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.