Category Archives: High and Low

Going Heavy (Straight-up)

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In 1120, soon after the First Crusade recaptured Jerusalem for Christendom, a new monastic order was created to support and protect caravans making pilgrimage to the Holy Places. But, unlike earlier monastic orders, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar, was different.

Christian monasticism had always been a devotional practice. The basic idea of the practice, even today, is withdrawal from the world. Christian monks lived ascetic, often cloistered lives, dedicated to worship. It is similar to Pratyahara, one of the forgotten limbs of yoga. Pratyahara literally means “gaining mastery over external influences.” It is grounded in the same kind of tradition.

The Knights Templar, however, was a military monastic order, among the most skilled fighting men of the Crusades. In 1177, at the Battle of Montgisard, fewer than 500 heavily-armored Knights Templar, backed by only a few thousand infantrymen, defeated the Muslim Sultan Saladin’s army of more than 26,000.

Although men of the cloth and masters of war may seem like strange bedfellows, they are not.

In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher, wrote, “A religious order can be fittingly established for the military life, for the defense of divine worship.” In the 16th century monks of the Shaolin Temple routinely battled Japanese pirates, who had been raiding their Chinese coastline for decades. Servants of God sometimes acted as shock troops during Europe’s Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Buddhist monks have lately joined the likes of Hindu nationalists, fundamentalist Christians, Muslim radicals, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in advancing their religious points-of-view at the end of a gun barrel.

Since they have all the answers, it is doubtful they have any faith, even though they insist otherwise, often at the boiling point. Faith is what implies there might be a mystery at the heart of things.

Yoga has long been perceived as being built on several core principles, among them non-violence. “The first yama – ahimsa or non-harming, which asks us to embrace non-violence at the level of speech, thought, and action – is truly the cornerstone of yoga as a way of life,” Rolf Gates wrote in his book Meditation From the Mat.

Both cornerstone and culture, it is a behavior essential to the yogic lifestyle. “Practicing ahimsa is a way of cultivating an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness in all situations,” says Heather Church, an Adjunct Teaching Professional at Ohio University, where she teaches yoga and yogic philosophy.

But, in a country that possesses 50% percent of the guns on the planet, even though it accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and where tens of millions practice yoga of some kind or other, according to Yoga Journal, it was probably inevitable that guns and the practice would one day cross swords.

In the brave new world of today’s yoga some are taking an age-old tack on the issue of violence, eschewing self-restraint and ahimsa. They are taking an Old Testament approach, bumping the Buddha off the starting line. It’s an eye for an eye outlook.

“I’ll be damned if some religious extremist decides in his twisted head that he thinks he’ll clean the world by popping off some godless hippies and decides to walk in and spray some bullets into my studio with my students,” Cheryl Vincent wrote in an op-ed piece for Elephant Journal.

“You better believe I’ll be packing.”

The central maxim of the National Rifle Association, better known as the NRA, is, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

It’s High Noon showdown time. When good yogis pack pistols their accuracy is generally better than most, making them daunting adversaries. Writing in Women’s Self Defense Weekly, which offers advice such as “The Neck Grab and Throat Punch”, Laura Simonian pointed out that the best-kept secret about yoga is that “it helps your shooting.”

She added that it was “great” for mental strength, core strength, balance strength, breathing control strength, and self-discipline, all leading to an aim that is true. “I bet you didn’t know all those core conditioning boats, crows, and warriors were benefitting you in more ways than flexibility and mental well-being. Yoga can actually aid your shooting.”

Shooting guns takes focus and concentration. “Yoga’s Zen-like quality can be applied to shooting guns in a lot of ways,” says Deirdre Gailey, a yoga teacher and vegan chef in New York City. “I like to shoot guns.”

The rise of women’s gun culture is a 21st century phenomenon. Babes with bullets shot up almost 50% in the United States between 2001 and 2010, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, leading to pink pistols and purses with holster slots. Samuel Colt made all men equal in the 19th century. Now women are catching up.

Brandon Webb, the marksman who trained the writer Laura Simonian on bolt-action rifles, described her as a “natural born killer” and explained that he has “definitely witnessed firsthand the positive effects yoga has had on my own shooting.”

Laura Simonian trained with a Glock 34 handgun, too. Although its longer barrel results in a slightly slower draw time out of the holster, it is still used by some as a concealed weapon. No one should try messing with yoga girl Laura.

A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that protection is the top reason Americans own guns, followed by hunting, sport and target shooting, and 2nd Amendment rights. Gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer. The NRA argues that if more law-abiding citizens had guns everyone would be safer from gun violence.

The NRA doesn’t say anything about more Americans having been killed in gun-related incidents in the past 50 years than in all the wars fought in all of American history.

“You see peace and tranquility in the country and I see the Blair Witch Project,” Texas novelist Ruth Pennebacker wrote in “Yoga and Guns”.

“You see cows and horses and I see lethal rattlesnakes ready to strike. You see friendly, down-to-earth farmers and homespun families and I see the two murderers from In Cold Blood. A gun. Shooting lessons. Sign up now. Before it’s too late.”

But, a study in the Southern Medical Journal in 2010 found that owning a gun is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a family member or guest than in the death of an intruder. It is the protection paradox. The risks of gun ownership overshadow the benefits. The more guns there are the more shootings there are. That is why in countries with few guns there are few shootings.

After Australia enacted sweeping gun control laws in 1998 mass shootings involving four-or-more people dropped to zero. In the United States mass shootings happen every day, literally. In 2016 there were 383.

For many people the joy of owning guns is entwined with the joy of hunting.

“Every shotgun and rifle in my family’s gun safe is brimming with stories,” wrote Babe Winkleman in The Sportsman’s Guide. “I wonder where those walnut tress grew [for my rifle stock]. Was there ever a deer shot from the very tree that grew the wood for my deer rifle?”

Although more and more people in the United States live in cities, hunting expanded 9% from 2006 through 2011.  Some tramp through fields and woods because “doing things outdoors is healthy,” says Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some hunt because it is a rite of passage, growing up in families that have always hunted, and passing their knowledge down. In “Buddhists With Guns” the writer Justin Whitaker, a Buddhist scholar, noted he and his sister, a yoga instructor, grew up in rural Montana and were introduced to guns early in life.

“I think I skipped the ‘you’ll shoot your eye out!’ bb-gun that many friends were getting and moved on to a pump-action single shot pellet-gun around the age of 8,” he said.

Others hunt to harvest their own food. In 2011 almost 14 million Americans went hunting, shooting squirrels, pheasants, turkey, and deer, among other wildlife. Old-school yoga skips hunting season. It eschews eating animals. Sri Pattabhi Jois, progenitor of Ashtanga Yoga, recommended not eating meat because “It will make you stiff.”

Most people who practice yoga today eat animals, but are sometimes sensitive about the issue. “When the rare occasion does rise for me to indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” said Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Cape Cod.

More than 150 billion animals a year are killed for food, both in slaughterhouses and forests. That is a great deal of killing. It may be what guns are made for, but whether that much suffering aligns with yogic values is an open question.

By 2010 shooting was enjoying a renaissance in the United States. 35 million Americans were participating in formal and informal sport and target shooting, surpassing all earlier estimates of the sport. “Firearms sales are way up, so it’s really no surprise that more people are enjoying the shooting sports than ever before,” said Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Connecticut.

