Category Archives: In the Looking Glass

Torn Curtain

By Ed Staskus

   The documentary film “Night and Fog” is 32 minutes long, unless it’s watched thirty times in a row, which makes it almost sixteen hours long. I was a film student at Cleveland State University in 1977 when I saw it for the first time and the thirtieth time. It was made by Jean Cayrol and Alain Resnais twenty years earlier. It is about the creation, existence, liberation, and legacy of the WW2 death camps, specifically Majdanek and Auschwitz.

   Nazi Germany and its Axis allies built more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration and extermination sites between 1933 and 1945. They stayed busy as bees. Majdanek was outside Lublin, Poland and run by the SS. There were gallows and seven gas chambers. Auschwitz was also in Poland, a complex of forty camps. It was run by the SS, too. It had more gallows and more gas chambers. The camps were what the Germans called the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” They were also the final solution for what to do with many Soviet prisoners and anybody else who got in the way of the Third Reich.

   Between 1942 and 1944 freight trains delivered millions of people to the camps. They were abused, beaten, and tortured. Some of them died of exhaustion, starvation, and disease. Others were subjected to deadly medical experiments. A quarter million people were exterminated at Majdanek. Auschwitz operated on a more industrial scale. More than a million people were exterminated there.

   The reason I watched “Night and Fog” thirty times by myself in a small dark room wasn’t because I was especially interested in World War Two or the Holocaust. Dennis Giles, the one and only professor of movies in the Communications Department at CSU, suggested I write a paper about the film. He made me a teacher’s assistant so I could have a closet-sized office on the 16th floor of Rhodes Tower down the hall from his office. I screened movies for his classes, which was hardly a chore. The rest of the time, which was most of the time, was my own.

    I was given access to a 16mm projector and a clean copy of the documentary. It was the only thing clean about it. If the Germans thought they were cleaning up the world, they had a hell of a dirty way of doing it.

   Dennis Giles graduated from the University of Texas with a master’s degree. His thesis was “The End of Cinema.” He got a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1976 and showed up at CSU the next year. He was tall thin lanky, dressed like a beatnik, and smoked incessantly. He lived in Ohio City near the West Side Market. The neighborhood was a mess, but in the past ten years the Ohio City Redevelopment Assn. had gotten more than a hundred structures restored or redeveloped. Houses were being refurbished by young upper middle-class folks, leading to complaints of gentrification. If he was part of the gentrification, he didn’t look the part.

   He looked like he had spent too much time in dark rooms. He was a member of the National Film Society. He liked to say film was art and television was furniture. He didn’t mean the furniture was any good, either.

   It took me a few days to figure out how to tackle the project. I finally decided to do a shot-by-shot analysis, zeroing in on how the shots were the brick and mortar of the scenes and sequences. If I tried writing about the gruesome nature of the subject, I would never get out of the weeds.

   The film goes back and forth between past and present, between black-and-white and color, and between some of it shot by the filmmakers and some stock footage. The first shot is of a deadpan sky. The camera tracks downwards to a dreary landscape. It then tracks to the right and stops on strands of barbed wire. The second shot is of a field with a line of trees on the horizon. “An ordinary field with crows flying over it,” the narrator says. But it’s not an ordinary field. The camera again tracks to the right revealing posts with electrified barbed wire strung from post to post. The third shot tracks from an open road once more to the right to another tangle of barbed wire.

   After a while the tracking shots to the right and the barbed wire all over the place start to become part of a normal landscape. “An ordinary village, a steeple, and a fairground. This is the way to a concentration camp,” the narrator says. When he says “steeple” the shot on screen is of an observation tower, machine guns at the ready.

   My father was born in the mid-1920s and grew up in Siailiai, Lithuania. His father was a police chief who was swept up by the Russians in 1941 and deported to a Siberian labor camp. My grandfather died of starvation there the next year. My father was in his mid-teens. He had to take over the 100-acre family farm. When the Germans invaded, capturing, and imprisoning a great number of Red Army troops, he applied for and was granted labor rights to a dozen of them. They worked 14-hour days and slept locked up in the barn. When they complained, he passed out bottles of vodka. When they escaped the Germans shot the escapees and gave him more men.

   Siaulai is in the north of the country. It is home to the Hill of Crosses. It is place of pilgrimage, established in the 19th century as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule. There are more than 100,000 big and small crosses on the hill. During World War Two almost every single Jew who lived in Siaulaii bore his own cross, either shot or railroaded.

   The first part of “Night and Fog” is about the rise of fascist ideology in Germany. The next part contrasts the good life of loyal Germans to the travails of the concentration camp prisoners.  The third part details the sadism of the captors. The fourth part, all in black-and-white, is about gas chambers and piles of bodies. It is nothing if not horrendous. Even the living are bags of bones in their dingy overcrowded barracks. The Germans shaved everybody’s heads before they gassed them. They said it was for lice prevention and that the gas chambers were showers. They collected and saved the hair. It was used to make textiles at factories in Nazi-occupied Poland. The last part is about the liberation of the camps and the hunt for who was responsible.

   Everybody, even the next-door neighbors, said they didn’t know anything about the camps, or if they did, were just following orders.

