The 4th OM

pexels-photo-5360211

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.

Advertisements

Lusty Lulu (Lemon)

147823428-e1515107119683.jpg

Once a month for the past five or six years I have been getting in the mail and thumbing through Yoga Journal magazine. I used to read it more than I do now, but then again, they used to have more writing in it than they do now. Nowadays, I read Sally Kempton or Tim McCall, if they happen to be in the magazine, dip into the asana photo spreads, nibble on the mini-reviews in the back, and, of course, spend most of my time on the meat-and-potatoes of the magazine: the advertisements.

I usually start with the inside cover of must-have merchandise like “karmalicious” shoes recommended as “super comfortable” and endorsed by “global yoga teachers” and then flip to the ubiquitous Hard Tail two-page spread, featuring young women in incredibly difficult upside-down poses. They never fail to look terrific and I am invariably impressed by their poise, balance, strength, and, well, hard tails, although the red star logo, which I associate with Communism, and the Hard Tail slogan of ‘Forever’ confuse me.

The yoga project has always seemed, at least to me, to be apolitical and focused on the here-and-now, gainsaying the permanent and not involved in the puzzling foreverness of fashion.

The rest of the magazine, slightly more than half of its hundred-or-so pages, is a bevy of ads: Alive supplements for “a lot more”; Re-Body weight loss supplements for “achieving your goals”; the “earth-friendly” Jade yoga mat; Norwegian Gold Omega supplements for when “you just want it all”; the Subaru station wagon which is “a whole lot to love”; Move Free supplements so that nothing “gets in the way of what moves you”; and lastly Ultimate Flora Critical Care supplements featuring a woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, her belly non-constipated, non-gaseous, and non-bloated.

The June 2013 issue of Yoga Journal delivered a special treat: a new back cover Lululemon advertisement designed by a team of marketing gurus and sold to the advertising gurus at the mass-circulation yoga magazine featuring an upside-down pole dancer, lurid purple lighting, and a pitch for the new Lululemon ‘om finder’ in the App Store.

I had recently been wondering about my own om, which was sounding scratchy, and was grateful for the new app, being hyped on Lululemon’s community page as “majorly exciting news for you”.

But, it turned out the ‘om finder’ was designed for another purpose.

Lululemon Athletica, for those not in the know, is a multi-billion dollar athletic apparel retailer, especially yoga apparel. In its own words, it is a company “where dreams come to fruition”. One of the slogans prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money”.

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

Charles Dickens would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew.

At the same time Lululemon’s CEO Christine Day explains the company’s in-store philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar yoga pants by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”

Employees are trained to eavesdrop on customers, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What were dynamic and clever constructs of the new Lululemon pitch, besides the scantily clad pole dancer, of course, were the optical center of the ad, and the text, a quote from a famous yoga teacher who is, as well, an “Elite Lululemon Ambassador”. The optical center of print advertisements, according to the Ogilvy Method, should always be one-third of the way down the page for maximum impact. The pole dancer’s butt is exactly one-third of the way down the page. The ad copy parallel with the pole dancer’s butt is a blurb by Chris Chavez, described as an “International yoga teacher and owner of Cihangir Yoga, Istanbul”, who said: “James! Hug your thighs together like a pole dancer.”

“He didn’t say “James! Hug your thighs together like Shiva Rea” or “James! Hug your thighs together like Jason Crandell”. Both of them are well-known yoga teachers. Opening the practice up to the brave new world of 21st century yoga he evoked the pseudo eroticism of pole dancing. Maybe other witty similes might find their way into yoga jargon, such as, “James! Bend your knee like a lunging swordsman in that Warrior Pose” and “James! Keep your drishti focused like a sniper with his sights on the Taliban”.

But, there is something not right about the back cover ad, because in the picture the pole dancer is not hugging her thighs together. One leg is stretched out straight in line with her torso and the other leg is crossed over the straight leg just above the knee. She is probably squeezing her butt to stay stuck to the pole, but she not hugging her thighs together. Either the pole dancer was misinformed about what pole-dancing move to make, or the marketing gurus were misinformed about what pole-dancing move was actually being portrayed in the photo shoot.

It is an unfortunate miscommunication, but for the sake of Lululemon’s bottom line it is a mistake we might all be willing to forgive.

Pole dancing, for those who practice yoga more than they frequent strip clubs, is a form of striptease in which go-go and lap dancing are actually the predominant parts of the performance. Strip club pole dancers often simply hold the pole and move around it without performing acrobatics. One of the most popular pole dancing schools in the world is Las Vegas’s Stripper 101, where “friendly instructors will teach you sexy strip club moves such as pole dancing, lap dancing, and striptease. Learn every seductive step to help you go from shy to OH MY!”

The earliest recorded pole dance, swinging sensually around a hollow steel pole wearing a bikini and six-inch stilettos, was in 1968, performed by Belle Jangles at the Mugwump men’s club in Oregon. A form of pole dancing had moved into strip clubs in the 1950s as burlesque became more accepted, but it was in the 1980s, especially in Canada, that it became popular. Canada is also, by sheer coincidence, the home of Lululemon.

Lululemon’s use of pole dancing in its Yoga Journal ad is a trope of advertising, namely that sex sells. Sex is an instinct and from the point-of-view of marketing has powerful biological and emotional effects on the viewer. Sex cuts through the mass of today’s ads and viewers generally spend a longer time looking at those ads that feature a substantial dose of it.

Why would Lululemon employ cheesecake to sell its yoga apparel, and by extension, referencing its placement in Yoga Journal, the practice of yoga itself?

The reason is that advertisers have used it to sell goods and services since advertising became what it is in our age. The earliest known use of sex in modern advertising parlance was by the Pearl Tobacco Company, which in 1871 featured a naked woman on its package cover. Although it doesn’t seem like there would be anywhere to go from there, in the past twenty years the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in print ads has become almost commonplace.

Maybe Lululemon knows more than it is letting on. Maybe it is tapping into the so-called “new burlesque”, which has been popping up from Los Angeles to New York City, although the old burlesque has never really left Coney Island. At posh clubs like Box ringside tables start at fifteen hundred dollars. In its own way Lululemon also knows how to fully maximize profits, selling forty eight dollar ‘Namaste’ mesh totes and one hundred and twenty eight dollar ‘Vinyasa’ canvas bags.

Some have said that the new burlesque is a feminist enterprise in which women can “enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies,” writes Joan Acocella in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lululemon’s implicit coding throughout much of its marketing references the same mantra.

It is possible that despite the lurid purple coloring, the spotlight on the pole dancer’s butt, the silhouetting of her body, and the reference to thighs instead of legs, that the Lululemon advertisement is really referencing pole acrobatics as an athletic form of dance.

Pole acrobatics can be traced back eight hundred years to India, where it was a sport for men. In China troupes of men used two poles to perform artistic gravity-defying tricks high off the ground. Internationally known Chinese circuses often incorporate poles in their acts. In the past twenty years pole acrobatics has emerged as a recreational and competitive sport, and there is even a campaign to include it in the 2016 Olympics.

It might also be said that purple symbolizes magic and mystery, as well as royalty. Purple is often seen as the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment. It is thought if you surround yourself with purple you will have peace of mind and that purple is a good color to use in meditation. But, belying those presumptions is the fact that purple puts all fifty shades of gray to shame when it comes to sexy colors. In a recent survey of 2000 adults by online retailer Littlewoods, couples with purple-themed bedrooms had sex more often than anyone else, even ahead of those who preferred red.

It is possible that the signifiers in the advertisement are entirely different from its meaning.

It is possible, but I doubt it.

Whatever the case may be, whether Lululemon was using sex to sell its apparel, and whether Yoga Journal was kowtowing to one of its biggest advertisers, is beside the point. Yoga in the 21st century, from snappy apparel to studios in the best suburbs, from celebrity teachers to Caribbean retreats, from Bikram Choudhury’s fleet of Rolls Royce’s to Kripalu’s three hundred dollar-a-day “private lakeside“ rooms, is all about business. One of the oldest maxims in business is that sex sells, and if sales are the aim, then sex becomes another form of grist for the mill.

But, what is not just schlock about the Yoga Journal advertisement, but rather a reminder that consciousness depends on being conscious, is the disturbing tagline in the bottom right-hand corner, below the Lululemon logo: “When your teacher says it, it just makes sense.”

The proposition that teachers, whether they are newly hatched 200-hour graduates or international stars like Mr. Chavez, are nonpareil about all things yogic and should be followed unquestioningly is both cynical and devious. It is cynical because the proposition that no teacher, from the part-timer at the corner yoga studio to the superstars at national conferences, can ever err is ludicrous. It is devious because all teachers from part-timers to full-timers will and do err, and to offer it up as gospel otherwise is to offer up a gospel of deceit.

There are yoga teachers who walk, sleek and graceful as otters, as though a full-length mirror were being carried in front of them, but to follow in their wake unquestioningly is to compound the problem. To believe everything a yoga teacher says will always make sense makes no sense at all. The sense that stands on and appeals to authority is not always necessarily what it proclaims itself to be. More than two thousand years ago the Roman political theorist Cicero said, “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

Yoga is rife with teachers behaving badly. From Swami Muktananda to John Friend is a long litany of sexual indiscretion and even financial misconduct. In the mid-1990s the issue of sex in yoga studios became such a concern that the California Yoga Teachers Association called for higher standards. “We wrote the code,” said Judith Hanson Lasater, the group’s president, “because there were so many violations going on. It’s happened from the highest-level gurus in India to multiple generations of yoga teachers in the United States. It’s so common as to be beyond a cliché. Some of what these teachers are doing, they should be in jail for.”

Swami Muktananda, who died in 1982, was a hugely popular guru who at the height of his popularity had more than 70,000 followers worldwide, including Melanie Griffith, Diana Ross, and Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame. He claimed to have achieved sainthood and become so enlightened he was “perfect” and absolutely free of human weakness. Human weaknesses in his guru book of do’s-and-don’ts did not include sexual liaisons with a parade of young girls at his ashram nor his secret Swiss bank accounts. Joan Bridges, one of his students, was 26-years-old when she was sexually abused by Swami Muktananda, who was 73 at the time.

