Tag Archives: Mark Singleton Yoga Body

Hand On the Plow

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“Keep your hand on the plow, hold on, hold on.” Mahalia Jackson

Yoga is one of those things in this world that’s between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, except that somebody is always trying to make it into something. Although it’s true God made everything out of nothing, it’s also true the Big Bang will one day become the Big Crunch, when everything will collapse into a final singularity.

There’s a lot to like about the practice. There always has been. There will probably be a lot to like about it for a long time to come. It’s a practice with a get it done now point-of-view and a going going gone view of things, too. It is practical and spiritual, hands on about what is right in front of you, and tuned in to the bigger picture at the same time. It is getting physical and metaphysical, all on one plate, without blinking an eye.

There’s a boatload of tradition to it, but it isn’t necessary to know everything about it to practice it. Teachings and teachers are a big help, but past the point of breathing and meditation and concentration, and staying on the good side of the Golden Rule, it is a practice accessible to everyone because it is within everyone.

Everybody knows it’s better to be considerate rather than merciless, generous rather than greedy, rock steady rather than raging. It’s only the wise guys, our politicos machine gunners bankers power brokers movers and shakers and parade makers, who don’t have the wisdom to see past their noses.

One of the reasons they are horse blinkered is because their noses have grown so long they can’t see around them anymore. It ain’t the yellow brick road anymore when it leads to Orange Julius in the Oval Office.

The practice of yoga doesn’t demand you sign on the dotted line. It doesn’t squeeze you into any forgone conclusions. It doesn’t ask for your loyalty. What you get out of it is what you put into it, not the other way around. There’s no Church of Yoga or Chamber of Commerce of Yoga or Supreme Court of Yoga. It’s a way of life anyone can practice in their backyard, at work, and out in the wide blue yonder.

It is lucid able-bodied eye-opening. It is living and breathing with your heart in the right place. What’s not to like?

The fly in the ointment is asana practice. If the other seven limbs of the eight limbs of yoga make all the sense in the world, why does what passes as yoga on the mat pass itself off as the by the book way to work out in order to sustain health and fitness so that our minds spirit energies stay strong and on track?

There’s always something sketchy about orthodoxy.

When did you start needing a fitness membership at a yoga studio in order to practice yoga?  Why are there so many yoga classes at Planet Fitness Gold’s Gym Anytime Fitness? Does anybody just make it up at home for themselves anymore, or not?

Where did the idea come from that performing an ordained sequence of physical postures will get you closer to equilibrium? It’s as though your doctor wrote you a prescription for the up dog side angle touch your toes pill as a catch-all remedy for what ails you.

Why does Yoga Journal spit out articles like ’38 Health Benefits of Yoga’ month after month?

If not a cure-all, yoga is often touted as the Swiss Army knife of fitness.

The idea behind today’s yoga exercise sequences seems to be that what makes “a true yogic practice unique is that its focus is on sustained feeling of freedom and wholeness,” according to Alanna Kaivalya, author of “Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition”.

In step with that definition, however, anybody with a million dollars in the bank is having a true yogic experience, because that much money in the bank is a no-brainer for feeling free and whole, no matter how you got the greenbacks or what you plan on doing with them.

The only problem with having a million dollars is that there are always a million guys trying to take it away from you. That’s where aparigraha comes in handy. It is one of the ten yamas and niyamas, the guidelines of the practice. It basically translates to non-greed, non-possessiveness, and invokes the frugal gene.

Since the rich are always complaining that being rich is harder than it looks, yoga might be a big help for them.

Yoga is like an old-time religion, even though it isn’t a religious practice. It is old-time. It’s got its hand on the gospel plow. But most of what is known as yoga today is largely about being led through a workout on a mat, with an emphasis on paying attention to your breath, and maybe a dollop of meditation to round things out. There’s no magic to it, but there is a healthy dose of hocus pocus involved.

For a long time, as yoga was booming in the modern world, the third limb of the practice was extolled for its timelessness. It was said  the postures were thousands of years old. They had been burnished honed systematized to perfection. When Mark Singleton wrote “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” several years ago the genie was out of the bottle. It turns out almost everything being done on yoga mats had been invented in the past one hundred years-or-so.

A hundred years ago what is today taught and practiced on yoga mats far and wide was something else. It was Danish calisthenics British Army exercises YMCA strength work and Indian wrestling. It was a little bit of everything.