   “We SS men were not supposed to think about these things,” said Rudolf Hoss, the commandant at Auschwitz. “We were all trained to obey orders without even thinking, so that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody, and somebody else would have done it just as well if I hadn’t. I never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.”

   The 23rd through 32nd shots of the film are of camps and their gates. “All those caught, wrongly arrested, or simply unlucky make their way towards the camps,” the narrator says. “They are gates which no one will enter more than once.”

   After World War Two started and the Germans incorporated the Baltics into the Reich Commissariat Ostland, there were about 240,000 Jews in Lithuania, slightly less than 10% of the population. The first thing the Germans did was start gunning down Jews in the rural countryside, aided by Lithuanian auxiliaries. By August 1941 most of them were dead and gone. Then they started in the cities. There wasn’t a lot of search-and-destroy involved, so the business didn’t take long. 

   “Gangs of Lithuanians roamed the streets of Vilnius looking for Jews with beards to arrest,” said Efraim Zuroff. His great-uncle, wife, and two sons were taken to Likiskis Prison and shot the next week. Karl Jaeger, the SS commander of a killing unit that did its spadework in Vilnius kept an account book of their project. On September 1, 1941, he recorded those killed for the day as “1,404 Jewish children, 1,763 Jews, 1,812 Jewesses, 109 mentally sick people, and one German woman who was married to a Jew.”

   When the war ended there were about 10,000 Jews left in Lithuania, slightly more than 0% of the population. It was the largest-ever loss of life in that short a period in the history of the country.

   The 41st through 69th shots of the film are without narration. They show crowds of disheveled people being strong-armed into boxcars. The last shot is of a father leading his three children along a railroad platform. The father looks resigned, and the children look bewildered. They are shoved into a boxcar. “Anonymous trains, their doors well-locked, a hundred deportees to every wagon,” the narrator says, returning. “Neither night nor day, only hunger, thirst, asphyxia, and madness.”

   The Nazis occupied Siauliai in 1941. All the Jews were made to wear a big yellow Star of David on their chests. Their children were forbidden to go to school. Their businesses were taken away from them. At the end of summer, the Einsatzgruppen and Lithuanian police rounded up more than a thousand Jews, took them to a forest, ordered them to strip, and shot them down like dogs. They shoved their naked bodies into open sand pits. When the shooters left, they took all the watches jewelry wallets purses and clothes with them.

   “Today the sun shines,” the narrator says in the 70th shot of the film, tracking through the quiet trees. “Go slowly along, looking for what? Traces of the bodies that fell to the ground?”

   The rest of the town’s Jews were made to move into the ghetto. A couple of years later two thousand adults and a thousand children were transported to Auschwitz and gassed. The next year the few of them left were sent to the Stutthof camp. That finished off the Jews in Siauliai, once and for all.

   Nearing the end of the film the narrator asks, “How discover what remains of the reality of those camps, shrill with cries, alive with fleas, nights of chattering teeth, when they were despised by those who made them and eluded those who suffered there?” The 119th shot is of a macerated man lying on his side on the ground and drinking something from a bowl. “The deportee returns to the obsession of his life and dreams, food.” The 124th shot is of a dead man, legs akimbo on the ground, ignored by those around him. “Many are too weak to defend their ration against thieves and blows. They wait for the mud or snow. To lie down somewhere, anywhere, and die one’s own death.”

   My father fled Siauliai for East Prussia when the Red Army swarmed the country in 1944. His two sisters and mother were already on the run. One of his sisters made it to Germany, the other sister went into hiding, while his mother was arrested and sent to Siberia, where she remained for the next ten years. Even though he fled with almost nothing except some cash, photographs, and a change of clothes, he had nothing to lose. The Communists would have shot him on the spot for employing Russians as slave labor.

   Like most Lithuanians my father had no use for Jews. He never had a good word to say about them. He never let on to me, and never talked about went on in Siauliai, except as it related to his family, but I caught enough snatches of talk at picnics, parties, weddings, community events, and coffee klatches to know what the score was. He wasn’t a bad man, just like most Lithuanians weren’t bad. He worked hard to support his family community country. He was a Boy Scout leader and helped get the local church and parochial school built. He wasn’t any different than most people.

   The film ends with aerial shots of Auschwitz. It is 1945. The war is almost over. “There is no coal for the incinerators The camp streets are strewn with corpses.” One of the last sequences shows German soldiers being led away from a camp by Allied forces. Many of the soldiers are sturdy sullen women. They carry rail thin corpses slung over their shoulders, throwing them into a pit, and going back for more. You never realize how thick the fog is until it lifts. Ghostly prisoners still alive and now suddenly free stand staring next to useless strands of rusting barbed wire. 

   In a Nuremberg courtroom one Nazi official after another says he was not responsible. “Who is responsible then?” the narrator asks. Nobody responsible says anything, although some at least were convicted of war crimes and hung. They should have been drawn and quartered.

   Short of cannibalism, what the Germans did to those they herded into the camps was the worst thing they could have done. After I finished my thirtieth viewing of every sequence in the film, I wrote my paper and turned it in. I got an A- and got to keep my cubbyhole. Afterwards I thought, I’m glad that’s over. 

