Tag Archives: Vivekananda

Cutting Dreams Down to Size

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By Ed Staskus

“I want to get physical, let’s get into physical, let me hear your body talk, your body talk.”   Olivia Newton-John

There have been several religious revivals in the United States. There was one while it was still British America and another one in the early 19th century. They are called Great Awakenings, outpourings of the Holy Spirit, in other words. One sermon by Jonathan Edwards in 1741 was entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”.

It immediately breathed new life into godliness in the colonies.

The third Great Awakening of the second half of the 19th century was centered on the rise of contemporary churches, missionary work, and an emphasis on social issues.

The last more-or-less Great Awakening happened in the 1950s, when among the post-war baby-booming moms and dads of an expanding confident Pax Americana there was a revival of interest in religiosity, especially among conservative denominations, sparking theological battles and the rise of politically powerful evangelicals.

The Great Decline began in the 1970s when prayer, church membership, and service attendance started to take a nosedive. Although most Americans still claim to believe in God, they largely sleep in on Sundays. Maybe that’s what some evangelicals mean when they talk about “Soul Sleep”.

At the same time that interest in the spirit was fading away in the United States, a practice centered on the spirit started gaining traction. It was the practice of yoga. It first appeared on the coastlines of the country, the most secular places in the land, but it was a new awakening.

Although yoga today has been mainstreamed manhandled merchandised into cute outfits twisting themselves into perfect poses and posting the results on social media, Yogananda, author of “Autobiography of a Yogi” and the man who brought the practice to the land of opportunity in the 1920s, thought it was something else.

“It is a profound science of unfolding the infinite potential of the human mind and soul,” he said. He thought the purpose of yoga was not asana exercise, even though health is an important component of the discipline, but rather union with the spirit, largely through meditation.

Yogananda wasn’t big on milk and honey. He didn’t necessarily believe cloud nine was going to be got to by wrapping yourself up in a lululemon heart opener knit wrap, the perfect light layer to wear to and from your practice. He might have thought they are great clothes, colorful and moisture-wicking, albeit tight-fitting for his plus-sized figure from a different fashion time.

The Great Decline was long in coming, set in motion by modern philosophy, questioning everything, modern ideas like agnosticism, deism, and evolution, and societal rebellion. Modern times have been trending to the secular for several centuries. It may not be true that when we stop believing in God we’ll believe in anything, but it is true we all believe in Wall Street and Main Street more than God nowadays.

The Decline of Awe also came into play in the steam age industrial age atomic age digital age. The heavens are full of stars photographed by Hubble. They aren’t portents of success or failure, victory or disaster, Heaven or Hell, anymore. Awe has been replaced by high camp comic drama self-promotion hurly-burly send-ups. The proof is in the pudding, in Facebook YouTube Twitter Instagram.

The four top social network amusement parks have almost 5 billion users between them. On the other hand, maybe 20 percent of Americans go to church on a regular basis, maybe less. The rest are on their cell phones. “Ask most pastors what percentage of inactive members they have, and they’ll say anything from 40 – 60 percent,” said sociologist Penny Long Marler in ‘An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America’.

There are far more No Church-affiliated Americans than Catholic Americans or mainline Protestant Americans. Only evangelicals are holding their own, probably because they believe in a success-oriented culture. Or maybe because they got their own haunted house ogre elected to the White House.

When yoga was getting its legs under it in the 1970s and 80s many Americans said they were spiritual, but not necessarily religious. What they meant was they weren’t organized religious. Even though arena-style mega-churches were springing up, seeming to be bursting at the seams, the writing was on the wall.

Just when the spiritual was fading away, along came yoga over the horizon, a ray of sunshine. A new kind of post-religious spirituality was on the way to a studio near you, brought to you from the East, where all religions have their roots. Sooner or later, everything old becomes new again.

Vivekenanda got the ball rolling in the 1890s, Yogananda popularized Kriya Yoga in the 1920s, and Yogi Bhajan inspired a large following in the 1960s with his Yoga of Awareness. At their core the practices were all spiritual. However, the spiritual aspect of yoga was not sustainable in the 20th century, not in a society becoming ever more secular and materialistic.

After World War Two greed rapidly outstripped need. By the turn of the new century the United States had become the most materialistic society in the history of the world. Yoga’s ethical guidelines, behaviors like non-excess, non-possessiveness, and self-discipline, were rapidly becoming irrelevant, even as the practice boomed.

Boomers and GenX’ers are less religious and spiritual than the Silent Generation. Millennials are the least religious and spiritual of any American generation. Americans are more focused on the freedom to do whatever they want more than ever before. The sense of spirit as the gospel truth has been tossed into the dustbin of history.

