Tuesday, August 3, 2010

update update

So, I'm killing this blog, and resurrecting it on wordpress where the living's easy and the spam easier to control. You can find the new blog (including all old posts from the blogger incarnation) by replacing "blogger" in the URL with "wordpress".

Smell you later, blogger. Much, much later.


I haven't given up on blogging, I'm just sick of dealing with all the spam that my blog seems to attract. So I'm looking into other blogging options.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

yoga rant

Since last fall, I've been co-teaching a pranayama/meditation/dharma discussion group on the first Sunday of every month. We started out strong with about a half dozen participants, but quickly the number dropped, and this month no one showed up. My ego wasn't bruised much (I wasn't really expecting anyone to show up, based on the great weather and the low turn out in recent months), but the more I think about this, the more frustrating it is. I also teach moderate and "advanced" yoga classes. The moderate classes are definitely the big sellers, but there are always students in the advanced classes as well, so clearly there is local interest in advanced yoga practice. And what is more advanced than moving past asana practice and working on the other seven limbs? Where are my "advanced" students on Sunday night, when we're doing the real advanced work? Everyone wants to look good flopping around on a sticky mat, but no one wants to sit still and work. It's a lot easier (I know this from my own experience) to be driven to work hard physically by an external task-master (the teacher) than to have to sit and deal with your own insatiable internal task-master (the mind). So I understand why no one shows up for our first Sunday sits, but it frustrates me anyway.

I'm going to be teaching classes this Sunday morning. I'm mulling over my options for the "advanced" class. Option one: business as usual. Option two: work on pranayam and sitting for 75 minutes. Option three: start by asking everyone, one by one, what "advanced" yoga practice means. Option four: tell everyone to roll up their mats at the beginning of class, put their shoes back on, and go outside to pick up litter from the street while contemplating saucha. Probably I'll stifle my frustration and go with option one. I can't force my students to do advanced practice. But neither can I stop being bugged by the fact that what we're calling advanced practice really doesn't amount to much more than calisthenics with Sanskrit names.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Someone asked me today if I had three channels to watch - the anger channel, the misery channel, and the sunshine channel - which would I choose to watch? It was an unfair question; obviously I was supposed to choose the sunshine channel. But just as obviously, I guess, I don't think that's the choice I'd actually make. What possible benefit could you glean from closing yourself off to certain inevitable avenues of human experience, unsavoury though they may be? We are all going to experience anger and misery in our lives; being open to them allows us to figure out how to work with them more intelligently and sensitively than by just running away. There is an emotional rawness which can only be tapped through anger, and there is a sweetness on the other side of fully-realised misery that you will not find anywhere else. So I wouldn't choose to watch just the sunshine and puppies and lollipops channel. I would watch all three. And so I do.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman - a review

I'm a big fan of Pullman. I loved the His Dark Materials series, so much so that I found it hard to talk about without getting very excited and jumbling all my words for a year or two after I finished the third book. Pretty sure I've written about Pullman here before... oh well, I'm too lazy to find the post and link to it. The long and the short of it is that his less than exalted view of religion finds a very receptive audience in me, so it was with great pleasure that I added his new book (let's just call it GMJ for the sake of brevity) to my library queue.

The book is a retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, however, with the revision that Jesus and Christ were two different people - twin brothers with decidedly different approaches to the question of what is Good. I found the title to be a bit of a misnomer; I didn't think Christ was depicted as a scoundrel at all, just someone with good intentions and poor judgement. I wondered as I read GMJ whether Pullman had come up with the title of the book first, then wrote it, realized it didn't quite match his original vision, but didn't want to part with such a juicy title. I don't know that this is so, but I imagine that it might be. Regardless, both Jesus and Christ were surprisingly nuanced and, I thought, sympathetic.

One of my favourite quotes from the book, from the chapter "Jesus In The Garden Of Gesthemene," page 197: "As soon as men who believe they're doing God's will get hold of power, whether it's in a household or a village or in Jerusalem or in Rome itself, the devil enters into them." Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; what power is greater than believing you're doing the work of God? Doing good in the world requires humility, and is not reconcilable with ostentation or pride.

