Sunday, December 30, 2012

the year in review, the year ahead

In writing this blog, I am getting a head start on a New Year's resolution.  Namely, to be consistent with my blogging.  So let the record reflect that I hereby resolve to issue blogs on the 10th, and 20th, and 30th of each month for the year of 2013, whether I have something to say or not.  Brace yourselves, I may be reduced to regurgitating dirty jokes.

It's been a busy year.  Achievements have included the selling of a home, the purchase of another, a trip to India, building my Mysore program at Miami Life Center to an unprecedented level, and lastly (as in just yesterday), the adoption of a beautiful retired racing greyhound.  Bummers have included the renovation of the aforementioned home, lack of a shared vacation with my wife, a persistent shoulder injury, my brush with prostatitis, and the handing of the Mysore program I worked very hard to build up over to the capable hands of my colleague Alexandra.

This is what I'm looking forward to in the year to come:  I'm excited to kickstart a Mysore program up out of the ashes.  For some time now the 6 am time slot at Miami Life Center has wobbled between languishing and inconsistent.  I'm eager and confident I can make something cool happen.  My lovely wife Nubia and I will go somewhere nice together.  Maybe back to New York city, maybe Portugal.  And speaking of travelling, a visiting student invited me to do a weekend workshop at her studio in Minneapolis.  This will be my first out-of-state extravaganza.  It is also an opportunity for me to stop playing the old Groucho Marx line ("I'd never join a club that would have me as member") and assume the mantle of an up-and-coming teacher with good knowledge to share.  I will try to do more weekend workshops, wherever I am welcome.  A trip to Mysore in November is in the plans, if possible.  I want to get some closure on my shoulder thing, one way or another.  Put more concretely: I want to deal with the level two SLAP tear in my left shoulder once and for all, by whatever means necessary up to and including surgery (surgery being a very last option, of course).  Finally, most importantly, I'm ready to start the so-called seventh series.  That said, not all options are on the table for that one.  If it happens, it happens.  In any event, it's always fun trying to make it happen, so we'll see.

So there.  I've set the bar high for this year.  Wish me luck, as I wish you luck on your resolutions.  Stand by for blogs on the 10th, 20th, and 30th.  Call me out if I don't come correct on this, please.  That is all.  Happy and prosperous New Year to all...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When you lose your trump card; or, Welcome to Middle Age

Disclaimer:  I know my last blog was medical and personal in nature, and I promise I'm really not fixated on these types of things.  I can only write about what is happening to me now.  Besides, I think this actually is revlevant to yoga practice vis-a-vis mens' issues.  So....

My trump card, as of late, has been pristine health.  You know, that radiant, yogic well-being we all boast about one way or another.  It's not that I go around saying "ask me about my health."  But when asked about being a vegetarian, for example, one of my lines is that I'm never sick.  When I bump into people from college or high school that I haven't seen in years and I'm complimented for looking fit, I credit, as casually and nonchalantly as possible, my yoga practice and my mostly abstemious lifestlye.  I have lost that trump card.  It turns out I have prostatitis.  My entry into middle age (I will be forty in February) has become most unceremonious.

Prostatitis is not as bad as having the Ebola virus or ALS, but it isn't fun.  When symptoms are at their worst.... I had described the symptoms in an earlier draft but I decided that it might be off-putting.  If you're desperate to know hit me up on facebook and I'll tell you.   Let it suffice to say, in short, that it sucks.  Apparently the condition is somewhat baffling.  Sometimes it's a clear-cut bacterial infection treatable by antibiotics.  Sometimes it's chronic, unexplainable, and tricky to treat.  My interweb research into the condition yielded this abstract, which could have heavy ramifications for my practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga as taught by Vidwan Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois:

