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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

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.

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.

There are no yoga cops: coming to terms with your sadhana June 29, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not immune to negativity and disenchantment, and if I’m not careful, I can lapse into outright cynicism. About three weeks into my Jivamukti Teacher Training in Rhinebeck, N.Y., I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with what I was being taught. There was too much unquestioned reverence, I thought. There wasn’t enough room for debate and dissent. There were short answers given to questions that guys like Rumi, Thomas Aquinas, and Keith Richards had spent lifetimes pondering.

Whether it was the string of 18-hour days; the never-ending kale, collard-greens, and lentils buffet at the dining hall; or the upper-respiratory bug that had been plaguing me since the second week, I’d just about had it. Maybe I’d heard the word “guru-ji” one too many times. Whatever it was, for a couple of days, I crossed over the dark side and indulged my inner cynic.

We were made to learn, for example, a list of ten ways a student can honor his teacher. It was all perfectly respectful and reasonable, but from my hole on the dark side, I saw it as Orwellian. I spitefully let my imagination carry me away to North Korea. Number 1, for example, instructs a student to use honorifics when referring to or addressing his teacher, which I took as the equivalent of referring to the long dead Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and to his megalomaniacal son, Kim Jong-il, as “Dear Leader.” Number 8 directs a student to ask his teacher to stay in his life, which to me sounded analogous to supporting the hereditary Stalinist dynasty that the Kims had established in Pyongyang. And number 9 charges a student to pay attention when his teacher teaches, to not let the mind wander. Admittedly, I thought USSR, not North Korea, on this one, but the enjoinment nevertheless reminded me of those apparatchiks whom Stalin had sent to the gulag for, allegedly, not laughing at his jokes or for being the first to sit down during a 30-minute standing ovation. Yes, for these and every other item on the list, I’d listed their totalitarian corollaries in my notebook.

As training crept by and my imagination ran rampant, I felt more and more like an outcast, a heterodox dissident living on borrowed time until the “Yoga Police” ferreted me out and banished me from Jivamukti. I even designed a medallion for the Yoga Police Department, which my roommate quickly christened the “Bitter Badge.”

The "Bitter Badge"

But mercifully, the truth dawned on me soon thereafter: There are no “Yoga Cops.”

My practice—and yours—are personal journeys, private experiences. One’s entire sadhana is, in effect, carried out entirely behind the closed doors of one’s body, mind, and soul. One student’s maddeningly rigorous regimen of asana is no better or worse, no more right or wrong, than another’s hours of devotional chanting. Built into yoga’s existential paradox—that it is both the end of the journey and the journey itself—is the space for you to define it how it benefits you—and the people with whom you share your life—the most, and the most joyfully.

Karma teaches us that the intention behind an action is far more resonant than is the action itself; indeed, one’s intention is a transformative agent, the reason behind one’s behavior and the mold into which the wet plaster of action hardens into result. When I set aside my cynicism—and, alas, handed in the Bitter Badge—I found my intention to be no less devotional, no less pure than my fellow trainees. After all, though we had different bodies, different expressions of different asanas,  we were all striving in Rhinebeck for the same thing; that is, the teaching tools and expertise required to instruct others onto their own paths. We were taught to respect our students’ journeys, just as our teachers respected ours. Even if the Yoga Cops had raided my room, they’d have found woefully little evidence to arrest me of any yogic “crime.”

When I was in middle school in Oregon in the early nineties, the skaters would spare no opportunity to slap a “Skateboarding is not a crime” bumper sticker on any accessible flat surface, even the backboards of basketball hoops. After my imaginary run-in with the Yoga Cops, I finally figured out what they meant: no matter what others think of it, skateboarding is definitely not a crime. Neither is your yoga practice.

Bad attitudes make better bread: Pastry, karma, and you June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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In any bakery, the worse the attitude of a baker, the better his bread. Some of the best muffins and scones I’ve tasted were made by jerks with nicotine-stained fingers and criminal records, and cinnamon rolls I had to fight with–and then punish for their intransigence–inevitably tasted better than those more willing to come to terms with their 410-degree destiny. (For those who are curious, “punishing” uncooperative dough involves slicing it with the older, slightly less-sharp dough scraper, or allowing some of its fringes to get pinched, like a roll of fat in a zipper, between the handles and roller of the rolling pin. You just have to be creative and work with the implements you’ve got.)

Sure, stories abound about cooks and bakers who’ve infused their product by chanting mantra over it, and though my baking career predates my yoga practice by a good three years and was thus never informed by the Sutra or Gita, I’m convinced that muttering “God-damn-motherfucking-piece-of-shit” over too-soft white dough or unrisen whole wheat is a much surer way to improve the food’s performance than reverently singing “Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.”

With living plants and animals, and to a lesser extent protists and bacteria, I’d recommend mantra every time, but dough is different, existentially and biologically. Don’t forget that with leavened dough, you’re collaborating with a living organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae–baker’s yeast–and fungi responds far better to the stick than it does the carrot (Think of athlete’s foot—the soggiest, nastiest conditions always produce the most fecund fungal forests). And for unleavened food, like cookies, muffins, and scones, I’ve found that physical abuse trumps verbal as far as discipline goes. It must be noted, though, that like any ward given too much of the rod, over-beaten dough easily becomes overmixed, leading to longer baking times and tougher, less succulent product.

