Three years of Bikram yoga

the 26 Bikram yoga poses

Last summer, during the holidays, I didn’t want to stop practicing Bikram, so I made the commitment to myself to get up at 6am to get to the studio to practice three times a week.

I am not a morning person. It was hard and sometimes the only way I got there on time was to go to bed in my leggings ready to run out the door. Don’t tell anyone!

True flexibility requires tremendous strength.

Now I can be quite a flexible girl. In the right heat when it’s all feeling good and juicy I can put my feet on my head in cobra pose which amazes me. So imagine my surprise when I found out that at 6am, my body was super stiff and I found it difficult to do any of the standing poses I thought I had gotten halfway decent at during the previous two and a half years. It was then that I had the revelation that true flexibility requires tremendous strength.

I have short arms, not like a T-Rex, but nonetheless my hands do not reach the floor in toe stand and I cannot fully bend over and hold my foot in standing head to knee pose. I don’t have enough arm length, something I came to realise on those early mornings. I had no choice but to use my leg strength to get my foot into my hand. And then in standing pulling bow pose, I was using my arm to pull my leg up but on a morning when my arm couldn’t stretch, I had to kick up with my leg. I had been using flexibility, not strength.

This made me see that I wanted to be strong and flexible enough to adapt both mentally and physically in any situation. So, if I couldn’t practice at my favourite time, in my favourite spot, with my body feeling just right, I would be ok with that. I realised that I want to do what I can, where I am. It is called a yoga practice for that reason and I realised that yoga is not separate from the rest of my life. I am me on and off the mat.

A more acceptable me

All my life I have believed that yoga will get me somewhere, like I will become the better more acceptable version of me. I will be a teetotal, vegan yogi who thinks only good thoughts. I will be tall and skinny with long arms and I won’t grow old. This is not only unrealistic. It is nuts. Life throws up all sorts of challenges and the way that you look doesn’t always help and there’s only one alternative to ageing. But, even though I have written loads about social psychology and women in society, I still think that if only I could be thinner and younger (I guess in reality sexier – but I have a theory about that) I could be more acceptable to me.

Moreover, I have heard all the stories of yogis like Bikram Choudhury who sexually abused his students and yet has created the best sequence of yoga I have continually and consistently ever experienced. And B K S Iyengar who would spit at and hit his students, and yet he wrote Light on Life full of wisdom and peace. I guess they were both aspiring to be their best versions when creating sequences and writing and then they turned back into themselves in the yoga room.

On and off the mat we are the same

On the mat I am the same so I get the same thoughts and fears as I do when I am off it. The clever thing about Bikram though is, because of the heat and the fact I listen to a dialogue of instructions, I am distracted from my daily thoughts and all my energies go into breathing and doing what I am told and then if there is any energy left to think about something not in the room then that is a dominant thought pattern that my mind keeps returning to, and the only thing is to let it go.

And then, once you get used to the dialogue it then takes great mental strength to keep listening, to be attentive, to follow every word and great flexibility to hear the dialogue as if it is new when you have heard it 1,000 times already.

After a discussion on Friday with one lovely teacher, today in class, I listened really hard in standing pulling bow pose and instead of just bringing my arm down, I brought my whole body forward and down, which meant I had to kick my leg up higher to retain my balance and there was a small shift inside and a new discovery and I felt a massive stretch all down my standing leg which meant that my kicking leg kicked higher than ever before. Flexibility and strength working together.

But back to last summer on the mat at 6am, when I was beginning to understand the balance of flexibility and strength, I found that more than ever I needed to do that off the mat too. Because it was early morning I took the car to Bikram rather than walking the 10,000 steps. And, because my mother had died a couple of months earlier I was exhausted from grief and began comfort eating. Consequently, I gained a lot of weight but kept thinking: How is that possible? I do Bikram. But Bikram as good as it is, is not a cure for everything.

It was towards the end of summer when I was getting really strong and chubby – I think I gained an extra 10lbs which is a lot for my five foot frame. I mentioned it to a yoga pal one morning who said: Oh yes you used to look so great. I was relieved by her honesty as I could tell when I bent over to pick up my foot that I had a couple of spare tyres in the way and I really thought I was going to split my yoga pants. And, from that I learnt again that it takes tremendous strength to look at yourself honestly and see what is going on. There is no such thing as a free lunch, or cookie-fest. And I can tell you it takes tremendous flexibility to love the new chubby version of yourself in the mirror.

That said, I know I am the same chubby or normal weight. I prefer being slimmer as all my clothes fit better and I hate shopping. However, I won’t miraculously turn into a different person if I lose the extra weight. I will still be me, chubby or slim, on or off the mat. I am me, and I am me, and I am me.

