Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

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 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

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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 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 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.”

Ditch the Back Seat Driver

By Ed Staskus

   Most people don’t care if you’ve taken a million yoga classes, or not. If you do something bad to them, they aren’t going to say, “That fella needs more yoga classes.” They are going to say something less kind and understanding. If you do something good, they’re not going to say, “It’s because of all the yoga classes he has taken.” 

   Saints get taken for granted.

   They aren’t going to say you are a saint because you’ve spent the nest egg at the local yoga studio. They will probably say something along the lines of, “That fella needs to put his halo away and start living in the real world.” It begs the question, but a $16 billion dollar business in the USA is about as real as it gets.

   When you apply for a job your prospective employer, unless it’s a yoga studio, isn’t going to ask if you’ve taken a bazillion yoga classes. If you can’t or won’t lift that bale and tote that barge you are not going to get your foot in the door, no matter what kind of a crackerjack you think you are.

   If yoga studios had their druthers, they would be full to the gills seven days a week, except for the birthday of B. K. S. Iyengar who got the ball rolling. That day is a holy day. Studios would like to be so full of folks 24/7 that even their most loyal customers would have to display VIP passes to get in the door. That’s why more than less classes are barn burners with a rocking soundtrack and the hands of a nubile assistant adjusting your pose. When the playlist is blasting with the hammer down, and the adjustments are flowing, speed traps are for suckers.

   Yoga is a business. Anybody who thinks otherwise need only spend a few minutes checking out Facebook group pages. “Welcome to the universal family of yoga jobs and yoga retreats,” says Yogi Sach on Global Yoga Community. The Yoga Teacher Resource Community describes itself as “helping yoga instructors in their yoga business. Member and administrator post topics include how to select liability insurance and navigating social media.” Yoga Jobs All Over the World proclaims they are “kind of like a global yogi Craigslist.”

   God save us from the crap that is Craigslist.

   In between, from the West to the East, from Hoboken to Madras, yesterday today tomorrow, somebody is peddling something every minute of the day on the back of the practice. Yoga teachers often say, “It’s all yoga.” If they are right, it explains everything about the one-time spiritual path. The path today isn’t so much thought provoking as it is “Turn Here for Your Friendly Walmart Superstore.”

   Everybody is your friend, and all your friends are peddling videos and books There is the “7 Day Yoga Crash Course.” They don’t say what is going to happen on the 8th day. Probably crash and burn, but that is beside the point.

   There are many people who take yoga classes month after month, year after year. It’s hard to say if they are slow learners or simply devotees. If they are slow learners, they deserve a pat on the back. If they are devotees, they need a slap in the face. Somebody needs to remind them life is not lived inside a classroom. If they are yoga teachers, they get a pass. Paychecks are what keep the wolf away from the door.

   Life is lived out in the wide world. It’s one thing to listen to the steel belts humming on the asphalt from the cocoon of a studio. It’s another thing to stand on the side of the highway, 18-wheelers loaded up and rolling, rubber smoking and shredding and diesel fumes acrid, drivers gulping down little white pills keeping themselves awake in the glow of all-night diners, the radio tuned to crazy talk show radio stations.

   What’s the point of taking endless yoga classes? It’s not rocket science. Learn a few asanas, a few flows linking them, how to breathe, how to meditate, the yamas and niyamas, and you’re all set to go back down the beanstalk. The giant claims of wellness will only miss you so much.

   It’s easy to fetishize teachers. It’s easy to idealize exalt glamorize idols of all kinds. Who doesn’t want to shrug off responsibility and stay on the yellow brick road with the hand of a guru at their elbow? If you’re young and naive, or a seeker seeking a better way, it’s the way to go. But at some point, it becomes time to ditch the teacher and stand on your own two feet.

   Yoga teachers are full of aphorisms like “Reach higher. It will steady you.” Why it would steady anybody is unclear, but if you are afraid of heights, don’t. The air is thinner up there. Down in Easy Pose they say “Open up your palms if you want answers from the universe. Put your palms face down if you want answers from within yourself.” It got so I started shaking my fist at them.

   An eager beaver instructor with a taste for tall tales liked to tell us, “Take the Hanuman Leap.” I always let that one lay. I wasn’t about to monkey see monkey do.

   “If something in your life isn’t serving you, quietly thank it for the lesson, and let it go,” was something I heard a million times in the ten-or-so years I took yoga classes. On behalf of everybody who ever worked at Efficient Lighting, a big commercial lighting outfit in Brook Park, Ohio, where I worked for twenty-five years, I say let the cliches go their own way. Nobody I ever knew ever quit because the job wasn’t serving them. That was a given. They either made the best of it or screwed up to the extent they needed firing. Anybody who quit did so because they could go somewhere else where they could make more money and sooner rather than later let it go, once and for all.

