Category Archives: No Matter How Thin You Slice It

Slam Dunk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not everyone agrees that competition is good for the practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

800-Pound Gorilla

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I never thought I would see an 800-pound gorilla in headstand, but then again, I never thought I would see a fleet of gold SUV’s filling up the parking lot of the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, that I sometimes practice at, either.

The car repair lot next door, where no one is supposed to park, was filled, too. I parked across the street. It was early March, but winter had been mild, either because of climate change or El Nino, and there were no snowdrifts to climb over or icy sidewalks to flat foot across.

The SUV’s were parked in a line along the front of the building. As I squeezed past the lead one I glanced inside and saw a red baseball cap on the passenger seat.

Donald Trump? I thought.

I knew the Ohio GOP primary was coming up soon, I knew it was Donald Trump’s chance to derail John Kasich, our governor still in the race, and I also knew what Marco Rubio had said about Donald Trump during the FOX News debate in Detroit a few days earlier.

“He’s very flexible,” said Marco Rubio, pointing out that Donald Trump was primed for yoga because of his cherry picking politics. I wasn’t sure I agreed with Senator Rubio. Donald Trump’s policy positions seemed more like blobs of mercury, impossible to pin down and toxic, too.

At the top of the stairs, the yoga studio being on the second floor, two burly security men in dark glasses and darker suits looked me up and down. They asked me to unroll my mat for their inspection.

“Democrat or Republican?” they asked as I was rolling up my mat again.

“Canadian,” I said, lying.

They smiled, grimly.

I stepped into the studio wondering if Canada might ever build a wall from their side of the border to keep out their scary neighbors. When did the United States become the scary neighbor?

The yoga room was packed to the gills.

I had several times attended workshops staged by celebrity teachers, one with Janet Stone and another led by Max Strom, and thought then that the room was packed to the gills. I was wrong. If it all comes down to turnout, as is often said about elections, it was “Mission Accomplished”.

Both of my favorite spots in the yoga room were overflowing. The only available spot I saw was one in front, my least favorite place to be, but beggars can’t be choosers. I set up camp next to a vacant, extra-thick, extra-long, tangerine-flecked purple mat that faced the teacher’s mat.

Where do 800-pound gorillas practice yoga?

Anywhere they want to.

Donald Trump was in the center of the room. He wore a gold Speedo and nothing else, not even a headband. He was surrounded by a crowd and speaking, waving his arms as he spoke.

“I was always a good athlete,” he said. “I was always the captain of my teams. Staying in shape is very important. If you’re physically happy and healthy, it’s a lot easier to keep a relationship going. Taking care of your body is a great thing for love.

“Don’t even think about Marco Rubio saying my hands are small, and if they’re small something else must be small. My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.” He pointed to the front of his Speedo. “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

Some of the women in the crowd being regaled by Donald Trump lifted their eyes from his gold Speedo, gathered up their mats, and left the yoga room. One of them stopped and asked the teacher, “What is that?”

“That’s Donald Trump, the Republican running for president.”

“I know,” she said. “Did you lose a bet?”

“Of course not. This is part of our yoga on and off the mat program.”

“This is the same man who said women were dogs, slobs, fat pigs, and disgusting animals, right?”

“It’s all yoga,” said the teacher, looking increasingly uncomfortable.

“Blah,” said the woman, slipping out the door.

Since the yoga room was less crowded at the start of class than it had been beforehand, everyone rearranged their mats. The teacher cued her iPod and class began.

“Before we start,” said the teacher, “I’d like to welcome Donald Trump to our studio and say that I really believe in the essential goodness of Republicans.”

“Wait a minute, not all goodness,” exclaimed Donald Trump, jumping up out of Easy Pose. “There’s Lying Ted, he’s an unstable person. His whole deal is he will lie. He will lie and after the lie takes place he will apologize. Little Marco, he’s always hiding his palm sweat. Once a choker always a choker. Kasich, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a baby. He can’t be president.”

