Sunday, December 30, 2012

Video of me doing primary series to Sharath's count

Here it is, finally: My first-ever Youtube video! After waiting for a very, very long time to get it uploaded (see previous post), it finally, well, uploaded! I am both happy and relieved at the same time.

In the video, I am doing primary to Sharath's count, from Paschimattanasana all the way to Utplutih. I decided to leave out the standing postures, because I didn't have enough space on my memory card, and also because I can't bear to watch myself dance in UHP :-)

The whole thing is 45 minutes, so please don't feel like you have to watch all of it. But I hope you like it.

Totally Fett Up; Or, the perils of Youtubing

Yesterday morning, I decided to try filming myself doing primary series to Sharath's vinyasa count from his led primary CD. The day before (Friday), I had bought a digital camera, ostensibly in order to record whatever beautiful scenery I might encounter on my drive through all the states I will drive through (North Dakota, Montana) when I start my drive from here to Idaho in a couple of days.

But the moment I decided to buy the camera, it also occurred to me that I have never actually seen myself practicing before. So I bought myself a mini-tripod as well, and set it up in my living room yesterday morning, and started filming from Paschimottanasana all the way to Utplutih (I don't have enough memory in my data card to film the entire primary series; besides, I really can't bear to see myself dance in UHP...). So, I basically hit "record" immediately after the standing postures, and got onto my mat and started doing primary to Sharath's count all the way to Utplutih. So the entire video is done in a single take.

The final product is about 45 minutes in length. I watched it after practice, and I don't want to sound immodest here, but I actually thought it was pretty good. If you can see it, you'll see that I can't get into Mari C or D in one breath, and I wasn't sweaty enough to be able to bring my arms through into Garbha Pindasana within one breath either. But it is what it is. All in all, I have to say that I actually enjoyed seeing myself practice (does enjoying the sight of yourself doing practice violate any of the yamas, I wonder?). I wish you could see it too...

Which brings me to the question: Why can't you see it? (not that you'd necessarily want to see a 36-year-old Asian guy breath and fold himself into all kinds of shapes for 45 minutes, but it's always good to have options, right?) Well, I tried uploading the video to Youtube yesterday afternoon. The whole operation took more than 3 hours (never knew that uploading videos could be so much trouble...). At the end of it, Youtube politely told me that my video has been rejected because it is too long. Gosh... they could at least have the courtesy to tell me before making me wait three hours, don't you think? Or is this the price of being able to upload things for free? I suppose if I had wanted to use one of those cloud-based uploading systems, I could probably quite easily upload my video somewhere for a fee. But I'm just an amateur yogi, and am not willing to invest money just so that people can see my totally uncensored home practice... In any case, by this time, I was totally exhausted, and totally Fett Up:

 [Image taken from here]

But before I called it a day, I decided to poke around my Youtube account a little, and discovered that by changing a few settings, I can actually upload videos that are longer than 15 minutes. How much longer than 15 minutes, it did not say. But I changed my settings anyway. 

So this morning, I am giving this whole uploading videos thing another shot. As I am writing this, Youtube is at work uploading that video. It still looks like it's going to take more than 3 hours (yawn...); I don't even know if I'll be able to stay at this coffeeshop long enough to complete this process. I need to go pick somebody up at the airport at 2 p.m. But we'll see. By the grace of Youtube, maybe I'll be successful this time. And maybe you'll get to see my uncensored, unadorned practice video on this blog for the first time (if you want to see it, of course).

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Practice after being drunk on carbs; why do more Americans not like musicals?

Practice this morning was... interesting, because of the combination of physical heaviness and emotional heaviness in me. There was emotional heaviness, because of the lingering effects of watching Les Miserables yesterday; as I was breathing and moving through the asanas, bits and pieces of songs from Les Miz would come into my mind, and I would actually get goosebumps. There was also physical heaviness, because after watching Les Miz yesterday, I went to a Mexican restaurant and indulged in my secret Mexican vice: Huevos Rancheros! I probably have enough cholesterol in my system right now to last me the entire week, maybe even the rest of the month. Why do I do this to myself? I don't know; there's just something about packing a lot of carbs and protein and corn into myself every now and again that is mind-numbingly satiating; getting drunk on carbs, if you will.

Despite the physical and emotional heaviness, I still did a pretty satisfactory full primary. Took longer breaths in the standing postures, ala Grimmly. And in the finishing backbends, I did six UDs instead of the standard three, because I felt that I needed to do more to open my body for dropbacks and standups. The whole practice took an hour and a half. Not exactly Sharath's pace, but respectable enough, I think, especially given the extra things I did.


This morning, I had some more time to think about Les Miserables, and to ponder the question of why more Americans do not like musicals. As I understand it, the Golden Age of musicals in America was during the forties and fifties, when Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote all their wonderful pieces (Oklahoma, South Pacific, etc), and when the likes of Judy Garland entertained millions with their on-screen singing. In the ensuing decades since, despite a few attempts to revive the genre here and there (Chicago, Hairspray, etc.), the musical has never quite caught back on. I get the sense that most Americans think musicals are weird or dorky.

Why do they think this? I'm not entirely sure. Perhaps many Americans think that musicals are weird because they require the audience to suspend too many common-sense beliefs about reality. For example, a student in one of my classes a few semesters ago said, "In real life, people don't break out into song after they have been shot and are dying! They just... die." Interesting point.

Another related reason for the lack of general interest in musicals may be this: The very nature of singing requires the singer to maintain a sort of artistic distance between what she is expressing through her singing and the emotion that is supposedly conveyed through the singing. I know this is a very awkward way of saying what I'm trying to say, but think about it this way: If you are really, really sad and devastated about something, you probably wouldn't be singing about your sadness. You would be crying, sobbing, bawling or doing whatever else it is that you do when you give vent to your emotions. Being able to sing about something requires you to put a certain poetic distance between you and the raw emotions that you are supposedly feeling. I suspect that it is the presence of this poetic distance that alienates many people from musicals: After all, "real people" do not sing when they are sad. They just cry or sob or bawl or whatever. So musicals are "not real", from this point of view.

I don't really know if the above represent the reasons why many Americans do not like musicals (although I think I am on to something). I also don't really want to change anybody's minds about musicals. After all, as one reviewer puts it, "Either you are in or you are out when it comes to musicals." There is no middle ground.

This may be so. But I wouldn't be doing my duty if I don't make at least a feeble attempt at possibly changing somebody's mind. So here goes. To its credit, the latest interpretation of Les Miz actually makes a very credible attempt at bridging the artistic distance between artistic expression and emotion. It does this by having its performers sing their parts while they are filming, instead of pre-recording everything in the studio and then having the actors lip-synch on screen. This, combined with lots of extreme close-ups of the actors while they are singing and emoting, gives a certain immediacy to the delivery. For instance, take a look at Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream", which was sung and filmed in a single take... well, actually, it looks like they don't have the actual scene on Youtube yet. But I found a clip below that at least has her voice in it. Take a listen. And then maybe go see the movie. And then maybe you'll change your mind about musicals. Or not :-)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Les Miserables

Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables
[Image taken from here]

Earlier today, I went to see Les Miserables at the movie theater. I really liked it. As you probably already know, Hugh Jackman plays the protagonist Jean Valjean in this latest interpretation; yes, Wolverine plays a French ex-convict-turned-mayor-turned-saintly-adopted-father. I honestly found that a bit hard to swallow when I first heard about it, but I have to say that I really think Jackman played the role very convincingly. Personally, I would have envisioned an older actor in that role, but Jackman pulls it off with much gravitas and presence. Russell Crowe is also quite convincing (although not intensely badass enough, in my opinion) as Inspector Javert. And actually, the best acting in my opinion goes to Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play the Thenardiers, the money-hungry and morally corrupt inn-keeping couple who swindle unsuspecting patrons.

This is really a very neither-here-nor-there attempt at a movie review. It's really very difficult to say much about a work that appeals to me at so many levels. Let me just say this: As somebody who intensely loves the original musical (btw, I don't know why more Americans do not love musicals), I can't watch even a minimally credible interpretation of this work without being profoundly moved. I actually know the lyrics to many of the songs by heart (I know, I'm really a musical geek), and I find it just impossible to watch Les Miserables without having that powerful feeling that our lives, insignificant as they seem, are part of something much, much bigger. As Jean Valjean sings at the end, "To love another person is to see the face of God." Powerful stuff. I highly, highly recommend it.

Some thoughts on doing primary only and dropbacks and standups; Boxing Day and the vicissitudes of blog stats

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I have scaled back my practice to primary only for the next few weeks, in order to energetically adjust myself for my move to Idaho.

