Blaze It and Bend It

A long time ago, during the Age of Flower Children, when yoga was gaining traction in the United States, an Indian guru with a bushy beard, Sri Swami Satchidananda, was invited by the avant-garde psychedelic artist Peter Max to visit the country.

Three years later, accompanied by twenty-four young yogis, he was the opening speaker at Woodstock, the 1969 music arts and peace festival.

Drug use ran rampant among the estimated half million in attendance. “There were a lot of good trips at Woodstock,” said co-promoter Artie Kornfeld. “But, there were some bad ones, too.”

The festival’s P. A. system kept up a running commentary. “The brown acid that is circulating around, please be advised there is a warning on that.” Freak out tents dotted the muddy pastureland in upstate New York.

Although not a user himself, Sri Swami Satchidananda was tolerant of the hippie generation, and didn’t condemn their search for a higher consciousness. He did, however, offer yoga as an alternative to drugs. “My teacher always said, if you get high, you have to get low. He suggested getting off the pendulum, and living in balance. That’s yoga.”

Most of the old-school yoga masters were like that.

“If you have to be addicted to something, be addicted to doing sadhana daily,” said Yogi Bhajan, who introduced Kundalini Yoga in 1968. “You are not free by taking drugs. You’ll always be dragging your life.”

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim,” said B. K. S. Iyengar. “The better your practice, the brighter the flame. When you inhale you are taking the strength from God. When you exhale, it represents the service you are giving to the world.” He didn’t mean flaming up the bone, nor did he mean inhaling a puff of bhang. He meant a different kind of magic dragon.

But, that was then, and this is now.

When Yoga Journal moved to Boulder, Colorado, almost two years ago, and nearly forty-five years after Woodstock, it was probably inevitable they would sooner or later conflate goddess pose with ganja. That’s exactly what happened.

Colorado criminalized marijuana use in 1917. It decriminalized it in 2012. In 2014 Colorado’s marijuana market reached total sales of $700 million.

Yoga Journal jumped on the $700 million bandwagon with a market–friendly article by Mike Kessler about getting ready for yoga class by getting stoned, even though it involved some anxiety. “I’m way too stoned for yoga,” he wrote. “I mill among the strangers and try to figure out what to do first – take off my shoes or sign in.”

Like Cheech and Chong said, “Hey, things are tough all over.”

Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life. When one is wasted – “It creates awareness, reveals the truth,” said Mr. Kessler, shifting gears – making decisions can become easier, or not. Mr. Kessler eventually took his shoes off and signed in.

“Class has only just begun and my weed-addled monkey-mind is swinging from tree to tree.” The class was 420 Remedy at Atwater Yoga in L. A., a class for yogis under the influence. Stephani Manger, the class teacher – “Warm and lovely,” said Mr. Kessler – came to the rescue, calming him down, reminding him to not try too hard.

420 Remedy is the brainchild of Liz McDonald, the yoga studio owner, who had an epiphany on a sunny beach in Brazil. “It was otherworldly. Mixing yoga and pot took me into the next dimension.”

“It can help break down inhibitions,“ said John Friend, the former Anusara Yoga kingpin.

Before the Age of Flower Children some of India’s sadhus, or holy men, smoked chillum pipes packed with ganja, hash, and tobacco. The purpose was to keep their minds focused and strengthen their energy for penance and meditation.

“The purpose has never been intoxication,” explained a contemporary sadhu, Sri Saraswati. “It is supposed to reduce sexual desire.”

Sadhus have been known to go naked in the dead of winter, which might explain things.

Bhang and ganja have long been smoked in India. It is associated with immortality. Four thousand years ago in the Atharva Veda, which is known as the veda of magical formulas, it was celebrated as a “sacred grass.” Fakirs, renowned for being able to tie themselves up into knots and even survive being buried alive, have for centuries fortified themselves with it. They believe it is a gift from God.

Like Willie Nelson said, “God put it here. What gives anyone the right to say God is wrong?”

The unholy crusade against drugs began in 1914 after the United States Opium Commissioner revealed Americans were consuming more habit-forming drugs per person than anywhere else in the world. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, among others, were legal then as long as they were accurately labeled with their contents and dosage.

