Monday, May 12, 2014

a conversation with angela jamison

My fellow teacher Angela Jamison, whom I've only met once or twice in passing, recently posted this entry in her blog:
http://www.insideowl.com/

It rankled me, I must confess.  So I did some internet snooping, made some unscientific analyses, and then reached out to her privately in a facebook chat.  I didn't want to get into a big comment tete-a-tete.  As it turns out, the conversation was illuminating.  So much so that we decided to publish it jointly.  Here it is, in mostly full form.  Only some names and naughty language (mostly from me, it is one of trademarks much to my mother's chagrin) have been edited out and redacted.  Keep in mind that was a real-time conversation, and not necessarily meant to be polished writing.  Enjoy:


PATRICK
hi angela,
i wanted to ask you about your latest blog privately.  i hope you don't mind.  it pricked up my ears, so to speak. i went and looked at the kpjayi teachers list and counted the certified teachers and eye-balled the authorized ones. of the forty four certified teachers listed, fourteen are women.  the authorized teachers, at first glance, appear more balanced.  i would say maybe 45 percent women, maybe even more.  of course economic class and sexual orientation are not indicated on the list.  but at least from the gender perspective, it's not as bad as the 90% white male number you are suggesting.  i really hate to be a nudnik, but while i stand with you against structural racism and sexism i don't think you are being fair.  at least viz. the ashtanga scene.  i don't think i'm missing your point, with which i agree.  help me out, please
patrick

ANGELA
How can I help you?

PATRICK
sorry, i was going to write more
but i saw you had seen my salutation
so i got self conscious
and cut it short
intellectual laziness.  my bad

ANGELA
You're talking to a statistician, here

PATRICK
shit
i wish my wife were here, she's a supply chain forecaster

ANGELA
I wonder, what other metrics might you consider when looking at the power structure?

PATRICK
there are many, yes

ANGELA
Well I'm off the stats game... finally quit academia in 2011 so it's rusty.

PATRICK
like the ones the list doesn’t show
sexual orientation, class, etc.

ANGELA
right, but also, does the list of auth'd teachers constitute a hierarchy?
i can think of arguments that it does not.

PATRICK
i guess i'm afraid that somebody who doesn't agree with us about power/gender issues might pounce on the number discrepancy that i saw
yes, you're right of the senior senior old timers it's still something of a boys' club

ANGELA
yes
so for comparison, what about certified?

PATRICK
i can think of [redacted]
but more boys

ANGELA
recently?

PATRICK
[redacted]
but it's been boys so far

ANGELA
[redacted]
i want to affirm that i love white straight boys. A LOT. 
i actually don't think that the power structure is about the certification game at KPJ
but i wanted to offer that as the most obvious other metric
given your approach of using the KPJ auth’d list

PATRICK
not very scientific, to be sure

ANGELA
what interests me is, rather, the boys club that you mention.
the tendency that i have, and that most of us have, to think "what would the white man say?"
that's not about what happens in India
that's embedded in our own minds
i want to affirm that i mean no harm to our practice

PATRICK
of course not
your love is evident

ANGELA
if you think that my work is damaging to ashtanga, that's important feedback

PATRICK
as i hope mine is too

ANGELA
i admire our community SO INSANELY MUCH, in part because we have strong personalities that check each other

PATRICK
damaging is a bit of a strong word
the fact that this made me uncomfortable clearly is an indicator of the problem
no?

ANGELA
this post was inspired by my four apprentices, who constitute a diverse group

PATRICK
interesting!!!
i went through a personal inventory:

ANGELA
yesterday we had an apprentice meeting and they asked me why the race-gender-sexuality situation is so bad in our practice

PATRICK
my teacher is a woman, my wife is a woman of color, our teaching staff has a latina and a gay woman, etc.

ANGELA
then they asked why i, as a sociologist, had failed to take a stand about it
so i acted
rock on, my friend

PATRICK
thank you, but my point was i shouldn't have to gone through all that checklist

ANGELA
would it be interesting to hear the first lines of defense that i've been trained - with a sociology phd - to look for when challenging power structures?

