Tag Archives: Yoga Journal

Blaze It and Bend It

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A long time ago, during the Age of Flower Children, when yoga was gaining traction in the United States, an Indian guru with a bushy beard, Sri Swami Satchidananda, was invited by the avant-garde psychedelic artist Peter Max to visit the country.

Three years later, accompanied by twenty-four young yogis, he was the opening speaker at Woodstock, the 1969 music arts and peace festival.

Drug use ran rampant among the estimated half million in attendance. “There were a lot of good trips at Woodstock,” said co-promoter Artie Kornfeld. “But, there were some bad ones, too.”

The festival’s P. A. system kept up a running commentary. “The brown acid that is circulating around, please be advised there is a warning on that.” Freak out tents dotted the muddy pastureland in upstate New York.

Although not a user himself, Sri Swami Satchidananda was tolerant of the hippie generation, and didn’t condemn their search for a higher consciousness. He did, however, offer yoga as an alternative to drugs. “My teacher always said, if you get high, you have to get low. He suggested getting off the pendulum, and living in balance. That’s yoga.”

Most of the old-school yoga masters were like that.

“If you have to be addicted to something, be addicted to doing sadhana daily,” said Yogi Bhajan, who introduced Kundalini Yoga in 1968. “You are not free by taking drugs. You’ll always be dragging your life.”

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim,” said B. K. S. Iyengar. “The better your practice, the brighter the flame. When you inhale you are taking the strength from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world.” He didn’t mean flaming up the bone, nor did he mean inhaling a puff of bhang. He meant a different kind of magic dragon.

But, that was then, and this is now.

When Yoga Journal moved to Boulder, Colorado, almost two years ago, and nearly forty-five years after Woodstock, it was probably inevitable they would sooner or later conflate goddess pose with ganja. That’s exactly what happened.

Colorado criminalized marijuana use in 1917. It decriminalized it in 2012. In 2014 Colorado’s marijuana market reached total sales of $700 million.

Yoga Journal jumped on the $700 million bandwagon with a market–friendly article by Mike Kessler about getting ready for yoga class by getting stoned, even though it involved some anxiety. “I’m way too stoned for yoga,” he wrote. “I mill among the strangers and try to figure out what to do first – take off my shoes or sign in.”

Like Cheech and Chong said, “Hey, things are tough all over.”

Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life. When one is wasted – “It creates awareness, reveals the truth,” said Mr. Kessler, shifting gears – making decisions can become easier, or not. Mr. Kessler eventually took his shoes off and signed in.

“Class has only just begun and my weed-addled monkey-mind is swinging from tree to tree.” The class was 420 Remedy at Atwater Yoga in L. A., a class for yogis under the influence. Stephani Manger, the class teacher – “Warm and lovely,” said Mr. Kessler – came to the rescue, calming him down, reminding him to not try too hard.

420 Remedy is the brainchild of Liz McDonald, the yoga studio owner, who had an epiphany on a sunny beach in Brazil. “It was otherworldly. Mixing yoga and pot took me into the next dimension.”

“It can help break down inhibitions,“ said John Friend, the former Anusara Yoga kingpin.

Before the Age of Flower Children some of India’s sadhus, or holy men, smoked chillum pipes packed with ganja, hash, and tobacco. The purpose was to keep their minds focused and strengthen their energy for penance and meditation.

“The purpose has never been intoxication,” explained a contemporary sadhu, Sri Saraswati. “It is supposed to reduce sexual desire.”

Sadhus have been known to go naked in the dead of winter, which might explain things.

Bhang and ganja have long been smoked in India. It is associated with immortality. Four thousand years ago in the Atharva Veda, which is known as the veda of magical formulas, it was celebrated as a “sacred grass.” Fakirs, renowned for being able to tie themselves up into knots and even survive being buried alive, have for centuries fortified themselves with it. They believe it is a gift from God.

Like Willie Nelson said, “God put it here. What gives anyone the right to say God is wrong?”

