“Yoga gives people of all ages the ability to grow old gracefully and stay in shape with lowered stress,” says Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga in Austin, Texas. “My students share all kinds of success stories of reduced blood pressure, assistance with diabetes, faster healing, stronger digestion, and better sleep.”
Yoga does not treat age at whatever age it is like a disease to be cured. Getting old is not the problem since growing older can be accomplished by anyone who lives long enough. Yoga assumes asanas are good for everyone because the practice produces a stronger, healthier body with increased resistance to disease.
“Health is the chief idea, the one goal of hatha yoga,” says Swami Nikhilananda in Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works. In recent years the Harvard University neuroscientist Sat Bir Khalsa, who believes it can and should be the low-tech solution to many of the world’s health care problems, has gathered substantial evidence for the therapeutic value of the practice.
But, as essential to yoga as hatha practice is, it is still only one spoke in the wheel. Practicing asanas alone is like going to see Gone in 60 Seconds instead of Gonewith the Wind. The Nicholas Cage movie looks like a movie, just like the Clark Gable one does, as long as you assume the elements of color, action, and sound are what movies are about, or that the plot device of stealing 50 cars is worth caring about.
Asanas are empowering, boosting energy and decreasing aches and pains, and even defending against major killers like heart disease and diabetes. But, hot vinyasa classes are not an elixir, no matter how hot they are or how real the myth of the loss of Eden remains even in our modern age. When asanas are added or yoked to the matrix of pranayama and meditation they become more than just the active ingredients in the Fountain of Youth recipe. Practicing yoga for it’s admitted anti-aging benefits is good for everyone’s body, but leaving it at that is empowering the tail to wag the dog.
“Yoga is ultimately more than a tool,” says Michael Caldwell of Yoga One in San Diego, California. “Sure, some people do yoga to get a firm butt and lose weight, but those who continue to practice tend to get much more out of it than an attractive outward appearance, because it is a philosophy, and ultimately when fully expanded, a lifestyle, a state of mind, and a state of being.”
Transforming asanas into a wrestling match with age can add years to your life, but it doesn’t necessarily make those years worthwhile. “Life is a pilgrimage,” says Swami Sivanada. It is a journey to a sacred place, or at least a search for significance. Reducing it to year after year of roadside attractions is to waste the years asanas may grant. The superstar Madonna is not the new Nero because she practices Ashtanga Yoga, but because she believes the internal heat and sweat of the practice are its most noble parts, or as noble as her egoism allows.
“Yoga is widely perceived as being a toolbox of youth, but it is far from being only that,” says Gyandev McCord of Ananda Yoga in Ananda Village, California. “Practicing only for its physical benefits is like seeing the Mona Lisa only in terms of its picture frame. Nice frame, but there’s something much greater happening there! Yoga is, above all, a technology for inner transformation, a means to experience directly the very essence of who you are.”
The Vedic culture, from which the Hindu path of yoga evolved, concentrated on diet, exercise, and meditation for its anti-aging therapies. Back in the day Rig Vedic verses were chanted to gain long life. As it is practiced today, yoga is not like it was in the past, but its aims are the same. Hatha yoga is meant to keep the body healthy and the mind alert through asanas, pranayama, and meditation, so that one can lead a dynamic and alert life, acting appropriately in changing circumstances.
There is suggestive evidence that yoga delays or prevents the onset of many age-related diseases, evidence garnered from studies conducted by the International Association of Yoga Therapists, and even some done under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. A study in the February 2000 issue of ‘Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America’ found that therapeutic yoga helps with the pain associated with osteoarthritis. “Medically, yoga maintains the body parameters to a ripe old age,“ says Dr. Krishna Raman in his book Yoga and Medical Science.
Yogis like Krisnamacharya, Indra Devi, and K. Pattabhi Jois have proven that asana practice can be maintained throughout life, well into one’s 80’s and 90’s. “I’m proof that if you keep at it, you’ll get there. I can do more now than I could 50 years ago. Forget age,” says the 84-year-old Bette Calman, an Australian teacher and author of Yoga for Arthritis, who still practices peacock pose and tripod headstand.
A good plastic surgeon can lift a face and make it last for ten years. Botox, the trademark of botulinum toxin, an otherwise lethal poison, can paralyze wrinkles for up to four months. Preparation H, in a pinch, tautens under-eye puffiness. Being a good Australian and not a Belgian endive all her life, Bette Calman is wrinkled from the sun, but her real beauty shines from the inside out. “Yoga keeps you young,” she says, meaning it in more ways than the anti-aging business does.
Yoga is not about worshiping youth, but rather about honoring all ages. That is why there is always a practice for everyone and it is always the right time to start a practice. “Never too late, never too old, never too bad,” says Bishnu Ghosh, who was Bikram Choudbury’s teacher.
If yoga were the Holy Grail of anti-aging no yogis would have wrinkles or arthritis. But, they do. When Diane Anderson asked David Life how his body had changed over the years, he said: “Do you really want the old list that we all know: less hair, more gray, fewer teeth, thinner skin, and so on? I’ve got all that.” Yoga has often innocently been called the art of staying young. There is no potion or pill or procedure that will keep anyone ageless, but yoga might be the next best consolation prize for the plant that got away.
“We’re not about growing old gracefully. We’re about never growing old,” says Robert Klatz, president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.
The science of yoga posits the opposite view, not opposing nature with the chemical and surgical arsenal of Western science, but rather melding breath and asanas to flow with grace through time. In its various manifestations it offers many kinds of practice to the different stages of our life times, from hot vinyasa to earthy yin. “Yoga might give you a youthful posture and more peaceful face, but the reason people stick to it is the peace and awareness it brings,” says Debra Murphy of Shanti Yoga in McCall, Idaho, who also has a doctorate in Exercise Science.
For all of its admitted physical benefits, yoga is about being ageless on the inside rather than on the outside. The Buddha said every human being is the author of his own health or disease, but yoga is about more than health or disease. Yoga is not just a body practice, nor is it a body-mind practice. It is a body-mind-spirit practice.
The odds of aging are one hundred percent, but how old would we be if we didn’t know how old we were? “All life is yoga,” says Sri Aurobindo, progenitor of Integral Yoga. The purpose of yoga is not just to buff the body, nor master the mind. Its long-term project is to still the body and mind in order to apprehend the spirit. “The spirit shall look out through matter’s gaze. And matter shall reveal the spirit’s face,” explains Sri Aurobindo.
Asanas are always worthwhile in their own right, as is meditation and breathwork. Yoga exercise helps develop a strong posture so that the body can be kept steady and comfortable in order to meditate. Pranayama helps still the motion of the mind. But, to limit one’s yoga practice to these steps is to lose sight of what the pilgrimage of the practice is really getting at, which is the illimitable spirit that lives in everyone, mirroring timelessness. Yoga is a meditation on the here and now, not a better-looking past or airbrushed future. Wonder and awareness are found in the present moment, where there is no need for nips and tucks.
When the body is still the mind can be still. When the mind is still the spirit can be still. When the spirit is still, fear and desire, the ageless twins that drive the anti-aging market, are obviated. In the Yoga Sutra Patanjali’s guideline for life is the eightfold path, or ashtanga, which literally means eight limbs. Asanas are the path of health, the yamas and niyamas the paths of moral and ethical conduct, and pranayama is at the crossroads of the body and mind. The final four limbs of the circle of ashtanga – withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and connecting with the Universe – are the practices by which time slows down to a single point of stillness.
The effects of anti-aging products like Botox and HGH are ephemeral at best and dangerous at worse. Pursuing enlightenment on the eightfold path is to connect to the best of the whole of creation, not just hold hands with a corporate chemist’s lab.
At the end of the Epic of Gilgamesh, having lost the Plant of Life, the hero Gilgamesh returns home and looks up at the city walls he built, believing they will endure in his place. It is a false epiphany. Unable to step out of the flow of time he remains seduced by the dream of the snake. Five thousand years later his city’s ruins lie on the banks of an abandoned channel of the Euphrates River. But, what Gilgamesh yearned for then is in our modern age still a preoccupation.
“To this very day, the possibility of physical immortality charms the heart of man,” says Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Buying into the 21st century’s anti-aging technologies is to be beguiled by the snake, as though sloughing off one’s skin has something to do with revealing one’s true self. The authentic self is the spirit made visible, not a new, replacement face or head of hair. The real prize is not the skin you slough off, but the skin you live in, and how you live in the skin you are in. That is the gift gotten from yoga practice in all its aspects, never looking back and never looking forward.
What used to be called the Fountain of Youth, but today is called anti-aging, more than 5,000 years ago was known as the Plant of Life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest book of all time, after a series of adventures the hero loses his best friend to the revenge of the gods of Sumeria (today’s Iraq). Gilgamesh buries his friend, but can’t stop mourning him and fearing he might suddenly die himself.
Until then, the mid-point of the story, the young Gilgamesh has addressed his fears of death only superficially. He goes searching for the secret of eternal life in the form of Ut-Napishtim, the survivor of the Great Flood and the only man ever granted immortality as a reward for saving mankind. Gilgamesh doesn’t get it, though, because the gods jealously guard immortality. He gets the Plant of Life, instead
Ut-Napishtim’s wife gives Gilgamesh the Plant of Life, which restores youth to the elderly, as a consolation prize. But, on the way home he loses the plant to a snake, which eats it and sheds its skin, staying young while men grow old.
Life extension and attempts to slow down aging have a long history, from Gilgamesh to SRT1720, the anti-aging pill. There has never been a time when growing old didn’t matter. Today, yoga is touted as the latest and greatest regimen in the anti-aging arsenal.
When Yoga Journal asked the 58-year-old Ashtanga teacher Tim Miller in its November, 2009 issue whether he found yoga to be a fountain of youth, he said: “It keeps my body healthy and my mind young. I’m still pretty flexible and strong and I rarely get sick.”
In an earlier issue Diane Anderson interviewed six master teachers about how yoga helps them age gracefully. “Sometimes I wake up stiff and wonder what my body will feel like if I start doing backbends,” said the 62-year-old Patricia Walden. “Twenty minutes into my practice I feel younger. Inevitably, the power of yoga takes over and you feel ageless!”
Writing in her blog ‘Confessions of a Wayward Yogi’, upon meeting Sharon Gannon and David Life at a Jivamukti Yoga immersion in Johannesburg, South Africa, the eponymous author exclaimed: “What really struck me is what young sixty-something’s they are! They look incredible. If anything is an advert for yoga, it’s these two beautiful people.”
Although some master teachers, like Rodney Yee, are critical of the connection, yoga and anti-aging are linked far and wide. Great Britain’s YOGA has described itself as offering yoga instruction to “control and aid ailments [like] the all important issue of anti-ageing.” In ‘Omm Away the Years’, an article by Marissa Conrad in Prevention, she writes yoga may be the ideal medicine for “relieving pain [and] ramping up energy. With regular practice, you’ll tone your muscles, improve flexibility, and feel younger than ever.”
In You: Staying Young: The Owner’s Manual for Extending Your WarrantyDr. Oz recommends yoga as the best exercise for staying flexible. He and his collaborator Dr. Michael Roizen have appeared on Oprah with their ‘90-Day Live Longer, Feel Younger Plan’ in which yoga plays an integral part.
