Category Archives: Through the Looking Glass

Showdown on Clifton Boulevard

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“Waiting for an invitation to arrive, goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive.” Dead Man’s Party, Oingo Boingo

Barron Cannon laughed and made loop de loops at the side of his head with his index finger.

“Agent Orange has a screw loose,” he said. “But, since he’s at the top, he can take his crazy visions and turn them into reality. He’s like a saint from the Dark Ages who ate a moldy loaf of rye and saw God. It makes you wonder, am I or they round the bend?” He made a fist, raised his thumb, extended two fingers parallel to each other, and blew on the fingers. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Smoke signals and mirrors. Lipstick sour looks lapel flag pins and soapboxes in the halls of power. Men and women in ten thousand dollar suits slowing down when they see a mirror.

We were sitting in the only place there are any chairs in Barron’s small neighborhood yoga studio, at the front by the windows facing the parking lot. The Quiet Mind is on Clifton Boulevard on the Lakewood side of West 117th Street. Across the street is Cleveland, Ohio. He was drinking homemade Kombucha out of a Starbucks travel mug and I was drinking McCafe drive-thru coffee.

Barron had an Apple laptop in his lap. He was updating a Facebook post he had made offering yoga classes in return for turning in your guns. I chewed on my pencil. He was making like Wyatt Earp.

In 1881, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were running things in Tombstone, you could bring your gun into town, but you couldn’t keep it while in town. You had to check it into the sheriff’s office. There was stricter gun control in the Wild West than there is today. Nowadays in Tombstone, Arizona, anyone can carry a Ruger semi-automatic pistol in a fancy holster on his rattlesnake belt. There is no Wyatt Earp anymore with a Colt Peacemaker telling you to stash your gun in the sheriff’s office for the duration.

Barron Cannon’s amnesty program was in response to the massacre of 26 churchgoers in a small Texas town on November 5th, on a suddenly not quiet Sunday morning. President Donald Trump, kowtowing to the gun lobby, said after the shooting, “I think that mental health is your problem here.”

“I mean, when I say a loose screw, he signed a bill that Congress, the Republicans, the lunatics running the asylum, earlier in the year voted through that made it easier for crazy people to buy guns legally. I should probably say mentally ill, but if you’re buying six-shooters for protection, you’re crazier than the mentally ill. The horse is out of the barn. It’s blasting time, AR-15’s all around!”

Barron was working both sides of the street, as is his wont, but he had a point. One of Donald Trump’s first reactions in the White House was to roll back an Obama-era law that made it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy firearms. He made it easier, no trouble, a piece of cake.

“It is the height of hypocrisy for President Trump – who called the latest tragic mass shooting ‘a mental health problem at the highest level’ – to have rolled back a rule specifically designed to prevent some gun violence deaths,” said Senator Richard Blumental of Connecticut.

“Blaming mental health is a tactic straight out of the gun lobby’s playbook,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control group started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011, along with 18 other people, at a constituent meeting in Arizona.

“Maybe it’s more like crazy as a fox,” I said.

“The United States used to be a safe place, but not anymore. This year it ranked 114th on the Global Peace Index. It ranks lower every year. We’re edging towards Iraq and Syria. Maybe the Republicans are right. Maybe what we need are more not less guns.”

“Nope, wrong,” he said.

Barron Cannon can be abrupt high-hat holier-than-thou. He is not a sensitive, bias-free, politically correct man. Even though he has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is in his early 30s, he often behaves and speaks as though he grew up in the 1930s. He is as blunt barefaced austere as anybody from back in the Depression.

Barron Cannon is, however, hardly ever depressed. He says happiness doesn’t depend on the external, but rather on our mental attitude. The free flow yoga he teaches is as much about mental health as it is about physical health.

“The reason the United States is getting more dangerous is because there are more and more guns, not less,” he said. “Canada, Japan, and Australia are some of the safest places to live in the world, while here it’s every man for himself and God against all. Conservative Christians have more guns than anybody else.”

An American is 300 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a Japanese.

“There are hardly any guns in those countries,” he said. “All the guns are here.”

“They can’t all be here,” I said.

“Right you are, Jocko,” he said. My name isn’t Jocko, but Barron often fixes nicknames to people, like Shorty for a tall man and Train Track for someone wearing braces. His nickname for himself is Dazzy.

All of the White House men have had nicknames, from Father of the Country to Give ‘Em Hell Harry to No Drama Obama. Barron’s nickname for Donald Trump is Agent Orange.

“Not all the guns in the world are here, just most of them. There are fewer than 5% of the people on the planet here in the USA, but we have almost 50% of the guns in the world. Nobody messes with us. The Senate and the House, and now Trump World, they have their noses snagged in the NRA money clip. It stinks, but they can’t smell anything beyond the stench of fresh new one hundred dollar bills.”

A gun buyback program is a program to purchase privately owned guns, reducing how many guns there are in general among the general population. In 2003 and again in 2009 Brazil bought and destroyed more than a million guns. Firearm related mortality was reduced.

Gun amnesty programs involve handing in guns you shouldn’t have without being prosecuted for having them. In July 2017 Australia announced a national firearms amnesty. Anyone with an illegal firearm could turn it over to the police. Otherwise, they faced a quarter-million dollar fine. More than 50,000 guns were turned in.

In 1996 a gunman killed 35 tourists in Australia. It was the worst mass murder in the country’s history. By the end of the year, led by a conservative Prime Minister, sweeping gun control laws were put in place. A buyback resulted in more than 600,000 semi-automatic weapons being destroyed. There hasn’t been a mass shooting in Australia since.

In this country, more men, women, and children have been killed by gunfire in the past 50 years than have been killed on all the battlefields in all the wars America has ever fought. Gun control laws in the United States are, in general, laughable. “I have a very strict gun control policy,” said Clint Eastwood, play acting being a bounty hunter dressed up as a rodeo clown in the caper movie “Pink Cadillac”.

“If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it.”

That is the state of gun control in the United States.

After the Las Vegas bloodbath on the night of October 1st in which 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured by a lone gunman with an army squad kettle of semi-automatic weapons fitted with bump stocks, Malcom Turnbull, the current Australian Prime Minister, said the politics of gun ownership in America was “almost beyond comprehension.”

He pointed out the intractable problem guns pose in the United States.

“There is a ferociously strong political lobby and the National Rifle Association, and millions of Americans who own guns and cherish their constitutional right to bear arms, But, of course, the right to bear arms was an 18th century concept, long before automatic weapons were even thought of, let alone invented.”

Americans are crazy about their guns. They often claim they need them for home security, which begs the question, how many enemies do they have? However, they rarely, if ever, go to home security trade shows and conventions. They go to gun trade shows and conventions, swap meets online purveyors private sellers, no background checks required. They love their guns.

What’s crazy is that after Sandy Hook, where 20 children and 6 teachers were killed in an elementary school, nothing changed, except that more guns have been sold in the past five years. It has become the new normal to massacre concertgoers, churchgoers, and kids going to school.

“Aren’t mass murderers crazy?” I asked.

“Nope, no matter what Agent Orange says,” said Barron Cannon. “It’s about one in five who are delusional or psychotic. Neither the Orlando nightclub shooter nor the Las Vegas killer had any apparent mental illnesses, unless you believe shooting people in and of itself is a mental illness. What they were was angry and disgruntled.”

“That’s not what the White House says,” I said.

“I know, but that’s what the Department of Justice says, which knows better than Agent Orange, who only knows blowhard bluster on Twitter. Most mass murderers are injustice collectors with gun collections. When you have a paranoid streak, that’s a personal problem. When you have a paranoid streak and a boatload of guns, then that becomes everybody’s problem. That’s what Agent Orange doesn’t want to talk about. ”

The NRA and gun enthusiasts are fond of saying guns don’t kill people, people kill people. They oppose regulations protecting American citizens from crazy malevolent gun violence. They never talk about Jayne Mansfield or Tylenol, since it would make everybody dizzy at NRA headquarters.

