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Slam Dunk

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A commonplace of most yoga advice is the advice to let go of expectation, judgment, and competition when stepping on the mat. The importance placed on themes of tolerance, acceptance, and non-competition is round-the-clock, streamed from beginner classes to advanced asana practice.

On the web sites of many studios, under headings like Yoga Etiquette, is the injunction: “Leave your ego at the door. The yoga mat has no space for your ego, competitiveness, or judgment.” The community class teacher at our local big box studio is fond of saying, “It’s your practice, not anyone else’s.” It’s likely every yoga teacher in America reworks this refrain day in and day out.

Whether the no competition no judgment message is a viable message in our world, driven as it is by ego and judgment, and an everyday workaday world of going for the dollar peso euro yen gold, is between sixes and sevens.

Themes such as moving forward, continual progress, and goals are the modern mantra, not non-competition and non-judgment. The way we live today is nothing if not teleological, so that we are always looking for the cause and purpose of all we make happen, of all we do.

It seems naïve to posit the physical exercise yoga has become as a special case non-competitive activity in the western world, the font of the rat race. Western culture is defined by strife and competition, from our classical past to the way we live now. Everybody gets nervous before a competition, whether it’s a Spelling Bee or the Olympics. They get competitive, too.

Doing warrior pose in the middle of your brain in the middle of the yoga room in the middle of the after work A-Team crowd ain’t any different. Nobody wants to be slam-dunked on.

We are judged and graded from the time we step into school, from tykes in kindergarten through college. The better we do in school the higher the status we carve out for ourselves, until finally carving out a better job when we go out into the working world.

Our marketplace economy is predicated on struggle and competition. We are either making more money than the next man, and so are successful, or we are making less, and so unsuccessful. How much money we make determines how and where we live, our luxury brands, to the better schools we send our children to.

Materialism and its many benefits is a deeply ingrained point-of-view in the western world.

Today’s cultural icons and heroes are businessmen, politicians, and athletes. Follow the money, follow the front page, follow the parade.

“The business of America is business,” said Calvin Coolidge almost 100 years ago. The New Gilded Age has brought President Coolidge’s maxim to life. The ethics involved in the business of making money are subservient to the making of money itself, because losing money is a failure that puts right and wrong to shame.

Politics is only occasionally about doing the right thing. It is necessarily about winning and losing, from debating and campaigning to making your ideology the ideology that matters. The upper hand trumps conscience and scruples among thousand dollar suits without a drop of human kindness in them.

Sports are arguably the passion of our times, from children’s CYO leagues to pro teams playing in stadiums seating tens of thousands. Up to 16 million people may practice yoga in America, but Division 1 college basketball and football attract 70 million paying fans between them, while the four major pro sports draw more than 140 million through the turnstiles every year.

Sports on TV are ubiquitous. More than 127,000 hours of sports programming were available on broadcast and cable TV in 2015. Americans spent more than 31 billion hours watching balls bounce in all directions, sometimes through the net or over the goal, more often not if their home team was hapless.

The average American watches a total of 5 hours of TV a day. The average American never sets foot on a yoga mat. They pay an arm and a leg to watch other people pretend to be super heroes. The mainstream culture isn’t interested in his or her own unified state of mind.

“What the hell does that mean? What does it cost? What’s in it for me?” they ask.

It has been estimated that yoga is a 6 billion dollar business, but that pales in comparison to the college and professional sports team industry, comprising more than 800 organizations with a combined net worth and annual revenues in the hundreds of billions.

Many Americans are intimately bound up in the winning and losing of their home teams. Late in the 2007 season, when the luckless Cleveland Browns were having some success and threatening to go to the NFL playoffs, a large local studio full of men and women at the end of a weekend yoga class unabashedly chanted OM three times for the team, hoping for God’s sake some psychic energy would rub off on the players for that night’s big game.

In the event, the yoga gods played their own private little joke on the fans. Even though the Cleveland Browns won the game, they lost in a statistical tie-breaker to another team and failed to make the playoffs.

