Eyes of Dr TJ EckleburgSeveral months ago, I was standing in the pool locker room, preparing to leave after my swim. I was late, busy, and filled with free-floating exasperation. Suddenly I noticed someone wringing a sopping swimsuit into an ominous puddle on the floor.

“You should do that over the drain,” I said, sharply. “Then you won’t leave such a mess for the next person.” I gave her no opportunity to answer, but immediately spun around toward my locker.

She was only a university student. But in the moment I conceded nothing: She was an adult, not a nonchalant child. The locker room is squalid enough without water poured everywhere.

It wasn’t so much what I said, but how I said it. She was making a mess, but I could have approached her with civility, even friendliness. So, before leaving, I decided to apologize to the young woman. My reaction, I knew, resulted as much from my state of mind as from her messiness. But she was gone.

On my way home, my first thought was, “Glad no one caught that on a cell-phone camera.”

Gatsby_1925_jacketMy second thought was, “God sees everything.”

Bizarre. I’m neither Christian nor God fearing. Maybe I was channeling a quote in the news or that very line in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsy.

By “God sees everything,” I meant that my conscience sees everything. When I behave badly, it doesn’t matter if no one notices (or captures it on video). I know.

When I regret my words or actions, I come face to face with my yoga practice–and I’m not talking about my headstand alignment or my hamstring elasticity. Ideally yoga practice should refine our interactions with others, so that we don’t lose patience or speak carelessly.

Is it possible to conduct ourselves unimpeachably, every day of our lives? According to Mark Twain, “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” Perhaps. But through constant vigilance (and restarts and second chances) we can probably reduce our regrets

I recently caught a CBC radio interview with twin sisters Lisa-Kainde and Naomi Diaz of the French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi. They have roots in France, having grown up in Paris, and in Cuba, homeland of their late father, well-known percussionist Anga Diaz.

In the interview, the sisters commented on how everyone sings in Cuba. Singing is not restricted only to performers or to professionals. Maybe it’s because kids don’t have other things to do, they said. No PlayStation and other material things. In contrast, in other countries and cultures, little kids might all sing, but soon separate into singers and non-singers.

An offshoot of singing is chanting, another vocal act that’s a specialty in modern Western cultures. Chanting came to mind since it’s done in two disciplines that I’ve explored as an adult: yoga and Zen Buddhism.

I didn’t grow up chanting, although I was tangentially aware of it, growing up in a Buddhist family in Hawaii. For example, chanting is integral to traditional Hawaiian culture, which had no written language until the 1820s, when Christian missionaries arrived. In modern Hawaii, chanting is done ceremonially (including in secular federal and state functions) by Hawaiian priests and artistically by musicians and hula dancers—while most of society are spectators.

In the Shin Buddhism that I was born into, the priests chanted, but the congregation generally didn’t. Our family also identified with Shinto, Japan’s native belief system that exists side by side with Buddhism: When I was little, a Shinto priest once came over to bless our house. My family gathered around and he began chanting in a reverberating monotone. The strangeness of the sound so amused my sister and me that we ended up holding our breaths, struggling to stifle our laughter—and finally racing to the farthest bedroom to avoid an LOL outburst. Poor Mom and Dad.

invocation_roedSo, chanting was not second nature to me. In Iyengar yoga, the Invocation to Patanjali is often chanted at the beginning of class. Sometimes teachers chant together with students; other times, the teacher does “call and response,” chanting each line first. For an excellent primer on chanting the Invocation, click here for a few articles published by the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria.

Chanting as a group has a different flavor depending on the teacher, on the students, on one day versus the next. The cadence might be faster or slower; the articulation, more staccato or legato; the pitch, higher or lower. Once, I attended a class taught by a male teacher doing “call and response.” I expected the pitch to match my preferred lower register (a high pitch veers too close to singing and harmonization). But the group comprised only women, all who must have been sopranos. I kept silent that day.

