alan little’s weblog archive for january 2006

pain, no gain

25th January 2006 permanent link

If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.

Words of [highly relevant to] yoga wisdom from Paul Graham.

See also ashtanga yoga teacher David Williams.

If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.

Compare and contrast quite possibly the worst advice ever put into writing by any senior yoga teacher:

People not used to sitting on the floor seldom have flexible knees. At the start they will feel excruciating pain around the knees. By perseverance and continued practice the pain will gradually subside and they can then stay in the pose comfortably for a long time.

BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga, discussed here.

related entries: Yoga

baroque the f*ck?

22nd January 2006 permanent link

Today’s Sunday family outing also involved a visit to the monastery church at Andechs (Kloster Andechs is better known as the home of one of Bavaria’s, and therefore the world’s, finest breweries)

Hmm …

Andechs church interior

(Picture courtesy of

I have to grudgingly admit this sort of baroque art & architecture is quite impressive in its own bizarre way, but I find it utterly without aesthetic merit. Unlike gothic or romanesque cathedrals, it completely fails to arouse any kind of spiritual awe in me. Maybe it does so in other people – as Saint Bernard of Clairvaux apparently said:

We know that bishops, since they have to serve both the wise and the foolish, and cannot excite the devotion of the lewd populace with spiritual ornaments, do so with material ornaments.

How anybody can possibly use the same term to describe this and the lean, elegant, logical beauty of Bach’s music is beyond me.

ice bells

22nd January 2006 permanent link

Sunday family walk today by the side of the lake at Ammersee.

We’ve had a thaw in the last few days and there was just a fringe of broken bits of ice along the edge of the lake. And a quite beautiful musical sound as the waves clinked the bits of ice together, reminiscent of some kind of Japanese minimalist percussion music with bamboo bells. You couldn’t hear it from a few yards away, you had to be right by the water’s edge.

ice on Ammersee

finding yoga teachers

20th January 2006 permanent link

Somebody wrote to me the other day:

Hello Alan,

I saw your web blog and thought this might be a question you could answer. I’ve been practicing yoga for about 15 years off and on. I practiced Hatha for a few years and now am on to Kundalini. It’s been brought to my attention by my fiancé who is Indian, that it’s difficult to find a good teacher in the West as it’s not so important in NA whether there is a lineage and whether that knowledge is passed down along with blessings to the next teacher. It seems we are not so serious here what with our oxymoronic power yoga centers and the like....

Originally I was attracted to Kundalini as it seemed to integrate a more balanced view of exercise that comprises spiritual teachings. But now I’m wondering if I’ve made the right choice. I want to get serious about yoga and find a practice that takes me through this life. I’d like to a) find a yoga that follows a lineage and is anchored in a tradition and b) be able to find that school in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Is it possible or necessary to find a teacher who has been taught by a guru and whose practice of yoga has been blessed. Any suggestions you might have would be received with great thanks.

Interesting question – the current western rash of well-intentioned but inexperienced and under-qualified yoga teachers, versus the Indian mindset about direct guru lineages (allegedly) dating back hundreds or thousands of years. My thoughts:

it’s certainly necessary to find a teacher who is dedicated and serious – I wouldn’t regard it as worth studying with anybody whose yoga practice wasn’t the central focus of their life. It’s also important to find somebody whose teaching style you personally are comfortable with and who teaches a style of yoga that suits you. That doesn’t mean it has to be all laughs all the time – nothing worthwhile is – but if you don’t basically like your teacher and mostly enjoy your practice, then you’re not going to be motivated to carry on for very long.

Direct guru lineage is a good positive indication of a teacher having the necessary qualities, but I don’t see it as a be and end all in itself. In ashtanga vinyasa yoga – the style I personally practice, – direct guru lineage is the norm; most (though not all) of the good teachers have studied directly with and are blessed/authorised by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

I’m very much a believer in the qualities of the teacher being more important than the content of the teaching. On yoga message boards I constantly come across people saying “well, I have a good teacher of Yoga Style X in my town and no teacher of Yoga Style Y, but I want to practice Yoga Style Y so which book/DVD should I buy?” (where Yoga Style Y tends to be the one I personally practice). I always say stick with the good teacher. Depressingly often that’s a minority opinion.

