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AY:A2 Apprenticeship

Thank you, AY:A2 students, for your support of the apprentices I’m training. Your generosity of spirit affects them in very good ways. Because several of you have said you’d like to hear about what I’m up to with this apprenticeship stuff, and because I want you to feel that you’re part of this, I’m going to dish. What we’re doing is actually somewhat bold, if not a tiny bit subversive.

When AY:A2 incorporated in 2011, I gave it a dual mission. First and most important, we support yoga practice with the resources of a teacher, a method, and community. Second, AY:A2 will provide teaching mentorship in a way that benefits not just our shala but the wider ashtanga community and the future of the practice.

The second mission has attracted much of my creative energy for the past year. In return for this creative investment, training apprentices has begun to give me all sorts of happiness as well as confidence in the future of the ashtanga practice.

How AY:A2 can serve the future of the practice.

For ashtanga teachers, transitioning from sadhana to seva (from self-focused practice, to service) can be weird. It can stunt one’s growth dramatically if done without sufficient (1) preparation as a student, and (2) support from teachers and community. When this transition is made because the student puts herself in the teaching role, and not because her own teachers identify her as sufficiently skilled and prepared to teach, the challenges just mentioned are multiplied.

(Subtext: do not get in to ashtanga teaching unless you full-on cannot avoid it. Resist!! Don’t give yourself over to it unless you basically have to do it in order for your own practice to grow, and unless you have tons of support.)

Given these challenges, most teachers need active, invested mentors to whom they are accountable. (I do.) They need a (1) clear method and (2) a sense of history to keep from getting confused. They need to have strong equanimity and mental clarity, so they can (1) stand outside today’s “yoga” market and culture hype and (2) influence that culture positively.

Teachers need to be able to identify, and resist, the ego’s urge to use teaching to feed root chakra needs: money, sex, power, and attention.

(Subtext: yoga BS, and yoga scandals, happen when teachers don’t have all the support they need. Or when they fail to realize that they actually do have sufficient money, sex, power and attention – and thus they constantly grasp after more and more of the same. This happens when we don’t have anyone to call us on our, well, crap.)

It’s going to take time, but the vision is to find some mature practitioners, and offer them exactly this sort of support. When they’re done, they can use this training however they choose. So far, we’ve found that just going through the apprenticeship process is a great joy for me, and inspiring for them. We work sort of hard. But in the big picture, it gives more energy than it takes.

Apprenticeship here is invitation-only, merit-based, and free.

I look for compassion, open minds, and relaxed self-discipline. All apprentices:

(1) have been practicing daily without a break for at least two years and preferably longer,

(2) deeply understand the ashtanga method on its own terms, and

(3) have been drawn intuitively into some sort of meditation practice without any push from the outside.

(Subtext: don’t ask.)

Before they begin apprenticing, I ask for three commitments:

(1) continued daily practice (before teaching, even when that means getting up at 3am),

(2) full-on forgiveness regarding any lingering issues with any previous yoga teachers, and

(3) a commitment not to get romantically or sexually involved with any student in the shala.

After they start apprenticing, I ask that they meditate daily. Apprentices assist about one day per week (so you as students get used to them). And they meet with me 2-4 times a month for an informal talk like those I used to have with Dominic after assisting him. Unlike just about everyone else, apprentices have my phone number and a high level of access to my energy. They’re encouraged to start exploring new questions and lines of study regarding yoga. I get interested in whatever interests them, so that I can be an interlocutor regarding their individual lines of historical, physiological, spiritual or whatever inquiry.

Apprenticeship ends.

Apprentices get 200 hours from AY:A2. After the first 100 hours of classroom assisting, they do have the option to choose to continue assisting me for another 100 hours or so if they’re still learning from it. However, this can’t go on forever. Somewhere around the 200 classroom hour threshold (300 hours total), AY:A2 starts paying apprentice teachers.

This goes to the point of the motives for the apprenticeship program. The motivation is to support great teaching.

My legacy is to avoid apprentices as much as possible. For example, when I started assisting Dominic, he had about 60 students per day at the flagship Yogaworks in Santa Monica. Many people in that scene wanted to assist him, because he was a yoga somebody and his vibe was so crackling-intense, ego-blinding and badass that being around him was an education in itself. But… he wasn’t interested in assistants. Same goes for Sharath – it was only after much resistance that he allowed authorized teachers to assist him in the shala in Mysore, and he only did this as an alternative to the residential teacher training program, when he discontinued it. So that’s where I’m coming from. I’m not looking for help in the Mysore room.

But, working with apprentices excites me tremendously. This might be a little weird. Training apprentices does take a lot of work and it does generate new responsibility for me to carry. Eh, whatever. It gives me a chance to do even more yoga, and to fill my own need to have a positive impact on the world. If this stuff didn’t excite me so much, I’d find an easier way to train assistants or just not bother to do it at all. 

This program is politically conscious.

The majority of yoga teachers are exploited. Exploiting them is easy because they’re inexperienced as practitioners and poorly trained as teachers. But exploitation, inexperience and poor training don’t help anyone – not really.

I had to read Das Kapital backwards and forwards to understand labor relationships well enough to see that exploitation of yoga teachers (combined with expensive teacher trainings that flood the labor market) is where studios make a profit. But most people are quicker studies than me: you can see how the industry works. (I actually enjoy teaching for little or no money. But that’s another matter, related to the way I define my own “profits,” given that my basic needs are already fully met.)

But here’s the thing. Trying to pretend you know what yoga is when your practice is not fully developed is a formula for arrested development. Thrusting a person into this job for matters of convenience is not cool. It’s the reason western yoga is full of elementary-level instruction trying to pass itself off as something more by adding special effects.

(Subtext: when you meet someone who wants you to teach regardless of whether you’re ready, and for matters of their own convenience, is that your teacher? Do you deserve better?)

Teacher training and the KPJAYI.

A note about a promise I have made to my teacher, R. Sharath Jois. Apprenticeship here is a support to (not a substitute for) travel to the main ashtanga school in Mysore, India. Like all of us blessed to teach by the KPJAYI since about 2007, I have promised not to participate in western style teacher trainings. We sign a contract: no teacher trainings.

A KPJAYI diploma is a basic qualification for starting one’s own, independent, full-on Mysore program. It is a professional criterion in a field with low barriers to entry. Those who take leadership positions in this profession without it tend to have difficulty feeling fully supported in their work. This may come out in all sorts of ways. And it may be passed on to students in still other ways. It is so hard to grow when we feel we have to defend our basic territory. I want more for AY:A2 apprentices. It is good to be fully nourished in your personal practice, and in your teaching practice.

Besides, the transmission thing is no joke: spending time on the ground in Mysore brings a particular taste of BS-transcending, firey, relaxed excitement to a teacher’s vibe. Making the sacrifices required to get there simplifies life and priorities – which one has to do anyway in order to run a Mysore program without being crushed under its weight.

Love.

On that note, a restatement of the obvious. Training apprentices in a focused, personal, high quality way floats my boat. I do it for kicks. It’s just the particular way that my excitement for the practice is manifesting now. Within the parameters I have set, the program will change over coming years. And over time we will bring in visiting teachers who have their own unique approaches to apprenticeship.

My own training in the beginning was unsystematic, informal, random, and hilarity-imbued. And this was perfect! I’m still being mentored in my teaching, in many ways too intimate or subtle to mention, and much too specific to reproduce for others. There’s no one way to learn to teach.

This just happens to be my way of taking maximum joy in my work. So, again, AY:A2 crew, thank you for being awesome to the apprentices. You are implicit teachers to them, and I’m glad to see you enjoying their presence in the room.

APRENTICES.

Rachel Garcia. Rachel was introduced to Ashtanga yoga in Reno, Nevada in 2007. She has practiced under the guidance of Angela Jamison six days a week since April, 2011. She completed a 200 hour teacher training course through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in 2005 and has taught Sivananda and vinyasa style yoga classes since 2006. In April of 2012, she began assisting, and then co-teaching, the Mysore Light class on Sundays, and in September of the same year she began assisting one day a week in the regular Mysore style Ashtanga yoga classes. A licensed massage therapist, she is also a student of kiniesiology at the University of Michigan.

