Friday, December 28, 2012


Left: Iyengar and the antique. Right: Yuval and the modern.
First, about the photo above. I emailed my friend Yuval Ayalon for permission to use the montage /assemblage he created. Yuval was a National-level competitive gymnast, and now performs as a generalist in the Le Reve Circus at Las Vegas' Wynn Casino.

Yuval responded, "Oh, you mean the duet photo?" 

It was a delightful response, and typical of Yuval. To him, to place the photos side by side both displays and honors different approaches to handstand practice.

Handstands do not make your shoulders stiff.

In fact, an active "modern" handstand both requires and builds active shoulder flexibility. The anterior and lateral delts as well as the trapezius (as well as pec minors and musculature around lat-tri insertion) must be flexible enough to achieve 180 degrees of flexion with no spinal extension.

I first heard the arch-y/banana handstand called "antique" by  equilibre master Lu Yi of the San Francisco Circus School. A student inquired about a curve-y, Yoga-style handstand.

"Yes yes, very pretty!" he said. "Like antique!"

What do I mean when I say "flexible"?

The concept of "flexibility" never exists separately from context, which is what I understand Pattabhi Jois to have meant when he used to say, "Body not stiff --- mind stiff!"

The sense of "flexible," as well as the "I" that owns the idea of "stiff," are only always relational and contextual.

The context for "flexible" in this case is movement --- so by "flexible enough," I mean "able to perform the requested range of motion."

What is the specific myth regarding handstands and stiff shoulders?

I believe that generally people refer specifically to difficulty with backbending.

So the criticism of handstands is not that they make your shoulders stiff (this lacks context), but rather they make your shoulders too stiff for backbends of a certain quality.

Andrey Moraru.
Based on my observations, typically gentlemen who have the upper body strength to more easily hold an "antique" handstand (see Iyengar in the photo) have developed that upper body strength and mass doing push-ups, handstand push-ups, dips, pull-ups, rope climbs, bench press, etc, etc.

So it's not so much that handstands make your shoulders stiff for backbends.

In fact, I suspect practicing a "modern" handstand will help your urdvha dhanurasana by improving active shoulder flexion while subtracting lumbar hyperextension.

I think it's more the case that men who could do handstands easily had stiff shoulders. What they lacked in shoulder flexibility they made up for with upper-body strength.

Association or even correlation are not causation.

Also, here are some movements that make shoulders "stiff," that is, will shorten range of motion of shoulder flexion by shortening the pec minors and the musculature around the lat-tri insertion: high-volume push-ups, pull-ups, rope climbs, muscle-ups ... bent-arm jump-backs and bent-arm jump-throughs ... static holds in chaturanga dandasana.

(Mostly repetitive, load-bearing, and shortened range-of-motion pulling and pressing exercises.)

Pavel is strong enough to do a straddle maltese...
These last movements --- bent-arm jump-backs and jump-throughs, and sustained chaturangas --- are a huge part of Primary Series, and of guided Primary Series classes.

What I'm suggesting is that perhaps Primary Series itself contributes to reduces shoulder flexion and therefore can reduce or limit facility in urdvha dhanurasana.

Primary Series is not designed for more than gentle back-bending (all the upward-facing dogs). For changes in backbending, as expressed by urdvha dhanurasana or kapotasana, Primary Series is much less than ideal preparation. It's better than nothing, yet let's not confuse a C-minus grade (barely passing) with an A. The Primary Series is not designed to meaningfully improve the spine and the typical limiting points, shoulders and hip flexors.

You have to ask, is Primary Series better at improving expression in those poses than, say, playing Nintendo Wii Golf, or Dance Dance Revolution, or taking a Pilates class?

... yet clearly shoulder (spinal) flexibility is not an issue.
To work within a tradition, however, means as Ashtangis we choose to follow and observe rules and limitations. We choose to focus on one thing, steadily, for a long time. By choosing a specific drishti, we choose to focus on certain practices at the expense of others.

We draw a fence around practices, techniques, and methodologies. Everything inside is Ashtanga; the practices beyond this fence are Not Ashtanga.

It's these boundaries that enrich and give meaning to our practice, because we agree to focus on this sequence, not that one, this posture, not that one.

Other practices, techniques, jargon, and sequences are not bad, or less --- they are just Not Ashtanga.

When I zoom in and focus on the borders between Ashtanga and Not Ashtanga, the fence tends to get a lot more fluid. But then clearly I am not a fundamentalist.

Personally, I practice the hell out of handstands. It is deeply rewarding for me.

However, at this time I practice them at a separate time and place from when I practice Ashtanga.

