Breathing Room

Bryde MacLean

If you can breathe, then it’s working.” Lemony Snicket

Many actors swear by yoga, from Matthew McConaughey to Naomi Watts to Robert Downey, Jr., because acting is largely a movement art and yoga on the mat is mostly about body awareness. Unless the role is Frankenstein or you’re Vin Diesel, more wooden than a talking tree isn’t usually in the script.

When Russell Brand dedicated himself to Kundalini Yoga he said, “these things are right good for the old spirit.” Gwyneth Paltrow wakes up every morning at 4:30 to practice it, according to People Magazine. “It kind of prepares you for everything, honestly,” said Jennifer Aniston.

God knows, Iron Man could use all the yoga he can get.

Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame superstar dancer singers plug in to the practice, too. Madonna has unrolled her mat down the aisle of jumbo jets. The spectacle of the Queen of Pop in down dog pose is worth the plane fare, given that the average ticket price to one of her shows is upwards of $400.00.

Even though yoga is great for mobility stability control, it doesn’t always work out according to plan. When the singer Rod Stewart was trying a beginner’s balancing pose at home, he lost his balance and fell into a fireplace. “Surely, if God had meant us to do yoga,” he said afterwards, ”he’d have put our heads behind our knees.”

Not many yoga teachers swear by acting. They usually swear about you not being your authentic self, pretending to be somebody else. One of the eight limbs of the practice is about self-observation. In some respects all of the practice is designed to be an expression of your true self.

Bryde MacLean, a native of Prince Edward Island, an Atlantic Canada province, is an actor and a Moksha Yoga teacher. Two Canadian teachers founded the practice in 2004, focusing on strength, therapeutic flexibility, and calming the mind. It is in the vein of hot yoga, although not as hot as Bikram Yoga, nor as rigid in its sequencing.

“It’s built with the long-term health of your spine in mind,” said Bryde.

Moksha Yoga, which means freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth, is environmentally active, one of its pillars of purpose being ‘Live Green’, and active in its communities, as well. There are more than 70 studios, most of them in Canada. They offer weekly karma classes with all the profits, currently more than $3 million, going to groups supporting human rights and holistic health.

“I was 21-years-old, working in a bar, hanging with my friends, having a lot of anxiety”, said Bryde. “Ryerson University had turned down my application. My sister recommended yoga. I had never taken a class in my life. Tara was dating Ted Grand, and he recommended it, too.” Ted Grand, her future brother-in-law, was at the time creating what became Moksha Yoga.

Bryde MacLean took her first class in the basement of a church in Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island. “It was myself and a bunch of women who were much older than me, in a definitely not heated space. We did lots of slow breathing and long stretches. It was a powerful experience. I decided I could get behind that.”

When Ted Grand offered her the opportunity to join his team and go to Thailand for yoga teacher training, she made sure she didn’t miss the team bus. “I wanted to travel and I wanted a skill I could travel with. I jumped right into the hot room. I loved it.”

She taught full-time in Toronto for a year before moving to Montreal, where she also taught, as well as attending Concordia University. “I had a full course load, but I wanted to study what I’m passionate about, so I applied to Ryerson again, and got in.”

Ryerson is a public university in Toronto, its downtown urban campus straddled by the Discovery District and Moss Park, focusing on career-oriented education. Bryde Maclean enrolled in the 4-year Performance Acting program. Long before she wanted to be a yoga teacher she had wanted to be an actor. She was scripting performing directing shows from the time she was six.

“We’d haul out Halloween costumes and my parent’s old clothes and dress up. We’d write fantastical stories and use construction paper to build our sets.” She and her friends play acted in garages, attics, and basements. Her parents encouraged her.

“They inspired me.”

Her parents were Sharlene MacLean and Bill McFadden. Her mother was pregnant with Bryde the summer of 1984 at the same time she was stage-managing ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Confederation Centre in Charlottetown. As an actor Sharlene MacLean has played the maniacal Lady MacBeth in ‘Macbeth’ and the prattling Minnie Pye in ‘Anne of Green Gables’, working on stage and on film, working around the births of her four children.

Her father worked and performed long and often at the Victoria Playhouse. Victoria is a seacoast village on the south shore of Prince Edward Island. “I spent a lot of time in that theater as a little person,” said Bryde “My dad and I lived in the building down the street that is now the Chocolate Factory.”

Her parents played the aging couple in ‘On Golden Pond’ in 2012 at the Victoria Playhouse. They had both starred in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ during the theater’s first season in 1982, thirty years earlier. “I had never seen them on stage together, not as an adult,” said Bryde.

By the time she graduated from Ryerson University in 2011 she was teaching other people how to be yoga teachers. “I didn’t know what I was doing when I started, other than enough about teaching classes myself and being a good listener,” said Bryde. She became Manager of Yoga Teacher Trainings for Moksha International for 3 years.

“I dove into that. There’s a big community vibe. It pushed me to learn how to do things I didn’t consider myself capable of.”

2011 was a big year in more ways that one. She graduated with a BFA, got a full-time job, and got married, too. Jeremie Saunders, her boyfriend fiancée husband-to-be, was in the same class in the same program in the same university as her. One thing led to another. After graduation he trained to become a Moksha Yoga teacher.

“So, there we are, we do all the same things,” said Bryde.

They do all the same things, but with a difference. Yoko Ono once said the most important thing in life was, “Just breathe.” When Bryde wakes up in the morning she breathes free and easy. When her husband wakes up in the morning it’s with the thought, at least I’m still breathing.

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jeremie Saunders is in a lifelong fight with the inherited life-threatening disease. It is a genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs. Infections and inflammation lead to a host of problems. 70 years ago, if you were born with it, you were likely to die within the year.

Even today, while cystic fibrosis has been made livable, there is no cure. No matter exercise regimens treatments antibiotics, median survival is less than 50 years. “I’m living with this terminal illness,” said Jeremie. “I know that my life expectancy is significantly shorter than most people.”

Two years ago he ran an idea for a new podcast by two of his friends. A month later they recorded their first episode of ‘Sickboy’. The podcast is about the day-to- day of living with an illness. Four months later it officially launched and three months after that it was included on iTune’s Best of 2015 list.

Although it is the essence of innovation to fail most of the time, when time is of the essence it’s better to succeed as soon as possible.

“It’s a comedy podcast,” said Bryde. “It’s laughing about the absurdities that happen when you’re sick, all the embarrassing and difficult things people usually don’t talk about.”

“I’ve always been a fan of honesty,” said Jeremie. All good comedy comes from a place of honesty. He doesn’t try to keep the beach ball underwater. “Every time I would talk to someone about being sick, this fog of awkwardness would fall over the conversation. It’s empowering to drop that, let it go, and not feel confined or chained down by your circumstance.”

Living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, teaching Moksha Yoga, co-starring in short films by Tiny Town Media, in early 2015 Bryde spied a last minute casting call for a summer show in Charlottetown. “I was lucky to see that.” She landed the role of the mom in ‘Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad’ in the Studio 1 Theatre at the Confederation Centre. She and the show were a hit. “Sets, characters, director score a hat trick,” wrote The Guardian in its review.

“Bryde MacLean says much with her guarded, often wordless reactions, like a smile tucked into her shoulder.” It was her first professional appearance on stage.

When actors unroll their mats it’s to learn to control movement. It helps them be more aware of where their physical bodies are in space and the dynamics of change in that space. “Yoga helps me get very present with my body and what’s going on with it,” said Jennie Olson Six, who is, like Bryde MacLean, an actor and yoga teacher.

It also helps develop command over one’s breath. But, that kind of command can be a double-edged sword.

“Yoga helps, definitely, as an actor But, I think in some ways, because I did my yoga training before my actor training, it has hindered me.”

Actors practice breath control so that they can manipulate the range, volume, and speed of their speaking. They might breathe in to the count of four, just like in yoga classes, but when they exhale they do it through their teeth with an sssssss sound. When they come back to four they cut the exhale crisply. It’s a way of practicing ending speech on an exact syllable, making it toe the mark.

When it doesn’t, sometimes actors will flap their lips, making a brrrrrrr sound.

“When you breathe in yoga it’s to create a steady, measured breath, focusing on it, calming your nervous system,” said Bryde. “You don’t want that when you’re acting. You want your breath connected to your voice. When you breathe to speak you want your breath to come from a place that’s connected to your impulse. Yoga is about observing your impulses, but not reacting. Acting is reacting.”

In Shakespeare’s day acting was called a performance of deeds. It’s the same today. “Acting is reacting in my book,” said Morgan Freeman. Where actors want to go in their work, even though they’ve walked through it a hundred times, is to express feeling by following an instinct, not by controlling it. Magic on film and stage is created, not by staying in the rehearsal hall, but by being in the moment.

“You need to have a cool head, however, not get caught up in whatever you’re working on, and go off into another dimension and never return,” said Bryde.

“Yoga has been good for me in terms of focus, my ability to concentrate, and be able to handle my anxiety. It keeps my feet on the ground. It rebalances my body, too, which is the only thing I have to work with.”

While at Ryerson University she played King Richard the 2nd in a student production. “He’s a hunchback, crooked. After two hours of him every day I had to balance out that side of me. Maintaining a healthy body is a super important thing for a performer. Otherwise, you end up with injuries.”

She went back to her roots in 2016, appearing in ‘Blythe Spirit’ at the Watermark Theatre on Prince Edward Island. It was her second professional appearance on stage. It was the same show her mother managed on the same island thirty-two years earlier when she was carrying her daughter-to-be. If anyone was ever born to play one of the leads in the Noel Coward play it was Bryde MacLean.

That same summer her husband starred in the comedy ‘The Melville Boys’ at the Victoria Theatre, the theater she had roamed explored left no stone unturned as a tyke. The Watermark Theatre seats about a hundred people. The Victoria Playhouse seats about fifty more than that.

Spectacle sells, splashy musicals, casts driven by stars. But, small gatherings at indie theaters can have a big impact. Little theaters, summer stock, some in your own backyard, often have big talent. “Bryde MacLean has probably the most difficult role to play – the straight woman – and she carries it like a pro,” wrote theater critic Colm Magner. “She has great fun combusting before our eyes later in the play.”

“I love small, intimate performances,” said Bryde. “I like to be right in there with the audience.” It works for her because she often works in film. “I tend to be a little smaller in my performance size. You can do the subtlest things, so subtle, but so real.”

She kept up her practice all summer at a Moksha studio in Charlottetown, taking bar classes, a mixture of ballet, pilates, and yoga. “I love it, but it kicks my butt.”