My mat was next to Donald Trump’s, giving me an up-from-your-bootstraps view of the man as he stood straddling his mat. He was tall, over six foot, and big, well over 200 pounds. He had large feet, size 12 or 13. It was clear he had recently gotten a pedicure.

As he sat back down I heard muttering behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw another dozen-or-so people leaving the yoga room. “Mitt Romney was right when he talked about your bullying and absurd third grade theatrics,” said a middle-aged man, pausing as he passed by.

“Get him out of here,” said Donald Trump, tilting his chin up to one of his security men. “They’re always sticking a certain finger up in the air. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to protestors like that when they got out of line. They’d be carried away on a stretcher, folks.”

There was a low moan from the back and a few more people walked out. The yoga room had gone half empty and class hadn’t even actually started. Our teacher, looking out at what had been a multitude just minutes earlier, hurriedly got us on our feet for sun salutations, a traditional warm-up.

We were midway through our second sequence of sun salutations when Donald Trump jumped out of down dog to the front of his mat, but instead of staying in the sequence he stood upright and began flapping his arms.

“What language is that?” he demanded to know.

The teacher had been speaking partly in Sanskrit, the classical Indian language used in yoga to define poses.

“Is that Mexican? That’s bad. When Mexico sends people, they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. I will build a great wall. Nobody builds walls better than me. I’ll make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“Oh, man, that’s all I can take.” It was a voice I recognized, although I hadn’t seen her in the room. When Lola stormed to the front I was sure there was going to be a confrontation. She grew up in a Polish-American neighborhood on Cleveland’s south side and taught high school in Lorain, a nearby rust belt town. Many of her students were either first or second-generation immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America.

“It’s scary to actually think about what you in office would mean for equality,” she said, standing high on her toes to get up into his suntanned face. Although, when I looked closely, it looked like he was using a self-tanner. The color was orangey.

“The truth is that all men having power ought to be mistrusted,” said James Madison.

“Nobody’s done so much for equality as I have,” said Donald Trump. “When it comes to my $100,000.00 membership club, Mar-a-Lago in Florida, it’s totally open to everybody. I set a new standard in Palm Beach.”

“Yikes,” she said and stormed out, followed by what was now a throng.

“How did she get that close to me?” asked Donald Trump, glaring at his security men. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

He turned to face what was left of the class. “We need strong borders. We need a wall. I’m the king of building buildings, the king of building walls. Nobody can build them like Donald Trump.” He was starting to slip into the third person, as though there were two of him. “I’m opposed to new people coming in. We need Predator drones.”

By this time there weren’t many darker-skinned people of any kind left in the room, only a handful of women, and no one who practiced yoga for more than the exercise. Most of the remainder, scattered in the corners and shadows, were either younger men or older men. They began chanting, but not OM, the chant most commonly heard in yoga classes.

“USA! USA! USA!”

“We’re going make our country rich again,” Donald Trump shouted over the din. “We’re going make our country great again and we need the rich in order to make the great.”

“USA! USA! USA!”

“It’s better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep,” he shouted, even louder. “I know who said it, Mussolini, OK. But what difference does it make?”

“USA! USA! USA!”

The teacher tried to regain control of the class, but it was too late, in more ways than one. If yoga is about focus, the focus of everyone left in the room was elsewhere. All eyes were on Donald Trump. He whirled on the teacher.

“You’re fired, done,” said the King of Skull Island. “What a moron, lightweight.”

He gathered up his mat and unfurled it where the teacher’s had been, perpendicular to the class.

“I promise you I’m much smarter than her. I focus exclusively on the present. I’m speaking with myself,” said Donald Trump.

“I’m the super genius of all time. I was a great student. I was good at everything. We need a president with tremendous intelligence, smarts, and cunning. My whole life is about winning. I don’t like losers. Everybody loves me. The haters and losers refuse to acknowledge it, but I do not wear a wig. My hair may not be perfect, but it’s mine.

“It’s all about living your words, walking your talk, and talking your walk.”

Our yoga class was almost over. Since he had flipped the GOP head over heels this campaign season, Donald Trump said we were going to finish by doing an inversion. He spun his hair into a bun and to my astonishment lifted up into a pinpoint headstand, his new updo making a comfy cushion.

