Friday, May 31, 2013

"I am full of India stories, none of which are my own"

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

Mark Twain

Yesterday afternoon, I was trying to get some work done at this coffeeshop that I usually go to, when I got distracted by the sight of a couple of young people playing chess at a nearby table (this has happened before; see this post). I quickly convinced myself (rightly or wrongly) that I needed to take a break from work, and went over to them and asked if they wouldn't mind me watching their game. They did not mind, and I ended up watching the game, and then playing a couple of very good games with them.

During and after the games, we got into a conversation about traveling around the world. It turns out that one of my companions, a young woman who is probably in her mid-twenties, has traveled quite a bit; she regaled us with stories of her travels in Prague, Paris, and a few other cities in Europe whose names I do not remember now. We then got into an interesting comparison of different attitudes that Europeans and Americans have towards such social "evils" as drugs and alcohol consumption.

Not to be outdone, I decided to draw from my own store of stories about the world to add to the conversation. Somehow, without realizing it, I found myself relating the stories about Mysore that I had heard and read from people like Claudia and Kino. In particular, I noticed my companions' eyes lighting up when I related stories about brownouts and water outages in Mysore, and about how one needs to really plan one's water usage when in India. I suppose my companions must have found these stories compelling because they offer a valuable glimpse into a world that is so unlike the sort of relative affluence that I imagine they must have been accustomed to, both at home and in their own travels.

Which is all well and good, except that none of these India stories with which I was regaling my friends were my own; as you probably know, I have yet to make it to Mysore. Of course, being the, ahem, yogic person that I am, I was quick to own up to this fact. Immediately after telling these stories, I also told my friends that these stories were passed on to me from friends and teachers who have been to India, and that none of these stories are my own ("I am full of India stories, none of which are my own!" was what I said; which drew a chuckle.).


Well, now you know what a popular and highly-sought-after conversation partner I am in these parts :-) But this episode also led me to realize that a significant part of my life is made up of vicarious memories taken from the lives of others. I'm not sure if this is a good thing. I suppose many people would say that it is not good to live vicariously through the memories of others. But on the other hand, in light of the fact that my present career and immigration circumstances do not allow me to travel as broadly across the world as I would like, living vicariously through others' stories and memories may well be the next best thing, or, in the words of Twain, it may be the next best way to counteract prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

But of course, I will make it to Mysore one day. And then all of this will simply become a nice little story. Well, actually, I like to think it is already a nice little story. But I think you know what I'm getting at...            

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Might democracy in social media sometimes be an evil thing?

Here's a test case. Earlier today, I visited Kino's Facebook page, and saw that she had posted her very popular video on Yoganidrasana, which has had more than 2 million views to date. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

On her FB page, somebody suggested to Kino that "you might want to consider turning off your comments or filtering..." This got me a bit curious, so I went on the actual Youtube page to see the video and its accompanying comments. The top two comments (which, as I understand, are ranked the top two because they have received the greatest number of likes) are a bit inappropriate to reproduce on this blog; suffice to say that they refer to particular biological functions. 

Actually, this is not the first time that this video has generated such... interesting comments; a similar incident happened with this video sometime last year. And of course, if you take the couple of minutes it takes to actually watch the video, you will know that those particular biological functions alluded to by these commenters are the last things Kino has in mind when making the video. As the patron saint of home Ashtangis, Kino's intention is to offer the video as a source of instruction and feedback for Ashtangis who are working on this particularly challenging second series pose on their own. How it is possible for these commenters to interpret the video as some kind of sex manual (there, I said it!) is, frankly, quite beyond me. But then again, I think there must be some school of postmodernist textual/video interpretation out there which holds the view that absolutely any interpretation of any media is justified and valid, so long as the interpreter can offer some kind of semi-coherent explanation for the interpretation. Ah well. What do I know? 

But since I know nothing about postmodernism, I should maybe talk about something else. Well, let's talk about... democracy and its possible evils. As I mentioned above, the top two comments on the video are the top comments because they have received the greatest number of likes/thumbs-ups thus far. Thus, we can see that the ranking of comments on Youtube is a purely democratic process: That which receives the greatest number of votes receives top ranking.

Most of us, I take it, have been taught/socialized to believe that democracy is a good thing. But it looks like in this particular case, the democratic process is a distorting influence. If the sheer number of likes/thumbs-ups is anything to go by, it would seem that the majority of viewers on Youtube (at least those who have seen this particular video) either agree with or are at least sympathetic to the views of these two commenters. But that also means that the majority of viewers have mistaken or distorted views about what this video is really about, postmodernism notwithstanding. Or maybe they know better, but they simply don't care enough to offer a dissenting opinion. One way or the other, this would seem to suggest that it is not always a good idea to put things to a majority vote, because the majority can be either wrong or not socially responsible enough with their votes. 

But maybe I am making too much out of this one case; after all, we do pride ourselves on living in a democracy, and democracy is supposed to be the best thing since, what, sliced bread? After all, if we live in a particular society or community, it is only right that each citizen/inhabitant of this society should have an equal say or vote about anything that might affect his or her life, right? But should each citizen/inhabitant have an equal say about things regarding which she might know very little or nothing about--things such as a particular pose in a particular practice of which you are not a practitioner? It might seem that the answer to this question is a very easy no. After all, how can we responsibly judge things which we have no experience in? But then again, how many of us actually have experience in governing this country? And yet we take it to be unproblematic that we should be entitled to have an equal say or vote in deciding whom we should choose to govern this country.