With a bunch of Westerners chanting Sanskrit words, pronunciation is inevitably questionable. Once, I attended a workshop in San Francisco taught by Bangalore-based HS Arun. During the call-and-response invocation, he repeated the line “Pranamami Patanjali” a second time. Then a third and a fourth… We repeated that line at least a dozen times before he proceed to the final “Hari hey Om.” Later he explained that “Pranamami” is not “PranaMOMMY.”

For me, chanting initially felt silly, rather like play acting or trying too hard to adopt a practice not innately mine, using words I barely understood. Now, more familiar, it is a link from one Iyengar yoga class to another around the world. Mostly I appreciate the basis for chanting given by Geeta Iyengar*:

We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn. So the moment you think of the Lord [Patanjali] at the beginning of doing a practice, you know that you are very small in front of that greatest soul. Once that is understood then the other problems which always arise while practicing, mainly concerned with the ego, will be affected. You know that you are “coming down” to learn something. And you can’t learn anything unless you come down; if you think you are on the top and you know everything, then you are not a learner at all. In that sense, the chanting helps.

*Interview conducted by Margot Kitchen at the 1992 Canadian Intensive in Pune, India.

Image: “River” video, Ibeyi, YouTube; Invocation to Patanjali, BKS Iyengar Yoga Centre Copenhagen

yoga-journal-mirror-studioAt my sister’s home in Santa Cruz, I do a brief yoga practice before breakfast with my niece. In my bedroom, there are large mirrored closet doors. I typically face away from the mirrors. During my last trip, however, I ended up doing Sirsasana (headstand) facing the mirror. A sofa blocked my line of sight, so all I could see were my lower legs, from shins to toes.

Believe it or not, that truncated view was nevertheless informative. I noticed that, while my big toes were joined, my anklebones were too far apart. Was I over-rotating my legs inward? Regardless, I appreciated seeing that cropped shot of my pose from the outside.

In Iyengar yoga, mirrors are not used. We learn by teachers’ corrections and by our own internal proprioceptive awareness. In contrast, in Bikram yoga, the mirror is considered essential: Students are taught to gaze into their own eyes in the mirror. This drishti (focal point) is meant to cultivate concentration and self-acceptance.

Do you think mirrors are useful in yoga practice? A few thoughts:

cat-mirrorImprove form and alignment Observing yourself in a mirror gives instant feedback and can be a learning tool–by making you the teacher. In a class setting, the teacher cannot monitor every picky detail, such as anklebones in Sirsasana. A mirror can help you catch little things and take responsibility for your practice. Therefore, while I don’t advocate mirrors in yoga studios, occasionally using mirrors elsewhere (at home, at the gym) can be revealing.

Of course, it’s impossible to view your mirrored reflection from the side or back (and you might tweak your neck trying to do so). Thus I recommend occasionally asking a friend to photograph you in poses. You might be shocked and amazed. Seeing is believing.

Increase alertness When you stand before a mirror, you cannot slouch or roll your eyes. You cannot “hide” in the back row. Here, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Prashant stories:

After listening to him exhort us to pay attention to the breath, pose by pose, moment by moment, I was silently wondering whether I should be trying to control, or only observing, my breath. As if he could read my mind, he said, “If you pass by a mirror and see your reflection, you act differently. You might change your expression or fix your hair. You are affected simply by seeing your reflection. Likewise, if you watch your breath, it will change.”

Prashant was not talking about asana and mirrors, of course. But his point is applicable: we act differently when face to face with ourselves.

man in the mirrorForced self gaze I’ve read that new Bikram yoga students often find the de rigueur “self gaze” very uncomfortable at first. Indeed, eye contact is a powerful act, whether with oneself or with others. I can hardly imagine taking or teaching an entire class facing a mirror.

Mirrors might also exacerbate self-consciousness about physical appearance. While one is on display regardless of any mirrors, seeing one’s body amid others might cause some to criticize their own.

Emphasizing external over internal awareness By their nature, mirrors reflect what the outside world sees of us. Shouldn’t yoga be cultivating our internal awareness? Bikram yogis would argue exactly the opposite: by staring at oneself for 90 minutes, they say, you have no choice but to come to terms with yourself.

