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.

Inquiries Into Magic

February 18, 2014 § 2 Comments

Do you believe in magic? In the fact that our lives unfold more or less according to the Universe’s schedule? Do you believe that dreams actually come true and have a meaning all of their own?

Example: A succession of dreams (I recall at least five) about Mysore and Sharath in the past month, three of which occurred within the same week. What is one to make of it? Is it a ‘sign’ or just the after-effects of the trip in 2012, released through the energetics of back-bending? What sort of interpretation/validation am I seeking in writing about this? What am I projecting onto this?

Clearly, part of me believes in the ‘magic’ of life and accepts it, but the rational, Western-oriented/educated self can’t stop analyzing and interpreting the experience, some of which are inherently inexplicable. Back in 2003 while in the throes of a difficult break-up, I dreamt about meeting the man who is now my husband. Things only clicked into place much later, when an assortment of real-life events recalled the emotions of the dream experience. I have deja vus pretty often, but having dreams and reality intersect in this way was a first.

Is that magic?

I’ve asked myself that question countless times since returning from Mysore, because, truthfully, it does feel as if my life has taken on a new rhythm of its own since the trip. I haven’t written about it much because I don’t have a lot of experience writing poetically about the esoteric life, and because some things are best kept on the down low and shared in-person. After more than a year since returning though, I can honestly say that the fruits of that journey are still unfolding. The process started before I left, and since then, there have been major shifts in practically every sphere of my life, starting with the interior/emotional self and expanding outwards to my marriage, my parents, social network and now, my career. Through it all, the asana practice maintains its steady course, inhale/exhale, through twinges, tweaks and injuries. It is fascinating to watch, but it doesn’t really answer the question: Is this magic?

Perhaps I don’t want to answer the question because I fear that an answer would take away some of its, well…, magic. But what I do know is that I’ve never felt more content and grounded in my life circumstances than I have in the past 14 months. There is a strong sense that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. That I am privileged to have the lifestyle I have and the choices I get to make. This, coming from a past of constant whining about my present circumstances, of always wanting to be somewhere else (=’better than here’), and of a nagging feeling that I’m never good enough, never rich enough and never successful enough. The ghosts of inadequacy may still lurk, but this shift in perspective about my life – now that’s magic.

Dirty Little Secret

June 5, 2013 § 13 Comments

A video of a Brazilian toddler talking about why he wouldn’t eat the octopus his mother prepared went viral last week. Unfortunately, the version with English subtitles has since been taken down but you can still absorb his adorable-ness in the original video. Like his mother, I found myself crying by the end, moved by his earnestness and the simplicity of his reasoning.

Sadly for Luiz Antonio, I still enjoy octopus and most of the animals he wants to keep “standing up”, and therein lies my dilemma. I find myself in the unique position of thoroughly enjoying two areas of interest that are, in some circles, diametrically opposed. Yogis are supposed to be vegetarians, preferably vegan (apparently). My experience in Mysore showed that the typical Ashtangi’s attitude towards food is primarily utilitarian – it is a means to an end, the end being the asana practice and the broader journey towards a sattvic state. Conversations about food in this group have a stronger focus on nutritional value, less on textures and flavors.

In the other part of my life, however, I am part of circles where food IS the end, and we talk endlessly about the variations on a recipe, how we would do it differently, what we could improve on the next round, and so on. And yes, we talk about the joys of meat consumption too, a topic that has recently left me feeling like a hypocrite in Ashtanga circles. I feel like the Ashtangi with the dirty secret: I like meat and dairy, and I don’t plan on ever giving it up. Never mind that meat isn’t a regular part of my diet, or that when I prepare it, I make sure to source it locally from sustainably-run farms. The fact that I eat meat at all feels like I’m breaking the biggest taboo in Ashtanga.

Of course, this could all just be in my head. My guilt issues manifest in “Ashtanga police” form, popping up just as I’m getting ready to photograph a food blogging conference where I will be immersed in familiar conversations about textures, flavors, butchery, ingredients, pickling, baking, brewing, etc etc etc. I’m still working through this, looking, hoping, for the middle ground where I can comfortably straddle both fields of interest and not be intimidated by superficial judgements of my food choices. A work-in-progress, definitely.