Most people who practice headstand hold the pose for about a minute. If they stick with it and get seasoned, some hold headstand for up to five minutes. Donald Trump’s eyes were open and his gaze straight ahead. His legs were parallel and butt tucked in.

Five minutes later everyone had rolled up their mats and left the room. Donald Trump was still in headstand. His security men stared out the windows. Ten minutes later the yoga receptionist cracked open the door and peeked in.

“Mr. Trump, I don’t mean to interrupt,” she said. “Our next class is scheduled, we’re running late, and everyone’s waiting out here in the lobby.”

“That’s so inappropriate,” he said. “You’re a flunkie, treating me very badly.”

She closed the door softly behind her.

I lay on my mat in corpse pose. I could hear Donald Trump’s breathing next to me, slow and steady. When I was finished I rolled my mat up, nodded to the bored-looking security men, and left the yoga room. Everyone’s eyes fell on me as I stepped into the lobby.

“Is he still in there?” someone asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“When is he going to be done?”

If there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, when is yoga class over?

When the 800-pound gorilla says so.

Hooray for the Home Team

MCC Yoga

I was excited when I got an e-mail from Inner Bliss on June 3rd, the day before the start of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Inner Bliss is one of Cleveland’s premier yoga studios.

“In honor of our CAVS, celebrate the beginning of the NBA Finals at Inner Bliss all day Thursday! Tomorrow, June 4th wear your CLE Cavaliers gear to any class, all day long and get $5 off your class tomorrow!

Show up and show our team that we’re #ALLinCLE.”

Who wouldn’t want to honor the hometown team? And celebrate, too, obviously, although I wondered if that would be appropriate if the Cavaliers lost the series, which seemed likely since the Las Vegas line was all on the side of the Warriors.

After the first game was said and done the smart money line seemed to be as straight as a Stephen Curry free throw: all net.

The pictures illustrating the Inner Bliss e-mail were galvanizing: a dramatic black-and-white shot of the hometown team taken from behind as they faced a sea of fans. The second shot was of a sea of yogis on their mats on the hardwood floor of Quicken Loans Arena meditating, some with their hands in prayer at their hearts. (Inner Bliss is part of a group that sponsors large citywide yoga events at places like the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Quicken Loans Arena.) The third shot was of the team’s furry mascot in a kind of lunge, like Warrior Pose, with his biceps flexed in classic muscleman style.

The last image was the corporate logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The difference between Las Vegas and modern yoga is that Las Vegas is more yogic about professional sports than yoga is. The only bandwagon Las Vegas ever jumps on is the one going down the yellow brick road. It doesn’t matter whose corporate sports logo is on the side of the wagon. There are no hometown favorites in Sin City.

At the bottom of the Inner Bliss e-mail it said: LET’S GET FRIENDLY!

But, what to wear to class on June 4th to get my $5.00 discount? I didn’t own any branded athletic gear of any kind, not even Cavalier gear, despite their rumble through the Eastern Conference play-offs. I looked up Cleveland’s NBA store, which was at the Team Shop in Quicken Loans Arena, and drove downtown to buy some gear.

Parking was $15.00, but I thought, it’s the CAVS!

I almost bought the J. R. Smith Adidas Replica Road Jersey, because J. R. has been my favorite player all year, impersonating Ray Allen from behind the 3-point line game after game and a professional basketball player most of the time the rest of the time, and besides, his sleeveless replica was only $69.95.

In the end, though, I bought the King’s jersey, the man who for all intensive purposes had single-handedly both willed and freight-trained his team into the NBA Finals. The LeBron James Adidas Gold Jersey was still in stock at $109.95, so I snapped it up before anyone else could get to the loose ball.

On my way home, since it was a fine, sunny afternoon, I took the old Shoreway, which winds west along the coast of Lake Erie, rather than the interstate. I began to question whether wearing a replica jersey was enough in terms of showing up and showing my hometown team that I was #ALLinCLE.

I should go to the games, I thought.

