Nov 18, 2012

Blogging and Yoga

I started this blog in August of this year as a place to organize my thoughts and various researches on yoga. But the combination of blogging and yoga is just not working for me. My yoga practice has always been a matter of going inward in order to go out. To be quiet in order to eventually speak more clearly, while blogging is very much about maintaining a more or less outward energy—at least that's how I relate to it. And keeping this blog seems to be effecting how I practice—for instance, I have started to catch myself thinking, in the middle of practice, whether or not a certain experience or insight might make a good blog post. I miss the clarity, the peace, and the essential wordlessness of how I have always related to yoga before, which is why I've decided to stop running this blog. For those of you who've been kind enough to subscribe to these posts—thank you! I'm still around, at my other (completely un-yogic!) blog Food Culture Index, and posting inspirations of a literary sort on my tumblr, Og-blay. And of course, you can find me on Twitter, too. But for now, here, I'm signing off.
Sat Nam.
practicing up-dog on a wooden walking bridge with my kids...

Nov 4, 2012

Inspirational Vintage Yoga Photos

As I wrote recently in my post on Face Yoga, I've been thinking a lot about how to relax my face when practicing (and generally—in 'real life,' too). I found these striking LIFE magazine (1949) photographs on a site called The Old India Photos. The asanas themselves, of course, are out and out gorgeous, but what I find most inspiring about this man is his face—that peaceful, slightly bemused half-smile. Either he truly doesn't have that weird pranic block that most of us have, starting at about neck level—that "arrested...accostomed movement" Proust talks about in the quote I cited in that earlier post, or else it's just really, really, really fun to do these poses as well as he does them. I half suspect the latter.

Oct 28, 2012

Nutty, Spicey Dukkah

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe. It induces salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue, stimulating the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth.  —Yamaguchi S (1998). (via Wikipedia)
I've learned a lot from David Garrigues' videos, not just about Ashtanga and yogic philosophy, but also about food. His video on brown rice and the salt-sesame mixture called Gomasio changed my outlook on simple rice & veggie meals, super helpful for this fledgling vegetarian. Since then, I've discovered another dry, nutty condiment to sprinkle on all kinds of vegetarian staples—from brown rice, to bread with oil, to fried potatoes (especially with caramelized onions—yum), to steamed squash, and even plain old slices of avocado. It's called Dukkah—an Egyptian invention, apparently sold on the streets of Cairo. Like Gomasio, Dukkah really ups the Umami quotient of otherwise bland or non-complex foods (like brown rice, etc...), and helps assuage my longing for the kind of intensely savory flavors that are so easy to come by in a meat-inclusive diet, but much rarer in a vegetable-based one.

This recipe is inspired by the one I found on Heidi Swensen's 101 Cookbooks. It uses all the same ingredients (except she also uses a bit of dried mint), only in different proportions.


1. cup hazelnuts
1/4 cup coriander
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon salt

The ideal texture for the final mix ranges from a rough powder to outright chunks. Putting everything at once into a food processor would create problems because the seeds are harder than the nuts and by the time the seeds were adequately ground, the nuts would be too fine. So I hand grind the coriander, peppercorns, fennel seeds, and cumin seeds (these last I always pan roast before grinding—worth the effort) using a mortar and pestle. I'm not super ferocious about it, however, and only manage to crack most of the larger seeds in half or quarters. But they're small enough so that I can then throw them all into the food processor along with the nuts so that they can break down a touch more. The nuts take less than a minute to get nicely, unevenly chopped—just enough time to break down the seeds a tad more. It all works out in the end, especially if you don't mind fairly large bits of black pepper now and then. Keeps things interesting.

