Eleven Months of Yoga

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I found myself going to yoga in the first place because my neighbor Vera had started taking classes. She was taking classes because her husband Frank had taken classes for a long time. “He said he went to yoga because he’s a counterculture kind of guy, even though yoga is a 5,000-year-old culture, and everybody does it nowadays, anyway,” said Vera.

“Besides, his lower back hurt.”

Yoga never fixed his back, but Vera said he still gets on his mat every day, although mostly at home now.

I meant to start right after the New Year, but with one thing and another I didn’t take my first class until the first week of February. February was the month I was born and the same month and year the Beatles first number one hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit number one. Vera picked me up and we drove to Better Bliss across the bridge in Rocky River.

She didn’t hold my hand walking through the front door, not that I wasn’t nervous.

The owner of the yoga studio was teaching the beginner’s class. We all had to say our names and then tell a story. “Tell your story,” said Lindsey. I had no story. “Oh, my gosh!” I said. What story do I have? I thought. “My name is Liz Drake and Frank Glass is my friend’s husband,” I said, pointing to Vera.

Lindsey started laughing. “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met,” she said.

What? I thought. There are lots of funnier people than Frank, but since Lindsey was smiling up a storm I didn’t say anything. She was a good teacher, but I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea we had to go into poses. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything about yoga.

I had never done it, never seen a class, only a few minutes of it on TV. I had some idea about the mats, but no idea about the blocks and straps.

I thought it was going to be easier than what it was. You’re just stretching, right? We had to sit there, had to close our eyes, breathe, and I thought, is this what it’s going to be like? This is going to be easy. But, then you start doing poses. My God! It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.

I didn’t realize it, but I thought everyone was there for the first time, just like me. When we told our story I should have added I had never done yoga before. I forgot to add that. I had no idea what I was doing. Lindsey would say do this, do that. She had names for all the poses. What is that? I thought. What? I looked around, trying to do it, although I felt I was goofing on everything.

Although everyone else looked like they knew what they were doing, I didn’t even know what downward dog was. It was like when my Israeli ex-boyfriend-to-be convinced me to take Hebrew lessons. He said it was a beginner’s class for people who didn’t know Hebrew, but when I got to the class everyone was speaking Hebrew.

All during the yoga class I pretended like I was on the right track. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner. Lindsey would say, now everybody do this, go into this pose, and everybody would do it. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner, but I didn’t know what I was doing.

After some classes with Lindsey I started going Sunday mornings. Gina was the teacher. The room was always filled with incense at eight in the morning and we had to do weird breathing exercises. I thought I was going to pass out. Maybe I should fake it, I thought. I’m going to pretend I’m breathing, but I’m not going to, because I’ll get dizzy, get flashbacks.

“Pull it up from your core,” she said. Where is that core? I wondered. I never understood what that kind of breathing meant. It didn’t feel natural. Gina seemed to think we had to breathe differently to do yoga.

I liked Gina, but one morning I said I felt like I was doing most of the poses left-handed.

“I don’t even know the names of them. I just look around and hope I can copy somebody.”

“Oh, no, not the D word,” said Gina.

“What? What D word?”

“Discouragement.”

Everybody in the class was so sincere, so serious. They dressed like yogi people with their yoga costumes, special clothes, while I wore a t-shirt and sweat pants. At the end of class we sat cross-legged while Gina told us to imagine drifting down a river, putting all our bad thoughts on a leaf, and then letting the leaf float away. What are you talking about? I wanted to ask.

I moved on to a Tuesday beginner’s class with Tracy. It was at night right after a hot flow class. While we waited in the lobby to go in they were coming out completely drenched. Pools of sweat water were everywhere on the wood floor when we walked into the yoga room. You had to dodge around the pools.

Tracy was good at teaching us the actual poses. She took her time, walking around to help us all, although sometimes I would be in a pose waiting and waiting for her to get to me. I learned every pose as perfectly as could be since she was into perfect alignment.

One day there was a big guy who came to Tracy’s class. He was wearing funny plastic pants. Our class was usually mostly women. Sometimes there might be a guy or two, but after one or two times you never saw them again. Before we started, the plastic pants man said, “This is easy.” Once the class began he started sweating to death. He’s never coming back, I thought.

I never saw him again.

I never sweated, although I drank a lot of water.

I liked the crazy twists, for some reason, but standing on one leg was hard. I don’t have good balance because I can only see out of one eye. Whenever we did balancing poses the picture I got was, I’m going to fall down!

By the middle of summer I was ready to move up the yoga ladder. Tracy told me I should try Monica’s’s Basic Hatha Flow class. I bought a thicker mat. It was great for my knees. Some of the poses are hard on your bones, but that’s what you have to cut your teeth on. At least, that’s what Monica said.

She was tough, almost like a man, but I went to both of her weekly evening classes for five months the rest of the year. Most teachers had a soft voice, but Monica’s was never that soft. It became my main class, even though I dragged myself there. The whole drive to the yoga studio, even though it was only a few minutes, I would complain to myself. She’s going to come and push, she’ll walk around looking for me, I thought. She would push you down, sideways, all ways.

One time she pulled me when I was in a standing pose and I fell down. I just started laughing. You don’t want to be the center of attention, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

She made us hold poses incredibly long until my legs would burn and shake. I remember my thighs burning. I couldn’t even control them.

“What’s wrong with that, that’s good,” she said, “It’s good that your legs are shaking.”

I kept going back. She was top-notch.

One day she stood behind me and pulled my shoulders.

“How does that feel?” I started laughing, thinking, are you kidding me? Go to somebody else.

It didn’t feel good. But, it was a good pain. I liked being stretched.

A small man came to class and acted like he knew everything. “I’m doing this really great, aren’t I?” he said. But, he was just jumping around, moving fast. Afterwards he asked Monica about taking a more challenging class. “You have to be careful, basics would be best for the time being,” she said.

He wouldn’t listen, even though it was Monica telling him what for.

He had heard about Ashtanga Yoga and that’s where he went. I remember thinking, OK, buddy, you’re almost twitchy in this class, sweating, crawling out of the place. The next time I heard about him was when a story went around about a newcomer to the Ashtanga Yoga class who fell and cut his head and had to get stitches.

I was laughing.

Monica was the kind of teacher you were kind of scared of. When she told us we were going to be standing on our heads, I thought we had to do it, no question about it. But, I said to myself, Oh, Jesus! I don’t even know where to start. I never stood on my head in my life. She tried to get all of us to do it, but finally said, “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can sit this one out.”

“I’m glad you said that,” I said. Until then I had been ready, even though I was scared. I just give in and do it. I found out later that standing on your head is an advanced pose.

The one advanced pose I liked was wheel, especially when Monica walked over, got her hands under my back, and pulled up. It’s so hard on your back and hands. How much can you lift yourself? I remember thinking keep your hands there, right there, that feels great.

The whole thing about yoga was that I felt great at the end of class. Otherwise, why would anyone go and do it? I felt better, felt taller, all smoothed out. You had to take the pain of doing it to feel good once it was all over. That’s why I went back week after week, even though I knew Monica was going to push, make us stay in poses until it hurt.

It was because I felt darn good afterwards.

I didn’t want to give up on it, but it was so expensive after awhile. I went for a long time, almost a year, but then I thought I could do it at home. Frank Glass was doing it at home. Vera said he practiced yoga almost every day. If he could do it I could do it, for sure. I started, but then stopped after a few weeks.

You have to be disciplined to do yoga at home. Whenever Monica saw anybody in her class slacking off she would say, “What’s wrong with you, get going.” At home you can say I’m not doing this pose today. The next day you can say I’m tired and won’t do anything today. I finally didn’t do much for more than a month, and when spring came I started working in the yard and going for walks in the park with my fox terriers.

That was the end of yoga for me.

Blinded by the Light

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Frank Glass hadn’t been to a yoga studio since before spring broke, preferring to practice at home, and riding his bicycle on sunny days. There aren’t many of them, sunny days, in Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, the six months of fall and winter. Most of them are cloudy moody challenging.

Behind every cloud there’s another cloud many days in the Land on the Great Lake.

