Archive for 2011

A Letter from Brazil

Last month I talked about my very personal reasons to sponsor a needy child—in Brazil.

About two weeks ago I received my first letter from Ana Vitoria, who lives in the northeast of South America’s largest country. Cool!

I’ve always loved getting letters in the mail. In high school, I wrote to my friends regularly—and they wrote back. I even wrote to strangers I met while traveling–and they wrote back. I remember very clearly how great it was to catalog my thoughts and the events in my life. Even more thrilling to receive a response.

letter from Ana

So, I was smiling from ear to ear as I opened the white World Vision envelope postmarked “Recife, BR.”  Ana’s funny, 7-year old thoughts were penciled in crooked letters on the organization’s stationary: she has a cat named Shena. Her favorite color is pink. She likes rice pudding.

I made my way through the Portuguese first (hard to read in crooked pencil marks) and then read the translation. Fun!

I imagined her sitting down with her project worker, maybe on some porch or outdoor bench near her school, maybe the fields are green around her, or maybe they are brown and parched.

I see her answering his questions about what she might want to say to me, this stranger so many thousands of miles away in this famous city of this famous country. I imagined how my life that must seem, in her imagination, to be overflowing with luxuries.

As we head into December—a time of unrelenting indulgences with presents to buy, trips to take, parties to go to, New Year’s hopes and dreams on the horizon—I’m gearing up to write Ana a letter of my own.

I’ll be thinking about how to put my life into simple words. I’ll be thinking about all the many, many blessings that I have, all the advantages I overlook everyday. I’ll look for the words that a 7-year-old would understand, one who struggles to have enough to eat. It makes me wonder if I couldn’t do more for Ana than just send her a Christmas card.

(In some countries that World Vision sponsors, you can buy a child’s family a goat!)

And in the meantime, I’m feeling pretty grateful to be sending her a little money every month. It’s a great feeling to contribute to her well-being. Maybe you’ll contribute at the office this year, or volunteer at a local food bank, or even sponsor a child of your own?

Happy holiday month and Hari Om!

RIP Jack the Cat

Maybe it’s pre-11.11.11 vibes—you know, on Friday we shift into the long-awaited Acquarian age, according to Yogi Bhajan. Oct 28 marked the long-awaited end of one big cycle of the Mayan calendar.

Or maybe it’s just me—I’ve  spontaneously stopped eating much meat or drinking much alcohol lately, and it’s making me sensitive to, you know, broccoli, kale, and stories about animals.

Jack in good health

This story about Jack the Cat really got to me today.

Jack the Cat escaped his carrying case before being loaded onto and American Airlines flight bound for California on August 25, where his owner, Karen, was moving.

Lost in the airport for 61 days, he fell through the ceiling at JFK customs on October 25 and was rushed to pet hospital in Manhattan.

American Airlines flew Karen back to New York to attend to her cat. But he was too weak from malnutrition and dehydration to continue on. On Sunday, after Karen had flown back home, Jack was put to sleep, surrounded by Karen’s friends and supporters.

Despite measures like a feeding tube, intravenous fluids, antibiotics and one operation, veterinarians finally recommended euthanasia.

“Forty to 60 percent of his body area was affected by devitalized tissue, tissue without blood flow,” Dr. Daly said.

A Facebook page devoted to Jack, Jack the Cat Is Lost in AA Baggage at J.F.K., had more than 24,400 “likes” as of Monday morning. On Sunday, a post entitled “RIP Jack — Full Info” reported that Jack had “gone over the rainbow bridge.”

Rest in peace, furry friend.

Sniff.

3 Reasons Why I’m Sponsoring a Child in Brazil

Flying back from my brother’s home in September was emotional. He was 4 weeks (out of 6) into intensive chemo and radiation, confused, weak, and scared about the future. His wife and I were working around the clock to care for him–and his two kids who were just starting kindergarten and pre-school.

It was hard to leave at that moment, especially to return to my rather foreign life in New York. I was a part of his family more than ever now, and they needed all the help they could get.