How did yoga become a supposed  non-competitive activity in our world, a world defined and bound by competition, especially since in its birthplace many define it as a sport? In the sub-continent where it all got started yoga has had a competitive aspect to it for more than millennia.

“Yoga sport has been a traditional sport in India since more than 1,200 years,” said Yogasiromani Gopali, executive director of the World Yoga Council.

“Yoga sport is holy sport in our holy land with our holy yoga. All the yoga ashrams have yoga competition,” said Swami Shankarananda, a supporter of the World Yoga Foundation.

“Yoga competition is an old Indian tradition,” said Bikram Choudbury. “It’s a tremendous discipline – a hundred times harder than any other competition.”

Three for three is the trifecta, the original recipe, extra crispy, and Colonel Choudhury’s special.

The European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual European Yoga Championship and the International Yoga Sports Federation hosts an Annual World Yoga Championship. In the United States yoga tournaments have sprung up nationwide, from the Annual Texas Yoga Asana Championships to the New York Regional Yoga Championships.

Writing in Vanity Fair about the New York event, Anna Kavaliunas observed. “I learned you can win at yoga, a practice that is traditionally considered to be more spiritual than competitive.”

Some variations of yoga seem competitive by nature of the practice itself.

“Since its inception in the mid-twentieth century some of Ashtanga’s great masters pitted the most gifted students against one another to see who would perform the absolutely most difficult poses,” said Marcia Camino, a teacher of Amrit Yoga and a studio owner in Lakewood, Ohio.

“Iyengar Yoga demands so much mental attention to the alignment of the body that built into these classes there seems to be a drive for perfection,” she said. “Some systems like Power Yoga are overtly muscle-focused and it makes sense that one could easily engage the spirit of competitive sports when practicing them.”

At Bikram Choudbury’s Yoga College of India in Los Angeles, classes often come to a dead stop as everyone breaks out into applause for a pose executed especially well. “Bikram Yoga is not only challenging, it’s also gratifying to the ego,” said Loraine Despres, who has written about the once-copyrighted practice.

Maybe Bikram Choudbury has his finger on the pulse of what yoga is really all about. The 2014 World Championship of Yoga Sports was held in London, attracting contestants from more than 25 countries. The 2016 event was staged in Italy.

The Choudbury’s, Bikram and Rajashree, his wife, themselves both former all-India yoga champions, believe yoga should qualify as an Olympic sport for the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.

“I strongly believe that yoga has what it takes to become an Olympic sport,” said Joseph Encida, a former international champion. “The skill required is strongly comparable to that of an elite gymnast.”

“There is so much strategy, mental power, physical precision, and control that goes into the sport that I don’t see it any different than curling, skiing, or diving,” said Gianna Purcell, who placed fourth internationally in 2012-13.

It is uncertain how far gung ho yoga will get with its hopes ambitions dreams.

“The Olympics are looking for events that play well on television. If you had combat yoga, maybe that would have a better chance of making it, ”said David Wallechinsky, an author and Olympic expert, in a BBC interview.

Not everyone agrees that competition is good for the practice.

“I don’t think it should be competitive,” said Tara Fraser, of London’s Yoga Junction. “Competing is not embedded in yoga’s philosophical framework and makes no sense if you want to achieve self-realization.”

Michael Alba, a teacher in Boston who also instructs at the Brookline Ballet School, said competition limits and stereotypes the practice. “It perpetuates the idea that yoga is for the lithe-bodied contortionists. One of the challenges of yoga is to be less competitive.”

Competition and its complications are apparently one of the reasons more women than men engage yoga on even a physical level. According to Yoga Journal women make up 72% and men only 28% of the people who practiced in 2016. The two most important reasons men cite for not taking up yoga are a lack of interest in the quiet, non-competitive aspects of the practice and a fear of embarrassment or failure.

Which begs the question, is yoga competitive, or not, and do men want to compete, or not?

