New for 2018, the Paperback Yoga Public Facebook Group
New for 2018, the Paperback Yoga Public Facebook Group
“Looking up at paradise, all souls bound just contrariwise, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Dead Man’s Chest, a traditional sea shanty
When yoga got on its feet in the 1960s and started rolling in the 1970s, many Americans thought it was a fad. It was part and parcel of the culture of California, after all. It was for hippies and health nuts and religious fanatics, said working stiffs and wise guys, wondering where the success in it was.
In the 60s and 70s, however, it was anything but a fad. It was the real deal. It had its feet grounded in a 5000-year-old tradition. If it was a fad it was a fad that had never gone away, the kind that had staying power. When Satchidananda led the opening chant at Woodstock, it wasn’t that week’s Top 10 smash hit. It had a legacy going back centuries. It had been a smash hit in year zero.
The practice stayed solid for thirty years, but by the 2000s it was flipping over onto its head. Celebrity jet-setting yoga teachers crisscrossed the country, burning up the carbon, peddling their brand of sermon. John Friend got high and got sexy. Yoga franchises with their instant oatmeal wisdom and Groupon specials popped up from Miami to Joplin, Missouri.
Yoga used to be the hub of the wheel. Then it became the spokes of the wheel. Anusara, Baptiste, Forrest, Integral, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, Moksha, Sivananda, Viniyoga, Vinyasa, and Yin.
It’s a baker’s dozen.
Soon afterwards the spokes started to splinter. Nowadays there is Karaoke Yoga and Laughing Yoga, Tots and Tykes Yoga, Aerial Yoga, and AcroYoga, Glow-in-the-Dark Yoga, Naked Yoga, Trampoline Yoga, Trampoline Yoga While Naked, Primal Screaming Yoga, and Paddleboard Yoga.
No staying grounded there, just don’t drift off by mistake and get captured by pirates. What did the shipwrecked blindfolded friendly SUP yogi with the outstretched arms ask his newfound friends swigging mugs of suds while he walked the plank?
“Am I getting warmer?”
Picking yourself up off the ground is the premise of Rage Yoga. “I was going through a lot of pain,” said Canadian teacher and founder Lindsay Istace. She had recently gone through a break-up. She was a bittergirl. “It started to come out during my practice. Suddenly there was a lot more yelling, swearing, and emotional release on my mat.”
Down on the farm there is Goat Yoga, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s doing yoga with small cute goats, at least until their grumpy elders head butt you. Old Billy and his horns ain’t anything you want to partner yoga with.
“It might sound silly, but the way these classes are working, it’s becoming deeper and bigger than I thought, “ said Lainey Morse, who started the craze. The business has expanded to the point that she has quit her day job and is trademarking “Goat Yoga”.
Maa! Maa! Maa!
All of this is to not mention Bikram Choudhury, of eponymous Bikram Yoga-fame, whose crazy-like-a-fox marketing is legendary. “There’s a sucker born every day,” said P. T. Barnum, Bikram’s spiritual guru.
In more recent times yoga has gone from Jennifer Aniston’s six-pack abs, otherwise known as Jennifer’s Yoga Moves for Flat Abs, straight to six-packs.
Brewskis and poses was a practice born at the Burning Man fun festival. Who doesn’t need liquid refreshment in the middle of the summer in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert? Bend an elbow, help a brother out, bottoms up. A year later Germany’s BierYoga foamed to life, the marriage of beer and yogimeister Jhula’s brainstorm.
Jhula and her business partner Emily go by the names of Jhula and Emily. No surnames, please.
”It’s fun, but it’s no joke,” said Jhula. “We take the philosophy of yoga and pair it with the pleasure of beer-drinking to reach your highest level of consciousness.”
Or your highest level of semi-consciousness, as the case may be.
Yoga is meant to make you feel the way you want to feel without yoga. On the other hand, drink beer think beer.
The history of beer is the history of humanity. 6000 years ago the Sumerians, the oldest known civilization, were the first brewmeisters. They believed beer was the true blue drink of the gods. By the 14th century Germany was a country of world famous beer cities. Strong beer in imperial 20 fluid ounce pint portions isn’t a joke in Germany.
Miller Lite is strictly forbidden.
BierYoga Classes are conducted in a techno club in the heart of Berlin’s trendy Neukolln neighborhood. They are booked up solid weeks in advance. Disco balls hang from the ceiling. Everybody’s shuffling, everybody’s jump styling, everybody’s posing. The vibe is intoxicating.
“Has anyone not finished their first bottle? If not, bottoms up!” said Jhula during a full-house class.
Chug a lug in tree pose. You don’t want to nurse the beer, though. Your nipples will get soggy.
Beer Yoga is a new rave in London and usually practiced in pubs. The admission charge includes a mat and a beer. After a rough day at work, some hair-of-the-dog, stretching and belching.
“It complements the joy of drinking beer and the mindfulness of yoga,” said Beer Yoga’s Guzel Mursalimova. ”It adds a little more relaxation because a lot of people tend to be very tense when they come in. If this means you have to incorporate beer, I think that’s perfectly fine.”
It begs the question, however, if you had to incorporate horse to relax, would that be perfectly fine, too, or does heroin not complement the mindfulness of yoga in the same way beer does?
There is Beerasana in Washington, DC, and hops and hatha at the Quest Brewing Company in Greensville, SC. Awareness and self-observation are in the eye of the beer holder.
But, getting a buzz on during class may not be the best of ideas. “Not being able to tell your right arm from your left leg is not a healthy practice,” said Jake Panasevich, a wellness and yoga teacher. “Anything that alters your natural state of mind is no longer yoga in my book.”
Others say, lighten up.
“What a fabulous experience!” said James Villaruel about In the Spirit Studio and Wine Lounge in Scarborough, a borough of Toronto, Ontario. “Invigorating, yet relaxing yoga classes followed by first-class wine selections. I’ll definitely be back!”
Rah, rah, rah, that’s the spirit! Alcoholic drinks are sometimes called spirits because alcohol reduces anxiety and induces euphoria. Why are liquor stores not called spirit stores?
“Love this place!” said Sonya Dwyer about Zin Yoga and Wine in North Carolina. “Zin offers a wide variety of yoga classes and the clothing and wine selection is really great.” Getting loose in several different ways at once in brand new stretch pants.
Zinfandel is a black-skinned grape with a bold taste. “Either give me more wine or leave me alone,” said Rumi, whose best-selling poems are a part of yoga lore. He taught a kind of body movement in the 13th century, known as the Dance of the Whirling Dervishes, or spinning.
The thought of whirling after a couple of glasses of wine is enough to make your head go whee.
“Yoga can be very serious, but why not have it be really fun,” said Angela Gargano, the owner of Bliss Flow Yoga in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital and a college town. She stage-manages weekend-long yoga and wine retreats. “Yoga is something spiritual to me. I feel we’ve lost the spiritual connection to the land food and wine grows on. That’s what was nice about the retreat, getting people to really connect to wine.”
That’s what yoga is all about, connecting. They don’t exactly tear it up, however, while connecting with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. Vineyard tours and genteel five-course meals are fare of the weekend, along with a class on the mat on the side.
