alan little’s weblog archive for june 2007

random words of wisdom

27th June 2007 permanent link

Various random yoga quotes that I picked up here and there.

Bryan Kest (mp3) in an audio interview on yoga peeps:

the challenges are really just getting onto the mat … with a baby, and another one on the way, and a busy life, the challenge is really just showing up.

My friend Tara in Mysore:

Have you ever done your practice and not felt better afterwards?

Lou Reed on Tai Chi (and yoga, and music …):

Nobody can do your practice for you

Mark Twight:

What you know does not matter - what you do matters.

Steven Barnes:

Anything worth doing well is worth doing badly at first.

related entries: Yoga

a kind of magic?

26th June 2007 permanent link

What is yoga asana practice for anyway? Part Four of a sporadic ongoing essay. (Part One, Part Two, Part Three)

This part originally began as Part Two of the series, but somehow it dragged as I was writing it and so ended up being last. This must tell us something. Most probably that I don’t personally find this part of the subject particularly interesting or relevant to my life and practice, even though plenty of other people seemingly do. Hatha Yoga as a way of raising kundalini, aligning chakras and so and so forth.

There is a certain tendency among gullible western yoga students of New Age tendencies to note and remember little bits of Patanjali and lots of the stuff about kundalini, chakras and the subtle body in mediaeval tantric yoga texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and not notice or care that those two bodies of learning represent quite different and to some degree contradictory perspectives. It is in the mediaeval tantric stuff that we find discussion of esoteric concepts like chakras and kundalini.

Patanjali is all about quite systematically analysing and learning to control one’s mental processes in order to learn that they are not Who You Are. Tantric hatha yoga was first documented much later – the Hatha Yoga Pradipika dates from about two thousand years after Patanjali. Those later texts may be documenting oral traditions that were already ancient when they were first written down, that go back to Patanjali’s time or even before. Or not. We may never know. And no matter how old, they are from a quite different tradition that is about quite different things than Patanjali.

Patanjali may have been aware of some of that stuff, but doesn’t appear to have regarded it as very interesting or important. In fact, he goes out of his way to warn us, at considerable length by his standards, that siddhis – supernatural powers or unusual abilities derived from the practice of yoga – are not what it’s all about at all. I have the impression that the authors of the mediaeval tantric texts seem to have somewhat overlooked that part. I’m not an expert, but I’ve heard Pattabhi Jois, who is, talk pretty dismissively about the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

I don’t take it literally at all. That is, I don’t doubt that real, repeatable phenomena are being described by these texts; there are too many consistent descriptions of them, from too many independent sources, for that not to be the case. But I tend towards a sceptical/scientific/materialist view of them – not with a closed mind, I hope, but one that applies Occam’s razor and says: show me conclusively that these things can’t be satisfactorily explained as ordinary physical, physiological, neurological phenomena, then I’ll be ready to consider other hypotheses. I thought for a long time the standard explanations in old yogic texts of how and why these phenomena work were metaphorical or just downright wrong. Kundalini as the phlogiston of metaphysics.

While the original writers probably had a first person experience of what they were talking about that conformed to the basic laws of physics, all the baggage that has been attached because of misunderstanding has obscured the real knowledge to the point of fantasy.
Mushtaq Ali

Then I had some experiences, then I read a book.

Last summer I was working quite intensively on my backbending. I have a very stiff upper back, caused by … whatever. Rock climbing, desk job, unresolved emotional issues … it doesn’t matter. I have it. And when I started seriously trying to stop having it, one of the things that happened after a few weeks was that I started to feel little sharp tingles, like tiny electric shocks, between my shoulder blades. I put this down to nerve endings starting to get signals in places where nothing had moved for years, or something like that. Until one warm summer afternoon when I had just finished working on my backbends on the hill in my local park, and I got a huge jolt right in the mula bandha.

That was surprising.

