culture

Letter from the Kumbha Mela

As published on Yoga City NYC

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).

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 between Melas—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.


As published on Yoga City NYC

Between Poses, a Barrage of Pickup Lines

STRETCH AND FLIRT  Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

STRETCH AND FLIRT Many women are familiar with the seedy character in the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” video, above.

The Phenomenon of Inappropriate Yoga Guy

THE words “Do you come here often?” are not sweet nothings when you are going into final relaxation during a yoga class. Nor do most yoga practitioners welcome someone who flirts shamelessly as mats are positioned during the lull before the teacher arrives.

Now, a popular online video starring a lech named Ogden has the yoga community chuckling in recognition and talking about the problem of men who come to studios in search of phone numbers rather than enlightenment.

The comedy sketch, aptly named “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” has racked up nearly 1.8 million views since its debut on YouTube in June — no doubt the biggest hit to date for GoPotato.tv, an online comedy network in Los Angeles, which produced the video starring Avi Rothman.

Wearing a goofy headband, Ogden “Oms” far too loudly, brags about the retreats he has attended in Nepal and Mexico, and makes eyes at Kimberly, a buxom long-haired beauty, during class. He even grabs her hips to perform an adjustment (a correction usually done discreetly by a teacher).



Hilarious as it is, “Inappropriate Yoga Guy” raises a delicate issue that the video now has people discussing openly: that while the majority of yogis are respectful and friendly, a handful of interlopers use classes to hit on a succession of lithe, toned regulars. More than a dozen students and teachers and six studio owners interviewed for this article said they knew an Ogden-type character.

“There’s always a guy who wants to put his mat next to the hot girl,” said Hillary Raphael, 31, a writer based in Washington. Ms. Raphael, in her 20 years of practice, has found inappropriate yoga guys so prevalent in studios that she wove them into her novel, “Backpacker,” to be published next month by Creation Books.

Yoga regulars aren’t prudes; rather most of them abide by some unspoken rules (such as no talking or no looking around) that some newcomers unwittingly break in pursuit of comely dates.

Ms. Raphael described an experience she had during a vinyasa class she used to attend at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon in Manhattan. “All you could hear was people’s steady breathing,” she said. “Yet this guy next to me was trying to strike up a conversation the whole time.

”The man, who was in his early 40s, used a loud stage whisper to ask about Ms. Raphael’s hobbies. “You could hear people’s breath sagging and stopping,” she said. “They couldn’t believe it.”

Other men are even bolder. Stephanie King, 40, a jewelry designer who practices yoga five times a week in Los Angeles, said she has had cringe-worthy encounters during her 20 years of practice. In one instance, a fellow regular Ms. King had met in passing approached her after a power yoga class and asked if she had enjoyed her practice. She had. Then, apropos of nothing, he asked if she wanted to be his lover.

Ms. King calmly told the man she would think about it. After a particularly intense practice, it can take a moment to regroup and get your social bearings. But once at her car, she called him and said, “I just want to let you know that I’m going to pass on being your lover.”

Her politeness masked annoyance. “I was put out because he just ruined my blissful feeling after class,” she said.Another time, an attractive man stretched his hand out during a floor twist until it rested on Ms. King’s breast; he removed his hand when asked.

“If you’re going to a yoga studio to pick up girls, or boys for that matter, you’re not doing yoga,” said Lama Sumati Marut, 54, president of the Yoga Studies Institute in Tucson.

Yoga, done seriously, is a discipline designed to achieve enlightenment in this lifetime, he said.

Needless to say, not everyone who drops into a yoga class is on a spiritual path. Consider the women at Yoga Works in Midtown Manhattan who can’t help flirting with Steve Eisenberg, much to his delight. “It’s a very social environment,” said Mr. Eisenberg, 38, a consultant who helps companies create digital media.

“They’ll say, ‘I’ve seen you around,’ and start chatting,” added Mr. Eisenberg, who is single and said he enjoys the attention.

The question is: What responsibility does a studio or a teacher have if one student is making another uncomfortable?

Some instructors like Kelly McGonigal, 29, who teaches at Stanford University and at the Avalon Art and Yoga Center in Palo Alto, Calif., take matters into their own hands.

“I had a popular class that some of the regulars stopped showing up to because a guy was relentlessly hitting on them,” said Dr. McGonigal, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and edits the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. She confronted the overeager student in question, and he backed off, saying it was all a misunderstanding.

“He didn’t realize that he was perceived as hitting on people when he invited them out to dinner or to parties,” she said.

Teachers, who are most likely to notice misbehavior, are the ones who should aim to make their classes safe havens free of distractions, said Judith Hanson Lasater, president of the California Yoga Teachers Association.

But in Dr. McGonigal’s case, that was not possible. “It was happening outside of the classroom,” she said.

It was only after a chance encounter on the street with two of her students that Dr. McGonigal found out “they had stopped coming because they didn’t want to see that guy.”

Having an outlet for complaints would help, said Dr. Lasater, who has a Ph.D. in East-West psychology.

Most studio staff agree that teachers dating their students is a difficult situation at best, and exploitative at worst. But there is little consensus about student come-ons. After all, is asking for a phone number in a yoga studio any different than swapping digits across treadmills?

Some say yes. Trolling for dates at yoga studios strikes a lot of regulars as tacky and reprehensible — even to some bachelors.

“Why would I stare down a girl in yoga class?” said Christopher Porzio, 36, a photographer in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who practices at least four times a week. “People are coming to help themselves, to get more comfortable. Why rob them of their comfort?”

For others, it is a gray area. Fred Busch, 32, the owner of Miami Yogashala, knows that some male and female members actively scope out dates at his center. He is uncomfortable with it but, he said, “there’s no law against talking to someone.”

To confuse matters, some centers foster dating. For instance, the Joy Yoga Center in Houston offers singles classes once a week, an hourlong vinyasa practice followed by snacks and socializing. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of the participants are men.

The Flow Yoga Center in Washington already has a class on Thursday night nicknamed “social flow,” after which students go for cocktails, and has plans for speed dating in its tea lounge.

But the downside is that one student glomming on to another can dampen a studio’s atmosphere. That is what happened at the Dallas Yoga Center in Texas, when a 40-something man’s overtures disturbed some female students. As soon as studio staff noticed the man’s unsettling behavior, the director, David Sunshine, took the man aside for a heart-to-heart. “We don’t mingle the dating scene with yoga,” Mr. Sunshine said. “We focus on quality yoga teaching.”

Plenty of singles don’t mind having another yogi propose dinner. Elana Wertkin, 31 of Park Slope, Brooklyn, went a few dates with a cute guy she met in a neighborhood class.

“We walked out at the same time and he said ‘Let’s go for a smoothie,’ ” said Ms. Wertkin, a documentary film producer.

But her interest in him was soon cut short. On their third date, he confessed that part of the reason he loved yoga class was watching women lie on their backs, legs spread.

“I had to stop going to that studio for a long time after that,” Ms. Wertkin said.