(Two 1/2 months earlier, Bill had been diagnosed with a stage 4 brain cancer, just a few weeks after his 36th birthday.)

My brother, Bill, one week after diagnosis, with his family. July 2011

On that September trip, I had gotten close to my 5-yr old nephew, Alex, and my 3-yr old niece, Sammie. I had gotten to know my sister-in-law in a way that only people thrown together into crisis can. I had one of the most intense—and in an odd way, satisfying—experiences of family I’d ever had.

I worried about leaving them at this moment, yet I needed to get back home to keep my own life going.  If my life fell apart—emotionally, financially, or otherwise—I wouldn’t be much good to anyone.

On my poignant plane ride back, thinking so much about family, I also felt lucky to be in a position to help. My brother’s airline (he’s a pilot) was flying me out to the west coast of Canada and back. My job as an editor was giving me the time off. I was able-bodied and I had a enough savings to afford miss a paycheck.

Still, I also felt the temptation to retreat into worry, sadness, and self-pity. Nothing compared to my younger—and only—brother getting stage 4 cancer.

Yet instead of descending into self-indulgence, something else, completely surprising, happened.

On the plane’s head-set TV,  an advertisement came on for an organization that sponsors children and their communities in impoverished parts of the world. Usually I leave that kind of work to other humanitarians. But that morning I felt an instant connection to those children. I deeply understood what it would mean for them to have some extra help.

In fact, for the price of a sandwich every week I could get a child a visit to a doctor, help her (or him) grow a garden, or even buy her textbooks or help her go to school for the first time. Thinking about it made me cry all over again.

I thought about it back at home and I investigated the organization. I waffled and I wavered. But the feeling that I needed to do this persisted.

So here are the three reasons why I decided to sponsor Ana Souza Silva, age 7, of northeastern Brazil.

Ana, 7

1. There is almost no price on giving ($10 a week? nothing), but there is a huge price to not receiving. To give to someone who needs help is an honor and a privilege.

2. I am Ana; Ana is me. We are connected. The act of giving is the understanding that our lives are, ultimately, bound together. It’s the, “there but for the grace of God go I” idea.

3. I’ve felt a special connection with Brazil for several years, and it’s a country I will most likely visit again. The fact that I might meet Ana one day makes giving her money all the more real, and all the more meaningful. (I’ve already started the paperwork!)

4. (I know I said three, but there are more!) It’s really, really easy. It’s the easiest way I know to give thanks for the privilege of my own life. It *is* the embodiment of “thanksgiving.” Why wait for the date in November before I embrace this commitment to living?

5. It’s almost hard to describe how exciting and moving it is to give a little money to Ana each week. It chokes me up every time.

Maybe this holiday season you might also give to a needy child or a needy family. It really feels amazing. I chose to work through World Vision. They are a Christian organization, but they get great reports. Happy November!

Adding “Namaste” to Bachelorette Parties

As reported in the New York Times today, more young brides are adding fitness to their bachelorette parties. And that includes yoga.

Are you surprised?

What surprises me (constantly, sigh) is the endless creative ways that entrepreneurs organize yoga for busy brides-to-be. Writes the Times:

It’s not just New Yorkers: The Los Angeles-based company Yoga for Weddings (slogan: “Bringing the Deep Breath to the Big Day”) offers private 90-minute classes, with a focus on “heart-opening poses” like the Cobra, for brides-to-be and their pals in nine United States cities (cost: $500). Innerlight Center for Yoga and Meditation in Middletown, R.I., started offering $200-an-hour bachelorette parties last year; already demand this year has tripled, said Kim Chandler, the center’s director.

That’s a lot of cash for a little namaste with your girlfriends…. but it’s about priorities.

I’m guessing smart companies know that a few sweaty down dogs with your closest lady friends might work out better in the long run than a big drunken glitter-covered mess that you don’t remember well even the next morning.

Photo c/o the New York Times

Be a Part-Time Vegetarian

Can’t quite give up meat? Me neither.

