Archive for August, 2012

Dare to create (but…)

[cross-posted from my CGT 512 blog] – with some special notes about yoga and innovation here.

One of the things I love most about Purdue (and makes me feel at home here) is that I get to work with so many people from all around the world. I can’t help but notice the legacies of various educational systems leave on students. These are just my observations, and I’m most probably over-generalizing here, but here I go:

We often hear complaints about the American education system: kids don’t learn the fundamentals; they can’t spell; critical thinking suffers. People coming from educational systems such as China, India, and (I’d say) Romania do learn the fundamentals. They can understand and synthesize ideas. Their work endurance is much higher. They simply put in more hours without expecting to have as much fun.

And then I saw in the news this story about a 17-year old girl who built a neural network that diagnoses breast cancerΒ that’s 99.1% sensitive to malignant cells, in her trials.

And then I stumbled upon this company that makes plush toys from your dog’s photos in order to generate funds for animal shelters. It began with a little girl’s idea and her insistence, and, of course, parents who went along with it.Β 

My observation is that people like me, who come from the Romanian, Indian, Chinese educational systems (they must have some things in common) are really good at learning, understanding, explaining information. But we are afraid to create. I know in Romania at least, we are told that we first have to master all that came before us before we can start creating. It is a daunting task, and by the time we’re done, it’s often too late. We have this reverence for the “great thinkers”… I remember how shocked I was when I first started grad school in the U.S. that you could argue with Aristotle. “What do you mean, question Aristotle? He is ARISTOTLE!” I am still amused, outraged, and in awe of American irreverence and the freedom people take (even people who don’t understand Aristotle well) to just argue – to improve, to innovate, upon Aristotle’s ideas (and by “Aristotle,” of course, I mean any big name).

Creativity and innovation cannot be attributed solely to the educational system. Culture and economy inform entrepreneurial spirit. And yet, the question has been bugging me, What kind of educational system does it take to foster creativity and innovation? What are some practices that we should include in the way we teach and learn, that will encourage and foster creative, innovative thinking?

I leave you with a TED talk by IDEO’s David Kelley on building creative confidence. It doesn’t answer my question, though, so please let me know. What have been your experiences in school that you feel have helped foster your creative, innovative thinking?

As much as I love innovation in technology and as smitten as I am with new and shiny things, I am very conservative, though, with innovation in yoga. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think it can even be dangerous. I think there is value in preserving a tradition that has been developed over years of very deep practice. Unless you have practiced enough yoga to be able to feel and control prana and know how it is affected by asana, I don’t think you are in a position to innovate. You may, but you don’t really know what you’re messing with and what the consequences may be. I am appalled and scared by this trend that every yoga teacher create their “brand” of yoga. It must be a result of making yoga a product that is marketed and needs to be differentiated from other products, I guess. I understand that every teacher sees something that others do not, from their own personal angle, colored by their own personal experience. I understand teaching from their own perspective, teaching what it’s like from them. After all, every teacher shares her/his own energy. That’s different and unique enough for me.


As I mentioned in some previous posts, I’ve gone along with Yoga Journal’s Meditation Revolution: a 28-day program of 10-minutes/day meditation. Enough to establish a habit, they say.

I have learned that it takes me a bit longer than 28 days to establish a habit. πŸ™‚ But almost 28 days of consecutive daily practice, combined with the very powerful ham-sa meditation, were enough for me to get a taste of… how awesome meditation can feel. I have learned that it takes me fewer than 28 days to establish an addiction. πŸ™‚ Once I got to that feel-good place, I want to go back. So that explains why I stuck with it and I keep sitting for about 12 minutes most days.

