The Thai Yoga Bodywork / Yoga Nexus

 

[Note: This article was first posted on the IMOSHA website.]

 

It was October of 2013 and I found my way to the Meditation Hall at the Fireflies Ashram off Kanakapura Road outside Bangalore’s southern sprawl.  That morning, I’d begin learning the sequence of actions of the Chiang Mai style of Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) I would struggle to remember that sequence as I awkwardly groped about trying not to drive my thumb into the bones or nerve junctions of my fellow students. But over the course of those ten days, I progressed to the point that my awkwardness was less apparent, and I could get through the sequence without forgetting much.

 

I’d arrived in India with a long list of activities to try and skills to learn as part of a plan of self-betterment. That TYB course was the first item on the list to be scratched off. I’d been in the country a little over a month.  The strange thing about that was that TYB was the activity farthest outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t a complete stranger to yoga or meditation when I arrived in India. And while I was new to the martial arts of Kalaripayattu and Muaythai, I’d practiced a Japanese martial art my entire adult life.  So while I wasn’t skilled at those arts, I had a level of transferable confidence to counterbalance my lack of skill. The same couldn’t be said TYB. It was all new. But that’s the magic of moving around the world, everything is outside your comfort zone, so you might as well go big or go home.

 

Small world.  A couple of years later, I’d be in that same Meditation Hall for the capstone weekend of my 500-hour yoga teacher’s course.  I remember lying in that Meditation Hall, resting after having learned the advanced cleansing practices (shatkarma) of hatha yoga. (By then there was an entirely new level outside my “comfort zone” as I’d purged my entire alimentary canal.) At any rate, the Fireflies Meditation Hall was just a piece of geographic connective tissue that linked my yogic and TYB educations. I’d like to discuss five more substantial links.

 

5.) Anxiety management:  Let me begin with a theme that I mentioned in my introduction. It’s an aspect of personal development that I’ve spent a lot of time working on recently, and that’s moving outside one’s comfort zone to dispassionately observe one’s anxieties.   Both Yoga and TYB present practitioners with opportunities to observe and tame anxieties in a safe way. In TYB, one’s anxiety might be about injuring the person one is working on, about doing a poor job, or it could even be just about touching strangers. People have various reasons—from various social anxieties to germophobia—for discomfort with physically touching people they don’t know well. (Being an introvert, I have a tinge of this discomfort that would likely be much worse if I hadn’t studied martial arts. But, having studied a grappling-centric martial art for so many years, I’d developed a bit of transferable confidence about being in close physical proximity with people I didn’t necessarily know well.)

Anxiety about injuring another

 

In yoga, the sources of anxiety are often gravity related (e.g. inversions and arm balances), but can be quite varied. I mentioned shatkarma as another example. And I’ve found external breath retentions from pranayama to be a potent area in my own personal practice.

 

Anxiety about injuring oneself

 

At any rate, what both Yoga and TYB do to help one take on one’s anxiety is to insist that one confront it in a mindful way. Just practicing forces one to experience the anxieties, but the crucial second ingredient is that one must keep one’s attention on the action—preventing one’s mind from engaging in the escalatory patterns by which it makes molehills into mountains. While it’s true that there are many other activities that this should be true of, it’s common in many fitness activities to practice distractions. People often blare portable music devices to drown out their body and mind as they exercise and practice other self-betterment activities. Such distractions aren’t an option in [good] TYB or Yoga instruction (Note: I say “good” because one can see a sad wave of distraction yogas out there that bury the sensations of practice in cute animals, alcohol, and—even–frat-house style raves.)

 

4.) Anatomical intuition: Both TYB and Yoga expand one’s understanding of the human body. A great feature for those who practice both systems is that the two systems are complementary. They present both overlapping and non-overlapping means to insight into the body. Yoga provides insight through all of one’s senses—not just the five we think of, but including proprioception (the sense by which a person is aware of the position of his or her own body parts and their movement) and balance. In other words, yoga allows one to see inside one’s own body as fully as possible. On the other hand, TYB offers the opportunity to learn about the wide range of variance in human bodies—feeling all their varied characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses.

Finding the limits of another

 

I think a yoga teacher can learn a great deal by practicing TYB. It encourages a greater understanding of the strengths and limitations of others. At the same time, TYB practitioners benefit from yoga’s high degree of intra-bodily awareness because the Thai style involves many assisted stretches that require strength, balance, and awareness.

 

Finding one’s own limits

 

3.) Appreciating the Slow: Modern life shouts at one to do everything faster. Yoga and TYB are two activities in which there isn’t any payoff for being faster, and, in fact, there are costs. In TYB, the massaged individual will find a fast tempo massage less relaxing. If one has ever been handled by a masseuse or masseur like a baker making bread, one knows exactly what I’m talking about. Hatha Yoga also emphasizes slow movement. Even when one is doing an active style like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, there’s an emphasis on maintaining control of the body throughout, and that requires engaging musculature to counter the forces of gravity and momentum.

FYI- this is the aforementioned Meditation Hall during that first training

 

Sometimes slow is the only way to succeed

 

2.) Core stability and muscular endurance:  Both TYB and Yoga build and require core strength and muscular endurance. Bodywork is a physically demanding job. When one learns TYB, a great deal of attention goes into the minutiae of handling the client so as to minimize the stress and strain on one’s body. Still, there’s no way around the fact that one is manipulating another person’s body  and one has to bear that weight so that the client can be relaxed as one stretches them out or turns them over. Commonly, those people will be larger and heavier than the person delivering the massage.  Even if one isn’t doing TYB all day, one will likely feel it—perhaps all the more because one hasn’t developed that core strength and muscular endurance. Yoga can also help the TYB practitioner to keep supple in a job that can easily make a person sinewy.

 

On the other hand, yogis and yoginis can learn a thing or two about balance and control of the core from the challenging act of manipulating another person through their stretches.

 

1.) Attentiveness to Subtle Sensations:  In yoga teacher training, one is often shown Wilder Penfield’s homunculus. Penfield was a doctor who studied the functional organization of the brain, and particularly the sensory and motor cortexes (the parts that process sensations and commands to move body parts.) He was eager to map the motor cortex so that he’d know what portions of damaged or cancerous tissue could be removed without causing paralysis or the like.  At any rate, you’ve probably seen either a flat or 3-D version of the homunculus. It’s notable for its huge lips and hands and comparatively tiny chest and thighs. That’s because the size of a body part on the model doesn’t represent its anatomical size but rather its size in the brain, and our hands have a truly astounding piece of cerebral real estate.

 

What’s fascinating is that for all this capacity for feeling through our fingers, one has to practice to get the fullest out of that ability. In the beginning, it can be quite different to feel huge knots in the muscle during TYB sessions—even though our ability to differentiate tiny tactile differences is tremendous.  In yoga one isn’t so much engaged in feeling with one’s fingertips as one is with one’s internal sensory suite, but the point remains that we have a great deal of capacity that most people leave unused.

 

I suspect there are many more points of confluence between TYB and Yoga that haven’t occurred to me. If you’ve got one, feel free to comment below.

My 2014: A Year in Review [w/ Photos]

2014 will be our first full year living in India. Having said that, I spent almost 50 days in Thailand, and Lilla and I will spend the last two weeks of the year in Hungary. So, in truth, I will have lived about ten months of 2014 in India.

