Love of Practice • 1 January 2015

To end the year the way I didn’t spend it, I took today off. Slept four hours extra, walked to the shala in the snow before the late-late sunrise. Sixteen whole degrees, making me way overdressed in a winter coat as large and leak-proof as a space suit.

The shala was already full when I arrived. The students who are also keepers of keys were not waiting until 8 for self-practice, and maybe thought I was a little bit of a slacker for sleeping in. God: to end the year just riding on the energy of their practice, the momentum they create together. I rolled out my mat in the third row and just merged. At Durvasasana, a giggle from the back. Our resident 7 year old hasn’t seen the irascible sage before, finds the posture funny. I wobbled and didn’t fall.

This was the curtain on 2014: re-ingesting in my own body the group energy that has come of age, matured so much that it acts independently instead of waiting for me to say when and how. The collective is self-intelligent, the shala version of a singularity.

The cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts now applies. Four years after we incorporated, and seven years after my brother bought the domain (I was already trained for teaching by then, but in denial), this coming year is going to feature the novelty of rest. Crop rotation: two weeks with the Ayurvedic jungle doctors of Tamil Nadu, and two months in Mysore. Posting here next month will require escaping the jungle shamans long enough to bogart some wireless in Coimbatore; might not happen.


Yesterday I compressed a year’s worth of time not wasted on the internet into a few hours of listening, reading and watching. I wanted to know, how did people talk when they talked about yoga this year? More specifically, I have been thinking about my love relationship with the practice, and wondering if there is space out there now to speak about something so intimate and possibly offensive. Some would say it is an abject, life-ruining, love. I don’t want to try to describe it and be mistaken for talking about gratification, escapism, or some sort of pointless self-control trip.

What I read yesterday is that people have talked this year about discipline and the reality of suffering on the mat, and on the other hand they have talked about practice as a place where one experiences “just being,” possibly with some positive emotions like gratitude and self-acceptance added in. There are translations into everyday language of notions that sound a little like Advaita, Tantric hatha yoga, ascetic Yoga Sutra style self-trancendence, and badass (Jack LaLanne/puritanical) self-mastery. Many competing ideas and discordant values.

Looking at all that, the emotion-motives I actually experience might reduce to a combination of (1) the commitment expressed by the self-trancendence writers and (2) the gratitude and immanence in the Tantric writers. This is not a contradiction. My practical experience includes discipline, sensory absorption, suffering, and ecstasy.

I don’t see any way around this. We live on a planet with a down and an up. Energy moves toward Earth, toward the sky, and across the surface. Gender (a dance, not a personal trait) expresses along a continuum that has end points of agency, and of receptivity. There are two big orbs in the sky, one of them powerful and burning, one of them reflective and shadowy. The planet is full of animals, and animals often experience each other as having separate minds – those of us who are not aspen trees or slime molds interact with perceived others not just by consciousness-sharing but through relationship. Under these conditions, being a human on Earth involves contrasts – of will and surrender, wholeness and particularity, upward moving energy and downward moving energy, transcendence and immanence, self and other. Not surprisingly: there is an aspect of human self-reflection that involves trying; there is an aspect that is about just being; and there is an aspect that is about serving. This is so logical for Earthlings. There is not just one idea to rule us all.

Go ahead. Become an Advaita person. Or an ascetic. Or a devotee of the “call off the search” school. See how many years you last until you break out of that cave screaming about how the other guys are right. No one idea is sufficient for a person having a long, full life experience.

Some of the most compelling big ideas in yoga this year had to do with immanence – of not going beyond the present moment or the particular personality. Of just being, and appreciating reality as such. Wonderful. But not wonderful as a belief system. Lately, immanence is being offered in a repressive way, as the school of not trying, of denying any feeling of separation from spirit, of hating on the impulse for transcendence. So the yogas of “non-duality” end up being aggressively (if not angrily) dualistic, cordoning off the yogas of discipline, focused action, and effort as “other,” “wrong,” and “bad.” See Mark Whitwell and Christopher Gladwell for variants. Godfrey Devereaux says efforts at transcending the individual ego/present moment are dangerous; J. Brown seems to imply that if yoga is hard, it’s not yoga. Invoking an unblessed lineage claim to U.G. Krishnamurthi, who despised relationships and everyday life, Brown teaches that relationships and everyday life are the ground of practice. Some confusion is there.

On the other hand, I don’t see articulations of the path of discipline as being infused with effortlessness, surrender, grounded sensory pleasure, and ecstasy. But that is very possible. Discipline, effortlessness, ecstasy. At the same time.


The love of practice is not rainbows and dancing chakras. Practice is not my happy place. It’s more like love of practice leaves me on my knees saying thank you/ I don’t know what I’m doing; and in exchange for that abject thanks/emptiness, practice has taken away a career and made me a quasi-outsider to society. Um, thank you? This is not dramatic, or punishing, and there’s no fight about it.

The story behind this love relationship is that I encountered a distinct stream of energy, fell in very deep, and eventually looked up and realized that it had changed my consciousness and the course of life in a way that was really beautiful. In a way I wanted, but never could have found through trying or planning.

I don’t know if I will always do this. There is a commitment to daily practice that removes all doubt about what to do tomorrow morning, but I can’t see the distant future and I don’t really care about it. For now and tomorrow and 10 years from now, I trust this.

The love is not the result of feeling physically gratified by practice. Maybe at first it was, but like everyone eventually does, I found a formula for the reduction of short-term gratification. Take one woman, subtract southern California, add long hard winters plus body pain, subtract sleep, reduce teachers to 8 weeks per year, add teaching. The gratification reduction program has led to an increase in meaning, and deepening of the love.

The lover has many faces: mostly I don’t feel like the doer, but sometimes there’s strong effort. There is present moment joy/equanimity that means I do not suffer quite as much as I did before, but also a commitment to growth that demands I be slightly brave every day. Also (this might be offensive) there is some desire to change not just my own consciousness but our world through service.

Is that bad? The desire to make a contribution, and the hubris of believing that could matter? One or more of the impulses that I experience – transcendence, immanence, service –could be delusional. I don’t know. But that’s what is in me, and I’m not going to lie or spiritually repress myself in order to fit into a more narrow point of view.

This morning, merging with the student body, I was humbled to see the hardness of my own mind. It is so easy to stoke energy in the central channel from the first ekam in a room where that’s the program. When I am alone and it is early-early, at the beginning of almost every practice, every single movement requires effort. Breaking my inertia means going through a little, concentrated hell. Even if I’m buzzing, I just want to lie down. This laziness would be funny if it weren’t a threat to doing what I truly want to do. I know many of you are more mature than this– you just get on the mat and do the thing. And I know others would say if I have to fight some part of myself to get moving, that’s not yoga. A true practice should never be effortful.

I go into the little hell because every time I practice alone, knowing from experience that practice will eventually take over. Sometimes after 1 minute, and sometimes after 45. I don’t know why the resistance still has to exist, after all this time. Is it constitutional? Am I a hard case? I can’t know, but when I say that I love practice, and that I am in a love relationship with practice, this includes the little hell. It is the love in the relationship with practice that enables me to go there.

