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Exercise for the Elite

By Ed Staskus

All women carry a purse on their persons, with their money, car keys, cell phones, and paraphernalia close at hand. They buy their bags at big box marts or department stores or on hundreds of web sites. Their handbags range from seventy-nine cent beaded totes ordered on e-bay to luxury-crafted Louis Vuitton’s found in quiet malls in select cities.

One late afternoon after work I unrolled my yoga mat at a nearby yoga studio, early for class, and settled into child’s pose to loosen up my back. Laying my hands palms up on the floor beside me and letting the business day drain away, I idly listened to two ladies next to me talking. As I rolled up and reached for my toes in a seated forward bend, one of the young women asked the other one about the purse she had secured behind her mat.

The lady with the purse, sitting cross-legged, explained that she didn’t want to leave it in the lobby at Inner Bliss in Rocky River, Ohio, but preferred to have it near her, where she could keep an eye on it. She looked back at it.

It was still there.

“It’s a really nice purse,” said the other one, both of them now looking at the leather bag.

“Thanks, it’s Italian.”

“Oh, where did you get it?’

“In Italy, when I was in Florence. I just had to have it when I saw it.”

I straightened up, sat back on my heels, and snuck a peek at the purse. I can’t really tell one purse from another, but I can tell cheap from expensive.

The purse from Florence oozed expensive.

Inner Bliss, just west of Cleveland, draws its customers from Rocky River and Bay Village, two suburbs on the south shore of Lake Erie. The median household income of Rocky River is $61,000 and the median household income of Bay Village is $83,000. The median income of Cleveland households, just one suburb away to the east, is $27,000.

Almost no one practicing yoga at Inner Bliss is from Cleveland.

In fact, very few Clevelanders practice yoga at all. There are only a handful of yoga studios in the city itself, and those are downtown or near the big universities, catering to the hip and privileged. Yoga in Cleveland is not in Cleveland, but rather in the suburbs, in up-scale neighborhoods like Westlake, Beachwood, and Hudson.

On the other hand Cleveland’s most populous suburb, Parma, a working-class community of auto and steel workers three times bigger than Rocky River and Bay Village put together, does not have a single yoga studio inside its borders.

Inner Bliss, meanwhile, has more than forty classes on its weekly calendar.

Yoga studios in cities nationwide, from San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and New York reveal the same demographics.  “In general, yoga is a work-out pursued by the well-off,” says Amy Beth Treciokas of Yoga Now in Chicago. Yoga is practiced by the upper classes, not the middle class, and even less so among minorities like blacks and Hispanics and the poor.

“Yoga has become almost a household word now in the United States,” says Aaron Vega of VegaYoga, a struggling studio in a sizable Hispanic neighborhood in Holyoke, Massachusetts. “But it’s an exclusive club.” When Michelle Buteau, the stand-up comedienne, wrote on her blog Who Said It, “Yes, I said it, I’m going to yoga. A black woman, who is not Oprah or Gayle is going to yoga, say what?” it was funny in a way the funniest things are: it was true.

More than a third of the people who frequent yoga studios in the United States have household incomes of $75,000-or-more, while one out of six have an income of more than $100,000. Their levels of education are equally high: 72% of them college-educated, and 27% of them holding post-graduate degrees. Rich people are more likely to exercise than their poorer neighbors, according to a 2009 Gallup poll, partly explaining why yoga studio parking lots overflow with BMW’s and hybrid SUV’s, rather than Fords and Kias.

American yogis spend upwards of 6 billion dollars a year on classes and clothes and designer mats. “Something that has bugged me about yoga for a long time,” writes Yogi Sip on her blog Confessions of a Wayward Yogi, “is that it is unashamedly aimed at the upper classes.”

They take workshops taught by celebrity teachers who command a high fee, spend four-day weekends at regional gatherings and yoga conferences, and vacation at yoga retreats in the mountains or on seashores around the world. Some yogis even jet set coast-to-coast to practice at select studios.

Practicing asanas at yoga studios in America is, if nothing else, an expensive form of exercise that only some can afford, in more ways than one. “I think it’s right to say that the people who typically take yoga are white, with disposable income, and more importantly with disposable time,” says Courtney Bender, a professor in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. “They’re in jobs and professions that allow them enough time to take classes. So there aren’t a lot of working class people, for example.”

Many yoga teachers and studio owners agree that it is the rich who practice yoga. “For the most part, yes, it’s an expensive pursuit, and seen as something for the elite,” says Janet Stone of Janet Stone Yoga in San Francisco. Where studios are located supports her contention. They are in the better neighborhoods of Boston and Los Angeles and all the places in-between where the upper middle class and rich live.

“No one can argue that the Americanization of yoga has taken place and that people with disposable income make up a large percentage of the base that supports the yoga industry in this country. It is true yoga appeals to a predominately white, upwardly mobile segment,” says Gabriel Halpern, founder and director of the Yoga Circle in Chicago.

Some teachers disagree that it is only the rich who can afford to practice at studios. “In my own personal experience of teaching yoga and Yoga Therapy in rural middle America,” says Mary Hilliker of River Flow Yoga in Wausau, Wisconsin, “I have found that my students are rarely elite in income, but that they are certainly rich in heart.”

Even at big studios in big cities there is the sense that a wide stratum of society participates in the practice. “While many of our students are financially well-off, I would guess the majority are middle class and some even lower class,” says Annie Freedom of the Samadhi Center for Yoga and Meditation in Denver. “I see a lot of regular folks in lower tax brackets practicing yoga for greater peace and spiritual awakening.”

But, it may be that the average American cannot afford to exercise at yoga studios. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, the overall median personal income for all Americans over the age of 18 is approximately $26,000. Going to asana classes at a yoga studio three times a week at $12.00 a class would cost $1872.00 a year, or a projected 7% of the average American’s gross income.

“If I wasn’t a teacher,” Deanna Black, an iconoclastic instructor at Fitness One in University Circle, Ohio, told me, “I’m not sure I could afford to practice at a studio.” The average American can join Fitness 19 or Anytime Fitness and work out every day for $29.95 a month. Michael Hellebrekers, a financial consultant for Wells Fargo Bank, estimates that at best monthly and yearly rates for practicing at a local yoga studio are 4 to 5 times more expensive than lifting weights at a franchise gym.