 

The four months of 2013 that we lived in India largely involved acclimating and getting our feet under us, though we did see some important sights in India including the Taj Mahal, Delhi, Fatehpur Sikri, Hampi, Mysore, Belur, Halibidu, and Shravanabelagola.

 

2014 was an interesting and learning-intensive year, so I’ll review some of the year’s key happenings.

 

January:

From the 1st through the 18th, I was in Phuket, Thailand. Lilla and I spent the holidays there, and–upon her return to Bangalore–I stayed another couple of weeks training at Tiger Muaythai. Tiger is probably Phuket’s largest and most well-known Muaythai gym.  In addition to Muaythai classes, I took advantage of their broad class offerings to learn a little about Krabi Krabong, Muay Boran, Western Boxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Brazilian Jujutsu, as well as taking daily Yoga classes. I was particularly keen to learn about Muay Boran, MuayThai’s more combative ancestor art.

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While my training schedule (up to six hours / day, 6 days a week) didn’t allow for much sightseeing, I did get to see a little of Phuket Town and a couple of the beaches that Lilla and I skipped while we were traveling together. Phuket displays a lot of Chinese influence and there are many brightly colored Taoist, Confucian, and Chinese ancestral shrines and temples around Phuket Town. Rang Hill overlooks the island’s main “metropolis”, and I was able to take advantage of that vantage point. The beaches I visited were Karon and Kata which were middling between the two beaches Lilla and I visited together. That is, they weren’t as quiet and secluded as Naiharn, but neither were they as frenetic and overrun as Patong.

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February:

February was marked by two firsts. First, I began taking classes in Kalaripayattu two mornings a week. While this Indian martial art is far afield of the Japanese art I was raised on, I wanted to take advantage of living in India to learn something of the indigenous martial arts. One reason for my interest is the widespread belief that Indian martial arts—and Kalaripayattu specifically—are ancestors to many of the Asian martial arts–including the Chinese martial arts that are said to be predecessor to the Japanese arts I’ve studied. While I’m somewhat skeptical of that claim, I’m not in a position to altogether dismiss it. (I believe that in the face of combat, martial arts evolve rapidly to adapt to local conditions and needs. Also, I believe that ancestral arts continue to evolve as much as their off-shoots. Together this means that a martial art could look quite different from its ancestor in short order.)

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The reason I’ve kept training is that Kalaripayattu is an awesome workout. I see a two-fold strength in the art. For one thing, it builds bodily capacity. I mean one is able to leap higher, stretch farther, and endure more through the practice of this art. I’ve realized that the idea of a martial art solely as a means to ingrain movements that worked in the past is limited.  Another thing that the art does is help build a variety of fearlessness.  One has to throw one’s body around in a ways that can be intimidating, and one must build confidence that one will—like a cat—land on one’s feet. Further down the line, the metal weapons practice—choreographed as it may be—takes a special kind of inner calm. By “further down the line” I mean—as of this writing–I haven’t yet begun to learn weapons. I’ve passed through the first two levels and it’s been suggested that it might be time for the third test (though I’m far from skilled with some of the required jumps), but these levels are all unarmed.

 

The second activity I began in February was volunteering that the Don Bosco Mane Center, which is home and bridge school for young boys in central Bangalore. (A bridge school is a school used to prepare kids to go to regular public school, which is what they try to do a soon as possible, but some of the kids haven’t been to school and aren’t ready to leap in at the appropriate grade level.) BOSCO is one of the major charities working on children’s issues in Bangalore, and particularly in trying to intercept kids coming into the bus and train stations before the pimps and slavers get their hooks into them. They also run a help / reporting phone line.  If it’s possible, they try to get the kids back to their families, but if that’s unsafe or impossible the children live at one of the centers like Mane.

 

BOSCO also has a person trying to match kids to foster homes. Foster homes are a relatively new and undeveloped approach in India as compared to the West, but–as it’s a much better approach when it works—they’d like to see more of it. I volunteered here over the course of two months, before I started Yoga Teacher Training. Because I was only volunteering one day a week, and given the nature labor costs in India, they weren’t always sure what to do with me. Such a facility in the West would probably tend to be much more undermanned, but that didn’t seem to be so much the problem here as the challenge of funding and resources. At any rate, I have talked to the head priest about going back to teach martial arts and /or yoga. It was amazing to see how well-adjusted and respectful the kids were, given the hard life they’ve had.

 

March:

March wasn’t a big month for travel or new experiences. Lilla was in the middle of her busy season, and I continued learning Kalaripayattu and volunteering at BOSCO. Otherwise, I was writing or working out. I’ve been keeping my Gyokko-ryū koshijutsu and Kukishin-ryū jōjutsu training going as much as I can, and work on Muaythai as well.  As part of my yoga training, I started doing yoga with Lilla three mornings a week (this began in January or February), and—after going through yoga teacher training—this will become a regular class that I teach MWF from 7 to 8am. I attended about four studio sessions a week at a1000 Yoga in Indiranagar during March.

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We did take one long weekend trip at the end of the month. We went to Coorg and stayed a couple of nights at a coffee / tea plantation near Madikeri. We stopped along the way to visit the Namdroling Monastery, which is a Tibetan Buddhist monastery set up by exiled Tibetans in the early 1960’s. It’s one of the largest Tibetan communities in South India, and is the largest teaching center for the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. The monasterial campus was impressive.

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The serenity of the plantation provided a welcome respite from the horns and chaos of Bangalore. The Golden Mist Plantation is owned by a German who spends part of his year in Germany and part of the year in Coorg. Interestingly, they sell only organic products, which they largely export because organics are just beginning to catch on in India and not at the same scale as in Europe and other parts of Asia. The food was great, and—needless to say—the coffee and tea were fresh as can be.  We had a couple nice hikes in the Coorgi countryside, and I had authentic Coorgi pork—that’s a popular Indian dish from these parts.

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April:

April saw me begin my 200 hour yoga teacher training course (RYT-200) at a1000 Yoga. This course ran about 4 hours a day for five days a week through May 23rd.  The first hour and a half to two hours each day was yoga on the mat, and then we got into a broad range of subjects dubbed “theory” in the afternoon. These included yogic philosophy, Indian approaches to the body (chakras, nadis, granthis, kundalini, koshas, prantas, etc.), Western anatomy and physiology, and the historical development of yoga. The most unusual practice we learned was jala neti, in which one pours warm salt water in one nostril such that it drains out the other, cleansing the nasal passages. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, and—given the dustiness of India—it’s a valuable skill to stave off sinusitis. Most of the course was about learning yoga, but the last week focused on learning about teaching.

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May:

The RYT-200 course occupied most of my time during this month as well. Even after the course ended on May 23rd, there were many requirements to be met and they all had to be documented. This included seva, which was charitable teaching requirement that we did at another of Bangalore’s (unfortunately) many orphanages.  This was a smaller shelter than the BOSCO center, and was run by an individual man rather than a large organization. Again, the kids were enthusiastic and well-behaved and made the process a happy one. I also had class observations to make as well as documenting my own teaching experiences from the guesthouse class and sadhana (my personal practice.)

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At the beginning of May, I completed a workshop in Tok Sen. Tok Sen is a Thai approach to massage that uses a mallet and a wooden chisel-shaped tool. While it sounds less than pleasant, it’s actually quite enjoyable. I had no idea what to expect besides that it was a Thai approach to body work that used wooden tools.