“AR-style [semi-automatic assault-style, in other words] rifles are rugged, accurate, fun to shoot, and they’re here to stay,” he added.

Fun on the mat and fun on the firing range sometimes vibrate on the same plane.

“Shooting guns and taking yoga on the same day was the biggest ‘You got chocolate in my peanut butter!’ moment I’ve had so far in my life,” wrote Patton Oswalt in The New York Times. “I was one with my target, and my target was bliss. Namaste. Lock and load.”

Guns are the “new yoga” CBS News reported recently. However, instead of foam blocks and cloth straps, the new props of the new yoga include high-velocity metal projectiles.

Although it is hard to hear over the racket of gunfire, shooting a gun can be “just like yoga – meditative,” Caitlin Talbot recounted gun owners describing the gunfire around them in her article in Elephant Journal. The same skill sets often apply. Slow yourself down. Be in the now.

In the same way that consciously relaxing your body, focusing your thoughts and gaze, and breathing evenly are the basic tools of meditation, they are the basic tools of shooting, too. When shooting a gun the fewer muscles used the steadier the shooter’s position will be. Focusing on the task at hand puts the shooter in the zone, making their efforts effortless. Lastly, shooters use breathing cues, relaxing on each expired breath, as they squeeze the trigger.

It’s just like yoga, except you don’t want to be on the wrong end of a gun. It’s not like being on a yoga mat, where any end of the mat is the right end. At least, until recently, when Mattthew Remski observed in “Should Yogis Want Their Guns Back” that his yoga mat “sometimes smells like gunpowder” and that “authentic peace seems to thrive on the juice of authentic violence”.

Many gun enthusiasts, firearms industry spokesmen, and the NRA cite the 2nd Amendment as justification for the right everyone has to keep and bear arms. Owning guns is framed as a fundamental human right, although they seem to never defend the merits of gun ownership without referring to the amendment, as though guns in and of themselves are only signifiers, not actual things.

The hue and cry is made despite the wording of the amendment itself. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” What Thomas Jefferson seems to have meant was that the right to possess firearms exists in relation to the militia, not in relation to teenagers possessing Glock 10mm and Sig-Sauer 9mm handguns, Bushmaster semi-automatic rifles, and Izhmash 12-gauge shotguns, and then using them to shoot and kill grade school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

Until this century all federal courts, liberal and conservative alike, agreed that the 2nd Amendment does not confer gun rights on individuals. However, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 5 – 4 decision, re-affirming a fundamental right to bear arms. Now that many of the arguments about who can have a gun – there are no federal laws requiring a license to own a gun – have been settled, the Supreme Court might in the next few years try resolving the question of who can or can’t possess a rocket launcher.

Gun aficionados from Rush Limbaugh to Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded. “I have a love interest in every one of my films – a gun,” said the Terminator.

Guns can be testy lovers, however. “The recoil from a .357 Magnum can really do a number on your chakras,” said one of the shooting yogis in “Higher Caliber, Higher Mindedness: The Story of YoGun”, an award-winning short film from SofaCouch MovieFilms.

As yoga has matured in the United States in the new millennium, it has begun to embrace the notion of gun ownership. “Yoga is starting to become more associated with the cultural right, used to train the military and promote Ayn Rand,” said Carol Horton, a former political science professor and certified Forrest Yoga teacher.

“Until all governments disarm, the people have a right to bear arms,” argues Avananda, a ‘philosopher yogi’ and registered Yoga Alliance teacher.

The argument is the same as the photo-shopped shortened 2nd Amendment on the front of NRA headquarters. ”The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Like the NRA, many prefer the amended fake version of the amendment to the real amendment.

Michelle Comeaux Howard, a yoga teacher and mother of two in Mission Viejo, California, has argued that only by being armed can we successfully defend ourselves from being victimized. “I believe strongly in our Second Amendment rights because there will always be crime and I want to exercise the right to protect myself and my children in the event we were to become victims of a home invasion or if someone ever attacked us in public.”

She believes all “law-abiding” citizens, including her, should be allowed to legally carry a concealed weapon. Non-violence is one of yoga’s self-restraints, but it is being pushed out the door at the same time as gun control is coming to mean being able to hit your target.

But, maybe old-school peace-and-love your neighbor yogis have it all wrong about ahimsa, and what is really old-school about the practice are yogis tot’n the monkey. Back in the day they apparently believed you could get more with a kind thought and a gun than with just a kind thought.

“From the fifteenth century until the early decades of the nineteenth century, highly organized bands of militarized yogins controlled trade routes across Northern India,” wrote Mark Singleton in Yoga Body.

Yoga exercise, or hatha yoga, was a kind of boot camp or military training, keeping them in trim for the wear and tear of guerilla warfare. As Birgette Gorm Hansen pointed out in “Wild Yogis”, a recent article in Rebelle Society, yoga back then “was a bad ass practice.”

After putting down the infamous 1857 Mutiny, the British colonial government of India began to systematically disarm the sub-continent’s population, and in 1878 introduced the Indian Arms Act, forbidding almost all Indians from possessing firearms of any kind. Although not specifically targeting yogis, it effectively ended the marauding of the armed hatha gangs, who threatened both princely states and British economic interests.

They were forced to lay down their guns and turn to yogic showmanship as a livelihood, in the meantime keeping yoga exercise alive into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 30s Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, took up the mantle and revived the practice, crafting it to become the booming posture workout it is today.

Today, modern yoga studios preach breath and exercise to keep us fit and healthy, sprinkling in concepts like Dharana and Dhyana to keep a few of the other limbs of yoga alive. But, back in the day, yogis kept the peace by going heavy.

Nobody goes heavier than the Pentagon. These days the military is hiring ‘Yoga Defense Contractors’ to deal with changes in basic training, combat readiness, and residual issues like PTSD.

Maybe the yogis packing pistols straight-up today are just getting back to the roots of yoga.

After all, even the Dalai Lama, arguably one of the most peaceable men on the planet, when asked by a schoolchild at the Educating Heart Summit in Oregon what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun, replied without hesitation, ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

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Topsy Turvy

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The biggest yoga event of 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio, went off at the tail end of the summer without a hitch. It was as though the gods were smiling down on it. The Friday evening was dry, without a thunderstorm in sight, the hot day tempering as the sun sank into Lake Erie so that when the festivities began the temperature had settled into the mid-70s. The humidity was kept at bay by the breeze off the lake.

“The yoga, the assists, the people, the music, the weather, the views. Cleveland rocks!” said Deanna Broaddus of Beachwood.

Several thousand people unrolled their mats on the Collection Auto Group Plaza of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the city’s re-developed North Coast Harbor. The mass class took place in front of the I. M. Pei-deigned dual-triangular-shaped glass tent that is the main entry facade to the museum and which extends onto the 65,000-square-foot plaza.

It is modeled after Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

‘Believe in Cleveland’ was sponsored by Inner Bliss, Cleveland’s largest yoga studio with locations in Rocky River and Westlake, the athletic apparel company Lululemon, and the Rock Hall.

“We are so thrilled to have you here,” said Greg Harris of Brecksville, CEO of the Rock Hall. “This is the first time, but it won’t be the last,” he added, to a roar from the crowd.

The keynote address was by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who spoke on mindfulness, the subject of his recent book, ‘A Mindful Nation’.

