Thursday, March 19, 2009


"The music is loud, primitive, insistent, strongly rhythmic, and releases in a disguised way (can it be called sublimation?) the all too tenuously controlled, newly acquired physical impulses of the teenager. Mix this up with the phenomena of mass hypnosis, contagious hysteria, and the blissful feeling of being mixed up in an all-embracing orgiastic experience, and every kid can become 'Lord of the Flies' or the Beatles."

--Communism, Hypnotism, and the Beatles, David Noebel, Christian Crusade Publications, 1965

From Jack Womack, on William Gibson's blog.

Monday, March 9, 2009


Had a brief discussion with Barb yesterday about speedy ways to insure flexibility, beyond the ol' "consistent practice" cliche. BOR-ING!

Here're some suggestions based on my experiences because clearly, the sooner you can fit your leg behind your head, the sooner life will get a lot easier.

1. Dysentary
Spend five or six days bed-ridden, pants tied off around your waist and ankles, and subsisting on crackers and soda water, you'll come back to the mat super bendy and pliable. Dysentary is also a great weight-loss plan! Your body will digest the muscles off your bones.

2. Food poisoning
Also another great weight-loss plan. You'll also gain the benefits of a bhakti practice, too, because you will never chant, pray or more wholeheartedly dedicate your existence to a higher power more fervently than when you have absolutely and utterly no control over your bowels. O lord, I surrender to Thine will!

3. Cip-Zoxx
I asked the chemists what they had for back pain and they sold me a sheaf of horse-pill-sized beauties called Cip-Zoxx. One part ibuprofen, one part acetominephen, one part why-have-my-legs-turned-to-jelly-and-my-face-gone-slack-as-a-stroke-victim? The third magic ingredient is some wicked muscle relaxer. You'll feel your vertebrae moving out of place during kapotasana and you won't care.

4. Sleeplessness
Practice after a three-day bender in Vegas is, shall we say, loosey-goosey.

5. Crystal Methamphetamine
Now, I've got no personal experience with this one, but in San Francisco I used to practice next to a guy with jaundiced sweat-stains on his shirt, and who emitted the sweet smell of ether and the sound of grinding teeth. He told me he practiced two or three times a day, and the crystal really helped him get into that groove.


There's an important distinction between "pain" and "suffering." Pain is a reflex reaction, a signal to withdraw from pain-causing stimulus.

Suffering tends to be thoughts and thought-patterns associated with that pain-causing stimulus.

The ashtanga vinyasa yoga gives us the tools to help us clearly perceive this aspect of suffering. This practice is not designed to relieve us of pain, however — though it's not designed to cause us pain, either, despite what other yoga teachers say. (So quit wrenching your leg into lotus!) The effect of physical pain relief through injury rehabilitation is but a secondary effect of the yoga.

The practice of ashtanga vinyasa gives us several tools to cultivate the practice of clear perception: the union of a breathing technique to movement, the internal focal points, and the cultivation of the discipline of a daily practice.

All of which are designed to allow a specific understanding to arise on a somatic level: Suffering is caused not by specific sensations, but by our thoughts associated with those sensations. This realization is the tip of a deeper understanding that we are not, in fact, the sum total of these or any thoughts. The true cause of all our suffering is our identification with our thoughts.

So I'm sorry to report that ashtanga vinyasa yoga isn't going to create a pain-free or even a suffering-free life. Banish from your mind any fantasies of sitting in lotus and floating blissfully miles above the tidal pull of life's glorious little catastrophes.

I've found that ashtanga vinyasa has given me the tools to see with great precision and clarity exactly when my thinking is causing me suffering. Often this suffering arises during the states of the asanas themselves, or transitioning between them.

Some days, a posture will feel much, much harder than it did the previous day, or when I was younger, or when I was uninjured.

The progression of thoughts usually goes like this: The physical stimulus is registered, whether it be stiffness, discomfort, or perhaps pain. Next, it is cataloged in comparison with a previous experience. Finally, I will go on to link a judgment to that comparison: "This sucks," or "This should be easier," or "This was easier last night," or "Why doesn't this feel like Friday night's class?"

Kaboom! Instant suffering arises when reality and my perceptions of reality inevitably fail to match up.

The more insidious aspect of suffering is created when the asanas are enjoyable or pleasurable. It's much easier to root out the thorn than spit out the honey. It's very easy to bask in the sensory pleasure of the endorphin rush of a full series of ashtanga vinyasa. But even this is merely setting the stage for future suffering, because your next practice, and the next one, and the one after that, will now invariably fall short of this internal mental benchmark.

