Sunday, April 28, 2013

Touching toes

This morning, I had an interesting conversation in the coffeeshop I hang out at. I walked into the coffeeshop and was about to go over to the barista at the counter to order my usual morning espresso shot, when I spied a friend sitting on a couch in a corner, his face buried in his Iphone (hmm... many people I know seem to like burying their faces in Iphones: See previous post for another real-world specimen of Homo Iphoneopiens.) 

I walked over to my friend and greeted him, interrupting his communion with his Iphone. We chatted for a few minutes. He looked a little worn out, so I asked him if he had had a late night (this being a college town and all). He said yes, and that he had also spent the whole of yesterday helping some friends with some very menial tasks, as a result of which his muscles were feeling very sore and stiff.

On the spur of the moment, I asked him if he had ever tried yoga. He looked at me for a brief second, and then laughed. I told him that I wasn't joking, that I personally do yoga. "But I can't touch my toes! Heck, I'm not sure if I can even touch my knees! Can you touch your toes?" I responded by standing up, bringing my feet together, extending my knees, and then folding over to bring the heels of my palms to the ground (a.k.a. Dve position). "Ridiculous!" My friend exclaimed. "Yeah... and I'm not even warm!" I responded.

Anyway, having thus demonstrated my, ahem, ridiculous flexibility, I went on to explain to my friend that yoga is really a therapeutic modality, that physically (and maybe also mentally) inflexible folks need yoga more than flexible folks, attractive Yoga Journal models notwithstanding. My friend listened dubiously ("Yeah, that's easy for you to say, you who can touch your palms to the ground!" He was probably thinking...), but being polite, said nothing to contradict me.

My days of yogavangelism being behind me (see this post for more details on yogavangelism), I decided to cut my yoga sales pitch short, and we moved on to other topics (such as the recent landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and how the weaker gravity on Mars may make it easier for people to stretch, thus resulting in a yoga boom on Mars should humans ever succeed in colonizing the planet...).

Anyway... There's no moral to this story. It's just a random story from a rather random day in my life. More later.       

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Travels, a chance meeting in not-quite-Denver

Hmm... it's been a while, hasn't it? As you can tell, I haven't been blogging much lately; my last post was ten days ago, which is, to date, the longest length of time I have spent away from this blog... well, this is actually not entirely true: I have been checking in here at least once a day. I just haven't found the time or energy to actually write a post, due to a lot of work-related travel, and preparing for the things that I have to do during these travels.

Anyway, I'm back, for now at least. I don't really have much to say about my practice, or about much else, really. I brought Sharath's led primary CD with me during my travels, and just did my practice in my hotel room in accordance with his vinyasa count. It's very nice, actually; no need to think, no excuse to procrastinate or faff about practice. Just listen to Sharath's count, and practice along. Having Sharath's voice to listen to is also a good way to anchor yourself in a sort of timeless present when you are in a foreign place.

But actually, here's an interesting encounter I had yesterday that might be worth sharing here. On my way back home, I had a layover at Denver International Airport. As I was hurrying along to the gate to catch my connection, I glimpsed, out of the corner of my eye, a familiar face passing by. I couldn't be sure if he was who I thought he was, as I hadn't seen him in a while, and his face was buried in his Iphone, making positive identification that much trickier. But I decided to take a chance anyway; I extended my arm across that little fleeting expanse of space that separated us, and punched him lightly on the shoulder. He looked up, and a flash of recognition spread across his face, followed by a smile: It was indeed my friend and fellow Ashtangi Bill, whom I hadn't seen or kept in touch with for a couple of years since we attended Matthew Sweeney's workshop together in Minneapolis (for more details, see this post). What are the chances, meeting like that in not-quite-Denver? And imagine what would have happened to me if he had turned out not to be Bill?

Anyway, Bill, it turned out, had just flown into Denver (where he is presently living) from Sharath's workshop in Encinitas. As we chatted and tried to catch each other up on the course of our respective lives in the ensuing past couple of years in the few minutes I had before I had to run to catch my connection, I learned to my great pleasure (and frankly, also a bit of envy) that since Matthew's workshop, Bill had been to Mysore a couple of times, while I have yet to make it there. But well, it is what it is. No point fretting over things that did not happen. But it was also a very nice feeling to learn that both Bill and I were practicing to Sharath's count that same morning (he to the real Sharath, and I to the CD).