Anyone with prostatitis should be aware of the disagreement among professionals about the cause of prostatitis....
The reason that understanding this lack of agreement about the cause of prostatitis is important, especially for sufferers of the problem, is that the definition of a problem determines what you do about it. If you have chest pain caused by indigestion, you don't elect to have open heart surgery to correct the pain. Indigestion tells you what to do about your chest pain..
Similarly, if prostatitis is caused by chronic tension in the pelvic muscles where there is no evidence of infection, you might take pause before you elect to have your prostate removed or take another course of antibiotics or have your prostate gland painfully squeezed and massaged.
There is a genuine controversy about what prostatitis is among urologists and professionals treating this problem. There are three basic views outlined below:
  • Prostatitis is a condition caused by chronic squeezing of the pelvic muscles that, after a while, causes a self perpetuating and chronic irritation of the contents of the pelvic floor, including irritation of the nerves and other delicate structures involved in urination, ejaculation and defecation.
  • Prostatitis is caused by a bacteria or unknown microorganism in the prostate gland.
  • Prostatitis is an autoimmune problem.
The majority of urologists tend to propound the second and third theories. Because of this, their treatments tend to focus on the use of antibiotics or pain medications. Sometimes urologists will tell their patients that there may be a microbe responsible for the problem that still has not been identified..
Below I want to discuss the first that prostatitis as a condition of chronic tension in the pelvic floor. In this view, everyone deals with the stresses of life by focusing their tensions in different parts of the body. For instance some people tense in their necks and heads and get headaches. Some tense in their gastrointestinal tracts and get irritable bowel syndrome or constipation. Some clench their jaws and get a condition called TMJ syndrome. Some subset of these people develop pain and dysfunction in their heads, gastrointestinal tracts, jaws etc. as a result of this chronic focus of tension.
Similarly, prostatitis as a tension disorder sees abacterial prostatitis/prostatodynia essentially as a 'headache in the pelvis" or "TMJ of the pelvis". In this view it is a condition usually manifesting itself after years of tensing the pelvic muscles. It usually tends to occurs in men who hold their tension and aggression inside. They squeeze themselves rather than lashing out at others. Often they have work in which they sit for long periods of time and the only way they have found to express their frustration is to tense their pelvic muscles. This tension has become a habit with them. Often they do not know they tense themselves in the pelvic floor.

Oy vey.  Could it be that Mula Bandha, one of the fundemental building blocks of my practice, is to blame?  To invert Juliet's dillema, has my one hate sprung from my only love?  What to do?  Now I'm not a knee-jerk "western medicine is always wrong" type of guy by any stretch.  But I think this could be as good a case as any to get some Ayurvedic or TCM (traditional chinese medicine) work done.  Especially since the Ciprofloxacin I'm on isn't really doing it this (second) time around.  I will say, though, that for the first course the antibiotics worked as they were supposed to and I was symptom-free for about three weeks.  The other thing to bolster the tension issue claim is that I'm asymptomatic when I wake up in the morning and when I'm practicing, during which times I'm either chilled out or warm and open, respectively. 

I have to re-evaluate.  As one of all-time favorite quotations goes: "everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face."  It sure is easy to sit around and say "we are not our bodies" when our bodies are in good working order.  I'm hoping this can be an opportunity to see if I really mean it when I say that.  And if I don't mean it when I say it, to mean it in earnest from now on.  But I hope even more that this condition will respond to some form of treatment.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stuck inside of South Beach with the Mysore Blues again

It's been a few weeks since I've posted anything, I know.  Part of why it's taken a while to write is that the transition back has been a little rough.  I suppose the title suggests that I'm pining over being in India, but that's not where it's at.  I just wanted to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and now that I've done that (twice, check out the end of that last sentence), I can say that the roughness of the transition has been mostly physical.  While Mysore maintains a special place in my heart, the fact is that it isn't a total picnic being there and I am very happy to be home with my wife, my family, my students-- all that good stuff.

The first thing was that when I got back it seemed like the jetlag was lasting more than I had remembered from my previous trips.  Somebody I met over there said in a Facebook status that she was having a hard time getting over it as well.  Then a third person, who was still over there and has been many times, casually joked that maybe intestinal worms were the culprit.  This comment, meant as a light busting of the balls (and not even my own balls, at that), sent me into a full Woody Allen-esque neurotic hypochondriacal tailspin.  I looked up the symptoms: fatigue and feeling run down? Check.  Persistent general dyspepsia?  Check.  Recent travel to a tropical country not noted for its cleanliness? Check.  The fact that all of these could have added up to a mild flu caught on the plane never crossed my mind.  It was worms, for sure.  I made an appointment and went to a doctor.  This doctor, who is from my wife's native country of Honduras (another tropical country not noted for its cleanliness), was quick to agree that some sort of parasite may well be the issue.  I gave some blood and urine on the spot, and then went home and, after a nice strong energy drink, whipped up a stool sample.  All my friends know that I'm usually quick with a dick or fart joke, but this was really not fun.  I didn't want to wait for results, so I proactively took some antihelmintics (de-worming pills, for the layperson) that my awesome mother-in-law had left over from a recent trip back home.  As it turned out, all my tests were negative.  My wife's lack of sympathy and patience was completely justified.  The worm pills were wasted, but they did give me peace of mind.

The second thing, on a more serious note, is that both of my shouders are jacked up right now.  How did this come to be?  I'm going to chalk it up to two things:  The first is a phemonenon of practicing in the shala in Mysore.  Basically, having made the sundry sacrifices it takes to get there, one brings one's A-game, so to speak.  This is usually a good thing.  The energy of the room, being with Sharath, all that, makes for a super focused and intense practice every single day.  Since I was doing primary series the majority of the time, this meant the cleanest, prettiest jump-backs and jump-throughs I could muster and the deepst urdhva danurasanas possible every day.  I think this began the process of irritating an old injury in my left shouder and paved the way for new instability in my right shoulder.  I made it through on adrenalin and spirit, so to speak. 

