28 December 2010

The Call

upon first seeing Gangakondacholapuram, 2008 

My first OM was in 1973 with Beat Poet and Buddhist, Allen Ginsberg, and I drifted in and out of yoga during the ‘70s. It was only when I returned to a serious yoga practice in the mid-‘90s that everything clicked.

I began yoga teacher training in 2002 at a traditional yoga studio in Chicago. I was a sponge soaking everything in, I could not get enough yoga knowledge. A yoga master named Srivatsa Ramaswami came to the studio to teach a weekend workshop. I had no idea who he was but learning classical yoga from an Indian teacher intrigued me. He set me on my path to India during the first night of his workshop.

That night he chanted and taught us mantras. His chanting cracked something open and I drove home crying all the way, not from sadness but from an inexplicable joy. There was something about the slow, careful yoga he taught that felt perfect. After that weekend something took hold and I knew I had to travel to the heart of yoga.

I researched yoga schools in India but nothing felt right until I read about the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, the school of T.K.V. Desikachar. It was no coincidence that the yoga of Ramaswami that had resonated with me so much was the basis of this school. I told my husband to his dismay that when it was time for me to go to India I would go and nothing would stop me.

Something more than yoga drew me to India. More than one emotion percolated at the same time -- fear, nervousness, excitement, love, passion. All those emotions rolled up together like kittens in a basket, inseparable; sleeping, yet ready to explode at any moment.

It was like when you meet someone again whom you loved and never forgot. The initial emotions of seeing that person - fear, nervousness, love - suddenly come pouring out of your heart, and you are drawn for an inexplicable reason, never to be the same again. You feel that it is a culmination of something, but you don't know what, and you don't want to know, because it doesn't matter. But it is also a beginning and you hold your nose, close your eyes, and jump. I had never been overseas but at the age of 51 I knew in my bones that going to India was something I must do. I went alone.

I had been told by an adept that I would melt into that world. I stood at the doorway of the airport sniffing the early morning air like an animal finally set free. The feeling was primal as soon as my foot touched Indian soil. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I stepped into Ma India’s arms. I was home.

27 December 2010

reflections on 2010 and ruminations on the future

My oh my, what a blessed year 2010 apologies, no regrets, and always moving on.

I started out in South India at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, flew to Kolkata where Kali Ma knocked me down, traveled to Bhubaneswar to meet the 64 Yoginis, and then spent 9 days at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Hardiwar where I jumped into the Ganges on Mahashivratri and met a swami of the highest order.

After India I flew to Africa and spent a night in Nairobi, Kenya after crisscrossing the Persian Gulf to spend hours in Qatar AND Dubai due to flight problems, flew to Zanzibar to spend five days on the beach, then flew to Arusha, Tanzania where I introduced yin yoga to 20 or so Arusha yogins and the two zebras that waltzed into the retreat on Saturday morning. Yoga teaching doesn't get any better than that.

After the retreat I went to the bottom of Ngorongoro Crater and as I watched a herd of wildebeast and zebra, hearing only my breath and the wind and their grunts, I experienced such a visceral feeling of oneness with all things that it rendered any words I had ever read about that primal recognition almost meaningless.

Of course one does not have to travel thousands of miles for that realization -- I feel the same way sitting in my garden and watching the butterflies and honeybees. Or upon opening an acorn and seeing an oak forest in miniature and feeling that time has stopped -- Tzimtzum which means Divine Contraction. It is the belief that if God is infinite, He would have to draw in and make a void into which creation can come, whether it's in my yard or the bottom of a prehistoric crater in Africa.

I don't know why but this year brought a closing in rather than expansion, but not a closing in in a negative way. My yoga practice definitely changed after my trip. I gave up all my classes except my private ones and I was amazed at how content I became because of it.

What was foretold to me had come to pass: I died in India when I jumped into the Ganges and was reborn at the bottom of that crater.

And all that was just the beginning of my year.

The words that describe my yoga teaching this year are "less is more" and "quality over quantity." I no longer teach at studios and have no desire to ever teach regularly at studios again except for the occasional workshop. The students who come to my house are sincere and dedicated and are hungry for more and more meditation. We've developed quite the sangha yet they know I must go to India to refuel. "You will always be my teacher," one student told me on our last night before my upcoming trip.

The women at the domestic violence shelter where I teach have inspired me to take a special training in teaching yoga to trauma survivors. Those battered women who are also my teachers have also inspired me to embark on a new journey into graduate school and a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology. One night after teaching I had another epiphany after speaking with a woman, again so visceral that I saw my life's path laid out before me - there will be no turning back.

The year has shown me how asana is such a small part of the practice. It's only the appetizer to the feast. Yoga blogs where the only thing written about is mastering this pose or that pose are incredibly boring to me. Yoga has become a cult of the body in America. I think, what are they going to write about when they can no longer do that sick arm balance or inversion, what will they have left? Get real.

The yoga blogosphere in 2010 burned up with the heated discussion about Tara Stiles and her book and the "who owns yoga?" debate.

Although I also jumped into the debate I became bored with those discussions, too. The turning point came when a post was published in a yoga-ish online journal that seemingly pitted me against Tara Stiles, my yoga vs. her yoga. While the writer thought it was complimentary, I felt blindsided and betrayed. The writer did not feel it necessary to ask my permission or even to ask my opinion before he wrote about me.

Needless to say the writer felt Kali's wrath and the post was pulled, but the incident left an extremely bad and bitter taste in my mouth that made me rethink my time in the yoga blogosphere. The best thing that came out of the situation was the support shown me by certain yoga bloggers, one especially, who also felt the writer's actions were unconscionable.

The question of what is "real yoga" also arose in different venues. I have always said that this is my real yoga and one of my students also used the phrase. I will say again that I really don't care what your yoga is, I know what mine is, but one thing that I am convinced of is that if something isn't changing for you off the mat or off the cushion (and how many yoga practitioners also have a dedicated meditation practice?), then it's not yoga.

And no apologies to those who hate the phrase "real yoga." I'm tired of that judgment, too. It's almost a reverse snobbism. Anyone who criticized or questioned the yoga status quo was called a "hater" or "judgmental" in the yoga blogosphere. Many discussions served to separate rather than gather the online yoga community. I grew tired and it drained me and further convinced me to stay away from yoga blogs.

Yes, I am sensitive about the topic of "real yoga." Over the five years of writing this blog I've caught flak about being so outspoken and that has made me misunderstood at best and unpopular at worst. I've been described as being passionate in my defense of yoga in the face of commercialism, exploitation, and misunderstanding. If the body cult of modern Americanized yoga is right, then I'd rather be wrong.

I'm not everyone's cup of chai and I've always been an outsider, and frankly, because of decisions I've made, I've never been happier with teaching. Quality over quantity. I don't want to teach a dozen classes a week to those who do not see yoga as a wisdom teaching on self-transformation, as something beyond the cult of the body. There are other teachers who do that but I'm not one of them and that's just fine. It's neither good nor bad, it just is. That's my yoga and yours is yours.

So as I plan my fifth trip to India (I'm leaving in two days), I wonder what 2011 and beyond might hold. What can top the Maha Kumbh Mela and Ngorongoro Crater? My gut tells me that this will be last trip for a few years as I work on a masters degree. I was told that this will be my last trip as a student, that when I return I will bring India something instead. We shall see.