After alcohol became a good thing again in 1933 President Roosevelt made it a point to praise the International Opium Convention and the race to criminalize drugs was on. In 1971, as he was winding down the War in Vietnam, President Nixon declared a new War on Drugs.

From 2001 to 2010 more than 8 million marijuana arrests were made nationwide. Ninety percent of those arrests were for possession. More people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined.

Drug offenders locked up in federal and state prisons have increased 13-fold since First Lady Nancy Reagan said “Just Say NO” in 1982. Today the War on Drugs, all the criminalized drugs, costs about $51 billion a year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.

The only people winning the War on Drugs are the drug gangs. If it weren’t so horrible it would be horrible.

Using drugs is a personal choice, not a crime. No one of legal age should have to live up to the fears and expectations of self-appointed drug czars. The War on Drugs is a War on Personal Choice.

In 2001 Portugal decriminalized all drugs within its borders. Since then drug use of all kinds, from marijuana to heroin, has fallen. “There is no doubt that the phenomenon of addiction is in decline in Portugal,” said Joao Goulao of the Institute on Drugs and Drug Addiction.

In October 2015 more than 130 American police chiefs and prosecutors called for less incarceration. “You can’t arrest your way out of the problem,” said William Bratton, the police chief of NYC.

Decriminalizing all drugs may not be a cure, but it isn’t the disaster that the War on Drugs has been. At least, if and when Walgreens was doing the pushing, the drug gangs would end up on the losing side.

Wrapping up his 420 Remedy class Mr. Kessler summed up saying “my stoned-yoga experience turned out positive.” At Ganja Yoga in San Francisco instructor Dee Dussault describes the benefits of pot yoga as “trippy relaxation, pain-relief, sensuality, and the cultivation of inner peace.”

“Class went by in a snap,” said Jessica Misener of Ms. Dussault’s class. “I tend to get bored during yoga classes that are longer than an hour, but the second half of this one felt like it was only five minutes long. Thanks, cannabis!”

“I go more deeply into the asanas,” said Mark Smith, a novelist who has practiced yoga for more than 20 years, sometimes under the influence. “Part of the point of yoga is to relax the body. Marijuana helps a lot of people to do that.”

However, all the point of yoga, not just part of the point, aims at realizing who you are, not who you are on drugs. Who you are isn’t what kind of a house you live in, or what kind of a car you drive, or whether you prefer Golden Goat to Ghost Train Haze.

If those things are who you are, you don’t need yoga. You’ve already got everything you want. Your house, your car, and your Ghost Train are doing it for you. Yoga is different. You have to do it for yourself. It’s not about the gravy train. Yoga is about effort and self-awareness.

It isn’t about anyone’s hobbies or politics, whether they teach high school science or thrive on tech in San Francisco. It’s about the inner being beyond the externals. It’s about practicing with dedication, whether it’s asana or meditation or any of yoga’s other aspects, and cultivating detachment.

It’s not about cultivating the back forty with bhang.

“The real value of yoga is the opportunity it offers to know yourself,” said Kaitlin Quistgaard, former editor of Yoga Journal. “Alone on your mat, with your breath and a few poses, you get to see.”

Intense breathing with a bong at hand is one thing. Intense yoga breathing, which also triggers endorphins, is another thing. They are two different ways of breathing, of seeing. “I’m going to teach you how to get high on your breath,” said Yogi Bhajan.

Although using drugs is a personal choice and should not, for many reasons, be criminalized, there are consequences. Many studies, from the National Institutes of Health to the Journal of Psychiatry, have demonstrated that marijuana, depending on the dose, has a negative impact on cognition.

Using radioactive markers researchers at the University of Texas have shown that cocaine decreases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, mimicking what happens to people who suffer a stroke.

The less said about heroin and methamphetamine, the better.

Just like drugs do, yoga changes the brain, but in a different way. Over time the brain learns to pay attention to the present moment and calm down.

Cognitive research at the University of Illinois has found that test scores improve after practicing yoga. A 12-week study by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that Iyengar Yoga alters brain function, increasing cerebral blood flow.

“Yoga thickens the layers of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain associated with higher learning, and increases neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things and change the way we do things,” explained Dr. Loren Fishman of the Columbia Medical School.

One of the legacies of the Age of Flower Children is the idea of looking beyond established thought, of pushing boundaries, and thinking for yourself. Widespread drug use and yoga both went mainstream with the advance of the counterculture, although one practice went to Ecstasy and the other practice on the path to a different kind of consciousness.

