Monday, November 24, 2014

vom kriege

When I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and fishing for tales of high adventure, I asked my father about war.  His answer was as disappointing as it was unsettling: "Son, war is like a glass that has been dropped, and it is riddled and run through with cracks, and it is never the same again."  This is a paraphrase from dim memory, but the image of the world as the bulb of a wine glass, irreparably cracked yet still intact, still haunts me.

My father had been an officer in the US Navy. During the Viet Nam War he was a gunnery officer on USS George K. McKenzie.  Although he was involved in combat missions and was exposed to hostile fire, his experience of the war was nothing at all like that which was depicted in the two iconic war films of my youth:  the sensational Platoon and the more artsy Full Metal Jacket.  In fact, I remember my father often making light of his war experience.  He would say that most of his time was spent eating ice cream and watching movies. Owing to the cryptic response to my question from when I was very young, I always he knew he was being disingenuous.   The killing in which my father participated may have been in one sense impersonal, or perhaps abstract.  That is to say, the targets of the guns he commanded were for the most part several miles away and barely in sight.  Still, I know the war never left his mind, or his heart, and it certainly never left his body.

When my father was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma we all joked at first, given his relative distance from "the action," about it being caused by his service in the war.  But that is exactly what the cause was.  Soft tissue sarcoma is a relatively unusual cancer and has been linked to exposure to Agent Orange.  Although it seemed unlikely at first, the VA determined that my father had been exposed to the chemical sufficiently enough to warrant inclusion into the massive class action suit against DuPont, or whichever chemical mega-corporation invented it.  My father remained stoic and absolutely courageous throughout his treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation therapy, the removal of his right adductor muscle, hyperbaric oxygen treatment for gangrene caused by an infected portacath, numerous other minor (but nevertheless painful) infections, and the removal of one and a half lungs.  The cancer, which had first surfaced in his right thigh (he initially thought it was just a pulled muscle), metastasized to his lungs and kept coming back.

One of his final acts of courage was to my mind his greatest.  In the late summer of 1994, he decided to cease treatment and let the disease take its course.  He conquered what yogis call the affliction of abhinivesha, or the irrational fear of death and clinging to life.  Seven of his last eight weeks were spent at home with my mother.  He fished almost every day.  On November 24th, 1994, twenty years ago today, my father died at home in his bed, unconnected to any machines.  He was unconscious from morphine and I, my brother, and, my mother were in the room with him.

 It is no understatement to say that my father's death, anticipated though it was, shattered me.  For fifteen years at least my relationships with my mother and brother were compromised.  I entered into an ill-advised marriage, became a junky... in general I continued to cause more suffering for myself and those closest to me.  I have found some measure of peace lately.  The ripples have abated somewhat, you could say, but the cracks remain.

I don't apologize for holding a mechanical, deterministic worldview.  It doesn't preclude one from hope or faith, nor even notions of accountability, to know that there is no denying the force of the past.  War and its echoes never cease.  Even the coldest cold of deep space is kept above absolute zero due to subtle, lingering radiation from the Big Bang. The glass, the fabric of existence, goes on for as long as we can conceive, and the cracks of old and new cataclysms continue to run through it unceasingly.  Still, it never disintegrates.  For all this, nature is never spent.  I remember this when the weight of history becomes too onerous, and I only want to go to sleep.  Besides, I have duties to others which I may have shirked before, but am determined to honor now. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

what to do? how to act?

This weekend, at the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends, I was able to ask a question of one of the guests that has of late been gnawing at me: does Iggy Azalea put you off, or make you uncomfortable?  Truth be told I was coming a little sideways, and although genuinely curious to know, I was actually also setting up a different but related question.  More on that later.  For those (mercifully) unaware of current pop culture, wondering who Iggy Azalea is, this is her deal: she is a rapper/singer and she is very very big these days.  She is also white, blonde, strikingly lovely, and from, of all places, rural Australia.  When she raps and sings she adopts all the speech patterns and inflections of a young African American. I've read it referred to as a "blaccent."  When she first came on the scene, her normal, non-performative speech was in her Australian accent.  Lately she has tried to incorporate the "blaccent" into her normal speech as well; but she can't really cover the Australian accent so she just sounds strange.  In any event, Iggy Azalea has come under fire for committing the insidious sin of cultural appropriation.  (Is it really a sin?  Yes.  But more on that later also.)  It is argued that she is simultaneously cashing in on a culture not her own while squeezing out other artists who are actually from said culture.  To Iggy Azalea's critics, when she raps: "First things first, I'm the realest," in her break out hit "Fancy," it resonates as an obnoxious fuck you to those unsigned black and brown female rappers who are equally or more skillful, but perhaps not as physically attractive, and, of course, certainly not white.

At this point you may be asking yourself: what does this have to do with yoga?  But see what happens when you refine the question to: what does this have to do with the ancient Indian spiritual/religious technology called yoga which is now practiced far and wide by non-Indian people, mostly of European descent, in a distorted way and bolsters a multi-billion dollar industry?  It's quite clear.  In many cases cultural appropriation, which is a kind of supremely subtle systemic violence, is happening. I want no part of it.  I want no part of eroding Indian culture, of insulting Hinduism, of disrespecting, especially under the auspices of good or best intentions.  This is of course what makes cultural appropriation so subtle and insidious: most people doing it genuinely have affection for the culture they are appropriating.  Further complicating matters is the fact that some people from the cultural under assault, as it were, feel that nobody from outside ought to take part in any way, shape or form and anybody who tries is an asshole.  If you ever read through postings and their comment threads concerning yoga and authenticity you will find that many Indians, both from the sub-continent and the diaspora, hold this view.  It's an extra goopy morass, to be sure.  Because while I am committed to respecting India and Indians, I am also even more committed to practicing yoga in order liberate my soul from suffering and rebirth.  I, for one among many other earnest practitioners, am in it for the kaivalya [ultimate liberation and solitude].  What to do?  How to act?

