Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Foundational Yoga Books from Yoga Vidya

I’ve been asked to review four foundational yoga texts from Yoga Vidya. Brian Akers saw my blog post on Yoga history, and liked it well enough to send me copies. Which is a surprise, because I’m neither an expert on Dharmic religion nor even on hatha yoga -- outside of practicing it every day. My curiosity about how hatha yoga became transformed from an obscure, often secret, practice into something that soccer moms do at their local gym is just a quirk of mine -- I’m always interested in the history of whatever I happen to be into. And, of course, as all my friends know, I love to read books on religion and religious history. My only claim to expertise is the two journal articles I got published on the Baha’i Faith, which were very specifically focused, and a far cry from examining medieval spiritual texts.

Undaunted, however, I decided to begin with the oldest, and most familiar of these books, the Bhagavad Gita, which I first read back in high school -- as many others did -- in Christopher Isherwood’s translation, which is still on my shelves.

I compared Lars Martin Fosse’s translation with the one I have, and found, to my surprise that a whole phrase out of one of my favorite verses had disappeared -- or rather, the earlier translator must have invented it to make it sound more pleasing. In translation, there is always something of a trade-off between eloquence and literal meaning, and Fosse, as he says himself, leans towards the literal -- although his translation is quite smooth and lucid. The Sanskrit original is there for comparison, for those who know it -- or become inspired to learn it.

Fosse‘s introduction is definitely worth reading, to understand the history and context of theBhagavad Gita, as well as its place in the classic scriptures of the world. Again, I found myself fascinated at the interplay of ideas between India and the West, and how, as in hatha yoga, they have become not simply “Eastern“ or “Western“, but a product of several exchanges between the two.

The word “yoga” occurs nearly 150 times in theGita, but we are not yet talking of any form of physical culture, but a type of mental discipline, based upon knowledge, selfless service, or devotion. One could almost use it as a synonym for “spiritual path” or “spiritual practice”. So, in this sense, we can see the book as a foundational text -- maybe *the* foundational text, for yoga.

It seems to me more practical to consider the three hatha books together, since there is a good deal of overlap between them. Unlike the Gita, which has been read as sacred scripture in India for over a thousand years, and has been a source of inspiration for spiritual seekers in the West since the time of the Transcendentalists, these medieval (dating between 1300 and 1700 C.E.) hatha texts were meant to be secret teachings for spiritual aspirants that worked with a guru, and are not particularly well-known even among the millions who practice yoga today.

Westerners are accustomed to an asana-based practice i.e. mostly consisting of physical poses, with maybe a little easy pranayama or a few minutes meditation, depending on the teacher. These traditional texts relegate the asanas to only one section, giving equal or greater prominence to meditation, pranayama, cleansing practices, etc. Seasoned yoga practitioners who are at least familiar with the idea of these practices will find these books interesting. They would be overwhelming, even shocking, to beginning yoga students, or those who think of yoga as primarily a tool for fitness and relaxation.

Here we find a hatha yoga that is presented as a necessary foundation for Raja yoga , so they would be of most interest to those who are pursuing yoga as a spiritual path.

I found myself rather put off by some of the extravagant benefits promised the hatha yogi -- that this or that pose or breathing technique will destroy disease, grant magical powers (known as siddhis), or even conquer death. Any Western reader is going to find some of the practices bizarre, like Khecharimudra, which encourages the yogi to lengthen his tongue by various means so he can stick it into the hole behind the soft palate, where, it is promised, he will find sustaining nectar. (Nectar? More like post-nasal drip.)

However, to be fair, one would be hard put to find any religious text that isn’t jarring to modern sensibilities in some way. Christian gnostic texts can get pretty weird in places, too, but this does not negate their value. Unlike earlier translations, those published by Yoga Vidya don’t omit the less appealing passages.

