Rhythm of the Saints

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   At least it used to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord of the Manor

By Ed Staskus

   By the time Dave Bloomquist set foot on Prospect Avenue the street had been there for more than a century. It is one block south of Euclid Ave, which between 1870 and 1930 was known as Millionaire’s Row. Nearly 250 houses ran along its 4 golden miles. Some of them were as big as 50,000 square feet on lots of 6 acres. One of them owned by Sam Andrews kept 100 servants to make sure the mansion made it through the day.

   On Sundays everybody paraded to church dressed in their best. At the time it was called “The Most Beautiful Street in America.” High-spirited sleigh races in winter attracted thousands, lining the 30 blocks between East 9th and East 40th Streets to watch. In the spring children busted out to the many small parks within running distance.

   Prospect Avenue was a second cousin, but the cousins were well-to-do. It housed the upper middle class, lawyers, doctors, and businessmen. Rowhouses were built between 1874 and 1879 near East 36th Street in Gothic Revival, Italianate, and Second Empire styles. A grand house was built in 1883 for Sarah Benedict, the widow of Cleveland Herald publisher George Benedict. The five-story Plaza Apartments was built in 1901.

   Dave Bloomquist grew up in Sandusky, in northern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, midway between Toledo and Cleveland. Back in the day the Wyandots called the spot Soundustee. It means cold water. 

   “I was recruited my senior year in high school by Findlay University on a basketball scholarship, but was disciplinarily dismissed after the winter semester of 1968,” he said. He quickly pulled up his dorm room stakes and went to Colorado. “I was avoiding arrest on a possession and sales charge but was eventually picked up and extradited back to Ohio. When I got out on bond I petitioned for probationary enrollment to Cleveland’s Tri-C.” 

   It was one of the only higher education schools of any kind in Ohio that offered that kind of re-entry opportunity. Keeping his nose clean and finishing with a 3.5 GPA he was able to later transfer to Cleveland State University. In the meantime, in between classes, he needed a job. When the Auditorium Hotel posted a stock boy position on the community college’s job board, he went downtown.

   “The manager’s assistant assumed I was there for another positing, for night auditor, since I showed up in a jacket and tie. I fabricated math and accounting skills on the spot and was hired.”

   The 10-story hotel built in 1927 was on the corner of East 6th Street and St. Clair Ave. There were 420 rooms. It was close to everything because everything was close-by.

   “Most of the rooms stayed mostly empty, except when the Metropolitan Opera came to town,” Dave said. “That’s when my limited skills with the NCR auditing machine and the Lilly Tomlin-style switchboard became obvious. The three manual elevators were operated by retired prostitutes. The second shift bell captain was a city supervisor during the day, but at night became the procurer for all the shady desires of the guests. The hotel had off-duty policemen moonlighting as security, who were good at raiding the restaurant refrigerators for steaks and regaling me with crook stories.”

   He was the last night auditor at the Auditorium. Six months after he started the hotel closed. Soon after it was demolished. Married and with an infant son, he dropped out of a school for a quarter to work full-time. When he went back to Tri-C, he worked as a student assistant in the Art Department and the night shift at a local psychiatric hospital. When he moved on to Cleveland State University, he again found work in the Art Department and became director of the university’s daycare, as well.

   The psychiatric hospital hadn’t driven him crazy. Infant crying and irritability weren’t going to, either. When he became the janitor at the Plaza, it didn’t test his mental and physical health overmuch.

   “Ruby and David, the janitors at the Plaza, moved out and Betty Basil, the manager, offered me the job. I had to sweep the halls, shovel the snow, cut the grass, and empty the three big trash barrels. I was also paid $50 for every room that I painted.”

   The work is messy, and the mess is always back the next day. It can drive a good man crazy. Janitors work odd hours and are prone to a high risk of trips slips falls, repetitive motion misery, and musculoskeletal injuries caused by overexertion. More than 46,000 janitors suffer work-related mishaps every year requiring time off, according to a report by the National Safety Council.  

   “Overall, most things were dutifully and patiently taken care of.” When you have the patience to do simple things well you get the hang of doing the dirty work.

   Keeping the grounds and premises clean gave him a window into the workings of the building. When he met Allen Ravenstine, he knew as much about the Plaza as anybody. Allen was mulling over what to with the inheritance he received after both his parents died in an accident. He had abandoned collegiate life and was re-making himself as a musician.

   “He was working with EML synthesizers and jamming with others engaged in experimental music,” Dave said. “But he was keen on being more personally engaged with his recent windfall. He was concerned that it was helping IBM and other blue-chip corporations that were supporting a government and a war.”

   The Vietnam War had gone full-scale big sky extravaganza. The ten-day Christmas Bombing of 1972, targeting Hanoi and Haiphong, was accomplished by B-52s. They were the biggest bomber strikes launched by the United States Air Force since the end of World War II. Other than blowing up lots of “major target complexes,” it didn’t get anything done. 

