Category Archives: Paperback Yoga

Welcome to the Torture Chamber

By Ed Staskus

“There’s gotta be a Heaven ’cause I’ve already done my time in Hell.”  Social Distortion

Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class, but I was still surprised by the Wal-Mart-like brightness of the big room, the seven-foot high mirrors spanning the front, and the wall-to-wall water-stained brown carpeted floor.

None of it looked or felt or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.

As I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces to the back of the room, unrolled my mat, and curled into several cat cows, I noticed it was infernally hot. Looking up at the ceiling I saw manhole-size ductwork perforated with thousands of pebble-sized holes crossing from one end of the front of the room to the other and continuing on to the rear wall. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms, and legs.

Later I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat while a hellish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.

By the time I had finished a short round of warm-up down dogs I was sweating through my Under Armour shirt and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I began to understand why.

When I started practicing yoga, well into middle age, I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes on a more consistent basis, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week at a popular studio just across the river from our neighborhood.

It took some time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degrees the hot yoga studio advocated, and the fast pace of the classes, but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. Now I was more than thirty miles from home, the closest Bikram class I could find, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling in the grip of global warming.

The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from tip to toe, from internal organ to skin, using heat as a tool, reshaping the body as it warms and becomes flexible. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.

“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”

The community-class teacher at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses, and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.

“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”

“OK,” I said.

I should have asked for details.

Back in the class while in my child’s pose it was 105 degrees and the humidity was at 40 percent, but both values were creeping relentlessly upward, pushing the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone. Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.

Why 105 degrees?  The Bikram take on hot yoga is that the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.

Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas or poses and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat he recommends keeps the body from overheating, and teaches you to keep your cool.

He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.

When our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, he adjusted the track lighting brighter even than it had been, strode to the front of the class, and asked:

“Anybody new?”

Several hands went up, including mine.

“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”

‘Feel sick’?

I had never gotten sick in a yoga class, nor had I ever given the possibility any consideration. I had experienced fatigue practicing asanas, sometimes even becoming bedraggled, during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons when I didn’t think I could do another chaturanga to up dog to down dog, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.

“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”

Then there was the other exhortation.

‘Don’t leave the room’?

What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?

“OK, let’s get started.”

And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, whether sacred or new age, nor was there an iPod play list in evidence. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.

I might as well strike while the iron is hot, I thought. One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected.  Even though I thought I knew by way of youtube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.

Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.

The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Try to be still between poses,” the instructor said when we were done.

I stopped rolling my head and flexing my fingers.

Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ, and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.

During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Upon release of the pose vasodilation occurs when blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.

The idea that there might be benefits to oxygenated blood flooding a local part of the body after it has been momentarily compressed is controversial in the medical establishment. Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.

”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.

The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend – punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push – followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs, and folding over in a forward bend.

“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said, describing the pose.

I had no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looked like, and besides, I was vegetarian.

While we were bent over, pulling with our arms to intensify the stretch, the teacher exhorted us to lock our knees.

“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”

Lock the knee?

Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it.. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid locking your knees as you tried to keep your legs straight in standing poses.

As I straightened my legs, attempting to fully extend my knees, the instructor who had been at the front of the class suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointing at my legs with his riding crop – I mean his finger – said:

“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”

What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, but not hyperextend the knee. Squeezing holds the knee in a supportive position. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles, and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.

The next asana was awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways, first traditionally but with arms held up, forward and parallel to the ground, ‘triceps tight, tight, tight’, then high up on the toes, arms still forward but flagging, and lastly slightly up on the toes and in a squat, knees and thighs pressing together, and arms finally very, very heavy and on fire.

“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,” our instructor said, demanding that we straighten and lean back.

As soon as we were done we did it again.

Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Entering every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.

The awkward poses were followed by two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.

“Welcome to the torture chamber,” I heard the instructor say.

“What have I gotten into,” I asked myself.

“Break time is over. Time to concentrate,” the instructor said.

Break time had lasted less than thirty seconds.

The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half of the class is practiced upright, many of the poses featuring balancing on one leg, and the second half down on the mat. The first half of the class is known as the warm-up and the second half as getting down to serious business.

The next three poses were standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. All the while the instructor urged us to lock our standing leg like CONCRETE! Try as I might I wasn’t able to get my head anywhere near my knee, my bow pose amounted to trying to stay upright at whatever cost more than anything else, and by the time I got to balancing stick there was very little balance left in me, my legs wobbling like JELLY!

At the end of the three postures I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line, my breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and most worryingly the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.

“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”

After a standing stretching pose, during which I finally caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed, we stepped into triangle pose. It was like stepping into the next circle of hell.

“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.

The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh of the lunged front leg. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.

‘It smelled like turpentine/It looked like Indian ink/I held my nose, I closed my eyes/I took a drink.’

With my eyes wide open, front leg bent, back leg diagonal, both arms extended out, tilting them at the same time like a windmill turning, I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. Our instructor said to turn our heads and look up, trying to touch our chins to shoulder. I stared at a brown water stain on the white ceiling tile.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor said.

The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.

The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It was the therapeutic torture machine come to life. With the effort my breathing slowed down, becoming less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.

If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose on both sides another time I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort, but before the white light became too intense we were doing a standing compression pose, then another balancing pose, and finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.

We lay on the floor at the fulcrum of the standing series and spine strengthening series, the room suddenly grown quiet. Savasana, also known as corpse or dead body pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness

The two minutes on my back were more like try-to-stop-fidgeting pose. I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonably real life breath and grown still than the instructor was at it again.

“Time for the sit-up,” he said.

The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.

“Try your best,” the instructor said. “Bend your knees if you have to.”

“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”

As much as our instructor was pressing us to work hard, it would be a vast understatement to say that I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.

The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, a follow-the-bouncing-ball Sanskrit word meaning wind-removing pose, and each posture done twice ends in dead body pose for about 20 seconds, concluding by stretching the arms and on a loud exhale reaching for the ceiling and then the toes.

We did the L-sit-up after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…

The meat and potatoes of the floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.

But, it’s no four-course meal.

“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall,” the instructor optimistically urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.

“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them,” he cautioned everyone during locust pose, striding through the ranks.

The ingredients of the following pose, full locust, are made up of squeezing the legs and feet together, spread-eagling ones arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.

“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16,” the instructor said. “Look up out of the mirror.”

I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, smoke was pouring out of my tail, I was going down…

“I have got to take a break,” I thought.

And then God did me a favor.

As the class went to the pose again, and I thought about resting on my heels to cool off, the power suddenly cut out, the room went dark, a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on, and there was a low clap of thunder outside. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and out for the duration, and thanked my lucky charms.

While in dead body pose after the asana the power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit.

In half-tortoise, trying to keep my butt on my heels and stretching my arms forward, pressing my pinkies into the mat, sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.

“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose,” the instructor said. “You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”

I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.

By the time we got to camel I was beginning to wonder if there was any end in sight. Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever? Was the 90 minutes just a mirage on the horizon?

The original Bikran practice had 84 poses in its entirety, and required more than two hours of determined hustle and bustle to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.

Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga from the rat race can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes, who along with everyone else practice the same poses in the same order under the same conditions. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again,” says Bikram Choudhury

When we curled into rabbit pose, a kneeling forward bend accomplished by pulling on the heels, my forehead tucked into my kneecaps, pushing down with my shins and up with my legs, I became aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my rubber Jade mat soaked to its core from the epic amounts of sweat pouring out of me, but it was me, too. I was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.

I was dizzy and slightly nauseous lifting up out of the pose.

We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and after a last sit-up it was all very suddenly over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins with a breathing exercise and finishes by bringing the focus back to the breath, although the beginning focuses on filling the lungs and the ending on strong exhales.

If sweating is the Bikram method to regenerate the body on a cellular level, breathing is the Bikram key to a healthier, longer life. Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is repeatedly stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath.

Easier said than done, I thought, recalling the huffing and puffing I had done all class long.

The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.

The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.

Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.

When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over.

“Good job, everyone,” the instructor said. “Please try to stay in Savasana for a few minutes. It’s the most important pose. Thanks for coming.”

And with that he dimmed the lights and left the hot room.

Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.

Postscript: From Here to Eternity

Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of plunging into the hellfire of Bikram Yoga.

In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.

I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.

Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.

‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’

My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.

I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.

I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.

After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine, and later hang it up to dry. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.

I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.

“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.”

When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.

It was a compelling testament that we all stayed put. I wondered what it was a testament to, and later thought it was testament to everything the practice espouses, such as patience and discipline and concentration.

Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.

I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and once there I try to do the best I can, as much as I can, with as close to 100% effort as I can, and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.

“Try the right way and eventually you will make it,” says Bikram Choudhury.

“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”

After class the instructor mingles, talks shop, and lastly mops up the hot room and the outside hallways of sweaty footprints tracked back and forth from the shower rooms. One night I bumped into him manipulating his Swifter Wet Jet forward and backward, cleaning up.

I had at first planned on taking a few classes now-and–then, then maybe a few months of it, then had decided to commit to it for year, just to be fair, and finally had concluded it would most likely be two years, given that I was a slow learner. The devil in Bikram is in the details, not just the effort.

One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days. I have managed classes on consecutive days on several occasions. I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.

“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”

“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.

“Don’t try so hard,” he said.

“The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”

Meditation?

Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice.  Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.

But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.

That is the method to the madness.

“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”

It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together – the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.

It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

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Mad Dogs and Hot Yogis

By Ed Staskus

After 30 years of flying under the radar, even though the practice is as old as living mindfully, yoga exercise began to steamroll in the early 2000s, and in recent years has skyrocketed in popularity. According to many surveys it was the biggest trend in the fitness industry in the past decade, remaining a firm Top 10, and will continue expanding through the 20-teens, says the American College of Sports Medicine in its year-end issue of the Health and Fitness Journal.

Media Market Research reports that yoga is gaining converts at a faster pace than most other traditional sports, appealing to a new, high-end demographic. The yoga industry is growing so fast it is expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016, according to Rebecca Moss of the Village Voice.

Hot yoga, a subset of the practice, has grown slowly but surely since its introduction on the west coast in the mid-1970s. Although yoga exercise is designed to warm the body from within, in the modern speed-it-up convenience society it has been re-purposed as expedient to warm the body from without.

It was once thought only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, meaning that natives of colonial India were often puzzled during the age of empire when their British overlords were out at lunchtime at the same time everyone else was indoors getting away from the heat. That is no longer the case. Hot yoga may today be the fastest-growing segment of the business, having spread far and wide beyond its L. A. coastal cool beginnings.

The hot yoga phenomenon began with Bikram Choudhury, winner of the National India Yoga contest at 13-years-old. He suffered a serious knee injury at age 17 and was told by doctors he would never walk again. He was subsequently healed through intense yoga therapy under the aegis of Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Yogananda, author of the seminal ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.

After leaving the sub-continent and immigrating to the United States he opened the Bikram Yoga College of India in the basement of a bank building in Beverly Hills.

Bikram Yoga claims that tens of millions practice his style of yoga at nearly a thousand studios on six continents. It is the only form of yoga ever copyrighted, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index in excess of 120. (The 10-year-old copyright was brought into question by the U. S. Copyright Office, which recently said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.)

