The Poverty of Verbal Instruction

Here are some words and concepts organized to question all use of words and concepts in yoga.

Hey, we work with what we’ve got; and bootstrapping is all over this practice starting with the first loop we close ‘round the toes in padangusthasana. Anyway, here’s a prolegomenon to any future blogging.

Pattabhi Jois started out saying that ashtanga method was 5% theory, 95% practice. He later scaled that back to 1% theory. Perhaps the 5% was getting abused.

Talking about experience tends to insulate us from a moment’s raw intensity, from subtle layers of experience, and from the transience of pain and pleasure.

I wonder how we’re really using words in yoga class. Do we know how to use language to set ourselves free in our bodies… or do we more often use it to solidify difficulties and obstacles? Do words come up due to anxiety about impermanence or attempts to pin things down, a need to prove something, or maybe unwillingness to just be quiet and do the technique? I wonder, too, if talking in practice—including my own verbal instruction—increases an egoic sense that we know what it’s is all about.

Who knows. Subtle mindbody activity—and some shocking physical abilities—live below the threshold of language.  To the degree that we are anchored in discursive mind only, we might miss out on a lot of this.

Actually, in a verbally-instructed class, this might be what students want. At first, it can be helpful to be distracted from inner chaos by a teacher who can hold attention strongly. This. Is. Ok. Teachers holding my attention to technique were exactly what I needed for the first few hundred hours of practice. Thank you.

But honestly. In the direct experience business, unless you’re a stand up comic, words are dull tools.

In yoga class, even the most precise, relaxing verbal instruction gets old. When it does, there are two options: (1) progress laterally by genereating 1001 postural and sequence variations, or (2) go deeper** into the bodymind by moving from content-based to rhythmic insruction. In rhythmic instruction, the teacher just pretends to be a metronome. This is where, sometimes, the practice starts to do itself.

Often though, rhythmic instruction still pulls a practitioner’s attention toward a teacher. But in silent, self-led practice, ohhhh….

(smiles dumbly)

Where were we. Ok.  Silent practice. Ok. I dunno. Once the concentration is there to stay with it, we come upon our own brilliance and stupidity; and beneath that is raw sensation that sometimes begins to vibrate or flow in the weirdest ways; and beneath that might be some intertwined thought-muscle-memory samskaras; and then maybe nothingness; and whatever… and there’s really nothing worthwhile to say about any of it. It’s more interesting than stand up comedy. Or the movies. Or this here internet. It’s personal. Impersonal. Empty. Exquisite. Boring. Pointless. Ineffable.

Anyway. The reason I offered the mental hygiene workshop two weeks ago was to suggest why I say so little the rest of the time. It only seemed fair. My teachers have taught me to give little or no response to students’ self-limiting stories, to teach with one’s own personality glazed over to support students’ depth of internal focus, and to do everything possible to prevent chit-chat in the room. My teaching mentors see discursive talk in a practice room as mostly useless. So gradually, and without using words, they showed me how to teach from a very quiet place.

I do offer new students verbal instruction. If someone is reaching out for an anchor or feedback, I’ll even give a little eye contact. And there might be some talk to smooth the transition into the odd culture of a Mysore room. Proprioception and concentration are still developing, after all. But pretty soon in this scenario, we come into contact with the ways that chit-chat and personality-to-personality interactions weaken and clutter the practice. I become more still in order to get out of your way, to let you refine your own beautiful habits of mind-body. It is so nice to be in the room as you realize that you’re ok with whatever arises, as you open to new sensations, as you settle in to just being there, creating and experiencing experience.

Selective Narcolepsy and the Still Small Voice

In response to a six-day ashtanga practice, my nervous system started de-fragging about a decade ago. Most of the results of this spontaneous re-wiring have been pretty nice so far. For example, there are unusual levels of concentration, strong positive emotion when summoned, some ability to enter wakeful and restful states on call, some capacity to not take stuff personally, a tendency to take energy from most situations (including “negative” ones), and a feeling that the happiness and health of others literally make my life better.

However, there is one nervous system condition that seems increasingly odd the deeper I get into this yoga teaching thing. Is it a glitch? A mutation? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s here to help. Other people might want to cultivate it as a kind of neuro-linguistic program. The program, or condition, is Asana Book and Video Induced Narcolepsy. AVIN for short. Here’s how it works: if I am exposed to asana instruction in books and videos, my eyes automatically glaze over. It’s like on Johnny Carson, when unsuspecting audience members would get hypnotized to fall asleep on mention of the word “banana” or something. And then Johnny would push this neuro-linguistic button in front of an audience. “Banana.” Next thing we know, Jane from Tulsa is slumped in a puddle of her own happy drool. That’s me in front of a how-to ashtanga book.

I have to wonder… Heather Duplex, Chuck Miller, Joan Hyman: did one of you program me with AVIN in an early ashtanga class? Did you recognize the ravenous, sharp mind of a PhD student, and also see how she was blocked from the healing and happiness available in the quieter depths of her own awareness? Did you whisper the AVIN program in to her wiring to spare her countless hours of asana spectatorship and analysis?

