Apocalypse Chic & Ashtanga-Con • 20 March 2012

Denver airport is so spacious; it always brings me back to this old space in the web. About ten insideowl posts have been written in this airport since December of 2006.

The moving walk here is four lanes wide, and it takes 25 minutes to pass all 92 gates of the United arterials. The pavilion sits out in the middle of nowhere, imitating a mountain range. But being of less robust materials than mountains, it invites tornadoes. There are storm shelters every 100 yards.

Thousands of small birds live on the arterials, syncing their migratory patterns to steel birds’ departures. Right now, it’s just me and them out here at the far end of Concourse B. They’re swooping all over, plucking Cincinnati passergers’ Pizza Hut crumbs out of the carpet.

This whole scenario satisfies me aesthetically. So much the better that my phone is dead and there’s nasty inclement weather at both ends of this journey.

I’m skipping a stone across the backchannels of Mercury retrograde, on flights cancelled both going and coming. After a tornado and a snowstorm, it’s down to a chain of stand-by flights that may or may not get me home in time to invoke Patanjali and friends tomorrow morning at 7. If it does not, I will fast in the face of pizza and ice cream, sleep on the floor next to an east-facing window, and find an abandoned gate to roll out a manduka when the sun comes up over this plain.

The whole situation is aesthetic perfection. This is a genre of experience one could call Apocalypse Chic. It features abandoned industrial spaces, nature winning, technological breakdowns, storm shelters, zen chaos, and gigantic vistas of VERY DRAMATIC CLOUD FORMATIONS. People hired as extras should be reading Cormack McCarthy, Jack London, the Blue Cliff Record, the Mahabharata and Job. (Long O, you know.) Apocalypse Chic favors the meditator’s skillset: a sharp inner calculator, absurdist humor, actual empathy, and equanimity on the level of radical fucking acceptance. (It also helps to have a Swiss Army knife and a book of matches, items I never seem to get past security.)

The plot comes down to concourse nomadism: Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Nobody to call. But not in a spacey, meta-pointless way, because everyone else here is still in the bustle of getting things done. (I can only watch 10 minutes of Jim Jarmusch before weeping in boredom, but he gets this.)

The people here are vectors more than characters. That’s because they are not really here – their subtle bodies are out in the ether, irritably scrambling to catch up, like the Dean Stockwell character in Quantum Leap. These people are like the birds: swooping through, being beautiful without trying. They keep my peripheral vision awake, and they keep my awareness lodged in time in a way it can’t be in the other places I go to unscramble my mind—Mysore, and formal meditation retreat.

Anyway, since there is nothing to do here in Denver, here’s a little opinionizing for anyone who has read this far down the column. I always hide this blog’s actual content, because it’s better to have readers with an attention span if you’re going to dish.

Having an attention span suggests that you have done the work. And this increases the likelihood you’ll also have a heart.

So. There are two people who went to the Ashtanga Confluence in San Diego after spending the practice season in Mysore. I’m one of them.

Some (myself included) have asked how AshtangaCon compares to a couple of months in Mysore. Ooof. This could be a divisive question. Comparison questions tend to direct the mind to fault-finding. They sometimes cue a mentality of competition and scarcity.

But in general, my job now (since I work for Yoga) is to take my natural skepticism and turn it on itself, examining the ways that the mind tries to divide up the world. There’s a little bit of a game on here, of catching my ego in its efforts to draw invidious distinctions and tack down new dualities. Why not just hold polarizing stuff in a playful space?

Backing up…. reframing. So, what lucky person gets to spend a season in Mysore and also attend this big gathering of the silverbacks? How great is that?

Well I’ll tell you. It was really nice. Being obsessed with the modern history of ashtanga yoga, I wouldn’t have missed it; and I found much intrigue and delight in the weekend. Early on, my mind did this thing where it mapped four of the teachers on to apostles. I’m sure I’m not the only one to see a Luke—a physician whose intellect can travel anywhere and whose objectivity benefits the group; Mary Magdelene—esoteric, unsung, devoted; Peter—passionate, rock-like, full of love for the guru; and Paul—a charismatic late-comer who spreads the word like none other. Each one of these four is best experienced in his or her natural habitat: go to them; spend the time; study in their rooms.

