By Ed Staskus
The biggest yoga event of 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio, went off at the tail end of the summer without a hitch. It was as though the gods were smiling down on it. The Friday evening was dry, without a thunderstorm in sight, the hot day tempering as the sun sank into Lake Erie so that when the festivities began the temperature had settled into the mid-70s. The humidity was kept at bay by the breeze off the lake.
“The yoga, the assists, the people, the music, the weather, the views. Cleveland rocks!” said Deanna Broaddus of Beachwood.
Several thousand people unrolled their mats on the Collection Auto Group Plaza of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the city’s re-developed North Coast Harbor. The mass class took place in front of the I. M. Pei-deigned dual-triangular-shaped glass tent that is the main entry facade to the museum and which extends onto the 65,000-square-foot plaza.
It is modeled after Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.
‘Believe in Cleveland’ was sponsored by Inner Bliss, Cleveland’s largest yoga studio with locations in Rocky River and Westlake, the athletic apparel company Lululemon, and the Rock Hall.
“We are so thrilled to have you here,” said Greg Harris of Brecksville, CEO of the Rock Hall. “This is the first time, but it won’t be the last,” he added, to a roar from the crowd.
The keynote address was by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who spoke on mindfulness, the subject of his recent book, ‘A Mindful Nation’.
Tammy Lyons of Bay Village, owner of Inner Bliss, led the yoga exercise class. “Lift up your neighbor, breath in, a little higher, go up,” she urged the throng.
After the 90-minute practice, set to music by Prince, Led Zeppelin, U2, Billy Idol, and the Rolling Stones, among others, there was dancing and food, including the novelty of a vegan food truck.
But, on a night filled with inspiring speeches, asana, music, laughter, dancing, and fun, food was not uppermost in most people’s minds.
“The yoga, the location, the weather, it was perfect in Cleveland,” said Heather Moore of Cleveland Heights.
It was easily not only the largest outdoor yoga event in Cleveland; it was the largest yoga event in Cleveland of any kind, attesting to the practice’s growing popularity in a changing city.
“We came. We saw. We believed,” said Jeffrey Jones of Willoughby. “This event gave me hope for the city I love.”
But, it was an event edgy with surprising alliances, some more surprising than others. It was a night when politicians, of all things, shone brighter and truer than professed yoga boosters like Lululemon and professed counter culture icons like rock-and-roll bands.
Congressional job approval stands at less than 20% according to most polls, including Fox News and the Gallup Poll. The 80% disapproval rating is the worst Gallup has measured in more than 30 years of tracking congressional approval. And this is more than a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”
It has long been observed that politics have little or no relation to morals. It is rarely a good idea to give a politician the keys to the city. Better to change the locks.
Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once noted that 90 percent of politicians give the other 10 percent a bad name.
Congressman Ryan is one of the 10 percent. He might be the only percent of politicians who believe meditation can result in well being on a nationwide basis, and who practice it themselves.
A five-term incumbent from a rust belt northeastern Ohio district, the congressman is a 6-foot-4-inch former football star, an unlikely candidate for the meditative world. He is a career politician whose re-elections are fueled by the jobs he brings to his district, from the Lordstown Chevy plant to the expansion of the Air Force Reserve Base, and the tens of millions of federal dollars in earmarks he routinely delivers. The Additive Manufacturing Center in downtown Youngstown, which he was instrumental in making happen, is poised to become the linchpin in a Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland technology belt.
But, as much as he caters to the meat-and-potato concerns of his district’s residents, as well as dealing with national issues like immigration, gun control, and balancing the budget, Congressman Ryan is breaking ground in Washington by proposing that America can be transformed by practicing simple forms of meditation to develop what he calls “mindfulness”.
In his book ‘A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit’, Congressman Ryan asserts that meditation, or mindfulness, is a simple tonic for the national angst.
“Mindfulness will be a response to the wars, struggling to make ends meet, the general anxiety out there. This can be transformational. It should be mainstream. We need this.”
‘A Mindful Nation’ was the result of a retreat he attended after the 2008 elections, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and a leading mindfulness advocate.
“When you taste this stuff, it has profound effects,” said Mr. Kabat-Zinn. “That’s why it has lasted 2,600-plus years. It’s not just some silly quaint thing they used to do in Asia because they had nothing better to do. It’s a way to stay healthy.”
While writing his book Congressman Ryan met with Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation on the brain.