The other thing leading to my current state can be chalked up to vanity.  One of the mental challenges that some Mysore-goers face is the fact that they may have a different practice at home than they have in Mysore.  Since everybody starts from scratch with Sharath, people who have more advanced practices and come to Mysore for the first time have to hang back for a while.  If you're far enough along at home it can take many trips to get your Mysore practice in synch with your home practice.  Such is the case with me.  This can be hard.  Even if you get past the initial egoic response of resenting being held back from doing what you already know you can do, you can still be susceptible to simple boredom.  Now, while I was there this time I befriended a super-cool guy whose Mysore practice was just about two or three poses further along than my home practice is.  Which poses these are, specifically, is not the point.  Let it suffice to say that Kino (my teacher back home), in the interest of me not totally wearing myself out by having to practice for three hours a day, allowed me to split my practice some.  This guy (Luke is his name), however, ommitted nothing and did a few more poses than me to boot.  I felt the need to to do likewise just as soon as I got home.  In my defense I'll say that I didn't want to be better than Luke, I was just inspired to be like him.  I was afraid I had been being slack somehow.  About a week into my full-bore, balls-to-the-wall practicing I noticed a quarter-sized bruise, in the shape of Jupiter's Great Red Spot on my left side.  Just around where my scapula meets my lats.  I had torn a muscle by overworking a body that was already at the end of its rope, so to speak.  And for what?  Only so as not to feel slack.  Just for that I have to go back to a super gentle, scaled-back practice and back to my physical therapy exercises for a month at least. 

Oh! the vanity!  Lessons learned.  It's cool to be inspired by colleagues, but be careful not to feel that you have to be just like them.  And don't jump to the ickiest possible conclusions about your health.

The Dialethia of Progress

When you go to 12-step meetings, you encounter various styles of oratory.  Sometimes you get a string of horrific experiences recounted, although this is known as "trading war stories," and is frowned upon.  Other times you hear inspirational messages and it seems as if you're at a Southern Baptist revival in rural Alabama.  At one meeting which burned into my memory the talk was reminiscent of a half-time speech given by a high school football coach.  This guy paced around the front of the room bristling with virile intensity, like a panther in a cage.  At one point he barked out "If you think clean time is no big deal, try getting some!"  What he meant by this and how this is relevant to yoga practice is what I'd like to discuss here.

In 12-step programs, pretty much everybody falls off at some point or another.  When that happens, one (hopefully) gets back on the wagon and tries again.  So there is a duality here.  One tries, earnestly, to do something which is basically impossible.  This leads some to emphasize the process as opposed to the goal.  Indeed, "progress, not perfection" is one of the myriad 12-step slogans.  Another 12-step slogan is "easy does it."  Too much emphasis on process, though, and you can lose sight of the goal completely.  Still another slogan, in rebuttal to the aforementioned one, is "easy does it, but you gotta do it."  For addicts, too much emphasis on the goal can lead to an endless cycle of failure (both actual and perceived), guilt, and then resentment.  On the other hand, addicts who put too much emphasis on process at the expense of the goal might continue to fuck up, harming themselves and others, with no accountability.

In yoga practice, less direly, emphasis on process can mean stagnation and ultimately, resignation.  At this point, and at the risk of redundancy, I guess I should clarify what I mean by yoga practice.  The yoga that I do is Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois.  It is a system of hatha yoga, which means that asana is the point of departure into investigating ethical principles, the mind, spirituality, etc.  Although I don't really practice them any more so I can't say for sure, this should also be true of other systems of hatha yoga as well,eg, Sivananda, Iyengar, Viniyoga, etc., etc.  I'll repeat: asana is the point of departure.  Therefore it behooves a practitioner of any hatha yoga system to be acutely involved in his asana practice. He or she should always strive for improvement and growth.  Progress and striving can be good.  So it confuses me when I keep reading over and over again in places like Recovering Yogi and Elephant Journal complaints about yoga teachers who supposedly place too much emphasis on asana.  The complaints are typically along the lines of: "Yoga isn't just about asana, and anybody who emphasizes asana can only be somebody who doesn't have the intellectual and/or emotional means to get the deeper spiritual dimensions of the tradition."  I find this attitude insulting.  I'm over it.  To paraphrase the speaker at the 12-step meeting:  if you think it's not about asana, try working at asana.  And furthermore, if you have a yoga teacher who says its not about asana, chances are his own asana practice is deficient.  