Ah, big questions these are. I think I am using yoga as an excuse to think about political philosophy. Or maybe it's the other way around: I might be using political philosophy as an excuse to think about yoga. Who knows? Anyway, I guess I'll stop here, before this rambling gets out of hand (it may already have). More later.            

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Practice with stomach trouble, this blogging thing

I discovered something this morning: It is possible to do full primary to Sharath's count while having stomach trouble. It all started last night, when I ate an orange that had been sitting in my fridge for too long; really should have known better. About an hour and a half after getting to bed, my stomach woke me up, and I had to go to the bathroom. Nothing came out (TMI?). I made myself go back to bed, but at 3 a.m. my stomach woke me up again. This time, there was a deluge in the bathroom...

Anyway, I don't suppose you care for knowing this level of detail about the goings-on of my digestive system. In any case, when I woke up in the morning, I was wondering if it would be a good idea to do my usual Saturday morning Sharath led primary. But I decided to just go ahead with it anyway; I figured I can always stop if things get to be too much.

It turned out to be quite alright. If anything, the entire practice actually felt a little lighter than usual, maybe because of the loss of water weight. Ha! Now I wonder if this is why people who go to Mysore often report achieving great progress in their asana practice. Could it have something to do with the fact that their stomachs are continually purging the third-world food that they are ingesting, causing them to lose water weight and thus become lighter in their practices? Just speculating here: Those of you out there who have been to Mysore can tell me whether this theory of mine holds any water (no pun intended).


I can't help noticing that I have "lost" a couple of followers in the last couple of days. I'm guessing that these people have un-followed me because of my not-so-polite reply to an anonymous commenter in my previous post. Or maybe they un-followed me because they are fans of Sadie Nardini, and are upset by my less-than-flattering treatment of her.

Oh well. All in a day's blogging work, I guess. In any case, amassing followers (damn, does this sound grandiose, or what?) is not (or should not be) the purpose of blogging. It's not like I get paid for every time somebody follows me, anyway. Hmm.... how many more followers will I lose by saying this? I guess we'll find out soon :-)

In any case, the whole point of blogging is to say what needs to be said, when it needs to be said. Besides, if one has the temerity to engage in anonymous sniping, getting shot down should be par for the course, no?  Especially if the sniping in question involves insulting somebody's teacher...

All in all, I have to say that this blogging thing is a funny business. Actually, it reminds me a little of academia: So many people's panties get bunched up over things of so little consequence. For instance, as a result of certain things I have said over the years, there are now blogs out there that I literally cannot leave comments on; the blog owners/operators automatically delete whatever comments I leave on their blogs... I mean, really? Might we not be taking our cyber-personalities a little too seriously?

I could go on and on about all this. But as they say, all not-so-good things have to come to an end. So this will be it for now. More later.    

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Ninjas and yoga superstars

Before I begin this post, I should make a couple of disclaimers:

(1) I probably have no business writing this post, all things considered. I don't know that much about ninjas (although I can at least claim an active interest in them; this blog, for instance, is named after one of my favorite kungfu movies, Ninja in the Dragon's Den. Also, when I was a kid, I wanted to become a ninja when I grew up. Well, I'm sure you know how that turned out...). I also don't know if being a ninja would make you a better yogi, or vice versa. But there are times when I just can't resist the urge to write about stuff that I know shit about. This is one of them.    

(2) I have nothing against Sadie Nardini, either as a person, as a yoga teacher, or as a ninja(?). I have nothing against her as a person, because I don't know her personally. I also have nothing against her as a yoga teacher, because although I have never taken any classes or workshops with her, she seems to know what she's doing asana-wise; at least, that's the impression I get from having watched a couple of her videos, even if I really don't get the ninja connection in her yoga. But more on this later. And I don't really have anything against her as a ninja either, because, as I said, I really don't know enough about being a ninja to say whether she is one, let alone a good one. But I do think I know a few things about yoga; at any rate, I think I know enough to be able to be genuinely puzzled at the ninja connections that she claims in her yoga teaching. Again, more on this later.

Wow, that was a very long-winded couple of disclaimers. But I thought I'd put these out there, so that those of you out there who are fans of Sadie would (hopefully) refrain from leaving hateful comments or sending me hateful emails. Moreover, I of all people should know the pain of seeing one's own teacher trashed online. So I'll try to refrain from groundless trashing. No promises, but I'll try.

So what on earth is this post even about? You might be wondering. Well, it's probably best to start at the beginning. Yesterday, I read this very interesting post over at the Babarazzi about the supposed ninja credentials of Sadie Nardini... Well, as with anything of such a controversial nature, it's best to hear it straight from the proverbial horse's mouth. Here is Sadie addressing rumors about her ninja credentials:

Interesting. She says at 0:05--0:06 that she is a "baby ninja." But what is a baby ninja? Is it this:

 Which one of these is Sadie?
[Image taken from here]

Well, it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to answer the question of what a baby ninja is right now. So let's move on to something else for now. Whatever the ultimate credibility of her ninja credentials may be, Sadie definitely makes an active attempt to incorporate her ninja wisdom into her yoga teaching. For instance, check out her famous Ninja Salutations:

A couple of things here. First, I fail to see what is so "ninja" about these yoga moves. I mean, she could easily cut out all references to the word "ninja" in her presentation in the video, and it would still make perfect sense. So what exactly is the concept of "ninja" adding to the yoga? Hmm... or maybe it is the invisibility of the concept that makes the yoga "ninja yoga" (after all, aren't ninjas supposed to have the power of invisibility)? Well, maybe... but wouldn't that mean that even I could be a ninja? After all, although I have yet to try the moves in the video above, I'm pretty sure they are not beyond my level of physical ability ("But ninja goes beyond the physical, it is a state of being..." I can already hear Sadie saying...).