Rose Tantraphol. I’m fuzzy on exactly when I stumbled into my first led ashtanga class, but I still distinctly remember the feeling of intrigue, of knowing I needed to return. There weren’t shalas where I lived in western Massachusetts, so I did what I could based on books (hint: not much). I had the chance several years ago to start taking led classes a few times a week, but that wasn’t enough to truly manage the chitta vrittis. In August 2011, more than a decade after that first taste of ashtanga, I found my rhythm and started the traditional Mysore practice schedule. The six-day-a-week ashtanga practice has been my Rosetta Stone, helping me decode how to eat more mindfully, meditate more consistently, keep work stress at bay, and simply feel more comfortable in my own skin.Thanks to AY: A2, I’ve traded in my night-owl proclivities for early-bird habits, which include making the hour-long drive from Lansing to Ann Arbor to practice four or five times a week.Passions other than ashtanga? Blogging at YogaRose.net and salsa dancing with my husband, Scott. (Salsa dancing at the Phoenix Center, by the way, is how I found Angela. Seeing that little calendar posted on the bulletin board would change. my. life.)

Kasia Glanowska…

Tim Visser. Tim began practicing yoga in 1990, when curiosity brought him to a class taught by Elizabeth Bunker during his last year of law school.  Living in Boston at the time, he had the opportunity during that decade to study extensively with senior Iyengar yoga teachers Karin Stephan, Patricia Walden, and Peentz Dubble.  He also studied with Barbara Benagh, with her unique style inspired by Angela Farmer, and taught himself the ashtanga sequence from Beryl Bender-Birch’s “Power Yoga” book shortly after its debut in 1995.  This century, after moving  back to Ann Arbor, Tim has gradually intensified his focus on Ashtanga, first at the weekly Inward Bound class led by Jonathan Tyman, then almost daily at the former Yoga Shala in Ann Arbor where he also participated in teaching led and Mysore-style classes, next as a founding member of the A2shtanga yoga cooperative, and finally (and gratefully) with the AY:A2 program as it was conceived and gradually grown after Angela’s arrival here in 2009.  He is thankful to his wife Jimena and kids (Miranda & Owen) for their support of his householder practice.

How to practice when hell’s freezing over

Yesterday, a wave of sadness crushed me to the rocky ocean floor and held me under for an hour. You can read my personal thoughts about that, or just jump to the numbered list below for the practical stuff.

I came in from an appointment, closed the curtains, sat on the sofa and cried. When the chemical-emotional wave ended, some part of my nervous system refused to let it go. So, without realizing what was happening or why, I started thinking sad thoughts. My imagination went on search, landing on a succession of increasingly sad subjects: homeless people; then the hundreds of orphan children I grew up with; then on to wars in the middle east.

This is one way an unenlightened nervous system works under stress. It solidifies the exact experience it wishes it weren’t having. It seizes upon—and identifies with—the thoughts, images and emotions that hurt the most.

Some part of the system relishes the strong sensations of suffering, insists on suffering at all costs. Otherwise, how do I know who I am?

Strong sensation lets me know I’m alive. When that sensation is negative, and not accompanied by equanimity (radical freaking acceptance) it lets me experience myself as separate from everything else. It’s a setup. Suffering + “I’m special and different” = huge ego boost. Getting off on negativity is a version of this: self-loathing and self-congratulation are ego hangups of equal magnitude. They’re both just separateness trips.

It’s all ok. I don’t mind a little ego drama in myself. It is actually important to go to the crossroads and think, hard, about homelessness and war. It is interesting to have full experiences of the range of pleasure and pain. And it opens up space for love when I understand, and then stop getting off on, what it feels like to be radically alone.

But seriously. My seasonal affective jag does not equal homelessness and war. I am not my seasonal affective jag. Because I’m not it, there’s no shame in going through it. And maybe, it’s not just me who feels this. Which would mean this suffering (like all suffering) does not make me special. Instead, the suffering is exactly what makes me just like (almost) everyone else.

I wanted to open up about this in honor of anyone who sensed that an energetic, hormonal or emotional low was part of the territory the past three days. Some of you are stable enough in your yoga practices that you didn’t feel it. Thank you for that stability. If I were only doing my personal practice and not teaching so intensely, I’d likely be with you. This is because when practice stabilizes, the ups and downs become gentle. That’s kind of the point.

But back to the stormy sea. Anyone else cold and nauseous? Darn if this is not a cold, cold ocean. So. Are we going to practice with this situation or what?

YES. But now I’m just talking to those of you who want to do what you want to do. You who have already committed to showing up here, consistently, not for me but for yourself. You who are with me on valuing equanimity as a developmental skill, to using the resistance life throws you to make your practice so much more effective than it would be under “ideal” conditions. So, my job for you is to support that aspiration, to hold you accountable, and to share with you my unshakeable understanding that this is a very, very, very good idea.

I’m not going to try to work the push factors. It’s just not my way. The truth is that my experience of unbroken practice is sourced in love. Practice just really turns me on. I can’t teach you to practice from guilt or shame or self-punishment because I don’t know how. I know people fuel self-punishing neuroses to propel spiritual practice all the time, but it isn’t necessary. Pull factors are what I understand.

So here’s what I’ve got so far. Like all the lists here, it’s a living document open to revision. To improve it, I’d love to add your experiences. Please talk to me about what works for you, or leave your findings in the comments.

1.

One easy way to stay in your practice when there is resistance is by deciding to be awesome. The dead of winter can be a kind of hero’s jourey. And you can use it to discover – and to decide – what you are made of.

The dark side of being a hero is that any stories about how hardcore it is to do what we do will just have to get dismantled later. If it gets you across the squalls of Februrary to think like a badass, ok. But leave the sleek fire-powered Batman wetsuit on the shore when you get to the other side. That thing will get hard to carry, especially when saturated with last season’s stories.

2.

Take a hot shower in the morning. Let the water run on the crown of the head and down the spine. Feel your feet get very warm. Stay in the water just a little longer than you usually would. Same principle at practice: if you wear a long-sleeve layer, leave it on a little longer than you usually would.

3.

Note that practice will give energy, not take it. The Mysore room is a resource for you. It has been created to give you energy, and to ease the everyday resistance that comes with having a body.

This fact might not come immediately to mind if you ask yourself whether you want to go to practice at the one moment you least want to move – in a warm soft bed in the. If you catch the thought “Practice will take too much energy,” please question it or subject it to an empirical test. I sumbit that practicing more + decreased resistance about practicing = waay more energy.

As always, it doesn’t matter what your practice looks like, or how many postures you do. Surya namaskara + savasana = practice. What gives energy is to move and breathe, in the morning, with a single-minded awareness, and with the support of the community, teacher and subtle energy that make the room what it is.

4.

As Amy told me last year, the Mysore room is also a source of long-term internal heat. This is a place where you can heat up your core body temperature warmer than is possible anywhere else. As a result, you will be far more warm all day long.

5.

This isn’t a time that one can afford the energy suck of emotional eating. It isn’t the time to fall back on sugar, excessive wheat or other drug-like foods that leave a hangover.

I assume folks aren’t that in to alcohol, since it is depressive, and toxic, and makes twisting painful. But my husband says that the winter weeknight wallow is such a part of Ann Arbor intellectual culture that I should talk about it for the academics. I don’t know. I always toasted my professors’ cognac with tea back at the UCLA faculty club; it was nice. If eating late, having a beer and staying up an extra hour right now feels like a good idea, ok, that is one coping strategy. It sabotages practice. Please don’t try to do both. Trying to do both is torture. Usually, torture leads to unhappiness.

6.

Gear. Those who have lived here more than a year and aren’t too hip to wear NorthFace know how this works. (My gear is mostly from the thrift store.) If you moved here lately, ask anyone. It’s about a burly winter coat, actual boots, and all the layers you can find. The whole package costs less than a plane ticket to the islands. Please don’t just wait for winter to end: it won’t.

7.

Carpool. A few people are doing this and say it helps tremendously. They say the main resistance to frequent practice is the work it takes to leave the house. Knowing someone is waiting for you cuts through that resistance. Simple.

8.

