Comfort vs Ease

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

Peter Sanson is back in town. We did his four-day intensive at Magnolia’s over the weekend and will go back for a few more practices in Berkeley tomorrow. So much driving. So much planning and co-ordinating for car rides, and navigating through rush-hour traffic, but it is all so worth it. Personally, it is illuminating to see how much one can learn by just doing a Mysore practice with the right teacher for four days in a row. I have learned so much, but the biggest lesson so far involves understanding the subtle difference between comfort and ease:

Comfort = oscillating between the buckets of pleasure and aversion, and either running to or from it. Attachment-inducing. Elements of stress – to either hold onto a state that prolongs comfort or to restore comfort. Based in physical experience, sensations.

Ease = a state of mind, an attitude brought to a situation (physical, emotional). When successfully realized, being at ease enables vairagya (non-attachment). Lowers stress. Based in self-acceptance, compassion.


You can be at ease in discomfort, and you can be perfectly comfortable but never at ease – on the mat, or off of it. You can do the entire Primary series easily, and still not challenge yourself, or you can be stuck in the first half of Primary, undergoing serious physical discomfort with ease. Brings a whole new meaning to my understanding of Sutra 2.46: “Sthira sukham asanam“.






July 18, 2014 § 4 Comments

“This”, he said, “is the liminal line”, referring to the hand he held out, palmside down.

“Everything above it, is what we can see, feel, hear, and touch – what we are consciously aware of. Everything below it belongs to the subtle plane, the unknown. The breath lives above and below this line. The goal of yoga, therefore, is to lower the liminal line.

(Words: Steve Dwelley, Ashtanga Santa Barbara. Emphasis mine).

A Conundrum

July 8, 2014 § 14 Comments

What does it say about the quality of instruction I receive daily when I go off on vacation and practice with someone entirely new, and get so much more out of just three days with this teacher than I have from the past three years of practicing in my current room?

That’s quite a conundrum isn’t it? Surely it’s a warning sign that something is not quite right with the current state of affairs. It’s actually not the first time I’m seeing this discrepancy in teaching. We have a regular roster of visiting teachers who spend anything from a week to two months with us, and each time, this discrepancy in quality shows up. This time, it’s big enough to occupy my thoughts and for me to actually write about it.

In truth, I have struggled with the quality of teaching at the local studio for the better part of the last three years. There has been a lot of self-doubt. A lot of querying about how, maybe, it’s me that’s not getting it. Maybe I’m being too demanding, too egotistical in expecting a better instructional experience. There has been a lot of benefit of the doubt given to the teacher in authority, explaining away the things that puzzle me. There’s also, perhaps, some misguided acceptance of how, as a student, I should learn to be more accepting, generous, understanding of the teacher’s personality and how that shapes their teaching style.

There is also the realization that ‘Authorization’ from Mysore is certainly not an arbiter of teaching quality. Not. At. All. (So for those of you with teaching inclinations eyeing that ‘stamp of approval’ from Sharath, you might be of better service to humanity by focusing your energies on delving deep into your practice and developing your communication skills than running after a certificate. Just sayin’.)

So, this conundrum. What to do?

It is hard to explain – to myself even – what bad yoga teaching looks like without every line taking on the veil of a personal attack. Because yoga teaching is personal, any feedback can go very wrong very quickly. This is not something I have had to encounter with the majority of teachers I’ve practiced with since 2009. And so you don’t really think about it – you just sort of assume that if someone is a full-time yoga teacher, with a growing number of practitioners, that he/she knows what they’re doing and that you’ve got to “trust” the method. Trust the authority. Unfortunately, the longer I do this, the less willing I am to surrender my authority to just anyone, least of all to someone whose teaching style resonates less and less with my experience of the practice and my desire to learn.

But that still doesn’t answer the big question: Now that I see this conundrum, what am I going to do about it? I suppose blogging is the first step.

The Other Side

June 27, 2014 § 2 Comments

Talking with my teacher the other day the penny finally dropped on my tendency towards inertia when faced with something new to experience, learn, undertake: I forget that there is life on the other side of any seemingly unsurmountable new experience and I especially forget that I will make it through – the same way I have done so countless times before.

