Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

Drowning in the Safe Room

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By Ed Staskus

   Mike Butler was catching some zzz’s beneath a clear night sky and three-quarter moon. When he woke up, he woke up quickly. The car came to a stop below him, the engine went dead, and a car door opened. It closed quietly, a trunk opened, and closed quietly.  He peeked down through the slats of the second story deck. The trunk wasn’t a trunk. It was a hatch. The car wasn’t a car. It was a black Lexus SUV.

   A man carrying a rolled-up bundle, like a carpet, wrapped in plastic, over his shoulder, went into the house through the side door. He beeped his way in with his set of keys. Mike rolled quietly off his folding chair. He stood to the side of the sliding glass door. No lights had come on and he couldn’t hear the man in the house. Was he coming upstairs or staying downstairs?

   Should he go or should he stay? He knew he could ignore the stairs, swing over the railing, and drop soundlessly down on the sand at the back of the house. He didn’t know where the windows there were, not exactly, even though he had helped cater some parties in the house last year. He decided to stay.

   He didn’t have to wait long. When the man came out of the house he walked to the front of the Lexus, leaned back on it, facing the dark ocean, and lit a cigar. In the flare of the lighter his lips were pinkish, like pink goo. The ash from the cigar flaked off and floated like charred mercury onto his safari jacket.

   Mike stayed in the shadow of the eaves where he could see the man but the man couldn’t see him. He could hear Cape Cod Bay at high tide on the other side of the beach. The man with the cigar in his mouth got into the SUV and drove away.

   Mike went the way he had come, walking up Chequessett Neck Road to Great Island where he had parked. At home he rolled a smoke. He had been surprised as anyone would be surprised by anybody showing up at a seasonal mansion in early May, in the middle of the night, even though the weather was unusually fine.

   Vera Nyberg was and wasn’t in a hurry. If she left in the next five minutes she might be on time for work. If she took Archie for a walk she would be late for sure. Halfway into spring, halfway to summer, her job wasn’t so much work as it was holding down the fort. It’s never too late to go and get that fresh air feeling, she thought, thinking about going for a walk.  

   Besides, unless it was summer, when everyone on the Outer Cape worked like dogs, she tried as much as possible to get to the office late and make up for it by leaving early. If she left early today she could make the five o’clock Strong Flow class at Quiet Mind in Wellfleet.

   “Come on Archie,” she clapped, reaching for the Airedale’s leash. They left the house on Washington Avenue and walked up Commercial Street. When they got to Lopes Square they turned down MacMillan Pier to the end where the ferry came and went to Plymouth. 

   Archie was her constant companion, her watchdog, and one of her best friends. He liked running full speed ahead into streams ponds ocean. In the 1920s President Warren Harding had an Airedale. His name was Laddie Boy. President Harding always included the dog in his cabinet meetings at the White House. Laddie Boy had his own special hand-carved chair.

   They’re all mongrels now, Vera thought

   “Come on, boy, let’s go home,” she said.

   Archie liked Vera more than anyone. He felt like there were three faithful friends in this life, ready money, a good dog like himself, and a good master like Vera. He liked everything about her. She enjoyed reading books at night. He curled up at her feet, keeping her feet warm and his belly warm, too. “Outside of a dog a book is man’s best friend,” said Groucho Marx. “Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

   Archie didn’t take it the wrong way. Besides, he didn’t know how to read. He wasn’t planning on learning, either, although Vera sometimes read stories out loud to him. Learning to read was the first step on the path to a career. He was not a working dog.

   Dick Armstrong was a well-built man with thick lips and a crooked smile. At least Vera Nyberg thought so. She smiled back at him as he sat down carelessly. He wore a cotton safari jacket and aviator sunglasses. He had scrupulously white teeth, but she didn’t like the way he smiled, or the way he sat down. His face was scabrous and she found herself looking away, only glancing at him.

   Vera shot an eye at his driver’s license. He did and didn’t look like himself, two-faced.  She thought she might not like him. What if she had planted a bomb in the seat cushion by mistake?

   “What can I help you with, Mr. Armstrong?” she asked.

   “You work for me,” he said. “You watch our house.”

   Vera smiled politely and imagined a small bomb in the seat cushion, again.

   Vera Nyberg was an Ashtanga Yoga teacher, but yoga didn’t pay the bills in the off-season, or the on-season, either. She worked part-time for Focus Home Security, in Orleans, in a small office condo off Cove Road behind the Orleans Post Office. The office was on the first floor and faced south, lit by bright natural light on sunny days and gray natural light on cloudy days.

   The drive was more than forty minutes from her rented room in Provincetown, but since she worked part-time, and since it was an off-season job most of the time, it wasn’t too long or too much. Route 6 was never overburdened in the off-season. Besides, most of her work was on-the-road work like property checks home watch resetting smart home features in Wellfleet, Truro, and P-Town itself, all of which were closer than the office.

   She baby sat summer vacation mansions and held the hands of absentee landlords. Vandalism, storm damage, and frozen pipes were usually as nerve wracking as it got. Property surveillance was Focus Security’s bread and butter.

   “I pay for your key-holding service, and since I was passing through, I want to stop at our house and walk through it, look everything over, before we come up next month,” said Dick Armstrong.

   Who passes through the back end of a peninsula? Vera asked herself.

   “Of course, we can arrange that,” she said. “When would you like to inspect the house?”

   “Now.”  

   Twenty minutes later they got off Route 6 and drove through Wellfleet to the bay side of the town. The Lexus blotted out the sun as Vera followed behind Dick Armstrong down the curvy Chequessett Neck Road. Archie lolled in the back seat of Vera’s Honda CRV.  

   She had never been inside the Armstrong house, but had seen it often enough. She took Archie for walks on the long beach past what was called The Gut. After parking at Great Island, unless she cut through the woods and took a track on a backside dune, she walked past the house at the end of the road. She had even parked in their driveway several times, when she knew the house wasn’t occupied, when she was short on time for a quick short hike. 

   The Focus Security magnetic vehicle sign came in handy then.

    The house was on the edge of the Cape Cod National Seashore and stuck out like a sore thumb. She knew it had a reputation. Eight years ago, when it was being built, it was sometimes called Horrible House. 

   An older, smaller house had been bought and torn down and the Armstrong’s had somehow convinced the town’s building inspector to give them a permit to build a house three times the size. It dominated the view across the Herring River. Wellfleet’s homeowner’s association and the National Park Service appealed the permit, but the house got built, anyway.

   “Kill the Rich!” had been spray-painted below the garage door windows before the house was even finished. Focus Security parked a man in the driveway until the commotion died down. Since then, the Armstrong’s spent three or four or five middle-of-the-summer weeks on the Outer Cape. Sometimes their children, extended family, and friends took the house over for a weekend. After Labor Day it was shut up for the winter.

   Everything about the house was Cape Cod-like, from the cedar shingle siding to the paired windows on both sides of the central front door to the fishy weathervane. Everything was right about it, perched on the sea, except for the King Kongness of it.

   They parked in the driveway. Vera looked up at the second story deck. She liked the deck, round high facing the ocean.

   “Unlock this door,” said Dick Armstrong, pointing to the side door. “I don’t want that in the house,” he said, pointing to Archie in the back seat.

   Archie didn’t like the way the man said it, but he didn’t bark about it.

   As soon as they were inside the house, he jumped out of the car window Vera had left open for him. He barked at the Lexus. He sniffed at one of the rear tires, lifted his hind leg, and peed on it. Archie could hear and smell the ocean. In a minute he saw it and in the next minute he was at the shore, in the water.

   Inside the house Vera sat at the kitchen table while Dick Armstrong strode through the rooms, strode upstairs, and strode back into the kitchen.

   “Everything looks good,” he said. “Come down to the panic room. I want to check the alarm system and security cameras.”

   “I thought they were called safe rooms.”

   He gave her a sharp look. “Panic room.”

   The basement floor was a mirror-like epoxy painted slab. There were a pool table, a billiards table, a snooker table, and a bar with eight or nine stools. The safe room was a concrete square in the corner. The door was a steel door. The hinges and strike plate were reinforced. A table with four chairs was to the right of the door. An open bathroom with a first aid kit on the wall was behind the table. On the left a two-door cabinet held dry goods, bottled water, and gas masks. In the left corner were an office chair and table, an iMac, shortwave radio, and closed-circuit monitors.

   A woman was splayed on the floor, dress disordered eyes closed face blank, dark red blood drying in her blonde hair.