The unholy crusade against drugs began in 1914 after the United States Opium Commissioner revealed Americans were consuming more habit-forming drugs per person than anywhere else in the world. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, among others, were legal then as long as they were accurately labeled with their contents and dosage.

After alcohol became a good thing again in 1933 President Roosevelt made it a point to praise the International Opium Convention and the race to criminalize drugs was on. In 1971, as he was winding down the War in Vietnam, President Nixon declared a new War on Drugs.

From 2001 to 2010 more than 8 million marijuana arrests were made nationwide. Ninety percent of those arrests were for possession. More people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined.

Drug offenders locked up in federal and state prisons have increased 13-fold since First Lady Nancy Reagan said “Just Say NO” in 1982. Today the War on Drugs, all the criminalized drugs, costs about $51 billion a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

The only people winning the War on Drugs are the drug gangs, bad men let loose in a nightmare. If it weren’t so horrible it would be horrible.

Using drugs is a personal choice, not a crime. No one of legal age should have to live up to the fears and expectations of self-appointed drug czars. The War on Drugs is a War on Personal Choice.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs within its borders. Since then drug use of all kinds, from marijuana to heroin, has fallen. “There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

In October 2015 more than 130 American police chiefs and prosecutors called for less incarceration. “You can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” said William Bratton, the police chief of NYC.

Decriminalizing all drugs may not be a cure, but it isn’t the disaster that the War on Drugs has been. At least, if and when Walgreens was doing the pushing, the drug gangs would end up on the losing side.

Wrapping up his 420 Remedy class Mr. Kessler summed up saying “my stoned-yoga experience turned out positive.” At Ganja Yoga in San Francisco instructor Dee Dussault describes the benefits of pot yoga as “trippy relaxation, pain-relief, sensuality, and the cultivation of inner peace.”

“Class went by in a snap,” said Jessica Misener of Ms. Dussault’s class. “I tend to get bored during yoga classes that are longer than an hour, but the second half of this one felt like it was only five minutes long. Thanks, cannabis!”

“I go more deeply into the asanas,” said Mark Smith, a novelist who has practiced yoga for more than 20 years, sometimes under the influence. “Part of the point of yoga is to relax the body. Marijuana helps a lot of people to do that.”

However, all the point of yoga, not just part of the point, aims at realizing who you are, not who you are on drugs. Who you are isn’t what kind of a house you live in, or what kind of a car you drive, or whether you prefer Golden Goat to Ghost Train Haze.

If those things are who you are, you don’t need yoga. You’ve already got everything you want. Your house, your car, and your Ghost Train are doing it for you. Yoga is different. You have to do it for yourself. It’s not about the gravy train. Yoga is about effort and self-awareness.

It isn’t about anyone’s hobbies or politics, whether they teach high school science or thrive on tech in San Francisco. It’s about the inner being beyond the externals. It’s about practicing with dedication, whether it’s asana or meditation or any of yoga’s other aspects, and cultivating detachment.

It’s not about cultivating the back forty with bhang.

“The real value of yoga is the opportunity it offers to know yourself,” said Kaitlin Quistgaard, former editor of Yoga Journal. “Alone on your mat, with your breath and a few poses, you get to see.”

Intense breathing with a bong at hand is one thing. Intense yoga breathing, which also triggers endorphins, is another thing. They are two different ways of breathing, of seeing. “I’m going to teach you how to get high on your breath,” said Yogi Bhajan.

Although using drugs is a personal choice and should not, for many reasons, be criminalized, there are consequences. Many studies, from the National Institutes of Health to the Journal of Psychiatry, have demonstrated that marijuana, depending on the dose, has a negative impact on cognition.

Using radioactive markers researchers at the University of Texas have shown that cocaine decreases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, mimicking what happens to people who suffer a stroke.

The less said about heroin and methamphetamine, the better.

Just like drugs do, yoga changes the brain, but in a different way. Over time the brain learns to pay attention to the present moment and calm down.

