Category Archives: Rocket Science

Hand On the Plow

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By Ed Staskus

“Keep your hand on the plow, hold on, hold on.” Mahalia Jackson

Yoga is one of those things in this world that’s between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, except that somebody is always trying to make it into something. Although it’s true God made everything out of nothing, it’s also true the Big Bang will one day become the Big Crunch, when everything will collapse into a final singularity of nothing.

Hold on, it’s going to be a wild ride.

There’s a lot to like about the practice. There always has been. There will probably be a lot to like about it for a long time to come. It’s a practice with a get it done now point-of-view and a going going gone view of things, too. It is practical and spiritual, hands on about what is right in front of you, and tuned in to the bigger picture at the same time. It is getting physical and metaphysical, all on one plate, without blinking an eye.

There’s a boatload of tradition to it, but it isn’t necessary to know everything about it to practice it. Teachings and teachers are a big help, but past the point of breathing and meditation and concentration and staying on the good side of the Golden Rule, it is a practice accessible to everyone because it is within everyone.

Everybody knows it’s better to be considerate rather than merciless, generous rather than greedy, rock steady rather than raging. It’s only the wise guys, our politicos machine gunners bankers power brokers movers and shakers and parade makers, who don’t have the wisdom to see past their noses.

One of the reasons they are horse blinkered is because their noses have grown so long they can’t see around them anymore. It ain’t the yellow brick road anymore when it leads to Orange Julius in the Oval Office.

The practice of yoga doesn’t demand you sign on the dotted line. It doesn’t squeeze you into any forgone conclusions. It doesn’t ask for your loyalty. What you get out of it is what you put into it, not the other way around. There’s no Church of Yoga or Chamber of Commerce of Yoga or Supreme Court of Yoga. It’s a way of life anyone can practice in their backyard, at work, and out in the wide blue yonder.

It is lucid able-bodied eye-opening. It is living and breathing with your heart in the right place. What’s not to like?

The fly in the ointment is asana practice. If the other seven limbs of the eight limbs of yoga make all the sense in the world, why does what passes as yoga on the mat pass itself off as the by the book way to work out in order to sustain health and fitness so that our minds spirit energies stay strong and on track?

There’s always something sketchy about orthodoxy.

When did you start needing a fitness membership at a yoga studio in order to practice yoga?  Why are there so many yoga classes at Planet Fitness Gold’s Gym Anytime Fitness? Does anybody just make it up at home for themselves anymore, or not?

Where did the idea come from that performing an ordained sequence of physical postures will get you closer to equilibrium? It’s as though your doctor wrote you a prescription for the up dog side angle touch your toes pill as a catch-all remedy for what ails you.

Why does Yoga Journal spit out articles like ’38 Health Benefits of Yoga’ month after month?

If not a cure-all, yoga is often touted as the Swiss Army knife of fitness.

The idea behind today’s yoga exercise sequences seems to be that what makes “a true yogic practice unique is that its focus is on sustained feeling of freedom and wholeness,” according to Alanna Kaivalya, author of “Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition”.

In step with that definition, however, anybody with a million dollars in the bank is having a true yogic experience, because that much money in the bank is a no-brainer for feeling free and whole, no matter how you got the greenbacks or what you plan on doing with them.

The only problem with having a million dollars is that there are always a million guys trying to take it away from you. That’s where aparigraha comes in handy. It is one of the ten yamas and niyamas, the guidelines of the practice. It basically translates to non-greed, non-possessiveness, and invokes the frugal gene.

Since the rich are always complaining that being rich is harder than it looks, yoga might be a big help for them.

Yoga is like an old-time religion, even though it isn’t a religious practice. It is old-school. It’s got it’s hand on the gospel plow. But most of what is known as yoga today is largely about being led through a workout on a mat, with an emphasis on paying attention to your breath, and maybe a dollop of meditation to round things out. There’s no magic to it, but there is a healthy dose of hocus pocus involved.

For a long time, as yoga was booming in the modern world, the third limb of the practice was extolled for its timelessness. It was said the postures were thousands of years old. They had been burnished honed systematized to perfection. When Mark Singleton wrote “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” several years ago the genie was out of the bottle. It turns out almost everything being done on yoga mats had been invented in the past one hundred years-or-so.

A hundred years ago what is today taught and practiced on yoga mats far and wide was something else. It was Danish calisthenics British Army exercises YMCA strength work and Indian wrestling. It was a little bit of everything.

The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” – written about six hundred years ago – enumerates fifteen physical postures. That’s all of them. Fifteen. The legendary text “Yoga Korunta” that Krishnamacharya and K. Pattabhi Jois based the Ashtanga Series on remains to this day legendary. In other words, undiscovered, unhistorical, and unverifiable, largely because ants supposedly ate the text. It was written on banana leaves.

Practicing the series, which is hard in the doing and fulfilling in the accomplishment, may land you on cloud nine, but the origin of the series is pie in the sky.

One of the only yoga sutras mentioning anything about asana practice simply says one of the most important aspects of it is that it should entail “appropriate effort.” There isn’t anything in any traditional yogic text that says headstand or handstand or standing in tree pose for five minutes is what you need to do to get fit.

All you need to do is show some gumption.

“Yoga practice is supposed to make us structurally stable, enable us to move with grace and ease, free us from physical suffering and enable us to withstand changing circumstances,” wrote Olga Kabel in ‘Traditional Goals of Asana Practice’.

Yoga exercise is part of the package, not the whole package, as it has been    misconstrued while being repackaged as a fitness regimen, another get fit quick commodity in the long line from Nautilus to jazzercise to spinning. It isn’t even clear that yoga is best for stability, best for enabling us to move with grace and ease, and best for alleviating suffering.

It is beyond doubt best for helping us adapt and deal with change, but that isn’t because of the exercise, but because of the rest of it. Yoga is 90% mental and the other half is physical.

“Traditionally, the practice of asana was always considered as an integral part of a holistic practice, never as an isolated fitness system,” said Gary Kraftstow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute.

When it becomes a fitness system is when it starts selling monthly memberships.

“Many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise,” said David Surrenda, founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University.

“The result of an emphasis on exercise misinterprets what the real intention of yoga practice is. Yes, one can increase muscle mass and decrease waist size, but that’s not the real goal. Much of the yoga practiced today has actually become the antithesis of yoga as it is meant to be.”

Yoga might be whatever you want it to be in its post-modern guise. Whatever it was meant to be way back when is neither here nor now. Maybe that’s the beauty of the practice, shape-shifting to suit our intentions. You’ve got to stay on your toes to stay in the present, be in the moment, which is an integral part of the practice.

Nevertheless, even though lunges and twists and jump backs on the mat are good for you, so are riding a bike and lifting weights. In fact, yoga doesn’t even crack Harvard Medical School’s Top 5, which are walking, swimming, strength training, Tai chi, and kegel. The best fitness exercises are still basic hip and hamstring stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, dumbbell rows and presses, and burpees.

As part of an overall fitness regimen, yoga exercise is by all accounts a Top 10. Everyone does push-ups and sit-ups on the mat without even realizing it. The burpee is a foundation of all vinyasa sequences. When it comes to flexibility, yoga is certainly Number 1 on the Hit Parade. Sometimes people say they aren’t flexible enough to do yoga, but that’s like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.

Getting all the poses on the mat right is keeping your eye on the wrong prize.

Anyone who subscribes to the eight aspects of the practice is doing yoga, but no one who just does stuff on the mat is doing yoga. They are doing something, but it’s like soda pop to a scotch straight up. They are fooling themselves when they believe the bright shining proposition that they are achieving some greater good by doing what they’re told to do on the mat. Anyone will get fit if they spend enough time at a yoga studio, but they will get fit if they spend enough time walking around in circles, too.

Yoga is about mastering the modifications of your mind, not just the modifications of your body. When exercise is the be-all and end-all, it is a good thing in and of itself, but it’s not yoga. When exercise is linked to the breath, the breath to the mind, the mind to the spirit, in a kind of virtuous circle, it’s yoga whether you’re in a studio or walking the dog in the park.

Like K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Just do.”

Hatha yoga is what leads to physical health mental clarity and a cool as a cucumber spirit. When practiced alongside the yamas amd niyamas, the ten principles of daily life, it’s the second to none way of transforming yourself from the outside in and the inside out. There’s no monkey business to it.

The fitness aspect of yoga doesn’t have to be the dogma of what has come to be standardized in how-to books youtube videos and studios. It can be cobra and down dog and corpse pose. It can be power lifting. It can be archery. As long as your mind and spirit are one-pointed and your aim is true, whatever we do with gumption and purpose will gird us for where we want to go.

