Thursday, April 27, 2006

Sports Therapy
The idea of a spiritual experience as a peak performance in a sport is hardly a new one, as you can read in accounts about mountain climbing, skiing, snowboarding, even the more mundane sports such as football (both Euro and US varieties), baseball, basketball, golf, et cetera, et cetera.

(The novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, for example, is a mind-numbing, ham-fisted Bhagavad Gita on the golf links. Stephen Pressfield, there will be an accounting.)

I’m culturally marooned in a surf town, so at this point, articles, books, movies, and videos that center on the spirituality of surfing (“I’m, like, at one with the wave!”) now trigger projectile vomiting.

But the unexpected encounter of a fresh take on a physical experience that transcends the physical to become something other, something spiritual, something, dare we say, yogic, is still an exceptional moment.

“I can’t determine precisely the instant in which my thought escapes its object to become a thought of pure effort,” writes avid cyclist and author Paul Fournel in Need for the Bike.

“The moment the rhythm speeds up, the moment the slope becomes steep, the moment fatigue gets the upper hand, thought doesn’t fade away before the ‘animal spirits;’ on the contrary, it’s reinforced and diffused throughout my entire body, becoming thigh-thought, back-intelligence, calf-wit. This unconscious transformation is beyond me, and I only become aware of it much later, when the lion’s share of the effort is over and thought flows back, returning to what is ordinarily considered its place.”

Perhaps “superconscious transformation” would be more fitting.

So the class’ homework assignment, typed two-page minimum due Monday, is to answer the following question: How does a form of stretching that features synchronized breathing and proscribed gazing points differ from gymnastics, calisthenics or aerobics? Or, for that matter, golf, football (both Euro and US versions), and cycling?

Ye Olde Musick Downloade
Geinoh Yamashiro, Akira OST
Jacques Lu Cont, Fabriclive 09
Eagles of Death Metal, Death by Sexy
The Flaming Lips, At War with the Mystics
Mozzer, Ringleader of the Tormentors
Editors, The Back Room
Neil Young, Prairie Wind

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"After long enough, you abandon your masterpiece to sink into the real masterpiece."
---Leonard Cohen

Friday, April 21, 2006

Tokyo Sento Versus the Encinitas YMCA
The Japanese are generally very reserved, and so in the sento (or sauna) I visited in Tokyo, I sat and sweated in silence with my fellow sauna-goers, not least because I couldn’t speak Japanese, and if anyone spoke English, they hid it well.

I visited the Encinitas YMCA last week to recreate the sento experience and sweat out the jet lag. The dingy and under-lit wood-walled sauna at the Y is a closet-sized room just off the showers in the men’s locker-room. And o, sweet heavens, there was no piped-in Muzak! I sat in blissful silence for about 10 minutes---before being blindsided by Leonard Baxter.

Leonard entered, climbed to the top bench, and introduced himself. He appeared to be in his late 60s or early 70s. “I was watching the Masters on TV,” he told me. “I’m a golf pro.”

With what seemed to me to be a blatant lie, he immediately grabbed the conversational rudder and proceeded to steer the ship into the deep, uncharted waters of madness.

We talked about golf. Actually, Leonard talked while I listened and nodded. I don’t know shit about golf.

“I was the California Golden Gloves champ!” Leonard then declared, changing tack with a subtle non sequitur. “But I had to retire---you ever seen an old boxer? They’re practically retarded!”

“But I still got it, though. Once a boxer, always a boxer!” Leonard climbed to face me and assumed a boxer’s stance.

The sauna floor at the Encinitas Y is about two-feet square, so as a result, I had a rather intimate view, from about 6 inches away and at eye-level, of the helmeted nub of Leonard’s penis, which sprouted mushroom-like from a tuft of white pubic hair.

Any concerns I had over my sudden and unexpected proximity to Leonard’s antediluvian reproductive organs vanished, however, when he began to fire off a series of one-two punches that stopped just short of my face.

I did a fair-to-middling Spiderman impression and clambered backwards and upwards, as one does when confronted by a nude septuagenarian demonstrating his boxing prowess.

I put my hands up. “Yeah, yeah. Pretty good, man, pretty good.”

At that point, Leonard took in my tattoos and assumed I was a Self-Realization Fellowship devotee. Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship has been a fixture in Encinitas since at least the 1930s. Accordingly, Leonard pulled the pin on another non-sequitur hand-grenade and rolled it into the conversation.

