Monday, February 28, 2011

Meal Ticket

The 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, famously stated the second (or third, depending how you figure it) formulation of the Categorical Imperative, his foundational principle of ethical reasoning as “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end.”

And while this didn’t prevent him from being a misogynistic racist, the principle itself seems sound. I think we all realize that it’s uncool to treat people as things; we ought not to use other human beings simply as tools to get what we want, whether it’s money, sex, or if we’re crazed tattoo artists, canvases for our latest Native American-inspired designs.

So, I don’t want to say that all the hawkers who descend upon you as you stroll along the beach here in Goa are doing something wrong, but it can be exhausting to be seen as little more than an ATM by some guy trying to entice you into his restaurant, or get you to buy a parasailing session, or purchase a selection hats, t-shirts, and other souvenir items he’s certain you’ve just got to have to make your vacation complete.

Of course I realize that my incredibly privileged position as an incredibly privileged American confers upon me a duty to give back in any number of ways; I agree, for instance, with Utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, that people in wealthy countries are obligated to help those in dire need; consequently, it seems perfectly acceptable that I be asked to contribute however I can.

Still, it’s a lot nicer when I’m seen as a person (albeit one with a wallet) rather than just a walking debit card; that’s why it was kind of a welcome relief this afternoon to be strolling in the opposite direction of the city center and towards the less congested and more idyllic beachfront to the north.

Nobody was using me for anything, which was perfect, since here in paradise, I’m pretty much good for nuthin’.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Little Loss

Exuberance can cost you; in my case, anyway, that’s when accidents happen.

I guess I got a little overeager today with my body-surfing; I let a big wave pick me up, slam me down (which I enjoy), and rip my glasses off my face (which I don’t like), sending them spinning off into the deep blue sea, never to be seen again, unless, as my daughter scoffed, I return in five years and somehow find them washed up on shore.

Although I realized finding them again would be hopeless, I wandered through the surf for a bit, imagining I might get lucky enough to somehow find a pair of corrective lenses looped to an elastic Crokie floating before me; no chance of that; it was like trying to locate the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack, only in this case, the haystack was the size of the Arabian Sea.

Alas, I’m mostly mad at myself being so careless; in the long run, it’s no great loss; the departed spectacles were my back-up pair anyway, saved especially for doing sports and the like. Still, it’s a drag to lose them and an annoying reminder that I ought to take better care, especially when I’m so especially excited.

In the end, life goes on, and no doubt some happy fish will soon be sporting a stylish new set of eyes; I’ll kick myself a little while for being such a doofus, and hope against hope that five years from now my barnacle-encrusted specs will turn up at my feet.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

On the Road to Paradise

The drive from Mysore to the airport in Bangalore for our flight this afternoon to Goa was about as harrowing a four hours as I’ve ever experienced; among other things, we almost hit a horse.

A pony leapt off the median right in front of our speeding taxi and if our driver hadn’t been so adept at slamming on the brakes (a skill honed to perfection over the previous couple of hours), we might all have been ready for the glue factory.

This was in addition to the early bout of road rage we experienced, an incident that culminated, following our taxi’s failure to pass a car that drifted into our lane, with both cars stopping right in the middle of the busy freeway so their respective drivers could yell at each other for a couple minutes while I tried shouting “shanti, shanti, shanti” to no avail.

And then, of course, were the myriad times we almost were driven under the wheels of huge hand-painted trucks, not to mention the innumerable occasions we converged upon spaces occupied by thousands of automobiles, autorickshaws, and motor scooters in hopes of emerging and inch or two ahead of them, all of this while the minutes until our flight was leaving ticked away inexorably.

But it’s all forgotten now here in the paradise on the Arabian Sea that is Betelbatim Beach, whose loveliness is such that it almost makes me wonder whether the seven hours of hellishness we endured to get here were all just a bad dream and which has me pondering the resilience of the human psyche; apparently, we’re pretty good at bracketing out the horrible once we’ve arrived at the wonderful.

Of course, it’s all about that arrival, but as I learned today, if we can avoid hitting a horse, paradise may be within reach.

Friday, February 25, 2011


People get their jollies in all sorts of ways: model rocketry, kinky sex, even collecting Hummel figurines; it occurred to me this morning, as I bent and sweated for an hour and a half with about six dozen other people, that this was my idea of fun, strange as that may seem; I really do enjoy the Ashtanga practice, and while it’s not always exactly what I would call pleasurable, it is really, when all is said and done (and often, most obviously when the practice itself is finished) quite a good time to be had by most, if not all.

And I think this is sort of useful to keep in mind because it’s easy enough to conceive of the hard work of yoga practice simply as hard work and forget what an incredible privilege and joy it is to subject oneself to the discipline.

You know how they say of something: “It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on?” For me, Ashtanga could be described that way; I know of no other place in life where I get to be shirtless and dripping sweat all over the place (at least in public) and no other activity I get to engage in that is more engaging of body and mind.

Of course, none of this is to deny that the practice can be difficult, humbling, frustrating, and completely absurd; but that’s life, as well. And one of the things that makes the practice so amusing is how it mirrors, in a microcosmic way, that macrocosm of existence; if that’s not fun, I don’t know what is.

My longtime Ashtanga teacher, David Garrigues, once described what we do in our yoga practice as a kind of shamanic journey; I agree, but it’s also sort of a crazy amusement park thrill-ride, like the Tilt-A-Whirl; it’s that kind of fun, too, and best of all, unlike those carnival experiences, you only sometimes feel like hurling afterwards.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Before I left home, my friend and longtime Ashtanga yoga teacher, David Garrigues, cautioned me that India would turn me into a cheapskate.

