Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Life in the Straw Village

Basic Luxury in Kajuraho

It’s been an interesting process of getting used to living outside in India.

HI Kaj straw huts

The huts are exactly the same

“Living” means: sleeping, changing, writing, reading, resting, bathing, and answering nature’s calls IN STRAW HUTS. We have real flush toilets (as opposed to squat toilets), buckets for “showering,” and outside sinks (which makes for chilly teeth brushing in the pre-dawn hours when we stumble off to meditation).

HI Kaj wash sinks

There was never any soap at the sinks

“Outside” means: we have the illusion of privacy as well as some real shelter. That illusion is worth a lot.

But the huts are not warm. And many leak. We’ve had several loud and violent storms to test out their waterproofness—and mudproofness and damproofness. I’d give them about 50/50.

Huts inside

Inside our straw castles. Four to a hut! Mosquito nets strung between bamboo poles; industrial green carpet (over straw over mud) keeps out the worst of the damp.

 

You know a lot about your “eco hut”—and yourself— after two days of torrential rain in an area that is not supposed to have rain as the clay earth sluices down the paths and makes a mud dam in front of your hut.

 

HI Kaj straw village doorway

A strip of yellow silk in the doorway brightens up our huts

And the huts definitely do not protect us from the sounds of neighbors. Who knew that SO many people snore so loudly?

For us middle class Westerners, this way of living is a practice of austerity.

But as we’ve been reminded, for locals in Allahabad and Kajuraho, the way we are living is luxurious.

HI Kaj baths and toilets

Toilets and showers

I will admit that this is a step up from tent camping. I am writing this from inside my hut, for example, sitting at a metal table with a blue plastic tablecloth stretched over it. We have metal cots off the ground, and clothes lines, plus lawn-green carpeting to protect us from mud and dust.

And one thing I know: I can get attached to anything. Anything at all.

I got attached to the readily available WiFi in Kajuraho. Even the cold, cold nights, bathing outside from a bucket of was bearable if I had WiFi to make Facebook updates and write blog entries (only slightly kidding).

HI Kaj bucket bath vertical

You haul in hot water with one bucket, mix it with cold from the spigot, then pour over you with the cup provided. Bucket bath!

That disappeared in Kajuraho. But the bucket baths and cold temperatures remained. Wah-wa.

In Kajuraho, I got attached to hut 7 where I weathered the interminable storms. Hut 7 almost flooded in the mud sluice, was crowded with 2 women from Duluth, another from Chicago, and me. It was damp and damp and damp. And damp. Then musty. My bed was both sloped downwards and tilted to the side like a permanent Tilt-a-Whirl.

HI Kaj bucket bath close up

Bucket bath set up–close up. Basic, basic, basic.

And yet I felt anxiety when I had to move into hut 49.

(Now the question is: what do I care whether I’m in straw hut 7 or straw hut 49?! They are exactly the same, just positioned slightly differently towards the bathrooms. Still I got fixated for a few hours on how much worse hut 49 was going to be. I had established my patterns and I didn’t want to budge. This is the stuff I came to India to deal with?!?! Answer: yes.)

But after two or three days in hut 49, I had completely forgotten about the charms of hut 7.

So it goes.

HI Kaj campus flowers and tree

Campus gets pretty after torrential rains

 

Most of us have gotten comfortable with this quasi-camping set up.

Temperatures are getting warmer now and days are brighter. I don’t have to wear every single piece of clothing I brought to India when I go to bed. I don’t have to wait for a warm patch in the day to bathe (or just skip it for a few days until bathing is urgent).

I don’t mind doing laundry by hand. And every time I shower now, I’m sure to wash some undies. Life has become easier.

HI Kaj Silvie laundry

72-yr-old Sylvia does laundry by hand at the hot-water station

And there are some surprise boons. After all that rain, the desert campus has sprung into bloom. Ceramic pots of marigolds, cosmos, and asters line the paths and decorate the huts. The trees are sparkling green.