Or walk. It’s a half mile from my house to the shala. Under all these thrift store layers with Jayashree in the headphones and fire in my belly at 4:30 in the morning, I am sweating by the time I get to the shala door. Even on the mornings it’s below zero. Try it. Could be awesome.

9.

Choose your stories deliberately. They are part of the deep structure of the nervous system.

Here’s an example. I severely frost bit my right foot 15 years ago while sleeping in a snow cave for a month. Not a good scene. For years afterwards, I would lose sensation from the knee down as soon as temps dropped below about 40. This was experienced as a re-traumatization, bringing with it fear and anger. Restoring sensation to the foot was painful, requiring gradual soaking and self-massage. The layers of association of this history with my experience of cold are complex and subtle, and have offered an awesome opportunity to do nervous system surgery on myself this winter. Turns out there is no necessary connection between that older, much less mature, experience of cold and my new experiences of Ann Arbor winter.

But there are other associations I’ve actually revived for the sake of amusement. For example, way down deep, my body remembers ice skating for miles on bumpy frozen irrigation ditches across Montana cornfields when I was a kid. Calling forth that gleeful young ice-skater, and letting her reinhabit me makes skating down treacherous ice-covered streets outright joyous in the early morning hours. My whole body relaxes into the bizarreness of my situation, and adult-y complaints about dangerous street conditions fall away. Kids are smart: they love winter.

10.

Drop your awareness into the belly and leave it there. Draw up your mula bandha, soften the front of the belly, and practice deep breathing into the abdomen. Really deep, even breathing. Imagine a little flame there in the belly, flickering brighter and brighter as you stoke it with breath. Turn the belly into a little crockpot, or as Rachel says, a portable heater. Feel the heat from this fire in the belly radiate up the body and out into the limbs. Get familiar with this technique while seated, and then learn to do it while walking around.

I wouldn’t say this if it didn’t work as well or better than this other practical stuff. If you practice ashtanga yoga, you can make contact with and use subtle body practices of this kind. Do not waste time: if you relentlessly keep drawing your awareness inside and feeling your inner experience very closely, you will learn to interact consciously with your own nervous system.

This too is the point of practice – getting focused and smart enough with your energy and your mind that you can just play with and be fully alive in whatever circumstances. Sadness, coldness, tiredness; vitality, warmth, joy. It is all here.

Yoga 3.0. A retreat for an accelerated culture.

WHEN. 

January 13, 2013. 10-4. (Mysore practice 8-9:30.)

WHERE.

The Stone Arch, a decommissioned church in downtown Saline. (Pictured above.)

WHO.

Open now to all regular Mysore practitioners at AY:A2. Please join us! Retreat opens Dec 15 to anyone I know with a daily practice in the yoga tradition: drop a line now if you’re interested.

WHAT.

– Regular morning Mysore practice

– Break for drinks (Ashtangis take over the Drowsy Parrot… again!)

– A session on some subtle body or alignment principle of use to our group

– A short session on working with vrittis that arise during silent practice (this is a “reveal codes” talk – principles of traditional teaching method articulated!)

– Lunch by Gauri, who catered our 2011 retreats (“The two best meals I had this year were prepared by her” – Tim Veeser)

– Playful discussion of Yoga 3.0

– Gifts for all in attendance generously provided by Dead Sea Warehouse

TO PREPARE.

(1) Register by email, and pay.

(2) Read Chapter 3 of Yoga 2.0 by Remski and Petrie. $9 on Kindle, or borrow my copy.

(3) Mull over what Yoga 3.0 could be. What practical, political, technical, emotional, intellectual, activist, relational, devotional, or other qualities might equip us to create it?

PRICE:

– Full-time academic students: 45 (this is below cost – please do come, students)

– Retirees; Non-profit, industrial and service workers: 65

– Bourgeois Professionals (you might be bougeois if… you think you might be bourgeois): 85

– Support a student: 100

THEME.

In 2010, Remski and Petrie wrote: Yoga 1.0 is history. It is a book on a shelf, and perhaps a lecture talking about the book. Yoga 2.0 is a conversation. 2.0 invokes a move towards empowerment, interactivity, and relationship in its transmission. 2.0 shreds the illusory veils between east and west, and between past and present, between science and spirituality, and between yoga and any other form of intensive inquiry (p. 9).

This is an accurate, rousing description of post-modern yoga. It features not just consuming information, but talking back to it. It breaks old divisions like east/west and past/present. It is non-hierarchical and all-inclusive. For post-modernity, nothing is not yoga.

I would submit that, having encountered post-modern, commercial yoga some time since the 80s, each of you gradually developed a taste for something a little stronger. Yoga 3.0? You moved from being consumers (1.0), to commenters (2.0), and gradually became producers (3.0) of practice. You take your practice everywhere, and can create it under any conditions. This is not to say that any practice is yoga: you know quite well when you fall off your game. And while you are practicing an overtly egalitarian form (Pattabhi Jois said “anyone can do ashtanga, except lazy person”), there is an element of exclusivity in it. Taking action (showing up) does matter. Mastery is real.

Expertise accrues. The expertise you have after 3 years of daily practice is not just the same as that which you had after one year of practicing whatever you felt like just on the occasions you were in the mood. Unlike many post-moderns who mistake their own egoic attraction/revulsion reactions for their “inner teacher” and reject all other teachers because they trust no one, you are capable of being genuine and whole-hearted students. But, thank God (or, rather, thank post-modernity!) you’re way beyond the 70s-era illusion that surrender to what is (isvara pranidhana) is the same as abject submission to an inscrutable guru-authority.

In other words, you have a method, even if (again, thanks to post-modernity) you don’t think that method is perfect or timeless. But you do recognize that yoga has a factual, practical history rooted in India – yoga wasn’t made up in the last five minutes, cosmically speaking. Like Karl Marx, you study and embed yourself in history so as to be more powerful revolutionaries in the present.

When it comes to commercialism, Yoga 3.0 – being self-manufactured – is not marketable in the same way as is Yoga 2.0, which can be all things to all people. Yoga 2.0 is a brilliant grassroots movement, but, ironically, it is also highly amenable to commodification, buzz, and mass market appeal. But, bored by all that, you invest a different sort of energy in practice: your time, attention, and bodily participation. Practice has probably come to give you more energy than it takes, but this is only because you have invested quite deeply on the energetic dimension. That’s what is required to move far past consumption and spiritual materialism into the mindset of production.

Do bits of this sound at all familiar? Either way, I offer these fragments as raw beginnings for the post-post modern zeitgeist. Because I think you’re the ones who will make it happen.

Right now, as we hold our breath for the end of 2012, I suggest we start thinking about the foundation for the yoga that will burst forth after the collective exhale, and after the apocalypse that will never come. Lucky 13 is another turning of the wheel of yoga’s history. Let’s make it a strong revolution. I have no idea what it’ll look like, but I look forward to finding out together.

Space is limited. But not particularly exclusive! Drop me a line to inquire.

 

 

REFERENCES: the novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Karl Marx. You might be a redneck if… late 90s comedy routine by Jeff Foxworthy. Yoga 2.0 Mala 1: Shamanic Echoes by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie.

How to get up for yoga, again.

I’m unconsciously competent. The longer I practice, the less I can articulate how to begin. So I must keep learning from those who are new to ashtanga. Thank you for being open about what’s hard, brave in dropping old habits, and enthusiastic in your own practice. I love this phase of the learning.

At the start, getting up for practice requires strength and guts: I admire you, and we will all support you. Later, you’ll be able to do what you want to do with ease, and will embody that grace to yet new beginners.

Again this year, I’ve surveyed our group to remix the autumn antidote to SAD. The Earth is changing, our student body is changing, the zeitgeist is changing: so, a practice so fine-tuned as ashtanga also has to adapt. (This is true, too, of subtle changes to the method emerging from the main school in Mysore: our old practice is ever new. Because we are ever new.) Anyway, after a month in the lab with your findings, here’s this year’s get-up-early elixir. No kidding: stick to a regular practice rhythm, and ashtanga’s the only prophylactic you’ll need.

