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.

Until Triangle Do Us Part

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There are many reasons men and women become couples of all kinds, and even get married, even when they know better. They grow up, the clock is ticking, or they get cold feet about staying single. It seems like the next step, maybe there’s a baby on the way, and sometimes, best of all, they’re in love.

However, about half of all marriages in America end up in divorce, according to the United States Census Bureau. The separation rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. The unmarried break up faster than the married. Cohabitating parents are four times more likely to split up than those who are wed.

Couples stay together because they have made a family, or they’ve made their love last, or because they simply have shared interests. When they do have similar interests they always have something to share together. They are able to understand one another better during hard times and have great holidays and weekends. What’s better than having a mate who likes to explore for antiques or go rock climbing, just like you?

Or practice yoga?

“When you merge your practice with another’s, you fall into sync with that person,” said Michelle Fondin, a yoga teacher and member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. “Your breath, movement, and body positions find a rhythm together.”

Couples don’t and can’t do everything together. Even if they have the most fun of all fun times together, they still need to give it a rest now and again, and have some fun with their friends. They have their own lives, a life for each of them, even though they have a life with one another.

Although common interests don’t have anything to do with compatibility, it’s helpful to have interests in common. It may be true that two dog-lovers who don’t know how to communicate are probably not going to make it, but it’s more true that a dog-lover and a dog-hater are certainly not going to make it, no matter what their communication skills are.

Unlike sharing a tub of popcorn and a movie at the multiplex, sharing a yoga practice and traveling the same spiritual journey are more likely to join couples closer together, uniting them in a similar flow.

The word yoga, itself, means to yoke or join.

“When you focus on the breath, body, and movement of another person in yoga practice, your physical body will entrain with the other,” said Ms. Fondin. “It creates harmony within the couple.”

When couples get together on the mat, instead of “me” time on the elliptical it becomes “us” time at the yoga studio. Instead of focusing on the flat screen in front of the NordicTrack, they share the benefits of drishti, which in yoga means concentrated intention, or a focused gaze. Instead of being connected to iPod earbuds, they are connected to their partner, not Justin Belieber, I mean, Bieber.

“Both partners come away with feelings of synchronicity, cooperative spirit, and shared passion,” said Dr. Jane Greer, a marriage and family therapist. “Then you throw in some spicy endorphins and it can be a real a real power trip for the relationship.”

Maybe that’s why there’s a kind of practice called Power Yoga.

There is a yoga crafted specifically for couples, called Partners Yoga. Unlike some rites of Tantra, which are sexual in nature, it eschews those aspects, although it emphasizes intimacy through touch and movement.

“Partners rely on each other’s support to keep proper body alignment, balance, and focus in a posture,” said Elysabeth Williamson, a yoga teacher and author of The Pleasures and Principles of Partner Yoga. “When you feel physically supported, not only do you experience a yoga posture differently, but you also begin to allow yourself to trust someone else.”

When you grab a loved one and hit the mat together good things happen, and it’s not just about creating shared moments. The power of touch alone is powerful, whether it’s doing double downward dog or simply a partner twist, cultivating emotional as well as physical support in the relationship.

“Partner yoga is the medium for building stronger communication and intimacy between human beings in any relationship,” said Cain Carroll, co-author of Partner Yoga: Making Contact for Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Growth.

When partners expand beyond the mat, delving into the other seven of the eight limbs of yoga, they often deepen their connection with one another. When they dive into the spiritual side of yoga they find there’s a lot more below the lotus floating on the surface of the swimming pool.

In many senses asana, or yoga exercise, is largely an external practice, a device or technique of disposing the body in postures to satisfy a hankering for loose hamstrings or to alleviate back pain.

The rest of yoga, from meditation to the morals of the practice, is largely an internal practice. One of the eight limbs of yoga is even called dharana, which is commonly translated as introversion. Another, meditation, is about as private as it gets.

Yoga is partly about what goes on when touching your toes on the mat, but mostly about what goes on off the mat. Standing on your head is one thing, but what goes on inside your head is the rest of the thing. It isn’t nailing headstand that’s important, even though nailing it is nice. It’s about keeping your peace of mind when you fall out of headstand that’s important.