Apart from the splitting of Jesus into two people, I don't know how consistent GMJ is with the gospels. I wasn't raised with any sort of religion, and for better or for worse, most of my knowledge of Jesus comes from pop culture depictions. In fact, if my best friend in high school hadn't convinced the bus driver on the way back from our senior class trip to play the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack, thus piquing my interest, I don't know if I'd know much of anything about Jesus. Ha! Take that, religious right! Most of my knowledge of Christianity comes from show tunes, that ever present staple of gay culture.

Overall, I give the book a thumb's up; it's not as scandalous as the title suggests, and I think Pullman does a good job of retelling the story and calling into question the more dubious aspects of Christianity (abuse of power, treating followers as sheep, &c.) while keeping the core values of the protagonist(s) intact. But if you really want to have your mind blown by Pullman's philosophy on religion, do yourself a favour and read the His Dark Materials trilogy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

CBC - Backbencher

There's a new radio drama on the CBC - Backbencher. It's about a brand spanking new MP in the House of Commons from a riding in Nova Scotia. I'm quite enjoying it so far; it doesn't have the action/drama of Afghanada or the comedy of Canadia 2056, but it's near sight more entertaining than Monsoon House. I can't imagine what Backbencher's target audience is, though; is there really a swell of interest for Canadian Parliamentary drama? I would have figured I'd be more or less the only person interested in this sort of thing.

In other news, I'm toying with the idea of combining two of my interests and writing a radio drama/comedy set in a yoga studio. I have a few rough ideas in mind, but haven't put pen to paper yet.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

dumb joke

Inspired by a snippet of conversation I overheard last night at the Muddy Cup:

"Hypnosis? My mom tried that once."
"Did it work?"
"We can't tell; she's just VERY SLEEPY all the time now."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Alan Chartock, WAMC

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I listen to a great deal of radio. I listen to conventional broadcast radio, I listen to streaming stations on-line. I listen to local stations, stations from other states, stations from other countries. I listen to music programmes, news programmes, radio drama, radio comedy, public radio, commercial radio. And I listen to some radio programmes which joyously defy any and all classification. I even had my own radio programme for about a year in college, and miss it sorely sometimes. About the only genre of radio with which I am not intimately acquainted is right-wing talk radio. So it is on no small pool of experience that I draw when I say that far and away the most obnoxious radio personality I have ever had the displeasure of listening to is Dr. Alan Chartock, president and CEO of local public radio station WAMC.

I didn't always feel this way. Ten or fifteen years ago, when I started listening to WAMC, I had much greater tolerance for Dr. Chartock. In gross terms, after all, his political views are in concordance with my own. He, too, is a progressive lefty; supports Obama, doesn't support the wars, &c. We also share a love of Pete Seeger's music. The common ground between us ends there, unfortunately. I am irrevocably divorced from the cult of Chartock by the man's own insufferable self-importance and megalomania.

Dr. Chartock's voice is inescapable on WAMC; both literally (he is on the air almost continuously, hosting his own weekly programmes and serving as a regular commentator and co-host of other programmes) and figuratively (there are very few commentators on WAMC who do not share Dr. Chartock's political views). I can understand, to some extent, the pervasiveness of his actual voice over the air waves. If I remember correctly from my days in the DC area, WAMU's president was also their most regular on-air personality. Perhaps this is inherent to public radio stations in this country (or at least those devoted to commentary and news). I cannot, however, understand Dr. Chartock's refusal to air more than the most paltry smattering of opinions contrary to his own. WAMC offers air time to a wide variety of commentators. Exactly one of them is a conservative; and even his arguments are poorly constructed and inane. It is almost as though he is retained to serve as a straw-man. This theory is not in any way discredited by the fact that during every single fund drive, Dr. Chartock parades this one conservative commentator's brief weekly opinion pieces as evidence of his own (Dr. Chartock's) magnanimous willingness to air other points of view. Is it really Dr. Chartock's sole responsibility and privilege to determine who should and should not be allowed air time? WAMC is a public radio station. It is their responsibility to provide quality programming for their audience, not the palest imaginable shadow of balanced politics.