A friend asked me if I noticed a difference… Well, yes. Here is what it feels like for me, and why I’m sticking with it:

  • After some regular practice, I experience a state of peaceful joy. This pleasant feeling of joy (bliss?) comes out of the blue when I am sitting, and reappears occasionally during the day.
  • I am experiencing a state of calm and detachment. When I meditate and right afterwards, problems seem solvable, without getting too worked up. When I do get worked up, it is easier (faster) to come back to a calm and detached state. A state of mind that knows that this is not a life or death situation, and even if the business office is annoying me, it will all be OK. (It will all be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, it’s not the end :))
  • I sometimes experience a delightful sense of spaciousness. You know that feeling, when you are stressed, that the skull is pressing on the brain, and there’s enormous pressure on the shoulders and chest? Well, this is the opposite. It feels like my skull enlarges and my mind expands into the blue, beyond the limits of my physical body. My eyebrows and forehead relax, and I feel that there is enough space, there is enough time. Feels delightful.
  • Now, these are glimpses that last maybe a few seconds. As my mind works on its own (some days more than others), I am sometimes able to observe trains of thought, but I often I get on them. Luckily, the chime on my meditation timer reminds me to get off at the next train stop and to come back to the breath and the mantra. And then I get a glimpse of the pleasant states described above. And then another train comes. Rinse and repeat. πŸ™‚ I have observed that it is much easier to come back to stillness and joy with the mantra rather than focusing only on the breath as in pure Vipassana.

As I understand it, these are just the initial, superficial stages of meditation. But you know what, I’ll take them. It doesn’t have to be samadhi. πŸ™‚

I am grateful to Sally Kempton for providing gentle guidance through the 28 days. Her book, Meditation for the Love of It, is on my reading list.

If you would like to try this simple and powerful meditation, here is an audio of Sally Kempton guiding you through it. The same technique is described in more detail in the book Meditation and its Practice, which I was sure I reviewed on this blog, but apparently I didn’t.

Β I got this DVD after hearing my teacher rave about Sarah Powers. The DVD is one of a 2-part series (the other one being Heaven). Sarah uses yoga asanas
to guide the flow of energy into the body. Here, energy is conceptualized in the Chinese Yin/Yang system. The Earth DVD includes predominantly standing sequences – lots of warriors, tree, horse (temple), chair poses with barely any counterposes. The poses are supposed to help you draw Earth energy into the belly (a chi energy center). I found that the sequence didn’t progress smoothly – no warm-up, no cool-down. It was not paced like a typical yoga class. I was fairly tired at the end of the day and I did not keep up with all the standing asanas. I did like, though, that all movement was slow and coordinated with the breath.

As I lay in Shavasana at the end, I felt a monstrous stomach ache creeping in. I do get heartburn now and then, so I cannot make casual attributions here, but I’ll just say that, unlike most yoga classes, this one did not make me feel any better afterwards.

One Zantac, two Pepto Bismol, two hours and a ginger tea later, I wonder: Why is it necessary to innovate yoga? Why merge it with the Chinese energy system when yoga is already very tightly associated with another ancient healing system, Ayurveda? How do we know that this innovative energy work we’re doing here is not harmful? How and why did it come about? How do we know what we’re even doing here? It takes tremendous intuition, perception of energy flow and experimentation to figure out what we’re even doing. Honestly, Sarah Powers looks too young to have had the time to do all this in her lifetime (this one, at least).

What if it was not Earth energy that I needed right now – or ever? I have a strong kapha dosha (the Ayurvedic equivalent of Earth) – did I just aggravate it? When I read “balancing” Earth energy I interpreted this in the Ayurvedic sense, which means compensating with the opposite. I am not sure what I just did… Ayurveda teaches how to identify what your system needs at any given time, depending on disposition and season. It then teaches how to balance energies with their opposites. This can be done through a combination of diet, asana, herbs, etc. I think I might have just taken a pill without a prior diagnosis to determine whether I even needed it and now I’m dealing with the side effects.

Most likely, there’s more to insight yoga than I can glean from this DVD, but so far, I think I’ll stick with traditional yoga and Ayurveda before buying into innovative hybrid styles.


Summer reading: Yoga Bitch

I just finished reading Yoga Bitch – and I guess I’m really enjoying the Yoga memoir genre. The book was very funny and some moments were so “out there” that I was really surprised to get to the end and figure out it was a memoir, not a piece of fiction!

Too often, I find in yoga circles this unconditional acceptance of ideas and behaviors that would benefit from questioning… all this in the name of being nice, or yogic. Morrison brings a healthy skepticism to her yoga adventure. I identified with the critical examination (even of things she could not control, such as the relationship with Indra, her yoga teacher), humor, and -gasp! how un-yogic!- her sarcasm. The word “bitch” in the title makes it clear that these questioning attitudes are considered un-yogic in the nouveau hippie, new age, starry-eyed contemporary yoga ethos.