Before they were destroyed after the Beaver Wars the indigenous Erieehronon lived on the lakeshore. They believed panthers surfed the waves and they wore bobcat tails like strings of pearls on their heads. Erie means long-tailed in their language, even though bobcats have short tails.

French trappers didn’t call it Lake Erie. They called it Cat Lake.

There are plenty of sunny days in spring and summer, easy and breezy, some not a cloud in the sky. That’s when it’s Cloud 9. They are good days to go riding, even when sunlight is staring you straight in the face.

Frank had been practicing yoga more at home than at studios for more than a year. There had been a time when he twisted breathed meditated over and above at studios, barely once-in-awhile at home, until one night when his wife looked up from the stove.

“If I only made meals at cooking class you would starve to death,” said Vera Glass.

What she meant was she prepared dinner, even if only a Caesar salad and a glass of wine, almost every night, not just when she took a cooking class. She might also have meant Frank was looking like a slow learner, taking so many classes.

“Remember what Napoleon used to say,” she said.

Frank Glass’s wife was a self-employed business manager and bookkeeper, but had a degree in history. He waited to find out what Napoleon Bonaparte used to say.

“If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

“What about if you’d rather someone else do it, for example, make a fool of yourself,” asked Frank. “Then it’s better, you don’t do it all by yourself, and never mind Napoleon?”

Vera stirred the pot. “Like they say, to thine own self be true.”

Yoga practice at a studio is inspiration positive energy pushing your limits, and a rubber mat buzz. Frank’s motivations for doing yoga at home were money time one-size-doesn’t-fit-all.

During the half-dozen years he took classes three four times a week he spent almost three thousand dollars a year on the practice, as well as spending the time getting to and from studios.

The two years he practiced Bikram Yoga were even more costly. He drove farther to the hot class, 45 minutes, suffered in the so-called torture chamber for 90 minutes, and after a cold shower drove another 45 minutes home. He gulped down a reservoir of coconut water and electrolyte drinks before, during, and after every class.

When the first month’s hellish cramps subsided he never later regretted stopping at the drink coolers and slapping his savings down on the 7-Eleven counter before, during, and after every class.

Practicing at home meant walking up to the attic loft where he kept his mat, blocks, and twelve-inch Yoga Wheel. There were two skylights cut into the pitched ceiling and a futon for Sky King and Alexander Pope to curl up on while watching him.

Sometimes he wondered what they were thinking, when they stretched by second nature, but most of the time he didn’t want to know. He knew that cats, whenever they slipped and fell, always pretended like it hadn’t happened. All the same, not many cats trip over people. We trip over cats.

Yoga was like carrying a cat by the tail, learning something you can’t learn any other way than by doing it.

Although Cleveland is not considered to be a hotbed of yoga, there was a studio within walking distance of where Frank and Vera Glass lived on the west side of Lakewood, an inner-ring suburb on the west side of Cleveland, two within biking distance, and another two within short driving distance.

Yoga studios are good places for guided practice, adjustments, and finding new ways to do things on one leg. It was either the last day of summer or the first day of fall and Frank Glass felt like it was good day to get out of the house.

He grabbed his mat and some cash and drove across the bridge across the river to the Better Bliss Yoga Studio in Rocky River. He hadn’t been there for several years, but walking in it looked like nothing much had changed, although he didn’t recognize the desk help, the instructor, or anyone else in the class.

He recognized the Apple iMac the studio used for checking in and payment processing, and the Apple iMac recognized him, too.

The Better Bliss Boutique was new, selling oils and balms, leg warmers and jewelry, infusers and candles and something called Spiritual Gangster. Frank was a big fan of gangster movies, but thought of yoga as an inquiry, of questioning one’s intent, of looking for meaning, and knew from the movies that gangsters don’t ask questions.

But, Spiritual Gangster turned out to be tanks and pants. One of the tanks was emblazoned with the breezy slogan ‘I’m Just Here for the Savasana’.

The class was crowded, like squids in a subway at rush hour, but he managed to squeeze in near the corner near the back near the windows. There were maybe a hundred men and women in a squarish room that should have sat seventy. The mat map was rows of them facing the front and rows on the sides turned 90 degrees towards the center.

The class was a vinyasa, or flow-style class, the action sequenced and done in time with inhalations and exhalations. Vinyasa is a catch-all, overlapping many styles of the practice, based on sun salutations and continuous movement. After a salutation and some hurrahs from the instructor the class got to their feet.

Almost immediately, as they moved into their first down dog, Frank Glass was confronted with the back end of a pair of skintight tie-dyed pants on the mat less than a foot in front of him. The legs were printed in blue and the hip-hugging waistband was purple.

He found out later they were ‘Waves of Vishnu’ haute Capri’s by k. deer, “strong, sexy, transforming, and proudly made in the USA.”

Back in the day Vishnu’s pants were baggy and wrinkled, not so sexy, handmade in the sub-continent, but that was a long time ago.

“They feel invisible when you’re wearing them,“ the young woman wearing the Capri’s told him after class.

Shades of lululemon’s ill-fated see-through pants, he thought, trying not to agree too heartily or look too closely.

“Oh, and they don’t retain stink, either,” she said.

“That’s good, not making a stink, I mean,” he said.

The flow class was challenging, the pace relentless and perspiry, accompanied by a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame soundtrack. The Beatles once chanted “jai guru deva om” on one of their hit tunes and Mick Jagger still practices yoga, which might explain his Jumping Jack Flash moves at the age of 73.

Frank Glass did his best to keep up with the class, which was not a low-key group, go-getters getting their money’s worth. He wasn’t in shape for game speed yoga. He could feel his face scrunching, feel himself muscling through poses, trying too hard, and breathing erratically. He finally settled into doing the best he could.

“Do it at your own speed,” said the instructor in passing, nodding at him, making modifications and offering encouragement as she went down the rows of mats.

Frank’s tie-dyed neighbor had a neighbor, another young woman, wearing a muscle tee. Every time she moved her arms a clanking sound echoed the movement. She was wearing loose bracelets. They slid up and down and up her arms as she twisted and turned into and out of poses and jumps.

Frank was surprised at the fashion statement. He had seen a woman once in class wearing a pendant necklace jump through and the pendant swung and smacked her in the mouth when she landed. She had a fat lip for the rest of the hour. He thought there were two rules about jewelry. The first rule was leave it at home and the second rule was take it off when you got to the yoga studio.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

From Satya Jewelry to Lovepray Jewelry to Pranajewelry there is a wealth of eye-catching bling to show off your love of all things yogic. There are stainless steel bracelets etched with positive-sounding mantras like “Be the Change”. There are Happy Buddha! gemstone necklaces handcrafted of turquoise and silver. There are Garden of Ohm earrings stamped with the likenesses of deities like Shiva, Ganesh, and Durga.

There are stylish toe rings that match the color of your mat, although if you snag an open end on the rubber, you may go toppling over in downward facing dog, ending up as face first dog down on the mat.

There are many kinds of distractions at yoga studios, from people who stare to loud breathers and groaners to body odor perfume pools of sweat smells and hairballs. It’s a group practice in a confined space. Some people charge their iPhones, check their iPhones, and answer their iPhones in class. Sometimes people even think out loud while engaging in a practice designed to quiet the mind.

At the peak of the class Frank Glass sat down lower in chair pose, but there was no rest there. The instructor led everyone through backbends, supported shoulderstand, some twists and forward bends, and finally it was time for corpse pose, or as the Spiritual Gangsters would have it, what they were there for.

Gangsters are always trying to convince people to become corpses.

Savasana was Frank Glass’s number one yoga pose. It meant the class was winding down, all the physically challenging work was over, and he was confident he could do it right, since it only involved laying on the floor, letting your belly go soft, and breathing.

He didn’t think it had anything to do with acknowledging mortality or making friends with death. He thought of it as slowing down, letting his body get both heavy and light, and being in the few minutes between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

Like many things near and dear to one’s heart it was over before he knew it and before he knew it everyone was sitting upright cross-legged. The instructor saluted the class.

“Namaste,” she said.

Suddenly, a bright white light blinded Frank.

Until the 21st century, when yoga morphed into physical fitness, it was a mind body spirit united states practice. Although physical fitness and brainwave control were always elements of yoga, it was training for the body and mind to self observe and be less self centered, and for the spirit to get to a place of more consciousness. That place was called samadhi.

