as somebody pointed out in a blog post or comment somewhere sometime ago, it's not even scientifically proven that sweating actually releases toxins. And I can imagine that there's probably a whole bunch of things about Ashtanga yoga practice (and Hatha yoga practice in general) that has not been subject to any systematic long-term studies. Not that that has prevented a bunch of crazy people from doing this practice six days a week... :-)

Well, I probably should stop here; I see that this post is quickly spiraling into rambling-about-neither-here-nor-there-land. But I guess I'll leave you with a question: What do you do with that salty-tasting liquid that comes out of the beautiful pores on the skin of your beautiful body when you practice?

In case you are shy to share, I'll start the ball rolling. I basically just let it flow freely. I have done this even before I started practicing Ashtanga, because I've always felt that stopping to wipe the sweat off really breaks my practice rhythm. I'm not a big fan of rubbing the sweat in, but I do it when getting into Garbha Pindasana; I basically rub the sweat all over my arms and use it as a, well, natural lubricant to get my arms through, because I am too lazy to get up to go get a spray bottle.

What about you? What do you do with all that sweat? 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rubbing your sweat back into your body is the fountain of youth

If you have been following this blog and my posts on my own practice for a while (or if you have the dubious fortune of actually having seen me practice), you'll know that I'm the biggest Ashtangic sweat-hog in the universe: I literally sweat puddles when I practice. I often get a bit embarrassed by this when I practice at studios I'm visiting at.

But I just watched the following video by Authorized Ashtanga Teacher Kimberly Flynn, which gave me a lot of assurance that I am not abnormal for being a sweat-hog. It also confirms something I have believed for a while now: Over the last couple of years of daily Ashtanga practice, I have come to believe that sweating at least a little everyday is a good way to detox the body on both the physical and mental levels. Most of us know that according to Ashtanga philosophy, sweating detoxifies and purifies the body of toxins. I also believe that  sweating has a beneficial effect on your overall mood for the day, especially if you live in colder climates where you might not get so much sun at certain times of the year.

All of this is probably well-known to many Ashtanga practitioners out there. What is perhaps not so well-known is what you should do with your sweat when you are actually sweating. Do you wipe it off with a towel? No! You rub it back into your body!... No, really. Why? Because it is the fountain of youth. Kimberly gives a more detailed explanation in the video below. Enjoy!

Practice, Mula Bandha as cessation of thought, confessions of a yogic stalker

This morning, I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. Why no Karandavasana? Well, my SI joint has been feeling dodgy the last few days. In particular, during full primary on Saturday morning, I felt this twinge in my right SI joint area as I was getting into Kurmasana, and for the rest of the day, my back just felt wrong. I couldn't sit for more than half an hour without feeling my lower back stiffen up.

So this morning, I decided to work slowly from primary. I paid special attention to the first few postures, especially the Suryas. In particular, in Surya B, I tried to apply a few of the things that PakistaniAshtangi recently shared from her workshop with Dena Kingsberg (I'm quoting directly from PakistaniAshtangi's notes here):

(1) "Go deep (and I mean deep) into a squat in the Utkatasana bit – this will help develop strength in the legs needed for standing up from UD, while also developing your ability to do Pasasana (by stretching the Achilles tendons) – then come up from the deep squat to lift the hands overhead, and come up far enough so that your back becomes comfortable (i.e. not scrunched, no butt sticking out), and neck comes up last. When folding over on the next out-breath don’t straighten your legs until your torso is flat against your legs, then straighten the legs. When jumping back, land with arms straight so you can set up your Chaturanga by rolling the shoulders back, lifting the heart, and squeeze the bandhas tight, then lower to chaturanga."

