Tag Archives: John Friend Anusara Yoga

The Laughing Yogi

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“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” Woody Allen

Yoga is a dead serious body mind spirit rubber mat hits the road adventure.

It is a rigorous undertaking when you are trying and trying to get asana poses just right, much less trying and trying to achieve the higher state of being and thought the practice aims at. Meditation and its hardball goal of spiritual insight is a life-long commitment, not just the old college try. The concentration and stern self-discipline needed to get to moksha are no laughing matter.

Or is it really all that long-faced?

Since the mid-90s a practice called Laughter Yoga has gainsaid the notion that yoga is cold sober no-nonsense by the book, and humorless. The brainchild of Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor now informally known as the ‘Laughter Guru’, it is premised on the idea that laughing is good for you.

Their motto is a few ha ha ha’s are a boon boon boon.

What did the yoga mat say to the yoga student? I will catch you if you fall.

It’s long been said that laughter is the best medicine. It strengthens immune systems, boosts energy levels, and protects from the damaging effects of stress. Laughing enhances blood flow, which is a factor in cardiovascular health. It releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

“Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain,” said Charlie Chaplin.

It’s priceless and it’s free, too.

Not only that, no matter whether it is real or feigned, it works, although, if you’re laughing for no reason at all, you might need either counseling or medicine.

“The mind does not know that we’re faking it,” explained Mary Wilson, a news reporter for ABC/Fox in New York who practices yuks on the mat. Dr. Kataria based his brainstorm on the concept that canned laughter yields the same results as spontaneous laughter.

“In Laughter Yoga there is no need to wait until something funny happens. You can laugh intentionally whenever you want,” said Dr. Kataria.

When it’s real it’s even better, as any belly laugh will testify. A new study at Loma Linda University demonstrated that adults shown a funny 20-minute video scored better on short-term memory tests than a control group. Their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also significantly decreased.

“Learning ability and delayed recall become more challenging as we age,” said Dr. Gurindor Bains, the Ph.D candidate in Rehabilitation Sciences who led the study. “Laughing with friends or even watching 20 minutes of humor on TV, as I do daily, helps me cope with my daily stressors.”

A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein famously observed, but when is a yoga studio not a yoga studio not a yoga studio, even though tens of thousands of people have taken classes there. That would be a Laughter Yoga studio, which is usually in a park or on a beach.

The American School of Laughter Yoga promotes Laughter Clubs that are free and open to the public. “Thousands around the world volunteer their time to make them happen, freely and unconditionally, from the heart as an act of service.”

Laughter Yoga is practiced in more than 8,000 clubs and in more than 65 countries. “Laughter is the tool. Yoga is the end,” said Sebastien Gendry of the American School of Laughter.

Some people crack a yoga joke and everyone laughs. But, some people make a joke of yoga and laugh all the way to the bank, with wads of other people’s money.

Bikram Choudhury of eponymous Bikram Yoga fame was having lunch with friends when a cell phone on the table rang. He answered and put it on speaker.

Bikram: “Hello!”

Woman: “Hi Honey, it’s me. Are you having lunch?”

Bikram: “Yes.”

Woman: “I’m at the shops now and found this beautiful mink coat. It’s only $9,000. Is it OK if I buy it?”

Bikram: “Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.”

Woman: “I stopped at the Lexus dealership, too, and looked at the new models. I saw one I really liked.”

Bikram: “How much?”

“$120,000.”

Bikram: “OK, but for that price make sure you get it with all the options.”

Woman: “Great! I was just talking to Janie and found out that house I wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking four-and-a-half million for it.”

Bikram: “Well, go ahead and make an offer of four million. They’ll probably take it. If not, you can go the extra half-mil if that’s what you really want.”

Woman: “Oh, thank you! I’ll see you later! I love you so much!”

Bikram: “Bye! I love you, too.”

He hung up.

Everyone at the table was staring at him in wonder and astonishment at his generosity.

Bikram turned and asked, “Anyone know whose phone this is?”

Sometimes yoga is said to cure everything except the common cold.

Bikram Yoga claims that 30 days of his hot yoga will transform anyone, making them strong and buff, and those who say during steam class “Please, kill me now” have got it all wrong.

Laughter Yoga says a week without laughter will make a man weak.

“This stuff really works!” said Harry Hamlin, at the far end of hunkdom, about Laughter Yoga after high-stepping the cha-cha-cha on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

Others, like John Friend, the former founder and former chief guru of the former Anusara Yoga, think they’re laughing all the way to the bank until they find out what’s in their wallet is all a can of worms.

John Friend was praying to Krishna.