I've gone on some about the relative merits of goal orientation and process orientation and by now you may be asking yourself, "so, which is it?"  Well, at play here are two examples of what is known as a dialetheia.  A dialetheia is a statement such that both itself and its negation are true.  Remaining sober is essential to recovery.  Continuous progress in asana is essential to  hatha yoga.  Something that is essential cannot be impossible, yet in these two examples that is the case.  True and not true at the same time.

So, having established that work and progress in asana could be both essential and not essential to one's development in hatha yoga, the question is this: given these two options, i.e., goal orientation or process orientation, where do you stand?  You don't even have to think in either/or terms.  Think in terms of a spectrum.  Are you more on the Bartelby the Scrivener end (he is a character from a Melville novella who said "I prefer not" to every task he was asked to do)?  Or are you more like those Olympic gymnasts who launch themselves 30 feet into the air and land on legs that were already broken in half?  Be honest with yourself.  And after you've finished being honest with yourself, check in with your teacher.  Chances are your self-perception is incorrect at least on some levels, if not completely.  When you've sorted that out, put on your Buddhist cap and integrate the notion of friction points.  Find your way to the middle of the spectrum.  Smooth out your friction points and I'll bet you'll grow.  Now get out on you mat and be honest with youreself about where you're at and work!  Or take it easy.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Concerning Authorization

So, this is a delicate topic.  How to write objectively?  I'll start at the beginning...  The first I heard of authorization to teach Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois was from my mentor/teacher/friend Greg Nardi.  Back then it was still just Ashtanga yoga to me, the preferred of the two styles of yoga I had first tried. (The other was Bikram Yoga; I had done a little of both back home in Key West.) Miami Life Center (hereafter referred to as mlc) had recently opened and I was full-time devoted athlete in a somewhat obscure Olympic sport.  At the time I was supporting myself in the restaurant business and wanted desperately to get out.  Teaching yoga seemed like a good fit, and I preferred Ashtanga, so after having taken a few classes I asked Greg about how to become a teacher.  When he explained that in our thing (please forgive the gratuitous mafia movie reference) the only way it could happen is that I would have to schlep over to India not once, but several times at least, my response was understandable-- "Fuck that, I'm going to sign up for the 200 hour teacher training at the 23rd street yoga shala." Which I did, but almost immediately upon completion of my teacher training I felt a lack in my knowledge.  I felt Vinyasa yoga, as it is known, contained intrinsic flaws as a system so I returned to mlc.  While I continued to teach in the Vinyasa style my own practice became exclusively Ashtanga.  The India thing kept me in awe, sometimes a resentful awe, as I was breaking my back first in restaurants and then as a fledgling yoga teacher and barely keeping my head above water.  I wanted to go deeper, to earn a recognition for my knowledge and training that "meant something," for lack of a better way to put it.  But to drop four or five grand on such a trip was simply unthinkable.  I never thought I would be able to go myself, and by extension, I thought I could never have as strong a practice or as deep an understanding as those who had been.  To be Authorized, or rarer still, Certified, would remain an unobtainable sine qua non.

Fast forward to now.  As I write these words I am waiting in Bangalore International Airport to go home from my third trip to Mysore, India.  In addition to my time with Sharath, I have been extensively trained by teachers of international renown.  I teach yoga full-time for a living and am solvent in doing so.  My asana practice is somewhat strong.  I have a grasp of, and a keen interest in, yogic philosophy.  But I am still not authorized.  Didn't happen this trip.  I was pretty fucking bummed when Sharath didn't call me into his office after my last practice this morning.  Although this disappointment is something of a taboo, I confess this freely and openly.  We're supposed to go to India to learn from Sharath for its own sake, not to be chasing a certificate.  Sharath has made it perfectly clear on many occasions that he has no interest in or patience for students who come to Mysore merely to get authorized.  Despite this fact, it's a certificate of which we all make a big deal anyway. What a mental mine field to be presented a goal towards which to work but that you're not supposed to want or expect. When you work for something even though you know you're not supposed to expect to get it, you still feel let down when your work doesn't pan out.  Then you feel disappointed for feeling let down because you remember you weren't supposed to expect it in the first place.  The snake eats its own tail.  Talk about vrittis.  With the love and support of my wife Nubia and my teachers Kino and Tim I was able to snap myself out of it, thank God.

