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asana favorites meditation what is yoga

tradition: ashtanga, vinyasa & 8-limbs lite™

Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana
Mysore Practice at Ashtanga Yoga Sadhana

The yoga history thread is on hold as I’ve picked up too many books on the subject to continue until they’re parsed. Much has been published since I first read up on it ten years back. If you must read something now I suggest Joseph Alter’s Yoga in Modern India. For a break, I’ll address a subject that’s come up a few times this year, that of how Hatha Yoga traditions should change.

Sometimes I explain that a way of doing an asana is a more traditional form of the pose, for example parivrtta parsvakonasana with the heel down, unbound. By “traditional” I mean over fifty years old, usually in the manner of Ashtanga or Iyengar.

There are arguments within these yoga communities about how the lineages should evolve, because as we hopefully know, most of the asanas we practice are dynamic creations of the modern era, rather than an unchanging set of postures created in the Indus Valley way back B.C.E. As Richard Rosen admonishes in his book Original Yoga, “You may have heard or read somewhere that yoga is five thousand years old, a number that’s continually cited by people who should know better, since there’s not a shred of evidence to back it up.”

Exactly.

Both Ashtanga and Iyengar are somewhat regimented practices that tend to attract intense and dedicated practitioners. While Iyengar is strict about his teachers following his method, e.g. one can’t engage in Iyengar teacher training if she doesn’t commit to teaching only Iyengar, I’ll focus this piece on Ashtanga because that’s what I practice and pay more attention to at present.

While I admit to heretic tendencies, I lean toward traditionalism when it comes to following a living lineage. One of the many things I love about ashtanga is that I know what I’m getting. I trust the wisdom of the asanas and sequences that come from Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Sharath. I can walk into a Mysore room from Rio to Seoul and know what I’ll get. We have a common language.

There are some major criticisms of ashtanga. It’s dangerous and unforgiving. It’s monotonous. It’s not for everyone. These are leveled from inside and outside the community. Several friends forwarded me a piece by Matthew Sweeney earlier this year called The Evolution of Ashtanga Yoga, which is an interesting piece, and I agree with most of it, except what we would call Ashtanga and the Ashtanga method, and who exactly should be evolving the practice. And, perhaps, on what Yoga inherently is. Sweeney argues, “Ashtanga Yoga does not suit everybody. It is not possible to teach it to everyone, despite what some teachers may say. If you consider the truth of that, therefore, it is a responsibility as a teacher to try to learn what you need to be able to teach anyone. Otherwise it is not Yoga, and too limited.”

I find the idea that any kind of yoga (much less Ashtanga) should be suited to everyone ridiculous, as well as the argument that a teacher should aim to teach every population at large. Otherwise it is not Yoga? By what definition? Hatha Yoga was developed by a fringe ascetic population, and definitely not available to or desired by everyone, and the Yoga of Patanjali’s Sutras was aimed at and permitted for the Brahmin (highest) class alone.

AYS-2If you’re bored of teaching Ashtanga sequences and want to shake up the method and the type of [aggro!] students you attract, do it. But when you’re adding moon salutes and yin yoga into the same practice, it’s no longer Ashtanga. It may be incredibly valuable, but it’s now vinaysa, or moon unit yoga, or even Reform Ashtanga. But it’s not Ashtanga. That on some level Sweeney agrees is obvious here: “For me it is simply a matter of timing, of when it is appropriate to introduce either the tradition – the Intermediate Series, for example, or an alternative such as Vinyasa Krama, or Yin Yoga or meditation.” Exactly. Vinyasa Krama and Yin Yoga are not the Ashtanga tradition, but traditions of their own.

Sweeney also argues:

In terms of human evolution and holistic development, sooner or later any technique or tradition you might adhere to becomes limiting, and a lessening of your full potential. For you to embrace a true spiritual perspective, you will need to move beyond a single method or one dimensional view.