There are many reasons people take up yoga, among them stress relief, flexibility, and physical fitness. “They come to yoga to get a cute butt, but you can’t escape all the other benefits of it,” said Bryde. “They stay because they get more mindful, awake, in touch a little bit more.” If they stick with it, the reasons for doing yoga change. The focus shifts from the physical body to the subtle body. Almost 70% of people and 85% of teachers say they have a change of heart over time, changing their focus to self-actualization and spirituality.

“Their buns still get really tight,” she added with a teacher’s keen eye.

After ‘Blythe Spirit’ closed Bryde worked on a 5-week shoot of a horror film called ‘But What Are You Really Afraid Of’. She wasn’t an actor in a trailer waiting to be called for her next scene. She was one of the workers who serviced the trailer. “A craft services job takes care of all the food on the set, the crew that does the dirty work,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Although she continues to teach Moksha Yoga in Halifax, and continues acting, on stage and film, she is writing a screenplay for a feature film, producing a play she hopes to get on the road in 2018, and has launched another new podcast with her husband.

‘Turn Me On’ is a show based on sharing the couple’s sex life with others through interviews, candid conversations, and discussions about sexual orientation. “I don’t need crazy shock value to be interested,” said Bryde. In any case, guests on the podcast are free to talk about their sex lives “whether they’re whacky or not.”

“We are definitely having conversations that feel taboo,” said Jeremie Saunders.

Franklin Veaux, an author and sex educator, believes that what Bryde and Jeremie are doing is doing their audience a good service. “Sexual shame undermines people’s happiness and self-esteem, prevents them from being able to understand what they need and advocate for it and hinders intimacy,” he said.

Although ‘Turn Me On’ is not necessarily about heavy breathing, sex has always been a bestseller. It is often more exciting on stage and screen than it is between the sheets, but it is still emotion in motion, and a big part of nature and human nature. “I couldn’t have imagined we’d have over 12,000 listeners so quickly. It’s very cathartic for me.”

If it is about anything, yoga is about slowing down, slowing down your breath, your body, and your brain. It’s been said once you slow down you will connect with your heart. As many irons that Bryde MacLean has in the fire is enough to take your breath away.

“I wrestle with attachment and detachment,” she said.

Although detachment is a linchpin of yoga, nobody ever sincerely does it without a strong feeling of attachment to doing it. Almost everything we do is invented, so that detachment can be a kind of freedom. But, getting on the mat or breathwork or meditation is about involvement. Pattabhi Jois, who created Ashtanga Yoga a generation ago, on which most of today’s yoga is based, once said it is 99% practice and 1% theory. ,

“Lazy people can’t practice yoga,” he pointed out.

The way to get started is to get going get doing, opening doors, working hard at work worth doing. “I’m casting a net out for a bunch of potential opportunities. What matters is doing what you’re passionate about,” said Bryde MacLean.

Not much is ever accomplished without energy and passion, but to get anywhere you have to act it out.

“When you are inspired by some extraordinary project all your thoughts break their bounds and you discover yourself to be a greater person than you ever dreamed yourself to be,” said Pattabhi Jois. “Just do and all is coming.”

Catching your breath will take care of itself.

Slam Dunk

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A commonplace of most yoga advice is the advice to let go of expectation, judgment, and competition when stepping on the mat. The importance placed on themes of tolerance, acceptance, and non-competition is round-the-clock, streamed from beginner classes to advanced asana practice.

On the web sites of many studios, under headings like Yoga Etiquette, is the injunction: “Leave your ego at the door. The yoga mat has no space for your ego, competitiveness, or judgment.” The community class teacher at our local big box studio is fond of saying, “It’s your practice, not anyone else’s.” It’s likely every yoga teacher in America reworks this refrain day in and day out.

Whether the no competition no judgment message is a viable message in our world, driven as it is by ego and judgment, and an everyday workaday world of going for the dollar peso euro yen gold, is between sixes and sevens.

Themes such as moving forward, continual progress, and goals are the modern mantra, not non-competition and non-judgment. The way we live today is nothing if not teleological, so that we are always looking for the cause and purpose of all we make happen, of all we do.

It seems naïve to posit the physical exercise yoga has become as a special case non-competitive activity in the western world, the font of the rat race. Western culture is defined by strife and competition, from our classical past to the way we live now. Everybody gets nervous before a competition, whether it’s a Spelling Bee or the Olympics. They get competitive, too.

Doing warrior pose in the middle of your brain in the middle of the yoga room in the middle of the after work A-Team crowd ain’t any different. Nobody wants to be slam-dunked on.

We are judged and graded from the time we step into school, from tykes in kindergarten through college. The better we do in school the higher the status we carve out for ourselves, until finally carving out a better job when we go out into the working world.

Our marketplace economy is predicated on struggle and competition. We are either making more money than the next man, and so are successful, or we are making less, and so unsuccessful. How much money we make determines how and where we live, our luxury brands, to the better schools we send our children to.

Materialism and its many benefits is a deeply ingrained point-of-view in the western world.

Today’s cultural icons and heroes are businessmen, politicians, and athletes. Follow the money, follow the front page, follow the parade.

“The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge almost 100 years ago. The New Gilded Age has brought President Coolidge’s maxim to life. The ethics involved in the business of making money are subservient to the making of money itself, because losing money is a failure that puts right and wrong to shame.

Politics is only occasionally about doing the right thing. It is necessarily about winning and losing, from debating and campaigning to making your ideology the ideology that matters. The upper hand trumps conscience and scruples among thousand dollar suits without a drop of human kindness in them.

Sports are arguably the passion of our times, from children’s CYO leagues to pro teams playing in stadiums seating tens of thousands. Up to 16 million people may practice yoga in America, but Division 1 college basketball and football attract 70 million paying fans between them, while the four major pro sports draw more than 140 million through the turnstiles every year.

Sports on TV are ubiquitous. More than 127,000 hours of sports programming were available on broadcast and cable TV in 2015. Americans spent more than 31 billion hours watching balls bounce in all directions, sometimes through the net or over the goal, more often not if their home team was hapless.

The average American watches a total of 5 hours of TV a day. The average American never sets foot on a yoga mat. They pay an arm and a leg to watch other people pretend to be super heroes. The mainstream culture isn’t interested in his or her own unified state of mind.

“What the hell does that mean? What does it cost? What’s in it for me?” they ask.

It has been estimated that yoga is a 6 billion dollar business, but that pales in comparison to the college and professional sports team industry, comprising more than 800 organizations with a combined net worth and annual revenues in the hundreds of billions.

Many Americans are intimately bound up in the winning and losing of their home teams. Late in the 2007 season, when the luckless Cleveland Browns were having some success and threatening to go to the NFL playoffs, a large local studio full of men and women at the end of a weekend yoga class unabashedly chanted OM three times for the team, hoping for God’s sake some psychic energy would rub off on the players for that night’s big game.

In the event, the yoga gods played their own private little joke on the fans. Even though the Cleveland Browns won the game, they lost in a statistical tie-breaker to another team and failed to make the playoffs.

How did yoga become a supposed  non-competitive activity in our world, a world defined and bound by competition, especially since in its birthplace many define it as a sport? In the sub-continent where it all got started yoga has had a competitive aspect to it for more than millennia.

“Yoga sport has been a traditional sport in India since more than 1,200 years,” said Yogasiromani Gopali, executive director of the World Yoga Council.

“Yoga sport is holy sport in our holy land with our holy yoga. All the yoga ashrams have yoga competition,” said Swami Shankarananda, a supporter of the World Yoga Foundation.

“Yoga competition is an old Indian tradition,” said Bikram Choudbury. “It’s a tremendous discipline – a hundred times harder than any other competition.”

Three for three is the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and Colonel Choudhury’s special.

The European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual European Yoga Championship and the International Yoga Sports Federation hosts an Annual World Yoga Championship. In the United States yoga tournaments have sprung up nationwide, from the Annual Texas Yoga Asana Championships to the New York Regional Yoga Championships.

Writing in Vanity Fair about the New York event, Anna Kavaliunas observed. “I learned you can win at yoga, a practice that is traditionally considered to be more spiritual than competitive.”

Some variations of yoga seem competitive by nature of the practice itself.

“Since its inception in the mid-twentieth century some of Ashtanga’s great masters pitted the most gifted students against one another to see who would perform the absolutely most difficult poses,” said Marcia Camino, a teacher of Amrit Yoga and a studio owner in Lakewood, Ohio.

“Iyengar Yoga demands so much mental attention to the alignment of the body that built into these classes there seems to be a drive for perfection,” she said. “Some systems like Power Yoga are overtly muscle-focused and it makes sense that one could easily engage the spirit of competitive sports when practicing them.”

At Bikram Choudbury’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles, classes often come to a dead stop as everyone breaks out into applause for a pose executed especially well. “Bikram Yoga is not only challenging, it’s also gratifying to the ego,” said Loraine Despres, who has written about the once-copyrighted practice.

Maybe Bikram Choudbury has his finger on the pulse of what yoga is really all about. The 2014 World Championship of Yoga Sports was held in London, attracting contestants from more than 25 countries. The 2016 event was staged in Italy.

The Choudbury’s, Bikram and Rajashree, his wife, themselves both former all-India yoga champions, believe yoga should qualify as an Olympic sport for the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.

“I strongly believe that yoga has what it takes to become an Olympic sport,” said Joseph Encida, a former international champion. “The skill required is strongly comparable to that of an elite gymnast.”

“There is so much strategy, mental power, physical precision, and control that goes into the sport that I don’t see it any different than curling, skiing, or diving,” said Gianna Purcell, who placed fourth internationally in 2012-13.

It is uncertain how far gung ho yoga will get with its hopes ambitions dreams.

“The Olympics are looking for events that play well on television. If you had combat yoga, maybe that would have a better chance of making it, ”said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic expert, in a BBC interview.

Not everyone agrees that competition is good for the practice.

“I don’t think it should be competitive,” said Tara Fraser, of London’s Yoga Junction. “Competing is not embedded in yoga’s philosophical framework and makes no sense if you want to achieve self-realization.”

Michael Alba, a teacher in Boston who also instructs at the Brookline Ballet School, said competition limits and stereotypes the practice. “It perpetuates the idea that yoga is for the lithe-bodied contortionists. One of the challenges of yoga is to be less competitive.”

Competition and its complications are apparently one of the reasons more women than men engage yoga on even a physical level. According to Yoga Journal women make up 72% and men only 28% of the people who practiced in 2016. The two most important reasons men cite for not taking up yoga are a lack of interest in the quiet, non-competitive aspects of the practice and a fear of embarrassment or failure.

