All Things Considered tracks The Great Oom

Earlier this spring Columbia Journalism professor Robert Love published his book The Great Oom, The Improbably Birth of Yoga in America (Viking Adult, $27.95). This biography chronicles  Pierre Bernard's transformation from an Iowa-born nobody into a radical leader of mind-body consciousness--in the late 19th century. According to this NPR story, contemporary yogis have Bernard to thank for the existence of yoga in America. All Things Considers interviews Love on this fascinating story in which author Robert Love tells NPR's Guy Raz how Bernard weathered early rumors of rampant sex and drug use, and later an arrest, to lay the foundation for an empire. Listen to the interview with Robert Love on NPR here (opens an MP3 file).

Big Success in Albany! But pressure still on

This just in! From Yoga for New York action committee:"Success! Terrific Success! The vote in the NYS Senate Higher Education Committee was a unanimous "YES" in support of S5701A - protecting yoga teacher training from burdensome and unnecessary government regulation and licensing.

Now what? More Committees to get through (remember in school learning about how a bill becomes a law - were are in it!!)  --- yup democracy requires a lot of work - we will keep you posted, of course, as working collaboratively on this is how we protect yoga!

What must we do now to keep the heat on? * Please Call Senator Carl Kruger, the Chair of the NYS Senate Finance Committee, the next Committee the bill is before @  (518) 455-2460* You will be connected to a representative of Senator Kruger who will take your message for the Senator.

Here’s the message script:

"My name is  _________________ I am calling Senator Kruger because he is the Chair of the Finance Committee. I urge his support for S.5701A which will protect yoga teacher training from burdensome government regulations, unfunded expenses on local government and ensure that yoga studios stay in business. Thank you"

What else do we need?

Very important: funding and donations to make sure the hard work in the State's capital continues.  Want to know how to donate or ideas for raising funds? Email action@yogaforny.org

Yoga 2009: 10 Highlights

What happened last year?

Did it pass like a kidney stone or like savasana? Lots of subtle changes for me personally, and a big leap into the blogosphere for Yoga Nation. Part of me wishes I had a time machine to go back ten years (if I knew then, what I know now...) and another part looks forward to the madness and the mystery of a new year.But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's see what happened in 2009....

1. Fierce Club opened in Nolita. Sadie Nardini, of Bon Jovi yogi fame, not only opened her own kick-ass studio in Nolita last March, but later in the summer she also joined up with YAMA, an agenting enterprise for enterprising yoga teachers. Yes, folks, the future is here...

2. The movie, Enlighten Up!: A Skeptic's Journey into the World of Yoga, launched to mostly positive reviews (and some grumbling from yoga teachers) proving that yoga can entertain Americans for at least an hour and a half on the big screen. Director/yogini, Kate Churchill, and skeptic/subject, Nick Rosen, tussle and tumble around the world looking for the truth about yoga

.3. Inappropriate Yoga Guy "Edited" Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal spoofed itself in this 5-part online mini-series in which the unforgettable, and wildly inappropriate, Ogden, took over the inimitable magazine offices as a hazardous (and sometimes naked) "guest editor." Went live April Fool's Day.

4. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois passed. One of three Indian grandaddies of modern, Western yoga, 93-year-old Pattabhi Jois, passed away in May, and was fetted through the early summer. The memorial held at Donna Karan's Urban Zen headquarters on June 14 in the West Village created even bigger buzz than the first ever NYC Yoga Journal Conference in May.

5. Licensing Issue ravaged New York---and is not over. Should yoga studios pay large sums of money to New York state to be "licensed" to train yoga teachers? Widely seen as a pitiless money-grab, this proposed legislation threatens to shut down many tiny yoga studios that rely on teacher-training programs for basic income. (For this issue, yoganation was also a momentary guest-blogger on the illustrious YogaDork.)

6. On the other hand, Brent Kessel made clear that yoga and money can live happily together. Financial advisor and long-time ashtanga-yoga practitioner, Kessel wrote a practical, inspiring and possibly profitable book called It's Not About the Money (which it never is: it's always about the junk in your head). Read my interview with him on Frugaltopia.

7. The inaugural Wanderlust Yoga and Music Festival rocked Lake Tahoe in July. This ingenious festival blasted open indie minds and took over taste-making in the yoga world. Who said yoga can't be radically cool? Driven by yoga and music-exec power couple from Brooklyn, Wanderlust will happen in three locales in 2010. Thank you, Yoga Journal (San Francisco), you may now hand over the reigns. The young uns' (uh, Brooklyn) got it from here.

