The All of You

December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Embedded deep in our cells is ourselves and everyone else”–Juliana Spahr

Marcel Duchamp "Nude descending a staircase," No. 2, 1912. Via xroads.virgina.edu

Marcel Duchamp “Nude descending a staircase,” No. 2, 1912. Via xroads.virgina.edu

I think about Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase” the way I think about human behavior. The idea that we’re all so porous that every action is embedded with a history—a response to something that came before it, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Now, even as I write this, I’m aware of a series of interactions that inspire my words, and those that I’ve forgotten lay actively dormant on the surface of my mind.

Like waves in an ocean, what we do connects us to others who become a part of ourselves. There’s something beautiful and comforting about understanding the way that people stay with us, and the way that we summon them whenever we transmit their qualities, isn’t there? My grandmother passed away this year. At her wake, a friend of the family commented she had an ‘old fashioned grit and tenacity to keep moving forward no matter what.’ I know what that tenacity is because for better or worse I have it too. All of my family, all of my teachers, and all of my friends are a part of who I am.

December 17, 2013: A rocky flight takes me from Buffalo to NYC. While hovering in the clouds over JFK waiting for the runway to open, I reach into my purse for a bottle of white flower oil to soothe a cabin pressure headache. Flying is the opposite of travel. Moments later the guy sitting next to me puts his head in his hands expressing pain, and the people behind me comment, “this was the worst flight ever.”

Agreed.

New York City is cold and rainy. Clad in my faux fur-lined Sorels, down coat, hat, scarf and gloves I’m prepared for weather. I step on to the Lexington 6 bound for Chelsea and notice a homeless man, passed out in the corner of the train next to an empty bottle of whiskey and a dirty plastic bag. The train is packed, so I stand in the only empty spot which is right beside his feet. In front of me a little girl who is sitting on her mother’s lap is concerned. She asks, “but why doesn’t he have a home?” Looking up at me her mother comments, “some things are just really difficult to explain.” Yeah, homelessness is a reality. Men board the train at nearly each stop and explain why they are homeless and ask for cash and all I can think about is the kind of determination it must take to do these introductions for a public in transit.

I get off at 23rd street and head to see Dharma. Six years ago, Dharma taught me about un-waivering determination—the kind of determination it takes to maintain a self practice. Angry determination is what he calls it. This determination combined with my grandmother’s grit and tenacity is a recipe for a life that craves something real. Postmodern mystifications be damned—why glam it up when we’re all really living a real life? To all of you: my family, teachers, friends, who contribute to aspects of me, thank you.

The Sounds of Silence

August 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

“Silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic.” -John Cage.

8:15am, The Phoenix Center, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August 14, 2013

8:15am, The Phoenix Center, Ann Arbor Michigan, August 14, 2013


What does silence sound like? After watching a Youetube video of John Cage I have been inspired to explore, for myself, the sound of silence. I spent the past week in Ann Arbor, Michigan, studying and practicing with Angela Jamison at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. Each day after practice a group of us sat for 30-40 minutes in silence, in whatever meditative practice was most familiar. I dusted off the mantra Narasimhan gave me 2 years ago in India, since transcendental med is the only training I’ve ever properly received. There is something about having a word as a focol point for consciousness that I like. Figuring out what to do with my mind without it might be little difficult.

I sat cross-legged in an upright shape and I repeated mantra. The initial experience was soothing, especially after doing over an hour of yoga, but minutes later my awareness moved from mantra to a growing point of discomfort at the front of my ankles that were pressed against the floor. I probably should have set myself up on props a little better. Stacked enough blankets to create a barrier between my ankles and the floor, but I didn’t.

Around me, the only sound that filled the air was traffic– “automotive traffic” and “people traffic.” The vehicles outside of the Phoenix Center generated unique sounds that formed, at certain moments, one whole sound like an orchestra. Sound became “sonarus” as Cage says. Upstairs from the shala, people traffic produced a variety of different noise, but none of it formed “one sound” at any moment. The floor creaked. Objects clanged. The muffled sound of voices dissipated into the distance.

