Friday, 25 May 2012

The ultimate environment for meditation?

The practice of shavasana at the end of an asana practice is a part of the practice of pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.  In our modern world we are generally bombarded with sensory stimulas, in the form of a sea of people each with their own facial expressions and body language to process, advertisements pasted on every inch of available eye-level real-estate, ear-buds in our ears blaring the newest dub-step, and constant movement of our bodies though an artificially constructed environment.
This over-stimulus over-stresses

This leads to an imbalance in the sympathetic nervous system (or tension or concentric movement) relative to the parasympathetic (or relaxation or eccentric movement) and makes us, in colloquial terms, 'stressed-out.'  This is why we often want to slow down our movements in yoga, for things like kick-backs, so that we can engage the parasympathetic nervous system through controlled relaxation of our muscles.  This is the 'flow' part of vinyasa, utilizing the eccentric part of the movement to slow the movement down and keep the vinyasa under control at all times.

If some of these words (eccentric, parasympathetic) are not in your vocabulary then you should probably be doing more reading on physiology.

Another way to combat over-stimulation is to withdrawal from our senses, to disengage our mirror neurons, and focus inward onto our own body and mind.  This is pratyahara. For meditation, I often prefer to lay in shavasana a la yoga nidra rather than sit in lotus. I have some posture issues, namely upper back cross syndrome due to excessive computer usage ::cough:: which I am working on, that make relaxed seated pose not all that relaxed.  As such, I read with interest an article on the use of dark, quiet salt water tanks for floating to induce maximum sensory deprivation.

Essentially, the therapy entails floating in a shallow, warm salt-water tank in a darkened room with ear-plugs in.  The idea is to completely shut down all stimulus to the sensory system and thereby force you to focus inward onto yourself.  The text describes the author's somewhat mystical experiences, which understandably are not uniformly positive! This particular place is located in Portland, OR. Some quotations from practitioners,
“Normally my head is several different radio stations playing at once,” explains tattoo and comic artist Levi Greenacres. But in the tank, he found relief: “With the lack of sensory stimulation to intake and compute, I discovered an inert state of un-ness, the need to think, feel, and feed completely abolished. The quiet in there is total comfort.”
“After floating I feel very open and calm, and less prone to distractions,” says illustrator Natalie Phillips. “The better I feel emotionally or physically, the better I am able to focus.”
Sounds interesting, especially if paired with the practice of meditation. Meditation is part of my practice that is definitely a work in progress.  I struggle with sleeping and have my whole life. I often feel like my brain is 'fizzing' away like an alka-seltzer tablet fired through a meat-pie.

Oh, you haven't heard that metaphor before?  Here's the visual evidence:

As a sub-clinical introvert, I am just a tad overstimulated thanks to the combination of internet and high population density.  Being solitary in the woods is something that's been wonderful for me as an introvert.  This floating technique sounds promising as well.

Has anyone out there in cyberspace experienced this?  Any thoughts?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Extreme Extroverts Behaving Badly

So as yet another verse in the John Friend epic comes to the foreground, I remain shocked, shocked at the goings on in the Anusara community. I mean, who could possibly predict that an extremely charismatic leader surrounded by a bevy of glass-half full people might take advantage of their gullibility? The question we should be asking ourselves is, where is John Friend's moral compass anyway? How come people like him, the charismatic leader phenotype, don't seem to hold themselves to the same ethical rules as everyone else?

I happen to put a lot of stock into trying to explain human behavior through the prism of evolution.  This isn't to say that I'm a social Darwinist, far from it.  In fact, I would credit two aspects of the human animal to our primacy in the animal kingdom:
  1. Our formation of tribes as social units to act together in a co-operative and altruistic fashion.
  2. Our manufacture of tools that improves our fitness to survive and thrive.  
Traditionally we get our leaders and entertainers from those who are good at relating to people, while the scientists and artists relate to things. Thus you have 'tribe-builders' and 'tool-makers'. The human brain is fairly plastic, and it is generally optimized to comprehend one of those two enormously complicated systems. In terms of behavior, we see a fairly obvious phenotype separation and that is extrovert and introvert.

