Garland of Skulls • 6 January 2012

So I don’t talk about my personal practice, or student-teacher relationships, or “my” pain. That specific kind of chit-chat is bad practice, and always has been. (Always, as in millennia.)  Besides, these things are intimate and fleeting. Clouds in the coffee.

And not to get you worried but… have you read the Hathayogapradipika? If not, I’ll paraphrase that and some other sages here. At first, the best places to read this stuff are Muktibodhananda’s translation of the Pradipika and some commentaries on Patanjali’s Fourth Pada. Here’s the big idea: getting very specific in talky talky about your relationship with your teacher, and your attainments, is bad juju. A sincere practitioner should be super-careful about attracting attention like that. It’s not that the techniques should be secret – by all means, let the esoteric shit be known! But in the meantime: Don’t pimp out your practice! Spiritual materialism = turning poses and such into “adornments of the ego.” But if we make the mala of postures in to a piece of jewelry, it’ll just decay into a heavy, rotting necklace of skulls.

(Insert Durvasa/ pirate accent) Arrrrrr!

I have rambled like this as a strategy to repel most readers before they get this far. For those still reading, I’ll now contradict it all by talking openly about my practice. Because this story turned into a topic of conversation at the coconut stand yesterday (re-told by witnesses), I may as well blog it out in service of something bigger (i.e., the definition at the end of the post).

So here’s the story. Monday, I’m in Gokulam, sitting on my hands. Except, not exactly. Because I’m at Command Central, sandwiched in middle of like a hundred ashtangis in the thick of practice, and while balanced on my hands my mulabandha is working its allotted five breaths of gravity-defiance while my left leg is wrapped around my head and my right foot is hanging up in the air in chakorasana.  And my teacher, Sharath, looks down on me from approximately the height of Mount Meru and says Noooooo! Intermediate series only, you do! After this, intermediate only!

And I’m like, oh. He just told me that I no longer practice Advanced Series. Ok. From now on, I practice Intermediate.

This is the practice.

When I first came to Mysore four years ago, I was practicing almost full Advanced, having learned it and practiced it four days a week for a few years with three different Certified teachers. And upon getting here, I practiced primary series.

That is how it works. We come here for the gift of having the world of the practice made new. To be reborn. To be relieved of our knowing, jaded, all-mine, me-me expertise. To see the strange in the familiar… and to take the time for the merely strange to become stranger still. (Which, if you make par for the course by changing your ticket to stay for that third month, it will. Usually, the spirit world waits until the third month to come alive in you. But that’s another story.)

The first year, Sharath taught me (and I do mean taught – the matieral was sparkly-new in this context) the first bit of intermediate. Then he left town. And his mother, Saraswati, gave me the entire rest of the series in a single day. I thought she was kidding, so for two days I did not do as she instructed. Finally, she yelled at me for practicing primary. So, ok. I practiced intermediate. Then the next year, to my surprise, I returned. And I continued as instructed. Then Sharath asked me if I’d learned the whole intermediate series from him. I said no, and suggested I go back to midway through the series so that he and I could work through it together. I realized that this was asking a lot of him – he would have to give me energy that he could give to someone else. But it seemed right for my practice – I wanted those few moments of pure transmission from him, when he would have to notice that my practiced needed to move on, and take the time to go through a new vinyasa with me. He said my suggestion was good, and in so doing gave me the opportunity to be shiny-new yet again.

Hey, it’s India. Have you read the Mahabharata? The whole dying thing is kind of sketchy around here. Time moves in circles. And it’s not that abnormal for Mount Meru to materialize in the middle of the shala, and then bubble under again just like that.

So anyway, on Monday when he publicly takes away Advanced Series, my  body responds by proceeding to backbends and finishing without the arising of entitlement, embarrassment, anger, et cetera. No problem. It wasn’t until happy hour at the Coconut Stand that I learned that many people in the room had noticed what happened and experienced empathetic humiliation as a result. They broached the topic as if peeling back the bandages of a horrible wound. As if I had been gored by an otherwise peaceful Mysore cow, as if they were gingerly, compassionately observing my mangled ego. They wanted to help me with the delicate work of self-reconstruction, as if Advanced Series were a vital organ and now I’d have to learn to live without it.

Thankfully, previous rounds of postural give-and-take inoculated me. Previous arbitrariness guards against the certainty of future loss. When old age takes the postures for the last time, well then maybe there will be some blood. But for now, having Advanced taken away loudly in the middle of the shala is THE PRACTICE. (Hilariously, Sharath called me into the vestibule and gave the poses BACK after practice the same day. So then they were mine again. And then two days later my quadratus lumborum took them away again. Today, the Q-L and ahimsa teamed up to take away the second half of primary series too.)

