In today’s ‘stretching the meaning of yoga…’

I light-heartedly posted a few days ago about yoga on horseback.

Yes. That's a horse doing yoga. Via the Mail

I did so, in part, because the yoga practice can’t all be serious. If you think it has to be, I encourage you to take a Led class from Tim Miller.

And if he isn’t an authority enough, I’ll direct you toward the young — or even mature — Krishna. That’s a twinkle in his eye, even as he sees the coming Kali Yuga.

So, in this vein, a quick follow-up. This time: horses doing yoga.

I kid you not. It isn’t April 1, is it?

A veteran horse is still competing in old age after beating stiffness in his joints – by doing YOGA.

Super-fit Lewis, a 17-year-old Egyptian Arabian, mastered a string of yoga moves after copying his owner Linda Guanti, 35.

Linda was mucking out when she began practising her own stretches to help her bad back – and was stunned to see Lewis mimicking her.

That is how a story in the Daily Mail begins. And here’s how it ends:

She has become a part-time yoga instructor and now runs classes that people can bring their horses too.

She added: ‘There is nothing I can do about my weakened discs and damaged bones but the benefits of doing yoga with Lewis were unmistakable.’

‘Yoga with him has helped with the initial healing process and was keeping my body in the healthiest state is could be. All the past limitations and pain from my injury were lessening.’

‘I was overjoyed. My riding skills improved, my body awareness and balance improved. My outlook on life improved.’

‘Yoga is also just as beneficial for horses as for humans. Horses have the same issues as we do. Stretching and body awareness reduces injury and enhances performance and pleasure in activity.’

I’m not going to argue that Lewis feels better these days. I’m not even going to argue that horses — along with other animals — don’t have a consciousness that could do Yoga, as opposed to the yoga she clearly is talking about here.

But, but… there’s a point where we aren’t talking about Yoga anymore, right? It’s just “stretching,” only you can’t charge quite as much for the classes if you call it that.

I’m probably taking this too seriously. I guess, since we started this blog and I’ve been paying much more attention to “news” about yoga, that I’ve just been inundated with how fluid the definition of “yoga” is. I knew this already, of course, but it is pretty stark when you get the news stories into your inbox.

At least now I’ve shared it, so I’m not the only one burdened with the knowledge that horses doing yoga exists.

Posted by Steve

This is going too far, right? Yoga on horseback?

I’ve mentioned in passing the seemingly burgeoning phenomena of paddleboard yoga. There’s acro-yoga all over the place, too. And who hasn’t heard something about naked yoga.

Here’s a new one, though: Yoga on horseback.

I just happened upon a story about a combination horseback ride and yoga class, which emphasizes “mindfulness.” I bet it does — you don’t want to be doing your Urdhva Dhanurasana and topple five or six feet to the ground.

I’m tempted to highlight the where and what, but that would be unfair, given my attitude toward it. If it works for people, what’s wrong with that, right? And if it doesn’t work — if, to be a bit crass, it’s stupid — then people won’t go back and the program won’t survive.

Here’s a quick description of the class, from a news report:

Using a horse as partner and mat, students will practice breathing techniques and grounded and mounted yoga poses to improve mind-body awareness, create greater flexibility and build soft strength. Classes will end with a short, guided meditation.

I point this out in part because it strikes me as funny. But as I said, if it works, what’s the harm?

Well — maybe this, and the real rationale for this post: It strikes right at the heart of the “what is yoga” debate.

Horseback yoga, acro-yoga, paddleboard yoga all — in my opinion — blur the line pretty significantly. And I assume they are very grounded in just asana, so we are talking about only one of the eight limbs. (Yes, I noted the “guides meditation” mention.)

You know. Yoga. As opposed to Yoga.

I’m not going to spin out this debate, because I don’t see how there ever will be agreement. Is the flow class at the local big chain yoga studio Yoga (as opposed to yoga)? I might say, “No” and someone else would argue vehemently, “Yes.” Should only a class that begins with a collective Om be considered Yoga? You tell me.

What I do think worth noting as part of this on-going discussion is that other forms of exercise — running, spin classes, lifting weights, etc. — don’t seem to have this same issue. I’m not seeing a lot of debate about whether the Sunday morning spin class is something greater than a really hard workout. (Although I’m sure there are “true believers” who will argue it is.)

So that argues in yoga’s favor as not being something you really can just stick on a paddleboard or a horse. (Is there yoga snowboarding?) Of course, if you peel away the layers further, you hit the real crux of the “yoga origins” debate: whether yoga is 5,000 or only 150 years old.

Probably a little of both.

I do have to admit, though, if the horseback yoga explicitly invoked the Horse Sacrifice, I might pay it more attention.

Posted by Steve

It’s only right that Yoga Gives Back

As we noted in an earlier post, our teacher in Los Angeles, Jörgen Christiansson, and one of our fellow students, Kayoko Mitsumatsu, are involved in a wonderful cause this month: Thank You Mother India, a fundraiser for the Yoga Gives Back charity, which Kayoko founded four years ago.

