Sunday, December 18, 2011

Yoga in Practice: In and Out of the Labyrinth with Historian David Gordon White, Phd

I think it was W.H Auden who said, "a real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us". This may be truer still for anthologies, short stories and collected fables. At every angle, the collection, in its gathered meaning, looks slightly different. And so you get in closer to read between the lines, only to realize the book demands answers of you...and you'd swear it was no longer a collection of words but a riddle of skin and bone sitting on the shelf.

That's the closest I can get to describing my still rather new relationship with Yoga in Practice, David Gordon White's brilliant and beautiful anthology of primary texts on yoga. Built out of the vitality of yoga's fractured, hybrid history, Yoga in Practice gathers a diverse collection of texts from India, greater Asia and the West into a jumbling whole. And in the process of reading its chapters, you're reminded just how fluid yoga's history is, shapeshifting with colossal dexterity over the yugas. With solid contributions from twenty-six yoga scholars, and sources that span four major religious traditions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism), Yoga in Practice has been sitting on my desk, the manuscript bull-dog clipped on certain chapters and and dog-eared on others, as I returned to it over and over again over the last few months.

David Gordon White is the J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He received his Ph.D. in history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1988.  He is the author of Myths of the Dog-Man (1991); The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India ( 1996); Kiss of the Yogini: "Tantric Sex" in its South Asian Contexts (2003); and Sinister Yogis (2009), all published by the University of Chicago Press. He is also the editor of Tantra in Practice (Princeton UP, 2000). Myths of the Dog-Man was listed as one of the "Books of the Year" in the 1991 Times Literary Supplement; Kiss of the Yogini was the cover review of the Times Literary Supplement of May 21, 2001.  He has been awarded three Fulbright Fellowships for research in South Asia, in 1984, 1993, and 1999.

I interviewed David White last summer in late August. I had just started to settle into one of the last remaining tables at a Pete's coffee in L.A when David darted in the back door half looking like he wasn't quite sure who he might find. His scanning gaze seemed to settle a bit when I stood up and motioned over at him. He had walked in free-handed except for some loose pages in his right hand, the table of contents from his manuscript for Yoga in Practice. As we got to talking it became clear that White was alarmingly alert, as quick to speak his mind as to critique and laugh, argue and persuade. I should have expected as much - imaginative and tactical, affable but provocative, it's clear how David White skillfully writes his way in and out of yoga's historical labyrinth.

What's more, however, is that I wasn't the only one asking the questions. He prepared a fountain of questions aimed at practitioners. In particular, he seemed curious about the verbiage of our contemporary practice, and specifically, why we rely on Patanjali's yoga sutras to anchor the practice. I did wonder why an historian would direct these questions at practitioners... Why was he asking me about this? It seems that despite his many contributions as an historian of yoga, David Gordon White still has a vivid curiosity about what it means to practice modern hatha yoga.

"I realized that there are a lot of other ways to read these yoga texts and combine them. And there's not a right and wrong. It's a chaos of traditions. There's just no way to make them all fit together nicely, because they never did." (David Gordon White)
(David Gordon White, ed "Yoga in Practice")

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Lululemon and the Coles-Notes of Atlas Shrugged

"If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject."
 (Ayn Rand)

B y now most you of you have already been apprised of the seemingly misinformed Lululemon campaign. While I'm not really one to proselytize, I do find this particular attempt to hijack an idea quite funny. And to be honest, it smacks more of a Coles-notes reading of Rand than of a conspiracy. Oh Lulu when will you learn?? A book ain't just words, it's a whole world...each letter weighing more, meaning more with context. By the time you add up this book's words and calculate all their possible meanings, a single page can deliver quite the load. This 'John Galt' bag does not travel light.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Your Mind was Made for More than Thinking: Getting Online with Erich Schiffmann

(Erich Schiffmann)

"Don't make up your own mind. Use your mind to get online. Listen for what to do. And when you listen for what to do, the online knowing registers with you as being your common sense." (Erich Schiffmann)

"D o you think it's straight?"

My husband seemed to be asking in earnest as he stood about two inches away from the five foot shelf that ran lengthwise across the back wall of the study. Since I started school, there's been an increased effort to contain the books in my study with a library shelving system. And so building shelves has been a project of some importance. But it was clear to me that this shelf needed some structural help...and maybe even some inspiration. But I think he knew it too because he stood up before I had a chance to answer and said,

"I think there's no point working on this anymore today. I just can't seem to get online with it".

Erich Schiffmann's phrase 'Get Online' had clearly made an impact around our house. My husband loved Schiffmann's analogy of getting online as a way of understanding the silent mind, and has since adopted the phrase into his own vernacular. And we're not the only ones that have found that Erich's ideas stick. An internationally renowned teacher, Erich Schiffmann is a dedicated practitioner whose subtle classes are a reflection of a skillful, meditative silence, and an immediate, spontaneous approach to movement and group practice.

Erich Schiffmann is an accomplished American Yoga Master widely known for his award-winning video, Yoga Mind & Body, featuring actress Ali MacGraw. He is the author of a best-selling book, Moving into Stillness. He has been teaching yoga for more than thirty five years. At age 18 Schiffmann sent a handwritten letter to Jiddu Krishnamurti and was accepted to study with him in England. He deepened his practice of yoga with Desikachar and BKS Iyengar in India, and with Dona Holleman and Vanda Scaravelli in Europe. Yoga Society president Leighanne Buchanan called Schiffmann one of the "innovators" in Yoga Journal's fall 2000 issue. He has produced numerous yoga instructional videos and conducts yoga workshops and teacher training throughout the United States and internationally.