But since my brother’s diagnosis with Stage IV brain cancer this summer, I’ve become a lot more interested in all things concerning health. Diet is a key. And, sadly, meat is a huge concern.

Yesterday, the Huffington Post came out with a great idea: be a part-time vegetarian.

That means, have a few days a week when you don’t eat any meat or dairy products. Eat less meat and dairy overall and you will decrease your chances of getting cancer. (This has been proven with massive research–I’m not talking nicey hippie ideas here, I’m talking NIH and Cornell-funded multi-year research studies).

You will also decrease the terrible impact that cattle and dairy farming–as well as other forms of meat & fish farming–are having on the planet.  Again, this is not some utopian vision of “I’m Ok, You’re OK.” Notice how warm it is today? Eighty degrees in mid-October?

To start, you could follow the Environmental Working Group’s campaign for Meatless Mondays.


Neal Pollack! Stoner yoga memoirist reflects on health, wealth, happiness–and a year on the charts

It’s almost a year since Neal Pollack published his hilarious yoga memoir, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. I was late to the game, but caught up with him when I was out in LA for work this May. Pollack is wry, unapologetic and completely smitten with yoga, which made for an entertaining hour at the Casbah Cafe in Silverlake. Under the bougainvillea, Pollack held forth on the fate of the book, his yoga life, Richard Freeman, semi-ironic namastes, and his new project, Jewball, a novel.

Yoga Nation: How did the book do?

Neal Pollack: It wasn’t a best seller except for a couple of random weeks in a couple of random cities, and it hasn’t sold massive quantities, but it’s found an audience. The people who like it seem to have a lot of enthusiasm for it. So as much as I would have liked to have been a massive best seller that hasn’t really happened and I don’t see that happening.

YN: There’s always Russia. [Stretch came out in Russia, June 2011.]

NP: There’s always Russia. But I’m not going to count on that. It’s done as well as you can really expect a comic yoga memoir by a stoner guy to do.

And I’m being asked to go to other cities to do workshops. I’m going to New Orleans and Portland.

YN: What kind of workshops?

NP: I don’t know yet. That’s the thing, see: I’m a certified yoga instructor, through Richard Freeman last summer, but I haven’t taught a lot and I don’t have a ton of confidence in my ability as an asana instructor.

I certainly can’t talk about pranayama for three hours. Nor would anyone want me to. So I have to figure out what to teach.

I could barely stay awake during my teacher training because I was so tired from all the exercise. The physical stuff doesn’t come easy to me. I have a lot of alignment problems.

I’ll just have to be as honest with people as possible, say, listen, I’m not a master. I can’t do an entire 3-hour workshop on floating, you know what I mean?

YN: Teach to your strength right?

NP: Well let’s put it this way: when I assist my teacher in class, I drop people sometimes.

YN: There is a tradition of that.

NP: I can never figure out where to stand. No matter how many times people tell me, I can’t remember. And I’m sober when I’m getting the instruction.

YN: How was it studying with Richard Freeman?

NP: I have so much respect for him I can barely even begin to discuss it. He’s such a well-rounded human, so intelligent, and such physical ability. He seems inapproachable at first, but if you spend a month with him you realize that he’s sweet and kind. He just exists on a different plane some times.

He understands the practice deeply on many different levels. He’s the only person who’s explained yoga in a way that makes full sense to me. His language is so elevated and poetic. And he also mocks yoga culture in a very subtle and intelligent way that I appreciate. It was like I went to yoga college.

I went there with a blown out hamstring. Everyone kept saying you’re learning all these important lessons right now, and I was like, what the fuck are you talking about? I just want to bend forward.

YN: Is your hamstring better?

NP: Richard and his wife Mary when they saw that I couldn’t walk and saw that I had to go to the emergency room one day because I was so injured they came up with a strengthening program for me. It involved a lot of squatting and campers pose, you know you look like a camper taking a dump.

So I did a lot of that while other people were throwing their legs behind their heads.

They showed me a great kindness in doing that. I knew I was kind of a problem child for them, but I was injured. I’m always injured. I’m injured right now.