My chance meeting with Bill, as I mentioned, lasted only a few minutes before I had to go catch my connection. But it was a very pleasant surprise, nonetheless. There's something very magical about meeting a fellow Ashtangi in such totally serendipitous and, in some respects, totally incongruous circumstances (he was dressed in post-practice T-shirt and jeans, I was wearing a suit), especially in light of the fact that we could have just as easily passed each other by without even being aware that we were just within a few feet of each other. (Moral of the story: Don't bury your face in your Iphone when walking in airports?).

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What isn't yoga?

I'm having a lot of fun following the recent conversations in the blogosphere about whether or not yoga is self-expression. In fact, I had so much fun that I even ventured to give my two cents' on this subject yesterday. Which is not something I have been doing much of lately. I don't want to jinx myself here, but I have this good feeling that blogging about this subject is helping me to get my blogging mojo back after what has essentially been a rather lack-luster few weeks of blogging. But we'll see.

In any case, continuing with the whole yoga as (not) self-expression conversation, I just read the latest post on the Babarazzi about this subject. As always, the people at the Babarazzi (what do they call themselves? "Babs"?) have pulled off a scathingly witty critique of contemporary commercial yoga culture; which is something that I, with my long-winded ponderous meandering writing style, can never hope to aspire to. In this latest post, the Babs make the following astute observation about commercial yoga culture:

"It’s pretty hard to find moments when we aren’t expressing ourselves. For instance, when we help a homeless man covered in a million bags hop a turnstile, we’re expressing our love of a thrifty deal... Self-expression seems to be a pretty f’ing constant occurrence.

Commercial yoga culture uses the ubiquity of self expression as a way to make yoga culture forever relevant to consumers by defining “yoga” as the very thing we can never not do. It’s a wondrous logical coup that allows commercial yoga culture to package and sell back to consumers whatever it is they want, and at the same time call it “yoga.” Think about it: If self-expression is all we ever do, and yoga is self-expression, than yoga is by definition anything you ever feel like doing.

  • If painting is a form of self-expression, than painting is yoga.
  • If dancing is a form of self-expression, than dancing is yoga.
  • If singing is a form of self-expression, than singing is yoga."

I think you know where this is going: We can easily extend the logic of this argument in some very interesting directions. If we were to take the notion that self-expression is all we ever do to its literal conclusion, then every single thing that we do in our lives is, by default, self-expression. So we get:

If taking a shit is self-expression, then taking a shit is yoga.

And maybe, come to think of it, taking a shit is yoga. After all, I have often wondered about the laxative effects of the Ashtanga practice. Okay... but here's something else that the Babs wrote:

Personally, I don’t really get the arguments laid out above that are pro-yoga-as-self-expression. It’s kinda like saying, “Eating a banana is the same as sucking a penis, ’cause both go in your mouth.”

Well, I really don't know if eating a banana is the same as sucking a penis, although there is probably good reason to believe that at least some of the same muscles that are involved in the former action are also involved in the latter. But here's something else to think about: If every single thing that we do in our lives is self-expression, then we would have:

If sucking a penis is self-expression, then sucking a penis is yoga.

Now, now... wouldn't this be a great idea for a new yoga style that caters to a particular fetish? Yoga for Penis-suckers, anybody? And notice that the enterprising yoga-preneur can actually create two different fetish yogas out of this one notion: There can be (1) Yoga for people who are into sucking that particular part of the male anatomy, and (2) Yoga for people who are suckers about that part of the male anatomy. The possibilities are endless...   

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Is yoga about self-expression?

Frances over at Lila blog posed this big question in her latest post. Frances's post was, in turn, inspired by a recent post on the Babarazzi. Both posts are very good reads. Feel free to check them out.

