Power

January 24, 2017 § 1 Comment

Gosh, it’s been a while since I last wrote here. There’s been a lot going on in my world and many things have unfolded, changed, erupted, vanished, shifted at such a fast pace that my writing has not kept up with the reflexivity in my head.

The trip to Mysore offered a lesson in many things, but the one I want to talk about is the lesson of empowerment. Given the current socio-political climate, notions of power, empowerment and disempowerment in all its varied forms have been on my mind recently, from the personal to the social.

Let’s start with the personal. I went to Mysore with a practice routine that was a twice-a-week occurrence on account of a cyst-laden wrist and the advice of a PT who believed that it’s better to do the full expression of the pain-causing activity less frequently than to do a modified version more frequently. Shaped by current perspectives about the body, physical fitness, injuries and how to recover from them, this point of view is very much grounded in the physical, and thus, also views yoga as an inadequate fitness routine. I agree with him on that count. If you’re looking for ‘fitness’, there are far better programs out there to help you achieve your goals (calorie burn, weight loss, etc etc etc). This advice however, effectively distilled the role of the practice in my life and my relationship to it. It is, in Andrew Sullivan’s words, “a ritual that let’s the rest of my life breathe“.

In the weeks leading up to my departure for Mysore I sought to balance PT logic with the inner, embodied, as yet unarticulated knowing about the practice’s importance. (I think there is a part of my relationship with Ashtanga yoga that will never be able to be fully articulated, because the resonance goes so deep.)

Preparing for this trip meant giving myself permission to cut it short if things were not ‘working out’ in Mysore. There was also a fair amount of anxiety about what I had to do to mitigate cyst-related pain in a daily practice situation, how to avoid aggravating it, how should I modify my practice and should I modify at all? These questions eventually clarified an intention to preserve and protect my body going into Mysore. I resolved to put self-care and compassion above conforming to an external representation of what the practice was supposed to look like. I would show up each day and modify accordingly, tuning into the sensations around the left wrist and shoulders and letting those nerve messages guide the shape of my practice. This meant stepping, not jumping, even in led classes. Skipping Bhujapidasana, a 1-breath Kukkutasana, a clumsy-looking Supta Kurmasana exit and no or very short Utpluthis for pretty much the first month. What I discovered quickly, was that my fears of being called out for modifying the practice were completely unfounded. It’s not that Sharath didn’t see the changes I made – he really does know everything that goes on in that room – it’s that he saw me and my practice and he let me do it. By not calling me out (as some teachers would do), he was telling me that I know what’s best for my body and how to manage whatever pain or injury I’m experiencing. And in doing so, he empowered me. For someone whose personal narrative has mostly been about disempowerment, especially in relationships with authority figures, this is a massive shift in how I see myself, my ability to trust my body and my intuition about what actions are best suited for me at any particular time. A big deal. And this is why I have come to accept him as my teacher after years of skepticism and doubt.

The notion that we have the power to shape our lives is a tired New Age cliche and yet that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a lesson that keeps showing up in practice, because the the practice and experience of yoga is about challenging the limited mental projections we have about ourselves and the world around us: how we choose to see ourselves, who we are, what we are capable of accomplishing, our capacity for discomfort, etc. The ripples that come from stepping into and owning the power that each of us has is infinite, and also, potentially subversive. We have the power to choose to see the good, the kind, the fear in others, to empathize instead of projecting and blaming our insecurities. We have the power to behave in ways that draw healthy boundaries for ourselves, for standing up to narratives and behaviors that gaslight and disempower our faculties for critical thinking.

(It’s important here to highlight that I’m not denying the structural forces behind the social issues of our time, because this is the sort of argument that a good conservative would use to justify cutting programs for the most vulnerable in our society. No, I’m writing this specifically for the other affluent and privileged individuals who live in my world, who don’t have to worry about the color of their skin, where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep tonight. These are the people who have the means to effect real change.)

Which brings me to the social: Coming out of the Women’s March last weekend I found another kind of power – the power to speak up and be heard and be counted for values that I believe are important. It was my political awakening, in an active, visible sense. As a Sociology major in college I’ve always been aware of power dynamics in society. This, along with years working as a paper-pusher in an autocratic government and then in PR, built and refined my personal bullshit detector, particularly as it relates to authority.  Being born and raised in an autocracy that basically runs on an apathetic, disempowered electorate in exchange for the creature comforts of modern living, I’ve long had a malaise around activism and skepticism of the real value of doing things like voting, marching, protesting…..all activities that represent a healthy, engaged citizenry in the democratic process. Last Saturday showed me how it has been in the State’s interest to keep me (and the other people of my home country) disempowered about our ability to effect real change. Because when people get together in civic spaces to speak up about the values that are important to them, it is a powerful experience. It is an embodied encounter, one increasingly rare in this Internet Age, and that experience empowers you even more because you see for yourself that you’re not alone in this cause that you’re championing. That together, we can make a difference, and this realization stays with you, energizes you and inspires you to keep the momentum going. This is real power and it’s up to us not to squander it.

