Yoga yoga yoga!

Iyengar Yoga/I am not a Yogi

I have a confession to make. I’m not doing yoga how you’re supposed to. I don’t even want to. But I’m going to keep doing it anyway, and even teach.

I just finished a 5-day Iyengar yoga course near Dharamsala. Iyengar yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, who is basically the biggest yoga all-star in recent history. Definitely top three. This course was taught by Sharat Arora, a student of Iyengar’s, so this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to the source. I should start by saying that I enjoyed the course thoroughly. Sharat is an amazing teacher, full of life and inspiration. In five 3.5-hour sessions, my practice has been fine-tuned, and in some places completely overhauled.

Here’s the deal: Iyengar yoga is focused strongly on proper alignment and balance of the body. It doesn’t care much about strength or flexibility, and all sorts of props (blocks, belts, chairs, bolsters, blankets, etc) are used to make it possible for anyone to get into the best alignment in each pose. The teacher put a lot of emphasis on relaxing into each pose while maintaining alignment in order to release all the tension in the body.

Philosophically, the idea here is that balance in the body creates balance in the mind, and releasing tension in the body slowly eliminates tension in the mind, which is the root of craving and aversion. All this is more compelling and intricate when properly described, and my experience has suggested to me that it’s completely true. The teacher remarked that only this type of balance is “yoga.” All the forms which emphasize strength or flexibility are not real yoga, rather acrobatics or calisthenics. And on the my fundamental level, I have to agree with this as well.

The problem with strength or flexibility yoga, is that the poses continually create more craving to do harder poses, or to go deeper into the ones you know. Most recently for me this has been about handstand and scorpion. I want to be able to stand comfortably on my hands, and I want to be able to touch the back of my head with my feet. This is generally kind of weird, is not sustainable for the whole life, and is definitely not aligned with yogic thinking. Iyengar yoga does a lot better in this regard. There aren’t that many poses, they’re all accessible, and even more so with the props. You don’t have to go deep into the pose to get the benefits. As long as you keep proper alignment, you’ll reduce the tension in your body and become calm, more free from desire.

But I still want to be able to do these harder things. I want to deepen my yoga practice and my poses, to be stronger and more flexible. The more I learn about actual yoga philosophy, the more I realize that this freedom from desire is not really what I’m looking for in my practice. Maybe from meditation, but not from the yoga itself. Instead, I use the poses to balance my life on a larger scale. I plan to keep doing all sorts of things that create imbalance in my body: running, rock climbing, having worldly possessions and desires. To be totally immersed in the yogic life, all these things must be given up. Other physical activities just create tension and desires.

They’re also fun. The occasional frisbee tournament or running race is thrilling. Getting strong for rock climbing allows more rocks to be climbed. Life may not be able climbing more rocks, but I like it. Basically, all these imbalanced activities also create powerful experiences. Experiences broaden the mind, expand horizons and comfort zones, give meaning. A wealth of experience is not necessary for finding enlightenment or “inner peace,” and in fact based on this line of thinking, probably makes those things harder to reach.

These other forms of yoga, however, are wonderful for reducing the tension created by imbalanced experiences, for calming the mind, and for living a more examined life. Some people might be ready to go full steam ahead along the yogic path (not nearly as exciting as it sounds), and this pure form of Iyengar yoga seems to be a real way to do that. But I’m not ready to give up the experiential life, full of ups and downs and all-arounds. The world is big. There are so many good people to meet. For now, for me, yoga will make all those experiences better.

Six Months Without Alcohol

Last night I had my first drink in over six months. To address the obvious question first: no, I haven’t been getting over a drinking problem. It’s been more of an experiment in sobriety. This is the longest I’ve gone without alcohol since I started drinking at about age 18. So yesterday, after a 50-hour, 2,700 km combination scooter-bus-train-rickshaw adventure (an aside – total cost: $30, or about $0.016/mile), I decided that I had learned what I set out to learn from the experiment. I had a Kingfisher Light, the beer of India, with some friends in Delhi and went out to a rap show to see Heems from Das Racist, who was crashing at the same apartment as me. Nothing crazy happened to me all night, my head did not explode with toxins, and I woke up the same person today as I was yesterday. I definitively did not turn into a pumpkin.

