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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.

 

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.

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