“I did all that meditation shit back in the 60s!” he said, glancing up and down my arms. “I had a girlfriend at the time, this wild broad, she was into all that TM stuff. I can do samadhi if I take five long, deep breaths!” He pronounced it “sa-ma-dee.”

“Wow,” I said, “that’s incredible!”

“Yeah,” said Leonard, “it’s pretty easy.”

I stretched out on the top bench and feigned death.

Leonard was still standing, and began telling me how he felt about religion in general and the Old Testament specifically (he didn’t like either).

“Jonah!” he said.

“What a crock!” he said.

“You get eaten by a whale, you know what happens?” he said. “You die!”

He hopped from foot to foot and gesticulated wildly. Rivers of sweat streamed down his face and body. I couldn’t tell if the fluid spraying from his lips was frothy saliva---he was pretty worked up about the Old Testament---or if it was sweat that had run down his face.

The beauty of sauna polemics is that the heat will wilt even the staunchest zealot. But still, Leonard held on with the tenacity of the cockroach.

I thanked my lucky stars I’d spent time in Tokyo building up tolerance to the heat. Plus I figure that the sauna’s heat-level had been set to a temperature determined by the YMCA’s lawyers to be “safe,” and therefore I found that the room wasn’t close to the thermonuclear heat of a Japanese sento.

So my heart leapt when Leonard placed one hand on the sauna door handle: Here was a sure sign he was about to pull the ripcord! I wasn’t quite on the verge of blacking out, although I’d been pinned in the sauna for more than 45 minutes.

Leonard wasn’t quite done. “Some guy wrestling with an angel!” he said.

“You think anyone ever wrestled an angel? What a load of B.S.!”

And on that note, he opened the door and ducked off to the showers.

For the next 15 minutes, Leonard would walk over from his shower, all soaped up, open the sauna door, stick his head in, and let me know how he felt about various other stories in the Old Testament.

I waited another long 10 minutes before emerging.

When I did, Leonard Baxter was in the locker room, shaving and arguing with another man about Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger.

My total cost: the $10 day-use pass, 5 pounds of water weight, and a strange homesick longing for the tattooed and silent yakuza of my local Tokyo sento.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

As those who read my weekly column “Yoga Hustla” know, I have the thumb, index, middle, ring and pinkie fingers of my left hand grasped firmly around the carotid artery of the yoga world. There is not the slightest tremor on Indra’s many-jeweled net that is not picked up and published by yours truly, and even as you read this, I’m working the right arm around the head for a crushing sleeper hold.

So doubtless all will be as excited as I am with this week’s veritable treasure find---the contract rider of one of the world’s biggest celebrity yoga teachers!

A contract rider accompanies a performing artist’s or celebrity’s contract to appear in public, and includes specifications on stage design, sound systems, lighting rigs, as well as the artist's wish list---from transportation and billing to dressing room accommodations and meals.

What does this big-time yoga celebrity, who I shall call “YOGA TEACHER” for fear of both legal and physical retribution, require to show up at your shala to teach the kids downward dog? And who could it possibly be? I'll never tell, so read on, o yogi …


This rider to the contract date _____ by and between YOGA TEACHER (hereinafter referred to as "THE ARTIST") and _____ (hereinafter referred to as "THE YOGA SHALA") for the engagement is made part of the setting-forth of additional terms and conditions to attached contract.

1. One LARGE BASKET of WHITE FLOWER PETALS (any genus) to be strewn at ARTIST’S feet during the “Grand Entrance.” Shala owners responsible for flower petal clean up.

2. One NEW LARGE MANDUKA BLACK MAT, to be laid at front of shala, surrounded by AMBER-SCENTED CANDLES and wiped down with scented SANDALWOOD OIL.

3. Photographs and videos will be allowed in special "MEDIA AREA" to be set up facing ARTIST'S LEFT SIDE. All photos or video must be approved by ARTIST’S PUBLICITY AGENT.

4. Pyrotechnic requirements during ARTIST’S bandha demonstration to be paid for by shala owners and to include:
One smudge pot
Three M-80 firecrackers
Smoke machine with dry ice

5. Workshop accommodation requirements include a dressing room separated from main yoga shala by a door with lock (henceforth to be referred to as “VIP ROOM.”)

6. TOUR MANAGER to be supplied with five “VIP PASSES” to permit entry to “VIP ROOM.”

7. At ARTIST’S discretion, select workshop attendees may be invited to “VIP ROOM” for specific and individual bandha adjustments and to participate in various Tantric practices.

