Rhythm of the Saints

By Ed Staskus

The word yoga is first mentioned in the Rig Veda. Assuming the practice to be five millennia in the making, it got rolling in northern India during Harappan times. By then the folks in the valley were the largest civilization in the ancient world, stretching across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges. Its estimated population of five million made it bigger than Egypt.

   They didn’t waste their time building pyramids for the top dog, either. Even though their burial sites reflect social structure and hierarchy, the burials are all in brick or stone lined rectangular or oval pits. Bones are bones in the long run, no matter how big the pine box.

   Brahmans developed and refined the practice and wrote up what they were doing in volumes, more than two hundred scriptures. They taught sacrifice of the ego through action wisdom and self-knowledge. One of the most famous scriptures still read far and wide today is the Bhagavad Gita, an unfortunate recruiting poster for Uncle Krishna. If it wasn’t so plausible and beautifully written, it would be laughable. As it is, it’s more quicksand than bedrock.

   Everybody knows yoga started in India, and that anybody who wants to be somebody has to dive into the ocean of the practice across the ocean. India is where it’s at. It’s like baseball, there’s first place and no place. Especially if you are training to be a teacher. The overseas rates for spring training are very good. Courses usually include the instructor and all the yoga you can do, accommodation, meals, props, and outdoor activities. 

   One caveat is that in India they tell you don’t eat too much food. The other caveat is they say don’t take group classes and make yoga your life. In the West everybody eats as much as they please, they take all the group classes they want, and they aren’t making yoga their life. Westerners are crazy in many ways, but they aren’t that crazy.

   A non-caveat is that a month-long 200-hour yoga teacher training program averages between $1200.00 and $1500.00, which is a bargain in any language.

   Amish Tripathi, who writes best-selling novels set thousands of years ago, said his heroes all practice yoga. “In ancient India it was part of daily life, both the physical and the mental aspects. Every culture has gifted something to the world, and this is our gift,” he said.

   At least it used to be.

   It has been estimated that 300 million people practice yoga worldwide, at least sometimes. More than 55 million are in the United States, 16% of the population, and 100 million-some are in India, 8% of the population. Far more people statistic-wise do it in the Land of Mammon than in the Homeland.

   It’s like the Spanish Steps got shipped from Rome to San Diego, and the natives are clanking up and down the steps, lighting up legal weed, laughing up a storm, splashing soft drinks littering crunchy chips and leaving wads of old chewing gum behind.

   It would seem to make sense that the Birthplace of Yoga would be the Land of Yoga. It would seem to make sense that the natives are all in. It would seem so, but is not the case, by all accounts. 

   “Most Indians I know don’t do yoga,” said Sandip Roy, a writer based in California. “My friend Rajasvini Bhansali is an exception. And she’s often the only Indian in class. She recalled one class in particular.”

   “The instructor pointed to me, saying Indians are better oriented towards squats,” she said. “And I realized he was holding me up as an example of how we primitive people are better squatters and have looser hips.”

   He had the same experience. “I show up at my first yoga class in San Francisco. It’s steamy hot. There are more than one hundred people, and sure enough, my friends and I are the only four Indians.”

   “It’s easy to count the number of Indians in a yoga class in America,” says Nikita Taniparti. “Often, I’m the only one. I’ve taken to counting the number of Sanskrit tattoos. In a class of around 25, I typically spot around ten. Only one of them is my own. Combing the magazine covers of Yoga Journal, the most recent evidence of an Indian on the front cover seems to be 2009.”

   It’s not just Indians living in the West. “There are hordes of them who are ignorant about the history of yoga,” she added.  Even though it is their own backyard, they don’t necessarily have ownership of the practice.

   Kate Churchill, director of the 2008 documentary “Enlighten Up,” interviewed yoga pioneer Pattabhi Jois at his school in southern India. “We might as well have been in the Puck building in New York,” she said. “There were over one hundred Westerners and not a single Indian. I was looking around and saying, ‘Well, where are the Indians?’”

   “With the exception of Rishikesh in Uttarahkand, there won’t be yoga classes everywhere. Regular, everyday Indians do not practice yoga at a studio,” said Sandy Kingsley of Inspired Exploration.

   Maybe they are finding inspiration at home. Maybe not. Maybe they’ve got something else at home that needs doing.

   “India is the birthplace of yoga,” said New Delhi native Raju Kumar. “I think lots of people do yoga in India, but most people cannot give time for it due to the survival of their family. They sleep late and arise early to catch the bus or train for their job. They have no more time to spend on yoga so cannot take the advantage of natural fitness. But all the people should do yoga for internal and external benefit.”

   When this came to the attention of Narendra Modi, the newish Hindu nationalist strongman savior of the sub-continent, his head almost exploded, and he was ready to order riots. He knew from past experience with his archenemies, who are the Muslims, that they always work. His circle of advisors finally got his head turned around, the riots were called off, and he went soapbox, instead.

   Even though yoga helps most people fall asleep more quickly and wake up rested, Narendra Modi is not most people. He practices it to be able to stay up most of the night, and after a pre-dawn nap, wake up raring to go ready to solve his country’s problems. Nobody gets in front of him. 

   The first thing he did was establish International Yoga Day, set to be June 21st every year. The second thing he did was lay out plans for yoga to be taught in schools. The third thing he did was emphatically suggest compulsory yoga for India’s notoriously out-of-shape police. Maybe they could finally start chasing down some of the serial rapists in the country. 

   He also said yoga lessons would be offered free to civil servants and their families. He didn’t say, if you were a householder, your taxes were going to foot the bill for the lessons. There is never any need to upset the voting public.

   “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body, thought and action, restraint and fulfilment, harmony between man and nature, a holistic approach to health and wellbeing. It is not about exercise but discovering the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and nature,” he said.

   Suneel Singh, a guru in south Delhi, agreed, saying, “It is a complete package for everybody’s body and a cheap way for keeping you hale and hearty.”

   The Muslims didn’t necessarily agree that making yoga a national priority was the way to go. Many of them felt like they were stuck in a closet full of wire hangers. One false move could be their last move. They could end up being hung out to dry.

   “Many Muslim scholars say that yoga is against the fundamental tenets of Islam, to pray to the sun, for example,” said Asaduddin Owaisi, a Muslim member of Parliament. “Why make this a nationalist issue? Just because I do not want to do yoga does not mean I am not a patriot.”

   Mark Twain once said that a patriot is “a person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.” Nobody talks to Narendra like that in India, not if they know what’s good for them. They hunker down in cow pose and keep their thoughts to themselves. The two-time current Prime Minister has centralized power and takes no guff.

   “As a seasoned yoga practitioner, our great leader Modi is able to embody unity of his mind and body, take thought action, restrain himself and achieve fulfilment, create harmony between man and nature and provide a holistic approach to health and wellbeing,” explained Kaballi. 

   Many Indians don’t have a surname and are known by only one name.

   “If he wasn’t practicing yoga and being trained to restrain himself from all forms of passion, we would have seen a real blood bath in Gujarath in 2002,” he added. The top dog is a saint, although saintly on his own terms, at his own rhythm. It was just a minor bloodbath in Gujarath. Most of the blood was the blood of Muslims. It was their own fault, though. If they had practiced more yoga maybe they would have bled less.

   “The important point is that India is proving it’s a country of undiluted democracy with an ancient old civilization. The minorities are a pain on the spine, all crybabies. It is high time the West stops its underhand dealings with them hoping to make India kneel. I too am now organizing yoga for everyone!”

   Is yoga an important part of life for everyone in India? It is and it isn’t. Everybody thinks they know all about it, the same as everybody in the United States thinks they know everything about the 2nd Amendment. Since so much of India is poorer than not, and since much of it is outside the mainstream of growth and development, development is the front of the line issue. Finding a good job is important. Putting food on the table is important. Tossing and turning at night with no air conditioning in one hundred-degree temperatures is an issue. The air and water are foul. Sanitation is atrocious. Governance and corruption are big problems. 

   Narendra Modi ran for the throne in 2014 on slogans of better sanitation and better governance. Everybody already knew what he thought about Muslims, so he didn’t have to say much on that thorny issue. Yoga was an after-thought after the election was signed sealed and delivered.

   When he sponsored a proposal to make the first day of summer International Yoga Day the resolution was supported by 177 nations at the United Nations General Assembly. It was an easy yes vote. There is a halo of virtue that surrounds the practice, no matter how many people like Modi Bikram Osho and all the other self-serving saints wrap themselves up in it.

   “Rhythm is something you either have or don’t have, but when you have it, you have it all over,” Elvis Presley said.

   Yoga is like that too. When you have it you have it all over. The way to get it is to go find it for yourself and make it your own. If your mom and dad and the president and prime minister have to tell you to go to your room and do yoga, it is possible it will get ingrained in you, but it goes against the grain of the practice.

   When Narendra Modi and his right-wing BJP state politicos try to impose it from the top down, they will hopefully be as successful as the commies were when they tried to impose all the rules from headquarters. Unless you’ve turned your gaze to turning a profit on yoga, the top-down approach is not any good.

   In business it is about the hierarchy of high versus low employees. The high-ranking people make decisions relating to goals and plans while the low-ranking people perform tasks and achieve the goals set for them. It creates clear lines of authority, standardizes products and services, and facilitates quality control.

   There aren’t many things in this manmade bossman world that are personal anymore. From state control to corporate control to message control it’s gone under my thumb, from overt to invisible. Yoga is one of the personal things, since its premise is, it’s all in your head. Get your head right and all will be right as rain.

   “Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights,” sang Peter Tosh, one of the original Wailers.

   Yoga is a bottom-up personal business undertaking. Somebody telling you to get on your mat has got the business end of it all wrong. Listening to those kinds of top-down orders is wasting your time and the time of the last five thousand years.

   Better to put the earbuds on, tune out the Narendra Modi’s of the world, and listen to the vintage rhythm of the saints.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


Slap Happy


By Ed Staskus

By all accounts Ryan Woidke seems to be a normal 19-year-old born and bred in Lakewood, Ohio, where he still lives on weekends while in his second year at Kent State University. A graduate of Lakewood High School now majoring in Criminal Justice, trim and athletic, a full-time academic with two part-time jobs, he blends in with most other backpacking students.

Except on Friday nights, when he changes his t-shirt and blue jeans for deer-hide leather shorts, wide embroidered suspenders, a white cotton shirt, a green wool hat with a grouse feather ornament, knee socks, and black shoes with thick two-inch heels and cleats as big as horseshoes.

Once transformed he goes shoe slapping at the Donauschwaben German-American Cultural Center in Olmsted Township on Cleveland’s southwest side. The shoe slap dance is schuhplattler.

The Donauschwaben are the Danube Swabians of Eastern Europe, a German people who colonized parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the Danube River in the 18th century. After WWI their lands were parceled out to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. After WWII most fled their farms and towns when faced with the advance of the Iron Curtain. Many relocated to Ohio, to Cincinnati, Akron, and Cleveland.

The Donauschwaben have a Coat of Arms. It is made of a German Eagle on top and a fortress below. The eagle is black and the fortress towers are between a sun, symbolizing the rise of Christianity, and a crescent moon, symbolizing the setting of Islam.

“What happened was that in my freshman year at Lakewood High one of my best friends asked me to help serve dinner at their winter dance event,” said Mr. Woidke. “Later on he invited me to a practice, and, of course, when you show up they start making you dance. I was hooked on it right away.”

Schuhplattler, or hitting the shoe, as it is called, is native to the mountainous regions of Bavaria and Tyrolean areas of Germany, in which women spin around their partners or simply spin in place and men execute a syncopated series of loud slaps on lederhosen-clad legs and soles of their shoes.

Between slaps men and women both waltz to the accompaniment of accordions, sometimes three or four or more of them, a wall of wheezy but smooth sound ranging from very soft to very loud.

Accordions are assembled with wax and the best ones are always fully handmade.

“I had never danced before,” said Mr. Woidke. “I don’t know if I have plattle or not, but at least for this I do.”

Rhythm is known as plattle in schuhplattler circles.

Schuhplattling requires flexibility, stamina, and unity of the group, so that the slapping isn’t just loud only, but is one loud slap in concert. Men slap themselves on the knees, thighs, and feet. Traditionally a courtship dance, a means to attract the opposite sex, it became a way to showcase the agility and strength of men and a spectacle to dazzle women.

Watschenplattle is a variation of schuhplattle. During the slap dancing men smack each other firmly on the butt in addition to everywhere else.

Schuhplattler is almost a millennium old, first described in 1050. In modern times washing one’s hands afterwards, especially if watschenplattling, has become a rite before starting up any other courtship-like activities.

“Some of us are younger and have the endurance for it,” said Mr. Woidke. “Others are in their 50s, but they’ve been doing it since they were little kids, so they’re used to it.”

Schuhplattling originally came to Cleveland in the early 1920s when four couples toured the city demonstrating the European folk dance at civic functions. The dance group Schuhplattler und Trachtenverien, better known as STV Bavaria, was formed in the mid-60s and today thrives with more than a hundred members, ranging in age from 7 to 70.

“Many of our young adults grew up within the club, but Ryan came to us as a teenager,” said Paul Beargie, vice-president of STV Bavaria and a long-time Lakewood resident.

“He has taken to the dance and fully immersed himself in the culture. It is encouraging to see his enthusiasm to learn and pass on what he has learned.”

Five years of weekly practices, competitions, and cultural events have immersed Ryan Woidke in the history and customs of his adopted Bavarian Alps and the dancing that dates back 40 generations.

“Ryan is more than a dancer,” said Kenny Ott, president of STV Bavaria. “He’s second-in-command of the men’s teaching. He’s a young man who has stepped up and assumed a role of responsibility, perpetuating the culture for at least another generation.”

One of four dance directors for the group, Ryan Woidke brings a young man’s energy to the thousand-year-old tradition.

“I’m at the point where they can show me five dances a night and I’ll know all of them,” he said

Every year STV Bavaria participates at the Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest, drawing large crowds. It is the club’s major fund-raising event, as well as an opportunity to perform their native dances, and sometimes even strut their stuff before an audience often unfamiliar with schuhplattler.

‘We do all kinds of funny skits,” said Mr. Woidke. “In one of them we come out dressed as old men with canes. A lady comes out with a sign saying she’s got a special brew, and we drink it, go around the glockenspiel, and when we come back, we’ve lost our beards and scraggly wigs, and we’re dancing upright. It’s like the beer that makes you younger.”

A recent poll on the Oktoberfest Facebook page rated the colorful STV Bavaria pavilion and their folk dances in full costume tops for the holiday weekend, for more reasons than one.

“We have sponsors who donate bead necklaces and sunglasses, and we toss stuff out to the crowds right after the shows, “said Mr. Woidke. “One year they gave us Jagermeister apparel to throw out.

“Another time it was thongs. That was nuts, everybody was grabbing for those.”

Affiliated with Gauverband Nordamerika, a non-profit foundation formed in 1966 to preserve and carry on the cultural heritage of Bavaria and Tyrol, including their ethnic costumes and dances, Cleveland’s STV Bavaria group regularly competes in the biennial Gaufest national competition. Since 1973 they have won 7 gold medals.

In Orlando, Florida, in July 2011, STV Bavaria brought home first place in the Gaufest group dance, and well as placing two couples in the top three of the singles competitions. They qualified for the 2012 Bayrischer Loewe in Germany, at which event they will go shoe-to-shoe against teams from both the fountainhead and from around the world.

Mr. Woidke can’t wait.

“We’re going to go and compete against all of their best,” he said. “I’ve only been here five years, so there are many things I don’t know, but I’m still going.”

By his own reckoning part German, largely on his father’s side, Mr. Woidke dances schuhplattler for the heritage, for the competition, but mostly for the camaraderie.

“The people are great,” he said. “It’s like one big family. They’re fun to hang out with.” What he meant was the energy and community of putting on a show, the village atmosphere of people who care about what they’re doing and about each other.

Mr. Woidke’s future plans include getting his undergraduate degree, attending the police academy at Kent State University, possibly enlisting in the Marine Corps, and definitely schuhplattler.

“No matter what, even if I go into the military, I’ll keep it up,” he said. “I can jump right in when I’m on leave. You can’t beat it.”

At the Bayerischer Lowe in Gauting, Bavaria, in May 2012 Mr. Woidke and the Cleveland group, STV Bavaria, took 5th place in the Gruppenpreisplattein, or group dance.

In 2013 STV Bavaria defended their first place North American Gaufest medal, again taking the gold.

After transferring to and graduating from Cleveland State University, Mr. Woidke, a life-long gun enthusiast, enlisted in the United States Army. He is currently stationed in South Korea, where he works as a Military Weapons Specialist.

Slap dancing is unknown in South Korea, although the actor Tom Hiddleston improvised a schuhplattle one night for his fantasy fans in Seoul, South Korea, during the premiere of the movie Thor: The Dark World.

Ryan Woidke, meanwhile, continues to work on his plattle, with the thought in mind that it’s never smart to give a sword to a man who can’t dance.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”