“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”

In 1994 the Kripalu Center imploded when Amrit Desai, its saffron robed founder and ‘Spiritual Director’, was found out to have had multiple extra-marital affairs. “He was too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good,” writes Stephen Cope in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Desai, who had preached about the value of celibacy as a way to focus on yoga, was forced to resign his $150,000.00 a year spiritual directorship. “My first reaction was shock,” said Jonathan Foust, who was the public relations director at Kripalu at the time, and who had been celibate for what he described as six “difficult” years before marrying.

“I felt betrayed because celibacy is no easy practice.”

John Friend’s Anusara Yoga, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, collapsed in 2012 when its jet-setting founder and guiding light was accused of sexual improprieties and financial malfeasance. At the time Anusara was an international practice that claimed more than 1,500 teachers and 600,000 students. “It was a new thing,” said Joe Miller, owner of Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was yoga rock-stardom.” Although often sermonizing at yoga festivals about the value of relationships and the importance of trust, it was revealed that John Friend had engaged in drug use, had sexual relations with students, employees, and married women, and tampered with his company’s pension fund.

Just because a yoga teacher says let’s go pole dancing on the shores of the lagoon of bliss doesn’t make it right. And, parenthetically, just because the apparel behemoth Lululemon, trying to sell its trove of see-through yoga pants before being forced to recall them, says that see-through yoga pants are appropriate attire for practicing down dog, doesn’t make trying to unload them right, either.

“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis,” the Dalai Lama has said. Unless, of course, it is easier to be guided by the pleasant platitudes of teachers like Swami Muktananda, Amrit Desai, and John Friend.

But, it is absurd that a man should rule others who cannot rule himself. Leadership is partly about meeting moral challenges, partly about coalescing people around a shared vision, and mostly about being clear and courageous.

“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity,” said Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Army during World War II and two-time President of the United States.

The environments and social milieus we live in shape us, just as the leaders we choose to follow shape us, for we become like them. One of the tests of integrity is its refusal to be compromised, its refusal to consider the bottom line, to meditate on profits before probity.

“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” Bob Dylan warned in the song Subterranean Homesick Blues. When Lululemon weds pole dancing to yoga in order to sell its perky fitness apparel made for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, and Yoga Journal lends its hand to the tawdry enterprise, it may indeed be time to watch the parking meters and not follow leaders who are bleeding the meters dry.

Dead Man Pose

corpse-pose

“Release your bones,” said Vera Nyberg.

She sat cross-legged on a one-step-up platform at the front of the room, scanning the sparsely attended late afternoon class as everyone finished their yoga poses and settled down on their mats.

”Release your bones into the earth,” she said. “Feel the support of the earth beneath them.“

John Cerberus rolled out of shoulder stand and following her bidding lay down in corpse pose, squeezing his eyes shut and exhaling strongly. He made a mental note to tell her two things.

The first was to not teach any more classes wearing the leopard print Capri’s and black sports halter she was wearing. It wasn’t attractive. She was only a temporary teacher living in the dormitory, but he expected her to know better about how to dress for class, even though it wasn’t a dress code as much as what was understood to be appropriate at the center.

The second was to wear contacts when she was teaching. The cat eye frame glasses she was wearing made her look old-fashioned and weird.

He made another mental note.

He would have to re-read the poison pen letters slipped under his office door earlier in the month, week, and day. There was something about the way they were written that reminded him of somebody, maybe like e-mails he had gotten a year-or-so ago. It was probably nothing, he reasoned, just another malcontent from the Amazing Grace days.

They were the last mental notes made by the Asana Director of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health.

The large room with its scattered practitioners lying prone on their mats was filled with dusk, the lights dimmed almost off, the late November sun setting on the other side of the row of yew hedges outside the floor to ceiling windows.

He relaxed uneasily into the last pose of the hatha class. It had been a demanding ninety minutes at the end of a long, demanding day. Maybe savasana wouldn’t be so bad today, he thought. He let his feet fall out to the sides and turned his arms outward, palms face up, trying to let go of his body.

He made an effort to quiet his breathing.

Around him the guests and day-pass visitors were lowering their bodies into dead man’s pose, what the Sanskrit word savasana was better known as, letting their eyes sink back and releasing their thoughts. Lying there they looked peaceful, Vera thought, giving the room a last once-over.

“Release your jaw and soften your eyes and tongue,” she said, easing the class inward. “Sink into the surrender of no thoughts, no ideas, into the you as you are in yourself, into the world as it is in itself.”

She closed her eyes, letting stillness envelop the room, and started counting her breaths to one hundred, which would take about ten minutes. Afterwards she would guide everyone back to a seated position and bring the lights up again for the end of class.

Corpse pose was hard for John Cerberus, a state of being neither awake nor asleep. The practice of bending, stretching, and twisting the body suited him, as did dead to the world sleep, but not the middle space between effort and sleep. He generally shunned the void of corpse pose unless he was taking somebody else’s class.

There was something, sensations, or memories, at the core of his body he knew better to avoid.

As he breathed to bring his thoughts to a standstill, he became aware someone was behind him, squatting down, large hands at the side of his head, massaging his temples. He was mildly surprised. Vera Nyberg hadn’t struck him as the kind of teacher who proffered head and shoulder savasana massages. She was schooled in Ashtanga Yoga, a more severe practice than most.

The fingers of both hands, one on each side of his head, moved from his temples down to the base of his neck. The sides of her forearms picked up his head and hands cradled his neck. He opened his eyes slightly and peeked backwards.

It wasn’t Vera Nyberg, after all.

John Cerberus started to smile, but then a knee pushed his left shoulder hard into the ground, and before he could react, his head was jerked sharply to the right and his neck snapped.e was surprised

Vera slowly opened her eyes taking her one-hundredth breath. Every day a little bit dying, she thought, something she heard Pattabhi Jois say at a workshop in New York City the last time he visited there. Jois said that corpse pose was a hard posture to master, quieting the mind and body.

“Most difficult for student, not waking, not sleeping,” he said in his broken English. “If student does not get up from savasana, or lifting student up is like a stiff board, savasana is correct.”

After everyone rolled onto their sides, then leaned up and were sitting cross-legged, she thanked them for coming to the class, reminded them about the center’s weekend activities, especially the back bending workshop she was leading Sunday morning, and smiling broadly said, “Happy weekend, everyone.

“Namaste.”

It was only after she had straightened up her area, tucking her iPod and water bottle away into her duffel, that she noticed the body still lying in corpse pose. Tossing the bag over her shoulder, she walked over, recognizing John Cerberus. As she bent down to touch him on the shoulder she noticed there was a small bright yellow flower that looked like a bird’s foot on the center of his chest.

His breath was neither rising nor falling, and when she looked him in the face, his head akimbo, his features were ashy and his unseeing eyes rolled up and back in their sockets.

She reached into her duffel bag, fumbling to find her iPhone.

Sam Fowler of the Wareham Police Department was lifting a pint of Backlash Holiday Porter to his lips when his cell phone began chirping where he had laid it down next to the plate of cod and chips in front of him. He was sitting at the short end of the bar at the Gateway Tavern and Grill. He looked at his Samsung in disgust, checked the incoming number, and then took the call from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

After listening for a moment he said, “OK, ask the Falmouth guys to keep a lid on everything until I get there. I’m just finishing something up here that can’t wait and when I’m done I’ll be on my way. How do you spell the place?”

He flipped open a spiral notebook.

“All right, I’ve got it. It sounds like it will be about an hour-or-so drive. I should be there by nine-thirty.”

He pushed his Holiday Porter away, asked the bartender for a glass of water, and methodically began eating his dinner. The cod was seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon. He knew nothing about the Kritalvanda Center. He would have to call the station and let them know what was going on. Maybe Ginny Walther would know something. She was working the night shift at the dispatch desk. He had heard talk that she was into yoga.

An hour later, halfway to Wood’s Hole on the coastline of Buzzard’s Bay, an extra-large to-go JoMamas at his elbow, Sam Fowler called Ginny Walther and filled her in. He asked her if she knew anything about the Kritalvanda Center.

“I’ve been there a dozen times, or more, mostly one-day trips,” she said. “You can take any of the classes and workshops they offer on that day, and the day includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their cafeteria, although I have to warn you it’s all vegetarian.”

Sam Fowler’s scowl was audible over the phone.

“I spent a week there last year, on my vacation, on a retreat. It’s a wonderful place,” she said, “It couldn’t have been anyone there, they wouldn’t kill anyone.”

“Somebody was there,” he said.

What he found out from Ginny was that the center had its beginnings as the Yoga Society of Cape Cod in the early 1960s, in a derelict Shaker Trustee Building outside of Falmouth, its hippie residents living a communal life. As the ashram grew, which is what the residents called it, they outgrew the two-story saltbox building.

Twenty years later they bought a shut down Franciscan seminary on the peninsula northwest of Wood’s Hole and rehabilitated it to become the Kritalvanda Center.

“Since then they’ve really grown, because yoga has gotten popular,” Ginny said. “Almost 30,000 people cross the bridge every year to go there. They built an annex sometime ago, then a Wellness Center just this summer, new locker rooms, they have their own beach, hiking trails, and even a labyrinth.”

“Why would anyone want a labyrinth?” he asked. “You get lost in them, right?”

“No, it’s not what you think,” she said, “It’s for walking meditation and inspiration, for finding yourself. You should try it while you’re there.”

Steering with his knees he rummaged in the center console organizer of his SUV and pulled out a new recording by Maria Schneider. He liked her large jazz ensemble work, which he had heard her band play in a club in New York City, but this one was different. For most of the rest of the drive Sam Fowler listened to it, but the more he heard of it the less he liked it.

The music was not so much jazz than a kind of fusion, a poet’s poems being sung, lyrical and classy. Jazz was the kind of music he acquired a liking for from his ex-wife before things went sour between them. He kept their collection of recordings when she moved away, thinking he had gotten the better of the bargain.

He knew jazz was restless and wouldn’t stay put, but he liked its improvisation to stay within jazzy boundaries. Not like his ex-wife, whose restlessness knew no boundaries.

Approaching the windy deserted dark streets of Wood’s Hole, the detective let his GPS find Penzance Point Road and ten minutes later was pulling into the parking lot terraced into a hillside below the main building of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health. The Medical Examiner was outside the entrance doors, leaning against the yellow brick building, a cigarette dangling from his thick fingers.