The mystery surrounding Authorization is an extension of one of the most damning misconceptions about Ashtanga yoga.  That being that there are absolute standards.  It can be hard, at times, not to play the "why does Johnny have pose C when I'm stuck on pose A and I'm stronger and more flexible than he is" game.  I think it's natural and probably never goes away, completely.  Furthermore, the notion that one must have an asana "perfected" before learning the next is simply not true.  It's absurd, in fact.  And so, by extension, the notion that if one has been Authorized his or her practice must be at some lofty, nearly superhuman level also persists.  Well, if you're Authorized it could mean you have a lovely asana practice, but not necessarily.  I've come to believe it means you have shown Sharath, or Guruji if you're old-school, hardcore dedication to the lineage by making the sacrifices (time, money, etc.) to come to India multiple times.  Nothing more, nothing less.  But what could be more essential?  We're all aware of the paradigm of the guy who has an amazing asana practice but remains an asshole.  Conversely there's the ultra stiff guy who is an obedient, dedicated student who treats everybody with kindness and compassion. Why shouldn't this extend out to the decision to authorize, or not authorize?  One's ability to carry on and convey the message of our lineage should be assessed by Sharath and Sharath alone.  To bring back the mafia analogy, chain of command is very important our thing.  Sharath seems pretty deeply intuitive to me.  I resolve to trust his judgement in these matters, and to keep returning to Mysore, authorization or no.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Collected conference notes from this trip

Some notable Sharath quotations/paraphrases collected over the course of several conferences

Re: yoga in the Olympics-- "Can you compete in devotion to God?"
"yoga is for self-transformation only"

On ekagarata:  Sharath recounted a story from the Ramayana in which, for some reason or another, Rama and his faithful friend Hanuman must fight each other.  Rather than fight his friend and master, Hanuman assumes an attitude of prayer and begins chanting Rama's name.  Hanuman's focus is so pure and intense that when Rama draws his bow to fire he is finds he is aiming at his own self.  If your focus on God is strong and pure enough, sky's the limit.

There is a similar story in Zen about an unruly monk who couldn't sit still for meditation no matter what.  The unruly monk had a pet ox that he loved deeply. As a last-ditch effort, the abbots lock him into a room and tell him to contemplate his beloved ox.  When the abbots return after a few hours to unlock the door the unruly monk doesn't come out.  When they ask him why, he says "my horns won't fit through the door."

Re: old-timers who complain that Mysore has changed.  They should get hip to the fact that they have changed too. They need to get over themselves.

Swara are the patterns of ascending and descending inflections intoned when chanting mantram for puja.  They are specific and codified and must be learned under the auspices of a Brahmin guru.  If you don't know the swaras of a given mantra, the Adityahridayam (which does not have Swara) is always correct, too, if you want to consecrate a place or action.  The Adityahridayam is a prayer to the sun from the epic the Ramayana.  It is taught to the hero Rama by the sage Agasta so he can gain strength and courage in his climactic battle with the ten-headed demon Ravana.

On the importance of Surya Namaskara:
Whether you're a full-fledged polytheistic Hindu who believes the sun is in itself a god, or whether an atheist, or an atheistic Buddhist, a Jew, a Muslim, a devout Roman Catholic, whatever, it cannot be denied that the sun is our primal source of all energy and therefore of life itself.  To perform Surya Namaskara is to acknowledge this simple fact and show gratitude for it.  The Surya Namaskara we practice in Ashtanga yoga is not the same as was practiced by other great yogis such as Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivanananda.  Our Surya Namaskara was invented by Guruji for our benefit, based on his vast, encyclopedic knowledge of the Shastras, or holy texts.  When done properly, Surya Namaskara kills three birds with one stone: it is an affirmation of gratitude for our very life, it sets the mind to focus on vinyasa (the timing of movement with breath), and warms the body up to prepare for the asanas to come.

Thin waist=clean body

"Many times I told you." Or,  "like I told you many times."

Catuari is not handstand.  Doing many handstands does not make a great teacher/practitioner.

A teacher who pampers you is not a guru.  Yoga should teach you to deal with things.

Yoga is like a Landrover.  It will be able to get you through any terrain or type of road that life offers you.  But you must learn how to drive it.

Re:  the inner teacher v the outer teacher-- it is true that we have a divine spark and teacher within us.  But without constant care and polishing from an external teacher, a guru, the inner teacher will quickly devolve into ego and vanity.

A true Guru never says "I am a guru." Only his or students can say that.

Asana is not the goal of hatha yoga, it is the foundation.  Without a solid foundation the higher levels of yoga will be flimsy and prone to crumble when confronted with difficulty.

"God is there where there is a hard-working man." This was not said by Sharath but by his friend and mentor who is the former Indian Minister of the Interior

And finally, a bit of Ayurvedic feng shui:  apparently it is best not to sleep with your head facing north. Or do savasana.  So it is acceptable to have your feet facing the teacher or the front of the room in savasana in order to avoid having your head face north.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

I just got my ass kicked by Tina

In my previous blog I discussed how driving in India is different than in the United States.  Today I experienced a shocking new low, and I'm still pretty freaked out as write this.  Here's what happened...