A few years ago I started feeling strongly that attachment to rituals is a block in the heart. A knot in the central channel that shrinks and over-specifies love. I think maybe my love of practice started as this – as commitment to ritual – and this was useful for a time.

And now it feels more pointless. Like, this lover could leave me on the side of the road and I might just keep walking, forever, never to reach Valhalla. Unless “arriving” is the ecstasy and momentum on the way to the place we already are.

Smart Yoga, Shibboleth • 30 November 2014

Yet still this Trinity sends out its message

Through the winter-dark, “arise, arise, re-animate,

O Spirit, this small ark, this little body,

this small separate self; of the world’s mortals,

make but one immortal, let but one awake,

to set the dead pyre flaming

that the Phoenix, Venus, Mercury

may fire the world with ecstasy,

with Love who forgets our faults

with Love who redeems the lost,

with Love, Love, Love unique”.

-from Sagesse, by H.D., Winter 1957

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The planet tilted this month and everything went epic. I feel it in the empty center of my chest – an oscillation between the mundane and the mystical. Between raw grit and radical sensory clarity at one extreme, to full power synchronicity at the other. When enchantment comes barreling in like this, I get lost in time, the cats become animal spirits, and I brim up to the tear-ducts with the beauty of this terrible world. Looks like we’ll hit the synchronicity apogee in a week or three. The pendulum swings about four times a year, and my consciousness at its mercy.

For now, everything is turned on. It’s thrilling. Walking to practice at four in the morning, there’s both the beauty of the world out there, and the increasing intensity of the world in here. When I cross the threshold from my street into downtown, my vision is narrowed down by a hood, a hat, and a faux-fur-lined parka, but inside I see an orange underground fire roar behind an iron grill, embers flying as some god stokes it with a log the size of my body.

Now that it’s freezing, it’s ok to run a little hot. My tri-doshic constitution tilts to its central setting, so digestion can burn through anything, and practice is strong and deep. Thanksgiving morning I waited until 7 to get on with it, and was rewarded with a drop of sweat on my mat for the first time in months. It’ll likely be sweltering Mysore March (coming in 2015, as it turns out) before that happens again.

HD, by HD, came in the mail last week. A library book removed from circulation at some place called the Berkshire School, sent here without a return address. In it, Hilda Doolittle’s poem Hermetic Definition, including passages about falling in love with someone far her junior in the Groves of Academe (Ann Arbor). And Sargasse, about an owl in captivity – regal, sharp eyed – and a woman who marks passing time according to the angels and gods and planets said to govern each distinctive hour.

The book is full of Greeks, roses, owls, academic arbors… muse crossed with goobeldygook. Intuitive fuel spiked with absinthe.

I partake; charm reigns. The Editor walks in on me reading Bihar school books in bed and smiling idiotically. “What is it about Moola Bandha: the Master Key that makes you so happy?”…. We have monthly open house at home for the students on a freezing Thursday, packed into my living room laughing about the absurdity of our own profound sincerity, and then I walk through the cold to the sauna (whatever it takes to sweat). On the way home, texts with three respected colleagues about trouble in paradise leave me in a bit of a sour pickle…. On a Saturday, the Editor and walk through the snow to the prime bookstores and coffeeshops of this over-educated town, and later I’m the only human in the vast arboretum, crunching and crackling ecstatic along the Huron. Toes ice cold and fire in the belly: maybe this will be the year my hard case of frostbite (sleeping in an Oregon snow cave for a month in 1997, with less than adequate gear) begins to thaw. And maybe not. When there’s a world inside the world, I really don’t care.


But wow, I ended up speaking with a lot of colleagues through the back channels this month. Then Ferguson happened, again, and sent me to social media longing for meaningful discussion. It was plentiful everywhere but in in the Ashtanga yoga niches of the internet. Here is my best effort to be direct and plain about what I picked up from the edges of planet Ashtanga this month.

It feels like the internet is eating our young. Sucking the guts out of your concentration and your discriminating mind before you ever get off the ground.

My friends, there is some stuff we’re forgetting to practice. Asana is a fraction of yoga – the fraction one can learn in person with an experienced teacher. And then she can have the good sense—and good taste—to leave at that. It seems that many of us are turning asana into an opiate – letting it serve the same function as organized religion and professional sports. A place to channel thought and emotion so that we don’t have to feel, care, act, outside the world of chasing likes and beautiful backbends.

I am still the biggest asana junkie I have met – I practice more, and more intensely, than anyone I know, and I’m not afraid of whatever projections people have about that. But seriously, even at the most intensive level, if asana is eating our higher consciousness, we are doing it wrong. If it is making us act culty, or narrowing down our generosity to the world and to our own bodies, we are doing it wrong. If it is spurring whole programs of narcissistic input (stat counting, calorie counting, asana counting, student counting) and narcissistic output (like-farming in all its variations), we are doing it wrong. Like, this is obvious, right?

Come on. Are rajasic/obsessive asana training, and the Axis Of InstaTwitFace, going to highjack your brilliant practice? Shiny young Jedi, if you are serious about your practice, you frankly don’t have energy to waste. Developing strong concentration is hard, and the dark side (the black hole of clickbait) apparently wants you to fail.

Listen, do not be lied to. Yoga isn’t actually a total-control program, or a technology for honing the body beautiful. It’s a heart practice. Maybe even a soul practice. An equanimity practice. And before all of this it’s a mental discipline.

If vritti is hungry for the children of the Force, here are some ways to stay on the razor’s edge and ride it under the radar….


Smart yoga.

Shibboleth of the century. At the turn of the 2000s, the way “smart yoga” manifested in Los Angeles was in asana classes where you’d get into triangle pose and then someone would talk to you for 10 minutes about your acromium process. I was not smart enough to get it. Honestly, it would take years to cultivate the internal spatial relations to telescope between an abstract picture of a skeleton an the feeling within my body.

Anyway, I would submit that smart yoga is usually something different. It is silent. Get the technique you need, get any burning questions answered, and then recognize that the desire to talk or be talked to is quite possibly coming from anxiety about the experience of being in the body. Intense anxiety. Being in the body, in silence, while breathing, is scary.

Scarier yet is sitting the body on a cushion, in silence. I sense that sitting practice requires either incredible bravery or – as was my experience – stupid levels of curiosity. But back to asana.

Being in the body is unbelievably hard for a good portion of us. There are some who are blessed with animal intelligence, with a kind of kinesthetic naturalness that I consider brilliant because I came in without a whit. But for anyone with crazy vata, or who identifies as “smart,” or those of us who have some trauma tracers in the nervous system, learning to be quiet with the body is probably hard. The last thing we want to do is feel.

It is possible to practice asana, every day, for years, without more than a few passing moments of real proprioceptive awareness. Deeply cultivated body intelligence is a big part of what I’d call smart yoga.

Smart yoga is casing the heck out of anyone you might call teacher. For example: what are her relationships with all her former teachers, and is there any heavy baggage there that she’s going to pass on to you? Are there any holes in the resume, or any influences he’s keeping hidden? Is he a little tooooo charismatic? Is she quick to celebrate your learning and mourn in your difficulties, in a way that suggests her boundaries aren’t clear and maybe she thinks your practice has something to do with her? (She’s wrong. It’s your practice, not her credit or cross to bear.) Did he have less than 10 years of practice before he got in to teaching – as if your practice deserves any less than 10,000++++ hours from a teacher? Did she get into teaching because her teacher chose, and trained, and blessed, her, or… for some other (deeply suspicious) reason?