(2) "In upward dog: Keep feet pretty close together, no more than hip width apart (though Dena actually does it with her feet touching to get the maximum effect). When you protect the lower back with your bandhas this will, apparently, minimize strain and pain in lower back and make the other, stiffer parts of the back bend. All toes should press into the floor, and there should be a tension, a stretch, pulling your toes one way and your chest/upper body the other way – which is really important, Dena talked a lot about stretching things in two directions, the tension between two ends of a pose. Only that way will you get the backbend you want."

I discovered that paying attention to all these things really helps you to get so much more out of Surya B. By the time I finished standing, I felt strong enough to go through primary. I tried to apply the same things that Dena emphasized in Surya B to the updog portion of the vinyasas: I realized that I have a tendency to just kind of move quickly through the updogs without paying too much attention to the posture. I discovered this morning that emphasizing the concept of there being an active tension (pulling toes one way, upper body/chest the other way) really makes a difference in stretching and lengthening the front body in between the many forward bends of primary.

When I got to Kurmasana, I paid close attention to getting into the postures without trying to push or yank my way into position. To my pleasant surprise, there were no unpleasant sensations in Kurmasana. I even managed to sit up and get into Supta Kurmasana via Dwi Pada Sirsasana without incident.

Through it all, I think that being mindful of one's breath and movement and paying attention to the bandhas really help to make the practice safe and productive. Speaking of bandhas, I just read Kino's latest blog post. She was teaching her workshop in Chicago last week, and met Richard Freeman (who, incidentally, was conducting a Teacher's Intensive in Chicago at the same time) for coffee and attended his yoga philosophy class. In this class, Freeman discusses Shankaracharya's views on mula banda. Here's Kino's notes on Freeman's talk:

"Mula Bandha – 114

yanmulam sarvabhutanam yanmulam cittabandharam/
mulabandhah sada sevyo yogyo’sau rajayoginam

That which is the root of all existence and on which the cessation of the mind is based is called mulabandha, which should always be served since it is fit for raja-yogis.

Richard says that mula bandha is the cessation of thought so it cannot be something you think or try to do. It is more of a seva, which means service or to attend to and the idea is that mula bandha is treated like a deity and you do seva to the deity at the sacred temple sitting deep within the pelvis. The balancing of energies on the pelvic floor is the way to consecrate the temple and then the goddess serpent Kundalini will stand up when she wants to. The voyeur of the ego prevents the goddess from awakening because you have to invite her as the sacred flame at the root of the pelvic floor so that she inhabits the temple. Mula bandha according to Richard is not a mechanical thing but more like a devotional experience. He suggested doing a bhakti puja to Ganapti in the pelvis to get mula bandha and to invite the god into the temple at the base of the pelvic floor. In the form of the goddess, “sri” is her name. Then with a cheeky smile Richard said that this is the secret part of the lineage and that he shouldn’t have even told us this. I thought for a moment about not sharing his definition of mula bandha but I decided to share it anyway. I hope I haven’t committed an Ashtanga crime."

I find all this really fascinating, especially the idea that mula bandha isn't actually something you do or engage. The idea, as I understand it, is that our daily practice is a daily act of service and devotion to this sacred power that we all possess deep within the pelvis. Over the course of consistent practice, the kundalini will arise of its own volition "when she wants to." Seen in this light, we don't actually try to achieve anything through the practice; the practice is more like the actions of plowing the soil of our being, planting the seeds and watering them consistently. The fruit (kundalini) will arise when the time is ripe. Or, as Guruji would say, "Do your practice, and all is coming."

Speaking of Kino's workshop, on a more personal note, I can't help noting that I was at her Chicago workshop around this time last year. I just couldn't find the time (or money) to go this year, because I am already doing quite a bit of traveling in the next few weeks for academic purposes. You know, when I read about her encounter with Richard Freeman, I couldn't help wondering: What if I had gone to her Chicago workshop last week? If I had, perhaps I would also have had the good fortune of meeting Freeman myself too, if I were thick-skinned enough to shamelessly hang around Kino, and maybe "shadow"/borderline-stalk her to that Starbucks at the time when she met Freeman (hmm... you didn't know I am a yogic stalker, did you? :-)). Well, you know, maybe I could just hang around for a few minutes outside the Starbucks, and then "coincidentally" show up at the Starbucks ("Hey, Kino, you're here too! What a coincidence! Oh, aren't you Richard Freeman? I'm such a great fan of your book (although I haven't actually read it...")). Oh well, I just realized how ridiculous all this is starting to sound. Well, now you know what a ridiculous person I am... 

