Monday, January 31, 2011

Dis-Illusioned


It must be weird to be an Olympic champion or Number One on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” List, because for most of us, the experience of being the best in the world at something will always be elusive.

In my own life, I can always find someone who’s better at something I do with relative competence (except maybe when it comes to being prolific in crafting 327-word essays, but even that’s on hiatus), whether it’s doing philosophy, riding a bike, organizing a teachers’ union, mixing margueritas, you name it.

Never is this brought home more clearly to me than at the Ashtanga shala here in Mysore, where any illusions that I’m pretty good at yoga have been shattered; in fact, the scales have so fallen from my eyes, that I could easily build a reptile at my feet.

This is a good thing, of course; philosophers are supposed to love the truth more than anything else, so I should be glad that I’m seeing things as they really are rather than as they might appear as shadows on the wall of the proverbial cave, or, I guess, to stick with the proper cultural context, it’s good that avidya is being replaced by vidya, or something closer to it anyway.

But it is interesting to note how my little mind (or is that big ego?) works, because I’ll bet I’m not alone in this.

I’ll notice—obviously—that I’m not nearly as competent as your average bear at a given activity—let’s say doing yoga, for instance.

So, then, I’ll think, (and this is more typical in classes at home, where the gender balance is way skewed towards the distaff side), “Well, at least I’m the best guy in the room.”

But here in Mysore, where it’s not so much of what my daughter once called a “taco fest,” I can’t sustain that belief, so then, maybe, I think, “Well, at least I’m the best old guy,” but that doesn’t work here, either, since there are plenty of men even more elderly than me who are incredibly advanced; so then, maybe I think, “Well, maybe I’m the best old American guy,” but that fails, too, since there’s plenty of those, too, so I might think, “Best old American male who's only been here two weeks or less,” but that doesn’t work either, and so on, and so on, until, in the end, the only the I’m best at is being me.

Which I suppose is exactly what I should strive for: let's call it something like "Olympic champion of the 100-Year Being Me" event.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Somanthapura

They say that in India, you should expect the unexpected, and that when that expected comes along, you should expect to embrace it.

So, I guess that’s what I did today, and it worked out pretty well.

I had “planned” a simple little day around the house and neighborhood: I’d do some reading, take a bike ride, maybe have lunch somewhere, the usual. But my landlady came to my door about 11:00 and asked if I’d be interested in going to see a temple about an hour away and since I’d been told by a former resident of my apartment that if such an opportunity ever presented itself, I should jump at it, I did.

An hour later, I was in a car with her, her driver, and my downstairs neighbor, bumping over village roads on the way to a place called Somanthapura, a temple made from carved limestone constructed in the 13th century. Of course it was amazing, but even more unexpected and ultimately satisfying was a side trip we took to an active temple about a half mile down the road, where we were welcomed by the residents and fed a lunch off plates made of leaves.

The place was charmingly home-grown; it reminded me of something you’d run across in the deep South of America, just some person’s, or group of persons’ own personal homage to the supernatural, like the “outsider art” of Howard Finster or something. Apparently, the spiritual leader of the place used to sleep on a bed of nails and sit in a chair of spikes, too.


I liked how there was a connection across almost 800 years of history between the two temples, and I wondered if we had wandered into Somanthapura on a Sunday afternoon in 1256 or whatever, if we’d also been served a meal.

That would have been unexpected, I’m sure.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bicycling Mysore


A lot of the Westerners who come to Mysore rent scooters or motorcycles; that’s cool: it enables them to cover a lot more distance in town, see a lot more stuff, not have to rely on autorickshaws (and autorickshaw drivers) for longer trips, and, in addition, allows them to fit into the experience of India by taking part in the crazy traffic that characterizes transportation on the roads here, even in our relatively calm little part of the city.

That’s not for me, though: it’s just too fast, too complicated, and too scary—at least for now. I’m perfectly happy traveling about by bicycle and I’m really enjoying the perspective it gives me on all that’s around.

The bike is just fast enough that I feel connected, but not trapped; I can slide by all sorts of street scenes and see all kinds of interesting visions, but I’m gone before the guy who wants to sell me incense or show me his handmade oils can start his sales pitch.