Knowledge is recognizing ripe tomatoes are a fruit. Wisdom is not putting one into a fruit salad. “The attaining of higher consciousness cannot simply be gained by the use of a drug,” says David Frawley of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.

Like Yogi Bhajan said, “Your brain will become feeble.“

Even though it’s often been pointed out you can’t fix stupid, a good place to start might be to not blaze it at snack time, and just go cold turkey when going to yoga class.

Good Vibrations

Before she spent eight years chanting with Frank Barnett, before she took the stage with Brenda McMorrow at Bhakti Fest, and long before she sang back-up harmonies for Jai Uttal, Beth Gatchall sang ‘Dance of the Sleepyheads’ with her grandmother waking up early summer mornings in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“I was always singing with my grandma, singing songs, and learning songs.”

Even kirtan singers start small.

“My grandma was a schoolteacher, she always had a piano in her classroom, and sang songs with the kids,” said Ms. Gathchall. “All the cousins in the family know the sleepyhead song. Whenever we sing the tagline to each other we just crack up.”

Growing up in Chillicothe, a small town on the Scioto River in southern Ohio, the home of Bob’s Banjo Barn, Ms. Gatchall began taking piano lessons from both her grandmother and a family friend at the age of six.

“I really took to it. I could read music and I practiced as much as I could.”

At ten she decided to branch out and learn how to play drums.

“But, I didn’t think my parents would go for the drums, so I went for the trumpet, instead, although I think it might have been equally boisterous.”

Her parents were between a rock and a hard place.

The sound level of drum kits is usually around 110 decibels, although rim shots can peak at 135. Trumpets typically generate levels in excess of 110 decibels. Many power saws are rated at the level of 100 – 120 decibels.

While in middle school, and throughout high school, she played in bands, sometimes two and three at the same time. When she left Chillicothe to attend Baldwin Wallace College, where she earned a BS in Biology, she took her trumpet with her.

“I was in love with it. I used to play every day.”

In her senior year she grew interested in the guitar. “I was just enchanted by the sound of Peter, Paul, and Mary, their guitars and their harmonies.” She took a class, and after graduation studied with a local teacher, Bruce Walker, for seven years.

When she later teamed with Kasimira Vogel in 2009 to form Pale Daisies, an acoustic guitar and rhythm instruments duo, she credited Mr. Walker as one of her influences, along with the Carter Family and Blue Sky Boys.

“But, where I really learned to play was when I went to work at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.”

The museum’s loosely-knit basement band was well into its more than 20-year tradition of playing roots folk music during their lunch hour when Beth Gatchall started watching and listening to them.

“They would tip their guitars away so I could watch their hands, and if I didn’t get the chords they would show them to me, always encouraging me,” she said.

“They were so kind.”

At the same time that Beth Gatchall was learning to fingerpick the guitar she was beginning to dip her toe into yoga. It was while she was teaching aerobics at the YMCA in Lakewood, the first-ring western suburb of Cleveland she had re-located to, that she took a yoga class, which led her to Bhumi’s Yoga and Wellness.

Harriet Bhumi Russell, a former Director of Yoga Teacher Training at the Kripalu Center who has studied with Amrit Desai and BKS Iyengar, opened the first public yoga center in metropolitan Cleveland in 1992.

After several years of taking classes, as well as practicing with Tom Carney, a Lakewood-based Ashtanga Yoga teacher, in 2003 Ms. Gatchall put on her game face.

“I decided I would do teacher training, so I did that,” she said.

Teacher training typically focuses on yoga exercise, the names of postures, principles of anatomy, an introduction to the subtle body, as well as some history and philosophy. Ms. Gatchall’s training was more wide-ranging, even involving kirtan.

Kirtan is a sing-along is which the performer, or leader, sings a mantra, and the audience sings it back. Kirtan is chanting, although chanting is not necessarily kirtan. Call-and-response chants can last 30 and 40 minutes. It’s a way to immerse oneself in sound, or in a meditation of vibration.

“It definitely didn’t resonate with me at first. My reaction was, this is bizarre. But, that’s how I met Frank.”