Yoga studios, no matter what else they are, are businesses that need to pay the bills. They may be labors of inspiration and compassion, but they are sole proprietorships and limited-liability corporations, too, and must make sense in terms of profit and loss.  “Creating a studio setting, where the overhead is extensive beyond a student’s comprehension,” says Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, “and hiring the staff it takes to even open the doors, isn’t possible without charging what may be outside some people’s ability.”

The economic challenges studios must meet are the same that confront all businesses. “Let’s face it,” says Knekoh Fruge of Yoga Circle Downtown in Los Angeles, “you need a large space and you need to fill it, the rent is high, and teachers have to get paid. That’s why in large part the poor can’t afford it.”

Not everyone believes practicing at yoga studios has anything necessarily to do with yoga. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Ginny Walters, a Cleveland-area Ashtanga teacher said. “Maybe the studios are for the elite, but the practice is for everyone, money or no money.” Putting her pocketbook where her mouth is, Walters teaches many summer evening classes at a Rocky River city park overlooking Lake Erie, charging only a nominal fee.

Tammy Lyons of Inner Bliss, who taught herself yoga from a book checked out of the library, says:  “The practice itself can be done without anything, or at the very least a mat. When I started I went to class maybe once every couple of weeks, and spent less than $12.00 a month.” Yoga asanas, once learned from books, classes, or DVD’s, can be practiced almost anywhere. You don’t even need a roof over your head. Unrolling a mat in the backyard and doing 108-or-less sun salutations is as free as free gets.

Many teachers concede the costs of practicing yoga in a studio setting, but insist it is not a roadblock. “I have always reached out to students who are sincere and need financial assistance to take classes,” says Craig Kurtz of the Iyengar Yoga Center in Denver. “I strive to not let money be the issue that holds students back.”

Many teachers do pro bono work in their communities, at schools and shelters, and even in prisons, because they believe in the good yoga can do. “I would never turn anyone away,” Knekoh Fruge says, “and I guarantee you 90% of the yoga studios would never refuse someone who genuinely needed to practice but didn’t have any money. I offer work exchange, and I teach classes for free to people recently unemployed.”

There is, however, a wide divide between schoolchildren and prisoners, and the rich, and straddling that divide are the working and middle classes. Budgets and necessary economies are everyday issues in their lives. Not disadvantaged enough for charity and not rich enough in time or money to easily take three or four yoga classes a week, they are squeezed from both ends, pressured by desire and conformity. The rich among us may have the means to practice all the asanas we want, but the mass in the middle has harder choices to make.

When I asked Kristen Zarzycki of Inner Bliss whether or not yoga was an elitist activity, she reluctantly agreed it was. But then she added: “Everyone can be elite. Seriously, stop buying junk at Target and take a yoga class instead. Anyone can do it if they want to. I have coffee at Starbucks with my father two or three mornings a week. I could have bought a new sofa by now, with all the drinks we had last year, but I think it’s important to spend time with my dad. It’s the same with yoga.”

What we do with our time and money is what defines us, not what we have or don’t have. What we do, how we act in this life, determines who and what we are. No one practices yoga because they are yogis. They are yogis because they practice yoga. Everyone is a melding of his or her own choices. They are what their priorities have made them. Otherwise they are not themselves; they are someone else’s priorities.

Jean-Paul Sartre said we are all condemned to be free, to choose and to act, adding that we are responsible for everything we do. Not choosing is itself a choice. It is the accepting of conditions as they are. It is choosing the option of letting someone else shape you into a consumer or spectator.

“There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher. What he meant is that the ontological problem we all face is to find out who we are and what to do with ourselves. It is only in our decisions that we are important. In other words, the choices we make are ultimately what we are made of.

Practicing yoga is not predetermined. We can stay at home watching The Biggest Loser on HD instead of going to a yoga class and doing warrior poses. Americans watch 250 billion hours of TV a year, mesmerized by sports, car chases, and endless commercials for fast food, pharmaceuticals, and the next fad. We can cheer on our favorite celebrities and athletes, buying tickets to their movies and spectacles. Or we can decide to go to a yoga studio and pay $12.00 for a one-hour lesson in how to live our lives as an experience rather than a dog and pony show.

Maybe going to a yoga studio doesn’t have as much to do with money, or the lack of it, as it seems. Maybe it is just a matter of priorities, of deciding what to spend one’s money on. The most recent estimate by Street and Smith Sports Business Journal is that Americans spend upwards of $213 billion annually on sports events, or more than $700 for every man, woman, child, and baby in the country, watching men in bright uniforms throw, bounce, kick, or hit balls with a stick.

We drink $74 billion dollars of beer a year, more than 12 times the amount of money spent on this one alcoholic beverage than all the money spent practicing asanas at a yoga studio. According to the New York Times Magazine, even pornography is more popular than yoga. Americans spend an estimated $12-14 billion dollars a year looking at pictures of naked people.

“Many people avoid yoga because they perceive it as elitist,” said Frank Barnett, a former Cleveland, Ohio-based kirtan teacher.

But, anyone can practice yoga if they want to, not just the elite. Even tight-fisted budgets are only about what we can’t afford. They are not about keeping us from buying what we really need. One way of looking at choices is that they are ways of turning stumbling blocks into stepping-stones. Almost everyone’s resources are limited to the extent that priorities have to be set.  Going to a yoga class is not so much a line item in a budget as it is getting in line at the check-out counter of the mind, body, and spirit store.

“Anybody can afford to take a yoga class if they want to,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It’s a matter of making it a priority.”

When McDonalds uses yoga and meditation in its advertisements to sell Happy Meals, it does so as grist for the mill to achieve its only goal, which is to generate profits for its shareholders. Yoga is different. “It’s not about getting rich,” says Melissa Johnson of Yoga Ananda in Avondale, Florida. “This is a labor of love for the community. No one is turned away for inability to pay.”

Yoga teachers take empowerment, spiritual, physical, and even economic, out of Sherwood Forest and make life better, not poorer. They even make the rich richer. “I agree it is exercise for the elite, but with certain qualifications,” says Graham Fowler of the Peachtree Yoga Center in Atlanta. “We help everyone become more well-off, more self-aware, confident and balanced, with qualities of heart.”