“They didn’t even want me to have a smoke out here, Sam, they put up a stink about it,” he said, sullen.

“What happened in there?” asked Sam Fowler

“It was a 911 call. When the paramedics figured out what the problem was, they called Falmouth. They’ve got a couple of cars here, there’s me, and the paramedics are still here, too. They’re all parked around back, where the customers get checked in. That lot out front where you parked is where people leave their cars afterwards, for the day, or however long they’re here for.”

Throwing his butt to the side, he said, “Follow me, I know the way.”

Outside a second floor room a uniformed officer was waiting who showed them inside where two paramedics were lounging beside a gurney.

“It looks like his neck was broken and his breathing went haywire,” one of them explained as they stood over the corpse. “He died of respiratory failure, probably within five minutes.”

Sam Fowler glanced at the Medical Examiner.

“His name was John Cerberus. He was in charge of the exercise program here. I put his death at right around six o’clock. The class had just ended, and as I understand it, they all lay down, closed their eyes, and meditated for a few minutes. The teacher found him at about six-fifteen when she was closing the room. She’s the one who called. From the bruising on his neck I can say it was deliberate.”

“I thought it was hard to break someone’s neck,” said Sam Fowler.

“Despite what you see in the action movies, it’s almost impossible to break someone’s neck like this,” answered the Medical Examiner. “You have to be fast and apply a lot of torque to do it. You have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Wouldn’t someone have heard his neck breaking?”

“Like I said, it’s not the movies, where you hear a cracking sound.”

“So no one saw anything or heard anything?”

“I don’t know. That’s your job.”

When John Cerberus was gone, strapped down and wheeled away on the stainless steel gurney, Sam Fowler thought to himself that it was a hell of a mess when someone was killed in a roomful of people in broad daylight and no one saw or heard anything.

He walked out to the uniformed policeman in the hallway.

“Let’s get everybody who was in this room back here,” he said, “and I want to see whoever is in charge of this place. Get a list of everybody registered here, and all the staff people, and let’s make sure they’re all still on the grounds. Find out if they have any closed circuit, especially of the road in and out, and the parking lot. I’ll set up for interviews in the cafeteria I saw downstairs. Tell someone to get the lights on and some coffee for me.”

Ten minutes later sitting at one end of a long table in the cafeteria, his notebook and a microcassette recorder in front of him, Sam Fowler listened unhappily as he was told his options were the center’s signature-style Chai Tea or Moroccan Mint.

Vera Nyberg sat on the upper mattress of her bunk bed in the corner of the nearly deserted dormitory room, her knees pulled to her chest, leaning back against the wall, slowly twirling between her fingers the wilting Bird’s-foot Trefoil she had found on John Cerberus.

Where had it come from? She knew what it was and what it meant in the language of flowers. It meant revenge. Hadn’t she seen it recently? Although it had been a mild autumn, the temperatures not falling below forty, yet, it was late in the year for it to still be blooming.

“I know I’ve seen this somewhere,” she said as much to herself as to Elizabeth Archer in the bunk below her.

“What is it?” asked Elizabeth, swinging her legs off the lower bunk and taking a step on the ladder, pulling herself up by the railing of the upper bunk.

Elizabeth Archer was at the center on a six-month internship from the Columbia Business School MBA program. Like Vera she was immersed in yoga, but unlike Vera, who described herself as “a yoga teacher, that’s all,” she was an entrepreneur in the making. After graduation she planned on crowdfunding and opening and finally franchising high-end yoga studios. Her internship was a step towards that goal.

“I didn’t really like John Cerberus, but for someone to kill him, I just don’t know,” said Vera, her voice trailing away.

The principle of non-violence was a golden rule of yoga. Would anyone have broken John Cerberus’s neck, she wondered, even if he deserved to have his neck wrung. But, someone in her room had done just that. She knew it was someone who had been in her class because if anyone had come in through the door during corpse pose she would have heard them.

Maybe not their footsteps, but the pneumatic door closer was creaky and needed oiling. It was noisy.

“I know what you mean,” said Elizabeth, pulling her unruly blonde hair away from her face with both hands. “He flushed Amazing Grace down the toilet, but if that’s why somebody killed him, I guess he didn’t deserve to die because of that.”

Two years earlier, amid accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, and financial irregularities with the company’s pension fund, John Cerberus, a former New York City bond trader and founder of Amazing Grace Yoga, had stepped aside as CEO of a business that licensed almost two thousand teachers teaching more than a half million people worldwide his form of trademarked postural yoga.

Since then his conglomerate had crumbled. Amazing Grace’s headquarters building in Austin, Texas, barely five years old, had been sold, its teachers moving on to other disciplines, and the brand name disgraced. But, John Cerberus had weathered the storm and resumed teaching as an independent instructor, and in the middle of the year had been hired by the center as its Asana Director, supervising the teachers and offerings of the posture classes.

“I think it was someone in my class,” said Vera. “I’m sure of it.”

“No, not someone in your class!” exclaimed Elizabeth.

The center had been nearly deserted the Friday after Thanksgiving. The weekend was expected to be busier, especially since events like ‘The Healing Power of Drumming and Chanting’ and ‘Chakra Cleansing’ had been added to the calendar in hopes of attracting non-traditional holiday goers, or even traditionalists in need of relief from too much turkey.

When she asked Pattabhi Jois about being a vegetarian as step towards being a good yoga teacher, he said, “Meat eating makes you stiff. You will not be able to breathe right.”

Only nineteen people had taken Vera Nyberg’s class in a room that could easily fit seventy-five. Four of them were couples come down on I-93 from Boston for the long weekend. Three were good-looking young men, long-time friends of hers who lived in Provincetown year-round. A few were volunteers who worked in Food Services for their room and board and lived in the dormitory, like her. The rest were day-pass men and women who had come separately, and the last was one of the masseuses in the Wellness Center, who had slipped in late, after the class had almost started.

“It’s freaky to think there was a killer practicing yoga and planning to murder somebody the whole time,” said Elizabeth. “Who could have been that intense, and that quiet? You were all in the room, somebody would have heard them moving around, wouldn’t they have?”

Vera thought about what Lizzie was saying. She had a capable memory, but in a yoga room her mindfulness was sharp. For her the real art of memory was the art of attention. She paid attention to every person in her classes, making sure she knew their names beforehand, any limitations they might have, and where they were in the room so she could check on them whenever she thought it necessary. She hadn’t heard any footsteps during corpse pose, of that she was sure. Vera would have opened her eyes to see why someone was leaving the class early.

Who was closest to John Cerberus during the class?

Her friends had been in the front, where she insisted they be so she could keep an eye on any monkey business. They had clowned around up to the moment class started, but were good afterwards. Everyone else had been loosely knit at the center of the room, John Cerberus on the edge flanked by one of the wives from Boston, and on his outside hip, partly screened from her, there had been someone else. For some reason she couldn’t place the person. Their mat had been in a shadow between two high hats and off-center from her field of vision.

Maybe if she drew a map of where all the mats were in the room, and who had been on them, she would be able to see who had been on the mat just outside of John Cerberus.

“Lizzie, do you have a legal pad?” asked Vera.

Sam Fowler, who had been joined by a young plainclothesman, used his hands to push himself away from the table, stretched his stiff as a board legs out, and looked up at the ceiling. His notebook was almost filled with his illegible handwriting.

“Who do we have left?” he asked Jeremy Kroon, the only man the Falmouth station had been able to find on a late Friday night to help him.

“Just the teacher,” Kroon answered, pushing black bangs off his forehead.

How the hell did he get through the academy? He looks like one of the Beatles, thought Sam Fowler.

It was nearing one in the morning. Sam could feel the cold seeping in through the windows. The weather forecast was for a storm blowing in by Saturday night, although how stormy it might be was anybody’s guess. What was certain was that winter was close, he realized, rubbing his knees. The bone structure of the landscape would soon be all there was.

“Go ask somebody to get her down here.”

He had interviewed everyone who had been in the class, so far, and the Director of Program Development, as well, who seemed to be in charge since both the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating officer were out of town visiting family for the holidays.

Denise O’Neill was frank about her dislike of John Cerberus, although she admitted his qualifications.

“He is, I mean, was, excuse me, one of the most knowledgeable and experienced yoga teachers in the world, which is what he was always telling everybody. Maybe he was, I don’t know, I’m sure he was.”

She looked sad and annoyed at the same time.

“He studied with Iyengar, and he was once on their board of directors, too” she added. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Sam Fowler didn’t know who she was talking about and let it pass. He assumed Iyengar was yoga brass of some kind.

“Either it was because somebody owed him a favor, or it was the notoriety, or just a second chance, that’s why he landed here. We were supposed to work together, but he seemed to think he was my boss, even though I’ve been here eight years,” she added.

She had been reading alone in her room before dinner when John Cerburus was murdered.

“What were you reading?” he asked her.

“I was reading ‘The Courage to Be You’,” she said.

When she drew a blank from the police detective, she explained, “It’s a woman’s guide to emotional strength and self-esteem.”

“I see,” said Sam Fowler.

When she was gone he said to Jeremy Kroon, “Well, we know she didn’t kill anybody.”

The young police detective agreed, although he wasn’t exactly sure why.

Both couples from Boston said they knew John Cerberus from a new-age California music and yoga festival called Wanderlust they had been to three years ago, and that he had been the reason they had come to the center for the weekend. John Cerberus had taught a workshop earlier in the day about Tantra, the second half of which had been scheduled for Saturday.

“Tantra was the philosophical base of his Amazing Grace Yoga, did you know?” said one of the women, an attractive brunette in her late-30s.

“Isn’t that about sex?” asked Sam Fowler.

“That’s what most people think, but it’s more than that,” she answered. “It’s about sexual practice with the intention of spiritual awakening, increasing power, and experiencing bliss through embodiment. It’s not an indulgent practice.

“Everybody said John cheated on his girlfriends, and lied to them, but that’s not what it was ever about,” she continued, leaning forward. “Tantra is about using yoga poses, deep breathing, and stimulating acts, including intercourse, to hasten rapturous bliss.”

“Oh, I see,” he said, tilting his head and pressing his lips together thoughtfully.