I also like how the bike connects me to school kids. It’s seems to me that, for the most part, status considerations ensure that only the least well-off adults here deign to take the seat of a bicycle; that’s not entirely unlike the U.S., where in lots of places, bikes are considered kids’ toys, but it comes off as more ingrained somehow; I get the sense that your average middle-aged, middle-class gent like me wouldn’t be caught dead on a human-powered two-wheeler; even a scooter would be embarrassing; much better would be a shiny car.

Consequently, when I roll past groups of kids, they’re all wide-eyed and giggly; “Hey Mister! Good day! Where are you from?” I smile back and shout “Namaskar! U.S. Hello!” or something to that effect and they all point and laugh at me.

I’m glad to be spreading the love, bike love, that is. Now, if only I had gears on my forty-pound Atlas.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Horses

It’s not all serious study here in Mysore; I also want to experience some of the “real India” through touristy sorts of pursuits, whether that be shopping, dining, visiting temples, or just walking around looking at stuff.

Consequently, one of the attractions I’d been looking forward to has been going to the horse-racing track in Mysore,

which I did today, shepherded there by my “best friend,” the autorickshaw driver, Sanjay.

We stayed for four races and I had a pretty good time, and even won some money in the second running, which allowed me to almost break even for the day, including the rickshaw fare there and back and treating Sanjay and his buddy, Raj, to lunch.

The track was more or less the same kind of deal as it is in every other place I’ve played the ponies, including California, Washington, Mexico City (with my dad about 25 years ago, one of my fondest memories of times we spent together), and Paris, the summer before last with Mimi and Jen on Bastille Day.

I like how old school it was, with betting windows for specific amounts, like in Hollywood movies from the forties; I got to feel like a real bigshot, too, placing bets at the minimum 200 rupees cage.

The racing form

was pretty familiar, but a few of the statistics I couldn’t quite figure out. In any case, my strategy was to bet on jockeys and trainers rather than horses exactly, and it almost paid off big time in the fourth race, where I chose three out of the four finishers in the exacta (unlike our 1-2 exactas, the India version requires choosing finishers 1 through 4).

As usual at the track, you meet a handful of guys who are instantly your bosom buddy and who have all kinds of advice for you on which horses to pick in the upcoming race. And, as usual, I made it a special point not to heed their tips, even though, I must admit that one guy did counsel me against putting money on the horse that messed up my exacta in the fourth.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Script


I’ve started taking a Sanskrit class that the yoga studio; it runs 3 days a week for a month, and the teacher, Laksmeesh, says that 75% of students come out of it able to read the yoga sutras in the original; the other 25%, he said, he can’t do a thing with. I’m not sure which group I’ll fall into, but I’m pleased to add this activity into my course of study here; if I can come out of it even simply better able to pronounce some of the chants we do in Ashtanga, that will be a positive.

I’m also trying to teach myself a little bit of the Kannada language, which is what is spoken here in the province of Karnataka. So far, I’ve committed to memory “Thank-you,” “Please,” “Sorry,” and “My name is David,” although I have no idea really if my pronunciation bears any resemblance to the proper way of saying those words.

Both of these languages use a non-Latin alphabet, whose script is entirely foreign to my experience. It’s strange looking at street signs and having no idea what they say; even in countries I’ve been in where I don’t speak the language—Italy, for instance—I can usually get a general sense of what the words mean; here, though, I can’t even tell the difference between the men’s and ladies’ rooms unless they’ve got English on them (which thankfully, so far, they all have.)

Although my “Simple Kannada by Easy Steps” book

provides a couple lessons in learning the script, the writing seems really opaque to me, even trickier than Sanskrit. Like similar script-based alphabets, the vowels sit on top of the consonants, so it’s especially difficult (for me, anyway) to figure out which letter are which. Makes me feel illiterate, which, I guess, I am.

Of course, I don’t remember learning to read English, but presumably, it took me most of kindergarten through second grade or so to get a handle on it. Perhaps if I stayed here 3 years, then, I could, at least, choose the correct restroom.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Relax


Saraswathi is helping me try to bind my arms in the full Marichyasana D pose, an asana I haven’t been able to get into for years and which, quite frankly, I’d given up ever imagining I might achieve again in this body.

She is counseling me to relax, which is completely counterintuitive since it seems like I’ve got to strain to my limit to fully twist into the posture.