   One day a teacher said, “Let that shit go.” Everybody in the class laughed. She was talking about friendships relationships what somebody did or didn’t say and how we hope things will get better. I scowled and did a down dog, letting the shit and platitudes slide down my back.

   “The only moment that really matters is right now,” is an all-time favorite of yoga teachers. It made sense now and then. Most of the time it didn’t. If it was true yoga would be one of the unhealthiest healthy practices of all time. Standing on your head right now before you are ready can be more than a pain in the neck. There is no saving your neck if it goes wrong because you don’t know what you are doing, Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes isn’t what yoga is all about. Planning in advance is what really matters, making sure what has a lasting impact on you isn’t the wrong end of a baseball bat. Nothing would ever get done, including breakfast lunch and dinner, if right now was all there was.

   “Be your authentic self” was a command that made me gnash my teeth. Nobody is their authentic self in a classroom. A warm and fuzzy refuge is all well and good but there comes a time in every man and woman’s life when it’s best to become their own man or woman. Otherwise, we become Pee-wee Herman. Becoming your own true self isn’t possible if you are baloney in somebody else’s slice of life. We are not all in the same boat. We are all in different boats in the same ocean. You become what the teacher is, what the teacher is saying, what you hope will get you somewhere. You become like the yogis in class who you admire. You buy into the ethos and the ethic becomes you. You buy into the chalk talk and that’s that.

   After a while whoever you were is beside the point. It’s a brave new world, but it’s not a world you had a hand in making. Your thinking becomes whatever yoga is thinking, like how people become what they learned in school, what they do at work, and what they see on TV. You go into people-pleasing mode, otherwise people might not like who you are.

   Making an authentic self can be a slog through hell or a dance in the rain. Not everybody is good with it happening to their spouse, siblings, and friends. They wonder how it will impact them. But when you are being authentic you are being all parts of yourself, the good the bad the super-duper awesome and the ugly. It’s the only way to find true acceptance rather than a phantom hug from a make-believe somebody. It’s better to be a first-rate version of yourself rather than a second-rate version of anybody else.

   Everybody gets a temporary driver’s license first. Then they get their permanent license. Getting behind the wheel by yourself, ditching the back seat driver, is the way to go.

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.

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 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.”

Chaturanga Chatter

librarian-shhing-shutterstock-e1550943420409.jpg

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.

Between Sixes and Sevens

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sixty second bursts of passion, living on crumbs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Yogis Eating Animals

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By Ed Staskus

Evin Bodell often brings Napoleon, her Australian sheep dog, to her West Side Yoga studio in Lakewood, Ohio, where he is a kind of shaggy greeter, sniffing everyone up and down as they step out of their shoes in the lobby. Whenever the door to the yoga room is left open the dog snoozes on the threshold during the asana classes. He is an ever-present reminder of how good life can be, food and water in the lobby behind him and friends in front.

After one class, as I sat in the waiting room on a sofa and roughhoused with the dog, scratching his stomach as he rolled over, I asked Evin, a longtime yoga teacher and omnivore, if she had ever considered killing, barbequing, and eating Napoleon.

She said no in more ways than one.

When I asked her what the difference was between her dog and any of the other animals she ate, she said Napoleon was her pet and everything else wasn’t.

According to a 2012 Gallup Poll more than 95% of all Americans 18 years-and-older eat animals. That includes most people who practice and teach yoga. On average Americans eat almost 200 pounds of meat a year, most of it cows, pigs, and birds, and only very rarely dogs. In the United States we manufacture, slaughter, and eat nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

The world’s production of meat in 1961 was 71 million tons. Today it is estimated to be more than 284 million tons.

We are eating more animals than ever in human history.

We became animal-eaters at the dawn of the genus Homo, around 2.5 million years ago. “Early Homo had teeth adapted to tough food. The obvious candidate is meat,” said anthropologist Richard Wrangtan of Harvard University. Stone Age man lived as a hunter-gatherer eating food based on high-protein meat, fruits, and vegetables. Studies of the collagen in Stone Age humans living in England 13,000 years ago show that their diet, in terms of protein content and quality, was the same as the diet of wolves.

“Carbohydrates derived from cereal grains were not part of the human evolutionary experience,” said Loren Cordain, a professor in the Department at Health at Colorado State University.

Approximately 10,000 years ago people in several parts of the world, most notably in Mesopotamia, independently discovered how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. Our food staples gradually evolved to become beans, cereals, dairy, some meat, and salt, and remained so until the Industrial Revolution. From the mid-19th century to the present mechanized food processing and intensive livestock farming has led to a broader distribution of refined foodstuffs and fatty meat. In the past sixty years the availability of factory farm animals for food has expanded exponentially.