Just to get this out of the way, I'll start by giving my answer to this question. My answer is: It depends. It depends on what you take yoga to be, and what you want yoga to do. The next part of this post is devoted to trying to make sense of this answer in a very long-winded kind of way. If you can't bear to read long-winded responses, and don't want to know my reasons for thinking why yoga may or may not be about self-expression, you are welcome to stop reading now :-)


Let me begin by saying that there do seem to be good reasons for thinking that yoga is about self-expression. After all, there are more yogas in the world today than there are fingers on my hand (duh!). These range from:

(1) more "traditional" styles that claim to be following lineages that can be traced all the way back to Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras (Ashtanga, Iyengar, Sivananda, Kripalu, the Himalayan Institute, and a whole bunch of styles that I cannot call to mind right now), to

(2) contemporary off-shoots of these traditional styles (Power Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga, Trance Dance, and a whole bunch of off-shoots that I am ignorant of), to

(3) a whole bunch of contemporary yogas that serve to fulfill certain particular functions or certain particular fetishes (Yoga for Golf, Yoga for Runners, Yoga for Chocolate Lovers, Yoga for Wine Lovers, Yoga for Chocolate and Wine Lovers, Yoga for Chocolate Lovers Who Hate Wine, Yoga for Wine Lovers Who Hate Chocolate, Yoga for Better Sex, Yoga for People who want to have less sex... The list goes on and on. It's simply impossible keep track of all these yogas these days. It seems that everywhere I turn, there is a new yoga or two springing up somewhere...).

I hope you will excuse my long-windedness here (I did say you could stop reading, right? ;-)). But there is a method to this seeming madness. Let me start by observing that the move from (1) to (2) to (3) is roughly chronological in order. Many of the yoga styles that are based in some lineage or other ((1)) were created by their creators either sometime in the nineteenth century or in the early part of the twentieth. The offshoots ((2)) were mostly created in the last twenty to thirty years (think Beryl Bender Birch's Power Yoga or all the many vinyasa yogas out there). Lastly, unless I'm mistaken, what I call the function- or fetish-oriented yogas ((3)) only appeared on the scene somewhere around the last ten to fifteen years (maybe even more recently).

Is there a reason for this chronological order? I don't know... But I'm quite sure somebody could look at (1), (2), and (3), and say, "So how is something like Yoga for Runners really all that different from, say, Ashtanga Yoga, when all is said and done? Sure, there are different poses in each yoga, and one yoga prescribes a certain order in which to do them while the other doesn't. But what's the big deal in the end? Just as Pattabhi Jois or Krishnamacharya took some moves from Scandinavian gymnastics and Indian wrestling and wove them into a particular sequence of postures that they claim is beneficial for people and called it Ashtanga Yoga, the creator of Yoga for Runners also took some yoga moves that she claims is beneficial for runners and called it Runner's Yoga. When it comes down to it, isn't it all about taking a bunch of otherwise disparate things, slapping a label ("Ashtanga Yoga" or "Runner's Yoga") on them, and then marketing the resulting product as something that will benefit you? And if each yoga turns out to benefit at least some people, what's the problem? And if marketing a product amounts to creating something, we can also say that Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois and the creator of Runner's Yoga are all expressing themselves. Therefore, all yoga is self-expression. Q.E.D."

I'm sure somebody could respond to the above argument by insisting that what people like Krishnamacharya and B.K.S. Iyengar and SKPJ are doing is very different from what people like the creators of yoga for runners or yoga for chocolate lovers are doing. The former are taking a particular tradition (the yoga tradition, as outlined by Patanjali) and interpreting it in a particular way in order to create practices that allow people to connect to this ancient tradition, whereas the creators of yoga for runners and yoga for chocolate lovers are simply catering to functions and fetishes that are unique to our post-industrial world without attempting to come up with some kind of narrative about what enjoying chocolates or running well has to do with the yoga tradition.

But something tells me that such a response probably wouldn't cut much ice with the person who believes that all yoga is ultimately self-expression. After all, it could be argued, what kind of difference does what one takes as one's starting point really make? Why should it matter whether one's starting point is to create a practice that makes Patanjali's yoga sutras relevant to the people of today, or to create a particular yoga that caters to people in the throes of one particular passion or fetish? One way or the other, one is responding to an urge--a creative urge--to fashion something out of the things already at one's disposal. Why should one starting point be deemed to be "better" than another? Aren't all creative urges equal?  


The above exchange could go on and on, without either side putting forth a really decisive argument. Why is that? Could it be that each side means something different by the word "yoga"? In her book, Yoga PhD, Carol Horton points out that what we moderns (or post-moderns) take yoga to be has evolved drastically from what the classical brahmanical conception of yoga was. Whereas the brahmins of classical Indian society understood the objective of yoga to be moksha, or liberation from the endless cycle of birth and death, the average person who takes yoga classes at a studio or gym today is not looking to free herself from the endless cycle of births and deaths (she may not even believe in reincarnation). Indeed, we can even go further and point out that even many of today's adherents of the yoga lineages in (1) do not have moksha as a goal; it is possible to practice Iyengar or Ashtanga without believing in reincarnation.