My back-bending has definitely gotten a lot less fluid and grace-filled (such as it ever was) over the last 6 months not from handstands per se but because I am practicing a lot more pressing and pulling. I'm also not practicing that many backbends because, well, for a long time my foot hurt like a motherbitch.

For now, I have cherry-picked some examples of tremendous handstand skill and strength coupled with ridiculous shoulder and spinal flexibility, just to show they are not mutually exclusive.

(Note: cherry-picked.)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


What is the duck test?

To paraphrase Dr. Douglas Brooks, until more recent times, Ashtanga Yoga has passed the duck test of being religious --- "scriptures, concepts like revelation and ultimacy, moral imperatives," an [expert] who looks like clergy or a shamanist or an expert of a kind, "mysticism, pilgrimage [to Mysore], duck, bill, feathers, waddles, it’s a duck."

I'm not saying Ashtanga Yoga is only or merely religious, but on first glance to, say, ardent Christians --- I can see why they're aggrieved it's being taught in public schools. 

I believe they're right in their claims, too, despite my feeling that students would benefit greatly from the practice.

I would feel as uncomfortable with non-denominational prayer, too.

Friday, December 21, 2012


I weary of Yoga boutique music (or boutique Yoga) sometimes: Jai Uttal, Krishna Das, Deva Premal, Shantala; or on the electronic tip there's Cheb i Sabbah and Tabla Beat Science.

Earnest and heartfelt, to be sure, but I dunno. Sometimes that sweet spot is only hit by music so heavy my skull melts out my fucking ears.

Michael Stone, in one of the Centre of Gravity podcasts, mentioned that the experience of Yoga is universal, yet is only ever communicated through language, culture, society.

(I can't remember which one! I guess you'll have to listen to them all. I can recommend starting with the talks on Book 3 of the Yoga Sutras ... "The Superpowers.")

This subculture expresses Yoga through the kirtan of hypnotic cosmic doom metal.

At age 16 the band Sleep melted off my face; Om contains two guys from that band. Also of note: Shrinebuilder.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Turns out some parents are complaining about Yoga classes held in a public school.

The New York Times wrote about it recently.

Ashtanga Yoga passes the duck test for religion with flying colors (if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, etc, etc).

A practice designed to allow us to "see God everywhere" would seem to violate our ideals of separation of church and state.

Even if the woman quoted in the Times piece comes across as ridiculous!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Further thoughts on Taleb's Antifragility: Things That Gain From Disorder:

Via Negativa: the removal of exposure to things that cause harm is more beneficial than adding preventative measures, safeguards, or additional supplementation.

In fact, often excessive preventative measures cause more harm, e.g. iatrogenics, when excessive medical intervention causes more harm than the original illness (i.e. going to hospital for illness and catching an infection in hospital; or over-prescription of medicines.)

This idea of Via Negativa runs through several of Patanjali's Yamas.

I find the Yamas that don't explicitly incorporate Via Negativa greatly benefit from this perspective.

Patanjali suggests to Do No Harm (Ahimsa), not Help Others.

Satya: Truthfulness; a Via Negativa approach would be Absence of Falsehood.

Asteya: Non-stealing, as opposed to a directive toward Giving.

Brahmacharya: Absence of sex, or abstinence, or celibacy.

Aparigraha: Absence of grasping, as opposed to Letting Go.

(Regarding Brahmacharya: You have to do some linguistic contortionism to arrive at any translation other than celibacy. Celibacy does not appear to be a good idea for most people (not all), and appears to reflect the Jain influence on Patanjali ((as all the Yamas are taken wholeheartedly from earlier Jain texts)).

However Brahmacharya is an important Yama as it brings front and center the complications inherent in most (not all) sexual relations.)

The takeaway for me is that many of the Yamas emphasize that it's more important to not do wrong than it is to do right.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Friday, December 14, 2012


I'm working my way through Nassim Nicholas Taleb's latest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

I am of course considering the application of antifragile to various yoga systems and methodologies; for example, Anusara yoga was itself decidedly fragile: one rather unpredictable shock and the whole system crumbled.

Ashtanga Yoga would seem to be robust rather than antifragile. I suspect it would weather any unexpected shocks, scandals, or outrages (i.e. revelations of the usual groping guru and/or economic swindling), though I don't know that the system itself would necessarily benefit or return stronger from such shocks.

One detail of Taleb's concept seems applicable to Yoga, however: all these singular catastrophes that drive individual schools or brands of yoga into the periphery and out of relevance (Maharishi Mahesh, Satchidananda, Swami Rama, Muktananda, Kripalu, Anusara, Osho, Desikachar, the Hare Krishnas) would appear to greatly benefit the practice of Yoga as a whole.

