All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Bad Day on Buzzard’s Bay

By Ed Staskus

“Release your bones,” said Vera Nyberg.

She sat cross-legged on a one-step-up platform at the front of the room, scanning the sparsely attended late afternoon class as everyone finished their yoga poses and settled down on their mats.

”Release your bones into the earth,” she said. “Feel the support of the earth beneath them.“

John Cerberus rolled out of shoulder stand and following her bidding lay down in corpse pose, squeezing his eyes shut and exhaling strongly. He made a mental note to tell her two things.

The first was to not teach any more classes wearing the leopard print Capri’s and black sports halter she was wearing. It wasn’t attractive. She was only a temporary teacher living in the dormitory, but he expected her to know better about how to dress for class, even though it wasn’t a dress code as much as what was understood to be appropriate at the center.

The second was to wear contacts when she was teaching. The cat eye frame glasses she was wearing made her look old-fashioned and weird.

He made another mental note.

He would have to re-read the poison pen letters slipped under his office door earlier in the month, week, and day. There was something about the way they were written that reminded him of somebody, maybe like e-mails he had gotten a year-or-so ago. It was probably nothing, he reasoned, just another malcontent from the Amazing Grace days.

They were the last mental notes made by the Asana Director of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health.

The large room with its scattered practitioners lying prone on their mats was filled with dusk, the lights dimmed almost off, the late November sun setting on the other side of the row of yew hedges outside the floor to ceiling windows.

He relaxed uneasily into the last pose of the hatha class. It had been a demanding ninety minutes at the end of a long, demanding day. Maybe savasana wouldn’t be so bad today, he thought. He let his feet fall out to the sides and turned his arms outward, palms face up, trying to let go of his body.

He made an effort to quiet his breathing.

Around him the guests and day-pass visitors were lowering their bodies into dead man’s pose, what the Sanskrit word savasana was better known as, letting their eyes sink back and releasing their thoughts. Lying there they looked peaceful, Vera thought, giving the room a last once-over.

“Release your jaw and soften your eyes and tongue,” she said, easing the class inward. “Sink into the surrender of no thoughts, no ideas, into the you as you are in yourself, into the world as it is in itself.”

She closed her eyes, letting stillness envelop the room, and started counting her breaths to one hundred, which would take about ten minutes. Afterwards she would guide everyone back to a seated position and bring the lights up again for the end of class.

Corpse pose was hard for John Cerberus, a state of being neither awake nor asleep. The practice of bending, stretching, and twisting the body suited him, as did dead to the world sleep, but not the middle space between effort and sleep. He generally shunned the void of corpse pose unless he was taking somebody else’s class.

There was something, sensations, or memories, at the core of his body he knew better to avoid.

As he breathed to bring his thoughts to a standstill, he became aware someone was behind him, squatting down, large hands at the side of his head, massaging his temples. He was mildly surprised. Vera Nyberg hadn’t struck him as the kind of teacher who proffered head and shoulder savasana massages. She was schooled in Ashtanga Yoga, a more severe practice than most.

The fingers of both hands, one on each side of his head, moved from his temples down to the base of his neck. The sides of her forearms picked up his head and hands cradled his neck. He opened his eyes slightly and peeked backwards.

It wasn’t Vera Nyberg, after all.

John Cerberus started to smile, but then a knee pushed his left shoulder hard into the ground, and before he could react, his head was jerked sharply to the right and his neck snapped.e was surprised

Vera slowly opened her eyes taking her one-hundredth breath. Every day a little bit dying, she thought, something she heard Pattabhi Jois say at a workshop in New York City the last time he visited there. Jois said that corpse pose was a hard posture to master, quieting the mind and body.

“Most difficult for student, not waking, not sleeping,” he said in his broken English. “If student does not get up from savasana, or lifting student up is like a stiff board, savasana is correct.”

After everyone rolled onto their sides, then leaned up and were sitting cross-legged, she thanked them for coming to the class, reminded them about the center’s weekend activities, especially the back bending workshop she was leading Sunday morning, and smiling broadly said, “Happy weekend, everyone.

“Namaste.”

It was only after she had straightened up her area, tucking her iPod and water bottle away into her duffel, that she noticed the body still lying in corpse pose. Tossing the bag over her shoulder, she walked over, recognizing John Cerberus. As she bent down to touch him on the shoulder she noticed there was a small bright yellow flower that looked like a bird’s foot on the center of his chest.

His breath was neither rising nor falling, and when she looked him in the face, his head akimbo, his features were ashy and his unseeing eyes rolled up and back in their sockets.

She reached into her duffel bag, fumbling to find her iPhone.

Sam Fowler of the Wareham Police Department was lifting a pint of Backlash Holiday Porter to his lips when his cell phone began chirping where he had laid it down next to the plate of cod and chips in front of him. He was sitting at the short end of the bar at the Gateway Tavern and Grill. He looked at his Samsung in disgust, checked the incoming number, and then took the call from the Medical Examiner’s Office.

After listening for a moment he said, “OK, ask the Falmouth guys to keep a lid on everything until I get there. I’m just finishing something up here that can’t wait and when I’m done I’ll be on my way. How do you spell the place?”

He flipped open a spiral notebook.

“All right, I’ve got it. It sounds like it will be about an hour-or-so drive. I should be there by nine-thirty.”

He pushed his Holiday Porter away, asked the bartender for a glass of water, and methodically began eating his dinner. The cod was seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon. He knew nothing about the Kritalvanda Center. He would have to call the station and let them know what was going on. Maybe Ginny Walther would know something. She was working the night shift at the dispatch desk. He had heard talk that she was into yoga.

An hour later, halfway to Wood’s Hole on the coastline of Buzzard’s Bay, an extra-large to-go JoMamas at his elbow, Sam Fowler called Ginny Walther and filled her in. He asked her if she knew anything about the Kritalvanda Center.

“I’ve been there a dozen times, or more, mostly one-day trips,” she said. “You can take any of the classes and workshops they offer on that day, and the day includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner in their cafeteria, although I have to warn you it’s all vegetarian.”

Sam Fowler’s scowl was audible over the phone.

“I spent a week there last year, on my vacation, on a retreat. It’s a wonderful place,” she said, “It couldn’t have been anyone there, they wouldn’t kill anyone.”

“Somebody was there,” he said.

What he found out from Ginny was that the center had its beginnings as the Yoga Society of Cape Cod in the early 1960s, in a derelict Shaker Trustee Building outside of Falmouth, its hippie residents living a communal life. As the ashram grew, which is what the residents called it, they outgrew the two-story saltbox building.

Twenty years later they bought a shut down Franciscan seminary on the peninsula northwest of Wood’s Hole and rehabilitated it to become the Kritalvanda Center.

“Since then they’ve really grown, because yoga has gotten popular,” Ginny said. “Almost 30,000 people cross the bridge every year to go there. They built an annex sometime ago, then a Wellness Center just this summer, new locker rooms, they have their own beach, hiking trails, and even a labyrinth.”

“Why would anyone want a labyrinth?” he asked. “You get lost in them, right?”

“No, it’s not what you think,” she said, “It’s for walking meditation and inspiration, for finding yourself. You should try it while you’re there.”

Steering with his knees he rummaged in the center console organizer of his SUV and pulled out a new recording by Maria Schneider. He liked her large jazz ensemble work, which he had heard her band play in a club in New York City, but this one was different. For most of the rest of the drive Sam Fowler listened to it, but the more he heard of it the less he liked it.

The music was not so much jazz than a kind of fusion, a poet’s poems being sung, lyrical and classy. Jazz was the kind of music he acquired a liking for from his ex-wife before things went sour between them. He kept their collection of recordings when she moved away, thinking he had gotten the better of the bargain.

He knew jazz was restless and wouldn’t stay put, but he liked its improvisation to stay within jazzy boundaries. Not like his ex-wife, whose restlessness knew no boundaries.

Approaching the windy deserted dark streets of Wood’s Hole, the detective let his GPS find Penzance Point Road and ten minutes later was pulling into the parking lot terraced into a hillside below the main building of the Kritalvanda Center for Yoga and Health. The Medical Examiner was outside the entrance doors, leaning against the yellow brick building, a cigarette dangling from his thick fingers.

“They didn’t even want me to have a smoke out here, Sam, they put up a stink about it,” he said, sullen.

“What happened in there?” asked Sam Fowler

“It was a 911 call. When the paramedics figured out what the problem was, they called Falmouth. They’ve got a couple of cars here, there’s me, and the paramedics are still here, too. They’re all parked around back, where the customers get checked in. That lot out front where you parked is where people leave their cars afterwards, for the day, or however long they’re here for.”

Throwing his butt to the side, he said, “Follow me, I know the way.”

Outside a second floor room a uniformed officer was waiting who showed them inside where two paramedics were lounging beside a gurney.

“It looks like his neck was broken and his breathing went haywire,” one of them explained as they stood over the corpse. “He died of respiratory failure, probably within five minutes.”

Sam Fowler glanced at the Medical Examiner.

“His name was John Cerberus. He was in charge of the exercise program here. I put his death at right around six o’clock. The class had just ended, and as I understand it, they all lay down, closed their eyes, and meditated for a few minutes. The teacher found him at about six-fifteen when she was closing the room. She’s the one who called. From the bruising on his neck I can say it was deliberate.”

“I thought it was hard to break someone’s neck,” said Sam Fowler.

“Despite what you see in the action movies, it’s almost impossible to break someone’s neck like this,” answered the Medical Examiner. “You have to be fast and apply a lot of torque to do it. You have to know exactly what you’re doing.”

“Wouldn’t someone have heard his neck breaking?”

“Like I said, it’s not the movies, where you hear a cracking sound.”

“So no one saw anything or heard anything?”

“I don’t know. That’s your job.”

When John Cerberus was gone, strapped down and wheeled away on the stainless steel gurney, Sam Fowler thought to himself that it was a hell of a mess when someone was killed in a roomful of people in broad daylight and no one saw or heard anything.

He walked out to the uniformed policeman in the hallway.

“Let’s get everybody who was in this room back here,” he said, “and I want to see whoever is in charge of this place. Get a list of everybody registered here, and all the staff people, and let’s make sure they’re all still on the grounds. Find out if they have any closed circuit, especially of the road in and out, and the parking lot. I’ll set up for interviews in the cafeteria I saw downstairs. Tell someone to get the lights on and some coffee for me.”

Ten minutes later sitting at one end of a long table in the cafeteria, his notebook and a microcassette recorder in front of him, Sam Fowler listened unhappily as he was told his options were the center’s signature-style Chai Tea or Moroccan Mint.

Vera Nyberg sat on the upper mattress of her bunk bed in the corner of the nearly deserted dormitory room, her knees pulled to her chest, leaning back against the wall, slowly twirling between her fingers the wilting Bird’s-foot Trefoil she had found on John Cerberus.

Where had it come from? She knew what it was and what it meant in the language of flowers. It meant revenge. Hadn’t she seen it recently? Although it had been a mild autumn, the temperatures not falling below forty, yet, it was late in the year for it to still be blooming.

“I know I’ve seen this somewhere,” she said as much to herself as to Elizabeth Archer in the bunk below her.

“What is it?” asked Elizabeth, swinging her legs off the lower bunk and taking a step on the ladder, pulling herself up by the railing of the upper bunk.

Elizabeth Archer was at the center on a six-month internship from the Columbia Business School MBA program. Like Vera she was immersed in yoga, but unlike Vera, who described herself as “a yoga teacher, that’s all,” she was an entrepreneur in the making. After graduation she planned on crowdfunding and opening and finally franchising high-end yoga studios. Her internship was a step towards that goal.

“I didn’t really like John Cerberus, but for someone to kill him, I just don’t know,” said Vera, her voice trailing away.

The principle of non-violence was a golden rule of yoga. Would anyone have broken John Cerberus’s neck, she wondered, even if he deserved to have his neck wrung. But, someone in her room had done just that. She knew it was someone who had been in her class because if anyone had come in through the door during corpse pose she would have heard them.

Maybe not their footsteps, but the pneumatic door closer was creaky and needed oiling. It was noisy.

“I know what you mean,” said Elizabeth, pulling her unruly blonde hair away from her face with both hands. “He flushed Amazing Grace down the toilet, but if that’s why somebody killed him, I guess he didn’t deserve to die because of that.”

Two years earlier, amid accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, and financial irregularities with the company’s pension fund, John Cerberus, a former New York City bond trader and founder of Amazing Grace Yoga, had stepped aside as CEO of a business that licensed almost two thousand teachers teaching more than a half million people worldwide his form of trademarked postural yoga.

Since then his conglomerate had crumbled. Amazing Grace’s headquarters building in Austin, Texas, barely five years old, had been sold, its teachers moving on to other disciplines, and the brand name disgraced. But, John Cerberus had weathered the storm and resumed teaching as an independent instructor, and in the middle of the year had been hired by the center as its Asana Director, supervising the teachers and offerings of the posture classes.

“I think it was someone in my class,” said Vera. “I’m sure of it.”

“No, not someone in your class!” exclaimed Elizabeth.

The center had been nearly deserted the Friday after Thanksgiving. The weekend was expected to be busier, especially since events like ‘The Healing Power of Drumming and Chanting’ and ‘Chakra Cleansing’ had been added to the calendar in hopes of attracting non-traditional holiday goers, or even traditionalists in need of relief from too much turkey.

When she asked Pattabhi Jois about being a vegetarian as step towards being a good yoga teacher, he said, “Meat eating makes you stiff. You will not be able to breathe right.”

Only nineteen people had taken Vera Nyberg’s class in a room that could easily fit seventy-five. Four of them were couples come down on I-93 from Boston for the long weekend. Three were good-looking young men, long-time friends of hers who lived in Provincetown year-round. A few were volunteers who worked in Food Services for their room and board and lived in the dormitory, like her. The rest were day-pass men and women who had come separately, and the last was one of the masseuses in the Wellness Center, who had slipped in late, after the class had almost started.

“It’s freaky to think there was a killer practicing yoga and planning to murder somebody the whole time,” said Elizabeth. “Who could have been that intense, and that quiet? You were all in the room, somebody would have heard them moving around, wouldn’t they have?”

Vera thought about what Lizzie was saying. She had a capable memory, but in a yoga room her mindfulness was sharp. For her the real art of memory was the art of attention. She paid attention to every person in her classes, making sure she knew their names beforehand, any limitations they might have, and where they were in the room so she could check on them whenever she thought it necessary. She hadn’t heard any footsteps during corpse pose, of that she was sure. Vera would have opened her eyes to see why someone was leaving the class early.

Who was closest to John Cerberus during the class?

Her friends had been in the front, where she insisted they be so she could keep an eye on any monkey business. They had clowned around up to the moment class started, but were good afterwards. Everyone else had been loosely knit at the center of the room, John Cerberus on the edge flanked by one of the wives from Boston, and on his outside hip, partly screened from her, there had been someone else. For some reason she couldn’t place the person. Their mat had been in a shadow between two high hats and off-center from her field of vision.

Maybe if she drew a map of where all the mats were in the room, and who had been on them, she would be able to see who had been on the mat just outside of John Cerberus.

“Lizzie, do you have a legal pad?” asked Vera.

Sam Fowler, who had been joined by a young plainclothesman, used his hands to push himself away from the table, stretched his stiff as a board legs out, and looked up at the ceiling. His notebook was almost filled with his illegible handwriting.

“Who do we have left?” he asked Jeremy Kroon, the only man the Falmouth station had been able to find on a late Friday night to help him.

“Just the teacher,” Kroon answered, pushing black bangs off his forehead.

How the hell did he get through the academy? He looks like one of the Beatles, thought Sam Fowler.

It was nearing one in the morning. Sam could feel the cold seeping in through the windows. The weather forecast was for a storm blowing in by Saturday night, although how stormy it might be was anybody’s guess. What was certain was that winter was close, he realized, rubbing his knees. The bone structure of the landscape would soon be all there was.

“Go ask somebody to get her down here.”

He had interviewed everyone who had been in the class, so far, and the Director of Program Development, as well, who seemed to be in charge since both the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating officer were out of town visiting family for the holidays.