The risk factor of a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to be “very high to extreme.” A common reaction to one’s first Bikram class is, “Man, this might be a mistake – I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

Bikram has been known to refer to his hot rooms as “torture chambers.”

Bikram Choudhury has reportedly taught his yoga to George Clooney, Kobe Bryant, and Lady Gaga, among others. He typically wears a black Speedo and special gold jewelry that won’t melt in the heat while teaching. He contends his regimen of 26 poses cures everything from arthritis to heart disease to obesity, and maybe even old age itself. The senior citizen yoga master recently took time out from his busy schedule for a photo opportunity featuring Las Vegas showgirls.

“I live in a pain-free body thanks to Bikram,” said Stacy Shea, a long-time Las Vegas Strip dancer who suffered a work-related crippling herniated disc and was confined to a sick bed before taking up Bikram Yoga.

“And I look 10 years younger!”

Hot yoga has become a staple at most studios in recent years, so much so that seemingly any yoga exercise practiced in a room with a working thermostat has become a hell of a workout. Based on the Ashtanga tradition, although usually not referencing any specific style or school, hot yoga typically involves moving from pose to pose in tandem with breathwork.

Moksha Yoga and Baptiste Power Yoga are among the better-known brands. The eponymous Baron Baptiste holds yoga retreats he describes as “boot camps.” Ana Forrest of Forrest Yoga weaves sweat lodges into what she calls her yoga ceremonies. Some hot yoga studios cite enhanced self-control and determination “due to the challenging environment” as benefits of the practice.

Hot yoga rooms are commonly heated in the 90s, Bikram rooms in the 100s, and advocates point to increased flexibility, toxin flushing, and a great cardiovascular workout as benefits of the practice.

Heat is said to soften muscle tissue, making it able to open and stretch. “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.” Warmer room temperatures allow for deeper stretching and more graceful body movement, according to Anne Janku, a fitness and yoga instructor in Columbia, Missouri.

“It helps to heat the body up more so it becomes more fluid, and then when we get into the stretching part of it, it allows us to relax our muscles more,” she said.

But, heating the body up is not exactly what the body needs or wants, and brings with it certain consequences. “When you exercise, your muscles generate heat,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. “To keep from burning up, your body needs to get rid of that heat. The main way the body discards heat is through sweat. Lots of sweating reduces the body’s water level, and this loss of fluid affects normal bodily functions.”

Heat and humidity can add up to risky business, even for those in good shape. The hazards of exercising in hot rooms include heat cramps, the most common consequence, heat syncope, or a quick drop in blood pressure, heat exhaustion, leading to dizziness and weakness, and in extreme cases, heatstroke.

The best way to avoid these dangers is to drink plenty-and-more fluids with electrolytes, balancing out the water and salt lost through sweat. Many Bikram Yoga studios recommend drinking LOTS! of water, up to a gallon the day of class, followed by even more after class.

The intensity of hot yoga burns more calories than any other yoga practice, according to practitioners, some claiming upwards of 1000 calories per hour being burned through. Significant weight loss is often cited as a benefit. “Hot yoga is the most invigorating yoga I have experienced,” says Jillian Zacchia, a dancer and writer based in Montreal “After the 90-minute routine I feel as if I have just experienced an intense fat-burning workout.”

Bikram Yoga offers up testimonials of metabolisms made new and hundreds of pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the hot yoga mantra.

However, according to the Health Status calorie counter, hot power yoga burns 594 calories an hour, followed by Bikram Yoga at 477 calories an hour. By contrast, ballroom dancing burns approximately 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns approximately 1000 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”

Sweat is not always a precise gauge of how effective a workout is.

Proponents of hot yoga argue that working harder in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart because of the heart being challenged to get oxygen to the stressed cells of the body.

“You know that awesome feeling of accomplishment you get after a great cardio workout? It feels like that,” said yoga instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine Elite Trainer Michelle Carlson “It’s more centered and grounded. It’s a feeling close to elation.”

Many believe it works every part of the body, including muscles, joints, glands, and even internal organs. “It is scientifically designed to warm, stretch, strengthen, and detoxify the body from the inside out,” said Erin Cook, owner of Bikram Yoga in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. She added that the rewards include better sleep, more energy, and less stress.

But, not everyone agrees that it is the best of all possible workouts.

“You may think it’s purifying and cleansing, but you have to respect the physiology of the body,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” he said, speaking about the extreme heat associated with hot yoga. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperature can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”

Some enthusiasts disagree.

“Bikram started hot yoga here in the United States because in Bengal it is typically 114 degrees in the shade,” said Nicole Garbani-Twitchell, owner of Hot Yoga in Helena, Montana. “It is silly and just plain scientifically incorrect to say that practicing in a hot room overheats the external body.”

But, yoga in India was traditionally and still is practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.

Multiple studies have shown that exercising in a hot room compromises the release and uptake of calcium as well as normal muscle function, and decreases blood and plasma volume. “The body uses more muscle glycogen and fewer ingested carbohydrates during exercise in a hearted environment compared to a cooler environment,” said Shy Sayar, owner of Yoga One in Petaluma, California. Heat stress reduces the oxidation of carbohydrates, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Yoga exercise and heat increase core body temperatures. To cool itself the body circulates more blood through the skin. “This leaves less blood for your muscles” says the Mayo Clinic, which in turn increases the heart rate. “If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.”

For every degree your body’s internal temperature goes up, your heart beats about 10 beats per minute faster. Many hot yoga proponents believe that exercising in the heat burns more calories because their hearts are beating faster as they exercise. However, it is not the case. “It is oxygen uptake that determines the number of calories burned, not heart rate,” says Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Many doctors and fitness experts believe a brisk walk or bicycle ride are best for anyone wanting to burn calories. The next best are interval training and strength training. Going from flab-to-fab is about burning more calories than you take in, not sweating more to cool the burn in the hot room.

Bikram Yoga proclaims itself as the detox practice extraordinaire since it induces profuse sweating. It says, “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification is often the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”

Writing in the Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported, “the intense heat has an extraordinary ability to open the pores and expel body waste and foreign chemicals through heat.” Some believe that the skin is a so-called third kidney with overall waste removal capacity.

“That’s silliness,” says Craig Crandall of the Thermoregulation Laboratory. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.“

Sweating is a way for the body to cool itself off, not purge itself of impurities. It is the liver and kidneys that filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.

A persistent problem linked to exercising in hot rooms is potential damage to connective tissue, especially ligaments and tendons, and including muscles. “Heat increases one’s metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more, but once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 or 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle,” said Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

Sore or arthritic joints, like the back, hips, and knees, can be aggravated if torqued too much in even easy poses. Seated poses can inflame sciatica. More is not always better when it comes to joints. Those with more mobility are often in the same boat as those with limited mobility, teetering on their own private edge of flexibility, which can lead to inflammation.

“The heat makes people feel as if they can stretch deeper into poses and can give them a false sense of flexibility,” said Diana Zotos, a yoga teacher and physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. “This can lead to muscle strains or damage to the joint, including ligaments and cartilage.”

The Golden Rules of yoga, the restraints and observances, apply to environmental issues in the same way as they apply to everything else.

A collateral concern about hot yoga is the amount of energy it consumes to heat up space for the practice. It is a carbon heavy business. A busy hot yoga studio will be heated to upwards of 100 degrees 4 – 8 hours a day. It requires 9800 BTU’s (British Thermal Units) to heat a 1000 square-foot space with 8-foot ceilings to 68 degrees. It requires 15,200 BTU’s to heat the same space to 105 degrees, not counting the energy needed to humidify it if it is a Bikram Yoga class.

In addition, water conservation gets thrown down the drain.

Everyone who takes a hot yoga class showers afterwards, if only for the sake of their friends and family, either at the studio or at home, even if they already showered in the morning. A hot yoga studio can easily service hundreds a day. One hundred people showering for 5 to 10 minutes means 3 – 5000 gallons of water are used. Fortunately for the sake of energy savings, given what they have been through, some elect to take cold showers.

If classic yoga is like driving a Prius, hot yoga is like driving a Hummer, although in the spirit of combating climate change some yogis bicycle to their hot yoga classes.

Whatever the case may be, whether it’s a practice for mad dogs or a practice for everyone from professional athletes to weekend warriors, the guiding principle behind hot yoga may not be anything Patanjali ever said. He defined yoga exercise as a “steady and comfortable posture or position”. It might have much more to do with what the Courts of England oftentimes said in the colonial era to resolve competing claims.

Caveat emptor is all we’ve got left to say.

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.”

Lusty Lulu (Lemon)

By Ed Staskus

Once a month for the past five or six years I have been getting in the mail and thumbing through Yoga Journal magazine. I used to read it more than I do now, but then again, they used to have more writing in it than they do now. Nowadays, I read Sally Kempton or Tim McCall, if they happen to be in the magazine, dip into the asana photo spreads, nibble on the mini-reviews in the back, and, of course, spend most of my time on the meat-and-potatoes of the magazine: the advertisements.

I usually start with the inside cover of must-have merchandise like “karmalicious” shoes recommended as “super comfortable” and endorsed by “global yoga teachers” and then flip to the ubiquitous Hard Tail two-page spread, featuring young women in incredibly difficult upside-down poses. They never fail to look terrific and I am invariably impressed by their poise, balance, strength, and, well, hard tails, although the red star logo, which I associate with Communism, and the Hard Tail slogan of ‘Forever’ confuse me.

The yoga project has always seemed, at least to me, to be apolitical and focused on the here-and-now, gainsaying the permanent and not involved in the puzzling foreverness of fashion.

The rest of the magazine, slightly more than half of its hundred-or-so pages, is a bevy of ads: Alive supplements for “a lot more”; Re-Body weight loss supplements for “achieving your goals”; the “earth-friendly” Jade yoga mat; Norwegian Gold Omega supplements for when “you just want it all”; the Subaru station wagon which is “a whole lot to love”; Move Free supplements so that nothing “gets in the way of what moves you”; and lastly Ultimate Flora Critical Care supplements featuring a woman sitting cross-legged and meditating, her belly non-constipated, non-gaseous, and non-bloated.

The June 2013 issue of Yoga Journal delivered a special treat: a new back cover Lululemon advertisement designed by a team of marketing gurus and sold to the advertising gurus at the mass-circulation yoga magazine featuring an upside-down pole dancer, lurid purple lighting, and a pitch for the new Lululemon ‘om finder’ in the App Store.

I had recently been wondering about my own om, which was sounding scratchy, and was grateful for the new app, being hyped on Lululemon’s community page as “majorly exciting news for you”.

But, it turned out the ‘om finder’ was designed for another purpose.

Lululemon Athletica, for those not in the know, is a multi-billion dollar athletic apparel retailer, especially yoga apparel. In its own words, it is a company “where dreams come to fruition”. One of the slogans prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money”.

In the same breath, however, most of Lululemon’s apparel is manufactured in third-world countries at the behest of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, who believes, according to a speech he made at a conference of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies in Vancouver, British Columbia, that third-world children should be encouraged to work in factories because it provides them with much-needed wages.

