Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

I Went To The Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” are Thoreau’s famous words.  He could have easily said it a different way, and may have, had he been part of a different culture or from a different time.  He could have said that he went to the woods in order to sacrifice the modern conveniences of a busy society to gain clarity, the chance for intense introspection, and submission to the inherent interconnectedness of nature.  Had Thoreau wanted to simplify his writing, for easy memorization, he could have boiled it down to sacrifice, study, and surrender – the three ingredients of Patanjali’s Kriya Yoga.

tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidhana – sacrifice study surrender


I went to the woods recently.  Going into nature is, well, second nature to me.   It is something that I have done since I was young.  It is not something I ever appreciated as special, until I came to New York City.  It is a daily sacrifice to live in New York City and as with any sacrifice something is expected in return.  The New Yorker’s willingness to live in small cramped spaces, polluted settings, and noisy environs gives them access to some of the best food, services, fabulous entertainment, and fascinating people.  Living in New York is a constant stimulation of the senses and that outpouring of power (the Sanskrit word for sense, indriya, can be translated as power) is draining.  The sacrifice of going to the woods, living without services, taking in simple pleasures, and being amongst few people is far less draining of power and serves to encourage the calmness required to reflect, withdraw, and study one’s own place in the world.

Reflection and study take time and space.  Multitasking is a fool’s errand and, most especially when it comes to concentration, is impossible for the mind.  It is this very limitation of mind, its inability to be conscious of both itself and another at the same time, that separates it so resolutely from what is commonly referred to as the soul (see the 4th chapter, sutra 20 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras).  Nature tends to take care of itself, letting nothing go to waste and completing most of its processes with slow deliberation.  This is in direct contrast to the bustling city, which requires constant maintenance from its residents and demands an exacting break neck pace of change.  Where is the opportunity for self reflection and deep study amongst the general crazy of the modern metropolis?  Certainly, the opportunity is there, but it can be like hunting a snake in the grass – difficult and possibly detrimental to one’s health. 

We, us tiny human beings, do not cause the sun to rise each day, nor the wind to blow, or the tides to ebb.  Yet we attempt to control these events.  We have invented artificial lights, fans, and swimming pools all in an effort to control that which was never meant to be under our control.  So we play our little games, hoping against hope to win.  How could we win?  We are playing against the playing field.  There are no laws, no rulebooks, no judge and jury in nature.  There is only submission, that great surrender to your own interconnectedness.  It becomes so obvious as you hike up a mountain, swim in a waterfall, or walk through the forest; you are not alone, nor have you ever been alone.  You are utterly connected to everything, this has always been and always will be – there are no beginnings and there are no ends.  And isn’t that comforting?

Go.  Take a walk through the woods.  Listen to the birds sing and the chipmunks chatter.  Stub your toe on a loose rock.  Scream and shout to your heart’s content and receive nothing in reply.  Find a high spot to survey the surroundings like an eagle.  It will allow you to, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” so that when the time comes for the greatest change you will not, “discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau


Oil Bath

Do you ache all over from your Ashtanga practice?  Are you angry or irritable?  Could you be described as hot headed?  Are you tired or not sleeping well?  If you answered yes to any of these questions and certainly if you answered in the affirmative to multiple you need Oil Bath. 

If you want directions for oil bath and some helpful videos you can scroll down now to skip my small divergence on the meandering blog path.
My first trip to Mysore, India.  Kiki's 13th? trip.

My first trip to Mysore, India.  Kiki's 13th? trip.

Oil bath is very special to me, not just because it has been super helpful over the years keeping my body and mind in tip top shape, but because it provides a very direct parampara connection between me and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.  Guruji taught the method of oil bath directly to Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn.  Kimberly taught the method of oil bath directly to me.  BOOM!  The handing down of traditional knowledge at its best.   Kimberly used to spread the method of oil bath to many ashtanga practitioners, both while in India and at home.  She got permission to write up the directions from Guruji so that the spread of knowledge could be a little less time consuming – I have quoted her entire article below so that you too can have information directly from the source.  Now I have taken to spreading the method of oil bath.  I go so far as to host oil bath parties when I’m in Mysore to teach people new to the ayurvedic remedy the hows and whys.  Kimberly and I shot two videos (view them below) – one on why and one on how – in a small apartment in Manhattan’s East Village to put up on YouTube.   As of this writing the why video has 13,855 views and the how has 14,669.  Not too shabby.

