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Which Side Are You On? July 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’ve been playing a lot of Pete Seeger’s American Industrial Ballads in my classes—you know, classics like “Come All You Hardy Miners,” “Eight-Hour Day,” and “Hard Times in the Mill.” Released in 1957, Seeger’s compilation spans nearly 150 years of the American Labor Movement, chronicling the workingman’s plight from farm to mill to factory. These are songs about justice, songs about peace, songs about community; they are eminently reasonable, more than a half-century after the collection’s release.

When did New York City yoga teachers become so—well, for lack of a better word—reactionary? From the stink many are raising about paying their taxes, you’d be forgiven for mistaking yoga-advocacy groups for the Chamber of Commerce.

Complains Yoga for New York,

The State is putting pressure on studios to treat Independent Contractors (teachers teaching 2-6 hours of classes a week) as employees, meaning a slew of clerical and financial obligations (taxes and insurance). While every yoga studio should look out for the welfare of its teachers, almost no studio but the very largest could easily survive when burdened with the thousands of dollars in extra cost that this would represent. [Emphasis added]

It is one thing to wax beneficent about “looking out for the welfare of teachers”; it is quite another to actually do it. Thus, if the professed desire to maintain this welfare requires “a slew of clerical and financial obligations,” as Yoga for New York claims, then I would expect someone who means what he says to find the time, money, and wherewithal to negotiate that slew. Operating your business on a flawed economic model—namely, that you can’t afford to both keep your doors open and compensate your labor fairly—doesn’t give you license to make up for budgetary holes by shirking fiduciary obligations to your employees.

Opening, owning, and operating a yoga studio is not a right, nor is it—like driving a car, practicing law, or owning a credit card—a privilege. It’s a business transaction, or, more accurately, a continuously perpetuating series of business transactions. As a teacher and practitioner, I do believe that  the positive energy imbued upon the City by so much yoga is a boon for all 8 million of us, but that doesn’t make yoga any less of an industry than florists or dry cleaners or cupcake bakeries (all of which also bring positive energy to our City).

I’ve no misconceptions that, when I’m teaching, I’m selling my time, expertise, and training—i.e., my labor—to the studio, just as when I’m writing, I’m selling my labor to the publication. And when I’m at my job at the Writer’s Guild, I’m selling hours of my labor to the highest bidder.

More to the point, I’m being paid for my labor. I’m not being paid for the newly-discovered openness of a student’s hips or a savasana-borne epiphany, not being paid for the vote I may influence through a political-opinion essay. I’m paid because people value my personal industry; it’s that simple.

While New York City’s joke on yoga’s ubiquity throughout the city (“Now it’s a yoga studio”) is indeed quite funny, it loses some of the humor when economic reality sets it. That is, with such a glut in supply, prices go down; and when prices go down, the first to suffer are employees. The unsustainable pricing of the Sixth Avenue Pizza Wars is of a piece with unsustainably-priced yoga classes at Union Square and Williamsburg.

Yogis shouldn’t misconstrue the “demand” piece of supply-and-demand to mean one’s own demand to open a yoga studio. I hate to say it, but if New York’s yoga community can only sustain its current level of market saturation by unfairly squeezing teachers, then the system is, by definition, broken.

Now, I recognize that demonizing studio owners and operators is not a solution to the problem of unfairly compensated teachers. For better or worse—and usually for worse—our economic system rewards and subsidizes size, which obviously places an onerous burden on small-business studio owners. The cost of retaining counsel to deal with these and other issues can, as Yoga for New York, says, run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Still, for whatever reason, our government and its constituents (including us) do not value small businesses as much as is necessary to keep them (and their employees) happily afloat.

Until this issue of big-C Capitalism is addressed, it is incumbent upon studio-owners and managers that the “help” be taken care of. The social, political, and economic history of the United States has been largely dictated by the relationship between labor and capital; it would be a shame for yoga, one of the most potent forms of activism available, to divorce itself from this struggle for social justice for the sake of sticking to its reactionary guns.

Putting the ‘Union’ Back in Yoga April 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays, Other Sites.
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It doesn't have to get this ugly.

You can find one of yoga’s most stinging ironies hidden within the word “yoga” itself. As any teacher will tell you, the common translation of “yoga” is “union,” derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” which means to yoke or join. The irony is that most American yoga teachers, including me, are independent contractors. It’s every holy being for himself, with absolutely no collective bargaining power or economic leverage to bring to bear on our employers.

Continue reading at elephant journal…

Gun Control is for Wimps March 29, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Author’s Note: I wrote this last year, after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Tucson. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, I believe it is again relevant.