There’s probably a metaphor here somewhere about the effective approach to challenges that seem beyond us; no doubt in some ways the only way we’ll succeed is to stop pushing so hard and allow our goal to come to us, meeting us part way as it were.

Of course, that’s easier said than done since it sure seems like more effort is the key; I suppose this is one of those paradoxes so evident in yoga and which seem remarkably trivial, obvious, and even misguided when applying the lesson to life.

What’s puzzling is how to balance the effort with the relaxing; some serious work is needed to get things going, but then, at some point, you’ve got to let go; it’s just not clear to me where that middle point is.

Mr. Upadhyaya said that all learning is unlearning; how very Socratic, and, I think, quite right. In order to get into Marichyasana D, I’ve got to let go of the idea that I can’t do it and replace that with the idea that I can. And in order to that, I have to relax my hold on that former notion, so as to allow the latter to take its place.

As I was leaving the studio this morning, Saraswathi smiled at me and said, “Tomorrow, you bind both sides in Marichasana D.” I’d like to believe her, but I’m not relaxed enough to share her confidence. We shall see, though, what happens, and one way or another, I’ll probably unlearn something completely unexpected

Library


I went to downtown Mysore today to check out the central library; it wasn’t really what I expected (par for the course in India, so far.) Instead of the massive colonial structure I anticipated, it was a fairly non-descript concrete building with virtually no exterior markings to indicate what it was.

None of the autorickshaw drivers in my neighborhood knew its location; I had to copy a map off of Google to show them what I was looking for, but that might be more a factor of their educational and reading levels than anything specific to the library itself.

I imagined that I might be able to acquire a library card to check books out, but as soon as I entered, it was pretty clear that wasn’t the case. There was one main room with a lot of tables in it at which sat maybe fifty or sixty people, nearly all men, reading, mostly text in the Kannada script, although a handful of them were perusing English language newspapers.

I found a shelf piled floor to ceiling with books in English, although it wasn’t clear at all to me what the organization of them was. Right next to a volume on Indian philosophy, for instance, was one on Hindu law.

In any case, I pulled the Indian philosophy text from its spot and settled down to read for a half hour or so. At that point, it felt just like any library in any other part of the world I’ve been in; I could have been sitting in the graduate reading room at Suzallo library on the UW campus for all I knew.

Most of the books were pretty well-used; my copy, for instance, was practically in tatters, but that might partly be due to it having been published in 1923.

I was pleased to see that no one had committed the unforgivable sin of underlining or highlighting the text; a few of the pages had been dog-eared though; I did my good deed for the day by turning them up.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Nerds


I’m trying to set up my computer for wireless internet so I don’t have to rely on the unreliable connection I have available to me in my apartment. As has been my experience in most things Indian, I’m being shepherded through the process with a personal touch (this time by a guy named Santosh, who comes to my house on his motorcycle and then rides me around to troubleshoot the software problems) and what I’ve come to see so far (even though we haven’t gotten the thing to work) is that computer nerds are pretty much computer nerds the world over, at least insofar as their attitudes and interactions with each other.

I’m making this potentially fallacious generalization based on our experience at the place we went to try to get the wireless modem to work. Sitting behind a desk, sometimes talking on two phones simultaneously, while also playing a computer cricket game, was the computer genius guy.

I couldn’t tell what he was saying to Santosh, but he came across pretty much just like Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons: supercilious, condescending, and wickedly immature in a kind of endearing way. It was pretty clear he thought Santosh (as the sales guy) was kind of clueless and he rolled his eyes is to be expected at my friend’s attempts to troubleshoot. Ultimately, he took over the effort to fix things and for a minute, it looked like he’d done so. But then, as do nerds the world over (again I generalize), when the modem still wouldn’t connect, he blamed it on the hardware and said we’d need to buy something else, something more expensive, to get online.

I sat there enjoying myself—what else you gonna do?—and eventually endeared myself to the assembled by asking about the upcoming Cricket World Cup, which naturally, all the nerds are into.

They assured me that India would prevail and I got a laugh when I said my money was on Australia. So, we didn’t connect the modem, but we did with each other.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Purpose


Mr. Upadhyaya says that God or the Universe has a purpose for you, but that purpose is simply to be here since, at this time, the Universe wouldn’t be complete without you. That makes more sense to me than what I understand the Christian notion of purpose to be, as in “God has a plan for you,” which strikes me as way too granular; I can’t imagine that any Supreme Being would really get so into the details that it could possibly care one way or another what you did with your life.