Tammy Lyons of Bay Village, owner of Inner Bliss, led the yoga exercise class. “Lift up your neighbor, breath in, a little higher, go up,” she urged the throng.

After the 90-minute practice, set to music by Prince, Led Zeppelin, U2, Billy Idol, and the Rolling Stones, among others, there was dancing and food, including the novelty of a vegan food truck.

But, on a night filled with inspiring speeches, asana, music, laughter, dancing, and fun, food was not uppermost in most people’s minds.

“The yoga, the location, the weather, it was perfect in Cleveland,” said Heather Moore of Cleveland Heights.

It was easily not only the largest outdoor yoga event in Cleveland; it was the largest yoga event in Cleveland of any kind, attesting to the practice’s growing popularity in a changing city.

“We came. We saw. We believed,” said Jeffrey Jones of Willoughby. “This event gave me hope for the city I love.”

But, it was an event edgy with surprising alliances, some more surprising than others. It was a night when politicians, of all things, shone brighter and truer than professed yoga boosters like Lululemon and professed counter culture icons like rock-and-roll bands.

Congressional job approval stands at less than 20% according to most polls, including Fox News and the Gallup Poll. The 80% disapproval rating is the worst Gallup has measured in more than 30 years of tracking congressional approval. And this is more than a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”

It has long been observed that politics have little or no relation to morals. It is rarely a good idea to give a politician the keys to the city. Better to change the locks.

Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once noted that 90 percent of politicians give the other 10 percent a bad name.

Congressman Ryan is one of the 10 percent. He might be the only percent of politicians who believe meditation can result in well being on a nationwide basis, and who practice it themselves.

A five-term incumbent from a rust belt northeastern Ohio district, the congressman is a 6-foot-4-inch former football star, an unlikely candidate for the meditative world. He is a career politician whose re-elections are fueled by the jobs he brings to his district, from the Lordstown Chevy plant to the expansion of the Air Force Reserve Base, and the tens of millions of federal dollars in earmarks he routinely delivers. The Additive Manufacturing Center in downtown Youngstown, which he was instrumental in making happen, is poised to become the linchpin in a Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland technology belt.

But, as much as he caters to the meat-and-potato concerns of his district’s residents, as well as dealing with national issues like immigration, gun control, and balancing the budget, Congressman Ryan is breaking ground in Washington by proposing that America can be transformed by practicing simple forms of meditation to develop what he calls “mindfulness”.

In his book ‘A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit’, Congressman Ryan asserts that meditation, or mindfulness, is a simple tonic for the national angst.

“Mindfulness will be a response to the wars, struggling to make ends meet, the general anxiety out there. This can be transformational. It should be mainstream. We need this.”

‘A Mindful Nation’ was the result of a retreat he attended after the 2008 elections, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and a leading mindfulness advocate.

“When you taste this stuff, it has profound effects,” said Mr. Kabat-Zinn. “That’s why it has lasted 2,600-plus years. It’s not just some silly quaint thing they used to do in Asia because they had nothing better to do. It’s a way to stay healthy.”

While writing his book Congressman Ryan met with Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation on the brain.

“Tim was interested in the potential of this, the impact this research might have to shape policy, bringing these kinds of methods into education, health care, leadership,” said Mr. Davidson, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

“There’s a huge amount of suffering that can be prevented with healthy habits of the mind, decreased substance abuse, suicide, bullying, drunk driving, anxiety, and depression. The benefits are considerable and wide-ranging.”

Starting with scientists conducting Transcendental Meditation research since the late 1960s, numerous studies have shown that meditation helps reduce chronic pain and depression, protects against heart disease by reducing the marker C-reactive protein, and lowers acute stress response by actually changing the structure of the brain.

“It did to my mind what going to the gym did to my body – it made it both stronger and more flexible,” says Dr. Hedy Kober, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation at her lab at Yale University.

Since the publication of his book Congressman Ryan has started a once-a-week quiet time caucus for members of Congress as well as spoken on the subject at seminars and public events coast-to coast. He said he has been surprised by how many members of Congress have asked him about the practice and how to better deal with stress.

“A lot of people don’t understand mindfulness,” he said.

“But, when you talk about slowing down and being in the present moment they get enthusiastic, across partisan lines. It’s about participating in your own health care, in education, in politics, and becoming more resilient, and there’s no reason why people should rule this out because it doesn’t fit into their political philosophy.”

Even before the publication of his book Congressman Ryan secured almost a million dollars in federal funding for programs to teach mindfulness at elementary schools in his district.

“We are basically teaching them how to calm down the part of the brain that is preventing them from learning how to pay attention. It’s a beautiful thing to walk in to classrooms and hear stories about how it’s transforming them.”

Congressman Ryan may have been the warm-up band at ‘Believe in Cleveland’, but he deserved to be the headliner.

It is rare when the unexpected sincerity of a politician trumps the supposed sincerity of yoga boosters like Lululemon. Politicians are bred to seem sincere, even when they usually don’t mean it. Congressman Ryan was a breath of fresh air. Lululemon, on the other hand, is as fresh as its next advertising campaign, or in whatever direction the hot air balloon is blowing.

Lululemon is a high-end yoga-inspired multi-billion dollar apparel retailer. It pronounces itself as a company “where dreams come to fruition.” One of the slogans most prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money.”

However, most of Lululemon’s apparel is manufactured in third-world countries at the behest of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, who believes, according to a speech he made at a conference of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies in Vancouver, British Columbia, that third-world children should be encouraged to work in factories because it provides their families with much-needed wages.

Lululemon’s former CEO, Christine Day, recently ousted after overseeing the introduction of its ill-fated see-through yoga pants, explained the company’s philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar separates by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”

When Lululemon opened a new store in Kingston, Ontario, in the middle of winter in 2011, it advertised free clothes at its grand opening. Full-page ads blared: “Grin and Bare It! Let us dress you from head to toe. The first 30 people wearing only their undies will receive a free Lululemon top and bottom.” Since another of the company’s slogans is, “Do one thing a day that scares you,” and since stripping in public is scary for most people, on the big day the sidewalks of Kingston were overflowing with Girls Gone Wild, although some couldn’t stop shivering while patiently waiting for their free Bhakti capris.

Corporate public relations representative Sara Gardiner described the come-as-you-are campaign as a “great way of grassroots marketing and creating conversations.”

“Our product is unique because it’s infused with passion,” said the manager of Lululemon when it opened in the up-scale Eton Square Mall in a suburb of Cleveland. “Each step of the process is committed to greatness, fun, integrity, and quality. The culture of Lululemon is one that inspires me. When I put on a pair of groove pants I feel like I’m a part of that inspiration.”

A New York Times investigation revealed that Lululemon’s Vitasea line of seaweed fabric – whose seaweed it claimed released “marine amino acids, minerals, and vitamins into the skin” – contained no seaweed at all.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the company’s employees are trained to routinely eavesdrop on customers.

In the past five years Lululemon has tripled its annual revenue, expanding from 70 stores to more than 200, giving substance to the notion that if you can fake sincerity, you have surely got it made.

Two years ago Lululemon introduced new shopping bags sporting the shadowy question: “Who is John Galt?”

John Galt, a pivotal character in Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, believes in and defends the right of the individual to employ his mind and life solely for his own benefit.

Few people become engaged with yoga as a result of reading Ayn Rand’s potboilers, and for good reason. An unabashed advocate of individualism and unbridled capitalism, she rejects faith in favor of rational selfishness.