Sorry, Teachers. Accept a gig at the Confluence, and a lot of minds are going to turn you in to a symbol. That was the idea.

The younger of the teachers doesn’t fit this model, though. Eddie doesn’t have the generational gravitas of the others; and he’s also the one who I felt got especially drawn out by (instead of glossed over by) this event. He has the energy of a connector, across places and generations that might not otherwise communicate so well. To say much more than this would be disrespectful, because this is a guy with a well developed sense of good taste. Sometimes It’s just tacky to get praised in public.

But one thing. The guy listens. Everything in his teaching begins with listening—the way students (even hundreds at a time) are received in a space, the way spirit and memory are summoned, the way students are primed to receive teachings. No surprise: his fascination with SKPJ began with noticing that the guru saw each individual clearly, and wondering how he did that. Personally, this experience of listening to a listener was a little bit revolutionary. I want to listen much more deeply, and to do this as a practice so that my ear develops.

Now some tougher stuff. When I told people in Mysore that I got to attend AshtangaCon, only a handful had heard of it. Of the 600-odd practitioners I brushed past during December, January and February, most are way outside the AshtangaCon orbit. So I told them about it. Every single person I told expressed excitement and envy—how inspiring to meet all these teachers in the tradition. And you’ll see a lot of old friends. What a great time. To put it lightly, this was not the attitude of many people in San Diego when I mentioned I’d just spent the winter in Mysore with Sharath.

So… in Mysore, people imagine their counterparts across the ocean and express delight, curiosity, inspiration and respect. In San Diego, the vibe toward Mysore is very different.

I don’t care what anybody does, and I’m sensitive to the hundreds of friends in Mysore who already feel like there are too many people in the ashtanga scene. But I wanted to write something to anyone who has picked up on this little pocket of negativity toward Mysore and the KPJAYI, because the party in Mysore is just going to get bigger, and you might be tired of playing the maverick.

Doesn’t really work to be the rebel in a whole subculture of outsiders, you know?

Anyway, here is what I want to say. There is no reciprocal distrust. The people who study in Mysore just assume you’re cool. The practice there is quite deep; and as long as you keep your driste (on many levels) it’s about YOGA in the fullest sense.

Anyone who says otherwise might be trying to limit your practice. That was my experience for seven years. Do whatever you want, but for godsakes don’t miss the good stuff out of misplaced skepticism, fear, or for the sake of other peoples’ battles.

When it comes to major life decisions, feel in for the pull factors, you know?. A choice based on passion and curiosity serves you so much better than one based on dislike, distrust, disgust. Get interested in what’s good, not just what's obvious.

That said, there is one very good reason for a career ashtangi to stay the hell out of Mysore. It’s because for the first few months there, you will be a zero.

That’s legit. You earned your social standing, and your poses. Your stats and standings represent years of hard work and buckets of sweat. They are a part of you. Really, they are. I’m not being sarcastic; I’m being sociological.

All I can say is that being a zero is lighter than air. It’s great. Imagine just meeting people on your own two feet, with the actual heart and shakti that you carry all by yourself. Without their having any idea of you. So that you can perceive them so much more clearly.

When I was first learning to teach, I asked Dominic, “What do you do when people treat you like a service person?” It was Santa Monica, after all. At the time, he was in the process of systematically climbing down off the pedestal I’d carved for him. Funny how he keeps popping back up there now, but anyway, I was sure anyone treating him like the help must be delusional. He turned himself in to my idea of a service person and said plainly, “Maybe they need to treat you like a service person.”

I'm still getting that one into my system.

Being a zero is a hell of a skill. People who can do it turn into a big 0-shaped ciphers, flying around effortlessly on their two giant ears.

Being a zero is also linked to a few of those siddhis at the end of the fourth pada. Poof.