Horton notes that for many (maybe even most) of the practitioners of modern (or post-modern) yoga, the goals of the practice are more this-worldly in nature. They could range from something as immediately physical as relief from back pain, all the way to something less tangible like equanimity in the face of the challenges of contemporary life. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the goal of the typical modern yoga practitioner is of a totally different metaphysical quality from the goal of the brahmin living in classical Indian society. And since goals define the nature of the activity, we would also have to conclude that the yoga that is practiced by us moderns (or post-moderns) is not the same yoga as the yoga that was practiced by the brahmin in classical Indian society. The same word ("yoga") refers to two different activities that may have some similarities when seen from the outside, but are ultimately very different in nature. While it is possible for some practitioners of modern yoga to have some form of self-expression as one of the goals of their practice, self-expression was quite definitely not on the radar screen of the brahmin in classical Indian society. For the latter, the practice of yoga was a roadmap and a vehicle for getting to moksha, no more, no less. So the brahmin in classical Indian society had a very different idea from us moderns of what yoga is supposed to be, and what it is supposed to do. Hence there can probably never be any agreement in the debate over whether yoga is about self-expression.      

Saturday, April 13, 2013

(Probably) totally useless idea: Every shopping mall should have a yoga studio and/or meditation space

This idea just occurred to me. This afternoon, I drove about an hour to come to this slightly bigger city slightly north of where I am in Idaho, in order to come to the Barnes & Noble bookstore here to grade some exams and maybe look up some books. I had to come here, because if I had gone to the coffeeshop that I usually go to, I would probably get sucked into a game of chess. And, given my lack of will-power when it comes to playing chess, one game would probably lead to another, and before I know it, the entire afternoon would be taken up by a seemingly endless series of chess games. Which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, except that I wasn't hired by my present employer to play chess...  

Anyway, to cut a not-so-long story short, this is why I decided that in order to get some serious work done, I needed to get away from my usual place, even if that meant driving an hour. The Barnes & Noble is located in this shopping mall. Nothing really unusual or fancy, just your more-or-less average suburban shopping mall, with the usual array of stores (Bath and Body Works, Victoria's Secrets, American Eagle, Forever 21, etc., etc.). After grading exams for a couple of hours (and frankly, feeling like I might lose my mind if I so much as look at another exam; oops, should I even be saying this?...), I decided to take a break by walking aimlessly through the mall. As I did so, all the sights and sounds and smells of the average suburban mall filed into my senses. After about twenty minutes of this sensory overload, I decided that grading exams is actually not such a bad activity, and made my way back to the relative sanctuary of the Barnes &Noble. Oh gosh, seriously... how do people walk around in a mall for an entire day?

And then it occurred to me: Many mall-goers probably suffer from tired feet and over-loaded minds, and probably aren't even aware of it themselves. They just keep making themselves go and go, and go some more. And then it occurred to me that the mall would be the one place on earth (well, maybe not the one place on earth, but probably close enough...) where people could seriously use some yoga and meditation. You know, maybe somebody should set up a yoga/meditation studio in every mall which provides a sanctuary for the tired feet and overloaded shopper's mind. As much as I am ambivalent about the commercialization of yoga and the accompanying commodification of spiritual practices, I really think this might do many people a serious service. A chain/franchise of mall yoga studios (Yoga and Body Works? Forever Yoga?). I wonder why no yoga entrepreneur out there has thought of this yet; it's looks like there's serious money to be made here... Well, come to think of it, Lululemon has come up with a version of this. A couple of years ago, I heard that they were providing in-store yoga classes at their stores. Are they still doing it?

Anyway. As you can see, this is one of those neither-here-nor-there posts. More later.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The State of the Backbend, Friday April 12th 2013

These days, it seems like the only thing I really have to say about my practice is my backbending. Perhaps I should start a weekly (or maybe even twice-weekly) State of the Backbend post to record the ongoing process of my backbend practice. We'll see.

