Tag Archives: yoga and money

Scene of the Crime

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By Ed Staskus

As the 21st century has come unspooled unravelled gone daffy, yoga has increasingly taken on the look of the after in a before and after crime-scene photo. One hundred years ago it looked like a lot of class. Fifty years ago, it got a makeover and looked better than ever. Today it looks like something dolled up to be better seen from a distance of a hundred years.

Yoga used to have something to do with simplicity and self-discipline, non-attachment, and the spiritual life. Hatha practice and karma in the world were means to an end, steps on the way to an expanding awareness. It had more to do with what went on off the mat, especially in your head, than the asana postures done on it.

“It’s been less than fifty years since the first group yoga class happened, but in that short time the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice,” wrote American Yoga School founder James Brown in ‘The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga’.

In many respects awareness isn’t what it’s about anymore. It’s about exercise classes with folks all doing the same thing. It’s about a little bit of ad hoc spirituality and a lot of anatomical science. It’s about whatever works for me, never mind the past fifty centuries.

Sometimes it seems like modern yoga can’t get any respect, especially since it’s gone the way of mass merchandising, sticker shock sticky mats neat-o clothes to match cutting dreams down to size, the butter and egg man Bikram Choudhury, and the bigness of big events at big venues.

However, if you’re flying out to Burning Man, don’t bother bringing yoga attire, since loincloths and hot pants are more appropriate at the 70,000-man-and-woman festival.

There isn’t anything simple about organizing thousands of yogis to flip up on their heads at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Times Square in New York City. It takes organizational skills and business smarts to assemble sound systems, food trucks, and port-a-potty’s.

Om’s and namaste’s ain’t going to get it done.

While the postmodern world streams ahead, the shape of yoga tradition has shifted, so that a CGI vision of the practice has morphed the once flesh-and-blood story to the flat screen. The new yoga body and new yoga lifestyle have become the new Truman Show.

Once people came to the practice looking like they’d just climbed out of a wreck. They were hungry as schoolboys. Now they come in Lexus SUV’s. They’ve had their grass-fed beef brisket sandwich and kale salad and aren’t hungry, at least not in the same way.

Even meditation, which was once a quiet practice meant to make silence even more silent, has become a for-profit enterprise, sold as a balm for the wailings of the wealthy. They empty their heads for an hour-or-so, making like a church collection plate on a Wednesday morning, and once refreshed it’s back to business as usual.

There is a business branch office of yoga, known as Padmini Vidya, which is devoted to one purpose, which is making money. It’s the yoga of pleasure and prosperity. “It is said that people who rapidly amass enormous wealth must have been yogis in previous lives who devoted themselves single-mindedly to Padmini Vidya,” Linda Johnsen wrote in ‘Be Wealthy, Be Wise: Yoga’s Guide to Prosperity’.

Although it’s true that there’s always some good in everybody, there is often only a little in those who never have enough. There’s hardly ever any sympathy in their smiles, like they’ve never forgiven anyone for anything.

It’s as though yoga has become an ever-smaller rowboat bouncing around in a squall while cruise ships sail in their own tranquil seas. Some cruise lines, such as Radisson Seven Seas, offer yogic-centric voyages starting at $2,987.00 a person, double occupancy only and no refunds.

After stretching and sweating on the mat, the ship’s four restaurants, where waiters and wine stewards outnumber passengers two to one, are a gangplank to champagne buckets and plates of sea bass. “As a luxury yogi I would never neglect dinner, indulging in everything,” wrote John Capouya, author of Real Men Do Yoga, in Travel and Leisure.

The travel destination of yoga used to be the union of oneself with the true self, which is why the word yoga is defined as union. It wasn’t the largely non-union staffed Royal Carnival dropping anchor in the Bahamas. It wasn’t a luxury. It was a necessity.

But, what used to be one man’s meat and potatoes is now another man’s indulging in everything. The sense of yoga’s purpose can go dark under more than a tropical moon, subsumed by the tastiness of a hundred-foot-long buffet spread. Just like yoga, luxury is a state of mind, although bloat can be a problem.