PATRICK
my father always said "a guilty conscience needs no accuser:
yes, please

ANGELA
wow. honestly, if we can both look at what is bothersome about this post for you, we'll both learn something

PATRICK
i'm down if you are

ANGELA
for me, if there are ways that i can be more intellectually honest, and more loyal to ashtanga, and thus get through to doubters, then i need to do that
for you, i'm not saying this is what's up - i don't think we've even met in person so I don't know you at all - but the first defenses to look for are these:
First, tokenism.

PATRICK
like our president
ANGELA
that's putting a woman or gay man on the dais with the white guys
yes, and obama
because the human mind thinks in specifics not generalizations
so the easiest way to say "nuh uh" is to have a case we can point to that somehow disproves the argument of inequality
tokens are interesting because the fact that they are needed really illustrates the desperation of the situation. they're a last ditch on part of power structures to prevent REVOLUTION

PATRICK
gotcha

ANGELA
so my blog post was actually formulated in my mind as a question to the panel at the confluence
[redacted] …and that's kind of an illustration of the second line of defense of the status quo

PATRICK
which is?

ANGELA
the "we're all one" and "race is not who i am" response
 the "we're all just individuals" and race - sex- gender isn't who we are line

PATRICK
how stephen colbert always says he doesn't see color

ANGELA
that's a way of keeping things atomized

PATRICK
totally

ANGELA
i don’t see race either, but just because i don't want to look there doesn't mean that's a very important collective samskara
when i catch myself in this line of thinking, i wonder... if there are social samskaras i refuse to see, how much more of my own personal samskaras am i willfully not seeing?
make sense?
like, reality has layers

PATRICK
a funny aside:  i'm doing a sutras workshop and one of the students brought up if whole groups, eg., african americans, could have a collective karma

ANGELA
both the "race doesn't matter" and the "race matters" arguments are the case
WOW
i used to think "collective unconscious" was BS

PATRICK
heavy question, right?

ANGELA
but i dunno
yeah, heavy question. so good.

PATRICK
i don't think i answered very well, i'm embarrassed to say
i had no clue

ANGELA
yeah, especially since being white it's hard for us to talk about blackness
at least for me, after a decade trying to learn in academia. still hard.
and i teach outside detroit
this is a big deal… [redacted]

ANGELA
and that's with me working my butt off to be a good teacher to my students of color and learn from them about race
i just have to be straight up with them and say, listen, if i'm being unconscious, i need you to tell me so i can learn. i don't have any models of mysore teachers i can look to who are really conscious about race.
and i wish i did.
[redacted]

PATRICK
i think we've digressed
are there other lines of defense?
it all seems so insidious, if you let it be
which is what you are getting at about being awake, no?

ANGELA
um, sorry about disappearing
i just had to catch my two cats and put them in the basement with me down here
tornado sirens blaring
anyway, yes
so tell me, do you think the post i wrote is flawed?

PATRICK
hmm... flawed?
it made me uncomfortable, which is probably what you wanted on some level

ANGELA
yes
did it open your heart though?

PATRICK
well i wrote you, didn't i?

ANGELA
i want to be analytically strong, but also compassionate

PATRICK
yes you did

ANGELA
have we met?

PATRICK
i think i may remember you
from my 2nd trip
i had just gotten there and the shala was going to be closed on a sunday and bunch of people practiced up at alex's place

ANGELA
oh yes, i was there that day!
interesting

PATRICK
than we've been in the same room, but not spoken

ANGELA
well lets remedy that in person eventually

PATRICK
yes
absolutely

ANGELA
thanks for reaching out

PATRICK
yes, thanks for taking the time
to talk it through

ANGELA
yes, i'm super glad you said something
i hope that we all can do better, for our students' sake

PATRICK
you know, i can tell you my initial response to your blog in one sentence,
now that i've thought about it

ANGELA
yes?

PATRICK
"that may be the case for other yoga scenes, but we're better than that in ashtanga"
knee-jerk tribalism
what can i say?

ANGELA
do you think that others would have that thought?

