How touching

DSC_0560Our society is fragmented. It exists as isolated units by and large. A high percentage of households contain only one person. It is quite possible to go days without seeing another person, weeks without a conversation, years without touching another human in anything but the most cursory manner. Last week I went six days without hugging anyone. I am not disabled, retired or unloved, yet because I live by myself, I was starved of human contact. Actual bodily contact with a member of my own species. Dogs, cats, lions, monkeys, mice, birds and mammals in general, children do not consent to such a situation between themselves.

It is tempting to point to societal issues that have an obvious deleterious effect, and can be tackled using systems, properly funded and project managed. For instance poverty, homelessness or substance abuse go hand in hand with social isolation. However, properly funded and project managed programs, valuable though they can be, are impersonal and incorporeal. In a society that prohibits touch between its members, poverty, homelessness and substance abuse could be symptoms, not causes, of a fundamental malaise.

On a generational level, our species is adapting to some very freaky technology. Humankind domesticated cattle and developed the plough say 9,000 years ago – 450 generations. Anatomically modern humans have existed for some 200,000 years (10,000 generations) according to Wikipedia. Freeing an elite from the responsibility of finding food has over those 450 or so generations resulted, amongst other things, in the internet. The rate of change has done nothing but increase with time. Only two generations ago we developed nuclear annihilation, and communications technology now out-paces all but the young. We can fly, we can see at night, we can communicate our thoughts immediately to anyone with a mobile phone; and surely this technology has caused us to act in some very odd ways.

Societies that have a rigidity, like the class or caste systems, prohibit touch between classes, and developed I guess at least partly in order that technology be accommodated, whether it be plough, sword, water mill, milling machine or information technology. A patriarchal society, dependent on obedience is not conducive to loving touch, but is ideally suited to war. War, apart from killing people, separates nation from nation, combatants from non-combatants, ethnicity from ethnicity, parents from children.

I guess, given the amount of war and crime in the world, it’s not surprising we don’t touch one another. But this is at variance with our more primal instincts. Everyone is keen to touch a new baby, or a pregnant mother, or an elephant. In the womb, touch and hearing must be the main senses. There’s nothing much to see, smell or taste. We have hands that are great at touching with thousands of nerve endings. Touching one another is the literal way to re-establish contact.

I kinda see what Mao was about, wanting to dispense with the modern world and its useful technology, like dentists, bless them. But I like hot showers too much to want to believe Mao was right. The Buddha said that the body is our means to enlightenment. Hinduism and Buddhism contain a systematic approach to the body in ayervedic medicine and yoga that can form an integral part of the religion. I tend to think of Christianity by contrast as having a poor view of the corporeal. Western post-enlightenment medicine still has some way to go to escape the misconception that the mind is somehow separate from the body. There is plenty in the gospels that makes me wonder how the Western Christian mind-body dichotomy came about. Generations of celibate priests has no doubt got something to do with it.

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Other beings

Ayahuasca - visionary art: Ayahuasca Art, Art, Art Ayahuascavisionpsyche, Fine Art Studios, Hippy Trippy Art, Artist, Visionary Art, Art VisionaryI read the gospel of Mark the other day, what with it being Christmas and all. This is a bit of a joke because Mark’s gospel makes no mention of wise men or Angels appearing to shepherds sore afraid or otherwise. What it does make frequent mention of, however, is evil spirits. I myself am unconvinced by the biblical insistence on evil spirit infestation. If the modern world is to be believed, people described in the Bible as being afflicted by evil spirits were mentally ill. And it does not come as a shock that God and madness have an affinity.

God is spirit, and aren’t our souls meant to be spirit in some way? Anyway, I’m not terribly interested in finding out the difference between soul and spirit because I think the whole thing is misguided. Not that I discount the existence of disembodied entities, it’s just that I think the thing that we identify as soul or self, is just the consequence of DNA and life experience, including societal and familial pressures.

