Hand on the Plow

By Ed Staskus

“Keep your hand on the plow, hold on, hold on.” Mahalia Jackson

Yoga is one of those things in this world that’s between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is, except that somebody is always trying to make it into something. Although it’s true God made everything out of nothing, it’s also true the Big Bang will one day become the Big Crunch, when everything will collapse into a final singularity of nothing.

Hold on, it’s going to be a wild ride.

There’s a lot to like about the practice. There always has been. There will probably be a lot to like about it for a long time to come. It’s a practice with a get it done now point-of-view and a going going gone view of things, too. It is practical and spiritual, hands on about what is right in front of you, and tuned in to the bigger picture at the same time. It is getting physical and metaphysical, all on one plate, without blinking an eye.

There’s a boatload of tradition to it, but it isn’t necessary to know everything about it to practice it. Teachings and teachers are a big help, but past the point of breathing and meditation and concentration and staying on the good side of the Golden Rule, it is a practice accessible to everyone because it is within everyone.

Everybody knows it’s better to be considerate rather than merciless, generous rather than greedy, rock steady rather than raging. It’s only the wise guys, our politicos machine gunners bankers power brokers movers and shakers and parade makers, who don’t have the wisdom to see past their noses.

One of the reasons they are horse blinkered is because their noses have grown so long they can’t see around them anymore. It ain’t the yellow brick road anymore when it leads to Orange Julius in the Oval Office.

The practice of yoga doesn’t demand you sign on the dotted line. It doesn’t squeeze you into any forgone conclusions. It doesn’t ask for your loyalty. What you get out of it is what you put into it, not the other way around. There’s no Church of Yoga or Chamber of Commerce of Yoga or Supreme Court of Yoga. It’s a way of life anyone can practice in their backyard, at work, and out in the wide blue yonder.

It is lucid able-bodied eye-opening. It is living and breathing with your heart in the right place. What’s not to like?

The fly in the ointment is asana practice. If the other seven limbs of the eight limbs of yoga make all the sense in the world, why does what passes as yoga on the mat pass itself off as the by the book way to work out in order to sustain health and fitness so that our minds spirit energies stay strong and on track?

There’s always something sketchy about orthodoxy.

When did you start needing a fitness membership at a yoga studio in order to practice yoga?  Why are there so many yoga classes at Planet Fitness Gold’s Gym Anytime Fitness? Does anybody just make it up at home for themselves anymore, or not?

Where did the idea come from that performing an ordained sequence of physical postures will get you closer to equilibrium? It’s as though your doctor wrote you a prescription for the up dog side angle touch your toes pill as a catch-all remedy for what ails you.

Why does Yoga Journal spit out articles like ’38 Health Benefits of Yoga’ month after month?

If not a cure-all, yoga is often touted as the Swiss Army knife of fitness.

The idea behind today’s yoga exercise sequences seems to be that what makes “a true yogic practice unique is that its focus is on sustained feeling of freedom and wholeness,” according to Alanna Kaivalya, author of “Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of the Yoga Tradition”.

In step with that definition, however, anybody with a million dollars in the bank is having a true yogic experience, because that much money in the bank is a no-brainer for feeling free and whole, no matter how you got the greenbacks or what you plan on doing with them.

The only problem with having a million dollars is that there are always a million guys trying to take it away from you. That’s where aparigraha comes in handy. It is one of the ten yamas and niyamas, the guidelines of the practice. It basically translates to non-greed, non-possessiveness, and invokes the frugal gene.

Since the rich are always complaining that being rich is harder than it looks, yoga might be a big help for them.

Yoga is like an old-time religion, even though it isn’t a religious practice. It is old-school. It’s got it’s hand on the gospel plow. But most of what is known as yoga today is largely about being led through a workout on a mat, with an emphasis on paying attention to your breath, and maybe a dollop of meditation to round things out. There’s no magic to it, but there is a healthy dose of hocus pocus involved.

For a long time, as yoga was booming in the modern world, the third limb of the practice was extolled for its timelessness. It was said the postures were thousands of years old. They had been burnished honed systematized to perfection. When Mark Singleton wrote “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” several years ago the genie was out of the bottle. It turns out almost everything being done on yoga mats had been invented in the past one hundred years-or-so.

A hundred years ago what is today taught and practiced on yoga mats far and wide was something else. It was Danish calisthenics British Army exercises YMCA strength work and Indian wrestling. It was a little bit of everything.

