Blinded By the Light

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 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.”

Scene of the Crime

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which begs the question, what is the answer?

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

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.”