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It’s All The Same

November 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

Morning Mysore The past two weeks have seen an interesting integration of two of my biggest loves: yoga and photography. I first shared the photography bit with our yoga community by documenting a Mysore class. And then, a week later in the heart of Mexico, I shared the yoga with two (out of our group of seven women) photographers I travelled with. In both situations, the combination of practices served to inform the main practice I was there to do. I’ve always held that there are many similarities in yoga practice and photography – you’ve just got to keep doing it, working at it, wrestling with your own demons along the way, and one day you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come even if there’s that nagging feeling most of the time that you’re not really going anywhere.Morning MysoreIn the first instance, I channelled Mysore (the city) with a 4am practice before the shoot. There’s magic at that hour, even more so when I know that four years ago the idea of being up at 3am usually meant the tail end of a big night, not the start of a day.

Photographing a Mysore room in progress is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, capturing the way the light changes with the sunrise and the beauty of the human form. It was a dance of intimacy and respect as I moved about the room, of getting close enough but not too close. Of translating the synchronicity and individuality of practice rhythms. Of the breath.

The position of observer yielded an unexpected insight into the nature of practice: from the birds’ eye view of the room, what were usually arduous battles on the mat suddenly seemed really trivial. I saw, for the first time, that in the larger scheme of things, it didn’t matter who was doing what series, who could bind, who had the deepest backbend. What really mattered was actually showing up to do the practice, in whatever form the body allowed that day. It was illuminating, to say the least, to see someone doing third series next to someone struggling with Paschimottanasana, and to realize that for the most part, the form is irrelevant, it’s the effort that really counts.Morning Mysore

And then, in Mexico, after being asked to share this practice by a woman whose work I respect and admire, I found myself going through the “rules” around yoga teaching: am I ready? Should I tell her no? I’m not trained! I’m not ‘authorized’! And the like. But then it occurred to me that this circumstance was actually in line with my philosophy about yoga teaching: it’s something that you’re asked to do, not something you choose to do. So since I was asked, I shared whatever I knew, which was to do a highly abbreviated form of the Primary series. No tricky binds, or funky knee rotations. No inversions and certainly no adjustments. Just breathing and doing it along with them. It definitely wasn’t the regular practice I did that day, but it was a practice nonetheless. Given the choice between doing my full practice alone or doing an abbreviated one alongside friends – I’m glad I chose the latter. Based on their feedback it seems I calculated the poses just right and didn’t scare them off – always a good thing, n’est pas?

In The Thick Of It

April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

My life in the past few months as it relates to Ashtanga/Mysore goes something like this:

First month – Sick, cold and pining pining pining for India. A lot of sentences begin with “In Mysore….”, and there’s talk of going back “next year”. I must have sounded like a broken record. I book a trip to Sharath’s tour in Encinitas (happening right now) as soon as the tickets are available. Read blogs from yogis in Mysore almost religiously. My heart and body are not in the same place.

Second month – Still pining, but the intensity of the nostalgia gets channelled into new habits. Chanting, pranayama, meditation, asana – trying to cram it all into my morning before 9am and realizing that I’m adding on too much at once. Obviously. Heart still longs for India, but body and mind have found the groove of being back home. Wine and meat start to make the occasional appearance. Working out new dining and sleeping habits with the husband. Adjustments and transitions.

Third month – Nostalgia is practically gone. Mysore feels like a distant memory. Starting to take a critical look at the romance of making the trip and asking myself if I really want to go back as soon as I had previously planned, and whether it would make sense in the context of my responsibilities. New habits are now part of my daily routine thanks to my local yoga community. Life here kicks into full gear and suddenly I’m not thinking about Mysore all the time, or even everyday.

Fourth month – Life is simply beautiful. Feeling immensely grateful for where I am physically, emotionally, spiritually. Thankful for the communities I am a part of, the opportunities I have and the decisions I get to make. For the first time in probably 33 years I actually feel content with my life as it currently stands, with its joys and challenges. I seem to have let go of the expectation that happiness is to be found by “moving somewhere else”. Realizing that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing the work I have to do, and enjoying it all. Realizing also that an annual trip to Mysore is not my path. I’ve come to see that the trip was like an injection of highly potent spiritual compost, to be applied sparingly. The yoga is working and it’s working well. I can’t wait to see what else life has in store.

Photos

March 5, 2013 § 2 Comments

For those who are interested, I posted a whole bunch of photos from Mysore on my other blog. Feel free to skip the Intro to Ashtanga Yoga 101 at the beginning and head into the other paragraphs. Actually, feel free to skip the text altogether….what I wrote there is pretty much a sanitized version of what I’ve blogged about here so just enjoy the photos.

And with that, yet another barrier between my online identities has started to chip away. Integration, maybe?

One Month

January 22, 2013 § 5 Comments

photo(5)

Forgive the horrible quality of this surreptitiously taken photograph. I felt compelled to capture it one morning in early December, waiting to start practice at 730am. The fluorescent lights in the practice room were being turned off, leaving the room to bathe in dawn’s soft pink hue. From my vantage point it resembled the kind of light you get in a chapel through its stained glass windows. Together with the breathing and the energy of the room, this Ashtangi chapel held an especially delicate beauty that morning that I will never forget. It certainly made the wait for practice a lot more pleasant.