All anyone needs to do is keep their hand on the gospel plow.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stressed Out Zeroed In

Stresed Out

By Ed Staskus

It is hardly surprising that most lists of the toughest jobs in the United States routinely list flying planes, fighting fires, and fighting crime as the most stressful occupations. They are life-and death tasks, like being a paramedic or atomic energy repairman, jobs with tension built in. Some livelihoods mean there are no do-overs when getting it wrong or blowing it up.

What is surprising is that many lists routinely flag numerous other professions, such as teacher, social worker, and corporate executive. The corner office has gotten so nerve-racking, apparently, some executives need to take a year off to sail their yachts to Greece and back. Teachers and social workers get to take a sick day-or-two.

Even event coordinators get into the act.

They cracked the Forbes Top 10 list in 2017. The magazine’s stress score for airline pilots was 60.5 and for police officers 51.6. The stress score for event coordinators was 50.1.

Who knew planning the scope of weddings and conferences and conferring with on-site staff could be such a hassle? It points out that stress can be more real than the real jaws of death, like when bullets are whizzing by your head, and can simply be in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes hell is a foxhole. Other times hell is other people.

Even though stress is primarily a physical response, more often than not what we are responding to in the modern world is what we make it. For millions of years it was see the predator in the wild, there’s the potential danger, fight or flight. Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine flooded the body to focus one’s attention on the fangs of danger. It was beat the bully or beat the feet to get away.

The Napoleonic Wars and the two World Wars were extremely stressful, especially if you were involved in them, which hundreds of millions of people were. More than fifty million alone died during the Second World War.

Today armed conflicts are more in the line of skirmishes. Unlike the World Wars when everyone was all in, relatively few people in terms of sheer numbers are on the firing lines of the War on Terror. It doesn’t make it any less stressful for those involved, but most of us aren’t involved.

Nowadays it’s the kids won’t stop screaming, the boss won’t stop screaming, and the bill collectors won’t stop screaming. Not to mention losing your job, getting divorced, moving, and, worst of all, making a speech. Many people claim to fear getting up at a lectern in front of a group and talking more than they fear death.

There are many ways of coping with stress. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Avoid drugs and drink, take a break, and share your problems, although taking a break and listening to all of someone else’s problems without a stiff drink at hand is problematic, at best.

Or have a drink, after all. Like W. C. Fields said, “I never worry about being driven to drink. I just worry about being driven home.”

Some of the most popular 21st century techniques for reducing stress are meditation, stretching, physical movement, mental imagery, and controlled breathing. When those techniques are rolled into one package, presto change-o, you get 16thcentury yoga.

Aside from its other benefits, yoga is tailor made for dealing with stress.

Cat cow stretches, down dogs, lunges, bends, twists, inversions, and whatever else you’re tuning into are all good for you. They’re good for you every day, even if it’s only happy baby pose when you’re tired and winding down.  Seven out of ten adults in the United States say they are stressed daily. That’s why ten out of ten should probably get on a yoga mat. Nobody stressed out left behind.

There are physical benefits to the physical side of yoga. It keeps you active. It keeps you fit. It keeps you healthy. Besides the physical fitness benefits, it keeps you mentally fit. Yoga makes you more alert, less fatigued, and revs up cognitive function. It produces endorphins. You feel better in spite of yourself.

When your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters get bumped up it puts pep in your step.

Yoga exercise practiced regularly increases self-confidence and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. It helps you sleep better, too. Tossing and turning aren’t what you want to be doing in bed, at least not that kind of tossing and turning.

Guided imagery is a stress management technique that has been shown to reduce blood pressure, symptoms of PTSD, and relieve physical tension. It’s a simple technique, simply using your imagination to take you to a calm place. It involves getting comfortable, closing your eyes, and Imagining yourself in a peaceful setting – like a tropical beach, bright blue water, surf and sand – which helps you relax and relieves stress.

Yoga teachers do it all the time.

All yoga classes end with savasana, or corpse pose. It’s a relaxation pose, done flat on your back. What’s more relaxing than being flat on your back? Teachers methodically annotate the experience. “Soften your face, your shoulders, arms. Breathe. Soften your abdomen as it rises and falls. Breathe. Soften your thighs down to the tips of your toes. Breathe.” Or they script the experience, leading the class in a systematic relaxation, images like a leaf floating down a stream or walking through a sunlit forest being the narrative.

No one can avoid stress completely, not cavemen in tooth and claw days nor up-to-the-minutemen. It’s not even certain doing so would be a good idea. But, how we react to stress is up there. Stress is a common trigger for headaches, from the tension kind to the migraine kind. Fighting it all day leads to high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. It suppresses the immune response. It can make you literally sick of it.

Take a breath.

Controlled breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing and paced respiration, is a tried and true stress reduction technique. It is the cornerstone of the relaxation response, first developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson. It encourages full oxygen exchange, slowing down the beat of the heart and stabilizing blood pressure.

Take a deep breath.

Deep abdominal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting calm. It’s easy to do whenever you want, at a scheduled time every day, any time you have a time out, or waiting during your appointment with your tax preparer. “It’s the fastest way to calm down,” said Time Magazine. It’s a stress eraser.

Breath control is one of the eight limbs of yoga. It has been since the beginning of the practice, long before worry, anxiety, and stress became the bugaboos of modern life. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10 percent of Americans suffer from anxiety disorders. If they went to a yoga class they would hear from the word go to breathe consciously, control the breath, and connect to your breath.

If we all breathe 10 to 15 times a minute, that’s about how many times yoga teachers use the breath word.

Unconscious shallow breathing is part and parcel of the primitive part of the brain. Conscious breathing comes from the cerebral cortex. Conscious breathing is about controlling the mind. Connecting with the breath, since we breathe all the time, is connecting with the present. It’s a way of being in the present, not in the past where something has already happened, nor in the future where something might or might not happen.

Whatever bad thing might or might not happen today, time spent concerning yourself with it is a waste of time, since it’s already tomorrow on the other side of the world. Besides, what most people worry about never happens, anyway. Don’t worry about the horse going blind. Just get the wagon loaded up.

A big part of the practice of yoga is controlling prana – which can be referred to as energy, life force, or breath – through pranayama, or various methods of controlling the breath. The goal is to raise one’s energy, or prana. It’s an essential pert of meditation, another of the eight limbs of yoga.

When it comes to breathwork, yoga is soup to nuts : bellows breath, breath of fire, and lion’s breath. Going all out, if you are especially stressed, is skull cleanser. It’s a cleansing breath to raise your energy level. It also involves a fun hand sign, which is making your hands look like a dog’s head by resting your ring and middle fingers on your thumb while sticking your pointer fingers and pinkies up like ears.

The last tool in the toolbox of stress busters is meditation. “Anyone can practice meditation,” says the Mayo Clinic, “It’s simple and inexpensive. It can wipe away the day’s stresses, bringing with it inner peace.” The relaxed breathing and focused attention of meditation clear away the overload of contemporary life, from eight-lane highways to information superhighways. Meditation helps you be self-aware, not simply aware of your surroundings.

Meditation is the penultimate port of call on the eight-fold path of yoga. It isn’t just a monkey wrench for solving problems, be it stress, or anything else. It’s about getting into a state of consciousness different than either the waking or sleeping states. It’s about pivoting the mind inward. The mind often has a mind of its own. Meditation is designed for it to find stillness.

If you can find it, there’s no stress there.

Meditation is a practical way of calming yourself down, slowing down the endless sturm und drang, leaving distractions behind and focusing all your attention on one thing, be it your breath or an object. Or you can hum along. It’s not about thinking about nothing. It’s about paying attention.

It is practiced in the space between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

When you’re stressed out, get on a yoga mat. It will zero you in.

 

 

 

 

Wheel of Fortune

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By Ed Staskus

Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.”  E. B. White

There are about 6 million car accidents in the United States every year, which amounts to close to 16,000-or-so every day of every week of every month. Car accidents cost more than $230 billion per annum, or more than $800 for every person in the country. In the last five years the number of accidents has risen by almost a million a year.

1 in 45 American drivers experience some kind of injury-producing accident annually. Almost everyone in the country knows someone who has suffered in a car crash. Not everyone, however, knows anyone who practices yoga who’s been in a car crash.

It’s not because they don’t drive cars. Yoga might be from back in the walking and horseback days, but everyone drives cars nowadays. It’s a birthright rite of passage right of way in the modern world. It’s more likely that since they practice yoga, and the lessons learned, they are able to stay out of harm’s way more often than not.

Some of the causes of car crashes are unavoidable, whether you practice yoga or not, like design defects of the car itself, potholes and tire blowouts, animals like deer crossing in front of you, and even slippery treacherous heavy rain. Most accidents, however, have nothing to do with a moose jumping in front of your car in a rainstorm as you hit a pothole and all your tires blow out. They are usually the fault of human misbehavior.