All this is very puzzling and, frankly, way over my head. Well, let me show you some ninja concepts that I can understand. Here's my favorite ninja video. Pay particular attention to the first thirty seconds of the video, where he lifts up into handstand from Upavista Konasana and then proceeds to do a bunch of handstand pushups, all the while balancing on a bed of nails: 

Pretty badass, eh? Hmm... I'd really love to see a video of Sadie doing that. Oh, and this brings to mind something else. A couple of years ago, I speculated that the secret purpose of Ashtanga practice may be to turn us into ninjas. This video may provide some indirect evidence of that: After all, as we can see from the video, being able to engage Uddiyana Bandha very, very strongly while lifting up from Upavista Konasana does translate into a very useful skill in the ninja world. In fact, for all we know, Kino might be a ninja. But of course, I'm also pretty sure that if you were to ask her directly, she would deny it outright. 

"Ninja? What ninja?"
[Image taken from here]
After all, as you may know, the whole point of being a ninja is for the rest of the world not to know that you are a ninja. If they knew, then your freaking cover would be blown; which would totally defeat the purpose of being a ninja. That said, I'm actually pretty sure that Kino is not a ninja, even if I have no way of being absolutely certain about this.

Well... I'm actually pretty worn-out right now. All this ninja talk has given my brain quite a bit of a workout. Maybe I'll go see a movie or something. More later.   

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Midnight's Children, a spontaneous lotus moment

"Reality is a Question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems--but as you approach the present, it inevitably seems more and more incredible. Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up, row by row, until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions; the illusion dissolves--or rather, it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality..."

Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children

I guess I seem to be blogging more now that it's summer; as you might have noticed, this is my second blog post today. I don't have any particular reason for quoting Rushdie here; it just so happens that I am reading Midnight's Children right now, and this particular passage jumps out at me. Midnight is the second Rushdie novel that I have read thus far, the first being The Satanic Verses. I have to say that although both novels are written in that distinctive self-referential voice that is Rushdie's, Midnight is very different in character from The Satanic Verses. I don't really know how to capture this difference in a couple of sentences, and I don't feel like writing a long post right now on what this difference really is, either, so I'll leave it at this. Maybe I'll write more about this when I finish Midnight. We'll see.


In the meantime, let me tell you an interesting true yoga story that recently happened to me. I had a spontaneous lotus teaching moment yesterday afternoon. I was about to leave my office when I started chatting with a colleague who occupies the office across from mine. We started talking about possible summer plans, and what we each had been up to lately. He told me that he had recently taken up meditation, and had injured his ankle while meditating. This is roughly how the conversation unfolded from this point:

Colleague: "Yeah, you don't believe it is possible to injure yourself while meditating, do you?" [Chuckles]

Nobel: "Actually, I do. Were you trying to get into the lotus posture, by any chance?"

Colleague: [Nods his head, smiles sheepishly, and then was suddenly surprised] "How did you know that?" [Note to reader: Many people at work do not know that I practice yoga (I generally adhere to the doctrine of the separation of yoga and work).]  

I then explained to my colleague that I have been practicing yoga for a few years, and know of many incidents of people who have injured their knees and ankles trying to crank themselves into the lotus posture (I did not mention that I had also suffered a knee injury before; I figured that might be too much information at that moment.).

And then the teacher in me took over: I went on to explain to my colleague how, in order to do lotus productively and safely, one must first work on opening the external hip rotators, so that the work of the posture comes from the hips, and not from the knees or ankles. I also mentioned how it took me about six months from the time I first started yoga to get to the point where I was just able to barely do a loose lotus.

"You can do lotus?" My colleague asked (I think he sounded impressed, but I cannot be sure). I said yes, and then proceeded to show him (on the floor of his office, no less) a bunch of preparatory poses (pigeon, double pigeon, etc.) that he can work on in order to get his hips to open enough to be able to do lotus safely. And then, on the spur of the moment, I added, "And once you feel your hips open enough (which could take a few weeks or even months), you can then try half lotus." So saying, I brought my right foot into my left hip crease. "And then, " I continued, "you can work yourself into full lotus." So saying, I brought the left foot onto my right thigh. And I found myself sitting in lotus in jeans on the floor of his office. Which might already be rather unusual, in and of itself. What's even more interesting is that this is the first time since my knee injury a couple of years ago that I have spontaneously gotten into a full lotus outside of my yoga practice, while wearing street clothes. To be sure, my lotus wasn't very deep: I didn't feel that I was warm enough to attempt the usual deep lotus that I do during practice, so I kept the lotus loose. But even so, I am grateful for how much my knee has healed to permit me to do even this.

Anyway, I got out of lotus after a few breaths, and got back on my feet. My colleague thanked me for the hip-opening tips, and I went on my way.

Well.... I hope you like this little story. More later.

A review of a review: Kino's The Power of Ashtanga Yoga

I just read Brian Penny's review on Huffington Post of Kino's latest book, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga. Since I have yet to read the book, I won't say anything here about the book itself. But here's an excerpt from Penny's review that very nicely sums up where Kino is coming from, and the spirit that informs her teaching and writing:

"Many yoga teachers seem to be afraid of imparting all of their knowledge. They hold back because they view their books, videos, etc. simply as marketing tools to get you into their classes. It's just merchandise, and you're just a consumer. This train of thought leads to these yogis holding back important information. Kino does the opposite, proving both her teaching ability and business savvy by explaining everything in as much detail as possible. Between her books and videos, she easily imparts more than 200 hours' worth of yogic wisdom for anyone willing to put in the effort. Instead of only giving you a sample in hopes that you'll come to her and give her your money like many other teachers, she gives every ounce of information she can fit into each situation she's teaching.