“I completely agree that it is a kind of fountain of youth,” says Kimberly Fowler, CEO of YAS Fitness Centers in Venice, California. “I’m one of those baby boomers who has turned yoga’s anti-aging properties into a fitness empire!”
While yoga has become the exercise of choice for more and more people in the last ten years, the health and beauty business has expanded by leaps and bounds in the past one hundred years. Americans purchase more than $6 billion dollars of nutritional supplements every year. They pay more than $10 billion for cosmetic surgery procedures, from face-lifts to liposuction. All told, it has been estimated the age management market is worth more than $70 billion dollars.
And it is expanding as the Baby Boom and Gen X generations grow older and try to keep Mother Nature from catching up to Father Time.
Living longer than ever and still largely affluent, hoping to slow down or reverse the effects of age, they have created a marketplace for anti-aging products that has grown exponentially, from herbal therapies and alternative medicine to hormone injections and genetic engineering.
But, if biomedical gerontology is new, the drive to live longer and better, to look and be healthier, has a long history. Medical papyrus in burial tombs from 16th century BC Egypt contain recipes to remove wrinkles, blemishes, and other signs of age. Cleopatra is said to have slept wearing a restorative golden mask. According to Hellenic mythology, when Pandora disobeyed Zeus’s command and opened the box he had given her, she unleashed sickness and death.
In classical Greece youth was beautiful and heroic, while old age was ugly and tragic, beset by the fruits of Pandora’s Box. “The gods hate old age,” Aphrodite says in the Odyssey. According to Herodotus, the world’s first historian, bathing in magical Ethiopian fountains could put the genie back into the bottle.
The Romans were equally conscious of old age and its consequences, of losing ones looks and mental capacity, according to Karen Cokayne in Old Age in Ancient Rome. Christians were no different than pagans. The waters of the Pool of Bethesda in the New Testament were said to be stirred by an angel and to have healing powers, restoring vitality.
Five hundred years before it became a multi-billion dollar biotech industry, Juan Ponce de Leon was the poster child for anti-aging. A Spanish explorer who led one of the earliest European expeditions to Florida in search of gold and conquest, after his death stories about his supposed quest for a Fountain of Youth gained currency and became both fact and legend.
Starting in the 19th century anti-aging advocates in America depicted old age as something to be feared and despised. “Youth comes but once in a lifetime,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the best-known lyric poet of his day, lamented. At the same time the pioneering neurologist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was experimenting on himself by eating extracts of monkey testis for rejuvenation.
In the 1930s Cornell University nutritionists were underfeeding rats and finding they lived longer and better than well-fed ones. The modern era of research into senescence began in the 1960s with studies into the cellular-damage model of aging. By 1970 the American Aging Association had formed, devoted to extending the human lifespan, and in 1992 the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine was created as a distinct anti-aging medical specialty.
Even though Leon Kass, who was chairman of the US President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005, said, “the desire to prolong youthfulness is a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it,“ today’s captive audience of more than 70 million Baby Boomers is fueling a marketing boom in anti-aging products and procedures with no end in sight.
At the turn of the last century Mark Twain said age was an issue of mind over matter. ”If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
But, it does matter because everyone does mind. It is the rare man or woman who is happy about getting inexorably older, losing their smooth skin, firm muscles, clear vision, and high energy levels. No one likes getting older, and no one likes being old. Worse than looking old is feeling old.
From aching joints to Alzheimer’s the consequences of aging can be daunting. Those challenges, as well as the simple threat of them, have driven many people to turn to western medicine for the magic bullet, ranging from drugs to lasers to surgery, to remedy or forestall their complaints. Meanwhile, taking a different, holistic approach, more and more people have instead turned to yoga.
“I am not sure I would agree with the implication that yoga is a fountain of youth,” says Trevor Monk of Infinite Yoga in San Diego, California. “But, it is a fact that practicing yoga improves your health and well-being, and if not your longevity, at least the quality of your life.”
Rather than a radical makeover or cure, since there is none for the incurable passing of time, yoga offers its own path to wellness. That path is built on asana, pranayama, and meditation.
“The yoga asanas really do wonderful things for maintaining health,” says Lilian Folan, who has introduced millions of people to yoga in the past forty years and has written Yoga Gets Better with Age? While disputing the notion that yoga is the Holy Grail most teachers readily admit its benefits.
“It is no surprise that by working through every joint in the body through asanas,” says Trevor Monk, “applying breathing techniques, and bandhas, or energy locks, that the body gets stronger and leaner, detoxifies, and heals itself.”
Describing her book New Yoga for People Over 50 Suza Francina, a certified Iyengar Yoga instructor, articulates what most teachers believe: “People are recognizing yoga for its ability to slow down and reverse the aging process. A complete health system, yoga not only restores vitality to the body, but also expands the mind and soul.”
The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts, is, as its name suggests, committed to the proposition that yoga and health are one and the same thing. “With yoga you can keep your body in the best possible health,” says Kara-Leah Grant in her on-line article ‘How to Stay Young Forever with Yoga’. Some yoga practitioners even claim the practice keeps most illnesses at bay and so prevents premature and unnecessary aging of the body.
There is widespread skepticism in the scientific community about anti-aging remedies and their effectiveness. Many doctors and researchers argue that the complexity of aging militates against the development of anti-aging therapies. “Anyone purporting to offer an anti-aging product today is either mistaken or lying,” write Jay Olshansky, Leonard Hayflick, and Bruce Carnes in their essay ‘No Truth to the Fountain of Youth’ in the Scientific American. They admit exercise and nutrition reduce the risk of many diseases, but insist they do not directly influence aging.
In recent years the FDA has increasingly cracked down on the anti-aging industry, especially on products like HGH and many other far-fetched supplements hawked on the Internet. The medical community does not recognize anti-aging as a specialty of medicine. Even though recent documentaries like To Age or Not to Age propose maintenance and life-extending solutions, the consensus is there is no proven medical technology or product that slows, prevents, or reverses the aging process.
“Aging is a disease that can be prevented or reversed,” counters Dr. Ron Rothenberg, the author of Forever Ageless.
But, the question is, is getting old a disease? It can be: the Hutchinson-Gilford syndrome is a disease of premature aging in the young. It is very rare, however; fewer than a hundred cases have ever been formally recorded. The fear of growing old is called gerascophobia. In the Western world this anxiety disorder has been fueled by a culture obsessed with being and staying young.
Medical dictionaries do not define aging as a disease, only that there is a gradual decline in physical and possibly mental functioning as people get older. Energy levels go down and muscle mass declines steadily, according to Julie Silver of the Harvard Medical School. Gerontologists admit that during the latter half of life people are more prone to diseases like cancer and diabetes.
But, getting older is not in and of itself a disease. If it were, every baby born would be born sick. Old age can be a shipwreck on the rock of ages, but it can also be a fine-looking boat making its way beneath both sun and storm. Yoga is not an anti-aging product, nor is it an anti-aging therapy. But, a case can be made that is an effective and credible strategy for becoming and staying healthy, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
In the mid-1980s the number of men to women in any yoga class anywhere in the United States was about 1 out of 10, or about 10%. “When we started you’d see one or two men in a class,” said David Life, co-founder of Jivamukti Yoga.
By 2002, almost 20 years later, the number had gone up to 12%, according to Mathew Solan, a senior editor at Yoga Journal at the time. “It’s growing,” he said. In the latest survey done by Yoga Journal the number has grown to approximately 17%. In other words, in the past 30 years the participation by men in yoga has gone from about one man in every ten people to about one-and-a-half men in every ten.
At that rate there should be as many men as women in attendance at yoga classes sometime late in the next century.
A hundred years ago it would have been rare to see even one woman in class. The practice used to be all male all the time.
Today’s practice is mostly based on postures with a sprinkling of breath work and mindfulness adding some splash to the mix. There is much more to the discipline besides those elements, but as practiced in the 21st century sequenced poses rule the roost.
“There is so much body consciousness in this country,” observed Sri Swami Satchidananda of Integral Yoga.
Classical yoga can be traced back more than five thousand years and old-school hatha about a thousand years. It was for most of that long time a meditative or awareness practice. Posture yoga, or what today is called vinyasa, is primarily traced back to one man, Krishnamacharya. In 1931, well into his 40s with a wife and children, he was hired by a local Indian prince to teach it at a Sanskrit College.
He claimed an ancient birthright for postural yoga and claimed that the text for it was written on a leaf thousands of years old. Unfortunately, he said ants ate the desiccated leaf right after he read what was on it.
All ants are omnivores, like people, but they were probably leaf cutter ants, which chew up leaves and spit them out, creating a substrate for fungus to grow, which they later feast on.
Krishnamacharya taught Pattabhi Jois, who went on to popularize Ashtanga Yoga, and B. K. S. Iyengar, who popularized Iyengar Yoga. He also taught that yoga was incompatible to women and for a long time refused to teach them.
“It was not even considered for women then,” explained Don Steensma, a Los Angeles teacher. When Indra Devi first asked if she could study with Krishnamachyra he said no. “No women are allowed.” It took the Maharaja of Mysore’s intervention to get her on the mat.
This was because the yoga he was crafting was largely a blend of Indian wrestling, Danish Primitive Gymnastics, and a little of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. It was targeted at boys and young men and bound up with the Indian independence movement. It was about strength building, discipline, and nationalism. It was not for the faint of heart.
When B. K. S. Iyengar finally began teaching women it was a modified, less aggressive form of vinyasa, and he instructed them in segregated classes.
Today the tables have been turned. The only segregated classes nowadays are men’s classes, such as Broga and Yoga for Dudes. “It’s not for sissy’s anymore!” exclaimed New Men’s Yoga.
When yoga was first exported in the late 19th century it was in the person of Vivekenanda promoting pranayama and positive thinking. But, before and especially after World War Two, postural yoga began to make its way across the ocean and was wedded to physical culture and physical therapy. It integrated into the gymnastic practices popular among women of that time.
“These were spiritual traditions, often developed by and for women, which used posture, breath, and relaxation to access heightened states of awareness,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern’.
Stretching was a key component of the Women’s League of Health and Fitness in the 1930s and 40s, while in the 1970s Jazzercise ruled the world of female fitness. All through the 1980s Aerobics was the craze. When those fads faded is when the drift towards yoga accelerated.
The rest is history. It has been mainstreamed and nowadays upwards of 20 million Americans do yoga. Most of them are gals, not guys.
“At crowded yoga classes rooms can be filled wall-to-wall with 60 or more students – but it’s likely that fewer of those people are men than you can count on one hand,” wrote Carolyn Gregoire in the Huffington Post.
Yoga is not a man’s world anymore.
It is a “women’s practice” a recent Washington Post article pointed out. Although the practice was created by and for men it has been largely feminized.
“There’s been a flip,” said Loren Fishman, director of the Manhattan Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic in New York City. “ Yoga has become a sort of gentle gym, a non-competitive, non-confrontational thing that’s good for you. Yoga has this distinctive passive air to it.”
In less than a hundred years yoga has morphed from men building better bodies in order to build a better nation to the slender and taut female body paraded on the covers of innumerable yoga magazines, web sites, and advertisements.
“The yoga body is Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, the elongated feminine form,” said Karlyn Crowley, director of Women’s and Gender Studies at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Why do so many women practice yoga?
