Saturday, September 17, 2016

Seeing Yoga for the Trees

I enjoy analyzing systems. I like to break down the processes and components and really delve into the inner mechanics of a variety of situations both mundane and profound. There is a certain confidence that comes from the fact that there are no secrets after you've taken something apart and put it back together again.

For instance, if I buy a new desktop computer, I normally tear it all the way down into it's base components and put it back together again. That way I know the system. I would do the same with my car if I had the time and the tools. It satisfies my nearly insatiable curiosity for one but it also gives me an edge if something goes wrong. I know the system. I'm familiar with the parts.

I do the same with ideas, concepts and philosophies. Break them down. Slice off the propaganda and discover the core element or even the motivation behind the idea, concept or philosophy and you may very well gain insight into the myriad of human conditions.

That being said, I'll never be able to break down yoga as a system. It's just too big and too saturated with ideas both old and new from a huge variety of cultural sources. And it's so old. There is so much history to account for and considerations that cannot be ignored if you are trying to break down yoga as a system.

My attempts at breaking yoga down as a system quickly collapsed into a morass of frustration for all the stated reasons. Too much, too old, etc.  But that quickly dissolved one day when I was feebly trying to explain all the different flavors of yoga to an interested party. I had to pull an analogy up that has been used before in other matters.

Yoga is like a forest. And there are many paths through the forest and some cross and some double back on themselves but it's all the same forest. Now it's important to pick the path that appeals to you but that's about it. From there you just see where you go and feel free to try that path right over there or the one that one that crosses your own. That's very fine and even healthy. Don't assume that any path is the perfect path. Keep the mind open and the feet moving.

Explaining it that what lead me to my own revelation that no matter how hard I tried, chances are that I will never see every tree in the yoga forest. And I'm okay with that. At least now I am. Because in my early attempts to disassemble the system, I came to another realization which may actually be one of the Secrets of Life.

And that secret is: Eat right. Breath right. Move.

It appears to be a key to contentment. Nutrition and a deep breath and keep the feet moving.

Now isn't interesting that yoga gives advice on one of those and systems to handle the other two? Yoga advises a no-meat to low-meat diet (but you can take that advice or leave it). Pranayama is a system devoted to breath and asanas provide work for the body.

With that revelation, I had to relax. I have the basics down. I just need to enjoy the path through the forest.

But what if I need a bit more or or a bit of clarification on a practice or concept?

That's a problem. A big problem. A problem that illustrates both the blessing and the curse of the modern Information Age. I have the sum of human knowledge and experience at my technological fingertips. And I only have to dig through everyone's opinion to get to it. This is dangerous and it requires a good bit of skepticism and maybe a little bit of cynicism to filter out the bullshit that is slowly piling up over the sum of human knowledge and experience. I'll still take it over looking at 10 year old encyclopedias but you have to understand that anyone can throw up a Youtube video or post to an Instagram account and claim a lineage back to the yoga masters of old. And if they look good, they will get followers.

I have found some fantastic teachers through online video, I will say. But I had to wade through some stuff that I knew was wrong. And it's the same with books and such. Yoga is hot right now and shows no signs of slowing down so everyone one and their dog is "recreating" yoga in their rock star image.

So where do you get your information if you need more? Your local studio? Maybe. But what if you don't have a studio nearby? Yoga is hot right know but it's not everywhere just yet.

There are no easy answers to this one. You have to walk a tight rope of skepticism over the canyon of open-mindedness to get along.

But I have found some resources that I will share. First is a book that I actually started with, Hatha Yoga Illustrated. It is just the basics. It has a short introduction of the concepts and some of the breathing and then it moves into illustrations of each asana and the steps to get there. It does not get into details but it does do enough to get almost anyone started. This book and a weekly yoga class would be a perfect place to begin. I have never found another that just handled the basics so well.

Another book that has become invaluable to me is A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya. This book is thick and the type is small and it does not pull any punches on information. The forward of the book states that this is an effort to create a reference and to try to put as much of the practice and traditions into one place for this particular school. The other exceedingly cool thing is that the author explains the tradition and then goes to some effort to explain the science behind the tradition. It gets deep but if you feel that need to "go deeper" this is a great book to start with.

Understand that this is not the Westernized version yoga. I will state again that no punches are pulled although cautions are given and some of the cleansing techniques would make some squeamish. But it is a tradition to this particular school and it's interesting to read even if you would never try it. The philosophy and the approach to the asanas are well worth the price of the book and I've picked up a variety of new pranayama techniques.

