BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

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POEM: Yoga for Giraffes

Surely, I have misunderstood,
“Put my head where, you say?”
“But I have bones, don’t you know?”
“I wish I could obey.”

“Now, you say, my feet are too wide?”
“Really, what the heck!”
“You said put my head ‘tween my feet,
have you seen my frickin’ neck?”

“I wasn’t built to stand on my head!”
“What do you mean, ‘We’ll see?'”
“I’m not sure that you’re acquainted
with a thing called gravity.”

BOOK REVIEW: Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen

Breath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our FutureBreath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our Future by Michael J. Stephen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: January 19, 2021

 

This book explores the crucial role of breathing in human existence, discussing evidence of how breathing practices can contribute to healing of numerous illnesses, investigating the range of threats — from pollution to smoking to toxic dust — that can threaten our ability to breath, and examining a number of diseases that can disturb a person’s breathing. This book is primarily a popular science look at pulmonary medicine. Unlike other breath-related books that I’ve reviewed, this book is mostly about what can go wrong with our lungs and what medical science is doing to combat these threats. The story of how breathwork and changing breathing patterns can improve health and well-being is addressed, but that’s not the book’s central focus. The book uses plenty of stories (e.g. case studies) and what I call “fun facts” to keep the reading from becoming too dry or clinical for a neophyte reader.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. The first two chapters provide basic background information to help understand how the Earth happens to have the oxygen-laden air necessary for our type of life (Ch. 1) and how the lungs exploit that air in fueling our bodily activities (Ch. 2.) Chapter thee explores how breathing begins in newborn babies, explaining that the lungs are the only major organ that doesn’t start working until we are out in the world, and lung inflation doesn’t always go smoothly. The fourth chapter discusses how breathwork (including — but not limited to — yogic pranayama) has been shown to improve health for those experiencing a range of conditions, including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and pain, as well as how breath and meditational practices contribute to better health, generally.

Chapter five investigates the intersection of the respiratory and immune systems, explaining how autoimmune conditions, allergies, and asthma come to be. In chapter six, the author discusses one of the most common and widespread diseases in the world, tuberculosis (TB,) a disease which not only threatens the lives of many, but also sits dormant in a huge portion of the population.

Chapters seven through nine each deal with hazardous materials that are inhaled into the lungs. The first of these chapters is about smoking, and it focuses on the question of how nicotine acts in the body to create intense addictions – as well as what has and hasn’t worked to help people break said addiction. Chapter eight is about pollution. (As resident of a city of twelve million people, I found this to be a particularly disturbing chapter because air pollution is a hazard that is too easy to be blind to if one doesn’t suffer from respiratory problems.) Chapter nine investigates a range of breathable hazards including smoke, dust, and asbestos, and it does so through the lens of the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the dual collapse of the twin towers on 9-11, an event which released all sorts of toxic material into the air, hazards for which most responders were ill-equipped.

Chapter ten through twelve are about ailments that may or may not be linked to environmental causes like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above. The first of these is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which, by definition, is a condition that arises from an unknown cause, an ailment which involves a stiffening and thickening of lung tissue (which must be thin and supple to allow gas exchange and the expansion and contraction of the breath cycle.) Chapter eleven focuses on lung cancer, which is often due to an inhaled hazard (most notably, smoking,) but not necessarily. While the other chapters of the book focus on breathing as a process by which we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, chapter twelve turns to a different role played by breath, one that is crucial to the activities of our species, breath as a means to control the voice.

Chapter 13 describes the process and challenges of lung transplant. As mentioned in the discussion of pulmonary fibrosis, lung tissue is rather delicate material, and so it was no easy task to transplant it. Furthermore, because the lungs are a point at which the external world (air) contacts the body’s internal systems the challenges are even greater than for those organs that are hermetically sealed within bodily tissues.

The last two chapters focus on cystic fibrosis (CF.) Chapter fourteen explores the nature of the disease and the slow, but promising, path towards treating it. CF is a genetic condition in which the lack of a single amino acid wreaks havoc on the ability of cells to process minerals. The last chapter tells the story of two cases of CF. The first story – involving a ten-year-old whose family had to struggle against a policy that essentially locked their child out of the lung transplant list – is particularly engrossing.

As someone who practices breathwork, I found this book to be interesting and insightful. While it is heavily focused on pulmonary medicine, it does offer insights that will be beneficial to those who are not afflicted by respiratory ailments. If one wants to know more about medicine as it pertains to respiration, this is definitely an interesting and readable choice. However, even if one is infatuated with breath more generally, I believe you’ll find in this volume a great deal of beneficial food-for-thought.

