Archive for 2008

Cutthroat Spirituality

IN THE NEWS lately–a bunch of articles the over-seriousness of yogis and their teachers. Yay! I was hoping someone would bring that up.

It started with a post in Rick Cohen’s ethics column, The Ethicist, in the New York Times Magazine, December 5th.

A San Francisco yoga teacher, up for promotion, wanted to shoot down a competing colleague’s chances of promotion by outing his relationship with a yoga student (a relationship forbidden by studio policy). But she seemed to care more about getting the promotion than helping to promote the ethics of the yoga studio. Sadly, this striving to be holier-than-thou (literally) is all too common in the yoga world. Years ago, when I didn’t know what puja meant, an astangi explained it to me with barely contained distain. 

The letter-writer’s question to Cohen–“if the owner knew about this, my colleague would not get the promotion and might be fired. Should I tell?“–reveals her thinly veiled competitiveness. I loved Cohen’s answer because it was so direct. The yoga world seems unable to be so frankly self-scrutinizing even though self-study is an important aspect of the practice.

Cohen writes, “If, as your actions — or inactions — suggest, you believed silence was appropriate during the past year, then it is still appropriate today. All that has changed is your self-interest. You now have a chance to trip up a rival for a promotion, a poor motive for reversing course.” Yes. Who knows, maybe the letter writer couldn’t admit her competitiveness even to herself. This is, I would say, an obstacle to good teaching and good practice.

NEXT, we have an MNBC feature Dec 7, 2008 –an outtake from Self magazine–about a woman who overcomes her skepticism about yoga and starts a regular practice, only to become an instant yoga-snob. The writer, Marjorie Ingall, who also writes for the Jewish Forward, catches herself judging fellow students and wonders what happened to the spiritual component of the practice.

She writes, “too many yoga students in this country have taken a tiny piece of a wider Indian worldview, one that isn’t just about exercise, and turned it into a new kind of self-absorption. Exercise is not sacred, much as we want to pretend it is. Worse, some yogis have internalized only the most negative aspect of religion — the tendency to think that outsiders are bad and wrong. The dark side of faith is when it turns on others.”

She goes on to say that what we all want deep down inside is a yoga butt and the right to feel superior to people doing other kinds of exercise. Well, that doesn’t describe everyone’s practice, but I’m sure that’s true for lots of people. It’s the downside of projecting our needs for authenticity, prowess, and purity onto yoga, yoga teachers, and fellow students (not sure what the upside is). Really, it’s an ongoing psych experiment that no one is taking notes on (yet).

MEANWHILE Adele R. McDowell writes on American Chronicle about falling off her mat and out of her pose in her very serious gym yoga class. No one noticed her dramatic kathunk onto the floor mid-class (not even the teacher) and the class continued without missing a beat.

She writes, “The class is filled to capacity with bright-eyed, Gumby-like students in form-fitting togs. They are awe-struck and reverential to the instructor, a lean, sleek and uber-serious young woman. The room bows before the altar of her yogic wisdom as she leads us in pose after pose. The teacher´s style is stern. One could well imagine this woman striding about in riding boots complete with crop in hand, rhythmically tapping her palm.”

Is that militaristic image familiar or what? And what’s it for, I wonder? Do those striding boots inspire people to have better practices and more authentic experiences with themselves and the world?

I know that sounds hokey, but we can be beaten up any time we like. Just walk outside and try to catch a bus. Life’s basics are not easy, but that’s why we go to yoga (I think). Yoga should not make things harder, in my humble opinion. And let’s check our egos –check them thoroughly– at the door.


Artist-Made Yoga Mats

Artist Katie Merz of Brooklyn has created her own yoga mats for sale at Merz Mats.

She writes, “After years of looking down at a blank yoga mat and feeling somewhat grim, I decided to pick up a sharpie and sketch out some characters onto my own mat. I needed to laugh. The result is here. The mat is a classic navy blue 1/8″ sticky mat with my characters screened in white. They are latex free, extremely durable and washable and measure 68″ x 24″ x 18″.”

Katie Merz Mat

 Cute Christmas present anyone? Learn more here.


Custom-made Yoga Mats

Also check out the more expensive (and slightly ridiculous) YogaMatic for custom made yoga mats. Featured yoga mat designer this week: Calvin Klein! No kidding.

Says Kevin Carrigan, Creative Director of Calvin Klein Performance, “My design for the Calvin Klein Performance yoga mat is inspired by Warrior 1, one of the most fundamental and beautiful yoga poses. We purposefully wanted the design to incorporate bold, graphic lines which create a fearless silhouette that embodies strength, balance, and courage.” I’m sure you did. Ah, the courage to purchase designer yoga mats.

Non-designer images present the possibility of practicing on the face of the Dali Lama (who is not a yogi, by the way) or on an image of oversized granola or on a field of donuts or on an anime still or on the word “yoga” imitating the Keith Haring sculpture “love.”


Not like Cod Liver Oil of yore

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine recently released a report that shows a significant number of children doing yoga, practicing meditation, and doing deep-breathing exercises. Children under 18 are also taking more supplements such as probiotics, echinacea and fish oil.

The NYTimes reports, “The single most influential factor driving children’s adoption of alternative therapies appears to be whether their parents also use them. Children whose parents or relatives use alternative therapies are five times more likely to use them than children whose parents do not.

I like the idea of kids learning yoga and meditation tools early in life (though I’m less sure about parents applying their own alternative remedies to their kids). We’re not talking a spoon full of cod liver oil and a run around a frozen track in shorts anymore.