There are many reasons why we eat meat.

One reason is we have mastery over the earth, as most religions and governments preach. Many people believe animals are there for us to eat. In other words, if God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat? The Genesis chapter of the Bible states, “Man shall have dominion over the animals.”

But, does that necessarily mean we are free to imprison kill eat animals, or might it mean we should take care of them? The Koran forbids eating pigs, but most other animals are fair game. It also insists animals being slaughtered for food must be alive and the name of Allah be invoked at their deaths.

It is ironic mordant double-edged that Muhammad died after eating poisoned lamb.

Some people practicing yoga see meat as essential for their health. “In the past I experimented with vegetarianism and found I felt cleaner and less aggressive,” said Randal Williams, a yoga teacher and restaurateur in Lenox, Massachusetts. “But, on the other hand, I felt ungrounded and light-headed. I went back to eating meat and it was almost as if my cells were happier for having meat available.”

Meat is considered one of the food groups in the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid and is often eaten for its nutrients. Those nutrients include zinc, iron, selenium, vitamins B6 and B12, and especially the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein. When I asked Kristen Zarzycki, a powerful flow teacher at Inner Bliss Yoga in Rocky River, Ohio, why she ate animals, she said, “I need the protein.”

But, does anyone really need to eat animals to get the protein required for practicing yoga, even yoga as demanding as powerful flow? Maybe not, since many elite athletes are vegetarians, such as 4-time World Champion Ironman triathlete Dave Scott, 4-time Mr. Universe body builder Bill Pearl, 9-time Olympic Gold winner Carl Lewis, and 9-time NFL Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.

The amount of protein we consume is also open to question.

“The average American consumes more than twice the amount of protein that is the absurdly oversized U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance,” Jay Weinstein pointed out in his book ‘The Ethical Gourmet’.

The essential amino acids, or protein, not synthesized by the body must be gotten from food. Meat can be a convenient and tasty when grilled form of that protein, but those same amino acids can be easily gotten from grains and legumes. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has called for a new Four Food Groups that does not include meat, saying: “Two of the four old food groups, meats and dairy products, are clearly not necessary for health.”

It is rare that anyone has to eat animals for any nutritional reason, at all.

In fact, eating animals for protein can be dangerous. A study in the late 1980s of 88,000 nurses found that those who ate red meat were two-and-a-half times as likely to develop colon cancer as near-vegetarians. Walter Willet, the director of the study and a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said: “The optimum amount of red meat you should eat is zero.”

More than twenty years of research at the Loma Linda University in California has revealed that men who eat animals are three times more likely to suffer from prostate cancer than vegetarians.

Some people say they eat animals because they were raised on meat and our culture accepts the food practice. “If your grandmother is making a wonderful meat dish that you have loved since you were a child, is it yoga to push it away?” asked Mary Taylor, a Boulder, Colorado teacher and one-time student of Julia Child.

Although yoga touts acceptance as one of it virtues, that may not necessarily be the best of reasons, given that our culture once forced African-Americans to work for free less than three generations ago, denied women property and voting rights fewer than two generations ago, and has been imposing its foreign policy by way of nuclear threats and armed conflict for the past generation and up to the present day.

What if your grandmother and our culture accepted cannibalism as proper and fitting?

Many people simply like the way meat tastes. They enjoy eating animals because they are delicious. “I love meat because I love the taste,” said Ginny Walters, an Ashtanga Yoga teacher in the Cleveland, Ohio-area. “Give me a great steak on the grill in the summer and all is right with my world.”

Cookbooks are rife with recipes for beef, pork, fowl, and lamb. Some people, like the famous chef and author Anthony Bourdain, cannot do without eating animals. “To me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, and organ meat is a life not worth living,” he said.

But, what about satisfying our other senses, such as hearing and seeing?

What if someone enjoyed listening to pigs squeal in pain? Would it be okay for them to stick switchblades into pigs to hear them cry out? Is it okay to crowd cows into feedlots that resemble concentration camps where they spend a month-or-so shin deep in their own excrement being fattened up for the dinner table? Would the same practice be acceptable if someone just liked looking at cows stuck in shit all day long?

What harm can there be, many people ask, in eating a double cheeseburger?

As it happens, plenty of harm happens. There is a daunting amount of damage done to our environment in the process of the energy-intensive raising of livestock, the damage bordering on cruelty done to animals during their brief lives, and ultimately the killing dismemberment packaging of the animal itself.

More than 30 percent of the earth’s usable land is involved in the production of animals for food, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Even though approximately 800 million people in the world are underfed, most of the corn and soy grown in the world feeds our livestock. James Lovestock, the British scientist best known for his Gaia Hypothesis, has estimated, “If we gave up eating beef we would have roughly 20 to 30 times more land for food than we have now.”