One of Inner Bliss’s stock-in-trade posts the past few years have been yogi blurbs titled: WHY I SHOW UP.

Sitting on the sidelines, as they say in yoga class, isn’t going to make you stand up true and straight. You need to show up. It’s all about heart. That’s what basketball players do when they make the big shot: thump their chests.

The first two games of the NBA Finals were scheduled in Oakland, the next two in Cleveland, and the series alternated after that until one team or the other finally won four games and snatched the brass ring.

When I got home I started searching for tickets.

At first I was mildly shocked. The worst seats at Quicken Loans Arena, in the nosebleed section, started at more than $400.00. Seats in the lower bowl were in the vicinity of $1,500.00. When I spotted what courtside floor seats cost I was seriously shocked: $60,000.00.

It wasn’t a brass ring the two professional basketball teams were grabbing for. It was a solid gold ring, encrusted with rare gems, and fashioned by the hand of God.

I would have to sell our house to buy two courtside seats, for my wife and myself, for the first two home games. I tried not to think about what popcorn and Big Gulp sodas might cost us.

Hopefully, the Warriors would sweep the Cavaliers in four and there wouldn’t be anymore home games. If there were I would go bankrupt trying to show up.

Mysore, India, is one of the birthplaces of yoga. It is where Krishnamacharya taught in the 1930s, B. K. S. Iyengar honed his craft, and where the K. Pattabbi Jois Yoga Institute is to this day.

If my wife and I moved to Mysore a two-bedroom apartment in a better neighborhood, with a full kitchen, WIFI, and daily maid service, and including utilities, would cost about $600.00 a month. Eating out in Mysore costs between $1.00 – $2.00 for breakfast or lunch and $2.00 – $4.00 for dinner. My wife doesn’t practice yoga, but if I took a daily class at a local non-famous studio it would cost $100.00 – $150.00 a month.

In other words, for the cost of two lower bowl tickets at two NBA Finals games at Quicken Loans Arena my wife and I could live well, and I could practice yoga every day at a studio in Mysore, for about six months. For the cost of two courtside tickets for two games we could stay there for about twenty years.

Since my wife is not interested in professional sports we finally decided against showing up at #ALLinCLE and the NBA Finals, and also decided that, although Mysore sounded good, especially the daily maid service, we would stay in Lakewood, on the west side of Cleveland, for now.

I gave my King jersey away to my 18-year-old nephew, who doesn’t know about yoga, but does know the world about professional basketball.

I didn’t go to Inner Bliss’s CAVS! Gear Yoga Day the day of the start of the NBA Finals. There was something that bothered me about rooting for one or the other team. I’ve read that players on both teams practice yoga as part of their fitness regimen and thought it best to just wish both of them well.

Instead, I practiced on my mat at home, and the next evening on Friday my wife and I went to the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom and heard Jai Uttal’s kirtan band spin long jazzy sing-along chants. Quicken Loans Arena, less than a mile away, seats 20,562 fans, which are about 20,412 more people than were at the Jai Uttal show.

On Sunday night, while the Warriors and Cavaliers battled it out at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, we had dinner at Ty Fun, a small Thai food restaurant in Tremont, a grungy but gentrified Cleveland neighborhood across the industrial valley from downtown.

My home practice doesn’t cost me anything, tickets for Jai Uttal were $30.00, and the fat noodle and tofu entrees at Ty Fun are $12.50. The bottled lager beer from Thailand was $4.50. All in all our weekend cost less than a jumbo box of popcorn and a couple of Big Gulps at Quicken Loans Arena.

We ate on the small outdoor patio at Ty Fun and all dinner long we could hear the groans and whoops of Cleveland sports fans watching the second game of the Finals unfolding down the yellow brick road on the flat screens at the Flying Monkey Pub next door.

Somebody was winning and somebody was losing. We just couldn’t tell who.

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA! The next morning, watching the highlights of the game on nba.com, I found out that the last roar of the night was a groan in Oakland and a whoop in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers edged the Warriors in their record-setting second straight overtime game of the series. That’s what world championships are made of: heart-breakers.