I was crowing about how inexpensive my monthly rent was going to be: “7000 rupees a month! That’s like 160 bucks! My taxi to the airport in Seattle is almost that much,” (I exaggerated a little.)

“Just you wait,” he said, “by the end of the first month, you’ll be trying to get them down to 6800 or so.”

I scoffed at the idea of wrangling over 200 rupees, something less than five bucks.

But I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right, at least in theory.

I haven’t gone into re-negotiations with my landlady, but I have, oddly enough, become hyper-aware of thriftiness; I would gladly wrangle over 200 rupees; I find myself occasionally making a big deal over a tenth that amount, say when the autorickshaw driver wants to charge me 100 rupees for a ride downtown that usually only costs 70 or 80.

It just goes to show how artificial monetary value is and how what we’re really valuing is something else altogether: self-esteem, maybe, or perhaps a sense of autonomy or control.

One vacillates constantly between wanting to be generous and desiring not to feel like a sucker. If the autorickshaw driver, for instance, quotes me the market rate of seventy rupees for the trip downtown, I’m perfectly happy tipping him thirty, in part for treating me fair and square; but if he tries to take advantage of me, by, for example, by asking for 100 straight off, then I’ll be loath to give him any more, and might not even ride with him in the first place.


I wouldn’t be surprised if economists have a name for it; Malcom Gladwell has probably written an essay about it.

All I know is that it’s going to be really weird paying something like 135 rupees for a cup of coffee when I’m back in Seattle; here, that’s a meal in a restaurant for two or three; a cuppa joe is less than a 10th of that.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Here’s an interesting argument for the conclusion that all the really exists is undifferentiated Brahman from the ancient sage Shamkara, the “unrivalled propounder of advaita Vedanta, the non-dualistic aspect of the Vedic teachings” as explained by Swami Prabhavananda in Spiritual Heritage of India:

Shamkara accepts as “real” only that which neither changes nor ceases to exist. No object, no kind of knowledge, can be absolutely real if its existence is only temporary. All of our various experiences of waking and dreaming are only temporary. So, every object of knowledge, external or internal, is subject to modification; they all change and/or cease to exist; same with the objects themselves, which pass into and out of existence. Therefore, neither the objects of knowledge, nor the objects themselves are real. The only thing that never leaves us is pure consciousness; this is the constant feature of all experience, whether we’re awake, dreaming, or in dreamless sleep. Thus, only pure consciousness is real.

Now, we might wonder why only unchanging, eternal things are real, but we might also be willing to allow that such things would be “more real” (if you can put it that way) than things that change or cease to exist. In that case, maybe pure consciousness, or Brahman, is “realer” than the “reality” we generally experience. Okay, grant that.

And I’ll be damned if Shankara doesn’t beat me there: Again, Swami Prabhavananda: “Here then, we are confronted by a paradox—the world is and is not. It is neither real nor unreal…It is nonexistent, yet it differs from the Reality, the Brahman, upon whom it depends for its existence. It is not real since it disappears in the light of knowledge of its eternal basis.”

I’m not entirely sure I buy it, but I have to admit, it really is intriguing.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I think that, in general, Indians must have a much greater tolerance for “process” than Americans; there are so many more unfinished, half-finished, and clearly never-to-be-finished projects all over the place here than at home.

Aside from the visual appeal of seeing the guts of things as they move along towards some desired end, I think it’s also a good reminder of what we, as human beings are into, as well; our lives are unfinished works; even though we may imagine that we have somehow consummated the project of personal development or self-realization, it’s obvious that all of us have loads left to do; preventative maintenance alone can be a fulltime job.

Another thing that’s different is that here, as opposed to in the good old US of A, there seems to be a much greater tolerance for allowing people to see and interact with the work-in-progress.

Case in point: on the way downtown from Gokulum to Mysore city center, there’s a major road construction project going on: bulldozers, cranes, dozens of men digging trenches, bending rebar, and pouring concrete. If this were going on in my hometown of Seattle, there would be a huge cyclone fence around the worksite; you’d need to have credentials and a hardhat just to watch; here, though, people stroll right on by the machines; I wheel my bike underneath a concrete overpass that will apparently hold up a roadway at some point in the future; no one seems to mind.

Surely, part of the difference has to do with liability issues; in the US, you couldn’t have the public wandering through a major construction zone for fear of someone getting hurt and suing; here, by contrast, it seems like it’s just up to those who pass by to make sure they don’t get beaned on the noggin by a backhoe; if you do, it’s your fault, and probably your karma, as well.

But I also think there’s an aspect of the Indian psyche that just may be more comfortable with allowing the world to see how the sausage is made, as it were. Since we’re all on the same karmic journey, and, at essence, all the very same thing (the universal Atman that is Brahman), who cares if others see our partly-finished projects, because, after all, they’re just seeing theirs, as well.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I walked the thousand and some steps up to the top of Chamundi Hill this morning, and the thought occurred to me about a quarter of the way up, as it often does in yoga practice, “Hey! I don’t have to do this! I can stop anytime I want to.”

But, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, and eventually, I arrived at the top, where tourists and tour busses crowded the road and a coconut went for the exorbitant price of 15 rupees, a 50% premium over what you pay for them elsewhere in town.

I won’t congratulate myself too much for the effort, (although I’m accepting a few pats on the back for having ridden my bike there and back), especially not when I compare my stroll up and down to that of the true devotees who dab a mark of color on every single step as they ascend. It’s that sort of commitment to ritual that must necessarily result in transcendence sooner or later, if not well before the pineapple vendor halfway up.