Which begs the question, is yoga competitive, or not, and do men want to compete, or not?

Competition problematizes yoga at its most accessible level, which is what goes on on the mat. A goal-oriented approach contradicts what even tournament competitors like Luke Strandquist, a Bikram Yoga instructor in New York City, seem to believe. “As a teacher, it’s the opposite of what I’m always telling my students, that you’re here to practice your yoga, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.”

Setting one’s sights on doing what the man you see in the perfectly balanced headstand on the mat next to you is doing, or your sights on becoming the mediated image of the slim and strong young woman you’ve always wanted to be, turns the practice away from its focus on the values of self-acceptance and inner growth and turns it into monkey see monkey do.

“Competition exists in the yoga classroom when we see students trying to outdo each other,” said Marcia Camino.

“It’s also there when students struggle to best themselves, their latest efforts, on the road to yoga advancement. That said, there are many systems that balk at the notion of competition, because the focus of real yoga, claim these systems, is inward.”

Separating yoga exercise from the rest of yoga is like separating chaff from wheat and taking the chaff home.

“Unfortunately, yoga has been conflated with asana, which is a huge misapprehension,” says Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. As integral to yoga as exercises on the mat are, they are only part of the picture, in the same way that bridges are more than the sum of their piers, beams, and decks. Focusing on exercise and competition is mistaking the nuts and bolts of the craft for the art of the craft.

Competition is ultimately driven by the ego and is based on a zero-sum game of loss and gain. Competitors seek to satisfy their own personal ends. Applause and prizes animate the fear and desire of the ego in accomplishment. Winners and losers are inevitably segregated, so that winners are enthroned and losers forgotten. Who remembers last year’s second-place finisher?

Nobody does, because losers don’t get the headlines.

Contests are defined from without, not from within, since referees, audiences, and media analysts are what validate the competitors, not their own efforts. Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach who is a symbol of single-minded determination to win at all costs, once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

The answer might be because without a scoreboard the contest would be meaningless.

Prime time competitors often say they are their own competition, their own worst enemy. My biggest competition is myself. I’m always trying to top myself. I don’t worry about what other people are doing. I’m not in competition with them. I’m only in competition with me.

Competing with yourself is a slippery game when the ego competes against the sub-conscious even though the ego rarely knows what the sub-conscious is up to. Not only that, they are not best friends. It’s not necessarily in our own best interest to compete with our past, in the belief that progress is the measure of all things, and the asana we do today must necessarily be better than yesterday’s pose.

One Sunday afternoon, at the end of a crowded community class, a tall lanky older man on the mat next to me said, “I shouldn’t have even come today. I couldn’t do anything right.” He hadn’t fallen out of any balancing poses on top of me, but when I pointed that out to him, he said, “I’ll do better next time.”

The next time I saw him at the yoga studio his practice was constrained by a bad wing. “I hurt it here,” he said. “I think I was trying too hard.”

Self-consciousness and arbitrary reference to past standards compromises the here and now of yoga. The immediacy of the practice becomes a mishmash of then, now, and whenever.

Competition and progress take the man and woman out of himself and herself and out of the moment, positing a judge as the ultimate arbiter of their efforts. Even Rajashree Choudbury admits, “If you think you are competing against others, you won’t win.” Winning is freighted in terms of dollars and cents so that it makes commercial sense when applied to sports, but ultimately makes no sense when applied to the fabric of yoga practice.

“In the course of time asana or yoga postures gained more popularity in the physically-minded West, and the Vedantic aspects of the teachings fell to the sidelines,” David Frawley wrote in ‘Vedantic Meditation’.

Vedanta, or the philosophy of self-realization, underpins the concept of yoga as a spiritual system with a physical component, not a physical system with a spiritual component. Competition turns yoga on its head so that physical practice and fitness are conflated with yoga success, while spiritual discipline and self-realization are shunted to the sideline.

The prevailing modern view of yoga is that the means and end are the same. Yoga means exercise and exercise means yoga. Fitness is the means and fitness success is the goal. Articulated like that competition and tournaments make sense.

Most physical activities, such as throwing a ball, kicking a ball, or hitting a ball with a stick, can and probably will end up as grist for the mill. Most contemporary yoga flies in the face of its past, in which yoga exercise becomes both a means to an end and an end in itself.

While it is true practicing asana is practicing asana, moment to moment sweating on the mat, there’s no reason one’s sweat should just go down the drain. At the same time that you’re sweating up a storm in warrior pose, for example, you can be expanding into other aspects of yoga life and death, such as breath control, symmetry, and stillness. In this more traditional way of practice, competition is beside the point. In modern terms competition posits the ‘Other’ as superior to the self. In pre-modern practice the ‘Self’ is the center, not some imaginary logos.

Hatha Yoga, which is the physical branch of Raja Yoga – itself the meditative school of yoga – is simply a system of bodily postures meant to teach stillness under duress, breath control, and ultimately the strength to sit in meditation without squirming. As such it is folded into the other three traditional schools, which have to do with karma, self-enquiry, and surrender to the divine.

“The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind, and energy. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost,” says Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. Separating asana from the rest of yoga, and mixing it up with competition as though it were a circus act or a sport, is to confuse the part with the whole, or the steps on the path with the pilgrimage.

“Yoga is a mess in the west. And you can quote me on that,” said Georg Feuerstein, a yoga scholar and teacher. “People shortchange themselves when they strip yoga of its spiritual side.”

The stuff of body sense mind are the means to achieve union with knowledge, whether it is self-knowledge or knowledge of a universal spirit. Commingling asana and competition trivializes yoga practice. When the breath, mind, and spirit are separated from the body, the gaze of the man or woman on the mat is lowered to the near horizon.

Sometimes during especially difficult asana classes at her Inner Bliss studio Tammy Lyons reminds everyone, “It’s a practice, not a performance. Connect through the breath, and remember you are more than your accomplishments.”

Handstand may be athletic and acrobatic, but yoga is not athletics in search of handstand. Although yoga studios are being redefined as gyms in our performance-driven world, it is a problematic change. Rather than reducing yoga to Hobbesian metaphysics, it might be better to restructure it back into its traditional guise as a spiritual practice with a physical component.

Yoga postures are ultimately meant to lead to the breath, which hopefully leads to Kundalini, and maybe somewhere down the long bendy road to a last second slam dunk on the podium of Samadhi, where there are no cash prizes no first place last place no jazzed up trophies no trips to the Dream of Winner Takes All.

The Wrong Face

airedale

Mike Butler was catching some zzz’s beneath a clear night sky and three quarter moon. When he woke up he woke up quickly. The car came to a stop below him, the engine went dead, and a car door opened. It closed quietly, a trunk opened, and closed quietly. He peeked down through the slats of the second story deck. The trunk wasn’t a trunk. It was a hatch. The car wasn’t a car. It was a black Lexus SUV.

A man carrying a rolled up bundle, like a carpet, wrapped in plastic, over his shoulder, went into the house through the side door. He beeped his way in with his set of keys. Mike rolled quietly off his folding chair. He stood to the side of the sliding glass door. No lights had come on and he couldn’t hear the man in the house. Was he coming upstairs or staying downstairs?

Should he go or should he stay? He knew he could ignore the stairs, swing over the railing, and drop soundlessly down on the sand at the back of the house. He didn’t know where the windows there were, not exactly, even though he had helped cater some parties in the house last year. He decided to stay.

He didn’t have to wait long. When the man came out of the house he walked to the front of the Lexus, leaned back on it, facing the dark ocean, and lit a cigar. In the flare of the lighter his lips were pinkish, like pink goo. The ash from the cigar flaked off and floated like charred mercury onto his safari jacket.

Mike stayed in the shadow of the eaves where he could see the man but the man couldn’t see him. He could hear Cape Cod Bay at high tide on the other side of the beach. The man with the cigar in his mouth got into the SUV and drove away.

Mike went the way he had come, walking up Chequessett Neck Road to Great Island where he had parked. At home he rolled a smoke. He had been surprised as anyone would be surprised by anybody showing up at a seasonal mansion in early May, in the middle of the night, even though the weather was unusually fine.

Vera Nyberg was and wasn’t in a hurry. If she left in the next five minutes she might be on time for work. If she took Archie for a walk she would be late for sure. Halfway into spring, halfway to summer, her job wasn’t so much work as it was holding down the fort. It’s never too late to go and get that fresh air feeling, she thought, thinking about going for a walk.

Besides, unless it was summer, when everyone on the Outer Cape worked like dogs, she tried as much as possible to get to the office late and make up for it by leaving early. If she left early today she could make the five o’clock Strong Flow class at Quiet Mind in Wellfleet.

“Come on Archie,” she clapped, reaching for the Airedale’s leash. They left the house on Washington Avenue and walked up Commercial Street. When they got to Lopes Square they turned down MacMillan Pier to the end where the ferry came and went to Plymouth.

Archie was her constant companion, her watchdog, and one of her best friends. He liked running full speed ahead into streams ponds ocean. In the 1920s President Warren Harding had an Airedale. His name was Laddie Boy. President Harding always included the dog in his cabinet meetings at the White House. Laddie Boy had his own special hand-carved chair.

They’re all mongrels now, thought Vera.

“Come on, boy, let’s go home,” she said.

Archie liked Vera more than anyone. He felt like there were three faithful friends in this life, ready money, a good dog like himself, and a good master like Vera. He liked everything about her. She enjoyed reading books at night. He curled up at her feet, keeping her feet warm and his belly warm, too. “Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

Archie didn’t take it the wrong way. Besides, he didn’t know how to read. He wasn’t planning on learning, either, although Vera sometimes read stories out loud to him. Learning to read was the first step on the path to a career. He was not a working dog.

Dick Armstrong was a well-built man with thick lips and a crooked smile. At least Vera Nyberg thought so. She smiled back at him as he sat down carelessly. He wore a cotton safari jacket and aviator sunglasses. He had scrupulously white teeth, but she didn’t like the way he smiled, or the way he sat down. His face was scabrous and she found herself looking away, only glancing at him.

Vera shot an eye at his driver’s license. He did and didn’t look like himself, two-faced. She thought she might not like him. What if she had planted a bomb in the seat cushion by mistake?

“What can I help you with, Mr. Armstrong?” she asked.

“You work for me,” he said. “You watch our house.”

Vera smiled politely and imagined a small bomb in the seat cushion, again.