“Spirituality and the spiritual life give us the strength to love,” said the writer bell hooks. Everyone draws strength from the people they love and who love them in return. When couples are on the same page in body, mind, and spirit, it’s as good as gold.

Except when it isn’t. “You can make your relationship your yoga, but it is the hardest yoga you will ever do,” said Ram Dass, a spiritual teacher and the author of Be Here Now.

What happens when one of the partners falls off the yoga wagon? What happens when the shared awareness of yoga goes downstream? What happens when yoga becomes a triangle and something’s got to give?

There are many ways that yoga brings mindfulness to a relationship. One of them is the idealism of the practice. There are also many ways that people break up, separate, and file for divorce. They’re always squabbling, or lying to each other, or they simply fall out of love. Communication issues are a common problem and infidelity has long been a betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

Balance in the bedroom can be tricky.

Losing interest in shared hobbies or interests might throw a relationship out of whack, or not. How we spend out spare time doesn’t necessarily separate us. Losing interest in shared values, however, is usually deadly. Values are beliefs that are a fundamental part of who a person is. They are important in the sense that they are a man or woman’s rules of life.

“The mind endlessly grasps after things, clings to expectations, and resents your partner if he or she doesn’t share the same values,” said Philip Moffitt, founder of the Life Balance Institute.

Yoga on the mat is exercise, which is valuable, but the rest of yoga is a value system. Practicing yoga is a way of trying to lead a conscious, ethical life. Staying in a relationship with someone who behaves and relates to the world in a completely different way than you do would take a saint, and there ain’t many saints in this world.

Any couple can get healthy by practicing Core Yoga together. However, if their core values are mismatched, it’s doubtful whether they can have a healthy partnership.

But, if three’s a crowd, when it comes to yoga, two’s a crowd.

Yoga is not a solitary pursuit. It’s a way of staying present, not just on the mat, but off the mat, too. It’s a minute-to-minute experience. But, at the same time, it’s a solitary pursuit in the sense that no matter how open to the day it helps one to be, it’s a deeply private, self-centered practice.

Even though being self-centered is often thought of as bad, it’s not necessarily the case. “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are, and that person is not to be found anywhere,” said the Buddha.

Most yoga classes start with a moment of focusing the mind and breath. It’s a way of centering, forfending the external and self-centering, setting a baseline for the practice. On the other hand, turning one’s attention during class to the birds and bees in the room will off-center anybody.

Triangles can be deadly, on and off the mat, but yoga isn’t just triangle pose, nor is it just a love triangle on which love can get caught on one dead side. Rather, if there’s anything that can help weather the loss of shared interests, shared values, and even the loss of a shared love, it’s the electric third rail of yoga, if only because it’s the practice of freedom.

Freedom for you and freedom for me.

800-Pound Gorilla

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I never thought I would see an 800-pound gorilla in headstand, but then again, I never thought I would see a fleet of gold SUV’s in the parking lot of the yoga studio in Rocky River that I sometimes practice at, either.

The car repair lot next door, where no one is supposed to park, was filled, too. I parked across the street. It was early March, but winter had been mild, either because of climate change or El Nino, and there were no snowdrifts to climb over or icy sidewalks to flat foot across.

The SUV’s were parked in a line along the front of the building. As I squeezed past the lead one I glanced inside and saw a red baseball cap on the passenger seat.

Donald Trump? I thought.

I knew the Ohio GOP primary was coming up soon, I knew it was Donald Trump’s chance to derail John Kasich, our governor still in the race, and I also knew what Marco Rubio had said about Donald Trump during the FOX News debate in Detroit a few days earlier.

“He’s very flexible,” said Marco Rubio, pointing out that Donald Trump was primed for yoga because of his cherry picking politics. I wasn’t sure I agreed with Senator Rubio. Donald Trump’s policy positions seemed more like blobs of mercury, impossible to pin down and toxic, too.

At the top of the stairs, the yoga studio being on the second floor, two burly security men in dark glasses and darker suits looked me up and down. They asked me to unroll my mat for their inspection.

