March • 31 March 2014

It’s the night of the 31st of the month that started on Shivaratri and did not let up. Thirty one days of liminal space, chaos, destruction, resolution and beauty moving fast. I do wonder how deeply I was able to let it seep in.

Today it is 55 degrees and half the yard is still covered in crusty snow. I’ve got a migraine on a moon day, a heart filled like a dirty wet bar towel with the pain humans go through, and not more than 60 minutes to put a bead on the string of this writing practice before sleep. I remember being 16 and having a rare bit of social life for a summer – a series of cornfield keg parties that took me out of the evening routine of reading Harvard classics and filling journals with sharp witted stories of my own. I journaled that more action = less meaning, and that I would have to choose between this active life and being someone who understood things. A sophomoric thought, but just for today there is part of me who has fallen back on re-thinking it.

On Shivaratri you stay awake through the four quarters of the night, keeping some awareness as consciousness descends through the physical realm into the energetic, the mental, the superconcious and finally the causal. It’s funny that they call it the causal body when all that’s there is nothing, a source code that must stay unwritten, unmanifest, a vacuum. Shiva territory. That’s where we go at night, sometimes. Through some layers of space garbage into the superconscious, then to the tohu vabohu, and back.

March started with me barefoot in a crowded Indian street, crossing the threshold into a temple quaking in cymbals and bass drums, pressed through the chambers of the building by bodies on all sides, like in peristalsis. Each of us whispered an ask in the ear of a huge, granite Nandi, and at the inner sanctum the churn paused just in time for my eyes to gaze a few seconds on Parvati before the music stopped and a curtain quaffed her out of existence. Then back into the street for oxygen and juice squeezed from a sugar cane. My New Balance “eco” sneakers (recycled materials only) were still there in a pile with everyone else’s plastic + car tire footwear, which are made to order by Mysore’s corner cobblers. I got in a car, onto a plane, and from there ran straight into a snowdrift.

Action leaves traces; and feeling gross after flying is information from Earth about the violence of air travel. Good information. Still, if you have to teach Mysore in America one long day after leaving India, then you really do have to stay awake during the four quarters of the night. Do not eat, or sleep, or drink the plane water. Make a bubble around your body and breathe shallow for 20 hours. The gross body does best that way, and your hormonal cycles get least scrambled.

Michigan the first week of March was clean lines, clean air, crisp in every way. The air tasted perfect; and I have never seen interiors, or the Earth, so clean. It was spring break at the University, but the Editor is on a book deadline and has no business traveling. So, catching up after a months apart, we stayed in town, but in an experience-altering space. A week in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Palmer House was a gift from some people who knew the house’s history. Mary Palmer, its owner until her passing 3 years ago, was not only one of the few clients to get design concessions out of Wright (she drove cross country to Talesin West in the 50s one summer, to make the 80-year-old FLW sign off on a fireplace). She was also the person who first brought BKS Iyengar to America (to the Ann Arbor YMCA, oddly), after a canny courtship similar to the one she conducted with FLW. She practiced Iyengar yoga daily in FLW’s complicated, isosceles master bathroom, all the way in to her 90s.

The Editor and I sat by Mary Palmer’s fireplace that week and listened to Moondog and La Monte Young, letting FLW tell us his jokes in the patterns the light leaves on the walls and the tricks you have to learn to open the cupboards. The interior is all sharp angles (nothing at 90 degrees except doors and windows). Running into them at 4 in the morning on my way out to the shala, I’d be hit by high Modernism, and 50s feminism, and of course by BKS. Turns out Mr. Iyengar stayed in the house twice, on a tiny trapezoidal bed in the study. FLW slept in the same one.

The house condenses some of my town’s strongest past influences. All week it sliced up my consciousness, marked me, and raised my ideals for the light and the shape of inhabited space. Consciousness is always – to some degree – a product if its spacetime, but FLW’s and BKS’s containers made that obvious by being a little confrontational. Maybe that’s how all the high Moderns operated – they prized crisp beauty above all, but approached it by first destroying your comfort zone.

Which is not the only way. The third phase of March was in Mexico, at a place so beautiful I can’t fully perceive it. So spare and wondrous it’s a direct line on dream-time. Observing those who enter, time and again it proves almost impossible for a human to remain in a state of ordinary mental consciousness< – everyday distracted mind – while in this small, isolated space. Having been there last year too, I’d forgotten or failed to perceive its perfection, in part because the place is barely there. Just some huts on the edge of the Pacific, where the air is the temperature of your skin, you cannot separate yourself from nature, the sea roar drowns discursive thought, and there is nothing to do.

Paradise is a palimpsest. With safety, and silence, some of the recent arrivals in my subconscious mind showed up clearly. Given this downtime, I saw that turning my eyes around on the practice room in Mysore this past winter was a quite painful experience. Why shouldn’t it be? I suppose transformative practice can be especially hard for humans at times. But sometimes with a lot of space people see things, and I suspect that for my efforts to trivialize paradise, I will be back to this one because of its particular ability to alter consciousness.

It took more than a week here at home to fall into a regular rhythm of contact with emptiness, both in sleep cycles and sitting practice. That’s also how long the cats waited before they took me back. I don’t think they recognized me when the oils in my skin were mostly Indian coconut, but by now I’m more of a ghee-based being. This morning Moonpie sang to me in the bathtub, in her little pathos-meeps that are more like the chirps of a squeeze toy. A suddenly very fluffy, pudgy squeeze toy. The moon starts waxing today, and March goes out the way it is supposed to.

At the beginning of the Yoga Makaranda, Krishnamacharya goes on at some length, and quite randomly, about the meaning and importance of sleep. I don’t know why. I’ve been carrying the 2013 translation of that book around all March, from Mysore, to Mary Palmer’s, to Mexico, and finally home to Spring Street, not so much thinking about it as absorbing it. It’s been one relatively conscious, constant stream of experience this month. I’ll sleep with it under my pillow for one more night, and then file it on the shelf.

Mysore Light and Darkness • 22 February 2014

Five p.m. is golden hour here, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s the rickshaw exhaust bending the light. Or maybe light is refracted by the vortex that’s moored over Laksmipuram like a fifth-dimensional blimp, but if so we can’t talk about that.

Golden hour comes on fast. The sun drops out of the haze like it’s setting on Luke Skywalker’s home planet. It appears flat and unfamiliar, like an alien star. The smog puts a soft filter on the hills, and then patches of glow start to move across the landscape.

Now. Get outside and let your senses do the rest. Naturally your mind will slow or stop, and some of your falling-in-love circuits may kick in to gear.

Listen, I understand transformation can take the piss out of you. And it is totally okay to spend the hours of 2:30-5:00 pottering around some darkened apartment like a ghost, absently chanting shantimantras. Even if you’re home by 10am and you need to spend the day splattered on the marble floor, while you work on a bowl of kitcheree like an insect who needs all day to ingest a leaf, that is okay. But go out at five. Push the edges of the Mysore bubble.

The gold light will bring up details in an environment that has seemed opaque.

Go to the field on Gokulam hill, where the kid in a polo shirt walks his superclean Shiba Inu while violently texting. When he gets to the top of the hill, there will be the moment when the bony woman in a dull blue or green sari – the woman who milks the cows – sees the dog. Her face will open like it might if snow started falling. You can watch closely because she’ll be transfixed, and the kid will be glued to the phone. The Shiba will be watching you.

Wander into a neighborhood at least a mile from Gokulam and take out a camera. May as well be an ice cream truck. The children will tell you to photograph them and then rush in to see the capture. They don’t want country coins so much this year; they want to send tiny images of themselves back to America in your phone.

Drive to the central city. Watch kittens play in the vegetables at the market – one place alpha-dogs won’t eat them. Wander the campus of Mysore University, and sit under the banyan tree that shades the student canteen. Find the 101 abandoned shivalingams in the broken down temple next to the stone masonry. Careful as you circumambulate them: the place looks deserted but for the clothes drying on a line across a broken promenade, but you are being watched.

Note the means and modes of transportation: three boys and a puppy on a bicycle; goat on a mo-ped – lashed to the luggage rack; old man on a custom 3-wheeled scooter; motorcycle tossed in a rickshaw like a dead fish in a basket; mound of laundry 3 feet high on the head of a woman with a beautiful spine; haul of firewood on the back of an ox; golf clubs riding side-saddle on a new Scooty.