Paul Grilley, about some of whose ideas I am sceptical, nevertheless has an interesting book entitled Yin Yoga. In it he cites the work of Japanese researcher Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama, who believes he has identified electrical currents flowing in the body’s connective tissue, corresponding to the chi meridians of acupuncture. Grilley describes and recommends a slow, relaxed yoga practice with long static holds in postures, that is designed to stretch and realign connective tissue rather than muscle fibres, in order to facilitate the free flow of these currents. (*)

Something else I learned in the last year, starting in some classes I took with Mark Whitwell: how, by chanting or doing breathing exercises whilst directing attention to the seven main chakras in turn, working up from the root chakra at the base of the spine to the crown of the head, to quite quickly get into states of deep inward focus – pratyahara – in which I feel a sense of great calm and contentment. This is nice. But does it mean I’m tapping into some kind of specal energy via my chakras, or are they just serving as a convenient focus for meditation in the same way that yoga asanas (see Part Three) also can? Different focus points can quite obviously have different effects – even for me with my limited experience, chakra-plus-breath meditation is different from breath alone, and very different indeed from heartbeat.

These techniques are real and powerful. But does learning to generate weird electrical impulses in your body or pleasant mental states have anything to do with actually becoming enlightened? Not as such directly, if we want to take Patanjali’s opinions on the matter seriously. At most we can take as a sign that we’ve learned enough mental and physical control to be able to direct and focus our attention in a certain way for a certain amount of time. Directed and focused attention is the useful skill that’s actually being learned here, not the coincidental and arbitrary things that we choose to use as the objects of our attention and focus when we’re practicing.

That was the state of my thinking/experience/understanding up to a few weeks ago, when I discovered the blog of science fiction writer, martial artist and all-round interesting thinker Steven Barnes. He has an interesting idea about the chakras corresponding to aspects of human psychology, similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs - the root chakra to physical survival etc. Also worth thinking about.

(*) I note here, without necessarily expressing a conclusion either way, that this would appear to go against a general medical/physiological consensus that stretching connective tissue is unhealthy and dangerous as it can lead to over-flexibility and unstable joints. Something some very flexible yoga practitioners would do well to think about. The ashtanga vinyasa series are good here, since you can’t get by without being both adequately flexible and strong. I’ve seen very flexible students cruise through primary series and the beginning of intermediate, only to falter in a big way towards the end of intermediate where serious strength starts to be required.

related entries: Yoga

what i learned today

25th June 2007 permanent link

A Monday Family Life Vignette

If you buy used lego bricks in bulk on ebay, sterilising them before you your child plays with them is probably being unnecessarily paranoid.

If you decide you want to anyway, you are probably better off using a mild bleach solution than boiling them. Unless you want to build melted-looking Gaudi lego structures. (Next time, remember to look up “plastic” in the dictionary first)

Time to go and conceal the evidence before my wife gets back from her yoga class. Every day, throw something away.

eat my shorts

20th June 2007 permanent link

“Every day, throw something away” is an item permanently near the top of my to-do list in mori. I have various reasons for this:

My Patagonia Stand-Up Shorts (nine inch inseam) were beautiful, useful and precious to me. I had them for about six or seven years. I wore them all the time when I was in India, except when local friends insisted I wear long trousers for the sake of decency. Back in Germany for the last five years I wore them all summer. They are made of a cotton that is hard-wearing but at the same time supremely soft and comfortable after a few hundred washes. They have the best stuff-carrying pockets. They are, in the (nine inch inseam) version, adequately stylish – at any rate my wife, Final Arbiter of these matters, has never said anything against them.

Hard-wearing doesn’t mean they last forever, though, and when holes finally appeared in the front of the legs I reluctantly decided yesterday it was time to let go.

I have tried to get new ones, but Patagonia marketing in their infinite wisdom have decided not to sell the (nine inch inseam) version in Europe any more. They are still listed in the American catalog, but the SoHo store didn’t have them when I was in New York on holiday a couple of years ago.

So, here’s how poorly developed my aparigraha skills are: an appeal. If anybody reading this is currently in North America and has plans to travel to Europe in the near future, would you be willing to have a pair of Patagonia Stand-Up Shorts (nine inch inseam) delivered to your address, bring them with you to Europe and send them to me? It would be worth, at the very least, eternal gratitude, elimination of some karmic burden, glowing mentions on the internet etc. In the highly unlikely event that you had plans to visit Munich it could be worth more: quantities of free beer, insider tips to the best biergartens (and/or yoga classes), maybe even dinner invitations …

UPDATE: good grief, it worked. Yogamum, to whom I am eternally grateful, will be en route to Europe next month bearing my new shorts. This does not mean I am in any way involved in this nefarious yoga clothing exchange ring. And I always thought the Encinitas ashtangis seemed like such a nice crowd.

seven people

19th June 2007 permanent link

OK. Another list to add to Cara’s eight. Eight again? Turns out to be seven, corresponding coincidentally [?] to the seven main chakras etc.