“Democrat or Republican?” they asked as I was rolling up my mat again.

“Canadian,” I said, lying.

They smiled, grimly.

I stepped into the studio wondering if Canada might ever build a wall from their side of the border to keep out their scary neighbors. When did the United States become the scary neighbor?

The yoga room was packed to the gills.

I had several times attended workshops staged by celebrity teachers, one with Janet Stone and another led by Max Strom, and thought then that the room was packed to the gills. I was wrong. If it all comes down to turnout, as is often said about elections, it was “Mission Accomplished”.

Both of my favorite spots in the yoga room were overflowing. The only available spot I saw was one in front, my least favorite place to be, but beggars can’t be choosers. I set up camp next to a vacant, extra-thick, extra-long, tangerine-flecked purple mat that faced the teacher’s mat.

Where do 800-pound gorillas practice yoga?

Anywhere they want to.

Donald Trump was in the center of the room. He wore a gold Speedo and nothing else, not even a headband. He was surrounded by a crowd and speaking, waving his arms as he spoke.

“I was always a good athlete,” he said. “I was always the captain of my teams. Staying in shape is very important. If you’re physically happy and healthy, it’s a lot easier to keep a relationship going. Taking care of your body is a great thing for love.

“Don’t even think about Marco Rubio saying my hands are small, and if they’re small something else must be small. My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.” He pointed to the front of his Speedo. “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

Some of the women in the crowd being regaled by Donald Trump lifted their eyes from his gold Speedo, gathered up their mats, and left the yoga room. One of them stopped and asked the teacher, “What is that?”

“That’s Donald Trump, the Republican running for president.”

“I know,” she said. “Did you lose a bet?”

“Of course not. This is part of our yoga on and off the mat program.”

“This is the same man who said women were dogs, slobs, fat pigs, and disgusting animals, right?”

“It’s all yoga,” said the teacher, looking increasingly uncomfortable.

“Blah,” said the woman, slipping out the door.

Since the yoga room was less crowded at the start of class than it had been beforehand, everyone rearranged their mats. The teacher cued her iPod and class began.

“Before we start,” said the teacher, “I’d like to welcome Donald Trump to our studio and say that I really believe in the essential goodness of Republicans.”

“Wait a minute, not all goodness,” exclaimed Donald Trump, jumping up out of Easy Pose. “There’s Lying Ted, he’s an unstable person. His whole deal is he will lie. He will lie and after the lie takes place he will apologize. Little Marco, he’s always hiding his palm sweat. Once a choker always a choker. Kasich, he’s a nice guy, but he’s a baby. He can’t be president.”

My mat was next to Donald Trump’s, giving me an up-from-your-bootstraps view of the man as he stood straddling his mat. He was tall, over six foot, and big, well over 200 pounds. He had large feet, size 12 or 13. It was clear he had recently gotten a pedicure.

As he sat back down I heard muttering behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw another dozen-or-so people leaving the yoga room. “Mitt Romney was right when he talked about your bullying and absurd third grade theatrics,” said a middle-aged man, pausing as he passed by.

“Get him out of here,” said Donald Trump, tilting his chin up to one of his security men. “They’re always sticking a certain finger up in the air. I love the old days. You know what they used to do to protestors like that when they got out of line. They’d be carried away on a stretcher, folks.”

There was a low moan from the back and a few more people walked out. The yoga room had gone half empty and class hadn’t even actually started. Our teacher, looking out at what had been a multitude just minutes earlier, hurriedly got us on our feet for sun salutations, a traditional warm-up.

We were midway through our second sequence of sun salutations when Donald Trump jumped out of down dog to the front of his mat, but instead of staying in the sequence he stood upright and began flapping his arms.

“What language is that?” he demanded to know.

The teacher had been speaking partly in Sanskrit, the classical Indian language used in yoga to define poses.

“Is that Mexican? That’s bad. When Mexico sends people, they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. I will build a great wall. Nobody builds walls better than me. I’ll make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“Oh, man, that’s all I can take.” It was a voice I recognized, although I hadn’t seen her in the room. When Lola stormed to the front I was sure there was going to be a confrontation. She grew up in a Polish-American neighborhood on Cleveland’s south side and taught high school in Lorain, a nearby rust belt town. Many of her students were either first or second-generation immigrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America.

