In Your Face

By Ed Staskus

Attendance at church services in the United States has been steadily declining for more than sixty years. Today, scarcely one in four Americans go to church, at all. When they do go, they don’t go, since more and more of them are going to online rites by way of app. Churchome Global – the brainchild of celebrity pastor Judah Smith – has set everyone free to worship in their bathrobes, thumbing bright icons and releasing glowing hearts to float around their laptop screens.

Jonathan Edwards, the Colonial Christian preacher who declared we are all sinners in the hands of an angry God, is rolling over in his grave right now. “What the hell happened?” he cries out. “What happened to the Wrath of God?”

In Europe and Australia fewer than 20% say religion is relevant to them. The Japanese and Chinese barely even respond to the question. Only in the Middle East and Third World countries do more than less respondents believe religion is important in their lives.

The yoga project, on the other hand, has been growing by leaps and bounds the past half century in the United States, Europe, Australia, and even Russia, once the motherland of godless Communism, where it has ballooned to a billion-dollar-and-more industry. Even though India, the birthplace of the practice, remains a hotbed, the rest of the world, especially the Islamic World and the Third World, has kept its cool.

When bead-wearing hippies began doing yoga in the 1960s they were drawing on a vibrant yoga culture that had thrived in the USA in the early 20th century, but which by their time had run its course. In the 1940s and 1950s the practice was nothing if not holding down the fort, what there was of it.

In the next 50 years the fort would grow to an arsenal overflowing with blocks, straps, and yoga mats, until today almost 40 million Americans say they do yoga. Nine out of ten of everybody say they have heard of yoga, no doubt far more than have ever heard of Jonathan Edwards, or want to hear anything he ever had to say.

Older Americans, the kind of people who once filled pews, are more likely than most to be found on mats. The number of them over 50 tromping to studios has tripled in the past five years. They believe “yoga is good for you.” They do it for their aches and pains. They do it to smooth out the rough patches, to tamp down the stress, to slow their breathing. It’s a way of counting to ten. They do it because it makes their lives better.

Even though yoga is a good fit when it comes to improving health, from flexibility to cardiovascular fitness, from reducing stress and pain, from overall quality of body to overall quality of life, they might be fooling themselves that yoga in its overall aspects is compatible with the way we have structured our lives and fortunes in the modern world.

Yoga made a lot of sense when it washed up on the shores of America in the Progressive Era, during the progressivism of the New Deal, and when Flower Power was free and easy, but it is questionable whether it is or ever will be relevant in our own age of post-modern capitalism, an age long since devoted to the idea that nature is a commodity to be marketed and consumed, that consumption must be encouraged at all costs, that unrestrained competition is a free market fundamental, and accumulation of wealth is the best of all possible worlds.

Talk to the cold hard cash fist full of money ’cause the face ain’t listening.

When the Grand Coulee Dam was proposed in the 1930s, there were myriad problems, not the least of which was that there were long-standing Native Americans living on the land that would be flooded, there were no manufacturers who needed the power and barely any farmers who needed the water, and the salmon and steelhead that ran the river would end up being cut off from their spawning grounds. It was the mid-30s, too, the middle of the Great Depression, and money was tight.

But the power that would be generated, its promoters promised, and the irrigation created would stimulate a need for itself. It would, just like the cutting-edge economists of the day said, create its own demand. And it did. The fish ended up swimming with the fish.

Fifteen years ago, as we were rounding into the new millennium, the richest 10% of the world got 55% of the world’s income, according to the World Bank. The poorest 50% got about 6%. Since then the only thing that has changed is that wealth concentration, especially among older Westerners, has grown faster than poverty reduction.

Non-greed and non-possessiveness are markers and moral guidelines on the path of yoga practice. Nevertheless, who wants to give up their two cars in the garage, their flat screens and stainless steel, their expanding portfolios and growing non-limit line on their credit cards. The good life has become what you’ve got in this life, not what you might get by making a life meditating on the mat.

Cold hard cash can buy you a fine warm purebred puppy. It’s uncertain a king’s ransom can make him wag his tail. You can offer your dog $10 million dollars and he might or might not wag his tail. Offer him $50 million and he might or might not do the same thing. Pat him on the head and say “Let’s go for a walk” and you will get his tail wagging, for sure.

In the same way that one of yoga’s core principles is non-violence, one of the core principles of today’s world is funding armed forces. United States defense expenditures are projected to rise from $682 billion dollars to $1335 billion dollars in the next 25 years, China’s from $251 to $1270 billion, India’s from $117 to $654 billion, and Russia’s from $113 to $295 billion.