Nooo. Though I guess it’s normal to wonder if both mutations and wisdom come from outside. It can be hard to take responsibility for both kinds of anomaly– perhaps especially the wisdom. But everyone has an intuitive layer of awareness- what much of the Vedantic tradition calls a wisdom sheath (vijanamaya kosha). This is a kind of knowing that can sometimes be freed from the usual mental activities of protecting a tightly defined sense of self, or repeating old patterns in compulsive, limiting ways. The wisdom sheath has the potential to render a kind of direct, clear knowing independent of figuring-it-out mind. Intuition, grokking, and sheer creativity are said to arise from this part of a human. It’s not so special, even though in highly analytical cultures we might get a bit alienated from what my father (a hospital chaplain in Montana) calls the still, small voice.

I wonder what little wisdom mechanisms and intuition particles are floating around in all of us, just hanging out while the small self plays its games on the surface. The wisdom wires seem to get tripped by the weirdest things. Stories you’ve told me lately: (1) a man walks into a yoga class for the first time, and his monkey-mind flatlines. Boom. The discursive thought, play of reactive emotion, and mind-pictures stay outside the room. It’s odd. But he trusts it. He lets it keep happening, and does whatever it takes to keep his practice clean in this way. From day one. Later, he learns that most teachers don’t bother to suggest that level of concentration to beginners. (2) A woman’s family generates yet another instance of a durable crisis pattern. She leaps to react according to the shared script, then there is a pause. Let’s try something different this time. Give more. Prove nothing. Expect nothing. Oddly, the entire family dynamic shifts.

I don’t know for sure, but there’s a chance my AVIN condition is this kind of a blip. Nobody ever told me to practice this way — indeed Los Angeles yoga culture was fairly obsessed with what postures looked like and how to analyze them to death. But I was flanked by many secretly wise practitioners, and it’s possible I intuitively copied their inner discipline. When after a few years I got around to reading the old yoga texts, I ran in to some ancient versions of this program.

Here’s how AVIN works. (1) I simply do not consume asana-instructional books or videos. (2) I don’t discuss most details of my physical practice, or the deep aspects of my student-teacher relationships, with others. (3) I learn the raw, physical technique (both how to practice, and how to teach) through relationship with teachers who know me very well. I receive and work with what they offer. In sum: I leave the asana on the mat. Outside the Mysore room, I refrain from wrapping my information-loving, analytical mind around matters of the physical practice. When I perceive a compromise to this discipline, some deep switch flips and the whole discursive mind goes dim.

This doesn’t mean I’m not sort of obsessed with the physical practice. How else to explain the never getting bored, the thrill of getting on the mat every day, and the respect for the method that increases with each new person I get to work with? But here is the thing. If I were letting my acquisitive, gotta-get-answers, read-a-buncha-books mind run the show, I’d have gotten bored about 16,000 hours ago. Asana in and of itself is… boring. What keeps me engaged is using the method as a means to clarify consciousness– not only on the physical layer but all the others as well.

Here’s what attempts to document or learn “tricks” of asana do: they generalize; they often commodify; they turn practice into something abstract and somehow explainable. They take up time that could be spent being quiet, caring for others, or being in the world. They turn asanas into problems to be solved, or into decoys to hunt down and conquer. Uh oh… I suddenly feel verrrryyy sleeepyyyyy…..

Even more boringly, trying to learn ashtanga from a book pretty well circumvents the energetic transmission that comes through this practice. I submit that it is waaaay more interesting to work directly with teachers who were chosen by their teacher, who were chosen by their teacher, and so on. Is this energetic transmission thing trivial? To the analytical mind, yes. But if you’re reading this, you’ve probably felt a little of the heat and love coming through that person-to-person line of awareness. You probably have a sense that this (not merely technique) is what’s really going on in this practice, and that it’s not something that can even be discussed.

So we go to spend time with our teachers. This is how it works. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence. (Wittgenstein, maybe the sharpest & most beautiful analytical thinker of the 20th century, said that.)

The last time I saw my philosophy teacher, MA Narasimhan, he put it like this. “Every time you try to put knowledge down in a book, something is lost.” Narasimhan has a sharp analytical faculty and a deeper understanding of the western mind than most professors… and he only teaches through what he calls parampara. Oral tradition.

Anyway. I have seen some people learn the first stages of ashtanga practice from a book without their practice turning into a train-wreck. By “a few,” I mean two. Both of these people have extremely clear minds. You know who you are; and you have my admiration. I could not have done what these people did. My mind just was not that clear when I began to practice. For me, the effect of asana book-learnin’ would have been the same as it is for most: fragmentary, yet rigidifying. For me, it was important to stay soft and receptive enough to learn the technical, personal method from real people, who really perceived me, in real time. And it was important to keep my mind clear of discursive, digital distractions. So that I could learn the more interesting skills of concentration, letting-go, and discipline. These skills play out in the meat and bone of physical layer, as well as on the energetic dimension, the mental, the intuitive, and beyond.

Here is another nice thing about oral tradition: it keeps things specific and real. It generally teaches a person to be emotionally and mentally flexible, to listen very clearly, and  to move through the technique in a confident, relaxed way. For me personally, the practice has been to keep my technical learning relational, instead of mixing it up with arbitrary advice from strangers or vids from people who might not be acting out of a love of serving others. I probably would have sat around obsessing about my asana practice instead of doing my PhD work, but because of AVIN, I just didn’t have the option. If you get pulled in the direction of analyzing your asana practice and looking around for tricks and commentaries, here’s a suggestion. Check in with your deeper intuition. Do you actually want this in your practice? Is a different habit of mind more free?