Denise O’Neill was frank about her dislike of John Cerberus, although she admitted his qualifications.

“He is, I mean, was, excuse me, one of the most knowledgeable and experienced yoga teachers in the world, which is what he was always telling everybody. Maybe he was, I don’t know, I’m sure he was.”

She looked sad and annoyed at the same time.

“He studied with Iyengar, and he was once on their board of directors, too” she added. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Sam Fowler didn’t know who she was talking about and let it pass. He assumed Iyengar was yoga brass of some kind.

“Either it was because somebody owed him a favor, or it was the notoriety, or just a second chance, that’s why he landed here. We were supposed to work together, but he seemed to think he was my boss, even though I’ve been here eight years,” she added.

She had been reading alone in her room before dinner when John Cerburus was murdered.

“What were you reading?” he asked her.

“I was reading ‘The Courage to Be You’,” she said.

When she drew a blank from the police detective, she explained, “It’s a woman’s guide to emotional strength and self-esteem.”

“I see,” said Sam Fowler.

When she was gone he said to Jeremy Kroon, “Well, we know she didn’t kill anybody.”

The young police detective agreed, although he wasn’t exactly sure why.

Both couples from Boston said they knew John Cerberus from a new-age California music and yoga festival called Wanderlust they had been to three years ago, and that he had been the reason they had come to the center for the weekend. John Cerberus had taught a workshop earlier in the day about Tantra, the second half of which had been scheduled for Saturday.

“Tantra was the philosophical base of his Amazing Grace Yoga, did you know?” said one of the women, an attractive brunette in her late-30s.

“Isn’t that about sex?” asked Sam Fowler.

“That’s what most people think, but it’s more than that,” she answered. “It’s about sexual practice with the intention of spiritual awakening, increasing power, and experiencing bliss through embodiment. It’s not an indulgent practice.

“Everybody said John cheated on his girlfriends, and lied to them, but that’s not what it was ever about,” she continued, leaning forward. “Tantra is about using yoga poses, deep breathing, and stimulating acts, including intercourse, to hasten rapturous bliss.”

“Oh, I see,” he said, tilting his head and pressing his lips together thoughtfully.

She had been the last of the four Boston natives to be interviewed, one at a time, all of them separately. After watching her sashay out of the cafeteria Jeremy Kroon turned to Sam Fowler and asked, “You don’t think they’re involved, either, do you?

“No, they didn’t kill anyone,” he said. “They’re Back Bay people. They wouldn’t know how to break a chicken’s neck even if their own lives depended on it.”

Vera Nyberg’s three friends from Provincetown were excited about the murder, but at the same time nonchalant about the death. They had been asked, sitting in the hallway outside the cafeteria, to come in one at a time, but when they burst in together, Sam Fowler decided there was less bother in talking to them all at once than one at a time.

Only one person had killed John Cerberus. He doubted it was these three hens.

They didn’t so much answer his questions about what they seen or heard as talk about John Cerberus.

“What was all the partying about?” one of them said. “I must have missed that limb of yoga. And what about stealing retirement money from your employees? Patanjali has to be rolling over in his grave.”

“He was always jet-setting to Burning Man and Wanderlust,” another explained.

“He was the P. T. Barnum of yoga, the center of the world, and that whole posse of his, the kirtan bands and wannabe gurus,” the third man chimed in.

“It was a different kind of yoga?” asked Sam Fowler.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with yoga, they said.

“The postures and classes were what you would expect, but that’s just a part of the practice,“ said the fittest of the three fit men. ”The rest of it, all the parts of it that really matter, he ignored or turned them into a gala ball all his own.”

But, they all impressed on him that no one deserved to be murdered, and insisted that violence was beyond the pale in the world of yoga, of which there were many parts.

“What kind of yoga do you do?”

“We do Bikram Yoga, where there’s 90 minutes of the same poses in a hot room that’s 105 or 110 degrees and humidity is steamed in.”

“If you get your hands on a suspect, let us know,” said the cleanest cut of the three neat men. “We’ll sweat the truth out of him!”

An operetta is simply a small and gay opera, thought Sam Fowler, as the trio left the cafeteria.

None of the employees, the kitchen staff nor the masseuse, or the day-passers, had seen or heard or knew anything. None of them had been involved in Amazing Grace Yoga, personally or professionally. They deplored but forgave John Cerberus’s indiscretions, as much as they knew of them, and repeated that no one who practiced yoga would have considered killing him, much less actually committing the crime.

Waiting for Vera Nyberg and looking over his casebook, something nagged at Sam Fowler, something that was missing. It was something one of them hadn’t said, he thought.

When Elizabeth Archer answered the knock on the door of their dormitory room, spying the Falmouth patrolman on the threshold, Vera Nyberg was ready. She had been busy at the writing table mapping the mats and their owners in the room that afternoon. She now knew who had been on John Cerberus’s outside hip, and she knew where she had seen the Birds-foot Trefoil earlier in the week, as well.

What she didn’t know was whether she was going to tell the policeman what she knew.

As Vera came into the cafeteria Sam Fowler looked her up and down. She was slim, he could tell, even though she was wearing baggy black cotton sweatpants and a zip-up hoodie. He put her in her early-30s. Her black hair was long, in a ponytail, her face angular, and her mouth wide. Her glasses were a vintage style, out of the 1950s. Her hands and feet were large. She was wearing flip-flops, her toenails painted a bright red.

He stood up, motioned her to the chair opposite him, and she sat down.

After getting her name and address in Boston, as well as her cell phone number, Sam Fowler asked, “When was the last time you saw John Cerberus alive?”

“When he lay down in dead man’s pose,” she answered.

”Did you know him?”

“Yes, he was my boss, more-or-less, he and Denise. But, I’m one of the work exchange teachers, and I was only here for the month, so we didn’t come into contact much.”

“Do you know of any reason anyone would want to kill him?”

“Not anyone I know, no.”

She remembered what Pattabhi Jois said, “One year, two year, ten years. No use. Whole life. Whole life a practice.” John Cerberus wouldn’t be practicing anymore. His days had come to an end. No one can say for sure that he will be living tomorrow. All of John Cerberus’s living had been suddenly stopped. We take care of our lives and Krishna takes care of our deaths, she thought.

“Could someone have come into the room from outside and attacked him?”

“I don’t think so. I would have heard them.”

“Do you think someone in the room killed him?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it had to be someone in the room, yes.”

“Do you know who that might be?”

“No, not really.”

She seemed to be hedging her bets, he thought, and made a note.

“Did you kill him?” he suddenly asked her.

“No, of course not!” exclaimed Vera, taken aback by the question. “I don’t believe in causing harm. It’s in the Yoga Sutras.”

That was it, realized Sam Fowler, that’s what hadn’t been said by someone that everyone else had said in one way or another, which was that no one who practiced yoga would kill anyone. Who was it that hadn’t said it? He was sure he would have it either in his notes or on tape.

“The Yoga what?” Sam Fowler asked Vera Nyberg.

“The Yoga Sutras,” she said. “They were written a long time ago, about two thousand years, maybe at the same time as the Bible. But they’re short, just a couple of hundred sayings. It’s a guidebook, not a how-to book. It’s about choosing your best ethical path.”

“Like the Ten Commandments?” he asked.

“No, not exactly,” she answered.

“The rule about non-violence isn’t a rule, exactly. It’s more about not causing unnecessary harm, which happens when you start to see the origins and effects of violence. My teacher used to say, “Yoga is not physical, very wrong. Yoga is an internal practice. The rest is just a circus.” He meant it was about awareness, about expanding your consciousness. An open heart is what yoga is about, and as your heart opens not harming begins to make all the sense in the world.”

“What if you were attacked? Or if someone you loved was being assaulted? What would you do then?”

“I would do what my teacher always told us to do when we asked him questions in class.”

“What was that?”

“You do!”

“I see.”

Yoga takes care of its own, in its own way, thought Sam Fowler. In the meantime, somewhere in his interview notes someone had neglected to recite the mantra of non-violence. He wasn’t sure it meant anything, but it was the only anomaly of the night, so far. It wouldn’t hurt to find out who it was and interview them again.

“Thank you Miss Nyberg,” said Sam Fowler.

He had made a point to look and had not seen a wedding ring on her hand when he looked.

“I may or may not need to talk to you again tomorrow. We’ll let you know.”

The two police detectives watched her walk out.

“What made you think she might have had anything to do with it?” asked Jeremy Kroon.

“I didn’t.”

Sam Fowler knew better than anyone that nobody could read his scrawled cramped notes. He would have to review his casebook himself. In the meantime, he needed coffee.

“I need coffee,” he said to Jeremy Kroon. “Your job is to find some. I like JoMamas, but I’ll take Dunkin or anything brewed hot you can find at this time of night. Then you can call it a day, find somewhere to sack out, and we’ll get back to it at eight.”

An hour later, coffee at hand, Sam Fowler settled into a comfortable lounge chair in the main lobby, a table lamp lit on the end table beside him, and cracked open his casebook. Twenty minutes later, nearing three o’clock in the morning, the coffee barely touched, he was asleep, the casebook haphazrd in his lap.

The only sounds in the empty lobby the rest of the night were his breathing, the forced air from the furnace, and the winter wind testing the windows.

Vera sat up on the edge of her bunk at six-thirty, almost a half-hour before sunrise. She had wondered about the murder of John Cerberus for a short time, lying in bed after talking to the detective, but let it go. She quickly fell asleep, believing the answer would come to her in the morning.

She slipped nimbly down the ladder. Elizabeth was snoring softly carelessly in the bottom bunk. Peeking through the window Vera saw the sky was white-gray. The wind was downstream, neither rain nor snow was falling, although it felt cold through the glass.

It seemed like the storm had so far skirted them.

In the hallway she made her way to the new Wellness Center. Few doors were kept locked at Kritalvanda and the Wellness Center’s entrance door was not one of them. Once inside she thumbed the rocker switch and turned the lights on. There were five massage rooms in a row down the left corridor. She pored over the first room, and a minute later the second room. It was in the fourth room that she found what she was looking for, an empty glass cylinder bud vase on a mission-style corner table at the far end of the masseuse table.

Retracing her steps she made her way back to the dormitory and shook Elizabeth awake. “Lizzie, you know everybody here. Where does Lola Donning stay?”

Elizabeth pushed a mop of sandy hair away from her face and rubbed her eyes.

“The massage therapist?”

“Yes.”

“She’s in the west wing, in one of the semi-private rooms, on the second floor, although I think she’s been rooming by herself since she got here last month. I’m sure it’s room eight. But, you know, yesterday was her last day here. She gave two week’s notice.”

When Vera Nyberg got to Lola Donning’s room she found the door ajar and the room empty. The bed was unmade and the wardrobe closet, when she looked inside, was bare. The bathroom was shorn of toiletries.

Lola Donning was gone.

Leaning on the sink Vera Nyberg looked at herself in the mirror. Her gaze sank to the basin. Where had Lola Donning found Bird’s-foot Trefoil for her bud vase, the unusual flower Vera had noticed one afternoon while getting a massage late last month? It wasn’t a flower that grew in woodlands, like those that surrounded the center on three sides. It was a forage plant, grown for pasture or hay. She might have found it on the front side of the grounds, facing Buzzard’s Bay, but most of the front side was either sloping grassland that was regularly mowed or the terraced parking lot.

Then, without hesitation, Vera Nyberg knew where Lola Donning must have found the flower. She hurried back to the dormitory to get her winter coat.

“Lizzie, the policeman is sleeping in the lobby. I‘m going out to the circle. This is what I want you to do, and then meet me out there as soon as you can with your car keys,” she said, shrugging into her coat. “Pack some clothes, too.”

Once outside she wrapped a wool muffler around her long neck. The sky was bulked up with thick clouds and the morning light was raw and milky. The whitecaps on Buzzard’s Bay were sluggish. At the bottom of the stairs she avoided the parking lot and cut through to the labyrinth on the knoll.

The center’s garden labyrinth was not a maze with multiple dead ends and designed to confuse. The labyrinth had one entrance and a winding path to the middle. Vera walked to the middle where she found Lola Donning standing in a thin jacket with her back to her.

People don’t notice whether it’s summer or winter when they’re unhappy, she thought, and waited for Lola to see her. She glanced at the bracelet watch on her left wrist. It was seven-thirty.

“I wasn’t sure if it was going to be you or the police,” Lola Donning finally said, turning to face Vera Nyberg. “When they didn’t say anything about the flower I thought maybe you had taken it.”

“Yes, I took it.”

“How did you know what it meant?”

“My mother was a landscape designer. She specialized in gardens.”

They stood quietly for a few minutes.

“My mother and I lived in New Mexico for a long time, where I grew up,” said Lola Donning. “They have labyrinths there, the Indians, you know. There’s one entrance, which is birth, and in the center is God. Sometimes it’s a family labyrinth, and in the middle of the circle is your original ancestor, and two continuous lines join the twelve joints, just like this one.”

She pointed to the center of the labyrinth.

“When most people hear of a labyrinth they think of a maze, but that’s not what they are. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved, lots of choices to be made, but with a labyrinth, there’s only one choice to be made, which is whether to enter it or not.”

The yoga teacher thought of what her teacher told her when she asked him for advice at the end of her training in Mysore. “Each morning wake up. Do as much yoga as you want. Maybe you eat, maybe you fast. Maybe you sleep indoors, maybe you sleep outdoors. The next morning, wake up, and do again. Practice yoga, and all is coming!”

Was it like the labyrinth Lola Donning was describing, the labyrinth that had brought the two of them together, where the only choice was whether to be in it or not? Or was it like a maze in which everyone was doomed to make choices and then be forever defined by the choices they made?

She thought Pattabhi Jois would probably say that there is only the life we live as an experience, not as a problem to be resolved, like mice in a maze, whatever the final end might be.

“That’s where my mom met John Cerberus, when she was teaching yoga. It was in Loving, outside of Carlsbad. She was one of the first teachers he recruited, and she was with him until the end, two years ago. She died on New Year’s Day, almost a year ago, in the house I was born in.”

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” asked Vera before she could stop herself, suddenly realizing as she asked that it must have had everything to do with John Cerberus.

“She killed herself.”

The two women stood in the bleak cold, the thin line of dawn on the horizon behind them a mute pinkish orange slash, the late November wind a cold draft at their ankles and necks.

“She died because of him. I’d been working here less than a couple of weeks, and I saw him in a hallway one day. I almost fell down. I couldn’t believe it. I never in my life thought I’d see him again. But there he was, smug in his yoga trappings, on top of the world again.

“I wrote him a letter, telling him I knew what he had done, although I didn’t tell him who I was, and then gave two weeks notice that same day.”

Vera Nyberg stretched the muffler up her neck and over her mouth and ears as the wind rose, starting to gust.

“My mom said their yoga was special, the kind they pioneered. She was excited, right from the beginning. The yoga was about aligning the body and the spirit. Everything was done on a personal level, what they called the heart level. That’s the way it was for years, him and my mom.

“But, then they started training teachers and writing manuals and organizing workshops. They invited him to the Yoga Journal conferences and he was a hit. He got big. They had to project his image on screens in the conference rooms, there were so many people wanting to be a part of it. You couldn’t even see him anymore.

“He put together a traveling show and started going to all the festivals, and then he flew to Europe, and Japan, and he got even bigger. My mom thought it was the two of them, but it wasn’t, not anymore, although she couldn’t see it for what it had become.

“Then he brought sex into it, what he called left-handed tantra. He formed a Wicca coven with some of his students, in secret, and some teachers, but my mom wasn’t a part of that, either. She wouldn’t have done it even if she had known. She wasn’t like that.

“When she found out he told her the coven was a battery for his yoga, the foundation of his charisma. He said he was using sex energy in a positive and sacred way, but she told him he was out of integrity, and everything ended between them. She still worked for the yoga, but she wasn’t doing well.

“After everything fell apart and it came out into the open, my mom was devastated. Every day it got worse and worse until it was all over. I wasn’t living at home, but we talked every day. I was worried about her, but she sounded all right, until one day when she didn’t take my calls. I kept getting her voice mail, so I drove from Phoenix to Loving. It took me all night.