PATRICK
i'm afraid so.  that's why i reached out to you, i reckon

ANGELA
i totally have that tribalism part of me, too. I think it's healthy in some ways, but we also fall back on it when we need to move forward sometimes...
do you think you would feel comfortable commenting on the post about this, for others who might give you more credibility than they might give me?
fine to say no - you've been really open with me in private and i want to honor that

PATRICK
this may sound crazy,
but i think i would feel more comfortable putting out this whole conversation
so people could get the back and forth and such
would that be tedious?

ANGELA
yes but there is one caveat, and that is that i talked with you openly about my relationships with teachers. i consider this sacred and not for public comment. could we put the whole thing out with my edits on that one topic?

PATRICK
and our apprentices too

ANGELA
yes, by all means
oh, good point. yes, we can add a note that this was edited to remove references to people

PATRICK
i think this is REALLY interesting, actually
now i'm getting kinda excited

ANGELA
and am happy to have it out there
do you want to put it on your blog?

PATRICK
let's pull the trigger

ANGELA
boom 
love ya, man

PATRICK
i haven't blogged in forever, but we could do it on both of our blogs
love ya back
got it. since i'm stuck in the basement waiting for this tornado to pass, i'll edit it now and send it

PATRICK
jesus

ANGELA
good times in the midwest!
ok, 15 min
PATRICK
we have more warning for our hurricanes
so yes, i'm going to water my lawn and we can double post

Chat Conversation End
THIS CHAT WAS EDITED TO REMOVE DIRECT OR INDIRECT REFERENCES TO PEOPLE. THAT’S OUT OF RESPECT FOR INDIVIDUALS, AND BECAUSE NO SPECIFIC CHARACTERS IN THIS STORY MATTER. WE PUBLISH THIS AS A VIEWPOINT ON PATTERNS IN HISTORY. AJ 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

More dispatches from Mysore: Patrick sensei, or, Concerning Authorization Redux

Right.  So, I received Authorization Level 2 with permission to teach the full intermediate series on this trip.  After four weeks of hoping I'd be tapped unsolicited, as it were, and months of gentle but insistent prodding from Kino and Tim, I finally broke down and went into the office to ask.  The whole thing played out as a series of anticlimaxes...

Some students here are quite comfortable talking to Sharath.  They can just go into his office and hang out, asking him about this and that, and what they can do to make their asana practice better.  Me, I wouldn't want to approach him to trouble him with my issues if he were watering his lawn and I were on fire.  This is out of respect, mind you, not contempt or fear.  Maybe some fear.  There are pros and cons to each of these ways of being.  On one hand, as my mother-in-law might say: no llora, no mama (the baby who doesn't cry doesn't suckle).  It's good to be clear about your wants and needs and to be proactive about getting them met.  On the other hand, there's the perspective that spans cultures in which the teacher (priest, sifu, rabbi, imam, etc.), while, yes, ultimately being just a person, is on a different level than the student.  If not above (always risky), he or she is at least apart.  In a life-long undertaking involving great transformation, trust, etc., why would you want to commit yourself to an ordinary schmoe for a teacher?  This the vibe with which I'm in tune, for better or for worse.

That said, imagine my discomfort and aversion to inquiring about such a Big Thing as authorization.  I think what finally got up my guff enough to go in, the straw the broke the camel's back, was when my friend and colleague Daylene received her authorization during my third week here, give or take.  At that point I was pretty well aware that I wouldn't be denied if I asked,  and Day's having gone first broke something in me.  I just wanted to get it over with.  The first day I went up to his office was a Thursday, and it unfortunately coincided with a massive influx of new students.  A shift change, if you will.  I had to make an appointment.  That Monday was a moon day, so the earliest I could get in would be Tuesday.  I felt like Frank Pentangeli being forced to wait to see the Don.  So Tuesday came.  I put on my formal wear, which means jeans and knit shirt, and went in.  I began by thanking him for his patience with my practice in the previous weeks, my pesky shoulder thing was forcing me to modify and take various short cuts.  Then, I started in on pleading my case:

Me: Sir (I try not to address Sharath directly if I can help it, and when I do I just call him sir), as I think you know,  I run a Mysore program for Kino and Tim in Miami and I've come to ask for your blessing to teach.  I want you to know I will honor the lin--
Sharath: How many trips you make here?
Me: This is my fourth trip, sir.
Sharath:  Mmm.  Take that form from the printer and fill it out.
Me:  Yes sir.  Thank you, sir.