Samadhi is the eighth and last limb of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. It means the act of concentration and what is being concentrated on and the body mind spirit that is doing the concentrating all becoming one. It is yoga’s end game of union. It’s a thrill, but a thrill in the thrall of stillness. It’s like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Frank Glass blinked and turned his head and realized he wasn’t having a samadhi moment. He had been blinded by the sun spilling through the studio windows and reflecting off a big diamond ring on the finger of a woman’s hand in mudra pose. She was sitting on her mat between him and the sun.

He knew it was a real diamond because the way diamonds reflect light is unique. Inside the gem the mirror-like facets sparkle a brilliant white. Outside the gem bending reflecting refracting light they sparkle a white fire. Frank Glass knew big girls need big diamonds, but it was still an eye-opener to see the lozenge in a yoga class.

Maybe it had something to do with Joan Rivers, who said, “If God had wanted me to bend over, he would have put diamonds on the floor.”

When Frank Glass got home his wife was in the kitchen making dinner.

“Did you learn anything at class today?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank. “Leave the family jewels at home.”

Two’s a Crowd

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“The best way to meditate is meditation itself.” Ramana Maharshi

Meditation is not a huge undertaking. Anybody can do it anywhere they are, anytime they want, sitting somewhere familiar or even on the fly. It’s often thought that meditation is thinking about nothing. It’s not, since thinking is one thing and nothing is another thing.

If you’re trying to think about nothing, you are still thinking, giving your best shot to making something out of nothing. But, trying to think of nada is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Only nothing comes from nothing. The black hole of meditation isn’t the dark side of the void.

The practice is about being somebody somewhere in a state of being less and less distracted, especially by thoughts. That’s why there are walking and sitting meditations, in the park or on a park bench. It’s not about the moving body. It’s about the non-moving mind. It’s about slowing down the brain on the train.

“If you’re impatient while waiting for the bus,” said Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, “tell yourself you’re doing bus waiting meditation.”

It’s about knowing everything without thinking about anything, at the same time that it’s about paying close attention to one thing, the one thing you’re doing on the spot you’re doing it.

It’s about being alone.

But, who wants to be alone? Many people hate being alone. It makes them feel insecure anxious depressed. They get into relationships and marriages and stay related and married because they’re afraid of being alone. We seek family, work, and obligations to stave off loneliness. Social isolation poses health risks and is associated with an increased risk of death.

Most people avoid being alone as much as possible because who wants to hear the voices in their own head all day long, their own internal monologue. You can’t get away from yourself. It would drive anyone crazy.

Even the Bible says it’s not good for man to be alone, although Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist writer, once said hell was other people. Whenever you’re left alone you have fewer problems. It’s harder to find someone else to blame, though.

Meditation is an old practice, prehistoric, mentioned in some Hindu texts more than three thousand years ago, and practiced by pagans, Christians, and Muslims. The Romans said, “Do what you are doing.” Japan’s Zen is meditative, Sufis practiced meditative breathing controls, and a meditative tradition is implicit in the Jewish Tanakh.

The bones of it all come from the Buddhists. “Many techniques commonly practiced today originate from ancient Buddhist meditation texts,” explained Susan Chow, a science writer and editor. For most of its long history it was a religious approach. Even when it wasn’t it played a top spot in many religious and spiritual practices.

Believers went to churches temples mosques for many years centuries millennium to affirm and reaffirm their beliefs. They prayed and meditated because it was the person-to-person way to talk to God. It was the direct line to heaven. If you wanted to go to heaven you went to church first.

But, who goes to church anymore? Religion was once called the opiate of the masses. However, denominations and church attendance have slowly and steadily declined the past thirty years, so that today, according to The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, only about 52 million worshipers go to a weekly service.

Yoga is the new opiate of the masses. It has grown by leaps and bounds the past thirty years, so that today, according to Yoga Journal, about 37 million Americans practice it. Getting on their rubber mats about twice a week, at a studio or at home, means that more people practice yoga than go to church every week.

Spiritual practice has gone rubber soul secular.

Nobody wants to climb the Holy Staircase of the Scala Santa in Rome on sore knees anymore. Everybody wants to get down on healthy knees for cat cow pose. Nobody wants to chant a mantra to a complicated-sounding deity. Everybody wants to go ecstatic kirtan dancing at Wanderlust. Nobody wants to meditate like old-school Buddhists, for whom meditation was a cog in the machinery of enlightenment, along with virtue and wisdom.

Virtue and wisdom don’t get it done anymore, dude, not in the machine age.

What does get it done is mindfulness meditation.

“Meditation is not religion, not spirituality, it’s a technology of upgrading the mind that can enrich one’s life,” wrote Jay Michaelson in ‘Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment’.

Mr. Michaelson cut to the chase, limning his perspective on meditation and its offspring, modern mindfulness meditation. “There are a lot of same-old, same-old Buddhist books out there. I wanted to write the book I wanted to write, for my circle of serious practitioner friends, all of whom are either Gen-X or Millennial, and none of whom have any patience for those clichés.”

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” wrote Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, coining a cliché.

But, three hundred years after Blaise Pascal, nobody needs to sit in a musty quiet same-old room meditating all by themselves. Besides, it’s not a quiet world anymore, not when the nagging question of the age for the Gen-X and Millennial body politic is, “Where’s my iPhone?” We have turned our backs on silence, even though it’s only silence that can express the inexpressible.

The idea used to be to get in touch with the silence within you. Now the idea is to get in touch with your social media account to see what it’s saying about you. The sounds of silence were once golden. Although the world is never quiet, it used to be much quieter. Chattering is the new knowledge.

Silence is scary.

Fortunately, there is little need to meditate alone anymore. Wherever you are we can all go to mindfulness meditation seminars, classes, and studios. MNDFL in New York City offers 30-minute sit-down sessions for $15 and 45-minute classes for $25. For those aware that MNDFL fills up fast, endless meditation is available at $200 a month.

The Awakening Series at Cleveland’s Mindful Moments is $200, while the Deepening Series is $280.00. Austin’s Meditation Bar offers an unlimited monthly pass, with a 3-month commitment, for $99 a month. At the Kadampa Meditation Center in San Francisco, “perfectly suited for busy modern people,” drop-in classes are $15 and there is a bargain coupon offer of 4 for $50.

“Having a dedicated space where you can go to meditate really brings the practice to life for people,” said Rinzler Lodro, one of MNDFL’s founders. Otherwise, at home, he added, “They’re always going to be distracted by the stain on the carpet.” Carpet stains can be a bane to the tidy and distraction is the archenemy of meditation.

Before meditation was mindfulness meditation it was meditation. It was a way of shaping the mind so that it could be cognizant of content without identifying with content. It was an exercise in generating energy, sometimes called life force, and developing patience, generosity, and compassion. It could also simply be about sustaining a single-pointed concentration as an end in itself.

“The simplest definition of meditation is learning to do one thing at a time,” wrote Tony Schwartz in The New York Times.

The complexity of mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, is that it wants to do everything at once: it lowers stress, enlarges your brain, elevates your school grades, makes music sound better, lowers your health care bill, reduces depression risk, supports weight-loss goals, comes in handy during cold season, and finally, among much, much more, basically makes you a totally terrific person, according to Amanda Chan, editor of ‘Healthy Living’.

What doesn’t it do?

Brain, Behavoir and Immunity Journal Proves Meditation Reduces Risk of Alzheimer’s and Premature Death!

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre Reveals Meditation Better than Morphine for Pain!

University of Wisconsin-Madison Demonstrates Meditation Effective in Relieving Inflammatory Bowel Disease!

Whew, it’s time to take a breath!

However, not everyone is all-in with the one-size-fits-all outsize role of mindfulness meditation. “Mindfulness practice has its benefits,” noted Catherine Ingram, author of Passionate Presence. “But, there came a point when mentally noting my breath, thoughts, and sensations became wearisome, a sense of always having homework and of constantly chopping reality into little bits.”

Even Jack Kornfield, the American author and Buddhist teacher, believed there were limits to what meditation could accomplish. “While I benefitted enormously from training in the Thai and Burmese monasteries where I practiced,” he wrote, “there were major areas of difficulty in my life that even deep meditation didn’t touch.”