Birds have arrived in abundance: green parrots, eagles, sparrows, a large swallow-like bird, peacocks, neelkanth, and many many others that sing and chirp and whir. In fact, a pair of sparrows just flew into my hut!

HI Kaj garden cosmos

After the rains

At night the jackals howl their mysteriously poignant songs arching back and forth across the hills. The farmers answer them with their ghostly shrieks meant to scare away nilgai—the large antelope/deer/horse-like creature that tramples crops (the male is actually blue colored).

 

HI Kaj guest services hut

Himalayan Institute campus, Kajuraho

Most of us have forgotten our discomfort in the straw village, our Western privileges, proving that you really can get used to anything.

Even basic luxury can be luxurious.

HI Kaj Sherry Sivlie lunch in town

Sherry, Sylvia and I go into town for lunch–breaking out!

And now some people don’t want to go back to their easy showers and toilets, central heating and A/C.

You really can get attached to anything.

HI Kaj kunda at tree

Kunda (fire pit) at the special banyan tree

Letter from the Kumbha Mela

Published on Yoga City NYC, February 2013. The Kumbha Mela explained.

Thousands and thousands of people crossing makeshift pontoon bridges over the Ganges river became a familiar sight during my 10 day visit to Allahabad, India

The men carried walking sticks or pushed bicycles, while many women, dressed in dazzling saris, lead small children or elderly relatives. They walked in silence with a steady, quiet focus, their belongings bundled on their heads and backs because they were headed to the Kumbha Mela.

While there are small Melas every year throughout India, the one near Allahabad, where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers meet, is the most important and the most auspicious. This grand gathering happens only once every 12 years, with a Maha—or great— Kumbha Mela every 144 years (the last one was 2001).

Kumbha Mela

And of course, it is the largest. When I arrived, staying on the campus of theHimalayan Institute about a mile downstream from the main site, a million people had already taken up residence.

More problematic, it’s also the loudest, with countless PA systems blasting mantras, lectures, and “swa-has” for miles around, at all hours of the day and night. I got used to falling asleep to two or three of them chanting at top volume and completely at cross-purposes.

The incessant din added a very real challenge to my daily meditation practice. The banks of the Ganges were very noisy. Numbers swelled again on the auspicious bathing day of February 10th, that coincided with the new moon, a time of new beginnings.

In one day, 10 million people flooded the grounds. Over the month or so of the Mela, 100 million people were expected to visit, living in the makeshift tentcamps, or curled up at the side of the dusty dirt tracks, running shops, serving food to wandering sadhus, and policing the 8 square kilometer area.

For such an enormous “pop-up city” it was impressively peaceful. Saints, families, villagers poor and rich mingled. We never felt in danger, even in such huge throngs. In fact, our biggest hassle was Indian pilgrims taking photos of us Westerners, and even that was done in a very friendly way.

I had come to experience the energies of the crowds and the practices of the sages. But as I reckoned with my jet lag, the noise of the fair, and the exhaustingly huge gathering of people, I wondered what everyone was really coming for, and what it means to be a pilgrim.

Kumbha means “pot” and “mela” means fair: the story is that the demi gods, running out of the elixir of happiness, or amrit, joined with their enemies, the water demons, to churn the ocean and produce more of the heavenly nectar.

But when the nectar at last rose from the sea, the gods stole the amrit for themselves alone. A battle ensued until Vishnu intervened, whisking the valuable pot of nectar away. It took 12 days for Vishnu to escape—hence the 12 year lapse betweenMelas—hotly pursued by both angry parties.

The pilgrims crossing into the Kumbha Mela grounds were not concerned to hear the myth again—they already knew it. They might seek out a sage or take in a dance performance; but their main purpose was to bathe in the Ganges and be purified by her inexhaustible living waters.

And not just anywhere, but as close as possible to the Sangam—the confluence of three holy rivers, where auspicious energy is most concentrated at this time.

