Stories & Movement

DAILY PHOTO: Coorg Land Snail, i.e. Indrella Ampulla

Taken on May 27, 2017 near Madikeri in Coorg

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: Overlooking Lungwa, Indo-Burmese Border Village

Taken in April of 2017 at Lungwa in Nagaland

DAILY PHOTO: Praying Mantis on the Gunwale

Taken on the Kameng River crossing to Nameri National Park in Assam

 

Full Disclosure: I know little to nothing about insects. Therefore, it’s possible this bug isn’t in the Praying Mantis family at all. It just had a triangular head with bugged-out eyes and the folded up stabby arms, and I saw some in pics on the internet in which mantises had wings similar to this one.

 

If you know your insects and I’m wrong, please feel free to comment and I will own my mistake and fix it.

DAILY PHOTO: Kids Slung in the Khasi Style

Taken in April of 2017 in Shillong

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnanananda

Jnana Sankalini TantraJnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnananda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Tantra is in a class with quantum physics as a topic that everybody likes to talk about but no one seems to understand. But the situation is worse because everybody can have an opinion about what Tantra is and who’s to say one is correct and another is not. Therefore, there are many conceptions of Tantra floating around out there. Unfortunately, I can’t say that this book will clear up the topic, though it does offer a great deal of information in a readable package.

In the West, Tantra is mostly about having longer and more satisfying orgasms during sex. In India, that is seen a great oversimplification, but there’s an entirely different muddling of the topic. If there were pro-Tantra and anti-Tantra parties, the topic could remain clear despite differing views on the validity of the approach. Everybody might agree about what Tantra is, but veer apart as they say why they like it or loath it. However, there’s another faction, and that’s the mainstream religious personalities who want to selectively utilize bits and pieces of Tantra that they find useful, while suggesting other parts of it are all just a misunderstanding. And, again unfortunately, that is where this book stands.

As my criticism may not make sense otherwise, I’ll try to explain something I was taught about Tantra. As it was described to me, Tantra (the yogic version, Buddhist Tantra may vary entirely) was—at least, in part–a practice of engaging in endeavors that might be considered distractions on the path to overcome them. Whereas, mainstream religion says, “x is bad, never do x,” Tantra says “x can be a distraction, and so I should engage in x in a mindful way so that it no longer controls me.” This is where the focus on sex comes in. It’s not that Tantrics were perverts; they just believed they could achieve some manner of transcendence through its practice.

My primary complaint is that this book selectively takes what it likes and strains credulity by suggesting the material it dislikes is all a misunderstanding of a selective code. So there is this idea of the five principles (panchatattvas or panchamakara) and they are five practices of Tantrics consisting of consumption of: alcohol, meat, fish, roasted/fried foods, as well as sexual activity. Now, most of these are objectionable to the modern Hindu, but the author says that these were all just code for a practice of breathing with one’s tongue pressed to a certain spot on the roof of one’s mouth. Why was kechari mudra so super-secret that one had to call it sex or fish-eating? (And why would one use a code consisting of activities one finds severely objectionable?) I don’t know, the reader is just left to believe that it makes sense.

Now, should I conclude that the entire work is in code? For example, when it says that finding a good teacher and following them is important, might they really be saying that I should “Find a river otter to take to Disneyland?” No. Because only the parts that the author and his sect finds contrary are encoded, everything else is to be taken literally.

Now, the offending section is only a small part of the book, and the topic of yogic Tantra. However, the degree to which it strains credulity makes it difficult to believe anything else the books says.

The book is in two parts. The first part is an introduction to jnana sankalini tantra (JST), and the second part is the 110 verses of the JST—said to be a dialogue between Shiva and Parvathi on Tantra—with analyses by the author.

I believe that this book contains a lot of interesting ideas, but, being a neophyte to the subject but with a degree of expertise in detecting faulty logic and religious dogma, I didn’t feel I could trust the book entirely.