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Toward the end of the month there was a Kalaripayattu demonstration. This was the first time I’d seen the art practiced besides in Kalari sessions. Needless to say, it was much more acrobatic and stunning than day-to-day training. It featured many weapons, including the urumi, which is a four to six-foot flexible sword that old-time practitioners wore as a belt. Urumi demonstrations are about as edge-of-the-seat as one can imagine. While the demonstration is choreographed, the urumi is a severe injury waiting to happen. It requires the utmost attention on the part of both participants.

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June:

June was an intense month for my yoga practice. In addition to my own personal practice, which I was still documenting for my RYT-200 certification, I was attending 5 to 7 studio sessions per week. I was also able to do some refresher training with my Thai Yoga Bodywork teacher as he was running the Level I and II course in Bangalore, and I attended a few days.

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July:

In July I finally got my RYT-200 journal in and accepted, completing the requirements for a RYT-200 Yoga Teacher certification. Through the first half of the month, I was largely working on finishing up the last of the requirements and typing it all up into a 54 page account of my yoga life (not even double-spaced) since the courses beginning including my teaching, personal practice, observation of master teachers, etc.

 

We made our first trip to Kerala, another of the states in south India—bounding the Arabian Sea. We overnighted on a houseboat in the backwaters, got our first Ayurvedic massage, stayed at a resort in tea country, and toured the historic Malabar spice capital of Kochi (Cochin.) We were very fortunate with the weather in that we visited Kerala during the heart of rainy season, but stayed dry for the most part.

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Our houseboat stay was great. Our cook was skilled and the meals were outstanding. Chugging through the backwaters, I felt like a young Martin Sheen heading into the jungle to track down a rogue Army officer who became a cultist chieftain. Except that there was so much life and the ubiquitous Indian flare for color and sound. We got to see a snake boat crew in training, and saw so many colorful houses ornamenting the lush dikes—usually with verdant rice paddies as a backdrop.

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Ayurvedic massage was an unusual experience. It was the most oily I’ve ever been. Days later I felt a little like greased pig. It took place on a massive hardwood slab that had a channel carved through the middle to keep the oil from sluicing over onto the floor, an event that would cause the most skilled masseuse / masseur to slip fatally. The table looked a little like an autopsy table carved out of hardwood. It was a very impressive looking piece of furniture and not the least bit comfortable on one’s bony parts.

 

Munnar, amid the tea plantations, was green hill country and the low hanging clouds and vast expanses of tea bushes made it a scenic wonder. There were also some waterfalls in the area. It was misting part of the time we were here, which brought out the full jungle feel.

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Kochi is an enigma: ancient and modern, small but global. Its history is shrouded in the mists of time. It’s been an important center of commerce since who knows when. While trade with Arabs, Jews, and Chinese are all well-documented, it’s said that this port was familiar to the Greeks and Romans as well. When spice was king, Kochi ruled.

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August:

Lilla and I attended a yoganidra workshop this month. Yoganidra literally means “yoga sleep” and it’s a relaxation technique in which one maintains a state that is neuro-electrically like being on the edge of sleep. As you may know from visions that pop into your head right before sleep, those dreamlike random fragments that don’t make a lick of sense, this is a fertile state for the subconscious mind.

 

My second visit to Thailand took place in August and September. I left out on the August 20th and returned on September 17th.  From the 20th to September 3rd, I was training at the Muay Thai Institute (MTI) in Rangsit, Thailand. This involved training four hours a day—i.e. two 2-hour sessions. Unlike Tiger, which offered a wide range of classes, MTI specializes in Muaythai and all my training time was devoted Muay Thai. (At Tiger I generally trained one Muay Thai session per day and one other session in boxing, grappling, or muay boran.)  I was in the freestyle tract, and had a well-rounded experience of footwork drills, bagwork, pad drills, shadowboxing, and a bit of sparring.

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While I was training at MTI, I took one day trip with other trainees to play paintball, ride ATV’s, and go rafting. This also involved stops at a couple of temples at Ayutthaya, one of which I’d visited on my 2012 trip and another which was new to me. The one I’d visited before is Wat Mahathat, which famously appears in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer movie.  Wat Mahathat is particularly famous for a Buddha head that’s enveloped by Strangler Fig roots.

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I also took a boat trip around Koh Kret, which is an island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River—i.e. the river that runs through Bangkok. Koh Kret has a popular market and is known for certain unusual street foods like fried flower petals.  The only other place I visited during training was the J.J. Market, Bangkok’s sprawling weekend market where one can buy everything from pets to artworks to cheap tsotchkes to Louie Vattan (that’s how it’s spelled there) purses to street food. I’d been once before in 2012, but still got lost in its maze-like corridors packed with goods.

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September:

After I finished my second training week at MTI, I moved into Bangkok to a guesthouse in Chinatown.  This was a short walking commute to the Wat Po Thai Traditional Massage School where I completed the General Thai Massage course and the Foot Massage course. These courses were each 5 days long, and the first one is a prerequisite for just about everything at the Wat Po School.

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In the morning I would work out in one of two nearby parks frequented mostly by elderly fitness-buffs doing tai chi, chi gong, takraw, or Jianzi (the latter two being hacky-sack like games played with a woven ball [Thai] or a feathered weight [Chinese], respectively.)  On several occasions I went to the Thai Yoga (Russi Dutton) classes that were run inside the temple grounds. Then I would go to class for the day. The General Thai Massage sequence was gradually taught by parts defined by position (supine, side, prone, and seated), and it was not so different from the Chiang Mai style I’d learned in Bangalore. With the Foot Massage course, we began doing the entire sequence from the very outset, which meant one got to practice it about 10 times over the course of the five days.

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I was glad to visit Wat Po this time, as it’s the most important Bangkok sight that we missed during our 2012 visit. I also made it across the river to Wat Arun. I also made a trip across the river to a popular seafood restaurant on the edge of town with a group of fellow students from my General Thai Massage Course. With the same of Thais and Germans, I had dinner at the top of the tallest building in Thailand, the Baiyoke Tower.

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After I returned to Bangalore, there were two small events of note. I attended a function for the children at the KAMMS put on by Lilla’s firm, Grant Thornton, which is the third youth shelter /orphanage I’ve visited. This was the largest group of kids I’ve seen, because, unlike the other shelters, it was both genders and a wide-ranging age group. Again, the kids were very pleasant to be around.

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I attended another Kalaripayattu demonstration. This one was out of town at the Kalari Gurukulam, which is the parent school to the Kalari Academy where I’ve been attending classes. This would not be noteworthy except that I was briefly interviewed by a Canadian film crew who were making a documentary about old martial arts in Asia. They’d previously interviewed the Master of Bokator in Phnom Penh, and were making their rounds through the rest of Asia. (I almost visited that same school in Phnom Penh in 2012, but our limited time didn’t allow it. There was a time when it looked like moving to Cambodia might be a possibility.)

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October:

The big event in the month was our 20th wedding anniversary.

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Our big trip this month was to Mysore for the Dasara festival. We took the train, our first Indian train ride. Mysore is a city that’s only about an hour and a half away from Bangalore.  While it’s much smaller than Bangalore, it’s also more popular with tourists and travelers than Bangalore because of its history as a long-standing capital of the Wodeyar Kingdom and as a global center for yoga. It’s a yoga mecca because it was the home of T Krishnamacharya, who was the guru to some of the most famous yogis of the modern era, including B.K.S. Iyengar, Indira Devi, Pattabhi K. Jois, and T.K.V. Desikachar. Pattabhi Jois, founder of the Ashtanga Vinyasa style of yoga, also lived in Mysore and ran a school there until he passed away in 2009.

