Tag Archives: Dr.Loren Fishman

No Pain No Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yoga is not a man’s world anymore.

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

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

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

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

Why do so many women practice yoga?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do so few men practice yoga?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blaze It and Bend It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, that was then, and this is now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The less said about heroin and methamphetamine, the better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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