In notes for her novel she describes John Galt as without “inner conflict because he is perfect.” In other words, he is the Superman of our modern times. In the book he is compared to Prometheus, who in Greek mythology created man from clay.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand holds that there is no greater moral good than achieving happiness. It is an idealistic message burdened by the simplistic flaw that it confuses what are necessary conditions for happiness with sufficient conditions.

Ayn Rand blithely pronounces, in the words of John Galt, that if we all pursue whatever is in our own self-interest then the world will be a better place. Most of today’s libertarians justify their political views by citing Ayn Randism, or Objectivism, as it is better known.

Ayn Rand is considered the matriarch of the Tea Party, even though she herself enjoyed the benefits of Medicaid and Social Security.

Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and guiding light, was influenced by ‘Atlas Shrugged’ when he read it at age eighteen. “Only later, looking back, did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,” according to the company.

“Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity.”

It begs the question of whether the children working in Lululemon’s overseas factories are on the fast track to conquering mediocrity, or if they need to get on the fast track to reading more of Ayn Rand to understand how they have been misled. Maybe they should reconsider sewing see-through pants twelve hours a day and instead, as Lululemon urges, break free of “the constraints and limitations on ourselves, which impede us from living our best lives.”

But, it may not be as easy to do in Bangladesh as it is in North America, given that practically all of the profit margins on clothes made for pennies on the dollar flow into the coffers of Lululemon and its shareholders, and not into the savings accounts of its workers.

In the spring of 2013 workers at the Sabrina Garment Manufacturing factory in Cambodia, where Lululemon clothes are made, went on strike, complaining about “slave wages”.

Lululemon replied by saying: “We share your concern about the situation, and are in close contact with our factory partners.”

They might as well have said nothing.

Carol Horton, a yoga teacher and author of ‘Race and the Making of American Liberalism’, writes: “I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of Lululemon customers and ambassadors haven’t thought into the politics of the company they’re supporting.”

But, social and economic concerns aside, the issue of pursuing our own self-interest no matter what not only leads to innumerable dead ends, it is contrary to the teachings of yoga, a core component of which is building community. “The feeling we get from being part of a community, or kula, is an important part of why many of us embrace yoga,” says Kelle Walsh, the editor of Yoga Journal.

“The notion of self-interest, in fact, runs completely against that,” argues Simon Houpt, senior media writer for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, writing about Lululemon’s love affair with Ayn Rand.

The path of yoga is admittedly a path towards one’s own fulfillment, but it is not the path of narcissism. It is a commonplace that we have to be selfish to get ahead in this world. But, the idea that selfishness is an overarching virtue to be pursued at all cost, as Ayn Rand and Lululemon espouse, is both shortsighted and solipsistic.

Every man for himself and God against all is not one of the eight limbs of yoga.

“Self-cherishing is the cause of all misery and dissatisfaction,” according to the Tibetan Buddhist Panchen Lama, “while holding other sentient beings dearer than oneself is the foundation of all realization and knowledge.”

It may seem churlish to not see the good in sexy, form fitting yoga pants, but yoga is ultimately a practice whose focus is meant to be internal, rather than focused on how shapely one’s butt can be in a pair of Wunder Under tights. Nor is it a practice meant to further the fortunes of companies doing anything and everything they can to claw their way up the NASDAQ ladder. Although yoga is America’s favorite eastern philosophy, because it is so accepting of SUV’s, one of its central tenets is non-grasping, or non-greed.

None of its tenets bears any resemblance to Lululemonism. To suppose otherwise is to pretend to understand what Led Zeppelin meant by the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

As antithetical as the presumptions of Lululemon are to yoga, the mantra of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll is equally peripheral to the yoga project. Rock-and-roll’s carousal of multi-millionaire stars has long since turned the music on its head. Given the luxurious lifestyles of many of the Rock Hall’s inductees, from the Gloved One to Elton John, my generation’s Liberace, it cannot be any wonder that Miley Cyrus, famous for faux-masturbating with a foam finger, is banging the gong at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with her smash hit ‘Bangerz’.

With five chart-toppers by the tender age of twenty, Miley is on a roll and the Rock Hall is probably already planning the induction of and shiny mausoleum for Cyrus the Great in the 2030s when she becomes eligible.

Although rock-and-roll is not, admittedly, my favorite genre of music, I do enjoy listening to the likes of Sonic Youth, Social Distortion, and even Bikini Kill, who recorded on the label ‘Kill Rock Stars’, as much as the next man. It is to their credit, however, that they aren’t and hopefully never will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame, so-called by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

“It’s a place where old rockers go to die.”

In 1994 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead did not attend his induction because he was opposed to the idea of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The rest of the band disagreed, dragging a cardboard cutout of Garcia onstage. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane skipped the ceremony in 1996, saying: “All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”

When the Sex Pistols were named as inductees in 2006, alongside Blondie and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they refused to attend, sending a note instead: “Rock and roll and the hall of fame are a piss stain. We’re not coming. We’re not your monkey, and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, selling us a load of old famous. We’re not coming. You’re not paying attention.”

What they meant was that rock and roll has long since become as corporate as it can possibly become. The genre is immensely popular worldwide and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business with little connection to what used to be known as the counter-culture, or to anything that means anything except the sound and fury of a tune with a backbeat. Since punk rock stripped back the curtain in the late 1970s, big-time rock-and-roll bands have routinely sold out to sell everything from Royal Caribbean Cruises (Iggy Pop) to Jaguar S-class sedans (Sting).

The Rock Hall’s signature exhibition in 2013 was the ‘Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction’. The aptly named Stones have spent fifty years snorting kilos of cocaine and making tons of money. In the years 2000 through 2010 the bad boys of rock grossed almost $900 million dollars at their live shows alone. In the form of twenty-dollar bills it amounts to 36,000 pounds, or literally eighteen tons of twenty-dollar bills.

From its explosive springboard in the 1950s rock-and-roll became a cultural revolution. Bookended by Woodstock and Live Aid it responded to the issues of its day like war, race, sexuality, power, and world hunger. But, 25 years after Live Aid it has become predictable and irrelevant. Rock-and-roll may once have been on its way to changing the world, but then came Matchbox 20 and Vertical Horizon.

There is a reason Fall Out Boy’s ‘Save Rock and Roll’ was the most successful rock album of 2013, and it’s not even really rock-and-roll.

The nadir may have been 2008 when the pop icon Madonna was inducted into the Rock Hall, which Gene Simmons of KISS said was an insult to her because she should have been in the Dance Hall of Fame, instead. The Material Girl is to rock-and-roll as Ben Affleck is to the Baseball Hall of Fame because he goes to so many Red Sox games at Fenway Park.

For a performer whose career has been built on a platform of bawdiness, it is surprising that since 1996 Madonna has practiced and stayed in shape with Ashtanga Yoga workouts. “Yoga is a metaphor for life,” she says. “It is a workout for your mind, your body, and your soul.”

It is surprising, but maybe she simply has never heard of Pattabhi Jois’s emphasis on bramacharya, or the wise use of sexual energy, in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. But, then again, that is not the kind of idea that sells records and concert tickets costing hundreds of dollars for ringside seats.

