Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Sat Nam (One Hundred and Eight)

By Ed Staskus

“One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail. One beats and beats for that which one believes.” Wallace Stevens

Everyone has heard the words to thine own self be true, even if they’ve never read a word of Shakespeare. Not everyone has heard the words sat nam, which mean true self, even if they’ve done plenty of yoga. Shakespeare is remembered because he got human nature right. Yoga is practiced because it helps make human nature right.

Real life often means caving in to peer pressure instructions tropes status groupthink. Even though trying to fit in can make you temporarily insane, herd behavior is a longtime humankind habit. It can be a bad habit. The yoga life is about being stouthearted enough to be your true self.

You are what you eat. You are what you do possess believe say so. You are everything that has ever happened to you. The hidebound say you are what you were before the clock started ticking. Things are more like they are today than they’ve ever been. The pioneering say the best way to predict the future is to make the future, which is another way of saying that creating opportunities is creating you.

You are your life’s energy, one breath at a time, which is why yoga puts a premium on breathing. It is why breath control is one of the eight limbs of the practice. When you stop breathing you get stuck in time.

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

What is the self?

Philosophers psychologists psychiatrists say self-awareness is what leads to awareness, to consciousness, the difference between you and me. Is it your brain engaged in self-reference? “I think, therefore I am,” said Rene Descartes. Is it your private self, public self, better self? Are you your ego self or your observing self?

Society tells you to find yourself be yourself then tells you what to do. Is that what happens when you lose yourself?

What do self-respect, self-control, and self-confidence have to do with it? Were you yourself at two, as a teenager, and your good old self as you are now? Is your self your self-image? Are you only yourself when no one’s watching?

“You are your life, and nothing else,” said the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

That is a Western view, the ‘I’ as an autonomous ego. In the East the self is often defined in its relation to others. You can’t be a self by yourself. In the West the self has been atomized. In the East who you are depends on where you are.

The philosopher Thomas Metzinger claims the self is an illusion. It’s all in your head. It’s just your brain and its neural activities, and nothing else. You are your genes. There is nothing about you that transcends the physical. There is no higher-order beyond the body and brain.

The question remains up in the air. Who are you? Make up your mind.

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

What is a mantra?

It’s simple enough, a sound or a word repeated to aid in meditation. The mantra of Main Street is bigger is better, the mantra of Wall Street is nobody goes to jail, and the mantra of D. C. Street is build a strong brand. Those aren’t mantras. They’re statements repeated ad nauseam to make you think they make sense.

There is meditation and then there is mantra meditation.

Mantra meditation is the act of repeating a sound, a few words, or a short phrase over and over. Sometimes again and again stops at 108 times, which is how many prayer beads there are on a string of them. It gets you into a frame of mind.

A mantra means ‘man’ which means mind and ‘tra’ which means vehicle. A mantra is a vehicle for the mind. One translation is “to be free from the mind.” It is the Magic Bus whose engine properties and sonic vibrations put you on the road to meditation.

In the same way that asanas on the mat are exercises for the body, mantras are exercises for the mind. Mantra meditation clears the decks of the mind of stress. It helps align the left and right sides of the brain. It connects the critical thought part of us with the creative side of us.

Breath and sound, energy and rhythm, help boost immunity, reduce anxiety, and release neuroses. Who wants to be nailed to the cross of their disturbed mind? It’s free and easy, too. All you have to do is show up and it works. No one needs to be an expert at busting out a solo. The world of mantra isn’t a stage. All you have to do is bust the breath from your belly and your heart.

Mantra is old stuff, from back in the day of campfires, the mother of meditation.

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

Why chant sat nam?

When you’re grooving on sat nam you’re getting back into the groove. Finding your groove is finding your balance. Chanting a mantra like sat nam is getting down with the original yoga rhythm section.

Sat nam is pronounced like but mom.

There are Sat Nam Fests at Joshua Tree and in the Berkshires, lots of yoga, lots of music, lots of chanting. “We thrive in tribes,” said Azita Nahal, a Kundalini teacher and author who spearheads workshops at the festivals. “Our bodies are the way in, our awareness is the way through.”

Sat nam is the seed mantra of Kundalini Yoga, a practice popularized by Yogi Bhajan in the 1960s. It is a synthesis of several traditions designed to bring to life the life force at the base of the spine. Kundalini Yoga is sometimes known as the yoga of awareness. Its method is in its physical postures, breath work, mantras, and meditation.

Sat means ‘true’ and nam means ‘identity’, more-or-less. Whatever it means, chanting sat nam means making an experience of your own consciousness. Consciousness is energy at its basal basic basement level. It also means having an experience of consciousness in general, of getting past the separateness.

“Truth can be stated in a thousand different ways, yet each one can be true,” said Vivekananda. What’s truer than true is that only you can be you. When in doubt be yourself, don’t be the other 999 guys, which is the best way to be a stand-up guy or gal, to tell the truth.

You can’t be free if you’re not truthful, at least to yourself, even if not to the truth of the matter. Who wants to meet themselves behind the wall of illusion, in the hall of mirrors? If you can’t find the truth within yourself, where do you think it might be? Is it in what somebody on their soapbox is saying? Is it in the flag-waving crowd? Is it in the great big spider web of the rest of the world?

Trying to find it there would be a mistake.

God knows we all make mistakes. Only God has never made the same mistake once. Although it’s true that mistakes can teach us something, the only mistake in the offing you don’t want to interrupt is the one an immediate mortal enemy is making.

Trying to find yourself outside of yourself would be a mistake because it isn’t about finding yourself somewhere out there, it’s about creating yourself from the inside out. After all, everybody has their one and only genetic identity. What’s better than being able to say I have my own selfhood and my own style?

It’s better to be a dead ringer of yourself than a knock-off of somebody else.

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

Why chant sat nam 108 times?

“By practicing chanting, breath work, or asana in rounds of this sacred number, the ancient yogis believed we could align ourselves with the rhythm of the creation,” Helen Avery wrote in “108: Yoga’s Sacred Number”.

When it comes to yoga, malas are made of 108 beads, breath work is often done in cycles of 108, and doing a traditional 9 rounds of the 12 sun salutations makes 108.

“Exactly how the yogis arrived at 108 we don’t quite know, but it seems to be a number that connects us to our place in the cosmic order.”

There are 54 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. Since each of them has a feminine and masculine aspect, there are 108 letters. Chakras are energy lines in the body. It’s believed there are 108 energy lines that converge to form the heart chakra. There are said to be 108 stages on the journey of the Atman, or soul.

Many Buddhist temples have 108 steps leading up into them, meaning there are 108 steps on the path to enlightenment. The Mayans built their temple at Lamanai to be 108 feet high. The Sarsen Circle at Stonehenge is 108 feet in diameter.

The big picture is that the distance from the earth to the moon is 238, 800 miles, just about 108 times the moon’s diameter. The diameter of the sun is just about 108 times the diameter of the earth. The distance from the earth to the sun is just about 108 times the diameter of the sun.

“It serves as a reminder of the wonder and interconnectedness of the universe,” wrote Helen Avery.

Why not chant sat nam 108 times when there’s wonder in it?

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

Why a mantra? Why use it as a tool in the first place? Sometimes it can seem like a broken record. Why not just meditate? The reason is because it’s a kind of white noise, muffling the commotion hubbub chatter.

“A mantra has the power to drown out both the surface noise and eventually even the quieter undercurrent of thoughts until all that is left is the repetition of a neutral mantra and the serene state of natural awareness which starts to emerge naturally,” wrote Chad Foreman in “Why Repeating a Mantra Is So Powerful and How to Do It”.

Some of the oldies but goodies are om, om namah shivaya, and om mani padme hum. Many of them have the word om in common, the sound of life and death. It’s been called the sound of the universe.

Aaaa-Uooo-Mmm.

It’s close enough, although sound waves can’t and don’t travel through the vacuum of space. Electromagnetic waves can, though, and they can be recorded by spectrographs. Quasars sound remarkably like the spitting image of om.

Sat has sometimes been translated as ‘existence’ and nam as ‘to bow’. In other words, bow to existence. We are part of the universe. The universe is in us. “He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe,” said Marcus Aurelius more than two thousand years ago.

Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam Sat Nam…

The arc of the horizon bends at sat nam, the seed mantra. In a universe that created itself out of nothing, a universe made out of energy, a universe that works from within outwards, making a vibration making a sound making sat nam with your breath is a simple way of making your way in the universe.

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.”

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Painting the Town Red

By Ed Staskus

“Looking up at paradise, all souls bound just contrariwise, yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Dead Man’s Chest, a traditional sea shanty

When yoga got on its feet in the 1960s and started rolling in the 1970s, many Americans thought it was a fad. It was part and parcel of the culture of California, after all. It was for hippies and health nuts and religious fanatics, said working stiffs and wise guys, wondering where the success in it was.

In the 60s and 70s, however, it was anything but a fad. It was the real deal. It had its feet grounded in a 5000-year-old tradition. If it was a fad it was a fad that had never gone away, the kind that had staying power. When Satchidananda led the opening chant at Woodstock, it wasn’t that week’s Top 10 smash hit. It had a legacy going back centuries. It had been a smash hit in year zero.

The practice stayed solid for thirty years, but by the 2000s it was flipping over onto its head. Celebrity jet-setting yoga teachers crisscrossed the country, burning up the carbon, peddling their brand of sermon. John Friend got high and got sexy. Yoga franchises with their instant oatmeal wisdom and Groupon specials popped up from Miami to Joplin, Missouri.

