Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Any Year. Any Age. You do. No Problem.": Guruji in action

I just came across the following video on a couple of different places in the blogosphere. Very inspiring video montage of Guruji in the thick of teaching. Many of his famous aphorisms are in the video (including the signature "99 percent practice, 1 percent theory"). Very inspiring, especially for those of us (including yours truly) who never got to meet Guruji. Enjoy!

Speaking of Guruji's terse aphorisms, David Garrigues has this to say in his latest post about this particular feature of Guruji's linguistic arsenal: 

"Learning from Guruji, observing his teaching, and hearing the repetition in his instructions was a true gift and his broken english, staccato commands still guide me in my practice daily. His limited use of english was perhaps extra eloquent in conveying the distinct nuances that he wanted to impart to you at any given time. Again and again he repeated: “yes you do!’, ‘No problem you go.’, ‘no fearing you go’, ‘why stopping?’, ‘Why waiting?’, ‘Hey bad man quickly you do!’ ‘yes you take it!’, ‘Why fearing?’ ‘Free breathing you do’ or simply a gruff, guttural ‘Breathe!’."

It seems that Guruji was definitely a proponent of "less is more" when it comes to verbal instruction :-) 

Monday, February 27, 2012

What do you do on days when your body simply doesn't want to practice?

This morning was one of those mornings when my body simply did not want to get on the mat. My mind was all set to practice, but my body felt so sluggish and sleepy. I'm not sure if it was my weekend in Memphis. It probably was; over the weekend, I had succumbed to the temptation of burning the candle at both ends (sleeping later than usual and sleeping less, eating a bit more than usual, etc.), and it looks like my body was paying for it this morning. Eventually, I had to cut a deal with my body: I went back to bed and napped for about half an hour or so. Then I got back up and practiced. And I'm glad I did. Even though the Suryas felt a bit sluggish, by the time I got into standing, everything was just chugging along. And when I finished practice, I was my usual post-practice great self.

Maybe this is a good time to do something I haven't done in a while: Conduct a poll. You will find it in the top right-hand corner of this blog. The question is: What do you do on days when your body just doesn't feel like practicing? Please vote!

If your answer happens to be "drink some coffee"--actually, even if it isn't--you should also check out the following recent video by Kiki warning about the consequences of excessive coffee consumption on the adrenal glands. I think Matthew Sweeney said what amounted to pretty much the same thing in his book Astanga Yoga As It Is, when he warned that using coffee to wake up to practice is only a stop-gap measure, and ultimately doesn't address the root cause: Whatever it is that is making you tired.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not telling anybody to give up coffee (I love espresso too). But all this is definitely something to be mindful of.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Haruki Murakami, the seductive power of knowledge, and the King

I'm still reading Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. One of the main characters in the novel is Tengo, a talented math teacher who is also an aspiring novelist on the side. As a teacher, he has an uncanny ability to engage his students and get them to feel passionate about something that is usually seen as a dry and boring subject (mathematics). Here's an excerpt from the novel that describes his teaching prowess:

"As a teacher, Tengo pounded into his students' heads how voraciously mathematics demanded logic. Here things that could not be proven had no meaning, but once you had succeeded in proving something, the world's riddles settled into the palm of your hand like a tender oyster. Tengo's lectures took on uncommon warmth, and the students found themselves swept up in his eloquence. He taught them how to practically and effectively solve mathematical problems while simultaneously presenting a spectacular display of the romance concealed in the questions it posed. Tengo saw admiration in the eyes of several of his female students, and he realized that he was seducing these seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds through mathematics. His eloquence was a kind of intellectual foreplay. Mathematical functions stroked their backs; theorems sent warm breath into their ears."   

My own lectures as a teacher certainly do not have this kind of seductive eloquence (at least not that I am aware of :-)), but I think I may have gone through a similar sort of experience this past weekend at the philosophy conference I attended in Memphis. I originally wasn't very interested in attending this conference; this being almost mid-term, there is a ton of papers to be graded and a whole bunch of other tasks to see to at work, and the thought of flying out of town for an entire weekend--even if for supposedly professional purposes--seems an unnecessary distraction from these pressing tasks.

But I somehow decided to go anyway, and I'm glad I did. The conference was a lively event, with scholars from universities and colleges all over the country (including, very humbly, yours truly) presenting their works in progress, and getting very constructive feedback and criticism from their peers in the profession; at any rate, I did not see any of the petty and catty attacks that academics are unfortunately famous for; if this is any indication of how philosophy conferences are increasingly being conducted in this country, this can only bode well for the profession.

Being a participant in this event, I personally feel very reinvigorated. I got some interesting feedback and useful suggestions on how to further develop my paper. In addition, I also attended a few other presentations. One presentation on comparative philosophy particularly stood out to me: It was a comparison between Hegel and Advaita Vedanta. The presenter compared and contrasted the views of Hegel, Shankara and Ramanuja on reality and non-reality. Since I know very little Vedanta, and practically no Hegel, most of the presentation simply went over my head. But I am really inspired by the presentation to go read more Vedanta, and maybe do my own exegesis and philosophical analysis sometime in the future.

Perhaps my experience at this conference is similar to that of the female students in Tengo's classes in one way: Like these students, I feel once again the seductive eloquence of philosophy as an intellectual and existential practice. In any case, I have always believed that on a most fundamental level, intellectual concerns cannot be separated from existential concerns. Aristotle said that, "All men by nature desire to know." Since it is in our nature to want to know things--both things about our environment, and things about our inner lives--human existence cannot be truly fulfilling if we do not try at least some of the time to give expression to this desire. And philosophy at its best is an expression of this most natural of desires. Indeed, how can one be human and not be seduced at least some of the time by this desire?


I did manage to squeeze in a brief trip to Graceland yesterday afternoon, after all. Went on a tour of the Graceland Mansion. I don't know that much about the life and times of the King; even so, while walking through the various rooms in the mansion, I really sensed that this is a man who lived life very, very fully. So much so, that virtually everything in his life is larger than life. And his presence definitely still fills every room in the house, after all these years.

[Image taken from here]

Elvis's fans, of course, can readily attest to his seductive power as an entertainer. But I also wonder if he might not be a teacher too, in his own unique way: Perhaps he is demonstrating to us through his life and actions how one can live and love in a larger-than-life manner?          

Friday, February 24, 2012

Do they make hash browns differently in the South, yoga assist dolls, (not) seeing The King

I am now sitting in a coffee shop in Memphis, Tennessee. It's called Republic Coffee. I just had a double espresso and a mushroom and spinach omelette with hash browns. The espresso's quite good, and so is the omelette, but the hash browns... hmm, all the hash browns I've ever had have always been light and fluffy, but the ones here are kind of... soggy. Do they make hash browns differently here in the South?

What brings me to Memphis? Well, I came here to present my paper on procrastination at a philosophy conference at Rhodes College. I arrived here yesterday afternoon, and so far, I've just been doing what I would have done if I were anywhere else. Had some dinner at an Indian restaurant yesterday, then went to Whole Foods to stock up on provisions.