Although yoga can be serious, it is in the doing of it much more fun than fun, even without clinking glasses with the god of the grape. Nevertheless, Dionysus is a fun god, especially since the main focus of his cult back in the day was unrestrained consumption. “Prepare yourselves for the roaring voice of the God of Joy,” wrote Euripides in ‘The Bacchae’ way back when, when Athens was Broadway.
In and around New York City these days, Dina Ivas, a 15-year veteran of conducting yoga classes at top-rated fitness establishments, and Liz Howng, a certified wine expert, host Yoga Wine parties, which are private classes and wine tasting in the comfort of wherever you are.
“I finished the class feeling relaxed and a lot more confident about yoga,” said Miriam Gilbert. “Next, the wine tasting. We tasted a great range of wines. I’d certainly attend another party.”
There’s something oxymoronic about getting down for a yoga wine party, but then again, we all fight for our right to party. There are shortcuts to happiness and drinking is one of them, although you don’t want to spend all day at Happy Hour. It can morph into Unhappy Hour. There’s an old saw that says good friends get drunk with you while best friends hold your hair back when you’ve had too much to drink.
Vino and vinyasa is found from coast to coast. Wine Body and Soul in New York. Downward Dog Then Drink Wine in Boston. Yin Yoga and Wine Night in Austin. Yoga Art and Wine in Redwood City. Vineyards from the Niagara Escarpment to Sonoma Valley are jumping on the bandwagon. No falling off the wagon on the way to class!
There’s nothing wrong with a beer-or-two at a ballgame or a barbeque, wine at dinner, or a scotch neat late on a lonely rainy night. Drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle, but does anyone want to drink water all the time? It’s what rusts pipes. After all, like Benjamin Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
One thing leads to another. Next up, absinthe and ashtanga, mantra and martinis, “cocktails and yoga, the perfect mix,” said Katherine Smith, yoga teacher, life-coach, and self-described “wild warrior yogi.”
“There is no good or bad, everything we feel, experience, think and sense is simply a manifestation of the divine,” she said. “Choose good quality alcohol.”
What about moonshine, bathtub gin, and rotgut? Since it’s all yoga, no good or bad, right or wrong, no heaven or hell in the divine scheme of things, what about rotgut? Live on the wild side!
Some of the new yoga doesn’t suffer in comparison with the old. It suffers all on its own.
Why conflate drink with yoga in the first place? Sure, everything was once new, just like today’s many new styles of yoga. There was once the first unclothed hard-core yogi back in the day when clothes were optional, although his practice probably didn’t include doing raging naked double flips arm in arm with goats. And if it did, he almost certainly wasn’t boozing it up at the same time.
Tomatoes are a fruit and fruit salads are full of fruit, but the wise saladmeister doesn’t mix tomatoes into their fruit salads.
There is nothing inherently demonic about drink, notwithstanding the screed of teetotalers. “Imagine getting up in the morning and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day,” said Dean Martin. Indeed, there are even benefits to demon rum.
Drinking responsibly lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, helps prevent against the common cold, lowers the chance of diabetes, decreases the possibility of developing dementia, improves your libido, and can lengthen your life. It also reduces the risk of gallstones by a third, although the study of bile ducts at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia cautioned that “our findings show the benefits of moderate alcohol intake, but stress that excessive alcohol intake can cause health problems.”
The research is galling for anyone who still believes in the late not so great Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. There is no doubt Benjamin Franklin rolled over in his grave on the morning of January 16, 1920, believing God had abandoned the USA.
“Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems,” said Homer Simpson. In other words, it’s better to drink when you’re happy, not when you’re unhappy, although it took the Great Depression to get Prohibition repealed.
Yoga is a broad practice, from meditation to exercise to ethics. There is no one correct form of it. “It’s such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedence for almost anything,” said James Mallinson, a senior lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Civilization at SOAS University in London.
“It’s not really about the body, but about the mind,” he added.
Since alcohol goes right to your head, maybe yoga and drinking do have something in common.
However, since under the over-influence of drink the brain goes haywire, a loss of fine motor skills, slowing reaction time, slurred speech, blurred vision, impaired hearing, and a daftness of muscle coordination and balance, it might be fairer to say that yoga and drinking have little in common.
Doing too much yoga, for example, isn’t going to land anyone in a detox center.
The yamas and niyamas are a set of ethical yoga rules, moral imperatives, and goals. They are the backbone of yoga, a kind of code of conduct. None of the social restraints or self-disciplines, as they are called, specifically address sidling up to the neighborhood bar.
“There is no mention of alcohol in the yamas or niyamas,” said James Bennitt, who studied with Rod Stryker and teaches flow-style yoga in Chicago. “A glass of wine or beer once in awhile isn’t the worst thing in the world, but when it becomes a habit, it is depleting to the system, not to mention clouds your judgment. Yoga is very much about building energy as well as clarity, not depleting yourself of them.”
Wine and beer and spirits ultimately have a sedative effect. At the end of the party end of the night, after you’re all done pulling the cork out of dinner and dessert, after you have stopped flooding the control center behind your forehead with liquid fun, your neurotransmitters slow way down low down. The part of your brain called the medulla gets sleepy.
Consciousness and clarity are located in the cerebral cortex. Do enough Beer Yoga and your senses, which process information for your cortex, get clumsy staggering punchy and inhibit thought processes, making it hard to get from point a to point b in a straight line. It devolves from I think therefore I am to I drink therefore I am.
“The ease with which I can now find an event that combines practicing yoga with drinking alcohol is at least unsettling, and at most completely mind-boggling in its depth at missing the point,” wrote Kelly McCormick in “Not-So-Happy Hour: Why Yoga & Alcohol Just Don’t Mix.”
If yoga is about energy and clarity, drinking is about relaxing and socializing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but yoga is something that makes your brain sparkle, while drinking makes your brain go fireworks and then fade away like the grand finale. Promoting the practice of yoga by wedding it to a fermented drug as the new hip thing to do is huckster work.
Nobody needs to mindlessly abstain. Everyone can mindfully enjoy a pint of craft beer or a glass of red wine at their local saloon. Nobody needs to do yoga, but when they do it gets them in a great state of mind. Everybody knows Miller time and yoga time are two different things, hucksters or no hucksters.
Getting a buzz on is living in your senses. Getting on the mat is transcending your senses. It’s all a state of mind.
“Why don’t you all fade away, talkin’ ’bout my generation, don’t try to dig what we all say, talkin’ ’bout my generation.” The Who
It’s been said everybody loves yoga nowadays. The love wasn’t always the case, at least not in the United States, which was a problem. It is the case today, which might be a worse problem. Yoga is good for everyone, but not everyone is good for it. Even yoga masters like John Friend and Bikram Choudhury, who created practices of great benefit, have not, because of the sex, drugs, and money scandals surrounding them, been altogether good for it.
Yoga in the western world has faced many challenges, from its philosophy being decried as a menace to society to the corporatization of the practice, but the latest threat may be the most menacing. That threat is being posed by the horde of Baby Boomers, as time catches up to them, swarming studios coast-to-coast.