I filled out the form and brought it back.  He wrote down how much it would cost on a post-it and gave it to me, and assured me there was no rush on the payment.  Then I touched his feet and cut out. And that was that.  There was no pricking a drop of blood out of my finger, or letting an image of the Virgin Mary burn in my hand, no cigars were passed out.  Later, when I got the money together, I thought there might be a photo-op with Sharath, Tim, Kino, and me and the authorization paper.  But no, payment first before the paper gets made, so that didn't happen.  And then, when I went to pick up the authorization certificate, Sharath wasn't around.  Honestly, it's just as well there was no hoo-ha as far as I'm concerned.  Not my style.

Just to be clear, though, despite the low key way things went down I am enormously relieved and satisfied.  This marks the achievement of a goal which was very very far off when I first started all this Ashtanga yoga business.  Much work and sacrifice was involved.  It settled in a few days later at lunch with my new, but now very close friend, Barry.  Barry has been living in Tokyo for the past seven years running a Mysore program there.  We bumped into some Japanese women he knew and he introduced me as Patrick sensei.  I would have bashfully shirked that before, but I just accepted it now.  Patrick sensei.  Teacher Patrick.  One door closes, another opens.  Time to step up.  Time to honor the title and keep doing my best to be true.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dispatches from Mysore: stages of the experience

Practice-wise, at least, there are several stages in the Mysore experience.  They comprise an arch, if you will.  In the beginning, in the first week, all cylinders fire.  You are doing primary series, chances are your start time is at least around 8am, and due to jet lag, you are getting up around 1 or 2 am.  You've been up and on your feet for several hours, doing an easier practice, and your mind is saying "Fuck yeah!!! Fuckin Mysore, man!!! So happy to be back after all the preparations and I'm seeing all the stuff I remember I love about this place!!!!"  So there's that.

Then, some obstacles arrive.  Maybe it's the first led primary class, which is something of a chore.  If you do it, the first led intermediate class is something of a gut punch.  From the second week on, you are in your regular Mysore practice, i.e., the postures that Sharath has given you.  If you're lucky enough to have either started with Sharath or to have come at least five or six times (neither are the case for me), then your regular practice will be quite similar to your home practice.  If not, it can quickly devolve into a brutal waiting and guessing game: so how far am I going this trip, anyway?  Exacerbating this is the fact that Sharath, contrary to many ignorant writings about our thing, has different standards for people.  I've mentioned this before, I think, but it bears repeating that the "why is Johnny on pose C when I'm stuck here in pose A and I'm way stronger, more flexible, more respectful of the lineage, etc?" mindset can come up.  There is potential to make your trip a real bummer if you play these games with yourself.  Don't.  Keep your eyes on your mat as best as you can.

At some point, the body breaks in one way or another.  Maybe an injury resurfaces, maybe food poisoning (ranging from mild to hospitalization-worthy), maybe a simple case of the flu will come.  I actually got the trifecta on this trip, including persistent allergies.  The flu was pretty bad, but the stomach issues mercifully weren't too bad.  If you're like me, and very eager to please your teacher, these somatic issues can open a different can of worms: the one in which guilt at not giving one's all arises.  If this is happening, I recommend seeing Sharath during his office hours.  He may be attentive, he may be distracted, but at least he'll know why you aren't binding in this or that posture, or not doing all your jump-throughs, or whatever.

Finally, hopefully, settling happens.  No more hand-wringing, and you practice like you do at home.   It's great, really. Due to my family circumstances and my allergies I can't imagine staying here for more than six weeks.  But this is the argument for staying as long as possible.  The more you can be here practicing in your settled state, so much the better for going deeper.  Like an experienced meditator, I suppose, the more often you come the quicker you can get yourself into the settled state and really grow.  My last two trips I didn't really get there, but this time I did.  