Let’s break this down. First, to argue that Ashtanga (or Iyengar, or Yin Yoga, or Zen, or whatever) is “a one dimensional view” because it is a single method, is simplistic and incorrect. Further, to create a patchwork of practices sooner rather than later is tantamount to disaster, because as soon as things become a little bit difficult, uncomfortable, or boring, you will continue to seek distraction elsewhere, most likely at the moment you were starting to get somewhere. This is why most mature spiritual teachers and traditions advise making a commitment to one practice. For a long time. This is not to say that we as practitioners discount other practices or perspectives, but we know temptation when we see it. That said, when a certain level of mastery has been attained, after years and years of practice, it’s very helpful to see what other traditions can offer your own.

Sweeney finds it:

…curious that I am one of the few traditional Ashtanga teachers to actively embrace different sequences and encourage many students to practice them – without abandoning the standard Ashtanga.  Alternative sequences can enhance the Ashtanga method without altering or threatening its form and function. Why are the Ashtanga sequences treated as a sacred cow? It is a wonderful practice, but just Asana sequences at the end of the day.

As I understand it, the holders of the lineage, first P. Jois and now Sharath, have explicitly asked teachers not to change up the sequences. So, it’s not so curious as to why most teachers don’t. While I don’t hold the sequences sacred, I’ve taken enough bad vinyasa classes to know the genius of good asana sequences. I question the suggestion we all change them up at whim. At the end of the day, a good asana sequence is a rare thing, and the Ashtanga series are integral to the Ashtanga method. Altering them is a threat because if “It is up to each of us to work out what the advantages and disadvantages are,” then before you know it, anyone teaching anything can and will call themselves Ashtanga. And where does that leave us? With another vinyasa practice, now called Ashtanga, whatever that means to each of those who’ve redefined it.

And that, I suppose, is my real issue. Again, Sweeney:

I use alternative sequencing to aid and enhance the Ashtanga practice rather than to replace it entirely. It is all about what is appropriate and practical, rather than blind faith, dogma, or just doing random stuff because I feel like it – though honestly, sometimes the latter can be really useful.

So, we’re back to the alternatives being alternatives to Ashtanga rather than being Ashtanga, and I’m fine with this. While Sweeney likely has the wisdom and experience to change things up for the better of his students, some 23 year old who just finished a weekend workshop in Ashtanga may well not. But he’s certified! Do I really want to walk into his class and learn his new variations on secondary series? Do I want him teaching others this brave, new Ashtanga? No. Beyond no.

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Poster care of Ashtanga.com

This is why Ashtanga is a lineage trad and vinyasa is not. Yes, the method should change, but that change comes from the holder of the tradition, which is at present, Sharath.

If we want to change up the series, perhaps we should call what we’re doing Reform Ashtanga. If we want to make it “accessible” to those who, in reality, don’t want to make the commitment that the Ashtanga method requires, perhaps we should call it YogaWithBenefits. If we want to break down the sequences and asanas so they can be taught by teachers who have never had a Mysore practice and students who don’t even know what that is (they’re out there, and certified as Ashtanga teachers by YA to boot), perhaps we should call it 8-Limbs Lite™. There is probably a lot of value in all of this. But it is not Ashtanga-Vinyasa Yoga.  I have no problem with changing things up, I just want to know what I’m getting. And that’s really the biggest problem with vinyasa yoga now. You really have no idea.

The Ashtanga method is impressive in part because of just what is accessible to someone who makes the commitment to Mysore six days a week. I once thought that Ashtanga was not for everyone, and I still do. I don’t believe that anything, aside from clean air and water, is for everyone. But I believe it’s available to far more practitioners than I did before I practiced it. And that is part of the beauty of Mysore Ashtanga. When it is watered down, it is lost.

It’s difficult to make this rigorous commitment, and it might not be possible for most householders. Maybe we do need a more accessible, codified Reform Ashtanga or 8-limbs lite™. But, please, call it what it is.