YN: What do you have?

NP: I got an SI joint thing on my right side. It pops in and out. It’s kind of a constant nagging thing. I should really just go to acupuncture or something but money’s tight. I lost my health insurance in December so…you know. Gotta try to heal it through yoga.

YN: That sounds precarious.

NP: A lot of people have it a lot worse.

YN: Are you still practice at same studios as when you were writing Stretch?

NP: Yeah, not the same spaces but the same community. A lot of the people I was practicing with when I first moved to Los Angeles 5 1/2 years ago are still around and they are still my community.

I’ve tried fancier studios and fancier people and I always end up going back to where I started. People are nice and the teachers are good but Yoga Journal ain’t going to do a story on it—unless I write one!

I think that’s good because yoga should be practiced with friends in a trusted space where you feel like you’re cared for to some extent—but not over cared for. You don’t want to be smothered.

YN: So you still have a really regular practice.

NP: Oh, yeah. I practice 5 days a week, and then I try to meditate on the days I’m not doing asana.

YN: Why not do it every day?

NP: I figure if I do an asana practice then that’s my meditation, you know? I do it when I feel like it. I know that’s not really what you’re supposed to do but—who cares?!?! I want to keep the meditation channel of my mind open, but some days it gets past me.

I’m definitely committed to it because I know that if I stop doing it my body would break down and so would my mind. I remember what my life was like before I did it. Actually, my life was exactly the same before I did it but the way I perceived my life was much different.

YN: And that’s everything.

NP: And that’s everything because my life was actually exactly the same. Ups and downs, goods and bads, sickness and health, but everything was clouded by this film of crazy. Not eccentricity—and I’ve got bags of that in my personality—but the crazies are kinda much more under control.

YN: That’s what got you in trouble with McSweeney’s?

NP: What happened was my ego was driving the ship, and it caused me to say and do stupid things. I had certain expectations and when they wouldn’t get met Id’ lash out in various ways. I over relied on drugs. I still do drugs, but I put them in their proper place. I wasn’t skillful in the way I handled that success.

I was not happy with the way I was comporting myself in the world. I feel better about that now and I think yoga has a lot to do with it. Middle age might also have something to do with it, but I know a lot of middle-aged people who behave very badly.

YN: How would you characterize the LA yoga world? What’s the insider perspective?

NP: The city is so big you can’t really generalize. Yes, of course you have the trendy yoga studios on the west side that are a little over-reliant on the bhakti perhaps. Those are the ones that get a lot of attention in press and the big crowds.

YN: What’s the west side?

NP: Venice, Santa Monica. But there’s also a nice community of yoga intellectuals here. There’s Loyola Marymount. There are people who are studying the tradition in intelligent ways here. And I would characterize the scene here as not particularly toxic, pretty laid back.

I avoid the elements of it that are trendy and celebrity oriented and competitive. It’s like Paris in the 20s for yoga—there’s so much talent and so much hard work and great yoga history here. Indra Devi taught here in the 40s, I live 5-minute drive from the original Self-Realization Fellowship. If you’re looking for it, you can still find it.

YN: Is there anywhere else on your travels that you thought was a cool yoga place?

NP: Not really. Austin has some fun stuff going on but I have a soft spot for Austin. The yoga scene in New York although there’s a lot of good stuff going on is too rushed and too competitive for me. San Francisco suffers a bit from excessive bougie-ness.

But again every place I go I meet intelligent thoughtful people who are trying their best. And then sometimes I’ll run into a stupid trendy yoga class. But in some ways yoga self selects. And the people within yoga self select. I have no trouble finding those people.

I’ve made some dear, dear friends through yoga who—I know I can’t always count on them to show up on time, or to be available to hang out all the time—but I can always count on them as emotional or intellectual support. And I can’t say that for all friends from all walks of my life at all times.

YN: Reading the book it sounds like you had a lot of fun writing it.

NP: I was like a kid at a soda fountain. It was all new to me.

YN: That was probably the perfect perspective.