When you add nine zeros to a number, you are talking real money. The human brain has approximately 100 billion neurons. Putting a gun to your head puts every one of those neurons in mortal danger.

Every neuron in every brain is connected to ten thousand other neurons. The aim of yoga is to get all of them firing in unison, all on the same page, all together now. The aim of the world’s armed forces is to keep their hands steady on the butts of their guns.

It’s talk to the gunhand ‘cause the face ain’t listening.

The essential aims of military might and yoga practice aren’t on the same page, no matter that the same millions of people who do yoga also pay for and support their armed forces. Everyone rallies around the flag. Nobody wants their patriotism questioned, no matter what. Wrong may be wrong, no matter who says it, but when it comes to patriotism, it means supporting your government and country all the time, no matter what anybody says.

“A patriot is the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about,” said Mark Twain.

Yoga is about finding your own way to knowing what you are all about. It’s not about hollering it up. It’s not about getting on a soapbox, or taking the word of some blowhard on his soapbox. Patriots are enemies of the rest of the world. The practice of yoga is about becoming a compatriot to the rest of the world. You don’t necessarily have to love everybody else, but you don’t necessarily have to hate them, either.

If yoga is about letting go of judgment, it is a problematic undertaking today. The rise of social media has led to the rise of a judgmental culture. It has long been thought judgment is inherently genetic, along with free will and the ability to choose, although it is much more probable that it is a learned behavior. It’s a way of living that goes back a long way, back to when we had to protect ourselves from harm on a day-to-day basis.

It was talk to the fist ’cause the face ain’t listening.

Even though snap judgments are no longer necessary for survival, at least not most of the time, it has morphed into our social behavior. Yoga advocates empathy and compassion. Social media is as much about pigeon holing as it is about cross-culturalism. For every curious explorer there is an angry nationalist. The practice of yoga is about creating a purposeful existence. The practice of judgment is living in lockstep with prejudice and bigotry.

Yoga isn’t a religion, there aren’t any churches or cathedrals, there are no martyrs or jihads, no shrines or wailing walls, no holy men or holy books. It is, however, a spiritual practice. It wasn’t a bad fit a hundred years ago, but it’s awkward today. The best thing that could have happened to the business, stripping it of all its aspects except for the physical dimension, is what has happened, and is why it is as popular as it is in the modern world.

It flies in the face of reason to believe that yoga can make it in the new world, at least not old world old school old fashioned yoga. It has little to no chance of making it in the Amazon Wall Street White House Big Oil Big Banking Big Corporations Big Ego scheme of things. When you throw in Big Tech, it becomes a Big Scheme.

Almost all of the principles of yoga are at odds with the way we live today. Something had to give. What gave was the last five thousand years. What broke into the open the past fifty-or-so years is the yoga we know works, the yoga we need, and the yoga we deserve. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find, you get what you need,” the Rolling Stones sang at about the same time the 1960s Flower Children got yoga going in the USA.

The future of yoga was always uncertain because the future ain’t what it used to be. But, there’s no living life backwards. We all have to look ahead, because that’s where from here to eternity is. Maybe the memory of what yoga was, and might be, will be the key not to the past, but to what is in the future.

After all, no fist can stay clenched forever, not in the face of the Wrath of God, which might be forever, or just simply more than the Hand of Man, just like every face has to face up to what it really wants and needs when rafting down the big river of time space and your own backyard.

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.”

Crashing Into Paradise

By Ed Staskus

When we were kids my brother, sister, and I went to two resorts every summer, except they weren’t called resorts. One was two weeks with other Boy and Girl Scouts and the other one was two weeks with first-generation immigrant boys and girls like us at a Lithuanian Franciscan camp. They were called summer camps.

It was how our parents packed up their troubles and sent them away. The scout camps were usually in the middle of a forest somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The Franciscan camp was in Wasaga Beach, on Canada’s Georgian Bay, in the wind and sunshine. The longest freshwater beach in the world was a 10-minute walk away.

We never had any trouble making the most of summer camp, even though sometimes there were bedbugs and some kids didn’t shower, even when the showers worked. One summer somebody’s parents wouldn’t let their son in the car when they came to pick him up when camp was over.

“Go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother complained, pushing him away.

We waited all year to go to camp and never regretted the wait. In the morning on the day to go we pestered our parents, who drove us there, to hurry up. We were always ready to crash into paradise.

