Stories & Movement

POEM: Memories in the Midnight Deeps

"Indefinite Divisibility" (1942) by Yves Tanguy

“Indefinite Divisibility” (1942) by Yves Tanguy

 

T.S. Eliot said,

Midnight shakes the memory

As a madman shakes a dead geranium

 

I know–exactly–what he means

Tragedy lurks in the midnight deeps

It hides, free from consciousness

It hides, outside memory

A catastrophic tick that has no echo

Fleeting images and emotional residue

are all amble home in the morning

 

 

DAILY PHOTO: Kolkata Cabs

Taken in July of 2016 in Kolkata

Taken in July of 2016 in Kolkata

IMG_0003

 

Kolkata (Calcutta) has some distinctive taxicabs. They’re yellow Ambassadors, a model made by Hindustan Motors, featuring a solitary blue racing stripe.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Assists by Sharon Gannon and David Life

Yoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana AssistsYoga Assists: A Complete Visual and Inspirational Guide to Yoga Asana Assists by Sharon Gannon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an illustrated guide to making yoga assists, or what are often called corrections or adjustments. The style is Jivamukti Yoga, and the book is written by its founders. The postures will be familiar to practitioners of any form of Hatha Yoga, but the action of the teacher (or assistee) may be quite unlike what one is used to.

This book offers some valuable information for any teacher of yoga, though many—probably most—will find the overall approach unsuitable. (If it is suitable, more power to you; you’ll want to read and re-read this book.) However, even if you’re not likely to use this style of teaching, there’s worthwhile technical information to be gained.

I’ll explain why this won’t be everybody’s cup of tea. First, many of the assists are highly invasive, by that I mean they involve being at an intimate distance with the student for an extended period of time. If you primarily teach experienced students who know and trust you, these invasive assists may be helpful. However, if you’re teaching beginners in studio sessions, one may need to be selective about what one uses and what one doesn’t. The ultimate goal is “chitta vritti nirodhah” (calming mental turbulence) and not to contort the student’s body into a perfect version of the posture. If, instead of facilitating the student’s look inward, you make them feel awkward and self-conscious, you’ve missed the mark. If everybody in question has achieved a monkish state of mind, this won’t be an issue, but history (and many a lawsuit) suggests that this is often not the case.

The second issue follows from the discussion above. By manipulating the student toward some objectively perfect version of the posture, you may encourage them to think that is important—that it’s important to you and that it should be important to them. This may have adverse ramifications such as driving away students who are far from the perfect expression of the pose or making it difficult for them to internalize santosha (contentment with where one is presently.) Being so hands-on may be at odds with one’s philosophy. Not only does it discourage contentment and gradually advancement toward better form, it also detracts from the notion that it’s about the student looking inward. (In other words, so much hands-on assistance thrusts the teacher onto the spotlight of what should as much as possible be the student’s private time and space.) Corrections are needed to avert injuries and to help the student improve, but this level of contact is more intense than required for those goals.

Still, I found this to be an informative and worthwhile read. It’s not every assist in the book that is invasive, and the ones that are still have their use with students with whom one has built trust and rapport, and particularly in workshop settings. The assists are optimized to be stable and safe, which is why they are often close and handsy—at least for those of us who were taught to start with verbal instruction, move to non-touching gestural instruction, and—only when necessary–put hands on the student (and then with care to be at an angle so as to not make the student uncomfortable.) Overall, the book does a fine job of presenting the necessary information.

The authors use both photographs and line drawn diagrams to convey the details of the assists. The organization is logical. After a section of general background, the book proceeds through poses using the standard groupings with which Hatha teachers will be acquainted (standing, forward bends, twists, back bends, inversions, and relaxation poses.) There is textual explanation in a form consistent from one asana (posture) to the next to support the graphics. The poses are the most common of the classic asana, and they cover a good number of the basics that one will teach in classes. They also provide some insight into how to apply the same principles to intermediate and advanced poses that aren’t included.