NP: I was gimlet-eyed. I had no preconceived notions about what I was going to encounter at all. And now I do. I try to retain some of that innocence every time I get on the mat, but it’s not always easy to do. But that’s what you’re trying to do—to see reality as it really is, every moment should seem like you’re a newborn opening his eyes for the first time. But for the purpose of the book I was having a blast. I was trying to write the book as much in real time as I could. And as authentically as I could.

YN: You finished writing Stretch a while ago, right? You now have another book coming out.

NP: I finished it in November 2009. And now I’m almost finished with a novel. And I’m publishing it myself through the Kindle store. [Read a sample chapter from Jewball here.]

YN: Cool. Why did you decide to do it that way?

NP: A novel about Jewish basketball players in the 1930s, that’s more of a hit or miss proposition. There are ways to market these things but it requires more of a subtle touch. I think I have that audience and know how to reach them myself. My last novel sold poorly and I don’t have a track record as someone who sells a lot of fiction. Even though I’m happy with all the books I’ve written and I’m very happy with the one I’m about to finish.

YN: Have you been writing fiction consistently?

NP: I’ve written maybe a dozen or 15 short stories since Never Mind the Pollacks came out in 2003, but I mostly got on the memoir train because that’s what was paying, honestly. But my dream was never to be a confessional memoirist since I don’t have a lot of trauma in my life. The dream was always to be a fiction writer and it’s harder and harder to do if you’re not an established name. But I’m just putting this out there and seeing what happens. I might as well try.

YN: Might as well.

NP: What is it that LuluLemon says, “do something every day that scares you”?

YN: Right.

NP: Well, I don’t usually take my advice from a clothing company, but I suppose in it’s own way it makes sense as advice, right? I’m jumping into the void with this. But I’m used to that. My whole life is void jumping. Or chasm jumping. It’s nice to be writing something that has nothing to do with myself.  Characters a story and I can just write whatever the hell I want.

YN: It’s like wearing different shoes, not wearing the same shoes every day.

NP: It’s definitely a different pair of shoes. Cheap gym shoes from the 1930s. Historical novel set in the late depression era…

And, I tend to be a bit of a technophile and I see that this is where the world is going. I don’t know where it’s going to stop-–when a meteor hits it probably—but this is how the business is evolving and I’d like to be a part of it. I don’t want to be the last person to buy and iPad. Although I haven’t bought one yet.

YN: You don’t want to be a Luddite.

NP: I’m not a Luddite. I’m not afraid of —Richard, my yoga teacher, teaches that change is the only constant and your job as yogi is to know that change and act upon it skillfully. I’d like to think that my decision to self publish falls under that category.

Part of the problem with marketing Stretch was that it had to find its audience. Now it has, but I think it’s one of those things that’s going to have to gradually find its way into people’s hands. Some people are going to say this guy’s a fucking idiot. It’s happened before. And other people will read it and find a little bit of their own experience in there. You know?

I’ve come to realize my book represents the experience of a certain kind of yoga practitioner.

YN: Definitely. I think that’s also what makes it distinctive.

NP: The regular schmuck bumbling through it. Male and female.

YN: The hairy sweaty Jew?

NP: Okay, well first of all there are some hairy women, but I think I’ve had just as many female readers tell me they liked it.

YN: I loved it. But what I’m trying to say is the yoga comes through, but you come through, too, and that’s what makes it different because you have this distinct take.

NP: I just called it like I saw it. Like, what the fuck is this thing we are all doing.

YN: That’s the question we need to ask more!

NP: I think I know now why a lot better than I did then, even from when I published the book I know more now.

YN: What do you think the answer is?

NP: It’s the best system every devised to get people through life sanely. Our minds are so crazy and yoga was developed by many thousands of people for many thousands of years as a useful system for helping them live a sane, happy, and healthy life. It’s not a perfect cure for anything: you’re still going to have suffering, illness, and death, sadness. But it will affect you a lot less if you have a regular practice. I’m pretty certain of that.

And I’m certain that consistent practice over a long period of time without excessive expectations will yield excellent results. Even when I finished the book 2 years ago I didn’t really understand that so much.