Frank Barnett, a Cleveland native and fellow yoga teacher trainee, was already immersing himself in Bhakti Yoga and kirtan.

“Frank was doing some kirtans with Bhumi at a Presbyterian church. I went there, but I didn’t have the greatest experience. Frank and I started talking about it and he really listened to me. When that kirtan at the church dried up he took it to his house and we started to do a lot of chanting together.”

They hosted a monthly kitchen party kirtan and for several years a Sunday night sit-in-a-circle-on-the-floor kirtan at Inner Bliss, one of Cleveland’s most popular yoga studios, with Frank on harmonium and Beth on guitar.

“Singing together with Frank is what put the practice in my heart,” said Ms. Gatchall. “It was a powerful experience. He shared so much unconditional love with me through that practice. We got to be great friends.”

Frank Barnett committed suicide in 2011.

“There were growing indications that something wasn’t right, but I didn’t see the bigger picture,” said David Barnett, Frank’s brother and a reporter for National Public Radio. “He became increasingly irritable as his search for a job dragged on, after having been laid off three years before.”

Someone dies by his or her own hand in the United States about every 15 minutes. Most Americans believe adults have a moral right to suicide, according to the Pew Research Center. The Bhagavad Gita, a central yoga text, says that the self is eternal and cannot die. You can kill the body, but you can’t kill the self.

“We had been working on the Hanuman Chalisa,” said Ms. Gatchall. “I said the verses through a million tears every night when Frank passed. After a year of playing it continuously in my car I learned it.”

The Hanuman Chalisa is a 40-verse 16th century devotional hymn. Hanuman is a monkey-like being, sometimes described as an incarnation of Shiva, the God known as the Destroyer, and the hymn invokes his strength and wisdom.

“Then I learned Mere Gurudev. It’s a beautiful melody, and haunting. I sang that when we distributed Frank’s ashes.”

Frank Barnett’s ashes were scattered in the Rocky Mountains by a handful of his friends. “This mind of mine, this body of mine, my every atom is dedicated to you,” sang Ms. Gatchall. For the next three years she kept up Mr. Barnett’s work with the Cleveland Kirtan Community.

“I just continued the practice.”

In 2012 she expanded her horizons by going to Bhakti Fest with her friend Craig Wise, known as Narada Wise, a percussionist and singer-songwriter.

Bhakti Fest Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, is a 4 – 5 day festival of lectures, workshops, and practice. The kirtan ranges from the popular, like the Wild Lotus Band, to the local, like Amy and the Tribal Bliss Band.

Bhakti Fest West, a larger gathering, is a six-day festival in the desert of Joshua Tree, California. Both fests are centered on the devotional paths of yoga, meditation, personal growth, and especially kirtan. The soundtrack never stops.

“They’re huge festivals, beautiful, and just jubilant,” said Ms. Gatchall.

“Kirtan is a practice of singing from your heart. When you chant from your heart it’s the same as my heart, like we’re all in this together. It’s a community experience. I got that from Frank, from my friendship with him. It’s all about giving and receiving the chant, back and forth.”

Her first year at Bhakti Fest Ms. Gatchall worked as a volunteer backstage. The next year she was on stage with Brenda McMorrow.

Ms. McMorrow is a well-known Canadian musician with roots in both folk and jazz. She has described her first encounter with kirtan as not knowing what it was about, only knowing that “every cell in my body started vibrating.” She needed an extra harmony vocalist for her next day’s set at Bhakti Fest.

“Oh, Beth can sing harmony,” said Narada Wise.

“So, within an hour I was at Brenda’s campsite and she was teaching me the music,” said Ms. Gatchall. “The next day I was on stage singing with her. It was so fun, so fun.”

Kirtans are usually sung in their native language, which is Sanskrit. “It’s a vibrational language. There’s something powerful about the vibrations of the mantras. When you intend them sincerely from your heart space, they’re potent.”

Kirtan is the participatory chanting of simple melodies. The imaginary fourth wall between performer and audience is not just blurred, but it and the other three walls of the stage are imagined away, so that performer and audience are all on the same stage.

“It’s not about having a great voice or knowing anything about Hanuman,” said Ms. Gatchall.

Krishna Das, the best-known kirtan singer of his time, has said knowing the meaning of the lyrics isn’t the first or even the last step. “It’s about doing it and experiencing. Nothing to join, you just sit down and sing.”

