For once, America’s craziest fitness craze does not include yoga

This coming weekend, the New York Times will be out with its latest dive into its latest fascination: CrossFit. (I’m assuming the piece will hit print this weekend, although it is dated today.) The spin this time is wondering why Americans are so fascinated with extreme fitness.

I think this is a good time for a musical interlude:

OK, back to the Times. I’m happy, and just a little surprised, to report that yoga (and Ashtanga as a subset) don’t get mentioned once in the paper’s Sunday magazine article. (Early, hippie-esque jogging does.)

Here’s the key takeaway that I thought might resonate here:

The whole notion of pushing your physical limits — popularized by early Nike ads, Navy SEAL mythos and Lance Armstrong’s cult of personality — has attained a religiosity that’s as passionate as it is pervasive. The “extreme” version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it. And as with most of sports culture, there is no gray area. You win or you lose. You leave it all on the floor or you shamefully skulk off the floor with extra gas in your tank.

But our new religion has more than a little in common with the religions that brought our ancestors to America in the first place. Like the idealists and extremists who founded this country, the modern zealots of exercise turn their backs on the indulgences of our culture, seeking solace in self-abnegation and suffering. “This is the route to a better life,” they tell us, gesturing at their sledgehammers and their kettlebells, their military drills and their dramatic re-enactments of hard labor. And in these uncertain times, it doesn’t sound so bad to be prepared for some coming disaster — or even for an actual job doing hard labor, if our empire ever falls.

I’ll make a wild prediction and say this story may signal that the media have moved on from their focus on yoga — though I’m sure the next acro-doggie-SUP-tantra variety will do its best to get attention.

There’s a good side to this, of course. Perhaps if this growing religiosity continues (note: This being a NYT trend story, it assuredly won’t and probably isn’t even a trend to begin with), future focus in public schools will be on Burpees instead of Bhakti.

Posted by Steve

What’s the real reason to do yoga?

Eddie Stern is among a trio of high-profile yoga teachers interviewed by the folks over at HuffPost Religion; the theme is: “What’s the real reason to do yoga?”

There’s a 32-minute Soundcloud at this here link. From the page:

Everyone knows that yoga is everywhere. Studios are popping up on every street corner and there are yoga classes available in every gym. For many, the image of the yoga movement includes intimidatingly fit and limber young people with tight yoga pants doing poses that, for many, feels way out of reach.

Yoga has even become a political issue. Washington D.C. has levied what is being called a ‘yoga tax’ and included yoga studios in the broader fitness category and subjected them to the same tax as health clubs.

Strangely, to me, is that they don’t mention the yoga in schools issue — maybe it is somewhere in the 32 minutes and I missed that part. Eddie comes in at about the 21 minute mark and talks a little about his start with yoga.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: The First Amendment

For a second week in a row, I’m stretching — oh, how I’m stretching — the meaning of the word “poem.”

Because, given all the focus on Encinitas these past few days, it seemed like a good time to run the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

When I talk about stretching the meaning of “poem,” keep in mind, if there were a Supreme Court of Poetry for the U.S., and either Bobbie or I were on it, we’d be the Antonin Scalia on the court. Strict, strict, strict constructionists.

If that doesn’t make sense, here’s a link to Cornell’s explanation of this basic American right.

Posted by Steve

Do you wanna go to a ‘Yoga Rave’?

I just saw that Ashtangi Guy Donahaye — the main guy, I think it is fair to say, behind the “Guruji” book — has started a blog.

His first entry from a bit ago is worth a read, and it inspires the headline on this post. It seems an interesting answer to our last post about practicing other forms of yoga. It is, suffice it to say, heavy stuff:

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone wanting to invite me to a “Yoga Rave” – a  party like none other in the world; a new concept in fun where the mind and body respond to a uniquely crafted sequence of high-energy music, movement, yoga & meditation. I responded by saying, a yoga rave is a contradiction in terms. “I can guarantee that the party will be 100% yoga compliant: it is substance free, it will end earlier than a typical party and all the proceeds will go to a non profit.” Came the response.  My reply was obviously completely lost on the poor fellow which is probably not surprising considering the general lack of understanding of the meaning, purpose and practice of yoga in modern times.