“I found her in bed in the morning. She looked just like she was asleep. She didn’t even leave a note for me, just for him, blaming him for everything.”

When men make choices only God is blameless.

“I don’t know what happened,” Lola said. “I didn’t mean to. I planned it, I think, yesterday, my last day, but at the same time, I didn’t, it just happened. It was like somebody else was doing it, like I was watching myself and couldn’t stop, like a bad dream.”

Tears were in Lola Donning’s eyes, the silent language of grief. The wind was blowing the rain away, but just for the moment.

“Since I’m going to be sticking my neck out, I think we should leave this place,” said Vera. “I don’t think there’s anything else to be found here.”

In the lobby Sam Fowler woke up. Elizabeth Archer was standing to the side of him, her hand shaking his shoulder.

“What time is it?” he asked, wiping a crumb of dried saliva from a corner of his mouth.

“It’s seven fifty-five,” she said, stepping back

“I must have fallen asleep. I didn’t know I was so tired.” He straightened up in the chair. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“Yes, Vera and I are supposed to drive one of the employees, really, an ex-employee now, she gave notice two week’s ago, to Boston, to the train station. We were wondering if that was all right?”

“You’re the desk girl, at the reception desk?” he asked, trying to place her.

“Yes, but I don’t think of myself as the desk girl,” she said, her voice cool and reserved. “My name is Elizabeth Archer. I coordinate our arrivals and departures.“

Sam Fowler would have preferred to be standing, not sitting in an easy chair.

“I may want to talk to you and Vera again, but that can wait until you’re back, ” he said, still groggy, shrugging.

He watched her walk away towards the main doors, pulling on her coat. She went down the stairs, around the parking lot and to the labyrinth, where through the plate glass window Sam Fowler saw two women waiting. One of them was Vera Nyberg. They talked for a minute, leaning into the wind, and then walked to the far sidewalk that led to the rear of the main building.

He looked down at his lap. His casebook wasn’t there, nor was it or his Sony micro-cassette recorder on the end table next to his chair.

After he gotten down on his hands and knees and searched the floor ten and fifteen feet in all directions, and finally stood up alone in the lobby, he realized with a grim finality they were gone.

“Goddamn it,” he said under his breath.

Flipping through Jeremy Kroon’s notebook as they sat in the cafeteria twenty minutes later, Sam Fowler found it was filled with cryptic doodles, loose-limbed cartoons of some of the people they had talked to, and several versions of the paper and pencil game called hangman.

“I saw you were taking notes, and you had that back-up recorder, so I didn’t bother,” the chagrined Jeremy Kroon explained.

“All right,” snorted Sam Fowler.

“I’m going up to Wareham, check in at the station, and I’ll be back early this evening. Get everyone’s forwarding addresses, phone numbers, and they’re free to go. So far we have nothing, but there’s something I’m missing. I can put my finger on it, but I don’t know where it is, exactly.”

Sam Fowler relied on evidence he gathered at crime scenes to come to conclusions and knew that reconstructing everything he had seen and heard from memory was not only improbable, but also suspect. It would be like shining a flashlight from side to side in the dark. Only successful liars have great memories, and he wasn’t a great liar.

His SUV was still in the front lot where he had left it the night before, but on his way to it he changed course and walked to the labyrinth. Ginny Walther had said that labyrinths were for finding things, not for losing your way in dead ends. In the late November morning light it was a drab place, the flagstones slick with an icy rain. He found the middle of the labyrinth easily enough and stood looking down on Buzzard’s Bay.

He debated whether it was a labyrinth or a maze, and whether there was anything there for him. After a moment he turned to retrace his steps, but taking his first step the toe of his black oxford slid on a frozen clump of gnarled green and yellow. As he slipped a hard gust of wind hit him in the chest and he went head over heels onto his back.

He thumped on the ground, knocking the wind out of him. His diaphragm spasmed and he gasped for air, grunting involuntarily. His lungs would not inflate. He tried to relax, and when his lungs finally started working again he clambered to his knees, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. He looked down at what he had slipped on. It was a crushed flower shaped like a bird’s foot.

Elizabeth Archer was at the wheel of her Nissan Rogue, Lola Donning in the passenger seat, and Vera Nyberg in the rear seat as they left the Kritalvanda Yoga Center on their way to Boston. None of them noticed Sam Fowler gulping air and struggling to get off his back in the eye of the labyrinth.

Driving through Falmouth Vera Nyberg suddenly said, “Let’s stop here. There’s a JoMamas on the corner.”

As they were returning to the car with coffee, tea, and hot breakfast sandwiches, Elizabeth Archer paused and said to Vera, “Oh, wait, there’s that something I should do.”

She walked to the front of the coffee shop, pulled a spiral notebook out of her coat pocket, and began tearing the pages out and dropping them into the outdoor trash receptacle. When she was done she walked around to the back of the shop, and pulling microcassette tapes out of a small satchel one at a time crushed them beneath the heel of her zip boots. She tossed the tapes, the cassette recorder, and the bag into the dumpster, and walked back to the car.

They drove north on Route 28A to the Bourne Bridge, and then east on Trowbridge Road to the Sagamore Bridge, but instead of crossing the bridge and continuing on to Boston, Vera told Elizabeth to turn right onto Route 6.

“But, that will take us back on to the Cape,” she said.

“I know,” said Vera. “Lizzie, have you ever read ‘On the Road’?”

“No, what’s that?”

“It’s a book from the 1950s by Jack Kerouac, Anyway, in the book it’s about Sal Paradise, and he starts hitchhiking to California on Route 6, but someone tells him “there’s no traffic passes through 6.” It’s raining and he wants to go fast and have experiences, so he goes a different way. But, you know, it’s an old road, the kind where people used to have adventures, and it’s the longest road in the country. When you get to Provincetown there’s a sign that says ‘End of US 6, Provincetown to Long Beach, Coast to Coast.’”

“All right, but where are you going with this?” asked Elizabeth Archer.

“I think we should go to Provincetown instead of Boston. That policeman is no fool. He’s like my father, who was a policeman. He thinks we went to Boston. Only we know Lola’s with us. She can stay with my friends. They have a guest room that’s empty all winter and they can find work for her. She can start over. She can practice yoga there, get back on her feet. My friends are crazy for Bikram Yoga, you know, the hot room kind. They’re always asking me to try it. They even say Bikram has a slogan that if you do his yoga every day for thirty days it will change your life.”

The afternoon sun peeked through the clouds as they sped east towards the end of the Cape. Once, when she asked Pattabhi Jois where inner peace came from, he told her, “Without yoga, what use? You practice many years, then shanti is coming, no problem.”

“Would you like to do that?” Vera Nyberg asked Lola Donning.

“Yes, I would,” said Lola, twisting in her seat towards Vera.

“I woke up every morning wanting to break his neck, thinking revenge would be sweet, but it’s not. I thought revenge was justice. It’s not. I should have left it in the hands of karma to take care of him. I hate what I did. I feel like a worse person than he was. The best revenge would have been to be as much unlike him as possible.”

At Orleans they drove into and out of the traffic circle, towards Eastham, Truro, and finally Provincetown at the fist end of the Outer Cape.

“I’ve heard Provincetown in the dead of winter is cold, but maybe the yoga there will warm up my heart,” she said, turning to stare out the side window.

She wrapped her hands around the extra-large cup of JoMamas and took a long slow sip of her special blend holiday chai tea.

“We’ll all warm up in Provincetown,” said Vera, as Lizzie flicked on the headlights to light up the gloom on the road ahead of them.

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

Cirque Du Asana

JohnathanLeeIverson

By Ed Staskus

Exercise used to be one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, along with restraint, observance, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, the last literally meaning putting it all together.

Not anymore. Not nowadays. It’s not eyes wide open anymore. It’s eyes straight ahead on the posture. The practice of asana is today on the fast track to becoming the trunk of yoga, while the other limbs are paid lip service, wither away, or are simply ignored.

For many years yoga exercise, as defined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was a small means to a big end. The basics of asana were defined in the sutras as a “steady or motionless posture accompanied with a sense of ease or comfort.” The mastery of it was meant to “loosen effort while meditating on the infinite.”

Sometime in the latter half of the last century asana began to forge its own separate identity, that of strengthening and revitalizing the body, the idea being that it was through the third limb of Ashtanga Yoga, which are the physical postures, that all the other limbs could be realized.

As yoga pressed ahead and onward asana masters like Bikram Choudhury and Baron Baptiste designed new forms of yoga exercise, such as sequences practiced in hot rooms with no motive other than to lock the knee and “push, push, push” and other sequences that referenced only physical prowess, like Baptiste’s “Unlocking Athletic Power.”

In the new epoch yoga exercise has made many more great leaps forward, leaving its past farther behind, moving decisively into the worlds of athletic competition and extreme sports.

Today tournaments crown asana winners in Arizona, California, and New York, while overseas the European Yoga Alliance organizes an annual championship. USA Yoga, sponsor and governing body of the annual National Yoga Asana Championships, in what it says is the “spirit of healthy competition” is committed to bringing yoga asana to the Olympic games.

”Once yoga is in the Olympics,” says Esak Garcia, 2005 winner of the International Yoga Championship, “it will legitimize yoga for many people all over the world.”

Beyond the bright lights of the arena and its judgments on the perfection of a pose, its poise and composure, is the new world of extreme yoga. The Chicago Tribune recently ran a photo spread called “Extreme Yoga Positions” featuring a body artist named Yoga Yoga, whose real name is Michael Elias Mondosha.

He transforms Steady Eddy into 3-ring big top high wire on the mat.

Meanwhile, acroyogi partners perform poses like ‘Bird’, a horizontal “flier” supported on the feet and legs of a “base” staying rock steady, nailing the posture on top of stone parapets in the mountains of Nepal on the edge of sheer drops, all without the aid of spotters.

The back page of a recent issue of Yoga Journal featured a full‐page photograph of a woman in tree pose with hands in prayer behind her, standing on a ledge of the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. She was not wearing a tether, nor was there a net to catch her just in case she wobbled and fell.

It was here to eternity.

Even Native American Indians, famous for their work on bridges and skyscrapers, are careful about heights. “We have more respect for heights than most people,” said Dan Angus, a Kahnawake Mohawk ironworker, in ‘The Mohawks Who Built Manhattan.’

“You’ve got to watch it up there,” he said.

“I kept bringing my focus back to the pose,” the brave yoga lady on the bridge said.

She was watching it, but unlike the Mohawks, from the inside out, not the next step ahead. She wasn’t looking ahead down or up. Focusing on the pose and keeping it steady was undoubtedly a good idea. It is 78 feet from the deck of the bridge to the Allegheny River.

“I don’t see any benefit to it, especially since yoga begins with yama and the first yama is ahimsa, or non‐injury,” said Kenneth Toy of the Institute for Personal Development in Hampton, New Hampshire.

Which begs the question, why do it? If yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical component, why tempt fate? If yoga is just a gym rat’s bag of physical poses, again, why tempt fate? Even Olympic gymnasts don’t perform on the beams of bridges, much less without a padded mat below them to break the fall for when they inevitably fall.

“Talk about finding your edge!” said Carolyn Gilligan, an editor at elephant journal. “If you lose your balance on a bridge the risk is pretty tremendous. I think the key here would be having a calm, verycalm mind.”

‘One slip and it’s all over’ feats are often performed by circus troupes and extreme artists like Eskil Ronningsbaken, famous for stunts like balancing in handstand on a projecting steel rail of a lookout platform more than a thousand feet above a cold Norwegian lake.

“Yoga and different breathing techniques helps me to stay focused and hit the right wave of energy,“ he says, riding the wave

Yoga has a long history of bendy, stretching, balancing poses that seem incredible. Some are more amazing than others.

In the 1970s, on a television show called “That’s Incredible,” a performer named Mr. Yogi folded himself up, limb by limb, into a wooden box no bigger than a carry-all. When a lid was put on the small box the audience shouted on cue, “That’s incredible!” A big strong man carried the carry-all off stage to applause.

“Some yogis like to provide drama or accentuation or adrenaline to their poses,” explains Susan Pennington of Susquehanna Yoga & Meditation Center in Timonium, Maryland. “That is funny considering yoga is a practice of finding the middle. That is what balance is. Not the edge, but the middle.”

However, the middle way may not be the American way in the twenty-first century.

The Sanskrit word asana, from the root ‘asi’ which means to be, literally means a state of being. Today the meaning has been stood on its head, changed to mean a state of doing.

“Extreme balancing can be both fun and beautiful, calling for particular focus and skill,” said Alison West, the director of Yoga Union in New York City. “It’s a form of marketing through beauty and danger. Does it make one a better yogi? Probably not. But it looks that way.”

In Austin, Texas, artists perform yoga poses hanging from the skeletal beams of partially constructed buildings. Staging their suspension theater at night, the lines and cables they use are practically invisible.

“Tightrope walkers are now doing yoga poses in their routines,” says Cosmo Wayne of Yogagroove in Austin. “My question is, were they performers or yogis first, and does it matter? As for balance, either you have it or you don’t. People who can balance but are afraid of heights will be affected and probably not balance on the edge of a cliff. It’s all just fun and scenic.”

Whether extreme balancing has anything to do with yoga is a moot point, although Patanjali might be rolling over in his grave. His reasoning for the practice of yoga exercise was ultimately to be able to withstand physical and mental distractions in order to meditate.

“Yoga is a sacred practice of going inward and knowing who you are authentically,” said Michele Risa, a Kundalini Yoga teacher and New York City TV producer of yoga programming. “All this showmanship seems like a distraction at the least and the wrong message at worst.”

In many respects, however, in our post-modern times yoga has become a purely physical practice, and the message has morphed so now the headline is that the body beautiful can be gotten by anyone with a credit card, factoring in more dollars if you live on either coast and need to be really beautiful.

If perfecting the pose is the be‐all and end‐all of yoga, then cirque du asana might be the new third eye for raising awareness. If living the true yogic life is part and parcel of handstand, then performing handstand on the edge of the Grand Canyon probably validates the true yogic life and it would behoove all and sundry to get on the bus for the Rim‐to‐Rim tour.

Not everyone agrees that famous fitness instructors in yoga clothes or extreme sports performers with film crews in tow are the best guides on the path of the practice.

“I don’t believe risk taking is necessary to achieve the balance that a sound yoga asana and lifestyle practice can give us,” argues Nydia Tijerina Darby of Nydia’s Yoga Therapy in San Antonio, Texas. “It is beautiful and awe inspiring, but it seems to continue to sensationalize the asana and detract from the real beauty of a quiet and content mind, body, and spirit that does not need to push the limit in order to feel alive.”

Selflessness, balance, and humility are some of the core values of yoga. They are not the core values of our modern sports and entertainment culture. Exercising for fame and fortune is exercising for fame and fortune. It is not innercizing, which is the platform on which yoga was built.

What does gaining mastery in asana really mean, anyway? It doesn’t really mean doing handstands for an audience’s wonder and applause. It means doing handstand to gain awareness, to master a state of mind, to become, in a sense, bodiless.

“The pictures of extreme yoga are beautiful and certainly showcase a certain level of expertise,” says Tracey Ulshafer of One Yoga & Wellness Center in East Winsor, New Jersey. “But I do feel they are missing the essence of yoga. It is not for showing off. It is for exploring within.”

If yoga is a physical practice, then hitting a home run is worth the price of admission. But, if yoga is a spiritual practice with a physical dimension meant to keep the body strong and healthy for a lifetime of much more than asana, then home runs are only good for as long as they last, which isn’t long.

Who remembers last year’s World Series winner and loser?

“I believe asana is to help the work of unfolding inner Shakti, and so I see daredevil poses as something other than the true meaning of the practice,” says Ann Farbman of the World Yoga Center in New York City.

The devil is in the details of yoga practice. The practice is partly about the power of asana, but ultimately it is about the power of consciousness. In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali doesn’t say a word about physical accomplishment, because that is not the point of yoga practice. He mentions asana only four times. The Yoga Sutras are about states of being, maybe achieved through asana, but not beholden to them.