I find myself in a state of true ambivalence.  To be sure, having reached the settled state is a big accomplishment for me.  I wouldn't mind riding it out a little longer.  But, I'm fucking fed up with my nose running all the time, my palate is well saturated with the flavors of South Indian cuisine, and worst of all, I miss my wife desperately.  I am coming home in six days, transformed again, and most eager to share what I've learned and integrated. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

riding the b train, applying a hadith to yoga practice

Me and my fucking writer's block.  I'd been working on the blog below for weeks-- chipping away at it, walking away from it, coming back to it, etc.  Then earlier this week senior teacher Guy Donahaye came out with a most insightful blog rendering much of what I was writing moot.  Here's a link: 

 http://yogamindmedicine.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2013-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&updated-max=2014-01-01T00:00:00-05:00&max-results=6


For those unwilling to read the whole thing, this quotation from the blog is a pretty good encapsulation:  


"While the hatha yogins pursue ecstasy as the medium of their sadhana, the South Indian tradition which flourished with Krishnamacharya, was focused on an internally focused path towards stilling the mind. Asana in this context is viewed as therapy - preparation for sitting and the internal practices."


So the practice outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is not necessarily the same as the practice taught in the Pattabhi Jois/Krishnamacharya lineage and as you read below, you will see that this revelation was something of a relief to me.  Now without further ado, and with assurances on my honor that any redundancies between Mr. Donahaye's blog and mine were independent and coincidental, the blog I had been working on:


In an effort to ramp up my practice of svadhyaya (the niyama of self-study or study of scriptures) I recently dusted off my copy of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (hereafter referred to as the HYP) and have been reading through it again.  The Bihar publications edition, translated with commentary by Swami Muktibodhananda Saraswati is truly fascinating.  Some have called it dry, but my experience is that it reveals more with each reading.  This time around I've been inspired to tackle one particular aspect of yoga practice head-on.


Now, some of the practices described in the HYP range from outlandish to outright nasty.  While I try not to say never, I do not anticipate ever doing any of the following: smearing myself with burnt cow shit, drinking my own pee, slicing the membrane at the bottom of my tongue, drinking salt water until I vomit, swallowing yards of cloth and then pulling it back out of my mouth, pumping my lower GI tract full of air and farting it all out, prolapsing my rectum and washing it by hand, and perhaps strangest of all, inserting a catheter into my urethra and drawing liquid mercury all the way into my bladder by pumping and contracting my urogenital muscles.  I know, I know.  I'm a pussy.  Where's my dedication?  In all seriousness, though, and to be fair to the author Swatmarama, none of these practices were meant to be done daily.  And at least as far as the sucking mercury up into your bladder thing, the commentary posits that Swatmarama didn't mean the actual deadly poison mercury and that he was being allegorical somehow.


No, it is the slokas concerning brahmacharya which have piqued my curiosity.  I've decided to take another stab at it.  For a brief review, brahmacharya is one of the five yamas, or ethical precepts governing a yoga practitioner's dealing with the world outside of himself.  It means that one does not waste his energy, specifically his sexual energy.  In short and as I understand it, the yogic view of sex is similar to the Roman Catholic view:  one may, or one ought to, actually, have sex with one's spouse for purposes of procreation in accordance with the lunar cycle.  Otherwise, all bets are off.  Keep it to yourself, keep it inside.  For the renunciate practitioner this means the grim prospect of never having an orgasm.  For the householding practitioner, it means no more "self-time," or however you wish to euphemize it.


As it turns out, shocking as this may be, self-time is a pretty ingrained habit for me.  Breaking it has followed a pattern similar to breaking any habit.  The first few days aren't so hard, because you've made a resolution and your will is strong.  After a few weeks, though, the samskara reasserts itself.  It's noon, you've come home from a long morning of teaching and practicing, the dog is walked, same old alarmist shit on the news....  Some temptation is there, as Jayashree or Narasimhan might say.  At the risk of revealing too much, I'll only say so far, so good in regards to the temptation piece, and that there have been vast improvements in other areas that were good already.