Charles Dickens would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew.

At the same time Lululemon’s CEO Christine Day explains the company’s in-store philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar yoga pants by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”

Employees are trained to eavesdrop on customers, according to The Wall Street Journal.

What were dynamic and clever constructs of the new Lululemon pitch, besides the scantily clad pole dancer, of course, were the optical center of the ad, and the text, a quote from a famous yoga teacher who is, as well, an “Elite Lululemon Ambassador”. The optical center of print advertisements, according to the Ogilvy Method, should always be one-third of the way down the page for maximum impact. The pole dancer’s butt is exactly one-third of the way down the page. The ad copy parallel with the pole dancer’s butt is a blurb by Chris Chavez, described as an “International yoga teacher and owner of Cihangir Yoga, Istanbul”, who said: “James! Hug your thighs together like a pole dancer.”

“He didn’t say “James! Hug your thighs together like Shiva Rea” or “James! Hug your thighs together like Jason Crandell”. Both of them are well-known yoga teachers. Opening the practice up to the brave new world of 21st century yoga he evoked the pseudo eroticism of pole dancing. Maybe other witty similes might find their way into yoga jargon, such as, “James! Bend your knee like a lunging swordsman in that Warrior Pose” and “James! Keep your drishti focused like a sniper with his sights on the Taliban”.

But, there is something not right about the back cover ad, because in the picture the pole dancer is not hugging her thighs together. One leg is stretched out straight in line with her torso and the other leg is crossed over the straight leg just above the knee. She is probably squeezing her butt to stay stuck to the pole, but she not hugging her thighs together. Either the pole dancer was misinformed about what pole-dancing move to make, or the marketing gurus were misinformed about what pole-dancing move was actually being portrayed in the photo shoot.

It is an unfortunate miscommunication, but for the sake of Lululemon’s bottom line it is a mistake we might all be willing to forgive.

Pole dancing, for those who practice yoga more than they frequent strip clubs, is a form of striptease in which go-go and lap dancing are actually the predominant parts of the performance. Strip club pole dancers often simply hold the pole and move around it without performing acrobatics. One of the most popular pole dancing schools in the world is Las Vegas’s Stripper 101, where “friendly instructors will teach you sexy strip club moves such as pole dancing, lap dancing, and striptease. Learn every seductive step to help you go from shy to OH MY!”

The earliest recorded pole dance, swinging sensually around a hollow steel pole wearing a bikini and six-inch stilettos, was in 1968, performed by Belle Jangles at the Mugwump men’s club in Oregon. A form of pole dancing had moved into strip clubs in the 1950s as burlesque became more accepted, but it was in the 1980s, especially in Canada, that it became popular. Canada is also, by sheer coincidence, the home of Lululemon.

Lululemon’s use of pole dancing in its Yoga Journal ad is a trope of advertising, namely that sex sells. Sex is an instinct and from the point-of-view of marketing has powerful biological and emotional effects on the viewer. Sex cuts through the mass of today’s ads and viewers generally spend a longer time looking at those ads that feature a substantial dose of it.

Why would Lululemon employ cheesecake to sell its yoga apparel, and by extension, referencing its placement in Yoga Journal, the practice of yoga itself?

The reason is that advertisers have used it to sell goods and services since advertising became what it is in our age. The earliest known use of sex in modern advertising parlance was by the Pearl Tobacco Company, which in 1871 featured a naked woman on its package cover. Although it doesn’t seem like there would be anywhere to go from there, in the past twenty years the use of increasingly explicit sexual imagery in print ads has become almost commonplace.

Maybe Lululemon knows more than it is letting on. Maybe it is tapping into the so-called “new burlesque”, which has been popping up from Los Angeles to New York City, although the old burlesque has never really left Coney Island. At posh clubs like Box ringside tables start at fifteen hundred dollars. In its own way Lululemon also knows how to fully maximize profits, selling forty eight dollar ‘Namaste’ mesh totes and one hundred and twenty eight dollar ‘Vinyasa’ canvas bags.

Some have said that the new burlesque is a feminist enterprise in which women can “enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies,” writes Joan Acocella in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Lululemon’s implicit coding throughout much of its marketing references the same mantra.

It is possible that despite the lurid purple coloring, the spotlight on the pole dancer’s butt, the silhouetting of her body, and the reference to thighs instead of legs, that the Lululemon advertisement is really referencing pole acrobatics as an athletic form of dance.

Pole acrobatics can be traced back eight hundred years to India, where it was a sport for men. In China troupes of men used two poles to perform artistic gravity-defying tricks high off the ground. Internationally known Chinese circuses often incorporate poles in their acts. In the past twenty years pole acrobatics has emerged as a recreational and competitive sport, and there is even a campaign to include it in the 2016 Olympics.

It might also be said that purple symbolizes magic and mystery, as well as royalty. Purple is often seen as the color of people seeking spiritual fulfillment. It is thought if you surround yourself with purple you will have peace of mind and that purple is a good color to use in meditation. But, belying those presumptions is the fact that purple puts all fifty shades of gray to shame when it comes to sexy colors. In a recent survey of 2000 adults by online retailer Littlewoods, couples with purple-themed bedrooms had sex more often than anyone else, even ahead of those who preferred red.

It is possible that the signifiers in the advertisement are entirely different from its meaning.

It is possible, but I doubt it.

Whatever the case may be, whether Lululemon was using sex to sell its apparel, and whether Yoga Journal was kowtowing to one of its biggest advertisers, is beside the point. Yoga in the 21st century, from snappy apparel to studios in the best suburbs, from celebrity teachers to Caribbean retreats, from Bikram Choudhury’s fleet of Rolls Royce’s to Kripalu’s three hundred dollar-a-day “private lakeside“ rooms, is all about business. One of the oldest maxims in business is that sex sells, and if sales are the aim, then sex becomes another form of grist for the mill.

But, what is not just schlock about the Yoga Journal advertisement, but rather a reminder that consciousness depends on being conscious, is the disturbing tagline in the bottom right-hand corner, below the Lululemon logo: “When your teacher says it, it just makes sense.”

The proposition that teachers, whether they are newly hatched 200-hour graduates or international stars like Mr. Chavez, are nonpareil about all things yogic and should be followed unquestioningly is both cynical and devious. It is cynical because the proposition that no teacher, from the part-timer at the corner yoga studio to the superstars at national conferences, can ever err is ludicrous. It is devious because all teachers from part-timers to full-timers will and do err, and to offer it up as gospel otherwise is to offer up a gospel of deceit.

There are yoga teachers who walk, sleek and graceful as otters, as though a full-length mirror were being carried in front of them, but to follow in their wake unquestioningly is to compound the problem. To believe everything a yoga teacher says will always make sense makes no sense at all. The sense that stands on and appeals to authority is not always necessarily what it proclaims itself to be. More than two thousand years ago the Roman political theorist Cicero said, “The authority of those who teach is often an obstacle to those who want to learn.”

Yoga is rife with teachers behaving badly. From Swami Muktananda to John Friend is a long litany of sexual indiscretion and even financial misconduct. In the mid-1990s the issue of sex in yoga studios became such a concern that the California Yoga Teachers Association called for higher standards. “We wrote the code,” said Judith Hanson Lasater, the group’s president, “because there were so many violations going on. It’s happened from the highest-level gurus in India to multiple generations of yoga teachers in the United States. It’s so common as to be beyond a cliché. Some of what these teachers are doing, they should be in jail for.”

Swami Muktananda, who died in 1982, was a hugely popular guru who at the height of his popularity had more than 70,000 followers worldwide, including Melanie Griffith, Diana Ross, and Don Johnson of Miami Vice fame. He claimed to have achieved sainthood and become so enlightened he was “perfect” and absolutely free of human weakness. Human weaknesses in his guru book of do’s-and-don’ts did not include sexual liaisons with a parade of young girls at his ashram nor his secret Swiss bank accounts. Joan Bridges, one of his students, was 26-years-old when she was sexually abused by Swami Muktananda, who was 73 at the time.

“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”

In 1994 the Kripalu Center imploded when Amrit Desai, its saffron robed founder and ‘Spiritual Director’, was found out to have had multiple extra-marital affairs. “He was too often a teacher who was too charming for his own good,” writes Stephen Cope in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Desai, who had preached about the value of celibacy as a way to focus on yoga, was forced to resign his $150,000.00 a year spiritual directorship. “My first reaction was shock,” said Jonathan Foust, who was the public relations director at Kripalu at the time, and who had been celibate for what he described as six “difficult” years before marrying.

“I felt betrayed because celibacy is no easy practice.”

John Friend’s Anusara Yoga, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, collapsed in 2012 when its jet-setting founder and guiding light was accused of sexual improprieties and financial malfeasance. At the time Anusara was an international practice that claimed more than 1,500 teachers and 600,000 students. “It was a new thing,” said Joe Miller, owner of Willow Street Yoga in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It was yoga rock-stardom.” Although often sermonizing at yoga festivals about the value of relationships and the importance of trust, it was revealed that John Friend had engaged in drug use, had sexual relations with students, employees, and married women, and tampered with his company’s pension fund.

Just because a yoga teacher says let’s go pole dancing on the shores of the lagoon of bliss doesn’t make it right. And, parenthetically, just because the apparel behemoth Lululemon, trying to sell its trove of see-through yoga pants before being forced to recall them, says that see-through yoga pants are appropriate attire for practicing down dog, doesn’t make trying to unload them right, either.

“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis,” the Dalai Lama has said. Unless, of course, it is easier to be guided by the pleasant platitudes of teachers like Swami Muktananda, Amrit Desai, and John Friend.

But, it is absurd that a man should rule others who cannot rule himself. Leadership is partly about meeting moral challenges, partly about coalescing people around a shared vision, and mostly about being clear and courageous.

“The supreme quality of leadership is integrity,” said Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied Army during World War II and two-time President of the United States.

The environments and social milieus we live in shape us, just as the leaders we choose to follow shape us, for we become like them. One of the tests of integrity is its refusal to be compromised, its refusal to consider the bottom line, to meditate on profits before probity.

“Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” Bob Dylan warned in the song Subterranean Homesick Blues. When Lululemon weds pole dancing to yoga in order to sell its perky fitness apparel made for pennies on the dollar in third world countries, and Yoga Journal lends its hand to the tawdry enterprise, it may indeed be time to watch the parking meters and not follow leaders who are bleeding the meters dry.

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.”

108 New Year’s Resolutions

By Ed Staskus

1) Find out what 108 means in yoga lore.

2) Be more awesome than last year.

3) Try something new on the mat.

4) Try something new off the mat.

5) Breathe mindfully.

6) Practice the 1st Limb of Yoga (yama).

7) Think more, in general.

8) Try doing less harm (ahimsa).

9) Count to 10.

10) Plant the seed of your resolve (sankalpa).

11) Remember resolutions aren’t a to-do list.

12) Try being truthful (satya).

13) Don’t commit to what you can’t do.

14) Practice what yoga preaches.

15) Do nothing for a week-or-so.

16) Eat fewer animals.