Sri Satchidananda of Integral Yoga once said, “Losses are always great eye openers.” Maybe there is something yogic about pro ball, after all.

Meditation on the Make

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When did the ancient practice of meditation become the hot topic tool in the toolbox of stress reduction and weight loss, a push-up for the brain, and the credit card of getting ahead in the world?

When did it morph from keeping the mind fixed on the self in order to unite with the divine to a way of improving scores in schools, as was recently reported by the journal Health Psychology?

When did meditation veer from a practice meant to quiet the mind of the world’s noise in order to attain enlightenment to a means of mitigating the common cold, so demonstrated in a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

It probably happened the minute Vivekenanda began his speech “Sisters and brothers of America…” on the main stage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. A key figure in bringing yoga to America, and the man who helped catapult Hinduism to the status of a major world religion, Vivekenanda assumed Americans were intensely religious.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even though more than 80% of Americans, even today, describe themselves as being religious or very religious, spiritual or very spiritual, the American soul is not found in any church. It is found in the American workplace because the American character is bound up with materiality and wealth.

Alexis de Tocqueville had it right when he wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more practical than theoretical.

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

The last of America’s three Great Awakenings, religious revivals characterized by sharp increases of interest in religion, was over by the time Vivekenanda arrived in the United States. There was no fourth awakening after he returned to India in 1899, nor have there been any more to the present day.

Vivekenanda was considered an expert in meditation, what is called a dhyana-siddha. Introducing meditation to the West he defined it as a bridge connecting the soul to God.

“When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point.”

Both of his approaches to meditation, whether the practical approach through yoga or the philosophic approach through Vedanta, had the same objective, which was illumination through the realization of what he called the Supreme, more commonly known as God.

One hundred years later God has been marginalized, if not swept into the dustbin of history, by the emerging culture of the United States and meditation has been re-defined as mindfulness meditation. The difference is that in the 21st century, unlike all other centuries, no one has to sit quietly in lotus position for hours.

All they have to do is train the brain to be mindful and mindfulness then becomes a state of mind.

In the past mindfulness was known as awareness. Today it’s called focus, as in sharpening your focus. It used to be if you were paying attention to what you were doing you were being mindful. Now you need to meditate in order to learn how to be engrossed in what’s going on.

Or, in modern parlance, it teaches you to live fully in the moment.

A new set of meditation benefits have been formulated, implicitly guaranteed to make everyone happier and healthier. The benefits include: better memory; performing at a high level; losing weight; lowering stress; boosting immunity; improving decision-making; and coping with anxiety and depression, among others.

Some studies claim it speeds recovery from heart disease and psoriasis.

Vivekenanda would probably be astonished at how widely meditation has spread in the past one hundred and twenty years since his groundbreaking appearance in Chicago. It is no longer just the pursuit of quiet yogis seeking a spiritual breakthrough.

Dan Harris, ABC newsman and co-anchor of Nightline, who after self-medicating with cocaine and Ecstasy and crash landing on Good Morning America, turned to meditation as an alternative.

“When I say meditation, I’m talking about mindfulness meditation. It’s completely secular,” he explained.

“It’s like doing neurosurgery on yourself,” he added.

The Marine Corps has begun teaching its troops how to be even tougher on the battlefield by teaching them mindfulness meditation. The military’s pilot program began at Camp Pendleton in 2013 and is being duplicated at other bases.

“It’s like doing pushups for the brain,” said one enthusiastic general.

“Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice,” said Jay Michaelson, author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.

“But, samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers,” he pointed out.

On Wall Street stock market traders and bond managers have taken up the mantle. Hedge-fund manager David Ford credits his newfound serenity and recently bulging wallet to the twenty minutes he spends every morning meditating.

“I react to volatile markets much more calmly now,” he said. “I have more patience.”

Another hedge-fund manager, Paul Dalio of Bridewater Associates, who is worth $14 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, claims meditation has been the biggest factor in his success.

Even congressmen have gotten on the meditation bandwagon.