It’s pedal to the metal. It’s burning rubber. It’s Dead Man’s Curve.

The lion’s share of mishap is the result of driving drunk, driving drug-addled, reckless driving, running red lights, and distracted driving. Driver error is by far the largest single cause of smash-ups in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s gotten to the point that almost 70% of all traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving.

The wages of out on a limb driving, like carelessness aggressiveness tailgating turning and passing improperly violating rights of way sensation-seeking speeding road rage, are bump and grind life and death. On top of that, many drivers overestimate their own skill level behind the wheel. 90% of us believe we have above-average ability. It’s zoom zoom in your car car. But public roads are not proving grounds for bumper cars.

Going foggy mountain, making matters worse, young and old, men and women, no collar to white collar, are stopped all the time for driving under the influence. There are literally millions of DUI collars in the United States every year. No matter the source, such as spirits or various other drugs besides alcohol, drivers demonstrating impairment are arrested and charged.

Distracted driving prioritizes ordering a sausage mushroom green pepper pizza from your car while trying to find the cup holder for your Starbucks over being able to stop in a split second’s notice on a four-lane while whizzing along at 65 75 85 MPH. Even though safe driving depends on your ability to notice many things at once, it might be better to keep the deluxe pizza you’re dreaming about out of the mix.

Since driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis, why do so many people turn into tools the minute they get behind the wheel? It’s one thing to cut in line at the supermarket. It’s another thing to cut in line on the superhighway. Two shopping carts in a catfight will end up in bruised feelings. Two SUV’s going mano a mano puts the lives of all involved at risk.

Why take the risk?

“When we’re in a car we often feel anonymous,” explained Erica Slotter, a social psychologist at Villanova University. “When we feel anonymous, we lose focus of our moral compass and are more likely to behave badly.”

Middle fingers fly fast and furious.

At even its most basic level, notwithstanding any points on the compass, yoga is good for your driving. Being stuck in a traffic jam can be a pain in the ass, but it is definitely a pain in the back. Not only are you sitting around seething, but once you get going there are acceleration forces, vehicle sway, and vibration. “Coupled with the design of the car seat itself, they can increase the chance of back problems,” said Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University.

Stop and stretch as often as you can, say most chiropractors.

Take a yoga class. All of the basic yoga exercises, from cat cow to downward facing dog to bridge pose to dolphin plank are good for your back. They stretch and lengthen your back. They strengthen your back. They help return your back to its proper alignment.

Take a yoga class once or twice a week. Consistent practice leads to better alignment overall, better posture, and better body awareness. Instead of slumping in c-curve style in the front seat, awareness of your body gained through yoga helps you maintain the natural curvature of your spine.

Twisting poses are a big part of the practice. Sitting at home, at work, and in a car stiffens up tissues, muscles, and joints. When you rotate your spine your back muscles mobilize and vertebrates decompress.

It makes reaching into the back seat easier.

Not only that, getting on the mat is good for visual acuity, such as being able to spot sudden obstacles and shifts in traffic patterns. A report in the ‘Journal of Modern Optics’ revealed that people who practiced yoga were able to detect that a flashing light was pulsing, rather than held steady, at significantly higher frequencies than control subjects. They were able to see danger ahead sooner than later.

If drugs and drink are the bane of road traffic safety, soaking up some of yoga’s lessons about on yoga off drugs might get some people to put the brakes on. Since drugs and drink are time-honored pastimes, the problem isn’t having a cocktail or a spliff now and then, but tanking up on opoids or booze or both. Fortunately, many drunk drivers get into one-car crashes and just kill themselves. Unfortunately, more than half of all fatal car accidents involve one drunk driver and one sober driver.

Drugs and drink slow you down, slow your reaction time, slow your brain down, slow the processing of sensory information, and generally impair your ability to use common sense. Mind-altering substances can be entertaining, but there’s a falling off point where they simply distort reality to no good end and lead to wild goose chases. In the end it amounts to little and ends in nothing.

Although it is true yoga requires effort to do, while popping a pill or bending an elbow is as easy as it gets, the rewards of yoga practice are there for the taking. It brings the body and brain into balance. Although there are no rules from on high that say everyone who does yoga has to be a teetotaler, it is a practice of awareness, not something for dumbing down your consciousness.

There are no hangovers after a yoga exercise meditation mindfulness class. It’s clear sailing ahead.

“It takes only one drink to get me drunk,” said George Burns. “The trouble is, I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or fourteenth.” When you practice enough yoga, however, you usually remember to stick to the first or second one, and you’re always aware that driving juiced or junked-up is dangerous, not just to you, but to everyone else on the road.

When did eating fiddling with the radio grooming phone calling and texting behind the wheel while merging lanes become the norms of unsafe driving? At any given time about 10% of all drivers are distracted, according to Paul Atchley of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Kansas. It might be prudent every time you start up your car to assume there is someone out there who will be trying to kill you.

For every 11 miles driven the average driver is on their phone for a half-mile. Looking down at it for 5 seconds at 55 MPH is the same as driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. It’s relying on luck, walking the high wire between the vital spark and disaster. Maybe you’ll score a touchdown. Maybe you’ll get sacked for a big loss.

Mental focus is a large part of yoga. It’s one of the eight limbs of the practice and is woven in and through all the other parts. There might not be any rules about drinking, but there is a rule that says pay attention and no texting while in headstand.

In yoga practice the idea of a focused gaze is called drishti. It essentially means a place to look. It is a core concept and was championed in the work of K. Pattabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar, the two pioneering teachers of the twentieth century. On the yoga mat it means looking at one spot while in a balancing pose to help keep you from falling over. On another level it means paying attention to what you’re doing and being mindful of the moment.

“It appears that following yoga practice participants were better able to focus their mental resources,” said Neha Gother, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois about research published in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’.

“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away.”

On all levels it means being able to damp down the chatter.

In page-one yoga and day-to-day life it means concentrate your thoughts on the task at hand. ‘Look, something shiny!’ doesn’t get you anywhere. On the open road it means eyes front and hands on the wheel. Put the smart phone away in the glove box. Better yet, throw it in the trunk. Manipulating it and talking both distract the brain. Driving is itself enough of a multitasking activity, at least until we are all being chauffeured by driverless cars.

The practice of yoga and driving are both about keeping the mind body in tune. Although yoga classes always end with savasana, otherwise known as dead man’s pose, there’s no reason to race to dead man’s curve after class.

“When the light turned green, you shoulda heard the whine from my screamin’ machine, Dead Man’s Curve I can hear ‘em say, won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve,” is how the Jan and Dean song goes. Everybody knows what happened at the hard curve in the road.

At its most elemental level yoga is about conscious breathing. The breath is what links all aspects of the practice. It redirects your focus. It imparts a sense of compassion, for yourself and others. When compassion kicks in it’s easy to drive close to the speed limit so that you’re not endangering others. It’s easy to stay sober and alert so that you aren’t making yourself a menace to society. It’s easy to let another driver merge into your lane without blowing a gasket.

But, if the screws do start coming loose, just breathe.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Now at a Time

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By Ed Staskus

Now matters more than anything. It is alive immediate distinct. If it wasn’t for now everything might happen at once.

Living in the now has been around for a long time, back when now was in the past, from about the time mirrors and cast iron were invented, up to the techno time of today. Everybody knew about it back then. “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly,” said Gautama Buddha more than 2500 years ago.

Nowadays the concept gets a lot of play. It has become a power phrase, meaning be aware of the moment, get out of your stream of thoughts, and make your life happen in the present. All you have to do is remember to do it amid the distractions of the modern age.

It used to be easier living in the now than it is now. Back when it was archaeological, much of life was spent in the slow lane, unlike now, when everyone is in the passing lane. Thousands of years ago everyone wasn’t always thinking about something that had happened, or might happen, or what they needed to do right now.

There wasn’t a whole lot happening, in any event.

They didn’t multi-task in the Stone Age. There was no need to disconnect because no one was connected. It was more of a single-task time. They didn’t drive fast here and there and everywhere. Ox carts and horse-drawn wagons were generally one-speed. They didn’t have to appreciate nature because there was so much of it. It was in your line of sight day and night. There was no need to take time out from the office for a nature walk.

Nonetheless, way back when, even Roman emperors, who had a lot to do, beating back barbarians and planning the next conquest, recognized the savvy of living in the now. “Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant,” said Marcus Aurelius. “All the rest of his life is either past and gone or not yet revealed.”

Even in our own age the wisdom of living in the now has been appreciated extolled recommended. “You must live in the present, find your eternity in each moment,” said Henry David Thoreau. “Fools look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this.”

In TV time Oprah Winfrey has passed sentence on the past and the future. “Living in the moment means letting go of the past and not waiting for the future,” she said. “It means living your life consciously, aware that each moment you breathe is a gift.”

