Getting a little juice into your practice

Summer, finally, has arrived — at least in Los Angeles.

And that means practices are getting hot. Even early morning ones are suddenly a lot sweatier.

What’s been strange is that the added heat and streams of sweat have made me notice the stiffness of my joints more than normal. Just when I’d think I’d be feeling, in Tim Miller’s words, “a little more juicy,” I’m feeling less so. Maybe I’m just quickly burning away the lubrication.

One way to cultivate that juiciness is by building up the bhav — pursuing a little extra bhakti.

So I’ve taken note that on Sunday, Ram Dass is having a webcast that focuses on his guru’s, Neem Karoli Baba, relationship to Hanuman. You can sign up (and submit questions) at this link. It takes place Sunday, 8 p.m. Eastern time in the U.S., 5 p.m. Pacific. A perfect way to wind down the weekend.

Posted by Steve

Ram Dass on all things devotional

I’ll admit, I was looking through the BhaktiFest site to see if there was any video of Tim Miller at this year’s event.

Nothing yet. But I see this went up a day ago, and amazingly at this moment has only 49 views.

Sit back, it’s a couple hours long, but from a (quick) view, I think there are some useful nuggets. At the least, Hanuman hangs out over Ram Dass’ right shoulder.

Posted by Steve

The prep for real pain and suffering

While working more deliberately with my breath recently — especially during the past week or so, which is really too short a time to take seriously — one of the starkest pieces of information I’ve received about which poses are the most demanding can be broken into two categories:

  • The poses that are so difficult, my breathing becomes extremely labored
  • The poses that challenge my mental focus, aka the boring ones

The latter of those two categories is easy to describe. It includes the two “longest” poses — shoulder stand and headstand. I understand why Pattabhi Jois (and maybe a few millennium of yogis before then) kept students in headstand for five, 10, 20 or 60 minutes. There are lessons to be learned there. (Well, I suspect. Not sure I’ll ever have the patience to find out.)

The former of the two categories, I assume, varies depending on the person — and for each person, on the day. But for me, the pose that is by far and away the one that is toughest to maintain a steady, deep breath in is Parivritta Parshvakonasana.

It is, as a result, the one I think I’m “learning” the most from: recognizing limits of fight/flight; discovering where physical strains and restraints are; and dealing with that edge — trying to hold calm in the storm it creates.

It demonstrates why I think yoga without pain or difficulty is missing something: The lesson comes in trying to remain calm and steady during stress. It’s easy to be calm when things are calm. It’s easy to be happy when things are all going great.

I just finished Ram Dass’ last book, “Polishing the Mirror,” and he talks quite a bit about dealing with pain and suffering and the lessons that come from that experience. They’re imperative and unmatched. And needed for when pain and suffering come along in every day life.

Posted by Steve

The secret to happiness? Ram Dass may have had it right

This weekend, NPR’s “TED Radio Hour,” focuses on happiness.

The one that caught my eye — er, ear — was the first: Are we happier when we stay in the moment? Here’s a summary:

When are humans most happy? To answer this question, researcher Matt Killingsworth built an app, Track Your Happiness, that let people report their feelings in real time. Among the results: We’re often happiest when we’re lost in the moment.

In other words: Be here now. Ram Dass may have been on to something.

Other topics from the show: Are we happier if we slow down? Does less stuff equal more happiness?

Tune in or down load.

Posted by Steve

More yoga dangers: When yogis invade your gentrified public park

We’ve pointed you toward the Sinister Yogi article that otherwise is a great review of the new Smithsonian yoga exhibit and to the problem of yoga’s being too New Agey, but here’s another yoga danger:

Yogis in your nice public park.

It seems that some residents of Los Angeles’ gentrified and hip Echo Park — which, despite what some people will tell you, isn’t on the Eastside of Los Angeles but is actually north and west of Downtown (try Boyle Heights if you want some authentic Eastside food and culture) — are upset that a yoga class has set up in the recently reopened park by the Echo Park Lake. Here’s how the Eastsider (which covers my parenthetical rant about places in LA on its site) sees things:

Since the lake and park reopened to the public this summer, one of the few relatively flat grassy areas of the park near the corner of Echo Park and Park avenues has hosted Yoga Echo Park, a series of regularly scheduled day and evening classes organized by instructor Steven Arcos.