The “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” – written about six hundred years ago – enumerates fifteen physical postures. That’s all of them. Fifteen. The legendary text “Yoga Korunta” that Krishnamacharya and K. Pattabhi Jois based the Ashtanga Series on remains to this day legendary. In other words, undiscovered, unhistorical, and unverifiable, largely because ants supposedly ate the text. It was written on banana leaves.

Practicing the series, which is hard in the doing and fulfilling in the accomplishment, may land you on cloud nine, but the origin of the series is pie in the sky.

One of the only yoga sutras mentioning anything about asana practice simply says one of the most important aspects of it is that it should entail “appropriate effort.” There isn’t anything in any traditional yogic text that says headstand or handstand or standing in tree pose for five minutes is what you need to do to get fit.

All you need to do is show some gumption.

“Yoga practice is supposed to make us structurally stable, enable us to move with grace and ease, free us from physical suffering and enable us to withstand changing circumstances,” wrote Olga Kabel in ‘Traditional Goals of Asana Practice’.

Yoga exercise is part of the package, not the whole package, as it has been    misconstrued while being repackaged as a fitness regimen, another get fit quick commodity in the long line from Nautilus to jazzercise to spinning. It isn’t even clear that yoga is best for stability, best for enabling us to move with grace and ease, and best for alleviating suffering.

It is beyond doubt best for helping us adapt and deal with change, but that isn’t because of the exercise, but because of the rest of it. Yoga is 90% mental and the other half is physical.

“Traditionally, the practice of asana was always considered as an integral part of a holistic practice, never as an isolated fitness system,” said Gary Kraftstow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute.

When it becomes a fitness system is when it starts selling monthly memberships.

“Many gyms that offer yoga emphasize the physical exercise without teaching the essential self-awareness that differentiates yoga from any exercise,” said David Surrenda, founding dean of the Graduate School of Holistic Studies at John F. Kennedy University.

“The result of an emphasis on exercise misinterprets what the real intention of yoga practice is. Yes, one can increase muscle mass and decrease waist size, but that’s not the real goal. Much of the yoga practiced today has actually become the antithesis of yoga as it is meant to be.”

Yoga might be whatever you want it to be in its post-modern guise. Whatever it was meant to be way back when is neither here nor now. Maybe that’s the beauty of the practice, shape-shifting to suit our intentions. You’ve got to stay on your toes to stay in the present, be in the moment, which is an integral part of the practice.

Nevertheless, even though lunges and twists and jump backs on the mat are good for you, so are riding a bike and lifting weights. In fact, yoga doesn’t even crack Harvard Medical School’s Top 5, which are walking, swimming, strength training, Tai chi, and kegel. The best fitness exercises are still basic hip and hamstring stretches, push-ups, sit-ups, squats, dumbbell rows and presses, and burpees.

As part of an overall fitness regimen, yoga exercise is by all accounts a Top 10. Everyone does push-ups and sit-ups on the mat without even realizing it. The burpee is a foundation of all vinyasa sequences. When it comes to flexibility, yoga is certainly Number 1 on the Hit Parade. Sometimes people say they aren’t flexible enough to do yoga, but that’s like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.

Getting all the poses on the mat right is keeping your eye on the wrong prize.

Anyone who subscribes to the eight aspects of the practice is doing yoga, but no one who just does stuff on the mat is doing yoga. They are doing something, but it’s like soda pop to a scotch straight up. They are fooling themselves when they believe the bright shining proposition that they are achieving some greater good by doing what they’re told to do on the mat. Anyone will get fit if they spend enough time at a yoga studio, but they will get fit if they spend enough time walking around in circles, too.

Yoga is about mastering the modifications of your mind, not just the modifications of your body. When exercise is the be-all and end-all, it is a good thing in and of itself, but it’s not yoga. When exercise is linked to the breath, the breath to the mind, the mind to the spirit, in a kind of virtuous circle, it’s yoga whether you’re in a studio or walking the dog in the park.

Like K. Pattabhi Jois said, “Just do.”

Hatha yoga is what leads to physical health mental clarity and a cool as a cucumber spirit. When practiced alongside the yamas amd niyamas, the ten principles of daily life, it’s the second to none way of transforming yourself from the outside in and the inside out. There’s no monkey business to it.

The fitness aspect of yoga doesn’t have to be the dogma of what has come to be standardized in how-to books youtube videos and studios. It can be cobra and down dog and corpse pose. It can be power lifting. It can be archery. As long as your mind and spirit are one-pointed and your aim is true, whatever we do with gumption and purpose will gird us for where we want to go.

