Friday, April 27, 2012


Just as there was never an actual Garden of Eden, there was never a literal age of enlightenment (Satya Yuga), from which we have now degraded to an age of darkness (Kali Yuga).

Humans in general today are not more confused or stupid than they were 5 or 10,000 (or 100,000 or 1 million) years ago.

What we can say, incontrovertibly, is that there are now many millions more of us, and so both the best and worst — the most and the least realized of us — are now prominently on display.

Still, we address the same problems as the Rishis: what is this universe, and what does it want?

More importantly, what do I want — and how do I get what I want?

Most schools or systems of Yoga implicitly acknowledge that the universe, and our role in it, is knowable and actionable.

There are codes and systems expressed in ritual as well as esoteric body maps (prana, vayus, koshas, bandhas, chakras), and through the use of these maps, codes and systems, we can then influence if not create our part in the universe.

Why, then, should we want to create our own roles in the universe?

Different schools of Yoga answer this in several ways.

Guruji was a Smarta Brahmin, which means his root teacher (sadguru) was Adi Shankara (or Shankaracharya), and that he participated in a school of non-dualism known as Advaita Vedanta.

The term “advaita” here tells us that Ashtanga as taught by Pattabhi Jois is one (of several) traditions whose central tenet is the fact that the universe is, as its name suggests: a “one” (uni) “turning” (verse).

“Advaita” literally means “not” (a-) “two” (dvai).

So Shankara and the Vedantins tell us this world, the world we are in now, is not the one we want: “One-ness” is what we want.

The world we’re in is merely “names and forms,” an illusion founded on delusion or ignorance (avidya).

Both the means (samadhi) and final end (kaivalya/dharma megha samadhi) of this Yoga is an understanding, realization, or attainment of this one-ness.

From this perspective, Vedanta and therefore Ashtanga can be seen as a strategy of enlightenment and attainment.

If this is the ultimate goal, I think it’s then fair to ask: how successful is it?

To what degree and depth did Guruji have this understanding or experience of attainment?

I can't answer that, partly because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my personal one-on-one time with Guruji was minimal. 

But also partly because we as Ashtangis are not of typical or traditional Indian spiritual traditions, which feature root teachers whose realizations are formally recognized by their own teachers, and who formally initiate students.

This is the process of transmission that is referred to as "parampara."

How do I gauge if Ashtanga and thereby Kevala Advaita Vedanta is delivering on its promise, that of attainment of ultimate one-ness or Self-realization?

Certainly proficiency in advanced postures or sequences is no metric.

I could perhaps derive some calculus of Self-Realization based on whichever sequence the person is currently practicing, subtract from that their initial gifts and background, and divide this by their years of practice.

Unfortunately this practice is also not one based on tenure. 

Meaning, investing time into practice is no guarantee, as it turns Ashtanga into some kind of Self-realization layaway program: "Oh, it'll all work out when I'm 'older' or 'old' — 'Long time coming' and all that!"

It is one of my regrets that while in Mysore I did not endeavor to learn Kannada — more than having Guruji help me/laugh at me in mayurasana or vatayanasa (“Why falling?”), it would have been richer and more fulfilling to have had an actual conversation with him, if only to flesh out nuance and context, both of which were steamrolled into mere sloganeering by both his accent and grasp of English.

I also wonder at exactly how much profundity, understanding, and mystique was projected by us English speakers into that gap between Guruji's English and our own fluency.

(Why didn't anyone master Kannada? I mean, so many people spent three to six months living in Mysore — year after year?! What the fuck? Two to three years of this and I would expect essay-level fluency. I understand Norman Allen was fluent, and I remember Kim Flynn helping with rudimentary translation at conferences, but ... only one guy was fluent? Out of hundreds, even thousands?)

In the coffee shop conversations I have been fortunate enough to have with Tim, I’ve come to appreciate his sense that there is no final attainment — only an eternal process of opening and deepening.

(These are, importantly, my own words on what I have taken from time spent with him, and I am of course projecting my own agenda.)

So is it possible that Shankara’s understanding — and by extension Ashtanga Yoga — rather than merely decaying or atrophying in this "Kali Yuga," has evolved — and continues to do so?

I think it's vital to understand that it's not technically Shankara's understanding that is evolving — rather, the expression and transmission that lead to it.

Monday, April 23, 2012


How is practice different from training?

To nod toward Patanjali, practice (abhyasa) means "persistent effort to attain and maintain a state of stable tranquility" (1.13)

"To become well established, this needs to be done for a long time, without a break." (1.14)

Deeply braided together with this idea of practice is non-attachment (vairagya), or "holding apart" (vai) one's "passions" (raga). (1.15)

There is nested within Ashtanga however an element of training — to me, to train is to set a road map or plan, establish a structured practice, and move toward a specific goal.