So what to do? The human mind has evolved to organize and catalog, weigh and measure. The Indian goddess of worldy illusion is named Maya, which is derived from a root meaning "to measure, demarcate."

Maya is not someone to suppress, overcome, silence or eradicate. Attempting to do so only riles her up all the more, and gives the mind more to weigh, measure and catalog.

This is where the return to the fundamentals is critical: vinyasa, bandha, drishti. To paraphrase Tim, we work with the soma to influence the psyche. Practiced correctly and consistently, these techniques are simple and powerful enough to allow to arise observation of the maelstrom of the internal dialogue. When you are observing something, you are not participating in it.

One of the techniques to exercise a hyperactive dog, as employed by Cesar Milan in The Dog Whisperer, is to put a weight vest on the canine and let it run on a treadmill. The different series of ashtanga vinyasa will function as your very own consciousness weight-vest and treadmill. Perform them consistently and correctly to the best of your ability, and the hyperactive puppy of your mind will quiet of its own accord.

It's not that thoughts won't arise, nor is it that you'll stop experiencing emotions — the yoga is not a narcotic, after all — but their immediacy, their seriousness, will gradually come to have less an iron-clad grip.


When can it be okay to not practice? Indeed, when is it advisable to not practice?

The ashtanga vinyasa system is, after all, a practice, not a workout. Importantly, this means we want to practice smarter, not just harder. The mind-body is not a dumb muscle that we can batter into flexibility or strength.

So, as a practice, it is definitely possible to plateau. It's possible to burn out. It is possible to experience many of the symptoms of overtraining. (Fatigue, exhaustion, weakness, depression.)

Most casual yogis and yogins will not reach this level. Practicing 2 to 3 times a week — even 4 — isn't sufficient to exhaust the central nervous system.

However, practicing 5 to 6 days a week, every day, for 5 years ...

To plateau is definitely possible.

True burnout tends not to occur for many practitioners, though, simply because life, as is its wont, hurls those terrific curveballs at us, and we invariably take time away from our mats, whether due to family obligations, work, travel, illness, or injury.

Let's say, though, that you've managed to avoid those influences that pull us from our mats, and also let's say that, for whatever reason, you've hit a place in your asana practice where you are stuck.

This can manifest as failure to perform the state of the asana — which in ashtanga vinyasa also often includes the transition — even though you've been practicing that asana for a lengthy period of time.

What's lengthy? Well, if you're a casual practitioner, it may come as a bit of a shock that some of the more complicated asanas can take 8 months to 2 years to perform as indicated.

My wife Tara took perhaps 8 months to a year-and-a-half to comfortably address eka pada sirsasana.

I started with Tim Miller in 2001, and he adjusted me every single day in baddha konasana, until I returned from India in mid-2004, at which point he said, "You no longer need my help."

That would be The Squash every fucking day for 3 years.

(Don’t even ask me the lengths to which I went outside of class to facilitate this process, either.)

So what to do when you hit a pose at which you're stuck ... and a year slips past? And you're still on that pose, with no measurable progress?

First of all, allow me to repeat the old yogic chestnut, "Practice non-attachment."

Now let me add: That chestnut is utter horseshit.

"Practice non-attachment" has devolved into a cliché empty of meaning. It's become a yogic-New Age-Buddhist catchphrase.

Usually it's uttered like a mantra as a result of pain that has arisen when a desire is not gratified or an expectation fulfilled.

You didn't get the raise you were expecting at work? "Practice non-attachment!" you tell yourself.

"Practice non-attachment!" the guy on the mat next to you says after watching you struggle to reach your toes in kapotasana.

This “mantra” helps you avoid looking at and experiencing the disappointment, anger, sadness, and fear that your boss' frown and shaking head has created in you.

This “mantra” also creates a subtle sense of guilt and inadequacy, as though something were wrong with you for wanting to touch your toes in kapotasana.

And oh! If you only practice harder, more correctly, more fervently, then one day that glorious state of non-attachment will arrive. Then life will be one giant red velvet cupcake with cream-cheese frosting.

Well, it’s not going to happen.

Attachment and non-attachment are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. They are not separate. As soon as you try to "practice non-attachment," you are practicing attachment.

So we don't want to utter a trite catchphrase as deferment or deflection.