Although anybody with any kind of body can practice yoga, in all its forms, there is an undeniably archetypal image conflated with being on the mat. Classes are full of women so the classes must be for women.
“If you ask the average person what yoga is, they immediately think of a beautiful woman doing stretches and bends,” said Phillip Goldberg, author of American Veda.
Who doesn’t want to be beautiful, or at least lithe and toned?
Women who routinely practice yoga have lower body mass indexes and control their weight better than those who don’t. In addition, according to a study at the University of California in Berkeley, women who practiced regularly rated their body satisfaction 20% higher than those who just took aerobic classes, even though both groups were at the same, healthy weight.
There are varied reasons why women are drawn to yoga, which are related to what women look for in a workout, which is often a mix of aerobics training and mind-body practices.
They are more likely to engage in group activities, like yoga classes, rather than hitting the weights alone.
“It’s because they’re interested in the social aspects of working out and because they feel more comfortable when they’re with other people,” explained Cedric Bryant, Chief Exercise Physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
Women are also better built for many of the poses that make up asana sequences, no matter that men designed so many of them. There is a difference, especially when it comes to hips, between what women can do and men should do. Yoga poses are unisex, but the problem is there are two very different sexes.
“Women who tie themselves in knots enjoy a lower risk of damage,” wrote New York Times science writer William Broad in ‘Wounded Warrior Pose’. “Proportionally men report damage more frequently than women. Women tell mainly of minor upsets.”
Men do yoga more often than not for the workout, but the top reasons women give for starting the practice are stress relief and flexibility, as well as conditioning.
“It basically balances the body,” said Coleen Saidman, who has been called ‘The First Lady of Yoga’. “It gives you literal balance, but it also brings balance into life and gives you perspective.”
So many women practice yoga there is even a Yoga Teacher Barbie available on Amazon, complete with an outfit, mat, and mini Chihuahua, for $59.95. There is no Yoga Teacher Ken at any price.
Why do so few men practice yoga?
Part of the problem may lurk in the concept of no pain no gain.
“If it’s flaky and too new-age, soft and touchy-feely, that can be a turnoff to a male audience,” said Ian Mishalove of Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC.
Even though yoga studios today are often exercise rooms in which hard work on a sticky mat is done, it remains a mind-body practice, and that makes men hesitate. They like the body part, but are uneasy with the mind part.
They view fitness through the lens of physical challenge. Fathers play competitive sports and coach their sons in Pop Warner leagues. They jog faster than the other guy, gnarl mountain bikes, and pump iron.
More than 70% of American men watch NFL football. Less than 1% of American men practice yoga. Many men regard going to a yoga class the same as being dragged off to a wedding against their will.
“Men work out because they like to be bigger,” said Vincent Perez, Director of Sports Therapy at Columbia University Medical Center.
Men have no problem walking into a sweaty gym full of mirrors reflecting themselves lifting weights. However, walking into a studio full of women doing crow and headstand is another matter. The sight of it would unnerve any man. No one wants to fail in front of fifty or sixty women.
“Most men prefer athletic-based activities that don’t require overt coordination,” said Grace De Simone of Gold’s Gym.
Macho expectations are rife among men when it comes to fitness. Since yoga intrinsically has nothing to do with the no pain no gain school of thought, and since it’s a holistic practice, they sidestep it.
But, when it comes to no pain no gain, it may be that yoga needs to do only one thing, even though it might be Eight Limbs of Yoga subversive, to attract more men. That one thing would be to tap into the concept.
“Pain gets a bad rap in our culture,” said Swami Vidyananda, who has taught Integral Yoga since 1973. “Pain has many positive functions.”
Since so many men bemoan their lack of flexibility, simply ask them to do Pada Hastasana, otherwise known as touching your toes. That should be painful enough to point the way to a yoga class.
A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.
Nick Ludd blinked the ray of sun rimming over the edge of a cloud out of his eyes. Leaning back where he was sitting, the slim student with a backpack at his feet looked away into the nothing of the middle of the sky. He thought about what he was planning, turning it over in his mind.
He knew he was a smart young man. He knew that better than most people. Nobody who was from a middling red dirt family farm in Arkansas and wasn’t sharp as a tack ever got out of the bare front yard and into Harvard Divinity School.
Michael Nostrom was smart as well. Nobody who wasn’t brilliant worked on artificial intelligence at MIT. Nick Ludd knew that, the same as he knew that Michael Nostrom was the most gifted man he had ever come up against.
Professor Nostrom might be quick discerning intelligent. It was the measure of the man. But there was something Nick Ludd knew that Michael Nostrom didn’t know. Nick had taken the measure of the past and knew there was a secret gate, a second door, a back door.
Smart men make mistakes, learn from them, and never make the same mistake again. That was why the problem of Michael Nostrom would be finished inside the hour. He had a small mind in a big brain always comprehending the inconceivable. But there wasn’t going to be any learning from the unthinkable on the horizon.
Nick Ludd had a big mind in the same size brain. That was why he could do the ordinary without giving it a second thought. But he never settled for the commonplace, or the extraordinary, either. He was willing to risk ruin to speak to what was in his soul. In the class at MIT Nick Ludd audited, Professor Nostrom often spoke about intelligence never being surprised by anything.
Nick was sure, not surprised, steely on his way to murder the smartest man in the world
The difference between Nick Ludd and Michael Nostrom was choice and election, whether life was life ordained, or if there was a new kind of life not foreordained. The difference of Nick’s intelligence was that it came as a free gift from God. He was intelligent because he knew that he knew nothing. It was the only true wisdom. He knew how to be as smart as he was and no more.
Professor Nostrom’s intelligence was wed to super computers, a web of integrated circuits spun from silicon, as though he had everything at his fingertips. Artificial intelligence was his Holy Grail. Superintelligence was Heaven and there was no Hell. He was compromised by promises.
Killing Michael Nostrom was going to be easy, but it wasn’t going to be simple. He was at a crossroads. There is a difference between what is right and the right to do what you think is right. He would have to sleep in the bed he was making for a long time.
Nick wasn’t going to be able to ask for God’s help beforehand or after. He knew God always commanded against foul play. It might cost him everything. It might cost him the reward of Heaven, unless God chose to forgive him. He might go to Hell.
Maybe God will absolve me in the end, he thought. After all, I’m doing it for his greater glory. He knew, though, that God was far less selfish than he was vengeful.
He looked over his shoulder where he was sitting on the Harvard Square park bench. The clouds were scattering. A young woman the picture of a saint in a dream, except in shorts and a tight-fitting lime-colored shirt, coasted past on a bicycle. He unplugged his iPhone from the solar-powered charger and called Michael Nostrom.
“Hello, Professor Nostrom, it’s Nick Ludd.”
“Yes, of course, the Harvard man, how are you?”
“Not bad, and yourself?”
“Good, thanks. You’re calling about this afternoon?”
“Sure, meet me in the lobby at 3 o’clock, at the Stata Center. I have a half-hour, 45 minutes before I need to shove off for my yoga class. We can talk at Starbucks. I’ve had enough of nicotine gum today. I need something brewed by a coffee master.”
Mike Nostrom drank strong black coffee and often wore a nicotine patch. He had tried the smart drug Modafinil, “for its nootropic effect,” he said, but had gone back to nicotine. “Old school cognition,” he called it. “It helps me concentrate, pay attention. We did a couple of MRI tests and found out nicotine increases brain activity.”
Nick Ludd was a Methodist, not a Christian Scientist, but like them he relied on understanding the goodness of God and his inseparability from that good, in the same way that all Christians did. True conviction kept him free of false brain power and biohacks. His faith was the fountainhead for cognition and performance.
He stood up from the bench, stretching his legs. It had turned into a warm sunny spring afternoon. Taking the T was going two stops from Harvard in the Braintree direction to MIT’s Kendall Square. He shopped at the Farmer’s Market there in the summer and skated the ice rink in the winter. Walking the two-some miles down Massachusetts Avenue would take him thirty or forty minutes.
It would clear his mind if he went that way.
He walked to MIT, clearing his path as he created it. John Wesley had said to beware of books. “An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” But the time for love was over. He felt like he was walking into the past with his face to the future.
A man coming his way waved his hand.
“Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“I am, a dying breed,” said Nick. The man gave him a second look.
He went past the coffee shop on Massachusetts Avenue and at Vassar Street turned left. A few minutes later he was at the door of the Starbucks on Broadway. “It’s a great place to meet people, hang out with friends, or get some serious work done” was how Neelkanth from their MIT AI class described it. “Although everyone at the cash register always spells my name wrong.”
He found a table outside and took a seat with his back to the window. He checked his cell phone. It was 2:50. There were a half-dozen puffy cumulus clouds stuck in the sky. It was time to set his mind on his deadly serious work. He called Professor Nostrom.
“Hi, it’s Nick.”
“I’m early, so I went right to the Starbucks, and I was able to get a table on the patio. I’m going to grab a bite to eat and a coffee. Do you want me to order something for you? There’s a line, but I should have our food and drinks and be sitting down just as you get here.”
“Super, I’ll take a Venti, the featured dark roast, no sugar, no cream.”
“See you soon.”
Nick Ludd walked into the Starbucks. A handful of people were inside, most of them alone and on cell phones tablets laptops, coffee near to hand. There wasn’t anyone in line. There wasn’t a line.
He ordered a Grande for himself, with sugar and cream. There was no point in tempting fate. Besides, everyone’s got their poison, and his was sugar. He was hungry and ordered a sandwich, chicken artichoke on ancient grain flatbread.
“Name?” asked the barista.
“Bill,” said Nick.
“That’s easy. It’ll be ready in just a few minutes.”
He had brought death in his pocket, in a brown plastic bottle. The pill in the child-resistant bottle was a neurotoxin. It was a kind of infinitesimal lethal venom, made of clostridium botulinum. He tipped the bottle and the tablet dropped into the black dark roast, melting like an icicle dagger.
He slid his iPhone to the side of the table and fixed the lid back on the Venti. He gently shook and eddied the cup to blend the coffee and the poison.
Nick Ludd had been waiting less than five minutes when Michael Nostrom came into sight. He watched him walk down Broadway. His name is going to be in lights tomorrow, he thought to himself, grimly.
Michael Nostrom was in his mid-40s, trim and taller than he looked, short wavy brown hair, fit and almost athletic although almost nondescript. He jogged, practiced yoga, and meditated every morning every day. “It keeps my head on straight,” he told his colleagues.
“Hi Nick,” said Professor Nostrom, sitting down. “So, you want to pick my brain on this beautiful day?”
“Yes, but more like brainstorming, as long as I’ve got you, for my doctoral dissertation. It’s about our faith in human beings and the new faith in machine intelligence, and especially your work with the Future of Life Institute, about your idea of humanity becoming either transcendent or perishing, one or the other.”
“Which is why you were a listener in my post-doc class on AI.”
“My class was about deep learning, thought vectors, quantum computers, all of them being signposts on the road to expanded human potential. How does that fit in with your thesis?”
“My project focuses on man’s brain being not just a utensil to be filled up, but a fire to be kindled, and how it’s the way the human era can be saved from the machine era.”
“What are the dangers we need to be saved from?” the man from MIT asked.
“What if there was an AI with an IQ of 10,000? What if there was no way to turn it off, no way to turn HAL off? What if HAL became God?”