Read the article here.

Yoga in the Muslim World

Iranian women practice yoga in Tehran(image: c/o Time inc; Jean Chung/Corbis)

Inspired by the recent Malaysian fatwa against yoga, Time magazine just published a shrewd commentary on yoga in the Muslim world–the most comprehensive I’ve ever read. (It’s a blog entry, so don’t get too excited–they’re not going front cover with this.)

The writer, Azadeh Moaveni, who has practiced yoga all over the Middle East (in Egypt, Lebannon, Iran, and Iraq etc) gives us insights into yoga outside the Judeo-Christian US, ones that might inspire us North American-bound folks to look up a bit (up away from our navels…).

For example, did you know (could you have guessed?) that in Iran, even in religious cities, every kind of yoga is available to every kind of person–from kids’ yoga, to toning yoga, to austere or rigorous yoga–much as it is in the US? Or that in Beirut, Lebannon, people actually prefer gym yoga?

Moaveni quips, “Attending a yoga class at one of the city’s [Beirut’s] many posh fitness centers means that ministers can chat on their yoga mats, and pop stars can show off their headstands, a convenient way of getting centered and being seen at the same time.”

Moaveni frets over the fate of yoga post-fatwa, but eventually decides that most likely it will continue unchanged. “That the forums’ experts and mediators rule so contradictorily — some rule haram, while many more judge yoga harmless — suggests there is no fixed Islamic position on yoga, just as there is no fixed type of yoga itself.”

So if everyone keeps their cool, this passion for mums, babies, professionals, expats, yuppies, celebrities and the general middle class will continue to flourish across the muslim world. Now what about those problematic Christian yogis…

Read the piece here

South Pole Yoga

While on a 5-month assignment as sous-chef at a South Pole research station, Kundalini/Anusara teacher Michele Gentille volunteered to teach yoga. Since her departure in Feb 08, star student Don Potter has taken over.

Michele writes: “Don was a first time student who got hooked and now leads the entire construction crew in yoga every morning for their mandated stretches. Don is in good physical shape to begin with; his summer project was to rollerblade from Seattle to NYC. Not sure if he made it the whole way…”

Below, at the South Pole gym: staff in standing forward bend. Padded bums ahoy! 

South Pole Yoga(photo care of South Pole station staff) 

Yoga Woman

A clever letter to the editor from October spells out a flattering portrait of  Yoga Woman (except that in this portrait, she’s only suburban instead of also rural and urban). She is the one person keeping the household together, in contrast to Patio Man who’s been taken by surprise by the economic downturn. I like how the letter-writer manages to make a feminist as well as yogic statement.

“Yet Yoga Woman doesn’t expect government to swoop down and come to her rescue. She does expect it to have sound judgment and make solid, educated decisions that will right the country. Yoga Woman is nothing if not formidable. She is the suburban force behind the change that’s taking place this election cycle.”

The letter-writer, from San Francisco, was responding to columnist David Brooks’ editorial.

Trouble in Malaysia

Normally, I don’t report on yogic news outside of the US, but the idea that yoga has been banned in Malaysia by a body called The National Fatwa Council is definitely news.

This story has been circulating in smaller international papers recently but last week NPR picked it up.

The objection is similar to that of some US Christians and parents: that yoga’s spiritual roots in Hinduism could interfere with the dissemination of the ‘true truth.’ The NPR story, reported from Kuala Lumpur, says, “News of the yoga ban prompted activist Marina Mahathir to wonder what the council will ban next: “What next? Gyms? Most gyms have men and women together. Will that not be allowed any more?”

Well, the council also outlawed tomboys. That’s right, it’s illegal to be a girl who looks or acts too much like a boy.

Move aside Salman Rushdie. It’s fatwa yoga time. 

Nov 29, Epilogue: Apparently, the Malaysian Sultans who each take turn as king, were not amused by the fatwa council’s recommendation, and issued a rebuke to the decree, which might still be overturned.

Yogi Cameron

Care of the UK’s Daily Mail comes news of an American ex-Vogue model turned yogic healer. Yogi Cameron, based in NYC, will travel anywhere in the world to give a 24-hr treatment of yoga asana, ayurvedic massage, health and life counseling.

It’s true that many people need to take care of their health basics much, much better. We’d all be better off for it. But the fee to fly Cameron from NY to Hampstead, England, for a 24-hr private, according to the UK rag, is 20,000 pounds (about $40,000 US).

‘Scuse me while I spit out my soup. Uh, wa?

Alignment Off the Mat, Too

Walking is something Johnathan FitzGordon got interested in years ago–I remember him chatting about this after one of his fun and exploratory classes at the old Brooklyn Yoga space. Now the NYTimes caught up with him–as, it seems, have some others concerned with pain management, health, and basic skills of life.

FitzGordon, who just can’t follow a line of teaching if it doesn’t interest him, is a deeply curious guy. And usually he is spot on about anatomy. I like how, in the quoted passage below, we see him looking at his students not just on the mat, but off, too. Ideally yogis bring awareness to everything, not just to class. 

“Few of us think we need a course in walking any more than we’d need a course in breathing, but Mr. FitzGordon insists that most Americans don’t have a clue how to step, a problem he first noticed among his yoga students. “People would enter with terrible posture,” he said. “Then they’d do beautiful yoga, and listen to everything I said about alignment. As soon as class ended, they went straight into the bad posture.” “

Read it in the NYTimes.