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

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John and Yoko

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

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

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

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

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