Just fifty-some years before the first Baby Boomers came into existence, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, lectures and a subsequent speaking tour by Vivekananda inspired many Americans to see the light. They also led to trouble, to yoga being decried as a cult. “Police Break In On Weird Hindu Rites,” blared a New York City newspaper. Twenty years after Vivekanda had come and gone, feature articles like “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction” were still commonplace.
In 1928, Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, was hounded out of Miami, Florida, by hundreds of anxious and angry husbands and fathers who saw him as a sex threat. “Not with my wife or daughter!” they complained and threatened with shouts and clubs.
Throughout the 1930s so-called yogi crimes were a staple of headline writers. During the Cold War some Americans worried about yogis teaching Russian cosmonauts breathing techniques. But, in the 1960s the practice gained traction. It popped up on TV and the Beatles crossed paths with it. By the 1990s new converts were discovering it daily and yoga was off and running.
Baby Boomers led the charge, especially the cadre of Boomers who became teachers, from Sharon Gannon to Ana Forrest to Richard Freeman. “The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990,” said Kathryn Arnold, the editor of Yoga Journal at the time. It was also the moment when yoga began to shape shift from a practice of awareness and freedom to a get on your mat get fit get strong sweat out the toxins check out those buns exercise routine.
Postural yoga, a stand-alone practice in pursuit of health, became the vogue it still is today. In A History of Modern Yoga Elizabeth De Michelis fleshed out posture practice as a “secularized healing ritual.” Ben Houhour noted in his History of Yoga in America that the “consolidation of yoga coincided with the coming of age of the Boomer.”
Early on in their reign Boomers got loose on acid with the aim of changing themselves through drug use. The later Boomers of the 1990s flocked to yoga studios and flipped up into headstand with the same resolve. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said Timothy Leary, the 1960s guru of LSD. “Drop in, tune in, turn on,” said John Schumacher, a long-time American yoga teacher who spent three decades studying with B. K. S. Iyengar.
In the oughts yoga became the fashion among the better off seeking to become even better off. In the 1970s and 80s the Me Generation had invested in health and exercise fads, self-help programs like EST, and New Age spirituality. As the new decade of doom and diversions unfolded it was yoga’s turn to cater to the Baby Boomers as the practice morphed into exercise for the elite.
Since then yoga has had to go head-to-head with one thing after another, from teachers behaving badly to capitalists doing what they do best. Bikram Choudhury did both, behaving badly and beating the moneymen at their own game, while boasting about it to boot. Some teachers became hatha celebrities, racking up frequent-flier miles, preaching from the pulpit about a practice supposedly sans pulpit.
The corporate world, always looking for the next big thing, licked its lips, liking what it saw of yoga swerving into the mainstream.
Lululemon Athletica, noted for its hundred dollar separates sewn for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, built its apparel empire piggybacking on the practice. In 2012 its sales were $1 billion. Three years later, in 2015, its sales almost doubled to $1.8 billion. Meanwhile, in the birthplace of yoga, most people still wear street shorts and casual t-shirts and women even wear everyday sarees when practicing. They aren’t accessorized for the yoga runway because they don’t push themselves up into shoulder stand on a rock star runway.
In 2002 Trevor Tice founded the CorePower Yoga franchise after taking a class in Telluride, Colorado. “I was very underwhelmed by the facilities and the delivery,” he said. “It was lacking anything a good customer experience should have.” Good yogis now pay up to $170.00 a month to be overwhelmed customers at CorePower Yoga.
Forecasting for 2016 the Advertising Specialty Institute recommended to its promotional pros that the time was ripe to tap into the ever-expanding yoga market. The practice has increasingly been defined, inside and outside its ranks, as a high-end leisure activity, a perception that Rodney Yee in 2011 described as “ass-backwards.”
Backwards never had it so good.
Although commercialization is a problem for a practice that on the face of it eschews commercialization, the immediate problem yoga faces in the next several years is who’s knocking on the door. According to a recent survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, nearly 37 million people now practice yoga in the United States, up from 20-some million in 2012. More than half of that recent growth has come from older practitioners, 14 million adults over age 50, up from 4 million in 2012.
It’s the Baby Boomers banging on the door.
As time catches up to them, dragging them down into rocking chairs, they are trying to stay on their feet. “It’s improved my flexibility and balance,” said 66-year-old Len Adelman of Herndon, Virginia.
“The majority of my classes are filled with individuals over the age of sixty,” said Michele Coker, a Certified Yoga Teacher in Maryland. “Many have had injuries and are fed up with physical therapy. They come because their physician suggested it.”
“More doctors are recommending that their patients try yoga to help with healing,” said Carin Gorrell, editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal.
Yoga isn’t Muscle Beach, fortunately for those entering their golden years. No one gets sand kicked in their face. There isn’t the notion of turning anyone away, no matter what, in yoga’s DNA. But, Baby Boomers come bearing baggage. It might be best to open the door slowly and cautiously since what’s on the other side could go boom.
Baby Boomers soaked the economy for all it was worth through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s. Greed is good, they chanted, and then left everyone else’s finances a wreck. Gen X is in worse shape than their parents and Millennials are worse off than them. The best Baby Boomer brains built fortunes for themselves on Wall Street. They then drove the country into the worst recession in 80 years. 34% of Boomers believe their own children will not enjoy as good a standard of living as they themselves have now, according to the Pew Research Center.
No one in Washington, D. C. ever says Social Security will be a problem for current retirees, in other words, the Baby Boomers. After that, all bets are off.
When the Greatest Generation had finished its run in the Nation’s Capital, it was time for the Boomer-in-Chiefs, Bill Clinton and George Bush the 2nd, to take up the reins. From his breezy approach to spending and debt to his philandering, Bill Clinton was the Boomer-in-Chief who the Baby Boomers deserved. Besides, they had transitioned from dropping LSD to dropping Viagra.
George Bush the 2nd, who was indulged as a young man, indulged himself in the Oval Office with fantasies of Weapons of Mass Destruction and money growing on trees. When the wars he started stalled he proclaimed victory. When the housing market collapsed he was on his way out of the White House, anyway.
Only Barak Obama hasn’t suffered the black eyes of Boomermania. The 800-pound gorilla with the souffle hairdo will not, hopefully, be the next Boomer-in-Chief.
The worst legacy of the Me Generation is still unfolding, which is the legacy of their burning all the cheap fossil fuels they could get their hands on, and then denying for as long as they could that climate change was happening. They will be long gone and not have to pay the piper for the heat-trapping gasses they’ve left behind. Hurricanes and floods are only now starting to rain on their parade.
It might be appropriate to bring a lump of coal to their memorial services.
Before they go to their just reward they are getting up from the stoop of old age and beating a path to yoga studios. Baby Boomers used to crow about never trusting anyone over 30. Now that more than 10,000 of them cross the threshold of 65 every day, the typical Boomer believes that old age doesn’t begin until 72. In other words, “Never trust anyone over 72.” They are putting their trust in yoga.
“It’s never too late, you’re never too old, you’re never too sick, to start again from scratch,” said the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh.