She had been the last of the four Boston natives to be interviewed, one at a time, all of them separately. After watching her sashay out of the cafeteria Jeremy Kroon turned to Sam Fowler and asked, “You don’t think they’re involved, either, do you?

“No, they didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “They’re Back Bay people. They wouldn’t know how to break a chicken’s neck even if their own lives depended on it.”

Vera Nyberg’s three friends from Provincetown were excited about the murder, but at the same time nonchalant about the death. They had been asked, sitting in the hallway outside the cafeteria, to come in one at a time, but when they burst in together, Sam Fowler decided there was less bother in talking to them all at once than one at a time.

Only one person had killed John Cerberus. He doubted it was these three hens.

They didn’t so much answer his questions about what they seen or heard as talk about John Cerberus.

“What was all the partying about?” one of them said. “I must have missed that limb of yoga. And what about stealing retirement money from your employees? Patanjali has to be rolling over in his grave.”

“He was always jet-setting to Burning Man and Wanderlust,” another explained.

“He was the P. T. Barnum of yoga, the center of the world, and that whole posse of his, the kirtan bands and wannabe gurus,” the third man chimed in.

“It was a different kind of yoga?” asked Sam Fowler.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with yoga, they said.

“The postures and classes were what you would expect, but that’s just a part of the practice,“ said the fittest of the three fit men. ”The rest of it, all the parts of it that really matter, he ignored or turned them into a gala ball all his own.”

But, they all impressed on him that no one deserved to be murdered, and insisted that violence was beyond the pale in the world of yoga, of which there were many parts.

“What kind of yoga do you do?”

“We do Bikram Yoga, where there’s 90 minutes of the same poses in a hot room that’s 105 or 110 degrees and humidity is steamed in.”

“If you get your hands on a suspect, let us know,” said the cleanest cut of the three neat men. “We’ll sweat the truth out of him!”

An operetta is simply a small and gay opera, thought Sam Fowler, as the trio left the cafeteria.

None of the employees, the kitchen staff nor the masseuse, or the day-passers, had seen or heard or knew anything. None of them had been involved in Amazing Grace Yoga, personally or professionally. They deplored but forgave John Cerberus’s indiscretions, as much as they knew of them, and repeated that no one who practiced yoga would have considered killing him, much less actually committing the crime.

Waiting for Vera Nyberg and looking over his casebook, something nagged at Sam Fowler, something that was missing. It was something one of them hadn’t said, he thought.

When Elizabeth Archer answered the knock on the door of their dormitory room, spying the Falmouth patrolman on the threshold, Vera Nyberg was ready. She had been busy at the writing table mapping the mats and their owners in the room that afternoon. She now knew who had been on John Cerberus’s outside hip, and she knew where she had seen the Birds-foot Trefoil earlier in the week, as well.

What she didn’t know was whether she was going to tell the policeman what she knew.

As Vera came into the cafeteria Sam Fowler looked her up and down. She was slim, he could tell, even though she was wearing baggy black cotton sweatpants and a zip-up hoodie. He put her in her early-30s. Her black hair was long, in a ponytail, her face angular, and her mouth wide. Her glasses were a vintage style, out of the 1950s. Her hands and feet were large. She was wearing flip-flops, her toenails painted a bright red.

He stood up, motioned her to the chair opposite him, and she sat down.

After getting her name and address in Boston, as well as her cell phone number, Sam Fowler asked, “When was the last time you saw John Cerberus alive?”

“When he lay down in dead man’s pose,” she answered.

”Did you know him?”

“Yes, he was my boss, more-or-less, he and Denise. But, I’m one of the work exchange teachers, and I was only here for the month, so we didn’t come into contact much.”

“Do you know of any reason anyone would want to kill him?”

“Not anyone I know, no.”

She remembered what Pattabhi Jois said, “One year, two year, ten years. No use. Whole life. Whole life a practice.” John Cerberus wouldn’t be practicing anymore. His days had come to an end. No one can say for sure that he will be living tomorrow. All of John Cerberus’s living had been suddenly stopped. We take care of our lives and Krishna takes care of our deaths, she thought.

“Could someone have come into the room from outside and attacked him?”

“I don’t think so. I would have heard them.”

“Do you think someone in the room killed him?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it had to be someone in the room, yes.”

“Do you know who that might be?”

“No, not really.”

She seemed to be hedging her bets, he thought, and made a note.

“Did you kill him?” he suddenly asked her.

“No, of course not!” exclaimed Vera, taken aback by the question. “I don’t believe in causing harm. It’s in the Yoga Sutras.”

That was it, realized Sam Fowler, that’s what hadn’t been said by someone that everyone else had said in one way or another, which was that no one who practiced yoga would kill anyone. Who was it that hadn’t said it? He was sure he would have it either in his notes or on tape.

“The Yoga what?” Sam Fowler asked Vera Nyberg.

“The Yoga Sutras,” she said. “They were written a long time ago, about two thousand years, maybe at the same time as the Bible. But they’re short, just a couple of hundred sayings. It’s a guidebook, not a how-to book. It’s about choosing your best ethical path.”

“Like the Ten Commandments?” he asked.

“No, not exactly,” she answered.

“The rule about non-violence isn’t a rule, exactly. It’s more about not causing unnecessary harm, which happens when you start to see the origins and effects of violence. My teacher used to say, “Yoga is not physical, very wrong. Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” He meant it was about awareness, about expanding your consciousness. An open heart is what yoga is about, and as your heart opens not harming begins to make all the sense in the world.”

“What if you were attacked? Or if someone you loved was being assaulted? What would you do then?”

“I would do what my teacher always told us to do when we asked him questions in class.”

“What was that?”

“You do!”

“I see.”

Yoga takes care of its own, in its own way, thought Sam Fowler. In the meantime, somewhere in his interview notes someone had neglected to recite the mantra of non-violence. He wasn’t sure it meant anything, but it was the only anomaly of the night, so far. It wouldn’t hurt to find out who it was and interview them again.

“Thank you Miss Nyberg,” said Sam Fowler.

He had made a point to look and had not seen a wedding ring on her hand when he looked.

“I may or may not need to talk to you again tomorrow. We’ll let you know.”

The two police detectives watched her walk out.

“What made you think she might have had anything to do with it?” asked Jeremy Kroon.

“I didn’t.”

Sam Fowler knew better than anyone that nobody could read his scrawled cramped notes. He would have to review his casebook himself. In the meantime, he needed coffee.

“I need coffee,” he said to Jeremy Kroon. “Your job is to find some. I like JoMamas, but I’ll take Dunkin or anything brewed hot you can find at this time of night. Then you can call it a day, find somewhere to sack out, and we’ll get back to it at eight.”

An hour later, coffee at hand, Sam Fowler settled into a comfortable lounge chair in the main lobby, a table lamp lit on the end table beside him, and cracked open his casebook. Twenty minutes later, nearing three o’clock in the morning, the coffee barely touched, he was asleep, the casebook haphazrd in his lap.

The only sounds in the empty lobby the rest of the night were his breathing, the forced air from the furnace, and the winter wind testing the windows.

Vera sat up on the edge of her bunk at six-thirty, almost a half-hour before sunrise. She had wondered about the murder of John Cerberus for a short time, lying in bed after talking to the detective, but let it go. She quickly fell asleep, believing the answer would come to her in the morning.

She slipped nimbly down the ladder. Elizabeth was snoring softly carelessly in the bottom bunk. Peeking through the window Vera saw the sky was white-gray. The wind was downstream, neither rain nor snow was falling, although it felt cold through the glass.

It seemed like the storm had so far skirted them.

In the hallway she made her way to the new Wellness Center. Few doors were kept locked at Kritalvanda and the Wellness Center’s entrance door was not one of them. Once inside she thumbed the rocker switch and turned the lights on. There were five massage rooms in a row down the left corridor. She pored over the first room, and a minute later the second room. It was in the fourth room that she found what she was looking for, an empty glass cylinder bud vase on a mission-style corner table at the far end of the masseuse table.

Retracing her steps she made her way back to the dormitory and shook Elizabeth awake. “Lizzie, you know everybody here. Where does Lola Donning stay?”

Elizabeth pushed a mop of sandy hair away from her face and rubbed her eyes.

“The massage therapist?”

“Yes.”

“She’s in the west wing, in one of the semi-private rooms, on the second floor, although I think she’s been rooming by herself since she got here last month. I’m sure it’s room eight. But, you know, yesterday was her last day here. She gave two week’s notice.”

When Vera Nyberg got to Lola Donning’s room she found the door ajar and the room empty. The bed was unmade and the wardrobe closet, when she looked inside, was bare. The bathroom was shorn of toiletries.

Lola Donning was gone.

Leaning on the sink Vera Nyberg looked at herself in the mirror. Her gaze sank to the basin. Where had Lola Donning found Bird’s-foot Trefoil for her bud vase, the unusual flower Vera had noticed one afternoon while getting a massage late last month? It wasn’t a flower that grew in woodlands, like those that surrounded the center on three sides. It was a forage plant, grown for pasture or hay. She might have found it on the front side of the grounds, facing Buzzard’s Bay, but most of the front side was either sloping grassland that was regularly mowed or the terraced parking lot.

Then, without hesitation, Vera Nyberg knew where Lola Donning must have found the flower. She hurried back to the dormitory to get her winter coat.

“Lizzie, the policeman is sleeping in the lobby. I‘m going out to the circle. This is what I want you to do, and then meet me out there as soon as you can with your car keys,” she said, shrugging into her coat. “Pack some clothes, too.”

Once outside she wrapped a wool muffler around her long neck. The sky was bulked up with thick clouds and the morning light was raw and milky. The whitecaps on Buzzard’s Bay were sluggish. At the bottom of the stairs she avoided the parking lot and cut through to the labyrinth on the knoll.

The center’s garden labyrinth was not a maze with multiple dead ends and designed to confuse. The labyrinth had one entrance and a winding path to the middle. Vera walked to the middle where she found Lola Donning standing in a thin jacket with her back to her.

People don’t notice whether it’s summer or winter when they’re unhappy, she thought, and waited for Lola to see her. She glanced at the bracelet watch on her left wrist. It was seven-thirty.

“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be you or the police,” Lola Donning finally said, turning to face Vera Nyberg. “When they didn’t say anything about the flower I thought maybe you had taken it.”

