Classify this as ‘Yoga News of the Weird’

With this post, we may have entered the “Yoga News of the Weird,” but three explanations / excuses:

  1. The yoga and Ashtanga news seems slow today.
  2. Between Bobbie’s reading a pretty heavy tome on Tantra and my working my way through “American Veda,” there’s lots of serious thoughts filling our home. But I haven’t yet figured out a way to put them into words.
  3. My lower back hurts! And practice was aggravating as a result, but I don’t want to bore you with tales of Almost Ashtanga.
So, here’s something that is the exact opposite of that. (And, as a bonus, it’s from a Patch — which I just mentioned a few days ago.)

A homeless man’s yoga routine was mistaken for a public hanging near the Winston Campus playground Sunday.

Police responded to a call at 3:58 p.m. that a man had hung himself at the playground at Winston Campus, 900 E. Palatine Rd. The call said a man was seated alongside the fence with a black rope around his neck, not moving.

When officers arrived they found a 51-year-old homeless man doing yoga.

“Officers found the man standing alongside a fence using a black rope that was attached to the fence to stretch his arms,” Deputy Palatine Police Chief Brad Grossman said. “He said he was not trying to hurt himself.”

Punchline: If he wasn’t trying to hurt himself, he wasn’t doing it right!

OK, maybe not a good punchline, but… that’s all I’ve got.

Posted by Steve

A simpler view of the ‘transgressive’ practice of Tantric Yoga

If you’re like me, the words “Tantra” or “Tantric” conjure up a lot of mystery — and not a little of it sexual.

For better or worse — well, for worse — that’s the “rap” Tantra has in the West. Can we blame the hippies? Sure, why not! They seem to get the blame for everything else!

Tantric art from Santa Monica Museum of Art

But two recent books I’ve read have helped me shed my preconceptions of what Tantra means and understand it better in the oeuvre that is yoga, yoga philosophy and yoga practice.

One is Richard Freeman’s latest, “The Mirror of Yoga.” The other is one we’ve mentioned before, “The Hindus.” I highly recommend them both as they put into Tantric practice into context. I have a better understanding, even appreciation, for Tantra’s reaction to “mainstream” Hinduism of different times as well as what its esoteric or “transgressive” nature intends. It operates in the realm of symbols and symbolic acts and focuses on pushing beyond boundaries. It is simply another path toward understanding the relationships among our perceived world, the unperceived world, our bodies and our inner selves. (Not to put too fine a point on it. And I’m definitely not claiming that as a definitive explanation.)

My education took another five or six steps forward this past weekend when we viewed an exhibit currently showing at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. “Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajastan” runs through Dec. 10. I’ve mentioned the show, in brief, before. Here’s a link to the musuem’s page for it.

Here’s the key description of the show:

Tantra Song: Contemporary Tantric Paintings from Rajasthan is a collection of thirty-nine anonymous works from India, made from 1985 to 2009. The process of painting these works is part of a spiritual practice, and the paintings themselves have specific qualities to guide private meditation. Made in tempera, gouache, and watercolor on salvaged paper, they are pinned up and anointed for use as spiritual objects, then discarded once aged and faded.

This rare lineage of Tantric art evolved from seventeenth-century, hand-written and illustrated religious treatises, which were copied over many generations. The contemporary result is a distinct visual lexicon used to awaken heightened states of consciousness. The paintings include a range of familiar geometric forms, each imbued with spiritual meaning: spirals and arrows for energy; inverted triangles for the goddess Shakti; and ovals for the god Shiva. Though deeply symbolic, the formal compositions of these works share a great affinity with twentieth-century abstract art. East and West, spiritual and aesthetic, ancient and modern all converge in this exhibition.

All of the art is notebook paper-sized, and entirely abstract. (There’s almost a Rothko or Pollack quality to some, interestingly enough.) The simplicity of it, I found, allowed the viewer — in this case, me — to fill the piece with whatever you wanted. It was just an oval, or it was Shiva, or it was Shiva and you — the limit of the pieces entirely was in the viewer.

At times, it feels more like the art is looking at you than the other way around. And I could understand completely how it would compress the distance between individual and Divine.

In other words: yoga.

Posted by Steve

The mystery of Patanjali made more mysterious

Something about Eddie Stern popped up on the Internet today, and I followed it to a site for Baba Rampuri.

I have to admit, I have never heard of him. According to the site, he’s an American expatriate was the “first foreigner to be initiated into  India’s most ancient order of yogis and shamans, the Naga Sannyasis.” He’s been living there since 1970 and has founded a few ashrams and “was honored with a permanent seat in the Juna Akhara Council and given the title Antahrashtriya Mandal (World Circle) ka Shri Mahant.”

There’s plenty more at the site, if you want to check it out: It looks like he has an autobiography, out about 18 months ago, that offers a look inside the sadhus of modern (and ancient) India.

Tantric art from Santa Monica Museum of Art

Here’s what popped up on the site’s blog about Stern: “Our 2012 New York Kumbh Mahayajna has been canceled by successful New Age entrepreneur Eddie Stern, the lead organizer in New York, and ended our nearly one year of work to bring the gift of Blessings of World Peace and Prosperity when they are so sorely needed.”