Wavering between mantra and sound I hit a wall in my ability to focus: I wanted to move around. I wiggled a little. Thought about stretching out my legs and standing up, but didn’t. The line of energy in my body, as a imagined it, was like one of those Windsock men that businesses use for advertisements? Can you see it? That’s what I felt like. As I sat and breathed, releasing as much energy I could, I recognized how important sitting in stillness is for me. If I can train myself to sit in stillness of body and stillness of mind for 30-40 minutes each day, maybe I can sit and write for longer periods of time without the need to get up and move around or do handstands (I know, I’m a weirdo).

Back in Pittsburgh there is an addition to my meditative entertainment: cicadas. There was a bloom this summer so there are millions of them. They are like miniature string instruments that always play slightly out of sync. How wonderful.

Runways & Highways: Musings on Mindfulness

July 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

RwysHwys

I drove back to Pennsylvania from Buffalo this weekend as I have so many times this year. Instead of my usual playlist that includes way too much Arcade Fire, I listened to a podcast on mindfulness. It was interesting to hear an expert from UCLA talk about focussing the mind outside of a yoga context. I suppose that some part of me thinks that since I practice yoga I don’t need to learn about “mindfulness, ” I take care of that on my mat in the morning. Oh, but what I often ignore is the fact that my mind wanders all over the place on my mat in the morning. Give me a linear path; a “runway,” a highway, it doesn’t matter, and a buffet of thoughts are there for the thinking.

This often works to my advantage, or at least it has an advantage. As a student of the academic variety my head is always full of ideas and after about 5:00 in the evening, none of them make much sense anymore–the space is too crowded. A modicum of successful breath/bandha/dristi focus in the morning, even for a millisecond, brings clarity. There were a number of times this year I stepped off of my mat, wrote something down, and then went back to my marichyasanas. Sharath would scold me, no doubt. Any teacher would, but….. it happens. My mind is rarely in the present. I try my best (I really do), but it’s not.

In this podcast the expert on mindfulness was talking about the action of “recognizing and returning”–recognizing that the mind has wandered (to the past or future) and returning to whatever it is supposed to be focused on right “now.” This is what I try to do in seated meditation, which I have time for never these days.

The process of recognizing and returning is useful to writers too. I was really interested in exploring this deeply when I began my doctoral research, but now I just view it as something useful. Writing is a meditative, contemplative practice. How often, while writing, do writers stray from the main point? When the mind-body is in a good habit of recognizing deviations from the present moment, it is more likely to recognize them in the writing moment too.

Writing In-Between.

May 27, 2013 § 3 Comments

"Man as Dancer," Oskar Schlemmer, 1921.

“Man as Dancer,” Oskar Schlemmer, 1921.

Writing. I need to write. I need to write in the in-between periods when I don’t have someone telling me what to write. And I also need a possible audience. Without an audience the intention of my writing changes and I get something different out of the process. A possible audience forces me to make sense of ideas for maybe you and definitely me.

Movement. Because I move intentionally, in “the Patanjali way,” most days of the week, it is no surprise that I am drawn to transcultural conceptualizations of bodies, language, and thought. Researchers talk about these relationships in ways that I find fascinating. At times I am guilty of exoticism–being fascinated with the unfamiliar because it’s new, interesting, and shows up Western “familiars,” I think. I just recognize this when it happens and then think what I should do about it. I’m still not sure. I’m just doing my best.

Lately I have been thinking about the Ashtanga Yoga mantras. What do you think about when you transmit opening and closing mantra? I asked myself this question a few weeks ago, and I don’t think of any particular picture. I definitely do not think of the meaning as it translates in English. I think about Sanskrit sound/word shapes–vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde–and I “feel.” Samasthiti (the posture I stand in for opening mantra) is a reverent embodiment for me. One that I associate with the ritual nature of Sanskrit mantric sounds. Opening Mantra is comfy. These sounds have had more practice time than closing mantra, which I’ve only been doing regularly for a few years. I speak mantra in a rhythmic way. I don’t “chant” mantra unless I’m following a teacher, it’s not my habit. My English word for the embodied feeling of the opening mantra is gratitude. I feel gratitude for the teachers who have given the practice to their students and to me specifically. It’s all of that feeling for a few seconds before Suryanamaskara A.