Everyone who takes up yoga has their own reasons for doing it. It’s often the case that they are dissatisfied with something. If that’s the case, Baby Boomers are primed for the practice. Fully 80% of them are not satisfied with the way things are going and as a group are more downbeat about their lives than all other age groups.
They’re in a collective funk.
It was Baby Boomers who brought into life the health club era. Health is the motivation driving most of them to yoga studios, although calming their crazy minds is also a factor. They are less healthy and more stressed than other age groups, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are looking for ways to stay energetic and vital in the latter part of their lives. Fortunately for them, yoga can be practiced at any age, since there are so many kinds of it, from action-style Ashtanga to no-impact chair-style.
It’s a no-brainer for the Baby Boomers. Yoga builds strength and balance, keeps excess pounds at bay, and protects joints, according to the AARP. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older,” said Amy Wheeler, a yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino.
As a last resort, there’s always corpse pose, “which is a totally relaxing option everyone can do!” says the AARP.
Better late than never.
There are so many Baby Boomers taking up yoga that some teacher training facilities like the Yoga Sanctuary in Florida have classes where almost all the trainees are themselves Boomers. It takes one to know one seems to be the idea behind the curriculum.
Although Boomers represent a grave threat to the practice, because of their mercenary states of mind and narcissism, yoga’s motto is “Everyone is welcome here.”
It is literally true, to the extent that if you can’t make it to a studio the studio will come to you. The Prison Yoga Project has taught tens of thousands of jailbirds the practice, bringing mindfulness to cell blocks. “Use your body to teach your mind,” is how James Fox, the founder and director of the project, describes their mission.
Hardened criminals are one thing, but Baby Boomers are another, even harder thing. Nevertheless, yoga is a 5,000 year-old practice that has seen it all over the past 50 centuries and is probably up for the challenge. Most Boomers are taking up the practice in order to fix whatever it is they are being confronted by. They may get more, however, than they bargained for.
“I like to emphasize that we’re already completely whole,” said Niika Quistgaard, a clinical Ayurveda specialist in New Jersey. “We can enjoy ourselves even when everything isn’t physically perfect. It comes down to loving ourselves just as we are, which bring its own healing.”
It’s a way of chilling out and doing your best, rather than forever pushing and stressing out about how to become Masters of the Universe.
Baby Boomers may rediscover themselves in ways they never anticipated as they discover yoga. Although they and the practice seem like star-crossed lovers, it could be their way of staying true to themselves. In the end most people can’t be taught anything fundamental. They can only discover it within themselves. Much of life is a do-it-yourself project.
Maybe the Baby Boomers are up to the challenge of negating the self in order to discover the self, finally.
“They are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” wrote Paul Begala in “The Worst Generation.”
Yoga is about all the aspects of being, which are the body, breath, and inner self. The practice establishes the person in the self. It leads to self-awareness. Awareness of the self is the way to freedom, the freedom to choose and change. The Me Generation, even though burdened with all their special needs, after the long, strange trip they’ve been on, have one last chance to become the Self-Aware Generation.
“Yoga gives people of all ages the ability to grow old gracefully and stay in shape with lowered stress,” says Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga in Austin, Texas. “My students share all kinds of success stories of reduced blood pressure, assistance with diabetes, faster healing, stronger digestion, and better sleep.”
Yoga does not treat age at whatever age it is like a disease to be cured. Getting old is not the problem since growing older can be accomplished by anyone who lives long enough. Yoga assumes asanas are good for everyone because the practice produces a stronger, healthier body with increased resistance to disease.
“Health is the chief idea, the one goal of hatha yoga,” says Swami Nikhilananda in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works. In recent years the Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa, who believes it can and should be the low-tech solution to many of the world’s health care problems, has gathered substantial evidence for the therapeutic value of the practice.
But, as essential to yoga as hatha practice is, it is still only one spoke in the wheel. Practicing asanas alone is like going to see Gone in 60 Seconds instead of Gone with the Wind. The Nicholas Cage movie looks like a movie, just like the Clark Gable one does, as long as you assume the elements of color, action, and sound are what movies are about, or that the plot device of stealing 50 cars is worth caring about.
Asanas are empowering, boosting energy and decreasing aches and pains, and even defending against major killers like heart disease and diabetes. But, hot vinyasa classes are not an elixir, no matter how hot they are or how real the myth of the loss of Eden remains even in our modern age. When asanas are added or yoked to the matrix of pranayama and meditation they become more than just the active ingredients in the Fountain of Youth recipe. Practicing yoga for it’s admitted anti-aging benefits is good for everyone’s body, but leaving it at that is empowering the tail to wag the dog.
“Yoga is ultimately more than a tool,” says Michael Caldwell of Yoga One in San Diego, California. “Sure, some people do yoga to get a firm butt and lose weight, but those who continue to practice tend to get much more out of it than an attractive outward appearance, because it is a philosophy, and ultimately when fully expanded, a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a state of being.”
Transforming asanas into a wrestling match with age can add years to your life, but it doesn’t necessarily make those years worthwhile. “Life is a pilgrimage,” says Swami Sivanada. It is a journey to a sacred place, or at least a search for significance. Reducing it to year after year of roadside attractions is to waste the years asanas may grant. The superstar Madonna is not the new Nero because she practices Ashtanga Yoga, but because she believes the internal heat and sweat of the practice are its most noble parts, or as noble as her egoism allows.
“Yoga is widely perceived as being a toolbox of youth, but it is far from being only that,” says Gyandev McCord of Ananda Yoga in Ananda Village, California. “Practicing only for its physical benefits is like seeing the Mona Lisa only in terms of its picture frame. Nice frame, but there’s something much greater happening there! Yoga is, above all, a technology for inner transformation, a means to experience directly the very essence of who you are.”
The Vedic culture, from which the Hindu path of yoga evolved, concentrated on diet, exercise, and meditation for its anti-aging therapies. Back in the day Rig Vedic verses were chanted to gain long life. As it is practiced today, yoga is not like it was in the past, but its aims are the same. Hatha yoga is meant to keep the body healthy and the mind alert through asanas, pranayama, and meditation, so that one can lead a dynamic and alert life, acting appropriately in changing circumstances.
There is suggestive evidence that yoga delays or prevents the onset of many age-related diseases, evidence garnered from studies conducted by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and even some done under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. A study in the February 2000 issue of ‘Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America’ found that therapeutic yoga helps with the pain associated with osteoarthritis. “Medically, yoga maintains the body parameters to a ripe old age,“ says Dr. Krishna Raman in his book Yoga and Medical Science.
Yogis like Krisnamacharya, Indra Devi, and K. Pattabhi Jois have proven that asana practice can be maintained throughout life, well into one’s 80’s and 90’s. “I’m proof that if you keep at it, you’ll get there. I can do more now than I could 50 years ago. Forget age,” says the 84-year-old Bette Calman, an Australian teacher and author of Yoga for Arthritis, who still practices peacock pose and tripod headstand.