Ease balancing poses This could be an advantage for those who struggle with balance poses. For the majority, however, balancing might become too easy and overly reliant on visual cues. When I read Jane Brody’s “Preserving a Fundamental Sense: Balance” back in 2008, it spurred me to practice “blind” balancing, standing on one leg with my eyes closed.

Images: Yoga Journal; cat, Getty Images; “Man in the Mirror” lyrics, Quotesgram.com

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IYISF StreetVisiting San Francisco last summer, I took a few classes at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, within walking distance from my friend’s house. “Have you done Iyengar yoga before?” a front-desk staffer asked me when I arrived. “Yes,” I nodded and smiled, but said nothing more.

IYISF ShrineAway from home, I look for yoga classes not only to boost my practice, but to get to know a place. If I’m a repeat visitor (or if I return to Berkeley), teachers recognize me. But, if not, I might reveal only the bare minimum about myself. “I’m visiting from Vancouver,” I said that day.

Entering the studio, I recognized nobody. Yet it was an altogether familiar scene. Shoes at the door. Hardwood floors and walls lined with ropes. Shelves of matching bolsters, blankets, blocks, and mats. Students stretching or gathering props in silence.

While I enjoy chatting with my classmates back home, it can be a relief to be anonymous. To an introvert like me, the social aspect of yoga class is both gift and distraction.

There, people knew me only by what was observable: my expression, my handling of props, my yoga poses. It crossed my mind: Does my yoga practice speak for itself?

IYISF StoreIt got me thinking about how people immediately define themselves. I’m from _____. I’m a _____. I graduated from _____. In Japan, people hand out business cards to establish social hierarchy. Where I grew up in Hawaii, people are curious to know who is kama‘aina or local.

If I had walked in and immediately mentioned that I’m certified or that I’ve studied with so-and-so, wouldn’t that somehow have affected the dynamics? The human mind is quick to categorize.

Of course, sometimes credentials matter. If I were practicing law, I wouldn’t hesitate to name my law school to my advantage. That by itself would give me instant credibility. Likewise, connections can get you that special discount or prompt medical consult.

What about yoga? As a teacher, it makes sense to provide details on my training and experience. As a student, however, why should I advertise my background?

If I end up talking with the teacher after class, my background, including my own teaching, does emerge. It might further connect us. Nice. But I can also appreciate that pure, fleeting moment of anonymity.

“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”

If Carl Jung is right (and he probably is), I haven’t been a blogger lately.

Smile coverI had high hopes to post frequently in August. After all, I had a few weeks’ break from yoga teaching. (In contrast, last summer in Pune I was immersed and extra alert (first time at RIMYI, first time in India). But I averaged a mind-boggling (for me) three posts per week. Then and there, I was compelled to write.)

When I don’t write and my blog stagnates, I feel a bit guilty—as I do when some of my New Year’s resolutions remain undone. With only four months left in 2015, I got to thinking about what I have done, what I have not done, and what motivates me.

Stuff I do if left to my own devices

  • Reading Reading is like breathing to me, but was my proposition to finish two books per month doable? Almost. Since January I’ve read 15 books and thus have a fighting chance to catch up. (I admit that my list includes two of Raina Telgemeier‘s graphic novels, discovered through my little niece: I couldn’t put them down!)
  • Yoga While traveling, my practice might be minimal, but I never fall completely off the wagon (cf. blogging). It’s hard for me to skip more than a day because my body feels it. But have I fulfilled my resolution to vary my home practice more? I could do better. I keep hearing the old running adage in my head: Vary the terrain. (Probably likewise with asana and with life in general).