When you’re killing time, time is quietly killing you. It’s time to get up stand up. It’s now or never.

The Now Generation is the Me Generation gone fast forward and spread far and wide. Before the 1960s gratification was often postponed in favor of the future. But in the blink of an eye self-sacrifice became self-fulfillment. In the 70s and 80s the immediacy of lived experience and self-gratification became the lifestyle choices of a generation.

When Nike unveiled its ‘Do It Now’ slogan in 1987 it hit a home run. Before the end of the century its business grew by more than 1000 percent. A stitch in time saves nine isn’t a rip in the space-time continuum. It’s getting 100 percent of it done now.

In the 21st century we spend about half our time thinking about something other than what we are doing, according to a study conducted by Harvard University. The only exception is sex, when almost everyone has his and her mind on the job at hand. Very few men or women whip out their iPhones when they’re in the moment, since they’re having a ringing good time, anyway.

The benefits of living in the now are many, notwithstanding better sex. Those benefits include less worry-warting and over-thinking, fewer distractions and improved concentration, putting your focus where it counts, getting things done, and having a richer experience from a direct-felt comprehension of reality. Staying foursquare in the present helps you be more creative, more decisive, and more happy, too, since you’re not lamenting the over and done nor fretting about the future.

Yoga has been associated with living in the now for most of its history.

“There is so much power in the experience of the present moment that whole spiritual disciplines have been created solely to bring us into the now,” according to Kino MacGregor, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher and writer about the discipline. Some of yoga’s eight limbs, or precepts, can only be practiced in the moment. You have to root your consciousness in them to get anywhere.

Much of yoga practice is predicated on practicing with no judgment and no expectation. In other words, just do it. In so doing, the past and the future have nothing to do with it. Getting on a yoga mat means getting off the merry-go-round of attachment and goals.

The first thing Patanjali, the godfather of yoga, says in the Yoga Sutras is, “Now begins instruction on the practice.” He doesn’t say, never mind, we did that yesterday, or, we’ll get to that tomorrow. He says there’s no time like the right time, which is now.

“When life seems crazy and fast and full of distractions, I just remember that yoga is now,” explained Hayleigh Zachary, a Los Angeles-based teacher trainer.

It is often said yoga takes you right into the present, the only place where life exists. Don’t become attached to anything, just flow with it. The past can be depressing and the future an anxious place. Being in the now is being both in time and stepping out of time.

Sometimes we are self-absorbed and other times we are absorbed in what we are doing. When we are in mid-stream landing a big trout, steering a car through a hairpin turn, or extracting a wisdom tooth, we are absorbed in the now. There’s no thinking about checking the latest tweet about something-or-other.

Yoga used to be about spiritual realization. It has become becoming one with your body. In any case, in line with a new emphasis on living in the now it has become the pursuit of self-realization.

Athletes often describe themselves as being at their best when they are in the zone, playing in the now. “I treat every day like it’s my last day with a basketball,” said LeBron James, arguably the best basketball player of his age. “See the ball, hit the ball,” said Pete Rose, arguably the best baseball player of his age. “I never looked down the road,” said Jerry Rice, arguably the best football player of his age. “It was always about playing each and every game 100 percent.”

Being in the flow of the here-and-now means bringing a focused concentration to your game, dissociating yourself from distractions, ignoring the irrelevant. Being in the zone is like tunnel vision. Everything extraneous falls away, everything happens in slow motion, and everything you accomplish in the zone is effortless and purposeful.

You forget yourself and you become yourself, no matter that the phrase, which dates from the 1970s, came from the TV show “The Twilight Zone” and means, more-or-less, “out of this world.”

Although living in the now, savoring the experience, has its benefits, ignoring the past can have its costs. Remembering the past is a way of learning from it. It’s long been said, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. When you’re engulfed by the now, it’s hard to remember anything except right now. A life without past or future is like a tree without roots, a tree without buds in the spring. It’s like jumping off a skyscraper and on the way down to the sidewalk looking around with a happy smile, so far, so good.

But the past is disappearing fast and there ain’t no future in the trip down to the bottom of the manhole.  You need eyes in the back of your head as well as the front. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize.

In 1876 the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes ran for President of the United States against the Democrat “Centennial Sam” Tilden. Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but when the votes were re-counted in Florida, the election was cast into the hands of an electoral commission, and one Republican Supreme Court justice decided the contest. “Centennial Sam” went home. “Rutherfraud” B. Hayes went to the White House.

One hundred and twenty-four years later another Democrat won the popular vote, the election was thrown into doubt by hanging chads in Florida, and the ultimate decision of who would sleep in the East Wing came down to one Republican Supreme Court justice.

If the consciousness-raising Al Gore hadn’t been so absorbed in the now of the campaign, and had heeded his history lessons, he wouldn’t today be known as the man who for a few short weeks was the next President of the United States.

Politicians of all stripes believe in the tyranny of now. Rah, rah, rah, vote for me, take it or leave it, never mind what I said ten minutes ago. The bad old days are in the past. The future isn’t promised to anyone unless we make it happen today. That’s how they get elected. However, Donald Trump’s cynical 2016 campaign demonstrated the power of applying lessons from the dark past, even though those lessons were miserable and mercenary.

The only consolation is that he will almost surely twitter his mind away and his time will pass.

The problem with living in the now is that in nothing flat it’s gone. It’s always in motion. It barely exists. One now always leads to another. If yoga is a practice of consciousness, the issue with now is that you can never be fully conscious of it. You can’t concentrate on it, be conscious of it, because it is so fleeting. The stream of consciousness on a yoga mat is one thing but following the bouncing ball of now to nowhere is another thing.

In the 19th century American cities suffered high rates of typhoid, cholera, and yellow fever. The epidemics were especially deadly to children. Many infectious diseases were the result of unmanaged waste and dirty water. In time people got tired of living in the now. They brought the future into the present so something could be done about the past.

Nowadays Americans rarely suffer from typhoid or cholera, and never think about what now was like a hundred years ago. We don’t have to worry about anyone on the mat next to us who might have yellow fever, because someone a hundred years ago was committed to making things better for us. They weren’t satisfied with now.

Another problem with living in the now is that when we make choices in the moment without considering how they will be remembered in the future we are playing with fire.

There is a reason Jerry Rice was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, why LeBron James will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and why Pete Rose will never be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. All team sports are bound by rules and regulations. They are the accretion of years and decades. The rules are not just the officiating on the playing field. Some of them make reference to the other side of the sidelines. When Pete Rose gambled on baseball during his playing days, he gambled on the pleasures of now over the set-in-stone proscriptions against gambling.

He came up snake eyes.

Jerry Rice and LeBron James have both described themselves as students of the game. They learned their lessons from the past so that they wouldn’t have any regrets. Pete Rose, on the other hand, flaunting the past, made sure he got nothing for something, forever tarnishing his legacy.

A confounding problem with living in the now is that now goes hand in hand with the past and the future. They are not three separate entities. The nature of time doesn’t work that way. When Alice asked the White Rabbit how long forever was, he said, “Sometimes, just one second.” When someone practices yoga in the now, they are practicing a five- thousand-year-old discipline. It’s not a pop-up. It’s not going to disappear when you roll up your mat, even if you disappear. It is likely yoga will be fashioning split seconds into forever five thousand years from now.

Anybody getting into a self-driving car twenty years from now, kicking back on the way to their yoga studio, on the bridge over the river of time, will be kicking back because somebody planted the seed of the self-driving car twenty years ago.

Time has long been thought of as a river, time passing by, never recovered. It might be better, however, to think of it as spacetime, in which the past, present, and future are materially identical. They all exist on a par with each other. We are spread out in the fabric of time. The past and the future are inaccessible because now, where you are now, is in a different part of spacetime.

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow,” said Buddha a long time ago. That’s one way of putting it. “The distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” said Albert Einstein not so long ago. That’s another way of putting the same thing.

Forever is made up of everybody living in the now, even though now isn’t what it used to be. There’s a lot more of it. Don’t miss out on forever. Tomorrow’s yesterday is always today. Don’t run out of time. Be here now the Big Bang the whole ball of wax in the blink of an eye.

 

 

 

 

 

Santa Saviors Hero Pose

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By Ed Staskus

“We don’t get fooled again.”  The Who

The difference between policies and principles is the difference between Santa, saviors, and savasana, or what is known as corpse pose in yoga practice. Santa and our many saviors, ranging from Islam to Christianity, much like our Messiah-like political leaders, have a heavy hand. They lay down policy like train tracks.

It’s my way or the highway. They enjoin the carrot and stick approach to order the reality they’ve carefully resolutely ruthlessly constructed. It’s often the kind of reality that even when you stop believing in it, it won’t go away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Christmas is a baby shower that went totally overboard,” Anthony Borowitz has pointed out.