I stopped in on Erich, his wife Leslie Bogart (a registered nurse/yoga instructor) and their dog Bella at their home in Santa Monica, where Erich has a lovely yoga sanctuary off the back garden of the main house. Given that Erich is a maverick filmmaker, I should have known that our interview would likely be captured to dvd. A few of those clips are featured on the left hand sidebar of this site. Erich and I had a chance to chat about what it means to get online, free-form yoga, his years of study with Krishnamurti, Iyengar and Vanda Scaravelli, and everything else including discipline, creativity, surfers and Christ.

"Yeah. Well, my older brother gave me a yoga book for my birthday. And I remember thinking, what a stupid birthday present." Erich Schiffmann [laughing]

(Erich Schiffmann teaching)

"After about 10 years of disciplined practice, I just found myself not enjoying my yoga anymore. And I didn't like not being in love with it the way I had been. And if only someone had just said things aren't going wrong, things are going really right! It's that the discipline is working! The discipline builds your sensitivity... And once the sensitivity has been built, the discipline begins to dissolve." (Erich Schiffmann)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Force Like No Other: Improvising the Tradition with Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy

(Ron Reid (left), Marla Meenakshi Joy (right)

"R eally?" I hesitated..."I'm not sure I want to do ashtanga".

"Ok but honestly just check it out. You'll love it. It's like free jazz or something!"

Free jazz?? That was an unusual thing to say...I was nursing a green tea at the Golden Turtle on Ossington St. with Gary, a Toronto filmmaker and ashtanga yogi who knew a thing or two about jazz. And it was clear he had a distinctly fierce reverence for one of Toronto's most treasured yoga instructors Ron Reid and his "yoga jam" class. Sure, I'd heard of Ron Reid's virtual Jedi status - an uncanny ability to work with the "force" of hatha yoga - for years. But I was skeptical about taking the class.

And who could blame me?? 
How could I know that the deeply musical sensibility of Ron Reid and his wife and musical collaborator, Marla Meenakshi Joy could summon a kind of ashtanga that was skillful enough to accomodate improvisations? Or that a vigorous ashtanga practice in intelligent hands could morph into something that was always intuitively subtracting from the strenuous?

(Ron Reid)
Sure enough through slim sightlines at the back of Downward Dog's upper story room on Queen Street West, I watched as accomplished musician/composer, yogi, co-owner and co-director of Downward Dog, Ron Reid unfurled a masterful series of yoga postures that made a free and adventurous approach to experimentation appear deceptively simple. And more than that, he allowed people in the room to feel like it was easy. There was a distinct air of possibility and generosity that filled the room and circled unmistakeably around the otherwise elusive and introspective Ron Reid.

That's not suprising considering Ron Reid has been practicing Yoga for over 30 years and teaching since 1988. Ron has studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and Sharath both in India and North America and was one of the first Canadian teachers to be authorized by Pattabhi Jois.  In addition to regular classes at Downward Dog, he conducts workshops and teacher trainings in Canada, Europe, and the U.K.

And if that weren't enough, Ron Reid makes up only half the equation in a story of a greater partnership. Marla Meenakshi Joy first traveled to India in 1988 to study meditation and the philosophy of the Vedas with Swami Shyam, as well as other learned scholars in the Himalayas.  She is a Certified Meditation and Yoga Philosophy teacher from the International Meditation Institute in Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, Himalayas. She was involved in Downward Dog’s first teacher training program in 1999, as both a teacher of Philosophy and Sanskrit, and as a student.  She has over 500 hours of Teacher Training with both Ron Reid, Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, among others, and is a Yoga Alliance Certified Teacher. She currently teaches Ashtanga Yoga, Swaha Yoga, Restorative Yoga, Yogadance, Meditation, Yoga philosophy, Sanskrit, and Chanting privately and in yoga studios in Canada, the U.S. The UK, Europe and Asia. 

(Marla Meenakshi Joy)
Marla Meenakshi Joy's classes have a parallel ability attract a devoted following of students drawn to her deft and subtle practice, her extensive teaching experience as well as her instinctive, exuberant personality.  But it was when Marla closed her class with a chant so conversational and intimate that I recognized a similar cadence of fluid creativity and exploration as I had experienced in Ron's Yoga Jam.

Ron and Marla are life partners whose deep bonds were forged from a musical synergy. That unique chemistry led to the creation of Swaha, Ron and Marla's kirtan band, who just returned from a high profile performance at Bhaktifest in Joshua Tree, California. And as you will see in our interview, the relationship between music and posture practice is so intimate for Ron and Marla that there may as well be no verbal distinction made. In fact, it's a curious thing that in this interview disciplinary distinctions seem to disappear. Ask Ron or Marla about music, postural practice, the cycles of life, astrology, or ayurveda and you'll get the same sense that all things are but limbs of life; all things are ashtanga ("eight limbs")... And if you learn to use your limbs well, you inevitably extend your reach back to your best self. In the following interview, Ron and Marla offer valuable insight into the history of the their own ashtanga practice, raise critical concerns about ashtanga's evolutionary blindspots, and throw the spotlight on what it means to work within a tradition whose very existence is based in innovation.

