A different way to do the Saturday Ashtanga oil bath

On Friday, following the post-Savasana chant that ends the Led Primary practice at Omkar 108 (which chant? this one), Jörgen Christiansson asked if anyone in the class had ever taken a oil bath.

Image via skincareihub.com, and believe me, I could have gone racier

“You mean a castor oil bath,” someone behind me asked.

Yes indeed. The infamous Saturday Ashtanga oil bath.

Jörgen’s version was slightly different from what I’ve heard before, so, I’m passing it on. It goes like this:

First time, liberally cover your head in oil. Hang out for 10 minutes. Then get in the shower (the most likely and convenient place to finish the process) and cover the rest of yourself with the oil. Rub it in, focusing on the joints.

Well, you probably know that part. What was different was the long time leaving the oil on the head.

The second time, Jörgen added, you leave it on your head for 15 or 20 minutes before moving to your body. And you can build up from there. (You start shorter, he noted, because the bath can have such a strong effect that you’ll catch a cold or get a headache otherwise.)

Jörgen also talked about the pros and cons of castor oil. The pros are that it is the traditional oil and, I suspect, considered the most efficacious. The cons? It’s thick and messy and will clog the heck out of your drains! (Note: Apartment dwellers, go with castor oil. House owners, and not just “holders”, maybe choose almond oil. That was Jörgen’s suggestion; I’ve also heard coconut oil suggested.)

So, there you have it. If you are doing oil baths, give it a try and let us know if the effects are any different from what you are used to experiencing.

Posted by Steve

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Is it Chaturanga that makes Led Primary so daunting?

Yesterday, after a short practice at home during which I focused on my Chaturangas, I posted over on Facebook a link to one of our old posts: “Reminder: You’re probably doing Chaturanga wrong.” In it, there’s video of Lino Miele and he holds his Chaturanga each time, eyes forward.

It’s a reminder that, yes, Chaturanga is a pose. It’s not just a transition like, say, Chakrasana. But I think it is safe to say that a lot of us tend to blow through it and get to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana ASAP.

Via ashtangayoga.info

Today, during our Led Primary at Omkar 108, as I was hovering in Chaturanga waiting for the command to move on, I wondered if the forced hold of the pose is what’s at the root of people’s dislike of Led classes. (Not that everyone hates Led classes, but my experience is that people with Mysore practices would choose Mysore over Led, any day.)

Perhaps more to the point: Is it the Chaturangas that make Led classes so hard?

Again, in general, I suspect that Led classes force most people to hold most poses for longer than they are used to; this may be especially true for “harder” poses like Uttitha Hasta Padangushthasana.

But those poses all come and then go. Chaturanga is there with you throughout almost the entire practice. It is there after Utplutih when Savasana is calling out sweetly to your shoulders and arms.

Holding it is hard.

But as a friend texted me yesterday, it is holding Chaturanga that builds the strength necessary for the practice. In fact, I’ll quote her: “That pause = lots of strength.”

I guess what I’m saying is: Do your Chaturangas.

Posted by Steve

Friday asana aide: Eka Pada Sirsasana

By popular demand, this week’s asana aide covers a Second Series pose that I don’t even have to bother worrying about for the next six years or so: Eka Pada Sirsasana.

I don’t know if it is strange or not, but some of the “usual suspects” — I’m thinking Kino MacGregor and David Garrigues, who both have extensive video libraries online — don’t pop up in the list for this pose. Anyone have suspicions why that might be?

There also seems to be more “demonstrations” than “instructions” out there. Seriously, below are the only two instructional ones I can find.

First off, from Kansas City, Kathleen Kastner Mortenson:

And then one that emphasizes using the wall as an aide (to which we all say what? That’s right! “Bad lady!” [I kid.])

There’s two takes. If anyone knows of one I’ve missed, feel free to link to it in a comment. Typically, I’m going to try to find at least four takes  on instruction for a pose.

Update: Someone on Facebook pointed us to Kino talking about getting your foot behind your head. I am afraid I can’t embed the video, which kind of ruins the effect.

Posted by Steve

Based on tradition, should you be practicing Ashtanga?