A good plastic surgeon can lift a face and make it last for ten years. Botox, the trademark of botulinum toxin, an otherwise lethal poison, can paralyze wrinkles for up to four months. Preparation H, in a pinch, tautens under-eye puffiness. Being a good Australian and not a Belgian endive all her life, Bette Calman is wrinkled from the sun, but her real beauty shines from the inside out. “Yoga keeps you young,” she says, meaning it in more ways than the anti-aging business does.
Yoga is not about worshiping youth, but rather about honoring all ages. That is why there is always a practice for everyone and it is always the right time to start a practice. “Never too late, never too old, never too bad,” says Bishnu Ghosh, who was Bikram Choudbury’s teacher.
If yoga were the Holy Grail of anti-aging no yogis would have wrinkles or arthritis. But, they do. When Diane Anderson asked David Life how his body had changed over the years, he said: “Do you really want the old list that we all know: less hair, more gray, fewer teeth, thinner skin, and so on? I’ve got all that.” Yoga has often innocently been called the art of staying young. There is no potion or pill or procedure that will keep anyone ageless, but yoga might be the next best consolation prize for the plant that got away.
“We’re not about growing old gracefully. We’re about never growing old,” says Robert Klatz, president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
The science of yoga posits the opposite view, not opposing nature with the chemical and surgical arsenal of Western science, but rather melding breath and asanas to flow with grace through time. In its various manifestations it offers many kinds of practice to the different stages of our life times, from hot vinyasa to earthy yin. “Yoga might give you a youthful posture and more peaceful face, but the reason people stick to it is the peace and awareness it brings,” says Debra Murphy of Shanti Yoga in McCall, Idaho, who also has a doctorate in Exercise Science.
For all of its admitted physical benefits, yoga is about being ageless on the inside rather than on the outside. The Buddha said every human being is the author of his own health or disease, but yoga is about more than health or disease. Yoga is not just a body practice, nor is it a body-mind practice. It is a body-mind-spirit practice.
The odds of aging are one hundred percent, but how old would we be if we didn’t know how old we were? “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, progenitor of Integral Yoga. The purpose of yoga is not just to buff the body, nor master the mind. Its long-term project is to still the body and mind in order to apprehend the spirit. “The spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze. And matter shall reveal the spirit’s face,” explains Sri Aurobindo.
Asanas are always worthwhile in their own right, as is meditation and breathwork. Yoga exercise helps develop a strong posture so that the body can be kept steady and comfortable in order to meditate. Pranayama helps still the motion of the mind. But, to limit one’s yoga practice to these steps is to lose sight of what the pilgrimage of the practice is really getting at, which is the illimitable spirit that lives in everyone, mirroring timelessness. Yoga is a meditation on the here and now, not a better-looking past or airbrushed future. Wonder and awareness are found in the present moment, where there is no need for nips and tucks.
When the body is still the mind can be still. When the mind is still the spirit can be still. When the spirit is still, fear and desire, the ageless twins that drive the anti-aging market, are obviated. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali’s guideline for life is the eightfold path, or ashtanga, which literally means eight limbs. Asanas are the path of health, the yamas and niyamas the paths of moral and ethical conduct, and pranayama is at the crossroads of the body and mind. The final four limbs of the circle of ashtanga – withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and connecting with the Universe – are the practices by which time slows down to a single point of stillness.
The effects of anti-aging products like Botox and HGH are ephemeral at best and dangerous at worse. Pursuing enlightenment on the eightfold path is to connect to the best of the whole of creation, not just hold hands with a corporate chemist’s lab.
At the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh, having lost the Plant of Life, the hero Gilgamesh returns home and looks up at the city walls he built, believing they will endure in his place. It is a false epiphany. Unable to step out of the flow of time he remains seduced by the dream of the snake. Five thousand years later his city’s ruins lie on the banks of an abandoned channel of the Euphrates River. But, what Gilgamesh yearned for then is in our modern age still a preoccupation.
“To this very day, the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man,” says Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Buying into the 21st century’s anti-aging technologies is to be beguiled by the snake, as though sloughing off one’s skin has something to do with revealing one’s true self. The authentic self is the spirit made visible, not a new, replacement face or head of hair. The real prize is not the skin you slough off, but the skin you live in, and how you live in the skin you are in. That is the gift gotten from yoga practice in all its aspects, never looking back and never looking forward.
Only here and now.
What used to be called the Fountain of Youth, but today is called anti-aging, more than 5,000 years ago was known as the Plant of Life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book of all time, after a series of adventures the hero loses his best friend to the revenge of the gods of Sumeria (today’s Iraq). Gilgamesh buries his friend, but can’t stop mourning him and fearing he might suddenly die himself.
Until then, the mid-point of the story, the young Gilgamesh has addressed his fears of death only superficially. He goes searching for the secret of eternal life in the form of Ut-Napishtim, the survivor of the Great Flood and the only man ever granted immortality as a reward for saving mankind. Gilgamesh doesn’t get it, though, because the gods jealously guard immortality. He gets the Plant of Life, instead
Ut-Napishtim’s wife gives Gilgamesh the Plant of Life, which restores youth to the elderly, as a consolation prize. But, on the way home he loses the plant to a snake, which eats it and sheds its skin, staying young while men grow old.
Life extension and attempts to slow down aging have a long history, from Gilgamesh to SRT1720, the anti-aging pill. There has never been a time when growing old didn’t matter. Today, yoga is touted as the latest and greatest regimen in the anti-aging arsenal.
When Yoga Journal asked the 58-year-old Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller in its November, 2009 issue whether he found yoga to be a fountain of youth, he said: “It keeps my body healthy and my mind young. I’m still pretty flexible and strong and I rarely get sick.”
In an earlier issue Diane Anderson interviewed six master teachers about how yoga helps them age gracefully. “Sometimes I wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends,” said the 62-year-old Patricia Walden. “Twenty minutes into my practice I feel younger. Inevitably, the power of yoga takes over and you feel ageless!”
Writing in her blog ‘Confessions of a Wayward Yogi’, upon meeting Sharon Gannon and David Life at a Jivamukti Yoga immersion in Johannesburg, South Africa, the eponymous author exclaimed: “What really struck me is what young sixty-something’s they are! They look incredible. If anything is an advert for yoga, it’s these two beautiful people.”
Although some master teachers, like Rodney Yee, are critical of the connection, yoga and anti-aging are linked far and wide. Great Britain’s YOGA has described itself as offering yoga instruction to “control and aid ailments [like] the all important issue of anti-ageing.” In ‘Omm Away the Years’, an article by Marissa Conrad in Prevention, she writes yoga may be the ideal medicine for “relieving pain [and] ramping up energy. With regular practice, you’ll tone your muscles, improve flexibility, and feel younger than ever.”
In You: Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty Dr. Oz recommends yoga as the best exercise for staying flexible. He and his collaborator Dr. Michael Roizen have appeared on Oprah with their ‘90-Day Live Longer, Feel Younger Plan’ in which yoga plays an integral part.
“I completely agree that it is a kind of fountain of youth,” says Kimberly Fowler, CEO of YAS Fitness Centers in Venice, California. “I’m one of those baby boomers who has turned yoga’s anti-aging properties into a fitness empire!”