So here's how my backbending has been going this week. Over the last week or so in Kapotasana, I have been trying to lengthen and create space in my spine at the same time as I am walking my hands towards my feet. Basically, this involves landing on my hands first. Then (1) inhale, tilt the ASIS forward while at the same time lifting the stomach and ribcage. Then (2) exhale, walk a little. Then repeat steps (1) and (2) somewhere between five to ten times, until I grab my heels.

I guess you could say that from a purely mechanical perspective, this amounts to doing Kapo B first before doing Kapo A (or more precisely, doing Kapo B, then Kapo A, then Kapo B again before finally exiting the posture). Besides lengthening and creating more space in the spine, this way of getting into Kapo A also seems to cause the breath to be longer and slightly more relaxed while in Kapo A. Or perhaps spinal lengthening and the length of the breath are related.

Anyway, I won't offer too much more commentary on it. I'm just writing this post to record and register what has been going on in my backbend practice.


A few days ago, Micqui over at Ashtangi Angel wrote a blog post about the relationship between shoulder-blade alignment and backbending. In that post, she also mentions what she calls a "Lino style" drop back. I was unfamiliar with what such a dropback would look like, so I asked her to explain. Here's how she describes this way of dropping back:

" start with your hands supporting your lumbar spine, then you slowly move them down the legs, walking, walking, until you get to your calfs, so you're still holding the calfs (calves?) then you let go, rotate them medially and down you go. You end up only about a foot of the ground when walking down so it seems less scary :)"

A reader of this blog also very helpfully emailed me a video of Michael Gannon assisting a student in such a dropback (thank you!). Here is the video:

Gannon seems to be a great teacher; it is clear that there is a lot of trust between the student and him in this video. As Micqui mentions, this certainly seems like a less scary way to drop back than the usual method of dropping back from hands in prayer position. It is probably even less scary if you have a capable teacher like Michael Gannon assisting you :-) 

But I also have my reservations about this method. That last action of transferring the hands from the back of the thighs/calves to the ground involves rotating the shoulder girdle while moving the hands into a weight-bearing position. I can't help but wonder if that is healthy for the shoulders in the long run. 

Anybody have any thoughts about this?     

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Barking dogs seldom bite...

And so the saying goes. But what about not-quite-decapitated talking dogs? Last night, I had a most bizarre dream. I won't bore you with the details of the dream, but one particular part of it really left an impression on me. I was driving somewhere on this highway. I saw a blockage in the road up ahead, like there was an accident or something. I got closer and, sure enough, there was an accident. But what was really bizarre about this particular accident was that all the victims were dogs. There were about three or four dogs lying in a row on the asphalt. All their heads had been nearly severed from their bodies, with maybe only one or two veins still connecting the nearly-severed-heads to the bodies. As I got closer, the dogs started speaking to me. I can't remember what they were saying, or even what language they were speaking in, but it was definitely a language I understood. But I can't recall now what they were saying to me.

There were other parts to the dream, but, as I said, I won't bore you with the details. But this particular nearly-decapitated-talking-dogs episode really stood out to me. And since this happens to be my blog, I decided to write about it here, whether or not it happens to have anything to do with yoga. Hmm... maybe if Ashtanga blogging really has jumped the shark (or, worse, is going to the (talking) dogs...), I should start slowly morphing this blog into a dream journal. Maybe you will then stop reading it. But what to do?

But seriously, if any of you out there are into dream analysis/interpretation, or just like talking about dreams, feel free to either leave a comment or (if you would rather write more privately) shoot me an email. I'll love to hear what you have to say about nearly-headless talking dogs. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Yoga is not a religion, but it is something you can use to help you get the most mileage out of your religious practice

I just read this very interesting article titled "Is Yoga Kosher?" written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner in Tablet, an online magazine on Jewish life and culture. Her article speaks to me because as a religious person (I'm a Buddhist), I am also constantly questioning and trying to work out the relationship between yoga and the particular religious faith I adhere to. But perhaps more significantly, her article speaks to me because I sense a certain honesty there: She sees no easy answers to the question of how to reconcile the apparent tensions between the orthodox Judaism of which she is an adherent and the yoga practice which she clearly loves, and does not attempt to give any pat answers to her ongoing struggle at the time of writing the article.