Oil Bath Party!!!  Mysore, India

Oil Bath Party!!!  Mysore, India

For my part I have discovered over the years that many people are doing oil bath wrong. “Incorrect method, no benefit!” Guruji used to say.  Moreover, people are doing oil bath wrong even after being told how to do oil bath.  To attempt to remedy this I have put together a little do’s and don’ts for our intrepid oil bathing friends.  Think of them as the yamas and niyamas of the oil bathing process.    

Oil Bath Yamas (The Don’ts)

1.     Do not fill your bathtub with oil.  “Bath” in case is the Indian version, not the western version.  By extension, do not stand in your bathtub and pour a bottle of oil over your head – this is not oil shower.

2.     Do not spend 45 minutes or some other lengthy amount of time massaging oil into your skin.  This is not necessary and will inadvertently add to the amount of time the oil has been on your head.

3.     Do not throw dry soap nut and arapu powders (brown and green powders) onto your skin.  The powders are meant to be mixed into a paste with water.  If you do not have access to these powders you could also you chickpea power or calamus powder to remove the oil.  Of course nice organic castile soap and shampoo also work.

4.     Do not wear nice clothes while doing oil bath.  You will ruin them.

5.     Do not take oil bath while menstruating.

Oil Bath Niyamas (The Do’s)

1.  Use good organic oil.  Guruji recommended castor oil and when that was unavailable almond oil.  After consultations with my Ayurvaidica I have used sesame oil and coconut oil depending on the season.  If you have access to an Ayurvaidica they should be able to give you good information on which oil is best for you.

2.  Have time to rest after your oil bath.  You will be tired and you should take advantage of that feeling to let the body rejuvenate itself.

3.  Keep warm after your oil bath.  Snuggle under the covers and enjoy a hot water bottle between your sheets.

4.  Start slow and build up slow.  Oil bath is powerful stuff.  So maybe you don’t get a huge reaction from oil on your head for just 15 minutes, have some patience, you will start to see results sooner than you think if you stick to the traditional method.

5.  Stay out of the sun after oil bath.

A visit to Guruji's old shala in Laxmipuram, Mysore.  Kiki and me.

A visit to Guruji's old shala in Laxmipuram, Mysore.  Kiki and me.

Here we have a further description and instructions for oil bath from Kimberly “Kiki” Flynn.  I could not write it better myself.  You can find Kiki on her website or on her YouTube channel Kiki Says.

Oil bath is a traditional, weekly Ayurvedic home remedy still practiced widely in South India. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois routinely recommends oil bath to his yoga students especially for the relief of back and knee pain as well as stiffness. Weekly oil bath reduces excess internal heat (pitta in Ayurveda) particularly in the joints, liver, and skin. This heat is generated by poor lifestyle, including consumption of oily, processed, and difficult to digest foods, alcohol and tobacco, in addition to stress, air pollution and inadequate sleep. This imbalance increases with the heat generated by yoga practice and hot climate. Eating an over-sufficiency of healthy foods that are deemed "heating" in Ayurvedic terms, also adds to this imbalance.

Excess heat can be felt in the joints as pain and stiffness and in the back, often in the lower right-hand side and hip, as a nearly debilitating pain. This heat also contributes to a short temper, burning anger, red skin, pinkish acne, and redness in the eyes. When a daily ashtanga yoga practitioner still carries extra weight, especially around the middle, has difficulty with weight loss or with digestion, and has a regularly sluggish bowel, these are all signs of surplus heat.