   I thought I wouldn’t watch “Night and Fog” again. One Groundhog Day after the other gets to be nerve wracking. Enough is enough.

A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine.

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.”

Never Trust a Yoga Teacher Under 30

By Ed Staskus

Back in the 1960s Jack Weinberg, one of the founders of the Free Speech Movement, said, “Never trust anyone over 30.” What he meant was that a great gap existed between those over 30 and under 30. The gap was credibility, to use the term of the day.

The expression was both celebrated and ridiculed. Today the Baby Boomers of yesteryear, for many of whom the catchphrase was a rallying cry, have become the way over 30s and are not trusted by anyone, at least not anyone who suspects that My Generation is the most partisan and self-serving generation of modern times.

Yoga practice is built on trust. Whether it’s the study of yoga ethics, or the concepts of introversion and concentration, or the 800-pound gorilla in the corner, which is yoga exercise, trusting in one’s teachers is important.

Having faith in their teachers motivates students to examine themselves and encourages them to grow.

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

“It’s the integrity and awareness that the teacher brings to class that is most important,” said Joe Palese, a Georgia-based teacher trainer who conducts workshops both nationally and internationally.

The problem is, there are boatloads of yoga teachers whose qualifications amount to 200 hours of training. In fact, 85% of Yoga Alliance’s more than 40, 000 registered teachers are registered at the 200-hour level. It’s when the front of the room gets sketchy.

Joe Palese has seen some of these teachers in action.

“The instructors were cool people and they’d play good music,” he said. “But, students didn’t know they were being taught poorly.”

Yoga can be traced back about 5, 000 years, although some researchers believe it may be 10, 000 years old. The first hatha yoga schools date back about 90 years. A 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified teacher expends an effort equivalent to one hour of study for every 25 years of yoga’s existence, based on the 5, 000 year mark, or about two hours of study for every year of modern hatha yoga’s existence.

That’s like stubbing your little toe on the base of Mt. Everest instead of climbing it.

Is there anyone who would hire a plumber, for example, to install a sink or toilet in his or her home, a plumber who bragged he had 200 hours of training?

Plumbers train at trade schools and community colleges. Their apprenticeships typically span 4 – 5 years. In most states they must have 2 – 5 years of work experience before they can take an exam and obtain a license.

A yoga enthusiast can train for 200 hours, earn their Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) title, and open their own studio the next day. They can even offer their own “Teacher Training” program not long after the paint has dried, or after 500 hours of experience, whichever comes first, according to Yoga Alliance Standards. Although YA registration is not a certification, it is a listing of those “who meet our minimum requirements for teaching experience,” explains the organization.

There’s something to be said for setting the bar a little higher, or at least approaching something like elementary school.

The men and women who teach first graders must have a bachelor’s degree from a teacher education program and are typically required to complete a supervised student teaching internship. Then, in order to actually teach their first six-year-old, they need to get a state license.

First grade coursework involves learning to read simple rhymes, beginning to count by 2s and 5s, and science experiments such as how pushing and pulling affects a wooden block. Sometimes a child will throw another child out of a chair to illustrate how forces at work can propel something at rest.

It does not involve complex dispositions of the body on a mat, concentration of energy in one place, or lessons on how to achieve a unified state of mind.

Yet, it seems, anyone can teach yoga, from simple down dog to enlightenment, after training for the equivalent of five full-time weeks. They do not need a license of any kind. No state regulates yoga. The one state that did, Colorado, in May 2015 relaxed its regulations to practically nothing after a storm of yogic protests.

“I get pretty fired up about this,” said Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “How can you have people who know nothing about yoga regulating yoga schools?” Which begs the question of why teacher training facilities like the Samadhi Center continue to churn out new 200-hour teachers who know next to nothing about yoga.

“Sadly, ‘Do a headstand if you want to,’ is the norm for beginning yoga teachers now,” said James Brown of the American Yoga School.

In fact, no one even needs a Yoga Alliance anything to teach headstand and inner peace. Anyone can open up shop anywhere, on their own say so, whether they know anything about yoga or not. Many in the yoga business argue that because they are teaching love and compassion they should be exempt from state regulation.

It is basically a free-for-all in the free market, buyer beware.

Self-appointed yogis like Bikram Choudhury claim whatever they want, such as that hot yoga flushes toxins from the body (false), cures cancer (false), and keeps you going all night long in the sack (doubtful after 90 minutes of Bikram “Torture Chamber” Yoga).

“Cootchi, cootchi,” said Bikram Choudhury. “You can have seven orgasms when you are ninety.”

No matter the funny dada-like sense of it, it is coldly calculated, some yoga masters laughing all the way to the bank.

“The class was so bad I can’t even explain it to you,“ wrote Lauren Hanna in ‘Licensing Yoga: Who the F*ck Let You Become a Yoga Teacher?’

“It made no sense. The teacher should be arrested it was that bad.”

She may have meant having to listen to a newly minted 200-hour graduate explain how “hips hold deep-seeded feelings of guilt and resentment” or some other mumbo-jumbo, meanwhile offering up the new age mantra of “channel your inner child” as they try to encourage a fifty-year-old a few months shy of beginner class to do crow or handstand.

