Sunday, March 13, 2011

Tantric Yoga Weekend (and a short comment on Japan)

First off, Japan is really devistated right now. Thousands dead. Many more homeless. I just read a report that said the earthquake even shortened the Earth's day length a tiny bit. But what concerns me most is the state of the damaged nuclear reactors. There has been a resurgence of hype over the glory of nuclear power to replace oil-based energy sources, coupled with a downplaying of the possible dangers, which are many. I'm pretty sure I have written something about nuclear power in the past, but for now, I'll just say, given where we are at in terms of containment and waste storage - it's absolutely idiotic to think nuclear power can be a global energy savior. I hope the folks working on the damaged reactors in Japan get it under control really soon, but some damage has probably already been done.

Meanwhile, I spent the weekend in a pressure cooker of a yoga workshop. Jim Bennitt is a Chicago based teacher of tantric vinyasa yoga. His classes were well rounded, but really challenging. In terms of asana or physical pose work, I'm used to Iyengar-based classes that focus on holding single poses, watching alignment closely, and learning to embody the pose to the point where your mind moves deeply inward. Kind of posed meditation you might say.

The same meditative movement inward is a desired outcome of vinyasa, but it's more through regular body movement and breath coordination and awareness that the same thing comes about. In the past, I did a short stint of Kundalini yoga, which has a fair amount of flow in it's asana work. But I don't recall doing the kinds of challenging poses and variations of those poses as we did this weekend.

I had a couple of periods where I got lost in worries that I wasn't much of a yogi, and similar such negative self talk. This morning, just having fears about doing headstand (which I ended up doing a modified version) spun me out for a good ten minutes. I fumbled up basic asanas like table pose that I had been doing all weekend, and was jittery in others enough that the teacher ended up doing multiple adjustments and then stood in my general area for part of the pose sequence.

I'm writing this in part as a reminder that beginners mind can be easily obscured when you've been doing something a long time. In fact, as soon as I settled into a triangle pose this morning, and forgot about the coming harder poses, and also whether I "looked good" doing any of it, everything seemed to flow just fine. My years of experience were mostly irrelevant, as was the fact that I didn't have much experience with this kind of fast paced, asana practice. I was just there, doing each movement, watching each breath, and letting it unfold as it would.

An experience like this, where you are with a large group for a period of time is also a great opportunity to witness comparing mind. During the pose sequences, a person could easily go from "wow, I'm so great at this!" to "I'm absolutely terrible!" in a matter of minutes. It happened to me a few times. Friday night, I had a few rounds of "I'm terrible at this," as I barely kept up with the pace. And this morning, I had another moment of I'm terrible in the beginning of practice, and then a moment of "I'm pretty good" as I held shoulderstand up tall and straight while others around me struggled. While sitting meditation yesterday, I was aware of the years of zazen practice behind me as several people around me had a hard time staying still. So, lots of comparing mind was had by me, and I can imagine plenty of others in there.

As with longer Zen practice, doing a more intense period of yoga, especially when it incorporates much more of the eight limbs than your average asana-heavy class, is really beneficial. In fact, it's easier to be more well rounded when you have more time. I have seen it in my own life, where either the yogic asana with a tiny bit of pranayama or the Zen zazen and sutra chanting dominate. It's been rare that both have been balanced expressions for me. Or, perhaps the balance is stretched out - one season more focused on one, another season the other.

Part of doing yoga teacher training is to try and develop more synergy between these two sets of practices (and two powerful, cousin spiritual traditions) in my life. It's been done before, so I know it's possible. And that's the direction I have been heading in for awhile now.


Mumon said...

But what concerns me most is the state of the damaged nuclear reactors. There has been a resurgence of hype over the glory of nuclear power to replace oil-based energy sources, coupled with a downplaying of the possible dangers, which are many. I'm pretty sure I have written something about nuclear power in the past, but for now, I'll just say, given where we are at in terms of containment and waste storage - it's absolutely idiotic to think nuclear power can be a global energy savior.

While that's undeniably true, it is also true that people made a trade-off which weighed the likelihood of an accident happening (and the risks involved) against the benefits that economic development as a result of the energy nuclear power provides.

If you had lived through WWII as a Japanese and wished very much to go past the destruction of that war this trade-off would have seemed to be a no-brainer.