The problem for the bread and butter of yoga in the 1990s and 2000s was what to do. The union of the individual self and universal consciousness wasn’t going to pay the rent. In fact, being on the side of the spirit was being on the wrong side of the balance sheet.

The solution to the problem was to go back to Patanjali, who codified the system of yoga about two thousand years ago, and turn him over on his head. Modern yoga stepped up, dropped back, and threw a spiral for a touchdown. From the perspective of Head Coach Patanjali on the sidelines, the forward pass might have been thrown backwards into the wrong end zone. But, that was neither here nor there.

It was B. K. S Iyengar to the rescue.

He wrote a book all about yoga exercise, which was a blend of hatha, gymnastics, British Army calisthenics, Indian wrestling, and alignment. “Light on Yoga” was and still is a hit. “When teachers refer to the correct way to do a posture, they’re usually alluding to the alignment Mr. Iyengar instructs and expertly models in his book,” wrote ‘Yoga Journal’ in a tribute after his death.

Since then, streaming into the 21st century, yoga has become as body conscious as it can possibly be. Five of the eight limbs of yoga have been lopped off and left for dead, leaving posture poses and breathing exercises in control. Meditation has been repurposed as mindfulness.

Mindfulness is about fully minding what’s happening, minding what you’re doing, and minding the space you’re moving through. It used to be called paying attention. The best thing about the new practice is you don’t have to sit around meditating for hours anymore.

Yoga is a practice that fills in the space between now and forever, or at least it used to. It has since expunged the forever side of things and made the now side the happening side. It was once something between the nothing that isn’t there and the nothing that is. But, times have changed. Now it’s elbow grease, and any sense of wonder is beside the point.

“I don’t believe in all that spiritual mumbo jumbo,” or words to that effect, are routinely heard in yoga studios from coast to coast. It’s like hearing not the door slamming shut, but its echo.

Yoga has become a choreographed sequence of squirming facts on a rectangular rubber mat. Nuts and bolts were once baffled by imagination, but now studio classes are full of them. Yoga used to know what facts not to bother with. Now facts are confused with reality.

When modern yoga stripped away most of the limbs of the practice it was doing what it had to do to cash in on a good thing. Physical fitness was never the purpose of yoga, but physical fitness is what most people will pay $15.00 an hour for, not instruction in the benefits of the spirit. Intangibles are not the point of gruntwork.

Who goes to a gym for enlightenment?

Before the Great Split the dichotomy was, it’s either yoga, or it’s exercise. It didn’t matter what you were doing, bicep curls or sun salutations. What mattered was the ethical motivation non-competiveness spiritual orientation and where whatever you were doing was heading. If tight buns were the goal, it was exercise. If the subtle body was the goal, it was yoga.

It doesn’t matter anymore. Yoga has become whatever you want it to be, whatever you say it is, whatever pays the best in the marketplace. Deconstructing the structural unity of the practice has become constructing the fast food drive-thru of the obvious on a bland burger bun.

When yoga studios add profit centers to their footprint – mats branded apparel props essential oils lifestyle items – it’s because they need the real McCoy to stay in business. Retail can add 20 to 30 percent to the bottom line. Trying to make money off the spiritual is like trying to give fish a bath.

Yoga businesses need to be profitable. All earnings are dependent on shoppers, since if there weren’t any shoppers there wouldn’t be any stores or studios. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the groove on the mat they’re looking for or simply looking groovy. It doesn’t matter whether shoppers want an awakening or tight buns. The customer is always right.

“The act of shopping is a form of stress release,” wrote Rebecca Kotch in ‘Managing Your Yoga Retail Space’. “Shopping within a yoga studio environment seems to be an exceptional antidote to everyday stresses,” she said.

It obviates the need for wasting your time in corpse pose, as well. It begs the question, however, whether the new yoga is yoga by another name, or is it something different altogether? Is the old yoga dead and gone? Does it matter?

“Do I believe that yoga can be imparted without being grounded in its cultural and spiritual heritage? No. Whatever that is, it isn’t yoga,” Kavita Das wrote in ‘Any Practice of Yoga That Isn’t Spiritual Isn’t Really Yoga’.

Although there is no disagreeing with the sentiment, there is no doubt Kavita Das is completely wrong. Yoga has a cultural and spiritual heritage and the practice was, within the last one hundred years, grounded in that tradition. That is not the case anymore. Yoga today is whatever most people say it is.

Even before the Great Decline the idea that we are compelled to create meaning had been crashing into the past, redefining modernity. Everybody has to create meaning for themselves and create their own outlook. Life used to be what other people said it was. Life nowadays is whatever you say it is. Hanging onto the coattails of yoga’s heritage doesn’t get it done in an age of engagement and commitment to the now.