The Ganges, the mother and spiritual source, could not only wash away transgressions and karmic impediments, but also replenish the divine grace in our lives. The Yamuna river, representing worldly prosperity, helps to keep our home, work, and social lives to progress harmoniously.

Lastly, the mythical Saraswati river, important in Vedic times, but since disappeared underground, represents the  fortification of intuition and inner knowledge.

In other words, to bathe at the Sangam was like getting an extremely powerful recharge.

For Westerners, the massive number of people was undeniably exciting. Some in our group braved the highly toxic E. coli levels and dipped themselves in theSangam. Others just dipped their mala beads or sprinkled some of the holy water over their heads.

But the moment of highest spiritual buzz for me came outside of the official Melagrounds. On February 10th, the auspicious bathing day, senior teachers at the Himalayan Institute conducted a fire ceremony on campus, repeating a Durgamantra to help mitigate the fear and anger in ourselves—and in the world.

As we offered the samagri—the offering—to the sacred fire we chanted together in common purpose,  propitiating the forces of transformation and new growth, planting seeds of change. It was not an empty ritual; I could feel the energy we were creating.

One important element of meditation or spiritual practice is trustful surrender to the mysterious forces at work in our world. And feeling that palpably around me was worth all the effort of getting to India, the disturbance of the loud nights, the hot, dusty and exhausting Mela, and my initial bewilderment over what it meant to be a pilgrim. I felt fortified, and that, I believe, was the whole point.

Ganga Carnaval: Kumbha Mela by Night

Wrote this way back in February… and then lost access to the Internet for a good long while… Enjoy!

The night before the massive influx of pilgrims to the Kumbha Mela, Ali, Stewart, Cathy and I snuck off campus.  Feb 1oth was going to be an “auspicious bathing day”—a very special day to take a dip in the Ganges—under a new moon, a time to let go of the past—habits, events, troubles—and inaugurate new beginnings.

In fact, ten MILLION people were expected. One million were already on site. We wanted to go into the Kumba at night, to see a different Mela.

We wanted to go before the swelling masses became impassable. Not to mention potentially hazardous. (post script: one of the makeshift pontoon bridges across the Ganges collapsed, and some pilgrims did die…)

We also wanted to escape what has come to feel like a very pleasant and highly scheduled summer camp on the HI Allahabad campus.

Night friends at Sangam

Why not? says Ali

We set off at 5pm aftert signing out at the Himalayan Institute’s main gate, knowing that we would miss dinner. We walked the mile up the Ganges over uneven goat paths and piles of trash.

For the first time, my feet did not hurt in spite of my blisters. It was exciting to be out of the herd. We reached the first and second gates into the Mela in a buoyant mood.

Night gates at sunset

First gates — advertising for holy men is everywhere

We didn’t have to go far to encounter something spectacular: a steady line of pilgrims coming across the first bridge. They were  hunched under bags of bedding striving forward with their walking sticks.

It was sunset, and the sight of all those scarved heads and sandaled feet crossing the river at dusk with such purpose was pretty impressive.

It gave us all a deep feeling for the importance of the pilgrimage, the scale of it in people’s lives. There’s no way that other huge festivals—such as Burning Man or Brazil’s Carnaval—could have such a massive feeling of sweet purpose.

Night pilgrims bridge better

Setting sun illuminates pilgrims

Past the second gate and down a side road we entered the main grounds of the Mela. People were walking, bathing, attending talks, but most were cooking over wood fires.

Those who weren’t already encamped in a tent camp, simply slept bundled up person to person on the side of the road. The sheer number of people was astounding, and the vibe—so different from a few days before, in the afternoon—was of purposeful excitement.

Night cooking by river

The air was burning with smoke

We walked pretty easily through the masses of people streaming past us, no jostling, no harassment, except for the very gentle delight of every single Indian (it seemed) to have their photos taken. Or to take photos of us, the impossibly light skinned people.

“Single photo! Single photo!” shrieked the children we passed, waving madly at us. “Tata! Tata!” (tata = goodbye)

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

Walking through swarms of pilgrims

We didn’t go into any of the makeshift palaces that lit up the main streets  like Las Vegas, but we window-shopped.