One major area in which meditation has undergone a sizable transformation is in the world of business. Not only is meditation, like yoga, like spirituality, like all things ingenuous, being transformed into a commodity, businesses are co-opting meditation for their own purposes.

Fortune 500’s as diverse as Nike, Prentice Hall Publishing, and Proctor & Gamble have gotten behind the meditation-at-work wave. “You cannot out-work a problem, you have to out-meditation it,” said P & G’s CEO A. G. Lafley, who has his own mindfulness practice.

Apple and Google offer meditation space and courses on a regular basis. Google’s ‘Search Inside Yourself’ program is designed to teach employees how to breathe mindfully and listen closely to their coworkers. Steve Jobs often meditated, was married in a Zen ceremony, and the technology titan he created affords employees 30 minutes a day to meditate.

It is no fad in Silicon Valley, since many techies believe it is the kind of thing that rewires your brain, all to the good of the bottom line. “The woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” said Kenneth Folk, a meditation teacher in San Francisco. “It’s about training the brain.”

In the Digital Age in the New World it’s the kind of thing that can make or break your career. Many companies are concerned with employee motivation, or what they call emotional intelligence. “Every company knows that if their people have emotional intelligence, they’re going to make a shitload of money,” said Google’s Mindfulness Coach and ‘Jolly Good Fellow’ Chade-Meng Tan.

At Google there are bi-monthly ‘Mindful Lunches’ where everyone eats in total silence, the only sound the sounds of munching crunching digesting, and the tolling of prayer bells. They have built a labyrinth, too, for walking meditations, although it’s not clear what getting lost has to do with being found. Nevertheless, it isn’t “hippie bullshit,” said Bill Duane, who designs meditation classes for the industry giant.

Meditation used to be one man or woman in one place somewhere on Main Street doing one thing, doing their own thing. There was no bullshit to it. Now it’s walking in circles to get the Wall Street share price of your employer’s stock going in the right direction. There are many kinds of bullshit to it.

Meditation for a long time was an individual enterprise, the seventh element of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path. It was about being attentive to everything as-it-is. It wasn’t about being attentive to your co-workers making sure they were on the same path to profits as everyone else.

It wasn’t goal-oriented mindfulness meditation and data-driven wisdom conferences at resorts with executives from Cisco and Ford among the headliners.

Individualism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to him or her. The Declaration of Independence is largely about individualism. Collectivism is the idea that an individual’s life belongs to the pack company society of which he or she is a part. The Constitution is largely about collectivism.

According to collectivism the group is real and the individual is an abstraction, clear as dishwater. When meditation is reduced to its lowest common denominator, a dollar sign for a breath of life, individuals are reduced to consumers and notional values on an Excel spreadsheet. According to individualism men and women are an end in themselves. They are not a means to an end for Apple, Google, and Proctor & Gamble, although, God knows, everybody needs soap.

Nobody needs to meditate about that, not even the P & G soap makers.

Mindfulness meditation, as conceived by spiritual entrepreneurs, sharp-eyed businessmen, and post modernists, is a collectivist endeavour, full of hearty healthy happiness on the menu. Meditation as conceived by the old-school sit-down tradition is a breath and point-of-focus practice to get you to a new state of consciousness, out of time, back to the future.

Maybe you got there and maybe you didn’t. In any event, back-in-the-day the results weren’t going to show up on your pay stub. They were going to show up in something that money can’t buy. They were going to show up in a brain and body sitting quietly by itself, the showing up as much the big bang of consciousness as consciousness itself.

When men and women fall in love they rarely want a third wheel along for the ride. Nobody takes collectivism that far, neither back-in-the-day nor today. The dynamic of love is two minds two bodies two individuals melding into what makes the ride worthwhile. Three’s a crowd.

Meditation can be practiced anywhere, by yourself or in a crowd. All you have to do is be quiet and go inward. No one can do it to you or for you. You have to do it yourself, all by yourself. In the end, when the effort is intentional and the end is unintentional, everyone meditates alone, just like everyone is born alone and everyone dies alone. Meditation is as solitary as a mirror.

When it comes to meditation, and its modern soul mate, mindfulness meditation, two’s a distraction from the solitary practice. Two’s a crowd.

The Laughing Yogi

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“I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose.” Woody Allen

Yoga is a dead serious rubber mat hits the road adventure.

It is a rigorous undertaking when you are trying and trying to get asana poses just right, much less trying and trying to achieve the higher state of being the practice aims at. Meditation and its hardball goal of spiritual insight is a life-long commitment, not just the old college try. The concentration and stern self-discipline needed to get to moksha are no laughing matter.

Or is it really all that long-faced?

Since the mid-90s a practice called Laughter Yoga has gainsaid the notion that yoga is cold sober no-nonsense by the book, and humorless. The brainchild of Dr. Madan Kataria, an Indian physician now informally known as the ‘Laughter Guru’, it is premised on the idea that laughing is good for you.

Their motto is a few ha ha ha’s are a boon boon boon.

What did the yoga mat say to the yoga student? I will catch you if you fall.

It’s long been said that laughter is the best medicine. It strengthens immune systems, boosts energy levels, and protects from the damaging effects of stress. Laughing enhances blood flow, which is a factor in cardiovascular health. It releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.

“Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain,” said Charlie Chaplin.

It’s priceless and it’s free, too.

Not only that, no matter whether it is real or feigned, it works, although, if you’re laughing for no reason at all, you might need medicine.

“The mind does not know that we’re faking it,” explained Mary Wilson, a news reporter for ABC/Fox in New York who practices yuks. Dr. Kataria based his brainstorm on the concept that canned laughter yields the same results as spontaneous laughter.

“In Laughter Yoga there is no need to wait until something funny happens. You can laugh intentionally whenever you want,” said Dr. Kataria.

When it’s real it’s even better, as any belly laugh will testify. A new study at Loma Linda University demonstrated that adults shown a funny 20-minute video scored better on short-term memory tests than a control group. Their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, were also significantly decreased.

“Learning ability and delayed recall become more challenging as we age,” said Dr. Gurindor Bains, the Ph.D candidate in Rehabilitation Sciences who led the study. “Laughing with friends or even watching 20 minutes of humor on TV, as I do daily, helps me cope with my daily stressors.”

A rose is a rose is a rose Gertrude Stein famously observed, but when is a yoga studio not a yoga studio not a yoga studio, even though tens of thousands of people have taken classes there. That would be a Laughter Yoga studio, which is usually in a park or on a beach.

The American School of Laughter Yoga promotes Laughter Clubs that are free and open to the public. “Thousands around the world volunteer their time to make them happen, freely and unconditionally, from the heart as an act of service.”

Laughter Yoga is practiced in more than 8,000 clubs and in more than 65 countries. “Laughter is the tool. Yoga is the end,” said Sebastien Gendry of the American School of Laughter.

Some people crack a yoga joke and everyone laughs. But, some people make a joke of yoga and laugh all the way to the bank, with wads of other people’s money.

Bikram Choudhury of eponymous Bikram Yoga fame was having lunch with friends when a cell phone on the table rang. He answered and put it on speaker.

Bikram: “Hello!”

Woman: “Hi Honey, it’s me. Are you having lunch?”

Bikram: “Yes.”

Woman: “I’m at the shops now and found this beautiful mink coat. It’s only $9,000. Is it OK if I buy it?”

Bikram: “Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.”

Woman: “I stopped at the Lexus dealership, too, and looked at the new models. I saw one I really liked.”

Bikram: “How much?”

“$120,000.”

Bikram: “OK, but for that price make sure you get it with all the options.”

Woman: “Great! I was just talking to Janie and found out that house I wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking four-and-a-half million for it.”

Bikram: “Well, go ahead and make an offer of four million. They’ll probably take it. If not, you can go the extra half-mil if that’s what you really want.”

Woman: “Oh, thank you! I’ll see you later! I love you so much!”

Bikram: “Bye! I love you, too.”

He hung up.

Everyone at the table was staring at him in wonder and astonishment at his generosity.

Bikram turned and asked, “Anyone know whose phone this is?”

Bikram Yoga claims that 30 days of his hot yoga is better than Popeye’s spinach, will transform anyone, making them strong and buff, and those who say during steam class “Please, kill me now” have got it all wrong.