Well, I’m not going to sit and tolerate this. I mean, you’ve got to be kidding me. Having failed to take the guns out of my warm, living hands, Congress is now coming after my bullets.

Indeed, if Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.) gets her way, I won’t be able to use high-capacity magazines in my firearms anymore. For those of you who aren’t gun nuts like me (Though we prefer the term “badasses”), this means I won’t be able to buy ammunition clips that hold more than ten rounds. Now, I know that the guy who allegedly shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson allegedly used a 31-round clip and a 9 mm Glock to do so, and that he was contained only when he stopped to reload, but are we going to let this guy ruin the party for the rest of us?

To Rep. McCarthy, I must pose the question, Haven’t you ever shot ten bad guys and still had one more coming at you? Eleven-man squads of bad guys used to come at Americans all the time in Revolutionary days, and if you don’t believe me, I suggest you watch The Patriot a few more times. (Kids can read My Brother Sam Is Dead if they’re turned off by the R-rating.)

What on earth, Congresswoman McCarthy, am I supposed to do when a force like this invades my private home? Even in modern times, it’s not so far-fetched. Let’s look at another—better—movie for documentary evidence. In Die Hard, those German terrorists formed an army of a baker’s dozen to take control of the skyscraper. With his NYPD standard-issue weapon, Bruce Willis had to pick them off one-by-one. It was only when he commandeered a machine gun that the tide started to turn. Clearly, Rep. McCarthy and her Eastern, bow-and-arrow-shooting, yoga-practicing co-sponsors haven’t considered the possibility that Willis might have finished things off a whole lot earlier had he been privy to the machine gun before the terrorists took over.

This cinematic evidence is overwhelming, but I’ll go further. The ten-round ceiling is discrimination. If I’m limited to just ten bullets in my magazine, that means I’ll have to become thrice as good of a shot as I currently am with my 31-shot clip. A trebling of skill means a lot of time at the gun club, especially when you’ve got a family to feed. So Uncle Sam is forcing me to go to the gun club to practice wielding my firearm, effectively asking me to choose between protecting my family and feeding my family. This is nanny-state nonsense and a waste of my American time. Just as you’d expect from those fatcats in Washington, though, it gets worse.

I’m extremely nearsighted—I have a note from my doctor attesting to this—and if I’m not wearing my glasses, I can’t see a damned thing, let alone a damned thing that’s coming after me and my back forty in the dark. As my fellow badasses at the NRA say, “Law-abiding private citizens choose [high-capacity clips] for many reasons, including the same reason police officers do: to improve their odds in defensive situations.” Well, I double down on ten in Vegas, so you can bet that I triple down on a ten-shot magazine at home. I play the odds, and combined with my myopia, that demands I stock thirty-one rounds in my weapon.

Consider the following scenario. When an intruder barges into my castle while I’m sleeping, there’s no question that without glasses, I’ll to have to respond to this transgression by waving my piece around and shooting wildly. Clearly, a badass with 20/20 would be able to calmly dispatch his adversary(ies) with ten or fewer rounds (Unless he’s attacked, Die Hard-style, by thirteen guys). A badass like me, though, with 20/400 vision—twenty times worse than perfection–can be expected to shoot twenty times fewer bad guys. Thirteen divided by twenty means that, with my vision, I don’t even get to shoot a whole guy. More like sixty-five percent, and what, then, is 65 percent of a man you’ve just shot or are about to shoot?  Where do you even aim in that situation? And who gets to choose which 65 percent is actually embodied in bad-guy flesh in this situation?

But targeting and corporeal dilemmas notwithstanding, is the McCarthy alternative for me to lay in bed and be burgled—or worse—merely because my ocular disability precludes me from the straight shooting necessitated by a ten-round clip? This McCarthy bill is, not to put too fine a point on it, discrimination against glasses-wearing badasses like me, pure and simple.

It was bad enough when New Jersey enacted a one-gun-per-month law in 2008—you should have seen the frown I got from a gundealer in Bayonne when I tried to buy my thirteenth piece back in ’09—but this is just overkill. It used to be a comedic scene in a movie when someone ran out of bullets and had to throw his weapon at his adversary; if McCarthy gets her way, that scene will become, well, a god damn shame. Seriously. I’ve been having nightmares about those eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth aggressors ever since the ridiculous bill was introduced last month and Die Hard was on FX a week later.