In one, an allegorical play was underway (we understood nothing, but the costumes were fab).

In another much more modest one, a man with long wooden earrings was dancing a very feminine dance on a stage lined with male  musicians.

Night Mela spectacle

KM spectacles

In yet another, a group of very pale Westerners sat around a ceremonial fire (kund) with zombie expressions on their faces throwing offerings of herbs and flowers into the flames. We looked, but we didn’t taste.

Ali was eager for snacks since we’d missed dinner back on campus. Truth be told, we were eating so much (3 very good meals a day) that I was not hungry at all.

But the snack stand was interesting. Ali bought dried and spiced chick-pea sticks mixed with dried peas, served in little cones of Indian newspaper. Yummy.

Night snacks

Night snacks

Finally, our eyes were streaming from the fire smoke and the wandering around began to be painful. We were coughing and a wee bit concerned to get back to campus not too late after our agreed-on time.

For a disorienting 1o minutes we argued about directions and took a few wrong turns (to some dark and smelly corners of the Mela)—but then Stewart expertly guided us back to the road we needed.

We arrived back—smokey and tired, but exhilerated—just before 10pm. And it seemed that back in the Mela many of the more energetic and vocal camps were just getting their kirtans started.

The chanting, singing, preaching, and “swa-ha”s went on all night, as usual. They were loud and fervent and clashing and wonderfully chaotic.

Ah, KM, so much to offer, so hard to decipher.

Night sunset fishing nets

Sunset downstream from the Mela

Holiday Presents (Books!) for Your Yogi

Time for presents! What do you get the yogi on your holiday list?

What I have to suggest has nothing to do with LuluLemon or your local studio, but rather books. Books!

Three notable books come across the Yoga Nation desk this fall. Should you be fortunate enough to have yogis—plural— to shop for, there’s likely a match for everyone.

For your discriminating reader at any point in their yogic career, I suggest Benjamin Lorr’s engrossing memoir Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga.

I believe this is Lorr on the cover

I believe this is Lorr on the cover–the Pakistani guy at the deli said, “that’s not art? that’s real person?”

Lorr went from no-good, overweight drunk to hooked on Bikram yoga. Yeah, that stinky hot yoga that people rave about. I mean hooked— he went deep, did the teacher training, entered the notorious competitions, experienced Bikram and his coterie up close and in the flesh.

While the book is a great story, it is truly remarkable how much time Lorr spends in  describing and justifying pain.  He cites research, talks to experts, but after all his hard work, I actually wanted him to do something simple, like distinguish between the intense discomfort of stretching something stiff and the sharp pain of injury, something everyone in yoga can relate to.

I confess that I worried about him—about the fate of his body and his sanity (and the state of yoga). At the same time, I was fascinated by his obsessive fascination and kept reading to the end.

Lorr goes to great lengths to disabuse you, reader, of your quaint notion that yoga is not meant to be competitive. It is, he says. In fact, it can be anything we want it to be. There isn’t a script (except in Bikram teacher-training where there is a very strict script).

And while he admires Bikram Choudhury for his knowledge and skill, he clearly has mixed feelings about Bikram as an undeniable megalomanic. (Example: Bikram requires that his teacher-trainees stay up til 3, 4, or 5am watching Bollywood movies just so he doesn’t have to be alone.)

Even if this is a wack story, it’s a highly enjoyable read. Lorr is a gifted writer. And he gives you lots to think about. Recommended.

 

Next up, and probably best suited to your newbie yogi, is Brian Leaf’s memoir, Garden StateMisadventures of a Garden State Yogi. The book’s subtitle—My Humble Quest to Heal my Colitis, Calm my ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness—promises a strange brew, and even several chapters in, I was trying hard to peg the flavor of this cocktail.