It’s interesting that madness is often associated with hearing voices or, moving further along the mad spectrum, possession itself. The concept seems to be that when I am possessed of an evil spirit, another being inhabits my body and speaks through it. My body may take on certain features of this other being. So my voice might change, or my bearing. Might my eyes change colour, or might my hair sprout long and thick? Those earlier examples demonstrate the power of thought. Those latter examples are hints that possession as understood by the writer of Mark’s gospel does not happen. If humans really were possessed by a supernatural being, then their eyes might change colour, or their hair might grow suddenly long. Such or similar events have never been drawn to my attention, but I accept this may be because I have been living in the sceptical West.

If I imagine strongly enough myself as being another being, then others come to have the same impression of me. Method acting taken to a higher level. One mind affecting another by being convinced enough in a conceit. Such things are not rare. Other examples might include: Communism, any sort of ism actually, religion, the imperative of having banks and/or bombs, the inevitability of the slave trade, and the existence of good and evil.

I thought about it for a while, and can you not say that people thought of as being possessed show in their behaviour that a strong identification with self is breaking down? And come to think of it, why would I be surprised that people like this are throwing themselves on Jesus? Flocking to him they are. Actually, a quick reference to the Gerasene demoniac (it sounds like some sort of wonderful sports car) in Mark chapter 5 might suggest that Jesus actually sought them out. From the description of the Gerasene demoniac, it sounds as if the fellow really could powerfully imagine extremely accurately what it would be like to be a very devil. What did Jesus say to him to cure him? And all the other mad beggars, come to think of it. I think Jesus had a soft spot for these creatures. The ones who realize that self is readily exchangeable merely by changing the assumptions.

In parenthesis, I observe certain assumptions are easier to change than others. So, “I am always unlucky” is an easier reality to believe in than “I am a being from the very pit of Sheol”. And it is debatable whether or not this easier assumption doesn’t do more harm than the less credible one.

So these guys who really could believe in being possessed were becoming expert at challenging the assumptions of their souls. And as soon as you do that, you admit the possibility of being any other person who might possibly be.

Everyone is no-one. Self doesn’t exist. Your characteristics, your choices, your preferences and thoughts and emotions can all be explained away, and would be exactly the same as anybody else who happened to have lived exactly your life with your DNA and with your parents and in your socio-economic bracket, and who was born at exactly the same time in history. It’s just, you’re the only person who has lived with exactly your life circumstances, so everybody turns out different. But try telling someone they are in no manner responsible for their uniqueness, and they get a bit piqued. In fact, the more important they are, the more piqued they tend to get. Religious people also get extremely piqued. They think souls are real things.

So Jesus tells the mad people, they are quite right: their beings are fluid, and changing your beliefs about yourself changes your essence. And because at heart we have no essence, we can be whoever comes to mind, be it God, the devil or Napoleon. But, Jesus cautions, don’t tell this to people who have a very strong idea of who they are because a) they won’t believe you, and b) they will crucify you.

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Frack off

OK. You all know why the government is so set on fracking, don’t you? I heard an interesting theory today. I had gone to my local anti-fracking demonstration. They have been there 18 months already: occupying the land, and refusing to give the company who leases the land, permission to drill. Think about that for a second. Every so often a few engineers turn up with surveying equipment, and our hippy friends politely explain that they are occupying the land, and don’t give the engineers permission to enter it, so would they mind leaving, please? And the engineers say OK, fair enough and away they go. Engineers do not like conflict.

In order to be effective, the protesters have to be there all the time. Otherwise those pesky engineers would just turn up at some unexpected time, and on they would be, and before you knew it, there would be a drill set up. In the beginning, they made a deal with the local landowner, who gave them permission to be on the land. But then the drilling company talked to the landowner and he agreed to lease the land for some remuneration.The language of power sounds so bland does it not? And then the company took the protesters to court and won an order from a judge to evict them. They can be evicted in less than a fortnight. I went to see them to see what I could do. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The protesters really don’t want to have to go. They must think there is a lot wrong with fracking. As indeed there is. To my shame, I have not felt so strongly about the issue to live in a field. But to my credit, today I did go visit them. I think I’ll go again tomorrow. I like people who care enough to live in a field, and am minded to give them more of my time. There is something about these types that is more attractive than the telly. Perhaps that’s why they do it. No doubt, it’s one of the reasons. One guy there – one Pierre – explained to me the reason why the government is so set upon fracking. It is because the government have been bribed.

