alan little’s weblog archive for may 2007

tour de … westpark?

29th May 2007 permanent link

Having watched the Tour de France avidly every summer for the last quarter of a century – I might even continue to do so this year – and having had a good friend in college who was a bike racer (hi Nick) I knew exactly what to do about the guy who overtook me at the foot of the hill in the park on my way home from work this evening.

You tuck in tight behind the passing wheel and get a nice slipstream up the hill. Surprisingly, this does actually help a lot; I wouldn’t have thought one would be going fast enough for it to make a difference. Just before the top, you start shifting up your gears and attack hard going over the crest just as the other guy thinks he’s about to get a breather. That showed him.

Of course, competing with people who don’t even know they’re being competed with tends to be easier. And, Jim Henley please note, tactics like this aren’t appropriate or mostly even legal for triathlon.

(Cara, I did get the mail and I haven’t forgotten, but it turns out to be taking a bit longer than eight hours.)

the yogi ain’t psychic

24th May 2007 permanent link

On the 'psychic' issue, one must understand that it does not mean that you are telling the future or anything particularly mystical. Like Ninjutsu it is simply a matter of seeing psychological events manifested physically and structurally. If you understand what you are looking at you can see what is coming and head it off even before it begins.
Nate Morrison on the Russian martial art Systema

Martial arts, sitting meditation, and yoga asana practice look superficially different. They key thing they have in common is this: they are all about paying attention to what is, not to what you want or expect.

In my brief and long-ago martial arts career, in which I reached the giddy heights of brown belt in shotokan karate, I at least had enough awareness to know that thinking too much was my problem when it came to sparring. Once or twice in kata competitions I have clear memories of a state where there was no outside world, no worrying, just the movement – but for me at the time that was just a gift that sporadically happened. I had no idea of how to systematically encourage or pursue it. High level practitioners, I imagine, are people who have learned how enter that state more or less at will.

Climbing was similar for me. Now and again I had no-gravity days where I could do things right at my or beyond my normal limits with complete calm, grace and poise. They are among my life’s clearest and most enduring memories. But again, they were rare and random. Also, they tended to happen most often when I put myself way out on a limb in situations where a mistake meant the hospital at least, and there are consequences if you play that particular game too often. The flow state isn’t guaranteed to come every time.

For me it took another decade of hard life experience, and the discovery that ashtanga vinyasa yoga felt right for me, before I was able to start learning to cultivate these states in a systematic way. Some very fortunate people find the practice that is right for them early in life. Other people like me find it later; we are fortunate too. At least we found it.

I will be adding Nate Morrison’s words to my collections of quotes, comments & thoughts on sutra iii.16 of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

परिणामत्रयसंयमादः अतीतानागतज्ञानमः ॥ १६॥

iii.16 pariṇāmatrayasaṃyamādḥ atītānāgatajñānamḥ

By meditating … the yogi obtains knowledge of the past and the future.

Patanajali now starts to talk about siddhis, or apparently supernatural/superhuman powers than can arise as side effect of yoga practice. Getting caught up in these, pursuing them for their own sake, is the biggest obstacle to true yoga..

The yogi ain’t psychic, says David Williams – he’s just the one who’s been paying the most attention.

Experienced meditators perceive separate events that occur in a fast sequence better than non-meditators, apparently [pdf] because they process initial visual perceptions more efficiently and thus free up mental resources more quickly to be able to notice the second event.

related entries: Yoga

the touch of the wind

20th May 2007 permanent link

Somebody once told me, or I read somewhere, that the sensation of the wind on your skin can be a[nother] good thing to choose as your focus if you should happen to find yourself meditating outdoors.

Which I did today, so I did. I discovered that the technique has an interesting plus: if the wind should happen to stop for a moment, so might your mind for a second or two. Until you(*) blow it by noticing.

(*) “You” meaning who or what, exactly, at this point, since we just mentioned that our conscious processes appeared to have ceased a moment before? Big, big question.

related entries: Yoga

romains fleuves

3rd May 2007 permanent link

Tyler Cowen and Michael Blowhard talk about long books, which some people apparently have a problem with. (UPDATE: more from Michael)

I don’t get that at all. My biggest problem with fiction I enjoy reading is generally that it’s over too soon. I went through Lord Of The Rings as a teenager, as geeky teenagers do. By any reasonable standard my “favourite” “novel” – the one I’ve spent most time reading and derived most pleasure from – must be Patrick O’Brian’s nineteen volume Aubrey-Maturin series.

My meagre contribution (Patrick O’Brian was fond of the word “meagre”) to Tyler and Michael’s comment threads was to thank Tyler for pointing me to Vikram Chandra’s marvellous Sacred Games. I find it a little ironic that probably the two books I’ve enjoyed most in the last few years – since Patrick O’Brian died – are this and Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram, both set in the criminal underworld of Mumbai – a city to which my real-life reaction was “I’m getting the hell out of this place on the next plane!”.