If you are a mainstream Hindu who wants a palatable description of Tantra that doesn’t offend your sensibilities, this is probably a great book for you. If not, I don’t think you’ll have any better idea of Tantra is than when you started.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Imphal War Cemetery

Taken on May 5, 2017 in Imphal

 

Japan reached the end of line in its advance to the west in Northeastern India. Both Kohima in Nagaland and Imphal in Manipur have substantial war cemeteries. This is the one in Imphal. The graves are largely English names with crosses or Indian names with Hindi writing, but there are a few others of note. There are several unknown soldier graves, and a fair number of Muslim graves.  There are also laborers who got only one name put on their grave, and–in the case below–the grave of a Chinese soldier.

 

It was a confusing time because many Indians were serving with the British to fight the Japanese, but other Indians were fighting Britain and trying to ally with Japan.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: Anatomy of Hatha Yoga by H. David Coulter

Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and PractitionersAnatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners by H. David Coulter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are many books on anatomy for yoga, and I’ve read my share, but this is my favorite.

What did I like about it? First, Coulter examines the anatomy and physiology of breathing in some detail, and that’s an important topic that is overlooked by many others. A lot of yoga anatomy books stick exclusively to the musculo-skeletal system. Second, this book doesn’t mix science and pseudo-scientific mythology. Sometimes books shift from talking about arteries and veins to nadis and chakras in a manner that can be confusing and counterproductive. Third, the book discusses how postures can be safely varied for individuals with limits, as well as discussing the most advanced expression of postures for more flexible or skilled students.

What’s the catch? There must be a downside? Well the book is dense and it’s a challenging read. It’s not that the writer uses too many technical terms. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, Coulter is careful not only about using anatomical terms, but also avoids reliance on Sanskrit names as well. It’s just that there is a lot of material that one must read painstakingly while visualizing and–in some cases—tactically probing around one’s body (or someone else’s–if they’ll let you.) I don’t know that there’s much that could be done about this, given the desire to convey the material that the book does—and it’s valuable information. The book has a large number of graphics that mostly consist of anatomical drawings and photographs of the various versions of the postures. It’s possible that more graphics could have been used to reduce the amount of descriptive text, but—on the other hand—reading it slowly and carefully is a useful and productive exercise. And, if you’re not reading it for your RYT-500, you can take your time and read it section by section, as time permits, over the course of more than a year as I did.

The ten chapters of the book are mostly divided up by classes of posture (asana.) Chapter 1 is about “movement and posture” and provides the necessary background that one will need to understand the later chapters. Chapter 2 is on breathing–both the musculature involved and the physiology of it. The rest of the chapters are on core exercises, standing postures, back bends, forward bends, twists, headstands, shoulder-stands, and meditative postures, respectively.

The book has a glossary, a short bibliography, and two indexes (one by anatomical parts and the other by practices/postures.) I normally don’t bother to mention indexes, but in this case it’s useful to know because the book’s organization is by type of posture, and so it’s not always straight forward where various muscles or tissues are being covered.

As I say, I found this book to be tremendously informative. I recommend it for yoga teachers as well as intermediate / advanced practitioners.

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BOOK REVIEW: How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain by Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of TransformationHow Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book busted me over the head with some profound food for thought. I’d been skeptical of the notion of Enlightenment. [Note: the authors distinguish big-E Enlightenment as a permanent and substantial brain change, in contrast to the little-e enlightenment which is just a momentary epiphanies or insight—a number of which may precede the big-E Enlightenment.] It’s not that I disbelieved that some people had life-changing and / or perspective-changing experiences, but rather that such events represented permanent change. My skepticism was influenced by the many gurus who have been said to be Enlightened, but who behaved to all appearances like petty, materialistic douche-bags. It’s not that I couldn’t believe that these teachers achieved some momentary heightened state of consciousness during their youth, but—if they had—they clearly couldn’t maintain it under the pressure of being idolized. I’d, therefore, come to think that life is a perpetual struggle to try to be a better version of oneself, and backsliding can and will happen at any moment. This book, however, suggests there is a possibility for permanent brain changes. [Though Dalberg’s “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” seems to still apply.]