Ms. Gatchall recently appeared at the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom with Jai Uttal. She is the singer and guitarist in her own Vandanam Kirtan Band, accompanied by Eric Vogt on drums and George Shumway on upright bass. She performs at kirtan chant events throughout northern Ohio from the Zen Temple to Yoga Rocks the Park.

“The feeling of kirtan is a warmth in my heart that spreads through my body,” she said. “It’s a sense of vibration, of joy, in me.

“Something ignites in your body. It’s the yoga of the heart.”

Never Trust a Yoga Teacher Under 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Palese has seen some of these teachers in action.

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

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

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

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

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

A yoga enthusiast can train for 200 hours, earn their Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT) title, and open a studio the next day. Although the registration is not a certification, it is a listing of those “who meet our minimum requirements for teaching experience,” according to Yoga Alliance.

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

First grade coursework involves learning to read simple rhymes, beginning to count by 2s and 5s, and science experiments such as how pushing and pulling affects a wooden block. Sometimes a child will throw another child out of a chair to illustrate how forces at work can propel something at rest. It does not involve complex dispositions of the body on a mat, concentration of energy in one place, or lessons on how to achieve a unified state of mind.

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

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

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

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

It is basically a free-for-all

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

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

No matter the dada-like sense of it, many yoga masters laugh all the way to the bank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although it is certainly laudable of Yoga Alliance to be mindful of the yoga community, it may be equally true that 200-hour teachers understand little of the landscape of yoga, although Mr. McCord has said, “It’s not illegal to teach without training as a teacher.”

Maybe not, but maybe it should be, given that minimally-educated teachers instructing the uninformed in flow-based yoga to the soundtrack of their rocking iPods may be doing more harm than good.

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

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

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

Hooray for social media!

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

Although it is true that experience is gained by making mistakes, and real knowledge comes from direct experience, which under 30 teachers are doing, it is also true that since experience is a brutal teacher, when it comes to rolling out one’s mat it might be better to do so in front of someone who’s already learned all about drawing without an eraser.

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

In the Wide Blue Yonder

Most people practice most of their yoga indoors, the weather being what it is. Yoga studios are almost always inside buildings, anyway, which is a good thing if it’s winter in Vermont or summer in Mississippi.

Practicing indoors means being able to practice in the middle of a blizzard or a thunderstorm, or even a sprinkle. It means practicing in a space set aside for exercise and breath work, or just meditation, without interruption. It means being able to be consistent in one’s practice, a habit considered to be fundamental to gaining ground.

No rain checks are ever needed when unrolling a mat at your local studio or your rec room. They are private spaces, spaces in which the environment is controlled.

Some practices, like Bikram Yoga, are performed indoors only, unless it’s in heat-ravaged places like Pakistan in the clutches of a post-modern climate event, when you might as well be outside. Even then it probably doesn’t measure up to what Bikram Choudhury, with his 24-karat smile, calls his “torture chambers.”

K. Pattabhi Jois, the man who developed Ashtanga Yoga, on which most yoga in the West is based, recommended that it be practiced indoors.

“Outside don’t take,” he said. “First floor is a good place. Don’t go upstairs, don’t go downstairs.”

When asked about yogis in India practicing in the forest he said, “That is very bad.”

Although there are problems associated with practicing outdoors, from tradition to biting insects to lightning, yogis do it all the time, especially in places like southern California, where there are many classes like Runyon Canyon Yoga and Beach Yoga with Brad.

“Ditch the confines of the indoors,” says CBS Los Angeles.

“If you’re doing yoga indoors you’re cheating yourself,” said Sarah Stevenson, a Certified Yoga Instructor in Orange County, California. “The sun’s rays and fresh air provide not only improved physical health, but also spiritual and emotional wellbeing.”

It isn’t just luminous climes, either. From Missoula to Minneapolis, any place where the winters are long and dark, the sun-starved come out in droves in the summer.

Some don’t wait for the solstice.

Members of the yoga project ‘Y-8’ routinely practice their Alsteryoga on the frozen-over Lake Alster in the northern German town of Hamburg. They make sure to pull the hoods of their insulated sweatshirts over their heads in headstand.

Whether it’s ice or sand or grass, or the top of a paddleboard on a lake that’s defrosted, the instability of ground outdoors makes for a challenging experience.