There is a particular passage in the article which I personally find very illuminating. At one point in the article, Brodesser-Akner cites the views of Srinivasan, a senior Sivananda yoga teacher, on the relationship between yoga and religion:

“Yoga is not a religion, but a science of religion,” he [Srinivasan] explained. “It applies to all religions. It’s not that yoga comes from Hinduism. Hinduism originates in yoga. Buddhism comes from yoga, too... There is yoga in every religion... “Yoga means ‘union’ or ‘absolute consciousness’ with God... Yoga is beyond words or institution... Don’t confuse the map for the actual place... God is everywhere. There is no conflict here. There is respect for that diversity. To explain God is to limit God.”

Based on my personal experience, I wholeheartedly agree with Srinivasan's words here: A couple of years ago, I wrote about how my yoga practice helped me to not believe the negative voices in my head, and in this way, become a more effective Buddhist

But here's a rather simplistic image that I use to conceptualize the relationship between yoga and religion: If we think of a religion as a vehicle that gets you to truth, yoga is the self-care/operation manual that tells you how best to operate the vehicle so as to get the most mileage out of it and at the same time keep the driver (that's you) in the best possible shape while enduring the rigors of this long journey (remember asana? :-)). So whether you are a Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or an adherent of whatever other religion there is on this planet, you can use yoga. Give it a shot. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Dancing and backbending; Has Ashtanga blogging jumped the shark? Is there even a shark to be jumped?

Practice this morning was... actually, I can't quite find one or two adjectives to describe how it was, so I guess I'll just describe what happened. Well, here's what happened. First, in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, I found myself dancing all over the place. The excessive amount of dancing today may have something to do with certain extraneous thoughts I may have been having in my head at the time, or it may not. Who knows? In any case, I kept dancing so much and losing balance on the first side (the side where you balance on your left foot with your right foot off the ground) that at one point, I almost started yelling at myself. I did not end up, because it would have been pretty silly: Just who would I be yelling at, anyway? A specific body part (which one?)?

Something very nice happened in Kapotasana. Today was one of the rare days when my breath in Kapo was (relatively) long, even, and unhurried. It almost felt like I could pull a Kino, and actually talk in an even tone while in the posture (have you ever seen that video where she talks you through Kapo while doing Kapo herself? If you haven't, you can see it here.).

In any case, my breath felt so even and relatively relaxed that I ended up staying in Kapo for a few extra breaths, just to see how staying in it longer would feel like (not bad). I also noticed that my inhale was longer than my exhale, and tried to lengthen the exhale; but I also tried not to try too hard, because with something like the breath, if you try too hard to make it one way, you might end up creating strain in the body and the nervous system.


Some time ago (it may have been last week, but I cannot be sure), somebody (I can't remember who) wrote a blog post on the question of whether Ashtanga blogging has "jumped the shark." I was going to to go read and maybe comment on that post, but it got taken down before I could do either (did somebody with clout in the blogosphere get offended?). But like a shark that would not stop swimming (are you laughing yet?), this question has stayed in my mind ever since. So, at the risk of offending somebody myself (like I have never offended anybody...), I have decided to blog about it myself.  

In any case, this is how Wikipedia defines "jumping the shark":

'In its initial usage, it referred to the point in a television program's history when the program had outlived its freshness and viewers had begun to feel that the show's writers were out of new ideas, often after great effort was made to revive interest in the show by the writers, producers, or network.

The usage of "jump the shark" has subsequently broadened beyond television, indicating the moment when a brand, design, or creative effort's evolution loses the essential qualities that initially defined its success and declines, ultimately, into irrelevance.'

Wikipedia also adds that this turning point usually occurs after a particular episode/installment/blog post where the show/magazine/blog's writers resort to some type of gimmick in order to try to keep viewers'/readers' interest (and fail).

Well, so much for pseudo-jumping-the-shark scholarship. The million dollar question here, of course, is: Has the Ashtanga blogosphere actually jumped the shark?

I'm not sure. I can only say a few obvious things here. I have recently found myself blogging less (say, once every few days, rather than everyday). There are a couple of things that can explain this reduced frequency in blogging: (1) While there is always news in the Ashtanga world to blog about (or at least report on), I don't find myself having much desire to do this (this is a blog, not a newspaper); (2) If I don't blog about things in the larger Ashtanga world (or the yoga world at large), I can always blog about my own practice. But while there is probably something I can say about my practice every single day, if I bother to sit down and think about it (like I just did in the earlier part of this post), I don't feel that it is necessary or even desirable to put my own practice under a microscope and dissect it for all the yoga world to see on a daily basis.