8. Celebrity Yoga Teachers---Problem? In late August, YogaCityNYC sent me to report on the Being Yoga conference upstate. The question: Is a media-friendly yoga teacher the natural outcome of yoga’s presence in America’s consumer culture? The peaceful yoga crowd at Omega had a lot to say. READ my final article. .....(One source said: “I've never had a PR agent or invited myself somewhere. Everything has happened because of the shakti manifesting in me.” The next day I got a message on Twitter inviting me to review her latest DVD.)

9. BKS Iyengar turned 91. Really, you need to see Enlighten Up! the movie just for the scenes of Iyengar talking about the meaning of yoga---not empty New Age spirituality, but real internal work, with a few beads of sweat and social service thrown in. For his 91st birthday, this tremendous force of a man requested that students hold a fundraiser to benefit his ancentral village of Bellur. If everyone gave $3, more people could eat.

10. The Yoga Clothing Wars continued with lots of news about LuluLemon throughout 2009. Their stock was up, their stock was down. We loved them, we were peeved. Mostly we were conflicted about the giant success of a giant "women's activewear" company. Good news: they have excellent yoga clothes for men. More good news: they are inspiring small yoga clothing companies, too. More good (-ish?) news: they are EVERYWHERE. Planet Lulu!!

HAPPY 2010, yogis and yoginis! Here's to a happy, healthy, inspired, productive, restful, and OM-ing new year.

Yoga Licensing Issue: My *July* Update on Yoga Dork

My update, now up on Yoga Dork! My update on the hot issue of whether New York State will continue to target yoga teacher training programs to make them license-able under the State Education Department.Find out what's been happening---the good news (YANY is born!), the interesting news (Leslie Kaminoff writes a Declaration of Independence for Yoga), and the weird news (NYState returns pounds of paperwork to a studio---unopened!).Go to Yoga Dork, a blog I follow and admire, to see my guest post on this issue.Previous posts:New York Times Reports on Licensing Issue June update on Yoga DorkNamaste, y'all!

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois--The Big Memorial

On May 18th, one of the three biggest influences on yoga in the West, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915 - 2009), passed away in his home of Mysore in South India just short of his 94th birthday. This is no longer news. However, the outpouring of memorials and testimonials from every corner of the yoga world continues to be news. (Update, June 8: Pattabhi Jois remembered in New York Mag's Intelligencer section this week, too.)

From BKS Iyengar and his most senior teachers in the US, to yoga bloggers and more Americanized yogis (like Madonna? that link was to a blog called, "Absolute Madonna"), many have been paying homage to this larger-than-life man who not only exerted enormous influence on what has become Western yoga, but liked to shop on Canal Street and wear Calvin Kline breifs.As New Yorker writer, Rebecca Mead, said in her 2000 article, The Yoga Bums, Jois "is perhaps the last person you would expect to own a framed photograph of Gwyneth Paltrow." Jivamukti Yoga School in New York held a fire ceremony the day after his passing, led by the inimitable Manorma, followed by 12 days of continual chanting.

Tidbits from Guruji's biography:

The first Westerner (not an American) studied with Pattabhi Jois in 1964; the first American in 1972. In 1975, Jois and his son Manju made their first trip to America. His web site says that, "Guruji has, for 63 years, been teaching uninterruptedly this same method that he learned from Krishnamacharya in 1927." Tias Little, founder of Prajna Yoga, writes, from a workshop in Antwerp, Belgium: "His passing is indeed a considerable loss to the yoga world, for not only did he have mastery of the yoga asanas and have the shakti to transmit this extremely formidable and rigorous practice to all those who walked into his shala, but he was a master of the language underlying the yogic teachings. ... With Pattabhi Jois' passing not only do we lose a great hatha yoga master, we lose a solid link in the chain of direct transmission of scripture learned by heart."

Eddie Stern, founder of Ashtanga Yoga New York, who invites us all to join next weekend to remember his teacher, writes: "Among the great joys of the last years of his life was that he became reacquainted with his contemporaries, including Mr. Iyengar, Mr. Desikachar, A.G. Mohan, and Swami Dayananda.  In the spirit of the renewed friendships of these great yoga masters, we would like to extend and invitation to you, and to every yoga school in the NYC area, to come join us on June 14th, at 6 p.m., in remembering and celebrating the very great flash of lightening that was Pattabhi Jois.  In doing so, we honor the spirit of yoga which, in the scriptures, is compared to a great tree that provides shelter and shade to all who stand under it."