"You see people try to say "No this was the original practice intended by the yoga sutras". Well that's just absurd. I'm sorry! It never was. You know it was just a very specific practice and it's from a particular time. And I think once you know that, it's liberating. To me, it's liberating. It makes a lot of sense... And so the practice that Pattabhi Jois developed based on what he was taught by Krishnamacarya was his own practice specific to his constitution and context." (Ron Reid)
"Our joy is to be able to allow the soul to grow and feel its own levity and its own unlimited nature. And so our teaching style, hopefully, reflects that...We've seen it time and time again in those teachers that have made the choice to do traditional ashtanga, what that's created in their teaching style, their method and also their adjustments. The way in which some of those teachers touch people violates the very first yama of non-violence." (Marla Meenakshi Joy)

(Mysore class with Ron and Marla)

Saturday, September 3, 2011

And the Right Answer IS....Yoga and The Dreaded Multiple Choice Question: Mark Singleton at Yoga Festival Toronto

S o we've all received questionnaires in our lives and those of us that like our lateral thinking don't usually appreciate their bent. They're pushy, presumptuous, know-it-alls, so sometimes I don't even check off boxes. I have refused, squirmed out-of, and refused again to answer any question that limited my options.

So when I put the multiple choice question, “Is your postural yoga practice, - in your personal experience -  a) spiritual, b) religious, or c) secular?" to Mark Singleton, the author of the pivotal and influential book on modern yoga, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice at Yoga Festival Toronto, I expected no easy answer. I mean it's the kind of question anyone dreads unless they never quite got enough of multiple choice exams, or are by nature incredibly dull. So I was glad when Mark hesitated. I mean hesitation has the potential to be truly exciting. As blogger for Think Body Electric Carol Horton noted in her wonderful commemorative post on Yoga Festival Toronto, it was a great moment, and it tapped into a collective fear of the three dreaded words (religion, spirituality and secularism) as the giggles subsided and a nervous hush spread through the room...

As I remember it, in that moment things got very still. It was stunning - in the most literal sense of that word. I saw Mark's right pupil open, slow-motion, wider than widescreen. The audience could have palpated that moment like a seized muscle as I listened, leaning in even closer to grasp the precise hesitation in his tone, and savour the rationale for not being able to categorize yoga practice precisely into any one of the suggested categories.

Mark's explanation was subtle and nuanced with a careful knowledge of yoga's historical relationship with those words. And as such, his did in fact answer the question with a number of salient points which I'll get to talking about when I write up the transcript of that interview next month.

But Carol Horton did raise an interesting issue with regard to a sense that practitioners do not relate to these words in general. What does it say about us that we are aware of our inability to  communicate the nature of our yoga experience in these common categories? I'm not suggesting this difficulty is news. Dance scholarship, for instance, is rife with discussions about the challenges in communicating the experience of embodied practice with reference to these ubiquitous terms. But that is what makes any environment interesting.

And it's also why we've created new words/theories for gaps in all kinds of disciplines: somaesthetic, "the peak experience", "flow theory"...In Bharatanatyam dance terms, the ineffable experience associated with bhakti yoga (the way of devotion) has sometimes been called "svarga", a kind of blink-of-an-eye "heaven", formless and without qualities, from which we must unfortunately return.

(Mikko Kuorinki, Wall Piece of 200 letters installation)

(Simeon the monk on a pillar in Syria for 37 years)
And in not finding categories that apply, some of us turn to art...submitting even before we start that language has its limitations.

But is the inability to answer this question an indication of an ineffable experience, or a contemporary struggle with the complex, baroque weight of those words "religious", "spiritual" and "secular"? Are some of us saying that yoga practice is equivalent to the wordless experience mystics have described? Or is it this a contemporary category that has yet to find a name? And even if hatha yoga practice did not evolve via these succinct categories should we still not ask how these words are impacting practice now? What's going on with our practice today that we read about sectarian struggles in yoga classes and yet a good number of us don't feel these categories even fit?

Okay... so if you're a real mystic and you've been standing on a pillar desert-fathers-style for 40 years, then maybe you can opt out of this discussion. Because you clearly don't care about the outside world and the perception of the meaning of your practice in the world of the entangled. Fair enough, maybe your very contribution is the statement of your standing there for goddamn-ever...

(anti-Christian anti-muslim riots, India 2008)
But it is necessary for practitioners and writers to glance at those words again and again in order to understand what our current categories are, and to address them in whatever way we can so that the practice is better understood and documented. It may be a car crash, but if you want to say you were there, you gotta take a look.

And we should consider ourselves lucky that this, and most yoga discussions, are not multiple choice exams. Unlike a mutiple choice question, you can take as much time and space as you'd like in order to answer the question. You could even answer with a koan or a performance piece. And so in this case, the oversimplified question is a deliberate strategy, a reduction of possibilities by way of question, designed to create a storm in your citta "consciousness/perception" (but as ancient Indians might map it, in the physical location of your heart).

So you tell me spiritual, religious, secular....what is this yoga thing for you?

There are no categories in life that are simple. And certainly I don't think everything that exists needs a name. But when the existing categories appear so insufficient as to evade answers altogether, then it's worth asking what needs to change. And as yogis, making change, alchemical or otherwise, is our greatest trade secret.

