Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

No Substitutions

Today I noticed a street sign, lazily set there next to a taqueria on St. Marks.  It's neon markered letters read "there's no substitute for the real thing."  Oh what wisdom you proclaim lowly street sign!  Truly, once you experience the real thing, any substitution becomes lack luster.  I've made my yoga life a hunt for the real thing.  Happily, I've been lucky enough to find it.

Satsang and parampara - these are the real deal.  Without them I would not be where and what I am today. They go together like peanut butter and jelly and support each other like abhyasa and vairagya.  Parampara is the spine containing all the nerves ready to pass information from the brain to the body.  Satsang is the body housing the spine with all it seemingly separate parts which nonetheless form a whole system ready to communicate with the brain. Together the body and mind can do amazing things, things neither one could do alone.


It starts with knowledge - someone's got it and I want it.  This is the essence of parampara, the passing of knowledge. The method is so beautiful in its simplicity:  teacher teaches student who eventually becomes teacher that teaches student and so on through the inexorable march of time.  But parampara has a great caveat, one our modern culture has difficulty with, and that is that it takes time.

Lots and lots of time.

I've gone to great lengths to study in the ashtanga lineage.  I used to assist my teacher, trading hard labor for a chance to learn, two hours a day five days a week for years in addition to my own highly demanding physical practice.  I've traveled to India for months at a time to wake up at 2am to be ready to start practice before four.  I still routinely wake at 3:30am to practice what my teachers have taught before my students arrive for instruction.  I brought a teacher halfway across the country to teach an intensive at my little program on Bleecker Street so that my students and I could have the privilege of studying with her (more on this later).  All this I have done voluntarily (though I cannot claim without complaint) because someone else had knowledge and I wanted it.

These efforts, by themselves, have a couple negative drawbacks.  Exhaustion and loneliness easily creep into a traditional ashtanga practice.  There must be a mechanism in place to avoid the eventual despondency that is bred by exhaustion and lonliness.  Satsang is the buoy that keeps me afloat, lifting my head above the dark waves of the predawn solo practice. 

Satsang is surrounding yourself with the right kind of people.  The type of people that give more to the community than they take.  People that, like me, are searching for experience beyond the mundane.  The type of people that clear away the unnecessary and provide what is lacking.  Typically, these people are not difficult to find; often they are provided by parampara.  They can be mentors, family members, friends, or students and certainly this list is not exhaustive.  Some take a little more effort to hold onto, like caring for a lovable and unruly puppy - others you can't seem to shoo away, like the old cat that has decided to nap in your lap.  The satsang will support you in your times of want, of which there will be many, and celebrate with you in your times of plenty, of which there will also be many.

I was recently reminded of the power of satsang and parampara.  A necessary and vibrant reminder for me whose predawn world becomes cloudy from time to time.  My morning Mysore program Bleecker Street Ashtanga at Sacred Sounds Yoga hosted Louise Ellis for a four day intensive that brought satsang and parampara together with the dramatic results of flint and tinder.  A fire was lit in the attendees who came from shalas throughout the city, country, and hemisphere.  I expect this fire will smolder for quite sometime, waiting patiently for more fuel with which to ignite and give warmth and light.  

3 generations of ashtangis

3 generations of ashtangis

Louise was described by an attendee as, "A sun warmed lake, still on the surface, deep and calm." Louise is many things that I am not, but aspire to be:  gentle where I am hard, quiet where I am loud, and specific where I am general.  Serene power radiates from her and is immediately picked up by those around her.  Her grace and ease in asana and while teaching are a sight to behold.  Louise has the real stuff:  parampara, the knowledge I want and satsang, the supportive community I enjoy.  

Here's to seeing you again soon "granny."  Thank you for everything. 

The Radical Life

My teacher says that yoga practice is radical.  And so it is. 

I did a quick Google search:  radical (the adjective) relates to or affects the fundamental nature of something; far-reaching and thorough.  Some of its synonyms are:  complete, exhaustive, extensive, profound, and rigorous

Yes, yoga is radical.  Yoga requires the rigorous study of your own mind – the thoughts, emotions, personality, sense of individuality, and conscience.  Through its various techniques it aims to clarify the mental field so that one can look at the world objectively rather than subjectively.  By seeing clearly compassion wins out over anger, hate, and indifference.

Compassion:  a feeling of sympathy coupled with a desire to alleviate suffering.

We all suffer, every single last one of us.  In fact, we all make the choice to suffer.  We could all make the choice not to suffer.  It is such an easy thing to say, and such a difficult thing to do.



Fear is a basic building block of the human experience.  It comes in so many forms and intensities.  All fear boils down to a loss of individuation; a loss of what is mine verses what belongs to another.  Fear is the threat of loss; whether it be my corporeal body, my free will, my possessions, my personality, my way of life, or anything that I have decided is mine (including the I in mine).  Yoga asks us to go beyond fear, in essence to become super-human.

My happiness is my responsibility.

No one except me can make me happy.  The shining jewel of bliss lies within, but it is covered with dirt.  While I’ve done some cleaning in my time here as Michael, The Human, I’ve also added some dirt.  My radical goal, the goal of my yoga practice, is to remove more dirt than I add to allow the light of bliss to shine through just a bit more.  No one can do this cleaning for me, with the possible exception of God, and in the case of God I would need to politely request it and then (more difficult) acquiesce to the process (not likely given my fear of losing my free will and way of life).  So I must engage in the radical practice of yoga, the thoroughly extreme practice of going back to the fundamental root of being. 

Working with what I’ve got.