1. Alchemize your word.

What’s the value of your word? If you say you’re going to do something, is that an ironclad statement? Is it as good as a 50/50 bet? Is your word more like hot air? If you decide strongly that you are going to be a woman or man of your word, then you can use the golden quality of that word to hold yourself to your own intentions.

Recently, three different practitioners who were struggling to get on the mat consistently got out of their own way with this single, uncompromising practice. They decided to be the kind of people who have zero daylight between what they say they will do, and what they do. In those painful mornings when the bed was especially seductive, they asked themselves if sleeping through the alarm was worth the pain of going back on their own word. It wasn’t. Because they had turned their word in to gold, it was able to cut through tamas, doubt, and even the softest bed.

Thanks for the inspiration. You know who you are.

2. Use the moral values that help you practice; lose the ones that don’t. It turns out that getting your words and actions lined up is efficient. Similar is the Bhagavad Gita’s teaching that a yogi remains detached from the fruits of her actions and simply absorbs her attention into doing her best in the present moment. Ashtanga is not about getting an awesome body or a perfect mind or “nailing” some posture; it’s about maintaining some concentration and equanimity for every breath, regardless of what it looks like.

Grasping for results isn’t morally wrong; it’s just not smart. What we can control is our attitude, not the outcome of actions. So why waste energy fretting about what we cannot control?

By the same token, why waste energy fretting about the past? Most of us—myself included—have absorbed a Puritan meta-morality from western culture. This includes a lot of emphasis on moral purity, with a countervailing internal assault team of guilt, shame, self-loathing and regret.

Total waste of energy. Enough already, Hester Prynne. Regrets for the past kill excitement for the present. You are worthy and you are welcome: if the (internal) puritan mobs come for you, laugh at their feeble 17th century weapons and get your lightning speed mulabandha in gear.

3. The drugs. 1 mg of herbal melatonin 30 minutes before bed for the first 2 weeks. Don’t try to wake up at vastly different times on different days. People seem to suffer too much doing that. A key insight of Ayurveda is that the body loves a stable rhythm. Reset the whole system, so your serotonin-melatonin dynamic is stable.

4. The rock’n’roll. Big sound, bright light and a hot shower in the morning are still key. See here.

5. Practice in the body you have today. The corporeal body… and the student body. The new people having the most fun this year are those rolling out your mats near the veterans. People who have practiced for a while embody a tacit (hormonal, energetic, phermonic?) knowledge that does rub off. Get in!

The veterans’ prime time used to be 7-8 am, but like in most Mysore rooms, it’s crept earlier because they just can’t wait to get on the mat. Most newcomers say it helps to know that getting up early for practice is effortless for so many. (For that matter, my alarm now goes off at 3:30 instead of 4; and in Mysore I usually get on the mat at 4:15. And, to be brutally honest, it’s awesome.) For now, our group’s energy is strongest from 6:30 – 7:30. You can come later if you want! But if you need a boost, you’ll get it by jumping in the 6:30 updraft. By contrast, if you arrive when the majority of people are finishing, what you’ll experience is their most calm, grounded, quiet energy. That’s also very nice, but one cannot really draft off it.

6. Start in with a sunshine lamp routine now. Get one and follow the instructions. If you don’t want to invest the money, ask your friends. Everyone who has one will tell you it changed their life. Michigan newcomers usually suffer their first winter or two before figuring this out. Why waste a year? I use a Phillips goLITE BLU light therapy device.

7. Get closely in contact with your love of the practice. It’s there, even amid suffering, obstacles and madness. Why else are you doing this, anyway? Ayurveda teaches that our deep desires are wise, and that on some level the nervous system knows things. I see different ways that each of you loves, and respects, and gives thanks for this practice. It is personal. I see that some of you love the way your mind and body operate on the days you practice; some of you love the quiet of the mornings; many of you love the sheer honesty of staying with this when it is physically, emotionally or psychically hard.

Whatever it is, that awe and love are high quality fuel (whereas guilt, shame, pride, superiority and achievement are not as great). Love and a little reverence tend to give us all more energy as the rhythms—hormones, appetites, emotions, inner vision, et cetera—find their way into agreement with each other.

This is how it works. Most of us have to effort it strongly at first, and then practice starts to do itself. I see for those of you in your second year that you are not pushing yourselves to practice so much as being practiced. Yes. Once this thing has a strong spin of its own, you move from (1) depending on external practice resources (like high concentration environments, others’ strong energy, and social norms that promote precise mental discipline) to (2) producing them for yourself and others. In this way, too, in the long run the yoga gives more energy than it takes.

Guest Teacher, Dominic Corigliano

Dominic Corigliano is my teaching mentor. He will guest teach Sunday, October 21 – Thursday, October 25, during the waxing moon.

Dominic is coming because he mentioned offhand that he could swing through Ann Arbor, and I took that seriously. I’d like him to see the house that he helped build here. And I’d like for the practitioners here to experience one of the most awesome yoga teachers in the world – someone whose energetic and psychic clarity you have heard me mention with delight and bewilderment.

Finally, because I will not be traveling to Mysore this January due to my responsibilities at the University, I need to create circumstances in which I can be a student in a Mysore room. Having made a long, quasi-sociological investigation of Mysore programs that fail, I’ve concluded that there are three practices of highly effective Mysore teachers. Those who don’t follow these practices tend to  lose sight of the way that one’s teaching practice is just another aspect of ashtanga yoga – a method that systematically checks the ego and endlessly asks us to give up our dull ideas of who we think we are. Anyway, one of the three practices of effective teachers is maintaining strong, loving, respectful relationships with our teachers. All of them. Ever. This builds on an underlying skill we all know, by intuition, that our teachers must practice to be worthy of our trust: that of being a student. Anyway. What a blessing to get to practice asana in the room along with you all.

My time as Dominic’s student, and then as his apprentice, altered the course of my life’s work and my inner evolution. This was a process supported by the the space that he held, by his rare and subtle of cues that would significantly reorient my awareness and guide my energy deeper, by a loving community, and just the method of daily practice itself. The shift that took place in those years was of the ineffable sort, so it’s most honest to pass over it in silence. The most I can say is that I learned to take a predominantly energetic practice (my consciousness was centered in pranamaya kosha) and integrate an awareness of all levels of my being – physical, analytical/discursive, intuitive/psychic and spiritual. The boundaries I’d set up between my practice and the rest of my life began to really fall away. Experiences of weird stillness started to happen, and stayed happening.

I will not project these experiences on to Dominic, but he did hold the space for deep shifts to occur naturally. And he did keep sufficient distance and comfort with uncertainty about what would happen next that I could undergo a phase of very rapid growth. The gratitude is endless.

In general, Dominic’s teaching is energetic. After a while, there isn’t much verbal instruction. He will not fix anything in your practice; he doesn’t think you are broken. He won’t give you a take-away technique, because the teaching is about the present moment. He won’t give you better (insert bugaboo posture here), because he’s too energy-efficient to do anyone’s work for them. As a teacher, he taught me to (1) relax, (2) establish rapport, and (3) shut up. At one point, I felt that I’d had my head ritually anointed with SKPJ-brand teflon – this reflective coating helps transmitters of the method to keep our personalities from distorting our teaching  (having a personality is cool, but I do not teach Jamison yoga); and it helps us not to take stuff personally. SKPJ teflon, turns out, is also quite flexible.

Instead of giving people teachings that can be noted in books or turned into checklists, Dominic shows up and channels the  energy signature of Pattabhi Jois (which, sources say, is also the vibe of Krishnamacharya). It’s not really a big deal; and it’s not something we can grasp on to or take home for later. This way of being is mostly indescribable, because it arises from a nondual awareness that sounds like a myth until it is experienced directly, and consistently. Yet this vibe does have some obvious qualities: diamond clarity of mental awareness, a spacious and not-personal feeling around human interactions, a clean and safe way of honoring the differences between masculine and feminine, and radical equanimity that allows students to drop social hierarchies and comparing-mind.

The signature element of our lineage is fire; and the closer we stay to the source, the warmer and more clean it burns. It doesn’t matter what the physical practice looks like, if we have a perfect body, or if we have a perfect mind. What is that, anyway? High quality heat and light are super effective for buffing out self-torturing ideas we inherit from popular culture. So just show up like usual. It’s no big thing.

