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Yogis Get Hurt Too January 10, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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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.

How can I enjoy kirtan? August 11, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m trying. I’m really, really trying—to like kirtan. Because honestly, I find myself lapsing on the whole ahimsa/vegetarian policy far more frequently than I do the “attend kirtan” policy. That is, you’ve got a better chance of seeing me at Gray’s Papaya than you do at Wednesday night chanting at Jivamukti.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare

It’s not that I dislike the call-and-respond style of kirtan. To wit, I find the part of a Pearl Jam show at which Ed Vedder cuts the vocals and entreats the crowd to chant the chorus of “Alive” to be the most stirring moment of a concert. I don’t even mind—and actually look forward to—an eighteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane,” which I’ll admit is really not that far removed from a half-hour puja from Krishna Das or Jai Uttal. And on Live At Carnegie Hall (1973), by Bill Withers, I really enjoy that, upon finishing “Use Me,” he asks the audience, One more time?, and then proceeds to do just that, as if the spur-of-the-moment reprise is built right into the song.

So what is it, then, with me and kirtan? Does my extreme agnosticism prevent me from invoking the name of god? The problem with this explanation is that I gladly sing Christian spirituals and gospel tunes along with Mavis Staples (Check out “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Billy Corgan), and I’ll never forget the time I was blown away by Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals’ rendition of “Power of the Gospel” at a 2001 show at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. The explicit religiosity of much of Fiddler on the Roof does more than most to make me proud of having been born a Jew, and when Mick Jagger repeatedly invokes “the good lord” in the chorus of “Shine a Light,” I’m reminded of why it’s my second-favorite Stones song (“Gimme Shelter” is #1). So I have no trouble, it would seem, with invoking the lord’s name to music.

Now, I don’t discount the spiritual weight that fans of kirtan place upon their Sanskrit syllables. If anything, studying the melodic ins and outs of chanting has allowed me to find more divinity in the secular music I’ve enjoyed my entire life. And, really, if one believes the teachings of bhakti yoga—that chanting the name of god brings one closer to it—then the ecstasy engendered by such devotional music should naturally be seen as proof that there is indeed something special about it. Who am I, after all, to impugn the exultation of a puja-enraptured soul simply because I don’t experience it myself? I aim to be aggressively open-minded, and my practice advises me to steadfastly refuse to be skeptical of ecstatic chant — but try as I might, I simply cannot let myself get completely swept up by it.

As yogis, we’re taught to practice non-attachment, yet paradoxically, we’re also taught the primacy of Sanskrit, the language of our practice. But monolingual enlightenment feels alien to my understanding of bliss. And karma doesn’t care about the language used to inflict good — or harm.

But Sanskrit is a tongue, we’re told, that simply is. Halasana, for example, is not regarded as equivalent to the two words and ten letters that make up the English term plough pose. Rather, halasana represents the actual vibratory structure of the pose itself. With legs stretched back behind my head, feet pressed into the floor, each cell in my body is vibrating—singing—“halasana” at the top of its “lungs.” By contrast, in English, the letters in the written term “plough pose” are symbolic abstractions of the phonetic sounds they represent; those sounds are themselves abstractions of the concept of plough pose—that is, what we envision when we hear those sounds—and that concept is, again, an abstract way of aurally categorizing the actual pose itself. So when one says “god” in English, he’s actually discussing an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction. Conversely, when one chants “Hare Krishna,” the deity himself is actually thought to be pouring out of the singer’s mouth.

As a writer, I find the notion of holding one language as better than any other to be somewhat parochial and immature, and I don’t like the idea that a particular type of music’s choice of idiom defines its relative legitimacy as a spirit-moving instrument. After all, if one is entranced, then do the lingual logistics of the sensations really matter? I’ve come to the conclusion that, whether divinely inspired or not, my affinity for English-language rock ‘n’ roll and soul music is no less holy than another’s for devotional Sanskrit melodies. And no more holy, either. Can’t they both simply rock? And might my “devotional” music be just as mighty, just as inspired, as any other agglomeration of audio vibrations? I hope so, because, like I said, I’m trying. I’m really, really, trying.

I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh, I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive/ Hey I, oh I'm still alive

Do Sweat It! Enjoying yoga and perspiration August 1, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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For the first few years of my practice—and indeed, occasionally today—I was self conscious of my sweat. For whatever reason, there’s something about an asana room that opens the floodgates more than other torrid spaces, and I’ve often chanted my three OM’s with a trace, then a trickle, and then a torrent, of perspiration running down from my shoulders to that uncomfortable spot behind the manufacturer’s label of my shorts. I used to shy away from adjustments, for fear that the teacher would be disgusted by the incessant dripping; and I used to seek out real estate on the edges of the room so that I wouldn’t be boxed in by students whom I assumed would be revolted. Though I knew yoga to be a purifying practice, I felt that there was something embarrassingly wrong with me, and I tried to protect others from my freakishly copious moisture.

Sometimes during my regular practice, I’d look with envy at fellow students who’d created beautifully geometric sweat circles and patterns on their shirts over the course of their practice–on all but the chilliest days, my T-shirts are completely saturated by the third surya namaskar. Now, there’s something to be said for my “comprehensive” style of perspiring—it’s like having the box set instead of the greatest hits album—but the art of selective sweating can be wonderfully literary as well and, given my verbal inclinations, I feel like I’m missing out. Tom Wolfe describes in A Man in Full,

Croker stared at the upright middle finger and squinted and stared some more, and his face grew red. And then Peepgass saw them . . . the saddlebags! The saddlebags! The saddlebags had formed! They were complete! The great stains of sweat on the tycoon’s shirt had now spread from both sides, from under the arms and across the rib cage and beneath the curves of his mighty chest until they had met, come together, hooked up—two dark expanses joined at the sternum. They looked just like a pair of saddlebags on a horse.