Laughter Yoga says a week without laughter will make a man weak.

“This stuff really works!” said Harry Hamlin, at the far end of hunkdom, about Laughter Yoga after high-stepping the cha-cha-cha on Dancing with the Stars.

Others, like John Friend, the former founder and former chief guru of the former Anusara Yoga, think they’re laughing all the way to the bank until they find out it’s all a can of worms.

John Friend was praying to Krishna.

“Krishna,” he said, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responded, “No problem. Go ahead.”

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

“Yes, that is true.”

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

“A million dollars to me is but a penny.”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” said John Friend, “may I have a penny?”

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

The laughter of the gods is sometimes the upshot of setting yourself up as the arbiter of your own schemes. Some people say laughter is God’s blessing. Or, conversely, as Lord Byron put it, “Nothing can confound a wise man more than laughter from a dunce.”

Still others, like Jeff Briar, the founder of the Laughter Yoga Institute, laugh daily in their yoga practice for the fun and friendship of it. A professional comedic actor for more than 30 years, Mr. Briar is a certified Laughter Yoga Teacher and in 2006 was appointed by Dr. Kataria as an International Laughter Ambassador. He has published manuals, written books, and shot videos, including Gibberish Sets You Free! Five Films on the Power of Talking Nonsense.

Comedians often have the gift of shtick, but Laughter Yoga posits chuckles and chakras as the joy cocktail, and a great workout, too. “We laugh as a form of exercise,” said Mr. Briar. Want a toned tummy? Stomach muscles expand and contract when you laugh. A night at the comedy club can start you on the way to a rack of six-pack abs.

“Start laughing for no reason and watch yourself feel better,” said Mr. Briar on the Oprah Winfrey Show. “Laughter relieves all the negative effects of stress.”

What did the meditating yogi say to the other meditating yogi? Are you not thinking what I’m not thinking?

Ha ha ha…

What did the breathless yogi say to his yoga teacher? It turns out I’ve been inhaling when I should be exhaling and exhaling when I should be inhaling.

Ha ha ha…

What did the cat say to the other cat while watching their pet owners practice yoga? Who knows how many years of yoga and they still can’t lick their own butts.

Ha ha ha…

What did the man say to his friend about going to yoga class? Nah, I’m down, dog.

Ha ha ha…

What ran through the mind of the young yogi in Warrior Pose? Am I doing this right? Am I doing anything right? What is my life’s purpose? Am I happy? What do I want? Should I get chips for dinner? Is everyone looking at me? Do my boobs look weird in this top?

Ha ha ha…

Standing on one leg in yoga class doesn’t make you a yogi any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

That’s not a joke.

T cells are white blood cells that fight infections and are the mechanism essential for human immunity. When you laugh you activate T cells, getting them on the go from where they are stored in the lymph system. Biophysical research has demonstrated that belly laughing generates a negative pressure in the body that increases the speed and flow of lymph up to 15 times the normal rate.

“Believe it or not, a hearty chuckle can help,” said Dr. Andrea Nelson of the University of Leeds. “This is because laughing gets the diaphragm moving and this plays a vital role in moving blood around the body.” She stopped short of saying take two aspirins and go watch an Adam Sandler movie.

A woman reported her husband’s disappearance to the police. They asked for a description and she said, “He takes an Ashtanga Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

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

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

A good sense of humor won’t cure everything that ails you, but giggles and guffaws are a great RX, nevertheless. “Laughter can stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation,” says the Mayo Clinic. “A laugh fires you up and can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. The result? A good relaxed feeling.”

Laughter activates the body’s relaxation response. You forget your troubles when you’re laughing. “People who are laughing report being less bothered by the pain they do experience,” according to the Chopra Center.

Yoga is an eight-fold path to wonder. Maybe watching reruns of ‘The Wonder Years’ should be part of the eight-fold path.

There are many different ways of going on the long strange winding road trip of yoga. Although it’s probably true no one can change their destination, everyone can change their way of travel. “It is a direction, not a destination,” said Carl Rogers, a founder of  humanism in psychology practice.

Getting there can be Sturm und Drang. Getting there can be a hoot. Getting there can be gotten to on foot, in a shiny new SUV, or on the Furthur bus.

No one wants to die, but everyone wants to go to heaven. The psychedelic painted school bus Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters called Furthur, painted in laugh-out-loud splashes, would be as good a way to go as any other.

A man arrives at the gates of heaven.

St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

The man says, “Methodist.”

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

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

“Baptist.”

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

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

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

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

St. Peter says, “The yogis are in room eight and they think they’re the only ones here.”

The next men and women in line had to wait ten minutes from here to eternity while St. Peter rolled around the pearly gates in paroxysms of laughter.

Crime of the Century

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As the 21st century has unspooled yoga has increasingly taken on the after look in a before and aftermath crime-scene photo. One hundred years ago it looked like a lot of class. Fifty years ago it got a makeover and looked better than ever. Today it looks like something dolled up to be better seen from a distance of a hundred years.

Yoga used to have something to do with simplicity and self-discipline, non-attachment, and the spiritual life. Hatha practice and karma in the world were means to an end, steps on the way to an expanding awareness. It had more to do with what went on off the mat, especially in your head, than the asana postures done on it.

“It’s been less than fifty years since the first group yoga class happened, but in that short time the content of those classes has veered so far off course that it falls well outside of even the most open and generous definitions of yoga practice,” wrote American Yoga School founder James Brown in ‘The Colossal Failure of Modern Yoga’.

In many respects awareness isn’t what it’s about anymore. It’s about exercise classes with folks all doing the same thing. It’s about a little bit of ad hoc spirituality and a lot of anatomical science. It’s about whatever works for me, never mind the past fifty centuries.

Sometimes it seems like modern yoga can’t get any respect, especially since it’s gone the way of mass merchandising, of sticker shock sticky mats and neat-o clothes to match, the butter and egg man Bikram Choudhury, and the bigness of big events at big venues.

However, if you’re flying out to Burning Man, don’t bother bringing yoga attire, since loincloths and hot pants are more appropriate at the 70,000-man-and-woman festival.

There isn’t anything simple about organizing thousands of yogis to flip up on their heads at the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or Times Square in New York City. It takes organizational skills and business smarts to assemble sound systems, food trucks, and port-a-potty’s.

Om’s and namaste’s ain’t going to get it done.

While the postmodern world streams ahead, the shape of yoga tradition has shifted, so that a CGI-inspired vision of the practice has morphed the once flesh-and-blood story to the flat screen. The new yoga body and new yoga lifestyle have become the new Truman Show.

Once people came to the practice looking like they’d just climbed out of a wreck. They were hungry as schoolboys. Now they come in Lexus SUV’s. They’ve had their grass-fed beef brisket sandwich and kale salad and aren’t hungry, at least not in the same way.

Even meditation, which was once a quiet practice meant to make silence even more silent, has become a for-profit enterprise, sold as a balm for the wailings of the wealthy. They empty their heads for an hour-or-so, making like a church collection plate on a Wednesday morning, and once refreshed it’s back to business as usual.

There is even a branch of yoga, known as Padmini Vidya, which is devoted to one purpose, which is making money. It’s the yoga of pleasure and prosperity. “It is said that people who rapidly amass enormous wealth must have been yogis in previous lives who devoted themselves single-mindedly to Padmini Vidya,” Linda Johnsen wrote in ‘Be Wealthy, Be Wise: Yoga’s Guide to Prosperity’.

Although it’s true that there’s always a little good in everybody, there is sometimes only a very little in those who never have enough. There’s hardly ever any sympathy in their smiles, like they’ve never forgiven anyone for anything.

It’s as though yoga has become an ever-smaller rowboat bouncing around in a squall while cruise ships sail in their own tranquil seas. Some cruise lines, such as Radisson Seven Seas, offer yogic-centric voyages starting at $2,987.00 a person, double occupancy only and no refunds.

After stretching and sweating on the mat, the ship’s four restaurants, where waiters and wine stewards outnumber passengers two to one, are a gangplank to champagne buckets and plates of sea bass. “As a luxury yogi I would never neglect dinner, indulging in everything,” wrote John Capouya, author of Real Men Do Yoga, in Travel and Leisure.