I could also, if I want to, turn this blog into a sort of space where I blog in general about all things "spiritual", whatever that means. But then it will probably become this toothless entity that talks about everything and nothing at the same time. And who wants that?

So I guess what I'm saying is this: If there is a connection between a reduced frequency in blogging and the quality of the blog itself (and by extension, to the quality of the blogosphere to which the blog belongs), then perhaps it is true that Ashtanga blogging has jumped the shark. By the way, I have also noticed that a few prominent Ashtanga bloggers have also seemed to reduce the frequency of their blogging. I'm not sure what their reasons are for this reduction, so I shall say no further. But I can at least have the dubious comfort of not being alone in my... plight (?).

But perhaps frequency has nothing at all to do with the matter at hand. Perhaps we are blogging less, but continuing to produce blog posts of high-quality ("Yoga in the Dragon's Den... a reliable producer of high-quality blog posts since 2010!" Cue catchy-sounding jingle.). Well, I don't know about that...

Before I stop ranting and let you go, I'll like to leave you with one more thought: Is Ashtanga blogging even supposed to be a creative endeavor in the first place? Although I like to think so in my more grandiose moments, in my more sober moments (which are not many), I have this nagging feeling that all Ashtanga blogging is is an informal extension of our practice: The Ashtanga blog is supposed to serve as a sort of honest mirror/journal of things that come up in the course of practice. People read the blog, comment/respond to it, and from there, the Ashtanga blogosphere is formed. Seen in this light, any creative activity is at most a byproduct of this honest reflection and journaling. And if Ashtanga blogging is not a creative endeavor, how can there be a shark to jump over?  

Ah well... What do I  know?

Friday, April 5, 2013

More backbending thoughts; April come she will

As I worked on my backbends this morning, more things from Kino's recent LA workshop came up in my mind. One thing that came up most prominently is the importance of positive self-talk when doing difficult postures, especially in backbends. In an Elephant Journal article she wrote last year, Kino observes that:

"In a posture like backbends many students feel a shortening of breath, tightening of the air tube, an inability to breath and the ensuing panic that brings them out of the posture. Some people might say that in that case the student should not do the posture.

But yoga is about learning to balance the mind so that it meets pleasure and pain, attachment and aversion with the same steadiness."


This is where having the ability to continually give oneself instructions that reinforce certain positive habits while in the posture becomes important. Or, as Kino puts it: 


"If you are able to maintain both careful and clear directions to yourself throughout the exercise and your inner dialogue is positive this will help you. In other words you need to be your own coach."


With respect to deep backbends like Kapotasana, positive self-talk for me involves repeating certain specific movement instructions to myself ("Ground the big toes firmly to the mat, rotate the thighs inward, bring the ASIS forward and up, bring the shoulder blades down the upper back, breathe evenly. Repeat..."). I have found this to be very helpful in helping me to do productive work in my backbends. 


At her workshop, Kino mentions that the importance of positive self-talk/self-dialogue is often neglected in yoga circles. This is due in no small part to the notion many people have that yoga should be about "quieting the mind." Basing themselves on this notion, many people try to deliberately shut their minds off when they are getting into difficult postures. But such an approach is at best unproductive and anxiety-producing, and at worst harmful and injurious to oneself; if one shuts one's mind off and just pushes blindly through difficult postures, one would likely miss important cues from the body.  


Perhaps more significantly, in shutting off one's mind, one misses a valuable opportunity to find equanimity in the posture and to become truly, truly present in that difficult moment that the posture presents in one's consciousness. Positive self-talk is the tool that enables one to find this place of presence in the heat of the posture: Through giving oneself positive messages that will enable one to focus on what one needs to work on in the posture in that particular moment, one can navigate steadily through the storm that the posture stirs up in one's body and mind. This, I believe, is what is truly meant by "Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhah" ("Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness")



On a very different note, we are now in the month of April and the beginning of spring. It's hard not to notice this, because the weather is definitely getting warmer, and one can finally smell the grass and hear the birds again. Well, actually, if you are blessed enough to live in, say, Thailand, none of this would probably make a difference to you; I imagine you are able to smell the grass and hear the birds all year around anyway...


