Flim Flam Man

unnamed.jpg

By Ed Staskus

There are 26 poses in the yoga practice as developed by the Lord of the Flies. There are 26 problems with the practice, notwithstanding Bikram Choudhury still looking super in a Speedo in his 60s.

1) Bikram Teacher Training Guide: “Do not wear green.”

According to Bikram Choudhury green is an unlucky color and is banned from all his studios. “Please try to avoid the color green. Don’t ask, just try.”

Problem: Green signifies rebirth and growth. The “Green Man” of pre-Christianity was a symbol of fertility. Among Muslims it is a holy color. In Ireland it is a lucky color. However, circus and traveling showmen in Australia do consider green to be bad luck.

2) “How many Rolls-Royce do I own? I don’t know. 35?” said Bikram Choudhury.

Bikram Choudhury owns many Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, and Howard Hughes’s Royal Daimler, as well, with a toilet in the back.

Problem: Non-indulgence and non-acquisitiveness, or Aparigraha.

3) Bikram Yoga classes are taught in Hot Rooms heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index greater than 120.

Problem: The risk factor of moderate activity in a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to be “very high to extreme.”

A common reaction to one’s first Bikram Yoga class is, “Man, this might be a mistake, I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

4) “I am a product of Beverly Hills,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: Bikram Choudhury is a product of Beverly Hills.

5) Bikram Choudhury often refers to his studios as “torture chambers.”

Problem: Torture is inflicting severe pain on someone as punishment or to force someone to do or say something. That has nothing to do with yoga. Neither does chewing glass, lying on nails, nor being buried alive, performances often given by 19th century yogi fakirs.

However, this does not obviate the torture many have felt in a Bikram Yoga class.

6) “They are all a bunch of clowns,” Bikram Choudhury told Yoga Journal, referring to other forms of yoga exercise, such as Kundalini and Ashtanga. “Nobody knows what the hell they are doing.” He claims to teach the only true and pure hatha yoga.

Everything else is “shit,” he explained on another occasion.

Problem: Honesty and truthfulness, or Satya, as well as non-harming in deed and word, or Ahimsa.

7) In a sworn legal deposition Bikram Choudhury claimed that Harvard University was constructing a “Bikram building in their campus.”

Problem: “We checked with our capital-projects group and can confirm no new building in the usual sense of the term is under construction funded by Mr. Choudhury or by a donation in his name,” said Kevin Galvin, spokesperson for Harvard University.

8) Bikram Choudhury professes that Eagle Pose is rejuvenating. “It is good for sex. Cootchi, cootchi. You can make love for hours and have seven orgasms when you are ninety.”

Problem: According to the Journal of Sexual Medicine yoga can improve some aspects of sexual function. Wide-angle seated forward bend and other hip-openers are cited; the Eagle Pose is not mentioned.

9) “I’m not dressed like a guru, am I? I dress like a gangster!” said Bikram Choudhury.

When he is wearing clothes Mr. Choudhury flashes in shiny white suits, diamond-studded wristwatches, crocodile shoes, gangster fedoras, and designer accessories.

Problem: Restraint, or Brachmacharya.

10) Bikram Choudhury has claimed that he and his yoga regimen are able to cure cancer and multiple sclerosis, among other serious medical conditions.

Problem: There are treatments for cancer and multiple sclerosis. There are no cures, yogic or otherwise.

11) For more than 10 years of contentious lawsuits Bikram Choudhury claimed copyright protection for his 26 yoga poses.

Problem: Bikram Yoga’s claims were overruled in 2012. The U. S Copyright Office said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.

Bikram Yoga is protected by trademark, not copyright.

Yogis worldwide were relieved to learn they could again touch their toes without fear of subpoena.

12) “I’m in show biz,” said Bikram Choudhury. “I entertain people.”

Problem: When did yoga become a Lady Gaga song and dance?

13) “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga, explaining that heat softens muscle tissue. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.”

Problem: About 5 minutes of cardiovascular work is sufficient to warm up muscles, according to Ben Ballinger of Athletic Performance. “The claim that Bikram Yoga allows for deeper stretching due to the heat is untrue.” Overstretching can even compromise joints and ligaments, causing instability and hypermobility.

14) “Did you pay to come here and listen to me?” said Bikram Choudhury “Wow! I am lucky. I go shopping tomorrow!”

Problem: Paying good money to listen to Bikram Choudhury so he can buy more Rolls-Royces.

15) Bikram Yoga offers up many testimonials of metabolisms made new and excess pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the mantra.

Problem: According to the Health Status Calorie Counter power yoga burns 594 calories an hour. Bikram Yoga burns 477 calories an hour. Ballroom dancing burns about 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns about 1000 calories.

“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”

16) Bikram Choudhury’s home in Beverly Hills is an 8,000-square-foot mansion seemingly built entirely of marble, gold, and mirrors.

Problem: Non-indulgence and non-acquisitiveness, or Aparigraha

17) Bikram Yoga argues that exercising in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart.

Problem: “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” said Fabio Comana, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperatures can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”

18) “An Iyengar class looks like a Santa Monica sex shop with all those props,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: What was Bikram Choudhury doing in a Santa Monica sex shop sizing up the props?

19) Bikram Yoga proclaims itself the detox practice extraordinaire because it induces profuse sweating. “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification may be the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”

Problem: “That’s silliness,” said Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Medical Center at Dallas. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.”

The liver and kidneys filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.

20) “I should be the most honored man in your country,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: Ahead of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., William Sloane Coffin, and Edward Snowden, among many others, both men and women?

21) The heat and humidity of Bikram Yoga are often explained as replicating the heat and humidity of India, where Bikram Choudhury learned yoga.

Problem: In India yoga was and is traditionally practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.

22) Bikram Yoga says its practitioners derive aerobic benefits from the practice. “You can derive these benefits [i.e. aerobic] from practicing Bikram Yoga.”

Problem: In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research one group of young adults practiced Bikram Yoga three times a week for eight weeks while another group did nothing. By the end of the study researchers found no differences in either group in terms of maximal aerobic fitness or cardiovascular measures.

23) Bikram Yoga studios are required to outfit their Hot Rooms with carpet flooring.

“Don’t throw up on the carpet,” said Bikram Choudhury. “It’s new.”

Problem: Carpets are nearly impossible to clean thoroughly, much less sanitize. Allergens are particularly adept at hiding among carpet fibers. Sweat-soaked carpets are breeding grounds for bacteria, fungus, and pathogens.

Vomit may be the least of anybody’s concerns in a Bikram Hot Room.

24) “Oxygen deprivation is a major cause of sciatica,” says Bikram Yoga, encouraging the use of breath to “break through the fear of pain.”

Problem: The causes of sciatica are varied, including degenerative disc disease, isthmic spondylolisthesis, lumbar spinal stenosis, piriformis syndrome, and sacroiliac joint dysfunction.

Oxygen deprivation is not one of the causes of sciatica, although it can be a cause of death.

25) “Because I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: All eight limbs, or aspects, of yoga from the Yamas & Niyamas to Samadhi.

The yoga master confessed he only has two bomb balls, which is fortunate for everyone, not just the girls. The world’s nuclear arsenal is big enough.

26) “The whole Bikram class is one big brainwashing session,” said Bikram Choudhury.

Problem: No problem, as long as you believe applying systematic and forcible indoctrination is the best way to advance yoga.

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.”

Mammon Goes Mantra

screen-shot-2015-10-08-at-6-49-38-pm.png

By Ed Staskus

Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor met in India, studied Ashtanga Yoga with Sri. Pattahi Jois, married and moved to Miami, and co-founded the Miami Life Center in 2008. Tim Feldman is an accomplished teacher much in demand for workshops in Asia and Europe, while Kino MacGregor is the author of books and producer of videos about the practice,

When they were asked by one of their yoga studio employees, who doubled as front desk man and janitor, if they would be interested in his take on their financial performance, it is to their credit “Mind your own business” wasn’t the first thing they said.

“I was the guy who took out the garbage,” says Matt Tashjian. “But, it was perfectly fine with me. I never thought about it.”

What he did think about was the yoga center’s bottom line.

“There’s some down time during classes when you sit behind the front desk. I started poking around the computer, looking at their numbers, and one day I sent Tim an e-mail suggesting there were a couple of things they could do to improve their numbers.”

Over tea at a local coffee shop he shared his thoughts with them. “We never thought about that, that could be of great value to us,” they said, and for the next year they met monthly, talking business. As they did Tim and Kino began to suspect Matt was someone who knew exactly what he was talking about.

For good reason.

After graduating with a degree in economics from Arizona State University Matt Tashjian worked at and then led a wealth management group at Citi in Hartford, CT, and since 2009 has been the chief advisor, and founder, of the Tashjian Group of Merrill Lynch.

But, before leaving Hartford and moving to Miami in 2008 two things happened: he ran out of steam and had a falling out with a close family member.

“My moving was a result of what can happen in the banking world, which is you get burned out,” he said.

“I was in my late 30s and very focused on professional success and money and got pulled into a cycle of achievement and striving.” As the liquidity crisis of 2007 became the global financial crisis of 2008 he withdrew from the economics world almost entirely. “I went from working 90% of the time to working 10% of the time.”

He found relief by doing more yoga, which he had been introduced to some years earlier, and sought advice at a Buddha Sangha.

“I was looking for a way out of the suffering. It opened my eyes,” he said.

“I reconciled with my sister and realized my life was more important than just work, and I needed to meet those needs. It so happened Miami could fill some of them and that was the impetus for me to start a different life.”

While shopping at lululemon for yoga shorts a sales clerk recommended Miami Life Center to him.

“I started taking classes and eventually asked if I could work there, behind the desk and mopping the floors. I went from being one of the top 500 financial advisors in the country to making sure the bathrooms had toilet paper.”

His personal practice started one day in the mid-1990s when he took a yoga class at a local gym instead of lifting weights.

“I didn’t have any predisposition to yoga or spirituality,” he said. “What piqued my interest was our instructor talking about the breath, patience, and being in the body. I got into it a little bit, started studying yoga, and then Buddhism.”

Sometimes one will go to a yoga class and get the exercise they need to get through the day. Other times they will start thinking about connecting to a higher energy.

“I would say my gym’s yoga class led to a transmutation of how I think about the world. Before yoga I experienced the world through the external, but now I experience it through the internal self. The primary takeaway to my practice is that ultimately all yoga leads to being more compassionate and empathetic to everything around us, and more sensitive to how we’re all connected.”

Compassion and empathy are not common benchmarks of stockbrokers and financial planners. Ambition and desire are the normative ideals, rather, as well as a dollop of greed.

In the modern world making money justifies any behavior. The incentives against financial crime are nominally zero. Almost no one, literally, has been arrested for the banking and market meltdown of the past seven years.

“Is it any wonder that we as a nation seem to be in search of spirit?” asked Kino MacGregor. “What else is left for America to invent than an authentic self in the midst of such rampant materialism?”

If yoga is mixed into the cauldron of capitalism the brew can begin to smell sweeter.

“When you’re deeply ingrained in the yogic path you relate to people differently. What I attempt to do with my clients is infuse the virtues of a balanced life,” said Matt Tashjian. “What’s the sense of having all the money in the world if you’re miserable?”

Sometimes a transformation of motivation can lead to healing and redemption.

“I now try to take a more holistic view with respect to how I interact and counsel clients.”

When Tim Feldmann and Kino MacGregor restructured their yoga center in 2013 they invited Matt Tashjian to join them as a partner.

“There are distinct pros and cons to running a yoga studio,” he said. “The pros are you are surrounded by thoughtful people who care not only about themselves, but other people, too.

“But, like any small business, there are many moving parts every day. Who’s going to change the air conditioning filter or update the holiday schedule on the web site? It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” he laughed.

The Miami Life Center business model is to employ integrated tools, assimilating reiki, arurveda, as well as life coaching, reflecting Kino MacGregor’s approach to supporting people’s paths holistically. “There is a magic there that can’t be expressed in words,” said Claudia Borges about practicing at the studio.

At the heart of the practice is Ashtanga Yoga.

“Ashtanga is definitely very physical in nature,” said Matt Tashjian, “but it really speaks to more of a spiritual practice. Ashtanga studios like ours, by their nature, put their emphasis not only on asana, but on the other limbs of yoga, too.”

But, at most yoga studios it is exercise, not introversion or meditation, that is the de facto breadwinner.

“We’ve Americanized yoga, made it into an exercise,” said Matt Tashjian. “Asana is certainly a component of it, but asana is really to keep the body healthy so we can comfortably sit in a meditative state.”

Sitting and meditating don’t pay the bills, however.

“Studios that are more spiritually oriented face economic dilemmas that exercise-centric studios do not.”

To further their aims he has incorporated economic compromises into Miami Life Center’s mission statement.

“We’re committed to the Ashtanga lineage and we’re committed to the idea of bringing forth something that is more than just vinyasa,” said Matt Tashjian.

“It may not be for everyone, and it’s conceivable that we will make less money, but we want to be the kind of business in the business world that not only does good economically, but more importantly does good, all rolled into one.”

It is the financial advisor in Matt Tashjian that makes him understand it is spiritual snobbery to believe we can be happy without money. It is the yogi in him that reminds him to make sure there is money in his wallet, not in his heart.

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

From Stumbling Stones to Stepping Stones

2014-11-13-charlotteandi1-thumb.jpg

By Ed Staskus

When Krishna Venkatesh, a musician who wrote the score for the yoga documentary movie ‘Enlighten Up’, suffered a serious back injury in 2008, he began a yoga practice, searching for relief. He explored Iyengar and Ashtanga practices, and eventually found the Stone Center for Yoga and Health in Teaneck, New Jersey, outside New York City. He immersed himself in the study of Stone Yoga, an adaptive, therapeutic approach accredited by the Yoga Alliance, in time resolving his back pain.

He returned to the music world, recently producing a groove re-mix chant CD with David “Durga Das” Newman, but in the meantime began teacher training at Stone Yoga. After completing his studies, the newly registered yoga teacher began working, with a focus on precise, but case-sensitive alignment.

That the eponymous Charlotte Stone of Stone Center teaches yoga, much less trains teachers, would have been difficult, if not impossible, to predict in 1973, when she began her yoga journey as a student at the University of Zurich

“I was born in Philadelphia, but my father was Swiss. We moved to Switzerland when I was ten-years-old.

“I was studying medieval literature and English, working part-time for an advertising agency, and doing competitive sports. I was stressed out. One of my friends said, ‘You’ve got to do yoga, because you’re driving all of us crazy.’ He gave me a book called ‘Yoga 28 Day Exercise Plan’. After 28 days I could just about touch my knees.”