To learn this system we first focus on the physical minutiae: arms up, head up, head down, jump back, etc, etc. This immediate goal or the object of "training" would be something like "to learn the primary series."

It's hoped over time attention and consciousness enlarges to encompass more subtler layers of self (koshas).

As Jois used to say: "One year? Two year? No — lifetime!"

This enlargement is contingent on setting an appropriate intention (sankalpa), as intention steeps and suffuses practice.

What starts as training becomes practice.

Friday, April 13, 2012


I was putting together links to some articles, interviews, and essays that I will disperse to interested practitioners at Portland Ashtanga Yoga, and among them is “Grounding Anusara, Part 3: Intimacy, Methods, Therapy, and Making It Open Source,” by Matthew Remski.

Have I melted your face off with boredom about how resonant I found Remski's three-part series?

"Part 3" is another great article that sprung from the Anusara meltdown, or Anusgate, if you will.

The questions that Remski raises regarding Anusara are ones we as Ashtangis should ask, both of ourselves as students, and of our teachers.

Among those questions: Do economies of scale obstruct relationship? How is your relationship to your Yoga teacher affected in a room with 60 to 300 people — versus six or nine? Is a personal relationship still possible in larger class settings?

Is a “personal relationship” what we, as Yoga students, are in fact after? Is it essential to the process and experience of Yoga?

In my experience, a daily Mysore-style practice inadvertently cultivates an impersonal intimacy. For example, my teacher Tim saw me struggle — and fail — day in and day out, for many years. Full-depth and intense hands-on adjustments and synchronized deep breathing often left me feeling exposed and vulnerable. 

I never felt I was met with less than respect and empathy (sometimes, with baddha konasana, sympathy). 

Yet in a month often we would exchange five or six words — at most.

So when Remski uses the word “relationship,” what kind of relationship is he talking about?

Should your Yoga teacher know your name? Should she know your birthday and the names of your kids?

What do we gain from our relationship to our Yoga teacher? My sense is that much of Remski's use of "Yoga teacher" is as "therapeutic friend."

I think this has a different flavor than what is presented as the typical guru-shishya relationship (itself rife with a history of abuse), in which the teacher has had an "understanding" of the deeper (derper!) aspects of Yoga, an understanding recognized as such by that teacher's peers or teacher, an understanding that can then be transmitted to others.

What understanding do we expect Ashtanga teachers to have? Should they be able to articulate their understanding of kaivalyam/dharma megha samadhi? How is their understanding then verified or knowable? How are they transmitting that understanding to us?

The Ashtanga sequences and principles (unlike Bikram Yoga, for example, and unlike Anusara) are not trademarked. (Yet?)

So Remski ends with a call to making Anusara open-source, which I’m not sure is entirely applicable to Ashtanga — though reflecting on this question is vital, because it raises an interesting question: exactly what makes Ashtanga special?

It’s not the separate pieces of breathing, breath-body movement, or gazing. It’s certainly not the wonderfully strung garlands of postures.

Beyond an adolescent magical-thinking perspective of the practice — that to practice the postures perfectly will unlock some new, different, and other experience —the sequences and principles leave us with an overall gestalt.

So while I think the (semi) decentralized aspect of Ashtanga has rendered it in some ways open source — anyone can utilize or take advantage of parts of the Ashtanga principles and sequences — for me, at this time in my life, this gestalt only arises when Ashtanga is practiced as a system, or as Ol’ Dirty Bastard said, “raw and uncut.”

The aspect of open source that doesn’t work for me — that of crowd-sourced modularity — seems to me the reason we now have power yoga and the other Ashtanga derivatives that are tailored to the aerobics room in gyms.

(Salient features: air conditioning on high, mirrors, windows into the weight room, blaring house music. During class a Bro in a skintight rash-guard is not interested in Primary Series. He arrives late, does not take off his running shoes or remove the ear-buds from his ears, and tells me, “Bro, I just finished a bench workout. I just want to stretch out.”)

When we practice the Ashtanga sequences and employ its techniques, we maintain the “authenticity” of the external “tradition.”

This allows us to pass along the experience of Yoga allowed to arise through the application of these sequences and principles.

Still, I think Remski points out an interesting fact — method does not exist beyond the way it's shared. Put specifically, the parampara of Ashtanga yoga exists to serve students and the transmission of Yoga — and not the other way around.

That is, the students do not serve the parampara, the results of which T.S. Eliot so beautifully evokes in “The Waste Land": “Lips that would kiss/form prayers to broken stone.”

Remski also points out that to reduce a system to a trademarked product would indeed force us into the “one-way relationship of producer and consumer,” which would “derail the therapeutic.” I would submit it also goes a long way to derailing the luminous. 

I highly recommend checking out his first two articles.