Small stuff like this is the big stuff. It only takes a wisp of delusion to start building new samskara. I don’t know what your choices will be, and in a sense I don’t care as long as the micro-practices get filtered through your deepest and best intuitions. Just cultivate a relationship with the learning process that gradually supports the emergence of concentration, clarity, and healing.

It is true that I own two asana instructional materials. The first is Yoga Mala. It is very important for learning what to put on the floor of your practice space and which nostril to breathe out of during sexual intercourse. Everything Pattabhi Jois writes there is wonderful. I understand it a little better every year. Honestly, he saw stuff most humans never will; and it seems he had a very good sense of humor.

The second item is the video my teacher Dominic made of my teacher Sharath practicing the primary series. I would recommend that too, but to be honest, I don’t know anything about it. I can’t stay awake past the first surya namaskara. Sorry, guys. I’ll come learn from you in person.

How to wake up for yoga.

After a little while, you will figure out your best sleep hygiene, and the getting-up-in-the-morning program will run itself. But at first, I do understand that it can be a challenge to re-teach the body to wake up fresh. Because we’re going against the social stream by getting up early to practice, establishing this pattern might take some focus and discipline, if not a few tricks. If you fall down some days, ok. Just keep at it. This will get easier in a few weeks.

There really are techniques for making it easy. On the other hand, if you wanted to do the pure-willpower method , the strategy would begin with taking in as much sugar, and as little water, as you can during the day. Drink at least three cups of coffee (one of them after 3pm); eat a large dinner involving heavy, dense, inflammatory foods; drink some alcohol. Watch television, engage in some arguments if you can find them, and use the internet until late at night. Spend a lot of time with people who have either a lot of negative, heavy emotion (tamasic) or an unfocused, fast-moving mind (rajasic). In the morning, try to watch Fox News, write emails to make sure the verbal wheels started spinning, and start planning the work day with extra attention to envisioning difficult colleagues or situations. While doing this, leave the lights low, consume Advil, move slowly, and keep the body cold. Tell yourself that this is hard and feels bad. Then (this is the most important part), ask yourself what you feel like doing. Between getting back in the warm bed and going out to do yoga, what would give more immediate pleasure? Yes! Bed wins! If there is someone who actually makes it to yoga practice in this scenario, she is either a hero or completely out of touch with her body. I’m not sure which is more problematic.

Maybe this will surprise you: ashtanga is big in northern Japan. And across Canada, the north Atlantic, Scandinavia, Russia. People in the cold, dark north love to practice morning Mysore in the fall and winter. Last year, I contacted daily practitioners from all these places for advice about how to adjust to dramatic seasonal changes. They offered dozens of techniques, and we tried them out. Those now entering their second year are still fine-tuning this morning practice stuff, but they’ve settled on a few really good techniques.

Here’s what they suggest. Some of this is direct, and some is paraphrased. (1) Scale way back on coffee and don’t drink any caffeine after 2pm. If you are addicted to it, this might be your time to face it and detoxify. (2) I had to get rid of the “not a morning person” myth. That’s just a story the ego tells itself. Being a “night person” might point to adrenal fatigue that can be healed though practice. (3) Eat a big breakfast, medium lunch, and really small dinner. Experiment a few times with skipping dinner. Just try it. Note what your sleep is like and how you feel in the morning. (4) Get a sunshine lamp and put it on a timer to go off at the same time as your alarm. If you sleep with someone who can’t stand it, just put it outside the room and get under that light to go through some part of your morning routine. (5) Forget about drinking alcohol during the week. (6) Eating sugar makes it really hard to get up in the morning. (7) Know that coming to practice will raise your core body temperature and keep you warm all day. (8). Be accountable to someone in the group – promise each other you’ll both be there.

This all sounds helpful. From personal experience, I would add: Get under bright lights. Jump around and shake the body a bit first thing, to get the circulation running (truth be told, I often have a one-woman blues-rock dance party at 4am). It’s nice to take a hot shower on winter mornings, letting the water fall on your entire spine and crown of the head. I do a few breathing practices first thing every day, and on cold mornings add some other kriyas and somewhat different breathing during the surya namaskara. Some of this is in the “House Specialties” document at practice, and some I can just share in person if there’s a good time. But it doesn’t do anyone a favor to talk about traditional practice on the internet. This is oral tradition best exchanged person-to-person.

With “how to?” questions in practice, I look for a balance of dedicated practice and radical acceptance, which is my shorthand for Abhyasa and Vairagya.

This pair of values comes up in Patanjali’s sutras 1.12-1.16. Some commentators say that either Abhyasa or Vairagya should be primary: that one or the other is most important. This is like Christians debating the relative importance of grace and works, or German philosophers debating about will and spirit, or tender teenagers trying to decide whether they find more meaning in what they do with their lives or who they are as people. There is usually a school of All Action! and a competing school of All Being! Hello. Ashtanga yoga is a school of not-two. Samkhya; Tantra; what’s the problem? 99% practice, 1% theory.