Maybe I am drawn to India because she has her own strong personality, just like me. She shows you incredible aspects of yourself while at the same time showing you impossible suffering. Nothing is hidden, suffering and death are on the street every day. You have to face it and if you go to India for spiritual bliss, you will be challenged beyond your imagination. If you accept the challenge, if you don't run in fear, your life is changed forever.

Sounds like yoga.

02 December 2010

here we go again, part 2


I want to say from the onset that my writing is not meant to be a scholarly history of Hinduism and I won't get into any debates about what Hinduism is, who is a Hindu, etc. I am more than cognizant of the various Hindu gods and goddesses and know the difference between a Shaivite and a Vaishnavite (I'm partial to Murugan who is also known in Mahayana Buddhism as Skanda.)

But all that doesn't matter for this purpose. After all, I am Buddhist with a Kali yantra tattooed on my back so you can figure that out by yourself. I am only writing about yoga as taken from my notes over the years and from the Joshi essay referenced in Part 1. You can read this or move on but be advised that I will not entertain any type of religious debate -- there are other forums where you can argue any point you want to make.

When I wrote that "Hinduism actually rejects yoga" in part 1, I knew those words would be shocking.  But when the KYM teacher used those words he was talking about the way Hinduism in general views the philosophy of yoga as a path of liberation.  I have to say that in any yoga training I have ever done I never heard it said that Hinduism gave birth to yoga.  Yes, yoga philosophy is a part of Hinduism, but as for yoga originating in Hinduism, I beg to differ.

Before the time of Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE, approximate date of death) the religion of India was Vedic Brahmanism and alongside the Vedic tradition there was an ascetic (the sramanas) form of thought and practice originating in prehistoric times. Prof. Joshi writes that Buddhism had the closest affinity with this sramanic culture and Hinduism grew out of a fusion of Vedic Brahmanism with Buddhism and other sramanic religious trends.

In order to discuss the roots of yoga or whether yoga springs from Hinduism, let's keep some dates in mind: Vedicism, 1500-500 BCE; Tantricism and Hinduism, 500-1000 CE.

Sages (munis) and ascetics (yatis) lived in ancient India before the time of the Upanisads.  Prof. Joshi writes that "the Rgveda describes a muni who practiced meditation and led an austere life. He is said to be 'long-haired' and probably wore a beard. The munis either lived naked or wore ... dirty garments and were experts in techniques of silent ecstasy." (Joshi, p.27)

This was the culture -- pre-Hinduism -- that birthed the beginnings of yoga.

In part 1 I wrote about Stephen Cope's talk on the history of yoga during my training at Spirit Rock. He drew a yoga timeline from the Vedas to the explosion of yoga after 1975 when Yoga Journal was first published. He emphasized that the renouncers of the Vedic rituals, these sramanas, starting from the 8th Century BC, used their own bodies and minds as laboratories for the direct experience of yoga and for the research on the nondualism of body and mind.

My KYM teachers taught that Samkhya and yoga are closely related. Prof. Joshi writes:

"In later Brahmanical tradition these two systems [Samkyha and yoga] are generally mentioned together. Yoga as a way of religious perfection is older than the Yoga system of thought now associated with Patanjali's Yogasutras (cir. 300 CE.) Yoga as a way was an essential element of Sramanic culture. Yoga is therefore of non-Brahmanical and non-Aryan origin. The munis and yatis of Vedic age practiced yoga and dhyana. This is clear from the Rgveda... The early Yoga was possibly identical with Buddhist Yoga or the way of meditation. As it belonged to the non-Vedic Sramanic tradition, the early Yoga was possibly non-theistic and ascetic." (Joshi, p.33)

Cope taught that Patanjali wrote the Sutras as a treatise for advanced yoga students and reminded us that only three sutras mention asana, the rest are about meditation and the human experience. So when it is commonly said that “yoga is 5000 years old”, that is not true because it was not until the Middle Ages (1300 app.) when the Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written followed by the Geranda-Samhita (1600 app.) and the Shiva-Samhita (1700 app.) that the yoga poses we are familiar with today were revealed.

The Sutras are not about asana practice but about uncovering the roots of human suffering. Yoga and Buddhism both grew out of the same cultural milieu of India as a reaction to the dogma of the Vedic and Brahmin culture. Buddha lived about 700 years before Patanjali wrote the Sutras but given the religious atmosphere of India at that time, it would have been impossible for Patanjali not to have been influenced by Buddhist thought. In his essay Prof. Joshi writes that the Mahabharata (which the Bhagavad Gita is part of) was compiled during the period when Buddhism flourished most in India, during 400 BCE to 400 CE: "the present form of the Mahabharata, with its ethics and philosophy, would have been impossible without Buddhism." (Joshi, p.13.)

Both the Sutras and Buddhism seek to uncover the roots of human suffering. When Buddha said that “second hand answers have no power to transform”, he was talking about direct insight into known experience, the known experience of sitting and watching the breath, watching the body in the body, and the breath in the breath.

Sounds like yoga (asana-pranayama-meditation) to me. It seems that if anyone should "take back yoga", it should be my ash-covered friends in the photo above because it was their pre-Hindu forebears who saw yoga as a path of liberation via one's own efforts rather than through being born into the right caste or through the rites and rituals of Vedic Brahmanism.


Reference:  "Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions" by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

01 December 2010

here we go again, part 1

Hindu blessing of cow, Rameswaram beach, 2006

Getting on the yoga merry-go-round again of the old debate on "who owns yoga?" and whether yoga springs from Hinduism.

There's lots of stuff going on in the world but it must be a slow news day when the New York Times publishes another article with a dramatic title on the Hindu group that is stirring up the debate over yoga's soul.

Then there was the USA Today article, "Take Back Yoga Campaign: Back Where?"

Lisa Miller in Newsweek asked whether yoga's Hindu roots matter. I thought her article was a breath of fresh prana in this debate, but I still think she is mistaken about some things.

And after the debate burned through the yoga blogosphere and Facebook this week, Deepak Chopra finally weighed in on the yoga yada yada in HuffPo.

I thought his article was a bit amusing, since in Miller's article he claims to have "sanitized" Hinduism in order to make it more palatable: “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru....“We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology.  Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there.  Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”   But in his HuffPo article he states that  "the nobility of Indian spirituality elevates Hinduism to a unique place in the world."

Uh, which part of that nobility did he sanitize? OK, whatever...Deepak is a zillionaire guru and I'm not. He must know what he's talking about because he's written a ton of books. And is a zillionaire guru. Did I mention that already?

STOP THE PRESSES! I've always wanted to say that....

One would think Chopra would be the last word on this but no, I don't think so...gather 'round, kiddies, and I'll tell y'all a story. I will preface this by saying that I'm not a yoga scholar and have never written a book. I have no fancy advanced college degrees (yet.) I'm a yoga student first and then a teacher but I've been around the yoga block a few times and have taken a workshop or two.  My only claim to yoga fame is studying four times (soon to be five) at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Desikachar's school in Chennai, India -- two intensives and private classes. That's all.  Like Tao Porchon-Lynch, "I don't tell you these things from ego, but because it's what I know." Be advised that I pulled out my notes from KYM. And I take damn good notes.