Now, in this sordid tale I mention some Gokulam (which is the name of the neighborhood in Mysore where the shala is, and where most of us live) landmarks which will make the story all the more crazy to people who have been here.  But it's crazy anyway.  I was driving around looking for a place to get lunch and had decided on a place called Gokul Chats.  As I was driving downhill past Tina's (another local place which caters to Westerners a lot), a woman began to make a u-turn right in front of me, nearly hitting me.  I guess I forgot the Darwinian small-gives-way-to-big rule and kept going, swerved around her, gave her a dirty look because she almost hit me, and let the word "bitch" slip from my mouth.  I swear on the souls of all seven of my nieces (that includes my best friend's three daughters) I didn't scream it and I'm  pretty sure I wasn't even making eye contact with her when I said.  But heard it, she did.  I kept going and she was behind me, going in the same direction.  I pressed on, making my way to Gokul Chats for a thali.  Right by Vikram Perfect Hospital she pulled in front of me and cut me off, forcing me to stop.  "Whom did you call names?!?  Whom!?!" I proceeded to drive around her.  This lady chased me all the way to Gokul Chats and got out of her ride and continued to get in my face and yell! "What is your name?  Where are you from?  Fucking yoga students!!". I told her my name, calmly, and said I was from the United States.  "I don't care what fucking shithole country you come from, you come here and try to drive like heroes.  You apologize right now!  I will get you fucking kicked out of this country!  I see the plate on your scooter.   I will call the police.  I will get you kicked out of the shala.  I am Tina! Don't mess with me." I stood my ground physically, but I did apologize and the she got back in her car and sped off.  Turns out this crazy woman was the actual Tina of Tina's Restaurant, and she almost ran me over as she was leaving work on her way home.  For a second I was scared the police would actually come.  The staff and customers at Gokul Chats were a little taken aback, but I apologized for the display and explained what happened.  In an awesome and distinctly Indian way, when they heard my side of the story they laughed it off.  I guess I actually looked like a punk to them.  A gentleman
 told me I should have raised my voice back.  Just to cover my bases I went to Mr. Tataji, the man from whom I rented the scooter and told him about the incident.  He assuaged my fears.  Just like back home, my word against hers.  Nothing would happen.  He said even if the police did come looking for me, he'd just tell them I already left the country.  Which will be true in about five more days.  Now I'm feeling a little wimpy.  I wish I had gotten back in that crazy woman's face.   She started it by almost hitting me, and then had the brass balls to be annoyed that I was just driving like everyone else here. But this is not my country, I'm not sure of the rules.  And obviously she is a racist who was probably already mad about something else totally unrelated.  Later, when I realized whom it was that I had pissed off so, I went to her home and delivered another apology in writing.  Just to take the highest road possible in case she actually did call Sharath.  Now, having heard numerous stories of her prickly craziness, I wish I hadn't sent the apology note.  I, for one, am going to boycott Tina's.  Why give her business if she's got such a chip on her shoulder about Westerners?  I'm going to watch out for her, because she will kick your ass. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Visa shenanigans in Bangalore, a cautionary tale

Visa shenanigans in Bangalore: a cautionary tale

Before I get into the main topic of this blog, a brief primer on Indian driving etiquette:  In India one drives on the left, unless one has some reason not to.  The horn, used in emergencies in America, here  is used merely to announce one's presence.  Sort of how bats use echo location, except unlike bats the car and scooter horns are audible and annoying.  Darwinism is the norm.  Small gets out of the way for big, slow gets out of the way for fast.  Right of way, schmight of way.  Every man for himself and God against all.

So, that said, I had to go into Bangalore to try to sort out an issue with my visa.  Among India's larger cities, Bangalore  has a pretty vaunted reputation.  "It's the Silicon Valley of India," they say.  "The main hub of IT departments for all types of companies."  This is true.  Many tech companies are based in Bangalore, and when you call an 800 number and some guy with an absurdly thick Indian accent says "thank you for calling company X customer service, my name is Jonathan, how can I help you?" chances are you're calling Bangalore, and that his real name is almost certainly Prakash or Suresh or some other traditional Indian name.  However, if you think Bangalore is anything like San Jose or Palo Alto, you're in for a savagely rude awakening.  Even most travelers to Mysore who fly into Bangalore first don't see it in all of its glory because international flights to the Bangalore's airport tend to arrive and leave in the middle of the night, so the taxi ride through town is relatively pain free.  Maybe there are worse cities in India, but this place is simultaneously sprawling, densely packed, and filthy.  Driving through it is an utter nightmare.  The only analogy I can come up with would only make sense to my fellow Miamians, but it's the best I can do.  Here goes:

You know the construction they've been doing at the junction of State Roads 826 and 836?  Imagine they were doing it over 8th street.  Imagine this 8th street strewn with garbage and packs of feral dogs. Now imagine the volume of cars in a Miami rush hour on this filthy, garbage-strewn 8th street, each  one of them using the horn blasting echo location method previously described.  This is something like driving in Bangalore.  I guess you can get used to anything, but my hat's off to the good citizens of Bangalore.  Another trip like that for me and I'd certainly need therapy for PTSD.