The book does have its faults. One of them is to wedge in irrelevant information. This can be seen from the get-go with an introductory “Go Vegan” rant. There’s also a bit of a tendency to muddle science with pseudo-science, but all that matters for the most part is basic anatomy–and that’s handled well enough. This isn’t so much criticism as forewarning, but you may find some of the commentary to be like those YouTube parodies of yoga classes—you know the ones that are hilariously far out. But just occasionally.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers or intermediate / advanced students who want to increase their understanding of alignment.

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DAILY PHOTO: In the Citadel of Huế

Taken in December of 2015 in Huế

Taken in December of 2015 in Huế

BOOK REVIEW: Kokoro Yoga by Mark Divine

Kokoro Yoga: Maximize Your Human Potential and Develop the Spirit of a Warrior--the SEALfit WayKokoro Yoga: Maximize Your Human Potential and Develop the Spirit of a Warrior–the SEALfit Way by Mark Divine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Like many yoga practitioners, I’m never sure whether to be dismayed, amused, or pleased by the explosion of new styles of yoga. It’s nothing new. Yoga has been branching out since its early days. But today’s flavors tend toward the frivolous, usually involve shoving yoga together with something else generally likable, and said two things are in some cases largely inconsistent. There’s marijuana yoga, dog yoga, karaoke yoga, and tantrum yoga. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a Häagen-Dazs Yoga. Hell, if I was a bit less lazy and more unscrupulous I’d have made a mint from my patented SELFIE YOGA (™ -pending), which involves modifying impressive looking poses so that an individual can take their own pics for FaceBook. (You’re welcome; to whomever the driven sleeze-bag is that turns that idea into a thing.)

I, therefore, tend to approach books like Mark Divine’s “Kokoro Yoga” with a measure of skepticism. That said, I found that this book offered a respectable vision of yoga that might even succeed in bringing a new demographic into the fold. Divine is a former Navy SEAL who developed a fitness empire called SEALFIT, a system that combines fitness ideas from the famous Special Operations unit with ideas from civilian sports and exercise science, such as high intensity interval training (HIIT.)

Incidentally, “kokoro” is the Japanese word for heart / mind (heart and mind were inexorably entwined for Japanese in the era in which the term came into being.) Divine mentions that “Warrior Yoga” would have been his first choice, but that was already taken. The author appeals to warriors with this approach to yoga. He does this in several ways. Firstly, and encouragingly, he doesn’t neglect the mind, but rather puts it front and center by emphasizing the need for mental strength and clarity. My biggest problem with the plethora of new yogas is that they usually forget that it’s ultimately about calming the mind, and instead of providing an environment conducive to looking inward, they embrace or create all sorts of distractions (loud pop music, mirrors everywhere, nudity, animals, ice cream, circus clowns, etc.) Divine doesn’t just make a new fitness fad, he argues for the need for all of the eight limbs of yoga—not neglecting yama and niyama—and emphasizes how yoga served as a calming and clarifying tool for him and not just as a means to be more bendy.

Second, he adds components to balance out the dimensions of fitness. If you are a yogi / yogini, and you want a yoga body; yoga is all you need. However, if you are a martial artist, cop, or soldier, you also need strength, speed (then, by definition, power), and cardiovascular endurance, as well as those aspects yoga offers (e.g. breath control, flexibility, core strength, posture, and mental clarity.) Again, I’m often dismayed by attempts to round out yoga with functional strength building and cardiovascular endurance. I understand the desire to combine them into one workout. Besides the fact that some people need a more balanced approach to fitness, not everybody has time to do multiple workouts multiple times a day. Still, one can’t just ram these components together willy-nilly because if one needs to be in a space to observe one’s breath while being still and one is coming out of having done 100 burpees, it’s probably not going to work so well. I haven’t yet done any of the sequences from the book, but it looks like this shouldn’t a problem, at least not for individuals who are moderately fit. I’m less confident about the value of mixing in elements of chi gong and “cardio kickboxing,” which is suggested by the system. It’s certainly not that I’m opposed to either chi gong or functional martial arts training, but there’s a lot of important detail in those activities and this format risks some horrible half-assery. (Yes, sometimes you get chocolate in peanut butter and get a Reese’s cup, but more often you get sausage in the pudding. Two things being great, by no means ensures they will be great together.)