“Krishna,” he said, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responded, “No problem. Go ahead.”

“Krishna, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?”

“A million dollars to me is but a penny.”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” said John Friend, “may I have a penny?”

“Sure,” said Krishna. “Just a second.”

The laughter of the gods is sometimes the upshot of setting yourself up as the arbiter of your own schemes. Some people say laughter is God’s blessing. Or, conversely, as Lord Byron put it, “Nothing can confound a wise man more than laughter from a dunce.”

Still others, like Jeff Briar, the founder of the Laughter Yoga Institute, laugh daily in their yoga practice for the fun and friendship of it. A professional comedic actor for more than 30 years, Mr. Briar is a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher and in 2006 was appointed by Dr. Kataria as an International Laughter Ambassador. He has published manuals, written books, and shot videos, including ‘Gibberish Sets You Free! Five Films on the Power of Talking Nonsense’.

Comedians often have the gift of shtick, but Laughter Yoga posits chuckles and chakras as the joy cocktail, and a great workout, too. “We laugh as a form of exercise,” said Mr. Briar. Want a toned tummy? Stomach muscles expand and contract when you laugh. A night at the comedy club can start you on the way to a rack of six-pack abs.

“Start laughing for no reason and watch yourself feel better,” said Mr. Briar on the Oprah Winfrey Show. “Laughter relieves all the negative effects of stress.”

What did the meditating yogi say to the other meditating yogi? Are you not thinking what I’m not thinking?

Ha ha ha…

What did the breathless yogi say to his yoga teacher? It turns out I’ve been inhaling when I should be exhaling and exhaling when I should be inhaling.

Ha ha ha…

What did the cat say to the other cat while watching their pet owners practice yoga? Who knows how many years of yoga and they still can’t lick their own butts.

Ha ha ha…

What did the man say to his friend about going to yoga class? Nah, I’m down, dog.

Ha ha ha…

What ran through the mind of the young yogi in Warrior Pose? Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything right? What is my life’s purpose? Am I happy? What do I want? Should I get chips for dinner? Is everyone looking at me? Do my boobs look weird in this top?

Ha ha ha…

Standing on one leg in yoga class doesn’t make you a yogi any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

That’s not a joke.

T cells are white blood cells that fight infections and are the mechanism essential for human immunity. When you laugh you activate T cells, getting them on the go from where they are stored in the lymph system. Biophysical research has demonstrated that belly laughing generates a negative pressure in the body that increases the speed and flow of lymph up to 15 times the normal rate.

“Believe it or not, a hearty chuckle can help,” said Dr. Andrea Nelson of the University of Leeds. “This is because laughing gets the diaphragm moving and this plays a vital role in moving blood around the body.” She stopped short of saying take two aspirins and go watch an Adam Sandler movie.

A woman reported her husband’s disappearance to the police. They asked for a description and she said, “He takes an Ashtanga Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

Her friend said, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-foot-four, bald, lazy, and has a big belly.”

The woman said, “Who wants that one back?”

A good sense of humor won’t cure everything that ails you, but giggles and guffaws are a great RX, nevertheless. “Laughter can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation,” says the Mayo Clinic. “A laugh fires you up and can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good relaxed feeling.”

Laughter activates the body’s relaxation response. You forget your troubles when you’re laughing. “People who are laughing report being less bothered by the pain they do experience,” according to the Chopra Center.

Yoga is an eight-fold path to wonder. Maybe watching reruns of ‘The Wonder Years’ should be part of the eight-fold path.

There are many different ways of going on the long strange winding road trip of yoga. Although it’s probably true no one can change their destination, everyone can change their way of travel. “It is a direction, not a destination,” said Carl Rogers, a founder of  humanism in psychology practice.

Getting there can be Sturm und Drang. Getting there can be a hoot. Getting there can be gotten to on foot, in a shiny new SUV, or on the Furthur bus.

No one wants to die, but everyone wants to go to heaven. The psychedelic painted school bus Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters called Furthur, painted in laugh-out-loud splashes, would be as good a way to go as any other.

A man arrives at the gates of heaven.

St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.”

St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room twenty-eight, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”

“Baptist.”

“Go to room eighteen, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”

“Jewish.”

“Go to room eleven, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room eight?”

St. Peter says, “The yogis are in room eight and they think they’re the only ones here.”

Everyone next in line had to wait a minute from here to eternity while St. Peter rolled around the pearly gates in paroxysms of laughter.

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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.

Paperback Yoga (In the Looking Glass). If you enjoyed this article, please consider your support of the writing by clicking here to donate.

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