There is a reason why William Broad of The New York Times has written articles and a book about how yoga can wreck bodies, from torn cartilage to causing strokes. “There are no agreed-upon sets of facts and poses, rules and procedures, outcomes and benefits,” he said.

There are some in the yoga world who want it that way. “Things are not uniform by tradition,” said Gyandev McCord, the Director of Ananda Yoga in Nevada City, California.

As for rules and procedures, Gyandev McCord believes yoga should be left alone to self-govern itself, saying those “who don’t understand the landscape of yoga aren’t qualified” to regulate it.

Yoga Alliance opposes government regulation of yoga, including teacher training programs, saying it “would simply serve no benefit to the public or yoga community.” They believe regulation of any kind is unnecessary because yoga is “a safe activity, licensure would inevitably reduce consumer choice, government authorities are not qualified, and it may compel teachers to stop offering instruction.”

Although it is certainly laudable of Yoga Alliance to be mindful of the yoga community, it may be equally lamentable that fledgling 200-hour teachers are only able to grasp a little of the big landscape of yoga.

Training of any kind is optional.

“It’s not illegal to teach without training as a teacher,” explained Gyandev McCord. Maybe not, but maybe it should be, given that minimally-educated teachers instructing the uninformed in flow-based yoga to the soundtrack of their rocking iPods may be doing more harm than good.

“It’s an embarrassing charade that looks kind of like something called yoga that one saw in a book once or twice,“ said James Brown of the American Yoga School.

“Teaching any of the yoga poses requires an understanding that comes from deep study and long-term practice.”

But, instead of promoting “deep study” Yoga Alliance has gone the way of Trip Advisor, saying on their website: “Past trainees provide social ratings and comments about their training experience, which may be shown on our public directory.”

That’s a Little League home run. Hooray for babes in toyland and social media!

Given the way things are, and the way things seem to be going, it may be best to simply not trust any teacher under 30 and instead opt for older seasoned teachers who have gained their experience from even older well-seasoned teachers.

Although it is true that experience is gained by making mistakes, and real knowledge comes from direct experience, which under 30 teachers are doing, it is also true that experience is a brutal teacher. When it comes to rolling out one’s mat it might be better to do so in front of someone who’s already learned all about drawing without an eraser, someone who’s spent more than a few weeks of training getting prepared organized off on the right foot for a lifetime.

Better to do wheel pose in the hands of someone who’s not re-inventing the wheel.

A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.

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.”

Walk of Life

By Ed Staskus

“War is hell.”  William Tecumseh Sherman

Wars are armed conflicts. We have been marching off to them for the past 14,000 years. Since the rise of the nation-state as we know it tens of thousands of wars have been fought, costing more than 3.5 billion human lives. Other deaths, like those of horses, mules, and camels are incalculable.

The Confederate cavalryman J. O. Shelby had 24 horses shot out from under him in two-and-a-half years during the Civil War. He survived every warhorse he ever rode. General Shelby died of old age in 1897.

Nearly all people all societies all states have gone to war with one another. 95% of all known societies have either fought wars or fought wars constantly. In the past 14,000 years there have been only approximately 300 years of non-raising Cain.

“The condition of man is a condition of everyone against everyone,” said Thomas Hobbes some 400 years ago. When it comes time to taking care of business it’s about banging heads with iron and blood, no matter what century it is. “Force and fraud are in war cardinal virtues.” In other words, no one gives a hoot for the other man, woman, or child. It’s every Man for himself and God against all.

It’s every horse mule camel for himself, too.

All faiths beliefs persuasions have crossed swords, from Jews to Buddhists to Christians. The European Wars of Religion in the 16thand 17th centuries cost more than 15 million souls. Islam has been at it since just about Day 1. In Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers and hard-line Buddhists have been fighting tooth and nail for several years.

They were and are fighting for their beliefs, their beliefs being a ball and chain. Non-violence can be a disaster when it doesn’t work. The only bigger disaster is violence when it works.

More than 230 million people died in the wars of the 20th century. “It was a beastly century,” said Margaret Drabble. It’s impossible to say how many were injured displaced disappeared. At the end of the day, at the end of the century, who’s to say who was right and who was wrong? Whoever is left is who says.

The verdict is still out on the 21st century.

In the 5,000-year history of yoga, however, there are no recorded battlefield deaths of any man or woman true-blue to the eight limbs of the practice. There are no war stories of getting off the mat and duking it out with someone across the street who doesn’t see it your way. Even though there is a standing pose called Warrior, there are no thrust and parry, no AK-47’s, no nuclear arsenal. There are no bronze memorials of stern men on horseback sword in hand in any yoga studio anywhere.

Wars are fought for many reasons, but those reasons can be boiled down to nationalism, revenge, and material gain, both economic and territorial. The wages of war are swinish dark bottomless. Yoga is practiced for one reason, uniting body spirit mind. The wages of yoga are breath light energy.

Going to war may be the easiest thing to explain and the hardest thing to do. “Battle is an orgy of disorder. There is only attack and attack and attack some more,” said George ‘Old Blood and Guts’ Patton, who commanded the U. S. Third Army during WW2. Yoga may be the hardest thing to explain and the easiest thing to do. “Just do,” said K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

General Patton often said battle was the “most magnificent” undertaking known to man. It can be one hell of an undertaking. A chest full of medals sparkles when you’re successful. Six feet of loose dirt covers up your failures.

