Sunday, December 22, 2013

I am officially an intellectual masturbator

At a party a couple of days ago, I got into a verbal/intellectual sparring match with a colleague from political science. I'm not going to bore you here with the intellectual/philosophical details of the exchange: Suffice to say that he is a postmodernist, and I'm not (if you really want the details, email me, and I'll try my best to reconstruct our exchange).

The exchange did not last more than 15 minutes, but given the passion with which he and I both held our respective views, plus the lateness of the hour and the effects of a few drinks, the whole thing quickly became intense, in a not-so-good kind of way. From the beginning of the conversation, I sensed that he was pushing my buttons, and my grad-school training kicked in. Grad School 101: When somebody pushes your buttons, push back, and find a way to draw some intellectual blood. As you can well imagine, passions flared quickly. Objectively speaking, I was way out of my depth; the last time I read postmodernism was in grad school, when I read a little Deleuze, and maybe a little Derrida, so I am not exactly in the best position to go into a debate with somebody who actually wrote his doctoral dissertation on these guys.

But I wouldn't give in without a good fight. So I tried to play a game of intellectual aikido/taichi with him; whatever I didn't understand (which was a lot), I simply rephrased in terms of what I do understand (phenomenology/existentialism), and then threw back at him as intellectual projectiles. And whatever I couldn't convert into intellectual projectiles, I simply dismissed with a stockphrase like, "Well, it is all very well to talk about this, that or whatever, but you really don't understand that such-and-such-and-such..." and then quickly moved the exchange back to familiar terrain.  

An artist's impression of me throwing intellectual projectiles... well, just kiddin'
[Image taken from here]

As silly as the above strategy sounds, it must have worked, because I succeeded in seriously annoying him. I must have struck him as a seriously arrogant and pompous ivory-tower academic, because it got to the point where he simply pronounced everything that I was doing as intellectual masturbation. At this point, a friend who was standing by and observing the whole exchange must have sensed that things were on the verge of getting ugly, because she came up to me and said she was tired, and asked me if I could give her a ride home. I had to agree to her request, because I was the one who gave her a ride to the party earlier in the evening. So I turned to my interlocutor, told him that it was a pleasure speaking to him (was it, really? Hmm...), and that we should continue this conversation. He simply looked intently at me, and then pronounced, "This is not necessary. I am willing to stake my PhD on this."

Wow. Really? So after all this intense passion and name-calling, all he was willing to stake was a paltry piece of paper? Well, this shows us a few things, doesn't it? Ah well, what do you do?... As for me, I am now officially an intellectual masturbator. You know, come to think of it, this is not such an insult, after all: At least I get to orgasm...        

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Death, suicide, and the time of the year

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer."

Albert Camus

A few days ago, I learned that the local mechanic to whom I usually bring my car for oil changes and other routine repairs had died; he had taken his own life. Yesterday, I got together with a few friends who also were his customers, and discussed the circumstances surrounding his suicide. One of them told me that she had heard that his business had not been doing well lately, and suggested that as a driving reason behind his suicide. I didn't say much in response to this, but mulled over this for a little while. For some reason, this just didn't strike me as a satisfactory reason. I mean, sure, many people have taken their own lives because of financial or business problems, but there are also many others who have suffered similar problems in life, who have nevertheless found ways of coping and finding reasons to continue living on this earth. So looking to external circumstances to try to explain why somebody would decide that continuing to take the trouble to stay alive simply isn't worth it anymore simply doesn't shed light on this issue. I believe that Camus is expressing a similar sentiment when he remarks on the act of suicide:

"An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had greatly changed since, and that the experience had “undermined” him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man’s heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light.

There are many causes for a suicide, and generally the most obvious ones were not the most powerful. Rarely is suicide committed (yet the hypothesis is not excluded) through reflection. What sets off the crisis is almost always unverifiable. Newspapers often speak of “personal sorrows” or of “incurable illness.” These explanations are plausible. But one would have to know whether a friend of the desperate man had not that very day addressed him indifferently. He is the guilty one. For that is enough to precipitate all the rancors and all the boredom still in suspension.

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it... It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, the uselessness of suffering."

I think Camus expresses a whole bunch of things about this topic in a much more eloquent fashion than I ever could (at least in the foreseeable future), so I shall not offer too much commentary on his words, but allow them to speak for themselves. But I would like to relate something else that happened last night. Last night, I got together with some colleagues for some drinks. For some reason or other, the topic turned to suicide (there is no correlation here with my earlier conversation with my other friends; besides myself, there is no overlap between these two groups of people). It turns out that among the group of us (there were five of us in the group), everybody except me had thought of taking their own life at some point or other in the past. When I raised the only "dissenting" view, and said that I have honestly never contemplated killing myself before, even in my darkest moments, everybody else was really surprised.