As yoga has become more mainstream stars have taken to writing and singing yoga tunes. Madonna had a hit with ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ in which she crooned, “Beyond comparison, working like the jungle physician/To pacify loss of consciousness from the poison of existence.” The album ‘Ray of Light’ on which the song appeared sold 16 million copies. Abandoning her white top hat, black panties and bra, and black knee-high go-go boots in favor of a shapeless ankle-length sackcloth, the Queen of Pop performed with a troupe of traditionally-clad Indian women.

Although the Boston Globe described the album as “deeply spiritual dance music,” not everyone agreed that ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ was Madonna’s best work, no matter the weird intensity of its lyrics. Nor does everyone agree that any and all performers are the best vehicles for sacred songs.

“Some people think they can find some melodies and put some mantras to them, and now they’re chanting,” Krishna Das said in an interview with Shannon Sexton, a former editor of Yoga International. “But they may not understand that this is spiritual practice. This is not entertainment. These chants have power. They have the ability to change us.”

The venue for ‘Believe in Cleveland’ was centrally located in downtown Cleveland, accessible to all the city’s many suburbs and exburbs along its myriad of highways. Like pilgrims flowing downstream the area’s yogis descended to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River as though it were the Ganges. The show was a hit.

However, it could have been staged in many different places in Cleveland, including the 22,000 green acres of the Metroparks circling the city. Edgewater State Park on Cleveland’s west shoreline of Lake Erie has hosted large gatherings of yogis practicing 108 sun salutations on summer solstice, as well.

Wade Oval, one of northeast Ohio’s premier public spaces, only minutes from the Rock Hall, might have made a natural choice. Its amenities include a seven-acre park, the hundred-foot wide Kulas Community Stage, and on-site access to water and electricity. Wade Oval is directly opposite the entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well, which has a large collection of art related to yoga.

One of its best pieces, ‘Yoga Narasimha: Lord Vishnu in his Man-Lion Avatar’, is headlining ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’, a major show billed as the world’s first exhibition on yogic art. It will explore yoga over time, as spiritual training as well as physical exercise, and its connections to both well-being and enlightenment. The exhibition, a result of the museum’s traditional strength in Asian art, premiers in June, 2014. It will travel to Washington, D. C. later in the fall for a three-month engagement at the Feer Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art.

At first glance it might seem like a park adjoining a museum co-organizing an historic exhibit of yogic art would have been a better fit for a groundbreaking yoga night out than a pay-per-view depository venerating the likes of Guns N’ Roses, the Stooges, and Black Sabbath.

At second glance, too.

“In retrospect,” the Village Voice recently noted, “it’s hard not to see the Osbournes [of Black Sabbath fame] as the first sign that the modern world was entering its Post-Dignity era.”

It might be said, as it often is, that “It’s all yoga.” There is a fondness for promoting the practice no matter what, in the belief that it is both immediately and ultimately beneficial, even if higgledy-piggledy alliances have to be made with Lululemon and the Rock Hall to bring the practice to the people.

But, that’s like Yogi Berra saying, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

One of the yamas of yoga is satya, or honesty and truthfulness. Lululemon is consistently disingenuous and rock-and-roll chronically two-faced. Both wear the rubric of peace, love, and understanding over their shoulders, proving Mark Twain right when he said, “Honesty is the best policy, when there is money in it.”

Since many politicians don’t believe what they say, sitting on the fence with both ears to the ground, they are often surprised when they are believed. Hall of Fame rock bands and Lululemon are corporations in pursuit of unfettered wealth.

“Groups are corporations now,” says John Lee Hooker, father of the boogie. “They have pension plans. Musicians have saw the daylight.”

Bono of U2 is on track to, literally, become the world’s first billionaire rock star.

Corporations always seek to be believed, no matter what it is they are selling, that being the platform on which success and failure ultimately rests. No one likes to be lied to.

Who listens to Milli Vanelli anymore?

It was refreshing to hear Congressman Ryan speak candidly about an issue that does not benefit him directly in terms of votes and campaign contributions, but rather touches on larger issues affecting citizens and the republic itself. “It’s not very common for elected officials to talk about the psychological and mental factors that are involved in things going well or badly in public policy,” says Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of ‘Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time’.

“Tim is shining a spotlight on this, and that’s brave.”

It was dismaying to listen to the la-la-la’s of Lululemon and Led Zeppelin, especially when they barely believe and dimly understand what they are talking about. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, one of the most beloved and most played rock songs of all time, was written by Robert Plant, who has admitted the lyrics have no actual meaning. Whatever sounds good to keep turning the turnstiles.

The company we keep, fairly or unfairly, judges us.

When yoga aligns itself with the likes of Tim Ryan, who envisions for the nation mindfulness as a way to “prevent a lot of suffering, prevent a lot of war, and suffering in the healthcare system,” it associates with men of good company.

When yoga locks elbows with the likes of Chip Wilson and Mick Jagger, who can never get no satisfaction no matter how many dollar bills they accumulate by whatever means best suited to serve their self-interest, it associates with men of bad company.

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company,” said the man whose face is on the greenback.

Better the greenback than the shell game.

Postscript: In February 2014, ‘Believe in Cleveland’ sponsored its second mass event, this time in the renovated Atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Several hundred people unrolled their mats in the glistening, new space, practicing to folk, roots, and world music, with a little bit of acoustic U2 thrown in.

Ozzy Osbourne was not allowed in the building.

“This is the first yoga practice within these walls, ever,” said Tammy Lyons.

The museum was founded in 1913 and opened its doors in 1916. The yoga class ended with a group OM echoing magically in the high-ceilinged space.

It was a sweet-sounding step up from the Rock Hall.

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The Ugly Yogi

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

“Our job as Americans is to dislodge the traitors from every place where they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work.”  Joseph McCarthy

If Joe “Tail-Gunner” McCarthy, the 1950s commie-baiting senator from Wisconsin, could see what is going on in yoga studios from sea to shining sea today, he would roll over in his grave. Even worse, if he could spy into the hearts of American yogis he would rise from the dead and resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee. It would be for good reason. In an America whose modern core values are consumerism, competition, and nationalism, yoga espouses acceptance, moderation, and finally, stilling the mind, withdrawing the senses, and dissolving the ego.

In the land of the free and home of the brave, in an America whose military-industrial complex has been at proxy or real war with someone somewhere every day every month every year since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, yoga fosters compassion towards all beings, not blowing them up for gain revenge geo-political reasons.

The downpresser men are tossing and turning on their gilded king-size beds.

In a nation where bigger is better, expediency trumps virtue, and might is right, yoga espouses ethical principles and observances for personal and social betterment. In a 21stcentury in which increasingly problematic ends justify increasingly harebrained means, yoga posits the means not the ends as what matter.

It is a practice that doesn’t sacrifice life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the altar of eschatology. Which begs the question, how did yoga become the popular pursuit it has become in the western world?

A little more than a hundred years ago yoga was largely unknown in the United States.

The first stirrings began a century earlier in 1805 when William Emerson published a Sanskrit work, and again forty years later when his son Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, delving into jnana, bhakti, and karma yoga. Henry David Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists studied Indian thought throughout mid-century, and by 1900 the New York Theosophists were devoting a substantial part of their many resources to studying the philosophy of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’.

But, at the same time as literary and cultural elites were drawn to yoga’s theories and practice, America’s mainstream was wary of its oriental heritage. Even though the charismatic Swami Vivekananda succeeded in being signed to a speaking tour of the heartland after appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, ten years later yoga was being greeted with suspicion rather than interest.