He implied that the proper response to understanding this purpose is to recognize that you are part of the All and feel blissful as a result. I get that, too, but then it sure seems odd that everyone is bustling about so frantically trying to make something of themselves or demonstrate to others that they are a little bit better than them.

One overriding impression I have of India so far is of a society whose members are deeply concerned with status. There’s a strict hierarchy, amply demonstrated on the roads, where the bicycles ring their bells at walkers, scooters beep at cyclists, autorickshaws toot at scooters, cars honk at autorickshaws, and busses blast their horns at everyone, each level of transportation bowing to the one higher than it and pulling over.

I’m reading Thoreau, who has this to say about all this striving for position and wealth, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensible, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” I think he’s probably right about that, which only means that most of us aren’t really interested in elevation, except insofar as it allows us to sit a little higher than our fellow humans.

I certainly want nice things, same as everyone, but maybe my conception of what’s nice is a little different than the majority. I don’t need a fancier car, for instance, but I’d never turn down a nicer bike.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Serendipity


I had a vague notion that I might look into the study of Indian flute while I’m here in Mysore; in my late teens and early twenties I was really serious about classical and jazz flute and I still mess around with the instrument occasionally, so I thought it could be interesting to undertake a little investigation of how they do it over here, especially as flute music relates to the chanting practice that is part of yoga study, as well. The plan, though, was sort of a “maybe;” I hadn’t made any preparations of contacts beforehand, so clearly, my commitment wasn’t all that serious.

But yesterday, as I was eating my lunch, I heard flute music coming from down the street, so later, I wandered down that way and found it was coming from a house that had a plaque on it that read “K.P. Upadhyaya, Flutist.” So, I thought that next time I saw my landlady, I might ask her if she knew the guy and maybe take a few baby steps towards connecting with him.

As it turned out, she showed up at my door last night with some stuff for my apartment, so I asked her off-handedly if she knew Mr. Upadhyaya, which resulted in her marching me over there, banging on his door, and introducing me to him—all much more quickly than I had in mind for it to happen.

I sat in his living room and he asked me if I played the flute; I allowed that I did, a bit; he took me upstairs to his classroom and we sat there and played the bansuri together for half an hour or so.

Now, I’m taking lessons from him, and it’s not just flute, it’s music theory, metaphysics, and philosophy, too. Today he explained to me how music, all sound, in fact, is what he called a “disturbance” in the universal, essential silence. The background observes all, although is unobserved.

It all made sense, in a way that seemed very similar to the views of one of my favorite wacky British empiricists, George Bishop Berkeley.

I didn’t expect it, but I think this is part of why I came to India.

Now, I just have to get myself my own flute.

First Practice


The dream came true today as I practiced for the first time at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute shala in Mysore, India.

It was a “led” class, conducted by Guruji’s daughter, Saraswathi; she counted out the movements and breaths in all the poses in the primary series while probably about a hundred students followed along. As is always the case for me when a teacher sets the pace, I became painfully aware how lazy I am in my own personal practice and how quickly I tend to rush through the parts I’m not very good at—thus, ensuring, of course, that I’ll never get better at any of them.

“Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness” is how Georg Feurstein translates the second of Yoga Sutras of the ancient sage Patanjali, but as I sweated and bended all during hour and half, my mind was racing, my ego alternately beating me up and making comparisons to other students I noted out of the corners of my eyes when I should have been gazing at the tip of my nose.

I found myself in the future a lot of the time; first, I’d be wishing that the pose would be over, then I’d be fancifully imagining myself two months hence being able to hold, say, headstand, for the entire count instead of having to bury my head on my mat in pain and embarrassment before Saraswathi came over and pulled me back upright for a few breaths more.

At least, though, the class reminded me what I’m doing here; I’ve been having moments of “what the fuck?” as I look around my little apartment and occasionally get the feeling that it’s a minimum security prison that I’ve consigned myself to for the next sixty days or so.