A few years after I started taking yoga classes I started hearing about yoga retreats and resorts. The first one I heard about was Kripalu in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. More than 30,000 people visit there, attending more than 700 programs annually. The holistic health and yoga retreat is housed in a former Jesuit seminary.

On our way to Canada’s east coast Prince Edward Island, passing through the Berkshires on the I-90 Mass Pike, my wife and I veered off at Stockbridge, and instead of going south to the Norman Rockwell Museum, drove north to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. The drive on the rolling wooded road was a welcome change after nine hours on the interstate.

The Berkshires emerged as a summer resort for the rich during the Gilded Age. At first, what would become Kripalu was a 100-room mansion. Andrew Carnegie lived there in fair weather. It was his summer retreat. “Mr. Carnegie wanted a quiet place where he could meditate,” wrote a local newspaper. At the height of his career he was the second-richest man in the world.

Rich is loud. Wealthy is quiet. Andrew Carnegie never needed to say a word.

He was known as the “Emperor of Industry” and believed in staying calm by staying focused. “The first man gets the oyster, the second man gets the shell,” he said, meaning focus on the oyster. Andrew Carnegie is the best-known philanthropist in American history. He gave away more money, adjusted for inflation, than just about anybody.

“The rich man who gives steals twice over,” countered Edvard Munch. “First he steals the money and then the hearts of men.” It’s enough to make your eyes cross, or make you reconsider the merits of economic Marxism.

Andrew Carnegie died in his summer mansion. It burned to the ground in 1956 and the Society of Jesus built a large brick seminary building just down the hill the next year. But then the 1960s happened and in 1970 the Jesuits moved on. The Kripalu Center bought and renovated the building in 1983.

At the front desk we got the bad news. Two days and nights of their popular R & R Retreat, in a room with a bath, albeit a room fronting a small lake, would cost us more than $1,200.00. The good news was the cost included a daily yoga class and all the “delicious all-natural” food we could eat. The yoga class sounded good. However, there was only so much food we could eat.

The two-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and front porch deck on the north shore of Prince Edward Island, on a 100-acre slope overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, where we were going to be staying for two weeks, was going to cost us $2000.00 for the two weeks, although no food was included. There was, however, a grocery store and a fish shack on the harbor, a liquor store up the hill,  and plenty of outdoors where to do yoga.

There are no parking meters on the red dirt cliff-lined coast. Stop anywhere, unroll a mat, practice, or just lay in the sun. There is more than one way to find enlightenment.

“I went for R & R with my sister and it was perfect,” said Jayne Murphy, a recent visitor to the Kripalu Center. “Vinyasa yoga when we needed it, plus wonderful clean food. I’d live there, if possible!”

It would only be possible if you had about $200,000.00 a year to pay for your room and board. However, if you put that same money into U. S. T-Bonds, in ten years you would be able to buy a million-dollar home, live like Andrew Carnegie, and have plenty left over for grub.

Retreats are group withdrawals for instruction, study, and meditation. Buddhists have gone on retreats since Buddha. Christian retreats date from the 16th century when St. Ignatius of Loyola, the man who founded the Jesuits, got the ball rolling with what he called Spiritual Exercises. Sufism, the mystical path of Islam, has been retreating for a millennium.

Yoga retreats used to be about getting out of the rut, the daily routine, or what is called dinacharya, recharging and getting deeper into the practice. They were usually more ascetic than aesthetic. That has changed. Modern yoga retreats are more along the lines of a recreational holiday. There’s a slice of yoga on the plate, but there’s no real need to resort to it at the resort.

When Shiva Rea invites one and all to Rhythmia, a yoga and wellness retreat, she is inviting one and all to a “new kind of all-inclusive vacation experience luxury resort” in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. When she says all-inclusive, she means boffo it all, on the mat, meditation, life coaching, healing touch, mud baths, massage, juice bar, farm-to-table food, and colon hydrotherapy, just in case someone is about to bust a gut.

“Come get your miracle,” proclaims Rhyhmia. Miracles are events of divine intervention in human affairs. A good masseuse kneading out the knots in your shoulders is an outstanding accomplishment, but it’s doubtful a divine phenomenon. The chef at the resort, however, is said to have come down from the clouds.

Once you get to Costa Rica the “life transforming vacation” will cost you in the neighborhood of $3,000.00 a week. According to the Retreat Guru at the resort it is well worth it. “It is a beautiful way to reconnect to our basic sanity and health. Our aspiration is to inspire people to reconnect with their innate wisdom, strength, and kindness,” he says.