Dom is not some yoga celebrity. Yoga celebrity is as dead as the Gaiam mat you shredded in the first month of ashtanga practice. It’s as dead as stock growth at Lululemon. It’s as dead as the animals in the fast food meals that (sorry; it’s the practice’s fault) have stopped smelling good. Dominic’s not anything high and mighty at all. Nobody is. He is a dude who’s got an uncommonly strong line on the source. Turns out, yoga’s just really awesome like that.

Dom does have a resume’ and stuff. It includes 3 decades (thirty.years.) of teaching experience, being the film guy for Pattabhi Jois and Sharath on one of their long world teaching tours, lots of time in India, being one of a handful of Certified teachers, being a father, and husband, and a motorcycle travelin’ man. And funny. He’s very human; and very funny. He’s no-bullsh*t; and he loves to shoot the sh*t. That’s what it doesn’t say in the resume’.

So. This is a pretty awesome moment for ashtanga in our region. To support everyone out here on the new frontier of ashtanga yoga- the Midwest – I will be opening up some drop in slots during Dominic’s visit. Home practitioners out there in neighboring states, or any daily ashtanga practitioner from around the area, this is for you. Saraswati Jois puts it like this: You come. But she means Mysore. That’s more logistics than a drive to A2. Just email and we’ll figure it out.

House Recommendations

Here are a few more out-takes from the House Recommendations. The full document is available to regular Mysore students here upon request.

The House Recommendations are just some suggestions for mental hygiene, efficient learning, and honest practice. They are crafted for ashtangis in their first five years on the mat. If your mind feels closed just now, it’s not useful to read further. If you feel curious and open, then perhaps a few of these will be useful.

The main recommendation is: Streamline. Also…

Breathing

Initiate movements with breath. Literally follow the breath with the movement. NB, practitioners who actually do this tend to be the same ones who can carry off solo self-practice without self-interruption.

Breath is white noise. If your mind is taking you for a ride, replace the auditory sensation of internal talk with the sound of breathing.

Get fascinated by breath in whatever way you can.

Learn to move from the deepest strength in the body: mulabandha and uddiyana bandha as they respond with the breath. This takes great concentration at first. Over time, breath, bandha and driste synthesize into one single practice.

Mental Hygiene

Cultivate positive triggers. These are repeated sensory stimuli that shift you into the mind-body state of practice. The jolt of the car’s ignition, the quiet exhilaration of being awake in the still morning hours, the feel of the door in your hand. Any sensory feedback loop can entrain a state-shift. (Personally, my mornings start with nauli and trataka, followed by a one-woman blues rock dance party. The latter is not typical.) These associations will slowly strengthen your focus, and raise your energy, over time.

Guard your awareness before practice. In the morning, avoid anything that winds up discursive mind. Especially the internet. (If you’re disciplined about this, your verbal/ analytical mind will be smarter when you turn it on later. Mental hygiene increases cognitive function.)

The first part of drste is keeping the eyes in your own space, with only soft, peripheral vision engaged if you want a sense of the whole room. This is huge. Drste gets subtle, but at first it’s simply a commitment to keeping the eyes still. Eyes are powerful. Use them well.

Even as difficult emotions arise, stay in contact with the positive emotions of practicegratitude, confidence, love, joy, humor, ecstasy, calm.

Let difficult emotions and thoughts arise and move on. Observe and note their patterns. Do not repress your experience – this deepens emotional blocks and increases unconsciousness.

Be cautious about repeating negative thoughts (or talk) in a compulsive manner. You have choices about the (inner) environment you inhabit. It’s funny, but physical practice is easiest when there’s a vibe of kindness and generosity to oneself and others. It is possible to cultivate positive emotions and thoughts while accepting and studying any negativity that arises.

Sutra 1.12. Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah. Roughly: It takes both will and surrender. Will doesn’t mean force: it is regular discipline. Surrender is not submission to authority: it is radical acceptance of whatever is happening now.

Another way to describe Sutra 1.12 is as a cheer for (1) concentration and (2) equanimity. These are practices. They’re deliberate choices. They can be life skills. Most westerners lack both. But most people drawn to Ashtanga yoga are intuitively interested in them.

Rhythms

Primary series can be difficult. I’m here because I believe it’s worth your effort. It is the most genius, exacting, and healing program I have found. Aches, tweaks and energy fluctuations diminish dramatically after a couple of years of consistent practice. Be gentle and mindful with any ups and downs.

If you take a break, or practice in an erratic rhythm, significant ups and downs (mental, emotional and physical) are likely. Don’t worry about it. Dial down expectations. Take a cool (detached) interest in the experience.

Practice in the body you have today. No matter what, you can accept and move with the body-mind that’s here right now.

If in doubt, come to class. It’s practice, not a performance. Modify for pain or fatigue if they actually arise. You might be surprised – they may have just been in your head.

To avoid injury: (1) Really know your unique breath pattern. There will be some kind of disruption in the pattern if you’re on the edge of injury. Meditating on the breath is a safety feature. (2) Practice in a regular pattern. If you fall off the wagon, be truthful to your moment-by-moment experience when you come back. Your body-mind needs time to remember things. (3) Toss the NSAIDS. They dull your perception and damage a healthy inflammation response. For muscle healing or soreness, use: rest, castor oil packs, warm Epsom salts baths, zyflamend, anti-inflammatory diet, the old RICE method (if your body responds to it – ayurveda would suggest otherwise), and focused relaxation of protective patterns when appropriate.

To see growth in practice: Relax about transformation. Really. Not only is this the whole practice of yoga, but paradoxically, this attitude is also necessary for developing ashtanga’s specific skillset. The Bhagavad Gita is a sort of mind-blowing story about this paradox.

This practice restores muscles to their full functional length. Strong parts become flexible; flexible parts, if they were weak, become strong. Both types of effort – creating flexibility, and creating strength – happen most efficiently with focus, repetition, and a relaxed attitude.

Three days of practice a week is the minimum to establish any sort of rhythm. Four or five days a week enable significant healing and vitality. Six makes a life practice. It is much more effective to practice a little bit every day than to do big practices every few days.

Ashtanga is a house-holder’s practice. In teaching, my job is to support people whose daily lives are far more complex than my own. As you figure out what level of intensity on the mat is right for you, please stay grounded. Ashtanga yoga is designed to support you in daily life with your family and work.

Experimentation. When you modify a personal habit or way of moving, give it a month of daily practice (or the equivalent) before you re-evaluate it. Otherwise, the judging mind will try to highjack the experiment before there’s enough data for a decent assessment.

Tone

The House suggests: treat yourself and the practice with care. Be aware of the vibe you give off. Be open. Do not be lazy. Be modest. Give space to each other literally and figuratively. Some helpful qualities are: spaciousness, implicit camaraderie, quiet loving-kindness.

Fellow practitioners are a resource. The quality of your practice is enhanced by the quality of theirs, so even out of narrowly defined  self-interest you need to support them to support you. Here are two practices that have helped me. (1) I never talked to others about particulars of my asana practice or relationships with teachers. I let go of that discipline when I became a teacher, because now my practice and lineage belong largely to you. (2) I set the same intention with yoga friends that my husband and I articulated in our wedding vows: to be in relationship in a way that promotes mutual awareness, growth, and service to others. This has helped me to find wonderful friends.

After practice

Leave it on the mat. No need to review or evaluate practice after it’s done. During ashtanga, do ashtanga. Otherwise, do otherwise.

Regrets are a waste of energy. I don’t judge you; I don’t have the energy. Please take it easy on any self-reproach (and on looking down on others – a similar kind of drain). Just practice.

Superiority is poor quality fuel. Our esprit d’ corps comes from better sources. Even if looking down on others has given you energy in the past, eventually it takes more energy than it gives.

I don’t pretend that “it’s all good” out there. There’s probably a good amount of yoga delusion, confusion and egomania out there somewhere in the world. That’s fine. Totally not our business here. Let’s just practice.

Eight limbs. Practice on the mat encompasses limbs 3-5 and sometimes 6 of Patanjali’s classical system: asana, pranayama, pratyhara and (eventually, naturally arising) one-pointed focus.