The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” – written about six hundred years ago – enumerates fifteen physical postures. That’s all of them. Fifteen. The legendary text “Yoga Korunta” that Krishnamacharya and K. Pattabhi Jois based the Ashtanga Series on remains to this day legendary. In other words, undiscovered, unhistorical, and unverifiable, largely because ants supposedly ate the text. It was written on banana leaves.

Practicing the series, which is hard in the doing and fulfilling in the accomplishment, may land you on cloud nine, but the origin of the series is pie in the sky.

One of the only yoga sutras mentioning anything about asana practice simply says one of the most important aspects of it is that it should entail “appropriate effort.” There isn’t anything in any traditional yogic text that says headstand or handstand or standing in tree pose for five minutes is what you need to do to get fit.

All you need to do is show some gumption.

“Yoga practice is supposed to make us structurally stable, enable us to move with grace and ease, free us from physical suffering and enable us to withstand changing circumstances,” wrote Olga Kabel in ‘Traditional Goals of Asana Practice’.

Yoga exercise is part of the package, not the whole package, as it has been misconstrued while being repackaged as a fitness regimen, another get fit commodity in the long line from Nautilus to jazzercise to spinning. It isn’t even clear that yoga is best for stability, best for enabling us to move with grace and ease, and best for alleviating suffering.

It is beyond doubt best for helping us adapt and deal with change, but that isn’t because of the exercise, but because of the rest of it.

“Traditionally, the practice of asana was always considered as an integral part of a holistic practice, never as an isolated fitness system,” said Gary Kraftstow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute.

When it becomes a fitness system is when it starts selling monthly memberships.

“Many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise,” said David Surrenda, founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University.

“The result of an emphasis on exercise misinterprets what the real intention of yoga practice is. Yes, one can increase muscle mass and decrease waist size, but that’s not the real goal. Much of the yoga practiced today has actually become the antithesis of yoga as it is meant to be.”

Yoga might be whatever you want it to be in its post-modern guise. Whatever it was meant to be way back when is neither here or now. Maybe that’s the beauty of the practice, shape-shifting to suit our intentions. You’ve got to stay on your toes to stay in the present, be in the moment, which is an integral part of the practice.

Nevertheless, even though lunges and twists and jump backs on the mat are good for you, so are riding a bike and lifting weights. In fact, yoga doesn’t even crack Harvard Medical School’s Top 5, which are walking, swimming, strength training, Tai chi, and kegel. The best fitness exercises are still basic hip and hamstring stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, dumbbell rows and presses, and burpees.

As part of an overall fitness regimen, yoga exercise is by all accounts a Top 10. Everyone does push-ups and sit-ups on the mat without even realizing it. The burpee is a foundation of all vinyasa sequences. When it comes to flexibility, yoga is certainly Number 1 on the Hit Parade. Sometimes people say they aren’t flexible enough to do yoga, but that’s like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.

Getting all the poses on the mat right is keeping your eye on the wrong prize.

Anyone who subscribes to the eight aspects of the practice is doing yoga, but no one who just does stuff on the mat is doing yoga. They are doing something, but it’s like soda pop to a scotch straight up. They are fooling themselves when they believe the bright shining proposition that they are achieving some greater good by doing what they’re told to do on the mat. Anyone will get fit if they spend enough time at a yoga studio, but they will get fit if they spend enough time walking around in circles, too.

Yoga is about mastering the modifications of your mind, not just the modifications of your body. When exercise is the be-all and end-all, it is a good thing in and of itself, but it’s not yoga. When exercise is linked to the breath, the breath to the mind, the mind to the spirit, in a kind of virtuous circle, it’s yoga whether you’re in a studio or walking the dog in the park.

Like K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Just do.”

Hatha yoga is what leads to physical health mental clarity and a cool as a cucumber spirit. When practiced alongside the yamas amd niyamas, the ten principles of daily life, it’s the second to none way of transforming yourself from the outside in and the inside out. There’s no monkey business to it.

The fitness aspect of yoga doesn’t have to be the dogma of what has come to be standardized in how-to books youtube videos and studios. It can be cobra and down dog and corpse pose. It can be power lifting. It can be archery. As long as your mind and spirit are one-pointed and your aim is true, whatever we do with gumption and purpose will gird us for where we want to go.

All anyone needs to do is keep their hand on the gospel plow.

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Going Heavy (Arms and the Mat)

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In 1120, soon after the First Crusade recaptured Jerusalem for Christendom, a new monastic order was created to support and protect caravans making pilgrimage to the Holy Places. But, unlike earlier monastic orders, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, or Knights Templar, was different.

