Tag Archives: James Brown American Yoga School

Crime of the Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Gaga performs what looks like yoga, tattooed and hairless, in the nude, videotapes the antics, and posts the bright and flashy for one and all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which begs the question, what is the answer?

The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be the Arrow or Iron Fist to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it, and never mind the honky-tonk.

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

 

 

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Never Trust a Yoga Teacher Under 30

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Back in the 1960s Jack Weinberg, one of the founders of the Free Speech Movement, said, “Never trust anyone over 30.” What he meant was that a great gap existed between those over 30 and under 30. The gap was credibility, to use the term of the day.

The expression was both celebrated and ridiculed. Today the Baby Boomers of yesteryear, for many of whom the catchphrase was a rallying cry, have become the way over 30s and are not trusted by anyone, at least not anyone who suspects that My Generation is the most partisan and self-serving generation of modern times.

Yoga practice is built on trust. Whether it’s the study of yoga ethics, or the concepts of introversion and concentration, or the 800-pound gorilla in the corner, which is yoga exercise, trusting in one’s teachers is important.

Having faith in their teachers motivates students to examine themselves and encourages them to grow.

If you can’t trust a yoga teacher, who can you trust?

“It’s the integrity and awareness that the teacher brings to class that is most important,” said Joe Palese, a Georgia-based teacher trainer who conducts workshops both nationally and internationally.

The problem is, there are boatloads of yoga teachers whose qualifications amount to 200 hours of training. In fact, 85% of Yoga Alliance’s more than 40, 000 registered teachers are registered at the 200-hour level. It’s when the front of the room gets sketchy.

Joe Palese has seen some of these teachers in action.

“The instructors were cool people and they’d play good music,” he said. “But, students didn’t know they were being taught poorly.”

Yoga can be traced back about 5, 000 years, although some researchers believe it may be 10, 000 years old. The first hatha yoga schools date back about 90 years. A 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified teacher expends an effort equivalent to one hour of study for every 25 years of yoga’s existence, based on the 5, 000 year mark, or about two hours of study for every year of modern hatha yoga’s existence.

That’s like stubbing your little toe on the base of Mt. Everest instead of climbing it.

Is there anyone who would hire a plumber, for example, to install a sink or toilet in his or her home, a plumber who bragged he had 200 hours of training?

Plumbers train at trade schools and community colleges. Their apprenticeships typically span 4 – 5 years. In most states they must have 2 – 5 years of work experience before they can take an exam and obtain a license.

A yoga enthusiast can train for 200 hours, earn their Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) title, and open their own studio the next day. They can even offer their own “Teacher Training” program not long after the paint has dried, or after 500 hours of experience, whichever comes first, according to Yoga Alliance Standards. Although YA registration is not a certification, it is a listing of those “who meet our minimum requirements for teaching experience,” explains the organization.

There’s something to be said for setting the bar a little higher, or at least approaching something like elementary school.

The men and women who teach first graders must have a bachelor’s degree from a teacher education program and are typically required to complete a supervised student teaching internship. Then, in order to actually teach their first six-year-old, they need to get a state license.

First grade coursework involves learning to read simple rhymes, beginning to count by 2s and 5s, and science experiments such as how pushing and pulling affects a wooden block. Sometimes a child will throw another child out of a chair to illustrate how forces at work can propel something at rest.

It does not involve complex dispositions of the body on a mat, concentration of energy in one place, or lessons on how to achieve a unified state of mind.

Yet, it seems, anyone can teach yoga, from simple down dog to enlightenment, after training for the equivalent of five full-time weeks. They do not need a license of any kind. No state regulates yoga. The one state that did, Colorado, in May 2015 relaxed its regulations to practically nothing after a storm of yogic protests.

“I get pretty fired up about this,” said Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “How can you have people who know nothing about yoga regulating yoga schools?” Which begs the question of why teacher training facilities like the Samadhi Center continue to churn out new 200-hour teachers who know next to nothing about yoga.