It's the combination of "Here's the tradition" and now "Here's the science" and then "Here's our opinion" that has me recommending it as a reference. That breakdown leaves a lot for me to digest on my own terms and through the lens of my own experience. There is no one saying that this is the only way it can be done because that's the way they were taught. It's a book of ideas and information, not dogma.

What about videos?

Hard to say and harder to recommend. There are some great teachers that produce content on Youtube but your choice is probably going to be personal. I would avoid anyone that has incorporated the word "yoga" into another word to make a new word. But some of the established personalities are established for a reason and so the number of video views might be good guide. But follow your gut. If it doesn't seem right, it probably isn't so move on.

Honestly, I could recommend more and I could recommend what to avoid but that would run really long. But I'm finding anything with a New Age tinge would best be avoided. The New Age is really just the Old Age with the blood and guts removed. Sometimes literally. If anyone is wrapping New Age terminology around yoga terms or practices, I am instantly suspicious.

But follow your gut and stick to the basics as long as possible but don't be afraid to explore the other paths through the forest. The variation of the ways through the forest are what makes the experience so real and personal.

And all the paths through the forest don't necessarily lead to the same place. Sometimes its the journey that is important or maybe it's the destination but either way it's your journey and that final bit of commitment to your experience is power that fuels a transformation.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Music Mondays: Tengger Calvary

The first Dan Carlin podcast I experienced was Wrath of the Khans which lead me into some fairly deep investigations of Mongolia and her culture. Which is how I discovered Tengger Calvary, a Mongolian Folk Metal band that uses the traditional Mongolian throat singing along with some traditional Mongolian musical instruments all bound together with modern metal.

It is an absolutely insane mix that absolutely works. They even use traditional Mongolian folk songs that sing about the open steppes and good horse and praise Genghis Khan. Just set to metal.

Modern metal is stagnating hard at the moment. Everyone is locked into the growl/scream thing and the community has fragmented into a ridiculous number of sub-genres which dilutes and demeans the energy that the metal style of music was suppose to deliver. There are exceptions and break-aways but I was afraid that the genre as a whole was done for.

Tengger Calvary brings us back to the roots. Driving rythyms, distorted guitars and high energy and lots of fun.

For a little more context and comparison here is some traditional Mongolian throat singing:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Late Review: Stranger Things

I love to get creatively blind sided.

I walked into Star Wars in 1977 completely cold, unaware of even the basics. Of course I was blown away in that life changing way that I the creative types hope for. There was not one preconceived notion in my 12 year old mind so the reaction to the movie was pure and real.

Same thing happened with Indiana Jones. The marketing failed in that I walked into the theater without having seen a preview or reading a review. I saw the movie poster and I think I shrugged and decided to give it a chance.

Once again, mind blown. And going in cold only made it more of the experience that I have come to crave but so rarely get due to idiot marketing strategies that involve putting all the best parts of the movie in the previews and saturating every form of media. I think it was one of Avenger movies that sparked a sense of true raging frustration. I could have literally strung together all of the previews and I would have seen the movie or at least all the best parts of it.

Netflix doesn't do that. I don't know if they do it intentionally but they let the internet do their marketing in a subtle and word-of-mouth way. This leads to moments of discovery that may not be as mind-blowing as Star Wars or Indiana Jones but they are getting close.

I have had friends recommend Stranger Things for a while and I had heard recommendations online. But it was slow burn marketing efforts and I didn't see previews or a synopsis or anything before I finally settled down to watch it. I went in as cold as you can in this modern information age.

And my mind was blown. It's eight episodes of pure entertainment and I loved it and I binged it almost in one sitting and I do not regret it. I spotted the elevator pitch by the end of the second episode (Eighties nostalgia, Stephen King, Pre-Schindler's List Spielberg and let's throw in some X-Files) but that only intensified my interest. It was a roller coaster ride of detail and artistic revelation that pretty much only Netflix is interested in these days.

So I will not get into any more details other than the elevator pitch, especially since it's still generating that low background buzz at this point and you may have the opportunity to go in cold.

But give it a chance and enjoy the ride.

What Can a Little Curry Do?

My diet and cooking preferences have simplified a lot lately. My current favorite meal? Steamed vegetables over rice with a bit of Cajun seasoning and a boiled egg or two. Done in about fifteen minutes and immensely satisfying.