So here it is. Deets for the Big Memorial in New York: June 14, 6pm at 711 Greenwich Street in the West Village. Please contact Alexandra Seidenshaw (201-259-9933, seidenshaw@mac.com) to RSVP. Everyone will be there. Be there, too! Witness a piece of yoga passing into history. Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah Salutations to that GuruPranamah

50 Years of Yoga: The Author of "The World's Religions"

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

Huston Smith has done yoga every morning for the last 50 years. Sorry---who?!?! According to Newsweek, Huston Smith is, "arguably been the most important figure in the study of religion over the past five decades." So go look that up. Okay, since I know you won't, I'll tell you: In 1958, as a professor of religion, Smith authored a survey of major belief systems--Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and indigenous religions. Hence, The World's Religions."...in his day, Smith was doing something revolutionary. Without oversimplification or condescension, Smith introduced Americans to the notion that the world is full of all kinds of believers and that an educated person might learn a thing or two from another's faith. "The World's Religions" has sold 2.5 million copies since publication. It has been reprinted more than 60 times."A decade or so later he started doing yoga. In fact, Newsweek reports that he practiced forms from each of the religions he explicates---yoga, Islamic prayer, Zen meditation, Christian prayer, etc---believing all are viable and lead to the same source. And pretty fun to try, too!He used to demonstrate lotus pose on TV.But now, at 90, with osteoporosis, he's grateful to get into half lotus.

Enlighten Up! The Quest for a Story

“At teacher preview screenings so far there’s always someone who gets angry,” says Kate Churchill, writer, director, and producer of Enlighten Up! A Skeptic's Journey into the World of Yoga, a yoga documentary that premieres in New York on April 1, 2009.

By teachers, she means yoga teachers.

In 2004, Churchill, a die-hard yogini, chose yoga-skeptic Nick Rosen to go in search of answers to the questions many people ask about yoga: what is yoga? and what can yoga do for me? Kate directs Nick's quest, selecting places to visit, books to read. The journey becomes an accelerated initiation that progresses from first yoga classes in Manhattan to the homes and ashrams of sages worldwide. Both Kate and Nick wonder: will Nick shed his skepticism?

While there is also a lot of laughter at the teacher screenings, Churchill says, some yoga teachers think the film is superficial. “They think the movie is belittles yoga.”

You just want to say, lighten up folks.

Personally, I found the device (skeptic against believer) effective—and probably the best way to make yoga appealing to non-enthusiasts. Still, I wondered why Churchill didn’t make a documentary of herself searching for these gurus?

Churchill, who began making documentaries for TV in 1995, is a long-time yoga practitioner (4x a week under normal conditions, every day under stress). However naively (she says herself), some time before 2004 she wanted to find a truly enlightened being. This yogi would be the last word in yoga and would put her on a direct path to samadhi, or as the Buddhists call it, nirvana: enlightenment.

When the opportunity to make a film arose, she considered it a chance to find that being. The only tiny little teensy-weensy obstacle would be shaping her own quest into a compelling story, while using something -- or someone -- else as a subject that everyone could relate to.

When Nick Rosen, a 29-year old journalist, agreed to be her guinea pig, and executive producers (who she had met while practicing yoga in Boston) already on board, Churchill began what became a 5-year odyssey.  It wasn’t what she’d bargained for.

I spoke to Churchill on a Friday afternoon, a few days before the April 1, 2009, premiere (see interview following).

For full disclosure, I will say that Nick’s interview with Iyengar, the Indian sage, basically sums up my feeling about yoga (you can get the spiritual benefits from the physical practice; benefits come slowly for some, quickly for others, there is no rush, keep practicing) which gave me a warm fuzzy, feeling inside.

But I also had a few problems with the film. First, why was Kate being such a bitch to Nick? He seemed willing enough and, for a skeptic, pretty reflective. "We've been throwing around the word 'transformation' a lot," he says. A reasonable comment. (The yoga world often does toss out big concepts without defining them or even understanding them.) Still, Kate's not pleased.

I also wondered how any newbie would deal with such a fast-track to the yoga stars. In my first six months of practice, I was just happy I could do chaturanga with a herd of other sweating yogis. Flying around the world to meet the most influential men in yoga today could set the stakes freakishly high for anyone.

Lastly, I wanted to know more details from Nick himself about how his journey might have affected him—or not—in the long term. The film ended on a weak note. (post script, April 15 Nick writes his commentary on Huffington Post.)

Within the world of yoga documentaries and commentary, Enlighten Up! isn’t as acerbically insightful as Yoga, Inc, John Philps’ 2006 documentary on the entertaining contradictions of the yoga business. It isn’t as earnest as Gita Desai’s 2006 documentary Yoga Unveiled nor as funny as gentle mockeries from The Onion (see below), or McSweeney’s, nor as freakish as some of the stuff on YouTube such as  Kung Fu vs. Yoga.