But I want to say to the Hindu American Foundation referenced in the NY Times article that I feel your pain. I understand why they are verklempt. As Lisa Miller wrote in Newsweek, “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga.  But you have to honor and credit the source....know where yoga came from and respect those origins." I'm getting very tired of yoga articles written in terms of "fighting" and "owning", but I don't blame Indians one bit for wanting reverence and respect paid to an art and science that originated in India. Don't get me started on OM tattoos on feet but I digress.

But yoga doesn't come from Hinduism and Hindus don't own yoga.

Yoga is much older. What I learned at KYM was that yoga was part of the six systems of philosophy in India called the saddarsanas, darsana meaning "to see":

1. Nyaya -- logic; using analysis to look a problem;

2. Vaisesika -- evolution; what is the evolution of something to discover its reality. EX: a desk comes from wood which came from a tree which came from a seed.

3. Mimamsa -- rituals and rites (doing something in order to get something.) EX: animal and human sacrifice; fire rituals.

4. Sankyha -- closely related to yoga; our problems arise because of "seer" and what is seen; there is confusion between the "I" and the rest of the world. "Sankyha" means knowledge of Self through right discrimination. (See the Samkyha Karika of Isvara Krsna.)

5. Vedanta -- school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads (advaita vedanta is a subset of this philosophy.)

6. Yoga -- school of philosophy that holds that the mind is the problem; focus the mind and we solve our problems.

The above information is from my Yoga Philosophy class notes, 2005. The next line I wrote was: "Hinduism actually rejects yoga." As a legal assistant for 20 years I sat in many a lawyer's office and wrote their words verbatim to transcribe into letters and legal documents.

So no, I did not make that up and I suppose those words shock some of you. When long-held beliefs are challenged it can be quite painful. Let me try to explain the yoga and Hinduism connection (or non-connection as the case may be) in part 2 after I finish reading the scholarly essay "Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions" by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

This essay was sent to me by a long-time reader and is an essay that Stephen Cope of Kripalu used for his book on the Sutra-s. When I did the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California, Stephen Cope used many of the points in the essay in his talk to us on the history of yoga.

The gist of the essay is that many of the things Westerners and contemporary Indian Hindus think of as "classically Hindu" actually come from the shramanical tradition generally (the sramanas being the ancient yogis, the ascetics who lived in the Vedic era which is pre-Hinduism) and Buddhism specifically and were incorporated very late in Indian history.

Stay tuned.

04 November 2010

yoga and the evolutionary process

No, not yoga and evolution. Yoga and YOUR evolution. Change.

I've been thinking a lot about what my student said in class the other night, about what she thinks "real yoga" is.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga caters to this culture rather than trying to change this culture.

To this student "real yoga" is about change on the micro- and macro- level. Or as I've heard Desikachar say, anything else is acrobatics.

I know the phrase "real yoga" upsets some people. People don't like to hear that phrase used, considering it judgmental or arrogant. They say that all yoga is good yoga and so what if someone does a 60 minute yoga DVD to get a slim, sexy body. And contrary to popular beliefs about this Krazy Old Yogini, I agree to a point: so what. The way yoga is advertised is a separate and entirely different issue.

Because as a wise reader told me recently, reality means that not everyone sings like Cecilia Bartoli or plays violin like Jascha Heifetz. So why can't we accept that there is talent involved in yoga and meditative arts also? The democratization of everything (democratization being another word for mainstream) makes us think everyone should benefit equally from martial arts, yoga, or tea ceremony, but that simply is not true.

Many say that the more esoteric benefits of yoga will eventually come to those who practice for purely physical reasons. I've never believed that because that assumes that everyone is on the same path, running at the same pace, equally. That's not true in a marathon and that's not true on the yogic path. There is also a little thing called karma.

There are plenty of people in yoga classes who practice for purely physical reasons and become stronger and more flexible, but they are still unhappy and depressed or full of fear. Some will be that way the rest of their lives, in varying degrees; others, not. There are those who will run from teacher to teacher, from one 'ism to another, and still die with their most intense fear buried deep within their hearts. There are others who have suffered horribly in their lives, studying with one teacher or even none, but through their internal work will fly on wings of joy on their dying day.

Life. Change. Stages of evolution. Karma.

The reader who wrote to me believes that it is only natural that some will not connect with the esoteric levels of yoga and will remain happy with a basic understanding of yoga, the basic level being purely physical. A lucky few on the yoga path will know enlightenment. Most will be stuck somewhere in between. This has to do with talent, but also with what the Chinese call yuanfen.

So even a basic understanding of yoga and attaining purely physical benefits are better than none at all, but I have my own standards of what constitutes "real yoga." And just as there is nothing wrong with someone doing yoga for purely physical benefits, there is nothing wrong with my standards either.

As I've come to believe over the years, students get the teachers they need at the time, teachers get the students they deserve at the time. Think about it.

One of my standards is that yoga is about physical and emotional healing. Another standard is that yoga is about accelerating our personal evolution. I've told my students many times that if something isn't changing for you off the mat, then it's not yoga. If your path is only the length and width of your yoga mat, that's not much of a path. That's my standard. And someone can choose to accept that or not because frankly, in the end, I don't care. It's your own personal evolution. Or should I say revolution?

In his book A Life Worth Breathing Max Strom writes:

"Hatha yoga is a profound evolutionary system that will benefit everyone who has the passion to change his or her troubled existence into an extraordinary life. It has changed my life forever, and every day I see it transform more and more people into happier, healthier, and more empowered beings....

Imagine two people practicing side by side. One is still and struggling in a posture, barely able to open his hips, but he is not letting it bother him. Instead, he feels calm in this difficult moment, centered in deep breathing.

Then there is the second person next to him, able to wrap his legs around his neck, but breathing erratically, thinking negative thoughts. Whose practice is better? Flexibility is not the aim; it is a side effect....

If you find joy and you are living a meaningful life, then you are becoming good at yoga....

Remember, the goal is not to tie ourselves in knots -- we're already tied in knots. The aim is to untie the knots in our heart. The aim is to unite with the intimate, loving, and peaceful power of the universe and fully awaken into the highest level of human consciousness."

(Max Strom, pp. 122-125)

A spiritual adept once told me that it is not my job as a yoga teacher to change people. They have to change themselves.

I can only give you a road map -- you have to drive the car yourself.

03 November 2010

just an old-fashioned girl

Last night in class I only had two students. Believe it or not, this no longer bothers me -- I show up and I teach. Despite how "mainstream" yoga people love to believe yoga is nowadays -- and I would really like someone to explain to me what mainstream is -- the number of students in class is diminishing. I'm not the only teacher in my area who finds this to be true.

So since it was a loosey-goosey class, we yakked for the first 30 minutes, me and my two students about the State of Yoga in America. I will add that this was totally unsolicited by me, these two gals just wanted to let loose. Of course this is not a scholarly study by any means, merely anecdotal, but interesting just the same.

One woman told me that she was glad she found my class -- this woman is older like me, I would say in her 50s. She told me she was glad she found a "real yoga" class -- her words, not mine, unsolicited. By "real yoga" she meant not "power yoga" (her words) as is taught in her gym where she takes Pilates. My class is the first yoga class she has ever taken (because her chiropractor recommended it), so she had nothing to compare it to. In spite of knowing nothing about yoga other than it was supposed to help calm her down, she somehow knew she wanted to take a "real yoga" class.