I came across an account of a recent David Swenson workshop — I guess one of the Denmark ones — that includes an interesting exchange between David and a student revolving around tradition.

Here’s the link to Om Shanti’s post, and here’s the key paragraph:

Once in one of David’s workshop a girl had protested: ‘David, we haven’t chanted yet. And if we don’t chant we don’t follow the Asthanga tradition’. David’s answer had been that chanting might scare the people who had just come for the physical aspects of yoga away and that he’d rather have as many as possible discover yoga for whatever reason.  The girl didn’t buy this explanation and said: ‘But that’s not following tradition’. A comment not very different from my rants about traditions and definitions here and here. David’s answer was. ‘Ashtanga was traditionally only practiced by male Indian teenagers. How many of us in here can fit into that tradition?’  B a m! If it wasn’t for altering the tradition I would never have known Ashtanga yoga.

A few things to unpack here. If you’re a reader back to March, when the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence happened, you might know what the first is: the myth vs. fact about Ashtanga’s being intended for adolescent boys.

Image via omshanti.dk

Eddie Stern was unequivocal on this point: Ashtanga was not designed just for adolescent boys, he said. And he told us all in attendance to pass it on.

The fact we have two senior students of Guruji giving pretty different accounts suggests to me that this is one piece of Ashtanga’s history that will never be settled absolutely. I still side with Eddie; his explanation that it was the young boys who were trotted our for demonstrations, and that that led to the image of Ashtanga’s practitioners, strikes me as believable. My understanding of Guruji’s teachings in the “early days” — back when the first Westerners were beginning to fill his shala, and by “fill” I mean there being a half dozen or so — also fits into Eddie’s perspective. This comes from Nancy Gilgoff and others who saw, and experienced, the changes to the practice or the fundamentally different approaches Guruji applied to different students.

I suppose someone could argue that for a particular student Guruji didn’t teach “Ashtanga,” but frankly I’ve never heard anyone suggest that. Rather, I’d suggest that the Ashtanga sequence as we know it represents the essential framework; it happens that flexible, strong boys often are the ones who can take the framework to its physical extreme. But are they — to paint a broad picture of boys, as I know them, and I’ll admit I haven’t and don’t know too many advanced asana practicing 13-year-olds — really more focused, more in union with God, than a stiff or weak but inwardly mature and centered 53-year-old?

I doubt it. (I could be wrong. And I may find out more on our Yatra, if I don’t end up in jail due to the visa process.) And so which is really doing Ashtanga?

That said, I don’t think David and Eddie are, at heart, disagreeing with each other. In fact, I think their intentions are similar, if not the same: to bring Ashtanga to as many people as possible.

David’s clearly telling this woman that if she wants to follow tradition, she’ll have to quit Ashtanga — but that it is better to open it up to as many people as possible. Get them hooked, and then maybe show them some of the other aspects to yoga, such as chants.

Eddie wants the same thing. That’s very clear in his writings and thoughts on Ashtanga and yoga, in general. From the Ashtanga Yoga New York webpage:

In this fast-paced world we easily become detached from our bodies, lost in the world of worries and stress, and find ourselves rushing forward in an effort to keep up. Yoga pulls us back into our bodies, and teaches us an embodied awareness that keeps us healthy, filled with a sense of well-being, and a gives us a renewed ability to remain aware in the present moment. It is a holistic practice that supports all other aspects of life.

Eddie doesn’t want that support kept from everyone but adolescent boys. Neither does David.

Posted by Steve

Yoga rant: Applying for an Indian visa is making me homicidal

At the risk of having our Indian visa applications “delayed” — that seems to be the threat for any misstep in the process — let me just say:

Trying to apply for a tourist visa to India makes the DMV / credit card / health insurance industries feel like ’60s love-ins.

I can’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ take on British bureaucracy in the Hitchhiker’s Guide and wonder if this is some horrible vestige of British colonialism. Or perhaps revenge for that colonialism.

The fact that the visa process has been outsourced to some private company seems the final, cruel twist of irony.

My simple question is: Why is this so hard?