I've had the 30 minute rule in place for a long time. Meals should take 30 minutes or less for prep and cooking on a week night after work. But I wavered away from that rule with my foray into Indian cuisine which was delightful and educational but time consuming. I didn't dig too deep but I'm pretty sure there is no such a thing as a simple Indian dish. There are steps and lots of prep and yes, it's worth it but there were nights after work that I felt like I was working a second shift in a restaurant. In the end, I had learned more about spices and discovered new depths of flavors than I had thought possible but a lot of my favorite Indian recipes are in line with the time commitment of Texas chili. It should take a day or two to get it really good.

But the education was invaluable. Spices add depth to a dish and that's what Indian cooking excels at. And I have no fear of curry which is an accomplishment as far as I'm concerned since a lot of the home-style cooks speak of curry in hushed tones tainted with fear.

Curry powder has a interesting origin in that the "heat" of the curry power is actually an import from the Americas in the form of a variety of chilies. This is actually a common theme in culinary history. The two big exports of the Americans onto the world culinary stage are peppers and tomatoes. So the heat of a curry or the North African tagine didn't develop until the discovery of the New World. Same thing with tomatoes which is kind of mind blowing when you consider how ubiquitous the tomato appears to be to Italian cooking.

Now one could get really caught up in the minutiae of curry powders since curry powder is actually a mix of spices and this mix will vary from region to region and from country to country. South Asia curry or Thai curry may be different from an Indian curry. But, usually, it's not worth splitting hairs unless you become a true curry connoisseur at which point you may consider grinding your own. Garam masala has the same status. It's a mix of spices that may vary.

For my purposes, I just need the spice container to say "curry" and I'm good to go.

I have added two recipes to my "fast and furious 30 minutes or less but don't skimp on flavor" repertoire. Both are so simple that they can be a little daunting. You may find yourself looking at the dish and saying "That's it?" It's almost too easy but if you want flavor and you want fast, I haven't found much that beats either of these.

The first is a coconut curry with rice noodles.

Put a cup and a half of water on to boil.  Add a bouillon of your choice. I usually go with a tomato chicken variety but you could use vegetable or even beef if you have it. I think the chicken turns out best though.

Bring the bouillon to a simmer and let everything dissolve. Then add a half a teaspoon of curry, a half a teaspoon of garam masala and salt. Let this simmer for a minute or two and then add about a half a can of coconut milk (remember to shake the can vigorously before you open it) . Bring everything back up to heat but don't let it get to a roiling boil. Just let it simmer.
Get two packages of rice noodles. I'm specific on the brand here because the individually wrapped servings are perfect for this. Place the noodles into deep bowls and then pour the hot mixture carefully over the noodles until they are submerged. Cover the bowl and let sit for five minutes and then the noodles will be done.

It's almost too easy for the level of flavors that you will experience. And you can ramp it up easily if you want more heat by adding more curry power but be careful. Go a half teaspoon at a time until you find your sweet spot. Remember that when the Thai or Indian restaurants are asking "What heat level would you like, 1 to 5" they are most likely asking how many spoons of curry do you want added to the dish.

Now take all of this and maybe boil an egg to go with it or steam some vegetables and you have very nutritious meal by most standards and essentially all you had to do was boil water.

The other recipe actually came from a post on Reddit which has the original recipe and the variation that I now lean upon for a super quick meal that also serves as a complete protein.

The variation I use was suggested in comments of the post and uses far fewer ingredients. Basically, saute a little bit of garlic, a little bit of onion and a half a teaspoon of curry in a pat of butter or a little bit of olive oil. When the onions are translucent add a can of red beans and bring up to heat. Pour a serving of beans over a serving of rice and you are done. You could add a bit of sour cream or yogurt and some chopped green onion if you are feeling fancy.

Now, I admit I was dubious on this last one. Speaking as someone who spends Sunday afternoons cooking beans in a slow cooker Cajun style, eating beans out of a can seems pedestrian. But I had the ingredients so I tried it and now I am embarrassed to admit that this is the best beans over rice recipe I've ever had. It is insanely good and satisfying in its base form.

Why does curry work? If I were to channel Alton Brown for a second, I would imagine it has something to do with not only a combination of appealing and savory flavors but also the fact the the heat will open your sinuses and thus enhance your sense of smell for a moment. The better you can smell, the more you can taste so a lot of the inherent flavors are allowed to shine.

That would be the science of it. But for me it's magic. A little spoon of something that instantly elevates a dish on a variety of levels and can make the simplest of ingredients into a flavor adventure.

So what can a little bit of curry do?

