Hot yoga news: Naked NY studio wows the media

One of the duties I’ve assigned myself as part of running this blog is monitoring yoga in the news.

I tried to assign it to Bobbie, but she invoked her “I’m not your slave” card. Since I am both my own master and slave (internal asana… think about it), I’ve been dutifully fulfilling the job.

Naked Space owner Michael Gates, via the New York Daily News

Nowadays, since we refocused ourselves to begin the year much more exclusively on Ashtanga, this usually means scanning the headlines and making sure nothing huge is happening out there that you ought to know (i.e. are there any maddening New York Times stories today?). There are lots of celebrity stories about this actor or that doing yoga to prepare for a movie or get in shape after a pregnancy. There are local stories about yoga studios opening up. (You’d think at this point, that wouldn’t be news any more, unless it was something like: “1,000th yoga shala opens in Downtown Santa Monica.”)

Occasionally, though, maybe two or three times a month, a story gets some traction. By that I mean it gets picked up by handfuls of media, a main AP story gets run in a bunch of papers — sort of the old school version of something going viral.

The asana championships from the beginning of the month was one. Russell Brand’s finding a new girlfriend was another.

At some point, these stories reach such a critical media mass that I feel the need to post about it for a specific reason: It seems like the story might have gotten “out there” enough that some acquaintance of yours who knows you do yoga, but not much beyond that, will say to you, “Hey, did you see such and such?”

I wouldn’t want you to have to plead ignorance. After all, all this yoga is supposed to be enlightening us up, right?

This week, one story seems to have risen to this level. There’s been dozens of stories, from the HuffPost to Gawker to the New York Daily News, about it.

You just knew it had to involve naked yoga, right?

It comes to us from New York. “Naked Space” yoga apparently has re-opened after a hiatus (originally it opened in 2006, which makes you think a rash of stories about its reappearance might be overkill). From the Daily News, complete with punning lede:

A Brooklyn yoga instructor is taking his male students in a nude direction.

Every Tuesday night, Michael Gates teaches naked yoga to a small men-only class class in a secret South Park Slope location.

“Our clothes are costumes and armor,” said Gates, 44. “Naked yoga is an interesting metaphor for letting go of the B.S.”

Since opening his “Naked Space” studio in 2006, Gates has seen it all: From men who strip out of their cloths in an instant, to guys who wouldn’t dare tell their wives their weekly yoga class is with nude dudes.

“There are guys who are afraid to tell their wives because they think she’ll leave him,” said Gates. “I mean, she knows he’s taking yoga classes with a group of guys, but suddenly he’s naked and it’s a big deal.”

For just $20, about six guys usually show up to shed their worries, anxieties, and clothing for a 90-minute intermediate yoga session in Gates’ simple studio. Private sessions cost $100.

Gates has his reasons for stripping his students down, and he emphasizes that it isn’t about sex. It’s about alignment. He can better see the students. Hard to argue with that.

I feel obliged to provide the curious with a link to his site. I suppose it is slightly NSFW.

OK, so now you are fully informed of the big yoga news story of the week as you prepare for your weekend socializing. I do feel compelled to ask if anyone has ever tried yoga in the buff, and if so, what were your impressions?

Posted by Steve

Times prints a select few responses to its yoga article

It’s a day of short posts.

The New York Times Magazine has three — count ’em, three! — responses to its article on yoga published online today.

Here’s a link. However, not really anything new.

I suppose some folks might think it’s a pretty small amount of response the paper’s printed. And while it is hard to argue with that, the paper does have a limited amount of space.

Wait, what? What’s that you say? “Internet?” What’s that? It’s something that would allow the paper to print a much more complete and complicated set of responses to the story?

Wow. Well, I hope the Times finds out about that soon.

Posted by Steve

Eddie Stern shares a ‘harrowing’ story and issues a call to action

Eddie Stern has a very serious, but very important, blog post up.

It is right here.

For those who don’t want to click through, I’m going to break a general rule about not re-posting entire blogs. I suspect Eddie would be OK with that in this case:

Yesterday morning my old friend and old AYNY student, Dan Loeb, alerted
me to a story about an Indian couple living in Norway whose two children,
aged one and four, were taken by the Norwegian child protective services, who
have claimed that the couple is unfit to raise and care for their children because
they have fed their children with their hands, and allowed their children to share
a family bed with them. The latest updates on the story can be seen here.