Withholding your obedience, your respect, your trust, until these questions are answered: this is smart yoga. I have a very deep faith that we all get the teachers we deserve, for better and for worse. This is part of how.

The closer you get to the source, the more concentrated the environment. There isn’t going to be an emphasis on sales, or workshops, or publicity. There aren’t going to be a lot of extra things or experiences to buy. You’re not going to be asked to pay money to learn to assist the teacher.

The room is going to be fairly silent because the teacher will have worked through her anxiety about the body to some degree, and will have learned – over many, many, many years – how to listen and communicate with subtlety. The teacher will not experiment on you or try out lots of new ideas or instructions, because after countless hours of this stuff, he will not be easily taken for a ride. What will interest him is your running your own micro-experiments while he holds space.

So the closer you get to the source, the more embodied the experience, the quieter the space, the less money/ attention/ adulation the leadership wants from you. So there’s just practice, and it’s sacred but not special. And the more we figure out how to care for the self with respect and rationality and compassion, the more obvious it is how to care for the world.

Sadhana, Sattva • 31 October 2014

The high holidays begin tonight, when the snow arrives. This afternoon I will teach at the University, then go to the shala, then come home for mulled cider with friends and a stream of child unicorns and superheroes, and afterwards a Ryoki Ikeda show. My lawn is covered in yellow leaves now, and already there are fairy children jumping in the hop-scotch squares cemented into the sidewalk.

I imagine these three Dias de los Muertos are when the portal opens all the way: three days of the dead, three days of the glistening darkside. And then my birthday – the day oneness is natural because it’s so exciting to have been born in to this world in this time, in the same form and time you have also come in. Personal because not personal.

But anyway, it’s been more like a full month of the darkside already. I expected a couple weeks of easy time for my own practice and vacation, in advance of intensifying the teaching work for the fall. What I got was that my father had a heart attack, and my back hurt for weeks, and then my not-so-secret love (Mysore, India) told me not to come in January. Paaaaaaaain. I had under the impression that my father was immortal, and that his ecstatic, unconditional love for all people at all times forever was a background condition of the universe. So experiencing him as human is fundamentally not ok. I felt like my subtle body was passing a sharp heavy stone from tip to tail – taking its own sweet time meandering through my kidney region and through the annoying backwaters of Murphy’s Law.

Without some sort of sadhana, I know that what I would have done with this difficulty is (1) be awesome or (2) try to disappear. Regarding the first strategy, the weird thing is that resilience comes extremely easy in this system, in part because concentration is not a problem, and maybe also because as a small child I was conditioned to overcome streams of human (specifically, other humans’) trauma. Point and shoot. Poof. All better. Sometimes it’s a bit too easy to cultivate positivity in equal and opposite measure to the forces of the big three: fear, anger, sadness. But these energies are part of being human.

So there’s this curiosity about my human experience. That aspect of curiosity, combined with the non-negotiable fact of having a sadhana, combined to make it possible to do self-practice this month – especially while on vacation in a farmhouse on a Lake Michigan peninsula. Otherwise I would have stayed in bed, or just lay on my mat, with my heart-mind covered in dust. Or maybe just ate junk health food and hung out on the internet. The try to disappear strategy.

There was one morning when moving and breathing at the same time required more of me than I knew that I had. The mindbody knew the way, but it is still impossible for me to do this practice without showing up with my whole self. A level of presence was necessary of me that smaller aspects of myself did not want to bring.

When the curiosity combined with the devotion to move the mind into the field of my actual, painful, experience, what I got was this stream of gratitude. A little surrender that was enough for the iceberg in my chest to break up into an ice floe that I could actually move with and perceive. Which was much more painful than disappearing, but the gratitude took the edge off.



The yoga industrial complex relies on one tool to build up its power (over others’ minds and actions), and to fortify its material and energetic bank accounts.

That tool is vritti. Content-provision. Click-bait. Anything to get in your head and create a pattern of thought-control if not compulsion in you by sheer force of repetition. Blip, blip, blip, blipblipblipblip.

Keep up with the news. Stay connected (but not really). This is the trained desire in us that allows the complex to cash in. And I don’t really mean on money so much as subtle energy. Every blip for the consumer is a ka-ching for the producer.

Huge amounts of power are being given away just because we humans are ready to pay in subtle energy for the relief of something to do with our wandering minds.

Headlines, head-lines, h e a d l i n e s. Lines inside the head.

The tool is inside us. It is the bored and seeking mind that needs content.

The yoga industrial complex cannot exist without your energy. It is parasitic on human attention.

The strongest, sweetest thing a young Jedi can do is decide. Where exactly am I going to put my moment-to-moment energy? What exactly is worth my priceless attention? Where in the world is my heart?

Deciding is the foundation of concentration. The awareness and the heart can have a fighting chance to open up. Different. Scary. Awesome.

Concentration is deliberate coalescence of our own spiritual power. It’s badass. But that’s another topic.


Asana Improvement Tips.

I seriously have no idea. But here are some first thoughts.

1. Figure out what you want to cultivate.

For me lately that is receptivity, and the capacity to perceive extremely clearly (if not to direct) the shape-shifting nature of matter. What I intend to understand is not postures as things, though postures are an ideal back-ground for this practice.

2. Meditate on where you would like healing. The whole asana thing is about healing. That’s why to do it.

Is the healing mental, emotional? Spiritual, physical? I have found that understanding where I’m truly at takes time and silence.

For me lately, the healing is largely spiritual. Mending the rends in the one. Really.

If someone relatively new to the practice is completely obsessed with asana, there might be push factor in play. Some impulse away from another level of self that’s in pain. The asanas themselves will improve if those push factors are dis-covered. They’ll be inwardly deeper.

3. Take the mind that wants a shortcut as the object of practice, instead of doing what it says.

Asana is so important! If it is ritually, mundanely sacred, do you want to study it haphazardly? Without strong internal intention and concentration? From someone whose background and motives aren’t crystal clear? Does you not deserve a clear, concentrated transmission?

Don’t let the hungry asana ghost run the show. The people with the “best” asana practice have taken a tiny bit of technical advice they trust, advice that forces them to work against samskaras that don’t serve, and have gone inside with that instruction until they understood it on many levels.

4. Cultivate sattva.

Developed asana is relaxed and it has nothing to prove. It might start out very rajasic, and that’s good if it balances a tendency toward disease and dullness. But over time it becomes luminous and relaxed. Sattvic.

One way to approach this is to choose high quality fuel. (Alimentary, informational, relational.) Later you’ll be able to turn anything in to fuel, but at the beginning some discrimination is useful.

It may be that many of us come to a strong asana practice because we are addicts. Really. There is an energy signature, and a scent, to the adrenaline junkie and that’s not the same as a clarified stream of life force. Again, some adrenaline is great if it gets us off the sofa, but with strong intention it is possible from early on to build a fire that burns clean.

There is a lot of energy available in a courageous heart that wants to learn to put smaller aspects of ego in check. Asana can be such a good tool for doing just that.