If we roughly centerfuge people into a spectrum with extreme, extroverted 'tribe-builders' on one end and extreme, introverted 'tool-makers' on the other, we come up with what I like to call the Crazy Spectrum:

At the extreme sociophile head we have extremely crazy, charismatic individuals like John Friend.  At the extreme sociophobe tail, we have such crazy, innovative individuals like the late, great Nikoli Tesla. If you prefer an artist as the Omega, let us go with the brilliant Vincent van Gogh. In-between we have boring people that do not have Wikipedia entries. Extremophiles tend to make history, but they are also tragic figures. This comic from The Oatmeal is brilliantly cutting as it outlines the difference between Thomas Edison (an extreme extrovert) and Nikoli Tesla (an extreme introvert). Personally, I am an sub-clinical introvert.

Extreme sociophiles are by nature prone to being narcissistic and/or histrionic. You see, in order to move freely within social circles without fear of rejection or worse, you must suffer little from shame, guilt or embarrassment. To put it another way, they lack a conscience. This isn't to say that extreme extroverts cannot learn ethics, but morals don't come naturally. If you don't know the difference between ethics and morals, you fail.

Extreme sociophobes on the other had tend to just reject people, acting in the vein of autistic or schizoid personality disorders. When I say, autistic I don't mean in the low-functioning, no functioning mirror-neurons sense of adults who can't care for themselves. I'm more going with the Asperger's phenotype with poor social skills that Hollywood likes to glamourize every once an awhile with a new take on Revenge of the Nerds. Introverts tend to be overly righteous and obsessed with fairness. There's a reason so much of the comic-book world features the little guy taking it back to the bully and righting wrongs.

The problem as I see it is that as our social groups have expanded, we cannot any longer be considered part of a 'tribe' in that we can all choose who we associate with in our daily lives. Sometimes introverts are left out in the cold as extroverts only socialize with extroverts and calamity results. See "Jersey Shore" for example. Introverts who don't associate with extroverts don't make for good TV.

I think most introverts understand the importance of befriending extroverts. The opposite is often not the case.  Introverts will tend to have a grounding influence, bringing a healthy dose of skepticism and reservation to any situation. Susan Cain makes a nice argument for the raison d'ĂȘtre, necessity, and importance of introverts in her TED talk here:

Traditional yoga is intentionally pushing you into the introverted side of the spectrum, because the extrovert supermajority of the population could use a little personal observation. This of course makes the celebriyogi a paradox: one cannot be both an extremely extroverted yogi leader and on the path to enlightenment.  So next time a celebriyogi makes headlines, let's not act so surprised, ok? The lack of a moral compass is what makes extreme extroverts so good at building tribes. It's also why hubris so often brings them crashing back out of stardom and into infamy. I'm late to this yoga game, but the Intertubes says some people found Friend a little 'auspicious' back in 2010. The bigger question is why do the Sheeple drink the Kool-aid?

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

G.I. Bikram

You know, I played with G.I. Joe action figures as a kid with my ankle-biter friends.  We weren't exactly reverent in our treatment of them.  They generally got their arms twisted off, faces melted, or explodered with cherry bombs.  

Hrmm... if John Friend was a practitioner of his own made-up brand of Wicca, maybe Bikram Choudhury is up with the teachings of Vodun, hence this doll?  Maybe I need to get me one of these! 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Besting the Mind Killer

The physical practice of yoga, asana, is at it's core about improving one's posture, or from another perspective, your physical fitness. As goes the condition of the body, so goes the physical health of the brain. Neurobiology research is now showing most mental disorders are a result of specific pathologies of brain cells and not old-school notions of ego, id, and super-ego.  Thus it's straight-forward to believe from a scientific perspective that the physical practice of yoga can improve one's mental and spiritual well-being.

At some point, however, it's hard to envision a circumstance where being able to put your foot behind your head improves your fitness to survive and excel. Bernadette Birney recently wrote a blog, where she talked about how being awesome at asana doesn't automatically make you a good person.  She poses the following questions:
How much is advanced asana worth to you? How much are you willing to invest? What are you unwilling to invest?
My perspective is it's not about how advanced your asana practice is, but the path you took to get there. What's hard for me, might be easy for someone else; what's easy for me, might be hard for most people. Take a look at the story of Arthur Boorman who couldn't walk until he started studying yoga with Diamond Dallas Page.

If you watch the inspirational video of Arthur's story on YouTube (below), you might get the impression that the story is about how Arthur was crippled and obese but his yoga practice saved him and now he's running Tabata sprints. That's not the real story, the real story is about fear, uncertainty, and doubt. For Arthur Boorman, bending over to touch his toes was scary. Now it's not.