Anyway, this is an example of the deep ground of this method. It sets arbitrary constraints, and we let the ego balk at them until it can simply observe them. Then we continue accepting and just being with the reactions until there is no I/me/mine left to care at all.

Come to Mysore, and immediately these constraints are placed on the ego:

(1)   You must practice with the body you have today (practicing in a fantasy body of the past or the future = structural damage).

(2)   You must do the postures you are given (feeling entitled to more or less = pure, pitiful suffering).

(3)   You must come at the time you are given (cutting in front of other people = compromising their faith that this practice actually does chill us out).

(4)   You must clarify and simply the activity of the body and breath (doing otherwise will garner unwanted attention)

This aspect of constraint is so central to the method that I’d actually use it to define the practice. So while it is also true that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is:

(1) …. a sequence of postures linked by blah blah blah.

(2) …. an asana program designed to heal and purify the physical, energetic blah blah blah.

(3) … an ancient practice transported from the Himalayas by confused leaf-cutter ants who accidentally blah blah blah.

            …AVY method is also, in essence:


Don't imagine you understand it if you're letting your ego run wild across the surface of some shapes, switching it up as the vrittis pull you this way and that, reacting to the reactions on reactions, identifying with the achievements, never letting any outside constraints put these machinations of the small self in check.

When it's taken as a practice, it is a process of working with the same constraints day after day, in relationship with teachers, community, clear method, and the physical body. These parameters (body, method, teacher, community) are wonderful, dependable, even semi-objective sources of feedback for the ego. Bless them, they are the providers of constraint. The method uses these constraints to create freedom.

This is a kind of simulation of enlightenment. It is not a dissolving of the ego. Rather, it is a set of practices that give us the opportunity to act as if the ego has already been dissolved.

Do it long enough, and yeah, maybe the skull necklaces we’re all wearing around here really will crumble to dust. That's when we'll know we're beyond method.


  • e&sj
    Posted 6 January 2012 at 8:52 am | #

    I gave you seven postures
    and now you wanna give ‘em back

    I’ve been downhearted baby
    ever since the day we met
    Our love is nothin’ but the blues
    Baby how blue can you get… (BB King sings the Ashtanga Blues)

    until and unless one gets beyond the I-maker, the ahamkara, the I am my car-a, the I am my poses, the I am really just posing as a genuine fake.

    My fragile karandava feathers get ruffled with arbitrariness. I goes counter to all those back room deals I made with the devil to put on a good looking front. This is not supposed to happen, I paid my dues. This clown is just another in a long line of Chauncey the Gardeners. What-the-ineffable-ever….

    Sounds like the “I’m koo-koo for coconuts” happy hour brought out a lot of the natural superficiality and emptiness of the collective’s postures to the surface, or maybe compassion?

    In any case, you like you handled it very well, much better than I would. I am pretty sure my ego would be bruised and battered into a crumbling mess of shear sauce-ana.

  • Posted 6 January 2012 at 2:00 pm | #

    In a word, yep! Not at all to play this as any substitution for the Mysore method, but life itself can also lay these constraints on one, cage the ego, whittle it down, force it still. Life too is arbitrary, “what happens while you’re making other plans.” And so I bend less and fewer than some of my own students. And then indeed, that IS the practice. “Not this crude matter!” 😀

  • Posted 6 January 2012 at 4:51 pm | #

    Bookmarked this one. They say the best kind of teaching is by demonstrating. Teaching by example i believe it is called. Thanks for demonstrating.

  • Scott
    Posted 6 January 2012 at 5:51 pm | #

    Right on Owl. I was in Mysore about a month ago. For me the whole shala experience was in many ways a mind fuck (please excuse the language), but a glorious (and humorous) one at that. 🙂

  • D
    Posted 6 January 2012 at 7:10 pm | #

    Beautifully said, especially as I read your post after the NYT Magazine article about why yoga is so bad for health. Bookmarking this for those days when I need some perspective.

  • Posted 6 January 2012 at 9:30 pm | #

    I think in this situation you were definitely supposed to feel ashamed, Miss Owlie-o, because your self-worth is obviously determined by how many poses you have been given. Bad coconut stand etiquette, I say, old bird.

    I’m picturing the coconut stand and all the eggshells with people dancing on them and chuckling to myself. This reminds me of last year when I was complaining to you about being asked what my last pose was (at said coconut stand), and you said ‘next time tell him uthpluthi’.