I will be posting a full transcript of that interview at Shivers Up the Spine hopefully in a month's time. I just started my PhD this week, so needless to say, my time's been eaten with the usual back-to-school routines of buying loose leaf and making sure my new school bag is up to the task.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Shivers Up the Spine Interviews Mark Singleton: Keynote at Yoga Festival Toronto

I want to warmly invite all Shivers Up the Spine readers to drop in on the keynote interview with scholar Dr. Mark Singleton which will take place in Toronto on Saturday August 20th from 4:30pm - 5:30pm. This would be the very first public interview that Shivers up the Spine has ever done; and the fact that this interview is being hosted by what's possibly the coolest independent yoga festival around makes it that much more special. Oh and did I mention we'd be improvising around Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton's book about the history of hatha yoga?? Considered a radical re-examination of hatha yoga's postural roots, this book has been one of the most influential publications to study the hatha yoga narrative by the refracted light of our modern practice. It's nothing short of a global positioning device. So if you don't know it, and you consider yourself a yoga expeditionary, I suggest coming down. It's easy enough, and it's free to sit and listen... Ok so here are the details:

Beautiful Bodies, Broken Bodies: Hatha Yoga's Tricky Lineage and Physical History: 
Shivers Up the Spine Interviews Dr. Mark Singleton
 at the National Ballet School, 400 Jarvis Street
Saturday August 20, 2012
(Free to the public)

Beautiful Bodies, Broken Bodies: Yoga's Tricky Lineage and Physical History
Mark Singleton's book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford University Press, 2010) has been cited as a reference time and again by scholars, researchers or practitioners looking to understand their relationship to asana and its tricky lineage. This conversation will give people a chance to explore ideas of yoga's slippery narratives through the shapes that we have come to know in asana practice. Broad themes include: "The Yoga Physique: Bodies Perfected by Posture", "Superman: Yoga and Nation Building" and "Yoga and Sexuality". What aesthetic values are embedded in our physical practice? And how does our understanding of yoga's history impact its continued transmission on North American soil? Attendees are welcome to join in on the chat which will be transcribed and published online here at Shivers Up the Spine!

Yoga Festival Toronto, Sacred Sound and Storytelling with Raj Balkaran

I t's going to be one exciting weekend at the National Ballet School for anyone who has their tickets for Yoga Festival Toronto. With so many wonderful yoga workshops, speakers and authors in attendance between August 19-21st at Yoga Festival Toronto 2011 it's hard to narrow down a preview. But I did want to bring attention to two events that are free to the public.

The first is the closing chant of the festival. Yes, the festival exits with the best kind of enchantment; that is, the chant of a great story. Everyone knows there's nothing better than a fantastic story...but the power of a great story may just be in its telling. That's why it's well worth attending Raj Balkaran's musical finale to the yoga festival, Tales of Power and the Greatness of the Goddess. A quick Q and A with Raj Balkaran follows, and the second event follows in a separate post. Happy reading.

Tales of Power and the Greatness of the Goddess
Sacred Sound, Storytelling, Tabla and Sitar
at Yoga Festival Toronto 2011
National Ballet, 400 Jarvis Street
Sunday, August 21, 2012

Q and A with Storyteller and Scholar Raj Balkaran:

Priya Thomas: When did you first develop an interest in myths and stories?  

Raj Balkaran: I was deeply inspired by my fifth-grade Greek mythology unit, but at
that point, I had no language whereby to grapple with my fascination, but the intrigue has always been there.  It periodically manifested as interest in the odd fantasy novel (it’s not surprise that I adored CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia) until infiltrated my Masters work in Hindu Studies.  For my MA research, I explored the ethics of violence in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana without registering that my work was very much a manifestation of my love of mythology. I can now appreciate that I was captivated by the ‘myth’ of Rama, the tale of a king in forest exile.  Through storytelling, I am able to bring into the conscious mind what has always subconsciously drawn me to mythology i.e., the fact that it more often than not addresses our core human experiences.

Priya Thomas: Why is a tale of the power of Sakti important in the context of Yoga Festival Toronto? 

Raj Balkaran: Firstly, I love sharing these tales: they invariable generate a great deal of intrigue and excitement. Secondly, my contribution to the festival constitutes a fine opportunity for me to deeply process the episodes of the Devi Mahatmya prior to commencing doctoral work on the subject next month. Thirdly, and more to the point of the question, the discourse surrounding the great goddess celebrates the fact that she exists in various manifestations, each serving its purpose.  In perusing the impressive roster of presenters, it becomes clear that the festival as a whole is comprised of a cornucopia of individual talents. Given its status as an amalgamation of various distinct and potent energies, it is analogous to the great goddess of the Devi Mahatmya who emerges (at least in episode II) as the sum of the creative potency of the individual gods of heaven.  She is the sum of distinct parts, and also beyond that sum – and so, too, is the festival. 

Priya Thomas: I noticed you use the expression a "Chants Encounter"? What is that? How does chanting help one encounter the living myth??
Raj Balkaran: The text of the Devi Mahatmya, though fifteen centuries old, is a living text: it is chanted to this day in ritual contexts, particularly at the biannual festival of the Great Goddess, as part of living religious tradition. The text continues to live in this visceral manner because of the tongues which continue to utter its verses. Why settle for a textual corpse which can be easily resurrected by incantation? The absence of these “chants encounters” is like a libretto without the opera?

Priya Thomas: Tell us a bit about the role of music in telling your tale...

Raj Balkaran: The text of a tale is readily available, but where can one hear its telling?  Any why would one want to hear its telling? Storytelling emphasizes oral culture, and oral culture is inextricable to the existence and transmission of most Indian texts. It’s remarkable that most Indian “texts” were not texts at all! The Vedic corpus, for example, has been orally transmitted since approximately 1500 BCE. The ancients could have monotonously transmitted them, but this was not the case. Rhythm and pitch – indeed music! – was vital for the recitation and transmission of Vedic verses.  Sanskrit is a beautiful language, and all the more beautiful when enlivened by meter and pitch. Anyone who has encountered the Sanskrit alphabet is struck by the remarkable preoccupation with sound which governs its organization.  Sound is the medium of instruction of Indian ‘texts’, and is vital to their proper transmission.  Likewise, musicians express emotions and ideas through the medium of sound, albeit bereft of language proper.  However, for those who are attuned, a symphony can rival a lecture in its power to impress an audience. Orators and musicians alike harness the power of sound to move the human spirit. In like manner, the ‘story’ of the great goddess shall be ‘told’ through narration and musical phrasing alike.