Here’s why I did it: Last September I signed up for a Vipassana Meditation course in Washington. They don’t specifically require it, but it is suggested that one abstain from all intoxicants for a month before the course starts. I did this for everything except coffee, which I tried and failed to cut out of my diet.

But alcohol was easy for me. I had just finished hanging out in the woods all summer with teenagers, so I had hardly drank at all for a few months previous. I actually quite enjoyed the excuse to not have a beer or two in the evenings hanging out with friends. I find that casually drinking beers with dinner or afterwards just makes me sluggish the next morning without adding anything (but empty carbs) to the evening experience. Going out dancing proved to be more of a test of will, but it turns out dance parties can also be really fun sober. Once you start to move your body, it just feels natural. The one weird part is seeing how sloppy and out of control some of the really drunk people are.

So Vipassana came and went, and I felt great. I decided to keep it going for a while to see what happened. Eventually I started going on some dates, which I thought had a high probability of being really awkward without the social lubricant. It turns out the opposite was true. Actively not drinking is pretty unusual in the dating world, and it happens to be a great topic of conversation. Most of us are so accustomed to drinking when we’re out on dates that not drinking really refocusing our awareness, and becomes a thing in itself to be examined. I had some really good conversations with women about why we drink, what we’re afraid of, and what we’re actually doing on all these dates. It was refreshing, and usually only awkward for the first five minutes.

Here’s what I realized about myself: I mostly drink to make hard situations easier, and this is a terrible reason to drink. Almost always this is in regards to women. Starting conversations, continuing conversations, moving beyond conversations. Alcohol makes it all easier. But it doesn’t make it any better. I want to be able to handle these interactions without “something to take the edge off.” Keep the edge, and if I get cut, so be it. I have faith in my ability to navigate a conversation, and I don’t want to teach myself that I need alcohol to make it go well.

So, a few months into the experiment and I had my Yoga Teacher Training on the horizon. I knew I wouldn’t be drinking during that, so I decided I might as well just continue with it until the training was over, then reassess. Also, it’s really easy not to drink in India. Not a lot of places sell alcohol, and one beer costs about the same as a great meal. So I stayed away.

And here’s what I learned next: In moderation, it’s really not such a big deal. I don’t feel any more “pure” or “wholesome” or “good” because I haven’t drank for six months. I’ve saved some money (honestly, this is the best reason not to drink), but I don’t feel any more enlightened. I’ve never had a drinking problem, but I’ve seen what alcoholism can do. The difference between having a few drinks socially each week and total sobriety for me is miniscule. For some people, that might be the tipping point. And going to the point of having a couple drinks everyday, the real trouble starts. It seems to me that alcohol is much more commonly a crutch than a carefully enjoyed pastime. We use it to dull the senses, to make hard things seem easy, when really we’re just letting the difficulties build up to the point of being unmanageable later. And things fall apart.

I’m glad to have had my little experiment in sobriety. Give it a try sometime – only your wallet will be fatter.

India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 2

Week two of my yoga teacher training is over, the course half-way done. It’s going great, in mind, body, and spirit. I’ve heard the hardest parts are still to come. We’ve continued to practice between 3 and 4 hours a day, but the classes this week felt a little bit easier than the first. We didn’t do quite as much core work, and we’re all stronger. A few people have had some back and joint issues, but I’m feeling great.

Today is our day off, and a few of us decided to start the day with 108 sun salutations (an auspicious number). It got to be difficult by the end, but I felt totally energized afterwards. It took about an hour, a little more with our rest in savasana. One of our teachers told us about a time he did 108 sun salutations every day for 108 days, in addition to teaching and the rest of his practice. This guy is awesome: totally humble, authentic, and kind.

Which is to say that the yoga at this training is really honest. We spend a lot of time chanting and meditating and resting and sweating. It’s all with the goal of knowledge, purification, mindfulness, and compassion. It feels different from most of the yoga in the west. In my experience, most of the classes in the states are exercise-focused, and somehow the ones with a more spiritual perspective seem a bit wishy-washy. The Om-Shanti Express. Maybe it’s due to the fact that yoga tends to be isolated from the rest of our lives, while here it is all we do and think about. If you only have one hour to focus on your spirit, you can’t get very far in before you need to run off to the next appointment or obligation. A lot of that seeking takes a big chunk of quiet time and space. I’ve had enough space to explore that I’ve been getting back to painting, using the watercolors I brought with me. It has been flowing easily and naturally, and feels wonderful.