Brinks of Lucidity • 30 September 2014

I’m in a Mysore room like always. As usual there are several pair of practitioners’ eyeglasses on the windowsill. One of them magnifies the liminal world of spirit beings. I know the spirit-realm is a little pathetic: more hungry ghosts than angels; get a body already, folks. Still, I slip on the glasses.

The room dances. Chaos vinyasa. Each practitioner stays in his own space with the mind on the breath, while the collective subconscious roils. My own subconscious as displayed in the dream-state is a jumble of others’ big ideas (after all, it’s images’ shared nature that makes them archetypes), so the dream-mind makes out this scene in tempera-laserlight loops, like a dynamic Alex Grey Van Gogh.

A woman with 80 year old skin and a 30 year old spine stands in the middle of everything. Her hair is soft, grey pincurls. She’s wearing a ragged housecoat covered in small round flowers, each of which is studded with a sapphire. She says in my mind: “I’m going up. Want to catch a ride?”

I stand before her with my hands on her ears, and lock in to her grey eyes, which have sapphires for irises. They roll back in her head, Game of Thrones style (another borrowed idea). As her eyes roll, I FEEL mine stop twitching inside my 3-d body head (the one resting on a pillow), copying hers as they lock into the center of the skull.


The choice is overwhelming.

It often is, unless I have an astral to-do list on the night stand. The first time I woke up in a dream was on the floor of a senior Ashtanga teacher’s home shala in 2008. There was someone who I thought had hurt me, and who I was desperate to forgive. The psychic ache for letting-go was enough to make the magic happen; turns out that taking care of karmic business is (almost) fun in Technicolor.

Simulated forgiveness is no simulacrum though: it is real. When I reported the adventure, my host said: “Yes. The yoga’s working.”

Sometimes at the brink of lucidity, for all the intention to wake up in the dream, I lose my nerve because overwhelmed by choice. It’s not just that we could fly to other galaxies, or become alien dinosaurs, or take on the body of light. It’s that EVERYTHING, the whole gestalt, is subject to choice. The mind’s design goes all the way down. Any and every bit of it can be chosen.

Anyway. This time with the sapphire-woman, I stay liminal. Awake in the dream, but choiceless. Changing nothing. My hands are still on her pincurl-lined ears, but I’m looking out from behind her eyes and we are birds, flying in the dark, inside the vast set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

I peel my body up off hers, becoming a big-eyed baby bird growing up out of the back of a great raven. There’s an icy wind. I detach and wheel back to gaze on her. She’s Kali, the High Priestess; she is Nancy Gilgoff. (Later I want to decide she was my biodynamic cranio-sacral therapy teacher, who I meet days after this dream… and with whom I will be studying for years to come. She appears to be the crone I’ve been watching for….)

The reason I bring up the moment of choice is that some people are having strong, clear downloads from the subtle realms. Dreams, intutions, sixth and seventh sense phenomena in meditative states. These feel like messages. The mind wants to use them to make decisions in the three dimensional world. Kind of like oracles and chicken entrails – we will do anything for a line on the unknown. We want to think deterministically. As if everything happens for a reason.

But what if every possible thing is true, and every possible thing is false? What if everything and nothing happens for every reason and no reason? If everything and nothing are true and not true? Our minds have one thin line of apprehension on the chaos of the subtle realms. We can bear down on these information-streams and use them to narrow down our lives; or we can stay open, and hold back from turning dreams into belief systems.

So far, my way is to try to tolerate as much freedom as I possibly can, and then a hair more. Freedom is hard. But I’m working on increasing my tolerance, and at the same time balancing the dreamstuff with the tenor of my gut. That’s where the bullshit detector lives: the gut. And it helps with sorting through space trash from the astral realms.


A yoga teacher is a common being in nature.

If you spot one that seems interesting, one possible thing to try is to keep your distance a while. Trace out the root system. Does he have a teacher? Does she know how to remain a student? Has he been trained in teaching? Has she been explicitly blessed by those who trained her? Does she practice every day? What are his true motives? Does he know how to keep the ego in check?

Someone who is rooted in these ways probably has a stable mind and a strong-flexible nervous system. In someone whose roots do not go deep, soon the teacher-identity may die on the vine. As well it should. Or worse, without any tap on real groundwater, the teacher will find an alternate energy source. A couple of obvious shallow root-systems are popular culture (working on the “celebrity,” “self help guru,” or “charismatic leader” templates) or becoming parasitic on students themselves (cultivating a following, and drawing energy from that crowd in a narcissistic feedback loop).

A really interesting thing to consider when observing a yoga teacher is one’s own motives. What am I looking for? Do I want someone “important” to associate with? Or someone to make me feel good about myself? It feels like these are very common default motives in our shared culture – motives that have a seed in every one of us – so we actually have to work against them if we’re shooting deeper than that.

So, what about asking whether a teacher actually loves, or can actually can act as a mirror, or whether she actually practices the aspects of the path where you need inspiration? There must be a dozen other good questions like this, once the more superficial motives are identified and set aside.

But back to love. At the zenith of the ooey gooey new age, M. Scott Peck said this not at all woo-woo thing. “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”

Jackpot. Admittedly I do have warm fuzzies for my teachers. But that’s because I find them to be perhaps-inadvertent ego quashers, and this lightens my load. They are as they do. It’s not ushy gushy.

So far the very good beings I have met do not announce themselves. They can make themselves invisible at will; and groupies give them the creeps. They don’t often look like much, on the physical level. Joseph Dunham talks about the 11 years he spent in airports as the escort to a small, strange man in a sheet: that’s how Patthabi Jois looked to western eyes before he was a thing.

Anyway. If you do tag and bag a live one, it’s helpful to give a teacher decent care and feeding so they can thrive in domestication. Respect their energy. Don’t kiss ass. Draw the best out of them. Love is as love does.


Speaking of invisibility, a note on something way more esoteric than nightly psychedelia: watching people self-alchemize. It’s a simple, slow process.

Someone decides to clarify her mind, and to actually do an ethical practice. She gets the words and the actions lined up. She starts watching to the way she uses energy, time, emotions and relationships; and suddenly she’s wasting WAY less life force than she was before. She stops customizing information, or amplifying emotion, to try to get what she wants. Communication is no longer a tool to induce desired effects in others. Emotions are now allowed to come and go on the transparent screen of the energy body. Efficiency and transparency make this person increasingly trust-worthy.

What’s interesting here is the way that the world responds. It reveals itself.

If you are not trust-worthy, there is a whole high integrity reality that is hiding itself from you. People who are living their best lives and doing great things in this world can detect the fact that you aren’t the best collaborator. They can tell your circuits are a little mucked up: the ego is a natural born huckster, after all. So the excellent world makes itself invisible to you. Not because you’re a bad person; just because you don’t have your shit together. So you miss out on the full force of epic love, support and relationship beauty that is happening all around.

As people get their ethical trip together, the world of excellent play comes forward. Lila pandava. The are creative opportunities everywhere. Increasingly. Not opportunities to get stuff or be somebody: that’s huckster mode. I’m talking opportunities to buff out the edges of the self. To serve. Intellectual-creative-caring eros abounds; and everyone is a trusted partner.