Yoga used to be the hub of the wheel. Then it became the spokes of the wheel. Anusara, Baptiste, Forrest, Integral, Iyengar, Jivamukti, Kripalu, Kundalini, Moksha, Sivananda, Viniyoga, Vinyasa, and Yin.

It’s a baker’s dozen.

Soon afterwards the spokes started to splinter. Nowadays there is Karaoke Yoga and Laughing Yoga, Tots and Tykes Yoga, Aerial Yoga, and AcroYoga, Glow-in-the-Dark Yoga, Naked Yoga, Trampoline Yoga, Trampoline Yoga While Naked, Primal Screaming Yoga, and Paddleboard Yoga.

No staying grounded there, just don’t drift off by mistake and get captured by pirates. What did the shipwrecked blindfolded friendly SUP yogi with the outstretched arms ask his newfound friends swigging mugs of suds while he walked the plank?

“Am I getting warmer?”

Picking yourself up off the ground is the premise of Rage Yoga. “I was going through a lot of pain,” said Canadian teacher and founder Lindsay Istace. She had recently gone through a break-up. She was a bittergirl. “It started to come out during my practice. Suddenly there was a lot more yelling, swearing, and emotional release on my mat.”

Down on the farm there is Goat Yoga, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s doing yoga with small cute goats, at least until their grumpy elders head butt you. Old Billy and his horns ain’t anything you want to partner yoga with.

“It might sound silly, but the way these classes are working, it’s becoming deeper and bigger than I thought, “ said Lainey Morse, who started the craze. The business has expanded to the point that she has quit her day job and is trademarking “Goat Yoga”.

Maa! Maa! Maa!

All of this is to not mention Bikram Choudhury, of eponymous Bikram Yoga-fame, whose crazy-like-a-fox marketing is legendary. “There’s a sucker born every day,” said P. T. Barnum, Bikram’s spiritual guru.

In more recent times yoga has gone from Jennifer Aniston’s six-pack abs, otherwise known as Jennifer’s Yoga Moves for Flat Abs, straight to six-packs.

Brewskis and poses was a practice born at the Burning Man fun festival. Who doesn’t need liquid refreshment in the middle of the summer in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert? Bend an elbow, help a brother out, bottoms up. A year later Germany’s BierYoga foamed to life, the marriage of beer and yogimeister Jhula’s brainstorm.

Jhula and her business partner Emily go by the names of Jhula and Emily. No surnames, please.

”It’s fun, but it’s no joke,” said Jhula. “We take the philosophy of yoga and pair it with the pleasure of beer-drinking to reach your highest level of consciousness.”

Or your highest level of semi-consciousness, as the case may be.

Yoga is meant to make you feel the way you want to feel without yoga. On the other hand, drink beer think beer.

The history of beer is the history of humanity. 6000 years ago the Sumerians, the oldest known civilization, were the first brewmeisters. They believed beer was the true blue drink of the gods. By the 14th century Germany was a country of world famous beer cities. Strong beer in imperial 20 fluid ounce pint portions isn’t a joke in Germany.

Miller Lite is strictly forbidden.

BierYoga Classes are conducted in a techno club in the heart of Berlin’s trendy Neukolln neighborhood. They are booked up solid weeks in advance. Disco balls hang from the ceiling. Everybody’s shuffling, everybody’s jump styling, everybody’s posing. The vibe is intoxicating.

“Has anyone not finished their first bottle? If not, bottoms up!” said Jhula during a full-house class.

Chug a lug in tree pose. You don’t want to nurse the beer, though. Your nipples will get soggy.

Beer Yoga is a new rave in London and usually practiced in pubs. The admission charge includes a mat and a beer. After a rough day at work, some hair-of-the-dog, stretching and belching.

“It complements the joy of drinking beer and the mindfulness of yoga,” said Beer Yoga’s Guzel Mursalimova. ”It adds a little more relaxation because a lot of people tend to be very tense when they come in. If this means you have to incorporate beer, I think that’s perfectly fine.”

It begs the question, however, if you had to incorporate horse to relax, would that be perfectly fine, too, or does heroin not complement the mindfulness of yoga in the same way beer does?

There is Beerasana in Washington, DC, and hops and hatha at the Quest Brewing Company in Greensville, SC. Awareness and self-observation are in the eye of the beer holder.

But, getting a buzz on during class may not be the best of ideas. “Not being able to tell your right arm from your left leg is not a healthy practice,” said Jake Panasevich, a wellness and yoga teacher. “Anything that alters your natural state of mind is no longer yoga in my book.”

Others say, lighten up.

“What a fabulous experience!” said James Villaruel about In the Spirit Studio and Wine Lounge in Scarborough, a borough of Toronto, Ontario. “Invigorating, yet relaxing yoga classes followed by first-class wine selections. I’ll definitely be back!”

Rah, rah, rah, that’s the spirit! Alcoholic drinks are sometimes called spirits because alcohol reduces anxiety and induces euphoria. Why are liquor stores not called spirit stores?

“Love this place!” said Sonya Dwyer about Zin Yoga and Wine in North Carolina. “Zin offers a wide variety of yoga classes and the clothing and wine selection is really great.” Getting loose in several different ways at once in brand new stretch pants.

Zinfandel is a black-skinned grape with a bold taste. “Either give me more wine or leave me alone,” said Rumi, whose best-selling poems are a part of yoga lore. He taught a kind of body movement in the 13th century, known as the Dance of the Whirling Dervishes, or spinning.

The thought of whirling after a couple of glasses of wine is enough to make your head go whee.

“Yoga can be very serious, but why not have it be really fun,” said Angela Gargano, the owner of Bliss Flow Yoga in Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital and a college town. She stage-manages weekend-long yoga and wine retreats. “Yoga is something spiritual to me. I feel we’ve lost the spiritual connection to the land food and wine grows on. That’s what was nice about the retreat, getting people to really connect to wine.”

That’s what yoga is all about, connecting. They don’t exactly tear it up, however, while connecting with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and fertility. Vineyard tours and genteel five-course meals are fare of the weekend, along with a class on the mat on the side.

Although yoga can be serious, it is in the doing of it much more fun than fun, even without clinking glasses with the god of the grape. Nevertheless, Dionysus is a fun god, especially since the main focus of his cult back in the day was unrestrained consumption. “Prepare yourselves for the roaring voice of the God of Joy,” wrote Euripides in ‘The Bacchae’ way back when, when Athens was Broadway.

In and around New York City these days, Dina Ivas, a 15-year veteran of conducting yoga classes at top-rated fitness establishments, and Liz Howng, a certified wine expert, host Yoga Wine parties, which are private classes and wine tasting in the comfort of wherever you are.

“I finished the class feeling relaxed and a lot more confident about yoga,” said Miriam Gilbert. “Next, the wine tasting. We tasted a great range of wines. I’d certainly attend another party.”

There’s something oxymoronic about getting down for a  yoga wine party, but then again, we all fight for our right to party. There are shortcuts to happiness and drinking is one of them, although you don’t want to spend all day at Happy Hour. It can morph into Unhappy Hour. There’s an old saw that says good friends get drunk with you while best friends hold your hair back when you’ve had too much to drink.

Vino and vinyasa is found from coast to coast. Wine Body and Soul in New York. Downward Dog Then Drink Wine in Boston. Yin Yoga and Wine Night in Austin. Yoga Art and Wine in Redwood City. Vineyards from the Niagara Escarpment to Sonoma Valley are jumping on the bandwagon. No falling off the wagon on the way to class!

There’s nothing wrong with a beer-or-two at a ballgame or a barbeque, wine at dinner, or a scotch neat late on a lonely rainy night. Drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle, but does anyone want to drink water all the time? It’s what rusts pipes. After all, like Benjamin Franklin said, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

One thing leads to another. Next up, absinthe and ashtanga, mantra and martinis, “cocktails and yoga, the perfect mix,” said Katherine Smith, yoga teacher, life-coach, and self-described “wild warrior yogi.”

“There is no good or bad, everything we feel, experience, think and sense is simply a manifestation of the divine,” she said. “Choose good quality alcohol.”

What about moonshine, bathtub gin, and rotgut? Since it’s all yoga, no good or bad, right or wrong, no heaven or hell in the divine scheme of things, what about rotgut? Live on the wild side!

Some of the new yoga doesn’t suffer in comparison with the old. It suffers all on its own.

Why conflate drink with yoga in the first place? Sure, everything was once new, just like today’s many new styles of yoga. There was once the first unclothed hard-core yogi back in the day when clothes were optional, although his practice probably didn’t include doing raging naked double flips arm in arm with goats. And if it did, he almost certainly wasn’t boozing it up at the same time.

Tomatoes are a fruit and fruit salads are full of fruit, but the wise saladmeister doesn’t mix tomatoes into their fruit salads.

There is nothing inherently demonic about drink, notwithstanding the screed of teetotalers. “Imagine getting up in the morning and knowing that’s as good as you’re going to feel all day,” said Dean Martin. Indeed, there are even benefits to demon rum.

Drinking responsibly lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, helps prevent against the common cold, lowers the chance of diabetes, decreases the possibility of developing dementia, improves your libido, and can lengthen your life. It also reduces the risk of gallstones by a third, although the study of bile ducts at Great Britain’s University of East Anglia cautioned that “our findings show the benefits of moderate alcohol intake, but stress that excessive alcohol intake can cause health problems.”

The research is galling for anyone who still believes in the late not so great Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. There is no doubt Benjamin Franklin rolled over in his grave on the morning of January 16, 1920, believing God had abandoned the USA.

“Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems,” said Homer Simpson. In other words, it’s better to drink when you’re happy, not when you’re unhappy, although it took the Great Depression to get Prohibition repealed.

Yoga is a broad practice, from meditation to exercise to ethics. There is no one correct form of it. “It’s such a big multifarious tradition you can find precedence for almost anything,” said James Mallinson, a senior lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Civilization at SOAS University in London.

“It’s not really about the body, but about the mind,” he added.

Since alcohol goes right to your head, maybe yoga and drinking do have something in common.

However, since under the over-influence of drink the brain goes haywire, a loss of fine motor skills, slowing reaction time, slurred speech, blurred vision, impaired hearing, and a daftness of muscle coordination and balance, it might be fairer to say that yoga and drinking have little in common.

Doing too much yoga, for example, isn’t going to land anyone in a detox center.

The yamas and niyamas are a set of ethical yoga rules, moral imperatives, and goals. They are the backbone of yoga, a kind of code of conduct. None of the social restraints or self-disciplines, as they are called, specifically address sidling up to the neighborhood bar.

“There is no mention of alcohol in the yamas or niyamas,” said James Bennitt, who studied with Rod Stryker and teaches flow-style yoga in Chicago. “A glass of wine or beer once in awhile isn’t the worst thing in the world, but when it becomes a habit, it is depleting to the system, not to mention clouds your judgment. Yoga is very much about building energy as well as clarity, not depleting yourself of them.”

Wine and beer and spirits ultimately have a sedative effect. At the end of the party end of the night, after you’re all done pulling the cork out of dinner and dessert, after you have stopped flooding the control center behind your forehead with liquid fun, your neurotransmitters slow way down low down. The part of your brain called the medulla gets sleepy.

Consciousness and clarity are located in the cerebral cortex. Do enough Beer Yoga and your senses, which process information for your cortex, get clumsy staggering punchy and inhibit thought processes, making it hard to get from point a to point b in a straight line. It devolves from I think therefore I am to I drink therefore I am.

“The ease with which I can now find an event that combines practicing yoga with drinking alcohol is at least unsettling, and at most completely mind-boggling in its depth at missing the point,” wrote Kelly McCormick in “Not-So-Happy Hour: Why Yoga & Alcohol Just Don’t Mix.”

If yoga is about energy and clarity, drinking is about relaxing and socializing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but yoga is something that makes your brain sparkle, while drinking makes your brain go fireworks and then fade away like the grand finale. Promoting the practice of yoga by wedding it to a fermented drug as the new hip thing to do is huckster work.

Nobody needs to mindlessly abstain. Everyone can mindfully enjoy a pint of craft beer or a glass of red wine at their local saloon. Nobody needs to do yoga, but when they do it gets them in a great state of mind. Everybody knows Miller time and yoga time are two different things, hucksters or no hucksters.

Getting a buzz on is living in your senses. Getting on the mat is transcending your senses. It’s all a state of mind.

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.”

Reading Rocky River

rocky-river-nature-center-e1546723734167.jpg

By Ed Staskus

It was damp and cold on an overcast Sunday afternoon in mid-December when the Rocky River Readers met for their final book review of the year, taking a look back at everything they had read since January, and casting their votes for best book.

The Rocky River is the boundary between Lakewood and Rocky River, the suburb named after the river. Field & Stream magazine has ranked it one of the top steelhead trout fishing rivers in the world. It is also what defines the Metropark on Cleveland’s west side.

The reading group meets once a month to talk about the book they have been reading that month. Joni Norris moderates the roundtable discussion. This year they had to meet twice in August, reading and discussing two books, since Ms. Norris, a Metroparks Naturalist, was in Finland all of July.

“It was a great trip,” she said. “I got to know the moose up there really well.”

There are more than 100,000 moose in Finland’s forests. There are none in Ohio. Finnish passports even have a quirky security feature, which is a moose appearing to walk across the page. USA passports feature the balding head of an iconic-looking eagle. The moose looks like he’s minding his own business. The eagle-eyed bird looks like he’s minding your business.

A staff member since 1985, Ms. Norris’s interests in reading and writing led to the monthly book review program she proposed and offers at the Cleveland Metroparks. It focuses entirely on writing about nature topics.

This year the group read: Fire Season by Philip Connors and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and Swarm Tree by Doug Elliot and Sex on Six Legs by Marlene Zuk and A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean and The Earth Speaks by Steve van Matre and Bill Weiler and The End of Nature and Eaarth, both by Bill McKibben, and Northern Farm by Henry Beston and Tales of an African Vet by Roy Aronson and The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe and, finally, The Bluebird Effect by Julie Zickefoose.

The reading group meets in the Rocky River Nature Center off the Valley Parkway. The center was built in 1971 and from a back deck overhanging the river there is a view of 360 million year old shale cliffs. A friend who is in the group invited my wife and me to come along. She promised there would be pie and coffee afterwards.

My wife isn’t an avid reader, even though she does read when it strikes her, but she readily agreed to accompany me. She admitted the pie and coffee were powerful inducements.

The readers are critics, but affable rather than cruel ones. Their relationship to books is not the same as the relationship of pigeons to statues. But, writers need critics because, even though they might be good book writers, it doesn’t necessarily make them good book critics, in the same way that most good drunks are not necessarily good bartenders.

The weekend group of two-dozen critics sat in a large circle on folding chairs in the high-ceilinged auditorium of the center. Led by an energetic Mrs. Norris, they discussed rather than dissected the works of the nature writers and environmentalists they had been reading. They made their way with personal observation as much as with discrimination acquired by long, consistent reading.

They don’t worry about reading being bad for their eyes, either. “Reading isn’t good,” said Babe Ruth, the famous Bambino. “If my eyes went bad even a little bit I couldn’t hit home runs.” On the other hand, the road to strike outs and bubbaloney is paved by the short sighted who won’t and don’t read.

Reviewing their reading for the year the group began with Fire Season.

“It was a memoir and a history at the same time,” said a trim woman in creased blue jeans. “It was about being a fire watcher in Arizona and he was very good at telling stories about the loneliness and dangers. He lived in the mountains all alone with his dog.”

“His wife visited him from time to time,” said a man in a mustache and yellow shirt, which drew a big laugh.

“A man’s best friend, indeed!” said a wag sitting on the far side of the circle.

“My best friend,” Abraham Lincoln once said, “is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was variously described as an emotional portrait of a family, an interplay of race, poverty, and medicine, as well as a critique of science. The Swarm Tree, however, drew a blank, drawing little discussion.

“I don’t even remember it. We read it so long ago,” someone said apologetically, looking sheepish

Next up was Sex on Six Legs, a book about the complex behavior of the many insects whose brains are smaller than poppy seeds.

“It was about bugs,” said one reader. “It was really about their personalities and communication skills, not really about sex, but it helped sell the book, I suppose. The sex parts, I mean.”

“Did you know that, in general, people are more scared of bugs than they are of dying?” asked another reader.

The thing that almost everyone is more scared of than death is standing up in front of a group and having to speak. The readers all stayed in their seats when offering their comments.

“It just poured out of him” was how A River Runs Through It was described. The book is an evocative semi-biographical collection acknowledged to be the greatest fishing story ever told. Robert Redford made it into a movie.

Both The End of Nature and Eaarth by the New York Times best-selling author Bill McKibben were met with wary respect.

The End of Nature, it was all about global warming,” said a woman wearing a knitted white Christmas sweater. “It was about how we are all going to die. But, it had a positive twist at the end.”

“That was when he lived in the Adirondacks,” replied another reader. “The next book Eaarth was much more optimistic. Either it was because he moved to the Green Mountains in Vermont or the anti-depressants kicked in.”

Someone guffawed, and the next second looked guilty.

Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine drew a mixed response.

“It put us to sleep,” complained one couple that had come to the discussion that afternoon fresh from a hike in the northern reaches of the Metropark.

“No, we loved it,” another couple countered. “It’s a New England Christmas card.”

Tales of an African Vet was well received.

“He was trying to promote conservation. It was very upbeat,” said a man in a flannel shirt.

“I liked it,” said a woman in a red blouse, leaning back, content with her assessment.

“It got scary at times,” said a stout man wearing a beard and sweater. “He usually treated the animals in the wild and sometimes they would wake up in the middle of the procedure.”

“You’re right,” said another man. “The monkey died, but most of them came out all right.”

In the middle of the discussion about The Viral Storm someone asked, “Do you smell anything?”

“I think it’s my pie,” said Joni Norris. “What time is it?”

“It’s 2:45.”

“Usually an apple pie tells you when it’s done, but I better check that,” she said as she briskly walked to the back end of the auditorium and into the open kitchen where the pies were baking.

“Is it burnt?” someone asked.

“No, it’s perfect.”

The Bluebird Effect was the last book discussed, being the December selection. It is the latest book written by Appalachian wildlife artist and writer Julie Zickefoose, an Ohio resident, and drew the most comment.

“She’s very accessible,” said a woman, herself a writer and member of the River Poet Group. “She is very intimate with birds. I liked the story about the one bird that knocked itself out. She nursed it back to health and then the bird came back with a friend to visit. At other times it is very stark, tragic, but beautiful.”

“One sad part that is in the book,” said a woman in a maroon sweater and black slacks, “is that you are allowed to shoot morning doves in Ohio, just so you can have them as delectable little treats on your plate.”

“Why not crows, or how about seagulls?” someone asked. “There are a lot of seagulls.”

Joni Norris squeezed her nose and made a bird sound. She announced it was time to vote for the book of the year. Ballots were passed around, pencils chewed on, selections made, results tabulated, and the top three books were announced with an improvised drum roll on the back of a legal pad.