She was dismayed at the lack of commitment from the drop-in students. She asked why students feel that a yoga class is supposed to be convenient for them, instead of making it a priority like anything else in their lives. She asked me why students feel they don't have to support a yoga class, that they can just show up whenever they want to. We recalled the couple who came once and said that they "maybe" do yoga once a month. Uh...why bother? Was it a night they were bored and wanted to spice up their evening with my class? OK, I'm kidding.

I shrugged. I have no answers anymore to questions about yoga in OMerika. But I smiled and thanked her for calling my class "real yoga" and thanked her for her commitment to herself.

The second woman, younger, 30s maybe, was also dismayed at the lack of students in my class. She had been coming to this venue for yoga for a long time and told me the class used to have about 20-30 students in it. I was asked to take over this class to try to build it back up -- I had heard that the class had too many subs and people had stopped coming.

The younger woman told me -- again, unsolicited and her words, not mine -- that I was old-fashioned. I smiled and she laughed. She told me, "I think your class is the way yoga originally was before it became mainstream. You know...real yoga." Ahhhh....there are those words again.

I asked her what she thinks "mainstream yoga" is. I said to please explain it to me because I'm stuck in my little ol' boring box of asana-pranayama-meditation, so I am out of touch.

She said this: that the more mainstream yoga becomes, i.e., yoga taught all over the place, the more people will lose sight of what yoga really is. She said that yoga right now is trendy and popular, it's merely "the thing to do", just another fitness trend.

It was her belief that mainstream yoga has been dumbed down (her words) to cater to this culture rather than trying to change this fast-paced culture.

I will let that sink in because it is a very powerful statement.

She believes that people are so used to moving fast in their daily lives, that that is the type of yoga people want instead of yoga to slow them down, to go inward. She told me that to her, that's not "real yoga." She said, "if I wanted that, I'd go to an aerobics class."

I smiled. I told her thanks for saying I'm old-fashioned, but I prefer the term "old school." "Now let's do some old-school yoga," I said, as I started the vinaya krama class.

Out of the mouths of students.

I found the exchange interesting. According to my student then, "mainstream" merely means "popular." But is popular always a good thing? This student also believes that with the popularity of yoga nowadays, the sheer number of yoga classes being offered outside of yoga studios (her emphasis) actually devalues yoga and cheapens the real message of yoga, which is personal transformation. This student lives in a suburb that is far from my class. She told me that there is plenty of yoga around her house but it is the "fast food yoga", as she calls it, and will have none of it.

"Fast food yoga." I like that description. Sure you can survive on a diet of fast food, but how healthy is it for you in the long run?

Do you want fries with that?

22 October 2010

save Tibet, free Tibet

"In saving Tibet we prove the existence and power of the human spirit."

Play this video forward on October 23.


18 October 2010

stick a fork in it....

...I'm done.

For now.

The Yoga Ink Saga.

Not as important as writing about the current state of yoga, but I'm tired....turning inward and slowly checking out.

01 October 2010

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

I am a survivor.

That is why my seva is at my local domestic violence shelter for almost 10 years now. It is my favorite class to teach because my students are also my teachers. Someone you know is a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, or both.

Consider these facts --

Domestic Violence:

Half of all married women in the United States are physically abused at some time in their marriage.

One in 10 teenagers will be involved in a violent dating relationship before graduating from high school.

A woman is beaten every 10 seconds.

Domestic violence is the most under-reported crime in the US.

Domestic violence cuts across all socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of race, religion, or level of education.

Battering often occurs during pregnancy.

10 women a day die at the hands of their husbands or partners.

Every five years the number of women in the US who die at the hands of their partners is equal to the number of males who died in the Viet Nam War.

Abused women comprise 20% of all women presenting injuries at hospital emergency rooms.

Sexual Assault:

Every 5 minutes a woman is raped.

One-third of all rapes occur in a woman’s home.

Rape itself is a violent act, but 85% of all rapes are accompanied by more violence or the threat of violence.

Only 7% of sexually assaulted women report rape. This makes the actual number of rapes in the US as high as 2 million a year.

One in three girls and one in five boys will be sexually assaulted or abused before age 18.

In a Cornell University questionnaire, 92% of the respondents listed sexual harassment as a serious problem. 70% had personally experienced some form of harassment.

American women are 8 times more likely to be raped than European women and 26 times more likely than Japanese women.

One third of the sexual assault program clients at the shelter where I teach are children between the ages of 3-13; 50% of these clients are boys between the ages of 3-10.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Instead of wearing a purple ribbon, find a DV shelter in your community and do you seva. Walk your yoga talk for these women and you will be repaid 10 times over. Last night one of the women brought her little boy and he got on my mat and started teaching with me. Priceless.

Karma yoga = yoga love.

Karma yoga = peace.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

27 September 2010

listen. and then listen again.

"(The Atma) is not even in name different (from the Brahm.) It is not hidden in the high words (of the Vedas.) O Friend! How can I call it uniform or varied? I am by nature Eternal Freedom beyond all ills." Avadhuta Gita, 4.13

"Know me to be free from one and all. For me there is neither the Maya nor its opposite. How can I be said to have anything to do with the Sandhya and other prescribed devotional duties? I am by nature Eternal Freedom beyond all ills." Avadhuta Gita, 4.18

The Avadhuta Gita of Dattatreya

"He who has filled the universe, He who is Self in self, how shall I salute Him!" To know the Atman as my nature is both knowledge and realisation. "I am He, there is not the least doubt of it." "No thought, no word, no deed, creates a bondage for me. I am beyond the senses, I am knowledge and bliss." There is neither existence nor non-existence, all is Atman. Shake off all ideas of relativity; shake off all superstitions; let caste and birth and Devas and all else vanish. Why talk of being and becoming? Give up talking of dualism and Advaitism! When were you two, that you talk of two or one? The universe is this Holy One and He alone. Talk not of Yoga to make you pure; you are pure by your very nature. None can teach you."
-- Swami Vivekananda on the Avadhuta Gita

As a yoga student/teacher, are you only familiar with the Bhagavad Gita?

It is my nature to be Free.

26 September 2010

because yoga cooks us

Chickpea to Cook
~Jalaluddin Rumi
(translated by Coleman Barks)

A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot
where it's being boiled.

"Why are you doing this to me?"

The cook knocks him down with the ladle.

"Don't you try to jump out.
You think I'm torturing you.
I'm giving you flavor,
so you can mix with spices and rice
and be the lovely vitality of a human being.

"Remember when you drank rain in the garden.
That was for this."

Grace first. Sexual pleasure,
then a boiling new life begins,
and the Friend has something good to eat.

Eventually the chickpea
will say to the cook,
"Boil me some more.
Hit me with the skimming spoon.
I can't do this by myself.

"I'm like an elephant that dreams of gardens
back in Hindustan and doesn't pay attention
to his driver. You're my cook, my driver,
my way into existence. I love your cooking."

The cook says,
"I was once like you,
fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time,
and boiled in the body, two fierce boilings.

"My animal soul grew powerful.
I controlled it with practices,
and boiled some more, and boiled
once beyond that,
and became your teacher."

atha, yoga, anusasanam

19 September 2010

a question of semantics?

Carol Horton's post on Tara Stiles' book still has legs so I thought I would add my two rupees here as a post.