Now some of my more skeptical readers may be thinking "Oy gevalt ist mir.  Why deprive yourself of this thing that pretty much all humans, even most mammals, do?  It isn't enough all the sacrifices you make already?  Six days a week, going to bed at 830, schlepping to India, not eating your mother-in-law's delicious roast pork on Noche Buena, etc. etc.?"  Perhaps.  But this is it-- a great many things go into practicing yoga, and not everybody can do all of them.  It's ok.  We all do the best we can, and we wade deeper into the stream at a pace appropriate to each of us as individuals.  There is a hadith from Al-Bhukari that I always loved which goes

Allah says, 'I am as my servant expects Me to be, and I am with him when he remembers me. If he thinks of Me, I think of him. If he mentions Me in company, I mention him in an even better company. When he comes closer to Me by a handspan, I come closer to him an arm's length. If he draws closer to Me by an arm's length, I draw closer by a distance of two outstretched arms nearer to him. If my servant comes to Me walking, I go to him running.

Through the course of my practice of yoga, I have experienced this pretty much exactly.  Each notch up I've taken, each sacrifice I've made, has yielded great dividends in my overall happiness.












Tuesday, August 20, 2013

the therapeutic quality of advanced asana, or, how i learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

About a month ago, during my Sunday morning practice, as I lifted my feet off the ground into Badha Hasta Sirsasana D my left shoulder made a sound like fabric ripping, just like when you finally retire a favorite old cotton t-shirt of yours and begin to tear it apart into rags.  As horrific as it sounded, there was very little pain.  Mostly what I felt was a slight loss of stability.  Furthermore, it was a sound I had heard before when I first discovered an injury a little more than a year and half ago.  On that particular day and in that particular instance I had been working on Viparita Chakrasana, aka "tic-tocs."  What I have is called a SLAP lesion. This means that the labrum (a ring of cartilage which stabilizes the joint, not unlike a meniscus)  in my left shoulder is torn from front to back.  Fortunately, an MRI revealed no damage to the musculature or the rotator cuff and, interestingly, it revealed that I'd had the tear for some time before the first acute ripping-fabric-sound incident.

Evidenced by the fact that I went and got an MRI, I am not one of those knee-jerk, "never trust Western medicine" hardliner yogis when it comes to health and medicine.  I believe in ibuprofen, vaccinations, antidepressants, antibiotics, chemotherapy... all that shit, when it's appropriate.  That said, when the orthopedist read my MRI and said, more or less, "when can we get you in for surgery?" I balked.  I got a second opinion from my friend Danny, who is a radiologist at Mount Sinai.  Very nice of him.  I remain grateful.  He talked me back from the ledge by pointing out that since the tear had been there for who knows how long I had probably just irritated and would be fine with rest and physical therapy.  So that's what I did.

On the other hand, I remain open to non-Western notions of the body as well.  Both my teacher Kino and my student Claudia have suggested that the injury and its persistence may have a deeper meaning, one that is not strictly physical.  Kino advised that such an injury was an opportunity to explore, or rather, an opportunity to learn something deeper about myself.  Claudia told me that she learned from her research that a shoulder injury typically means that one is dealing with a psychological burden of some sort.  Lord (along with faithful readers of this blog) knows I have plenty of psychological burdens.  I think perhaps even a little more than most people, even.  Could be anything.  As with the Western medicine stuff, I believe that this line of thinking has its merits to a point and when appropriate.  To say, as some do, that all psychological trauma is stored in our body is a slippery slope to absurdity, though.  If you're not careful, you could be attributing the cramp in your pinky toe to the time your best friend called you fat back in seventh grade.

So, it's coming up on two years now, and the shoulder still fluctuates between periods of stability and not so much stability.  Should the periods of not so much stability persist to a point where they vastly outnumber the good times, surgery remains an option.  When the shoulder is in a bad place I reduce my asana practice drastically (down to Surya Namaskara A and B, standing postures up to Parsvottanasana, and then the three finishing Lotus postures) and do pranayama to supplement.  This is what I did in the immediate aftermath of the most recent incident.  I gave it a week.  Kino and Tim approved.