Yoga was once something that meant everything to somebody. Now it means anything to everybody, so long as the teacher is groovy and the soundtrack is rocking, or mellow, as the case may be. The catch-all phrase “It’s All Yoga” has become commonplace to the extent that it has become meaningless.

It’s like reaching for a life preserver and grabbing liquid nothing.

“The problem is that it is framed within a paradigm of self-improvement,” said Ed Conley, a meditation teacher in Blackstone, Virginia. Before posture practice became the rage the subtle body, not the mechanical body, was the rage. The transformation of yoga to YogaWorks is the transformation of a series of small things leading to equilibrium to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Yoga once had a longing at the heart of it, a mystery no one lived long enough to educe or forget, a reckoning of the right stuff the man and woman on the mat tried to find for themselves. It wasn’t conjuring up a laundry list of getting from ineffective to effective, which can be just another way of losing your way slowly.

“It has become space and time without the black hole,” said Mr. Conley.

Back in the day yogis slept on beds of nails, walked barefoot on hot coals, and even endured being buried alive. They meditated on mountaintops. They were loner mendicants who might or might not have had a ministry. Joining up with them was like hitching a hayride with Frankenstein.

It was a hard-core commitment, not a stop on the side of the road for a soft cone. Yoga was a risky business practiced by dodgy people. It was impossible to discourage them. They didn’t give a damn what anybody said. Anything could happen.

Today’s state-of-the-art yogis are bendy charming plausible entrepreneurs flying in jet liners to retreats at sunny resorts and arriving at Estes Park in Caddy SUV’s. The practice they preach is like a never opened box of razors, gussied up and bloodless. The business has got the face of an angel and a heart of silver dollars

Lady Gaga performs what looks like yoga, tattooed and hairless, in the nude, videotapes the antics, and posts the bright and flashy for one and all.

The hole at the heart of yoga is that it has been buffed polished sparkled and turned into a commodity. It’s not about anybody anymore. It’s on the grocery shelf for everybody, a sensible product packaged by sensible people for sensible consumers.

Once upon a time it was Hanuman, a great big daring jump into a burning sky, but now it’s a dancing monkey at the beck and call of an organ grinder. Progress isn’t possible without change, although that doesn’t necessarily mean historical revisionism is the lens back to the future. Sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion of the fast forward dreams you’re trying to make come true.

“Teachers tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say,” said James Brown of American Yoga.

It’s meant to make you roll over on your back with your paws in the air while your belly gets rubbed. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” warned Bob Dylan.

The black hole at the heart of yoga is the self.

In the workaday world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who you are. It uses up the future. In the yoga world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you can’t find out who you are. It leaves you teetering between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali propose that the body mind senses are not the self. The reason is that the body, mind, and senses all change over time. Although everyone has aspects of their lives that change in the ebb and flow, what the Sutras call the guide, the inner voice, or the true self, is unchanging.

“The most important relationship you will ever have is your relationship with the self,“ wrote Kate Holcomb, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, in ‘How to See Your True Self’.

Yoga classes are full of relationships, with the receptionist, the teacher, and everyone else in the class. Anyone can create or re-create themselves in the yoga room. No one can find themselves. There’s always somebody else telling you what to do. There’s always mind chatter as you peek through your legs in down dog at the person behind you. There’s always somebody snoring in corpse pose.

The true self is a loner. It’s not a version of somebody else. “Be that self which one truly is,” said the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. It’s when you’re alone that you look at things differently than other people. Who finds their true self when they’re mashed up in the mosh pit? Everyone needs to be left alone when they’re lonely. It’s only when someone is most solitary that they are most exceptional, most themselves.

Nobody is ever lonely in a yoga exercise class, or eating a pastina salad, for that matter, because they both require so much attention to detail. Yoga is about a fire in the belly, but you can’t fill yourself up until you empty yourself out. Everyone breathes in yoga classes, although there’s never a minute to catch your breath in class because it’s so busy.