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

A capitalist is someone who loves his fellow man and woman in groups of a million-or-more. The Money Markets and Scrooge never had it so good. They are laughing all the way to their McMansions, golden arches and all.

Santa Claus is a portly red-clad man who brings gifts to good straight arrow well-behaved children on Christmas Eve, or the morning of Christmas Day. He spends most of the rest of the year supervising elves in his workshop and making out a list of kids who have been naughty or nice. You don’t want to be on Santa’s shit list.

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

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

No one, not even the Chinese, seems to know the reason why. The Beijing-based Helen Gao thinks it might be because “the saxophone is portable so Santa can  make Christmas music anywhere.” Santa Claus used to have the right idea, which was to only visit people once a year.

Not anymore – he’s all over creation nowadays.

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

In any event, nobody shoots at Santa Claus.

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

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

The Cleveland Cavs stormed back late in the 4th quarter in 2016 and beat the Golden State Warriors by a point in the last seconds. Some broadcasters said it was a miracle. It was The Miracle on the Corner of Ontario Street in Cleveland, Ohio. Other broadcasters said what Cavs forward Richard Jefferson did to Warriors forward Kevin Durant on the sidelines at game’s end was a sin.

But, when it comes to professional sports, and many other professions, sins don’t matter, one way or the other. They don’t actually affect the reckoning under the tree as long as you believe whatever works is what works. Who soldiers on when there’s no hope of a payoff?

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

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

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

In the end, if you bet against God you bet against yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

Students follow rules. They have to please their teachers. Until recently women followed the rules because men made the rules. Dogs follow the rules. That’s why they’re man’s best friend. Women have recently been changing the rules, getting out of the dog pound.

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

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

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

However, there are no puppet masters in yoga, no Santa Claus and no Savior.

The reason the practice is puppet master-less is that the power of the practice doesn’t flow from the top-down. It’s not just another kind of trickle down from on high, economic or otherwise. It flows from the bottom-up.

“You cannot believe in God until you believe in yourself,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the western world in the late 19th century.

Power lives and dies in a hierarchical tradition. There is no hierarchy in yoga, no Wizard of Oz. Power is like the Trump Tower. There is a penthouse at the top and a mailroom at the bottom. The Great Wizard is in the penthouse and the monkeys are in the mailroom. Yoga is more like a 5000-year-old tree with many branches. Power never stops blowing its bugle. Yoga quiets the body and mind.

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

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

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

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

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

Be your own hero, not a moving part in the puppet show.

Anybody can do hero pose, even though it’s on the challenging side of the practice. You just have to have faith in yourself. It’s better to challenge yourself than be dogged by gods and monsters and the ruling class always trying to cut you down at the knees.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Gray Matter (On the Mat)

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By Ed Staskus

“I’ve got the brain of a four-year-old. I’ll bet he was glad to be rid of it.” Groucho Marx

Even though yoga practice is far-ranging, not just all in your head, it is all in your head.

The brain is the center of the nervous system, 100 billion nerve cells protected by a skull and each nerve cell linked to almost 10,000 other cells. A real human brain lifted out of a jar in a pathology lab weighs about three pounds. Although often described as gray matter, it isn’t gray, but rather red, very soft and jelly-like.

The neural network of the brain is affected by everything that happens during its lifetime, for better or worse. Our genes and our environment impact every step. The brain’s lifelong development is activity-dependent. Every sensory, motor, and cognitive activity shapes the way neural circuits end up being wired.

Our experiences lead to cells that fire together, leading to cells that are wired together, leading to a mind that can count the stars in the sky and how many sprinkles are left at the bottom of an ice cream sundae at the same time.

Your brain on math is like it’s gone to the thinking gym. Your brain on money, on the other hand, is your brain shouting out greed is good, greed is good, greed is good! Your brain on meth is 100 MPH in a dirty sundress.

Brains in the thrall of sports are described in Your Brain On Sports as bubbling with “all the batshit craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem.” The kookiness includes fans leaning over balcony bleacher railings into mid-air trying to grab t-shirts shot out of a cannon.

Our neurons can misfire across synaptic gaps, raising Cain and spinning nonsense, from the NRA’s zany Cold Dead Hands to Climate Change Ain’t Happening. Only crazy people take themselves seriously.

Human being brains are always humming and roaring. They are our best friend and worst enemy. Everyone has to do the best they can with it. In the same way it is impacted by most things the brain is changed by most things, too, including yoga.

By some accounts yoga, from exercise on the mat to breath control to meditation, is a game-changer over and above many other things. Neuroplasticity is how the brain rewires itself through experience. The experience of yoga is plasticity itself, especially what goes on twisting and turning on the mat. The more anyone unrolls their mat is the more new neural pathways are made in the brain. It is a pattern that can reshape one’s brain and one’s life, too.

“Our life is the creation of our mind,” said Buddha.

Not only that, practicing yoga seems to make the brain bigger, especially the somatosensory cortex, where the mental map of our bodies is located, and the superior parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain that directs attention.

Who doesn’t want a bigger brain and a better GPS of themselves?

“We found that with more hours of practice per week, certain areas were enlarged,” said Chantal Villemure, one of a team at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which studied people practicing regularly. They presented their work, focused on MRI scans, to the Society for Neuroscience in 2013.

The health benefits of yoga exercise, from increased flexibility to stronger bones to relieving chronic pain, are well known. It even lowers the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publications. What is less well known is that it stimulates brain function, improving inhibitory control and working memory.

A University of Illinois study published in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’ found that cognitive reaction times and accuracy were better after hatha-style yoga practice than after other kinds of exercise.

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study.

The brain gets stronger after yoga exercise. Working out on the mat boosts the body’s production of B.D.N.F., a protein called ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain.

Downward doggers know that getting long feels awesome. Beyond flexibility they also know it brings to heel something in their brains. That something is stress, which yoga helps to counteract. Yoga boosts GABA levels in the brain, according to research at both the University of Utah and Boston University. The higher the GABA levels, the better and brighter you feel. The lower the levels, the darker the day gets. Yoga literally switches off some genes related to stress.

Hatha yoga nowadays is closely associated with physical practice. The word means forceful in Sanskrit. But, before yoga and physical culture became synonymous in the last hundred-or-so years, hatha meant all eight limbs of yoga. Yoga is an eight-limb union leading to the last limb, which is equilibrium. Two of them, pranayama, which is breath control, and dhyana, or meditation, may affect life and limb of the brain even more than physical practice.

“Yoga isn’t about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life,” said Aadil Pakhivavl, author of Fire of Love. Everybody wants to be in good shape, but getting in shape is about more than jump throughs and plank pose. Like Buddha said, life is what the mind makes it.

Breathing is as essential as it gets. The words chi, psyche, and spirit are all related to breath. In the Bible God breathed life into clay making Adam. In Your Atomic Self it is breath that connects us to all aerobic creatures in the world. Prana is the Sanskrit word for life energy or life force. Pranayama is regulating and controlling the breath.

Patanjali, the founder of yoga philosophy, believed the ultimate goal of it was not breathing anymore, in other words, no more inhales or exhales. It’s an idea that literally takes your breath away.

Whether it’s bellow’s breath, skull shining breath, or breath of fire, the many forms of pranayama are all designed to concentrate one’s energy and attention. When under the influence of pranayama our brains ramp up in alpha and beta activity, whose electrical impulses can be detected by EEG testing. These dissimilar brain activities, paradoxically, are related to increased awareness and increased relaxation.

“The immediate effect of Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama and Bhramari Pranayama compared with controls shows that these yogic practices are related with increased orderliness of brain functioning,” noted ‘Yoga for Academic Performance: A Brain Wave Coherence Analysis’ in the European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies.

Meditation has long been known to generate measurable changes in the brain. Hundreds of studies have been conducted since the 1950s. They have largely confirmed that the new found benefits of meditation are the same as the centuries-old benefits, from reducing activity in the selfish centers of the brain to enhancing and enlarging the links of neural pathways.

In ‘Brain Gray Matter Changes Associated with Mindfulness Meditation in Older Adults’, published in the open journal Neuro in 2014, a “significant gray matter increase was identified within the precuneus” after a six-week test period. The precuneus is located near the back of the brain and is involved with aspects of consciousness and the self.

Meditation is about bringing awareness to the breath, slowing down into stillness, and going inward. It is the conscious action of getting to the unconscious crossroads of the something that isn’t there and the nothing that is. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, described art as purposive without a purpose. The same can be said about meditation. It is about nothing and everything and everything in between.

Meditation acts on the brain in many ways, from reducing anxiety and depression to improving concentration to helping keep brains tip top in older people. It leads to volume changes, actually changing the structure of the brain. A study at UCLA has demonstrated that people who meditate have more gray matter volume from one end of their pates to the other. “What we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the brain,” said study author Florian Kurth.