“Yes, I took it.”

“How did you know what it meant?”

“My mother was a landscape designer. She specialized in gardens.”

They stood quietly for a few minutes.

“My mother and I lived in New Mexico for a long time, where I grew up,” said Lola Donning. “They have labyrinths there, the Indians, you know. There’s one entrance, which is birth, and in the center is God. Sometimes it’s a family labyrinth, and in the middle of the circle is your original ancestor, and two continuous lines join the twelve joints, just like this one.”

She pointed to the center of the labyrinth.

“When most people hear of a labyrinth they think of a maze, but that’s not what they are. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved, lots of choices to be made, but with a labyrinth, there’s only one choice to be made, which is whether to enter it or not.”

The yoga teacher thought of what her teacher told her when she asked him for advice at the end of her training in Mysore. “Each morning wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you eat, maybe you fast. Maybe you sleep indoors, maybe you sleep outdoors. The next morning, wake up, and do again. Practice yoga, and all is coming!”

Was it like the labyrinth Lola Donning was describing, the labyrinth that had brought the two of them together, where the only choice was whether to be in it or not? Or was it like a maze in which everyone was doomed to make choices and then be forever defined by the choices they made?

She thought Pattabhi Jois would probably say that there is only the life we live as an experience, not as a problem to be resolved, like mice in a maze, whatever the final end might be.

“That’s where my mom met John Cerberus, when she was teaching yoga. It was in Loving, outside of Carlsbad. She was one of the first teachers he recruited, and she was with him until the end, two years ago. She died on New Year’s Day, almost a year ago, in the house I was born in.”

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” asked Vera before she could stop herself, suddenly realizing as she asked that it must have had everything to do with John Cerberus.

“She killed herself.”

The two women stood in the bleak cold, the thin line of dawn on the horizon behind them a mute pinkish orange slash, the late November wind a cold draft at their ankles and necks.

“She died because of him. I’d been working here less than a couple of weeks, and I saw him in a hallway one day. I almost fell down. I couldn’t believe it. I never in my life thought I’d see him again. But there he was, smug in his yoga trappings, on top of the world again.

“I wrote him a letter, telling him I knew what he had done, although I didn’t tell him who I was, and then gave two weeks notice that same day.”

Vera Nyberg stretched the muffler up her neck and over her mouth and ears as the wind rose, starting to gust.

“My mom said their yoga was special, the kind they pioneered. She was excited, right from the beginning. The yoga was about aligning the body and the spirit. Everything was done on a personal level, what they called the heart level. That’s the way it was for years, him and my mom.

“But, then they started training teachers and writing manuals and organizing workshops. They invited him to the Yoga Journal conferences and he was a hit. He got big. They had to project his image on screens in the conference rooms, there were so many people wanting to be a part of it. You couldn’t even see him anymore.

“He put together a traveling show and started going to all the festivals, and then he flew to Europe, and Japan, and he got even bigger. My mom thought it was the two of them, but it wasn’t, not anymore, although she couldn’t see it for what it had become.

“Then he brought sex into it, what he called left-handed tantra. He formed a Wicca coven with some of his students, in secret, and some teachers, but my mom wasn’t a part of that, either. She wouldn’t have done it even if she had known. She wasn’t like that.

“When she found out he told her the coven was a battery for his yoga, the foundation of his charisma. He said he was using sex energy in a positive and sacred way, but she told him he was out of integrity, and everything ended between them. She still worked for the yoga, but she wasn’t doing well.

“After everything fell apart and it came out into the open, my mom was devastated. Every day it got worse and worse until it was all over. I wasn’t living at home, but we talked every day. I was worried about her, but she sounded all right, until one day when she didn’t take my calls. I kept getting her voice mail, so I drove from Phoenix to Loving. It took me all night.

“I found her in bed in the morning. She looked just like she was asleep. She didn’t even leave a note for me, just for him, blaming him for everything.”

When men make choices only God is blameless.

“I don’t know what happened,” Lola said. “I didn’t mean to. I planned it, I think, yesterday, my last day, but at the same time, I didn’t, it just happened. It was like somebody else was doing it, like I was watching myself and couldn’t stop, like a bad dream.”

Tears were in Lola Donning’s eyes, the silent language of grief. The wind was blowing the rain away, but just for the moment.

“Since I’m going to be sticking my neck out, I think we should leave this place,” said Vera. “I don’t think there’s anything else to be found here.”

In the lobby Sam Fowler woke up. Elizabeth Archer was standing to the side of him, her hand shaking his shoulder.

“What time is it?” he asked, wiping a crumb of dried saliva from a corner of his mouth.

“It’s seven fifty-five,” she said, stepping back

“I must have fallen asleep. I didn’t know I was so tired.” He straightened up in the chair. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, Vera and I are supposed to drive one of the employees, really, an ex-employee now, she gave notice two week’s ago, to Boston, to the train station. We were wondering if that was all right?”

“You’re the desk girl, at the reception desk?” he asked, trying to place her.

“Yes, but I don’t think of myself as the desk girl,” she said, her voice cool and reserved. “My name is Elizabeth Archer. I coordinate our arrivals and departures.“

Sam Fowler would have preferred to be standing, not sitting in an easy chair.

“I may want to talk to you and Vera again, but that can wait until you’re back, ” he said, still groggy, shrugging.

He watched her walk away towards the main doors, pulling on her coat. She went down the stairs, around the parking lot and to the labyrinth, where through the plate glass window Sam Fowler saw two women waiting. One of them was Vera Nyberg. They talked for a minute, leaning into the wind, and then walked to the far sidewalk that led to the rear of the main building.

He looked down at his lap. His casebook wasn’t there, nor was it or his Sony micro-cassette recorder on the end table next to his chair.

After he gotten down on his hands and knees and searched the floor ten and fifteen feet in all directions, and finally stood up alone in the lobby, he realized with a grim finality they were gone.

“Goddamn it,” he said under his breath.

Flipping through Jeremy Kroon’s notebook as they sat in the cafeteria twenty minutes later, Sam Fowler found it was filled with cryptic doodles, loose-limbed cartoons of some of the people they had talked to, and several versions of the paper and pencil game called hangman.

“I saw you were taking notes, and you had that back-up recorder, so I didn’t bother,” the chagrined Jeremy Kroon explained.

“All right,” snorted Sam Fowler.

“I’m going up to Wareham, check in at the station, and I’ll be back early this evening. Get everyone’s forwarding addresses, phone numbers, and they’re free to go. So far we have nothing, but there’s something I’m missing. I can put my finger on it, but I don’t know where it is, exactly.”

Sam Fowler relied on evidence he gathered at crime scenes to come to conclusions and knew that reconstructing everything he had seen and heard from memory was not only improbable, but also suspect. It would be like shining a flashlight from side to side in the dark. Only successful liars have great memories, and he wasn’t a great liar.

His SUV was still in the front lot where he had left it the night before, but on his way to it he changed course and walked to the labyrinth. Ginny Walther had said that labyrinths were for finding things, not for losing your way in dead ends. In the late November morning light it was a drab place, the flagstones slick with an icy rain. He found the middle of the labyrinth easily enough and stood looking down on Buzzard’s Bay.

He debated whether it was a labyrinth or a maze, and whether there was anything there for him. After a moment he turned to retrace his steps, but taking his first step the toe of his black oxford slid on a frozen clump of gnarled green and yellow. As he slipped a hard gust of wind hit him in the chest and he went head over heels onto his back.

He thumped on the ground, knocking the wind out of him. His diaphragm spasmed and he gasped for air, grunting involuntarily. His lungs would not inflate. He tried to relax, and when his lungs finally started working again he clambered to his knees, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. He looked down at what he had slipped on. It was a crushed flower shaped like a bird’s foot.

Elizabeth Archer was at the wheel of her Nissan Rogue, Lola Donning in the passenger seat, and Vera Nyberg in the rear seat as they left the Kritalvanda Yoga Center on their way to Boston. None of them noticed Sam Fowler gulping air and struggling to get off his back in the eye of the labyrinth.

Driving through Falmouth Vera Nyberg suddenly said, “Let’s stop here. There’s a JoMamas on the corner.”

As they were returning to the car with coffee, tea, and hot breakfast sandwiches, Elizabeth Archer paused and said to Vera, “Oh, wait, there’s that something I should do.”

She walked to the front of the coffee shop, pulled a spiral notebook out of her coat pocket, and began tearing the pages out and dropping them into the outdoor trash receptacle. When she was done she walked around to the back of the shop, and pulling microcassette tapes out of a small satchel one at a time crushed them beneath the heel of her zip boots. She tossed the tapes, the cassette recorder, and the bag into the dumpster, and walked back to the car.

They drove north on Route 28A to the Bourne Bridge, and then east on Trowbridge Road to the Sagamore Bridge, but instead of crossing the bridge and continuing on to Boston, Vera told Elizabeth to turn right onto Route 6.

“But, that will take us back on to the Cape,” she said.

“I know,” said Vera. “Lizzie, have you ever read ‘On the Road’?”

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s a book from the 1950s by Jack Kerouac, Anyway, in the book it’s about Sal Paradise, and he starts hitchhiking to California on Route 6, but someone tells him “there’s no traffic passes through 6.” It’s raining and he wants to go fast and have experiences, so he goes a different way. But, you know, it’s an old road, the kind where people used to have adventures, and it’s the longest road in the country. When you get to Provincetown there’s a sign that says ‘End of US 6, Provincetown to Long Beach, Coast to Coast.’”

“All right, but where are you going with this?” asked Elizabeth Archer.

“I think we should go to Provincetown instead of Boston. That policeman is no fool. He’s like my father, who was a policeman. He thinks we went to Boston. Only we know Lola’s with us. She can stay with my friends. They have a guest room that’s empty all winter and they can find work for her. She can start over. She can practice yoga there, get back on her feet. My friends are crazy for Bikram Yoga, you know, the hot room kind. They’re always asking me to try it. They even say Bikram has a slogan that if you do his yoga every day for thirty days it will change your life.”

The afternoon sun peeked through the clouds as they sped east towards the end of the Cape. Once, when she asked Pattabhi Jois where inner peace came from, he told her, “Without yoga, what use? You practice many years, then shanti is coming, no problem.”