In the long run we shape our lives and ourselves by what we do. At the Yoga Hive in Atlanta, Renard Mills, a personal chef, started his own yoga practice just as the recession began to impact his business. Bad business or not, he continues to take two classes a week. “I used to be a worrier,” he says, “but I don’t do that anymore. I just breathe. I walk this earth differently now. In my family budget, yoga is the second line item, after food.”

Yoga changes people’s lives for the better, not for the worse. “It’s wonderful to see people get stronger, healthier, more vibrant and happy,” says Tara Rawson of Adashakti Yoga in Riverside, Florida.

Yoga is not about taking from the poor and giving to the rich. It is about making everyone rich. Having disposable money and time is one thing. What we do with the money and time we have is another. It may be true yoga is largely taught in the better neighborhoods of America, but the real goal of American yoga teachers is to make everyone’s neighborhood better.

“Yoga is not elitist!” says Dr. Rajvi Mehta of India’s Yoga Rahasya. “It actually breaks all barriers of economics, religion, class, geography, and politics. Once in a yoga class, we have a driver adjacent to the CEO of a company.” If the practice of yoga were really a matter of money, then the practice wouldn’t really matter. It would just be another commodity. But it isn’t, no matter what the thousand billion dollar advertising engine of the world believes. Choosing yoga is to stop resolving life as a problem and living it as a journey.

Yoga is a practice, not a product. Stepping into a studio is not about buying something – it is about becoming someone. Yoga is many things to many people, but fundamentally it is a pilgrimage. In Mark Twain’s book Innocents Abroad, when the American religion tourists on their luxury steam ship finally reach the Holy Land, and get to the Sea of Galilee, they protest against the cost of the two gold Napoleons for renting a ride on one of the local boats. The boatman, instead of haggling with them, sails away and the pilgrims are left stranded.

Practicing asanas at a yoga studio doesn’t have anything to do with walking on water, but at the end of many hot vinyasa classes one or two yogis will look like they’ve done exactly that, if only because they are totally exhausted or totally refreshed. Yoga does have everything to do with believing in what you do, and being willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become what you believe in, even if it costs one or two gold pieces.

“Nothing in life is really free. If you are serious about something, you are willing to pay for it, “ says Paul Jerard, the director of teacher training at the Aura Wellness Center in North Providence, Rhode Island. “If you truly love yoga, and want to learn more, support your local yoga teacher, or your local studio.”

Teachers keep yoga alive, bringing it to life for their students. Their studios are way stations on the pilgrimage that the practice is.  “One of the things necessary for yoga,” said Swami Krishnananda of the Divine Life Society, “is continuous study under a guide.” Giving ourselves to a yoga teacher is to choose to be elite, because that is what yoga does. It privileges everyone who chooses to make it even a small part of his or her life. It makes anyone who unrolls a mat at their yoga studio as elite as it gets, which has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with awareness and consciousness of self and others.

Even though yoga is not just exercise, asanas are the best known and most accessible of the eight-part path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body,” says B. K. S. Iyengar. “The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he knows God is within.”

Practicing at a yoga studio is never easy physically or financially. It means choosing to be in the company of people who think yoga matters, and not in the company of people who don’t.  It means standing up and making a commitment of time and money. Where we spend our money, rich and poor alike, is where our priorities lie. Ultimately it is not what is in your wallet that is important. It is what you do with what’s in your wallet that really matters.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

Head Over Heels

By Ed Staskus

   Mr. Moto knew a straight cat when he saw one so when he saw Bumpy Williams stepping out of a cab and walking up to the house, he didn’t sweat it. He could see black and white and blue colors best, like all cats. He wasn’t good with reds and greens. Bumpy looked like a blues man to him. Mr. Moto could feel boneyard blues in his bones when he heard 12 bars thrumming.

   He didn’t know a thing about baseball but knew he could steal home plate faster than Jackie Robinson could blink. He knew Dottie was big on stickball. He didn’t know she was going to Ebbets Field this afternoon for the first game of the World Series between the Bums and the Bombers.

   Dottie was waiting downstairs on the inside stairs. When she saw Bumpy reaching for the door, the cab tail piping smoke, she jumped up and barged outside.

   “I’m ready!”

   She was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers pinback button on her shirt, had Pee Wee Reese’s 1956 Topps baseball card in her hand, and a blue cap with Chief Wahoo inside a red wishbone “C” on top of her head.

   “You got buck teeth on your head,” Bumpy said.

   “My dad is from Cleveland,” Dottie said. “He gave it to me. He said we have to stay true to our roots. I don’t let anybody say anything about it when I’m wearing it.” She gave Bumpy a pointed look.

   “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and pushed the brim down.

   “I’m hungry,” Dottie said, looking up.

   “So am I. How are you with waffles?”

   “I love waffles.”  

   “Me too. Let’s go.”

   When they drove past the Socony Mobil building, built that year at 42nd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue, Dottie pointed out the window of the cab.

   “It’s a shiny waffle building.”

   The world’s first stainless steel skyscraper was sheathed in thousands of panels studded with pyramid designs. The architectural critic Lewis Mumford from Flushing, Queens, wrote that the building looked like it had the measles. He thought the ideal city was the medieval city. He didn’t say what living in a medieval city without indoor plumbing and running water and power at the push of a button might be like. If she knew who he was, Dottie would have told him to go back to Flushing.

   “You said the ballpark, right?” the hook-nosed cabbie asked, the toothpick in his mouth staying still as a crack in cement, stuck between two close-set teeth.

   “Close enough but drop us off at Flatbush and Lincoln.”

   “Can do.”

   Childs Restaurant on the northwest corner was a two-story building with a grimy fish window featuring an urn facing Flatbush Avenue. A red-faced grill cook was in the window flap-jacking.

   “That’s where he’s going to make our waffles,” Bumpy said, swinging the front door open for Dottie. They sat in a booth. It was purple vinyl with an upside-down white triangle on the back rest. The table was pale green flecked with small white slashes.

   “No need for a bill of fare,” Bumpy said to the waitress. “Two big plates of waffles, butter and syrup, joe for me and lemonade for the young lady.”

   “I don’t want lemonade.” Dottie said.

   “What do you want?”

   “Squirt.”

   “That’s the same as lemonade.”

   “No, it’s not, it’s grapefruit, and it’s carbonated. And one more thing, please make mine a Belgian waffle.”