It’s not magic, or synchronicity, or grace: it’s that the sincere world that was always there sees you can handle the truth.

Pattern Recognition • 31 August 2014

The seasons upheave here between the Great Lakes. In LA, fall was a shift in the light and longer lines at the undergrad library. But in Michigan it’s a beautiful, overwhelming reconstitution; and it is a thrill.

Last week I went to the forest in the north, first to a yoga camp full of Yogananda devotees and geodesic domes, then to a retreat on the Boardman River, near the northern shores of the state. The plan was to write and hike in the mornings (catching up on backlog of journal themes and on fun letters I don’t write at other times – sorry to people who I didn’t end up writing…), and meditate in the afternoons.

But the forest had this (slightly creepy) way of pulling back the veil to my subconscious: on the other side of the curtain, my implicit mental-emotional programming churns away, manufacturing this reality. Pattern recognition is jarring. So instead of writing in the mornings, I gave myself a relentless, merciless, off-the-cuff workshop on cutting through illusion (the newly obvious ones, that is). And on radical forgiveness. Churning, hiking, churning some more, writing, ritualizing, river walking, star gazing, and finally lucid dreaming about letting go. Very effective.

All kinds beliefs and expectations about what practice is, and should be, and shouldn’t be, seem to have accumulated. It feels so cleansing to skim off a layer of psychic pond scum. This is a very different activity from sitting in stillness and transcending the relative mind. It doesn’t feel like transcendence skills help much for pattern recognition, unless it is in supplying concentration for staying with activity that is painful to my ego, and in poking a bunch of light-n-brite holes in the fabric of consciousness – holes that can be exploited later to get a peek at manomaya and vijanamaya koshas.

Thursday I drove back down-state, as they say, together with hundreds of small town families taking a kid to college. As the line of us dropped into the Huron River valley and caught the first long view of the University spires framed in lush greens, a low rumble was coming on. The upheaval of the town’s population doubling, of its collective mental activity quadrupling. Oh but this is a vata town if ever there was one.

But it has its fire. Saturday Ann Arbor’s solar plexus (a massive stadium called The Big House – we can hear the roar of a touchdown from our hill a mile to the north) sparked back on. I took a while choosing cucumbers at the crowded farmer’s market, but then when I looked up, the whole place had cleared out. Kickoff.

We had a party for the Editor’s professor friends, especially the new cohort of junior faculty. I noticed I still love academia, but ended up in the corner with the Executive Director of a badass grassroots activist organization you’ve heard of. Said when she accepted the directorship, she “baked in” to her contract the authority to hire a co-director. Someone to share the power. They told her: “Men don’t DO that” when they get directorships.

“So what are we supposed to learn from each other tonight about women in leadership?” she asked. I said I don’t know, but in my mind there are some new ideas about leading from a place of receptivity. The social scientists have begun shouting what we already know: that it is very, very difficult for a human to maintain the skills of empathy as his power increases.

But the archetype of femininity (whatever that may be) is empathetic to the core.


Receptive Leadership

It took an alpha male to wake me up to an archetypically feminine mode of transmitting sacred knowledge. He is a certified silverback, father of four, and Shiva devotee who towers over me. He is deep into his fourth decade of daily Ashtanga practice. His resonant bass voice rattles the rafters and my knee joints when he invokes the saints. And: he does not want my projections, or my power.

This is already saying too much, in his view. He goes with the flow in most everything, but there is one occasion on which he will cut in and disagree with a person: when he detects the ever-present meta-narrative (demonstrated in the paragraph above) about the perfect father figure guru who has finally set us on the straight and narrow and saved us from ourselves. This instructional move is not original – it’s characteristic of the more esoteric wing of 20th Century yoga (J. Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky…). And I assume it’s the way the nameless, countless women teachers have operated all along.

As above, so below. Or, at another angle, the left-handed path.

I’m going to pretend there are two contrasting ideal types of transmission: transcendent/ right handed/ masculine (in which knowledge is delivered from above to open minds) and immanent/ left handed/ feminine (in which a knowledgeable person immerses himself as a forever-student among other co-learners). In a minute, let’s throw the binary away, but for now maybe it’ll help clarify something.

Ken Wilber distinguishes between hierarchies of knowledge and hierarchies of power (in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 2001): in a top-down (right-handed) situation, students are purely receptive. The teacher has the knowledge and power. But in the receptive model, in which the teacher has relatively more experience but also identifies as a life-long student, their students have to do more. More deciding, more figuring-it-out, more taking responsibility, more work. That kind of empowerment appeals to a lot of us in the West for the wrong reasons (a cultural inability to just buck up and have a boss since about November 1963) but when it’s done honestly it’s actually hard. It requires a practitioner go toe to toe with himself, in the field of practice, instead of consigning all decisions to someone else as a relatively clear way to route around his own mental and psychic obstacles.

Historically, ashtanga comes from father figures. Yet at the same time I see receptive teaching all over this practice– in every great teacher. Especially in strong men who have been made to be flexible. And it appears that a tremendous amount of our community’s strength and creativity comes from this sort of secret way of operating.

At random, here are some ways that receptive teaching seems to show up.

Uncompromising technique. Receptive teachers are surprisingly demanding about getting the small stuff right. If you’re going to survive on your own, you need the right foundation. Uncompromising teachers don’t want to babysit you for the first decade of your practice, but they will ride your ass for a few thousand hours until you have a consistent practice and correct method dialed in. That represents a huge energy expenditure on their part.

Investment in relationship. Receptive teaching is not about spreading one’s seeds as broadly as possible and letting yoga Darwinism sort out the rest. The feminine archetype imagines reproductive material to be precious – taking on a new student is not a casual decision, and the little monkeys are looked after carefully at first.

Letting them struggle, and letting them own the learning. . When you take your first steps (er, dropbacks), that’s yours. Your receptive teacher didn’t show you the crucial trick, and doesn’t get credit for anything. He just set some boundaries and held the space.

Speaking of which, boundaries. Receptivity requires safe space. Once you’re in, you’re in. But for a sacred space to come about, not only is there a need for strong transmission, but also for gate keeping. Maybe boundaries are for receptive leadership what hierarchies are to archetypically masculine leadership.

Openness about their own struggles and their suffering. My receptive teachers are transparent – when they have an emotion that can be ethically expressed in a given situation, they go ahead and let it show. In my experience, there is not a lot of distance between their public and private personae. Although this quality in a teacher can be horribly disappointing at first, I have come to find it inspiring. Profoundly so.

They don’t want your power. The archetypical mom has been waiting for you to get your driver’s license since the day you were born. She’s not going to give you the keys if you’re a basket case, but otherwise, for godsakes, please go ahead and drive yourself to soccer practice.

Unconditional acceptance. Students aren’t broken, and don’t need to be fixed. Love isn’t something one earns; it’s a background condition of everything we do.

“I don’t know.” Because they’re still a student. Or they want you to figure it out yourself.

“I AM NOT YOUR TRANSFORMATION.” When my teaching mentor stared down on me with his eyes popped out and Shiva hair flying, and staged whispered that line in the lobby of the Santa Monica YogaWorks in 2007, I started to give in. Fine. You are not my transformation. Working with this instruction is a different kind of surrender.