The protective services have stated that they will keep the children until they
are 18, and the parents are allowed to see them twice per year, for one hour
at each visit.

I spoke about this situation with Sheetal Shah, the Senior Director of the Hindu
American Foundation, and she quickly mobilized her organization. They have
hand delivered a letter to the Norwegian Ambassador in Washington, DC, and
just this afternoon put up a petition at change.org.

This story is harrowing. We have no reason to believe that the parents have
done anything harmful to their children. Eating with one’s hands and having a
family bed are not just cultural – they are norms for many countries – this is not
a crime. Norway, in fact, has previously been criticized for these excesses: in
2005 a UN report criticized them for taking 12,500 children into protective custody.
A big number for a small country.

The Indian Government is engaged in the situation with their embassy in Norway,
but please consider signing the petition that we have put up. Let’s put some pressure
on the Norwegian ambassador to return these two, young children to their parents
(before their visa expires in March) and end this nightmare of a story.

Thank you very much.

Yours,
Eddie

What doesn’t come through in Eddie’s post, but seems to be the case from the latest stories, is that this happened eight months ago.

Yes. Eight months.

I would guess — with next to no knowledge of the situation, obviously — that without many resources, the parents have had difficulty getting attention, and thus the time lag.

It seems like they have attention now.

I’d especially encourage you to click on the petition link and read people’s reasons for signing. And then sign yourself.

Posted by Steve

Swenson on NY Times article: ‘There are idiots in all fields’

It comes as no surprise that more reactions to the New York Times article on yoga causing injuries would manifest out of the Yoga Journal conference last weekend in San Francisco.

The one I want to highlight is David Swenson’s. It is at this link (along with a few other famous names, including Seane Corn, Ana Forrest and Roger Cole).

Here’s the part on Swenson:

David Swenson, a renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher based in Austin, Texas, was baffled by all the fuss over The Article. “For every one person who is injured doing yoga, there are 10,000 people whose lives are transformed by the practice,” he said. He compared it to medicine. Just because many people have been hurt by doctors doesn’t mean that medicine is bad, he said. “There are idiots in all fields,” he said. “People can be certified to practice yoga or medicine and still not be skilled at their job.”

My sense is that Swenson has hit on one of the two main lines of thought that the article has generated: the sketchiness of yoga certification. A certificate does not mean that a person is a good teacher; authorization (Mysore-based or other) is far from a final word about a teachers’ qualification. And on the flip side, lack of certification doesn’t mean a teacher is unqualified. (Eddie Stern, you will recall, had a similar reaction to quick teacher trainings.)

The other line of thought is that yoga practitioners have to be careful and check their ego. (Another item Eddie picked up.) And both run together (a confluence?). A student who is being careful or mindful ought to be able to tell if a teacher is “good” — in the sense of “good for that student.” If the teacher isn’t, find another. But never forget that the “problem” could be coming from inside and not from the teacher.

Simple, huh? Well, simple to say and remember, maybe harder to put into action.

Anyway, a final word: I still maintain that the Times article is important and that reactions in general haven’t been overblown. (A few individual ones have.) It doesn’t get much more “mainstream” in America than the Times — it still sets the agenda for the media. And so this story is and was bound to have “legs.”

Avoidance is not the answer. It’s up to yogis to benefit from the reaction to it and maybe help others benefit, too.

Posted by Steve

‘There’s nothing very Indian’ about yoga in the West

I’m not very hopeful that this will be the last word on the New York Times’ article on yoga wrecking your body. I do still think all the discussion is a plus, not a negative — the more light on a topic, the better.

Still, it may be getting a tad old already. But Indian-based Firstpost provides a gently mocking take on all the ruckus. And the Times’ India Ink blog, to its credit, gives Firstpost some notice. Together they raise some interesting points that go far beyond the “yoga can hurt you” argument.

Here’s Firstpost’s key position: ” Yoga might be India’s biggest export to the West but this is now an American story about something that has become a Western form of exercise. There’s nothing very Indian about it.”

It goes on to cite another story we highlighted, via the Guardian, that seemed much more troublesome than the Times’ original piece. And at that point it begins to make some really key statements:

No Indians were harmed in the course of researching this story. No desis were interviewed for the New York Times article. No Indians show up in TheGuardian’s follow up story about the “ferocious backlash” either. The few desi names in there are of the yoga brand masters — BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois or Bikram Choudhury. They only show up as brands.