The amount of waste produced by the animals we raise for food is of biblical proportions, roughly 130 times the waste of the entire population of the United States, according to a 1997 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture. The hog farms in North Carolina alone generate more fecal matter than all the people in New York and California combined. Nearly none of this hog waste is treated and vast amounts of manure nationwide pollute rivers, lakes, and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that almost thirty thousand miles of American waterways are dead or close to dead due to this pollution.

“When you look at environmental problems in the United States,“ said Gordon Eschel, an environmentalist and geophysicist at Bard College, “nearly all of them have their source in food production and in particular meat production.”

In  2006 the United Nations issued a report saying livestock production caused more damage to the environment than all the cars, trucks, trains, and planes in the world all put together. “I do not eat meat,“ said Rafael Sarango of the Yoga Center in Houston, Texas, “because eating animal products is not good for the environment, which is the greenest act a person can choose.”

Most of the animals we eat are grown in what are known in the meat business as animal feeding operations. These are factories making the most meat at the lowest cost. To achieve economies of scale chickens are crammed by the tens of thousands into enormous windowless sheds where they live their genetically modified forty days in clouds of ammonia created by the accumulated waste of generations of them. Some corporate chicken factories are filled with up to a million birds in cages, a cornucopia of drugs daily mixed into their feed.

Americans take 3 million pounds of antibiotics yearly by prescription. The animals we eat are fed approximately 28 million pounds of antibiotics every year to keep them alive in their Augean stables. Intensive piggeries, often producing hundreds of thousands of swine for slaughter a year, confine their animals in sunless steel buildings in close quarters where the air is so poisonous the animals are routinely sprayed with insecticides. Despite the antibiotics fed to our animals they are still often contaminated.

“The meat we buy is grossly contaminated with both coliform bacteria and salmonella,” said Dr. Richard Novick of the Public Health Institute. To make matters worse, the overuse of antibiotics has led to a scourge of drug-resistant infectious diseases the World Health Organization says is a leading threat to human health.

In the Yoga Sutras the first yama is ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. Like the Golden Rule of Christian ethics, ahimsa is one of the principles central to yoga. “Non-harming is essential to the yogi,” Sharon Gannon says in her book ‘Yoga and Vegetarianism’. “According to the universal law of karma, if you cause harm to others, you will suffer the painful consequences of your actions. The yogi, realizing this, tries to cause the least amount of harm and suffering to others as possible.”

Sharon Gannon includes all breathing beings in her sense of others, and as parts or doubles in the construction of the self. If ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, slaughtering animals for hamburgers cannot be part of the non-violence plan. Killing animals by proxy makes us killers no matter how we cut it.

Many people who practice yoga feel ahimsa is something that should be applied to oneself first and foremost. “If eating meat in moderation works better for the individual to help sustain a well-balanced life, then I think it is important to consume meat,” said David Sunshine of the Dallas Yoga Center. Yogis are not selfish, in principle at least, but putting themselves at the front of the line and justifying it as a matter of balance makes them selfish in practice. We are all born into a Hobbesian world, but it is an interconnected world, and yoga is one of the ways of realizing that complexity and learning to be less, not more, selfish.

Non-violence approaches being a tenet of yoga. But for many it is a method rather than a mantra. “Ahimsa and all the yamas and niyamas are meant to be guidelines of inquiry and empowerment, not about dogma or morality,” said Danny Arguetty, a yoga teacher at Kripalu, a health and yoga retreat in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, as well as a nutrition and health counselor.

This flexible approach stresses yoga’s structure of flow on and off the mat as opposed to any set of commandments. “The yama of ahimsa is not for cementing a fixed morality,” said Randal Williams. “I would offer this inquiry, is it an act of harming to dictate diet to someone else or for someone else to dictate to you what you should eat?” Nevertheless, whether ahimsa was commanded or created, whether old school or redefined in relativist terms, it is a simple proposition espousing the avoiding of harm to living creatures.

To spin the concept is to split hairs.

Wrestling with their appetites, many argue that harm is done to the natural world no matter what we eat. Underpaid and exploited migrant workers harvest our fruits. Corporations grow grains and vegetables in one place and transport them far distances, bankrupting local farmers with their economies of scale and needlessly consuming fossil fuels. Even the sophism that plants feel and suffer is invoked.

At the other end of the spectrum Steve Ross in his book ‘Happy Yoga’ insists that when grocery-shopping we should ask ask, “Are the farmers full of gratitude and love, and do they enjoy growing food, or are they angry and filled with hate for their job and all vegetables?”

These are naïve points-of-view, warping ahimsa as a prescription not to harm other living beings into a merry-go-round of what-ifs and one-upmanship.