Vera Nyberg was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher, but yoga didn’t pay the bills in the off-season, or the on-season, either. She worked part-time for Focus Home Security, in Orleans, in a small office condo off Cove Road behind the Orleans Post Office. The office was on the first floor and faced south, lit by bright natural light on sunny days and gray natural light on cloudy days.

The drive was more than forty minutes from her rented room in Provincetown, but since she worked part-time, and since it was an off-season job most of the time, it wasn’t too long or too much. Route 6 was never overburdened in the off-season. Besides, most of her work was on-the-road work like property checks home watch resetting smart home features in Wellfleet, Truro, and P-Town itself, all of which were closer than the office.

She baby sat summer vacation mansions and held the hands of absentee landlords. Vandalism, storm damage, and frozen pipes were usually as nerve wracking as it got. Property surveillance was Focus Security’s bread and butter.

“I pay for your key-holding service, and since I was passing through, I want to stop at our house and walk through it, look everything over, before we come up next month,” said Dick Armstrong.

Who passes through the back end of a peninsula? Vera asked herself.

“Of course, we can arrange that,” she said. “When would you like to inspect the house?”

“Now.”

Twenty minutes later they got off Route 6 and drove through Wellfleet to the bay side of the town. The Lexus blotted out the sun as Vera followed behind Dick Armstrong down the curvy Chequessett Neck Road. Archie lolled in the back seat of Vera’s Honda CRV.

She had never been inside the Armstrong house, but had seen it often enough. She took Archie for walks on the long beach past what was called The Gut. After parking at Great Island, unless she cut through the woods and took a track on a backside dune, she walked past the house at the end of the road. She had even parked in their driveway several times, when she knew the house wasn’t occupied, when she was short on time for a quick short hike.

The Focus Security magnetic vehicle sign came in handy then.

The house was on the edge of the Cape Cod National Seashore and stuck out like a sore thumb. She knew it had a reputation. Eight years ago, when it was being built, it was sometimes called Horrible House.

An older, smaller house had been bought and torn down and the Armstrong’s had somehow convinced the town’s building inspector to give them a permit to build a house three times the size. It dominated the view across the Herring River. Wellfleet’s homeowner’s association and the National Park Service appealed the permit, but the house got built, anyway.

“Kill the Rich!” had been spray-painted below the garage door windows before the house was even finished. Focus Security parked a man in the driveway until the commotion died down. Since then the Armstrong’s spent three or four or five middle of the summer weeks on the Outer Cape. Sometimes their children, extended family, and friends took the house over for a weekend. After Labor Day it was shut up for the winter.

Everything about the house was Cape Cod-like, from the cedar shingle siding to the paired windows on both sides of the central front door to the fishy weather vane. Everything was right about it, perched on the sea, except for the King Kongness of it.

They parked in the driveway. Vera looked up at the second story deck. She liked the deck, round high facing the ocean.

“Unlock this door,” said Dick Armstrong, pointing to the side door. “I don’t want that in the house,” he said, pointing to Archie in the back seat.

Archie didn’t like the way the man said it, but he didn’t bark about it.

As soon as they were inside the house he jumped out of the car window Vera had left open for him. He barked at the Lexus. He sniffed at one of the rear tires, lifted his hind leg, and peed on it. Archie could hear and smell the ocean. In a minute he saw it and in the next minute he was at the shore, in the water.

Inside the house Vera sat at the kitchen table while Dick Armstrong strode through the rooms, strode upstairs, and strode back into the kitchen.

“Everything looks good,” he said. “Come down to the panic room. I want to check the alarm system and security cameras.”

“I thought they were called safe rooms.”

He gave her a sharp look. “Panic room.”

The basement floor was a mirror-like epoxy painted slab. There were a pool table, a billiards table, a snooker table, and a bar with eight or nine stools. The safe room was a concrete square in the corner. The door was a steel door. The hinges and strike plate were reinforced. A table with four chairs was to the right of the door. An open bathroom with a first aid kit on the wall was behind the table. On the left a two-door cabinet held dry goods, bottled water, and gas masks. In the far left corner were an office chair and table, an iMac, shortwave radio, and closed circuit monitors.

A woman was splayed on the floor, dress disordered eyes closed face blank, dark red blood drying in her blonde hair.

Vera looked up as Dick Armstrong took a step at her and grabbed her by the throat. His face looked like murder. She slashed at his mouth. His lips came off in her hand. He hit her with a short hard right to the temple and her legs went wobbly. She leaned into him. A black inky film filled her eyes. She lost consciousness as he let her go to the ground.

Archie was almost dry by the time he ran back to the car. He had a hard dense wiry coat.  Thick heavyset dark clouds were rolling in across the bay. When Dick Armstrong came through the side door Archie wondered, where’s Vera? The side door slammed and the man strode towards his car.

Archie didn’t like the smell of it. The man had a sour smell. He wanted to ask him where Vera was, but the man, opening his car door, kicked at him. Archie was an Oorang Airedale. His great-great-great-great grandfather had been a fierce competitor in water-rat matches. He jabbed headfirst at the man’s leg, slashing through the pant’s fabric, and biting into warm flesh. He could taste blood in his mouth.

It tasted good.

Dick Armstrong yawped and flung himself into the Lexus, lurching and grabbing at the door. Backing out of the driveway he swerved at the Airedale, but Archie was graceful fast lissome, and it was child’s play jumping to the side.

The better I get to know people, thought Archie. He wasn’t trying to be narrow-minded, but what he liked about people most of the time was their dogs. Dogs never bite me, only people. He jumped into the CRV. The rain fell like dread.

Vera Nyberg blinked her eyes open. She was lying prone on a medical exam table. The ceiling was white. She took ten twenty then a hundred slow steady breaths staring into the white. When she was done she tried to prop herself up on her elbows. She slowly deliberately wary lay back down on her back. Her head hurt like somebody had hit it with a hammer. Hedging her bets she closed her eyes and fell back into the inky blackness.

Officer Matheus Ribeiro was stocky and had short stocky black hair. Besides routine patrol work, he was the medical supply officer and detainee monitor. He sat across from Vera in an interview room in the Wellfleet Police Department checking and double-checking a sheaf of papers on a clipboard. Vera knew him, not so much as a policeman, but more as a friend of Rachel Amparo, her friend on the Provincetown Police Department.

He was from Brazil, Porto Velho, one of the state capitals in the upper Amazon River basin. He was a graduate of the Plymouth Police Academy and had been on the Wellfleet force for six years. He spoke Portuguese, Rachel spoke Portuguese, he was a great cook, and Rachel loved great food.

One night, over plates of bacalhau, Vera asked him what he liked about being a policeman.

“I get to drive as fast as I want,” he said.

Rachel, whose duties routinely involved foot patrols, scowled.

“What the hell, Vera,” he said. “What happened?”

“Where’s Archie?” she asked.

“He was asleep in the back of your car. We called Bruce. He and a friend of his picked up Archie and your car and took them home. Now tell me what happened.”

When she was done she laced her fingers, reached up and behind the chair, and stretched. Officer Ribeiro leaned back in his chair, tipping on the back legs. He straightened up.

“Mr. Armstrong was who called us about you,“ he said.

“What?”

“He called the department and said he was worried, said he had called from Boston and asked that somebody from Focus walk through his house, that he was coming up for the weekend, since the weather was so good. He said you volunteered and would call him back within the hour. When you didn’t call by the end of the day he called your office, no answer, and then called us.”

The policeman drank from a bottle of Poland Spring.

“He asked us to drive by, see if everything was OK. When we pulled up your car and Mrs. Armstrong’s car were in the driveway.”

“Mrs. Armstrong? There was no Mrs. Armstrong, only him, by himself. And the woman.”

“The woman was Mrs. Armstrong. She was in the safe room in the basement, with you, except she was dead.”

“That was the first and only time I ever saw her.”

“I was going to ask you about that. We’ve told Mr. Armstrong about her death and he’ll be here today.”

“If that’s him in the picture you showed me, that’s not exactly him. That’s not the man who slugged me.”

“There’s something at odds here.”

“What time is it?”

“Nine, nine in the morning.”

“When did Mrs. Armstrong die?”

“The medical examiner so far is saying ten, eleven o’clock, the same time you were there.”

“How did she die?”

“The same as you, blunt force, but you didn’t die.”

“Am I a suspect?”

“Yes and no.”

“I like the no part better. Can I go have breakfast?”

“How’s your head?”

“It could be better.”

“There’s no substitute for a hard head. Where are you going?”

“The Lighthouse, then home, I’ve got to shower, and change. I’ll be back.”

“How are you going to do that?”

“I was hoping you could drive me to the Lighthouse. I’ll call Sandra on the way. She can take me home. Archie and I will be back by five.”

“This isn’t exactly how murder investigations are supposed to go.”

“You’re right about that, about this being murder. He was the man who slugged me, with his wrong face or no wrong face. I think it’s all just sand in our faces, just some sleight of hand.”

“We’ve confirmed him to be in Boston with a friend yesterday.”

“What kind of a friend?”

The policeman hesitated. “A close friend.”

“It has to be something about the house, something personal. Why not solve your problem in Boston, or get someone else to solve your problem, make it disappear? I’ve got a friend, one of Sandra’s catering guys, who was once a jailhouse lawyer, before he went more-or-less straight. He’s an IT jack-of-all-trades, good at following the money. He’ll know how to find out.”

“I know Mike Butler, so let’s drop that within earshot of me,” said Officer Ribeiro.

“Man, that’s crazy, I was there the night before last, hanging out on that second story deck of theirs,” said Mike Butler.

Vera, Sandra, and Mike were having a late breakfast at the Lighthouse. They sat at the bar. Sandra lived in Eastham, but worked part-time at Herridge Books in Wellfleet. It was a small bookstore with no magazines and no café, just books. There were books in stacks on chairs tables and the floor. It smelled like a bookstore even with the windows open.

Sandra catered private parties on the side. Mike was one of the local men who worked with her. In the off-season, in the late afternoon or evening, he often roosted on decks and porches of unoccupied seasonal houses on seaside lots. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” he said. He never brought his iPhone. He never parked in the driveways. He always brought his own Eddie Bauer folding chair.

“Yeah, there was a guy, some kind of black car, a big one, like a Caddy, or a Lexus, maybe” he said. “He carried something into the house, didn’t stay long. As soon as he was gone I made myself gone, too.”

“Can you find out about that house, about them, who held the purse strings, and who was on the outs with who?”

“Sure, after breakfast, give me a few hours. Call me if I don’t call you. I might be taking a nap.”