   After the titanic struggles of the past ten years, 1973 dawned with a new peace agreement. It was repeatedly violated by both sides as the struggle for power and control in South Vietnam continued. Nobody knew that by the end of the year there would hardly be any American combat forces left in the country and after that it was just a matter of time before Charlie won the war.

   “With the help of some wine and some smoke Allen and I discussed a wide variety of investments,” Dave said. “We talked about publishing and selling stories and poetry like City Lights, opening an art gallery, and getting an experimental music venue in the works. But as these interests were unlikely to go beyond a hobby that drained his resources, which were meant to sustain him into full adulthood, and some kind of career, one by one they were tabled.”

   After more talk and more ideas tabled as no good, Dave floated the notion of buying the Plaza Apartments and using the revenue from it to support their art enterprises.  At the time it was owned by the family who also owned Blonder Paints at East 39th St. and Prospect Ave. Blonder went back to 1918 when a cigarmaker and a paperhanger got it off the ground. They sold paint, varnish, and paperhanging supplies, both wholesale and retail. By the 1950s it was the country’s 6th largest wholesaler of wallpapers. 

   “We learned the family might be open to a purchase offer, so we got started. It was the days of red lining and white flight. We had difficulty finding an appraiser who would even look at the building. Of course, no banks would talk to us.”

   Working with Everett Pruitt, Sr, a black realtor and appraiser with an office on East 86th St. and Cedar Ave they got a number on which to base an offer. “Everett helped us draft a land contract that was reviewed by Allen’s attorney and his older brother, who both thought we were nuts. We then manned up, dressed up, made a call and made an offer. After a little back and forth we struck a deal. We got the Plaza, the Victorian house next door, and the parking lot for $62,500.  I put in every penny my wife Ann and I had, which was $1,000, and Allen contributed the remaining amount, which was $9,000. The balance was amortized over 15 years. We formed Corona Unlimited, a partnership agreement based on a handshake and a toast.”

   They paid themselves $75.00 a week and lived rent-free. When a six-room front apartment on the top floor came open, Dave, Ann, and their son moved up from their small second floor rooms.

   “Mike Roccini was living in that suite,” Dave said. “He was a writer, some magazine articles and a novel. He graduated from the University of the Americas in Mexico City in pharmacy with a taste for tequila and cigars. After coming down with a heart ailment he retired from dispensing drugs and spent most of his time in what he called his Moose Hall writing, with breaks to check the mail and report to his office at the bar of the Sterling Hotel. His wife Speedy was a schoolteacher.”

   She kept him flush in pencils and paper. It was when the fourth-floor walk-up became too much for Mike that he and Speedy moved to a farm east of Cleveland. None of the chickens complained about his cigar smoke, fearing for their heads.

   To make ends meet Dave tended bar weekends at the Viking Saloon, helped out at the Mistake, and filled in at the Library when they were short-staffed. The Library was popular with CSU students and local bohemians. It was at East 37th and Prospect, in what had been the Benedict House, long past its glory days. The students drank too much and got into fights and the bohemians argued too much, even though it never mattered who won or lost.

   He went to work at the Round Table, an old downtown German restaurant. 

   “It had become a tired-out attorney’s bar with most of the grand old rooms empty. A young hustler from Lakewood convinced the owner to convert all three floors to a music venue. It was wildly successful. But bar tending was tailor made for my increasingly flagrant infidelities. After we purchased the Plaza, Ann grew tired of it and found sympathy and comfort from Allen.”

   Even so, the partnership continued for a dozen-and-more years. They used the rental income from the 48 apartments for operating expenses and renovations. With a 30% vacancy rate, a mortgage at 17%, insurance for an old building, taxes and utilities, it ate up most of the income. Renovations meant DIY for almost everything.

   “There was an old hardware store on Euclid just east of 55th Street, owned by Mr. Weiss. Before buying the Plaza, I got to know him and his helpmate Jimmy in my role as janitor of the building. Their stock of plumbing and building supplies dated back at least 50 years, which is a great resource when keeping an 80-year-old building alive. Since I was limited in my knowledge of trade skills it meant I would frequently go to Mr. Weiss or Jimmy for information on how to sweat pipe or wire a switch. They were very generous with their knowledge, if sometimes humored by my ignorance. They knew we were committed to the neighborhood.”

   The rigors of living it up on the late-night rock ‘n roll bar life roller coaster finally proved to be too much. He left his accustomed haunts to tend bar at the Elegant Hog on Playhouse Square. “It had an older crowd that tipped much better, and they closed much earlier.” He put his nose to the grindstone and the Plaza got better month by month. The vacancy rate went down, and the waiting list went up.

   Dave wasn’t lord of the manor, not by a long shot. Upper Prospect wasn’t anybody’s magic kingdom. Those days were done and gone. He was more like the Prince of Prospect, a hammer, wrench, and screwdriver part of his coat of arms. When the roof leaked or the boiler faltered, he put on his coat and went to work.

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.”