In the Bhaja Govindam of Shankaracharya, seekers are advised to perform all the religious rituals religiously, but without any expectation of good fortune being the result; paradoxically, though, proper performance of the rituals seems to be a sufficient condition for liberation; thus, apparently, having no expectations results in one’s expectations being fulfilled.

In the Saturday evening lecture at the Ramakrishna ashram last night, the Swami Nityasthanandaji Mahara quoted William James (I almost wondered if the ancient Swamiji might have bet the Harvard sage personally) who said, in the Swami’s words, “Human beings can change their lives by changing their attitudes about life and reality.” That’s no doubt the case, but it’s also clear that one reasonably effective way to changes one’s attitudes is by changing one’s behavior.

If I devote myself to the rituals, there’s no doubt, I’ll come to believe in them; (that was Blaise Pascal’s point about in conjunction his famous wager; if I bet on believing in God and then act as if I do, eventually, I will come to authentic belief); and while I didn’t dab a spot of color on each of the thousand-plus steps to the top of Chamundi Hill, I was praying to something by stair number six-hundred or so.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Not Present

It’s probably something of a misnomer to talk about “achieving” samadhi, or moksha, mukti, or liberation, or whatever you want to call it, since, as I understand it, (and I probably don’t), when you do, the sense of temporal movement vanishes; you’re in the eternal present, without past or future; it’s all just now. So, you wouldn’t really know that you’d gotten there, because there’d be no looking back on the journey; the only experience you’d experience is the state of arrival.

Consider it the absolute opposition of Gertrude Stein’s assessment of Oakland, California: (there is no “there” there); in the case of samadhi, all that would be there is there.

And while the practice of yoga is intended, ultimately, to enable the practitioner to “achieve” such liberation, the road there consistently reveals how far away that destination remains.

It’s exasperatingly difficult, (but simultaneously fascinating to observe the difficulty) to be in the moment while going through the practice. One’s mind (well, this one’s mind, anyway) darts about like a dragonfly, flitting from the past to the future, rarely, and only momentarily, alighting on the present before zipping backwards or forwards yet again.

You’ll be, for instance, doing the very first movement in the very first sun salutation that begins the practice, and already your mind will be imagining how good it will feel to relax in corpse pose when you finish some 90 minutes hence.

Or, you’ll be on the third iteration of surya namaskara B and start to wonder, looking backwards, “Wait! Is this only number two?” Soon, your thoughts have unraveled all the way back to childhood and the time you embarrassed yourself in second grade when your teacher caught you picking your nose in class.

During the led class, the challenge is even more infernal, as you can’t help fearing what’s yet to come: “Will I survive navasana?” “Can I stay in headstand for the entire count?” “Upplithi is going to kill me, I know it!” (And all these just during the opening invocation.)

Occasionally though, and only for an instant, you do get a taste of what it would be like to actually be in the present; a trickle of sweat pools up on the tip of your nose and drips to your knee during Maricasna A; you notice as it’s happening and are surprised by the moment, but then, just like that, it’s gone, along with your mind, into the past, then it’s back to the future as you start wondering whether you’ll be too sweaty to bind on the other side.

Inspired Lunacy

“Moon day,” much to the chagrin of 11 year-old boys the world over, does not refer to the afternoon you all decide to bare your asses from the schoolbus window at passing cars; rather, it denotes, in the Ashtanga Yoga tradition, the two mornings a month—the day when the moon is new and when it is full—that earnest yogis and yoginis historically refrain from practice and instead, sleep in, linger over morning coffee, or otherwise fill up the two or so hours they’d normally be bending and sweating through on the mat.

On the website of renowned Ashtanga teacher, Tim Miller, there is an explanation of why new and full moon days are observed as holidays, and who am I to argue with that?

Still, I think the reasoning is on firmer ground in its explanation of prana and apana; the business about our bodies being 70% water and therefore subject to the lunar cycles has an air of the pseudo-scientific about it; you’ve got to be a pretty huge body of water before the gravitational attraction of the moon is going to have any affect on you; so unless you’re the Liz Taylor of Joan Rivers’ circa 1980 fat jokes, “Can we tawlk?” I don’t think that claim will hold much water, no pun intented.

For me, perhaps the most important aspect of the lunar holidays (apart from lingering over coffee, of course) is the reminder that there are forces related to the yoga practice that are more powerful than me and that therefore, when it comes to this near-daily ritual, I don’t have to be—that is, I can’t be—perfect.

And that’s related to a spirit of moderation that apparently is found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In his commentary to the first sutra of the second chapter, “Yoga and Its Practice,” Swami Prabhavananda quotes from the Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna condemns fanatics who engage in a “perverse cult of self-torture”: “You may know those men to be of demonic nature who mortify the body excessively in ways not prescribed by the scriptures. They do this because their lust and attachment to sense objects has filled them with egotism and vanity. In their foolishness, they weaken all their sense organs, and outrage me, the dweller within the body.”

It’s easy enough, in one’s devotion to any serious practice, whether it’s yoga, academic study, bird-watching, you name it, to forget that, and get so obsessed with the endeavor that a single misstep seems like the end of the world.

Taking a chill-pill a couple days a month reminds us that the practice is expansive as hell, has what farmer-philosophy Wendell Berry, in his classic essay "Solving for Pattern" calls “wide margins,” and will still be there for us tomorrow, even if we fuck up a little today.