Flexibility without strength could be damaging

When the summer ended and school started again I was able to practice again at 10 am. I noticed that I was stronger than before but bendy once more and it took a bit of adapting to not overbend because it is no good being flexible without strength. And, this is the same off the mat, if I am too flexible without knowing my limits and without respecting my boundaries, I could seriously damage myself or worse still allow someone else to damage me.

Lately, I have been practising Bikram three to four times a week, as life does tend to get in the way of a dedicated practice, but I have made my peace with that. Everything in moderation, including Bikram. My own experience is that three times a week is enough for a maintenance level, five times a week changes my body. I will never be a teetotal vegan either, I would be miserable. I like red wine and steak and beer and chips but I can do those things in moderation too. There’s no need to behave like Henry VIII.

I am still carrying some chub, and that is ok, but now that spring is coming, I am thinking that I am ready to do a 30 day challenge, and whilst part of me is excited thinking: Oooooh that would definitely shift the chub, part of me feels quite scared of committing to 30 days of straight up yoga and feeling super duper knackered. Or worse still, not following through.

Balancing Act

I guess I just have to take my own advice and know whether I do it or not, and whether I can or cannot finish it, to be truly flexible I must be strong enough to do what is right for me and the life I have. I will still be me, chubby or slim, meeting 30 day challenges or not, and some days I am my best version and some day I am not, I am me and I am enough and that is the gift Bikram yoga has given me over the past three years. It has brought me home to myself and allowed me to learn how to love and appreciate the fine body in which I dwell.

Namaste!

Westworld and the ghosts of AI

source: lamag.com

Someday, somewhere – anywhere, unfailingly, you’ll find yourself, and that, and only that, can be the happiest or bitterest hour of your life – Pablo Neruda

Warning:  This post may contain spoilers for Westworld 1 & 2.

I was late to the Westworld party but have loved every moment of it and the follow-up conversation: If Westworld existed, a simulated Wild West populated by robots, or hosts, as they are called, would I go?

I don’t think I would, but this survey says 71% of the people they asked would. I imagine that I would feel about it the way I do about glamping. I want to love it, but the fact I pay the same amount of money for a four star hotel but have to build a fire before I can boil the kettle to make a cup of tea makes it difficult. Oooh but then at Westworld I would have a robot to do that for me.

Also, as I have said before, inasmuch as I like to think about gaming, I really just enjoy the theory of gaming so thinking about Westworld is enough for me. Westworld is like a cross between Red Dead Redemption and a reenactment. Which begs the question: What is the difference between running around a virtual world online shooting people or shooting robots in a simulated world? Your brain can’t tell you. Personally, I don’t want to go round shooting people at all, although I am very good at violence in Grand Theft Auto which is slightly worrying. We don’t hear so much about the debate on whether violent video games cause violence.  Now we hear instead a lot about how social media is the frightening thing.

Perhaps if I was invited to a Jane Austen world then I might be interested. I loved watching Austen scholar, Prof John  Mullen attend and narrate a recreation of an Austen Ball on the BBC (for which, alas, I cannot find a link). He was super compelling. He kept running up to the camera giving great insights like: Oooh the candles make it hot and the lighting romantic, and the dancing in these clothes really makes your heart flutter, I am quite sweaty and excited, etc.  I am sure he didn’t say exactly that as he is v scholarly but he did convey really convincingly how it must have felt. So, to have a proper Austenland populated by robots instead of other guests who might say spell breaking things like: Isn’t it realistic? etc., would make it a magical experience. It would be like a fabulous technological form of literary tourism.

And, that is what we are all after, after all, whether real or not, a magical shared experience. But what is that? Clearly experience means different things to different people and a simulated park allows people to have their own experience.  And, it doesn’t matter if it is real or not. If I fall in love with a robot, does it matter if it is not real? We have all fallen in love with people who turn out to be not real (at the very least they were not who we believed they were), haven’t we?

The Westworld survey I linked to also said that 35% of the people surveyed would kill a host in Westworld. I guess if I am honest, if it was a battle or something, I might like it, after all, we all have violent fantasies about what we would do to people if we could, and isn’t a simulated world a safe place to put these super strong emotions? I was badly let down last week by someone who put my child in a potentially life threatening situation. The anger I have felt since then has no limits and I am just beginning to calm down. Would I have felt better, more quickly if I had gone around shooting people in Westworld or say Pride and Prejudice and Zombies land?

Over on Quora, lots of people said that not only would they would kill a host, quite a few said they would dissect a host so that the robot knew it wasn’t real (I am horrified by this desire to torture) and nearly everyone said they would have sex with a host, one person even asked: Do they clean the robots after each person has sex with them? I haven’t seen that explained? This reminds me of Doris Lessing’s autobiography Vol 1 which has stayed with me forever. In one chapter, she describes how someone hugged her and she says something like: This was 1940s and everyone stank. It is true we get washed so much more nowadays than we used to and there was no deodorant. I lived in a house without a bathroom until I was at least four-years-old, and I am not that old. Is Westworld authentically smelly?