Because of her deep well of knowledge, The Power of Ashtanga Yoga works on its own as a teacher. In it, Kino manages to incorporate everything you ever wanted to know from a yogi. She seamlessly incorporates personal experiences, useful gems of wisdom, and detailed technical knowledge of the practice. Rather than bombarding you with an overload of technical information or droning on and on about generic information as most yoga books tend to do, Kino stops quite often to relate the information on a personal level. She manages this quite well because she doesn't hold back. Sometimes it feels like she knows the objections you have to a concept before even you do."

I guess I won't say too much more here; Penny's words pretty much speak for themselves. Maybe I'll get myself a copy of the book soon.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Days of Being Wild(ly hungover), strange Ashtanga dream, and a surprisingly fast practice

I discovered something interesting in the last twenty-four hours: It is possible to get an emotional hang-over from watching a certain kind of movie. Specifically, movies by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. More specifically, Days of Being Wild (DOBW). Set in Hong Kong and the Philippines during the 1960s, the main character of DOBW is this self-indulgent, self-absorbed guy who goes around seducing women and getting into relationships with them, only to dump them once they start demanding some deeper level of emotional commitment from him (there's a reason for this behavior of his, but I won't spoil the story here...). Not a very unusual storyline as storylines go, but Wong's use of camerawork and the soundtrack (as well as the acting) gives the audience this claustrophobic feeling of moving in slow motion through a thick slush of emotional isolation and disconnection. It's a little bit like watching a train-wreck in slow motion ("Why does she have to keep going back to that A-hole who's treating her like shit?"), except the train-wreck is so beautifully filmed that you can't bear to look away. At the end of the movie, one feels as if one has had too much emotional slush to drink (hence the hangover).

Maggie Cheung and Leslie Cheung on the movie poster
[Image taken from here]

Anyway... I'm probably saying a lot without really telling you what the movie is about. But I don't want to spoil the movie. Let me just say one more thing, and then I'll move on to something else: If works like Camus's The Stranger or Sartre's No Exit are up your alley, then this movie will probably speak to you. Check it out (or not). I know it's available for instant streaming on NetFlix. Oh, and one more thing: The movie's in Cantonese, so unless you happen to speak Cantonese, you will need to read subtitles. Not a deal-breaker, I would hope... After all, we're all Smart People, right? (Ha, can't resist a cheap shot here...) 

Perhaps as a result of watching the movie, I had a strange dream last night. In the dream, I was at some big Ashtanga workshop taught by a senior Ashtanga teacher. Or it may even have been an event featuring more than one senior teacher (maybe it's the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence or something along those lines, although I can't say for sure, since I did not make either of the two Confluences that have been held to date).

Anyway, in the dream, I was at this big workshop/event. I had set up my mat, and was about ready to begin practicing (it was a Mysore session) when I suddenly needed to go to the bathroom. So I went to the bathroom, and was about to go back to my mat, when I suddenly felt the need to go to the bathroom again! So I went to the bathroom again. I then tried to make my way back to the mat, but some series of events came up to stop me from going back to my mat. I can't remember now what those events were; at any rate, when I finally made it back to the mat, more than two hours had passed, and the Mysore session was almost over. I had just barely enough time to squeeze in a very half-assed three Surya As and three Surya Bs before the teacher told me that I needed to take rest.


I can't recall the rest of the dream. Suffice to say that the entire dream was permeated by this overwhelming feeling of anxiety and futility. When I woke up, this feeling was so strong and dense that my entire being felt very heavy and dense. Had to sit on the bed for a whole half-hour before I could finally get my body to get up and go to the bathroom.

Getting to the mat was a struggle too. But here's what's really interesting. Once I got past Surya A, everything just kind of chugged along like a train (no train-wrecks ;-)), and I finished my usual practice (full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana) in an hour and twenty-eight minutes. And I didn't even feel like I was rushing or anything.

It's been an interesting twenty-four hours, don't you think?               

Saturday, May 18, 2013

More on the yoga and religion debate; spiritual pragmatism

I just read this recent article by Richard Karpel in USA Today. In this article, Karpel briefly reports on the ongoing legal case between the Encinitas Union School District and the NCLP over the teaching of yoga in the school district. Karpel also cites the views of a few yoga scholars, who explain the non-sectarian nature of yoga. Here are a couple of excerpts from the article that are worth taking a look at:

"Like many scholars of yoga and religion, Christopher Chapple, professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University, says that yoga is a non-sectarian practice. The Yoga Sutras, the most commonly cited classical text that forms the basis for both traditional and contemporary yoga philosophy, make no specific theological claims, according to Chapple. It is the non-sectarian nature of this text that has allowed it to resonate for more than 1,500 years, he says...

Mark Singleton, a yoga scholar who teaches at St. John's College in Santa Fe, notes that many of the influential pioneers of modern hatha yoga insisted on its non-sectarian, democratic and secular nature, and sometimes had an aversion to the association of yoga with religion. This, says Singleton, is in keeping with the anti-sectarian spirit of early Indian hatha yoga." 