It’s almost as if these gun-control nuts (Though we prefer the term “pussies”) haven’t read the Constitution. The Second Amendment means we get to have guns, shoot guns, and—most importantly—love guns. It’s the second amendment, the silver-medalist change that the founding fathers thought of when they realized how much they’d screwed up the original document. Free speech and the right to assemble peaceably—well, those, of course, are First Amendment issues, and their prominence of place clearly implies their superiority to the Second Amendment rights that I’m discussing here. But nevertheless, it would seem that the only rights more important than my Second Amendment rights would by definition need to appear in Amendment One. And I don’t see “right to not have your idiot neighbors walk around with loaded weapons” anywhere near free speech and free press.

When we let pussies take the lead from badasses in interpreting our Constitution, this is what happens. I’m putting my glasses on and my foot down.

 

Yoga and Anger Management March 9, 2012

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My doctor made a suggestion to me the other day. “Get angry,” he said.

And he didn’t mean in a bumper-sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” sort of way, or a Rage Against the Machine debut-album “Anger is a gift” sort of way, either. He meant that I don’t have to keep whistlin’ and keep on keepin’ on whenever someone treats me unfairly or disrespectfully. He meant that actually, getting screwed over is a perfectly valid reason to get bent out of shape–even for a yoga teacher like me.

At my yoga teacher training, we began each morning and evening by chanting in both Sanskrit and English. We asked both ourselves and the universe to make each and every one of us a force for good, to charge us with the maintenance and upkeep of the happiness and freedom of all living things.  “Free me from anger, jealousy, and fear,” we sang, a cosmic request imploring that, come what may, we’d always keep a level head.

It sounded good at the time–it still does–but I’ve come to the conclusion that freedom from anger, jealousy, and fear is inhuman at best, crippling at worst. To keep myself anger-free, I routinely avoided conflict. And while this is a fairly common human behavior, I found myself taking it to the extreme. In a given situation, then, I’d imagine potential conflicts to avoid; I’d storyboard anger-inspiring scenarios in my head, then erect elaborate emotional scaffolding so that, should they actually occur, I’d know how to navigate them without getting angry.

I also took freedom from anger to mean anyone’s anger. That is, I began to feel it was no longer enough to avoid my own anger; I had to protect others from getting mad, too. I created more scenarios, plotting how my potential actions could potentially enrage others. I imagined that potential anger and let it wash over me, confident that by experiencing it “virtually,” I’d know exactly what steps to take to spare the rest of the world from experiencing it in reality. I did this so frequently and so naturally that I warped my imagination: my scenarios became anthologies of possible ways I could screw something up. After all, how could I avoid and diffuse potential anger if I didn’t avail myself (in my imagination, at least) to any form of ugliness that that anger could possibly take?

But when a foundering project was dumped on me with the blunt directive to sort it out, I found myself at a loss. Or, at least, I found myself getting angry. All of my invented “screw-up” scenarios involved my mishandling the project–or at least perpetuating the mistakes that had already been made by others. It upset my sense of fair play, like Republicans blaming Obama for Bush’s multifaceted mess.

I went in a different direction, beating myself up for not being creative enough to find an anger-free way through the gauntlet, all the while growing increasingly terrified that no matter what I did, I’d be responsible for unleashing a great wave of rage into the world.

Which is when my doctor told me to embrace the anger myself, even if it meant steering into a potential conflict–not so that someone at fault could feel my wrath and be put in his place, but so that I’d stop abusing myself with self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, humiliation, and–of course–someone else’s imaginary anger.

Rather than try to “free” myself from anger, I’m now working to better handle it. Like so much of yoga, the emotion itself is hollow, given weight only when I choose to engage it. Poorly processed anger can indeed make the world an ugly, vitriolic place. But when embraced properly, and used appropriately, anger–while not necessarily a gift (sorry, Zack de la Rocha)–is certainly human and (on occasion) certainly me, too.

Yogis Get Hurt Too January 10, 2012

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Unlike some of my teaching colleagues, I wasn’t angry with the New York Times Magazine article about the dangers of yoga. And actually, I’m a bit confused by the yoga-teaching community’s reaction to a thesis as elementary and anodyne as that of author William Broad; that is, that Practicing yoga can lead to injury. I’m not sure what’s controversial about that statement.

I’ve been injured many times over the course of my practice—sometimes worse than others, sometimes because my ego tricked me into attempting that third wheel before my back was ready, sometimes because a well-meaning and well-trained Jivamukti teacher fudged an adjustment and did my hamstring more harm than good. (That last example, performed during Extended Side Angle C, resulted in a bhav-shattering pop, my dead-weight thudding onto the floor, and the spontaneous halting of class when everyone turned to gape.) I don’t blame anyone but myself for each of the times I’ve gotten hurt, and the Jivamukti teacher in me urges me to search for the lesson to be learned from each overexertion. But though I make a point of maintaining my yoga practice specifically by using my injuries as gross and subtle teaching tools, the fact remains that I sustained—and sustain—the physical damage in yoga class.