The travel destination of yoga used to be the union of oneself with the true self, which is why the word yoga is defined as union. It wasn’t the largely non-union staffed Royal Carnival dropping anchor in the Bahamas. It wasn’t a luxury. It was a necessity.

But, what used to be one man’s meat and potatoes is now another man’s indulging in everything. The sense of yoga’s purpose can sometimes go dark under more than a tropical moon, subsumed by the tastiness of a hundred-foot-long buffet spread.

Yoga was once something that meant everything to somebody. Now it means anything to everybody, so long as the yoga teacher is groovy and the soundtrack is rocking, or mellow, as the case may be. The Teflon-like catchphrase “It’s All Yoga” has become commonplace to the extent that it has become meaningless. It’s like reaching for a life preserver and grabbing liquid nothing.

“The problem is that it is framed within a paradigm of self-improvement,” said Ed Conley, a meditation teacher in Blackstone, Virginia. Before posture practice became the rage the subtle body, not the mechanical body, was the rage. The transformation of yoga to YogaWorks is the transformation of a series of small things leading to equilibrium to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Yoga once had a longing at the heart of it, a mystery no one lived long enough to educe or forget, a reckoning of the right stuff the man and woman on the mat tried to find for themselves. It wasn’t conjuring up a laundry list of getting from ineffective to effective, which can be just another way of losing your way slowly.

“It has become space and time without the black hole,” said Mr. Conley.

Back in the day yogis slept on beds of nails, walked barefoot on hot coals, and even endured being buried alive. They meditated on mountaintops. They were loner mendicants who might or might not have had a ministry. Joining up with them was like hitching a hayride with Frankenstein.

It was a hard-core commitment, not a stop on the side of the road for a soft cone. Yoga was a risky business practiced by dodgy people. It was impossible to discourage them. They didn’t give a damn what anybody said. Anything could happen.

Today’s state-of-the-art yogis are bendy charming plausible entrepreneurs flying in jet liners to retreats at sunny resorts and arriving at Estes Park in Caddy SUV’s. The practice they preach is like an unopened box of razors, gussied up and bloodless. The business has got the face of an angel and a heart of silver dollars.

The hole at the heart of yoga is that it has been buffed polished sparkled and turned into a commodity. It’s not about anybody anymore. It’s on the grocery shelf for everybody, a sensible product packaged by sensible people for sensible consumers.

Once upon a time it was Hanuman, a great big daring jump into a burning sky, but now it’s a dancing monkey at the beck and call of an organ grinder. Progress isn’t possible without change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean historical revisionism is the sharpest lens back to the future. Sometimes it’s best to get a second opinion of the fast forward dreams you’re trying to make come true.

“Teachers tell their students all about the magical things that happen when you do as they say,” said James Brown of American Yoga.

It’s meant to make you roll over on your back with your paws in the air while your belly gets rubbed. “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters,” warned Bob Dylan in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.

The black hole at the heart of yoga is the self.

In the workaday world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who you are. It uses up the future. In the yoga world the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you can’t find out who you are. It leaves you teetering on the edge of eternity with no way out.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali propose that the body, mind, and senses are not the self. The reason is that the body, mind, and senses all change over time. Although everyone has aspects of their lives that change in the ebb and flow, what the Sutras call the guide, the inner voice, or the true self, is unchanging.

“The most important relationship you will ever have is your relationship with the self,“ wrote Kate Holcomb, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation, in ‘How to See Your True Self’.

Yoga classes are full of relationships, with the receptionist, the teacher, and everyone else in the class as everyone does the same thing. Anyone can create or re-create themselves in a yoga class. No one can find themselves. There’s always somebody else telling you what to do. There’s always mind chatter as you peek through your legs in down dog at the person behind you. There’s always somebody snoring in corpse pose.

The true self is a loner. It’s not a version of somebody else. “Be that self which one truly is,” said the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. It’s when you’re alone that you look at things differently than other people. Who finds their true self when they’re mashed up in the mosh pit? Everyone needs to be left alone when they’re lonely. It’s only when someone is most solitary that they are most exceptional, most themselves.

Nobody is ever lonely in a yoga exercise class, or eating a pastina salad, for that matter, because they both require so much attention to detail. Yoga is about a fire in the belly, but you can’t fill yourself up until you empty yourself out. Everyone breathes in yoga classes, although there’s never a minute to catch your breath because it’s so busy.

No one can be unmistakable, can be their clear-cut self, can go to a place they’ve never been, if they tag along with the crowd. It’s been said that the loneliest place to be is lost in a crowd, like a case of mistaken identity, another face in the House of Mirrors. It’s like being alone without being alone.

In the postmodern 21st century many people think the past is like the scene of a crime, that there’s nothing left to find there. What matters are now and the next now. But, it always catches up with you, like shoes that are a half-size too small. Sometimes it’s called karma, which can be a pair of very tight shoes.

There aren’t many places to find your body mind spirit in the world as we know it. A good place might be wherever you are, because no matter where you go, there you are. A better place might be yoga, since that’s what the practice has always been about. The best place is probably what the Yoga Sutras call the true self. If you’re not there you’re not anywhere, not really all in.

“When the agitations of the mind are under control,” according to Patanjali, “it has the power of becoming whatever form is presented, the knower, the act of knowing, and what is known.” There is no ghost in the machine. The way in which yoga has been sliced and diced in the past fifty years is not the answer, assuming there is one. Which begs the question, what is the answer?

The answer is right there, somewhere in the noise hubbub industriousness, where you don’t have to answer to anybody. It’s not on a store shelf or on TV, or even in a yoga class. You don’t have to be Sam Spade to dig it up, either. All you have to do is be quiet enough to hear it.

Gray Matter (On the Mat)

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“I’ve got the brain of a four-year-old. I’ll bet he was glad to be rid of it.” Groucho Marx

The brain is the center of the nervous system, 100 billion nerve cells protected by a skull and each nerve cell linked to almost 10,000 other cells. A real human brain lifted out of a jar in a pathology lab weighs about three pounds. Although often described as gray matter, it isn’t gray, but rather red, very soft and jelly-like.

The neural network of the brain is affected by everything that happens during its lifetime, for better or worse. Our genes and our environment impact every step. The brain’s lifelong development is activity-dependent. Every sensory, motor, and cognitive activity shapes the way neural circuits end up being wired.

Our experiences lead to cells that fire together, leading to cells that are wired together, leading to a mind that can count the stars in the sky and how many sprinkles are left at the bottom of an ice cream sundae at the same time.

Your brain on math is like it’s gone to the thinking gym. Your brain on money, on the other hand, is your brain shouting out greed is good, greed is good, greed is good! Your brain on drugs is a cloudy day in a sundress.

Brains in the thrall of sports are described in Your Brain On Sports as bubbling with “all the batshit craziness that courses through the sports ecosystem.” The kookiness includes fans leaning over balcony bleacher railings into mid-air trying to grab t-shirts shot out of a cannon.

Our neurons can misfire across synaptic gaps, raising Cain and spinning nonsense, from the NRA’s zany Cold Dead Hands to Climate Change Ain’t Happening. Only crazy people take themselves seriously.

Human being brains are always humming and roaring. They are our best friend and worst enemy. Everyone has to do the best they can with it. In the same way it is impacted by most things the brain is changed by most things, too, including yoga.

By some accounts yoga, from exercise on the mat to breath control to meditation, is a game-changer over and above many other things. Neuroplasticity is how the brain rewires itself through experience. The experience of yoga is plasticity itself, especially what goes on twisting and turning on the mat. The more anyone unrolls their mat is the more new neural pathways are made in the brain. It is a pattern that can reshape one’s brain and one’s life, too.

“Our life is the creation of our mind,” said Buddha.

Not only that, practicing yoga seems to make the brain bigger, especially the somatosensory cortex, where the mental map of our bodies is located, and the superior parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain that directs attention.

Who doesn’t want a bigger brain and a better GPS of themselves?

“We found that with more hours of practice per week, certain areas were enlarged,” said Chantal Villemure, one of a team at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which studied people practicing regularly. They presented their work, focused on MRI scans, to the Society for Neuroscience in 2013.