See how many Xerox signs you see nailed to a tree, or how many rats will be out at this hour in plain view. Look for babies. Sheep, goats, calves, water buffalo, humans, puppies, chickens. Baby elephants and other wonders can be found at dusk, if you can indeed find the place, at Sri Sutta Math.

Count how many men mark golden hour with a golden shower. Around here the lingams are bathed in ghee, and the retaining walls in, well, pee. Just before dusk, see how the alien pod water towers – bright orange saucers mounted three stories high – hover above the landscape, on hill after hill after hill.

When it becomes evening, approach temples. Maybe one of them will have some gravity. It’s ok to go inside. Know the rules and leave an offering. Or if you prefer ritualized sports for contacting those feelings, a cricket game will present itself. If you don’t want to get soulful in front of others, find the 400-year-old Banyan tree out beyond Chamundi – there’s a temple inside it to no one in particular.

If you have a bike, get almost lost. Navigate by landmarks and the setting sun. No map. Push the envelope every night. Learn the main roads, then the enclaves, then the three or four alternate routes to get everywhere. If you are very abstract/analytical (I am), navigating by intuition may be hard: the curved main roads and random roundabouts do not mesh with western mental infrastructure. But if you stay in your head, you won’t learn gut-reckoning.

Memorizing the Google map is tempting, but maybe you agree that this is a little like learning the next pose from a book – not organic, not relational. Traveling Latin America with the Editor in our 20s, I used to memorize every new city’s map before we stepped off the bus. The man who has not lost his cool again since got good and angry: “Slow down and just be with me; be with this place.” We were reading maybe too much Martin Buber and post-colonial theory at the time. Still, I changed my way.

Plans (of a city, of an enlightment path) can be distractions sometimes. When consciousness has a map, it will ping-pong between immediate experience and the abstract model. On the other hand, consciousness can go very sharp and very receptive when you have to open to an experience from the ground up. James Bond memorizes the map and the sniper nests; Joe Mysore leaves a trail in the dirt with his cricket bat while chasing a ball down the road. Maybe Jane ashtangi wanders a little wide-eyed, GPS in her jeans pocket in case she gets lost in the dark.

*

I’m driving home from the city, turning left off a side street onto a main east-west drag. It’s Valentine’s Day. Looking right, I see two monkeys like an old couple, waiting to cross the street. But this isn’t monkey territory. There are no parks or tall trees, only rickshaws and road noise and little electronics shops. I stare at the pair and notice worm-shaped lesions on their sides, distended bellies, and a humanoid hypervigilance. They’re scared.

A hundred children stream in front of me there on my bike. They are a wave of high voices. They wear blue ties and checked blue or green shirts and they create their own stream of traffic. I stare more at the monkeys and realize the skin lesions are teeny paws and the bellies are tiny backs. Each one is carrying a baby.

My nervous system explodes. Consciousness begins to implode along with it, but I still have time to note the signs of a peak experience rising. All the self-generating drugs spiritual practice has evolved to harness (DMT, dopamine, serotonin, and god-knows-what nectars we will never define) flood the system as I am falling in love with this particular experience.

Time slows down to car-wreck speed, and the light goes golden. The second part is weird – that I can track the golden light appearing in my perception. It’s similar to the way that certain types meditators can watch (the perception of?) time slow down when love and death approach.

There is the sheen of the monkeys’ grey brown hair, and the way they look each other in the eyes. Luminous, cool blue eyes. The children are going in front of me and I see lines starched into their clothes and hear so many different notes in their many voices.

There’s a break in traffic – the next thing coming is a rickshaw 8 seconds or miles down the street – and now the mothers cross together. They take slow-mo strides on all fours, dragging clenched knuckles over the pitted, shining pavement. Now in front of me and across the street, they climb a gate in a solid stone wall. They perch on top of the wall.

Standing up there, the mothers go bipedal. One baby, hanging from a breast, somersaults and unwinds legs until they touch the stone. He tries to stand. I’m about ready to die. The baby is six inches high, skinny and bald. He has the face of my grandfather. His knees wobble. He takes a dry leaf in his paw hand, pops his eyes, stretches his jaw and brings the leaf to his face.

Okay, existence. You can finish me off. The light I seem to be seeing comes over the wall and catches the back of the baby monkey’s left ear. The skin goes translucent and I disappear. There is no more paying attention, no more taking interest in experience or energy rising in the chest. Just the gold and the vortex.

Then the scooter has shut off and a few children are walking away down the street, where the rickshaw used to be. I’m besotted. The fluid in my knees feels carbonated. There is so much upwelling in my chest that I want to shout and maybe without realizing it I do. While driving and possibly shouting, I can’t sharpen my eyes, but it works to rest them on the horizon and navigate from peripheral vision. I feel transparently uncool.

You know you are in love when seeking stops. The beloved is all there is.

Falling in love with Mysore has been a years-long process, but the last two weeks felt different. I wonder if maybe god has slipped a gold instagram filter over my optic nerve. There’s more care, and more indifference. Care shows up as silence and a desire to perceive each moment clearly. Indifference is wanting nothing in return – a city does not quite love back. It doesn’t matter if the object of love shrinks down to the moment of pressing a jasmine garland to my face – or expands to all cities, and all garden gates, and all wide eyes, and all knuckles dragged across pavement. It feels like a version of heartbreak that does not leave a mark.

It’s a little tempting to get precious about the monkeys. But peak experiences are a dime a dozen. If past experience is any predictor, this one will decompose in days or weeks. But each time this happens, it hollows out more space for awe. When it again becomes necessary to use some discipline to generate concentration, there’s a little more power to do that – to cover experience with perception; to accept it radically; to leave the heart open.

*

Mysore light gets me through the day, but “Mysore magic” is a poultice action. At its very best, this place is a salve that draws out toxins not just in the body but in the personality.

It doesn’t always work like that. But, potentially, this place is a good platform for direct contact with hell. For me, intense silent retreats (especially when I don’t want to take them), and difficult times with family, have been the best places to shore up negative samskaras. But extended time here with the intention of self-study is also plenty effective. I suspect it’s the combination of very intense practice, and boredom lying just under the surface of the party.

There’s also an instant karma thing going on here, because the yoga social network is tiny, and because Indians are often VERY clear about cause-and-effect in chains of social interactions. So when I make external mischief in words and deeds, the consequences come back fast and loud. It’s possible look at the effects of my own ethical faults, if and when I have the courage to do that.

The patterns depend on the person. I get impatient for decent wireless, because… there’s a pattern of impatience. I ache for fresh air, because feeling any limitation in my breath reminds me of death. I get irritated with anything that smells like high school, because I went through a trauma in high school that (I realize when I’m triggered) is not fully healed. Others say they experience profound revulsion with bodies and personalities. Or a weird rising of OCD behaviors, especially around food. Desire for different friends. Of a wanting to get something – attention or recognition especially. Friends have talked about an anxiety to buy a lot of stuff, realizing it comes from a wish to hold on to this experience.

Or sometimes, there is a Manichean dividing up of the world into yoga and not-yoga, because the transformative practice gets mistaken for measurable stuff like rituals and beliefs (theologians describe this one as the rub between esoteric and exoteric practices – an interesting topic). Maybe most obviously, the enormous amounts of free time can bring about a hungry-ghost sort of need to keep the social schedule full, with new people to flirt with, parties, new day trips.

There are shared patterns that might become visible when we catch ourselves reproducing them. For example, in Guru cultures, insider status becomes the main form of capital (Ram Dass says hilarious things about this, as does Jack Kornfield… it’s always the same). Insider conversations might come to revolve around the assessment of how well others deserve to be insiders, and energy can get diverted into fine-tuned maintenance of social boundaries. For me, the shared shadow I see most clearly this trip is that of the glass ceiling that SKPJ did his part, very heroically, to smash. But that old idea that you needed a cock and a Brahmin string to experience yoga can show up in decomposed form, in my supposedly private mind, as an assumption that even dedicated practitioners just don’t get it on a spiritual level. Right now I am sitting with that, and resisting the temptation to finger-point elitism in others.

It is possible to waste away here – people have described to me the realization that they were here because it was a good place to run away from their real lives. What inspires me, though, is the person who decides to to stay a little longer just when she get uncomfortable with this experience. Right there is the magic – in the recognition that an edge has come up. In a willingness to study the exact mind that wants to run away from, or dis-possess, a negative experience. Ashtangis in these parts can go from zero to bliss in an average of 9 vinyasas. But that ain’t always the practice.