Although it is true the present is like an egg that was laid by the past, the present is never like the past. When you’ve got the present in the driver’s seat, running the show, you control both the past and the future. What we dream up now is tomorrow’s reality.

Most yoga today is branded, delivered, and consumed in a commercial setting, and has no spiritual aspect to it. The cultural heritage of the practice has become beside the point, except for the yoga tourists who pay homage to it by going to the sub-continent on vacation. However, what they practice at the fountainhead is ironically a mostly Westernized form of the discipline.

The Great Dream of yoga used to be awareness, self-control, and higher consciousness. The way it was gotten to was by training the body and the mind. Even though teachers were helpful, neither gym nor studio memberships were necessary. The best teachers didn’t explain or demonstrate, rather they inspired. They didn’t confuse things with their names.

The next step used to be about going beyond the physical, beyond the mind, even, and straight to the spirit. Stop making sense. There’s no time for words. Feel a little more alive. Stop making sense.

Most modern practice, however, has evolved so that it’s never mind anything except the physical. Modernity has given the heave ho to thousands of years of meaning, and replaced it with the provisional, so that essence is what you make of it, once you have come into being. The physicality of existence is what matters more than anything else.

It may be reductive to do yoga as a workout, but the other paths have been largely washed away in the Great Flood of rationalism secularism commodification. Besides, yoga has been decontextualized to the point that anything goes, anyway. Who really believes in the past anymore?

Traditional yoga was an enterprise after states of insight. Modern yoga is an enterprise after health and wealth along material planes. Traditional yoga espoused detachment from physical pleasures, or at least many of them. Modern yoga is a shopping mall of physical pleasures. Traditional yoga was then and modern yoga is now.

We all dream up our own reality, although now and then it’s fine to pause in our pursuit of yoga and just do it.

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

 

 

 

 

Message in a Bottle

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By Ed Staskus

When the Bengali monk Vivekananda stepped up to the lectern at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, he was nervous about the speech he was going to give to an audience of more than seven thousand, a speech that would plant a new seed of yoga in America. On another stage at the same time at the same World’s Exposition, the ex-cowboy and self-styled Rattlesnake King was squeezing oil from snakes he had just killed.

He used the squeeze in his patent medicines.

Clarke Stanley, one of the most successful and colorful tonic barkers of the 19th century, was an even bigger attraction than the exotic little brown-skinned man from India. He wasn’t nervous. He wasn’t skittish. He was charming. He claimed his Snake Oil Liniment gave immediate relief to both man and beast for everything from toothaches and sore throats to sciatica and rheumatism.

It never went rancid, either, said the Snakeman.

“Ladies and gentlemen come up close where everyone can see. It even cures squinting.” The crowd looked for their wallets and purses. Clarke Stanley looked through the wide open end of their pipe dreams. It was a fool’s paradise.

Patent medicines are as old as Daffy’s Elixir, first blended in England in 1647, and popular in the United States into the late 19th century. The alcohol-fortified and drug-laced remedies were peddled by grocerymen goldsmiths tinkers traveling salesmen. They were available for almost any ailment, including colic cuts bruises baldness boils nerve damage lame backs deafness and “those painful complaints and weaknesses so common to our female population.”

Almost all of them were concoctions fortified with alcohol and cocaine or simply thin air.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 led to the end of Joy to the World Pain Killer, laced with opium, Fowler’s Arsenic Solution, which was iron mixed with arsenic for heart ailments, and the wildly popular Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, meant to treat something called “internal slime fever.”

The many medical advances of the 20th century and into the 21st, however, did not put an end to quackery. Empty nutritional and supplement schemes, fraudulent arthritis products, and spurious cancer clinics have led the way. In 2017 the FDA warned stem cell clinics about their cure-all claims.

“Stem cell clinics that mislead vulnerable patients into believing they are being given safe, effective treatments that are in full compliance with the law are dangerously exploiting consumers and putting their health at risk,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

More than a hundred years ago Vivekananda, in traditional Hindu monk garb, and known as the black pagan in orange clothes, traveled across the United States on a lecture tour. He often spoke about good health giving a leg up to making it down the yellow brick road to liberation.

“He who wants to become a Bhakta must be strong, must be healthy,” he said. “Build up your health. As long as the body lives there must be strength in the body. Yoga staves off disease.”

A Bhakta is a devotee of God. Bhakti Yoga, also known as Bhakti Marga, is largely a spiritual path. It employs yoga practice and discipline to help get to where it wants to go.