There are no contortionists on boardwalks or carnivals on the edge of believe‐it‐ or‐not in any of Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms.

“It is better to take risks in extreme savasana,“ says Francois Raoult of Open Sky Yoga Center in Rochester, New York. Get down on the mat and look up at everything.

Modern yoga may not see it that way, having opened its own Pandora’s Box, but there is no doubt Patanjali would agree.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Wheel in the Sky

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had betrayed me, I realized.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He could be irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that.

There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. George took a knee. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. 

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

Exercise for the Elite

man-meditating-need-money-for-yoga-800px 

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

It was still there.

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

“Thanks, it’s Italian.”

“Oh, where did you get it?’

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

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

The purse from Florence oozed expensive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

The Ugly Yogi

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

By Ed Staskus

“Our job as Americans is to dislodge the traitors from every place where they’ve been sent to do their traitorous work.”  Joseph McCarthy

If Joe “Tail-Gunner” McCarthy, the 1950s commie-baiting senator from Wisconsin, could see what is going on in yoga studios from sea to shining sea today, he would roll over in his grave. Even worse, if he could spy into the hearts of American yogis he would rise from the dead and resurrect the House Un-American Activities Committee. It would be for good reason. In an America whose modern core values are consumerism, competition, and nationalism, yoga espouses acceptance, moderation, and finally, stilling the mind, withdrawing the senses, and dissolving the ego.

In the land of the free and home of the brave, in an America whose military-industrial complex has been at proxy or real war with someone somewhere every day every month every year since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, yoga fosters compassion towards all beings, not blowing them up for gain revenge geo-political reasons.

The downpresser men are tossing and turning on their gilded king-size beds.

In a nation where bigger is better, expediency trumps virtue, and might is right, yoga espouses ethical principles and observances for personal and social betterment. In a 21stcentury in which increasingly problematic ends justify increasingly harebrained means, yoga posits the means not the ends as what matter.

It is a practice that doesn’t sacrifice life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness on the altar of eschatology. Which begs the question, how did yoga become the popular pursuit it has become in the western world?

A little more than a hundred years ago yoga was largely unknown in the United States.

The first stirrings began a century earlier in 1805 when William Emerson published a Sanskrit work, and again forty years later when his son Ralph Waldo Emerson discovered the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, delving into jnana, bhakti, and karma yoga. Henry David Thoreau and the New England Transcendentalists studied Indian thought throughout mid-century, and by 1900 the New York Theosophists were devoting a substantial part of their many resources to studying the philosophy of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’.

But, at the same time as literary and cultural elites were drawn to yoga’s theories and practice, America’s mainstream was wary of its oriental heritage. Even though the charismatic Swami Vivekananda succeeded in being signed to a speaking tour of the heartland after appearing at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, ten years later yoga was being greeted with suspicion rather than interest.

The Los Angeles Times featured an article about yoga with the headline: “The Cult of the Yogis Lures Women to Destruction”. The Hampton-Columbian, with a readership of more than three million, in an article titled “The Heathen Invasion” claimed insanity “is another disaster that threatens as a coincidence in the practice of yoga.” It was conflated with white slavery and deviltry. “Latest Black Magic Revelations About Nefarious American Love Cults” blared The New York Journal

“Yoga was no longer just a queer pastime; it was evil, a con, a cult – uncivilized, heathen and anti-American,” Robert Love wrote in “Fear of Yoga” in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Fear and loathing of yoga rippled through the newspapers, the yellow press, of the teens and Roaring 20s. Hatha yoga in particular, as popular as it is today in its many forms, was singled out.  “It was ridiculed so much that only a few select people were practicing it,” B. K. S. Iyengar notes in ‘Astadala Yogamala’. Yoga was defined as the domain of the unprincipled and unscrupulous.

Pierre Bernard, arguably the first American yogi, fled ahead of the law from San Francisco in 1906, Seattle in 1909, New York City in 1911, and NYC again in 1918, followed by allegations of extortion and sexual misconduct. “In Bernard’s lifetime, yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women,” Robert Love pointed out in his book ‘The Great OOM: TheImprobable Birth of Yoga in America’.

But, as the baby boomers came of age the times, as Bob Dylan noted, began a’changin. Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ gained currency, Indra Devi was the darling of Hollywood and published ‘Yoga for Americans’, and encouraged by Selvarajan Yesudian’s ‘Sport and Yoga’ manyathletes began to incorporate the practice into their workouts. America’s war on yoga was winding down.

“By the 1960s yoga was becoming a part of world culture,” said Fernando Pages Ruiz in “Krishnamacharya’s Legacy”.

As the Summer of Love roiled the tumultuous decade the practice was no longer reviled, but rather embraced by the counterculture, along with all things eastern. In 1968 the Beatles made a pilgrimage to India, bonding with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the American Yoga Association was formed, and Yogi Bhajan arrived in Los Angeles, preaching an alternative to LSD in the search for higher consciousness.

Through the 1970’s yoga sprouted up on TV shows hosted by Lilias Folan and Richard Hittleman, the mass-circulation magazine Yoga Journal hit the newsstands, eventually growing to a readership of over a million, and ashrams like Kripalu slowly but surely re-branded themselves as year-round fitness, educational, and spiritual centers.

Yoga today is accepted nationwide to the extent that millions of Americans practice it at thousands of studios and gyms and daily at home.

“New agers embraced yoga in the 90s, and these days yoga has exploded into the mainstream,” Neal Conan broadcast in “The Booming Business of Yoga” heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Popularity cuts several ways, however. “Avoid popularity if you would have peace,” said Abraham Lincoln. If it depended only on popularity, Shrek and the Little Mermaid would be congressmen, eclipsing the little mermen in their power suits.

Many magazines like TIME have featured yoga on their front covers, McDonald’s folds lotus pose into their hamburger ads, and our American idols practice it to balance out their widescreen idoldom. Even children hopped into warrior pose on the White House lawn during the first yoga event ever at the 2009 Easter Egg Roll.

“It is a measure of how thoroughly this ancient spiritual discipline – once regarded as exotic, bohemian, even threatening – has been assimilated by the American mainstream and transformed,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in “Where the Ascetic Meets the Athletic” in The New York Times.

Yoga has woven itself into the fabric of American life in myriad ways.

”Yoga, with all its props, accessories, glamour, fastidiousness, and money making potential is very American,” said Cosmo Wayne of Bikram Yoga. Yoga businesses are expanding exponentially, and some, like Anusara and Lululemon Athletica, for example, have defied the Great Recession with their strong growth potentials. Anusara expects to double its gross revenues in the short term.

Many teachers believe yoga is as American as apple pie, not simply a commodity in the marketplace, but a discipline expanding the parameters of individual freedom.

“I think yoga is the ultimate American experience in so far as it teaches personal empowerment and the pursuit of well-being,” says Robin Gueth, a yoga therapy teacher and owner of the Stress Management Center. “The whole concept that you are in charge of how you think, move, express, and even feel is quintessentially American.”

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

Yoga in the USA is largely about two of the arms or aspects of yoga, which are asana, or exercise, which is by far the more popular of the two, and pranayama, or breath control, a necessary adjunct of exercise. “Yoga has taken on a distinctly American cast,” wrote Mimi Swartz in “The Yoga Mogul” in The New York Times.

“It has become much more about doing than being.”

The yoga that is accepted and practiced by most Americans is postural yoga.  “Today yoga is virtually synonymous in the West with the practice of asana,” wrote Mark Singleton in ‘Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice’.It has been cleaved from its spiritual side. “For many of us, we just use it as exercise during the day, just a quick pick-me-up,” says Hanna Rosin in her article ”Striking a Pose” in the Atlantic Monthly.

On the heels of jogging, aerobics, and spinning, yoga is the new, hip exercise of our times. Even though only 16% of Americans participate in an exercise activity on any average day, according to a recent Labor Department report, yoga asana fits into the American model because the proverb health is wealth has always been proverbial in the USA. It was with good reason that Richard Hittleman’s pioneering TV show introducing yoga to the masses was titled ‘Yoga for Health’.

The practice of yoga is about crafting a union of the body, mind, and spirit. But, it has been re-invented in America as a health-enabling and stress-reducing homonym.

Its bevy of health benefits is touted in ‘Slim Calm Sexy Yoga’ by Tara Stiles, featuring “210 proven yoga moves for mind and body bliss.” Along with laughter and art therapy the Mayo Clinic serves up yoga as a tension reducing technique. Even the Westin Hotels and Resorts feature pop-up videos of yoga teachers in their web advertisements, on their mats beachside beneath sunny skies demonstrating how yoga can help us relax on our vacations.

The problem isn’t that modern yoga doesn’t measure up to classical yoga. The problem is that modern yoga elides the wheel for the spoke.

Apart from its exercise side yoga is a problematic practice in a land besotted by competition, consumerism, and nationalism. “When this country was founded we were one nation under God. Today we are one nation under money, the land of the addicted, and the home of the terrorized,” says Kenneth Toy of the Kriya Yoga Ashram. At the core of Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’are discipline, dedication, and self-awareness within a structure of moral action, personal observances, exercise and breath, sense withdrawal and concentration, meditation, and union with the divine, or liberation.

The core achievements of the American enlightenment, on the other hand, are “wealth, health, comfort, and life expectancy” wrote Edwin Locke in Capitalism Magazine.

Modern times are fraught with results, and so are uneasy venues for yoga.

Our lives are measured by what we accumulate and accomplish. We are either surging forwards, making progress, or slipping backwards. On the other side of the racetrack yoga offers an alternative to the scoreboard and stock market. “Many Americans get caught up in consumerism and competition,” says Tarra Madore of Inner Light Yoga Center.

“As a society we have lost touch with the American and human core values that are more related to peace and freedom.”

The ‘Rig-Veda’ first cites yoga approximately 5000 years ago, and the classical yoga of the Yoga Sutras antedates the USA by 1500 years. The thread of them is that yoga is a practice to calm one’s mind and unite with the infinite. “We need introspection,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, one of the founders of Yoga Journal. “We have a whole country full of restive people who are not contemplative.”

It may be that yoga is un-American. It is more likely that America is un-yogic.

“America is the Canaan of capitalism, its promised land,” wrote German economist Werner Sombart nearly a hundred years ago. Self-interest and competition are embedded in capitalism. They are the values and behaviors we all take for granted in our society and ourselves. “Uncritical faith in intense competition assumes the status of an unquestioned paradigm in America today,” wrote the political scientist Pauline Rosenau in ‘The Competition Paradigm: America’s Romance with Conflict,Contest, and Commerce’.

Americans enter their children in beauty pageants, their pets in breed shows, and themselves in pie eating contests. Team standings, both real and fantasy, are parsed daily.  The ups and downs of the stock market are a staple of the news. Militarism overseas is either being won or lost. American society is focused on desire and achievement. Dancing used to be a social activity. It is star-studded competitive hoofing that is growing by leaps and bounds nowadays.

Athletics were once the follow the bouncing ball footprint of the American Way. Its lessons were sportsmanship, teamwork, and discipline. Today, splashed across an alphabet soup of TV networks, as billionaire owners in skyboxes watch over their multi-millionaire performers, sport has been reduced to a win-or-else amusement, competition for the sake of riches and fame.

Businesses have always competed for the same pool of customers, but in contemporary America in the name of profit the results include the nearly universal model of concentrated animal feeding, schemes like credit default swaps, and out-sourcing, whose one and only goal is to satisfy shareholders. Diabetes and obesity have reached epidemic levels in the USA, weighing down the health care system, but sugary drink manufacturers continue to bottle their product and pay handsome dividends.

Our elected leaders have jumped on the competition bandwagon, falling off the wagon of the Founding Fathers.

The 1996 election for the White House and Congress cost a combined 2.7 billion dollars. In 2008 the same federal campaigns cost 5.3 billion dollars, making them the most expensive ever. The Adam Smith model of the invisible hand or co-operative competition has been superseded by a winner-takes-all hyper competitiveness, as though winning were the only measure of worth. Instead of statesmen the halls of power are filled with people primarily concerned with the next election and their own aggrandizement. The toll is reflected in a 2009 Gallup Poll that found members of Congress are among the least trusted professionals in America, just a nose ahead of career criminals.

“Soften and breathe into the resistance,” Nina DeChant often reminds her Core Yoga class at West Side Yoga. She does not say muscle up and kick some butt in chair pose. It is advice that reverberates throughout much of yogic thought, from exercise to ethics. Yoga in its entirety, not simply asana, is a practice whose goal is to unite the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, not simply win prizes by touching your toes.

“Yoga is un-American in that it is inherently non-capitalistic and non-competitive,” says Timothy Thompson of Monkey Yoga Shala. Competition posits an enemy, or other, against whom one is measured. It is always in some respects a fearful enterprise, Hobbesian in its underpinnings, as zero-sum sports rivalries, political campaigns, and bankruptcies attest. Even eating in America is freighted by the ruthless. Ray Kroc, the re-inventor of McDonalds, once said if he ever saw his competition drowning he would go get his hose to help make sure they did drown.

Yoga, on the other hand, does not conjure up real or imagined adversaries. It is a practice whose edge is the strength and discipline to be actively non-competitive. It prepares the man or woman for real-life challenges off the mat. There are no trophies, no finish line, and no mishandled garden hoses.

Winning may be rewarding on many levels, but it is always one-sided because there must be losers. Winning is not its own reward. If it were, losing would be unnecessary, which has never been the case. Yoga, on the other hand, eschews competition. “Yoga is a technology to elevate the human spirit above the animal nature reflected in competition,” says Larry Beck of Kundalini Yoga in the Loop.

“Simply put, the meaning of life is to rise above instincts into spiritual consciousness, which is inclusive, nurturing, and flowing.”

Competition is said to bring out the best in people, but the winners are usually saying it. Yoga practice does bring out the best in people, all the people who practice it.

It is transformative exactly because it is non-competitive, reflected in the ethical concept santosha, the root of happiness, meaning contentment.

“Competition is a part of culture and society,” says Charles Secallus of Asana House. “It is a human trait and it is up to the individual to decide whether it works for them or not. Yoga is about growth and developing our own spiritual understanding of one’s self and relationship to others.”

Competition springs from desire and discontent, more for me. Santosha is a result of doing one’s best honestly and fully. While it is true all biological beings compete, yoga posits an alternate reality of a consciousness complementary to and beyond biology.

In the past sixty years America has become the consumer society par excellence. During the Battle of France in 1940 Winston Churchill made several speeches in the House of Commons. In the first he said: “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

Two generations later, and a week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon masterminded by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, President Bush addressed the nation and said: “I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy.”

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

Consumerism is the reigning culture in America, the shop-until-you-drop wonder of the world. It is what we live and swear by, a culture of desire that seems never sated.  “From the 1890s on, American corporate business, in league with key institutions, began the transformation of American society into a society preoccupied with consumption, with comfort and bodily well-being, with luxury, spending, and acquisition, with more goods this year than last, more next year than this,“ writes William Leach in ‘Land of Desire’.

Our consumerism is the equating of happiness with the purchase of something, something you will then possess, or be possessed of. By that standard, Americans should be the happiest people on the planet. Making up only 5% of the world’s population, they consume 23% of the world’s resources.

“God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West,” Mahatma Ghandi said more than sixty years ago. “If our nation took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

If that was a word of warning then, how would Ghandi react to the India of today, jumping on the bandwagon and boasting the 4thlargest GDP in the world?

The average worldwide income is approximately $7,000.00. The average American income is approximately $50,000.00.

But, the gap between the Third World and the First World is closing. According to the Global Footprint Network, if everyone lived the lifestyle of Americans we would need five planets to sustain all of us. “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns,” Jimmy Carter warned in a speech to the nation in 1979.

He promptly lost the next election, ridiculed for his “despair and pessimism” by Hollywood’s Ronald Reagan.

More than 70% of America’s economy is dependent on consumer spending. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that the average American is exposed to 3000 advertising messages a day, and globally corporations spend over $620 billion a year to make their products seem desirable. Consumerism is the largest of the many cultures of modern America, and material possessions are its markers of status and success. Consumerism is consumption gone wild. It seems we can never get enough of what we don’t really need to make us happy.