Men are most sincere when they’re in love, when they’ve been empowered, and when they’re committing murder. Dick Armstrong must have fallen out of love with his wife, thought Vera. Murder wasn’t the next step, but it might be if his love had turned to hate. Murders are always a problem when they’re spur of the moment crimes, when they’re mistakes. But, Dick Armstrong had gotten too clever for his own good trying to send a message to the graveyard. When someone has thought and thought about something it isn’t hard working backwards and reading their thoughts.

Vera showered, fed Archie, and meditated for an hour. Most days she meditated for half an hour, except when she was busy. Then she meditated longer. She had been busy the past day-and-a half. Breathing exercises and meditation were about everything and nothing at the same time. They were acts of slowing down, getting centered, and finding some understanding and compassion for the living and the dead.

“It’s his money, real estate money, plenty of it and plenty of it shady, but all the personal property was in her name,” said Mike Butler as they sped down Route 6 to Wellfleet. ”She was after a divorce, she’s saying abuse, but she wanted more than alimony, she wanted the summer house.”

“The horrible house,” said Vera.

“It’s not so horrible, kind of big, but a great view of the bay.”

“Why did she want the house?”

“She wanted it because he wanted it. He planned the house just the way he wanted it, he bought off everybody and his brother, he went to court, fought off the do-gooders, the Feds, got it built even though they made him jump through hoops, got it done. Hell, he probably loved that house a lot more than he loved her. She probably knew that, too.”

Mike Butler had grown up in old Provincetown before it became new Provincetown, when property was cheap and rents low and hippies and gays were starting to show up. He didn’t downpress anyone one way or the other. His father had fished for cod on his own boat out of Provincetown Harbor. Mike still called Commercial Street Front Street and Bradford Street Back Street.

He didn’t care about bankers and stockbrokers buying up land, either. He had his family’s old small house in Provincetown. The front door still faced the ocean, unlike most of the town’s waterfront houses, which had been turned around so the front doors faced the street. He kept to himself, except when he was working, or watching a BoSox game at the Lighthouse, a Pabst Blue Ribbon at hand.

Mike lived with a box turtle he’d had since he was a kid. Inscribed on the underside of the shell of the turtle were the initials M. B. and the year 1979, where he had carved them with a pocketknife on his 18th birthday, six years after his father gave him the baby turtle for his birthday.

Archie liked riding in the CRV with the windows open, just in case anything came up that he needed to bark at. But, he had a bad habit of barking at anything that moved, a crossing guard, a passing bicyclist, a rafter of wild turkeys on the side of the road. Sometimes Vera told him to “Shut the hell up.” He didn’t know exactly what hell was, but he knew exactly what she meant when she said it. She wasn’t dry or shy nor someone who beat the sense out of words.

When they pulled into the Wellfleet Police Department parking lot and Archie barked at Dick Armstrong getting out of his white Lincoln Navigator, Vera said, “Good dog.” Two men in suits went into the station with him. “At least one of them is a lawyer,” said Mike. He rubbed the top of Archie’s head.

The police station was on Gross Hill Road off Route 6, tucked beneath Oakdale Cemetery where Cemetery Road began and ended. “I’ll stay here, maybe go for a walk in the graveyard,” said Mike. Vera and Archie went into the station. Vera sat on a plastic chair in the lobby and Archie flopped down on the floor. She had gotten a good look at Dick Armstrong and couldn’t swear he was Dick Armstrong.

A half-hour later, when Officer Matheus Ribeiro came out to the lobby and asked her if she could identify Dick Armstrong as the man who had attacked her in the safe room, she said, “No.”

“Too bad,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to charge him with anything.”

Ten minutes later Dick Armstrong and the two men accompanying him pushed into the lobby on their way out of the police station. One of the men gave her a look-see. Dick Armstrong stopped and eyeballed Archie.

Archie jumped up and started barking his head off. It was the sour-smelling man he had bitten outside the big house. He barked and barked, but could tell no one was making heads or tails of what he was trying to say. “Keep that damned dog away from me,” shouted Dick Armstrong.

Archie lunged at him, got his teeth into the right pants leg, and tugging violently tore the fabric off the leg at the knee. One of the men started to beat Archie with his briefcase. The police dispatcher, another policeman, and finally Officer Ribiero burst into the lobby, manhandling Dick Armstrong away from Archie, pulling Archie away from him, and pushing the lawyer with the angry briefcase away from the fracas.

“Look what that goddamned dog did to my pants,” yelled Dick Armstrong.

Everyone looked

“Look at his leg,” said Vera. “Look at the bite mark on his shin.”

Everyone looked.

The bite mark was black and blue in an ugly ring where the skin had been broken. Five inflamed red marks defined where canine teeth had drawn blood. Some kind of antiseptic cream was smeared over the wound. Two of the red marks were back to back.

“That’s Archie’s bite,” said Vera.

“What?” asked Officer Ribiero.

“One of his baby canines got retained, and since it wasn’t bothering him when his permanent teeth came in, I just let it go. He’s got two canine teeth on that one side, which is why his bite mark is the way it is. I’d know it anywhere, because that Dick Armstrong isn’t the first Dick Armstrong he’s bitten. If this man was in Boston yesterday, how did he get bitten by my dog on the same day?”

“Get the Medical Examiner on the phone,” Officer Ribiero said to the police dispatcher. “In the meantime, I think it’s best if we all go back inside and go over this from the beginning. And you,” he said, pointing to Vera, “bring that dog with you.”

Only the lawyer with the out of gas briefcase objected.

“They took photos, took some measurements, and took some samples from Archie and Armstrong,” said Vera.

Rachel Amparo and Vera were at Terra Luna in North Truro. They sat at the bar and shared plates of artichoke heart pate and grilled sardines. Rachel sipped on a Flower Power cocktail while Vera pulled from a bottle of Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.

“If the DNA matches it’ll throw a new light on everything,” said Rachel. “That’s when the trouble will start. One lie leads to another until it’s all a house of cards.”

“I’m always telling Archie he’s not allowed to bite people,” said Vera, crunching on a sardine. “He agrees, I think, but he seems to think it’s OK to bite anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.”

“He’s a good dog,” said Rachel.

Archie was on his stomach lounging in the orangey sunset at the back of the small restaurant. Tony was working in the kitchen. He could see him through the screen door. Archie’s chin was flat on the warm grass, back legs tucked up under him. His front legs were extended before him. He could clearly smell pork chops being grilled.

Maybe Tony will bring me something to eat soon.

He was glad he had been able to help by biting the sour-smelling man. He didn’t often bite people. He preferred to bump them when he had to.

One night Vera had read a story to him called The Dog Who Bit People, about Muggs, an Airedale like him, but unlike him a dog who bit everyone in sight, although he didn’t bite his family as often as he bit strangers. “When he starts for them they scream and that excites him,” explained the mother of the house. The city police wanted him tied up, but he wouldn’t eat when he was tied up.

Archie thought Muggs lacked good sense.

When the screen door swung open Archie jumped up. Tony was bringing out a bowl of water and a plate of pieces of pork chop and the raw meat bone.

“The bone is for after your meal,” said Tony.

Later, chewing on the bone, he thought the sour-smelling man may have had the wrong mug shot, but he knew in his bones he had bitten the right leg on the right man at the right time.

On the Flip Side

i_want_you

“War is hell.”  William Tecumseh Sherman

Wars are armed conflicts. We have been marching off to them for the past 14,000 years. Since the rise of the nation-state as we know it tens of thousands of wars have been fought, costing more than 3.5 billion human lives. Other deaths, like those of horses, mules, and camels are incalculable.

The Confederate cavalryman J. O. Shelby had 24 horses shot out from under him in two-and-a-half years during the Civil War. He survived every warhorse he ever rode. General Shelby died of old age in 1897.

Nearly all people all societies all states have gone to war with one another. 95% of all known societies have either fought wars or fought wars constantly. In the past 14,000 years there have been only approximately 300 years of non-raising Cain.

“The condition of man is a condition of everyone against everyone,” said Thomas Hobbes some 400 years ago. When it comes time to taking care of business it’s about banging heads with iron and blood, no matter what century it is. “Force and fraud are in war cardinal virtues.” In other words, no one gives a hoot for the other man, woman, or child. It’s every Man for himself and God against all.

It’s every horse mule camel for himself, too.

All faiths beliefs persuasions have crossed swords, from Jews to Buddhists to Christians. The European Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries cost more than 15 million souls. Islam has been at it since just about Day 1. In Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers and hard-line Buddhists have been fighting tooth and nail for several years.

They were and are fighting for their beliefs, their beliefs being a ball and chain. Non-violence can be a disaster when it doesn’t work. The only bigger disaster is violence when it works.

More than 230 million people died in the wars of the 20th century. “It was a beastly century,” said Margaret Drabble. It’s impossible to say how many were injured displaced disappeared. At the end of the day, at the end of the century, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong? Whoever is left is who says.

The verdict is still out on the 21st century.

In the 5,000-year history of yoga, however, there are no recorded battlefield deaths of any man or woman true-blue to the eight limbs of the practice. There are no war stories of getting off the mat and duking it out with someone across the street who doesn’t see it your way. Even though there is a standing pose called Warrior, there are no thrust and parry, no AK-47’s, no nuclear arsenal. There are no bronze memorials of stern men on horseback sword in hand in any yoga studio anywhere.

Wars are fought for many reasons, but those reasons can be boiled down to nationalism, revenge, and material gain, both economic and territorial. The wages of war are swinish dark bottomless. Yoga is practiced for one reason, uniting body spirit mind. The wages of yoga are breath light energy.

Going to war may be the easiest thing to explain and the hardest thing to do. “Battle is an orgy of disorder. There is only attack and attack and attack some more,” said George ‘Old Blood and Guts’ Patton, who commanded the U. S. Third Army during WW2. Yoga may be the hardest thing to explain and the easiest thing to do. “Just do,” said K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

General Patton often said battle was the “most magnificent” undertaking known to man. It can be one hell of an undertaking. A chest full of medals sparkles when you’re successful. Six feet of loose dirt covers up your failures.

“The real trouble with modern war is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people,” said Ezra Pound.

Old Blood and Guts died in an automobile accident. The Army private chauffeuring his Cadillac limousine was uninjured. K. Pattabhi Jois died of natural causes. “He was fearless about combining the path of yoga with the path of the participant “ said David Life, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.

Since yoga doesn’t self-identify with any nation-state, doesn’t live by the eye for an eye of the tiger, and isn’t interested in looting all your stuff, it doesn’t issue declarations and ultimatums. It doesn’t blow its stack, launching smart bombs, armed drones, and coming to your world soon, fully autonomous weapons systems.