For myself, and most others, we're not in any danger of falling flat on our faces trying to bend over to touch our toes. As a juxtaposition, take Tao Berman, who greatly enjoys running over waterfalls in a polyethylene tube and a Red Bull brain bucket:

Tao is not afraid, but he is probably at a much higher risk level despite his bravado, because once you get to a certain level, fear is protecting you from danger regardless of how talented you are. For a lot of people, Kapotasana is probably scary enough. However I do believe that for the vast majority of us pampered, soft, first-world types, we could benefit a lot from facing some fear and defeating the mind-killer. As Tao shows, humans are massively impressive animals who are capable of incredible feats. I encounter far too many people with a "can't do" attitude towards life. Is an extreme athlete's path of Raja Yoga any less valid than a practice based on stretching?

To get back to the question of why some advanced yogis are rock-stars and why some are humble nobodies, let's note that there is confidence and there is arrogance.  Confidence is the absence of fear, uncertainty and doubt whereas arrogance is facade one erects to hide fear, uncertainty, and doubt from others. So there are two paths to the 'advanced asana' as it were but how do you know which one the rock-star yogi has taken?  How do you know what the intention in their heart is?  Do they truly love themselves or are they just good at faking it? Does someone have to pretend to be less than they are to avoid the 'arrogant' tag? These are the questions I would ask.

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains have three partitions: the instinctive (reptilian) brain, the emotional (mammalian) brain, and the rational (sapient) brain. What truly separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to use our rational brain to overcome and act in spite of our emotions. All sports are 80 % mental, 20 % physical and yoga is no exception to that.  Any sport that is (wo)man-versus-nature is fundamentally a test of a person against themselves and their insecurities. In that fashion, yoga is a better self-improvement tool compared to competitive sports like hockey.  Eventually you might get so good at challenging yourself that you take your yoga asana practice off the mat.

Friday, 11 May 2012

For Sale: Yoga Blogging Merc

So... I'm a recent initiate into the world of studio yoga and I have to say, I was shocked, I mean shocked by what goes on behind closed doors. Yoga supposed to be staid and austere, the occasional ringing of a gong against the steady backdrop drone of "Omm...", a bunch of people sitting around in baggy clothing nodding serenely in silence with the stench of unwashed armpits and incense wafting through the air.

The reality is totally different. Yoga is wild and surreal, hypocrisy and angst, sex and deceit, all wrapped up in a shiny faux-mysticism candy wrapper. Yoga is a long series of juxtapositions that make me go, WTF! Yoga screams Too Much Information about modern movement feminism and how men fit (or don't) into that view of the world. It's an odd collection of people who find they don't quite fit into modern society, so they've co-opted an ancient form of spiritualism and shoe-horned their modern values structure into it, regardless of logic and rational thought, who vigorously argue with each other over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It's one-third gymnastics-based athleticism, one-third a melange of modern neurobiology science and pseudo-scientific clap-trap, and one-third raunchy mysticism. In short, yoga's a gong show, and that means it can be something that fascinates such that one can get a lot of enjoyment out of writing and thinking about it.

I love yoga both for itself and the circus it has created. I backed into yoga from other, more intense athletic pursuits as a means to develop both mental focus and strength at the edge of my flexibility; I have a deep background in science; I am a quiet atheist and a skeptic.

My previous blogging experience was in a much different context.  It wasn't very rewarding in the end, in that it wasn't fun and was a lot of drudgery. My real name was signed to everything, so anything I posted I felt had to reflect well on me and I became a bit of a perfectionist.  Well no more sir!  I want freedom to bloviate whatever inane crap that wells out of my subconscious, like shouting groceries after a particularly excessive bout of boat pose variations. Honestly, I would prefer not to own my very own blog, but rather be on a blogging team that I don't have to be the center of attention. In blogging, when the mood strikes, it strikes big but there's also long periods where there are no cool, novel ideas that make me want to make my opinion the loudest.  I also hate trying to keep up with the pace of the blog-o-sphere in trying to stay topical when it comes to the current circulating controversy. At the moment, however, no one that I want to work with wants to work with me, so here we are.  Well that, and none were willing to meet my selfish monetary demands.

The name of this blog comes from there being six progressively more insane asana series (or levels) in Jois' Ashtanga yoga: my home practice has a seventh series.

As to, 'Mr. Nervous Toes,' well, that is a secret. Let's see how this goes.


Your newest and bestest yogic overlord, Mr. Nervous Toes.