All anyone needs to do is keep their hand on the gospel plow.

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.”

Vanishing Act

By Ed Staskus

   Hal Schaser was always excited by Catholic girls. His mother was Saxon Lutheran, and she raised his brother Willie and him as Lutherans, but Catholic girls were for him. That’s why he married one. But they had to be at least a nine or ten on the good-looking scales at the same time they were Catholic. If they weren’t, they didn’t count, not in his eyes. 

   All the guys rated gals, one way or another.

   He went to Florida every winter after he got back to Cleveland, before he got married. He came back from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, and after he got back on his feet, went right to work for Palmer Bearings. They put him in sales the minute they saw him. He was 22 years old, clean-cut, proportioned, and full of pep. He didn’t tell them about the bad hearing in one ear he came back with after a year as an artilleryman.

   His city pals, the young men he knew who had the dough to go south for a couple of weeks when it got dark and cold on the south coast of Lake Erie, razzed him about being picky.

   “All you do is keep looking for a number ten girl, and half the time you don’t got any girl on your arm,” one of them said one day while sucking on a bottle of Blatz. “Me, I get a number three or four, so I’ve always got a gal, and by the end of the week they all add up to more than zero.”

   Another of his pals, another wise guy on the camel train, said, “Hal, if you ever land a ten, she’ll be out of your league, anyway, so forget about it.”

   Teresa Stasas was Catholic, between a nine and a ten, and 15 years old when Hal met her. He was 25 years old. She lied about her age, not that she had to. But after he found out he made sure she was eighteen before they got married. “We missed out on the cash envelopes and presents, since her family was dead set on me staying single and Teresa marrying somebody else.” He didn’t care. He wanted Teresa. He wanted to get ahead to the high life with her fast at his side.

   They met at the Karamu Theater. Hal lived with his mother on the near east side, and Teresa took a bus from North Collinwood, where she lived with her three sisters and parents in a two-bedroom house. Hal liked auditioning for parts and acting in shows. It got him started with the girls. He looked like Paul Newman, which didn’t hurt his chances. He was always trying out for shows at the Chagrin Little Theater, too.

   “I met a boatload of lookers that way.”

   Teresa was in high school shows and danced ballet. She had taken dance classes ever since she was a little girl. She could straighten a leg, keep a foot flat on the ground, and raise the other one to the ceiling. 

   “I don’t know how the hell she did it. I always liked ballet dancers. I fell in love with one when I was in high school. Her name was Margo. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful body, the same age as me, but an inch taller. She was one of the gym leaders and danced ballet on stage at our school. Another guy liked her, a Serb who played a lousy hillbilly guitar, and he was always angling to get into shows with her.”

   Hal started trying out, trying to get close to Margo, trying to elbow the Serbian boy aside.

   Teresa and he met auditioning for the same show at Karamu. He kept his eyes on her from the minute he set eyes on her. “She came on to me and did stuff like, ‘Can you give me a ride home?’ I had a car, she had stars in her eyes, and on starry nights it was a nice ride. She sat close to me on the bench seat.”

   She would sometimes leave something in his car, like her wallet or watch. “She would call me, and I would drive to her house, returning it, seeing her again. It was those little tricks women do.”

   Her parents were set in stone in opposition to her wedding bell plans. “It won’t work,” they both insisted. He was Lutheran, ten years older than her, born in the United States, but Romanian-bred. They were Catholic and Lithuanian, from the old country. She was still a teenager. He had a better job than either of her parents, making more money than the two of them put together, but it didn’t matter. 

   Teresa and Hal had to elope, driving across the Ohio line to Indiana, where they found a justice-of-the-peace on the side of the road, and got married. They went to Florida for their honeymoon. “We drove straight there in a new car I had just gotten. We stayed in the same motel my buddies and I used to go to. Our suite had a small kitchen and there was a big pool we went swimming in.” They sat out in the sun. Their skin got a shade darker. They discovered each other in the dark.

   When they got back to Cleveland, Teresa’s’s parents disowned her, and she didn’t see them for years. They moved in with Hal’s mother, in the meantime, in the old neighborhood, around East 65th St. and St. Clair Ave. Most of his countrymen worked in factories, ore docks, and knitting mills. His father had operated a corner store until he was murdered by two young thieves.