After a brief silence, somebody in the group who knew his Camus quoted the above passage about suicide being the one truly serious philosophical problem, and not-so-subtly suggested that perhaps the reason why I hadn't thought of killing myself was because I hadn't thought seriously enough about my own life. I responded by biting the bullet (no pun intended), "Yeah, maybe that means that I haven't been taking my life seriously enough (big fucking deal!)..." I think the group was rather stunned by my non-attempt to rise to this challenge, because there was yet another brief silence. After about thirty seconds or so, another person (probably for lack of something else to say) simply blurted, "It must all the yoga you are doing!"

Well, honestly, I do not think that yoga practice is an automatic suicidal-thought-suppressant: If you want to kill yourself, you probably will, whether or not you do yoga. I can only say that, so far, I have been fortunate (?), in that even in my darkest hours, there is always this strong undercurrent of something (survival instinct?) that moves me along, so that the thought that living is more trouble than it is worth has never crossed my mind; or if it did, I only entertained it as a hypothetical intellectual possibility, and never with the existential force of a real life possibility.

 But then again, maybe I really shouldn't be jinxing myself by talking about such things so cavalierly. For all I know, tomorrow, or even the very next hour, may be the first time I ever seriously think of killing myself. Ah, morbid thoughts, morbid thoughts... There must be something about this time of year that brings such thoughts into the minds of so many. Well, but I can at least say that this is probably more authentic and less shallow than all that forced holiday cheer that is so prevalent in so many other quarters...


Monday, December 16, 2013

Kino on the balance between alignment and the inner experience of yoga

After writing my previous post, I decided to ask Kino herself what she thinks about this whole alignment-in-Ashtanga issue. I emailed her, and she got back to me within the hour. Which is very admirable, considering her very busy schedule. Her answer is brief but very illuminating, and she has also very generously allowed me to share it here on this blog. This is what Kino says:

"Alignment is not an end in and of itself. The purpose of good alignment is to facilitate a deeper inner experience. If you focus on alignment as the end goal then it diffuses the true power of yoga. The method of yoga is essentially also very simple. In Utkatasana the knees are bent and the hands are up. The depth with which Western teachers, including myself, describe the inner experience of energy and alignment is something that Guruji and Sharath have always left up to the individual to directly experience for themselves. This way each student has the framework for direct perception of the inner body and ultimately their true self and there is more room for variety, experimentation and modification. Sharath is the first person to say that he does not have a beautiful practice according to Western standards. Yet at the same time if you ask him if alignment is important he says yes, for sure, to prevent injury and help the energy flow in the body. I think the key is to find a balance between emphasizing the physical over subtle and disregarding the physical for the spiritual."

I hope you find her answer as illuminating as I have.  

Hot spring Ashtanga talk, the place of alignment in Ashtanga

Yesterday afternoon, I took a break from grading papers and exams, and went with a group consisting of a few colleagues from various other departments to a mineral hot spring about 45 minutes from where I am in Idaho. It's funny how it took me almost a year of being here in Idaho to finally make it to a hot spring. But, as they say, better late than never, right? :-)

It was a pleasant afternoon. We spent more than three hours soaking in the spring and chatting about many things. As the only philosophy person in the group, the "responsibility" has fallen upon me over the last few months to be the provider of witty semi-philosophical banter whenever we meet up (the group of us meet together regularly for drinks at a local brewery). Hmm... come to think of it, this may be one of the main reasons why I haven't been blogging much lately: Perhaps most of the verbal-expressive energies that I previously expended on this blog are now taken up with providing witty banter for those around me, so that there is less wit left to spare for this blog.

Anyway, during those three hours in the spring yesterday, one interesting and unexpected topic of conversation came up... yes, you guessed it: Yoga! I don't normally talk about yoga to my students or colleagues, but sometime in the course of those three hours, one of my colleagues started doing some yoga-like stretches in the water (at one point, she looked like she would probably have gone into the full expression of Prasarita Padottanasana A in the water, if it weren't for the fact that she couldn't breathe underwater...), so I couldn't help remarking that she seemed to be doing some yoga poses. Upon further questioning, it turns out that her sister is a yoga teacher in a major city in the Pacific Northwest, so she knew a few things about the ins and outs and ups and downs of the typical yoga scene in a big city (too many teachers running around all over the place trying to scrap together a living by teaching too many classes, possibly compromising one's own yoga practice in so doing, etc., etc.).