Priya Thomas: And why is music a good vehicle for epic tales of the goddess?

Raj Balkaran: Who doesn’t enjoy good music??  I would argue that good music is welcome in any presentation.  However, to address your question more narrowly, creativity itself (as manifesting through music, literature, poetry, dance) is often personified with a feminine face. This is interesting since it is the female of each species which most directly partakes in creating life. There is a reason why several personifications of creativity worldwide (e.g. the muses of Greek mythology, Sarasvati of India) exist in female form.  Music is befitting a creative rendition of these tales which themselves posit a universe which is the dance of the goddess herself.
For more information on Raj Balkaran and his musicians, please visit The Greatness of the Goddess or visit Toronto Body Mind to see an interview with Raj about Yoga Festival Toronto 2011.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yoga on the Pacific Seacoast

N ot even eight hours ago I was in sunny L.A. where lemons grow on trees. And I have to say I loved California. Many thanks for readers who gave me advice for places to visit and teachers to meet. I could have stayed for months more expanding that journey.

(the lovely Annie Carpenter)

I have to say my L.A. yoga experience did not begin with happy sunshine. I did unfortunately visit a few studios where irritable yoga instructors  pushed and pulled at me as if I were Gumby upon first sight. And if you've been practicing yoga for a while, you learn to listen, and you can almost hear the energy of a room, or that of an instructor tugging at your sternum saying, "I can't hear your Ujjayi breathing!"

It occurred to me that it was easy to mistake struggle and strife for discipline. Well, it was clear I'd have to keep moving to find the right spot in L.A. to continue my practice.

Then I was exceedingly lucky to take an amazingly detailed class with Annie Carpenter at Exhale upon the advice of Marla Meenakshi Joy at Downward Dog. In Annie's class I found just the right amount of structure and effort balanced with ease. At some point I would love to talk to Annie about her beautiful practice.

(Erich Schiffmann, left; myself, right)
And then a few days later I was stopped in my tracks by a hummingbird outside our flat in Los Feliz. I wondered if there was a reason it had appeared out of nowhere, and that I gazed at it for a full fifteen seconds as it hovered in a flickering, still velocity; an electric streak of iridescent green and blue. And by afternoon, in a class with the yogi of yogis, Erich Schiffmann, I had begun to interpret the little bird as a portent. Erich Schiffmann's deep stillness reminded me that listening is like moving...and a flickering hummingbird is a trick of the eye, buzzing through each still frame. Erich likens the dynamics of stillness to a the equilibrium of a spinning top...
More on that later in a wonderful interview with Erich that will be posted in the next month or so on this blog. Erich has also emailed to say that he will likely post his video version of that interview on Youtube after the printed version is posted. We each left Erich's class that day with a lovely plumeria flower in hand or hair.

(Dr. David G. White)
The next day I had an interview with eminent scholar Dr. David Gordon White, J. F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religion at University of California, Santa Barbara. David had sent me a copy of the uncorrected proof manuscript of his forthcoming book, Yoga In Practice (Princeton University Press) a few months ago for review. As you know, I prefer to chat with people so that's what we did. David is a walking heap of erudition. But he's also funny, creative and a bit irreverent...reminds me something of Jim Jarmusch. He declares that he's no Hatha yogi, and would rather self-identify as an historian, but it seems to me that he's a yogi of some unnamed persuasion. That interview will be a blast to put together for this blog as well.

(Dr. Chris Chapple)
 And then following another coincidence, I got in touch with the wonderful Dr. Christopher Chapple, Navin and Pratima Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University, because I had just finished reading his chapter in the aforementioned manuscript of Yoga in Practice. Chris is another heavyweight yoga scholar and the author of several key books in Comparative Religion. And furthermore, he  started what I understand to be the first yoga philosophy certificate program in a university context. Chris took me on a tour of the LMU campus, introduced me to several faculty members, showed me their wonderful new yoga studio, as well as the LMU library which houses a significant collection of archival yoga texts. You can certainly look forward to an interview with Chris about his work with the program and his yoga practice in November/December.

And finally, I will miss that endless Pacific seacoast. Sure, I wore heels most of the time and because I fly carry-on-no-checked-luggage, the last thing I was going to do was load myself down with pairs of shoes. So heels and all, we trekked down the steep drop to El Matador Beach, a bit past Malibu, where the water is green and the light is white. Got caught in high tide, shoes finally off, jeans soaked to the waist looking like some city-dwelling east coasters who had no idea what the ocean can do. Herons flew in a free form collective, a long length of the blue sky, as sunbathing locals snickered, I'm sure, as we guarded our iphones, leglocked by spirals of seaweed, as the tide came in, higher and louder each time.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Summer's Horizons

A s you may have noticed, I've taken a bit of a vacation from this blog. Nothing formal...just a decision to write more slowly, take time out in the sun to recharge, or wander out and see the epic final chapter of the Harry Potter series. But I'll admit, as much as I'd like to siesta and keep it all quiet and sleepy, there are plenty of fascinating things percolating on the yoga horizon and for this blog. So this break of mine will be short.

For one, I'll be making a trip to Los Angeles in a week and a half, and I plan to bring back tidbits on yoga in LA and perhaps a few interview prospects. In fact, if any readers out there have suggestions of yoga studios to check out and yogis to speak with, fire away. All suggestions are welcome.