“Sadly, ‘Do a headstand if you want to,’ is the norm for beginning yoga teachers now,” said James Brown of the American Yoga School.

In fact, no one even needs a Yoga Alliance anything to teach headstand and inner peace. Anyone can open up shop anywhere, on their own say so, whether they know anything about yoga or not. Many in the yoga business argue that because they are teaching love and compassion they should be exempt from state regulation.

It is basically a free-for-all in the free market, buyer beware.

Self-appointed yogis like Bikram Choudhury claim whatever they want, such as that hot yoga flushes toxins from the body (false), cures cancer (false), and keeps you going all night long in the sack (doubtful after 90 minutes of Bikram “Torture Chamber” Yoga).

“Cootchi, cootchi,” said Bikram Choudhury. “You can have seven orgasms when you are ninety.”

No matter the funny dada-like sense of it, it is coldly calculated, some yoga masters laughing all the way to the bank.

“The class was so bad I can’t even explain it to you,“ wrote Lauren Hanna in ‘Licensing Yoga: Who the F*ck Let You Become a Yoga Teacher?’

“It made no sense. The teacher should be arrested it was that bad.”

She may have meant having to listen to a newly minted 200-hour graduate explain how “hips hold deep-seeded feelings of guilt and resentment” or some other mumbo-jumbo, meanwhile offering up the new age mantra of “channel your inner child” as they try to encourage a fifty-year-old a few months shy of beginner class to do crow or handstand.

There is a reason why William Broad of The New York Times has written articles and a book about how yoga can wreck bodies, from torn cartilage to causing strokes. “There are no agreed-upon sets of facts and poses, rules and procedures, outcomes and benefits,” he said.

There are some in the yoga world who want it that way. “Things are not uniform by tradition,” said Gyandev McCord, the Director of Ananda Yoga in Nevada City, California.

As for rules and procedures, Gyandev McCord believes yoga should be left alone to self-govern itself, saying those “who don’t understand the landscape of yoga aren’t qualified” to regulate it.

Yoga Alliance opposes government regulation of yoga, including teacher training programs, saying it “would simply serve no benefit to the public or yoga community.” They believe regulation of any kind is unnecessary because yoga is “a safe activity, licensure would inevitably reduce consumer choice, government authorities are not qualified, and it may compel teachers to stop offering instruction.”

Although it is certainly laudable of Yoga Alliance to be mindful of the yoga community, it may be equally lamentable that fledgling 200-hour teachers are only able to grasp a little of the big landscape of yoga.

Training of any kind is optional.

“It’s not illegal to teach without training as a teacher,” explained Gyandev McCord. Maybe not, but maybe it should be, given that minimally-educated teachers instructing the uninformed in flow-based yoga to the soundtrack of their rocking iPods may be doing more harm than good.

“It’s an embarrassing charade that looks kind of like something called yoga that one saw in a book once or twice,“ said James Brown of the American Yoga School.

“Teaching any of the yoga poses requires an understanding that comes from deep study and long-term practice.”

But, instead of promoting “deep study” Yoga Alliance has gone the way of Trip Advisor, saying on their website: “Past trainees provide social ratings and comments about their training experience, which may be shown on our public directory.”

That’s a Little League home run. Hooray for babes in toyland and social media!

Given the way things are, and the way things seem to be going, it may be best to simply not trust any teacher under 30 and instead opt for older seasoned teachers who have gained their experience from even older well-seasoned teachers.

Although it is true that experience is gained by making mistakes, and real knowledge comes from direct experience, which under 30 teachers are doing, it is also true that experience is a brutal teacher. When it comes to rolling out one’s mat it might be better to do so in front of someone who’s already learned all about drawing without an eraser, someone who’s spent more than a few weeks of training getting prepared organized off on the right foot for a lifetime.

Better to do wheel pose in the hands of someone who’s not re-inventing the wheel.

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