This morning, I did my practice in my hotel room. This morning's backbends were especially delicious. Especially the dropbacks. I have been gaining more control in dropping back over the past few weeks. I almost never just flop and crash to the ground these days (I don't want to say "never", because I might jinx myself). This morning, during my first two dropbacks, I actually succeeded in lowering myself slowly to the ground, touching my fingertips to the mat, and then coming back up. For the third dropback, I walked my hands to my heels, touched them, but did not succeed in getting into Chakrabandhasana by myself. I have yet to succeed in getting into Chakrabandhasana by myself thus far; a little assist by a capable teacher in this area (say, by someone like Kino) would have been very nice :-)

Speaking of assists... you know, maybe someday we will develop the technology to make instructional yoga dolls that do assists. Basically, you will have a life-size statue of your favorite yoga teacher, and then program the statue to give you assists when you get to postures that you find challenging. Can you imagine what it would be like to have, like, a life-sized Tim Miller Assist-Doll or Kino Assist-Doll standing around and assisting you at the appropriate moments? From an economic point of view, these Assist-Dolls will sell like the way yoga DVDs are sold today. So Kino, for instance, will sell her own line of Assist-Dolls just like she sells her DVDs now.

Wouldn't that be so kick-ass? And while we're at it, maybe somebody should also make a life-sized Sharath Assist-Doll as well? I'm sure they will sell like hot cakes--or like hot dosas! And then who would need to go to Mysore? Gee, I may be getting a little sacrilegious here. Well, if you're offended, try to pretend you never read these last two paragraphs.


Before I arrived here in Memphis, I was thinking of possibly doing some touristy things; things like going to Graceland to see The King, for instance. But then I got here, and just felt like doing what I would normally do if I were at home. Maybe this is what Ashtanga does to you: It turns you into a boring person.

No, I have not gone to see The King. 
[Image taken from here]

The truth is, I've never really been a big fan of Elvis's music. I don't know why; maybe it's a generational thing? But maybe I should go see The King, after all? It just seems wrong to come to Memphis and not do this. I don't know; we'll see.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

That inscrutable ineffable little epiphaneous feeling

During this morning's practice, somewhere during the first few postures of primary series, I had a little epiphany: There is only this moment. All else is Maya.

I guess something more needs to be said to place this epiphany in a certain context. Strictly speaking, of course, epiphanies are not the sort of thing that needs to be placed in context. They are, after all, epiphanies. But I think many of us find epiphanies to be so wonderful and cool because they strike us so suddenly, so out of the blue in the midst of our everyday grind. Okay, so maybe you are some yogic being who is totally beyond the reach of the grindiness of the everyday grind (where are you at, Mysore? :-)). In which case, you can stop reading right now. The rest of the post is probably going to be too grinding (pun totally intended) and profane for your yogically-realized ears.

But really, if there were no everyday grind, and all of our lives were simply one long sustained yoga-orgasmic-epiphaneous ecstasy, would we even be able to recognize epiphanies when we experience them? If epiphanies were as everyday as the air we breathe or the coffee/chai we drink, would we even need to employ the concept of an epiphany to describe that ineffable epiphaneous feeling?

Okay, so I'm already, like, three paragraphs into the post, and I still haven't said much about what this morning's epiphany was about. Talk about digressing... Actually, there really isn't that much to say; what really happened was that I simply had this very deep feeling--the kind that you feel in your bones and muscles, not just in your mind--that "There is only this moment. All else is Maya." This little epiphany was all the more sweeter, given that I had a really anxiety-filled day yesterday. I won't bore you with the details of what I was anxious about; suffice to say that they are the garden-variety sort of anxieties; fearing and worrying about things that may or may not happen in the future which one may or may not be able to do anything about.

Which, as I said, made this morning's little practice epiphany sweeter. Somewhere in the first few postures of primary, I suddenly thought about a conversation I had a few days ago with one of my students, a physics major. This student told me that according to string theory, it is theoretically possible to understand all of space-time as one compressed mass; on this level, there is then really no such thing as past, present or future, since all time is contained within this mass. We also speculated that it may perhaps be possible for one to enter certain meditative states where one can actually perceive this space-time mass, and be outside of time and space, so to speak: In other words, it may be possible to achieve a God's-eye-view of space-time.

All of this is really over my head and out of my depth, so I'll stop here. But I'll leave you with one thought: If all of space-time is really one compressed mass (maybe like a tennis-ball; yeah, the space-time tennis ball...), then it would be kind of ridiculous to be worrying and angsting about the future, wouldn't it? After all, if this were true, the future wouldn't really ultimately exist, would it?

Anyway, epiphanies are cool. More power to them!         

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

1Q84: A not-so-literary review

"Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It's a crime... Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us--is rewritten--we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

I started reading 1Q84 a couple of weeks ago. I'm about a quarter of the way through. Reviews of the book so far have been very mixed; some think it is possibly Murakami's best work; others think it is an all-over-the-place piece of work that only Murakami can get away with pulling off (in a not-so-good kind of way).

I happen to fall in the former camp. I really think the story so far is mind-blowing. As is often the case with many of my favorite works, I feel that the experience of reading 1Q84 so far is kind of like peeling an onion: What the story is about isn't revealed to you right away; rather, the reader has to kind of go along with the flow, and "peel off" the unraveling layers of the story progressively. Along the way, one's sense of reality gets upended almost without one's being aware of it: As I've mentioned in a previous post somewhere, Murakami's writing can be characterized as being yogic without the woo. Oh, and speaking of yogic: Not to give away the story or anything, but one of the major antagonists in the novel seems to be this quasi-religious cult leader who does some really unsavory things to people, and who somehow has the absolute unquestioning trust of his followers... does this mirror something that is happening in the real-life yoga world right now, or is it just me? :-)

I guess this post isn't so much a review of the book as it is an unabashed recommendation: Go read it! It's very long (almost a thousand pages), but from what I have been reading of it so far, it's totally worth the investment of time and reading effort.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Art, moral development, and asana-practicing assholes

These past couple of days, I have been reading, thinking and preparing for my philosophy of art class that meets on Wednesday evening. The questions that my class will be discussing this Wednesday are: What is artistic value? Is the artistic value of a work separate (or separable) from other values that it may possess; values such as cognitive value, moral value, social value, educational value, historical value, therapeutic value, or economic value, among others?

To illustrate these questions better, let's use an example. Suppose a person who is having some issues in a romantic relationship feels better after watching Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, not because the movie offers any direct solutions to his relationship troubles (knowing Woody Allen, it probably doesn't :-)), but because the plot of the movie and its characters somehow function to help this person better put his relationship troubles in perspective. So the movie has psycho-therapeutic value for this person. But an art critic may say that the therapeutic value of this movie has nothing to do with its value as a work of art: Just because the movie is effective as a psycho-therapeutic tool says nothing about the production value of the movie, or about the aesthetically relevant aspects of the movie (cinematography, story, character development, etc.).

There is a lively debate in contemporary philosophy of art over whether the artistic value of a work is related to the other values (such as therapeutic value) that the same work may possess. Our art critic above believes that there is no relation between artistic value and other kinds of value the work may possess. But others may disagree.

On a related note, there is also a lively conversation over the question of whether the moral value of a work of art is separable or distinct from its artistic or aesthetic value. Should proper appreciation and understanding of a work of art function to make us better people? If we do not become better people as a result of engaging in artistic endeavors, have we in a sense failed to engage in art properly? Again, different people have different views about this. The American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters argues that poetry is and should be a means of strengthening intellectual and moral character:

"Poetry... should offer a means of enriching one's awareness of human experience and so of rendering greater the possibility of intelligence in the course of future action; and it should offer likewise a means of inducing certain more or less constant habits of feeling, which should render greater the possibility of one's acting, in a future situation, in accordance with the findings of one's improved intelligence. It should, in other words, increase the intelligence and strengthen the moral temper; these effects should naturally be carried over into action, if, through constant discipline, they are made permanent acquisitions."  