17) Eat more fruits.

18) Eat even more veggies.

19) Practice the 2nd Limb of Yoga (niyama).

20) Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity.

21) Don’t get stuck in the mud.

22) Walk on the water until you sink.

23) Try being honest about things (asteya).

24) Spend less money.

25) “Watch the parking meters.” Bob Dylan

26) Practice the 3rd Limb of Yoga (asana).

27) Lay in corpse pose after exercise (asana).

28) Try a new craft-style IPA.

29) Try a different new craft-style IPA.

30) Don’t spill any IPA on your resolutions list.

31) Try being aware of a higher reality (brahmacharya).

32) Wanderlust more.

33) Cut most people some slack.

34) Don’t cut some people any slack.

35) Practice the 4th Limb of Yoga (pranayama).

36) “Watch the river flow.” Bob Dylan

37) Volunteer or contribute to a cause.

38) Pick up where you left off.

39) Head back to the classroom.

40) Waste not, want not.

41) Try being less acquisitive (aparigraha).

42) Chuck the couch.

43) Go for a walk.

44) Go for a walk, again.

45) Walk the dog.

46) Try to stay cool and clean (saucha).

47) Pick one thing to stop doing all year.

48) Rid yourself of enemies.

49) Rid yourself of frenemies.

50) Stare out the window once in a while.

51) Start from now.

52) Try to find some contentment (santosha).

53) Be Buddhist, even if you’re not a Buddhist.

54) Watch out for the sociopaths!

55) Breathe mindfully, again.

56) Practice the 5th Limb of Yoga (pratyahara).

57) Shop locally.

58) Shop small.

59) Finish a chap-stick.

60) Take the stairs.

61) Take a month off from irony.

62) Take a different month off from sarcasm.

63) Try to be disciplined (tapas).

64) Watch out for downpressers.

65) Don’t be a downpresser.

66) Stay in the now.

67) Read a new translation of the Bhagavad Gita.

68) Vote in November 2016.

69) When at the polls keep firmly in mind some

politicians  are demagogues.

70) When at the polls recall what Mark Twain said about politicians.

71) In the event, vote for somebody.

72) Turn off the internet of everything.

73) Crack open a book about something.

74) Make some mistakes, gain some experience.

75) Stay in touch.

76) Build a shelf.

77) Practice the 6th Limb of Yoga (dharana).

78) Go out on a limb. That’s where the apples are.

79) Meditate.

80) Go more green, in general.

81) Groom a green thumb.

82) Plant a seed.

83) Plant a plant.

84) Plant a shrub.

85) Plant a tree.

86) “Keep a clean nose. Watch the plain clothes. You don’t need

a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan

87) High five a stranger.

88) Read a sutra a day.

89) Try to be self-observant (svadhyaya).

90) Don’t follow leaders.

91) Practice the 7th Limb of Yoga (dhyana).

92) Rescue a cat.

93) Or, rescue a dog.

94) Make art, not war.

95) Turn off the television.

96) Go to a live theater.

97) Go to a live concert.

98) When necessary, make better bad decisions.

99) Practice the 8th Limb of Yoga (samadhi).

100) Look inward.

101) Set your intention.

102) Get all the good laughs you can.

103) Try to surrender to life (ishvara pranidhana).

104) Make an effort.

105) Never mind about resolutions if you don’t want to.

106) Breathe mindfully, one more time.

107) Remember to find out what significance 108 has in yoga lore.

108) Have an awesome 2012.

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.”

Sitting Pretty and Beyond

By Ed Staskus

“Yoga gives people of all ages the ability to grow old gracefully and stay in shape with lowered stress,” says Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga in Austin, Texas. “My students share all kinds of success stories of reduced blood pressure, assistance with diabetes, faster healing, stronger digestion, and better sleep.”

Yoga does not treat age at whatever age it is like a disease to be cured. Getting old is not the problem since growing older can be accomplished by anyone who lives long enough. Yoga assumes asanas are good for everyone because the practice produces a stronger, healthier body with increased resistance to disease.

“Health is the chief idea, the one goal of hatha yoga,” says Swami Nikhilananda in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works. In recent years the Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa, who believes it can and should be the low-tech solution to many of the world’s health care problems, has gathered substantial evidence for the therapeutic value of the practice.

But, as essential to yoga as hatha practice is, it is still only one spoke in the wheel. Practicing asanas alone is like going to see Gone in 60 Seconds instead of Gone with the Wind. The Nicholas Cage movie looks like a movie, just like the Clark Gable one does, as long as you assume the elements of color, action, and sound are what movies are about, or that the plot device of stealing 50 cars is worth caring about.

Asanas are empowering, boosting energy and decreasing aches and pains, and even defending against major killers like heart disease and diabetes. But, hot vinyasa classes are not an elixir, no matter how hot they are or how real the myth of the loss of Eden remains even in our modern age. When asanas are added or yoked to the matrix of pranayama and meditation they become more than just the active ingredients in the Fountain of Youth recipe. Practicing yoga for it’s admitted anti-aging benefits is good for everyone’s body, but leaving it at that is empowering the tail to wag the dog.

“Yoga is ultimately more than a tool,” says Michael Caldwell of Yoga One in San Diego, California. “Sure, some people do yoga to get a firm butt and lose weight, but those who continue to practice tend to get much more out of it than an attractive outward appearance, because it is a philosophy, and ultimately when fully expanded, a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a state of being.”

Transforming asanas into a wrestling match with age can add years to your life, but it doesn’t necessarily make those years worthwhile. “Life is a pilgrimage,” says Swami Sivanada. It is a journey to a sacred place, or at least a search for significance. Reducing it to year after year of roadside attractions is to waste the years asanas may grant. The superstar Madonna is not the new Nero because she practices Ashtanga Yoga, but because she believes the internal heat and sweat of the practice are its most noble parts, or as noble as her egoism allows.

“Yoga is widely perceived as being a toolbox of youth, but it is far from being only that,” says Gyandev McCord of Ananda Yoga in Ananda Village, California. “Practicing only for its physical benefits is like seeing the Mona Lisa only in terms of its picture frame. Nice frame, but there’s something much greater happening there! Yoga is, above all, a technology for inner transformation, a means to experience directly the very essence of who you are.”

The Vedic culture, from which the Hindu path of yoga evolved, concentrated on diet, exercise, and meditation for its anti-aging therapies. Back in the day Rig Vedic verses were chanted to gain long life. As it is practiced today, yoga is not like it was in the past, but its aims are the same. Hatha yoga is meant to keep the body healthy and the mind alert through asanas, pranayama, and meditation, so that one can lead a dynamic and alert life, acting appropriately in changing circumstances.

There is suggestive evidence that yoga delays or prevents the onset of many age-related diseases, evidence garnered from studies conducted by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and even some done under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. A study in the February 2000 issue of ‘Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America’ found that therapeutic yoga helps with the pain associated with osteoarthritis. “Medically, yoga maintains the body parameters to a ripe old age,“ says Dr. Krishna Raman in his book Yoga and Medical Science.

Yogis like Krisnamacharya, Indra Devi, and K. Pattabhi Jois have proven that asana practice can be maintained throughout life, well into one’s 80’s and 90’s. “I’m proof that if you keep at it, you’ll get there. I can do more now than I could 50 years ago. Forget age,” says the 84-year-old Bette Calman, an Australian teacher and author of Yoga for Arthritis, who still practices peacock pose and tripod headstand.

A good plastic surgeon can lift a face and make it last for ten years. Botox, the trademark of botulinum toxin, an otherwise lethal poison, can paralyze wrinkles for up to four months. Preparation H, in a pinch, tautens under-eye puffiness. Being a good Australian and not a Belgian endive all her life, Bette Calman is wrinkled from the sun, but her real beauty shines from the inside out. “Yoga keeps you young,” she says, meaning it in more ways than the anti-aging business does.

Yoga is not about worshiping youth, but rather about honoring all ages. That is why there is always a practice for everyone and it is always the right time to start a practice. “Never too late, never too old, never too bad,” says Bishnu Ghosh, who was Bikram Choudbury’s teacher.

If yoga were the Holy Grail of anti-aging no yogis would have wrinkles or arthritis. But, they do. When Diane Anderson asked David Life how his body had changed over the years, he said: “Do you really want the old list that we all know: less hair, more gray, fewer teeth, thinner skin, and so on? I’ve got all that.” Yoga has often innocently been called the art of staying young. There is no potion or pill or procedure that will keep anyone ageless, but yoga might be the next best consolation prize for the plant that got away.

“We’re not about growing old gracefully. We’re about never growing old,” says Robert Klatz, president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.

The science of yoga posits the opposite view, not opposing nature with the chemical and surgical arsenal of Western science, but rather melding breath and asanas to flow with grace through time. In its various manifestations it offers many kinds of practice to the different stages of our life times, from hot vinyasa to earthy yin. “Yoga might give you a youthful posture and more peaceful face, but the reason people stick to it is the peace and awareness it brings,” says Debra Murphy of Shanti Yoga in McCall, Idaho, who also has a doctorate in Exercise Science.

For all of its admitted physical benefits, yoga is about being ageless on the inside rather than on the outside. The Buddha said every human being is the author of his own health or disease, but yoga is about more than health or disease. Yoga is not just a body practice, nor is it a body-mind practice. It is a body-mind-spirit practice.

The odds of aging are one hundred percent, but how old would we be if we didn’t know how old we were? “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, progenitor of Integral Yoga. The purpose of yoga is not just to buff the body, nor master the mind. Its long-term project is to still the body and mind in order to apprehend the spirit. “The spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze. And matter shall reveal the spirit’s face,” explains Sri Aurobindo.

Asanas are always worthwhile in their own right, as is meditation and breathwork. Yoga exercise helps develop a strong posture so that the body can be kept steady and comfortable in order to meditate. Pranayama helps still the motion of the mind. But, to limit one’s yoga practice to these steps is to lose sight of what the pilgrimage of the practice is really getting at, which is the illimitable spirit that lives in everyone, mirroring timelessness. Yoga is a meditation on the here and now, not a better-looking past or airbrushed future. Wonder and awareness are found in the present moment, where there is no need for nips and tucks.

When the body is still the mind can be still. When the mind is still the spirit can be still. When the spirit is still, fear and desire, the ageless twins that drive the anti-aging market, are obviated. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali’s guideline for life is the eightfold path, or ashtanga, which literally means eight limbs. Asanas are the path of health, the yamas and niyamas the paths of moral and ethical conduct, and pranayama is at the crossroads of the body and mind. The final four limbs of the circle of ashtanga – withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and connecting with the Universe – are the practices by which time slows down to a single point of stillness.

The effects of anti-aging products like Botox and HGH are ephemeral at best and dangerous at worse. Pursuing enlightenment on the eightfold path is to connect to the best of the whole of creation, not just hold hands with a corporate chemist’s lab.

At the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh, having lost the Plant of Life, the hero Gilgamesh returns home and looks up at the city walls he built, believing they will endure in his place. It is a false epiphany. Unable to step out of the flow of time he remains seduced by the dream of the snake. Five thousand years later his city’s ruins lie on the banks of an abandoned channel of the Euphrates River. But, what Gilgamesh yearned for then is in our modern age still a preoccupation.