Nathan said...

Although Japan started budgeting money for nuclear power plants in the mid-1950s, it was mostly a non-factor. They really didn't make it a centerpiece of their energy or economic plan until the oil crisis of the early/mid 1970's.

Mumon said...


Actually they started planning for it in the mid-60s; it was in '66 that my father started making his many trips to Japan for this.

It was part of a national strategy.

Nathan said...

Still a long ways from WWII.

Mumon said...


The people that did that were the people who fought in WWII.

Like my father.

In fact, there was a really good reason (among several others) as to why my father's engineering firm was chosen.

It had to do with who ran the company.

That company was run by a lawyer. The lawyer just happened to be one of the lawyers hired by Hirohito just in case there was issues with, you know, war crimes.

The people who put this policy in place and the people who contracted it were all quite intimately familiar with WWII; many of them had fought in it, had seen the destruction throughout Japan, and were highly motivated to transcend that horrible era.

In fact, you might not know it, but all the "how to deal with the Japanese" books at the time were sedulous to point out that mentioning WWII is a no-no. Even today, it's generally not mentioned unless there is one of those "dinners' you might have read about.

Nathan said...

Well, you certainly have more of an insider view on this than I will ever have. I'm not condemning Japan for having nuclear power plants - we have plenty in the U.S. that could be impacted by natural disasters as well.

I can imagine, though, like any group of powerful leaders, the policy makers had really mixed motivations. Nuclear power discussions at the government level don't seem to have any balance. Some bring up the potential catastrophic consequences, but economics tend to trump all that. It just happened here in Minnesota, where a moratorium on building new plants was lifted by the legislature (the governor hasn't weighed in yet). Perhaps those WWII Japanese vets had some good intentions for the nation, but they probably also had a lot of financial incentive to override other concerns.

The comment I made in the original post wasn't specifically directed at Japan - it was about the entire planet. I've read about and payed attention to these discussions in several nations now - not just recently, but going back a good thirty, thirty five years - and it's the same basic narrative over and over again.

What complicates it all now, among other things, is the understanding that oil-based energy is fading, and is environmentally destructive anyway. That wasn't really on the table in the 1960s. But I can see the pressure to switch away from oil is impacting so many of these discussions now.

Flyingpig said...

"Depleted" uranium has a half life of about a billion years...what are arguing about? There is nothing "sustainable" for the earth when we're talking about nuclear reactors. There will be no "trade-off" for our future generations if all you have to trade is contaminated water and land.

Petteri Sulonen said...

@Flyingpig: "Depleted uranium" means U-238: uranium from which the U-235 suitable for nuclear fuel has been removed. It's a more stable isotope and therefore less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium. Something with a half-life of a billion years is, by definition, not very radioactive.

As to the bigger question of nuclear power, it ain't all that black and white either. We have the tech to dispose of nuclear waste, and produce nuclear power in a way that's safe and sustainable. We're not doing it. The reason is the same as why we're not producing more of our electricity from solar or wind power: it costs more.

What really bums me out about this is that in the world we live in, less nukes means more coal, and coal + oil are what's really killing the planet, not to mention thousands of people every year. If we could migrate directly from coal to wind+solar without having to have nuclear as a part of the mix, I'd be all for it. Trouble is, I can't see how that could happen, even factoring in all the conservation measures I can think of.

However we're going to produce our electricity, some bad shit is going to happen. It's different bad shit for different things, but compared to what else is out there, nuclear's track record isn't all that bad.

Petteri Sulonen said...

To clear up a minor blooper above: naturally occurring uranium is a mix of different isotopes, of which U-238 is the most stable. Therefore, depleted uranium, which has the less stable isotopes removed, is less radioactive (and has a longer half-life). Sorry about being careless.

Mumon said...

Yeah, you & I are on the same page; obviously we've lived different lives.

The fact that my father was where he was made my relationship to Japan somewhat different than the average American, to say the least.

After the disaster in the Gulf, and now this, it really is hard to say what poison is worse; hopefully we make wiser decisions.

Nathan said...

"We have the tech to dispose of nuclear waste, and produce nuclear power in a way that's safe and sustainable. We're not doing it. The reason is the same as why we're not producing more of our electricity from solar or wind power: it costs more."