But are these yoga classes, which has attracted 25 students, taking up too much room? On the Echo Elysian Forum, one resident observed that a “good sized hunk of the northeast lawn” had been taken over by the class:


The yoga classes are not part of a city’s Recreation & Parks Department program  but it’s not clear if permits are needed.  As others have noted, the city’s Recreation and Parks Department often requires permits for private group activities.  The Eastsider has contacted Arcos for details about the classes and about the permit issue.

Arcos does not charge for the classes but there is “a minimum $5 donation suggested,” according to his Facebook page.

Arcos, in a response to the Eastsider’s email, notes that he grew up in the area and remembers when the park was a hangout for gangs and that part of his intent is to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

But still. There’s an average, apparently, of 20 yogis in the class, taking up prime park real estate. The horror, right?

There seems to be two issues bubbling here, especially if you take the time to read through the comments. They are:

  1. Whether someone should be making money while using public space (without a permit, especially). If you are firm on this line, then the comparisons of the yoga class to swap meets and food vendors might be valid. Or, as some are calling all three: illegal pop ups. (It’s about time there are pop-up yoga studios, right?) There then are issues of fair business competition (if this class stealing students from nearby yoga studios?), loss of revenue to the city especially for a business that is explicitly using city property (no taxes are being collected is the guess) and, my favorite, the threat of a “yoga gang” taking over the park (most likely a tongue-in-cheek concern, but you never know!).
  2. Whether people have too much time on their hands and will just complain about anything that annoys them even mildly. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that’s the case.

Let this tale be a warning to all of our readers in places like Brooklyn, Madison and Arlington. First come your fancy coffee houses, next come your wandering gangs of yogis.

Now then, to avoid being accused of just offering up the blog equivalent of empty calories, I point you toward Tim Miller’s latest blog post, all about Indra (a sinister yogi?) and a fine blurb for the latest Ram Dass book:

It is a tribute to his Guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who passed from his body 40 years ago, but who is still very much alive in Ram Dass. Krishna Das does a program with Ram Dass in Maui every December. I recently asked K.D. how the old guy was doing. He said, “His body is a wreck but his spirit is beautiful. He’s finally become the guy we always thought he was.” It’s a beautiful book, the best one yet.

That’s saying something, right, with Be Here Now on that list. I wonder, though, if that seminal tome feels a bit dated today. It is very much of the ’60s.

Posted by Steve

Tim Miller rides the Bhav at Bhakti Fest, lunches with KD

On Saturday, Tim Miller went the Bhakti Fest.

On Tuesday, he wrote about it.

Last week, I dropped a quick link to Tim’s blog post about the awesomeness of September and a surprising number of folks clicked through. So perhaps it is worth reminding everyone of Tim’s wonderful Tuesday pieces, and this week’s is on a subject matter I know a lot of our readers fancy. Here’s Tim on the Fest; here he is talking about Krishna Das‘ set:

My favorite was a hymn to the Divine Mother interspersed with the chorus from the old Journey song, “I Want to Know What Love is.”  I hung in there until 11, but knew I had a two and a half hour drive ahead of me and two classes to teach Sunday morning.  I left with a nice glow and an open heart that made the ride home much more pleasant.   I’m very glad I went.  My friends always told me it was my kind of vibe and they were right–I don’t know why it took me five years to get there.  If Bhakti Fest ever invites me to teach again I will say yes.

There are two other reasons you ought to take a look at his full piece. The first is the story retold from his lunch with KD, concerning Neem Karoli Baba, Ram Dass and the infamous hit of acid that Ram Dass once gave his teacher. Did the tab really have zero effect on the Indian guru? You’ll have to read it to find out.

The second illustrates the impact on people that Shyamdas had. We linked through to Namarupa’s special issue on him after he passed away in February.

I always hear good and bad things about Bhakti Fest (is there anything one doesn’t hear good and bad things about, though?). Tim paints a picture that shines through with all the good.