Some yogis have made non-violence towards animals a core mandate of their practice. Pattabhi Jois, the man who originated Ashtanga Yoga, on which much of today’s yoga is based, said, “The most important part of the yoga practice is eating a vegetarian diet.” He believed eating animals made his students stiff as a board.

Not everyone agrees.

“I get angry, yes, actually, absolutely indignant, when I see students being frowned upon by some self-righteous teacher. There is a strong ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the yoga community that is keeping students, and even many teachers, locked firmly inside the meat-eating closet,” said Sadie Nardini, self-described ‘Ultimate Wellness Expert’ and founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga. She reasons it would be harmful to the health of many yogis to not eat meat, violating ahimsa at its most primal level. “People and animals alike would be far better served if we chose from more carefully regulated, caring and healthful sources,” she said, addressing factory farm meat industry issues

But, that is like being a vegetarian between meals.

In 1780 the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham asked, in his ‘Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation’, about animals, “The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” The answer to Bentham’s question is hiding in the light, not in the darkness of today’s pigpens. Everyone knows animals suffer when we force them to live in squalor, genetically modify them, separate them from their young at birth, feed them cheap corn laced with antibiotics and hormones, kill them with bolt guns, and finally eat their skin flesh organs after their suffering is over.

Everyone knows, which is why so many people say they don’t want to know when asked if they know how the loin of pork on their plate got there.

If modern feedlots and slaughterhouses had glass walls instead of barbed wire walls it is likely only the heartless would eat animals.  “I am a vegetarian because if I can’t kill it myself, why let someone else do it for me,” said Teresa Taylor of Yoga Quest in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “People continue to eat meat because they are distanced from the suffering and killing of the animal they are eating. Out of sight, out of mind.”

Many people do not want to inquire into the killing of the animals they eat because they perceive the cruelty built into our factory farms, but do not want to internalize how deliberate and unrelenting it is. “I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience,” Albert Einstein said before becoming a vegetarian late in life.

The inherent narrative in the yoga world is that it’s all yoga. What matters is how aware and compassionate we are with others and ourselves. What we eat or don’t eat is beside the point. It doesn’t matter.

But, what we do when we buy veal cutlets for ourselves, family, and friends may be more to the point than all the yogic love, reverence, and respect in the world. “Whether someone realizes it or not, if they participate in eating meat they are contributing to and encouraging violence. Not ahimsa by any stretch of the imagination, “ said Carrie Klaus, a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ahimsa is a personal practice, and everyone has to make his or her own decisions. Those decisions involve more than just thinking outside the bun, such as eating organic grass-fed free-range cows and pigs raised on local farms.

“In the case of animal slaughter, to throw your hands in the air is to wrap your fingers around a knife handle,” says Jonathan Safran Froer in his book ‘Eating Animals’. Is non-violence a cornerstone of yoga or just a concept on the menu? Does it benefit ahimsa to be thankful to the dead animals we eat? Are the yogic precepts of restraint really served by having a t-bone for dinner?

“I do not eat red meat, so that is a start,” says Kristen Zarzycki. “It breaks my heart to know what happens.”

Maybe it’s not that yogis need to change what they think about eating meat, but rather rethink what they think is food. We have transformed animals into commodities and main courses and forgotten they are sentient breathing flesh and blood beings much like us. Many yogis eat animals with compassion and awareness of what they are doing. “On the rare occasion when I do indulge in animal food, I do so with great respect and meditation on the sacrifice of the animal,” said Jerry Anathan of Yoga East in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

It is laudable to be grateful and compassionate for the sacrifice of the cow when sitting down to a steak dinner, but does it speak to the spirit of non-violence? Even though we have eaten meat for a hundred millenniums, perhaps it is time to lose our memory of eating animals and make a new paradigm for ourselves. We don’t live or think like wolves or cavemen and women anymore. Why should we eat like them?

“The food we eat is a profound way in which we connect with the world. Even if you never unroll a mat, you will lift a fork,” said Melissa Van Orman of Tranquil Space Yoga in Washington, D. C.

Eating animals is an instinct. Not eating them is a decision we make or don’t make every time we sit down at the dining room table, just like every other decision we make, from practicing non-violence among ourselves to being nice to our dogs.

“From what I have observed many of the yogis I have met are meat eaters,” said Danny Arguetty.

But, yogis don’t eat their pets. It is a dodgy distinction.

More than thirty-five million cows, a hundred and fifteen million pigs, and some nine billion birds are killed annually in the United States to be made into fodder for our butcher shops and supermarkets. It is an astonishing amount of life and death violence in light of going vegetarian, which never killed anyone at the dinner table.