I wish Sweeney had been a little more clear on whether he thinks that Ashtanga + yin sequencing (etc) is still Ashtanga—in some places it seems yes, in others no. I also wish that he’d put his last paragraph first, as maybe we agreed all along:

It is not a question of right and wrong, it is a question of whether you can admit that wherever you sit on the spectrum, can you embrace both ends of it? Are you closer to the traditional centre, but do you deny the importance of those who change, explore and adapt? Or are you closer to the edge, finding new ways and expanding your horizons, but you find it hard to accept the strength and clarity of those closer to the centre? Embrace all of it and you embrace your full potential.

Other than the last line coming off like a weird platitude, and that I’m confused by the spectrum-both-ends-centre-edge-dichotomy metaphor, I agree. I practice Ashtanga in the morning and meditation, yin and restorative later in the day. I teach vinyasa, which is a little bit of everything I practice. I quite like it that way. It is important to be clear about what things are, and what we, as teachers, offer. It’s also important to respect the wishes of lineage holders as best we can, even if that means leaving the lineage. It is lovely to have lineage traditions, even if only as a point of reference. It’s equally important to have adapters and pioneers. But if we aren’t clear about which is which, in today’s yogamarket, it becomes impossible to discern.

Categories
asana favorites yoga habits

how often should I practice yoga?

Why not everyday? Because yoga is not my life, you say? Oh. Okay then. The answer varies.

Yoga? But I’m Not Flexible (Beginners)

When I first practiced yoga, it was very sporadic. Probably not even once a week. Are there any benefits to practicing once in awhile? Yes. Most people feel good during or after yoga, if not both. This goodness can help a person decide to do more yoga. Long term benefits to sporadic practice? Probably not.

Some types of yoga, like ashtanga, require practice at least four days a week, beginners included. But if you are totally new to yoga, your ashtanga practice will only be about 20 minutes long. Practicing sporadically will only frustrate you. In fact, any highly vigorous (or heated) yoga done sporadically is going to leave you sore (or nauseous) and wondering if it’s right for you.

NewYork_2010-12-29_CellSnaps_094If you are still at the dappling stage, I recommend a basics class in a gentler style. You can find this in classes called or studios that offer, for example, Integral Yoga, Kripalu Yoga, Sivananda Yoga, Iyengar Yoga, Gentle Yoga, Hatha Yoga, and Viniyoga. There’s less chance of strain or injury, and it will give you the taste and foundation you need to do more. It is an untruth that yoga is for flexible people. It increases strength and flexibility, but that’s not the point.

An aside: when you meet a yoga teacher in a non-yogic situation, please do not announce your inflexibility to him. I mean, think about that for a moment. Really. (Up next, an essay about what not to say to yoga teachers in social settings.)

I Like Yoga, But I’m Really Busy (Advanced Beginners)

Okay, then once a week. But keep with a basic style, or Iyengar. I have students who practice only once a week, and while there is some minor progress in their asana, they are almost starting from square one each week. Twice a week is better. I do see marked improvements in my undergrads, who meet twice as week over a semester. Also, they are spring chickens and their bodies are quick to learn. My older students, even mid-20s, make less progress at that frequency.

Should I Be Doing Headstand Soon? When Can I do Headstand? (Intermediate)

To see real, long term benefits of yoga, I find you need to practice 3 times a week, minimum. It’s difficult to meet your body and notice what is going on if you practice less often. Practice does not have to be a 90-minute class. It can be 15 minutes of practice at home or in an office. A few sequences are posted here. These are meant to supplement classes, not replace your teacher. Yoga is best learned directly from a teacher, not videos, books, blogs, or podcasts. They can help supplement your practice until you’re ready to practice on your own without them (which is about now, at the intermediate level). If you practice three times a week, you will start to notice a difference in your body, your yoga, and hopefully your mind. And get over headstand. It doesn’t matter.

NewYork_2011-05-30_YogaAnastasia_012Yoga Dilettante! (Intermediate-Advanced)

You practice 5-7 days a week. No less. Please understand that advanced yoga is not back flips or contortions. It could be 60 minutes of ardha padmasana. This frequency is open to any level, though beginners should be cautioned against an over-zealousness that leads to burnout. If you practice this often, you will progress. You will also suffer ego trips and spiritual materialism, but that’s part of the practice. Notice and cut it out. No one’s style of yoga is the best style of yoga, and because you’ve dedicated over ten hours a week to your mat doesn’t mean you’re a better yogi than someone who’s never seen a mat. Nor are you superior because you don’t go in for an impressive asana practice but sure like to meditate.