If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I have written a few posts expressing my personal views about this ongoing legal case and the issues of spirituality vs. religion that it brings up, so I won't repeat myself here. But I just want to point out that it is significant that a mainstream national newspaper like USA Today has published an article which reinforces the view that yoga is not a religion. Hopefully, this will have a positive impact in shaping public perception and the direction of conversations around the country on this matter.  


Well, I said I wasn't going to repeat myself by saying too much more in this post. But after thinking about this matter a little more, it turns out that I do have more to say anyway. So here goes.

In the USA Today article above, Mark Singleton notes that in keeping with the anti-sectarian spirit of early hatha yoga, many influential pioneers of modern hatha yoga insisted on its non-sectarian and secular nature. I am no yoga scholar, but I can't help speculating that a big part of this insistence on the non-sectarian secularism of yoga is also driven by what I would call "spiritual pragmatism". The idea is that it doesn't matter where a particular spiritual practice comes from or what its specific doctrinal origin is: If it benefits you and helps you to function more effectively as a person in the world, why not adopt it?

I have noticed that this spirit of pragmatism informs much of eastern thinking, and not just in spiritual matters. For instance, it famously finds expression in Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's maxim, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice." It was this spirit of pragmatism that allowed Deng to incorporate extensive economic reforms in a China that was reeling from the effects of the cultural revolution, and reform the Chinese economy without ostensibly deviating from Marxist/Maoist doctrine.

Applied to spiritual matters, this means that so long as a particular physical or spiritual practice helps you to function more effectively as a person in the world, the fact that it originated in a spiritual system that is alien to your own is secondary. If it benefits you, you would do well to adopt it (and maybe find a way to fit it within your spiritual system further down the road).

I also can't help observing that this spirit of pragmatism is rather lacking in much of Judeo-Christian thought. I have noticed that there is a tendency for much of Judeo-Christian thinking to be rather binary in nature. I'm actually not sure if this is because Judeo-Christian thought is itself inherently binary in nature, or if it is because westerners who grew up in this tradition tend to be binary in their thinking (I suspect it's a combination of both.). In any case, such a way of thinking goes like this: Something either fits into my system, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then it probably goes against some basic belief of my system. Therefore, I should reject it, no matter how beneficial it might otherwise be to me. To use a very specific example, I believe that it is this lack of a pragmatic spirit that led my Christian friend to hesitate about starting a yoga practice for fear that it might involve yoking with the devil.  

Well, I think I have rambled enough for today. All of my views here about spiritual pragmatism are strictly my own subjective musings; I have not conducted any systematic research to back these claims up. But since this is my blog/personal soapbox, I've decided to air them here anyway: What else are blogs for? As always, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you.     

Monday, May 13, 2013

Supersonic practice, "Can you do this?"

This morning, I did my usual practice (full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana). When I looked at my cellphone at the end of practice, I realized that the whole thing had taken just one hour and twenty-six minutes.  And I'm very sure I didn't skip any postures.

So yes, I did full primary plus one third of second series in a sizzling one hour and twenty-six minutes! Which means I had broken the "sound barrier", as far as my own practice is concerned: I've never been able to get through a practice of this length in so short a time before. Which is curious, because the pace of the practice didn't feel particularly sizzling when I was doing it. I didn't feel like I was rushing through anything. I suppose it is always possible that I was rushing through chaturanga, thus shaving off a few minutes... but really, how many minutes can one shave off by skimping on the chaturangas? Or maybe it's the weather; it's finally starting to get really warm here in Idaho. Could warm weather make one move faster? Or maybe I had shaved another few minutes off by breathing shorter breaths in Navasana; for many people (including probably myself), unless you are following somebody else's count (e.g. Sharath: "Ashtau up, exhale down, Supta aagain Nawasana!..."), there is always a tendency to speed up one's breath and count in this pose (for rather obvious reasons).

Well, speaking of Navasana, let's take a look at what is arguably the most famous Navasana video ever made. Here's Lino, floating from Navasana into handstand and then back into Navasana, and looking like he's taking a walk in the park the whole time:

I hear that floating into handstand from Navasana is no longer "kosher" in Mysore; I hear that people have been yelled at by Sharath for doing it. Doesn't bother me; I've never really been a handstand fanatic in any case. But whatever the case may be, you can't deny that watching somebody like Lino float effortlessly between Navasana and handstand is a great pleasure for the eyes (Ashtanga eye-candy?...).


In a recent post, Grimmly announced that our friend Susan will be teaching "Ashtanga Yoga Level 1" at this place called the Light Center Moorgate in London on Monday and Thursday evenings at 18:45. How wonderful! Well, if you happen to be in London (as in London, United Kingdom, not London, Ontario) on Mondays and Thursdays at 18:45, and feel that you could use some Ashtanga instruction, do think about dropping by (wait, do they allow drop-ins?...). 

Anyway, there are two things that can be said about the above announcement: (1) Ashtanga blogging must really have jumped the shark if the blogosphere has now become a place where bloggers announce classes that are going on halfway across the world (I mean, isn't this what yoga studio websites' schedules are supposed to be for?). None of this, of course, is meant in any way to detract from the great news of Susan's teaching at a brand new studio; this is indeed an auspicious beginning. But still, one can't help observing...

(2) As I looked at Moorgate's website, I couldn't help noticing the following picture and caption: 

[Image taken from here]

The picture is used as part of an advertisement for a free introductory class voucher. Which is, in a way, understandable: For people who can't touch their toes, the prospect of one day being able to do Samakonasana (a.k.a. the Russian Split, the Chinese Split) while wearing a suit might be appealing... or would it? One would think that a picture of somebody actually touching her toes might get the message across more effectively... but then again, what do I know? I don't run yoga studios for a living...