Congressional job approval in December 2014 stood at 15%, close to that year’s record-low of 14%, according to the Gallup Poll. The 86% disapproval rate in 2014 was the worst ever measured in more than 30 years of tracking the rating. And that was a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”

Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, once pointed out that 90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name. He did not say who the 10% were.

Nevertheless, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan recently published A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. In it he touted the perks of mindfulness, pointing out improved school test scores and workplace job output.

As far and near as meditation has spread, it’s newfound fame is not limited to U. S. Marines and the wolves of Wall Street. Even Mob assassins, at least the noir crime novel kind, are taking advantage of mindfulness meditation, although not in the sense of overcoming delusion in pursuit of enlightenment, but more in the sense of overcoming delusion to make sure their aim is true.

In Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall the implacable hit man aptly known as Hush has a reputation of always getting his man, to the point that when you know he’s after you the only thing left for you to do is get your affairs in order. He practices zazen, a form of meditation at the heart of Zen, in order to stay at the top of his game.

Commanding a five-figure fee the assassin meditates to make a killing.

The rub about meditation is that there are moral principles embedded in it. Some teachers are concerned that those moral principles are being ignored.

“You can train people with meditation to be sharpshooters,” said Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center in Santé Fe, New Mexico. “Are they trying to get smarter so they can exploit more people?”

Meditation is elastic in the sense that it has been practiced for millennia and there are many forms of it. The classic sense of it is the Buddhist notion that everything is impermanent and all anyone has is the here and now.

The modern brain hacking or on the make sense of it is that it imparts an edge to the practitioner. As Paul Dalio, the $14 billion dollar man, explained in a February 2014 panel discussion on meditation: “It makes me feel like a ninja in a fight.”

Vivekenanda may have thought he knew what he was doing in 1893, but he might have been better served reading Tocqueville first, getting ready for the U. S. Marines and Paul Dalio’s of the New World.

Mad Dogs and Hot Yogis

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After 30 years of flying under the Western radar, yoga exercise began to steamroll in the early 2000s, and in recent years has skyrocketed in popularity. According to many surveys it was the biggest trend in the fitness industry in the past decade, remaining a firm Top 10 in 2013, and will continue expanding through 2014, says the American College of Sports Medicine in its year-end issue of the Health and Fitness Journal.

Media Market Research reports that yoga is gaining converts at a faster pace than most other traditional sports, appealing to a new, high-end demographic. The yoga industry is growing so fast it is expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016, according to Rebecca Moss of the Village Voice.

Hot yoga, a subset of the practice, has grown slowly but surely since its introduction on the west coast in the mid-1970s. Although yoga exercise is designed to warm the body from within, in the modern convenience society it has been found expedient to warm the body from without.

It was once thought only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, meaning that natives of India were often puzzled during the age of empire when their British overlords were out at lunchtime when everyone else was indoors getting away from the heat. That is no longer the case. Hot power yoga and Bikram Yoga may today be the fastest-growing segments of the business, having spread far and wide beyond their LA coastal cool beginnings.

The hot yoga phenomenon began with Bikram Choudhury, the winner of the National India Yoga contest at age 13. He suffered a serious knee injury at age 17 and was told by doctors he would never walk again. He was subsequently healed through intense yoga therapy under the aegis of Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Yogananda, author of the seminal Autobiography of a Yogi.

After leaving his native land and immigrating to the United States he opened the Bikram Yoga College of India in the basement of a bank building in Beverly Hills.

Bikram Yoga claims that tens of millions practice his style of yoga at nearly a thousand studios on six continents. It is the only copyrighted form of yoga, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index in excess of 120. (The 10-year-old copyright has been brought into question by the U. S. Copyright Office, which recently said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.)

The risk factor of a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to be “very high to extreme.” A common reaction to one’s first Bikram class is, “Man, this might be a mistake – I don’t think I’m going to make it.” Bikram Choudhury has been known to refer to his hot rooms as ‘torture chambers’.