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Our teachers have been guiding us in meditation after each of our classes. In the past I’ve done unguided breath awareness meditation, but here it’s nice to have a bit more direction. Mostly because the teachers really know what they’re doing. Each time it sounds like they’re reading from a script that’s been labored over for clarity and flow, but actually they’re just speaking from the heart, improvising, taking us to places they care about and know we can learn something from. I really enjoyed our last session, which I’d summarize with:

Don’t let your successes go to your head, don’t let your failures go to your heart.

This resounded with me, especially with the creative work I’ve done. We are all going to fail a lot in anything we do seriously, and it’s wonderful be able to find the lessons in that without being discouraged. It’s so easy to overthink things that go wrong, to use them as excuses not to try again. I don’t mean to say that we should be hard-hearted, but instead maybe that we be clear-hearted enough for the negativity to pass through without causing damage

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One other big point that we’ve been working on is the fact that everything we’re doing here is a lifetime (or more) of work. Yoga is for the entire life, and we should keep that in mind with our bodies. It doesn’t matter how flexible we are right now, but it does matter that we keep our bodies and minds healthy for years to come. This is hard for me. I like to push myself and explore my limits, but I think there’s a place for that without going to the point of damage. I’m excited for this coming week, and curious to see how it affects my state of being. More intense practice along with a deeper look inside. Sounds perfect.

Be well!

India: Yoga Teacher Training Week 1

I’ve just completed the first week of my month-long hatha yoga teacher training in Kovalam, India. Taking a very much appreciated rest day today. The training has been fantastic so far, but it’s already starting to fly by. Days blend together, as they tend to when following a strict routine.

We wake up at 6 AM for our 6:30 practice. It’s a hatha (pose-focused, rather than flow-focused) practice for about an hour and a half, then a half hour of breathing and meditation. We have breakfast at a local restaurant, then take a few minutes break before class starts at 10. There is an hour and a half of theory (philosophy, anatomy, etc), an hour of in-depth study of the poses, then an hour of practical teaching in small groups. We have a three-hour break in the afternoon, which I usually fill with lunch, swimming, and playing ukulele on the beach. At 4:30 we have a faster vinyasa practice, which is more cardio and muscle focused than the morning. At 6 we chant for a half hour in a big group, have some dinner, relax and study until bedtime. I’ve been falling asleep around 9:30 PM, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for either.

My body has been pretty tired the whole time, but once we get into a practice I’m always ready for it. I feel stronger already, especially throughout my core. Beyond the soreness I’m pretty sure my flexibility is increasing. My tendons and ligaments feel a bit softer than usual, and especially by the end of the day I’m able to get into some pretty extreme positions (for me). It’s kind of hard to explain how the flexibility feels, but it’s as if every part of my body is a little bit closer. My toes aren’t so far away, it’s a little bit easier to reach an itch in the middle of my back. There’s less restriction in all my movements, even just walking or sitting. It’s pretty cool.

The core strength also feels great. I’m pretty sure having a strong core makes everything better. This is something I really want to keep up when the training is over – I think it will help me stay healthy and stable in all the activities I do, from running and climbing to washing dishes and grocery shopping. Eventually, in getting old.

The changes I’ve been feeling in my body make me think of this: just as the eyes adjust to the dark, the body adjusts to an exercise routine, and the brain adjusts to just about everything. I’m exercising 4 hours a day and it’s totally doable. After a bit more of this, I could probably do 6 hours and be fine, as long as there was nothing wearing on the body in an unhealthy way. My brain is getting used to some of the harder parts of being in India: the beggars, the trash (It’s everywhere. This is depressing in lots of ways and apparently has become a much bigger problem in the last 10-15 years as more western corporations have started taking advantage of the emerging market), the constant bombarding from street vendors, the stares and requests for photos. But we get used to everything. An unfulfilling office job, an overly long commute to work, inadequate communication in our most important relationships. Also the positive experiences: sunsets, the way the wind plays with a tree, sex with a long-term partner.