The health benefits of yoga exercise, from increased flexibility to stronger bones to relieving chronic pain, are well known. It even lowers the risk of heart disease, according to Harvard Health Publications. What is less well known is that it stimulates brain function, improving inhibitory control and working memory.

A University of Illinois study published in the ‘Journal of Physical Activity and Health’ found that cognitive reaction times and accuracy were better after hatha-style yoga practice than after other kinds of exercise.

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” said Neha Gothe, who led the study.

The brain gets stronger after yoga exercise. Working out on the mat boosts the body’s production of B.D.N.F., a protein called ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain.

Downward doggers know that getting long feels awesome. Beyond flexibility they also know it brings to heel something in their brains. That something is stress, which yoga helps to counteract. Yoga boosts GABA levels in the brain, according to research at both the University of Utah and Boston University. The higher the GABA levels, the better and brighter you feel. The lower the levels, the darker the day gets. Yoga literally switches off some genes related to stress.

Hatha yoga nowadays is closely associated with physical practice. The word means forceful in Sanskrit. But, before yoga and physical culture became synonymous in the last hundred-or-so years, hatha meant all eight limbs of yoga. Yoga is an eight-limb union leading to the last limb, which is equilibrium. Two of them, pranayama, which is breath control, and dhyana, or meditation, may affect life and limb of the brain even more than physical practice.

“Yoga isn’t about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life,” said Aadil Pakhivavl, author of Fire of Love. Everybody wants to be in good shape, but getting in shape is about more than jump throughs and plank pose. Like Buddha said, life is what the mind makes it.

Breathing is as essential as it gets. The words chi, psyche, and spirit are all related to breath. In the Bible God breathed life into clay making Adam. In Your Atomic Self it is breath that connects us to all aerobic creatures in the world. Prana is the Sanskrit word for life energy or life force. Pranayama is regulating and controlling the breath.

Patanjali, the founder of yoga philosophy, believed the ultimate goal of it was not breathing anymore, in other words, no more inhales or exhales. It’s an idea that literally takes your breath away.

Whether it’s bellow’s breath, skull shining breath, or breath of fire, the many forms of pranayama are all designed to concentrate one’s energy and attention. When under the influence of pranayama our brains ramp up in alpha and beta activity, whose electrical impulses can be detected by EEG testing. These dissimilar brain activities, paradoxically, are related to increased awareness and increased relaxation.

“The immediate effect of Nadi Shuddhi Pranayama and Bhramari Pranayama compared with controls shows that these yogic practices are related with increased orderliness of brain functioning,” noted ‘Yoga for Academic Performance: A Brain Wave Coherence Analysis’ in the European Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies.

Meditation has long been known to generate measurable changes in the brain. Hundreds of studies have been conducted since the 1950s. They have largely confirmed that the new found benefits of meditation are the same as the centuries-old benefits, from reducing activity in the selfish centers of the brain to enhancing and enlarging the links of neural pathways.

In ‘Brain Gray Matter Changes Associated with Mindfulness Meditation in Older Adults’, published in the open journal Neuro in 2014, a “significant gray matter increase was identified within the precuneus” after a six-week test period. The precuneus is located near the back of the brain and is involved with aspects of consciousness and the self.

Meditation is about bringing awareness to the breath, slowing down into stillness, and going inward. It is the conscious action of getting to the unconscious crossroads of the something that isn’t there and the nothing that is. Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, described art as purposive without a purpose. The same can be said about meditation. It is about nothing and everything and everything in between.

Meditation acts on the brain in many ways, from reducing anxiety and depression to improving concentration to helping keep brains tip top in older people. It leads to volume changes, actually changing the structure of the brain. A study at UCLA has demonstrated that people who meditate have more gray matter volume from one end of their pates to the other. “What we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the brain,” said study author Florian Kurth.

The act of meditation is the action of focusing one’s mind for a period of time, usually in silence, sometimes while chanting, as in Kirtan Kriya, to get grounded and become more self-aware.

Anybody can meditate, as long as they are willing to acknowledge that the mind has a mind of its own. All you have to do is sit down, or even go for a walk by yourself, and try to be quiet for a few minutes. Even though it doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, it can have a huge impact. It’s not like climbing a mountain, but it does help cut most mountains down to molehills.

Even busy people too busy to meditate, who think they don’t have time to do nothing, are meditating nowadays, since it makes them more productive when they get back to being busy. “Half-an-hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy,” said Saint Francis de Sales more than four hundred years ago. “Then a full hour is needed.”

Today’s modern set calls it mindfulness meditation.

Back in the day it wasn’t even called meditation, which is a word dating from the 12th century, from the Latin word meditatum. It had more to do with attention and consciousness exploration. Meditation was closely aligned with dharana, or concentration, as in focusing one’s attention in continuous meditation.

Your brain on yoga is your brain diving into 5,000 years of the practice. It is also your brain being poked and prodded by the Harvard Medical School. Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard and a certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, has conducted clinical case studies on yoga for more than a decade. The results he has presented in research papers, articles, and books offer compelling evidence that getting on the mat boosts brainpower.

The brain might be a mush melon-sized lump of gray matter, but yoga lights it up like a rainbow. In the end, though, yoga isn’t a thinking man’s game. Anyone who spends too much time thinking about the practice never gets any of it done. While it is true that it’s a mind-body discipline, it’s not just exercise on a sticky mat, keeping us fit as fleas, nor is it just the latest contribution to positive thinking.

“Yoga is a way to freedom,” said Indra Devi.

We are more than our bodies and brains. The spirit is the third rail of yoga, so that the train becomes a body-mind-spirit practice. Albert Einstein believed that “spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” Like the electric action potential of neurons, the electric third rail of yoga is what supplies energy to the practice. When Buddha observed that our lives are what we think them to be, he meant thinking as a state of mind made up of cognition, words, and actions.

The humans of planet earth may be snared by force and their minds made small by propaganda, but the only constraints on the spirit are those we ourselves make. It’s great to have a good brain, but where the spirit lives is the good heart. We change our lives by changing what’s in our hearts. If there is a sweet spot of yoga, it is the heart, not the brain. It is the downtown of spirit and gateway to consciousness.

The heart is the ever-winding ever-adventurous ever-surprising yellow brick road to the incomprehensible. On the way to the Emerald City, no matter how big and better anyone’s brain gets, even when it makes a scarecrow’s leap from Groucho Marx to Albert Einstein, your brain on yoga is ultimately your brain emptying as the heart fills.

Boomer Yoga Swarm

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It’s been said everybody nowadays loves yoga. The love wasn’t always the case, at least not in the United States, which was a problem. It is the case today, which might be a worse problem. Yoga is good for everyone, but not everyone is good for it. Even yoga masters like John Friend and Bikram Choudhury, who created practices of great benefit, have not, because of the sex, drugs, and money scandals surrounding them, been altogether good for it.

Yoga in the western world has faced many challenges, from its philosophy being decried as a menace to society to the corporatization of the practice, but the latest threat may be the most menacing. That threat is being posed by the horde of Baby Boomers, as time catches up to them, swarming studios coast-to-coast.

Just fifty-some years before the first Baby Boomers came into existence, at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the Indian swami Vivekananda’s lectures inspired many Americans to see the light. They also led to yoga being decried as a cult. “Police Break In On Weird Hindu Rites,” blared a New York City newspaper. Twenty years after Vivekanda had come and gone feature articles like “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction” were still commonplace.

In 1928, Yogananda, the author of ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, was hounded out of Miami, Florida, by hundreds of anxious and angry husbands who saw him as a sex threat. Throughout the 1930s yogi crimes were a staple of headline writers. During the Cold War some Americans worried about yogis teaching Russian cosmonauts breathing techniques. But, in the 1960s yoga gained traction. It popped up on TV and the Beatles crossed paths with it. By the 1990s new converts were discovering it daily and the practice was off and running.

Baby Boomers led the charge, especially the cadre of Boomers who became teachers, from Sharon Gannon to Ana Forrest to Richard Freeman. “The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990,” said Kathryn Arnold, the editor of Yoga Journal at the time. It was also the moment when yoga began to shape shift from a practice of awareness and freedom to an exercise routine.