But the question "Can you do this?" does sound like the sort of thing that certain well-meaning yoga enthusiasts out there might say to their unconverted friends in an attempt to get them to go to yoga class. Actually, here's a story that might prove instructive. A few months ago, a friend who had known my practice for a few years was observing me doing primary series. After watching me do a few postures to Sharath's count, she remarked that my practice has moved from a place of "Can you do this?/Look what I can do!" to a place where I am simply, well, doing my practice, without seeming to care that much about what I or anybody else can or cannot do. Personally, I consider that to be an external validation of the fact that my practice has become more and more an inwardly-focused thing than an outwardly focused thing (although, strictly speaking, one is not supposed to need external validation of inward focus: There is something vaguely oxymoronic about this idea. But still...).

Anyway, I think this is enough rambling for one day. More later. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Over the Cliff

[Image taken from here]

Over the cliff
That sickeningly-familiar-yet-almost-forgotten sensation,
That nauseatingly-disconcerting-yet-oddly-refreshing feeling
of free, free fall.
Will angels break my fall,
Or will the bottom smash whatever remains of an old self
to millions of little pieces?
Who knows?
There's only one way to find out...
In the meantime, there's the fall to enjoy (or not).

Nobel Ang
8:32 p.m. MDT
May 11th 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Could bad posture in some Ashtangis be overcompensation for an inflated ego?

Or, at least, in this Ashtangi. As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a slouching problem. And, judging from a comment by an anonymous commenter on that post, at least one or two other Ashtangis out there also have an issue with slouching.

Now, as many of you know, Ashtanga has a reputation for attracting Type A people. Could it be that some Ashtangis (yes, I know that two Ashtangis is probably too small a sample size to warrant the description "some", but still...) slouch or otherwise have bad posture in order to (over)compensate for certain undesirable Type A traits, such as being overbearing or having an inflated ego? If slouching is indeed associated with low self-esteem, as my massage therapist friend suggests, could it then be employed by some Ashtangis as a sort of psycho-somatic mechanism to depress or suppress an inflated ego?

This thought occurred to me earlier today, after I read this interesting article in Yoga for Smart People (damn! don't you hate it when, a few days after you dissed something, it comes back to bite you in the ass when you actually find something interesting in it? Oh well. Maybe being smart isn't always such a bad thing, after all...) Here's an excerpt from the article:

"If you take an individual with an inflated ego and make their muscles strong and beautiful and limber and encourage them to acknowledge themselves and the contribution they are supposedly making to the world by just showing up on their mat and they have a lot of anger and don’t have a lot of self-awareness and they don’t have the tools to deal with these things and they don’t know where to get them and all the yoga teacher says is “breathe” and “trust yourself” then what happens in the moment that they want to punch someone in the face?

They just breathe. And trust themselves."

To be sure, the author of this article isn't talking about Ashtanga, but about what she calls "postmodern hybrid yoga". I'm not entirely sure what this is; it's probably a catch-all phrase that refers to all those millions of vinyasa flows and hot yogas that we find everywhere in our beautiful (post)modern yoga scene. But I can't help feeling that what she is saying here may also apply to Ashtanga yoga practitioners; if nothing else, a regular six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice can also cause one to have strong and beautiful and limber muscles (trust me, I know what I'm talking about :-)). And I think it was David Swenson who warned that doing asana is like plowing the soil of our being; depending on what you plant in that soil, you will end up with either a very self-realized human being or a very strong and limber and physically beautiful asshole (again, trust me on this; it takes one to know one...).

Anyway, here's my hypothesis: Could it be that some Ashtangis, knowing the powerful potential of this practice to transform one's being for better or for worse, try on some subconscious level to limit its power (say, by slouching, or by adopting other transformation-stunting behaviors)? I don't know if any of this is true or even coherent (as I said, I am working with a very small sample size), but I can't help but wonder, nonetheless.

None of the above, of course, should be taken as an excuse for having bad posture or for developing any other bad habits. It's just me thinking aloud, as always. Well, I do need to go somewhere now, so I'll sign off here. But if you think any of this makes sense, and would like to say something, I'll love to hear from you.      

Monday, May 6, 2013

Yoking with the devil, Hindu brainwashing, and the physical religion that is yoga

A few days ago, I had a discussion about yoga with a Christian friend. My friend has known for some time about the psycho-physical benefits of yoga (I like to think that I am one of his primary sources of said knowledge, but I cannot say for sure :-)). He believes that yoga practice could do him a lot of good on a psycho-physical level, but he is hesitant about starting a yoga practice, because he has heard that the word "yoga" literally means "yoke" or "union" in Sanskrit, and he is worried that through doing the yoga practice, he will end up yoking or uniting with the devil (I'm not kidding; he actually used the word "devil.").

Instead of trying to change his mind directly by trying to convince him that yoga does not involve yoking with the devil (like I would know what that means, anyway... I mean, does it involve having visions of a smirking creature with big horns sticking out of his head?), I took a gentler, more non-confrontational tack. I explained to him that first, yoga scholars do not all agree that yoga means "union" or "yoking"; for every yogi out there that subscribes to the "yoga means yoking" line, there is at least one other who believes that yoga really means "separation", as in separating purusha, or soul, from prakrti or conditioned existence (if I'm not mistaken, Srivatsa Ramaswami is among those who subscribe to the separation thesis). I also explained to my friend that we can think of yoga as being a set of mind-body fusion tools. The tools themselves are neutral; it is what you do with the tools that make the difference.