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POEM: Spine

Flex forward and a row of rounded, fleshy knobs form in that muscled valley — straight and evenly-spaced.

Chest up & shoulders back and the knobs shrink, enshrouded; while those low, rolling knolls become bounded by scapular cliffs.

Dance about and a million topographies form and disband: all without a sharp corner — nothing but smooth transitions, gracefully made.

Fronts get all the attention, but backs are masters of the beauty of subtle change.

My spine bends and flexes, and I’m alive.

Sparks run in riffles down that line, and I’m alive.

POEM: Yoga

The moment when you’re everything
and are, at once, nothing.
Time exists, but is lost to you —
no lagging, nor rushing.

Space is the world that expands and
collapses with each breath —
the infinity through which you
stretch beyond life and death.

And in quiet moments of mind,
when no voices call out,
it becomes still enough to feel
something within you sprout.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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Thoughts of a Traveler Traveling Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

I just returned from a week of traveling in Rajasthan and Punjab for Holi and Hola Mohalla, respectively. Because my trip involved only domestic travel within India, there were no formal disruptions, but evidence of concern about the virus was widespread.

The first thing one notices is that instead of a few East Asian tourists protecting themselves against the poor air quality of megalopolises, at least a third of those traveling were wearing masks. Some unknown percentage of these travelers presumably have sound, medically-directed reasons for donning the masks (e.g. they have some sort of infection, they have compromised immune systems, etc.) but for many they are merely a security blanket. I suspect the reason that “wear masks” isn’t a part of the advice of public health experts has to do with the two types of masks that one sees:

First, the type that are to keeping out virus as a chain-link fence is to keeping out mosquitos.

Second, the type that will keep out virus (if worn / changed as directed,) but which — because they are expensive and hard to come by — are worn far too long, such that they become a nice warm, moist petri-dish pressed up against one’s face.

I don’t begrudge anyone a security blanket. In fact, a lot of what I’m suggesting herein are ways to maintain a confident and positive attitude so your immune system can be its awesome self — whatever that takes. My worry about the mask phenomena is that some people seem to believe that if one little viral agent makes it inside their body they are doomed. That’s simply not the case. If a viral marauder gets into your body, its chances of being escorted right back out by your body’s mucosal bouncers, swallowed whole by a macrophage, dissolved in your stomach’s acid bath, or otherwise being discovered and destroyed by your body’s sentry force is quite good.

In short, a mask isn’t your last line of defense. It’s a first line of defense that’s followed by an immune response that is swift and deadly to foreign invaders. It should be noted that nose-breathers already have a kind of mask, in the form of the nose and nasal passages. When you breath through your nose, your natural filtration system is at work. If you tend to breath through your mouth (particularly during inhalation) you have a lessened defense.

If you have trouble maintaining nose-breathing under all circumstances, I’d recommend a pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) practice. I don’t know how well it’s established by study, but I’ve found that I breath much more effectively and consistently through my nose since I’ve regularly practiced pranayama. Another helpful yogic tool is kechari mudra, which has helped me to even run without mouth breathing. (Kechari mudra involves curling the tongue so that the bottom of the tongue rests against the soft palate at the back of the roof of one’s mouth. This seems to reduce turbulence that would be created by air swirling in one’s oral cavity, and makes more of a direct line of travel for the breath in and out through the nasal passageways. At a minimum, it focuses one’s attention on the area the breath is passing through, and makes one aware of the breath.)

All this talk about one’s immune system keeping one safe may seem a bit pollyannaish or over-optimistic. Don’t get me wrong, I follow and would recommend others follow all the basic precautions regarding washing one’s hands and minimizing hanging out in high density environments — particularly high density environments with high-risk individuals. (i.e. for the asymptomatic [or alternatively-symptomatic individuals, i.e. those who have something but probably not COVID-19] who think they absolutely must be tested to have peace of mind, realize that you are likely walking into a high-risk environment and increasing your chance of self-fulfilling prophecy. Just sayin’. If you are able to rest comfortably, you might want to consider doing so.)

Back to the issue of being irrationally optimistic or a Pollyanna. My response is: fair enough. But there is an upside to being overly optimistic (if cautious) but none-whatsoever to being a worrier. Again, by being “a worrier” I’m not talking about taking precautions, I’m talking about obsessing or being needlessly pessimistic about the bodily systems (e.g. your immune system, your lymphatic system, your digestive system, etc.) that are keeping you safe all day and everyday.