YN: That’s a good answer. Does your son do yoga?

NP: He’s a grade-school kid in Los Angeles so yoga enters his life occasionally. But you know, who wants to do what their dad does?

YN: He’s not curious?

NP: Nah. When I say goodnight to him I semi-ironically bow to him and say ‘namaste.’ And he does the same thing to me and then he goes to sleep. And his teacher said, “You know, when Elijah’s done giving presentations he bows to the class and says, ‘namaste’ ironically.” I’m like, that’s my legacy: Ironic namaste.

YN: That’s perfect.

NP: I guess. There goes Alternadad asshole again.

YN: What’s up now for you and Stretch?

NP: I’m continuing down my yoga path for sure and I haven’t stopped trying to sell Stretch. I like the idea of going to other cities and meeting new people, and eating food and drinking beer, but I’m not the guy who is trying to pimp his yoga DVDs. I have no desire to be part of that corner of yoga culture. I’ve been tempted to try but I think it would be a disaster and a failure.

So instead I’m going to keep practicing and take opportunities as they come and enjoy whatever happens. I’ve only been practicing for 8 years. It’s not that long in the scheme of things. I’ll talk to you when I’m 60 and see where things are.

Protest or Party? Yoga as Political Theater or Giant Concert, your choice

According to the New York Times today, agitators in India are using hunger strikes—and yoga—to protest corruption in their government. While some people, such as Mr Anna Hazare, of the DMK political party are fasting to affect change, others such as  yoga guru Swami Ramdev, are planning mass yoga sessions.

Swami Ramdev, a yoga guru with political aspirations and hundreds of thousands of followers, has created another front of protest. Tents have been prepared at a campsite in New Delhi for a mass yoga session on Saturday followed by a hunger strike. Mr. Sibal and other top ministers met Swami Ramdev at New Delhi’s airport on Wednesday and spent nearly two hours trying in vain to persuade him not to protest. –NYTimes

photo c/o New York Times/ B.Mathur/Reuters

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, where we have not a thing to protest, and only joy in our hearts, yogis and music lovers are preparing for the second attempt at a ginormous public yoga class in the city. As you might remember—maybe you were there—last year’s Flavorpill event was rained out. This year, the Wanderlust team has taken over, and will be offering instruction by Anusara’s golden child, Elena Brower, Breakti’s creator Anya Porter, and Kula Yoga/Wanderlust director, Schuyler Grant at Pier 63 near 24th Street and the Westside Highway on June 7th. Music will be provided by New York’s favorite in-class musician, Garth Stevenson, and Earthrise Soundsystem.

Wanderlust at the Standard in Miami, 2011

From political theater to giant concert, appropriate use of yoga has once again proven to be hard to establish. But a lot of people do seem to think it’s more fun when attached to another agenda, and when practiced with a lot of other people. Maybe.

The Blue Tape

2011 Yoga Journal Conference, NYC
Part Deux

One of my favorite passages from Neal Pollack’s hilarious book Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude involves him going to a Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco. He describes it thus:

Lurching through the doors of the Hyatt, I entered a sea of crazy old ladies seeking their next kundalini high, as well as a decent number of smokin’ hot babes in tight lululemon pants. A few men floated about carefully, like Triassic-era furry mammals looking for eggs to gnaw not wanting to disturb the dominant species. Everyone seemed excited and awake. I was a midnight guy in the Valley of the Morning People.”

Pretty accurate.

He goes on to describe the sub-basement room his workshop takes place in, and the blue masking tape that marked “even rectangular spaces each large enough for a yoga mat and some miscellaneous props.”

I was in the middle of a mind-boggling lecture on Tantra when I remembered Pollack’s line about the tape. And as I looked around me, I realized—I was surrounded.

Blue tape at the YJ Conference keeps everyone in line

The blue tape was everywhere, in every lecture room and practice space. Fronts of rooms were taped, backs of rooms, even spaces that it was unlikely anyone would ever practice, such as beside the stage or right near the door. The only places that weren’t taped were the marketplace and the lecture hall (which did, however, look like a powder-blue tea cup).