Feurstein says that yoga must be understood in context of Indian philosophical/soteriological thinking. “Soteriology” (my new favorite word) means the body of teachings concerned with liberation. I felt a little liberated today; first, as my dream became real and second, when the practice was finally over.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cycles


In my sabbatical proposal, I wrote I was interested in exploring three different, but interconnected domains: yoga, philosophy, and human-powered transportation. The image that I fixed in my mind while preparing was my arriving at the yoga shala, on a bike, carrying a philosophy book.

Since yesterday was a full moon day and thus, the studio was closed, I couldn’t register to begin this morning, so I’ve yet to practice at the shala; I brought my collected works of Henry David Thoreau but haven’t opened it yet, so both of those areas are a bit in arrears.

Cycling, though, I’ve covered, having ridden all over the neighborhood yesterday evening and this morning; it’s reasonably terrifying in heavy traffic, but on side streets, where it’s not uncommon to see a wandering cow or a horse-drawn cart, traffic moves a bit more slowly and cycling is pretty satisfying—although climbing even small hills on my Chinese-made one-speed clunker is a bit of a chore.

Having acquired the bike through independent channels—Sanjay the auto-rickshaw driver fixed me up—I was curious to see what the local bike shops were like, so I took the bus downtown and wandered a bit through crowded streets, one of which was home to half a dozen very similar establishments, all of which specialized in Chinese-made bikes and parts. I realized, to some chagrin, that I could have purchased a brand-new Atlas for only about fifty bucks more than I’m renting an old beat-up one for a month, but on the other hand, I’m glad to have one that’s not quite as desirable as the shiny number. (Oddly, you see loads of beaters around, but I’ve yet to see anyone on a new bike.)

I did stock up on a few items to bring home: mudflaps,

especially, but also a couple of seat covers and a few fancy top tube protectors with flashy designs and fringe.

So: cycling? Check. Tomorrow, yoga; philosophy to come.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Arrived


I’m relieved to confirm that my concern that Mysore might not be exotic enough is completely unfounded.

It took me half an hour of walking around just to figure out where toilet paper is sold, so I think I’m going to have plenty in the way of difference to occupy myself for the next few months.

Right now, I’m sitting on the bed in my apartment, listening to the chants from the Ganesha temple across the street. It’s all utterly strange and wonderful and if I can avoid getting run down by taxis and autorickshaws careening about—on the wrong side of road, no less—I may survive long enough to begin figuring things out.

The ride from the airport was thrilling; my driver laid on his horn the whole way and slipped between huge trucks painted with slogans like “Life is a dream and man is an actor in it,” and motorbikes carrying as many as four people simultaneously.

I’m glad I didn’t undertake my original plan, which was to fly into Mumbai and take a 2-day train here. This was plenty.

Now for a walk and an attempt to figure out how coffee is sold.

Success with the coffee—“half coffee”—a kind of sweet “East Coast ‘Regular’” in a thin glass, tastes like warm Vietnamese coffee, for 5 rupees, about 10 cents.

I also scored a bike, one of the classic “Atlas” models, used, in crummy shape, but with the coolest seat cover ever.

I probably paid several times the going rate for a month’s rental, but it’s still less than it cost for a day in Santa Fe last time I was there.

I rode around town a lot and only almost got killed once, when I forgot that traffic is coming from the right; fortunately, it was an autorickshaw I didn’t see and so was able to dodge it at the last minute, something I’d have failed at were it a bus.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Finally


Almost.

After months of planning and anticipation, my trip to India begins today. Of course, I’ve got a full 24-day of air travel ahead of me and so, no doubt, adventures—or at least, adventures in boredom—are in store before I arrive at my apartment in Mysore, but, in any case, at last I’m on my way.

I don’t have huge expectations—not that are articulated clearly, anyway. Mostly all I’m looking forward to at this point is laying my mat down at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute and doing my first series of practice on, I hope, the day after tomorrow—which will actually be the day after that, given the time change.

People have asked me if I have the intention to travel and I’m open to that although seeing a bunch of different places is not what’s mainly driving me. I’m more interested in the inward journey than the outward one—although obviously I want to see all that I can see; otherwise, why travel at all?

What I’m hoping to avoid, however, is the sense that I’ve got to do this or visit that in order to have had a successful journey. I probably won’t, for instance, see the Taj Mahal and the likelihood of my visiting Mumbai or New Delhi or any of the other famous attractions of India is relatively low.