“The real trouble with modern war is that it gives no one a chance to kill the right people,” said Ezra Pound.

Old Blood and Guts died in an automobile accident. The Army private chauffeuring his Cadillac limousine was uninjured. K. Pattabhi Jois died of natural causes. “He was fearless about combining the path of yoga with the path of the participant “ said David Life, the co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.

Since yoga doesn’t self-identify with any nation-state, doesn’t live by the eye for an eye of the tiger, and isn’t interested in looting all your stuff, it doesn’t issue declarations and ultimatums. It doesn’t blow its stack, launching smart bombs, armed drones, and coming to your world soon, fully autonomous weapons systems.

Practicing yoga is practicing getting your hands on freedom, no matter how elusive it may be. It’s not about getting your hands on the other guy’s cargo, no matter how bright and shiny and phenomenal it is. More cargo more loot more territory means keeping your nose to the grindstone in order to keep it all in your corner of the world. Yoga means sloughing off the wet dream of more glory more prizes more pride in victory.

Freedom isn’t about riding the merry-go-round and grabbing grasping snatching at the brass ring. Hell, what would you do with it anyway?

The Totenkopf military hat features a human skull, mandible, and two crossed long bones. The black-clad Hussar cavalry of Frederick the Great were the first to wear them. The death-head hats scared the hell out of the other guys, making it clear what was at stake.

Even though the Dalai Lama has said, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path,” death-head hats are never worn by anyone at any time anywhere in any yoga class.

If Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II had taken off his skull and crossbones hat in 1902, put his hair up into a bun, and gotten on a yoga mat instead of scowling all the time, he might not have walked off the plank right into WW1. But, he didn’t, and 12 years later it was Time for Trench Warfare. Since WW2 was a direct consequence of the War to End All Wars, maybe that wouldn’t have happened, either.

In 1938, just before the start of WW2, French biologist Jean Rostond said, “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”

What a difference a hat can make, not just in fashion, but in what determines the fate of birds on the wing, too. The last German Emperor abdicated in 1918, grew a beard, and spent the rest of his life chopping wood and hunting birds. He bagged tens of thousands of them in the next twenty years. The neighborhood flocks thought he was an avenging angel.

Only one man has ever returned Uncle Sam’s Medal of Honor.

Charlie Liteky, a combat chaplain, without a weapon, flak jacket, or helmet, dragged 23 wounded soldiers out of a Viet Cong ambush in 1967, evacuating them to safety. He later opposed the war, and other wars, such as the invasions of Iraq. “I think it’s more of a patriotic duty of citizens of this country to stand up and say that this is wrong, that this is immoral,” he said.

But, one man’s immorality is another man’s morality, especially if those men are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The three largest defense companies in the world are USA companies. “You fasten all the triggers, for the others to fire,” sang Bob Dylan in ‘Masters of War’.

The United States controls more than 50% of the global weaponry market. Yoga controls 100% of the global yoga mat market. Only you control whether the world that’s always trying to make you something else gets its way.

Violence is the bread and butter of war. Warfare is a dangerous world filled with rough men, and lately, rough women, too. It is a world where the end justifies the means. Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the bread and butter of yoga The practice does not abjure self-defense, but it doesn’t propagate violence as a means, no matter what the end might be.

Non-violence is the first article of the first limb of yoga. Ahimsa in action is not doing harm. It’s simple enough, but easier said than done. The first step is to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless you’re a psychopath, the doing will be non-violent. The next step might be to not march in ideological lockstep with anybody’s army. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Trump or President Putin or President Xi Jinping. Their interests are not necessarily in your best interest.

It’s pointless to complain about the weather. War is a longtime turmoil as old as the weather, as old as our gods. “May God have mercy on my enemies, because I won’t,” said George Patton. Sometimes it seems like there is no resisting the winds of war. It would be like trying to win a hurricane. When the Junior Bush and Elder Cheney administration wanted to invade Iraq over nothing Iraq had done, there was no stopping it.

If it all sounds like a shell game, that’s because it is. The shells of rockets’ red glare, the litter of shells the damage done, and political military industrial hacks shelling out pipe dreams of heroism. When you’re dead as a doornail it doesn’t matter who won the war.

The side of the moon facing away from the earth is the far side, the flip side. It is the side facing out to the cosmos. The bright side is what makes some moonstruck, making them go crazy when there’s a full moon.

John Bell Hood was a General in the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was notoriously brave and aggressive, and a madman. His troops routinely suffered staggering losses staging frontal assaults they were routinely ordered into. During the Seven Days Battle in 1862 every single officer in his brigade was either killed or wounded. In 1863 at Gettysburg Hood’s left arm was severely injured and he lost use of it for the rest of his life. In 1864 at Chickamauga his right leg had to be amputated just below the hip.

For the rest of the Civil War he rode into battle with his left arm tied to his body and his body tied to the body of his horse. “He has body enough left,” one witness remarked, watching Johnny Reb lock horns with the Yankees again.

