Tag Archives: Tara Stiles

Beware the Snakeman

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When Vivekananda stepped up to the lectern at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he was nervous about the speech he was going to give to an audience of 7,000, a speech that would plant a new seed of yoga in America. On another stage at the same time at the same World’s Exposition, an ex-cowboy and self-styled Rattlesnake King was squeezing oil, used in his patent medicines, from snakes he had just killed.

Clarke Stanley, one of the most successful and colorful tonic barkers of the 19th century, was an even bigger attraction than the exotic brown-skinned man from India. He wasn’t nervous, either. He claimed his Snake Oil Liniment gave immediate relief to both man and beast for everything from toothaches and sore throats to sciatica and rheumatism.

It never went rancid, either, said the snakeman.

“Ladies and gentlemen, come up close where everyone can see, it even cures squinting.”

Patent medicines are as old as Daffy’s Elixir, first blended in England in 1647, and popular in the United States into the late 19th century. The alcohol-fortified and drug-laced remedies were peddled by grocers goldsmiths tailors traveling salesmen. They were available for almost any ailment, colic cuts bruises baldness boils nerve damage lame backs deafness and “those painful complaints and weaknesses so common to our female population.”

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 led to the end of Joy to the World Pain Killer, laced with opium, Fowler’s Arsenic Solution, which was iron mixed with arsenic for heart ailments, and the wildly popular Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, meant to treat something called “internal slime fever.”

The many medical advances of the 20th century and into the 21st, however, did not put an end to quackery. Empty nutritional and supplement schemes, fraudulent arthritis products, and spurious cancer clinics led the way. In 2017 the FDA warned stem cell clinics about their cure-all claims.

“Stem cell clinics that mislead vulnerable patients into believing they are being given safe, effective treatments that are in full compliance with the law are dangerously exploiting consumers and putting their health at risk,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

More than a hundred years ago Vivekananda believed health gave a leg up to making it down the yellow brick road to liberation.

“He who wants to become a Bhakta must be strong, must be healthy,” he said. “Build up your health. As long as the body lives there must be strength in the body. Yoga staves off disease.”

A Bhakta is a devotee of God. Bhakti Yoga, also known as Bhakti Marga, is largely a spiritual path. It employs yoga practice and discipline to help get to where it wants to go.

Vivekananda never said yoga was the snake oil of body mind spirit, that it was a tonic that cured all ills. If you don’t do yoga there’s no need to stress out about it. He seems to have believed the best cure was a quiet mind, like the best cure for sleeplessness is getting a good night’s sleep.

That’s not what contemporary marketplace yoga says. It says there is a remedy for every problem and the remedy is yoga. Step right up!

There are ‘4 Yoga Poses to Cure Diabetes’’ and ‘5 Top Yoga Poses to Cure Gallstones’ and ‘6 Effective Yoga Poses for Autism’.

There are ‘8 Easy Yoga Poses That Will Cure Fibromyalgia Quickly’ and ‘9 Yoga Poses for Arthritis Relief’ and ‘10 Yoga Poses to Heal Migraines’.

There are yoga poses to re-grow hair, alleviate and prevent nerve pain, fight epilepsy, help you poop, treat skin problems, restore irregular periods to a timely basis, improve heart health, lower blood pressure, calm down restless leg syndrome, ease ankylosing spondylitis, overcome PTSD, relieve neck shoulder lower back hip flexor pain, and resolve anxiety disorder and build your confidence.

There is ‘Pranayama Yoga Cures Almost All Incurable Diseases!’

The only thing yoga doesn’t seem to be able to take care of are gunshot wounds.

Writing in The Telegraph in a recent feature article called ‘Why Yoga Cures Everything’, Lucy Fry asked, “ My big question is no longer why are so many people doing yoga. It’s why isn’t everyone?”

On the other hand, Thomas Browne, a 17th century writer, argued against doing anything at all. “We all labor against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.”

Tara Stiles is not Thomas Browne, but she has sold many more books than him. Thomas Browne was an English polymath influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. Tara Stiles is an American model turned yoga instructor. In her book Yoga Cures: Simple Routines to Conquer More Than 50 Common Ailments and Live Pain-Free she tackles everything from “arthritis to fibromyalgia to jiggly thighs and hangovers.”

Jiggly thighs are flabby thighs that can’t be slid into skinny jeans or look sexy in a pair of shorts. The usual remedy is to do cardio-vascular exercises that involve your legs, like walking, and stop eating oily fatty sugary processed foods. Or buy Yoga Cures.