After listening to my explanation, my friend said that he will think about what I said, and do his own independent research into yoga before deciding whether to start a yoga practice.


The above exchange between me and my friend may strike a familiar chord if you have been following the ongoing legal battle between the Encinitas Union School District and evangelical Christian parents backed by the conservative National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP) over the teaching of yoga in Encinitas elementary schools by the Jois Foundation.

Indeed, one of the key reasons why the entire legal battle has been so intractable is that the NCLP does not believe that there can ever be such a thing as non-religious yoga. According to Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor of religion at the University of Indiana whom the NCLP has recruited to bolster their case, even if one were to strip away from the yoga practice all the Sanskrit names, references to Hindu gods, and all other assorted trappings that might ordinarily cast doubt on the non-religious status of yoga, the physical practice (i.e. the postures themselves) would still constitute a religious practice in and of itself. As Erik Davis observes in a recent article on this legal battle:

"Brown claims that the Encinitas yoga curriculum advances Hindu and American metaphysical religion ‘whether or not these practices are taught using religious or Hindu language’. In other words, the spiritual power — and threat — does not lie within the discourse packaging the moves, but in the moves themselves...

She claims that, in contrast to Protestant concerns with the word, Eastern religions express devotion directly through practices that fuse body and mind. The physical practices drawn from those traditions can never be stripped of religion, because the religion — others would say ‘spirituality’ — already lies in the embodiment."

All of which is to say that if Brown is right, then the millions of people in this country who practice "gym yoga"--i.e. yoga classes taught at gyms and health clubs which involve no Sanskrit terms or chanting at all, and in which the participants see themselves as "just stretching"--would be practicing a religion, whether or not they know it!

Which, in a way, is precisely what Brown is saying. Furthermore, Davis also observes that "Brown notes that, in much apparently ‘secularised’ yoga, novices first enjoy the physical benefits of the workouts and then begin to receive ‘spiritual nuggets’ from teachers, nuggets that lead deeper into the Hindu worldview." So, according to Brown, even the apparently innocuous "stretching" yoga classes at your local gym or health club are really just the first step--the gateway drug, if you will--in an elaborate journey of Hindu brainwashing.

But, Hindu brainwashing or no, Brown's view of the religiosity of yoga is far more radical. For her, one does not even have to consciously understand or accept any Hindu concepts (whatever that means) in order to practice yoga as a religion. For her, one starts practicing yoga-as-religion from the very first moment one takes one's first mountain pose or downward-facing dog. This is so, because the religion "already lies in the moves themselves." Which is another way of saying that anybody (yes, anybody) who puts their bodies in any of these positions is already practicing yoga-as-religion, whether or not they know it... Really? Well, consider this:

Is she practicing yoga-as-religion?
[I can't seem to locate the original website from which this image came. If this is your baby, please let me know, and I will acknowledge the source accordingly. My apologies in advance.]

In any case, I'm not going to get into an argument over whether or not putting one's body in particular positions constitutes a religious practice in and of itself, although I suspect you can probably already see how ridiculous this entire notion is if you just run it through your head a few times... (and maybe also take a few more looks at that cute baby picture above, while you're at it)... Ha! Maybe we really do need smart yoga, after all. Hmm... maybe I was too quick to dismiss Yoga for Smart People the other day. Ah well...

But anyway, as I said, I'm not going to argue over whether or not putting one's body in particular positions constitutes a religious practice in and of itself. The whole thing is just too ridiculous to even bother to refute. What I'm going to say is this: Any person or group of persons that tries to tell people that they shouldn't put their bodies in this or that position because doing so would constitute practicing this or that religion or even devil worship are probably not persons you would want to trust your bodies, souls or babies around. I mean, if you are advocating that putting one's body in a certain position constitutes devil-worship, you are advocating nothing less than a doctrine of hatred for the body. Which, in a way, isn't all that surprising, considering where many evangelical conservative Christian groups are coming from.

But in any case, what it all comes down to is this. Whether or not yoga is ultimately a religion, we have to make a choice between two worldviews: A worldview that loves and embraces the body for what it is, versus a worldview that sees the body as a depraved vehicle, a vehicle of whom even the most innocuous movements could be the work of the devil.

Which shall it be?

P.S. No babies were harmed in the writing of this post.                

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bad posture

I have bad posture. Specifically, my mid and upper back tends to slouch, especially when I'm sitting or when I'm thinking or concentrating hard on something. It also tends to happen when I'm listening hard and trying to understand what people are saying; for instance, I've caught myself slouching when I'm standing at the front of the classroom, listening to what a particular student has to say about a particular issue, and trying to understand where he or she is coming from.

In any case, the fact that I have bad posture is not news to me; over the years, several people have pointed this out to me, in the hope that I will do something to correct it. And no, I did not take up yoga in order to correct or improve my posture; I just started practicing yoga because, well, I started practicing yoga.