But I enjoyed it. It was a humanizing look at a couple of impossible questions: What is yoga? We can’t really tell you. How can it work for me? You’ll have to find out for yourself.

The Onion Mocks Yoga

© Copyright 2009, Onion, Inc.

Metropolitan (yoga) Diary

From the NYTimes, Metropolitan Diary entry, Jan 11.

Only in New York, folks. Only in New York:

"Dear Diary:

In my yoga studio on West 72nd Street recently, the instructor reassured a newcomer, “Don’t worry, there are no Rockettes here.”

A woman in the front row piped up, a bit embarrassed but also trying to reassure in her own way, “Actually, I’m a Rockette.”

And then another called out, “So am I.”

Would any other city have forced that yoga teacher’s foot into his mouth?

--Kay Harel"

Yoga in the Muslim World

Iranian women practice yoga in Tehran

(image: c/o Time inc; Jean Chung/Corbis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the piece here

Parsing "Namaste"

A pithy, energetic, and not-too dumbed down article (I mean, c'mon, we've had 10-years of that style of yoga reporting--the, 'wow, it's really weird, but I kind of like it,' stuff) on the cultural background of Om, Hatha, and other fundamentals of yoga class. Nice to see yoga in the "grammar" section, though it's not exactly grammar. B.K.S. Iyengar does more parsing of "Om" in the intro to his classic book, Light on Yoga. It's more of a history lesson. But who's counting?

The writer, Jaimie Epstein, a Jivamukti-trained yoga teacher, former copy editor and sometime-stand-in for William Safire's "On Language" column for the NYT Magazine, says that Hatha yoga's, "present-day roots go back to the Nathas, an Orc-like breed of mercenaries in medieval India who resurrected the methods of hathayoga in the hope of developing the supernatural powers, like invisibility."

The article is a handy little primer with personality on the various styles of yoga popular right now and how they got there, and of the poses you'll find in it. "After an hour or so of pretending you’re three-cornered and sitting like a hero, you’ll get to play dead in savasana, corpse pose, which isn’t a gruesome nod to slasher movies but a way of allowing you to experience the lightness of total surrender."

Lastly, be sure to check out the line of figures in poses at the top of the article. The one third from the end seems to have aquired an extra thigh joint.

Kundalini Comes to Small Town


Yoga in small-town USA is not news--but a major figure like Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, spiritual leader of little-reported-on Kundalini yoga, visits Long Island, NY and most of the town shows up--that's news.She radiated a tranquil aura as she spoke to the group who hung on her every word.  "All the answers are within," she said.The event helped raise money to build the Peki Hospitality House in Ghana, West Africa.Read about Gurmukh's May 19th visit to St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Rockville Center, NY on Herald Online Community Newspaper.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Passes

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the controversial Indian guru--briefly adopted by the Beatles--who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the West, died Feb 6, 2008 in the Netherlands. He was in his 90s.

"The Maharishi was both an entrepreneur and a monk, a spiritual man who sought a world stage from which to espouse the joys of inner happiness. His critics called his organization a cult business enterprise. And in the press, in the 1960s and ’70s, he was often dismissed as a hippie mystic, the “Giggling Guru,” recognizable in the familiar image of him laughing, sitting cross-legged in a lotus position on a deerskin, wearing a white silk dhoti with a garland of flowers around his neck beneath an oily, scraggly beard."

Read the full obituary in the NYTimes.   

Copyrighting Yoga Poses--an ABCD perspective

On May 7, 2007, writer SUKETU MEHTA wrote in the New York Times with a rare Indian perspective on the yoga craze, particularly the craze to copyright poses or sequences of poses instigated by yoga bad boy Bikram Choudury. Choudury has lived in the US since the 70s, and according to one Indian friend of mine, is a classic south-asian businessman.

Mehta says,"I GREW up watching my father stand on his head every morning. He was doing sirsasana, a yoga pose that accounts for his youthful looks well into his 60s. Now he might have to pay a royalty to an American patent holder if he teaches the secrets of his good health to others. The United States government has issued 150 yoga-related copyrights, 134 patents on yoga accessories and 2,315 yoga trademarks. There’s big money in those pretzel twists and contortions — $3 billion a year in America alone.

"It’s a mystery to most Indians that anybody can make that much money from the teaching of a knowledge that is not supposed to be bought or sold like sausages. Should an Indian, in retaliation, patent the Heimlich maneuver, so that he can collect every time a waiter saves a customer from choking on a fishbone?"

Read the whole story on the New York Times site: "A Big Stretch."