If WAMC's lone conservative commentator were my sole complaint, it would not occur to me to accuse Dr. Chartock of egomania. Perhaps WAMC is simply catering to its audience's interests. However, Dr. Chartock really shows his hand during his Tuesday afternoon hour-long open political forums. Callers generally fall into two categories: progressives and conservatives (reflecting WAMC's audience and local demographics, the majority fall into the former category). Within each of these categories, there are sub-groups: conscientious callers and, for lack of a better term, wackos. Conscientious callers respectfully voice well reasoned arguments, sometimes calmly, sometimes with great passion. Wackos are generally irate and voice opinions which they are unable to support. My perspective is that both progressives and conservatives can have valuable insights to share, and should be granted air time to share them, provided that they are conscientious. In other words, callers should be screened based on their placement on the conscientious/wacko spectrum, not the progressive/conservative spectrum. This idea, however, is clearly foreign to Dr. Chartock. Progressives are permitted to voice their opinions with minimal interruptions, regardless of where they fall on the conscientious/wacko continuum. Conservatives, on the other hand, are treated to continuous interruptions from Dr. Chartock, with the result that regardless of their state of calmness at the start of the call, their level of agitation increases until Dr. Chartock cuts the call short and informs his call screener, over the air, to add the caller to The List (ie, the list of callers who are no longer permitted on air). I listen to this happen every time I tune in, and it never fails to disgust me. He even has the audacity to accuse his conservative callers of speaking from a "bully pulpit." I believe the Yiddish word for this sort of statement is "chutzpah."

Why do I still listen if Dr. Chartock's antics infuriate me so? WAMC, despite the failings and egocentrism of its president, is still a quality source of local information, and I do enjoy many of its other programmes and commentators. Many years ago, though, I stopped donating to the station during fund drives because I couldn't stand the thought of underwriting Dr. Chartock's gigantic ego. I know many of WAMC's other listeners enjoy listening to him berate callers with opposing viewpoints (they voice their enjoyment in their comments during the fund drives); to me, this is the cheapest sort of lions-vs-Christians entertainment. WAMC's listeners, I believe, would be far better served by a more balanced approach. And perhaps by a change in leadership.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

bra story

Walking down Church Street a few weeks ago, I was surprised to see a bra hanging in a tree outside an apartment building. It stayed there for a few days and gave me a smile every time I walked past it. When it disappeared, I thought I'd seen the last of it... but then last week, I saw it (or its twin) outside another house about a quarter mile away. I can't for the life of me figure out what the story behind this bra is. I'm wondering where I'm going to see it next.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Projects for the new year - update

I've winnowed down the list; I realized I'd bit off more than I cared to chew. So, I've chosen just two projects to focus on this year:
  • Train for a triathlon
  • Writing project
I may work on some of the other projects on the original list as well, but I'm not committing myself to them. "When all else fails, lower your standards!"

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism) by Frank Schaeffer - a review

I read this book because my friend Lorna interviewed the author for Chronogram, and he seemed to have interesting insights about the considerable overlap between evangelical religion and what he refers to as the "new atheism" - Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. Unfortunately, although Schaeffer's ideas are interesting and found a receptive audience in me, he is not a very strong writer. It was a bit of a struggle to get through the book. I do have to give the author credit for penning one very good chapter; he wrote about a mason he knew when he was growing up in Switzerland, someone who almost never spoke but focused intently on his job and always produced superlative work. The only time the author saw this master craftsman rise to anger was when his mother tried to rush him in a job, and he replied, "Non, il faut faire ça comme il faut" - "No, this must be done the way it must be done." This story is compelling to me because this is the way I always hope to work, no matter what the task, and on those rare occasions when I rise to this level of ability, it is sheer bliss to do whatever it is that I am doing. I understand why Schaeffer included the description of this man in his book; work, when done this way, is a form of prayer or meditation. It gives one the experience of connection (or "communion," if you like) regardless of one's beliefs or lack thereof.

