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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.

 

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.

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.

Philosophy Phriday: Yoga, Iyengar, & Seuss September 2, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Philosophy Phriday.
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There is a frequent misunderstanding of the journey inward or the spiritual path, which suggests to most people a rejection of the natural world, the mundane, the practical, the pleasurable. On the contrary, to a yogi … the path toward spirit lies entirely in the domain of nature.

— B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

You must never forget that, as a yogi — indeed, as human, as Homo sapiens — that you are a natural being! Your twenty-first-century, plastic-fantastic, yoga-practicing, New York City-living body is a precious, living thing. If I may quote Shri Seuss, “You are you!”

We often hear that as modern Americans, we’ve become isolated, distant, removed from nature. We’ve forsaken our “natural” roots for the pleasures and conveniences of pre-packaged and digital, man-made and artificial. Yet this perceived separation need not exist.

So while, yes, the flavor of a juicy, fresh-picked strawberry is better-tasting (and better for you) than its artificially-manufactured simulacrum (which comprises 49 different biochemical compounds; “cognac essential oil” and “orris butter” are my favorites), the fact remains that it’s still your being, your soul that’s enjoying that taste–regardless of its provenance. As humans, we could never completely turn away from nature because we are nature. We must embrace, not eschew, the mundane, the practical, the pleasurable. After all, it’s a maddeningly sterile world if you don’t; non-attachment doesn’t mean that everything does — or should — taste like watered-down instant oatmeal.

We must identify our bodies — and the thoughts and feelings and ideas and questions and fears of our bodies — as holy, as natural creations. We’re no better than a soaring spruce, and we’re no worse than a sliming slug, no more or less unfortunate than a three-billion-year-old fossil of sulfur-eating bacteria. Iyengar’s “journey inward” is a true journey, drawing us from one place, or mindset, or reality, to another. From one state of nature to another. We feel good after an asana practice, and as “spiritual” as a post-yoga high is, we have to acknowledge that our cells are performing some heavy duty chemistry to get us there. Creating that pleasure is natural endocrine behavior and certainly not something to be rejected.

When we practice yoga, we certainly don’t swear off urdhva dhanurasana or halasana because these objects — wheel and plough — are manmade devices! We don’t spend the entire class in tadasana because, after all, there’s nothing less artificial than a mountain! We bend and flex and stretch into these poses to remind us of our own innate nature. We use yoga, then, not only to “connect” to nature, but also to find it within ourselves, to recognize our divinity, our union with the planet.

So if you must practice in Lululemon Smash pants, then by all means practice in Lululemon Smash pants! It’s your nature. If you cannot put your head to ground in a devotional warrior pose, then by all means put your head on a block; again, it’s your nature! And if you’re vegetarian, then (naturally) do not like green eggs and ham! The beauty of nature is that it cannot be fought, cannot be defeated. It cannot be parsed from our identities without some serious philosophical and surgical intervention. Revel in your nature. Revel in yourself.

Don't like 'em? Don't sweat it!

If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?
You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob! Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of hard green tomatoes.
Or worse than that . . . Why, you might be a WASN’T!
A Wasn’t has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t.
A Wasn’t just isn’t. He just isn’t present.
But you . . . You ARE YOU! And, now isn’t that pleasant!

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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