When I write “fundraiser,” I think I’m selling the event a bit short. In only its second year, this Sept. 17 event will be taking place worldwide: More than 50 studios in 10 countries are putting on fundraising events for Yoga Gives Back.

Bobbie and I both will be going to the event at Jörgen’s studio, Omkar 108. (Note: My donation explicitly is so Jörgen won’t lie on me in order to get my hamstrings to loosen. I’m also assuming another student of Jörgen’s who has been involved in the event and blogs at mahamondo will be there, too.) You can click on this link  to find a class/event in your area or — perhaps even better — to get started setting up one at your studio.

Did I say, “You can?” I meant: You should. You do. Click and check out more.

You’re wondering, of course, just what Yoga Gives Back is. Rather than my trying to tell you, I sent along five questions to Kayoko so you could read about her charity and the fundraiser in her own words.

1.       Can you provide a little background on Yoga Gives Back and what the goals and mission are?

I started this organization in 2007 as I grew healthier and happier person with yoga practice and started to wonder what can I do with my healthy self? Two things happened around the same time… my quest to inner life and fulfillment through studying of Yoga philosophy illuminated how one can live for others. I also was working on a documentary project on Social Entrepreneurship and learned a lot about Nobel Peace Recipient Dr Muhammad Yunus’ revolutionary microfinancing. I realized that we can give back to India by just collecting small donations at a time. We did not have to be millionaires to make some contribution to the poverty issues in India.

2.       The “Thank You Mother India” event is now in its second year. How are you expecting this year’s event to differ from the first?

First year was hosted by Jörgen Christiansson and and it was the most successful local event of 2010. This second year, we are developing this event into the first, and unprecedented global yoga event.

It is just wonderful to see how world yoga community can come together for this one cause, giving back to India where Yoga is from by supporting impoverished women and children. I am already so inspired by the level of enthusiastic support from over 50 studios from more than 10 countries, US, UK, Hong Kong, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Sweden, Australia, Netherlands, Japan, Singapore and probably more by Sep 17th!

3.       What were the highlights for you from the first “Thank You Mother India” event?

It just made it clear to me that the yoga community can come together for one cause. We had over 60 attendants and totally sold out event. It also showed that when the teacher and host care about the cause, it generates tremendous positive energy that becomes infectious! This success gave seeds to this amazing global event, and the title “Thank You Mother India” totally resonates among anybody who appreciates what Yoga has brought to their lives. This is why I would like this event to become a long lasting, annual event, reminding all of us how fortunate we are to have Yoga in our lives!

4.       What’s your longer-term vision for Yoga Gives Back?

Our mission is “to mobilize the global yoga community to empower women in India to build sustainable livelihoods”. We are now funding directly 56 impoverished women and children in India, for their education, vocational training and microcredit programs, in addition to our support for Grameen Foundation’s microfinancing programs in India. As we grow bigger and support more people, Yoga Gives Back itself also has to become sustainable organization. I would like to see more and more yoga studios from all over the world to join in our annual event “Thank You Mother India” in addition to more events throughout the year to have sustainable support. As a documentary filmmaker, I would also like to continue to film our fund recipients at least once a year and accumulate the footage for 5 years, 10 years or more, hoping to share with our community the reality of how small donations can actually change lives! I would like to visually demonstrate that our mantra “For the cost of one yoga class, you can change a life” holds powerful truth.

5.       Finally, can you describe your own yoga practice a little bit, how you started and how it influences your day-to-day life?

I have always been exercise lover and even got a black belt of Tae Kwon Do in my 30’s. But I found totally something new in Yoga that I was searching for. It gives me some power and momentum for internal reflection  and energy to act. I started practicing Kunadalini with my best friend years ago, and ended up totally falling in love with Ashtanga practice. I practice regularly with Jörgen  Christiansson at Omkar108 Yoga in Los Angeles, where I am searching for a sustainable practice for my life, finding peace with my pain and limits.


Once again, the event is Sept. 17. Check and see if there’s one in your area and if not, there’s still time to pull one together. You can check out more on Yoga Gives Back at its website.

Thanks to Kayoko for taking the time to answer my questions.

Posted by Steve

Taking yoga from enlightenment to just health

A few days ago, I suggested one very good reason not to do Ashtanga: It will mess with your insides. (The “insides” you can’t really find unless you use your imagination or expand your consciousness.)

'The Beauty of Enlightenment,' via

That, of course, is the point to yoga, if you boil it down to its overly nitty-gritty.

But we all also know that a lot of the yoga classes and yoga teachers in America aren’t focused much, if at all, on the subtle body. It’s all asana, all the time. (Yes, as Tim Miller might say, that gives us plenty of times to make asanas of ourselves.) It’s about sculpted abs, a taunt butt and lean muscles.

In other words, in America yoga pretty much equals asana (stretches, poses, maybe some movement). How else would you explain what “paddleboard yoga” or “anti-gravity yoga” are? Any chance those get toward Dhyana? (Don’t believe they exist? Internet search, my friend.)

The question this focus poses is: Is yoga in America, in the West, losing part of its core?