Consumerism as a social system conflicts with the core values of yoga, especially asteya and aparigraha, by which moderation and sustainability are observed. “A large impediment to meaningful personal and systemic transformation in the United States is the overwhelming political and economic power of large corporations and institutions that promote values of consumption,” says Amy Quinn-Suplina of Bend and Bloom Yoga.

“Yoga is one of the many movements challenging socially and environmentally destructive institutions that promote competition and consumerism.”

Since the 1990’s the most frequent reason voiced by students for going to college is profitability, the making of money.

The pursuit of happiness has come to mean the pursuit of tangible, consumable things. Even though 10 years ago 99% of American homes had a television, and almost 70% of them had three-or-more, 100 million new flat-screens have been sold since then. In a 65-year life the average American will spend 9 years watching television, and will see more than 2 million commercials. Consumption is not only the imperative of our day-to-day, it is the wallpaper to our lives.

The health of America is measured by our consumer confidence, as though patriotism is determined by how much we are willing to spend and consume. It is doubtful the Declaration of Independence had consumerism in mind when it defined America as the land of freedom and liberty.  “The highest teaching in yoga is the same: freedom,” notes Cate Stillman, an Anusara Yoga instructor.

“You are so free you can choose to bind yourself to the ignorance of your limited, conditioned behavior. But, do yoga long enough and you wake up to yourself as consciousness or awareness itself taking form, unconditioned and completely free.”

Consumerism may not be the miracle it is cracked up to be, especially the model go-getting Americans have squeezed themselves into. “Encouraged by advertisers, friends, and family, many people think more possessions, more recognition, and more power will lead to more happiness, “says Gyandev McCord, Director of Ananda Yoga and a founding board member of Yoga Alliance.

“No one ever found lasting happiness that way, for the simple reason that nothing outside us can bring lasting happiness. Happiness is of the mind, not in things or circumstances.”

Consumerism’s premise is uncertain because it reads the economy backwards, mistaking the leaves of the tree for the roots. “The happiness that seems to be coming from your possessions is false, “ says Sri Swami Satchidananda. “It is reflected happiness.”

Attending to and living by the ethical precepts of asteya and aparigraha, meaning non-covetousness and non-possessiveness, means being aware and watchful about acquiring and becoming attached to things. There is no yoga gravy train because the basic propositions of the practice are contrary to the cultivation of unbounded desire.

There is more to life than having everything one can never get.

Nationalism was born out of America’s War of Independence and the French Revolution. Since the Great Depression nationalism has spread and intensified worldwide. It is many things, such as love of country, willingness to sacrifice for it, and the doctrine that one’s national culture and interests are superior to others. The problem with nationalism is not patriotism, which means devotion to a place and a way of life, but its identification with the power of the nation-state.

“Nationalism is inseparable from the desire for power,” George Orwell wrote in his essay “Notes on Nationalism” in ‘Polemic’. “The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige.” Patriots love their country for what it does. Nationalists love their country no matter what it does. Nationalism makes footstools of morality and ethics because what matters are the perceived interests of the state, regardless of what they are.

Imperialism is nationalism on the move. It is extending ones rule economically, politically, or militarily upon other states. In his Farewell Address of 1796 George Washington warned against foreign entanglements and foreign wars, advice that has fallen on increasingly deaf ears. The Canadian and Mexican wars of the first half of the 19thcentury were land grabs, but with the advent of the Spanish-American War the United States had grown imperialistic, fighting wars whose purposes were conquest and colonization.

“The United States has used every available means to dominate other nations,” writes Sidney Lens in ‘The Forging of the American Empire’. Some historians believe America’s imperialism is benevolent. Niall Ferguson agrees America is an empire, but insists it is a good thing, likening America to Rome, building republican institutions and civilizing barbarians. “U. S. imperialism has been the greatest force for good in the world during the past century,” Max Boot argues in “American Imperialism”.

Since 1945 America has intervened covertly or militarily in more than 70 countries, including the Philippines, Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Grenada, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Some of these conflicts were for the purpose of extending hegemony, some to contain fascism or communism, others to secure resources, and all of them were supposed to make the world safer. The Vietnam War, or Resistance War Against America, as the Vietnamese called it, resulted in approximately 4 million Vietnamese deaths on both sides and the loss of almost 60,000 American troops.

What good came of the Vietnam War, and whether the world is safer today than it was a hundred years ago, after the loss of more than ten percent of the world’s population to warfare in the 20thcentury, is a moot point.

Conflict is inevitably a consequence of imperialism. Although all states claim to fight defensive or justifiable wars, even invoking pre-emptive strikes as justified, war never ends warfare; otherwise it would have ended with the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, or maybe the defeat of the Nazis. “I just want you to know, when we talk about war, we are really talking about peace,” President Bush said after the start of the Second Gulf War Occupation.

Nationalism is the pursuit of power no matter the Orwellian spin states put on it, setting it at loggerheads with yoga. All states claim God is on their side. All nations proclaim their God is the God that rules.

Yoga, on the other hand, strives to be on the side of God.

The practices of nationalism and imperialism, projects that have defined the American Century, are practices justifying and furthering state power. They are coercive and violent, ranging from the Pledge of Allegiance we recite as children to the armies we raise as adults.

The practice of yoga is antithetical to the realpolitik of the modern state. Rather than ignore the moral and ethical, yoga’s project is based on those principles and disciplines.  All the world’s major religions from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism have had their foundations of non-violence co-opted by states.

“One of history’s greatest lessons is that whenever the state embraces a religion the nature of that religion changes radically. It loses its non-violent component,” wrote Mark Kurlansky in ‘Non-Violence: Twenty-Five Lessons From the History of a DangerousIdea’.

Although not a religion, yoga is a spiritual practice at whose core ahimsa is a living, breathing concept.  It is an imperative for practicing any or all of the eight limbs or steps of the path. Pranayama is not a tool for steadying trigger fingers. There are no St. Augustines or Ibn Taymayyahs of yoga explaining away the Sixth Commandment.  If there were, then satya, defined as truth in word and thought, would have to be thrown out the window.

In a 2005 speech at Spelman College the political activist and historian Howard Zinn characterized nationalism as one of the greatest evils of our time, useful only for those in power. The nationalist argument is built on the assertion that the economic and military supremacy of the nation takes priority over all other interests. It is for good reason the United States maintains the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world and is the only nation that has ever used atomic weapons against an enemy.

The practice of yoga, on the other hand, is opposed to the nationalist agenda and the alienation of everyone on America’s Most Wanted list. “Yoga unites us not only to the core of who we are, but truly to every American,” said Michele Risa of NYC’s Beyond Body Mind Spirit. “As defined, we would in fact be embracing every person on the planet.”

Yoga is dedicated to the union of the body, mind, and spirit, both within ourselves and to others. “Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation,” wrote William Doran in “The Eight Limbs – The Core of Yoga”.

Violence does not resolve disagreements. It only leads to more violence.

The greater evil than nationalism is the endemic violence it begets. “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics,” observed Thomas Edison. “Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.” Non-violence is one of the disciplines of yoga, according to the ‘Hatha Yoga Pradipika’, as well as an obligation. It is only the undisciplined that believe every problem can be solved with violence.

“It almost seems anti-American to do any discipline,” writes Deborah Adele in “The Yamas and Niyamas”. The abstinences and observances of yoga are fundamentally rooted in ahimsa. Violence and killing are not stepping-stones on the yogic path, as they are on the highways of nationalism and imperialism. Violence is a morally confused idea, a means of getting things done that is neither a lasting solution nor an idea that God is on the side of.

“One is dearest to God who has no enemies among the living beings,” says the Bhagavad Gita, “who is non-violent to all beings.”

Although our Founding Fathers never practiced yoga, if they had they would have gravitated to styles that suited their personalities.

George Washington would probably have practiced Ashtanga, drawn to its discipline, splitting the mat in the Warrior poses with a steady, forward gaze. John Adams might have practiced Anusara, intellectually engaged by its principles of alignment, his back foot rooted to the earth in side-angle pose and his leading arm reaching to heaven. Thomas Jefferson would have studied Kundalini, exploring and releasing energy, practicing kriyas and chanting on the portico of Monticello.

It is doubtful they would look out on the landscape of America today, over the atomization of its citizens, its celebration of presidential birthdays with sales, sales, sales, and its century-long militarism, with any sense of accomplishment. “That part of America,” says Rita Trieger of Fit Yoga Magazine, “the intolerance, the judgments, the hatred, that’s the real un-American thinking. Our forefathers would be shocked.”

As far as modern America’s values are from its foundational myths, yoga’s values may be as near to them.

Yoga is a transformative practice of old-fashioned virtues opening the modern citizen to new thought and behavior, much like what the American Revolution accomplished for the New World.

“Perhaps the question is, are Americans being Americans?” says Denise Lapides of Divine Light Yoga. “Yoga to me is not un-American as much as Americans have become un-American. Practicing yoga, or living a yogic lifestyle, seems to me to be more in line with what was originally intended for our nation.”

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, said “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were the essentials of the American Dream. He also warned that competition and commerce often “feel no passion of principle but that of gain,“ that we should not bite at the “bait of pleasure,” and condemned war as “the greatest scourge of mankind.”

“Tail-Gunner” Joe McCarthy might not agree that yogic ideals like compassion, truthfulness, and non-violence are prototypically American, but it is likely Thomas Jefferson would. Our third president valued self-reliance, honesty, and hard work. Any American walking into a yoga studio today and rolling out a mat will discover exactly that, and find that yoga is as American as starting the day with sun salutations, followed by a plate of apple pie, and that there is nothing wrong with America that can’t be breathed out and breathed in with what is right with America.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Wear and Tear

By Ed Staskus

“When I get older losing my hair, many years from now, will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”  The Beatles

Every so often a yoga magazine website feature article speaker at a seminar blog FB Instagram Huffington Post will trot out the oldest yoga teachers in the world as examples of what can be accomplished when the body mind and spirit are all set firmly on the practice. They extol their example. They direct our attention to them, pillars of light.

The old-timers are shopworn though not the worse for wear, faded, but still lit up, the sparkle of the light of yoga still in their eyes.

There are the Big Three, gone but not forgotten. K. Pattabhi Jois kept at it to the age of 93, B. K. S. Iyengar, 95, and Indra Devi, an astonishing 102. There are many people in their 50s who say they just hope to make it to retirement age. Indra Devi not only never retired, she died still in the saddle.

The yoga teacher and scholar Krishnamacharya, known as the “father of modern yoga,” started in the mid-1920s and inspired a new interest in the practice. He taught and worked at it until the day he fell into a coma and died in 1989. He was 100 years old. It’s too bad he never knew he made the century mark.

Only .01% of anybody lives to be one hundred or beyond. Those that do often credit diet, exercise, and environment. Not always, however. Edith Atkinson Wylie, a 106-year-old living in Montana, who has never done a minute of yoga in her life, credits her longevity to “bourbon and Cheetos while watching the 5 o’clock news. And good genes, too.”

Edith played the gene card. She had to, otherwise forget shouting “Bingo!” The pay-off was another glass of bourbon and somebody else’s bad news on the TV.

“Do be do be do,” Frank Sinatra sang. He didn’t make it. Not that he didn’t try, wig and all.

There’s one in every crowd, especially the 100-year crowd, who have earned whatever eccentricity they want to play up to. Edith probably wears white gloves out in public, but the liver spots still show through. Don’t argue with the 100-year crowd though. They’ll see you in the grave first.

Besides the Big Three, there are the second stringers who accomplished the same longevity.

Nanammal, born in 1919, was the oldest yoga teacher in India. Her father taught it to her when she was 8 years old. She went on to teach more than a million students over 45 years. She died late last year. Tao Porchon-Lynch, born on a ship in the English Channel in 1918, also discovered yoga when she was 8 years old. She studied with Jois and Iyengar. She was a model and actress in the 40s and 50s but in the 1960s went into yoga full-time, teaching right up to her death early this year. She was 102.

Ida Herbert, born in 1916, hit it big as the oldest yoga teacher in the world in the Guinness Book of World Records. She was 96 years old at the time. When she turned the corner on the century mark, she was still teaching a group of older women she called “Ida’s Girls.” She didn’t get into yoga until she was in her 50s, taking private lessons, reading books, and practicing on her own. She started teaching yoga at the local YMCA. Everyone was drawn to her feisty energy and repeated message to “keep moving.”

When she died in April of this year, she was 103 years old. Her ashes were scattered at “Ida’s Rock” on the lakeshore where she lived. The wind blew them into the water.

The reason the 100-year crowd gets demonstrated is because there are more old older oldest people in the world now than ever before. The planet’s population is ageing faster than in the past. The number of people 60 years and older today outnumbers children younger than 5 years. Between now and 30 years from now, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double from 12% to 22%.

125 million people are aged 80 years or older today. By 2050, there will be almost this many in China alone, and 434 million people in this age group worldwide. It is why yoga has significantly expanded in the past ten years. 30 to 49-year-olds are still the group doing it the most, but the numbers show that it is growing exponentially in popularity with those over 50 60 70 and 80. Adults over 50 practicing yoga tripled from 2014 to 2018.

“Let go of excuses that you’re too old,” says Carol Krucoff, a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C., and co-author of “Relax into Yoga for Seniors.”

“You don’t have to be young or fit or flexible to try yoga. If you can breathe, you can practice it,” she said.

About a million-and-a-half people live in nursing homes in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 10 million more, mostly 65-or-older, need long-term support to help them with daily activities, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. They are all breathing, but it’s a moot point whether they can totter forward to a yoga mat and get going into one asana and another.

“Age is an issue of mind over matter,” said Mark Twain. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

Mind over matter is a great concept, but sometimes, no matter how much you don’t mind, it does matter. When you can barely shuffle forward in a walker, and barely breathe doing it, it is more likely a matter of matter over mind. It matters getting started, but sometimes the starter motor has gone bad.

Yoga studios are a business, and most yoga teachers are free agents, and everybody has got to make a living, so it is being touted as the new remedy for whatever ails golden agers. We age as the result of the accumulation of molecular and cellular damage over time. What happens is a downgrade in physical and mental capacity, a growing risk of disease, and ultimately, death.

Why it’s called golden is anybody’s guess.

Mental capacity and physical fitness are the bedrocks of yoga. It is what yoga teachers are best at doing, getting people fit and thinking straight. That’s why if senior citizens can get there, the mat is good for them.

Yoga has a lot to do with death, but nobody wants to hear about that, no matter what the Dalai Lama says, which is, “Awareness of death is the very bedrock of the path. Until you have developed this awareness, all other practices are useless.”

That’s all well and good for him, given his beliefs. He is thought by Buddhists to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person then becomes the next Dalai Lama. Most people in the United States either never give a thought to the afterlife, are on the fence about it, or don’t believe in it.

It’s now or never.

Yoga in the main is recommended for seniors, a tonic that reduces stress, improves sleep, lessens depression, takes the edge off aches and pains, and enhances balance, flexibility, and strength. It is also said to help prevent the onset of osteoporosis, which causes bones to become weak and brittle. Most oldsters practice one or more of several popular versions, Restorative, Yin, Hatha, and Iyengar. If they can’t get up and go, they do Chair Yoga.

The AARP is on board with yoga for seniors. They say it protects your joints, which by your 60s aren’t as fluid as they used to be. “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, things like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, getting dressed,” says Amy Wheeler, yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino.

It builds strength and better balance, helping prevent falls, which are the leading cause of injuries among oldsters. “About 80 percent of proprioception is in your ankles, so standing poses are important, particularly for people in their 70s,” says Larry Payne, yoga director at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. “As you get more sedentary, your sense of balance atrophies. ‘Use it or lose it’ really does apply.”

It sharpens the mind. As we get older, our thought processes aren’t as keen anymore as they used to be. We get addled, disoriented, at sea. The Babadook in the closet is Alzheimer’s. Almost 6 million Americans age 65-and-older are living with it in 2020. Eighty percent are age 75-or-older. One in 10 people age 65-and-older has dementia.