I was fairly sure that wasn’t the reason. But to Pierre, this was totally logical. After all, fracking is species suicide. I know that sounds drastic, but Pierre has a point here: the energy needed to extract the gas is a huge proportion of the usable energy from that gas. It is worse for the environment than oil. There are feasible renewable options, the construction of which is a better use of money, because it helps to solve the environmental crisis, rather than making it worse. Even building nuclear power stations would be better than the current – just use shale gas – option. It doesn’t make our precarious environmental situation any better – just the opposite. It borrows the capital of our children rather than investing for the future.

And then fracking pollutes the water table. Heavy metals and other carcinogens are pumped at high pressure deep into the ground with steam. This makes gas that percolates up to the surface to be collected. It literally poisons the earth. Literally. I mean?

So if fracking is so totally abhorrent, surely, the only way anybody of any logic would be prepared to unleash this on other people would be if they had been sufficiently bribed. From Pierre’s point of view, that is completely consistent in a way that no other solution he could think of was.

This is why I think Pierre was wrong: The country is about to run out of natural gas. Actually we ran out some time ago, and we’ve been getting the Norwegians to supply us with whatever they’ve got left in the North Sea ever since. The thing is, all our electricity generating equipment was built 20 years ago when natural gas was plentiful in the North Sea, and we haven’t updated it. So we need natural gas as a country, otherwise the lights go out. When the Norwegians run out of the gas under their half of the North Sea, where are we going to get it from? Russia? Coal gas is a quick and dirty solution to the problem. And in the political climate of austerity, it also fits in. It might be a shitty solution, but it’s the only one we can afford. It is also, I might add, the solution one might expect from the free market.

And Pierre was right because our leaders have been bribed – not by money directly – but by the promise of freedom from Russian influence and the lights staying on. In other words a toxic environment is the price us northerners are being made to pay for energy security. 

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Clothes to do yoga in

My teacher Ellie wears beautiful yoga clothes (it helps that she is beautiful too). I wondered where Ellie obtained her marvellous merchandise, but of course I never asked her. As a chap, it is embarrassing to admit to designs on my yoga teacher’s attire, but it’s also hard to find beautiful yoga clothes for men. Tops ain’t so bad (T-shirts after all are ubiquitous if boring), but bottoms! First of all, you have to be keen on black, and then there’s the problem of the lunchbox. It’s either Olympic sprinter or shapeless grunge, with nothing in between.

My other teacher, Ruth White, says that yoga clothes should reveal the form so that the teacher can easily observe the pose and make appropriate instruction. How can you spot legs that have gone beyond straight in a baggy pair of trackies? She would encourage all us aspiring teachers therefore to go skin-tight – to set a good example in the choice of yoga attire. I can see the advantages in this, especially if you look like Ellie – and immediately you see the problem. Even though I might tell everyone yoga is in part about freeing oneself from the ravages of body image, wearing skin tight clothing meant either I could not bear to look in the mirror, or (perhaps worse) I could not tear my eyes away, depending on whereabouts in the cycle of feast and famine I was currently residing.

The best pair of yoga trousers I ever bought was in the Trivandrum Sivananda Ashram. They had been designed with Indian modesty mores. Strict Hindus attend the ashram classes. This resulted in white cotton, tied waist, unisex, mid calf length, loose enough to allow freedom of movement, thick enough to avoid a VPL, tight enough to see when my knees went backwards. I could even salute the sun a Sivananda-tastic number of times in the Indian heat without melting, an occurrence I had been dubious about. They were only £3 as well. The best thing about them however was that everyone wore them. If you enrolled in the yoga school there, you had to wear them; the rest of us were not so mandated, but wore them anyway. They were just so practical. And because everyone wore the same, it took away a layer of judgement. I guess there is some point to school uniform.

I wonder at how worked up I become about mere shreds of cloth. I say that, and then I think of a great deal of human investment and ingenuity wrapped up in clothes. Cloth represents a significant technological achievement, whole economies have come and gone on the manufacture of different types of fabric, many people make a living from the shirts on our backs. People have always got worked up about clothes, starting with Adam and Eve’s fig leaves, right up to the Queen, who recently stopped church choirs from wearing scarlet unless they were a royal peculiar. Above is the choir wearing royal scarlet (Chester is a royal peculiar). Clothes I suppose are a physical manifestation of maya. They shroud us with messages intentional and unintentional. They set out to deceive (and to deceive not least the wearer). In many ways we’d be better without them, but try telling that to the police.