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Anyway, Dasara is huge in Mysore. They celebrate all 10 days with various events around town. However, the processional and the torchlight parade on the last day are the major draws, and we had seats for both of those events. For the processional we were right up front at the start of the parade route. For the torchlight parade our seats were not as great, but close to the front. We revisited the Zoo, which this year was rated the best in India by a TripAdvisor survey. There was flower show in progress for the festival.

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I attended a 10-day Advanced Hatha Yoga workshop that focused on building the capacity to do challenging intermediate and advance yogasana (postures.)

 

November:

I did a couple of sessions of intern/assistant teaching of corporate yoga for a1000 yoga, and will do some more after the beginning of the New Year.

 

Lilla and I went to a talk on philosophy which introduced me to an organization near our home that we were completely unaware of called the New Acropolis. It’s a school of practical philosophy. This led me to sign up for their introductory course, which takes place every Tuesday night. The class covers a wide range of topics in the domain of practical philosophy. (By practical philosophy, I mean philosophy geared toward substantively improving oneself, as opposed to sitting around staring at one’s navel and bemoaning our inability to know whether anything is real or whether we are all heads floating in vats.)  As of this writing, I’ve attended three of the first four sessions (I was in Maharashtra for one of the classes) and have found it to be a fascinating experience.

 

As you may know from my recent posts, this month I traveled to the Indian state of Maharashtra. Lilla and I were going to Mumbai to visit a relative, and I decided to take advantage of the relative proximity to visit the Buddhist caves at Ajanta and Ellora. The caves are among the most important archeological sites in India, but are out in the boondocks, and so they aren’t as well-known as, say, the Taj Mahal. However, in their own way I would rate them—as I do Hampi—as far more impressive than the Taj. A city of about 1.2 million, called Aurangabad, was my base from which to visit the caves. Aurangabad has a few sights of its own, most notably a copy of the Taj Mahal that is from the same era. Aurangabad also has its own set of caves that are nowhere near as extensive as the ones at Ajanta and Ellora, but are worth a visit, and it has remnants of fortification from the days when it was Aurangzeb’s capital.

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December:

Because the last graduation date occurred while I was in Thailand, I attended the graduation to get my RYT-200 certificate.

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We have one more trip for the year. Lilla and I will be traveling to Hungary in the middle of the month and will be there through New Year’s Day. We last visited Budapest in the summer of 2011, and haven’t been there in the winter since 2008. We haven’t experienced seasons, in the conventional sense, for a year and half–so that’ll be interesting.  (Bangalore has two seasons, rainy and dry, and even those can be muddled, as they were this year.) While I’ve been to Hungary many times, I hope to see some new sights this time, including a possible trip to Pécs, which will be my first Hungary trip south of Balaton. There are also some quirky Budapest locations listed on Atlas Obscura that I’d like to check out.

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The Upcoming Year:

I hope to do some new and interesting things in the upcoming year as well. Probably the oddest activity for the year will be attending the Vipassana Meditation Course. It’s 10 days on the outskirts of Bangalore with no books, notebooks, or electronic devices of any kind, and during which my only interaction with other people will be daily meetings with a teacher. It’s meditation all day every day for 10 days straight. From accounts I’ve read it’s an amazing or insanity-inducing experience.

 

Writing: The past year hasn’t been as productive as I’d like on the novel front. As I mentioned, I’ve traveled quite a bit and had major time commitments on the Yoga Teacher Training front. A fragmented life disagrees with novel writing because novels are long and fictional, so if you get away from it for any length of time you have a lot of reacquainting to do when you come back to it. If you’ve ever put a book you’re reading down for a month and had trouble getting back into it, multiply that by 100 and you’ll know the challenge of doing the same for a book you’re writing—so many details for which continuity needs to be maintained.  I tossed my first to chapters out entirely and rewrote them from scratch, having to update the rest to accommodate the new beginning. I’ve hemmed and hawed for days over certain plot points and devices.

 

Having said all that, I’m converging on a product that I’ll be ready to submit sample chapters to agents from in 2015. Most of the points that have been giving me problems are worked out as well as I think they are likely to.

 

I’ll do some revamping of my website, part of which I’ve already begun.

 

Martial Arts:  I expected that the jumping-intensive level of Kalaripayattu would be the end of that martial art for me. I’m not built for leaping. However, having cut some weight and built my fitness, I’ve found that my old body has taken the acrobatic craziness surprisingly well. So I’ll continue taking classes at the Kalari Academy as long as my body holds up.

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I plan to check out another martial art as well. There are a number of Muaythai places in Bangalore, and I may see if any of those work for me.  I don’t have any plans to travel to Thailand in the upcoming year, but—if I do—I’ll make sure to squeeze in some Muaythai.  (Actually, wherever I go I’ll try to squeeze in some of the indigenous arts.) Alternatively, there are Krav Maga classes offered at the New Acropolis, and that would be convenient to check out.

 

Yoga: I’d originally planned to do the 300-hour course that would complete my RYT-500 certification, but it doesn’t look like it will work with my travel schedule. However, I do intend to continue my studies, and—in particular—may pursue specialty teacher training courses in Children’s Yoga and /or Prenatal Yoga. There are also some intriguing workshop opportunities in Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar Yoga (props yoga.) I may even try out the yoga in Mysore.

Natarajasana_Hatha_side

I’ll continue to teach my MWF courses as long as there is interest and will maintain my own personal practice. Also, I’ll try to do some interning / teaching of corporate yoga classes.

 

Travel: We don’t have any specific trip planned past our December Hungary trip, but we’re sure to see some fascinating places in 2015.

 

It looks like I may have to make a trip to the US during the summer time-frame. However, if I don’t have to take care of business with the house, I’ll probably stay in Asia and visit some other country—possibly Burma. Lilla and I are planning to make a trip to the Himalayas sometime during the summer. This may involve a trip to Amritsar (location of the Sikh Golden Temple) in conjunction with visiting McLeod Ganj / Dharamsala (home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile) and Shimla or Ladakh or other Indian portions of the Himalayas. Alternatively, we may go to Nepal.

 

Among the Indian locations that remain on our list to see are Khajuraho, Varanasi, Pondicherry, Hyderibad, Chennai (with Kanakapura), Kolkata, and Darjeeling. That’s not to mention countries nearby that we’d like to visit while we’re here like Burma and Sri Lanka. It’s unlikely we’ll pack all that in to 2015, but hopefully we can make a dent in it.

 

Well there’s my 4,500 word narcissism-fest, but it has pictures.

Wat Po v. Chiang Mai Massage: A North / South Divide?

One of the sculptures in the Thai Yoga outcrop at Wat Po.

One of the sculptures in the Thai Yoga outcrop at Wat Po.

In September I attended the General Thai Massage and Foot Massage courses at Wat Po. The teacher from whom I first learned Thai Massage (a.k.a. Thai Yoga Bodywork or Nuad Bo Rarn) was trained in Chiang Mai by various teachers, and the style he teaches reflects that northern heritage. I was curious to see how the style of massage varied in the south from the northern approach that I had already learned. Would I be in uncharted waters? Or would the Wat Po course merely be a refresher of what I had already learned? These questions were on my mind as I began the course.