The macabre spectacle of the one-armed one-legged Hood, trailed by an orderly carrying his replacement cork leg, was not his alone. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War lost arms and legs. That’s the damage all wars do, civil or not so civil, lopping off limbs, scrambling brains, filling up cemeteries.

Yoga, on the other hand, is not only a practice intent on keeping your arms and legs attached to your body, it is a practice that conjures additional limbs to those willing to take up the mantle of the mat. The discipline in the classic sense is an eight-limb practice. The limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, which means standing inside of.

The walk of life can be hard enough with two arms and two legs. It’s much harder when missing an arm or a leg, or both. It’s much easier with eight extra limbs.

“When we talk about war we’re talking about peace,” said President George W. Bush. In the world of doublespeak slavery is freedom and war is known as peace. In the world of yoga freedom is freedom and non-war is known as peace. No fooling. Only fools try to fool themselves.

The masters of war would have you believe that taking up the gun will solve all the problems of taking up the gun. “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over,” said William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman is known for the Savannah Campaign of 1864, slashing through Georgia and South Carolina, innovating what is now known as scorched earth warfare. “Yoga is not easy!” said K. Pattabhi Jois. “But, it leads to freedom.” He is known for inspiring and influencing the way yoga is taught and practiced all over the world.

Warrior pose on the yoga mat is about fighting the good fight, not fighting the other guy. It’s about challenge strength fortitude.

Standing on one leg in a yoga class may be cruel and unusual punishment, but at least you’re standing. Not only that, the standing is getting you somewhere. Getting anywhere in the Fog of War is up for grabs, at best, and on a collision course with Hell, at worse.

When it comes to getting on the good side of the Pearly Gates, war doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

A version of this story appeared in International Yoga Journal.

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.”

In the Hands of an Angry God

By Ed Staskus

The “Bhagavad Gita,” a classic poem of 700 verses divided into eighteen books, composed in about 200 BC, is considered a monument to the human heart and spirit, testifying to man’s quest for truth and wisdom. It is often called “The Song of God.” It covers a wide range of topics, dilemmas, and themes, some vintage hallowed, some not so much among the angels.

In its own way, and in the same way, it rivals the “Iliad.” It sings of arms and the man. It is about volition judgment heroism redemption. It is about making yourself the man you mean to be, the man you must be to meet the world headfirst.

For more than two thousand years the canonic text, long ago subsumed into India’s national epic “Mahabharta,” has been considered one of the ultimate instruction manuals for living a spiritual life, no matter that it is set in martial times. Vyasa is supposed to have written it, but that’s like saying Homer wrote the “Iliad” or God wrote the Bible.

It was written for a reason, but the reason can be faceted dimensional conflicting.

In modern times, like the Bible and the Quran, many of the insights of the “Bhagavad Gita” continue to address the problems of the 21st century, speaking to issues such as choice, duty, and purpose.

Many great men have extolled its virtues.

“When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and I see not one ray of hope on the horizon, I turn to the Bhagavad Gita and find a verse to comfort me,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

“When I read the Bhagavad Gita and reflect about how God created this universe, everything else seems so superfluous,” said Albert Einstein.

“It’s about the game of awakening, about the coming into Spirit,” said Ram Dass, the author of “Path to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita.”

In the world of yoga, the Gita is both bedrock and revelatory, because it is through Arjuna’s questions and Krishna’s answers – the mainstays of the text – that the underpinnings and practice of yoga are revealed. Although yoga has much to do with physical and mental well-being, in the “Bhagavad Gita” the original spiritual purpose of the practice, connecting one’s consciousness to the supreme consciousness, is the nexus of the poem.

Everything else is coincident to controlling one’s body, mind, and senses for the purpose of uniting with the divine.

The “Bhagavad Gita” is not without its problems, however, among them its epic warrior sub-text, its wild inconsistencies regarding non-attachment, and its top-down rationale for ordering human affairs.

One of the most vexing problems is how to take Krishna. Is he a spokesman for yoga’s most abiding and sublime motifs, such as vairagya and ahimsa? Vairagya, or non-attachment, and ahimsa, or non-violence, are two of the basic precepts alive and well in nearly all forms of yogic thought.

Or is he a monster who advocates war for his own unspeakable reasons, justifying fratricidal conflict with specious arguments about the meaninglessness of physical existence?

Is he the avatar of liberty, or is he Uncle Caesar, Uncle Napoleon, Uncle Sam on the recruiting poster?

The problem comes to a boil in Book 11.

As Book 10 ends Krishna declares that he is so vast and great that just a single fragment of him is enough to “support the entire universe.“ Despite this grand declaration, Arjuna responds that although he doesn’t doubt Krishna’s greatness and godliness, he would still like to see first-hand what it amounts to.

“I want to see for myself the splendor of your ultimate form.”

Krishna grants Arjuna divine sight for a few minutes so that he can transcend his mortal vision and see Krishna for what he really is. What follows in Book 11 are six omniscient narrative stanzas and seventeen stanzas spoken first-hand by Arjuna describing what he is seeing.

His eyewitness account makes up the salient stanzas, beginning with “I see all gods in your body.”

Krishna is described as being everything and everywhere, without beginning or end. At the same time, he is described as sitting on a lotus throne, wearing a crown, and bearing a mace and a discus.