I'm a jazz freak and usually listen to what is considered "real jazz" (as a Sirius XM satellite radio station is entitled) as opposed to "lite jazz" (as a former Chicago radio station billed itself.) Although I learned the piano as a child, I am not a jazz musician so I don't know what technically makes jazz "real jazz" or "lite jazz" -- all I know is that they each sound very different to my ears. However, I also have a "lite jazz" station programmed in my car radio. They advertise themselves as "contemporary jazz."

The other day when I was driving I thought how appropo for yoga nowadays. If a teacher teaches an asana-only class -- i.e,. no pranayama, no meditation, no chanting, no proper instructions on bandhas, no mention of chakras, no discussion on texts or philosophy -- call the class "contemporary yoga" and call it a day.  Don't bother with any name branding, calling it vinyasa, or anything else.  Just "contemporary yoga."

Or if it's an asana-only class, why call it yoga at all? Physical therapists use movements derived from yoga all the time but they don't call it "yoga." It's physical therapy and everybody knows that is what it is. Nothing else.

Just like Frank Jude said in his comment to Carol's post, I have also taught in places other than yoga studios. I started out at my local park district in a gym. But even nine years ago when supposedly there were a lot less people doing yoga, I never felt the need to water down yoga.  Something brought people to my classes other than "slim sexy yoga" or "yoga for abs" when the number of asana-only "yoga" books did not exist as they do now. What brought them, what were they looking for?

I've also been told that more people are being brought to yoga now because of books like Tara Stiles', allegedly a book for beginning students.  If that is the case (i.e., more people doing yoga), then why did I have 40 students in a class nine years ago (when supposedly there was less awareness about yoga) and am lucky now to have 10 in a public class? I'm not the only teacher in my area who has experienced this.

Something in this modern yoga equation does not compute.

As Frank Jude said, "It's so EASY to teach mindfulness, compassionate action, non-judgmental awareness, radical acceptance [my note: what is usually seen in "real yoga" classes] without using any yoga jargon, overt 'spiritual' terms or expressions."

Indeed it is.  So why the sea of change with the new generation of American yoga teachers?

17 September 2010

good news Friday -- yoga scholarships!

meditation hall, Spirit Rock

Many of you know that I was in the first Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. The 18 month program ran from 2007 to 2009. It consisted of three 10 day retreats held for the most part in silence.  There are readings, homework, and telephone conferences in between the retreats.  There is a core group of yoga and Buddhadharma teachers such as Anne Cushman, Phillip Moffit, Mark Coleman, Anna Douglas, Janice Gates, and Chip Hartranft. There were different guest teachers at each retreat such as Judith Lasater, Tias Little, Stephen Cope, and Sarah Powers, among others.

It was the first training that spoke to my entire being as a yoga practitioner and Buddhist.  My only regret was that Jack Kornfield was not a larger part of the program because I love his books and teachings. I can sit and listen to him for hours.

Now there is fabulous news!  From Spirit Rock's website:

"Two yoga teachers will get full tuition scholarship to 18-month MYMT Program

Yoga teachers working with disadvantaged or under-served populations—for example, in prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals, or inner city schools—offer life-changing skills to their at-risk students. But they often struggle with stress, burnout and financial challenges. Now, through a new scholarship program at Spirit Rock funded by a grant from the Yoga Dana Foundation (YDF), two such teachers will have the opportunity to nourish their own yoga and meditation practice—and bring the benefits of mindfulness training back to the communities they serve."

The above link gives all the information you need on the application process.  The scholarships will provide full tuition and room and board for the 18-month Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training beginning in January 2011.  I can't tell you what an awesome opportunity this is to attend a training at one of the premier dharma centers in North America.  I was honored and blessed to have taken part in the inaugural program.  And the food is fantastic!

The teaching population to whom these scholarships are geared toward is one after my own heart.  My work with domestic violence survivors is pure joy.  They are my teachers and they have inspired me to pursue a Masters in Transpersonal Psychology.

Sometimes the path rises up to meet you and after my yoga therapy training in India next year, I want to somehow combine all my yoga/yoga therapy training with the degree so as to truly bring yoga to the people.

Don't miss out on this wonderful opportunity, but you need to apply by October 25.

Good luck!

07 September 2010

Krishnamarcharya and those British gymnastics

"Sir" and his father, KYM, 2005

2010 has been the year of scholarly yoga books such as Mark Singleton's Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture and Stefanie Syman's The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. Both authors have written that Krishnamacharya's yoga was derived in part from British gymnastics and military training exercises.

Even the eminent yoga scholar Georg Feurstein recently wrote that:

"The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country's defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult."

I don't know if Mr. Feurstein has ever spoken with Srivatsa Ramaswami about his guru Sri Krishnmacharya, but I do know that there is not one mention of Ramaswamiji in either of the above-mentioned books (I looked.) Neither is he mentioned in Feurstein's book, The Yoga Tradition, first published in 2001.

Those of you who know me know that I am an ongoing student of Ramaswamiji, having studied with him now for about 7 years. Ramaswamiji studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30+ years, longer than his own son Desikachar, and longer than Jois and Iyengar ever did.

So I was glad to see Ramaswamiji address the question of his guru deriving his yoga from gymnastic exercises. If anyone would know, I would think it would be someone who studied with Sri Krishnamacharya for 30 years.

Knowledge from a book is valuable of course, but it can not replace wisdom from an ongoing relationship with a teacher. That is one yoga jewel that has stayed with me from my first training at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram: the teachers said that personal transformation can only begin in a group class; it is achieved by working one on one consistently with a teacher over a period of time. I truly believe this as I have seen the differences with private students v. group classes.

The following is from Ramaswamiji's newsletter, unedited but for the the addition of paragraphs and an [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe this will answer the scholars' questions.


"Yoga Gymnastique -- Srivatsa Ramaswami

Some eight years back I wangled a presenter assignment at a Yoga Conference in Texas. I was never invited again because, among all the presenters, I had the dubious distinction of attracting the least number of participants for every one of my presentations.

During one of the breaks a well known yoga teacher in US came and sat by my side and inquired about me, about where I was from, etc. I mentioned that I was a student of Pandit Krishnamcharya for three decades. With a quizzical look he asked, “What were you doing for 30 years with him?', and with a wry smile he said, “Oh, you must have been doing your daily practice at his school”. He left before I could start my long answer. “How can anyone study Yoga for such a long period when there are just a half a dozen sequences or just a little over a score of asanas?,” he must have wondered.

Krishnamacharya as I have mentioned earlier was like a many splendoured diamond each facet brilliant in its own way. He taught yogasanas following the Vinyasakrama, the art form. He also used yogasanas, pranayama and meditation for chikitsa or therapeutic applications. He taught a vast range of Sanskrit chants from the Vedas and also from smritis. He taught several traditional texts like the Yoga Sutras and the sibling philosophies including the several Upanishads, following mainly the Visishtadwaita approach. He taught Vaishnava religious texts as well to a number of his Vaishnava followers. He was a well rounded Yogi and he could make every class absorbing. There would always be something new and insightful. One could never get bored in his classes whether it be the asanas, chanting or textual studies. I wanted to explain these to my celebrity friend but he was too busy to stay and listen.

Some research scholars have mentioned that Krishnamacharya's vinyasa approach to yoga has a considerable dose of physical exercise systems prevalent at that time in India like the drills and also gymnastics imported into it. But my experience with Krishnamacharya's asana practice is somewhat different.