A major part of my yoga and meditation practice is focused on keeping these experiences fresh and staying present in all situations, no matter how routine. When we sink into the routine, we are blinded to the beauty around us, and to the negativity which is slowly creeping into our bodies. Ignorance is not bliss, it just postpones and repackages difficult emotions to lash out later on in unexpected ways.

Aside from the physical experiences, I’m loving the theory and teaching practice as well. A lot of the core practices of yoga are totally lost in the American-style studios, which tend to be 90-100% about the exercise. If I have my own studio some day, I’d love to incorporate Karma Yoga (basically community service) and some of the philosophies on mindfulness and morality. Nothing preachy or weird, mostly just basic community center-type events that bring people together and encourage everyone to live well. Kind of like church without the blind faith. So far we’ve only been teaching a couple poses at a time for a few minutes, but it has reminded me how much I like to teach and share. It brings me all the way back to my public speaking class in high school. That’s probably one of the most valuable and widely applicable skills I’ve learned.

I’m excited to see how all this will change as the course continues. I’ve heard that the second and third weeks tend to draw powerful experiences out of the body. I’m not sure what that means, or if it will happen to me, but I’ll definitely let you know if it does.


Meditate with Max!

Some Kind of Transcendence: 10-Day Vipassana Silent Meditation Retreat

Okay, first of all, calling this a retreat is totally silly. I’d go with something more like meditation boot camp. I got back yesterday from my ten-day (actually ten full plus two half-days) Vipassana meditation course at the Dhamma Kunja in Onalaska, WA. Looking back through the website, I see that there is all sorts of information I didn’t look at carefully before I went. It wouldn’t have made much of a difference, but I don’t think I realized how rich and intense an experience I was getting myself into when I signed up for this.

So, the course. Amazing. Extremely difficult. Exhausting and exhilarating. Definitely a major life experience that I will come back to again and again. I’m pretty sure there was at least one moment each day when the thought of leaving early slipped into my mind. I’m so glad I didn’t. The teacher, S. N. Goenka, describes at the beginning of the course that it will be like “giving yourself brain surgery,” but not to worry because the wound will be tended to and balm applied by the last day of the course.

There are a number of reasons I’m not going to describe my experience in excruciating detail (edit: it appears I have gone ahead and described it in excruciating detail. If it’s any consolation, there is so much more I could have said). First, everyone has a very different experience, and although most of the students ended up at about the same place, each had his own very unique path for getting there. So I don’t want to taint any experience you may have if you take the course by filling you with ideas of how it should go. And second, if you have any inclination toward self-examination or the spiritual arts, I want you to go take this course. I think it can do amazing things for anybody who is willing to commit to try it seriously. Every person I talked to on the last day (yes, we could speak again on Day 10) had a meaningful and powerful experience. Going into too much detail about the physical and mental difficulties might dissuade you from a fantastic opportunity. But, yes, sitting in meditation for 100 hours in ten days hurts a lot in a lot of different ways. And third, I just got back from being totally in my own head for ten days, and that is a LOT to describe. More than I want to write, more than you want to read. Instead, some highlights and comments on things people are most curious about.

The Theory

The official website does a better job of describing this accurately, but I’ll give my understanding of how this all works. Although this is an entirely non-sectarian teaching and technique, it is supposedly the very one developed by the Buddha to achieve liberation and enlightenment, so that is the ultimate goal. There are three main segments of the teaching, and by perfecting all three you reach a transcendent state of being. These focuses are morality, mental concentration, and wisdom through eradication of impurities from the mind. These are the same values that many traditions teach and have taught throughout history, but there is one key difference. Most teachings go only as far as an intellectual understanding of wisdom. Vipassana teaches wisdom through direct experience of observation of sensation in the body. Even seeing something first-hand is not enough to gain this wisdom; one must feel it in the body to understand and the deepest and subtlest level. This is also the biggest difference between my previous experiences with Buddhist thought and this course. I’ve learned a good deal about the Eight Fold Path, the Four Noble Truths, etc, etc, but I’ve never gone as far as to cultivate that understanding within the body. By practicing morality, concentration, and wisdom, one will become free from craving and aversion, which are the root causes of the misery we all suffer.