Oct 20, 2012

Face Yoga

Ever since I first read Eric Schiffman's Yoga: the Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness a few years ago, I've thought of my practice—on and off the mat—as primarily an exercise in identifying, being grateful for, and organizing prana. This is a very different approach to things than when I first started practicing and thought largely in anatomical terms about things like alignment, symmetry, pressure, torque, and so forth.  I still think plenty about those issues, of course, but now I also try to sense where I feel energy—however subtly—streaming, swirling, bunching up, or (on bad days) simply spilling out of me. Practicing on both the gross (physical) and subtle (energetic) body levels makes my physical yoga practice far more engaging because there's always something to do. When working with an injury, for instance (as I am these days, in the plural, but that's another—long and sorry—story), or whenever my body is simply at its limit and I can't budge another millimeter, I can still observe myself energetically.

Over time, I've gotten better at identifying the presence and patterns of prana in my own body, so much so that recently I've made a somewhat disturbing discovery: pranic-ly speaking my face is kind of vague—just sort of... numbly....

Maybe this isn't so surprising. After all, faces really are kind of weird. I mean generally speaking. How strange is it, for instance—how puzzling and backwards-seeming, ironic, and slightly cruel—that the face is our most public feature and yet it's something we never see ourselves unless we happen to be standing in front of a mirror? Ultimately, I know my husband's and children's faces much better than my own because I look at them all the time. My own face I study—with a kind of clinical ambivalence—a few minutes a day: whenever I brush my teeth (why do I look in the mirror when I brush my teeth?), put on make-up, or check for general presentabilty before heading out the door. Ah. That's not quite true. To be honest, I'm usually checking for something more than simple "presentability" when I look in the mirror: I'm clocking myself somewhere on that infinitely calibrated scale—the one girls learn about in grade school, internalize in high school, and sometimes start (but maybe never quite finish) dismantling in adulthood. The beauty scale.

Men, no doubt, grapple with a scale of their own. Maybe the manly scale or the tall-dark-and-handsome scale, or the jocky one. The long and the short of it is that we learn early on our face is an important signifier of a certain kind of social worth, and as a result—maybe quite unconsciously—create for ourselves a sort of mask so as to look "a certain way."

the mask in formation:
vintage photo of a child in a beauty pageant

Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, writes that
"The features of our face are hardly more than gestures which force of habit made permanent. Nature, like the destruction of Pompeii, like the metamorphosis of a nymph into a tree, has arrested us in an accustomed movement."
In a sense, this "arrested . . . accustomed movement" is a great relief because it's fixed and you can hide behind it. The mask is often considered desirable—you see it all the time on TV and in fashion magazines. But it's essentially a method of stilling one's features, of carefully honing certain facial expressions and eliminating others so that, in the end, one no longer has expressions so much as arrangements: anatomical still lifes, a form of micro-muscular paralysis without the Botox. Ultimately, the mask makes the free flow of prana—of vitality, exuberance, and energy—impossible.

Batak mask dance at a funeral feast in the Dutch East Indies, 1930s.
Studying the pranic patterns in my body has made me aware of the frankly disturbing presence of my own mask. I say "disturbing" because, despite the fact that I love and value honest and spontaneous expression, cherish imperfection and vulnerability, realness and authenticity, whenever I actively try to trace the flow of prana in my own body, I bump into this weirdly abstract feeling in my face, this ancient mask, the purpose of which (I know deep down) is to hide these very things in myself. I believe this calls for an emoticon.


I have, of course, experienced similar sensations of low, blocked, or disorganized prana in other parts of my body. My hips, for example, sometimes feel like solid bricks of stopped-up energy—no flow whatsoever, particularly after long drives or stints at my desk. And my thoracic spine, on certain days, can also feel completely inaccessible—somatically invisible. I'm familiar with the fix for these things: breath. Find the pose, relax into it, breathe evenly, breathe deeply, breathe slowly, send the breath into the block, and, above all, observe.... It's a great method because it works, especially with repetition. So this is precisely what I'm trying to do with my face. I think it's working, although quite frankly, I find that relaxing my face is the most challenging part of my practice these days—even with my various injuries—but in a way it also seems like the most important.