Yoga is not teaching us to defer our feelings and thoughts. It is not training us to detach from them. It's teaching us to acknowledge them as they arise, see them for what they are, and then see that we are not those feelings and thoughts, though we become so when we identify with them.

So, what to do? What to do when the plateau hits and frustration arises? Frustration is a normal part of a daily and intense practice — it's the flip side of the coin of intense effort. Intense effort is essential to getting up every day to get on the mat, after all. Like our friends "attachment" and "non-attachment," "effort" is not separate from "frustration."

It can be helpful to know: are you the first person to ever experience the plateau and its partner, frustration?

Patanjali doesn't think so: in book 1 of his Yoga Sutras, verse 30 addresses nine obstacles that arise during practice. He calls them "antarayah," or obstacles, and they function as "citta-vikshepa" that “vikshepa,” or “scatter” the "citta," or mind.

The first antarayah he lists is vyadhi, which is illness or sickness.

Hopefully, your practice of the primary series of ashtanga vinyasa has strengthened your body and "purified" your mind and body of "toxins": hopefully, it's made you more aware of your physical, social, dietary, and personal habits, and allowed you to tune, tweak or adjust all of them to be more effortless, more in tune, in order to more consistently practice the techniques that will allow a still mind to arise.

The second antarayah Patanjali lists is "styana," or "stuck-ness." Sound familiar?

So now that you've been made aware that these are naturally occurring obstacles — which means there's nothing wrong with you — what to do?

As I mentioned before, the idea is to practice smarter, not harder. After a certain point, simply showing up daily and hurling yourself at an asana is not going to effect any further transformation on the nervous system.

Patanjali can again be helpful to us here, as he goes on to list in verse 31 some of the symptoms of the aforementioned obstacles.

If you've ever struggled with an asana, they should be familiar: "dukkha, "daurmanasya," "anga-mejayatva" and "shvasa-prashvasa."

That is, "suffering" or "dis-ease," a "sour" or "bitter" outlook (I like to think of the word "dour"), anxiety ("anga" meaning "limb" and "mejayatva" meaning "trembling," so this literally means "shaking of the limbs"), and "shvasa-prashvasa," which refers to an unsteady or irrythmic in- and out-breath.

So we end on the breath — which, as we practice ashtanga vinyasa, is a good sign, and which leads us back to my favorite horse-shit yogism: "Practice non-attachment." We can't practice non-attachment without practicing attachment.

But we can practice steadying and lengthening our breath (a technique Patanjali suggests in later Sutras), we can activate internal "locks," or bandhas, we can then synch our movement with our breath. Given a pinch of grace, we can allow a condition of non-attachment to arise.

In verse 33, Patanjali goes on to suggest that in order to stop the aforementioned mental projections, and their ensuing symptoms, we ought to practice, “abhyasah,” one principle or truth: “eka tattva.”

Personally, I take this to mean we should find a practice that resonates with us — and then stick to it! Don’t go switching it up because you want to do what “feels good.” But I digress to a previous post’s topic.

How can we translate "practice smarter" to real-world, concrete principles? It's not easy, it will vary from person to person, and it will take someone familiar with your practice to provide some perspective, scale and impartial observation for you.

The following ideas really only work if one is practicing 5 or 6 days a week, and has consistently for years. That is, if a daily yoga consistent yoga practice has become standard.

If you hit that plateau, and it's not budging after say, a whole year: why not take time off?


Don't come in.

Stay home. Sleep in. Take a week off, maybe 10 days.

(Usually, you will miss the practice. Trust me, getting back on the mat will be the least of your worries.)

It will be a very interesting exercise in noticing any grasping or hoarding tendencies you may have towards the practice, and by noticing and acknowledging them, hopefully the scrabbling, clenching intensity will recede.

Or, for example, you could practice all of the standing sequence ... and then you could sit!

I know, it's a rather revolutionary idea, but perhaps it's time you developed a sitting or breathing practice. There is a rigorous and, might I add, highly effective system of ashtanga vinyasa pranayama that ought to be practiced.

You could, perhaps, practice every other day for two weeks, so that you were only practicing 3 days a week. You could again use the free days to develop your sitting practice.

The main thrust of any of these techniques is that using your breath, your bandhas, and following the vinyasa, you will come to recognize that the disturbances of your mind are just that: disturbances of the mind.

I’ll close with by reiterating the fact that the above-mentioned strategies only work for someone who is doing the practice as recommended 5 or 6 days a week. They will have no effect if half-weeks or truncated sequences are your normal method of practice.