I had to go to Bangalore to beg for a brief extension of my visa, or, barring that, get what's called an exit permit.  When I applied for my visa earlier this year I applied for a five year visa, and then bought my plane ticket.  Very bad idea.  The fine print in the application states clearly that it's at the consulate's discretion how much time they give you.  I paid for five years, and was given six months.  My return flight is nine days after my visa expires.  I figured, what the fuck, it's India, nothing works here anyway, shouldn't be too big a deal.  At the urging of a buddy here, I looked into the consequences of overstaying a visa.  Apparently, in India civic sanitation may not be a priority, but immigration is.  Consequences of overstaying a visa can be dire, up to and including arrest.  Visions of Midnight Express were swimming through my head.  They unequivocally do not extend tourist visas, barring serious illness or a flight change.  But you can pay a fine and get permission to leave even though you've overstayed.  This is what I tried to do in Bangalore yesterday.  When I got to the duty officer he said he could probably help me, but not while my visa is still valid.  That actually makes sense.  But I'm not, under any circumstances, going back to Bangalore during daylight hours for something that might not pan out anyway, and even worse, but me on some kind of blacklist.  I want to come back to India again.  So I'm going to bite the bullet, change my ticket, and come home nine days early.  Lesson learned.

If you're applying for your first visa to India, get the five year one.  The ninety more dollars you spend could spare you the penny wise, pound foolish bullshit I put myself through.  If you don't get the five year visa, don't buy your ticket until you get your visa.  And don't fuck with Indian bureacracy.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Oil bath

Taking an oil bath was recommended highly by Guruji, so this Saturday I decided to take a crack at it.  Let's define terms in the negative, first.  This does not mean I filled a vat, or a cauldron with a fire beneath it if you want to evoke fairy tales, with oil and sat in it.  Furthermore, the theories expressed in this blog are in keeping with Indian traditional medicine, know as Ayurveda, and, as I like to say while I'm teaching, have not been evaluated by the FDA.  In the Indian conception of the body the physical and the metaphysical are both superimposed and interchangeable.  So when one speaks of things such as heat, bandhas, or breath, in yoga one could be talking about physical or metaphysical or both at the same time.  Keep this in mind and bare with me, here.

The goal of an oil bath is to draw accrued heat out of the body built up from the week's asana practice.  The bath requires oil, preferably castor oil, and an equal mixture of soapnut powder and green herbal hairwash powder.  First, I poured a generous amount of oil into my hands and massaged it into my head and scalp (not the face, though) until my hair was quite saturated.  After five or so minutes, I rubbed, more like slathered, oil over the rest of my body.  I made sure to get extra oil into my troublesome joints, which are the shoulders, knees, and lately, my ankles.  I sat, naked and slathered in oil on the bathroom floor for about ten more minutes, letting the oil do its thing.  Phase two was to dump scalding hot water over my body, thus opening pores and letting oil get in that much more.  Phase three is the rinsing process.  I got the powder mixture, which I had made into a molasses-like paste by adding water, and slathered that over my body.  The powder's ability to absorb the oil was like magic.  I rinsed and everything came right out, like it had never been there.  I did a final wash with soap and shampoo for good measure.

Now, my impression of the whole process was not that the oil drew the heat out of my body, per se.  In fact, the opposite.  With all more pores sealed up with thick viscous oil the heat built up, at first.  But when the oil was rinsed off I felt a very powerful release, like water exploding finally out of a hose that had been kinked up for minutes.  The rest of the day I felt deliciously languid.  This is something of which I could definitely make a habit.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Conference report

This Sunday in conference Sharath discussed the oft-neglected drishti.  As Sharath explained it, in Ashtanga yoga we stand on a tripod to reach up towards a purer mental state.  One leg is asana, the other is breath, and the the third is drishti, which is focus of the eyes.  To each asana is assigned a drishti, some examples of which are the tip of the nose or the feet.  When we fix our eyes on one thing, hopefully the mind will follow, creating a state known as ekagarata, or single-pointed concentration.  Sharath said that it sometimes (probably often, for him) happens when he practices that he loses all sense of his body, time, and place. Now, here's the thing:  this transcendent state can be achieved doing other stuff besides asana practice.  We've all heard of runners' high.   One of my students who danced all her life has told me she's felt it dancing.  A colleague's boyfriend mentioned that he got there through the repeated practice it took to master a 360 degree dunk.  So, then, what's the difference? Here we have three activities (asana practice, sport, and dance) which offer the same set of circumstances, yielding similar results: an improved physical body, achievement of goals, when well-executed they are beautiful to look at, and, in rare lucky cases, a state of mental transcendence.  The difference between  hatha yoga practice and sport and dance is one of prioritization.  In sport and dance the mental transcendence is a pleasant by-product while the emphasis is on achievement either of victory, or mastery of a skill necessary to victory, or on cultivating perfection of technique or execution of a given choreography.  Hatha yoga practice is the inverse: the acquisition of technique; of victory, if you will, over a given asana is a pleasant by-product of the search for the state of mental transcendence.  Like all pleasure, the pleasure experienced in the respective by-products can be a pitfall, though.  The athlete chasing mental transcendence exclusively will lose.  The dancer doing likewise will fail.  The hatha yoga practitioner who only chases victory over asana will never attain yoga.