Incidentally, it’s easy to find two or four hours every day to sit on the floor. Just to sit there and not run off. People totally do it: no drama, no recognition, nothing special. That’s like another side of the tenderness that comes on retreat here. There’s this possible intimacy and curiosity for the place. And also there is curiosity for understanding and at times going past the ego-personality that perceives and distorts its surroundings.

The moment of wanting out – of a boring afternoon or a supposedly bad trip – is a chance to double down. A choice to do self-study is what really turns on the lights. Things start to shimmer.

Mysore Fridays • 31 January 2014

Mysore Fridays are a dream within the dream. The will is worn out, as is the body, so you just let the vinyasa carry you through.

The alarm (which is not a sound, but a portable full-spectrum light) goes at 3, and I stare in to it for 60 seconds. Nauli, neti, kapalabhati, two kumbhakas, one body scan, and 2 minutes of solo dance party, puts the clock at 3:17 and the nervous system ready to roll. That leaves 20 minutes to wash and dress and gather the gear.

Double-turning the bolt on the front door, I put on God’s Symphony – the iPod my brother curates for every Mysore trip. Next in the queue is something hilarious: Daft Punk’s score for TRON. I smile to him through the planet because this is so corny and epic and exactly right.

There’s a 3 minute Overture – horns and cymbals and more than a little of Beethoven’s Fifth, with a quiet track of nervous breathing mixed under everything else. That’s long enough to descend the stairs in the dark, unlock the motorbike, and set it coasting down the hill. At the bottom, I touch the ignition and the score switches to a minute of spoken word before giving over to an hour of epic electronica. The Gokulam streets are dark at 4am except for lights on in single second-floor rooms at the backs of middle class homes – a Lite Brite landscape of ashtangis’ apartments. Bats dip down out of the trees. I shift my hips back to allow my spine to arch over the chassis, and watch for the dogs who sleep in the road.

Jeff Bridges on the second track of TRON speaks in my ears: The grid, a digital frontier. I tried to picture clusters of information as they moved through the computer. What did they look like? Ships, motorcycles? Were the circuits like freeways? I kept dreaming of a world I thought I’d never see. And then one day, I got in.

Yeah, you got in allright. What does it look like? An email confirmation from KPJAYI. It looks like your nadis glittering after pranayama, and like 80 ashtangis on motorbikes sliding through 4am Gokulam toward a nerve plexus. It looks like the lot of them practicing on one breath, beyond discipline, beyond badassery, just well limned channels of tapas- svadyaya- ishvarapranidhana.

Most in that room have been through primary series 1,000 times at least, and if SKPJ was right, that’s enough to give up trying to make something happen, trying to be somebody, or minding the 6 extra limbs on your mat as if they were other from your own. I’m not saying some of us here are not on a separateness trip. Separateness happens because (student-)body parts in extreme pain imagine they are different from the whole. But usually by Fridays the ahamkara is exhausted and we can just let the vinyasas do their thing. The closing mantra is full and loud – may all beings in all worlds be blessed; may I not cling to the results of these actions but let the practice just be a part of the world.

And then we pour back into the dark outside the shala, almost an hour before sunrise. Bumping coconuts, someone always says to the others, “Wait, what just happened?” And then the early crew is back to bed, to dream again with the channels a little more clear.

*

Half a day later I drive to town for a weekly appointment with the Three Sisters. Down Hunsur Road past the Southern Star, right, past Devaraj URS and the Rotary, then left toward Pattabhi Enterprises, then right at the electronics shop, continue past cows, chickens and children to tiny blue door on the right, beneath the low awning, with a simple white rangoli off to the side. Nagaratna, listening for my bike, opens the door, leads me past some tarps and a water tank, and asks if I’ll have fresh beet juice or carrot after (both please, with ginger). She drops her chin and beams shyly even though she’s the senior sister, and says to Harini in Kaanada that she loves the sound of my voice even though the words I say are meaningless.

Harini tells me that later, while she is walking on my spine with feet dipped in warm, fresh castor oil (a friend boils the beans for a day in a giant pot, then skims off the oil). She tells me that and so many jokes, so many stories, about the Guruji days and my own teachers. She has a memory for sweet things, and the Epics, so I ask her to talk to me about Krishna or about days in the old shala, while one, two or three of them work their toes into my hamstrings. When I zone out, they carry on in Kaanada, light, funny and gracious, their voices so much more beautiful than sounds English can make.

It’s all very proper, there in a dim concrete room on a piece of red cracked vinyl, supervised by a huge yellowed TV set and an occasional mouse. The wood ceiling is 6.5 feet high, and the twin babies cry down the corridors in a way that is somehow comforting. I am wearing a loincloth of string and a narrow strip of cotton (they measure my waist and fashion a little drop cloth as I undress). The oil is always applied in the same way, body parts worked with their feet only in the same order as they flip me this way and that, always with the same division of labor for what Sister gets which of my limbs.

And then we walk down a low, damp concrete passage to a room where three of us can barely stand. There is an open window up high, covered in a grill that is laced with cobwebs. It’s always cold because the oil has pulled the heat out of my liver, my intenstines, my muscles, and out through the crown of my head. (Yes, you cynic, it has.) There is a concrete box built into the wall, with a hole on top, and a metal lid on top of the hole. An opening at the bottom of the box is filled with smouldering firewood – something almost like mesquite – and although the smoke is exiting on the other side of the box the smell of the wood fills the cold room.

One of them asks me to “please sit” on a wood bench. I see a silver bowl of soap nut paste on top of the box. I see a Sister lift the metal lid, and steam rise from inside. Castor oil starts to drip into my eyes so I close them and listen to water mixing from the basin into a bucket. Then there is a hand on my brow and two voices saying “exhaaale” and warm water flows over the crown of my head.

For the next 20 minutes my body is washed in the most gentle exfoliating soap nut circles, while so many cups of warm water are poured over each limb, down the spine, and over my weary head. Every single cup of water is precious. I thank god for it, and I thank this stream of experience for enveloping me.

This is why I am here. To be bathed by the women who know all our bodies and our stories, to walk through the grounds of the University of Mysore in the golden evening light, to lie on the floor of the apartment that used to be Guruji’s office, to practice next to the old timers, to register the looks and laughs Sharath gives me as we watch each other work in the shala. This is an experience stream, one belonging to a life-world and a line in time, and to the particular spaces that so many of us have passed through. I am here to absorb this stream of experience, and to be absorbed.

I am of the probably wrong opinion that 90% of bodywork and spa stuff is very bad news. One trades temporary escape or relief for enduring beliefs in her own brokenness (whatever dire “problems” the therapist has defined and thus solidified in the client’s receptive bodymind). Moreover, in a state of relaxation it’s easy pick up whatever negativity is going on in some apparently beautiful massage space, without ever knowing that’s happened. This probably wrong opinion leads me to avoid the relaxation industry. The Sisters scoff at relaxation too – castor oil bath isn’t about “feel good”: it is a practice. But nevermind all of these biases in my mind. There is nothing more luxurious, more wonderful, more consistently full of grace, than being bathed in abrasive paste, in a cold concrete room, after oil bath, at the end of a Friday, at the end of an ashtanga practice and teaching week, in Mysore.

*

Still here? This blog is nothing but writing practice for someone who wants public accountability to put together some paragraphs once a month. In the rare cases I have actual content, it will be here, at the end of a long post, so that only those people with a bit of an attention span read it. If you have some concentration, I wager you also have some compassion; and I am not interested in readers who lack the latter.

The reason I’ve only written about Fridays is that the other days I’m assisting Sharath in the shala here. This is not something to talk about (she says, at the beginning of a 5-paragrph spiel). Not because it’s secret, but because the transmission of this method is non-conceptual. The only way to learn to teach ashtanga is by practical, embodied, in-person experience. The word I use for this in the present generation is apprenticeship, because it’s the best word this former economic sociologist can find to describe an unmediated, practical transmission-of-being from one bodymind to another.

The essence isn’t technique or dogma or perfect rules (you can put that transient information in a book which any robot can regurgitate). What endures (because it is alive) is inflection, culture, shared emotion, trust, timing, gut sense, tacit knowledge, and finally being blessed to pass on what one has come to embody. This body of knowledge doesn’t reduce to a syllabus.