I have heard plenty of people say we have the tech to deal with waste, but I honestly don't believe it. Too much money is tied up in nuclear - it's a huge cash cow. And I'm convinced that greed is driving some of that sustainability talk.

As for solar, wind power, and the rest. Unlike nuclear, coal, oil - all of which have had decades of government financial underwriting in many nations, and corporate focus - wind, solar, and others have really not be financially supported.

I don't think nuclear is a black and white issue. It's possible that someday, it could be harnessed and dealt with in a safe way. But I'm absolutely convinced that worldwide, we still haven't really moved to put the majority of our eggs in the box of things like solar, geothermal, wind power. And until those forms are given the heft that oil, coal, and nuclear currently have, we'll never know if they are truly viable or not.

Furthermore, people in industrial/post industrial nations consume too much, period. We want to live these extravagant lifestyles, and assume that we can just fix the "energy problem" with technology. That's wrong view in my opinion. Not only do we have to change our energy sources, but we need to - as humans collectively - work to right our relationship with the planet. We're an abusive species, and if the Buddhist teachings have given me anything in all these years, it's the horse-sense to recognize that the much of the ease, comfort, speed, and material wants I have are forms of greed.

I'm not going to sit and wallow in guilt about all this, but I'm sure as hell going to watch my decisions, and do my best to advocate for a radical change in relationship with the planet. Even if that makes me look like a crazy idealist.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Advocating for radical change doesn't preclude advocating for evolutionary change whenever possible.

Another thing that bothers me about the nuclear issue is that it's become a matter of identity. A litmus test of sorts, like global warming denialism is for the Tea Party.

I really, truly care deeply about the state of the planet and what we're doing to it. However, I also really, truly and genuinely believe that categorical opposition to nuclear power is actually harming the effort to protect it. This position means that I'm effectively shut out of most "green" movements. I can't support them, and they won't accept me.

For what it's worth, I think the closest we have to a promise of free, clean energy is a thorium economy. We could already have it had we started to pursue it in the 1950's, when the principles first became known.

We didn't, and knee-jerk opposition to anything nuclear is a major reason for that.

I agree with you that radical change is needed. However, I also believe that the way to get that is by going forwards, not back.

Nathan said...

You know, if there were zero nuclear plants out there, I'd agree with you. But there's plenty of nuclear out there. Those who wanted nuclear got it. It's here already. My opposition, and others' opposition, won't change the presence of all those nuclear plants already on the planet. I seriously doubt they will be shut down anytime soon, even if the major of people decide that we need to go in another direction.

So, when people hear you talking about nuclear as possibly sustainable, some might be totally knee jerking without any sense of what's going on. But others might be like me, thinking - Shit, man - we already have a lot of this stuff. It's already been given the green light. What about other options?

You know, in my home state of Minnesota, 25% of our energy is already nuclear. I'm supporting that industry as I type this. No one in our state government (or the Feds) has been willing to give massive government subsidies to R&D work on solar, wind, geothermal, etc. In fact, just down the street in my state capitol building, the legislature is currently advocating to lift a ban on new nuclear plants here as I type this, despite what happened in Japan.

So, I don't feel terribly charitable here. Nuclear has tons of support in the right places. In fact, I have seen major environmental writers and groups (at least here in the U.S.) supporting nuclear to some degree. You are not as marginalized as it may appear.

Petteri Sulonen said...

That's absolutely true. The problem is that the whole discourse is about "pro" or "contra." That's fucked up. The industry only cares about profits, which means building the cheapest possible plants and cutting corners everywhere else in the supply chain, and as you say, they're very powerful. On the other hand, the "greens" won't touch anything nuclear with a ten-foot-pole.

That means that there's is nobody out there agitating for better nukes – phasing out aging and (relatively) dirty and unsafe plants, putting in the money for the primary research needed to get (more expensive but) safer next-generation plants that can also dispose of nuclear fuel, demanding stricter limits on where plants can be built and to what standard, and so on.

The upshot is that as long as the "nuclear lobby" is winning, they'll keep building crappy plant – and if they're losing, it'll just mean keeping that crappy plant running that much longer, until they get their game together and manage to push out another crappy plant.

And your crowd, Nathan, is just as responsible for that dynamic as the nuclear lobby.

Nathan said...