In 1967, when the Hollywood sexpot Jayne Mansfield rear-ended a tractor-trailer, ramming her car underneath it and dying as a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration immediately made it mandatory for all semi- truck trailers to be fitted with under-ride bars. In 1982, when 7 people in Chicago died from poisoned Tylenol, federal anti-tampering laws were immediately put in place. Bottles of everything medical have been hellishly hard to open ever since.

Between 1968 and 2015 the total deaths caused by firearms in the United States were 1,516,863. Getting shot is an immediate experience, since bullets travel on average 1,7000 MPH. Since 1968 it has gotten easier, not harder, to buy all the bigger badder faster-blasting guns you want. The pace of writing common sense gun laws has stayed at ZERO MPH.

“When it come to guns everyone’s got their reason, the 2nd Amendment, target shooting, recreation, whatever that means, hunting, and personal protection,” said Barron. “The NRA and Agent Orange gush about the 2nd Amendment as an argument against gun control, but almost no one cares about that.”

The Gallup Poll consistently shows that about 5% of people who own guns cite the amendment as their reason.

“Personal safety is the reason most people own a gun,” he said.

The Gallup Poll has always shown that protecting themselves has been, by a wide margin, the number one reason people buy guns.

Whenever there is a mass murder, like the recent mass murders in Las Vegas and Texas, support for stricter gun laws spikes. After a month-or-so, even though more than 80% of Americans consider gun violence a big problem, interest fades until the next mass murder. In the meantime, Congress and the White House do nothing, except mouth platitudes about their thoughts and prayers being with the dead the wounded and their families.

They never actually get off their NRA-bought-and-paid-for bottoms and buy into 21st century gun control. “It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The chances of that happening are close to ZERO.

“Sometimes the notion that American society is inherently violent is floated as a reason there’s so much gun violence,” said Barron. ”Or it’s video games or racism or poverty. Conservative Christians say Satan is to blame. Agent Orange and Congress spearhead the notion that only crazy people are mass murderers. They propagate it being a nut case problem, not a gun problem.”

He looked down at his laptop and finished editing his Facebook post. When Barron Cannon has a great notion it’s best to wait him out.

“That’s all wrong,” he said. “It’s essentially about the astronomical number of guns in this country. That’s the problem. The other problem is that no wise man ever took a handgun to a gunfight. The times change and technology changes. You always take bigger and better ordinance.”

The more guns the more shooting.

“Yemen and Serbia have the next-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, next to the United States,” said Barron. “The United States has the highest rate of mass shootings in the world. It’s Boot Hill all over again, writ large.”

In the United States the homicide rate is 33 per million people, greater than any other developed country in the world. In Canada it is 0.7 per million. You are 50 times more likely to be shot and killed on the American side of Niagara Falls than you are on the Canadian side.

When the front door opened both Barron Cannon and I looked up. The tall young man stopped in the doorway, the late morning light silhouetting him. He had a Glock “Safe Action” Sig Sauer stuffed into the waistband of his black Levi’s.

Ohio is an open carry state.

“What can we do for you, partner?” asked Barron.

“Are you the outfit that’s doing the gun amnesty?”

“Sure are.”

“Well, this is what I’ve got for you,” said the lanky stranger. He pointed down at the bulge in his pants. “I can’t shoot straight, anyways.” He tugged the gun out of his waistband and handed it butt first to Barron.

“It’s not loaded.”

“That’s neighborly of you.”

“So I get 20 yoga classes for it?”

“That’s right,” said Barron. He flipped open his laptop. “Let’s get you signed up.”

Afterwards, after we had delivered the Glock to the Lakewood Police Department, during lunch at Melt Bar and Grill up the street, over a whiskey on ice in a lowball glass that I insisted Barron buy me to settle my nerves, I asked him if he thought his gun amnesty program would make any difference.

“There’s no energy in death,” he said. “There’s only life energy. If the White House and Congress won’t pull the trigger on gun control, then what we need is more breath control. That’s where yoga comes in. You can learn to be breathless without getting the breath knocked out of you by a bullet.”

Mao Zedong, the Communist Chinese dictator, was notorious for saying, “In order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”

“He’s long gone,” said Barron. “Good riddance. I say it’s necessary to take up yoga.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said.

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On the Flip Side

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“War is hell.”  William Tecumseh Sherman

Wars are armed conflicts. We have been marching off to them for the past 14,000 years. Since the rise of the nation-state as we know it tens of thousands of wars have been fought, costing more than 3.5 billion human lives. Other deaths, like those of horses, mules, and camels are incalculable.

The Confederate cavalryman J. O. Shelby had 24 horses shot out from under him in two-and-a-half years during the Civil War. He survived every warhorse he ever rode. General Shelby died of old age in 1897.

Nearly all people all societies all states have gone to war with one another. 95% of all known societies have either fought wars or fought wars constantly. In the past 14,000 years there have been only approximately 300 years of non-raising Cain.

“The condition of man is a condition of everyone against everyone,” said Thomas Hobbes some 400 years ago. When it comes time to taking care of business it’s about banging heads with iron and blood, no matter what century it is. “Force and fraud are in war cardinal virtues.” In other words, no one gives a hoot for the other man, woman, or child. It’s every Man for himself and God against all.

It’s every horse mule camel for himself, too.

All faiths beliefs persuasions have crossed swords, from Jews to Buddhists to Christians. The European Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries cost more than 15 million souls. Islam has been at it since just about Day 1. In Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers and hard-line Buddhists have been fighting tooth and nail for several years.

They were and are fighting for their beliefs, their beliefs being a ball and chain. Non-violence can be a disaster when it doesn’t work. The only bigger disaster is violence when it works.

More than 230 million people died in the wars of the 20th century. “It was a beastly century,” said Margaret Drabble. It’s impossible to say how many were injured displaced disappeared. At the end of the day, at the end of the century, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong? Whoever is left is who says.

The verdict is still out on the 21st century.

In the 5,000-year history of yoga, however, there are no recorded battlefield deaths of any man or woman true-blue to the eight limbs of the practice. There are no war stories of getting off the mat and duking it out with someone across the street who doesn’t see it your way. Even though there is a standing pose called Warrior, there are no thrust and parry, no AK-47’s, no nuclear arsenal. There are no bronze memorials of stern men on horseback sword in hand in any yoga studio anywhere.

Wars are fought for many reasons, but those reasons can be boiled down to nationalism, revenge, and material gain, both economic and territorial. The wages of war are swinish dark bottomless. Yoga is practiced for one reason, uniting body spirit mind. The wages of yoga are breath light energy.

Going to war may be the easiest thing to explain and the hardest thing to do. “Battle is an orgy of disorder. There is only attack and attack and attack some more,” said George ‘Old Blood and Guts’ Patton, who commanded the U. S. Third Army during WW2. Yoga may be the hardest thing to explain and the easiest thing to do. “Just do,” said K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

General Patton often said battle was the “most magnificent” undertaking known to man. It can be one hell of an undertaking. A chest full of medals sparkles when you’re successful. Six feet of loose dirt covers up your failures.

“The real trouble with modern war is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people,” said Ezra Pound.

Old Blood and Guts died in an automobile accident. The Army private chauffeuring his Cadillac limousine was uninjured. K. Pattabhi Jois died of natural causes. “He was fearless about combining the path of yoga with the path of the participant “ said David Life, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.

Since yoga doesn’t self-identify with any nation-state, doesn’t live by the eye for an eye of the tiger, and isn’t interested in looting all your stuff, it doesn’t issue declarations and ultimatums. It doesn’t blow its stack, launching smart bombs, armed drones, and coming to your world soon, fully autonomous weapons systems.

Practicing yoga is practicing getting your hands on freedom, no matter how elusive it may be. It’s not about getting your hands on the other guy’s cargo, no matter how bright and shiny and phenomenal it is. More cargo more loot more territory means keeping your nose to the grindstone in order to keep it all in your corner of the world. Yoga means sloughing off the wet dream of more glory more prizes more pride in victory.

Freedom isn’t about riding the merry-go-round and grabbing grasping snatching at the brass ring. Hell, what would you do with it anyway?

The Totenkopf military hat features a human skull, mandible, and two crossed long bones. The black-clad Hussar cavalry of Frederick the Great were the first to wear them. The death-head hats scared the hell out of the other guys, making it clear what was at stake.

Even though the Dalai Lama has said, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path,” death-head hats are never worn by anyone at any time anywhere in any yoga class.

If Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken off his skull and crossbones hat in 1902, put his hair up into a bun, and gotten on a yoga mat instead of scowling all the time, he might not have walked off the plank right into WW1. But, he didn’t, and 12 years later it was Time for Trench Warfare. Since WW2 was a direct consequence of the War to End All Wars, maybe that wouldn’t have happened, either.

In 1938, just before the start of WW2, French biologist Jean Rostond said, “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

What a difference a hat can make, not just in fashion, but in what determines the fate of birds on the wing, too. The last German Emperor abdicated in 1918, grew a beard, and spent the rest of his life chopping wood and hunting birds. He bagged tens of thousands of them in the next twenty years. The neighborhood flocks thought he was an avenging angel.

Only one man has ever returned Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor.

Charlie Liteky, a combat chaplain, without a weapon, flak jacket, or helmet, dragged 23 wounded soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, evacuating them to safety. He later opposed the war, and other wars, such as the invasions of Iraq. “I think it’s more of a patriotic duty of citizens of this country to stand up and say that this is wrong, that this is immoral,” he said.

But, one man’s immorality is another man’s morality, especially if those men are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The three largest defense companies in the world are USA companies. “You fasten all the triggers, for the others to fire,” sang Bob Dylan in ‘Masters of War’.

The United States controls more than 50% of the global weaponry market. Yoga controls 100% of the global yoga mat market. Only you control whether the world that’s always trying to make you something else gets its way.

Violence is the bread and butter of war. Warfare is a dangerous world filled with rough men, and lately, rough women, too. It is a world where the end justifies the means. Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the bread and butter of yoga The practice does not abjure self-defense, but it doesn’t propagate violence as a means, no matter what the end might be.

Non-violence is the first article of the first limb of yoga. Ahimsa in action is not doing harm. It’s simple enough, but easier said than done. The first step is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless you’re a psychopath, the doing will be non-violent. The next step might be to not march in ideological lockstep with anybody’s army. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Putin or President Xi Jinping. Their interests are not necessarily in your best interest.

It’s pointless to complain about the weather. War is a longtime turmoil as old as the weather, as old as our gods. “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t,” said George Patton. Sometimes it seems like there is no resisting the winds of war. It would be like trying to win a hurricane. When the Junior Bush and Elder Cheney administration wanted to invade Iraq over nothing Iraq had done, there was no stopping it.

If it all sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. The shells of rockets’ red glare, the litter of shells the damage done, and political military industrial hacks shelling out pipe dreams of heroism. When you’re dead as a doornail it doesn’t matter who won the war.

The side of the moon facing away from the earth is the far side, the flip side. It is the side facing out to the cosmos. The bright side is what makes some moonstruck, making them go crazy when there’s a full moon.

John Bell Hood was a General in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was notoriously brave and aggressive, and a madman. His troops routinely suffered staggering losses staging frontal assaults they were routinely ordered into. During the Seven Days Battle in 1862 every single officer in his brigade was either killed or wounded. In 1863 at Gettysburg Hood’s left arm was severely injured and he lost use of it for the rest of his life. In 1864 at Chickamauga his right leg had to be amputated just below the hip.

For the rest of the Civil War he rode into battle with his left arm tied to his body and his body tied to the body of his horse. “He has body enough left,” one witness remarked, watching Johnny Reb lock horns with the Yankees again.

The macabre spectacle of the one-armed one-legged Hood, trailed by an orderly carrying his replacement cork leg, was not his alone. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War lost arms and legs. That’s the damage all wars do, civil or not so civil, lopping off limbs, scrambling brains, filling up cemeteries.

Yoga, on the other hand, is not only a practice intent on keeping your arms and legs attached to your body, it is a practice that conjures additional limbs to those willing to take up the mantle of the mat. The discipline in the classic sense is an eight-limb practice. The limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, which means standing inside of.

The walk of life can be hard enough with two arms and two legs. It’s much harder when missing an arm or a leg, or both. It’s much easier with eight extra limbs.

“When we talk about war we’re talking about peace,” said President George W. Bush. In the world of doublespeak slavery is freedom and war is known as peace. In the world of yoga freedom is freedom and non-war is known as peace. No fooling. Only fools try to fool themselves.

The masters of war would have you believe that taking up the gun will solve all the problems of taking up the gun. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” said William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman is known for the Savannah Campaign of 1864, slashing through Georgia and South Carolina, innovating what is now known as scorched earth warfare. “Yoga is not easy!” said K. Pattabhi Jois. “But, it leads to freedom.” He is known for inspiring and influencing the way yoga is taught and practiced all over the world.

Warrior pose on the yoga mat is about fighting the good fight, not fighting the other guy. It’s about challenge strength fortitude.

Standing on one leg in a yoga class may be cruel and unusual punishment, but at least you’re standing. Not only that, the standing is getting you somewhere. Getting anywhere in the Fog of War is up for grabs, at best, and on a collision course with Hell, at worse.

When it comes to getting on the good side of the Pearly Gates, war doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Crime of the Century

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As the 21st century has unspooled yoga has increasingly taken on the after look in a before and after crime-scene photo. One hundred years ago it looked like a lot of class. Fifty years ago it got a makeover and looked better than ever. Today it looks like something dolled up to be better seen from a distance of a hundred years.

Yoga used to have something to do with simplicity and self-discipline, non-attachment, and the spiritual life. Hatha practice and karma in the world were means to an end, steps on the way to an expanding awareness. It had more to do with what went on off the mat, especially in your head, than the asana postures done on it.

“It’s been less than fifty years since the first group yoga class happened, but in that short time the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice,” wrote American Yoga School founder James Brown in ‘The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga’.

In many respects awareness isn’t what it’s about anymore. It’s about exercise classes with folks all doing the same thing. It’s about a little bit of ad hoc spirituality and a lot of anatomical science. It’s about whatever works for me, never mind the past fifty centuries.

Sometimes it seems like modern yoga can’t get any respect, especially since it’s gone the way of mass merchandising, sticker shock sticky mats neat-o clothes to match cutting dreams down to size, the butter and egg man Bikram Choudhury, and the bigness of big events at big venues.

However, if you’re flying out to Burning Man, don’t bother bringing yoga attire, since loincloths and hot pants are more appropriate at the 70,000-man-and-woman festival.

There isn’t anything simple about organizing thousands of yogis to flip up on their heads at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Times Square in New York City. It takes organizational skills and business smarts to assemble sound systems, food trucks, and port-a-potty’s.

Om’s and namaste’s ain’t going to get it done.

While the postmodern world streams ahead, the shape of yoga tradition has shifted, so that a CGI vision of the practice has morphed the once flesh-and-blood story to the flat screen. The new yoga body and new yoga lifestyle have become the new Truman Show.

Once people came to the practice looking like they’d just climbed out of a wreck. They were hungry as schoolboys. Now they come in Lexus SUV’s. They’ve had their grass-fed beef brisket sandwich and kale salad and aren’t hungry, at least not in the same way.

Even meditation, which was once a quiet practice meant to make silence even more silent, has become a for-profit enterprise, sold as a balm for the wailings of the wealthy. They empty their heads for an hour-or-so, making like a church collection plate on a Wednesday morning, and once refreshed it’s back to business as usual.

There is even a branch of yoga, known as Padmini Vidya, which is devoted to one purpose, which is making money. It’s the yoga of pleasure and prosperity. “It is said that people who rapidly amass enormous wealth must have been yogis in previous lives who devoted themselves single-mindedly to Padmini Vidya,” Linda Johnsen wrote in ‘Be Wealthy, Be Wise: Yoga’s Guide to Prosperity’.

Although it’s true that there’s always some good in everybody, there is often only a little in those who never have enough. There’s hardly ever any sympathy in their smiles, like they’ve never forgiven anyone for anything.

It’s as though yoga has become an ever-smaller rowboat bouncing around in a squall while cruise ships sail in their own tranquil seas. Some cruise lines, such as Radisson Seven Seas, offer yogic-centric voyages starting at $2,987.00 a person, double occupancy only and no refunds.

After stretching and sweating on the mat, the ship’s four restaurants, where waiters and wine stewards outnumber passengers two to one, are a gangplank to champagne buckets and plates of sea bass. “As a luxury yogi I would never neglect dinner, indulging in everything,” wrote John Capouya, author of Real Men Do Yoga, in Travel and Leisure.

The travel destination of yoga used to be the union of oneself with the true self, which is why the word yoga is defined as union. It wasn’t the largely non-union staffed Royal Carnival dropping anchor in the Bahamas. It wasn’t a luxury. It was a necessity.

But, what used to be one man’s meat and potatoes is now another man’s indulging in everything. The sense of yoga’s purpose can go dark under more than a tropical moon, subsumed by the tastiness of a hundred-foot-long buffet spread. Just like yoga, luxury is a state of mind, although bloat can be a problem.

Yoga was once something that meant everything to somebody. Now it means anything to everybody, so long as the teacher is groovy and the soundtrack is rocking, or mellow, as the case may be. The catch-all phrase “It’s All Yoga” has become commonplace to the extent that it has become meaningless.

It’s like reaching for a life preserver and grabbing liquid nothing.

“The problem is that it is framed within a paradigm of self-improvement,” said Ed Conley, a meditation teacher in Blackstone, Virginia. Before posture practice became the rage the subtle body, not the mechanical body, was the rage. The transformation of yoga to YogaWorks is the transformation of a series of small things leading to equilibrium to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Yoga once had a longing at the heart of it, a mystery no one lived long enough to educe or forget, a reckoning of the right stuff the man and woman on the mat tried to find for themselves. It wasn’t conjuring up a laundry list of getting from ineffective to effective, which can be just another way of losing your way slowly.

“It has become space and time without the black hole,” said Mr. Conley.

Back in the day yogis slept on beds of nails, walked barefoot on hot coals, and even endured being buried alive. They meditated on mountaintops. They were loner mendicants who might or might not have had a ministry. Joining up with them was like hitching a hayride with Frankenstein.

It was a hard-core commitment, not a stop on the side of the road for a soft cone. Yoga was a risky business practiced by dodgy people. It was impossible to discourage them. They didn’t give a damn what anybody said. Anything could happen.

Today’s state-of-the-art yogis are bendy charming plausible entrepreneurs flying in jet liners to retreats at sunny resorts and arriving at Estes Park in Caddy SUV’s. The practice they preach is like a never opened box of razors, gussied up and bloodless. The business has got the face of an angel and a heart of silver dollars.

The hole at the heart of yoga is that it has been buffed polished sparkled and turned into a commodity. It’s not about anybody anymore. It’s on the grocery shelf for everybody, a sensible product packaged by sensible people for sensible consumers.

Once upon a time it was Hanuman, a great big daring jump into a burning sky, but now it’s a dancing monkey at the beck and call of an organ grinder. Progress isn’t possible without change, although that doesn’t necessarily mean historical revisionism is the lens back to the future. Sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion of the fast forward dreams you’re trying to make come true.

“Teachers tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say,” said James Brown of American Yoga.

It’s meant to make you roll over on your back with your paws in the air while your belly gets rubbed. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” warned Bob Dylan.

The black hole at the heart of yoga is the self.

In the workaday world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who you are. It uses up the future. In the yoga world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you can’t find out who you are. It leaves you teetering between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali propose that the body mind senses are not the self. The reason is that the body, mind, and senses all change over time. Although everyone has aspects of their lives that change in the ebb and flow, what the Sutras call the guide, the inner voice, or the true self, is unchanging.

“The most important relationship you will ever have is your relationship with the self,“ wrote Kate Holcomb, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, in ‘How to See Your True Self’.

Yoga classes are full of relationships, with the receptionist, the teacher, and everyone else in the class. Anyone can create or re-create themselves in the yoga room. No one can find themselves. There’s always somebody else telling you what to do. There’s always mind chatter as you peek through your legs in down dog at the person behind you. There’s always somebody snoring in corpse pose.

The true self is a loner. It’s not a version of somebody else. “Be that self which one truly is,” said the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. It’s when you’re alone that you look at things differently than other people. Who finds their true self when they’re mashed up in the mosh pit? Everyone needs to be left alone when they’re lonely. It’s only when someone is most solitary that they are most exceptional, most themselves.

Nobody is ever lonely in a yoga exercise class, or eating a pastina salad, for that matter, because they both require so much attention to detail. Yoga is about a fire in the belly, but you can’t fill yourself up until you empty yourself out. Everyone breathes in yoga classes, although there’s never a minute to catch your breath in class because it’s so busy.

No man or woman can be unmistakable, can be their clear-cut self, can go to a place they’ve never been, if they tag along with the crowd. It’s been said that the loneliest place to be is lost in a crowd, like a case of mistaken identity, another face in the House of Mirrors. It’s like being alone without being alone.

In the postmodern 21st century many people think the past is like the scene of a crime, that there’s nothing left to find there. What matters are now the next now and the one after that.  But, it always catches up with you, like shoes that are a half-size too small. Sometimes it’s called karma, which can be a pair of tight shoes, cement shoes.

There aren’t many places to find your body mind spirit in the world as we know it. A good place might be wherever you are, because no matter where you go, there you are. A better place might be yoga, since that’s what the practice has always been about. The best place is probably what the Yoga Sutras call the true self. If you’re not there you’re not anywhere, not really all in.

“When the agitations of the mind are under control,” according to Patanjali, “it has the power of becoming whatever form is presented, the knower, the act of knowing, and what is known.” There is no ghost in the machine. The way in which yoga has been sliced and diced in the past fifty years is not the answer, assuming there is one.

Which begs the question, what is the answer?

The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be the Arrow or Iron Fist to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it.

108 New Year’s Resolutions

New Year's Resolutions

1) Find out what 108 means in yoga lore.

2) Be more awesome than last year.

3) Try something new on the mat.

4) Try something new off the mat.

5) Breathe mindfully.

6) Practice the 1st Limb of Yoga (yama).

7) Think more, in general.

8) Try doing less harm (ahimsa).

9) Count to 10.

10) Plant the seed of your resolve (sankalpa).

11) Remember resolutions aren’t a to-do list.

12) Try being truthful (satya).

13) Don’t commit to what you can’t do.

14) Practice what yoga preaches.

15) Do nothing for a week-or-so.

16) Eat fewer animals.

17) Eat more fruits.

18) Eat even more veggies.

19) Practice the 2nd Limb of Yoga (niyama).

20) Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.

21) Don’t get stuck in the mud.

22) Walk on the water until you sink.

23) Try being honest about things (asteya).

24) Spend less money.

25) “Watch the parking meters.” Bob Dylan

26) Practice the 3rd Limb of Yoga (asana).

27) Lay in corpse pose after exercise (asana).

28) Try a new craft-style IPA.

29) Try a different new craft-style IPA.

30) Don’t spill any IPA on your resolutions list.

31) Try being aware of a higher reality (brahmacharya).

32) Wanderlust more.

33) Cut most people some slack.

34) Don’t cut some people any slack.

35) Practice the 4th Limb of Yoga (pranayama).

36) “Watch the river flow.” Bob Dylan

37) Volunteer or contribute to a cause.

38) Pick up where you left off.

39) Head back to the classroom.

40) Waste not, want not.

41) Try being less acquisitive (aparigraha).

42) Chuck the couch.

43) Go for a walk.

44) Go for a walk, again.

45) Walk the dog.

46) Try to stay cool and clean (saucha).

47) Pick one thing to stop doing all year.

48) Rid yourself of enemies.

49) Rid yourself of frenemies.

50) Stare out the window once in a while.

51) Start from now.

52) Try to find some contentment (santosha).

53) Be Buddhist, even if you’re not a Buddhist.

54) Watch out for the sociopaths!

55) Breathe mindfully, again.

56) Practice the 5th Limb of Yoga (pratyahara).

57) Shop locally.

58) Shop small.

59) Finish a chap-stick.

60) Take the stairs.

61) Take a month off from irony.

62) Take a different month off from sarcasm.

63) Try to be disciplined (tapas).

64) Watch out for downpressers.

65) Don’t be a downpresser.

66) Stay in the now.

67) Read a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

68) Vote in November 2016.

69) When at the polls keep firmly in mind some

politicians  are demagogues.

70) When at the polls recall what Mark Twain said about politicians.

71) In the event, vote for somebody.

72) Turn off the internet of everything.

73) Crack open a book about something.

74) Make some mistakes, gain some experience.

75) Stay in touch.

76) Build a shelf.

77) Practice the 6th Limb of Yoga (dharana).

78) Go out on a limb. That’s where the apples are.

79) Meditate.

80) Go more green, in general.

81) Groom a green thumb.

82) Plant a seed.

83) Plant a plant.

84) Plant a shrub.

85) Plant a tree.

86) “Keep a clean nose. Watch the plain clothes. You don’t need

a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan

87) High five a stranger.

88) Read a sutra a day.

89) Try to be self-observant (svadhyaya).

90) Don’t follow leaders.

91) Practice the 7th Limb of Yoga (dhyana).

92) Rescue a cat.

93) Or, rescue a dog.

94) Make art, not war.

95) Turn off the television.

96) Go to a live theater.

97) Go to a live concert.

98) When necessary, make better bad decisions.

99) Practice the 8th Limb of Yoga (samadhi).

100) Look inward.

101) Set your intention.

102) Get all the good laughs you can.

103) Try to surrender to life (ishvara pranidhana).

104) Make an effort.

105) Never mind about resolutions if you don’t want to.

106) Breathe mindfully, one more time.

107) Remember to find out what significance 108 has in yoga lore.

108) Have an awesome 2016.

Blaze It and Bend It

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A long time ago, during the Age of Flower Children, when yoga was gaining traction in the United States, an Indian guru with a bushy beard, Sri Swami Satchidananda, was invited by the avant-garde psychedelic artist Peter Max to visit the country.

Three years later, accompanied by twenty-four young yogis, he was the opening speaker at Woodstock, the 1969 music arts and peace festival.

Drug use ran rampant among the estimated half million in attendance. “There were a lot of good trips at Woodstock,” said co-promoter Artie Kornfeld. “But, there were some bad ones, too.”

The festival’s P. A. system kept up a running commentary. “The brown acid that is circulating around, please be advised there is a warning on that.” Freak out tents dotted the muddy pastureland in upstate New York.

Although not a user himself, Sri Swami Satchidananda was tolerant of the hippie generation, and didn’t condemn their search for a higher consciousness. He did, however, offer yoga as an alternative to drugs. “My teacher always said, if you get high, you have to get low. He suggested getting off the pendulum, and living in balance. That’s yoga.”

Most of the old-school yoga masters were like that.

“If you have to be addicted to something, be addicted to doing sadhana daily,” said Yogi Bhajan, who introduced Kundalini Yoga in 1968. “You are not free by taking drugs. You’ll always be dragging your life.”

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim,” said B. K. S. Iyengar. “The better your practice, the brighter the flame. When you inhale you are taking the strength from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world.” He didn’t mean flaming up the bone, nor did he mean inhaling a puff of bhang. He meant a different kind of magic dragon.

But, that was then, and this is now.

When Yoga Journal moved to Boulder, Colorado, almost two years ago, and nearly forty-five years after Woodstock, it was probably inevitable they would sooner or later conflate goddess pose with ganja. That’s exactly what happened.

Colorado criminalized marijuana use in 1917. It decriminalized it in 2012. In 2014 Colorado’s marijuana market reached total sales of $700 million.

Yoga Journal jumped on the $700 million bandwagon with a market–friendly article by Mike Kessler about getting ready for yoga class by getting stoned, even though it involved some anxiety. “I’m way too stoned for yoga,” he wrote. “I mill among the strangers and try to figure out what to do first – take off my shoes or sign in.”

Like Cheech and Chong said, “Hey, things are tough all over.”

Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life. When one is wasted – “It creates awareness, reveals the truth,” said Mr. Kessler, shifting gears – making decisions can become easier, or not. Mr. Kessler eventually took his shoes off and signed in.

“Class has only just begun and my weed-addled monkey-mind is swinging from tree to tree.” The class was 420 Remedy at Atwater Yoga in L. A., a class for yogis under the influence. Stephani Manger, the class teacher – “Warm and lovely,” said Mr. Kessler – came to the rescue, calming him down, reminding him to not try too hard.

420 Remedy is the brainchild of Liz McDonald, the yoga studio owner, who had an epiphany on a sunny beach in Brazil. “It was otherworldly. Mixing yoga and pot took me into the next dimension.”

“It can help break down inhibitions,“ said John Friend, the former Anusara Yoga kingpin.

Before the Age of Flower Children some of India’s sadhus, or holy men, smoked chillum pipes packed with ganja, hash, and tobacco. The purpose was to keep their minds focused and strengthen their energy for penance and meditation.

“The purpose has never been intoxication,” explained a contemporary sadhu, Sri Saraswati. “It is supposed to reduce sexual desire.”

Sadhus have been known to go naked in the dead of winter, which might explain things.

Bhang and ganja have long been smoked in India. It is associated with immortality. Four thousand years ago in the Atharva Veda, which is known as the veda of magical formulas, it was celebrated as a “sacred grass.” Fakirs, renowned for being able to tie themselves up into knots and even survive being buried alive, have for centuries fortified themselves with it. They believe it is a gift from God.

Like Willie Nelson said, “God put it here. What gives anyone the right to say God is wrong?”

The unholy crusade against drugs began in 1914 after the United States Opium Commissioner revealed Americans were consuming more habit-forming drugs per person than anywhere else in the world. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, among others, were legal then as long as they were accurately labeled with their contents and dosage.

After alcohol became a good thing again in 1933 President Roosevelt made it a point to praise the International Opium Convention and the race to criminalize drugs was on. In 1971, as he was winding down the War in Vietnam, President Nixon declared a new War on Drugs.

From 2001 to 2010 more than 8 million marijuana arrests were made nationwide. Ninety percent of those arrests were for possession. More people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined.

Drug offenders locked up in federal and state prisons have increased 13-fold since First Lady Nancy Reagan said “Just Say NO” in 1982. Today the War on Drugs, all the criminalized drugs, costs about $51 billion a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

The only people winning the War on Drugs are the drug gangs, bad men let loose in a nightmare. If it weren’t so horrible it would be horrible.

Using drugs is a personal choice, not a crime. No one of legal age should have to live up to the fears and expectations of self-appointed drug czars. The War on Drugs is a War on Personal Choice.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs within its borders. Since then drug use of all kinds, from marijuana to heroin, has fallen. “There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

In October 2015 more than 130 American police chiefs and prosecutors called for less incarceration. “You can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” said William Bratton, the police chief of NYC.

Decriminalizing all drugs may not be a cure, but it isn’t the disaster that the War on Drugs has been. At least, if and when Walgreens was doing the pushing, the drug gangs would end up on the losing side.

Wrapping up his 420 Remedy class Mr. Kessler summed up saying “my stoned-yoga experience turned out positive.” At Ganja Yoga in San Francisco instructor Dee Dussault describes the benefits of pot yoga as “trippy relaxation, pain-relief, sensuality, and the cultivation of inner peace.”

“Class went by in a snap,” said Jessica Misener of Ms. Dussault’s class. “I tend to get bored during yoga classes that are longer than an hour, but the second half of this one felt like it was only five minutes long. Thanks, cannabis!”

“I go more deeply into the asanas,” said Mark Smith, a novelist who has practiced yoga for more than 20 years, sometimes under the influence. “Part of the point of yoga is to relax the body. Marijuana helps a lot of people to do that.”

However, all the point of yoga, not just part of the point, aims at realizing who you are, not who you are on drugs. Who you are isn’t what kind of a house you live in, or what kind of a car you drive, or whether you prefer Golden Goat to Ghost Train Haze.

If those things are who you are, you don’t need yoga. You’ve already got everything you want. Your house, your car, and your Ghost Train are doing it for you. Yoga is different. You have to do it for yourself. It’s not about the gravy train. Yoga is about effort and self-awareness.

It isn’t about anyone’s hobbies or politics, whether they teach high school science or thrive on tech in San Francisco. It’s about the inner being beyond the externals. It’s about practicing with dedication, whether it’s asana or meditation or any of yoga’s other aspects, and cultivating detachment.

It’s not about cultivating the back forty with bhang.

“The real value of yoga is the opportunity it offers to know yourself,” said Kaitlin Quistgaard, former editor of Yoga Journal. “Alone on your mat, with your breath and a few poses, you get to see.”

Intense breathing with a bong at hand is one thing. Intense yoga breathing, which also triggers endorphins, is another thing. They are two different ways of breathing, of seeing. “I’m going to teach you how to get high on your breath,” said Yogi Bhajan.

Although using drugs is a personal choice and should not, for many reasons, be criminalized, there are consequences. Many studies, from the National Institutes of Health to the Journal of Psychiatry, have demonstrated that marijuana, depending on the dose, has a negative impact on cognition.

Using radioactive markers researchers at the University of Texas have shown that cocaine decreases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, mimicking what happens to people who suffer a stroke.

The less said about heroin and methamphetamine, the better.

Just like drugs do, yoga changes the brain, but in a different way. Over time the brain learns to pay attention to the present moment and calm down.

Cognitive research at the University of Illinois has found that test scores improve after practicing yoga. A 12-week study by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that Iyengar Yoga alters brain function, increasing cerebral blood flow.

“Yoga thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning, and increases neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things and change the way we do things,” explained Dr. Loren Fishman of the Columbia Medical School.

One of the legacies of the Age of Flower Children is the idea of looking beyond established thought, of pushing boundaries, and thinking for yourself. Widespread drug use and yoga both went mainstream with the advance of the counterculture, although one practice went to Ecstasy and the other practice on the path to a different kind of consciousness.

Knowledge is recognizing ripe tomatoes are a fruit. Wisdom is not putting one into a fruit salad. “The attaining of higher consciousness cannot simply be gained by the use of a drug,” says David Frawley of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.

Like Yogi Bhajan said, “Your brain will become feeble.“

Even though it’s often been pointed out you can’t fix stupid, you can fix out-of-body makers and markers of feeble, or at least change the revolving door of perception. A  good place to start might be to not blaze it anytime your noodle needs to stay stone cold sober, not everybody must get stoned, and just go cold turkey when going to yoga class.

Chaturanga Chatter

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“Yakkity yak, don’t talk back.”  The Coasters

There are some constants common to all yoga classes, from the bewilderment of beginner instruction to the push and pull of Ashtanga, from the relief of restorative classes to the sturm und drang drumbeat marching orders of Bikram. One of them is setting your intention.

What yoga teachers mean when they say set your intention is to practice with a purpose, such as quieting your mind, or developing greater awareness, or simply nailing the poses. It is the same as setting a goal, or defining what it is you want to do so you can do it. Your body, mind, and spirit then become open to change and transformation.

“Every time that I begin a yoga class, I make sure to allow my students time and space to set an intention for their practice,“ said Dana Marie, a CorePower yoga instructor.

Intentions are a way to ground the mind, so that when one’s mind wanders there is always the original thought to return to. Intention creates reality. It’s better to be on the mark with intention than flop around by default.

“When my mind goes somewhere else, I just remember my intention and I come back,” said Jenniferlyn Chiemingo, Director of Yoga at hauteyoga in Seattle.

A second constant is that the teacher will emphasize, no matter what the rest of the class is doing, that it is up to you to practice in such a way that it benefits you. There is a steady stream of reminders across approaches that it is fundamentally an individual pursuit that is meant to move at an individual pace.

“You create your own experience,” said Greg Gumucio, founder of Yoga to the People. “You are responsible for your body. You are your best teacher.”

What they mean is that regardless of the instruction, and no matter what the rest of the class is doing, what you do in class and what you accomplish is up to you. The outward shape of the yoga pose, or asana, is not what matters so much as what you put into and get out of it

“The most important thing to remember is that yoga is all about you, it’s your practice and nobody else’s,” said Linda Schaar of Vibrant Life Yoga.

Yoga posture classes are about tuning into your body. They are about taking yourself as deep as you are willing to go, but at the same time being able to stay within the perameters of what is going on, to be able to recognize and respond to consequences.

“I can always choose to rest in child’s pose, chill out with my legs up the wall, or completely opt out of today’s fancy pose,” said Rebekah Grodky, a university administrator and yoga teacher in Sacramento. “Yoga is about self-love and acceptance of where we are right now.”

A third constant is that teachers will talk about going inward, of wedding your breath with your movement. An awareness of one’s breath makes you more aware of yourself and grounds you in the here-and-now. It is thought the more you go inward the more fully you can be present.

What teachers are talking about when they recommend going inward is the fifth aspect of the classical eight-limb system of Patanjali. This fifth limb is known as pratyahara, or inversion. It is generally thought of as a way of learning to lessen reaction to the distractions of the world around you, although it actually counsels withdrawal from the senses.

“The journey of yoga is a couple of hundred miles up a mountain, but it is a millions miles inward,“ said Lilias Folan, best known for her PBS series ‘Lilias! Yoga and You’. “There is a lot more to yoga than a ten-minute headstand.”

The last constant of most yoga classes, as soon as they actually start, after the homilies and theme-setting are over, is that teachers will do their best to thwart your intention, break your resolve to make the practice your own, and shatter whatever commitment you have made to go inward.

The first thing many yoga teachers do when class starts is plug in their iPods and twirl up their personal play lists, from MC Yogi to Bob Marley, from Krishna Das to Norah Jones. Even the Queen of Pop and King of Rock get in on the act. If it’s a Bikram class, the Leaders of the Pack climb onto their platforms and clear their throats.

When did yoga teachers become DJ’s? Or DI’s, drill instructors frog marching their cadets through the steam, as the case might be, in the world of Bikram Yoga? When did touching your toes become a Pavlovian response to ‘Head Over Feet’?

Music has become an elemental part and parcel vital ingredient of Vinyasa Flow classes, the most popular form of yoga. Sometimes musicians will even play live during classes. It’s entertaining, but it begs the question, what does it have to do with the practice? Does the Billboard Hot 100 enhance breath and awareness? Does it help focus attention on the inner man and woman? Does getting it together mean having to listen to the certified gold ‘Get It Together’?

Or is it just more noise, just another way of avoiding silence?

“The musical classes, if I wanted to dance, I’d go to Zumba,” pointed out William Auclair, who practices yoga in Monterey.

The next thing most yoga teachers do, once the soundtrack is spinning, is start talking and not stop talking until the class is over. Yoga was once made for doing, not for talking. “Just do,” said Pattabhi Jois when it was still old-school. If it’s a Bikram Yoga class, they talk twice as loud and twice as fast as other teachers.

Some teachers even talk during savasana, or corpse pose, in the guise of what they describe as guided meditation. Corpse pose used to be about sinking into stillness. Assembly instructions weren’t required. It was more a seat of your own pants thing. When it’s a Bikram class, corpse pose is the only time teachers don’t talk. They leave the hot room the minute class is over, leaving the sweat lodgers to chill out on their own.

When did the front of the room become a soapbox? When did yoga become a blank page for an editorial? When did yoga teachers start going center stage, like conductors of a symphony orchestra?

Conductors are meant to get their musicians to play all together for an audience. Yoga teachers are supposed to get posture students to do the work for themselves. Yoga isn’t a performance. Trombone players consciously and deliberately slide their telescoping mechanisms to make sounds concertgoers like. Yoga practice, on the other hand, is sliding into a consciousness of the unconscious.

How much talking should a teacher do during class?

There is a range of opinion mindset approaches.

Beginner classes are necessarily composed of a steady stream of instruction. Iyengar Yoga, since it focuses on body alignment and is largely about basic principles, involves precise verbal guidance. Bikram Yoga, hell-bent on obedience, is an unchanging and unending litany of commands.

The claim is that the patter keeps everyone on track, in lockstep. All yoga involves a certain amount of instruction from the instructors, or teachers, beyond just mechanically sequencing the class. That’s what they’re there for. A paramount concern of yoga exercise classes is that poses be practiced safely.

This is true from beginner classes, where instruction is vital, to intermediate classes, where it is complementary, to Ashtanga and other advanced classes, where it is rote.

Many yoga posture students appreciate the instruction they receive in class.

“If I didn’t want to hear my instructor teach and lead me I wouldn’t bother with a class,” said Amber Rose, who practices in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. “I want them to talk me through it, to help me reach a deeper level. When I want quiet time I’ll practice at home on my own.”

Some wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love the talk,” said Alicia Allen, an Assistant Professor at University of Minnesota Family Medicine. “Words of encouragement and relevant stories are always helpful to me.”

Others, however, even those going to class for instruction and physical adjustments, believe there should be some space for them to experience the poses on their own.

“Chit chat and personal stories are very different than cues and directions,“ said Emily Callison Heilbraun of Charleston, South Carolina. “I don’t need to be asked twenty times what my intention was when I started the class.”

Even at big studios in the middle of big classes people are often looking for opportunities for stillness and self-observation. No matter how much movement there is the room they want to keep a kind of quiet engaged. Steadiness comes from stillness of person.

Yoga is what bubbles up from the nothingness of silence, not from the everything of pep talks, sermonizing, and multi-media.

“When people come to do yoga, they come to empty,” said Cyndi Lee, writer and founder of the former OM Yoga in NYC. “If the teacher is filling up too much space with talking, too much music, or too many stimuli, it makes it difficult to empty.”

Yoga teachers need to stop talking so much, according to YogaDork.

“It may be because they love telling stories, or making oodles of verbal adjustments, or hearing themselves speak yogic poetry, but some yoga teachers just don’t know when to shut up!”

The question has even been raised if teaching poses in class has become secondary to other considerations.

“The instructor offered little to no guidance about how to actually do the poses,” Leslie Munday, a former yoga teacher, wrote on ‘Recovering Yogi’ about a class she attended. “She was practically turning herself blue in the face telling us how to live our lives.”

As a strategy for yoga classes the dispensing of advice has its problems. Benjamin Franklin observed wise men don’t need advice and fools won’t take it. Everyone else in class, for the most part, only wants to hear it if it agrees with what they were going to do anyway. The best advice may be to not take anyone’s advice.

Listening to advice is not without its pitfalls, including the misstep of ending up making somebody else’s mistakes.

Although most don’t talk until they’re blue in the face, some teachers talk “way too much,” observed Kimberly Johnson, an international yoga teacher trainer. “A lot of teachers say that their goal is for students to feel ‘better’ or ‘happier’ after class. Where it gets tricky though is at what point in your teaching trajectory do you deem yourself ready to teach philosophy or wax poetic?”

But, ready-made knowledge isn’t the role of yoga, at least not beyond beginner classes. It is rather a practice whose dynamic fosters conditions for invention and re-invention. The number 1 teachers don’t pose as number 1’s. They aren’t the ones who try to tell you everything, but the ones who inspire you to teach yourself.

“You have to grow through the inside out,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the Western world. “There is no other teacher but your own soul.”

Silence and speech are like yin and yang. Each depends on the other. Speech explains the mystery and silence brings us closer to it. Yoga is between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

Who listens to anyone who yammers on and on about the ‘deeper lessons’ of the practice? Who can focus on the intricacies of headstand when Elton John, the Liberace of my generation, is on the play list, hamming it up about his Rocket Man? Who can relax when somebody keeps telling you to just relax?

Yoga isn’t about texting, tweeting, and talking, talking, talking. It’s about stepping back, absorbing silence, and being in the moment. “It is to quiet the fluctuations of the mind,” said Patanjali about the purpose of yoga.

That can be hard to do when your teacher is yakking it up.

“When we’re constantly chattering, it’s a distraction and brings students into their heads,” said Karen Fabian of Bare Bones Yoga. “A great way to create presence is to allow for silence.”

Although soapboxes are tempting, who doesn’t enjoy the glow of attention, and there are plenty of yoga teachers who talk too much, many of them, based on my own walk in the door unscientific tally, talk just enough, sprinkling advice, observations, and encouragement in with instruction.

There are some who might even not talk enough.

A few years ago I was in a workshop in my hometown given by Naime Jezzeny, a teacher from New Jersey who specializes in biomechanics and its application to yoga. We were all in bridge pose when Mr. Jezzeny walked over to our side of the large room. After looking over what a few other people were doing and briefly commenting on them, he stopped at my mat.

He looked my pose up and down, chewed on his index finger, and said, “Hmmm…” I looked up at him. He looked at my clasped hands beneath me.

Then he walked away to the next mat.

I’ve always wondered what he meant by what he said. Or meant by what he didn’t say.

 

Breath or Bullets

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The Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), of which there are three variations, is an essential feature of many exercise sequences at yoga studios. The warrior pose of soldiers in combat is as varied as the difference between Roman legionnaires and drone operators.

The name of the yoga pose comes from Virabhandra, a hero in Indian mythology who carried a thousand cudgels and wore tiger skins. It is a vigorous standing posture often integrated into sun salutations and explained as being an inspiration for the spiritual warrior.

The warrior pose in the U. S. Army is usually a floor pose, practiced on the stomach, on one knee, or in a crouch. Instead of reaching through the arms with empty hands, the military variation keeps the arms close to the body and a strong grip on ones M4A1 carbine.

Yoga is traditionally a pathway toward enlightenment. “If your practice is moving you away from enlightenment, then you are not practicing yoga,” says Ganesh Das of Jivamukti Yoga. Those on the path commonly practice with that intention, not with the intention of setting gun sights on the whites of someone’s eyes.

But, some in the brave new world of 21st century yoga argue that it can and should be more than it has been, arguing that its energy should be devoted towards myriad forms of improvement, competing against one another to be the best in the class, even on the battlefield.

Although it is debatable whether yoga and conflict are compatible, it has recently been introduced to the American armed forces, described as “a powerful supplement to combat readiness training, making soldiers better prepared for challenges they’ll face in combat” in an article titled The US Army Strikes the Warrior Pose. Warriors at Ease, a Maryland-based company, is one of the first officially-recognized “yoga defense contractors”.

However, not everyone in the military agrees that today’s redefined yoga is appropriate for training troops. They contend that it coddles rather than toughens them.  “People have said you’re babying them,” says Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training. “You’ve got to drive them hard, and work them until it hurts.”

While it is the questionable whether yoga is appropriate training for the rigors of war, it is clear that the chain of command has not come to grips with some forms of yoga exercise. As a means of fitness training for soldiers it may exceed traditional push-ups and 2-mile marches, as attested by a post on the Runner’s World web site by a veteran long-distance runner.

“If I would have toughed it out the full 90 minutes at my first attempt at Bikram Yoga, I calculate I would have lost 22.5 pounds of body water weight. In other words, I would have died.”

The purpose of military might is to preserve security and provide defense, and to overcome perils to that security. The United States accomplishes this with a defense budget, in the fiscal year 2012, of more than $900 billion. It is almost $300 billion more than the next fourteen countries, including China and Russia, in the top fifteen for defense spending, combined.

Even setting aside the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending has more than doubled since 2001. Defense accounts for approximately 20 percent of the entire federal budget, roughly the same as Social Security, and outstripping spending on transportation, education, and science, combined.

Americans spend almost $3000.00 per person on defense annually.

In the United States $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, primarily on hatha practices. Americans spend less than $19.00 per person on yoga annually.

The purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. “It is to cultivate awareness, self-regulation, and higher consciousness in the individual,” according to David Surrenda, CEO of Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. Its goal is to cultivate a higher nature, not relying on Smith & Wesson.

Whether Americans are safer paying nearly $3000.00 a year for their military readiness or $19.00 a year for their spiritual readiness is a moot point.

Going toe-to-toe with the Pentagon the often-barefoot practice of yoga is at a decided disadvantage. The Pentagon is the world’s largest defense building. The National Capitol could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections. With more than 23,000 employees it is virtually a city.

Not even Bikram World Headquarters in Los Angeles is remotely close to the size of the Pentagon.

More people practice yoga in America, approximately 16 million of them, than are in the armed forces, of which there are currently 3 million enlisted and reserve. But, the pool the Pentagon draws on is far larger than yoga’s mailing list. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, as well as 120,000,000 men and women classified as being fit for service.

Many people come to yoga for sun salutations and vinyasa. They fill out a waiver at a studio, stretch and sweat for an hour, and if all goes well come back the next day. Some weave it into the fabric of their lives, internalizing the practice and living by its eight-fold path as a way of achieving a meaningful existence.

In the armed forces all inductees must take the Oath of Enlistment, in which they  “solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies…so help me God.” The oath is traditionally performed standing in front of the stars and stripes, not in front of God.

If it came to a fight, yoga would be badly out-gunned by the Pentagon, which can muster thousands of ships, planes, and M1A2 Abrams tanks, the most electronically-sophisticated, and heavily-armored battle tank ever built anywhere in the world. The best yoga might do is muster a battalion-or-two of very experienced Warrior Pose yogis.

Ever since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, the United States has been at war somewhere every day of every year ever since. But, for all the power the Pentagon can bring to bear, it begs the question of why its record on the battlefield since WW2 has largely been a patchwork of compromised victories.

Francis Beer, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has estimated that more than 14,000 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, resulting in more than 3.5 billion deaths. By his measure there have only been 300 years of relative peace in that 5500-year span.

Killing one man is a capital crime. Killing ten men is mass murder. Killing one hundred men is slaughter, beyond the pale of crime. But, killing a thousand men is called war and trumpeted as a triumph. Capital crimes are condemned while wars make for medals and parades.

“This the rulers of the earth all recognize,” wrote Mozi, a Chinese philosopher of the 5th century BC. “Yet, when it comes to the greatest crime – waging war on another state – they praise it! It is clear they do not know it is wrong. If they knew they were wrong, why should they wish to record them and have them handed down to posterity?”

All peoples and all states justify their wars.

The Roman Empire, the most ruthless in history, fought every one of its wars under the rubric of defense. The North fought the Civil War to preserve the  American Union while the South fought to preserve its honor and way of life. The Israelis fight for their homeland and the Palestinians fight for their homeland. The problem is that it is all the same homeland.

“Most Palestinians believe that the Intifada succeeded,” says Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security system. “They believe that we understand only the language of force. Most Israelis believe that we won because Palestinians understand only the language of force.”

States make war for many reasons, among them self-defense, resource competition, border disputes, and international recognition. Institutions like the Pentagon are the fulcrum on which states depend in order to wield their power to make war.

“The state jealously guards the right to make war because this prerogative is a source of power,“ writes Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

People practice yoga for many reasons, among them physical health, mind-body unity, and what can be described as connecting to the whole. Practiced regularly it becomes the font of true power, not power at the end of a gun barrel.

“Yoga practice aims to reset our physical, mental, and emotional rhythms to their natural states, “ says Dinbandhu Sarley, former CEO of Kripalu Center. “We experience this resonance as a spiritual experience.”

Yoga boot camps are far different than army boot camps. There are no firing ranges or bayonet drills. The reason is that warfare is not a natural state, no matter mankind’s history of endless war. Most men and women are reluctant to kill others. That is why today’s all-volunteer U. S. Army is largely made up of the disadvantaged and unemployed.

In Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command on Future War, the chief U. S. Army combat historian of WW2, Samuel Marshall, revealed that only one in four combat soldiers ever fired their guns, while at most only 15 percent of available firepower was ever deployed. If it came to a fight with yoga, the Pentagon, even with all its firepower, might not have the advantage it seems if its soldiers won’t fire their guns.

One reason yoga might have an advantage is that the practice develops balance and strength in both body and mind. It is only with those attributes that ahimsa can be successfully pursued.

“Nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength,” writes Mark Kurlansky. “Only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it.”

Ahimsa is a guiding principle of yoga practice. Although all spiritual practices abjure violence, unlike Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism, yoga has never been co-opted by the state, its nonviolent pose twisted to serve power politics.

Christians since St. Augustine have fought ‘just’ wars, even though Jesus was not on the side of war-makers, but rather on the side of peace-makers. Muslims declare jihad whenever they propose violence, even though the Quran never uses the term jihad for fighting in the name of Allah. Zen Buddhism and Japanese militarism were intertwined from the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century through WW2.

In a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Pentagon and yoga, only yoga would bring the power of its convictions to the fray. When the First Gulf War ended in the 1990s “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf, field commander of the Coalition Forces, declared, “God must have been on our side!”

What was on his side was a bevy of Cruise missiles, not God. God is not on the side of war-makers, no matter what the war-makers say. If he were, then it would be every man for himself and God against all.

Whether or not to go to war is a moral argument. Yoga’s pose is that nonviolence is a first principle, renouncing war. The state’s pose is that force of arms is its prerogative. Yoga denies that peace can be achieved through violence. The state accepts war because it believes without arms and armies it would be impotent. The state proposes that war is the way peace is won.

“I just want you to know,” explained President Bush, “that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”

But, violence does not resolve conflicts between people or their states. “Peace cannot be achieved through violence,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the first Americans to study Vedic texts. Violence almost always leads to more violence. Yoga postulates that peace can only be attained through dynamic compassion and understanding, which is why there has never been a single war waged by any yoga community.

“When you start to understand how karma works, you realize how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience,” says Sharron Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga.

The warrior pose battalions of yoga could conceivably be the most formidable foe the Pentagon has faced in a long time. Wars are ultimately fought to win hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of yogis may be stronger and more resilient than any weapon the Pentagon can wield.

If push came to shove between the Pentagon and yoga, the winning side would be the side with the prevailing point-of-view. The North Vietnamese did not prevail through force of arms in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pentagon would be battling an idea that like Gandhi’s idea for India’s independence struggle is almost impossible to defeat, so long as the idea sticks to its guns.

Yoga makes samadhi – union with the divine – not war. The Pentagon makes war, which leads to more war, and to the other definition of samadhi, which is a funerary monument. Yoga opens the heart. The Pentagon puts a bullet into it. “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war,” says Vijaya Pandit of the U. N. Human Rights Commission.

The ultimate problem for the Pentagon is that it ignores the Bhagavad Gita, the most dangerous existing explication of yoga. If nothing else the Bhagavad Gita teaches one how to hold ones ground, which is what Warrior Pose is all about.

Although Navy Seals have pioneered practices like ‘Combat Yoga’, when the ka-booming starts the Pentagon might never know what hit it.