We all have to eat, but maybe we shouldn’t take part in the killing and eating of animals anymore than absolutely necessary, if only in the interest of restraining ourselves from causing unnecessary harm in this life and to all lives, both ours and the lives of others.

A version of this story appeared in Integral Yoga Magazine.

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

Doing a Body Good

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By Ed Staskus

Chavutti-Thai might sound like Pacific Rim culinary fare, but as served up by Jennifer Beam at Holistic Massotherapy and Apothecary, it is a blend of two separate bodywork modalities that may provide one of the deepest and yet most relaxing massages to be found anywhere.

“I would say most of the work I do is Chavutti-Thai,” said Jennifer, a Massage Therapist licensed by the State Medical Board of Ohio, which was the first state to license the practice of massage. The first applicant was licensed in 1916.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said, “The physician must be experienced in many things, but most assuredly in rubbing.” Although an ancient practice, massage was banned in Europe by the Church from the 500s to the 1700s. Dr. Cornelius De Puy introduced it to the United States in the early nineteenth century.

Chavutti massage, pronounced ‘shah-voo-tee’, is a technique that has been practiced in southern India for centuries, in which therapists, while standing above their clients lying on a mat, use a rope for balance while they massage with their feet. Chavutti literally translates as ‘massage by foot pressure’.

“It is an anatomical treatment as well as energy work,” said Jennifer. “It focuses on the deep tissue and energy lines of the body. The broad surface of the foot delivers pressure more evenly.”

Practitioners use their feet in order to cover the entire body with a continuous gliding stroke and press deeper into muscles. The long strokes increase blood circulation and iron out tensions in the muscles and connective tissue.

“Chavutti is the ultimate deep tissue massage, the best I have ever had,” says Anna Magee, author of “The De-Stress Diet.”

Thai massage, sometimes called ‘Lazy Man’s Yoga’, is a form of bodywork based on yoga and Ayurveda. It is one of the world’s oldest healing modalities, originating in India more than 2500 years ago.

The massage recipient wears loose clothes and lies on a mat on the floor. The receiver is then put into a series of yoga-like positions during the course of the massage, involving rhythmic motion, palming, and thumbing along energy lines in the body. The result of the practice is greater flexibility, an increase in range of motion, and decreased strain on the joints.

At Holistic Massotherapy Jennifer Beam has synthesized Chavutti and Thai massage to make a new form of bodywork greater than the sum of it parts.

“Chavutti helps to stretch out, to warm up, and loosen up the muscles and fascia,“ said Jennifer. “Then the Thai massage brings it together by further stretching, folding in the compression aspects, and the energy work that is part of the process.”

A graduate of the Ohio College of Massotherapy in Akron, she honed her craft at Lakewood Massotherapy, specializing in therapeutic deep tissue work. In 2002 she traveled to Thailand where she studied Thai massage.

Thailand is the home of Thai massage, which has been strongly influenced by the traditional medicine systems of India and China, as well as yoga.

“I felt like I had hit a ceiling,” she said. “I knew there had to be more to massage than just the traditional western style that most of us knew.”

After returning to Thailand in 2004 for advanced training she studied with Pichest Boonthumme, an acknowledged master of the practice. Jennifer Beam opened Holistic Massotherapy in Fairview Park shortly afterwards.

Finding the way is the first step to better health.

“I started out with one room and put dividers up. It was my humble beginning.”

Patiently building her practice, she offered traditional table work while at the same time emphasizing the benefits of Thai massage.

In 2007 Jennferand her husband, planning a family, moved from Lakewood to Bay Village, a bedroom community on Cleveland’s western North Shore. They bought a ranch-style home and proceeded to renovate it.

“The yard was a veritable forest. We basically tore everything out and started from scratch,” she said. “We gutted and renovated everything short of replacing the furnace, and ripped wallpaper out of every room in the house. I don’t think I will ever buy a house with wallpaper again.”

The following year she relocated Holistic Massotherapy to Bay Village in the Dover Commons Plaza, expanding its space and offerings, as well as bringing it closer to home, where the first of her two sons was now crawling around.

Jennifer Beam’s impetus for her career sprang from an interest in physical therapy and the desire to make a difference in people’s lives on a one-to-one basis

“That is why I started massage school in the first place,” she said.

A kind heart is often the beginning of knowledge.

Massage therapy has been found to be better than medication or exercise for easing lower back pain, according to a 2011 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

“Many people look to massage for pain relief, sports injuries, chronic pain due to poor posture, or just bad habits. Musculoskeletal problems are really where skilled massage therapists can help,” said Jennifer.

Massage is sometimes more than that for some.

“When I start thinking about death, I order a massage and it goes away,” Hedy Lamarr, the Hollywood actress many critics regard as the most beautiful to ever appear in the movies, famously said about mortality and immortality.