    I think that, where self practice is a series of contraints self-imposed on the mind (as in ‘I really don’t give a shit what you WANT to be doing right now, mister brain-o’), the ego constraints happen every time I’m in a shala. I guess they’re just two aspects of the same thing. And there are some (two that I’ve been in) practice rooms that are so quiet vritti-wise that when this stuff arises it’s OBVIOUSLY me, whereas I’ve been in rooms (especially in LA) where the din of others’ thoughts is so loud I have to remove myself to see if it’s my own ego shouting or someone else’s.

    I digress a bit. But there’s not much else to say… “Well done?” “Glad to see you’re having fun?” “OH NOO YOU HAVE AN INJURYYYY?!?!?!”

  • Posted 7 January 2012 at 2:13 am | #

    Hi. I have a hangover. From two glasses of pretty good Chilean cabernet. Is everything more potent in Mysore?

    Rebecca 🙂 Remember what happened in April? This.

    There’s a kind of wandering pain pattern. I’m not going to talk about it, other than to say that two otherwise credible people who have helped me with purely physical stuff in the past say this has something to do with clearing out past lives. Whatever. Things are weird here.

    I cannot agree that there was any calculation for shaming going on with Sharath and me. In the vestibule, he explained that you always wait until the third week to get back to advanced – first week, primary, second week, intermediate, and so on. This is his way. I actually like it. Getting here is hard on the body.

    There is this kind of weird vibe in the blogosphere at the moment – at least in the very productive blogs, if I am understanding them correctly. It’s an “I am my emotions” sentiment, combined with an implicit agreement of “I won’t call you on your stuff if you don’t call me on mine. So then we will all be nice to each other and everyone will feel good.” David Chapman describes this ethos in New Age circles here.

    Do I understand this right? According to this ethos, Sharath’s directness with me would be interpreted as an “attack,” some kind of “hurtful” or “personal” thing – rather than simply clear communication that assumes a certain skillfulness on the part of both parties. But I take it as the latter. It’s just information.

  • Posted 7 January 2012 at 2:21 am | #

    Patrick, yes. I feel like you are really figuring this out over the time that I have known you online.

    D and Maria, I’m really, really glad that this is useful. It feels awkwardly articulated, but perhaps if I revive this owl voice this season, more clarity of language will emerge.

    Scott, I cannot think of a polite term to substitute for mind-fuck. Practicing here is a very good one. I’m glad you benefited from it.

    ESJ!!! Love to you, and your many brilliant I’s. You’re cured and “you” know it… xx

  • LIAshtangini
    Posted 7 January 2012 at 3:54 pm | #

    Glad to see you back. Wish I was there with you.

    I agree, he wasn’t trying to hurt or embarass. He was just giving information. When you’re an air traffic controller for hundreds of egos/people at a time, sometimes things are going to come across as ‘direct’.

    You drank WINE?????

  • Posted 8 January 2012 at 4:37 am | #

    Nice buddhists piss me off. As does nice Buddhism, and all the bloody New Age spiritual woo-woo that comes along with it. There’s nothing compassionate or helpful about being nice for nice’s sake, or pandering to peoples’ emotions. I don’t understand why this has become such a big deal lately, except that maybe it’s harder than it sounds to let go of all that ego.

    I’d even argue that to cater to a person’s emotions and not treat them like a grown up who can handle the truth is to disrespect them in the most basic of ways. It’s putting oneself above another, deciding what they can take and what they can’t.

    Also, if one IS one’s emotions after a certain number of years of practice one might wonder whether one is doing the practice correctly (blasphemy from a girl who can’t get her legs behind her head, I know)…

    Also also, I am familiar with this wandering pain pattern. I think these things are very personal, in that they are because of specific patterns in our own energy. A recent conversation with one of my teachers about it was informative: I hurt when I can’t be bothered practicing but I have made a commitment to do so, therefore I cannot CHOOSE to not do it, must be in a great deal of pain to not do it. Ridiculous how the mind creeps into all the crevices…

  • dosad
    Posted 8 January 2012 at 12:51 pm | #

    I don’t know, I’m debating whether any kind of writing at all is just a listing of sensations.

    It seems to me that people are just trying really hard to connect but there aren’t really any good words so they freak out and just say something.

    Like this, I guess.

    In any case, what are you doing at the coco stand, man? Too many friends, very bad!

    And what am I doing online pre-practice? Too many friends, very bad!