Some people may see going back to primary only as taking a step back in the practice, but this is incorrect. If nothing else, going back to doing primary only can be an invaluable "reset" button that enables one to clear up whatever sloppy technique/faffiness/spiritual-physical gunk that may have accumulated from not paying enough attention to the basics. In any case, any sort of significant progress can only occur through a period of "stepping back" and consolidation.

I have discovered in my case that nowhere is this more true than with backbends. As you know, if you are doing primary only, the only backbends you get to do are the finishing backbends, plus dropbacks and standups. Now there has been a lot of debate recently in the Ashtanga blogosphere about whether it is a good thing for teachers to insist that students be able to drop back and stand up before going on to second. Many people have made the argument that this no-second-before-standing-up-from-backbending rule (let's call this "NSBSU" from now on) is not a sound rule, because some of the first few backbends of second series may actually help the student to find the muscles that she needs in order to stand up from a backbend.

I personally think there is some merit to this argument. I myself was moved on to second by my teacher before I could stand up from dropping back: If I remember correctly, I was actually able to grab my heels in Kapo by myself before I could find the necessary muscles to stand up from dropping back.

But over the last few days, as I restricted my backbends to Urdhva Dhanurasanas and dropbacks and standups, I began to see that there is a certain beauty to NSBSU. Here's why: If you have to go into UDs and dropbacks immediately from primary, your body (and mind) doesn't have the luxury of relying on the first few second series backbends to open up your body for you. In other words, you don't have the luxury of thinking: Okay, I have all these nice gentle second series backbends (except Kapo, of course) to open up my body for me, so I can, you know, relax a little, and let these backbends do the work for me.

I suspect that too many of us have a tendency to think this way, and, in this way, to use these second series backbends as a sort of psychological crutch. And as you know, in yoga practice, whatever happens on the psychological level inevitably translates into something on a physical level. Which also leads me to suspect that more often than not, this kind of "relax a little" mindset leads one to execute the second series backbends in a sloppy fashion (a possibility made all the more tempting by the fact that you are lying prone on the mat...). Which leads to one getting less out of these backbends, and possibly even to injury.

I'm not making any sort of categorical claim that it is impossible to do the second series backbends without sloppiness. Rather, I'm just speaking from my recent experience here. As I was saying, over the last few days of doing primary only, I've realized that if you have to go into UD straight from primary, you pretty much have to do a lot of work right away to bring as much of the backbend into the upper-back (by bringing your shoulders over your elbows) and into your quads and psoas, because you only have three UDs before you have to drop back and stand up. No time or space to mess around. I discovered that because I had to do so much work in so short a time, my backbends felt more open, and there was this delicious burning sensation in my thighs from all this work (for more details on this sweet delicious burning sensation, see this post). Which makes for a very satisfactory and fulfilling backbend practice, all in all.


In other news: Happy Boxing Day! Speaking of Boxing Day, this quirky post that I wrote on Boxing Day last year has unexpectedly been getting a lot of views in the last few days; people probably stumbled upon this post as the result of randomly googling "Boxing Day" or "Boxing Day Images". In fact, as you can see, it is actually the second most read post of all time on this blog as of right now.

As a result of this unexpected occurrence, this blog has been getting a crazy number of hits yesterday and today. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, the number of hits I've had so far today (I won't tell you how many) is the highest this blog has ever gotten in one day! Crazy, right?

So yeah, now you know: I actually do look at my blog stats... Did I ever say I did not, anyway? But all this leaves me with mixed feelings. My ego, of course, feels good from having so many blog hits, but there's also a more ambivalent part of me that finds it rather strange that a supposedly Ashtanga blog should be getting so many hits on account of something that is totally not yoga related. Ah, c'est la vie...          

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Is yoga sex gone sour?

'It was not merely that the sex instinct created a world of its own which was outside the Party's control and which therefore had to be destroyed if possible. What was more important was that sexual privation induced hysteria, which was desirable because it could be transformed into war fever and leader worship. The way she put it was:

"When you make love you're using up energy; and afterwards you feel happy and don't give a damn for anything. They can't bear you to feel like that. They want you to be bursting with energy all the time. All this marching up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour. If you're happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?"'

George Orwell, 1984

I spent all of yesterday evening on my couch reading 1984. I know what you're thinking: Who spends Christmas Eve reading George Orwell? Well, apparently I do: Having disconnected my home internet account in preparation for my move to Idaho, and having no family in this country (and thus no family obligations to attend to during the holidays), I found myself home alone and effectively disconnected from the rest of the world yesterday evening (the significant other had gone to Florida to visit her dad). So what better thing to do than to curl up on the couch and read some mind-blowing scary shit like 1984?

Well, it wasn't scary, but it definitely was disturbing and thought-provoking. As I read, I couldn't help forming connections between the novel and things I experience in my everyday life, and the above passage was one of those that definitely jumped out at me in this regard. In the novel, the Party champions chastity as one of the virtues to be cultivated by the citizens of the totalitarian state; the Party Line is that the sole purpose of sex is to beget children for the service of the Party (which involves, among other things, telling on and denouncing their parents). This being the case, sex is not something that should be done for pleasure; sexual intercourse "was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema." The Party also recognizes that sex and making love uses up energy; energy which could be channeled into more "constructive" things like marching, waving flags, and other Party-sanctioned political activities. Which is another good reason to promote chastity and discourage gratuitous sex, from the Party's point of view.

As I was reading and thinking about these things, the cynical and subversive part of my mind couldn't help forming a connection here with our yoga practice. As you know, Brahmacharya is one of the yamas or ethical observances of yoga. The yoga "Party Line", if you will, is that if you conserve your sexual energy and not have too much sex, you will have more energy for your practice and the other great things in life, like fulfilling your householder duties and eventually becoming a self-realized being. So if we look at things in this rather cynical way, doesn't our yoga practice function to control and re-channel our sexual energies for a larger goal, just like the Party in Orwell's world tries to control and re-channel the sexual energies of its citizens in order to fulfill some larger political goal? Is yoga then a sort of self-imposed Totalitarianism of the soul?

Wait a minute, not so fast! You may be thinking. Surely yoga practice is the furthest thing from totalitarianism! If nothing else, chastity is imposed on you from the outside in Orwell's totalitarian state, whereas brahmacharya is self-imposed.

Or so you say. But what's the real difference between "self-imposed" and "imposed from the outside"? They are both forms of imposition. I'm not saying that there is definitely no difference between the two forms of imposition, or that there definitely is a difference somewhere. To be honest, I don't know the answer, one way or the other. I'm just thinking aloud, as always. But here's something else to think about: Remember all those gurus who have fallen from their states of grace since the beginning of the history of yoga? If you need a little memory jog, the latest two such cases involve somebody whose first name rhymes with "bathtub", and somebody whose name can be rendered in Spanish as "Juan Amigos". Could it be, could it just be that perhaps these gurus fell from their states of grace because of some failure of whatever systems of brahmacharyic self-imposition that they have imposed on themselves? Could it be that perhaps they had had enough of a life which consists of sex gone sour, from their point of view, so they decided to take things into their own hands and make the sour sweet again (which, of course, resulted in things becoming even more sour than they ever were to begin with...)?

Well, as I said, I have no answers here, only a few not-so-well-thought-out questions. But maybe, if you would like to burn off a few calories from your holiday indulgences by exercising a few brain cells, you might like to ponder this matter a little, and maybe leave a comment or two here. I'll love to hear what you have to say.      

Monday, December 24, 2012

Phantom Ketchup Syndrome, Sharath on food, a mini-treatise on cell phones

I've never been much of a holidays celebrator; I've always seen holidays as just a time to do pretty much what I always do, except at a much slower pace. I know, boring right? But this holiday season so far has been quite interesting; so far, it has been a season of indulgence, not necessarily in good ways. But it's too early to tell, one way or the other. But rather than pass any value judgment on what has happened, I'll just try to tell it like it is, and you can decide whether it's a positive or a negative development.


The holidays are traditionally a season of (over)eating a lot, and the same thing seems to be happening to me. Last night, we went to this really nice bar downtown, where I had a wild rice burger (wild rice seems to be indigenuous to Minnesota, as I understand it), some mushrooms, lots of fries with lots of ketchup, and two large glasses of beer.