Though yoga aims to shrink the ego and merge the small self with large, the inconvenient paradox remains that, for all but the most enlightened of us, a healthy-sized ego is necessary in order for one to recognize that it needs to be shrunk down in the first place. Our egos work as unwanted conduits that cause the energy we devote to our spiritual intention to leak into our physical intention. We try not to identify with our bodies, but until we actually, ultimately, succeed at that, we do. In other words, you may not care about toned arms and a yoga butt, but trust me, your body certainly appreciates them in an eight-breath Warrior II. You can detach yourself from the physical body, but you cannot leave it behind.

We don’t enter class in a state of samadhi, and though we spend the next ninety minutes sandblasting them, our egos practice alongside us on our mats. Excluding living saints, then, every yoga practitioner deals with his or her ego throughout sadhana. So, if ego is the source of so many bodily injuries, and ego is always with us, then wouldn’t it make sense to educate and elucidate ourselves about the physical dangers that, in our self-liberating practice, can cause us pain and suffering—indeed, the opposite of liberation?

Broad’s article has been called an attack on yoga. One yoga teacher complained that, “[The article’s] talking about yoga like it’s another sport fad. It’s not just another thing. It’s not just another Pilates. It’s meant to be so much deeper than that.” Now as a certified teacher and daily practitioner, I can agree that to me, yoga is not just another thing. But I can’t say that for any of the other 20 million practitioners out there. I don’t know the breadth and depth of their individual sadhanas. Though it is certainly true that intention and mindfulness can prevent injury, you can’t expect thoroughly Western, thoroughly skeptical, and thoroughly cynical Times readers to naturally understand this esoteric, hard-to-grasp principle. Nor is a relatively short item in the Times Magazine about injury the place to discuss the ins and outs of vairagya.

If we play out this notion, then, that yoga is special and must therefore not be discussed plainly, we arrive at a place of isolationism; that is, that only yogis are fit to discuss yoga and, even then, only with other yogis. Yoga doesn’t belong to yogis; neither do its discussion and study. Should we avoid discussing the dangers of teenage smoking because to talk about lung cancer would be to miss the point that the purpose of teenage smoking is to look cool, something we adults could never understand? As a cigarette-smoking teenager myself, I felt any surgeon-general’s warning intrusive, completely unsympathetic to the 8-limbed path of looking cool as a teenager. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t deserve to know about the nine hundred kinds of nastiness that I was inviting into my lungs. True to my intention, I looked cool—the samadhi of sixteen—but physically, I was terribly abusing my body.

Of course, teenage smoking and yoga aren’t totally comparable to one another, but they both illustrate the real danger of ego-caused physical side effects that can and do result from the pursuit of a “higher” intention.

If we’re to believe the masters—that yoga itself is an empty vessel to be filled with one’s intention—then any attack on “yoga” is silly. The article certainly doesn’t impugn my sadhana; it merely reminds me to keep my intentions pure and to watch out for my ego.

Who Invited Onan? The Continental Conundrum of Brahmacharya November 3, 2011

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While preparing his monologue for a roast of Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson writes, “Now I’m not saying Mr. Burns is incontinent…” To which Bart laughs and responds, “Incontinent. Too rich!” Ever sensible, Lisa comments from the peanut gallery, “Does either of you know what ‘incontinent’ means?” And Homer retorts, “Lisa, don’t spoil our fun.”

Most of us don’t know what ‘incontinent’ means. I know I don’t. I’m not sure where the line lies — for any activity — between continent and incontinent. For example, as disgusting as they are to the touch, smell, and taste, I love Moon Pies (chocolate- and vanilla-flavored only; no banana, please). Moon pies being as objectionable as they are, though, should a one-time indulgence be considered incontinent? Four times out of five, I’ll feel sick enough to regret having eaten the Moon Pie, so eighty percent of the time, my body tells me that, indeed, 1 Moon Pie represents incontinence. But that still implies that it’s not incontinent twenty percent of the time. Might there be a sliding scale, then, that governs the concept of continence depending on a given time and place — especially since, as far as Moon Pies are concerned, I won’t know if it’s an “eighty” or a “twenty” until after the act of potential incontinence has been perpetrated?