A weight lifter and swimmer, she was undeterred.

“I’ll be damned if I fail at yoga,” she recalls thinking.

Going into action was her method for dealing with failure. She found Sivananda Yoga
teachers near the university in Zurich and began attending classes.

Sivananda Yoga is a traditional system concentrating not only on exercise, but breathing, relaxation, meditation, and diet, as well. “They kept saying, close your eyes, focus on your breath, and I kept saying, when are we going to get to the good stuff, moving, sun salutations. I always skipped savasana because I thought it was a total waste of my 10 minutes.

“I didn’t understand the benefits of it. But, I stuck with it.”

Nothing takes the place of persistence. After a year she was able to touch her toes. She continued her efforts and eventually entered into an informal apprenticeship.

“They slowly but surely allowed me to ease my way into learning more.”

But, they warned her against ever teaching yoga to others.

“You must never teach yoga,” one of her teachers told her. “You are too competitive. You’re going to kill all your students. Never teach yoga, no, no, no.”

But, within a year, with their blessing, she was teaching an occasional Sunday morning class.

“I really fell in love with it,” she says.

She studied with physical therapists, medical students, and delved into Iyengar Yoga. “If I was going to tell people how to stand, how to move, I wanted to know more about physical alignment.”

After returning to the United States in 1977, enrolling at the City University of New York to pursue her master’s degree, and meeting her future husband, she taught power-style vinyasa yoga part-time at gyms.

She also taught at a small ballet school near Lincoln Center.

“The school was run by a Russian lady and one day she looked in on what the girls and I were doing. It did not go well,” Charlotte Stone remembers.

“What are you doing, teaching girls to relax? They are ballet dancers, must never relax! What is belly breathing? No belly breathing in ballet! They must suck belly in!”

“I regarded that as my exit cue,” she says.

In the next ten years she married, had two children, and worked in advertising, concentrating on focus groups, and later becoming a moderator and analyst. “We worked on issues like what shade of red should the next Maxwell House label be, which was apparently a vitally important question at the time. But, I do have to say I loved my work. I learned how to really listen and pay attention.”

She continued to regularly practice yoga, her own Ashtanga-based practice deepening, and continued to teach part-time.

Then, in the late 1980s she was involved in a serious car accident, which curtailed her professional career. “A truck and I had a close encounter on the George Washington Bridge and the truck won. “

After recovering from her immediate injuries she was in physical therapy for the next eight months. “It sidelined my ability to travel. I also developed repetitive strain syndrome in my hands from writing so much. I was only able to consult now-and-then.”

She fell back on her yoga practice, which brought out a side of healing that even her physical therapy couldn’t. She took gentle yoga classes at Kripalu. “It helped open my eyes to people like me, who had injuries.”

She began to share her newly adaptive style of yoga with others.

“I found, if I can’t write full-time, yoga is the only other thing I know how to do, so I did that. Whenever I brought it up, it always fascinated everyone. They would ask, what do you like about it, what can it do for me?

“The yoga began to take off, and I finally decided to put my money where my mouth was and get formally trained.” She enrolled with Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, a Vermont-based training program that combines old-school yogic wisdom with contemporary dialogue techniques with the aim of guiding practitioners to their edge of deep physical sensation, inviting insights about their lives off the mat.

“It was an eye-opener,” she says.

In 1991 she opened a small studio in Teaneck. “All my friends said they were tired of moving furniture around in our family room for classes. I thought I’m going to give it a shot.” Within five years she had trained as a Structural Yoga teacher, then as a Structural Yoga therapist, and moved the studio to larger quarters. She increasingly worked with people suffering chronic pain and illness.

“It’s based on anatomy and physiology, with a grounding in Ayurveda, and goes far beyond saying do yoga three times a week and call me in the morning,” says Charlotte Stone. “It’s being present for the person and inviting a change to occur.

“I feel what changed for me happened when I was seriously injured. I realized this body is very precious, that no breath should be taken for granted. It was a huge, huge change in my thinking about yoga.” While recovering she wondered how she would teach. Her anatomy instructor told her, “Now you’re going to become a really good teacher.”

The art of teaching is the art of awakening the mind and spirit, both student and teacher.

“I used to think yoga was a great sport. Over time I came to understand it is much more. In the Yoga Sutras it says yoga should be ‘steady and comfortable’. If you look at some of our yoga today, it doesn’t look steady, and it certainly doesn’t look comfortable. It almost makes me want to send letters of apology to my early students,” she says.

A member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, Charlotte Stone blends her experience of Structural Yoga with the adaptive approach of Viniyoga, the principles of Ayurvedic balance, and the organic movements of Feldenkrais, which is a method of communicating with the unconscious through movement.

“Our motto is your yoga your way,” she said, explaining her multi-discipline approach. “It’s not about what you can’t do. It’s about what you can do. The practice needs to meet you where you are.”

Stone Yoga’s emphasis is on alleviating pain, reducing stress, and enhancing well-being at every level.

“Every day I’ve been granted after my accident, I think, there’s a reason I’m here. It began with me, peeling away all the illusions of who I was. It ended by working with others, who, like me, had to re-build themselves.”

Out of past beginnings had come a new beginning.

Postscript:

In 2014 Charlotte Stone began a new project, expanding Stone Yoga, recently voted #1 in her community for the second year in a row. “It’s exciting,” she said about adding another practice room. When asked what priorities she was assigning the new space, she replied, “The space will teach us what it’s there for.”

A version of this story appeared in Rebelle Society.

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

Ask the Yogi

slide151.jpg

By Ed Staskus

I was busy on our front porch one rainy afternoon, sticking my thumb into our cat’s mouth and springing his fangs with my fingernail, something he never tires of, when my wife interrupted us.

“I’ve asked you to not do that,” she said impatiently. “You’re going to break his teeth and then we’ll have a toothless cat.”

“He likes it,” I said. “Besides, I think it strengthens his teeth.”

“Oh, never mind.” she said. “Look what came in the mail. It’s the yoga magazine and your friend Barron’s in it.”

She has called him my friend instead of our friend ever since he dug up his mother’s flower garden and replaced it with a root vegetable garden.

“Barron? What did he ever do to become newsworthy besides spend half the day on his mat exercising and meditating?”

“He hasn’t done anything, but he’s writing an advice column for them.”

I was so surprised I jumped out of my seat and the cat scattered pell-mell. I had been sending stories to the magazine for more than three years and been ignored, never even receiving a rejection letter.

“An advice column? What does Barron know about advice?”

“Honey, Barron is the kind of man who, when he asks if you want a piece of advice, it doesn’t matter what you say, because you’re going to get it anyway.”

I snatched the magazine from her hands. It was folded to the full-page column, and staring me in the face was a picture of Barron Cannon, standing on one leg in the middle of his parent’s backyard, where he lives in a yurt.

I fell back into my chair and began reading ‘Ask the Yogi.’

Dear Yogi Barron:

I enlisted in the army last month to defend our country and fight terrorists. I expected basic training to be hard, but I was ready for the challenge. Now I find out that yoga is going to be part of our fitness training. Our drill sergeant says it will keep us flexible instead of bulked up and meditation will keep us calm when things get nerve wracking. How can that be? Yoga is for chicks, isn’t it? I need to know the right way to hold my rifle, not the right way to touch my toes, and I need to shoot when I see the whites of their eyes, not get in touch with my third eye.

Signed, Dismayed in Fort Hood

Dear Dismayed:

Not to worry.

After Osama bin Laden was killed and thrown into the ocean, Gaiam Life, the leading yoga accessory manufacturer, issued a “special edition” yoga mat thanking Seal Team 6 for taking care of business. There are lots of yogis going heavy. Even the Dalai Lama says that if someone is going to shoot you, shoot back first. Many people are skeptical about the power of yoga, but not the Navy Seals. When interviewed they often mention how closely yoga training resembles their own. Some Seals have even set up fitness schools, blending yoga exercise with combat techniques. Since you’re just a grunt in boot camp, you’re not going to argue with the Seals about the power of yoga, are you, grasshopper?

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

It sounded just like Barron Cannon; in other words, snippy and deific. It didn’t sound like a mass-market magazine that knows how to trim its sails.

And, what did he mean by ‘Your Dutch Uncle’?

I had to get to the bottom of how Barron Cannon, who lives off the grid, had gotten his scribbling onto the pages of a magazine with millions of subscribers as well as more advertising pages than pages of anything else.

I couldn’t understand how anyone like him, who, if he had stooped to be on Facebook would never get a like in his life, could possibly have gotten a corporation to pay him for his opinions. To say he was not only curmudgeonly and out of the touch with the yoga generation was understating the obvious.

It had stopped raining, so I rolled up the magazine, stuck it into my back pocket, and took a walk the two-or-so miles up Riverside Drive to Barron’s yurt on the heights of Hogsback Lane overlooking the Rocky River.

Barron and I were soon sitting on the edge of his parent’s backyard, on a pair of plastic Adirondack chairs he had scavenged somewhere, while he unrolled the magazine and admired his handiwork.

Dear Yogi Barron:

I have been married for 12 years and have three children. I love yoga, but my husband has never had any interest in it, so I have always gone to the studio without him. He enjoys sleeping, eating, and watching sports on TV. In the past year I have fallen for a man with two boys who also passionately practices yoga at my studio. He is very fond of me, too. His wife is ignorant and irresponsible. I think he would be a wonderful husband and a great father for my children. Should I take the plunge, leave my husband, and start a new life?

Signed, Troubled in Minneapolis

Dear Troubled:

Have you lost your mind?

First of all, do you realize there are five children involved in your so-called yoga romance? How do you think they are going to feel when not one but two families are broken up? Second, what does yoga have to do with cheating on your husband, besides breaking most of the principles by which it is practiced? There is more to yoga than standing on your head, which you seem to be doing quite well. There is no reason to be unhappy in love, certainly, but dump the yogi lothario and try helping your husband off the La-Z-Boy. Maybe there is a reason he is such a slug. Living to eat and watching sports 24/7 is living the zombie life. Get him off his butt, on his feet, and off to the studio with you. It might be the way to bring him back to life, and your marriage, too. When you help him you help yourself, as well; it might also bring you back to your senses.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

After Barron’s long-suffering mother had brought us coffee and scones, I came right to the point.

“How on earth did your words of wisdom make it into print?” I asked, incredulous.

“A word to the wise isn’t what I’m doing, since it’s usually people on the stupid side that need me the most,” he said.

“I would have thought offering advice about the day-to-day was beneath you.”

Barron Cannon has a PhD in philosophy. He lived off the grid because no sooner had he won his diploma than he realized politics had replaced philosophy in the modern world.

“It’s not really advice,” he said. “Advice is free, but since it’s in a magazine that people have to pay for, it’s more like counseling.”

“You don’t sound like the friendliest counselor in the world,” I pointed out.

“I’m not trying to be their friend, because no friendship could stand the strain of good advice for too long,” he said.

“Which is it, council or advice?”

“It’s both,” he said. “But don’t worry, I never give them my best council, or advice, or whatever you want to call it, because they wouldn’t follow it, anyway.”

Dear Yogi Barron:

I practice at a large yoga studio and often hear our various yoga teachers say things like “Live in the now” and “It’s all good, it’s all yoga”. But, what about learning from the past and planning for the future? And, it can’t all be good, can it? Some things have to be right and wrong. Don’t they?

Signed, Baffled in Boston

Dear Baffled:

It is obvious you don’t understand yoga, which is our most beloved Eastern philosophy because it is so accepting of SUV’s and Ayn Rand. It is also obvious you have not read the Bhagavad-Gita, one of yoga’s most important guidebooks.

In the book, which is a long poem from a long time ago, a warrior named Arjuna doesn’t want to go into battle, telling his chariot driver, who happens to be the god Krishna, that he doesn’t see the sense of it. He decries all the slaughter leading to nothing but disaster and ruin. Krishna has his own agenda, which is revealed later in the story, so I won’t ruin the surprise. Needless to say, he musters many top-down arguments to convince Arjuna he must go to war, among them the “be here now” argument and the “there is no evil” argument. It turns out it really is all in as Arjuna goes to war, after all.

The newest translation by Stephen Mitchell is the best and most accessible and I recommend you get and read it as soon as possible. All will be revealed.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

“If you’re sensible enough to give good advice you should be sensible enough to give no advice,” I said. “ So, what is it you’re trying to accomplish?”

“I say a good scare is better than good advice, so maybe I’m trying to throw a little scare into them,” he said.

“But, it benefits me, too. Living in mom’s backyard suits me, such as it is, but I’ve been thinking of a girlfriend, which means I need some ready cash. I’m getting paid for telling people the best thing they could do when falling is not land, and that’s a gift horse I’m willing to look in the mouth.”

When I heard the words girlfriend and money come out of Barron Cannon’s mouth I almost fell out of my chair for the second time that day.

Barron had been living a no expenses life since graduation. He had sold or given away almost everything he owned he didn’t consider essential. He lived off his root vegetable plot, some fruit trees, and a solar array. He practiced yoga and meditation, read only e-books on the Lakewood Library site, and went for long hikes in the Metro Park.

“Don’t look so shocked,” he said.

“Having a girlfriend doesn’t necessarily invalidate my criticism of the capitalist mode of production. I just need a few dollars to take her out to lunch.”

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know, yet. She brings a group of schoolchildren to the Nature Center every Friday.”

Dear Yogi Barron:

After I moved across town and changed yoga studios I noticed that more and more of my friends from my old studio fell to the wayside. I had two long-time friends who disappeared from my radar screen completely. My question is, do I just let these good friends slip away? Or do I try to save our friendships?

Signed, Confused in San Francisco

Dear Confused:

I don’t blame you for being confused. It is one of life’s most common problems, when all of a sudden you are not so close to friends anymore. Friendships enhance the quality of our lives. What to do? Give those old friends a call. Invite them over for dinner or go out on the town. Catch up with what they have been doing. When you visit with your friends you do something good for them and yourself.

Here is what the Buddha said about friends: “He gives what is hard to give. He does what is hard to do. He endures what is hard to endure. He reveals his secrets to you. He keeps your secrets. When misfortunes strike, he doesn’t abandon you. When you are down and out he doesn’t look down on you. A friend endowed with these seven qualities is worth associating with.”

I wish you the best of luck reconnecting with your friends. If it doesn’t work out, remember you can always make new friends at your new studio. The Buddha’s not around anymore, anyway. That’s what former friends are for in our modern age, aren’t they, fodder? It’s like seeing one of them in a crowd; you just want to look away.