Maybe I didn't drink enough water before I went to bed last night, but when I woke up this morning, I could actually vaguely feel the after-taste of ketchup lingering in the back of my throat; or maybe the whole thing is just a psychological after-effect (Phantom Ketchup Syndrome?). Very weird feeling. In any case, I decided that over-ruminating over over-eating wasn't going to do anything for me. So I promptly put Sharath's led primary CD into my computer, and started doing led primary to his count. Lately, it seems that doing led primary to his count has become the fall-back of choice for days when I am either physically or emotionally not in the best practice state of mind/body. It went surprisingly well this morning. Didn't feel the sluggishness from the fries or ketchup or beer that I was expecting to feel. The thing is, after you have been doing primary to Sharath's count for a while, you don't even think it's really that fast-paced, even though he really does get you through primary in 65 minutes. It's kind of like you just jump on the speeding train, and let the train kind of pull you along to your destination. Probably not a very good analogy here, because unlike being on a speeding train, you actually have to do some work here. Oh well.

But speaking of Sharath and food, here's what he said about food in a recent conference. According to Catherine Haylock's notes from the conference, Sharath says:

“You eat once a day you are a yogi, twice a day a bogi, three times a day a rogi and four times a day you go to the graveyard :)”

Catherine then goes on to report Sharath as saying:

"Too much food is not good, the body needs to work more and if we keep doing this, over the time our body wears out because of the extra work and will get sick.
Food is very important and we should always be conscious about what we eat and how much we eat. If we eat too much dinner, the practice in the morning will be difficult. If we consume too much food our mind isn’t sharp, you are getting dull and you can’t progress. A yogi eats only once a day."

Damn! I'm definitely a rogi! Btw, does anybody know what a rogi is?


The other area in which there has been indulgence is in the area of technology; specifically, cell-phone technology. I've always been very conservative when it comes to cell-phones. I don't have an I-phone, or whatever the most fancy cell-phone out there right now is. I don't even have internet on my phone. For the past couple of years, all I've had is one of those Samsung slide-phones that are only good for making/receiving calls and taking pictures. Just the basics, in other words. I've never seen the need to squeeze more features into a little piece of metal. Others may differ, I understand...

Yesterday, I had to go to the AT&T store to get a new cell-phone charger, because I had misplaced mine. That was when I found out that my phone is so ancient that they don't even make or sell the chargers for it anymore! Damn... So I was "forced" to upgrade to a newer phone, just so I can have a chargeable phone! I managed to get the least fancy upgrade; some kind of phone which slides sideways, which makes it ideal for texting. Well, I don't have much use for anything like this, since I don't text much. But I got it anyway, because I needed a chargeable phone. (Oh, and it's purple, which happens to be my favorite color...) And I still decided not to have a data plan (i.e. internet) on my phone. I know, I'm really old-fashioned this way; I really believe in keeping a phone a phone, if this makes any sense.

I just realized that you probably aren't very interested in my views on what a cell-phone should or should not be. I also realize that Sharath probably has nothing to say about cell-phones (although I have heard from various sources that he is a lover of gadgets and technology). In any case, I suppose I should sign off now, to prevent myself from slipping into more unnecessary rambling.

Happy Holidays.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Another congested full primary

I did full primary to Sharath's led primary CD again this morning. Like the last time I did Sharath's led (see this post), this morning's practice was another congested one. Except that I was being very stubborn this morning; I wanted to keep to the vinyasa count and the pace so badly that I didn't even bother to pause to blow my nose. It would've been pretty gross if you were watching me practice this morning; from around Garbha Pindasana all the way to Utplutih, snot was coming out my nose, and I just let it flow. Surprisingly, I didn't drown in my own snot; somehow, I was able to find the space in my respiratory system to continue breathing and moving. It certainly wasn't comfortable, but I like to think that it forced me to find a deeper space to breath out of. And the really interesting thing is that, immediately after practice, I blew my nose, and was totally congestion-free after that!

Anyway, this also makes me wonder: What do people in Mysore do if they are congested during led primary? I mean, do people just get up in the middle of led to go to the bathroom? Or do they just continue, snot and all? Anybody know?

In preparation for my move to Idaho, I think I'm going to stick to just doing primary for the next few weeks. My teacher (PJ Heffernan) told me that Sharath told him that it is a good idea to do primary only when you are moving to a new place, and to stick to primary only for two weeks after you move to the new place, in order to get used to the energy of the new place. Sounds like good advice; I'll take it. Which means there will be no adventures in Karandavasana impotence for the next few weeks.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

New Management?

It's just after noon here in northwest Minnesota. It's snowing lightly outside, and the world appears not to have ended--yet. There's still just under 12 hours of 12.21.12 to go, so better to wait this day out before raising the all-clear here :-)

But of course, it's also possible that the world has already ended. Perhaps it ended while we were sleeping, without our knowledge. Perhaps, in the very early hours of 12.21.12, a bunch of aliens blasted the world as we knew it to pieces, and then hooked us up onto machines ala The Matrix. So maybe the world as we know it has already ended, but we are none the wiser, because for us, the world as we know it continues to exist. For us, it's just... new management.

In any case, new management or old, I wish you a happy winter solistice. New management or old, we (or at least I) will continue to do our practices. Actually, things may be better under the new management, come to think of it: If we are but brains hooked up to machines, then whatever asanas we are doing are not real. Which also means that whatever pains or discomforts we may experience in our practices are also not real: Everything is quite literally in our heads. Not such a bad deal, the way I see it.

Whatever you do, just don't take the red pill...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On being Ashtangi

Recently, somebody in the blogosphere announced on his/her blog that he/she is no longer referring to himself/herself as an Ashtangi, ostensibly because he/she has outgrown the label.

This has led me to think and reflect on the label "Ashtangi", and its relation to this bundle of bones, muscles, skin, and nerve endings that I call "me." First, I don't think I'm big on labels myself. But it is a fact of the matter that for the past couple of years, this particular bone/muscle/skin/nerve endings bundle has been putting itself daily through that sequence of postures known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, as taught by a couple of other bone/muscle/skin bundles known as Sharath Jois and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and as transmitted to this bundle by yet other bundles that are conventionally known as PJ Heffernan and Kino MacGregor (in conventional, everyday language, I call these last two bundles my "teachers").

Now, if you find the above description extremely tedious, that's kind of the point I'm making. Rather than go to the trouble of repeating this long tedious description just to be accurate about what I want to say every single time I describe my practice to people, I have decided that since the labels "Ashtangi" and "Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga" apply to what I am doing (to the best of my knowledge), I'll just happily call myself an Ashtangi. Which is basically a short-hand for that long tedious description above. In my more facetious moments, I have also called myself an Ashtanga Fundamentalist, although that is not, strictly speaking, true, since I do not do things like smear cow dung on the floor of my practice room.

I'm trying to recall the first time I self-identified as an Ashtangi. Very interestingly, this only happened about a year after I first went to PJ's shala in Milwaukee. Just before I left Milwaukee, in a moment of casual narcissism, I casually remarked to a couple of shala-mates that I had never seen myself in backbends before (no big mystery here; can you actually see yourself doing, say, a dropback or Kapotasana when you are doing said poses?). In response, one of them decided to take pictures of me in said backbends during practice (yeah, I know, big, big drishti violation...). A few weeks later, she sent me the pictures in an email with the subject heading "Ashtangi". As cheesy as this might sound, I had an "aha" moment when I saw that subject heading. A voice in my head was going, "Ah... so I am an Ashtangi!" And I decided that there are worse things I could be calling myself. So I decided to call myself an Ashtangi from that point on whenever I talk about my yoga practice.

I think the moral of the story here is this: We define ourselves in relation to how others see us. Labels, temporary though they may be, serve a useful conventional function, by helping us situate ourselves in relation to the world. By being willing to call myself an "Ashtangi", I situate myself in such a way that I identify more with the practices and, perhaps, the worldviews of a particular group of people, and less with the practices and worldviews of other groups of people. And this labeling is only necessary because we live in a world that is filled with other people some of whom we share certain things in common with, others with whom we share other things. And in response to how we see ourselves in relation to these others (which, in turn, is shaped by how these others see us in relation to them), we decide to adopt or not adopt particular labels. I mean, if I were the only person in this world practicing this particular sequences of postures (say, if I were to somehow spontaneously discover these postures for myself), would I still need to label myself an Ashtangi? Probably not. I might label myself something else (maybe call these postures "Nobel Gymnastics", and call myself a "Nobel Gymnast"...), but that's a whole other story.      

Long story short, I guess what I'm trying to say is that we choose labels for ourselves in relation to how others perceive us. And that's not a bad thing. That's just the way the world works. I may not be an "Ashtangi" forever: There may come a day when, for whatever reason, I just don't want to identify with the label "Ashtangi" and whatever is associated with it anymore. And that's also okay. Because that's also the way the world works. Labels come, labels go. That's life.     