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Confessions of a somewhat happy egoist

 [Image taken from here]

I just read David Garrigues' latest post about the asana practice and moving from the center. As always, David's post is very beautiful; he brings up many things with a depth of insight that I can only marvel at. I highly recommend reading it. He writes:

"In our fantasy of what we will look like and how good it will feel we overextend ourselves in our efforts to achieve what we consider to be the end goal or final pose. Our excursions take us too far away from the center where the skeletal support is, where our breath really does lead the way– where we make optimal use of our muscles and organs and where our brains are situated properly to minimize reality obscuring ego striving.... you have to be sure you are not sacrificing your body to your ego. That you are not going too far in order to compensate for unconscious feelings of unworthiness— you don’t need to use your asana practice to ‘prove’ you are good and worthy."

These last two sentences really strike a chord in me. I am one of the most egoistic people I know, and ego has often led me to many places in my practice that I would rather not be (for an example of this, see my previous post). I will definitely ponder David's words carefully here, and make a more conscious intention to move more from my center.

As many of us know, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga has often been accused of being a practice that offers the practitioner too many opportunities to over-identify with asanas and in the process, feed the practitioner's ego. I suppose there is some truth to that. I'll even go further, and venture to speculate (although I really have no statistical evidence to back this up) that Ashtanga tends to attract people with a certain self-loathing streak; people who somehow feel less than complete or adequate, and therefore feel the need to use the asana practice to "compensate for unconscious feelings of unworthiness" and in this way, "prove" that one is good and worthy. And if you think about it, these feelings of unworthiness may be what are really driving many "Type A" individuals; individuals who always have something to prove, either to themselves or to others. 

But as I said, I don't have any statistical evidence to back these claims up (what do you want me to do, conduct a poll on this? :-)), and I'm not saying that every single person who practices Ashtanga fits this psychological profile. All I'm doing, really, is speaking for myself. And I figure that if this psychological profile is true of me, then maybe, just maybe, it might also be true of at least a few other Ashtangis out there.

So, the truth is out: I am a person who uses the asana practice to compensate for unconscious feelings of unworthiness, who (over)achieves asanas because he feels the need to prove that he is good and worthy (of what? you may ask. Well, I'm not going there; this is not a psychoanalytical blog post :-)). Well... what about it? I mean, are you this super-self-evolved being who never feels the need to compensate for any feelings of unworthiness, conscious or otherwise? So you have effectively extinguished your ego, and never feel the need to prove anything to anybody anymore? If so, good for you. I'm obviously not there (yet). So what I'm going to do, I think, is to continue to strive in my asana practice. Try to land that Karandavasana and then come back up. Maybe do third series at some point. Maybe do fourth series before I leave this world. Maybe complete all six series (and then I'll finally be a perfectly evolved ego-extinguished being who has nothing to prove to anybody). But till then, I'll continue to sweat and toil in the trenches of asana practice. Of course, I'll try to be smart about it as well. You know, rest when I can (take moon days and rest days), try to breathe and move from the center.  Etc., etc. But it looks like sweating and toiling in the asana trenches will be my lot for a while. And if it's going to be my lot for a while, wouldn't it be better to toil happily, rather than berate myself day in and day out for being egoistic? So here it is: I've resolved to be a happy egoist, as far as this is possible. Maybe you will join me too? Or are you too evolved? :-)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sore back, Kapotasana, Karandavasana

Did second only up to Karandavasana today. Almost did primary only (I know, the traditional thing to do is to do primary only on Fridays, but I'm not traditional in this way; I do primary only on Saturdays, and rest on Sundays). But I almost did primary only today, because my lower back was feeling really sore for most of yesterday; I was half expecting to have to slowly crawl out of bed this morning because of the soreness; backs, as most of us know, have a tendency to really stiffen during the night when they are sore during the day. Thankfully, this did not happen, and I was able to walk to the bathroom this morning like a, well, normal human being.