In a practical, embodied way, the practice sets us up to do (1) practice and (2) acceptance all of the time. Like this. It’s getting late in the evening, so I can feel that tomorrow’s asana practice is already starting. How I go to sleep is the last major determinant of how I get up. So I’m going to extract myself somewhat painfully from the laptop now and power it down. In the kitchen, there’s an oatmeal-choclate chip cookie that part of me wants eat while watching last night’s Steven Colbert, but what I’ll actually do is let habit draw me sort of inexorably upstairs to sit and do some breathwork. Setting things out for the morning, there is usually some spontaneous excitement and gratitude for both sleep and morning practice, and that will make cookies and Colbert seem boring. Both sleep and (tomorrow) practice will do themselves once I get into position… but I do have to get there. Falling asleep, I’ll notice if there’s a tendency to reel off into discursive, fantasy, or emotionally negative headspace, and choose some higher quality feelings or thoughts instead. If the neighbor is making tons of noise, or I have a headache, or Zelda Spoonbender (the cat) is licking my nose like usual, I’ll see about just rolling with that. And then pretty soon, sleep is here…

Good night, everyone. Sleep well, and see you on the mat.

17 April, 2011

Chanting the Yoga Sutras

An interview with M.A. Jayashree, PhD. Integral Yoga Magazine. Spring 2010, pp. 33-4. (Transcribed by A. Jamison, 17 April 2011.)


To hear Dr. Jayashree chant the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit is to be transported to the time whet this great text was transmitted in the oral tradition. Her melodious voice, flawless pronunciation and classical articulation of the Sanskrit, replete with meaning and the yogic vibration, is special to experience for oneself. In this interview, she explains her own fascination with the Sutras and why they continue to speak to seekers in every generation and culture, even beyond the shores of India, from whence they came.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): What are the benefits of chanting the Yoga Sutras?

M.A. Jayashree (MAJ): Chanting the Yoga Sutras has a two-fold benefit. Once you have begun studying the Yoga Sutras, memorization helps in recalling the appropriate sutra in times of doubt—whether you have a doubt about your own experience or you are down because your Ashtanga practice is not progressing well. The repeated browsing mentally of the sutras’ ambiance (manana), in a certain state of mental quietude, will help in getting a flash of the real meaning and also produce the “Aha” experience—perhaps we can call it a three-dimensional understanding. Chanting and memorizing is vital for our knowledge to become wisdom. Whatever texts you study, chanting reveals itself to you in time. It is a kind of tapas, where we brig the physical mind, the rational mind and the emotional mind to a single point. There, not just understanding, but revelation, happens!

IYM: What is special about Sanskrit as a vibrational language and chanting the Yoga Sutras aloud?

MAJ: In India, the ancient seers were not satisfied to have a language that was just a means of communication for day-to-day activities. They wanted a language that could touch and transform the sprit too. For this purpose they created an oral tradition called the Srutiparampara, wherein a strictly prescribed way of listening and pronouncing the sounds, syllables, combination of syllables, words, sentences, passages and the complete sets of knowledge systems enabled the transfer from the teacher to the pupil without distortions.

The Vedic seers were also interested in chanting as the basic means of modifying the spirit, so they perfected the language, namely Sanskrit. The perfection of a language, along with the methods of rendering, leads to the effective means of communication of knowledge at the rational level and also an attempt for a subtle transformation of the spirit at the deeper emotional and spiritual level. This was achieved by the wise combination of the sound value, the rhythm and the tune associated with the learning of the texts. This transformation has been so effective, even after five thousand years, it can be felt by those who chant, which makes superfluous the knowledge of the language to understand the meaning of the text!

Chanting aloud helps in clearing the voice and lungs, and it helps you to listen to your own voice. Repeating the same word sequence helps the mind to remember the text easily. The mind has a fantastic capability to remember the sequence of words and sentences even without knowing their meaning. This builds a link between different cells in the brain. In this age of visual predominance, this practice hones the listening skills tremendously. It brings total attention in listening. It brings perfection in pronouncing the text. It utilizes all the vocal organs, improves memory and works to extend the breath fully, leading to pranayama and a deep, meditative state. Just the sequence and combination of syllables and the vibrations produced transforms the personality.

IYM: If someone wants to study the Yoga Sutras, what is the best way to start?

MAJ: There are three levels in the methodology of the study of the Yoga Sutras. The first is the regular practice of Ashtanga Yoga, as mentioned by Patanjali, which includes the practice of yamas and niyamas, the most vital part of the journey for emancipation and liberation. Patanjali says that Yoga has to be practiced without interruption, for a long time and with a firm, positive faith that the practice will get the results. The next two levels address how we gain this firm faith in our practice. Level Two involves the memorization of the Yoga Sutras through chanting, whereby a deeper understanding of the blueprint of the journey to be undertaken to reach liberation, or kaivalya will occur. Thirdly, the repeated chanting done religiously helps in catalyzing the process of evolution, with knowledge being replaced with revelation.

IYM: What is Maharishi Patanjali’s main message?