I’ve heard it said, if you really want a best friend, buy a dog.

Signed, Your Dutch Uncle

“How is your column going?” I asked. “Is it doing some good?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but I’m dealing with people for who the worst advice you could give them is be yourself.”

He leaned back in his chair, studying the sky.

“Good advice is always going to be ignored, but I just ignore that, so it doesn’t bother me. After all, I’m getting paid so there’s no reason to not pontificate. I try to stay aloof to whether or not anyone pays any attention to it, and I don’t persist in trying to set anyone right. After all, like Sophocles said, bad advice is hateful.”

Barron could never resist being pedantic.

“What is that business of signing yourself as someone’s Dutch uncle?”

“Firm, but benevolent, my boy, firm but benevolent,” he chuckled.

On my way home I reflected on the irony of my many hours researching articles that never got accepted, while Barron Cannon, an Occupy Marxist, simply spouted off, got into print, and got paid, as well. Once at home I searched out my wife, who was doing yesterday’s dishes, and asked her how I should resolve what I saw as an unfair state of things.

“Honey, if you’re asking for my advice that means you probably already know the answer, but wish you didn’t. Why don’t you go play with the cat? I’m sure it’ll come to you,” she said.

“Just don’t do that thing to his teeth.”

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

.

Lighting Up the Lotus

17fcd609083b872b5bcaaf1a40b571ef

By Ed Staskus

It is a long way from missing your husband building boats in faraway Maine to mid-morning epiphanies in Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. It is even farther from the subarctic snow banks of Fairbanks to transforming an empty Lakewood, Ohio, storefront into a new yoga studio, but that is the path Marcia Camino took in creating Pink Lotus.

A Chicago native, the erstwhile on-the-road studio owner grew up in Texas, Indiana, New York, and finally Toledo, Ohio, where her steel-working family settled down. While attending Bowling Green University near her new hometown, she declared a major in English and the next year transferred to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts.

She told her parents she wanted to be a writer, a poet.

“But, honey,” she remembers her mother saying. “Poets don’t make any money.” They work at naming the unnameable. Even when they get it exactly right it’s not exactly a high paying profession.

After graduation she stayed in Alaska, writing, waiting tables, writing some more, and backpacking the state’s national parks.

“It was very beautiful up there,” she said.

But, despite the majestic geography and lofty scale she was far from home. She went back to the Lower 48.

Back in Bowling Green she worked in modern dance and theater, met her future husband in 1992, and four years later moved to Cleveland. Planning their wedding in 1999 Mrs. Camino surveyed herself in her dress in the mirror.

“Like every young lady I needed to fit into my dress,” she said. “I heard yoga was good for that, so I bought a mat and a video tape.”

She practiced every day for six weeks and on the morning of her wedding successfully squeezed into her dress. Afterwards she rolled up her mat and put it away in a back closet.

“I was happily married, writing, taking art classes, working full-time at Case Western University, everything was fine, no yoga,” Marcia said. “And then my husband went away to Kennebunkport to get certified in wooden boat building. He was gone for a year. I was left to my own means. Not a good idea.”

She resorted to dreaming about her husband, working long hours at work, enrolling in photography and film classes at night, ballet on weekends, shooting a 16 mm black-and-white movie in her spare time, and soon enough began to burn out.

“I was eating Pringles for breakfast and lunch,” she said. “I got really super thin and sick. I was a madwoman.”

One May morning in front of her TV in their apartment in historic Little Italy she dusted off her yoga mat, unrolling it and starting to practice again.

As she practiced what she still thought of as “all that yoga stuff’” in her living room she one day experienced a shift in perspective, physically and spiritually.

“I realized I had been living externally, trying to capture out there, and I was missing in here,” she said, pointing to the middle of herself,  “I missed my husband, and I missed my own soul. I just lost it. I remember lying on my mat in child’s pose. It was saturated, not with sweat, but with tears.”

Tears are messengers and sweat leads to change. Salt water can be the cure for everything. The first change Marcia made was to keep her mat in the open, out of the closet.

“Unburden yourself so much that you can pass from moment, to moment, to moment,” says Amrit Desai, who designed the style of yoga Marcia Camino was practicing, a style described as more than a physical discipline, but a process of consciousness liberation, as well.

One day on her mat led to every day on her mat, and eventually in 2004 to training at the Amrit Yoga Institute in Florida. She earned her 200-hour certification, going on to study with such nationally recognized master teachers as Paul Grilley, Rodney Yee, and Shakta Kaua Khalsa.

The practice of Amrit Yoga, Marcia Camino’s home base as a teacher and student, is sometimes referred to as the posture of awareness. It consists of several breathing exercises, twenty-six classic yoga postures, meditation between poses, and deep relaxation.

In 2005 she re-located to the west side of Cleveland, buying a house in suburban Lakewood with her husband Joe, who was back working on Lake Erie water craft, and began teaching yoga part-time at studios, colleges, and fitness centers.

After five years of free-lance Have Mat Will Travel, eventually earning Yoga Alliance EYRT status as a teacher, she began to scour Lakewood for a studio of her own.

“Deep down I was always spying for places, to create a space reflective of my personality, esthetics, and yoga philosophy,” said Marcia.

When she found the space she wanted she made the leap and gave up the security of her 9-to-5 job at the university and signed a lease in the West End neighborhood of Lakewood.

“Communicate to the world what you love most,” says Amrit Desai. “ Let go of your fear.”

“It’s a lovely part of town,” said Marcia. “There are churches on either side of the street, and we’re in a 1911 Tudor-style building. It’s only a mile-and-a-half from my house, rather than the thirty miles I used to have to drive.”

While many cities lack even one yoga studio, Lakewood sports two, with a third just across the bridge in Rocky River, as well as on-going classes at the YMCA and Harding Middle School. Marcia Camino’s new Pink Lotus was the fourth full-time studio in the area.

“Yoga has always been very hot on the coasts, since the 1960s,” she said. “It’s growing in the Midwest, and it makes sense in a community as diverse as Lakewood.”

Unlike studios that specialize in Vinyasa, a generally faster-paced workout, Pink Lotus tenders a wide range of the contemporary and traditional, including seldom-seen styles like Sivananda, which is what one of Pink Lotus’s students describes as yoga’s greatest hits.

“My studio offers styles geared towards fitness,” said Marcia. “But, we offer more, because faster-paced workouts are not available to everybody, like yoga that is breath-based, therapeutic, reflective, and, in the case of Chinese Yoga, something new to the Cleveland area.”

She cites a special love for Yin Yoga, created to benefit the body’s connective tissue and restore the range of movement lost to the conveniences and longer life of modern life.

Live on the floor, she laughs about Yin Yoga’s poses.

“We will be trying to bring to all we teach a sense of balance, happiness, and soul,” she said.

After months of planning, permits, and renovation, Pink Lotus opened in early December 2011. Like many another first-time business owner, Mrs. Camino had to overcome a series of obstacles, from raising necessary capital to finding the right plumber, babying her project day and night.

The solution to burning the midnight oil turned up right next-door at the European-style artisan bakery on the corner.

“Breadsmith is always in eyeshot,” she said. “I look out my windows and I’m thinking of hearth-baked crust when I should be thinking of my yoga.”

Man does not live by yoga alone. Bread is the staff of life. Sir Yeast a Lot to the rescue, because she must have bread!

Blending the personal and professional, Marcia Camino’s Pink Lotus is both a calling and a business, feeding the body, mind, and spirit. It’s bread and butter, simple, nutritious.

“I see many people who need yoga,” she said over a thick slice of Mediterranean Herb, sun-dried tomatoes and oil. “The practice saved my life. If it helped me, I think it can help anybody.”

Postscript:

After opening her yoga studio Marcia Camino commissioned a set of bike racks named Pink Yoga Dude and Yoga Dude Junior from local sculptor David Smith, one of her first students, who also says yoga practice “saved my life.”

Cyclists with yoga mats slung over their shoulders park at the racks in front of the studio. The public art form bike racks were installed as part of Lakewood’s Bike Master Plan. The city’s mayor and West End councilman attended the unveiling.

A version of this story appeared in the Lakewood Observer.

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

Topsy Turvy

lulu-8-30-chair-pose.jpg

By Ed Staskus

The biggest yoga event of 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio, went off at the tail end of the summer without a hitch. It was as though the gods were smiling down on it. The Friday evening was dry, without a thunderstorm in sight, the hot day tempering as the sun sank into Lake Erie so that when the festivities began the temperature had settled into the mid-70s. The humidity was kept at bay by the breeze off the lake.

“The yoga, the assists, the people, the music, the weather, the views. Cleveland rocks!” said Deanna Broaddus of Beachwood.

Several thousand people unrolled their mats on the Collection Auto Group Plaza of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum on the city’s re-developed North Coast Harbor. The mass class took place in front of the I. M. Pei-deigned dual-triangular-shaped glass tent that is the main entry facade to the museum and which extends onto the 65,000-square-foot plaza.

It is modeled after Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

‘Believe in Cleveland’ was sponsored by Inner Bliss, Cleveland’s largest yoga studio with locations in Rocky River and Westlake, the athletic apparel company Lululemon, and the Rock Hall.

“We are so thrilled to have you here,” said Greg Harris of Brecksville, CEO of the Rock Hall. “This is the first time, but it won’t be the last,” he added, to a roar from the crowd.

The keynote address was by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, who spoke on mindfulness, the subject of his recent book, ‘A Mindful Nation’.

Tammy Lyons of Bay Village, owner of Inner Bliss, led the yoga exercise class. “Lift up your neighbor, breath in, a little higher, go up,” she urged the throng.

After the 90-minute practice, set to music by Prince, Led Zeppelin, U2, Billy Idol, and the Rolling Stones, among others, there was dancing and food, including the novelty of a vegan food truck.

But, on a night filled with inspiring speeches, asana, music, laughter, dancing, and fun, food was not uppermost in most people’s minds.

“The yoga, the location, the weather, it was perfect in Cleveland,” said Heather Moore of Cleveland Heights.

It was easily not only the largest outdoor yoga event in Cleveland; it was the largest yoga event in Cleveland of any kind, attesting to the practice’s growing popularity in a changing city.

“We came. We saw. We believed,” said Jeffrey Jones of Willoughby. “This event gave me hope for the city I love.”

But, it was an event edgy with surprising alliances, some more surprising than others. It was a night when politicians, of all things, shone brighter and truer than professed yoga boosters like Lululemon and professed counter culture icons like rock-and-roll bands.

Congressional job approval stands at less than 20% according to most polls, including Fox News and the Gallup Poll. The 80% disapproval rating is the worst Gallup has measured in more than 30 years of tracking congressional approval. And this is more than a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”

It has long been observed that politics have little or no relation to morals. It is rarely a good idea to give a politician the keys to the city. Better to change the locks.

Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor and Secretary of State in the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, once noted that 90 percent of politicians give the other 10 percent a bad name.

Congressman Ryan is one of the 10 percent. He might be the only percent of politicians who believe meditation can result in well being on a nationwide basis, and who practice it themselves.

A five-term incumbent from a rust belt northeastern Ohio district, the congressman is a 6-foot-4-inch former football star, an unlikely candidate for the meditative world. He is a career politician whose re-elections are fueled by the jobs he brings to his district, from the Lordstown Chevy plant to the expansion of the Air Force Reserve Base, and the tens of millions of federal dollars in earmarks he routinely delivers. The Additive Manufacturing Center in downtown Youngstown, which he was instrumental in making happen, is poised to become the linchpin in a Pittsburgh-Youngstown-Cleveland technology belt.

But, as much as he caters to the meat-and-potato concerns of his district’s residents, as well as dealing with national issues like immigration, gun control, and balancing the budget, Congressman Ryan is breaking ground in Washington by proposing that America can be transformed by practicing simple forms of meditation to develop what he calls “mindfulness”.

In his book ‘A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit’, Congressman Ryan asserts that meditation, or mindfulness, is a simple tonic for the national angst.

“Mindfulness will be a response to the wars, struggling to make ends meet, the general anxiety out there. This can be transformational. It should be mainstream. We need this.”

‘A Mindful Nation’ was the result of a retreat he attended after the 2008 elections, conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and a leading mindfulness advocate.

“When you taste this stuff, it has profound effects,” said Mr. Kabat-Zinn. “That’s why it has lasted 2,600-plus years. It’s not just some silly quaint thing they used to do in Asia because they had nothing better to do. It’s a way to stay healthy.”

While writing his book Congressman Ryan met with Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation on the brain.

“Tim was interested in the potential of this, the impact this research might have to shape policy, bringing these kinds of methods into education, health care, leadership,” said Mr. Davidson, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

“There’s a huge amount of suffering that can be prevented with healthy habits of the mind, decreased substance abuse, suicide, bullying, drunk driving, anxiety, and depression. The benefits are considerable and wide-ranging.”

Starting with scientists conducting Transcendental Meditation research since the late 1960s, numerous studies have shown that meditation helps reduce chronic pain and depression, protects against heart disease by reducing the marker C-reactive protein, and lowers acute stress response by actually changing the structure of the brain.

“It did to my mind what going to the gym did to my body – it made it both stronger and more flexible,” says Dr. Hedy Kober, a neuroscientist who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation at her lab at Yale University.

Since the publication of his book Congressman Ryan has started a once-a-week quiet time caucus for members of Congress as well as spoken on the subject at seminars and public events coast-to coast. He said he has been surprised by how many members of Congress have asked him about the practice and how to better deal with stress.

“A lot of people don’t understand mindfulness,” he said.

“But, when you talk about slowing down and being in the present moment they get enthusiastic, across partisan lines. It’s about participating in your own health care, in education, in politics, and becoming more resilient, and there’s no reason why people should rule this out because it doesn’t fit into their political philosophy.”

Even before the publication of his book Congressman Ryan secured almost a million dollars in federal funding for programs to teach mindfulness at elementary schools in his district.

“We are basically teaching them how to calm down the part of the brain that is preventing them from learning how to pay attention. It’s a beautiful thing to walk in to classrooms and hear stories about how it’s transforming them.”

Congressman Ryan may have been the warm-up band at ‘Believe in Cleveland’, but he deserved to be the headliner.

It is rare when the unexpected sincerity of a politician trumps the supposed sincerity of yoga boosters like Lululemon. Politicians are bred to seem sincere, even when they usually don’t mean it. Congressman Ryan was a breath of fresh air. Lululemon, on the other hand, is as fresh as its next advertising campaign, or in whatever direction the hot air balloon is blowing.