My longer form questions and reactions for whoever or whatever is behind the online application process are:

  • How many times do you need to know my nationality? And whether it was by birth. Are you expecting me to trip up and admit I’m actually Chinese?* Or worse?
  • The worse: Yes, I do understand why you’re asking if I have any Pakistani ties.
  • A sewage bill? Seriously, a sewage bill can help prove I live where I say I do? I don’t recall the last time I had a sewage bill. We barely have water bills at this point. Why not add an Internet / cable bill to the mix? That’s a more basic utility these days.
  • The photo uploading process for the passport photo and signature makes me triple homicidal. That was the point I called Bobbie and told her we weren’t going to India.
  • You want to know my religion. This feels, too, like a trick. Will things go easier if I pick the right one?
  • Why do I have to figure out how many months are in five years? Why can’t I apply for a 5-year visa and not a 60-month one?
  • On the upside, I was happy to be able to describe myself as a “business man.” On the other hand, there were about three or four variations on “journalist”, which made me extremely suspect.
  • Right now I don’t have any visible identification marks. But what happens if something horrible happens between now and December? (Knock wood.)
  • What’s with the payment options? How many fees can you tack on? Are you Ticketmaster?
  • What’s the obsession with photo copies? And who on your end sets the price if you have to do it?
  • Do you really think the videos and other descriptions are helpful? (OK, the video is maybe the most helpful thing.)

We are delayed right now in this process, by the way, as we figure out how to get all the confirmation documents — that sewage bill — to prove we live where we say we live. This is why we have begun six or so months early.

Posted by Steve

* Note: My father traveled to India in 1980 and faced some entry and exit hassles, as well as some others during his trip. This despite being on a fairly high-level engineering conference trip. The reason? Seemingly a collective, but understandable dyslexia that rendered Cahn as Chan in many authorities’ eyes.

Mudra: The power of locking up in Ashtanga

As my body slowly loosens up, I’m discovering an aspect to Ashtanga that I suspect most practitioners take for granted: the “lock” or mudra of the poses in their full expression.

I don’t mean Yoga Mudra, one of the finishing poses. I mean getting the wrist locked in Janu A and toe locks in other poses.

Via ashtangayoga.info

I’m not very in tune with the esoteric parts of yoga (yet), but even I can recognize that something changes when you close the circle, so to speak. I guess it feels like an uninterrupted electrical circuit — all that energy has a place to run, in an endless loop.

Keeping that energy, that prana, flowing and not letting it seep away is a reason we’re taught not to open our fingers during practice. Add in your bandhas and… well, you’ve got a lot of energy held tightly during the practice.

I’m far from able to achieve this fully in most poses, but I’ll make the imaginative leap that if one does it would alter the practice dramatically. First thing: You wouldn’t get as drained, or tired, physically, simply because you aren’t losing or wasting energy. At a more subtle level, your mental focus — your ability to keep the dristi gaze — would have more oomph to it, too.

And then from there, as it spills over to the rest of your life… good things come, right? (Maybe the source of those Siddhis?)

I’ll see, perhaps, in a lifetime or three. For now, I’ll try to take the Mudras when and where I get them on the mat.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day Poetry: Venus in Transit

This week’s poem was pretty easy to pick. It’s by Boston poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809-1894), father of the Supreme Court Justice of the same name.  Holmes senior studied law, but became a brilliant medical doctor who championed important health care reforms (back in the day when poets needed real jobs). He was also an amateur astronomer, and wrote this charming poem after paying a dime to a gentleman on the Common, stationed with a telescope, for a glimpse at the 1882 transit. The French title translates roughly as “the loafer,” sort of a casual stroller.