But I suspect that many will disagree with Winters here. After all, history seems to provide abundant examples of seemingly highly cultured individuals who nevertheless are highly morally deficient; Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, was a published novelist who also had a doctorate in romantic drama. Or maybe these individuals have failed to understand and appreciate the significance of art in some important sense; perhaps, despite their extensive engagement with art, they have failed to bring about the strengthening of the moral temper that proper engagement and involvement with art should bring about.

I don't have an answer to any of these issues. But I think there is much to think about here. But there is definitely a certain parallel set of issues with yoga practice here. One recurring theme in my posts over the last few months has been the relationship between asana practice and moral development or character. Should "correct", "proper" practice of asana result in some kind of strengthening of the moral temper and make us better people? We know that, as with the case of art, real life seems to provide us with abundant examples of advanced asana practitioners who nevertheless do not appear to be very morally evolved: See, for instance, Claudia's recent story about the coconut-men-yellers in this post. Actually, we don't even have to go all the way to Mysore to look for examples: I myself have engaged in some assholic behavior that I am definitely not proud of (which is not to say I am an advanced asana practitioner, of course; hmm... does this get me off the moral hook? :-)).

I guess the question is: What is the diagnosis for these asana-practicing assholes (myself included)? The way I see it, there are at least three possible answers:

(1) One straightforward answer could be that these folks (again, myself included) may be proficient at asana, but have not done enough to incorporate the other limbs (especially yama and niyama) into their yoga, so that they are really not practicing yoga, but only appearing to. 

(2) Another possible answer could be that the yoga is working even on these assholes: If you think I'm an asshole now, wait till you see me when I don't practice...

(3) Yet another possible answer could be that despite everything we've been brainwashed--uh, I mean, taught--to believe, yoga really isn't all it's cracked up to be. You do whatever yoga you can do, but whether or not you become self-realized in the end has nothing to do with the yoga (maybe it's genetically determined?). Which means the system really doesn't work. Quick! Jump ship while you still can! Maybe go do Pilates or Taichi or something...

Again, I don't know what the answer is: I'm hoping it's (2), but what do I know?   

Anyway, time to go eat some dinner. This is what happens when I don't blog for a couple of days: You get subjected to one long-ass post! Well, I hope you find at least some of this useful (or at least entertaining...).

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Blogging about everything and nothing in particular

I have been having a lot of trouble motivating myself to blog the last few days. What could there be to blog about? I can blog about my practice, but really, there are only three things I can possibly talk about when I talk about my physical practice now: (1) My newfound obsession with floating and being a floating clown (see this post); (2) My continuing attempt to make my practice challenging and stimulating despite having to work with my tweaky left knee (as if this in itself is not challenging enough); (3) my continuing adventures in backbending. Backbend Update: Over the last few weeks, I have succeeded in grabbing my lower shins consistently in Kapotasana.

Ho hum. You are probably thinking: Big freaking deal. You are probably an asshole off the mat, trying to make up for your off-the-mat assholism by fixating on your on-the-mat exploits. Which is more or less on target, unfortunately. Maybe that's why so many bloggers have recently mentioned that it is not a good idea to blog too much about the mechanics of asana practice.

But if one doesn't blog about the nuts and bolts of asana practice at least some of the time on an Ashtanga blog, and asana is supposed to be the foundation of Ashtanga yoga practice upon which all the other seven limbs are based, then what is the point of writing an Ashtanga blog? This, then, is the quandary of Ashtanga blogging: To write about asana practice or not?


The blogosphere (or at least certain segments of it) is recently on fire with that case of that so-called guru of that particular yoga style who is facing allegations of sexual and financial misconduct (hmm... who could I be talking about?).

Personally, I could care less about whether Guru X is sleeping with his or her students. Doesn't help me with my Brahmacharya, nor with anybody else's, as far as I can see.

As for the financial misconduct, well... shit happens. Such financial shenanigans happen in every other area of life: Specifically, they tend to happen when a group of people, for better or for worse (usually worse), place too much unquestioning trust in a single individual. So why shouldn't the same thing happen in the yoga world?

But all of this is old news. You can read about all this in much more lurid detail in other corners of the yoga blogosphere that specialize in uncovering yoga scandals and fake-guru-busting. This area is not my cup of tea (or coffee).

But here's something else to think about. According to my very superficial understanding of Advaita Vedanta, all phenomena is ultimately non-dualistic. Which means that somebody else's being an asshole is not separate from who or what I am, or what I am doing right now. So if Fake Guru X is the sexual-and-financial-energy-mismanaging monster that he has turned out to be, his being this way is a reflection in some way or other of who we are and what we have being standing for, tacitly or explicitly. Could it be that Fake Guru X is able to become who he is because we have collectively created the environment that has enabled his behavior over the years? If this is so, then are we really in a position to get all self-righteous and point fingers
 and say, "Be gone, you evil one, scourge of all that is pure and unadulterated in the pristine world of yoga!" Just where is this pristine yoga world to be found?

Something to think about, as always.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seems I'm not as non-dependent on coffee/espresso as I thought I was

This morning, I finished my practice a little later than usual. Since I had a morning class to teach, this meant that I had to rush out of the house without my usual post-practice espresso. Made it through my class, and then decided to just skip breakfast and go straight to lunch (it was already close to noon). I grabbed a little container of pasta labelled "Vegetarian" in the cafeteria, and ate it with some juice.

I felt really heavy and sluggish and sleepy for about half an hour after that. I honestly can't remember the last time I had a post-lunch slump. I'm still trying to decide if today's slump was caused by (1) whatever it was that called itself "Vegetarian" (Note to self: Not everything labelled "Vegetarian" is good for you), or by (2) the fact that I did not have any espresso earlier in the day.

If (2), then it seems that I am not as coffee non-dependent as I thought I was. Hmm... No Coffee, No Prana?

Well, maybe I'll go get some espresso now. Oh, and I know that this post is very banal and probably has nothing to do with yoga. I guess I'm having one of my blogging dry spells. Don't really have anything wise, profound or interesting to say (which assumes, of course, that what I usually blog about is wise, profound or interesting. Questionable assumption.).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Valentine's Day Musings: How can we love this thing called Ashtanga?

Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if you celebrate Valentine's, but since many of you who read this blog practice Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, let me see if I can give an Ashtangic spin to this arguably most over-hyped and commercialized of holidays: May the flame of your love for the practice grow with each passing practice, and never burn out, whether or not you get to sixth series in this lifetime ;-)

Indeed, it may be that in the bigger scheme of things, it is really love of the practice that will decide whether we will continue our practice in spite of the many obstacles and pains, physical and otherwise, that we often encounter in the course of our practice journey. At a workshop a few years ago, David Williams told us that when he tells people that he has been practicing non-stop for more than 30 years, they usually respond, "Wow! You must have great self-discipline to be able to do this practice non-stop for so long!" But David thinks that the word "discpline" has a rather negative ring to it: To him, it implies that he is being disciplined for having done or not done something. He prefers to think that it is really love of the practice that brings him to the mat every day, rather than self-discipline.

But there are often times when it is difficult to see how love could really be what is motivating us to roll out the mat, especially during those days when we are tired or feeling low on motivation. Or during those times when we have to work with injury or some kind of physical limitation, when doing even the most basic of movements could bring pain. For instance, I once threw out my SI joint so badly that I couldn't move from updog to downdog without lower back pain. I eventually managed to heal myself by working on my uddiyana bandha and on the alignment of the toes, but in the process, it took a lot of trial and error to find a way for my body to move in a pain-free way through this most basic of transitions, and during that process, every error was a painful one.