Practicing yoga is practicing getting your hands on freedom, no matter how elusive it may be. It’s not about getting your hands on the other guy’s cargo, no matter how bright and shiny and phenomenal it is. More cargo more loot more territory means keeping your nose to the grindstone in order to keep it all in your corner of the world. Yoga means sloughing off the wet dream of more glory more prizes more pride in victory.

Freedom isn’t about riding the merry-go-round and grabbing grasping snatching at the brass ring. Hell, what would you do with it anyway?

The Totenkopf military hat features a human skull, mandible, and two crossed long bones. The black-clad Hussar cavalry of Frederick the Great were the first to wear them. The death-head hats scared the hell out of the other guys, making it clear what was at stake.

Even though the Dalai Lama has said, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path,” death-head hats are never worn by anyone at any time anywhere in any yoga class.

If Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken off his skull and crossbones hat in 1902, put his hair up into a bun, and gotten on a yoga mat instead of scowling all the time, he might not have walked off the plank right into WW1. But, he didn’t, and 12 years later it was Time for Trench Warfare. Since WW2 was a direct consequence of the War to End All Wars, maybe that wouldn’t have happened, either.

In 1938, just before the start of WW2, French biologist Jean Rostond said, “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

What a difference a hat can make, not just in fashion, but in what determines the fate of birds on the wing, too. The last German Emperor abdicated in 1918, grew a beard, and spent the rest of his life chopping wood and hunting birds. He bagged tens of thousands of them in the next twenty years. The neighborhood flocks thought he was an avenging angel.

Only one man has ever returned Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor.

Charlie Liteky, a combat chaplain, without a weapon, flak jacket, or helmet, dragged 23 wounded soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, evacuating them to safety. He later opposed the war, and other wars, such as the invasions of Iraq. “I think it’s more of a patriotic duty of citizens of this country to stand up and say that this is wrong, that this is immoral,” he said.

But, one man’s immorality is another man’s morality, especially if those men are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The three largest defense companies in the world are USA companies. “You fasten all the triggers, for the others to fire,” sang Bob Dylan in ‘Masters of War’.

The United States controls more than 50% of the global weaponry market. Yoga controls 100% of the global yoga mat market. Only you control whether the world that’s always trying to make you something else gets its way.

Violence is the bread and butter of war. Warfare is a dangerous world filled with rough men, and lately, rough women, too. It is a world where the end justifies the means. Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the bread and butter of yoga The practice does not abjure self-defense, but it doesn’t propagate violence as a means, no matter what the end might be.

Non-violence is the first article of the first limb of yoga. Ahimsa in action is not doing harm. It’s simple enough, but easier said than done. The first step is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless you’re a psychopath, the doing will be non-violent. The next step might be to not march in ideological lockstep with anybody’s army. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Putin or President Xi Jinping. Their interests are not necessarily in your best interest.

It’s pointless to complain about the weather. War is a longtime turmoil as old as the weather, as old as our gods. “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t,” said George Patton. Sometimes it seems like there is no resisting the winds of war. It would be like trying to win a hurricane. When the Junior Bush and Elder Cheney administration wanted to invade Iraq over nothing Iraq had done, there was no stopping it.

If it all sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. The shells of rockets’ red glare, the litter of shells the damage done, and political military industrial hacks shelling out pipe dreams of heroism. When you’re dead as a doornail it doesn’t matter who won the war.

The side of the moon facing away from the earth is the far side, the flip side. It is the side facing out to the cosmos. The bright side is what makes some moonstruck, making them go crazy when there’s a full moon.

John Bell Hood was a General in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was notoriously brave and aggressive, and a madman. His troops routinely suffered staggering losses staging frontal assaults they were routinely ordered into. During the Seven Days Battle in 1862 every single officer in his brigade was either killed or wounded. In 1863 at Gettysburg Hood’s left arm was severely injured and he lost use of it for the rest of his life. In 1864 at Chickamauga his right leg had to be amputated just below the hip.

For the rest of the Civil War he rode into battle with his left arm tied to his body and his body tied to the body of his horse. “He has body enough left,” one witness remarked, watching Johnny Reb lock horns with the Yankees again.

The macabre spectacle of the one-armed one-legged Hood, trailed by an orderly carrying his replacement cork leg, was not his alone. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War lost arms and legs. That’s the damage all wars do, civil or not so civil, lopping off limbs, scrambling brains, filling up cemeteries.

Yoga, on the other hand, is not only a practice intent on keeping your arms and legs attached to your body, it is a practice that conjures additional limbs to those willing to take up the mantle of the mat. The discipline in the classic sense is an eight-limb practice. The limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, which means standing inside of.

The walk of life can be hard enough with two arms and two legs. It’s much harder when missing an arm or a leg, or both. It’s much easier with eight extra limbs.

“When we talk about war we’re talking about peace,” said President George W. Bush. In the world of doublespeak slavery is freedom and war is known as peace. In the world of yoga freedom is freedom and non-war is known as peace. No fooling. Only fools try to fool themselves.

The masters of war would have you believe that taking up the gun will solve all the problems of taking up the gun. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” said William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman is known for the Savannah Campaign of 1864, slashing through Georgia and South Carolina, innovating what is now known as scorched earth warfare. “Yoga is not easy!” said K. Pattabhi Jois. “But, it leads to freedom.” He is known for inspiring and influencing the way yoga is taught and practiced all over the world.

Warrior pose on the yoga mat is about fighting the good fight, not fighting the other guy. It’s about challenge strength fortitude.

Standing on one leg in a yoga class may be cruel and unusual punishment, but at least you’re standing. Not only that, the standing is getting you somewhere. Getting anywhere in the Fog of War is up for grabs, at best, and on a collision course with Hell, at worse.

When it comes to getting on the good side of the Pearly Gates, war doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Santa Saviors and Corpse Pose

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“To live outside the law, you must be honest.” Bob Dylan

The difference between policies and principles is the difference between Santa, Saviors, and Savasana, or what is known as corpse pose in yoga practice. Santa and our many saviors, ranging from Islam to Christianity, much like our Messiah-like political leaders, have a heavy hand. They employ the carrot and stick approach to order the reality they’ve carefully constructed.

Savasana is practiced at the end of yoga exercise classes. It’s a simple thing. You lie down on your back on the mat with your arms at your sides, close your eyes, and breathe naturally. When you surrender to Santa and the Savior you agree to live by their rules. When you surrender to Savasana it’s just you just as you are, not as what anybody else says you should be.

Savasana only works when you’re being honest about it.

You don’t have to be an honest man or woman to live in the world of Santa and the Savior. You only have to do what you need to do to get along and get what you want. It’s OK to lie to yourself. Who cares about the spirit of the thing?

“Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit,” said journalist Kin Hubbard a hundred years ago.

You have to be an honest man and woman to dive into the sea of yoga. Otherwise, what would be the point? It’s sink or swim. There’s no one looking over your shoulder. There’s no lifeguard.

In the making of the modern age of mass media, mass merchandising, and mass more-of-everything, Claus and Christ are staples from about the beginning of November until the Big Day. The Savior once had pride of place, since Christmas used to be about celebrating his birth, but Santa is Top Dog in the 21st century.

“Christmas is a baby shower that went totally overboard,” said writer Anthony Borowitz.

Sometimes it seems like the celebration is more about the birth of Santa Claus than Jesus Christ. Even though he doesn’t exist, Santa is everywhere during the holiday season, selling fashion electronics cars, whatever. Besides cash checks credit cards, there are even Christmas Club bank accounts to pay for last year’s presents.

A capitalist is someone who loves his fellow man and woman in groups of a million-or-more. The Money Markets and Scrooge never had it so good.

Santa Claus is a portly red-clad man who brings gifts to good straight arrow well-behaved children on Christmas Eve, or the morning of Christmas Day. He spends most of the rest of the year supervising elves in his workshop and making out a list of kids who have been naughty or nice.

Children who have been on the up and up get gifts. Children who have stepped off strait is the gate and narrow is the way do not get gifts, unless it’s a lump of coal. Santa Claus can be judgmental. There are some roofs he won’t land on.

Santa Claus is everywhere, in California in shorts, in Nigeria shooting off knockouts, which are like firecrackers, and in China playing the saxophone. Most Chinese reenactor Santa Claus’s, on street corners and at the entrances to shopping malls, are usually jamming on a sax.

No one, not even the Chinese, seems to know the reason why. Beijing-based writer Helen Gao thinks it might be because “the saxophone is portable so Santa can make Christmas music anywhere.”

You don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, because then you’d ruin everyone else’s Christmas. Some black people are on the fence about him because they don’t believe a white dude would ever come to their neighborhood after dark. If he did, they ask, what’s in that pipe he’s smoking?

In any event, nobody shoots at Santa Claus.

Many children believe in him, up to a point. Shirley Temple’s faith was shaken at the age of six when her mother took her to a department store and the bearded legend asked her for an autograph.

Christmas was once the first step to getting safely home to your Loving Father in Heaven. Over time it became more a state of mind, a tradition of good cheer for communities, retaining most of its original values. Today it’s a mash-up of visiting family and friends, of the economic miracle of gift giving – Make It a December to Remember With a Lexus – and the Golden State Warriors Cleveland Cavaliers national broadcast on Christmas Day.

The Cavs stormed back late in the 4th quarter and beat the Warriors by a point in the last seconds. Some broadcasters said it was a miracle. It was The Miracle on the Corner of Ontario St. Other broadcasters said what Richard Jefferson did to Kevin Durant on the sidelines at game’s end was a sin.

But, when it comes to professional sports, and many other professions, sins don’t actually affect the payoff under the tree.

The problem with Christmas has always been God at the front and center of it, not just Christ, the third arm of God the Father, God the Holy Ghost, and God the Son. If Santa is a judgmental old man, then God is an infinitely more judgmental eternally older man. Santa Claus may not give you a gift this year, but there’s always next year. When it comes to Heaven and Hell, however, we all get one chance at it and the outcome is forever. There are no last-second miracles.

To accept the Savior, or any savior, into your life fibre being is to accept the belief that God has a plan for you. Hearing from him about the big picture is vital. Listening following obeying the plan is everyone’s own decision. That’s why God grants us Free Will. Many people believe it’s in their own best interest to stick to the game plan both chapter and verse.

Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, proposed a bet about God. Sensible folk should live as though God exists. If he doesn’t exist you lose very little, maybe a roll in the hay and some good times on this earth. However, if he does exist and you live by his rules you stand to win the Grand Prize of Heaven. You also avoid the Big Bust, namely eternity in Hell. In the end, if you bet against God you bet against yourself.