Friday, July 20, 2012

no guts, no navy cross

for a guy named after that aspect of god which is the destroyer who dances in flames, shiva is remarkably cool and deliberate.  he's a figure in the mysore scene who changes currency, rents scooters, finds apartments, and probably hooks people up with weed.  his business card lists "hard to find items" among the services he provides.  there was a kerfuffle with the place i had lined up and i had to scramble to find a place when i got here.  shiva, cool as a cucumber, hooked me up.  i told him what i wanted: cheap, to myself, a little out of the way.  within 15 minutes i was looking at a place that i took.  it's a room in a two-bedroom flat upstairs from the house of one mr. sharada, a gentleman who runs a silver shop out of his home.  my room is quite small, and it has its own bathroom.  the bathroom has a western toilet, but no showerhead.  instead there is a spigot coming out of the wall with a bucket underneath.  to bathe i fill the bucket up with hot water, pour some over myself, soap and shampoo up, and then rinse by pouring the bucket over myself.  it's actually quite nice.  the bucket also serves as a my washing machine.  after practice i put my clothes in the bucket with some laundry detergent and hot water and leave them there for an hour or so.  then i dump the water and refill it again to rinse.  the whole flat was coated with a serious patina of dust that i'm still working to get cleared up.  pretty serious ant problem, plus the first time i looked in the toilet bowl there was floating the corpse of a most impressive cockroach.  when i flushed a salamander was propelled out from the inner rim.  i fished him out and threw him onto a tree outside.  ahimsa for salamanders, but fuck the ants.  them i kill wholesale with bug spray.

so why so spartan?  i mean, i am paying about 185 bucks for six weeks of rent but i could afford a little more  and get housecleaning, laundry and wi-fi somewhere else.  i feel like roughing it some is part of the experience.  nowadays one can come here and live in comfort and connectedness with back home such that it could be like never having left home.  but then why leave home?  to me, coming here, leaving home is part of the sacrifice that helps growth.  i think of the pioneers who came here back in the day, who barely could use a telephone.  granted, here i am blogging, talking to my wife on the phone, and, come to think of it, going to see batman today but i guess despite all that i'm trying to get some of the original flavor of the place.  one must pick one's battles and know one's limitations and all that.  so my battle is with not necessarily the most comfortable or clean living conditions.  it is my third day here and so far i am happy.  i'm very much looking forward to getting practice underway.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

i am the god of hell fire! and i bring you...

The tattoo across the middle of my back is a fragment from the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus.  It has been translated as "all things are consumed by fire, and fire, exhausted, falls back into things. The crops are sold for money to buy food."  Pretty cryptic, I know.  It is akin to the mantra "Om purnamida..." which states: "This is perfect, that is perfect.  Add perfect to perfect and you get perfect.  Take perfect from perfect and perfect remains."  Confused?  Good.  Now, back to the fire stuff.  Another way to think of the Heraclitus fragment is that it shows that existence is in a constant state of flux.  Matter manifests.  It gets destroyed and consumed by fire (or some other agent of decay). When the fire burns itself out, the ashes of new, changed matter remain.  I'm thinking of all this because while driving home tonight and listening to npr I heard a forest ranger from New Mexico speak about the fires raging out in the  western mountains.  The ranger's take on it was this: humans have become too adept, ironically, at suppressing these forest fires.  After so many years of control, the forests have been amassing so much fuel that now a fire has broken out that we might not be able to put out.  In forests, fire is necessary to a healthy eco-system.  If purifies and re-starts the system.  Unfortunately most of us have grown up with Smokey the Bear telling us "Only you can prevent forest fires."  In our personal lives many of us avoid pain and destruction at any cost.  But if you're not careful, the cost can be too great.  Some destruction, some pain, is necessary for the overall good.  Stoke your own fire.  Destroy yourself, and in so doing purify and strengthen yourself every day.  Don't let yourself get so backed up that a fire flares out that you can't control.  Practice, already.