Schaeffer's main thesis is that both evangelicals and the "new atheists" are insufferably obsessed with their own rightness, and more importantly, everyone else's wrongness; thus do they miss the point entirely - that mystery is the fundamental condition of existence. I agree with him, and he supports his thesis well enough, but he does so in the first hundred pages of a 230 page book. The rest is repetitive and/or tangential, much to the detriment of the book. Also, Schaeffer's anger, though understandable, does not serve him well here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I heard the story of a famous Buddhist monk who was visiting an ashram to give a talk. The ashram was very excited to have the monk come, and asked him to send a bio so that they could advertise his talk. They didn't hear back from him for a while, so they asked again. Still nothing. They asked again. No response. Finally, the day before the talk, they asked one final time for a bio, or resume, or whatever, and at last they received a reply. Four words: "One mistake after another."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mother. Pus. Bucket.

Now I have to find a whole new name for myself. Bastards.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread..." thus do I enter into the thorny issue of yoga and vegetarianism.

There was an interesting article in the New York Times recently about yoga and food, and how some studios and restauranteurs are bringing them together in surprising (and somewhat icky - who wants to use their sweaty, nasty yoga mat as a place setting for an after class meal?) ways. This, of course, raises the question of what sorts of foods are fit for us yogis to eat. Patañjali's Yoga Sutras list ahimsa as the first part of the first limb of yoga - he is clearly making a statement of importance here by listing it right up front. Usually, we translate ahimsa as non-violence; not hurting each other. For a lot of yogis, this means adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet. The reasoning, I believe, is as follows: If I'm committed to not hurting other people, why would I be willing to benefit from the death of other animals? Especially when it is certainly possible to survive without consuming any animal products?

Well... I'm not completely sold on the idea, and my basic argument against it boils down to, ironically perhaps, my appreciation of the incredible complexity of life. How do we draw the line between what we can (ethically) eat and what we can't? Is it a simple division based on kingdom? If so, then why are animals more important than plants, or fungi, or protozoa for that matter? We all started from the same biological miracle; we all have 4.5 billion years of evolution behind us. It's not as if we can pretend that non-animal life is less advanced or more primitive than animals are, and therefore less worthy of survival on an individual basis. We all, essentially, share the same birthday and are growing old together.

It's a fundamental truth that animals need to feed on other life. If we live on plants, we're still eating something that once lived and was killed for our benefit. Something needs to die in order for me to live. This can't be avoided.

When I think about the idea that the only ethical diet is a vegetarian or vegan diet, it also brings to mind the diets and lifestyles of other cultures. Traditionally, the Inuit lived on a diet that consisted exclusively of animal products. They did so because these were the resources available to them - in the far North, there are no edible plants. There are birds, there are sea mammals, there are polar bears, there are caribou, and that's about it. Does this make the traditional Inuit diet unethical? No, and I don't think anyone would claim that it does. Let's progress into murkier territory, then - other foods are now available to many in the far north, foods that have been grown and processed in the south and flown to the Arctic at great expense. Now, does this recent availability of plant based foods make contemporary adherence to the traditional Inuit diet unethical? Is it wrong for the Inuit (or anyway, those among them who can afford the imported foods) to continue to adhere to their traditional diet when other options are now available? I'd argue that the answer to this question is also No; to answer it otherwise would be to suggest an inherent inferiority of the traditional Inuit culture, which is ridiculous. To suggest the superiority of one's own culture or belief system is paternalistic at best, patronizing at worst.

A lot of the argument around vegetarian/vegan diets for yogis strikes me this way - paternalistic. Why should I let someone else decide for me what ahimsa means? Isn't it my own responsibility to make peace with my decisions and with the world? Isn't that part of svadhyaya, self-study, which is also listed in Patañjali's eight limbs of yoga? I did not become involved with yoga to become pious and superior, nor to kowtow to those who are. I'm involved in this practice because it helps me find meaning and beauty in the world.