Patanjali’s fourth yama is brahmacharya, which is roughly interpreted as sexual continence. According to the Yoga Sutras, one who practices brahmacharya finds vitality and vigor (“By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”)

As a yama, brahmacharya isn’t parallel to the other four. It’s the only one that’s not self-evident; that is, to understand and to practice brahmacharya, one first needs to grasp the intellectual concept of “continence.” Not harming, not lying, and not stealing are simple notions to understand and behaviors to prosecute; you either engage in them or you don’t. Greedlessness, though a bit more subjective, is also a fairly straightforward idea; if you’re not using everything you have, then you have more than you need.

But continence? This one requires a very human touch, because determining when you’ve behaved incontinently is an intellectual construct. It demands that we stand in judgment, evaluating evidence in order to determine the difference between much and too much. And that adverb “too” is a tricky one. One man’s violence is every man’s violence, but incontinence varies from being to being. And sexual incontinence is even more confusing.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, men are advised to conserve their semen: “A man’s semen can be controlled by the mind and control of semen is lifegiving. Therefore, his semen and mind should be controlled and conserved.” Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems quite archaic and ignorant to conflate semen with sexual energy, something along the lines of advising a man to consume milk after sex in order to “replace what he’s lost.” A man produces 1,500 spermatozoa per second. When a man ejaculates, he releases 280 million sperm, give or take — about two days’ work for the gamete manufacturers in the testes. So for most men, semen and sperm are not exactly in short supply, and one is never in danger of squandering his “seed” in the Biblical, Onan sense of the word.

While I understand the danger of interpreting yogic texts literally — indeed, Sri Swami Satchidananda advises against just that in his translation of the Yoga Sutras — the HYP’s almost mathematical connection between one’s sperm count and one’s vitality begs for scientific exegesis. It’s bizarre to use something as grossly physical as one’s semen reserves as an “index” for something so esoterically spiritual like vitality. It’s like divining one’s morality by measuring the length of his hair. Rarely is yogic philosophy so unilaterally directed towards physiology, and therefore so open to scientific skepticism. Prana, for example, is far removed from the realm of scientific inquiry; “life force” can’t be measured — unit by unit, cell by cell — in a lab. I’d accept an explanation that connected sexual energy to something intangible like prana, but that’s not the one I’m given in shastra.

So how do I practice brahmacharya? In my day-to-day life, I try to fold brahmacharya into my practice of ahimsa. In my conception of the yamas, sexual abuse and sexual assault fall under the jurisdiction of ahimsa, the salient feature of a sex crime being the sex crime itself, not its correlative ejaculation. And adultery can be seen (to the more chauvinistic among us) as an asteya issue or again, (to the more equality-oriented) a question of ahimsa.

Unlike the other yamas, I approach brahmacharya from a positive standpoint. In my practice of asteya, I choose not to steal. But for brahmacharya, since I know my sexual energy cannot be “squandered,” I strive to employ it constructively. Brahmacharya, then, encourages mindfulness, because while one can practically sleepwalk through not harming, cheating, stealing, or coveting, one must be attentive when determining where to best place his sexual energy.

Sexual energy represents our creative impulse, but that “creativity” isn’t just the capacity to reproduce. Instead, brahmacharya asks that we be creative in our application of that energy, that we don’t just “hold it in,” but rather find a constructive, beneficial outlet for it. Indeed, we can use brahmacharya not to construct things anew, but to reconstruct our actions for the better. Brahmacharya brings out our internal editor; listen to her and spread your love.

Satya: The Inherent Truth of Existence October 25, 2011

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Satya – truthfulness – is the second of the five yamas, or restrictions, outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Shri Brahmananda Saraswati translates, “When the yogi is firmly established in satya… he or she obtains the fruit of actions without effort” (2.36).

New Mexicans call places the darndest things.

Patanjali seems to define truth-telling as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme: accomplishment without effort. It’s a couch potato’s – or stoner’s — greatest dream. Telling the truth, after all, isn’t really all that difficult – it requires much more energy to invent and perpetuate a lie than it does to report that which you’ve observed as truth – and if the end result is satisfaction without effort, well, how is that not a practical no-brainer? Yet still, people lie and cheat, fabricate and obfuscate. So it can’t really be that simple.

For an explanation, I turned (as I have before) to Walt Whitman. “Great is the quality of truth in man;” he writes.

The quality of truth in man supports itself through all changes,
It is inevitably in the man – he and it are in love, and never leave each other.