   The waitress slid away, smoothing her white apron, which matched her white collar and white trim around the sleeves. She looked like a maid in a big house. She checked her no-nonsense non-slip work shoes for coffee stains.

   “Well cut my legs off and call me Shorty if it isn’t Bumpy Williams,” a tall handsome more-or-less Negro man said stopping at their table.

   Bumpy and Dottie looked up.

   “If it isn’t my man Adam who still has never done nothing for me,” Bumpy said. “How are you?”

   “Keeping the faith, baby, keeping the faith,” said Adam Clayton Powell.

   “How’s Hazel?” Bumpy asked, looking the leggy lady standing next to the congressman up and down and up again.

   “My secretary,” Adam Powell said, nodding at the curves next to him.

   “Hazel?”

   “She’s better.”

   “See her much?”

   “Here and there,” he said.

   Adam Powell’s wife Hazel Scott was summoned and appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee six years earlier. She was a classical and jazz piano player and singer and hosted a variety show on TV. She denied “ever knowingly being connected with the Communist Party or any of its front organizations.” She admitted being associated with socialists, a group she said that “has hated Communists longer and more fiercely than any other.” When the Red Scare in Congress leaned on her, she shot back that they should try “democratic methods to eliminate a good many irresponsible charges.” 

   They didn’t like that and started huffing and puffing. Hazel lamented that entertainers were already “covered with the mud of slander and the filth of scandal” by congressional goons trying to prove their loyalty to the United States. 

   Her TV show “The Hazel Scott Show” was cancelled the next week. She suffered a nervous breakdown. The next three four years she played on and off with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, more often in Europe than the United States. 

   “I think she might be on her way to France, maybe for good,” Adam Powell said.

   “Are you a Negro like Bumpy,” Dottie asked him, looking into his hazel eyes.

   “No, honey, I’m a man who is part African, part German, and part American Indian.”

   “What part of you are you today?”

   “The Bums part of me,” he laughed.

   Dottie pointed to the button on her shirt.

   “You and me both, sister,” he said.

   “I hear you came out for Ike,” Bumpy said.

   “I did, and I’ve been taking a lot of heat for it, but I got some great seats.”

Bumpy could have told him to stay as far away from the president as possible but he didn’t. He wasn’t loose-lipped when it came to business, especially when business was a bomb that might blow Ike up. His job was to look out for Dottie, not for politicians, who were always looking out for themselves, anyway. He liked Ike, which made him different. He looked and saw waffles coming their way.

   “See you at the ballpark, then.”

   “How’s that? One of your numbers hit to pay for the ticket?”

   “No, that’s for chumps. Dottie here is going to be on the Happy Felton TV show before the game. I’m her escort.”

   “Good for you, Dottie, and put a good word in for your congressman.”

   “She lives in Hell’s Kitchen, not Harlem,” Bumpy said.

   “Close enough,” the congressman said, and wrapping his arm around the waist of his secretary, walked to his table, where a table tent “Reserved” sign sat.

   “Why did he want me to say something about him?” Dottie asked.

   “He’s a politician, a Washington politician. He never spends his own money except by accident, so a good word free of charge on TV is like gold to him.”

   “Oh, he’s a government man. Dad gets sour when anybody talks about the government.”

   “Honey just be glad we aren’t getting all the government we’re paying for,” Bumpy said, and dug into his stack of waffles, topped with fried eggs and bacon. Dottie pushed butter into the pockets of her plate-sized Belgian waffle and poured Sleepy Hollow syrup on it, spreading it with her knife and licking the blade clean.

   “Hey, don’t lick that off your knife, you’ll cut your tongue,” Bumpy said. “How are you going to be able to talk to Pee Wee if that happens?”

   “Oh my gosh!” Dottie exclaimed, putting the knife down in a flash.

   After their late breakfast they walked up Flatbush to Empire Blvd to Ebbets Field. The streets were full of cars and the sidewalks were full of fans. Vendors were everywhere. Scalpers were peddling tickets. The Mounted Police Unit was out in force, their horses leaving piles of shit behind them. The ballpark stood on one square block. It was surrounded on all four sides by shops and apartments and parking lots. 

   “Did you know Bugs Bunny was born in Ebbets Field down the left field foul line?” Bumpy asked Dottie.

   “He was not! Was he? Who says so?”

   “Warner Brothers says so, the outfit he works for. He was born there just before his first cartoon in 1940.”

   “He was born on the field, out in the open?”

   “That’s the way rabbits do it,” Bumpy said. “They build their nests out in the open, in plain sight, the last place anybody would expect, and that keeps them safe.”

   “So, they are right there but nobody can see them?”

   “That’s right, it’s like they’re invisible.”

   “But Bugs always pops up out of a hole.”

   “That’s just in the movies.”

   The stadium was named after Charlie Ebbets, who started out as a ticket taker for the team and grew up to become its owner. He laid the foundation for the new diamond by buying land in secret starting in 1905, more than a thousand small parcels of it, finally accumulating enough ground to build the ballpark eight years later.

   Fans bought tickets at gilded ticket windows, went into the marble rotunda through gilded turnstiles, and if they looked up saw a colossal chandelier with twelve baseball bats holding twelve baseball look-a-like lamps. 

   Dottie flashed her Happy Felton pass at one of the turnstiles.

   “Who’s he?” the ticket taker, flanked by a policeman, asked, pointing at Bumpy.

   “That’s my Uncle Bumpy,” Dottie said.

   “Your uncle?”

   “I work for Duluc Detective, and the boss asked me to watch his kid while she was here, seeing as she was going to be alone.”

   “All right, just don’t let the TV camera see you. You aren’t any Dark Destroyer, not on my beat,” the policeman said.

   “Yes, boss,” Bumpy said.

   “That policeman sounded mean to you,” Dottie said as they walked towards the field.

   “A happy raisin in the sun is a field of dreams, honey, a field of dreams.”

   Happy Felton was glad to see them, especially since they were on time. He explained the skit, where Dottie would stand, and where the camera and microphone would be. He showed her the certificate Pee Wee Reese would be handing her. “Hey, somebody roust Pee Wee, tell him we’re almost ready to go with the girl.” He told Dottie her time in the spotlight would last five minutes and to not be nervous.

   “I’m not nervous,” she said. “But I can’t wait to meet him.”