Inspired lunacy, indeed.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dueling with Dualism

Of the Six Systems of Indian Philosophy, the one I’ve been most interested in has been the Samkhya System of the sage Kapila, in part because it is generally seen as non-theistic (essentially, it argues that God is neither necessary for creation nor provable, so positing Ishvara is unnecessary and fruitless) and in part because of its philosophical connection to yoga, so much so that sometimes the Six Systems are reduced to three, Samkya and Yoga being combined.

Its emphasis on rational inquiry also resonates with me; the Western scholar of Samkhya, Richard Garbe, said, “In Kapila’s doctrine, for the first time in the history of the world, the complete independence and freedom of the human mind, its full confidence in its own powers, was exhibited.” And while I’m not sure that’s completely true (in spite of subjecting them to rational analysis, Samkhya does still treat the Vedas as incorrigible), you gotta appreciate the way the school consistently uses argument to make the case for its claims.

Among the most interesting of these (to me), is the way in which Samkhya sets out to support its dualist ontology, a metaphysical position that, as a kind of knee-jerk physicalist, I have long been skeptical of. Samkhya posits two ultimate realities, Purusha, which we might think of as pure consciousness, and Prakriti, which, in a probably oversimplified way, is all of Nature, the entire universe if you will.

It’s sort of like the dualist distinction we get in the West (most famously, perhaps, in Descartes) between mind and matter, or spirit and body, but much broader, I’d say. Descartes was mainly interested in distinguishing our self from our body; Samkhya’s dualism is more about the difference between all matter and all consciousness, although again, that’s probably an oversimplification.

Anyway, what’s cool is that Samkhya doesn’t just stipulate purusha; it argues for its existence. (To be fair, Descartes didn’t just stipulate mind either; although his proof for it, which depends upon mind and body having different qualities is arguably circular.)

Swami Prabhavananda lists five proofs; the ones that are most intriguing to me are number three: “…since prakriti is nonintelligent, there must be something or someone to experience its operation;” and four: “…there must be a supreme background, a centre, to co-ordinate all experience, for our experiences are multiple, and we may have multiple experiences simultaneously.”

Combing these two, I understand that therefore, purusha is necessarily implied by the existence of prakriti; consciousness, if you will, has to exist because matter exists.


I guess you could simply deny proof three, and proof four seems kind of Thomas Aquinas’ version of the teleological argument and so would be subject to the same sorts of concerns, but still, it’s an ingenious and compelling set of arguments on the part of the Samkhya System.

And also, I wonder if, to illustrate it, on a much smaller scale, the fact that my body is sitting here, wrangling with these claims, necessarily implies that I have a consciousness which does so.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Who Am I?

I’m trying to make sense of we’d call in my philosophical training, “the problem of personal identity” as it’s rendered in the Hindu spiritual tradition; (get in line, Dave, behind scores of seekers way more experienced and sophisticated than you; but anyway…)

Swami Prabhavandanda describes the distinction made between the self (small “s”), the incessant change of sensations, emotions, images, thoughts, fancies, and so on that we observe when we look within, and the Self (big “s”), something “behind the tumult, apart from it, superior to it…a silent and constant witness”— the Atman, as it’s referred to in the Upanishads.

On the one hand, I get it; in a sense, it’s trivially true: obviously, none of us are really the fleeting impressions flowing through our minds; what we typically refer to as “I” when we introspect is just a bunch of memories, sense data, half-formed ideas, and unreflective preferences; there’s no homunculus in there we can identify as “me.” No less a leading light in the Western analytic philosophical canon than the 18th century British Empiricist David Hume made this almost oddly Buddhist observation.

And sure, it’s obvious that we are all One; like the Beatles said: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together;” we’re all made up of the same atoms; we’re just star-stuff; the distinction between my self and even Donald Rumsfeld is specious; there’s no denying it, hard as one might try.


It sure doesn’t seem that way. And I’m not even sure I want it to.

For me to make sense of this life, (and maybe that’s the problem right there), I’ve got to believe in individuality, and agency, and personal responsibility, including (gulp) free will (or at least sort of limited human freedom compatible with a deterministic universe.)

When I get up every morning to do yoga, it’s my practice, in my body, housing my mind, fluttering about with all my concerns and issues; it's me on the mat, with all my memories, experiences, personal history, both good and bad, for which I can (and should) be held accountable; maybe I’m actually the Atman, but if this self who moves (sometimes so clumsily) through the world has no practical connection to that Self who’s witnessing all, then it seems sort of like saying that, I dunno, (let me cadge an analogy from the film High Fidelity), the Stevie Wonder of the insipid “Ebony and Ivory” is still the Stevie Wonder of the brilliant “Superstition,” even though there’s no tangible connection between the two.

Plus, if we’re all one, howcome I can’t do Karandavasana like all my real Selves in the Intermediate class?


I dropped by the University of Mysore today for their Suvana Manasa, an academic exhibition in which students create poster presentations about the work they’re doing for community members to check out.

Professor Sheshagiri Rao, of the Philosophy Department suggested last week I would find it interesting, and I did, mainly because how similar it was in look and feel to the so-called “Assessment Fair” we each quarter do at my college, in which students similarly create work for classmates and community members to observe.

There was that same nervous excitement on the part of students as they were setting up and, just like at Cascadia, the kids were dressed in their Sunday best and looking all fresh-scrubbed and bright-eyed for their presentations. And just like at my institution, it was charmingly familiar to see how proudly faculty members in every department basked in the glow of their students’ best work.