Tales of an African Vet came in third, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Laks secured second place, and The Bluebird Effect took the grand prize. Joni Norris announced that she was considering inviting Julie Zickefoos to the Nature Center for a lecture the coming summer, the news being greeted with general approbation, as was the announcement that the refreshment table, laden with Christmas cookies, cakes, and pies, was open.

Everyone, it seems, had brought a dessert.

I sampled three apple pies while my wife chatted, but in the end I couldn’t decide which was best, so I went back for seconds.

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.”

From Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones

By Ed Staskus

   When Krishna Venkatesh, a musician who wrote the score for the yoga documentary movie ‘Enlighten Up’, suffered a serious back injury in 2008, he began a yoga practice, searching for relief. He explored Iyengar and Ashtanga practices, and eventually found the Stone Center for Yoga and Health in Teaneck, New Jersey, outside New York City. He immersed himself in the study of Stone Yoga, an adaptive, therapeutic approach accredited by the Yoga Alliance, in time resolving his back pain.  

   He returned to the music world, recently producing a groove re-mix chant CD with David “Durga Das” Newman, but in the meantime began teacher training at Stone Yoga. After completing his studies, the newly registered yoga teacher began working, with a focus on precise, but case-sensitive alignment.

   That the eponymous Charlotte Stone of Stone Center teaches yoga, much less trains teachers, would have been difficult, if not impossible, to predict in 1973, when she began her yoga journey as a student at the University of Zurich

   “I was born in Philadelphia, but my father was Swiss. We moved to Switzerland when I was ten-years-old.

   “I was studying medieval literature, working part-time for an advertising agency, and doing competitive sports. I was stressed out. One of my friends said, ‘You’ve got to do yoga, because you’re driving all of us crazy.’ He gave me a book called ‘Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan’. After 28 days I could just about touch my knees.”

   A weight lifter and swimmer, she was undeterred.

   “I’ll be damned if I fail at yoga,” she recalls thinking.

   Going into action was her method for dealing with failure. She found a Sivananda Yoga studio in Zurich and began attending classes. 

   Sivananda Yoga is a traditional system concentrating not only on exercise, but breathing, relaxation, meditation, and diet, as well. “They kept saying, close your eyes, focus on your breath, and I kept saying, when are we going to get to the good stuff, moving, sun salutations. I always skipped savasana because I thought it was a total waste of my 10 minutes.

   “I didn’t understand the benefits of it. But, I stuck with it.”

   Nothing takes the place of persistence. After a year she was able to touch her toes. She continued her efforts and eventually entered into an informal apprenticeship. 

   “They slowly but surely allowed me to ease my way into learning more.”

   But, they warned her against ever teaching yoga to others.

   “You must never teach yoga,” one of her teachers told her. “You are too competitive. You’re going to kill all your students. Never teach yoga, no, no, no.”

   But, within a year, with their blessing, she was teaching an occasional Sunday morning class.

   “I really fell in love with it,” she says. 

   She began to study with physical therapists, medical students, and delved into Iyengar Yoga. “If I was going to tell people how to stand, how to move, I wanted to know more about physical alignment.”

   After returning to the United States in 1977, enrolling at the City University of New York to pursue her master’s degree, and meeting her future husband, she taught power-style vinyasa yoga part-time at gyms.

   She also taught at a small ballet school near Lincoln Center.

   “The school was run by a Russian lady and one day she looked in on what the girls and I were doing. It did not go well,” Charlotte Stone remembers.

   “What are you doing, teaching girls to relax? They are ballet dancers, must never relax! What is belly breathing? No belly breathing in ballet! They must suck belly in!”

   “I regarded that as my exit cue,” she says.

   In the next ten years she married, had two children, and worked in advertising, concentrating on focus groups, and later becoming an analyst. “We worked on issues like what color should the next Maxwell House coffee can be, which was apparently a vitally important question at the time. But, I do have to say, I loved my work. I learned how to really listen and pay attention.”

   She continued to regularly practice yoga, her own Ashtanga-based practice deepening, and continued to teach part-time.

   Then, in the late 1980s she was involved in a near-fatal car accident, which curtailed her professional career. “A truck and I had a close encounter on the George Washington Bridge and the truck won. “

   After recovering from her immediate injuries she was in physical therapy for the next eight months. “It sidelined my ability to travel. I also developed repetitive stress syndrome in my hands from writing so much. I was only able to consult now-and-then.”

   She fell back on her yoga practice, which brought out a side of healing that even her physical therapy couldn’t. She took gentle yoga classes at Kripalu. “It helped open my eyes to people like me, who had injuries.”

   She began to share her newly adaptive style of yoga with others.

   “I found, if I can’t write full-time, yoga is the only other thing I know how to do, so I did that. Whenever I brought it up, it always fascinated everyone. They would ask, what do you like about it, what can it do for me?

   “The yoga began to take off, and I finally decided to put my money where my mouth was and get formally trained.” She enrolled with Phoenix Rising, a Vermont-based training facility that combines old-school yogic wisdom with contemporary dialogue techniques with the aim of guiding practitioners to their edge of deep physical sensation.

   “It was an eye-opener,” she says.

   In 1991 she opened a small studio in Teaneck. “All my friends said they were tired of moving furniture around in my family room for classes. I thought I’m going to give it a shot.” Within five years she had trained as a Structural Yoga teacher, then as a Structural Yoga therapist, and moved the studio to larger quarters. She increasingly worked with people suffering chronic pain.

   “It’s based on anatomy and physiology, and goes far beyond saying do yoga three times a week and call me in the morning,” says Charlotte Stone. “It’s being present for the person and inviting a change to occur.

   “I feel what changed for me happened when I was seriously injured. I realized this body is very precious, that no breath should be taken for granted. It was a huge, huge change in my thinking about yoga.” Her anatomy instructor told her, “Now you’re going to become a good teacher.”

   The art of teaching is the art of awakening the mind, both student and teacher.

   “I used to think yoga was a great sport. In the Yoga Sutras it says yoga should be ‘steady and comfortable’. If you look at some of our yoga today, it doesn’t look steady, and it certainly doesn’t look comfortable. It almost makes me want to send letters of apology to my early students,” she says.

   A member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Charlotte Stone blends her experience of Structural Yoga with the adaptive approach of Viniyoga, the ideas of Ayurvedic bodily balance, and the organic movements of Feldenkrais, which is a method of communicating with the unconscious through movement.

   “I’ve come to feel that everyone should have yoga his or her way,” she said, explaining her multi-discipline approach. “It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do. I try to make the practice meet you where you are.”

   Stone Yoga’s emphasis is on alleviating pain, reducing stress, and enhancing well-being at every level.

   “Every day I’ve been granted after my accident, I thought, there’s a reason I’m here. It began with me, peeling away all the illusions of who I was. It ended by working with others, who, like me, had to re-build themselves.”

   Out of her past beginnings in yoga had come a new beginning.

Postscript: 

In 2014 Charlotte Stone began expanding Stone Yoga, recently voted #1 in her community for the second year in a row, adding another practice room. “It’s exciting, but, man, it’s expensive exciting!” When asked what priorities she was assigning the new space, she said, “The space will teach us what it’s there for.” 

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.”

Lighting Up the Lotus

By Ed Staskus

It is a long way from missing your husband building boats in faraway Maine to mid-morning epiphanies in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. It is even farther from the subarctic snow banks of Fairbanks to transforming an empty Lakewood, Ohio, storefront into a new yoga studio, but that is the path Marcia Camino took in creating Pink Lotus.

A Chicago native, the erstwhile on-the-road studio owner grew up in Texas, Indiana, New York, and finally Toledo, Ohio, where her steel-working family settled down. While attending Bowling Green University near her new hometown, she declared a major in English and the next year transferred to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts.

She told her parents she wanted to be a writer, a poet.

“But, honey,” she remembers her mother saying. “Poets don’t make any money.” They work at naming the unnameable. Even when they get it exactly right it’s not exactly a high paying profession.

After graduation she stayed in Alaska, writing, waiting tables, writing some more, and backpacking the state’s national parks.

“It was very beautiful up there,” she said.

But, despite the majestic geography and lofty scale she was far from home. She went back to the Lower 48.

Back in Bowling Green she worked in modern dance and theater, met her future husband in 1992, and four years later moved to Cleveland. Planning their wedding in 1999 Mrs. Camino surveyed herself in her dress in the mirror.

“Like every young lady I needed to fit into my dress,” she said. “I heard yoga was good for that, so I bought a mat and a video tape.”

She practiced every day for six weeks and on the morning of her wedding successfully squeezed into her dress. Afterwards she rolled up her mat and put it away in a back closet.

“I was happily married, writing, taking art classes, working full-time at Case Western University, everything was fine, no yoga,” Marcia said. “And then my husband went away to Kennebunkport to get certified in wooden boat building. He was gone for a year. I was left to my own means. Not a good idea.”

She resorted to dreaming about her husband, working long hours at work, enrolling in photography and film classes at night, ballet on weekends, shooting a 16 mm black-and-white movie in her spare time, and soon enough began to burn out.

“I was eating Pringles for breakfast and lunch,” she said. “I got really super thin and sick. I was a madwoman.”

One May morning in front of her TV in their apartment in historic Little Italy she dusted off her yoga mat, unrolling it and starting to practice again.

As she practiced what she still thought of as “all that yoga stuff’” in her living room she one day experienced a shift in perspective, physically and spiritually.

“I realized I had been living externally, trying to capture out there, and I was missing in here,” she said, pointing to the middle of herself,  “I missed my husband, and I missed my own soul. I just lost it. I remember lying on my mat in child’s pose. It was saturated, not with sweat, but with tears.”

