“Nam-ma-stay”

by Danielle Tatik

In 2016, t-shirts reading “Nama-stay in Bed” and “Namaste Bitches” are a common occurrence all over California. The term “Namaste” (pronounced: Nam-ma-stay), has assimilated itself into modern western culture. Heard and overheard everywhere, from the local yoga studio to Soul Cycle classes. This term has become as cliche as it is popular. It denotes the spiritually conscious thinker akin to the stereotype paired with Prius drivers in 1999 and reusable eco friendly shopping bags in the early 2000’s. “Namaste” is almost as common as spending all day in yoga pants. Even people who don’t partake in this culture have heard the word before and can in some way identify what it might imply. The question I have is, does anybody really know what it means and where it came from?

Ask someone what “Namaste” means and you will most likely get something similar to the following responses: “The divine light in me sees and honors the divine light in you”, “I honor the place within you which is love, peace, and light”, and “peace”. These are all beautiful messages to be sending. If we all saw the love, peace, and light in each other as well as ourselves the world would absolutely be a more peaceful place. Prejudice, hate, elitism, and exclusion wouldn’t be an issue if we all saw the awesomeness we see in ourselves in others. It is highly possible these “spiritual hipsters” are on to something with the use of “Namaste”. However, before I boldly claim the power of Namaste to ignite a world peace movement, let’s examine the root of its origin.

Namaste translates directly from the Hindu religious tradition as “I bow to you”. It comes from the root word “nama” which is a verb meaning “to bow”. “Te” is the grammatical ending meaning “to” in the accusative form, adding up to “I bow to you”. “Nama” can further be broken down to “na-ma” or “not mine”, carrying the spiritual significance of reducing one’s ego. Therefore, “Namaste” is used when in prostration, and when paying homage to God. It is often accompanied by a slight bow of the head with hands in prayer at the center of the chest. “Namaste” has also assimilated itself into Hindu culture as a customary greeting. In this more causal use, it is a cultural courtesy with spiritual significance. The significance being, “the God in me is the same in all”. For this to make sense, it is important to understand the context. Hinduism is a religion and culture made up of many Gods and Demi-Gods possessing different qualities yet all stemming from the same source. Each family has a particular God they worship, bow to, and pray to daily. The point of this daily prayer is to diminish the ego and surrender to a higher power at work, God. By consistently doing this, good karma is built up leading you towards enlightenment, and until then giving you a sense of inner peace to share with those around you. Using “Namaste” as cultural courtesy in this context exemplifies the importance Hindu culture placed on accepting all forms God.

The context of “Namaste” is important because of its powerful religious meaning in Hindu culture.The culture of Hinduism as I have experienced it is one of a ritualized life. The daily and mundane become special and sacred through paying homage to God and reducing the ego. Using “Namaste” is essentially an assimilation of Hindu culture’s way of turning the mundane into sacred as well as acknowledging the spirituality in all beings.”Namaste” has paired itself seamlessly with the blossoming westernized yoga movement brining with it a sense of oneness, love, and ego free living. Knowing this, maybe it’s no too bold to wonder if “Namaste” can ignite a world peace movement. However, before you go tattooing “Namaste” on your body, make sure you agree with the religious context it carries. Before you replace “hello” with this spiritually relevant phrase when being friendly to a stranger, know that you are imposing on them a connection to an idea of God they might not agree with.

In 2016, t-shirts reading “Nama-stay in Bed” and “Namaste Bitches” are a common occurrence all over California. The term “Namaste” (pronounced: Nam-ma-stay), has assimilated itself into modern western culture. Heard and overheard everywhere, from the local yoga studio to Soul Cycle classes. This term has become as cliche as it is popular. It denotes the spiritually conscious thinker akin to the stereotype paired with Prius drivers in 1999 and reusable eco friendly shopping bags in the early 2000’s. “Namaste” is almost as common as spending all day in yoga pants. Even people who don’t partake in this culture have heard the word before and can in some way identify what it might imply. The question I have is, does anybody really know what it means and where it came from?

Ask someone what “Namaste” means and you will most likely get something similar to the following responses: “The divine light in me sees and honors the divine light in you”, “I honor the place within you which is love, peace, and light”, and “peace”. These are all beautiful messages to be sending. If we all saw the love, peace, and light in each other as well as ourselves the world would absolutely be a more peaceful place. Prejudice, hate, elitism, and exclusion wouldn’t be an issue if we all saw the awesomeness we see in ourselves in others. It is highly possible these “spiritual hipsters” are on to something with the use of “Namaste”. However, before I boldly claim the power of Namaste to ignite a world peace movement, let’s examine the root of its origin.

Namaste translates directly from the Hindu religious tradition as “I bow to you”. It comes from the root word “nama” which is a verb meaning “to bow”. “Te” is the grammatical ending meaning “to” in the accusative form, adding up to “I bow to you”. “Nama” can further be broken down to “na-ma” or “not mine”, carrying the spiritual significance of reducing one’s ego. Therefore, “Namaste” is used when in prostration, and when paying homage to God. It is often accompanied by a slight bow of the head with hands in prayer at the center of the chest. “Namaste” has also assimilated itself into Hindu culture as a customary greeting. In this more causal use, it is a cultural courtesy with spiritual significance. The significance being, “the God in me is the same in all”. For this to make sense, it is important to understand the context. Hinduism is a religion and culture made up of many Gods and Demi-Gods possessing different qualities yet all stemming from the same source. Each family has a particular God they worship, bow to, and pray to daily. The point of this daily prayer is to diminish the ego and surrender to a higher power at work, God. By consistently doing this, good karma is built up leading you towards enlightenment, and until then giving you a sense of inner peace to share with those around you. Using “Namaste” as cultural courtesy in this context exemplifies the importance Hindu culture placed on accepting all forms God.