   He was more, not less what she thought he was going to be. He was taller.

   “You’re not a pee wee,” she said.

   “Not me, kid,” he said.

   Harold Henry Reese was five-foot-ten in his bare feet and pushing nearly 170-pounds. He played small ball, bunting, slashing singles, and stealing bases but he wasn’t a small man. He played the hole, shortstop, was the team captain, and wore number one on the back of his uniform shirt. 

   “He takes charge out there in a way to help all of us, especially the pitchers,” said Jackie Robinson, the team’s second baseman. “When Pee Wee tells us where to play or gives some of us the devil, somehow it is easy to take. He just has a way about him of saying the right thing,”

   Pee Wee and Jackie were the aces in the hole, the men who plugged the gaps between the bags. Not many balls got by them. They played shoulder to shoulder turning double plays. They ignored the catcalls on the road. They made their stand ending innings.

   “I like your button, but I don’t know about that cap,” said Pee Wee.

   “My dad is from Cleveland.” 

   “Well, that makes it all right then. It seems to fit you A-OK.”

   “I took a hot bath in it and wore it until it dried. Then I curved the bill and stuck it in one of my dad’s favorite coffee mugs overnight. The next morning, he was mad about it, and made me wash it out twice.”

   Happy Felton introduced the baseball player and the stickball player to each other and to the TV audience.

   “Your name is Dottie?”

   “Yes.”

   “That’s my wife’s name. Not only that you look a lot like her.”

   Dottie beamed, happy as could be.

   “Would you sign my baseball card?”

   “I sure will.”

   When he did, he congratulated her on her ball skills, she said she was rooting heart and soul for the Dodgers, he presented her with an official Dodger’s Certificate of Achievement, she held it up for the camera, and he pulled a big marble out of his pants pocket, handing it to her.

   “I played marbles when I was your age. This one is a shooter. The smaller ones we called ducks. You’ve heard about playing for keeps.”

   “That’s what my dad always says to do.”

   “That’s what you always do playing marbles, and baseball, and everything else. This one is yours to keep. You never know when it might come in handy.”

   Her five minutes were over in the blink of an eye. Pee Wee Reese glided away, Happy Felton eased her to the side, and Bumpy waved for her to come with him. As they walked down the right field foul line Dottie looked toward the opposite dugout.

   “Look, there’s dad,” Dottie said suddenly, pointing past Bumpy, who was on the inside track. 

   Stan and Ezra were in front of the third base home team dugout talking to a short thickset man smoking a fat cigar. The man pointed down the left field line. Another man, who had been leaning over the dugout, waved, and shouted something, and the cigar waggled him onto the field. The man stepped on the roof of the dugout and jumped down to the field. Stan Ezra the Cigar Man and the jumper huddled, and then went running up the foul line.

   “You stay here,” Bumpy said, starting to go around home plate. Dottie hesitated, but then ran straight across the field, cutting the corner in front of the pitcher’s mound.

   “Oh hell, “Bumpy swore under his breath, and broke into a sprint after her.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Walking Tall

By Ed Staskus

“Waiting for an invitation to arrive, goin’ to a party where no one’s still alive.” Oingo Boingo   

Barron Cannon laughed and made loop de loops at the side of his head with his index finger.

“Agent Orange has a screw loose,” he said. “But, since he’s at the top, he can take his crazy visions and turn them into reality. He’s like a saint from the Dark Ages who ate a moldy loaf of rye and saw God. It makes you wonder, am I or they round the bend?” He made a fist, raised his thumb, extended two fingers parallel to each other, and blew on the fingers.

“Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

Smoke signals and mirrors. Lipstick sour looks lapel flag pins and soapboxes in the halls of power. Men and women in ten thousand-dollar suits slowing down when they see a mirror.

We were sitting in the only place there are any chairs in Barron’s small neighborhood yoga studio, at the front by the windows facing the parking lot. The Quiet Mind is on Clifton Boulevard on the Lakewood side of the North Shore. Across the street is Cleveland, Ohio. He was drinking homemade Kombucha out of a travel mug and I was drinking Starbucks drive-thru coffee.

Barron had an Apple laptop in his lap. He was updating a Facebook post he had made offering yoga classes in return for turning in your guns. I chewed on my pencil. He was making like Wyatt Earp.

In 1881, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were running things in Tombstone, you could bring your gun into town, but you couldn’t keep it while in town. You had to check it into the sheriff’s office. There was stricter gun control in the Wild West than there is today. Nowadays in Tombstone, Arizona, anyone can carry a Ruger semi-automatic pistol in a fancy holster on his rattlesnake belt. There is no Wyatt Earp anymore with a Colt Peacemaker telling you to stash your gun in the sheriff’s office for the duration.

Barron Cannon’s amnesty program was in response to the massacre of 26 churchgoers in a small Texas town on November 5th, on a suddenly not quiet Sunday morning. President Donald Trump, kowtowing to the gun lobby, said after the shooting, “I think that mental health is your problem here.”

“I mean, when I say a loose screw, he signed a bill that Congress, the Republicans, the lunatics running the asylum, earlier in the year voted through that made it easier for crazy people to buy guns legally. I should probably say mentally ill, but if you’re buying six-shooters for protection, you’re crazier than the mentally ill. The horse is out of the barn. It’s blasting time, AR-15’s all around!”

Barron was working both sides of the street, as is his wont, but he had a point. One of Donald Trump’s first reactions in the White House was to roll back an Obama-era law that made it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy firearms. He made it easier, no trouble, a piece of cake.

“It is the height of hypocrisy for President Trump – who called the latest tragic mass shooting ‘a mental health problem at the highest level’ – to have rolled back a rule specifically designed to prevent some gun violence deaths,” said Senator Richard Blumental of Connecticut.

“Blaming mental health is a tactic straight out of the gun lobby’s playbook,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of Giffords, the gun control group started by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011, along with 18 other people, at a constituent meeting in Arizona.

“Maybe it’s more like crazy as a fox,” I said.

“The United States used to be a safe place, but not anymore. This year it ranked 114th on the Global Peace Index. It ranks lower every year. We’re edging towards Iraq and Syria. Maybe the Republicans are right. Maybe what we need are more not less guns.”

“Nope, wrong,” he said.