Two, Yoga Festival Toronto is coming up quickly - it runs August 19-21st at the National Ballet School; and this year's festival is shaping up to be quite exciting. In fact, a few nights ago festival directors Matthew and Scott (Remski and Petrie respectively - whom you may know as the authors of Yoga 2.0) threw a wonderful vegetarian feast for the faculty dinner in anticipation of the event. If the dinner was any indication, Matthew, Scott and the entire YOCOTO team have filled the programming with yogic inquiry, warmth and the lost art of it's well-worth travelling to Toronto from wherever you are to catch this festival. This year's guests are as diverse and interesting as ever - you can register and see the lineup here. Step up as scholars such as Dr. Frawley and Yogini Shambhavi deliver talks and instructors offer workshops on everything from the Yoga Birth Method to acroyoga. This year is also the first year the festival has offered yoga programming for children.

To boot, Shivers Up the Spine will be participating in one of Yoga Festival Toronto's keynote presentations in an interview with Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice.  The interview is built around the title, Beautiful Bodies, Broken Bodies: Yoga's Tricky Lineage and Physical History, and I hope the interview will address our very physical, modern practice as a hybrid of assumptions about the human body and the body of yogic tradition. In my mind's eye, I picture a 30-minute session of Singleton improvising around my interview questions, followed by audience members throwing their own unruly questions/thoughts into the mix...resulting in a public interview of sorts that will be transcribed to Shivers Up the Spine following the event. The interview happens on Saturday August 20th, 5:30-6:30 and I urge anyone in the hood to drop in on the festival at the National Ballet School and join the discussion! I will add a more detailed look at the interview content for the sidebar of this blog soon enough..

(Marla Meenakshi Joy & Ron Reid)
Also upcoming on this blog is a piece on Ron Reid and Marla Meenakshi Joy of Downward Dog Toronto, which I hardly want to say anything about save that the record shows that it was a delightful, funny and thought-provoking conversation...which means that the bulk of my work is already done. Don't you love yogis and their vivid journeys? I swear half the time i can't tell if i'm talking to a yogi or a flesh and blood magician...all the more so when you're talking with Ron Reid and Marla Joy. So stay on the look out for that one.

 T his way now the horizon is gathering some interesting weather patterns just round the bend of a reddish sky. No better time for a siesta...See you in a bit.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

There's a Trace of it in Everything: Choreographer Richard Tremblay on Yoga, Kathakali Dance Theatre, and Choreographic Practice

(Richard Tremblay as Arjuna in Kathakali Dance Drama, courtesy R.Tremblay)
 "Anyway, so I went to the Himalayas and that's where I met my guru Tat Wale Baba. He lived on the banks of the Ganga the same place where the world famous guru, Mahesh Yogi first met the Beatles. So my guru had his small ashram there; and he and Mahesh Yogi were very well acquainted with another as they had the same teacher. They came from a very small family so-to-speak. But they went two separate ways. Tat Wale Baba was living in a cave. And Mahesh Yogi went the world over, to Holland and the US where he established many ashrams. So the two of them chose two very different paths. I chose to follow Tat Wale Baba. He was living in a cave. That appealed to me..." (Richard Tremblay on studying yoga in the Himalayas with Tat Wale Baba)

(Yogi Tat Wale Baba)
I t's not everyday that you speak to a choreographer who tells you that he spent a number of months studying yoga in a cave given to him by the hermetic yogi Tat Wale Baba. And this was just one of the many stories unearthed in a few hours of cross-continental file transfer with Quebecois Kathakali dancer and choreographer Richard Tremblay. At the time that I contacted him for this interview, Richard was creating new work at Kerala Kalamandalam, the prestigious university for the performing arts in Kerala, South India.

Richard Tremblay is a dancer/choreographer with a varied cultural background and a rich history from which he weaves his own personal understanding of the importance of a yoga in the life of a choreographer. Richard Tremblay is credited with being the first Canadian to have trained in a form of dance-theatre known as Kathakali, and then choreographed new, cross-cultural works using traditional Kathakali conventions. For those of you who know little about Kathakali, the sidebar this month features Into the Dreams of Heroes, an article by photographer Stuart Freedman, whose shots of life at Kerala Kalamandalam are featured in this entry.

(Richard Tremblay, courtesy Tremblay)
Richard Tremblay entered choreographic theatre in Quebec in the 1970's before turning toward Kathakali and contemporary dance. Constantly seeking out new codes in dance, he attended the Indian university for the performing arts, Kerala Kalamandalam, where he received training in Kathakali, subsequently devoting several years to performing this dance-theatre form. He founded Dance Theatre Kalashas in 1981 to do repertory and creation work in Kathakali. Its long-term artistic project is based on bringing together different cultures and aesthetics in the renewal of choreographic languages. The desired artistic result is not a fusion, combination or hybrid of different forms, but an act of creation in its own right, and resolutely contemporary. In 1988, after his Kathakali training, he created The Anger of Achilles (The Iliad), which was presented in Kerala, Bombay and Singapore. Richard Tremblay is the first choreographer from the West to contribute new works to the Kathakali repertoire. He divides his creative activity between Kathakali and contemporary dance.