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The cyber-twilight of the cybershala (?)

Practice this morning consisted of full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. The whole thing felt very grounded; even the second series backbends, considering that backbends are known to have a more airy, fiery quality to them. Perhaps the general idea of the practice is that over time, postures that were previously challenging/fiery will start to feel more grounding/grounded, so that at some point in the not-so-near future, second series will become the new primary. And maybe, when that happens, it will be time to add new postures. Third series? :-) Well, I don't know, I'm just allowing myself to free-associate and fantasize here. After all, that's kind of the cool thing about Ashtanga blogging: What you cannot yet do on the mat, you can talk and fantasize, provided your talking and fantasizing does not take up more space/bandwidth in your life than your actual practice on the mat (remember 99% practice, 1% theory).

Speaking of Ashtanga blogging and the Ashtanga blogosphere, Owl recently wrote a very compelling post in which she summarized the evolution of the Ashtanga blogosphere, or the "ashtang-o-sphere", as she calls it. Not having been an Ashtanga blogger for all that long, I can only relate to what she terms the 3.0 and later stages of this evolutionary process. Here's her summary of these stages:

"3.0 was blogs. Remember those? Blogspot all the way. Practice journals. Whole people. Big questions. Relationships. Much funnier flame wars. I visited fellow bloggers in Seattle, Santa Barbara, Encinitas, Portland, Boston, Scottsdale, Austin, NYC, London, Toronto… where else? Oh yeah, Ann Arbor. We called it the cyber-shala.

4.0 was when entrepreneurs figured out that posting every day could generate some newly coveted internet energy. And following the media experts’ lead, ashtanga teachers discovered the same thing. Bling. Content got more frequent, more shallow, more driven, and more naked. Not a bad thing. I just bore easily.

5.0 is coming. It is partly small groups in chat-rooms. Did you know? Yes, it’s totally happening. It’s the EZBoard with gate-keeping and way better technology. From cyber-shala, to cyber-sangha. Thank you, skype and google hangouts."

Very intriguing. Let me start by stating what is probably the obvious (as you can tell from reading this blog, I'm very good at doing this :-)): If Owl's summary here is correct, then this means that what we might think of as classic Ashtanga blogs, the aggregation of which make up what was once known as the "cybershala", are disappearing, fading into a cyber-twilight, to be replaced by what Owl terms the 4.0 and 5.0 stages of the process. 

In a sense, such a development is inevitable. In the beginning, so to speak, before the advent of all this technology, people would do their practice either at home or in a shala. If you were lucky, you might find a few people at your shala with whom you can have coffee or chai after practice, over which you can then either (1) geek out about the minutiae of the practice ("how was your Karandavasana today?", "I thought Teacher X was going to break my knee when he adjusted me so forcefully in Mari D, but I survived, and now my hips are so much more open", etc., etc.), or maybe (2) editorialize about the latest controversial extra-practice issues in your local yoga community ("did you hear that this new Teacher Y wears super-short-shorts to practice and teach all the time? Is this correct method? Or is she just showing off her powerful legs?"). 

At some point, some very clever person (or maybe some small group of clever persons) discovered that these same types of over-chai or over-coffee after-practice conversations can be replicated in an electronic format. Not only can people now "talk" about these things from the relative comfort of their homes/favorite hang-outs, but since the exchange is electronic, space is no longer a barrier, and the conversation is now no longer limited only to people who happened to have been at a particular place, at a particular time. The minutiae of the practice (as well as the latest controversial extra-practice issues) can now be hashed out in great detail by a much larger group of people spread out across the globe. Hence the cybershala was born. And since videos can be uploaded onto blogs or onto youtube, Ashtangis who are not afraid of baring their practices for the rest of the world to see can now also upload videos of themselves doing whatever postures they are currently working on. This, of course, adds a whole new dimension to asana practice. Whereas in the past, what you did or how you did a particular asana was something that could only be seen by you and your teacher (and by whoever else that was in the shala at that exact moment, and whose drishti was wandering), these uploaded videos provide the opportunity for anyone and everyone to see and critique your, ahem, performance, in said asana wherever and whenever they want to. In theory, if youtube or any of these blogs are still around a hundred years from now, somebody will be able to see Claudia or Grimmly working on their asanas a hundred years ago, even though the original bodies of the original Ashtangis had already turned to dust. 

Very sobering thought, don't you think? But there's a bright side to this: This also means that people like Grimmly and Claudia--and, more recently, Kino--have effectively memorialized themselves in digital media for all eternity. Perhaps if a nuclear apocalypse were to one day befall the world, images of Grimmly and Claudia and Kino in all their asana-ed glory might survive, and the inhabitants of a post-apocalyptic world may even worship them as gods and goddesses. Remember what happened in Cloud Atlas?...

Oh gosh, that was a terrible, terrible digression! I started out with the intention of editorializing, commenting, and maybe lamenting the twilight of the cyber-shala, but then somehow got myself off onto this sci-fi post-apocalyptic tangent...

But maybe this is what I really wanted to say anyway, in some obscure corner of my mind: Maybe there is really no such thing as a twilight, as far as the cybershala is concerned. No matter what kinds of newer social media (4.0, 5.0, even 6.0, whatever that might be...) emerge to try to replace or supplant the cybershala, the cybershala and its images and writings (including, if I may be so presumptuous, the writings on this blog) will be preserved and will survive as long as humankind retains the ability to access and view digital media.  Claudia and Grimmly and Kino (and a whole bunch of cyber-Ashtangis too numerous to mention here) will continue to perform their asanas into the millenia to come...

Viva La Cybershala.          

Monday, December 17, 2012

Storm-trooping through the practice and life; a congenial Ashtanga educational moment

Apparently, Ashtanga is what stormtroopers do for fun, i.e. when they are not storm-trooping
[Image courtesy of Leaping Lanka]

And storm-trooping is what Ashtangis do for non-fun. The day so far has been a day of much storm-trooping, starting from this morning's practice. Because I am still a bit congested, I decided I wasn't up for my usual full-on second series practice, with Karandavasana and all that good stuff that I had been doing over the last few weeks. Instead, I decided to scale back my practice. So I did full primary and then second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana. I suppose I could have just done primary, but I actually like doing backbends, especially Kapotasana. I like the feeling of lightness that I get through the rest of the day after a powerful backbend practice.

Or maybe all those primary series naysayers out there (you know who you are...) are right: Primary alone may not be the most balanced practice, and one needs some backbending/lengthening of the front body to balance things out. I don't know, one way or the other. All I know is, I can do primary, and I can also do a large chunk of second. So until I make it to Mysore and have to do primary only for a long time (because that's the way it is), I will continue to do primary and whatever parts of second I can do.

Anyway, you probably don't need to know any of this. But as I was saying, practice this morning was a storm-trooping practice. No thinking, just move. Hold asana A for 5 breaths. Done. Then move to Asana B. Rinse and repeat. Then move to Asana C. And so and so forth. I had to pause a couple of times to blow my nose to clear the accumulated congestion, but other than that, the pace was steady. Maybe the purpose of Ashtanga is to turn us all into yogic storm-troopers. Interesting idea, don't you think? :-)

And the rest of the day was also mostly a big exercise in storm-trooping. There were (and still are) a lot of very menial and repetitive tasks to get through. Won't bore you with what those are (but I can give you a little hint: What kinds of repetitive tasks do college professors have to do at the end of the semester?).

But the whole day wasn't just endless, brainless storm-trooping. There was also a very interesting Ashtanga Educational Moment when I stopped by the neighborhood coffeeshop for some chai earlier today.

When I walked in the coffeeshop, this super-perky barista was behind the counter. To give you a sense of what I mean by "super-perky", picture somebody who runs everyday and is, by all accounts, an-all-around athlete, works two jobs, goes to college, and also participates in beauty pageants (she tells me that she has won Miss Congeniality before).  Over and above that, she somehow also manages to greet and engage everybody who comes into the coffeeshop in, well, congenial small talk. Actually, come to think of it, maybe the congenial small-talking is a kind of practice run for what she does in pageants. I guess I'll never know, since I don't go to pageants. But in any case, because of her assiduous efforts at congenial small-talking over the last few months, she has found out that I do yoga for a couple of hours every morning, even though she doesn't know what kind of yoga I do.

Great. Now I can't invite her to read this blog. See, this is what happens when you feature characters from "real" life in your blogs. But anyway, since she is not going to read this blog, I'll call her Miss Congeniality from now on. This is roughly how the small talk went this morning:

Miss Congeniality: Nobel! How did your yoga go this morning?