I found it interesting just to compare what I was reading with the yoga I’m familiar with -- for example, I had no idea that a one-legged forward bend and the shoulder-stand were considered mudras, not asanas -- I thought mudras were hand gestures that were used in meditation. But other things strike me as being quite familiar -- the dietary advice, for example. All three books have black-and-white photos demonstrating the asanas described, and like Yoga Vidya’s translation of the Gita, the Sanskrit original is also included.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika is the best known of the the three, Yoga Vidya’s version is translated by Brian Dana Akers . The Pradipika was written in the 15th century by Yoga Svatmarma, who describes asanas as the first step, which enables the practitioner to gain “steadiness, health, and lightness of body.” Some of these poses will be familiar to even the most casual yoga student; others are extremely difficult and way out of range for anyone who hasn’t been practicing for many years. My guess is that Svatmarama assumes that the aspirant will be guided by his guru as to preparation for these advanced positions. He regards Siddhasana, sometimes known to us as “Half-lotus“, to be the most important asana of all, reinforcing the purpose of hatha yoga as a physical preparation for mental discipline. After asana, the book presents pranayama (breathing practices, bandhas(energy "locks"), mudras to movekundalini, and finally meditation to attain samadhi.

I was also pleased to see in the Pradipika a recognition that women can also be yogis, or more properly called, yoginis. Most of the time, these classical writers assume the practitioner is male. In the West, most yoga students are women.

The Gheranda Samhita was composed around 1700; Yoga Vidya’s version was translated by James Mallinson. “Gheranda” is the teacher in the text, the author is unknown. The book presents a sevenfold path, instead of the familiar eight levels outlined by Pantajali (None of these hatha books spend any time on yamas or niyamas, i.e. the restraints and observances that constitute the ethical part of classical yoga.) I found the Gheranda Samhita to be very comprehensive and clear -- indeed, of the three classical hatha books, I enjoyed this one the most. It begins with purification practices, then asana, mudras, pratyahara, pranayama, meditation, and samadhi. The chapter on meditation (dhyana) includes specific visualizations that the aspirant should practice.

Before reading the Gheranda Samhita, I had been wondering exactly how yoga was tied into Aryuveda medicine: Well, here it is; various cleansing practices are said to balance the doshas, a concept that seems to me akin to the “humours” of medieval Western medicine. I also have enough trouble trying to maintain a healthy diet without being told that a kapha type like myself should eat more beans and avoid nuts; I’m still trying to get as much plant protein as I can. But that’s my own bias -- Aryuveda seems to be growing in popularity among those interested in alternative medicine, and the Gheranda Samhita would be useful for them.

I’m afraid that the Shiva Samhita was my least favorite of the three. Besides being badly organized and confusing at times, it also has more elements that are going to seem odd or even repulsive to most of us. The book is framed as a conversation between the Hindu God Shiva and his consort, Parvarti. The first two chapters are philosophical explanation. Even when it does get around to presenting yoga practices, this book has the least emphasis on asana practice of the three hatha books. On the one hand, it insists on devotion and obedience to one’s guru, on the other it will promise that some of those practices will allow the aspirant to avoid any penalty for sins, even those so heinous as killing one’s guru or sleeping with his wife. While reading it, I couldn’t help but think it’s no wonder that hatha yoga had such a bad reputation in the 19th and early 20th centuries, because there seems to be a clear thread of yogic thought that holds you can sin all you like as long as you perform the proper asanas and mudras. Then, the book will turn around and tell us that the greatest obstacle to liberation is “enjoyment.” This muddling is due to the book being a compilations from several authors, and there seems to have been no attempt by any of them to explain these contradictions.

There is a detailed explanation of meditation on the chakras, so a person interested in this approach might be interested in this book. I also was intrigued to notice that the schedule recommended for pranayama (morning, noon, evening, midnight) is exactly the same as one of Sivananda’s early books that I recently ran across. So, in spite of its faults, the Shiva Samhita is a historically influential hatha yoga text -- and the historically-minded may value it simply for that reason.

Overall, Yoga Vidya has done a terrific job in making foundational yoga texts more accessible to the Western reader. I hope to see more from them in the future -- maybe a translation of Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Yoga History

Ever since I’ve got my Kindle, I’ve been spending a lot less time surfing around online, and a lot more time, reading -- reading actual books, instead of drifting through snippets of information here and there. It’s a higher quality experience. I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I was curious about the history of hatha yoga, and I’d been unable to find very much online about it, but I’ve just finished reading Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. This is a scholarly book, published by Oxford University Press, which answered a whole lot of things that I’d found confusing in my own poking around in used bookstores and the Internet on the subject. His main thesis is that there is no evidence of an asana-based yoga practice existing before the 20th century. He says “Posture-based yoga as we know it today is the result of a dialogical exchange between para-religious, modern body culture techniques developed in the West and the various discourses of “modern” Hindu yoga that emerged from the time of Vivekananda onward.” It isn’t news that today’s yoga practice mixes Hindu tradition with Western ideas, but what’s really fascinating in this book is that the mix of West and East began in India itself, where groups like the YMCA who believed that virtue could be taught through physical exercise sought to enlighten a people they regarded as backward and feeble. It is this mixture that was brought to American shores as “Hatha Yoga”, and explains why, when I bought Yogi Ramacharaka’s 1930 book on the subject I did not find the familiar asanas we know today, but gentle calisthenics. What Indians did was counter this condescension with fitness regimes of their own. The familiar Sun Salutation(Surya Namaskar), that some Christians object to as sun worship, was created by the Raja of Mysore, purely as a fitness regimen that wasn’t even associated with yoga until later.

Now, of course, some of the poses are old, from the hatha yoga tradition. But a close reading of the medieval Hatha Yoga Pradipika reveals that cleansing practices (called kriyas) and pranayama are given more prominence than the physical poses, and half of those described are sitting meditation poses. All of the standing poses, with the possible exception of Tree Pose, are 20th century creations. I’ve noticed that even some older yoga systems created for Westerners have few, or even no, standing poses. You can, however, find standing poses that modern practitioners would identify as yoga asanas, in Western books on “harmonic gymnastics”, which was a spiritualized form of exercise for women in the early 20th century.

Another thing that had puzzled me, when I went looking for the roots of American yoga, was that the first books on yoga, at the turn of the last century, by Vivekananda and Blavatsky, did not so much as mention physical postures, but were books on philosophy and meditation. It turns out that these early yoga teachers distanced themselves from hatha yoga, which was associated with charlatans and ascetics with bizarre practices. This association was quite justified -- hatha yogis in India had, historically been religious fanatics with a penchant for violence. Under the British, they drifted from town to town, gaining money for doing astonishing postures and tricks. One objection Vivekananda had was that hatha yoga was done primarily to gain physical immortality and magical power, which he rightly did not regard as spiritual goals. The picture of the ash-covered disheveled yogi holding one arm up so long that it withered, or the mountebank contortionist was an object of morbid fascination and revulsion in the publications of that era.

Even as late as 1969, Richard Hittleman thought it necessary to distinguish himself from this stereotype in his book Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan: “those groups of people of the Far and Near East who do strange things such as walking on hot coals, sticking needles into their bodies, allowing themselves to be ‘buried alive’ and so forth are known as Fakirs and are never to be confused with Yogis.” (p.204) But, in 19th century India, the terms ‘fakir” and “yogi” referred to pretty much the same group of people (Fakirs were Muslim and Yogis Hindu, but these religious lines were often crossed), and there was no such thing as a physical yoga practice that, as Hittleman claims, was “designed solely for the development of human potential.” This also explains why ‘Abdu’l -Baha’ was so disdainful of yoga, and the Indian gurus that taught at Green Acre; he had some solid basis to dismiss yoga as “superstition” in 1912. The irony of it is, of course, that although yoga teachers were shoved out of Green Acre, which remains a Baha’i school to this day, it was yoga -- in its revised form -- that became a major influence in the lives of millions of Americans.

Monday, March 22, 2010

More Calories Out than In? It's Not that Simple.