The internal body. How do we translate experience? The conceptualization of words and meanings? An edited collection I read recently looks the perceptions of internal body organs across cultures. In Chinese, for example, 心 xin “heart” is the seat of feeling and thought–the “heart-mind” as understood in English. In Persian, the word del “heart-stomach” is used to describe cognitive, emotional, and social experiences that emanate from del as a container of thought, emotion, and desire. These cultural models of the heart differ from Western understandings of the same organ. The body generates belief based on our linguistic conceptualizations of word-symbol associations and, in turn, influences the way we see and experience the world. From our perceptions of “how stuff works,” we develop body habits and practices that shape who we are. I have a personal understanding of this based on my own daily practices, of course, but I’m interested in globalization and how different understandings of the body across cultures might cultivate new perspectives on experience.

The Body Composing

October 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Michel deCerteau writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) “the opacity of body in movement, gesticulating, walking, taking its pleasure constitutes a here to an abroad…a spatial story is in its minimal degree a spoken language…space appears once more as a practiced place” (131) Taking into consideration that knowing always happens from somewhere, that we can’t “know” from no where, how do the movements of our every day inform our correspondence? Do we first compose in our bodies before we compose in our speech? Or before we compose in our writing? What’s the relationship between language and movement?

Nature’s a language can’t you read?

April 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

The language of transformation, that is. It is the constant flux of temperatures and barometric pressures, the cold fall-like chill piercing through the windowed illusion of out door heat, and the humidity of summer 48 hours later. The heavy pebble-like raindrops that fall by morning, and the birds that chirp ceaselessly by late afternoon. And it is the tide, we are all feeling it.

I was practicing earlier this week and as I cart-wheeled my left arm from trikonasana to utthita trikonasana, planted my palm on the outside of my right foot, pulled up through mula bandha, and pushed my right hip back, just before I gazed my peripheral right eye at the palm of my right hand, I ejected to 5 breaths of deja vu I had on the mat almost 2 years ago. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when you smell a perfume you used to wear, or hear a song or album you listened to non stop for a period of time. The only difference is that I have been doing this practice religiously for almost 6 years, so the practice itself didn’t trigger the rendezvous, my muscle memory did. I’m not sure if something released or was just in the same place at the same time, but it was pretty cool.

Presently speaking, my muscular body has been tired and unpredictable—stress. I fight the natural course of moving on in the practice because I don’t want it to get any harder, because it’s too exhausting, and because my practice is the longest it has ever been and I’ve tried at least 4 different kinds of cereals to eat pre-Rocky – I joke that I try and channel Stallone – but none of them make managing the stamina any easier. I’ve really never hit this type of wall before and it’s difficult because I start my day with, “I’m stopping here,” and, well, that’s an attitude. Sure, I’ve always stopped somewhere, but I’ve stopped because nothing else was expected of me at the time. Sigh.

Going back to that moment on the mat earlier this week; it was spring in China and I was practicing outdoors, I had found a somewhat private place, near my campus apartment in the faux mountains of YZNU, and all of nature was buzzing away. I was teaching Emerson and Thoreau at the time and beaming with how perfect it all was because nature was swelling storybook style. And the next day a tornado hit. This is what life feels like; one minute, Emerson’s Walden, the next, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Buffalo’s forecast isn’t much different. Viva la Moon day…

You Can’t Start a Fire Without a Spark

March 9, 2012 § 2 Comments

I rushed down to my class this evening after having a great conversation with a colleague who has truly been an incredible teacher, mentor, and friend to me for years. Good things are happening for the both of us, and I was all a buzz, good juju.  As usual, I energetically opened the door and immediately steered myself towards the window; it’s always musty as hell in this classroom, but the students won’t crack the windows themselves, it’s so weird, they will sit in the humid, sweaty smelling room, looking exhausted until I arrive and let the air in.

My class is in writing workshop mode and I like them to enjoy the time, so I DJ Pandora stations in between instruction and reading their revisions, while they write, and if they’re not into my Pandora style they can drown it out with Ice Cube, Drake, or whoever makes them happy on their iPods, as long as writing is happening. I have found that discussing the ways in which Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Robert Lowell used to write; setting aside 2 silent hours in the afternoon, devoted to the pen, with or without the twinkle of inspiration in my eye, does squat. Music, humor, and charm get me more with my students.