As the conversation progressed, I also let on that I used to teach yoga in a studio in Florida. This prompted my colleague to ask, "Oh... do you intend to teach yoga again sometime in the future?" I replied, "Well, ever since I started doing Ashtanga full-time, I have been feeling less and less qualified to be a yoga teacher." This reply drew puzzled expressions from her and her husband, so I had to basically start from square one, and explain the ins and outs of traditional Ashtanga practice (what Mysore style practice is, how it is different from "conventional" yoga classes, how the only way to really get authorized to teach Ashtanga is by going to KPJAYI and getting authorized, and so on and so forth). I like to think that I succeeded, through this explanation, in conveying to them the spirit and the gravitas of traditional Ashtanga instruction and practice, because they seemed impressed by my dedication to this powerful tradition (at least, I think they looked like they were; I'm not always the best reader of people's facial expressions...).

The husband then asked me whether Ashtanga pays a lot of attention to precise and proper alignment. "Well, we believe that alignment is important, but we don't quite make such a big issue of it as Iyengar." And then, of course, I had to go on to explain to him the main differences in emphasis between Iyengar and Ashtanga.

Who would have thought that my first visit to a hot spring in Idaho would have consisted of me giving a talk on Ashtanga yoga? Life is pretty strange, isn't it? :-)


Oh, and speaking of alignment, after I came back from the spring yesterday, I went on Kino's FB page, and watched this instructional video by Sharath on the proper vinyasa for Utkatasana and Virabhadrasana A and B that she had posted there. I wanted to re-post the video here, but for some reason, it wouldn't show up on my Youtube search. But the video has been around for, like, a thousand years by now (I just haven't had much time to watch, post, or review yoga videos lately, due to the real-world demands for my services as a wit ;-)), so I'm guessing most of you know which video I'm talking about here. If you don't, just go to Kino's FB page; it's in one of her posts from yesterday.

I'm sure that anybody who has even so much as taken a glance at Yoga Journal covers over the last ten years of that illustrious publication's history would know that Sharath's physical alignment in the video is not going to put him on the cover of YJ anytime soon (and that, I suspect, is putting it rather mildly). And this fact is certainly not lost on Kino's Facebook readers either, as a couple of commenters have quite unceremoniously noted. I don't normally quote FB comments on this blog, but these couple of comments are so hilarious, I just can't resist "sharing" them here:

One commenter writes: " different than what we do in America. if I stayed up that high in any of my warrior poses my instructor would be on my ass like a fly on poop. he sure does float forward and back gracefully though."

A second commenter, piggy-backing on the first, continues: "Clearly he is the expert but I'm with the other person, he's on his toes in urdhva mukha svanasana, his arms aren't straight above his head, his knee is past his ankle and not at a 90 degree angle in virabhadrasana and the outside blade of his foot is clearly not down, his utkatasana is really's hard seeing this video when I struggle and have instructors drill proper form in class. Is form not as important as it's made out to be or is the form im being taught not really correct? Or bc he's just so awesome he can afford to cheat a lil? :-)"

Well, Sharath, as we all know, is quite awesome. But even so --and I'm not saying any of this with any intention of starting an Ashtanga-vs-Iyengar blog war here--we still can't deny that if Sharath had performed the same Utkatasanas and Virabhadrasanas in any "conventional" yoga class here in this beautiful land of America, any YA-certified teacher worth his or her salt would have descended on Sharath like "a fly on poop", as the above commenter so eloquently put it (nothing like a good poop reference to get a point across ;-)), and it is doubtful that he would have made it through even the first five minutes of class without being the butt of many a well-intentioned adjustment. 

So, the million-dollar question: Just what is the place of "proper" alignment in Ashtanga? Is alignment also important in Ashtanga, only maybe not as important as in Iyengar? Or is the idea that drishti and bandhas have so much more primacy in Ashtanga, so that, so long as one is really focusing on those things, transgressions in alignment (even major ones, if Sharath's video is anything to go by) can be overlooked? I suspect that maybe the only person who can really speak to these questions is Sharath himself. But since it is really unlikely that I will be able to get him to comment on this post, I'll just leave you with these questions. If you have anything to say on this, please do. I'd love to hear from you.     

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Peddling yoga wares, practicing when you don't feel like it

Starting from sometime around a couple of months ago, my email inbox (the one attached to the hotmail account listed in the top-right-hand corner of this blog) became inundated with tons of promotional emails from yoga retreat centers, marketers of cool yoga/enlightenment T-shirts ("wear our tee, and you will experience more-or-less instant enlightenment... or at least look super-good!"), and even vegan cookies.