The act of meditation is the action of focusing one’s mind for a period of time, usually in silence, sometimes while chanting, as in Kirtan Kriya, to get grounded and become more self-aware.

Anybody can meditate, as long as they are willing to acknowledge that the mind has a mind of its own. All you have to do is sit down, or even go for a walk by yourself, and try to be quiet for a few minutes. Even though it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, it can have a huge impact. It’s not like climbing a mountain, but it does help cut most mountains down to molehills.

Even busy people too busy to meditate, who think they don’t have time to do nothing, are meditating nowadays, since it makes them more productive when they get back to being busy. “Half-an-hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy,” said Saint Francis de Sales more than four hundred years ago. “Then a full hour is needed.”

Today’s modern set calls it mindfulness meditation.

Back in the day it wasn’t even called meditation, which is a word dating from the 12th century, from the Latin word meditatum. It had more to do with attention and consciousness exploration. Meditation was closely aligned with dharana, or concentration, as in focusing one’s attention in continuous meditation.

Your brain on yoga is your brain diving into 5,000 years of the practice. It is also your brain being poked and prodded by the Harvard Medical School. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard and a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, has conducted clinical case studies on yoga for more than a decade. The results he has presented in research papers, articles, and books offer compelling evidence that getting on the mat boosts brainpower.

The brain might be a mush melon-sized lump of gray matter, but yoga lights it up like a rainbow. In the end, though, yoga isn’t a thinking man’s game. Anyone who spends too much time thinking about the practice never gets any of it done. While it is true that it’s a mind-body discipline, it’s not just exercise on a sticky mat, keeping us fit as fleas, nor is it just the latest contribution to positive thinking.

“Yoga is a way to freedom,” said Indra Devi.

We are more than our bodies and brains. The spirit is the third rail of yoga, so that the train becomes a body-mind-spirit practice. Albert Einstein believed that “spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” Like the electric action potential of neurons, the electric third rail of yoga is what supplies energy to the practice. When Buddha observed that our lives are what we think them to be, he meant thinking as a state of mind made up of cognition, words, and actions.

The humans of planet earth may be snared by force and their minds made small by propaganda, but the only constraints on the spirit are those we ourselves make. It’s great to have a good brain, but where the spirit lives is the good heart. We change our lives by changing what’s in our hearts. If there is a sweet spot of yoga, it is the heart, not the brain. It is the downtown of spirit and gateway to consciousness.

The heart is the ever-winding ever-adventurous ever-surprising yellow brick road to the incomprehensible. On the way to the Emerald City, no matter how big and better anyone’s brain gets, even when it makes a scarecrow’s leap from Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein, your brain on yoga is ultimately your brain emptying as the heart fills.

 

 

 

 

Until Triangle Do Us Part

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By Ed Staskus

There are many reasons men and women become couples of all kinds, and even get married, even when they know better. They grow up, the clock is ticking, or they get cold feet about staying single. It seems like the next step, maybe there’s a baby on the way, and sometimes, best of all, they’re in love.

However, about half of all marriages in America end up in divorce, according to the United States Census Bureau. The separation rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. The unmarried break up faster than the married. Cohabitating parents are four times more likely to split up than those who are wed.

Couples stay together because they have made a family, or they’ve made their love last, or because they simply have shared interests. When they do have similar interests they always have something to share together. They are able to understand one another better during hard times and have great holidays and weekends. What’s better than having a mate who likes to explore for antiques or go rock climbing, just like you?

Or practice yoga?

“When you merge your practice with another’s, you fall into sync with that person,” said Michelle Fondin, a yoga teacher and member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. “Your breath, movement, and body positions find a rhythm together.”

Couples don’t and can’t do everything together. Even if they have the most fun of all fun times together, they still need to give it a rest now and again, and have some fun with their friends. They have their own lives, a life for each of them, even though they have a life with one another.

Although common interests don’t have anything to do with compatibility, it’s helpful to have interests in common. It may be true that two dog-lovers who don’t know how to communicate are probably not going to make it, but it’s more true that a dog-lover and a dog-hater are certainly not going to make it, no matter what their communication skills are.

Unlike sharing a tub of popcorn and a movie at the multiplex, sharing a yoga practice and traveling the same spiritual journey are more likely to join couples closer together, uniting them in a similar flow.

The word yoga, itself, means to yoke or join.

“When you focus on the breath, body, and movement of another person in yoga practice, your physical body will entrain with the other,” said Ms. Fondin. “It creates harmony within the couple.”

When couples get together on the mat, instead of “me” time on the elliptical it becomes “us” time at the yoga studio. Instead of focusing on the flat screen in front of the NordicTrack, they share the benefits of drishti, which in yoga means concentrated intention, or a focused gaze. Instead of being connected to iPod earbuds, they are connected to their partner, not Justin Belieber, I mean, Bieber.

“Both partners come away with feelings of synchronicity, cooperative spirit, and shared passion,” said Dr. Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist. “Then you throw in some spicy endorphins and it can be a real a real power trip for the relationship.”

Maybe that’s why there’s a kind of practice called Power Yoga.

There is a yoga crafted specifically for couples, called Partners Yoga. Unlike some rites of Tantra, which are sexual in nature, it eschews those aspects, although it emphasizes intimacy through touch and movement.

“Partners rely on each other’s support to keep proper body alignment, balance, and focus in a posture,” said Elysabeth Williamson, a yoga teacher and author of The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga. “When you feel physically supported, not only do you experience a yoga posture differently, but you also begin to allow yourself to trust someone else.”

When you grab a loved one and hit the mat together good things happen, and it’s not just about creating shared moments. The power of touch alone is powerful, whether it’s doing double downward dog or simply a partner twist, cultivating emotional as well as physical support in the relationship.

“Partner yoga is the medium for building stronger communication and intimacy between human beings in any relationship,” said Cain Carroll, co-author of Partner Yoga: Making Contact for Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Growth.

When partners expand beyond the mat, delving into the other seven of the eight limbs of yoga, they often deepen their connection with one another. When they dive into the spiritual side of yoga they find there’s a lot more below the lotus floating on the surface of the swimming pool.

In many senses asana, or yoga exercise, is largely an external practice, a device or technique of disposing the body in postures to satisfy a hankering for loose hamstrings or to alleviate back pain.

The rest of yoga, from meditation to the morals of the practice, is largely an internal practice. One of the eight limbs of yoga is even called dharana, which is commonly translated as introversion. Another, meditation, is about as private as it gets.

Yoga is partly about what goes on when touching your toes on the mat, but mostly about what goes on off the mat. Standing on your head is one thing, but what goes on inside your head is the rest of the thing. It isn’t nailing headstand that’s important, even though nailing it is nice. It’s about keeping your peace of mind when you fall out of headstand that’s important.

“Spirituality and the spiritual life give us the strength to love,” said the writer bell hooks. Everyone draws strength from the people they love and who love them in return. When couples are on the same page in body, mind, and spirit, it’s as good as gold.

Except when it isn’t. “You can make your relationship your yoga, but it is the hardest yoga you will ever do,” said Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher and the author of Be Here Now.

What happens when one of the partners falls off the yoga wagon? What happens when the shared awareness of yoga goes downstream? What happens when yoga becomes a triangle and something’s got to give?

There are many ways that yoga brings mindfulness to a relationship. One of them is the idealism of the practice. There are also many ways that people break up, separate, and file for divorce. They’re always squabbling, or lying to each other, or they simply fall out of love. Communication issues are a common problem and infidelity has long been a betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

Balance in the bedroom can be tricky.

Losing interest in shared hobbies or interests might throw a relationship out of whack, or not. How we spend out spare time doesn’t necessarily separate us. Losing interest in shared values, however, is usually deadly. Values are beliefs that are a fundamental part of who a person is. They are important in the sense that they are a man or woman’s rules of life.

“The mind endlessly grasps after things, clings to expectations, and resents your partner if he or she doesn’t share the same values,” said Philip Moffitt, founder of the Life Balance Institute.

Yoga on the mat is exercise, which is valuable, but the rest of yoga is a value system. Practicing yoga is a way of trying to lead a conscious, ethical life. Staying in a relationship with someone who behaves and relates to the world in a completely different way than you do would take a saint, and there ain’t many saints in this world.

Any couple can get healthy by practicing Core Yoga together. However, if their core values are mismatched, it’s doubtful whether they can have a healthy partnership.

But, if three’s a crowd, when it comes to yoga, two’s a crowd.

Yoga is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a way of staying present, not just on the mat, but off the mat, too. It’s a minute-to-minute experience. But, at the same time, it’s a solitary pursuit in the sense that no matter how open to the day it helps one to be, it’s a deeply private, self-centered practice.