Just as I began to address the class, down the aisle of the room, being all encroaching as I discussed the research paper, Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark came on the radio. I grinned. It was nice to hear, but it was out of context for me. I kept talking about writing, about introducing quotations, unpacking quotations; the importance of threading someone else’s words into one’s own work etc., and then my students started laughing at me, and I realized I felt like I was in a music video and it was probably difficult to take me seriously while Bruce was singing. I gave them my best “snap & sway” and they laughed more, and then I turned it down. I do sacrifice myself for comedy often, all for the greater good of education.  My morning students, for example, had me wrapped up in various scarves via an essay on the hijab today. One of my best students is from Yemen; “the country of perverts,” she calls it, and much of her writing tells stories of cultural experiences/differences she has had there.

I keep thinking about all the work I’ve done this year, all the while fanatically pursuing several different future endeavors. I figured, I would pursue them all, and whichever one came through would make the decision for me. For a while they were all potential possibilities, but the path is getting clearer. I’m going to be leaving Buffalo, and it’s hard to let go. It’s one thing to say, I’m going to leave and the intention is to come back. It is another to make the decision to leave, when that decision will ultimately lead elsewhere as well. As I left my teacher’s office today he said, “You just walk through your life.” And we do.

Bruce Springsteen will be in Buffalo April 13th and I’m really excited to see him. When he came a few years ago I wasn’t here and felt like I missed out. He is blue-collar, denim, grit and desire; all the truth I love.

Training vs. Practice: A Major Shift

February 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

Transitions abound. I am a few months in to something I have been trying to achieve for some time now, it’s called balance. Sure, people who don’t know me well, especially my students who truly get the very best of me (if there is one thing I’m certain of, it’s that no one will ever know the me that I am when I am in the classroom teaching) likely think I’ve had balance since the day I made my exodus from the womb, it just isn’t so.

I started practicing Ashtanga almost 6 years ago and decided almost immediately that it was the best thing in the world for me, and it is. I worked with a local teacher for years, traveled and worked with other teachers, and made my first pilgrimage to the source in India exactly one year ago today. I have gone through countless changes in my life; highs and lows and all things murky in between, all welcomed and beneficial. Though some of the philosophy of the practice may be lost on me at the moment, I do believe that we hold our “issues” in our bodies, and that when we practice these issues are released. I also believe that the Ashtanga method is exclusive to this benefit because of the way it is designed. I am well aware that runners and practitioners of all other forms of yoga achieve bliss from their practice, but it is just not the same thing.

I began to think back in December while I was training at my local studio, where am I going with this? I’m never going to be a yoga teacher, it’s just not my calling; I’m not interested in having a “training” type of practice every day for the rest of my life, I use the word training because the type of practice I have when I practice at a studio or shala is very different from the one I do every morning in my kitchen; it is the same postures, the same method, but I push more. I’ve reached a point where I just want all of this to be practical. Like, I wake up every morning and practice before I do anything else, beyond that I really don’t want to devote much more of my time to this. I’d also like a gym membership again so I can go have fun, do spin classes and roll around on exercise balls if I want to. The truth is, for me, a serious life of Ashtanga is a serious life, period. I want to practice, I love the practice, but I think of it the way I think of practicing VS training; I don’t want a life of training, I want to practice for the rest of my life, and that’s it. It’s a major shift, but just like I spent a good portion of my life preparing for what I do in my career, I have spent years preparing and learning what to do on my mat, and I think that’s enough.

No Pain, No Gain.

November 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

Mysore Practice with Kino MacGregor at The Great Hall in Toronto.

I thought about quitting Ashtanga a few months ago, but only in the way we sometimes make a threat when we have a bad day and say something like, “kill me now.” Of course, we really don’t want to die, but happiness is not there. I began second series this summer and, truthfully, I sort of knew that something like this would happen; I knew I wasn’t going to love it, so I  really milked primary for all it was worth; lengthening, polishing, aligning, re-aligning etc., I needed to move on. The poses felt awkward at first; second series doesn’t follow the familiar exhale patterns of the first series, so it feels choppy, and of course I can’t fly up into handstands in between poses yet so the sequence doesn’t have the “seamless” flow that I love about the primary series. What’s more, the practice is now longer and the asanas are new; thus, requiring a different approach and degree of stamina. I immediately began to re-evaluate and tried to find a way out it; I considered only doing second series on weekends, when I had time, because it takes so much longer and there is an element of impatience to battle. I also considered only moving up to Bhekasana because it’s the last pose that feels good.