“When you’re not on a solid wood surface, you end up using different parts of your body,” said Jennifer Walker, an instructor in Maine. “Outside, you end up engaging your core much more to stabilize your whole body.”

I only practice outdoors sometimes because I’ve carved out a space at home I like, and because the weather in Lakewood, just outside Cleveland, Ohio, is very unpredictable, while the bugs that fly up out of the nearby river valley are equally predictable.

But, during two rainless weeks my wife and I spent in North Rustico, on the north coast of Canada’s Prince Edward Island, at the Coastline Cottages on the National Park shoreline, I moved my practice outside. At times in the morning, but more often in the afternoon, when the crab apple tree at the back of our cottage cast a convenient dappled shadow, I unrolled my mat on the grass and set about doing asanas, warming up with sun salutations.

“When I practice outdoors, there is this amazing energy,” said Angela Jackson, an instructor in Oakville, Ontario, Canada. “I feel more connected to the earth, the birds, the animals, the sky, and to myself.”

I practiced almost every day, because the days were warm and it was usually breezy where we were on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. I was bitten every day by mosquitoes, as well as occasionally by black flies from the dense woods beside the fifty acres of soybeans behind the cottages.

Prince Edward Island is predominately a farming and fishing province. We once stayed in a cottage next to a barn full of cows. Every room in the cottage came equipped with a fly swatter.

The reason we feel more connected to the earth when we practice outdoors is because we are standing directly on the earth, on the soil and grass of it. PEI is made of soft red sandstone and its soil is an iron oxide red. The contrast of bright green grass to the red land on a summer day is often striking.

I saw lots of sky on my back in the wide blue yonder. Many crawling insects zigzagged across my mat, some birds flew overhead, and one afternoon a week-and-a-half after already being on PEI a red fox watched me for a long time.

Most of the birds I saw were wood warblers and cormorants, an easy to spot coastal bird with short wings and a long neck, and a couple of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, who darted in and out of the crab apple tree.

The red fox surprised me. I knew they were all over the north shore. We had seen them, on the shoulders of roads, or the edge of woods, always looking for handouts.

From 1900 until the 1930s black silver fox farming – the silver fox is a mutation of the island’s ubiquitous red fox – was a cash crop on Prince Edward. Fox pelts were in high style, but cost an arm and a leg because they could only be got from trappers. No one knew how to raise them until in the 1890s two men, a PEI druggist and a farmer, perfected a way to domesticate and breed foxes.

It made many Islanders rich: the price for a bred fox pelt, never mind a trapped pelt, in 1910 was a jaw-dropping $1200.00. To put that into perspective, farm laborers on PEI in 1910 averaged a dollar a day in pay.

The Great Depression and changing fashion crippled the market and by the 1950s fox farming was finished on Prince Edward Island. Most farmers simply let their animals loose.

“My grandfather raised horses and foxes for pelts,” said Kelly Doyle, a longtime North Rustico lobsterman whose Coastline Cottages, overlooking the eponymous Doyle’s Cove, we were staying at. “But, then they weren’t cool anymore, so he let all the foxes out and my father who couldn’t make a living at that became a farmer.”

Spotting a fox in woods or fields used to be out of the ordinary, but sightings nowadays are commonplace.

“Whereas foxes once avoided human contact, they now venture up to parked cars, presumably looking for food,” said Ryan O’Connor, who grew up on PEI and is a historian of Canada’s environmental movement.

Although some of the issues with sun salutations in the sun are bad weather and bugs and sometimes too much sunshine, rarely is the issue a wild animal.

I don’t know when the red fox slipped behind the adjacent cottage to ours. I saw him midway through my practice, when I lengthened into plank from down dog and transitioned into up dog, and there he was, about fifty feet away from me.

Mr. Doyle has a rule at the cottages: Don’t Feed the Animals. The rule is to discourage foxes from loitering, looking for a free meal. I hadn’t seen anyone breaking the rule, but there was the red fox, behind the cottage next to ours, giving me the once over.

“They won’t bother you, or bite you,” Mr. Doyle had told us.

I had no reason to doubt him, so I continued what I was doing, sneaking a peek at the animal now and then. The fox was small, maybe 20 or 25 pounds, with a reddish-brown coat, white under belly, and a black-tipped nose. One of his eyes was cloudy, as though it had been hurt.