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How to sit

Today I am forced to do some yoga because I can’t think what to blog about, and I’m conscious I haven’t blogged for a bit, but I can’t think what to write. Well, do some yoga and see what comes of it. OK I say to myself. Let’s see where this goes. What shall I do today?

Nothing too strenuous, I went to a yogalates class a couple of days ago, and my ribs still feel like someone’s been bouncing on them. In a good way. So I guess I’ll start with some breathing. Yoga offers much in the way of breathing. So, how to sit. Ah: there lies something worth talking about. How to sit. I like to sit in siddhasana, which I suppose leads to two obvious questions:

  • What is siddhasana?

  • Why do you like to sit in it?

DSC_0255 (1)Siddhasana is where you sit on a block or cushion with your knees out to the side so that the tops of your shins splay happily along the floor. I’m doing it on the left here, look. You virtually sit on top of one heel and you tuck the outside edge of each foot into the crease made with your calves and the back of your thighs. I’m sure I read somewhere that one should perch atop a deer skin, so, not possessing a deer skin, I like to spread the sheepskin I bought in Totnes market over the block/cushion/pile of books/pair of shoes/whatever it is I’m sitting on. I can’t remember where I read it now, but it was definitely the translation of some Sanskrit, because (perhaps bizarrely) it made me feel better about buying the skin of a poor dead creature.

Siddhasana is the pose of a siddha – somone who has siddhis – spiritual gifts, not nits. The hatha yoga pradipika rates it as chief among all the asanas. And then it goes on and on lauding the virtues of this asana – it cleanses the nadis, removes the effects of ageing, satisfies cravings, brings enlightenment, makes the tea – everything. This is intriguing is it not? After all, it’s just a fancy way of sitting cross-legged. Perhaps, it’s time to turn to the second question, why do I like to sit in siddhasana?

The thing is, I can sit in siddhasana for ages. If I am indulging in a bit of guerilla meditation in a park or something, I don’t always have the luxury of something to perch upon. The obvious pose in this case is clear: padmasana on top of the inside of a kagool (you take your shoes off one by one as you step onto the kagool. The outside of the kagool is on the floor, stopping you getting muddy). Lotus is just as stable as siddhasana, and it makes it easy to sit on flat ground. At first all is well, but after a quarter of an hour or so my legs start to atrophy, and I have to stand up, and that’s the end of that.

In siddhasana, on the other hand, I am comfortably arranged upon my dead animal, wedged upright. My heel sticking in my perineum reminds me about moolah bhanda, and I feel my spine spring into life from the bottom up, each vertebrae in a state of equilibrium with its neighbours, my skull balanced atop my spinal column, my hand sometimes laying on top of its brother in my lap, or gently resting upon my knee.

A vertical spine keeps me focused. Because my legs are folded, blood flow in them is constricted, and more blood volume is pressed into my core, available to transport oxygen, hormones and food and flush away waste products. But there is still enough space to keep my legs reasonably content with life, and they consent to spend enough time so arrayed that I have plenty to focus on meditating.

So that is why siddhasana is so lauded by the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and why it is the pose of those with siddhis: You can spend ages meditating in it and so receive your spiritual gift. I think spiritual gifts are cool, and I would like some, but the HYP also says that I shouldn’t do yoga just to get spiritual gifts. I think the idea is that meditation becomes such a cool thing to do, that you willingly spend hours meditating because you’re having such a groovy time. And the pose that best allows you to keep still is siddhasana.

I note, however, that I have not yet actually begun my practise, merely opined about the best way to sit.

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Pride of Chester

I am really good at overdoing yoga. Usually it’s when I’m showing off my yoga skills. Patanjali and Swatmarama both caution against practising in public, I think for the same reason Christ recommends fasting and praying in private – do not be as the hypocrites, smearing your face with ash and wailing in a loud voice. When I remember I try to treat yoga as as a sacred act for the benefit of myself, and not for the benefit of my ego. Pride comes before a fall. Let me tell you about some falls pride has led me towards. She didn’t even have to push. I helpfully walked right over the precipice.