The Retreat Guru’s ideas about reconnection only work if your wisdom strength kindness originally stem from growing up and living in a resort. Otherwise, maybe you are connecting with those virtues when you fly down to Costa Rica, but you’re not reconnecting with the font of it, no matter how wonderful the weather and spa services are.

When did yoga resorts become the zenspirational way to go for those with a medicine bag full of hard cash to go to their OM class? Have mat will travel. Crashing into paradise was never so easy, no begging your parents to get the car on the road, just show up at your local airport,

Resorts were once the James Bond lifestyle. There are more of them nowadays than ever. Resorts are places people go to for rest relaxation recreation, letting it all hang out. Yoga retreats were once about brushing up on the eight limbs, not just getting your limbs all buffed up. Except when the retreats go hand in glove with resorting.

The first resorts were the public baths of Rome. Many of them included gyms, theaters, and snack bars. In the 14th century a large resort area grew up around the iron-rich waters of a town called Spa in Belgium. Seaside resorts became popular in the United States in the late 19th century, followed by mountainside ones in the west.

Even the Dust Bowl had a resort in the 1930s, in Arkansas, featuring the two largest log buildings in the world. Resorts are self-contained and are all about food, drink, lodging, shopping, recreation, and entertainment. There are resort towns all around the world, for yoga and everything else.

The Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Thailand offers ‘Yoga for Life’, featuring exercise classes, breath work, and meditation, as well as mood mists. When you get off the mat there are naturopaths, acupuncturists, massage therapists, and skin-care specialists to take care of the aftermath. “I was on a mat getting a Thai massage – in Thailand. Life was good,” wrote Meghan Rabbit in her ‘Escape’ travelogue in Yoga Journal.

An ocean side room for a week of the good life runs about $5,000.00 per person. Off-season rates are better, but that’s when it rains most of the time, which is called the monsoon. The good life, unfortunately, gets flooded away. Temperatures zoom into the high 80s and the humidity is usually 100%-or-more.

The peak season is the best season. That’s when the countryside opens up like an oyster. The slimy shells fall away.

“A yoga retreat to some amazing locations gives practitioners the opportunity to explore some mouth-watering scenery, such as the serene countryside, panoramic views of stunning mountains, and the opportunity to embrace nature at its finest.” pointed out Ledan Soldani in ‘Yoga Retreats Are Transformational.’

Every season hundreds of thousands of people burn up the carbon flying off to exotic places to yoga retreats. The beautiful locations are one reason they go, but there are other reasons, too. They go to take a break from obligations, relax and de-stress, make new friends, surround themselves with inspiring people, open up free time for breath work and meditation, and expand their asana practice. Two classes a day are often offered, and when it comes to the buffet table to sustain your practice energy appetite, all the work is done for you.

It’s time out for you and yourself.

‘Yoga Is for Every Body’ is a five-day retreat at the Kalani Oceanside resort on the Big Island of Hawaii. The retreat includes active and restorative practices, meditation, writing contemplations, and storytelling games. “This retreat will connect with your highest potential for alignment and restoration,” explains Kimberly Dark, the facilitator.

The all-inclusive cottage cost is $2,375.00, which includes sauna, hot tubs, and a clothing-optional pool. Maybe some yoga can be accomplished poolside, but anyone contemplating writing would be best served staying away from clothing optional. That goes for the spectacularly beautiful coastline, and tropical paradises. too. Mouth-watering scenery is distracting.

Yoga and writing are similar to the extent they’re best done in private. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” Ernest Hemingway said about writing. Practicing yoga and bleeding on the page are about discovering what you think and believe. The problem with trying to look inward while at a resort is that the temptation to look outward is immediate tempting eye-popping overwhelming.

“Going on my first yoga retreat five years ago was a major turning point in my life,” said Gigi Yogini. “So much so that now I lead yoga adventures for others around the world in places like Joshua Tree, Costa Rica, and Bali. Those are truly transformative experiences.”

Who wouldn’t want to be transformed in Hawaii and Switzerland, among other places? Who wouldn’t want to go to the Alpina Gstaad resort in Switzerland, a resort of Tibetan healing practices, a resort where you can practice meditation and yoga with monks who have been at it forever? Relax in a faux Himalayan salt cave. Throw in massages and the resort’s signature golden latte. Drink your latte on a post-modern deck nestled in the Alps. Chill in the Swiss sunlight.

What Yoga Journal called a “sanctuary” was profiled in their June 2017 issue. Sign me up, man! I mean, sign me up if I had the money. Alpina Gstaad was built by the developer Jean-Claude Mimran. He is known as the ‘Sugar King of Africa.’ The Panorama Suite is $21,000.00 a night in high season, 40% off in the off-season. The glacier view is a priceless outdoor experience at your fingertips, just don’t leave home without your Gold Card from American Express.

Budgets have a lot of numbers in them. So do yoga resorts. Some have too many numbers.

Yoga retreats were once intensives. Meditation was followed by morning practice by some classes on theory by lunch on fruits and snacks by evening practice by dinner by self-reflection. In time it got mixed up with wellness and recreation. Now there are retreats that fuse yoga and music, yoga and dance, yoga and massage, yoga and detox, yoga and surfing sailing cycling hiking paddle boarding mountaineering, yoga and relationships, yoga and gardening, as well as yoga and food. There is yoga and ganja.

There is the five-day Cannabliss retreat in Ojai, California. The $1,200.00 all- inclusive price has all the black light yoga and marijuana on the menu you want. “This is a new frontier,” said founder Sari Gabbay. Munchies, however, are bring your own.

Our Boy Scout camps were about raising the flag, working on merit badges, marching off for the day, collecting wood cooking cleaning with your patrol, and since our camps were often near water, swimming and canoeing. We followed the Outdoor Code. Be clean in outdoor manners. Be careful with fire. Be considerate in the outdoors. Be conservation minded.

But Boy Scout camping was more than being a good citizen. Camping was about “the trees, the tree-top singers, the wood-herbs, and the nightly things that leave their tracks in the mud,” said Ernest Thompson Seton, the first Chief Scout. We bumped into trees in the dark. That’s why every tent had a first-aid kit handy.

We played mumble the peg with our pocketknives, standing opposite another scout, feet shoulder-width apart, throwing our knives to stick in the ground as near your own foot as possible. Whoever stuck the knife closest won the game. If you stuck the knife in your own foot you won on the spot.

We played other variations like Chicken and Stretch. We raided the Girl Scout tents, making off with their training bras, running them up the flagpole. We crept into other Boy Scout tents, coaxing a sleeping scout’s hand into a bowl of warm water, trying to make him pee.

The trouble with our summer camps from a scouting perspective was that they were so much fun. Who could pay attention to Robert Baden-Powell’s maxims? Be prepared for every order. Make sure to think out beforehand anything that might happen. Know the right thing to do at the right moment. It might have been possible, except our camps were full of crazy curious high-energy 12-year-olds with pocketknives, which made thinking clearly difficult.

The trouble with yoga resorts is that they are sensual delights, from the food to the spa services to the sunny locales. Who can pay attention to the eight limbs of the practice when there are limbs in and out of bikinis at the pool? Who wants to meditate when they can nap in a hammock in the warm breeze? Who strives to be a better person when they’re in the best of all possible worlds?

You would have to be a saint. Who wants to be a saint? Who wants to go on vacation surrounded by saints?

Although it’s true that most people practice yoga only by engaging in the physical postures, work on the mat brings attention to your breath, stilling your mind, and getting you to be present. The movement of the body, the quieting of the brain, which is usually in constant motion, and the rhythm of your breathing get you going on the way. When you breathe and center your attention, any place you are is where you are.

Anyone can play the Game of Fives wherever they happen to be sitting standing in hero pose. It costs zero dollars. Zero in on five things in your immediate environment. Look at them, smell them, and listen to them. Focus on your attention. When all of your attention is focused it is clear skies and smooth sailing. You don’t have to resort to anything else to practice yoga.

When you go somewhere far, far away to find yoga you might or might not find what you’re looking for. You almost surely will have a good time, unless a monsoon rolls in. Exploring communing schmoozing with nature in Bali and Big Sur is fun and organic and rejuvenating. We did it every summer as kids at Boy and Girl Scout camps. But when you’re connecting with nature you’re not connecting with yourself.

“The greatest explorer on this earth never takes voyages as long as those of the man who descends to the depth of his heart,” said Julien Green.

Yoga is an inside out practice, not an outside in practice. It’s not about getting on a jet plane and going out into the wide world looking for it. It’s hard to find out there, no matter how far up whatever country you go. The best place to look for your heart’s desire is inside yourself. What Yogananda said was, “To work with God’s happiness bubbling in the soul is to carry a portable paradise within you wherever you go.”

You don’t need a telescope. It’s not over every horizon. Ship ahoy! Home is where the heart is.