Postural yoga, a stand-alone practice in pursuit of health, became the vogue it still is today. In ‘A History of Modern Yoga’ Elizabeth De Michelis fleshed out posture practice as a “secularized healing ritual.” Ben Houhour noted in his ‘History of Yoga in America’ that the “consolidation of yoga coincided with the coming of age of the Boomer.”

Early on in their reign Boomers dropped acid with the aim of changing themselves through drug use. The later Boomers of the 1990s flocked to yoga studios and flipped up into headstand with the same resolve. “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” said Timothy Leary, the 1960s guru of LSD. “Drop in, tune in, turn on,” said John Schumacher, a long-time American yoga teacher who spent three decades studying with B. K. S. Iyengar.

In the oughts yoga became the fashion among the better off seeking to become even better off. In the 1970s and 80s the Me Generation had invested in health and exercise fads, self-help programs like EST, and New Age spirituality. In the new decade of doom and diversions it was yoga’s turn to cater to the Baby Boomers as the practice morphed into exercise for the elite.

Since then yoga has had to go head-to-head with one thing after another, from teachers behaving badly to capitalists doing what they do best. Bikram Choudhury did both, behaving badly and beating the moneymen at their own game, while boasting about it to boot. Some teachers became hatha celebrities, racking up frequent-flier miles, preaching from the pulpit about a practice supposedly sans pulpit.

The corporate world, always looking for the next big thing, licked its lips, liking what it saw of yoga swerving into the mainstream.

Lululemon Athletica, noted for its hundred dollar separates, built its apparel empire piggybacking on yoga. By 2012 its sales were $1 billion. Three years later, in 2015, its sales almost doubled to $1.8 billion. In the birthplace of yoga most people wear street shorts and casual t-shirts and women even wear everyday sarees when practicing. They aren’t accessorized for the yoga runway because they don’t push themselves up into shoulder stand on a rock star runway.

In 2002 Trevor Tice founded CorePower Yoga after taking a class in Telluride, Colorado. “I was very underwhelmed by the facilities and the delivery,” he said. “It was lacking anything a good customer experience should have.” Good yogis now pay up to $170.00 a month to be good customers at CorePower Yoga.

Forecasting for 2016 the Advertising Specialty Institute recommended to its promotional pros that the time was ripe to tap into the ever-expanding yoga market. The practice has increasingly been defined, inside and outside its ranks, as a high-end leisure activity, a perception that Rodney Yee in 2011 described as “ass-backwards.”

Although commercialization is a problem for a practice that on the face of it eschews commercialization, the immediate problem yoga faces in the next several years is who’s knocking on the door. According to a recent survey conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, nearly 37 million people now practice yoga in the United States, up from 20-some million in 2012. More than half of that growth has come from older practitioners, 14 million adults over age 50, up from 4 million in 2012.

It’s the Baby Boomers banging on the door.

“It’s improved my flexibility and balance,” said 66-year-old Len Adelman of Herndon, Virginia. “The majority of my classes are filled with individuals over the age of sixty,” said Michele Coker, a Certified Yoga Teacher in Maryland. “Many have had injuries and are fed up with physical therapy. They come because their physician suggested it.”

“More doctors are recommending that their patients try yoga to help with healing,” said Carin Gorrell, editor-in-chief of Yoga Journal.

Yoga isn’t Muscle Beach, fortunately for those entering their golden years. No one gets sand kicked in their face. There isn’t the notion of turning anyone away in yoga’s DNA. But, Baby Boomers come bearing baggage. It might be best to open the door slowly and cautiously since what’s on the other side could go boom.

Baby Boomers soaked the economy for all it was worth through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s. Greed is good, they chanted, and then left everyone else’s finances a wreck. Gen X is in worse shape than their parents and Millennials are worse off than them. The best Baby Boomer brains built fortunes for themselves on Wall Street. Then they drove the country into the worst recession in 80 years. 34% of Boomers believe their own children will not enjoy as good a standard of living as they themselves have now, according to the Pew Research Center.

No one in Washington, D. C. ever says Social Security will be a problem for current retirees, in other words, the Baby Boomers. After that, all bets are off.

When the Greatest Generation had finished its run in the Nation’s Capital, it was time for the Boomer-in-Chiefs, Bill Clinton and George Bush the 2nd. From his casual approach to spending and debt and his philandering, Bill Clinton was the Boomer-in-Chief who the Baby Boomers deserved. They had transitioned to dropping Viagra, anyway. George Bush the 2nd, who was indulged as a young man, indulged himself in the Oval Office with fantasies of Weapons of Mass Destruction and money growing on trees.

Only Barak Obama hasn’t suffered the black eyes of Boomermania. The 800-pound gorilla with the souffle hairdo will not, hopefully, be the next Boomer-in-Chief.

The worst legacy of the Me Generation is still unfolding, which is the legacy of their burning all the cheap fossil fuels they could get their hands on, and then denying for as long as they could that climate change was happening. They will be long gone and not have to pay the piper for the heat-trapping gasses they’ve left behind. It might be appropriate to bring a lump of coal to their memorial services.

Before they go to their just reward they are getting up from the front stoop of old age and beating a path to yoga studios. Baby Boomers used to crow about never trusting anyone over 30. Now that more than 10,000 of them cross the threshold of 65 every day, the typical Boomer believes that old age doesn’t begin until 72. In other words, “Never trust anyone over 72.” They are putting their trust in yoga.

“It’s never too late, you’re never too old, you’re never too sick, to start again from scratch,” said the yoga master Bishnu Charan Ghosh.

Everyone who takes up yoga has their own reasons for doing it. It’s often the case that they are dissatisfied with something. If that’s the case, Baby Boomers are primed for the practice. Fully 80% of them are not satisfied with the way things are going and as a group are more downbeat about their lives than all other age groups.

They’re in a collective funk.

It was Baby Boomers who brought into being the health club era. Health is the motivation driving most of them to yoga studios, although calming their crazy minds is also a factor. They are less healthy and more stressed than other age groups, according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are looking for ways to stay energetic and vital in the latter part of their lives. Yoga can be practiced at any age, since there are so many kinds of it, from action-style Ashtanga to no-impact chair-style.

It’s a no-brainer for the Baby Boomers. Yoga builds strength and balance, keeps excess pounds at bay, and protects joints, according to the AARP. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older,” said Amy Wheeler, a yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino. As a last resort, there’s always corpse pose, “which is a totally relaxing option everyone can do!” says the AARP.

Better late than never.

There are so many Baby Boomers taking up yoga that some teacher training facilities like the Yoga Sanctuary in Florida have classes where almost all the trainees are themselves Boomers. It takes one to know one seems to be the idea behind the curriculum.

Although Boomers represent a grave threat to the practice, because of their mercenary states of mind and narcissism, yoga’s motto is “Everyone is welcome here.” It is literally true, to the extent that if you can’t make it to a studio the studio will come to you. The Prison Yoga Project has taught tens of thousands of jailbirds the practice, bringing mindfulness to cell blocks. “Use your body to teach your mind,” is how James Fox, the founder and director of the project, describes their mission.

Hardened criminals are one thing, but Baby Boomers are another, even harder thing. Nevertheless, yoga is a 5,000 year-old practice that has seen it all over the past 50 centuries and is probably up for the challenge. Most Boomers are taking up the practice in order to fix whatever it is they are being confronted by. They may get more, however, than they bargained for.

“I like to emphasize that we’re already completely whole,” said Niika Quistgaard, a clinical Ayurveda specialist in New Jersey. “We can enjoy ourselves even when everything isn’t physically perfect. It comes down to loving ourselves just as we are, which bring its own healing.”

It’s a way of chilling out and doing your best, rather than stressing out about how to become Masters of the Universe.

Baby Boomers may rediscover themselves in ways they never anticipated as they discover yoga. Although they and the practice seem like star-crossed lovers, it could be their way of staying true to themselves. In the end most people can’t be taught anything fundamental. They can only discover it within themselves. Much of life is a do-it-yourself project.

“They are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” wrote Paul Begala in “The Worst Generation.”

Yoga is about all the aspects of being, which are the body, breath, and inner self. The practice establishes the person in the self. It leads to self-awareness. Awareness of the self is the way to freedom, the freedom to choose and change. The Me Generation, even though burdened with all their special needs, after the long, strange trip they’ve been on, have one last chance to become the Self-Aware Generation.