I enjoyed mingling with the young philosophers, including several from Thailand, here in Mysore to work on theses in Indian philosophy. What warmed my heart the most was how ecumenical the presentation boards were: there were posters about great thinkers East and West, from Shankara to Bertrand Russell,

with Ramakrishna and even Jesus Christ in-between.

I came away for the experience reflecting that—in spite of the many disparities between the history, philosophy, and spiritual tradition of India and that of the “West,” (and especially, the Anglo-American philosophical canon in which I am steeped)—from the student perspective, the learning experience may not be all that different. They’ve still got to engage with ideas and do something in the way of re-presenting them for public consumption.

And no matter where they’re from, they’ve all got to deal with that business of faculty members sunning themselves in their best work.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Sometimes I swear to God they’re fucking with us; that this whole yoga thing, with the poses, and chanting, and esoteric teachings is just a big joke on all of us taking it so seriously.

I imagine our gurus, shala director Sharath, (Pattabhi Jois’ grandson,) and his mom, Saraswathi, sitting around the dinner table, pigging out on hamburgers and French fries, and washing it all down with pints of beer and just laughing and laughing at the thousands of students worldwide and hundreds of us who’ve made the pilgrimage here to Mysore to mainline the teachings; I see them concocting up ever more difficult postures and even more convoluted claims about Ashtanga just for the sheer comedy of watching wide-eyed Westerners eat it all up. I envision the non-stop LOLs and ROFLs they have when they think about all the stuff they get us to do and believe, and not only that, to pay reasonably big bucks for the privilege.

Yuk-yuk, if that don’t beat all.

Of course, I know that’s not really the case; I realize we’re engaged in a noble tradition that truly is liberating on any number of levels; I know that the underlying philosophy is thousands of years old and is steeped in cultural traditions even more ancient than that; I know that the devotion of our teachers is sincere and that they’ve given over their lives to the furtherance of this incredible, life-affirming, and even transcendent practice.

But sometimes, you gotta wonder.

Like yesterday, in Sharath’s weekly conference, when the entire student body gathers to hear him speak and answer questions about yoga n’ stuff; he was talking about the bandhas, the internal body locks we employ in our practice; specifically, the root lock, mula bandha, which I’d always understood as a tightening of the muscles around the perineum.

Nope, said Sharath, “Mula bandha means pulling your anus inside, locking.” Seriously. “Always mula bandha; locking your anus is secret of long life. Locking anus, old man can become young man.” And even when someone asked whether that’s what he really meant, or if mula bandha was more about contracting the pelvic floor, Sharath reiterated: “It’s all anus.”

A couple people, myself included, couldn’t help giggling.

No joke, scolded Sharath, mildly.

Still, I can't help wondering.


I attended one of the regularly-scheduled 6:00 Saturday evening lectures in English at the Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama in Mysore last night. The advertised topic was Viveka Chudamani, but the speaker, a thirty-something-looking monk named Swami Shree Mohananandaji Maharaj, mostly talked about how interpreting the Vedas is a matter of trying to understand the non-understandable.

I appreciated that, because so much of what I’m trying to grasp while here in India, through yoga asana practice, chanting, Sanskrit study, and just opening my eyes to temples and traditions and different perspectives on the Unknown seems so ungraspable—at least through my familiar mode of reasoned argument and critical intellectual reflection.

The Swami elaborated on the importance of humility when approaching these topics and the requirement of long and serious studies of the Vedas to come to an appreciation of their deep and abiding message.

Again, right on; there is untold wisdom in these sacred texts; a lifetime of study would be required to even scratch the surface of what they have to offer; obviously, the best I can hope for in a couple months is a single ice crystal on the topmost tip of the tippy-top of the iceberg.

Still, this is what I consistently wrangle with: the Vedic texts, as I understand it, are seen to be absolutely authorative; Swami Prabhavananda, in his all-encompassing Spiritual Heritage of India writes, “Even more than the other scriptures of the world, the Vedas make a special claim to be divine in their origin…The authority of the Vedas does not depend on anything external. They themselves are the authority, being the knowledge of God.”

Consequently, all we can ever do is interpret the Vedas; we can never challenge them. This is difficult for me; I want something more in the way of justification for huge claims about the nature of reality and what happens after we die than simply “this book says so.”

Of course, this may simply be because I haven’t studied them enough; maybe by the time I’ve grasped a whole snowflake on that iceberg’s tip I’ll conclude differently.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Led Class

What I like least about most yoga classes is yoga class: the part where you wait around on your mat for the teacher to begin, where you have to half-heartedly socialize while perhaps half-assedly doing a few stretches, feeling half-dressed and with half a mind to leave before things even begin.

That’s why, in part, I was drawn to Ashtanga: the typical practice is “Mysore style;” you show up on your own time and terms, do your practice at your own speed and ability, and are into Savasana and out the door without having to interact with anyone but your own self (and perhaps, briefly, from time to time, your teacher, as he or she corrects a posture or assists you in getting into, or more deeply into one.)

For the introvert and/or self-motivated “Type A” personality, it’s the perfect approach: you learn primarily from the practice itself as opposed to mostly from a teacher, and best of all, you can get away without having to engage in small-talk with strangers before your morning coffee.

But within the Ashtange tradition, there’s also the so-called “led class,” in which a teacher calls out each step in all the poses and counts the breaths while students, simultaneously, as one, go through the series in something, that to the untrained observer, probably resembles a kind of freaky, cultish, slow-motion calisthenics class, or perhaps the strangest sort of Martian dance party ever conceived.