In India, oil bath is customarily taken with castor oil that is later removed from the skin and hair with a special herbal paste made of equal parts soap nut and green powders mixed with water. Castor oil delivers the best results, but is nearly impossible to remove without these powders. Guruji suggests that, after leaving India, the yoga student can replace castor oil with almond oil, which easily washes off with bath soap.

Daily baths in India are taken by pouring water over the head from a bucket while standing in the bath, a river, or other body of water. It is in reference to this bath that oil bath is so termed. In other words, the student is not soaking in a tub of oil; rather he or she is using oil first on the head. Oil is rubbed into the scalp which draws the heat upward through the body, where it finally exits through the crown of the head.

Pattabhi Jois recommends that a student takes oil bath every Saturday (on his or her day of rest or once per week) at the start of the morning. After oil bath, one should rest for the day and avoid the following: strong sun, cold water, yoga or heavy work of any kind. For men, tradition prescribes that oil bath be taken on Monday, Wednesday or Saturday. For women, oil bath is prescribed on Tuesday or Friday; Guruji provides that his female students can take oil bath on the day off, Saturday. A woman should never take oil bath during menstruation, rather, she should take it on the fourth day (following the first three days of menses, during which time she has abstained from yoga practice). If one is not able to take oil bath on a given Saturday, he or she may take it on one of the above appropriately listed days.

Directions for Oil Bath

Note: When using castor oil, first place the bottle in warm water to thin out the oil for easier application.

1. Apply ample amount of oil to your head, rubbing into the scalp and through to the ends of your hair.

2. Leave oil on the head for the allotted time. For your first oil bath, leave the oil on your head for only five minutes. Continue increasing the time weekly by five minute increments until the oil is left on the head for a full two hours (a 6 month process); this is the maximum recommendation. At this juncture, you should practice two hours weekly, not exceeding this time.

Important: Years of accumulated heat should safely be relieved in stages. Therefore, it is essential to carefully follow the time recommendation. Inappropriately increasing the prescribed minutes may lead to a cold, vomiting, chills or diarrhea, all of which are symptoms of too much heat rising too soon.

3. Having completed your allotted time for oil on the head, generously apply oil to the whole body. As you rub oil over your body, take time to rub and massage elbow, knee and shoulder joints, along the spine and into any areas that are chronically sore. You need not apply oil to the face. This step should take an additional five to ten minutes.

4. Take a very hot shower or bucket bath. Let the hot water run over the scalp as you massage the existing oil deeper into the crown. Continue to rub the oily skin focusing on the joints and spine. This is an important step as the hot water opens pores and draws internal heat from the skin and joints. This shower may last five to fifteen minutes.

5. Apply soap and shampoo, or soap nut and green powder mixture to remove oil. After turning off the shower, lather up with soap on the skin and shampoo in the hair to remove almond oil. If castor oil is used, then apply soap nut and green powder mixture rubbing the paste over the whole body and through the hair and scalp. Be careful and avoid getting soap nut powder, dry or wet, in the eyes or nose, as it will cause a burning sensation. As you rub the paste over the skin, it will turn from dark to light green which indicates that the oil is being absorbed.

To make the paste, in a large bowl mix equal parts soap nut powder and green powder with enough water to create a paste with a honey-like consistency. Soap nut is active in absorbing the castor oil and can make the skin feel very dry. Green powder leaves the skin and hair feeling soft and smooth.

6. Take a second shower or bucket bath to remove oil and lather or special paste. Take this shower at a warm, comfortable temperature and use enough soap and shampoo to remove the almond oil. If you are washing off soap nut paste and castor oil, be sure to close your eyes when rinsing your hair; you'll probably want to follow up with shampoo. This shower lasts up to ten minutes.

You have successfully completed oil bath.

7. Wash the shower/bath area. The shower floor will be very slippery and the drain may be clogged a bit. Scrub the shower area well to avoid slipping and pour a kettle of boiling water down the drain to keep it open. If you have used soap nut paste, you may be faced with a muddy mess. Clean all surfaces and be sure to pour boiling water down the drain.