I wrote the following sometime last week, and decided not to post it because I figured maybe folks were getting tired of my talking about my diet and exercise thing. However, I ran into this and now I can’t resist. In the comments section a lady talks about her experience:

I invite you to come and spend a week with me, while I weigh and measure and record every GD thing that goes in my mouth; while I walk, swim laps, or ride my bike and also do resistance training WITH a personal trainer (who is also a nutritionist) EVERY DAY EXCEPT SUNDAY (that's the day I do a spring water fast).
I also invite you to observe my weekly weigh ins, which, sadly, produce nothing in the way of LOSS--which confounds my trainer, but even SHE is slowly coming to the realisation that NO, you can't just necessarily change your body with sheer will power and self control--something she and I argued about a lot our first couple of weeks.

But, as this woman mentions, when an overweight person says this, we are assumed to be lying. No matter how healthy we claim our diet is, it is assumed that we are like the guy in the song “Junk Food Junkie” -- presenting a pious face to the world while secretly pigging out on Ding-Dongs. So, here’s my take:

Everybody knows the drill about weight loss, right? You have to burn more calories than you take in. One pound equals 3500 calories that you’ve not used and stored away in that spare tire around your middle. To get rid of it, you’ve got to exercise more or eat less -- preferably both.

Now, I’ve been working on this for the past few years -- initially, I was quite successful and took off 30 pounds, and to date, have kept them off. I’m still, however, medically obese -- which is a lot thinner than what is generally thought to be “obese”. I’m not, nor have I ever been over 230 pounds. I’d have to get down to 170 to be medically just “overweight”. (Just picture me shouting “Hooray! I’m overweight!”) That’s a weight I haven’t seen since my mid-20s.

According to Nutrition Data (which I really like and recommend), a woman of my age, size, and activity level is burning between 2300 and 2600 calories a day, depending on what exercise I happen to get done. I eat between 1600 and 1800 calories per day, pretty consistently. That means, if the formula of “burn 3500 calories to lose a pound” works that I should be losing a pound a week, at least. I’m not; I’m stuck in the same 5 pound range I’ve been going up and down in for the past three years. This is not the notorious “diet plateau” -- this is the weight I’ll stay at, unless I start going to starvation level calories. The depressing thought that torpedoed dieting in my youth -- that in order to be thin, you have to eat like a Third World famine victim for a lifetime-- turns out to be actually true. And who but an obsessive-compulsive would voluntarily starve themselves for longer than a few months? My husband thinks I’m already obsessive enough. .

However, every number other than the one on the scale is great. My last blood sugar test results were “excellent”, according to my doctor. My blood pressure and cholesterol are down where they should be -- with the help of medication. (The blood sugar I control without meds.) Nutrition Data, which tracks your actual nutrition as well as calories, shows me that I’m eating a very healthy diet, chock full of protein, vitamins, and minerals -- and where there are gaps, I supplement. (I’ve discovered one reason you see 2000 calories as a standard is that it’s almost impossible to get all the RDA of your nutrients from food alone unless you eat that much.) I almost never go beyond the recommended amount of fat, and seldom go over with carbohydrates. I really can’t eat healthier than I’m eating right now.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think any of the diet or nutrition experts really know all that much about weight loss. My doctor once told me, in another context, that if you have a dozen remedies for a disease then it’s a sure sign that nothing really works. God knows there’s more than a dozen contradictory theories about what will make people lose weight permanently.

So, maybe a little kindness is in order. I get a little resentful of the “just stop stuffing your face and get out and exercise once in a while” attitude you get from the obsessive types who think that if you don’t run five miles a day and totally renounce any form of dessert you aren’t really trying. My injured back muscles won’t take running for five minutes, and I‘m working on healthy ways to satisfy my sweet tooth. Even when I eat something “bad”, I’m very careful to have only a small portion. In fact, one of the major changes I’ve made is that I never “pig out” any more.

But I’m not losing weight. Nor will I, unless I eat a diet that is less healthy than I eat now.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Difference Between Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism

I find it somehow comforting to read articles about Asperger’s Syndrome -- to read about the symptoms and characteristics and be able to say “Aha! There’s Trevor!”. I guess it makes me feel more able to deal with his differences to know that they are part of his disorder and not some kind of unique weirdness that only we have to live with.