For the treatment of pain, Americans rate massage as highly as medications, according to recent surveys by the American Massage Therapy Association. 9 of 10 Americans agree that massage is a practical remedy for pain relief.

“We have found massage to be effective for chronic pain syndromes,” confirmed Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine.

“Chavutti-Thai helps to break up the adhesions in the muscles and connective tissues,” Jennifer said. “Many people say they have gotten longer-lasting results from the treatment, more profound results, and more range of motion in their hips and shoulder girdles.”

As much as addressing muscle and skeletal pain is a primary focus of massage therapy, Jennifer Beam also brings the awareness to her practice that stress may just as likely be the reason for physical distress.

“Chronic pain might not only be caused by physical injury, but also by stress and emotional issues,” writes Susanne Babbel, Ph.D., in Psychology Today.

“Many people hold tension in their bodies, not knowing what the cause of it is,” said Jennifer. “They don’t know how to let go of that.”

It isn’t stress itself that hurts us, but our reaction to it.

“It has been clinically proven that the thoughts we have don’t just stay in the brain,” she added, “but travel in the form of neuropeptides throughout the body. That’s why stress-reducing therapies like massage are so important.”

Whether the goal is to reduce muscular tension, or pain management, or simply to lower stress levels, the new practice of Chavutti-Thai may just be the gateway to them all.

“I strive to be the best at what I do for those people who desire to live a healthy, holistic lifestyle,” she said

Treating the whole person, both spirit and body, is Jennifer Beam’s mantra as well as the business of compassion at Holistic Massotherapy.

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

Sunny Side Up

By Ed Staskus

“Here comes the sun, doo doo doo, and I say, it’s all right.” The Beatles

The temperature was in the 90’s, like it had been for weeks, and the humidity was swampy Louisiana, which it had been for weeks, when Frank and Vera Glass went for a walk on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Reservation, about a mile south of Lake Erie and the mouth of the river.

The Metroparks, more than a hundred years in the making, are a series of nature preserves, more than 21,000 acres, which encircle Cleveland, Ohio, and its suburbs. There are hundreds of miles of paths and horse trails, picnic areas and fishing spots, and eight golf courses.

Their home sat on a side street on the east side of the Rocky River valley. If there is ever another Great Flood, the river would have to rise more than one hundred and fifty feet up the cliff to threaten them. Turkey vultures nest in the cliff face and soar all summer like gliders in wide circles on the currents rising up from the valley. The Glass house, a dark gray Polish double, is ten minutes by foot from the park, cooler mid-summer in the shade of the forest and along the riverbank.

They walked down the Detroit Road entrance, past the marina, the dog park and the soccer fields, as far as Tyler Field, before turning around. As they neared Hogsback Hill, an isolated high point on the near bank of the Rocky River, Frank suggested they go up to see his friend Barron Cannon, whom they hadn’t seen recently.

It was a month earlier that they had gotten back from a month on the east coast of Canada. Barron had spent more than two months protesting on the east coast of Manhattan.

“You know I don’t want to,” said Vera.

“I know,” said Frank, turning up Hogsback.

Barron Cannon is a trim young man in his 30s who lives in an orange Mongolian yurt he built in the backyard of his parent’s ranch-style house at the top of Hogsback Hill. He has a master’s degree in Comparative Philosophy and is a committed yogi, as well as a radical vegan.

He practices yoga for two hours a day and meditates for another half-hour. Sometimes he chants or plays his harmonium. He’s thankful they have no nearby neighbors, and the house is slightly off the edge of park land, so the park rangers can’t bother him. His parents have long since thrown up their hands. They pray he’ll find a girlfriend and move away, but aren’t holding their breath.

“He needs to be committed,” Vera has said to Frank on several occasions, usually right after they have visited him and are out of earshot.

“Why couldn’t he stay and occupy Wall Street instead of his mom’s backyard?” she added.

Barron does not have a job or a car or a television. He reads books. He has never voted.

“I’ll vote when anarchists are on the ballot,” he told Frank.

Frank wanted to remind him that anarchists who vote are like atheists who pray, but he thought, what was the point?

They found Barron Cannon in the backyard, lying face-up in the sun on an Elmo Sesame Street blanket, on the south side of his yurt. He was naked except for a fig leaf covering his private parts.

It was a literal fig leaf.

Vera looked away when Barron propped himself up on his elbows and the fig leaf rolled away.

“Sorry,” he said, pulling on a pair of cargo shorts. “I was getting my daily dose of sunshine here on the acropolis.”

He was tan, from tip to toe. Frank could see he hadn’t been using an SPF lotion of any kind anywhere on himself.

“You should be careful,” he suggested. “Too much sun isn’t good for you.”

“That’s where you’re right, but even more wrong,” Barron replied.