A 2016 International Review of Psychiatry study reported that practicing yoga relaxation techniques for 30 minutes a day had immediate beneficial effects on brain function. “Focusing on the breath and synchronizing it with movement helps keep the mind clear and engaged,” says Melinda Atkins, a yoga teacher in Miami.

If worse comes to worse, there’s always Corpse Pose, which is good for any age. Lie on your back, eyes closed, splay your feet to the sides, arms alongside your body, palms facing up, surrender to the floor, and breathe deeply evenly consciously.

Seniors being old-timers, they’ve got to be careful, even doing something as bathed in the virtuous glow of yoga. “In general, older adults have less joint range of motion, less strength and poorer balance than younger men and women,” says Gale Greendale, a professor of medicine and gerontology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “They also have more limiting musculoskeletal conditions, such as osteoarthritis and low back conditions, that may put them at higher risk of musculoskeletal side effects from yoga.”

In other words, they can get hurt.

“There were 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen in hospital emergency departments from 2001 to 2014,” according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. “The trunk was the most frequent region injured. The injury rate increased overall from 2001 to 2014, and it was greatest for those aged 65 years-and-older compared with those aged 18 to 44 years and 45 to 64 years in 2014.”

In the six years since, injuries among seniors have shot up as their participation in yoga has shot up.

As good as yoga is for everybody, including everybody war-horse age and up, it isn’t the whole pie, but rather a slice of the pie. Investing in it to the exclusion of other kinds of activity and movement is pie in the sky. There is more to move mind spirit than plank down dog and half-moon pose.

“Yoga goes a long way for the mind and spirit, but a little bit of it goes a long way for the body, especially as we get older,” said Frank Glass, a former sportswriter who covers the yoga scene in the metropolitan Cleveland, Ohio area. “I get on my mat at home most days and sometimes I take a class at Quiet Mind, but I’ve adapted as I’ve gotten older.”

Quiet Mind on the east side of Lakewood, one of Cleveland’s inner ring western suburbs on the Lake Erie shoreline, is owned and operated by Barron Cannon, a yoga idealist and sometime anarchist who still manages to turn a profit at his studio.

“I don’t stand on my head anymore, and I’ve put wheel pose away in the garage,” said Frank. “What I do now is a blend of yoga, Pilates, and band work. I walk in the park, walk on my treadmill in the winter months, and work out on a Concept 2 rower.”

Like many people, Frank Glass started taking yoga classes in his early-50s. “I played too much racquetball and squash in my 30s and 40s,” he said. It took a toll. Playing got painful. Playing got impossible.

“The problem with relying on yoga was that the better I got at it the worse I got at real life. Not mentally or spiritually. I got better there. It was the physical part I got a little disenchanted with. Less is more, as far as I’m concerned. Walking, biking, rowing, lifting weights, or band work, is just as bottom-line as sun salutations”

There is wide agreement that along with yoga, activities like walking and cycling, aerobic classes, bodyweight training, and resistance band workouts are especially well-suited for mossbacks. Swimming is encouraged because it is often called the world’s perfect exercise.

“Getting in the pool is a great way to increase your cardiovascular fitness while also strengthening your muscles,” says Victoria Shin, a cardiologist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in California. Exercising in water puts minimal stress on your bones and joints, which is a plus for anyone who has arthritis or osteoporosis. It hydrates the moss. The Journal of Aging Research suggests that swimming keeps minds as sharp as it does bodies fit. It’s like doing yoga with your yellow rubber ducky.

Many studies of healthy older people indicate that strength, stamina, and flexibility drop significantly after age 55. These declines were once considered an inevitable consequence of aging. Not necessarily anymore.

But a study by Harvard and Tufts researchers showed that many functional losses could be reversed. “In the study, 100 nursing-home residents, ages 72 to 98, performed resistance exercises three times a week for 10 weeks. At the end of that time, the exercise group could lift significantly more weight, climb more stairs, and walk faster and farther than their sedentary counterparts, who continued to lose strength and muscle mass.”

“I may not live to be a hundred, although my father was in his late 80s when he died, and my mother is still kicking around in her 90s, so I think my genes are on the better side, which gives me a chance,” said Frank Glass. “So, I’ll just keep doing what Mr. Natural does.”

Fred Natural, known as Mr. Natural, is a slightly overweight bald man with a long white beard wearing a sack making him look like a prophet. He is a comic book character created by the 1960s underground cartoon artist Robert Crumb. Fred was once kicked out of heaven for telling God it all “looks a little corny up here.”

His goal in life is to “Keep on Truckin’.”

Although he has much in common with the Big Three, there is no recorded instance of Mr. Natural ever doing yoga, even though he is approaching 150 years of age. Knowing him, he probably kept it a secret. Wherever he is today, on a remote island or mountaintop, he would certainly recommend doing some yoga and would absolutely recommend staying on the move. He has a nimble way of saying, “Use it or lose it, baby.”

It’s the only way to get in with the 100-year in-crowd. And since an apple a day keeps the doctor away, when you’re done with whatever you’ve done, on the mat or off, have a big slice of apple pie. And a glob of ice cream. It goes great with a slice of pie.

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

Hot Room Badass

brian-paquette-chair-pose-chagrin-yoga-1.jpg

By Ed Staskus

“I’ll have the whole grain pancakes and coffee,” said Barron Cannon.

“Cream and sugar?” asked Chris, the bartender, wearing a “Best Burgers” black sweatshirt.

“Black,” said Barron.

He was a vegan.

“And you?”

“Three eggs easy over, sausage links, whole wheat toast, cream for my coffee,” said Frank Glass.

He was not a vegan.

Barron and Frank were sitting at the bar at Herb’s Tavern in Rocky River for a late Saturday morning breakfast. “Add a lemon slice to the iced water, and no straw,” said Barron. “If you’re over three years old, or not disabled, you shouldn’t be drinking out of a straw. On top of that, whoever thought of disposable plastic straws should be horse whipped.”

“What got into you today?” Frank asked, changing the subject. Something was always getting into Barron. When it came to the environment and climate change, he wore blinders, always ready to get into it.

“I don’t know,” said Barron. “I was feeling good alert, just feeling it.”

They had come from Barron’s warm flow yoga class earlier that morning. Both of them, and probably everyone else in the class, had worked up an appetite. Barron owned and taught at a yoga studio on the east end of Lakewood, a ten-minute drive away.

“It reminded me of the way Kristen Zarzycki used to teach her Sunday afternoon five-dollar classes at Inner Bliss.”

“Is she still teaching?” asked Barron. “I thought she had gone into biotechnology sales.”

“I don’t know, but when she was teaching, she was a tiger by the tail.”

Frank Glass had gone to three yoga classes a week for three or four years, and then twice a week Bikram Yoga classes for two more years. He had a herniated disk in his lower back. Almost nothing helped. A hot water bottle helped, a daily NSAID helped, and yoga helped. He had attended a dozen-or-so workshops in his time. He practiced at home now, only going to Barron’s studio once or twice a month to stay in touch.

“That way you can stay in touch with me,” said his wife, Vera.

“There would be a eighty ninety people crammed into the class, you know how Inner Bliss is, some of them in trim, most of them trying as hard as they could to keep up, sucking air, it was a fast flow, and Kristen would be on her mat, doing all the poses, and doing the dialogue, cheerful and upbeat, while half the class was dying, just trying to make it to the end. In the summer, even with the windows open, it could get hot in there.”

“My classes are fun yet challenging, taught from a base of gratitude and commitment to taking care of your body so that students can shine in their space on the mat,” says Kristen. “On the mat, I have learned that as in life, each person has areas where they struggle and those where they shine, and that the collaboration of all of our gifts is what makes our world so amazing.”

When asked what was in the backpack she carried to and from class, she said, “Gum, lip gloss, and binkie.”

Whether she meant a baby’s pacifier, the high hop a rabbit performs when happy, or a stuffed animal, was unclear.

“Was she your toughest teacher?” asked Barron, a flapjack shard on his fork dripping maple syrup.

“No, Deanna Black was a boat load. She was freelance, thank God, so I only ran into her when she was subbing. She drove her classes at breakneck pace, and every few minutes we had to do ten push-ups, or twenty sit-ups, or some damn thing, and then it was back to the flow.”

“Push-ups are good for you,” said Barron.

“Never mind about your two cents’ worth,” said Frank. “The thing is, if you faltered, say you collapsed in a push-up, she would come over and do twenty push-ups right next to you, smiling like a wolf. She didn’t actually do the class, instead she prowled around, explaining cajoling threatening, but one look at her was all you needed to know she could it, all the physical stuff, and another class after that, with no problem. She was incredibly fit.”

“Climb every mountain, ford every stream,” Barron sang, lilting.

“She did that in the off-season.”

“The benefits are more than meet the eye,” says Deanna. “Your reactions to the challenges in your physical practice often reflect and carry over to those from the challenges of daily living.”

“OK, so she was lusty and tough as nails, good for her,” said Barron.

“But she wasn’t the toughest teacher I ever met,” said Frank. “That would be Brian Paquette.”

“Who is Brian Paquette.”

“He taught Bikram Yoga at Chagrin Yoga, although they didn’t call it that because they weren’t one of the Brainiac’s licensed studios.”

Bikram Yoga was masterminded by Bikram Choudhury, practiced in a carpeted room heated to 105 degrees with a humidity of 40%, like India even before climate change. The walls were covered in mirrors. Instructors were taught to be high-handed and to teach from a hands-off literal platform at the front of the class.

“That man was a nut,” said Barron.

“He was a nut, but if you wanted to climb the mountain of posture yoga, his 26 postures in the torture chamber was the mountain.”

Bikram Choudhury’s eccentric philosophy of yoga was making pupils work through pain. “I am a butcher and I try to kill you, but don’t worry, yoga is the best death,” he told his followers.

“You took classes in Chagrin Falls? That’s a forty-minute drive one way.”

“Twice a week for two years, until I had enough of the most unrelenting remorseless cramps I have ever had in my life. I couldn’t drink electrolytes fast enough to replenish. I got a vicious cramp driving home one night and had to pull off on the shoulder before I killed myself and everyone around me. That was the beginning of the end, although by then the economics of taking classes wasn’t making sense to me anymore.”

“Whoa, there, my friend,” said Barron. “You’re talking about my bread and butter.”

“It wasn’t just that, although bread and butter played a part. It dawned on me there wasn’t any magic, not that yoga teachers aren’t magic, most of them are, any magic in going to classes anymore. Sure, it was engaging to practice in a collective atmosphere, but I knew enough by then to stand on my own two feet. What I didn’t know, I knew I could just ask you over breakfast or lunch. Can you pass the butter?”

“What made him so tough?” asked Barron

“What made Brian tough was that he didn’t come across as tough, at all. He was chill in the hot room. He came across as a good-natured guy. And he was a good-natured guy, patient affable understanding. Most Bikram Yoga teachers, not if but when you had to stop, always wanted you to stay in the room.”

“Just sit down on the mat for a minute,” the apostle on the platform would say. “It’s cooler at floor level.”

“That sounds like Bugs Bunny physics,” Barron laughed.

“It was maybe one half of a degree cooler on the floor,” said Frank. “Brian let people leave the room. He told us, if you have to, you have to. Try to come back if you can. He encouraged us to drink as much water as possible. I had one teacher, she trotted out the harebrained idea that water weighed you down and we should only be taking a missionary-sized sip once in a while.”

“He sounds like a simpatico kind of guy. Is he from Ohio, from here?”

“I’m not sure, although I don’t think so. When I was taking classes in Chagrin Falls, he told me he lived nearby, maybe even within walking distance. One night, after class, we were standing around, he mentioned he had gone through some hard times. He had been a professional gambler, something like that, for a while, and had fallen into a downward spiral. He got connected to yoga, somehow scraped up enough cash for Bikram Yoga teacher training, and trained in Las Vegas, of all places.”

Bikram Yoga teacher training is learning the world-famous system and learning to teach it, according to Bikram HQ.  They are dedicated to teaching trainees the precise nature of yoga. Everyone is nurtured in a challenging, but safe environment, no kidding.

Trainees learn how to greet students professionally and jawbone intelligently about the mental and physical benefits of yoga. Everyone is encouraged to develop a dedicated hatha practice. They are taught how to speak clearly and how to teach the sequence confidently, correcting students appropriately and compassionately, no fooling.

They learn how to grow their own personal yoga practice, sans steam, since it impractical in most apartments condos homes anywhere. There’s no kidding about that.

The training takes about four weeks and costs between $12 and $15 thousand, depending on what paradise on earth the training is set. The total costs include tuition, hotel accommodation, transportation, lectures, classes, towels, and all the water you need to complete the training in one piece.

Even though Bikram Choudhury has recently fled the United States after losing a multi-million-dollar civil suit for sexual shenanigans, he continues to stage his tent show around the rest of the world.

“It was more like harassment and assault,” said Barron.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

“Brian taught hot yoga, but he was more engaged with Kriya Yoga, which was crazy at odds with the Bikram way of life, which was fancy cars and fancy girls and cash on the barrelhead. He didn’t ever say much about Bikram Choudhury, although he once said yoga had been around a long time and no one had a proprietary claim to it.”

“So, he was more a Kriya kind of guy than a fancy pants?”

“That’s right. You’d ask him what his favorite pose was, and he’d say, ‘Meditation posture, straight spine, because it brings peace.’ His favorite books were the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, Holy Science, and Autobiography of a Yogi. If you asked him what made him happy, he’d say, ‘Meditation, singing the names of God, and spending time with my family.’ His favorite quote was, ‘Read a little. Meditate more. Think of God all the time.’ I forgot to ask him who said that, but it was probably some old-school yogi.”

“My God, he sounds like a saint, not a badass,” said Barron. “I mean, one of my favorite quotes is, ‘You better take care of me Lord, because if you don’t, you’re gonna have me on your hands.’ What does that make me?”

“Who said that?”

“Hunter S. Thompson.”

“Fear and Loathing?”

“Right-o.”

“Brian wasn’t like that,” said Frank. “He wasn’t a saint, just a regular guy, really, although he did a hell of a lot of meditation. I mean, hours of it. What I mean about him being a badass is the way he went about his business in the hot room. He always came in last, wearing mid-thigh compression shorts, no shirt, and carrying a jug of water. He ran the class like a grade-school teacher. He wasn’t like a drill sergeant, which was a persona most Bikram teachers took on in some way shape or form.”

“Why did he need water?” asked Barron. “I thought Bikram Yoga teachers just shouted out the poses from their soapbox. Why did he need a jug?”

“He did just about the whole thing, which is why he needed it. That’s why he takes the gold medal of badass yoga teacher, in my eyes, at least. Every class there were plenty of people who had to take a break or leave the room. A lot of them were young and fit. Brian did it day after day, no sweat. Getting through ninety minutes of the torture chamber wasn’t any walk in the park, man, it was hard.”

“How hard can it be?”

“Believe me, beyond hard,” said Frank. “You don’t see me doing it anymore.”

“You finally accept an offer to go to a class thinking, easy, I can do this.” said Benny Johnson about his first Bikram class.

“I played real sports for a few years, so how hard can it be? You arrive at the class thinking, let’s do this! But then you walk into the class and the heat hits you. It is ninety-one thousand degrees. You set up your mat in an open space. Little do you realize the hell awaiting you. The poses are relatively easy but holding them is hard. And you actually really start needing water, but it does not help! By the final stretches, you’re just limping along. Then the torture ends, and you lay down in a haze and total defeat.”

“More iced water?” asked Chris, walking up to the bar.

“Yes, please,” Frank and Barron both said.

They drank their water, paid the bill of fare, and left Herb’s Tavern.

“How did Brian reconcile Kriya with Bikram,” Barron asked as they walked to the back of the parking lot. “The two seem mutually exclusive. Kriya is about selflessness and Bikram was only in it for himself.”

“I don’t know, we never talked about it, but his actions, how he did things, seem to say he did. He was both a badass and one of the more sincere people I ever met. If you asked him what inspired him, he would say, ‘My guru, my wife and my children.’ If you asked him who sees the real you in this sketchy world, he’d say God.”