“If you’ve got an ache, pain, or ‘ism, she’s got the natural answer. So dump the over-the-counter pills and pop open Yoga Cures,” recommended Kris Carr, author of Crazy Sexy Diet.

Cure-alls are remedies that resolve all evils, cure all diseases. The cure for everything, the miracle panacea, is driven by a belief that the humors or the liver or the spine is the root cause of all maladies.

In the past in the West leeches and bloodletting were used to balance the four humors, while in the East needles and acupuncture were used to balance the life force. Today chiropractors believe something called sublaxtions block the flow of something-or-other, which when unblocked will let your body heal whatever it is that ails you.

Cure-all approaches neglect to take into account causes of disease ranging from genetic to infectious to biochemical to traumatic to degenerative to metabolic to autoimmune, never mind all the environmental and man-made toxic things in the world.

Poison ivy grows everywhere in the United States, except Alaska and Hawaii. If you get the rash, draw hot water and find some soap, lather, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, soak, and then go to the drug store and buy a bottle of calamine lotion. Don’t go to yoga class. You’ll only spread the itchy poisonous ivy’s urushiol on your skin to others.

If you go to India, the birthplace of yoga, don’t drink tap water. Drink bottled water instead. More than half of India’s population, more than 500 million people, practice open defecation. Much of the country’s water is contaminated by biological and chemical pollutants, which cause cholera, among other things.

Clean water and sanitation prevent cholera. No known yoga pose or sequence or mudra has any proven effect on its spread. It is endemic because the water is foul, not because you haven’t read Yoga Cures. Oral rehydration solutions, when promptly administered, treat the disease easily.

As good as yoga is as a mindset a practice and a way of life, it is not the cure for much, certainly not cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers of any kind, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, asthma, or gallstones. If you’ve got stones either take a wait-and-see approach, hoping the stone dissolves or dislodges, or join the nearly one million Americans who annually get their gallbladders surgically removed.

You need a haywire gallbladder like you need an infected appendix.

If you have cancer of any kind it might be best to ignore Dr. Joel Brame, a self-styled Cancer Prevention Consultant, when he professes that Bikram Yoga can reverse cancerous tumors. He seems to believe that exercising in Bikram’s Hot Room oxygenates the blood “creating an environment in which cancer cannot grow,” restores the immune system, and generally purifies the body, which in his world is good because cancers can only metastasize in a toxic body.

“Attend your yoga class on a regular basis and feel the magic happen!” he said.

Black magic, maybe, when hell freezes over.

Until that happens, sitting around in the waiting room, it would be worth anyone’s while to page through Timothy McCall’s Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. A board-certified physician who has long practiced Iyengar Yoga and has been the medical editor for Yoga Journal since 2002, he describes yoga therapy as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit.”

Yoga as Medicine is largely a practical guide about how to use therapeutic yoga tools from exercise to meditation as complements and occasionally alternatives to medical care and medication. It’s about getting in tune with your body, which is what health is all about.

Yoga therapy doesn’t treat the disease, exactly. It treats the person who has the disease. It’s about learning ways of making and maintaining body mind spirit health.

Gery Kraftsow of the American Viniyoga Institute describes yoga therapy as a practice to help people “facing health challenges at any level manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality, and improve attitude.”

He doesn’t blare, blare, blare about cure, cure, cure. Brenda Feuerstein has pointed out that it might be more helpful if the practice was regarded as something that “may be helpful in the treatment of something, but not yoga cures.”

Well-being is often the result of practicing yoga on a consistent basis. Yoga therapy isn’t a cure for acute conditions, but it is an aid in treatment, augmenting clinical care. Georg Feuerstein believed it was a way to integrate yogic techniques and concepts with medical know-how.

The difference between Snake Oil Yoga and Therapy Yoga is that one sells what purports to work for everybody while the other teaches what is appropriate to the individual and respects the differences in different people. Snake Oil men shoot magic elixir bullets. Yoga therapists try to gauge the capacity and direction of mind of the person before they draw any conclusions. They don’t quick draw. They don’t try to kill anyone with cold-blooded make-believe kindness, either.

Why does it matter?

In the British art critic John Berger’s TV series “Ways of Seeing,” broadcast at about the same time that today’s yoga came around the bend in the United States in the early 1970s, he argued that where when and how we are directed to look at something, to pay attention to it, determines what we see. How something is framed often makes what matters, and what doesn’t matter.

When we pay attention to snake oil salesmen we get sucked down into their wormholes. It becomes believing what you want to believe, the easy answer, one size fits all. When we practice yoga therapy there is no rabbit in the hat, just a lot of work on the mat, day after day. It’s not the easy answer. There have long been and still are plenty of mad hatters and carnival sandbaggers trying to pickpocket the out-on-a-limb with their cooked-up promises. But, there’s no yogi genie lightning in a bottle.

Yoga never was and never was intended to be a cure-all for ill health. “We must all pay attention to your health first, but we must not forget that health is only a means to an end, “said Vivekananda. “If health were the end, we would be like animals. Animals rarely become unhealthy.”

How the practice of yoga can effectively help those in need is being brought to bear by men like Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, not the flimflam men of Madison Avenue. Dr. Khalsa’s research focuses on the clinical effectiveness and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the practice of yoga and meditation techniques.

His approach advocates yoga as a way of enhancing proprioception, the awareness of where you are in space, and interoception, the awareness of the sensations of your body in space. He believes awareness is what changes lifestyles, and since many diseases are lifestyle diseases, brings the commonness of those diseases under control.

“People change their diets,” he said. “They change their behaviors to ones that make them feel better, because now, for the first time in their lives, they’re actually feeling better.”

Feeling better not by staring down into the bottom of a bottle of snake oil, but rather straight ahead in cobra pose, firming the shoulders against the back, lifting through the top of the sternum.

When Vivekananda stepped up to the stage at the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893 it was one small step for a man. Thankfully, there weren’t any globs of snake oil on the stairs to slip him up. Otherwise, the large step that was ultimately taken that day might never have happened.

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Bye Bye Babs

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When the wisecrackers known as the Babarazzi, a New York City-based black-clad collective devoted to getting in their two cents’ worth about commercial yoga culture, called it quits in January 2014, after a two-year run, they announced their closing by saying, “We have decided to finally set the monkeys who write our pieces free.”

They were being unduly modest. It’s well known monkeys have always refused to read and write so they won’t be forced to work for a living.

Starting with their first posts during the debacle that became the end of John Friend and Anusara Yoga, the Babarazzi raised the skull and crossbones, firing broadsides at a yoga community they saw as a “silly cocktail party.”

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

Their TMZ approach targeted what they called yogilebrities, or ”those who trade in the likes of such stupidity as yoga image, yoga fashion, and yoga lifestyle.” said Aghori Babarazzi, the official unofficial spokesman of the group.

“That’s how cheap yoga marketing works. It turns the seeker into a consumer.”

Reactions in the yoga community ran the gamut. One puzzled reader wrote, “I don’t understand this blog or the writer’s intention.” Another wrote, “Hey, it’s all yoga.” At the same time a curmudgeon wrote, “It’s high time someone shone light on the turd-fest of shameless, salivating self-promotion that has infiltrated the yoga world.”

The tag line of the web site was “giving contemporary yoga the star treatment.” It might as well have been Richard Pryor’s gag line, “I ain’t no movie star, man. I’m a booty star.”

But, behind the trash talk and cutting edge sarcasm was an earnest attempt to point out the many disconnects between the principles of yoga and the actual bread and butter practice of it in America.

“What goes on behind the scenes in yoga studios is the stuff daytime soap operas are made out of,” said Aghori Babarazzi about the wild and wacky world of modern yoga.

“Students who have never crossed that line in the studio have no idea how pig-ish some of the more fame-oriented teachers can be,” he said. “And I’m not talking about the nice piggies that live on farms.”

Although celebrities worry about illnesses and mortgages like everyone else, the magician Penn Jillette has pointed out that “we celebrities are desperate pigs.”

No sooner had the Babarazzi gotten their feet wet than they ran afoul of yogi entrepreneur Sadie Nardini and Elephant Journal by posting an article on Elephant Journal’s site titled ‘Is YAMA Talent More Harmful to the Yoga Community Than John Friend’s Penis Pursuits?’

YAMA Talent is a New York City-based management consultant and booking agency for teachers and brands seeking to be front of the line life of the party and profitable as possible in the yoga marketplace.

Sadie Nardini saw the piece as a below the belt blow aimed at her, YAMA Talent cried foul – “How dare we waste time criticizing our fellow yogi’s?” – while Elephant Journal disappeared the piece from its site, protesting its lack of attribution, arguing that the Barbarazzi was not a person, so could not have an opinion.

This was before the Supreme Court ruled in the recent Citizens United case that corporations are people, just like real people.

“What we do here at Babarazzi HQ is intentionally provocative,” the collective answered the back seat drivers who had forgotten to buckle up for the ride.