I'm not at all annoyed by all this spam; most of the time, I just chuckle to myself ("Wow, they actually think I can help them make a milllion dollars by selling or promoting their products!"), and then delete them without even bothering to read. I'm guessing that, since I'm not a famous yoga teacher (or even an un-famous one), all these assorted peddlers of yoga/enlightenment wares must have gotten my email address from this blog. Which adds even more to the irony, since I have hardly been posting over the last few months, and when I do, it's usually shit about my personal practice and/or my own personal idiosyncratic stories about things and happenings in my immediate little environment. Hardly the sort of thing that would make me a famous yoga presence.

Anyway, the mere presence of all these emails from yoga ware peddlers wouldn't have warranted breaking my by-now-usual blog silence (as I said, most of the time, I just delete these emails without a second's thought), were it not for the fact that somebody recently directed me to this Elephant Journal post by Harmony Lichty, an authorized Ashtanga teacher living and teaching in Victoria, British Columbia. In her post, Harmony said something that resonates with my experience in this area. She writes:

"There is a beautiful, glowing, tantalizing, nymph-like monster called “The Business of Yoga.”... If you’re at all interested in yoga, I’m sure you have already come face to face with her. She is obvious and yet somehow still deceptive. Agitating our minds and seducing our desires, she is invoked whenever business mixes with yoga, which is pretty much unavoidable these days.

Recently, I’ve been bombarded with messages from various sources all saying that, as a yoga teacher, you need to find some angle to market “your unique talents and abilities.” Lessons on using the right catch phrases and how to sell yourself will help to create more buzz.

Of course, everyone has the miracle solution on how to do this, and for only $9.99 you can download the latest e-book that will change your life!

Whether it is YouTube or Facebook, what seems to matter most is how you brand yourself and I fear that all of this advertising is merely another distraction that keeps moving further away from the essence of what yoga is supposed to be about..."

I think that Harmony's fear is quite well-founded, but I'm not going to go into a long rant here about how this whole business-of-yoga business takes us away from the essence of yoga; I'm sure the yoga blogosphere already abounds with plenty of erudite articles written on this topic by a whole bunch of--who else?--smart yogis. But I do want to share what Harmony has to say about what real yoga practice is about, because, again, what she has to say really speaks to me:

"It seems obvious, but it must be said: yoga is not about the clothes or the mat, nor is it about the way we look or even the way we feel. It is actually not a hobby or an activity to keep you occupied in your spare time, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, it is not simply a class you can drop-in to or drop-out of.

Yoga is a way of life...

It is meant to permeate our entire existence and shine the light of awareness into every corner of our lives. That is, if we can just get out from under the pile of stuff we are hiding in.

Yoga is a process of self-transformation...

Yoga is a discipline.

It is a discipline that works to renovate your mind, body and habits.

It can be challenging and frustrating.

Some days you won’t feel like getting out of bed to meet yourself on your mat or your meditation cushion.

Some days you won’t want to look in the mirror of your life choices to experience the veracity of how they are affecting you. Yet, when you do begin to clean the dust off your inner mirror through a regular practice, you will feel better for it...

Practice. Serve. Love. Repeat.

Try getting up and practicing without anyone watching, without fancy clothes or your favorite mat, without any goal in mind except to sink deeper into your own present moment awareness of breath. Practice as best you can on any given day, regardless of how you feel or how you look—this is the yoga.

I believe that there is one way to wade through all the distracting illusions that deceptively disguise themselves as yoga and that is to go deeper into our own personal sadhana, spiritual practice..."

What Harmony says here really speaks to me because most of the time, I practice by myself at home; I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of days I have practiced with other people in the past year (most of these few days occurs during the times when I travel to attend workshops with senior teachers). And I definitely do not wear fancy clothes when I practice; in fact, I typically practice in my briefs (TMI? My apologies...). I mean, really, why even bother to put on yoga shorts when nobody's watching?

And also, I quite often make myself practice on days when I seriously don't feel like getting on the mat. For instance, last night, a couple of friends from work invited me to their place to hang out and play chess. They proceeded to offer me wine, which I could not resist, and I drank a couple of glasses too many. As you can probably imagine, I felt rather groggy (no hangover, fortunately) when I woke up this morning, and almost fell asleep standing up! I made myself roll out the mat and practice. My body movements felt really sluggish; throughout the standing postures, it felt like I was moving through a thick karmic sludge. But I somehow managed to make myself go through my usual practice (half-primary plus second up to Karandavasana), and definitely felt much better at the end of the whole thing, and was happy that I made myself do it anyway.  

None of any of this is really ground-breaking or earth-shaking; I'm sure most of you out there also have plenty of experience with making yourself practice on days when you just don't want to. But, as Harmony would say, sometimes the obvious is what needs to be said.