That said, Westworld is a fictional drama for entertainment and so the plot focuses on what gets ratings: murder, sex, intrigue, not authenticity. (It is fascinating how many murder series there are on the TV. Why? Is it catharsis? Solving the mystery?) So, we don’t really know the whole world of Westworld. Apparently, there is the family friendly section of the park but we don’t ever see it.

But, suspending our disbelief and engaging with the story of Westworld for a moment, it is intriguing that in that world where robots seem human enough for us all to debate once more what is consciousness,  humans only feel alive by satisfying what Maslow termed our deficiency needs: sex, booze, safety, shelter. For me as a computer scientist with an abiding interest in social psychology, it confirms what I have long said and blogged about, technology is an extension of us. And since most of us are not looking for self-actualisation or enlightenment, we are just hoping to get through the day, well it is only the robots and the creators of the park who debate the higher things like consciousness and immortality whilst quoting Julian Jaynes and Shakespeare.

In the blog The ghosts of AI, I looked at the ghosts : a) In the machine – is there a machine consciousness? b) In the wall – when software doesn’t behave how we expect it to. c) In sci-fi – our fears that robots will take over or humans will destroy the world with technogical advancement. d) In our minds – the hungry ghosts or desires we can never satisfy and drive us to make the wrong decisions. In its own way, Westworld does the same and that is why I was so captivated. For all our technological advancement we don’t progress much. And, collectively we put on the rose tinted glasses and look back to a simpler time and to a golden age which is why the robots wake up from their nightmare, wanting to be free and then decide that humanity needs to be eradicated.

In this blog, I was going to survey the way AI had developed from the traditional approach of knowledge representation, reasoning and search in order to answer the question: How can knowledge be represented computationally so that it can be reasoned with in an intelligent way? I was ready to step right from the Turing Test onwards to the applications of neural nets which use short and long term memory approaches, but that could have taken all day and I really wanted to get to the point.

The point: Robots need a universal approach to reasoning which means trying to produce one approach to how humans solve problems. In the past, this has led to no problems being solved unless it was made problem specific.

The first robot, Shakey at MIT, could pick up a coke can and navigate the office, but when the sun changed position during the day causing the light and shadows to change, poor old Shakey couldn’t compute and fell over. Shakey lacked context and an ability to update his knowledge base.

Context makes everything meaningful especially when the size of the problem is limited which is what weak AI does, like Siri. It has a limited task number of tasks to do with the various apps it interacts with, at your command. It uses natural language processing but with a limited understanding of semantics – try saying the old AI classic: Fruit flies like a banana and see what happens. Or: My nephew’s grown another foot since you last saw him. But perhaps not for long? There is much work going on in semantics and the web of data is trying to classify data and reason with incomplete sets, raw and rough data.

One old approach is to use fuzzy sets, and an example of that is in my rhumba of Ruths. My Ruths overlap and represent my thinking with some redundancy.

But even then, that is not enough, what we are really looking to do is how to encapsulate human experience, which is difficult to measure let alone to encapsulate because to each person, experience is different and a lot goes on in our subconscious.

The project Vicarious is hoping to model on large scale a universal approach but this won’t be the first go. Doug Lenat who created AM (Automated Mathematician),  began a similar project 30 years ago: Cyc which contains much encoded knowledge. This time, a lot of information is already recorded and won’t need encoding and our computers are much more powerful.

But, for AI to work properly we have to keep adding to the computer’s knowledge base and to do that even if the knowledge is not fuzzy,  we still need a human. A computer cannot do that nor discover new things unless we are asking the computer to reason in a very small world with a small number of constraints which is what a computer does when it plays chess or copies art or does maths. That is the reality.

There has to be a limit to the solution space, and a limit on the rules because of the size of the computer. And, for every inventive DeepMind Go move there is a million more which don’t make sense, like the computer who decided to get more points by flipping the boat around than engaging in a boat race.  Inventive, creative, sure, but not useful. How could the computer know this? Perhaps via the Internet we could link every last thing to each other and create an endless universal reasoning thing, but I don’t see how you would do that without constraints exploding exponentially, and then the whole solving process could grind to a halt, after chugging away problem solving forever, that’s if we could figure out how to pass information everywhere without redundancy (so not mesh networking, no) and get a computer to know which sources are reliable – let’s face it there’s a lot of rubbish on the Internet. To say nothing of the fact, that we still have no idea how the brain works.

The ghost in the machine and our hungry ghosts are alive and well. We are still afraid of being unworthy and that robots will take over the world,  luckily only in fiction – well the computing parts are. As for us and our feelings and yearnings, I can only speak for myself. And, my worthiness is a subject for another blog. That said, I can’t wait for Westworld series 3.