   Vera looked up as Dick Armstrong took a step at her and grabbed her by the throat. His face looked like murder. She slashed at his mouth. His lips came off in her hand. He hit her with a short hard right to the temple and her legs went wobbly. She leaned into him. A black inky film filled her eyes. She lost consciousness as he let her go to the ground.

   Archie was almost dry by the time he ran back to the car. He had a hard dense wiry coat. Thick heavyset dark clouds were rolling in across the bay. When Dick Armstrong came through the side door Archie wondered, where’s Vera? The side door slammed, and the man strode towards his car.

   Archie didn’t like the smell of it. The man had a sour smell. He wanted to ask him where Vera was, but the man, opening his car door, kicked at him. Archie was an Oorang Airedale. His great-great-great-great grandfather had been a fierce competitor in water-rat matches. He jabbed headfirst at the man’s leg, slashing through the pant fabric, and biting into warm flesh. He could taste blood in his mouth.

   It tasted good.

   Dick Armstrong yawped and flung himself into the Lexus, lurching and grabbing at the door. Backing out of the driveway he swerved at the Airedale, but Archie was graceful fast lissome, and it was child’s play jumping to the side.

   The better I get to know people, thought Archie. He wasn’t trying to be narrow-minded, but what he liked about people most of the time was their dogs. Dogs never bite me, only people. He jumped into the CRV. The rain fell like dread.

   Vera Nyberg blinked her eyes open. She was lying prone on a medical exam table. The ceiling was white. She took ten twenty then a hundred slow steady breaths staring into the white. When she was done, she tried to prop herself up on her elbows. She slowly deliberately wary lay back down on her back. Her head hurt like somebody had hit it with a hammer. Hedging her bets, she closed her eyes and fell back into the inky blackness. 

   Officer Matheus Ribeiro was stocky and had short stocky black hair. Besides routine patrol work, he was the medical supply officer and detainee monitor. He sat across from Vera in an interview room in the Wellfleet Police Department checking and double-checking a sheaf of papers on a clipboard. Vera knew him, not so much as a policeman, but more as a friend of Rachel Amparo, her friend on the Provincetown Police Department.

   He was from Brazil, Porto Velho, one of the state capitals in the upper Amazon River basin. He was a graduate of the Plymouth Police Academy and had been on the Wellfleet force for six years. He spoke Portuguese, Rachel spoke Portuguese, he was a great cook, and Rachel loved great food.

   One night, over plates of bacalhau, Vera asked him what he liked about being a policeman.

   “I get to drive as fast as I want,” he said.

   Rachel, whose duties routinely involved foot patrols, scowled.

   “What the hell, Vera,” he said. “What happened?”

   “Where’s Archie?” she asked.

   “He was asleep in the back of your car. We called Bruce. He and a friend of his picked Archie up and your car and took them home. Now tell me what happened.”

   When she was done, she laced her fingers, reached up and behind the chair, and stretched. Officer Ribeiro leaned back in his chair, tipping on the back legs. He straightened up.

   “Mr. Armstrong was who called us about you,” he said.

   “What?”

   “He called the department and said he was worried, said he had called from Boston and asked that somebody from Focus walk through his house, that he was coming up for the weekend, since the weather was so good. He said you volunteered and would call him back within the hour. When you didn’t call by the end of the day he called your office, no answer, and then called us.”

   The policeman drank from a bottle of Poland Spring.

   “He asked us to drive by, see if everything was OK. When we pulled up your car and Mrs. Armstrong’s car were in the driveway.”

   “Mrs. Armstrong? There was no Mrs. Armstrong, only him, by himself. And the woman.”

   “The woman was Mrs. Armstrong. She was in the safe room in the basement, with you, except she was dead.”

   “That was the first and only time I ever saw her.”

   “I was going to ask you about that. We’ve told Mr. Armstrong about her death, and he’ll be here today.”

   “If that’s him in the picture you showed me, that’s not exactly him. That’s not the man who slugged me.”

   “There’s something at odds here.”

   “What time is it?”

   “Nine, nine in the morning.”

   “When did Mrs. Armstrong die?”

   “The medical examiner so far is saying ten, eleven o’clock, the same time you were there.”

   “How did she die?”

   “The same as you, blunt force, but you didn’t die.”

   “Am I a suspect?”

   “Yes and no.”

   “I like the no part better. Can I go have breakfast?”

   “How’s your head?”

   “It could be better.”

   “There’s no substitute for a hard head. Where are you going?”

   “The Lighthouse, then home, I’ve got to shower, and change. I’ll be back.”

   “How are you going to do that?”

   “I was hoping you could drive me to the Lighthouse. I’ll call Sandra on the way. She can take me home. Archie and I will be back by five.”

   “This isn’t exactly how murder investigations are supposed to go.”

   “You’re right about that, about this being murder. He was the man who slugged me, with his wrong face or no wrong face. I think it’s all just sand in our faces, just some sleight of hand.”

   “We’ve confirmed him to be in Boston with a friend yesterday.”

   “What kind of a friend?”

   The policeman hesitated. “A close friend.”

   “It has to be something about the house, something personal. Why not solve your problem in Boston, or get someone else to solve your problem, make it disappear? I’ve got a friend, one of Sandra’s catering guys, who was once a jailhouse lawyer, before he went more-or-less straight. He’s an IT jack-of-all-trades, good at following the money. He’ll know how to find out.”

   “I know Mike Butler, so let’s drop that within earshot of me,” said Officer Ribeiro.

   “Man, that’s crazy, I was there the night before last, hanging out on that second story deck of theirs,” said Mike Butler.

   Vera, Sandra, and Mike were having a late breakfast at the Lighthouse. They sat at the bar. Sandra lived in Eastham but worked part-time at Herridge Books in Wellfleet. It was a small bookstore with no magazines and no café, just books. There were books in stacks on chairs tables and the floor. It smelled like a bookstore even with the windows open.

   Sandra catered private parties on the side. Mike was one of the local men who worked with her. In the off-season, in the late afternoon or evening, he often roosted on decks and porches of unoccupied seasonal houses on seaside lots. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” he said. He never brought his iPhone. He never parked in the driveways. He always brought his own Eddie Bauer folding chair.

   “Yeah, there was a guy, some kind of black car, a big one, like a Caddy, or a Lexus, maybe” he said. “He carried something into the house, didn’t stay long. As soon as he was gone, I made myself gone, too.”

   “Can you find out about that house, about them, who held the purse strings, and who was on the outs with who?”

   “Sure, after breakfast, give me a few hours. Call me if I don’t call you. I might be taking a nap.”

   Men are most sincere when they’re in love, when they’ve been empowered, and when they’re committing murder. Dick Armstrong must have fallen out of love with his wife, thought Vera. Murder wasn’t the next step, but it might be if his love had turned to hate. Murders are always a problem when they’re spur of the moment crimes, when they’re mistakes. But Dick Armstrong had gotten too clever for his own good trying to send a message to the graveyard. When someone has thought and thought about something it isn’t hard working backwards and reading their thoughts.

   Vera showered, fed Archie, and meditated for an hour. Most days she meditated for half an hour, except when she was busy. Then she meditated longer. She had been busy the past day-and-a half. Breathing exercises and meditation were about everything and nothing at the same time. They were acts of slowing down, getting centered, and finding some understanding and compassion for the living and the dead.

   “It’s his money, real estate money, plenty of it and plenty of it shady, but all the personal property was in her name,” said Mike Butler as they sped down Route 6 to Wellfleet.” She was after a divorce, she’s saying abuse, but she wanted more than alimony, she wanted the summer house.”

   “The horrible house,” said Vera.

   “It’s not so horrible, kind of big, but a great view of the bay.”

   “Why did she want the house?”

   “She wanted it because he wanted it. He planned the house just the way he wanted it, he bought off everybody and his brother, he went to court, fought off the do-gooders, the Feds, got it built even though they made him jump through hoops, got it done. Hell, he probably loved that house a lot more than he loved her. She probably knew that, too.”

   Mike Butler had grown up in old Provincetown before it became new Provincetown, when property was cheap and rents low and gays and hippies were starting to show up. He didn’t downpress anyone one way or the other. His father had fished for cod on his own boat out of Provincetown Harbor. Mike still called Commercial Street Front Street and Bradford Street Back Street.

   He didn’t care about bankers and stockbrokers buying up land, either. He had his family’s old small house in Provincetown. The front door still faced the ocean, unlike most of the town’s waterfront houses, which had been turned round so the front doors faced the street. He kept to himself, except when he was working, or watching a BoSox game at the Lighthouse, a Pabst Blue Ribbon at hand.