While yoga has become the exercise of choice for more and more people in the last ten years, the health and beauty business has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past one hundred years. Americans purchase more than $6 billion dollars of nutritional supplements every year. They pay more than $10 billion for cosmetic surgery procedures, from face-lifts to liposuction. All told, it has been estimated the age management market is worth more than $70 billion dollars.
And it is expanding as the Baby Boom and Gen X generations grow older and try to keep Mother Nature from catching up to Father Time.
Living longer than ever and still largely affluent, hoping to slow down or reverse the effects of age, they have created a marketplace for anti-aging products that has grown exponentially, from herbal therapies and alternative medicine to hormone injections and genetic engineering.
But, if biomedical gerontology is new, the drive to live longer and better, to look and be healthier, has a long history. Medical papyrus in burial tombs from 16th century BC Egypt contain recipes to remove wrinkles, blemishes, and other signs of age. Cleopatra is said to have slept wearing a restorative golden mask. According to Hellenic mythology, when Pandora disobeyed Zeus’s command and opened the box he had given her, she unleashed sickness and death.
In classical Greece youth was beautiful and heroic, while old age was ugly and tragic, beset by the fruits of Pandora’s Box. “The gods hate old age,” Aphrodite says in the Odyssey. According to Herodotus, the world’s first historian, bathing in magical Ethiopian fountains could put the genie back into the bottle.
The Romans were equally conscious of old age and its consequences, of losing ones looks and mental capacity, according to Karen Cokayne in Old Age in Ancient Rome. Christians were no different than pagans. The waters of the Pool of Bethesda in the New Testament were said to be stirred by an angel and to have healing powers, restoring vitality.
Five hundred years before it became a multi-billion dollar biotech industry, Juan Ponce de Leon was the poster child for anti-aging. A Spanish explorer who led one of the earliest European expeditions to Florida in search of gold and conquest, after his death stories about his supposed quest for a Fountain of Youth gained currency and became both fact and legend.
Starting in the 19th century anti-aging advocates in America depicted old age as something to be feared and despised. “Youth comes but once in a lifetime,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the best-known lyric poet of his day, lamented. At the same time the pioneering neurologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was experimenting on himself by eating extracts of monkey testis for rejuvenation.
In the 1930s Cornell University nutritionists were underfeeding rats and finding they lived longer and better than well-fed ones. The modern era of research into senescence began in the 1960s with studies into the cellular-damage model of aging. By 1970 the American Aging Association had formed, devoted to extending the human lifespan, and in 1992 the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine was created as a distinct anti-aging medical specialty.
Even though Leon Kass, who was chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, said, “the desire to prolong youthfulness is a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it,“ today’s captive audience of more than 70 million Baby Boomers is fueling a marketing boom in anti-aging products and procedures with no end in sight.
At the turn of the last century Mark Twain said age was an issue of mind over matter. ”If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
But, it does matter because everyone does mind. It is the rare man or woman who is happy about getting inexorably older, losing their smooth skin, firm muscles, clear vision, and high energy levels. No one likes getting older, and no one likes being old. Worse than looking old is feeling old.
From aching joints to Alzheimer’s the consequences of aging can be daunting. Those challenges, as well as the simple threat of them, have driven many people to turn to western medicine for the magic bullet, ranging from drugs to lasers to surgery, to remedy or forestall their complaints. Meanwhile, taking a different, holistic approach, more and more people have instead turned to yoga.
“I am not sure I would agree with the implication that yoga is a fountain of youth,” says Trevor Monk of Infinite Yoga in San Diego, California. “But, it is a fact that practicing yoga improves your health and well-being, and if not your longevity, at least the quality of your life.”
Rather than a radical makeover or cure, since there is none for the incurable passing of time, yoga offers its own path to wellness. That path is built on asana, pranayama, and meditation.
“The yoga asanas really do wonderful things for maintaining health,” says Lilian Folan, who has introduced millions of people to yoga in the past forty years and has written Yoga Gets Better with Age? While disputing the notion that yoga is the Holy Grail most teachers readily admit its benefits.
“It is no surprise that by working through every joint in the body through asanas,” says Trevor Monk, “applying breathing techniques, and bandhas, or energy locks, that the body gets stronger and leaner, detoxifies, and heals itself.”
Describing her book New Yoga for People Over 50 Suza Francina, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, articulates what most teachers believe: “People are recognizing yoga for its ability to slow down and reverse the aging process. A complete health system, yoga not only restores vitality to the body, but also expands the mind and soul.”
The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, is, as its name suggests, committed to the proposition that yoga and health are one and the same thing. “With yoga you can keep your body in the best possible health,” says Kara-Leah Grant in her on-line article ‘How to Stay Young Forever with Yoga’. Some yoga practitioners even claim the practice keeps most illnesses at bay and so prevents premature and unnecessary aging of the body.
There is widespread skepticism in the scientific community about anti-aging remedies and their effectiveness. Many doctors and researchers argue that the complexity of aging militates against the development of anti-aging therapies. “Anyone purporting to offer an anti-aging product today is either mistaken or lying,” write Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce Carnes in their essay ‘No Truth to the Fountain of Youth’ in the Scientific American. They admit exercise and nutrition reduce the risk of many diseases, but insist they do not directly influence aging.
In recent years the FDA has increasingly cracked down on the anti-aging industry, especially on products like HGH and many other far-fetched supplements hawked on the Internet. The medical community does not recognize anti-aging as a specialty of medicine. Even though recent documentaries like To Age or Not to Age propose maintenance and life-extending solutions, the consensus is there is no proven medical technology or product that slows, prevents, or reverses the aging process.
“Aging is a disease that can be prevented or reversed,” counters Dr. Ron Rothenberg, the author of Forever Ageless.
But, the question is, is getting old a disease? It can be: the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome is a disease of premature aging in the young. It is very rare, however; fewer than a hundred cases have ever been formally recorded. The fear of growing old is called gerascophobia. In the Western world this anxiety disorder has been fueled by a culture obsessed with being and staying young.
Medical dictionaries do not define aging as a disease, only that there is a gradual decline in physical and possibly mental functioning as people get older. Energy levels go down and muscle mass declines steadily, according to Julie Silver of the Harvard Medical School. Gerontologists admit that during the latter half of life people are more prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes.
But, getting older is not in and of itself a disease. If it were, every baby born would be born sick. Old age can be a shipwreck on the rock of ages, but it can also be a fine-looking boat making its way beneath both sun and storm. Yoga is not an anti-aging product, nor is it an anti-aging therapy. But, a case can be made that is an effective and credible strategy for becoming and staying healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Next: Botoxasana and Beyond
America’s greatness is premised on open competition and the profit motive, in other words, capitalism. In the past the fundamentals of capitalism were production and trade. In the modern world the keystones are CEO’s, movie stars, and sports.
Competitive sports hew to the original and still abiding spirit of capitalism, which is that everybody loves a winner.
Sports are an essential avatar of capitalism. That is why they are more popular than, say, ballet or book clubs. “Sport is a capitalist competition,” said the philosopher Ljubodrag Simonovix, a former star player for the national basketball team of Yugoslavia in the 1970s.