Stuff that is challenging, but rewarding to me

  • Blogging The inherent difficulty of writing? First, it’s creating something from nothing. Second, it’s putting myself out there. A tall order.
  • Iyengar yoga assessments After practicing with fellow teachers preparing for Intermediate Junior assessments, a sharp-witted colleague said in jest, “Well, that was demoralizing as usual!” I had to laugh out loud. She was joking (we are super supportive of one another!). But this highlights what candidates face: performing for peers, hearing criticism, confronting bad habits, being forced to rethink. Still, we choose to do this. Why? Because the learning is invaluable.
  • Work My work as a yoga teacher and as the managing editor of a peer-reviewed urban planning journal is a given, a commitment. So it always gets done.

Sisters coverStuff neglected, but important to me

  • Keeping in touch My family is far flung. With the Internet and cell phones, keeping in touch could be easy, but I’m an irregular communicator. FaceTime? Not into it. Facebook? No. I agree with New York Times columnist Frank Bruni who, in “The Myth of Quality Time,” wrote, “There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.” In August I did return to Hawaii and to California—to see family and friends. But I could do much better with email, texts, calls, and even handwritten letters (enchanting to receive nowadays).
  • Gardening In theory, I like to garden. In reality, I’m an unreliable—let’s face it, negligent—gardener. My seasonal bursts of planting and pruning are insufficient, I know.
  • Clutter clearing Instead of a major paper/clothing/junk purge every few years, I must simply avoid accumulating unnecessary things. What about computer clutter? Passable, except for my teeming email Inbox, possibly a lost cause.

Stuff that others enjoy, but not me

If a resolution remains undone, month after month or year after year, maybe it’s time to forget about it. Take camping: I’ve never gone camping in a tent. Never. I like to imagine that I’d like camping. But, if so, wouldn’t I be an avid camper by now? We are what we do.

MatchaSupPre_B01Several months ago, I acquired 100 grams of matcha from someone who sources it directly from a Kyoto farmer. Japanese green teas, such as sencha and gyokuro, are my favorites, but I’d rarely had matcha.

I immediately did a Google search for “matcha preparation.” Among the many links appeared was a video by a young man named Kohei Yamamoto (no relation), “How to prepare MATCHA.” He came across as a likable guy next door, and his presentation was both old school and approachable:

  • he used a chasen (bamboo whisk) and other Japanese utensils not always used outside Japan;
  • he taught the back-and-forth whisking method (as opposed to circular);
  • he took measurements by feel (no measuring cups);
  • he showed the proper way to serve tea, by turning the bowl so that the front faces the guest (I love this detail); and
  • he drank the tea in the traditional manner: bowing, saying “Itadakimasu,” and downing the serving all at once, in a few gulps.


I also found his blog, Tales of Japanese tea, which chronicles his study since 2009 of sado (also chado, chanoyu), the Way of Tea, Japanese tea ceremony. The more I read, the more I realized how “preparing matcha” is only one element of sado–like how asana is only one element of yoga.

I was amused by Kohei’s anecdotes, for example, when he critiques his wife’s ceremonial bowing posture compared to their teacher’s form. (The comparison will be clear to Iyengar teachers’ eyes!)

Nowadays it’s mostly young women who study tea ceremony (mostly to make themselves more marriageable, according to some) and the meticulous protocols might seem unnecessary, even absurd. But if a person is truly interested, those protocols can foster deep concentration and appreciation for the smallest detail.

On YouTube, I found many other how-to videos, such as “How to Make Matcha Tea – Dr. Jim Nicolai” by the Andrew Weil Integrative Wellness Program. Nicolai followed some of the traditional methods while adding a Western sensibility and informative tidbits.

Then I found Panatea and Breakaway Matcha, polished, urbane online retailers of matcha. Their focus: matcha’s health benefits, gourmet cachet, and trendiness. Panatea’s slogan is “Sip up and Zen out,” and the husband-and-wife founders describe their Ceremonial Grade Matcha Green Tea Set as “sleek and sexy.”

MatchaSupPre_B02Breakaway Matcha is served at The French Laundry, offers workshops at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and is very high quality (and pricey). Breakaway caught my attention when the founder demonstrated his way of preparing it: with a milk “matcha frother.” At first, I found something incongruous about using a battery-powered tool instead of a whisk. On the other hand, the raw ingredients are the same (he’s not drowning the matcha with milk and sugar and whipping up a Frappuccino, after all).