Nobel: Great.

Miss C: Do you teach yoga, or have any plans to teach it in the future?

Nobel: No.

Miss C: Why not?

Nobel: Well, I do this thing called Ashtanga Yoga. Ever heard of it?

Miss C: No, I haven't. Has it got something to do with that thing called Chaturanga?

Nobel (thinks to himself): Ah, you know Chaturanga! This makes it easier... (then says to Miss C): Well, yeah. Chaturanga is actually one of the many poses in Ashtanga Yoga. Ever heard of Power Yoga?

Miss C: Yes. I did a session of it the other day after going for a run, and it totally kicked my butt!

Nobel: Cool! Yeah, you see, Power Yoga is actually derived from Ashtanga Yoga, which originated in Mysore, India. Or you could also say that Power Yoga evolved from Ashtanga. [Note to reader: I decided that now is not a good time to overwhelm her by bringing up the whole Beryl Bender Birch vs. Pattabhi Jois dispute]. I actually have friends who go to India every year to study Ashtanga. And most of them come back here and teach it to small groups of people. So we're a little bit like "underground" yoga. We don't really believe in teaching big, big groups of people at one time. A few of my friends actually teach from their homes. [Another note to reader: For the sake of simplicity and to keep my story tight, I also decided not to mention people like Kino, who actually do teach to big groups of people.]

Miss C: Wow! How cool! You know, you and I and your fiancee should get together in your apartment one day and do some yoga. You know, light some candles and incense, be all peaced-out, and get the poses flowing...

I can't remember exactly what I said in response to this; part of me was probably trying to suppress a smile at the idea of burning candles and incense and peacing-out while doing Ashtanga with a college beauty queen. In any case, I think I demurred, saying that my cockatiels don't like the smell of candles and incense or something along those lines. I also didn't have the heart to tell her that I would be moving to Idaho next month. But I did tell her about a couple of friends in the area who do Ashtanga, and suggest that she could get in touch with them.

Well, I think that qualifies as an Ashtanga Educational Moment, doesn't it? Certainly makes the rest of my storm-trooping day worthwhile. In the meantime, I'm going to have to sign off here, and get back to more storm-trooping...       

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Only in this country, and this civilization...

I am on a politics-gun-control roll right now, so please bear with me. Or if you would rather not bear with me, maybe come back in a couple of days, when I'm more in a mood to talk yoga.

As you know, in the wake of the recent shootings in Connecticut, a strong call for gun control has emerged. The White House Petition calling on the Obama Administration to introduce gun control legislation (see previous post) has now garnered more than 120,000 signatures.

But this being a free country with freedom of expression and all that good stuff, there are also many who have advocated the opposite response to this tragedy. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said earlier today on Fox News that we need to have an open-minded conversation on guns and gun control, and that "having more guns, rather than fewer, would help protect citizens in future situations like the Newtown, Conn., school shooting." Gohmert further remarks, "Every mass killing of more than three people in recent history has been in a place where guns were prohibited... They choose this place, they know no one will be armed." (for a more detailed report of his remarks, see this)

In addition, there is also a parallel petition on the White House website for "a gun in every classroom... to arm every teacher and principal to defend themselves and their students during an attack."

Nice. The logic of these folks seems to be this: Guns kill people. Many people have been killed by guns. So to prevent more people from being killed by guns, we need... more guns! Interesting logic. But if we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, it'll only be a matter of time before we start giving guns to first-graders too. Seriously, why not? Why leave the defense of these precious children to teachers and principals who may or may not know what they are doing? Why not "empower" kids to defend themselves directly? Try imagining a world in which guns are as ubiquitous among first-graders as cell-phones are today...

I don't want to go there. I'm guessing you don't either. Or if you have already gone there, i.e. the image of first-graders carrying guns to school has already formed in your head because of what I just said, well, my apologies. But I'm guessing we really don't want to go there. At least not willingly.


Besides the almost certain escalation of violence that will accompany the introduction of guns among teachers and students in classrooms, here is something else worth considering: There has never been a time period or civilization worthy of the name in which teachers and students have sat facing each other in a place of learning while carrying weapons, concealed or otherwise. The process of learning is a process in which the teacher and student are engaged in the common goal of passing on and advancing human knowledge and wisdom. Such a process requires respect among both parties based on deep trust in each other. How deep can this trust be if the student is aware that the teacher possesses a weapon with which she can kill in the space of a breath, and vice versa?

Something to think about, no?

In the meantime, if you miss the regular non-preachy, non-moralizing voice of Yoga in the Dragon's Den, well, it'll be back soon (hopefully). 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

W.H. petition to address the issue of gun control (please sign it)

I'm sure all of you out there have already heard about the shooting that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut, yesterday (if you haven't, here's a report on the incident). At least a few people in the Ashtanga blogosphere have spoken up about this terrible happening. For instance, Sarah Hatcher (Durney) has written a beautiful post suggesting that we send thoughts of loving-kindness and compassion in our practices to the victims and the families of all those affected.

But we can also take action on a more practical level. Specifically, you can sign this recently created White House Petition which calls on the Obama Administration to "[i]mmediately address the issue of gun control through the introduction of legislation in Congress." The opening lines of the petition read:

"The goal of this petition is to force the Obama Administration to produce legislation that limits access to guns. While a national dialogue is critical, laws are the only means in which we can reduce the number of people murdered in gun related deaths."

This couldn't be more well-said. While it is true that the roots of violence are complex and deeply-rooted in the minds of individuals and no single law will ever suffice to bring an end to violence, it is nevertheless an undeniable fact that the easy access to guns that we have in this country makes it so much easier for people to callously end the lives of so many people with a single pull of the trigger. President Obama puts it very succinctly in his statement on the shooting when he says, "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years..."

Well, I guess I've said pretty much all that I can say here. Well... wait, here's something else. If none of the above convinces you of the necessity of legislative action for gun control, consider this: If Newtown, Connecticut, which did not have any prior history of such violence and which, in the words of one parent, was supposedly one of the safest places to live in this country, could be the scene of such tragic carnage, who can guarantee that any of us will continue to be safe from such violence as we go about our daily business in any part of this country--say, as we make our daily commutes to our favorite shalas or yoga studios? Think about it... No, actually, don't think about it: Sign the petition!

Friday, December 14, 2012

A congested, feverish full primary; interesting yoga times; Happy Birthday Mr Iyengar

I was feeling quite under the weather this morning; before I went to bed last night, I took my temperature, and it was 99.8 F. For most of the night, I was in this state of half-sleep in which one part of my body wants to go to sleep, but the other part would wake itself up every other hour, ostensibly because it wants to go to the bathroom (I think needing to go to the bathroom is my body's way of telling me that it doesn't want to go to sleep :-)).

As a result of this disturbed sleep, I decided to allow myself to lie in bed for a couple more hours this morning. Not that it helped much; I still felt very congested and under the weather when I finally got out of bed. And then I was faced with the question: To practice or not to practice? I've heard a few people say that it's not a good idea to practice when you have a fever, but I had this feeling that doing some practice and sweating it out would do me some good. So... guess what? I popped Sharath's led primary CD into my computer, and started doing primary to his count. If you've ever practiced to Sharath's count before, you'll know that it's like a bullet train. His vinyasa count is precise and brisk, and the whole practice takes only 65 minutes. Probably not the best thing to be doing when you are feeling under the weather, but I felt that it would be easier for me to practice in my unmotivated state if I had somebody counting the vinyasa for me. So I decided to do it.

The whole thing went quite well. My breath was shorter than usual, and I was a little more breathless than usual by the time I got to the closing invocation. But I survived. Immediately after the closing invocation, I went to my bedroom, and lay on the floor in savasana covered by a blanket. And I actually feel better now, even though I'm still quite congested.

As I said, doing full primary in 65 minutes is probably not the wisest thing to do when you have a fever. But there's something about Sharath's voice that is really reassuring, and I get this sense that if I follow the vinyasa count to the best of my ability (even though I still can't get into Mari D in one breath), everything will be just okay. I've also discovered that my relationship to Sharath's led primary has changed over the years. When I first started practicing to his count a couple of years ago, I was breathless and scrambling all over the place just to keep up with his count. It's still challenging now, and I still get breathless after Utplutih, but I sense that underneath the breathlessness is something... deeper; a deeper sense of being centered, a deeper sense of being powerful, if that makes any sense.


In other news: I don't usually troll the web for things of this kind, but this was actually posted on Kino's Facebook page, so I couldn't help noticing. Apparently, this yoga blog out there (definitely one of those 4.0 blogs...) has come up with a list of 10 Amazing Yoga Teachers. Kino is on it; rightfully so, because she is amazing. But it's quite funny that other teachers who I personally wouldn't put in the same league as Kino are also on this list (I won't name any names here; you can go look yourself, and decide if I'm right). But then again, I suppose many people out there probably wouldn't think that Kino is amazing either, in light of the not-so-recent Kinogate and Shortshortsgate (remember those "scandals"?).   

Oh well. Goes to show what interesting yoga times we live in...


In yet other news: B.K.S. Iyengar turns 94 today. Happy birthday, Mr. Iyengar! Since this is supposed to be an Ashtanga blog, let's take a look at this video from 1938, which shows him performing what looks suspiciously like the third series:

Pretty cool, don't you think? Well, I guess I'll leave you with this; got to attend to a bunch of things. More later. 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Moon day, Thursday the 13th, and emotional constipation

This post probably has nothing to do with yoga. Although maybe it does, since yoga is life, and life is yoga. First, a little bit of fair warning is in order: This is one of my (hopefully) relatively rare posts in which I simply rant about a day that isn't going quite as smoothly as I would like it to go. If you are feeling blue, maybe it's better to not read this post.

Let me start by describing the feeling-texture of my day so far: The feeling is a bit like being a cow who is trying to drag a heavy cart through thick mud. The cow (in this case, me) pulls with all its might, but the cart moves only a millimeter at a time, if that. I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that today is a new moon, and/or the fact that today is the day after 12.12.12, and is also Thursday the 13th, to boot.

So, what exactly is going on? Two things really. One is technological/manmade, the other is natural. Let's start with the natural phenomenon first. I seem to have caught a cold from somewhere (probably from people around me who have been feeling under the weather); it's not particularly debilitating (I mean, I'm still blogging...), but it does give one a feeling of blahness that is hard to ignore.

The second phenomenon is technological, man-made, and probably also aggravated by my stubbornness in the face of technological obstacles. Here's what happened: I needed to log onto my workplace's human resources website to get a hold of some personal documents which I need in order to do the transfer paperwork to my new workplace in Idaho. As it's been a long time since I tried to log onto the site, I forgot my password. It also doesn't help that this is one of those super-secure websites that require you to change your password once every six weeks or so... I mean, who the hell can constantly create and remember so many freaking new passwords?

But I decided to try to see if I can somehow jog my memory by trying different variations of the one password that I usually use. So I logged on the first time, and they told me that it's the wrong password. I then tried a second time, and then a third time, and then a fourth time. Still wrong password. Finally I gave up, and clicked the "Forgot my password" link. It directed me to the "Forgot password" page, where it asked for my userid again. And then it politely informs me that I have been locked out of the system! Now that is disturbing: This has never happened to me before. I called HR, and they told me that the system locked me out because of my numerous failed attempts at logging in; it's basically a security feature to lock out would-be hackers. But would a real hacker be as clumsy as I was?

Now I probably have to spend the rest of my day (and go to bed tonight) knowing that something important that I wanted to take care of today wasn't taken care of. Ever had that feeling? It's a bit like, I don't know, having to poop and not being able to. Emotional constipation, if you will. Engaging the bandhas here probably won't help either...       

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12.12.12., a headstandless Karandavasanally-impotent practice, and a Ravi-Shankar-less universe

Practice this morning was very interesting. I made three Karandavasana attempts:

1st attempt: Total crash and burn. Got up into Pincha. As I was trying to maneuver my legs into lotus, I lost my balance and fell over.

2nd attempt: Got into Pincha, then got into lotus in Pincha. Descended too quickly, missed the duck landing, and landed in a seated padmasana.

3rd attempt: Got into Pincha, got into lotus in Pincha, landed the duck, and held the posture for 5 breaths. Still no sign of coming back up though. Will keep working on it.

Oh well. But this is not all. In the finishing sequence, I forgot to do Sirsasana, and didn't even realize it until I was in the shower after practice. While showering, I was mentally going over my practice and the sensations that the practice had imprinted on my mind/body. And that was when I realized that my body does not remember having been set on its head this particular morning. But it was too late to rectify that; I had a meeting on campus to attend, and couldn't very well redo the practice.


Today is December 12th, 2012. Or 12.12.12. Which is supposed to be a very significant day, according to Jyotish astrology. I have no idea what the significance is, as I know nothing about Jyotish astrology. I could probably google something and reproduce it here and look like I know what I'm talking about, but why? In any case, it may very well be that with stuff like this, it is best to go through without knowing the significance.     

But here's something I know something about. The great Indian sitarist and composer Ravi Shankar passed away yesterday in a hospital near his home in Southern California at the age of 92. Here's the NYT obituary, if you'd like to take a look at it.

Mr Shankar's music has a special place in my life and yoga practice. Back when I first started practicing yoga, I would do my own Iyengar-inspired practice everyday to his Chants of India. I don't have any particular reason for choosing to practice to this album. I just came across it in a records store one day, listened to a few tracks, found them very absorbing, and suddenly thought, "Hey, this sounds like good music to do yoga to!" This was, of course, in the days before I discovered Ashtanga and the joy of silent Mysore-style practice. To this day, I still vividly remember holding headstand to the sound of Sahanah Vavatu. Actually, it's worth a listen here:

What do you think? Perhaps I wouldn't have forgotten to do headstand this morning if I still do yoga to this music :-) 

In any case, the world lost a great musical spirit yesterday. But perhaps not; something tells me--or maybe this is just my own personal selfish desire talking--that a soul of Mr. Shankar's talents will quickly be reborn into a part of the universe where he (or maybe he will be a she in the next incarnation?) can continue to carry out his/her musical dharma. At any rate, rest well, Mr. Shankar. Thank you so much for your wonderful contribution to this world (and to my yoga practice).


So, to sum up: On 12.12.12, the world woke up to a Ravi-Shankar-less universe, and an Ashtangi in some corner of the same world did a headstandless Karandavasanally-impotent practice. What do all this portent?   

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Is Ashtanga Yoga a spiritual practice? Some useless sociological observations, followed by more useful insights by Sarah Dee

Lest I be accused of plagiarism, I want to come right out and say that the title of this post is directly lifted from a very enlightening and illuminating post of the same title that Sarah Hatcher (Durney) wrote on her blog earlier this year.

I will say more about Sarah's post in a little bit. But I want to begin by making a few totally useless sociological observations about the different ways in which this question can come up in polite (or not-so-polite) yoga society. Let's face it: Whether we like it or not, this "spirituality question," as I call it, is one that many of us Ashtangis will probably face at one time or another in the course of our lives if and when we venture out beyond the confines of the shala into the broader yoga world. Most often posed by detractors or skeptics of the Ashtanga practice, this question can come up in many ways in the course of yoga conversations. As such, I think it would be interesting to spend a little time here cataloguing a few of the ways in which this question can come up in conversations in the yoga world:

(1) It is sometimes posed directly to the Ashtangi in a curiously passive-aggressive kind of way. As in, "Oh, you practice Ashtanga. I hear that it is a very physically demanding practice that is practiced mostly by ex-gymnasts/ex-dancers/ex-whatevers. You must be so strong and fit to be able to do this..."  
Translation: "Since only ex-dancers/ex-gymnasts/ex-whatevers who are super-fit can do this practice,  and everybody else can't, it must not be for everybody. And since spirituality is for everybody, Ashtanga must therefore be a totally unspiritual practice..."

(2) But more often than not in our ever-so-polite and ever-so-politically-correct and pristine yoga world, the question comes up in a less direct form. For instance, you may encounter a yogi who practices another supposedly more "spiritual" style (I won't tell you what these supposedly more "spiritual" styles are...). Upon hearing that you practice Ashtanga, a knowing smile will appear on the face of said yogi, who will then say something along the lines of, "Oh, that's great. But I prefer to practice a gentler, less aggressive style. " Translation: "Unlike Ashtanga, which is so aggressive and therefore not spiritual, I practice a style that is way more spiritual than yours."    

(3) This often comes from people who know you well, like closed friends or loved ones. Because these are people who know you well (or at least think they do), the usual velvet gloves of polite conversation are taken off. In this manifestation, the question is usually posed in the following form: "How come you are still so X even though you do yoga everyday?", where "X" can be anything that your friend or loved one happens to observe about you which they dislike. Examples of "X" include: "hot-tempered", "rigid", "uncompassionate", "asshole-like", etc. Whether or not X happens to be true of you is, of course, another question entirely.
In any case, the translation here seems to be: "If you do this Ashtanga thing everyday, and you are still so X, then Ashtanga must not be helping you to become less X. But any spiritual practice should help you become less X. Therefore, Ashtanga must not be spiritual." 

Of course, (1), (2), and (3) by no means exhaust the many many ways in which this spirituality question can pop up. Do you know of any others?


As I mentioned earlier, Sarah has some very useful and illuminating things in response to this spirituality question, which are worth quoting at length. She writes:

"Recently, a Philadelphia yoga friend of mine said, "ashtanga practice isn't a sadhana".

It may appear to someone who does not practice ashtanga vinyasa yoga that it may not be a 'spiritual practice' since the practice appears asana-based.

Practicing six days a week with the foundational elements of ashtanga:

vinyasa (breath-movement system),
breath (ujjayai),
bandhas (internal locks),
drishti (gaze), and
dhyana (concentration)

is a GIANT SPIRITUAL INVOCATION because each foundational element brings the practitioner INSIDE themselves, closer to their deeper selves...

Often in the beginning, coming to a daily ashtanga practice isn't a 'spiritual' decision to start. When or how one's ashtanga practice becomes a 'spiritual' practice varies from person to person. It is each person's specific relationship to their practice which makes it special and unique. Some people focus on the Divine during their entire practice, others the breath. Some people count through their practice, some people use one foundational element the entire time - like a specific bandha. Some people use all the foundational elements the entire time! All of these are strong tools that the ashtanga practitioner uses to sustain a concentrated state during their practice...

You have to believe in your practice. This is the "specific spiritual practice" element Vyasa is describing. You must love it - and want to do it. There will be days where you will be tired and sore and your mind may be racing or attached to something that has drawn you away. But these are the days that you must practice and are more important than ever to remove tendencies and patterns which are hidden within you.
It does not and will not work if you fully and truly do not have faith in the system. Seek out trainings, workshops, and increase your study to learn more about practice. Dive into your relationship with your practice in a deeper way to encourage this to take form.
Then, with the guidelines suggested by Patanjali, you will have a sadhana because your daily practice will turn into something much richer than just an asana practice. It will develop into something very 'spiritual' because you will have developed a relationship with yourself. This is worth all the effort to get to know, as this bond will bring you closer and closer to the Divine which always surrounds you."

Ashtanga, then, is a spiritual practice, even if it doesn't look that way from the outside. The outward, seemingly unspiritual elements of the practice (the asanas) are simply tools that one uses to go within oneself and forge a relationship to one's inner being. But there is one caveat here: Just because a practice is spiritual doesn't mean that everybody who does the practice is not an asshole. It may take a long time (or maybe not at all) for the practice to help one overcome one's own asshole nature (for more of my thoughts about this issue, see this post). But I prefer to look at it this way: If I am such an asshole even though I practice, imagine what I would be like if I didn't practice? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Some thoughts on the private nature of asana practice and the public nature of asana demonstrations

Yesterday, I got together with a few friends for lunch. It was a sort of informal farewell lunch for me, as I am moving to Idaho at the beginning of next month. At some point in the conversation, the topic of yoga came up. One of my friends remarked, "Ah, you are a big yoga enthusiast, right? We should get you to do a yoga demonstration sometime. But I guess it's kind of too late now, as you're leaving us so soon..."

Upon hearing my friend's remarks, it suddenly occurred to me that over the last couple of years, my practice has become very much a private matter, without my intending it to be this way. As you might know if you read this blog regularly, I mostly practice at home, since there is no regular Mysore program where I live. Back when I lived in Milwaukee, you could say that my practice still had a semi-public dimension to it, since I practiced at my teacher's shala, and other people at the shala could see my practice as I was doing it, if they cared to, drishti violations notwithstanding. But ever since moving here to Northwestern Minnesota, aside from the occasional forays into teaching yoga (to see how that went, see this post), the only beings that could possibly see my home practice are (1) my fiancee, and (2) the cockatiels. Most of the time, my fiancee is too occupied with getting ready for work in the morning to give much notice to what I am doing in my practice. As for the cockatiels, they probably have lots to say about my practice, but I don't understand a word of what they're saying ;-)

So without being entirely aware of it, my practice has become this private thing that I do in the morning before I go about the rest of the day. I know this seems like a very mundane way of putting it, but on some level, the practice feels very much like brushing my teeth and taking a shower, except that the latter two activities do not utilize quite as many muscle groups and do not take quite as much time. This could mean either that my practice has become as mundane as teeth-brushing and taking a shower, or that my teeth-brushing and taking a shower have absorbed some of the "present energy" of my practice, and have thereby being elevated to the realm of the spiritual. I'm not sure which way it is. Maybe it's one way on certain more "present" days, and the other way on other less "present" days.

Meanwhile, the rest of my everyday world knows that I "do yoga", whatever that means to them. A few people who know me a little better know that I also write a yoga blog; I suspect that they are probably a little mystified as to why somebody who doesn't teach yoga or do anything yoga-related for a living would want to write a yoga blog. You may not believe this, but there are actually people out there who believe that you have to be some kind of a yoga professional to write a yoga blog. I'm not making this up; I've actually had a couple of conversations which went like this:

Friend: Oh, so you do yoga... do you go to X or Y yoga studio in town?

Nobel: No. I do this thing called Ashtanga yoga, and I do it at home, because I am, ahem, a little bit too advanced for the Intro to Ashtanga class that is offered every Monday evening at Y yoga studio.

Friend: Wow, really?

Note to reader: I suppose if I wanted to, I could have gone into a detailed explanation of what Mysore style practice is all about, and how it is different in nature and approach from the more conventional led-type classes that are found in most yoga studios. And sometimes I do go into such an explanation. But recently, I have found myself suffering from a certain kind of intellectual laziness on this front. So I just say I'm too "advanced"; but I must also admit that I like giving this answer because I enjoy seeing the "wow, you're too advanced for a yoga studio?" look in my friend's eyes... Anyhow, here's how a typical conversation of this sort would continue:

Nobel: And I also write this yoga blog.

Friend: Wow, you write a yoga blog (no wonder you're so "advanced")! Do you work for Yoga Journal or something?

The rest of the conversation is then spent explaining to my friend how you don't have to work for Yoga Journal (or any other yoga publication) to write a yoga blog, and about how I use my yoga blog as a space to geek out about Ashtanga yoga, and sometimes also as a space to deliver rambling commentaries on developments in the yoga world at large. I typically end the conversation by inviting said friend to read my blog.

In any case, perhaps because of the private nature of my yoga practice, over the last two years, I have probably spent more time writing/thinking/talking about yoga on this blog than in the "real" world. I'm not sure if this is a good or bad thing.

Anyway, to come back to my friend's remarks about doing a yoga demonstration... When she said that, it occurred to me that my practice has become such a private thing to me that the very idea of giving a public demonstration, even if just for a few friends, seems rather dissonant with the general tone of my asana practice as it is. Why would this be? Well, for starters, on a purely practical level, I'm guessing that my friend (we are assuming, of course, that she really does want me to do a demonstration, and wasn't just saying what she said out of politeness) would probably want to see in a demonstration something that would be "wow-inducing", as in "wow, you can stand on your head", "wow, you can put your leg behind your head", etc., etc. I really don't think she would want to see a "demonstration" of my Karandavasana impotence ("Damn, you've been practicing everyday for so many years, and you still can't get it up?!")

Which brings me to my point: While there is probably nothing wrong with humoring one's friends with one's asana prowess, just like there is nothing wrong (I presume) with humoring one's friends with one's supposed knowledge of Chinese philosophy (see this post for more details), there is nevertheless some kind of dissonance between what one is expected to do in an asana demonstration and what one does in the nitty-gritty business of everyday practice on the mat. Of course, I understand that asana demonstrations have a long and illustrious history in Ashtanga, and in the Krishnamacharya lineage in general. Krishnamacharya, as many of you know, traveled across India with his young students at the Mysore palace, giving many many asana demonstrations during the course of these travels. Many illustrious Ashtanga teachers today are also well-known for their amazing asana demonstrations. So there is nothing wrong with giving asana demonstrations. After all, asana prowess is arguably the most visually eye-catching manifestation of yogic achievement, and therefore, also arguably the quickest and most eloquent way of getting the word out about the power of the practice to people who would otherwise not even think about trying the practice. 

But I guess part of what makes the idea of giving an asana demonstration feel rather inauthentic to me is that an asana demonstration, by its very nature, is divorced from the original context in which the asanas are performed. When one is demonstrating, one is not doing the practice. One is just... demonstrating. Which is why almost no Ashtanga demonstrations (except instructional videos) consist of the Ashtangi doing, say, the entire primary series. 

What am I trying to say here? Very simply, it's this: Practice is practice, demonstration is demonstration, and never the twain shall meet. Practice is an inward-directed, deeply private affair in which the Ashtangi gets on the mat, pays attention to the breath and bandhas and drishti, and the body simply does whatever outward expression of the asana it is capable of doing on that particular day. A demonstration, on the other hand, is a public show of asana prowess designed to impress and attract the attention of the audience. Presumably, the Ashtangi who is doing the demonstration would have internalized the tristhana sufficiently so that breath, bandhas, and drishti kick in automatically to protect him or her from possible injury. But this still doesn't change the fact that the goal of a demonstration is very different from the "goal" of practice.

Of course, as I said earlier, there is nothing wrong with doing asana demonstrations. Indeed, as I also said earlier, there are occasions where such demonstrations serve a very useful purpose in the bigger scheme of things. Maybe what this all means is that I am not ready at this point in my practice career to give asana demonstrations. I'm totally cool with that; I don't really have a burning desire to demonstrate my, uh, asana prowess anyway.

But enough about me. This may be a good time for me to invite you to share your views and/or experiences in this area. Have you ever demonstrated asanas for your friends or perfect strangers outside of a yoga class? How do you feel about doing such demonstrations?       

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Paul Gold on getting it up in Karandavasana

Continuing with my recent theme of getting it up in Karandavasana, I just read a great post on Paul Gold's blog about coming back up in this posture. There is a great video of him doing this posture in the post; be sure to check it out. Here's what Paul has to say about coming back up in Karandavasana:

"First of all, it’s only men that are required to lift back up. There are some women that have the strength to do it, but it’s not a pre-requisite for women to learn subsequent asanas. Lifting back up is a real hurdle for men making their way through this series. [Nobel: Tell me about it...] It’s not uncommon for gents to have to spend a little time sorting out this pose before advancing."

This is really interesting. I did not know lifting back up is not a requirement for women in order to "pass" Karandavasana. I wonder what the rationale behind this is: Is it simply because women tend, on the whole, to have less upper body strength than men? Or is it because women simply have nothing to get up? :-)
Anyway... I probably should quit making double entendres about Karandavasana, and just, well, get it up already (couldn't resist making that last one either...). Paul continues his post by elaborating on the technical aspects of coming back up in much detail:   

It’s important to have strong bandhas and good breathing in this asana. In order to get the legs into lotus and lower down, one has to have a good strong waist to maintain balance, especially bringing the second leg into lotus.

The big problem when lifting back up is there’s a tendency to let the hips and seat sag and drop once one’s lowered onto the arms. It’s important to resist gravity and try to keep the hips and seat as elevated as possible. With each of the 5 breaths taken on the arms, fatigue increases and the hips and seat will want to drop. If the hips and seat get too low, it’s very hard to lift back up.

When it’s time to lift up, engage the bandhas strongly, take the weight forward and press the forearms straight down into the floor while pulling the hips and seat upward. All of this occurs on a long, full inhale. There is also a swinging movement bringing the knees up towards the ceiling as well, but the hips and seat lead the knees...

Don’t worry about ‘style points’ at first. It’s the mechanics of using the breath, engaging the bandhas and taking the weight forward and upwards that’s most important. Try not to get discouraged if it takes some time. Keep practicing and it will come."

Three things are key here: Bandhas, breath, and resisting gravity. I'll work on this. Well, I hope at least some of you out there will find all this useful as much as I do. More later. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

An inherently moral universe: Humoring friends and myself with Chinese Philosophy

"To have friends coming in from afar, how delightful!"

Confucius, The Analects 

Tomorrow morning, I am having coffee with a friend who is passing through these parts. This friend is kind of... how should I put this... interesting. He's knows that I teach philosophy at a college, and he also knows that I'm Chinese. Despite my best attempts over the years to disabuse him of this notion, he has it stuck in his mind that since I both teach philosophy and am Chinese, I must be an expert in Chinese philosophy! As a result of this notion that he has, all of our conversations ultimately turn to Chinese philosophy. Not being Chinese himself, he would always ask questions like, "What would a Chinese philosopher say about this or that problem or dilemma that I am now facing?"

There are a couple of problems with trying to answer questions like this. First, there is no such monolithic thing as a "Chinese philosopher", in the same way in which there is no such monolithic thing as a "western philosopher." Like western philosophy, Chinese philosophy is a very long tradition, divided into many periods of development. But the more significant problem is this notion that he has that I am an expert on Chinese philosophy: Nothing could be further from the truth! My primary area of research and teaching interest is in western ethics, and although, over the years, I have committed to memory a few lines from Confucius in order to humor certain people (including my friend) who insist that, being Chinese, I must know something about Chinese philosophy (which means that I have also, strictly speaking, contributed and enabled my friend's holding on to this mistaken notion about me), my knowledge of Chinese philosophy is probably no deeper than that possessed by a reasonably well-educated average person you might find on the streets of, say, Beijing or Shanghai.

But as you have probably figured, I do have a weakness for humoring people; or maybe I just have a weakness for wanting people to think that I'm smart. In any case, in order to be in a better position to humor my friend tomorrow morning, I spent half the afternoon today reading some works of Neo-Confucianism (roughly speaking, Neo-Confucianism is the form of Confucianism that was developed by Confucian scholars between the 11th to the 16th centuries. These scholars wrote commentaries and exegeses, and furthered expanded upon the original ideas of Confucius many centuries after Confucius (551–479 BCE) had already passed away. Hence "Neo-Confucianism".).

I had gone into my reading session with the attitude of preparing myself for a task (humoring my friend). But as I got immersed in my reading, I started humoring and then fascinating myself. As I read, the differences between the character of Chinese and western philosophy jumped out at me more and more. I was struck by the realization that in the Chinese worldview, the universe is an inherently moral universe. To speak of self-development and bettering oneself without speaking of personal moral development is something that is incomprehensible and alien to the Chinese mind. To the Chinese mind, a person who is educated, but who has not become a morally better person as a result of this education, has received no education worthy to speak of.  Such a person has failed to understand the nature of the universe, so to speak.

To get a sense of what I'm trying to say, consider these two passages from Penetrating the Book of Changes by the Neo-Confucian Zhou Dunyi:

"Yen Tzu [a student of Confucius] had only a single bamboo dish of rice, a single gourd dish of drink, and lived in his mean narrow lane. Others could not have endured this distress but he did not allow his joy to be affected by it. Now, wealth and honor are what people love. Yen Tzu did not love or seek them but instead enjoyed poverty. What is the idea? There are the highest honor and the greatest wealth to love and seek. But he acted differently because he saw what was great and ignored what was small. Since he saw what was great, his mind was at peace. His mind being at peace, there was no discontent. Having no discontent, he treated wealth, honor, poverty, or humble station in the same way. As he treated them in the same way, he could transform them and equalize them." 

This immediately raises the question: What was the "great" thing that he saw, that enabled him to regard both wealth and poverty with indifference? Here's another passage from the same work that might shed some light on this question:

"Tzu-lu [another student of Confucius] was happy to hear about his mistakes and his good reputation was unlimited. Nowadays when people have faults they do not like others to correct them. It is as though a man should hide his illness and avoid a physician. He would rather destroy his life than awake. How lamentable!"

It is very significant here that moral character (and the faults thereof) are directly likened to physical health and illness. And this is not just an analogy: The Confucians really do believe that a person of poor moral character is out of sync with the basic fabric of the universe and is therefore literally ill, just as ill as somebody who is suffering from a medically certifiable physical or psychological condition. What this also means is that somebody who is aware of his character flaws but yet does nothing to correct them, is somebody who is confused about what is good for himself, in the same way in which one who is ill but chooses not to seek medical attention is confused about his self-interest.

What this means is that ultimately, classical Chinese philosophy does not draw a distinction between moral goodness and self-interest: A person who knows who is good for himself would do everything he can to be morally good. To do any less would be to sabotage his own chances of living well in this world.       
Interesting, don't you think? I also can't help thinking that although there are many differences between Chinese philosophy and yoga philosophy, they both share this common starting point: In yoga philosophy, just as in Chinese philosophy, the universe is also an inherently moral place. Why else would the yamas (ethical observances) and the niyamas (spiritual guides) be the first two limbs of yoga?

Well, that's about all I have to say for now. Let's see how coffee with my friend goes tomorrow morning...