But why was my back sore? During yesterday's practice, I tried a little too zealously to get my leg behind my head in Ekapada and Dwipada Sirsasanas, despite pretty obvious signs that my hip wasn't quite open enough: A combination of bad old ego and inattention. For most of yesterday, I felt the soreness when I got up after sitting for more than half an hour; it wasn't quite as bad as when I messed up my SI joint last year, but it was definitely something noticeable. In any case, I was concerned that this would mean that I will have to go back to doing primary only for months... isn't it funny, the kinds of things Ashtangis worry about? I suspect that any other normal human being would be worrying about whether he or she would be able to even walk...

So I was faced with an interesting dilemma during practice this morning. As I got out of Ardha Badha Padmottanasana, I had to decide whether to go into Utkatasana (thus doing primary only) or into Pasasana and with it, second series. I decided that my back wasn't that sore, and that I would probably survive second (perhaps ego played a part in this decision too; how big its part was, I cannot be entirely sure).

Well, I seem to be right so far, knock on wood. It's slightly after two in the afternoon now. My back is still somewhat sore, but not nearly as sore as yesterday. Hopefully, this means it is healing. This is probably because I paid a lot more attention during practice today, especially in the postures that are more likely to stress the SI joint (Pasasana, the leg-behind-head postures, etc.).

Back soreness and SI joint anxieties not withstanding, there are a couple of interesting things to note about this morning's practice:

(1) Going into Kapotasana, I tried Frank's suggestion to take the prayer position higher: elbows together in front of the sternum, instead of prayer hands in front of the sternum. The idea, Frank suggested, is to use the arms as something to press the chest against, and thus bring about greater opening in the thoracic spine. It seemed to work: I didn't have to hang for nearly as many breaths in order to get the opening required to reach back and grab my feet, and then my heels. I'll continue working with this.

(2) In Karandavasana, I did my usual duck landing on the first attempt (just barely managed to land it today, but well, I'll take what I can get :-)). On the second attempt, I tried Frank's suggestion to work on "Half-ways": I got into Pincha Mayurasana, got my feet into lotus, and then, instead of bringing the lotus all the way down to land the duck, I tried to go only as far as I could and still come back up to lotus in Pincha. I found that I was actually able to curl the lotus around the pelvis and bring the lotus down about one-quarter of the way, and still come back up to lotus in Pincha. The idea here is to work on gradually going lower and lower, so that I will eventually be able to touch down in the duck and then come back up. Once I can do that, I can then go on to try touching down and holding the duck for one breath, then two breaths, etc, etc., so that eventually, one day, I will be able to hold the duck for five breaths and come back up. It's the same idea as learning to come up from Laghu Vajrasana, except that one is moving the body in a different direction and using different body parts. Very interesting. I'll keep working on this.

I always feel that a post on Karandavasana feels weirdly incomplete without a spectacular video of somebody doing this infamous pose. So here's the famous Laruga doing the infamous Karandavasana. Gosh, she looks totally effortless doing it. Whereas with me, you can probably hear me breathing from half a mile away when I'm working on this pose :-) But, well, everything is a work in progress. I can only do my best.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thought Experiment: If yoga were a pill, would you take it?

Today, in my philosophy of art class, we were pondering the question: "What gives a work of art its artistic value?"