Christian monasticism had always been a devotional practice. The basic idea of the practice, even today, is withdrawal from the world. Christian monks lived ascetic, often cloistered lives, dedicated to worship. It is similar to Pratyahara, one of the forgotten limbs of yoga. Pratyahara literally means “gaining mastery over external influences.” It is grounded in the same kind of tradition.

The Knights Templar, however, was a military monastic order, among the most skilled fighting men of the Crusades. In 1177, at the Battle of Montgisard, fewer than 500 heavily-armored Knights Templar, backed by only a few thousand infantrymen, defeated the Muslim Sultan Saladin’s army of more than 26,000.

Although men of the cloth and masters of war may seem like strange bedfellows, they are not.

In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic philosopher, wrote, “A religious order can be fittingly established for the military life, for the defense of divine worship.” In the 16th century monks of the Shaolin Temple routinely battled Japanese pirates, who had been raiding their Chinese coastline for decades. Servants of God sometimes acted as shock troops during Europe’s Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Buddhist monks have lately joined the likes of Hindu nationalists, fundamentalist Christians, Muslim radicals, and ultra-Orthodox Jews in advancing their religious points-of-view at the end of a gun barrel.

Since they have all the answers, it is doubtful they have any faith, even though they insist otherwise, often at the boiling point. Faith is what implies there might be a mystery at the heart of things.

Yoga has long been perceived as being built on several core principles, among them non-violence. “The first yama – ahimsa or non-harming, which asks us to embrace non-violence at the level of speech, thought, and action – is truly the cornerstone of yoga as a way of life,” Rolf Gates wrote in his book Meditation From the Mat.

Both cornerstone and culture, it is a behavior essential to the yogic lifestyle. “Practicing ahimsa is a way of cultivating an attitude of kindness, gentleness, and forgiveness in all situations,” says Heather Church, an Adjunct Teaching Professional at Ohio University, where she teaches yoga and yogic philosophy.

But, in a country that possesses 50% percent of the guns on the planet, even though it accounts for only 5% of the world’s population, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and where tens of millions practice yoga of some kind or other, according to Yoga Journal, it was probably inevitable that guns and the practice would one day cross swords.

In the brave new world of today’s yoga some are taking an age-old tack on the issue of violence, eschewing self-restraint and ahimsa. They are taking an Old Testament approach, bumping the Buddha off the starting line. It’s an eye for an eye outlook.

“I’ll be damned if some religious extremist decides in his twisted head that he thinks he’ll clean the world by popping off some godless hippies and decides to walk in and spray some bullets into my studio with my students,” Cheryl Vincent wrote in an op-ed piece for Elephant Journal.

“You better believe I’ll be packing.”

The central maxim of the National Rifle Association, better known as the NRA, is, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

It’s High Noon showdown time. When good yogis pack pistols their accuracy is generally better than most, making them daunting adversaries. Writing in Women’s Self Defense Weekly, which offers advice such as “The Neck Grab and Throat Punch”, Laura Simonian pointed out that the best-kept secret about yoga is that “it helps your shooting.”

She added that it was “great” for mental strength, core strength, balance strength, breathing control strength, and self-discipline, all leading to an aim that is true. “I bet you didn’t know all those core conditioning boats, crows, and warriors were benefitting you in more ways than flexibility and mental well-being. Yoga can actually aid your shooting.”

Shooting guns takes focus and concentration. “Yoga’s Zen-like quality can be applied to shooting guns in a lot of ways,” says Deirdre Gailey, a yoga teacher and vegan chef in New York City. “I like to shoot guns.”

The rise of women’s gun culture is a 21st century phenomenon. Babes with bullets shot up almost 50% in the United States between 2001 and 2010, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, leading to pink pistols and purses with holster slots. Samuel Colt made all men equal in the 19th century. Now women are catching up.

Brandon Webb, the marksman who trained the writer Laura Simonian on bolt-action rifles, described her as a “natural born killer” and explained that he has “definitely witnessed firsthand the positive effects yoga has had on my own shooting.”

Laura Simonian trained with a Glock 34 handgun, too. Although its longer barrel results in a slightly slower draw time out of the holster, it is still used by some as a concealed weapon. No one should try messing with yoga girl Laura.

A 2013 Gallup Poll revealed that protection is the top reason Americans own guns, followed by hunting, sport and target shooting, and 2nd Amendment rights. Gun owners say that having a gun makes them feel safer. The NRA argues that if more law-abiding citizens had guns everyone would be safer from gun violence.

The NRA doesn’t say anything about more Americans having been killed in gun-related incidents in the past 50 years than in all the wars fought in all of American history.