“To this very day, the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man,” says Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Buying into the 21st century’s anti-aging technologies is to be beguiled by the snake, as though sloughing off one’s skin has something to do with revealing one’s true self. The authentic self is the spirit made visible, not a new, replacement face or head of hair. The real prize is not the skin you slough off, but the skin you live in, and how you live in the skin you are in. That is the gift gotten from yoga practice in all its aspects, never looking back and never looking forward.

Only here and now.

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.”

Sitting Pretty

By Ed Staskus

What used to be called the Fountain of Youth, but today is called anti-aging, more than 5,000 years ago was known as the Plant of Life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book of all time, after a series of adventures the hero loses his best friend to the revenge of the gods of Sumeria (today’s Iraq). Gilgamesh buries his friend, but can’t stop mourning him and fearing he might suddenly die himself.

Until then, the mid-point of the story, the young Gilgamesh has addressed his fears of death only superficially. He goes searching for the secret of eternal life in the form of Ut-Napishtim, the survivor of the Great Flood and the only man ever granted immortality as a reward for saving mankind. Gilgamesh doesn’t get it, though, because the gods jealously guard immortality. He gets the Plant of Life, instead

Ut-Napishtim’s wife gives Gilgamesh the Plant of Life, which restores youth to the elderly, as a consolation prize. But, on the way home he loses the plant to a snake, which eats it and sheds its skin, staying young while men grow old.

Life extension and attempts to slow down aging have a long history, from Gilgamesh to SRT1720, the anti-aging pill. There has never been a time when growing old didn’t matter. Today, yoga is touted as the latest and greatest regimen in the anti-aging arsenal.

When Yoga Journal asked the 58-year-old Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller in its November, 2009 issue whether he found yoga to be a fountain of youth, he said: “It keeps my body healthy and my mind young. I’m still pretty flexible and strong and I rarely get sick.”

In an earlier issue Diane Anderson interviewed six master teachers about how yoga helps them age gracefully. “Sometimes I wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends,” said the 62-year-old Patricia Walden. “Twenty minutes into my practice I feel younger. Inevitably, the power of yoga takes over and you feel ageless!”

Writing in her blog ‘Confessions of a Wayward Yogi’, upon meeting Sharon Gannon and David Life at a Jivamukti Yoga immersion in Johannesburg, South Africa, the eponymous author exclaimed: “What really struck me is what young sixty-something’s they are! They look incredible. If anything is an advert for yoga, it’s these two beautiful people.”

Although some master teachers, like Rodney Yee, are critical of the connection, yoga and anti-aging are linked far and wide. Great Britain’s YOGA has described itself as offering yoga instruction to “control and aid ailments [like] the all important issue of anti-ageing.” In ‘Omm Away the Years’, an article by Marissa Conrad in Prevention, she writes yoga may be the ideal medicine for “relieving pain [and] ramping up energy. With regular practice, you’ll tone your muscles, improve flexibility, and feel younger than ever.”

In You: Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your WarrantyDr. Oz recommends yoga as the best exercise for staying flexible. He and his collaborator Dr. Michael Roizen have appeared on Oprah with their ‘90-Day Live Longer, Feel Younger Plan’ in which yoga plays an integral part.

“I completely agree that it is a kind of fountain of youth,” says Kimberly Fowler, CEO of YAS Fitness Centers in Venice, California. “I’m one of those baby boomers who has turned yoga’s anti-aging properties into a fitness empire!”

While yoga has become the exercise of choice for more and more people in the last ten years, the health and beauty business has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past one hundred years. Americans purchase more than $6 billion dollars of nutritional supplements every year. They pay more than $10 billion for cosmetic surgery procedures, from face-lifts to liposuction. All told, it has been estimated the age management market is worth more than $70 billion dollars.

And it is expanding as the Baby Boom and Gen X generations grow older and try to keep Mother Nature from catching up to Father Time.

Living longer than ever and still largely affluent, hoping to slow down or reverse the effects of age, they have created a marketplace for anti-aging products that has grown exponentially, from herbal therapies and alternative medicine to hormone injections and genetic engineering.

But, if biomedical gerontology is new, the drive to live longer and better, to look and be healthier, has a long history. Medical papyrus in burial tombs from 16th century BC Egypt contain recipes to remove wrinkles, blemishes, and other signs of age. Cleopatra is said to have slept wearing a restorative golden mask. According to Hellenic mythology, when Pandora disobeyed Zeus’s command and opened the box he had given her, she unleashed sickness and death.

In classical Greece youth was beautiful and heroic, while old age was ugly and tragic, beset by the fruits of Pandora’s Box. “The gods hate old age,” Aphrodite says in the Odyssey. According to Herodotus, the world’s first historian, bathing in magical Ethiopian fountains could put the genie back into the bottle.

The Romans were equally conscious of old age and its consequences, of losing ones looks and mental capacity, according to Karen Cokayne in Old Age in Ancient Rome. Christians were no different than pagans. The waters of the Pool of Bethesda in the New Testament were said to be stirred by an angel and to have healing powers, restoring vitality.

Five hundred years before it became a multi-billion dollar biotech industry, Juan Ponce de Leon was the poster child for anti-aging. A Spanish explorer who led one of the earliest European expeditions to Florida in search of gold and conquest, after his death stories about his supposed quest for a Fountain of Youth gained currency and became both fact and legend.

Starting in the 19th century anti-aging advocates in America depicted old age as something to be feared and despised. “Youth comes but once in a lifetime,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the best-known lyric poet of his day, lamented. At the same time the pioneering neurologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was experimenting on himself by eating extracts of monkey testis for rejuvenation.

In the 1930s Cornell University nutritionists were underfeeding rats and finding they lived longer and better than well-fed ones. The modern era of research into senescence began in the 1960s with studies into the cellular-damage model of aging. By 1970 the American Aging Association had formed, devoted to extending the human lifespan, and in 1992 the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine was created as a distinct anti-aging medical specialty.

Even though Leon Kass, who was chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, said, “the desire to prolong youthfulness is a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it,“ today’s captive audience of more than 70 million Baby Boomers is fueling a marketing boom in anti-aging products and procedures with no end in sight.

At the turn of the last century Mark Twain said age was an issue of mind over matter. ”If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

But, it does matter because everyone does mind. It is the rare man or woman who is happy about getting inexorably older, losing their smooth skin, firm muscles, clear vision, and high energy levels. No one likes getting older, and no one likes being old. Worse than looking old is feeling old.

From aching joints to Alzheimer’s the consequences of aging can be daunting. Those challenges, as well as the simple threat of them, have driven many people to turn to western medicine for the magic bullet, ranging from drugs to lasers to surgery, to remedy or forestall their complaints. Meanwhile, taking a different, holistic approach, more and more people have instead turned to yoga.

“I am not sure I would agree with the implication that yoga is a fountain of youth,” says Trevor Monk of Infinite Yoga in San Diego, California. “But, it is a fact that practicing yoga improves your health and well-being, and if not your longevity, at least the quality of your life.”

Rather than a radical makeover or cure, since there is none for the incurable passing of time, yoga offers its own path to wellness. That path is built on asana, pranayama, and meditation.

“The yoga asanas really do wonderful things for maintaining health,” says Lilian Folan, who has introduced millions of people to yoga in the past forty years and has written Yoga Gets Better with Age? While disputing the notion that yoga is the Holy Grail most teachers readily admit its benefits.

“It is no surprise that by working through every joint in the body through asanas,” says Trevor Monk, “applying breathing techniques, and bandhas, or energy locks, that the body gets stronger and leaner, detoxifies, and heals itself.”

Describing her book New Yoga for People Over 50 Suza Francina, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, articulates what most teachers believe: “People are recognizing yoga for its ability to slow down and reverse the aging process. A complete health system, yoga not only restores vitality to the body, but also expands the mind and soul.”

The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, is, as its name suggests, committed to the proposition that yoga and health are one and the same thing. “With yoga you can keep your body in the best possible health,” says Kara-Leah Grant in her on-line article ‘How to Stay Young Forever with Yoga’. Some yoga practitioners even claim the practice keeps most illnesses at bay and so prevents premature and unnecessary aging of the body.

There is widespread skepticism in the scientific community about anti-aging remedies and their effectiveness. Many doctors and researchers argue that the complexity of aging militates against the development of anti-aging therapies. “Anyone purporting to offer an anti-aging product today is either mistaken or lying,” write Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce Carnes in their essay ‘No Truth to the Fountain of Youth’ in the Scientific American. They admit exercise and nutrition reduce the risk of many diseases, but insist they do not directly influence aging.

In recent years the FDA has increasingly cracked down on the anti-aging industry, especially on products like HGH and many other far-fetched supplements hawked on the Internet. The medical community does not recognize anti-aging as a specialty of medicine. Even though recent documentaries like To Age or Not to Age propose maintenance and life-extending solutions, the consensus is there is no proven medical technology or product that slows, prevents, or reverses the aging process.

“Aging is a disease that can be prevented or reversed,” counters Dr. Ron Rothenberg, the author of Forever Ageless.

But, the question is, is getting old a disease? It can be: the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome is a disease of premature aging in the young. It is very rare, however; fewer than a hundred cases have ever been formally recorded. The fear of growing old is called gerascophobia. In the Western world this anxiety disorder has been fueled by a culture obsessed with being and staying young.

Medical dictionaries do not define aging as a disease, only that there is a gradual decline in physical and possibly mental functioning as people get older. Energy levels go down and muscle mass declines steadily, according to Julie Silver of the Harvard Medical School. Gerontologists admit that during the latter half of life people are more prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes.

But, getting older is not in and of itself a disease. If it were, every baby born would be born sick. Old age can be a shipwreck on the rock of ages, but it can also be a fine-looking boat making its way beneath both sun and storm. Yoga is not an anti-aging product, nor is it an anti-aging therapy. But, a case can be made that is an effective and credible strategy for becoming and staying healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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.”

No Pain No Gain

By Ed Staskus

In the mid-1980s the number of men to women in any yoga class anywhere in the United States was about 1 out of 10, or about 10%. “When we started you’d see one or two men in a class,” said David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.

By 2002, almost 20 years later, the number had gone up to 12%, according to Mathew Solan, a senior editor at Yoga Journal at the time. “It’s growing,” he said. In the latest survey done by Yoga Journal the number has grown to approximately 17%. In other words, in the past 30 years the participation by men in yoga has gone from about one man in every ten people to about one-and-a-half men in every ten.

At that rate there should be as many men as women in attendance at yoga classes sometime late in the next century.

A hundred years ago it would have been rare to see even one woman in class. The practice used to be all male all the time.

Today’s practice is mostly based on postures with a sprinkling of breath work and mindfulness adding some splash to the mix. There is much more to the discipline besides those elements, but as practiced in the 21st century sequenced poses rule the roost.

“There is so much body consciousness in this country,” observed Sri Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga.

