Chasing Tigers, Poking Cobras - A Yoga Blog

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?   

I'm Celibate

Firstly, no, I’m not celibate.... or maybe I am. If I were I certainly wouldn’t tell you. If I were to take a vow of brahmacharya – celibacy – it would be a personal choice and none of your business. Furthermore, it’s none of your business whether I’m vegetarian or not, if I cheat on my taxes, or if I own more than one home.

Brahmacharya is one of the 5 yamas, or vows, listed as the first limb of Patanjali’s 8-fold path, ashtanga yoga. Brahmacharya is the fourth yama and is, perhaps, the most varied in its interpretations. The other four yamas are ahimsa – not harming –, satya – telling the truth - , asteya – not stealing -, and aparigraha – not grasping. Brahmacharya has been interpreted to mean (amongst other things):  strict celibacy, not having sex outside of wedlock, only having sex for procreative purposes, having respect for your sexual partner(s), and/or not using sexual persuasion to influence others.

Why so many interpretations? Because all the yamas can be taken to varying degrees of intensity.

To what degree should you take Brahmacharya? This is a question only you can answer. Only you know what you are ready for. Brahmacharya goes more than skin deep. A vow of continence is mental, emotional, and physical. Simple abstention from sexual contact is not enough; sexual thought and feelings are also violations of a strict vow of Brahmacharya. Try to deny yourself anything before you are properly prepared and you will end up fetishizing it. This is pretty easy to see when someone takes a strict vow of ahimsa – not harming – before they are ready. Ever met a vegan who can’t stop talking about how awesome it is to be a vegan? Within the space of one brunch you find out, without the slightest inquiry on your part, why they are a vegan, how long they’ve been vegan, and various reasons why you should become vegan. This is why the bottomless Bloody Mary was invented (which, if made traditionally, is not vegan). Deprivation of food without proper preparation leads to an obsession with food and deprivation of sexual function can lead to an unhealthy obsession with sex.  Obsession does not lead to clarity of mind, quite the opposite.

Brahmacharya will come naturally as you progress in yoga practice. Yoga practice drives us to go more and more internal with our awareness, ever seeking out the unadulterated bliss that lies within. The more internal we go the less we are concerned with the external. Acts of external sensory stimulation, like sex, become banal at best. As the relationship with internal bliss becomes more profound and satisfying both external pleasure and pain become dull in comparison. The eventual leaving off of sexual thought, feeling, and act is quite normal, even trivial, when proper preparatory work has been done.

When you are ready for Brahmacharya you will feel no need to tell your friends and family; it’s doubtful the topic would ever come up in conversation. It would be highly irregular for anyone to even make sexual advances towards you, given your natural lack of desire. You won’t be returning any flirtatious glances, idle conversation with soft sexual overtones will be easily avoided, and the bump and grind of the dance floor will seem lack luster and a waste of time.

So please, don’t feel the need to tell me or anyone else that you are a practicing Brahmachari. If you are true and sincere in your vow of Brahmacharya we will have already noticed.

PS. The current exchange rate of retained seminal fluid to nectar of immortality is so low that it’s probably not worth your time.

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

You're Not That Special

En español

The more I practice in the Ashtanga Yoga system the more I realize how un-special I truly am.  Oh, I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out.


Ashtanga is a method and as such it has a foundation.  This foundation is set on three pillars:  The Breath, which includes ujjayi pranayama, uddyana and mula bandhas - Dristhi, the direction of the gaze - Asana, a position that is stable, firm, and spacious.  These pillars are non negotiable. Whether you are a novice beginning practice or you’ve been drinking the Vande Gurunam kool-aid for 20 years, you must use ujjayi, you must engage your bandhas, you must limit your wandering gaze, and your postures must be stable and firm. 

On top of this foundation you may build what you wish.  Perhaps your practice emulates a grand castle with turrets and towers soaring to staggering heights, or maybe it’s more reflective of a humble, but warm home filled with light and love.  Perhaps your practice is not a building at all, rather a jungle full of bright flowering plants and succulent fruits.  Your grand creation doesn’t have to stay the same.  You can change it throughout time, adding something here, taking away there, or you could demolish the whole thing and start over.  As long as the foundation is intact – the breath, dristhi, and stable asanas – the possibilities are endless.

If there is a crack in the foundation something is going to give way sooner or later.  Most probably things will break down slowly, almost unnoticeably, until something major occurs that cannot be ignored.  There is no use trying to repair what is on top of the foundation if the foundation itself is flawed or incomplete. There is no escape, you will always find yourself back at breath, dristhi, and asana. 