“It’s scary to actually think about what you in office would mean for equality,” she said, standing high on her toes to get up into his suntanned face. Although, when I looked closely, it looked like he was using a self-tanner. The color was orangey.

“Nobody’s done so much for equality as I have,” said Donald Trump. “When it comes to my $100,000.00 membership club, Mar-a-Lago in Florida, it’s totally open to everybody. I set a new standard in Palm Beach.”

“Yikes,” she said and stormed out, followed by what was now a throng.

“How did she get that close to me?” asked Donald Trump, glaring at his security men. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

He turned to face what was left of the class. “We need strong borders. We need a wall. I’m the king of building buildings, the king of building walls. Nobody can build them like Donald Trump.” He was starting to slip into the third person, as though there were two of him. “I’m opposed to new people coming in. We need Predator drones.”

By this time there weren’t many darker-skinned people of any kind left in the room, only a handful of women, and no one who practiced yoga for more than the exercise. Most of the remainder, scattered in the corners and shadows, were either younger men or older men. They began chanting, but not OM, the chant most commonly heard in yoga classes.

“USA! USA! USA!”

“We’re going make our country rich again,” Donald Trump shouted over the din. “We’re going make our country great again and we need the rich in order to make the great.”

“USA! USA! USA!”

“It’s better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep,” he shouted, even louder. “I know who said it, Mussolini, OK. But what difference does it make?”

“USA! USA! USA!”

The teacher tried to regain control of the class, but it was too late, in more ways than one. If yoga is about focus, the focus of everyone left in the room was elsewhere. All eyes were on Donald Trump. He whirled on the teacher.

“You’re fired, done,” he said. “What a moron, lightweight.”

He gathered up his mat and unfurled it where the teacher’s had been, perpendicular to the class.

“I promise you I’m much smarter than her. I focus exclusively on the present. I’m speaking with myself,” said Donald Trump.

“I’m the super genius of all time. I was a great student. I was good at everything. We need a president with tremendous intelligence, smarts, and cunning. My whole life is about winning. I don’t like losers. Everybody loves me. The haters and losers refuse to acknowledge it, but I do not wear a wig. My hair may not be perfect, but it’s mine.

“It’s all about living your words, walking your talk, and talking your walk.”

Our yoga class was almost over. Since he had flipped the GOP head over heels this campaign season, Donald Trump said we were going to finish by doing an inversion. He spun his hair into a bun and to my astonishment lifted up into a pinpoint headstand, his new updo making a comfy cushion.

Most people who practice headstand hold the pose for about a minute. If they stick with it and get seasoned, some hold headstand for up to five minutes. Donald Trump’s eyes were open and his gaze straight ahead. His legs were parallel and butt tucked in.

Five minutes later everyone had rolled up their mats and left the room. Donald Trump was still in headstand. His security men stared out the windows. Ten minutes later the yoga receptionist cracked open the door and peeked in.

“Mr. Trump, I don’t mean to interrupt,” she said. “Our next class is scheduled, we’re running late, and everyone’s waiting out here in the lobby.”

“That’s so inappropriate,” he said. “You’re a flunkie, treating me very badly.”

She closed the door softly behind her.

I lay on my mat in corpse pose. I could hear Donald Trump’s breathing next to me, slow and steady. When I was finished I rolled my mat up, nodded to the bored-looking security men, and left the yoga room. Everyone’s eyes fell on me as I stepped into the lobby.

“Is he still in there?” someone asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“When is he going to be done?”

If there’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room, when is yoga class over?

When the 800-pound gorilla says so.

Dead Again

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Unlike cats and their legendary nine lives, most people, when they die, only die once. The art of living well and the art of dying well are often thought to be the same thing. Kim Fowler is not most people. She lives well, but doesn’t die well, although if she were a cat she would be down to six lives and counting.