Hmm... I guess I could have picked a more Yoga-Journal-friendly example to illustrate my point: This seems like the kind of example that some people out there might point to as a reason not to practice Ashtanga ("See, you practice this Ashtanga yoga, you get back pain... for what?! Shouldn't yoga be pain-free?"). Sounds also like good grist for the yoga-can-wreck-your-body mill.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is: How can we love this Ashtanga practice, if it brings us so much discomfort, and dare I say, pain? Is love enough to see us through this journey of practice, or is something more needed? If something more is needed, what is it? Grit? Courage? Fearlessness? Discipline? All of the above?

Any thoughts?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Do you have to be anybody special to blog? (You probably know the answer to this one...)

Whew! This past weekend was packed so full with activities; from the way things are looking, this coming week will probably be just as busy. Not sure how much blogging I will be able to squeeze in in the midst of all this... life. But I guess blogging is like practice, in this way: You do what you can with what you've got, and more often than not, the results surprise you (or at least, they surprise me)...

Speaking of blogging, an interesting little conversation about blogging happened this past weekend. On Saturday, I went for my twice-a-month acupuncture session. The acupuncturist was the same lady who attended to me two weeks ago (see this post). As she was sticking needles into me, we started chatting about yoga again; somehow, the topic of blogging came up, and I mentioned that I write a blog. When she heard this, her eyes suddenly sparkled, and she asked, "Oh, you write a blog? Do you work for Yoga Journal or something?" I replied, "No, it is just a personal blog about my own observations about my yoga practice, and my place in the world as it relates to the practice." "Oh," she replied, and went back to sticking needles into me.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this short exchange, but I can't help feeling that there are a whole bunch of people out there who think that you have to be someone special to write a blog. Well, if this is what they think... welcome to my world! I'm nobody special, but I write a blog nonetheless. I can go on and on about how yoga blogging can function to democratize knowledge and information, and makes the aesthetics of the yoga world a little less "Yoga-Journal-esque", and perhaps a little bit more... real, but I have a long day ahead, and this is not a day for a long post. So I'll sign off here.

P.S. I am making a mental note to myself not to reveal the name of this blog to my acupuncturist. I have already generated at least two blog posts from my acupuncture conversations, neither of which paint the acupuncturist in a particularly flattering light.  

P.P.S. I am traveling to Memphis, TN, from Thursday February 23rd to Sunday February 26th. If any of you out there reading this live in Memphis (or will be there during these same days), please feel free to drop me a line. Perhaps we can hang out and/or practice together?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

I am a sex god, and didn't even know it

I said a few days ago that I wasn't going to blog about this yoga-can wreck-your-body affair again, but things have now taken such a bizarre turn (in a way that actually has something to do with me, as I shall presently explain) that it is just impossible to ignore the whole thing anymore. So yes, my blogging drishti has gone to s%#t yet again... (what's new?)

So here's the deal: I just read Steve's latest post at the Confluence Countdown, where he relates the latest developments in the saga of William Broad and his book, "The Science of Yoga" (hereafter simply "the book").

Many of us are probably familiar by now with Broad's widely-publicized conclusion: Yoga can kill you!

Steve reports that in the last few days, Broad has decided to take a slightly different angle, and has now arrived at another conclusion: Yoga will help your sex life!

I don't watch much TV, but apparently, Broad was featured Thursday night on ABC’s Nightline on a segment called, “Better Sex Through Yoga.”

Here’s the teaser from the show’s blog (thank you for bringing this to my attention, Steve :-)):

          '"The latest way to improve your love life doesn’t involve a slick how-to guide. It doesn’t  involve Big Pharma, either.

          It’s yoga.
According to William Broad, author of “The Science of Yoga,” which came out Feb. 7, there is real evidence yoga helps sex.  For example, the cobra pose boosts blood flow to the pelvis.
“Why spend millions on those little blue pills, right?” Broad said in an interview with ABC News’ Dan Harris.
          Broad, a science writer for The New York Times, spent years combing through the scientific     literature on yoga.
“I can cite you study after study after study,” Broad said. “We can go through hormones, brain waves, vaginal blood flow…”
           Broad said yoga started in medieval India as a sex cult, a series of practices that used our sexual    energies as the fast track to enlightenment."'

Ignoring Broad's claim about yoga originally being a sex cult (what do I, a yogic prude, know about sex cults, anyway?), let us just take a step back, and consider the two claims that Broad has made so far since publishing his book:

(1) Yoga can kill you!

(2) Yoga will help your sex life!

Put (1) and (2) together, and what do we get? Yes, we get:

(3) Yoga will kill you by improving your sex life!

Hmm... No wonder yoga is so dangerous. It turns you into a sex dynamo, and causes you to have so much sex that you just roll over like a depleted energizer bunny and die!

This is your body on yoga (scary, no?)
[Image taken from here]

So if Broad is right, all yoga studios should now have a Surgeon-General's Warning posted on their front doors that says, "May cause death through too much sex. Practice at your own risk."

But what has all of this to do with me? Well, Broad said in the above excerpt that backbends in general (and cobra pose in particular) boost blood flow to the pelvis and thus increase sex prowess. This, by the way, is old news: I'm quite sure B.K.S. Iyengar made the same observation in Light on Yoga. Yeah, maybe Mr. Iyengar should sue Broad's pants off (no pun intended) for plagiarism. Now that would be something to watch. But Mr. Iyengar is probably too busy enjoying his practice in Pune (especially his famous backbends) to give two hoots about this Broad fellow...

Anyway, I still haven't answered the question: What has all of this to do with me? Well, I don't like to brag about my asana prowess, but if you have been reading this blog for a while, you probably know that I can do a pretty deep kapotasana: In fact, you can find a picture of me in this pose if you search "backbends" or "Kapotasana" on this blog. Anyway, if cobra pose can increase sexual prowess by boosting pelvic blood flow, imagine what a regular practice of Kapotasana can do: I must be a sex god by now! And I didn't even know that! Well, thank you for bringing this useful piece of information to my attention, Mr Broad :-) I can't tell you how much I owe you for this.  
I guess I should sign off now. After all, sex gods are not supposed to spend their Saturday afternoons in front of computers. They should be doing more adventurous things, don't you think? :-)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Does yoga really work, or is Self-realization genetically determined?

The answer to this question is quite complicated. But in order to make sense of what I am talking about, I have to start from the beginning. So please bear with me.

So, let's start from the beginning. Earlier today, I read with great interest Claudia's recent post about her recent trip to Mysore, and the comment thread that follows it. Claudia writes about how she has come to terms with the need for certification or external validation of one's "yogic status". She writes:

"Wanting some validation, or some external certificate, is a way of filling an emptiness or insecurity that perhaps we didn't realize we had. The true yogi is overflowing with a happiness generated by every limb of the yoga sutras working in conjunction.

Nobody can give me a certificate for this. Nobody might even know it but me. And once that certificate is hanging on the wall, will the emptiness that desperately requires it truly be filled?"

I think these are very wise and beautiful words. At the same time, Claudia also observes certain displays of seemingly not-so-evolved behavior among supposedly advanced students:

"I was shocked to see some advanced students screaming at the coconut guy, one of the coconut guys, the details do not matter, it may not have even been a coconut guy, the point is there was rudness, yelling.  I was shocked to see advanced students gossiping, or advanced students resenting the levels reached by others.

The point I am trying to make is that I am surprised to see many people calling themselves yogis of a certain level who cannot, will not, be kind, be honest, be happy.  Of course this includes me too, I am not perfect, and I make mistakes."