  • Posted 8 January 2012 at 11:35 pm | #

    A series of constraints placed on the ego…I love this approach to viewing the practice. I wonder if this speaks to one of the reasons why some communities seemingly take to vinyasa yoga faster than ashtanga vinyasa yoga. There is very little obvious immediate payback from ashtanga — and in fact, in the beginning, it can seem as if the investment (time, money, the logistics of getting to a studio regularly) outweighs the benefits. In a vinyasa class, there isn’t a predetermined method telling you that you necessarily have a long way to go.

  • Posted 9 January 2012 at 3:14 am | #

    Hello! What a good set of people to see here this morning. Including my not-so-secret internet crush. Ahem.

    Much as I dislike moon days (the practice of not practicing is still hard, but now that I teach I feel especially obligated), damn if they are not wonderful here. Sleeping late, waking to the lowing of cows and soft light in the bedroom where I’m likely to live for years. In the apartment that I love – how insanely lucky to be a human who gets to live here part of her life. Now there are SMS messages from an encampment of friends I love like family who are all 3 minutes away in different directions. That Karen and Susan among them is really nice.

    Last night, Sonya, again I was asked to drink wine. People who bloggers used to know as the Eeyore and Amberlin (actually I didn’t know Amberlin as a blogger, apparently she came in after I stopped reading?) hosted a handful on their rooftop – fed us INSANELY good dinner, a five-course dessert prepared by a 4 Seasons Pastry Chef, and (for the rest of them) lots and lots of wine. The night before, Karen and Anna thought I was a bit of a baby for not drinking garden cocktails with them, but after spending that entire day hungover from Friday’s two glasses of red, forget it. Maybe I’ll have wine again in a few months, but for now my attempts to catch up on bad behavior will have to redirect to making trouble for Grimmly.

  • Posted 9 January 2012 at 3:37 am | #

    Rebecca: If one IS one’s emotions after a certain number of years of practice one might wonder whether one is doing the practice correctly. Thank you.

    DosaD – I like this note about the listing of sensations because it collapses activity of the ego into sensation, instead of keeping it special and “personal.” This is an accurate description of my practice sometimes, when it is being interesting. At those times: there is a sense that my thoughts and emotions and inner pictures are part of nature… and so are my body sensations, the sounds in the street, the weather, the energy of beings nearby. Otherwise, it’s pretty tough to treat emotions/thoughts with much objectivity, or to balance their importance/prominence in the context of all the other vrittis that touch my life.

    Rose, I know… it seems obvious, right? But the funny thing is that this post is the first time I could even articulate it. I have, in dialogue with students, been able to realize that there is a LOT about this practice that simply there to constrain the ego. But I always wind up justifying the progressive nature of primary series, or the importance of receiving the information in relationship with more experienced practitioners, on the bases of the physical efficiency of these aspects of the technique. Thus, when a student finally encounters them, these aspects of ego constraint can seem arbitrary: if a student is willing to be less efficient in her physical progress, she can just DIY.

    But that’s not really accurate. The method that I’m practicing (and now articulating) actually is more interested in ego constraint than in physical progress. Thus there is nothing remedial about going back and practicing primary series as an “advanced” practitioner. That’s actually really important work on every level except the physical one.

    When I say Sharath taught me intermediate and advanced in Mysore, I don’t mean I learned the physical practice. (When in Mysore, I always scale back the intensity of my physical practice a lot.) But three other koshas, (including even just Pranamaya, which contains the weird energetic intensity that is possible here, when repeating these particular old sets of movements) have been informed, and slightly transformed, by this process.

    The fifth kosha (Anandamaya) doesn’t get changed by time here. Bliss is as bliss does. 🙂 But, the more I use the constraints on my ego to clean up the analytical/thinky layer (Manomaya) and the layer of thought forms (Vijanamaya), the more often I feel Annandamaya penetrating me like a somewhat scary, somewhat horrible, lazer beam.

    Real Anandamaya is not escapist. It’s not the fucking fake nice world of “it’s all good” / “love and light” / run away to India where everything can be shallow and fleeting / don’t touch me. The few times I have an experience of anandamaya in ambulant life, it’s actually integrative. It embraces and knits together all the other layers.

    It makes everything God.

  • Posted 9 January 2012 at 3:43 am | #

    not specific to the entry, but… why can i not “follow” your blog? I miss your entries all the time

  • Posted 9 January 2012 at 3:49 am | #

    Angela Brujita.

    It’s because this website is not connected to wordpress/blogger journal formatting. But there is an RSS feed. Do you have an aggregator, e.g. Google Reader? You can subscribe to posts that way.