Tears are messengers and sweat leads to change. Salt water can be the cure for everything. The first change Marcia made was to keep her mat in the open, out of the closet.

“Unburden yourself so much that you can pass from moment, to moment, to moment,” says Amrit Desai, who designed the style of yoga Marcia Camino was practicing, a style described as more than a physical discipline, but a process of consciousness liberation, as well.

One day on her mat led to every day on her mat, and eventually in 2004 to training at the Amrit Yoga Institute in Florida. She earned her 200-hour certification, going on to study with such nationally recognized master teachers as Paul Grilley, Rodney Yee, and Shakta Kaua Khalsa.

The practice of Amrit Yoga, Marcia Camino’s home base as a teacher and student, is sometimes referred to as the posture of awareness. It consists of several breathing exercises, twenty-six classic yoga postures, meditation between poses, and deep relaxation.

In 2005 she re-located to the west side of Cleveland, buying a house in suburban Lakewood with her husband Joe, who was back working on Lake Erie water craft, and began teaching yoga part-time at studios, colleges, and fitness centers.

After five years of free-lance Have Mat Will Travel, eventually earning Yoga Alliance EYRT status as a teacher, she began to scour Lakewood for a studio of her own.

“Deep down I was always spying for places, to create a space reflective of my personality, esthetics, and yoga philosophy,” said Marcia.

When she found the space she wanted she made the leap and gave up the security of her 9-to-5 job at the university and signed a lease in the West End neighborhood of Lakewood.

“Communicate to the world what you love most,” says Amrit Desai. “ Let go of your fear.”

“It’s a lovely part of town,” said Marcia. “There are churches on either side of the street, and we’re in a 1911 Tudor-style building. It’s only a mile-and-a-half from my house, rather than the thirty miles I used to have to drive.”

While many cities lack even one yoga studio, Lakewood sports two, with a third just across the bridge in Rocky River, as well as on-going classes at the YMCA and Harding Middle School. Marcia Camino’s new Pink Lotus was the fourth full-time studio in the area.

“Yoga has always been very hot on the coasts, since the 1960s,” she said. “It’s growing in the Midwest, and it makes sense in a community as diverse as Lakewood.”

Unlike studios that specialize in Vinyasa, a generally faster-paced workout, Pink Lotus tenders a wide range of the contemporary and traditional, including seldom-seen styles like Sivananda, which is what one of Pink Lotus’s students describes as yoga’s greatest hits.

“My studio offers styles geared towards fitness,” said Marcia. “But, we offer more, because faster-paced workouts are not available to everybody, like yoga that is breath-based, therapeutic, reflective, and, in the case of Chinese Yoga, something new to the Cleveland area.”

She cites a special love for Yin Yoga, created to benefit the body’s connective tissue and restore the range of movement lost to the conveniences and longer life of modern life.

Live on the floor, she laughs about Yin Yoga’s poses.

“We will be trying to bring to all we teach a sense of balance, happiness, and soul,” she said.

After months of planning, permits, and renovation, Pink Lotus opened in early December 2011. Like many another first-time business owner, Mrs. Camino had to overcome a series of obstacles, from raising necessary capital to finding the right plumber, babying her project day and night.

The solution to burning the midnight oil turned up right next-door at the European-style artisan bakery on the corner.

“Breadsmith is always in eyeshot,” she said. “I look out my windows and I’m thinking of hearth-baked crust when I should be thinking of my yoga.”

Man does not live by yoga alone. Bread is the staff of life. Sir Yeast a Lot to the rescue, because she must have bread!

Blending the personal and professional, Marcia Camino’s Pink Lotus is both a calling and a business, feeding the body, mind, and spirit. It’s bread and butter, simple, nutritious.

“I see many people who need yoga,” she said over a thick slice of Mediterranean Herb, sun-dried tomatoes and oil. “The practice saved my life. If it helped me, I think it can help anybody.”

Postscript:

After opening her yoga studio Marcia Camino commissioned a set of bike racks named Pink Yoga Dude and Yoga Dude Junior from local sculptor David Smith, one of her first students, who also says yoga practice “saved my life.”

Cyclists with yoga mats slung over their shoulders park at the racks in front of the studio. The public art form bike racks were installed as part of Lakewood’s Bike Master Plan. The city’s mayor and West End councilman attended the unveiling.

A version of this story appeared in the Lakewood Observer.

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 Ugly Yogi

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

By Ed Staskus

“Our job as Americans is to dislodge the traitors from every place where they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work.”  Joseph McCarthy

If Joe “Tail-Gunner” McCarthy, the 1950s commie-baiting senator from Wisconsin, could see what is going on in yoga studios from sea to shining sea today, he would roll over in his grave. Even worse, if he could spy into the hearts of American yogis he would rise from the dead and resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee. It would be for good reason. In an America whose modern core values are consumerism, competition, and nationalism, yoga espouses acceptance, moderation, and finally, stilling the mind, withdrawing the senses, and dissolving the ego.

In the land of the free and home of the brave, in an America whose military-industrial complex has been at proxy or real war with someone somewhere every day every month every year since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, yoga fosters compassion towards all beings, not blowing them up for gain revenge geo-political reasons.

The downpresser men are tossing and turning on their gilded king-size beds.

In a nation where bigger is better, expediency trumps virtue, and might is right, yoga espouses ethical principles and observances for personal and social betterment. In a 21stcentury in which increasingly problematic ends justify increasingly harebrained means, yoga posits the means not the ends as what matter.

It is a practice that doesn’t sacrifice life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the altar of eschatology. Which begs the question, how did yoga become the popular pursuit it has become in the western world?

A little more than a hundred years ago yoga was largely unknown in the United States.

The first stirrings began a century earlier in 1805 when William Emerson published a Sanskrit work, and again forty years later when his son Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, delving into jnana, bhakti, and karma yoga. Henry David Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists studied Indian thought throughout mid-century, and by 1900 the New York Theosophists were devoting a substantial part of their many resources to studying the philosophy of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’.

But, at the same time as literary and cultural elites were drawn to yoga’s theories and practice, America’s mainstream was wary of its oriental heritage. Even though the charismatic Swami Vivekananda succeeded in being signed to a speaking tour of the heartland after appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, ten years later yoga was being greeted with suspicion rather than interest.

The Los Angeles Times featured an article about yoga with the headline: “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction”. The Hampton-Columbian, with a readership of more than three million, in an article titled “The Heathen Invasion” claimed insanity “is another disaster that threatens as a coincidence in the practice of yoga.” It was conflated with white slavery and deviltry. “Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults” blared The New York Journal

“Yoga was no longer just a queer pastime; it was evil, a con, a cult – uncivilized, heathen and anti-American,” Robert Love wrote in “Fear of Yoga” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Fear and loathing of yoga rippled through the newspapers, the yellow press, of the teens and Roaring 20s. Hatha yoga in particular, as popular as it is today in its many forms, was singled out.  “It was ridiculed so much that only a few select people were practicing it,” B. K. S. Iyengar notes in ‘Astadala Yogamala’. Yoga was defined as the domain of the unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Pierre Bernard, arguably the first American yogi, fled ahead of the law from San Francisco in 1906, Seattle in 1909, New York City in 1911, and NYC again in 1918, followed by allegations of extortion and sexual misconduct. “In Bernard’s lifetime, yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women,” Robert Love pointed out in his book ‘The Great OOM: TheImprobable Birth of Yoga in America’.

But, as the baby boomers came of age the times, as Bob Dylan noted, began a’changin. Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ gained currency, Indra Devi was the darling of Hollywood and published ‘Yoga for Americans’, and encouraged by Selvarajan Yesudian’s ‘Sport and Yoga’ manyathletes began to incorporate the practice into their workouts. America’s war on yoga was winding down.

“By the 1960s yoga was becoming a part of world culture,” said Fernando Pages Ruiz in “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy”.

As the Summer of Love roiled the tumultuous decade the practice was no longer reviled, but rather embraced by the counterculture, along with all things eastern. In 1968 the Beatles made a pilgrimage to India, bonding with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the American Yoga Association was formed, and Yogi Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles, preaching an alternative to LSD in the search for higher consciousness.

Through the 1970’s yoga sprouted up on TV shows hosted by Lilias Folan and Richard Hittleman, the mass-circulation magazine Yoga Journal hit the newsstands, eventually growing to a readership of over a million, and ashrams like Kripalu slowly but surely re-branded themselves as year-round fitness, educational, and spiritual centers.

Yoga today is accepted nationwide to the extent that millions of Americans practice it at thousands of studios and gyms and daily at home.

“New agers embraced yoga in the 90s, and these days yoga has exploded into the mainstream,” Neal Conan broadcast in “The Booming Business of Yoga” heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Popularity cuts several ways, however. “Avoid popularity if you would have peace,” said Abraham Lincoln. If it depended only on popularity, Shrek and the Little Mermaid would be congressmen, eclipsing the little mermen in their power suits.

Many magazines like TIME have featured yoga on their front covers, McDonald’s folds lotus pose into their hamburger ads, and our American idols practice it to balance out their widescreen idoldom. Even children hopped into warrior pose on the White House lawn during the first yoga event ever at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll.

“It is a measure of how thoroughly this ancient spiritual discipline – once regarded as exotic, bohemian, even threatening – has been assimilated by the American mainstream and transformed,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in “Where the Ascetic Meets the Athletic” in The New York Times.

Yoga has woven itself into the fabric of American life in myriad ways.

