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.