“It corresponds to the market economy and the absolutized principle of profit.”
But, sports matter in America not because of their impact on regional and local economies. In a society that is individualized and even to some extent atomized they generate expressions of enthusiasm and unity in their communities.
The professional sports sector represents annual revenue in the range of $50 to $80 billion in the United States, according to the International Association of Sports Economists. This is in an economy that’s almost $15 trillion in size.
“It’s a very small part of the economic output of the United States,” said Andrew Zimbalist, Professor of Economics at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. “One can easily explain the interest in having professional sports teams as primarily social and cultural in nature. People in America certainly enjoy and love sports.”
A widespread adoption of yogic principles would throw sports for a loss, since an essential component of the practice is non-competition. For example, tapas, one of the niyamas, refers to “keeping the body fit, or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show,” writes William Doran in The Eight Limbs. It doesn’t mean being fit so you can slam-dunk or stiff-arm someone in your way. Instead of grasping after Lombardi trophies and big paydays, yoga’s physicality is wedded to its philosophy, intended for the expansion of awareness and consciousness.
Hatha yoga is non-competitive. The practice is personal, played out within the individual, not played on a team on a field facing an enemy opponent. The Bhagavad Gita, an epic poem from the second century BC often cited within yoga culture, is about this cognitive orientation, and whether the struggle to make sense of the world is primarily an internal or external one.
Yoga is a collaboration of the body, mind, and spirit. Sports are a zero-sum game. There are no winners or losers in yoga. There are only winners and losers in sports. Yoga is first and foremost about a specific person pursuing the practice. Sports are always about the “other” through whom one is defined.
“The only things that matter in yoga practice are you, exactly as you are right then, yourself, your breath, your thoughts, and if you are practicing on one, your mat,” says Heidi Kristoffer of Strala Yoga in New York City. “To be sure, no one else matters.”
Sports are always about the short-term goal of winning right now. No one loves a loser. Yoga is about folding all its aspects into the broader tradition of self-inquiry.
Not only would the nationwide practice of yoga probably obviate sports, emptying our arenas and stadiums, and KOing up to $80 billion in economic impact, it would knock the legs out from an enterprise that underscores many of the premises that gird our society. Without the lure of winning and the goad of failure, sports would cease to be relevant. If sports became irrelevant in America, capitalism itself could become the next victim.
Capitalism is the great engine that drives the United States. It was in America in the latter half of the 19th century that “the tendencies of Western capitalism could find fullest and most uncontrolled expression” writes the economic historian William Parker.
Capitalism’s basic characteristics are the private ownership of the means of production, social classes organized to facilitate the accumulation of profit by private owners, and the production of commodities for sale. All capitalist economies are commercial, although not all commercial economies are capitalist.
I own, therefore I am, is the sound bite of capitalism.
The United States is a commercialized society. The creation and expansion of the modern business corporation is one of our most notable achievements. In America economic power dominates. We conceive of ourselves as producers and sellers. As such, this makes for several problems. “In a productive society the superiority of things produced is the measure of success. In a commercial society the amount of wealth accumulated by the dealer is the measure of success,” wrote the English historian and social theorist Hilaire Belloc.
Capitalism is as much, if not more, about amassing wealth as it is about serving men’s needs.
“Capitalism has turned our society into a commercial society, a society inclined to measure everything by a money standard,” writes Thomas Storck of the Center for Morality in Public Life. “Our modern world, and especially the United States, has elevated the acquisition of wealth to such a point that it tends to distort almost all social relations. Capitalism, the separation of ownership from work, of economic activity from serving man’s needs, is at the root of this.”
Capitalism’s problems are many, including that it tends to degrade the conditions of its own production, constantly seeking to increase profits. It works to expand without end in order to fulfill its reason for being, justifying all the means at its disposal to monopolize its market. Lastly, it polarizes the rich and poor, a process in the United States that has accelerated since the late 1960s. According to the Census Bureau the common index of inequality in America rose to an all-time high in 2011.
The yoga project does not reject goal-oriented activities or success, nor concern with outcomes. It does reject focusing on outcomes.
“Money cannot buy me everything, “ said Swami Tyagananda, the head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston. “It can buy me ‘stuff’ but not happiness, peace of mind, or a loving relationship with my family and friends, and stress-free life. If success is measured not simply in terms of wealth, then one’s life becomes more meaningful. If my answer is only in terms of dollars, then I am in trouble.”
Commercial activities, sales goals and success, profits and wealth building are not in and of themselves anathema to yoga. Rejecting success and the fruits of success are not its mantra. However, the competitive pressure of making more and more money, always maximizing the gap between cost and price, focusing on extracted profits as a matter of life and death, which are central to capitalism, are contrary to the maxims of yoga.
“Selfishness is the root of all bondage,” wrote Swami Vivekananda.
Santosha, one of the niyamas, means to take from the marketplace and life only what is necessary, not exploiting others. “It means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don’t have,” writes William Doran in The Eight Limbs. Aparigraha, one of the yamas, counsels possessing only what we have fairly earned, not hoarding our possessions, and letting go of attachment.
“If we take more, we are exploiting someone else,” writes William Doran.
Capitalism is inherently exploitive, as seen through the lens of the labor theory of value, a view supported by both classical economists like Adam Smith and radicals like Karl Marx. The practice of yoga neutralizes the desire to acquire and hoard wealth. The ultimate aim of capitalism is to make 100% profits, or, in other words, get everything in exchange for nothing. The goal of yoga practice is to get nothingness, or the here and now right now, in exchange for everything.
According to the Bhagavad Gita yoga practice is not about gaining material ease. The ultimate purpose of yoga is consciousness.
“When the consciousness moves towards an object, that is called bondage,” wrote Swami Krishnananda in The Study and Practice of Yoga. “Consciousness should rest in itself. That is called freedom.”
If yoga were to attain widespread currency in the United States capitalism would come under severe scrutiny and risk collapse as a way of life, throwing the economy completely off kilter, cutting off at its roots American exceptionalism.
The United States has survived many threats since the founding of the republic 200-some years ago, from anarchists to terrorists and civil wars to world wars. The nation has survived Prohibition, the Red Scare, and Wall Street bankers. But, if yoga were to become the law of the land the American way-of-life as we know it might be irrevocably changed. From health care to the NFL the economic, cultural, and social landscape could undergo a profound transformation.
Whether such a paradigm shift would be for good or ill is an issue open for argument. With yoga expanding at its current rate it is an argument ripe for social scientists, futurists, and policy makers. What is a moot point is that if yoga did expand from sea to shining sea, in the space of the next twenty years America might see a return to its original founding vision as an entirely new ‘City Upon a Hill’, except this time it might be the ‘Ashram on a Hill’.
The first two limbs of the eight limbs of yoga are ten fundamental precepts called the yamas and niyamas. Unlike the Ten Commandments they are more like ethical guidelines. The first of the yamas is ahimsa, or non-violence. The word literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any person or creature. Ahimsa is one of the major reasons many people who practice yoga are vegetarians, seeing it as connected to the meatless path.