Barron Cannon can be abrupt high-hat holier-than-thou. He is not a sensitive, bias-free, politically correct man. Even though he has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is in his early 30s, he often behaves and speaks as though he grew up in the 1930s. He is as blunt barefaced austere as anybody from back in the Depression.

Barron Cannon is, however, hardly ever depressed. He says happiness doesn’t depend on the external, but rather on our mental attitude. The free flow yoga he teaches is as much about mental health as it is about physical health.

“The reason the United States is getting more dangerous is because there are more and more guns, not less,” he said. “Canada, Japan, and Australia are some of the safest places to live in the world, while here it’s every man for himself and God against all. Conservative Christians have more guns than anybody else.”

An American is 300 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a Japanese.

“There are hardly any guns in those countries,” he said. “All the guns are here.”

“They can’t all be here,” I said.

“Right you are, Jocko,” he said. My name isn’t Jocko, but Barron often fixes nicknames to people, like Shorty for a tall man and Train Track for someone wearing braces. His nickname for himself is Dazzy.

All of the White House men have had nicknames, from Father of the Country to Give ‘Em Hell Harry to No Drama Obama. Barron’s nickname for Donald Trump is Agent Orange.

“Not all the guns in the world are here, just most of them. There are fewer than 5% of the people on the planet here in the USA, but we have almost 50% of the guns in the world. Nobody messes with us. The Senate and the House, and now Trump World, they have their noses snagged in the NRA money clip. It stinks, but they can’t smell anything beyond the stench of fresh new one hundred dollar bills.”

A gun buyback program is a program to purchase privately owned guns, reducing how many guns there are in general among the general population. In 2003 and again in 2009 Brazil bought and destroyed more than a million guns. Firearm related mortality was reduced.

Gun amnesty programs involve handing in guns you shouldn’t have without being prosecuted for having them. In July 2017 Australia announced a national firearms amnesty. Anyone with an illegal firearm could turn it over to the police. Otherwise, they faced a quarter-million dollar fine. More than 50,000 guns were turned in.

In 1996 a gunman killed 35 tourists in Australia. It was the worst mass murder in the country’s history. By the end of the year, led by a conservative Prime Minister, sweeping gun control laws were put in place. A buyback resulted in more than 600,000 semi-automatic weapons being destroyed. There hasn’t been a mass shooting in Australia since.

In this country, more men, women, and children have been killed by gunfire in the past 50 years than have been killed on all the battlefields in all the wars America has ever fought. Gun control laws in the United States are, in general, laughable.

“I have a very strict gun control policy,” said Clint Eastwood, play acting being a bounty hunter dressed up as a rodeo clown in the caper movie “Pink Cadillac”.

“If there’s a gun around, I want to be in control of it.”

That is the state of gun control in the United States.

After the Las Vegas bloodbath on the night of October 1st in which 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured by a lone gunman with an army squad kettle of semi-automatic weapons fitted with bump stocks, Malcom Turnbull, the current Australian Prime Minister, said the politics of gun ownership in America was “almost beyond comprehension.”

He pointed out the intractable problem guns pose in the United States.

“There is a ferociously strong political lobby and the National Rifle Association, and millions of Americans who own guns and cherish their constitutional right to bear arms, But, of course, the right to bear arms was an 18th century concept, long before automatic weapons were even thought of, let alone invented.”

Americans are crazy about their guns. They often claim they need them for home security, which begs the question, how many enemies do they have? However, they rarely, if ever, go to home security trade shows and conventions. They go to gun trade shows and conventions, swap meets online purveyors private sellers, no background checks required. They love their guns.

What’s crazy is that after Sandy Hook, where 20 children and 6 teachers were killed in an elementary school, nothing changed, except that more guns have been sold in the past five years. It has become the new normal to massacre concertgoers, churchgoers, and kids going to school.

“Aren’t mass murderers crazy?” I asked.

“Nope, no matter what Agent Orange says,” said Barron Cannon. “It’s about one in five who are delusional or psychotic. Neither the Orlando nightclub shooter nor the Las Vegas killer had any apparent mental illnesses, unless you believe shooting people in and of itself is a mental illness. What they were was angry and disgruntled.”

“That’s not what the White House says,” I said.

“I know, but that’s what the Department of Justice says, which knows better than Agent Orange, who only knows blowhard bluster on Twitter. Most mass murderers are injustice collectors with gun collections. When you have a paranoid streak, that’s a personal problem. When you have a paranoid streak and a boatload of guns, then that becomes everybody’s problem. That’s what Agent Orange doesn’t want to talk about. ”

The NRA and gun enthusiasts are fond of saying guns don’t kill people, people kill people. They oppose regulations protecting American citizens from crazy malevolent gun violence. They never talk about Jayne Mansfield or Tylenol, since it would make everybody dizzy at NRA headquarters.

In 1967, when the Hollywood sexpot Jayne Mansfield rear-ended a tractor-trailer, ramming her car underneath it and dying as a result, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration immediately made it mandatory for all semi- truck trailers to be fitted with under-ride bars. In 1982, when 7 people in Chicago died from poisoned Tylenol, federal anti-tampering laws were immediately put in place. Bottles of everything medical have been hellishly hard to open ever since.

Between 1968 and 2015 the total deaths caused by firearms in the United States were 1,516,863. Getting shot is an immediate experience, since bullets travel on average 1,7000 MPH. Since 1968 it has gotten easier, not harder, to buy all the bigger badder faster-blasting guns you want. The pace of writing common sense gun laws has stayed at ZERO MPH.

“When it comes to guns everyone’s got their reason, the 2nd Amendment, target shooting, recreation, whatever that means, hunting, and personal protection,” said Barron. “The NRA and Agent Orange gush about the 2nd Amendment as an argument against gun control, but almost no one cares about that.”

The Gallup Poll consistently shows that about 5% of people who own guns cite the amendment as their reason.

“Personal safety is the reason most people own a gun,” he said.

The Gallup Poll has always shown that protecting themselves has been, by a wide margin, the number one reason people buy guns.

Whenever there is a mass murder, like the recent mass murders in Las Vegas and Texas, support for stricter gun laws spikes. After a month-or-so, even though more than 80% of Americans consider gun violence a big problem, interest fades until the next mass murder. In the meantime, Congress and the White House do nothing, except mouth platitudes about their thoughts and prayers being with the dead the wounded and their families.