Oh, Peepgass loved it! Harry had done it again!—gotten his saddlebags—even with a tough old bird like Charle Croker!

Fellows here at the PlannersBanc at the end of the table were nudging each other and smiling. They’d noticed it, too. Peepgass was elated. Somehow Harry had redeemed them all. He turned toward the Artiste and said, behind his hand, “Saddlebags, Harry! Saddlebags!”

Ahh, the aesthetics of perspiration! How could Tom Wolfe’s Charlie Croker be so splendidly skillful at sweating while I’m just a slowly melting man? It’s Yoga 101, of course but, as usual, it’s all about intention.

We’re taught the intention that engenders an act is just as—if not more—significant than the action itself. So to find a less judgmental frame in which to watch my sweat, I practiced hot yoga, where if you don’t sweat as much as I do, you’ll overheat like a stalled semi heading over the Grapevine into L.A. If instructors didn’t want to touch me when I was more Swamp Thing than man, then, well, it was their own damn fault for teaching hot yoga.

John and Yoko

Clearly, she doesn't mind the sweat generated by this pose.

To get the full experience, I took a 75-minute class at Prana Power Yoga here in New York City on what was, at the time, the hottest day of the year. (Last month’s heat wave has since relegated that day into bronze-medal position as far as hottest day of the year goes, but it was still somewhere between 95 and 100 degrees.) Despite the weather, though, it was still hotter inside the asana room than it was outside.

Like most yoga classes, Prana turned me into a raisin. Because I expected it, though, I enjoyed it, indeed felt sympathy for those whose mat-pools were only half the size of mine. I hoped the instructor would come over to witness the wetness she’d wrought.

If sweating could be enjoyable and encouraged in one yoga class, why couldn’t it be so highly regarded in others? Embrace your waste, and you’ll never feel embarrassed again.

Unlike Monopoly, there are no losers in life July 18, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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When I was a kid, my older brother and I played Monopoly at least once a week. He was always the car token; I always took the horse or wheelbarrow. We had a huge stack of board games—Go For It and Go For Broke (which my brother steadfastly refused to play for our entire childhood, a prohibition that’s probably served him well in his present-day business dealings); The Game of Life and Stratego; and Sorry! and Aggravation when our mom wanted to join us (She loved the games where the goal was to get your family of colored tokens “home”).  It was Monopoly, though, that probably accounted for about half of the games I played against my brother.

Kleshas are just another kind of jail.Monopoly’s skeletal rules and regulations left vast procedural voids into which my brother could finagle subtle aspects of the game into his favor. Rather than end the game as soon as I went bankrupt, for example, which is how Monopoly is supposed to be played, my brother would extend usurious loans to me to keep things going. One time, he even let me buy “stocks” from the NYSE quotes and–for a Monopoly-money fee–he’d track them for me in the local paper’s business section and let me know how much I’d get if I sold off any given day. I usually bought stocks for companies I thought were cool, like Boeing and United Airlines (As a seven-year-old, I thought flying was awesome). Whatever his motives were for the financial engineering, I was happy that he’d deigned to play with his younger brother in the first place. Slowly having my ass handed to me over a few hours, then, always seemed like less of a disaster than having to abruptly put the entire game away with the commandment, “Loser cleans up.”

Though I beat him at Monopoly more times than I beat him at chess (once) or Stratego (zero times), I was very much the underdog every time we chose our tokens and prepared to pass GO.  Really, my badness at Monopoly was a perfect storm of my business ineptitude, my brother’s corresponding acumen, and–or so I’d like to believe, since it lets me off the hook of being a completely hopeless player–a younger sibling’s subconscious fear of prematurely of superseding his elder and thus finding himself in the uncharted territory of being number one.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

It's hard to practice asana in white tie and tails.

Today I’m at T-minus seven weeks till my brother’s wedding in Seattle. I haven’t started writing the Best Man’s toast yet–these tend to come together at the last minute for me–but I have my plane ticket purchased and wedding outfit chosen. Since my brother’s getting married the same month he turns 35, we’ve–mostly I’ve–been able to maintain an extended sibling rivalry longer than most sets of brothers. Like our board game contests of yore, though, it’s been fairly one-sided, with perhaps a few victories snatched from the jaws of defeat on my part. For the most part, though, my brother’s “won” them all.

Because as ridiculous as it seems (to everyone other than me), I had, at some point, extrapolated his victories at The Game of Life into a victory over me at Life Itself, a personal manifestation of abhinivesha–attachment or clinging to life. I’d lost sight of my true sadhana and found it easier to define myself as little-cum-inferior brother. Coming in second, I realized, had been hardwired into my identity. I was clinging to the old life I knew because it was easier than trying to win at one that was unknown and new.

I don’t remember the day it dawned on me that, well, we weren’t actually competing against each other. But I think I was upside down, wobbly, in a headstand for the very first time. It was something, I knew, that my brother couldn’t do. When I got down–light years away from holding it for five seconds, let alone five minutes–I wiped clean a little bit of my imaginary win/loss, brother/brother scoreboard. Since then, slowly, achingly, and frustratingly, I’ve begun to forget about the win/loss figures altogether. My “victory” in headstand showed me who I’d really been competing with all along. It freed me from the life I’d assumed I was living.

In headstand–and eventually forearm-stand, and Warrior I, and Triangle, and even Child’s Pose–I’m only second-best to myself. Paging Dr. Seuss–you’re needed in the asana room. And no “loser” will ever have to clean up my life.

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