The Los Angeles Times featured an article about yoga with the headline: “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction”. The Hampton-Columbian, with a readership of more than three million, in an article titled “The Heathen Invasion” claimed insanity “is another disaster that threatens as a coincidence in the practice of yoga.” It was conflated with white slavery and deviltry. “Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults” blared The New York Journal

“Yoga was no longer just a queer pastime; it was evil, a con, a cult – uncivilized, heathen and anti-American,” Robert Love wrote in “Fear of Yoga” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Fear and loathing of yoga rippled through the newspapers, the yellow press, of the teens and Roaring 20s. Hatha yoga in particular, as popular as it is today in its many forms, was singled out.  “It was ridiculed so much that only a few select people were practicing it,” B. K. S. Iyengar notes in ‘Astadala Yogamala’. Yoga was defined as the domain of the unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Pierre Bernard, arguably the first American yogi, fled ahead of the law from San Francisco in 1906, Seattle in 1909, New York City in 1911, and NYC again in 1918, followed by allegations of extortion and sexual misconduct. “In Bernard’s lifetime, yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women,” Robert Love pointed out in his book ‘The Great OOM: TheImprobable Birth of Yoga in America’.

But, as the baby boomers came of age the times, as Bob Dylan noted, began a’changin. Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ gained currency, Indra Devi was the darling of Hollywood and published ‘Yoga for Americans’, and encouraged by Selvarajan Yesudian’s ‘Sport and Yoga’ manyathletes began to incorporate the practice into their workouts. America’s war on yoga was winding down.

“By the 1960s yoga was becoming a part of world culture,” said Fernando Pages Ruiz in “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy”.

As the Summer of Love roiled the tumultuous decade the practice was no longer reviled, but rather embraced by the counterculture, along with all things eastern. In 1968 the Beatles made a pilgrimage to India, bonding with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the American Yoga Association was formed, and Yogi Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles, preaching an alternative to LSD in the search for higher consciousness.

Through the 1970’s yoga sprouted up on TV shows hosted by Lilias Folan and Richard Hittleman, the mass-circulation magazine Yoga Journal hit the newsstands, eventually growing to a readership of over a million, and ashrams like Kripalu slowly but surely re-branded themselves as year-round fitness, educational, and spiritual centers.

Yoga today is accepted nationwide to the extent that millions of Americans practice it at thousands of studios and gyms and daily at home.

“New agers embraced yoga in the 90s, and these days yoga has exploded into the mainstream,” Neal Conan broadcast in “The Booming Business of Yoga” heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Popularity cuts several ways, however. “Avoid popularity if you would have peace,” said Abraham Lincoln. If it depended only on popularity, Shrek and the Little Mermaid would be congressmen, eclipsing the little mermen in their power suits.

Many magazines like TIME have featured yoga on their front covers, McDonald’s folds lotus pose into their hamburger ads, and our American idols practice it to balance out their widescreen idoldom. Even children hopped into warrior pose on the White House lawn during the first yoga event ever at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll.

“It is a measure of how thoroughly this ancient spiritual discipline – once regarded as exotic, bohemian, even threatening – has been assimilated by the American mainstream and transformed,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in “Where the Ascetic Meets the Athletic” in The New York Times.

Yoga has woven itself into the fabric of American life in myriad ways.

”Yoga, with all its props, accessories, glamour, fastidiousness, and money making potential is very American,” said Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga. Yoga businesses are expanding exponentially, and some, like Anusara and Lululemon Athletica, for example, have defied the Great Recession with their strong growth potentials. Anusara expects to double its gross revenues in the short term.

Many teachers believe yoga is as American as apple pie, not simply a commodity in the marketplace, but a discipline expanding the parameters of individual freedom.

“I think yoga is the ultimate American experience in so far as it teaches personal empowerment and the pursuit of well-being,” says Robin Gueth, a yoga therapy teacher and owner of the Stress Management Center. “The whole concept that you are in charge of how you think, move, express, and even feel is quintessentially American.”

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

Yoga in the USA is largely about two of the arms or aspects of yoga, which are asana, or exercise, which is by far the more popular of the two, and pranayama, or breath control, a necessary adjunct of exercise. “Yoga has taken on a distinctly American cast,” wrote Mimi Swartz in “The Yoga Mogul” in The New York Times.

“It has become much more about doing than being.”

The yoga that is accepted and practiced by most Americans is postural yoga.  “Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of asana,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’.It has been cleaved from its spiritual side. “For many of us, we just use it as exercise during the day, just a quick pick-me-up,” says Hanna Rosin in her article ”Striking a Pose” in the Atlantic Monthly.

On the heels of jogging, aerobics, and spinning, yoga is the new, hip exercise of our times. Even though only 16% of Americans participate in an exercise activity on any average day, according to a recent Labor Department report, yoga asana fits into the American model because the proverb health is wealth has always been proverbial in the USA. It was with good reason that Richard Hittleman’s pioneering TV show introducing yoga to the masses was titled ‘Yoga for Health’.

The practice of yoga is about crafting a union of the body, mind, and spirit. But, it has been re-invented in America as a health-enabling and stress-reducing homonym.

Its bevy of health benefits is touted in ‘Slim Calm Sexy Yoga’ by Tara Stiles, featuring “210 proven yoga moves for mind and body bliss.” Along with laughter and art therapy the Mayo Clinic serves up yoga as a tension reducing technique. Even the Westin Hotels and Resorts feature pop-up videos of yoga teachers in their web advertisements, on their mats beachside beneath sunny skies demonstrating how yoga can help us relax on our vacations.

The problem isn’t that modern yoga doesn’t measure up to classical yoga. The problem is that modern yoga elides the wheel for the spoke.

Apart from its exercise side yoga is a problematic practice in a land besotted by competition, consumerism, and nationalism. “When this country was founded we were one nation under God. Today we are one nation under money, the land of the addicted, and the home of the terrorized,” says Kenneth Toy of the Kriya Yoga Ashram. At the core of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’are discipline, dedication, and self-awareness within a structure of moral action, personal observances, exercise and breath, sense withdrawal and concentration, meditation, and union with the divine, or liberation.

The core achievements of the American enlightenment, on the other hand, are “wealth, health, comfort, and life expectancy” wrote Edwin Locke in Capitalism Magazine.

Modern times are fraught with results, and so are uneasy venues for yoga.

Our lives are measured by what we accumulate and accomplish. We are either surging forwards, making progress, or slipping backwards. On the other side of the racetrack yoga offers an alternative to the scoreboard and stock market. “Many Americans get caught up in consumerism and competition,” says Tarra Madore of Inner Light Yoga Center.

“As a society we have lost touch with the American and human core values that are more related to peace and freedom.”

The ‘Rig-Veda’ first cites yoga approximately 5000 years ago, and the classical yoga of the Yoga Sutras antedates the USA by 1500 years. The thread of them is that yoga is a practice to calm one’s mind and unite with the infinite. “We need introspection,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the founders of Yoga Journal. “We have a whole country full of restive people who are not contemplative.”

It may be that yoga is un-American. It is more likely that America is un-yogic.

“America is the Canaan of capitalism, its promised land,” wrote German economist Werner Sombart nearly a hundred years ago. Self-interest and competition are embedded in capitalism. They are the values and behaviors we all take for granted in our society and ourselves. “Uncritical faith in intense competition assumes the status of an unquestioned paradigm in America today,” wrote the political scientist Pauline Rosenau in ‘The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict,Contest, and Commerce’.