If you get interested in the first two limbs (social ethics, and what I call the useful virtues), cool. They’re fundamental. If not, ok. Ashtanga method values yama and niyama a lot, but in a relaxed way. Most of the recommendations here actually derive from daily practice of yama and niyama. Virtue is practical, not theoretical. It helps to avoid being uptight about it. Ashtanga is not a religion.

Limbs 7 and 8 (absorption states and godknowswhat) arise on their own if at all—they’re not practices. But there are ways to increase the chances that the last two limbs will sprout. This has to do with developing strong concentration (an incredibly rare skill), and honest equanimity.

Watch the envelope. The boundary between practice and life might shift or go away. If you catch yourself just being fully alive to mundane activity, or emotional ups and downs get less dramatic; if you sleep better; if sometimes you notice you’re projecting instead of just buying in to your own judgements/emotions regarding others (i.e., if you don’t believe everything you think); if there is less experience of the mind reacting to experience with patterns of attraction/repulsion, love/hate, respect/disdain… well, this is all normal. You are doing it right. Come to practice.

Jayashree and Narasimhan to Visit Ann Arbor

MA Narasimhan and MA Jayashree

Monday, Nov 12. 5:30 – 8:00pm.

Chanting the Samadhi Pada; focus on sutras 1-15. Introductory Lecture on Yoga Philosophy.

Tuesday, Nov 13. 5:30 – 8:00pm.

Chanting and Lecture on Ashtanga, the Eight (ashtau) Limbs (anga) of Yoga

Location: Main Hall at the Ann Arbor Friends Meeting House.

Cost: $40 per night, or $75 for both nights. Most proceeds go to the Ananatha Research Foundation of Mysore, India.

All are welcome. To register, or for more information, send gmail to annarborashtanga.

Dr. M.A. Jayashree

Professor of Sanskrit, Mysore, Karnataka has been teaching all aspects of Sanskrit for the last 30 years. She holds a doctorate in Sanskrit from Bangalore University on the topic, “Concept of Mind in Indian Philosophy.” She has authored many books in the fields of Sanskrit, Ancient Sciences, Indian history, Indian Culture and Music. She has presented papers on Sanskrit, Indian knowledge systems and culture in many national and international fora. She has also conducted a number of workshops in India and abroad. Her workshops are generally in the fields of Sanskrit language and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

She is a multifaceted personality, a musician with a melodious voice, an accomplished artist of the Mysore school of Painting, delivers discourses on Puranas, Tiruppavai & Philosophy. She is a great teacher of spoken Sanskrit. She has given performances in classical music in the Karanatic style all over South India. She is also the editor of ‘Itihasa Rashmi’, a journal on Indian History in Kannada. Jayashree was featured in the movie “Guru” about Ashtanga guru Sri K Pattabhi Jois. She is also the editor of ‘Itihasa Rashmi’, a journal in Kannada on re-writing Indian History, and conducts classes on Indian vegetarian cooking (yogic food).

As a proponent of the Srutiparampara, she has produced many CDs in the field of Sanskrit learning along with the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and Bhagavad Gita. The CDs are designed as teaching aids to help people learn the chanting and memorization of the important Sanskrit texts of ancient Indian culture. She has a large following of overseas students engaged in studies of ancient lore of India mainly Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Bhagavad Gita  and the Sanskrit language. She has presented a paper on a music topic at the 13th World Sanskrit Conference held at Edinburgh. She has been awarded as a ‘South East Asian scholar’ of merit by the American Academy of Religions, and to participate and present a paper in their Annual Meet Nov.2008 in Chicago.

M. A. Narasimhan

Director of the Anantha Research Foundation in Mysore, is a science graduate holding Masters in Education with specialization in advanced psychology and research methodology, and also in Sanskrit. He has specialized in the Indian philosophical systems and the various practices of yoga, and is a disciple of His Holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He is a teacher of Transcendental Meditation, having taught the TM technique to more than 20,000 people and trained more than 1,000 teachers of Transcendental Meditation.

He has held many responsible posts in the then Mahrishi Institute of Creative Intelligence. As the director for the TM operation in the entire south India, he had more than 600 teachers helping him to spread the message of TM. He was instrumental in opening small-scale industries and many schools in different parts of India. He has been a Siddha practitioner, reaping the benefits of advanced techniques.

He is a research scholar specializing in the fields of Indian culture and the Sciences of ancient India. With a considerable number of books, monographs, and papers in the fields of Indian history, Science, Sanskrit and philosophy to his credit, he is also the editor of journals such as Ithihasa samachar, Ithihasa Rashmi. Currently he is engaged in the investigation of “Supa saastra” in Indian tradition (the food tradition of India)” with INSA, ‘History and geographical information in the Puranas’ with Bharateeya Itihasa Sankalana Yojana, and preparing a critical edition of Patanjali’s Yogasutra with all the available commentaries and their English translation with Asian classics Input Project, New York and also on ‘Cosmology in ancient Indian Texts.

 

How Jedi Knights Should Eat

AY:A2 begins our second year of daily practice. A few of you are starting to show signs of increased concentration and willpower. I didn’t expect that to happen so fast.

Daily practitioners do develop slightly freakish will power. But a strong will can make you stupid. In this practice, your will is only as good as your surrender.

I’ll use the topic of food to illustrate. Food and ashtanga are intertwined backwards and forwards. Not separate. A person can sort of ignore this, but eventually the ignoring gets boring.

It’s the consistent (I’d suggest daily) practice that really opens things up. If a person does that as a sort of meditation, three distinct empowerments come online with respect to eating. I’ll call them the Young Jedi Trifecta, YJT:

(1) an increase in self-control

(2) a decrease in the buy-in to stories and emotional patterns used to strengthen old habits (e.g. “I have to eat X because I am Z,” or “I can never eat Y because I am W”)

(3) an increase in sensory clarity, yielding new information about the way the body relates with food.

The upshot is heroic discipline, even though one might be a sophomore with the spirituality stuff.

If you do not practice as a meditation (i.e., if you are not interested in clarifying the mind and relaxing its patterns), that is completely ok. Please note that if you’re not actively focusing your practice on self-study, the ego may seize the YJT and cash it in for goodies. Goodies! Have fun with that. Control, charisma, a nice ass, secret feelings of superiority, whatever. Zzzzzzzzz…..

In the Bhagavad Gita (7.16), Krishna tells Arjuna that four types of virtuous people practice yoga: people trying to reduce their suffering, people trying to accumulate knowledge, people seeking worldly goods in a selfish manner, and people who are already acting out of their in-born wisdom.

This winter in Mysore, Sharath said the following at least every other week: “Not all advanced asana students are big yogis.” I take this as to mean that many people he sees are Krishna’s third kind of student—what Chogyam Trungpa termed devotees of spiritual materialistm.

This is the thing. Heroic self-control can supersize the ego. No doubt. Let it happen where it happens. Because I want to note that in the passage above Krishna is not giving Arjuna ammo for some smug “what type is he?” ego-game. Rather, all four types of yogis are said to have virtue. We all contain multitudes – we understand all four types because we have been them. And I only bother to say any of this stuff because it’s obvious that all of you are predominantly of the fourth type. You are predominantly wise.

I’ve been the third kind of student for sure. In the second year of daily practice, I took the YJT and really cashed in. Those were the days. They looked like this: YJT + big self-transformation wishlist + tons of unconscious material =  Oh Unholy Neuroses. Fun times. To mention just the consequences this had for my relationships with eating, I’ll note that I ignored the ways food connected me with friends, family and the environment. I was a “me first” eater willing to sniff at my parents’ cooking and simply not interested in the energetic feel, origin, and environmental costs of my nourishment. (I mostly stopped eating meat 17 years ago, but vegetarianism doesn’t equal ahimsa. At all.) This self-focus was useful for a while. I used it, plus the Jedi stuff, to experiment on my system like crazy.