Today she is the founder and owner of YAS Yoga and Spinning Fitness Centers, with multiple locations in Costa Mesa, Venice, and Los Angeles, California. The first center opened in 2001 and featured the first fitness program wedding yoga and certified spinning. “Both together are an amazing combination of yin-yang,” said Ms. Fowler.

Her Yoga for Athletes melds elements of Iyengar and Ashtanga practice to enhance athletic performance and reduce the risk of injuries. YAS classes are typically 30 minutes of indoor cycling followed by 30 minutes of yoga. “It helps you go deeper into and benefit more from each pose,” she said.

Kim Fowler is a successful innovator, teacher, and businesswoman. She is a resourceful yogi, and one tough cookie, too. She has learned to roll with the punches, literally.

In the early 1980s she was competing in a bicycle road race outside Dallas, Texas, when a car smashed into her. She rolled over the front of her bike.

“I bent the handlebar of my bike with my face.” As late as 2013 there were close to a half million emergency room visits because of bicycle-related injuries and almost 900 bikers died. Texas is one of the deadliest states in the USA in which to ride a bicycle, ranking only behind Florida.

After recovering she worked with a physical therapist, a woman who happened to be an Inyengar Yoga instructor on the side. “She gave me yoga poses to help me.” A near death experience turned into a far and wide life experience. “I guess yoga found me,” she said.

Whether it’s exercise or meditation, yoga is about trying to apprehend the inner being, what in the Yoga Sutras is called drastuh. It’s a burning away of what in the end doesn’t matter. Eternity isn’t something that happens after anybody dies. It’s happening all the time to everybody.

Raised in an impoverished South Jersey neighborhood, the eldest of five children, Kim Fowler had to make her own way. “My father had a bad car accident when I was young and ended up with 88 stitches in his face. He never pulled out of it. He became an alcoholic, didn’t work, and left us to fend for ourselves.

“I grew up extremely poor. We didn’t have food or heat.”

After putting herself through school and earning a degree from Boston University she enrolled in law school. In her final year, in the middle of her final semester, she was diagnosed with a rapidly growing tumor the size of a golf ball in her brain.

“I had a bright career in front of me,” she said. Lawyers get a bad rap. Some people even believe most of the trouble with laws is lawyers. “No one wanted an attorney that had a brain tumor.“ Her doctors told her the problem was inoperable. “We could try to get it out,” one of the team of doctors told her. “But, you will lose your speech and sight. You probably won’t make it past thirty.”

Life can be rocketed into a new orbit by a doctor reading bad news from a clipboard in a bland voice. “I’m in my last year of law school!” she exclaimed. “This isn’t an option for me.” Once diagnosed, she had to decide whether or not to listen to their medical advice.

“I’m not going to let this happen to me,” she decided. “There’s got to be something else, something different.” She called a friend who helped her check herself out of the hospital. “Nurses and doctors were screaming. If I would have listened to them I would be dead by now.”

Dead again.

“It’s mind over matter,” said Ms. Fowler. She began training for and taking part in endurance contests. She ran marathons, rode all-day races on her bicycle, and finally progressed to triathlons. “Someone telling me I was going to die caused me to go the whole other route and become a pro triathlete.”

She also made making it on the mat a habit. “Practicing yoga while battling cancer taught me the importance of balancing strength with flexibility. Focusing on my breath helped me stay centered.”

She gradually recovered. “It was hard, but I was full of piss and vinegar at the time.” Although doctors are often crucial, recovery is more often brought about not by them, but by the person. In many respects we heal ourselves, by means of our thought and breath, and sheer will.

After graduating from South Texas College of Law she stayed in Houston, going to work for a law firm. In 1990 she moved overseas, practicing international business law in Monaco. Five years later, back in the USA, she joined the Winning Combination, a health and wellness business, as their Chief Operating Officer.

Then she went hiking.

The Mt. Charleston Wilderness Area in Nevada is gnarly, riven by narrow slot canyons, and laced with steep hillsides. The mountain is called Sky Island because of its elevation and isolation. While free climbing Ms. Fowler slipped on a patch of ice, lost her balance, and fell more than two stories. She landed on an old tree stump.