And now, an amusing (if only tangentially related) video titled "Electro Stimulus to Face Test 4" (Daito Manab's Friends)":

Daito Manabe: direction, programming and composition
upper left: Muryo Honma
upper right:Setsuya Kurotaki,
lower left: Motoi Ishibashi
lower right: Seiichi Saito

Oct 3, 2012

Carrot-Fennel Soup

Here's a super simple, very good, slightly unusual vegan soup.

- one  large sweet onion
- about 8 carrots (one bag, about 2 pounds)
- olive oil (about 1 tablespoon, give or take)
- fennel seeds (about 2 teaspoons, give or take)
- water, to cover plus one inch
- salt, to taste

• Chop the onion coarsely, sauté in the olive oil for a long time—about an hour on very low heat—until the onion is transparent and perhaps slightly, very slightly browned. This slow cooking gives added sweetness & a bit of complexity to this soup.

sauteeing onions—about halfway carmelized
• Add the peeled carrots cut into fairly large chunks—about 1 inch lengths. Keeping them largish means they take some time to cook and allows them to impart their flavor to the broth. Along with the carrots, add salt (half a teaspoon or so) and fennel seeds (I probably use more than 2 teaspoons; it's a matter of taste). Add water to cover the ingredients, plus about 1 inch on top.

• Simmer on low heat for 30-45 minutes, or until carrots are just tender. If you let them go past this point, they will get mushy & the soup will have a vaguely gelatinous texture—reminiscent of babyfood...not good.

carrots, onions, water, salt, fennel seeds simmering
• Blend everything together while mixture is still hot/warm, otherwise the carrots will keep cooking, go mushy, and you'll have that gelatinous problem I just mentioned. (Be sure to remove the plastic knob in the middle of the blender lid in order to let heat & pressure escape, then cover the opening in the lid with a dish cloth to keep liquid from spraying out). Blend just short of homogenization. The slightest pebble-y texture is nice in this soup. Also, the fennel seeds will remain a bit nubby, which is nice.

looks plain jane, but the fennel
seeds make it special
Good hot or cold. Serve with yogurt if you like, though I prefer it plain. I sometimes bake zuchinni-basil muffins to go with this, if I have time, using Bernard Clayton's recipe

Sep 27, 2012

What I think about when I 'Om'

Five days a week, I join in chanting the opening prayer for Ashtanga. It's long and complicated (in Sanskrit), but I've learned most of the words by heart now, and chant them with something close to conviction, yet I'm still not sure what they mean. Of course, it's easy enough to find a translation on the web, but do I really—even metaphorically—"bow to the lotus feet of the guru"  or "prostrate before the sage Pantanjali"? I haven't decided. I haven't found that anchoring point, yet—that way of making the prayer real for myself. And yet I chant. Despite the fact that I'm often accused of being too literal: of expecting people—myself included—to mean what they say and say what they mean, I chant words I'm not sure I believe in or even understand.  As with almost every other aspect of my practice, I suppose I'm relying on curiosity and imagination to inch me, however slowly, toward some form of comprehension—some way of getting it.

It was like this for me for years with the mantra 'Om.' Frankly, I had no idea what the point of chanting that syllable (or tri-syllable, depending on whose definition you're working with) really was. Still, I OM-ed because I like the way it sounds and feels and the way all the voices in a room lift and surge together into a kind of thing. I also like what people say about the meaning of Om (or Aum)—for instance, that it represents the Trimurti and/or the original vibrational imeptus of the universe and/or the primordial hum of existence... Still, the whole act remained more or less abstract for me until the day I read this haiku by Issa:

Old dog—
listening to the song
of earthworms?