Instead of trying to get us that don't want nuclear to change, perhaps you and others who want to see reforms made around existing nuclear plants/companies could get together and lobby for that.

I can't magically create passion in myself to lead an effort to lobby for those kinds of reforms, but I sure as hell would support them if others did.

There really aren't many nuclear reform efforts going on from what I have seen. It's either support the current nuclear energy lobby or advocate for alternative energies.

This is almost the same discussion I have had with friends here in the U.S. that tell me to vote Democrat and reform from within. Now, since the Dems are one of the two major parties, I know it's important to have some people on the inside willing to buck from within. But I have never been a Democrat. The first election I was eligible to vote for was Clinton vs. Daddy Bush. And even then, I was already seeing through the bullshit veneer of the Dems. I never bought in; I've always been mostly a third party person. So, why would I suddenly have passion to do the inside work?

We need people on the inside and outside of all issues. The debating between insiders and outsiders should be about honing our awareness and sharpening our skills to deal with what were are faced with the best we can. Too often though, it turns into a pissing hate-fest between people who actually agree on 85 percent of the issues, but see somewhat different ways to go forward.

Nathan said...

It's sort of a bummer that no one commented on the yoga section of this post. I should have made the two things separate posts.

Petteri Sulonen said...

"Instead of trying to get us that don't want nuclear to change, perhaps you and others who want to see reforms made around existing nuclear plants/companies could get together and lobby for that. "

Thing is, I think the only ones likely to listen are in the environmental movements. And also, it's working, a little anyway.

I have been voting Green pretty consistently for the past 20 years or so. Yet every time I do it with a bit of regret, because I don't see them taking climate change as seriously as nuclear power. They have, thank goodness, softened their position somewhat – they were in the government coalition during the now ending electoral period, and the government approved permits for two new plants. So it seems that while this type of argument may not be making much headway with you specifically, it is working to soften attitudes somewhere else.

(And yes, I think Finland's nuclear policy is pretty responsible – we're the first country in the world to require core catchers in our reactors, and the first in the world to take concrete steps for long-term storage of nuclear waste.)

Petteri Sulonen said...

"I can't magically create passion in myself to lead an effort to lobby for those kinds of reforms, but I sure as hell would support them if others did."

Let's test that assertion.

Would you support any of the following initiatives?

(1) A proposal by a power company to decommission 1000 MW of coal power plants coupled with a permit to build a new 1500 MW nuclear power plant (with the latest and best safety technologies?)

(2) A proposal by a power company to decommission an old 1000 MW nuclear power plant in order to build a new 1500 MW plant with the latest safety tech?

(3) Public funding for primary research into fourth-generation nuclear power?

I'm betting your answer will be "no" on all counts. Yet reform of nuclear power means building new nuclear power, since upgrading existing nuclear power isn't feasible – and I would surmise that you won't stomach that under *any* circumstances.

If I'm right, your promise to support reform of nuclear power is pretty hollow.

Nathan said...


I'm not sure how much your government subsidizes R@D for nuclear. Especially research into containment and waste disposal. Which is needed, in my opinion, because of the nuclear already here.

Here in the U.S., the federal funding for research is over $1 billion annually, as part of a budget for nuclear that when all put together is over $60 billion dollars. And that's just Federal money. My own state also has subsidized the 2 nuclear plants we have, and routinely offer tax breaks to the major power company that owns them. I don't support any more funding here at all. They have enough.

So, perhaps it's different in Finland and other European nations. If there isn't enough support to do research to develop waste disposal mechanisms, for example, that's a problem. What's here must be dealt with. So, maybe that's a surprise to you, but if the funding for that kind of research isn't happening in your country, then I can understand your frustration.

I want to support tech that will deal with what's already here, but what usually happens is that such funding and legislation always gets tied to making new plants, and giving more money to the nuclear companies so they can expand their reach.

And meanwhile, those doing all the work on solar, wind, and the rest get table scraps and are expected to somehow lower costs and create amazing methods to harness energy. It's a crock.

Nathan said...

Also, I suspect you have more folks who are resistant to nuclear over there, than we do here in the U.S. My views, which aren't total hard line (like I said, I'd support financing research to best deal with the nuclear we already have), are really in the minority. And major environmental groups like the Sierra Club, to give one example, are filled with folks who give at least some support to nuclear power.