MAJ: It’s to show how humanity, with a voluntary practice, liberates itself from all the miseries of the world and evolves to the highest state of consciousness—an eternal state of bliss and awareness. This can be had, not by an external journey but by an internal journey. According to Patanjali, you are an abode of the divine whose expression is unalloyed bliss….

IYM: What do the Yoga Sutras have to offer to the world?

MAJ: We in India feel that human beings have become victims of our own creation, riding on a tiger’s back, and we are tired of the ride. The human quest to find solutions to all our problems through science and technology alone, has resulted in this mythical tiger and the feeling is that we are being led rather than being in the lead. So humanity is in search of mental and emotional security, which can only be gained by an internal journey and not by acquiring more knowledge or instruments to make one feel more secure. Technology can help in making us secure from external onslaughts but how can we become secure from internal onslaughts?

That is where Patanjali scores. He gives a practical plan to create internal securities, too. His system is universal. If studied properly, understanding the Indian ambiance behind the Yoga Sutras, it would provide an excellent text to the psychologists of the world, offering a simpler and better method to liberate humankind from its imagined insecurity. It also helps humanity to realize that happiness is an inner state, which releases it from its obsessive fixation towards objects as sources of happiness.

IYM: Why have the Yoga Sutras become so meaningful to you?

MAJ: I was raised in a very orthodox family that, for centuries, specialized in Indian texts of Vedanta. Even though I had the understanding of the purport of the Yoga Sutras, it was only due to my interaction with students who are practitioners of asana, pranayama and, to some extent, dhyana, that I came to realize the depth of the meaning of the Sutras. The questioning attitude of the non-Indian yogis also made me explore the inner and subtler shades of meaning at different levels, which we Sanskritists normally never do. After teaching the chanting of the Yoga Sutras for more than a decade, I have realized that this constant chanting, day in and day out, has transformed me physically, mentally, as well as emotionally. It has made me a firm believer that chanting is really one of the catalysts in attaining liberation. A deeper understand of the Yoga Sutras has helped me become more of a witness to what is happening around me. This has led to greater strength in confronting unforeseen situations with equanimity and poise, without becoming emotionally lost in the situation. I laugh more than ever. My compassion circuit is becoming more and more active and helps me in taking the appropriate action that the situation warrants.

Dr. M.A. Jayashree was head of the Department of Sanskrit at D. Banumaiah’s College in Mysore, India. She has authored many books in the fields of Sanskrit, ancient sciences, Indian history, culture and music. An accomplished teacher of spoken Sanskrit, Dr. Jayashree has a large following of overseas students. She is the voice heard chanting the Yoga Sutras in the documentary, Living Yoga: The life and teachings of Swami Satchidananda.


♦ Jayashree’s beautiful recordings of the Yoga Sutras, as well as several Shanti Mantras, can be downloaded here for a small donation.

♦ Stream all four Yogasutrani here. See also: Anantha Research Foundation, American Sanskrit Institute

18 February, Friday

Full moon today. The rest day comes as a relief, unlike most full moons—when the practice of not practicing asana more often brings out my rough edges. But things have been a bit overscheduled lately, as you know; so instead of joining friends for a weekend trip to the hilly coffee region of The Coorg or the progressive beach province of Kerala, I’m staying close to home.

Slept in this morning until six: a big change now that I’ve given in to the reality-shift of a 2:45 wake-up. Then scrubbed up my linens and scrubbed down the apartment – once a week through that ritual works for roach prevention, and makes time to catch up on news podcasts. Events in the Middle East and US politics continue to amaze, but what really transports me as I sit here are images of Ann Arbor: quiet, clean snow, and later of sun and the Huron melting at the edges. That dynamic of blizzard and thaw and back to the cold is strong beauty. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and that the contrast enlivens your awareness and practice.

In the last chapter of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trungpa describes vajra—the strong, grounded clarity one needs for her awareness to mature—as having the feel of deep, Northern winters. Mirror-like, luminous, and precise: “not desolate, but full of thought-provoking sharpness.”

From here, the way south India reflects in my interior life contrasts dramatically with the felt sense of Ann Arbor—which stays with me constantly. But here amid Mysore springtime, there is no diamond-like incisiveness, and little that’s cool or clear. No sparkling water or crisp air—or the sense of flow or clarity they bring.

What we have is a heat that keeps the coconut oil in my wardrobe liquid all night—healing heat that is seeping in to the shoulders and psoas muscles of younger practitioners now finding (as I did in the first two trips here) new body-openings they didn’t know were possible. While the heat is rarely stifling, we also have air thick and heavy with humidity. When I go to the city in the afternoon, a layer of gasoline-laced rickshaw exhaust coats my sinuses and maybe even the lungs. This is air that makes me feel breathing’s real physicality. May I mention (again) the usefulness of a neti pot?

And we also have the food of south Indian Spring: soft gourds that take on the spices they’re cooked in, cucumbers (ones you’d recognize, plus a crazy, spiky variety), beets (usually served with a few sprouted mung beans- thankfully both Tim and Elizabeth taught me to love beets last summer), eggplant and tomato (no nightshade problems for me here, unlike back home), spinach, radish and fenugreek, amaranth greens, papaya, pineapple, banana, mint, cilantro, basil, and so on.