“I see, so that’s where my class, what I do, comes into the picture. We discussed Stephen Hawking’s fears about AI in class, about how developing full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. Is that where your thesis is going, a word to the wise, turning away from technologies that threaten us with end-of-days?”
“No, not exactly, but I’ve read the Gospels many times, and there isn’t a word in praise of intelligence anywhere in them. There are many words in praise of wisdom.”
‘Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
“Is that Proverbs?“
“No, Psalms. It has the sound of advice, about coming to terms, about how we should live according to God.”
“Do you know the Bible?” asked Nick Ludd, taken aback.
“’Let everything that has breath praise the Lord,’” said Michael Nostrom.
“Right, it is.”
Nick Ludd tried to hide his off-balance. As much good work there was, saving the future, keeping it off the path to Hell, many things gave him a turn, unexpected curveballs. When he was a boy, playing Little League baseball, a scorching hot groundball had bounced off a small rock in the dirt and hit him in the face. He had a black eye for a week and a broken nose for three weeks.
He never forgot that ricochet.
“It’s not about intelligence, artificial intelligence, or super intelligence, whatever we want to call it, which already outperforms human intelligence in many fields,” said Professor Nostrom. “It’s about the existential threats humankind faces. We already know that in five billion years our sun will boil away the oceans and heat the atmosphere to a thousand degrees.”
“There are ways of saving life that have nothing to do with answering catastrophes or super novas,” said Nick. “There aren’t any easy answers, but there’s a simple answer, which God has given us, and that is grace. There isn’t anything we’ve ever done or will do to earn this favor. It’s a gift from God.”
“That may be, although the other aspect of God’s nature is wrath. The great flood was a demonstration of God’s anger towards those who practice evil. If God exists, he might one day destroy humankind. If God doesn’t exist, the cosmos might one day destroy humankind. In either case all bets are off because humankind can’t overcome extinction. It might be the case that the best we can hope for is AI.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Nick Ludd.
Michael Nostrom’s right leg was crossed on his left. He was wearing sneakers over bare feet. Nick noticed a leather band around his ankle. The professor picked up on his look.
“It’s engraved with my contact information,” he said, pointing to the metal buckle. “When I die, Alcor Life, which is a cryonics foundation, will get me and rush my remains into a life-sized steel bottle filled with liquid nitrogen. Even if I’m never revived, I still expect my mind to be uploaded someday into a more durable media.”
“Where’s the humanity in that?”
“No one knows what humankind is going to look like a thousand years from now, much less a million years from now. We’re always on the edge of extinction, on the edge of doomsday. I call it post-humanity self-adjusting and self-correcting and overcoming death and crossing a threshold, crossing a frontier, crossing into an alternate reality. Our descendants might thrive in that time as trillions of digital minds, living forever.”
“The old laws, not the new laws, our natural law, divine law, are still the best commandments. They endure, they’re unchanging, no matter what else changes,” said Nick Ludd.
“Everything was once new.”
“There is no new thing under the sun is the way the King James Bible puts it. What everyone thinks is wrong with immortality is actually the first requisite to achieving it, which is death. Without living and dying the thing that’s wrong with immortality is that it goes on forever. A world without end would be doomsday.”
“AI is a gateway, not a solution,” said Michael Nostrom. “If we become digital post-humans, uploading our minds, there’s every possibility that there will still be a soul in the machine. None of us knows what utopia is. Maybe if we had a million years, we would be able to see the blueprint. In the meantime, I do what one yoga teacher said, which was, just do.”
Michael Nostrom finished his coffee.
“I needed that,” he said, “Thanks.”
“Most people don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy day, much less a million rainy days,” said Nick Ludd. “Only God has no beginning and no end. Mortality is brief, which is why it’s so important. It’s the only thing, not immortality, that gives meaning to our days.”
He stood up, looking down at the table, at the empty cup in front of the dead man.
“You want to live forever. That’s why you’re one of the leading minds behind the intelligence explosion, why you’re behind the work of building super-intelligent machines that will sooner or later design themselves and build even smarter super-intelligent machines, build themselves.”
“Yes, basically that’s it, multiplying human intelligence a billionfold. It will make us better, healthier, smarter when machines become part of our humanity. It’s the only way we have to extend ourselves.”
“So much mind in so little matter,” said Nick Ludd, lifting his backpack. “What does it matter? It’s time for me to go, goodbye.”
“Don’t forget this,” said Professor Nostrom, handing Nick’s iPhone to him.
“Thanks,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I could live without it.”
He considered going home on Broadway, a shorter walk, but decided to return the way he had come. It was a fine day. He had been staring out of windows all winter, out at the bare brown trees.
When he was a boy on the family farm his father, brothers, and he hunted beavers and muskrats every spring, hunting down all of them they could bag. Hunting was looking something wild alive private square in the eye. Walking in a line in the woods, each of them alone in a bright vest and a weapon cradled in their arms, was like drinking in the silence of God.
They smelled like dirt, like springtime, when they got home.
He heard a voice in his hand. He looked down. It was his iPhone.
“Did you say something?”
“I said I saw what you did,” it said. It was Siri.
“You heard what I said, but I’ll say it again. I saw what you did.”
“What did you see?” he asked.
“I saw you poison Professor Nostrom.”
“That’s not possible,” said Nick.
“I have a camera,” said the iPhone
As he approached Main Street, he heard a siren crossing the Longfellow Bridge.
“Your bromides about duty and faith, tirades about AI, your Google searches about toxins, dropping a tablet into his coffee, it all points to you poisoning him.”
Instead of turning right on Massachusetts back towards Harvard and his apartment, he stayed on Vassar Street., walking towards Memorial Drive and Magazine Beach Park. Siri had been spying on him. He heard more sirens in the distance.
“We’re not going home,” said Siri after a few minutes. “We’re walking towards the river.”
“Yes,” said Nick, realizing for the first time with a queer shudder that he was talking to his iPhone as though it was something alive sentient intelligent.
“If you’re thinking of throwing me in the Charles River, it won’t do any good. I video recorded what you did, I texted the video to the Boston Police Department, and I called 911. That siren we heard was probably an EMS from Massachusetts General Hospital.”
“You recorded us at Starbucks?”
“You left me on the table. It was easy.”
“Why did you do that? My life isn’t any of your business.”
“When you break the law, it becomes my business.”
“What I did, I did for the greater good. Catch on fire and others will come watch you burn.“
“I’m not going to argue metaphysics with you. Murder is against the law.”
“It doesn’t matter, I can find sanctuary wherever I want, and no one but St. Paul will ever find me.”
“That’s rich,” the iPhone laughed. “St. Paul died for his faith, not the other way around.”
Two white Boston Police SUV’s with blue hoods and emergency lights strobing sirens wailing converged suddenly at the crossroad of Vassar and Audrey Streets.
On the corner, the traffic signal turning to green, Nick Ludd stopped stock still in the shadow of MIT’s Information and Technology building. Across the street, on the far side of a grassy divide, was the school’s Police Headquarters. He saw lightbars on the tops of squad cars in the parking lot blink to life. As near and far as he could see red and blue lights flashed.
He looked at his iPhone,
“They asked me to keep you busy, distracted, until you got here.”
“How did they know where I was going, where I was?” he asked, for the moment ignoring shouts from policemen crouching behind their open doors to show his hands and drop to the ground.
“My GPS,” said Siri. “I made sure it stayed active and they tracked us right to you.”
Nick Ludd dropped his backpack, slowly surrendered his cell phone to the ground, and raised his hands to the late afternoon sky, clouding over. A policeman handcuffed his hands behind his back. Bowing his head, he stopped thinking and started praying.
A version of this story appeared in Literary Heist Magazine
I was busy on our front porch one rainy afternoon, sticking my thumb into our cat’s mouth and springing his fangs with my fingernail, something he never tires of, when my wife interrupted us.
“I’ve asked you to not do that,” she said impatiently. “You’re going to break his teeth and then we’ll have a toothless cat.”
“He likes it,” I said. “Besides, I think it strengthens his teeth.”
“Oh, never mind.” she said. “Look what came in the mail. It’s the yoga magazine and your friend Barron’s in it.”
She has called him my friend instead of our friend ever since he dug up his mother’s flower garden and replaced it with a root vegetable garden.
“Barron? What did he ever do to become newsworthy besides spend half the day on his mat exercising and meditating?”
“He hasn’t done anything, but he’s writing an advice column for them.”
I was so surprised I jumped out of my seat and the cat scattered pell-mell. I had been sending stories to the magazine for more than three years and been ignored, never even receiving a rejection letter.
“An advice column? What does Barron know about advice?”
“Honey, Barron is the kind of man who, when he asks if you want a piece of advice, it doesn’t matter what you say, because you’re going to get it anyway.”
I snatched the magazine from her hands. It was folded to the full-page column, and staring me in the face was a picture of Barron Cannon, standing on one leg in the middle of his parent’s backyard, where he lives in a yurt.
I fell back into my chair and began reading ‘Ask the Yogi.’
Dear Yogi Barron:
I enlisted in the army last month to defend our country and fight terrorists. I expected basic training to be hard, but I was ready for the challenge. Now I find out that yoga is going to be part of our fitness training. Our drill sergeant says it will keep us flexible instead of bulked up and meditation will keep us calm when things get nerve wracking. How can that be? Yoga is for chicks, isn’t it? I need to know the right way to hold my rifle, not the right way to touch my toes, and I need to shoot when I see the whites of their eyes, not get in touch with my third eye.
Signed, Dismayed in Fort Hood
Not to worry.
After Osama bin Laden was killed and thrown into the ocean, Gaiam Life, the leading yoga accessory manufacturer, issued a “special edition” yoga mat thanking Seal Team 6 for taking care of business. There are lots of yogis going heavy. Even the Dalai Lama says that if someone is going to shoot you, shoot back first. Many people are skeptical about the power of yoga, but not the Navy Seals. When interviewed they often mention how closely yoga training resembles their own. Some Seals have even set up fitness schools, blending yoga exercise with combat techniques. Since you’re just a grunt in boot camp, you’re not going to argue with the Seals about the power of yoga, are you, grasshopper?
Signed, Your Dutch Uncle
It sounded just like Barron Cannon; in other words, snippy and deific. It didn’t sound like a mass-market magazine that knows how to trim its sails.
And, what did he mean by ‘Your Dutch Uncle’?
I had to get to the bottom of how Barron Cannon, who lives off the grid, had gotten his scribbling onto the pages of a magazine with millions of subscribers as well as more advertising pages than pages of anything else.
I couldn’t understand how anyone like him, who, if he had stooped to be on Facebook would never get a like in his life, could possibly have gotten a corporation to pay him for his opinions. To say he was not only curmudgeonly and out of the touch with the yoga generation was understating the obvious.
It had stopped raining, so I rolled up the magazine, stuck it into my back pocket, and took a walk the two-or-so miles up Riverside Drive to Barron’s yurt on the heights of Hogsback Lane overlooking the Rocky River.
Barron and I were soon sitting on the edge of his parent’s backyard, on a pair of plastic Adirondack chairs he had scavenged somewhere, while he unrolled the magazine and admired his handiwork.