I may go to the horseraces in Mysore, though, and I think it would be cool to see a cricket match, especially if I can go with someone who might explain the rules to me.

Two months is a long time on the one hand, but just a blink of an eye on the other. When I recall what I was doing in early November, for example, I realize that nothing really significant has happened in the last sixty days or so. But when I cast my thoughts ahead to the middle of March, I can imagine many surprises.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Predictable

Not surprisingly, as I prepare to leave for 2 months of yoga study in India tomorrow, my left knee is bugging me more than it has in a while. On the one hand, this is no doubt a product of fairly aggressive practice over the last few weeks, but I’m also pretty sure it’s partly in my head; I’m manifesting this sensation because I’m nervous about what it’s going to be like over there. It’s not exactly an excuse for not being a more advanced practitioner, but it also is. I’m able to blame what I can’t do on what hurts, so I’m giving myself an out even before I’m in.

The mind and the body are closely connected; everyone knows that; at one level, everything you feel in your arms or legs or back is actually in your head, so I do think that if I can notice what I’m doing whether I know I’m doing it or not, I ought to be able to change, or at least reconfigure my experience to some degree.

I’m told that Pattabhi Jois said that “pain is real,” and I guess it is, but so is the absence of pain. To some extent, one can choose whether to feel what one feels—predictably enough.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Visiting

I have practiced Ashtanga yoga at studios in Seattle, New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, New Mexico; Bend, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; Vancouver, British Columbia; Barcelona, Paris, and San Francisco, in addition to having put down my mat in places as disparate as Lincoln, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon.

It’s always a bit strange going to a new studio, as I did this morning; there’s the question of what to do with your shoes and clothes, and one wonders, too, about the particular quirks of the locality; today, for instance, I received a piece of advise I never had before: to be more quiet in my jumping back during Surya Namaskara.

Okay, whatever.

Clearly, the teacher didn’t know who I am nor where I’m headed next week; had, he, I’m sure he’d have been more accepting of my thudding, bowing to my unseen greatness, or something like that.

It’s so much about ego that first time; paradoxically, I want the teacher to come around and give me adjustments, but at the same time, I’d prefer not to need them. I’m sure that this phenomenon will be even more prevalent when I get to Mysore next week.

Nevertheless, the important thing is the practice, wherever it takes place. I like that I can appear before dawn at just about any Ashtanga studio in the world, roll out my mat, and do just as loud and clumsy a practice there as anywhere else.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Preliiminaries

My six-day-a-week Ashtanga yoga practice takes around an hour and a half from start to finish, including about ten minutes relaxing in Savasana, the corpse pose. There remain, in the primary series, even after twelve years of regular work, several poses—notably Marichasana D and Supta Kurmasana—which I can’t get into and lifting myself up and doing the jump back Vinyasa during sitting poses seems to me something that I’ll never be able to do.

In short, the practice is fucking hard and rarely does a day go by when I don’t ask myself why the hell I keep at it.

And yet, the hardest part of all isn’t really during the series; it’s just before, when I’m trying to convince myself to get out of bed and onto the mat.

As challenging as the practice itself is, the difficulties once I’m doing it pale in comparison to the problems I have with it before I start.

I think there’s something to this that relates to what life is like: usually, the preparation, the anticipation, the idea of what’s coming is way worse than what actually is. Once you’re doing the thing you dread, it’s typically not nearly as dreadful as you thought it was going to be.

Anyone whose ever written a paper, or done some public speaking, or even gone outside to ride their bike on a rainy day has experienced this. We’ve all spent sleepless nights worrying about something that may have been hard to do but which wasn’t nearly as hard as it seemed when we were lying there at 4:00 in the morning staring at the ceiling worrying about how hard it was going to be.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything gets easy once we set out upon it, but it is a good reminder that our imagination can be way scarier than reality.

My yoga practice is only 90 minutes; this morning, it took 2 hours to begin.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Interim

“This time next week…” is my mantra now; in less than seven days I’ll be in India and finally starting the adventure I’ve been waiting so long to have.

And yet I realize there’s no reason I shouldn’t consider myself already launched; after all, it’s not as if each day isn’t an opportunity for exploration no matter where I am at the time.