I’d say if there is an upside to the pandemic, it was in reminding me to practice gratitude toward my body, my immune system, my gut bacteria, etc. — all of which keep me feeling excellent 99.9% percent of the time. Does that mean I think I can’t catch infection? No, it doesn’t, but it does mean that if I catch one my body will be much more effective at defending itself.

So when people ask me why I’m not worried about traveling, it’s because my immune system is awesome and I’m thankful for it every day.

A couple of post-scripts:

– I’ve been seeing the swarm of memes about toilet paper shortage in the US. Having moved to a part of the world that recognizes that wiping one’s backside with dry paper isn’t the height of sanitary practice, all I can say is: “You might want to look into what most of the world does most of the time.”

– I understand that there is a desire to curtail a wider spread of the virus, but this easily tips into a form of xenophobia — “a your COVID-19 is worse than our COVID-19.”  If a person is without symptoms, being Chinese (or from any other country with many cases) doesn’t mean that they are Typhoid Mary.

BOOK REVIEW: Pain: Considering Complementary Approaches by NCCIH

Pain: Considering Complementary ApproachesPain: Considering Complementary Approaches by National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Online here

 

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has put out a new edition (dated 2019) of its pamphlet (about 50 pages) about how useful various complementary practices are in helping patients reduce, or cope with, pain. The NCCIH is a center in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that serves as a clearinghouse for information about how alternative and complementary practices perform in treatment of various ailments. While alternative (instead of mainstream medicine) and complementary (in conjunction with mainstream medicine) are quite different, in almost all cases this work herein is reporting on the latter basis. The complementary practices in question include: yoga, taiji, meditation and mindfulness, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, relaxation methods, and others.

Complementary approaches to treatment of pain is a particularly salient topic these days as the mainstream medical approach (giving patients pills to gobble down) has resulted in what many have called a “crisis” of opiate addiction. So, if it’s possible to reduce the grip of pain with practices that at best have numerous other health benefits and at worst do no harm, than that’s a pretty good outcome.

Chapters three through eleven form the pamphlet’s core, and all but the last of those look at one complementary practice each, including (in order): acupuncture, massage, meditation, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, taiji (a.k.a. tai chi, or tai chi chuan), yoga, and dietary supplements and herbs. Chapter 11 discusses a few additional (less popular) practices. These chapters follow a three-prong approach: 1.) is it safe? 2.) does it help mitigate pain? and 3.) where can I find more information? [Spoiler alert: In almost all cases the answer to #1 is roughly “Yes, for most people, but possibly not for you. Check with your doctor,” and to #2 is usually something like: “there is some preliminary evidence that in certain cases certain people may have benefited.”] The chapters before (ch. 1 & 2) and after (ch. 12 to 14) provide background context and additional information.

On the positive side, it’s great that this information has been gathered together and packaged into a readable format with pictures and easy to read text.

On the down side, this was clearly a document put together by a committee of bureaucrats in consultation with lawyers. It is so laden with qualifiers and spongy speak that it’s impossible to discern how strong the evidence is for the various practices or how one compares to another. I felt that they could have given the same information in a three-column table in which the first column is the practice, the second column is “can’t hurt to try*” [*provided your physician concurs,] and the third column would be “nah, this stuff is fake.” [Spoiler alert: almost everything besides homeopathy would have the first column checked, but the consensus seems to be that homeopathy is pseudo-scientific quackery designed to sell water at medicinal prices.]

This booklet is available on the web for free, so if you’re interested, check it out. But don’t expect to come away with any profound insights. It’s not that kind of booklet.

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An App for That: Profound Yogic Practices You May Not See in Class

To the average person, yoga consists of a series of poses that stretch the muscles and strengthen the core.  In truth, often the most profound and life-altering experiences had by yoga practitioners involve only a seated or lying posture. If you practice yoga, you’re probably aware that postural practice, or asana, is just only one element of yoga, and perhaps you’ve experienced some of the other elements of yogic practice. However, it’s not always easy to access such training at the local studio.

 

These days there’s another way. These practices can be accessed through apps such as EKA.

 

Below are five powerful yogic practices that you might not find taught at your local yoga studio, but that you’ll find on EKA.

 

5.) Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra translates to “yogic sleep.” It’s a practice in which one stays in the mind-state between wakefulness and sleep, i.e. hypnagogia, for an extended period while working through a sequence of practices. Yoga nidra is extremely relaxing, but also allows one to access the subconscious in a manner similar to that of self-hypnosis. This makes the practice useful both for people who have trouble with sleep or settling into rest, but it also allows one to influence the subconscious so that one can make changes in areas where subconscious influence is strong.