No man or woman can be unmistakable, can be their clear-cut self, can go to a place they’ve never been, if they tag along with the crowd. It’s been said that the loneliest place to be is lost in a crowd, like a case of mistaken identity, another face in the House of Mirrors. It’s like being alone without being alone.

In the postmodern 21st century many people think the past is like the scene of a crime, that there’s nothing left to find there. What matters are now the next now and the one after that.  But, it always catches up with you, like shoes that are a half-size too small. Sometimes it’s called karma, which can be a pair of tight shoes, cement shoes.

There aren’t many places to find your body mind spirit in the world as we know it. A good place might be wherever you are, because no matter where you go, there you are. A better place might be yoga, since that’s what the practice has always been about. The best place is probably what the Yoga Sutras call the true self. If you’re not there you’re not anywhere, not really all in.

“When the agitations of the mind are under control,” according to Patanjali, “it has the power of becoming whatever form is presented, the knower, the act of knowing, and what is known.” There is no ghost in the machine. The way in which yoga has been sliced and diced in the past fifty years is not the answer, assuming there is one.

Which begs the question, what is the answer?

The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be the Arrow or Iron Fist to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it, and never mind the honky-tonk.

 

Hooray for the Home Team

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By Ed Staskus

I was excited when I got an e-mail from Inner Bliss on June 3rd, the day before the start of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Inner Bliss is one of Cleveland’s premier yoga studios.

“In honor of our CAVS, celebrate the beginning of the NBA Finals at Inner Bliss all day Thursday! Tomorrow, June 4th wear your CLE Cavaliers gear to any class, all day long and get $5 off your class tomorrow!

Show up and show our team that we’re #ALLinCLE.”

Who wouldn’t want to honor the hometown team? And celebrate, too, obviously, although I wondered if that would be appropriate if the Cavaliers lost the series, which seemed likely since the Las Vegas line was all on the side of the Warriors.

After the first game was said and done the smart money line seemed to be as straight as a Stephen Curry free throw: all net.

The pictures illustrating the Inner Bliss e-mail were galvanizing: a dramatic black-and-white shot of the hometown team taken from behind as they faced a sea of fans. The second shot was of a sea of yogis on their mats on the hardwood floor of Quicken Loans Arena meditating, some with their hands in prayer at their hearts. (Inner Bliss is part of a group that sponsors large citywide yoga events at places like the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Quicken Loans Arena.) The third shot was of the team’s furry mascot in a kind of lunge, like Warrior Pose, with his biceps flexed in classic muscleman style.

The last image was the corporate logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The difference between Las Vegas and modern yoga is that Las Vegas is more yogic about professional sports than yoga is. The only bandwagon Las Vegas ever jumps on is the one going down the yellow brick road. It doesn’t matter whose corporate sports logo is on the side of the wagon. There are no hometown favorites in Sin City.

At the bottom of the Inner Bliss e-mail it said: LET’S GET FRIENDLY!

But, what to wear to class on June 4th to get my $5.00 discount? I didn’t own any branded athletic gear of any kind, not even Cavalier gear, despite their rumble through the Eastern Conference play-offs. I looked up Cleveland’s NBA store, which was at the Team Shop in Quicken Loans Arena, and drove downtown to buy some gear.

Parking was $15.00, but I thought, it’s the CAVS!

I almost bought the J. R. Smith Adidas Replica Road Jersey, because J. R. has been my favorite player all year, impersonating Ray Allen from behind the 3-point line game after game and a professional basketball player most of the time the rest of the time, and besides, his sleeveless replica was only $69.95.

In the end, though, I bought the King’s jersey, the man who for all intensive purposes had single-handedly both willed and freight-trained his team into the NBA Finals. The LeBron James Adidas Gold Jersey was still in stock at $109.95, so I snapped it up before anyone else could get to the loose ball.

On my way home, since it was a fine, sunny afternoon, I took the old Shoreway, which winds west along the coast of Lake Erie, rather than the interstate. I began to question whether wearing a replica jersey was enough in terms of showing up and showing my hometown team that I was #ALLinCLE.