People seem to be more aware, more sophisticated, more leery of the many pitfalls. The conversation and thinking around the guru-student relationship has changed and, one would hopes, evolved.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


I took an online course on Yoga last year given by Dr. Douglas Brooks; while in Tokyo I am re-listening to these lectures, and rereading some of the notes that accompanied them.

There is, I think, an obvious parallel between the goddess traditions and Tantric yoga practices of India's deep south and the householder-yogi "living in plain sight" as personified by Pattabhi Jois — Jois was a yogi who, rather than renounce, retreat, or withdraw from the world, fulfilled his dharma in it.

(He would be horrified to have his name associated with anything Tantric-related.)

Topic: Evolution of the Goddess tradition as it moves into the deep South; teachings of mantra

Kali expands into Sri Kula—goddesses who are Saumya ["beautiful"]

As Shiva and Kali move into the deep South, their appearances change:

Kali moves beyond the protective, horrific, and fierce

She takes on roles as princess, lover, wife, partner, consort, queen (Rajarajeshvari—queen of kings)

Kaliʼs ferocity is transformed into Bala
Bala—young child
Sumangali—wife, lover, mother
Lalita—the lovely one
Tripurasundari—presides over all triads

In the South, Kaliʼs blood is re-assimilated as the potency of power:
1. In the Kumari goddesses—in the fulfillment of the recursive energies creativity and fertility
2. In the Sumangali goddesses—potency of the self in most self-fulfilling form
3. In the Jyestha (the post-menstrual, wise woman)—subsumes everypossibility, takes on the matriarchal role

Rather than posit the tantric path as outside the boundaries of a Dharmic society, the saumya goddesses invite us to the possibility to see the transcendent within the life of the everyday life of the householder.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


It's okay to want to do the next posture.

It's more than okay: it's to be expected. It's a byproduct of the practice of Mysore-style Ashtanga.

I mean, we're all in a room with umpteen people, some of whom are floating around and doing fantastic stuff.

If as the Gita suggests the yogini is one who makes the difficult look effortless (skill in action), who wouldn't want to be the floaty, jumpy, bendy yogini, who demonstrates (seeming) mastery of the postures, which we have all gathered daily to practice, often early in the morning, and at the expense of the easy path?

(That is, sleeping in.)

There is also an interesting power dynamic in a Mysore room. An authority figure, who literally physically stands above and over you, rewards your efforts by permitting you to practice another pose; this recognition occurs in front of a group of people, too.

There's probably a rich side vein of thought to explore here — for example, the last time I had to look up at someone physically for approval, recognition or physical assistance was when I was a small child looking up to my parents.

What other atavistic or elemental feelings can and does this dynamic call up?

It's also quite logical to come to the conclusion that, because the different series are linear and progressive, that the earlier poses will "unlock" the more difficult ones.

What follows might be a sense of wonder and curiosity. "If first series makes me feel like this, I wonder what second series will feel like? If pasasana feels like this, I wonder what krouncasana will feel like? I bet I could do dwi pada sirsasana — it doesn't look that hard. I wonder what it will feel like?"

This is natural, and to be expected.

Curiosity and wonder are not a problem to be solved, or a wound to be healed, or a condition to be overcome.

One perspective to adopt is that curiosity is a sthayibhava, an 'abiding emotion,' and an expression of the corresponding rasas ("flavors" or "tastes") adbhuta (wonder) and vira (the heroic).

As such, to want to do the next pose, to be curious, is a gift.

This curiosity will teach you about yourself. It may draw you to practice with more consistency. It may (god willing) help you start a conversation with your teacher. It may help you articulate why you are, in fact, practicing yoga in the first place.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning.  Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.  It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.  Never lose holy curiosity." -- Albert Einstein.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Fellow Ashtanga practitioner Angela turned me on Shinzen Young via Facebook. I have really come to enjoy his YouTube videos because he appears to speak plainly, simply, and enthusiastically, without the accumulated crust of the expert.

In the video below, he talks specifically about what he learned in sanzen with his teacher, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

Sanzen, which people in the Rinzai sect call dokusan, is (roughly) a formal, private meeting between a Zen student and the teacher, often during a retreat or period of extended meditation.

I wonder what Ashtanga would be like with this type of formal, structured meeting. I imagine it would clear up a lot of projection, reverse-projection, and transference that can take place in the silence of the Mysore room.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Have you all been listening to Michael Stone's excellent podcast from his Centre of Gravity?

You ought to subscribe to it.

I'm sorry, but I can't find the talk from which I'm quoting to directly link — you'll have to listen to them all — but there was one, however, in which he stressed the importance of knowing what you want.

