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Richard Freeman: The definition of yoga

May 30, 2015
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You may have seen this at Elephant Journal. Or maybe not. Here’s the YouTube video:

“If you really want your yoga to feel good, you’ve got to care about other beings.”

You’ve sort of seen this before on our blog here.

Posted by Steve

New book provides look at life of Indra Devi

May 29, 2015

This post’s a little change of pace.

I spotted this review at our, ahem, hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. It’s on a new book about Indra Devi, one of the people who helped bring yoga to the West. It is by Michelle Goldberg and is called The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. From the review:

Even if you don’t care enough about yoga to hold a pigeon pose for the length of time it takes to say that title, Indra Devi, born Eugenia Peterson in 1899 in Riga, Latvia, remains no less a fascinating character: Constantly searching as she moves from Eastern Europe to India to Shanghai and the United States, she changes names, marries twice, acts and dances — finally making it big about halfway through her century-long life as a yoga teacher, author and lecturer.

[snip]

Goldberg says that researching the book made her think about her own yoga practice in Brooklyn. “On the one hand, it’s obviously demystified yoga for me, both for good and for ill. There is a sort of magic to yoga when you don’t kind of quite know where it comes from and what is an ancient esoteric secret. So I guess it is a bit of a loss when you realize it’s British army calisthenics repurposed,” she continues. “At the same time, I used to have a bit of anxiety about authenticity that I’ve kind of gotten over.”

I also noticed this: “Eventually, [Goldberg] became hooked on an “excruciating” ashtanga-style class. She came across Devi’s obituary while researching the connection between her Brooklyn class and the ancient idea of yoga.” I assume that’s the excruciating asana practice we all know.

If you’re wondering why the Times is reviewing the book, I suspect this has a lot to do with it (my emphasis added):

It was in that decade that Devi began her formal yoga training, eventually under the direction of the legendary teacher Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who, after months of disciplined practice, told Devi to teach yoga in other countries. She was fearful, Goldberg writes, “but he was her guru. She couldn’t refuse.”

Her mother encouraged her to go to the United States, just as India’s independence neared. And in 1947 she left for Los Angeles, “the ideal place” for starting anew, Goldberg notes. Devi opened a yoga studio on the Sunset Strip and started to teach “a commonsense exercise and relaxation system, utterly practical and wholesome, promising transformative results without the grunting agony of other physical culture regimens.”

So maybe check the book out for some summer reading. And maybe this is a chance to open the comments up to other suggestions for good summer reads (yoga-related, obviously).

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga and Menopause

May 28, 2015

Of the many complexities of female-ness in modern culture, menopause is unique. While it’s a natural process that over half the population experiences, it still retains a sort of medieval silence around it, a kind of cultural conspiracy that it’s not something we talk about as women until we have to face it, and even then only under a very limited set of circumstances (men can’t talk about it, for instance). It’s like admitting a well-kept secret–people around you look sideways, shift a bit, and look uncomfortable. You probably look uncomfortable right now.

When Nancy Gilgoff was asked about it a couple of Confluences ago, she gave a rather dark answer that reinforces that secrecy: Women think about life before menopause, she said. After menopause, “you begin to think about death.” The process of menopause started for me when I was about 43. Theoretically, I could have 40-50 more years of life before I cash it in. I could, if I’m lucky, have a longer post-menopausal life than a pre- one. Thinking about death at that point seems a little premature. I have a short attention span. I’m likely to get pretty bored thinking about death for that long.

It’s not really my purpose here to talk about the physical manifestations (“symptoms” they call them—as if it’s a disease) of menopause, or debate its equivalent for men, sometimes called “andropause” (yeah, that’s a thing), or to ominously warn you younger practitioners what’s coming. Or to provide you with comic tales of my hot flashes or mood swings, which I suppose are designed to take the tension out of the moment, ease the embarrassment we’re supposed to feel for going through some perfectly natural changes. I could go into just the fact that using the phrase “perfectly natural changes” should be unnecessary, but I’m not going to do that, either (see what I did there?). No, I’m really here to just use the word “menopause” a lot, without whispering it, and to talk about Ashtanga at the same time. Here we go:

There’s no doubt in my mind that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is helping me transition through menopause in an open and fearless way. After all, I transition about a hundred times a day. So I don’t see menopause as an approaching doom, a line that I’m crossing into “aging” (and by extension, death) and that’s all because of Ashtanga.