The truth in man is no dictum, it is vital as eyesight;
If there be any Soul, there is truth – if there be man or woman there is truth – if there be physical or moral, there is truth;
If there be equilibrium or volition, there is truth – if there be things at all upon the earth, there is truth

O truth of the earth! I am determin’d to press my way toward you;
Sound your voice! I scale mountains, or dive in the sea after you.

Whitman doesn’t even conceive of a universe in which nontruth exists. After all, how could it? How could something be – and not be truthful? A lying politician is still, by nature and by definition, a politician. He is still alive, still human, still practicing politics; his words and actions cannot change the true fundamentality of what he is. It’s on this point that nineteenth century American poet and 2,000-year-old Indian sage intersect.

For Patanjali and Whitman, language doesn’t represent an act separate from existing; that is, saying and being are the same thing. I may be spouting a lie with my lips, but I – as a human being, as an object on this planet – still exist as me in my most fundamental state. I’m saying words that don’t represent the temporal reality of things, but the collection of cells and molecules and atoms that form my (lying) being still represent the reality of me. The “truth” of Simon at the moment during which I lie is that I’m a person who happens to be lying. In other words, the fact that I am a liar is just that – a fact, regardless of what I happen to actually be lying about.

Satya, then, is inescapable. You can’t lie your way out of truth. Short of suicide, it’s impossible to choose to not exist. And since one’s existence is inherently truthful, then the only effort one should ever expend while existing occurs when one is not being truthful to himself, or to his fundamental nature. Work, or effort, enters the equation not when we tell lies, then, but when we stray from our true identities.

So if you believe the yogic teaching, then, that divinity comprises all beings, then you’re only untruthful when you’re not divine. Since yoga teaches that the identities of all things are interwoven together into one divine essence, then it is only when one turns his back on this essence that one actually expends any effort in his existence. The pursuit of yoga – union – is thus a divine, effortless existence; and when one reaches samadhi, of course, everything – the fruits of existence — becomes available. You find your truth within your practice.

Your sadhana will, as Patanjali promises, bear you fruit without effort.

Fighting U.S. Reality with American Rhetoric October 10, 2011

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I’m not proud to be from the United States. The geographical accident that was my Corvallis, Oregon, birth, I feel, is nothing to brag about; historical happenstance rarely is. But I’m proud to be a part of “America,” the idealistic, non-existent place that we conjure up when we read, “We the People”; when we say, “That all men are created equal.” I believe in the promise of America; it’s the real-world manifestation of the United States that’s problematic.

It often saddens me that in yoga circles, “American” is seen as pejorative. It is, in fact, a quite neutral adjective, and it’s too frequently been my experience in yoga studios that ahimsic tolerance, acceptance, and amity extend only as far as the foothills of the Caucasus (or occasionally to the westernmost shores of the Atlantic). We forget that “America” stands for beliefs and principles as noble and virtuous as those of yoga. Admittedly, our political entity called the “United States” falls woefully short when it comes to putting these American principles into practice but, then, how many practicing yogis can actually claim to adhere to Patanjali’s sutras at all times, in all places?

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes,

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman proposes a very yogic vision for “America.” Each American’s small self — the wood-cutter, the ploughboy; the mason, mechanic, and carpenter — exists as part of the larger Self that is America. Expressed completely, our nation’s realized potential is not the “United States,” but it is America. Importantly, we are not “Americans.” Instead, we constitute “America.” When we strive to express our greatest selves; when we “om” together; or help someone up the stairs of the subway, we are singing our “American-ness” with full throats. This America is the unfulfilled promise of the United States.

In Spanish, American citizens are called estadounidenses, a word with no equivalent in English. Hypothetically translated, estadounidense, then, would be something along the lines of “United States-ian,”—an associate of this nation-state, a person bearing the temporal political classification that we assign to people depending on where they happen to have been born (or “naturalized”). It’s important to realize that “United States-ian” is not the same as “American.”  The Western Hemisphere is, of course, populated by North, Central, and South Americans alike, and the term “American” isn’t solely the province of the those of us who happen to live south of Canada and north of everyone else (With apologies to residents of Windsor, Ontario—you know what I mean here).

Martin Luther King Jr. implied this disconnect between America and the United States in his “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. King opened his oration by discussing the idealistic potential of America. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he said, were but a

promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963

By invoking the language of finance and credit, King refuses to deny American ideals of liberty and freedom their intrinsic righteousness. His “insufficient funds” trope implies that, were those American ideals metaphorically paid to its citizens in cash money, and not in flimsy checks, then they would actually be present in contemporary society, expressed and enjoyed by the people to whom they’d been given. It is, then, the United States’ callously expedient method of issuing “credit” instead of actual “funds” that leads to the corruption and collapse of American idealism.