“Would you like to do that?” Vera Nyberg asked Lola Donning.

“Yes, I would,” said Lola, twisting in her seat towards Vera.

“I woke up every morning wanting to break his neck, thinking revenge would be sweet, but it’s not. I thought revenge was justice. It’s not. I should have left it in the hands of karma to take care of him. I hate what I did. I feel like a worse person than he was. The best revenge would have been to be as much unlike him as possible.”

At Orleans they drove into and out of the traffic circle, towards Eastham, Truro, and finally Provincetown at the fist end of the Outer Cape.

“I’ve heard Provincetown in the dead of winter is cold, but maybe the yoga there will warm up my heart,” she said, turning to stare out the side window.

She wrapped her hands around the extra-large cup of JoMamas and took a long slow sip of her special blend holiday chai tea.

“We’ll all warm up in Provincetown,” said Vera, as Lizzie flicked on the headlights to light up the gloom on the road ahead of them.

The Godless Gita

bagavd-gita-1

The Bhagavad Gita, a verse poem divided into 18 books, composed about 200 BCE, is considered a monument of the human heart and spirit, testifying to man’s quest for truth and wisdom.

For more than two thousand years the classic Kuruksetran text, subsumed into India’s national epic the Mahabharta, has been considered far and near as the ultimate instruction manual for living a spiritual life.

In modern life the insights of the Bhagavad Gita continue to confront the problems of the 21st century, speaking to issues such as choice, duty, and purpose.

Many great men have extolled its virtues.

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

“When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe everything else seems so superfluous,” said Albert Einstein.

“It’s about the game of awakening, about the coming into Spirit,” said Ram Dass, the author of Path to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.

In the world of yoga the Bhagavad Gita is both seminal and revelatory, because it is through Arjuna’s questions and Krishna’s answers that the underpinnings and practice of yoga are revealed. Although yoga has much to do with physical and mental well being, in the Bhagavad Gita the original spiritual purpose of yoga, connecting one’s consciousness to the supreme consciousness, is the nexus of the poem.

Everything else is coincident to controlling one’s body, mind, and senses for the purpose of uniting with the divine.

The Bhagavad Gita is not without its problems, however, among them its Homeric sub-text, its wild inconsistencies regarding non-attachment, and its top-down rationale for ordering human affairs.

One of the most vexing problems is how to take Krishna. Is he the avatar of yoga’s most abiding and sublime motifs, such as vairagya and ahimsa? Vairagya, or non-attachment, and ahimsa, or non-violence, are two of the basic precepts present in nearly all forms of yogic thought.

Or is he a monster who advocates war for his own unspeakable reasons, justifying fratricidal conflict with specious arguments about the meaninglessness of physical existence?

The question and problem come to a boil in Book 11.

As Book 10 ends Krishna declares that he is so vast and great that just a single fragment of him is enough to “support the entire universe.“ Despite this declaration, Arjuna says to Krishna that although he doesn’t doubt his godliness, he would still like to see first-hand what it amounts to.

“I want to see for myself the splendor of your ultimate form.”

Krishna grants Arjuna divine sight for a few minutes so he can transcend his mortal vision and see Krishna for what he really is. What follows in Book 11 are six omniscient narrative stanzas and seventeen stanzas spoken by Arjuna describing what he is seeing.

Arjuna’s eyewitness account makes up the salient stanzas, beginning with “I see all gods in your body.”

Krishna is described as being everything and everywhere, without beginning or end. At the same time, he is described as sitting on a lotus throne, wearing a crown, and bearing a mace and a discus.

The discus is a symbol of the knowledge of truth and the mace is a symbol of the power of knowledge

Krishna is everything, but at the same time is the King, or Lord. He knows what the truth is, being everywhere and everything, and as the King or Lord, wields the power of that knowledge.

Arjuna goes on to describe the angels and demons that gaze at Krishna in amazement, the chants the sages sing to him, and how the “innards” of mortals tremble at the sight of him.

Since Krishna is said to have “billion-fanged mouths blazing like the fires of doomsday” no one should be surprised at the bellyful of distress mortal men might feel at the sight of him.

The next lines are the crux of the problem.

They describe the opposing armies on the battlefield of Kuru, those of the Pandavas, led by the virtuous Arjuna, and those of the Kauravas, led by the one hundred sons of a blind king. They are both being swallowed up indiscriminately by the voracious Krishna, who Arjuna is seeing in the guise of his real godliness.

“Rushing headlong into your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged jaws. I see them with skulls crushed, their raw flesh stuck to your teeth,” Arjuna says.

“As the rivers in many torrents rush toward the ocean, all these warriors are pouring down into your blazing mouths. As moths rush into a flame and are burned in an instant, all beings plunge down your gullet and instantly are consumed.”

It is a godless Gita as Krishna goes about his grisly business.

The Hebrew god Yahweh of the Old Testament is often described as angry and cruel. He has nothing on the Hindu god Krishna. Not once in the almost seven thousand sightings of the god in the Old Testament is Yahweh ever described as having “gaping, knife-fanged jaws.”

If the Bhagavad Gita is a recruiting poster for Krishna’s promotion of the war, which is his often-stated and explicit intention throughout the poem, the slogan “I Want You” takes on a sinister double meaning.

Regardless of what side they stand on, all the warriors on the battlefield of Kuru are grist for the mill. All of Krishna’s reasoning, arguments, and commands are to one purpose, which is to get the detritus of war to pour down the craw of his rapacious mouth.

In Greek mythology Kronos, the Titan god of time, devoured his children for fear that they would one day overthrow him. In the movie King Kong the big monkey tried to use Fay Wray as a toothpick.

Neither self-survival nor the niceties of gastronomy seem to motivate Krishna. He is the great maw that must be fed and sated, although from all accounts in the Bhagavad Gita it is doubtful that Krishna can ever be sated, given his enormous appetite and preoccupation with the eternal.

Krishna does not explain himself other than to say he is death, annihilating all things, the “shatterer of worlds.” He bluntly declares that both armies will perish with or without Arjuna, and echoing Homer again, specifically the Illiad, urges Arjuna to fight and win everlasting glory.

It is a harrowing picture.

Krishna then blandly advises Arjuna to not be frightened anymore and see him as he was before. When he does, Arjuna is put at ease. It is an extraordinary recovery after seeing the “shatterer of worlds” gobble up thousands of warriors like so many French fries.

Krishna explains the merits of living in the now for most of the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of Book 11 he has apparently succeeded.  Arjuna says his “mind has regained its composure” and it is on to the next thing.

Arjuna has moved forward from one now to the next now without any thought of consequences or repercussions. Every now is now the same as every other now.

In Book 1 Arjuna catalogued his many and valid reasons for not going to war, not including ahimsa, which is never mentioned. Be that as it may, Krishna has won the day.

Arjuna says at the end of the Bhagavad Gita: “I have no more doubts. I will act according to your command.”

Like a lamb going to slaughter he consents to Krishna driving his chariot back into the god-ordained fray. It is unclear how this decision to go to war on the battlefield of Kuru dovetails with uniting to the divine, the supposed purpose of Krishna’s yoga lessons.

The poem ends with the poet Sanjaya, who is reciting the poem, saying that he has seen “splendor and virtue and spiritual wealth.”  This may be apt assessment, especially in Books 2 through 8, but it cannot be right when seen in the light of Book 11, in which Krishna reveals his true nature, which is self-serving, evil, and spiritually bankrupt.

Practicing nonattachment in order to apprehend the divine, as Krishna advises at the beginning of Book 7, may be the way to go about living the yogic life, but when Krishna adds the epithet that it requires “surrendering yourself to me,” I believe it may be time to speed-dial the nearest dentist for custom-made orthodontic retainers to restrain the “knife-fanged jaws” of the Hindu god.

The Other End of the Leash

images

Whenever Padma, a white and tan hound dog, hears her master’s namaste marking the end of class at Blue Lotus in Raleigh, NC, she stirs from her Mexican blanket pile, shakes, stretches in urdhva mukha svanasana, better known as upward-facing dog, and with her long nose in full gear makes the rounds of the yoga studio, sniffing out the sweaty yogis.

“It’s like clockwork,” says Jill Sockman. “She thinks namaste is her release command. If I am at the studio she is with me. On the rare occasion I am working and she’s not with me, people come in the front door, look to her empty bed, and the first thing they say isn’t ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m here for class’, but ‘Where is the dog?’ “

“She is my one true love and constant companion.”

The canine has been mankind’s best friend for a long time.

DNA research suggests gray wolves and dogs split into separate species around 100,000 years ago. Domestication began 30,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence from caves in Europe, and our herding and hunting relationship with them dates back to the end of the Pleistocene Age. Initially tolerated as scavengers of bones and animal remains, over time dogs were co-opted as guardians and trained helpmates.

“It takes only a short journey to get from dogs guarding the village to a personal house dog,” writes Stanley Coren in The Intelligence of Dogs.

There are more than 400 million dogs in the world.  Approximately 78 million of them are in the United States. Almost forty percent of American households own at least one. Among them are many yoga households. Although it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, it often seems like every other-and-more yogi has a dog.

“Almost all the yoga teachers that come to my mind have dogs,” says Dawn Schroeder, a Kundalini Yoga teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. “I have two dogs, both of them rescued.”

For some people, such as the handicapped, dogs are lifesavers. Helen Keller, the deaf and blind social activist, introduced the Akita to the United States and described the dog as an “angel in fur.” For others, like police, farmers, and even corporations, dogs are working partners. The runways of airports like Southwest Florida International are kept clear of large birds by Border Collies. For most people they are better known as pets and companions.

Although more physically diverse than any other land animal, resulting from centuries of intentional breeding, dogs are generally loyal and gregarious by nature, running to the door at the sound of familiar footsteps, not caring whether their owners are young or old, fat or fit, rich or poor. Money can’t buy the wag of a dog’s tail.  They rarely run in packs anymore and nowadays consider people to be part of their posse.

With the rise of suburbanization in the 1950s dog populations boomed and they made the transition from the doghouse to the home, becoming increasingly integrated into the lives of their owners. The modern dog became part of the family. Today many people feel like their pets are their favorite people.