Even some of the “oxymoronic power yoga” teachers you seem unimpressed by are good and serious yoga teachers – admittedly maybe a lower proportion than in some other yoga traditions.

Something else to watch out for is that these days, yoga being so fashionable, there are far too many yoga teachers who are doubtless very dedicated, enthusiastic and well-meaning, but have started teaching far too soon and really don’t have enough experience and knowledge yet. I personally wouldn’t consider studying with anybody with less than about ten years regular and committed practice under their belt. “Under their belt” is a good phrase there: in many martial arts styles it’s possible for a dedicated student to get to black belt level in maybe five years or a bit less; but then it’s a big mark of pride among “real” black belts to have practiced so much that you’ve worn most of the black silk outer layer off of the belt and it’s well on the way to being white again. You should be able to detect signs of the same thing having happened in your yoga teacher – trickier to spot without the belt though. Yoga mats don’t last long enough to be a reliable visual indicator.

Lots of vague generalities there; I’m afraid I don’t know and can’t personally recommend anybody in Vancouver. I can say that in Canada any ashtanga teacher who has studied/trained with a guy called Darby in Montreal is likely to be good.

Steve Pavlina is of the opinion that “my writing time is better spent producing articles to be seen by thousands of people rather than individual emails to be seen by only one person.” Re-use, Steve, re-use. If something interests you enough to be worth writing a long/considered email response, maybe just write it and then decide to post it too.

related entries: Yoga

the price of screws

15th January 2006 permanent link

Apple’s Powermac G5 computers only take two disk drives as standard – removing the side of the stylish but huge brushed aluminium case reveals that most of the space inside is taken up by enormous heatsinks for the the processors – and the two drives are fitted via a rather nice system of plastic grooves into which special dome-shaped rubber screws slide after you have attached them to the sides of the disk drives. The machine normally ships with one disk already in place and a spare set of screws for a second disk.

This is great except when you buy a used Powermac G5, as I just did, and the previous owner has replaced the original hard disk with one that is faster (good) but small (bad), and has lost the special screws that came with the original disk (very bad, as it turns out). Googling reveals that these special screws are not easy to come by; eventually a Mac repair shop in England quoted me €35 for a set.

Thirty five bucks for four screws!!?? Eek. Are these things milspec or something?

Looked at another way, €35 isn’t really that much when what I’m talking about is putting a €300 disk drive into a €2000 computer. But it’s the principle of the thing.

What turns out to work perfectly well is 3mm plastic screws from the hardware store fitted with two plastic washers apiece (determined by experimentation: three washers was too tight a fit) at a total cost of four euros for more screws & washers than I need. This is good because Plan B involved cutting & drilling bits of pencil eraser to fit over normal metal drive screws, a project that would have involved easily €35 worth of labour costs assessed at any reasonable hourly rate (although it would still have been worth it for the principle of the thing)

(I will try to remember to mention it if my disk drive vibrates itself to death inside three weeks. It’s pretty quiet so far though)

related entries: Mac

the price of disks

15th January 2006 permanent link

“There are no good stories out there on how a family manages terabytes of data. None.” Bill de HÓra observes.

Indeed. I am old enough to remember working for IBM one what was then one of the larger databases in Europe: a whole terabyte of store sales data, housed on a thousand one-gigabyte disks. That was only ten years ago too. (These days you could have a petabyte for about the same money, although it would have to be two thousand 500 gigabyte disks.)

I passed the terabyte-in-my-living-room mark the year before last, and am now somewhere well north of two terabytes. Most of that consists of 500 gigabytes in my desktop computer and two backups thereof on LaCie firewire drives, one of which lives next to the computer and one at work as an offsite backup, swapped every couple of weeks. I used to just have one backup, until this article by Ken Rockwell inspired me to do something about having another one offsite.

