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.