Committing to something like an ashtanga practice is a major time commitment, but with that practice “all is coming,” as K. Patabhi Jois liked to say. The one thing that truly amazes me about ashtanga is what dedication and commitment can bring. This is true of any practice. Have fun.

 

Categories
art & yoga

art & yoga: photography as a daily practice

20130213-NewYork-Feb--322

Photography has always been something that brings me into the moment (except, perhaps, the few years I worked full time as a photog). It also makes me happy. Seeing something that strikes my interest and playing with it via the camera brings me joy. I’ve noticed that on these walks, a few shots can turn my mood around. I’ve often heard the argument that photography does the opposite, takes the seer out of the moment, by looking for a photo or trying to freeze time instead of just being with what is there. This may be true, and may be more true for some than others. Perhaps if you are on a trip and feel the need to snap away to show others you were there—but this is not photography, and the result is not interesting. Yes, there are definitely moments when it’s time to put down the camera. Personally, I’ve found that photography brings me far more into the moment than writing does. Not the moment of actual writing, when there’s little choice, but the stories I write in my head when walking down the street, when I see something funny I want to share. As it is told and retold in my mind, how much accuracy have I retained? How much have I missed passing by? As a form of creativity, I don’t see this as inherently bad. I just notice the power photography has to bring me into the moment and open my eyes. It’s inaccurate to say that photography is not an act of awareness. We don’t hear people complain that writers aren’t in the moment because they are crafting stories in their heads, but it is perfectly true.

Last year, I started carrying a point and shoot with me at all times. Not necessarily to Mysore practice, but everywhere. But because my walk to practice is daily, at my most focused time of day, a series of photos began: The Walk to Mysore. It’s also the walk from Mysore, which can include different paths. Read the full story…

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favorites the yoga consumer yoga habits

yoga :: what to wear?

part 2 of 2. See also part 1: “preferably something opaque” endures all trends

Because my shala is closed on the weekend, yesterday I took a led power class. This class is such a circus, and so different from quiet morning Mysore, that I take it almost to test my ability to focus. You know, kind of like how the aging Gandhi told young girls to sleep and bathe naked with him to test his purity. I enjoy every minute.

photo sexy yoga wear
Victoria’s Secret, high on the sweatshop list, breaks out with NEW! Yoga & Sexxxy Lounge. Hey, darling! You’re losing your shorts.

It’s been two years since I wrote a bit on what to wear for yoga and it’s time I updated, as my views have changed on a matter or two. The basic tenet to (please) wear something opaque still stands. So does: “You need nothing special to do yoga.” That said, some togs will serve you better than others. Especially if they are clean. You must launder your clothing. You are sweating. Yes, I am talking to you, undergrads. Maybe you have developed a tolerance for your personal odor, but we have not. Please. Wash your yoga wear.

There is just so much stuff. Everywhere. Especially after sales blitz December. It is overwhelming. So, to reiterate, you need nothing special to do yoga. If you are thinking that a cute new top will get you into headstand, stop. If that line made you want to run and check the Gilt sales in case there’s something great you might miss, get a hold of yourself. Take a breath and keep reading. Better yet, go practice in whatever you are wearing now. If it’s a t-shirt, you will find it bags around your head. So next time choose a snug-but-not-tight tank top. That’s my choice. They are fairly easy to find, but I’ll mention some stores in a moment.

gaiam2
Gaiam has some nice yoga stuff, and good intentions.

Pants are more troublesome. Years back Old Navy made a boot leg pant that I loved. They phased it out in 2005 or so, and I had to search for something else. I had to switch to capris, because they took over the market and it was hard to find anything else. It seems that yoga clothing manufacturers are as desperate for your money as the rest as the garment industry, because styles of yoga pants cycle. If you like leggings and slightly flared capris (flatters who?) are in vogue, too bad. This is why when I find a pant I like, I tend to buy five pairs in black, so I don’t have to go through the search again for a few years. If you really think you need the current style in the current brand of yoga wear to practice, you are missing the point.