He is currently working in collaboration with Bruno Paquet, a percussion composer, and with Jean-Guy Lecat, a long-time associate of Peter Brook. In its productions and creation workshops, Kalashas has collaborated with the Montreal organizations Usine C, Danse Cité, Agora de la danse and Tangente, as well as with the Centre chorégraphique national de Franche-Comté, in France, the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute in Calgary/Delhi, the Sangeeth Natak Academy in Thrissur, Kerala, and with production organizations in Singapore.  His most recent creation, The Legends of Jil & Yill (2004-05), integrates text and music with dance. Also included in this list of contemporary dances are: Himalayas; Prayer for a Rope, a
Pope and a Rogue (2004) Courbe en Flocon de Neige
(1995), Heaps of percolation (1993), Paradox of the Burning Sky (1992), The Attracteur of Ezhikode (1991), Of Mice and Other Similar Devices (1990), and Indra (1986).

Richard Tremblay's observations about the role of yoga in the performing arts is informed by his many encounters and friendships with extraordinary artists including the late Chandralekha, the fierce, heterodox contemporary Indian choreographer who was directly influenced by yoga's physical practices. But as you will read, his discourse is equally permeated by a deep sense of his own relationship with his early yoga practice, his long relationship with the philosophy and cultural milieu of Kathakali in Kerala, and his own understanding of the yogic process through his choreographic explorations.

"Much of the work of the choreographer is not to try to put yoga into the content of choreography, but to try to put the conditions in place where the dancer can achieve the most of themselves."(Richard Tremblay)

(Bruno Paquet percussion/chenda (left), Richard Tremblay (right), photo: R.Tremblay)
(Prof. Balasubramanian at Kalamandalam instructs on mudras or hand gestures, ©Stuart Freedman)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Living on the Frontiers of your own Voice: Yoga and Writing with Author Bruce Black

(a child's christmas in wales, dylan thomas)
P ropped up against the brick of our fireplace at home is a vinyl release of A Child's Christmas in Wales read by Dylan Thomas. Anyone who has heard it read would likely remember the magic in its words and the author's lilting, choral delivery. What's in a human voice that tugs at the heartstrings? Why do children like to fall asleep to the sound of a voice reading a story?  And what exactly does the repetition of form tell us about sthiram, sukham, asanam...or stability, ease and yoga?

Author Bruce Black likes the warp and weft of words as much as he likes to trace the outlines of asanas on a yoga mat. Black began yoga five years ago when his knees could no longer stand the stress of running. A writer of fiction originally, Bruce Black turned his attention to the inner story of his yoga practice through journalling after a yoga teacher handed his whole class blank notepads. The exercise proved so fruitful that out of it emerged, Writing Yoga, a book that explores the nexus of yoga, writing and life.

(Bruce Black)
A graduate of Columbia University, where he received a BA in English literature, Bruce Black earned his MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. His stories have appeared in Cricket and Cobblestone magazines and other publications, and his blog, Wordswimmer, was named one of the Web's "Top 100 Creative Writing Blogs" by Online Education News and is included in Online Degrees Hub's list of "100 Great Blogs that Young Writers Should Read." You can also find him at Writing Yoga, the blog for keeping a yoga journal. He serves as a poetry judge for The Cybils: Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards and is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. He lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he teaches writing workshops for children and adults and spends most of his time, when he's not reading or writing in his journal, practicing Tree Pose.

I spoke with Bruce Black at length about how writing and yoga are symbiotic practices that can help locate personal obstacles to using one's authentic "voice".  As his book details, no one is exempt from the oppressive chatter of the self-defeating inner critic.  And in our interview he talks about how having the nerve to observe the workings of your inner critic is exactly what affords you some room to mitigate the inner saboteur's influence.

"The journal was slightly larger than my hand, with lined, cream-coloured pages (blank on the back), a black spiral binding, and a cover, both front and back, wrapped in cloth on which was reproduced a Japanese painting — Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" — depicting a tall blue ocean wave, frozen at its crest just before it falls back to earth. In the distance, beneath the curl of the wave's white crest, you could see a snow-covered mountain. And entering the picture from the right-hand side you could make out the prows of two wooden vessels, coming from no one knows where and whose destination is also a mystery. It was a beautiful gift, a hundred blank pages waiting for words (and pictures) to fill them..." -Bruce Black, Writing Yoga

(Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa")

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Long Journey of a Blue Letter: Chanting and Yoga with Mekhala Desikachar of Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram

(One of several chanting cds featuring student and daughter of yoga master T.K.V Desikachar, granddaughter of yoga master of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacarya)
  W hen i was young, I remember blue aerogramme letters coming to the house. They would come every three and a half weeks; and then a return letter with what looked like a hundred stamps would get mailed back in a bleached white envelope marked air mail, return address Canada. That's what it was like communicating with India. My family seemed ok with it; although there were grumblings about the postal system and letters never received. In my mind, you might as well have set sail yourself aboard a rickety ship every 4 weeks, charting your own course round the perimeter of the stormy and fickle Arabian seacoast...the journey for each single piece of mail seemed equally arduous and unpredictable.

And then came phase two of filial relations with the old country: the phone conversation. In the 1970's families in Kerala started getting home phones; and we would make calls from our home in Montreal to my grandparents in South India, where my parents would take turns yelling into the receiver, only to hear unintelligible echoes, some crackling, and more echoes in return.  My brother and I would even get invited to come and yell our broken communications over to aunts and uncles or cousins, signaling the tail-end of a chaotic cross-continental phone call.

So when I was reading the weekly sutra on the Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram (or KYM) website about a month ago, it occurred to me that I might as well take advantage of the sweep and scale of change that has overturned India, and interview someone from KYM who can speak to the state of yoga in the blizzard of modernity that is India today. And that's when I thought of Mekhala Desikachar, student and daughter of yoga master T.K.V Desikachar and the granddaughter of yoga master of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacarya. Not only does she have access to an illustrious history, and the knowledge and background that it likely confers, but she is also part of a generation that grew up in the new India, a locus of hyperactive flux.

