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Chaturanga Chatter

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“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”  John Wayne

There are some constants common to all yoga classes, from the bewilderment of beginner instruction to the push and pull of Ashtanga, from the relief of restorative classes to the drumbeat marching orders of Bikram. One of them is setting your intention.

What yoga teachers mean when they say set your intention is to practice with a purpose, such as quieting your mind, or developing greater awareness, or simply nailing the poses. It is the same as setting a goal, or defining what it is you want to do so you can do it. Your body, mind, and spirit then become open to change and transformation.

“Every time that I begin a yoga class, I make sure to allow my students time and space to set an intention for their practice,“ said Dana Marie, a CorePower yoga instructor.

Intentions are a way to ground the mind, so that when one’s mind wanders there is always the original thought to return to. Intention creates reality. It’s better to be on the mark with intention than flop around by default.

“When my mind goes somewhere else, I just remember my intention and I come back,” said Jenniferlyn Chiemingo, Director of Yoga at hauteyoga in Seattle.

A second constant is that the teacher will emphasize, no matter what the rest of the class is doing, that it is up to you to practice in such a way that it benefits you. There is a steady stream of reminders across approaches that it is fundamentally an individual pursuit that is meant to move at an individual pace.

“You create your own experience,” said Greg Gumucio, founder of Yoga to the People. “You are responsible for your body. You are your best teacher.”

What they mean is that regardless of the instruction, and no matter what the rest of the class is doing, what you do in class and what you accomplish is up to you. The outward shape of the yoga pose, or asana, is not what matters so much as what you put into and get out of it

“The most important thing to remember is that yoga is all about you, it’s your practice and nobody else’s,” said Linda Schaar of Vibrant Life Yoga.

Yoga posture classes are about tuning into your body. They are about taking yourself as deep as you are willing to go, but at the same time being able to stay within the perameters of what is going on, to be able to recognize and respond to consequences.

“I can always choose to rest in child’s pose, chill out with my legs up the wall, or completely opt out of today’s fancy pose,” said Rebekah Grodky, a university administrator and yoga teacher in Sacramento. “Yoga is about self-love and acceptance of where we are right now.”

A third constant is that teachers will talk about going inward, of wedding your breath with your movement. An awareness of one’s breath makes you more aware of yourself and grounds you in the here-and-now. It is thought the more you go inward the more fully you can be present.

What teachers are talking about when they recommend going inward is the fifth aspect of the classical eight-limb system of Patanjali. This fifth limb is known as pratyahara, or inversion. It is generally thought of as a way of learning to lessen reaction to the distractions of the world around you, although it actually counsels withdrawal from the senses.

“The journey of yoga is a couple of hundred miles up a mountain, but it is a millions miles inward,“ said Lilias Folan, best known for her PBS series ‘Lilias! Yoga and You’. “There is a lot more to yoga than a ten-minute headstand.”

The last constant of most yoga classes, as soon as they actually start, after the homilies and theme-setting are over, is that teachers will do their best to thwart your intention, break your resolve to make the practice your own, and shatter whatever commitment you have made to go inward.

The first thing many yoga teachers do when class starts is plug in their iPods and twirl up their personal play lists, from MC Yogi to Bob Marley, from Krishna Das to Norah Jones. Even the Queen of Pop and King of Rock get in on the act. If it’s a Bikram class, the Leaders of the Pack climb onto their platforms and clear their throats.

When did yoga teachers become DJ’s? Or DI’s, drill instructors frog marching their cadets through the steam, as the case might be, in the world of Bikram Yoga? When did touching your toes become a Pavlovian response to ‘Head Over Feet’?

Music has become an elemental part and parcel vital ingredient of Vinyasa Flow classes, the most popular form of yoga. Sometimes musicians will even play live during classes. It’s entertaining, but it begs the question, what does it have to do with the practice? Does the Billboard Hot 100 enhance breath and awareness? Does it help focus attention on the inner man and woman? Does getting it together mean having to listen to the certified gold ‘Get It Together’?

Or is it just more noise, just another way of avoiding silence?

“The musical classes, if I wanted to dance, I’d go to Zumba,” pointed out William Auclair, who practices yoga in Monterey.

The next thing most yoga teachers do, once the soundtrack is spinning, is start talking and not stop talking until the class is over. Yoga was once made for doing, not for talking. “Just do,” said Pattabhi Jois when it was still old-school. If it’s a Bikram Yoga class, they talk twice as loud and twice as fast as other teachers.

Some teachers even talk during savasana, or corpse pose, in the guise of what they describe as guided meditation. Corpse pose used to be about sinking into stillness. Assembly instructions weren’t required. It was more a seat of your own pants thing. When it’s a Bikram class, corpse pose is the only time teachers don’t talk. They leave the hot room the minute class is over, leaving the sweat lodgers to chill out on their own.

When did the front of the room become a soapbox? When did yoga become a blank page for an editorial? When did yoga teachers start going center stage, like conductors of a symphony orchestra?

Conductors are meant to get their musicians to play all together for an audience. Yoga teachers are supposed to get posture students to do the work for themselves. Yoga isn’t a performance. Trombone players consciously and deliberately slide their telescoping mechanisms to make sounds concertgoers like. Yoga practice, on the other hand, is sliding into a consciousness of the unconscious.

How much talking should a teacher do during class?