To me, her relationship with Indra was the most complex part of the book that shed light on an important dynamic that seems to happen a lot after we have imported yoga – but not all its social structures and practices – into the West. But that idea of the guru in the West deserves a post of its own.

I’m thinking my friend Karen would enjoy this book – or maybe even be able to write a funnier one! πŸ™‚ I really want to send her my copy, except it’s in iBooks…

Overall, nice read, very entertaining, light yet a bit thought-provoking.

Like most of us, I’ve been enjoying watching the Olympics – but as I learned about the personal sacrifices kids like sweet Gabby Douglas had to endure, I thought to myself, “it’s not worth it.” I came across a couple of opinion columns on Huffington Post that spell out more eloquently than me what the problem may be, what the values underlying the Olympic sacrifice are and how they influence collective thought (aka culture & society). I am copying below the sentences that sum up the argument for me:

The pedestal … gold … success … grit and determination and resolve and tenacity — suck it up and grin and do it again and again because today’s record will be broken tomorrow and Tuesday’s excellence is Thursday’s mediocrity and Saturday’s failure. Redefine “success” as prestige and mint it into a medal, then market it throughout society and see it bloom.

Apparently not. It’s all about “winning” — and since there can only be one champion, the vast majority collapses from a broken heart. And don’t celebrate too long. Next year’s gauntlet menaces for all the Little Leaguers and Big Leaguers and those far beyond the world of sports. Businesses can’t just make a profit; they must quash the competition and reign as Number One. In Washington, the party that’s lost its mind bare-knuckles with the party that’s lost its vision — and insanity’s apparent candidate shifts his views like a cold-calling salesman plying for customers. Win and only win. Don’t present a coherent program and argue for it; just launch attacks that are obvious plays for votes and nothing more — because it’s all about “me” and a pyrrhic November victory with no mandate to govern. Stand on the pedestal in January, then plow into the exhausting campaign for the next election. There’s no break.

They’re also unwitting icons of a nation in which relationships are swapped for medals and that transient moment on the pedestal. We do them no dishonor when we see that, nor do we help them by turning a blind eye to the price they paid for their brief triumph. We’re all paying that price. Perhaps it’s too high. – read the entire article by Charles Redfern

This other article discusses the unbelievable performance of 16-year old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen, that may very well be the result of grueling training in “Olympic factories” where the life is hard and athletes train because they were chosen, not because they wanted to. The author compares that with the more easy-going attitude of Great Britain, who may be satisfied with bronze. She also analyzes what these Olympic values mean for culture, society, and business:

You might, in fact, think about the things we call “success.” You might think that winning a medal if you’d taken drugs definitely didn’t count as success, but that you weren’t at all sure that winning a medal if you’d lived your life as a kind of prisoner did. You might think that annual economic growth of nearly 8 per cent sounded great, until you found out about the chemicals, and the nets. You might, in other words, think that sometimes the price of success was too high.

And if you were a citizen of a country that used to be a leading world power, and was now only the sixth biggest economy in the world, and which happened to be hosting the Olympics, you might be pleased. You might think that the opening ceremony, which was funny and charming and a little bit mad, told the world that we had a lot to be proud of, but that the most important thing about our country wasn’t our pride. You might think about the young men who won a medal that hadn’t been won for 100 years, and who practiced because they wanted to, and entered the Olympics because they wanted to. And you might well think that there were times when bronze was worth an awful lot more than gold. – read the entire article here.

I like these two articles because I believe it’s important to stop and consider what values we learn to believe in as we worship the Olympics and admire Olympians. I hope the paragraphs I extracted here motivate you to read them and consider: What does it mean to succeed? What is the price that’s worth paying for success? What does it mean for our society when there can only be one winner?

stuffed bell peppers and strawberry spinach salad

This is a combination inspired by a recipe I saw in vegetarian times and a salad from the Fresh 20 menu plan. I modified them a bit, and the result was:

Bell peppers, baked for 30 minutes, then stuffed with sauteed corn, quinoa, then mixed with goat cheese and parsley. Served with a spinach strawberry salad topped with toasted walnuts and pecans.

With rosemary sweet potato baked chips (slices, in this case).

We finally bought a panini press… yum!

Panini with sweet potato slices