8. Rest over the next few hours, avoiding hard work, strong sun and swimming in or drinking cold water. For the daily ashtanga practitioner, it is important to take a full day off, allowing the body and mind to rest and rejuvenate for the coming week of practice, study, work and family life.

If the desired results of oil bath are not felt at first, don't give up. Continue to include this time-honored treatment in your weekly schedule and be confident in the radiant health benefits it bestows.

The Why of Oil Bath.  Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois recommend this health and fitness tradition. Natural health and beauty for all ages form a secret tradition of India.  More available at

The How of Oil Bath.  Let's cut to the chase. Here's how it's done. Ashtanga Yoga and Pattabhi Jois recommend this health and fitness tradition. Natural health and beauty for all ages form a secret tradition of India. Have an edge in yoga and health. Be strong, fit, flexible calm and relaxed.

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. 

Don't Cut Your Finger Off!

My paternal grandfather had only four fingers on his right hand.  To be honest I’m not exactly sure how his ring finger was cut off; I’ve been told several cautionary tales – the garbage disposal, a tractor accident, motorboat disaster.  It have a sneaking suspicion he cut the finger off himself just so he could teach his grandchildren life lessons.  Point is, after “the accident” my grandfather still uses the garbage disposal, rides a tractor, and enjoys a good boat ride along the river.  He’s not going to stop using a tool just because he had one bad experience.  But I imagine he gives these tools a healthy amount of respect.  He must have learned his lesson because he was still in possession of his other nine fingers.

Yoga practice is nothing more than a tool.  A multifaceted tool that can both help and harm – just like a knife, hammer, or saw.  I’ve seen people gain so much through their yoga practice.  I’ve also seen people hurt themselves through mistakes and improper practice.  I find it so disheartening when people walk away from practice because they got hurt.  Imagine leaving a knife in a drawer forever because one time you slipped and cut yourself.  If we can learn from our mistakes then the tool of our yoga practice has even more use.  It is only through learning from our mistakes that we can cease to make them; that we can end the cycle of our own mistaken suffering. 

Asanas are just tools and tools used improperly do not create a quality finished product.  More than tools, asanas are power tools – efficient when used correctly and dangerous when not.  A power tool requires a power source.  That power source is breath.  Without breath asana simply does not function properly.  Using our power tools and our power supply we can chip away at the impurities that hide the shining luster of a clear mind.

I’ve been doing this yoga thing long enough now that I’ve seen people come and go - and come back - and leave again, only to return:  both in my teaching practice and where I’ve studied.  People leave practice for a great number of reasons – family obligations, work, change of location, pregnancy, sickness, injury, etc.  When people return to practice after a hiatus some are excited, some are nervous and others seem relatively indifferent.  One thing is pretty consistent – returning to practice after time off is an uphill battle physically and that battle can be psychologically demoralizing.  It is, lamentably, not like riding a bike.  It’s more akin to training for a triathlon after months as a couch potato.  

None of us is getting any younger.  We’re all inexorably marching toward our eventual doom and Father Time is not doing us any favors. 

The physical challenge of returning to practice after hiatus can cause the mind to entertain rather depressing trains of thought.  The idea that somehow the lack of physical ability makes a worse yogi and the idea that if I’m not doing all the asanas that I used to do I’m getting less value from my practice are a couple examples.  This is nonsense.  Most unfortunately our brains enjoy pondering the nonsensical.  With a bit of patience, a great deal of surrender, and perhaps a little luck we can get back on track with our practice despite our wayward and mistrustful minds.

As we become adept at parts of our practice things start to get interesting – fascinating – even exciting.

Yoga is exciting!.....  Sometimes too exciting. 

As we gain dexterity and mastery with our tools wonderful things start to happen.  Temper your excitement with a bit of caution. Don’t cut your finger off in the process!  It’s important to have a healthy amount of respect for your tools – they are sharp and unforgiving.  Start your power tool up too fast or use it without proper caution and you risk an accident.  Be patient, take it step by step.  If you’re coming back to practice after a break be forgiving of yourself.  After all, if you haven’t taken the tractor out all winter you might want to check the oil before you start her up.