Competition problematizes yoga at its most accessible level, which is what goes on on the mat. A goal-oriented approach contradicts what even tournament competitors like Luke Strandquist, a Bikram Yoga instructor in New York City, seem to believe. “As a teacher, it’s the opposite of what I’m always telling my students, that you’re here to practice your yoga, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing.”

Setting one’s sights on doing what the man you see in the perfectly balanced headstand on the mat next to you is doing, or your sights on becoming the mediated image of the slim and strong young woman you’ve always wanted to be, turns the practice away from its focus on the values of self-acceptance and inner growth and turns it into monkey see monkey do.

“Competition exists in the yoga classroom when we see students trying to outdo each other,” said Marcia Camino.

“It’s also there when students struggle to best themselves, their latest efforts, on the road to yoga advancement. That said, there are many systems that balk at the notion of competition, because the focus of real yoga, claim these systems, is inward.”

Separating yoga exercise from the rest of yoga is like separating chaff from wheat and taking the chaff home.

“Unfortunately, yoga has been conflated with asana, which is a huge misapprehension,” says Richard Rosen, director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio in Oakland, California. As integral to yoga as exercises on the mat are, they are only part of the picture, in the same way that bridges are more than the sum of their piers, beams, and decks. Focusing on exercise and competition is mistaking the nuts and bolts of the craft for the art of the craft.

Competition is ultimately driven by the ego and is based on a zero-sum game of loss and gain. Competitors seek to satisfy their own personal ends. Applause and prizes animate the fear and desire of the ego in accomplishment. Winners and losers are inevitably segregated, so that winners are enthroned and losers forgotten. Who remembers last year’s second-place finisher?

Nobody does, because losers don’t get the headlines.

Contests are defined from without, not from within, since referees, audiences, and media analysts are what validate the competitors, not their own efforts. Vince Lombardi, the legendary NFL coach who is a symbol of single-minded determination to win at all costs, once said, “If winning isn’t everything, why do they keep score?”

The answer might be because without a scoreboard the contest would be meaningless.

Prime time competitors often say they are their own competition, their own worst enemy. My biggest competition is myself. I’m always trying to top myself. I don’t worry about what other people are doing. I’m not in competition with them. I’m only in competition with me.

Competing with yourself is a slippery game when the ego competes against the sub-conscious even though the ego rarely knows what the sub-conscious is up to. Not only that, they are not best friends. It’s not necessarily in our own best interest to compete with our past, in the belief that progress is the measure of all things, and the asana we do today must necessarily be better than yesterday’s pose.

One Sunday afternoon, at the end of a crowded community class, a tall lanky older man on the mat next to me said, “I shouldn’t have even come today. I couldn’t do anything right.” He hadn’t fallen out of any balancing poses on top of me, but when I pointed that out to him, he said, “I’ll do better next time.”

The next time I saw him at the yoga studio his practice was constrained by a bad wing. “I hurt it here,” he said. “I think I was trying too hard.”

Self-consciousness and arbitrary reference to past standards compromises the here and now of yoga. The immediacy of the practice becomes a mishmash of then, now, and whenever.

Competition and progress take the man and woman out of himself and herself and out of the moment, positing a judge as the ultimate arbiter of their efforts. Even Rajashree Choudbury admits, “If you think you are competing against others, you won’t win.” Winning is freighted in terms of dollars and cents so that it makes commercial sense when applied to sports, but ultimately makes no sense when applied to the fabric of yoga practice.

“In the course of time asana or yoga postures gained more popularity in the physically-minded West, and the Vedantic aspects of the teachings fell to the sidelines,” David Frawley wrote in ‘Vedantic Meditation’.

Vedanta, or the philosophy of self-realization, underpins the concept of yoga as a spiritual system with a physical component, not a physical system with a spiritual component. Competition turns yoga on its head so that physical practice and fitness are conflated with yoga success, while spiritual discipline and self-realization are shunted to the sideline.

The prevailing modern view of yoga is that the means and end are the same. Yoga means exercise and exercise means yoga. Fitness is the means and fitness success is the goal. Articulated like that competition and tournaments make sense.