The next week after, though, was a different story.  Kino was still in town and as I rolled out my mat to begin practicing along side of her she looked over and asked, sweetly, "How does your shoulder feel?  Do you want to try your regular practice?"  I was hip to what she meant.  Kino is a master at making an interrogative statement which is an actually an imperative one.  At least that's how I read it, but then again I always aim to please.  To be perfectly honest, I was quite scared and I didn't feel ready to air it out, so to speak.  My regular practice these days is a little goofy: I practice 3rd series up to Viranchasana A, and then switch back to 2nd series from Pashasana to Kapotasansa.  I do drop-back back bends and half tic-tocs, i.e. from feet to handstand to backbend, but not back the other way.

Fuck it.  I made a leap of faith, surrendered, trusted, opened up... all that. Maybe this is rotten to say, but in making the leap of faith one of the things that gave me courage was the abdication of responsibility.  If something would have gone drastically wrong, I could have put it on Kino.  I think this insulated me from any hesitation which might have, in fact, aggravated my injury situation.  As I practiced my regular practice, my trust was soon rewarded:  the protracted ass-fuck which is the arm balance sequence towards the beginning of 3rd series (depending on how you count it, eight or ten arm balances in a row), instead of hurting my shoulder as I feared, actually made it more stable.  I learned a profound truth:  there is potential for therapy in every asana, so long as your technique is clean.  I think there's a concept that Ashtanga yoga is like a progression of walking on a balance beam, to a tight rope, to a razor blade.  It doesn't have to be that way.  If you focus on clean technique and your bandhas, the potential for all kind of healing is there.  With faith and trust in a good teacher, the sky's the limit.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Quarterbacks and Golfers: some thoughts on moving and sitting meditation

 My relationship with sitting meditation practice now is quite similar to what my relationship with asana practice used to be.  That is to say, it fluctuates between periods of earnest dedication to one particular form and periods of not so much.  When it's on and humming, I feel great, feel the benefits, and I resolve that this is the time I stick with it.  Then it fades.  Other shit creeps in, and, having firm and solid dedication to asana practice, I let sitting practice go.  Then my schedule shifts, or a workshop happens, and I'm back in the saddle again.  I feel great, feel the benefits, and I resolve that this is the time I stick with and not let it go.  As of this writing I've resumed a regular practice again.  Feeling great, the benefits, etc. etc.

Now, the goal of meditation, whether sitting or moving, is to attain a state of single-pointed mental focus.  We call it ekagarata.  This focus can be narrow or expansive.  Consider athletes from two different sports: As an example of narrow focus, the golfer on the putting green has only one thing to consider.  He is focused entirely on the ball.  On the other hand, the quarterback in football must be pretty much equally aware of everything happening on the field (a very important distinction, mind you) at the same time. His focus is expansive.  In each case the athlete must have a calm, clear, mind unobstructed by emotions such as fear, anger, or anticipation of victory.  I think this model could be applied to sitting practice and asana practice.  When sitting, focus is narrow; when doing asana, focus is expansive.  Just to be extra clear, for the asana practitioner the body is the field.  There are two systems of sitting meditation with which I'm familiar, each with a different "ball" on which to focus.  One is the Anapanasati style, which I learned from my teacher Kino.  The other is Transcendental Meditation.  I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation by Narasimhan (of Jayashree and Narasimhan fame).

Upon initiation into Transcendental Meditation (hereafter TM) one is given a mantra by the teacher. It is not a mantra in the conventional sense, typically it is a just a one or two syllable phoneme--  "a word that don't mean nothin', like looptid," as the old song says.  As one sits, one continues to bring back the mind, gently, to the mantra.  You don't fight the thoughts that bubble up, you just come back to the mantra.  It has been compared to housebreaking a puppy.  Just keep putting the puppy (your mind) back on the newspaper (the mantra) every time it poops or pees (the bubbling up of thoughts).  You have to be patient and gentle with your mind, as you would a puppy.  The rules, as it were, of TM are quite simple: it should be done for twenty minutes, twice a day, you should begin and end your practice sitting up, and eyes should be kept closed.  You can shift, scratch, lie down-- just keep your eyes closed.  In my experience the effects of TM are felt especially in the somatic field.  A body high, to use stoner parlance.  The relaxation is really really profound.