In direct experience of embodied, person-to-person transmission, a thick layer of self-awareness, awkwardness, and sense of separation is called forth in order that it might die, gradually, as we are pulled in to a stream of expertise that is beyond cognition. Book-knowledge can be thrown up as a shield from this breaking down of the would-be teachers’ separateness, cleverness, agenda, of his need to dominate, or be an expert, or take students’ power, or to be impressive.

What’s the use of conceptual knowledge if one has no real feel for the way her own teacher occupies and alters time and space? Conceptual, planned, canned, paid-for training doesn’t lead to embodied experience of surrender to a process, to a lineage, to the activity of teaching.

I arrived to Mysore spent: I had been teaching at home for nearly three years without much break. The emotional and energetic outlay required of me had constituted the best and hardest work of my life. While I had often reminded myself of Sharath’s devotion and his hard work, because his existence gave me courage, I had no idea until this month how deep his reserves go, or how skilled he is in action. Now, after a month assisting him, the life I’ve led the past three years, and the life I’ll return to, has become to my mind full of ease. What a boon. Yet I still don’t understand much about how Sharath teaches, or how he understands the practice or his own role. This is because the 40-odd hours of time I’ve put in at his side this month are just so little. I don’t know much.

But I can comment that this work is humble, and gritty, and intimate/impersonal, and absorbing (therefore wonderful), and fully sacred to me, and in no way cool. The central goal of the yoga industry is to glamorize the role of yoga teacher, so that the people with the headsets naming postures take on some sheen of charisma and so that hordes of hopefuls get sucked into the cheap labor pool created by teacher trainings. That’s not real. Don’t believe the hype.

Thursday, at the end of a month of assisting, he said to come back next week. “You are not yet finished.” There is no point in asking why. Why-questions in this rarefied context are just vritti fodder, as they are in asana practice. (Ask how instead. It’s empirical instead of magical.) For a moment the assignment messed with my mind. And then I found underneath the resistance, because resistance is futile these days, an enthusiasm for even an extra hour in the space that I regard as sacred, letting the stream of experience there condition me a little more.

I have engaged teaching practice as seva, dedicated every class to the furthering of my own practice of yoga through service, and used the Bhagavad Gita for guidance in discerning a role in this crazy industry. Up until now I was able to set my own boundaries – about which calls I answered, what time I went home, which students I dismissed, and which extra travel I took on. Today, I think there is a level of surrender into service that I’m only just beginning to get. Not only is service not glamorous, it is not on my terms; it is not something my planning mind can control. It is not convenient.

So, this being Friday afternoon, now I am off to to be oiled and walked on and bathed. And then February begins.

Last Leg • 31 December 2013

Oh good GOD the ecstasy of fast driving Bangalore-Mysore road at 4 in the morning. The surreality of doing so after 2 days on planes, heading for two months in ashtanga heaven. It only adds to the effect that I’ve just listened to all of Kafka on the Shore without a pause for sleep, while hurtling through the air in a silver tube, and eaten nothing but Emergen-C and raw food bars for 6 meals.

Where is consciousness? Who is having this experience? I have no damn clue, but this nervous system has been trained to perceive this drive as a 2-hour pre-party. Planes are fast, but this rattly compact is SO MUCH FASTER. The driver doesn’t talk to me – our only common language is facial expression – but he communicates constantly with the god on his dashboard. Who needs two hands for driving anyway? His fingers touch the dash in front of Ganesh every time we don’t die – the plastic there is worn smooth.

I put some old Aphex Twin on the headphones and pull my aching spine up out of my hips. May as well treat this experience as if it were designed bring me alive.

We drive past our first highway hotel strung in Christmas lights. That’s how the temples on this road are decorated too – and Air-Tel shops, and homes, and a Christian church that seems also to be a Krishna shrine.

God this planet is so small and fragile. What was on the other side is here now and vice versa– a body, a religious reference, a string of plastic outdoor lights. In this weird moment, I don’t feel I can take the planet for granted any more than I can take this car for granted. I flash on The Zipper, a terrifying metal carnival ride, covered in red and blue circus lights, that used to appear every summer in a K-Mart parking lot when I was a kid.

The drive to Mysore breaks up into three sections: airport industrial, Bangalore backstreets, and open read through the country.

The first part is my favorite because it’s apocalyptic and desolate. They’ve been building an elevated highway above the road for years now. It’s this long 4-story line of concrete scenery that may or may not ever get used. But politicians have plastered it in advertisements, and dogs have taken it as residence. Metal latticework hangs out the edges of the highway and I see the day’s first light catch on the re-bar.

The image is pre-post industrial, exactly like the old four-story aqueduct that rings the town of Mysore 150 km to the south.

But first, since the driver knows his way around, we duck off the main road and in to the city. No speed bumps on the back streets – just fun corners and a few (ok, many) obstacles. Buildings are tall and close and the street level is shop after shop. We pass a tiny bank whose lights are on – I notice because three firemen are rushing inside. There is what appears to be a bar with a dozen young men outside, and my mindbody remembers a wild street corner in Valencia ten years ago, a place we stopped on a night bus to Barcelona.

We join the main road near a sign for Srirangapatna, the island town of temples and colonial battles. Fields of rice and other grasses push up right to the edge of the road, and there’s a pink smog-mist that turns the palm trees into shadow cut-outs. I try not to romanticize this scene, but since we’re now weaving around just as many cows as rickshaws, and since the playlist has just switched over to Moondog, it’s no use. We stop to buy jasmine for the dashboard Ganesh – the driver and the flower-seller know each other. He gestures to yesterday’s orange garland, hanging from the rearview, and indicates he’ll keep it around today as well.

Stopped there in the middle of everything, I finally see the birds – white herons and cranes over the fields—and a joy spreads out into my aching arms and legs from the center of my chest. This takes an edge off the wide-eyed wakefulness that’s gotten me this far and I notice for the first time that there is ground under the wheels.

Moon Swings • 29 November 2013

First snowy morning

Crescent moon on the wane this morning, Thanksgiving. I practiced early-early, left the shala saged and 80 degrees for everyone else arriving at 7. Now delayed on the tarmac at DTW. A man in a glass box on a lever is swooping around outside, shooting the plane with steam. De-icing our wings.

Teaching takes my creative energy and leaves me quiet. Empty in the best way. To re-set I wash, roll out the knots in the body, eat, sleep, meditate. So this Mysore teacher’s work day runs 4 – 4. But with today off, there’s a whole stream of creative ideas and words on the theme of, well, emptiness. Bodies are full of empty space. Just now, the hollows of my throat and head are super chatty… but in a way that’s more inclined to addressing the cosmos than to regular conversation.

I would submit this is what I always feel with a crescent moon on the wane.

Having a personality is like having a body.

Wonderful, painful, necessary. Cyclical. From stable to subtle, and back. From earthy, to cosmic, and back.

I remember when it started to dawn on me that a tiny vritti at the margin of my energy level indexed to the moon. Remember that? The first time you linked the kind of night you had with the kind of moon? It’s poor taste to overstate this, or to treat it as causal. Still, we come to this recognition of a subtle correlation.

In the same negligible way, another – very faint – dynamic is dawning on me now. A cycle of self.

Over 14.5 days I go from being “one” (singular), to being “one” (with everything). These are the pendulum poles: Fullness is 1, Emptiness is 0. Here is the mindset of each.

1 = Fullness. This personality is unique in time and space and history. Seize the moment! Do do do. Now now now. Yes yes yes. THIS. EXPREINCE. IS. ALL. THRERE. IS.

0 = Emptiness. Listen, McFly. And look. Stars sans moon. We are that. This. The cosmos is a black hole turned inside-out. You can’t seize that which you always already are.

This is so obvious it’s trite. Like that Nisargadatta line about inhalation telling me I am everything, and exhalation telling me I am nothing. “And between the two, my life flows.”

———————————-

I think we habituate in to moon cues. Condition the nervous system cycle by cycle by cycle until she relaxes in to it. First we’re aware of the physical aspect (annamaya kosha, etc.), then the energetic, then the mental, then the supersubconscious. Then the way that it’s all nonsense anyway.

In recent months there have been a few shudders when I saw the moon, and in the next second saw my mind. A variable mind. More sattvic (stable + clear) with years of practice. But still this mind is made up of waves.