Cognitive research at the University of Illinois has found that test scores improve after practicing yoga. A 12-week study by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that Iyengar Yoga alters brain function, increasing cerebral blood flow.

“Yoga thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning, and increases neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things and change the way we do things,” explained Dr. Loren Fishman of the Columbia Medical School.

One of the legacies of the Age of Flower Children is the idea of looking beyond established thought, of pushing boundaries, and thinking for yourself. Widespread drug use and yoga both went mainstream with the advance of the counterculture, although one practice went to Ecstasy and the other practice on the path to a different kind of consciousness.

Knowledge is recognizing ripe tomatoes are a fruit. Wisdom is not putting one into a fruit salad. “The attaining of higher consciousness cannot simply be gained by the use of a drug,” says David Frawley of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.

Like Yogi Bhajan said, “Your brain will become feeble.“

Even though it’s often been pointed out you can’t fix stupid, you can fix out-of-body makers and markers of feeble, or at least change the revolving door of perception. A  good place to start might be to not blaze it anytime your noodle needs to stay stone cold sober, not everybody must get stoned, and just go cold turkey when going to yoga class.

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Botoxasana 

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What used to be called the Fountain of Youth, but today is called anti-aging, more than 5,000 years ago was known as the Plant of Life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book of all time, after a series of adventures the hero loses his best friend to the revenge of the gods of Sumeria (today’s Iraq). Gilgamesh buries his friend, but can’t stop mourning him and fearing he might suddenly die himself.

Until then, the mid-point of the story, the young Gilgamesh has addressed his fears of death only superficially. He goes searching for the secret of eternal life in the form of Ut-Napishtim, the survivor of the Great Flood and the only man ever granted immortality as a reward for saving mankind. Gilgamesh doesn’t get it, though, because the gods jealously guard immortality. He gets the Plant of Life, instead

Ut-Napishtim’s wife gives Gilgamesh the Plant of Life, which restores youth to the elderly, as a consolation prize. But, on the way home he loses the plant to a snake, which eats it and sheds its skin, staying young while men grow old.

Life extension and attempts to slow down aging have a long history, from Gilgamesh to SRT1720, the anti-aging pill. There has never been a time when growing old didn’t matter. Today, yoga is touted as the latest and greatest regimen in the anti-aging arsenal.

When Yoga Journal asked the 58-year-old Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller in its November, 2009 issue whether he found yoga to be a fountain of youth, he said: “It keeps my body healthy and my mind young. I’m still pretty flexible and strong and I rarely get sick.”

In an earlier issue Diane Anderson interviewed six master teachers about how yoga helps them age gracefully. “Sometimes I wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends,” said the 62-year-old Patricia Walden. “Twenty minutes into my practice I feel younger. Inevitably, the power of yoga takes over and you feel ageless!”

Writing in her blog ‘Confessions of a Wayward Yogi’, upon meeting Sharon Gannon and David Life at a Jivamukti Yoga immersion in Johannesburg, South Africa, the eponymous author exclaimed: “What really struck me is what young sixty-something’s they are! They look incredible. If anything is an advert for yoga, it’s these two beautiful people.”

Although some master teachers, like Rodney Yee, are critical of the connection, yoga and anti-aging are linked far and wide. Great Britain’s YOGA has described itself as offering yoga instruction to “control and aid ailments [like] the all important issue of anti-ageing.” In ‘Omm Away the Years’, an article by Marissa Conrad in Prevention, she writes yoga may be the ideal medicine for “relieving pain [and] ramping up energy. With regular practice, you’ll tone your muscles, improve flexibility, and feel younger than ever.”

In You: Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your Warranty Dr. Oz recommends yoga as the best exercise for staying flexible. He and his collaborator Dr. Michael Roizen have appeared on Oprah with their ‘90-Day Live Longer, Feel Younger Plan’ in which yoga plays an integral part.