In Anapanasati meditation practice is done once a day, anywhere between twenty minutes to an hour.  The "housebreaking the puppy" principle, basically the same as it is in TM, is there but the object of focus is physical as opposed to conceptual.  One brings one's attention back to the nostrils and the upper lip, focusing on the air coming in and out.  Anapanasati is more rigid, and therefore more physically rigorous than TM.  Once the clock starts you are asked not to move at all.  No scratching, shifting, eye opening, I believe if you're really really doing it you aren't even supposed to swallow.  Sleeping feet, and I mean asleep to the point of paralysis from the knee down, can be a risk.

So, for some basic pros and cons of each system:  TM is great, but it can be really tricky to carve out to separate spaces of twenty minutes daily for busy people.  I find myself in guilt loops when trying to maintain regular TM practice.  Anapanasati meditation only requires one shot a day, but it is a pretty type-A practice.  As Ashtangis our asana practice is already type-A so this system can feel burdensome.  Both systems, I can vouch from experience, function in a way slightly similar to SSRI's (anti-depressants such as Prozac or Zoloft) in that you don't feel the effects really until about a month in to regular practice.  Then one day, you realize you're calmer, happier, and things are a better.

Here's some food for thought.  Sitting meditation practice has helped me see how mentally corrosive popular music is.  There's nothing more hellish than settling down and into a practice with five seconds of Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" looping through your head.  I see the point that fundamentalist Muslims have in their proscription of music.

If you can't or don't want to work sitting practice into your daily life that's cool.  I have heard both Sharath and Manju Jois be overtly disdainful of it.  Each has said that the expansive (my term, not theirs) meditation which comes from asana practice is sufficient.  I have heard other senior teachers say otherwise.  I do invite you to try it, though.  It helps me, for sure.








Monday, July 1, 2013

don't confuse the optimal with the possible, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good

It's been a while, I know.  My bad.  I've had a something of a rough month in the mental health arena again, and I just haven't felt like I've had much to Say.  Note the capital S.  I've gotten a little too hung up on the need to say something profound each time I write, so much so that I've ground to a halt.  Mercifully, I had another one of those eureka moments this weekend, so now I'm back in the saddle.  Here's what happened:

Nubia and I went down to Key West, where we spent some nice time together and also with my best friend and his family.  Marc writes for the Miami Herald and his father Phil is an author of some distinction.  They had rented a pair of adjacent condos with a private beach and a deck, upon which they graciously allowed me to practice yesterday morning.  At some point I noticed Phil up on the balcony writing.  It must have been out of the corner of the eye because my drishti is always perfect.  I never under any circumstances look around or notice anything else when I'm practicing.  Bullshitting aside, there he was, at 8am on a Sunday morning, at work.  It all dawned on me a few hours later: yoga isn't the only discipline out there.  There are other endeavors requiring daily practice, regardless if the outcome is good or bad.  This wasn't a new revelation.  Nor was it something I had outright forgotten.  I just had become un-mindful of it, I suppose.  As a teacher I'm always encouraging students to get on their mat even if conditions aren't optimal.  Or to finish practice even though conditions aren't optimal.  Why shouldn't this be applied off the mat?  The thing is, you can apply the lessons of yoga, or boxing, or ballet, or whatever to other facets of your life, but you have to take the time to turn the lens outward.  Take the time every once in a while and examine what you do off the mat, out of the ring, off the barre, etc., and see how you can apply what you learn from your main passion to the other things you do.

In my asana practice, I'm mostly pretty good about not getting hung up on perfection.  Let this blog signal a redoubling of efforts not to get hung up so in my writing.  Selah.