   Mike lived with a box turtle he’d had since he was a kid. Inscribed on the underside of the shell of the turtle were the initials M. B. and the year 1979, where he had carved them with a pocketknife on his 18th birthday, six years after his father gave him the baby turtle for his birthday.

   Archie liked riding in the CRV with the windows open, just in case anything came up that he needed to bark at. But he had a bad habit of barking at anything that moved, a crossing guard, a passing bicyclist, a rafter of wild turkeys on the side of the road. Sometimes Vera told him to “Shut the hell up.” He didn’t know exactly what hell was, but he knew exactly what she meant when she said it. She wasn’t shy or dry nor someone who beat the sense out of words.

   When they pulled into the Wellfleet Police Department parking lot and Archie barked at Dick Armstrong getting out of his white Lincoln Navigator, Vera said, “Good dog.” Two men in suits went into the station with him. “At least one of them is a lawyer,” said Mike. He rubbed the top of Archie’s head.

   The police station was on Gross Hill Road off Route 6, tucked beneath Oakdale Cemetery where Cemetery Road began and ended. “I’ll stay here, maybe go for a walk in the graveyard,” said Mike. Vera and Archie went into the station. Vera sat on a plastic chair in the lobby and Archie flopped down on the floor. She had gotten a good look at Dick Armstrong and couldn’t swear he was Dick Armstrong.

   A half-hour later, when Officer Matheus Ribeiro came out to the lobby and asked her if she could identify Dick Armstrong as the man who had attacked her in the safe room, she said, “No.”

   “Too bad,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to charge him with anything.”

   Ten minutes later Dick Armstrong and the two men accompanying him pushed into the lobby on their way out of the police station. One of the men gave her a look-see. Dick Armstrong stopped and eyeballed Archie.  

   Archie jumped up and started barking his head off. It was the sour-smelling man he had bitten outside the big house. He barked and barked but could tell no one was making heads or tails of what he was trying to say. “Keep that damned dog away from me,” shouted Dick Armstrong.

   Archie lunged at him, got his teeth into the right pants leg, and tugging violently tore the fabric off the leg at the knee. One of the men started to beat Archie with his briefcase. The police dispatcher, another policeman, and finally Officer Ribiero burst into the lobby, manhandling Dick Armstrong away from Archie, pulling Archie away from him, and pushing the lawyer with the angry briefcase away from the fracas.

   “Look what that goddamned dog did to my pants,” yelled Dick Armstrong.

   Everyone looked

   “Look at his leg,” said Vera. “Look at the bite mark on his shin.”

    Everyone looked.

   The bite mark was black and blue in an ugly ring where the skin had been broken. Five inflamed red marks defined where canine teeth had drawn blood. Some kind of antiseptic cream was smeared over the wound. Two of the red marks were back-to- back.

   “That’s Archie’s bite,” said Vera. 

   “What?” asked Officer Ribiero.

   “One of his baby canines got retained, and since it wasn’t bothering him when his permanent teeth came in, I just let it go. He’s got two canine teeth on that one side, which is why his bite mark is the way it is. I’d know it anywhere, because that Dick Armstrong isn’t the first Dick Armstrong he’s bitten. If this man was in Boston yesterday, how did he get bitten by my dog on the same day?”

   “Get the Medical Examiner on the phone,” Officer Ribiero said to the police dispatcher. “In the meantime, I think it’s best if we all go back inside and go over this from the beginning. And you,” he said, pointing to Vera, “bring that dog with you.”

   Only the lawyer with the out of gas briefcase objected.

   “They took photos, took some measurements, and took some samples from Archie and Armstrong,” said Vera.

   Rachel Amparo and Vera were at Terra Luna in North Truro.  They sat at the bar and shared plates of artichoke heart pate and grilled sardines. Rachel sipped on a Flower Power cocktail while Vera pulled from a bottle of Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.

   “If the DNA matches it’ll throw a new light on everything,” said Rachel. “That’s when the trouble will start. One lie will lead to another until it’s all a house of cards.”

   “I’m always telling Archie he’s not allowed to bite people,” said Vera, crunching on a sardine. “He agrees, I think, but he seems to think it’s OK to bite anyone who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing.”

   “He’s a good dog,” said Rachel.

   Archie was on his stomach lounging in the orangey sunset at the back of the small restaurant. Tony was working in the kitchen. He could see him through the screen door. Archie’s chin was flat on the warm grass, back legs tucked up under him. His front legs were extended before him. He could clearly smell pork chops being grilled.

   Maybe Tony will bring me something to eat soon.

   He was glad he had been able to help by biting the sour-smelling man. He didn’t often bite people. He preferred to bump them when he had to.

   One night Vera had read a story to him called The Dog Who Bit People, about Muggs, an Airedale like him, but unlike him a dog who bit everyone in sight, although he didn’t bite his family as often as he bit strangers. “When he starts for them, they scream and that excites him,” explained the mother of the house. The city police wanted him tied up, but he wouldn’t eat when he was tied up.

   Archie thought Muggs lacked good sense.

   When the screen door swung open Archie jumped up. Tony was bringing out a bowl of water and a plate of pieces of pork chop and the raw meat bone.

   “The bone is for after your meal,” said Tony.

   Later, chewing on the bone, he thought the sour-smelling man may have had the wrong mug shot, but he knew in his bones he had bitten the right leg on the right man at the right time.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Chaturanga Chatter

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By Ed Staskus

“Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”  John Wayne

There are some constants common to all yoga classes, from the bewilderment of beginner instruction to the push and pull of Ashtanga, from the relief of restorative classes to the drumbeat marching orders of Bikram. One of them is setting your intention.

What yoga teachers mean when they say set your intention is to practice with a purpose, such as quieting your mind, or developing greater awareness, or simply nailing the poses. It is the same as setting a goal, or defining what it is you want to do so you can do it. Your body, mind, and spirit then become open to change and transformation.

“Every time that I begin a yoga class, I make sure to allow my students time and space to set an intention for their practice,“ said Dana Marie, a CorePower yoga instructor.

Intentions are a way to ground the mind, so that when one’s mind wanders there is always the original thought to return to. Intention creates reality. It’s better to be on the mark with intention than flop around by default.

“When my mind goes somewhere else, I just remember my intention and I come back,” said Jenniferlyn Chiemingo, Director of Yoga at hauteyoga in Seattle.

A second constant is that the teacher will emphasize, no matter what the rest of the class is doing, that it is up to you to practice in such a way that it benefits you. There is a steady stream of reminders across approaches that it is fundamentally an individual pursuit that is meant to move at an individual pace.

“You create your own experience,” said Greg Gumucio, founder of Yoga to the People. “You are responsible for your body. You are your best teacher.”

What they mean is that regardless of the instruction, and no matter what the rest of the class is doing, what you do in class and what you accomplish is up to you. The outward shape of the yoga pose, or asana, is not what matters so much as what you put into and get out of it

“The most important thing to remember is that yoga is all about you, it’s your practice and nobody else’s,” said Linda Schaar of Vibrant Life Yoga.

Yoga posture classes are about tuning into your body. They are about taking yourself as deep as you are willing to go, but at the same time being able to stay within the perameters of what is going on, to be able to recognize and respond to consequences.

“I can always choose to rest in child’s pose, chill out with my legs up the wall, or completely opt out of today’s fancy pose,” said Rebekah Grodky, a university administrator and yoga teacher in Sacramento. “Yoga is about self-love and acceptance of where we are right now.”

A third constant is that teachers will talk about going inward, of wedding your breath with your movement. An awareness of one’s breath makes you more aware of yourself and grounds you in the here-and-now. It is thought the more you go inward the more fully you can be present.

What teachers are talking about when they recommend going inward is the fifth aspect of the classical eight-limb system of Patanjali. This fifth limb is known as pratyahara, or inversion. It is generally thought of as a way of learning to lessen reaction to the distractions of the world around you, although it actually counsels withdrawal from the senses.

“The journey of yoga is a couple of hundred miles up a mountain, but it is a millions miles inward,“ said Lilias Folan, best known for her PBS series ‘Lilias! Yoga and You’. “There is a lot more to yoga than a ten-minute headstand.”

The last constant of most yoga classes, as soon as they actually start, after the homilies and theme-setting are over, is that teachers will do their best to thwart your intention, break your resolve to make the practice your own, and shatter whatever commitment you have made to go inward.