“It sounds to me that the way he practiced in the studio was the test of his sincerity,” said Barron. “He was melding the two, but not selling out.”

“He’s a religious guy in a secular world, a spiritual guy teaching a totally incarnate practice,” said Frank. “He was always urging us to meditate, even though we were all there for the crazy boot camp workout because all of us needed it for our own almost always physical reasons. He was hard to make out.”

“The good of the body depends on the goodness of the spirit, and the other way around,” said Barron.

They got into Frank’s Hyundai SUV and pulling up to Detroit Road, a black squirrel built like the tailback Barry Sanders, crazy quick and elusive as the all-Pro, vaulted over the brick wall surrounding the outdoor front terrace with a chuck of stale bagel in his mouth. Frank feathered the brakes, but there was no need. He wasn’t the kind of squirrel who ran in circles and got caught under tires. He dashed to the grassy hillside endzone at the back of Century Cycles and disappeared into the trees.

“Have you ever noticed squirrels never say things like, if I had my life to live over, I would do whatever?” asked Frank.

“I know what you mean,” said Barron, chewing on a fresh bagel he had squirreled away in his pocket before leaving. “They’re just rats in better clothes, but they’ve got it going, for sure. What’s more free and right in the head than a squirrel? And they’re vegans, too.”

They might get run over by us, squashed flat like pancakes by car after car, but they never fall out of trees into a world not of their making. They are second to none at planting their own trees, too. They bury their acorns, but often forget where they put them. The forgotten acorns become oak trees.

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

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

“Well, I called my congressman, and he said I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”  Eddie Cochran

“Mom said you’re not leaving and you’re coming to my birthday party this year,” Maggie said, putting down her ear of corn, her lips peppered with flecks of salt and smeary with   butter.

“That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

Vera Glass’s brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, Frank’s sister and her new boyfriend, a policeman who lived nearby, were visiting on the Fourth of July, in the backyard, a breezy sunny day in the shade, crowded around a folding table-clothed table doing double duty, food and drink and board games.

Independence Day has been a federal holiday since 1941, but the tradition goes back to the American Revolution. Since then it’s been celebrated with festivities like fireworks parades concerts big and small and family barbecues. This year the fireworks parades concerts were scratched.

Maggie was born seven almost eight years earlier. She was due to officially come to life the third week of September, four five days after Frank and Vera expected to be back from Atlantic Canada but was born on the first day of the month.

She was a once in a blue moon baby. To do something once in a blue moon means to do it rarely. It is the appearance of a second full moon within a calendar month, which happens about once every three years.

“Where do you go in the summer?” Maggie asked.

“We go to Prince Edward Island, a small town called North Rustico, but we stay in a cottage in the National Park, a family owns the land, they’ve been there for almost two hundred years. We leave in mid-August and stay through the first couple of weeks of September, which is why we miss your birthday party.”

“You always send me a present. I like that. But last year you sent me a sweatshirt with a red leaf on it that was ten times too big.” “You’ll grow into it,” said Frank.

“Maybe I will, but maybe I won’t,” said Maggie. She was a genial child but could be a testy cuss. She thought knew her own mind rounding out her seventh year, although it could go both ways.

“Do you like it there?”

“Yes, we like it a lot.”

“Why aren’t you going? Is it the virus?”

The 20th century was the American Century. The United States led the way socially economically brain-wise learning-wise and in every other wise way. In 2020 it led the way in virus infections, far outpacing the next two contenders, Brazil and India. The flat tires in charge nowadays can’t get anything right, from building their useless wall, all three miles of new wall, to securing a useful virus test.

North Korea and Iran keep making atom bombs, there’s no China trade deal, the deficit has skyrocketed, and race relations have gotten worse. All that’s left is for the other shoe to drop. On top of that, Hilary Clinton still isn’t in jail.

“Yes, the bug,” said Frank. “The Canadian border is closed, and even if we could get into Canada somehow, the bridge to the island is closed except for business.”

In May President Trump said, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere, cases are coming way down.” In June he said the pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.” On July 2nd he said, “99% of cases are totally harmless.” Four days later, on July 6th, he said, “We now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World.”

John Hopkins University subsequently reported that the United Sates has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people. It was a bald-face report. They didn’t capitalize the numbers.

“Are you sad that you can’t go?”

“Yes.” “They built a new bridge to our house. I know all about it, we drove over it two weeks ago. Mom was so happy. It’s a big bridge, too, the other one was small and always breaking.”

“You know the bridge you go across from downtown, when you go up the rise past the baseball stadium where the Indians play ball, on your way to Lakewood?”

“That’s a long bridge.”

“It’s called the Main Avenue Bridge and it’s two miles long. The bridge that goes from Canada to Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times longer than that. It’s as long as the distance from downtown to our house.”

“That’s far!”

“That can’t be,” Frank’s nephew Ethan blurted out. “That bridge is too long!”

“How do you know, Bud, you can hardly count,” said Maggie. She called Ethan Bud. They were buddies, although they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

“I can so count, I know all the dinosaurs, there are a million of them,” said Ethan.

“I’m going into third grade and we’re going to learn division. You’ve been learning to finger paint.”

“What’s a million plus a million?”

“2 million.”

“OK, what’s the biggest dinosaur ever?”

“The Brontosaurus.”

“No! It’s the Argentinosaurus, and he weighed a million pounds.”

“That can’t be,” said Maggie.

“My math is my math,” Ethan simply said.

“If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein.

As of July, there were more than 300,000 cases of the virus reported in children since the start of the pandemic. The Executive Office of the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained it poses almost no threat to them. “The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” President Trump said.

“How do you know about the virus?” Frank asked.

“Everybody knows about it. The whole world knows.”

“They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

“Do you know anybody who got it?”

“A girl in school got it from her mom,” Maggie said. “I took piano lessons with her.”

“That’s too bad,” Frank said.

“Are there going to be fireworks tonight?” Maggie asked.

“No, the city cancelled them.”

“Where we live, too.”

“Here there were fireworks last night, we sat on the front porch, until after midnight, but it was just people in the street or their yards. There were some big pops over there by Madison Avenue. I think they were shooting them off from the empty lot. We could see bottle rockets over the trees.”

“Wow!”

“You said you knew about the virus, but how do you know?” asked Frank.

“The news about it is on every day on TV,” said Maggie.

“That’s right,” said Ethan.

“We have a TV, but we don’t have TV,” said Frank. “We only have a couple of streaming services for movies.”

“We have real TV,” said Maggie, “and it’s on all the time. The news is on every single hour every single day and all the news is about the virus.”

“Do you watch TV all the time?”

“We don’t watch TV, but we watch it all day,” said Ethan.

“We don’t really watch it, but it’s always there,” said Maggie.

Parents are urged to pay attention to what their children see and hear on radio online television. They are cautioned to reduce screen time focused on the virus since too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety in kids. Talk to them about how stories on the web might be rumors and wildly inaccurate.

“That’s OK, it’s all in your head, anyway,” said Maggie.

“All in your head?”

“That’s what dad says.”

“Well,” Frank said, “your father knows best.” He wasn’t going to get into a no-win argument with his brother-in-law. His sister’s boyfriend was a policeman at Metro Hospitals. Frank didn’t want his ears pricking up. He wouldn’t understand it’s all in your head.

“Are you worried about the virus?” Frank asked.

“Would that help?” Maggie asked, biting into a burger. “This is yummy good.”

“No, it would probably just make you crazy.”

“Dad said your name wasn’t always Frank Glass.”

“Yes and no,” said Frank. “My given name has always been Frank, which is short for Francis, like we call you Maggie even though your name is Margaret, but my family name, what they say is your surname, used to be Kazukauskas.”

“What happened to it?” asked Maggie. “Why is it different now.”

“When my father came here, to America after World War Two, the immigration people said he should change it to something other people could pronounce, that they could say without too much trouble, so he changed it to Glass.”

“Where did he come from?”

“Lithuania, a little country, north of Germany.”

“That’s a nice name,” Maggie said. “I like Glass.”

“At least he didn’t have to climb another brick in the wall once he got here.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older. Are you staying home more because of the virus?”

“Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

“Do you have to wear a mask when you go somewhere?”

“We cover up,” Maggie said. “My face gets hot, my head gets hot, and my hair get hot. It makes my glasses fog up.”

“I have a tube mask with rhino’s and bronto’s on it,” Ethan said. “But I can’t breathe, so I just rip it off until mom sees.”

There was a box of Charades for Kids on the table. “Three or More Players Ages Four and Up.” Frank pointed at it.

“Are you ready to play?”

Maggie rolled around on the lawn, flapped her arms, rolled her eyes, and hugged herself. Nobody had any idea what she was doing.

“Going to bed!” she yelped.

Ethan did a somersault.

“Somersault?”

“Yes!”

Maggie rolled on the ground holding her head and grimacing like a mad chipmunk. Everybody watched with blank faces, stumped.

“Headache!” she blared.

Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

“Karate?”

“Yes!”

Maggie jumped, waved her right arm in circles, flapped it back and forth, and licked her lips. As the one-minute hourglass dropped the last grain of sand to the bottom, she fell down on the grass. Everybody was stumped again.

“Frosting a cake! I can’t believe nobody got it.”

Ethan got on all fours like an anteater, pretended to be eating something with great chomping motions, and clomped to the driveway and back.

“Argentinosaurus?”

“Yes!”

Summer signals freedom for children. It’s a break from the structure of school days, a time for more days spent at the pool, a time for more play, for exploring the outdoors.

One day his mom asked Ethan if he wanted to go out on his scooter.

“So much,” he said. “I have got to get out of this house.”

“Every single day I see the Amazon truck and the FedEx and the white trucks go past me,” said Maggie. “They turn around at the cul-de-sac thing, they just rush back, driving crazy. I run to the backyard.”

“There’s a big field and woods past our backyard,” Ethan said.

“We’re stuck at home but it’s summer, it’s nice outside, the sun is shining, and we all go for walks,” Maggie said.

She hadn’t been to school since April, studying remotely. Ethan hadn’t been to pre-school for just as long.

“Are you going back to school in the fall?” asked Frank.

“I hope so,” said Maggie. “I miss it.”

“I’m supposed to start first grade,” said Ethan.

About two months away from hopes there will be a return to school, many parents were looking to new findings which suggest children are less likely to get and spread the virus. In late June the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for “having students physically present in school,” published reopening guidelines. They stated that children “may be less likely to become infected” with the coronavirus and to spread the infection.

Living and breathing in-person face-to-face time is what makes school a school. “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher,” is what a Japanese proverb says.

“I want to play something else,” Maggie said. “Can you teach us how to play Pictionary?”

“Sure,” Frank said.

They put the never-ending news of the pandemic away, cleared one end of the table, and unfolded the game board, setting out the pencils note pads special cards. “Quick Sketches, Hilarious Guesses” is what it said on the yellow box, and that is what they did the rest of Independence Day, the clear sky going twilight, lightning bugs flashing on off on off, and neighborhood kids shooting off Uncle Sam Phantom fire flowers in the alley behind them.

There wasn’t a dud in the caboodle, not that they saw. Uncle Sam got it right, rockets red glare.

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

Shock and Awe

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By Ed Staskus

“You’re early,” said Barron Cannon.

“I know, but I wanted to come in before class and ask if you would help me navigate my new electric pants,” said Zadie Wisniewski.

She was wearing cherry pop yoga pants.

“I don’t think you need any help from me,” said Barron. “Your pants look electric enough.”

“What do you mean?”

“The color, you can’t beat that red.”

“Oh, right, they are bright. They’re a special pair. They’re usually black.  No, what I mean is, they’re actually electric.”

Barron Cannon owned operated taught at a yoga studio called Quiet Mind at the crossroads of Lakewood and the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. Zadie was there for his Wednesday early evening Hot Yoga class.

She was wearing sparkling new Nadi X yoga pants. The X pants are high-tech high-performance yoga wear, trumping Perfect Moment, Runderwear, and Lululemon. They are like wearing a self-driving car.

There was a battery attached to a port on the pants. Wires were woven into the fabric. Sensors sewn throughout the pants were synced to an app that collected data as the wearer practiced yoga. If a pose was off wrong lopsided, the app would make that part of you that was getting it wrong vibrate, a low-voltage electrical charge. When you made an adjustment, the app piped up with praise. If you kept getting it wrong, the app would keep buzzing you and say, “Please try again.”

“Are you pulling my leg?” Barron asked.

“No, of course not,” said Zadie. “These pants cost me two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“They’re cool,” said Folasade Adeoso, an influencer with 86,000 followers, the day she first pulled the pants on and went at it.

“That’s an arm and a leg,” Barron said about the bleeding-edge hot pants designed to make you bleed money.

“So, I wonder if I can roll my mat out right in front of you, and if you would handle my phone, keep it next to you?”

“Sure,” said Barron. “I’ll do my best.”

“Great!”

“You said navigate. What does that mean?”

“The app is supposed to do it all on its own, but I would feel better if you kept your eye on it.” She handed Barron her iPhone.

“It would be super if you would put it on your mat where both of us can see it.”

“All right,” he said. “But I’ll be damned if I like this. You’re the one who should be paying attention to what you’re doing, not relying on an app. And besides, when you come to the studio, that’s my responsibilty.”

“I know,” said Zadie, “but this will be for at home, when I do yoga in my spare room.”

Nadi X yoga pants are the brainchild of Billie Whitehouse, a fashion and tech designer. Seven years ago, she developed vibrating underwear that buzzed for its own reasons. A few years ago, she developed a driving jacket that vibrated right side left side to alert you to turn right or left. The next thing she and her team thought up were vibrating yoga pants.

“The vibrations on the body cue you where to focus and the app lets you know how you went at the end of each pose. Get the smartest yoga experience!” is how the experience is described.

Nadi X guides your yoga practice through the latest state-of-the-art technology based on your body’s alignment. Listen to the audio instructor on your phone and feel the guidance on your skin.”

“The vibrations will guide your focus,” says Billie Whitehouse.

It is totally woke to go modern, take sense and mind out of the equation and go straight to machine learning, go straight to the Big Brother of asana practice, the brother who certainly has your best interests in mind and won’t mine any of the data it collects about your body.

“Wearable X is the future of wellness that brings together design and technology to create a better quality of life through experience and fashion,” says Wearable X, the Australian cyber company behind the yoga pants device.

“Putting electronics into garments is still so new and so difficult,” says Ben Moir, co-founder with Whitehouse and chief technology officer. “Yoga pants get stretched, get sweated in. The sensors had to be invisible, and the pants had to not be a tech-looking product. That’s kind of an engineer’s nightmare.”

“We’re very proud that it is at its peak.” says Billie Whitehouse about their new clip-on cow nose ring attire device, proudly pointing the way to the unforeseeable future.

“I gotta bounce on that,” thought Barron. “I smell a rat.”

“They make my butt look good,” said Isabelle Chaput, half of a French performance-art duo, a few months earlier during a demonstration of the pants in New York City

The high-waisted four-way stretch level one compression pants aren’t just for gals, either.

“These leggings are extremely well made. The high waisted band is flattering, and these are honestly my go-to leggings for everyday wear,” said Justin Gong, reviewing the pants on Amazon. “Whether it’s a full 40-minute flow or a 5-minute session, my Nadi X allows me to flow whenever I want.”

It’s great to get what you want, whenever you want it, whether you’re a gal or a guy, or whoever whatever.

They were named Nadi X for a reason.

“In Sanskrit, the nadi are the highways of communication that exist around the body when all your chakras are aligned,” Billie Whitehouse spelled out, updating the past, eliding then and now.

“As You Think You Vibrate” is one of the company’s mantras.

Over the next twenty minutes the Hot Yoga class at Quiet Mind filled up, a quiet buzz and energy filling up the room until there were thirty-some mats lined up in a loose order alongside and behind Zadie. Barron taught a one-hour basic flow class in a room heated to basically the low 90s. His method was to start slow, pick up the pace, end slow, and encourage a five-minute corpse pose at the end.

He didn’t like it when folks rolled their mats up after the last pose and bolted the room.

“Hold your horses!”