Back to Gera's wedding.  The guy whom I asked about Iggy Azalea, whose name is Jafari, was also part of Gera's party.  They met as undergraduates at Morehouse College and Jafari is now a professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at Yale University.  One would be hard pressed to find more sterling bonafides for discussing cultural appropriation.  To the Iggy Azalea question, he said that her schtick was, in fact, off-putting.  But her perhaps even greater sin was that her music sucks, and that it troubles him that his nieces and nephews perceive it to be good hip hop.  No argument there.  Iggy Azalea's music really does suck shit through a straw.  We both had a chuckle as we recalled John Waters's differentiation between good bad taste and bad bad taste.  Then, I pivoted into the issues from the preceding paragraph.  What to do?  How to act?

Jafari spoke briefly in academese, about among some other things the evils of the illegitimate assumption of sociological critical distance, but my academese is a little rusty so I'm not totally sure I understood everything.  He also told me to be earnest, and to follow my heart and my conscience and never to lose awareness.  My overall takeaway from our conversation is that when participating in the cultural activities of other cultures, e.g. being a white rapper or a Western yoga practitioner, it's important to remember this paraphrase of the old spiritual diktat: we can be in that world, but never of it.  It may not seem fair, but if you can accept there will always be some distance, some differentiation, then appropriate and genuine respect is possible.   At the heart of respect there is an element of unconditional concession.  You must allow differences, even if only intellectually, before yours can be allowed.   When this kind of respect is there, as opposed to mere affection, then it is very hard, I think, if not impossible, for cultural appropriation to happen.   Affection is all well and good, but ultimately it means dick without respect.  It can even be dangerous.  Be earnest, follow your heart, remain respectful, remain curious so you can find out what may constitute disrespect and follow through on your findings.  This is imperative.

Monday, September 8, 2014

de officium et felicitas

Yesterday I finished reading a collection of essays called Medium Raw, written by food and travel authority Anthony Bourdain.  There is a passage at the end of his chapter on a chef named David Chang which elicited an insight.   A little context for those readers who are non-foodies: Mr. Chang is an enormously influential chef who has several restaurants in New York City.  He is relatively quite young and exhibits many of the tropes commonly associated with great artists-- self-doubt, mercurial temperament, drive, and, of course, rare talent.  So, here's the passage:

...a few days later I ask [his friend] Peter Meehan what he thinks makes David Chang really and truly happy--- if the wheels can ever stop turning, he relaxes, takes a deep breath of free air, nothing on his mind.   "I've seen it," Meehan says.  "It's there.  But he doesn't pursue it.  His happiness is not a priority in his life.  It's an incidental benefit, but he's not dead to it.  Maybe, if someday he realizes that happiness can help him achieve his goals, he'll give a shit about it."

Is this sad?  Pathetic, even?  Here's a young man sitting at the peak of his profession and yet he can't, or won't, enjoy it because he's only focused on greatness, as it were.  Why put it in all that work, endure all that suffering for something that can never be enjoyed?  I, for one, however, find this to be not sad but instead a source of great inspiration.  It boils down to a single word: dharma.  Unfortunately, it is a tricky word to translate.  In the Hindu sense (for Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs, respectively, it has slightly different meanings and connotations) dharma can mean many things, including law, order, duty, custom, model, "path of righteousness."  My understanding of the term includes all of these, and also purpose and a little dash of destiny or fate.

Dharma is the supreme directive.  It overrides love, happiness, and even morality when necessary.  There is a fine illustration from the Old Testament of dharma trumping morality in the story of Abraham and Isaac.  Abraham accepts that his dharma is to obey God, even if it means being willing to commit the shockingly immoral act of killing his own son.  Fortunately for Isaac, the mere acceptance of the dharma satisfies God and Abraham is not obliged to follow through.  And, of course, in the Bhagavad Gita Krsna reminds Arjuna that he is a warrior first, and a brother/cousin/nephew/disciple second.  Mr. Chang, it would appear, has realized that he is a chef first, and all other considerations, including happiness, must come second.  He is acting according to his dharma.

We, in the United States, at least, live in a culture obsessed with happiness-- a Prozac culture replete with bonafide happiness shaming.  I, for one, have been led to believe that there was something wrong with me for not feeling happy at all times.  For example, I frequently see Facebook memes and posters featuring figures like Osho (whose image, I must confess, makes my skin crawl every time I see it, may he rest in peace) saying something to the effect of:  happiness is our natural condition.  Or that happiness is our birthright.  Fuck that.  It sounds more and more like bullshit to me, I'm afraid.  At least it runs counter to my understanding of Krsna's message in the Bhagavad Gita.  We are entitled to our dharma, not our happiness.  Happiness may or may not come if we act according to our dharma.  It doesn't matter.  This is why Mr. Chang's story resonated with me.  While I accept that many may find this to be textbook slave morality, or profoundly pessimistic at best, I must say that I find it supremely comforting to accept that there is a purpose beyond ourselves.

This begs a serious question; how do you know what your dharma is?  This is why so many faith systems have the directive of "know thyself."  It is my earnest hope that anyone who engages in serious self inquiry will discover what his or her dharma is.  Once discovered it leads to a profound sense of peace and security, one that I hope all will have the good fortune to feel.

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.