This forgetting – in some circles it may be termed ‘being asleep’ – germinates a whole ecosystem of excuses and mental blocks, manifesting in procrastinating behavior and a tentativity of language, punctuated by lots of ‘What Ifs’ and ‘Buts’. After an initial phase of fear-based adrenalin, Doubt starts to settle in, and overnight my apprehension is colored with shades of negativity and resentment. Shades that only deepen with time and with repeated encounters with said experience that I am terrified about. It can be something as simple as replying to a client to state my terms that no, I cannot work for free. Or bracing myself for full-on networking and self-promotion at a trade show for two full days. Or it can be something loaded with years of baggage, like picking up the phone and calling my parents just to check in. The work in both of these instances have gotten easier with time as I have grown more self-assured and aware of the boundaries I need to maintain for a healthy life. It has not been easy, but it has not been as terrifying as anticipated either.

The most frequent encounter of this nature happens in the asana practice. After receiving the first few poses of Second last year, it took me a long while to take this progression seriously. And by seriously I mean doing Primary + Second and dropbacks every damn day, without letting myself get away with doing just Primary. I’ll admit: for a couple of months after getting Bhekasana, I wanted to give the entire Second series back and just live the rest of my life doing Primary. But no, they kept coming: Dhanurasana, Parsva Dhanurasana, Ustrasana and Lagu Vajrasana. I was always tired. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was (possibly still am) cranky all the frickin’ time. I lived under the shadow of the prospect that I was going to gravely injure myself at any given time. It didn’t take much for me to fly off the handle and I found myself constantly, constantly!, bitching about everything in my stream of thought.

This was no way to live, I thought. Yoga is supposed to support my life – not drain me of energy! How the hell am I supposed to work – and do physical, load-lugging work at that – when stumbling out of the studio half-dead by 9am?!

For a while I alternated the Primary + Second days with Primary-only days. I even managed to make the case for a Half-Primary + Second sequence as my regular practice, imagine that! This went on for about four months, the excuses, the ‘oh yoga is not about how many poses I do’ and ‘I’m living reality here, not Mysore-reality so those Mysore rules don’t apply’, etc. All defense mechanisms of the ego protecting itself in its comfortable little bubble of a Primary-only life. With such a well-trodden path to endorphin bliss, who needs Intermediate with all its potholes of darkness?

Of course I see this only in hindsight.

Over a month ago my teacher came up to me and said, “I’d like you to try this (full practice) for a month”. What can you do but give it a go? Despite a busy month of travel and a deep taproot of Doubt, I terrifyingly took one step towards a full practice that day. And the next day. And the next day. It helped to have a really beautiful and special Certified teacher come visit for a week – you could tell that everyone pushed themselves a little harder over that period, not out of striving but out of devotion – and what do you know? I am doing Primary + Second + Dropbacks with regularity that it is not even a big deal any more. There’s still a pause after Setu Bandhasana, but for the most part: I have reached the Other Side and life goes on.


June 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Thanks, Brain Pickings.


May 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

In my little bubble of existence, the current zeitgeist comprises of big, heavy ideas: feminism, misogyny, privilege, the white male, authority dynamics. Among others.

Not that I don’t think about these issues from time to time, but in the past month, a variety of articles in the cybersphere have had the cumulative effect of sustaining my attention on these topics. And then a horrific event like Isla Vista happens and this whole thing explodes with its hornet’s nest of sociological/political/racial baggage.

Reading the #YESALLWOMEN tweets reminds me, again, how I have been fortunate in my life to have healthy relationships with male figures. Apart from a good dose of physical punishment (pretty common where I’m from), I have been spared the trauma of sexual abuse. While I was raised in a conservative and paternalistic culture, I’ve never had to think twice about my physical safety whether out alone at night or in the company of male friends. But this privilege of safety is also part of the problem: I never learnt how to deal with situations of aggravation. There is the shock when it happens, which leads to paralysis and then, after the fact, silence. There is also a whole load of cultural conditioning going on here as well: what do you expect from a chauvinistic culture that has rigid roles and expectations for each gender? The only thing to do is to suck it up and move on. Even among friends. There was a girlfriend who told me she was raped. She talked about it the way you would talk about the emotional fallout from a breakup. “Yes it’s sad that it happened, yes it sucks, but oh well, what can I do. Life goes on”.