Americans enter their children in beauty pageants, their pets in breed shows, and themselves in pie eating contests. Team standings, both real and fantasy, are parsed daily.  The ups and downs of the stock market are a staple of the news. Militarism overseas is either being won or lost. American society is focused on desire and achievement. Dancing used to be a social activity. It is star-studded competitive hoofing that is growing by leaps and bounds nowadays.

Athletics were once the follow the bouncing ball footprint of the American Way. Its lessons were sportsmanship, teamwork, and discipline. Today, splashed across an alphabet soup of TV networks, as billionaire owners in skyboxes watch over their multi-millionaire performers, sport has been reduced to a win-or-else amusement, competition for the sake of riches and fame.

Businesses have always competed for the same pool of customers, but in contemporary America in the name of profit the results include the nearly universal model of concentrated animal feeding, schemes like credit default swaps, and out-sourcing, whose one and only goal is to satisfy shareholders. Diabetes and obesity have reached epidemic levels in the USA, weighing down the health care system, but sugary drink manufacturers continue to bottle their product and pay handsome dividends.

Our elected leaders have jumped on the competition bandwagon, falling off the wagon of the Founding Fathers.

The 1996 election for the White House and Congress cost a combined 2.7 billion dollars. In 2008 the same federal campaigns cost 5.3 billion dollars, making them the most expensive ever. The Adam Smith model of the invisible hand or co-operative competition has been superseded by a winner-takes-all hyper competitiveness, as though winning were the only measure of worth. Instead of statesmen the halls of power are filled with people primarily concerned with the next election and their own aggrandizement. The toll is reflected in a 2009 Gallup Poll that found members of Congress are among the least trusted professionals in America, just a nose ahead of career criminals.

“Soften and breathe into the resistance,” Nina DeChant often reminds her Core Yoga class at West Side Yoga. She does not say muscle up and kick some butt in chair pose. It is advice that reverberates throughout much of yogic thought, from exercise to ethics. Yoga in its entirety, not simply asana, is a practice whose goal is to unite the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, not simply win prizes by touching your toes.

“Yoga is un-American in that it is inherently non-capitalistic and non-competitive,” says Timothy Thompson of Monkey Yoga Shala. Competition posits an enemy, or other, against whom one is measured. It is always in some respects a fearful enterprise, Hobbesian in its underpinnings, as zero-sum sports rivalries, political campaigns, and bankruptcies attest. Even eating in America is freighted by the ruthless. Ray Kroc, the re-inventor of McDonalds, once said if he ever saw his competition drowning he would go get his hose to help make sure they did drown.

Yoga, on the other hand, does not conjure up real or imagined adversaries. It is a practice whose edge is the strength and discipline to be actively non-competitive. It prepares the man or woman for real-life challenges off the mat. There are no trophies, no finish line, and no mishandled garden hoses.

Winning may be rewarding on many levels, but it is always one-sided because there must be losers. Winning is not its own reward. If it were, losing would be unnecessary, which has never been the case. Yoga, on the other hand, eschews competition. “Yoga is a technology to elevate the human spirit above the animal nature reflected in competition,” says Larry Beck of Kundalini Yoga in the Loop.

“Simply put, the meaning of life is to rise above instincts into spiritual consciousness, which is inclusive, nurturing, and flowing.”

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but the winners are usually saying it. Yoga practice does bring out the best in people, all the people who practice it.

It is transformative exactly because it is non-competitive, reflected in the ethical concept santosha, the root of happiness, meaning contentment.

“Competition is a part of culture and society,” says Charles Secallus of Asana House. “It is a human trait and it is up to the individual to decide whether it works for them or not. Yoga is about growth and developing our own spiritual understanding of one’s self and relationship to others.”

Competition springs from desire and discontent, more for me. Santosha is a result of doing one’s best honestly and fully. While it is true all biological beings compete, yoga posits an alternate reality of a consciousness complementary to and beyond biology.

In the past sixty years America has become the consumer society par excellence. During the Battle of France in 1940 Winston Churchill made several speeches in the House of Commons. In the first he said: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

Two generations later, and a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, President Bush addressed the nation and said: “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.”

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

Consumerism is the reigning culture in America, the shop-until-you-drop wonder of the world. It is what we live and swear by, a culture of desire that seems never sated.  “From the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this,“ writes William Leach in ‘Land of Desire’.

Our consumerism is the equating of happiness with the purchase of something, something you will then possess, or be possessed of. By that standard, Americans should be the happiest people on the planet. Making up only 5% of the world’s population, they consume 23% of the world’s resources.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Mahatma Ghandi said more than sixty years ago. “If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

If that was a word of warning then, how would Ghandi react to the India of today, jumping on the bandwagon and boasting the 4thlargest GDP in the world?

The average worldwide income is approximately $7,000.00. The average American income is approximately $50,000.00.

But, the gap between the Third World and the First World is closing. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone lived the lifestyle of Americans we would need five planets to sustain all of us. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” Jimmy Carter warned in a speech to the nation in 1979.

He promptly lost the next election, ridiculed for his “despair and pessimism” by Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan.

More than 70% of America’s economy is dependent on consumer spending. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the average American is exposed to 3000 advertising messages a day, and globally corporations spend over $620 billion a year to make their products seem desirable. Consumerism is the largest of the many cultures of modern America, and material possessions are its markers of status and success. Consumerism is consumption gone wild. It seems we can never get enough of what we don’t really need to make us happy.

Consumerism as a social system conflicts with the core values of yoga, especially asteya and aparigraha, by which moderation and sustainability are observed. “A large impediment to meaningful personal and systemic transformation in the United States is the overwhelming political and economic power of large corporations and institutions that promote values of consumption,” says Amy Quinn-Suplina of Bend and Bloom Yoga.

“Yoga is one of the many movements challenging socially and environmentally destructive institutions that promote competition and consumerism.”

Since the 1990’s the most frequent reason voiced by students for going to college is profitability, the making of money.

The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the pursuit of tangible, consumable things. Even though 10 years ago 99% of American homes had a television, and almost 70% of them had three-or-more, 100 million new flat-screens have been sold since then. In a 65-year life the average American will spend 9 years watching television, and will see more than 2 million commercials. Consumption is not only the imperative of our day-to-day, it is the wallpaper to our lives.

The health of America is measured by our consumer confidence, as though patriotism is determined by how much we are willing to spend and consume. It is doubtful the Declaration of Independence had consumerism in mind when it defined America as the land of freedom and liberty.  “The highest teaching in yoga is the same: freedom,” notes Cate Stillman, an Anusara Yoga instructor.

“You are so free you can choose to bind yourself to the ignorance of your limited, conditioned behavior. But, do yoga long enough and you wake up to yourself as consciousness or awareness itself taking form, unconditioned and completely free.”

Consumerism may not be the miracle it is cracked up to be, especially the model go-getting Americans have squeezed themselves into. “Encouraged by advertisers, friends, and family, many people think more possessions, more recognition, and more power will lead to more happiness, “says Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga and a founding board member of Yoga Alliance.

“No one ever found lasting happiness that way, for the simple reason that nothing outside us can bring lasting happiness. Happiness is of the mind, not in things or circumstances.”