Lululemon is a high-end yoga-inspired multi-billion dollar apparel retailer. It pronounces itself as a company “where dreams come to fruition.” One of the slogans most prominent in its manifesto is: “Friends are more important than money.”

However, most of Lululemon’s apparel is manufactured in third-world countries at the behest of the company’s founder, Chip Wilson, who believes, according to a speech he made at a conference of the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies in Vancouver, British Columbia, that third-world children should be encouraged to work in factories because it provides their families with much-needed wages.

Lululemon’s former CEO, Christine Day, recently ousted after overseeing the introduction of its ill-fated see-through yoga pants, explained the company’s philosophy of purposefully keeping inventories low in order to drive demand for its one hundred dollar separates by saying: “Our guests know that there’s a limited supply, and it creates these fanatical shoppers.”

When Lululemon opened a new store in Kingston, Ontario, in the middle of winter in 2011, it advertised free clothes at its grand opening. Full-page ads blared: “Grin and Bare It! Let us dress you from head to toe. The first 30 people wearing only their undies will receive a free Lululemon top and bottom.” Since another of the company’s slogans is, “Do one thing a day that scares you,” and since stripping in public is scary for most people, on the big day the sidewalks of Kingston were overflowing with Girls Gone Wild, although some couldn’t stop shivering while patiently waiting for their free Bhakti capris.

Corporate public relations representative Sara Gardiner described the come-as-you-are campaign as a “great way of grassroots marketing and creating conversations.”

“Our product is unique because it’s infused with passion,” said the manager of Lululemon when it opened in the up-scale Eton Square Mall in a suburb of Cleveland. “Each step of the process is committed to greatness, fun, integrity, and quality. The culture of Lululemon is one that inspires me. When I put on a pair of groove pants I feel like I’m a part of that inspiration.”

A New York Times investigation revealed that Lululemon’s Vitasea line of seaweed fabric – whose seaweed it claimed released “marine amino acids, minerals, and vitamins into the skin” – contained no seaweed at all.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that the company’s employees are trained to routinely eavesdrop on customers.

In the past five years Lululemon has tripled its annual revenue, expanding from 70 stores to more than 200, giving substance to the notion that if you can fake sincerity, you have surely got it made.

Two years ago Lululemon introduced new shopping bags sporting the shadowy question: “Who is John Galt?”

John Galt, a pivotal character in Ayn Rand’s novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’, believes in and defends the right of the individual to employ his mind and life solely for his own benefit.

Few people become engaged with yoga as a result of reading Ayn Rand’s potboilers, and for good reason. An unabashed advocate of individualism and unbridled capitalism, she rejects faith in favor of rational selfishness.

In notes for her novel she describes John Galt as without “inner conflict because he is perfect.” In other words, he is the Superman of our modern times. In the book he is compared to Prometheus, who in Greek mythology created man from clay.

The philosophy of Ayn Rand holds that there is no greater moral good than achieving happiness. It is an idealistic message burdened by the simplistic flaw that it confuses what are necessary conditions for happiness with sufficient conditions.

Ayn Rand blithely pronounces, in the words of John Galt, that if we all pursue whatever is in our own self-interest then the world will be a better place. Most of today’s libertarians justify their political views by citing Ayn Randism, or Objectivism, as it is better known.

Ayn Rand is considered the matriarch of the Tea Party, even though she herself enjoyed the benefits of Medicaid and Social Security.

Chip Wilson, Lululemon’s founder and guiding light, was influenced by ‘Atlas Shrugged’ when he read it at age eighteen. “Only later, looking back, did he realize the impact the book’s ideology had on his quest to elevate the world from mediocrity to greatness,” according to the company.

“Our bags are visual reminders for ourselves to live a life we love and conquer the epidemic of mediocrity.”

It begs the question of whether the children working in Lululemon’s overseas factories are on the fast track to conquering mediocrity, or if they need to get on the fast track to reading more of Ayn Rand to understand how they have been misled. Maybe they should reconsider sewing see-through pants twelve hours a day and instead, as Lululemon urges, break free of “the constraints and limitations on ourselves, which impede us from living our best lives.”

But, it may not be as easy to do in Bangladesh as it is in North America, given that practically all of the profit margins on clothes made for pennies on the dollar flow into the coffers of Lululemon and its shareholders, and not into the savings accounts of its workers.

In the spring of 2013 workers at the Sabrina Garment Manufacturing factory in Cambodia, where Lululemon clothes are made, went on strike, complaining about “slave wages”.

Lululemon replied by saying: “We share your concern about the situation, and are in close contact with our factory partners.”

They might as well have said nothing.

Carol Horton, a yoga teacher and author of ‘Race and the Making of American Liberalism’, writes: “I strongly suspect that the overwhelming majority of Lululemon customers and ambassadors haven’t thought into the politics of the company they’re supporting.”

But, social and economic concerns aside, the issue of pursuing our own self-interest no matter what not only leads to innumerable dead ends, it is contrary to the teachings of yoga, a core component of which is building community. “The feeling we get from being part of a community, or kula, is an important part of why many of us embrace yoga,” says Kelle Walsh, the editor of Yoga Journal.

“The notion of self-interest, in fact, runs completely against that,” argues Simon Houpt, senior media writer for the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail, writing about Lululemon’s love affair with Ayn Rand.

The path of yoga is admittedly a path towards one’s own fulfillment, but it is not the path of narcissism. It is a commonplace that we have to be selfish to get ahead in this world. But, the idea that selfishness is an overarching virtue to be pursued at all cost, as Ayn Rand and Lululemon espouse, is both shortsighted and solipsistic.

Every man for himself and God against all is not one of the eight limbs of yoga.

“Self-cherishing is the cause of all misery and dissatisfaction,” according to the Tibetan Buddhist Panchen Lama, “while holding other sentient beings dearer than oneself is the foundation of all realization and knowledge.”

It may seem churlish to not see the good in sexy, form fitting yoga pants, but yoga is ultimately a practice whose focus is meant to be internal, rather than focused on how shapely one’s butt can be in a pair of Wunder Under tights. Nor is it a practice meant to further the fortunes of companies doing anything and everything they can to claw their way up the NASDAQ ladder. Although yoga is America’s favorite eastern philosophy, because it is so accepting of SUV’s, one of its central tenets is non-grasping, or non-greed.

None of its tenets bears any resemblance to Lululemonism. To suppose otherwise is to pretend to understand what Led Zeppelin meant by the lyrics of ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

As antithetical as the presumptions of Lululemon are to yoga, the mantra of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll is equally peripheral to the yoga project. Rock-and-roll’s carousal of multi-millionaire stars has long since turned the music on its head. Given the luxurious lifestyles of many of the Rock Hall’s inductees, from the Gloved One to Elton John, my generation’s Liberace, it cannot be any wonder that Miley Cyrus, famous for faux-masturbating with a foam finger, is banging the gong at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with her smash hit ‘Bangerz’.

With five chart-toppers by the tender age of twenty, Miley is on a roll and the Rock Hall is probably already planning the induction of and shiny mausoleum for Cyrus the Great in the 2030s when she becomes eligible.

Although rock-and-roll is not, admittedly, my favorite genre of music, I do enjoy listening to the likes of Sonic Youth, Social Distortion, and even Bikini Kill, who recorded on the label ‘Kill Rock Stars’, as much as the next man. It is to their credit, however, that they aren’t and hopefully never will be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Shame, so-called by Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols.

“It’s a place where old rockers go to die.”

In 1994 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead did not attend his induction because he was opposed to the idea of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. The rest of the band disagreed, dragging a cardboard cutout of Garcia onstage. Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane skipped the ceremony in 1996, saying: “All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.”

When the Sex Pistols were named as inductees in 2006, alongside Blondie and Lynyrd Skynyrd, they refused to attend, sending a note instead: “Rock and roll and the hall of fame are a piss stain. We’re not coming. We’re not your monkey, and so what? Fame at $25,000 if we paid for a table, selling us a load of old famous. We’re not coming. You’re not paying attention.”

What they meant was that rock and roll has long since become as corporate as it can possibly become. The genre is immensely popular worldwide and has morphed into a multi-billion dollar business with little connection to what used to be known as the counter-culture, or to anything that means anything except the sound and fury of a tune with a backbeat. Since punk rock stripped back the curtain in the late 1970s, big-time rock-and-roll bands have routinely sold out to sell everything from Royal Caribbean Cruises (Iggy Pop) to Jaguar S-class sedans (Sting).

The Rock Hall’s signature exhibition in 2013 was the ‘Rolling Stones: 50 Years of Satisfaction’. The aptly named Stones have spent fifty years snorting kilos of cocaine and making tons of money. In the years 2000 through 2010 the bad boys of rock grossed almost $900 million dollars at their live shows alone. In the form of twenty-dollar bills it amounts to 36,000 pounds, or literally eighteen tons of twenty-dollar bills.

From its explosive springboard in the 1950s rock-and-roll became a cultural revolution. Bookended by Woodstock and Live Aid it responded to the issues of its day like war, race, sexuality, power, and world hunger. But, 25 years after Live Aid it has become predictable and irrelevant. Rock-and-roll may once have been on its way to changing the world, but then came Matchbox 20 and Vertical Horizon.

There is a reason Fall Out Boy’s ‘Save Rock and Roll’ was the most successful rock album of 2013, and it’s not even really rock-and-roll.

The nadir may have been 2008 when the pop icon Madonna was inducted into the Rock Hall, which Gene Simmons of KISS said was an insult to her because she should have been in the Dance Hall of Fame, instead. The Material Girl is to rock-and-roll as Ben Affleck is to the Baseball Hall of Fame because he goes to so many Red Sox games at Fenway Park.

For a performer whose career has been built on a platform of bawdiness, it is surprising that since 1996 Madonna has practiced and stayed in shape with Ashtanga Yoga workouts. “Yoga is a metaphor for life,” she says. “It is a workout for your mind, your body, and your soul.”

It is surprising, but maybe she simply has never heard of Pattabhi Jois’s emphasis on bramacharya, or the wise use of sexual energy, in the practice of Ashtanga Yoga. But, then again, that is not the kind of idea that sells records and concert tickets costing hundreds of dollars for ringside seats.

As yoga has become more mainstream stars have taken to writing and singing yoga tunes. Madonna had a hit with ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ in which she crooned, “Beyond comparison, working like the jungle physician/To pacify loss of consciousness from the poison of existence.” The album ‘Ray of Light’ on which the song appeared sold 16 million copies. Abandoning her white top hat, black panties and bra, and black knee-high go-go boots in favor of a shapeless ankle-length sackcloth, the Queen of Pop performed with a troupe of traditionally-clad Indian women.

Although the Boston Globe described the album as “deeply spiritual dance music,” not everyone agreed that ‘Shanti/Ashtangi’ was Madonna’s best work, no matter the weird intensity of its lyrics. Nor does everyone agree that any and all performers are the best vehicles for sacred songs.

“Some people think they can find some melodies and put some mantras to them, and now they’re chanting,” Krishna Das said in an interview with Shannon Sexton, a former editor of Yoga International. “But they may not understand that this is spiritual practice. This is not entertainment. These chants have power. They have the ability to change us.”

The venue for ‘Believe in Cleveland’ was centrally located in downtown Cleveland, accessible to all the city’s many suburbs and exburbs along its myriad of highways. Like pilgrims flowing downstream the area’s yogis descended to the mouth of the Cuyahoga River as though it were the Ganges. The show was a hit.

However, it could have been staged in many different places in Cleveland, including the 22,000 green acres of the Metroparks circling the city. Edgewater State Park on Cleveland’s west shoreline of Lake Erie has hosted large gatherings of yogis practicing 108 sun salutations on summer solstice, as well.

Wade Oval, one of northeast Ohio’s premier public spaces, only minutes from the Rock Hall, might have made a natural choice. Its amenities include a seven-acre park, the hundred-foot wide Kulas Community Stage, and on-site access to water and electricity. Wade Oval is directly opposite the entrance to the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well, which has a large collection of art related to yoga.

One of its best pieces, ‘Yoga Narasimha: Lord Vishnu in his Man-Lion Avatar’, is headlining ‘Yoga: The Art of Transformation’, a major show billed as the world’s first exhibition on yogic art. It will explore yoga over time, as spiritual training as well as physical exercise, and its connections to both well-being and enlightenment. The exhibition, a result of the museum’s traditional strength in Asian art, premiers in June, 2014. It will travel to Washington, D. C. later in the fall for a three-month engagement at the Feer Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art.

At first glance it might seem like a park adjoining a museum co-organizing an historic exhibit of yogic art would have been a better fit for a groundbreaking yoga night out than a pay-per-view depository venerating the likes of Guns N’ Roses, the Stooges, and Black Sabbath.

At second glance, too.

“In retrospect,” the Village Voice recently noted, “it’s hard not to see the Osbournes [of Black Sabbath fame] as the first sign that the modern world was entering its Post-Dignity era.”

It might be said, as it often is, that “It’s all yoga.” There is a fondness for promoting the practice no matter what, in the belief that it is both immediately and ultimately beneficial, even if higgledy-piggledy alliances have to be made with Lululemon and the Rock Hall to bring the practice to the people.

But, that’s like Yogi Berra saying, “I didn’t really say everything I said.”

One of the yamas of yoga is satya, or honesty and truthfulness. Lululemon is consistently disingenuous and rock-and-roll chronically two-faced. Both wear the rubric of peace, love, and understanding over their shoulders, proving Mark Twain right when he said, “Honesty is the best policy, when there is money in it.”

Since many politicians don’t believe what they say, sitting on the fence with both ears to the ground, they are often surprised when they are believed. Hall of Fame rock bands and Lululemon are corporations in pursuit of unfettered wealth.

“Groups are corporations now,” says John Lee Hooker, father of the boogie. “They have pension plans. Musicians have saw the daylight.”

Bono of U2 is on track to, literally, become the world’s first billionaire rock star.

Corporations always seek to be believed, no matter what it is they are selling, that being the platform on which success and failure ultimately rests. No one likes to be lied to.

Who listens to Milli Vanelli anymore?

It was refreshing to hear Congressman Ryan speak candidly about an issue that does not benefit him directly in terms of votes and campaign contributions, but rather touches on larger issues affecting citizens and the republic itself. “It’s not very common for elected officials to talk about the psychological and mental factors that are involved in things going well or badly in public policy,” says Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author of ‘Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time’.

“Tim is shining a spotlight on this, and that’s brave.”