Seven people I have encountered in my life who I would regard as authentic masters/geniuses.

Three yoga masters:

  1. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois
  2. Dharma Mittra
  3. Bryan Kest

The ayurdevic masseur who healed my knee:

  1. P. Vijayan

Two musicians I have heard play live, one in an arena, one in a bar; one extremely famous, one somewhat less so:

  1. Neil Young
  2. Steve Lafleur

Most Talented Rock Climber Of His Generation, all round mad genius, and the only person on this list I ever knew personally at all well:

  1. Johnny Dawes

related entries: Yoga Music


19th June 2007 permanent link

Oops. Tagged by Cara. This has never happened to me before. Here’s what I’m supposed to do:

  1. Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
  2. People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
  3. At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.
  4. If you fail to do this within eight hours, you will not reach Third Series or attain your most precious goals for at least two more lifetimes.

Right then. (Wait a minute. Eight hours? Sod that. I have a child to put to bed and a yoga practice to do, not long after which it will be my bedtime too. Anyway, I didn’t check my mail until sixteen hours after Cara wrote, so I already blew it. Schade, as we say in Bavaria.) Ok. Deep personal revelations, or trivia? Trivia. Mostly.

  1. My first camera, a little Ricoh rangefinder, was a twenty-first birthday present. I got some decent pics with that camera for a few years until it died of sand on a bouldering trip to Fontaineblau. It was ten years before I got another one, at least partly because my first wife feared photography could turn out to be an expensive pursuit. So did I, in fact, and we were both right, but it turns out to be worth it. Here’s another cute little camera from Ricoh that’s getting people excited at the moment. Too expensive for me though.
  2. I was fourteen when I first went abroad, and thirty when I first flew in an aeroplane. My son on the other hand had been in six countries before he was even born. At least – I would have to check with my wife to be sure I haven’t forgotten a couple.
  3. In my last year at school, my girlfriend’s grandpa’s doctor was Kate Bush’s dad. Hey, when I was a hormone-dazed adolescent male any connection to Ms Bush no matter how tenuous was a big deal. I challenge any straight man to look at the cover photos from her first couple of albums and not understand why.
  4. Circus Roncalli is quite possibly the most fun I’ve had at a live show of any kind, ever. Only one animal act (horses), otherwise acrobatics and clowning. Traditional circus, none of your Cirque du Soleil modernism, but really high class acts. (My four year old son liked it too)
  5. The prospect of a twenty minute subway ride with nothing to read, or write, or at least music to listen to, appalls me. This suggests I still have a considerable amount of work to do on my meditation practice.
  6. I very much dislike Michael O’Neill’s yoga photos in the currrent issue of Vanity Fair (outtakes). Except the one of Dharma Mittra.
  7. OK: embarrassing and/or controversial non-trivia: I thought invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein was a good idea. My wife had more sense: “we didn’t thank Hitler for invading us to overthrow Stalin”
  8. And Global Warming. Doesn’t worry me all that much. Natural climate fluctuations happen all the time, and we would have been on the upward slope anyway after the Little Ice Age of a few hundred years ago. Apparently we’re helping it along a bit, or a lot. We were going to have to find alternatives to fossil fuels within a generation or so anyway. Hysteria about nuclear energy isn’t helping. I’m old enough to remember scares about the Next Ice Age that we were all encouraged to take seriously in the seventies, along with all other the running out of everything / end of civilization scares of that era, all of which also haven’t happened yet.

“At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people”. Ah. Now we get to admitting really sad things, namely the main reason this has been delayed so long. Johnny-No-Mates can’t think of eight people who might enjoy responding to a request from his blog. Here’s four (only one of whom, as far as I’m aware, even knows what “Third Series” is):

  1. Sarah
  2. Charlie
  3. Michael S
  4. Michael J

anecdotal acoustics

17th June 2007 permanent link

Brian Micklethwait links to Norman Lebrecht on the improved acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall in London. This was going to be a comment on Brian’s blog, until I remembered that writing one’s own blog in the form of excessively long comments on other peoples’ is rude.

The acoustics of concert halls really matter to the people who play in them for a living. Presumably they would to real classical music listeners like Brian too, if Brian didn’t these days prefer listening to recording to going to concerts. Dilettantes like me don’t really have enough experience to know the difference, but we know people who do.