I remember feeling as if the conversation wasn’t really happening – that ‘rape’ only happens to someone else, not someone I know. This pretty much sums up my own reactions to incidents of aggravation/outright discrimination from men: I’ve blocked it out to the point where I don’t know how to talk about it. But this hashtag is doing something – it’s bringing up the memories that I’ve pushed away and showing me the helplessness that still lingers. At being groped at a friend’s wedding. At having a classmate from church shine his flashlight at my chest to check out my underwear. At being told I need to wait at least 5 years before getting promoted because I am a woman. At being regarded as a prostitute (and treated as such) simply because I am travelling in Southeast Asia with a white man. There are probably more incidents that I don’t recall. Likely more.

There is a part of me that says that I’m being too sensitive about these things. This is the voice that wants to ‘preserve the peace’ and not cause ‘unncessary trouble’. It is the voice of my upbringing where the uncomfortable and the embarrassing are ignored in the hope that they will fade away. #YESALLWOMEN is my relief valve, shining the light on the uncomfortable, embracing it, and eventually, moving beyond the helplessness.

Dena Kingsberg

May 6, 2014 § 9 Comments

Just spent 3 days with this amazing woman in Santa Barbara, ahead of her commitments at the Confluence this weekend. Out of all the senior teachers, she is the one I have wanted to practice with for the longest time. I can’t explain why, but perhaps it has something to do with her words, her perspective on life and this practice and its potency that piqued my curiosity.

What is there to say that hasn’t been said already? This strong woman, full of humor, compassion, discipline, kindness and a beautiful voice – she has a way with words that simplifies the intangible elements of yoga practice into concepts that are easy to digest and apply. Her devotion to the Ashtanga vinyasa system, her unshakeable faith in it, inspires faith in you that this, maybe, is more than weird contortionistic exercises, that this path may actually be one where you could possibly connect with what is Sacred or Divine. Or both. Her convictions are compelling and infectious. Her touch is firm but gentle, instructions concise, sometimes a little curt, but when she’s there with you on your mat, there is nothing but trust and presence. She is with  you, even if there are 30 other people in the room waiting for adjustments of their own. We ended the workshop with a Mysore practice yesterday, and for a first-time practice with a new teacher, I have never felt safer or more relaxed.

After my trip to India I started to realize that I needed – more than ever – to find a Teacher of my own. One with whom I could go deep. Yes, we all know that we are our own teachers, that the practice, done over a consistent period of time, with devotion, is the best teacher. But a little help from experienced hands wouldn’t hurt, would it? The problem is, with so many teachers all around the world, how do you choose to commit before you’ve had a chance to practice with someone? That’s the benefit of workshops I think, giving you the chance to get the flavor and sense of what this teacher’s like before you decide to commit and travel halfway around the world to immerse yourself in their teaching. How lucky are we to have this privilege of choice. And yet, sometimes I wish we didn’t have that choice; that to study Ashtanga you just had to turn up on the doorsteps of a small house in Laksmipuram and surrender to everything that lay beyond that threshold.

This weekend clarified the search a little. I wouldn’t go so far to say that Dena’s my Teacher just yet, but I would definitely study with her again, given the chance. What I do know are the characteristics that I look for in a Teacher figure: someone strong, who is able to hold me accountable for my own practice, who inspires me to give of my best, who is able to point out or bring to the surface those elements of myself that I’m either not aware of or am avoiding. Someone who has walked the path, fallen, gone through their own darkness and come through the other side. Someone who knows what it means to be real and safe (in asana practice), and honoring SKPJ’s tradition without being dogmatic about it all. Someone, in other words, who has at least 20+ years of practice. And who is, preferably, a woman.


Dena on practice:

“Practice is a product of time, place and circumstance. Some creativity is needed in order for the practice to meet the needs of the yoga practitioner and their householder responsibilities.”

“Unrealistic expectations are the seeds of disappointment.”

“Don’t push into your limitations. Lean into them. You may find that these limitations move as you lean, then you keep leaning until your body tells you to stop.”

“You don’t arrive at (the full expression of) a pose from the first count. Sometimes you may not arrive until the third count, or the fifth count, or the fifteenth count. Give yourself the space to arrive.”

“It is not about how far you go, but how you get there that is important.”

On finding Mula Bandha:

“Imagine you had a burrito last night and the beans weren’t properly cooked, and now you’re in a crowded room trying not let others know that you’ve got gas. How do you hold it in?”


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