They never actually get off their NRA-bought-and-paid-for bottoms and buy into 21st century gun control. “It’s time for Congress to get off its ass and do something,” said Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut. The chances of that happening are close to ZERO.

“Sometimes the notion that American society is inherently violent is floated as a reason there’s so much gun violence,” said Barron. ”Or it’s video games or racism or poverty. Conservative Christians say Satan is to blame. Agent Orange and Congress spearhead the notion that only crazy people are mass murderers. They propagate it being a nut case problem, not a gun problem.”

He looked down at his laptop and finished editing his Facebook post. When Barron Cannon has a great notion it’s best to wait him out.

“That’s all wrong,” he said. “It’s essentially about the astronomical number of guns in this country. That’s the problem. The other problem is that no wise man ever took a handgun to a gunfight. The times change and technology changes. You always take bigger and better ordinance.”

The more guns the more shooting.

“Yemen and Serbia have the next-highest rate of gun ownership in the world, next to the United States,” said Barron. “The United States has the highest rate of mass shootings in the world. It’s Boot Hill all over again, writ large.”

In the United States the homicide rate is 33 per million people, greater than any other developed country in the world. In Canada it is 0.7 per million. You are 50 times more likely to be shot and killed on the American side of Niagara Falls than you are on the Canadian side.

When the front door opened both Barron Cannon and I looked up. The tall young man stopped in the doorway, the late morning light silhouetting him. He had a Glock “Safe Action” Sig Sauer stuffed into the waistband of his black Levi’s.

Ohio is an open carry state.

“What can we do for you, partner?” asked Barron.

“Are you the outfit that’s doing the gun amnesty?”

“Sure are.”

“Well, this is what I’ve got for you,” said the lanky stranger. He pointed down at the bulge in his pants.

“I can’t shoot straight, anyways.” He tugged the gun out of his waistband and handed it butt first to Barron. “It’s not loaded.”

“That’s neighborly of you.”

“So I get 20 yoga classes for it?”

“That’s right,” said Barron. He flipped open his laptop. “Let’s get you signed up.”

Afterwards, after we had delivered the Glock to the Lakewood Police Department, during lunch at Melt Bar and Grill up the street, over a whiskey on ice in a lowball glass that I insisted Barron buy me to settle my nerves, I asked him if he thought his gun amnesty program would make any difference.

“There’s no energy in death,” he said. “There’s only life energy. If the White House and Congress won’t pull the trigger on gun control, then what we need is more breath control. That’s where yoga comes in. You can learn to be breathless without getting the breath knocked out of you by a bullet.”

Mao Zedong, the Communist Chinese dictator, was notorious for saying, “In order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.”

“He’s long gone,” said Barron. “Good riddance to bad rubbish. I say it’s necessary to take up yoga.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said.

Bang a Gong

By Ed Staskus

The first day of spring will officially arrive in the West Park neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, in about six weeks, on Friday March 20th, shortly after noontime. The sun may or may not make an appearance. Whether Dawn Schroeder will be in her backyard practicing yoga depends more on its unofficial than official arrival. It can and will be cold cloudy wet in March April and into May.

High temperatures slowly go up to 51°F by the end of the month. How often the sky is mostly cloudy or completely overcast actually goes down from 62% to 56%. The chance of a rainy day over the course of March, however, goes up, starting the month at 23% and ending it at 30%.

It’s not that Dawn is a fair-weather yogi practitioner sadhak. She cleaves to it all year round, especially since she teaches the practice, too. But living in C-land is living four seasons, and some of those seasons are lived indoors, for the most part, for good reason.

Snowstorms in March and April are not uncommon in northern Ohio. The snowfall in April 2005 set a record at 19 inches. Two years later more than 13 inches fell in April. All the green and budding growing things had to take a break and wait it out, waiting for life.

“Yoga and meditation have served me well as I navigate and embrace my life,” says Dawn.

She describes herself as “an experienced vinyasa and Kundalini Yoga teacher, with over two decades of active teaching, a wife, mother, sister, friend, gardener, nature lover, curious seeker, and a gong and sound enthusiast.”

The gong is a metal disk with a turned rim, a large percussion instrument played by hitting it with a mallet. It makes a complex resonant echoing sound.

“The gong is the first and last instrument for the human mind,” said Yogi Bhajan, the man who brought Kundalini Yoga to America in the 1960s. “Vibrate the cosmos and the cosmos shall clear the path.”

Banging a gong is a kind of sound practice that involves using specific tones and vibrations to facilitate healing. It is sometimes called a gong bath, like being bathed in meditative sound waves. The goals of gong meditation are therapeutic, healing the mind and body, and expanding one’s awareness of the present.

“Becoming a certified and registered yoga teacher saved me when I was a stressed-out bond futures broker at the Chicago Board of Trading in the mid-’80s,” said Dawn. “It healed my body, soothed my soul and ignited my spiritual path. It is my faithful companion.”

Bond trading isn’t for everyone. It’s demanding and stressful, personally emotionally intellectually. There are times when you are on top of the world and other times when you’re the worst trader in the history of capital markets. It’s tough being a Bond Girl, especially when the action goes against you. It can be a lucrative job, but it can also be a job that drives you unglued out of your mind.

“There is only one thing that can supersede and command the human mind, the sound of the gong,” said Yogi Bhajan. “It is the first sound in the universe, the sound that created this universe. It is the basic creative sound. The sound of the gong is like a mother and father. The mind has no power to resist a gong that is well played.”

Dawn received her first yoga certification in 1986. “I have been learning ever since,” she says. Learning every day is living like what you did yesterday isn’t going to be enough for tomorrow.

“I completed my first Yoga Teacher Training in 1985 and being a life-long student, I continue to train today. I have been a Level One Kundalini Yoga and Meditation teacher since 2011, and I train with prominent teachers, attend immersions, retreats, and have begun my Level Two Training.”

Ten years later, she left Chicago, moved to Cleveland, able to spend more time with her family. and stepped into teaching yoga professionally.

“I actively study many styles of yoga by attending teacher trainings and workshops,” she said. “I am a Registered Yoga Teacher with the Yoga Alliance at the E-RYT 500 level, a KRI Certified Kundalini Yoga teacher, and I am trained in YogaEd. As Adjunct Faculty, I teach Yoga for Educators courses and Yoga courses at Baldwin-Wallace University.”