Vanity Fair does Yoga Justice

Early May 2007 Vanity Fair posted this exceptional photo-essay of contemporary yogis and yoginis. It is the first time in recent memory that a mainstream publication has commented intelligently on our obsession with yoga as well as explored where it came from. Of course it's also glitzy and glamour-oriented, with a cast of usual characters - Christy Turlington, Sharon Gannon, David Life, etc - but it's also pretty great, with some lesser-known teachers like Kundalini's Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa, teacher's teacher Dharma Mittra, plus Indian luminaries, BKS Iyengar, Sri Pattahbi Jois, and TKV Desikachar.Check out the entire slide show here and buy the issue of Vanity Fair to see the other remarkable images.

Tao Porchon-Lynch in Westchester

Waiting outside the studio, in a noisy, busy, Saturday-morning suburban gym, Porchon-Lynch was hard to miss--tall and slender, in a crushed black velvet top, and tight leggings, elegant salt and pepper hair, and a gaggle of students around her. I put my mat at the top of the class, near hers, and was grateful to be so close-- I could barely hear her over the bump, grind, and demolishing music coming from the gym outside.We began seated with some side stretches. I'd never done many of them. She kept her eyes closed in quiet concentration.

Before the class was half over, we were doing challenging poses like krounchasana (crane pose), and sage-broken-in-eight-places. She didn't warm us up much for these so I wasn't surprised that most people in the mixed-level class of suburban professionals and parents could not do them. I could only do them because I practiced last night, and they were still challenging for me.While I worry about overstretching muscles that aren't warm enough, to my amazement, she nimbly demonstrated peacock pose, flying her legs up off the ground as though she were lifting strands of hair. She did it on her thumb-tips with her fingers in extreme flexion. I can barely do that pose with my palms flat. (I did wonder if she used that hand variation to combat arthritis.)

It made me think that --like Iyengar--Porchon-Lynch's body learned these poses young and THAT is why she can still do them. How much does the body change after 35? Her sequencing, however, was mind-boggling. What was her logic? We did a series of standing poses only on one side, and another series only on the other. She apologetically announced, in her hushed voice, that we had run out of time because there was so much she wanted to show us and it wouldn't all fit into the hour. She talked through our 5 minute savasana, final relaxation, about the energy centers in the body. I couldn't hear her very well, but when I peeked up at her, she had her eyes closed, deeply entranced in guiding our journey through the body. Her gorgeous necklace of Ganesh flanked by two suns, and her large lapis lazuli ring, plus the hot pinkish-red nail polish on toe and finger nails announced someone passionate, eccentric, devoted, spirited, and very alive.One-by-one, her students hugged her as they filed out of the room. Afterwards, she told me that she used to be a film maker, and 7 of her films were made in India. She used to pal around with Aldous Huxley in California, and she left India in 1939, one year before my own mother was born there, in New Dehli. She still has many friends in India, and leads retreats there every year. The next one—a combination of yoga retreat and tour of who she knows in Inida—will be in October, 2 months after her 89th birthday, and one month after the monsoons.Sounds like a trip not to miss.

Tao Porchon-Lynch, yoga genious in Westchester

On the recommendation of the Equinox gym PR person, Robert, I headed to Scarsdale today, Saturday morning, for an hour-long yoga class with Tao Porchon-Lynch. It sounded enticing--Prochon-Lynch had been profiled in the Washington Post and NBC for her unusual life. She had not only studied with Mr. Iyengar in India, she'd been born in what was French India, Pondicherry, and had practiced yoga since she was a girl. Not to mention that at 88 1/2 years old, she's almost as old as Iyengar himself. 

History Of Indian Yogis 2000 B.C. - 2000 A.D.

History Of Indian Yogis 2000 B.C. - 2000 A.D., course at Loyola College, CA


From the course catalog:

"Most reconstructions of the history of yoga in India have focused on the term "yoga" as it is found in a selection of major religious and philosophical texts, including the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita of the Mahabharata, and the Hathayogapradipika of Svatmaraman. These reconstructions have tended to emphasize a body of ecstatic and meditative practice. When, however, one traces the history of the term "yogi," the presumed agent of yogic practice, the reconstruction changes radically. From the very earliest accounts of yogis, as found in narrative passages of the Mahabharata, and down through the Tantras and medieval and modern non-scriptural accounts, the image of the Indian yogi has been one of a phenomenally powerful, but also dangerous possessor of supernatural powers, who exits his own body, often to take over those of other people. Using archeological, iconographic, and textual data, this course will survey the image of the Indian yogi from the earliest times down to the present day. The conclusions it will draw will be most surprising."