 

For example, a person seeking to lose weight understands that they need to be careful about what they eat. However, the subconscious isn’t always on the same page as the conscious mind, and cravings for sugary or fatty foods may win the battle. In yoga nidra, we use sankalpa — a resolution, to help win the subconscious over. We also use practices like visualizations to gain insight into what is happening outside the bounds of conscious thought, and to exercise influence over it.

 

4.) Kaya Sthairyam: Kaya Sthairyam translates to bodily stillness, or steadiness. If you’ve done any meditation, you were probably taught to adopt a position in which you could be as still as possible throughout the practice. The reason for this is that even subtle movements can distract one, weaken one’s concentration, or have a stimulating effect. In yoga, kaya sthairyam is used to achieve a state of maximum stillness. If one wishes to increase one’s ability to concentrate for extended periods, one must build one’s capacity to remain still. That said, kaya sthairyam need not be thought of as only a prelude to meditation. The tranquility that arises from these practices make them worthwhile in their own right.

 

3.) Bija Mantra: In India, chanting is a very popular practice among yoga practitioners, and many have found great clarity in it. In one of my early classes teaching yoga to children, I found that as soon as the kids sat in a cross-legged pose many of the younger children spontaneously started softly reciting the gayatri mantra. That’s how intense was their association between sitting down cross-legged and chanting.

 

In the West, mantra chanting is less familiar. The six bija mantra, or seed mantra, are a beautiful way to introduce oneself to mantra chanting because of their simplicity. Because the bija mantra (LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HUM, and AUM) are all monosyllabic, easily pronounced, and are related sounds, they can be picked up quickly and easily.

 

2.) Witnessing Meditations: The yogic teaching that has had the most life-changing effect on me has been dispassionate witnessing. While it’s not a complex idea, it requires some explanation.

 

Let’s first consider what minds usually do in the face of a problem. There are two common responses that are not particularly healthy.

 

The first is to distract oneself from the problem. In some cases, this distraction can be an unhealthy activity — such as drug abuse, but it might also be something neutral like watching television. However, even if you distract yourself with a wholesome activity like volunteering at a soup kitchen, the problem is still there and it will have its say. If not directly, then indirectly through nightmares, indigestion, or a stress-induced illness.

 

The second option is obsessing. The brain tries to lessen the sting by anticipating the worst possible scenario. The trouble with this obsession is that to find our worst case scenario — we have to hang toxic labels on all possible events and invent possibilities that are so unlikely as to be nearly impossible. And having invented such dire cases, we often give them too much weight. As Mark Twain put it, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”  The negativity piles up and causes stress and anxiety to balloon out of control.

 

In dispassionate witnessing, we don’t ignore or distract ourselves, but we also don’t strap on value judgements or build worst cases. We simply recognize what we are feeling, acknowledge it, but don’t feed our anxieties.

 

One of the most basic witnessing practices involves watching sensations in the body. Imagine you’re doing this practice and you feel an ache in your back. If you try to ignore the sensation, the mind may turn up the intensity to get your attention.  If you obsess, you’ll soon convince yourself that this sensation is really an ache… no, a pain… no, it’s agony… oh no, could there be a tumor growing on my spine? [That may be exaggerating a bit, but you see the point.] However, if you focus your attention on the sensation without labeling it, you’ll probably find that the sensation passes. In essence, the body says, “Hmm, the brain examined this sensation and didn’t think it was anything to be concerned about, let’s move on.”

 

1.) Pranayama: Probably the most under-rated yogic practice is pranayama, or breathing exercises. By controlling one’s breath, one can influence one’s emotional state, one’s physiological processes, and the state of agitation in one’s mind. Breath practices are the most direct means to counteracting the stress response. However, despite constantly breathing — day in and day out — most people remain unaware of the incredible power of consciously controlling the breath.

 

There are a variety of types of breath exercises. There are breaths that have a stimulating effect on the body and mind, and those that have a calming effect. Scientific evidence has accumulated that there are benefits to practicing slower and deeper breathing, and pranayama offers a systematic approach to building this capacity. No matter what kind of pranayama one is doing, there is a side benefit from holding one’s focus on one point, the breath.

 

Pranayama is a great lead-in to meditative practices. It helps achieve a state of mind which is neither drowsy nor agitated. That said, pranayama is also beneficial on its own.

 

If you’re interested in exploring any of these practices, the EKA app is a great place to start.

 

DAILY PHOTO: Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore

Taken on January 26, 2020 in Bangalore.

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