What I’m picking up most now is a pattern relating with the new moon. Maybe it’s most easy for sensitive types — yogis, drunks, and “skitzophrenics” (i.e., gifted outsiders cornered by western medicine) – to get to know the full moon. It dilates our animal aspects, does it not?

The full moon was something we talked about in the restaurant industry. Like, keep an eye on your lush customers that night. Big moon is ornery. Before that, I grew up on the campus of a children’s mental institution in rural Montana. I’ll say goodbye to that place Saturday, and my father retires Monday after 45 years of service. So maybe I’ll stop self-censoring my weird childhood when it arises. For now I will say full moon jokes and jitters are come around like clockwork on the psych ward. Big moon is the night the specific self comes out to howl.

Anyway. Here are some of the moon-shudders since September. Maybe there is a pattern and maybe there’s not.

———————————-

I’m driving to Detroit to retrieve Dominic.

Dom’s energy has more empty space in it than mine. He’s like Gandalf crossed with the Tasmanian devil. Nothing to stick to.

New Sensation comes on the radio and I feel like an absolute zero. Like I’ve been skull-capped with a scythe, crown open to the cosmos, spine dangling below. It registers somewhere that last night was the new moon, and today there’s only a sliver of self.

“Gonna take you over.” Hello, high octane. I put the dial to the right and the gas pedal down. This zero is ecstasy. Empty, nothing sticking, nothing to do.

This is the Zero that is the best gift this lineage has to give – and no wonder I associate it with a great teacher because it’s the empty chaotic core of this practice if you are doing it right.

I offended people the last time I said the best thing about going to Mysore was getting to be a Zero. But please, if that is offensive, it might be worth getting closer to the source. I practiced faaaar too long before the zero side of self tapped me o the shoulder.

When we think the practice is mine mine mine, precious, it’s because we are settling for all heat and no light. All 1 and no 0. Emptiness is an ecstatic side of the self.

———————————-

I wake up on a lake north of the 45th parallel, looking east into sun that shouldn’t be this golden because it looks like Instagram.

The two of us drive down the coast to Traverse City, in this sun, listening to City of Dreams. The only thing that exists here apart from the road and the sun on the water is millions of red and gold fall leaves – floating in the air and describing the landscape below the treetops.

I remember this same man 16 years ago, the person he was when he introduced me to this song, the night we watched True Stories on VHS.

This sun. This secret perfect coastline inside the country. The line “here where you are standing, the dinosaurs did a dance.” The luck to be here, in this life, with this man. Holy god.

Nostalgia for the present moment rocks through my chest and into my belly and I want to scream or throw up. Pleasure, pain, whatever. Shudder. The body check makes me do a moon check. Three quarters full.

———————————-

Walking to work at 4:30, singing Willis Earle Beale, I look up and remember the night before. The moon – not even visible – is high and thin. My self follows, right in to my head, into analytical space.

Last night I wrote a long letter to Shinzen about the new materialism in social science. It’s an annoying problem, and not a tractable one for a mind that only waxes analytical a couple of days per fortnight. So I put ask Shinzen if he’d want to take this one on, with the same skill he’s used to legitimate enlightenment to the people who think mind reduces to brain.

There’s nothing wrong with the cool logician who speaks in syllogisms and lives to hunt down assumptions. The forgotten philosopher doesn’t get much play around here, but waxing crescent is the time she’s most likely to visit.

———————————-

And so on.

Having a mind is exactly like having a body. There are no perfect ones, and only perfect ones. Control is impossible, but sometimes it is out of the doomed project to get control that the interesting stuff shows up.

How insane crazy it is that consciousness can become conscious of itself? It can double up and take witness. It can get behind the screen.

God is existing weird. What do you even do with the selfconsciousness gift/superpower?

I totally freaking do not know, but since Patanjali says apprehending the patterns in the mindstuff is high quality direct knowledge, may as well sit up and take note. I suspect this ability is here to tell us what we are.

Mysore Ghost Story • 31 October 2013

Butterfly, Succubus

There is a blog behind this blog. Here is a ghost story I posted there a few years ago.

What’s below is the original post with some edits, plus my comments on that post, minus the comments from other readers.

I took it seriously at the time, but now it’s just for laughs. Tis the season for summoning old spirits… and then hanging them out to dry.

___________________________________________________

Ok, friends. Do not read this if you are going to be tempted to share stuff from here with anyone else. Honestly. This story is just for us.

So I’m seeing the dark side of Mysore. Or, more likely I’ve just accidentally become aware of the dark side of reality entire, and this stuff goes on everywhere without being noticed most of the time.

I wrote last week about some… peripheral weirdness. There’s been a bit of that around my new house here.

Then two nights ago, bad dreams about this place. I dreamed that I woke up and the wall to my room had been removed and a giant market was being set up in the empty space upstairs. I was mad about that.

Then last night, easily the most vivid and physically real experience of an entity outside myself. Woke in the oddest liminal state – I was in my dream body, but in my everyday, cognitive mind. Couldn’t move.

A small, female, faceless grey entity was on top of me, pinning down my shoulders and a leg. I could not move. The entity was trying to force me down and in to deeper sleep. I fought it, stayed awake, and eventually pushed it off.

Then I could move again. Went to the bathroom, felt no danger or fear. Went back to sleep.

Spent today totally gutted. Like I had taken some kind of hit. No appetite. I have a couple of really close friends here – just sort of relaxed in to their presence and mostly slept.

Please, don’t get all worried about me and tell me how messed up it is. From my perspective—I know this is odd—it’s not that big of a deal.

That said, if you’ve got a little luminescence for my light bubble, do send it in this direction. I’d appreciate it from those of you who have some psychic stuff going on more than you usually admit.

Later the same day

This doesn’t scare me, but it’s annoying to have so much weird stuff happening in my house, and to have to be on guard for it tonight.

I wonder if there’s a reason this beautiful house on the hill has sat empty in recent years. Something might have happened here. I’ll continue to feel it out and I will move if it doesn’t subside.

Day 2

It’s so weird to have this awareness. When my center of gravity shifted from gross body to subtle, that was fun! But there has been some other shift now: away from the subtle body to some less tangible sort of reality. Like what I notice most in the world is shifts in the light, flickers in my visual field, and the shivers they make on my skin. It seems the land of “stardust” is morally neutral… there is no sense that it’s all love and light in the fourth dimension.

I love how talking like this in public, or to my therapist, would get me labeled delusional. “Skitzophrenic,” the blanket term for sensitives.

Whatever. I’m more grounded in my cognitive mind and emotionally settled than ever. Perhaps more grounded than the last few weeks, even, since this helps me dial in the super-open emotional boundaries for now.

Day 3

I’m too intrigued by this experience to want it to end. I feel anger at the thing, but not fear.

Yesterday, I sent it a bunch of F-You energy. Talking to TW’s mom (an intuitive healer), I gather this was the exactly wrong strategy. Instead, she recommends enveloping myself in white light. How Star Wars.

Also, CC clarified about his experience a long time ago on this same road. He said he was set upon by what he calls a pooka – some sort of succubus – when he was sleeping on the floor of an empty room.

Ok. So maybe it’s time to step away from my curiosity about this whole thing.

Day 4

I wanted to say that this episode is making me even MORE agnostic about the nature of reality. The spiritist worldview doesn’t help here. By spiritist, I mean anything from superstitious Frank Peretti-style Christianity, to fairy/angel New Age stuff, to gnostic views of “the universe” as some sort of demiurge that makes things happen.

It’s entirely possible that the experience of the succubus was generated by me.

My inner awareness has definitely taken on more psychedelic qualities this year. Lucid dreaming started when I lived at SD’s house for a week a couple of years ago, sleeping in his yoga room while subbing at the shala. But now, the dreams have become beautifully vivid, I’m seeing hazy fields around people, the nimitta has stabilized, and just in general the experiences of non-solid stuff has felt more intense to all my senses.

The succubus lives in this realm of sensory intensity. On one hand, it may just be a subjective result of this new way of having strong sense experiences of the non-physical world, which includes past and future and ideas and imagination and metaphor and other peoples’ interiorities and whatever else. Or on the other hand, it may actually exists “out there.”

It’s trite to say there’s no difference.

But there’s no difference.

All that said, now I can tell you what happened this morning. You’re going to love this.

Last night, a big butterfly the likes of which I’ve never seen in Mysore flew in to the bathroom while I was taking oil bath. The butterfly was black and white, with gold at the edges of her wings and a single red dot.