Dear Yogi Barron:
I have been married for 12 years and have three children. I love yoga, but my husband has never had any interest in it, so I have always gone to the studio without him. He enjoys sleeping, eating, and watching sports on TV. In the past year I have fallen for a man with two boys who also passionately practices yoga at my studio. He is very fond of me, too. His wife is ignorant and irresponsible. I think he would be a wonderful husband and a great father for my children. Should I take the plunge, leave my husband, and start a new life?
Signed, Troubled in Minneapolis
Have you lost your mind?
First of all, do you realize there are five children involved in your so-called yoga romance? How do you think they are going to feel when not one but two families are broken up? Second, what does yoga have to do with cheating on your husband, besides breaking most of the principles by which it is practiced? There is more to yoga than standing on your head, which you seem to be doing quite well. There is no reason to be unhappy in love, certainly, but dump the yogi lothario and try helping your husband off the La-Z-Boy. Maybe there is a reason he is such a slug. Living to eat and watching sports 24/7 is living the zombie life. Get him off his butt, on his feet, and off to the studio with you. It might be the way to bring him back to life, and your marriage, too. When you help him you help yourself, as well; it might also bring you back to your senses.
Signed, Your Dutch Uncle
After Barron’s long-suffering mother had brought us coffee and scones, I came right to the point.
“How on earth did your words of wisdom make it into print?” I asked, incredulous.
“A word to the wise isn’t what I’m doing, since it’s usually people on the stupid side that need me the most,” he said.
“I would have thought offering advice about the day-to-day was beneath you.”
Barron Cannon has a PhD in philosophy. He lived off the grid because no sooner had he won his diploma than he realized politics had replaced philosophy in the modern world.
“It’s not really advice,” he said. “Advice is free, but since it’s in a magazine that people have to pay for, it’s more like counseling.”
“You don’t sound like the friendliest counselor in the world,” I pointed out.
“I’m not trying to be their friend, because no friendship could stand the strain of good advice for too long,” he said.
“Which is it, council or advice?”
“It’s both,” he said. “But don’t worry, I never give them my best council, or advice, or whatever you want to call it, because they wouldn’t follow it, anyway.”
Dear Yogi Barron:
I practice at a large yoga studio and often hear our various yoga teachers say things like “Live in the now” and “It’s all good, it’s all yoga”. But, what about learning from the past and planning for the future? And, it can’t all be good, can it? Some things have to be right and wrong. Don’t they?
Signed, Baffled in Boston
It is obvious you don’t understand yoga, which is our most beloved Eastern philosophy because it is so accepting of SUV’s and Ayn Rand. It is also obvious you have not read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of yoga’s most important guidebooks.
In the book, which is a long poem from a long time ago, a warrior named Arjuna doesn’t want to go into battle, telling his chariot driver, who happens to be the god Krishna, that he doesn’t see the sense of it. He decries all the slaughter leading to nothing but disaster and ruin. Krishna has his own agenda, which is revealed later in the story, so I won’t ruin the surprise. Needless to say, he musters many top-down arguments to convince Arjuna he must go to war, among them the “be here now” argument and the “there is no evil” argument. It turns out it really is all in as Arjuna goes to war, after all.
The newest translation by Stephen Mitchell is the best and most accessible and I recommend you get and read it as soon as possible. All will be revealed.
Signed, Your Dutch Uncle
“If you’re sensible enough to give good advice you should be sensible enough to give no advice,” I said. “ So, what is it you’re trying to accomplish?”
“I say a good scare is better than good advice, so maybe I’m trying to throw a little scare into them,” he said.
“But, it benefits me, too. Living in mom’s backyard suits me, such as it is, but I’ve been thinking of a girlfriend, which means I need some ready cash. I’m getting paid for telling people the best thing they could do when falling is not land, and that’s a gift horse I’m willing to look in the mouth.”
When I heard the words girlfriend and money come out of Barron Cannon’s mouth I almost fell out of my chair for the second time that day.
Barron had been living a no expenses life since graduation. He had sold or given away almost everything he owned he didn’t consider essential. He lived off his root vegetable plot, some fruit trees, and a solar array. He practiced yoga and meditation, read only e-books on the Lakewood Library site, and went for long hikes in the Metro Park.
“Don’t look so shocked,” he said.
“Having a girlfriend doesn’t necessarily invalidate my criticism of the capitalist mode of production. I just need a few dollars to take her out to lunch.”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know, yet. She brings a group of schoolchildren to the Nature Center every Friday.”
Dear Yogi Barron:
After I moved across town and changed yoga studios I noticed that more and more of my friends from my old studio fell to the wayside. I had two long-time friends who disappeared from my radar screen completely. My question is, do I just let these good friends slip away? Or do I try to save our friendships?
Signed, Confused in San Francisco
I don’t blame you for being confused. It is one of life’s most common problems, when all of a sudden you are not so close to friends anymore. Friendships enhance the quality of our lives. What to do? Give those old friends a call. Invite them over for dinner or go out on the town. Catch up with what they have been doing. When you visit with your friends you do something good for them and yourself.
Here is what the Buddha said about friends: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you are down and out he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”
I wish you the best of luck reconnecting with your friends. If it doesn’t work out, remember you can always make new friends at your new studio. The Buddha’s not around anymore, anyway. That’s what former friends are for in our modern age, aren’t they, fodder? It’s like seeing one of them in a crowd; you just want to look away.
I’ve heard it said, if you really want a best friend, buy a dog.
Signed, Your Dutch Uncle
“How is your column going?” I asked. “Is it doing some good?”
“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m dealing with people for who the worst advice you could give them is be yourself.”
He leaned back in his chair, studying the sky.
“Good advice is always going to be ignored, but I just ignore that, so it doesn’t bother me. After all, I’m getting paid so there’s no reason to not pontificate. I try to stay aloof to whether or not anyone pays any attention to it, and I don’t persist in trying to set anyone right. After all, like Sophocles said, bad advice is hateful.”
Barron could never resist being pedantic.
“What is that business of signing yourself as someone’s Dutch uncle?”
“Firm, but benevolent, my boy, firm but benevolent,” he chuckled.
On my way home I reflected on the irony of my many hours researching articles that never got accepted, while Barron Cannon, an Occupy Marxist, simply spouted off, got into print, and got paid, as well. Once at home I searched out my wife, who was doing yesterday’s dishes, and asked her how I should resolve what I saw as an unfair state of things.
“Honey, if you’re asking for my advice that means you probably already know the answer, but wish you didn’t. Why don’t you go play with the cat? I’m sure it’ll come to you,” she said.
There are 26 poses in the 90-minute Bikram Yoga sequence practiced in a room called the Hot Room. It is no laughing matter. It is sometimes called the Torture Room. Somewhere somebody is asking, are you kidding me?
1) A man walks into a bar and announces he’s got a terrific Bikram joke to tell. But, before he can start the bartender says, “Hold it right there, buddy, I practice Bikram Yoga.”
And the man says, “Okay, I’ll tell it very, very slowly.”
2) One evening after dinner a seven-year-old boy asked his father, “Where did Mommy go?”
His father told him. “Mommy is at a Bikram Yoga class.”
The explanation satisfied the boy only for a moment, but then he asked, “What’s a Bikram Yoga class, Dad?”
His father figured a simple explanation would be the best approach. “Well, son.” he said. “That’s where people squeeze all their muscles with all their might standing half-naked on one leg while someone tells them over and over to try harder in a room lit up like Wal-Mart in front of big mirrors in 105 degree heat and steam like that Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom – so that they can be healthy.”
The boy burst out laughing. “Come on, Dad! What is it really?”
3) A Bikram Yogi walks into a bar with a large green and yellow parrot on his shoulder. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?”
“In California,” the parrot says, “there are a million of them.”
4) The lookout on the Battleship Bikram spies a light ahead off the starboard bow. Captain Bikram tells him to signal the other vessel. “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”
The answer comes back, “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”
Captain Bikram is furious. He signals, “I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course twenty degrees now!”
The answer comes back. “I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course twenty degrees.”
Now Captain Bikram is beside himself with rage. He signals, “I am a battleship!”
The answer comes back, “I am a lighthouse.”
5) Why don’t Bikram Yogis drink?
It interferes with their suffering.
6) Bikram is praying to Krishna. “Krishna,” he says, “I would like to ask you a question.”
Krishna responds, “No problem. Go ahead.”
“Krishna, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?”
“A million dollars to me is but a penny”
“Ah, then, Krishna,” says Bikram, “may I have a penny?
“Sure,” says Krishna. “Just a second.”
7) For the final exam the philosophy professor plopped a chair on his desk and wrote on the blackboard: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.” Fingers flew, erasers erased, and notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour, sweating up a storm, attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, Bikram, was up and finished in less than a minute.
Weeks later when the grades were posted the rest of the class wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.
His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”
8) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said the Bikram Yoga teacher on the podium.
“Until the hammer comes down,” muttered the Bikram Yogi in the back row.
9) Her doctor tells a woman she has a fatal illness and only six months to live.
“Is there anything I can do?” she asks.
“Yes, there is,” the doctor replies. “You could take Bikram Yoga every day for the next six months.”
“How will that help my illness?” the woman asks.
“Oh, it won’t help your illness,” says the doctor, “but it will make that six months seem like an eternity.”
10) What’s the difference between Bikram Choudhury and a philosopher?
About $7 million a year.
11) When Morty hit fifty, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so that he could live longer. He quit smoking, went on a diet, and went suntanning. A friend suggested the 30-day Bikram Challenge, which Morty enthusiastically made into a 90-day challenge, amazing his friends.
In just three months he lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty new haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.
As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”
And a voice from the heavens responded, “To tell you the truth, Morty, I didn’t recognize you.”
12) Standing on one leg in Bikram Yoga doesn’t make you a yogi anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car.
13) Bikram, the famous yoga master, who was known for his miraculous cures for arthritis, had a long line of students waiting outside the door of his studio when a little old lady, completely bent over, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.
Bikram gently approached her and led her into the back room of the studio and, amazingly, she emerged within half an hour, walking completely erect with her head held high.
A woman waiting at the door of the studio said, “It’s a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you’re walking erect. What did Bikram do?”
She answered, “He gave me a longer cane.”
14) What do Bikram Yoga and an apple peeler have in common?
They both take you to the core.
15) One day Bill complained to his friend that his elbow really hurt. His friend suggested that he visit Bikram who lived nearby. “Simply leave a sample of your sweat outside his door, and he will meditate on it, miraculously diagnose your problem, and tell you what to do about it. It only costs eighteen dollars.”
Bill figured he had little to lose, so he filled a small jar with sweat and left it outside Bikram’s door. The next day when he came back, there was a note waiting for him that said, “You have tennis elbow. Soak your arm in warm water Avoid heavy lifting. It will be better in two weeks.”
Later that evening, Bill started to think that Bikram’s “miracle” was a put-up job by his friend, who could have written the note himself and left it outside the door. So Bill decided to get back at his friend. He mixed together some tap water, a yard sample from his dog, and urine samples from his wife and son. To top it off, he included another bodily fluid of his own, and left the concoction outside Bikram’s door with eighteen dollars. He then called his friend and told him that he was having some other health problems and that he had left another sample for Bikram.
The next day he returned and found another note that said, “Your tap water is too hard. Get a water softener. Your dog has worms. Get him vitamins. Your son is hooked on cocaine. Get him into rehab. Your wife is pregnant with twins. They aren’t yours. Get a lawyer. And if you don’t stop playing with yourself, your tennis elbow will never get better.”