She cracked several ribs, punctured a lung, and severely lacerated a kidney. “I’ve been through worse,” she said. She was a half-hour away from the closest medical help. She dragged herself off the tree stump. ”I knew I had to get to the hospital. It was mind over matter and I just did it.”

The kidney on the side that had taken the blow from the fall was leaking urine and blood into surrounding tissue. At the hospital she was told it had to be removed. “No,” she said.

Ms. Fowler was, again, determined to go her own way. It took her a year to recover. The Winning Combination let her go long before year’s end. “I lost my job as COO.” Getting fired can be like a bomb going off. It can also be a way to get on with your life. You only get to make one mistake with bombs. Firing Ms. Fowler was the Winning Combination’s mistake, although for her it turned out to be liberating.

“When I was rehabbing I would go from a yoga class on one side of town to a spin class on the other,” she said. “I was very frustrated. I thought, why doesn’t someone put this together and open up a yoga and spinning studio?”

That someone turned out to be her.

She opened the first of her yoga and spinning studios in Venice, California. The day she opened the doors her new business began to fail. “We had opposite energies coming together.” Spinners were looking for an intense cardiovascular workout and yogis were looking for a workout to calm them down.

What do you do if your business plan isn’t working? “In my case I regrouped and changed, fast.” She created a new kind of yoga to fit the spinners and sold the yoga crowd on the complementary benefits of spinning. “It was the best thing I could have done.” She was designated a Nike Yoga Athlete by the athletic and fitness company two years later.

Winning acceptance in the yoga world, however, was another matter.

“I got blasted by the yoga community when I first did it because it wasn’t ‘real yoga’, rather my own style,” said Ms. Fowler.

It was a matter of building a better mousetrap. The concept of zen on wheels made it into Yoga Journal, the world’s largest mass circulation yoga magazine, “Spin and yoga have merged into a killer one-hour class, created by Los Angeles-based yoga instructor Kimberly Fowler. It’s cropping up across the country.” It named the now better mousetrap one of the hottest fitness trends of 2014.

Since then Ms. Fowler has expanded her brand, moving beyond company-owned locations and franchising her fitness regimen. “Indoor cycling gives you the best cardio training and yoga provides the best stretching, relaxation, and peace of mind to prepare you for the challenges of life,“ said Hugo Auler, new owner of the franchised YAS Fitness Center in Manhattan Beach, California.

Resurrecting her life led to resurrecting her career, and led to finding her business partner, too. Sherri Rosen is her partner in life, as well. “We were set up on a blind date just a few months after I opened YAS,” said Ms. Fowler. “We are still together.”

“I’ve stayed in an operator’s mode,” said Ms. Rosen, former vice president of a fashion company. “Kimberly is the visionary. It is amazing what she has accomplished.”

Even though Kim Fowler has gone from cutting edge to business-savvy, even though she has transformed her business model to an investor approach, and even though she has gone corporate, she still lives in her sweats.

“I basically live in workout clothes,” she said. “I only wear green, gray, black, and white. Well, with a smattering of skulls.” She is the designer of an apparel line whose tag line is “Two parts functional, one part bad ass.”

Kim Fowler continues to see her doctor once in a while. “I went and he looked at me like I was a freak when he realized I’d been off medication for 20 years, like I shouldn’t have the life I have. The mind is pretty phenomenal when it comes to its power over the body.”

At the end of exercise sequences on the yoga mat something called corpse pose is traditionally practiced. It’s the easiest and hardest pose. It’s easy because all you have to do is lay on your back with your eyes closed for 5 to 15 minutes. It’s hard because who wants to lie on their back like a dead person, doing nothing, for 5 to 15 minutes.

Corpse pose is about letting go. But, it’s not about zoning out or taking a nap. Even though it’s about letting go, it’s a pose meant to foster connection and clarity, or awareness. Many people struggle with it, however, and some classes look like a popcorn pot the minute class ends and corpse pose is announced.

Other people have no problem with it. Kim Fowler is one of them. It keeps her in touch with life. “It’s a different awareness of your body,” she said. “I think for stress it’s amazing. Nothing’s better.” She knows when to lie down and when to get back up.

She’s been there before. There are no surprises waiting for her in corpse pose.

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