The Nadi X pants are manufactured in Sri Lanka, an island country off the southern coast of India. The nation is prosperous economically, has a strong military, and is the third most religious country in the world, with 99% of all Sri Lankans saying religion is an important part of their daily life.

They are by all accounts proud to produce the vibrating pants for the spiritual practice of yoga.

Wearable X has even designed several yoga sequences for travelers, making the pants and the app work with phones on airplane mode, assuming the flight attendants don’t mind a downward dog in the middle of an aisle at 38,000 feet.

“Sitting is the new smoking,” said Billie Whitehouse. “This is a genuine epidemic. It’s not just because we’re at desks all day but because we’re constantly on airplanes.”

Baron Cannon had never been on a big plane, only a seaplane that flew 30-minute tours over Long Lake in the Adirondacks. He had been on it several times, whenever he went north to the High Peaks for a week of hiking, always flown by the same pilot, a short gruffly pleasant man by the name of Bob, who if you saw him in the street you might mistake for a bum. He flew his battered Cessna with one hand, pointing out landmarks. Sometimes he flew the little plane with no hands, talking with both hands. He always landed it, fair or foul weather, like the lake was a baby’s bottom.

Nadi X is the godsend for all the yogis who burn up the carbon, flying here there and everywhere, globe-trotting for profit and diversion.

The pants are machine washable and powered by a rechargeable battery that lasts up to an hour-and-a half, which is as long as most yoga classes ever are. The battery connects by Bluetooth to a smartphone, letting one and all choose the level of effort they’re going to be putting into the practice.

It is a 370 mAh battery. “Once you have set your vibration strength, you can place the phone next to your yoga mat during your session. Your pulse is monogamist to your phone. You can have different Nadi X pants, but your phone will always want to connect to your pulse.”

Everyone knows that their smartphone never screws up and is always up to snuff. Silicon Valley would have a heart attack if it was otherwise. That would be the day a robot car runs into a robot directing traffic, accidentally killing it.

“The audio instructions are paired with gentle vibrations to give you clues where to focus. The accelerometer values are processed in your smart phone and the audio instructions will let you know if you have made it into the pose at the end of each pose.”

After a couple of audio instruction noises from the phone, Barron shut the sound off, muttering to himself.

Within ten minutes it all fell into place for Zadie. She wasn’t an expert, but she wasn’t a novice either. In her late 20s she was strong and fit and smart, smart enough to catch the cues and act on them. By the middle of the class there were hardly any cues anymore, anyway. She was into the flow and getting it just right.

That’s when the trouble started.

Even though she was going good and strong and was intuitively aware of how good it was all going, Barron the yoga teacher not even glancing at her, he knew she was into the flow, she was getting zapped more and more frequently. The vibrations were rolling up and down her legs almost continuously. There was something wrong with the device, she thought. Was there a ghost in the machine learning?

There must be it! It was going wrong! It was going the high-line! Maybe it’s all this sweat, she thought, mopping her brow.

She looked up from the floor pose she was doing, to ask Barron to turn her iPhone off, but he was gone.

He was patrolling the room making hands-on adjustments, alignment-based assists for backbends and forward folds. Barron didn’t push anybody deeper into their poses, but he tried to get them into the integrity of the pose, within the constraints of what their flesh tendons ligaments joints bones would bear.

A young woman had complained about it in one of his classes, saying that touching her was inappropriate, and reminding him about the #MeToo movement, saying its concerns were a real issue to her.

“You’re doing it wrong,” he said. “You’re compromising your safety.”

“I don’t care, hands-off,” she said. “My husband’s a lawyer, just in case you’re a pervert.”

“Oh, the hell with it, get out and don’t come back.”

“What?” She glared at him. The class stopped and everyone watched the goings-on. Those who knew Barron better than others rolled their eyes heavenward.

“You heard me,” he said. “Out.” He fixed his hand firmly on her arm and led her to the door.

When they were outside, he leaned into her and said, “Tell your husband the local Hells Angel chapter practices here one Saturday morning a month, so I don’t ever want to see your face again or hear a word from him about anything litigious, understand?”

“You’re an ass,” she said.

“Let’s leave it at that, sweetheart,” Barron said and went back to his class.

Love peace and understanding, he thought, were all well and good, except when it came to the empowered privileged well-bred wallets from the better neighborhoods, especially Lake and Edgewater Roads, where he was sure she sprang from.

At heart Barron was an anarchist. He believed anarchism walked the walk best with yoga. Any other affiliation with anything else, capitalism socialism democracy dictatorship consumerism minimalism left-wing right-wing high and mighty the lunatic fringe, was inimical to the practice. Barron was an idealist, but he paid his taxes and didn’t run red lights, and so believed it was OK to indulge himself.

Zadie was close to the breaking point. The longer the class went on, the sweatier she got, the more her pants shocked her. It was only 12 volts, she knew, but it was getting to be 12 volts every second. Maybe it was more voltage than she thought. Was it getting stronger? Yow, that stung!

“The hell with it,” she finally cried out. She ripped her cherry pop yoga pants off and angrily tossed them into a corner to the side of Barron. She was left wearing a pair of royal purple Under Armour pure stretch underwear.

Everyone behind Zadie gave them a good close look.

“Eyes on me, everyone, front and center,” Barron said. “Let’s get back to business.”

“Those pants can kiss my butt,” Zadie said, getting back into the flow of the class.

“And, no,” she said, looking straight at Barron, “I won’t need any adjustments for the rest of class today, thank you.”

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

Between Sixes and Sevens

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By Ed Staskus

In grade school there is always one kid in class who, when he has to stand up and give a book report, bumbles and stumbles around until it becomes obvious he hasn’t read the book, but the CliffsNotes, or maybe only skimmed the CliffsNotes. If he’s the class clown, it is a lot of fun. If he’s just a schlemiel in the back, it’s sad.

In college or university, you either know your stuff, the stuff your major is all about, or you don’t. There’s no use reading the CliffsNotes, because the teachers have seen it all before, and they just give you an F and move on. They don’t care if you’re an idiot, or not.

If you are at a trade school, forget it, there are no CliffsNotes. The diploma they give you is fitting and necessary. Then when you have your plumber’s toolbox in hand you have to fix the toilet. If you don’t get it right, there is a flood and instead of an F you get fired.

If you are a yoga teacher and you get it wrong, you could hurt somebody, put them in the hospital, or even, if you get it hopelessly wrong, kill somebody. The human body is supple and strong, but it can go haywire. That’s why yoga teachers have a grave responsibility. A plumber can replace a toilet, but yoga teachers can’t replace a life gone down the drain.

Pierre Bibby, chief executive of the British Wheel of Yoga, the national governing body in the UK, says, “Yoga is not bad for you, but bad teaching is.” Bad teaching is fiddling while you work.

CliffsNotes, which used to be called Cliffs Notes, are study guides. They used to only come as pamphlets, but nowadays they are online, too. It got started in 1958 when a Nebraska man and his wife set up shop in their basement. Six years later they were selling a million of their shorthand guides a year. Not reading the real thing turned out to be real big business.

Thirty years later a media and events company paid $15 million for CliffsNotes, pumped up the volume, got on the internet, and produced 60-scond videos about the major literary works of the world. “CliffsNotes lives on today,” they say, “as part of the global learning community, and its mission of changing lives by fostering passionate, curious learners.”

Sixty second bursts of passion, living on crumbs.

If you have a passion for plumbing, welding, or pipefitting, it takes considerably longer than an infomercial to fulfill your passion. It takes a long time. The reason is does take years is that there is no fooling around with those trades.

Like Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”

Becoming a plumber starts with about two years of training at a trade school. After finishing an apprenticeship, which usually takes three to five years, and passing an exam, you can become a journeyman. A journeyman is someone who has served an apprenticeship at a trade and is certified to work at it under another person.

Another three or four years as a journeyman gets you enough flush master experience to let you take the test to become a master plumber.

Welders attend a technical school or community college to learn their trade. Nobody wants a welder without certification because they work with extremely hot high-energy electric arcs. On-the-job experience is important. They customarily work several years as an apprentice. Certificate programs typically last up to two years. Some go right to work after that while others   continue their education, pursuing degree programs in welding.

A pipefitter is somebody trained in organizing, assembling, and maintaining mechanical piping systems that are meant to withstand high pressure. The systems are usually industrial, including heating and cooling, and involve work with steam, ventilation, hydraulics, chemicals, and fuel.

They have to get it right so that nothing blows up.

Trade schools offer courses on pipe system design, safety, and tool use. Apprenticeships are four-year programs involving work full-time and learning the trade on the job. Apprentice pipefitters work about 2,000 hours a year under the supervision of experienced fitters.

Yoga has a different spin on things.  Teacher training consists of some coursework in yoga history and philosophy, basic anatomy and physiology, and instructional techniques. Hands-on experience is gotten by observing teachers and helping teach classes. Students usually become certified in CPR since fitness centers often require the skill of their instructors.

Most teachers graduate with a 200-hour certificate. They may not be Maxwell “Agent 86” Smart, but they’ve missed it by that much, if not more. You’ve got to be quick on the uptake to miss becoming Maxwell.

Then it’s off to work we go. After the graduation ceremony, out in the workaday world, trying to make a living, networking with other teachers, getting a gig, distinguishing yourself, making yourself into a teacher your students like and respect and look to for guidance.

It is all well and good, but in many yoga studios there is always the new 200-hour Yoga Alliance-certified teacher who barely knows what they are doing. They are not simpletons, exactly, because they have invariably been into yoga for a while, taking classes, reading about the practice, and going to seminars. But when it comes to their body of skill and knowledge, it is bare bones, a skeleton not fleshed out with either learning or experience.

That’s a problem.

Some yoga moves, taught to beginners by beginners, are problematic if done wrong.  William Broad, the science writer for the New York Times who wrote a book called “The Science of Yoga,” gathered evidence that some asanas can be risky business.

“This is not anecdotal, and they are not freak accidents,” he said. “Postures like the shoulder stand, in which you lie on your back and raise your legs into the air, and the plough, in which you lie on your back and put your feet over your head on the floor behind you, that are widely performed, can crank the neck around in a risky way.’”

Postures that reduce blood flow to the basilar artery can cause strokes in some people and can be dangerous. “If the clots that form go to the brain, you can have a stroke,” said William Broad. “And one in twenty people who have these vertebral artery problems can die.”

In 1972 Oxford University neurologist Professor Ritchie Russell wrote in the British Medical Journal that some yoga postures could cause strokes in young healthy people. The New England Journal of Medicine published an article in 2001 citing yoga as something that had the potential to provoke arterial damage.

What are the chances that a yoga teacher who has graduated with only five full-time weeks of training, with a 200-hour certificate, is going to be fully aware of the hazards of shoulder stand and upward bow and all the other upside poses? There is an outside chance, but who wants to bet the bank on an outside chance? Yoga teachers should be able to get to the bottom of everything they do, not be taken by surprise.

The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine published a study in 2016 that revealed there were close to 30,000 yoga-related injuries that required emergency room visits from 2001 to 2014 in the United States. The rate of “I need to go to a hospital!” injuries per 100,000 people who practice yoga grew from 9% to 17%. There is no telling how many people got hurt and simply nursed themselves back to health at home.

“I see quite a bit of yoga-related injuries,” said Robert Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Virginia Health System. “Mostly it’s overuse injuries like tendinitis and sprains.” He noted it was unusual for anyone to suffer a traumatic injury.

“You have to be smart about it, though” he said. “If a pose bothers you, don’t do it.”

There is a condition doctors call “yoga foot drop.” It results from staying in kneeling postures too long, which keeps oxygen from reaching a branch of the sciatic nerve that runs from the lower spine through the butt and legs. The nerve becomes temporarily deadened, causing considerable discomfort.

Yoga foot drop is rarely, if ever, mentioned in 200-hour trainings.

Experienced yoga teachers will tell you it is more important how a pose feels than how it looks. Inexperienced teachers often cookie cutter the class, trying to get everybody to look the same. Bikram Yoga classes were notorious for that approach. How you look in downward dog is far less important than how you feel. It is good if you are getting a stretch in your hamstrings. It is bad if you are getting a pain in your shoulders. It is good if your teacher can correct you at a glance. It is bad if the teacher has to think and think about it, trying to think what the CliffsNotes said.

It is terrific when teachers have the eyes of a hawk, spotting problems wherever and whenever they happen. 200-hour teachers are babes in the woods, however. That is bad if they are your teacher. Babes in the woods tend to bubble. If there was a hawk in the class, the hawk would hunt them down. That would be bad, but good at the same time.

Yoga isn’t meant to be competitive. It shouldn’t be, but it is an ambitious aggressive world we live in, since we are all competitive. Nobody wants to just be mediocre. “People push themselves too far,” said Mollie McClelland, a yoga teacher at the Alchemy Centre in London, England. “There are such huge egos in yoga that everyone wants to prove a point.”

Experienced teachers will slow it down. Inexperienced teachers are slow on the uptake and will encourage it under the assumption that trying hard is a good thing. It isn’t always, but it’s always hard to tell anybody that. The practice shouldn’t have a killer instinct, especially if you want to stay injury-free.

“It’s a myth that it’s safe to do an asana without awareness and consciousness,” says Glenn Black, a yoga teacher with forty years under his belt. He has gone so far as to say that the “vast majority of people” should give up yoga since they are getting it all wrong.

The problem with many of the 200-hour, and even 500-hour, Yoga Alliance-certified yoga teachers out in the world on their first jobs is that they are like the kid in school who didn’t read the book but has to give a book report.

They want to hit a home run, but they are second-string. When it comes to playing hardball, they’re more likely to strike out, and when they do, everybody strikes out with them. Tenderfoot classes are loads of fun and enthusiasm, playlists booming, but they come up short.

Why do pipefitters train like it is life and death but yoga teachers train like it’s a game of schoolyard ball? Why don’t yoga teachers take the same pride of professionalism in what they do as do plumbers, welders, and pipefitters? They train for years. Yoga teachers train for weeks.

Pipefitters lay weld and cement pipes, joining them together. They install automatic controls for whatever is flowing through those pipes. Yoga teachers join body mind and spirit together. They would be better served if they were better equipped to do so, so the blood of the body flowed better, enlivening the mind and spirit.

Many teachers are well equipped to do their work, but it’s only because they have gained experience in the school of hard knocks, not at a trade school or formal apprenticeship. It’s hard to say what the attitude is in Ecuador, Russia, or India, but in the United States yoga teachers get a pass because making a buck at yoga is so ridiculously easy. Five weeks in and you’re good to go. In the land of the fast buck why bother going to the trouble of cracking the books when you can rake it in with a scratch pad of jargon?

Even fitness instructors, who many yoga teachers resemble, usually have a college degree in the field before they hang out their shingles.

The men and women running industries that need pipefitters aren’t amateurs at what they do and won’t stand for amateurs working for them. An unprepared fitter isn’t going to get anywhere, so they have to be well-prepared. An amateur teacher with a bouncy personality a good voice fit good-looking perky balanced and believable can get bosom buddy with their ambition without getting too deep-sea with yoga, at all.

Most people who go to studio classes are amateurs and don’t know the difference between a chakra and a chocolate bar. They deserve a pro, but too often get a greenhorn at the front of the class. Until the standards are upgraded, and yoga teachers are required to get more training, that is what they will keep getting.

Yoga classes aren’t nursery schools. When nursery rhyme-style teachers run the classes, it does a disservice to the practice. Short cuts are taking without thinking. Yoga is a thinking man’s game. It’s the get smart game. The well-spent hard-beaten path is always the easiest in the long run.

Yoga is a long path, not a buttercup. There is no racing to the finish line. It’s more like a big bolt torque, getting it snug, slow and steady, not the latest hip hop playlist gambol. It’s like mountain men tracking dinner, not snacks. There isn’t any nutrition in Ho Hos. The good better best yoga teachers are master craftsmen who have made themselves what they are. Theirs is the shingle on the door to look for, not the certificate from the College of CliffsNotes.

Photograph: Kaylin Oligino, a junior in the plumbing program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, practices on an oil burner.

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