Study the guru to forget the guru.

So there is a party with said teaching mentor, right here, four weeks from today, and the price of admission is reading all 427 pages of Guruji: A Portrait of Shri K Pattabhi Jois. We have a good number set now upon the work, and they know they know better than to show up having just skimmed or skipped a few chapters here and there.

I plan to sit back in the corner, drink gynostemma (jnano – gyno tea), and frame leading questions here and there. After four weeks and 400 pages of dreamy hagiography, will they be ready to have a senior teacher play search and destroy on big ideas?

Seven years ago, he and I would sit together after practice and I’d ask for stories, and instead what I’d get most days would be exercises in keeping it real. I was addicted to nostalgia and obsessed with the story of who we were. Still am. Sometimes he’d throw out a gems of the Guruji history, which I wanted more than anything (in those days, there were no published interviews and the best source for our history was the archives of the EZBoard, which probably makes better reading than the clickbait in your feeds).

But other times he’d just roll his eyes at my eagerness, look up to the perfect Santa Monica skies, and stage whisper that these are the good old days. These.

New Archetypes • 1 August 2014

1. Padawans

I wonder if most everyone doesn’t wish, some times, to be a Jedi. A sensitive, and an initiate. A devotee of something beyond tribe and time and name. Someone with so much heart: which comes out as courage, compassion, reverence, capacity to merge.

Did you know there are whole worlds of people just practicing for the sake of practice? They don’t want or need to talk much about it. They just do; and they just are.

Five a.m. and I see a room already simmering with souls sensitive to the Force. Nobody told them at first about brahma muhurta or the Yoga Sutras. They were just born wide-eyed. Or they stepped into a practice room, and some latent ninja sensitivity crackled to life.

I see these people get it, with a strange readiness. The usual dullness, instability, illness, doubt, cravings, irregular breath, sadness, internet gossip, unkind self-talk, or vainglory of perfect poses (YS 1.30-32) did not slow them down.

I forget what it is that they get, but possibly it has to do with the cosmic joke. (The joke seems to be that, despite earth being a general hell, we can potentially wire the nervous system for good, truth and beauty. We can set ourselves up for a brief lifetime of passionate creativity and love.)

This understanding is a look in the young padawans’ eyes. It shows up as a regard for posture as nothing but by-product of their devotion. These people do any repeated action as reverie. They close the toilet seat with the same feeling they use touch the shala threshhold. Creative, worshipful gestures.

Community and relationship are sacred to them too. There is so much respect for everything, though they usually keep it to themselves.

So these people, with their easy reverence, make everything they touch sacred. With two or more of them gathered in a room, moving, in silence: the walls vibrate. Their least-preferred practice spot becomes, through insta-radical acceptance, the sweetest. Their presence can bless the people around them, one way or another. I know a padawan who even says “shit” poetically. And a whole handful who cried the first time they crossed the shala threshold. They laugh a little if there’s a glimmer of self-pity, or there’s some day they’re just so pissed off on the mat that they get to face pure suffering.

I can’t teach anyone this stuff, in part because I keep forgetting the root secret it is expressing.

Even when I do remember, it’s not teachable. Rather, what happens is on lucky occasions the latent padawan mind just surfaces in a new practitioner. Their words, and their thoughts, and their actions, and their body, and their feelings, and their intuitions, LINE UP. Pancha kosha overdrive. You put your quarter in the slot machine and pull the handle this one time, with some sort of luck, what comes up is diamonds in every column.

So you, dear padawan, you get sensitive to the energy of deep alignment. And by the way what often comes with it is nonviolence. Truthfulness. A not taking that which isn’t offered. A dropping of the need for sexual attention or drama, and of our general human desperation. It also expresses as healthy boundaries. Contentment. Discipline. Self-awareness. Radical acceptance. (YS 2.30-2.) Jackpot.

2. Shamans

These are my senior colleagues. When I think about them, I hear the minor-note mystery songs Sting wrote in the 90s, probably because he was hanging out and practicing Ashtanga with these very people as his muses.

They have one foot planted outside society on the mountain top, and one in the field of battle. They are deep alphas, strong personalities with nothing to prove and skill coming out of their ears. Padawans plus 20 and more years of strong practice. And no apologies for being eccentric.

They possess the high-level saninty-creation skills the padawan works for: pattern recognition, cutting through illusion, forgiveness.

All of them can heal themselves – they have long since signed over their bodies to the science experiment of yoga. Their minds and homes are storehouses of the esoteric; and they all have some weird Hogwarts specialties and personality quirks to match. All of them have gone to the desert, been tempted by the devil for a fortnight, over and over again, and taken energy from the hellfire of their own dark sides. None of them give away their power: their constant abject surrender is just a strategy for staying in the flow.

The shamans are half invisible. They’ll show themselves when it suits their purposes, or you will catch them in your peripheral vision riding motorbikes, flashing inexplicable jewelry or tattoos, engaging in economies you can’t begin to understand. It’s a man with a kitchen full of strange tasting science experiments that make you feel amazing, who expresses extremely refined preferences in music you’ve never heard of, who spends moon days wildcrafting herbs and berries for elixirs the rest of us don’t know yet how to use. It’s a woman in a coastal town who since before anyone cared about Ashtanga has run one of the best and deepest Mysore programs in the world, with 12 students; and you’ve never heard of her. Because she doesn’t want the energy of distracted minds. Her vocation is attenuation of the vritti, not stirring minds up to grab the cash and mouse-clicks that vritti puts in circulation.

Brahma muhurta has been the shaman’s prime time for decades. This keeps her half in society, and half in the prophet-exile realm. Inside outside inside; here gone here. Present; absent; present absence. They slip into and out of teaching and leadership roles.

Their onging mode of interacting with the rest of us is to see (and reveal) the strange in the familiar, and the familiar in the strange.

3. Masters

I can only say what I’ve heard, and suggest that maybe there are two or three alive, somewhere, in this practice now.

Shinzen says the bodhisattvas, when he finds them, are always the same. The first one he met was Nicola Geiger, in Japan. Later he met an anonymous south Taiwanese zen master, after that the last of a line of Navajo leaders, and so on. These are beings who figured out, as he says, that the practice starts with learning to keep your spine straight, and ends with knowing that you live to serve others. This does sound like someone we all knew once, or know of.

Here’s how he says you identify what the Tibetans call a sempa chembo, a great hero of consciousness. They are always hidden in plain sight, both invisible/passive and so easy to approach. They always treat everyone as equals. They have enormous energy, inhuman amounts of it, and lack a need for “personal” time. Purely self-referential thinking and activity have ceased.

I imagine they are no longer processing old experiences or collecting new ones, and are now fully occupied by a stream of creative being with other humans. They’re not working on skills; they are embodying them. They are not, like the rest of us, trying to understand what it means to serve, and how that really works as a form of life. Service is just the spontaneous and natural by-product of their interacting with the world.

Or so I suspect.

Svadyaya is not a crime • 22 June 2014

But it might be a very good joke.

In the west, we say humans have five senses. But elsewhere, they say we have six – including the mind. (I wonder if there aren’t really seven senses, with proprioception being as basic to our reality-construction project as are sight and sound.)