Even though being self-centered is often thought of as bad, it’s not necessarily the case. “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are, and that person is not to be found anywhere,” said the Buddha.

Most yoga classes start with a moment of focusing the mind and breath. It’s a way of centering, forfending the external and self-centering, setting a baseline for the practice. On the other hand, turning one’s attention during class to the birds and bees in the room will off-center anybody.

Triangles can be deadly, on and off the mat, but yoga isn’t just triangle pose, nor is it just a love triangle on which love can get caught on one dead side. Rather, if there’s anything that can help weather the loss of shared interests, shared values, and even the loss of a shared love, it’s the electric third rail of yoga, if only because it’s the practice of freedom.

Freedom for you and freedom for me.

A version of this story appeared in Rebelle Society.

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No Pain No Gain

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By Ed Staskus

In the mid-1980s the number of men to women in any yoga class anywhere in the United States was about 1 out of 10, or about 10%. “When we started you’d see one or two men in a class,” said David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.

By 2002, almost 20 years later, the number had gone up to 12%, according to Mathew Solan, a senior editor at Yoga Journal at the time. “It’s growing,” he said. In the latest survey done by Yoga Journal the number has grown to approximately 17%. In other words, in the past 30 years the participation by men in yoga has gone from about one man in every ten people to about one-and-a-half men in every ten.

At that rate there should be as many men as women in attendance at yoga classes sometime late in the next century.

A hundred years ago it would have been rare to see even one woman in class. The practice used to be all male all the time.

Today’s practice is mostly based on postures with a sprinkling of breath work and mindfulness adding some splash to the mix. There is much more to the discipline besides those elements, but as practiced in the 21st century sequenced poses rule the roost.

“There is so much body consciousness in this country,” observed Sri Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga.

Classical yoga can be traced back more than five thousand years and old-school hatha about a thousand years. It was for most of that long time a meditative or awareness practice. Posture yoga, or what today is called vinyasa, is primarily traced back to one man, Krishnamacharya. In 1931, well into his 40s with a wife and children, he was hired by a local Indian prince to teach it at a Sanskrit College.

He claimed an ancient birthright for postural yoga and claimed that the text for it was written on a leaf thousands of years old. Unfortunately, he said ants ate the desiccated leaf right after he read what was on it.

All ants are omnivores, like people, but they were probably leaf cutter ants, which chew up leaves and spit them out, creating a substrate for fungus to grow, which they later feast on.

Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois, who went on to popularize Ashtanga Yoga, and B. K. S. Iyengar, who popularized Iyengar Yoga. He also taught that yoga was incompatible to women and for a long time refused to teach them.

“It was not even considered for women then,” explained Don Steensma, a Los Angeles teacher. When Indra Devi first asked if she could study with Krishnamachyra he said no. “No women are allowed.” It took the Maharaja of Mysore’s intervention to get her on the mat.

This was because the yoga he was crafting was largely a blend of Indian wrestling, Danish Primitive Gymnastics, and a little of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was targeted at boys and young men and bound up with the Indian independence movement. It was about strength building, discipline, and nationalism. It was not for the faint of heart.

When B. K. S. Iyengar finally began teaching women it was a modified, less aggressive form of vinyasa, and he instructed them in segregated classes.

Today the tables have been turned. The only segregated classes nowadays are men’s classes, such as Broga and Yoga for Dudes. “It’s not for sissy’s anymore!” exclaimed New Men’s Yoga.

When yoga was first exported in the late 19th century it was in the person of Vivekenanda promoting pranayama and positive thinking. But, before and especially after World War Two, postural yoga began to make its way across the ocean and was wedded to physical culture and physical therapy. It integrated into the gymnastic practices popular among women of that time.

“These were spiritual traditions, often developed by and for women, which used posture, breath, and relaxation to access heightened states of awareness,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern’.

Stretching was a key component of the Women’s League of Health and Fitness in the 1930s and 40s, while in the 1970s Jazzercise ruled the world of female fitness. All through the 1980s Aerobics was the craze. When those fads faded is when the drift towards yoga accelerated.

The rest is history. It has been mainstreamed and nowadays upwards of 20 million Americans do yoga. Most of them are gals, not guys.

“At crowded yoga classes rooms can be filled wall-to-wall with 60 or more students – but it’s likely that fewer of those people are men than you can count on one hand,” wrote Carolyn Gregoire in the Huffington Post.

Yoga is not a man’s world anymore.

It is a “women’s practice” a recent Washington Post article pointed out. Although the practice was created by and for men it has been largely feminized.

“There’s been a flip,” said Loren Fishman, director of the Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic in New York City. “ Yoga has become a sort of gentle gym, a non-competitive, non-confrontational thing that’s good for you. Yoga has this distinctive passive air to it.”

In less than a hundred years yoga has morphed from men building better bodies in order to build a better nation to the slender and taut female body paraded on the covers of innumerable yoga magazines, web sites, and advertisements.

“The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, the elongated feminine form,” said Karlyn Crowley, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Why do so many women practice yoga?

Although anybody with any kind of body can practice yoga, in all its forms, there is an undeniably archetypal image conflated with being on the mat. Classes are full of women so the classes must be for women.

“If you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends,” said Phillip Goldberg, author of American Veda.

Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, or at least lithe and toned?

Women who routinely practice yoga have lower body mass indexes and control their weight better than those who don’t. In addition, according to a study at the University of California in Berkeley, women who practiced regularly rated their body satisfaction 20% higher than those who just took aerobic classes, even though both groups were at the same, healthy weight.

There are varied reasons why women are drawn to yoga, which are related to what women look for in a workout, which is often a mix of aerobics training and mind-body practices.

They are more likely to engage in group activities, like yoga classes, rather than hitting the weights alone.

“It’s because they’re interested in the social aspects of working out and because they feel more comfortable when they’re with other people,” explained Cedric Bryant, Chief Exercise Physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

Women are also better built for many of the poses that make up asana sequences, no matter that men designed so many of them. There is a difference, especially when it comes to hips, between what women can do and men should do. Yoga poses are unisex, but the problem is there are two very different sexes.

“Women who tie themselves in knots enjoy a lower risk of damage,” wrote New York Times science writer William Broad in ‘Wounded Warrior Pose’. “Proportionally men report damage more frequently than women. Women tell mainly of minor upsets.”

Men do yoga more often than not for the workout, but the top reasons women give for starting the practice are stress relief and flexibility, as well as conditioning.

“It basically balances the body,” said Coleen Saidman, who has been called ‘The First Lady of Yoga’. “It gives you literal balance, but it also brings balance into life and gives you perspective.”

So many women practice yoga there is even a Yoga Teacher Barbie available on Amazon, complete with an outfit, mat, and mini Chihuahua, for $59.95. There is no Yoga Teacher Ken at any price.

Why do so few men practice yoga?

Part of the problem may lurk in the concept of no pain no gain.

“If it’s flaky and too new-age, soft and touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff to a male audience,” said Ian Mishalove of Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC.

Even though yoga studios today are often exercise rooms in which hard work on a sticky mat is done, it remains a mind-body practice, and that makes men hesitate. They like the body part, but are uneasy with the mind part.

They view fitness through the lens of physical challenge. Fathers play competitive sports and coach their sons in Pop Warner leagues. They jog faster than the other guy, gnarl mountain bikes, and pump iron.

More than 70% of American men watch NFL football. Less than 1% of American men practice yoga. Many men regard going to a yoga class the same as being dragged off to a wedding against their will.

“Men work out because they like to be bigger,” said Vincent Perez, Director of Sports Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center.

Men have no problem walking into a sweaty gym full of mirrors reflecting themselves lifting weights. However, walking into a studio full of women doing crow and headstand is another matter. The sight of it would unnerve any man. No one wants to fail in front of fifty or sixty women.

“Most men prefer athletic-based activities that don’t require overt coordination,” said Grace De Simone of Gold’s Gym.

Macho expectations are rife among men when it comes to fitness. Since yoga intrinsically has nothing to do with the no pain no gain school of thought, and since it’s a holistic practice, they sidestep it.

But, when it comes to no pain no gain, it may be that yoga needs to do only one thing, even though it might be Eight Limbs of Yoga subversive, to attract more men. That one thing would be to tap into the concept.

“Pain gets a bad rap in our culture,” said Swami Vidyananda, who has taught Integral Yoga since 1973. “Pain has many positive functions.”

Since so many men bemoan their lack of flexibility, simply ask them to do Pada Hastasana, otherwise known as touching your toes. That should be painful enough to point the way to a yoga class.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.