Another twist is that one cannot practice pure concentration unless morality is already satisfied, nor pure wisdom unless concentration is already solidified. So for the ten days, we were scrupulous about our morals by taking five precepts: no killing, no stealing, no sexual misconduct, no telling lies, no intoxicants. Maybe (read: definitely) we were not great at upholding all these before the course started, but at least for the ten days we would be able to work on the purest concentration and wisdom. To get started on our concentration, we spent the first three days of the course focusing solely on the breath with Anapana meditation. Not altering the breath in any way, rather just observing it flowing in and out of the body through the bottom of the nostrils. This was a lot of time to spend on such a small part of the body, but by the end of the third day I could feel a remarkable increase in the sharpness of my mind. I could feel subtle sensations that would have been otherwise masked by coarser feelings throughout the body (like extreme hip and knee pain from sitting ten hours a day, but that goes away). With our sharpened minds, we started in on the insight technique itself, Vipassana. The technique is basically a body-scan meditation. With heightened awareness, one runs circuits through the body feeling the sensation on every part. Instead of reacting to the sensations (even if they are intense pain or pleasure), one observes each one equanimously. Through extensive practice, this teaches the body at an unconscious level to not react with craving or aversion to external stimuli, and rather maintain a balanced, harmonious demeanor. At the same time, the unconscious mind creates tensions in the body based on past injuries (physical, emotional, mental) and negativity. By remaining balanced in the presence of these knots, one slowly unties them, gradually purifying the mind and relaxing the body. Any description of this is bound to fall short; it must be experienced to cultivate this wisdom.


The course is taught by S. N. Goenka, through audio and video recordings. This (among other things) made it sound potentially cultish to me, but it’s really not at all. The whole system is super transparent, and the more you look into it the more you find that the organization functions with the morals it teaches. Only past students are allowed to donate. All the courses are totally free to allow the purest spread of the teaching and intention of the students taking them. Goenka passed away last month, and even from the videos you can feel how pure his spirit and intentions are. He’s a wonderful teacher – strict when necessary, but always compassionate, endearing, and funny. There were definitely a moments of wanting to forcibly make him shut up after the fifth story about stepping on a person laying on the ground and all the possible emotional repercussions depending on this factor or that factor. I’m pretty sure he was always doing that on purpose to teach us something, though.

Noble Silence

Everyone seems to be most curious about the silence at the course. It was an intriguing aspect throughout, but mostly not for reasons I expected. It turned out to be easy to be silent for the ten days (to be fair, there was a small amount of talking allowed with the assistant teacher to clarify the technique). Getting to know 30 people (men and women are separated completely) without speaking, eye contact or gestures is revealing and often hilarious. I thought the main reason for the silence was to simulate being in isolation throughout, and while that was a part of it, there were two more important reasons. First, it would have been bad to share our experiences with the other meditators while the course was happening (and why I hope you don’t build expectations off my experience). We all started and ended in similar places, but everyone had very different paths for getting there. On days when I was elated, other people were dejected, and a couple days later we would have switched. Second, we had agreed to the precept of not telling lies. It turns out the only way to get us to abstain from lying is to keep us totally silent. Every time we speak, our words are colored by the people we’re talking to, the emotion we’re trying to convey. Most of the time I don’t think we even know what the truth is. Even if it’s clear at the apparent level, we could be totally off the mark on a deeper level. Having just been quiet for a long time, this has become easily understood in my everyday interactions. So, we kept our mouths shut.


Misery was one of the main topics of discussion, and it really changed the way I understand how and why we suffer. Basically, there is only a limited amount we can do to influence the sensations coming into the body and mind. The path to liberation isn’t about putting yourself in constantly pleasant situations, but rather changing how you react to sensations. With proper training, we all have the ability to control the way we react to external stimuli. Slowly we can alter our unconscious conditioning, which has been taught to cultivate craving and attachment toward pleasurable sensations and aversion and hatred toward negative or painful sensations. Focusing on the sensations of the body with equanimous awareness brings this into the unconscious mind. I felt this in tangible ways. Most obviously, my pain tolerance increased and sitting for an hour at a time without moving a muscle became no problem at all. I feel more patient, understanding, focused, and comfortable being with myself. While becoming harmonious with whatever is happening to us, we also develop our compassion for all beings, which makes the whole thing a lot less detached-sounding.