I did several major cleanses, and played with a number of very (very) strict eating programs. When my friend Marichy, his first four incarnations (especially D), put me in direct contact with my liver and the things I’d done to it as a hard drinking teen, I abruptly quit alcohol for a seven year cycle. Some things are good to swear off like that, but most cleansing and strict diets can harm a person’s metabolism and (if they don’t have sufficient carbs or calories) make it hard to think. P.S., Here are the dark sides of some especially dogmatic eating styles. A dirty little secret of many under-eaters is that constant hunger can drain off energy and goodwill for loving relationships. People who don’t eat enough aren’t happy. A dirty little secret of the organ cleansing movement is that it has a sharp puritanical edge of concern with control, and some confusion between intestinal and moral cleanliness. A dirty little secret of the mythical “ancient” diets is that eating lots of flesh makes a person  rajasic – usually angry or anxious – and can deteriorate analytical and relationship skills (attributes of non-ancient humans) until they become a bit… Paleozoic.

In any case, those years of “research” and strict food rules did teach me a lot, and did render my digestive fire extremely strong and healthy. Luckily, I kept coming to my mat every day without a break, so gradually I started understanding surrender. Now that I’m more interested in radical acceptance of my own social, temporal, and environmental contexts, and of my own desires, it is easier to nest my eating habits not only my body’s energy economy, but also in the context of personal and environmental relationships.

Had I been more in contact with my own wisdom in those days, my relationship with food would have balanced discipline with contemplation. Turns out that the Ayurvedic approach to eating does just this. The way I’ve been learning it, Ayurveda is not a set of fixes or healing strategies. It’s a holographic map of the whole web of manifest reality. The Ayurvedic approach to eating isn’t an arcane prescription for fixing one’s doshas; it’s a set of practices for becoming conscious of the inner and outer webs of our being.

You don’t even have to study it. Just imagine. What if you showed up to your hunger, and your food, the way you show up to our yoga room and to your physical practice? So… you’d put time and awareness in to getting the conditions right. Do a gratitude ritual. Care about where the recipe and the ingredients come from. Practice in silence, and in excellent company. Breathe. Act with clear, loving attention. Regard strong thought and emotional patterns with a bit of cool skepticism. Take a long finishing sequence to absorb the benefits.

Quick fix? Yeah right. Not in ashtanga and not in eating. This practice teaches us that our bodies are vehicles for past and future choices. Love the rough spots into fluidity, day by day, and let the painful stuff get easier. Recognize that especially deep patterns got there as a result of grasping and repetition, and we don’t get out of them for free.

The yoga thing is about action and observation, and finding that these two are not separate. Action can be luminously conscious. Takes practice.

So that’s why I am not in to giving food advice. (1) I figure practice will work it out for you according to your own perfect timing. HOW you eat is probably more important than WHAT you eat. (2) Moreover, throwing a bunch of moral rules at you, instead of allowing them to arise from within you, will probably increase your experience of duality. This takes people away from yoga. Hathayogapradipika 101. (3) Heck if I know what you should eat.

Carisa recently did an elimination diet as part of her yoga practice. (More info about her experience in the document linked in the newsletter.) She loved it, and is starting to use the results to create some really enjoyable new habits. When I said that I don’t tell people what to eat, she noted that people have a right to know if the foods they’ve been eating all their lives have become toxic to them.

Good point, Lady.

So I’ll fess up a bit. Context is big for me. I eat as local as possible and take a lot of energy from food prepared for me with love. When I do that preparation myself, around here I eat as much as a pound of local, organic vegetables…. for breakfast. If it has more than five ingredients or is made by one of the companies owned by Monsanto or Coca-Cola (Kraft, Keebler, Nabisco, Kellogg, those guys), it’s not going in my body. Like many daily practitioners I like fat: nuts, oils, a bit of dairy. This morning I drank a green smoothie, then a few hours later made a two-egg omlette with spinach and goat cheese, and a slice of rye bread with ghee. In addition to the obvious inflammatory foods – alcohol, coffee, animals – there are a couple of other addictive items that I tend to avoid. Big surprise: they are sugar and wheat.

In daily life, I do eat a bit of sugar and wheat now and then, just to keep myself from getting rigid, or because that’s what’s served. Want to know how much? I’ll keep track on the document linked in the newsletter. If you want to use this document to keep track of anything yourself, there is space. But ONLY use it if you can bring as much radical, loving acceptance (abhyasa) as you do will-power (vairagya). There are some interesting articles linked on the document as well.

At the risk of sounding corny, eating feels spiritual to me. I don’t mean fairy dust and sunshine—spirituality is way stronger, grittier stuff than that. It’s simply that eating tends to be an intense direct experience of various layers of my self, my intra-connections in time and space, and all the drives in nature. From the most base to the most transcendent. It is a field of experience in which all sorts of separateness — me/it, attraction/repulsion, life/death, inside/outside — naturally, momentarily, collapse into one.

 

Vroom Vroom

Hello from Gokulam. We are in the days of Shiva here – time to hail the energy of destruction, transcendence, and the crumbling of of old sides of ourselves. Yesterday a mentor who is also a priest (priests being about as common in these parts as your neighborhood notary public) gathered together a roomful of priestly friends and we did hours of ritual props for the Shiva side of ourselves. In the end, we threw our flowers and food into a homa fire stoked in ghee. Then we went back into the world dusted in ashes and smelling like campfire. Spent but fertile firepits.

Strong, intentional endings give energy. There is beauty in them too. But this morning, I needed a little mellowing. Thinking of Vishnu the sustainer – the avatar of continuity and of energy that renews itself – I drove out through the rice paddies north of the city. The green fields are dotted in spindly white egrets. Today there were also some splashing, chaotic little puppies, and responsibility-laden oxen pulling big limbs (their own, and those of trees) through the mulch.

Beyond all this is Srirangapatnam, Karnataka province’s old capital. It’s an island village anchored by a cool stone temple to a being called Raganathaswami. A.K.A “recumbent Vishnu”: for morning puja they pull away the curtain that protects his chamber in the temple’s dark, heavy center. Holes through twenty feet of stone ceiling let in a bit of sun. It’s a bit Wizard of Oz. Bells ring, people crush forward to cast eyes on this vision of cool cucumber repose, with his parasol of a thousand or so fully-flared snake hoods. These are courtesy Adishesha, an energy we’re always secretly circling in the ashtanga practice – and one whose full extension includes the strong, supple reptile body on which Raganathaswami sleeps.

After Vishnu, I checked in with Balaji, Laksmi and Hanuman, three more of the eleven sides of human experience that I’ll tap in to in my own way to seal in this two-month retreat.

I feel like I’m circling closer and closer to a stopping point, something like the funny little spiral I’ve been taught to trace around the body at the end of an ayurvedic massage. Resistance to leaving what’s become a second life here is sloughing away, and I almost cannot wait to get back home to Ann Arbor. (The gratuitous cuddling videos that Rob and the cats have been sending are also doing their part as well.)

So: vroom vroom. WE START SUNDAY. Yeah, like in five days!

Full details of my teaching schedule are available in the newsletter. Briefly: I’ll be in San Diego March 1-3 for AshtangaCon, and home in Montana March 16-19 to do my part in realizing the parents’ secret wish to ski as a family for the first time in 18 years. Otherwise, everything is, as we say in Gokulam, full power.

NEW STUDENTS:

As you know from the website, Mysore class is NOT FOR DROP-INS. If you’re a daily practitioner just swinging through town, and I know your teacher, then that’s different: send email and we’ll make sure there’s space for you to drop in. We do like visits from out-of-town friends.

If you’re local and you want to practice Mysore with us, WONDERFUL. We take one new student per month. My way is to let each new practitioner habituate to the focused vibe of our room, rather that to spread my teaching energy (and the concentration of the entire room) thin around numerous new students at once.

Ashtanga is a practice that is passed on from person to person. You absorb it implicitly, and gradually, by just being with skilled practitioners and becoming receptive to the energy and understanding they carry. Since it’s completely, entirely, utterly impossible to learn this practice from a book or video, or without interacting in RL with other humans, I give new people the best of my present-moment energy. New practitioners get whatever support you need, but also lots of calm, undisturbed space to get the hang of things. You’re surrounded by really cool, fairly normal practitioners who welcome you enthusiastically even though they’ll tend to express that in tasteful silence.