I tried to cultivate this attitude as I rode around today; being downtown on a weekday in January is certainly an unusual experience for me and I couldn’t help but be struck by the strangeness of the human condition as I wandered about in Nordstrom’s on a mission to buy socks observing well-dressed older ladies carrying big shopping bags or getting make-up consultations from younger ones in white coats and red lips.

It will be something else to be in a place where things will be exotic by definition; I want to try, though, in my time remaining here, to observe the world as a traveler might: I’d like to be surprised by what I see even if I’ve seen it many times before.

Whether I can do this is an open question; whether it matters if I do is a fair subject of inquiry, too.

Too much of the time, most of the time, I go through my days counting on the next thing being the thing I’m attending to. When I travel, though, I tend to be slightly less impatient. The getting there is a more part of the being there; I wouldn’t go all the way into the clich├ęd “journey is the destination” mode, but I know, for instance, that simply looking out the window on a train or bus through a place I’ve never been is sufficient entertainment. Through familiar terrain, by contrast, I’ve got to read a book or something.

“This time next week,” though, all that will be different, which is why, I guess, I can’t hardly wait.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Shorn

I want to approach India and my yoga practice there with what the Buddhists call "beginner's mind."

Another way of characterizing that, I think, is to come to the experience with the attitude of what, in the Western tradition, would be called a "novice," or "neophyte."

It's traditional for such beginners to shave their heads as evidence of their commitment to the endeavor; in the same vein, there's always that scene in war movies where the new recruits get their long locks sheared by the military barber as they enter basic training.

In part with all this in mind, and in part because I don't want to have the pack hair goop on my travels abroad, I went in for the buzz cut today.

To this beginner, anyway, at least it feels like a start.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Faith

The founder of my school of yoga, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois famously said that yoga is 1% theory, 99% practice, and while I think that’s true, I love me a good conversation about the theoretical, especially the question that has long bedeviled me as a serious student: how deep can I really get into the practice if I don’t buy the metaphysical underpinnings of yoga? If I don’t believe in reincarnation or chakras or the entire panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses can I ever really be a master yogi? Or do I have to really drink the Kool-Aid and start talking about the movement of “energy” through the body and Kundalini serpent power and maybe even start wearing Birkenstock sandals and drawstring pants?

We had a fruitful discussion about all this (except the Birkenstock part) in our workshop yesterday and what David Garrigues emphasized was the role of faith in accepting some of these claims. That’s hard for me, of course; I prefer evidence and reasons as support of the propositions I accept, but I can see the pragmatic value in believing in certain claims—like that my wife and daughter love me—in the absence of, strictly speaking, empirical proof. So, for instance, if it enables me to do some pose that I otherwise couldn’t get into to accept the notion that nectar is gushing from the thousand petaled lotus at the top of my head, then so be it.

One of my main motivations for going to India is to explore just this. I’m sure it will be illuminating to be immersed in a world where so many people believe that these supernatural claims that I find so nonsensical are true. Does that mean that I will become a believer? At this point, I have faith that I won’t, but I guess we’ll see.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Both

I want to live a serious life, but I don’t want to take it too seriously.

I would prefer, I think, to experience yoga practice as a series of successes rather than failures, or as accomplishments rather than deficiencies, but at the same time, I realize that what I’m not able to do is at least as educational as what I am able to do.

One strives for perfection, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, fully aware that perfection is unattainable, by definition. Thus, the project becomes less about what you accomplish and more about what you take to be sufficient; but if you believe, as I believe the practice tells us, that the standard of sufficiency is not entirely subjective, then it seems like the perfection question arises all over again.

We never escape the inescapable conundrums. That’s why, I guess, we place ourselves on the mat every morning.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Paradoxical

I’m going to be spending a lot of time, energy, and money in the next few months trying to understand why I’m spending so much time, energy, and money on this yoga practice I’ve already spent so much time, energy, and money on over the last decade and a half or so.

It remains endlessly fascinating, but I’m not sure why.

Some of my curiosity surely stems from simple nerdiness; in the same way the “completionist” record collector wants to have a copy of every version of his favorite band’s singles and albums, I keep trying to get that one more pose to complete my perfect collection of asanas; but what’s weird is that it’s completely obvious that getting the poses is not what it’s all about.