But back to the idea of the six. If the mind is a sense organ, then the inner pictures, and feelings, and talk the mind generates can be described with the same (arbitrary) vividness as sight and smell.

This morning after practice, someone with a fire for self study asked me— distressed—if it’s wrong to meditate. What? I don’t know. Patanjali said that’s where the action’s at. Pattabhi Jois said don’t do it if what you get is “mad attention.” Like, maybe don’t sit if it makes you feel mad.

Ok. I see no right or wrong here. If you dislike the idea of sitting, don’t. You’re a good person already. Sitting won’t make you superior, IN ANY WAY, to those who don’t. (Smug meditators are so fake.)

Still, I submit that svadyaya is not a crime.

This morning, I told the distressed student that I would confess to the internet to being someone who sits. So now I’m on the hook for a blog post, and here it is. I’m a cushion fiend. Zafu zealot. Gomden head. Last week, I took silent retreat for the ninth time in as many years. A ridiculous (AWESOME) week of doing nothing, at great financial expense. At home, I’ll sit immobile on a cushion for between 30 minutes and 2 hours per day. Every day. When I could be doing something useful.

Those sentences make the habit sound volitional, but I’m not even sure why it happens. It’s probably that when my body-mind is very still, consciousness learns to sense itself. And some part of me loves that. This corner of consciousness comes to know itself intimately: from the psychedelic and sublime mental states that draw one in to the illicit affair of a lifetime (with the no-Self), to the mundane ones that iterate the daily life of a devoted love. It’s like that. My small self has a love of consciousness.

Or a lust. Sitting practice is not innocent. I’m not doing it to be a “good yogi,” or a “nice person.”

Krishna is a beautiful hole in the universe. He says I am the taste in the water… I am the heat in fire… I am the fragrance in the earth…. I am the austerity in ascetics. Oh GOD. So beautiful. But what, consciousness, ARE you?

I have no idea, but that is what I want to know. Or I want to be known by it. Intimately. Carnally. Completely. Known. Blown to bits at a cellular level, made transparent, made impermanent, made nothing, by a habit of being dissolved by mind. Dissolved into mind.

Sitting pratice has been criminalized in so many ways, in so many times. Especially women’s sitting. And especially when it’s been the contemplative sort of practice, without structure or control. That stuff is dangerous. It leads to direct experience. It generates confidence and passion. It cures spiritual insecurity – the widespread disease that religions once used to run the world.

I thank evolution, and you, that nobody will persecute me for sitting. You will not shun me, at least not with your whole heart. You will not call me a witch. Those who have been around a while might note that I’m not the same person I was a decade ago (or a year ago), and that this is not a bad thing.

The old mystics had to be such good writers in order to code emptiness inside a religious language that would please the orthodoxy. St. Theresa of Avila was so careful. Even TS Eliot. I don’t see as far as they saw; and I can’t write like they could write. I’d take their vision over their diction, but in the absence of both here are some attempted sentences about my sixth sense. From the mind that experiences mind.


Sometimes I’ll become aware of the bubble. It’s always there, so softly enveloping all of awareness.

The bubble is not metaphor. It is the direct, sixth-sensory, experience of a membrane. Something almost liquid, blown into being from water, with a smear of sludge to hold it together.

If it were metaphor, the bubble would be the line in consciousness between inside/outside, subject/object, self/world. Thank god, thank evolution, for that line. It’s how we can have private thoughts, and also shard reality. Because of the perception of a line between inside and outside, we understand that the reality we share with others does not always include the subjective thoughts, feelings and pictures inside the bubble. The membrane distinguishes inner talk from outer sound; it separates the pictures imagination creates on the movie screen of the mind from the view of the world around us that’s shared with another.

When I’m sitting on a cushion, inside the “real,” actually-experienced bubble, everything is suspended in nothing.

The twitch of a neuron shatters awareness. This probably happens ten thousand times a day without my even noticing. Like just there. Twitch, fidget, twitch. Thought-streams sustain themselves across the flickering nothingness the way eyes patch up a perception of continuity when we watch film.

But in the moments I perceive the bubble around consciousness, what I’ve doped out is that there are thoughts I can spontaneously not think. The entire inside of the head crackles, a mess of frayed wires charged with fire, itching and aching for a place to discharge. And I say no, wait, let that self-making pattern rest.

In that moment it’s possible to do nothing. No human could have shown me that; and this explanation itself would have been worthless to me to find the feeling of it. t’s only some disembodied intuition that said no, don’t touch the membrane; don’t move a neuron; don’t breathe.

Sometimes then, if I just stay and don’t lose my nerve, the bubble explodes. Other times, it implodes. Explosion creates a column of white noise and empty chaos. That’s love, the chaos. It feels like it’s creating everything while being nothing. I want to go to the inside of an actual hurracaine to see if it’s the same kind of a place.

When it’s over, I’m all existential hope and spiritual lust, and then my body requires a breath.

Implosion I don’t understand, because I can’t stay conscious for it. For now, it’s a kind of death, and afterwards I feel lost in the dark, and then I wonder if it’s 5 minutes or 2 hours until the meditation bell rings.

Minds are just minds, the way bodies are just bodies. It’s not so personal. But this is what my view looks like of late, and I guess it’s no big deal to say so.


Here’s another story about the bubble, about the time when it first showed up.

At first it was outside of me. (Shudder quotes implied for I and me throughout.) This was around 2007. A light popped up in the greyscale blank space beyond the closed eyelids, out on the horizon of consciousness. Nothing metaphorical here. There was a literal pinlight out there, when I would sit on the cushion with the eyes closed. It became more bright at the top of an inhalation; and sometimes it bounced around in a way that felt linked to a tiny balloon bobbing in the dead center of my head. Notably, it only showed up when the eyes were closed, and when there wasn’t much ambient light in the room.

After it grew a little, it became just like in a movie about a ship lost at sea, when the flicker from a lighthouse shows up far in the distance. That light in the storm is hazy and intermittent, and it bounces around out there. It’s entrancing and beautiful and with all your heart and with all your will to live, you want to go to it.

The light-bubble got my attention and held it because it was beautiful, and wrong. It did not exist in the movie-like space where my mental pictures self-generated (that is, my private, primitive, fantasy-mind). But it also wasn’t in the exterior, physical space of my visual field. What or where was this thing? If I was not seeing it physically, and also wasn’t imagining it, what other sort of seeing was this?

I wish I had language to convey the completeness of this paradox as experienced.

Was this light actually the most beautiful thing ever, or was the beauty just a function of my mind getting blown? (I haven’t seen the light-bubble much lately, but I’m pretty sure it is—objectively—the most beautiful thing that I’ve seen.)

I had no word to google, and no framework to consult, and no teacher to tell, but I loved the light. So for maybe a year, I’d look for it. It would come when there wasn’t too much sound outside (or inside) my head. On retreat at Spirit Rock in 2008, the light started to get get more clear and still. I just sat on my cushion that week, blissed the hell out, watching the light on the horizon. Was that even “meditation”? Does it count? I don’t know. I was probably cheating. The light nirodah’d most other vritti. I didn’t see much of my functional small self all week.