That’s the subject of yet another Huffington Post piece (I promise we aren’t going to link to HuffPo every day, and the last one was for a good cause!), this one by Philip Goldberg, author of “America Veda.” In it, he writes:

That yoga might become permanently identified with asana alone troubles many practitioners and teachers. It concerns me too, but I think it is unlikely to happen. For one thing, yoga’s deeper, more profound purpose is so compelling, so enticing, so embedded in the core of our being, that a large percentage of practitioners find their way to it, regardless of their initial motivation. For another, leaders in the yoga community are taking steps to ensure that the full array of yogic teachings remains in the forefront, even while accommodating the immediate needs and desires of beginning students.

He goes on to suggest that some people (i.e. Yoga Alliance) are considering a two-step sort of accreditation (let’s save the argument about that subject for another day): one is for people specializing in the physical side of yoga and another for those who have a mastery of all eight limbs of yoga.

He actually writes “those with a firm grasp of all eight limbs of classical yoga.” So, quick digression. I know the intent of this. But, then I think: Wait, who is going to judge that? What’s the test for having a “firm grasp” of Samadhi, let alone Dhyana? Would some of the celebrity yogis get this, shall we say, “higher” level of accreditation? What if Seane Corn gets it, but Shiva Rea doesn’t?

And: Who judges?

OK, I know that’s not the real intent; we are talking practicality here, we’re talking capitalism. If you’ve studied Patanjali and are able to discuss the Vedas and maybe the symbolic meaning of the Ramayana, you’ll probably be eligible for the “eight-limb OK.”

My point is: Would that really address the issue? Who would the audience be for this accreditation? And would it really define “true yoga” for “asana yoga”?

Posted by Steve

Think there are enough yoga studios already?

Well, think again.

According to a blog post at the Wall St. Journal, a new economic study suggests that opening a yoga or Pilates studio is a good idea right now. Growth in this area is expected to average 5% over the next five years.

Admittedly, though, before you go out and rent that space you’ve been eyeing, the report says that for the past five years, revenue growth (in sales, etc.) has been close to an average of 10% per year.

I may be math-challenged, but that sounds like a slowdown to me, albeit still pretty solid growth. Profit margins are supposed to bump a little, from 12.2% this year to 12.7% in 2016.

That’s a lot of external prana! So, yeah, next time you talk to your yoga teacher, you can figure he or she is way out-performing your 401K investments.

One of the key pieces to the recent growth has been a switch from single-class purchases by students to monthly and yearly memberships. Less per class, but more commitment.

And who can’t use more commitment in their lives?

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: ‘Oh Beauty Exceeding’

Close-up of Bernini's great 'Ecstasy of St. Teresa'

Week two in our Mercury day poetry series brings us another Christian mystic: St. Teresa of Avila.

She preceded — historically — our poet from last week, St. John of the Cross. Both weave similar themes and images into their works about uniting with the Divine. What always has drawn me to their work is the tinge of danger, horror or pain they portray. That comes through in the look on her face in Bernini’s sculpture, “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” pictured to the left. Does that look like ecstasy to you?

In other words, reaching the Divine may not be exactly what we’re expecting.

But that won’t stop us from grasping forth.

Oh Beauty Exceeding

Oh Beauty exceeding
All other beauties!
Paining, but You wound not
Free of pain You destroy
The love of creatures.

Oh, knot that binds
Two so different,
Why do You become unbound
For when held fast You strengthen
Making injuries seem good.

Bind the one without being
With being unending;
Finish, without finishing,
Love, without having to love,
Magnify our nothingness.

Posted by Steve

Was 350 the magic number for the Confluence?

As we posted earlier, the Ashtanga Yoga Confluence officially is full. If you missed out, you’ll have to wait for next year or cozy up to someone who is going, sleep on his or her floor or out by the beach and hope to sneak into all the yoga goodness.

It doesn’t seem to be any secret that the total number of participants is 350. I’ve seen that mentioned on Facebook and other places, plus if you checked out the Catamaran Resort’s webpage you’d find that a lot of the meeting space’s top out at about that number. (There is a hotel ballroom that for a reception could hold 800, but when you start setting it up for a banquet setting — such as the opening night — it drops to 450.)

Given that the Confluence has sold out — with 192 days to spare — it isn’t a huge jump to wonder if 350 was the right number or if more would have been better.

I have to admit, when I first heard about the Confluence, I imagined something with maybe 800 or 1,000 people. After all, something like Bhakti Fest gathers together 3,000 people or so. My understanding is that this was considered, but people involved in the early planning thought it would end up feeling too much like other yoga gatherings where you get divided up into groups and get a little touch with a bunch of teachers.

In other words, with 800 people, all the teachers would have to work separately, somewhat muting the “confluence” nature of the event. As is, the asana sessions will have anywhere from 150 to 200 people in each room. That’s a lot, as you know if you ever have practiced in such a big group. And the afternoon discussions would have been impossible with more people in the audience.

So it seems to come down to: keeping the event intimate (so to speak) versus casting a wider net. They went with intimate.

Do you think that was the right decision? Was 350 the right number of people? It will keep more people from having the experience with these teachers, but those who do will have fuller ones. But maybe you would have done something slightly different?

Posted by Steve