Surprisingly, however, even for one of those aforementioned introverted Type A people, the occasional (or here in Mysore twice-weekly) led class (the first time I heard the term I thought it was “lead class” and envisioned everyone holding heavy, old-fashioned barbells) is something to look forward to—or probably, more accurately, to look back upon warmly having survived it.

Two aspects of it are particularly satisfying: first, the way you can (or pretty much must) give yourself completely over to the count; you’re freed of the responsibility of pushing yourself and can always rely on your teacher (in my case, Saraswathi) to make you work harder than you would yourself; and second, the way in which having someone else direct things for you forces you to notice all the shortcuts and sidesteps you normally take on your own--(or, at least, it forces me to do so.)

And of course, it's also comforting that because of the norm of silence which is observed before and after while in the shala, you can still easily make your way off to morning coffee without having to small-talk.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Philosophy Department

One of the great things about Ashtanga Yoga is that once you’ve learned the series, you’ve joined a world-wide fraternity (or sorority, too, I guess); you can go all over the world, check out on the internet where the local Ashtanga studio is, then show up, throw down your mat, do your practice, and you automatically belong (at least sort of, for the next hour and a half or so.)

It’s sort of the same thing with another of the fraternities (and this one, given the gender balance in the field, really is more of a fraternal organization) I belong to, the worldwide world of academic philosophers. Being a member of this club, as it were, I can, (although not quite with the freedom of Ashtanga), show up at a college or university Philosophy Department, and, by speaking the right code words—“metaphysics,” “ontology,” “British Empiricism,” and so on—at least introduce myself to one or more of my far-flung colleagues in the field.

I’d tried to contact the Philosophy Department at the University of Mysore before coming here, but to no avail. So, the other day, I showed up in person at the Department, and, in typical Indian style, after waiting around for about an hour, was invited to come back the next day, that is, today.

So, this afternoon, I had a lovely meeting with Professor Sheshagiri Rao, Chairman of the Department, an expert in Indian Philosophy and Comparative Philosophical Studies East and West. We reminisced together about one of my former professors at the University of Washington, Karl Potter, who is arguably the most reknowned scholar of Indian Philosophy in the West.

Professor Rao invited me to come back to visit his department in a week or so when students are giving presentations and said I would be entirely welcome to sit in on one of his classes and even give a little lecture should I be so moved.

It wasn’t quite as easy as just showing up and throwing down my mat, but I did feel like I belonged.

Plus, on the way home, I enjoyed a coconut from another of the “clubs” to which I belong: people who carry lots of stuff on bikes.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Right, then Left

The other day here in Mysore an acquaintance of mine from Seattle told me that she was going for an adventure around town with her friend on his motorcycle; when I asked her where they were headed, she said “Right, then left.”

What she and her buddy like to do is just head out on the scooter through the streets of town and when the spirit moves them, make a right turn, then in a little while, a left and simply see where it takes them. There’s always something interesting to look at in India, and this is their way of surprising themselves with new sights.

I’ve been doing that a lot lately on my bicycle, only I usually go left first, since that’s the direction that’s slightly less scary given that you don’t have to cross traffic—and if that first turn is a roundabout, the direction which will ensure you aren’t pedaling head-on into an oncoming stream of vehicles.

Although I’m sure the strategy is fun on a motorcycle, I’d suggest it’s even more enjoyable on a human-powered two-wheeler. That’s because, on a bike, every time you go somewhere (or for that matter, nowhere in particular), you’re taking a ride. What I mean is that even if you don’t reach your destination (or even have one), you’ve still enjoyed the simple pleasure of cycling which, as far as I’m concerned, is an end in itself.

My flute-teacher, Mr. Upadhyaya, says that one way of understanding the Indian conception of God or Ishvara is as a timeless witness to all things; in a weird little way, that’s what I get to experience on the bike, riding around.

Scenes slide past my vision; I take them in without judging, simply seeing them for what they are: a painted cow; a random trash fire; a group of ladies in saris washing sheets under a common water pump; half a dozen young boys in school uniforms pushing each other into traffic; a bike mechanic truing a wheel on the homemade truing stand that looks like this:

It’s all right; then I’ve left.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


You can teach and old dog new tricks; or, I guess, more accurately, you can teach an old dog old tricks, but only, I think, if you create an amazing learning environment where students are deeply dedicated to the task at hand so that the old dog can look around at his classmates and be inspired to push himself harder—(which, of course, in paradoxical India also means easier)—than he ever has before so he can achieve results he never imagined possible, or more accurately has long imagined as impossible.

Yesterday, in the Yoga Sutra class, our teacher Laksmeesh commented upon the 14th Sutra, which, in one version, is translated “Practice becomes firmly grounded when it has been cultivated for a long time, uninterruptedly, with earnest devotion.” I understood him as adding a fourth consideration, too, that a learner also be of good character. It occurred to me, at that point, that my struggles to improve my own yoga practice have typically foundered on a couple of those four points.

I have been practicing for a reasonably long time, not in the grand scheme of things, but pretty much for the whole lifetime of my child, who’s now a teenager.

And for the most part, I’ve done so uninterruptedly, although there have been weeks at a time when I barely make it through half of the primary series.

Earnest devotion has definitely been an issue, though; I’ve often just sort of “gone through the motions” (literally) with an eye towards finishing my practice rather than really experiencing it.

And character has probably been a stumbling block, especially when it comes embracing the liberatory aspect of yoga, as opposed to its just being a way to feel better about one’s body.