Claudia's observation seems to have struck a sympathetic chord among her readers. For instance, one of the commenters on her post writes:

"Here's what I struggle with--situations like those advanced yogis, or even John Friend, who has done yoga for years. It seems like the yoga doesn't work at all--that the system is just like any human system--terribly terribly flawed. You do seem true and real and like you are working with integrity to try to be your best and to be honest when you are not. But that may be you--something you have become unrelated to yoga. It may be who you are. Maybe it's not the yoga, not the yoga at all. That is my worry. And if you are who you write, you are a true yogi--it has nothing to do w/ the poses. So why should we put ourselves into all of these shapes? Or perhaps, it's the surrender that does it--to something greater, and that can come by giving yourself over to the poses, or to prayer, or to a higher source. Perhaps it's surrender to what is good and true more than anything.


Tara's dilemma (if I may call it that) seems to be this: If the yoga practice is such a great system for achieving self-transformation/self-realization, then how come we still see all these supposedly advanced yogis engage in behavior that is, well, unbecoming of an advanced yogi? Does this mean that ultimately, what determines whether or not you become a self-realized person has nothing to do with the yoga, but with what you already are or have become? Or, as Tara puts it, "that may be you--something you have become unrelated to yoga. It may be who you are."

If this is the case--if becoming self-realized is more a matter of who we already are rather than what the yoga practice does for us--does this mean that yoga ultimately cannot help us to attain self-realization? Maybe some of us are born with a Self-realization Gene (Claudia appears to be one of these people :-)), and some of us aren't. If you have this Gene, then all you need is a little work and voila!, you are then Self-realized! If you don't happen to have this Gene, well, you're out of luck. No amount of yoga (or whatever) is going to turn you into a Self-realized person. At least not in this lifetime. May you have better genetic luck next time.

Is this what the deal is? Is the potential for Self-realization genetically determined? Is Genetic Determinism with regard to Self-realization (GDS) true? Are those of us who don't happen to have this Self-realization Gene condemned to be jerks/assholes/douchebags for the rest of this life?

Hmm.... I don't know. With my practice being as superficial as it is, I really am in no position to answer this question. Or maybe my practice is so superficial because I don't possess the Self-realization Gene. Which means that Genetic Determinism with regard to Self-realization is true, and I am condemned to lifelong jerkhood/assholism. Ha! Takes one to know one, don't you think?

But I have a hunch that, as with most big questions, the answer to this question is a little bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. Let's begin with that Holy Grail of yogic practices: Samadhi. According to the Yoga Sutra (or at least, according to my superficial understanding of it), the highest level of samadhi is objectless or nirbijah samadhi (YS 1.51).

Does attaining objectless samadhi guarantee that one will attain non-attachment (vairagya) and, along with it, Self-realization? According to anecdotal accounts I have heard, the answer seems to be no: Attaining objectless samadhi is a useful tool that one can use to attain self-realization. However, as with all tools (including, as we all know, the asana practice), one can become overly attached to the attainment of objectless samadhi, and be distracted from the path, in much the same way in which one can be distracted from the path by one's asana achievements. My friend Tom attests to this in a comment on an earlier post on this blog:

"Samadhi is simply a tool that can help us get to realization. We still must use that tool regularly and allow purification to happen on deeper and deeper levels. And without the foundation of purity of intent (like if we are still striving after experiences, energetic openings, or mystical phenomena) the tool is useless and eventually can be self destructive.

I once worked with a teacher, quite an adept who could abide in samadhi state and who could and did demonstrate some pretty fantastical attainments (siddhis/psychic powers). Despite his fantastical displays of knowledge and abilities, the striving in his heart (and suffering that goes with it) was still rather obvious. His workshops were like a 3 ring spiritual circus! I used to think anyone of his level of accomplishment must have done the work, must be on he right path, but after a while it became very clear what the yoga sutras say about attainments possibly indicating progress on the path but also being a big distraction and trap..."

So even abiding in samadhi can become a circus act! Well, now I don't feel so bad about my own circus acts (see this post)... But I guess what Tom's comment shows is this: Yoga is a powerful system or set of tools that can enable one to attain Self-realization. But tools--especially powerful ones--can always be misused, and become self-destructive to the user whose intention is not pure. And it is ultimately our intentions that will determine whether we use these tools to become self-realized beings, or whether we use them to become samadhied assholes. 

So, to come back to my original question: Is Self-realization genetically determined? Well, I think it would have to depend on whether our intentions are genetically determined, since it is ultimately our intentions that decide whether or not we become self-realized. Well, are our intentions genetically determined? Uh, I don't know... I don't even know how to begin to try to answer this question. Gosh, being a philosopher really sucks! You answer one question, and then a bigger question comes tumbling down the hill at you! There's something very Sisyphean about all this, don't you think? :-)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Does living in the present go against common sense?

Earlier today, I watched this videoclip of a talk by Alan Watts. Very fascinating. Watts invites us to think of the passage of our lives through time as being akin to the passage of a ship through water. The events created by our lives in time are like the wake created by the ship, and "the wake doesn't drive the ship, any more than the tail wags the dog."

This being the case, the things and events that have happened in the past do not define our lives, even though we often cite these things and events to try to explain why we are doing what we are doing now. So we should define ourselves not in terms of what we did in the past, but in terms of what we are doing now. The idea is to "get rid of the habit of thought whereby you define yourself in terms of what has gone before." And it is only by doing so that we can liberate ourselves from the ridiculous situation of being a dog wagged by its tail.

I really think that there is much wisdom in what Watts is saying here. But there's also a part of me that can't help asking: What about personal responsibility? If it is true that we are but ships endlessly moving through the waters of time, so that what we think of as "the past" is really a fleeting, transient series of waves on the ocean of space-time, would there be any sense in holding people accountable for their actions? I mean, when we hold people accountable for their actions, we hold them accountable for actions that they have done in the past, whether that past is five minutes ago or ten years ago. But if an event is like a wave, and ceases to exist almost as soon as it is created, would it still make sense to hold somebody accountable for something that no longer exists?

Here's a concrete example. Suppose I stole some money from you yesterday. And suppose you try to hold me accountable for my action by confronting me and demanding that I return the money. But if the past has already ceased to exist, and does not define who I am and what you are, then my identity as the thief of your money does not define who I am, and your identity as the victim of said theft does not define who you are either. Indeed, it looks like if Watts is right, the only plausible explanation you can give for confronting me would be that you simply dig confronting me! Any kind of commonsense explanation of your action ("I am confronting you because you stole my money yesterday") would involve appealing to past events which do not really explain anything, and would put you in the ridiculous situation of being a dog wagged by its tail!

I guess the question that I'm trying to get at is this: If attributions of personal responsibility are always for things and actions that have already happened, wouldn't Watts' ideas of living in the present be at odds with our commonsense notions of personal responsibility? So which one wins: Common sense or living in the present?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I am a Floating Clown who is slowly going crazy (but I may not be alone)

I'll start this post with a confession: I haven't been doing yoga for the last couple of years. I've actually been doing circus tricks. What do I mean? If you have been following some recent conversations in the blogosphere (including on this blog; see this post), you'll know what I'm talking about. But if you don't, here's the sparknotes version of the whole thing. It all started with Sharath declaring at a recent conference that:

"some practitioners have started doing handstands all over the place. Ekam, dwe, then trini you lift up to handstand. This is not correct. It’s a way of showing off. It’s not yoga. It’ll make you crazy (and on a purely physical note, it’ll make your shoulders tight)."[This is Ellie's paraphrase of Sharath's words, by the way.]