Issa, that dog, those worms—they made something finally click. And now OM is, for me, the song of earthworms. And when I chant A-U-M, I think of those great translators—tirelessly changing death back into life. And I think about robins, who, when they cock their heads, are actually listening to the ground, locating worms because apparently they do make some kind of noise as they move through the soil. And I think about Baudelaire and his great white worm. And Basho and his small, silent, chestnut-digging worm. And I think about our dog, Oscar, who—in the months before he died, when he was a very old dog, indeed—used to sit under the blackthorn tree in our yard for hours on end, despite being both blind and deaf. He sat there with perfect posture—as centered as any monk or yogi—front paws crossed, eyes half-closed, black nose lifted, quivering, attentive to the invisible mysteries in and around him.

Sep 21, 2012

cranky practice is good practice

Last day of summer, 6 a.m., cold & dark. Hat, gloves, & scarf, and still I was chilly on my bike ride to the studio. Led primary. Flopped around like a grumpy seal on my mat. Took shavasana under a blanket. Again with the hat, gloves, & scarf. Again with the bike.

Earlier, when the alarm went off at 5:20, I stayed in bed a solid ten minutes thinking, maybe not today—today, I can tell, it's going to be a lame practice—today maybe it would be really beneficial, I mean, you know, for my overall practice—to just sleep in... But somehow, my legs swung themselves out of bed, & the rest of me followed. And now I'm glad because I'm slightly less grumpy and floppy, and slightly less cold. And also because writing this post, which seems to have no point except to say that practice is good even if it's kinda crappy, prompted a google search for a clumsy looking seal, and brought up this image of an exceedingly graceful one (can you imagine doing Urdhva Mukha like this?):

Elephant Seal backbend, via Naturally Speaking

Sep 13, 2012

boulders in the stream

the semitendinosis (innermost) hamstring
Six months into my third and hopefully charmed attempt at a Mysore-style practice, I'm starting to feel some of the same things that made me decide to stop doing Ashtanga in 2010. Most alarmingly, both hamstrings, right at the insertion points, have been getting increasingly sore. I mean sore like maybe this is serious sore.

On Sundays, I go to a decidedly non-Ashtanga class taught by a great teacher and a yoga legend (one of the quiet ones—the real deal). I respect everything about this woman's practice and her teaching, but when I asked her for some advice about how to modify for pain at the hamstring attachment, she told me exactly what I didn't want to hear: Stop all hamstring stretches for eight weeks. 

"But, but," I fairly sputtered, "I'm practicing the first series of Ashtanga..." She gave me a wry look. She's not a big fan. I gave her a pleading look. She upped the wry look.

"Yes, I know that pain in both hamstrings is probably related to all the forward folds, but I don't want to stop. Isn't there some way to modify?"

"I'm not the right person to ask," she said, which I'm pretty sure was code for, if you're going to be all denial-y about this, I can't help you.

Well, I got kind of depressed after that class. But then I started thinking about how I'm trying to approach Ashtanga differently this time. This time, my main goal is to not have a goal. It's to embrace this most difficult (for me) of yoga practices as a daily opportunity to get on better terms with something like equanimity.

And part of the whole equanimity thing, as I see it, is to be like water. I mean, yes, to go with the flow. Or, more than that, to be the flow. I mean (to elaborate a somewhat iffy metaphor): I'm the water and the physical practice is, say, the stream bed, complete with plenty of rocks and boulders and bends along the way. Obstacles, in other words. And stopping the practice, even if only temporarily—simply exiting the stream bed because of an especially large boulder—seems kind of unnatural for water.

Hm. I think the water metaphor just conked on me. Forget the water. All I really mean is that to stop this practice now would feel reactive, not responsive. It would feel too binary. Too Yes/No. Open/Shut. So instead of stopping, I've been finding ways to work with and around the issue.