In part, it’s the big-picture perspective we get from rolling out the mat and taking on the intensity of Ashtanga every day. You get that even-keel tenacity so that when something big and difficult comes along, you just deal with it. I could collapse into self-pity about menopause, but I don’t do that after kapotasana, so why start now? (Well, sometimes I collapse into self-pity after kapotasana, but this never serves to improve my kapotasana, so these kapotasana pity parties are growing increasingly more rare due to their futility.)

The related benefit, I think, comes from the limitless quality to Ashtanga that has been such a blessing to me over the years of my practice. Things that I thought would never happen have happened. And I’m not talking about things like putting my feet behind my head (although I certainly never thought I’d be doing that back when I was 30). I’m talking about walking without pain, strength to live my daily life. Those things keep getting better because Ashtanga is never finished. There is always more to learn, new places to take it. I am stronger now than I was when I was 20, 30, and even than when I was 40. And I can use what I know now to take myself to places I couldn’t go when I was younger.

At the same time, that limitless quality has limits–for me. I’m not under any illusions that I’m not aging. But I don’t see age as a ramping-down, because I’ve been aging since the day I was born. I see menopause in the larger range of growth. I know where the limits are and which ones are real, which ones are illusions (or at least, I know enough to test the reality of those limits). To see menopause as a limit is an illusion. I will pass through it, and that’s that. Some things I can’t do. Some things I can. Some things I don’t yet know if I can do, but that won’t stop me from trying them, to find new possibility as well as new limits, like a river simultaneously creating and finding its own banks by flowing.

That means change. The physical nature of the changes of menopause have also been made easier because of Ashtanga. It’s funny; when you spend an hour and a half every day sweating like a welder in August, hot flashes don’t seem like that big a deal.

Maybe I can also say that I haven’t experienced any of the big emotional changes of menopause because of Ashtanga—I don’t know. Before I got to menopause, I’d already experienced big emotional changes in the practice. I’d had moments of manic happiness and weepy, unexplained openness. I’d been angry. I’d been frustrated for really stupid reasons. And that was just in the first year—heck, maybe even in the first month. So when it comes to the emotional effects of menopause, I just haven’t had the people-you-love-won’t-know-you experience that a lot of women seem to have. But maybe I have, and I haven’t noticed. Hm. I’ll ask people I know if they know me.

That mind/body relationship is a full-time job for an Ashtanga practitioner, in part because of the dietary changes brought on by practicing. It’s not very long after you start doing Ashtanga that you start to alter what you eat to try to improve the quality of your practice. So that was something that was well-established long before I entered the even early stages of menopause. Because we are so annoyingly particular about what we eat as Ashtangis (I’m sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you are annoyingly particular), there are all kinds of physiological changes that are often ushered in by our new diet. In my case–and probably in yours, too–the physiological changes were pretty extreme, and continue to this day. Major changes are not so shocking, and are in the context of a lot of other changes.

This is just the way of things, part of the practice: Learning what to eat with a keen inner ear aimed toward the physical body, we also develop a sharp awareness of the emotional effects diet can have. We are, in short, what we eat; and because we know what we eat well, we know who we are. This inner ear also extends to the practice itself, and then to other things. You become a good self-listener. Because the process of menopause was so gradual, so subtle for me physically, my doctor made me get a blood test to confirm it was happening. “I think I’ve started menopause,” I told my doctor. “No way,” she said, “too early.” “No, really, I think I have,” I said. “Alright, let’s test it.”

To her credit, she didn’t freak out, or freak me out, when it was confirmed. Our culture will give us a big list of horrible things that are going to come crashing down on you because of menopause, but I’m here to tell you that hasn’t happened to me. My doctor seems a little bored with me, actually. I guess you could say that it’s the same sort of attitude I have toward a new asana: It is what it is, and I’m working on it, and it’s just a pose.

“Do the asana,” Tim Miller teaches, “Don’t let the asana do you.” That advice is so true of so many things, menopause included. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned from Ashtanga is not to let it define me, but to use it as a tool. Why should menopause be any different? It’s a tool to create change, and as long as I see it that way, it’s my tool to use.

Posted by Bobbie

Is diligence a key aspect that makes Ashtanga different?

May 27, 2015
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The following description of Ashtanga popped up in my email alert on Tuesday:

Ashtanga yoga is a dynamic flow style of yoga with a set sequence of poses, taught by the late Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. Anyone who is diligent and disciplined can benefit from this practice.

The word “diligent” is what really jumped out at me.