Anyone can sell yoga and it seems everyone does. About 20 million Americans are doing yoga according to the Times. It’s a 5 plus billion dollar industry. Once you might have needed the Indian seal of authenticity to sell yoga to the West. Now you don’t even need that.

The “branding” of yoga is a direction of this story that, I think, dives far deeper than the Times’ original story ever did. (The full book, of which the article was an excerpt, might hit on this topic.) It is pretty easy to argue that what the Times focused on was just asana, just exercise. The India Ink blog does just that:

“Yoga is not just about asanas, it is a union of the body, mind and soul,” Delhi yoga teacher Nivedita Joshi told Times Crest, a Times of India publication, in an article also refuting the idea yoga can be dangerous. “It’s not an exercise, it’s a way of life,” she said.

(While an easy argument, I still think it is one that needs to be argued more openly. When people manage to make the clear divided between asana/exercise and yoga, at least some of the questions and concerns surrounding yoga — is it Satanic, who owns it? — will fall away.)

But yoga as a brand — as a purely economic endeavor — strikes a more challenging chord. Branding and business built around a purely health-related activity is nothing new and might now be among the most American of American pursuits. (Somewhere ahead of baseball, but behind mom and and apple pie.) Every gym business in the country is proof of that. As are every kooky exercise invention, new fad diet, latest weight-loss DVD and any fat-busting reality show.

But what about branding a “way of life.” Seems a bit different, no? As aggravated as some people are at the Equinox video that’s floating around, how much more aggravated might people be if it was a video promoting a new business called “Ashrams R Us”? (Motto: “Come spend a week with us and save your life!”)

This “branding” is, of course, what has had the Hindu American Foundation fighting mad for a while now. And it makes a key appearance in the Firstpost article:

It has launched its own broadside against the Times accusing its writer William Broad of  using “prime journalistic real estate to grind his axe with yoga”. It is a “silly, one-sided piece that highlights a handful of people who have suffered injuries due to their yoga practice,” writes Sheetal Shah, the foundation’s senior director on Belief.net.

In fact, argues the HAF, Broad inadvertently proves HAF’s main point. The West has reduced yoga to asanasAsanas are really just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Delinking yoga from its spiritual framework, its Hindu roots, is the crux of the problem.

“Analyzing yoga as only exercise and then labeling it as hazardous to one’s health is a false equation because yoga doesn’t equal asana,” writes the HAF.

Firstpost has a wonderfully succinct take on this: “It’s time to accept that there is the eight-limbed yoga the HAF talks about and then there are the asanas on a mat that millions practice.”

Yes, and yes.

I’d urge everyone to give the Firstpost piece a read. (It also notes Eddie Stern’s response to the Times piece.) It captures the specific debate about the Times article nicely but also shows a pretty keen awareness of how yoga is positioned in the West (America, in particular).

And then maybe we all can reflect on this question: Am I doing asana only or am I trying, at least, to do yoga?

Posted by Steve

If you want to be ticked at a newspaper article about yoga, here’s a good one

I’m hopeful after this post we will leave the New York Times controversy behind.

But an article is out today that is worth noting, for two reasons:

1. It mentions Eddie Stern’s Ashtanga Yoga New York and his response to the Times article. So there’s some nice publicity — albeit in Great Britain — for AYNY.

2. It ought to make it clear that the Times article really wasn’t all that bad.

The Times piece, while too reliant on anecdotes, a bit too hyperbolic (but that’s the nature of news coverage) and with a few facts wrong, was still pretty balanced, I think. It wasn’t fully over the top.

The U.K.’s Guardian’s coverage of the controversy, on the other hand, is.

This will give you the gist:

“I’m shocked. Yoga transformed my life and I love going to practise – it’s made me healthier and much calmer and my body feels more alive,” said Susan Davies, 28, a software designer, as she walked near Central Park on the way to her twice-weekly class. “I’m more balanced and yet more assertive and efficient at work – my friends who do yoga say the same.”

Paula Tulsi, who runs the Manhattan practice Reflections Yoga, said: “The controversy is massive. People in the circles I run in are going crazy, because lots of people who were going to try yoga – the people you can bring in and heal – are going to be afraid now and they’ll think yoga’s bad. That’s so tragic and angering.”