“The slaughter of animals obstructs the way to heaven,” says a verse in the Dharma Sutras.
More than a third of those who practice yoga are vegetarians, according to the Yoga Site, and more than half of all yoga teachers are vegetarians, according to Ryan Nadloneks, a Prana Flow Vinyasa Yoga teacher and journalist. Approximately 5% of all Americans are vegetarians, and 2% are vegans, according to the latest Gallup Poll.
“A vegetarian diet is essential for one who wants to follow a spiritual life,” writes Stephen Sturgess in The Yoga Book.
Sharron Gannon, the founder of Jivamukti Yoga and an advocate of ethical vegetarianism, is even more outspoken. A core concept of Jivamukti, as articulated by her and co-founder David Life, is that understanding the ultimate connectedness of all creatures is the goal of yoga. Her take on eating animals is that it amounts to “enslaving, degrading, torturing, raping, and slaughtering billions of them.”
For Sharron Gannon one of the first steps in advancing enlightenment is marrying yoga and vegetarianism. “If you wish to truly step into transcendental reality and have a lighter impact on the planet, adopting a compassionate vegetarian diet is a good place to start,” she writes in Yoga and Vegetarianism: The Path to Greater Health and Happiness. “Not everyone can stand on his or her head every day, but everyone eats. You can practice compassion three times a day when you sit down to eat.”
But, practicing such compassion would devastate the meat industry, shutting down innumerable farms in top livestock and poultry slaughtering states such as Minnesota, North Carolina, and Arkansas, as well as shuttering the doors of the 6,278 federally inspected meat and poultry processing plants in the USA. Close to a half-million workers might be thrown out of work and their combined salaries of $19 billion lost. The effect would cascade to the suppliers, distributors, retailers, and ancillary industries that employ 6.2 million people with jobs that total $200 billion in wages. In addition, more than $81 billion in tax revenues would be lost to federal, state, and local governments.
The meat and poultry industry contributes a total of about $832 billion to the economy, based on a 2009 study by John Dunham and Associates, or just under 6% of GDP. Through all its various production and distribution linkages it impacts firms in all 509 sectors of the American commercial landscape.
America’s exports would be affected, too, since in 2010 almost 7 million metric tons of meat products were shipped overseas. This would throw a monkey wrench into the USA’s balance of payments, already in the negative.
But, not only would the livestock and poultry industry be severely impacted, if not completely bankrupted, the healthcare industry would also receive another shock.
Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the three leading causes of death in the USA. These diseases, as well as type 2 diabetes, have all been linked to the Western diet of processed animal-based foods. Eating red meat is associated with a significant increased risk of premature death from cancer and heart disease, according to a 26-year study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012.
”When you have these numbers in front of you, it’s pretty staggering,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Frank Hu, a professor of medicine at Harvard, referring to the strong link between red meat consumption and mortality.
The China-Cornell-Oxford Project, a 20-year study begun in 1983, one of the most comprehensive health investigations ever undertaken, concluded that these diseases, some forms of cancer among them, could almost always be prevented by eating plant-based whole foods.
If everyone in the United States practiced yoga and vegetarianism, the healthcare industry would be dealt what might be a fatal blow.
If everyone were to turn to a plant-based diet, many of the major diseases Americans suffer from would in most likelihood be stunted. Without the customers that make up the bulk of their work, doctors and healthcare workers would be forced to return to general practice, at a fraction of the income the major diseases now generate for them.
A further consequence of everyone in America practicing yoga and subscribing to ahimsa, or non-violence, would be the collapse of the firearms and ammunition industry and the Department of Defense, both bulwarks of the American economy.
American companies manufacturing firearms, ammunition, and supplies for domestic use are a significant part of the country’s economy. They provide well-paying jobs and contribute substantial amounts in taxes at state and federal levels. They employ more than 98,000 people and generate an additional 111,000 jobs in supplier and ancillary industries. These specific jobs pay an average of $46,000 in wages and benefits. In total, the firearms and ammunition industry supports more than 986,000 jobs, says the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute.
In 2012 the firearms and ammunition industry was responsible for as much as $31 billion in total economic activity in the country, and paid over $2 billion in taxes including property, income, and sales-based levies, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
A major trade association for the firearms industry, the National Shooting Sports Foundation represents more than 7,000 manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and organizations. They are located in Newtown, Connecticut.
Parenthetically, in December 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, a young man wielding several legally purchased high-powered weapons massacred 26 people, among them 20 children at an elementary school.
In the past two years, amid difficult economic times and high unemployment rates nationally, the firearms and ammunition industry created over 26,000 new jobs “Our industry is proud to be one of the bright spots in the economy,” noted the National Shooting Sports Foundation in its Impact Report 2012.
Hunting and target shooting activities employ more people than Chrysler, Philip Morris, UPS, and Ford, combined. The economic activity generated by the hunting and shooting industries exceed the annual sales of most “Fortune 500” companies.
The consequences of a nationwide yogic adoption of the principle of non-violence would have multiple, ripple effects.
For one thing, although here are currently more than 300 million guns currently in circulation in the USA, a widespread belief in non-violence would mean far fewer people getting shot than are currently being shot in our times. For example, in 2008 there were 39 fatalities from crimes involving firearms in England and Wales, where all handguns and automatic weapons have been effectively banned. The population of the United States is approximately 6 times that of England and Wales. By comparison, in the United States there were 12,000 gun-related homicides in 2008, or 307 times as many.
Every year in the USA there are more than 100,000 deliberate or accidental gunshot injuries, and more than 30,000 gun-related deaths, every one of them treated at emergency rooms and hospitals. The costs for these shootings run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, and as a line item represent a profit center for the healthcare industry. If shootings were largely eliminated from the American landscape the healthcare industry would be adversely impacted in terms of its bottom line.
Of greater import would be the jobs and industries lost. It is no exaggeration to suppose that more than $30 billion a year could and would be drained from the American economy, affecting the wallets of workers, the stock of publically traded companies, and the coffers of government, from the local to national level.
If everyone practiced yoga and the attendant yama of non-violence, the intense debates over gun-control laws, which never seem to change very much, would cease to be relevant, or irrelevant, whichever may be the case.
Another victim of a widespread adoption of non-violence would be the elephant in the room, the Department of Defense, a $900 billion business. The Defense Department is America’s largest employer with over 1.4 million active duty and 720,000 civilian personnel. More than 450,000 employees are stationed overseas in 163 countries. Nearly 3 million people receive income from the Defense Department, either as National Guard or veterans and their families. Over half of the discretionary expenditure in the American budget goes to the Defense Department.
If the Department of Defense were to lay down its sword the ranks of the unemployed would increase by more than 25% overnight, throwing the country into another instant recession, if not a depression. It is instructive that among economists the common thought is that the Great Depression was resolved not because of the New Deal, but with the advent of World War II.
It is clear that an ethos of non-violence could be a death knell for the American dream, closing innumerable factories, throwing millions of people out of work, and extracting hundreds of billions of dollars annually from the economy.
It might also shake America to its core, splitting the bedrock upon which it is built.
Conclusion: The walk of life of yoga in the modern world.