So all that fancy floating back and forth in the Suryas is "not correct", and will "make you crazy"! In a recent comment on my floating post, Kiki also independently verified the truth of Sharath's words. She writes:

"Floating is showing off...and here's why - the floatee changes their breath (the vinyasa - the actual "yoga" of the technique). So the vinyasa technique is abandoned for the sake of appearance or for that "aren't i groovy" feeling.
The jump back to chatvari is an exhale.
Can you tell me that on you way back you are exhaling UP to your float?
Or, like a hundred others I have witnessed, do you add an extra inhale to rise to the fancy extra float?
Prove me wrong...but here's what Kiki Says."

Which brings me back to my confession. During this morning's practice, despite being aware of both Kiki's and Sharath's admonitions, I nevertheless continued to float back and forth in the Suryas. Why did I do that? No particular reason; it just felt really groovy, even though nobody's watching. Especially the float up to Nawa position; it just feels so good to be able to land with so much control. It's like I have rocket boosters under my feet that fire off just before they touch the ground, enabling my feet to hover there for a split second.

I won't even bother to defend myself here. I'll admit that I had to take an extra inhale to rise to the float, thereby messing up the vinyasa count. Which also means that I wasn't doing yoga, but circus tricks, and that I am slowly going crazy. So I am a floating circus clown who is slowly going crazy! Actually, I may already be crazy... Have you noticed that my last few blog posts have been a bit "off"?

This is me doing Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana a few years down the road
[Image taken from here]

But... I may be in some pretty good company. Have you noticed how many big name Ashtanga teachers float a lot? There is David Robson, of course, who recently released his floating DVD (maybe it needs to be renamed "How to become a floating clown"). And I'm pretty sure I'm seen Kino float in a few of her videos. Actually, even Richard Freeman floats! 

So what's going to happen from this point? Well, maybe in the next few weeks, all these teachers will release official statements declaring that they do not have to take that extra inhale in order to rise to that fancy extra float. Maybe David Robson will even add an extra chapter to his DVD, in which he will explain how to float up without taking an extra breath. 

Or maybe all these teachers will just erase all their floating videos, and pretend they never existed. And floating will, from now on, become a lost art...

I don't know what's going to happen: I'm just idly speculating. In the meantime, you will know that there is at least one floating clown out here...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Empirical Blogging, chitta vrttis, and brahmacharya

I'm probably going to piss off a few people by writing this, but I really think the yoga blogosphere has become a very funny place recently. What do I mean? I get the sense that, rather than using their blogs as a place to share their own feelings about their own practice and life as it pertains to the practice, many bloggers seem to be increasingly using their blogs as platforms to air their views about the latest storms and/or scandals in the yoga world, both online and in the "real" world.

Why is this an issue? Well, in a sense, it's not. After all, our blogs are our own private virtual soapboxes, and we should be allowed to say whatever we want, right? Who am I to dictate what people should or should not blog about?

Fair enough, fair enough... but I always feel that in order for yoga blogging to be meaningful and authentic, it needs to be based as much as possible on thoughts and feelings about things that one has experienced directly.  These can be thoughts and feelings about the current state of one's own practice, thoughts and feelings about things that are happening in one's own life and environment, or thoughts and feelings about things and ideas that one is reading about or thinking about. I'm not quite sure how to express all this more succinctly, but the general idea is that blogging should be as close to one's first-hand empirical experience as possible. I've even coined a fancy term for this idea: Empirical Blogging.

But who says that blogging needs to be empirical? I do! Well, you may ask, what's so important about blogging's being empirical? Why should it be empirical?

To begin, the more one focuses on things that one directly experiences, the more one can come to understand what is going on in one's own life. In this way, blogging becomes a way of studying and understanding the self (i.e. svadhyaya or self-study). By contrast, the more one focuses on things in the greater world (even if it is the greater "yoga world") that may or may not have anything to do with one's own direct experience, the more likely one is to add to the already voluminous amount of vrtti that is in one's chitta. What's so bad about adding more vrtti to the chitta? Well, I can't answer this question. Only you can... 

Wow, I think my professional life is starting to spill over into my blogging life: I'm beginning to sound like the didactic, preachy professor that I am in "real life"! So I better sign off soon. I see that this is not a good blogging day (or maybe it's the full moon?). But I'm guessing you know what I'm trying to say here with all my talk of empirical and non-empirical blogging. Well, in case you don't, I'll give you a couple of recent examples of non-empirical blogging:

(1) All that blogging about that William Broad book about how yoga wrecks your body: I have no problem with blogging about books. I do that myself. But from what I can see, most of the bloggers who have blogged so far about the release of this book have been blogging about it second-hand: They basically quote reviews of the book that have been done by other people or news agencies.

Rather than quote some review or other which I can go find and read myself online, wouldn't it far more valuable to go read the book yourself, and then write up a detailed, balanced appraisal of what is in the book based on your own reading? (Need I say more?)

(2) All that blogging about that John-Friend-Anusara affair: I really have no idea what is going on in this affair (which is why I don't blog about it!). Again, it seems that whatever blogging I have seen so far involves some kind of secondhand quoting of this or that source that may or may not know anything about what is actually going on.

But seriously, do I really need to know anything about what John Friend is or is not doing? If it's a matter of Famous Yogi X having sex consensually with not-so-famous-but-very-physically-attractive Yogini Y, and then going on to have sex consensually with another not-so-famous-but-also-very-physically-attractive Yogini Z, and so and so forth... why would I need to know any of this? I mean, don't people have sex with each other/one another all the time? Granted, Famous Yogi X, being a Famous--and therefore supposedly Self-realized--Yogi, shouldn't be running around having sex with a bunch of people. It's bad for his brahmacharya, and probably also for the brahmacharyas of all the people he's having sex with. But again, why do I need to know any of this? Knowing somebody's non-observance of brahmacharya isn't going to help me with my brahmacharya (nor, I suspect, with yours...). And moreover, the information, being secondhand, may or may not be accurate. So we are stuck with a very bad deal: We get some (admittedly juicy) information that may or may not be accurate, which benefits us in no tangible manner, and which most certainly adds to our collective chitta vrtti, and does nothing to help with our collective brahmacharya (or, I might add, with the other yamas, most particularly Satya, or truth).

So what gives?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Why a million dollars isn't enough to be a yoga bum; a working title for my novel

Yesterday, I was hanging out with a few friends, and the classic million-dollar question came up: What would you do if you had a million dollars?

I replied that I would invest this money so that I can get reasonably good interest on it, and then use the interest to finance my dream yoga-bum lifestyle (basically, quit my day job, go wherever I want whenever I want, and practice and study yoga with whoever I want. Sounds neat, don't you think? :-)). I reasoned that if I can invest this money in some kind of account with, say, a five-percent interest rate, I would have an annual income of 50K. Not a lot, but I might be able to do a bit of traveling if I plan my finances properly.

Upon hearing of my plan, one of my friends, who is a finance geek (being an Ashtangeek, I tend to hang out with geeks of other sorts...), said, "Not to rain on your parade, Nobel, but I don't think your plan is going to work. First, with interest rates being as low as they are, and with little reason to believe that they will go up anytime soon, you'll be lucky to get even a 3 percent interest rate from any savings account with any bank in this country." He then went on to quote a bunch of facts about the Feds and how they are depressing interest rates, and a whole bunch of other things that went over my head. He then continued, "Moreover, with inflation being as high as it is, and showing no signs of letting up in the near future, your 50K (assuming, of course, that you do get 50K) is going to be worth less and less with every passing month."