She is also an avid gongster.

I am a Gong Meditation Enthusiast.”

She and her husband Mark host Triple Gong and Mantra Meditations on weekends at the Unity Spiritual Center in Westlake, not far from their home. Get it on, bang a gong, or more.

A Roman gong from the 2nd century was excavated in Wiltshire in England and they were known in China since the 6th century. The word gong is Javanese, where they were used from the 9th century onwards. Flat gongs are found throughout Asia and knobbed gongs dominate in Southeast Asia.

On Thursday nights the Schroeder’s host yoga, pranayama, kriya, meditation, and gong savasana at the Schroasis. The Schroasis is at their house. In the winter the oasis is indoors, while in summer the oasis is outdoors.

“We absolutely love how the Kundalini Yoga and Meditation Immersions have grown and connected us,” she says. “It’s a way to practice consistently with a fun, welcoming group of yogis. The immersions and offerings are always open to students of all levels, true beginners to seasoned yogis,” she said.

“Filling ourselves up from the inside grows our gratitude. Choose to fill yourself up intentionally with meaningful experiences that create sustaining fullness, curiosity, growth, and contentment, while relying on both established experiences like on-going yoga classes and new experiences to fuel your inner glow.”

The gong is used in Kundalini Yoga as an instrument of healing, rejuvenation, and transformation. The sound waves ostensibly stimulate our cells. The idea is to increase prana, the vital life force, release tension and blocks in the body, encourage the glandular and nervous system, and improve circulation. It is also thought to work on the mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies, quieting the mind in the long run.The idea is to take the listener to their non-judgmental neural mind, to a state of quiet, of stillness.

“I see my dharma as sharing what I know, and supporting growth, expansion, connection, truth, and unity in this world,” said Dawn. “This clarity in my purpose led to the creation of our PranaVerdana, hosting, co-creating, and facilitating events that are joyful, uplifting and inspiring, creating vibrant life force energy, prana. Moving our prana toward a green, lush heart-centered world is what I generously offer.”

In Sanskrit, prana means primary energy. It is sometimes translated as breath or vital force. Although prana is the basic life-force, it can be considered the original creative power. It is the master form of all energy at every level. It has also been translated as bio-energetic motility, alive and moving, associated with maintaining the functioning of the mind and body. Kundalini, in its form as prana-kundalini, is identical to prana.

“The gong is very simple,” said Yogi Bhajan. “It is an inter-vibratory system. It is the sound of creativity itself. The gong is nothing more, nothing less. One who plays the gong plays the universe. The gong is not an ordinary thing to play. Out of it came all music, all sounds, and all words. The sound of the gong is the nucleus of the Word. “

In the beginning was the word, a sound, a vibration.

“The way I play it is my pleasure,” he added. “The gong is not a musical instrument, nor a drum. The gong is God, so it is said and so it is. The gong is a beautiful reinforced vibration. It is like a multitude of strings, as if you played with a million strings. The gong is the only tool with which you can produce this combination of space vibrations.”

Dawn teaches yoga at the Inner Bliss studios in both Rocky River and Westlake and freelances around town. She has completed Advanced Chakra Yoga Teacher Training and Lotus Palm Thai Yoga Massage trainings. “I am a polarity practitioner, and bring my exploration of Ayurveda, Reflexology, energy work, and essential oils to my client wellness services.”

She facilitates a variety of workshops, events, retreats, and trainings. “I have a playful, mature, empowering, eclectic style of teaching influenced by my trainings, personal experiences, and practice,” said Dawn. She inspires energizes networks collaborates. She fires it up.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Cher Lukacs, founder and director of Sat Nam Studio. “Dawn Schroeder, my teacher, had been working tirelessly to bring the first Kundalini Yoga teacher training to Cleveland. After her Saturday morning classes, she would regularly report her steady progress toward making this dream a reality.

“A year earlier I had rented the space next to my law practice, planning to sublet to like-minded professionals. Despite some interest, it was not jelling. It was as if the space was quietly waiting.  One day when Dawn announced that a new space was needed for the training, I suddenly heard myself telling her, I have a space.”

“The studio was born as a school of Kundalini Yoga.”

“Gong is the only instrument that can create the vibration of affirming,” said Yogi Bhajan. “Life becomes yes to you and the word no is eliminated from your dictionary.”

Gongs are an integral traditional aspect of Kundalini Yoga. Every Kundalini ashram and yoga center and ashram is supposed to have a gong and use it faithfully., since it is felt to be more than a musical instrument, more in the realm of a healing tool. There are several mantras practitioners often chant out loud as a class before the playing of the gong. One of them is the Bhakti mantra and the other one is the Mangalacharan mantra. The one shows an appreciation for the moment and the gong while the other signals peace and centeredness.

“A gong bath truly is a transformative experience,” says Bridget Toomey, who teaches Kundalini Yoga at Heartland Yoga in Iowa City.

“To get a taste, start by imagining yourself lying in a dark room, on top of a yoga mat, covered in a blanket. The teacher directs you to relax each part of your body one muscle at a time, from your toes to your tongue. The sound begins quietly at first and then slowly becomes louder and more rhythmic and trance-inducing. The vibrations wash over your body. Time seems to slip away and what feels like five minutes can really be 30. That is the power of a gong bath.”

At about the same time Dawn Schroeder was transitioning out of bond trading in Chicago, the Philadelphia rock ‘n’ roll star Todd Rundgren was headlining the charts with his hit single ‘Bang the Drum All Day.’

“I don’t want to work, I want to bang on the drum all day, I don’t want to play, I just want to bang on the drum all day, I can do this all day.”

“You have no resistance against this sound, the gong,” said Yogi Bhajan “It is the master sound. Everything you think becomes zero. The gong prevails.”

“I am so grateful I found yoga and I love sharing it and watching students grow,” says Dawn. “I came to the mat seeking ease in my body and had no idea it would change my life. Yoga is the perfect complement to our hectic, stressful lifestyles.”

Dawn Schroeder isn’t a headbanger, but when she bangs her gong, she’s got her head in the right place.

The 4th Om

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was kind enough to say it was.

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

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

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

Then the noise started.

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

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

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

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

It was the first time I practiced OM with sincerity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It turned into a long rolling resonant OM.

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.