Guruji’s perspective was that of Advaita Vedanta and his family Guru Sri Shankaracharya, therefore if we wish to understand what Pattabhi Jois’ vision was, how he saw yoga in the context of the process of Self Realization, some understanding of Shankaracharya’s thought is essential. These teachings are surprisingly accessible and fresh, perhaps because he attained realization at such a young age. His writings are poetic and his vision has the clarity to give us understanding both of the purpose and the culmination of yoga practice (Self Realization).

I’m reminded of Eddie Stern’s delving into this aspect of Guruji’s life and background, which Bobbie talked about here.

Donahaye has an interesting perspective that could be plugged into the recent discussion about whether yoga can hurt you:

If we try to apply yoga (asana practice) mechanically, we receive many negative results, including injury, sickness, mental disturbance etc. Yoga is not a band aid you can put on a festering wound. Yoga heals from within, but in order for it to do its magic, we have to put the mind in the right starting place and point it in the right direction.

But where the heart of his post lies (as best as I can tell) is on the integral role that Advaita Vedanta plays in Ashtanga — as Guruji taught it.

The idea of the Ashtanga Yoga Darshana is that it represents Guruji’s unique perspective and a fusion of two classical darshanas. In fact Guruji was also of the view that Samkhya and Yoga are one Darshana – as Krisna says in the Gita: “The ignorant make a distinction between Samkhya and Yoga, the wise know them as one and the same.”

In that sense, non-Vedantic takes on Patanjali miss the point. (Again, I think I’m summingDonahaye up correctly. He does write this: “Today we have Yoga Sutra interpretations from buddhist, christian, atheistic, dualistic, non dualistic etc – so many different perspectives (mostly by non yoga-practicing academics). This has caused a great deal of confusion, especially as these underlying perspectives are often not stated and the translators have little or no practical experience with yoga. In the mass of available information, original and true teachings are hard to discern, even when they are so plain to sight.”)

This raises an interesting issue for me — one that’s at the heart of my overly dramatic (for blog effect) reactions to yoga festivals as “earnest, love everything and everything will be OK” gatherings. Is Ashtanga, is yoga, really so interfaith, so embracing of every perspective?

Yoga certainly is that way in America. But what part of that openness has been added (for good or not) by the West? Is it a natural and OK expansion on the nature of Brahman? (Honestly, I’m not sure and haven’t found a very satisfying answer yet. I’d love to hear one.)

I think it also adds food for thought to the efficacy of other forms of  yoga.

Posted by Steve

Yoga, and Harry Potter, among Vatican exorcist’s greatest dislikes

The Vatican’s chief exorcist this week “surprised” onlookers — according to media reports — by citing yoga and Harry Potter as two of his greatest dislikes.

“Yoga is the Devil’s work,” said Father Gabriel Amorth, according to Britain’s Daily Mail. “You thing you are doing it for stretching your mind and body but it leads to Hinduism. All these oriental religions are based on the false belief of reincarnation.”

As if that isn’t bad enough, here’s his take on Harry Potter:

‘People think it is an innocuous book for children but it’s about magic and that leads to evil. In Harry Potter the Devil is at work in a cunning and crafty way, he is using his extraordinary powers of magic and evil.

‘Satan is always hidden and the thing he desires more than anything is for people to believe he does not exist. He studies each and everyone of us and our tendencies towards good and evil and then he tempts us.

‘My advice to young people would be to watch out for nightclubs because the path is always the same: alcohol, sex, drugs and Satanic sects.’

Amorth has carried out about 70,000 exorcisms. That’s a lot of spinning heads and projectile vomit. And given he’s complained about yoga and Harry Potter in the past, I’m not sure why this set of comments supposedly surprised anyone.

It proves it isn’t just American Christians who have issues with yoga.