Posted by Steve

Eddie Stern on the goal of spiritual practice

I joked once to Tim Miller that my most flexible muscle is my brain. I’m sure it must have come after he directed another shake of the head toward me and followed it with a “still stiff” in the Indian accent he puts on when he’s about to hurt your feelings, but wants to do so gently.

When you see me at the Confluence, you’ll know what I, and he, mean.

But my joke isn’t entirely facetious. I’m pretty sure my brain is my most flexible muscle; sadly, Ashtanga only is 1% theory, but it is a 1% I try to give at least 4% of my time to as part of my practice.

And it is why I’m as excited by the afternoon talks at the Confluence as I am the morning practice sessions.

Initially, I’ll admit to being most excited about hearing Richard Freeman. I read his latest book, “The Mirror of Yoga,” earlier this year, and I found much in it to absorb and contemplate. (Ala Bobbie’s review of “The Ramayana,” I’ll do something more complete on it at some point.) I have a suspicion I might really take to his perspective on the practice and on yoga in America.

Puja, via Ashtanga Yoga New York

But since the Confluence announcement, I’ve also being paying more attention to Eddie Stern, who may represent the great unknown for me when it comes to the five teachers.

What did I know about him? Well, the usual “rumors”: he’s super strict and super traditional, in that New York way. And before any New Yorkers/East Coasters jump on me, you know you think we’re all laid back and too free with things out here in California. I also know he’s embraced Hindu practices. But, really, that’s about it. (In the past few weeks, I’ve gotten more information from a local source, who I’ll keep anonymous. But it sounds like Eddie is a great teacher, which is no surprise.)

His blog at the Ashtanga Yoga New York site is great, and it is certainly making me more interested in hearing what he has to say about the 1% theory of Ashtanga. His latest, built around a puja for Guruji’s birthday, includes these wonderful words:

The goal of spiritual practice is to awaken inner happiness, happiness that is not caused by the fleeting, changing objects of the world, but is the uncaused happiness of the Self. Purnima refers to the full moon, when the moon is complete and reflects the full light of the sun. In the Hindu tradition the moon is the mind, and the sun is the heart – so when our mind completely reflects the inner happiness of the heart, it is said to be full. The yoga master Krishan Verma spoke this past Friday on this idea, remarking that the Guru is said to be the one to awaken this fullness, hence the special name Guru Purnima – what is fullness, he asked? Happiness. Where does this happiness come from? Devotion to the Guru. The Guru can be a person, but in essence is a principle, called Guru Tattva. The principle of the Guru is the light of knowledge – a light like the sun – which is shining in the heart of each and everyone of us. We can access that principle, and have our own experience of it. But while it is true that the Guru is within us, the need for an outer guide should never be discounted, one who can point us in the right direction – and especially in the cases where this principle shines forth brilliantly, and the vessel has become the embodiment of the principle.

Now, I’ll readily admit to being one of those not-so-rare Westerners who are reluctant to “surrender” to a Guru or, really, any authority figure. My embrace of Hanuman is mostly about tapping into his devotion to another.

And I’ll also admit to having hesitation to what I’ll broadly, and reductively, call “the new age spirituality” of yoga. I don’t mean to turn anyone off by that phrase, and don’t mean it pejoratively; it is more a reflection on me than yoga or Ashtanga or anyone practicing it. It places me in that grand continuum of American males, I think, who have some sort of ingrained skepticism or even hostility to anything “hippy dippy.” On one end is, I don’t know, Rick Santorum, maybe? On the other is probably Ram Dass.

As my practice has deepened, I’ve definitely moved toward Ram Dass. I’m trying to access what Tim Miller has referred to as my “gooey inside.” It’s not an easy task. But it is part of the practice, and it seems like it is an inescapable one after a certain point. There comes that moment when Ashtanga is either going to stay a really good workout or become something more.

That’s something we’ve all experienced, right? It is something I’m still trying to put into words. (One of the goals of this blog.)

I’m looking forward to the Confluence, in large part, to help push me further down that path toward “something more.” And I’m very interested to hear Eddie, and Richard, and find out if anything they say gives me a firm shove.