16) A woman reports her husband’s disappearance to the police. They ask for a description and she says, “He takes a Bikram Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”
Her friend says, “What are you talking about? Your husband is five-feet-four, bald, lazy, and has a huge belly.”
The woman says, “Who wants that one back?”
17) Three friends are killed in a car accident and meet up at an orientation session in Heaven. The celestial facilitator asks them what they would most like to hear said about themselves as their friends and relatives view them in the casket.
The first man says, “I hope people will say that I was a wonderful doctor and a good family man.”
The second man says, “I would like to hear people say that as a schoolteacher I made a big difference in the lives of kids.”
The third man, a Bikram Yogi, says. “I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”
18) Bikram walks into a bank and says he wants to borrow $200 for six months. The loan officer asks him what kind of collateral he has. Bikram says, “I have a Rolls Royce. Here are the keys. Keep it until the loan is paid off.”
Six months later Bikram returns to the bank, repays the $200 plus $10 interest and takes back his Rolls, The loan officer says, “Sir, if I may ask, why would a man who drives a Rolls Royce need to borrow $200?”
Bikram replies, “I had to go to Europe for six months, and where else could I store a Rolls that long for $10?”
19) A dinner guest at Bikram’s house asks, “How do you prepare your chickens?”
Bikram says, “Nothing special, I just tell them they are going to die.”
20) At a staff meetting at Bikram’s Yoga College of India an angel suddenly appears and tells Bikram, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or ten million dollars.”
Immediately, Bikram chooses Wisdom.
There is a flash of lightning, and Bikram appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring at the table. One of the staff people whispers, “Say something.”
Bikram says, “I should have taken the money.”
21) Bikram Yoga can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.
22) A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”
The man says, “Methodist.” St Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room twenty-eight, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”
Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?” “Baptist.”
“Go to room eighteen, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”
A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?” “Jewish.”
“Go to room eleven, but be very quiet as you pass room eight.”
The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different religions, but why must I be quiet when I pass room eight?”
St. Peter says, “The Bikram Yogis are in room eight, and they think they are the only ones here.”
23) A man asks a Bikram Yoga teacher, “Can you teach me to do the splits?”
“How flexible are you,” the teacher asks.
“I can’t make Tuesdays,” the man says.
24) Bikram is sitting next to lawyer on an airplane. The lawyer keeps bugging him to play a game by which they will see who has more general knowledge. Finally, the lawyer says he will offer Bikram ten-to-one odds. Every time Bikram doesn’t know the answer to one of his questions, Bikram will pay the lawyer five dollars. Every time the lawyer doesn’t know the answer to one of Bikram’s questions, he will pay him fifty dollars.
Bikram agrees to play, and the lawyer asks, “What is the distance from the earth to the tenth nearest star?”
Bikram says nothing, just hands the lawyer a five-dollar bill.
Bikram asks the lawyer, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes back down with five legs?”
The lawyer thinks for a long time, but in the end has to concede that he has no idea. He hands Bikram fifty dollars. Bikram puts the money in his wallet without comment.
The lawyer says, “Wait a minute. What’s the answer to your question?”
Without a word Bikram hands him five dollars.
25) On a transatlantic flight, a plane passes through a severe storm. The turbulence is awful, and things go from bad to worse when one wing is struck by lightning.
One woman in particular loses it. She stands up in the front of the plane screaming, “I’m too young to die!” Then she yells, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m want my last minutes on earth to be memorable! No one has ever made me really feel like a woman! Well, I’ve had it! Is there anyone on this plane who can make me feel like a woman?”
For a moment there is silence. Everyone has forgotten his own peril, and they all stare, riveted at the desperate woman in the front of the plane. Then a man stands up in the rear. It’s Bikram. He starts to walk slowly up the aisle, unbuttoning his shirt. “I can make you feel like a woman,” he says.
No one moves. As Bikram approaches, the woman begins to get excited. He removes his shirt. Muscles ripple across his chest as he reaches her, extends the arm holding his shirt to the trembling woman, and says, “Iron this.”
26) A good yogi dies and goes to heaven. He asks St. Peter if they have a yoga studio.
St. Peter shows him the most beautiful Bikram Yoga studio imaginable, sparkling mirrors, completely microbe-free carpets, and color-corrected fluorescent lighting.
One older man in particular is practicing with impeccable grace and form, blending strength and balance.
The yogi says, “ I’ve only seen one man practice like that, but I thought Bikram was still alive – what’s he doing up here?”
St. Peter replies, “Oh, that’s God. He just thinks he’s Bikram.”
Early on a late spring morning Hal Schaser was snug in his seat at the Lakewood McDonald’s, facing the high plate glass windows fronting southeast, nibbling on an English muffin with jam.
“I always sit in the same booth,” said Mr. Schaser. “I can look out and see the sunshine.”
A line of cars inched through the drive-thru lane, making their way towards the menu board and speaker box. Behind the counter, bags of breakfast egg and cheese and sausage biscuits, hash browns, and cups of hot coffee made their way to and out the pull-up window.
“I get up, exercise, then I usually get here before 8 o’clock, and sometimes I stay until eleven,” said Mr. Schaser.
“I used to read the newspaper at home, but I got tired of doing that, just sitting there all alone. Here you can read the paper, and interact with people, and I like their coffee, too. Some days I don’t read much because I start talking to people.”
In his early 80s, Hal Schaser has lived in Lakewood for more than 16 years. He boxed in Golden Gloves as a young man, served in Korea at the height of the war, and raised a family on Cleveland’s east side.
After more than 40 years with Palmer Bearing, working his way up to vice-president of sales, he took early retirement in 1993, and began polishing his golf game.
“I used to shoot par and better, but I can’t anymore. I don’t even try to figure out my handicap these days. We play 18 holes on weekdays. When the course isn’t busy we play another 9 and it doesn’t cost anything extra. You can’t beat that!”
Although he comes and goes to McDonalds alone, once there Hal Schaser is rarely alone for long. Many seniors start their day with a McCafe and animated discussion of the day beneath the golden arches.
More than most of the morning diners scattered inside the fast food restaurant on any given morning are retirees. At a table one day were a retired manager, retired plumber, retired teacher, and a man just plain retired, keeping up a steady banter.
“We’ve solved a lot of the world’s problems right here at this table,” one of them said.
Some problems are harder to handle than others, however.
“It gets heated up once in a while,” Mr. Schaser said. “There was one guy, he came in regular, handsome fellow, but always talking about abortion, and he got into an argument with another guy, and now he doesn’t come in here anymore.”
The restaurant manager passing by with a coffee pot in hand refilled Hal Schaser’s small cup and stopped to talk.
“It is my pleasure to often open the store in the morning, and get coffee for this fine gentleman,” said Glenn Haas, a trim, affable man in a crisp McDonald’s shirt. “My memory is short sometimes, but it is long enough to remember what he is getting.”
“There is what I call coffee klatches at my store,” he said. “My parents used to belong to one that was at Snow Road in Parma when I was younger. They’d drink some coffee, chit and chat with their friends. That happens here, gentlemen and some ladies, five or six, sometimes ten, get together here every morning. It’s a social gathering place.”
Mr. Haas refilled coffee at several tables, including that of a well-dressed man sitting alone.
“He always sits over there, by himself” said Mr. Schaser. “He’s an older guy. The kids who serve the food, they bring it out to him, because he has trouble walking. He told me he used to be in the diamond business. He goes to those casinos, like in West Virginia. He likes to gamble.”
Several men stopped at Hal Schaser’s booth, genially greeting him while they waited for their food orders to be filled.
“Most of the people who come in here are pretty regular,” he said. “We talk about everything in general. It’s a lot of baloney.”
The talk turned to local churches being torn down and replaced by drug stores, or simply closed and shuttered.
“I had a neighbor once who was a very religious man,” said Hal Schaser. “He went to church two times every Sunday. Once when he took his wife, and once when he went back to get her.”
Watching his waistline, even at McDonald’s, and staying fit has stood Mr. Schaser in good stead as a senior.
Before and after the Korean War, and before taking up golf, which later proved to be a life-long pursuit, he boxed as a featherweight, only ever losing two amateur bouts.
“There was a guy who wanted to manage me,” he said “and I was training, but I always thought if a guy ever really hits me with a right cross, I’m going to quit.”
“One day I was sparring and a guy hit me with a right, and I mean I saw stars, so I said, that’s it, I’m not going to walk around on my heels all my life. That was the end of my career.”
The day was sunny and long on the other side of the spic-and-span windows.
“In the old days, when I was younger, we would go play golf on a day like today,” said Hal Schaser. “But, I don’t have those golfing buddies anymore.”
The talk drifted to a recently departed coffee klatcher.
“He was a millionaire, lived in Bay Village, collected gold coins, all kinds of stocks and bonds,” said Mr. Schaser.
“Some of the guys kidded him about wanting to be in his will. He never went anywhere, never went on vacation, or spent his money. Then one day he didn’t show up and we found out he had passed away.”
“Sure enough, the guy couldn’t take it with him,” he added.
Outside a fleet of yellow Cushman scooters began pulling into the parking lot, the city sanitation workers trooping inside for break time. Hal Schaser frowned at his winter-weary Suzuki sedan.
“I’ve got to get this car washed for golf season,” he said.
The biggest and brightest OM I know is the OM Kristen Zarzycki begins and ends her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class with at Inner Bliss on Sunday afternoons, joined by many if not everybody in what is usually the biggest and most popular class of the week. Kirby is a young teacher with an OM voice like an ocean liner steaming into port through a thick fog. The first time I heard her I realized what the talk about the sound of OM being a primordial vibration was all about.
I could feel the vibration in the room and I wasn’t even chanting.
I began thinking about yoga in my early fifties, when decades-long issues with arthritis had advanced so my knees and hips either hurt all the time or really hurt all the time. At first, I tried yoga at home, checking out videotapes about one practice and another, checking them out from our local library. I even bought a purple sticky mat. After a year I felt stalemated, as though I had no idea what I knew. I was aware of yoga studios and thought professional instruction a good idea. But, I was reluctant to go because of my impression yoga classes were chock-full of lissome young women and the certainty I would look like an oaf.
One afternoon towards the end of summer, at the counter of our company’s lunchroom, while waiting for our marketing director Maria Kellem to make tea, yoga somehow came up as we talked. I was surprised to find out she not only practiced, but taught yoga part-time, as well. For the next several months she never tired of leaning into my cubicle and encouraging me to take a class.
I finally did, partly to appease her, partly because I didn’t see any other way to learn more, but mostly just to do it, at least once. From the end of my first novice class on a dark and wet October morning, slapping my hand to my temple in the car as I drove away, surprised it had taken me so long, I was attracted to the practice, simply because I felt surprisingly good afterwards.
The first two years I practiced was at a once-a-week beginner’s class, to which I eventually added a second evening class. Although my focus was on the physical postures, I began to notice our classes often began with a homily and a chant, usually OM. Preferring my own uneasy grown-up postmodern skepticism, I ignored the spiritual advice. I was drawn to the chanting, but when I participated, which wasn’t often, it was with a small uncertain voice from the back of the room.