“You see peace and tranquility in the country and I see the Blair Witch Project,” Texas novelist Ruth Pennebacker wrote in “Yoga and Guns”.

“You see cows and horses and I see lethal rattlesnakes ready to strike. You see friendly, down-to-earth farmers and homespun families and I see the two murderers from In Cold Blood. A gun. Shooting lessons. Sign up now. Before it’s too late.”

But, a study in the Southern Medical Journal in 2010 found that owning a gun is 12 times more likely to result in the death of a family member or guest than in the death of an intruder. It is the protection paradox. The risks of gun ownership overshadow the benefits. The more guns there are the more shootings there are. That is why in countries with few guns there are few shootings.

After Australia enacted sweeping gun control laws in 1998 mass shootings involving four-or-more people dropped to zero. In the United States mass shootings happen every day, literally. In 2016 there were 383.

For many people the joy of owning guns is entwined with the joy of hunting.

“Every shotgun and rifle in my family’s gun safe is brimming with stories,” wrote Babe Winkleman in The Sportsman’s Guide. “I wonder where those walnut tress grew [for my rifle stock]. Was there ever a deer shot from the very tree that grew the wood for my deer rifle?”

Although more and more people in the United States live in cities, hunting expanded 9% from 2006 through 2011.  Some tramp through fields and woods because “doing things outdoors is healthy,” says Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Some hunt because it is a rite of passage, growing up in families that have always hunted, and passing their knowledge down. In “Buddhists With Guns” the writer Justin Whitaker, a Buddhist scholar, noted he and his sister, a yoga instructor, grew up in rural Montana and were introduced to guns early in life.

“I think I skipped the ‘you’ll shoot your eye out!’ bb-gun that many friends were getting and moved on to a pump-action single shot pellet-gun around the age of 8,” he said.

Others hunt to harvest their own food. In 2011 almost 14 million Americans went hunting, shooting squirrels, pheasants, turkey, and deer, among other wildlife. Old-school yoga skips hunting season. It eschews eating animals. Sri Pattabhi Jois, progenitor of Ashtanga Yoga, recommended not eating meat because “It will make you stiff.”

Most people who practice yoga today eat animals, but are sometimes sensitive about the issue. “When the rare occasion does rise for me to indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” said Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Cape Cod.

More than 150 billion animals a year are killed for food, both in slaughterhouses and forests. That is a great deal of killing. It may be what guns are made for, but whether that much suffering aligns with yogic values is an open question.

By 2010 shooting was enjoying a renaissance in the United States. 35 million Americans were participating in formal and informal sport and target shooting, surpassing all earlier estimates of the sport. “Firearms sales are way up, so it’s really no surprise that more people are enjoying the shooting sports than ever before,” said Steve Sanetti, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, based in Newtown, Connecticut.

“AR-style [semi-automatic assault-style, in other words] rifles are rugged, accurate, fun to shoot, and they’re here to stay,” he added.

Fun on the mat and fun on the firing range sometimes vibrate on the same plane.

“Shooting guns and taking yoga on the same day was the biggest ‘You got chocolate in my peanut butter!’ moment I’ve had so far in my life,” wrote Patton Oswalt in The New York Times. “I was one with my target, and my target was bliss. Namaste. Lock and load.”

Guns are the “new yoga” CBS News reported recently. However, instead of foam blocks and cloth straps, the new props of the new yoga include high-velocity metal projectiles.

Although it is hard to hear over the racket of gunfire, shooting a gun can be “just like yoga – meditative,” Caitlin Talbot recounted gun owners describing the gunfire around them in her article in Elephant Journal. The same skill sets often apply. Slow yourself down. Be in the now.

In the same way that consciously relaxing your body, focusing your thoughts and gaze, and breathing evenly are the basic tools of meditation, they are the basic tools of shooting, too. When shooting a gun the fewer muscles used the steadier the shooter’s position will be. Focusing on the task at hand puts the shooter in the zone, making their efforts effortless. Lastly, shooters use breathing cues, relaxing on each expired breath, as they squeeze the trigger.

It’s just like yoga, except you don’t want to be on the wrong end of a gun. It’s not like being on a yoga mat, where any end of the mat is the right end. At least, until recently, when Mattthew Remski observed in “Should Yogis Want Their Guns Back” that his yoga mat “sometimes smells like gunpowder” and that “authentic peace seems to thrive on the juice of authentic violence”.