   “I worked hard, saving my salary and commissions, and the next year we bought a two-story house in Indian Hills, up from Euclid Avenue, near the city park.” The house fronted a sloping wooded lot. Their daughter Vanessa was born the next year and their son Mathias four years after that. Their problems started three years later. They never stopped getting worse.

   “We started out great, got the year of living with my mother out of our systems, moved into our big house, three bedrooms, newer than not new, got the kids grown up enough to walk, and my job got bigger and better the more I worked. I took clients out for golf and dinner three and four times a week. I kept my waistline under control by walking the courses. My handicap took a nosedive.”

   He was making money hand over fist. “I made a lot of money for Palmer Bearings. Those heebs loved me, so long as the pipeline stayed full and flowing.” His bosses said, “Keep up the good work.” His neighbors envied his one after the other new car. His wife complained about him never being home. “What do you do all those hours at work?”

   “I do a lot of business on golf courses,” he told her. “It’s work, don’t think it’s all just fun and games, it’s not.”

   Whenever he came home right after work, Teresa came running out the front door, grabbing him, giving him a hug and a kiss. He thought, this is embarrassing, the neighbors are watching, even though he barely knew any of their neighbors. “Cut it out,” he said. She gave him a queer look. He kissed the kids and read a book while Teresa set the table and served dinner.

   “I took her to dinner and shows, but it was never enough. I always let her do whatever she wanted. I let her teach cooking at the high school. I let her get a job at a restaurant. I let her go to Cleveland State University. It got to be a problem, because no matter what I did, it was never enough.”

   Teresa was a good-looking young woman, shapely and good on the move, friendly and running over with zip, and men eating at the restaurant were always hitting on her, but Hal’s problem was the young men she met at college. “One time I found a note in a drawer from some guy named Dave, thanking her for the great time they had. When I asked her about it, she said it was just a bunch of them from one of her theater classes going out for a drink.”

   “That’s all it was,” she said.

   “You’re not getting together with him?”    

   “No,” she said, “of course not.”

   He didn’t believe her, not for a minute. He knew what women were about. But he didn’t know everything. He didn’t know he was on his way to splitsville.

   Hal found out more, small things that looked like big things, about other men she was cheating on him with. He was sure of it. One night he answered a call from a man who sounded like he was from India, asking for her. He hung up. She was coming home later and later at night, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock, midnight. It began to look like the babysitter would have to start living in.

   “Where the hell were you?” he asked one night when she got home close to two in the morning.

   “Oh, my keys got locked in somebody’s trunk.”

   “It was always some bullshit story like that. We got into an argument. We got into a lot of arguments.”

   “Not so loud,” she hissed. “You’ll wake up the kids.”

   “It was her idea to get separated. Later it was her idea to get divorced. I loved her. I loved my kids. I didn’t want a bust-up. We could have settled the split between ourselves, but she had to get a lawyer, which meant I had to get a lawyer. Her mouthpiece must have put something in her ear, bastard lawyers.”

   He stopped at the Cleveland Trust Bank downtown on East 9th Street one day, after lunch with clients on Short Vincent, to withdraw some money, but the teller said, “There’s no money in your account, sir.”

   “What do you mean?”

   “The account is at zero,” the teller said.

   “Teresa had taken it all. She raided our joint bank account and took all the money in it. All I had left was what I had been keeping in a personal account she didn’t know anything about, the scratch I kept separate, and our insurance policies. She charged all kinds of stuff on our credit cards before I wised up and cancelled them all.”

   He paid his lawyer five thousand dollars, in cash. He got it from a separate business he had going, apart from Palmer Bearings. The lawyer was a golfing buddy of his, but he still had to pay it all up front. “The son-of-a-bitch, right away he joined the Shaker Country Club with it, and never invited me to play golf there, not even once, not even when I got in his face about it.”

   When they went to court, Hal picked a fight there and then. Not with Teresa, but with their two lawyers, his and hers. “The Saul Goodman’s get together with their crap, take all your money, and leave you with nothing. They are like morticians, just waiting for you to come back to life.”

   Between Teresa and them, he complained loud and long to his friends, they left him with only table scraps.

   Hal knew how to handle himself. He boxed Golden Gloves before going to Korea. He got to the finals in his weight class, and even though the other fighter was dazed purple and bloody, the judges gave the first prize to him. He was a Marine and Hal was an Army draftee, so the Marine staggered away with the trophy. 

   “I could have levelled both the shysters in a minute flat. The bailiff, and a policeman, and the judge, had to restrain me. The judge gave me a hell of a talking to after everybody was back in their seats.” It was a loud knock-down drag-out commotion on the third floor of the Lakeside Courthouse, under a high ceiling of ornate plasterwork, quiet paneled walls, and leather-covered doors.