Like it says in the Bible, “Whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” You can say no to God’s way of doing things, but, come hell or high water, God will have his way, one way or the other.

The snag in this approach is inherent in the story of the angel walking down a road of good intentions with a bucket of water in one hand and a torch in the other. When someone asks the angel what he is going to do with them, he says that with the bucket of water he intends to put out the fires of Hell and with the torch he will burn down the mansions of Heaven.

“Then,” the angel says, “we’ll see who really loves God.”

Santa and the Savior rule from the top-down. They don’t necessarily care if you love them, or not. They didn’t get to where they are with a ho, ho, ho. Santa Claus’s doppelganger is Krampus and God has many millennia of the Old Testament behind him, not just some forward-looking centuries of the New Testament.

The consequence of breaking the rules is risky consequential dire. The naughty are denied the sparkly magic of Christmas and sinners are turned away at the Gate of Heaven. “He who breaks the law goes back to the House of Pain,” said Dr. Moreau to the Beast-Men in the Island of Dr. Moreau.

Students follow rules. They have to please their teachers. Until recently women followed the rules because men made the rules. Dogs follow the rules. That’s why they’re man’s best friend.

There’s only one rule worth following. That’s the Golden Rule. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. It’s a homespun peg to hang your hat on outside the law courts.

Santa Claus and Saviors, like everyone who has ever wielded power, are puppet masters pulling the strings. God is all-loving, but he’s all-powerful, too. “If you must break the law, do it to seize power,” said Julius Caesar a long time ago. Like Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar was worshipped as a God.

From then until now the love of power has more often than not trumped the power of love.

There are no puppet masters in yoga.

The reason the practice is puppet master-less is that the power of the practice doesn’t flow from the top-down. It’s not just another kind of trickle down, economic or otherwise. It flows from the bottom-up. “You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the West in the late 19th century.

Power lives and dies in a hierarchical tradition. There is no hierarchy in yoga. Power is like the Trump Tower. There is a penthouse at the top and a mailroom at the bottom. Yoga is more like a 5000-year-old tree with many branches. Power never stops sending tweets. Yoga quiets the body and mind.

The fly in the ointment of top-down power is when was the last time anyone at the top had a good idea? When was the last time Tim Cook Bill Gates Jay Y. Lee wrote computer code? When was the last time Barrack Obama Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping reduced their country’s armed forces? When was the last time Mark Cuban Dan Gilbert James Dolan sank a three-pointer with time running out?

Savasana is sometimes thought of as the most important pose of yoga practice on the mat. It comes at the end of class and no one needs a teacher at the head of the room to tell them what to do. It is the nonpareil bottom-up posture, since you have to lie down on your backside to do it.

Corpse pose is about the self, and the non-self, and self-discovery. It’s about letting go of rewards and reincarnation or an afterlife in Heaven or Hell. When you’re in dead man’s pose nobody, not even the Downpresser Man, can boss your better half. You’re not doing something that somebody else told you to do. Nobody can tell you what to do because there’s nothing to do.

Letting Santa and the Savior read the riot act is a backwards way of living life, from the outside in, rather than from the inside out. Yoga is a practice of learning who you are by exploring yourself, not by reading a guide book. Marching in the ranks is fine on a parade ground, but who wants to be marching to a drill sergeant’s drumbeat all day and night?

“The question of whether or not there is a God or truth or reality, or whatever, can never be answered by books, by priests, philosophers or saviors,” said the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. “Nobody and nothing can answer the question but you yourself, and that is why you must know yourself.”

It’s never question and answer time in corpse pose, because it’s the end of yoga class, and you’re tired, and Santa and the Savior are just going to have to wait while you and your breath take a break and recharge.

Putting Santa and the Savior and all the self-appointed Messiahs and their carrots and sticks on the back burner is to be up front, knowing and being your own you, yourself as you are from the inside out.

Eleven Months of Yoga

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I found myself going to yoga in the first place because my neighbor Vera had started taking classes. She was taking classes because her husband Frank had taken classes for a long time. “He said he went to yoga because he’s a counterculture kind of guy, even though yoga is a 5,000-year-old culture, and everybody does it nowadays, anyway,” said Vera.

“Besides, his lower back hurt.”

Yoga never fixed his back, but Vera said he still gets on his mat every day, although mostly at home now.

I meant to start right after the New Year, but with one thing and another didn’t take my first class until the first week of February. February is the month I was born and the same month and year the Beatles first number one hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit number one.

Vera picked me up and we drove to Better Bliss across the bridge in Rocky River. She didn’t hold my hand walking through the front door, not that I wasn’t nervous.

The owner of the yoga studio was teaching the beginner’s class. We all had to say our names and then tell a story. “Tell your story,” said Lindsey. I had no story. “Oh, my gosh!” I said. What story do I have? I thought. “My name is Liz Drake and Frank Glass is my friend’s husband,” I said, pointing to Vera.

Lindsey started laughing. “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met,” she said.

What? I thought. There are lots of funnier people than Frank, but since Lindsey was smiling up a storm I didn’t say anything. She was a good teacher, but I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea we had to go into poses. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything about yoga.

I had never done it, never seen a class, only a few minutes of it on TV. I had some idea about the mats, but no idea about the blocks and straps.

I thought it was going to be easier than what it was. You’re just stretching, right? We had to sit there, had to close our eyes, breathe, and I thought, is this what it’s going to be like? This is going to be easy. But, then you start doing poses. My God! It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

I didn’t realize it, but I thought everyone was there for the first time, just like me. When we told our story I should have added I had never done yoga before. I forgot to add that. I had no idea what I was doing. Lindsey would say do this, do that. She had names for all the poses. What is that? I thought. What? I looked around, trying to do it, although I felt I was goofing on everything.

Although everyone else looked like they knew what they were doing, I didn’t even know what downward dog was. It was like when my Israeli ex-boyfriend-to-be convinced me to take Hebrew lessons. He said it was a beginner’s class for people who didn’t know Hebrew, but when I got to the class everyone was speaking Hebrew.

All during the yoga class I pretended like I was on the right track. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner. Lindsey would say, now everybody do this, go into this pose, and everybody would do it. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

After some classes with Lindsey I started going Sunday mornings. Gina was the teacher. The room was always filled with incense at eight in the morning and we had to do weird breathing exercises. I thought I was going to pass out. Maybe I should fake it, I thought. I’m going to pretend I’m breathing, but I’m not going to, because I’ll get dizzy, get flashbacks.

“Pull it up from your core,” she said. Where is that core? I wondered. I never understood what that kind of breathing meant. It didn’t feel natural. Gina seemed to think we had to breathe differently to do yoga.

I liked Gina, but one morning I said I felt like I was doing most of the poses left-handed.

“I don’t even know the names of them. I just look around and hope I can copy somebody.”

“Oh, no, not the D word,” said Gina.

“What? What D word?”

“Discouragement.”

Everybody in the class was so sincere, so serious. They dressed like yogi people with their yoga costumes, special clothes, while I wore a t-shirt and sweat pants. At the end of class we sat cross-legged while Gina told us to imagine drifting down a river, putting all our bad thoughts on a leaf, and then letting the leaf float away. What are you talking about? I wanted to ask.

I moved on to a Tuesday beginner’s class with Tracy. It was at night right after a hot flow class. While we waited in the lobby to go in they were coming out completely drenched. Pools of sweat water were everywhere on the wood floor when we walked into the yoga room. You had to dodge around the pools.

Tracy was good at teaching us the actual poses. She took her time, walking around to help us all, although sometimes I would be in a pose waiting and waiting for her to get to me. I learned every pose as perfectly as could be since she was into perfect alignment.

One day there was a big guy who came to Tracy’s class. He was wearing funny plastic pants. Our class was usually mostly women. Sometimes there might be a guy or two, but after one or two times you never saw them again. Before we started, the plastic pants man said, “This is easy.” Once the class began he started sweating to death. He’s never coming back, I thought.

I never saw him again.

I never sweated, although I drank a lot of water.

I liked the crazy twists, for some reason, but standing on one leg was hard. I don’t have good balance because I can only see out of one eye. Whenever we did balancing poses the picture I got was, I’m going to fall down!

By the middle of summer I was ready to move up the yoga ladder. Tracy told me I should try Monica’s’s Basic Hatha Flow class. I bought a thicker mat. It was great for my knees. Some of the poses are hard on your bones, but that’s what you have to cut your teeth on. At least, that’s what Monica said.

She was tough, almost like a man, but I went to both of her weekly evening classes for five months the rest of the year. Most teachers had a soft voice, but Monica’s was never that soft. It became my main class, even though I dragged myself there. The whole drive to the yoga studio, even though it was only a few minutes, I would complain to myself. She’s going to come and push, she’ll walk around looking for me, I thought. She would push you down, sideways, all ways.

One time she pulled me when I was in a standing pose and I fell down. I just started laughing. You don’t want to be the center of attention, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

She made us hold poses incredibly long until my legs would burn and shake. I remember my thighs burning. I couldn’t even control them.

“What’s wrong with that, that’s good,” she said, “It’s good that your legs are shaking.”

I kept going back. She was top-notch.

One day she stood behind me and pulled my shoulders.

“How does that feel?” I started laughing, thinking, are you kidding me? Go to somebody else.

It didn’t feel good. But, it was a good pain. I liked being stretched.

A small man came to class and acted like he knew everything. “I’m doing this really great, aren’t I?” he said. But, he was just jumping around, moving fast. Afterwards he asked Monica about taking a more challenging class. “You have to be careful, basics would be best for the time being,” she said.

He wouldn’t listen, even though it was Monica telling him what for.

He had heard about Ashtanga Yoga and that’s where he went. I remember thinking, OK, buddy, you’re almost twitchy in this class, sweating, crawling out of the place. The next time I heard about him was when a story went around about a newcomer to the Ashtanga Yoga class who fell and cut his head and had to get stitches.

I was laughing.

Monica was the kind of teacher you were kind of scared of. When she told us we were going to be standing on our heads, I thought we had to do it, no question about it. But, I said to myself, Oh, Jesus! I don’t even know where to start. I never stood on my head in my life. She tried to get all of us to do it, but finally said, “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can sit this one out.”

“I’m glad you said that,” I said. Until then I had been ready, even though I was scared. I just give in and do it. I found out later that standing on your head is an advanced pose.

The one advanced pose I liked was wheel, especially when Monica walked over, got her hands under my back, and pulled up. It’s so hard on your back and hands. How much can you lift yourself? I remember thinking keep your hands there, right there, that feels great.