I think most serious (if not diligent) Ashtangis probably agree with a general outline of the practice that goes something like: Practice for two or three days a week and you’ll notice some benefits; four to five days is preferred; practicing six days (minus Moon Days) is ideal and will create real change in your body and life.

From that, you probably can figure where diligence comes in. And it makes me wonder just how vital diligence is to the practice. If someone just showed up at an Ashtanga-based yoga class two, maybe three times a week, it would be like whatever your typical/stereotypical asana class, right? The person would get sweaty, would limber up a bit, might watch what he or she ate — at least on the days of practice.

But what about the opposite? And I don’t mean a six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice. What would a six-day-a-week Flow practice do? Would it require the same level of diligence? Would it create real change?

Perhaps anything done diligently, that often, would.

Posted by Steve

Soylent Green is yogis!

May 26, 2015

I’ll point you to a fun article in the weekend’s New York Times, and first add a caveat and then a reminder.

Caveat: I can’t believe this hasn’t — or won’t — spill (later on that pun will be great) into yoga circles.

Reminder: We’ve talked about smoothies before, and this takes it one step further:

Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk andPeople Chow. The protein-packed products that come in powder form are inexpensive and quick and easy to make — just shake with water, or in the case of Schmilk, milk. While athletes and dieters have been drinking their dinner for years, Silicon Valley’s workers are now increasingly chugging their meals, too, so they can more quickly get back to their computer work.

[snip]

Rob Rhinehart, a software engineer, said he came up with the idea for Soylent in 2013 while working long hours at a wireless communications company and realizing he was eating poorly. He said he wanted to create something that could be “universally applicable” for hard-working people like himself. So he founded Soylent, based in Los Angeles, that year and gained more than $3 million in funding from the crowdsourcing site Tilt.

Orders took off quickly. The company said it had shipped more than the equivalent of six million “meals” across the United States. Mr. Rhinehart declined to share financial details but said his company was shipping “at the kiloton scale” each quarter and had attracted $24.5 million in financing. While Soylent has a diverse customer base, tech workers in particular have the “early-adopter personality” that makes them open to trying the powder, Mr. Rhinehart said.

This just feels like something that would take root among yogis, who are looking for a simple way to eat that is high on the nutrition scale and low on fuss. A little something to have at, say, 7 p.m. that won’t feel heavy come 6 a.m. practice? Twelve ounces or so post-practice? Something to have out in the wilderness on a seven-day meditation retreat?

Posted by Steve

A quick history of modern yoga

May 25, 2015
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Tied to the International Day of Yoga, this piece runs through the modern history of yoga pretty succinctly. Maybe a not-so bad read for a holiday (here in America, at least). It includes what I might argue are our yoga lineages, both Pattabhi Jois and Vishnu-devananda:

The modern revival of yoga can be traced to T. Krishnamacharya, who started teaching it from Mysore in 1924. Among his students prominent in popularizing yoga in the West were B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga) and K. Pattabhi Jois (Viniyasa Yoga). Another major stream of influence within India and and abroad has been Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh and his equally formidable disciples including Swami Vishnu-devananda (Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers), Swami Satyananda (Bihar School of Yoga) and Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga). In India lately, Baba Ramdev has taken his yoga-pranayama mix for curing ailments to every nook and corner of the country.

Yoga also received a fillip with the introduction of Indian spirituality to the West starting with Swami Vivekananda’s iconic address to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 1893 in Chicago. Followed meditation movements of Yogananda Paramahamsa (‘Autobiography of a Yogi'; fame), TM guru Maharishi Mahesh Yoga, Swami Muktananda, Osho Rajneesh, Yogi Bhajan, and more recently Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. These too had a yoga component.

It gets to the question of whether yoga these days is just exercise.

Posted by Steve

Notes from an Ashtanga workshop with Greg Nardi — in English and Italian

May 24, 2015

I’m actually surprised you don’t find more online reflections of workshops with the many, many traveling Ashtanga teachers. It’s a lost opportunity to build a broad online resource for people.

But here’s one, from a workshop with Greg Nardi. These are two “quotes” from the review that were, for me, the most striking part (the formatting gets a bit funky because I’m grabbing something that’s already a WordPress quote):

On strenght and flexibility

I never heard Guruji talking about flexibility, he always talked about strenght and stamina. Building strenght in the physical body is necessary to build inner stength, hence to bring yoga beyond the physical level.

On ego and pain

When you practice from the ego, pain will come. Next posture shouldn’t be forced, it should come as a natural evolution.

Got check it all out, including the Italian version.

Posted by Steve