But not all souls are equally blessed in this way. So for those of us who do not live in lands where the grass smells and birds sing all year round, the coming of April is a significant time of the year. Whenever I think of this, I can't help thinking of that Simon and Garfunkel song. In fact, it's ringing in my head right now. So maybe, rather than just let it ring in my head alone, I'll make it ring in yours too! Well, here goes: 


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Sharath demos Karandavasana

I just stumbled upon this very beautiful video of Sharath demo-ing Karandavasana on the stage at KPJAYI in Mysore. At the same time, at the other corner of the stage, his son performs a never-before-seen asana with some mysterious looking string (anybody know what the name of that asana is?).

Even though I am not working on Karandavasana right now, I suspect that many of you out there are, and will probably benefit from watching this wonderful video; besides, as of right now, the video has only 45 views! This is an injustice that needs to be righted, and you can play a part :-)

A few backbending thoughts

Actually, this is a rather misleading blog title; if you take it literally, you might think that I am writing about thoughts that are bending themselves backwards! But of course, as you have probably figured, I am giving expression here to a few thoughts about bending my body backwards. But speaking of which, can thoughts actually bend backwards? Just wondering...

Anyway, about backbending: since I returned from Kino's LA workshop, I have been doing my best to incorporate certain things I learned about backbending into my backbending practice. There are a few things I learned at that workshop that are really relevant to me:

(1) Tilting the ASIS slightly forward and upward helps to achieve sacral nutation, which is very helpful for deep backbending. It is very difficult (maybe even impossible) to backbend deeply when your ASIS is tilted back: Try it if you don't believe this.

(2) Together with tilting the ASIS forward, gently rotating the thighs inward helps to secure a firm base/foundation from which the backbend can flower. Inward rotation of the thigh is not to be confused with squeezing the thighs together: They are two distinct and separate actions, and it is possible to squeeze the thighs till forever without ever getting the thighs to rotate inwards.

Based on this realization of the difference between thigh rotation and thigh squeezing, I have stopped using the block in backbends since I returned from Kino's workshop. As useful as the block may be for certain purposes, there is a tendency when using the block to focus more on keeping the block in place (and on squeezing the block to keep it in place) rather than on the inner-rotating action the block is supposed to help cultivate in the first place. This, I think, is one pitfall of using props in practice: There is always the tendency to focus on the prop itself than on the action the prop was supposed to help cultivate in the first place.    

(3) It is also important to lift up into the backbend and allow the spine space to expand at the same time as you are trying to walk your hands deeper into the backbend. This applies mainly to Urdhva Dhanurasana, but it also applies to other deep backbends such as Kapotasana. Actually, Savannah over at Musings from the Yoga Mat explains this lifting and expanding action very well when she writes:

"For Urdhva Dhanurasana (backbend), Kino asked us to tilt the pelvis forward, lift the stomach and ribcage, roll the shoulder blades down and onto the back while allowing the entire body to assist in the arch."

The general idea is that when you lift and expand in the way described, you bring the entire front and back bodies to contribute to the work of the backbend, rather than simply letting the lumbar spine do all the work (resulting in lumbar compression, which is frequently painful). To show us how to coordinate this action with the breath, Kino had us tilt the pelvis forward, roll the shoulder blades down and bring the chest over the arms on the inhale in Urdhva Dhanuarasana, while walking the hands closer to the feet on the exhale. This same inhale-lift/expand-exhale-walk-forward action can also be applied to Kapotasana, even if the action is a little harder to replicate here because the fact that one is on one's knees gives one a little less room to expand outwards on the inhale. But it is doable, and it does create a good sensation of expansion in the spine; which, if nothing else, counteracts the I-am-feeling-so-claustrophobic-and-I-am-going-to-die feeling that one often feels in intense backbends.


Are all these things helping with my backbend practice thus far? I guess the answer is... slowly and in microscopic increments. To be honest, when I stood up from Urdhva Dhanurasana this morning, I found, to my horror, that my feet are still splaying out. But as I walked around campus later in the morning, I felt that pleasant aching feeling in my quads. Which I take as a sign that I am at least engaging the right muscles, even if these muscles have yet to become strong or long enough to prevent my feet from splaying out.  I guess I'll keep working on this.