I'll skip over a detailed explication of my various modifications because that would be excessively entertaining, better, even than listening to someone talk about their taxes or dental work. But, in brief, I've been following Tim Miller's advice about healing a sore hamstring attachment with eccentric stretching, my Ashtanga teacher's advice for how to deal with the problem in Kurmasana, which can be applied to many other poses, and which involves rotating the feet so as to alleviate tension on the particular hamstring muscles that are injured (there are three, actually, in each leg—my problem is with the innermost), and, of course, to the extent I'm able while still practicing, I'm following my Sunday teacher's advice by taking things down a solid notch or two (or three) in the poses that give me the most problems—namely Trikonasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, and Utthita hasta padangusthasana.

valley river, Japan, 1949, photo by John W. Bennett
I'm now four days into the program and happy to say that I think it's working. Sure, I still feel pain at the hamstring insertion points, but it's much less red feeling than before. More of a muddy orange. It's possible, of course, that this is just wishful thinking. I'm good at that. It's possible this approach could backfire, and that the pain in my hamstrings really is a big old stop signal—more akin to a dam than a boulder. If so, and my Sunday yoga teacher turns out to be right, may I do a thousand hamstring curls with grace and equanimity.

If not, may I do my regular practice with the same.

Sep 9, 2012

Nox-Tail Soup

The deeper my yoga practice becomes, the more I understand the importance of a vegetarian diet—though when I say "understand," I don't meant intellectually or philosophically. I've thought long and hard and for many years on that level about this particular issue, and I still ate meat. I mean I'm starting to understand the question physically or emotionally, but even then, "understand" seems too strong a word. Frankly, the decision whether or not to eat meat is an issue I really don't understand.

There are just so many ways to look at it—physical, cultural, and spiritual arguments in both the pro and con departments that I find fairly convincing. All I know is that when I eat meat these days—even if it's only a clam—I feel kind of sad afterwards. And since pretty much the only thing that trumps my palate in terms of my own animal satisfactions  is my emotions, meat keeps growing less and less appealing to me. Not to mention the fact—so obvious, really, once I started paying attention to it—that a meatless diet, one  with many more vegetables and less dairy and super-yummy tamasic indulgences, like sweets and breads and so forth, makes my practice so much more satisfying, light, and floaty (I mean "floaty" in a purely metaphorical way—float I do not, not yet, anyway).

The hardest thing, for me, in my migration away from meat and toward a more vegetarian diet are all the social issues. Traditions. People. Parties. Holidays. Family. And maybe most of all, memories of all those things. There are certain dishes I have a very hard time thinking about giving up because of the whole family-memory mix. Roast chicken is one. Spaghetti and meatballs (my grandmother's recipe) is another. And my husband's oxtail soup. Wow, does my husband make a great oxtail soup. Gorgeous, heady, tangy, rich stuff. Also—I don't know how to say it... Ethereal? Or sexy? Certainly, if food can be sexy, this stuff is sexy. But now his oxtail soup also makes me sad. Bummer.

Sad really cuts back on the enjoyment factor, so, the other day my husband made a vegetarian (actually vegan) version of the same soup. Really, there's only a faint resemblance. I mean, oxtails are oxtails, and beans are beans, and never the twain shall meet. Though this soup/stew is by no means sexy or ethereal, it does have a delicate heady quality, thanks to a very healthy splash of white wine. Here's the recipe (highly fungible... 3 leeks, two carrots, more or less beans—doesn't matter...)


(2, large, chopped in 1/2 inch lengths, just the white & whitish-green parts)

about 1/2 lb dried white BEANS 
(we used canellini, dried & soaked overnight)

(1 can, peeled, whole)
(a lot—a cup at least)
(Delicata, 1 small)
THYME (BAY would be good, too)
PARSLEY (for garnish)

Coat the bottom of a heavy stock pot with olive oil, smash a couple of heads of garlic, toss them in the pot. Chop the carrot into small (1/4 inch) chunks, and the jalapeno into even smaller ones, toss both of these into the pot. Toss in the 1/2-inch lengths of leeks (which you've previously soaked in water to remove any sand). Saute till things look a little transparent. Add the canned tomatoes, roughly chopped, and the beans, the capers, a bundle of thyme or other tasty herbs (to be removed later) and a decent splash of wine. Cook til beans are half-done. Add chopped squash. Add a lot more wine for that mysterious flavor. Keep simmering away until everything is tender. Season with salt and pepper toward the end. Garnish with roughly chopped parsley. Looks like this:

Sep 5, 2012

bike lights and spider webs

99% practice, 1% theory.  