“Tim was interested in the potential of this, the impact this research might have to shape policy, bringing these kinds of methods into education, health care, leadership,” said Mr. Davidson, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience.
“There’s a huge amount of suffering that can be prevented with healthy habits of the mind, decreased substance abuse, suicide, bullying, drunk driving, anxiety, and depression. The benefits are considerable and wide-ranging.”
Starting with scientists conducting Transcendental Meditation research since the late 1960s, numerous studies have shown that meditation helps reduce chronic pain and depression, protects against heart disease by reducing the marker C-reactive protein, and lowers acute stress response by actually changing the structure of the brain.
“It did to my mind what going to the gym did to my body – it made it both stronger and more flexible,” says Dr. Hedy Kober, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation at her lab at Yale University.
Since the publication of his book Congressman Ryan has started a once-a-week quiet time caucus for members of Congress as well as spoken on the subject at seminars and public events coast-to coast. He said he has been surprised by how many members of Congress have asked him about the practice and how to better deal with stress.
“A lot of people don’t understand mindfulness,” he said.
“But, when you talk about slowing down and being in the present moment they get enthusiastic, across partisan lines. It’s about participating in your own health care, in education, in politics, and becoming more resilient, and there’s no reason why people should rule this out because it doesn’t fit into their political philosophy.”
Even before the publication of his book Congressman Ryan secured almost a million dollars in federal funding for programs to teach mindfulness at elementary schools in his district.
“We are basically teaching them how to calm down the part of the brain that is preventing them from learning how to pay attention. It’s a beautiful thing to walk in to classrooms and hear stories about how it’s transforming them.”
Congressman Ryan may have been the warm-up band at ‘Believe in Cleveland’, but he deserved to be the headliner.
It is rare when the unexpected sincerity of a politician trumps the supposed sincerity of yoga boosters like Lululemon. Politicians are bred to seem sincere, even when they usually don’t mean it. Congressman Ryan was a breath of fresh air. Lululemon, on the other hand, is as fresh as its next advertising campaign, or in whatever direction the hot air balloon is blowing.
Lululemon is a high-end yoga-inspired multi-billion dollar apparel retailer. It pronounces itself as a company “where dreams come to fruition.” One of the slogans most prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money.”
However, most of Lululemon’s apparel is manufactured in third-world countries at the behest of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, who believes, according to a speech he made at a conference of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies in Vancouver, British Columbia, that third-world children should be encouraged to work in factories because it provides their families with much-needed wages.
Lululemon’s former CEO, Christine Day, recently ousted after overseeing the introduction of its ill-fated see-through yoga pants, explained the company’s philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar separates by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”
When Lululemon opened a new store in Kingston, Ontario, in the middle of winter in 2011, it advertised free clothes at its grand opening. Full-page ads blared: “Grin and Bare It! Let us dress you from head to toe. The first 30 people wearing only their undies will receive a free Lululemon top and bottom.” Since another of the company’s slogans is, “Do one thing a day that scares you,” and since stripping in public is scary for most people, on the big day the sidewalks of Kingston were overflowing with Girls Gone Wild, although some couldn’t stop shivering while patiently waiting for their free Bhakti capris.
Corporate public relations representative Sara Gardiner described the come-as-you-are campaign as a “great way of grassroots marketing and creating conversations.”
“Our product is unique because it’s infused with passion,” said the manager of Lululemon when it opened in the up-scale Eton Square Mall in a suburb of Cleveland. “Each step of the process is committed to greatness, fun, integrity, and quality. The culture of Lululemon is one that inspires me. When I put on a pair of groove pants I feel like I’m a part of that inspiration.”
A New York Times investigation revealed that Lululemon’s Vitasea line of seaweed fabric – whose seaweed it claimed released “marine amino acids, minerals, and vitamins into the skin” – contained no seaweed at all.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that the company’s employees are trained to routinely eavesdrop on customers.
In the past five years Lululemon has tripled its annual revenue, expanding from 70 stores to more than 200, giving substance to the notion that if you can fake sincerity, you have surely got it made.
Two years ago Lululemon introduced new shopping bags sporting the shadowy question: “Who is John Galt?”
John Galt, a pivotal character in Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, believes in and defends the right of the individual to employ his mind and life solely for his own benefit.