There is a range of opinion mindset approaches.

Beginner classes are necessarily composed of a steady stream of instruction. Iyengar Yoga, since it focuses on body alignment and is largely about basic principles, involves precise verbal guidance. Bikram Yoga, hell-bent on obedience, is an unchanging and unending litany of commands.

The claim is that the patter keeps everyone on track, in lockstep. All yoga involves a certain amount of instruction from the instructors, or teachers, beyond just mechanically sequencing the class. That’s what they’re there for. A paramount concern of yoga exercise classes is that poses be practiced safely.

This is true from beginner classes, where instruction is vital, to intermediate classes, where it is complementary, to Ashtanga and other advanced classes, where it is rote.

Many yoga posture students appreciate the instruction they receive in class.

“If I didn’t want to hear my instructor teach and lead me I wouldn’t bother with a class,” said Amber Rose, who practices in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. “I want them to talk me through it, to help me reach a deeper level. When I want quiet time I’ll practice at home on my own.”

Some wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love the talk,” said Alicia Allen, an Assistant Professor at University of Minnesota Family Medicine. “Words of encouragement and relevant stories are always helpful to me.”

Others, however, even those going to class for instruction and physical adjustments, believe there should be some space for them to experience the poses on their own.

“Chit chat and personal stories are very different than cues and directions,“ said Emily Callison Heilbraun of Charleston, South Carolina. “I don’t need to be asked twenty times what my intention was when I started the class.”

Even at big studios in the middle of big classes people are often looking for opportunities for stillness and self-observation. No matter how much movement there is the room they want to keep a kind of quiet engaged. Steadiness comes from stillness of person.

Yoga is what bubbles up from the nothingness of silence, not from the everything of pep talks, sermonizing, and multi-media.

“When people come to do yoga, they come to empty,” said Cyndi Lee, writer and founder of the former OM Yoga in NYC. “If the teacher is filling up too much space with talking, too much music, or too many stimuli, it makes it difficult to empty.”

Yoga teachers need to stop talking so much, according to YogaDork.

“It may be because they love telling stories, or making oodles of verbal adjustments, or hearing themselves speak yogic poetry, but some yoga teachers just don’t know when to shut up!”

The question has even been raised if teaching poses in class has become secondary to other considerations.

“The instructor offered little to no guidance about how to actually do the poses,” Leslie Munday, a former yoga teacher, wrote on ‘Recovering Yogi’ about a class she attended. “She was practically turning herself blue in the face telling us how to live our lives.”

As a strategy for yoga classes the dispensing of advice has its problems. Benjamin Franklin observed wise men don’t need advice and fools won’t take it. Everyone else in class, for the most part, only wants to hear it if it agrees with what they were going to do anyway. The best advice may be to not take anyone’s advice.

Listening to advice is not without its pitfalls, including the misstep of ending up making somebody else’s mistakes.

Although most don’t talk until they’re blue in the face, some teachers talk “way too much,” observed Kimberly Johnson, an international yoga teacher trainer. “A lot of teachers say that their goal is for students to feel ‘better’ or ‘happier’ after class. Where it gets tricky though is at what point in your teaching trajectory do you deem yourself ready to teach philosophy or wax poetic?”

But, ready-made knowledge isn’t the role of yoga, at least not beyond beginner classes. It is rather a practice whose dynamic fosters conditions for invention and re-invention. The number 1 teachers don’t pose as number 1’s. They aren’t the ones who try to tell you everything, but the ones who inspire you to teach yourself.

“You have to grow through the inside out,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the Western world. “There is no other teacher but your own soul.”

Silence and speech are like yin and yang. Each depends on the other. Speech explains the mystery and silence brings us closer to it. Yoga is between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

Who listens to anyone who yammers on and on about the ‘deeper lessons’ of the practice? Who can focus on the intricacies of headstand when Elton John, the Liberace of my generation, is on the play list, hamming it up about his Rocket Man? Who can relax when somebody keeps telling you to just relax?

Yoga isn’t about texting, tweeting, and talking, talking, talking. It’s about stepping back, absorbing silence, and being in the moment. “It is to quiet the fluctuations of the mind,” said Patanjali about the purpose of yoga.

That can be hard to do when your teacher is yakking it up.

“When we’re constantly chattering, it’s a distraction and brings students into their heads,” said Karen Fabian of Bare Bones Yoga. “A great way to create presence is to allow for silence.”

Oftentimes the less you say is the more you are listened to.

Although soapboxes are tempting – who doesn’t enjoy the glow of attention – and there are plenty of yoga teachers who talk too much, many of them, based on my own walk in the door unscientific tally, talk just enough, sprinkling advice, observations, and encouragement in with instruction.

There are some who might even not talk enough.

A few years ago I was in a workshop in my hometown of Lakewood, Ohio, given by Naime Jezzeny, a teacher from New Jersey who specializes in biomechanics and its application to yoga. We were all in bridge pose when he walked over to our side of the large room. After looking over what a few other people were doing and briefly commenting on them, he stopped at my mat.

He looked my pose up and down, chewed on his index finger, and said, “Hmmm…” I looked up at him. He looked at my clasped hands beneath me.

Then he walked away to the next mat.

I’ve always wondered what he meant by what he said. Or meant by what he didn’t say.

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

 

 

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The Ugly Yogi

 

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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