    Let me know if that works.

    P.S. I read my own tarot this weekend for the first time in ages. Terrifying.

  • Posted 9 January 2012 at 2:44 pm | #

    Can I just say that it’s HOT when you talk about koshas? 🙂 And absolutely, the “advanced practitioner” Primary, not that I’m an advanced practitioner, BUT when I do, say, only through Parivrtta Parsvakonasana and get that energy release and top it with some closing series, that is an experience that I’m pretty certain none of my students who are only doing partial Primary can get. And not meditative/mindfulness depth (which exists but currently is kinda boring to me), but Energy depth, Sensation depth. Koshas. Hot fire!

  • LIAshtangini
    Posted 9 January 2012 at 7:12 pm | #

    I rather enjoyed your exchange with Grimmly. 😛

  • V
    Posted 9 January 2012 at 9:45 pm | #

    Ugh! You’ve been badly spam bottled 🙁

  • Posted 10 January 2012 at 1:34 pm | #

    Patrick, you can say that. I’m interested in “depth hotness” (the erotic aspect of each kosha) as well as “altitude hotness” (the erotic aspect of each chakra). This “erotic” isn’t like crushing… it’s just a word that captures the something-from-nothingness aspect of two energies combining. Eros. If this makes any sense, I’ll add that I tend to alchemize in this way with people who are very active at pranamaya, vijanamaya, manipura and/or ajna.

    Sonya, V… perhaps I created a little spam-botty karma with that exchange? Haven’t been hit this hard since I got out of the highly spammable blogspot domains. 🙂

    Today after practice, I listened to this while doing laundry. Beautiful. Then Kitty (the woman who named and first adopted Mysore Carlos) and I went out to Sandhya’s with Karen K, Susan B, and the lovely lovely Anna (Karen’s daughter). Then chai with other dear friends, then shopping and a little food prep for tomorrow’s lunch with AYND (yep, it’s coming to the Badlands… a pair of gorgeous teachers), now a little skype and tea before evening meditation. It is so stupid nice here. You come!

  • Posted 10 January 2012 at 5:54 pm | #

    Awesome. If I can ever untangle the vocabulary and try to get it into experience, there’ll be more about that at my place, but it’s the hardest thing in the world to write about in a focused way. “What’s in there?” “Only what you bring with you.” There are hints of it, too, in the latest clumsy interrogation.

  • V
    Posted 10 January 2012 at 7:41 pm | #

    Ah, that’s probably it! The spam bots (or spam bottles, according to my previous comment) probably trawled the comments section for outgoing links.

    Silly as it is, it was bugging me not to know.

  • Posted 10 January 2012 at 9:04 pm | #

    Wow, have I missed reading your writing and your masterful thread-weaving!

    Constraints. I’m reminded of something I heard the effervescent Douglas Brooks say at a Ganesh weekend about the distinction between ritual and routine, the former being done with a reverence for form, meant to sharpen the consciousness,while the latter is done from a relatively unconscious, tarp-over-the-ego automatism. To me constraints as you talk about them here belong with ritual.

    Owl, I have a Kali dashboard decal on my broken drop-leaf table wherein she is skull-juggling in dukkhasana, and when I read this articulate post, she tries to get a peek, distracted from destruction by creation, from dissolution by form.

    Here’s some impeccable RF on intentions and purity, or lack thereof. Maybe something to be (re)considered in the blogsphere. My version snags midway through, but I bet in Mysore it will play properly…

    Meanwhile, one can get drunk just by looking at the beautiful food n’ herb photos on Rebecca’s website.

    With immense heart here from Brooklyn and the confusedly blooming trees…

  • Posted 11 January 2012 at 1:20 pm | #

    dear Angie, thank you for your insights. Arturo

  • V
    Posted 11 January 2012 at 5:58 pm | #

    Oh wow, the bots are getting really sophisticated.

  • Posted 12 January 2012 at 7:02 am | #

    Sara, Arturo, 🙂

    Distracted from destruction by creation…

    About the bots, those haters, they will get bored eventually.

  • Cat
    Posted 31 January 2012 at 4:49 pm | #

    Dear Owl are you a man or a woman? maybe that is the whole issue: searching your identity (apart from practicing advanced and not understand anything of what yoga is all about)

  • Posted 31 January 2012 at 11:30 pm | #

    Awesome! Thank you for condescending, Cat.

    First, can you tell me what is the “issue” or problem that you identify here?

    Second, how is it that I am misunderstanding “what yoga is all about”? Honestly, I want to know. I have no doubt that I can learn something from you.

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