A story hit the news a while back that they (whoever “they” are) are considering getting rid of the Asperger’s label altogether and simply lumping them in with high-functioning autism. According to Dr.Tony Attwood, the only real differences are in early development, but as they grow older, there really isn’t much difference between them.

Some quotes that struck me:

They also noted that the profile of social skills in children with autism includes self-isolation or rigid social approaches, while in Asperger's syndrome there can be a motivation to socialise but this is achieved in a highly eccentric, one-sided, verbose and insensitive manner.

In other words, autistic children really don’t care if they socialize, whereas Asperger’s kids do -- they just don’t know how. Trevor’s approaches tend to be awkward -- when he was younger he tended to open with inappropriate questions like “How old are you?” to an adult. He’ll talk your ear off with details about a story he’s writing -- he’ll do that even to strangers, and he really doesn’t appear to care whether or not they are interested. He can be insensitive -- then when he makes someone angry, he gets very frustrated and down on himself, even self-punishing.

There is general agreement that children with Asperger's syndrome may not show any conspicuous cognitive delay in early childhood. Indeed, some can be quite precocious or talented in terms of learning to read, numerical abilities and in some aspects of their constructive play and memory. Children with autism can be recognised as having developmental delay in their cognitive abilities from infancy and diagnosed as young as 18 months of age with a mean age of diagnosis of five years. Children with Asperger's syndrome are often not diagnosed until after they start school with a mean age of diagnosis of eleven years (Howlin and Asgharian 1999). However, the signs of Asperger's syndrome in very young children may be more subtle and easily camouflaged at home and school

With autistic children, it’s usually quite clear early on that something is wrong. Every autistic child I’ve seen in my work as a substitute teacher starts Kindergarten in a Special Education classroom. Even the highest-functioning one I know of started there, even though by fourth grade he was in a general ed classroom with an aide who helped him, and I’ve heard that in middle school, he didn’t even need the aide any more. However, I’ve never seen a child with an Asperger’s diagnosis in Special Ed or with a one-on-one aide; they are in regular classrooms and get the support they need from pull-out programs. (Speech, for example.) As far as the disorder being “camouflaged”, you can check out my own
on just how long it took for us to understand that something was wrong with Trevor. The school never diagnosed it, either. As I've said before, Trevor's precocious abilities in reading and math misled us into thinking we were raising a budding genius, not a kid with a learning disorder.

The DSM criteria refer to children with Asperger's syndrome as having, in comparison to children with autism, no clinically significant delay in age-appropriate self-help skills and adaptive behaviour. Clinical experience indicates that parents, especially mothers of children and adolescents with Asperger's syndrome, often have to provide verbal reminders and advice regarding self-help and daily living skills. This can range from problems with dexterity affecting activities such as learning to tie shoelaces to reminders regarding personal hygiene, dress sense and time management.

Trevor was ten before he could tie his own shoes, and we’re still working on “self-help and daily living skills”, even though he's a young adult. He's made a lot of progress with hygiene, taking care of himself without reminders now. But it was an issue throughout adolescence.

The final, and to me, the most important difference that Attwood mentions is that a diagnosis of autism gets help; a diagnosis of Asperger’s does not. The reason that Far Northern put us through all their testing, even though they knew they couldn’t help a kid with Asperger’s, is that they were hoping they could re-categorize him. But, to no avail; he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and the state won’t pay. Virtually every agency I’ve contacted asks me if we have gone to Far Northern, which appears to be the funding conduit for most forms of assistance for learning-disabled adults. Not qualifying there closed a lot of doors for us.

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about getting rid of the Asperger’s diagnosis. I know I would have been a lot more resistant to a diagnosis of autism -- and Trevor is definitely different than the autistics I have known, both in his history, his abilities, and his problems. On the other hand, if Asperger’s were not considered a separate disorder, he would qualify for a whole smorgasbord of programs -- SSI, independent living assistance, job training, etc. The label isn't nearly as important to me as getting the help he needs to become a functional, independent adult.