The meditation technique requires closed eyes, so between ten hours of sitting and six to seven hours of sleeping, we weren’t getting a lot of visual stimulation (we also woke up at 4 AM every morning, so it was dark a lot of the time our eyes were open). Sounds were similarly absent. No talking, hardly any traffic sounds. The loudest thing we heard were the cows grazing on the surrounding farms (they were also the loudest smell). There was no touching allowed between students, so all in all we were very sensation-deprived. I’m sure this is important for increasing the sensitivity of the mind for feeling the most subtle sensations on the body, but it also came with intense awareness of sights and sounds. I felt a little bit like a new born baby or vampire constantly shielding myself from the bright sun (and this is Washington – I’m not sure I’ve ever called the sun here bright before) and guarding my ears.


Oh man, the food was so good. Maybe partly due to increased sensory acuity, but also because it was just really well done. We ate twice a day, at 6:30 AM and again at 11:00 AM, and new students were allowed a piece of fruit with their 5:00 PM tea. Goenka also read my mind on the second day and pointed out that we probably think this means we should eat twice as much at lunch to make up for no dinner. Instead, he suggested we only eat three-quarters what we normally would, as the stomach needs to be at least one-quarter empty to meditate properly. Having eaten that extra piece (or two) of cornbread or bowl of veggie stir-fry a couple times, I can vouch for him on this one. By the third day I would have about 20 minutes in the afternoon when I was hungry, but it would go away quickly. After all, we were hardly burning any calories. I was good about eating a little less than I thought should, but sometimes the food was, ironically, too good to resist.

Weird Things

Weird stuff happened. It sounded like everyone had some weird experiences, but hardly anybody described the same thing. Electricity, heat, separation of consciousness, dissolution of body parts, mental gymnastics, pools of energy. Sleeping was difficult, and I found out that the mind and the body don’t necessarily need to rest at the same time. So I meditated in the middle of the night, and felt great in the morning. Lots of music stuck in heads and words or phrases repeated ad nauseam. I actually did think I might puke once. Then I laughed imagining how ridiculous it would be if someone just keeled over and vomited all over the place in this big peaceful room with 80 people silently focusing on their breath. I had a kind of scary moment of bringing my awareness deep into my heart and being able to feel the blood moving from one chamber to another. I was near my watch and I clocked my heart rate at a peppy 30 beats per minute, the lowest I’ve ever felt it. I started to feel dizzy and worry that I might accidentally die, so I moved on. I had some ringing in my ears, but the assistant teacher reassured me that “the mind does some strange things.” It went away after two days.


We didn’t talk about this at all, but I am really curious about all the neuroscience going on here. I have some experiments I want to do on myself, but I’ll need to find myself a high-resolution infrared video camera and an MRI machine. If you know articles or studies on any of this stuff (or want to share access to your advanced technologies), please send them on! A book I’ve mentioned before, Happiness by Matthieu Ricard, touches on some of this stuff as well.

Moving Forward

I feel like I’ve written so much, but that I’ve barely scratched the surface. The thing is that words really cannot do this experience justice. It is so much about being present and experiencing your own awareness. I didn’t even begin to talk about some of the most powerful topics we covered, like gratitude, compassion, addiction, unconditional love, giving away your energy, being at peace in adversity. This is a course on the art of living, and in practicing the art of living, we acquire the art of dying. Goenka explained that an experienced Vipassana practitioner always dies with a smile, knowing that he has lived well. Moving forward, I plan to continue with an hour meditation in the morning and an hour in the evening, and I expect I’ll attend and help out at more ten-day courses in the future. Two weeks ago, I had trouble sitting quietly for twenty minutes at a time, and would only try for thirty if I was already feeling fully at peace. The meaning of meditation has transformed in my mind, and in such a practical way. It’s no longer an attempt to become more relaxed. Instead it’s a fully engaged activity from which a relaxed and strengthened mind are welcome by-products. It’s strange to say that such an abstract experience was so thoroughly practical, but that is the merit of the technique. If you’re curious, I highly recommend trying it out for yourself. Just promise yourself not to leave the course early. Nobody wants a brain surgery left half-done.