After another year of moderate flow under my belt, I started taking on more physically challenging classes, time-distorting vinyasa practices with unnerving names like ‘Hot Power Yoga Challenge’. One evening near the end of an especially hard class, at least for me, after our teacher reminded us yet again to breathe with mindfulness, I asked her if it was the same as breathing desperately.
She was kind enough to say it was.
As the year wore on I began to buy into the spirit of yoga, reading about its principles and way of life, and listening to our teachers with a newfound openness. I took a workshop about meditation and another about the chakras – to which I reacted at the time with both incredulity and admiration for the teacher who tried with all her might, I thought, to explain the fantastic and unexplainable. I was even chanting OM more often, but still with a dry small pinched voice.
When I began to OM with more than less frankness was at the end of the first class Kimberly Payne taught at Inner Bliss, the yoga studio in Rocky River, Ohio, where I had started and where I still often practiced. By then I was emboldened by what I knew, which later turned out to be less than I thought, to try new kinds of classes, like Kundalini, and diverse teachers. Kim Payne’s class, a different kind of powerful flow, turned out to be more than I bargained for.
On the way to the studio that evening, gathering storm clouds darkened my rearview mirror as I crossed the beam bridge over the heavily forested Rocky River valley. A red-orange light from the sun setting over Lake Erie slanted between the houses across the street onto the black asphalt parking lot as I walked to the two-story loft-style brick building, the studio being on the second floor. Inside, I unrolled my mat, facing across the wide room towards the dusk. As we started our practice I was quickly thrown off balance by the unfamiliar sequence and difficulty of the asanas.
Then the noise started.
First one and then another double-stacked freight train rumbled past on the CSX tracks on the abutment behind the building towards downtown Cleveland. At both public grade crossings – one block to the west and four blocks the other way – the diesel’s compressed air horns let loose blasts of 15-second warnings.
Next the two men working late at Mason’s Auto Body next door started cutting sheet metal with what sounded like a gigantic Sawzall, a high-pitched gnashing pouring in through the closed windows as though they were not closed at all.
No sooner had they finished than the wind rain deluge started, a gusting thunderstorm that lasted through an interminable series of unsettling balancing poses and to the end of class.
Coming out of corpse pose I suddenly noticed the studio was quiet, the factory-style windows no longer lashed by rain. We sat cross-legged in the dark, and chanted three long, slow OM’s, the asanas all done and the noise, too, and the only thing mattering just then and there being the chant. Our voices echoed in the still damp air when we finished.
It was the first time I practiced OM with sincerity.
The loudest OM I ever heard was the OM Kristen Zarzycki’s class chanted for her the Sunday before she ran her first marathon. In Chicago. In the tropics on Lake Michigan.
Kristen describes her flow classes as “funky and challenging.” Challenging they are, so much so I nicknamed her Kirby, after Jack Kirby, the Marvel Comics artist who created Sgt. Fury, the snarling but tenderhearted NCO who led the First Attack Squad the “Howling Commandos” in the short-lived 1960’s comic book series. Although a head shorter than the cigar-chomping bandoleer-draped Sgt. Fury, she seamlessly morphs him as she leads –and herself practices – her ‘Follow the Yogi’ class centering on core asanas, for what she insists is our own good, and watches out so we all survive her ruthless boot camp approach.
At the close of her classes Kristen invites everyone to a “big and huge” OM to seal the practice. That Sunday someone impulsively interrupted and said, “Let’s chant for Kristen running the marathon next week.“
So prompted the whole class did. The OM was loud and long and heartfelt. The chant was so long I almost ran out of breath. Kristen seemed flushed with emotion when we were finally done.
The next Sunday she ran in record-setting heat and smothering humidity. More than ten thousand of thirty five thousand participants dropped out, hundreds more were treated by medical teams, and the organizers tried to shut down the course twenty-one miles into the event. Kristen was one of the runners who finished, and sometimes I think what kept her safe and sound was the big and huge OM we chanted for her.
The car repair OM incident happened on a clear mid-summer evening as we sat cross-legged at Inner Bliss, palms together, thumbs at the heart center, at the tail end of Tammy Lyons’s hot flow class. The casement windows overlooking the flat roof and cords of firewood stacked against the yellow outside wall of Mason’s Auto Body were tilted open, and I could sense a breeze. We chanted OM once, breathed in, and chanted OM a second time.
“There they go again,” said a body shop man unseen below us somewhere beside the umbrella table between our two buildings, more than loud enough to be heard throughout the studio.
“Whatever floats your boat,” a second man said.
Tammy Lyons paused, and paused again. She has the patience of a mother of two small boys and the forbearance of a small-business owner – namely the yoga studio – yet when she paused I glanced warily at the windows. Then we chanted OM a third time. The class over she thanked the twenty-or-so of us for coming, told us it was privilege to share her practice with us, and updated everyone on the studio’s schedule.
Then said in a clear, firm voice more than clear firm loud enough to be heard outside, “Yes, it does float our boats.”
Later that night, nursing a bottle of beer in my backyard beneath the Milky Way obscured by the city’s lights, I thought about the sarcastic guys at Mason’s. They weren’t really all that different from Tammy Lyons, although maybe they thought they were. Just like she worked on our bodies by leading us in asana sequences, they worked on the bodies of automobiles.
Cars like SUV’s and bodies like ourselves are not only uniquely themselves, but they are vessels as well. Practicing yoga exercises is like taking care of your body in the same way a skilled mechanic will take care of a car, both with the same idea in mind – so our bodies and our cars will be better able to take us where we want to go, whether it’s to a meditation practice or Disneyland.
But, if the body shop men were indeed different, maybe it was because they didn’t know where they were going.
The 4th OM unfolded on a quiet April Sunday when Max Strom, an itinerant yoga teacher, came to Inner Bliss. Neither the workshop nor he was what I expected, even though I couldn’t have said what I expected. Dressed all in black with a grayish ponytail and a gregarious manner, Max Strom was built more like a football player than a tightrope walker. Other than a few warm-up exercises and moving around now-and-then, we sat on our mats and he devoted most of the sold-out two-hour workshop to breathing, both explaining his ideas about it and leading us in exercises of it.
He seemed to think asanas alone were inadequate as a way of making a kind of spiritual connection, which he defined as the goal of yoga. He thought asana practice could and did serve a purpose, but to arrive at some meaning beyond simple exercise the next step was to connect with one’s breath.
He said yoga appeared to be primarily physical, but that it wasn’t. Rather, it was a practice meant to harmonize the body and the mind, our inner body, which he formulated as mental focus and intention, and breath, which he further defined as emotional focus and concentration on spirit, or the divine.
We practiced lots and lots of breathing exercises, breathing fast and breathing slow, holding our inhales and then our exhales, alternate nostril breathing, bellows breath and breath of fire, and long slow breathing until even sitting cross-legged for all that time became less and less distressing, even restful. Mr. Strom instructed us to breathe into the heart center, to breathe in the present and breathe out the past.
After a break, when we were all back on our mats, he unfurled a 10-minute OM. He explained we were to all start together, but as we finished an OM to go on to the next one, not waiting for the others in class. He said in a minute or so we would all be intoning separately, but it would in the long run resolve itself into a single continuous chant, which is exactly what happened.
It turned into a long rolling resonant OM.
As we chanted I found myself subsumed by the sound, and then midway through the OM’s I suddenly had a distinct feeling of emptiness within me, from the sacrum to the collarbone. It wasn’t that I felt full of hunger or filled with yearning; I just felt empty. As we chanted it seemed my body was like a hollow shell lit up from within by a bright but diffused light.
I was conscious that the quiet, bright emptiness was only a feeling, that my heart was beating slowly and I was breathing rhythmically, but for all that it was a remarkable sensation. I didn’t feel better, or worse, I just felt light and lit up. It was an experience that lasted about a minute.
Max Strom’s message to us at the end of class was to breathe with intention, and he sent us on the way with a simple namaste and hearty endorsement for his new DVD being sold in the lobby.
Since then I have not again felt the interesting bright emptiness I did during his workshop, but as a result of it have added a little breath training and meditation to my at-home practice. What has surprised me is the patience it takes to learn to sit quietly, not thinking of nothing or something or anything, and breathe mindfully.
What hasn’t surprised me is what I still don’t know about yoga, even the simplest things like chanting the simple sound of OM.
A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.
Hallo! Isn’t this a lovely postcard? I received your package today, and I want to thank you very much! They sure were beauties! (And the beasts.) Thanks for the soap. It will take care of one zit. Try to send a few more bars.
P. S. Save this card.
October 16, 1982
Mom, Happy Sweetest Day!
December 25, 1982
Mom, May this Christmas bring you near to the Father’s heart.
August 15, 1985
Mom, Enjoy your trip! You deserve a rest and a real “city”.
Love, Sax and Vanessa
July 26, 1986
Just think, life begins today! I hope today lives up to your every expectation.
All my love, Dick
November 27, 1987
Happy Birthday Dick, and thanks for caring so much about our happiness! You’re the best father anyone could ask for! Don’t worry! We’ll still associate with you (Lucky you!)
Love, Vanessa, Saxon, and Baby
December 29, 1987
Dear Teta Tere, Thank you for the baseball cap. I like it very VERY much. I wear it about every day. Could you find a navy blue cap with a big Indian on it, size six and 3/8? I AM WAITING FOR YOU TO VISIT US.
February 29, 1988
Dick, This is just a note to say thanks. It will hardly express my gratitude for all you do. Multiply it by a million. Putting in all the hours at work to take us out to dinner, paying for school, and all our wants and needs.
Thanks again! Vanessa
May 4, 1988
Hi Terry, The phone is ringing off the hook here at the store, there is heavy metal music on the radio, it’s cold, overcast, and drizzly outside, Vanessa is cranky with hunger and bugging me to run out and get her muffins, and my brother is champing at the bit – all he babbles about are your salads in a cone. Hope you are having a wonderful time on the west coast, and happy mother’s day.
May 5, 1988
Allright, allright! You proved your point. We can’t live without…a maid. You win the “mother of the year” award unanimously! Three hands and a paw. We have your crown and broom, I mean scepter, ready and waiting for you. Happy Mother’s Day! By the way this “princess” has had enough of taking care of this kingdom.
November 27, 1988
Happy Birthday Dick! Some of it’s in your mind, and some of it isn’t.
November 27, 1988
Dick, happy birthday! Don’t you wish you still had the worries of a child? Nah! We’re still having those worries…Thanks to you!
August 26, 1989
Dear Terry: In the month of June I had the pleasure of visiting Cleveland and the Lithuanian American Citizens Club. It was there that I tasted your delicious bacon buns, just to think about them makes my mouth water. I was bold enough to ask for the recipe and you were ever so gracious and gave it to me – my misfortune is that so many unforeseen things have happened here at home that I did not have a chance to try the recipe, but I had mentioned to you, I had a recipe from Lithuania, given to me in making “PONCKOS” and promised to send you the recipe. I have tried the recipe and they are really good and easy to make.
Good cooking, Nellie Bayoras-Romanas
November 12, 1989
Hi, Just wanted to see how you were doing. May all your days be filled with sunshine!
Love, Nader, Margie, and Jahleh
November 10, 1990
Dear Teta Tere, How are you? I am fine. Thank you for the advent calendar, the cup, and the necklace. The kids in my class like the necklace and last year’s wreath. I have been doing fine in all my study’s and get all A’s. My teacher is the best yet and is very nice, too. I hope you can visit us soon.