Well, shows what I know about finance, right? Long story short: It looks like even if I have a million dollars, I still won't be able to be a yoga bum. Bummer...

Another friend suggested an alternative: In this day and age, if you want your million dollars to grow, you will probably have to become an entrepreneur. Maybe start some kind of yoga business with the money, and offer your yoga skills to the public. You're taking a risk, of course, but if you don't take a risk, you will never make money.

Okay... sounds good on paper. Except that I don't have any yoga skills to speak of... I mean, I do, but there is nothing I can do asana-wise that all the Kino MacGregors and David Swensons and Richard Freemans of the world cannot; if anything, they can easily kick my ass out the window in this area.

Of course, yoga is not just asana; I've heard that somewhere. But how does one go about marketing and entrepreneuring the other seven limbs of yoga? Beats me. If you know the answer, let me know. Then again, if you know the answer, you will probably be out there entrepreneuring and living the high yoga life. Would you even have the time of day for a nobody like me? ;-)

Ah, what is the world coming to, that one can't even live one's dream yoga-bum lifestyle with a million dollars in the bank! We must really be in the Kali Yuga, for things to be so messed up!


But lamenting and whining about things won't bring me any closer to actualizing my yoga bum lifestyle. Writing a best-selling novel (or, at least, starting to write a best-selling novel) might. After a little bit of thinking yesterday, I finally came up with a working title for my book (see this post). I'm going to tentatively title it

Ashtangeek: The Origins and Modest Aspirations of an Aspiring Yoga Bum

What do you think of this title? 

Here's my plan. I have set a goal to write something every week, and post an excerpt on this blog at least once a week. If you have any comments/feedback/constructive criticism, I'll love to hear from you. 

This way, I'll be able to finally get off my ass and start working towards yoga-bum-hood. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Is floating showing off?

This morning, I did full primary (my rest day is on Sunday). In the Suryanamaskars, I am finally nailing floating back and floating forward into Uttanasana from downward dog. I've been able to kind of float back for a few months now: Basically, I lift my lower body up off the ground in Trini position, and then kind of float back into Chatvari. But it is only in the last couple of days that I am finally starting to get the hang of floating forward. I realize that it has a lot to do with how much of my body weight is on the legs rather than on the hands in downdog. You know that common adjustment you get in downdog, where the teacher pushes or pulls your hips back, so that more of your weight is in the feet rather than on the hands? Well, it seems that the more weight there is on the feet, the easier it is to "float" forward into Uttanasana. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but this, at least, has been my experience.

But recently, another question has come up in my mind about floating in the Suryas. According to Claudia, Sharath said in last week's conference that:

"So if you are able to do all asanas beautifully, if you do for example handstand which is the common thing everyone wants to show... I don't know where this habit comes from.  What is this? After Surya Namaskar, dwi, trini, (two, three) and handstand.  (He is refering to people who include handstand into the sun salutations as a way of showing off, but something that is clearly not supposed to be there in the salutations, see Pattabhi Jois' book Suryanamaskara).  He continues I don't know why, it seems to attract people, but for a real yogi the transformation happens within."

I guess my question is: Is floating in and out of trini position in the Suryas showing off? After all, if you are lifting your body off the ground first in trini before you go back into chatvari, you are technically doing a handstand. Same goes for floating forward into Uttanasana/Sapta position: If you are floating, there is an instant in which your body is suspended above the ground. Which makes it technically a handstand. To illustrate my point, here's a video of David Robson "floating":

So is floating showing off?   

Friday, February 3, 2012

If yoga really is a religion, and we do not practice it as a religion, are we going to hell?

"Hell is other people."

Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit

Just a little while ago, I was skimming through the posts that I have written over the last couple of months, and was surprised to discover that somebody had left a rather abrasive comment earlier today on this post I wrote not too long ago about whether yoga is a religion. It appears that the commenter has some really strong views about yoga being a religion, and that he or she believes that much of the yoga that is practiced in the west today focuses too much on postures and is thus a corruption of what yoga originally was.

I considered responding to the comment, but then I thought: Why? I don't think I'm going to be able to change his or her mind, nor vice versa. [Update: Okay, I did briefly respond to the comment, but in a brief way that would (hopefully) not entangle me in some long-drawn-out theological debate about whether yoga is a religion. I simply don't have the energy or inclination for any such debate...]

But really, why do people have to take themselves so seriously? Well, okay, I guess I'm guilty of this too at least some of the time: See, for instance, my previous post in which I rant about Elephant Journal editorship.

But really, think about this: Suppose I (and I suspect, along with me, many of you who are now reading this blog) am wrong about the ultimate religious status of yoga. Suppose it turns out that despite whatever we in the west have been "brainwashed" to believe, yoga really is a religion. Well... so what? Will we all go to some kind of yoga hell and burn in there for several kalpas after we die? Or maybe it's not that bad. Maybe we'll just be condemned to doing a bunch of gymnastic exercises that we think is yoga (when it's actually "just" gymnastics...) for the rest of our earthly existence. Well, again, so what? I don't know about you, but I think I can live with that. Call whatever I do every morning yoga, call it gymnastics, call it whatever; if what I'm doing works for me, what's the problem? None of this is worth getting our panties in a wad over; not especially if we're all going to hell in the end :-) 

But if none of this is worth getting our panties in a wad over, why did I just spend a good half an hour of my time writing all this (and waste a good deal of your time getting you to read this)? I don't know; I guess I just can't stop thinking and blogging (Blogito ergo sum; "I blog, therefore I am").

See you in hell, I guess :-)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Kino on fear, pain, injury, and that recent NYT article (and my two cents on Elephant Journal Editorship)

I just read Kino's latest article, which was published in Elephant Journal. At one point in her article, she speaks very clearly and illuminatingly about the place of pain, suffering and potential injury in the Ashtanga tradition. She also addresses that recently-infamous NYT article (you know what I'm talking about; no need to link to it here :-)). Kino writes:

"Yoga is an ancient spiritual tradition, of which the practice of physical postures, known as asanas, are just one component. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras asana is in fact only one out of the full eight limbs of practice. Recent dialogue within the yoga community, most notably in the New York Times article on yoga-related injuries, presents the notion that yoga might be potentially discounted because of the risk of physical injury. Yet this fails to take into account the spiritual journey to the heart of each student’s essential nature that is at center of the yoga practice itself. A true student of yoga is a sincere spiritual seeker and is willing to go through the work of pain, suffering and potential injury if that road ultimately leads to liberation, happiness, healing and freedom. My teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that if you experienced an injury during your physical yoga practice the only real way to heal that injury was through more yoga. He also said that if you quit your practice after having experienced that injury that it would stay with you for a long time, perhaps the rest of your life. If pain can be avoided by students learning their lessons the easy way through an open heart, healthy alignment and accepting attitude that is the fastest road. However, when pain and injury arise it is crucial that you do not run from them nor allow their presence to rule your experience of your body, your practice and your life.