Andrew Newberg is a neuroscientist who has made a career out of conducting brain imaging studies of people engaged in various spiritual, religious, and meditative activities. His co-author is a psychologist, Mark Robert Waldman, who works on applying neuroscientific understanding to positive psychology. In this book, the two examine what Enlightenment is from a neuroscientific standpoint and then try to cull the common features across a population of cases of Enlightenment / enlightenment. Discovering the common elements of Enlightenment is no easy task. While it seems everybody is theoretically capable of achieving Enlightenment, it also seems that the experience is different for everybody and the collection of systems (religious, spiritual, and secular) by which it’s pursued is vast. However, the authors present a five-step outline by which readers can prime themselves to achieve Enlightenment, and it can be personalized depending upon one’s beliefs (or lack thereof—Enlightenment occurs among agnostics and atheists as well as religious practitioners) and background.

The book consists of 12 chapters divided among three parts. Part I (Ch. 1 to 5) lays the groundwork for readers to understand what Enlightenment is, how it feels, how it’s experienced between people with radically varying belief (and disbelief) structures, and it presents a model of human awareness that is crucial to the later discussion. Part II (Ch. 6 to 9) considers what happens in the brain during various practices by which individuals advance towards Enlightenment. Concepts like unity, surrender, and belief are explored in detail. Part III (Ch. 10 to 12) describes the process by which readers can pursue Enlightenment for themselves. If one is inclined to chart one’s own path, versus adopting an existing program, one has all the insight and tools to begin constructing one’s personal method by the time this section is complete.

The book has graphics as necessary (e.g. brain diagrams) that largely consist of line diagrams. There is an appendix that consolidates tools and resources, and the book is annotated by chapter.

I found this book to be both interesting and potentially beneficial to readers who take it beyond a popular science book and into the realm of self-help. The authors do a great job of navigating the waters between religion and science. Obviously, they are scientists and are agnostic about that which cannot be proven, but they don’t question other people’s beliefs and–if anything–error on the side of being open-minded. Still, I suspect that there will be religious types offended by the very notion that all humans are biologically primed to achieve this heightened state. It should be pointed out that the book could be supremely useful for such individuals because it points out the need to engage in exercises to challenge one’s most closely held beliefs. (Those with less mental flexibility and capacity for tolerance seem to be less likely to achieve Enlightenment.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone trying to figure out how to be the ultimate version of oneself.

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DAILY PHOTO: Village Churches of Nagaland

Taken in April of 2017 in Nagaland

 

Nagaland feels like a country unto itself. Not like Myanmar (which it’s not.)  But, also not like India (which it is, technically and legally.)  Neighboring  Assam and Manipur feel like India with a Tribal twist, but not Nagaland. It feels Tribal to its core.

 

Among the factors that contributes to this is that almost 90 % (88.1%) of it’s population is Christian. For some reason, the missionaries found this piece of the planet fertile ground. Buddhism has no presence in Nagaland at all, which is one of the things that makes it seem quite different from the SE Asian countries, which it bears a resemblance to in a number of ways (e.g. racially, architecturally, etc.)

 

But religion is just part of it. If you were to go by attire or what music is playing in the cafe (K-pop, US pop, and local music inspired by the aforementioned) one would be more likely to guess one was in Southeast Asia. And if you were to go by cuisine, you’d have no idea where you were. It’s not remotely like Indian cuisine except that the favored snacks are those of Ladakh and Sikkim [i.e. Tibet-esque; momos and noodle soup.] Still, it’s not like SE Asian cuisine excepting that steamed rice is a part of every meal and the pungent smell of fermented yam leaves (anishi) is a smell similar an odor I’ve encountered in Thailand. (But I see no reference yam leaves in Thai cuisine, so I suspect in Thailand its something else that’s fermented to create said smell.)

 

Baptist church of Khonoma

 

Catholic church of Khonoma

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: Seven Sisters Bridge Over the Brahmaputra

Taken in April of 2017 near Tezpur in Assam

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