Few people become engaged with yoga as a result of reading Ayn Rand’s potboilers, and for good reason. An unabashed advocate of individualism and unbridled capitalism, she rejects faith in favor of rational selfishness.
In notes for her novel she describes John Galt as without “inner conflict because he is perfect.” In other words, he is the Superman of our modern times. In the book he is compared to Prometheus, who in Greek mythology created man from clay.
The philosophy of Ayn Rand holds that there is no greater moral good than achieving happiness. It is an idealistic message burdened by the simplistic flaw that it confuses what are necessary conditions for happiness with sufficient conditions.
Ayn Rand blithely pronounces, in the words of John Galt, that if we all pursue whatever is in our own self-interest then the world will be a better place. Most of today’s libertarians justify their political views by citing Ayn Randism, or Objectivism, as it is better known.
Ayn Rand is considered the matriarch of the Tea Party, even though she herself enjoyed the benefits of Medicaid and Social Security.
Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and guiding light, was influenced by ‘Atlas Shrugged’ when he read it at age eighteen. “Only later, looking back, did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,” according to the company.
“Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity.”
It begs the question of whether the children working in Lululemon’s overseas factories are on the fast track to conquering mediocrity, or if they need to get on the fast track to reading more of Ayn Rand to understand how they have been misled. Maybe they should reconsider sewing see-through pants twelve hours a day and instead, as Lululemon urges, break free of “the constraints and limitations on ourselves, which impede us from living our best lives.”
But, it may not be as easy to do in Bangladesh as it is in North America, given that practically all of the profit margins on clothes made for pennies on the dollar flow into the coffers of Lululemon and its shareholders, and not into the savings accounts of its workers.
In the spring of 2013 workers at the Sabrina Garment Manufacturing factory in Cambodia, where Lululemon clothes are made, went on strike, complaining about “slave wages”.
Lululemon replied by saying: “We share your concern about the situation, and are in close contact with our factory partners.”
They might as well have said nothing.
Carol Horton, a yoga teacher and author of ‘Race and the Making of American Liberalism’, writes: “I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of Lululemon customers and ambassadors haven’t thought into the politics of the company they’re supporting.”
But, social and economic concerns aside, the issue of pursuing our own self-interest no matter what not only leads to innumerable dead ends, it is contrary to the teachings of yoga, a core component of which is building community. “The feeling we get from being part of a community, or kula, is an important part of why many of us embrace yoga,” says Kelle Walsh, the editor of Yoga Journal.
“The notion of self-interest, in fact, runs completely against that,” argues Simon Houpt, senior media writer for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, writing about Lululemon’s love affair with Ayn Rand.
The path of yoga is admittedly a path towards one’s own fulfillment, but it is not the path of narcissism. It is a commonplace that we have to be selfish to get ahead in this world. But, the idea that selfishness is an overarching virtue to be pursued at all cost, as Ayn Rand and Lululemon espouse, is both shortsighted and solipsistic.
Every man for himself and God against all is not one of the eight limbs of yoga.
“Self-cherishing is the cause of all misery and dissatisfaction,” according to the Tibetan Buddhist Panchen Lama, “while holding other sentient beings dearer than oneself is the foundation of all realization and knowledge.”
It may seem churlish to not see the good in sexy, form fitting yoga pants, but yoga is ultimately a practice whose focus is meant to be internal, rather than focused on how shapely one’s butt can be in a pair of Wunder Under tights. Nor is it a practice meant to further the fortunes of companies doing anything and everything they can to claw their way up the NASDAQ ladder. Although yoga is America’s favorite eastern philosophy, because it is so accepting of SUV’s, one of its central tenets is non-grasping, or non-greed.
None of its tenets bears any resemblance to Lululemonism. To suppose otherwise is to pretend to understand what Led Zeppelin meant by the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.
As antithetical as the presumptions of Lululemon are to yoga, the mantra of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll is equally peripheral to the yoga project. Rock-and-roll’s carousal of multi-millionaire stars has long since turned the music on its head. Given the luxurious lifestyles of many of the Rock Hall’s inductees, from the Gloved One to Elton John, my generation’s Liberace, it cannot be any wonder that Miley Cyrus, famous for faux-masturbating with a foam finger, is banging the gong at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with her smash hit ‘Bangerz’.
With five chart-toppers by the tender age of twenty, Miley is on a roll and the Rock Hall is probably already planning the induction of and shiny mausoleum for Cyrus the Great in the 2030s when she becomes eligible.