I have a body, which houses my mind.  The best chance for my mind to become clear, insightful, and content is with a healthy body.  I live in a society, which influences my mind.  The best chance for my mind to remain calm, collected, and free of pain is to help others in society better themselves, thereby uplifting society in general.  I make choices constantly and those choices affect me, all of me.  I will study my choices and listen to the advice of those that I trust and those with more experience than me, with the aim of always improving my own condition.  I will be patient and compassionate with myself.

What is the next step on this radical journey?

Every journey is made up of a multitude of tiny steps.  Each step counts, whether it be forward, backward, or sideways.  We can choose to move quickly or slowly, or some combination of the two.  I’m about to go cook for myself with ingredients that are wholesome and sourced to my satisfaction.  What step are you taking?   

What is Ashtanga? The Long Version

Mysore Ashtanga practice typically starts with a mantra. Eight simple lines in Sanskrit are chanted by thousands of people across the globe before they begin their daily yoga practice.  Many mornings “vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde” are the first words to pass my lips. Repeating the mantra morning after morning over the years has imbued it with a special power – the power to bring my mind into focus and transform any space from mundane to specially set apart for the task at hand. The task at hand is breathing and moving at its most basic level and complete mental absorption at its most intense. 

vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde
I give honor and respect to the teachers, bowing down to their lotus feet

Sharath in NYC

Sharath in NYC

Ashtanga Yoga is a lineage based system and as such the exact method of practice is passed down directly from teacher to student. The only way to learn how to practice ashtanga is to study with someone who learned how to practice ashtanga from someone who learned how to practice ashtanga……….and so on.

The practice cannot be learned from a book, though there are good books on the subject, and cannot be learned from videos, though there are a plethora of videos on the subject. The importance of the student teacher relationship cannot be stressed enough. The current lineage holder, R. Sharath Jois, resides in Mysore, India where he teaches the ashtanga method at the Krishna Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute (KPJAYI). Sharath teaches the way his grandfather, Pattabhi Jois, taught him, who in turn taught the way he learned the method from the great T. Krishnamacharya, a veritable legend of a man in the yoga world. KPJAYI is only entity in the world to keep a list of teachers with permission from Sharath to teach the ashtanga yoga method.  Any teacher with the blessing of KPJAYI will have made several extended trips to India to study, in addition to their own “self practice” which is expected to be daily.   

The revealed knowledge of one’s essential Self, which brings joy

The Mysore Style of teaching cultivates a self-practice within each student. The ashtanga system is comprised of postures done in a specific order to special breathing technique.  The postures and their order coupled with the breathing technique are taught to each student individually. When the student becomes proficient in what he or she has learned the teacher adds more postures to her or his daily self-practice. 

A random moment in the Mysore R===

A random moment in the Mysore R===

Walking into a Mysore Style ashtanga practice can look like pandemonium to a new student.  Everyone is breathing at their own individual pace, working on different postures of the sequence, and focusing on their own practice.  The room is often silent except for the sound of inhale and exhale with the exception of the teacher who roams the room explaining, clarifying, giving physical adjustments and support.  Learning to practice through this method builds the student’s confidence in her or his ability to practice with or without the support of a teacher and group of fellow practitioners. Cultivating a self-practice, done to one’s own breath, with full concentration on the task at hand engenders curiosity towards introspection.  With consistent practice knowledge of one’s own essential being can be gained.  

niḥśreyase jāṅgalikāyamāne
(this knowledge is) beyond the best – without comparison, acting like the jungle physician
saṁsāra hālāhala moha śāntyai
pacifies the most deadly poison of conditioned existence

Ashtanga systematically works strengthen and heal the body, control the breath and nervous system, and calm the mind. The sequence of postures is intelligently designed to build muscle, increase range of motion, and improve the actions of the internal organs. Anyone willing to put forth consistent effort can practice ashtanga regardless of body type, fitness level, or special consideration.  The practice will always meet the student at his or her level and encourage a steady progression towards new horizons. Consistent practice leads to a strong body, controlled nervous system, and steady mind.  The skills and self-awareness gleaned from sweat and toil on the yoga mat can be used in all parts of life. There is no end to the ashtanga journey, only a beginning.

abāhu puruṣākāraṁ
In the form of a man to the shoulders

śaṁkhacakrāsi dhāriṇam
Holdinga conch, a discus, and a sword

sahasra śirasaṁ śvetaṁ
Having one thousand shining white head

praṇamāmi patañjalim
I bow to Patanjali


The word ashtanga – eight limbs - comes from the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of the sage Patanjali. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is one of the definitive texts on yoga.  T. Krishnamacharya went so far as to say that if it is not contained in the Yoga Sutras then it is not yoga. This eight-limbed path of yoga is comprised of moral ethics, posture practice, breath control, inward focus, and mental control - to put things simply. The sage Patanjali is traditionally depicted as man up to the shoulders with a thousand shining white serpentine heads.  The serpent, a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, is held in reverence in India.  Patanjali’s thousand heads illustrate his need and ability to impart knowledge in many different ways to many different people.  The sage holds a conch used to trumpet the primordial sound of creation, a discus to sever the ego, and a sword signifying his knowledge of ultimate truth.  The Yoga Sutras have survived 2,000 years and continue to inform and define yoga practice today.

Tradition is held in reverence in the ashtanga system.  Ashtangis adhere to a lunar calendar for their practice, taking both new moon and full moon days off to rest. Teachers present and past are honored and respected for the knowledge they are spreading by continuing to teach the method as it has been taught to them, without creative deviation. In no way does this commitment to tradition cause the practice to stagnate. The ashtanga practice develops a different way in every committed student. Each practitioner comes to truth after his or her own fashion. Liberation from suffering is guaranteed; it is only a matter of time.  

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois