Bad Boys of Yoga

By Ed Staskus

Keep your breath to cool your porridge.”  Jane Austen

There’s nothing new about scandals, be they political academic corporate celebrity religious personal financial. They are a dime a dozen. The reason they are so cheap is because there are so many of them. Crack open a newspaper, remote on a TV, open a browser, and there they are, today and every day. They take all shapes and sizes, not just nowadays, but way back when, too.

Back when the Olympics were the Greek Olympics, an Athenian pentathlete bribed his opponents to secure victory. He was found out and both he and his hometown were fined. He paid his fine, but Athens refused. It took the Delphic Oracle threatening there would be no more oracles for Athens to get them to pay up.

Five hundred years ago the Borgia’s, two of whom ruled the Holy City as Popes, were conniving entrepreneurs who bought their way to the top, poisoned friend foe and family alike, and at the Banquet of Chesnuts at the Vatican in 1501 encouraged their guests to enjoy the “fifty honest prostitutes” they had procured for dessert.

More recently, during the Gilded Age, there were more corporate shenanigans than you could shake a stick at. Somebody should have beaten James “Jubilee Jim” Fisk with a stick, but instead he became entangled in blackmail and was shot to death in broad daylight in the lobby of New York City’s Grand Central Hotel.

Everyone’s always got their reasons for falling into the tar pit. Even the bad have their good reasons. More often than not it’s not anybody’s fault, either, especially in our own exculpatory day and age.

“It’s because as a child Cinderella got home after midnight, Pinocchio told lies, Aladdin was a thief, Snow White lived in a house with seven men, I saw Tarzan practically naked, Batman drove 200 MPH without a license, and Shaggy was a mystery solving hippie who always had the munchies,” we explain in song and dance about how we became good-time Charlies.

Sex scandals are nothing if not more than everything else never new. They are the bedrock of dirty linen. Many a man has fallen into the hamper.

Grover Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock and during the 1884 presidential campaign was dogged by Republican chants of, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” After he won, Democrats answered, “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha.”

Bill Clinton had sex out of wedlock on top of the father of our country’s desk in the Oval Office, was almost impeached, but shrugged it off as though the disapproval was a misunderstanding.

When Donald Trump lays down with whores, it’s not a skeleton in the wedlock closet, for several reasons. First, he’s done it many times before, so there isn’t anything scandalous about him doing it again. Second, he’s a consummate dickhead, so there’s nothing unusual about it. Lastly, no one cares, not his evangelical brain-addled conservative base, nor the country’s liberals, for whom it’s the least of his foibles, nor the rest of the world, for whom it’s just a punchline.

No one holds him to any kind of standard, anyway, high or low.

When yoga masters teachers gurus, on the other hand, go sex crazy, it is a scandal, for many reasons, not the least of which is they are held to a higher standard. They are expected to hold firm to the ethical high ground, not rut around in the trough. Stand above reproach. Steer clear of the web of corruption. Practice what you preach, for God’s sake.

It isn’t necessarily what everybody calls you, but what you answer to. Rules guide the everyday. Right conduct guides the better man. Nevertheless, stick to what it says in the job description.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” observed Kurt Vonnegut.

If you can’t trust a yoga teacher, who can you trust?

It’s a long list of bad boys, sometimes a common vice, antics in the back room, sometimes darker. It can be a crime punishable by law, at other times simply an offense that outrages the public conscience. It ain’t the Hall of Fame. It’s more along the lines of the Wall of Shame.

It includes Kriyananda, Rodney Yee, and Akhandananda Sarswati, who was charged with 35 counts of sexual abuse in 1987, convicted, and sent to prison.

It includes Osel Tendzin, Dechen Thurman, known as the “yoga gigolo,” and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – whose relationship with The Beatles came to a sudden end over allegations he tried to rape the actress Mia Farrow. The “Giggling Guru” got away with it, expanded his TM empire, and ended up living in his own 200-room mansion, where he could transcendentalize whatever he wanted in whatever bedroom he wanted to.

It includes Satchidananda, Muktananda, and Rama, founder of the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, whose estate had to pay almost $2 million in 1996 to a woman who claimed she was forced to have sex with him.

Easy come, easy go, seems to have been the philosophy.

It includes Sathya Sai Baba, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Amrit Desai, who founded the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, and was compelled to resign after confessing to several affairs in 1994.

Kripalu still takes a low profile on the whole sordid business, stating blandly for the record, “Yogi Desai resigned as spiritual director of Kripalu.”

It’s like saying he had other things besides the spirit on his mind, or loins, as the case may be.

It includes the royal family of yoga.

In 2012 allegations of emotional and sexual abuse were made against Kausthub Desikachar, the grandson of the godfather of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya.

The next year Desikachar confessed, “I realize that some of the decisions that I have made in the past have not been consistent with the high standards that I usually set for myself. I also fully understand and acknowledge that these have had far reaching effects, way beyond myself. There is no way of changing the past. I wholeheartedly repent for what has happened.”

There’s nothing like slapping yourself on the wrist.

It includes Osho, John Friend, and Bikram Choudhury.

During his lifetime, Osho, a self-proclaimed spiritual guru, was otherwise known as the sex guru. He made no secret of it. Osho was always on the pull, day and night. He did make a secret of everything else, including allegations of drug-running and a prostitution racket.

He was deported from the United States in 1985 as the result of complicity in a murder plot, among other things. He was arrested on board a Learjet in North Carolina with $1 million in cash and valuables on board, trying to escape to Bermuda. Although 21 other countries denied him entry, India finally took him back.

He was welcomed by his disciples with a clap on the back. “We must put the monster America in its place,” he declared. He complained of being the victim of “evil magic.” He died five years later of a heart attack, the victim of clogged arteries.

Amazingly enough, he is more popular today than he was then.

John Friend, who studied long and hard with B. K. S. Iyengar, and who labored long and hard to create and establish Anusara Yoga, a new kind of heart-centered practice, stepped down from his leadership role in 2012. Two years earlier The New York Times had proclaimed him the “Yoga Mogul.” Thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of people around the world practiced his style of yoga.

A year later it was all gone, gone up in smoke.

The yoga gear supplier Manduka got stuck with a warehouse full of John Friend-branded mats.

Besides smoking a boatload of pot, which was illegal at the time, and slyly dipping into pension funds that weren’t his, which is still illegal, he slept his way through his closest female acolytes, married and otherwise. He dreamed up a Wiccan coven, calling it Blazing Star Flames, to keep things on the up and up, at least in his own mind. It was a kind of tantric dodge to explain himself.

Tantric sexual expression is said to be a God-like weaving and expansion of energy creating a mind-body connection leading to powerful orgasms. If only we could be gods is the idea behind the idea.

“On a chilly New Year’s Eve in 2009, John Friend—the popular and charismatic founder of Anusara Yoga—lay naked on a bearskin rug in front of a blazing fire at his home in Texas while three underwear-clad women hovered over him, massaging his body with sweetly scented oil,” Lizzie Crocker wrote in the Daily Beast.

“One rubbed his head, neck, and shoulders, another worked on his hands, while a third rubbed his inner thighs and pelvic region, her whole body writhing sinuously to the new-age sitar melodies playing in the background.”

He didn’t see that what he did with his friendmates was anybody’s business.

“The Anusara scandal to me, was focused on my sex life,” explained John Friend, who has since resurrected himself with a new kind of alignment-based yoga called Sridaiva. “My sexual relationships with women were private and consensual in my eyes, but the community considered my private life as something that they should judge. So, it was like a 21st century social media witch trial, which judged me as being unfit to teach yoga.”

Not everyone agreed.

“Attending a yoga class where a teacher is generating bed-buddies while expounding on spiritual matters is like attending church only to find out the priest is bonking the altar boy,” countered Kelly Morris, founder of Conquering Lion Yoga.

Sometimes you have to change yoga teachers, when they just rub you the wrong way. In the event, Anusara Yoga went by the board.

Bikram Yoga was the brainchild of Bikram Choudhury, born and bred in Kolkotta, and transplanted to Beverly Hills, where he founded the Yoga College of India. In time it became a big success. He claimed his one-size-fits-all system cured everything from arthritis to cancer, although the talk was largely snake oil. By 2006 there were 1,650 Bikram Yoga studios worldwide. He was training thousands of teachers at $10,000 a pop for the privilege.

He attempted to copyright the poses that constituted his modus operandi, but it was thrown out of court when the judge determined touching your toes wasn’t copyrightable.

Bikram owned more than forty Bentley and Rolls Royce automobiles. He jet setted with the beau monde. He toured Las Vegas, dressing like a gangster, claiming to have testicles like “atomic bombs.” In 2013 it started to unravel, when several women accused him of false imprisonment, sexual battery, and rape.

In 2016 Bikram lost a civil lawsuit in California for sexual harassment and was fined $6.8 million. In response, he closed up shop, sold off everything he could, and went back to the sub-continent. The judge issued a warrant for the lothario, but to this day he’s gone, good riddance to bad rubbish.

“You find out who your real friends are when you’re involved in a scandal,” said Elizabeth Taylor, who was involved in her fair share of them.

During his reign of steam and sweat, many studio owners said they loved the 26-pose take-it-or-leave-it regimen, even though they were equivocal about the man on the platform, turning a blind eye.

It was the king’s new clothes, white silk suits and fedora.

“If you look at his values and his lifestyle, there’s nothing spiritual about it. The cars and the watches and allowing people to fawn all over him, it’s disgusting,” said Stephanie Schestag, “He treated people like shit. But the truth was, he was like the Wizard of Oz. It was all a smokescreen.”

When push came to shove, Bikram Choudhury found out he had few real friends. Most of the world’s Bikram Yoga studios have either closed or changed their names to something else not-so-hot. His wife divorced him. It is rumored even his gold Rolex found another wrist to call home.

Sometimes it seems like only our dogs will never betray us.

It can take a scandal, or two, or a dozen, to bring about reform. Maybe yoga will be practicing what it preaches from here on out. It’s not rocket science. The culture isn’t corrupt, even though some of the culture’s icons were and are. Trying to get it right isn’t like trying to dam up Niagara Falls with toothpicks. It’s about living for a principle, not always trying to make yourself the principal of swinishness and the gimmies.

Love of men women humanity in general may be part and parcel of yoga practice, but not necessarily gimme your lovin’ you sweet lookin’ thang.

One thing all the sex-crazed yoga masters of our times have had in common is they all claimed they were somehow someway the bestest divines and what they were doing was divining the sacred word intent purpose for the way we live today, for your greater good, especially if you are a babe in the woods.

The hand of the man will show you the way out of the woods and down the garden path. The path can get thorny, though. Hero worship ain’t always everything it’s cracked up to be.

“I’m breaking eggs to make an omelette because I see the big picture, and you don’t,” they all say, sly and sincere, straight-faced if not straight-laced, Tricky Dick’s to a man. It’s the classic refrain of self-styled masters of the universe, lady-killers one and all, but what can one say in the breach?

One can only say, don’t be a four-flusher. Don’t be a Donald. Stay in your lane bro’.

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.”

Face in the Bunker Gear

bunker-gear-e1530712094879.jpg

By Ed Staskus

Bunker gear is what a firefighter wears, boots pants jacket, and more modern apparatus, like masks and breathing cylinders, to stay safe and be effective when responding to an emergency. It is also called turnout gear, which is what firefighters do, turning out when there’s an alarm. The protective clothing is triple-layered and fire resistant. It is sometimes stowed beside or under a firefighter’s bunk at the station.

It all weighs more than 50 pounds, and that’s before picking up an ax or an extinguisher. Two hundred-some years ago headgear was a felt cap meant to keep water out of your eyes. Today’s helmet, high-peaked with a long rear brim, was first introduced in the 1830s. The New York City luggage maker who designed it was also a volunteer fireman.

Fighting fires means a lot of stepping up and down bending crawling, as well as working with your arms both in front of and over your head. When a firefighter bends at the knee or waist they need added length in their pants and jacket to accommodate their movements. Although bunker gear isn’t necessarily oversized, it’s oversized for mobility’s sake.

When a firefighter is in full bunker gear it’s hard to tell if the reflective-striped all-suited-up hulk pulling hose off a truck is a man or a woman. If it’s the fire chief of North Rustico in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island doing the work, it’s a woman.

It is Alison Larkin. A member of the town’s fire department since she was 18-years-old, she is in charge of the 30-man-and-woman volunteer company.

Before being appointed fire chief in the spring of 2016, the 28-year-old Ms. Larkin was and remains a full-time paramedic with Island EMS, where she has worked for seven years. But, before becoming a professional lifesaver, after graduating from high school, she had to first apply to the paramedic program at PEI’s Holland College.

She didn’t get in.

“My high school marks were terrible,” she said. “I loved school, all my friends, but I did just enough to pass.”

Regrouping, she took Adult Education classes, upgrading her math, science, and English scores. “I had no problem working on my own,” she said. “Healthcare was something I wanted to do and my best friends weren’t around to influence me about going or not going to class.” In the meantime, she filled out an application and was accepted as a member of the North Rustico Fire Department.

There are more than 125,000 volunteer firefighters across Canada, most of them serving in countryside that can’t afford to staff a full-time career department. Volunteer firefighters date to the year 6 in the city of Rome.

North Rustico is a small town of fewer than 600 year-round residents on the central north shore of the province, on a natural harbor along the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The National Park shoreline is a short walk from the harbor.

Although her family lives in the town of Rusticoville, her hometown is within a few miles driving on rising and falling rural roads of Rustico, Anglo Rustico, and South Rustico, as well as North Rustico. “I pretty much knew everyone in the department from being around here.” She spent her first year learning the ropes.

Alison’s plan was to bring her new marks and newfound experience in the fire department to bear in petitioning for admission to Holland College. “They save some seats in each course for people who have upgraded their marks,” she said. The next year she applied to the paramedic program again.

She didn’t get in.

She went to work at Lorne’s Snack Bar in North Rustico. “I waited tables, cooked, cleaned, everything. They had the best poutine and gravy in town.” Lorne’s was a stone’s throw from the Irving service station owned by her parents. “My dad does all the mechanics at the back and mom manages the front. You see a pretty lady walking around, that’s my mom.”

One day the following year her mother walked over to Lorne’s from the service station and dropped off a letter addressed to her. She slid the poutine she was making to the side. She opened the letter.

“I remember freaking out behind the counter,” she said. Alison Larkin had finally gotten into Holland College.

It’s when first and second chances haven’t played out that the third time’s a charm.

”I’m happy it took that long,” said Alison. “It can be a crazy job, seeing all the stuff you see. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. How do you help people when you have no life experience?”

When first responders get to where they’re going there’s no waiting. They’re always stepping into something that’s gone wrong. When stepping into the middle of some emergencies they hear see smell things that most people never do, and don’t want to. Their job is to help people, sometimes people whose lives are hanging in the balance.

“It’s stressful, very stressful” said Alison. “I don’t carry a lot of the calls with me. If you hold on to it, get personal with it, you’re never going to last. My brain just lets me do the call and let it go.”

It was after Alison Larkin prevailed and became a paramedic and found work that she was able to stay in the Land of Rustico, stay on the North Rustico Fire Department, and stay on Prince Edward Island. “It’s a beautiful place, a great place to be, but it’s hard to make a living.”

Recent data released by Statistics Canada suggests that PEI natives have been moving to other provinces in search of work at a rate not seen in 30 years. “Five thousand people in Prince Edward Island declare Prince Edward Island as their home, but work in Alberta,” said Workforce and Advanced Learning Minister Richard Brown.

“There‘s not a lot of work here, you can’t make any money,” said Alison “It’s hard to buy farms and lobster gear, it’s so expensive, so finding a good well-paying job was the biggest thing, definitely.”

In the meantime she became more involved with her town’s fire department. “I fell in love with the firefighting side of things, almost changed my career to it.” She trained at the PEI Firefighters School “I loved it, got right into it. I loved hanging around with the guys.” She trained in fire and search simulators, climbed real ladders, and hauled high-pressure hoses. She aced the question and answer test at the end.

The men and women sitting in a fire truck speeding to the scene of a calamity do one of the most physically demanding of all jobs. No emergency call they go on is ever the same, from chain sawing holes in a steep roof ventilating it to dragging someone out of something smoky hot dark on fire to safety.

The first fire Alison Larkin fought was her helping handle a hose cooling off a propane tank that was next to a burning building. “It was a total adrenaline rush. It’s not boring. Every day is different.” It takes steady nerves. Half-hour bottles of air can empty fast if you lose your composure.

“Not every woman can do it, but not every man can do it, either,” said Alison. “There are definitely people who are built for it, man or woman. It’s hard, but I can do it. I’ve only ever been pushed further by the guys.”

The first female firefighter, a young slave from New York City, was Molly Williams, described in 1815 “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.” When Emma Vernell’s husband died in the line of duty in the 1920s, she took his place on Westside Hose Company #1, becoming the first firewoman officially recognized by New Jersey.

The first female career firefighter was hired by the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia in 1973. By the middle of the 1980s about 1% of all firefighters were women. Today more than 3% of them are women. On Prince Edward Island 65 of the approximately 1,000 firefighters are female, twice the national average. In 2016 Toronto Fire Services, the largest Canadian municipal fire department, made history when its top three graduates were women.

Alison Larkin made history when she was appointed fire chief.

“The job came up, so I put my name in,” she said. The chief who was stepping down recommended the stepping-stone of standing for deputy chief. “Why don’t you go for chief,” some of the members suggested. “If you’re going to help me, if I have your support, I will do it,” she said. The members voted her in and at a Committee of Council Meeting the town confirmed her appointment.

“The opportunity came up and I just took it.”

She is the first woman on Prince Edward Island to hold the post and one of only three women in the Maritimes who are fire chiefs. Making history is being who you are, not being your past history, not letting anything in your past keep you from doing something in the present.

“A woman fire chief fifty years ago? No, definitely not, but there are now,” said Alison. “I don’t know what changed. Maybe women decided, yeah, we can do it, and men decided, yeah, women can do it. Back then it would have been crazy. I think the culture has changed.”

Jane Ledwell of PEI’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women agrees, adding that Alsion Larkin is a “terrific role model. We are so thrilled to see she has been named PEI’s first female fire chief.”

After finishing her paramedic courses and finding work with Island EMS, Alison went back to PEI Firefighters School for more training. She is the first woman in the province to gain Level II accreditation and the next year was sought out to become a part-time instructor. “They really built up my confidence. I never thought I’d be teaching there.”

The North Rustico Fire Department is an all-volunteer force. Nobody gets paid, “I know a lot of people can’t understand that, but what we do we do for this community,” said Alison. Not everything that counts is just counting what’s in your wallet.

“We get calls to people’s homes on their worst day. That’s what we’re there for, to turn a bad situation into something manageable, try to make them feel a little bit better. The most rewarding part of the job is when someone thanks us, says we turned their crisis into not a crisis.”

The new fire chief has put a new emphasis on training. ”It’s a big thing. We’re always working on that.” The department meets every Tuesday night. One Tuesday is maintenance night on the rescue vehicle, the tanker truck, and the two fire trucks. Two of the Tuesday nights are devoted to training.

“It was more known as a boy’s club long ago, you come and hang out, when really now it’s more geared toward training, and doing a lot of work and making sure everyone knows what’s going on and what they’re doing.”

Safety is the cornerstone of firefighting. Although firefighters die at a rate barely greater than the rate for cashiers, when trouble comes it’s not a dollar bill paper cut, it’s a chain saw gone haywire. At the end of the day training is what keeps you from putting your life on the line. “You never want to put people into situations you feel they’re not trained for,” said Alison.

Just like cauliflower is just cabbage with a higher education, firefighters are just men and women who put their bunker pants on one leg at a time, except that before they’re even in their gear they know what to do next. Practice may not make perfect, but it makes getting it wrong less likely.

At the North Rustico fire station the department’s emphasis on training has gone the extra mile, extending to family pets. Atlantic Vet College recently schooled the members on animal first aid and rescue, reviewing facets from cardiac arrest to breathing distress.

One of the firefighters volunteered his unsuspecting dog as a guinea pig. “We found out how much oxygen we needed to turn the masks on to, what flow rate for what animal,” said Alison “They gave us pointers in how to go up to a scared dog or cat and get them to come to us.”

Besides getting everyone’s training up to speed, getting to where they have to go in a timely fashion is another goal she has set. “Our old trucks are just old. It’s time for new ones. After 25 years you need to upgrade your equipment.” Like roads and bridges, trucks don’t upgrade themselves. It takes someone to make it happen.

Although firefighters are faceless in their bunker suits and breathing masks, when Allison Larkin is off the truck and back at the North Rustico station after an emergency call, stripping off her gear, helmet pants jacket boots, there‘s no mistaking who she is.

She’s the firefighter with her toenails painted purple.

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.”