Consumerism’s premise is uncertain because it reads the economy backwards, mistaking the leaves of the tree for the roots. “The happiness that seems to be coming from your possessions is false, “ says Sri Swami Satchidananda. “It is reflected happiness.”

Attending to and living by the ethical precepts of asteya and aparigraha, meaning non-covetousness and non-possessiveness, means being aware and watchful about acquiring and becoming attached to things. There is no yoga gravy train because the basic propositions of the practice are contrary to the cultivation of unbounded desire.

There is more to life than having everything one can never get.

Nationalism was born out of America’s War of Independence and the French Revolution. Since the Great Depression nationalism has spread and intensified worldwide. It is many things, such as love of country, willingness to sacrifice for it, and the doctrine that one’s national culture and interests are superior to others. The problem with nationalism is not patriotism, which means devotion to a place and a way of life, but its identification with the power of the nation-state.

“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism” in ‘Polemic’. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.” Patriots love their country for what it does. Nationalists love their country no matter what it does. Nationalism makes footstools of morality and ethics because what matters are the perceived interests of the state, regardless of what they are.

Imperialism is nationalism on the move. It is extending ones rule economically, politically, or militarily upon other states. In his Farewell Address of 1796 George Washington warned against foreign entanglements and foreign wars, advice that has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. The Canadian and Mexican wars of the first half of the 19thcentury were land grabs, but with the advent of the Spanish-American War the United States had grown imperialistic, fighting wars whose purposes were conquest and colonization.

“The United States has used every available means to dominate other nations,” writes Sidney Lens in ‘The Forging of the American Empire’. Some historians believe America’s imperialism is benevolent. Niall Ferguson agrees America is an empire, but insists it is a good thing, likening America to Rome, building republican institutions and civilizing barbarians. “U. S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century,” Max Boot argues in “American Imperialism”.

Since 1945 America has intervened covertly or militarily in more than 70 countries, including the Philippines, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Grenada, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Some of these conflicts were for the purpose of extending hegemony, some to contain fascism or communism, others to secure resources, and all of them were supposed to make the world safer. The Vietnam War, or Resistance War Against America, as the Vietnamese called it, resulted in approximately 4 million Vietnamese deaths on both sides and the loss of almost 60,000 American troops.

What good came of the Vietnam War, and whether the world is safer today than it was a hundred years ago, after the loss of more than ten percent of the world’s population to warfare in the 20thcentury, is a moot point.

Conflict is inevitably a consequence of imperialism. Although all states claim to fight defensive or justifiable wars, even invoking pre-emptive strikes as justified, war never ends warfare; otherwise it would have ended with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, or maybe the defeat of the Nazis. “I just want you to know, when we talk about war, we are really talking about peace,” President Bush said after the start of the Second Gulf War Occupation.

Nationalism is the pursuit of power no matter the Orwellian spin states put on it, setting it at loggerheads with yoga. All states claim God is on their side. All nations proclaim their God is the God that rules.

Yoga, on the other hand, strives to be on the side of God.

The practices of nationalism and imperialism, projects that have defined the American Century, are practices justifying and furthering state power. They are coercive and violent, ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance we recite as children to the armies we raise as adults.

The practice of yoga is antithetical to the realpolitik of the modern state. Rather than ignore the moral and ethical, yoga’s project is based on those principles and disciplines.  All the world’s major religions from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism have had their foundations of non-violence co-opted by states.

“One of history’s greatest lessons is that whenever the state embraces a religion the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its non-violent component,” wrote Mark Kurlansky in ‘Non-Violence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a DangerousIdea’.

Although not a religion, yoga is a spiritual practice at whose core ahimsa is a living, breathing concept.  It is an imperative for practicing any or all of the eight limbs or steps of the path. Pranayama is not a tool for steadying trigger fingers. There are no St. Augustines or Ibn Taymayyahs of yoga explaining away the Sixth Commandment.  If there were, then satya, defined as truth in word and thought, would have to be thrown out the window.

In a 2005 speech at Spelman College the political activist and historian Howard Zinn characterized nationalism as one of the greatest evils of our time, useful only for those in power. The nationalist argument is built on the assertion that the economic and military supremacy of the nation takes priority over all other interests. It is for good reason the United States maintains the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and is the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons against an enemy.

The practice of yoga, on the other hand, is opposed to the nationalist agenda and the alienation of everyone on America’s Most Wanted list. “Yoga unites us not only to the core of who we are, but truly to every American,” said Michele Risa of NYC’s Beyond Body Mind Spirit. “As defined, we would in fact be embracing every person on the planet.”

Yoga is dedicated to the union of the body, mind, and spirit, both within ourselves and to others. “Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation,” wrote William Doran in “The Eight Limbs – The Core of Yoga”.

Violence does not resolve disagreements. It only leads to more violence. 

The greater evil than nationalism is the endemic violence it begets. “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics,” observed Thomas Edison. “Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Non-violence is one of the disciplines of yoga, according to the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’, as well as an obligation. It is only the undisciplined that believe every problem can be solved with violence.

“It almost seems anti-American to do any discipline,” writes Deborah Adele in “The Yamas and Niyamas”. The abstinences and observances of yoga are fundamentally rooted in ahimsa. Violence and killing are not stepping-stones on the yogic path, as they are on the highways of nationalism and imperialism. Violence is a morally confused idea, a means of getting things done that is neither a lasting solution nor an idea that God is on the side of.

“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “who is non-violent to all beings.”

Although our Founding Fathers never practiced yoga, if they had they would have gravitated to styles that suited their personalities.

George Washington would probably have practiced Ashtanga, drawn to its discipline, splitting the mat in the Warrior poses with a steady, forward gaze. John Adams might have practiced Anusara, intellectually engaged by its principles of alignment, his back foot rooted to the earth in side-angle pose and his leading arm reaching to heaven. Thomas Jefferson would have studied Kundalini, exploring and releasing energy, practicing kriyas and chanting on the portico of Monticello.

It is doubtful they would look out on the landscape of America today, over the atomization of its citizens, its celebration of presidential birthdays with sales, sales, sales, and its century-long militarism, with any sense of accomplishment. “That part of America,” says Rita Trieger of Fit Yoga Magazine, “the intolerance, the judgments, the hatred, that’s the real un-American thinking. Our forefathers would be shocked.”

As far as modern America’s values are from its foundational myths, yoga’s values may be as near to them.  

Yoga is a transformative practice of old-fashioned virtues opening the modern citizen to new thought and behavior, much like what the American Revolution accomplished for the New World.

“Perhaps the question is, are Americans being Americans?” says Denise Lapides of Divine Light Yoga. “Yoga to me is not un-American as much as Americans have become un-American. Practicing yoga, or living a yogic lifestyle, seems to me to be more in line with what was originally intended for our nation.”

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were the essentials of the American Dream. He also warned that competition and commerce often “feel no passion of principle but that of gain,“ that we should not bite at the “bait of pleasure,” and condemned war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.”

“Tail-Gunner” Joe McCarthy might not agree that yogic ideals like compassion, truthfulness, and non-violence are prototypically American, but it is likely Thomas Jefferson would. Our third president valued self-reliance, honesty, and hard work. Any American walking into a yoga studio today and rolling out a mat will discover exactly that, and find that yoga is as American as starting the day with sun salutations, followed by a plate of apple pie, and that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be breathed out and breathed in with what is right with America.

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.