 

The answer turned out to be somewhere in between. The Wat Po approach wasn’t radically different from what I had already learned, but neither was it a carbon copy. One could clearly see the common origin of these styles. For yoga practitioners, a reasonable comparison would be to imagine you studied Bihar yoga, and then you sat in on an Ashtanga Vinyasa class. Most of the postures would be similar if not the exact same—e.g. a downward dog is a downward dog. However, the sequence is a little different, you may run into a posture or two that you hadn’t seen before, and there will be many little differences in points of emphasis and so on. The same could be said of two martial arts that have a recent common ancestor art. (However, I think martial arts evolve more rapidly than other systems of movement because there is a life and death urgency to adapt to local conditions, and so martial arts can diverge rapidly.)

 

I won’t get into every little difference in this post. For one thing, the first course I took was a 60 hour (10 day) course, and the Wat Po course was only half as long (5 day / 30 hours.) Therefore, some of the apparent differences might have more to do with the need to conform to time limitations than true stylistic differences. The Wat Po course was designed to impart a sequence that could be done in an hour-and-a-half bodywork session. The first course I took taught some material that was redundant in the belief that one could tailor one’s sequence to the recipient’s needs and / or the masseuse’s preferences.

 

As an example, at Wat Po we didn’t learn any massage of the chest or abdomen, but I was shown (in fact, I was recipient of) the Wat Po approach to abdominal massage and it was pretty much the same as I’d learned previously. In my earlier learning, the approach to energy lines was to stretch (longitudinally) the limb, then apply palm pressure, then work the line (typically with the thumbs), and then one would repeat the palm pressure and finish with a repeat of the stretch. At Wat Po, they went straight for the energy line (sen) and followed that with the palm pressure work. I have no way of knowing whether this difference was more due to timing or style.

 

Before getting into the differences, I will talk a little about similarities. The general approach was the same (e.g. the recipient is fully clothed in a light, comfortable garment(s)) and the massage is ideally given on a thin, dense mattress/pad on the floor–rather than on a table. The general principles of sequencing were the same. Namely, one began at the feet and worked in the direction of the head. Also, when working on a limb, one began at the distal end, worked toward the torso, and then back toward to the starting point. Also, energy line work was done before the stretches.  There were four positions in both styles: supine, side, seated, and prone, and—unlike many other forms of massage—the supine position was at the fore (i.e. neither style emphasized the prone position and back work over the supine in the way other varieties of massage often do.) Both styles of massage (as probably all massage) began with a brief introduction and questioning designed to make sure the individual didn’t have any contraindicated conditions. Both styles of Thai massage began with a moment of prayer or contemplation—this is similar to some styles and different from others and speaks to the traditional nature of Thai massage.

 

IMG_0031

The side and seated sequences were the most similar between the two styles.  I learned more in these sequences in the longer (Chiang Mai) course, but what was included in the Wat Po course was largely the same. Where the stretches were of the same type, they tended to be virtually identical. By that I mean to say that both styles had stretches that weren’t taught in the other style, but where that was not the case, the stretches were indistinguishable. For example, the pictured variant on sarpasana / bhujangasana [snake / cobra backbends] was done in the same manner in either style. (I learned more stretches in the first—Chiang Mai–course, because it was longer.)  Over all, the energy lines (sen) tended to be identical, but there weren’t always the same number of them, nor were the same ones always emphasized. There were some differences in the feet lines that I’ll get into below.

 

Now let’s get to the differences. Starting with some small differences, the manner of palm pressure work was different between the two systems. In the Wat Po style, there was always one fixed point that one hand locked in place while the other hand applied palm pressure. I had previously learned to use both hands in a rhythmically alternating series of palm pressure applications.

 

One little difference that I found interesting involved the technique of closing the little flap over the ears at the end of the face and head massage (both styles close off the ears.) I had been taught to very gently release pressure so as to avoid any kind of popping that might disturb the recipient. However, at Wat Po the instructor taught to vigorously pull the fingers away—resulting in a pop. My guess would be that the idea was to get the recipient’s attention so that one could transition them from the face massage (which notoriously puts people to sleep) to a wakeful state so they could follow instructions for the stretches that followed. (We were taught face massage as part of the seated sequence. Previously, I had learned that this was an option, but that it was easier to do the face massage from supine so you didn’t have to worry about the recipient falling asleep and possibly falling over literally.

 

A final little difference was how the blood stop was done for the lower extremities. At Wat Po, they did the leg blood stop with both legs straight, whereas I had previously learned this technique with an open groin, i.e. the knee pointed out. (Both ways work about the same, but I think it might be a little less awkward to do it with the groin open as one is not in as close of proximity to the recipient’s privates.) The blood stop for the arm was identical.

 

The energy lines are one of the most fundamental aspects of Thai massage, and one would expect little variation in them between styles. This proved largely, but not entirely, true. For example, the leg lines were the same (as one might expect because one cannot stray too far from some lines without getting onto bone.) Also the points at the top of the shoulder, around the neck, the base of the skull, and the scapulae were the generally the same–except more or fewer points might be employed from one style to the other.

 

The arm lines were almost the same. The line on the back of the arm was the same, and the line that goes up the middle of the inner arm was the same. However, there was a second inner line that ran in line with the little finger along the lower edge of the arm (presuming the arm is straight out from the shoulder as it is for massaging the inner arm in both styles.) The lines of the back that were used were different. In my (not very accurate) diagram, the lines 1 and 3 were emphasized in the Chiang Mai style, but 1 and 2 were the lines used in the Wat Po system.

 

Back diagram_CM

 

The greatest divergence in lines and points was in the area of the feet. The best example of this can be seen in the lines of the sole. In the Chiang Mai style I’d previously learned there were five lines that radiated from a point where the heel transitioned into the arch about midway across the foot and went toward the base of each toe. The Wat Po style had three lines that were more or less parallel in line with the big toe, middle toe, and the little toe.  See diagrams.

 

 

The Chiang Mai 5 lines of the sole.

The Chiang Mai 5 lines of the sole.

The Wat Po 3 lines of the sole.

The Wat Po 3 lines of the sole.

 

In summary, the difference between these two styles wasn’t that great. In many cases the techniques were exactly the same, in most they were marginally different, and only rarely were they completely different.  I don’t really have a preference between the two styles. I think which would be a better experience comes entirely down to the skill of the masseuse / masseur.

Thai Yoga & Hatha Yoga: Compare and Contrast

During my recent trip to Thailand, I attended Thai Yoga (a.k.a. Rusie Dutton, i.e. “ascetic exercises”) classes at the Wat Po Temple. As a yoga practitioner, I took note of the similarities and differences between Thai yoga and the Hatha Yoga of India. It’s no surprise that Thai Yoga would display the influence of India. Indian influence from olden times can be seen throughout Thailand. The roots of Thai Massage (a.k.a. Thai Yoga Bodywork or Nuad Bo Rarn) itself are attributed to Shivago (also, written/pronounced Chivako), a north Indian doctor in the Buddha’s community of followers.

One can plainly see the influence of Hatha yogasana (postures)  in these Thai exercises, but the details vary. I’m interested in how movement systems (e.g.  martial arts) with a common ancestry diverge over time in response to the unique needs of a different culture. I believe that not only the new system evolves, but there’s also a continuing evolution in the original line. One can, therefore, end up with systems that look little alike over the course of several generations.