Finally, Divine puts his approach in the language of soldiers, using concepts like “strategy” and “tactics” and eschewing Sanskrit terminology. The book begins with an anecdote about going into a combat zone as a Reserve officer, which describes his use of yoga to help him get his mind in the right place. He also talks extensively about his practice of martial arts.

There are eight chapters and three appendices to the book. They proceed from the aforementioned story through a look at the general approach, looking at the eight limbs of yoga, before getting into the details. The penultimate chapter sums up research on some of the benefits of yoga, and the last chapter offers advice about how to set up one’s sadhana (personal practice) with the Kokoro Yoga approach in mind. The appendices offer information about functional conditioning exercises, combat conditioning, and module building.

Overall, I think this is a useful book that provides some interesting thoughts on yoga. You may or may not find that it’s the approach for you, but it’s worth checking out. The photos are well-done—though some readers may wish there were more related to the functional conditioning exercises (but he’s got other books for that, it seems.)

I’d recommend this book for those interested in how a yoga practice might be integrated with other aspects of fitness without losing track of the core yogic objectives.

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DAILY PHOTO: Lusaka Mosques

Taken in May of 2016 in Lusaka

Taken in May of 2016 in Lusaka

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BOOK REVIEW: The Country With No Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali

The Country Without a Post OfficeThe Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a collection of 27 poems about life in conflict-riddled Kashmir. Kashmir is a territory in the Himalayas that’s governed by India, but claimed by both India and Pakistan—and, it should be noted, has a significant population of residents that want to be part of neither country. In other words, there are some who’d like to see an independent Kashmir. However, at the moment Kashmir is one portion of one of India’s 29 states, Jammu and Kashmir—a state which is, itself, tripartite (Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh.)

It’s a telling quote from Tacitus with which the author begins the collection. Solitudinum faciunt et pacem appellant. I won’t claim that I didn’t have to look this up, but it means: “They make a desert, and call it peace.” The first poem echoes variations on that quote.

There are a range of poetry styles within this collection, including: rhyming verse, free verse, poetic prose, and ghazal. A ghazal is a Middle Eastern style of lyric poem which has a pattern of rhyme and is metered to be set to music; there are several in this collection. Some of the poems are sparse and some are wordy, and variety is the order of the day.

The 27 poems of this collection are divided among five parts. The book is brief (under 100 pages), and it contains only a prologue and notes (some of which are interesting) with respect to ancillary matter.

This collection paints a portrait of war and life in a war-torn locale. It’s as much the latter as the former. The title poem, “The Country With No Post Office,” suggests the sapping nature of life where the institutions of governance and civil society have broken down.

I’d recommend this collection for those who enjoy poetry, but also for those interested in the conflict in Kashmir.

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BOOK REVIEW: Love Alone by Paul Monette

Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for RogLove Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog by Paul Monette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a collection of modern verse offering the poet’s experience of the death of his partner and the years leading up to it. Said partner, Roger Horwitz, succumbed to AIDS during the late 80’s. It’s a tale of scouring and worrying—scouring because any infection could be fatal and worrying for the same reason. It tells of melancholy holidays, exhausting doctor’s office visits, and then the mourning. If I make it sound like Monette just jotted off about the mundane aspects of life, it’s this approach that captures the grind of the disease. This approach both creates a narrative and shows how life looks in the shadow of a terminal disease.

As the subtitle suggests, there are 18 poems in this collection. They are divided into three parts, though most are in the first part.