It was dismaying to listen to the la-la-la’s of Lululemon and Led Zeppelin, especially when they barely believe and dimly understand what they are talking about. ‘Stairway to Heaven’, one of the most beloved and most played rock songs of all time, was written by Robert Plant, who has admitted the lyrics have no actual meaning. Whatever sounds good to keep turning the turnstiles.

The company we keep, fairly or unfairly, judges us.

When yoga aligns itself with the likes of Tim Ryan, who envisions for the nation mindfulness as a way to “prevent a lot of suffering, prevent a lot of war, and suffering in the healthcare system,” it associates with men of good company.

When yoga locks elbows with the likes of Chip Wilson and Mick Jagger, who can never get no satisfaction no matter how many dollar bills they accumulate by whatever means best suited to serve their self-interest, it associates with men of bad company.

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company,” said the man whose face is on the greenback.

Better the greenback than the shell game.

Postscript: In February 2014, ‘Believe in Cleveland’ sponsored its second mass event, this time in the renovated Atrium of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Several hundred people unrolled their mats in the glistening, new space, practicing to folk, roots, and world music, with a little bit of acoustic U2 thrown in.

Ozzy Osbourne was not allowed in the building.

“This is the first yoga practice within these walls, ever,” said Tammy Lyons.

The museum was founded in 1913 and opened its doors in 1916. The yoga class ended with a group OM echoing magically in the high-ceilinged space.

It was a sweet-sounding step up from the Rock Hall.

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

26 Not Copyrighted Bikram Yoga Jokes

Walk into a bar

By Ed Staskus

There are 26 poses in the 90-minute Bikram Yoga sequence practiced in a room called the Hot Room. It is no laughing matter. It is sometimes called the Torture Room. Somewhere somebody is asking, are you kidding me?

1) A man walks into a bar and announces he’s got a terrific Bikram joke to tell. But, before he can start the bartender says, “Hold it right there, buddy, I practice Bikram Yoga.”

And the man says, “Okay, I’ll tell it very, very slowly.”

2) One evening after dinner a seven-year-old boy asked his father, “Where did Mommy go?”

His father told him. “Mommy is at a Bikram Yoga class.”

The explanation satisfied the boy only for a moment, but then he asked, “What’s a Bikram Yoga class, Dad?”

His father figured a simple explanation would be the best approach. “Well, son.” he said. “That’s where people squeeze all their muscles with all their might standing half-naked on one leg while someone tells them over and over to try harder in a room lit up like Wal-Mart in front of big mirrors in 105 degree heat and steam like that Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom – so that they can be healthy.”

The boy burst out laughing. “Come on, Dad! What is it really?”

3) A Bikram Yogi walks into a bar with a large green and yellow parrot on his shoulder. The bartender asks, “Where did you get that?”

“In California,” the parrot says, “there are a million of them.”

4) The lookout on the Battleship Bikram spies a light ahead off the starboard bow. Captain Bikram tells him to signal the other vessel. “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

The answer comes back, “Advise you change course twenty degrees immediately!”

Captain Bikram is furious. He signals, “I am a captain. We are on a collision course. Alter your course twenty degrees now!

The answer comes back. “I am a seaman second class, and I strongly urge you to alter your course twenty degrees.”

Now Captain Bikram is beside himself with rage. He signals, “I am a battleship!”

The answer comes back, “I am a lighthouse.”

5) Why don’t Bikram Yogis drink?

It interferes with their suffering.

6) Bikram is praying to Krishna. “Krishna,” he says, “I would like to ask you a question.”

Krishna responds, “No problem. Go ahead.”

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

“Yes, that is true.”

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

“A million dollars to me is but a penny”

“Ah, then, Krishna,” says Bikram, “may I have a penny?

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

7) For the final exam the philosophy professor plopped a chair on his desk and wrote on the blackboard: “Using everything we have learned this semester, prove that this chair does not exist.” Fingers flew, erasers erased, and notebooks were filled in furious fashion. Some students wrote over 30 pages in one hour, sweating up a storm, attempting to refute the existence of the chair. One member of the class, Bikram, was up and finished in less than a minute.

Weeks later when the grades were posted the rest of the class wondered how he could have gotten an A when he had barely written anything at all.

His answer consisted of two words: “What chair?”

8) “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” said the Bikram Yoga teacher on the podium.

“Until the hammer comes down,” muttered the Bikram Yogi in the back row.

9) Her doctor tells a woman she has a fatal illness and only six months to live.

“Is there anything I can do?” she asks.

“Yes, there is,” the doctor replies. “You could take Bikram Yoga every day for the next six months.”

“How will that help my illness?” the woman asks.

“Oh, it won’t help your illness,” says the doctor, “but it will make that six months seem like an eternity.”

10) What’s the difference between Bikram Choudhury and a philosopher?

About $7 million a year.

11) When Morty hit fifty, he decided to change his lifestyle completely so that he could live longer. He quit smoking, went on a diet, and went suntanning. A friend suggested the 30-day Bikram Challenge, which Morty enthusiastically made into a 90-day challenge, amazing his friends.

In just three months he lost thirty pounds, reduced his waist by six inches, and expanded his chest by five inches. Svelte and tan, he decided to top it all off with a sporty new haircut. Afterward, while stepping out of the barbershop, he was hit by a bus.

As he lay dying, he cried out, “God, how could you do this to me?”

And a voice from the heavens responded, “To tell you the truth, Morty, I didn’t recognize you.”

12) Standing on one leg in Bikram Yoga doesn’t make you a yogi anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car.

13) Bikram, the famous yoga master, who was known for his miraculous cures for arthritis, had a long line of students waiting outside the door of his studio when a little old lady, completely bent over, shuffled in slowly, leaning on her cane.

Bikram gently approached her and led her into the back room of the studio and, amazingly, she emerged within half an hour, walking completely erect with her head held high.

A woman waiting at the door of the studio said, “It’s a miracle! You walked in bent in half and now you’re walking erect. What did Bikram do?”

She answered, “He gave me a longer cane.”

14) What do Bikram Yoga and an apple peeler have in common?

They both take you to the core.

15) One day Bill complained to his friend that his elbow really hurt. His friend suggested that he visit Bikram who lived nearby. “Simply leave a sample of your sweat outside his door, and he will meditate on it, miraculously diagnose your problem, and tell you what to do about it. It only costs eighteen dollars.”

Bill figured he had little to lose, so he filled a small jar with sweat and left it outside Bikram’s door. The next day when he came back, there was a note waiting for him that said, “You have tennis elbow. Soak your arm in warm water Avoid heavy lifting. It will be better in two weeks.”

Later that evening, Bill started to think that Bikram’s “miracle” was a put-up job by his friend, who could have written the note himself and left it outside the door. So Bill decided to get back at his friend. He mixed together some tap water, a yard sample from his dog, and urine samples from his wife and son. To top it off, he included another bodily fluid of his own, and left the concoction outside Bikram’s door with eighteen dollars. He then called his friend and told him that he was having some other health problems and that he had left another sample for Bikram.

The next day he returned and found another note that said, “Your tap water is too hard. Get a water softener. Your dog has worms. Get him vitamins. Your son is hooked on cocaine. Get him into rehab. Your wife is pregnant with twins. They aren’t yours. Get a lawyer. And if you don’t stop playing with yourself, your tennis elbow will never get better.”

16) A woman reports her husband’s disappearance to the police. They ask for a description and she says, “He takes a Bikram Yoga class every day, he’s toned, tall, amazingly energetic, with thick curly hair.”

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

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

17) Three friends are killed in a car accident and meet up at an orientation session in Heaven. The celestial facilitator asks them what they would most like to hear said about themselves as their friends and relatives view them in the casket.

The first man says, “I hope people will say that I was a wonderful doctor and a good family man.”

The second man says, “I would like to hear people say that as a schoolteacher I made a big difference in the lives of kids.”

The third man, a Bikram Yogi, says. “I’d like to hear someone say, ‘Look, he’s moving!’”

18) Bikram walks into a bank and says he wants to borrow $200 for six months. The loan officer asks him what kind of collateral he has. Bikram says, “I have a Rolls Royce. Here are the keys. Keep it until the loan is paid off.”

Six months later Bikram returns to the bank, repays the $200 plus $10 interest and takes back his Rolls, The loan officer says, “Sir, if I may ask, why would a man who drives a Rolls Royce need to borrow $200?”

Bikram replies, “I had to go to Europe for six months, and where else could I store a Rolls that long for $10?”

19) A dinner guest at Bikram’s house asks, “How do you prepare your chickens?”

Bikram says, “Nothing special, I just tell them they are going to die.”

20) At a staff meetting at Bikram’s Yoga College of India an angel suddenly appears and tells Bikram, “I will grant you whichever of three blessings you choose: Wisdom, Beauty – or ten million dollars.”

Immediately, Bikram chooses Wisdom.

There is a flash of lightning, and Bikram appears transformed, but he just sits there, staring at the table. One of the staff people whispers, “Say something.”

Bikram says, “I should have taken the money.”

21) Bikram Yoga can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes misery easier to live with.

22) A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Peter says, “The Bikram Yogis are in room eight, and they think they are the only ones here.”

23) A man asks a Bikram Yoga teacher, “Can you teach me to do the splits?”

“How flexible are you,” the teacher asks.

“I can’t make Tuesdays,” the man says.

24) Bikram is sitting next to lawyer on an airplane. The lawyer keeps bugging him to play a game by which they will see who has more general knowledge. Finally, the lawyer says he will offer Bikram ten-to-one odds. Every time Bikram doesn’t know the answer to one of his questions, Bikram will pay the lawyer five dollars. Every time the lawyer doesn’t know the answer to one of Bikram’s questions, he will pay him fifty dollars.

Bikram agrees to play, and the lawyer asks, “What is the distance from the earth to the tenth nearest star?”

Bikram says nothing, just hands the lawyer a five-dollar bill.

Bikram asks the lawyer, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes back down with five legs?”

The lawyer thinks for a long time, but in the end has to concede that he has no idea. He hands Bikram fifty dollars. Bikram puts the money in his wallet without comment.

The lawyer says, “Wait a minute. What’s the answer to your question?”

Without a word Bikram hands him five dollars.

25) On a transatlantic flight, a plane passes through a severe storm. The turbulence is awful, and things go from bad to worse when one wing is struck by lightning.

One woman in particular loses it. She stands up in the front of the plane screaming, “I’m too young to die!” Then she yells, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m want my last minutes on earth to be memorable! No one has ever made me really feel like a woman! Well, I’ve had it! Is there anyone on this plane who can make me feel like a woman?”

For a moment there is silence. Everyone has forgotten his own peril, and they all stare, riveted at the desperate woman in the front of the plane. Then a man stands up in the rear. It’s Bikram. He starts to walk slowly up the aisle, unbuttoning his shirt. “I can make you feel like a woman,” he says.

No one moves. As Bikram approaches, the woman begins to get excited. He removes his shirt. Muscles ripple across his chest as he reaches her, extends the arm holding his shirt to the trembling woman, and says, “Iron this.”

26) A good yogi dies and goes to heaven. He asks St. Peter if they have a yoga studio.

“What kind?”

“Bikram Yoga.”

St. Peter shows him the most beautiful Bikram Yoga studio imaginable, sparkling mirrors, completely microbe-free carpets, and color-corrected fluorescent lighting.

One older man in particular is practicing with impeccable grace and form, blending strength and balance.

The yogi says, “ I’ve only seen one man practice like that, but I thought Bikram was still alive – what’s he doing up here?”

St. Peter replies, “Oh, that’s God. He just thinks he’s Bikram.”

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

Breath or Bullets

USARIEM

By Ed Staskus

The Warrior Pose (Virabhadrasana), of which there are three variations, is an essential feature of many exercise sequences at yoga studios. The warrior pose of soldiers in combat is as varied as the difference between Roman legionnaires and drone operators.

The name of the yoga pose comes from Virabhandra, a hero in Indian mythology who carried a thousand cudgels and wore tiger skins. It is a vigorous standing posture often integrated into sun salutations and explained as being an inspiration for the spiritual warrior.

The warrior pose in the U. S. Army is usually a floor pose, practiced on the stomach, on one knee, or in a crouch. Instead of reaching through the arms with empty hands, the military variation keeps the arms close to the body and a strong grip on ones M4A1 carbine.

Yoga is traditionally a pathway toward enlightenment. “If your practice is moving you away from enlightenment, then you are not practicing yoga,” says Ganesh Das of Jivamukti Yoga. Those on the path commonly practice with that intention, not with the intention of setting gun sights on the whites of someone’s eyes.

But, some in the brave new world of 21st century yoga argue that it can and should be more than it has been, arguing that its energy should be devoted towards myriad forms of improvement, competing against one another to be the best in the class, even on the battlefield.

Although it is debatable whether yoga and conflict are compatible, it has recently been introduced to the American armed forces, described as “a powerful supplement to combat readiness training, making soldiers better prepared for challenges they’ll face in combat” in an article titled The US Army Strikes the Warrior Pose. Warriors at Ease, a Maryland-based company, is one of the first officially-recognized “yoga defense contractors”.

However, not everyone in the military agrees that today’s redefined yoga is appropriate for training troops. They contend that it coddles rather than toughens them.  “People have said you’re babying them,” says Mark Hertling, Deputy Commanding General for Initial Military Training. “You’ve got to drive them hard, and work them until it hurts.”

While it is the questionable whether yoga is appropriate training for the rigors of war, it is clear that the chain of command has not come to grips with some forms of yoga exercise. As a means of fitness training for soldiers it may exceed traditional push-ups and 2-mile marches, as attested by a post on the Runner’s World web site by a veteran long-distance runner.

“If I would have toughed it out the full 90 minutes at my first attempt at Bikram Yoga, I calculate I would have lost 22.5 pounds of body water weight. In other words, I would have died.”

The purpose of military might is to preserve security and provide defense, and to overcome perils to that security. The United States accomplishes this with a defense budget, in the fiscal year 2012, of more than $900 billion. It is almost $300 billion more than the next fourteen countries, including China and Russia, in the top fifteen for defense spending, combined.

Even setting aside the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military spending has more than doubled since 2001. Defense accounts for approximately 20 percent of the entire federal budget, roughly the same as Social Security, and outstripping spending on transportation, education, and science, combined.

Americans spend almost $3000.00 per person on defense annually.

In the United States $6 billion a year is spent on yoga, primarily on hatha practices. Americans spend less than $19.00 per person on yoga annually.

The purpose of yoga is to unite the physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of life. “It is to cultivate awareness, self-regulation, and higher consciousness in the individual,” according to David Surrenda, CEO of Kripalu Center in Massachusetts. Its goal is to cultivate a higher nature, not relying on Smith & Wesson.