The degree to which the Thai Yoga poses vary from Hatha Yogasana varies. In the Thai Yoga class we did a simple lateral bend with interlocked fingers that was identical to a  Sivinanda Yoga pose named tiryaka tadasana.

Lateral Bend (tiryaka tadasana)

Lateral Bend (tiryaka tadasana)

Balancing poses made up much of the Wat Po Thai Yoga sequence. This makes sense as the course was aimed at practitioners of Thai Massage and balance is important in this massage system because there are techniques that involve standing on one foot as one applies pressure with the other fort or in which one must stand to apply stretches. (Obviously, it’s bad for business to step on the recipient in an uncontrolled fashion or to topple onto them.) There were poses that were reminiscent of Natarajasana (Shiva’s Dancer pose), Vrksasana (tree pose), and Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (hand to big toe pose). Each of these varied in the details. The most prevalent Thai variation was bending the support leg to lower one’s center-of-gravity. In Hatha Yoga, it’s usually taught to keep the support leg as straight as one can manage (this both contributes to the stretch and can prevent loading the tendons.)

NATARAJASANA: There were two variants of this pose practiced at Wat Po. Both folded the torso more forward than one would typically see in Hatha Yoga, as well as bending the support leg more.  The first version (palm on front knee) is as such:

Version 1 from Thai Yoga (Palm on Knee)

Version 1 from Thai Yoga (Palm on Knee)

 

The second version has the front hand up in a manner similar to the Hatha version, but the torso isn’t kept upright and the support leg is deeply bent.

Thai Version 2 (hand out front)

Thai Version 2 (hand out front)

 

In contrast, the Hatha version is more upright.

Natarajasana

Natarajasana

 

VRKSASANA: There are two variants of tree pose in the Thai Yoga. In both the ankle is kept on top of the thigh and the support leg is bent. Version one is as follows:

Vrksasana1_Thai_Front

Version 1 begins and ends in Pranamasana (hands in prayer pose) With hands out to the side in between.

Version 1 begins and ends in Pranamasana (hands in prayer pose) but hands are taken out to the side in between

 

Version 2 includes a wrist stretch with the balance pose. One puts fingers on thigh facing upward and the squat folds the wrist back.

Version 2 with wrist stretch.

Version 2 with wrist stretch

 

The Indian version:

Vrksasana_hatha_front

 

UTTHITA HASTA PADANGUSTHASANA: There are also two variations of this pose. Note the bending of the support knee. Version 1 holds the foot with the same side hand and places the opposite palm on the knee.

Version 1 from front

Version 1 from front

Version 1 from side.

Version 1 from side

 

Version two holds the extended foot with both hands.

Version 1 from the front.

Version 1 from the front

Version 1 from the side

Version 1 from the side

 

For comparison, the Hatha Yoga version:

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana from side

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana from side

 

UTKATA KONASANA: There are three variants of a pose that is usually called Goddess pose or Utkata Konasana.  The difference here primarily deals with how the hands are positioned, but given the many variants within Hatha Yoga for hand position, this can be seen as a virtually identical pose.

Thai version 1 of Godess pose.

Thai version 1 of Goddess pose

Thai version 2 of Goddess pose

Thai version 2 of Goddess pose

Thai version 3 of Goddess pose

Thai version 3 of Goddess pose

 

Goddess pose with hands in Chin mudra.

Goddess pose with hands in Chin mudra.

 

VIRABHADRASANA: There is a series of five lunge poses that are reminiscent of the Virabhadrasana (Warrior). I’ve dropped the first one because it requires a photo taken from a back angle becuas it involves pulling one’s wrist behind one’s back.

Thai Version 2 hand on front knee

Thai Version 2 hand on front knee

Thai version 3 twist

Thai version 3 twist

Thai version 4 looking back

Thai version 4 looking back

Thai version 5 taking aim

Thai version 5 taking aim

Virabhadrasana I

Virabhadrasana I

 

 

 

Out to Thailand

IMG_4236I won’t be posting much for the next few weeks as I’ll be traveling and training in Thailand. However, when I get back I’ll have plenty of new photos and insights from my training that the Muay Thai Institute and at the Wat Pho Thai Traditional Massage School.

 

I’ll spend two weeks at MTI followed by a couple short courses at Wat Pho.

 

I’ll be back to my regular schedule of posting in the later part of September.

 

 

Tok Sen: Massage by Mallet

Me receiving Tok Sen on the shoulder

Me receiving Tok Sen on the shoulder

I’m sure you’ll agree that nothing says relaxation like a massage delivered via a mallet and chisel. Actually, you probably wouldn’t agree with that at all, but I intend to convince you otherwise.

 

In the beginning of May, I attended a two-day workshop on Tok Sen, which is an age-old Thai system of bodywork that is delivered with a khone (a wooden mallet) and limb (a wooden wedge.) The name “tok sen” can be divided into the onomatopoeia tapping sound “tok” and the word for energy lines “sen.” In the past this method largely found favor with Thai farmers and others who had sinewy bodies. However, today it’s often combined with Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB) to deliver treatment to people without steel band like muscles.

 

This art is not particularly well-known. I can guess why. As in the practice of a martial art, when one inserts a tool (weapon) between giver (attacker) and receiver, the comfort level on both sides initially drops a bit. In the martial arts, the armed practitioner becomes concerned about the increased ease with which he might inadvertently injure his training partner.  This isn’t only because weapons are designed to compound damage, but because the feedback through the tool is less. Of course, the receiver has good reason to be more concerned as well. This is one reason why many martial arts don’t introduce students to weaponry until they’ve developed considerable skill in unarmed practice. I’m sure it’s why a much longer course in Thai Yoga Bodywork is generally a prerequisite for learning Tok Sen.

 

Khone and Limb

Khone and Limb

So the natural question is, why add an element of risk—even if it’s a minimal or imagined risk? Tok Sen adds versatility to one’s practice. One can save one’s thumbs in a way that doesn’t sacrifice precision. The usual way to avoid “thumb fatigue” is to use hands-free methods that use elbows, knees, heels, etc. Those other implements can be ideal. However, none of them hit as narrow a target as does one’s thumbs. With Tok Sen, one can opt for the chisel edge or the round end depending upon the target area, and when one is using the chisel edge one can orient it for best effect.

 

Also, believe it or not, the “tok” sound of the tamarind or teak wood has a bit of a relaxing timber when done with a practiced rhythm.

 

For massage recipients, not only is Tok Sen pleasant, but it makes a great story that will impress one’s friends. I mean, let’s face it, a cool story is a part of the reason why some people get moxibustion and acupuncture. And cool stories are all of the reason anybody gets “fish massages” and “snake massages”—neither of which offer therapeutic value beyond exfoliation and goosing the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. inducing temporary terror), respectively. So, cowboy up and give it a try. You can take a selfie and tell everybody how you toughed it out.

 

For masseuses and masseurs, it’s easier to control the pressure on the limb than one would think, and as long as one has the experience to know where and how the muscle lays it’s unlikely one will injure the recipient.

 

Here is a video that will show better what it’s like.

DAILY PHOTO: Thai Yoga Bodywork Percussion

 

Taken Friday the 13th of June in 2014 in Bangalore.

Taken Friday the 13th of June in 2014 in Bangalore.