“I completely agree that it is a kind of fountain of youth,” says Kimberly Fowler, CEO of YAS Fitness Centers in Venice, California. “I’m one of those baby boomers who has turned yoga’s anti-aging properties into a fitness empire!”

While yoga has become the exercise of choice for more and more people in the last ten years, the health and beauty business has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past one hundred years. Americans purchase more than $6 billion dollars of nutritional supplements every year. They pay more than $10 billion for cosmetic surgery procedures, from face-lifts to liposuction. All told, it has been estimated the age management market is worth more than $70 billion dollars.

And it is expanding as the Baby Boom and Gen X generations grow older and try to keep Mother Nature from catching up to Father Time.

Living longer than ever and still largely affluent, hoping to slow down or reverse the effects of age, they have created a marketplace for anti-aging products that has grown exponentially, from herbal therapies and alternative medicine to hormone injections and genetic engineering.

But, if biomedical gerontology is new, the drive to live longer and better, to look and be healthier, has a long history. Medical papyrus in burial tombs from 16th century BC Egypt contain recipes to remove wrinkles, blemishes, and other signs of age. Cleopatra is said to have slept wearing a restorative golden mask. According to Hellenic mythology, when Pandora disobeyed Zeus’s command and opened the box he had given her, she unleashed sickness and death.

In classical Greece youth was beautiful and heroic, while old age was ugly and tragic, beset by the fruits of Pandora’s Box. “The gods hate old age,” Aphrodite says in the Odyssey. According to Herodotus, the world’s first historian, bathing in magical Ethiopian fountains could put the genie back into the bottle.

The Romans were equally conscious of old age and its consequences, of losing ones looks and mental capacity, according to Karen Cokayne in Old Age in Ancient Rome. Christians were no different than pagans. The waters of the Pool of Bethesda in the New Testament were said to be stirred by an angel and to have healing powers, restoring vitality.

Five hundred years before it became a multi-billion dollar biotech industry, Juan Ponce de Leon was the poster child for anti-aging. A Spanish explorer who led one of the earliest European expeditions to Florida in search of gold and conquest, after his death stories about his supposed quest for a Fountain of Youth gained currency and became both fact and legend.

Starting in the 19th century anti-aging advocates in America depicted old age as something to be feared and despised. “Youth comes but once in a lifetime,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the best-known lyric poet of his day, lamented. At the same time the pioneering neurologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was experimenting on himself by eating extracts of monkey testis for rejuvenation.

In the 1930s Cornell University nutritionists were underfeeding rats and finding they lived longer and better than well-fed ones. The modern era of research into senescence began in the 1960s with studies into the cellular-damage model of aging. By 1970 the American Aging Association had formed, devoted to extending the human lifespan, and in 1992 the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine was created as a distinct anti-aging medical specialty.

Even though Leon Kass, who was chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, said, “the desire to prolong youthfulness is a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it,“ today’s captive audience of more than 70 million Baby Boomers is fueling a marketing boom in anti-aging products and procedures with no end in sight.

At the turn of the last century Mark Twain said age was an issue of mind over matter. ”If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

But, it does matter because everyone does mind. It is the rare man or woman who is happy about getting inexorably older, losing their smooth skin, firm muscles, clear vision, and high energy levels. No one likes getting older, and no one likes being old. Worse than looking old is feeling old.

From aching joints to Alzheimer’s the consequences of aging can be daunting. Those challenges, as well as the simple threat of them, have driven many people to turn to western medicine for the magic bullet, ranging from drugs to lasers to surgery, to remedy or forestall their complaints. Meanwhile, taking a different, holistic approach, more and more people have instead turned to yoga.

“I am not sure I would agree with the implication that yoga is a fountain of youth,” says Trevor Monk of Infinite Yoga in San Diego, California. “But, it is a fact that practicing yoga improves your health and well-being, and if not your longevity, at least the quality of your life.”

Rather than a radical makeover or cure, since there is none for the incurable passing of time, yoga offers its own path to wellness. That path is built on asana, pranayama, and meditation.

“The yoga asanas really do wonderful things for maintaining health,” says Lilian Folan, who has introduced millions of people to yoga in the past forty years and has written Yoga Gets Better with Age? While disputing the notion that yoga is the Holy Grail most teachers readily admit its benefits.

“It is no surprise that by working through every joint in the body through asanas,” says Trevor Monk, “applying breathing techniques, and bandhas, or energy locks, that the body gets stronger and leaner, detoxifies, and heals itself.”

Describing her book New Yoga for People Over 50 Suza Francina, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, articulates what most teachers believe: “People are recognizing yoga for its ability to slow down and reverse the aging process. A complete health system, yoga not only restores vitality to the body, but also expands the mind and soul.”

The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, is, as its name suggests, committed to the proposition that yoga and health are one and the same thing. “With yoga you can keep your body in the best possible health,” says Kara-Leah Grant in her on-line article ‘How to Stay Young Forever with Yoga’. Some yoga practitioners even claim the practice keeps most illnesses at bay and so prevents premature and unnecessary aging of the body.

There is widespread skepticism in the scientific community about anti-aging remedies and their effectiveness. Many doctors and researchers argue that the complexity of aging militates against the development of anti-aging therapies. “Anyone purporting to offer an anti-aging product today is either mistaken or lying,” write Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce Carnes in their essay ‘No Truth to the Fountain of Youth’ in the Scientific American. They admit exercise and nutrition reduce the risk of many diseases, but insist they do not directly influence aging.

In recent years the FDA has increasingly cracked down on the anti-aging industry, especially on products like HGH and many other far-fetched supplements hawked on the Internet. The medical community does not recognize anti-aging as a specialty of medicine. Even though recent documentaries like To Age or Not to Age propose maintenance and life-extending solutions, the consensus is there is no proven medical technology or product that slows, prevents, or reverses the aging process.

“Aging is a disease that can be prevented or reversed,” counters Dr. Ron Rothenberg, the author of Forever Ageless.

But, the question is, is getting old a disease? It can be: the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome is a disease of premature aging in the young. It is very rare, however; fewer than a hundred cases have ever been formally recorded. The fear of growing old is called gerascophobia. In the Western world this anxiety disorder has been fueled by a culture obsessed with being and staying young.

Medical dictionaries do not define aging as a disease, only that there is a gradual decline in physical and possibly mental functioning as people get older. Energy levels go down and muscle mass declines steadily, according to Julie Silver of the Harvard Medical School. Gerontologists admit that during the latter half of life people are more prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes.

But, getting older is not in and of itself a disease. If it were, every baby born would be born sick. Old age can be a shipwreck on the rock of ages, but it can also be a fine-looking boat making its way beneath both sun and storm. Yoga is not an anti-aging product, nor is it an anti-aging therapy. But, a case can be made that is an effective and credible strategy for becoming and staying healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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Bye Bye Babs

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

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

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

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lusty Lulu (Lemon)

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Once a month for the past five or six years I have been getting in the mail and thumbing through Yoga Journal magazine. I used to read it more than I do now, but then again, they used to have more writing in it than they do now. Nowadays, I read Sally Kempton or Tim McCall, if they happen to be in the magazine, dip into the asana photo spreads, nibble on the mini-reviews in the back, and, of course, spend most of my time on the meat-and-potatoes of the magazine: the advertisements.

I usually start with the inside cover of must-have merchandise like “karmalicious” shoes recommended as “super comfortable” and endorsed by “global yoga teachers” and then flip to the ubiquitous Hard Tail two-page spread, featuring young women in incredibly difficult upside-down poses. They never fail to look terrific and I am invariably impressed by their poise, balance, strength, and, well, hard tails, although the red star logo, which I associate with Communism, and the Hard Tail slogan of ‘Forever’ confuse me.

The yoga project has always seemed, at least to me, to be apolitical and focused on the here-and-now, gainsaying the permanent and not involved in the puzzling foreverness of fashion.

The rest of the magazine, slightly more than half of its hundred-or-so pages, is a bevy of ads: Alive supplements for “a lot more”; Re-Body weight loss supplements for “achieving your goals”; the “earth-friendly” Jade yoga mat; Norwegian Gold Omega supplements for when “you just want it all”; the Subaru station wagon which is “a whole lot to love”; Move Free supplements so that nothing “gets in the way of what moves you”; and lastly Ultimate Flora Critical Care supplements featuring a woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, her belly non-constipated, non-gaseous, and non-bloated.

The June 2013 issue of Yoga Journal delivered a special treat: a new back cover Lululemon advertisement designed by a team of marketing gurus and sold to the advertising gurus at the mass-circulation yoga magazine featuring an upside-down pole dancer, lurid purple lighting, and a pitch for the new Lululemon ‘om finder’ in the App Store.

I had recently been wondering about my own om, which was sounding scratchy, and was grateful for the new app, being hyped on Lululemon’s community page as “majorly exciting news for you”.

But, it turned out the ‘om finder’ was designed for another purpose.

Lululemon Athletica, for those not in the know, is a multi-billion dollar athletic apparel retailer, especially yoga apparel. In its own words, it is a company “where dreams come to fruition”. One of the slogans prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money”.

In the same breath, 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 them with much-needed wages.

Charles Dickens would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew.

At the same time Lululemon’s CEO Christine Day explains the company’s in-store philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar yoga pants by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”

Employees are trained to eavesdrop on customers, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What were dynamic and clever constructs of the new Lululemon pitch, besides the scantily clad pole dancer, of course, were the optical center of the ad, and the text, a quote from a famous yoga teacher who is, as well, an “Elite Lululemon Ambassador”. The optical center of print advertisements, according to the Ogilvy Method, should always be one-third of the way down the page for maximum impact. The pole dancer’s butt is exactly one-third of the way down the page. The ad copy parallel with the pole dancer’s butt is a blurb by Chris Chavez, described as an “International yoga teacher and owner of Cihangir Yoga, Istanbul”, who said: “James! Hug your thighs together like a pole dancer.”

“He didn’t say “James! Hug your thighs together like Shiva Rea” or “James! Hug your thighs together like Jason Crandell”. Both of them are well-known yoga teachers. Opening the practice up to the brave new world of 21st century yoga he evoked the pseudo eroticism of pole dancing. Maybe other witty similes might find their way into yoga jargon, such as, “James! Bend your knee like a lunging swordsman in that Warrior Pose” and “James! Keep your drishti focused like a sniper with his sights on the Taliban”.

But, there is something not right about the back cover ad, because in the picture the pole dancer is not hugging her thighs together. One leg is stretched out straight in line with her torso and the other leg is crossed over the straight leg just above the knee. She is probably squeezing her butt to stay stuck to the pole, but she not hugging her thighs together. Either the pole dancer was misinformed about what pole-dancing move to make, or the marketing gurus were misinformed about what pole-dancing move was actually being portrayed in the photo shoot.

It is an unfortunate miscommunication, but for the sake of Lululemon’s bottom line it is a mistake we might all be willing to forgive.

Pole dancing, for those who practice yoga more than they frequent strip clubs, is a form of striptease in which go-go and lap dancing are actually the predominant parts of the performance. Strip club pole dancers often simply hold the pole and move around it without performing acrobatics. One of the most popular pole dancing schools in the world is Las Vegas’s Stripper 101, where “friendly instructors will teach you sexy strip club moves such as pole dancing, lap dancing, and striptease. Learn every seductive step to help you go from shy to OH MY!”

The earliest recorded pole dance, swinging sensually around a hollow steel pole wearing a bikini and six-inch stilettos, was in 1968, performed by Belle Jangles at the Mugwump men’s club in Oregon. A form of pole dancing had moved into strip clubs in the 1950s as burlesque became more accepted, but it was in the 1980s, especially in Canada, that it became popular. Canada is also, by sheer coincidence, the home of Lululemon.

Lululemon’s use of pole dancing in its Yoga Journal ad is a trope of advertising, namely that sex sells. Sex is an instinct and from the point-of-view of marketing has powerful biological and emotional effects on the viewer. Sex cuts through the mass of today’s ads and viewers generally spend a longer time looking at those ads that feature a substantial dose of it.

Why would Lululemon employ cheesecake to sell its yoga apparel, and by extension, referencing its placement in Yoga Journal, the practice of yoga itself?

The reason is that advertisers have used it to sell goods and services since advertising became what it is in our age. The earliest known use of sex in modern advertising parlance was by the Pearl Tobacco Company, which in 1871 featured a naked woman on its package cover. Although it doesn’t seem like there would be anywhere to go from there, in the past twenty years the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in print ads has become almost commonplace.

Maybe Lululemon knows more than it is letting on. Maybe it is tapping into the so-called “new burlesque”, which has been popping up from Los Angeles to New York City, although the old burlesque has never really left Coney Island. At posh clubs like Box ringside tables start at fifteen hundred dollars. In its own way Lululemon also knows how to fully maximize profits, selling forty eight dollar ‘Namaste’ mesh totes and one hundred and twenty eight dollar ‘Vinyasa’ canvas bags.

Some have said that the new burlesque is a feminist enterprise in which women can “enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies,” writes Joan Acocella in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lululemon’s implicit coding throughout much of its marketing references the same mantra.

It is possible that despite the lurid purple coloring, the spotlight on the pole dancer’s butt, the silhouetting of her body, and the reference to thighs instead of legs, that the Lululemon advertisement is really referencing pole acrobatics as an athletic form of dance.

Pole acrobatics can be traced back eight hundred years to India, where it was a sport for men. In China troupes of men used two poles to perform artistic gravity-defying tricks high off the ground. Internationally known Chinese circuses often incorporate poles in their acts. In the past twenty years pole acrobatics has emerged as a recreational and competitive sport, and there is even a campaign to include it in the 2016 Olympics.

It might also be said that purple symbolizes magic and mystery, as well as royalty. Purple is often seen as the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment. It is thought if you surround yourself with purple you will have peace of mind and that purple is a good color to use in meditation. But, belying those presumptions is the fact that purple puts all fifty shades of gray to shame when it comes to sexy colors. In a recent survey of 2000 adults by online retailer Littlewoods, couples with purple-themed bedrooms had sex more often than anyone else, even ahead of those who preferred red.

It is possible that the signifiers in the advertisement are entirely different from its meaning.

It is possible, but I doubt it.

Whatever the case may be, whether Lululemon was using sex to sell its apparel, and whether Yoga Journal was kowtowing to one of its biggest advertisers, is beside the point. Yoga in the 21st century, from snappy apparel to studios in the best suburbs, from celebrity teachers to Caribbean retreats, from Bikram Choudhury’s fleet of Rolls Royce’s to Kripalu’s three hundred dollar-a-day “private lakeside“ rooms, is all about business. One of the oldest maxims in business is that sex sells, and if sales are the aim, then sex becomes another form of grist for the mill.

But, what is not just schlock about the Yoga Journal advertisement, but rather a reminder that consciousness depends on being conscious, is the disturbing tagline in the bottom right-hand corner, below the Lululemon logo: “When your teacher says it, it just makes sense.”

The proposition that teachers, whether they are newly hatched 200-hour graduates or international stars like Mr. Chavez, are nonpareil about all things yogic and should be followed unquestioningly is both cynical and devious. It is cynical because the proposition that no teacher, from the part-timer at the corner yoga studio to the superstars at national conferences, can ever err is ludicrous. It is devious because all teachers from part-timers to full-timers will and do err, and to offer it up as gospel otherwise is to offer up a gospel of deceit.

There are yoga teachers who walk, sleek and graceful as otters, as though a full-length mirror were being carried in front of them, but to follow in their wake unquestioningly is to compound the problem. To believe everything a yoga teacher says will always make sense makes no sense at all. The sense that stands on and appeals to authority is not always necessarily what it proclaims itself to be. More than two thousand years ago the Roman political theorist Cicero said, “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

Yoga is rife with teachers behaving badly. From Swami Muktananda to John Friend is a long litany of sexual indiscretion and even financial misconduct. In the mid-1990s the issue of sex in yoga studios became such a concern that the California Yoga Teachers Association called for higher standards. “We wrote the code,” said Judith Hanson Lasater, the group’s president, “because there were so many violations going on. It’s happened from the highest-level gurus in India to multiple generations of yoga teachers in the United States. It’s so common as to be beyond a cliché. Some of what these teachers are doing, they should be in jail for.”

Swami Muktananda, who died in 1982, was a hugely popular guru who at the height of his popularity had more than 70,000 followers worldwide, including Melanie Griffith, Diana Ross, and Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame. He claimed to have achieved sainthood and become so enlightened he was “perfect” and absolutely free of human weakness. Human weaknesses in his guru book of do’s-and-don’ts did not include sexual liaisons with a parade of young girls at his ashram nor his secret Swiss bank accounts. Joan Bridges, one of his students, was 26-years-old when she was sexually abused by Swami Muktananda, who was 73 at the time.

“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”

In 1994 the Kripalu Center imploded when Amrit Desai, its saffron robed founder and ‘Spiritual Director’, was found out to have had multiple extra-marital affairs. “He was too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good,” writes Stephen Cope in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Desai, who had preached about the value of celibacy as a way to focus on yoga, was forced to resign his $150,000.00 a year spiritual directorship. “My first reaction was shock,” said Jonathan Foust, who was the public relations director at Kripalu at the time, and who had been celibate for what he described as six “difficult” years before marrying.

“I felt betrayed because celibacy is no easy practice.”

John Friend’s Anusara Yoga, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, collapsed in 2012 when its jet-setting founder and guiding light was accused of sexual improprieties and financial malfeasance. At the time Anusara was an international practice that claimed more than 1,500 teachers and 600,000 students. “It was a new thing,” said Joe Miller, owner of Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was yoga rock-stardom.” Although often sermonizing at yoga festivals about the value of relationships and the importance of trust, it was revealed that John Friend had engaged in drug use, had sexual relations with students, employees, and married women, and tampered with his company’s pension fund.

Just because a yoga teacher says let’s go pole dancing on the shores of the lagoon of bliss doesn’t make it right. And, parenthetically, just because the apparel behemoth Lululemon, trying to sell its trove of see-through yoga pants before being forced to recall them, says that see-through yoga pants are appropriate attire for practicing down dog, doesn’t make trying to unload them right, either.

“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis,” the Dalai Lama has said. Unless, of course, it is easier to be guided by the pleasant platitudes of teachers like Swami Muktananda, Amrit Desai, and John Friend.

But, it is absurd that a man should rule others who cannot rule himself. Leadership is partly about meeting moral challenges, partly about coalescing people around a shared vision, and mostly about being clear and courageous.

“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity,” said Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Army during World War II and two-time President of the United States.

The environments and social milieus we live in shape us, just as the leaders we choose to follow shape us, for we become like them. One of the tests of integrity is its refusal to be compromised, its refusal to consider the bottom line, to meditate on profits before probity.

“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” Bob Dylan warned in the song Subterranean Homesick Blues. When Lululemon weds pole dancing to yoga in order to sell its perky fitness apparel made for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, and Yoga Journal lends its hand to the tawdry enterprise, it may indeed be time to watch the parking meters and not follow leaders who are bleeding the meters dry.

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