It is true that some of the vinyasas and vinyasa sequences like part of Surya Namaskra, the handstands, the jump throughs, jump arounds, push ups (utplutis) may appear to mimic floor exercises in gymnastics. Perhaps there are some asanas and vinyasas Sri Krishnamacharya taught that had some resemblance to drills or gymnastics. But he taught to me almost 1000 vinyasas making up close to 150 asana subroutines. The head stand, the sarvangasana, padmasana are distinctly different from gymnastics and each one of them has scores of vinyasas that are uniquely yogic and no other system seems to have anything like that.

Further, yoga as a physical culture is very old. We may not have records because in ancient times most of instructions were oral and the transmission of knowledge was from teacher to student and the only way to learn was to go to a teacher and learn, practice and internalize. Later on a few texts were written as scripts were developed but they were written in easily perishable palm leaves -- like the Yoga Kuranta -- and barely one manuscript, no xerox copies, no electronic books were available. So in these matters we have to rely upon authorities/tradition or as the Vedas would call it “aitihya” or firmly held belief.

Even from the available texts like the Puranas one can glean a lot of reference to yoga practice including asana practice. The Brahma Sutras mention that a seated asana is a necessity for meditation. Works written hundreds or even a thousand years back contain sections on Yoga including asanas. Thirumular, a yogi said to have lived 3000 years back wrote about several asanas in his Tamil classic Thirumandiram. Puranas, smritis and several later day Upanishads have sections on asana practice.

There is a dhyanasloka pertaining to the Ramayana which mentions that Sri Rama was in Vajrasana while seated in his flowered bedecked, jeweled throne. In fact from time immemorial many people in India, as a religious practice, have been doing sandhya or morning worship of the sun with specific sun worship mantras and physical movements and gestures. It includes mantras like the Gayatri, pranayama and many postures like tadasana, uttanasana, utkatakaasana, and danda namaskara and utakatasana are specifically mentioned in the smritis.

So in a way we may say that suryanamaskara with mantras and the physical exercise has been a very old practice. The word Yoga is indeed a vedic word. You may check with my book “The Complete book of Vinyasa Yoga” (here no commercial intended) based on my studies with my guru and I do not think it in any way resembles a book of gymnastics. Yogasanas have their own distinct nicety. Gymnastics of course has its own charm. Gymnastics was one my favourite programs while watching the Olympics. I do not know if I would enjoy Yoga Olympiad.

My guru had mentioned on a couple of occasions that physical yoga had been the core system of physical exercises in India. It had technically influenced several ancient systems like wrestling, archery, fencing etc., very physically demanding disciplines, requiring a high degree of strength, dexterity and focus. Yoga is called a sarvanga sadhana as it is helpful for all parts of the body, including the internal organs. There were other indigenous circus-like practices such as malcam, kazhakkoothu where they use ropes or poles and do routines very similar to asanas. He had also mentioned that almost all the physical systems of the world, including gymnastics, had borrowed heavily from Yoga, because the asana portion of Yoga was the most ancient and developed physical culture system. Therefore it could be that there were a few similarities between asanas and some obscure gymnastic systems in different parts of the world at different times. Then one has to investigate the origin of those obscure systems, whether they were older than Yoga, or if they themselves borrowed from ancient yoga practices.

My Guru himself was a passionate researcher. He would always be looking for works on yoga and other systems. He even would advise us to go to different agraharams (small cluster of homes of scholars in certain villages) and look for works on Yoga available with such scholars. He would say that we should visit the hundreds of temples in India, especially South India, and observe the sculptures and idols all over the temples for study of yoga postures. And because of the oral tradition and relying on degradable palm leaves, Yoga itself had a checkered progression, in the limelight during some time in history and obscure at some other times. It then becomes a futile exercise to try to determine which among the physical exercise regimens came first, the seed or the tree or the better known example of the chicken and the egg.

There are distinct differences between the yoga I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya for a long period of time and some of the aerobic exercises like gymnastics. In the vinyasa krama asana practice, the breathing is synchronized with the movements at the rate of anywhere between 5 to 10 seconds for inhalation and exhalation thereby reducing the breath rate to about 3 to 5 per minute, whereas in contemporary aerobic exercises including gymnastics and gym workouts, the breath rate increases to much beyond the normal breathing rate of about 15 or so. This alone makes yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya distinctly different from other drills.

The variety of movements in Vinyasa asana practice is said to be designed to exercise all parts of the body including the internal organs. We do not find deep movement, synchronized breathing, and the significantly profound exercises like the bandhas -- which are an integral part of Sri Krishnamacharya's asana practice -- in other forms of physical exercises, especially gymnastics. Look at the 1930's videos, the bandhas of my Guru, they are not a gymnast's cup of chai.

When I was young, some exercises were very popular. They were outside the pale of yogasanas. One was known as “dandal”, which would look very much like a repetitive movement between caturanga dandasana and the plank or a simpler version of urdhwa mukha swanasana. The other was known as, if I remember right, 'bhaski'. It involved standing up and doing repeated squats. The first one, 'dandal' looks very similar to part of Surya namaskara. Baski resembles a very popular ritual that is done by thousands even today and is known as “toppukaranam” in Tamil and “dorbhyam karanam” in Sanskrit. One holds the lobes of the opposite ears with one's hands and squats usually in front of the idol of Lord Ganesha. It could be 12 times or 108 times. It is both a good physical exercise and a loving devotional practice to the charming Lord Ganesha.

Are these physical drills, yoga exercises, or devotional practices? Which came first? God knows, Lord Ganesa knows.

Then there is the question of whether Suryanamaskara is old, from the Vedic times. The Surya namaskara can be considered from two views; one is the mantra portion the other is vyayama or the physical part. Certainly Suryanamaskara mantras are from the Vedas. In fact, there is a complete chapter of Suryanamaskra mantras from the Veda which takes about an hour to chant. Again, the other important Surya mantra, Gayatri, is also a Vedic mantra. The Vedas exhort using Gayatri as a mantra to worship the sun daily.

Worship of the sun is considered a daily obligatory duty for the orthodox in India. We have a procedure called Sandhya vandana which is supposed to be done thrice a day, but definitely once a day. This Sandhya procedure is a kind of a worship ritual, towards the end of which one prostrates towards the Sun. While the Gayatri japa portion is done sitting in a yogic posture after required number of pranayama, the upasthana or the second part is done standing. Towards the conclusion the worshipper of the sun has to do a namaskara, a prostration. So from the standing position, usually one bends forward, half squats, places the palms on the floor, takes the legs back by jumping or taking one leg after the other and does an saashtanga namaskara or the danda namaskara prostration). One has to go through these steps (from standing to prostration) and if the steps are properly organized we get the surya namaskara vyayama, a sequence, a vinyasakrama. So, since one has to do sandhya daily and has to do the namaskara startig from standing and since the sandhya is mentioned as an obligatory duty, it will be correct to say that suryanamaskara, both the mantra portion and physical namaskara portion, are from the Vedic times. The actual steps may vary but the physical namaskara to the sun is a procedure practiced from ancient Vedic times.

Further, in India you can see many people who do not practice yoga or the formal ritualistic sandhyavandana, standing on the terrace or on the beach, facing East early in the morning, and doing prostrations a few times, returning to the standing position every time. They do not call it Yoga but suryanamaskara. Some of the present day yoga enthusiasts however do the suryanamaskara, probably at night, in any direction or directionless, do not use the mantras or the devotional bhavana associated with it, but as a mere workout.