The discus is a symbol of the knowledge of truth and the mace is a symbol of the power of knowledge. Krishna is everything, but at the same time is the King, or Lord. He knows what the truth is, being everywhere and everything, and as the King or Lord, wields the power of that knowledge.

Arjuna goes on to describe the angels and demons that gaze on Krishna in amazement, the chants the sages sing to him, and how the “innards” of mortals tremble at the sight of him. The image of guts going gutless is unsettling. Since Krishna is said to have “billion-fanged mouths blazing like the fires of doomsday” no one should be surprised at the bellyful of distress mortal men might feel at the sight of him.

The next lines are the crux of the problem.

They describe the opposing armies on the battlefield of Kuru, who are those of the Pandavas, led by the virtuous Arjuna, and those of the Kauravas, led by the one hundred sons of a blind king. They are both being swallowed up indiscriminately by the voracious Krishna, who Arjuna is seeing stripped down to his real greatness.

“Rushing headlong into your hideous, gaping, knife-fanged jaws. I see them with skulls crushed, their raw flesh stuck to your teeth,” Arjuna says.

“As the rivers in many torrents rush toward the ocean, all these warriors are pouring down into your blazing mouths. As moths rush into a flame and are burned in an instant, all beings plunge down your gullet and instantly are consumed.”

It is a godless Gita as Krishna goes about his grisly business. He is on the other side of fear. He is safe in his immortality.

The Hebrew god of the Old Testament is often described as angry and cruel. He has nothing on the Hindu god Krishna. Not once in the almost seven thousand sightings of the Christian divinity in the Old Testament is Yahweh ever described as having “gaping, knife-fanged jaws.”

If the “Bhagavad Gita” is a recruiting poster for Krishna’s promotion of the war, which is his often-stated and explicit intention throughout the poem, the slogan “I Want You” takes on a sinister double meaning.

Regardless of what side they stand on, all the warriors on the battlefield of Kuru are grist for the mill. All of Krishna’s reasoning, arguments, and commands are to one purpose, which is to get the detritus of war to pour down the craw of his rapacious mouth.

In the movie “King Kong”the big monkey tried to use Fay Wray as a toothpick. In Greek mythology Kronos, the Titan god of time, devoured his children for fear that they would one day overthrow him. In the “Bhagavad Gita” everything is grist for the mill.

Neither self-survival nor the niceties of gastronomy seem to motivate Krishna. He is the great maw that must be fed and sated, although from all accounts in the “Bhagavad Gita” it is doubtful that Krishna can ever be sated, given his enormous appetite and preoccupation with the eternal.

Krishna does not explain himself other than to say he is death, annihilating all things, the “shatterer of worlds.” He bluntly declares that both armies will perish with or without Arjuna, and echoing Homer again, specifically the “Illiad,” urges Arjuna to fight and win everlasting glory.

It is a harrowing picture.

Krishna then blandly advises Arjuna to not be frightened anymore and to see him as he was before. When he does, Arjuna is put at ease. It is an extraordinary turnaround after seeing the “shatterer of worlds” gobble up thousands of men like so many French fries.

Krishna explains the merits of living in the now for most of the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of Book 11 he has apparently succeeded. Arjuna says his “mind has regained its composure” and it is on to the next thing. There will be blood, and that’s that. He has moved forward from one now to the next now without any thought of consequences or repercussions. Every now is now the same as every other now.

In Book 1 Arjuna catalogued his many and valid reasons for not going to war, not including ahimsa, which is never mentioned. Be that as it may, Krishna has won the day. Arjuna says at the end of the poem, “I have no more doubts. I will act according to your command.”

Like a lamb going to slaughter he consents to Krishna driving his chariot back into the god-ordained fray. It is unclear how this decision to go to war on the battlefield of Kuru dovetails with uniting to the divine, the supposed purpose of Krishna’s yoga lessons.

The godless Gita gets it wrong when it goes recruiting poster, when Krishna goes the phantom of liberty, like a headless horseman in the hands of an angry god.

George Orwell got it right in “1984” when he savaged the high and mighty self-righteous ruling class with the bitter epithet “Freedom is slavery, war is peace.”

The “Bhagavad Gita” ends with the poet Sanjaya, who is reciting the poem, saying that he has seen “splendor and virtue and spiritual wealth.” This may be an apt assessment, especially in Books 2 through 8, but it cannot be right when seen in the light of Book 11, in which Krishna reveals his true nature, which is self-serving and spiritually bankrupt, if not downright deadly.

Practicing non-attachment in order to apprehend the divine, as Krishna advises at the beginning of Book 7, may be the way to go when living the yogic life, but when Krishna adds the refrain that it requires “surrendering yourself to me,” it may be time to speed-dial the nearest dentist for custom-made cosmic orthodontic retainers to hold back the “knife-fanged jaws” of the ferocious god.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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.”

Time is Candy

Superman

By Ed Staskus

   Three hundred and sixty-four days of the year parents tell their children to never take candy from strangers. Then, on the last day of every October they dress those same children up in masks and weird costumes and tell them to go out on the streets at night and either threaten or beg strangers to give them candy.