Alone in the bakery at 3:45 in the morning, day after day, I developed several theories about why quality of attitude is inversely related to quality of product, but, ultimately, these don’t serve to explain anything. It takes a certain kind of who-gives-a-shit curmudgeon to get out of bed at 2:30 each morning and enjoy his lunch break at 7, his five-o’clock-whistle at noon, but this merely explains why certain kinds of people become bakers, not why any one is any better than his peers.  Certainly, a congenital bad attitude can be synergized with a too-early shift, but again, this is something that affects all bakers, not just the antisocial ones.

Great writers, of course, are famously miserable, even though many of them, it seems, were simply playing a role. I’m sure that had Doestoevsky been a well-to-do descendant of a boyar, there’d be countless literary strivers today chasing after serfs, suppressing Cossack autonomy, and generally espousing the merits of reactionary thinking. Brooklyn and Montmartre’s brokers of windowless garrets would be completely out of business.

Ultimately, I’ve arrived at the understanding that, while a bad attitude is a benefit to baking, it need not extend beyond the breadboard. Dragging my bad moods to and from the bakery each day was an expression of immaturity and ignorance. Yoga instructs us to create an internal heat–tapas–that’s capable of incinerating whatever negativity and vileness has taken root in our bodies. Certainly, if a 99-degree human body can destroy malevolent thoughts, then a 410-degree oven can consume even more. Today, when I bake (now as an amateur), I make sure to baste my product in flavor-stimulating pessimism, then consider it transferred to the food and out of my body, on its way to certain destruction in the oven. Baking has become therapeutic, an act of contrition, no longer the violent brawl between man and food that it once was.

Infernos & assholes: why I practice yoga June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I.

Dante was thirty-five when he went on his fact-finding mission into hell. Well, I got the jump on him by a good seven years.

I started practicing yoga a month after my twenty-eighth birthday in 2008, primarily as a way to get away from assholes. I’d encounter them every day, on the subway and the sidewalk, at the office and at parties. They were everywhere, conspiring, it seemed, to make my world a touch uglier, my life a shade less pleasant. Some people would push onto the train without waiting for alighting passengers to get off; when this happened to me, I saw it is a virtual license to throw up my elbows and deliver a few forearm shivers to the jerks who weren’t waiting their turn. My boss chain-smoked Parliament Light after Parliament Light in his office, operating under the notion that if his door was merely cracked instead of wide-open, then no one else could breath his exhaust. This I took as license slack off and stop working at 3:30 or 4, time to declare the brain too saturated with carbon monoxide to be of any further creative use.

To get through those days, I’d taken to abusing my clonazepam prescription, interpreting “one tablet as needed for anxiety” to mean “two tablets every day after lunch.” The Simon’s Little Helpers could make sixty minutes feel like forty-five (forty on an empty stomach), and they helped reinforce a general “Who gives a shit?” attitude whenever the hairs in my nostrils bristled in protest at the toxic atmosphere of that office. For anyone who hasn’t spent eight consecutive hours trapped inside a smoke-filled office, the traditional “five o’clock feeling” is quite unique, similar to the way you might feel after eating an entire jar of dill pickles–and drinking all the brine–only expansive enough to engulf the entire body and not just your stomach. It also arrives at 10:30 in the morning. Five days a week, I left work feeling pickled and poisoned, soaked in formaldehyde, cyanide, and misery.

In Spring 2008, I started going to Jivamukti Yoga Center, which was just a five minute walk from work. After my four-week Beginner Basics program, once a week became twice, and twice became four times. Practice days soon outnumbered rest days, rest days became less and less satisfying. And then, slowly, it dawned on me: I was an asshole, too! Everyone in my life was an insensitive prick because I had become one myself.

My transformation began that summer at Jivamukti. I listened to my teachers, did everything they asked (at least in class). I showed up after work every night, eager to detoxify and unpickle my physical body. After a few weeks, my psychology began to follow. Jivamukti Yoga is ardent in its belief that every soul is a holy being, and I slowly began to see myself as such. As I squeezed and sweated out the arsenic, ammonia, and soot that each day would permeate my body, I rid myself of feelings of inadequacy, of loneliness and shame. Dharma talk after dharma talk, headstand after headstand, Warrior II after Warrior II, I could understand my holiness as natural and inevitable. I could touch my toes! I could stand on my head!

Eventually, I could patiently abide subway insensitivity! And an inconsiderate smoker could be a teacher and inspiration, an opportunity to embrace as holy and valuable even the most toxic examples of foulness. Jivamukti became–and remains–my land of Katroo, Dr. Seuss’s magical birthday-land where you’re told, “Today you are You,/ That is truer than true./ There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

The assholes disappeared from my life. Oh, inconsiderate souls still abound, and reprehensible behavior is everywhere. But the assholes, well they’ve left the building. Yoga has made me holy, and my world whole.

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