The first thing many yoga teachers do when class starts is plug in their iPods and twirl up their personal play lists, from MC Yogi to Bob Marley, from Krishna Das to Norah Jones. Even the Queen of Pop and King of Rock get in on the act. If it’s a Bikram class, the Leaders of the Pack climb onto their platforms and clear their throats.

When did yoga teachers become DJ’s? Or DI’s, drill instructors frog marching their cadets through the steam, as the case might be, in the world of Bikram Yoga? When did touching your toes become a Pavlovian response to ‘Head Over Feet’?

Music has become an elemental part and parcel vital ingredient of Vinyasa Flow classes, the most popular form of yoga. Sometimes musicians will even play live during classes. It’s entertaining, but it begs the question, what does it have to do with the practice? Does the Billboard Hot 100 enhance breath and awareness? Does it help focus attention on the inner man and woman? Does getting it together mean having to listen to the certified gold ‘Get It Together’?

Or is it just more noise, just another way of avoiding silence?

“The musical classes, if I wanted to dance, I’d go to Zumba,” pointed out William Auclair, who practices yoga in Monterey.

The next thing most yoga teachers do, once the soundtrack is spinning, is start talking and not stop talking until the class is over. Yoga was once made for doing, not for talking. “Just do,” said Pattabhi Jois when it was still old-school. If it’s a Bikram Yoga class, they talk twice as loud and twice as fast as other teachers.

Some teachers even talk during savasana, or corpse pose, in the guise of what they describe as guided meditation. Corpse pose used to be about sinking into stillness. Assembly instructions weren’t required. It was more a seat of your own pants thing. When it’s a Bikram class, corpse pose is the only time teachers don’t talk. They leave the hot room the minute class is over, leaving the sweat lodgers to chill out on their own.

When did the front of the room become a soapbox? When did yoga become a blank page for an editorial? When did yoga teachers start going center stage, like conductors of a symphony orchestra?

Conductors are meant to get their musicians to play all together for an audience. Yoga teachers are supposed to get posture students to do the work for themselves. Yoga isn’t a performance. Trombone players consciously and deliberately slide their telescoping mechanisms to make sounds concertgoers like. Yoga practice, on the other hand, is sliding into a consciousness of the unconscious.

How much talking should a teacher do during class?

There is a range of opinion mindset approaches.

Beginner classes are necessarily composed of a steady stream of instruction. Iyengar Yoga, since it focuses on body alignment and is largely about basic principles, involves precise verbal guidance. Bikram Yoga, hell-bent on obedience, is an unchanging and unending litany of commands.

The claim is that the patter keeps everyone on track, in lockstep. All yoga involves a certain amount of instruction from the instructors, or teachers, beyond just mechanically sequencing the class. That’s what they’re there for. A paramount concern of yoga exercise classes is that poses be practiced safely.

This is true from beginner classes, where instruction is vital, to intermediate classes, where it is complementary, to Ashtanga and other advanced classes, where it is rote.

Many yoga posture students appreciate the instruction they receive in class.

“If I didn’t want to hear my instructor teach and lead me I wouldn’t bother with a class,” said Amber Rose, who practices in Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho. “I want them to talk me through it, to help me reach a deeper level. When I want quiet time I’ll practice at home on my own.”

Some wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love the talk,” said Alicia Allen, an Assistant Professor at University of Minnesota Family Medicine. “Words of encouragement and relevant stories are always helpful to me.”

Others, however, even those going to class for instruction and physical adjustments, believe there should be some space for them to experience the poses on their own.

“Chit chat and personal stories are very different than cues and directions,“ said Emily Callison Heilbraun of Charleston, South Carolina. “I don’t need to be asked twenty times what my intention was when I started the class.”

Even at big studios in the middle of big classes people are often looking for opportunities for stillness and self-observation. No matter how much movement there is the room they want to keep a kind of quiet engaged. Steadiness comes from stillness of person.

Yoga is what bubbles up from the nothingness of silence, not from the everything of pep talks, sermonizing, and multi-media.

“When people come to do yoga, they come to empty,” said Cyndi Lee, writer and founder of the former OM Yoga in NYC. “If the teacher is filling up too much space with talking, too much music, or too many stimuli, it makes it difficult to empty.”

Yoga teachers need to stop talking so much, according to YogaDork.

“It may be because they love telling stories, or making oodles of verbal adjustments, or hearing themselves speak yogic poetry, but some yoga teachers just don’t know when to shut up!”

The question has even been raised if teaching poses in class has become secondary to other considerations.

“The instructor offered little to no guidance about how to actually do the poses,” Leslie Munday, a former yoga teacher, wrote on ‘Recovering Yogi’ about a class she attended. “She was practically turning herself blue in the face telling us how to live our lives.”

As a strategy for yoga classes the dispensing of advice has its problems. Benjamin Franklin observed wise men don’t need advice and fools won’t take it. Everyone else in class, for the most part, only wants to hear it if it agrees with what they were going to do anyway. The best advice may be to not take anyone’s advice.

Listening to advice is not without its pitfalls, including the misstep of ending up making somebody else’s mistakes.

Although most don’t talk until they’re blue in the face, some teachers talk “way too much,” observed Kimberly Johnson, an international yoga teacher trainer. “A lot of teachers say that their goal is for students to feel ‘better’ or ‘happier’ after class. Where it gets tricky though is at what point in your teaching trajectory do you deem yourself ready to teach philosophy or wax poetic?”

But, ready-made knowledge isn’t the role of yoga, at least not beyond beginner classes. It is rather a practice whose dynamic fosters conditions for invention and re-invention. The number 1 teachers don’t pose as number 1’s. They aren’t the ones who try to tell you everything, but the ones who inspire you to teach yourself.

“You have to grow through the inside out,” said Vivekananda, a key figure in the introduction of yoga to the Western world. “There is no other teacher but your own soul.”

Silence and speech are like yin and yang. Each depends on the other. Speech explains the mystery and silence brings us closer to it. Yoga is between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is.

Who listens to anyone who yammers on and on about the ‘deeper lessons’ of the practice? Who can focus on the intricacies of headstand when Elton John, the Liberace of my generation, is on the play list, hamming it up about his Rocket Man? Who can relax when somebody keeps telling you to just relax?

Yoga isn’t about texting, tweeting, and talking, talking, talking. It’s about stepping back, absorbing silence, and being in the moment. “It is to quiet the fluctuations of the mind,” said Patanjali about the purpose of yoga.

That can be hard to do when your teacher is yakking it up.

“When we’re constantly chattering, it’s a distraction and brings students into their heads,” said Karen Fabian of Bare Bones Yoga. “A great way to create presence is to allow for silence.”

Oftentimes the less you say is the more you are listened to.

Although soapboxes are tempting – who doesn’t enjoy the glow of attention – and there are plenty of yoga teachers who talk too much, many of them, based on my own walk in the door unscientific tally, talk just enough, sprinkling advice, observations, and encouragement in with instruction.

There are some who might even not talk enough.

A few years ago I was in a workshop in my hometown of Lakewood, Ohio, given by Naime Jezzeny, a teacher from New Jersey who specializes in biomechanics and its application to yoga. We were all in bridge pose when he walked over to our side of the large room. After looking over what a few other people were doing and briefly commenting on them, he stopped at my mat.

He looked my pose up and down, chewed on his index finger, and said, “Hmmm…” I looked up at him. He looked at my clasped hands beneath me.

Then he walked away to the next mat.

I’ve always wondered what he meant by what he said. Or meant by what he didn’t say.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com.  Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Revenge on Race Point

By Ed Staskus

Vera Nyberg tugged on her floppy bonnet, scrunching it down to the tops of her ears. She had braided her hair into a high bun earlier in the day, and reaching into her back pocket found the silver-plated Alice Teapot hatpins she had brought with her, pushing them though the hat and bun.

The wind was blowing hard, gusting off the ocean, and the fine Race Point sand stung her bare calves below the black Capri’s she was wearing.

Looking ahead she broke into a trot to catch up with her friends. The bonnet stayed in place.

She had ridden her bike to the beach after finishing her late afternoon holiday class at Yoga East, past the Province Lands Visitor Center, and walked the surf to the near side of the lighthouse and Hatches Harbor. Race Point was the only beach on the east coast on which you could stand and see the sun set over the ocean in the west behind you. Twilight was close, but dusk was still more than an hour away, more than enough time to fly kites, if she could get hers off the ground.

“I haven’t flown a kite since I was a kid,“ said Vera as she came abreast of her friends.

“It’s just like riding a bike,” said Caleb. “Here, I’ll show you.”