You can see the values of what we’re doing here. They are: life practice, quality over quantity, consistency, time together, teacher-student relationships, community, clear method. Positive emotion is nice too. This practice can be hard; and it brings up real, strong edges inside us. Done with some humility and guts and true understanding, practice makes it increasingly impossible to avoid our own shadows. That’s why care, lovingkindness, joy and humor are good resources. We actually cultivate them.

When – after ten years of yoga practice – I quit my academic job and accepted my teacher’s instruction to teach – I understood that my new job was to offer this practice to ANYONE. There was not some pre-exisisting set of students out there waiting for me. There was no turf (this is not Amway), no job at Ashtanga University, no automatic respect for my ashen, essentially empty KPJAYI papers. I was also not being sent out to teach contortionism to nubile young people. In fact, even though I’m the biggest asana junkie I’ve met so far, turning others in that direction isn’t what this is about. If you want to wrap your leg around your head while sticking your first finger in your ear and thumb in your eye, all while performing eight random mudras and twenty-six secret bandhas, there might be better people to consult. (Well, ok… the hidden bandhas will be worth our time….) Rather, this shala is here is to offer practice to whatever people happen to be around. Like, our neighbors and people at the grocery store. Like you, if you’re ready for a little revolution. Pattabhi Jois said that EVERYONE can practice ashtanga yoga, with one exception. “Lazy person can not practice ashtanga.”

Thus! New students: here is how it works.

If you want the beginner’s slot – we want to give it to you. Beginners are awesome. No yoga experience AT ALL is required. In fact, if you’ve never done any asanas before, that’s probably best.

But to get the slot, you have to want it. Now. NOW. Athayoganushasanam.

There is no waitlist. When the slot comes free, the person who wants it most jumps in. Try it for one month; see what happens.

So there is this tiny obstacle set up at the beginning. It helps a new person summon the fire and willpower she’ll need to stay with the practice consistently for one month. While they can also become obstacles, fire and willpower are often important at the start of a yoga practice. We will pour a lot extra on if you want them; but at the same time you have to DIY.

We will support you until this getting-up-early-to-do-asanas thing gets easy. No problem. It will get easy, but until it does, one of the best resources you can draw on is your own bit of crazy. So take a risk. Track me down. Bug me. Buy Yoga Mala and a Manduka mat. Resist the pull of phony internet yoga teaching. Be open; be yourself; be passionate. Give something. And be in touch.

With my permission, you can come observe a Sunday Mysore class; and soon I’ll be back to teaching the weekly Advanced Practice for Beginners class. Apart from this weird pull to roll out my mat a month or three a year in South India and just be in the presence of my teacher, I am not going anywhere for a long time.

There is a system in place here to support a lifetime of daily practice, but do not waste a moment. Every day before you start practicing is one less day you have to really know yourself, burn out the half-conscious habits that you no longer want, heal yourself and to open up the honesty and lightness and even joy this practice slowly cultivates.

There is a very strange freedom in creating your own embodied, silent sadhana. It’s gorgeous. I’d try to tell you how gorgeous, but that might take a tiny bit of the interestingness away from experiencing it yourself. Besides, I don’t know how it’ll be for you. We’re most interested in learning from and with you, and in holding space for you to explore. So just take a risk in getting a little passionate about this, and see if some crazy actually makes sense.

Class starts Sunday, February 26.

To subscribe to the newsletter, drop a line to annarborashtanga at gmail.

 

Discipline, Affirmation, Emotion

At the Mental Hygiene workshop back in November, Gurjt, Dawn and Yvonne offered a series of intriguing questions about working with emotion.

In sum: given (1) the limitations that go with having a physical body, and given (2) the raw truth of mental/ physical/ emotional/ samskaric pain that yoga makes us look at… well, then to what degree should we cultivate positive emotion and affirmations in practice? When we’re experiencing a lot of physical, mental, emotional crap, should we just willfully change our inner environments? Or is yoga practice more about just observing difficult subjective experience and letting it run its course?

I didn’t even attempt to answer. The reason was that I sort of don’t know. I wanted to leave you some space for not-knowing too.

Not-knowing can be a tricky area for disciplined, dedicated people. So can intense emotion or thought-habits. This is because it’s pretty easy to use strong discipline to repress confusion, doubt or negativity. Because you are such a focused, methodical group, I wanted to offer a bit of a challenge rather than dismissing the question with something as boring as… an answer.

Your concentration and mental clarity are really fun to work with. Not that it matters, but I would submit that your natural gift for discipline (or simply your good choice of practicing with other people who possess this gift, which was the trick my formerly lazy self used to cultivate discipline) will generate increasing clarity and subtlety over time. In ways that will surprise you. Concentration can really snowball on you. (As long-time meditators will affirm, everyday life improves massively after one has a fully developed concentration muscle. But most people will never get any taste of what that feels like.)

Among other interesting things, years of utterly consistent, taken-for-granted, dispassionate practice give a person’s actions a quality of effortlessness. A certain neutrality and luminosity come from practicing deeply enough that comfort-preferences or a need to get rewards are no longer calling the shots. This deep discipline is not super-hero stuff. Super-heroes are for kids.

It’s full-on weird (and exciting) the first time you get to experience a person who is refined in this way. Such people stopped doing practice years ago and are now mostly… being practiced.*  As you know, one reason I love Mysore is that I get to dwell absorb the embodied wisdom of dozens of them. As Sharath reminds us about every week, just doing a lot of asana practice doesn’t comb out a person’s ego in this way: it only works like that if we approach practice with a certain honesty and with systematically good intentions.

But sometimes overly strong discipline can push (1) difficult creative impulses, or (2) confusing contemplative insights into unconsciousness. So when big questions come up, sometimes I think my job is to let them sit there, open. Quick answers are trite anyway. And because my teachers and the scriptures are so inspiring and beautiful, I don’t want to use them in a stimulus/response manner. Teachings are not stones: I do not want to throw them at our practice, or use them to plug the openings it creates.

But it’s been a few months, so now some scripture. And damn if the scriptures aren’t good on this stuff. “Self-study” does include contemplating and applying the resources on yama, niyama, physical practice, and concentration. The AY:A2 library is one heck of a resource where this is concerned, and I’ll come home next month with more for the shelves.

Patanjali is the most accessible; and besides I’m fond of anyone who has thousands of gleaming white heads and the habits of a jungle shaman. It turns out that, when negative thoughts or emotions take on a compulsive quality, generating positive emotion and affirmations is COMPLETELY OKAY in his book.

What he calls pratipaksha bhavanam (“cultivate the opposite”) is not a repressive act. It’s a way of replacing stagnant energy with fuel for practice. Read up on this. And if it gets confusing, just talk to me: I can share specific, easy techniques for doing it. Meantime, many of you have done metta practice: you can adapt that technique to support your yoga (see Sutra 1.33).

At the same time, Patanjali has a lot to say about the types of Samadhi – concentration or absorption states. According to most commentators, nirbija samadhi is a nondual, indescribable, elusive, rare occurrence (very different from the samadhi you may learn about in Buddhism or the Psych literature on happiness). But the many forms of sabija samadhi or savikalpa encompass awareness of an object—or “seed”—of absorbed consciousness. I don’t want to say too much about this, and after just four seasons of sitting with Jayashree and Narasimhan, I’m not much qualified to do so anyway. But briefly, the point here is that Patanjali says there is value in fully “being with” various seeds of awareness in sabija samadhi.

The juice here is in having a full experience of whatever-it-is (for specifics, study up on savitarka, nirvitarka, etc). Note that full experience is RARE. Most of the time, we are being led around by our attractions and repulsions. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as TS Eliot wrote. Yet bare attention to experience, without any effort to change that experience, is essential to yoga in Patanjali’s teaching.

So back to the question of whether we should willfully change our inner environments. When to cultivate the opposite, and when to soak concentration into present experience even if said experience is difficult? I don’t know that either. Commentators have lots to say on the subject: check them out when the time feels right, and put their different insights into relationship with your experience.

Yet also: right now, your guts, hearts and minds have a clue, right? Asana practice with some good intention and sincerity has a way of clarifying and unifying our funny, crazy, adorable, idiosyncratic, distracted mind-bodies so that the clues all start to line up. There is less inner conflict. There is more stability and inner quiet. Gradually, balancing willful transformation with radical acceptance gets… sort of effortless.