Bikram has reportedly taught his yoga to George Clooney, Kobe Bryant, and Lady Gaga, among others. He typically wears a black Speedo and special gold jewelry that won’t melt in the heat while teaching. He contends his regimen of 26 poses cures everything from arthritis to heart disease to obesity, and maybe even old age itself. The 67-year-old yoga master recently took time out from his busy schedule for a photo opportunity featuring Las Vegas showgirls.

“I live in a pain-free body thanks to Bikram,” said Stacy Shea, a long-time Las Vegas Strip dancer who suffered a work-related crippling herniated disc and was confined to a sick bed before taking up Bikram Yoga. “And I look 10 years younger!”

Hot yoga has become a staple at most studios in recent years, so much so that seemingly any yoga exercise practiced in a room with a working thermostat has become a hell of a workout. Based on the Ashtanga tradition, although usually not referencing any specific style or school, hot yoga typically involves moving from pose to pose in tandem with breathwork.

Moksha Yoga and Baptiste Power Yoga are among the better-known brands. The eponymous Baron Baptiste holds yoga retreats that he describes as ‘boot camps’. Ana Forrest of Forrest Yoga weaves sweat lodges into what she calls her yoga ceremonies. Some hot yoga studios cite enhanced self-control and determination “due to the challenging environment.”

Hot yoga rooms are commonly heated in the 90s, Bikram rooms in the 100s, and advocates point to increased flexibility, toxin flushing, and a great cardiovascular workout as benefits of the practice.

Heat is said to soften muscle tissue, making it able to stretch and open. “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.” Warmer room temperatures allow for deeper stretching and more graceful body movement, according to Anne Janku, a fitness and yoga instructor in Columbia, Missouri.

“It helps to heat the body up more so it becomes more fluid, and then when we get into the stretching part of it, it allows us to relax our muscles more,” she said.

But, heating the body up is not exactly what the body wants, and brings with it certain consequences. “When you exercise, your muscles generate heat,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. “To keep from burning up, your body needs to get rid of that heat. The main way the body discards heat is through sweat. Lots of sweating reduces the body’s water level, and this loss of fluid affects normal bodily functions.”

Heat and humidity can add up to danger, even for those in good shape. The hazards of exercising in hot rooms include heat cramps, the most common consequence; heat syncope, or a quick drop in blood pressure; heat exhaustion, leading to dizziness and weakness; and in extreme cases heatstroke.

The best way to avoid these dangers is to drink plenty-and-more fluids with electrolytes, balancing out the water and salt lost through sweat. Many Bikram Yoga studios recommend drinking LOTS! of water, up to a gallon the day of class, followed by even more after class.

The intensity of hot yoga burns more calories than any other yoga practice, according to practitioners, some claiming upwards of 1000 calories per hour. Significant weight loss is often cited as a benefit. “Hot yoga is the most invigorating yoga I have experienced,” says Jillian Zacchia, a dancer and writer based in Montreal “After the 90-minute routine I feel as if I have just experienced an intense fat-burning workout.”

Bikram Yoga offers up testimonials of metabolisms made new and hundreds of pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the mantra.

However, according to the Health Status calorie counter, hot power yoga burns 594 calories an hour, followed by Bikram Yoga at 477 calories an hour. By contrast, ballroom dancing burns approximately 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns approximately 1000 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”

Sweat is not always a precise gauge of how effective a workout is.

Proponents of hot yoga argue that working harder in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart because of the heart being challenged to get oxygen to the stressed cells of the body.

“You know that awesome feeling of accomplishment you get after a great cardio workout? It feels like that,” said yoga instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine Elite Trainer Michelle Carlson, “only more centered and grounded. It’s a feeling close to elation.”

Many believe it works every part of the body, including muscles, joints, glands, and even internal organs. “It is scientifically designed to warm, stretch, strengthen, and detoxify the body from the inside out,” said Erin Cook, owner of Bikram Yoga in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. She added that the rewards include better sleep, more energy, and less stress.

