Archive for May, 2011

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….”