There is a mind-body connection that underlies the practice of physical postures. Yoga is more of a body awareness technique than a physical exercise routine. In fact the main purpose of all the postures is to prepare your body and mind for deeper states of realization. When you try to feel and awaken a forgotten area of the body for the first time it is often hard to rouse. Yoga students must use the posture to dig deeper into the layers of the body and reach through memories, emotions, thoughts and anything else to touch the heart of their human soul with all its foibles and vulnerabilities. In the path of yoga it is essential that when pain arises you do not run from it, reacting to the pain from a purely psychological perspective and throw out the whole tradition based on fear. In fact, when you do experience pain it is sometimes a better teacher of the inner work that happens along the path of yoga. Any injuries that arise can be used to learn a deeper lesson about life so that then actually the path of yoga is truly working from a broader perspective.
Editor’s note: that said, fear and pain can be two different things. If a yoga posture is hurting you, this can be dangerous. Needless to say, we hope! Being macho and pushing through is not the message here. ~ ed.
When you accept yoga as a spiritual path the notion of the need for “safety” is challenged. You have the confidence to let yourself fall with the full faith that one day you will catch yourself in the air. Think of the yogi as a brave warrior going on a long and epic journey to the center of the soul. Just as in every heroic epic there are fearsome, painful and worrying battles that test the limits of the hero’s ability, so too in yoga are there challenging, difficult and nearly impossible postures that test the limits of your body and mind. But if you are the hero who is committed to the whole journey, then you also have the heart to see the experience all the way through to the end and win your final freedom."

I hope you find Kino's words here to be as enlightening as I have I found them.

And now I'm going to go off on a little rant here. If you don't like rants, please feel free to just skip this paragraph altogether. I feel compelled to say something here about that Editor's note that popped up in the middle of Kino's words. While I'm sure the editors have perfectly good intentions in inserting that note, there's a part of me that can't help feeling that it is (a) rather disrespectful to Kino, and (b) rather insulting to the discerning ability of the reader. First, if somebody were giving a speech, for instance, you wouldn't think of interrupting her speech to deliver your own commentary on it, would you? Moreover, what Kino is saying here seems sensible enough: It's not as if she's asking people to go throw themselves over a cliff! Besides, I'm pretty sure Elephant Journal has published articles with much more questionable content before: I don't seem to recall the esteemed editors inserting any editor's notes in those cases. So why the double standard here? Why do our esteemed editors suddenly feel the need here to be self-appointed arbiters of public yoga safety standards? In any case, isn't this unceremonious insertion of editor's notes at odds with Elephant Journal's professed policy of openness and being embracing of diverse viewpoints?

End of rant. Thank you for bearing with (or not bearing with) this rant. Yoga in the Dragon's Den will presently resume its usual friendly, non-ranty, (hopefully) non-preachy voice. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Scoliosis, fear, and disempowerment

I just read David Garrigues' latest post. I think I'm becoming a big fan of his. Maybe I will try to go study with him if I don't make it to Mysore soon. Anyway, in this post, David answers some questions from students about the practice. One student's question--and David's response--really jump out at me. This student was recently diagnosed with mild soliosis and carpal tunnel syndrome. The doctor told the student to quit Ashtanga as it places a lot of pressure on the wrist, and doing inversions "will only make... scoliosis worse." This student decided to write David to ask him if there is a way to continue practicing Ashtanga with these conditions.

David responds by suggesting various modifications for practicing with these conditions. He then concludes by saying:

"The essential ingredient is a love of ashtanga and in maintaining a steady devotion and trying to do the practice as accurately as your given circumstances allow... there will always be someone to tell you that you can’t do ……….. the list of possible things or activities or dreams is endless and so is the list of people who will tell you can’t do that something. Sometimes they may be right but equally sometimes they are wrong. And ultimately you have to decide how important something is to you. And when you’ve decided on that something that is important enough to you, you may need to guard and protect the heck of it in order to for it to remain a strong, positive force in your life. As people we can tend to be suspicious of what we don’t know about, and if on the surface something looks strange or exotic or very different from what we know or are used to, we can tend to form negative impressions of that thing. But our own fear and unwillingness to be open to new or different things can us cause to make wrong assessments of things and to unfairly judge what we don’t have enough information to be judging. I believe it would be a true waste for you to stop developing the ashtanga yoga practice that you have begun and love. If you practice properly there is a strong chance that ashtanga can help correct or at least minimize the negative effects of both of your problems better than any thing else that you will try. I have found that ashtanga applied properly, has huge potential for transformation and healing. Om! David"

David's response really speaks to me. For one thing, I also have mild scolosis. I've been diagnosed with it since I was in elementary school. And at least a couple of my yoga teachers have also spotted it: Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane spoke to me after one of the sessions at their asana intensive on Maui in 2007 (which I attended), and asked me if I knew I had mild scoliosis (I said I did). They had spotted the curve in my spine while I was in Sirsasana. They didn't really suggest anything much more beyond that (they didn't ask me to stop doing inversions, which is why I'm still doing them today :-)), although Eddie did say that doing more backbends will help my condition in the long run. Anyway, I have this suspicion that if anybody had told me at any point that I needed to stop doing Ashtanga because of the scoliosis, I probably would have gone ahead and continued doing it anyway, knowing the sort of person I am.

But David's response also spoke to me because it highlights something I have been feeling very strongly for a while now. It seems to me that very often, expert knowledge and specialized training (in this case, medical training) have the effect of closing the mind of the individual who has received that training, accentuating the very human tendency to be suspicious of and form negative impressions of things we are not familiar with. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that many highly-trained experts operate from a place of fear rather than openness, automatically rejecting that which is strange or counter-intuitive to them.

But perhaps we can't blame people for having this attitude. After all, seen from many angles, the daily practice that Ashtanga requires is very strange and counter-intuitive to many people. This morning, for example, I had to wake up earlier than usual in order to do my practice and make it to campus for a meeting at 8:30 a.m. As I sat in the conference room waiting for the meeting to begin, I couldn't help wondering what the reactions of the other people present at the meeting would be if I had told them that I had spent two hours breathing, bending myself into certain shapes and standing on my arms as well as my head before I came to the meeting... I guess what I'm trying to say is that doctors are ultimately ordinary people plus some specialized training. And that specialized training may or may not prepare them to deal productively with things in their patients' lifestyles that they find unfamiliar or strange. So it is perhaps natural that many doctors, when confronted with such unfamiliarity and strangeness, would default to that "if it puts you in an unfamiliar or uncertain place, it's probably bad for you, don't do it" mindset.

Please don't get me wrong: I'm not telling anybody to stop seeing doctors. But David's student's encounter with the doctor brings up a feeling I have been having for a while now: It seems to me that, more often than not, the medical establishment in this country tends to disconnect and dis-empower individuals from their bodies. Rather than helping the patient to find out how best to work with a particular condition given his or her lifestyle choices, values, and things he or she holds dear, doctors often seem to just default to saying something along the lines of, "Take this pill or undergo this procedure, and you will be better. And don't do this or that." For instance, some time ago, I had a diabetic friend who was taking medication daily for his condition, as prescribed by his doctor. When I asked him what that medication was supposed to do, he said he didn't know! Which strikes me as very strange: If you had a particular condition, and somebody was asking you to put a certain substance into your body, wouldn't that person at least have a responsibility to tell you what that substance was supposed to do in your body? Or maybe it didn't occur to my friend to ask. Yeah, I suppose that's possible too. In any case, if my friend's experience is indicative of the state of physician-patient relationships in general in this country, then it seems to me that medicine as practiced in this country suffers a serious flaw: There does not seem to be any attempt to further engage patients as people, and help them to better understand and care for their bodies and minds given who they are as individuals. Doctors just see patients as machines that can be fixed with this or that drug or procedure. Which leads to a state in which people feel more disconnected from and dis-empowered with regard to their own bodies, and become ever more dependent on supposed health experts to tell them what is right and wrong and good and bad. I don't think this is a good way to go.