Indeed, before he rolls into perhaps the greatest five minutes of rhetoric in American history, King states, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” It’s noteworthy that Dr. King’s vision for the United States has as its foundation the “American dream.” He doesn’t seek a new promise, a new idealism for this nation; rather, he wants only for our present to parallel our potential. He doesn’t ask us to gaze across the ocean and replace American ideals with those of France, or China, or Russia, or India. Instead he asks us to work to turn the United States into America.

We can make Dr. King’s dream a reality, but we must remember that upon which the dream is based. It’s not radical, and it’s not new. It’s American, and it’s something in which we can all find hope, promise, and harmony.

Yoga and Politics: It’s the Reality, Stupid September 19, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Well, this is a bit much, but it's still a hopeful thought...

I would have liked for Monsta Yoga to stay above the political fray — in my experience, a rather nasty place where both civility and rationality are in short supply — but after watching more than a little coverage of the recent GOP presidential debates, I just can’t do it. So we’ll proceed into the Red-and-Blue, then, but armed with an open mind, some Patanjali, and an absolute refusal to take anything that anyone says — right or left — too seriously.

Yoga Sutra IV.15 informs us that, “Due to the differences in various minds, perception of even the same object may vary.” Well, this is one of those axioms that at first blush sounds kinda deep, kinda profound, but after a little critical thought becomes one of those “no shit, Sherlock” no-brainers. Because of course everyone is going to perceive an object differently, and not just in the man-sees-pile-of-trash, goat-sees-pile-of-food kind of way. Some regard paying their federal income tax to be a patriotic duty; others consider their 1040s to be unholy tributes to Lucifer himself. With my 20/god-knows-how-bad vision, I perceive billboards and buildings a bit hazier than my 20/20 best friend.

Now, variance in perceptions is a good thing. The world operates on perceptions of differences between things, and not on the actual things themselves (This is why a busy signal is more interesting to listen to than a dial tone). And indeed, politics (as an institution) works best when many different ideas and perceptions are brought to the table, examined, then reconciled.

The Three Bears

"But I'm hungry!"

But while these differences are the most appreciable aspects of the maelstrom of human activity that makes the world go round, they’re also, ironically, the least important. Nobody lives inside of a difference. Yes, variance in porridge-temperature and bed-softness provide the literary fuel for the “Goldilocks” story, but when all is said and done, the trespassing little brat still eats a real bowl of porridge, still goes to sleep in a real bed. Upon returning home, the Three Bears don’t fret over Golidlocks’s examinations of food and bed; rather, they’re upset because the food is gone and the bed occupied. While Goldilocks demonstrates that the perceivable differences between objects are excellent fodder for analysis, debate, and experimentation, the Three Bears show that the buck stops with reality — in this case the actually-missing food and the actually-unusable bed.

In yoga, we practice non-attachment, which means we don’t identify with these differences. We eliminate the word “too” from our daily evaluations, accepting bad weather as rainy, but not too rainy, scalding porridge as hot, but not too hot. What is, is. In a sense, yoga allows us to transcend fluctuations in perception, and we strive to envision a unified, whole planet in which the one-ness of all is recognized and made manifest.

While I’d never expect, or even want, American politics to “ascend” to a yogic level of unity and harmony — dissent is vital to democracy and is, appropriately, Constitutionally enshrined and protected — it would be refreshing if politicians regarded policy differences more like the Three Bears and less like Goldilocks. That is, while the salient actions of Goldilocks are tasting and testing, those of the Bears are eating and sleeping (or not, as is the case in the story). GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry highlight the differences between their own candidacies and between their potential presidencies with that of Barack Obama, but these differences are not what feed and shelter a nation.

I expect Republicans to offer strategies and policies that run counter to those of Democrats. But too often these days, the offering trumps the actual problem-solving that these policies are intended to facilitate. Now, elections are all about deciphering difference, but we mustn’t let our country identify solely with these “political” chitta-vrittis (fluctuations of thought) that our politicians are wont to promote as their actual identities and actual personalities. Instead, we must recognize these margins without institutionalizing them. It’s fine to espouse “smaller government,” quite another to then determine what, outside of the fact that it’s not “big government,” that smaller government will actually be and actually do.

Politicians are canny and savvy (perhaps too much so). If we demand reality from them, they’ll provide it, and we can see differing perceptions for what they really are: invaluable tools that help us construct a better reality.