Classical yoga can be traced back more than five thousand years and old-school hatha about a thousand years. It was for most of that long time a meditative or awareness practice. Posture yoga, or what today is called vinyasa, is primarily traced back to one man, Krishnamacharya. In 1931, well into his 40s with a wife and children, he was hired by a local Indian prince to teach it at a Sanskrit College.

He claimed an ancient birthright for postural yoga and claimed that the text for it was written on a leaf thousands of years old. Unfortunately, he said ants ate the desiccated leaf right after he read what was on it.

All ants are omnivores, like people, but they were probably leaf cutter ants, which chew up leaves and spit them out, creating a substrate for fungus to grow, which they later feast on.

Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois, who went on to popularize Ashtanga Yoga, and B. K. S. Iyengar, who popularized Iyengar Yoga. He also taught that yoga was incompatible to women and for a long time refused to teach them.

“It was not even considered for women then,” explained Don Steensma, a Los Angeles teacher. When Indra Devi first asked if she could study with Krishnamachyra he said no. “No women are allowed.” It took the Maharaja of Mysore’s intervention to get her on the mat.

This was because the yoga he was crafting was largely a blend of Indian wrestling, Danish Primitive Gymnastics, and a little of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was targeted at boys and young men and bound up with the Indian independence movement. It was about strength building, discipline, and nationalism. It was not for the faint of heart.

When B. K. S. Iyengar finally began teaching women it was a modified, less aggressive form of vinyasa, and he instructed them in segregated classes.

Today the tables have been turned. The only segregated classes nowadays are men’s classes, such as Broga and Yoga for Dudes. “It’s not for sissy’s anymore!” exclaimed New Men’s Yoga.

When yoga was first exported in the late 19th century it was in the person of Vivekenanda promoting pranayama and positive thinking. But, before and especially after World War Two, postural yoga began to make its way across the ocean and was wedded to physical culture and physical therapy. It integrated into the gymnastic practices popular among women of that time.

“These were spiritual traditions, often developed by and for women, which used posture, breath, and relaxation to access heightened states of awareness,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern’.

Stretching was a key component of the Women’s League of Health and Fitness in the 1930s and 40s, while in the 1970s Jazzercise ruled the world of female fitness. All through the 1980s Aerobics was the craze. When those fads faded is when the drift towards yoga accelerated.

The rest is history. It has been mainstreamed and nowadays upwards of 20 million Americans do yoga. Most of them are gals, not guys.

“At crowded yoga classes rooms can be filled wall-to-wall with 60 or more students – but it’s likely that fewer of those people are men than you can count on one hand,” wrote Carolyn Gregoire in the Huffington Post.

Yoga is not a man’s world anymore.

It is a “women’s practice” a recent Washington Post article pointed out. Although the practice was created by and for men it has been largely feminized.

“There’s been a flip,” said Loren Fishman, director of the Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic in New York City. “ Yoga has become a sort of gentle gym, a non-competitive, non-confrontational thing that’s good for you. Yoga has this distinctive passive air to it.”

In less than a hundred years yoga has morphed from men building better bodies in order to build a better nation to the slender and taut female body paraded on the covers of innumerable yoga magazines, web sites, and advertisements.

“The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, the elongated feminine form,” said Karlyn Crowley, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

Why do so many women practice yoga?

Although anybody with any kind of body can practice yoga, in all its forms, there is an undeniably archetypal image conflated with being on the mat. Classes are full of women so the classes must be for women.

“If you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends,” said Phillip Goldberg, author of American Veda.

Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, or at least lithe and toned?

Women who routinely practice yoga have lower body mass indexes and control their weight better than those who don’t. In addition, according to a study at the University of California in Berkeley, women who practiced regularly rated their body satisfaction 20% higher than those who just took aerobic classes, even though both groups were at the same, healthy weight.

There are varied reasons why women are drawn to yoga, which are related to what women look for in a workout, which is often a mix of aerobics training and mind-body practices.

They are more likely to engage in group activities, like yoga classes, rather than hitting the weights alone.

“It’s because they’re interested in the social aspects of working out and because they feel more comfortable when they’re with other people,” explained Cedric Bryant, Chief Exercise Physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.

Women are also better built for many of the poses that make up asana sequences, no matter that men designed so many of them. There is a difference, especially when it comes to hips, between what women can do and men should do. Yoga poses are unisex, but the problem is there are two very different sexes.

“Women who tie themselves in knots enjoy a lower risk of damage,” wrote New York Times science writer William Broad in ‘Wounded Warrior Pose’. “Proportionally men report damage more frequently than women. Women tell mainly of minor upsets.”

Men do yoga more often than not for the workout, but the top reasons women give for starting the practice are stress relief and flexibility, as well as conditioning.

“It basically balances the body,” said Coleen Saidman, who has been called ‘The First Lady of Yoga’. “It gives you literal balance, but it also brings balance into life and gives you perspective.”

So many women practice yoga there is even a Yoga Teacher Barbie available on Amazon, complete with an outfit, mat, and mini Chihuahua, for $59.95. There is no Yoga Teacher Ken at any price.

Why do so few men practice yoga?

Part of the problem may lurk in the concept of no pain no gain.

“If it’s flaky and too new-age, soft and touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff to a male audience,” said Ian Mishalove of Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC.

Even though yoga studios today are often exercise rooms in which hard work on a sticky mat is done, it remains a mind-body practice, and that makes men hesitate. They like the body part, but are uneasy with the mind part.

They view fitness through the lens of physical challenge. Fathers play competitive sports and coach their sons in Pop Warner leagues. They jog faster than the other guy, gnarl mountain bikes, and pump iron.

More than 70% of American men watch NFL football. Less than 1% of American men practice yoga. Many men regard going to a yoga class the same as being dragged off to a wedding against their will.

“Men work out because they like to be bigger,” said Vincent Perez, Director of Sports Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center.

Men have no problem walking into a sweaty gym full of mirrors reflecting themselves lifting weights. However, walking into a studio full of women doing crow and headstand is another matter. The sight of it would unnerve any man. No one wants to fail in front of fifty or sixty women.

“Most men prefer athletic-based activities that don’t require overt coordination,” said Grace De Simone of Gold’s Gym.

Macho expectations are rife among men when it comes to fitness. Since yoga intrinsically has nothing to do with the no pain no gain school of thought, and since it’s a holistic practice, they sidestep it.

But, when it comes to no pain no gain, it may be that yoga needs to do only one thing, even though it might be Eight Limbs of Yoga subversive, to attract more men. That one thing would be to tap into the concept.

“Pain gets a bad rap in our culture,” said Swami Vidyananda, who has taught Integral Yoga since 1973. “Pain has many positive functions.”

Since so many men bemoan their lack of flexibility, simply ask them to do Pada Hastasana, otherwise known as touching your toes. That should be painful enough to point the way to a yoga class.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga 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.”

Ask the Yogi

By Ed Staskus

I was busy on our front porch one rainy afternoon, sticking my thumb into our cat’s mouth and springing his fangs with my fingernail, something he never tires of, when my wife interrupted us.

“I’ve asked you to not do that,” she said impatiently. “You’re going to break his teeth and then we’ll have a toothless cat.”

“He likes it,” I said. “Besides, I think it strengthens his teeth.”

“Oh, never mind.” she said. “Look what came in the mail. It’s the yoga magazine and your friend Barron’s in it.”

She has called him my friend instead of our friend ever since he dug up his mother’s flower garden and replaced it with a root vegetable garden.

“Barron? What did he ever do to become newsworthy besides spend half the day on his mat exercising and meditating?”

“He hasn’t done anything, but he’s writing an advice column for them.”

I was so surprised I jumped out of my seat and the cat scattered pell-mell. I had been sending stories to the magazine for more than three years and been ignored, never even receiving a rejection letter.

“An advice column? What does Barron know about advice?”

“Honey, Barron is the kind of man who, when he asks if you want a piece of advice, it doesn’t matter what you say, because you’re going to get it anyway.”

I snatched the magazine from her hands. It was folded to the full-page column, and staring me in the face was a picture of Barron Cannon, standing on one leg in the middle of his parent’s backyard, where he lives in a yurt.

I fell back into my chair and began reading ‘Ask the Yogi.’

Dear Yogi Barron:

I enlisted in the army last month to defend our country and fight terrorists. I expected basic training to be hard, but I was ready for the challenge. Now I find out that yoga is going to be part of our fitness training. Our drill sergeant says it will keep us flexible instead of bulked up and meditation will keep us calm when things get nerve wracking. How can that be? Yoga is for chicks, isn’t it? I need to know the right way to hold my rifle, not the right way to touch my toes, and I need to shoot when I see the whites of their eyes, not get in touch with my third eye.

Signed, Dismayed in Fort Hood

Dear Dismayed:

Not to worry.

After Osama bin Laden was killed and thrown into the ocean, Gaiam Life, the leading yoga accessory manufacturer, issued a “special edition” yoga mat thanking Seal Team 6 for taking care of business. There are lots of yogis going heavy. Even the Dalai Lama says that if someone is going to shoot you, shoot back first. Many people are skeptical about the power of yoga, but not the Navy Seals. When interviewed they often mention how closely yoga training resembles their own. Some Seals have even set up fitness schools, blending yoga exercise with combat techniques. Since you’re just a grunt in boot camp, you’re not going to argue with the Seals about the power of yoga, are you, grasshopper?

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

It sounded just like Barron Cannon; in other words, snippy and deific. It didn’t sound like a mass-market magazine that knows how to trim its sails.

And, what did he mean by ‘Your Dutch Uncle’?

I had to get to the bottom of how Barron Cannon, who lives off the grid, had gotten his scribbling onto the pages of a magazine with millions of subscribers as well as more advertising pages than pages of anything else.

I couldn’t understand how anyone like him, who, if he had stooped to be on Facebook would never get a like in his life, could possibly have gotten a corporation to pay him for his opinions. To say he was not only curmudgeonly and out of the touch with the yoga generation was understating the obvious.

It had stopped raining, so I rolled up the magazine, stuck it into my back pocket, and took a walk the two-or-so miles up Riverside Drive to Barron’s yurt on the heights of Hogsback Lane overlooking the Rocky River.

Barron and I were soon sitting on the edge of his parent’s backyard, on a pair of plastic Adirondack chairs he had scavenged somewhere, while he unrolled the magazine and admired his handiwork.

Dear Yogi Barron:

I have been married for 12 years and have three children. I love yoga, but my husband has never had any interest in it, so I have always gone to the studio without him. He enjoys sleeping, eating, and watching sports on TV. In the past year I have fallen for a man with two boys who also passionately practices yoga at my studio. He is very fond of me, too. His wife is ignorant and irresponsible. I think he would be a wonderful husband and a great father for my children. Should I take the plunge, leave my husband, and start a new life?

Signed, Troubled in Minneapolis

Dear Troubled:

Have you lost your mind?