Although Vivekananda always believed in yoga, he never said it was the be all and end all of body mind spirit, that it was a tonic that cured all ills. If you don’t do yoga there’s no need to stress out about it. He seems to have believed the best cure was a quiet mind, like the best cure for sleeplessness is getting a good night’s sleep.

That’s not what contemporary yoga in our marketplace world says. It says there is a remedy for every problem and the remedy is yoga. Step right up! Right here for the song and dance! There’s something for everybody!

There are “4 Yoga Poses to Cure Diabetes” and “5 Top Yoga Poses to Cure Gallstones” and “6 Effective Yoga Poses for Autism.”

There are “8 Easy Yoga Poses That Will Cure Fibromyalgia Quickly” and “9 Yoga Poses for Arthritis Relief” and “10 Yoga Poses to Heal Migraines.” Yoga has become a dime-a-dozen commodity on the midway and the magazines, on You Tube and Facebook, at the corner store.

There are yoga poses to re-grow hair, alleviate and prevent nerve pain, fight epilepsy, help you poop, treat skin problems, restore irregular periods to a timely basis, improve heart health, lower blood pressure, calm down restless leg syndrome, ease ankylosing spondylitis, overcome PTSD, relieve neck shoulder lower back hip flexor pain, and resolve anxiety disorder and build your confidence.

There is even a kind of yoga to fatten up your wallet and lots of yoga to reduce your dress size.

There is “Pranayama Yoga Cures Almost All Incurable Diseases!”

The only thing yoga doesn’t seem to be able to take care of are gunshot wounds and compound fractures. Emergency rooms are still needed for that.

Writing in The Telegraph in a recent feature article called ‘Why Yoga Cures Everything,’ Lucy Fry asked, “My big question is no longer why are so many people doing yoga. It’s why isn’t everyone?”

On the other hand, Thomas Browne, a 17th century writer, argued against doing anything at all. “We all labor against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.”

Tara Stiles is not Thomas Browne, but she has sold many many more books than him. Thomas Browne was an English polymath influenced by the scientific revolution of Baconian enquiry. Tara Stiles is an American model turned yoga instructor. In her book “Yoga Cures: Simple Routines to Conquer More Than 50 Common Ailments and Live Pain-Free” she tackles everything from “arthritis to fibromyalgia to jiggly thighs and hangovers.”

Jiggly thighs are flabby thighs that can’t be slid into skinny jeans or look sexy in a pair of shorts. The usual remedy is to do cardio-vascular exercises that involve your legs, like walking and running, and stop eating oily fatty sugary processed foods. Or try “Yoga Cures,” on sale on Amazon, free shipping, and read it sitting around on the sofa.

“If you’ve got an ache, pain, or ‘ism, she’s got the natural answer. So dump the over-the-counter pills and pop open Yoga Cures,” recommends Kris Carr, author of her own “Crazy Sexy Diet.”

It takes one to know one.

Cure-alls are remedies that resolve all evils, cure all diseases, and restore the self. The cure for everything, the miracle panacea, is driven by a belief that the humors or the liver or the spine is the root cause of all maladies.

In the past in the West leeches and bloodletting were used to balance the four humors, while in the East needles and acupuncture were used to balance the life force. As near as today chiropractors believe something called sublaxtions block the flow of something-or-other, which when unblocked will let your body heal whatever it is that ails you. Many well-meaning but hare-brained pilgrims still believe sticking needles along chi channels makes everything better.

Cure-all approaches neglect to take into account causes of disease ranging from genetic to infectious to biochemical to traumatic to degenerative to metabolic to autoimmune, never mind all the environmental and man-made toxic things in the world.

Poison ivy grows everywhere in the United States, except Alaska and Hawaii. If you get the rash, draw hot water and find some soap, lather, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, soak, and then go to the drug store and buy a bottle of calamine lotion. Don’t go to a yoga class. You’ll only spread the itchy poisonous stuff on your skin to others.

If you go to India, the birthplace of yoga, don’t drink the tap water. Drink bottled water instead. More than half of India’s population, more than 500 million people, practice open defecation. Most of the country’s water is contaminated by biological and chemical pollutants, which cause cholera, among other things.

Clean water and sanitation prevent cholera. No known yoga pose or sequence or mudra has any effect on its spread. It is endemic because the water is foul, not because you haven’t read “Yoga Cures.” Oral rehydration solutions, when promptly administered, treat the disease easily.

As good as yoga is as a mindset a practice and a way of life, it is not the cure for much, certainly not cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers of any kind, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, asthma, or gallstones. It doesn’t matter whatever it was Bikram Choudhury ever said. He is a liar. If you’ve got stones either take a wait-and-see approach, hoping the stone dissolves or dislodges, or join the nearly one million Americans who annually get their gallbladders surgically removed.