I talked to her while sitting there covered in oil. Thanked her for coming (she was a helper, I felt) and told her she didn’t have to stay around in that form or anything.

She flitted around the bathroom, then I shut her in there so she would know her way out (the bedroom windows don’t open, so she needs to be in the bathroom to get out). I skyped with the Editor and told him about the butterfly.

After we got off the phone, somehow she got in to the bedroom. She landed on the edge of my desk and started walking toward me while I was massaging my feet with coconut oil.

That’s when I saw that she had a large, grey, dead mosquito wrapped in cobweb/spiderweb attached to her back leg. She kept walking toward me, like she was asking for help to get free of the succubus.

Randomly, I’d purchased toothpicks at Loyal World on the moon day. So I opened them up and used one to try to get the succubus off her leg. She sat there and took it, but each pull almost took her leg right off her body!

Can you imagine? Literally almost having her leg pulled out of its little butterfly-socket. And she just stood there, slowly pulsing her wings.

Finally we re-maneuvered. I actually picked her up and turned her around for a better angle, and was able to pry the thing off.

Then, she did this amazing thing. She opened her wings all the way and just waved them. I wasn’t dreaming this. It was on the manifest plane. Then she fluttered up around the room, landing on my mirror. I told her, again, that it was fine to leave. But I saw that she was really weak.

She stayed most of the night. When I got up at five, she was still there. I also had a candle burning all night.

I returned to bed and got up again just after sunrise. The butterfly was gone, and the candle was just burned out.

I called the Editor to tell him what happened. He asked me to burn the succubus, which I’d tossed in the garbage. It was still there on the top of the heap, so I lit one of my shrine candles and burned the grey, cobweby mosquito corpse.

It took a good 60 seconds, and the process produced no ash. Only smoke.

Last night at her house, Annie Pace did some spontaneous ritual stuff with incense when someone brought her a photo book of old times in Mysore. Just waved around the smoke and moved her body in a trance.

When people do that stuff here, a lot of times it’s just culture. But sometimes there’re interacting with non-obvious aspects of reality.

I think Annie was in that space last night. Though earlier in the night, I saw her enact her rituals for the comfort of them. For their familiarity and rhythm.

That’s real too.

Head Trip = Body Trip • 1 October 2013

Equinox on Broome Street

Are you a network of trigger points; are you a mess of trauma tracers, are you an animate anatomy text? Meridians, nadis, craniosacral rhythms, Rolfian fascia slings.

I don’t know. I mean, that’s my theory: I don’t know.

It’s still a framework, but it is the least I can say.

Every story we tell registers in the body. Where else? Head trips are body trips.

For this reason, I will not say that August wrecked me. I will not make a thing of moving residences or about what it is to teach Mysore in a body this size. But that’s all it would have take to harden that month’s shifts in my physique right in to knots. Stories of a certain kind coaselsce sensation into pain, and put the body into the position of having to back up our claims.

It’s the same with any theory of the supposed “nature” of “reality.” The Editor came home from coffee with the professors last week and gave a shudder. “My God! If I don’t have to stake a claim about the transcendent nature of truth or reality to get through the day, why would I go to the trouble?” Then he dropped to the floor for a tender headbutt exchange with Zelda Spoonbender. That’s the cat.

Until I began teaching, I had the luxury of never having to discuss my practice or relationships with teachers. I picked up that discipline by intuition—to protect new experiences from the ravages of my own hyperanalytical mind. And – important both in LA and in Mysore – to guard against the garbage of others’ prying and commisserating. We actually don’t owe each other explanations for the ups and downs in our practice.

Not having to explain was a luxury. (Reason #137 not to teach until you’ve practiced like a decade.) The learning process was efficient and I grew quickly. But now my experience isn’t just mine – it belongs largely to students. Teaching extended the field of my practice to include other bodyminds. So, I will dish.

Here’s what’s going on: today the I-don’t-know in my body is buckling and churning under the three plates of the pingala: the jawbone, the shoulderblade, the flare of the ilium. All on the right side. It’s not energy, not fascia, not muscle, not habit patters, not karma, not emotion. I will not reduce my experience to one dimension. I will not make a thing of it.

This pattern is consciousness. Whatever that is. Frozen on the surface, but moving VERY randomly and quickly the clearer my perception becomes.

Bracketing concepts is quasi impossible. It is trying to live a koan.

But Zelda can do it. What does her animal intelligence do with weird sensation? Slow down, work around, breathe, wait, shake it out. Don’t make a thing of it. Stay open… move through… let it go.

This is my life from the perspective of I don’t know. But the other day I did a stupid experiment. I moved into the don’t-know sensations, while trying other minds on for size. Like sitting in the eye doctor’s chair, flipping through the lenses. What if I were a muscle reductionist, a nadi reductionist, an emotion reductionist, a trigger point reductionist, a fascia reductionist?

What happened next was one of the freakiest experiences I’ve had. Friends say my perception is already weird enough that psychedelics are sadly unnecessary. Maybe and maybe not, but there was a dark side of the moon quality to what happened here. It destabilized my already very flexible definition of reality, leaving me in a newly altered state for days.

This experiment was stupid because it opened me up to embodied beliefs I actually don’t want to carry. I sense that an unusually high number of readers here may be empaths/ HSPs/ contemplatives/ sensitives/ whatever-you-call-it. If that’s you, it is just plain Russian roulette to practice with other bodies in mind. Boundaries, friend.

Moreover, in my view, daily practice is emphatically not a laboratory for working out teaching insights. In this practice, a person teaches the stuff that has long since become mundane, that doesn’t charge you up or fascinate you or freak you out. You teach the stuff you consider no… big… deal. Marichyasana D, pass the salt. Ekapadabakasana, yawn. Catching ankles; picking your nose. Reverently, though. Reverently picking your nose.

Finally, as an apprentice, I was taught that the teacher’s own body remains somewhat private so students can focus on their own experience. We don’t need guides to participate in our own vrittis about the learning process: we need them to hold space regardless of conditions.

But the experiment junked all of these mental-emotional-energetic boundaries. Mental hygiene principles are as close as I come to a creed, so it was interesting to suspend them. No wonder this experiment felt dramatic. That, and the whole-body hallucination thing. That too.

So I took a Saturday, went into a light trance, and did surya namaskara for what seemed like a long time. Just trying other minds on for size. Within that container, I had to remain compassionate, curious, and open to theories I usually keep at a distance.

I wish there were decent words to put around what happened. It was some sort of direct-experiencing of different layers of myself, bunching up and rising to the surface of consciousness. Reification in action.

As a Rolfer, my IT-band blanched and turned to spiderman-ropes. All movement was ham-strung. As a trigger point therapist, I was frustrated and mystified, ponderous, problem-solvey, moving with an agenda and the furrowed brow of a repairwoman. As a karmic diviner, I mainlined into generations of pingala problems (over-reliance on the masculine way), seeing Earth’s secret history as a violent mess and that was my body’s cross to bear. Turns out to be possible to go through the suryas as if you’re staked to a board. (Not recommended.) As a Yogaworks style “smart yoga” practitioner, I was all about problem solving, ergo problem-defining; and thus the thing was a pesky psoas-infraspinatus-SCM, which came down to an original “cause”: a wonky sacrum. Perfect external form, to the rescue! Then, the chakra diagostics spit out something about there being too much will and not enough surrender in the muladhara, and prescribed not trying so hard to be grounded all the time. And that made me move like a slack-jointed vata cat, whose playfulness made all the pain go poof for a moment, but horrifed everyone else at the party.

So holy God, THE FRAME CHANGED HOW I MOVED AND WHAT I FELT . So dramatically. And this, in turn, CHANGED HOW I EXPERIENCED EXPERIENCE. Or vice versa. Something like that. One way or another, mind does manifest in movement, in tissue, in the way we deploy our being in space.

Back to the Editor, the guy who works without a metaphysical net. He published his first philosophy paper at age 22, and edits a major theory journal. What colleagues call brilliance in him is more like honesty: there is just very little that he knows that he knows that he knows. Strangely, he got deep into academe with don’t-know-mind intact.

Maybe having a strong model makes us feel secure. Like, I know theoretically that the adductor does this, or that the lung meridian goes here, or that energy moves like this, or that such and such kind of pressure moves fascia or releases trigger points. Knowing models –lots and lots of models—is great. But it’s so easy to be clingy and narrow in the application, and thus to hinge the body on theory. There is a difference between “smart” and wise ways of being. The latter has nothing to prove.