I found the collection to be evocative and the language to be clever.

This is a brief review because it’s a brief work—as one might expect of a poetry collection. It’s less than 70 pages inclusive of front matter and a biography of the author.

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DAILY PHOTO: Life on the Rocks

Taken in January of 2014 in Phuket, Thailand

Taken in January of 2014 in Phuket, Thailand

IMG_1646

Even imaginary monsters get bigger if you feed them

Public domain image sourced from Wikipedia

Public domain image of Epictetus, sourced from Wikipedia

There’s a story about Epictetus infuriating a member of the Roman gentry by asking, “Are you free?”

 

(Background for those not into Greek and Roman philosophy. Epictetus was a Roman slave who gained his freedom to become one of the preeminent teachers of stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophy that tells us that it’s worthless to get tied up in emotional knots over what will, won’t, or has happened in life. For Stoics, there are two kinds of events. Those one can do something about and those that one can’t. If an event is of the former variety, one should put all of one’s energy into doing what one can to achieve a preferable (and virtuous) outcome. If an event is of the latter variety, it’s still a waste of energy to get caught up in emotional turbulence. Take what comes and accept the fact that you had no ability to make events happen otherwise.)

 

To the man insulted by Epictetus, his freedom was self-evident. He owned land. He could cast a vote. He gave orders to slaves and laborers, and not the other way around. What more could one offer as proof of one’s freedom? Of course, he missed Epictetus’s point. The question wasn’t whether the man was free from external oppressors, but whether he was free from his own fears? Was he locked into behavior because he didn’t have the courage to do otherwise?

 

I recently picked up a book on dream yoga by a Tibetan Lama, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche. Lucid dreaming has been one of my goals as of late. I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new about practices to facilitate lucid dreaming because I’ve been reading quite a bit about the science, recently. I just thought that it would be interesting to see how the Tibetan approach to lucid dreaming maps to that of modern-day psychology. Tibetan Buddhists are–after all–the acknowledged masters of dream yoga, and have a long history of it. Furthermore, I’ve been doing research about the science behind “old school” approaches to mind-body development, lately. At any rate, it turns out that there were several new preparatory practices that I picked up and have begun to experiment with, and one of them is relevant to this discussion.

 

This will sound a little new-agey at first, but when you think it out it makes sense. The exercise is to acknowledge the dream-like quality of one’s emotionally charged thoughts during waking life. Consider an example: You’re driving to an important meeting. You hit a couple long red lights. You begin to think about how, if you keep hitting only red lights, you’re going to be late and it’s going to look bad to your boss or client. As you think about this you begin to get anxious.  But there is no more reality in the source of your fear than there is when you see a monster in your dreams. There’s a potentiality, not a reality. Both the inevitability of being late and the monster are projections of your mind, and yet tangible physiological responses are triggered (i.e. heart rate up, digestion interfered with, etc.) It should be noted the anxiety isn’t without purpose. It’s designed to kick you into planning mode, to plan for the worst-case scenario. Cumulatively, one can get caught up in a web of stress that has a negative impact on one’s health and quality of life.  For most people, when they arrive on time, they forget all about their anxiety and their bodily systems will return to the status quo, until the next time (which might be almost immediately.) Some few will obsess about the “close call” and how they should have planned better, going full-tilt into a stress spiral.

 

Mind states have consequences, whether or not they’re based in reality. I’ve always been befuddled by something I read about Ernest Hemingway. He’d won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was universally regarded as one of the masters of American literature, but he committed suicide because he feared he’d never be able to produce works on the level that he’d written as a younger man. There seems to be more to it than that. Many others managed to comfortably rest on their laurels when writing became hard[er]–including writers with much less distinguished careers.  The monster may be imaginary, but if you feed it, it still gets bigger.

 

As you go about your day, try to notice your day-dreams, mental wanderings, and the emotional states they suggest. You might be surprised to find how many of them have little basis in reality. They are waking dreams.

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