Is it possible to practice ahimsa as an omnivore? Is it possible to eat meat and practice non-violence? I think this question is far more nuanced and complex than many in the yoga community admit. The answer cannot be reduced to a simple yes or no.

Ugh... this post definitely needs more editing, but frankly I'm tired of working on it. These ideas have been on my mind for a long, long time, and I will probably return to them at some point in the future.

As always, comments are welcome and encouraged, especially if you respectfully disagree with me or find flaws in my arguments.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Poised for Grace by Douglas Brooks - a review

I finished reading Douglas Brooks' Tantric commentary on the Bhagavad Gita last night, after struggling with it for about two weeks. Well... it wasn't terrible, but it was in dire need of editing. There were a few sentences that didn't make sense even after repeated readings, and there were a few very obvious errors, like subject-verb agreement. I don't fault the author; these things can creep into anyone's writing. But the editors could have done a better job.

Regarding the content - it was interesting, but I don't know if I buy the basic Tantric belief that everything is god or comes from god. I have never found that to be a satisfying philosophy, and usually when it gets fleshed out, it starts feeling circular. On a positive note, though, the book did give me a much better understanding of the Gita. Whereas Patañjali's Yoga Sutras is a philosophical treatise, the Bhagavad Gita addresses the more vital question of how to practice yoga in the morally ambiguous full blown disaster of the world. The description of Arjuna's breakdown on the battlefield is especially striking, and will be hauntingly familiar to anyone who has ever lost their footing in the world and didn't know what to do next. Krishna's advice is all the more poignant for the familiarity of Arjuna's self doubt.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Dahn Yoga

There's been a fair bit of talk in the yoga blogosphere lately about Dahn yoga, so I thought I'd weigh in with my own experience.

It was November 2005, and I was spending a few days in Ottawa; I'd driven up for the weekend to visit my best friend (as I used to do every spring and fall). She was working the day after I arrived, so we couldn't hang out, but she'd received a flyer at work announcing an open house at a new yoga studio and she passed it along to me. Dahn yoga. I'd never heard of it, but I was willing to go and find out what it was all about.

The open house was partly meet and greet, partly sales pitch, partly practice session. Regarding the practice itself, it was unlike any other yoga I'd practised before. No reference to Patanjali, or even to India; totally unfamiliar poses. Strangest of all, we ended the session with 30 seconds of forced laughter. I remember sitting there in the circle at the end, forcing laughter along with the rest, thinking "This is crazy."

Regarding the sales pitch; well, they were certainly quite heavy handed. I had an out, of course, because I was only in Ottawa for the weekend. Still, they persisted in suggesting that I pursue Dahn yoga back in New York, and they really wanted me to return the following week for some sort of an aura reading.

I don't recall if anyone (apart from me) from outside the Dahn yoga circle came to the open house; most everyone else there was from Dahn yoga's Montreal centre. That, of course, was the real highlight of the open house for me; sitting there listening to people talking in Korean, French, and English, with a smattering of Sanskrit thrown in (names of other yoga studios in Montreal). I didn't understand the Korean, of course, but I understood a fair bit of the French. There is little that makes me happier than being surrounded by conversations in multiple languages, some of which I vaguely understand. I felt so cosmopolitan. I felt like I was in the Tower of Babel.

Is Dahn yoga a cult? I guess that depends on how you define the word cult. Is a cult just a religion without any political clout? I find this definition tempting, but ultimately insufficient. I think there needs to be a proselytizing aspect as well, which is common but not inherent in religion. Also, my sense of cults is that they are intractable; once you are in, it is difficult to leave. So given this very informal definition of cult (religion without political clout, proselytizing, intractable), does Dahn yoga fit the bill? Perhaps. I leave it to greater minds than my own to decide.