Whether Americans are safer paying nearly $3000.00 a year for their military readiness or $19.00 a year for their spiritual readiness is a moot point.

Going toe-to-toe with the Pentagon the often-barefoot practice of yoga is at a decided disadvantage. The Pentagon is the world’s largest defense building. The National Capitol could fit into any one of its five wedge-shaped sections. With more than 23,000 employees it is virtually a city.

Not even Bikram World Headquarters in Los Angeles is remotely close to the size of the Pentagon.

More people practice yoga in America, approximately 16 million of them, than are in the armed forces, of which there are currently 3 million enlisted and reserve. But, the pool the Pentagon draws on is far larger than yoga’s mailing list. There are more than 22 million veterans in the United States, as well as 120,000,000 men and women classified as being fit for service.

Many people come to yoga for sun salutations and vinyasa. They fill out a waiver at a studio, stretch and sweat for an hour, and if all goes well come back the next day. Some weave it into the fabric of their lives, internalizing the practice and living by its eight-fold path as a way of achieving a meaningful existence.

In the armed forces all inductees must take the Oath of Enlistment, in which they  “solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies…so help me God.” The oath is traditionally performed standing in front of the stars and stripes, not in front of God.

If it came to a fight, yoga would be badly out-gunned by the Pentagon, which can muster thousands of ships, planes, and M1A2 Abrams tanks, the most electronically-sophisticated, and heavily-armored battle tank ever built anywhere in the world. The best yoga might do is muster a battalion-or-two of very experienced Warrior Pose yogis.

Ever since ground was broken for the Pentagon on September 11, 1941, the United States has been at war somewhere every day of every year ever since. But, for all the power the Pentagon can bring to bear, it begs the question of why its record on the battlefield since WW2 has largely been a patchwork of compromised victories.

Francis Beer, a political scientist at the University of Colorado, has estimated that more than 14,000 wars have taken place between 3500 BC and the late 20th century, resulting in more than 3.5 billion deaths. By his measure there have only been 300 years of relative peace in that 5500-year span.

Killing one man is a capital crime. Killing ten men is mass murder. Killing one hundred men is slaughter, beyond the pale of crime. But, killing a thousand men is called war and trumpeted as a triumph. Capital crimes are condemned while wars make for medals and parades.

“This the rulers of the earth all recognize,” wrote Mozi, a Chinese philosopher of the 5th century BC. “Yet, when it comes to the greatest crime – waging war on another state – they praise it! It is clear they do not know it is wrong. If they knew they were wrong, why should they wish to record them and have them handed down to posterity?”

All peoples and all states justify their wars.

The Roman Empire, the most ruthless in history, fought every one of its wars under the rubric of defense. The North fought the Civil War to preserve the  American Union while the South fought to preserve its honor and way of life. The Israelis fight for their homeland and the Palestinians fight for their homeland. The problem is that it is all the same homeland.

“Most Palestinians believe that the Intifada succeeded,” says Ami Ayalon, former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security system. “They believe that we understand only the language of force. Most Israelis believe that we won because Palestinians understand only the language of force.”

States make war for many reasons, among them self-defense, resource competition, border disputes, and international recognition. Institutions like the Pentagon are the fulcrum on which states depend in order to wield their power to make war.

“The state jealously guards the right to make war because this prerogative is a source of power,“ writes Mark Kurlansky in Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea.

People practice yoga for many reasons, among them physical health, mind-body unity, and what can be described as connecting to the whole. Practiced regularly it becomes the font of true power, not power at the end of a gun barrel.

“Yoga practice aims to reset our physical, mental, and emotional rhythms to their natural states, “ says Dinbandhu Sarley, former CEO of Kripalu Center. “We experience this resonance as a spiritual experience.”

Yoga boot camps are far different than army boot camps. There are no firing ranges or bayonet drills. The reason is that warfare is not a natural state, no matter mankind’s history of endless war. Most men and women are reluctant to kill others. That is why today’s all-volunteer U. S. Army is largely made up of the disadvantaged and unemployed.

In Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command on Future War, the chief U. S. Army combat historian of WW2, Samuel Marshall, revealed that only one in four combat soldiers ever fired their guns, while at most only 15 percent of available firepower was ever deployed. If it came to a fight with yoga, the Pentagon, even with all its firepower, might not have the advantage it seems if its soldiers won’t fire their guns.

One reason yoga might have an advantage is that the practice develops balance and strength in both body and mind. It is only with those attributes that ahimsa can be successfully pursued.

“Nonviolence must never come from weakness but from strength,” writes Mark Kurlansky. “Only the strongest and most disciplined people can hope to achieve it.”

Ahimsa is a guiding principle of yoga practice. Although all spiritual practices abjure violence, unlike Christianity, Islam, and even Buddhism, yoga has never been co-opted by the state, its nonviolent pose twisted to serve power politics.

Christians since St. Augustine have fought ‘just’ wars, even though Jesus was not on the side of war-makers, but rather on the side of peace-makers. Muslims declare jihad whenever they propose violence, even though the Quran never uses the term jihad for fighting in the name of Allah. Zen Buddhism and Japanese militarism were intertwined from the Meiji Restoration of the 19th century through WW2.

In a knock-down-drag-out fight between the Pentagon and yoga, only yoga would bring the power of its convictions to the fray. When the First Gulf War ended in the 1990s “Stormin’ Norman” Schwartzkopf, field commander of the Coalition Forces, declared, “God must have been on our side!”

What was on his side was a bevy of Cruise missiles, not God. God is not on the side of war-makers, no matter what the war-makers say. If he were, then it would be every man for himself and God against all.

Whether or not to go to war is a moral argument. Yoga’s pose is that nonviolence is a first principle, renouncing war. The state’s pose is that force of arms is its prerogative. Yoga denies that peace can be achieved through violence. The state accepts war because it believes without arms and armies it would be impotent. The state proposes that war is the way peace is won.

“I just want you to know,” explained President Bush, “that when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”

But, violence does not resolve conflicts between people or their states. “Peace cannot be achieved through violence,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the first Americans to study Vedic texts. Violence almost always leads to more violence. Yoga postulates that peace can only be attained through dynamic compassion and understanding, which is why there has never been a single war waged by any yoga community.

“When you start to understand how karma works, you realize how you treat others determines how much suffering you experience,” says Sharron Gannon of Jivamukti Yoga.

The warrior pose battalions of yoga could conceivably be the most formidable foe the Pentagon has faced in a long time. Wars are ultimately fought to win hearts and minds. The hearts and minds of yogis may be stronger and more resilient than any weapon the Pentagon can wield.

If push came to shove between the Pentagon and yoga, the winning side would be the side with the prevailing point-of-view. The North Vietnamese did not prevail through force of arms in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pentagon would be battling an idea that like Gandhi’s idea for India’s independence struggle is almost impossible to defeat, so long as the idea sticks to its guns.

Yoga makes samadhi – union with the divine – not war. The Pentagon makes war, which leads to more war, and to the other definition of samadhi, which is a funerary monument. Yoga opens the heart. The Pentagon puts a bullet into it. “The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war,” says Vijaya Pandit of the U. N. Human Rights Commission.

The ultimate problem for the Pentagon is that it ignores the Bhagavad Gita, the most dangerous existing explication of yoga. If nothing else the Bhagavad Gita teaches one how to hold ones ground, which is what Warrior Pose is all about.

Although Navy Seals have pioneered practices like ‘Combat Yoga’, when the ka-booming starts the Seals Marines GI’s, sailors and airmen, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Fortress Pentagon might never know what hit them, as their world view goes up in mirage, which is, in the end, the seeing things as they really are, the ultimate goal of yoga practice.

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

Welcome to the Torture Chamber

bikram-yoga-shorts.jpg

By Ed Staskus

“There’s gotta be a Heaven ’cause I’ve already done my time in Hell.”  Social Distortion

Bikram Yoga was not entirely a black hole when I stepped across the threshold into my first class, but I was still surprised by the Wal-Mart-like brightness of the big room, the seven-foot high mirrors spanning the front, and the wall-to-wall water-stained brown carpeted floor.

None of it looked or felt or smelled like any of the yoga studios I had ever been to.

As I made my way past a sea of unfamiliar faces to the back of the room, unrolled my mat, and curled into several cat cows, I noticed it was infernally hot. Looking up at the ceiling I saw manhole-size ductwork perforated with thousands of pebble-sized holes crossing from one end of the front of the room to the other and continuing on to the rear wall. Heat pulsed rhythmically over the back of my neck, arms, and legs.

Later I discovered that an Infinity Plus high-efficiency furnace generated the heat while a hellish three-phase 220-volt steam humidifier vaporized water and fast-tracked it into the room through the small holes in the ductwork.

By the time I had finished a short round of warm-up down dogs I was sweating through my Under Armour shirt and decided it was best to settle into child’s pose. The class had not even started, yet, and I was already taking a break. Most of the people on their mats were laying prone, eyes shut. I began to understand why.

When I started practicing yoga, well into middle age, I spent two years getting my feet wet at once-a-week beginner classes, then moved on to slow flow classes on a more consistent basis, and finally gravitated to “Hot Powerful Flow” three times a week at a popular studio just across the river from our neighborhood.

It took some time and effort to acclimate myself to the 90 degrees the hot yoga studio advocated, and the fast pace of the classes, but after a year I was reasonably accustomed to it, even with the alarming disappearance of cartilage in my left hip and never-ending arthritis in my lower back. Now I was more than thirty miles from home, the closest Bikram class I could find, and it felt like I had stepped into the middle of a Louisiana summer strangling in the grip of global warming.

The Bikram regimen claims to change the construction of the body from the inside out, from tip to toe, from internal organ to skin, using heat as a tool, reshaping the body as it warms and becomes flexible. Its professed aim is to restore the life to the lives of its adherents.

“What is the worth of one human life? It’s priceless,” says Bikram Choudhury. “I give that life to people. I fix the human chassis.”

The community-class teacher at the yoga studio where I practiced sun salutations, warrior poses, and headstands described it as ‘therapeutic’ and recommended I try it.

“I don’t practice it myself,” she said, “and I have problems with Bikram the man, but it might be good for you.”

“OK,” I said.

I should have asked for details.

Back in the class while in my child’s pose it was 105 degrees and the humidity was at 40 percent, but both values were creeping relentlessly upward, pushing the heat index of the room into the 130-plus zone. Heat index is a measure of how hot really hot weather feels. The scale correlates relative humidity and air temperature to produce the apparent temperature the body experiences. A heat index of 130 is the point at which human beings become susceptible to heat cramps and heat exhaustion as a result of physical activity.

Why 105 degrees?  The Bikram take on hot yoga is that the room needs to be at 105 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity to make for a better aerobic experience, protect muscles while allowing for deep stretching, detox the glands and organs by flushing waste products, and through enhanced respiration deliver nourishment to every cell of the body.

Bikram Choudhury, who in the 1970s popularized the series of 26 asanas or poses and breathing exercises synthesized from traditional exercise yoga, claims that contrary to popular misconceptions the blistering heat he recommends keeps the body from overheating, and teaches you to keep your cool.

He and his legions believe they can work bodies like a blacksmith.

When our instructor, a trim wide-shouldered young man carrying a clear plastic half-gallon jug of water walked in, he adjusted the track lighting brighter even than it had been, strode to the front of the class, and asked:

“Anybody new?”

Several hands went up, including mine.

“Make sure you can see yourselves in the mirror. Move your mats if you have to. If you feel sick take a knee or lay down. Don’t leave the room. Watch the first few breaths and then join in. Set your intention.”

‘Feel sick’?

I had never gotten sick in a yoga class, nor had I ever given the possibility any consideration. I had experienced fatigue practicing asanas, sometimes even becoming bedraggled, during vinyasa classes on summer afternoons when I didn’t think I could do another chaturanga to up dog to down dog, but it was more on the order of boot camp crash. I discovered it is not unusual to feel sick and nauseous in Bikram classes, especially among beginners.

“The worse you feel,” says Bikram Choudhury, “the more you need my yoga.”

Then there was the other exhortation.

‘Don’t leave the room’?

What did that mean? Why would leaving the room be an issue? Should I be planning an exit strategy?

“OK, let’s get started.”

And just like that we were all standing and the class began. There was no opening homily, or reading from an appropriate text, whether sacred or new age, nor was there an iPod play list in evidence. Among other things, Bikram Yoga eschews tunes. The beat goes on, but it’s not the beat of MC Yogi.

I might as well strike while the iron is hot, I thought. One of the mantras of yoga is to live in the moment, and the expanded mantra of yoga like the Boy Scout motto is to expect the unexpected.  Even though I thought I knew by way of youtube what was on the agenda, Bikram Yoga surprised me from the outset.

Along with everyone else now on their feet I got going, my hands clasped underneath my chin, breathing in deeply as I pulled my elbows up, and breathing out forcefully as I brought my forearms together, keeping my spine straight and pushing my chin and head back. After the first round I wondered if my neck was going to hurt the next day, since this breathing exercise wasn’t something I had done before. After the second round I was sure there would be repercussions.

The next day my neck was sore. And that was only the tip of the iceberg.

“Try to be still between poses,” the instructor said when we were done.

I stopped rolling my head and flexing my fingers.

Bikram Yoga claims to work every muscle, tendon, joint, internal organ, and gland, if not every nerve ending. It also claims to detoxify the body through the legendary amounts of sweat released during the practice, while systematically refreshing the body with oxygenated blood. The poses are held for up to 60 seconds, creating a tourniquet effect on some or several parts of the body.

During vasoconstriction the blood supply is cut off so creating pressure. Upon release of the pose vasodilation occurs when blood rushes back into the veins and arteries flushing out toxins and bracing the body.

The idea that there might be benefits to oxygenated blood flooding a local part of the body after it has been momentarily compressed is controversial in the medical establishment. Bikram Choudhury is unperturbed by the naysayers.

”It is beyond medical science. I prove this every single day,” he says.

The second posture was a prolonged sideways bend – punctuated by repeated commands to push, push, push – followed by a backbend with clasped hands and up-stretched arms, and finally followed by grabbing under our heels, straightening our legs, and folding over in a forward bend.

“Look like a Japanese ham sandwich,” the instructor said, describing the pose.

I had no idea what a Japanese ham sandwich looked like, and besides, I was vegetarian.

While we were bent over, pulling with our arms to intensify the stretch, the teacher exhorted us to lock our knees.

“Lock the knee, lock the knee, lock the knee!”