I had chanted the suyanamaskara mantra almost on every Sunday with my guru for several years. Namarupa also published my article on Sandhya vandana with pictures of the steps some time back. I also have the one hour long Suryanamaskara mantra chant from the Yajur Veda (which I learned from Sri Krishnamacharya) recorded in mid '80s and the CDs are still made available in India.

Sri Krishnamacharya's range of teaching was sweeping. I have mentioned about the asana teaching, his chikitsa krama and vinyasa krama. His chanting of vedas was beautiful and very engaging. I do not know of any yoga teacher during his times who could chant as well as he could from memory. He earned the title “Veda Kesari” or Lion of Vedas. He was a Sanskrit scholar, a Sanskrit Pandit. He taught the vedanta philosophy, the prastana trayas, the Upanishads, the Brahma sutra and the Bhagavad Gita in the visishtadvaita tradition. He was given the title “Vedanta Vageesa”. He was also quite familiar with the advaitic interpretation. He once said while doing the sutra on Anandamaya “Anandamaya abhyasat” in which the two interpretations, advaita and visistadwaita differ from each other, “If you want I can teach you the advaitic interpretation, but advaita may be intellectually challenging but does not give the emotional satisfaction one gets from the visishtadvaitic approach”. He also taught us several important Upanishads. I studied with him several Upanishad vidyas from the major Upanishads, like Brahadaranyaka, Chandogya, Taittiriya, Kaushitaki and others. Some of the vidyas he taught include Pancha kosa Vidya, panchagni, pranava, madhu, Sandilya, Dahara Pratardana and many others.

Once I asked him why if the goal is the same, understanding Brahman the ultimate Reality, then there are so many Upanishads, why so many vidyas. He would say that pupils have different questions about the ultimate reality and these vidyas take you from the known to the unknown.

Supposing fifty people, strangers from different places, go to an unknown country, Pineland, and take a picture with the leader of the country, Mr Pineman. Every one sends home a copy of the picture by email. The way they would point to the unknown leader, Mr Pineman, to those back home would be to start from the known. The known entity in the picture will be the one who sends the picture. He may tell his son/daughter, ”the leader is three rows in front and eight to the right of me." Another person would start first by asking his kid to identify him/her first in the picture and may say the leader is three rows behind and five seats to the left. Likewise, all the various vidyas of the Upanishads try to help the aspirants to realize the ultimate truth, starting from a known tatwa. I had the privilege of studying several Upanishd vidyas from my guru Sri Krishnamacharya.

He also taught many of the sibling philosophies so that one's understanding of Yoga and Vedanta will be on firm grounds. He taught Samkhya philosophy by explaining the Samkhya karika with the commentary of Gaudapada. He also taught Yoga Sutra in considerable detail. He had obtained the titles “Yogacharya” and “Samkhya Siromani”. He also was an expert in another profound philosophy called Nyaya and had been conferred the title “Nyayacharya”. He also taught smaller or easier works like Tarka Sangraha to introduce the difficult Nyaya philosophy.

His religious studies were outstanding. He was such an expert in the Vaishnava philosophy, that he was in consideration to head a well known Vaishnava Mutt. He was truly a devotional person. As he practiced yoga he performed his daily puja with great devotion. He had several students who studied the Vaishnava religion in considerable detail. He could quote from the epics, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several other puranas like Vishnu Purana, Bhagavata Purana, etc.

I do not know of any person who was so well versed in the sastras and also at the same time an outstanding practising Yogi. Sri Krishnamacharya is well known, it is almost exclusively due to his yogasana teachings. But his scholarship and teachings were enormous. I feel a bit sad when he is portrayed as a hatha yoga teacher who plagiarized some exercises from gymnastics and called it yoga to make a living, and nothing more. [emphasis supplied.]

Maybe there is some common ground between these two different physical disciplines. I continue to remain in awe of his enormous scholarship, practice and teachings and kindness towards his students. He was a teacher who would uplift you, a true Acharya. When you study with him, you get an unmistakable feeling that his only goal in life was to transmit the traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the student. He was a unique Yogi, a unique teacher, a unique individual. Twenty years after his passing away, I remember him everyday, while practicing, studying or teaching, sometimes in dreams -- fondly."

If you want to study with a true yogi, a true yoga scholar, and a vedic chant master, Ramaswamiji will teach at the Chicago Yoga Center September 17-26.

31 August 2010

upon further reflection on the yoga noise

This is me after my head exploded over the latest furor about the way yoga is advertised in America.

OK, not really, but after the requisite three days all things pass and we move on, right? Wrong.

Once again an advertisement for a yoga book created a firestorm in the yoga blogosphere. Maybe the fire was not as widespread as was created by the Judith Lasater letter to Yoga Journal or the naked ToeSox ad, but it did generate many comments here and at Svasti's place. So let's just move on. Wrong.

Just for the heck of it I looked at Tara Stiles' twitter feed to see if there were any more comments about her book other than for yours truly, Svasti, and Blisschick. Over 90% of the tweets are consistently hugely complimentary. Obviously detractors are in the minority. But then I found this one lonely tweet amongst the cacophony of Stiles' cheerleaders:

"I feel you sold out Yoga to Honda. If you want to model for products, fine. Just keep yoga out of it. Just my 2 cents."

You see, I thought maybe my last post about her appearance on the morning show in New York was over the top, that I was picking on her too much. But you have to admit that the Dunkin Donuts commercial before her fry the fat yoga show was a priceless piece of irony. There could not have been a better juxtaposition of two images to make a point and that's the essence of satire.

Then I read what a well-known yoga teacher said about comments on yoga blogs being divisive and not in the spirit of being a yogi (I don't know if the comment was about the TS discussion, but it made me wonder.) Also, some commenters feel that whatever brings people to yoga is fine and that ultimately they will learn that yoga is so much more than a way to burn blubber and fry fat on the mat.

So am I just a big ol' meanie?

Last night this foggy menopausal brain thought about all this in the context of being "yogic."

In the first place, this has nothing to do with Tara Stiles as a person. I haven't called her any names and I am sure she is a good person in her daily relationships. She must be a good yoga teacher (whatever "good" means to some people) because if she wasn't she would not have reached the level she has, she would just be another unknown yoga teacher. Or maybe she just got some lucky breaks. Her karma.

But what is true (and it's not only my opinion but that of others, read the 20+ comments here) is that she sold out yoga for her own purposes just to make a buck. Because what other reason would there be to so blatantly cater to women's insecurities about their bodies in her atrocious marketing campaign? To use advertising language that is no better than what a cheap diet aid uses for marketing. To further perpetuate the notion that screams at us from every cover of every woman's magazine at the supermarket checkout line that there is something wrong with us, that we need fixing, that we are always lacking. As it said in the above tweet, keep yoga out of it. If you put yourself out there in the way you advertise your product, then you'd better be willing to take the heat.

Go ahead and call me unyogic, but that's not yoga. Which leads me to my second point.

I am so tired, saddened actually, that in this Americanized yoga business anything can be called "yoga" and that makes it yoga. No, your morning stretches using yoga poses are not yoga and just because you call them yoga doesn't make it so. Calling a dog a cat doesn't make it a cat. I consider myself fortunate to have been exposed to yoga and meditation back in the prehistoric times of my college days when yoga and those who did it were considered weird -- there was a reason they called us Freaks.