At this point I'm wondering what it can't do.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Writing Projects

I have set up some of my writing projects off of my personal site at as a publishing experiment.

I enjoy writing but never found myself in position to try to publish through traditional vectors. So I wanted to try this. The Temple of Fate is a probably one of my favorite projects but its a bit more free form as opposed to The Chalice which is more of a traditional fantasy novel.

Like any writer or creative person, I want to get eyes on my efforts in the hopes that some may enjoy or find themselves intrigued.

Legal Stuff: Anything I publish on any of my sites is copy-protected and may not be re-published or reproduced without the permission of the author.

Music Mondays: Dark Jazz

The modern music scene is a mess. And that's probably a good thing.

Not every one would say so. Record labels are still shaking their heads over the fact that they lost control so quickly. One moment, the masses listened to what they were told to and the next, independent artists were dumping their efforts onto a variety of websites and getting virtual airtime without an agent or an audition or anything. These artists just throw it all out there and hope for the best. It's chaos. It's creative anarchy.

And it's probably a really good thing.

Now we, the listeners, the potential audience must wade through more material of questionable quality but the cream still rises to the top and as a bonus, we are sometimes exposed to some genres that we might not have heard of in the days before the creative anarchy set in. And this is why I think the anarchy is a good thing. In the last five years, I've made more musical "discoveries" that have piqued and held my interest than in the previous forty by a ridiculous margin. And I think the more diverse my search history gets, the better chance of making even more discoveries and finding new creative renditions of anything gets me excited.

Today's example is Dark or Doom Jazz.

My musical tastes range far and wide. I like old school metal and thrash, eighties pop and nineties grunge, classical and electronic; basically anything that's not modern country or jazz.

Yeah, I'm not a fan of jazz. I never could get past the ingrained pretentiousness of it. I wallowed in the blues revival of the nineties and so I dipped pretty deep into jazz extensions of the blues but, to me, jazz is the blues all educated and refined but largely devoid of the passion that made the blues a window into the woolly confines of the human emotional condition. Jazz claims rules and pretense and structure and but even in the best improvisational solo, it gets mechanical. It should soar but to me it just rides the same train over and over.

That's just my opinion. And there are exceptions. But for the most part I'll move quickly to something else on the playlist.

But how did I get to be a fan of dark jazz if I'm not a fan of jazz?

Well, as usual, I came in the back way.  I was looking for some down-tempo electronic or maybe some trip hop. Something to play in the background that was compelling and maybe a little driving but still in the background. Something that could just fill the spaces during creative activities without becoming a driving force or an intrusion upon said activities. But maybe a shy participant.

That's why I was thinking ambient or trip hop. Maybe some Massive Attack or something similar. But a lot of trip hop gets pretty vocal and then I'm distracted.  So I can't tell Spotify or Pandora to just load a trip hop station and go to town.

After a bit of exploration, I landed on Kalpatura Tree. It fit the bill. It falls into sort of a world music dub mix that definitely fuels the creative vibe and atmosphere which is what I was looking for.

Search over? Not necessarily. Following a few rabbit holes and a post or two of "if you like this, then try x" I land in the midst of the dark jazz genre.

Well, it's jazz so I'm not going to like it. Right? But the name of one of the primary groups is so intriguing: The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble

They have full albums available on YouTube so I was listening and almost instantly I was a fan. This is what I was looking for. Subtle. Dark. Driving. Infinite. In the background but on your shoulder whispering. Maybe haunting in a way but you can leave it on the edges of perception or you can listen and be transported. Very artistic stuff. or very "sit on the window sill and watch it rain" kinda mood music that takes you and leaves you as you are.

If you are listening to Kilimanjaro, Bohren and der Club of Gore is going to pop up on the suggested list.  More of the same really with more sax. But so very good.

And guess what. That's it. You can look for other stuff that may be labeled "dark jazz" but, in my experience, it lacks subtlety and I always seem to circle back to Kilimanjaro and Bohren. Which is sad and exciting at the same time. Two cases of lightning in a jar that others seem to have trouble matching or catching. Yes, it's sad that we don't have more but it's also exciting that the bar has been set.  A standard is present that must be met or exceeded to count. I hope some one sees that as a challenge and makes some good stuff.

So, for your consideration: Dark Jazz. Give it all a listen while wearing something comfortable and sipping something edgy. Bourbon is a good choice. Maybe with a splash of water or just one ice cube.

Headphones are a must. Attitude is optional. Expect creative results.