For the next year-and-a-half they posted, every three or four days, stories like ‘Whatever Western Yogi’s Touch Turns to Gold (Or Pooh?)’ about the big money leanings of bigger-than-life yoga events; ‘What’s More Boring than Athletic Wannabee Yoga Companies Suing One Another?’ about companies like Yogitoes and Lululemon keeping their steely eyes firmly on their spreadsheets; and ‘Snowshoeing and Yoga: Obviously You Need to Do This in Order to Be a Better Person’ about the endless proliferation of hybrids as subjects for yogic workshops.

The tabloid-style havoc of the Babarazzi’s journalism raised the ire of many in the American yoga community, from Colleen Staidman Yee to Tara Stiles, from Off the Mat Into the World to YogaNation. It’s difficult to take criticism. It’s difficult to take without resentment. It’s difficult to take without lashing back, no matter how much breath control meditation third-eye concentration you’ve done. Standing on your head is easier.

It can be painful, but it’s meant to be. It serves the same function as pain, calling attention to something unhealthy.

“The Babarazzi is a great asset for yoga in this modern world where concerns for what yoga is are increasingly tempered with concerns over what yoga isn’t,” said Paul Harvey of the Centre for Yoga Studies.

Although the Babarazzi seemed to reject the notion that there is one true pure twenty-four carat yoga, they also spurned the cult of personality, the sideshow of personal appearances and trade shows, and the endless merchandising of a practice for which stuff and more stuff is ultimately valueless.

In the commercial world it is a truism that men exploit men for the supposed greater good of everyone. In the world of yoga self-awareness is the same as doing good. Exploitation of oneself and others isn’t the yellow brick road to anywhere. Yoga is more on the order of being between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, not shopping for something everything anything.

“The Babarazzi does a good job at pointing out the hypocrisies of so many self-proclaimed gurus,” said Jacob Kyle, a philosophy graduate student and yoga teacher in New York City, “and reminds us, in its own way, that the true teacher lies within each of us.”

The bad boys of mindfulness “drew a bead on the wide-ranging techniques and linguistic gimmicks being used to advertise, market, and sell yoga to middle class consumers,” wrote Stewart Lawrence in ‘Yoga’s Court Jesters’.

For all its wit and whistle blowing the Babarazzi were tilting at windmills. The imperative to exploit yoga in America is too strong. There are tens of millions of customers. Lululemon isn’t a multi-billion dollar company because it failed to notice the commodity yoga could be transformed into.

It’s a yoga rave with see-through pants!

Bikram Choudhury, for example, thinks he owns thirty five Rolls Royce cars, but isn’t sure of the exact number. Other than the YogaLife Institute few, if any, yoga companies are Certified B Corporations, or for-profit companies certified as being motivated by more than just a hunger for profit. Hand over fist has long been a fundamental pose on the mat.

Yoga Journal, notwithstanding its endless proselytizing, is not a fair trade concern. It is an arm of Active Interest Media, a privately held company. The principals of the company are privateers, not necessarily interested in the public good. The bottom line, not the eight limbs of the practice, rules. After B. K. S. Iyengar died in August 2014 Yoga Journal celebrated his long life by immediately e-mail blasting advertisements far and wide selling Iyengar DVD’s.

The cult of personality, the creation of an idealized and heroic image, has long been a trick of tyrants. Not anymore. Constant media exposure has changed all that. It’s all fair game now. The practice of yoga is not free of its charms. When Helen Hunt gave credit to Mandy Ingber, a popular LA yoga instructor, for getting her body “Oscar-ready”, out came more cool contemporary yoga advice called ‘Yogalosophy’.

“It’s truly cool!” gushed the magazine Glamour.

Emma Watson and Ryan Kwanten have become certified yoga teachers, completing the circle of yoga teachers becoming celebrities to celebrities becoming yoga teachers.

The Babarazzi’s announcement that they were publishing their last post and desisting from further antagonizing celebrity yoga teachers and organizers of national yoga events both celebrated and snarked the status quo.

“The Babs is Closing Up Shop. Everything Must Go. Crazy Sales and Deals.”

Even though it is uncertain whether the Babarazzi ever had a bunch of monkeys pecking away on keyboards, writing their material, it is certain they never sold out to buy bananas for the monkeys. They doubtless were chronically short on greenbacks, since they never had anything to sell other than their dismantling iconoclasm, which is rarely a commodity in any marketplace.

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 21st century 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: The Improbable 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’ many athletes 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,” wrotes 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. 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.”

Winning and losing 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 winners and losers 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 equates 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 4th largest 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 19th century 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 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 supposedly 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 20th century, 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. 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 Dangerous Idea’.

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.