The big problem now is that I’m alarmingly close to using up all 500 gigbytes (times three), and bigger than 500 gigabyte disks aren’t readily available or affordable yet. I suppose they wil be soon. 500 gigabytes nearly full up of what? About 200 each of music and photographs, plus other miscellaneous stuff.

This isn’t all really necessary. Most of the music is a backup of my CD collection, and so not as precious and irreplaceable as the photographs. Do I really need three backups of the backup? Until the whole collection just gets too big to back up feasibly, it’s just easier to synch everything with SuperDuper than it is to worry about different schedules and places for different things. (I don’t really need music in a lossless format either – the likelihood that my middle aged ears could hear any difference between that and a compressed format half the size or less is minimal)

I maybe need to re-examine my priorities here. I have most of my easily (albeit expensively) replaceable music CDs backed up; meanwhile most of my lifetime’s creative output is sitting completely un-backed-up next to the computer in the form of a cupboard full of slides and negatives, of which I have backup-quality digital scans of maybe one percent or less. Not that the negs and slides are nearly as vulnerable as the last two years’ digital photos: a tiny drive glitch could easily trash all those to the point where they would be retrievable only at vast expense by a data recovery service, whereas it would take a pretty big domestic catastrophe to destroy all the slides and negatives in a locked (albeit not fireproof) cupboard.

Burn CDs or DVDs? No thanks. How long would it take to back up 500 gigabytes onto CDs? About a year? Where would I put them? Besides, I’ve had plenty of only two or three year old burned CDs go unreadable. DVDs alleviate the burning problem somewhat but are even less archival. Tapes are expensive and also not really big enough. No, hard disks are the only viable way forward for the time being.

They’re not cheap, though – and I’m only dealing with music and still photos, I have hardly any video on the computer. And it’s a lot of hassle remembering to do it, and lugging the backup disks around. Last week I was fumbling round behind the computer with one of them and broke its Firewire 400 connector. It still has two Firewire 800 connectors, but those are only useful on a severely limited number of computers.

Let’s keep this all in perspective: in pre-PC days, my PhD supervisor told me he had a colleague who lost all his paper notes and drafts for a book in an office fire, and had to start again from scratch. At least most people these days most people have the option to avoid something like that happening to them, although lots apparently don’t care enough to bother.

related entries: Mac

dedication and determination

14th January 2006 permanent link

Many people say they lack the time [for daily yoga practice], yet they can eat, sleep, work, chat and sometimes even quarrel. What they really lack is dedication and determination, not time.
(well known Indian yoga teacher) Yogacharya Venkatesh of Mysore

related entries: Yoga

sometimes details do matter

11th January 2006 permanent link

Sometimes, however, details do matter.

In one of the yoga DVDs I borrowed from my teacher, Pattabhi Jois is talking Sharath through a demonstration. They get to Marichyasana D. Most people find Marichyasana D the hardest thing in the ashtanga primary series. I struggled with it for years, and still don’t find it easy. So Guruji clearly thinks it is worth pointing out an important detail about how Sharath is doing it:

Your hips and feet one line you take, easy is coming. Your feet is coming touching here [points to knee] trying you – no. Not coming that asana. This method!

In other words (English isn't Pattabhi Jois’s first language, or even his second or third), the foot that is on the floor should be tucked back towards the buttock. Like Sharath in this dodgy DVD screen grab:

Marichyasana D

Whereas I’ve always done it with the foot that is one the floor quite far forward, trying to bring that foot and the knee of the lotus leg close together. Here I am a couple of years ago, with the foot way forward although sadly not very far in towards the knee:

Marichyasana D

Sharath is of course thinner, stronger and more flexible than I am. But his grandfather is right, as he usually is about matters yogic: when I try with the foot further back, it’s an order of magnitude easier for me too.