Although rock-and-roll is not, admittedly, my favorite genre of music, I do enjoy listening to the likes of Sonic Youth, Social Distortion, and even Bikini Kill, who recorded on the label ‘Kill Rock Stars’, as much as the next man. It is to their credit, however, that they aren’t and hopefully never will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame, so-called by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.
“It’s a place where old rockers go to die.”
In 1994 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead did not attend his induction because he was opposed to the idea of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The rest of the band disagreed, dragging a cardboard cutout of Garcia onstage. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane skipped the ceremony in 1996, saying: “All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”
When the Sex Pistols were named as inductees in 2006, alongside Blondie and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they refused to attend, sending a note instead: “Rock and roll and the hall of fame are a piss stain. We’re not coming. We’re not your monkey, and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, selling us a load of old famous. We’re not coming. You’re not paying attention.”
What they meant was that rock and roll has long since become as corporate as it can possibly become. The genre is immensely popular worldwide and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business with little connection to what used to be known as the counter-culture, or to anything that means anything except the sound and fury of a tune with a backbeat. Since punk rock stripped back the curtain in the late 1970s, big-time rock-and-roll bands have routinely sold out to sell everything from Royal Caribbean Cruises (Iggy Pop) to Jaguar S-class sedans (Sting).
The Rock Hall’s signature exhibition in 2013 was the ‘Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction’. The aptly named Stones have spent fifty years snorting kilos of cocaine and making tons of money. In the years 2000 through 2010 the bad boys of rock grossed almost $900 million dollars at their live shows alone. In the form of twenty-dollar bills it amounts to 36,000 pounds, or literally eighteen tons of twenty-dollar bills.
From its explosive springboard in the 1950s rock-and-roll became a cultural revolution. Bookended by Woodstock and Live Aid it responded to the issues of its day like war, race, sexuality, power, and world hunger. But, 25 years after Live Aid it has become predictable and irrelevant. Rock-and-roll may once have been on its way to changing the world, but then came Matchbox 20 and Vertical Horizon.
There is a reason Fall Out Boy’s ‘Save Rock and Roll’ was the most successful rock album of 2013, and it’s not even really rock-and-roll.
The nadir may have been 2008 when the pop icon Madonna was inducted into the Rock Hall, which Gene Simmons of KISS said was an insult to her because she should have been in the Dance Hall of Fame, instead. The Material Girl is to rock-and-roll as Ben Affleck is to the Baseball Hall of Fame because he goes to so many Red Sox games at Fenway Park.
For a performer whose career has been built on a platform of bawdiness, it is surprising that since 1996 Madonna has practiced and stayed in shape with Ashtanga Yoga workouts. “Yoga is a metaphor for life,” she says. “It is a workout for your mind, your body, and your soul.”
It is surprising, but maybe she simply has never heard of Pattabhi Jois’s emphasis on bramacharya, or the wise use of sexual energy, in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. But, then again, that is not the kind of idea that sells records and concert tickets costing hundreds of dollars for ringside seats.
As yoga has become more mainstream stars have taken to writing and singing yoga tunes. Madonna had a hit with ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ in which she crooned, “Beyond comparison, working like the jungle physician/To pacify loss of consciousness from the poison of existence.” The album ‘Ray of Light’ on which the song appeared sold 16 million copies. Abandoning her white top hat, black panties and bra, and black knee-high go-go boots in favor of a shapeless ankle-length sackcloth, the Queen of Pop performed with a troupe of traditionally-clad Indian women.
Although the Boston Globe described the album as “deeply spiritual dance music,” not everyone agreed that ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ was Madonna’s best work, no matter the weird intensity of its lyrics. Nor does everyone agree that any and all performers are the best vehicles for sacred songs.
“Some people think they can find some melodies and put some mantras to them, and now they’re chanting,” Krishna Das said in an interview with Shannon Sexton, a former editor of Yoga International. “But they may not understand that this is spiritual practice. This is not entertainment. These chants have power. They have the ability to change us.”
The venue for ‘Believe in Cleveland’ was centrally located in downtown Cleveland, accessible to all the city’s many suburbs and exburbs along its myriad of highways. Like pilgrims flowing downstream the area’s yogis descended to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River as though it were the Ganges. The show was a hit.