[Why, however, do most editions of Shantaram, a book set almost entirely in Mumbai, have a picture on the cover that appears to be of Varanasi? Perhaps there’s some bit of Mumbai that looks a lot like Varanasi, I wouldn’t know, but I suspect not. I suspect it’s rather more to do with American publishers thinking that American readers are under the mistaken impression that all Indian cities look the same and any picture of a generically Indian city will do. I would not expect to see Indian publishers putting a picture of New Orleans on the front of a book set in New York, but perhaps I overestimate Indian publishers.]

I did notice during my brief visit to Tyler’s comment thread, though, that people were talking a lot about how some long novels – Dickens the canonical example – were originally written as serials and intended to be read in parts. The Aubrey-Maturin books were too, of course, albeit in “parts” a few hundred pages long, and something I noticed a few times in the last two or three books: in the middle or even near the end of one of them you’ll suddenly find yourself reading a passage that was quite obviously originally intended as the opening page of something, and even possibly feels like something from quite early in the series or before the rest of the series was written. Page 249 of the US hardback edition of Yellow Admiral is one that struck me just the other day.

So what was going on there? O’Brian was old and not in very good health when he wrote the last few novels. Was he changing decisions about where to begin and end the individual volumes, and not bothering to re-write the original intended beginnings and endings? Was he resuscitating bits and scraps of old unfinished manuscripts? Was an editor resuscitating bits and scraps of old unfinished manuscripts to patch together incomplete works? I don’t know. Anybody else noticed this?

toys for the mind

3rd May 2007 permanent link

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

I disagree strongly with people who take the view that modern, asana-focused yoga practice is just physical exercise and has nothing to do with the other seven of the eight limbs of real yoga. I also disagree, although less vehemently, with those who say it is “only” a way to prepare the body for sitting meditation – although that’s important too. (I have no strong opinion either way at this point on the all tantra/kundalini stuff, about which more soon, maybe)

Check out this passage from a BBC radio interview of Sri BKS Iyengar by Mark Tully, starting at around 16 minutes (*):

[Tully]: Now Guruji is doing an incredible backbend. His head’s on the ground, it’s between his two bent arms. His back's arched and the other end of his body is only supported by his left foot. His right leg is pointing straight up towards the ceiling. [eka pada viparita dandasana; see also the man himself at 1:10 in this video on youtube] He must be concentrating incredibly hard to prevent him toppling over.
[Iyengar]: Now, you observe how I stretch my intelligence from the head to the foot, and from the foot to the head, so that the physical force and the mental force meet and bring oneness between body, mind and soul.
[Tully]: Now Guruji has literally flipped back onto his feet.
[Iyengar]: So that is my meditation. Because my intelligence did not waver at all. So I was present, my body was in the present, my physical energy was in the present, my mental energy was in the present, my intellectual energy was in the present – so the self is in the present.
[Tully]: So, for you there is no need for the ordinary form of meditation?
[Iyengar]: No. … My brain is relaxed. That is meditation.

Lately I’ve been practicing ardha chandrasana quite often (even though it isn’t in any ashtanga series). It’s a lovely position in many ways, but especially for me at the moment it’s a very challenging balance. Whether and how far I can turn my head to look up at the top hand is a pretty accurate gauge of how focused I happen to be on that particular day, how much or how little extraneous noise I’m allowing into my head. And, while one shouldn’t be judgmental about one’s own yoga practice (or anybody else’s), that is useful information. How many other chances in life do you get to quantify your level of cosmic oneness in degrees of arc?

Maybe when I’ve done ardha chandrasana a thousand times and got used to it, then I’ll need to move on to something harder to achieve the same effect.

The point – one of the points, at any rate – of yoga asana practice, is to give you something to do with your mind that’s difficult enough that you have to learn to control and focus your mental processes in order to be able to do it. It’s easy to get distracted by random thoughts flickering across your mind if you just sit and try to meditate, less so if you put yourself in a position where getting distracted means falling on your head.

If you’re in a position and fully focused on what your body is doing and how you feel in that position – not thinking about what you plan to have for dinner after class or the babe on the next mat – then you’re not just “preparing to” meditate – not thinking about your present practice as a means towards some future end – you are meditating.

You don’t necessarily have to be performing spectacular-looking “advanced” asanas for this to happen. But for some people – me, for example – being at some kind of personal physical limit seems to help with the focus. And if you spend time at your personal physical limits on a regular basis, they tend to move. Which can, as a side effect, result in you developing the ability to perform spectacular-looking “advanced” asanas. Which can be fun (I imagine – it has yet to happen to me), as long as you don’t confuse it for the object of the exercise or think it somehow makes you better than other people.

I don’t need to go to church – I am the church
Paul Chek

Ukrainian yoga master Andrey Lappa has an interesting and slightly different take on all this. He says beginners need a dynamic, vinyasa-style practice with lots of different asanas and controlled movement between them to give them something to focus their thoughts on. If you just ask them to sit still, they have so much random noise in their heads and no experience of how to control their thoughts that they will just be constantly distracted. Only later can more experienced practitioners start to move towards Patanjali’s ideal of a single stable, comfortable position for meditation.

(*) It should be illegal to publish audio on the web without a transcript. You can’t search it, it takes ages to listen to it, quoting from it is a laborious pain in the ass.

related entries: Yoga

are you sitting comfortably?

3rd May 2007 permanent link

Yoga: what are all the fancy-looking body contortions for anyway? Part Two of a sporadic series. (Part One. Part Three. Part Four)

स्थिरसुखमः आसनमः
sthirasukhamḥ āsanamḥ

Posture should be stable (shtiram) and comfortable (sukham) is almost all Patanjali had to say about asana. But don’t underestimate what that takes. Arriving at stable, comfortable posture can be an epic journey.

Some people take the view that the whole point of all the other yoga postures (84,000 of them, according to some mediaeval tantric texts; a couple of hundred in regular use in current yoga schools) is “simply” (ha!) to prepare the body and mind to be able to sit in lotus position for long periods to meditate.

I’ve pointed out here before that getting the legs into into lotus position is only hard for westerners: Indians and others who grow up sitting on the floor find it easy. But there’s more to sitting for meditation than just being able to cross your legs. A few years ago I introduced an Indian beginner to ashtanga vinyasa yoga. [He lives in Mysore and now teaches Sanskrit at Pattabhi Jois’s yoga shala. I assume by now he probably has a way more advanced practice than I have, and will one day be famous as Sharath’s assistant. I hope he still remembers me when that time comes. Hi Lakshmish] Having grown up in a typical Indian village farmhouse with no chairs, he could get into all the lotus-related positions in the ashtanga primary series effortlessly (I at that point couldn’t do lotus at all, having injured my ankle a few weeks earlier.) His forward bending flexibility wasn’t up to much, though – and when I visited his college I noticed that most of the students there, although they could sit cross-legged or in lotus on the floor for hours, lacked either the core strength or the body awareness to sit upright. I’ve rarely seen so many slumped-forward torsos and rounded backs. That’s not conducive to meditation.

So what are the requirements for stable and comfortable sitting?

  1. “Open” hips. What this mainly means, in this context, is the ability to rotate the thigh outwards relative to the hip. That’s what getting into lotus without putting undue strain on the knees and ankles is all about. The right balance of strength and length in the hip flexors – the illipsoas complex – is also important: strong enough to hold the lower back upright, but not so tight as to pull it too much forwards
  2. A certain amount of strength and endurance in the core muscles of the lower torso. The abdominal wall and the spinal erectors need to be able to hold enough tension to support a straight and upright spine for a long time, but without straining or thinking too much about it. If the core muscles get tired, the lumbar spine will tend to sag either backwards or forwards, either of which is bad. This means you have to have developed both physical endurance in those muscles, and ingrained habits that train the nervous system to hold slight tension in them without having to involve the conscious mind all the time. (Moving nervous control of movements down from the conscious mind into the hindbrain and the spine is an important part of motor learning in all physical endeavours, from rock climbing to piano playing. It’s not for nothing that we talk about getting skills “wired”)
  3. An open chest - the ability to lift your sternum forwards and up, your shoulders and shoulderblades back and down. (The opposite of hunching over a desk). Without arching your lower back to tilt your whole ribcage. In order to breathe freely, you need an open and upright thorax on top of your strong and upright abdomen

… whereas your typical chair-sitting, desk-hunching westerner has almost no ability to rotate the thighs outwards, short, tight hip flexors, weak core muscles, a rounded upper back with hunched forward shoulders – and a long way to go.

So in a sense all yoga asana practice can be seen as just a way to develop these abilities – even stuff that to most people looks fancy and advanced. For example the ability to get into lotus no-hands, especially upside down, is not just a cool-looking stunt but also an important benchmark. (It is possible to use your hands to assist in shoulderstand; rather less so in headstand or handstand) The no-hands bit tests/demonstrates good hip flexibility, and in general spending time upside down builds the core strength needed to hold the torso straight and requires considerable mental focus. I can’t, yet, at least not on a regular basis – have managed it a couple of times in shoulderstand, on occasions when spells of particularly assiduous practice happened to coincide with spells of particularly hot weather.

So is it absolutely necessary to go through years of yoga asana practice before you can meditate? No. Lots of people don’t. Yoga teacher Godfrey Devereux says he asked his zen teacher how people who haven’t done yoga manage it, and the answer was that is possible to learn to sit just by sitting, but for the average westerner it takes a long time and involves a lot of discomfort. Maybe a few years of diligent yoga asana practice is a short cut for lazy people?

related entries: Yoga

acro yoga

1st May 2007 permanent link

I have some pictures from the Acro Yoga classes in Köln in April up on flickr.

yoga mats

I haven’t used flickr before. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of somebody else’s software automatically cropping my pictures to make thumbnails, messing with my colour balance etc. But a couple of people had asked about the pictures and were waiting for them, I haven’t touched my photo gallery pages for ages (should do something about that one day), and life is too short to edit HTML by hand. So I’ll see how it goes.

related entries: Yoga Photography

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