The yogi’s guide to ‘Jersey Shore’ August 22, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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In honor of the upcoming Jerz-day, I bring you my Yogi’s Guide to Jersey Shore. Granted, most of my yogi and yogini friends don’t watch J-Shore, which is in my view a detriment to their enjoyment as citizens of Earth, but I’d like to think of today’s dharma as an attempt to bridge this seemingly deep divide between asana and asshole.

What wisdom might they have in store for us tonight?

1. Your favorite character is…

While I recognize that non-attachment is central to our practice, I have to concede that Jersey Shore is nothing without preference. It’s simply more enjoyable to watch The Situation pick up, get down with, and say goodbye to women if you think he’s a loudmouth jerk. And watching Deena fall ass over teakettle over the slightest topographical difference is all the more gratifying if you decide she’s a sweetheart who’d be fun to hit the bars with. But the yogi’s favorite is easily Vinny. Animalfair.com calls him an “ethical paragon,” and he explains:

We actually just became famous like a year ago … so we are lining up with charities now and you know I would love to line up with a charity that helps rescue pitbulls or dogs that are just left on the street and that may have bad reputations. Anything to do with animals. My whole life I’ve been adopting animals, I’ve always told people that if they find an injured animal to bring it to me, my house is like a zoo anyway. So if I could do that on a larger scale now that I have a little bit of a platform I will.

Now, there are some who’ll say that, somewhere between Season 1 and Season 2 — after Vinny went and got himself a new tattoo – he started acting as misogynistically and aggressively as his other roommates, but still, Vinny’s the one you want to root for. He’s the only one who bothered to learn Italian before decamping to Italy, and he’s the only one who’s turned down sex with a roommate because he foresaw emotional complications (Okay, he’s not batting 1.000 on this, but no one’s perfect)—about as close to satya and brahmacharya as you’re going to get on the Shore.

2. Your least favorite character is…

I hate to cast aspersions on someone, but from a yogic standpoint, it’s pretty easy to single out Ronnie as the least endearing member of the octet. Here’s a guy who, upon finding out that his ex was dancing with other dudes, proceeded to trash all of her personal belongings, including her eyeglasses. Sure, he’s had some tender moments, and I’m sure he’s got enough upper body strength to deliver a truly great shavasana massage, but let’s face it, the guy’s just not really that likeable. Ronnie’s commitment to his health is suspect because of copious circumstantial evidence of anabolic steroid abuse, and his insistence on walking around the house without a shirt is clearly demonstrative of his inability to produce the tapas—heat—necessary to soothe his troubled soul. Basically, you can’t count on Ronnie’s commitment to the eight limbs, and he’s not someone you want to see grow frustrated with Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, variation A or B, if he’s on the mat next to yours.

3. You’d rather watch (at least on Thursdays at 10)…

Nothing! For the yogi-as-renunciate, well, fine, there’s no reason to enjoy a solid hour every Jerz-day night. But for those of us who aspire to change and engage with the world, you have to know what (and whom) you’re dealing with. Jersey Shore is the most successful series in the history of MTV, and whether or not you think the network’s gone downhill since it peaked artistically in 1983 with the “Billie Jean” video, the channel nevertheless broadcasts truly absorbing, pertinent content. You don’t see Teen Mom or True Life: I’m Addicted to Crystal Meth on Disney-owned ABC. And it was The Real World: San Francisco, that brought Pedro Zamora’s AIDS activism to suburban living rooms across the country. If you need to take a core sample of American pop culture, regardless of how much you feel you need to hold your nose to do so, you could do worse than MTV.

As a student, I’ve often been taught that, by virtue of my commitment to yoga, I’ve either superseded in valor and sincerity the American culture in which I live; or that American culture has superseded me in vulgarity and artifice. An hour a week of Jersey Shore, though, reminds me that even as a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner, I have far more in common with DJ Pauly D and J-Woww than I do with, say, Amma, or the late Shri Swami Nirmalananda.

Embracing my culture does not mean loving it, and criticizing it certainly doesn’t mean eschewing it. As a yogi, I find myself with a perpetual mission of maintaining one foot in each realm — mudane and sublime, material and astral — in order to comprehend and to find my place in each. As a yogi, I recognize that I am both in and of all of humanity, whether I like it or not.

That we only have one planet is not a clarion call to fix “our half” of it, nor is it license to chastise those whom we think have destroyed “theirs.” Rather, it is a call to find the one-ness and wholeness of the entire project, to seek out instances of yoga and figure out how our cultural fissures — like the perceived one between asana and asshole — can be stitched together and celebrated.

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