”Yoga, with all its props, accessories, glamour, fastidiousness, and money making potential is very American,” said Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga. Yoga businesses are expanding exponentially, and some, like Anusara and Lululemon Athletica, for example, have defied the Great Recession with their strong growth potentials. Anusara expects to double its gross revenues in the short term.

Many teachers believe yoga is as American as apple pie, not simply a commodity in the marketplace, but a discipline expanding the parameters of individual freedom.

“I think yoga is the ultimate American experience in so far as it teaches personal empowerment and the pursuit of well-being,” says Robin Gueth, a yoga therapy teacher and owner of the Stress Management Center. “The whole concept that you are in charge of how you think, move, express, and even feel is quintessentially American.”

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

Yoga in the USA is largely about two of the arms or aspects of yoga, which are asana, or exercise, which is by far the more popular of the two, and pranayama, or breath control, a necessary adjunct of exercise. “Yoga has taken on a distinctly American cast,” wrote Mimi Swartz in “The Yoga Mogul” in The New York Times.

“It has become much more about doing than being.”

The yoga that is accepted and practiced by most Americans is postural yoga.  “Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of asana,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’.It has been cleaved from its spiritual side. “For many of us, we just use it as exercise during the day, just a quick pick-me-up,” says Hanna Rosin in her article ”Striking a Pose” in the Atlantic Monthly.

On the heels of jogging, aerobics, and spinning, yoga is the new, hip exercise of our times. Even though only 16% of Americans participate in an exercise activity on any average day, according to a recent Labor Department report, yoga asana fits into the American model because the proverb health is wealth has always been proverbial in the USA. It was with good reason that Richard Hittleman’s pioneering TV show introducing yoga to the masses was titled ‘Yoga for Health’.

The practice of yoga is about crafting a union of the body, mind, and spirit. But, it has been re-invented in America as a health-enabling and stress-reducing homonym.

Its bevy of health benefits is touted in ‘Slim Calm Sexy Yoga’ by Tara Stiles, featuring “210 proven yoga moves for mind and body bliss.” Along with laughter and art therapy the Mayo Clinic serves up yoga as a tension reducing technique. Even the Westin Hotels and Resorts feature pop-up videos of yoga teachers in their web advertisements, on their mats beachside beneath sunny skies demonstrating how yoga can help us relax on our vacations.

The problem isn’t that modern yoga doesn’t measure up to classical yoga. The problem is that modern yoga elides the wheel for the spoke.

Apart from its exercise side yoga is a problematic practice in a land besotted by competition, consumerism, and nationalism. “When this country was founded we were one nation under God. Today we are one nation under money, the land of the addicted, and the home of the terrorized,” says Kenneth Toy of the Kriya Yoga Ashram. At the core of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’are discipline, dedication, and self-awareness within a structure of moral action, personal observances, exercise and breath, sense withdrawal and concentration, meditation, and union with the divine, or liberation.

The core achievements of the American enlightenment, on the other hand, are “wealth, health, comfort, and life expectancy” wrote Edwin Locke in Capitalism Magazine.

Modern times are fraught with results, and so are uneasy venues for yoga.

Our lives are measured by what we accumulate and accomplish. We are either surging forwards, making progress, or slipping backwards. On the other side of the racetrack yoga offers an alternative to the scoreboard and stock market. “Many Americans get caught up in consumerism and competition,” says Tarra Madore of Inner Light Yoga Center.

“As a society we have lost touch with the American and human core values that are more related to peace and freedom.”

The ‘Rig-Veda’ first cites yoga approximately 5000 years ago, and the classical yoga of the Yoga Sutras antedates the USA by 1500 years. The thread of them is that yoga is a practice to calm one’s mind and unite with the infinite. “We need introspection,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the founders of Yoga Journal. “We have a whole country full of restive people who are not contemplative.”

It may be that yoga is un-American. It is more likely that America is un-yogic.

“America is the Canaan of capitalism, its promised land,” wrote German economist Werner Sombart nearly a hundred years ago. Self-interest and competition are embedded in capitalism. They are the values and behaviors we all take for granted in our society and ourselves. “Uncritical faith in intense competition assumes the status of an unquestioned paradigm in America today,” wrote the political scientist Pauline Rosenau in ‘The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict,Contest, and Commerce’.

Americans enter their children in beauty pageants, their pets in breed shows, and themselves in pie eating contests. Team standings, both real and fantasy, are parsed daily.  The ups and downs of the stock market are a staple of the news. Militarism overseas is either being won or lost. American society is focused on desire and achievement. Dancing used to be a social activity. It is star-studded competitive hoofing that is growing by leaps and bounds nowadays.

Athletics were once the follow the bouncing ball footprint of the American Way. Its lessons were sportsmanship, teamwork, and discipline. Today, splashed across an alphabet soup of TV networks, as billionaire owners in skyboxes watch over their multi-millionaire performers, sport has been reduced to a win-or-else amusement, competition for the sake of riches and fame.

Businesses have always competed for the same pool of customers, but in contemporary America in the name of profit the results include the nearly universal model of concentrated animal feeding, schemes like credit default swaps, and out-sourcing, whose one and only goal is to satisfy shareholders. Diabetes and obesity have reached epidemic levels in the USA, weighing down the health care system, but sugary drink manufacturers continue to bottle their product and pay handsome dividends.

Our elected leaders have jumped on the competition bandwagon, falling off the wagon of the Founding Fathers.

The 1996 election for the White House and Congress cost a combined 2.7 billion dollars. In 2008 the same federal campaigns cost 5.3 billion dollars, making them the most expensive ever. The Adam Smith model of the invisible hand or co-operative competition has been superseded by a winner-takes-all hyper competitiveness, as though winning were the only measure of worth. Instead of statesmen the halls of power are filled with people primarily concerned with the next election and their own aggrandizement. The toll is reflected in a 2009 Gallup Poll that found members of Congress are among the least trusted professionals in America, just a nose ahead of career criminals.

“Soften and breathe into the resistance,” Nina DeChant often reminds her Core Yoga class at West Side Yoga. She does not say muscle up and kick some butt in chair pose. It is advice that reverberates throughout much of yogic thought, from exercise to ethics. Yoga in its entirety, not simply asana, is a practice whose goal is to unite the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, not simply win prizes by touching your toes.

“Yoga is un-American in that it is inherently non-capitalistic and non-competitive,” says Timothy Thompson of Monkey Yoga Shala. Competition posits an enemy, or other, against whom one is measured. It is always in some respects a fearful enterprise, Hobbesian in its underpinnings, as zero-sum sports rivalries, political campaigns, and bankruptcies attest. Even eating in America is freighted by the ruthless. Ray Kroc, the re-inventor of McDonalds, once said if he ever saw his competition drowning he would go get his hose to help make sure they did drown.

Yoga, on the other hand, does not conjure up real or imagined adversaries. It is a practice whose edge is the strength and discipline to be actively non-competitive. It prepares the man or woman for real-life challenges off the mat. There are no trophies, no finish line, and no mishandled garden hoses.

Winning may be rewarding on many levels, but it is always one-sided because there must be losers. Winning is not its own reward. If it were, losing would be unnecessary, which has never been the case. Yoga, on the other hand, eschews competition. “Yoga is a technology to elevate the human spirit above the animal nature reflected in competition,” says Larry Beck of Kundalini Yoga in the Loop.

“Simply put, the meaning of life is to rise above instincts into spiritual consciousness, which is inclusive, nurturing, and flowing.”

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but the winners are usually saying it. Yoga practice does bring out the best in people, all the people who practice it. 

It is transformative exactly because it is non-competitive, reflected in the ethical concept santosha, the root of happiness, meaning contentment.

“Competition is a part of culture and society,” says Charles Secallus of Asana House. “It is a human trait and it is up to the individual to decide whether it works for them or not. Yoga is about growth and developing our own spiritual understanding of one’s self and relationship to others.”

Competition springs from desire and discontent, more for me. Santosha is a result of doing one’s best honestly and fully. While it is true all biological beings compete, yoga posits an alternate reality of a consciousness complementary to and beyond biology.

In the past sixty years America has become the consumer society par excellence. During the Battle of France in 1940 Winston Churchill made several speeches in the House of Commons. In the first he said: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

Two generations later, and a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, President Bush addressed the nation and said: “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.”

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

Consumerism is the reigning culture in America, the shop-until-you-drop wonder of the world. It is what we live and swear by, a culture of desire that seems never sated.  “From the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this,“ writes William Leach in ‘Land of Desire’

Our consumerism is the equating of happiness with the purchase of something, something you will then possess, or be possessed of. By that standard, Americans should be the happiest people on the planet. Making up only 5% of the world’s population, they consume 23% of the world’s resources.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Mahatma Ghandi said more than sixty years ago. “If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

If that was a word of warning then, how would Ghandi react to the India of today, jumping on the bandwagon and boasting the 4thlargest GDP in the world?

The average worldwide income is approximately $7,000.00. The average American income is approximately $50,000.00.

But, the gap between the Third World and the First World is closing. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone lived the lifestyle of Americans we would need five planets to sustain all of us. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” Jimmy Carter warned in a speech to the nation in 1979.

He promptly lost the next election, ridiculed for his “despair and pessimism” by Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan.

More than 70% of America’s economy is dependent on consumer spending. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the average American is exposed to 3000 advertising messages a day, and globally corporations spend over $620 billion a year to make their products seem desirable. Consumerism is the largest of the many cultures of modern America, and material possessions are its markers of status and success. Consumerism is consumption gone wild. It seems we can never get enough of what we don’t really need to make us happy.