“Too much sun may be bad, depending on your skin and heredity, but avoiding the sun is not good for anyone. Remember, we evolved in the sun, living outdoors for almost all of our two million years on this planet.”

He flipped on a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses and leaned towards Frank.

“Then, not very long ago, we started messing with Mother Nature and started avoiding the sun. When you avoid the sun, you may not get rickets, because you can always take a pill, but all the pills in the world can’t replace the real thing.”

He pointed up to the sky.

”When you avoid the sun, like it’s life and death, you increase the risk of dying from internal cancers,” he said slowly solemnly.

Frank must have looked skeptical, because Barron tilted his dark glasses down his nose Lolita-style and exhaled.

“Look it up,” he said.

It turns out, when Frank looked it up, Barron was right.

“I really hate it when he’s right about anything,” said Vera.

The Journal of Epidemiology, more than 30 years ago, reported that colon cancer rates are nearly three times higher in New York than in New Mexico. Since then many other studies have found solar UVB induced vitamin D is also associated with reduced risks of breast and rectal cancers.

“When the government and our medical monopoly started telling us to avoid the sun, they forgot to remind us we would need to get our vitamin D somewhere else,” Barron said.

By this time Vera had wandered off and was commiserating with Barron’s mother about the flower garden her son had torn out, except for a small plot she had saved at the last minute, coming home from the grocery and discovering what he was about. He had thrown her flowers into a compost pit and replaced them with rows of root vegetables.

“Vitamin D is a hormone,” said Barron “and it’s produced naturally when skin is exposed to UVB in sunlight.”

Frank noticed a yoga mat rolled up and leaning against the alligator skin bark of a sweet gum tree.

“You’re still doing yoga outside?”

“I am.”

“In the buff?”

“You bet. It was good enough for the Greeks, it’s good enough for me.”

Barron told Frank vitamin D sufficiency is linked to a reduction in 105 diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. Some researchers believe vitamin D deficiency contributes to nearly 400,000 premature deaths and adds a one hundred billion dollar burden to the health care system.

By many estimates vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic, with some studies indicating greater than 50 percent of the global population at risk.

Three out of four Americans are considered vitamin D deficient, according to government data.

“Do you know why?” Barron asked him.

“No,” he said.

“It’s because of overzealous sun avoidance, which has led to a 50 percent increase in that figure in the past 20 years,” he said, slapping a fist into his palm for emphasis.

“I take a vitamin D supplement every morning,” Frank said. “I don’t have to go out in the sun. Besides, it’s been unbearably hot and there are lots of bugs, since we had such a mild winter.”

“You think our time and space is complete and knows everything,” he said. “You assume science understands all the benefits of sunlight and that the only good it does is make vitamin D.”

“Yes,” Frank said.

“That isn’t true,” Barron said. “Let me give you an example.”

He told Frank about a recent study at the University of Wisconsin and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. They discovered that something in ultraviolet light retarded progression of an animal model of multiple sclerosis, which is a painful neurological disease for which there is no cure. While vitamin D suppressed progression of the animal model, ultraviolet light worked even better. The report concluded that UV light was having an effect independent of vitamin D production.

“If it’s true in humans, it means that sunlight, or UV light, contains something good in addition to vitamin D,” he said. “We just don’t know what it is.”

Our ancestors evolved naked, full frontal. Barron waved his fig leaf.

“The sun was directly overhead. We have a long evolutionary bond with the sun. Humans make thousands of units of vitamin D, and who knows what else, within minutes of  life and limb exposure to sunlight. It is unlikely such a system evolved by chance. When we sever the relationship between ourselves and sunlight, we proceed at our own peril.”

Barron Cannon gave Frank a sharp look and leaned back on his elbows

At a loss for words, Frank was grateful when his wife reappeared.

“I’m getting a little toasty in all this sunlight,” she said.

They agreed that they should be going. They bid Barron goodbye, Vera waved to Barron’s mother, and they made their way home.

After dinner that night, as Vera watched “Lawrence of Arabia” on Turner Classic Movies, while sitting on the front porch in the orange-yellow light of a quiet sunset, Frank skimmed a review of a paper in the British Medical Journal.

“Some people are taking the safe sun message too far,” wrote Professor Simon Pearce. “Vitamin D levels are precarious in parts of the population. They stay at home on computer games. It’s good to have 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun two to three times a week.”

As he put his iPad down, he thought, I might give it a try in our backyard, without slathering on any sunscreen as I normally do, but definitely wearing a pair of shorts.

Inside the living room, on the flat screen, Lawrence and his Arab allies were charging across a sun-blasted desert outfitted from head-to-toe in long loose robes.

Where did Barron Cannon get fig leaves, anyway, Frank wondered?

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