I’ve been told by men that shorts are a concern. Last time, Rod said: “A good rule of thumb, especially for blokes, is to imagine that at some point you could be upside down in the clothes that you put on: how much will be revealed/concealed when this is the case?” I recently saw another student reiterate this concern in a shoulderstand comment on the faceboek.

Fibers. I used to prefer cotton, as weird blends smell more when you sweat. Then I read about how toxic and pesticide ridden most cotton is and I changed my mind. While it’s easy to buy from Old Navy because they’re cheap and convenient, it’s not so easy to think about the small child working in a sweatshop sewing your pants together. Though it’s easy to be cynical and toss off responsibility because basically everything you buy in today’s world is exploiting someone, in the end, it does matter. Check out The Story of Stuff for how all the unused junk in your storage space affects communities near and far (and what you can do about it).

When Gaiam learned of this being printed on their mats by CafePress, they pulled them immediately. Really, truly bizarre.
?????

Brands like Gaiam, Manduka, Patagonia, and Prana are smaller businesses that try to do something valuable for the planet we inhabit. Do they? To some extent, yes. When insanely distasteful slogans (Who wants to do yoga on a mat celebrating someone’s death? I’m so confused) were being printed on Gaiam mats by CafePress, Gaiam removed them immediately. “The Footprint Chronicles” at Patagonia examine their “life and habits as a company. The goal is to use transparency about our supply chain to help us reduce our adverse social and environmental impacts – and on an industrial scale.” One of my students works there, and she loves it. Prana is committed to sustainability and partners with some good organizations to that end. I’ll cover Manduka soon in a yoga stuff post. I do get my nice yoga stuff from Gilt when they offer these companies’ wares.

Yeah, it’s hard to know if “sustainability” and “community” claims are sincere or just marketing gimmicks in the brave new world of conscious capitalism. It’s simply gross when Whole Foods CEO states that global warming is “not necessarily bad” while promoting his new book: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. Ugh. (For an endlessly amusing look at commercial yoga culture, check out The Babarazzi.)

Walking home from that yoga class yesterday, I overheard two women talking as they passed by on Greenwich Avenue. One said to the other, “We could go drunk shopping,” in a dull monotone, as if there’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon in New York City. Did you even know this was a thing? Let’s get a collective grip. The bottom line is, how much is enough? Do you really need it? Figure that out, and buy appropriately. Then make a list of things you love to do aside from buying stuff, maybe things you wish you had more time to do. The next time you find yourself shopping to distract yourself or ease your pain, instead do something from that list. This seems simplistic, but it’s harder than it sounds. There will be some resistance, guaranteed. But it will feel really good. Especially if it’s some yoga. 🙂

Categories
favorites practice at home yoga habits yoga practice

yoga at home for the holidays

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Categories
emo yoga (emotion // self // &c.) what is yoga

yoga and the true non-self?

What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.

Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras, a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an “expert” on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then wrap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”btke

Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us. If we find they haven’t, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.

On the importance of attachments and ego

In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large (I’d argue that American therapeutic culture is about creating the appearance of a “happy” self, generally at the expense of difficult or deep self awareness, though I realize this is debatable), I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”

This supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?

Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to the people and culture around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.

This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans feel happy and fulfilled: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.

New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.

At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”

Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding close relationship. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create the fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.

Categories
favorites what is yoga

sexytime with william broad

I somehow managed to ignore most of the uproar over William Broad’s “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in the NYT. I didn’t really get his point, as it seems like a no-brainer. You can hurt yourself doing any physical activity, and that’s why you’re selective about what yoga you do and classes you take. And even then, you still might get hurt. Some might even argue that’s part of the practice. Are NYT readers really so stupid that they believed, before Broad, that yoga is a flawless transmitter of purity and health? I hope not. And as a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning science journalist, can’t he make that point without exaggerating figures and asserting that correlation is causation? Or is everyone so desperate to sell these days that responsible journalism goes out the window? Or did it go long ago.