Leaf tells of his beginnings in yoga (and eventual journeys and questings) in a self-deprecating, slapstick voice that would be well-suited for stand-up. (Yoga stand up? Why not?!). And so this book might appeal beginning yogis who will be able to relate to his foibles.

In the end, too much bud-duh-bah becomes distracting in book form. Leaf offers advice throughout and appendixes of hands-on stuff at the back.

Watch the book video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=LcYFYjnU9Cw

 

21st Century Yoga

Talk it out

Next, for the yogi intellectual is 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice. A collection of essays edited by It’s All Yoga Baby’s editrix Roseanne Harvey and former Elephant Journal blogger Carol Horton, this self-published collection gives critical perspective on yoga culture today.

Essays range from how the yoga scene reinforces negative stereotypes of women’s bodies, how yoga needs to include activism, speak to non-violence, how it can heal addition etc. Warning: a lot of essays have two-part titles that include colons (the punctuation mark), e.g. “Yoga for War: The Politics of the Divine.”). You know what that means. Graduate school!

The first essay absolutely infuriated me with its mushed up logic, but otherwise these are conversations the yoga world needs to be having. At long last. Amen.

Finally, forget about William Broad’s The Science of Yoga from earlier this year unless you want to confuse your yogi. Broad may be a senior editor at the New York Times, but he’s no yoga expert. Gary Kraftsow of American Viniyoga Institute expertly tore him a new you-know-what at the Yoga Journal Conference in NYC, 2012. In front of an audience of, oh, a thousand or more. Problematic understanding of Tantra and yoga’s origins (Lorr is much better on this point) and interesting but shady research overall.

That’s it! Happy holidays!

(And drop a comment here or a tweet me @yoganation to let me know what you bought your yogi this year, book or no… )

 

…and this just in: One More Book!

This just in! Got a note this morning from surfer yogi dude, Jaimal Yogis, that his new book will be out January 8th.

Yogis’s 2009 book Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea took a koan-ic approach to the chillest sport ever, as he searched for enlightenment on the waves.

In his new book, The Fear Project, Yogis hopes to answer this question (click to watch):

Jaimal Yogis Fear

Since I don’t have the book in my hands—but I can vouch for Yogis as a writer—I’m giving you the marketing copy below (you know, the stuff you’d read on Amazon or Library Journal).

Great gift for your the surfer yogi in your family?

This provocative, entertaining story follows Yogis as he navigated his own fears, from the monsters under his childhood bed to his personal quest to surf bigger and more difficult waves, culminating in northern California Mavericks—huge, crushing (and sometimes deadly) waves in the dead of winter. The Fear Project explores the complicated spectrum of why we feel afraid: fear of loss, fear of not being good enough, fear of being alone, fear of being trapped in the wrong job, fear of not being able to realize our dreams, fear of pain, and ultimately, fear of our own mortality.

Yogis embarks on a memorable journey as he seeks answers from neuroscientists, meditation teachers, psychologists, and elite athletes. As he learns how to identify and overcome his own fears, he shares the secret to unlocking a sense of renewed possibility and a more rewarding life.

The Fear Project is a captivating look at the age-old lesson that by recognizing our fears and embracing them—instead of running away—we can harness fear’s powerful energy to find true happiness and fulfillment.

Sign of the Times? OM Yoga to Close After 15 Years

On Sunday, yoga doyenne (and former Cyndi Lauper choreographer) Cyndi Lee gave the closing remarks at last weekend’s Yoga Journal 3rd conference in New York.

By Monday—the day after the conference—she announced, via email to long-time students, that the studio had lost its lease and would be closing by the end of June.(Read the announcement on the studio’s Web site.)

Lee, who established OM in 1997 on 14th street, said the landlord at 826 Broadway, OM’s home above The Strand bookstore for about 7 years, didn’t give her an option to renew. According to an interview on Well+Good:

She gave us 90 days notice and rented it to someone else. She just didn’t want a yoga studio there anymore.

According to some long-time NYC yogis, OM had begun to lose its fire a little while ago. Once-loyal students had already moved on to other studios or classes that seemed eager to move with the changing trends of yoga.