I should go to the games, I thought.

One of Inner Bliss’s stock-in-trade posts the past few years have been yogi blurbs titled: WHY I SHOW UP.

Sitting on the sidelines, as they say in yoga class, isn’t going to make you stand up true and straight. You need to show up. It’s all about heart. That’s what basketball players do when they make the big shot: thump their chests.

The first two games of the NBA Finals were scheduled in Oakland, the next two in Cleveland, and the series alternated after that until one team or the other finally won four games and snatched the brass ring.

When I got home I started searching for tickets.

At first I was mildly shocked. The worst seats at Quicken Loans Arena, in the nosebleed section, started at more than $400.00. Seats in the lower bowl were in the vicinity of $1,500.00. When I spotted what courtside floor seats cost I was seriously shocked: $60,000.00.

It wasn’t a brass ring the two professional basketball teams were grabbing for. It was a solid gold ring, encrusted with rare gems, and fashioned by the hand of God.

I would have to sell our house to buy two courtside seats, for my wife and myself, for the first two home games. I tried not to think about what popcorn and Big Gulp sodas might cost us.

Hopefully, the Warriors would sweep the Cavaliers in four and there wouldn’t be anymore home games. If there were I would go bankrupt trying to show up.

Mysore, India, is one of the birthplaces of yoga. It is where Krishnamacharya taught in the 1930s, B. K. S. Iyengar honed his craft, and where the K. Pattabbi Jois Yoga Institute is to this day.

If my wife and I moved to Mysore a two-bedroom apartment in a better neighborhood, with a full kitchen, WIFI, and daily maid service, and including utilities, would cost about $600.00 a month. Eating out in Mysore costs between $1.00 – $2.00 for breakfast or lunch and $2.00 – $4.00 for dinner. My wife doesn’t practice yoga, but if I took a daily class at a local non-famous studio it would cost $100.00 – $150.00 a month.

In other words, for the cost of two lower bowl tickets at two NBA Finals games at Quicken Loans Arena my wife and I could live well, and I could practice yoga every day at a studio in Mysore, for about six months. For the cost of two courtside tickets for two games we could stay there for about twenty years.

Since my wife is not interested in professional sports we finally decided against showing up at #ALLinCLE and the NBA Finals, and also decided that, although Mysore sounded good, especially the daily maid service, we would stay in Lakewood, on the west side of Cleveland, for now.

I gave my King jersey away to my 18-year-old nephew, who doesn’t know about yoga, but does know the world about professional basketball.

I didn’t go to Inner Bliss’s CAVS! Gear Yoga Day the day of the start of the NBA Finals. There was something that bothered me about rooting for one or the other team. I’ve read that players on both teams practice yoga as part of their fitness regimen and thought it best to just wish both of them well.

Instead, I practiced on my mat at home, and the next evening on Friday my wife and I went to the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom and heard Jai Uttal’s kirtan band spin long jazzy sing-along chants. Quicken Loans Arena, less than a mile away, seats 20,562 fans, which are about 20,412 more people than were at the Jai Uttal show.

On Sunday night, while the Warriors and Cavaliers battled it out at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, we had dinner at Ty Fun, a small Thai food restaurant in Tremont, a grungy but gentrified Cleveland neighborhood across the industrial valley from downtown.

My home practice doesn’t cost me anything, tickets for Jai Uttal were $30.00, and the fat noodle and tofu entrees at Ty Fun are $12.50. The bottled lager beer from Thailand was $4.50. All in all our weekend cost less than a jumbo box of popcorn and a couple of Big Gulps at Quicken Loans Arena.

We ate on the small outdoor patio at Ty Fun and all dinner long we could hear the groans and whoops of Cleveland sports fans watching the second game of the Finals unfolding down the yellow brick road on the flat screens at the Flying Monkey Pub next door.

Somebody was winning and somebody was losing. We just couldn’t tell who.

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA! The next morning, watching the highlights of the game on nba.com, I found out that the last roar of the night was a groan in Oakland and a whoop in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers edged the Warriors in their record-setting second straight overtime game of the series. That’s what world championships are made of: heart-breakers.

Sri Satchidananda of Integral Yoga once said, “Losses are always great eye openers.” Maybe there is something yogic about pro ball, after all.

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

 

Topsy Turvy

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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.

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

 

 

Exercise for the Elite

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By Ed Staskus

ll women carry a purse on their persons, with their money, car keys, cell phones, and paraphernalia close at hand. They buy their bags at big box marts or department stores or on hundreds of web sites. Their handbags range from seventy-nine cent beaded totes ordered on e-bay to luxury-crafted Louis Vuitton’s found in quiet malls in select cities.

One late afternoon after work I unrolled my yoga mat at a nearby yoga studio, early for class, and settled into child’s pose to loosen up my back. Laying my hands palms up on the floor beside me and letting the business day drain away, I idly listened to two ladies next to me talking. As I rolled up and reached for my toes in a seated forward bend, one of the young women asked the other one about the purse she had secured behind her mat.

The lady with the purse, sitting cross-legged, explained that she didn’t want to leave it in the lobby at Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, but preferred to have it near her, where she could keep an eye on it. She looked back at it.

It was still there.

“It’s a really nice purse,” said the other one, both of them now looking at the leather bag.

“Thanks, it’s Italian.”

“Oh, where did you get it?’

“In Italy, when I was in Florence. I just had to have it when I saw it.”

I straightened up, sat back on my heels, and snuck a peek at the purse. I can’t really tell one purse from another, but I can tell cheap from expensive.

The purse from Florence oozed expensive.

Inner Bliss, just west of Cleveland, draws its customers from Rocky River and Bay Village, two suburbs on the south shore of Lake Erie. The median household income of Rocky River is $61,000 and the median household income of Bay Village is $83,000. The median income of Cleveland households, just one suburb away to the east, is $27,000.

Almost no one practicing yoga at Inner Bliss is from Cleveland.

In fact, very few Clevelanders practice yoga at all. There are only a handful of yoga studios in the city itself, and those are downtown or near the big universities, catering to the hip and privileged. Yoga in Cleveland is not in Cleveland, but rather in the suburbs, in up-scale neighborhoods like Westlake, Beachwood, and Hudson.

On the other hand Cleveland’s most populous suburb, Parma, a working-class community of auto and steel workers three times bigger than Rocky River and Bay Village put together, does not have a single yoga studio inside its borders.

Inner Bliss, meanwhile, has more than forty classes on its weekly calendar.

Yoga studios in cities nationwide, from San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and New York reveal the same demographics.  “In general, yoga is a work-out pursued by the well-off,” says Amy Beth Treciokas of Yoga Now in Chicago. Yoga is practiced by the upper classes, not the middle class, and even less so among minorities like blacks and Hispanics and the poor.

“Yoga has become almost a household word now in the United States,” says Aaron Vega of VegaYoga, a struggling studio in a sizable Hispanic neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “But it’s an exclusive club.” When Michelle Buteau, the stand-up comedienne, wrote on her blog Who Said It, “Yes, I said it, I’m going to yoga. A black woman, who is not Oprah or Gayle is going to yoga, say what?” it was funny in a way the funniest things are: it was true.

More than a third of the people who frequent yoga studios in the United States have household incomes of $75,000-or-more, while one out of six have an income of more than $100,000. Their levels of education are equally high: 72% of them college-educated, and 27% of them holding post-graduate degrees. Rich people are more likely to exercise than their poorer neighbors, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, partly explaining why yoga studio parking lots overflow with BMW’s and hybrid SUV’s, rather than Fords and Kias.

American yogis spend upwards of 6 billion dollars a year on classes and clothes and designer mats. “Something that has bugged me about yoga for a long time,” writes Yogi Sip on her blog Confessions of a Wayward Yogi, “is that it is unashamedly aimed at the upper classes.”

They take workshops taught by celebrity teachers who command a high fee, spend four-day weekends at regional gatherings and yoga conferences, and vacation at yoga retreats in the mountains or on seashores around the world. Some yogis even jet set coast-to-coast to practice at select studios.

Practicing asanas at yoga studios in America is, if nothing else, an expensive form of exercise that only some can afford, in more ways than one. “I think it’s right to say that the people who typically take yoga are white, with disposable income, and more importantly with disposable time,” says Courtney Bender, a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. “They’re in jobs and professions that allow them enough time to take classes. So there aren’t a lot of working class people, for example.”

Many yoga teachers and studio owners agree that it is the rich who practice yoga. “For the most part, yes, it’s an expensive pursuit, and seen as something for the elite,” says Janet Stone of Janet Stone Yoga in San Francisco. Where studios are located supports her contention. They are in the better neighborhoods of Boston and Los Angeles and all the places in-between where the upper middle class and rich live.

“No one can argue that the Americanization of yoga has taken place and that people with disposable income make up a large percentage of the base that supports the yoga industry in this country. It is true yoga appeals to a predominately white, upwardly mobile segment,” says Gabriel Halpern, founder and director of the Yoga Circle in Chicago.

Some teachers disagree that it is only the rich who can afford to practice at studios. “In my own personal experience of teaching yoga and Yoga Therapy in rural middle America,” says Mary Hilliker of River Flow Yoga in Wausau, Wisconsin, “I have found that my students are rarely elite in income, but that they are certainly rich in heart.”

Even at big studios in big cities there is the sense that a wide stratum of society participates in the practice. “While many of our students are financially well-off, I would guess the majority are middle class and some even lower class,” says Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “I see a lot of regular folks in lower tax brackets practicing yoga for greater peace and spiritual awakening.”

But, it may be that the average American cannot afford to exercise at yoga studios. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the overall median personal income for all Americans over the age of 18 is approximately $26,000. Going to asana classes at a yoga studio three times a week at $12.00 a class would cost $1872.00 a year, or a projected 7% of the average American’s gross income.

“If I wasn’t a teacher,” Deanna Black, an iconoclastic instructor at Fitness One in University Circle, Ohio, told me, “I’m not sure I could afford to practice at a studio.” The average American can join Fitness 19 or Anytime Fitness and work out every day for $29.95 a month. Michael Hellebrekers, a financial consultant for Wells Fargo Bank, estimates that at best monthly and yearly rates for practicing at a local yoga studio are 4 to 5 times more expensive than lifting weights at a franchise gym.

Yoga studios, no matter what else they are, are businesses that need to pay the bills. They may be labors of inspiration and compassion, but they are sole proprietorships and limited-liability corporations, too, and must make sense in terms of profit and loss.  “Creating a studio setting, where the overhead is extensive beyond a student’s comprehension,” says Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, “and hiring the staff it takes to even open the doors, isn’t possible without charging what may be outside some people’s ability.”

The economic challenges studios must meet are the same that confront all businesses. “Let’s face it,” says Knekoh Fruge of Yoga Circle Downtown in Los Angeles, “you need a large space and you need to fill it, the rent is high, and teachers have to get paid. That’s why in large part the poor can’t afford it.”

Not everyone believes practicing at yoga studios has anything necessarily to do with yoga. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Ginny Walters, a Cleveland-area Ashtanga teacher said. “Maybe the studios are for the elite, but the practice is for everyone, money or no money.” Putting her pocketbook where her mouth is, Walters teaches many summer evening classes at a Rocky River city park overlooking Lake Erie, charging only a nominal fee.

Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, who taught herself yoga from a book checked out of the library, says:  “The practice itself can be done without anything, or at the very least a mat. When I started I went to class maybe once every couple of weeks, and spent less than $12.00 a month.” Yoga asanas, once learned from books, classes, or DVD’s, can be practiced almost anywhere. You don’t even need a roof over your head. Unrolling a mat in the backyard and doing 108-or-less sun salutations is as free as free gets.

Many teachers concede the costs of practicing yoga in a studio setting, but insist it is not a roadblock. “I have always reached out to students who are sincere and need financial assistance to take classes,” says Craig Kurtz of the Iyengar Yoga Center in Denver. “I strive to not let money be the issue that holds students back.”

Many teachers do pro bono work in their communities, at schools and shelters, and even in prisons, because they believe in the good yoga can do. “I would never turn anyone away,” Knekoh Fruge says, “and I guarantee you 90% of the yoga studios would never refuse someone who genuinely needed to practice but didn’t have any money. I offer work exchange, and I teach classes for free to people recently unemployed.”

There is, however, a wide divide between schoolchildren and prisoners, and the rich, and straddling that divide are the working and middle classes. Budgets and necessary economies are everyday issues in their lives. Not disadvantaged enough for charity and not rich enough in time or money to easily take three or four yoga classes a week, they are squeezed from both ends, pressured by desire and conformity. The rich among us may have the means to practice all the asanas we want, but the mass in the middle has harder choices to make.

When I asked Kristen Zarzycki of Inner Bliss whether or not yoga was an elitist activity, she reluctantly agreed it was. But then she added: “Everyone can be elite. Seriously, stop buying junk at Target and take a yoga class instead. Anyone can do it if they want to. I have coffee at Starbucks with my father two or three mornings a week. I could have bought a new sofa by now, with all the drinks we had last year, but I think it’s important to spend time with my dad. It’s the same with yoga.”

What we do with our time and money is what defines us, not what we have or don’t have. What we do, how we act in this life, determines who and what we are. No one practices yoga because they are yogis. They are yogis because they practice yoga. Everyone is a melding of his or her own choices. They are what their priorities have made them. Otherwise they are not themselves; they are someone else’s priorities.

Jean-Paul Sartre said we are all condemned to be free, to choose and to act, adding that we are responsible for everything we do. Not choosing is itself a choice. It is the accepting of conditions as they are. It is choosing the option of letting someone else shape you into a consumer or spectator.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher. What he meant is that the ontological problem we all face is to find out who we are and what to do with ourselves. It is only in our decisions that we are important. In other words, the choices we make are ultimately what we are made of.

Practicing yoga is not predetermined. We can stay at home watching The Biggest Loser on HD instead of going to a yoga class and doing warrior poses. Americans watch 250 billion hours of TV a year, mesmerized by sports, car chases, and endless commercials for fast food, pharmaceuticals, and the next fad. We can cheer on our favorite celebrities and athletes, buying tickets to their movies and spectacles. Or we can decide to go to a yoga studio and pay $12.00 for a one-hour lesson in how to live our lives as an experience rather than a dog and pony show.

Maybe going to a yoga studio doesn’t have as much to do with money, or the lack of it, as it seems. Maybe it is just a matter of priorities, of deciding what to spend one’s money on. The most recent estimate by Street and Smith Sports Business Journal is that Americans spend upwards of $213 billion annually on sports events, or more than $700 for every man, woman, child, and baby in the country, watching men in bright uniforms throw, bounce, kick, or hit balls with a stick.

We drink $74 billion dollars of beer a year, more than 12 times the amount of money spent on this one alcoholic beverage than all the money spent practicing asanas at a yoga studio. According to the New York Times Magazine, even pornography is more popular than yoga. Americans spend an estimated $12-14 billion dollars a year looking at pictures of naked people.

“Many people avoid yoga because they perceive it as elitist,” said Frank Barnett, a former Cleveland, Ohio-based kirtan teacher.

But, anyone can practice yoga if they want to, not just the elite. Even tight-fisted budgets are only about what we can’t afford. They are not about keeping us from buying what we really need. One way of looking at choices is that they are ways of turning stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. Almost everyone’s resources are limited to the extent that priorities have to be set.  Going to a yoga class is not so much a line item in a budget as it is getting in line at the check-out counter of the mind, body, and spirit store.

“Anybody can afford to take a yoga class if they want to,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It’s a matter of making it a priority.”

When McDonalds uses yoga and meditation in its advertisements to sell Happy Meals, it does so as grist for the mill to achieve its only goal, which is to generate profits for its shareholders. Yoga is different. “It’s not about getting rich,” says Melissa Johnson of Yoga Ananda in Avondale, Florida. “This is a labor of love for the community. No one is turned away for inability to pay.”

Yoga teachers take empowerment, spiritual, physical, and even economic, out of Sherwood Forest and make life better, not poorer. They even make the rich richer. “I agree it is exercise for the elite, but with certain qualifications,” says Graham Fowler of the Peachtree Yoga Center in Atlanta. “We help everyone become more well-off, more self-aware, confident and balanced, with qualities of heart.”

In the long run we shape our lives and ourselves by what we do. At the Yoga Hive in Atlanta, Renard Mills, a personal chef, started his own yoga practice just as the recession began to impact his business. Bad business or not, he continues to take two classes a week. “I used to be a worrier,” he says, “but I don’t do that anymore. I just breathe. I walk this earth differently now. In my family budget, yoga is the second line item, after food.”

Yoga changes people’s lives for the better, not for the worse. “It’s wonderful to see people get stronger, healthier, more vibrant and happy,” says Tara Rawson of Adashakti Yoga in Riverside, Florida.

Yoga is not about taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It is about making everyone rich. Having disposable money and time is one thing. What we do with the money and time we have is another. It may be true yoga is largely taught in the better neighborhoods of America, but the real goal of American yoga teachers is to make everyone’s neighborhood better.

“Yoga is not elitist!” says Dr. Rajvi Mehta of India’s Yoga Rahasya. “It actually breaks all barriers of economics, religion, class, geography, and politics. Once in a yoga class, we have a driver adjacent to the CEO of a company.” If the practice of yoga were really a matter of money, then the practice wouldn’t really matter. It would just be another commodity. But it isn’t, no matter what the thousand billion dollar advertising engine of the world believes. Choosing yoga is to stop resolving life as a problem and living it as a journey.

Yoga is a practice, not a product. Stepping into a studio is not about buying something – it is about becoming someone. Yoga is many things to many people, but fundamentally it is a pilgrimage. In Mark Twain’s book Innocents Abroad, when the American religion tourists on their luxury steam ship finally reach the Holy Land, and get to the Sea of Galilee, they protest against the cost of the two gold Napoleons for renting a ride on one of the local boats. The boatman, instead of haggling with them, sails away and the pilgrims are left stranded.

Practicing asanas at a yoga studio doesn’t have anything to do with walking on water, but at the end of many hot vinyasa classes one or two yogis will look like they’ve done exactly that, if only because they are totally exhausted or totally refreshed. Yoga does have everything to do with believing in what you do, and being willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become what you believe in, even if it costs one or two gold pieces.

“Nothing in life is really free. If you are serious about something, you are willing to pay for it, “ says Paul Jerard, the director of teacher training at the Aura Wellness Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. “If you truly love yoga, and want to learn more, support your local yoga teacher, or your local studio.”

Teachers keep yoga alive, bringing it to life for their students. Their studios are way stations on the pilgrimage that the practice is.  “One of the things necessary for yoga,” said Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society, “is continuous study under a guide.” Giving ourselves to a yoga teacher is to choose to be elite, because that is what yoga does. It privileges everyone who chooses to make it even a small part of his or her life. It makes anyone who unrolls a mat at their yoga studio as elite as it gets, which has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with awareness and consciousness of self and others.

Even though yoga is not just exercise, asanas are the best known and most accessible of the eight-part path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body,” says B. K. S. Iyengar. “The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he knows God is within.”

Practicing at a yoga studio is never easy physically or financially. It means choosing to be in the company of people who think yoga matters, and not in the company of people who don’t.  It means standing up and making a commitment of time and money. Where we spend our money, rich and poor alike, is where our priorities lie. Ultimately it is not what is in your wallet that is important. It is what you do with what’s in your wallet that really matters.

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