Vegetable-ogling at the Farmers’ Market was how I began to learn the rhythms and deeper logics of Southern California, and this year Washtenaw County, but I’ve had little time yet for morning thrill-walks through Devaraj Market downtown. So far, and so much the better, I find them in a few home-cooking restaurants—living room lunch places reminiscent of Ann Arbor’s foodlover underground. If you run down their phone numbers to reserve in advance, there are several women who will cook a meal for you and a few friends: each lunch is five to ten light, nearly vegan dishes offered with confidence, happiness and even love. And with hot, fresh chapatis—as many as you care to wait for off the griddle.

But wait a second, Amy: the veganism ends at dessert—a warm chapatti dusted in jaggery and drizzled in ghee. That may sound like just tortilla with sugar and butter, but no… under these conditions it becomes a kind of perfect food. Well, at least as perfect as the following course, which combines three elements I considered toxic during the years my practice focused on inner purification: whole milk, black tea, and white sugar. But for now, for here, chai is my touchstone for the calm alertness provided elsewhere by espresso or kombucha tea. To every drink, a season.

Anyway, I guess I love place the way fiction-readers love character. I’m especially fascinated by the idea of sister cities—the political, cultural, sensory contrasts that arise when people link two faraway places together in experience. The Ann Arbor-Juigalpa Sister City Committee once so inspired me that I contemplated turning them into a research project. But at present that sisterhood is defunct, so I’ll continue to use experience to knit together some kind of Mysore-A2 sisterhood.

Around 8 a.m. this morning, I strung up the laundry on the roof, where the heat will dry it by afternoon, and where I’ll watch kids play soccer in the field below while I fold it all up this evening. Then I came down to the kitchen table and spent an hour re-reading the email notes I’ve received from you the past month. Thank you so much for the news and the smiles. Until this past week, my schedule here has been very full, but now that there’s a spot of calm I’ll have time to write.

So, ok…. for those who have read this far and tolerated so much talk of laundry and vegetables, here are some news. First, Rob and I are presently finalizing our contract negotiations with the University of Michigan. He’ll accept a tenure-track professorship to begin in Fall of 2012, after he completes the post-doc in the Society of Fellows. And I’ve been offered a contract for the position I requested: adjunct faculty in the Department of Sociology. Our attitude toward all this mixes gratitude, satisfaction and excitement. We love the UM Soc department, and are at times just a little shocked that our dream of staying in Ann Arbor is coming true.

Second, Sharath called me in to his office last Monday, and asked me to teach the yoga. During that conversation, I said I’d stay in Mysore to practice with him until the end of March. The authorization thing is what we make of it: I interpret it as the time arriving for me to give back more to the practice I love. In other words, to me it comes as a request that I enlarge my own practice beyond personal refinement of its shapes and numbers and rhythms. Ok, yes. I’m delighted. And I appreciate that, in asking me to teach, Sharath noted this means a professional sacrifice in terms of my academic ambitions. But most importantly, being sort-of secretly sentimental about these things, I’m grateful for this not only symbolic—but emotional and energetic—connection between Sharath, the global community of practitioners, the KPJ Institute, and us in Ann Arbor.

The formal authorization is called Level 2, which is just more institutional stuff we don’t have to worry about for now, except to note that it’s a more senior qualification that it reflects perhaps 14 or 15,000 hours (from what we can figure) of asana and pranayama practice, assisting and teaching so far. In that sense, Level 2 is not precocious, but rather a designation of a pretty weird level of interest in this practice.

When I talk about teaching yoga, I do not mean the diverse swath of American hatha yoga I sampled in LA a decade ago. There is some refined energy and penetrating awareness in that world, and I respect much of it; but my ashtanga practice is strictly a person-to-person (not internet, DVD, or book-based) transmission combined with daily personal practice. I have always had a teacher and always will. It’s jut that this particular method works by accepting information and feedback through relationships.

In case this interests you because you practice with me, I’ll add that I personally began teaching because, and only when, I was asked. I neither paid my ashtanga teachers to train me nor was paid to assist them. This is not the only good way to develop a teaching practice—especially in the modern world. But it can serve oddly well in said modern (sometimes confused and shallow and chaotic) world. In any case, the astanga method and its apprenticeship system nourish people because they’re living institutions. It’s possible to be sincere about practice without getting all goshdarn serious.

Thus far, with periodic exceptions, this hasn’t been a difficult path. Personally, clarity of method and my own intentions have kept me from diluting my energy with the small questions of what class to take and what shapes to make. This enabled me to focus on graduate school, and in the meantime mine practice for its deeper riches: refinement, flow, focus and insight that have only a little to do with outer form. I started with a search for physical healing and mental power, and wound up in love with practice. And I’m in love still, so more than ready to sign the teaching papers I’ll pick up this week.

I’m so thankful to you all for your support and community, and for bring this teaching out of me. And also: for putting up with how much I have to say once I start to writing…

25 January, Tuesday

It’s 7 pm. I’ve just had an evening coconut, sitting under the tree on Gokulam’s the main corner, while the pink light fades and the motorcycles turn on their headlights. This is a nightcap for the likes of us—me and the handful of others who drift over for drinks and raw young coconut in lieu of dinner. We’ll see each other again at around 3:45 tomorrow morning, sitting outside the front gates of the shala with headphones and hoodies.

