Category Archives: Rocket Science

No Pain No Gain

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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.

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Mad Dogs and Hot Yogis

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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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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.

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