Lock the knee?

Whenever I had heard any other yoga teacher say anything about locking your knees, it was to make sure we did not do it.. Anytime I had read something about it, such as the advice of Drs. Georg Feuerstein and Larry Payne, authors of Yoga for Dummies, it was to avoid locking your knees as you tried to keep your legs straight in standing poses.

As I straightened my legs, attempting to fully extend my knees, the instructor who had been at the front of the class suddenly swooped down next to me, and pointing at my legs with his riding crop – I mean his finger – said:

“Tighten the quad muscle and pull the kneecap up.”

What he meant was to squeeze the front thigh muscle so that the kneecap would lift up, but not hyperextend the knee. Squeezing holds the knee in a supportive position. The emphasis was on protecting the knee, focusing on placement of the feet, knees aligned over ankles, and stressing the muscle and not just the joint with the full load of the body.

The next asana was awkward pose, more commonly called chair pose, done three different ways, first traditionally but with arms held up, forward and parallel to the ground, ‘triceps tight, tight, tight’, then high up on the toes, arms still forward but flagging, and lastly slightly up on the toes and in a squat, knees and thighs pressing together, and arms finally very, very heavy and on fire.

“Fall back, way back, go back, more back,” our instructor said, demanding that we straighten and lean back.

As soon as we were done we did it again.

Bikram poses are performed twice. The first time the pose is held forever and the second time they are held for slightly less than forever. Entering every second set the instructor encouraged us to immediately go to where we had left off in the first set so as to gain the maximum benefit.

The awkward poses were followed by two sets of eagle pose, another balancing act, followed by the official water break. Those in the know reached for their insulated water bottles while I stared at myself in the mirror, dazed.

“Welcome to the torture chamber,” I heard the instructor say.

“What have I gotten into,” I asked myself.

“Break time is over. Time to concentrate,” the instructor said.

Break time had lasted less than thirty seconds.

The 26 poses begin and end with breathing exercises, and the 90-minute class progresses from standing postures to backbends to forward bends and twists. The first half of the class is practiced upright, many of the poses featuring balancing on one leg, and the second half down on the mat. The first half of the class is known as the warm-up and the second half as getting down to serious business.

The next three poses were standing head-to-knee, standing bow, and balancing stick. All the while the instructor urged us to lock our standing leg like CONCRETE! Try as I might I wasn’t able to get my head anywhere near my knee, my bow pose amounted to trying to stay upright at whatever cost more than anything else, and by the time I got to balancing stick there was very little balance left in me, my legs wobbling like JELLY!

At the end of the three postures I was sweating like Shaquille O’Neal at the foul line, my breath sounded more like the snorting of Godzilla than the measure of a yogi, and most worryingly the warm-up half of the class was not over, yet.

“It takes courage and intelligence to do the stages of yoga right, and to start with this hatha yoga,” says Bikram Choudhury. “It’s just you and nothing but you, standing in one spot frozen like a statue with no place to go for help or excuse or scapegoat except inward.”

After a standing stretching pose, during which I finally caught my breath and my heartbeat slowed to thrash metal speed, we stepped into triangle pose. It was like stepping into the next circle of hell.

“It’s the most difficult posture we do in the sequence,” says Bikram Choudhury.

The Bikram variation of the pose is a blend of traditional triangle and extended side angle, but without the pleasures of bending the torso sideways or resting the forearm on the thigh of the lunged front leg. It is the ninth pose in the sequence, and is what I later described to my wife as the Love Potion Number 9 pose.

‘It smelled like turpentine/It looked like Indian ink/I held my nose, I closed my eyes/I took a drink.’

With my eyes wide open, front leg bent, back leg diagonal, both arms extended out, tilting them at the same time like a windmill turning, I reached down with one arm while simultaneously reaching up with the other. Our instructor said to turn our heads and look up, trying to touch our chins to shoulder. I stared at a brown water stain on the white ceiling tile.

“Don’t forget to breathe,” the instructor said.

The ‘I think’ of the western world is the ‘I breathe’ of yoga.

The pose was hell on my hips, but it was an epiphany at the same time. This is what Bikram is all about, I thought. It was the therapeutic torture machine come to life. With the effort my breathing slowed down, becoming less labored, and time stretched out like taffy. I felt like I wasn’t just in the moment, but in an unending minute.

If God is the tangential point between zero and infinity, and if yoga is about connecting with the divine, as we repeated the triangle pose on both sides another time I began to either see the light at the end of the tunnel or got light-headed from the effort, but before the white light became too intense we were doing a standing compression pose, then another balancing pose, and finally we went down onto our mats for two minutes of R & R.

We lay on the floor at the fulcrum of the standing series and spine strengthening series, the room suddenly grown quiet. Savasana, also known as corpse or dead body pose, is considered the most important posture in the series. It is designed to focus the mind and breathe new life into the body by maintaining total stillness

The two minutes on my back were more like try-to-stop-fidgeting pose. I was unnerved and restless. No sooner had I finally taken a reasonably real life breath and grown still than the instructor was at it again.

“Time for the sit-up,” he said.

The Bikram L-sit-up is performed after every floor pose, starting flat on the back, flexing the toes, bringing both arms overhead, crossing the thumbs, sucking in a lungful of air, and double exhaling, once on the sit-up, reaching for the sky, and a second time reaching for the toes, bending elbows to the ground.

“Try your best,” the instructor said. “Bend your knees if you have to.”

“99% right,” Bikram Choudhury says, “is still 100% wrong.”

As much as our instructor was pressing us to work hard, it would be a vast understatement to say that I would not want to practice under the tutelage of the boss himself.

The spine-strengthening series starts with Pavanamuktasana, a follow-the-bouncing-ball Sanskrit word meaning wind-removing pose, and each posture done twice ends in dead body pose for about 20 seconds, concluding by stretching the arms and on a loud exhale reaching for the ceiling and then the toes.

We did the L-sit-up after every pose in the series, so that after awhile it was like suffering from amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. Pose, corpse, sit-up, pose, corpse, sit-up…

The meat and potatoes of the floor sequence are the next four poses: cobra, locust, full locust, and bow. Each of them works a specific part of the back: lower, middle, and upper. Overall the series is designed to open, compress, flush, strengthen, and heal the spine from top to bottom.

But, it’s no four-course meal.

“Look out of the mirror, see the back wall,” the instructor optimistically urged us during cobra, insisting we pull our elbows backwards and down, keeping them close to the body as we pressed into the floor with our hips and feet, tried to lift our knees, and pushed forward with the chest, looking up, up, and over.

“If I see any elbows I might have to kick them,” he cautioned everyone during locust pose, striding through the ranks.

The ingredients of the following pose, full locust, are made up of squeezing the legs and feet together, spread-eagling ones arms, and then raising arms, legs, and torso upwards, so that only the hips are contacting the ground.

“Up, up, up like a 747, fly like an F16,” the instructor said. “Look up out of the mirror.”

I didn’t feel like an F-16. I felt like a slow, shaky, rusty biplane with Baron Manfred von Richthofen swooping down on me. I could hear the thunder of his twin synchronized 8mm Spandau machine guns, smoke was pouring out of my tail, I was going down…

“I have got to take a break,” I thought.

And then God did me a favor.

As the class went to the pose again, and I thought about resting on my heels to cool off, the power suddenly cut out, the room went dark, a pair of emergency floodlights blinked on, and there was a low clap of thunder outside. I sat back seiza style, breathed deliberately in and out for the duration, and thanked my lucky charms.

While in dead body pose after the asana the power came back on, and we swept into bow pose, although my version was more like crossbow pose, and then it was on to the menagerie of alternate back and forward bends: fixed firm, half-tortoise, camel, and rabbit.

In half-tortoise, trying to keep my butt on my heels and stretching my arms forward, pressing my pinkies into the mat, sweat fauceted in a steady stream from my chin and through my shirt from the middle of me, forming a spreading Rorschach blot beneath my nose.

“Make sure to breath, surrender to the pose,” the instructor said. “You can either go upstream or downstream with this yoga.”

I was in a whirlpool of hot weather, a low-pressure vortex of heat and humidity stalled just above me in my corner of the room, the air stagnant and heavy.

By the time we got to camel I was beginning to wonder if there was any end in sight. Were there really just 26 poses? Or were there really pi poses, and the instructor had forgotten to tell us we were going to be in the hot room forever? Was the 90 minutes just a mirage on the horizon?

The original Bikran practice had 84 poses in its entirety, and required more than two hours of determined hustle and bustle to get through. It is now the advanced series, rarely seen, and the popular practice culled from it is known as the beginner series. All the poses in the beginner series, which is considered the healing practice, come from the original classical postures.

Unlike many other styles of yoga, almost anyone coming to Bikram Yoga from the rat race can do the beginner series in some fashion, but at the same time it also attracts athletes, even professional athletes, who along with everyone else practice the same poses in the same order under the same conditions. The series is designed to work in proportion to the effort and sincerity one puts into it.

“Never too late, never too old, never too bad, never too sick to start from scratch once again,” says Bikram Choudhury

When we curled into rabbit pose, a kneeling forward bend accomplished by pulling on the heels, my forehead tucked into my kneecaps, pushing down with my shins and up with my legs, I became aware of a malodorous smell. It was coming from my rubber Jade mat soaked to its core from the epic amounts of sweat pouring out of me, but it was me, too. I was radiating stifling waves of heat and body odor.

I was dizzy and slightly nauseous lifting up out of the pose.

We practiced three leg stretches, twice, then a spinal twist, and after a last sit-up it was all very suddenly over. The instructor congratulated the first-timers, and the class concluded with everyone sitting back on their heels for blowing-in-firm pose. Bikram Yoga begins with a breathing exercise and finishes by bringing the focus back to the breath, although the beginning focuses on filling the lungs and the ending on strong exhales.

If sweating is the Bikram method to regenerate the body on a cellular level, breathing is the Bikram key to a healthier, longer life. Other than the pranayama exercises, during the practice it is repeatedly stressed to breath as normally as possible, so that the breath is neither controlling the practitioner nor the practitioner controlling the breath.

Easier said than done, I thought, recalling the huffing and puffing I had done all class long.

The first set of exhales we did was at a measured pace, like blowing out sixty birthday candles one at a time, but the second set was done at ramming speed. It was like the movie Ben-Hur, during the sea battle, when the galley captain commands the slaves to row their fastest, and when he does the galley drummer increases the tempo.

The instructor kept us in sync by clapping rapidly.

Bikram Choudhury describes the last breathing exercise as the “final flush of the toilet,” releasing the last of the toxins from the lungs.

When we were done and I was completely out of breath and toxins the class was finally beyond any doubt over.

“Good job, everyone,” the instructor said. “Please try to stay in Savasana for a few minutes. It’s the most important pose. Thanks for coming.”

And with that he dimmed the lights and left the hot room.

Traditionally, for every hour of hatha practice one is expected to spend a minimum of five minutes in dead body pose. That turned out to not be a problem. I was the second-to-last person to roll up my sodden mat and stumble out of the Bikram hot room.

Postscript: From Here to Eternity

Six months later I remember my first class like I would remember escaping from a burning building. Imagination is often mistaken for memory, but there is no mistaking the memory of plunging into the hellfire of Bikram Yoga.

In the beginning I could only bear to practice it once a week, otherwise continuing to attend vinyasa classes. After several months I was able to endure the steamroller twice a week, and recently I have upped the ante to three times a week. The heat and humidity are still a challenge, and probably always will be, but I have learned to start hydrating the minute I wake up two days before class.

I maintain a daily personal practice, a basic slow flow yin smorgasbord with a bit of meditation mixed in, but six months later the only yoga exercise I engage in outside of my home, squeezing and pulling and flexing, is in the hot room.

Three times a week I drive forty minutes to get to the 90-minute class, stayed by neither rain nor snow nor darkness, although snarled traffic is always a threat. I sing in the car along with the Searchers on the radio, changing the lyrics to mirror the method.

‘I took my troubles down to Bikram crew/You know that guru with the gold-capped tooth/He’s got a pad down on Hollywood and Vine/Sellin’ little bottles of Love Potion Number Nine.’

My made-for-vinyasa rubber mat has been put away and I have gotten a basic black one as well as a fancy Manduka towel. The beach-size terry absorbs bucketfuls of sweat and keeps my mat and immediate surroundings free of saltwater pools infested by bacteria. I never wear a non-synthetic shirt, always making sure it is sleeveless, and sometimes even peel it off when the room is abnormally humid because of the Lake Erie weather.

I no longer try to snag a spot near one of the doors at the beginning of class, hoping that the instructor will crack them open for a few seconds at some point to improve the ratio of students actually practicing to those catching their breath or otherwise completely gassed out on their mats.

I don’t think I will ever be able, however, to graduate to the Speedo suit favored and recommended by Bikram Choudhury. The image of my Eastern European body clad only in a Speedo staring back at me from the mirror is both daunting and disturbing. It is a sacrifice I am unwilling to make.

After every class I drag my gym bag gobbed full of wet smelly clothes and towels home, heave it all into the washing machine, and later hang it up to dry. It has become a routine, like the poses, but the poses are different, because no matter that it’s always punch the time clock and get to work all over again. Even though every class is the same, no class is ever the same. They are never easy, but that is all they have in common.

I have lived through six months of the practice, and even survived a fire alarm. We were in one of the balancing poses, the instructor reminding us to meditate in the mirror as I vainly tried to will myself from toppling over, when the wall alarms began to clang throughout the yoga studio.

“Don’t worry, stay in the class,” the instructor quickly interjected. “We have a very capable fire department. If we need to leave the building they will let us know.”

When the firemen in their heavy coats poked their heads into the hot room they peered curiously in all directions, gave us a thumbs up, one of them said all was ok, and just as promptly as they had come they backed out and closed the door. It was a false alarm. I could have used a good long squirt from their hoses, but I doubt our instructor would have approved.

It was a compelling testament that we all stayed put. I wondered what it was a testament to, and later thought it was testament to everything the practice espouses, such as patience and discipline and concentration.

Besides, the boss insists everyone must stay in the room, notwithstanding that we have all come to the hot yoga class of our own free will.

I have learned to accept the horrible inescapable challenge of the heat exactly because I don’t like it, nor am I congenitally suited to stand it, and because six months later I have begun to sense the therapy in the design of the practice. I go and once there I try to do the best I can, as much as I can, with as close to 100% effort as I can, and no cheating, or as little as possible. I still can’t get my other leg wrapped around and off the floor in eagle pose.

“Try the right way and eventually you will make it,” says Bikram Choudhury.