Clearly, the blue tape is a pragmatic solution to human tendency towards chaos. And I admit it made me feel somehow safer from the throngs of people: I had space to put my shoes, my bag, my notebook, and pen. It gave me some private property, and acted as a psychological barrier in a radically impersonal space full of strangers.

Still, it did have an elementary school feel to it, like it was meant to help us to color more neatly between the lines. And it could not protect us from our thoughts, like, “that’s an unfortunate hair style” or “wish I had started yoga in the womb so I wouldn’t feel so behind now.”

Nor could the ubiquitous blue tape protect us from weird vibes or aromas, like my neighbor’s unbrushed-teeth smell that he blew on me as we did an excruciating IT band release in Bo Forbes’s “Mind-Body Flow: Crafting a Therapeutic Practice.”

more blue tape

Since Pollack had pointed out the tape—and it had lodged in my memory—it did add some levity to my endeavors at the conference. There I was, one of a thousand women and a hundred men flip-flopping around the Hilton Hotel, loaded with yoga mats, blankets, bags, water bottles and swag, like perky Spandex-clad pack-horses. We were searching for yoga knowledge—or just yoga fun—to be delivered in neat packages that appealed to our upper-middle class sensibilities (with a dash of the hippie dippie).

Who were we kidding? Were we for real?

Most of us were earnestly excited, but our questing also seemed a bit silly.

So maybe we do need help coloring between the lines, playing nice, and staying on point. “Hi, that’s MY Prana mat bag, don’t touch it,” or “Keep your eco-friendly, hand-dyed shoes on YOUR side of the blue tape, please.”

Now, now, kiddies.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

2011 Yoga Journal Conference, NYC
Part Une

This weekend in is the second Yoga Journal conference in New York (the first was in 2009), and through a stroke of good fortune I was able to attend. Not wanting to waste a single drop of my precious pass, I chose to do the Friday all-day intensive with Rod Stryker, creator of Para Yoga.

In other words, I would spend the entire day with a Tantric teacher instead of at my day job. You can imagine that my choice was not difficult: reviewing manuscript for a remedial English textbook, or learning about how to overcome my limitations by becoming a living embodiment of the divine. Hmm. I put in for a personal day, rolled up my blue piling yoga mat, and packed off to the Hilton Hotel in mid-town.

I had another agenda, too. Stryker is a long-time student of Panditji Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute where I’ve been doing the Living Tantra series since July 2010. I wanted to see how Stryker interpreted the teachings of Panditji—and Panditji’s teacher, Swami Rama—for American yoga people. Truth be told, I was having some trouble with the mysterious and magical stories of Tantra’s history and practices. How exactly was I supposed to conduct a fire ceremony, or the secret rituals? How did my urban Brooklyn life fit in with Tantra’s esoteric take on reality?

So here they all were again, Tantra’s basic ideas, but presented in the low-lit conference room of a corporate hotel, rather than in a vegetarian ashram in northeastern Pennsylvania. In Tantra, Styrker reminded us, we don’t make the self go away in order to have a spiritual practice. Rather, we alchemize ourselves so that the divine works through us. How do we attract divinity? Not by giving up worldly things, but by becoming more like the divine in our daily lives. Tantric asana practice is a discipline to refine your energy so that the alchemy can happen.

What about sex and death, you ask? Well, in the left-handed path, which is all about enjoyment, no desire is denied because all desires are expressions of the divine. In the left-handed path, you can have all the sex you want, but you might also meditate in a cremation ground by sitting on a corpse. Ewww.

Since many people are not always comfortable with corpses—and truthfully probably not so much with hedonistic sex either—they have to practice asana, pranayama, mantra and ritual to clear out their misconceptions of the Source and limitated conceptions of the Self. In other words, on the right-handed path, which emphasizes liberation, people have to work to align their desires with the divine, to know that there IS a source behind everything. And this source is beyond what we can conceive of with the rational mind. In the right-handed path, no ecstatic copulation—and no visits to graveyards—is required.

