Friday, September 3, 2010


Fruit basket.
It wasn't until I saw photos of myself practicing yoga asana that I became familiar with the term "fruit basket."

While in Tokyo, I'd purchased these blue Nike yoga shorts (on sale), and had my friend Kranti hoist me into kapotasana in order to shoot photos. I'd always wanted to see what I looked like in the pose.

It was the first time I'd ever had to consider my own fruit basket, coin purse, bean-bag or jewel sack. In the resulting photos it bulged prominently, gratuitous and shrink-wrapped in blue spandex.

My basket in photos was not a factor I had ever considered when I began teaching ashtanga vinyasa. The process of evolution by which I came to teach yoga asana — for a living, however slim — was a gradual one, filled with major and minor shifts, all in one direction.

Once the seed was planted that I might teach this style of yoga, it was watered a variety of ways — through conscious choice, the encouragement of my wife and friends, the support of previous teachers, and the occasional stroke of blind luck. The seed flowered because of multitudes of miniscule and seemingly inconsequential choices.

I really do feel very alive while "teaching" a Mysore class — that is, sharing what was shared with me —though I had no real idea of the full scope of what that means in the Twenty-first Century.

Not fruit basket
I'm talking about the fruit basket, but in a larger sense, I'm talking about the Yoga Photo.

Part of the consequence of deciding that teaching was something I might do to feed myself, my wife and my daughter was to approach it in the most intelligent and skillful manner possible. Y'know, like a yogi.

I like very much of Douglas Brooks' definitions of a yogi, someone who "makes the impossible look easy." Part of making the impossible look effortless is the skillful, efficient management of energy.

My practice of the ashtanga yoga system has led me to cultivate a deep appreciation for its maps of energy manipulation. Through the practice of this yoga, we purify, collect and finally direct our energies, personal and otherwise.

As Tim Miller tells it, Pattabhi Jois suggested that all yoga studios should have an image of Hanuman the monkey god. As the flying, wind-borne agent of reunification between the divine masculine, Rama, and his wife, the divine feminine, Sita, Hanuman is the symbol of prana.

What Guruji was telling Tim was that Hanuman would help his yoga studio generate that most obvious manifestation of external life-force energy, or external prana: money.

At a certain point, studios, gyms and health clubs started to ask for photos of me for their Web sites or fliers.

It really flushed to the surface my insecurity and fear about teaching. The decision to put myself out there in a picture is somehow deeper and more significant than merely writing a blog. It caused me to face my choices. Was I worthy? Was I ready? Was I good enough? Did I actually have something to share? Did I really understand this yoga well enough to pass along the technique?

Ashtanga vinyasa is a powerful and potent practice, and I doubted my ability to awaken in every person the same feelings that it awoke in me.

Those doubts proved unfounded — not because I cannot deliver this experience, but because I realized that it's not my job to "deliver an experience."

I keep returning to a sentence from Tim's on-line biography — a line I have shamelessly plagiarized for more than 5 years: "My goal as a teacher is to inspire a passion for practice. The practice itself, done consistently and accurately, is the real teacher."

From that perspective, teaching ashtanga yoga is simple: all I have to do is get out of its way.

"Experiences" always and of necessity end. They're over as soon as you walk out of class, at which time the yoga is just another experience to be categorized and filed away. It has a beginning, middle and end, and becomes a memory.

This is similar to my experiences of Mysore — one can go there and have a wild time, a full 'awakening' experience.

Then that time becomes dutifully filed away as "Awakening Experience," and people return home to continually rehash that experience as their touchstone for the practice, either seeking to recreate it in themselves or their students. They also pass on the idea that their experience from last year in Mysore is an experience to which their students should aspire.

All the while, they anxiously await their next trip to Mysore to recreate this condition.

Not that I'm suggesting you shouldn't travel to Mysore! Or return there! I'm just asking us to recognize Idealism for what it is — the mistaken notion that reality and our conditions are what we wish them to be and other than what they are.

As I said, experiences come and go. That's the great thing about conditional reality — conditions arise, are sustained, and then decay, evolving into other conditions. This practice is about clearing up enough so that we can stop identifying with those conditions as ourselves, and perhaps respond spontaneously and creatively to conditions as they are at this very moment.

So once my nagging doubts about my validity as a teacher were addressed, or at least acknowledged, it became obvious to me that some sort of photo would be necessary. I was serious about teaching this yoga, therefore wanted to do it in the most intelligent and skillful manner. If that meant taking photos, then so be it.

Yoga photo? Plus: ass.
There are a host of issues that arise with shooting yoga photos nowadays. First, given the nature of digital media, photos are available at any time to anyone. Which means you have no say over the context or format in which people see them.

Second, the actual content of the photo is troublesome. Do you go for the 'craziest' asana you are capable of performing? Or something less threatening and more inviting? Do you try to look serious and profound, or more lighthearted and personable? What if you can only hold the photo for the second it takes to snap the photo?

Then, of course, you must consider the wardrobe choices ... Do you wear those skin-tight briefs you normally wear, when you're practically naked?

What setting? A yoga studio? Outdoors? Someplace exotic? There were a host of other aspects of yoga photos I had never thought about.

I imagine each teacher arrives at the pranic budget for how much they're will to allot to this.

For my part, I see no problem with wanting to make good, beautiful and, one would hope, true pictures.

Dena Kingsberg in kashyapasana.
You can look at that beautiful photo of Dena Kingsberg in kashyapasana, modeled after that painting. Or you can look at the photos of Eddie Stern on the site for his studio. You can look in vain, actually, because Eddie clearly and consciously chose to not invest any energy in photos.

The more recent photos of me were shot by my friend Kelly Hubert. They work for me, and are a conscious reflection of aspects of the practice that I value. It's a nice, non-threatening asana, there's a nice shot of Guruji in the background, I like the background colors — done and done.

And, it must be said, there's no visible fruit basket.