Many gun enthusiasts, firearms industry spokesmen, and the NRA cite the 2nd Amendment as justification for the right everyone has to keep and bear arms. Owning guns is framed as a fundamental human right, although they seem to never defend the merits of gun ownership without referring to the amendment, as though guns in and of themselves are only signifiers, not actual things.

The hue and cry is made despite the wording of the amendment itself. “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” What Thomas Jefferson seems to have meant was that the right to possess firearms exists in relation to the militia, not in relation to teenagers possessing Glock 10mm and Sig-Sauer 9mm handguns, Bushmaster semi-automatic rifles, and Izhmash 12-gauge shotguns, and then using them to shoot and kill grade school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut.

Until this century all federal courts, liberal and conservative alike, agreed that the 2nd Amendment does not confer gun rights on individuals. However, in 2010 the Supreme Court ruled otherwise in a 5 – 4 decision, re-affirming a fundamental right to bear arms. Now that many of the arguments about who can have a gun – there are no federal laws requiring a license to own a gun – have been settled, the Supreme Court might in the next few years try resolving the question of who can or can’t possess a rocket launcher.

Gun aficionados from Rush Limbaugh to Arnold Schwarzenegger applauded. “I have a love interest in every one of my films – a gun,” said the Terminator.

Guns can be testy lovers, however. “The recoil from a .357 Magnum can really do a number on your chakras,” said one of the shooting yogis in “Higher Caliber, Higher Mindedness: The Story of YoGun”, an award-winning short film from SofaCouch MovieFilms.

As yoga has matured in the United States in the new millennium, it has begun to embrace the notion of gun ownership. “Yoga is starting to become more associated with the cultural right, used to train the military and promote Ayn Rand,” said Carol Horton, a former political science professor and certified Forrest Yoga teacher.

“Until all governments disarm, the people have a right to bear arms,” argues Avananda, a ‘philosopher yogi’ and registered Yoga Alliance teacher.

The argument is the same as the photo-shopped shortened 2nd Amendment on the front of NRA headquarters. ”The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Like the NRA, many prefer the amended fake version of the amendment to the real amendment.

Michelle Comeaux Howard, a yoga teacher and mother of two in Mission Viejo, California, has argued that only by being armed can we successfully defend ourselves from being victimized. “I believe strongly in our Second Amendment rights because there will always be crime and I want to exercise the right to protect myself and my children in the event we were to become victims of a home invasion or if someone ever attacked us in public.”

She believes all “law-abiding” citizens, including her, should be allowed to legally carry a concealed weapon. Non-violence is one of yoga’s self-restraints, but it is being pushed out the door at the same time as gun control is coming to mean being able to hit your target.

But, maybe old-school peace-and-love your neighbor yogis have it all wrong about ahimsa, and what is really old-school about the practice are yogis tot’n the monkey. Back in the day they apparently believed you could get more with a kind thought and a gun than with just a kind thought.

“From the fifteenth century until the early decades of the nineteenth century, highly organized bands of militarized yogins controlled trade routes across Northern India,” wrote Mark Singleton in Yoga Body.

Yoga exercise, or hatha yoga, was a kind of boot camp or military training, keeping them in trim for the wear and tear of guerilla warfare. As Birgette Gorm Hansen pointed out in “Wild Yogis”, a recent article in Rebelle Society, yoga back then “was a bad ass practice.”

After putting down the infamous 1857 Mutiny, the British colonial government of India began to systematically disarm the sub-continent’s population, and in 1878 introduced the Indian Arms Act, forbidding almost all Indians from possessing firearms of any kind. Although not specifically targeting yogis, it effectively ended the marauding of the armed hatha gangs, who threatened both princely states and British economic interests.

They were forced to lay down their guns and turn to yogic showmanship as a livelihood, in the meantime keeping yoga exercise alive into the 20th century. In the 1920s and 30s Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, took up the mantle and revived the practice, crafting it to become the booming posture workout it is today.

Today, modern yoga studios preach breath and exercise to keep us fit and healthy, sprinkling in concepts like Dharana and Dhyana to keep a few of the other limbs of yoga alive. But, back in the day, yogis kept the peace by going heavy.

Nobody goes heavier than the Pentagon. These days the military is hiring ‘Yoga Defense Contractors’ to deal with changes in basic training, combat readiness, and residual issues like PTSD.

Maybe the yogis packing pistols today are just getting back to the roots of yoga.

After all, even the Dalai Lama, arguably one of the most peaceable men on the planet, when asked by a schoolchild at the Educating Heart Summit in Oregon what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun, replied without hesitation, ”If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

 

 

 

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.