                     —K. Pattabi Jois

 After almost a week in on a small island in Maine, where I spent way too much time one-percenting  and not nearly enough ninety-nine-ing, my mind feels both over-full and scattered. My body—as in a quote I read somewhere this past week (but where, with all that one-percenting? the Dhammapada? the primer on Hinduism? Desikachar's glosses on the yoga sutras?)—feels like the "froth" it ultimately is.
All the heady stuff plus a sacrum-negating bed and a hip-crushing nine-hour drive home made for one slow, sluggish, fairly perfunctory first practice back home this morning. No bundles of invisible fruit today. 

Maine: so very beautiful, so very bad for
my back (and hips, and neck...)
I would love to get to the point with my home practice (or, as the case may be, vacation practice in a tiny cabin on a remote island in northern Maine) where I might actually do more than a handful of sun salutations, some made-up kriyas, a few yin stretches, and the occassional inversion—in other words, where I might practice the way I do when I bike downtown to the studio/shala in the wee hours. But honestly, I don't see that happening any time soon. In any case, it was a relief this morning, despite the darkness and the rain, to wake up at 5:30 and get back in the groove, bumpy as it was.

How weird to hear myself say that I felt relief at such an early rising. I'm not, by nature, a morning person, but habits are funky that way. You change them, and they change you. And ever since last March—March 9, to be precise (I wrote it down)—when I started a Mysore-style practice for the third time in my life (though this time I think it might stick...), I've been recalibrating my inner clock, so much so that I can now say, as annoying early birds everywhere do, that I cherish those few moments of solitude in the early a.m., when I drink my half-cup of tea and eat my half-slice of toast, and watch the sky change by perceptible degrees through the windows by the kitchen table.

Actually, this morning, there wasn't much in the luminosity-changing department. It's staying darker much later now. I definitely needed my bike lights on the way to the studio—which seems a wintery thing, but at the same time the usual sticky, summery web was stretched across the path leading up to the street from our yard. I suppose the spiders are no more ready for autumn than I am.

One of the things I love about the Mysore-style practice is just the daily repetition of it all—not only the actual sequence, but everything you need to do in order to repeat that sequence, like getting up at 5:30 in the morning, drinking half a cup of tea, watching the sky, pumping up the back bike tire—the one with the slow leak, and snapping through the spider webs...

I love the habit-y nature of it all, or, rather, the mindfully habit-y nature of it, because habits without mindfulness are just so many motions to be got through, so many knee jerk reactions... But with daily repetition of the mindfully habit-y sort, I've started to notice all kinds of things I wouldn't otherwise—like progressions and regressions and frustrating stagnations in individual poses... and how energy pools and flows differently depending on where I put my knee or my drishti or my hand... and how the web of the spider who likes to set up shop somewhere between the beauty-bush and the star-hydrangea droops—really sags, like wet wool—under the weight of the morning rain...

Aug 24, 2012

Think like a snail

Words to remember as I embark on Kurmasana and Supta Kurmasana:

Climb Mount Fuji,
O snail,
but slowly, slowly.

BKS Iyengar in Supta Kurmasana (Sleeping Tortoise Pose)
A pose like Supta Kurmasana seems to be all about humility, no? Which is why I guess I think of Issa, whose haikus often reference small bugs and animals, addressing them like old friends. The humility of his posture in the self-portrait below is beautiful—and inspiring, I think:

Kobayashi Issa (1783-1827),
a self-portrait