Tag Archives: Vivekananda

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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Chaturanga Chatter

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“Yakkity yak, don’t talk back.”  The Coasters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much talking should a teacher do during class?

There is a range of opinion mindset approaches.

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

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

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

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

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

Some wouldn’t have it any other way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are some who might even not talk enough.

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

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

Then he walked away to the next mat.

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