Here in Mysore, though, imbued with the spirit of the place and surrounded at the shala by dozens of practitioners practicing for a long time, uninterruptedly, with earnest devotion and good character, it’s easy to commit to the whole package, and in doing so, go forward in one’s practice (which again, paradoxically, for an old guy like me, means going backwards to poses once gained but later lost).

As a teacher, I aspire with all my professional heart to create a classroom environment like this one I’m privileged to experience here on a daily basis.

I just wonder how I can do that short of bringing all my students to India.

Entreprenuerial Spirit

One of the things striking things about India is the incredible industry and energy of the people here.

Everyone’s bustling about; traffic is crazy; rickshaw drivers, store owners, and independent salesmen on the street are hustling constantly for business; I’m sure in many ways, the U.S. is just the same, but it’s seems somehow purer, not so packaged or regulated.

You want to set up a cart and sell coconuts or sandals or refurbished cell phones? Sure, go right ahead and good luck to you as you compete against a dozen other similar enterprises all within spitting distance.

Sometimes people complain that America has “gone soft;” that the so-called “nanny state” prevents us from exercising our entrepreneurial spirit; I dunno. In general, I’m all for laws and ordinances that protect people’s health and safety. But I must confess, I sure appreciate how vibrant and alive the street-level consumer economy is here.

I love how the alleyway after alleyway is lined with vendors vending everything from vegetables and fruits to sandals and shoes to DVDs and electronics and to the extent that paternalistic restrictions on people’s liberty in the US prevents this from happening, I think it’s a shame.

I rode my bike to downtown Mysore today to pick up a shirt I’d had made and also to just poke around and look at things. I decided I also needed to buy an adjustable wrench to I could tighten the oft-slipping headset on my rig, and it also occurred to me that I could use a new kitchen knife, the one in my apartment revealing itself as incredibly dull as I went to cut my breakfast pineapple this morning.

I threaded my way through crowded passageways to a street abounding with plumbing supply and hardware stores. It took a couple of tries, but I was able to find a place to buy a sweet adjustable forged-steel “spanner” (they call them, after the English influence no doubt) for just over two bucks. And a razor-sharp German paring knife at another place for a buck.

Not really all that much on my part, therefore, in the way of contributing to the life of the local economy; on the other hand, it seems perfectly vital already without my help.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What Matters

People who make assumptions about car-hating, yoga-practicing, flute-playing, vegetarian philosophy teachers might be surprised to find out that this one is a somewhat serious follower of professional football, and those who note that I reside in Seattle might be even more taken aback to discover that I’m a close to fanatical Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

Full disclosure: I bleed Black and Gold.

Of course, I have an excuse: I grew up in the Steel City, in the glory days of the Steel Curtain, when my hometown team dominated the NFL, winning four championships in a under a decade, establishing a dynasty that’s never been matched. My dad had season tickets, and we went together to dozens of games, those occasions being some of the best father-son bonding experiences of my adolescence and during many of those turbulent teenage times, the only thing that kept he and I from filicide or patricide, respectively.

Consequently, I was totally psyched by this year’s Superbowl, in which the Steelers, though underdogs according to the Vegas betting lines, had a chance to beat the Green Bay Packers and in doing so, win their unprecedented seventh Lombardi Trophy; it was a big deal to me, even over here in India.

I got up at 5:30 AM to listen to the game on internet radio, and sat by my laptop for three hours silently cheering and agonizing over the broadcast, which ultimately resulted in the Steelers losing a game they shoulda coulda won, undone by three costly turnovers, final score Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25.

Big deal, right?

Sure, but not really; a million protesters in the streets of Cairo could care less; a couple billion folks in China certainly slept through the entire contest; and here in India, hundreds of millions of people are instead getting fired up for the only sporting event that really matters: the Cricket World Cup, starting the week after next.

I try to be sanguine about the loss and keep it in perspective: after all, I’ve got my health, my darling family whom I miss terribly is coming in just over two weeks, and to top it off, I managed to get into Maricasana D

all by myself this morning!

Maps and Territories

“The map is not the territory” is one of those phrases people utter when they want to sound profound (or perhaps, when they’re just lost), but the funny thing is, it’s true, at least for me here in Mysore, where the Google map I often look at before leaving the house ends up looking nothing like the route I eventually take to get somewhere, or, to extend the lesson from the spatial to the theoretical, the map I have in my mind before I go do something ends up being very different than the experience itself turns out to be.

Case in point: this morning, I planned to ride my (new!) bike to the Datta Peetham Ashram, which is the center of learning for this guru, Sri Ganapathi Sachchidananda, who’s apparently world-famous, but about whom I only just learned the other day from my flute teacher, who is a devotee. People have told me that the ashram is an oasis of calm in Mysore and well worth seeing; I’d also been given an invitation from a fellow, Dr. P.V. Phanishree, a pediatrician at the hospital connected to the ashram, who specializes in, among other things, using music and meditation for healing of people who have neurological afflictions.

I’m not sure exactly what I pictured the place to be, but suffice it to say, it was different than that. First of all, Dr. P. wasn’t at ashram, as I misunderstood him to say he was; he was at home, having breakfast with his family (I think) when he received my call taking him up on his invitation.

Second, when he graciously said he would meet me should I only wait for a bit in the Universal Prayer Hall, it wasn’t clear to me he meant for like an hour and a half until he could make it there—not that I minded, actually; it was a lovely place to sit quietly for so long.

Third, when he did arrive, I didn’t realize I’d get a sort of V.I.P. “visiting professor” treatment, including a tour of the Vedic chanting school where about 60 youngsters and adolescents feverishly read aloud from ancient Sanskrit texts under the watchful eyes of their gurus.