Still, the pioneer studio had nurtured beloved NYC teachers such as Margi Young, Christy Clark, Lippy Orem, Joe Miller, and Brian Liem, and gave others such as Brooklyn maverick Jonathan FitzGordon his start.

It also was one of the first to explicitly bring yoga asana practice and Buddhist meditation techniques together. Lee frequently hosted her Tibetan teacher, and held workshops by David Nichtern, music producer and senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage (and Lee’s husband), and her step-son, Ethan Nicthern, author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence and founder of the popular Interdependence Project.

Teachers and students recite the dedication of merit at the end of (most!) classes, offering their work to the greater good of all beings.

OM's "Earth" studio

OM is not completely going away—it’s transforming its teachings and services into more of a “homeless” or online-based studio. Lee and her senior teachers will continue to give workshops and trainings, although there are speculations that some may branch off altogether.

For now, enjoy the last 2 months of this breezy and popular studio that trained a lot of eager new teachers, brought teachers as diverse as Judith Lasater and Meredith Monk to students, and gave a very chill American spin to a practice that can be be altogether too many things to too many people.

Get Real: Controversial Writer talks about “The Science of Yoga”

New York Times senior science writer, William J. Broad came under fire in early January for his article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. In it, he recounted shocking stories and studies of yoga-related injuries. The article enraged parts of the yoga community who felt it scared newcomers and discredited yoga.

As provocative as the article was, Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga, is solidly researched—and fascinating. He reviews 150 years of studies, giving readers a very good idea of the scientifically measured benefits (healing, inspiration, sexual power) and the dangers (physical injury, group thinking) of yoga asana practice.

I had the chance to interview WJB about the whole experience.

YN: Were you surprised by the response to the NYTimes article?The Science of Yoga by William Broad

WJB: I was surprised by lots of things. On the one hand there was lots of email about, “if you think that’s bad, let me tell you my horror story.” Spinal infarcts, vertigo, that kind of thing. But I also got extremely un-yogic responses like the bitter invective from a 30-year veteran yoga teacher who said, “Go fuck yourself,” and a yogini in L.A. who said, “You are a jerk, you don’t know anything about yoga.”

YN: Do you attribute this to the growing pains of what you call Yoga 2.0, “the modern variety” of yoga, especially in the West?

WJB: I hope that’s what it is! That’s part of my naive optimism. Science demonstrates lots of benefits of yoga—neuro-transmitters that help your mood, help your sex life and so on. The science also clearly demonstrates that yoga as we know it contains alluring myths such as, that yoga helps you lose weight, or it’s the only exercise you need, etc. This just isn’t true.

I hope the outcry is part of the process of starting a conversation. And I’m hopeful that there’s a growing realization that yoga can be better. Which for some people is a contradiction. They think, yoga is ancient and what can be better than that? But the science says that there are issues and it can be better.

Another surprising aspect of the feedback has been the depth of the reform movement. I had no idea. People using props, Iyengar teachers tailoring poses to people rather than the other way around. There are dozens of groups, schools, and styles that are working hard to provide this evolutionary agenda. That delighted me.

YN: So the reform movement would be more in the direction of Yoga 3.0 or 4.0.

WJB: Of course, those are arbitrary numbers. Yoga is this thing that’s being born all around us.

YN: What were some of your favorite “me too” stories from the letters you received?

WJB: Some of them moved me almost to tears. Two people who stand out are former studio owners, who say, ”Woah, you ain’t kidding. Do we have things to tell you,” such as a lifetime of surgery and therapy on their own spines. In one case, one of them had been working with celebrity yogis, creating curriculums. She was forming very visible programs and was very much in the mainstream.

YN: Speaking of reform, have you heard of International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT)?

WJB: I talk about IAYT in the chapter on healing. For 3 years I was a member. I’d send them my membership fee and they’d send me a credential with gold fancy lettering. I’ve seen them hanging in yoga studios—I hope they stop that practice because it’s just about the $75, not about having an actual diploma.