Our minds want so badly to know. Explanations, causes, solutions. This is a kind of insecurity that has so many layers; I fall out of don’t-know-mind and crash in to that neediness all the time.

A person has to be so confident to work without a net. But it can be that way. Put the real, grimy ground under foot. That will do nicely.

Samsara Style • 31 August 2013

Colonialism Chic
What does our aesthetic say about who we are? Based on the artifacts, what will future historians conclude about our values and our way of being in the world?

Real art puts the unsaid, and the unconscious, into objects. We interact with it to understand reality better. Meanwhile, the artistic choices of the rest of us are loaded with unconscious stuff. It can get awkward.

When it comes to ashtanga aesthetics now, here’s my question. What in the imagery we are making is actually beautiful? I’m talking beauty that opens up reality, and opens the heart. Not just candy that catches your eye, or summons the response “I want that.”

Internet ashtanga 2013 delivers an emphasis on image, with an aestheticization of our collective rippling abdominals and flexible hips. (Nice intermediate series, everyone. Really. This stuff is HARD and you have done the work.) And there is a bizarre new icon in the mix: the disciplined-adventurous calorie-counting white woman, wearing small amounts of clothing, doing a massive yoga posture, outside, in India, in an urban setting. At the margins of the frame is a person with brown skin, ragged clothing, and look of bewilderment or offense. The colors are saturated; it’s dusty; the natives are tired; and the bendy vagabonds are very, very far from home.

Nailed it. Colonialism has an aesthetic signature, and this is it.

This is the style produced by adventurers who land in the global south. It’s been around since Hemingway, though there are whiffs of it as early as the journals of Cristóbal Colón. Its tropes are heat exhaustion and the hard work of plunder, cheap exotic raw materials, distance from “civilization,” precious quirky natives that can be pushed around, the sex appeal of sweat and vagabonding.

Cue up Bonny Prince Billy’s song Southside of the World. Latent themes include cultural difference, alienation, appropriation, oppression and power. The exotic commodities on display might be linens, fruit, tea, wood, handcrafts. Yoga postures.

This aesthetic is beautiful.

I spent my 20s seeking it out in alternating cycles of rage and revelry. I lived for years in Central America, traveled the Caribbean, read magical realism and obsessed about the Cold War and the Nicaraguan Revolution all the way to graduate school. This aesthetic is sultry and dramatic, dense with religion, subversion and intrigue. Have you been to an actual banana republic? How about Mysore’s Green Hotel, Oak Alley on the Mississipi, the downtowns of Latin American capitals? See also: Graham Greene and Heart of Darkness on the right hand, and Wide Sargasso Sea and The Golden Notebook on the left. Gorgeous outtakes are the German colonialist section of Pynchon’s V, or the French outpost scene in the long version of Apocalypse Now.

So, I like this stuff. There are ways to work with the culturally hard-wired aesthetic of colonialism without reproducing the oppression and plunder that motivated Colón. There are ways to appreciate it without that taking us even deeper down the rabbit hole of entitled white attention-getting leisure experience.

But not if we’re aesthetically immature. Not if we’re just assembling elements our subconscious tells us “go together” and jumping in the frame with them in a bid for attention. Again, our everyday aesthetic choices are tricky because they express our unconscious stuff, whereas real art (made by an insightful few – thank you, visionaries) is non-derivative, not so needy, and very much awake.

So what’s unconscious in our Mysore porn? I don’t know. But something is going on here, and some questions may tease it out. What is the attitude our images have toward space? Whose space is it? Is there communication among those inside the frame; and who is getting pushed outside the frame? Or pushed inside the frame? Is there an awareness of how commodification works? Can we empathize with the people and culture on display? Are the people smiling? What got photoshopped?

I have no moral argument to make here. Orientalism was written the year I was born and I’m over it. Have fun on yoga vacation, everyone. Play, dance, love. Do some secret service. Nobody owns yoga; nobody owns culture; modern comfort with the body and social decorum are good; and it’s nice that globalization translates these values to most corners of the planet. That said, if someone wanted to over-think this, the line of critique would be something about appropriation, whiteness, first world feminism, easy exchange rates on the Rupee, family money, easy credit, and deep infrastructural privilege. Something about people hanging out for 12 weeks in Mysore and just not getting it on a human level. Whatever.

For me, it’s not an ethical but an aesthetic thing. On a purely personal level that does not prevent me from adoring the majority of people who have other preferences, I find commercial yoga tacky. You already know my idiosyncrasies. It’s not lululemon; it’s me.

Until there is the face of a marginalized, wide-eyed woman in the frame. Until the imagery itself is an act staking an exclusive claim to the meaning-space there. Then all of a sudden there’s this juxtaposition of (1) the marginal characters’ subjectivities, together with (2) the self-objectifying, attention-monopolizing poser at the center in (3) an environment that the poser doesn’t seem to want to understand.

That juxtaposition brings up ethical questions for me, about our self-centerdness as asana practitioners and travelers. The aesthetic itself raises up my ethical bottom line, which has to do with giving back the fruits of our practice to the world, to god, giving back anywhere but to the attention-seeking self.

There is no judging matters of taste. But is it in our good taste to fetishize hardcore historical inequality? When matters of the heart come this close to the surface, aesthetics and ethics intertwine.

Float on • 28 July 2013

Two Runways

In clouds over the lake. Why is it that the view of Earth from space turns astronauts to mystics, but travelers on planes aren’t enraptured by the million?

We just flew past the east coast of lake Michigan. The dunes along the coast are lit up in afternoon sun, and the bay at Saugatuck is full of little white triangles. Michigan is water country. Summer thunderstorms, a latticework of ponds and lakes, months of snowcover, so many lighthouses, more freshwater shoreline than any other state. The water element is good for my spirit here. Water underlies our zeitgeist.

Zeit = time. Geist= spirit. The energy signature of a certain time-place. For example, Laksmipuram 1979. Gokulam 2010. Ann Arbor 2013. Zeitgeist is a vague, shared interiority that, in retrospect, good art can evoke with objects. Sense memory stores it up in the emotional body. I don’t know how there can even be a word for it without acknowledging something like geist. How is it that the languages I’ve studied –German and Spanish and Hebrew and Sanskrit—are infused with spirit, while our own finds ways around it?

As the cultural moment of the Encinitas trial passes and I’m stuck thinking about how it feels like the pendulum has swung to the other extreme of the Scopes Trial, I’ve been really sensitized to the spiritual repression we take for granted in public life. This is really hard to put into words, must less substantiate. But… most cultures aren’t like this. I mean, America is not a place where I can cop to working for reasons other than pursuit of personal “success” without coming off as a flake. It’s a place where meditation is legit if you do it for stress reduction (i.e. increased sense pleasure, a longer life), and religion makes sense if it’s about community and tradition. But the transcendent stuff – worship, selfless love, inner silence, oneness with everything that exists – aren’t part of our legitimate shared reality. You have to find a bounded epistemic community (a family, a yoga shala, a church) to even think about articulating these matters with others.

This repression isn’t just the vibe of intellectual movements like the new atheism, science done by people who don’t get the fuzzy roots of physics and math, or abstract modeling and rat choice theory in social science. It’s in the general idea that transcendence is ever so unique, and minds are ever so private. Spirituality is as personal as religion. Riiiight.

No wonder westerners who go to India mistakenly identify it as a “spiritual” place. It’s got more violence, inequality and environmental horrors than most places… but what it is not is spiritually repressed.

Anyway, I’m going west to PDX, going back in time, feeling Portland 1995. I lived here until the end of the 90s, during a period of enthusiastic anti-spirituality. Still a beautiful time; and I’m nostalgic for it. Everyone I knew was an artist; no one had any money. It was always dark and wet. Fertile. My uniform was a burgundy polyester V-neck from the Goodwill; it hung over my Levis and matched a pair of twice-resoled Vasque Sundowners. Social interactions were intensely self aware and ironic. Casual words were an image liability. So I kept up appearances with spitfire wit and a refusal to smile. Philosophers and musicians on Up Records were important. If there was a god, it was Jean-Paul Sartre, and Will Oldham sat at his right hand.