One prominent answer that many philosophers have given to this question is: Experience. According to these philosophers, a work of art has whatever artistic value it has because of the value of the experience that it affords the connoisseur. For instance, a particular piece of music has artistic value because of the experience it affords you, the listener, as you go through the process of listening to it, appreciating its formal qualities and various layers of meaning in its lyrics, as well as savoring whatever emotions and raw feelings the music brings up in you.

This answer, however, brings up some interesting problems. For instance, if there were something else which can give you the exact same experience as actually listening to this piece of music, would this thing then have the same artistic value as actually listening to the piece of music? For instance, suppose there were a pill that you can take that can evoke in you the exact same experience that you would have if you were actually listening to this piece of music. Suppose this pill contains certain sophisticated hallucinogens which can put you into a state in which you experience exactly the same images and experiences you would experience if you were actually listening to a live performance of the music, down to the last detail, so that your conscious mind is unable to distinguish between this hallucinogen-induced musical experience, and the actual real-world experience of being in a concert hall and listening to the piece of music being performed live. Would you then say that this hallucinogenic musical experience has the exact same artistic value as the real-world musical experience?

If the answer is yes (i.e. the hallucinogenic musical experience has the exact same artistic value as the real-world musical experience), wouldn't this mean that works of art don't even have to be actual or exist in the real world in order for them to have artistic value? All that is needed is for them to be experienced in somebody's consciousness at some point in time or other. And if we take this line of thought a little further, wouldn't this imply that virtual works of art, i.e. works of art that only exist in somebody's mind, have just as much artistic value as works of art that exist in the real world? Interesting, don't you think?


This thought experiment can be applied to yoga, with a few changes. Suppose there were a pill that you can take that can evoke in you the exact same experience that you would have if you were, say, doing full primary... Actually, let's take this a little further. Suppose this pill is so sophisticated that it can induce not just the process of doing yoga, but also the end result: Samadhi. Suppose that, in addition to replicating the sensations of doing the yoga practice, this pill also replicates whatever experiences one would have when one finally experiences Samadhi after so many years of practice. (Note: It is important that the pill replicates not just the experience of Samadhi, but also the experience of the process of practice that is undertaken to get to Samadhi. Otherwise, the experience wouldn't feel authentic.) So suppose this pill puts you into the exact same states that you would experience in the real world if you were to undertake the entire journey of yoga practice and attain Samadhi, down to the last detail, so that your conscious mind is unable to distinguish between this hallucinogen-induced yogic experience, and the actual real-world experience of going through a yoga sadhana and attaining Samadhi. Would this hallucinogenic yogic experience then have the exact same, uh, yogic value as the real-world yogic experience? Would you take this pill?

Hmm... I think this makes for a fun poll question. So I'm going to conduct a poll on this. It's in the upper right-hand corner of this blog, as always. Please take a moment to cast your vote. I think I already know what the response to this poll is going to be like, but I'll try to keep my mind open anyway, and see what comes up. :-)      

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Backbends; Anybody know how to unsquish the Karandavasana?

Practice this morning was interesting. I did second only up to Karandavasana. Here are a couple of things that are worthy of note (at least to me):

(1) Backbends: I have recently come to the conclusion that I am not opening my thoracic spine enough in backbends. I say this, because in the last couple of weeks, I have been feeling a certain ache in my lower back whenever I come out of a deep backbend (like Kapotasana, for instance). It doesn't seem to be anything serious: The ache always goes away by the time I finish practice. But it's something to think about, nonetheless. So I have decided to do some things to try to address it:

(i) In Kapotasana B, for the longest time, I had placed my hands next to my heels, as I thought that made for a deeper backbend. However, at Matthew Sweeney (MS)'s workshop in July, MS suggested that I should try placing my hands next to my toes instead; according to him, placing my hands next to my heels was causing me to arch too much in the lumbar spine. I followed his suggestion, and made the change accordingly, and have been placing my hands next to my toes in Kapo B ever since: Which means that I would go into Kapo A, grab the heels for five to ten breaths, and then transition into Kapo B by letting go of my heels and placing my hands next to my toes.