I haven’t been traveling much lately (or even getting far beyond commutes to the yoga studio, kalari, etc.)  so I’m resorting to posting pics of what I’m doing in my day-to-day life as Daily Photos. The past few days I’ve been refreshing my training in the side, prone, and seated sequences of Thai Yoga Bodywork (Nuad Bo Rarn) at the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

This photo is taken at the end of the seated sequence as a series of percussive actions are applied to the back.

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Massage by Lucinda Lidell

The Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western TechniquesThe Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western Techniques by Lucy Lidell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I picked up this book because I recently began studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) While The Book of Massage doesn’t specifically deal with Thai massage, as a neophyte, I figured some general reading was in order, and there aren’t a lot of widely available books that deal with Thai massage specifically (at least not where I currently reside.)My first testimonial of this book is that I looked through over a dozen books on massage at my local bookstore, and this is the one with which I walked home.

I found Lidell’s book to be a valuable resource. The book covers three approaches to massage: oil massage, shiatsu, and reflexology. As the subtitle suggests, this book addresses both Eastern and Western approaches to massage. The section labeled simply “Massage” is one that deals largely in the Western approach, as it’s suggestive of the Swedish style of massage. This involves oil, no / few clothes on the recipient, and a variety of strokes that are delivered over relatively broad areas (as opposed to the deeper acupressure approach of the latter methods.) The oil massage chapter begins with an overview including what type of oil to use and the basic strokes, and then provides a sequence before delving into specific techniques for various body parts or groups of body parts.

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage that is based on the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) I found this style to be much closer to what I’ve learned in TYB. Like TYB, both patient and recipient are clothed, there is no oil, acupressure is the norm, it requires no table, and there is a match up between what are called “energy lines” in TYB and “meridians” in Shiatsu. Shiatsu even employs similar stretching techniques to those that are the hallmark of TYB. I can imagine these systems having a common ancestral art.

The order of the shiatsu chapter is basically the same as the chapter on Massage. First, there’s necessary background information. This consists of a couple of pages on the basic Taoist concepts on which TCM is based (e.g. Chi, Yin & Yang, and the five elements) and related vocabulary like “tsubo” (pressure points) and meridians. The section then goes on to address basics of posture and bodily tools (palms, thumbs, elbows, knees, etc.), the sequence of the massage, and then the specifics of various body parts.

Reflexology massages only the feet and hands in the belief that points on these appendages map to other parts of the body. In other words, practitioners believe one can increase wellness throughout the body by working points on only the feet or hands. It’s said that the roots of reflexology may be ancient and that it may have been practiced in Egypt in 2300BC, but the modern school was developed by an American physician in the early 20th century. TYB does borrow from reflexology (though not necessarily the modern form of it), so some of this was also similar to what I learned in TYB. Again, the order of this section went from the generic information one needs toward the specifics of how to apply a given technique on a particular part of the foot or hand.

In addition to the three core sections, there were chapters before and after that provide the reader with useful information. Some of this was banal but obligatory (e.g. a brief history of massage and a discussion of the importance of touch among the human species), but some of it was essential practical information such as how to create the proper environment and how to center oneself before delivering a massage. There was also information that will be useful for some about massages involving babies, expectant mothers, the elderly, athletes, and oneself.

Perhaps the most beneficial of the “supplementary” chapters was one that dealt with the subject of how to read bodies. This may seem like an odd topic. However, it’s useful to be able to recognize where an individual holds his tension or where her posture is off–a problem that can create many muscular difficulties. There’s a short overview of anatomy, which I found useful, and a shorter overview of “chakras and auras,” which I personally didn’t find useful but can see where others might.

There are several strengths and relatively few weaknesses to this book. I found the organization to be logical. The graphics are a combination of photos and line drawings, and they work well together. I thought it was great that the author explained that Shiatsu is to be done in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and that the only reason the graphics display the masseuse in a skin-tight body suit was so that the baggy clothing wouldn’t inhibit the reader’s view. Also, I found the written descriptions worked well with the graphics. One often needs a written cue as to where to find a certain point or line, and just showing it in a picture can be misleading given the wide variety of body types as well as the granularity of the graphic in contrast to the specificity of a point one may need to hit.

I suppose I should warn the easily mortified and / or very religious that there are full and partial frontal nude photographs in the section on oil massage. [I doubt such people are a major demographic for giving or receiving massage, but one never knows.]

I don’t have a lot of complaints. As it’s set up like a workbook, a spiral binding might have been nice, but I recognize the huge challenges of that. Plus, I’m not certain that one can or should learn massage from a book. Rather one should look at it as information to support study with a skilled teacher–or to experiment with once one has already developed some skill. The sections early and late in the book that talk about the importance of human touch didn’t add much, but they were also brief.

If you’re looking for a book on massage that covers a broad set of bases, but yet gives adequate detail for learning, I think this book is a good choice. I’d say it piqued my interest in learning Shiatsu.

View all my reviews

9 Nights at an Ashram

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Taken October 20, 2013 at Fireflies Ashram.

Indian cities don’t whisper. They are often lovely, always lively, but offer little relief from bombardment of the senses. Horns are relentless. Bus and truck air-horns can make a person jump from one’s skin. The smells may be pleasing or putrid, but they’re never faint. There is sign pollution, wherein it’s often impossible to find what one is looking for in the sea of signage–even when it lies right in front of one’s face. Colors pop and glow, not smooth pastels, but oranges and purples that you can practically taste.

It shouldn’t have surprised me when I got to the southern edge of the city to find one of the major land uses was Ashrams. Ashrams in all shapes and sizes, from the small but authentic Narayana Gurukula (mentioned a few DAILY PHOTO installments back) to the massive Art of Living International Center–headed by Bangalore’s most famous guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Out Kanakapura Road, where monkeys sling through trees and fields of corn remind me of my own Hoosier upbringing, lies a diverse collection of houses of spirituality and reflection. They offer a much-needed island of tranquility amid a sea of chaos.

I stayed for nine nights at one of the most singular of these ashrams, Fireflies. One way in which it’s unique is that it’s a “guruless” ashram. That may seem oxymoronic. The terms “guru” and “ashram” seem to go hand in hand. Guru means teacher. My dictionary defines ashram as, “the home of a small community of Hindus.” [I think this definition could be challenged both on the necessity of “smallness” and “Hindu-ness.” As indicated, there are some pretty massive ashrams and there are ones that are associated with non-aligned spiritual groups.] It’s true that the typical ashram has a spiritual leader or yogi as its head. At Fireflies the gurus come and go with the groups that visit. While I was there, besides our group of Thai Yoga Bodywork practitioners, there was a group of psychotherapists and an organization of past life regressionists. Rather than housing a single unified set of beliefs, at this ashram a diverse and sometimes conflicting set of beliefs are harmoniously housed.

As I have little experience with ashrams, I can’t speak authoritatively about other differences. However, it’s my understanding that one other difference between Fireflies and many–more typical–ashrams is that the latter often have limited or non-existent staff. This means that the visitors may do much, if not the bulk, of the work. Fireflies has a staff that does the cooking and takes care of many needs of the visitors. This isn’t to suggest that it’s like a hotel stay. There’s somewhat of an expectation that visitors will take care of the things that they can do for themselves, and the accommodations are basic.