I started reading books about the Eastern wisdom traditions when I was in high school. I am passionate about all the teachings (if you are also reading the Avadhuta Gita raise your hand) and do my best when I teach to honor the Krishnamacharya lineage. Yoga is very precious to me -- I am grateful and blessed that I have opportunity and freedom to travel to India to study in the heart of yoga. So pardon me for feeling protective and angry when people bastardize yoga for their own purposes.

Being "yogic" doesn't mean being peace-love-dove all the time. The ancient yogis, the sramanas, were rebels, they were spiritual warriors against the status quo. Buddha was a radical -- he went against the stream and said to look at reality as it is, not as what you want it to be.

Accusing someone of not being a "yogi" or of not being "yogic" is a cop-out. I will always remember what Jack Kornfield said in our first retreat for my training at Spirit Rock -- that anyone who thinks that someone on the spiritual path should not still get angry has a kindergarten view of spirituality.

Chogyam Trungpa taught the way of the spiritual warrior. He said, "Warrior-ship here does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word “warrior” is taken from the Tibetan “pawo,” which literally means, “one who is brave.” ... "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.‎"

That cave in India is looking pretty good right now.

30 August 2010

burn your blubber and fry your fat

....after you eat those Dunkin' Donuts.

I almost blew my chai out my nose all over my keyboard when I saw that. Irony rules.


YogaDawg once told me that some things are too ridiculous to satirize, but check out his link.

No further comments are necessary although I'm SO disappointed -- not one mention of bra fat.

I'll go sage myself now.

29 August 2010

seva is sexy

"Yoga is about GIVING. Not taking. That’s how I get my calm and my sexy. I don’t need no special book and unrealistic promises to deliver that."

Those words are from Svasti's great blog "Body image issues, yoga & Tara Stiles is a sell-out" that was in response to Stiles' atrocious ad for her new book (I am loathe to give it any more publicity.) The amazing and heart-felt comments from readers on my blog about it make me think that a yoga revolution is in the air. At least I hope so.

What I found so appalling in Stiles' ad was the language: "banish belly fat, FAST"; "a YOGA-SLIM body in just 15 MINUTES A DAY!"; "size 8 to a size double 00!"; "combat bra fat with one easy move." This one was the kicker: "Reshape your body. Learn a fabulous new way to balance WIDER-THAN-DESIRED HIPS."

Uh, Tara, don't you think a little thing called BONE STRUCTURE might have something to do with that? How is feeding into women's insecurities about their hips in any way "yogic"? How about preaching acceptance about those "wider than desired" hips instead of trying to change something that is impossible to change because of BONE STRUCTURE?

I am still reeling from the possibility of bra fat. With homeless children on the street, genocide, floods in Pakistan, and starving people all over the world, now I have to worry about my back fat. Holy Shiva, what's a grrl to do?

The ad has nothing to do with yoga and has everything to do with what is wrong with with, well, everything that is wrong in this culture. Everything has to work fast -- "15 minutes" -- and if it doesn't we move on to the next best thing because our brains are no longer wired to stay with anything longer. We have the attention spans of flies, just look at some children.

I remember what Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. He said that ADD and ADHD are not the problems of children where the only solution is to medicate them with potentially harmful drugs; he believes that ADD and ADHD are signs of a dysfunctional family unit. In other words, YOU HAVE TO CHANGE YOUR LIFE-STYLE.

And that is what weight loss is all about. It's not about "210 proven yoga moves" you can do in 15 minutes. I should know because I used to weigh about 200 pounds in the late 1970s. It was a life-style change. And because I used to weigh that much is why I can comment on bullshit ads that promise the impossible.

Personally I think that every dime Tara Stiles makes off the book should be donated to a place that helps young women with eating disorders.

"You may not be able to change the world, but at least you can embarrass the guilty." -- Jessica Mitford

How does a "yoga" book that promises results in just 15 minutes a day speak to the fact that yoga is a life-long process of transformation, 24/7? A process where the results are seen in months and years and not minutes. You operate on faith because there are no guarantees.

As I said in my previous blog, I am so over the excuse of how all these so-called "yoga" books or DVDs are just about "bringing yoga to the people, it's all good, so don't be a hater." If you want to bring yoga to the people then teach in a prison or a homeless or domestic violence shelter year after year, don't write a book about how to get rid of your bra fat. Now I am back to my post title.

Like Svasti, I get my calm and sexy from seva which is karma yoga in a domestic violence shelter. It's true the women ask me about losing their belly fat from their pregnancies -- there is nothing wrong with wanting to look good and feeling healthy and sexy. But I can assure you that they care more about ridding themselves of emotional demons and nightmares. The classes are pure joy and joy is big-time sexy. I'll be getting a double dose of sexy because after about 10 years I've been asked to teach twice a month.

Every class is wonderful but last week was more so than usual. I did not teach a traditional yoga class but used movement in general as a stress reliever -- we jumped and gyrated and shook those wider than desired hips. I had them do Lion's Breath which they really got into after I told them how lionesses hunt and feed and defend their children while the lion sleeps all day. They could identify with that....and you've never heard louder roars.

I tell them that they are my teachers, these poor Hispanic women who own no yoga mats, no Lululemon pants, and come to my class after standing all day at factory jobs. Many of them do not have the luxury of even 15 minutes a day for themselves. My 90 minute class once a month may be the only time they have for themselves. Do you really think they care about bra fat?

After our movement I did yoga nidra with them. Some started crying afterward because of the effect it had on them. One woman was there for the first time and after class she was speechless for more than a few moments because the effect was so profound. When she could speak she asked the group leader if she could talk with me any time she felt bad. The yoga had created trust. The group leader translated and I had to tell her that while I understand Spanish, I am no longer fluent in speaking it so I could not answer her, but if she would like a private yoga therapy session with the group leader translating, I would be happy to do it for free.

Then I felt the shift. Sometimes psychic shifts are so potent that you feel them physically and suddenly everything falls into place. The verification that what I have done for almost 10 years is my true path. It was a physical confirmation. No more second guessing.

My path is no longer teaching in studios, it is about truly bringing yoga and meditation to the people. I have plans in the back of my brain and all things happen when they are ready to happen. My yoga therapy training in India next year will be the icing on the cake and my decision to pursue a masters in transpersonal psychology never felt so right. It's all going to meld together and it will take longer than 15 minutes.

Damn, I'm sexy.

28 August 2010

you're too fat and not sexy -- so buy my book!

Do you want to be slim, calm, and sexy in just 15 minutes a day? Get rid of your "bra fat" and go from size 8 to a size 00 IN JUST 15 MINUTES A DAY?

"Bra fat"? What a loser you are to have BRA FAT!

Click here for full marketing piece.

I don't care if Tara Stiles is nice person. I don't care if she has done legitimate yoga videos in the past. This is a complete sell out for the almighty dollar. Don't even try to sell me on the "yoga for the masses" excuse. It's pathetic, and frankly, she should be ashamed for allowing herself to be talked into shilling for this trash. That is, if any convincing was really necessary -- somehow I doubt it. But if asked about it, I am sure we would hear the typical higher-lighter-brighter-peace-love-dove-I'm-just-bringing-yoga-to-the-people crap.

We've come such a long way since yoga was brought to America.

Watch this video. And then decide which images you want your daughters to see.