(D. Mekhala)
D. Mekhala has been on the faculty of the Krishnamacarya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India since the age of 13 teaching children and assisting main instructors. She started teaching private classes for children with health problems at the age of 15 and has been teaching individual adult classes for the last eight years, as well as assisting her father T.K.V Desikachar in many of his seminars worldwide. Like her father, she earned her degree in engineering, but her passion is Vedic chanting. Mekhala has recorded cd's on Vedic and yoga sutra chanting, including two with her father Desikachar.  She has been studying Vedic chanting for the last 27 years.

I was quite grateful that despite the demands on her time her new role as mother (her newborn son is primary concern these days), Mekhala generously accepted the invitation to an interview which we completed thanks to the flicker speed of email communication. Her succinct replies evoke her childhood memories of playing with her grandfather Krishnamacarya at age 99,  early yoga classes with her father Desikachar, and the significance of chanting in her own practice. Moreover, she contributes to a greater conversation about the shape of yoga in contemporary India with consideration and simplicity, as she details how, "the winds of yoga blow in from the west".

"In the Indian tradition, the idea of good health extends far beyond mere physical fitness, encompassing the mind and spirit as well...No matter how each of us defines wellbeing, what lies at the core of this concept is a healthy mind in a healthy body, empowered by an indomitable spirit. This may sound an ambitious proposition. Nevertheless, it must be possible for all our ancient texts speak about this harmonious integration of mind, body and spirit. How does one work towards what seems a challenging goal, given the pressures of life today?
Great masters have shown us the path – a path that is paved with the stepping stones of devotion, sincerity, commitment, detachment and surrender... Just listening to these chants can heal, for as TKV Desikachar (son and student of legendary yogi, T Krishnamacharya) says, "Chanting can open our hearts."
(Excerpt from KYM Website)
"Chanting was so much part of my household. My father was teaching it to his students including my mother and then there were their own practices. There was so much that I think at one point I was chanting it all in my mind. I must have been 7 or 8 at that time" (Mekhala Desikachar)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Welcome to the Prism: Infinite Refractions, The Variety of Vedanta and Yoga in America with Philip Goldberg

(American Veda by Philip Goldberg)

R eading is a solitary thing. For the most part, nobody joins you in the process, save for the occasional elderly cat -i have one such- that takes delight in napping on top of the best paragraphs.  But reading is also part of a breathtaking human process of experimentation; of taking things in and radiating back out; and not unlike inhaling and exhaling, there's a circulation of energy. So I'm grateful when readers step off the page to tell you about what books they've loved, letting ivory towers crumble...sharing ideas. So when a Shivers up the Spine reader suggested I get out and read American Veda by meditation teacher and ordained interfaith minister, Philip Goldberg, I was on it.

(Bob Dylan)
American Veda is a celebration of the history, legacy and profound impact left by core teachings of Vedanta and yoga on the religious and ethical sensibilities of Americans. Specifically, it looks at the dark and forgotten closets and cupboards of the nation to find the staple stash of Hindu thought that has been re-created and served up as a side dish with dinner each night for more than a hundred years. And from Emerson to Bob Dylan to George Lucas, artists and storytellers have certainly been dipping into that back pantry for inspiration and serving it up with great and colourful variety to sometimes completely unsuspecting audiences.

("Avatar", by James Cameron)
Would American rock band The Doors have tested the limits of perception without the cultural backdrop and impact of meditation practices and its accompanying interest in altered states? Just how common have Sanskrit words become in America that the word karma is ubiquitous enough to be used in the titles of pop songs that span the last three decades? (Consider for a moment: "Instant Karma" by John Lennon to represent the 1970's, "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club for classic 80's and more recently "Karma Police" by Radiohead...) Or what about the word avatar, and that once trendy, and highly contagious virtual reality site called Second Life with its population of avatar protagonists? Do I even need to mention director James Cameron and his epic blockbuster which pays repeat homage to the word avatar (or incarnation) and its Indo-European legacy?

(Philip Goldberg)
Philip Goldberg is a spiritual counselor, meditation teacher and ordained Interfaith Minister. The author or coauthor of 19 books, he lectures and leads workshops throughout the country. A novelist and screenwriter as well, he lives in Los Angeles, where he founded Spiritual Wellness and Healing Associates (SWAHA). He is Director of Outreach for and blogs regularly on the Huffington Post and And while there have been other books that look at the history of yoga in America, American Veda has a unique bent; and it's one that is shaped by its author's own life-changing experience with the persuasive power Vedanta and yoga, its varied expressions in popular culture, and his explicit interfaith mandate in writing the book. 

In our interview, Goldberg, a veteran interviewer himself (he completed several hundred interviews in the course of research for his book) offers his thoughts on why an interfaith perspective is crucial to understanding the variety of practices that have emerged out of the Vedanta and yoga contexts. Goldberg hones in on one of Vedanta's key messages "truth is one, its names are many",  and explores how its message has reshaped not only American popular culture, but also the sheer range of religious expression and practices available to the average American. Seemingly immune to doctrinal differences, the collision of practices such as postural yoga, meditation, and self-help circles has resulted in one hell of a mash up; from Christian yogis to Kirtan chanting rabbis, Americans have inhaled a happy puff of yogic smoke and exhaled an electric cocktail of hybrid spirituality. Truth may be one, but its forms are many, many, many....