I found the experience of my stay to be beneficial, if not always stress-free. The main source of my stress had little to do with the Ashram. I received my phone sim card right before I left. After a couple of days I got my phone working for a day or two only to have the phone company turn it off because no one was home when they randomly dropped by to verify my address. [Showing up unannounced in the middle of the day and then treating you as non-existent if no one is home is one of the annoying little hallmarks of Indian institutions (corporate and government) that I’ve experienced on more than one occasion.] I will admit that it is a mark of both society’s and my own wussification that we can’t go a few days without being in contact with home and news of the world. Twenty years ago no one would have expected to have such constant verification that all was well in the world. People could go days back then without worrying that the sky was falling. While it wasn’t pleasant to be cut off, it was an eye-opening experience. [I will note that the Ashram property is on a slope and at the low end I got no reception at all, but on the high end I’d get a bar or two–enough to do the job if the phone company wasn’t screwing me over.]

It was also useful to go without brain candy for a while–that is without television and related entertainment. Part of what I hoped to learn from my stay was whether I was prepared to take the 10-day Vipassana meditation course in the spring. The Vipassana course is considerably more spartan level of existence than that of Fireflies.

On some levels, I proved ready, and on others I have yet to do so. I did just fine eating two vegetarian meals and a snack for dinner each day. (I could have had three full meals per day, but I wanted to make sure I was ready to cut my intake adequately. Therefore, I stuck with a snack in the evening and ate reasonable portions for breakfast and lunch.) I found the meals at Fireflies to be quite good, and I had no complaints in that regard. It should be noted that the ashram is not an easy walk to any restaurants or substantial stores (there are a couple small shops up on the corner, but they’re geared toward locals and don’t necessarily have what a traveler needs) so it’s not easy to go out for something–though I did see one auto-rickshaw around the premises at times.

The true test of preparation for the Vipassana course is that there are no books or notebooks allowed. This will be my greatest challenge. I finished two novels and two nonfiction books on Kindle during my stay, plus probably another 100 pages of other books, and I filled 2/3rds of a journal–mostly with notes from the TYB workshop.

Also, at the Vipassana meditation course one is not allowed to speak to anyone but the instructor at a specific time when they take questions about the course. I wasn’t nearly so cut off from humanity at Fireflies. The workshop participants and teachers were around all day and I had occasional conversations in the evening with others at the ashram. Furthermore, I’m a fairly solitary creature.

It was interesting that during the weekends there were so many people around, but during the middle of the week there were few. For a while I thought I was the only non-staff member person at the ashram—though I later found that to be incorrect.

So my time at the ashram was Spartan, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

I should point out that there are some impressive stone carvings located throughout the property. The artists are international in scope. Each of these carvings or sculptures offers its own story. I’ll attach a few pics for your edification.

20120101_16151920120101_16142320120101_155241

Why I Study Thai Yoga Bodywork

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher.

Receiving my 60 hour course certificate from the teacher

Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB), also called Nuad Boran (ancient bodywork) or Thai Massage, is a system that integrates assisted yoga-style stretching, reflexology, acupressure massage, and elements of Ayurvedic healing to stretch and massage the body. Its history is believed to date back 2,500 years to Northern India, where its roots lay with Jivaka Kumar Bhaccha–a physician in Buddha’s community. However, the art reached its perfection in Thailand, the nation with which it remains most closely associated.

I recently completed an introductory course in this system in Bangalore through the Inner Mountain School of Healing Arts.

Before I moved to India, I thought a lot about what I would like to learn while I was on the other side of the planet. There’s a great deal of expertise on subjects sparsely taught in the US, and it can often be had at a bargain in comparison to American prices.

Some of the skills I wanted to foster were to be expected. I wanted to learn more about meditation and the ways of living in the moment and with a quieter mind. I’ve played with such practice for a long time, and I came to believe that becoming a better martial artist  and person depended upon cultivating fudōshin— an immovable spirit. I’ve seen no route to that state that circumvents quieting the mind, and that requires observing and training the mind. One can only become more physically capable for a time, then growth depends upon the mind, on shedding petty impulses, on being incapable of manipulation, and on being unswayed my the vagaries of emotion. I’ve begun working on this objective through visits to meditation centers and by making my own practice more regular.

I also want to learn about other martial arts, besides the one I’ve been learning my entire adult life. It makes sense to learn something about the indigenous martial arts of the places I visit. I want to experience the similarities and differences of these arts, and to learn about the cultural elements that shape those differences and elements of uniqueness.

However, one of the biggest surprises has been my new-found interest in studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) When I visited Thailand last fall I studied Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) for a week and Thai cooking for a day, but it didn’t occur to me to take one of the many Thai Massage short courses until I was back home. My interest in TYB is reflective of a broader desire to learn more about the indigenous healing methods of Asia, and that goes back a few years.  I developed a vague feeling that I wanted to study such things a couple of years back when I realized my body was deteriorating too fast for comfort, and Western medical treatment consisted of advising me to stop doing a number of the activities that I love.  Still, I must admit that I didn’t really give  a lot of thought to this interest until I started this course.

Having now thought about it, my interest in studying TYB is closely linked to my interest in martial arts. This notion might seem hard to reconcile.  TYB is a healing art, and martial arts, while they should be grounded in a sound moral philosophy, are essentially about inflicting damage on a body. The  two disciplines seem to be at odds. Still, they have a great deal in common. In each, mindfulness is key. Control of the breath is a common element of both. In Japanese martial arts there is a word, taijutsu, which means body skills, but which implies efficient use of the body. This means favoring bigger muscle groups over smaller ones where possible and taking advantage of the body’s natural alignment (e.g. straight spine) and body weight. These concepts that I had long practiced in budō were also ubiquitous in TYB. Furthermore, a number of the points that I had learned to attack, were now targeted to heal.

Still, some of these same points could be said to be common to any system of movement done properly, be it dance or exercise. So why I was drawn to TYB in particular? The most direct reason is to learn how to fix the failings of my body, and those that I’ve witnessed in others. I experienced these methods as a recipient in Thailand, and could see their value at once.

There’s also a benefit from increased understanding of anatomy and bodily awareness. One learns about how the musculature works to move the body in a way that isn’t easily picked up from textbooks. One begins to read bodies like others read books. One gains insight into the bodily deficiencies that one has taken on without even being cognizant of them. A martial artist may, on average, be a hundred times more bodily aware than the average person, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t great room for growth. (It speaks to how sadly lacking in bodily awareness most people are as much as anything.)

Still, this isn’t the full story of why I wanted to learn this art. Another reason came to mind in the introductory session, before we even began learning the technique. The teacher was talking about how TYB teaches humility, and how one has to learn to touch a stranger’s feet with compassion and devotion to that person’s well-being–an act that doesn’t come naturally to most of us.  Admittedly, this isn’t a level of humility and compassion that I have developed in life to date. Though I am the son of a mother who–as a nurse as well as a mother–was probably more at ease with putting the well-being others above her own comfort than anyone else I’ve ever met, for me this is a struggle outside my comfort zone. The martial arts teach a kind of humility (a lesson that all too many practitioners find a way to make an end run around), but if one’s practice is separate from one’s career field it’s easy for the notion of service to be so abstract as to lose meaning.

This, of course, returns back to my earlier mention of the mind. One’s ego is the biggest barrier to personal growth. Ego makes one easily manipulated. Ego makes one subject to petty impulses. Ego makes one give into fear and anger.

Learning a stretch

Learning a stretching technique