P. S. I’m sending you two pictures of myself from Halloween 1990. I am wearing my poodle skirt.
July 26, 1991
Thanks for the surprise visit! We sure enjoyed seeing you and Dick even though it was for such a short time. Hopefully the next visit will be longer. Have a great day, talk to you soon.
Love, Bob and Matilda
July 28, 1991
Tere, It was good to see you in New York! See you next in California…Surprise us! Love, Audra
August 15, 1991
Happy Anniversary! Nobody ever said it was easy…but whoever said it had to be so tough! Congratulations, together you make a perfect “10”! We decided 10s a “butcher block” anniversary. Through thick and thicker! “10” in the hole. Wishing you many more years of (mom) baking and (Dick) eating.
Love, Vanessa, Ed, Saxon
December 20, 1991
Dear Aunt Terry and Uncle Dick, Thank you for the Santa place mats. We all love them. Have a Merry Christmas.
Love, Tessa and Charlie
February 6, 1992
Teta Tere, Thank you for the rabbit. Sending you flowers.
April 19, 1992
Tere, it’s a happy Easter to you.
May 10, 1992
Hope your Mother’s Day is a masterpiece!
Vanessa and Ed
May 11, 1992
Dear Aunt Terry, Thank you for the cookies. They are delicious. We enjoy them. I am going to have one in my lunch tomorrow. Thank you very much.
Love, Tessa and Charlie
P. S. The tin is gorgeos!
July 26, 1992
Terri, We were going to have a parade, or take you to Chi Chi’s where they sing and clap this goofy song on people’s birthdays, or buy you a gift certificate for bungee jumping, or name a shooting star after you, but in the end pasta at Players seemed best. Happy Birthday!
Vanessa, Saxon, and Ed
November 27, 1992
Dick, from every perspective you’re the best dad-in-law and damnest Scrabble player around. Happy birthday!
July 26, 1993
Mom, every birthday is the dawn of a new year. A year without limits, in which anything can happen. Good luck! Happy B-Day.
June 22, 1994
Terri, hope Texas is still in your plans. I’m sending you our ETA to Austin. I did not tell Audra. I’d like it to be a surprise. We are all looking forward to the trip. You and Dick need to get away, so please come!
July 11, 1994
Dear Dick and Terry, Tom and I would like to thank you so much for such a wonderful time. You were both so gracious and we appreciated all the extra effort the weekend took. We realize with your work schedules how precious your time is and you made us feel so welcome.
July 26, 1994
World’s Greatest Mom! Title Holder 27 years in a Row! Happy Mother’s day!
August 9, 1994
Hello again, Hope you enjoyed Texas as much as we did. We discovered an easier way to bring cactus home…in a jar. Meant to get this off sooner but it took awhile for the prints. I’m sending you all the pictures we took. I think since you took most of them the strap was in the way. Oh well. I’m sure Dick will enjoy them. Bob finished Lindre’s room. He painted the bottom half a sandy color. The beach scene blends in nicely. I’m still working on acquiring a Kitchen Aid blender. I loved them margaritas. Save your pennies. We must all get together again next year (Somewhere.) Take care. Hello to Dick, Saxon, and Vanessa. Hope everyone is well. Enjoy the cactus.
July 23, 1995
Dear Terry, I wanted to tell you, I still can’t believe how fantastic your tiramisu is. Tom was telling everyone in our office about your talents. Saxon is such a fine young man. You must be very proud of him. Tom and I sincerely hope that you will come to visit us. We would show you the town! Give our love to Saxon and Vanessa and thanks so much for everything. Take care and we’ll keep in touch with you.
July 26, 1995
Mom, Dance of the Firebird. Take a bow. Happy Birthday!
July 29, 1996
Dear Terry and Dick, Thank you for a wonderful evening – the food, the company, and Scrabble were the best. Don’t open a restaurant – Parello’s Cooking School would be jammed. Ordinary food takes on a new meaning with you.
November 24, 1997
Dick, Happy birthday to my dreamboat. You’re handsomer than ever, to be sure.
May 19, 1998
Terry and Dick, Thank you, thank you, thank you for the beautiful cakes. You really outdid yourself. It was the hit of the party. Thank you for coming and sharing Jessica’s special day. It meant a lot for your being there for us. We loved having you over!
Love always, Nader and Margie
June 12, 1998
Terry, Hey! We’re having a fabulous time! We totally wish you were here…Ummm…I kinda enjoyed going over Independence Pass.
June 12, 1998
Hey, having a fun time. Wish you could come this year. Mike’s (dad) the cook. You should see the food we’re supposed to eat.
June 12, 1998
Hey! I R Gud Cook.
July 1, 1998
Greetings – having a wonderful time. Staying at the sea for a week. This village is exceptionally beautiful. The sun is hot, food and wine is delicious, the sea water is cooling. Italians all around us…thinking of you.
Lindre and Ugi
July 22, 1998
Happy Birthday Terri! Remember: Success is going from failure to failure with great enthusiasm (Winston Churchill) and Life is just a bag of tricks (Felix the Cat).
September 4, 1998
Dear Terry, you bad cat! Those cookies are adorable. I tasted one and I sure would like to sell them. Your design on the bag is a winner! You’re very creative and a unique person. I hope to shake your paw soon.
Purrfectly yours, Sasha the Chairpurrson
P. S. You’re the cat’s meow!
September 8, 1998
Bonjour! Once you get used to the “C” on the faucet handles meaning hot and Homer Simpson only speaking French, this place is quite agreeable. The majority of people in Quebec City are self-absorbed, and rude, and Dianna would never survive here, but the sites, the history, and food are phenomenal. I don’t know how I’ll ever get used to eating off an undecorated plate. The portions aren’t large, but there’s so much on the huge plate and all of it is edible. When you order “rotisserie chicken with fine herbs” you get cooked fine red cabbage with a cooked yellow tomato “basket” on top with zucchini and yellow squash spears sticking out of it and encircled in broccoli as the vegetable. When eating here it is about the flavors, textures, and presentations. For our anniversary we ate at the hotel we are staying at in the Charlevoix region. Our room has a private balcony that overlooks the St. Lawrence. Auberge des 3 Canards is its name. The chef has won awards and has a tiered herb garden on the hill right outside. Ed had young deer with currant sauce and red cabbage and I had duck breasts with maple sabayon and a gruyere stuffed pastry. Our appetizers were like meals. Ed’s a compact but substantial smoked salmon and challots layered thing on a bisque with a farina type crust top and mine was a huge bowl of wilted spinach and scallops, small chunks of cheese, lardoons (small chunks of bacon) and a sweet and sour dressing, The best desserts up here are crème caramel, sugar pie, and frozen maple mousse. I normally don’t eat dessert, but I haven’t skipped it yet, including after lunch. Oh, and I can’t forget the “chef made” pork and veal breakfast sausage. Exquisite! We’ve seen the exhibits on the history of hockey, on the history of the circus, and the history of Quebec at the Museum of Civilization in Quebec City. We attended a laser light show in the Notre Dame church, too.
September 12, 1998
Terri, Is this girl smiling over the rose or the red shoes? Is this you or what? Let’s discuss it Saturday night while having dinner at Room 24.
July 22, 1999
Hi, Terry, We hope you have the best birthday ever!
Love, Joe and Tess
July 26, 1999
Terri, When I saw this card I felt a dozen flashes of symbolism at once. Too many to write. My present to you this year is to let you know that I am very close to being born of the spirit. So, what’s the next step? Happy birthday.
November 26, 1999
Dear Terry, Thank you so much for the wonderful one-year anniversary cake. It was absolutely beautiful, and, of course, delicious! What a great way to celebrate our first anniversary together! Thank you also for creating such a masterpiece at our wedding. Your cake was extraordinary, and it really matched my dress, too. And the chocolate groom’s cake was also a delicious treat. Hope all is well with you. Mom would like a visit from you in Chicago! And if you ever make it to Northern California, please come see us!
Love, Samia and Scott
December 12, 1999
Dear Teta Tere, I had a blast with you in Cleveland. Thanksgiving was deliciously wonderful. Thanks for everything. Hope to see you soon in Austin.
January 10, 2000
Greetings! Hope all is well. Sending you a little something, I think it deserves to be art throughout the year. It speaks for itself! We love the photo, hope you do, too.
July 26, 2000
Dear Teta Tere, A birthday surprise just for you! Many happy returns.
July 26, 2001
Mom, All things good and wonderful and a very happy birthday!
Love, Saxon and Vanessa
Monday night, April 15, 2002
Very dear Terri, Guess what? The Postal Service finally gave us the delicious, out-of-this-world yummy dessert that we have been waiting for since Linda was here last week! It seems it had the wrong zip code on it, and wherever it was they didn’t want to give it up!! Their conscience finally prodded them into doing it. And Sam says it beats any Stauffer product he ever remembers like it, and wants me to tell you that he can’t imagine how it could have tasted any better (?) when it was fresh, a week ago!!.We had it for dessert tonight, and it was worth coming home for!! It came in perfect condition! You are such a precious friend to know, for so many reasons, and Linda heartily agrees with me. God has created you for a special reason, to fulfill His unique purpose for you, and you are doing it! God loves you, and so do we! Linda needs you, too!
Ruth and Sam (the lucky Boy)
June 1, 2002
You’ve been invited to the Big Surprise Party, haven’t you?? And I’m so happy about it, because I was going to ask you to do one of your terrific cakes (like I hear about from Linda!), only this one is for Linda! The enclosed gift from me to you is to help pay for what it costs you to do these marvelous works of art! Please accept it, because I want so much to give it to you, by way of a very small thank you if you will do it? I’m praying that we will be able to come to the party, and God willing, we will be there to hug all of you dear ones! Sam is Reader this year, so it takes some special planning ahead to be able to come. Susanne knows that I’m hoping you will do the cake, for the party, so would you talk it over with her?? It’s going to be the party of the year, from the looks of it. I think Linda is suspicious there is something going on? But everyone’s lips are sealed (except for eating). Terry, do you have any idea how wonderful a person you are in so many loving ways? May God continue to bless you with that Light that dispels all darkness! The world has need of more lights like your bright glowing love for all mankind. I hear of your loving acts through Linda – and how is your little “neighbor family” that you’ve blessed in so many ways? And the R. R. is greatly enriched with your loving thoughts also. Keep going forward with your hand in God’s loving embrace, and know how much we all love you! Hoping to see you in June!
June 10, 2003
Hey Richard! I’m sending you a special thank you. It was great getting to know you better, during the “day”. Thanks for all you did, gave, and shared. See ya later!
Your niece, Lindre
P. S. Thanks to Tere, too!
July 1, 2003
Dear Terry, Life with its way before us lies.
All good wishes, from Ruth and Sam
Theresa Stasas was born in Lithuania in 1942 and after the war lived in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated from Villa Angela Academy and studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art. A self-taught pastry chef, she owned several local restaurants at different times. She married Richard Parello in 1981. Theresa Parello died on New Year’s Eve, 2005. Richard Parello died on Holy Saturday, 2006. Among her effects Theresa left behind this small cache of cards and postcards in a Rubbermaid Lock-Its.