Her three friends were year-round Provincetown residents who operated an inn and guesthouse on Washington Avenue between the main thoroughfare, Commercial Street, and Bradford Street. Caleb had been flying kites the past two summers on Race Point Beach.

Four kites were laying flat in the sand.

“Yours is the delta,” said Caleb, pointing to a purple, blue, and bright green kite with streamers off the back points. “The sled is mine, and the two diamonds, that’s Elliott’s, and the one with the Tasmanian Devil on it is Bruce’s.”

A Looney Tunes cartoon of the Tasmanian Devil was emblazoned on a yellow field bordered in black. The gaping mouth of the devil was red and lined with gleaming, white fangs.

Vera turned to look at her kite and asked, “How do I make it go up?”

“There’s nothing to it,” said Caleb “Delta’s are easy to launch, they fly no matter what, and almost always sit at a good steep angle. But, they’re unpredictable in gusty winds, so watch out.”

Caleb tossed a handful of sand up to see which way the wind was blowing and then turned his back to it. He held the kite in one hand and unwound several feet of string onto the sand. He gave the kite to Vera.

“Hold it over your head as high as you can with the tow line facing you,” said Caleb. “Let the kite go as soon as it fills with wind and starts to pull. Unwind the string as you go, but make sure to hold the spool and not the string itself.”

Vera released string from the spool and the kite darted higher and higher, its streamers snapping in the wind. In a few minutes all the kites were flying high and spread out above the sand dunes. When Vera’s kite slid downwards and she struggled to turn it parallel to the wind, Caleb came close enough to her to be heard.

“Kites fly highest against the wind, not with it.”

Vera pivoted towards the gloaming ocean and let out string, watching the wind take the kite. As she did she wondered who was flying the kite, her or the wind.

“There’s a saying that those who fly a kite live a long life,” said Elliott as they walked back to the parking lot in the falling darkness.

“Flying a kite lifts my spirits,” said Bruce.

“It’s a little bit yogic, too,” said Caleb. “As you look up following the kite near to far, your neck opens. It’s a counterbalance to looking down or at eye level all the time. You have to pay attention. It keeps you in the moment.”

“And it’s fun, like happiness on a string” said Vera.

They walked side-by-side along the surf. Gray seals played peek-a-boo just outside the line of breaking waves. Ahead of them several large gulls were dive-bombing something rolling in the surf.

“It looks like they’ve found dinner,” said Bruce.

“Herring gulls,” said Caleb.

“No, those are the black-backs,” said Elliott.

The surf was heavy and the water foaming. The gulls let the wind take them away as Vera and her friends drew nearer. They soared across the beach and hovered along the ridge of the sand dunes.

“What is that?” asked Caleb as they approached the bulk the gulls had been attacking. A gang of sanderlings skittered past them, their skinny legs a blur, racing after the receding waves.

“Oh, my God, it’s a person, a man,” exclaimed Bruce, who was in the lead, stopping short.

The others crowded around him, but then en masse ran into the crashing surf, grabbing what they could of the man, and dragged him out and onto the backwash-rippled sand. In the tumult they pulled him facedown as they had found him. Quickly rolling him over on his back they recoiled from his lacerated face, pockmarked with slashes. His scalp was mottled.

The gulls had pecked his eyes out.

Time stopped for a moment and at the end of it was embossed on the memory of the four friends looking down on the man in cargo shorts, his stomach bloated by the ocean and features ravaged by the birds.

Vera looked across the expanse of Race Point to the dunes and then across the open, endless water. She thought as far as death is concerned we all live in a world without walls that are always falling down.

Caleb broke the spell by asking if anyone had brought a cell phone, but no one had. Elliott volunteered that his was in the car and sprinted to the parking lot. As he grabbed his Samsung out of the glove compartment of his Ford Fiesta the idling engine of a Cadillac Esplanade parked on the far side of the lot purred.

Vera and Bruce sat down on the sand a short distance away from the surf, waiting, while Caleb stood guard over the dead man. The black-back gulls circled overhead, angry, cawing and squealing.

In the distance Vera heard the wailing of a siren.

The Cadillac Esplanade slid out of its parking spot and skirred towards the Provincetown Municipal Airport.

A hard rain fell the next day, Tuesday, the day after Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer on Cape Cod. It turned roads into rivers and all afternoon cars on Route 6 were compelled to pull off to the side, unable to see through the watery white-out. In the middle of town at Bradford Street beneath High Point Hill Road, at the bottom of Pilgrim Monument, sewers clogged and the street flooded. A Fire Department pumper was brought in, creating wakes as it slowly plowed to the middle of the road.

A minivan stalled halfway through the deep water. The driver clambered on top and sat beneath his multi-colored umbrella, watching the volunteer firemen, their hoses snaking away to MacMillan Pier, while a highway crew worked on the snarled drains. The rain turned to drizzle, but the sky stayed dark and threatening as the storm rumbled northeast towards Maine.

Wednesday morning dawned clear and bright, the sky a cerulean blue. Vera tidied up her room, showered, meditated on her mat for a half-hour, and then, not finding her friends anywhere, either in the guesthouse or the inn, found her way to the backyard enclosed by cypress hedges. She watched tree swallows and hermit thrushes darting in and out of the bird feeder.

Stretching her legs out, she slipped her feet into a pair of flip-flops and walked up Commercial Street to the Portuguese Bakery, where she ordered eggs on a papo seco and Darjeeling to go. She walked to a bench at the far end of MacMillan Pier and ate her sandwich while looking out over the flat water. A black-and-white Provincetown squad car made its way slowly up one side of the pier, turned, and began to make its way back. As it approached her bench it stopped and a policewoman poked her head out the window.

“Hi, Vera,” said Patrol Officer Rachel Amparo, and stepped out of the car, its flashers blinking. Vera and the policewoman had become acquainted over the course of the summer at the twice-weekly primary series Ashtanga classes Vera taught and Rachel Amparo struggled at.

“Hi, Rachel, nice day,” said Vera. “Especially after that storm we had.”

“You bet. Hey, I heard you discovered the drowned man on Race Point the other day. That must have been a shock.”

“It was, but we couldn’t help him. We pulled him out of the water, but it was too late. Have you found out who it was?”

“We did. He had a record and we were able to match his prints, lucky for us, because his face was a mess.”

“He was a criminal?”

“No. In fact, he was one of the Stoddard’s, maybe you’ve heard of them, the Boston fishing and shipping people.”

Vera had never heard of the Stoddard’s, or their company, and since she was a vegetarian didn’t give fish much thought.

“Some vegetarians eat fish, you know,” Bruce had told her when she moved to Provincetown.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said, wondering what he was talking about.

“Stoddard was arrested two years ago at an Earth Day demonstration on the Commons. It wasn’t much, the way I saw the report. He pushed a policeman into the Frog Pond, but they processed him, so his prints were in the FBI database.”

“What happened? How did he drown?”

“We don’t know, but there was water in his lungs, so we know that’s what happened. We don’t know how it happened. We’re thinking he fell off a boat, the way the tides work there, but no one has reported anything, and the Coast Guard hasn’t spotted anything adrift.”

The radio on the policewoman’s vest squawked and she stepped back and to the side, speaking into it.

“Vera, I’ve got to go, fender bender on the Shore Road,” said Officer Rachel Amparo, walking quickly back to her squad car. “See you in class tomorrow.”

“Bye, see you then,” said Vera, waving.

She finished her tea, tossed the sandwich wrapping and paper cup into a trash can outside a trap shed showing large-scale photographs of Cape Cod schooners, and walked to Commercial Street. But, instead of turning right, back to the guesthouse, she turned left and walked to the Provincetown Bookstore.

The bookshop was in a weathered white building with black-framed windows. A small sign beside the door said “Since 1932”. Inside, stacks of books, most of them best sellers, romances, and self-help tomes, but with an offering of poetry and mysteries, as well, overflowed thick tables and disorderly floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

On the far side of the counter was an autographed photograph of John Waters, who had worked at the bookstore before departing for Hollywood.

A trim middle-aged woman manned the small front counter. She glanced at the door with an expression of mild exasperation, pushing her reading glasses up her nose with two fingers. A just opened cardboard box of books squatted on the counter.

“Oh, Vera, I was just thinking of you,” she said, breaking into a smile.

“Hi, Hattie, something good, I hope.”

“The UPS man was only now here and gone. I think maybe that Charles Bukowski you asked for might be in this shipment.”

She pulled hardbound books out of the box one at a time, glancing at the covers. “Here we go, I was right.” She handed the book to Vera.