The Flâneur

Boston Common, December 6, 1882 during the Transit of Venus

I love all sights of earth and skies,
From flowers that glow to stars that shine;
The comet and the penny show,
All curious things, above, below,
Hold each in turn my wandering eyes:
I claim the Christian Pagan’s line,
Humani nihil,—even so,—
And is not human life divine?
When soft the western breezes blow,
And strolling youths meet sauntering maids,
I love to watch the stirring trades
Beneath the Vallombrosa shades
Our much-enduring elms bestow;
The vender and his rhetoric’s flow,
That lambent stream of liquid lies;
The bait he dangles from his line,
The gudgeon and his gold-washed prize.
I halt before the blazoned sign
That bids me linger to admire
The drama time can never tire,
The little hero of the hunch,
With iron arm and soul of fire,
And will that works his fierce desire,—
Untamed, unscared, unconquered Punch!
My ear a pleasing torture finds
In tones the withered sibyl grinds,—
The dame sans merci’s broken strain,
Whom I erewhile, perchance, have known,
When Orleans filled the Bourbon throne,
A siren singing by the Seine.
But most I love the tube that spies
The orbs celestial in their march;
That shows the comet as it whisks
Its tail across the planets’ disks,
As if to blind their blood-shot eyes;
Or wheels so close against the sun
We tremble at the thought of risks
Our little spinning ball may run,
To pop like corn that children parch,
From summer something overdone,
And roll, a cinder, through the skies.
Grudge not to-day the scanty fee
To him who farms the firmament,
To whom the Milky Way is free;
Who holds the wondrous crystal key,
The silent Open Sesame
That Science to her sons has lent;
Who takes his toll, and lifts the bar
That shuts the road to sun and star.
If Venus only comes to time,
(And prophets say she must and shall,)
To-day will hear the tinkling chime
Of many a ringing silver dime,
For him whose optic glass supplies
The crowd with astronomic eyes,—
The Galileo of the Mall.
Dimly the transit morning broke;
The sun seemed doubting what to do,
As one who questions how to dress,
And takes his doublets from the press,
And halts between the old and new.
Please Heaven he wear his suit of blue,
Or don, at least, his ragged cloak,
With rents that show the azure through!
I go the patient crowd to join
That round the tube my eyes discern,
The last new-comer of the file,
And wait, and wait, a weary while,
And gape, and stretch, and shrug, and smile,
(For each his place must fairly earn,
Hindmost and foremost, in his turn,)
Till hitching onward, pace by pace,
I gain at last the envied place,
And pay the white exiguous coin:
The sun and I are face to face;
He glares at me, I stare at him;
And lo! my straining eye has found
A little spot that, black and round,
Lies near the crimsoned fire-orb’s rim.
O blessed, beauteous evening star,
Well named for her whom earth adores,—
The Lady of the dove-drawn car,—
I know thee in thy white simar;
But veiled in black, a rayless spot,
Blank as a careless scribbler’s blot,
Stripped of thy robe of silvery flame,—
The stolen robe that Night restores
When Day has shut his golden doors,—
I see thee, yet I know thee not;
And canst thou call thyself the same?
A black, round spot,—and that is all;
And such a speck our earth would be
If he who looks upon the stars
Through the red atmosphere of Mars
Could see our little creeping ball
Across the disk of crimson crawl
As I our sister planet see.
And art thou, then, a world like ours,
Flung from the orb that whirled our own
A molten pebble from its zone?
How must thy burning sands absorb
The fire-waves of the blazing orb,
Thy chain so short, thy path so near,
Thy flame-defying creatures hear
The maelstroms of the photosphere!
And is thy bosom decked with flowers
That steal their bloom from scalding showers?
And hast thou cities, domes, and towers,
And life, and love that makes it dear,
And death that fills thy tribes with fear?
Lost in my dream, my spirit soars
Through paths the wandering angels know;
My all-pervading thought explores
The azure ocean’s lucent shores;
I leave my mortal self below,
As up the star-lit stairs I climb,
And still the widening view reveals
In endless rounds the circling wheels
That build the horologe of time.
New spheres, new suns, new systems gleam;
The voice no earth-born echo hears
Steals softly on my ravished ears:
I hear them “singing as they shine”—
A mortal’s voice dissolves my dream:
My patient neighbor, next in line,
Hints gently there are those who wait.
O guardian of the starry gate,
What coin shall pay this debt of mine?
Too slight thy claim, too small the fee
That bids thee turn the potent key
The Tuscan’s hand has placed in thine.
Forgive my own the small affront,
The insult of the proffered dime;
Take it, O friend, since this thy wont,
But still shall faithful memory be
A bankrupt debtor unto thee,
And pay thee with a grateful rhyme.

Posted by Bobbie