Consumerism as a social system conflicts with the core values of yoga, especially asteya and aparigraha, by which moderation and sustainability are observed. “A large impediment to meaningful personal and systemic transformation in the United States is the overwhelming political and economic power of large corporations and institutions that promote values of consumption,” says Amy Quinn-Suplina of Bend and Bloom Yoga.

“Yoga is one of the many movements challenging socially and environmentally destructive institutions that promote competition and consumerism.”

Since the 1990’s the most frequent reason voiced by students for going to college is profitability, the making of money.

The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the pursuit of tangible, consumable things. Even though 10 years ago 99% of American homes had a television, and almost 70% of them had three-or-more, 100 million new flat-screens have been sold since then. In a 65-year life the average American will spend 9 years watching television, and will see more than 2 million commercials. Consumption is not only the imperative of our day-to-day, it is the wallpaper to our lives.

The health of America is measured by our consumer confidence, as though patriotism is determined by how much we are willing to spend and consume. It is doubtful the Declaration of Independence had consumerism in mind when it defined America as the land of freedom and liberty.  “The highest teaching in yoga is the same: freedom,” notes Cate Stillman, an Anusara Yoga instructor.

“You are so free you can choose to bind yourself to the ignorance of your limited, conditioned behavior. But, do yoga long enough and you wake up to yourself as consciousness or awareness itself taking form, unconditioned and completely free.”

Consumerism may not be the miracle it is cracked up to be, especially the model go-getting Americans have squeezed themselves into. “Encouraged by advertisers, friends, and family, many people think more possessions, more recognition, and more power will lead to more happiness, “says Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga and a founding board member of Yoga Alliance.

“No one ever found lasting happiness that way, for the simple reason that nothing outside us can bring lasting happiness. Happiness is of the mind, not in things or circumstances.”

Consumerism’s premise is uncertain because it reads the economy backwards, mistaking the leaves of the tree for the roots. “The happiness that seems to be coming from your possessions is false, “ says Sri Swami Satchidananda. “It is reflected happiness.”

Attending to and living by the ethical precepts of asteya and aparigraha, meaning non-covetousness and non-possessiveness, means being aware and watchful about acquiring and becoming attached to things. There is no yoga gravy train because the basic propositions of the practice are contrary to the cultivation of unbounded desire.

There is more to life than having everything one can never get.

Nationalism was born out of America’s War of Independence and the French Revolution. Since the Great Depression nationalism has spread and intensified worldwide. It is many things, such as love of country, willingness to sacrifice for it, and the doctrine that one’s national culture and interests are superior to others. The problem with nationalism is not patriotism, which means devotion to a place and a way of life, but its identification with the power of the nation-state.

“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism” in ‘Polemic’. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.” Patriots love their country for what it does. Nationalists love their country no matter what it does. Nationalism makes footstools of morality and ethics because what matters are the perceived interests of the state, regardless of what they are.

Imperialism is nationalism on the move. It is extending ones rule economically, politically, or militarily upon other states. In his Farewell Address of 1796 George Washington warned against foreign entanglements and foreign wars, advice that has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. The Canadian and Mexican wars of the first half of the 19thcentury were land grabs, but with the advent of the Spanish-American War the United States had grown imperialistic, fighting wars whose purposes were conquest and colonization.

“The United States has used every available means to dominate other nations,” writes Sidney Lens in ‘The Forging of the American Empire’. Some historians believe America’s imperialism is benevolent. Niall Ferguson agrees America is an empire, but insists it is a good thing, likening America to Rome, building republican institutions and civilizing barbarians. “U. S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century,” Max Boot argues in “American Imperialism”.

Since 1945 America has intervened covertly or militarily in more than 70 countries, including the Philippines, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Grenada, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Some of these conflicts were for the purpose of extending hegemony, some to contain fascism or communism, others to secure resources, and all of them were supposed to make the world safer. The Vietnam War, or Resistance War Against America, as the Vietnamese called it, resulted in approximately 4 million Vietnamese deaths on both sides and the loss of almost 60,000 American troops.

What good came of the Vietnam War, and whether the world is safer today than it was a hundred years ago, after the loss of more than ten percent of the world’s population to warfare in the 20thcentury, is a moot point.

Conflict is inevitably a consequence of imperialism. Although all states claim to fight defensive or justifiable wars, even invoking pre-emptive strikes as justified, war never ends warfare; otherwise it would have ended with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, or maybe the defeat of the Nazis. “I just want you to know, when we talk about war, we are really talking about peace,” President Bush said after the start of the Second Gulf War Occupation.

Nationalism is the pursuit of power no matter the Orwellian spin states put on it, setting it at loggerheads with yoga. All states claim God is on their side. All nations proclaim their God is the God that rules.

Yoga, on the other hand, strives to be on the side of God.

The practices of nationalism and imperialism, projects that have defined the American Century, are practices justifying and furthering state power. They are coercive and violent, ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance we recite as children to the armies we raise as adults.

The practice of yoga is antithetical to the realpolitik of the modern state. Rather than ignore the moral and ethical, yoga’s project is based on those principles and disciplines.  All the world’s major religions from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism have had their foundations of non-violence co-opted by states.

“One of history’s greatest lessons is that whenever the state embraces a religion the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its non-violent component,” wrote Mark Kurlansky in ‘Non-Violence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a DangerousIdea’.

Although not a religion, yoga is a spiritual practice at whose core ahimsa is a living, breathing concept.  It is an imperative for practicing any or all of the eight limbs or steps of the path. Pranayama is not a tool for steadying trigger fingers. There are no St. Augustines or Ibn Taymayyahs of yoga explaining away the Sixth Commandment.  If there were, then satya, defined as truth in word and thought, would have to be thrown out the window.

In a 2005 speech at Spelman College the political activist and historian Howard Zinn characterized nationalism as one of the greatest evils of our time, useful only for those in power. The nationalist argument is built on the assertion that the economic and military supremacy of the nation takes priority over all other interests. It is for good reason the United States maintains the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and is the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons against an enemy.

The practice of yoga, on the other hand, is opposed to the nationalist agenda and the alienation of everyone on America’s Most Wanted list. “Yoga unites us not only to the core of who we are, but truly to every American,” said Michele Risa of NYC’s Beyond Body Mind Spirit. “As defined, we would in fact be embracing every person on the planet.”

Yoga is dedicated to the union of the body, mind, and spirit, both within ourselves and to others. “Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation,” wrote William Doran in “The Eight Limbs – The Core of Yoga”.

Violence does not resolve disagreements. It only leads to more violence.

The greater evil than nationalism is the endemic violence it begets. “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics,” observed Thomas Edison. “Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Non-violence is one of the disciplines of yoga, according to the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’as well as an obligation. It is only the undisciplined that believe every problem can be solved with violence.

“It almost seems anti-American to do any discipline,” writes Deborah Adele in “The Yamas and Niyamas”. The abstinences and observances of yoga are fundamentally rooted in ahimsa. Violence and killing are not stepping-stones on the yogic path, as they are on the highways of nationalism and imperialism. Violence is a morally confused idea, a means of getting things done that is neither a lasting solution nor an idea that God is on the side of.

“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “who is non-violent to all beings.”

Although our Founding Fathers never practiced yoga, if they had they would have gravitated to styles that suited their personalities.

George Washington would probably have practiced Ashtanga, drawn to its discipline, splitting the mat in the Warrior poses with a steady, forward gaze. John Adams might have practiced Anusara, intellectually engaged by its principles of alignment, his back foot rooted to the earth in side-angle pose and his leading arm reaching to heaven. Thomas Jefferson would have studied Kundalini, exploring and releasing energy, practicing kriyas and chanting on the portico of Monticello.

It is doubtful they would look out on the landscape of America today, over the atomization of its citizens, its celebration of presidential birthdays with sales, sales, sales, and its century-long militarism, with any sense of accomplishment. “That part of America,” says Rita Trieger of Fit Yoga Magazine, “the intolerance, the judgments, the hatred, that’s the real un-American thinking. Our forefathers would be shocked.”

As far as modern America’s values are from its foundational myths, yoga’s values may be as near to them.

Yoga is a transformative practice of old-fashioned virtues opening the modern citizen to new thought and behavior, much like what the American Revolution accomplished for the New World.

“Perhaps the question is, are Americans being Americans?” says Denise Lapides of Divine Light Yoga. “Yoga to me is not un-American as much as Americans have become un-American. Practicing yoga, or living a yogic lifestyle, seems to me to be more in line with what was originally intended for our nation.”

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were the essentials of the American Dream. He also warned that competition and commerce often “feel no passion of principle but that of gain,“ that we should not bite at the “bait of pleasure,” and condemned war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.”

“Tail-Gunner” Joe McCarthy might not agree that yogic ideals like compassion, truthfulness, and non-violence are prototypically American, but it is likely Thomas Jefferson would. Our third president valued self-reliance, honesty, and hard work. Any American walking into a yoga studio today and rolling out a mat will discover exactly that, and find that yoga is as American as starting the day with sun salutations, followed by a plate of apple pie, and that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be breathed out and breathed in with what is right with America.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Breath or Bullets

By Ed Staskus

The Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), of which there are three variations, is an essential feature of many exercise sequences at yoga studios. The warrior pose of soldiers in combat is as varied as the difference between Roman legionnaires and drone operators.

The name of the yoga pose comes from Virabhandra, a hero in Indian mythology who carried a thousand cudgels and wore tiger skins. It is a vigorous standing posture often integrated into sun salutations and explained as being an inspiration for the spiritual warrior.