He lounged and moved more like a cat than a dog, although foxes are a part of the dog family. His ears were triangular and when he cocked his head and his ears went erect he looked like a Maine Coon with a muzzle in a mousing position.

All during the rest of my yoga practice that day the fox never made a sound, and even seemed to doze off for a few minutes. When he left, moving away into the soybean field, he walked on his toes, heels off the ground, agile and swift. I didn’t see him again.

Living north of the Mason-Dixon line I am by necessity forced to practice yoga indoors most of the time. But, moving one’s mat outdoors isn’t necessarily for the birds, if only because that’s where the prana is. In the world of yoga prana means life force and pranayama means breath work, or breathing exercises. To practice outdoors is to be immersed in the source of prana, whether you mean it as the source of life or simply as the air we breathe.

Bringing a breath of fresh air into your body and brain is refreshing. Great wafts of fresh air are even better.

There was more than enough of it for both the quiet red fox and me the afternoon we shared it, dwarfed by a vast horizon and gigantic puffy white clouds blowing out to the Atlantic Ocean, behind a small cottage beside a Prince Edward Island soybean field.

Hooray for the Home Team

I was excited when I got an e-mail from Inner Bliss on June 3rd, the day before the start of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Inner Bliss is one of Cleveland’s premier yoga studios.

“In honor of our CAVS, celebrate the beginning of the NBA Finals at Inner Bliss all day Thursday! Tomorrow, June 4th wear your CLE Cavaliers gear to any class, all day long and get $5 off your class tomorrow!

Show up and show our team that we’re #ALLinCLE.”

Who wouldn’t want to honor the hometown team? And celebrate, too, obviously, although I wondered if that would be appropriate if the Cavaliers lost the series, which seemed likely since the Las Vegas line was all on the side of the Warriors.

After the first game was said and done the smart money line seemed to be as straight as a Stephen Curry free throw: all net.

The pictures illustrating the Inner Bliss e-mail were galvanizing: a dramatic black-and-white shot of the hometown team taken from behind as they faced a sea of fans. The second shot was of a sea of yogis on their mats on the hardwood floor of Quicken Loans Arena meditating, some with their hands in prayer at their hearts. (Inner Bliss is part of a group that sponsors large citywide yoga events at places like the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland Museum of Art, and Quicken Loans Arena.) The third shot was of the team’s furry mascot in a kind of lunge, like Warrior Pose, with his biceps flexed in classic muscleman style.

The last image was the corporate logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The difference between Las Vegas and modern yoga is that Las Vegas is more yogic about professional sports than yoga is. The only bandwagon Las Vegas ever jumps on is the one going down the yellow brick road. It doesn’t matter whose corporate sports logo is on the side of the wagon. There are no hometown favorites in Sin City.

At the bottom of the Inner Bliss e-mail it said: LET’S GET FRIENDLY!

But, what to wear to class on June 4th to get my $5.00 discount? I didn’t own any branded athletic gear of any kind, not even Cavalier gear, despite their rumble through the Eastern Conference play-offs. I looked up Cleveland’s NBA store, which was at the Team Shop in Quicken Loans Arena, and drove downtown to buy some gear.

Parking was $15.00, but I thought, it’s the CAVS!

I almost bought the J. R. Smith Adidas Replica Road Jersey, because J. R. has been my favorite player all year, impersonating Ray Allen from behind the 3-point line game after game and a professional basketball player most of the time the rest of the time, and besides, his sleeveless replica was only $69.95.

In the end, though, I bought the King’s jersey, the man who for all intensive purposes had single-handedly both willed and freight-trained his team into the NBA Finals. The LeBron James Adidas Gold Jersey was still in stock at $109.95, so I snapped it up before anyone else could get to the loose ball.

On my way home, since it was a fine, sunny afternoon, I took the old Shoreway, which winds west along the coast of Lake Erie, rather than the interstate. I began to question whether wearing a replica jersey was enough in terms of showing up and showing my hometown team that I was #ALLinCLE.

I should go to the games, I thought.

One of Inner Bliss’s stock-in-trade posts the past few years have been yogi blurbs titled: WHY I SHOW UP.