One of the meanings of yoga is “union,” which I think can be understood as meaning a uniting of opposites—the in-breath and the out-breath, for instance, or striving and surrender, or getting all bent out of shape (no pun intended) over the poses while simultaneously realizing that they’re not what the practice really is, anyway.

It’s paradoxical—which is to say, of course, that it isn’t.

We spent a couple hours today going slowly and painstakingly over the correct way to do all the motions and related breaths in the primary Ashtanga series; what’s confounding is that there is a right way to do everything, but at the same time, doing them the right way doesn’t really make any difference; it’s not I’m going to end world hunger by getting into Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana in a single breath.

It’s not even obvious that I’ll be even a little bit better person if I can, and in fact, I may be even more of an insufferable ass should I no longer have that failure staring me in the face.

I kept thinking about Socrates being told by the oracle that he was the one wise man in Athens because he alone knew he wasn’t wise; maybe I can be the one wise yoga student because I alone can’t do the poses.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Humbling


So far, the overpowering feeling in my warm-up yoga workshop for India is one of being humbled. It’s more than slightly mortifying to have one’s bad habits and laziness held up to your face so clearly; when I practice in a studio with a teacher, I see all too clearly what a slacker I am most of the time on my own.

But this is good.

The whole point of the exercise is to wake myself up a bit, to get out of what I think Krishnamurti (who we’re reading for the workshop) means when he talks about the brain falling into a groove (but not the groovy kind) where habit takes over experience and “the mind becomes mechanical, repetitive, and so loses its depth, its beauty.” (Krishnamurti, Meeting Life, p.198).

I know for certain I’m all about that most of the time; I have my “ways” and I like them. Here, I guess, is my opportunity to get out of them, at least a little bit, and see what happens.

One of those ways is definitely my skepticism about the mystical “woo-woo” side of all this. We talked at some length this afternoon about how yoga practice is about liberation; but, I wonder, liberation from what? If I don’t believe in the Hindu metaphysics underlying the practice, am I doomed forever for it just to be a different form of physical exercise? And if so, is that so bad?

When I read, for instance, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and try to make sense of concepts like Universal Soul or Cosmic Substance, or try to wrap my mind around an utterance like, “After receiving revelation of the distinction between sattva and Purusa, the adept gets an omniscience and an ability to control all states,” I can’t help thinking about a text like Plato’s Timaeus, which is similarly opaque, but which nobody these days takes seriously as actually describing the way things are.

So, I remain confused. And humbled.

But again, that seems to be the point.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Chez Cascadia


Here’s my warm-up to exotic India:

I’m staying, for a couple of days while in Olympia to take a yoga workshop from my original guru, David Garrigues, at a place called “Chez Cascadia,” which bills itself as “the best and biggest (and only) hostel in Olympia.

Sitting in the one private room (Splurge! It’s twice as expensive as the dorm beds, but then I’m a twice as old as any of the guests), listening to a guy play Cat Stevens’ “Old Man” on the guitar (not badly, actually—way better than his version of Don McLean’s “American Pie” a few minutes ago) and trying to get myself sleepy enough so I can get enough shuteye to be up at 4:30 for the workshop.

It would probably be easier if I weren’t getting the waft of brown rice and stir-fry from the communal kitchen, but maybe if I imagine myself back in 1975 (which shouldn’t be too hard given the surroundings), I can pretend I’ve hitchhiked here (rather than taken the bus) and am exhausted from standing on the side of the road with my thumb out for the past three hours.

I probably could have checked into a regular hotel, but this place seems a lot more in keeping with what I’ll be doing down here and since it’s somewhat out of my comfort zone, probably a better preparation for what’s in store for me over the next couple of months.

I want to shake myself up a little and have experiences that aren’t necessarily as comfortable as I’m used to or even as I prefer. It’s odd to think that one would cultivate discomfort and I’m not sure that’s what I mean; I do, however, want to not be driven primarily by what feels good, at least at the expense of my opportunity to learn something.

This doesn’t mean I’m going out of my way to feel bad; I am, after all taking the private room.

Welcome to Sabblogtical

It's a dumb name for this weblog, but I'm keeping it because it's appropriate. This will be where I write about my sabbatical experience over the next five months or so.