 

 

 

Mad Dogs and Hot Yogis

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By Ed Staskus

After 30 years of flying under the radar, even though the practice is as old as living mindfully, 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, and will continue expanding through the 20-teens, 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 speed-it-up convenience society it has been re-purposed as 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 colonial India were often puzzled during the age of empire when their British overlords were out at lunchtime at the same time everyone else was indoors getting away from the heat. That is no longer the case. Hot yoga may today be the fastest-growing segment of the business, having spread far and wide beyond its L. A. coastal cool beginnings.

The hot yoga phenomenon began with Bikram Choudhury, winner of the National India Yoga contest at 13-years-old. 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 the sub-continent 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 form of yoga ever copyrighted, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index in excess of 120. (The 10-year-old copyright was 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 has been known to refer to his hot rooms as “torture chambers.”

Bikram Choudhury 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 senior citizen 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 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” as benefits of the practice.

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 open and stretch. “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 needs or 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 risky business, 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 being burned through. 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 hot yoga 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 “It’s 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, yoga in India was traditionally and still is 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 the case. “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 so-called third kidney with overall waste removal capacity.

“That’s silliness,” says Craig 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 cartilage.”

The Golden Rules of yoga, the restraints and observances, apply to environmental issues in the same way as they apply to everything else.

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. A busy hot yoga studio will be heated to upwards of 100 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 down the drain.

Everyone who takes a hot yoga class showers afterwards, if only for the sake of their friends and family, either at the studio or at home, even if they already showered in the morning. A hot yoga studio can easily service hundreds 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. He defined yoga exercise as a “steady and comfortable posture or position”. It might have much more to do with what the Courts of England oftentimes said in the colonial era to resolve competing claims.

Caveat emptor.

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The 4th OM

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By Ed Staskus

The biggest and brightest OM I know is the OM Kristen Zarzycki begins and ends her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class with at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what is usually the biggest and most popular class of the week. Kirby is a young teacher with an OM voice like an ocean liner steaming into port through a thick fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being a primordial vibration was all about.

I could feel the vibration in the room and I wasn’t even chanting.

I began thinking about yoga in my early fifties, when decades-long issues with arthritis had advanced so my knees and hips either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried yoga at home, checking out videotapes about one practice and another, checking them out from our local library. I even bought a purple sticky mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of yoga studios and thought professional instruction a good idea. But, I was reluctant to go because of my impression yoga classes were chock-full of lissome young women and the certainty I would look like an oaf.

One afternoon towards the end of summer, at the counter of our company’s lunchroom, while waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to make tea, yoga somehow came up as we talked. I was surprised to find out she not only practiced, but taught yoga part-time, as well. For the next several months she never tired of leaning into my cubicle and encouraging me to take a class.

I finally did, partly to appease her, partly because I didn’t see any other way to learn more, but mostly just to do it, at least once. From the end of my first novice class on a dark and wet October morning, slapping my hand to my temple in the car as I drove away, surprised it had taken me so long, I was attracted to the practice, simply because I felt surprisingly good afterwards.

The first two years I practiced was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second evening class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I began to notice our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own uneasy grown-up postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I participated, which wasn’t often, it was with a small uncertain voice from the back of the room.

After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking on more physically challenging classes, time-distorting vinyasa practices with unnerving names like ‘Hot Power Yoga Challenge’. One evening near the end of an especially hard class, at least for me, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.

She was kind enough to say it was.

As the year wore on I began to buy into the spirit of yoga, reading about its principles and way of life, and listening to our teachers with a newfound openness. I took a workshop about meditation and another about the chakras – to which I reacted at the time with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might, I thought, to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a dry small pinched voice.

When I began to OM with more than less frankness was at the end of the first class Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still often practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, to try new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.

On the way to the studio that evening, gathering storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the heavily forested Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the sun setting over Lake Erie slanted between the houses across the street onto the black asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building, the studio being on the second floor. Inside, I unrolled my mat, facing across the wide room towards the dusk. As we started our practice I was quickly thrown off balance by the unfamiliar sequence and difficulty of the asanas.

Then the noise started.

First one and then another double-stacked freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks on the abutment behind the building towards downtown Cleveland. At both public grade crossings – one block to the west and four blocks the other way – the diesel’s compressed air horns let loose blasts of 15-second warnings.

Next the two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a gigantic Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they were not closed at all.

No sooner had they finished than the wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through an interminable series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.

Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, the factory-style windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OM’s, the asanas all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the still damp air when we finished.

It was the first time I practiced OM with sincerity.

The loudest OM I ever heard was the OM Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon. In Chicago. In the tropics on Lake Michigan.

Kristen describes her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they are, so much so I nicknamed her Kirby, after Jack Kirby, the Marvel Comics artist who created Sgt. Fury, the snarling but tenderhearted NCO who led the First Attack Squad the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960’s comic book series. Although a head shorter than the cigar-chomping bandoleer-draped Sgt. Fury, she seamlessly morphs him as she leads –and herself practices – her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class centering on core asanas, for what she insists is our own good, and watches out so we all survive her ruthless boot camp approach.

At the close of her classes Kristen invites everyone to a “big and huge” OM to seal the practice. That Sunday someone impulsively interrupted and said, “Let’s chant for Kristen running the marathon next week.“

So prompted the whole class did. The OM was loud and long and heartfelt. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath. Kristen seemed flushed with emotion when we were finally done.

The next Sunday she ran in record-setting heat and smothering humidity. More than ten thousand of thirty five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut down the course twenty-one miles into the event. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the big and huge OM we chanted for her.

The car repair OM incident happened on a clear mid-summer evening as we sat cross-legged at Inner Bliss, palms together, thumbs at the heart center, at the tail end of Tammy Lyons’s hot flow class. The casement windows overlooking the flat roof and cords of firewood stacked against the yellow outside wall of Mason’s Auto Body were tilted open, and I could sense a breeze. We chanted OM once, breathed in, and chanted OM a second time.

“There they go again,” said a body shop man unseen below us somewhere beside the umbrella table between our two buildings, more than loud enough to be heard throughout the studio.

“Whatever floats your boat,” a second man said.

Tammy Lyons paused, and paused again. She has the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner – namely the yoga studio – yet when she paused I glanced warily at the windows. Then we chanted OM a third time. The class over she thanked the twenty-or-so of us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everyone on the studio’s schedule.

Then said in a clear, firm voice more than clear firm loud enough to be heard outside, “Yes, it does float our boats.”

Later that night, nursing a bottle of beer in my backyard beneath the Milky Way obscured by the city’s lights, I thought about the sarcastic guys at Mason’s. They weren’t really all that different from Tammy Lyons, although maybe they thought they were. Just like she worked on our bodies by leading us in asana sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.

Cars like SUV’s and bodies like ourselves are not only uniquely themselves, but they are vessels as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of a car, both with the same idea in mind – so our bodies and our cars will be better able to take us where we want to go, whether it’s to a meditation practice or Disneyland.

But, if the body shop men were indeed different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.

The 4th OM unfolded on a quiet April Sunday when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he was what I expected, even though I couldn’t have said what I expected. Dressed all in black with a grayish ponytail and a gregarious manner, Max Strom was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up exercises and moving around now-and-then, we sat on our mats and he devoted most of the sold-out two-hour workshop to breathing, both explaining his ideas about it and leading us in exercises of it.

He seemed to think asanas alone were inadequate as a way of making a kind of spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought asana practice could and did serve a purpose, but to arrive at some meaning beyond simple exercise the next step was to connect with one’s breath.

He said yoga appeared to be primarily physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and the mind, our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit, or the divine.

We practiced lots and lots of breathing exercises, breathing fast and breathing slow, holding our inhales and then our exhales, alternate nostril breathing, bellows breath and breath of fire, and long slow breathing until even sitting cross-legged for all that time became less and less distressing, even restful. Mr. Strom instructed us to breathe into the heart center, to breathe in the present and breathe out the past.

After a break, when we were all back on our mats, he unfurled a 10-minute OM. He explained we were to all start together, but as we finished an OM to go on to the next one, not waiting for the others in class. He said in a minute or so we would all be intoning separately, but it would in the long run resolve itself into a single continuous chant, which is exactly what happened.

It turned into a long rolling resonant OM.

As we chanted I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the OM’s I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness within me, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt full of hunger or filled with yearning; I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed my body was like a hollow shell lit up from within by a bright but diffused light.

I was conscious that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, that my heart was beating slowly and I was breathing rhythmically, but for all that it was a remarkable sensation. I didn’t feel better, or worse, I just felt light and lit up. It was an experience that lasted about a minute.

Max Strom’s message to us at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on the way with a simple namaste and hearty endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.

Since then I have not again felt the interesting bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result of it have added a little breath training and meditation to my at-home practice. What has surprised me is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of nothing or something or anything, and breathe mindfully.

What hasn’t surprised me is what I still don’t know about yoga, even the simplest things like chanting the simple sound of OM.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.

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