Building and maintaining a solid foundation is key for any practice.  This goes for everyone.  No one is special enough to avoid it - not you, not me, not the old man, not the pregnant lady, not the student with severe scoliosis, not the quadriplegic lying in a bed having their body parts moved by the teacher or therapist, not the girl whose arms are “too short” to do a jump back, not the guy with 6 bazillion sports injuries, not the hyper flexible former dancer, not the lady with a double hip replacement.  The special people list with their special concerns is infinite.  If the foundation of practice is not built with care and then given consistent attention we will injure ourselves. 

Being an Ashtanga practitioner means you must be vigilantly strengthening and repairing your foundation. Too often, when we are injured, we look to the area of the injury for the cause and solution.  Instead we should be analyzing the three pillars of our practice to discover what is giving us trouble.  Is the breath becoming harried or uncontrolled during parts of the practice?  Is the gaze wandering?  Is the mind following the wandering gaze?  Is each asana stable?  Is everything firmly grounded and supported?  

Specialness is a double edged sword.  One side of the sword is I Can’t and the other is I Can.  My arms are too short so I can’t jump back.  My legs are too long so I can’t grab my feet in a forward bend.  I’m too old so I can’t go beyond primary series.  So on and so forth cometh the numbing tides of special reasons we simply can’t do certain things.  Maybe you can’t do these things… yet.  So?  Maybe you will never be able to do these things.  What’s it matter?  None of these special issues prohibit us from continuing to shore up the foundational pillars of the Ashtanga yoga method.  None of these special issues prohibit us from trying everyday, concentrating everyday, breathing everyday, building strength everyday, and everyday working to become better people than we were yesterday.


Then there are the I Can types.  I tend to fall into this camp and we think we’re special because we are particularly good at something, or several somethings.  This is near and dear to my heart so I will use myself as example.  I Can backbend.  I’ve always been good at backbending; it comes quite naturally to me.  Once upon a time I was relishing my backbending practice.  I would do extra backbends for fun and challenge myself to go deeper and deeper.  Backbending was so effortless for me I didn’t really pay attention to bandhas, breath, dristhi, or stability – I just did what felt good.  Then came kapotasana, spine-snapper pose is my pet name for it, and very quickly following a great deal of lower back pain.  Backbending was no longer fun, in fact most things were no longer fun.  What did I blame?  Kapotasana, obviously.  I was sure that the posture was the culprit.  Problem was, I still had to do kapotasana everyday – that or quit, or voluntarily give up what I had learned of Intermediate Series (and no self respecting 25 year old I Can person would do that).  My foundation was broken.  I was in pain not because of a specific asana, but because I had built my grand palace of backbending on sand.  The only thing to do was rebuild a foundation for my backbends. It was an annoying, painstaking, ego shattering process.  I had to relearn everything.  The greatest pain gleaned from this experience was not physical; it was the emotional pain of discovering I wasn’t special after all.  I was just like everybody else.  I too had to use breath, bandhas, dristhi, and stable asanas appropriately or I would weaken and eventually break.

I doesn’t matter who you are, you can practice Ashtanga yoga. You could be the most specialist person in the whole wide world and you can still do Ashtanga yoga.  But be warned, if you take your practice seriously you will eventually realize how banal and normal you are.  Once you realize that, once you are on the path to getting over yourself, then you have the chance to transform into someone truly special.

The Taste of Kiwi

I never tasted a kiwi until I was in my early teens. I knew of their existence, I’d seen them, even touched and smelled them at the grocery store. So I had direct experience of kiwi, but it was incomplete. My mother had tasted kiwi and she explained to me that it tasted like a combination of banana and strawberry.

I trust my mother; I figure she has my best interests at heart.

So I had a pretty good idea of what I would experience when I took my first bite of kiwi – I’d seen it, felt it, smelled it, and been told by a credible source what to expect.

Eventually I had my first taste of kiwi – and I was changed forever. From that moment forward there was no longer any question in my mind; I knew what kiwi tasted like, I had experienced it myself. The taste of kiwi was no longer a mysterious thing left up to my imagination. No longer did I think kiwi tasted like some combination of two other fruits.

Kiwi tastes like kiwi. In an instant, it became that simple.

There is something beyond my mind, of this I am certain. I like to call it my soul. I’ve had brief and incomplete experiences of my soul. I know people who have had more complete and more extended experiences with their souls. They tell me the soul is blissful in nature and that it can be experienced through the practice of yoga. They have no reason to lie to me – it would bring them no gain – I trust them. I desire this experience of Bliss. So I continue to practice yoga the way I’ve been taught by teachers whom I trust.

When I do have an experience of Bliss, I have no doubt that from that moment onward my life will be different.

I have faith in my practice because I have faith in my teachers. Every worthwhile experience I have deepens that faith, that trust, and firms my commitment to seeking out Truth for myself. I want to taste this Bliss instead of listening to descriptions others give. I want the experience for myself and I’m willing to work for it.