This is a practice that has become for me over the years a process. I would encourage it. What do you want? Why do you practice?

One of my favorite responses is from Shauna in Portland: "I practice because it makes me more patient."

For my part, my wife is my (unfortunate for her) sounding board: she gets to listen to what I want and why I practice.

The asking and answering of a question also implies a conversation between teacher and student. This is vital and important. One should have a teacher who knows you well enough to ask, "What do you want?"

Thursday, December 6, 2012


A few days ago I posted a quote from Thomas Kurz' blog regarding how to address an injury.

You can click through to read the article, called Groin Pain, or On Athletes, Pain, and Discipline.

(His book Stretching Scientifically, is one of the best on flexibility I've ever read.)

I've paraphrased and applied some of his words to specifically to an Ashtanga practice.

Non-[yogis] need discipline to keep working out; [yogis] need discipline to stop.

"Groin pain happens. It happened to one [yogi] ... who then asked me for advice on dealing with it.

[Yogis], and especially [Ashtanga yogis], have high pain thresholds and high internal motivation. Those two traits combined make [yogis] vulnerable to self-inflicted chronic injuries—near certain if the [yogis] and those directing their [practice] proceed oblivious to the signs of trauma.

Anyway, here is the [yogi's] question on dealing with his groin pain and then my advice, which applies to any pain:

Since a few months I am afflicted with pubalgia, a pain inside my groin tendons, a sort of inflammation of the inner right adductor and the inner low corner of my right abdominal muscles. I think it is beginning to heal during these last days. In those months when I felt the pain, I did fewer and fewer side splits, while continuing to do front splits and some easy early morning stretching. But I want to resume my usual [practice] with no pain anymore.

I would like you to advise me what to avoid and what to do to solve my problem. Probably I could find the answer reading articles on your website but I need prompt advice from the source. I didn’t go to a physician because generally they say to cease any exercise, do an X-ray, then therapy, but I cannot stop [practice].


It was an error to continue doing any splits and dynamic stretches (early morning stretching) when feeling pain in your groin. You could have gotten a hernia and adductor strain. Doing splits and dynamic stretches kept irritating the inflamed tissues of your lower abdomen and inner thigh and made them weaker. You can hope it has not made them weaker permanently, but only postponed your healing. Here is my advice:

1. Do not do any [asana] that gives you any feeling in the injured side that is different from the uninjured side. 

When you have been injured, any [asana] that is not approved by a physician treating your injury, any [asana] that causes you even the lightest pain or an abnormal feeling, sets you back by weeks or months from the full recovery. It may even keep you from ever recovering. 

If you would like to never regain your full ability, all you have to do is to keep [practicing] through discomfort. Stopping [practice] and following a proper injury treatment and rehabilitation program takes discipline.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


There is no silver bullet for Ashtanga yoga.

If your back hurts, there's a good chance you pulled, sprained or strained something — muscle or god forbid ligaments or tendons.

This means there's no magic solution that will un-injure your back. No amount of Tiger Balm, deep tissue massage, Rolfing, or chiropractic adjustments will "fix" you.

They may at best mitigate some of the symptoms of your injury.

Also, no amount of Tiger Balm, deep tissue work, Rolfing, or chiropractic adjustments will significantly improve your active flexibility — that is, your ability to hold a posture for a sustained, even, and steady length of time.

In other words, there's no silver bullet that will overcome a lifetime of continually reinforced movement patterns, or a traumatic injury, or your current range of motion.

I have experienced muscular fatigue and soreness in my back — "sweet pain" — but unfortunately not from practicing Ashtanga yoga. 

I have also experienced bitter pain, which made tooth-brushing and tying my shoes quite difficult.

My suggestion and my own practice is best summed up by a paraphrase of Thomas Kurz, who has written some of the best books on the science of flexibility and training.

"Do not do any [asana] that gives you any feeling in the injured side that is different from the uninjured side...

When you have been injured ... any [asana] that causes you even the lightest pain or an abnormal feeling, sets you back by weeks or months from the full recovery. It may even keep you from ever recovering. If you would like to never regain your full ability, all you have to do is to keep [practicing] through discomfort. Stopping practice and following a proper injury treatment and rehabilitation program takes discipline."

I will post the entirety of his comments at a future date. But this is an interesting proposition to the Ashtangi — what if your back hurt, and so you felt mild pain during upward dog? How would you then practice Ashtanga yoga in a Mysore room? How do you practice Ashtanga yoga in a Mysore room if you have torqued your shoulder, and are unable to do chaturanga?

One hopes we all have the teachers with the experience to design an appropriate Ashtanga practice.