Sitting on the sidelines, as they say in yoga class, isn’t going to make you stand up true and straight. You need to show up. It’s all about heart. That’s what basketball players do when they make the big shot: thump their chests.

The first two games of the NBA Finals were scheduled in Oakland, the next two in Cleveland, and the series alternated after that until one team or the other finally won four games and snatched the brass ring.

When I got home I started searching for tickets.

At first I was mildly shocked. The worst seats at Quicken Loans Arena, in the nosebleed section, started at more than $400.00. Seats in the lower bowl were in the vicinity of $1,500.00. When I spotted what courtside floor seats cost I was seriously shocked: $60,000.00.

It wasn’t a brass ring the two professional basketball teams were grabbing for. It was a solid gold ring, encrusted with rare gems, and fashioned by the hand of God.

I would have to sell our house to buy two courtside seats, for my wife and myself, for the first two home games. I tried not to think about what popcorn and Big Gulp sodas might cost us.

Hopefully, the Warriors would sweep the Cavaliers in four and there wouldn’t be anymore home games. If there were I would go bankrupt trying to show up.

Mysore, India, is one of the birthplaces of yoga. It is where Krishnamacharya taught in the 1930s, B. K. S. Iyengar honed his craft, and where the K. Pattabbi Jois Yoga Institute is to this day.

If my wife and I moved to Mysore a two-bedroom apartment in a better neighborhood, with a full kitchen, WIFI, and daily maid service, and including utilities, would cost about $600.00 a month. Eating out in Mysore costs between $1.00 – $2.00 for breakfast or lunch and $2.00 – $4.00 for dinner. My wife doesn’t practice yoga, but if I took a daily class at a local non-famous studio it would cost $100.00 – $150.00 a month.

In other words, for the cost of two lower bowl tickets at two NBA Finals games at Quicken Loans Arena my wife and I could live well, and I could practice yoga every day at a studio in Mysore, for about six months. For the cost of two courtside tickets for two games we could stay there for about twenty years.

Since my wife is not interested in professional sports we finally decided against showing up at #ALLinCLE and the NBA Finals, and also decided that, although Mysore sounded good, especially the daily maid service, we would stay in Lakewood, on the west side of Cleveland, for now.

I gave my King jersey away to my 18-year-old nephew, who doesn’t know about yoga, but does know the world about professional basketball.

I didn’t go to Inner Bliss’s CAVS! Gear Yoga Day the day of the start of the NBA Finals. There was something that bothered me about rooting for one or the other team. I’ve read that players on both teams practice yoga as part of their fitness regimen and thought it best to just wish both of them well.

Instead, I practiced on my mat at home, and the next evening on Friday my wife and I went to the Cleveland State University Student Ballroom and heard Jai Uttal’s kirtan band spin long jazzy sing-along chants. Quicken Loans Arena, less than a mile away, seats 20,562 fans, which are about 20,412 more people than were at the Jai Uttal show.

On Sunday night, while the Warriors and Cavaliers battled it out at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, we had dinner at Ty Fun, a small Thai food restaurant in Tremont, a grungy but gentrified Cleveland neighborhood across the industrial valley from downtown.

My home practice doesn’t cost me anything, tickets for Jai Uttal were $30.00, and the fat noodle and tofu entrees at Ty Fun are $12.50. The bottled lager beer from Thailand was $4.50. All in all our weekend cost less than a jumbo box of popcorn and a couple of Big Gulps at Quicken Loans Arena.

We ate on the small outdoor patio at Ty Fun and all dinner long we could hear the groans and whoops of Cleveland sports fans watching the second game of the Finals unfolding down the yellow brick road on the flat screens at the Flying Monkey Pub next door.

Somebody was winning and somebody was losing. We just couldn’t tell who.

EXTRA! EXTRA! EXTRA! The next morning, watching the highlights of the game on, I found out that the last roar of the night was a groan in Oakland and a whoop in Cleveland, as the Cavaliers edged the Warriors in their record-setting second straight overtime game of the series. That’s what world championships are made of: heart-breakers.

Sri Satchidananda of Integral Yoga once said, “Losses are always great eye openers.” Maybe there is something yogic about pro ball, after all.

Botoxasana (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only here and now.

Botoxasana (Part 1)

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 Warranty Dr. 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.

Next: Botoxasana (Conclusion)


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