Elizabeth asked what happens in a typical day. As I mentioned, recent weeks have been atypical because especially intense; and this week is set to be hilariously challening. But here’s a sketch.

Context: It’s our last week of Level 1 of Sanskrit, with a couple of long written assignments and drills during class. We’re working some of the relatively challenging material of the ayurveda/ subtle body/ massage course, with class sessions of three hours or more, and me doing practice sessions on a couple of “kapha” men at least twice my size. For me, this is an interesting physical, mental and emotional challenge. Meantime, I’ve been moved up from a 6:00 am practice time to 4:15 am, the opening time slot during which Sharath tends to work most intensely with more experienced students. And in honor of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Bangalore on Sunday, our usual Saturday rest has been swapped with Sunday, making for a 7-day run of morning practice bookended by two sessions of Led Intermediate. (Led Intermediate is analogous Led Primary, with—of course, like all practice here—no pauses or teacher discourses, zero faffing around, meditative focus on vinyasa, a steady rhythm, and long holds in the hard postures. Some students practice Led Intermediate rather than the usual Led Primaries that replace Mysore practice Fridays and Sundays. To me, it’s like fresh powder on the ski slopes or cycling down Vail pass—on routes I know, and love, by heart.)

For now, these days begin when the alarm rings at 3:01 (one, or—horrors—two minutes earlier would be irrational; we’ll leave the 2:00-hour wake-ups to people who have really joined the cult). I turn on the little water heater in my bathroom, practice nauli and neti kriyas, and then dance around for five or ten minutes, until I can feel not only my surface layers but the actual marrow in the bones begin to move. Currently, the soundtracks on heavy rotation for this activity are: Pantha Du Prince (thanks to Underground Sounds on Liberty), devotional ragas by a local artist the improbable name of Ganesh Schlegl, and Nicki Minaj’s last mixtape. Eh, just about anything can be turned in to a support for practice.

When the tiny water heater simmers, I pour its contents in to an old paint bucket and then upend that over my head. This not exactly a shower, and not exactly a bath: around here, we call it taking a bucket. It’s the best. I’m always so grateful for its warmth, given that this is the first year heated water is common in Gokulam. I wonder how much water and power Americans would conserve cleansing like this, and if we’d sooner foment revolution than accept such strictures?

I’m out the door by 3:45, cruising up the hill on Violet (this is the scooter, a Scooty Pep “Fashion Series,” whose essentially unhip non-motorcycleness is enhanced by its–her?–purpleness). I pick up Rachel, a karma yogi of the first order who I’ve decided shouldn’t walk to practice, given that she spends the rest of her day working in the hospital for no compensation besides the heart piece. We drive through the dead-quiet back streets, past the scaffolded water tower and mist-covered fields, and back down in to the wealthy blocks of lower Gokulam. In front of one of the big homes is a bunch of odd figures sitting on the ground, emanating a vibe of reverence mixed with a vroom-vroom anxiety. The 4:15 crew. Rueful asana junkies, the lot of us.

Then asana practice. To continue on a conversation between me and Rachel, I’ll mention to you that it’s my practice not to talk about my practice, notably the daily fluctuations or close teacher relationships. Rehearsing or evaluating that stuff tends to generate all kinds of false, self-reinforcing stories, growth-limiting delusions, and energy drains from the rest of life/practice. It also builds up clunky baggage about being an asana person or a meditating person. Let’s travel light, and keep it simple where we can. By contrast, it’s so sad when one gets in to the habit of tagging practice with “like” and “dislike” or “good” and “bad”: this is inimical to equanimity. And equanimity is one of the names of the game. So, for the sake of managing my own delusions and because I love quiet-minded practice so, so much, I’ll let that be. Except (!) in cases that I think it’s very useful for you, or my own practice is strong enough to bear it…, or it just has to be done to keep us from getting all pious. 🙂

After practice, a coconut or two with good people; then I take Violet to the chai stand for a hit or two of yet another version of heaven. Then home to have a bite to eat and catch up on email and the news, or (if necessary, as it was today) sleep. A quick dosa (20 rupees, or 50 cents) at a stand-up café full of old men at 9:15, the big subtle body class from 10 – 1:30 ish, lunch with friends from 1:45 – 2:45, Sankrit homework until 4 (while the others drink coffee, explore the city, or go volunteer at the orphanage), Sanskrit class from 4-5. From 5-6 a trip to the tailor to pick up a new meditation cushion, or to the grocery store for tumeric and castor oil. When the magic light descends on Mysore late in the 5:00 hour, I start to dial it down, and do my best to be back inside the house by a bit after dark.

Which is where this brings us now. I’ll listen to NPR and oil my knees (which are wonderfully recovered from the challenges I experienced all fall—so much so that I like to give them a little gratitude massage every night), take another bucket, say good morning/night to Rob, meditate, and go for blowing out the candles by 8:30.

Much love and more presently.

17 January, Monday

I have been thinking of you, and smiling in your general direction.