I kept it a secret, like monkeys do when we have shiny objects we think belong to us. The grasping to spiritual experience is such a sharp edge, but in retrospect I don’t know if I would have been able to chill out about that even if I had a teacher to point out to me what my infantile ego was doing with the experience. The bliss my mind was generating that week might have had a dark side: I suspect my addiction circuits were all over it.

It went on like that in self practice, and then on January 10, 2009, Saturday morning, a key PhD adviser drove his BMW motorbike into a tree in Malibu Canyon. My Department Chair called within an hour and said, “It’s Peter. He’s dead.”

Peter Kollock was a brilliant teacher – one of the best at UCLA; and he was the economic sociologist who taught me to write about money without letting it turn itself into a thing through the process of my prose (which is what money –a fluid social agreement—is always trying to do). He was also a direct student of Thic Nhat Hanh, and part of our making-our-own-rules teacher-student arrangement was that I’d cover for Peter when he was on silent retreat for months on end. So that his colleagues in the department wouldn’t know he ditched work for contemplative practice: they would have despised him for it.

Once when Peter returned from three months at Deer Park with Thay, I went up to his place in Malibu Canyon to brief him on what little of importance he’d missed. We drank tea under his orange trees and he told me that he expected better of me when it came to owning up to my practice. It’s going to be easier for you, in your generation. It’s going to be more accepted to have a meditation practice. You can’t keep it a secret forever.

That’s when I was writing this blog anonymously, and spending every lunch hour at the university locked behind double doors on my office floor, doing the full ashtanga pranayama sequence between shelves of Sociology books. And thus gradually, irreversibly, dropping out of the professional game.

On January 11, 2009, I was principle investigator on a futures market project that Peter would never finish; and I had a funeral to help plan. I was traumatized and felt that in order to forgive Peter for leaving, I had to come out to my Department as having a spiritual practice. I’d been practicing ashtanga for 8 years with no thought of India, but when the funeral was over, I got on a plane to Mysore with the idea it would be a first and last pilgrimage.

In Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was dying. I bonded with his grandson on contact, and stayed to practice with Saraswati through the bitter sad heat of early April. Some mornings, Guruji would take a step or two out on his balcony, while I was wedged up against the concrete across the street after practice.

By the last day of the trip, I knew I was coming back the next year, though I had no idea yet how that decision would begin devastate my old life and restructure my self. So much the better.

After practice that morning, I sat against that wall, looking up to Guruji’s window in the oppressive heat, saying goodbye and hello to this new life. Being for good reason an anti-superstitious person, and a person who laughed at prayer, just then I stared into his dark upper windows and asked for a sign. I was dehydrated, exhausted, drunk on gratitude and santosha and forgiveness and sadness, and well on in to a multi-day trance state.

And that’s when the light-bubble burned through to the other side. Open-eyed, I looked up at his dark window, and between me and it –not in this world, but not in my mind’s eye either –the light-house signal flickered on. Holy shit.

An utterly liminal object. Not out there, not in here. It stayed after the trance subsided, after Mysore wore off, I settled back into Los Angeles and took up the behaviors of my then-normal life. Any time I wanted to contact the not-this-not-that reality, I’d shift my gaze to the horizon and the light-bubble would be hanging out waiting to be noticed.

This had a subversive and mostly healthy effect on daily life, one of integrating mundane life and absorption. But if I take time to tell you about all that, I’ll have to go to bed before I tell you the best part.

First though, a Shinzen interlude. I finally found a teacher (he insisted on calling himself a “coach”) who understood and whole-heartedly supported my ashtanga practice as meditation (whatever “meditation” is; I don’t know what to do with a word so loaded), and finally talked with him about my mind in August of that same year. This light bubble thing? No big thing, little grasshopper, he more or less said. It’s a nimitta. Not so unusual a phenomenon among the breath-obsessed.

In 2009, googling nimitta got me nothing, so I ended up in the university library with the Theravada literatures, where indeed nimittas show up. They say it is a manifestation of the clarification of consciousness; and they talk about the nimitta as having different attitudes—shy, bold, distracted, and so on. How cute. Sometimes, they say, it goes from being a closed-eye to an open-eye phenomenon; no big thing.

Fast forward to fall of 2010, when I became a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan and got some very fancy healthcare. Their annual eye exam was high tech, and done by a research physician at the top of his field. I asked him to check if there was something weird with my physical eyes that might cause me to see an, ahem, bouncing beautiful light bubble.

Can you see it now? Does it change brightness when I move the light? Does it move when you move your head?

Yes; yes; yes.

The researcher-doctor dilated my pupils and used a backwards-Hubble machine to examine the seat of my soul.

Oh yes, just as I thought! You have a medium-sized physiological floater. It’s a piece of tissue that has dropped down onto the back of your retina. I’m looking at it right now. Most people have something like this as they age.

So, what I’m seeing isn’t out there, but it’s not in my imagination either?

Right, exactly! Some people have huge floaters that become very emotionally distressing. We prescribe anti-anxiety meds in these cases. But luckily most people never know they’re there.

The thing with you is that you seem to be very aware of yours, whereas most people wouldn’t perceive a floater of this size. You can also get it to stay still. And, for some reason, you associate it with positive mental experience, instead of being distressed by it.

That’s how I learned that the nimitta’s neuro-correlate is a dust bunny in my brain, whose scientific name evokes improper poo.

That’s contemplative practice, so far as I can tell. At its best, it self-destructs just slightly faster than I can self-transcend.

Dear Ashtanga • 11 May 2014

Dear Ashtanga,

I ask you this question in love and respect. I ask because I see how awake you are.

When you are awake, hard questions make you curious. Not defensive.

Ashtanga, this is who we are:

we’re women;

we’re non-white (Latino, Asian, people of color, however you want to talk about it);

and we’re gay.

But those of us with the power: we’re mostly male, and white, and straight.

Unconsciousness doesn’t help anyone. But it’s built in to any hierarchy through this mechanism: the more power you get, the less empathy you feel. Like clockwork. Power increase: empathy decrease. This is what it is to be human.

An unconscious human, that is.

My question is this: can we all become students of women, of people of color, and of those who are not straight?

And this: do straight, white men use power, and script their student-teacher dynamics, with a different sort of force and entitlement than… every one else around?

Leaders: what do you have to give up to take this question seriously?

Do you have too much skin in the game to feel in to this one?

What is the cost to your own personal growth, and to our community, if you do not take this seriously?

Here are some big ideas: structural sexism. Structural racism. These are NOBODY’S FAULT. They happen when organizations reproduce the unconscious biases of their surrounding culture. But check it out, Ashtanga. You are behind the game on this one. Maybe 8% of this student body is straight, white men. But nine times out of ten, the people telling us how to do it come from this tiny minority.

I love this minority, incidentally: the most important people in my life are members of it. And I want them to be fully empowered in this world. But the thing is, they don’t have to try quite so much. Because if someone matches a certain profile, it’s easier to see him – more than others – as competent, as strong, as deserving, as reliable, as knowing things, as a leader.

If we are not awake.

The way that structural racism and sexism die is like this: conscious leadership. Either leaders wake themselves up, and see how the advantages they’ve enjoyed aren’t personal – aren’t just a sign of their hard work and merit.

Or their communities wake them up.

I ask us to wake up.

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.