Yesterday, I was hanging out with a friend who is a massage therapist, and he also brought my posture issue to my attention. In addition to observing my slouching, he also noted that slouching is often associated with low self-esteem, and may also cause or contribute to digestive or respiratory problems (because the rib cage is basically compressing the lungs, diaphragm, and digestive organs). We discussed this for a few minutes. Then, on the spur of the moment, I decided to show him the video that I have on Youtube of me doing primary series. In case you haven't seen it, here it is:

After watching the video for a few minutes, my friend said, "Impressive... and what's interesting is, you actually have perfect posture when you are doing yoga!" Hmm... so I have perfect posture when I am doing yoga, but am a slouch most of the rest of the time. I asked him, "Based on your experience as a massage therapist/body worker, what do you suggest I should do to improve my posture in daily life?" He replied, "Find out what the emotional issues are that are causing you to slouch." He then quoted this writer (can't remember the name right now; any of you know who this is?) who has this theory that every muscular-skeletal imbalance (including posture issues) can ultimately be traced to some kind of failure to let go of some deeply-entrenched emotion or other. 

My friend then proceeded to feel along my back, and located tight spots in my left mid-back (which is associated with guilt, according to him) and upper back (which is associated with not feeling comfortable with devoting time to oneself). In addition, he also suggested that while my yoga practice is beneficial in that it puts me in a place everyday where I have to work to lengthen my muscles, it would also be a good idea to find some time everyday to release all my muscles ("Simply allow the muscles to fall away from the bones", was how he described it). A good way to do this is to lie flat on one's back, and, well, visualize the muscles falling away from the bones. 

Well, it looks like I have my work cut out for me here. Anybody out there have similar experiences working with improving your posture? If you do (or even if you don't), I'll love to hear from you.   

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Yoga for Smart People... really?

It's been a while since I wrote a blog post taking (cheap?) shots at something that is happening out there in the yoga world/blogosphere that I disagree with. Most of the time, I don't bother, simply because it's generally a waste of time and energy. I mean, if I don't like something, I'd do well to shut up, not participate, look the other way. And maybe, just maybe, if enough people shut up, not participate, and look the other way, the offending phenomenon might just lose momentum and go away by itself, right?

Well, I really don't know. But in any case, this latest phenomenon to hit my radar screen is too blatantly... [insert appropriate word to describe that distasteful feeling in my mouth] to just look the other way. I guess I should tell you how this all started. Yesterday, I was reading this blog written by this Ashtanga blogger I highly respect. In her latest post, she made a reference to something called the "smart yoga" movement. To my hyper-inflated self-important self, it looked like she was referring to slightly-over-educated yoga bloggers like me who have too much to say about too many things. So I left a comment on her post declaring my belief that "smart yoga" is an oxymoron, and left it at that.

And I thought that was that. And then, earlier today, I stumbled upon this thing called "Yoga for Smart People" (hey, I'm not making this up; check this out). My very first reaction was one of disappointment: So my fellow blogger wasn't referring to me when she referred to "smart yoga"... :-(

My second reaction was: Wow... there really are a bunch of people out there who call themselves "Yoga for Smart People"... no kiddin'. Damn! Now I wonder if I should rename this blog "Yoga for Stupid People in the Dragon's Den", just to see how many people will stop reading (after all, who wants to be associated with stupid?).

Anyway, the folks at Smart People have issued the following disclaimer on their website:

"Yoga for Smart People is not meant as an elitist enterprise. It is meant to provide a space where thoughtful yogis can come together to discuss ideas. It is also not meant to compete with or to replace any of the already awesome yoga blogs [Nobel: Such as Yoga in the Dragon's Den, if I may be so immodest to suggest? ;-)] and online magazines out there. It is meant to bring writers together to engage with each other in a conversational way."

Well, I probably should just shut up already and go practice (as Kristen has so sagely advised recently). But it's really not often these days that I can find something so blatantly [insert appropriate word to describe that distasteful feeling in my mouth] in the yoga blogosphere that I just can't resist throwing a couple of cheap shots. So, maybe I'll conclude by bringing your attention to one more little detail: If something isn't meant as an elitist enterprise, why would its creators need to go out of their way to disavow any such elitist intentions? Something to think about, no? And maybe, just maybe, if you think about this hard enough, you might just become smart... 

On keeping the practice at a good clip

I thought I'll write a quick post about the state of my practice, even though I really don't have too much to say about it. The last couple of days haven't been the best, energy-wise: Yesterday morning, in particular, I actually felt a little tired and run-down during practice, especially during the standing postures. But I kind of just noted the run-down feeling in my mind (Run-down feeling: Check!), and then went on with the rest of the practice anyway (full primary and second up to Supta Vajrasana). When I looked at my cellphone at the end of practice, I saw that the whole thing had taken just an hour and thirty-two minutes. Not bad for feeling tired and run-down ;-)

I have this habit of looking at the time at the end of practice (just before taking rest) to see how long my practice on any given day takes. Sometimes, this makes me feel like I'm running some kind of marathon. But I think there is something to be said for keeping the practice at a good clip. I mean, you certainly don't want to rush the breath unduly just to have a speedy practice. But you also don't want the practice to be so leisurely that you open yourself up to temptations to faff or obsess about particular postures, or do other things that are extraneous to the practice. Hence it is a good idea to try to maintain a certain pace and to keep the practice at a good clip. Kristen recently blogged about how it's a good idea to do led primary to Sharath's video (actually, I think it doesn't have to be Sharath; any teacher who counts consistently would do the trick) so that one can be sure one is keeping up the pace. Can't agree more. I do Sharath's led CD at least once a week, and I think this has a positive impact on my pace during the rest of the week as well. I still tend to give myself extra breaths to get into certain poses (Mari D, for instance), but by and large, I feel that, with Sharath's count in the back of my mind as the template, I am much less likely to faff or to obsess over this or that posture. I just do whatever I have to do in the present moment in accordance with the vinyasa count as best as I can, then move on to the next thing. As it is with the practice, so it is with life.