Posted by Steve

On the burden of ‘practicing yoga’

Continuing with our ongoing theme, “What is yoga exactly,” we come to this:

Nevada (US), Nov 11 (ANI): Hindus are upset at what they call as “sexploitation” of yoga.

Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, said that yoga was a serious mental and physical discipline by means of which the human-soul (jivatman) united with universal-soul (parmatman).

But for mercantile greed, market seemed to be flooded with books, magazines, DVDs, and other media showing yoga as some kind of potion to enhance sex life.

Zed, who is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that it was simply misuse of age old and revered system of yoga.

The piece goes on to list a bunch book and magazine titles that emphasize how yoga can help with your sex life. We’ve all seen them, right?

And it adds this:

Rajan Zed further says that some sages have described yoga as the silencing of all mental transformations, which leads to the total realization of the Supreme Self. Some have used yoga attempting to gain liberation by removing all sensory barriers. According to Patanjali, author of the basic text, the Yoga Sutra, yoga is a methodical effort to attain perfection, through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical and psychical.

That description, of course, is why to a certain extent — well, his — the Christian pastor lambasting yoga as demonic is right. And it is why I raise my eyebrows when “yoga” is used to describe what amounts to an exercise program.

But it also is right at the line where I have to do a little self-inquiry, too. Who am I to say I “do yoga” or, even worse, “am a yogi”? Is it fair to even say I have an Atman? Am I not just cloaking myself in something market-driven?

Obviously, I hope not. I try not to have that be the case, but I can’t help feeling like it is lurking just out of my line of sight, just beyond my frame of reference. I hope it keeps me a bit honest with the practice, a little humble, perhaps even “grounded.”

But I also worry about how it holds me back. If I’m questioning, what am I not quite reaching for in those moments?

Posted by Steve

Sunday must-read: Thomas Friedman on the promise of India

A little detour with this post. But when one of the most prominent politics and policy writers in America, if not “the West,” devotes some time to India, I say it is worth our attention.

That writer? The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman. Here’s a link to his column today, plus some excerpts:

Somehow, though, without benefit of police or stoplights, this flow of humanity that is modern India impossibly went about its business. But just when your mind tells you that this crush of people will surely overwhelm all efforts to lift the mass of India out of poverty, you start to notice a pattern: Every few miles there’s a cellphone tower and a fresh-looking building poking out of the controlled chaos. And the sign out front invariably says “school” — engineering school, biotechnology school, English-language school, business school, computer school or private elementary school. India is still the only country I know where you can find a billboard advertising “physics degrees.”

All these schools, plus 600 million cellphones, plus 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under 25, are India’s hope — because only by leveraging technology and brains can India deliver a truly better life for its masses. There are a million reasons why it won’t happen, but there is one big reason it might. The predicted really is happening: India’s young techies are moving from running the back rooms of Western companies, who outsourced work here, to inventing the front rooms of Indian companies, which are offering creative, low-cost solutions for India’s problems. The late C.K. Prahalad called it “Gandhian innovation,” and I encountered many examples around New Delhi.


Finally, there’s Nandan Nilekani, the former C.E.O. of Infosys Technologies, India’s outsourcing giant, who is now leading a government effort to give every Indian citizen an ID number — a crucial initiative in a country where most people have no driver’s license, passport or even birth certificate.

In the last two years, 100 million people have signed up for an official ID. Once everyone has one, the government can deliver them services or subsidies — some $60 billion each year — directly through cellphones or bank accounts, without inept or corrupt bureaucrats siphoning some off.

Now, there’s no mention — beyond, perhaps the Gandhi reference — of the spirituality that is the Western yogi’s connection to India. But for many in the West, the technology side of India is becoming, or already has become, increasingly familiar. That familiarity may be through clinches and stereotypes, but as Friedman’s column suggests, the West risks its status if it doesn’t look past those cliches.

If you hew to Friedman’s most positive take, that risk of status loss already is happening, to India’s benefit.

Posted by Steve