   Halloween is traditionally a holiday observed on the eve of the Christian feast of All Hallows, or All Saints Day. In the Middle Ages it was believed that restless souls of the recently dead wandered during the year until All Saints Day, when their fate would be decided. All Hallows Eve was their last chance to get revenge on their enemies before entering the next world. Some people, fearing the consequences, would wear masks to disguise themselves.

   It wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that Halloween began to be celebrated in the United States and not until the 1930s that children began trick-or-treating. Since then costume parties, haunted house attractions, and watching horror films have also become popular.

   When I was a child Halloween was a special night after a long day filled with anticipation. My brother and sister and our friends and I couldn’t wait for nightfall to head out onto the dark streets and ring as many doorbells as we could.

   On the night of the last Halloween, postponed several days by thunderstorms, my wife and I and a neighbor sat out on our porch, on the top lip of the stairs, on a cold but dry night, with our cauldron of chocolate treats. We long ago learned that anything mostly chocolate was “the good stuff”.

   As we put fun-size Milky Ways and Kit Kats into plastic pumpkins, coffin containers, and grab-and-go pillowcases, we started asking some of the kids in cute spooky super hero disguises coming and going up and down our walk what they liked about Halloween.

   “The most fun is dressing up,” said one girl, dressed as the Material Girl. “I’m an 80s rock star. I love Madonna.”

   We wondered if she wasn’t chilly because of the weather.

   “I’m not cold,” she said. “I’m insulated.”

   One boy was a walking bundle of towels.

   “Some safety pins and a lot of old towels and you’re warm,” he said.

   We asked a puffed-up little boy in white what he was.

   “I’m a cloud!”

   “What is that on your pants?”

   “Lightning!”

   “What are those spots?”

   “Rain!”

   “Is that your mom?”

   “She’s a rainbow. We go together!”

   A girl dressed as a witch said she liked seeing other kids in costumes.

   “It’s a time for them to dress up like they’re not, to just be someone they never could be before.”

   Others take a minimalist approach. When we asked one boy why his friend wasn’t wearing a costume, he said, “See, he’s on his cell phone. He’s not wearing a costume because he’s a businessman.”

   Some children delight in the scary side of Halloween, the ghost stories, monsters, and gory special effects.

   “I like Halloween because it’s fun, “said a boy dressed in a Warrior Wasteland costume. “People scare you a lot. It’s so amazing. I just like the horror of it.”

   Other children take delight in seeing their heroes in the flesh.

   A stocky six-year-old in black pants, a red over-sized jacket, a red hat, and an enormous black mustache told us he was Super Mario.

   “Because I am,” he said. “My happy time, it was when I saw BATMAN! I love Halloween!”

   Another boy dressed as Spiderman said Halloween was fun because “Kids dress up!”

   “I like Spiderman because he’s red and white. If I was Spidey, I would sling my webbing and save all the people.”

   In an MSNBC poll, adults were asked what their favorite part of Halloween was. More than 50 percent said it was seeing little kids dressed in costumes, while just 10 percent said it was eating candy. Our own unscientific poll revealed the exact opposite. Nine out of ten kids told us it was all about the candy.

   “Candy is the best thing that ever happened to me on Halloween,” said someone in KISS regalia

   “It’s my favorite season. You get all the candy. I’m a vampire,” said a girl with bloody fangs.

   “They should have more Halloween weekends, and pass out a lot more candy,” said a boy dressed as a pirate, waving a rubber sword. “I would put it all in my treasure chest.”

   Many children walked the streets in groups, the smaller ones accompanied by their parents. But one teenager rode up alone on a bicycle, wearing a Beavis and Butt-Head latex mask. He jumped off his bike, which clattered to the ground, and ran up our walk. We tossed chocolate bars into his bag, asking him what he liked about Halloween. Sprinting back to his bike, he turned around and shouted,

   “Can’t talk, time is candy.”

   Our chocolate bars moved briskly all night, followed by the lollipops our neighbor had brought.

   “You just wolf down candy bars,” said a girl dressed as Fluff N Stuff, “but you can play with suckers, click them against your teeth.”

   I asked several children what were the least-liked least-desired treats they had gotten. Among the worst offenders were Mary Janes, Necco Wafers, and Christmas ribbon candy.

   “I don’t even know what Mary Janes are,” said a boy dressed as Luigi, in blue overalls, a hat two or three sizes too big, and white gloves.

   “They taste like molasses sawdust.”

   The worst offender, however, turned out to be money. Towards the end of the night, we ran out of candy, and since all we could see on the street were some stragglers, we gathered up our loose change to hand out rather than race to the corner store.

   A small girl dressed as Popstar Keira, with a tiara on her head, came bouncing up the stairs smiling. My wife put some dimes and nickels into her extended hand. The girl looked at the coins and then up at us. She threw the coins down stamped her feet and started crying.

   “I don’t want money! I want candy!”

   She refused to be consoled until we finally found a full-size Hershey bar in our kitchen and brought it out to her.

   After the streets were finally empty and Halloween was over, my wife and I popped a big bowl of popcorn and watched George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” The moon was big and round and the sky clear. The last of the thunderstorms were past.

   When my wife, who had never seen the old black-and-white horror movie, finally realized what the zombies were after, she said, “Oh, man, it’s the undead trick-or-treating.”

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.”