The cover was in black and lurid yellow. The title Women was scrawled in jittery capital letters on the black background, while in the yellow field above the title a woman in a tight dress and stiletto heels imaged from the waist down bent over to scratch one of her ankles.

“I don’t know what you see in him,” said Hattie.

“He was an alcoholic, a postal worker, and probably a misogynist, too,” she added. “That book,” she said, pointing at it with her chin, “is about every sexual penchant of every woman who ever dared to sleep with him after he got famous. Most of them were mad as hornets after the book was published.”

Ham on Rye might be the best American novel ever written,” said Vera. “ I know he could be simplistic and disgusting, and even narcissistic, but he was honest, maybe to a fault. He was always honest.”

“Vera, he was crazy honest, or honestly crazy,” said Hattie. “He never worried about what to say or how to say it, or how it could affect others, he just said it. That can’t be right. And you call yourself a yoga teacher.”

“He makes me laugh,” said Vera, abashed, but unwilling to abandon her recent enthusiasm for the writer. “It’s the truths he tells, it’s like you’re hearing them for the first time, and they can be very funny, even when they’re serious.

“Anyway, like Bukowski said, great writers are indecent people. They live unfairly, saving the best part for paper. You should know that, being a bookseller,” added Vera, and they both laughed.

“Oh, I heard you and the boys found that man on Race Point,” said Hattie, suddenly changing the subject. “What happened? Who was it?”

“I don’t know, he drowned. That’s how we found him, drowned, rolling in the surf. He was from Boston, one of the Stoddard family, but I don’t know who they are, although I heard he was an environmental activist.”

“Aidan Stoddard? I can’t believe it. He’s been on the Outer Cape most of the summer. He was living down in Wellfleet. He was here just a few days ago. He was always buying something, especially about the oceans and climate change, that kind of thing. He was friendly with Bruce, did you know? But, how could he drown? He was a champion collegiate swimmer. I heard he was good enough to try out for the Olympics, even though he didn’t make the team.”

“Oh,” said Vera Nyberg, the hair on the nape of her neck standing up.

World-class swimmers don’t sink to the bottom of the pool or wash up on Race Point in a pair of cargo shorts.

Walking back to her room, the book under her arm, Vera thought about Aidan Stoddard. How had he died? It didn’t seem to make sense.

“We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us,” was something she remembered Charles Bukowski had written. Had Aidan Stoddard laughed at the odds, or had death been forced on him somehow? She would have to talk to Bruce.

“That couldn’t have happened,” said Bruce that night when Vera told him, the two of them sitting in the backyard.

“He could swim for miles, I mean, the man was like a seal. Really, there is no way he could drown. Once he told me that they used to practice underwater breath holding until it felt like you were drowning. He said the sensation makes you remember everything you ever knew about swimming and he knew everything about it. He was really strong and in the water he was weightless and even stronger.”

“But if he didn’t drown,” asked Vera, “and the police say he did drown, what happened?”

“What I mean is, he couldn’t have drowned unless something, or somebody, drowned him,” said Bruce. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that Tyler boyfriend of hers. I wouldn’t put it past him. He looks like he would do anything for money.”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Aidan’s wife, Emily, and her boyfriend. I forget, you didn’t know him, I mean, Aidan, or any of that.”

Bruce was quiet for a moment. Vera watched the late season lightning bugs in the twilight. She thought of how when she was a girl she and her friends would catch them and holding one between their fingers pretend it was a diamond ring.

“Aidan was one of the Stoddard’s, the Boston fishing family that goes back more than one hundred and fifty years. You know how Cape Cod in the 17th century was named for the near-miraculous shoals of cod that were in the waters. Back then you could catch them as fast as you could bait and haul in line.”

A process of seagulls soared overhead toward the bay.

“A hundred years ago hooks gave way to draggers and the boats got bigger and bigger. Then the fishermen started using echo finders and satellite positioning and by the 1980s the fisheries around here collapsed. There were almost no more cod left. The government closed down 8000 square miles of ocean, but even though scallops and haddock have come back, the cod still haven’t. The Stoddard’s were one of the fleets that emptied the ocean. They were the biggest and most modern, and not only that, they were so powerful and connected they worked hand-in-glove with the New England Fishery Management Council, which meant that every decision the council made favored the fishermen, at least in the short term.”

“Didn’t the Stoddard business collapse when all the fish were gone?” asked Vera.

“No, by that time they had diversified, not just into banking and shipping, but they were still in the fish business, processing the catch of floating factory trawlers out on the Atlantic. They had finished off the fish here and were hoovering it up out of the rest of the ocean.”

“What about Aidan?”

“He was groomed to take over the family business, went to Harvard Business School, and married a Hampton’s girl, but then things started to change with him. He was taking lessons at the Boston Old Path Sangha, like me, which is where we met.”

“How was he changing?”

“We had lunch one day last year. Oh, yeah, he had become a vegetarian, like you.”

“It’s better all around, you know.”

“Right, anyway, he said civilization was a conspiracy to keep us comfortable. One natural disaster, he pointed out Hurricane Sandy, and you can see we’re at the mercy of nature, not the other way around.”

“Sometimes it’s a mistake to not be in awe,” said Vera. “Mother Nature’s teeth can be sharp.”

”When he showed up here this summer he told me his father had died and left him eight million dollars, he was divorcing his wife, and had enlisted with Greenpeace. I wasn’t surprised about his wife. Emily is a harpy. And she was having an affair behind his back, although he knew about it. What I wouldn’t be surprised about is if she had something to do with this.”

“Why?

“Because he was giving a lot of his money away to Greenpeace and to Coastal Studies here in P-town.”

“What are you going to do?” asked Vera.

“I think I’m going to talk to Ralph in the prosecutor’s office tomorrow and see what he can tell me.”

The next morning as Vera was rolling up her yoga mat in the backyard where she had been practicing Bruce barged through the gate with his car keys jangling.

“Vera, come to Sandwich with me.”

“Sure, but why?”

“They’re issuing a death certificate today,” said Bruce.

The Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Sandwich was a one-story building with a high, sloping gray roof, gray clapboard, and a brick entrance. Parked to the side of the front door was a Cadillac Esplanade.

Inside at the front counter Emily Stoddard and Tyler Bullock were talking to a tall bulky man with thick gooish lips. As they came up to them the man handed Emily Stoddard a manila envelope, shook her hand, and turning on his heel walked away down a disappearing hallway.

When Emily Stoddard saw Bruce she scowled, but then composed her face.

“Hello, Bruce, what a surprise to see you,” she said.

Bruce looked down at the manila envelope in her hand and back at her.

Emily Stoddard smiled pleasantly.

“They’ve ruled Aidan’s passing was an accidental death and issued a death certificate,” she said. “It’s all so very sad, but now we can go on with our lives.”

She smoothed the front of her skirt, glanced at Vera, and back at Bruce.

“Goodbye,” she said.

“Wait for me in the car, I’ll just be a minute,” said Tyler Bullock.

As Emily Stoddard walked out he asked Vera, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere, riding a bicycle, maybe?”

“Maybe,” said Vera.

“Bicycles are for little girls,” he said, and followed the Medical Examiner’s steps into the building.

“What was that all about?” asked Bruce.

“I don’t know,” said Vera.

As they walked along the front of the building to their car a sharp gust of wind blew Vera’s bonnet off her head. It somersaulted along the side of the building and came to rest in the thorns of a Rugosa bush at the far rear corner. Vera jogged to the bush and disentangled it.

She could smell the spicy clove fragrance of the white flowers.

As she straightened up she saw the Medical Examiner walking to his car and Tyler Bullock standing at the rear door.

What were they doing, she wondered?

As she made to go Tyler Bullock suddenly turned in her direction and glared, surprised and suspicious.

“What do you want?” he asked, loud, coming towards her.

“Just my hat,” she said, stepping back with it in her hand. Tyler Bullock was a large man.

“Go find your bike,” he said.

In the car Bruce asked, “Did you forget your hatpins?”

“Yes, I’ll have to make sure not to do that again.”

Later, circling through the Eastham-Orleans rotary, Vera asked, ”I wonder if the folks at Coastal Studies would tell us anything about the money Aidan was giving them?”

“They might,” said Bruce

“I’ll go see them tomorrow.”

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was on Bradford Street across from the Pilgrim Monument. As Vera came through the front door Kathy Neves da Graca, the executive assistant, turned from the filing cabinets she was stuffing with file folders toward the sudden breath of air.