First of all, do you realize there are five children involved in your so-called yoga romance? How do you think they are going to feel when not one but two families are broken up? Second, what does yoga have to do with cheating on your husband, besides breaking most of the principles by which it is practiced? There is more to yoga than standing on your head, which you seem to be doing quite well. There is no reason to be unhappy in love, certainly, but dump the yogi lothario and try helping your husband off the La-Z-Boy. Maybe there is a reason he is such a slug. Living to eat and watching sports 24/7 is living the zombie life. Get him off his butt, on his feet, and off to the studio with you. It might be the way to bring him back to life, and your marriage, too. When you help him you help yourself, as well; it might also bring you back to your senses.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

After Barron’s long-suffering mother had brought us coffee and scones, I came right to the point.

“How on earth did your words of wisdom make it into print?” I asked, incredulous.

“A word to the wise isn’t what I’m doing, since it’s usually people on the stupid side that need me the most,” he said.

“I would have thought offering advice about the day-to-day was beneath you.”

Barron Cannon has a PhD in philosophy. He lived off the grid because no sooner had he won his diploma than he realized politics had replaced philosophy in the modern world.

“It’s not really advice,” he said. “Advice is free, but since it’s in a magazine that people have to pay for, it’s more like counseling.”

“You don’t sound like the friendliest counselor in the world,” I pointed out.

“I’m not trying to be their friend, because no friendship could stand the strain of good advice for too long,” he said.

“Which is it, council or advice?”

“It’s both,” he said. “But don’t worry, I never give them my best council, or advice, or whatever you want to call it, because they wouldn’t follow it, anyway.”

Dear Yogi Barron:

I practice at a large yoga studio and often hear our various yoga teachers say things like “Live in the now” and “It’s all good, it’s all yoga”. But, what about learning from the past and planning for the future? And, it can’t all be good, can it? Some things have to be right and wrong. Don’t they?

Signed, Baffled in Boston

Dear Baffled:

It is obvious you don’t understand yoga, which is our most beloved Eastern philosophy because it is so accepting of SUV’s and Ayn Rand. It is also obvious you have not read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of yoga’s most important guidebooks.

In the book, which is a long poem from a long time ago, a warrior named Arjuna doesn’t want to go into battle, telling his chariot driver, who happens to be the god Krishna, that he doesn’t see the sense of it. He decries all the slaughter leading to nothing but disaster and ruin. Krishna has his own agenda, which is revealed later in the story, so I won’t ruin the surprise. Needless to say, he musters many top-down arguments to convince Arjuna he must go to war, among them the “be here now” argument and the “there is no evil” argument. It turns out it really is all in as Arjuna goes to war, after all.

The newest translation by Stephen Mitchell is the best and most accessible and I recommend you get and read it as soon as possible. All will be revealed.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

“If you’re sensible enough to give good advice you should be sensible enough to give no advice,” I said. “ So, what is it you’re trying to accomplish?”

“I say a good scare is better than good advice, so maybe I’m trying to throw a little scare into them,” he said.

“But, it benefits me, too. Living in mom’s backyard suits me, such as it is, but I’ve been thinking of a girlfriend, which means I need some ready cash. I’m getting paid for telling people the best thing they could do when falling is not land, and that’s a gift horse I’m willing to look in the mouth.”

When I heard the words girlfriend and money come out of Barron Cannon’s mouth I almost fell out of my chair for the second time that day.

Barron had been living a no expenses life since graduation. He had sold or given away almost everything he owned he didn’t consider essential. He lived off his root vegetable plot, some fruit trees, and a solar array. He practiced yoga and meditation, read only e-books on the Lakewood Library site, and went for long hikes in the Metro Park.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he said.

“Having a girlfriend doesn’t necessarily invalidate my criticism of the capitalist mode of production. I just need a few dollars to take her out to lunch.”

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know, yet. She brings a group of schoolchildren to the Nature Center every Friday.”

Dear Yogi Barron:

After I moved across town and changed yoga studios I noticed that more and more of my friends from my old studio fell to the wayside. I had two long-time friends who disappeared from my radar screen completely. My question is, do I just let these good friends slip away? Or do I try to save our friendships?

Signed, Confused in San Francisco

Dear Confused:

I don’t blame you for being confused. It is one of life’s most common problems, when all of a sudden you are not so close to friends anymore. Friendships enhance the quality of our lives. What to do? Give those old friends a call. Invite them over for dinner or go out on the town. Catch up with what they have been doing. When you visit with your friends you do something good for them and yourself.

Here is what the Buddha said about friends: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you are down and out he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”

I wish you the best of luck reconnecting with your friends. If it doesn’t work out, remember you can always make new friends at your new studio. The Buddha’s not around anymore, anyway. That’s what former friends are for in our modern age, aren’t they, fodder? It’s like seeing one of them in a crowd; you just want to look away.

I’ve heard it said, if you really want a best friend, buy a dog.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

“How is your column going?” I asked. “Is it doing some good?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m dealing with people for who the worst advice you could give them is be yourself.”

He leaned back in his chair, studying the sky.

“Good advice is always going to be ignored, but I just ignore that, so it doesn’t bother me. After all, I’m getting paid so there’s no reason to not pontificate. I try to stay aloof to whether or not anyone pays any attention to it, and I don’t persist in trying to set anyone right. After all, like Sophocles said, bad advice is hateful.”

Barron could never resist being pedantic.

“What is that business of signing yourself as someone’s Dutch uncle?”

“Firm, but benevolent, my boy, firm but benevolent,” he chuckled.

On my way home I reflected on the irony of my many hours researching articles that never got accepted, while Barron Cannon, an Occupy Marxist, simply spouted off, got into print, and got paid, as well. Once at home I searched out my wife, who was doing yesterday’s dishes, and asked her how I should resolve what I saw as an unfair state of things.

“Honey, if you’re asking for my advice that means you probably already know the answer, but wish you didn’t. Why don’t you go play with the cat? I’m sure it’ll come to you,” she said.

“Just don’t do that thing to his teeth.”

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.”

26 Not Copyrighted Bikram Yoga Jokes

By Ed Staskus

There are 26 poses in the 90-minute Bikram Yoga sequence practiced in a room called the Hot Room. It is no laughing matter. It is sometimes called the Torture Room. Somewhere somebody is asking, are you kidding me?

1) A man walks into a bar and announces he’s got a terrific Bikram joke to tell. But, before he can start the bartender says, “Hold it right there, buddy, I practice Bikram Yoga.”

And the man says, “Okay, I’ll tell it very, very slowly.”

2) One evening after dinner a seven-year-old boy asked his father, “Where did Mommy go?”

His father told him. “Mommy is at a Bikram Yoga class.”

The explanation satisfied the boy only for a moment, but then he asked, “What’s a Bikram Yoga class, Dad?”

His father figured a simple explanation would be the best approach. “Well, son.” he said. “That’s where people squeeze all their muscles with all their might standing half-naked on one leg while someone tells them over and over to try harder in a room lit up like Wal-Mart in front of big mirrors in 105 degree heat and steam like that Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom – so that they can be healthy.”

The boy burst out laughing. “Come on, Dad! What is it really?”

3) A Bikram Yogi walks into a bar with a large green and yellow parrot on his shoulder. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?”

“In California,” the parrot says, “there are a million of them.”

4) The lookout on the Battleship Bikram spies a light ahead off the starboard bow. Captain Bikram tells him to signal the other vessel. “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

The answer comes back, “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

Captain Bikram is furious. He signals, “I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course twenty degrees now!

The answer comes back. “I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course twenty degrees.”

Now Captain Bikram is beside himself with rage. He signals, “I am a battleship!”

The answer comes back, “I am a lighthouse.”

5) Why don’t Bikram Yogis drink?

It interferes with their suffering.

6) Bikram is praying to Krishna. “Krishna,” he says, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responds, “No problem. Go ahead.”

“Krishna, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?”

“Yes, that is true.”

“Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?”

“A million dollars to me is but a penny”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” says Bikram, “may I have a penny?

“Sure,” says Krishna. “Just a second.”

7) For the final exam the philosophy professor plopped a chair on his desk and wrote on the blackboard: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.” Fingers flew, erasers erased, and notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour, sweating up a storm, attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, Bikram, was up and finished in less than a minute.

Weeks later when the grades were posted the rest of the class wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.

His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”

8) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said the Bikram Yoga teacher on the podium.

“Until the hammer comes down,” muttered the Bikram Yogi in the back row.

9) Her doctor tells a woman she has a fatal illness and only six months to live.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asks.

“Yes, there is,” the doctor replies. “You could take Bikram Yoga every day for the next six months.”

“How will that help my illness?” the woman asks.

“Oh, it won’t help your illness,” says the doctor, “but it will make that six months seem like an eternity.”

10) What’s the difference between Bikram Choudhury and a philosopher?

About $7 million a year.

11) When Morty hit fifty, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so that he could live longer. He quit smoking, went on a diet, and went suntanning. A friend suggested the 30-day Bikram Challenge, which Morty enthusiastically made into a 90-day challenge, amazing his friends.

In just three months he lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty new haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.

As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”

And a voice from the heavens responded, “To tell you the truth, Morty, I didn’t recognize you.”

12) Standing on one leg in Bikram Yoga doesn’t make you a yogi anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car.

13) Bikram, the famous yoga master, who was known for his miraculous cures for arthritis, had a long line of students waiting outside the door of his studio when a little old lady, completely bent over, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.

Bikram gently approached her and led her into the back room of the studio and, amazingly, she emerged within half an hour, walking completely erect with her head held high.

A woman waiting at the door of the studio said, “It’s a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you’re walking erect. What did Bikram do?”

She answered, “He gave me a longer cane.”

14) What do Bikram Yoga and an apple peeler have in common?

They both take you to the core.

15) One day Bill complained to his friend that his elbow really hurt. His friend suggested that he visit Bikram who lived nearby. “Simply leave a sample of your sweat outside his door, and he will meditate on it, miraculously diagnose your problem, and tell you what to do about it. It only costs eighteen dollars.”

Bill figured he had little to lose, so he filled a small jar with sweat and left it outside Bikram’s door. The next day when he came back, there was a note waiting for him that said, “You have tennis elbow. Soak your arm in warm water Avoid heavy lifting. It will be better in two weeks.”

Later that evening, Bill started to think that Bikram’s “miracle” was a put-up job by his friend, who could have written the note himself and left it outside the door. So Bill decided to get back at his friend. He mixed together some tap water, a yard sample from his dog, and urine samples from his wife and son. To top it off, he included another bodily fluid of his own, and left the concoction outside Bikram’s door with eighteen dollars. He then called his friend and told him that he was having some other health problems and that he had left another sample for Bikram.

The next day he returned and found another note that said, “Your tap water is too hard. Get a water softener. Your dog has worms. Get him vitamins. Your son is hooked on cocaine. Get him into rehab. Your wife is pregnant with twins. They aren’t yours. Get a lawyer. And if you don’t stop playing with yourself, your tennis elbow will never get better.”

16) A woman reports her husband’s disappearance to the police. They ask for a description and she says, “He takes a Bikram Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

Her friend says, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-feet-four, bald, lazy, and has a huge belly.”

The woman says, “Who wants that one back?”

17) Three friends are killed in a car accident and meet up at an orientation session in Heaven. The celestial facilitator asks them what they would most like to hear said about themselves as their friends and relatives view them in the casket.

The first man says, “I hope people will say that I was a wonderful doctor and a good family man.”