The warrior pose in the U. S. Army is usually a floor pose, practiced on the stomach, on one knee, or in a crouch. Instead of reaching through the arms with empty hands, the military variation keeps the arms close to the body and a strong grip on ones M4A1 carbine.

Yoga is traditionally a pathway toward enlightenment. “If your practice is moving you away from enlightenment, then you are not practicing yoga,” says Ganesh Das of Jivamukti Yoga. Those on the path commonly practice with that intention, not with the intention of setting gun sights on the whites of someone’s eyes.

But, some in the brave new world of 21st century yoga argue that it can and should be more than it has been, arguing that its energy should be devoted towards myriad forms of improvement, competing against one another to be the best in the class, even on the battlefield.

Although it is debatable whether yoga and conflict are compatible, it has recently been introduced to the American armed forces, described as “a powerful supplement to combat readiness training, making soldiers better prepared for challenges they’ll face in combat” in an article titled The US Army Strikes the Warrior Pose. Warriors at Ease, a Maryland-based company, is one of the first officially-recognized “yoga defense contractors”.

However, not everyone in the military agrees that today’s redefined yoga is appropriate for training troops. They contend that it coddles rather than toughens them.  “People have said you’re babying them,” says Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training. “You’ve got to drive them hard, and work them until it hurts.”

While it is the questionable whether yoga is appropriate training for the rigors of war, it is clear that the chain of command has not come to grips with some forms of yoga exercise. As a means of fitness training for soldiers it may exceed traditional push-ups and 2-mile marches, as attested by a post on the Runner’s World web site by a veteran long-distance runner.

“If I would have toughed it out the full 90 minutes at my first attempt at Bikram Yoga, I calculate I would have lost 22.5 pounds of body water weight. In other words, I would have died.”

The purpose of military might is to preserve security and provide defense, and to overcome perils to that security. The United States accomplishes this with a defense budget, in the fiscal year 2012, of more than $900 billion. It is almost $300 billion more than the next fourteen countries, including China and Russia, in the top fifteen for defense spending, combined.

Even setting aside the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending has more than doubled since 2001. Defense accounts for approximately 20 percent of the entire federal budget, roughly the same as Social Security, and outstripping spending on transportation, education, and science, combined.

Americans spend almost $3000.00 per person on defense annually.

In the United States $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, primarily on hatha practices. Americans spend less than $19.00 per person on yoga annually.

The purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. “It is to cultivate awareness, self-regulation, and higher consciousness in the individual,” according to David Surrenda, CEO of Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. Its goal is to cultivate a higher nature, not relying on Smith & Wesson.

Whether Americans are safer paying nearly $3000.00 a year for their military readiness or $19.00 a year for their spiritual readiness is a moot point.

Going toe-to-toe with the Pentagon the often-barefoot practice of yoga is at a decided disadvantage. The Pentagon is the world’s largest defense building. The National Capitol could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections. With more than 23,000 employees it is virtually a city.

Not even Bikram World Headquarters in Los Angeles is remotely close to the size of the Pentagon.

More people practice yoga in America, approximately 16 million of them, than are in the armed forces, of which there are currently 3 million enlisted and reserve. But, the pool the Pentagon draws on is far larger than yoga’s mailing list. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, as well as 120,000,000 men and women classified as being fit for service.

Many people come to yoga for sun salutations and vinyasa. They fill out a waiver at a studio, stretch and sweat for an hour, and if all goes well come back the next day. Some weave it into the fabric of their lives, internalizing the practice and living by its eight-fold path as a way of achieving a meaningful existence.

In the armed forces all inductees must take the Oath of Enlistment, in which they  “solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies…so help me God.” The oath is traditionally performed standing in front of the stars and stripes, not in front of God.

If it came to a fight, yoga would be badly out-gunned by the Pentagon, which can muster thousands of ships, planes, and M1A2 Abrams tanks, the most electronically-sophisticated, and heavily-armored battle tank ever built anywhere in the world. The best yoga might do is muster a battalion-or-two of very experienced Warrior Pose yogis.

Ever since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, the United States has been at war somewhere every day of every year ever since. But, for all the power the Pentagon can bring to bear, it begs the question of why its record on the battlefield since WW2 has largely been a patchwork of compromised victories.

Francis Beer, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has estimated that more than 14,000 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, resulting in more than 3.5 billion deaths. By his measure there have only been 300 years of relative peace in that 5500-year span.

Killing one man is a capital crime. Killing ten men is mass murder. Killing one hundred men is slaughter, beyond the pale of crime. But, killing a thousand men is called war and trumpeted as a triumph. Capital crimes are condemned while wars make for medals and parades.

“This the rulers of the earth all recognize,” wrote Mozi, a Chinese philosopher of the 5th century BC. “Yet, when it comes to the greatest crime – waging war on another state – they praise it! It is clear they do not know it is wrong. If they knew they were wrong, why should they wish to record them and have them handed down to posterity?”

All peoples and all states justify their wars.

The Roman Empire, the most ruthless in history, fought every one of its wars under the rubric of defense. The North fought the Civil War to preserve the  American Union while the South fought to preserve its honor and way of life. The Israelis fight for their homeland and the Palestinians fight for their homeland. The problem is that it is all the same homeland.

“Most Palestinians believe that the Intifada succeeded,” says Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security system. “They believe that we understand only the language of force. Most Israelis believe that we won because Palestinians understand only the language of force.”

States make war for many reasons, among them self-defense, resource competition, border disputes, and international recognition. Institutions like the Pentagon are the fulcrum on which states depend in order to wield their power to make war.

“The state jealously guards the right to make war because this prerogative is a source of power,“ writes Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

People practice yoga for many reasons, among them physical health, mind-body unity, and what can be described as connecting to the whole. Practiced regularly it becomes the font of true power, not power at the end of a gun barrel.

“Yoga practice aims to reset our physical, mental, and emotional rhythms to their natural states, “ says Dinbandhu Sarley, former CEO of Kripalu Center. “We experience this resonance as a spiritual experience.”

Yoga boot camps are far different than army boot camps. There are no firing ranges or bayonet drills. The reason is that warfare is not a natural state, no matter mankind’s history of endless war. Most men and women are reluctant to kill others. That is why today’s all-volunteer U. S. Army is largely made up of the disadvantaged and unemployed.

In Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command on Future War, the chief U. S. Army combat historian of WW2, Samuel Marshall, revealed that only one in four combat soldiers ever fired their guns, while at most only 15 percent of available firepower was ever deployed. If it came to a fight with yoga, the Pentagon, even with all its firepower, might not have the advantage it seems if its soldiers won’t fire their guns.

One reason yoga might have an advantage is that the practice develops balance and strength in both body and mind. It is only with those attributes that ahimsa can be successfully pursued.

“Nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength,” writes Mark Kurlansky. “Only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it.”

Ahimsa is a guiding principle of yoga practice. Although all spiritual practices abjure violence, unlike Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism, yoga has never been co-opted by the state, its nonviolent pose twisted to serve power politics.

Christians since St. Augustine have fought ‘just’ wars, even though Jesus was not on the side of war-makers, but rather on the side of peace-makers. Muslims declare jihad whenever they propose violence, even though the Quran never uses the term jihad for fighting in the name of Allah. Zen Buddhism and Japanese militarism were intertwined from the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century through WW2.

In a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Pentagon and yoga, only yoga would bring the power of its convictions to the fray. When the First Gulf War ended in the 1990s “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf, field commander of the Coalition Forces, declared, “God must have been on our side!”

What was on his side was a bevy of Cruise missiles, not God. God is not on the side of war-makers, no matter what the war-makers say. If he were, then it would be every man for himself and God against all.

Whether or not to go to war is a moral argument. Yoga’s pose is that nonviolence is a first principle, renouncing war. The state’s pose is that force of arms is its prerogative. Yoga denies that peace can be achieved through violence. The state accepts war because it believes without arms and armies it would be impotent. The state proposes that war is the way peace is won.

“I just want you to know,” explained President Bush, “that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”

But, violence does not resolve conflicts between people or their states. “Peace cannot be achieved through violence,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the first Americans to study Vedic texts. Violence almost always leads to more violence. Yoga postulates that peace can only be attained through dynamic compassion and understanding, which is why there has never been a single war waged by any yoga community.

“When you start to understand how karma works, you realize how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience,” says Sharron Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga.

The warrior pose battalions of yoga could conceivably be the most formidable foe the Pentagon has faced in a long time. Wars are ultimately fought to win hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of yogis may be stronger and more resilient than any weapon the Pentagon can wield.

If push came to shove between the Pentagon and yoga, the winning side would be the side with the prevailing point-of-view. The North Vietnamese did not prevail through force of arms in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pentagon would be battling an idea that like Gandhi’s idea for India’s independence struggle is almost impossible to defeat, so long as the idea sticks to its guns.

Yoga makes samadhi – union with the divine – not war. The Pentagon makes war, which leads to more war, and to the other definition of samadhi, which is a funerary monument. Yoga opens the heart. The Pentagon puts a bullet into it. “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war,” says Vijaya Pandit of the U. N. Human Rights Commission.

The ultimate problem for the Pentagon is that it ignores the Bhagavad Gita, the most dangerous existing explication of yoga. If nothing else the Bhagavad Gita teaches one how to hold ones ground, which is what Warrior Pose is all about.

Although Navy Seals have pioneered practices like ‘Combat Yoga’, when the ka-booming starts the Seals Marines GI’s, sailors and airmen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Fortress Pentagon might never know what hit them, as their world view goes up in mirage, which is, in the end, the seeing things as they really are, the ultimate goal of yoga practice.

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.”

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.”

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.”