“You have nothing to lose. You had nothing to begin with. Just get in the hot room and kill yourself! You will understand the benefits for yourself!”

After class the instructor mingles, talks shop, and lastly mops up the hot room and the outside hallways of sweaty footprints tracked back and forth from the shower rooms. One night I bumped into him manipulating his Swifter Wet Jet forward and backward, cleaning up.

I had at first planned on taking a few classes now-and–then, then maybe a few months of it, then had decided to commit to it for year, just to be fair, and finally had concluded it would most likely be two years, given that I was a slow learner. The devil in Bikram is in the details, not just the effort.

One of the goals of Bikram Yoga is the 30-day challenge: 30 classes in 30 days. I have managed classes on consecutive days on several occasions. I am not brave enough to imagine three or four in a row, yet, much less an endless month of them.

“I know this class is good for me,” a woman lean like a runner, rolling up her mat next to me, said one night. “But, I would rather run twelve miles in the middle of the day in the middle of summer than do this.”

“This blarney of Bikram’s better work.” I said as the instructor finished mopping up that night’s trail of blood, toil, and tears. It had been an especially grueling class.

“Don’t try so hard,” he said.

“The class is a 90-minute open-eyed guided meditation, not just a sequence of asanas in a hot room. It works, you’ll see, but it’s not really about the exercise. It’s hatha yoga, sure, but about breathing and meditation even more than that.”

Meditation?

Bikram Yoga is considered by legions as an excellent system of physical exercise, and in the same breath often condemned because yoga is not just a system of physical exercise. The persistent Bikram emphasis on bodily fitness is seen as obviating the other arms of yoga, especially the mindful and spiritual aspects of the practice.  Bikram Choudhury has even been accused of being materialistic and spiritually bankrupt.

But, at the core of the Bikram practice is prolonged concentration, focusing into and through the mirror, controlling the mind so that it is committed only to the asana and nothing else, and breathing to connect the body and mind, with patience and faith. It is hatha yoga as the yellow brick road to get to raja yoga and all the rest of it. There is no overt meditation, but the practice itself is fundamentally and ultimately meditative.

That is the method to the madness.

“I teach spirituality. I use the body as a medium,” says Bikran Choudhury. “I use the body to control your mind, to make your spirit happy. I wish that every human being should do yoga.”

It is the body, the mind, and the spirit yoked together – the yoga gravy train sans the trimmings.

It is old-school yoga practice in the hot room. Thank God, I thought while driving home, bolstered back into the seat cushion of the driver’s seat and finishing off a quart of water as I got onto the highway, I don’t have to go back until the day after tomorrow.

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Mad Dogs and Hot Yogis

hot-yoga.jpg

By Ed Staskus

After 30 years of flying under the radar, even though the practice is as old as living mindfully, yoga exercise began to steamroll in the early 2000s, and in recent years has skyrocketed in popularity. According to many surveys it was the biggest trend in the fitness industry in the past decade, remaining a firm Top 10, and will continue expanding through the 20-teens, says the American College of Sports Medicine in its year-end issue of the Health and Fitness Journal.

Media Market Research reports that yoga is gaining converts at a faster pace than most other traditional sports, appealing to a new, high-end demographic. The yoga industry is growing so fast it is expected to reach $8.3 billion in sales by 2016, according to Rebecca Moss of the Village Voice.

Hot yoga, a subset of the practice, has grown slowly but surely since its introduction on the west coast in the mid-1970s. Although yoga exercise is designed to warm the body from within, in the modern speed-it-up convenience society it has been re-purposed as expedient to warm the body from without.

It was once thought only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, meaning that natives of colonial India were often puzzled during the age of empire when their British overlords were out at lunchtime at the same time everyone else was indoors getting away from the heat. That is no longer the case. Hot yoga may today be the fastest-growing segment of the business, having spread far and wide beyond its L. A. coastal cool beginnings.

The hot yoga phenomenon began with Bikram Choudhury, winner of the National India Yoga contest at 13-years-old. He suffered a serious knee injury at age 17 and was told by doctors he would never walk again. He was subsequently healed through intense yoga therapy under the aegis of Bishnu Ghosh, the brother of Yogananda, author of the seminal ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’.

After leaving the sub-continent and immigrating to the United States he opened the Bikram Yoga College of India in the basement of a bank building in Beverly Hills.

Bikram Yoga claims that tens of millions practice his style of yoga at nearly a thousand studios on six continents. It is the only form of yoga ever copyrighted, practiced in a room heated to 105 degrees and 40% humidity, reaching a heat index in excess of 120. (The 10-year-old copyright was brought into question by the U. S. Copyright Office, which recently said that sequences of yoga exercise are not the equivalent of a choreographed work.)

The risk factor of a heat index in excess of 115 is considered by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to be “very high to extreme.” A common reaction to one’s first Bikram class is, “Man, this might be a mistake – I don’t think I’m going to make it.”

Bikram has been known to refer to his hot rooms as “torture chambers.”

Bikram Choudhury has reportedly taught his yoga to George Clooney, Kobe Bryant, and Lady Gaga, among others. He typically wears a black Speedo and special gold jewelry that won’t melt in the heat while teaching. He contends his regimen of 26 poses cures everything from arthritis to heart disease to obesity, and maybe even old age itself. The senior citizen yoga master recently took time out from his busy schedule for a photo opportunity featuring Las Vegas showgirls.

“I live in a pain-free body thanks to Bikram,” said Stacy Shea, a long-time Las Vegas Strip dancer who suffered a work-related crippling herniated disc and was confined to a sick bed before taking up Bikram Yoga.

“And I look 10 years younger!”

Hot yoga has become a staple at most studios in recent years, so much so that seemingly any yoga exercise practiced in a room with a working thermostat has become a hell of a workout. Based on the Ashtanga tradition, although usually not referencing any specific style or school, hot yoga typically involves moving from pose to pose in tandem with breathwork.

Moksha Yoga and Baptiste Power Yoga are among the better-known brands. The eponymous Baron Baptiste holds yoga retreats he describes as “boot camps.” Ana Forrest of Forrest Yoga weaves sweat lodges into what she calls her yoga ceremonies. Some hot yoga studios cite enhanced self-control and determination “due to the challenging environment” as benefits of the practice.

Hot yoga rooms are commonly heated in the 90s, Bikram rooms in the 100s, and advocates point to increased flexibility, toxin flushing, and a great cardiovascular workout as benefits of the practice.

Heat is said to soften muscle tissue, making it able to open and stretch. “A warm body is a flexible body,” says Bikram Yoga. “Then you can reshape the body any way you want.” Warmer room temperatures allow for deeper stretching and more graceful body movement, according to Anne Janku, a fitness and yoga instructor in Columbia, Missouri.

“It helps to heat the body up more so it becomes more fluid, and then when we get into the stretching part of it, it allows us to relax our muscles more,” she said.

But, heating the body up is not exactly what the body needs or wants, and brings with it certain consequences. “When you exercise, your muscles generate heat,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. “To keep from burning up, your body needs to get rid of that heat. The main way the body discards heat is through sweat. Lots of sweating reduces the body’s water level, and this loss of fluid affects normal bodily functions.”

Heat and humidity can add up to risky business, even for those in good shape. The hazards of exercising in hot rooms include heat cramps, the most common consequence, heat syncope, or a quick drop in blood pressure, heat exhaustion, leading to dizziness and weakness, and in extreme cases, heatstroke.

The best way to avoid these dangers is to drink plenty-and-more fluids with electrolytes, balancing out the water and salt lost through sweat. Many Bikram Yoga studios recommend drinking LOTS! of water, up to a gallon the day of class, followed by even more after class.

The intensity of hot yoga burns more calories than any other yoga practice, according to practitioners, some claiming upwards of 1000 calories per hour being burned through. Significant weight loss is often cited as a benefit. “Hot yoga is the most invigorating yoga I have experienced,” says Jillian Zacchia, a dancer and writer based in Montreal “After the 90-minute routine I feel as if I have just experienced an intense fat-burning workout.”

Bikram Yoga offers up testimonials of metabolisms made new and hundreds of pounds shed. Warm muscles are said to burn fat more easily as the heat flushes and detoxifies the body. Fat will turn into muscle is the hot yoga mantra.

However, according to the Health Status calorie counter, hot power yoga burns 594 calories an hour, followed by Bikram Yoga at 477 calories an hour. By contrast, ballroom dancing burns approximately 250 calories an hour, while running a 10K in under an hour burns approximately 1000 calories, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“The benefits are largely perceptual,” said Dr. Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. “People think the degree of sweat is the quality of the workout, but that’s not reality. It doesn’t correlate to burning more calories.”

Sweat is not always a precise gauge of how effective a workout is.

Proponents of hot yoga argue that working harder in a heated and humidified room strengthens the body, resulting in greater endurance, internal organ conditioning, and a stronger heart because of the heart being challenged to get oxygen to the stressed cells of the body.

“You know that awesome feeling of accomplishment you get after a great cardio workout? It feels like that,” said yoga instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine Elite Trainer Michelle Carlson “It’s more centered and grounded. It’s a feeling close to elation.”

Many believe it works every part of the body, including muscles, joints, glands, and even internal organs. “It is scientifically designed to warm, stretch, strengthen, and detoxify the body from the inside out,” said Erin Cook, owner of Bikram Yoga in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. She added that the rewards include better sleep, more energy, and less stress.

But, not everyone agrees that it is the best of all possible workouts.

“You may think it’s purifying and cleansing, but you have to respect the physiology of the body,” said Fabio Comana, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. “The human body is designed to tolerate temperatures between 97 and 100 degrees,” he said, speaking about the extreme heat associated with hot yoga. “It is not designed to go outside those numbers. Core temperature can go up very quickly. Over 105 degrees you will start to damage protein.”

Some enthusiasts disagree.

“Bikram started hot yoga here in the United States because in Bengal it is typically 114 degrees in the shade,” said Nicole Garbani-Twitchell, owner of Hot Yoga in Helena, Montana. “It is silly and just plain scientifically incorrect to say that practicing in a hot room overheats the external body.”

But, yoga in India was traditionally and still is practiced in the early morning to avoid the heat of the day.

Multiple studies have shown that exercising in a hot room compromises the release and uptake of calcium as well as normal muscle function, and decreases blood and plasma volume. “The body uses more muscle glycogen and fewer ingested carbohydrates during exercise in a hearted environment compared to a cooler environment,” said Shy Sayar, owner of Yoga One in Petaluma, California. Heat stress reduces the oxidation of carbohydrates, according to the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Yoga exercise and heat increase core body temperatures. To cool itself the body circulates more blood through the skin. “This leaves less blood for your muscles” says the Mayo Clinic, which in turn increases the heart rate. “If the humidity is also high, your body faces added stress because sweat doesn’t readily evaporate from your skin. That pushes your body temperature even higher.”

For every degree your body’s internal temperature goes up, your heart beats about 10 beats per minute faster. Many hot yoga proponents believe that exercising in the heat burns more calories because their hearts are beating faster as they exercise. However, it is not the case. “It is oxygen uptake that determines the number of calories burned, not heart rate,” says Craig Crandall, director of the Thermoregulation Laboratory at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

Many doctors and fitness experts believe a brisk walk or bicycle ride are best for anyone wanting to burn calories. The next best are interval training and strength training. Going from flab-to-fab is about burning more calories than you take in, not sweating more to cool the burn in the hot room.

Bikram Yoga proclaims itself as the detox practice extraordinaire since it induces profuse sweating. It says, “When you sweat, impurities are flushed out of the body through the skin.” Detoxification is often the most touted benefit of the practice, said to “cleanse and purify the system.”

Writing in the Underground Health Reporter, Danica Collins reported, “the intense heat has an extraordinary ability to open the pores and expel body waste and foreign chemicals through heat.” Some believe that the skin is a so-called third kidney with overall waste removal capacity.

“That’s silliness,” says Craig Crandall of the Thermoregulation Laboratory. “I don’t know of any toxins that are released through sweat.“

Sweating is a way for the body to cool itself off, not purge itself of impurities. It is the liver and kidneys that filter toxins from the blood. Sweating too much and becoming dehydrated could stress the kidneys and actually keep them from doing their job.

A persistent problem linked to exercising in hot rooms is potential damage to connective tissue, especially ligaments and tendons, and including muscles. “Heat increases one’s metabolic rate, and by warming you up, it allows you to stretch more, but once you stretch a muscle beyond 20 or 25 percent of its resting length, you begin to damage a muscle,” said Dr. Robert Gotlin, director of orthopedic and sports rehabilitation at the Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.

Sore or arthritic joints, like the back, hips, and knees, can be aggravated if torqued too much in even easy poses. Seated poses can inflame sciatica. More is not always better when it comes to joints. Those with more mobility are often in the same boat as those with limited mobility, teetering on their own private edge of flexibility, which can lead to inflammation.

“The heat makes people feel as if they can stretch deeper into poses and can give them a false sense of flexibility,” said Diana Zotos, a yoga teacher and physical therapist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan. “This can lead to muscle strains or damage to the joint, including ligaments and cartilage.”

The Golden Rules of yoga, the restraints and observances, apply to environmental issues in the same way as they apply to everything else.

A collateral concern about hot yoga is the amount of energy it consumes to heat up space for the practice. It is a carbon heavy business. A busy hot yoga studio will be heated to upwards of 100 degrees 4 – 8 hours a day. It requires 9800 BTU’s (British Thermal Units) to heat a 1000 square-foot space with 8-foot ceilings to 68 degrees. It requires 15,200 BTU’s to heat the same space to 105 degrees, not counting the energy needed to humidify it if it is a Bikram Yoga class.

In addition, water conservation gets thrown down the drain.

Everyone who takes a hot yoga class showers afterwards, if only for the sake of their friends and family, either at the studio or at home, even if they already showered in the morning. A hot yoga studio can easily service hundreds a day. One hundred people showering for 5 to 10 minutes means 3 – 5000 gallons of water are used. Fortunately for the sake of energy savings, given what they have been through, some elect to take cold showers.

If classic yoga is like driving a Prius, hot yoga is like driving a Hummer, although in the spirit of combating climate change some yogis bicycle to their hot yoga classes.

Whatever the case may be, whether it’s a practice for mad dogs or a practice for everyone from professional athletes to weekend warriors, the guiding principle behind hot yoga may not be anything Patanjali ever said. He defined yoga exercise as a “steady and comfortable posture or position”. It might have much more to do with what the Courts of England oftentimes said in the colonial era to resolve competing claims.

Caveat emptor is all we’ve got left to say.

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