Stryker talked for most of the morning session, introducing the subject of “god” and all its forms at about the half an hour mark. “We have all these choices but they are not related, not integrated. It’s like going to several specialists and getting several opinions–it almost paralyzes you. In Tantra we integrate them.”

Then we practiced. Gentle asana—that reminded me very much of ViniYoga asana practices—with the emphasis on the breathing pattern. On the inhale bring the breath down the spine and relax the bandhas, on the exhale bring the breath up the spine and contract the lower two locks. We were trying to build fire in the belly, the fire of manipura chakra, where our issues get burned up and purified, and where our sense of agency originates.

We did this in standing poses, back bends, and forward extensions, even adding in the mantra, Om Agni Namaha—the mantra to stimulate and propitiate the fire at our navel center.

Then we sat for meditation.

By the time we broke for lunch—and again after the afternoon session—I was high as a kite, floating on a pulsing current that eliminated every thought and even the need to breathe. When I asked Stryker a question in person afterward, my eyes felt dilated like I’d become a wide-eyed alien who had just visited the optometrist. It seemed like light and energy were pouring through them, but Rod answered my question without seeming to notice. No matter, I will bathe everyone I meet with my Tantric-generated fire, I thought, walking unsteadily out into the glaring hallway of the enormous hotel.

Clearly that wasn’t going to last long. In the evening I was signed up for David Romanelli’s “Yoga & Chocolate” class. While “yoga & chocolate” might seem to qualify for the left-handed path, it wasn’t hedonistic at all. In fact, going from Stryker to Romanelli was like falling from the breathless heights of Kilimanjaro and landing with a thump in a Starbucks.

Not that the chocolates weren’t good—the Vosges chocolates were complex and intriguing, especially the vegan one with Oaxaca chilis. It was the yoga that was prosaic. Your basic sun salutation, your basic back bend, your basic forward fold. And the sprinkling of interesting factoids throughout the class felt calculated to deliver a message to a demographic to which Romanelli, a self-proclaimed “major Gemini,” assumed we belonged—the too busy, too distracted crowd who was out of touch with our emotions and our five senses.

Romanelli was a clever marketer, but his delivery was flat—and in fact, he read from his factoids from a script. He seemed happiest when he was embracing beautiful women—of whom he seemed to know a great many (I saw him embracing them all over the Hilton).

Still, the 100 or so women—and 8 or so men—in attendance thought that “Yoga & Chocolate” was the way to go, and who am I to question how people approach meaning in their lives? I’d just dropped in from Mars, after all.

Anti-Gravity Yoga

On a hot July day last summer, my adventurous friend Michele, who normally cooks at a research station in Antarctica, took me to Om Factory’s Anti-Gravity Yoga class.

I thought, no problem, I’ve done a lot of yoga, and even a lot of weird yoga. In fact, it would be a good addition to my repertoire, since I’ve never done yoga suspended in a large swath of orange silk.

Watch a video of it here: Anti Gravity Yoga at Om Factory

It was a lot of fun tumbling around in the hammock of fabric, twirling upside down, and swinging my body back and forth in some very creative interpretation of yoga poses (could you really call “that” triangle?).

It also stimulated a lot of abdominal and leg muscles I never knew I had since I was sore the next day. And sometimes it was scary. Falling backwards into the silk required a huge amount of trust—like standing on the high diving board as a little kid and praying that the water really would be there after I jumped.

In April, the NYTimes launched “Gym Class” as part of their Well column and video series, and Anti-Gravity Yoga was the first subject in their “interesting class that you were too intimidated to try” roster. According to the article,

AntiGravity Yoga was developed by Christopher Harrison, a former aerial acrobat and gymnast who found traditional yoga too hard on his injured wrists. The weightless poses can be used to strengthen the core as well as relieve aching joints and stretch tight muscles.

Or, as one commentator on the Gym Class blog said, “Wow! So this is what life is like when one has excessive disposable income….”