   “They’re all the same, talking through their hats.”

   Teresa moved into the new Park Centre on Superior Avenue, the same building where some of Richard Hongisto’s right-hand men lived. He was Cleveland’s new top lawman, although inside a couple of years Dennis Kucinich, the kid mayor of the city, fired him on live TV. It sparked a recall drive to remove the mayor from office, which was the least of his problems, since the city was going bankrupt fast. The bankers hated the mayor and withdrew their helping hand of ready cash. They knew how to get back at him.

   “I say a plague on all of them, except that whoever did the car caper with her got me the last laugh on Teresa, for what it was worth.”

   He bought her a new Mercedes sports car, hoping it would make her happy. It had a red leather interior. She loved the car, although it didn’t make her any happier about him any more than she wasn’t already. When they separated, she reported the car stolen. She called Hal about the insurance money. He told her he would let her know. He didn’t tell her the car was in his name. 

   “A month later I got a letter from a parking garage in New York City, saying we’ve got your car here, you owe so much for parking, come and get it. I was sure one of Teresa’s cop neighbors cooked it up with her, driving the car away, and leaving it in the garage. When I got the insurance check for the missing car, I cashed it and tore the letter up.”

   Teresa was a looker in her time, always worth a second look. Hal wasn’t sure how she looked when she got older, since after their last fight he never saw her again. He was certain her looks had gone south. “I’m sure she wasn’t the beauty she had been. I’m sure she looked like hell. That’s something I would bet money on.”

   She had beautiful handwriting but wrote Hal hate letters after their separation. 

   “Your kids don’t want to see you, you haven’t sent me enough money, all that kind of crap. I had to pay child support, even though I was used to a certain style of living for myself. I had to go on dates, looking for another woman, but it wasn’t easy. I couldn’t operate. I didn’t have much money. You’ve got to have money to do things. I was nearly broke. I had to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat father.”

   Teresa met another man, a handsome Italian from Rochester, a Vietnam veteran. They moved in together, with her children. They didn’t pretend to be married, even though they lived like man and wife. They wanted to get married, but Hal wouldn’t give Teresa a divorce, no matter how many times she asked.

   “She and the guy from Rochester got it into their heads to go into the restaurant business. She asked me to take a second mortgage on the house. I said no, restaurants are the worst thing you can get into. In spite of myself I took a second mortgage on the house and gave her the money. It put me in a spot.”

   Teresa’s restaurant became two restaurants. The new family moved up to the seventeenth floor of Park Centre, to a three-bedroom end suite facing Lake Erie. They watched the Cleveland National Air Show from the balcony. They opened a bar on the new Eat Street in the apartment complex.

   “The dago was always telling me, take it easy, like he was trying to be my friend. I wanted to tell him how mad I was about not being able to get my wife back, about never seeing my kids. I never said one bad thing about her, but the divorce hurt me bad. After the mess in court, after we split up, I thought, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. I don’t want to talk to her, and I don’t want to see her. And I never did, except once more.”

   Teresa came to the family house in Indian Hills on a quiet autumn afternoon. She asked Hal to mortgage the house again, a third time, so she could expand her eateries some more, but he told her a second mortgage was all banks would go for. She said she needed more investment money and that he should sell the house, splitting whatever he might get for it with her.

   “If I do that, where am I going to live?”

   “That’s up to you.”

   “She was living downtown, in her fancy high-rise. What did she care where I lay my head? It could be some crummy cardboard bed under a bridge, as far as she was concerned. We got into an argument about it. My boy was with her. He stuck up for his mom. I didn’t blame him, though. I liked that about him.”

   Push came to shove, and Teresa slapped Hal hard in the face when he finally had enough, nose to nose, shouting that he wasn’t going to sell the house, that they were through once and for all, and that was that. 

   “She scratched me with her fingernails when she slapped me, cutting me, and drawing blood. I pushed her away.”

   They glared at each other.

   “Quit it. Go away,” he said.

   Teresa’s mouth went cold thin-lipped, she twisted around, reaching for her son, and stamped out. She didn’t look back. The front door slammed shut. He didn’t see her or the money he had lent her ever again.

   He was on the ropes. He knew the TKO was on its way, making its slow way to down and out. He had let his guard down and there was nothing he could do about it. He would have to take it like a man.

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.”