You need a tripwire gallbladder like you need Bikram Choudhury feeding you baloney..

If you have cancer of any kind it would be best to ignore Dr. Joel Brame, a self-styled Cancer Prevention Consultant, when he professes that yoga can reverse cancerous tumors. He seems to believe that exercising in a Hot Room oxygenates the blood “creating an environment in which cancer cannot grow,” restores the immune system, and generally purifies the body, which in his world is good because cancers can only metastasize in a toxic body.

“Attend your yoga class on a regular basis and feel the magic happen!” he said.

Black magic, maybe, when hell freezes over.

Until that happens, sitting around in the waiting room, it would be worth anyone’s while to page through Timothy McCall’s “Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing.” A board-certified physician who has long practiced Iyengar Yoga and has been the medical editor for Yoga Journal since 2002, he describes yoga therapy as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit.”

“Yoga as Medicine” is largely a practical guide about how to use therapeutic yoga tools, from exercise to meditation, as complements and occasionally alternatives to medical care and medication. It’s about getting in tune with your body, which is what health is all about. It’s about being aware, staying aware, staying in tune with beware.

Yoga therapy doesn’t treat the disease, exactly. It treats the person who has the disease. It’s about learning ways of making and maintaining body mind spirit health.

Gary Kraftsow of the American Viniyoga Institute describes yoga therapy as a practice to help people “facing health challenges at any level manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality, and improve attitude.”

He doesn’t blare, blare, blare on and on about cure, cure, cure. Brenda Feuerstein has pointed out that it might be more helpful if the practice was regarded as something that “may be helpful in the treatment of something, but not yoga cures.”

Well-being is often the result of practicing yoga on a consistent basis. Yoga therapy isn’t a cure for acute conditions, but it is an aid in treatment and augmenting clinical care. Georg Feuerstein believed it was a way to integrate yogic techniques and concepts with medical know-how.

The difference between Snake Oil Yoga and Therapy Yoga is that one sells what purports to work for everybody while the other teaches what is appropriate to the individual and respects the differences in different people. Snake oil men shoot magic elixir bullets. Yoga therapists try to gauge the capacity and direction of mind of the person before they draw any conclusions. They don’t quick draw. They don’t try to kill anyone with cold-blooded make-believe kindness.

Why does it matter?

In the British art critic John Berger’s TV series “Ways of Seeing,” broadcast at about the same time that today’s yoga came around the bend in the early 1970s, he argued that where when and how we are directed to look at something, to pay attention to it, determines what we see. How something is framed often makes what matters, and what doesn’t matter.

When we pay attention to snake oil salesmen we get sucked down into their wormholes. It becomes believing what you want to believe, the easy answer, one size fits all. When we practice yoga therapy there is no rabbit in the hat, just a lot of work on the mat, day after day. It’s not the easy answer. There have long been and still are plenty of mad hatters and carnival sandbaggers trying to pickpocket the out-on-a-limb with their cooked-up promises.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Don’t drink the brightly colored tonic water spiked with raw profit motive. There’s no yogi genie lightning in a bottle.

Yoga never was and never was intended to be a cure-all for ill health. “We must all pay attention to your health first, but we must not forget that health is only a means to an end,“ said Vivekananda.

“If health were the end, we would be like animals. Animals rarely become unhealthy.”

How the practice of yoga can effectively help those in need is being brought to bear by men like Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, not the flimflam men of the internet and cunning analytic advertising. Dr. Khalsa’s research focuses on the clinical effectiveness and psychophysiological mechanisms underlying the practice of yoga and meditation techniques.

His approach advocates yoga as a way of enhancing proprioception, the awareness of where you are in space, and interoception, the awareness of the sensations of your body in space. He believes awareness is what changes lifestyles, and since many diseases are lifestyle diseases, brings the commonness of those diseases under control.

“People change their diets,” he said. “They change their behaviors to ones that make them feel better, because now, for the first time in their lives, they’re actually feeling better.”

It is feeling better, not by staring down to the bottom of a bottle of snake oil, but rather straight ahead in cobra pose, firming the shoulders against the back, lifting through the top of the sternum. It’s not a song and dance. It’s not a skin game hustle. It’s not a bill of goods, but rather a bill of fare from the inside out. It’s a message in a bottle.

When Vivekananda stepped up to the stage at the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893 it was one small step for a man. Thankfully, there weren’t any drips globs greasy ointment or snake oil left behind by the Snakeman on the stairs to slip up the small man from India. Otherwise, the big step that was ultimately taken that day might never have happened.

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