“Our dog Zoe, a Westie terrier, is the light of our lives,” says Regan Burnett, who teaches yoga at the Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia. “She does a perfect down-dog and up-dog every morning upon waking and practices Centering Prayer with me in the evenings.

“She is very special.”

“Increasingly,” says Jon Katz, the author of The New Work of Dogs, “we are treating them as family members and human surrogates.” Some single people and childless couples, among others, anthropomorphize their pets to the standing of an honorary child. They are called ‘fur babies’. Even families are challenged by children who know the best way to get a puppy is to ask for a baby brother.

“People are leaning on pets to fill the gap in social support mechanisms that earlier might have come from their families or tight-knit neighborhoods,” says Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog.

Americans have fallen in love with their dogs. Since the mid-1990’s spending in the United States on pets has almost tripled, from $17 billion to $43 billion, which is nearly seven times as much as is spent on contemporary yoga and its related products. Yesterday’s Fido and Spot are today’s Jake and Bella, part of the family.

Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, believes yogis engage especially with dogs. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “My guess is our desire to connect with all living beings and to share the vibrational quality of love that is unconditional and undefined. My husband and I rescued an amazing dog eleven years ago. She just passed away late last year, and I still miss her with my whole entire being. I would look into her eyes and know she could see all of me, without words. And she loved me no matter my flaws, failures, or even my not so attractive qualities.”

Dogs hop, skip, and jump when their owners come home. The Odyssey, the second of the two epic poems ascribed to Homer, is the story of a man who returns home after being gone for more than twenty years and is recognized only by his dog, Argos. Once known for his speed and tracking, but now neglected and lying on top of a pile of trash, after waiting ninety-three dog years for Odysseus to come back he wags his tail once and dies.

They lay their heads in our laps and stare up into our eyes, a heartbeat at our feet. They invite our attention and affection.  Never mind that Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University, who studies the human-animal bond, believes dogs are highly skilled at parsing social behaviors, especially those having to do with hearth and the food bowl.

“Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them,” he says.  According to Dr. Metzger they act according to what makes humans happy to get what they want and need. They are den animals just like us integrated into the hubbub of the household, adaptable and attuned to the moment.

“Dogs give to get back,” says Brenda Motsco of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Ohio, who when not rescuing dogs is a feisty Bikram Yoga aficionado.

Unlike most other animals whose lives are not necessarily dependent on people, and whose existences are in some sense solipsistic, the dog is a different breed. When hailed a cat may or may not get back to you that day, but a dog will bust its butt to heed its master’s beck and call.

“Your dog kind of lives for you,” says David Bessler, senior emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. Other than adoption, acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a person has to choose a relative.

Dogs are social animals, like people, and so need and rely on emotions to bond with other dogs and people. According to Marc Beckoff, a behavioral biologist at the University of Colorado, emotion is one of the foundations of social behavior and connects individuals, whether in society, family, or pack. Dogs have an evolutionary need for close emotional ties.

The dog world intersects that of people in many ways. They almost always feel like doing whatever you feel like doing, whether snoozing while you nap or walking in the woods with you and chasing sticks. The other side of a door is always the wrong side of the door to a dog. They rarely hang out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.

“My Chihuahua is always with me at the studio and is our mascot,” says Ellen Patrick of Yoga Sanctuary in Mamaroneck, NY. “She greets all my students and then sleeps next to me while I’m teaching. People tell me they come more for ‘Chi’ therapy than for the yoga because she has such a sweet spirit.”

Over the course of centuries, through the process of domestication, dogs have come to understand people the better than all other animals, and have most easily adapted to our social circumstances. The average dog may be a better person than the average person. Yogis find their dogs through adoption, rescue, and accidentally, like everyone else, but sometimes their dogs come to them in dreams, figuratively and literally.

“I was searching for a companion dog to my older Cathula Leopard Hound,” says Connie Murphy of Yoga Village in Arroyo Grande, California, “but whenever I found one and did my pendulum on getting them or not, I was always told no. Then I started dreaming about a black and white dog. A few days later a black and white stray, part terrier and part cattle dog came into our yard. Cold, wet, starving, filthy, and afraid. It took several days before he would allow us to touch him. We left the garage open for shelter, and fed him, and after we put out fliers and no one answered, he became part of our family. It’s amazing what food and a bath and love can accomplish.”

Although some people find themselves loving dogs more the more they get to know people, it isn’t always the best of all worlds for dogs in the modern world. In the past dogs hunted with men and were their guardians, but today they are acquired for many other reasons. Children pressure their parents to bring home the cute puppy they saw at the store; the lonely get them to relieve stress and anxiety; others buy intensively bred dogs because it is prestigious.

But, even though dogs may be so smart they can do anything short of calculus, they still rely on their human families for everything, including shelter, groceries, water, exercise, and veterinary care. “The way they think about their world is that people are super important and they can solve any problem if they rely on people,” says Brian Hare, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. Domestic dogs also need social interaction to the degree that without a master and family they grow unhappy and even lost.

Many dogs are abandoned by their owners because of management problems, the pet’s old age, or simply because it is more expedient than taking care of the dog over the course of its 12 or 14-year-life. More than 5 million dogs enter shelters every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and those same shelters euthanize several million more when the dogs aren’t rescued. Puppy mills overproduce pets, annually dumping millions of them on the market, according to the ASPCA, marketing their lovability to the ill prepared.

Many people who practice yoga, and live by its ethical guidelines, rescue rather than buy dogs. “As a person’s awareness expands they are more likely to acquire a dog from a shelter as opposed to buying a dog from a pet store or breeder,” says Cassandra Wallick of Gilbert Yoga in Gilbert, Arizona. “As we begin to see things more clearly we may realize that the breeding of animals for pets is somewhat inhumane when in fact there are thousands of animals being euthanized because of careless owners and over-breeding.”

Television shows like the ‘Dog Whisperer’ on the National Geographic Channel and ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ on Animal Planet have grappled with the biting, barking, and bad behavior of dogs made insecure, neurotic, and bullying by uncaring or uninformed breeding practices and by inappropriate human-to-dog interactions. Less than two generations ago neither Lassie nor Rin Tin Tin ever required a dog behaviorist. Today it seems like all our purebreds and even mutts need a couch.

“Ending or preventing suffering should be the main goal of a real animal lover,” says Val Porter, the author of Faithful Companions: Alliance of Man and Dog. Dogs are trusty and vigilant sidekicks to man. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were always pulling families out of burning buildings and saving the cavalry from marauders. They deserve the reciprocal care and loyalty of committed human companions.

“To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle,” says Julie Lawrence of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center in Portland, Oregon. Judging from the principles they live by, known as the yamas and niyamas, the man or woman who practices yoga may be a dog’s best friend.  Dogs probably don’t need yoga, better known as doga, but running with yogis may be good for their health. “Because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga’s emphasis on union and connection with other beings,” writes Bethany Lytle in ‘Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans’ in The New York Times.

The intersection of dog and man can be fraught with misunderstanding and neglect. But, if there is a yogi at the crossroads, the dog is likely in good hands, since the goal of yoga practice is to be as good a person as your dog already thinks you are. ”In my lifetime I have had rabbits, turtles, a mallard duck, fish, parakeets, many cats, and a wonderful dog,” says Marcia Loffredo of Yoga 4 Health in East Hampton, Connecticut. “I believe we love, honor, and respect all of God’s creation based on what we learn and experience in our yoga practice.”

The way of the yogi encompasses animal rights as well as human rights, because that is the way of the whole human being. “My gut reaction is that yogis are good for dogs because through practice they learn to be more caring and compassionate,” says Brenda Motsco. Even though dogs exist for their own reasons, indifference and callousness results in suffering in dogs, and impoverishes the human spirit, as well.

Yogis seemingly gravitate towards dogs and dogs likewise towards yogis. “I have seen this,” says Mandy Grant of Juluka Yoga in Hillsdale NJ.  “I have a dog who comes to my studio and students love him. Yoga creates compassion and understanding, and the practice of ahimsa, and the knowledge that we are all linked, makes people like dogs more after practicing yoga.”

Dogs have an unrivaled sixth sense, as any dog will tell you. They can predict thunderstorms and earthquakes, epileptic and diabetic seizures, their owner’s imminent return, and whether or not your friend is really your friend. In 1975 Chinese officials, fearing a catastrophe based in part on observation of the alarming behavior of dogs, ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city of one million people, just days before a 7.3 magnitude quake, saving an estimated 150,000 lives. Japanese researchers, in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, have long studied the usefulness of dogs as prediction tools.

Seizure-alert dogs are trained to react to the smell, reminiscent of nail polish remover, of the metabolic changes before a seizure induced by low blood sugar. “They are masters of observation,” says Nicholas Dodman of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Their sense of smell is second to none and is beyond our comprehension.”

Sometimes it’s better to have a dog than a doctor in the house.

Dogs have more than 200 million smell sensors in their noses, compared to the 5 million of the average person. Smelling is a dog’s special sense. They discriminate their world through a predominant olfactory cortex and can sniff out fear and friendliness. If a dog snuffs you up and down but will not come to you, it may be time to examine your conscience.

“A dog can sense the softy in us,” says Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Rocky River, Ohio. “They know when a good soul will do no harm”

At a bed and breakfast she and her husband built in Costa Rica, featuring a fifteen-mat deck overlooking the lowlands along the Pacific coast, Ginny Walters hosts yoga retreats every winter, and two years ago found her second home adopted by a dog.

“He appeared one morning with buggy eyes and famished. He had a sore on his ear that would heal for a day and then bleed all over again. I really didn’t know what the retreat participants would say. I figured if we didn’t feed him he would go away. But, he stayed. The retreat group would look out the window and he would immediately go into upward dog and as if on cue downward dog. He would never try to come into the house, just stay on the threshold and look at us. Two years later Rahm the dog is getting fat. He is our protector even though he doesn’t belong to anyone. When we leave the house he goes to his other place and stays until we return. He knows the sound of our car. We had an open heart to accept him. We didn’t give off the sweat of fear or anger. Ahimsa is all he asked for and with the yogis he found it.”

Most pet owners satisfy the fundamental requirements of hunger, thirst, and shelter for their dogs. Many of them tend to their social needs and sense of belonging, making them part of the family. Some address the needs that even dogs have for esteem, recognition, and status, fostering strength and self-confidence in their companion animals. A very few understand that dogs may be candidates for self-actualization.

“At one point in my spiritual growth I began to realize the soul of my dog was simply in a four-legged embodiment,” says Cassandra Wallick. “That soul was evolving just like mine. The attainment of oneness, unity, and self-realization is the ultimate path of the soul, and my dog was on his journey just the same as I was. After this epiphany I looked at my dog very differently. Not as a lesser creature, not even as a ‘dog’ anymore, but as a friend soul who was living out one of his incarnations in a dog’s body.”

Many people, even animal lovers, believe dogs have less potential for freedom than humans, so we are free to feel less compunction about denying it to them. But, since our standards for humane treatment of others is constantly expanding, it may be that every dog will have his day. If the dog’s companion is someone who practices yoga, a person whose core values are freedom and actualization, that dog will probably have its day sooner than later.

Welcome to the Torture Chamber

bikram-yoga-shorts

“There’s gotta be a Heaven ’cause I’ve already done my time in Hell.”  Social Distortion

Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class, but I was still surprised by the Wal-Mart-like brightness of the big room, the seven-foot high mirrors spanning the front, and the wall-to-wall water-stained brown carpeted floor.

None of it looked or felt or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.

As I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces to the back of the room, unrolled my mat, and curled into several cat cows, I noticed it was infernally hot. Looking up at the ceiling I saw manhole-size ductwork perforated with thousands of pebble-sized holes crossing from one end of the front of the room to the other and continuing on to the rear wall. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms, and legs.

Later I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat while a hellish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.

By the time I had finished a short round of warm-up down dogs I was sweating through my Under Armour shirt and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I began to understand why.

When I started practicing yoga, well into middle age, I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes on a more consistent basis, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week at a popular studio just across the river from our neighborhood.

It took some time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degrees the hot yoga studio advocated, and the fast pace of the classes, but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. Now I was more than thirty miles from home, the closest Bikram class I could find, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling in the grip of global warming.

The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from tip to toe, from internal organ to skin, using heat as a tool, reshaping the body as it warms and becomes flexible. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.

“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”

The community-class teacher at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses, and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.

“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”

“OK,” I said.

I should have asked for details.

Back in the class while in my child’s pose it was 105 degrees and the humidity was at 40 percent, but both values were creeping relentlessly upward, pushing the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone. Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.

Why 105 degrees?  The Bikram take on hot yoga is that the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.

Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas or poses and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat he recommends keeps the body from overheating, and teaches you to keep your cool.

He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.

When our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, he adjusted the track lighting brighter even than it had been, strode to the front of the class, and asked:

“Anybody new?”

Several hands went up, including mine.

“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”

‘Feel sick’?

I had never gotten sick in a yoga class, nor had I ever given the possibility any consideration. I had experienced fatigue practicing asanas, sometimes even becoming bedraggled, during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons when I didn’t think I could do another chaturanga to up dog to down dog, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.

“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”

Then there was the other exhortation.

‘Don’t leave the room’?

What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?

“OK, let’s get started.”

And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, whether sacred or new age, nor was there an iPod play list in evidence. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.

I might as well strike while the iron is hot, I thought. One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected.  Even though I thought I knew by way of youtube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.

Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.

The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Try to be still between poses,” the instructor said when we were done.

I stopped rolling my head and flexing my fingers.

Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ, and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.

During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Upon release of the pose vasodilation occurs when blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.

The idea that there might be benefits to oxygenated blood flooding a local part of the body after it has been momentarily compressed is controversial in the medical establishment. Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.

”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.

The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend – punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push – followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs, and folding over in a forward bend.

“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said, describing the pose.

I had no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looked like, and besides, I was vegetarian.

While we were bent over, pulling with our arms to intensify the stretch, the teacher exhorted us to lock our knees.

“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”

Lock the knee?

Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it.. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid locking your knees as you tried to keep your legs straight in standing poses.

As I straightened my legs, attempting to fully extend my knees, the instructor who had been at the front of the class suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointing at my legs with his riding crop – I mean his finger – said:

“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”

What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, but not hyperextend the knee. Squeezing holds the knee in a supportive position. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles, and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.

The next asana was awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways, first traditionally but with arms held up, forward and parallel to the ground, ‘triceps tight, tight, tight’, then high up on the toes, arms still forward but flagging, and lastly slightly up on the toes and in a squat, knees and thighs pressing together, and arms finally very, very heavy and on fire.

“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,” our instructor said, demanding that we straighten and lean back.

As soon as we were done we did it again.

Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Entering every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.

The awkward poses were followed by two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.

“Welcome to the torture chamber,” I heard the instructor say.

“What have I gotten into,” I asked myself.

“Break time is over. Time to concentrate,” the instructor said.

Break time had lasted less than thirty seconds.

The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half of the class is practiced upright, many of the poses featuring balancing on one leg, and the second half down on the mat. The first half of the class is known as the warm-up and the second half as getting down to serious business.

The next three poses were standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. All the while the instructor urged us to lock our standing leg like CONCRETE! Try as I might I wasn’t able to get my head anywhere near my knee, my bow pose amounted to trying to stay upright at whatever cost more than anything else, and by the time I got to balancing stick there was very little balance left in me, my legs wobbling like JELLY!

At the end of the three postures I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line, my breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and most worryingly the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.

“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”

After a standing stretching pose, during which I finally caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed, we stepped into triangle pose. It was like stepping into the next circle of hell.

“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.

The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh of the lunged front leg. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.

‘It smelled like turpentine/It looked like Indian ink/I held my nose, I closed my eyes/I took a drink.’

With my eyes wide open, front leg bent, back leg diagonal, both arms extended out, tilting them at the same time like a windmill turning, I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. Our instructor said to turn our heads and look up, trying to touch our chins to shoulder. I stared at a brown water stain on the white ceiling tile.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor said.

The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.

The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It was the therapeutic torture machine come to life. With the effort my breathing slowed down, becoming less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.

If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose on both sides another time I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort, but before the white light became too intense we were doing a standing compression pose, then another balancing pose, and finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.

We lay on the floor at the fulcrum of the standing series and spine strengthening series, the room suddenly grown quiet. Savasana, also known as corpse or dead body pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness

The two minutes on my back were more like try-to-stop-fidgeting pose. I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonably real life breath and grown still than the instructor was at it again.

“Time for the sit-up,” he said.

The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.

“Try your best,” the instructor said. “Bend your knees if you have to.”

“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”

As much as our instructor was pressing us to work hard, it would be a vast understatement to say that I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.

The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, a follow-the-bouncing-ball Sanskrit word meaning wind-removing pose, and each posture done twice ends in dead body pose for about 20 seconds, concluding by stretching the arms and on a loud exhale reaching for the ceiling and then the toes.

We did the L-sit-up after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…

The meat and potatoes of the floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.

But, it’s no four-course meal.

“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall,” the instructor optimistically urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.

“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them,” he cautioned everyone during locust pose, striding through the ranks.

The ingredients of the following pose, full locust, are made up of squeezing the legs and feet together, spread-eagling ones arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.

“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16,” the instructor said. “Look up out of the mirror.”

I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, smoke was pouring out of my tail, I was going down…

“I have got to take a break,” I thought.

And then God did me a favor.

As the class went to the pose again, and I thought about resting on my heels to cool off, the power suddenly cut out, the room went dark, a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on, and there was a low clap of thunder outside. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and out for the duration, and thanked my lucky charms.

While in dead body pose after the asana the power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit.

In half-tortoise, trying to keep my butt on my heels and stretching my arms forward, pressing my pinkies into the mat, sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.

“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose,” the instructor said. “You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”

I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.

By the time we got to camel I was beginning to wonder if there was any end in sight. Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever? Was the 90 minutes just a mirage on the horizon?

The original Bikran practice had 84 poses in its entirety, and required more than two hours of determined hustle and bustle to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.

Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga from the rat race can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes, who along with everyone else practice the same poses in the same order under the same conditions. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again,” says Bikram Choudhury

When we curled into rabbit pose, a kneeling forward bend accomplished by pulling on the heels, my forehead tucked into my kneecaps, pushing down with my shins and up with my legs, I became aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my rubber Jade mat soaked to its core from the epic amounts of sweat pouring out of me, but it was me, too. I was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.

I was dizzy and slightly nauseous lifting up out of the pose.

We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and after a last sit-up it was all very suddenly over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins with a breathing exercise and finishes by bringing the focus back to the breath, although the beginning focuses on filling the lungs and the ending on strong exhales.

If sweating is the Bikram method to regenerate the body on a cellular level, breathing is the Bikram key to a healthier, longer life. Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is repeatedly stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath.

Easier said than done, I thought, recalling the huffing and puffing I had done all class long.

The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.

The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.

Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.

When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over.

“Good job, everyone,” the instructor said. “Please try to stay in Savasana for a few minutes. It’s the most important pose. Thanks for coming.”

And with that he dimmed the lights and left the hot room.

Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.

Postscript: From Here to Eternity

Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of plunging into the hellfire of Bikram Yoga.

In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.

I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.

Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.

‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’

My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.

I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.

I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.

After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine, and later hang it up to dry. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.

I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.

“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.”

When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.

It was a compelling testament that we all stayed put. I wondered what it was a testament to, and later thought it was testament to everything the practice espouses, such as patience and discipline and concentration.

Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.

I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and once there I try to do the best I can, as much as I can, with as close to 100% effort as I can, and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.

“Try the right way and eventually you will make it,” says Bikram Choudhury.

“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”

After class the instructor mingles, talks shop, and lastly mops up the hot room and the outside hallways of sweaty footprints tracked back and forth from the shower rooms. One night I bumped into him manipulating his Swifter Wet Jet forward and backward, cleaning up.

I had at first planned on taking a few classes now-and–then, then maybe a few months of it, then had decided to commit to it for year, just to be fair, and finally had concluded it would most likely be two years, given that I was a slow learner. The devil in Bikram is in the details, not just the effort.

One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days. I have managed classes on consecutive days on several occasions. I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.

“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”

“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.

“Don’t try so hard,” he said.

“The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”

Meditation?

Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice.  Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.

But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.

That is the method to the madness.

“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”

It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together – the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.

It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.

The Ugly Yogi

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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