Yesterday marked a month to the day I left Mysore. It’s only now that the missing is starting to sink in and take root. I’ll save you from my pity party and suggest you head over to Insideowl, who describes the feeling perfectly in this sweet post.

Brain Pickings

January 11, 2013 § 4 Comments

While I was sick last week I had a lot of time to dive into the rabbit hole of the Internet, following link after link after link on one yoga article to another. If talking about one’s practice is a worse sin than not practicing, where does reading fit in I wonder? Here are a few of the items that really piqued my interest – happy moon day.

“At that moment I have realized what makes one practice spiritual. I have understood that meditations, prays, asanas are just the tool. And this tool can be used to plough the soil and to make it fertile. This is what practice does – it makes the soil fertile. If a person fulfils difficult asanas or prays constantly it does not mean yet that this person is spiritual. It simply means that inside him there is a fertile soil. And what the person plants into this soil will grow. Therefore, the more intensively we practice, the more cautious we should be. If you plant an ego into this fertile soil it will grow up much more, than an ego of a usual person. Therefore spirituality is not defined by practice. Spirituality is defined by concentration, intention and actions of a practitioner.”
(emphasis mine)

Transcript of a talk at a workshop in Moscow in 2010. Lots of gems in this piece and familiar stuff as well (the story of how he began in yoga), if you’ve read Guruji. The part in bold really stood out for me. It answers the question (somewhat) of why is it that some of the most intolerant and judgemental people I know seem to be those who are deeply religious. It helps to explain the biggest contradictions I saw while growing up – the most frequent and devout church-goers also seemed to be the most self-righteous a**holes I had ever met.

A short-lived (nine months) magazine featuring contributions from various Ashtangis about the practice and life in Mysore. I thoroughly enjoyed ploughing through all nine issues (told you I had a lot of time!), like this interview with Saraswati, one with Joseph Dunham, Russell Case‘s irreverent, slightly academic voice on everything from popping joints to Snoop Dogg’s marketing tactics and a series of practice reflections from different people.

  • Life is easy. Why do we make it hard?

This is not yoga-related – well, not asana-related – but totally worth sharing. Jon Jandai runs Pun Pun, a sustainable living and learning center, seed-saver, organic farm and permaculture center just outside Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand. In this video he shares his philosophy and story of how he rejected modern notions of “success” and forged his own path.

 

Re-entry

January 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

I left Mysore the afternoon of Dec 21, the day the world was supposed to end. In some ways, it was the ending of my little yoga cocoon and the dawn of the next one: reality. It was a quiet departure, after a week of cumulative goodbyes, and a quiet confidence that it was only a matter time before I would return. Still, there were tears.

I landed in Tokyo almost 24 hours later, freezing, but happily reunited with the husband after six long weeks. On the quiet speedy train from Narita it struck me that I had landed in a city that couldn’t be further away from the organic mess of India. I’ve come to realize that travelling turns me into a space cadet of sorts for the first 24 hours, as my mind catches up with the geographical displacement of the body. I have a friend, a romantic, who firmly believes in the value of taking the slow route when travelling. Buses, trains, cars….anything but the plane. This way, you allow yourself to get to know your destination before you arrive, to see the changes in the landscape and the light, visual cues for the mind to help with the transition. It’s a lovely idea, and very possible when you’re just travelling between Seattle and San Francisco….it’s a little harder when you’re going halfway round the world.

Tokyo was fun, but also showed me how I’ve moved on in my interests compared to my last trip five years ago. Love the shopping and the food still, but because we were in bed by 10 every night, there was the other part of the city – the spontaneous, party-having, club-hopping side – that we missed out on. Got the flu at the end of our trip and the first week of 2013 was spent in bed under the spell of the Flupocalypse. It’s an interesting experience being so sick that you’re not able to stand for 10 minutes without feeling faint. Particularly when you were in a state of robust health and flexibility just a week ago. I could feel the muscles tingle with each wheeze and cough, feeling completely uncoordinated with lead-heavy limbs and the mind in a brain fog. It has been a long time since I caught the flu, seemed pretty auspicious that I spent the New Year battling it – getting rid of the poisons and baggage of the old year, starting afresh in the new one.

So. Back “home” now after all the travelling. It’s supposed to be permanent, one’s “home”, where you sink your roots and build your life, yet I see how temporary it is, as if it’s a matter of time before I’ll pack up again and travel somewhere else. When we landed last week, I felt set adrift, detached from this “home” I supposedly lived in, far removed from the connections and routines I had before I left. It struck me that this is one of the products of immersing yourself in a spiritual practice for an extended period of time, with no distractions. The layers peel away. Responsibilities become more distant. Relationships become memories. It softens the shackles of one’s connections with the real world – a dangerous prospect that underscores the importance of leaving the cocoon. After a youth spent rebelling against notions of “duty” and of things that “one should do”, I finally appreciate the importance of having duties to fulfil – it is an anchor that grounds us in the world we live in, and completely part of the SKPJ tradition, the householder practice. Without responsibilities, our practice remains in the lab, and really, who wants to be a lab rat for life?

Happy new year everyone.

 

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