I backed off for about a month, so far off that I was no longer doing drop backs, they seemed inaccessible with the change of seasons; the cooler weather made me stiff and my shifting practice was not providing me with the opening I needed. My practice sans drop backs seemed a valid reason for me to no longer be doing second series–yes! I had found an out. And then I missed it, and I knew I should move forward, but with baby steps. Truthfully, I have gone through several transformations  since then, both mentally and physically, which is what I am learning must happen in order to move through this series, and I don’t think the process is always linear.

Kino MacGregor lectured before an intro to Intermediate Series this weekend during a workshop at The Great Hall in Toronto.  She began by discussing the 3 major asanas in the second series that make students quit: first on the list, Kapotasana (don’t I know it!), Dwi Pada Sirsasana, and Karandavasana. The idea is, if the student doesn’t address what is required for these postures early in the practice through back bending, Supta Kurma, Urdva Padmasana etc., it is very difficult to find it when faced with these asanas moving forward. I remember Sharath spoke to this on a Sunday morning at the shala and shared that people write to him and say, “I quit. It’s too hard.” I remember thinking to myself, “I would never do that, what’s so hard about it? You just do it.” I get it now, though, it’s not just the physical practice; the practice addresses and demands a lot of its practitioner.

Kino brought up the issue of pain, something I have been very interested in considering most schools of yoga and athletics obviously maintain that pain should not be present. Ok, so yoga is supposed to feel good, obviously, no one wants to do “painful” yoga and yoga should not be painful, but what is pain and how do we measure it? Some is required to move on, that is a universal truth.  If a student has never had a physical practice, like dance, or martial arts, this is something that doesn’t make sense. This element of the practice calls on wisdom; if it hurts like you’re going to need a stretcher after practice, it’s obviously not right. That said, it is not always that black or white, the levels of awareness that we develop as practitioners should be ripe enough to determine good pain v. bad pain. Sharath stressed on more than one occasion that we need to be intelligent enough to know what is too much, and I really believe this is where the practice leads us; it’s based on a tradition without room for modifications, but within this tradition, we need to be wise enough to develop a course of action i.e., backing off and coming back, prepping postures (I believe this is necessary), and moving through levels of discomfort with wisdom. Emphasis on wisdom.

“No coffee, no prana; no pain, no gain” – R. Sharath Jois

A Threat to Writing

October 24, 2011 § 3 Comments

When I think of the way that technology has affected writing, as in “prose”, I think of sampling, and then I think of Girltalk. I love Greg Gillis, and when samples of favorite oldies such as Jackson Five’s “Back in Your Heart” meet the dynamics of the best climax in Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I totally love the experience and even more, I love that the music is free through Gillis’s Illegal Art label claiming “fair use” as its defense because, well, good music or no, there are copyright laws and though some might call me a hypocrite, this is where I choose my argument. When this “sampling” translates to the written technological world, I have a difficult time loving it all the same. Kevin Kelly, author of Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World writes in “Scan This Book!”:

In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies lose value. They are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage a work. Authors and artists can make (and have made) their livings selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them.

The time that used to be spent by the masses working through an idea, pen to paper style, that often would transform into a published work, a letter, a journal, etc., is often now reduced to an update on Facebook or Twitter. It then goes through the motions of “Likes” comments, and shares and becomes many times removed from the place in which it first began – your mind. All a result of our “burning need to share”; a viral instinct we all now have in common. Think about it, when you find something note worthy, or have something to say what do you do? I’ll be honest, I feel like updating my Facebook status because it satisfies the urge to express my idea faster than a well thought out and produced… who knows what? I think of the writers I like to read and what resulted from the times when they had something to say, and then I think, if I could just let some of these impulsive “updates” take shape, I’m not suggesting they would evolve to the works of Tolstoy, but perhaps they might have a longer life than that of my Facebook status. As these engineered snippets of ideas and information, mashed-up and looped together by and through the interweb library grow, it will only continue to change both the quality of the information and the way we receive it. “[it is] is going to change the way we learn and the way we share, and the profits that are made for original ideas, in a e-text future comprised of mash-ups.” I guess the thought of this shifts my “Illegal Art” paradigm, to one that is pretty bleak rather than radical and “cool.”

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