And finally, I had no idea I’d get to experience a music therapy healing session, courtesy of Dr. P., with music especially chosen for someone with my birthday; I’m not sure it cured me of anything, but I was certainly transported to some kind of blissful realm during the half-hour so I lay in a recliner chair listening to the Swamiji’s music on headphones.

The territory of what I experienced was way different (and far more profound) than the map I had in mind for it; that’s for sure; also, on my ride there, I got lost four or fives times trying to follow the route I’d googled; each time I did, though, I just asked someone to point me in the right direction; each time, I got closer to my destination, from within the territory, right there, on the ground.

Friday, February 4, 2011


Perhaps the best thing about being on sabbatical (apart from being able to delete work emails en masse) is that it’s reminding me of what it’s like to be a student, which is, I think, a lesson all teachers need to be reminded of on a regular basis.

I’m taking a number of different classes while I’m here in India, including Sanskrit, Ashtanga yoga, Hindustani flute, and Vedic chanting, and I’m also trying to teach myself enough Indian philosophy and religion to be able to include it as part of a course I’ve developed for my college. It’s reminiscent of the life of a graduate student, although minus the angst associated with constantly feeling as if your professors are judging you as something they would like to scrape off of their shoes.

Consequently, I’m consistently finding myself trying to grasp something new, something that someone instructing me knows a lot more about than I do, and about which I often feel inadequate when it comes my abilities or level of understanding. It can be somewhat mortifying, but it’s also exciting and fascinating and even a little bit scary, as well.

As a teacher, I sometimes forget that last part; because I’m relatively comfortable in the classroom, and reasonably familiar with my subject matter, I rarely experience that feeling in the pit of your stomach that results from feeling like the material being presented is way over your head, that you’ll never really get it, and that you may as well just drop out and get a job as a roofer or whatever.

Here, though, as I try with mixed success to acquire another yoga pose, or learn a new fingering on the flute, or figure out how a vowel symbol is supposed connect to a consonant character, that feeling comes flooding back and there I am, back in Bill Talbott’s Philosophy of Social Science seminar, or David Keyt’s Advanced Logic class, or for that matter, Sister Theresa’s 10th grade trigonometry course, wondering how I’ll ever make sense of the material and why it is that everyone else around me seems to get this shit so easily.

It makes me want to be a better, more compassionate teacher, one who remembers what it’s like to be on the other side of the podium.

It also makes me want to buckle down with my Sanskrit homework, of which I’ve got plenty.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Want vs. Need

I think that non-desire is more of a Buddhist than a Hindu thing, although there’s no doubt that the philosophical underpinnings of the type of yoga I do stresses the importance of detachment from one’s mental states, especially those that have to do with things we’re grasping for.

It’s puzzling, though, since so much of the yoga practice involves striving; we’re always trying to go deeper into each pose and/or acquire the next one in whatever series we’re working on; no doubt it’s one of those paradigmatic paradoxes where we come to be liberated (in some sense) by exploring our bondage (in another.)

And off the mat, it’s no different: we’re constantly driven by what we want and don’t want, by our attractions and repulsions, by what we’re drawn to and what we’re trying to get away from. As I was strolling through downtown Mysore today, this was readily apparent as I sought, with some degree of interest, to purchase a new pair of pants, while simultaneously trying to extricate myself from an interaction with a fairly aggressive rickshaw driver who wanted to take me for a ride, show me how incense is made, and/or sell me some marijuana—that he assured me, oddly enough, was legal.

But even after I got away from him, there was no escaping the pull of desire, as I passed by the Bahusar Cycle and Watch Company

and saw out front a brand-new Atlas Gold Line Super bicycle and found myself coveting it way more than I probably should, given that I have a perfectly serviceable used one that’s getting me around town just fine—although at the staggering cost of 3500 rupees (about 80 bucks) for the new model, it hardly seems worth the psychic energy of not indulging myself.

It all comes down, in the end, to that old “wants vs. needs” question: should we refrain from fulfilling desires for stuff we only crave but don’t require?

It’s a bedeviling conundrum, especially since it might also be the case that we only want to fulfill our needs but may also need to fulfill our wants. And unfortunately, doing yoga doesn’t answer this riddle; it only illustrates it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Thoreau in Mysore

The other day, when I was at the big bookstore in town, Sapna Book House, I saw a volume entitled, The Yogi of Walden, which apparently makes a case that others have made, namely that Henry David Thoreau was basically living the life of a yogi when he spent his couple of years at Walden, by the pond, living alone, meditating, as it were, on the experience and life in general.

I should have picked the book up, but on the other hand, I may not have needed to since it’s become so patently obvious as I retire each evening here in Mysore while reading selections from Walden before drifting off to sleep.

There’s no doubt that Thoreau’s emphasis on austerity, simplicity, and detachment is entirely consistent with the lessons of yoga; he’s constantly harping on the idea that people clutter up their lives with stuff and are driven by unreflective desires, themes that run through the lessons of the yogic practice.

Similarly, both Thoreau and yoga are deeply interested in quieting the mind so as to more clearly grasp the nature of reality. The second of Patanjali’s sutras famously says that yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness, all in the name of seeing things as they really are. I take it that Henry David was after pretty much the same thing when he wrote, “”We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

Thoreau defines what it means to be a philosopher as “to so love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust.” Seems to me that this is exactly what I’m trying to do as I bend and sweat every morning at the shala.

“The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation” may be Thoreau’s most famous quote; I know what that’s like these days when I do my best to refrain from whimpering as Saraswathi yanks me into Maricasana D.