“I thought it was insulting to the yoga community,” said massage therapist Eddie Rodriguez, who runs the Maio Physical Therapy practice in New York. But Rodriguez did point out that many yoga classes are too crowded and most people aren’t aware that many instructors are barely trained – even though they may look the part. “I encourage my clients to try yoga. But get a recommendation by word of mouth, don’t just go to a studio because it’s got a free offer, it’s on the gym schedule or it’s nearby and has classes at convenient times. It’s definitely a case of buyer beware,” he said.

And in New York, at least, tales of yoga disasters are not difficult to find. Arts administrator Elizabeth Bennett, 45, slipped a disc in her neck after being “bullied” into a headstand at a New York yoga studio. “When I hesitated, he called me a wimp. There are too many teachers who push unwitting students too far to serve their own egos,” she said.

[snip]

David Patane sees up to 10 clients a year with a current or past yoga injury at his Physique corrective exercise, movement and lifestyle coaching business in Manhattan. He said the computer age has given so many people slouched postures and expanded waistlines that they are inviting injury if they jump up from their chairs and unthinkingly start twisting themselves, on demand, into poses that hyper-extend the often already weakened neck and lumbar spine.

“A neck pushed forward one inch in front of the plumb line of correct alignment – common with slumped posture – is already putting seven pounds of stress on the cervical spinal column,” he said. When these people flipped into a shoulder stand, or bent their legs back over their heads in “plough pose”, there was a greater risk of injury, he said.

Megan Branch, 22, an executive assistant at a web company, strained her back last year simply by doing the “superman'”, where you lie on your front and raise your legs and arms simultaneously, because she was in a class that was so crowded with up to 70 people that she had to lie at an odd angle so the next student did not have his feet in her face.

“I felt something snap in my back and then I went limp,” she said. She recovered by resting and stretching carefully, but her back now feels less stable.

[snip]

“I decided I was going to get really into it, and for about six months I went four or five times a week and was feeling and looking really good.” But one day, descending the stairs from her fifth storey apartment, her knee buckled. “It was like a little ‘pop’ and didn’t feel good.”

She continued going to yoga for a few days, but the knee got worse until it would collapse without warning. A scan revealed a bad tear in the meniscal cartilage, the knee joint’s shock absorbers, requiring surgery.

“The surgeon asked me what I’d been doing and I said I was really healthy and active, doing yoga up to five times a week and he said, ‘That’s it!’.”

He said he saw lots of yoga injuries and hers probably stemmed from “pigeon pose”, where the knee is folded inwards at an angle under the body. After keyhole surgery, Harris was on crutches and bumped into her favourite yoga instructor and one of the studio administrators.

“The instructor was, like, ‘Oh my God, what happened?’ I told her my surgeon said I was doing too much yoga and she just walked away.”

The administrator then told her the studio owner said if you got injured doing yoga it was because you had “bad karma”.

“I’m anti-yoga now,” she says.

That, my friends, is a story that only describes all the bad things yoga can do to your body, with the added bit of “nasty, mean yogis” thrown in the mix.

I sure hope it isn’t bad karma to post this.

All right. Pledge to only mention this again if it really, really rises to a high level of importance.

Posted by Steve

More online responses to article about yoga wrecking your body

Soon after the New York Times magazine article came out about how yoga can wreck your body, YogaRose put together a nice list of the initial responses.

That’s here.

In the past day or so there have been some more, including the Beast piece we discussed earlier.

Here’s a smattering of what people are saying:

  • Five tips to avoid injuries, plus a list of other activities that can hurt you (that seems to be a popular way to respond), via the Huffington Post.
  • A piece at Yoga Journal, which ought to have some response.
  • A Salon piece holds out hope that the book upon which the article is based is more nuanced. That seems a fair bet — it’s longer, after all.
  • Patricia Walden has posted a response from the president of the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States here.
  • Another HuffPo piece. Perhaps the editors need to talk more there.

Two strange things. I don’t see anything at Elephant Journal and the New York Times, itself, hasn’t done anything on the reaction. I wouldn’t expect a full-on story, but I’m amazed none of the related blogs — on health or on the magazine, itself — picked it up.

Maybe they will.

Posted by Steve