Fall the first: competing with other people. Someone once said I was good at headstands, and that encouraged me to have a headstand contest with the other guy in the class who was noted for his headstand ability. Of course I ended up with a nose bleed. I suppose I got off lightly. Ruth White told me about one guy who had gone blind in one eye he had done headstand so much. I think he did it for like six hours at a go though.

Fall the second: competing with my ideas of how flexible I should be. I will put my nose on my knees. I will. I WILL. Ouch.

Fall the third: yoga as a chat up strategy. For some reason I thought Lucinda would be impressed that I could sit at my desk in lotus. She wasn’t, and in my eagerness to impress I strained my knee so badly I could only hobble to the sandwich shop at lunch time, and Lucinda skipped off with Tony Brownlow.

Fall the fourth: Proving I am a great teacher. When I taught yoga at the Barn in Farham one day the old teacher came for a lesson. I wanted to show her what a great teacher I was. I had everyone doing shoulderstand, straight legs back into plough, tippytoe-iDSC_0716ng the feet all the way around one way and then the other. The next day I could barely stand up. I was still immobile three days later and couldn’t go dancing. I had to go to the chiropractor to sort myself out. That was a really bad one. Fortunately no-one else suffered at the hands of my bombast. Actually, perhaps it’s better no-one come to my classes any more. Don’t trust me. My mother always said I was prone to showing off.

I’m still at it? What would Patangali say? That I even contemplated putting this picture here makes me despair. Pray for my everlasting soul.

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Precision yoga

Iyengar yoga teachers are very precise. Sometimes I give very precise instructions when I’m teaching yoga too. Sometimes people take me at my word and then get upset when they can’t do what I ask. They think they are not doing the pose correctly. I would question whether any pose is ever done “correctly”. Take Mr Iyengar for example doing trikonasana over to the right (his left). I don’t think I look like that when I do trikonasana. When I do trikonasana, I’m observing: where’s the weight on my feet? what’s my tail bone doing? Have I over-straightened my legs? Are my kneecaps rotating towards my little toes? Are my shoulder blades moving down my spine and are my shoulders relaxed? Am I rounding the sides of my body? Have I taken my top shoulder as far back as I need? Is my nose pointing at my hand? Is my head aligned with my spine?

And as soon as I finish that little litany, I have to start again from the beginning, because by the time I’ve aligned my head with my spine my weight on my back foot has become concentrated on the inside edge again. My yoga poses are fluid, moving things even if at first glance they look static. If you could capture a pose of mine in a moment in time, then some part of it would be bound to be less that “perfect”.

The other factor is that quite often I will ask students to do something aspirational. So for instance, in a lying twist I sometimes ask people to keep their knees on top of one another and put both shoulders on the floor. I rarely if ever deign to mention this is something I can’t actually do myself. But I aspire towards doing it. And in aspiring – in imagining how it would feel if I could actually do this thing – my pose deepens. Of course sometimes it’s obvious I’m using aspirational language – like when I ask people to touch the stars with the top of their heads. And at other times, I mean what I say to be taken literally and absolutely – like when I say that the front knee must under no circumstances be taken in front of the ankle in parsvakonasana. So I can understand people getting confused. But I’m not sure I want to point out when I’m being aspirational. Apart from anything else it clutters up my instructions. And like Ruth White says – yoga at its best is experienced afresh constantly. How do I know whether I have reached perfection? It is a judgement every one of us has to make all the time. When is enough enough? Some people are content with very little, and I like to encourage them to ask for more. Other people try sooooo hard I just want to tell them to enjoy the ride a bit more. I guess most of us know what sort of person we are or what mood we are in; and in our heart of hearts we know whether we’re just making do, or if we are beating ourselves up for being less than perfect. Or do we? I know what I’m like, and I still think I’m rubbish.

Doing yoga – being precise – instils observation, and that observational ability is useful when it comes to working out what we really think or feel. Perhaps the biggest benefit yoga brings is the opportunity to observe how our person behaves.

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