(Leslie Kaminoff has a good video review of Broad’s new yoga book. I don’t entirely agree with the review, but I do recommend.)

But now I am flummoxed. Broad has turned to history to perpetuate his inaccuracies, and that bothers me (science has enough defenders). The yoga world has enough problems with historical accuracy, particularly with teachers and practitioners who’ve accepted myth as fact—without the likes of William Broad joining their ranks. And because for a dreadful number of bourgeois Americans, “If it’s in the NYT, it must be true,” this article is bound to have truly annoying ramifications.

To be fair, the history of yoga is complicated and full of long, question-filled gaps. It is an oral tradition, so there’s plenty to argue about regarding how it developed. But it’s fairly safe to say that sexual practices in Tantra are rare, and are/were practiced by the fringe. More importantly, they were not practiced, as Broad asserts, to have a rocking good time, but to cultivate awareness. Pleasure was not the goal, but an avenue to more intense levels of awareness. A bit like the way Gandhi slept with naked young women to test his chastity. (Well, actually not like that, but it did come to mind.)

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th c, ce), states that if “the body is healthy, bindu [semen] under control, and appetite increases, then one should know that the nadis are purified and success in hatha yoga is approaching.” (Ch.2: Pranayama, section 78).

Further, I’d venture to guess that Tantric practices are historically and perhaps currently much more common than hatha yoga. Take, for example, the Dalai Lama. He’s a practitioner of tantra. Is he screwing about ritually or otherwise? (Though his school, the Geluks, are known to visualize.) In fact, the misconception of Tantra as a chiefly sexual practice is sometimes referred to as “California Tantra.”

If you are interested in more about just how wrong Broad is about Tantra, Sanskrit scholar, Christopher Wallis, has called him out in a post on Flow Magazine. And Maia Szalavitz at Time magazine takes down the scientific studies he uses to back his argument.

When I first read the article, I wondered why the science wasn’t reported as a good thing, framed as “Dump your viagra and take some yoga! Become emotionally closer to your partner without even trying!” Instead, it’s some pseudoscientific reasoning for gurus’ poor behavior? In any group where numbers of young people give up their agency to a man who is revered and somewhat famous is going to have problems regardless of the premise of the group. Who’s really surprised? Why the need to fake history, quote some questionable studies, and patronize yogis’ lack of knowledge about the roots of their craft (when he can’t be bothered to learn it himself)? Very bizarre.

My favorite bit, and the most amazing part of the article, is the last line:

“But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.”

Why? Broad’s agenda. His new book, The Science of Yoga, is basically an argument for regulating the yoga industry by making it part of the medical industry. (Shudder.) Like Kaminoff says, Broad has a lot of trust in the government’s ability to regulate, not to mention trust in the medical industrial complex. What is so fantastic about this science journalist’s last line is that by saying, “and what it was designed to do” he implicitly argues that the mystical yogis circa the 15th century knew how to increase their sex drives by designing yoga poses that did so. How, Mr. Broad, did they have the scientific knowledge to do that?

And were they properly regulated?

Science? Crackpotism.  (Not the yogis. Mr. Broad.)

A big thank you to my former student Joel Bordeaux for his opinion on the matter. He added that it’s impossible to know how common sexual practices in Tantra were because it was a secret practice:

I share your suspicions here. If pressed I’d say the vast majority of what we think of as ‘tantra’ does not involve sexual practices. Not all tantric traditions directly advocate them and within those that do, they’re supposed to be the preserve of a select few adepts.

However. It’s quite impossible to say with certainty how much ritual hanky panky ever actually happens, since it’s supposed to be top secret. So we have a situation where people who keep those traditions generally rationalize it away or claim to practice a modified version of the ritual where they either visualize (e.g. monks of the Dalai Lama’s geluk sect) or substitute out (e.g. Sri Vidya practitioners in South India) the offending elements.