Encinitas 2013

April 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

My Mysore story began with the Sharath and Saraswati tour a year ago, so it’s nice to come back and reflect on how things have changed. Back then there was a lot of buzz, from within and without. A big group of us from the home studio made the trip south to practice with S+S for the first time. The Vanity Fair article on Sonia Jones and the Jois Yoga enterprise was still a hot topic of conversation, and the Jois yoga studio was replete in its high-end retail glory. There were photographers and videographers, as well as the “who’s who” of Ashtanga practicing alongside the rest of us. I was terribly anxious about practicing led for five consecutive days, seeing as how a six-day practice week was still the exception rather than the rule at that time. And then to do the first class and be completely swept away, absorbed, into the collective experience of the breath, which sealed the deal on my decision to head to Mysore. It was a heady, endorphin-filled time that kept me going for many weeks afterwards.

This year, things are much more low-key. First of all, they’ve cleared the shop floor and turned it into a huge waiting/changing area between classes. The “shop” is now about a fifth of its original size hidden behind screens. A lone photographer stopped by for just one class (per session – there are two sessions each day). And there’s just a smidge more space around each mat, compared to a year ago. Waking up at 5 to walk the half-block to the shala is sweetly reminiscent of those dark Mysore mornings, and seeing familiar faces from my recent trip is both surreal and sweet. The practice itself is sweeter than ever, and, dare I say it, easier compared to a year ago. There is more steadiness, fewer fluctuations, stronger and louder breaths. There is surrender to the count and all of its Sharath embellishments.

I have to confess that I wasn’t all that excited about making this trip – the 3rd in a span of a month – given the demands of real life on my time and energy. I just wanted to be home for more than just a few days at a time, I wanted my life to go back to being “normal”. Well, the first ekam on Friday took care of all doubts. Whatever detractors may say, there’s no denying the fact that Sharath’s able to pull together a critical mass of people and orchestrate an experience that’s quite unlike any other. A led class with him is more than just about perfecting each asana or lasting his count for Uthpluthi. It is a return to the basics, a stripping away of the faffing and mental chatter that sucks away at our energy and places us firmly on the mat to do just one thing: breathe. It is an experience that is both sublime and quotidian, filled with joy and love from both teachers and students. While I won’t be able to make it to Mysore every year, I can’t say the same for Encinitas. Looking forward to the 2014 edition of this tour.

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.

Nancy Gilgoff // Ashtanga Rules

March 18, 2013 § 6 Comments

Nancy was in town two weeks ago for a long weekend of 2nd Series asana fun. I went into it with my own ideas and expectations about what I was “allowed” or “not allowed” to do as dictated by the current set of “Ashtanga Rules” where you don’t move on to 2nd Series until you can stand up from a backbend. This made for a rather stressful afternoon on Friday, wondering if I had made a mistake by turning up and only doing what I had been “given”, i.e., the first three poses of Intermediate. I couldn’t understand why my teacher had told me that it would be ok to attend this, if I wasn’t going to do more than that, and I felt like a real renegade that afternoon when I went on to do Bhekasana and Dhanurasana.

It took me a while before realizing that I wasn’t there to do my “regular” practice. In my teacher’s words, the workshop was meant to be inspirational, a break from the usual routine of daily practice. And I was free to do whatever I was comfortable with. That’s when things started to get really interesting. And fun. We had two Mysore practices on Friday and Saturday, and a Led class on Sunday. In the Mysore classes, I practiced up to Navasana before switching over to 2nd, and went up to Supta Vajrasana the second day. For led, we went the whole hog: Full Primary and Intermediate up to Supta Vajrasana. I was beyond happy that the last day of the workshop was a moon day, and relieved that Kapotasana isn’t part of my daily practice.

If you’ve studied with Nancy before or have heard about her teaching philosophy, you’d know that she approaches the concept of “progress” in Ashtanga pretty differently from its current version. She feels that students are being kept at the Primary Series for far longer than is necessary, and she moves folks on once they satisfy a few requirements:

– Head on the floor in all Prasaritas.

– Knee to the floor in Mari B and D, binding in Supta K.

– A daily asana practice, with energy left over after the completion of the Primary series.