However, it could have been staged in many different places in Cleveland, including the 22,000 green acres of the Metroparks circling the city. Edgewater State Park on Cleveland’s west shoreline of Lake Erie has hosted large gatherings of yogis practicing 108 sun salutations on summer solstice, as well.
Wade Oval, one of northeast Ohio’s premier public spaces, only minutes from the Rock Hall, might have made a natural choice. Its amenities include a seven-acre park, the hundred-foot wide Kulas Community Stage, and on-site access to water and electricity. Wade Oval is directly opposite the entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well, which has a large collection of art related to yoga.
One of its best pieces, ‘Yoga Narasimha: Lord Vishnu in his Man-Lion Avatar’, is headlining ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’, a major show billed as the world’s first exhibition on yogic art. It will explore yoga over time, as spiritual training as well as physical exercise, and its connections to both well-being and enlightenment. The exhibition, a result of the museum’s traditional strength in Asian art, premiers in June, 2014. It will travel to Washington, D. C. later in the fall for a three-month engagement at the Feer Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art.
At first glance it might seem like a park adjoining a museum co-organizing an historic exhibit of yogic art would have been a better fit for a groundbreaking yoga night out than a pay-per-view depository venerating the likes of Guns N’ Roses, the Stooges, and Black Sabbath.
At second glance, too.
“In retrospect,” the Village Voice recently noted, “it’s hard not to see the Osbournes [of Black Sabbath fame] as the first sign that the modern world was entering its Post-Dignity era.”
It might be said, as it often is, that “It’s all yoga.” There is a fondness for promoting the practice no matter what, in the belief that it is both immediately and ultimately beneficial, even if higgledy-piggledy alliances have to be made with Lululemon and the Rock Hall to bring the practice to the people.
But, that’s like Yogi Berra saying, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”
One of the yamas of yoga is satya, or honesty and truthfulness. Lululemon is consistently disingenuous and rock-and-roll chronically two-faced. Both wear the rubric of peace, love, and understanding over their shoulders, proving Mark Twain right when he said, “Honesty is the best policy, when there is money in it.”
Since many politicians don’t believe what they say, sitting on the fence with both ears to the ground, they are often surprised when they are believed. Hall of Fame rock bands and Lululemon are corporations in pursuit of unfettered wealth.
“Groups are corporations now,” says John Lee Hooker, father of the boogie. “They have pension plans. Musicians have saw the daylight.”
Bono of U2 is on track to, literally, become the world’s first billionaire rock star.
Corporations always seek to be believed, no matter what it is they are selling, that being the platform on which success and failure ultimately rests. No one likes to be lied to.
Who listens to Milli Vanelli anymore?
It was refreshing to hear Congressman Ryan speak candidly about an issue that does not benefit him directly in terms of votes and campaign contributions, but rather touches on larger issues affecting citizens and the republic itself. “It’s not very common for elected officials to talk about the psychological and mental factors that are involved in things going well or badly in public policy,” says Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of ‘Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time’.
“Tim is shining a spotlight on this, and that’s brave.”
It was dismaying to listen to the la-la-la’s of Lululemon and Led Zeppelin, especially when they barely believe and dimly understand what they are talking about. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, one of the most beloved and most played rock songs of all time, was written by Robert Plant, who has admitted the lyrics have no actual meaning. Whatever sounds good to keep turning the turnstiles.
The company we keep, fairly or unfairly, judges us.
When yoga aligns itself with the likes of Tim Ryan, who envisions for the nation mindfulness as a way to “prevent a lot of suffering, prevent a lot of war, and suffering in the healthcare system,” it associates with men of good company.
When yoga locks elbows with the likes of Chip Wilson and Mick Jagger, who can never get no satisfaction no matter how many dollar bills they accumulate by whatever means best suited to serve their self-interest, it associates with men of bad company.
“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company,” said the man whose face is on the greenback.
Better the greenback than the shell game.
Postscript: In February 2014, ‘Believe in Cleveland’ sponsored its second mass event, this time in the renovated Atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Several hundred people unrolled their mats in the glistening, new space, practicing to folk, roots, and world music, with a little bit of acoustic U2 thrown in.
Ozzy Osbourne was not allowed in the building.
“This is the first yoga practice within these walls, ever,” said Tammy Lyons.
The museum was founded in 1913 and opened its doors in 1916. The yoga class ended with a group OM echoing magically in the high-ceilinged space.
It was a sweet-sounding step up from the Rock Hall.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus