Tag Archives: yoga

Two’s a Crowd

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By Ed Staskus

“It’s like having, you know, your phone has a charger, right? It’s like having a charger for your body and mind. That’s what meditation is.”  Jerry Seinfeld

Meditation is not a huge undertaking. Anybody can do it anywhere they are, anytime they want, sitting somewhere familiar or even on the fly. It’s often thought that meditation is thinking about nothing. It’s not, since thinking is one thing and nothing is another thing.

If you’re trying to think about nothing, you are still thinking, giving your best shot to making something out of nothing. But, trying to think of nada is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Only nothing comes from nothing. The black hole of meditation isn’t the dark side of the void.

The practice is about being somebody somewhere in a state of being less and less distracted, especially by thoughts. That’s why there are walking and sitting meditations, in the park or on a park bench. It’s not about the moving body. It’s about the non-moving mind. It’s about slowing down the brain on the train.

“If you’re impatient while waiting for the bus, tell yourself you’re doing bus waiting meditation,”” said Gretchen Rubin, author of ‘The Happiness Project.’

It’s about knowing everything without thinking about anything, at the same time that it’s about paying close attention to one thing, the one thing you’re doing on the bulls-eye spot you’re doing it.

It’s about being alone.

But, who wants to be alone? Many people hate being alone. It makes them feel insecure anxious depressed. They get into relationships and marriages and stay related and married because they’re afraid of being alone. We seek family, work, and obligations to stave off loneliness. Social isolation poses health risks and is associated with an increased risk of death.

Most people avoid being alone as much as possible because who wants to hear the voices in their own head all day long, their own internal monologue. You can’t get away from yourself. It would drive anyone crazy.

Even the Bible says it’s not good for man to be alone, although Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer, once said hell was other people. Whenever you’re left alone you have fewer problems. It’s harder to find someone else to blame, though.

Meditation is an old practice, prehistoric, mentioned in some Hindu texts more than three thousand years ago, and practiced by pagans, Christians, and Muslims. The Romans said, “Do what you are doing.” Japan’s Zen is meditative, Sufis practiced meditative breathing controls, and a meditative tradition is implicit in the Jewish Tanakh.

The bones of it all come from the Buddhists. “Many techniques commonly practiced today originate from ancient Buddhist meditation texts,” explained Susan Chow, a science writer and editor. For most of its long history it was a religious approach. Even when it wasn’t it played a top spot in many religious and spiritual practices.

Believers went to churches temples mosques for many years centuries millennium to affirm and reaffirm their beliefs. They prayed and meditated because it was the person-to-person way to talk to God. It was the direct line to heaven. If you wanted to go to heaven you went to church first.

But, who goes to church anymore? Religion was once called the opiate of the masses. However, denominations and church attendance have slowly and steadily declined the past thirty years, so that today, according to The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, only about 52 million worshipers go to a weekly service.

Yoga is the new opiate of the masses. It has grown by leaps and bounds the past thirty years, so that today, according to Yoga Journal, about 37 million Americans practice it. Getting on their rubber mats about twice a week, at a studio or at home, means that more people practice yoga than go to church every week.

Spiritual practice has gone rubber soul secular.

Nobody wants to climb the Holy Staircase of the Scala Santa in Rome on sore knees anymore. Everybody wants to get down on healthy knees for cat cow pose. Nobody wants to chant a mantra to a complicated-sounding deity. Everybody wants to go ecstatic kirtan dancing at Wanderlust. Nobody wants to meditate like old-school Buddhists, for whom meditation was a cog in the machinery of enlightenment, along with virtue and wisdom.

Virtue and wisdom don’t get it done anymore, dude, not in the machine age.

What does get it done is mindfulness meditation.

“Meditation is not religion, not spirituality, it’s a technology of upgrading the mind that can enrich one’s life,” wrote Jay Michaelson in ‘Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment’.

Mr. Michaelson cut to the chase, limning his perspective on meditation and its offspring, modern mindfulness meditation. “There are a lot of same-old, same-old Buddhist books out there. I wanted to write the book I wanted to write, for my circle of serious practitioner friends, all of whom are either Gen-X or Millennial, and none of whom have any patience for those clichés.”

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, coining a cliché.

But, three hundred years after Blaise Pascal, nobody needs to sit in a musty quiet same-old room meditating all by themselves. Besides, it’s not a quiet world anymore, not when the nagging question of the age for the Gen-X and Millennial body politic is, “Where’s my iPhone?” We have turned our backs on silence, even though it’s only silence that can express the inexpressible.

The idea used to be to get in touch with the silence within you. Now the idea is to get in touch with your social media account to see what it’s saying about you. The sounds of silence were once golden. Although the world is never quiet, it used to be much quieter. Chattering is the new knowledge.

Silence is scary.

Fortunately, there is little need to meditate alone anymore. Wherever you are we can all go to mindfulness meditation seminars, classes, and studios. MNDFL in New York City offers 30-minute sit-down sessions for $15 and 45-minute classes for $25. For those aware that MNDFL fills up fast, endless meditation is available at $200 a month.

The Awakening Series at Cleveland’s Mindful Moments is $200, while the Deepening Series is $280.00. Austin’s Meditation Bar offers an unlimited monthly pass, with a 3-month commitment, for $99 a month. At the Kadampa Meditation Center in San Francisco, “perfectly suited for busy modern people,” drop-in classes are $15 and there is a bargain coupon offer of 4 for $50.

“Having a dedicated space where you can go to meditate really brings the practice to life for people,” said Rinzler Lodro, one of MNDFL’s founders. Otherwise, at home, he added, “They’re always going to be distracted by the stain on the carpet.” Carpet stains can be a bane to the tidy and distraction is the archenemy of meditation.

Before meditation was mindfulness meditation it was meditation. It was a way of shaping the mind so that it could be cognizant of content without identifying with content. It was an exercise in generating energy, sometimes called life force, and developing patience, generosity, and compassion. It could also simply be about sustaining a single-pointed concentration as an end in itself.

“The simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time,” wrote Tony Schwartz in The New York Times.

The complexity of mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is that it wants to do everything at once: it lowers stress, enlarges your brain, elevates your school grades, makes music sound better, lowers your health care bill, reduces depression risk, supports weight-loss goals, comes in handy during cold season, and finally, among much, much more, basically makes you a totally terrific person, according to Amanda Chan, editor of ‘Healthy Living’.

What doesn’t it do?

Brain, Behavoir and Immunity Journal Proves Meditation Reduces Risk of Alzheimer’s and Premature Death!

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre Reveals Meditation Better than Morphine for Pain!

University of Wisconsin-Madison Demonstrates Meditation Effective in Relieving Inflammatory Bowel Disease!

Whew, it’s time to take a breath!

However, not everyone is all-in with the one-size-fits-all outsize role of mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness practice has its benefits,” noted Catherine Ingram, author of ‘Passionate Presence’. “But, there came a point when mentally noting my breath, thoughts, and sensations became wearisome, a sense of always having homework and of constantly chopping reality into little bits.”

Even Jack Kornfield, the American author and Buddhist teacher, believed there were limits to what meditation could accomplish. “While I benefitted enormously from training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced,” he wrote, “there were major areas of difficulty in my life that even deep meditation didn’t touch.”

One major area in which meditation has undergone a sizable transformation is in the world of business. Not only is meditation, like yoga, like spirituality, like all things ingenuous, being transformed into a commodity, businesses are co-opting meditation for their own purposes.

Fortune 500’s as diverse as Nike, Prentice Hall Publishing, and Proctor & Gamble have gotten behind the meditation-at-work wave. “You cannot out-work a problem, you have to out-meditation it,” said P & G’s CEO A. G. Lafley, who has his own mindfulness practice.

Apple and Google offer meditation space and courses on a regular basis. Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself’ program is designed to teach employees how to breathe mindfully and listen closely to their coworkers. Steve Jobs often meditated, was married in a Zen ceremony, and the technology titan he created affords employees 30 minutes a day to meditate.

It is no fad in Silicon Valley, since many techies believe it is the kind of thing that rewires your brain, all to the good of the bottom line. “The woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” said Kenneth Folk, a meditation teacher in San Francisco. “It’s about training the brain.”

In the Digital Age in the New World it’s the kind of thing that can make or break your career. Many companies are concerned with employee motivation, or what they call emotional intelligence. “Every company knows that if their people have emotional intelligence, they’re going to make a shitload of money,” said Google’s Mindfulness Coach and ‘Jolly Good Fellow’ Chade-Meng Tan, sounding like a squid on a skateboard.

At Google there are bi-monthly ‘Mindful Lunches’ where everyone eats in total silence, the only sound the sounds of munching crunching digesting, and the tolling of prayer bells. They have built a labyrinth, too, for walking meditations, although it’s not clear what getting lost has to do with being found. Nevertheless, it isn’t “hippie bullshit,” said Bill Duane, who designs meditation classes for the industry giant.

Meditation used to be one man or woman in one place somewhere on Main Street doing one thing, doing their own thing. There was no bullshit to it. Now it’s walking in circles to get the Wall Street share price of your employer’s stock going in the right direction. There are many kinds of bullshit to it.

Meditation for a long time was an individual enterprise, the seventh element of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. It was about being attentive to everything as-it-is. It wasn’t about being attentive to your co-workers making sure they were on the same path to profits as everyone else.

It wasn’t goal-oriented mindfulness meditation and data-driven wisdom conferences at resorts with executives from Cisco and Ford among the headliners.

“Are we there yet?” asked the man at the Journey to Enlightenment class.

Individualism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to him or her. The Declaration of Independence is largely about individualism. Collectivism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to the pack company society of which he or she is a part. The Constitution is largely about collectivism.

According to collectivism the group is real and the individual is an abstraction, clear as dishwater. When meditation is reduced to its lowest common denominator, a dollar sign for a breath of life, individuals are reduced to consumers and notional values on an Excel spreadsheet. According to individualism men and women are an end in themselves. They are not a means to an end for Apple, Google, and Proctor & Gamble, although, God knows, everybody needs soap.

Nobody needs to meditate about that, not even the P & G soap makers.

Mindfulness meditation, as conceived by spiritual entrepreneurs, sharp-eyed businessmen, and post modernists, is a collectivist endeavour, full of hearty healthy happiness on the menu. Meditation as conceived by the old-school sit-down tradition is a breath and point-of-focus practice to get you to a new state of consciousness, out of time, back to the future.

Maybe you got there and maybe you didn’t. In any event, back-in-the-day the results weren’t going to show up on your pay stub. They were going to show up in something that money can’t buy. They were going to show up in a brain and body sitting quietly by itself, the showing up as much the big bang of consciousness as consciousness itself.

When men and women fall in love they rarely want a third wheel along for the ride. Nobody takes collectivism that far, neither back-in-the-day nor today. The dynamic of love is two minds two bodies two individuals melding into what makes the ride worthwhile.

Three’s a crowd.

Meditation can be practiced anywhere, by yourself or in a crowd. All you have to do is be quiet and go inward. No one can do it to you or for you. You have to do it yourself, all by yourself. In the end, when the effort is intentional and the end is unintentional, everyone meditates alone, just like everyone is born alone and everyone dies alone.

Meditation is as solitary as your own reflected light in a mirror. It’s minding your own business.

“Travel light, live light, be the light,” said Yogi Bhajan. When it comes to meditation, and its modern soul mate, mindfulness meditation, two’s a distraction from the solitary practice. It’s me and my shadow.

Other than that, two’s a crowd.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

The Laughing Yogi

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By Ed Staskus

“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” Woody Allen

Yoga is a dead serious body mind spirit rubber mat hits the road adventure.

It is a rigorous undertaking when you are trying and trying to get asana poses just right, much less trying and trying to achieve the higher state of being and thought the practice aims at. Meditation and its hardball goal of spiritual insight is a life-long commitment, not just the old college try. The concentration and stern self-discipline needed to get to moksha are no laughing matter.

Or is it really all that long-faced?

Since the mid-90s a practice called Laughter Yoga has gainsaid the notion that yoga is cold sober no-nonsense by the book, and humorless. The brainchild of Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian doctor now informally known as the ‘Laughter Guru’, it is premised on the idea that laughing is good for you.

Their motto is a few ha ha ha’s are a boon boon boon.

What did the yoga mat say to the yoga student? I will catch you if you fall.

It’s long been said that laughter is the best medicine. It strengthens immune systems, boosts energy levels, and protects from the damaging effects of stress. Laughing enhances blood flow, which is a factor in cardiovascular health. It releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

“Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain,” said Charlie Chaplin.

It’s priceless and it’s free, too.

Not only that, no matter whether it is real or feigned, it works, although, if you’re laughing for no reason at all, you might need either counseling or medicine.

“The mind does not know that we’re faking it,” explained Mary Wilson, a news reporter for ABC/Fox in New York who practices yuks on the mat. Dr. Kataria based his brainstorm on the concept that canned laughter yields the same results as spontaneous laughter.

“In Laughter Yoga there is no need to wait until something funny happens. You can laugh intentionally whenever you want,” said Dr. Kataria.

When it’s real it’s even better, as any belly laugh will testify. A new study at Loma Linda University demonstrated that adults shown a funny 20-minute video scored better on short-term memory tests than a control group. Their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also significantly decreased.

“Learning ability and delayed recall become more challenging as we age,” said Dr. Gurindor Bains, the Ph.D candidate in Rehabilitation Sciences who led the study. “Laughing with friends or even watching 20 minutes of humor on TV, as I do daily, helps me cope with my daily stressors.”

A rose is a rose is a rose, Gertrude Stein famously observed, but when is a yoga studio not a yoga studio not a yoga studio, even though tens of thousands of people have taken classes there. That would be a Laughter Yoga studio, which is usually in a park or on a beach.

The American School of Laughter Yoga promotes Laughter Clubs that are free and open to the public. “Thousands around the world volunteer their time to make them happen, freely and unconditionally, from the heart as an act of service.”

Laughter Yoga is practiced in more than 8,000 clubs and in more than 65 countries. “Laughter is the tool. Yoga is the end,” said Sebastien Gendry of the American School of Laughter.

Some people crack a yoga joke and everyone laughs. But, some people make a joke of yoga and laugh all the way to the bank, with wads of other people’s money.

Bikram Choudhury of eponymous Bikram Yoga fame was having lunch with friends when a cell phone on the table rang. He answered and put it on speaker.

Bikram: “Hello!”

Woman: “Hi Honey, it’s me. Are you having lunch?”

Bikram: “Yes.”

Woman: “I’m at the shops now and found this beautiful mink coat. It’s only $9,000. Is it OK if I buy it?”

Bikram: “Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.”

Woman: “I stopped at the Lexus dealership, too, and looked at the new models. I saw one I really liked.”

Bikram: “How much?”

“$120,000.”

Bikram: “OK, but for that price make sure you get it with all the options.”

Woman: “Great! I was just talking to Janie and found out that house I wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking four-and-a-half million for it.”

Bikram: “Well, go ahead and make an offer of four million. They’ll probably take it. If not, you can go the extra half-mil if that’s what you really want.”

Woman: “Oh, thank you! I’ll see you later! I love you so much!”

Bikram: “Bye! I love you, too.”

He hung up.

Everyone at the table was staring at him in wonder and astonishment at his generosity.

Bikram turned and asked, “Anyone know whose phone this is?”

Sometimes yoga is said to cure everything except the common cold.

Bikram Yoga claims that 30 days of his hot yoga will transform anyone, making them strong and buff, and those who say during steam class “Please, kill me now” have got it all wrong.

Laughter Yoga says a week without laughter will make a man weak.

“This stuff really works!” said Harry Hamlin, at the far end of hunkdom, about Laughter Yoga after high-stepping the cha-cha-cha on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

Others, like John Friend, the former founder and former chief guru of the former Anusara Yoga, think they’re laughing all the way to the bank until they find out what’s in their wallet is all a can of worms.

John Friend was praying to Krishna.

“Krishna,” he said, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responded, “No problem. Go ahead.”

“Krishna, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?”

“A million dollars to me is but a penny.”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” said John Friend, “may I have a penny?”

“Sure,” said Krishna. “Just a second.”

The laughter of the gods is sometimes the upshot of setting yourself up as the arbiter of your own schemes. Some people say laughter is God’s blessing. Or, conversely, as Lord Byron put it, “Nothing can confound a wise man more than laughter from a dunce.”

Still others, like Jeff Briar, the founder of the Laughter Yoga Institute, laugh daily in their yoga practice for the fun and friendship of it. A professional comedic actor for more than 30 years, Mr. Briar is a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher and in 2006 was appointed by Dr. Kataria as an International Laughter Ambassador. He has published manuals, written books, and shot videos, including ‘Gibberish Sets You Free! Five Films on the Power of Talking Nonsense’.

Comedians often have the gift of shtick, but Laughter Yoga posits chuckles and chakras as the joy cocktail, and a great workout, too. “We laugh as a form of exercise,” said Mr. Briar. Want a toned tummy? Stomach muscles expand and contract when you laugh. A night at the comedy club can start you on the way to a rack of six-pack abs.

“Start laughing for no reason and watch yourself feel better,” said Mr. Briar on the Oprah Winfrey Show. “Laughter relieves all the negative effects of stress.”

What did the meditating yogi say to the other meditating yogi? Are you not thinking what I’m not thinking?

Ha ha ha…

What did the breathless yogi say to his yoga teacher? It turns out I’ve been inhaling when I should be exhaling and exhaling when I should be inhaling.

Ha ha ha…

What did the cat say to the other cat while watching their pet owners practice yoga? Who knows how many years of yoga and they still can’t lick their own butts.

Ha ha ha…

What did the man say to his friend about going to yoga class? Nah, I’m down, dog.

Ha ha ha…

What ran through the mind of the young yogi in Warrior Pose? Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything right? What is my life’s purpose? Am I happy? What do I want? Should I get chips for dinner? Is everyone looking at me? Do my boobs look weird in this top?

Ha ha ha…

Standing on one leg in yoga class doesn’t make you a yogi any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

That’s not a joke.

T cells are white blood cells that fight infections and are the mechanism essential for human immunity. When you laugh you activate T cells, getting them on the go from where they are stored in the lymph system. Biophysical research has demonstrated that belly laughing generates a negative pressure in the body that increases the speed and flow of lymph up to 15 times the normal rate.

“Believe it or not, a hearty chuckle can help,” said Dr. Andrea Nelson of the University of Leeds. “This is because laughing gets the diaphragm moving and this plays a vital role in moving blood around the body.” She stopped short of saying take two aspirins and go watch an Adam Sandler movie.

A woman reported her husband’s disappearance to the police. They asked for a description and she said, “He takes an Ashtanga Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

Her friend said, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-foot-four, bald, lazy, and has a big belly.”

The woman said, “Who wants that one back?”

A good sense of humor won’t cure everything that ails you, but giggles and guffaws are a great RX, nevertheless. “Laughter can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation,” says the Mayo Clinic. “A laugh fires you up and can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good relaxed feeling.”

Laughter activates the body’s relaxation response. You forget your troubles when you’re laughing. “People who are laughing report being less bothered by the pain they do experience,” according to the Chopra Center.

Yoga is an eight-fold path to wonder. Maybe watching reruns of ‘The Wonder Years’ should be part of the eight-fold path.

There are many different ways of going on the long strange winding road trip of yoga. Although it’s probably true no one can change their destination, everyone can change their way of travel. “It is a direction, not a destination,” said Carl Rogers, a founder of  humanism in psychology practice.

Getting there can be Sturm und Drang. Getting there can be a hoot. Getting there can be gotten to on foot, in a shiny new SUV, or on the Furthur bus.

No one wants to die, but everyone wants to go to heaven. The psychedelic painted school bus Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters called Furthur, painted in laugh-out-loud splashes, would be as good a way to go as any other.

A man arrives at the gates of heaven.

St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.”

St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room twenty-eight, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”

“Baptist.”

“Go to room eighteen, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”

“Jewish.”

“Go to room eleven, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room eight?”

St. Peter says, “The yogis are in room eight and they think they’re the only ones here.”

Everyone next in line had to wait a minute from here to eternity while St. Peter rolled around the pearly gates in paroxysms of laughter.

A version of this story appeared in Rebelle Society.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

Boomer Yoga Swarm

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By Ed Staskus

“Why don’t you all fade away, talkin’ ’bout my generation, don’t try to dig what we all say, talkin’ ’bout my generation.”  The Who

It’s been said everybody loves yoga nowadays. The love wasn’t always the case, at least not in the United States, which was a problem. It is the case today, which might be a worse problem. Yoga is good for everyone, but not everyone is good for it. Even yoga masters like John Friend and Bikram Choudhury, who created practices of great benefit, have not, because of the sex, drugs, and money scandals surrounding them, been altogether good for it.

Yoga in the western world has faced many challenges, from its philosophy being decried as a menace to society to the corporatization of the practice, but the latest threat may be the most menacing. That threat is being posed by the horde of Baby Boomers, as time catches up to them, swarming studios coast-to-coast.

Just fifty-some years before the first Baby Boomers came into existence, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, lectures and a subsequent speaking tour by Vivekananda inspired many Americans to see the light. They also led to trouble, to yoga being decried as a cult. “Police Break In On Weird Hindu Rites,” blared a New York City newspaper. Twenty years after Vivekanda had come and gone, feature articles like “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction” were still commonplace.

In 1928, Yogananda, the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, was hounded out of Miami, Florida, by hundreds of anxious and angry husbands and fathers who saw him as a sex threat. “Not with my wife or daughter!” they complained and threatened with shouts and clubs.

Throughout the 1930s so-called yogi crimes were a staple of headline writers. During the Cold War some Americans worried about yogis teaching Russian cosmonauts breathing techniques. But, in the 1960s the practice gained traction. It popped up on TV and the Beatles crossed paths with it. By the 1990s new converts were discovering it daily and yoga was off and running.

Baby Boomers led the charge, especially the cadre of Boomers who became teachers, from Sharon Gannon to Ana Forrest to Richard Freeman. “The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990,” said Kathryn Arnold, the editor of Yoga Journal at the time. It was also the moment when yoga began to shape shift from a practice of awareness and freedom to a get on your mat get fit get strong sweat out the toxins check out those buns exercise routine.

Postural yoga, a stand-alone practice in pursuit of health, became the vogue it still is today. In A History of Modern Yoga Elizabeth De Michelis fleshed out posture practice as a “secularized healing ritual.” Ben Houhour noted in his History of Yoga in America that the “consolidation of yoga coincided with the coming of age of the Boomer.”

Early on in their reign Boomers got loose on acid with the aim of changing themselves through drug use. The later Boomers of the 1990s flocked to yoga studios and flipped up into headstand with the same resolve. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said Timothy Leary, the 1960s guru of LSD. “Drop in, tune in, turn on,” said John Schumacher, a long-time American yoga teacher who spent three decades studying with B. K. S. Iyengar.

In the oughts yoga became the fashion among the better off seeking to become even better off. In the 1970s and 80s the Me Generation had invested in health and exercise fads, self-help programs like EST, and New Age spirituality. As the new decade of doom and diversions unfolded it was yoga’s turn to cater to the Baby Boomers as the practice morphed into exercise for the elite.

Since then yoga has had to go head-to-head with one thing after another, from teachers behaving badly to capitalists doing what they do best. Bikram Choudhury did both, behaving badly and beating the moneymen at their own game, while boasting about it to boot. Some teachers became hatha celebrities, racking up frequent-flier miles, preaching from the pulpit about a practice supposedly sans pulpit.

The corporate world, always looking for the next big thing, licked its lips, liking what it saw of yoga swerving into the mainstream.

Lululemon Athletica, noted for its hundred dollar separates sewn for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, built its apparel empire piggybacking on the practice. In 2012 its sales were $1 billion. Three years later, in 2015, its sales almost doubled to $1.8 billion. Meanwhile, in the birthplace of yoga, most people still wear street shorts and casual t-shirts and women even wear everyday sarees when practicing. They aren’t accessorized for the yoga runway because they don’t push themselves up into shoulder stand on a rock star runway.

In 2002 Trevor Tice founded the CorePower Yoga franchise after taking a class in Telluride, Colorado. “I was very underwhelmed by the facilities and the delivery,” he said. “It was lacking anything a good customer experience should have.” Good yogis now pay up to $170.00 a month to be overwhelmed customers at CorePower Yoga.

Forecasting for 2016 the Advertising Specialty Institute recommended to its promotional pros that the time was ripe to tap into the ever-expanding yoga market. The practice has increasingly been defined, inside and outside its ranks, as a high-end leisure activity, a perception that Rodney Yee in 2011 described as “ass-backwards.”

Backwards never had it so good.

Although commercialization is a problem for a practice that on the face of it eschews commercialization, the immediate problem yoga faces in the next several years is who’s knocking on the door. According to a recent survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, nearly 37 million people now practice yoga in the United States, up from 20-some million in 2012. More than half of that recent growth has come from older practitioners, 14 million adults over age 50, up from 4 million in 2012.

It’s the Baby Boomers banging on the door.

As time catches up to them, dragging them down into rocking chairs, they are trying to stay on their feet. “It’s improved my flexibility and balance,” said 66-year-old Len Adelman of Herndon, Virginia.

“The majority of my classes are filled with individuals over the age of sixty,” said Michele Coker, a Certified Yoga Teacher in Maryland. “Many have had injuries and are fed up with physical therapy. They come because their physician suggested it.”

“More doctors are recommending that their patients try yoga to help with healing,” said Carin Gorrell, editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal.

Yoga isn’t Muscle Beach, fortunately for those entering their golden years. No one gets sand kicked in their face. There isn’t the notion of turning anyone away, no matter what, in yoga’s DNA. But, Baby Boomers come bearing baggage. It might be best to open the door slowly and cautiously since what’s on the other side could go boom.

Baby Boomers soaked the economy for all it was worth through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s. Greed is good, they chanted, and then left everyone else’s finances a wreck. Gen X is in worse shape than their parents and Millennials are worse off than them. The best Baby Boomer brains built fortunes for themselves on Wall Street. They then drove the country into the worst recession in 80 years. 34% of Boomers believe their own children will not enjoy as good a standard of living as they themselves have now, according to the Pew Research Center.

No one in Washington, D. C. ever says Social Security will be a problem for current retirees, in other words, the Baby Boomers. After that, all bets are off.

When the Greatest Generation had finished its run in the Nation’s Capital, it was time for the Boomer-in-Chiefs, Bill Clinton and George Bush the 2nd, to take up the reins. From his breezy approach to spending and debt to his philandering, Bill Clinton was the Boomer-in-Chief who the Baby Boomers deserved. Besides, they had transitioned from dropping LSD to dropping Viagra.

George Bush the 2nd, who was indulged as a young man, indulged himself in the Oval Office with fantasies of Weapons of Mass Destruction and money growing on trees. When the wars he started stalled he proclaimed victory. When the housing market collapsed he was on his way out of the White House, anyway.

Only Barak Obama hasn’t suffered the black eyes of Boomermania. The 800-pound gorilla with the souffle hairdo will not, hopefully, be the next Boomer-in-Chief.

The worst legacy of the Me Generation is still unfolding, which is the legacy of their burning all the cheap fossil fuels they could get their hands on, and then denying for as long as they could that climate change was happening. They will be long gone and not have to pay the piper for the heat-trapping gasses they’ve left behind. Hurricanes and floods are only now starting to rain on their parade.

It might be appropriate to bring a lump of coal to their memorial services.

Before they go to their just reward they are getting up from the stoop of old age and beating a path to yoga studios. Baby Boomers used to crow about never trusting anyone over 30. Now that more than 10,000 of them cross the threshold of 65 every day, the typical Boomer believes that old age doesn’t begin until 72. In other words, “Never trust anyone over 72.” They are putting their trust in yoga.

“It’s never too late, you’re never too old, you’re never too sick, to start again from scratch,” said the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh.

Everyone who takes up yoga has their own reasons for doing it. It’s often the case that they are dissatisfied with something. If that’s the case, Baby Boomers are primed for the practice. Fully 80% of them are not satisfied with the way things are going and as a group are more downbeat about their lives than all other age groups.

They’re in a collective funk.

It was Baby Boomers who brought into life the health club era. Health is the motivation driving most of them to yoga studios, although calming their crazy minds is also a factor. They are less healthy and more stressed than other age groups, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are looking for ways to stay energetic and vital in the latter part of their lives. Fortunately for them, yoga can be practiced at any age, since there are so many kinds of it, from action-style Ashtanga to no-impact chair-style.

It’s a no-brainer for the Baby Boomers. Yoga builds strength and balance, keeps excess pounds at bay, and protects joints, according to the AARP. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older,” said Amy Wheeler, a yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino.

As a last resort, there’s always corpse pose, “which is a totally relaxing option everyone can do!” says the AARP.

Better late than never.

There are so many Baby Boomers taking up yoga that some teacher training facilities like the Yoga Sanctuary in Florida have classes where almost all the trainees are themselves Boomers. It takes one to know one seems to be the idea behind the curriculum.

Although Boomers represent a grave threat to the practice, because of their mercenary states of mind and narcissism, yoga’s motto is “Everyone is welcome here.”

It is literally true, to the extent that if you can’t make it to a studio the studio will come to you. The Prison Yoga Project has taught tens of thousands of jailbirds the practice, bringing mindfulness to cell blocks. “Use your body to teach your mind,” is how James Fox, the founder and director of the project, describes their mission.

Hardened criminals are one thing, but Baby Boomers are another, even harder thing. Nevertheless, yoga is a 5,000 year-old practice that has seen it all over the past 50 centuries and is probably up for the challenge. Most Boomers are taking up the practice in order to fix whatever it is they are being confronted by. They may get more, however, than they bargained for.

“I like to emphasize that we’re already completely whole,” said Niika Quistgaard, a clinical Ayurveda specialist in New Jersey. “We can enjoy ourselves even when everything isn’t physically perfect. It comes down to loving ourselves just as we are, which bring its own healing.”

It’s a way of chilling out and doing your best, rather than forever pushing and stressing out about how to become Masters of the Universe.

Baby Boomers may rediscover themselves in ways they never anticipated as they discover yoga. Although they and the practice seem like star-crossed lovers, it could be their way of staying true to themselves. In the end most people can’t be taught anything fundamental. They can only discover it within themselves. Much of life is a do-it-yourself project.

Maybe the Baby Boomers are up to the challenge of negating the self in order to discover the self, finally.

“They are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” wrote Paul Begala in “The Worst Generation.”

Yoga is about all the aspects of being, which are the body, breath, and inner self. The practice establishes the person in the self. It leads to self-awareness. Awareness of the self is the way to freedom, the freedom to choose and change. The Me Generation, even though burdened with all their special needs, after the long, strange trip they’ve been on, have one last chance to become the Self-Aware Generation.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

 

Until Triangle Do Us Part

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By Ed Staskus

There are many reasons men and women become couples of all kinds, and even get married, even when they know better. They grow up, the clock is ticking, or they get cold feet about staying single. It seems like the next step, maybe there’s a baby on the way, and sometimes, best of all, they’re in love.

However, about half of all marriages in America end up in divorce, according to the United States Census Bureau. The separation rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. The unmarried break up faster than the married. Cohabitating parents are four times more likely to split up than those who are wed.

Couples stay together because they have made a family, or they’ve made their love last, or because they simply have shared interests. When they do have similar interests they always have something to share together. They are able to understand one another better during hard times and have great holidays and weekends. What’s better than having a mate who likes to explore for antiques or go rock climbing, just like you?

Or practice yoga?

“When you merge your practice with another’s, you fall into sync with that person,” said Michelle Fondin, a yoga teacher and member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. “Your breath, movement, and body positions find a rhythm together.”

Couples don’t and can’t do everything together. Even if they have the most fun of all fun times together, they still need to give it a rest now and again, and have some fun with their friends. They have their own lives, a life for each of them, even though they have a life with one another.

Although common interests don’t have anything to do with compatibility, it’s helpful to have interests in common. It may be true that two dog-lovers who don’t know how to communicate are probably not going to make it, but it’s more true that a dog-lover and a dog-hater are certainly not going to make it, no matter what their communication skills are.

Unlike sharing a tub of popcorn and a movie at the multiplex, sharing a yoga practice and traveling the same spiritual journey are more likely to join couples closer together, uniting them in a similar flow.

The word yoga, itself, means to yoke or join.

“When you focus on the breath, body, and movement of another person in yoga practice, your physical body will entrain with the other,” said Ms. Fondin. “It creates harmony within the couple.”

When couples get together on the mat, instead of “me” time on the elliptical it becomes “us” time at the yoga studio. Instead of focusing on the flat screen in front of the NordicTrack, they share the benefits of drishti, which in yoga means concentrated intention, or a focused gaze. Instead of being connected to iPod earbuds, they are connected to their partner, not Justin Belieber, I mean, Bieber.

“Both partners come away with feelings of synchronicity, cooperative spirit, and shared passion,” said Dr. Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist. “Then you throw in some spicy endorphins and it can be a real a real power trip for the relationship.”

Maybe that’s why there’s a kind of practice called Power Yoga.

There is a yoga crafted specifically for couples, called Partners Yoga. Unlike some rites of Tantra, which are sexual in nature, it eschews those aspects, although it emphasizes intimacy through touch and movement.

“Partners rely on each other’s support to keep proper body alignment, balance, and focus in a posture,” said Elysabeth Williamson, a yoga teacher and author of The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga. “When you feel physically supported, not only do you experience a yoga posture differently, but you also begin to allow yourself to trust someone else.”

When you grab a loved one and hit the mat together good things happen, and it’s not just about creating shared moments. The power of touch alone is powerful, whether it’s doing double downward dog or simply a partner twist, cultivating emotional as well as physical support in the relationship.

“Partner yoga is the medium for building stronger communication and intimacy between human beings in any relationship,” said Cain Carroll, co-author of Partner Yoga: Making Contact for Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Growth.

When partners expand beyond the mat, delving into the other seven of the eight limbs of yoga, they often deepen their connection with one another. When they dive into the spiritual side of yoga they find there’s a lot more below the lotus floating on the surface of the swimming pool.

In many senses asana, or yoga exercise, is largely an external practice, a device or technique of disposing the body in postures to satisfy a hankering for loose hamstrings or to alleviate back pain.

The rest of yoga, from meditation to the morals of the practice, is largely an internal practice. One of the eight limbs of yoga is even called dharana, which is commonly translated as introversion. Another, meditation, is about as private as it gets.

Yoga is partly about what goes on when touching your toes on the mat, but mostly about what goes on off the mat. Standing on your head is one thing, but what goes on inside your head is the rest of the thing. It isn’t nailing headstand that’s important, even though nailing it is nice. It’s about keeping your peace of mind when you fall out of headstand that’s important.

“Spirituality and the spiritual life give us the strength to love,” said the writer bell hooks. Everyone draws strength from the people they love and who love them in return. When couples are on the same page in body, mind, and spirit, it’s as good as gold.

Except when it isn’t. “You can make your relationship your yoga, but it is the hardest yoga you will ever do,” said Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher and the author of Be Here Now.

What happens when one of the partners falls off the yoga wagon? What happens when the shared awareness of yoga goes downstream? What happens when yoga becomes a triangle and something’s got to give?

There are many ways that yoga brings mindfulness to a relationship. One of them is the idealism of the practice. There are also many ways that people break up, separate, and file for divorce. They’re always squabbling, or lying to each other, or they simply fall out of love. Communication issues are a common problem and infidelity has long been a betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

Balance in the bedroom can be tricky.

Losing interest in shared hobbies or interests might throw a relationship out of whack, or not. How we spend out spare time doesn’t necessarily separate us. Losing interest in shared values, however, is usually deadly. Values are beliefs that are a fundamental part of who a person is. They are important in the sense that they are a man or woman’s rules of life.

“The mind endlessly grasps after things, clings to expectations, and resents your partner if he or she doesn’t share the same values,” said Philip Moffitt, founder of the Life Balance Institute.

Yoga on the mat is exercise, which is valuable, but the rest of yoga is a value system. Practicing yoga is a way of trying to lead a conscious, ethical life. Staying in a relationship with someone who behaves and relates to the world in a completely different way than you do would take a saint, and there ain’t many saints in this world.

Any couple can get healthy by practicing Core Yoga together. However, if their core values are mismatched, it’s doubtful whether they can have a healthy partnership.

But, if three’s a crowd, when it comes to yoga, two’s a crowd.

Yoga is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a way of staying present, not just on the mat, but off the mat, too. It’s a minute-to-minute experience. But, at the same time, it’s a solitary pursuit in the sense that no matter how open to the day it helps one to be, it’s a deeply private, self-centered practice.

Even though being self-centered is often thought of as bad, it’s not necessarily the case. “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are, and that person is not to be found anywhere,” said the Buddha.

Most yoga classes start with a moment of focusing the mind and breath. It’s a way of centering, forfending the external and self-centering, setting a baseline for the practice. On the other hand, turning one’s attention during class to the birds and bees in the room will off-center anybody.

Triangles can be deadly, on and off the mat, but yoga isn’t just triangle pose, nor is it just a love triangle on which love can get caught on one dead side. Rather, if there’s anything that can help weather the loss of shared interests, shared values, and even the loss of a shared love, it’s the electric third rail of yoga, if only because it’s the practice of freedom.

Freedom for you and freedom for me.

A version of this story appeared in Rebelle Society.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

 

In the Hands of an Angry God

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By Ed Staskus

The “Bhagavad Gita,” a classic poem of 700 verses divided into eighteen books, composed in about 200 BC, is considered a monument to the human heart and spirit, testifying to man’s quest for truth and wisdom. It is often called “The Song of God.” It covers a wide range of topics, dilemmas, and themes, some vintage hallowed, some not so much among the angels.

In its own way, and in the same way, it rivals the “Iliad.” It sings of arms and the man. It is about volition judgment heroism redemption. It is about making yourself the man you mean to be, the man you must be to meet the world headfirst.

For more than two thousand years the canonic text, long ago subsumed into India’s national epic Mahabharta,” has been considered one of the ultimate instruction manuals for living a spiritual life, no matter that it is set in martial times. Vyasa is supposed to have written it, but that’s like saying Homer wrote the “Iliad” or God wrote the Bible.

It was written for a reason, but the reason can be faceted dimensional conflicting.

In modern times, like the Bible and the Quran, many of the insights of the “Bhagavad Gita” continue to address the problems of the 21st century, speaking to issues such as choice, duty, and purpose.

Many great men have extolled its virtues.

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

“When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe, everything else seems so superfluous,” said Albert Einstein.

“It’s about the game of awakening, about the coming into Spirit,” said Ram Dass, the author of “Path to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.”

In the world of yoga, the Gita is both bedrock and revelatory, because it is through Arjuna’s questions and Krishna’s answers – the mainstays of the text – that the underpinnings and practice of yoga are revealed. Although yoga has much to do with physical and mental well-being, in the “Bhagavad Gita” the original spiritual purpose of the practice, connecting one’s consciousness to the supreme consciousness, is the nexus of the poem.

Everything else is coincident to controlling one’s body, mind, and senses for the purpose of uniting with the divine.

The “Bhagavad Gita” is not without its problems, however, among them its epic warrior sub-text, its wild inconsistencies regarding non-attachment, and its top-down rationale for ordering human affairs.

One of the most vexing problems is how to take Krishna. Is he a spokesman for yoga’s most abiding and sublime motifs, such as vairagya and ahimsa? Vairagya, or non-attachment, and ahimsa, or non-violence, are two of the basic precepts alive and well in nearly all forms of yogic thought.

Or is he a monster who advocates war for his own unspeakable reasons, justifying fratricidal conflict with specious arguments about the meaninglessness of physical existence?

Is he the avatar of liberty, or is he Uncle Caesar, Uncle Napoleon, Uncle Sam on the recruiting poster?

The problem comes to a boil in Book 11.

As Book 10 ends Krishna declares that he is so vast and great that just a single fragment of him is enough to “support the entire universe.“ Despite this grand declaration, Arjuna responds that although he doesn’t doubt Krishna’s greatness and godliness, he would still like to see first-hand what it amounts to.

“I want to see for myself the splendor of your ultimate form.”

Krishna grants Arjuna divine sight for a few minutes so that he can transcend his mortal vision and see Krishna for what he really is. What follows in Book 11 are six omniscient narrative stanzas and seventeen stanzas spoken first-hand by Arjuna describing what he is seeing.

His eyewitness account makes up the salient stanzas, beginning with “I see all gods in your body.”

Krishna is described as being everything and everywhere, without beginning or end. At the same time, he is described as sitting on a lotus throne, wearing a crown, and bearing a mace and a discus.

The discus is a symbol of the knowledge of truth and the mace is a symbol of the power of knowledge. Krishna is everything, but at the same time is the King, or Lord. He knows what the truth is, being everywhere and everything, and as the King or Lord, wields the power of that knowledge.

Arjuna goes on to describe the angels and demons that gaze on Krishna in amazement, the chants the sages sing to him, and how the “innards” of mortals tremble at the sight of him. The image of guts going gutless is unsettling. Since Krishna is said to have “billion-fanged mouths blazing like the fires of doomsday” no one should be surprised at the bellyful of distress mortal men might feel at the sight of him.

The next lines are the crux of the problem.

They describe the opposing armies on the battlefield of Kuru, who are those of the Pandavas, led by the virtuous Arjuna, and those of the Kauravas, led by the one hundred sons of a blind king. They are both being swallowed up indiscriminately by the voracious Krishna, who Arjuna is seeing stripped down to his real greatness.

“Rushing headlong into your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged jaws. I see them with skulls crushed, their raw flesh stuck to your teeth,” Arjuna says.

“As the rivers in many torrents rush toward the ocean, all these warriors are pouring down into your blazing mouths. As moths rush into a flame and are burned in an instant, all beings plunge down your gullet and instantly are consumed.”

It is a godless Gita as Krishna goes about his grisly business. He is on the other side of fear. He is safe in his immortality.

The Hebrew god of the Old Testament is often described as angry and cruel. He has nothing on the Hindu god Krishna. Not once in the almost seven thousand sightings of the Christian divinity in the Old Testament is Yahweh ever described as having “gaping, knife-fanged jaws.”

If the “Bhagavad Gita” is a recruiting poster for Krishna’s promotion of the war, which is his often-stated and explicit intention throughout the poem, the slogan “I Want You” takes on a sinister double meaning.

Regardless of what side they stand on, all the warriors on the battlefield of Kuru are grist for the mill. All of Krishna’s reasoning, arguments, and commands are to one purpose, which is to get the detritus of war to pour down the craw of his rapacious mouth.

In the movie “King Kong”the big monkey tried to use Fay Wray as a toothpick. In Greek mythology Kronos, the Titan god of time, devoured his children for fear that they would one day overthrow him. In the “Bhagavad Gita” everything is grist for the mill.

Neither self-survival nor the niceties of gastronomy seem to motivate Krishna. He is the great maw that must be fed and sated, although from all accounts in the “Bhagavad Gita” it is doubtful that Krishna can ever be sated, given his enormous appetite and preoccupation with the eternal.

Krishna does not explain himself other than to say he is death, annihilating all things, the “shatterer of worlds.” He bluntly declares that both armies will perish with or without Arjuna, and echoing Homer again, specifically the “Illiad,” urges Arjuna to fight and win everlasting glory.

It is a harrowing picture.

Krishna then blandly advises Arjuna to not be frightened anymore and to see him as he was before. When he does, Arjuna is put at ease. It is an extraordinary turnaround after seeing the “shatterer of worlds” gobble up thousands of men like so many French fries.

Krishna explains the merits of living in the now for most of the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of Book 11 he has apparently succeeded. Arjuna says his “mind has regained its composure” and it is on to the next thing. There will be blood, and that’s that. He has moved forward from one now to the next now without any thought of consequences or repercussions. Every now is now the same as every other now.

In Book 1 Arjuna catalogued his many and valid reasons for not going to war, not including ahimsa, which is never mentioned. Be that as it may, Krishna has won the day. Arjuna says at the end of the poem, “I have no more doubts. I will act according to your command.”

Like a lamb going to slaughter he consents to Krishna driving his chariot back into the god-ordained fray. It is unclear how this decision to go to war on the battlefield of Kuru dovetails with uniting to the divine, the supposed purpose of Krishna’s yoga lessons.

The godless Gita gets it wrong when it goes recruiting poster, when Krishna goes the phantom of liberty, like a headless horseman in the hands of an angry god.

George Orwell got it right in “1984” when he savaged the high and mighty self-righteous ruling class with the bitter epithet “Freedom is slavery, war is peace.”

The “Bhagavad Gita” ends with the poet Sanjaya, who is reciting the poem, saying that he has seen “splendor and virtue and spiritual wealth.” This may be an apt assessment, especially in Books 2 through 8, but it cannot be right when seen in the light of Book 11, in which Krishna reveals his true nature, which is self-serving and spiritually bankrupt, if not downright deadly.

Practicing non-attachment in order to apprehend the divine, as Krishna advises at the beginning of Book 7, may be the way to go when living the yogic life, but when Krishna adds the refrain that it requires “surrendering yourself to me,” it may be time to speed-dial the nearest dentist for custom-made cosmic orthodontic retainers to hold back the “knife-fanged jaws” of the ferocious god.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

 

The Other End of the Leash

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By Ed Staskus

Whenever Padma, a white and tan hound dog, hears her master’s namaste marking the end of class at Blue Lotus in Raleigh, NC, she stirs from her Mexican blanket pile, shakes, stretches in urdhva mukha svanasana, better known as upward-facing dog, and with her long nose in full gear makes the rounds of the yoga studio, sniffing out the sweaty yogis.

“It’s like clockwork,” says Jill Sockman. “She thinks namaste is her release command. If I am at the studio she is with me. On the rare occasion I am working and she’s not with me, people come in the front door, look to her empty bed, and the first thing they say isn’t ‘Hello’ or ‘I’m here for class’, but ‘Where is the dog?’ “

“She is my one true love and constant companion.”

The canine has been mankind’s best friend for a long time.

DNA research suggests gray wolves and dogs split into separate species around 100,000 years ago. Domestication began 30,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence from caves in Europe, and our herding and hunting relationship with them dates back to the end of the Pleistocene Age. Initially tolerated as scavengers of bones and animal remains, over time dogs were co-opted as guardians and trained helpmates.

“It takes only a short journey to get from dogs guarding the village to a personal house dog,” writes Stanley Coren in The Intelligence of Dogs.

There are more than 400 million dogs in the world.  Approximately 78 million of them are in the United States. Almost forty percent of American households own at least one. Among them are many yoga households. Although it is difficult to determine with any accuracy, it often seems like every other-and-more yogi has a dog.

“Almost all the yoga teachers that come to my mind have dogs,” says Dawn Schroeder, a Kundalini Yoga teacher in Cleveland, Ohio. “I have two dogs, both of them rescued.”

For some people, such as the handicapped, dogs are lifesavers. Helen Keller, the deaf and blind social activist, introduced the Akita to the United States and described the dog as an “angel in fur.” For others, like police, farmers, and even corporations, dogs are working partners. The runways of airports like Southwest Florida International are kept clear of large birds by Border Collies. For most people they are better known as pets and companions.

Although more physically diverse than any other land animal, resulting from centuries of intentional breeding, dogs are generally loyal and gregarious by nature, running to the door at the sound of familiar footsteps, not caring whether their owners are young or old, fat or fit, rich or poor. Money can’t buy the wag of a dog’s tail.  They rarely run in packs anymore and nowadays consider people to be part of their posse.

With the rise of suburbanization in the 1950s dog populations boomed and they made the transition from the doghouse to the home, becoming increasingly integrated into the lives of their owners. The modern dog became part of the family. Today many people feel like their pets are their favorite people.

“Our dog Zoe, a Westie terrier, is the light of our lives,” says Regan Burnett, who teaches yoga at the Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Georgia. “She does a perfect down-dog and up-dog every morning upon waking and practices Centering Prayer with me in the evenings.

“She is very special.”

“Increasingly,” says Jon Katz, the author of The New Work of Dogs, “we are treating them as family members and human surrogates.” Some single people and childless couples, among others, anthropomorphize their pets to the standing of an honorary child. They are called ‘fur babies’. Even families are challenged by children who know the best way to get a puppy is to ask for a baby brother.

“People are leaning on pets to fill the gap in social support mechanisms that earlier might have come from their families or tight-knit neighborhoods,” says Michael Schaffer, author of One Nation Under Dog.

Americans have fallen in love with their dogs. Since the mid-1990’s spending in the United States on pets has almost tripled, from $17 billion to $43 billion, which is nearly seven times as much as is spent on contemporary yoga and its related products. Yesterday’s Fido and Spot are today’s Jake and Bella, part of the family.

Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, believes yogis engage especially with dogs. “I’m not sure why,” she says. “My guess is our desire to connect with all living beings and to share the vibrational quality of love that is unconditional and undefined. My husband and I rescued an amazing dog eleven years ago. She just passed away late last year, and I still miss her with my whole entire being. I would look into her eyes and know she could see all of me, without words. And she loved me no matter my flaws, failures, or even my not so attractive qualities.”

Dogs hop, skip, and jump when their owners come home. The Odyssey, the second of the two epic poems ascribed to Homer, is the story of a man who returns home after being gone for more than twenty years and is recognized only by his dog, Argos. Once known for his speed and tracking, but now neglected and lying on top of a pile of trash, after waiting ninety-three dog years for Odysseus to come back he wags his tail once and dies.

They lay their heads in our laps and stare up into our eyes, a heartbeat at our feet. They invite our attention and affection.  Never mind that Fred Metzger of Pennsylvania State University, who studies the human-animal bond, believes dogs are highly skilled at parsing social behaviors, especially those having to do with hearth and the food bowl.

“Dogs make investments in human beings because it works for them,” he says.  According to Dr. Metzger they act according to what makes humans happy to get what they want and need. They are den animals just like us integrated into the hubbub of the household, adaptable and attuned to the moment.

“Dogs give to get back,” says Brenda Motsco of Town and Country Veterinary Hospital in Warren, Ohio, who when not rescuing dogs is a feisty Bikram Yoga aficionado.

Unlike most other animals whose lives are not necessarily dependent on people, and whose existences are in some sense solipsistic, the dog is a different breed. When hailed a cat may or may not get back to you that day, but a dog will bust its butt to heed its master’s beck and call.

“Your dog kind of lives for you,” says David Bessler, senior emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. Other than adoption, acquiring a dog may be the only opportunity a person has to choose a relative.

Dogs are social animals, like people, and so need and rely on emotions to bond with other dogs and people. According to Marc Beckoff, a behavioral biologist at the University of Colorado, emotion is one of the foundations of social behavior and connects individuals, whether in society, family, or pack. Dogs have an evolutionary need for close emotional ties.

The dog world intersects that of people in many ways. They almost always feel like doing whatever you feel like doing, whether snoozing while you nap or walking in the woods with you and chasing sticks. The other side of a door is always the wrong side of the door to a dog. They rarely hang out a “Do Not Disturb” sign.

“My Chihuahua is always with me at the studio and is our mascot,” says Ellen Patrick of Yoga Sanctuary in Mamaroneck, NY. “She greets all my students and then sleeps next to me while I’m teaching. People tell me they come more for ‘Chi’ therapy than for the yoga because she has such a sweet spirit.”

Over the course of centuries, through the process of domestication, dogs have come to understand people the better than all other animals, and have most easily adapted to our social circumstances. The average dog may be a better person than the average person. Yogis find their dogs through adoption, rescue, and accidentally, like everyone else, but sometimes their dogs come to them in dreams, figuratively and literally.

“I was searching for a companion dog to my older Cathula Leopard Hound,” says Connie Murphy of Yoga Village in Arroyo Grande, California, “but whenever I found one and did my pendulum on getting them or not, I was always told no. Then I started dreaming about a black and white dog. A few days later a black and white stray, part terrier and part cattle dog came into our yard. Cold, wet, starving, filthy, and afraid. It took several days before he would allow us to touch him. We left the garage open for shelter, and fed him, and after we put out fliers and no one answered, he became part of our family. It’s amazing what food and a bath and love can accomplish.”

Although some people find themselves loving dogs more the more they get to know people, it isn’t always the best of all worlds for dogs in the modern world. In the past dogs hunted with men and were their guardians, but today they are acquired for many other reasons. Children pressure their parents to bring home the cute puppy they saw at the store; the lonely get them to relieve stress and anxiety; others buy intensively bred dogs because it is prestigious.

But, even though dogs may be so smart they can do anything short of calculus, they still rely on their human families for everything, including shelter, groceries, water, exercise, and veterinary care. “The way they think about their world is that people are super important and they can solve any problem if they rely on people,” says Brian Hare, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. Domestic dogs also need social interaction to the degree that without a master and family they grow unhappy and even lost.

Many dogs are abandoned by their owners because of management problems, the pet’s old age, or simply because it is more expedient than taking care of the dog over the course of its 12 or 14-year-life. More than 5 million dogs enter shelters every year, according to the Humane Society of the United States, and those same shelters euthanize several million more when the dogs aren’t rescued. Puppy mills overproduce pets, annually dumping millions of them on the market, according to the ASPCA, marketing their lovability to the ill prepared.

Many people who practice yoga, and live by its ethical guidelines, rescue rather than buy dogs. “As a person’s awareness expands they are more likely to acquire a dog from a shelter as opposed to buying a dog from a pet store or breeder,” says Cassandra Wallick of Gilbert Yoga in Gilbert, Arizona. “As we begin to see things more clearly we may realize that the breeding of animals for pets is somewhat inhumane when in fact there are thousands of animals being euthanized because of careless owners and over-breeding.”

Television shows like the ‘Dog Whisperer’ on the National Geographic Channel and ‘It’s Me or the Dog’ on Animal Planet have grappled with the biting, barking, and bad behavior of dogs made insecure, neurotic, and bullying by uncaring or uninformed breeding practices and by inappropriate human-to-dog interactions. Less than two generations ago neither Lassie nor Rin Tin Tin ever required a dog behaviorist. Today it seems like all our purebreds and even mutts need a couch.

“Ending or preventing suffering should be the main goal of a real animal lover,” says Val Porter, the author of Faithful Companions: Alliance of Man and Dog. Dogs are trusty and vigilant sidekicks to man. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were always pulling families out of burning buildings and saving the cavalry from marauders. They deserve the reciprocal care and loyalty of committed human companions.

“To live in harmony with all beings, including dogs, is a truly yogic principle,” says Julie Lawrence of the Julie Lawrence Yoga Center in Portland, Oregon. Judging from the principles they live by, known as the yamas and niyamas, the man or woman who practices yoga may be a dog’s best friend.  Dogs probably don’t need yoga, better known as doga, but running with yogis may be good for their health. “Because dogs are pack animals, they are a natural match for yoga’s emphasis on union and connection with other beings,” writes Bethany Lytle in ‘Bonding With Their Downward-Facing Humans’ in The New York Times.

The intersection of dog and man can be fraught with misunderstanding and neglect. But, if there is a yogi at the crossroads, the dog is likely in good hands, since the goal of yoga practice is to be as good a person as your dog already thinks you are. ”In my lifetime I have had rabbits, turtles, a mallard duck, fish, parakeets, many cats, and a wonderful dog,” says Marcia Loffredo of Yoga 4 Health in East Hampton, Connecticut. “I believe we love, honor, and respect all of God’s creation based on what we learn and experience in our yoga practice.”

The way of the yogi encompasses animal rights as well as human rights, because that is the way of the whole human being. “My gut reaction is that yogis are good for dogs because through practice they learn to be more caring and compassionate,” says Brenda Motsco. Even though dogs exist for their own reasons, indifference and callousness results in suffering in dogs, and impoverishes the human spirit, as well.

Yogis seemingly gravitate towards dogs and dogs likewise towards yogis. “I have seen this,” says Mandy Grant of Juluka Yoga in Hillsdale NJ.  “I have a dog who comes to my studio and students love him. Yoga creates compassion and understanding, and the practice of ahimsa, and the knowledge that we are all linked, makes people like dogs more after practicing yoga.”

Dogs have an unrivaled sixth sense, as any dog will tell you. They can predict thunderstorms and earthquakes, epileptic and diabetic seizures, their owner’s imminent return, and whether or not your friend is really your friend. In 1975 Chinese officials, fearing a catastrophe based in part on observation of the alarming behavior of dogs, ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city of one million people, just days before a 7.3 magnitude quake, saving an estimated 150,000 lives. Japanese researchers, in one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries, have long studied the usefulness of dogs as prediction tools.

Seizure-alert dogs are trained to react to the smell, reminiscent of nail polish remover, of the metabolic changes before a seizure induced by low blood sugar. “They are masters of observation,” says Nicholas Dodman of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Their sense of smell is second to none and is beyond our comprehension.”

Sometimes it’s better to have a dog than a doctor in the house.

Dogs have more than 200 million smell sensors in their noses, compared to the 5 million of the average person. Smelling is a dog’s special sense. They discriminate their world through a predominant olfactory cortex and can sniff out fear and friendliness. If a dog snuffs you up and down but will not come to you, it may be time to examine your conscience.

“A dog can sense the softy in us,” says Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Rocky River, Ohio. “They know when a good soul will do no harm”

At a bed and breakfast she and her husband built in Costa Rica, featuring a fifteen-mat deck overlooking the lowlands along the Pacific coast, Ginny Walters hosts yoga retreats every winter, and two years ago found her second home adopted by a dog.

“He appeared one morning with buggy eyes and famished. He had a sore on his ear that would heal for a day and then bleed all over again. I really didn’t know what the retreat participants would say. I figured if we didn’t feed him he would go away. But, he stayed. The retreat group would look out the window and he would immediately go into upward dog and as if on cue downward dog. He would never try to come into the house, just stay on the threshold and look at us. Two years later Rahm the dog is getting fat. He is our protector even though he doesn’t belong to anyone. When we leave the house he goes to his other place and stays until we return. He knows the sound of our car. We had an open heart to accept him. We didn’t give off the sweat of fear or anger. Ahimsa is all he asked for and with the yogis he found it.”

Most pet owners satisfy the fundamental requirements of hunger, thirst, and shelter for their dogs. Many of them tend to their social needs and sense of belonging, making them part of the family. Some address the needs that even dogs have for esteem, recognition, and status, fostering strength and self-confidence in their companion animals. A very few understand that dogs may be candidates for self-actualization.

“At one point in my spiritual growth I began to realize the soul of my dog was simply in a four-legged embodiment,” says Cassandra Wallick. “That soul was evolving just like mine. The attainment of oneness, unity, and self-realization is the ultimate path of the soul, and my dog was on his journey just the same as I was. After this epiphany I looked at my dog very differently. Not as a lesser creature, not even as a ‘dog’ anymore, but as a friend soul who was living out one of his incarnations in a dog’s body.”

Many people, even animal lovers, believe dogs have less potential for freedom than humans, so we are free to feel less compunction about denying it to them. But, since our standards for humane treatment of others is constantly expanding, it may be that every dog will have his day. If the dog’s companion is someone who practices yoga, a person whose core values are freedom and actualization, that dog will probably have its day sooner than later.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

 

Cirque Du Asana

JohnathanLeeIverson

By Ed Staskus

Exercise used to be one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, along with restraint, observance, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, the last literally meaning putting it all together.

Not anymore. Not nowadays. It’s not eyes wide open anymore. It’s eyes straight ahead on the posture. The practice of asana is today on the fast track to becoming the trunk of yoga, while the other limbs are paid lip service, wither away, or are simply ignored.

For many years yoga exercise, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was a small means to a big end. The basics of asana were defined in the sutras as a “steady or motionless posture accompanied with a sense of ease or comfort.” The mastery of it was meant to “loosen effort while meditating on the infinite.”

Sometime in the latter half of the last century asana began to forge its own separate identity, that of strengthening and revitalizing the body, the idea being that it was through the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, which are the physical postures, that all the other limbs could be realized.

As yoga pressed ahead and onward asana masters like Bikram Choudhury and Baron Baptiste designed new forms of yoga exercise, such as sequences practiced in hot rooms with no motive other than to lock the knee and “push, push, push” and other sequences that referenced only physical prowess, like Baptiste’s “Unlocking Athletic Power.”

In the new epoch yoga exercise has made many more great leaps forward, leaving its past farther behind, moving decisively into the worlds of athletic competition and extreme sports.

Today tournaments crown asana winners in Arizona, California, and New York, while overseas the European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual championship. USA Yoga, sponsor and governing body of the annual National Yoga Asana Championships, in what it says is the “spirit of healthy competition” is committed to bringing yoga asana to the Olympic games.

”Once yoga is in the Olympics,” says Esak Garcia, 2005 winner of the International Yoga Championship, “it will legitimize yoga for many people all over the world.”

Beyond the bright lights of the arena and its judgments on the perfection of a pose, its poise and composure, is the new world of extreme yoga. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a photo spread called “Extreme Yoga Positions” featuring a body artist named Yoga Yoga, whose real name is Michael Elias Mondosha.

He transforms Steady Eddy into 3-ring big top high wire on the mat.

Meanwhile, acroyogi partners perform poses like ‘Bird’, a horizontal “flier” supported on the feet and legs of a “base” staying rock steady, nailing the posture on top of stone parapets in the mountains of Nepal on the edge of sheer drops, all without the aid of spotters.

The back page of a recent issue of Yoga Journal featured a full‐page photograph of a woman in tree pose with hands in prayer behind her, standing on a ledge of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. She was not wearing a tether, nor was there a net to catch her just in case she wobbled and fell.

It was here to eternity.

Even Native American Indians, famous for their work on bridges and skyscrapers, are careful about heights. “We have more respect for heights than most people,” said Dan Angus, a Kahnawake Mohawk ironworker, in ‘The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan.’

“You’ve got to watch it up there,” he said.

“I kept bringing my focus back to the pose,” the brave yoga lady on the bridge said.

She was watching it, but unlike the Mohawks, from the inside out, not the next step ahead. She wasn’t looking ahead down or up. Focusing on the pose and keeping it steady was undoubtedly a good idea. It is 78 feet from the deck of the bridge to the Allegheny River.

“I don’t see any benefit to it, especially since yoga begins with yama and the first yama is ahimsa, or non‐injury,” said Kenneth Toy of the Institute for Personal Development in Hampton, New Hampshire.

Which begs the question, why do it? If yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical component, why tempt fate? If yoga is just a gym rat’s bag of physical poses, again, why tempt fate? Even Olympic gymnasts don’t perform on the beams of bridges, much less without a padded mat below them to break the fall for when they inevitably fall.

“Talk about finding your edge!” said Carolyn Gilligan, an editor at elephant journal. “If you lose your balance on a bridge the risk is pretty tremendous. I think the key here would be having a calm, verycalm mind.”

‘One slip and it’s all over’ feats are often performed by circus troupes and extreme artists like Eskil Ronningsbaken, famous for stunts like balancing in handstand on a projecting steel rail of a lookout platform more than a thousand feet above a cold Norwegian lake.

“Yoga and different breathing techniques helps me to stay focused and hit the right wave of energy,“ he says, riding the wave

Yoga has a long history of bendy, stretching, balancing poses that seem incredible. Some are more amazing than others.

In the 1970s, on a television show called “That’s Incredible,” a performer named Mr. Yogi folded himself up, limb by limb, into a wooden box no bigger than a carry-all. When a lid was put on the small box the audience shouted on cue, “That’s incredible!” A big strong man carried the carry-all off stage to applause.

“Some yogis like to provide drama or accentuation or adrenaline to their poses,” explains Susan Pennington of Susquehanna Yoga & Meditation Center in Timonium, Maryland. “That is funny considering yoga is a practice of finding the middle. That is what balance is. Not the edge, but the middle.”

However, the middle way may not be the American way in the twenty-first century.

The Sanskrit word asana, from the root ‘asi’ which means to be, literally means a state of being. Today the meaning has been stood on its head, changed to mean a state of doing.

“Extreme balancing can be both fun and beautiful, calling for particular focus and skill,” said Alison West, the director of Yoga Union in New York City. “It’s a form of marketing through beauty and danger. Does it make one a better yogi? Probably not. But it looks that way.”

In Austin, Texas, artists perform yoga poses hanging from the skeletal beams of partially constructed buildings. Staging their suspension theater at night, the lines and cables they use are practically invisible.

“Tightrope walkers are now doing yoga poses in their routines,” says Cosmo Wayne of Yogagroove in Austin. “My question is, were they performers or yogis first, and does it matter? As for balance, either you have it or you don’t. People who can balance but are afraid of heights will be affected and probably not balance on the edge of a cliff. It’s all just fun and scenic.”

Whether extreme balancing has anything to do with yoga is a moot point, although Patanjali might be rolling over in his grave. His reasoning for the practice of yoga exercise was ultimately to be able to withstand physical and mental distractions in order to meditate.

“Yoga is a sacred practice of going inward and knowing who you are authentically,” said Michele Risa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher and New York City TV producer of yoga programming. “All this showmanship seems like a distraction at the least and the wrong message at worst.”

In many respects, however, in our post-modern times yoga has become a purely physical practice, and the message has morphed so now the headline is that the body beautiful can be gotten by anyone with a credit card, factoring in more dollars if you live on either coast and need to be really beautiful.

If perfecting the pose is the be‐all and end‐all of yoga, then cirque du asana might be the new third eye for raising awareness. If living the true yogic life is part and parcel of handstand, then performing handstand on the edge of the Grand Canyon probably validates the true yogic life and it would behoove all and sundry to get on the bus for the Rim‐to‐Rim tour.

Not everyone agrees that famous fitness instructors in yoga clothes or extreme sports performers with film crews in tow are the best guides on the path of the practice.

“I don’t believe risk taking is necessary to achieve the balance that a sound yoga asana and lifestyle practice can give us,” argues Nydia Tijerina Darby of Nydia’s Yoga Therapy in San Antonio, Texas. “It is beautiful and awe inspiring, but it seems to continue to sensationalize the asana and detract from the real beauty of a quiet and content mind, body, and spirit that does not need to push the limit in order to feel alive.”

Selflessness, balance, and humility are some of the core values of yoga. They are not the core values of our modern sports and entertainment culture. Exercising for fame and fortune is exercising for fame and fortune. It is not innercizing, which is the platform on which yoga was built.

What does gaining mastery in asana really mean, anyway? It doesn’t really mean doing handstands for an audience’s wonder and applause. It means doing handstand to gain awareness, to master a state of mind, to become, in a sense, bodiless.

“The pictures of extreme yoga are beautiful and certainly showcase a certain level of expertise,” says Tracey Ulshafer of One Yoga & Wellness Center in East Winsor, New Jersey. “But I do feel they are missing the essence of yoga. It is not for showing off. It is for exploring within.”

If yoga is a physical practice, then hitting a home run is worth the price of admission. But, if yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical dimension meant to keep the body strong and healthy for a lifetime of much more than asana, then home runs are only good for as long as they last, which isn’t long.

Who remembers last year’s World Series winner and loser?

“I believe asana is to help the work of unfolding inner Shakti, and so I see daredevil poses as something other than the true meaning of the practice,” says Ann Farbman of the World Yoga Center in New York City.

The devil is in the details of yoga practice. The practice is partly about the power of asana, but ultimately it is about the power of consciousness. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali doesn’t say a word about physical accomplishment, because that is not the point of yoga practice. He mentions asana only four times. The Yoga Sutras are about states of being, maybe achieved through asana, but not beholden to them.

There are no contortionists on boardwalks or carnivals on the edge of believe‐it‐ or‐not in any of Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms.

“It is better to take risks in extreme savasana,“ says Francois Raoult of Open Sky Yoga Center in Rochester, New York. Get down on the mat and look up at everything.

Modern yoga may not see it that way, having opened its own Pandora’s Box, but there is no doubt Patanjali would agree.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

Exercise for the Elite

man-meditating-need-money-for-yoga-800px 

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.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

 

 

 

 

Yogis Eating Animals

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By Ed Staskus

Evin Bodell often brings Napoleon, her Australian sheep dog, to her West Side Yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio, where he is a kind of shaggy greeter, sniffing everyone up and down as they step out of their shoes in the lobby. Whenever the door to the yoga room is left open the dog snoozes on the threshold during the asana classes. He is an ever-present reminder of how good life can be, food and water in the lobby behind him and friends in front.

After one class, as I sat in the waiting room on a sofa and roughhoused with the dog, scratching his stomach as he rolled over, I asked Evin, a longtime yoga teacher and omnivore, if she had ever considered killing, barbequing, and eating Napoleon.

She said no in more ways than one.

When I asked her what the difference was between her dog and any of the other animals she ate, she said Napoleon was her pet and everything else wasn’t.

According to a 2012 Gallup Poll more than 95% of all Americans 18 years-and-older eat animals. That includes most people who practice and teach yoga. On average Americans eat almost 200 pounds of meat a year, most of it cows, pigs, and birds, and only very rarely dogs. In the United States we manufacture, slaughter, and eat nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

The world’s production of meat in 1961 was 71 million tons. Today it is estimated to be more than 284 million tons.

We are eating more animals than ever in human history.

We became animal-eaters at the dawn of the genus Homo, around 2.5 million years ago. “Early Homo had teeth adapted to tough food. The obvious candidate is meat,” said anthropologist Richard Wrangtan of Harvard University. Stone Age man lived as a hunter-gatherer eating food based on high-protein meat, fruits, and vegetables. Studies of the collagen in Stone Age humans living in England 13,000 years ago show that their diet, in terms of protein content and quality, was the same as the diet of wolves.

“Carbohydrates derived from cereal grains were not part of the human evolutionary experience,” said Loren Cordain, a professor in the Department at Health at Colorado State University.

Approximately 10,000 years ago people in several parts of the world, most notably in Mesopotamia, independently discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Our food staples gradually evolved to become beans, cereals, dairy, some meat, and salt, and remained so until the Industrial Revolution. From the mid-19th century to the present mechanized food processing and intensive livestock farming has led to a broader distribution of refined foodstuffs and fatty meat. In the past sixty years the availability of factory farm animals for food has expanded exponentially.

There are many reasons why we eat meat.

One reason is we have mastery over the earth, as most religions and governments preach. Many people believe animals are there for us to eat. In other words, if God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat? The Genesis chapter of the Bible states, “Man shall have dominion over the animals.”

But, does that necessarily mean we are free to imprison kill eat animals, or might it mean we should take care of them? The Koran forbids eating pigs, but most other animals are fair game. It also insists animals being slaughtered for food must be alive and the name of Allah be invoked at their deaths.

It is ironic mordant double-edged that Muhammad died after eating poisoned lamb.

Some people practicing yoga see meat as essential for their health. “In the past I experimented with vegetarianism and found I felt cleaner and less aggressive,” said Randal Williams, a yoga teacher and restaurateur in Lenox, Massachusetts. “But, on the other hand, I felt ungrounded and light-headed. I went back to eating meat and it was almost as if my cells were happier for having meat available.”

Meat is considered one of the food groups in the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid and is often eaten for its nutrients. Those nutrients include zinc, iron, selenium, vitamins B6 and B12, and especially the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. When I asked Kristen Zarzycki, a powerful flow teacher at Inner Bliss Yoga in Rocky River, Ohio, why she ate animals, she said, “I need the protein.”

But, does anyone really need to eat animals to get the protein required for practicing yoga, even yoga as demanding as powerful flow? Maybe not, since many elite athletes are vegetarians, such as 4-time World Champion Ironman triathlete Dave Scott, 4-time Mr. Universe body builder Bill Pearl, 9-time Olympic Gold winner Carl Lewis, and 9-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.

The amount of protein we consume is also open to question.

“The average American consumes more than twice the amount of protein that is the absurdly oversized U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance,” Jay Weinstein pointed out in his book ‘The Ethical Gourmet’.

The essential amino acids, or protein, not synthesized by the body must be gotten from food. Meat can be a convenient and tasty when grilled form of that protein, but those same amino acids can be easily gotten from grains and legumes. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has called for a new Four Food Groups that does not include meat, saying: “Two of the four old food groups, meats and dairy products, are clearly not necessary for health.”

It is rare that anyone has to eat animals for any nutritional reason, at all.

In fact, eating animals for protein can be dangerous. A study in the late 1980s of 88,000 nurses found that those who ate red meat were two-and-a-half times as likely to develop colon cancer as near-vegetarians. Walter Willet, the director of the study and a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said: “The optimum amount of red meat you should eat is zero.”

More than twenty years of research at the Loma Linda University in California has revealed that men who eat animals are three times more likely to suffer from prostate cancer than vegetarians.

Some people say they eat animals because they were raised on meat and our culture accepts the food practice. “If your grandmother is making a wonderful meat dish that you have loved since you were a child, is it yoga to push it away?” asked Mary Taylor, a Boulder, Colorado teacher and one-time student of Julia Child.

Although yoga touts acceptance as one of it virtues, that may not necessarily be the best of reasons, given that our culture once forced African-Americans to work for free less than three generations ago, denied women property and voting rights fewer than two generations ago, and has been imposing its foreign policy by way of nuclear threats and armed conflict for the past generation and up to the present day.

What if your grandmother and our culture accepted cannibalism as proper and fitting?

Many people simply like the way meat tastes. They enjoy eating animals because they are delicious. “I love meat because I love the taste,” said Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio-area. “Give me a great steak on the grill in the summer and all is right with my world.”

Cookbooks are rife with recipes for beef, pork, fowl, and lamb. Some people, like the famous chef and author Anthony Bourdain, cannot do without eating animals. “To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, and organ meat is a life not worth living,” he said.

But, what about satisfying our other senses, such as hearing and seeing?

What if someone enjoyed listening to pigs squeal in pain? Would it be okay for them to stick switchblades into pigs to hear them cry out? Is it okay to crowd cows into feedlots that resemble concentration camps where they spend a month-or-so shin deep in their own excrement being fattened up for the dinner table? Would the same practice be acceptable if someone just liked looking at cows stuck in shit all day long?

What harm can there be, many people ask, in eating a double cheeseburger?

As it happens, plenty of harm happens. There is a daunting amount of damage done to our environment in the process of the energy-intensive raising of livestock, the damage bordering on cruelty done to animals during their brief lives, and ultimately the killing dismemberment packaging of the animal itself.

More than 30 percent of the earth’s usable land is involved in the production of animals for food, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Even though approximately 800 million people in the world are underfed, most of the corn and soy grown in the world feeds our livestock. James Lovestock, the British scientist best known for his Gaia Hypothesis, has estimated, “If we gave up eating beef we would have roughly 20 to 30 times more land for food than we have now.”

The amount of waste produced by the animals we raise for food is of biblical proportions, roughly 130 times the waste of the entire population of the United States, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture. The hog farms in North Carolina alone generate more fecal matter than all the people in New York and California combined. Nearly none of this hog waste is treated and vast amounts of manure nationwide pollute rivers, lakes, and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost thirty thousand miles of American waterways are dead or close to dead due to this pollution.

“When you look at environmental problems in the United States,“ said Gordon Eschel, an environmentalist and geophysicist at Bard College, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production.”

In  2006 the United Nations issued a report saying livestock production caused more damage to the environment than all the cars, trucks, trains, and planes in the world all put together. “I do not eat meat,“ said Rafael Sarango of the Yoga Center in Houston, Texas, “because eating animal products is not good for the environment, which is the greenest act a person can choose.”

Most of the animals we eat are grown in what are known in the meat business as animal feeding operations. These are factories making the most meat at the lowest cost. To achieve economies of scale chickens are crammed by the tens of thousands into enormous windowless sheds where they live their genetically modified forty days in clouds of ammonia created by the accumulated waste of generations of them. Some corporate chicken factories are filled with up to a million birds in cages, a cornucopia of drugs daily mixed into their feed.

Americans take 3 million pounds of antibiotics yearly by prescription. The animals we eat are fed approximately 28 million pounds of antibiotics every year to keep them alive in their Augean stables. Intensive piggeries, often producing hundreds of thousands of swine for slaughter a year, confine their animals in sunless steel buildings in close quarters where the air is so poisonous the animals are routinely sprayed with insecticides. Despite the antibiotics fed to our animals they are still often contaminated.

“The meat we buy is grossly contaminated with both coliform bacteria and salmonella,” said Dr. Richard Novick of the Public Health Institute. To make matters worse, the overuse of antibiotics has led to a scourge of drug-resistant infectious diseases the World Health Organization says is a leading threat to human health.

In the Yoga Sutras the first yama is ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. Like the Golden Rule of Christian ethics, ahimsa is one of the principles central to yoga. “Non-harming is essential to the yogi,” Sharon Gannon says in her book ‘Yoga and Vegetarianism’. “According to the universal law of karma, if you cause harm to others, you will suffer the painful consequences of your actions. The yogi, realizing this, tries to cause the least amount of harm and suffering to others as possible.”

Sharon Gannon includes all breathing beings in her sense of others, and as parts or doubles in the construction of the self. If ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, slaughtering animals for hamburgers cannot be part of the non-violence plan. Killing animals by proxy makes us killers no matter how we cut it.

Many people who practice yoga feel ahimsa is something that should be applied to oneself first and foremost. “If eating meat in moderation works better for the individual to help sustain a well-balanced life, then I think it is important to consume meat,” said David Sunshine of the Dallas Yoga Center. Yogis are not selfish, in principle at least, but putting themselves at the front of the line and justifying it as a matter of balance makes them selfish in practice. We are all born into a Hobbesian world, but it is an interconnected world, and yoga is one of the ways of realizing that complexity and learning to be less, not more, selfish.

Non-violence approaches being a tenet of yoga. But for many it is a method rather than a mantra. “Ahimsa and all the yamas and niyamas are meant to be guidelines of inquiry and empowerment, not about dogma or morality,” said Danny Arguetty, a yoga teacher at Kripalu, a health and yoga retreat in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, as well as a nutrition and health counselor.

This flexible approach stresses yoga’s structure of flow on and off the mat as opposed to any set of commandments. “The yama of ahimsa is not for cementing a fixed morality,” said Randal Williams. “I would offer this inquiry, is it an act of harming to dictate diet to someone else or for someone else to dictate to you what you should eat?” Nevertheless, whether ahimsa was commanded or created, whether old school or redefined in relativist terms, it is a simple proposition espousing the avoiding of harm to living creatures.

To spin the concept is to split hairs.

Wrestling with their appetites, many argue that harm is done to the natural world no matter what we eat. Underpaid and exploited migrant workers harvest our fruits. Corporations grow grains and vegetables in one place and transport them far distances, bankrupting local farmers with their economies of scale and needlessly consuming fossil fuels. Even the sophism that plants feel and suffer is invoked.

At the other end of the spectrum Steve Ross in his book ‘Happy Yoga’ insists that when grocery-shopping we should ask ask, “Are the farmers full of gratitude and love, and do they enjoy growing food, or are they angry and filled with hate for their job and all vegetables?”

These are naïve points-of-view, warping ahimsa as a prescription not to harm other living beings into a merry-go-round of what-ifs and one-upmanship.

Some yogis have made non-violence towards animals a core mandate of their practice. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Yoga, on which much of today’s yoga is based, said, “The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.” He believed eating animals made his students stiff as a board.

Not everyone agrees.

“I get angry, yes, actually, absolutely indignant, when I see students being frowned upon by some self-righteous teacher. There is a strong ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the yoga community that is keeping students, and even many teachers, locked firmly inside the meat-eating closet,” said Sadie Nardini, self-described ‘Ultimate Wellness Expert’ and founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga. She reasons it would be harmful to the health of many yogis to not eat meat, violating ahimsa at its most primal level. “People and animals alike would be far better served if we chose from more carefully regulated, caring and healthful sources,” she said, addressing factory farm meat industry issues

But, that is like being a vegetarian between meals.

In 1780 the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked, in his ‘Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation’, about animals, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” The answer to Bentham’s question is hiding in the light, not in the darkness of today’s pigpens. Everyone knows animals suffer when we force them to live in squalor, genetically modify them, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cheap corn laced with antibiotics and hormones, kill them with bolt guns, and finally eat their skin flesh organs after their suffering is over.

Everyone knows, which is why so many people say they don’t want to know when asked if they know how the loin of pork on their plate got there.

If modern feedlots and slaughterhouses had glass walls instead of barbed wire walls it is likely only the heartless would eat animals.  “I am a vegetarian because if I can’t kill it myself, why let someone else do it for me,” said Teresa Taylor of Yoga Quest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “People continue to eat meat because they are distanced from the suffering and killing of the animal they are eating. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Many people do not want to inquire into the killing of the animals they eat because they perceive the cruelty built into our factory farms, but do not want to internalize how deliberate and unrelenting it is. “I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience,” Albert Einstein said before becoming a vegetarian late in life.

The inherent narrative in the yoga world is that it’s all yoga. What matters is how aware and compassionate we are with others and ourselves. What we eat or don’t eat is beside the point. It doesn’t matter.

But, what we do when we buy veal cutlets for ourselves, family, and friends may be more to the point than all the yogic love, reverence, and respect in the world. “Whether someone realizes it or not, if they participate in eating meat they are contributing to and encouraging violence. Not ahimsa by any stretch of the imagination, “ said Carrie Klaus, a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ahimsa is a personal practice, and everyone has to make his or her own decisions. Those decisions involve more than just thinking outside the bun, such as eating organic grass-fed free-range cows and pigs raised on local farms.

“In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle,” says Jonathan Safran Froer in his book ‘Eating Animals’. Is non-violence a cornerstone of yoga or just a concept on the menu? Does it benefit ahimsa to be thankful to the dead animals we eat? Are the yogic precepts of restraint really served by having a t-bone for dinner?

“I do not eat red meat, so that is a start,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It breaks my heart to know what happens.”

Maybe it’s not that yogis need to change what they think about eating meat, but rather rethink what they think is food. We have transformed animals into commodities and main courses and forgotten they are sentient breathing flesh and blood beings much like us. Many yogis eat animals with compassion and awareness of what they are doing. “On the rare occasion when I do indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” said Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

It is laudable to be grateful and compassionate for the sacrifice of the cow when sitting down to a steak dinner, but does it speak to the spirit of non-violence? Even though we have eaten meat for a hundred millenniums, perhaps it is time to lose our memory of eating animals and make a new paradigm for ourselves. We don’t live or think like wolves or cavemen and women anymore. Why should we eat like them?

“The food we eat is a profound way in which we connect with the world. Even if you never unroll a mat, you will lift a fork,” said Melissa Van Orman of Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, D. C.

Eating animals is an instinct. Not eating them is a decision we make or don’t make every time we sit down at the dining room table, just like every other decision we make, from practicing non-violence among ourselves to being nice to our dogs.

“From what I have observed many of the yogis I have met are meat eaters,” said Danny Arguetty.

But, yogis don’t eat their pets. It is a dodgy distinction.

More than thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and some nine billion birds are killed annually in the United States to be made into fodder for our butcher shops and supermarkets. It is an astonishing amount of life and death violence in light of going vegetarian, which never killed anyone at the dinner table.

We all have to eat, but maybe we shouldn’t take part in the killing and eating of animals anymore than absolutely necessary, if only in the interest of restraining ourselves from causing unnecessary harm in this life and to all lives, both ours and the lives of others.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.