“Hi, Vera, long time no see.”

“Teaching the tourists to twist and turn,” said Vera.

“Which reminds me…”

“I know, I’ll see you in October. But, that’s not why I stopped in.”

“I didn’t think so. What is it?”

“Have you heard about Aidan Stoddard?”

“Oh, my God! We couldn’t believe it. He was such a great kid.”

Kathy da Graca was in her mid-50s with two children in their mid-30s. Everyone 30-and-under was still a kid to her.

“He worked with us all summer, was a big help, and had signed on to Greenpeace. He was leaving for New Zealand next week. He was so excited. They had found a place for him on the new Rainbow Warrior. It’s such a loss.

“On top of that he was going to contribute a large amount of money to us. Now nobody knows where that stands”

“That’s what I wanted to ask you about.”

“I don’t know much about the details. You should talk to Ran Olds. He’s our development officer. He’s out on the pier today, cleaning up our kiosk. He would know everything about it.”

As Vera walked onto MacMillan Pier Rachel Amparo waved from the front of Outermost Kites and joined her.

“You’re on foot patrol today?” asked Vera.

Rachel Amparo pointed to the Pier Parking Permit Required sign.

“The boss was cranky this morning and I rubbed him the wrong way. This is my reward,” she said.

“I’m going over to the Coastal Studies kiosk to talk to Ran Olds about Aidan Stoddard. Kathy told me he was handling the money Aidan had pledged to them. I just have a feeling there is something not right about what happened to him.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was a world-class swimmer, but he drowned. How did he get out there? No boat, does that mean he paddled out on the spur of the moment wearing cargo shorts? He was leaving his wife and giving some of his inheritance to Coastal Studies and some of it to Greenpeace, but he ends up dead. What happens now? Does his wife inherit everything? There’s just something fishy about it.”

“I’ll tell you something really fishy,” said Rachel Amparo. “The Plymouth County District Attorney got a copy of the death certificate from the Medical Examiner in Sandwich this morning.”

“What’s fishy about that?” asked Vera. “Did it say someone killed him?”

“No, it basically said accident, or death by misadventure”

“What’s fishy about that?”

”The Medical Examiner’s office in this state is a mess. They’re underfunded and understaffed. I mean, that office in Sandwich, they built it in 2009, but it was unused until it opened in 2012. They couldn’t afford the staffing. They have long, long delays in producing death certificates. We’re talking a year-or-more. Homicides get missed and court cases delayed. Time is not your friend when you’re investigating a case or prosecuting it. But, here we’ve got Aidan Stoddard, it’s not exactly cut and dried, and we get a death certificate inside of a week.”

Vera thought suspicion was often recouped by finding what we suspected. She was not herself a suspicious woman. But, what had Tyler Bullock and the Medical Examiner been doing behind the building in Sandwich, she wondered again?

The door of the Coastal Studies kiosk was open. A man stepped out with a banker’s box and set it on top of two others. He was trim with thick salt and pepper hair, wearing shorts and a t-shirt.

“Mr. Olds?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, I’m Vera Nyberg, and this is Rachel Amparo of the police department. I wonder if we could ask you a few questions about Aidan Stoddard?”

Rachel Amparo gave Vera a sharp look. She ignored it.

“Sure, how can I help you?”

“It’s about the money he had pledged to Coastal Studies. Can you tell us how much it was going to be, and are you still getting it, now that he’s died?”

“It was a substantial amount.”

“How much?” Vera persisted.

“There’s probably no harm in telling you, now that we’re not going to be getting it.”

“No?”

“No, we got a call from Mrs. Stoddard’s lawyer yesterday afternoon that the offer was being rescinded, and a letter would follow to that effect. It was very disappointing.”

“How much are you not getting?”

“Mr. Stoddard had pledged three million to us and the same amount to Greenpeace. I doubt they will be getting theirs, either. We’ve been looking for funding to study the gray seals, but it looks like it’s going to have to wait.”

“The seals?”

“Yes, the hue and cry about culling them. Fishermen blame the seals for eating all the cod. Some call them wolves that go into the water.”

Ran Olds gave them a thin smile.

“They say they attract sharks, too. They probably do, but the cod aren’t coming back because they were overfished, not because the seals are federally protected. But, many people on the Cape believe they’re overabundant. There is even a group calling itself the Seal Abatement Coalition. Aidan didn’t agree and had earmarked some of his pledge to study the issue.”

“That’s too bad,” sad Vera.

“Yes, it’s too bad.”

In the backyard later that night Vera grilled balsamic vinaigrette tofu for herself and beef patties for Bruce’s hamburgers. As they ate she looked at Bruce’s flowerbeds. The fragrance of the asters filled her with nostalgia. Vera’s mother had vigilantly tended flowers when she was a child. Her knees had always been green at the end of the day.

After eating they lingered over bottles of Harpoon IPA.

“Did you know burning aster leaves keeps snakes away?” Vera asked Bruce.

“No,” he said. “What brought that on?”

“Tyler Bullock,” she said.

“Oh, right.”

“There’s something about the Medical Examiner that rubs me the wrong way. He was talking to Tyler Bullock behind the building before we left. It just makes me think there’s something not right about the death certificate. If only there was something we could do.”

“I could talk to Ralph tomorrow and check if his office can ask for a second opinion on the autopsy.”

“Do you think he might do that?”

Bruce took a pull on his Harpoon.

“We’re friends, so it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

Vera slept well that night, her breath beery and her window open wide to the cool breeze off the bay. The next day she did laundry and borrowed Elliot’s Ford Fiesta to get groceries from the Stop & Shop before jumping on her bike to go teach her classes at Yoga East.

She was sitting on a bench outside the studio waiting for her early evening class to assemble when her iPhone rang.

It was Bruce.

“Vera, Ralph called down to Sandwich, but it’s not good news. Aidan’s wife had him picked up that same day and he’s already been cremated.”

“Holy moly!” Vera exclaimed.

“It’s like a dead end, water’s edge,” Bruce said.

Vera put on a brave face for her hot flow class, practicing along with the students to stay engaged, mixing in more sun salutations than she ordinarily would have.

“Great class everybody, namaste,” she said after corpse pose, the class dispersing to their cars, scooters, and bikes.

When the parking lot had emptied a Cadillac Esplanade pulled quietly up to the Garden Renovations Nursery on the far side of Yoga East. Tyler Bullock let the engine idle.

“Don’t be long,” Emily Stoddard had said when he dropped her off at Race Point Beach.

“Save some of that for me,” he said pointing to the bottle of Dom Perignon dangling from her hand.

“I’ll try, sweetheart. Just don’t be long.”

When Tyler Bullock saw Vera in his rearview mirror with her back to him locking the front door of the yoga studio he stepped out of the black SUV and briskly crossed the parking lot to the sidewalk Vera was descending to her bike.

“You’re quite the busybody,” he said as he stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

“Your name keeps coming up. I don’t like that.”

His arm shot out and his hand clamped on Vera’s throat. He squeezed when Vera tried to pull back and wagged the fingers of his free hand in her face.

“Don’t,” he said.

“I’ll tell you once and once only. Stay out of my business. Remember the champion swimmer who drowned. You don’t want to be the yoga lady who ended up twisted into a pretzel.”

He lifted her up slightly so that Vera had to stand on her tiptoes to keep breathing. He smiled at her, his teeth showing. Gasping for air, Vera suddenly remembered she was wearing her bonnet. She reached up with her right hand and in a fast underhanded swing drove an eleven-inch Alice Teapot hatpin as hard as she could into Tyler Bullock’s left thigh.

He reacted instantly, jumping back, shouting in pain, spittle spraying Vera’s face, and fell to his knees. When he looked down and saw the silver plated hatpin he grabbed and pulled it out of his leg.

“I’ll kill you,” he screamed, but when he tried to stand up he fell down.

But, it was no matter by then. Vera was at the near side of the yoga studio, on her bike, crossing Route 6 and not stopping until she swerved into the Cumberland Farms gas station on Shank Painter Road, punching 911 into her iPhone.

In the morning Rachel Amparo picked Vera up at the guesthouse.

“I could have walked,” Vera said.

“No, we’re not going to the station. Ralph said it was all right if you heard it for yourself. The fisherman is still out on the beach, although he said he would be leaving by two, three o’clock, didn’t think he wanted to do anymore casting.”

“Can we bring Bruce along? He and Aidan were friends.”

“I think so.”