I don’t know what that means, and I would have delved further but right below it was a very familiar name: Patanjali. Oh, I thought, this Baba Rampuri has something to say about our Ashtanga source. I am going to give it to you in its entirety, which I don’t typically do — it’s a nice virtual gesture to send people off to someone’s site, right? But in this case, I worry that pulling anything out of context would be the wrong step. But, still, you can find it here along with other thoughts:

Even a great translation of Patanjali’s definition of yoga doesn’t address some nagging issues. Being arguably among the 2 greatest grammarians of the last 2500 years, and the field of Grammar, Speech, is very sophisticated and wide spread in Indian culture, he composed a SUTRA, a compressed form of Speech, capable of delivering a lot of reference in very few syllables. It is called Yoga Sutra. Other sutras composed during his time and before are unfathomable without commentary. Certainly “Ashtadhyayi,” Panini’s grammar, also in Sutra, had to be redacted in the 16th century, because even the commentary had become too arcane for many students of the time.

Patanjali’s tradition was Speech, and he was one of the greatest masters of it. Yet, we want to read him, as if he was writing as, for example, a 19th century philosopher, presenting his speculations on Truth or God. Although we may assign him to a darshana, or philosophical school, he was not a philosopher, his compositions were not expository, he wasn’t writing non-fiction, he was writing CODE. Not that anything was secret, or he didn’t want others to know – “To the grammarian, to save even a single syllable, was equivalent to the birth of a son (source: shastra stuck inside my head).”

In these sutras and some tantric styles of composition, the references are NOT to ideas, but syllables, and indeed syllables appear where there were none, through decompression, as if we would unzip files on a computer. And the syllables, in turn have references. A master of grammar & composition can send the references in many directions at the same time. Patanjali was such a master.

To extract what looks like a word from The Yoga Sutra, and look it up in Monier-Williams English Sanskrit dictionary, is good for your professor at the university, but just doesn’t cut it among adepts and magi – or yogis. Patanjali is in a class of the greatest esotericists of the last few thousand years.

Yes, we can be inspired by all great literature, make our lives more conscious and happy, and we can do the same with Yoga Sutra. It’s part of its greatness and that of its author.

It’s a lot bigger than it seems. That’s the nature of sutra.

Umm… OK. So, I think I’m going to have to contemplate this one for a bit. I understand that sutras can contain more than appear from just their few simple words. But the idea of references being “NOT to ideas, but syllables” blows my little Deconstructionist mind. And I’m trying to reconcile it with this exhibit of contemporary Tantric art we went and saw on Saturday. (It’s a great exhibit if you are a Southern California reader.)

Emphasis in that sentence on trying.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga briefly in the news: A primer from Canada

A Tantric diagram of five-faced Hanuman. Via

If this keeps up, I may have to take back my pronouncement that Ashtanga doesn’t get much news coverage.

Another — albiet brief — mention of our branch of the yoga line today in a quick, down-and-dirty “history of yoga” piece in the Vancouver Sun. The reason forthe story seems to be the Indian Summer festival, which just finished there. It looks like it still is offering yoga classes, though, so I think that’s the “hook.”

Ashtanga, and Guruji, get a mention as the story traces the “history” of yoga from those measureless moments in history to the present day:

Yoga returned to the classical philosophy with the father of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya who brought it back to the public in the early 20th century.

Krishnamacharya studied yoga from the monks living ascetic lives in caves in the Himalayas. When he returned to his home in Mysore, he started working for the royal family many of whom were ill. He taught them yoga and when they experienced the benefits, they decided to start a school and supported spreading the teachings.

“Most of the lineages of yoga today come from Krishnamacharya,” says Luce adding that Krishnamacharya had three disciples; B.K.S. Iyengar of Iyengar yoga, Pattabhi Jois, who developed Ashtanga yoga and Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar who developed a lineage called Viniyoga.

There’s not too much there, I’ll grant you. But the story does end on a teasing note; this is probably what the story should be, although I guess it is a better topic for a yoga-focused publication:

Luce says there is a debate raging in the yoga community now between classical thinking and tantric ideas. Most of Western yoga, like Hatha, Kundalini or Ashtang [sic], adheres to the classical approach in which the goal is to transcend the body.

But newer lineages have emerged in the last 20 years such as Anusara, which takes a tantric approach embracing the body as part of the sacred whole.

“It is coming to the surface, the texts are being understood and there is a new take on it now,” says Luce.

Ah, Anusara. When I was at Tim Miller’s Tulum retreat earlier this year, the resort was filled mostly with an Anusara training group. From what I heard, they thought all of us Ashtangis were up-tight and humorless. From my perspective, I thought their slow, precise meditative walking on the beach was a little silly. And their cheering and clapping from the bigger of the two yoga studios was in sharp contrast to the vibe with Timji.  (That’s just me, though, and I admit up front I don’t know much about Anusara.)

All that said, I’d love to see some of these newly translated Tantric books. Richard Freeman’s Mirror of Yoga does a great job of describing Tantra, and it certainly piqued my interest.