Today, however, I decided on the spur of the moment to try placing my hands next to my heels again in Kapo B, just to see whether it would make any difference to that achy feeling in my lower back. And the interesting thing is, when I came out of Kapo B from that hands-next-to-heels position, there was no achy feeling in my lower back at all. Interesting, don't you think? Perhaps this means that, between MS's workshop and now, my body has changed in such a way that placing my hands next to my heels in Kapo B does not cause me to arch too much in the lumbar spine anymore, and may instead be good for my lower back now. But it's still too early to make any sort of definitive judgment right now. I guess I'll continue with this configuration of Kapo B for a couple more weeks, and see what happens.

(ii) For the longest time, in the finishing backbends, I have been dropping back with my hands in prayer position on my chest. I would simply arch back with my hands in prayer on my chest, and then extend my arms to the ground at the last moment. It's always worked so far.

Recently, I read a comment by somebody on somebody else's blog (I think it was a comment Bindy made on Savasanaaddict's blog) where the commenter said that according to Dena Kingsberg, it is actually healthier for the spine to drop back with arms extended and overhead rather than in prayer position. According to Kingsberg, the arms-overhead position opens the thoracic spine more, and prevents the lumbar spine from moving forward too much. So this morning, I decided to try this arm-overhead position again. I say again, because I have actually tried this position a couple of times in the past before, but I did not stick with it, as I found it hard to control the speed of the dropback with my arms overhead (lack of core strength/bandha engagement, perhaps?); I would find myself plunging towards the mat at full speed and just barely stopping myself with my hands at the last moment. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to try this arms-overhead position again this morning. To my pleasant surprise, I had better control this morning than in the past: It wasn't a perfectly slow and deliberate drop back, but I was able to control the motion enough not to just plunge back into the backbend. And my back actually felt pretty good throughout :-) I'll keep working with this arms-overhead position, and see where this takes me from this point.

I've heard so much about Dena Kingsberg, about what a strict teacher she is. I think she will so totally call out all my weird antics and habits if I ever study with her... I know that Pakistani Ashtangi is studying with her now, and has posted a few very detailed posts about her studies on her blog.

(2) Karandavasana: For the last two or three weeks, I have been able to land the duck in Karandavasana quite regularly. In fact, for the last few days, I have been able to land the duck on my first attempt, so that I do not have to make a second attempt.

I am still unable to come back up. Every time I finish the five breaths with my lotus on my upper arms, I try to summon the strength to push the lotus up and away from the upper arms, but it always seems that either my body feels very heavy, or I seem to have run out of gas and have to come out of the posture, or both. Anybody out there have any tips on how to come back up into the forearm balance from lotus-on-upper-arms? In his recent post, Grimmly observed that accomplished "Karandavasaners" such as Laruga are able to keep their upper body lifted and not squished throughout the entire posture. I think this may have something to it: I have never seen myself in Karandavasana, but my Karandavasana definitely feels squished. Anybody out there have any tips about how to "unsquish" the Karandavasana?

In other news: 

(1) The temperature actually got up to 90 degrees fahrenheit today. 90 degrees in October in the upper-midwest. Now try telling me global warming is a hoax...

(2) In a couple of weeks (on the weekend of October 21st to 23rd), I'll be driving to Davenport, Iowa to present my procrastination paper at another philosophy conference. And then, a couple of weeks after that (from November 4th to 6th), I'll be in Portland, Oregon presenting the same paper at another conference. If you live in Davenport (or the general area), and would possibly like to hang out with me, please get in touch with me. I don't know if there are any Ashtanga shalas in Davenport; in any case, my schedule there seems pretty crazy, and I don't think I will be able to go to a shala if there is one. But it would be great to meet anybody out there who reads this blog, nonetheless. :-)