But, not everyone agrees that it is the best of all possible workouts. “You may think it’s purifying and cleansing, but you have to respect the physiology of the body,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” he said, speaking about the extreme heat associated with hot yoga. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperature can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”

Some enthusiasts disagree. “Bikram started hot yoga here in the United States because in Bengal it is typically 114 degrees in the shade,” said Nicole Garbani-Twitchell, owner of Hot Yoga in Helena, Montana. “It is silly and just plain scientifically incorrect to say that practicing in a hot room overheats the external body.”

But, in India yoga was and is traditionally practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.

Multiple studies have shown that exercising in a hot room compromises the release and uptake of calcium as well as normal muscle function, and decreases blood and plasma volume. “The body uses more muscle glycogen and fewer ingested carbohydrates during exercise in a hearted environment compared to a cooler environment,” said Shy Sayar, owner of Yoga One in Petaluma, California. Heat stress reduces the oxidation of carbohydrates, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Yoga exercise and heat increase core body temperatures. To cool itself the body circulates more blood through the skin. “This leaves less blood for your muscles” says the Mayo Clinic, which in turn increases the heart rate. “If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.”

For every degree your body’s internal temperature goes up your heart beats about 10 beats per minute faster. Many hot yoga proponents believe that exercising in the heat burns more calories because their hearts are beating faster as they exercise. However, it is not true. “It is oxygen uptake that determines the number of calories burned, not heart rate,” says Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Many doctors and fitness experts believe a brisk walk or bicycle ride are best for anyone wanting to burn calories. The next best are interval training and strength training. Going from flab-to-fab is about burning more calories than you take in, not sweating more to cool the burn in the hot room.

Bikram Yoga proclaims itself as the detox practice extraordinaire since it induces profuse sweating. It says, “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification is often the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”

Writing in the Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported, “the intense heat has an extraordinary ability to open the pores and expel body waste and foreign chemicals through heat.” Some believe that the skin is a ‘third kidney’, with overall waste removal capacity.

“That’s silliness,” says Crandall of the Thermoregulation Laboratory. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.“ Sweating is a way for the body to cool itself off, not purge itself of impurities. It is the liver and kidneys that filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.

A persistent problem linked to exercising in hot rooms is potential damage to connective tissue, especially ligaments and tendons, and including muscles. “Heat increases one’s metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more, but once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 or 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle,” said Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

Sore or arthritic joints, like the back, hips, and knees, can be aggravated if torqued too much in even easy poses. Seated poses can inflame sciatica. More is not always better when it comes to joints.  Those with more mobility are often in the same boat as those with limited mobility, teetering on their own private edge of flexibility, which can lead to inflammation.

“The heat makes people feel as if they can stretch deeper into poses and can give them a false sense of flexibility,” said Diana Zotos, a yoga teacher and physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. “This can lead to muscle strains or damage to the joint, including ligaments and cartigage.”

A collateral concern about hot yoga is the amount of energy it consumes to heat up space for the practice. It is a carbon heavy business, especially if the studio has windows, since windows are what heat most readily leaks through. A busy Bikram Yoga studio will be heated to 105 degrees 4 – 8 hours a day. It requires 9800 BTU’s (British Thermal Units) to heat a 1000 square-foot space with 8-foot ceilings to 68 degrees. It requires 15,200 BTU’s to heat the same space to 105 degrees, not counting the energy needed to humidify it if it is a Bikram Yoga class.

In addition, water conservation gets thrown out the window. Everyone who takes a hot yoga class hopefully showers afterwards, either at the studio or at home, if only for the sake of their friends and family. A hot yoga studio can easily service 100-and-more yogis a day. One hundred people showering for 5 to 10 minutes means 3 – 5000 gallons of water are used. Fortunately for the sake of energy savings, given what they have been through, some elect to take cold showers.

If classic yoga is like driving a Prius, hot yoga is like driving a Hummer, although in the spirit of combating climate change some yogis bicycle to their hot yoga classes.

Whatever the case may be, whether it’s a practice for mad dogs or a practice for everyone from professional athletes to weekend warriors, the guiding principle behind hot yoga may not be anything Patanjali ever said, who defined yoga exercise as a “steady and comfortable posture or position”. It might have much more to do with what the Courts of England often said in the medieval era to resolve competing claims: caveat emptor.