8. VIP ROOM craft services table to include:
One bowl of M&Ms---all red M&Ms to be removed!!! [Sic]
One vat Tiger Balm, large
12 bottles de-ionized, charcoal-filtered, glacier-drip water served at room temperature
6 unbleached organic hypo-allergenic cotton towels with thread count of 500 or greater
One large bowl (two cups) brown rice
One bowl steamed veggies, to include broccoli, chard, burdock root, carrots, beets, kale
One extra-large bag of chocolate chocolate chip cookies
One extra-thick bar of Toblerone dark chocolate

8. Workshop organizers will arrange an autograph signing to take place immediately after workshop and not to exceed 15 minutes.

9. Workshop organizers will provide 100 prints of ARTIST’S headshot, to be purchased at $5 per photo prior to workshop, and 100 copies of ARTIST’S 2006 calendar, to be purchased at $10 per copy.

10. The following items are the ONLY that ARTIST will sign:
Yoga mats
ARTIST’S head shot
The current month’s LULULEMON ad featuring ARTIST (Note: But NOT any previous months'!)
ARTIST’S 2006 calendar
ARTIST’S book.

11. Questions NOT TO BE ASKED of ARTIST at any time during workshop:
“Are you Certified?”
“Are you still teaching Madonna?”
“Can you do kapotasana?”

Thursday, April 6, 2006

The cherry blossom trees uncurled their gnarled winter fingers during the last week of March, offering Tokyo the delicate pink and white flowers of the sakura, or cherry blossoms.

Japanese friends had talked about the apparition of the cherry blossoms with a zeal bordering on the religious. Now I see why.

Snow-banks of the gauze-thin white blossoms draped across the green banks of the moat at the Imperial Palace. On some streets, the trees lining the sidewalks were bent and bowed under the weight of the hanging cherry blossoms, or shidarezakura, so that entire city blocks were enclosed in thick pink tunnels. One day, I rounded the corner to my flat to find the neighborhood playground dwarfed by a cherry blossom tree that had sprouted a towering corona of white flowers.

The appearance of the cherry blossoms is an event in Japan that nearly everyone eagerly tracks, as news programs feature daily bloom forecasts like weather reports. The flowers’ appearance in Tokyo marks the start of spring, at which point the Japanese go on hana-mi outings. “Hana-mi” means “flower watching,” although a more adequate definition would be “drunk picnic.”

Last Saturday, a few of us gaijin ("white devils") walked through Yoyogi Park, a massive public park in Tokyo that sprawls through Shibuya and neighborhoods beyond. Certain areas are thick with sakura trees, and when the flowers bloom, hana-mi-goers picnic under a dense snow-white canopy.

That Saturday, thousands of Tokyo dwellers unrolled plastic tarps under the trees, unloaded cases of sake and beer, and removed their shoes to sit down and get to business. The air was electric with an intoxicated anarchic madness, the beautiful sense that anything could happen. People talked, laughed, sang songs, and stumbled into each other, and on one blue picnic tarp, a group of friends took turns donning and then capering about in a strange blue bear outfit, complete with giant blue bear head.

It was the cathartic heaving off of the heavy mantle of winter, and I swear I saw Bacchus, wearing a red Adidas warm-up jacket, winking at me from behind a tree. Although it may just have been a drunk Irishman.

Part of the beauty of the cherry blossoms arises from their sudden appearance after months and months of soul-freezing winter weather, and part of their beauty arises from their fleeting life-span: the flowers only last a few days, until the rain and heavy winds scour clean the branches. Their end is as stunning as their appearance, though---the wind drives the flowers off the trees, and for a time it snows pink and white.

Such a wind blew through Shibuya's Hachiko Square on Monday, and the cherry blossom tree by the Hachiko statue shed its blossoms, which spiraled and immelmanned onto the commuters rushing about below its branches.

That wind carried me out of Tokyo. April 3 was my last day in Japan.

The farewells were much more difficult than I anticipated; three months is a long time to visit a place. I also bid a fond farewell to Katsu. His passion and intensity are humbling and beautiful, and remind me of, well, me, when I first began ashtanga.

“You never know what is enough,” said William Blake, “unless you know what is more than enough.” I hope Katsu can build the practice into his life in a more wholesome manner. When I left, he said, in broken English, “I will see you in Mysore!”

I hope so, Katsu. I hope so.