There is, perhaps, a second issue here, and I only raise it because I suspect the question will be asked (and answered poorly) by mainstream media if it ever addresses the Dahn yoga story. Is yoga a cult? Obviously I don't believe it is, else I would not be involved in it. But let's apply my three point definition here as well for the sake of argument. First, I disagree with the suggestion that yoga is a religion (though some in the community do present it as such, and would probably take umbrage with me for disagreeing). Although we talk about goddesses and gods, no one in the yoga community has ever suggested to me that I need to believe in these deities as anything other than mythological beings, and no one has ever suggested that I need to pray to them. Neither is there in yoga (at least, the forms of yoga which I practice) a hierarchical power structure or a supreme leader. Yoga, in my experience, is a bottom-up enterprise; yes, there are big names and leaders of sorts, but I am free (and encouraged) to build my practice out of my own experience rather than relying on anyone else's. Also, I have never experienced anything akin to proselytizing in yoga. Those involved in the practice have found their own way there, and remain there (or not) because of the meaning that they find in it, not because of the meaning that anyone else attributes to it. Finally, the question of intractability. People leave (and return to) yoga all the time; it's almost a joke among yoga teachers. We run into former students outside the studio, and the first thing they want to tell us is that they're sorry they haven't been practising. Not to sound insensitive, and not at all to suggest that I'm uninterested in their practice or personal struggles (nothing could be further from the truth), but whether and how to practice is the student's decision, not her teacher's. We are not shepherds. We are not baby sitters. Just as we all find our own way into the practice, we are all free to find our own way out as well, and I don't think I have ever met a teacher who does not understand or respect that.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


Ever since I made my monster list of New Year's projects, I've been totally freaking out from the enormity of it all, and the thought of all the things I left off the list. So while I'm winnowing down, revising, and prioritizing the list, here's a post on an unrelated topic.

I sometimes find myself wondering why I am here. Like everyone else on the planet, I know that I am ultimately headed for the big dirt nap, and will probably get there sooner than I expect and much sooner than I'd like. Before that happens, though, I wonder if there's something important that I'm meant to do; not in a paranoid-schizophrenic-delusions-of-grandeur sort of way, rather, I'd like to think there is something I can do with my time here that would be of benefit to others and also meaningful to me. At first I thought that it would involve writing, or some obscure interest or fascination of mine, but I have never been able to figure out what to do with any of that. Most of my interests seem very peculiar to me, and probably not of great import to society at large.

Frustrated, I thought about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Buckminster Fuller, and their respective struggles to find purpose in their lives. Goethe found his answer in writing; Fuller, in devising creative new ways of living. Both ideas resonate with me in different ways, but neither seems to be my path, per se. Writing is certainly something I love to do, but I don't think I could view it as an end, only as a means. The fundamental drive for me lies somewhere else.

Then I realized I was thinking too much about it, and if there really was something I was meant to do, it was probably right in front of me and not something that I had to dig very deep for. And then it came to me. Yoga. Of course it's yoga; what else could it be? This practice, more than anything else, has been the thing that has helped me unfold as a person. If there is anything I am meant to do, at least at this point in my life, I am certain that this is it; studying, practicing, teaching, living yoga. And there is great comfort and relief in that realization, because this is something I am already involved in and already love.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (a review)

Why, oh why doesn't anyone write this beautifully today? Deliciously complex sentence structure, social commentary and subtle sarcasm. And humour too, though Austen doesn't sacrifice her charcters on the altar of irony as contemporary writers do. She leaves some room for them to breathe and to live. Generally, it was a pleasure to read this book.

However, there is one question that keeps rising for me whenever I read Austen's writing. Her characters are constantly talking about money, worrying about money, making arrangements and engagements based on money or the lack thereof, yet I have yet to encounter a charcter of Austen's who holds a job. They are all living on interest, though Austen never sees fit to mention the source of the principle. If her characters are all so very concerned about their finances, would it not behoove them to find some manner of gainful employment? Perhaps this simply was not done among the upper (or upper-middle) classes of England in the 19th century.

I guess this is why although I love Austen's writing, the plot of Sense and Sensibility seems a little thin to me. I just can't identify with the lifestyle of her protagonists, envious though I may be of their excesses of leisure time.

Well, one Jane Austen novel down, two others previously read (Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey - I haven't decided whether I'll re-read them). That leaves three works, unless I'm mistaken; Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. I'm off to a good start on at least one of my projects for 2010, reading all of Austen's novels.