While Westerners (including myself) are openminded about unfamiliar cultural practices, we tend to adopt only the most obvious, graspable parts. We do yoga asana, but might study yoga philosophy only superficially. We drink matcha for its antioxidants, but might ignore the rituals of its preparation. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. But the “other” aspects can elevate the experience to more than another health fad.

Images: Hibiki-An

In my first class for teens, I taught an active, but basic, sequence, with lots of jumpings and standing poses. Most were absolute beginners; even the basics were demanding.

After class, however, the teens’ teacher, an Iyengar yoga student herself, made a request. “Next week show them some of the fancy poses,” she said. “Fire them up. They don’t know anything about yoga and need to see where it can go.”

In my typical adult classes, I demonstrate a pose only if relevant to the day’s sequence. Rarely, almost never, would I demo a pose if I’m not teaching it. Here, she was asking me to do just that.

So, the next week, I gathered the group together. After a brief discussion on the eight limbs of yoga, I did a mini demo for them. I linked the poses that we’d tried the prior week with related, but more involved, poses.

“Remember Trikonasana, the triangle,” I said, “it can lead to this,” doing Utthita Parsva Hasta Padangusthasana.

I proceeded to show the links between the following:

  • Sukhasana and Padmasana
  • Dandasana and Paripurna Navasana
  • Chatushpadasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana
  • Gomukhasana and Salamba Sirsasana

That day I taught them sun salutations and backbends, culminating in Urdhva Dhanurasana. I helped a bunch of kids up and, indeed, they were fired up.

The yoga “demonstration”

To introduce yoga to Westerners, BKS Iyengar did numerous yoga “demonstrations,” asana performances before an audience. He knew that asana would catch people’s attention.

Are such demonstrations done by Iyengar yoga teachers today? No. Why? Well, I can answer only for myself, but I suspect that most Iyengar yoga practitioners consider public performances of asana rather showy.

But such performances have their place. Take Patricia Walden’s backbend videos from a 1990 yoga conference and from her 60th birthday performance. First, we can learn a lot from watching her demonstrate advanced backbends. Visual learning is invaluable. Second, it is fascinating to see a practitioner’s development over time; to me, her practice at 60 is superior to her star performance at 36.

On the blog Yoga Bound, I found a video of a demonstration by three Canadian Iyengar yogis at the University of Toronto. A great way to introduce university students to Iyengar yoga!

Nowadays the venue for yoga demonstrations is not the stage, but the Internet, where countless yoga videos can be viewed. Some are instructional “how to” videos, but many are simply performances, from snippets of home practice (“what I did today” or “look at me!”) to choreographed sequences set to music. Part of me wonders a bit about motives. What compels yoga practitioners to film themselves and upload it for the world to see? Show and tell? Attract students? Attract attention?

That said, I enjoy some bloggers’ home practice videos. First, as an Iyengar yoga practitioner, I never tire of observing different bodies. Second, if a blogger is funny or revealing, I might feel a sense of camaraderie. Third, as mentioned regarding the Patricia Walden videos, I might learn a new method of approaching a pose, just by watching a person perform it.

I steer clear of Facebook and other “social media” (I have a private life), so I can’t imagine posting random videos of myself doing yoga poses. But from my experience teaching teens, I see how “seeing is believing” when it comes to anything new and strange.

Light on LifeBKS Iyengar on spiritual maturity and demonstrations

The trouble with demonstrations is the inevitable ego element, as stated here by BKS Iyengar in Light on Life, “Living in Freedom” chapter:

“…Spiritual maturity exists when there is no difference between thought itself and the action that accompanies it. If there is a discrepancy between the two, then one is practicing self-deception and projecting a false image of oneself. If I am asked to give a demonstration before an audience, there is bound to be an element of artistic pride in my presentation. But alone, I practice with humbleness and devotion. If one can prevent the inevitable egotism from entering the core of one’s life and activities, it means one is a spiritual man…”

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