To their credit—because what I want is for yoga to become more professional—they are trying to create standards and schools with standardized curriculum. That’s great! I’m hoping for yoga doctors, myself. I think it’s an outrage that we spend 10s of billion dollars on fix-this, fix-that pills when anyone who does yoga seriously knows it’s a better way. Yoga done right is grown up. It says, “I take responsibility for myself and I have control over what I do” in a way that popping pills doesn’t.

So, I applaud them but on the other hand they did send me three fake diplomas

YN: So you think they don’t go far enough.

WJB: There’s a lot of guru worship out there and cultish schools finely dividing themselves into factions and sticking to what they think is the truth. That’s why science is so powerful because it looks at what is real and what is not real. It can be more objective.

The Science of Yoga is the first book to look at the century and a half of science on yoga. The science can illuminate a lot of what are bogus claims and what are understated truths.

YN: It seems like you’re saying that yoga is both much better and also worse than we thought. It’s much more extreme—handle with care!

WJB: Exactly. In my own practice, I did it for stress management. But fundamentally, yoga is much more extreme than a stress management system. As a science journalist I was blown away by the mysteries of the practice.

YN: Can you give an example?

WJB: How low can the human metabolism go while maintaining a level of consciousness? Is suspended animation possible? We can actually go into a deeper hibernation that a turtle or a bear—that’s quite amazing.

How possible is continuous bliss—sexual, or whatever you want? Some people can so stir their inner fire that they enter these states of continuous ecstasy that is allied with sexual ecstasy. Possibly these are states of enlightenment.

YN: You say that you started to research in 2006—did the subject matter require more research than you expected?

WJB: I thought I was going to do it in 9 months but it took 5 years. In many cases, the science was more difficult than I thought.

The sexual chapter alone took 3 years. There was some evidence to wrestle with. Some research said that yoga makes sex hormones decline. That wasn’t intuitively right to me and had not been my experience. I put that away for a while. When I’d go back to it, I’d still think that it didn’t add up. Then some advanced yogis talked to me about continuous bliss and all kinds of stuff, and then things started falling into place. But it took time.

YN: Speaking of sexual bliss, I noticed that you refer to Tantra only as a sex cult. The Himalayan Institute, where I’ve been studying, takes pains to separate left and right-handed Tantra. You don’t do that. Was this a conscious choice?

WJB: It’s very much in their interest to separate left and right handed, isn’t it? Tantra is a muddy subject. There’s layer after layer of symbolic misrepresentation. It’s gets so convoluted and strange—it’s a deep well.

YN: It strays into the magical, for sure.

WJB: Tantra gets into magic and trickery, frauds and pretexts for having fun. And they call it spirituality. Then there are serial philanderers such as Muktananda and Swami Rama, their 60-yr old bodies humming with vitality and they’re going down on any woman who’s willing—it’s bizarre.

How can they rationalize that appalling behavior? There’s lots of literature about the hard effects of betraying that doctor-patient relationship. There are women traumatized by these swamis: he was their God and their God kept going down on them and doing these weird things!

YN: It’s hard to understand—puzzling and disappointing.

WJB: And yet it’s worth meditating on in the sense that it’s real so we don’t want to hide from it.

YN: Your parameters for “yoga” didn’t include much meditation and pranayama. I’m sure you know of the research studies done by Jon Kabat-Zinn (on mindfulness meditation) and Richard Miller (on yoga nidra/iRest). What was your thinking there?

WJB: Initially, I wanted to have the research to be physically-based, but then my research went over into neurological areas such as in the muse and sex chapter. There’s a hugely overlooked area in what yoga does as a powerful stimulus to creativity, for example.

It’s also because it’s the way the industry goes right now—so much of the yoga we do is physical and doesn’t tolerate any meditation or pranayama. This is not Patanjali’s 8-fold path. It may be a misrepresentative slice of what got shipped out from India.

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!