It’s Monday evening at six, Mysore’s magic hour. I’ve just sipped down the day’s last coconut—an wizened, woody monster bigger than my head and old enough to have fermented and gone all bubbly like a good kombucha. And now a bit of quiet time. I’m sitting atop the roof of my house—a marble and metal 3-story whose empty top floor I’ve rented—as the sun sets in oranges and blues over Kukkaranahalli Lake. The almost-full moon—huge and close—has already risen over the shala on the other side of Gokulam. And, like every night at this hour, activity everywhere has fallen in to a lull as shops call it a day, families shift in to their intimate hours together at home, and the crazy, early-rising yoga students call goodnight across the rooftops. The light is slanted and golden—maybe it’s the ambient dust, or maybe it’s some luck of longitude that makes evenings here so radiant. When the glow fades, just before evening traffic picks up, holy prayers from the Mosques will resonate their errie minor notes throughout the city.

Six p.m. is always sublime in Mysore. As active as I’ve been these past two weeks, at six I always come alive in a different way. I get to a rooftop, or the Lake, or Chamundi Hill, or the Palace downtown, or wherever… and allow my mind to slow down while all the sense perceptions welcome this phase-shift and its otherworldly light.

This is not to say that south India is beautiful in an obvious sense. Sure, at times I’m undone by photogenic stuff like the size and depth of every little kid’s eyes, or the arc of the script used to letter street signs. And I won’t even start, today, to describe the glorious food.

And at the same time… the human, animal and environmental suffering are everything you may have heard, even as religious and spiritual life are as vibrant, deep and diverse as any I’ve experienced anywhere. So from here I’m going to toss out the paired stereotypes—India as land of suffering; India as land of transcendence. I’m not here for salvation or to get a story—I’m just here to become a deeper teacher—so there’s no need to turn the place itself into some exotic, dramatic character. I’ll leave that to dull American advertisements and escape fantasies that engage yoga as if it’s a cartoon genie–here to give cheap IT or transcendence and then go poof out of the way.

That said, my first trip here was undertaken as a kind of pilgrimage—when a beloved PhD adviser was killed on his motorcycle, I had to do something to honor him and the bond we’d shared as closeted meditation practitioners in academia. After 7 or so years of ashtanga practice, Mysore—distant and challenging though it may be—was the only option because this is the seedbed of modern yoga.

The second trip back here was a practice adventure –three long months posed as a question about the future, but also creating closure and reflection at the end of the life I loved in LA.

Those trips had a receptive, lyrical, even transformative quality. My organism, somewhat prepared by several years of daily practice and more meditation than I’d like to say, went through two fairly big openings. The first of these had to do with blocks deep in my pelvis and chest areas, freeing up movement in my spine. The second had to do with becoming conscious of subtle, character-limiting fears and resentments toward my parents, other major figures in my life, and myself.

Deepening my yoga practice is the central focus of this trip too, but what’s different this time is that I’m also here to deepen my teaching practice as much as possible. I’m feeling a bit more practical. While my main teacher asked me to teach in 2008, this is the first year I’ve taken that somewhat seriously. It’s the first year I got the long-resisted immunizations and brought a decent scooter helmet, the first year I’ve undertaken classes rather than just learning by being around.

Which is not to say I’m getting all serious over here. Yoga is just some technologies for concentration, equanimity and vibrant health. Beyond that, it’s no joke that we all have the option of cultivating immanent presence and transcendent ecstasy on a dime. But that, in itself, is a cosmic kind of joke.

Anyway, in addition to getting settled (I’ll tell you that story later) and practicing every day while taking care of two pressing family matters back in the US, I’ve given myself a relatively strong course of study. I’m taking classes in Sanskrit, so that the “street Sankrit” I’ve absorbed from philosophy classes and chanting marathons will have a clarity and confidence I haven’t been able to offer you so far. This involves lectures, chanting sessions, and—to my horror—homework.

On Wednesday, I begin a 20-day course on massage through the lenses of the subtle and emotional bodies. This is a pretty extraordinary opportunity: an intensive, small course with a teacher I’ve quietly admired for years but who has been “discovered” by an audience of thousands in recent months. So although the prospect of three workshop hours a day is a bit daunting, given this combines with the usual physical practice, daily sitting, the Sanskrit business and urgent need to fill my daily coconut and chai quotas; and although it’s very expensive; in the long run this course is too valuable to miss. I’ll be happy to have this learning under my skin when we’re back together.

Now that I’ve broken the seal on posting here, I’ll update this blog more regularly. With a serious personal loss and some major professional deliberations the past 6 weeks, I’ve accumulated email much faster than I’ve answered it. If you’re wondering if I’m ever going to respond, it’s just that under the circumstances I’ve slow-tracked personal email so that I can take the time to focus on it and enjoy talking with you. Please pardon my lag time, especially if you’re waiting for my response to some question. In any case, I love hearing from you—you’d never believe the size of the cheesy grins you put on my face when I open my laptop in public places. So do drop a line anytime, either here in the comments or by email. I’m here and will respond presently.

Meantime, new photos are posting here.

By the way, thanks for this website—whose minimalism is exactly what I wanted—go to my brother Aaron Flint Jamison and our fictive-brother Alex Mahan. These two have kept me in webspace five years running, with design that’s almost-invisibly beautiful, and functionality that makes my work a breeze. Thanks, guys.