For some reason I thought foot forward was the correct position, and that it was supposed to be a preparation for this even harder position from the first advanced ashtanga series, in which the foot on the floor completely crosses over the lotus leg (Lino Miele demonstrates):

paripurna matseyendrasana (Lino Miele)

Why did I never pick up on this up before? It could have saved me months or years of struggling. I can’t have been the only person making that mistake either – I assume Pattabhi Jois wouldn’t go to the trouble of pointing it out in a public demonstration if he didn’t think he had been seeing far too much of it. It doesn’t really matter – a large part of yoga practice is accepting that you are where you are, difficulties you are having now are a golden opportunity to learn and regrets about the past are pointless. Still I find it curious – it was Sharath who taught me this position, so where did I get the idea about doing it with my foot in the wrong place? Maybe Sharath didn’t think to tell me where to put my foot – he has probably been able to do Marichyasana D effortlessly for as long as he can remember without having to worry about the details, and could do it easily even if he did have his foot in the wrong place (here’s my friend Arjuna – also thinner, stronger and more flexible than I am – doing it effortlessly with his foot quite a bit further out than Sharath). Maybe Sharath did tell me, but I was too busy struggling to hear or remember. Whatever. I know now.

Also worth noting that the reason this particular detail is important is because it concerns the functional mechanics of getting into the position efficiently. It has nothing to do with anybody’s preconceptions about neatness or elegance of form.

(Just out of curiosity I checked BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. He says the heel of the foot on the floor should be against the perineum, whereas in ashtanga yoga it’s more out to the side because we are supposed to be trying to get both buttocks on the floor – although not many people actually can in this position. Iyengar’s yoga approach is different from Pattabhi Jois’s and his versions of postures aren’t necessarily canonical; nevertheless I find it interesting that he also doesn’t say the foot should be forward.)

(While I’m in the mood for checking books, I now find that Pattabhi Jois in his book Yoga Mala – which I read four years ago, although evidently not carefully enough – also clearly says there that the heel should be pulled in towards the buttock)

Standard Disclaimer: taking advice about how to do difficult yoga asanas from random strangers on the internet may not be the wisest thing you could possibly do.

related entries: Yoga

windows woes

11th January 2006 permanent link

James Robertson and Steve Crandall have been writing lately about how having a Windows PC at home – or worse still, being computer-savvy oneself and having friends & relatives who aren’t, but who have Windows PCs at home – is rapdily becoming a huge security and administration nightmare. I am beginning to see their point.

At Christmas a friend of mine was having a problem with Microsoft Office: it had decided for no apparent reason it was going to start complaining about Frontpage not being installed, every time he tried to do something totally unrelated to Frontpage like opening a spreadsheet. The dialog came up and had to be cancelled about a dozen times before you could actually get anything done. Virus? Office actually having spontaneously uninstalled part of itself for no reason? Neither would surprise me and either way, not really what I wanted to be doing in my Christmas holiday. (Particularly since the infantile, amateurish Windows XP blue-and-orange-blobs look makes me want to puke every time I look at it, which thankfully isn’t very often since I still use Windows 2000 at work)

My friend also has a dialup Internet connection. He says his antivirus updates are getting so big he has to do them overnight, otherwise they tie up the phone for lengths of time the rest of the family find unacceptable. And 5 megabytes of pictures that somebody had emailed him were timing out either Outlook or his dialup connection when he tried to download them. I showed him how to access his email account via his ISP's webmail and delete the message there. Having a Mac wouldn’t magically stop my friend’s friends sending him all their photos of Hong Kong, but a Mac wouldn’t time out for no obvious reason whilst trying to do a simple thing like download a big email attachment. I couldn’t find anywhere to check or set the timeout value, or maximum allowed mail size, or whatever might have been the problem; trying to do that wasn’t really how I wanted to spend my Christmas holiday either.

I may just have found a home for my old iBook.