The whole thing about yoga was that I felt great at the end of class. Otherwise, why would anyone go and do it? I felt better, felt taller, all smoothed out. You had to take the pain of doing it to feel good once it was all over. That’s why I went back week after week, even though I knew Monica was going to push, make us stay in poses until it hurt.

It was because I felt darn good afterwards.

I didn’t want to give up on it, but it was so expensive after awhile. I went for a long time, almost a year, but then I thought I could do it at home. Frank Glass was doing it at home. Vera said he practiced yoga almost every day. If he could do it I could do it, for sure. I started, but then stopped after a few weeks.

You have to be disciplined to do yoga at home. Whenever Monica saw anybody in her class slacking off she would say, “What’s wrong with you, get going.” At home you can say I’m not doing this pose today. The next day you can say I’m tired and won’t do anything today. I finally didn’t do much for more than a month, and when spring came I started working in the yard and going for walks in the park with my fox terriers.

That was the end of yoga for me.

Blinded by the Light

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Frank Glass hadn’t been to a yoga studio since before spring broke, preferring to practice at home, and riding his bicycle on sunny days. There aren’t many of them, sunny days, in Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, the six months of fall and winter. Most of them are cloudy moody challenging.

Behind every cloud there’s another cloud many days in the Land on the Great Lake.

Before they were destroyed after the Beaver Wars the indigenous Erieehronon lived on the lakeshore. They believed panthers surfed the waves and they wore bobcat tails like strings of pearls on their heads. Erie means long-tailed in their language, even though bobcats have short tails.

French trappers didn’t call it Lake Erie. They called it Cat Lake.

There are plenty of sunny days in spring and summer, easy and breezy, some not a cloud in the sky. That’s when it’s Cloud 9. They are good days to go riding, even when sunlight is staring you straight in the face.

Frank had been practicing yoga more at home than at studios for more than a year. There had been a time when he twisted breathed meditated over and above at studios, barely once-in-awhile at home, until one night when his wife looked up from the stove.

“If I only made meals at cooking class you would starve to death,” said Vera Glass.

What she meant was she prepared dinner, even if only a Caesar salad and a glass of wine, almost every night, not just when she took a cooking class. She might also have meant Frank was looking like a slow learner, taking so many classes.

“Remember what Napoleon used to say,” she said.

Frank Glass’s wife was a self-employed business manager and bookkeeper, but had a degree in history. He waited to find out what Napoleon Bonaparte used to say.

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

“What about if you’d rather someone else do it, for example, make a fool of yourself,” asked Frank. “Then it’s better, you don’t do it all by yourself, and never mind Napoleon?”

Vera stirred the pot. “Like they say, to thine own self be true.”

Yoga practice at a studio is inspiration positive energy pushing your limits, and a rubber mat buzz. Frank’s motivations for doing yoga at home were money time one-size-doesn’t-fit-all.

During the half-dozen years he took classes three four times a week he spent almost three thousand dollars a year on the practice, as well as spending the time getting to and from studios.

The two years he practiced Bikram Yoga were even more costly. He drove farther to the hot class, 45 minutes, suffered in the so-called torture chamber for 90 minutes, and after a cold shower drove another 45 minutes home. He gulped down a reservoir of coconut water and electrolyte drinks before, during, and after every class.

When the first month’s hellish cramps subsided he never later regretted stopping at the drink coolers and slapping his savings down on the 7-Eleven counter before, during, and after every class.

Practicing at home meant walking up to the attic loft where he kept his mat, blocks, and twelve-inch Yoga Wheel. There were two skylights cut into the pitched ceiling and a futon for Sky King and Alexander Pope to curl up on while watching him.

Sometimes he wondered what they were thinking, when they stretched by second nature, but most of the time he didn’t want to know. He knew that cats, whenever they slipped and fell, always pretended like it hadn’t happened. All the same, not many cats trip over people. We trip over cats.

Yoga was like carrying a cat by the tail, learning something you can’t learn any other way than by doing it.

Although Cleveland is not considered to be a hotbed of yoga, there was a studio within walking distance of where Frank and Vera Glass lived on the west side of Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb on the west side of Cleveland, two within biking distance, and another two within short driving distance.

Yoga studios are good places for guided practice, adjustments, and finding new ways to do things on one leg. It was either the last day of summer or the first day of fall and Frank Glass felt like it was good day to get out of the house.

He grabbed his mat and some cash and drove across the bridge across the river to the Better Bliss Yoga Studio in Rocky River. He hadn’t been there for several years, but walking in it looked like nothing much had changed, although he didn’t recognize the desk help, the instructor, or anyone else in the class.

He recognized the Apple iMac the studio used for checking in and payment processing, and the Apple iMac recognized him, too.

The Better Bliss Boutique was new, selling oils and balms, leg warmers and jewelry, infusers and candles and something called Spiritual Gangster. Frank was a big fan of gangster movies, but thought of yoga as an inquiry, of questioning one’s intent, of looking for meaning, and knew from the movies that gangsters don’t ask questions.

But, Spiritual Gangster turned out to be tanks and pants. One of the tanks was emblazoned with the breezy slogan ‘I’m Just Here for the Savasana’.

The class was crowded, like squids in a subway at rush hour, but he managed to squeeze in near the corner near the back near the windows. There were maybe a hundred men and women in a squarish room that should have sat seventy. The mat map was rows of them facing the front and rows on the sides turned 90 degrees towards the center.

The class was a vinyasa, or flow-style class, the action sequenced and done in time with inhalations and exhalations. Vinyasa is a catch-all, overlapping many styles of the practice, based on sun salutations and continuous movement. After a salutation and some hurrahs from the instructor the class got to their feet.

Almost immediately, as they moved into their first down dog, Frank Glass was confronted with the back end of a pair of skintight tie-dyed pants on the mat less than a foot in front of him. The legs were printed in blue and the hip-hugging waistband was purple.

He found out later they were ‘Waves of Vishnu’ haute Capri’s by k. deer, “strong, sexy, transforming, and proudly made in the USA.”

Back in the day Vishnu’s pants were baggy and wrinkled, not so sexy, handmade in the sub-continent, but that was a long time ago.

“They feel invisible when you’re wearing them,“ the young woman wearing the Capri’s told him after class.

Shades of lululemon’s ill-fated see-through pants, he thought, trying not to agree too heartily or look too closely.

“Oh, and they don’t retain stink, either,” she said.

“That’s good, not making a stink, I mean,” he said.

The flow class was challenging, the pace relentless and perspiry, accompanied by a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame soundtrack. The Beatles once chanted “jai guru deva om” on one of their hit tunes and Mick Jagger still practices yoga, which might explain his Jumping Jack Flash moves at the age of 73.

Frank Glass did his best to keep up with the class, which was not a low-key group, go-getters getting their money’s worth. He wasn’t in shape for game speed yoga. He could feel his face scrunching, feel himself muscling through poses, trying too hard, and breathing erratically. He finally settled into doing the best he could.

“Do it at your own speed,” said the instructor in passing, nodding at him, making modifications and offering encouragement as she went down the rows of mats.

Frank’s tie-dyed neighbor had a neighbor, another young woman, wearing a muscle tee. Every time she moved her arms a clanking sound echoed the movement. She was wearing loose bracelets. They slid up and down and up her arms as she twisted and turned into and out of poses and jumps.

Frank was surprised at the fashion statement. He had seen a woman once in class wearing a pendant necklace jump through and the pendant swung and smacked her in the mouth when she landed. She had a fat lip for the rest of the hour. He thought there were two rules about jewelry. The first rule was leave it at home and the second rule was take it off when you got to the yoga studio.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

From Satya Jewelry to Lovepray Jewelry to Pranajewelry there is a wealth of eye-catching bling to show off your love of all things yogic. There are stainless steel bracelets etched with positive-sounding mantras like “Be the Change”. There are Happy Buddha! gemstone necklaces handcrafted of turquoise and silver. There are Garden of Ohm earrings stamped with the likenesses of deities like Shiva, Ganesh, and Durga.

There are stylish toe rings that match the color of your mat, although if you snag an open end on the rubber, you may go toppling over in downward facing dog, ending up as face first dog down on the mat.

There are many kinds of distractions at yoga studios, from people who stare to loud breathers and groaners to body odor perfume pools of sweat smells and hairballs. It’s a group practice in a confined space. Some people charge their iPhones, check their iPhones, and answer their iPhones in class. Sometimes people even think out loud while engaging in a practice designed to quiet the mind.

At the peak of the class Frank Glass sat down lower in chair pose, but there was no rest there. The instructor led everyone through backbends, supported shoulderstand, some twists and forward bends, and finally it was time for corpse pose, or as the Spiritual Gangsters would have it, what they were there for.

Gangsters are always trying to convince people to become corpses.

Savasana was Frank Glass’s number one yoga pose. It meant the class was winding down, all the physically challenging work was over, and he was confident he could do it right, since it only involved laying on the floor, letting your belly go soft, and breathing.

He didn’t think it had anything to do with acknowledging mortality or making friends with death. He thought of it as slowing down, letting his body get both heavy and light, and being in the few minutes between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

Like many things near and dear to one’s heart it was over before he knew it and before he knew it everyone was sitting upright cross-legged. The instructor saluted the class.

“Namaste,” she said.

Suddenly, a bright white light blinded Frank.

Until the 21st century, when yoga morphed into physical fitness, it was a mind body spirit united states practice. Although physical fitness and brainwave control were always elements of yoga, it was training for the body and mind to self observe and be less self centered, and for the spirit to get to a place of more consciousness. That place was called samadhi.

Samadhi is the eighth and last limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. It means the act of concentration and what is being concentrated on and the body mind spirit that is doing the concentrating all becoming one. It is yoga’s end game of union. It’s a thrill, but a thrill in the thrall of stillness. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Frank Glass blinked and turned his head and realized he wasn’t having a samadhi moment. He had been blinded by the sun spilling through the studio windows and reflecting off a big diamond ring on the finger of a woman’s hand in mudra pose. She was sitting on her mat between him and the sun.

He knew it was a real diamond because the way diamonds reflect light is unique. Inside the gem the mirror-like facets sparkle a brilliant white. Outside the gem bending reflecting refracting light they sparkle a white fire. Frank Glass knew big girls need big diamonds, but it was still an eye-opener to see the lozenge in a yoga class.

Maybe it had something to do with Joan Rivers, who said, “If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.”

When Frank Glass got home his wife was in the kitchen making dinner.

“Did you learn anything at class today?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank. “Leave the family jewels at home.”