Most physical activities, such as throwing a ball, kicking a ball, or hitting a ball with a stick, can and probably will end up as grist for the mill. Most contemporary yoga flies in the face of its past, in which yoga exercise becomes both a means to an end and an end in itself.

While it is true practicing asana is practicing asana, moment to moment sweating on the mat, there’s no reason one’s sweat should just go down the drain. At the same time that you’re sweating up a storm in warrior pose, for example, you can be expanding into other aspects of yoga life and death, such as breath control, symmetry, and stillness. In this more traditional way of practice, competition is beside the point. In modern terms competition posits the ‘Other’ as superior to the self. In pre-modern practice the ‘Self’ is the center, not some imaginary logos.

Hatha Yoga, which is the physical branch of Raja Yoga – itself the meditative school of yoga – is simply a system of bodily postures meant to teach stillness under duress, breath control, and ultimately the strength to sit in meditation without squirming. As such it is folded into the other three traditional schools, which have to do with karma, self-enquiry, and surrender to the divine.

“The main objective of hatha yoga is to create an absolute balance of the interacting activities and processes of the physical body, mind, and energy. If hatha yoga is not used for this purpose, its true objective is lost,” says Swami Satyananda Saraswati, the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. Separating asana from the rest of yoga, and mixing it up with competition as though it were a circus act or a sport, is to confuse the part with the whole, or the steps on the path with the pilgrimage.

“Yoga is a mess in the west. And you can quote me on that,” said Georg Feuerstein, a yoga scholar and teacher. “People shortchange themselves when they strip yoga of its spiritual side.”

The stuff of body sense mind are the means to achieve union with knowledge, whether it is self-knowledge or knowledge of a universal spirit. Commingling asana and competition trivializes yoga practice. When the breath, mind, and spirit are separated from the body, the gaze of the man or woman on the mat is lowered to the near horizon.

Sometimes during especially difficult asana classes at her Inner Bliss studio Tammy Lyons reminds everyone, “It’s a practice, not a performance. Connect through the breath, and remember you are more than your accomplishments.”

Handstand may be athletic and acrobatic, but yoga is not athletics in search of handstand. Although yoga studios are being redefined as gyms in our performance-driven world, it is a problematic change. Rather than reducing yoga to Hobbesian metaphysics, it might be better to restructure it back into its traditional guise as a spiritual practice with a physical component.

Yoga postures are ultimately meant to lead to the breath, which hopefully leads to Kundalini, and maybe somewhere down the long bendy road to a last second slam dunk on the podium of Samadhi, where there are no cash prizes no first place last place no jazzed up trophies no trips to the Dream of Winner Takes All.

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The 4th OM

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The brightest OM I know is the OM Kristen Zarzycki begins and ends her Follow the Yogi class with at Inner Bliss Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not all in what is usually the biggest and most popular class of the week. Kirby, my nickname for her, 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 OM being the primordial vibration was all about. I could feel a vibration in the room and I wasn’t even chanting.

I began thinking about yoga in my early fifties, when decades-long 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 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 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 beginner’s class on a dark and wet October morning, slapping my hand to my forehead in the car, 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 practices often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own uneasy 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 and pinched voice.

When I began to OM with more frankness than less 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. Mrs. Payne’s class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.

On the way to the yoga 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 homes across the street onto the 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-stack freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks over 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. Then the 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 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 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. 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 Zarzycki 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 very loud and very long. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath and sound. 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’ 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 broken-down 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, updated everyone on the studio’s schedule, and then said in a clear, firm voice more than 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 at her body shop, they worked on the bodies of automobiles. Cars like SUV’s and bodies like Mrs. Lyons’ are not only uniquely themselves, but they are vessels as well. Practicing yoga asanas 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 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.

My fourth OM experience unfolded on a cloudy 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 gregarious manner, Max Strom was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up asanas 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 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.

Then 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 very 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 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 hungry 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.

Mr. 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 nor something, 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.