What's stopping me is one piece of software. My friend is a composer, and in his early 70s, and currently in the process of getting his life's work out of manuscripts and into digital form for posterity. He’s using an apparently very good, but also very expensive, piece of music notation software called Sibelius. Sibelius exists for the Mac – the problem is that my friend got his Windows copy at the student rate while he was enrolled at an adult education college a couple of years back; now he isn’t any more and I very much doubt if Sibelius would allow him to convert his current Windows student license to a Mac license at any kind of reasonable price. A new, full price Sibelius 4 license (Mac or Windows) costs £595, or $1,054 US. I have no problem whatsoever with the makers of Sibelius making a living by charging whatever they like for their product, but at that price my friend is not in the market.

Anybody know any more reasonably priced music notation software for the Mac - must be able to read & write Sibelius files? (Rapid googling suggests there might be good alternatives, if my friend were willing to spend time learning them). Or want to donate a copy of Sibelius for the Mac to a good cause? Any version will do. My friend is currently using Version 3, but originally learned Version 1 and says he preferred that.

related entries: Mac

watching yoga

11th January 2006 permanent link

My yoga teacher is away studying with Pattabhi Jois in India for two months, so I took the opportunity on a pre-Christmas social visit to plunder her shelf of yoga videos and DVDs that won’t be of any use to her while she’s away.

They made for some inspirational viewing over the Christmas holiday. One thing that struck me (again) was the very marked difference between the way advanced Indian and western yoga practitioners approach yoga practice and look while they are doing it.

Two of the films were of Pattabhi Jois’s grandson, Sharath Rangaswamy, doing advanced demonstrations. Some bits of them are so breathtaking they draw gasps and bursts of applause that an audience that includes some western practitioners who are pretty seriously capable themselves. But depite [because?] of being capable of such feats, Sharath performs quite a few basic postures in an outwardly lackadaisical and casual-looking manner that advanced western practitioners never would. Here are pictures of him doing some basic asanas in ways that would throw most western yoga teachers into fits. In the time I studied with Pattabhi Jois and Sharath, I never saw any sign of either of them caring about what students’ postures looked like per se.

The only time Sharath ever gave me anything amounting to advice about technical details of “alignment” in a posture was to radically shorten my stance in parsvottansana – you can see him in the third picture from the bottom on this page, doing it himself with his feet much closer together than most people teach it. A friend of mine asked me at the time “if anybody but Sharath had told you to do it like that, would you still think it was right?”. I thought she was rather missing the point: if I didn’t trust Sharath’s judgement and do what he suggested I should do, what on earth would have been the point of going halfway round the world to study with him?

One of the other videos was of Pattabhi Jois leading some of his advanced western students through an intermediate level demonstration. Here there was much more straightness and outward elegance of line in the most basic postures, with Pattabhi Jois looking on and smiling approvingly in just the same way as he does when Sharath does the same postures completely differently. Despite that there are differences between the westerners too, and it’s interesting – and inspiring in a different way(*) – to see that there are intermediate-level things that people who are quite rightly regarded as advanced practitioners, some of the best yoga teachers in the west, still have visible difficulty with.

(*) It is not however a good idea to justify one’s own practice, even to oneself, as the sum of all the weaknesses one has observed in more advanced practitioners. My teacher is rightly unimpressed every time I try to justify one particular quite basic and simple asana I am weak at by saying “but Sharath does it like this too”. She and I both know Sharath does it like that because he doesn’t feel the need to do it any “better”, doesn’t need to do any additional work on the things that asana works on, whereas I do it like that because I really can’t do it any better.

related entries: Yoga

joachim’s violin

5th January 2006 permanent link

I held Joseph Joachim’s violin.

Just home from an entirely Internet-free two weeks visiting family & friends. Lots of good times had, but this was easily the most remarkable happening – my tenuous and indirect music connections are more illustrious than I ever imagined. Joseph Joachim was the top violin soloist of the late nineteenth century. He is the man Brahms wrote his violin concerto for, and the subject of this fascinating article by Peter Gutmann on early recordings.

He is also the x-times-great-grandfather, or -uncle, or something, of a friend of my brother, who still has in her possession the child-sized violin on which Joachim first performed in public circa 1850.

I’m catching up on my online reading, of which while we’re on the subject of classical music I strongly recommend Brian Micklethwait’s latest.

related entries: Music

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