 

Categories
asana favorites slider yoga habits yoga practice

to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

menstruThere are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

classygalBudig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

Wow! Crazytown ad from the 1950s.
Wow! Crazytown “feminine” ad from the 1950s.

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Wow! Crazytown "Outsmart Mother Nature" ad from 21C
Wow! Crazytown “Outsmart Mother Nature” ad from 21C.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!

Categories
how to find yoga teacher/school yoga practice

how I found ashtanga

an awkward kukkuṭāsana

I don’t talk about my own practice much here, but it’s time. Largely because when my students leave Columbia, they always ask.

My own yoga has always shaped my teaching, and it’s taken its share of twists and turns over the years. Until 2010, I’d been doing a hatha-vinyasa practice for the previous few years and I had issues with inflammation and injury. If I took classes, often the teachers didn’t warm us up enough for all the stretching that came after. Lunges hurt the ball of my foot (sesamoiditis) and my hips ached from weird sequences (starting class with pigeon is not “shaking things up.” For most bodies, it’s unwise). Classes that did have warm-ups didn’t have cool downs. Teachers had annoying ticks. Or unfortunate taste in music. My last studio, where I did my advanced teacher training, had some great teachers, but their schedule didn’t match mine and it was hideously out of my way. An hour commute, if our friends at the MTA were in a good mood. Before this, Genny Kapuler and her soho studio were my favorite, but I’m too tightly-wound to be 100% Iyengar. I need to sweat to calm down.

I ached for a studio and a teacher that fit.

I didn’t expect to find it at the YogaWorks corporation on the UWS. But, what can I say? There was a Groupon. I took a bunch of classes for a week or two last May because it was reasonably convenient to my life, and gravitated to Evan Perry’s ashtanga classes. There is warm up. There is breath. There is wisdom in the time-tested sequencing. There is little chatter. There is no music. There are intelligent adjustments. And there are faces that became quickly familiar. It was because of these classes I started a membership at yogaworks.

My first aśtanga experience (properly it is aśtanga, but is also written ashtanga and astanga) was around 2003 at a small shala with Angela and Sharada LaSpisa. They were great but it was too hard. I could barely do Surya As, and before long, I switched to Iyengar. Years later, in January 2008, I took a class with Evan when I did a trial with yogaworks. It was hard. I liked it. But my trial ran out and I was still in grad school. Then I did my advanced teacher training at ISHTA. During that period I did an ashtanga retreat in Sri Lanka for vacay, not chosen for the yoga but because my Aussie boyfriend did not find the surf in the Caribbean pleasing. So, I went back to South Asia. It was beautiful and fun. And ashtangis are funny.

So it wasn’t a total surprise when I started getting up at the crack of dawn for Mysore practice (this site explains how Mysore differs from teacher-led classes) last summer. By fall, I had moved downtown and things had settled a bit. I made it a point to practice astanga six days a week, as prescribed. If I couldn’t get to the studio, I did it at home, or even in the gym at work. I quickly learned that it could not be a choice, going. The only way to defeat the “I could stay in bed” dialogue is to not entertain it, not even on the rainiest or snowiest of days.

Mornings of greatest resistance were countered by thoughts of the others sweating it out. The warmth of the room. The adjustments. The room full of yogis having practiced for years alongside those who started last week. The camaraderie forged by breathing together in our otherwise silent daybreak ritual. The chats afterward in the locker room and by the water cooler. It is not just the bending and jumping and twisting we rely on to start our day. For that we can practice at home, and even steal some more time in bed.

So, how do you find a good yoga studio? It’s not easy. One size does not fit all, and I’ll share more thoughts in a following post.

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aśtanga
Categories
favorites meditation yoga practice

on meditation

We’re still on break and you just want to relax a bit. But you can’t without your yoga? You don’t say. Watch this then. If you don’t wanna watch the long I’m-a-scientist-I’m-not-into-meditation-or-heaven-forbid-yoga intro, JKZ begins at 7 minutes.
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[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvXFxi2ZXT0&w=480&h=385]

 

Though Kabat-Zinn is known for his work with meditation, his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program includes yoga and body awareness as well as meditation.