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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…

Yoga and Anger Management March 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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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.

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

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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.

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

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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

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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.

Exile on Yoga Street: Sadhana and the Stones July 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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This past spring, I closed every evening of Teacher Training with a good half-hour of reading from Keith Richards’s Life. Believe me, nothing washes down bandha and kriya like a solid helping of heroin addiction and Goats Head Soup, and if absorbing Keith’s decidedly un-yogic habits seems to you like a medicine counterproductive to discovering pure and good Samkhya philosophy, just remember that “Paint It, Black” was the first #1 hit in the UK and US to feature a sitar. Sure, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought Yoga and Vedanta philosophies to America in 1893, but it was Keith, Mick, Brian, Charlie, Bill and Jack Nitzsche who really made it rock. (Richards’s initials are also, incidentally, kr, the Sanskrit root for “action,” but let’s not get too philologically carried away here.

Most people love Keith Richards, if only for the fact that he’s so easy to make fun of. After all, who—besides Johnny Depp, of course, whose Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow is an amalgam of Richards and Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew—knew that the only thing separating the Rolling Stones legend from a ridiculously lampoonable pirate was a small dose of cartoon polecat?

But in Life, I find enough high-brow and low-brow wisdom to complement and supplement anything I read in Hindu scriptures. Many of us, for example—myself included—initially approach yoga as a way to flee frustration and disappointment. Many of us feel trapped or indentured to what we’ve been told is conventional, expected, or normal.

My first yoga teacher was a successful journalist who tired of Fourth Estate politics and found rejuvenation in her practice and study. And as I’ve written before, I found yoga to be an antidote to the back-biting and imperious literary world in which I was grudgingly striving and competing as a young writer and editor.

So at Teacher Training at Rhinebeck, it was quite refreshing to hear Richards’s willful dismissal of a mundane career at an ad agency in favor of—at that time, at least—a low-security, one-in-a-million shot at becoming a professional musician:

“I left art school around this time,” he writes.

At the end your teacher says, “Well I think this is pretty good,” and they send you off to J. Walter Thompson and you have an appointment, and by then, in a way you know what’s coming—three or four real smarty-pants, with the usual bow ties. “Keith, is it? Nice to see you. Show us what you’ve got.” And you lay the old folder out. “Hmmmm. I say, we’ve had a good look at this, Keith, and it does show some promise. By the way, do make a good cup of tea? I said yes, but not for you. I walked off with my folio—it was green, I remember—and I dumped in the garbage can when I got downstairs. That was my final attempt to join society on their terms.

Granted, most of us who choose to make at least a partial living by teaching yoga won’t come anywhere near to sniffing the galactic success of the Stones. But as I progress in my practice and come across more and more opportunities to share what I’ve been taught, I recognize in myself the courage and conviction it took for Richards to not “join society on their terms.”

On our spiritual paths, we strive for non-attachment, to somehow emulate the life of a renunciate saddhu who has abandoned more “traditional” pursuits and dedicated his life to the practice and achievement of yoga. Yes, we’re more likely to belt out lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu in a small gathering of fellow sadhakas than we are, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in front of 40,000 screaming fans but still, like young Mr. Richards, we are making a good cup of tea—just not for “you.” As yogis, we recognize the imperative of liberation—of freedom—in our lives. We recognize that our lifestyle does indeed produce a damn good cup of tea, and we’ll happily share it with you if you ask. And we must always acknowledge, no matter how financially or politically or materially frustrated that we get, that our commitment to yoga is really the most liberating thing we’ve got going.

Writes Walt Whitman,

More precious than all worldly riches is Freedom—freedom from the painful constipation and poor narrowness of ecclesiasticism—freedom in manners, habiliments, furniture, from the silliness and tyranny of local fashions—entire freedom from party rings and mere conventions in Politics—and better than all, a general freedom of One’s-Self from the tyrannic domination of vices, habits, appetites, under which nearly every man of us, (often the greatest brawler for freedom,) is enslaved.

On the cleanliness of trash: thoughts on saucha July 5, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Flickr photo by lara604.

One of life’s biggest hassles concerns proper maintenance and disposal of “yoga clothes.” Now, one need not practice yoga to have “yoga clothes”—you might have “work clothes,” or “lab clothes,” or “gardening clothes”–and when I played soccer as a kid, my yoga clothes comprised mud-and-grass-stained socks and shorts, sweat-soaked shinguards, and two (or three) pairs of soccer shoes with mud and dirt (mercifully) or dog doo (unmercifully) clotted around the cleats.

These inevitably reeked and in high school, I took to leaving empty soap boxes in my duffle bag to absorb some of the smell. At that time, my family bought Lever 2000 soap which had become, after its successful 1996 launch (That year, the company sent bar after bar of free samples to our house), the first non-Dove soap to be used in family showers (Though like Dove, Lever is a Unilever product). I preferred it as a deodorizer to other soaps because, quite frankly, it was the strongest stuff on the shelf. Seriously–you could open a box of Lever 2000 in Portland and they’d feel fresher in Seattle in less than five minutes.

After graduating from college, I pulled a three-year stint as a professional baker, and “bakery clothes” became the new yoga clothes. These were caked in flour, dribbled in egg white, and smeared with brown sugar, honey, and molasses; vanilla extract, butter, and blackberry juice; cake yeast, cinnamon, and the occasional mutilated raisin. Of course, those of us who wander into bakeries always marvel at the delightful smell wafting out of the ovens, but when the raw ingredients are concentrated, tinctured with sweat and early-morning funk, then caked onto a hardworking T-shirt, the resultant odor is decidedly less pleasant.

Today, of course, my yoga clothes are, well, yoga clothes, and though I need only contend with one adulterating substance–sweat–the problem is essentially the same as it was after soccer practice or a baking shift. You don’t have to practice Bikram Yoga to work up a sweat, and in my daily go-rounds at Jivamukti, I feel cheated if I haven’t soaked through an entire shirt within ten minutes of practice. When class is over, it’s not unusual for people to mistake me for having just taken a shower, not a yoga class.

I’ve always been drawn to activities that encourage making a mess. To me, there’s something satisfying in the temporary desecration of cleanliness, that is, in the physical manifestation of “breaking a few eggs to make an omelet.” In my mind, it helps strengthen one’s commitment to non-attachment; after all, when they’re seen as necessary ingredients in the creation or production of something beautiful (a tray of muffins, a yoga practice), how can “leavings” be considered any less esteemed than the final product? Those sweaty T-shirts are ingredients, not by-products, of my sadhana, and I try to regard them as such.

And if you’re able to confront so-called waste with admiration, then how can that consideration not then extend to everything we deem “essential” or “complete?” When you look at waste as the equivalent of produce, it then becomes imperative to treat it as such. You sort food, leaving perishables in the fridge, frozen food in the freezer, so why wouldn’t you sort recyclables, or hand-me-downs, or (if possible) compost? Venerating garbage (Well, that may be a bit extreme) makes taking out the trash, drying yoga clothes, recycling Coke cans, part of your practice, as necessary as asana to purify your body.

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