A park ranger met them at the south access ramp of Race Point and they crossed onto the beach, following the vehicle tracks, surprising terns hiding in the ruts. On the backshore side of the beach were scattered a half dozen RV’s.

“They’re self-contained vehicles. We call them SCV’s,” the ranger explained. “They carry their own water and toilet holding tank. Folks camp on the off-road corridor and fish, some of them for two, three weeks. There are families that come here every summer.”

He made a line for a white RV with blue trim and a slide out awning. The tires looked almost flat. A jolly roger was flying from a plastic pole stuck in the sand. The skull on the flag sported a red bandana and black eye patch.

A stocky middle-aged man met them outside the shade of the awning in the mid-morning sunlight.

“Bob, this is Rachel Amparo, Provincetown police, and these are the interested parties, Vera and Bruce,” said the ranger.

“The wife is watching the news. Maybe we could talk down by the fire pit,” said Bob.

“You have TV out here?” asked Bruce.

“Sure, satellite,” said Bob.

The fire pit was round with a flat donut mound in the middle littered with charred firewood. Bleacher seating had been dug out of the sand in a circle around the donut.

“I was taking a walk,” said Bob once they were all seated.

“The wife was making dinner and I had an hour. She said to make myself scarce since she was making something special. I thought I’d work up an appetite.”

He grinned, but without mirth.

“I never did have that dinner.”

He got a flip-top pack of Marlboros out of his breast pocket and lit a cigarette. He threw the match on the dead fire.

“I didn’t see her at first. I was watching the seals as I walked, there were so many of them, close in to shore. You don’t see that many around here, not like down in Chatham. When I did see her I wasn’t sure of what I was seeing.”

“What was it?” asked Bruce.

“There were seven or eight seals, I think, on the beach. The lady was lying on the sand, her legs stretched out to the breakers. She had a bottle in her hand. They had her penned in. At first she wasn’t moving, none of them were. Not her or the seals. When she tried to get up is when all hell broke loose. One of them clamped his mouth on to her ankle and pulled her down. She was hitting him with her bottle, but then the others got her by both legs and started pulling her into the water.”

He took a drag on his Marlboro.

“It all happened so fast. I didn’t know they could move that fast. They use their flippers, and sort of wiggle. By the time I got close enough to maybe help her, they had her in the water and there wasn’t anything I could do.”

He stubbed his cigarette out in the sand and put the butt in his pants pocket.

“She was trying to keep her head above the water, but they had her by both legs and one of them was biting her face. She was screaming something awful and the seals were making a crazy high crying, like a dog howling. Then, just like that, it was all over, and it got real quiet. They pulled her down into the water and I didn’t see her or them again. When I looked up all the other seals who had been watching were gone, too.”

The man stood up and brushed sand off his pants.

“That’s what happened. At first I couldn’t believe it, but when I saw blood on the sand and the broken bottle I called the rangers,” he said.

Vera looked out at the horizon.

“I’ve got to go. We’re packing and leaving, going home. Oh, yeah, one other thing I forgot to tell you folks,” he said, looking at Rachel Amparo.

“There was a man who came down the beach, yelling, and lurching, like one of his legs hurt. I think he saw what happened, too. He fell down after the seals took her and started to slap the sand. He kept saying damn, damn, damn, but when I tried to get close to him he gave me an eye that made me stop. After that he got up and dragged himself back towards the parking lot. He wasn’t walking too good, but it didn’t seem like he wanted my help.”

“Thanks, Bob,” the park ranger said.

“Sure,” said Bob, nodding at the others before he turned and walked away.

“I’ve never heard anything like it,” said the park ranger.

At Fanizzi’s, a restaurant on the quiet side of Commercial Street, Vera, Bruce, and Rachel Amparo sat at the bar, staring through the windows that made up the back wall of the bar onto Provincetown Harbor. The policewoman worked on a plate of fish and chips, Bruce nursed a bottle of Magic Hat No. 9, and Vera played with the straw in her glass of ice water.

She wasn’t hungry or thirsty, just lonely.

The bar would begin to fill up soon, but she didn’t want to be there when it did.

“I don’t hate people. I just feel better when they’re not around,” Charles Bukowski had once said. Maybe Hattie was right about him, Vera thought. Or maybe she was all wrong.

“Are you thinking the same thing I am?” asked Bruce.

“Probably,” answered Vera.

“So, tell me.”

“The seals knew it was her.”

“That’s a relief. I’m glad I’m not the only one.”

Rachel Amparo, twisting towards them in her seat, a forkful of cod almost in her mouth, said, “That’s crazy talk. Seals are just, you know, seals.”

“Don’t let the cod hear you say that,” said Vera, and leaned sideways as Bruce spit up a noseful of beer, sputtering, and the policewoman clapped him hard on the back.

“Oh, Vera,” said Rachel Amparo, sliding a thick, clear plastic bag marked ‘Evidence’ in black capital letters across the polished bar to her.

“I found this last night. I thought you might want it back. You never know when you might need it again.”

Inside the plastic bag was an Alice Teapot hatpin.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

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Bad Day on Buzzard’s Bay

By Ed Staskus

“Release your bones,” said Vera Nyberg.

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

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

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

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

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

He made another mental note.

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

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

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

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

He made an effort to quiet his breathing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t Vera Nyberg, after all.

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

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

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

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

“Namaste.”

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

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

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

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

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

He flipped open a spiral notebook.

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

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

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

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

Sam Fowler’s scowl was audible over the phone.

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

“Somebody was there,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened in there?” asked Sam Fowler

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

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

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

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

Sam Fowler glanced at the Medical Examiner.

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

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

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

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

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

“So no one saw anything or heard anything?”

“I don’t know. That’s your job.”

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

He walked out to the uniformed policeman in the hallway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who was closest to John Cerberus during the class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ask somebody to get her down here.”

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

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

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

She looked sad and annoyed at the same time.

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

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

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

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

“What were you reading?” he asked her.

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

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

“I see,” said Sam Fowler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of yoga do you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”Did you know him?”

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

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

“Not anyone I know, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you know who that might be?”

“No, not really.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like the Ten Commandments?” he asked.

“No, not exactly,” she answered.

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

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

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

“What was that?”

“You do!”

“I see.”

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

“Thank you Miss Nyberg,” said Sam Fowler.

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

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

The two police detectives watched her walk out.

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

“I didn’t.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It seemed like the storm had so far skirted them.

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

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

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

“The massage therapist?”

“Yes.”

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

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

Lola Donning was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I took it.”

“How did you know what it meant?”

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

They stood quietly for a few minutes.

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

She pointed to the center of the labyrinth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She killed herself.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When men make choices only God is blameless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Goddamn it,” he said under his breath.

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

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

“All right,” snorted Sam Fowler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, what’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cirque Du Asana

JohnathanLeeIverson

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was here to eternity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Wheel in the Sky

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exercise for the Elite

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

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

It was still there.

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

“Thanks, it’s Italian.”

“Oh, where did you get it?’

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

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

The purse from Florence oozed expensive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

The Ugly Yogi

Outdoor yoga class in West Hartford in 2011.

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, what is yoga in America today all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was asking Americans to go shopping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Elephant Journal.

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

Hot Room Badass

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

By Ed Staskus

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

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

“Black,” said Barron.

He was a vegan.

“And you?”

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

He was not a vegan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She did that in the off-season.”

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

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

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

“Who is Brian Paquette.”

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

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

“That man was a nut,” said Barron.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What made him so tough?” asked Barron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

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

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

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

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

“Who said that?”

“Hunter S. Thompson.”

“Fear and Loathing?”

“Right-o.”

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

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

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

“How hard can it be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

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

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

“That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like it there?”

“Yes, we like it a lot.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sad that you can’t go?”

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

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

“That’s a long bridge.”

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

“That’s far!”

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

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

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

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

“What’s a million plus a million?”

“2 million.”

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

“The Brontosaurus.”

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

“That can’t be,” said Maggie.

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

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

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

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

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

“They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

“Do you know anybody who got it?”

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

“That’s too bad,” Frank said.

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

“No, the city cancelled them.”

“Where we live, too.”

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

“Wow!”

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

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

“That’s right,” said Ethan.

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

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

“Do you watch TV all the time?”

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

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

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

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

“All in your head?”

“That’s what dad says.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did he come from?”

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

“Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready to play?”

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

“Going to bed!” she yelped.

Ethan did a somersault.

“Somersault?”

“Yes!”

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

“Headache!” she blared.

Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

“Karate?”

“Yes!”

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

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

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

“Argentinosaurus?”

“Yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure,” Frank said.

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

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

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