So by current Ashtanga standards, she would be considered a “liberal” when it comes to progressing through the series. This was a hot topic of discussion throughout the weekend, with about a quarter to a third of the participants practicing less than half (or none at all) of the Intermediate series. In addition to the ‘asana qualifications’ mentioned above, Nancy moves her students on when they’ve been practicing Primary for a while and start complaining of knee pains. I’m not sure why this would indicate a need to start 2nd, so if there are any anatomists out there please feel free to chime in.

I’ve followed with interest the recent discussions around the evolution of Ashtanga and the worrying rigidity with which it is currently practiced. As with all complex issues, I found myself wanting to comment and not comment at all because the parameters of a comment box felt too stifling. After a weekend with Nancy, many of her quotes are still fresh in my mind and I’ve included them where appropriate in the thoughts that follow.

***

One of Nancy’s common refrains is to teach Ashtanga as she was taught, and the difference between her approach to that of current Ashtanga teaching is a reflection of the evolution of the teaching that’s occurred between the 1970s and now. How a teacher was taught and how quickly they were moved on in the series is also a reflection of their physical abilities and constitutions as students. Nancy’s practice didn’t feature vinyasas between each side or between poses until later, whereas David Williams had the vinyasas from day one.

“When we (Nancy, David Williams and David Swenson) compared notes after class, we were surprised to discover how he (SKPJ) was teaching us in completely different ways.”

-Nancy Gilgoff

In other words, teaching them in ways that their constitutions needed and could handle. And the way they were taught is what shapes and informs their teaching now. In this light then, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more Ashtanga teachers sticking to the rule of dropbacks and standing up from a backbend before moving a student on to 2nd series. Because that’s what they probably experienced in Mysore. I don’t see anything wrong with having this as a “general rule”, because problems can arise when students progress too quickly – too much, too fast, before the body is ready for it. But problems also arise when students don’t progress quickly enough, and suffer strains and injuries as a result.

The challenge for today’s Ashtanga teachers then, is to be able to navigate the murky waters between these two polarities. To be able to read and understand the energetics of different types of bodies and constitutions and to tailor their teaching accordingly. To know when to break the rules. This may require the addition of ‘prep’ poses to the sequence, or of practicing alternative sequences on occasion. It most certainly requires a strong bond, a trust, on the part of the student, like the total surrender to one’s teacher that we keep reading about in Guruji.

“He (SKPJ) would take us apart at practice one day, and we would go back the next day and he would put us back together.”

-Nancy Gilgoff

I’ve never practiced with him, but based on what I’ve read, SKPJ sounds like the sort of teaching genius that comes by once a generation, or a few. The nuance he brought to his teaching is borne out of great skill and an immersion in his subject for decades. How many teachers today can testify to that sort of experience? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be teaching till they have had 35 years of solid practice, but I do think that cultivating this nuance is an important quality and it’s one that’s easily overlooked because it’s intangible. I suspect that it’s a skill that one comes to know rather than learn.

In the same way that teachers need to navigate between rules and the nuances of individualized teaching, so the need for students to pay more attention to their body’s needs and take responsibility for their asana practice, within the boundaries of a teacher-student relationship. In other words, I personally think it’s ok to do prep/Intermediate poses/alternative sequences if it’s needed and it’s something that’s allowed in the Mysore room you practice in. At our studio, the teachers have fostered a culture of discussion and questioning which I’ve found helpful in highlighting, more clearly than ever, the individualized nature of this practice. Got a question? ASK!

Ultimately, you should practice whatever your teacher asks of you.

-Nancy Gilgoff

“Your teacher” here meaning the teacher supervising the room that you’re practicing in. So if you don’t agree with the teacher’s philosophy, leave. It’s your practice after all.

I get the feeling that there’s a tendency to take rules all too seriously, probably because we don’t have access to the full range of knowledge that SKPJ and Krishnamacharya had or haven’t been immersed in this long enough to really know how to use this practice therapeutically, i.e., adapting this where needed. Or it could be a case of a few ‘bad hat’ teachers giving the others a bad rep. Fundamentally, I think it doesn’t really matter whether you’re doing the “real” Ashtanga or the version from the ’80s/’90s/’00s…..what’s important, as Grimmly put it so well, is to turn up on the mat everyday and breathe.

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?

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