When I told my freelance classical musician brother that I was going to a concert at the Wigmore Hall in London, about ten years ago, he asked me very anxiously to tell him what the acoustic was like. Apparently the building had had something major done to it, and everybody in the trade was worried that they might have completely screwed up London’s famously best-sounding chamber music venue. Something about digging a new cellar underneath it? Which seemed like a utterly strange thing to contemplate doing to any building, let alone a concert hall. I was unable to help him, having never been there before. It didn’t sound obviously terrible.

Then there was the wind playing friend who told me, when the Bridgewater Hall opened in Manchester, that the stage acoustic is so forward-projecting that the wind players at the back of the orchestra could barely hear what the strings were up to at the front. She didn’t appear to regard this as an unmitigated disaster.

Currently listening to: Wilhelm Furtwängler leading the Berlin Philharmonic through Brahms’s Haydn Variations. Beautiful. Recorded in 1950 and presumably not in the current Berlin Philharmonic Hall, which looks like a yellow lego spaceship and therefore can’t possibly have existed in 1950. I have no idea what it sounds like, I’ve just seen the outside of it whilst visiting the art gallery next door.

[Cara: still haven’t forgotten. It was “respond within eight weeks”, wasn’t it?]

related entries: Music

war photographer

14th June 2007 permanent link

Yesterday I dropped Greatest Living War Photographer James Nachtwey’s name in a comment thread on Michael Jennings’ blog. This morning, surfing the online photographer [Greatest Living Photography Blog?] at breakfast, I noticed a link to a speech by Nachtwey accepting a journalism award.

James Nachtwey is a fantastic photographer, the only one whose work has ever caused me to have to walk out of an exhibition, sit down and cry. So this little coincidence seems like a good excuse to link to War Photographer, a very good documentary about his work that I went to see with my wife about a week before our son was born, my suggestion that there would be things in it that weren’t suitable viewing for a highly pregnant woman having been comprehensively ignored.

The Magnum Photo agency used to have very good online portfolios for their photographers, but have now shot themselves in the foot by hiding everything behind a subscription-only search wall.

related entries: Photography


7th June 2007 permanent link

You don’t need to read anything about yoga at all. As long as you get on your mat and do your practice on a (more or less) daily basis, everything else is secondary. Tertiary, even. Do your practice and all is coming.

However: if like me you still suffer from the morbid urge to verbalise and intellectualise everything, then you need to either get over it or read souljerky (formerly Sri Ganesha Tea & Book Stall). Easily the internet’s most intelligent yoga linkage and commentary.

related entries: Yoga


6th June 2007 permanent link

Seven main chakras. Didn’t Saint Teresa of Avila write about a castle with seven rooms? (Pardon my almost complete ignorance of Christian mystical traditions. There’s a guy on one of the yoga forums, a catholic and an advanced ashtanga practitioner whom I respect very highly, who could definitely put me right on this one)

Does the number seven crop up repeatedly in these matters because it is superstitiously regarded as an “auspicious” number in many cultures? Or is it regarded as an auspicious number in many cultures because it corresponds to something real, deep and important that has been recognised independently many times by advanced meditation practitioners in different cultures?

Or to something real but not especially deep or important? When I was a young software designer, I was taught as a cardinal principle that system design diagrams are primarily for communicating ideas to people, and that The Magic Number Seven, Plus Or Minus Two is therefore the correct number of boxes-with-interconnecting arrows per picture, being the number of things a person can easily accommodate at once in their short term memory.

Would a hypothetical intelligent species with eleven short term memory registers instead of seven then have eleven mystical energy centres, eleven rooms in the Castle of God, etc.?

Or: do we have seven short term memory registers not because of evolutionary coincidence but because that is in some computational/mathematical/engineering sense the right number to have? And supposing we were in the realms of Mathematical Truth / engineering optima, then Truth = Beauty = God and voilà, we’re back to deep and important.

Alternatively … but no. If I pursue this line of “reasoning” (for want of a better word) much further, people might start to think I’m stoned. Which, as it happens, I’m not.

This is a spinoff from Part Four of my ongoing series of essays on “advanced yoga asana practice: what for?” (Part One, Part Two, Part Three), which has been dragging its heels for some time but which I will definitely have to get my finger out and finish now.

related entries: Yoga

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