Saturdays were in the fiction aisles at Powells. I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow, my body collapsed against the stacks, mind dumbfounded that writing could be so perfect. I was getting used to foreign film, to paying my own bills, to drinking indiscriminately. To blow off steam, I’d cycle for hours through wine country in the rain. Email was epistolary and monospace; the library used card catalogs. I wore a pair of Gap khakis to wait tables 3 nights a week; now threadbare, they made great capris this spring teaching yoga retreat in Puerto Vallarta.

* * * * *

On the plane again now, Portland back home to Detroit. Three days off the radar.

There is the presence of Portland’s past within and as me—-bootstrapping, overeducated, and self-serious—-but god the zeitgeist two decades later is so different. A creative, gritty, shockingly friendly town. The life my brother has built there is epic, yet more mysterious than anything I could ever carry off. That is not for me to describe.

I visit Portland whenever I can, first, for a strong flavor of his alternate reality. And, second, because jet lag and distance from the work of Mysore teaching allows me to shut down my sense organs very deeply at night. In fact I’ve just had a trifecta of ten-hour sleeps and am still happily groggy. Long, deep sleep feels sort of like an achievement.

This trip, I’d sink into a memory foam mattress laid out in the center of a vast mezzanine floor, prepared with an eye mask against the solid half-block of sunlight that shows up at 5. Holocene, an electronic music venue, is across the street, so I’d use earplugs to block out the kids carousing in the street. That would be the last moment of outer sensing – the crinkling of the foam against my eardrums and the skin inside the ear. Tap, tap, crinkle, muffle, nothing.

Then, boom, straight to theta state with nothing to perceive but the relaxation of the spine and jaw. God. Within a few minutes, the body would drop away, leaving just the psychedelic imagery auto-generated by deeper layers of my mind. Eventually even that would sputter out into silence.

During the days, there was an infusion of big ideas and beautiful minds. And entertainment. Last night in the alphabet district, we patronized the establishments with the longest lines – a new taco place built to look like it’s been there forever, an ice cream parlor where you can get the flavors habanero-marionberry-goat cheese or honey-balsamic-black pepper (I had both) and, finally, a sensory deprivation tank center named for a Modest Mouse track. Float on.

The overwhelmed owner at the float place gave us a tour, once he realized he didn’t have to worry about us wanting to get on the schedule. He’s booked two months in advance! “The business is growing so fast. We’re still trying to figure out who our market is… are they trippers, artists, meditators, people trying to heal…?”

“How about humans with sense organs?” I offer.

Here’s his mystifying bottom line: pratyhara sells.

And this is because there’s something there when consumers stop pouring auditory – visual – tactile – culinary content into the orifices. It’s just that we have this funny culture that tells us meaning reliably comes from sense pleasure. And Spirit – collective or inner, immanent or transcendent – is for suckers.

I dunno. My 1995 self would not approve, but I’m going to power down the laptop and go back to worshipping the clouds out over the Lake Michigan.

Rose Line • 10 June 2013

Explicit Chapel

Holy God, Nothing is hot.

Or rather, after a good line of Nothing, experience in the world is hot.

This morning I drove away from Roslyn in mist. The retreat center’s called that, like in the Templar myths, like the church in Scotland. Hilarious. It’s for the myth of the “rose line” that leads to the holy grail. (For the esotericists, the grail is not a thing, but a “cup that runneth over,” for ever, and with everything, because you’ve emptied out the stories. Meantime the stories manifest as distraction, because if we were to look at them directly for more than a second we’d see how much selfing hurts and we’d knock it the hell off.)

Rose Line is a good name, and reentry is a good trip. Today I drove the hills of rural Virginia, mist and geese and damp low-hanging trees grazing the car. I was inside a high gloss pistachio—a new green Fiat—with a zafu in the passenger seat. High for This, by The Weeknd, came up first on the iPod car stereo. It was the Chopped and Screwed version, half digitized, half backwards, particulate song matter. Meaning mixed down with impermanence and empty space. It’s a seduction track all right, but not like the kids intended. Seeing through the self is so, screamingly, hot.

You don’t know what’s in store, but you know what you’re here for… We don’t need protection. We don’t need attention. Open your head, take a glance, don’t be scared… You want to be… high for this.

Excuse me while I take the lyrics the wrong way. High = dialed in to impermanence. Hip to the noself in a granualar, non-theoretical way. Clued in to the tricks of the mammalian mind, and well enough practiced to know what it feels like when those wires get crossed.

Driving a pistachio over hills in the rain with the stereo on. Gut in throat, heart in hands, too high on existence even to scream. Contemplation’s a cheap date.

Last night Shinzen said,

The book of your life is coming to be written three TIMES bigger than it was before. But be careful what you seek for. Because the giant script of your life will be written in invisible ink.

The less you fixate, the larger you live.

A long silent ride on the zafu is not just cleansing. It’s not just that meditation retreat defrags the hard drive and speeds up the processors. Clarity, intentionality, honesty: par for the course.

But also, now, ENORMITY. Jesus GOD yes. Shiva, thunderheads, mushroom clouds, black holes, burning bushes, typhoons. That kind of thing. But silent, empty, spaceless, timeless, formless.

I need to shut up though. Language and Nothing don’t mix. It seems the best humans (not counting Dogen and TS Eliot) can do is phallic buildings and obsessive trembling worship of natural disasters.

Next to Nothing, the mind is not a mystery. We’re just idiots. We have evolved to believe that selves are things. Nature did that to make us eat and mate. We have evolved to remember faces and songs, and little else, with clarity. To think in lame language. To run on a narrow band of visual-auditory perception – data streams a fraction as rich as those our animal kin can sense. What’s crazy is that blips of Nothing permeate the mindstream, making everything bounce forward and back in spacetime. Getting clear and deep enough to see that at all took me seven silent retreats in six years. Slow learner. I should have studied Patanjali more closely from the start.

Then, the last two retreats, I just sat with the mind like an intermittent TV. The mind is not beautiful. But the rhythms it creates, those are so beautiful that in the moments I come to from Nothing I just want to SCREAM there in the zendo afterglow. The energy of that roils up and down my torso and shakes my ribcage. Why did I waste time?

You! DO. NOT. WASTE. TIME. Study the wild mind down to its empty little units. Deconstruct that shit. Outsmart ego already. THAT is freaking YOGA.

The obstacle is the path, yo. It’s a twisted gift from the other side. Take any suffering that sharpens up the selfiness and mine down into that to understand the very nature of the ego disease. Don’t tighten up and turn away from the pain. The old way is boring and it hurts worse than anything. Instead open up and turn in. Take a glance. Seeing the selfing mechanism, and the moments it mixes with Nothing, starts a natural course of events that lead to the cure.

Back to phallic buildings. Wonderfully, the Washington Monument is restrained in Gulliverian scaffolding for the summer. “Seismic upgrade.” A good thing to fly over on the way here. Now I’m back inside the Beltway of the beast, sitting in the terminal at Reagan National while CNN chatters on about some Verizon privacy dustup. (As if the Patriot Act is “news.” Come on, Internet.) Shock and awe and the broken obelisk aside, there was no shortage this week on inappropriate architecture. I practiced every day in a church the shape of an arrow. It’s so exciting this place exists.

The first day, I practiced during lunch, so the other meditators wouldn’t be bothered by some lady standing on one leg with the other one wrapped behind her neck while heavy breathing and looking out over the James River from the chapel’s stone porch. But after that, more of the others started coming to the chapel instead of taking lunch. It’s like they wanted to be part of the yoga. Like cats.

The whole lunchtime ritual got increasingly transcendence-laced, unfixated, off the hook.

Roslyn

There came to be maybe a dozen of us each day. Some practicing asana or Tai chi, some walking in tiny circles, one on a hill nearby and another in the hammock overlooking the river.

The second day, a man went into the chapel and played Chopin for an hour. I opened the door so we could hear clearly on the porch, feeling the whole group of us contract together in delight about the secret we were sharing. This perfect moment. We must be breaking the rules – would the Church be scandalized by if they knew we were high? The next day, a woman came and (loudly) ate shelled peanuts. Possibly an enlightened act. Twice, it rained, driving heat and humidity into our bodies. Which might have been “a problem” in another mindstate, but the tamas didn’t stick.

Every day around noon, a cargo train passed just down the hill, on the other side of the James River. The last day, the train’s rumble unsettled a group of black-headed geese below the trees. They freaked out and flapped around not far off the ground. (Which didn’t remind me of duck dukkha until just now.)

Then they found a formation, an arrow, and I remembered to look at my nose.