The second man says, “I would like to hear people say that as a schoolteacher I made a big difference in the lives of kids.”

The third man, a Bikram Yogi, says. “I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”

18) Bikram walks into a bank and says he wants to borrow $200 for six months. The loan officer asks him what kind of collateral he has. Bikram says, “I have a Rolls Royce. Here are the keys. Keep it until the loan is paid off.”

Six months later Bikram returns to the bank, repays the $200 plus $10 interest and takes back his Rolls, The loan officer says, “Sir, if I may ask, why would a man who drives a Rolls Royce need to borrow $200?”

Bikram replies, “I had to go to Europe for six months, and where else could I store a Rolls that long for $10?”

19) A dinner guest at Bikram’s house asks, “How do you prepare your chickens?”

Bikram says, “Nothing special, I just tell them they are going to die.”

20) At a staff meetting at Bikram’s Yoga College of India an angel suddenly appears and tells Bikram, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or ten million dollars.”

Immediately, Bikram chooses Wisdom.

There is a flash of lightning, and Bikram appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring at the table. One of the staff people whispers, “Say something.”

Bikram says, “I should have taken the money.”

21) Bikram Yoga can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

22) A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.” St Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room twenty-eight, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?” “Baptist.”

“Go to room eighteen, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?” “Jewish.”

“Go to room eleven, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room eight?”

St. Peter says, “The Bikram Yogis are in room eight, and they think they are the only ones here.”

23) A man asks a Bikram Yoga teacher, “Can you teach me to do the splits?”

“How flexible are you,” the teacher asks.

“I can’t make Tuesdays,” the man says.

24) Bikram is sitting next to lawyer on an airplane. The lawyer keeps bugging him to play a game by which they will see who has more general knowledge. Finally, the lawyer says he will offer Bikram ten-to-one odds. Every time Bikram doesn’t know the answer to one of his questions, Bikram will pay the lawyer five dollars. Every time the lawyer doesn’t know the answer to one of Bikram’s questions, he will pay him fifty dollars.

Bikram agrees to play, and the lawyer asks, “What is the distance from the earth to the tenth nearest star?”

Bikram says nothing, just hands the lawyer a five-dollar bill.

Bikram asks the lawyer, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes back down with five legs?”

The lawyer thinks for a long time, but in the end has to concede that he has no idea. He hands Bikram fifty dollars. Bikram puts the money in his wallet without comment.

The lawyer says, “Wait a minute. What’s the answer to your question?”

Without a word Bikram hands him five dollars.

25) On a transatlantic flight, a plane passes through a severe storm. The turbulence is awful, and things go from bad to worse when one wing is struck by lightning.

One woman in particular loses it. She stands up in the front of the plane screaming, “I’m too young to die!” Then she yells, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m want my last minutes on earth to be memorable! No one has ever made me really feel like a woman! Well, I’ve had it! Is there anyone on this plane who can make me feel like a woman?”

For a moment there is silence. Everyone has forgotten his own peril, and they all stare, riveted at the desperate woman in the front of the plane. Then a man stands up in the rear. It’s Bikram. He starts to walk slowly up the aisle, unbuttoning his shirt. “I can make you feel like a woman,” he says.

No one moves. As Bikram approaches, the woman begins to get excited. He removes his shirt. Muscles ripple across his chest as he reaches her, extends the arm holding his shirt to the trembling woman, and says, “Iron this.”

26) A good yogi dies and goes to heaven. He asks St. Peter if they have a yoga studio.

“What kind?”

“Bikram Yoga.”

St. Peter shows him the most beautiful Bikram Yoga studio imaginable, sparkling mirrors, completely microbe-free carpets, and color-corrected fluorescent lighting.

One older man in particular is practicing with impeccable grace and form, blending strength and balance.

The yogi says, “ I’ve only seen one man practice like that, but I thought Bikram was still alive – what’s he doing up here?”

St. Peter replies, “Oh, that’s God. He just thinks he’s Bikram.”

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.”

The 4th Om

By Ed Staskus

The biggest and brightest OM I know is the OM Kristen Zarzycki begins and ends her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class with at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what is usually the biggest and most popular class of the week. Kirby is a young teacher with an OM voice like an ocean liner steaming into port through a thick fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being a primordial vibration was all about.

I could feel the vibration in the room and I wasn’t even chanting.

I began thinking about yoga in my early fifties, when decades-long issues with arthritis had advanced so my knees and hips either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried yoga at home, checking out videotapes about one practice and another, checking them out from our local library. I even bought a purple sticky mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of yoga studios and thought professional instruction a good idea. But, I was reluctant to go because of my impression yoga classes were chock-full of lissome young women and the certainty I would look like an oaf.

One afternoon towards the end of summer, at the counter of our company’s lunchroom, while waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to make tea, yoga somehow came up as we talked. I was surprised to find out she not only practiced, but taught yoga part-time, as well. For the next several months she never tired of leaning into my cubicle and encouraging me to take a class.

I finally did, partly to appease her, partly because I didn’t see any other way to learn more, but mostly just to do it, at least once. From the end of my first novice class on a dark and wet October morning, slapping my hand to my temple in the car as I drove away, surprised it had taken me so long, I was attracted to the practice, simply because I felt surprisingly good afterwards.

The first two years I practiced was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second evening class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I began to notice our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own uneasy grown-up postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I participated, which wasn’t often, it was with a small uncertain voice from the back of the room.

After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking on more physically challenging classes, time-distorting vinyasa practices with unnerving names like ‘Hot Power Yoga Challenge’. One evening near the end of an especially hard class, at least for me, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.

She was kind enough to say it was.

As the year wore on I began to buy into the spirit of yoga, reading about its principles and way of life, and listening to our teachers with a newfound openness. I took a workshop about meditation and another about the chakras – to which I reacted at the time with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might, I thought, to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a dry small pinched voice.

When I began to OM with more than less frankness was at the end of the first class Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still often practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, to try new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.

On the way to the studio that evening, gathering storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the heavily forested Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the sun setting over Lake Erie slanted between the houses across the street onto the black asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building, the studio being on the second floor. Inside, I unrolled my mat, facing across the wide room towards the dusk. As we started our practice I was quickly thrown off balance by the unfamiliar sequence and difficulty of the asanas.

Then the noise started.

First one and then another double-stacked freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks on the abutment behind the building towards downtown Cleveland. At both public grade crossings – one block to the west and four blocks the other way – the diesel’s compressed air horns let loose blasts of 15-second warnings.

Next the two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a gigantic Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they were not closed at all.

No sooner had they finished than the wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through an interminable series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.

Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, the factory-style windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OM’s, the asanas all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the still damp air when we finished.

It was the first time I practiced OM with sincerity.

The loudest OM I ever heard was the OM Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon. In Chicago. In the tropics on Lake Michigan.

Kristen describes her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they are, so much so I nicknamed her Kirby, after Jack Kirby, the Marvel Comics artist who created Sgt. Fury, the snarling but tenderhearted NCO who led the First Attack Squad the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960’s comic book series. Although a head shorter than the cigar-chomping bandoleer-draped Sgt. Fury, she seamlessly morphs him as she leads –and herself practices – her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class centering on core asanas, for what she insists is our own good, and watches out so we all survive her ruthless boot camp approach.

At the close of her classes Kristen invites everyone to a “big and huge” OM to seal the practice. That Sunday someone impulsively interrupted and said, “Let’s chant for Kristen running the marathon next week.“

So prompted the whole class did. The OM was loud and long and heartfelt. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath. Kristen seemed flushed with emotion when we were finally done.

The next Sunday she ran in record-setting heat and smothering humidity. More than ten thousand of thirty five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut down the course twenty-one miles into the event. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the big and huge OM we chanted for her.

The car repair OM incident happened on a clear mid-summer evening as we sat cross-legged at Inner Bliss, palms together, thumbs at the heart center, at the tail end of Tammy Lyons’s hot flow class. The casement windows overlooking the flat roof and cords of firewood stacked against the yellow outside wall of Mason’s Auto Body were tilted open, and I could sense a breeze. We chanted OM once, breathed in, and chanted OM a second time.

“There they go again,” said a body shop man unseen below us somewhere beside the umbrella table between our two buildings, more than loud enough to be heard throughout the studio.

“Whatever floats your boat,” a second man said.

Tammy Lyons paused, and paused again. She has the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner – namely the yoga studio – yet when she paused I glanced warily at the windows. Then we chanted OM a third time. The class over she thanked the twenty-or-so of us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everyone on the studio’s schedule.

Then said in a clear, firm voice more than clear firm loud enough to be heard outside, “Yes, it does float our boats.”

Later that night, nursing a bottle of beer in my backyard beneath the Milky Way obscured by the city’s lights, I thought about the sarcastic guys at Mason’s. They weren’t really all that different from Tammy Lyons, although maybe they thought they were. Just like she worked on our bodies by leading us in asana sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.

Cars like SUV’s and bodies like ourselves are not only uniquely themselves, but they are vessels as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of a car, both with the same idea in mind – so our bodies and our cars will be better able to take us where we want to go, whether it’s to a meditation practice or Disneyland.

But, if the body shop men were indeed different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.

The 4th OM unfolded on a quiet April Sunday when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he was what I expected, even though I couldn’t have said what I expected. Dressed all in black with a grayish ponytail and a gregarious manner, Max Strom was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up exercises and moving around now-and-then, we sat on our mats and he devoted most of the sold-out two-hour workshop to breathing, both explaining his ideas about it and leading us in exercises of it.

He seemed to think asanas alone were inadequate as a way of making a kind of spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought asana practice could and did serve a purpose, but to arrive at some meaning beyond simple exercise the next step was to connect with one’s breath.

He said yoga appeared to be primarily physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and the mind, our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit, or the divine.

We practiced lots and lots of breathing exercises, breathing fast and breathing slow, holding our inhales and then our exhales, alternate nostril breathing, bellows breath and breath of fire, and long slow breathing until even sitting cross-legged for all that time became less and less distressing, even restful. Mr. Strom instructed us to breathe into the heart center, to breathe in the present and breathe out the past.

After a break, when we were all back on our mats, he unfurled a 10-minute OM. He explained we were to all start together, but as we finished an OM to go on to the next one, not waiting for the others in class. He said in a minute or so we would all be intoning separately, but it would in the long run resolve itself into a single continuous chant, which is exactly what happened.

It turned into a long rolling resonant OM.

As we chanted I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the OM’s I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness within me, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt full of hunger or filled with yearning; I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed my body was like a hollow shell lit up from within by a bright but diffused light.

I was conscious that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, that my heart was beating slowly and I was breathing rhythmically, but for all that it was a remarkable sensation. I didn’t feel better, or worse, I just felt light and lit up. It was an experience that lasted about a minute.

Max Strom’s message to us at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on the way with a simple namaste and hearty endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.

Since then I have not again felt the interesting bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result of it have added a little breath training and meditation to my at-home practice. What has surprised me is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of nothing or something or anything, and breathe mindfully.

What hasn’t surprised me is what I still don’t know about yoga, even the simplest things like chanting the simple sound of OM.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga 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.”