On cybershalas and old-school blogs

In Italy, I was absolutely inspired by the food. Back home and now mostly (hopefully!) recovered from a nasty bug picked up on the plane ride returning stateside, I have a renewed commitment to being more vigilant about what my consume. Three related events from earlier today:

All the while, I’m thinking that as I get deeper into the Ashtanga blogging world — like, when I start to know gossip going on in Mysore right now — am I being vigilant enough in the Ashtanga-related information I’m consuming? There’s plenty of potentially distracting yoga drama right here where I live — do I need to know the ins and outs of the good intentions and bad feelings taking place half a world away from me? Is that helping my practice — and just as important, my teaching? (You could argue it potentially helps my blogging, but that’s a topic for another day.)

When I got home, I looked up the link that @ClaudiaYoga had referred to.  And that brings me to this post. The link goes to “Virtual Transmission, Visceral Practice: Dance Central and the Cybershala,”  a blog post based on a scholar’s recent paper. It’s a fascinating discussion and I recommend reading the entire post. But here’s the core introducing why Kiri Miller, who is a practicing ashtangi herself, is exploring this:

An overwhelming number of yoga blogs, videos, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and other forms of online social media now constitute a ‘cybershala’ of ashtanga yoga practitioners—many who work with teachers regularly, others who are cultivating a practice as ‘home ashtangis’ (cf. Finnegan 1989 on ‘hidden musicians’). Yoga bloggers face a challenge familiar to ethnomusicologists and dance scholars: how can one communicate kinesthetic, multisensory experiences without bodily presence and a shared sensorium?

In delving further into this issue, Miller finds herself watching videos and thinking the experience was “very much like the experience of listening to music that I knew how to play.” Then she realizes that watching the Ashtanga videos gave her the uncomfortable feeling that she might be “cheating” on her teacher:

Ashtanga students are not supposed to start experimenting with advanced asana of their own accord. On the other hand, the structured nature of ashtanga makes it particularly well suited to independent practice, amateur-to-amateur pedagogy, and online discourse among a dispersed community of practitioners. Browsing YouTube videos of ashtanga backbends quickly led me to “grimmly2007,” who had uploaded about 300 videos so that he could embed them in his yoga blog.

Miller describes Grimmly’s challenge to the Ashtanga tradition of one-on-one transmission from teacher to student, and then goes on to discuss the popular video game Dance Central.

If you don’t know about Grimmly, you should definitely read her synopsis and head over to his blog.

I’m less interested in Dance Central — only because I’ve only seen it on TV and have never played it myself — but I am quite intrigued by the questions that Miller is raising for Ashtanga practitioners because I live in the middle of the Mitten State. Here in Lansing, Mich., even though there is no dedicated Ashtanga shala, I  have fine access to Ashtanga classes and teachers, and I have friends who are as enamored of the practice as I am. But…I don’t really have anyone to consistently geek it out with, if you know what I mean. And even if I were in New York City or Encinitas, it’s not really fair to ask of anyone to be available — by phone, by email, whatever — when it’s 2 a.m. and I can’t sleep and I want to discuss more research postures for supta kurmasana (sleeping tortoise). (Who has that? Even if your significant other practices, can you really wake them up during your insomnia to talk more Ashtanga?) Anyway, when I started blogging more frequently, I started getting more engaged with the Ashtanga community via blogs, Twitter and Facebook and, yes, YouTube. It was like having a community full of people who understood me — where I didn’t have to justify (like I on occasion have to do with non-ashtangis) how I don’t get bored by doing the same sequence day after day — especially now that I’m practicing six days a week.

In short, I thought the online Ashtanga community — what has apparently been coined the “cybershala” — was ultimately deepening my practice. But in recent weeks — and really, I mean recent — a seed’s been planted about whether I’m always reading the right blogs. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing when I know about the latest elephant journal post related to Ashtanga. I should stress that these are just seeds of thoughts — that on the whole, I don’t think I’m even close to subsisting on a diet of junk yoga products. (And whenever I worry about that last elephant journal post, I know I can consume organic Ashtanga produce again by heading here, a blog’s that’s as heady as it is honest, as esoteric as it is earthy.)

All I know is that I am consuming enough Ashtanga-related news, information and instruction that I know I need to be as vigilant about this as I am about what I’m putting into my body.

Back to the cybershala. Miller concludes (emphasis mine):

Both the cybershala and Dance Central make it possible for practitioners to learn a physically demanding, minutely codified repertoire without ever interacting with a physically-present teacher. Grimmly and his fellow cybershala practitioners are creating new transmission modalities for ashtanga yoga, from reflective writing to side-by-side slideshows that might reveal hidden traces of corporeal knowledge. Meanwhile, Dance Central players are learning hours of choreography while also working through their ideas about gender identity, public and private performance, and virtual community. These paradigm shifts in yoga and dance transmission might shed light on similar changes in the transmission of performing arts traditions that rely on a lineage of teachers and students, body-to-body pedagogy, and a codified repertoire or fundamental skill set. Dance Central and the cybershala show how professional game designers, home ashtangis, and living-room dancers are all finding ways to use available technology and social media platforms to support the virtual transmission of embodied practice.

“New transmission modalities for ashtanga yoga” is interesting. I mean, isn’t that exactly what was driving my desire to create the Ashtanga Yoga + Social Media Grid? Grimmly is an amazing case study, but what I find as important to think about are authorized and certified teachers such as Kino MacGregor and David Garrigues, who are prolific in their online teaching modalities — tweeting, YouTubing, blogging and more. Like many other practitioners, I’ve benefitted from what they put out there and I share with others what speaks most to me.

Where all that falls short, of course, is the part about supporting “virtual transmission of embodied practice.” In this practice, we use the body to go beyond the body, and if you’ve found your teacher, then you know that no amount of instructional videos can transmit that radiance of being the same space as that teacher. I love social media — it’s a large part of what I do for work. But I’m happy that virtual transmissions can’t replace perhaps the most important element of a teacher-student relationship.

I kind of used to wonder why Tim Miller — the biggest spark of inspiration in my practice, aside from finding the practice in the first place — has never done an instructional DVD or book. Or why his blog focuses on Vedic astrology, his personal reflections, the meanings of holidays, and just about everything but the Ashtanga practice itself. This blog post about the rise of virtual transmission of embodied practice might be the answer I’ve been looking for. He is — bless his heart — an old-school kind of guy. Probably exactly what we need as a counterpose in this modern world of smart phones, on-demand access and virtual realities.

P.S. — On the topic of consumption: I’m happy to report that my dinner consisted of open-face sandwiches of fresh sourdough, black truffle butter (Italy ruined me on the black truffle front — I love it!), baby kale, provolone and cajun Boar’s Head meat. If you’re judging on the meat, let that go, because this is a huge step up from the meals that I prepare for myself. And that’s all we can ask on the self-improvement front, right?

P.P.S — I’m looking forward to reading The Information Diet — after, of course, I finish Thinking…Fast and Slow.

(Screenshot souce: Click on it, and you will see…)

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