The context of “Namaste” is important because of its powerful religious meaning in Hindu culture.The culture of Hinduism as I have experienced it is one of a ritualized life. The daily and mundane become special and sacred through paying homage to God and reducing the ego. Using “Namaste” is essentially an assimilation of Hindu culture’s way of turning the mundane into sacred as well as acknowledging the spirituality in all beings.”Namaste” has paired itself seamlessly with the blossoming westernized yoga movement brining with it a sense of oneness, love, and ego free living. Knowing this, maybe it’s no too bold to wonder if “Namaste” can ignite a world peace movement. However, before you go tattooing “Namaste” on your body, make sure you agree with the religious context it carries. Before you replace “hello” with this spiritually relevant phrase when being friendly to a stranger, know that you are imposing on them a connection to an idea of God they might not agree with.

Despite the religious implications of “Namaste”, it still can mean a simple “peace”, or hipster friendly “I honor the place within you which is love, peace, and light”, and it can add meaning to your spiritually minded fitness lifestyle. This is possible because of the heavy western assimilation “Namaste” and yoga culture in general has gone through. I am not encouraging the end of the “Namaste” fad. Rather, I am encouraging you to be informed and Nama-stay in context when using such powerful phrase.

Despite the religious implications of “Namaste”, it still can mean a simple “peace”, or hipster friendly “I honor the place within you which is love, peace, and light”, and it can add meaning to your spiritually minded fitness lifestyle. This is possible because of the heavy western assimilation “Namaste” and yoga culture in general has gone through. I am not encouraging the end of the “Namaste” fad. Rather, I am encouraging you to be informed and Nama-stay in context when using such powerful phrase.

Sprituality, Technology, Connection and the Buddhist ‘aesthetic’

by Ellie Grace

I’ve been wondering for a while about the connections between technology and spirituality, the obvious flagpole of which is the discussion on how damaging the effects of heavy computer use are on our mental and emotional wellbeing. The statistics don’t, on the whole, look good and most especially for young brains still in development. It’s said that the greater the amount of time spent engaging with online activities and technology, the greater the interruption to our sleep cycle (the light emitted from phone and computer screens is said to disrupt the activity of the pineal gland), and the less we’re able to nurture our empathic intelligence – the parts of ourselves that allow us to emotionally read others, make genuine connections through attentive listening, eye contact and the interpretation of body language in real time.

We’re told that the lives we live online are creating too large an identity gap between our sense of ourselves as perceived by others and the experience of ourselves as witnessed by our inner field. Essentially we’re looking so much at ourselves from the outside that we’re forgetting to look at ourselves from the inside.

All this is old hat, or so I thought. It was my understanding that everyone knew this stuff – that too much time spent gazing in to the bright white screen of the apple laptop was – of course!, obviously! – going to make you depressed. It turns out not everyone knows this. I was amazed when a good friend of mine who works as a digital creative turned to me recently and admitted that she thought she was depressed. She said, ‘I suddenly realised, standing in the middle of this party surrounded by my best friends, that they could see me. Like they could actually see me and that all this time until now all they’d seen – or all I’d perceived them as seeing of me – was my online self, like a hologram of me. It dawned on me in a way that moved me to deep, sobbing tears, that I was real for them, that I existed.’

It took some time for me to absorb what she was saying, so inverse was it to my way of regarding technology and what I see as an inauthentic tool for displaying ourselves to the world. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not disregarding technology or social media in their entirety and I have plenty of opinions on why I think both are connecting and valuable but what she said got me thinking further. Beyond what I think of as being a really sad state of affairs in terms of the sickness social media has inspired in self-perception, human connection and identity crisis, I also wonder how much value we can get from meditation apps and online yoga studios claiming to bring stillness into our extraordinarily busy lives.

Aside from the people for whom online classes are, quite possibly, life-saving: the ill or dying; the immobile; the many mothers who are house-bound and exhausted but for whom an opportunity to take 20 minutes to look after themselves while their baby sleeps… aside from these people, I do wonder whether the decision to sell a practice on a screen is just another way to capitalise on the boundless space of the internet and to corroborate what we’ve already bought into in our digital culture: that attention, action and satisfaction are to be found outside of ourselves at the click of a button.

I already find it hard enough to concentrate in my yoga studio in Venice, largely because I’m visually distracted by the clothing, mats, tattoos, music and bodies on display around me. I have to work hard to stay in my own body and with my own breath in order to have an internal experience of my practice. Most of the time, sadly, I don’t, and my practice has – despite very good teachers whose aim is to have their students rewarded from the internal experience – become something of a necessary physical stretchout that my body demands rather than a spiritually elevating one.

The subject got me wondering as well on Steve Jobs’ lifelong interest in Buddhism. The whole Apple design, functionality and aesthetic feels to me to be set up as if in reverence to the ineffable elegance, beauty and perfection of divinity itself. In fact the way that the products and the stores themselves are designed – like temples or cathedrals to modern innovation – communicates something of the spiritual vision I think Jobs possessed as a leader and trailblazer. There’s a clarity in the light of the screens, the way they shimmer as if illuminated by the celestial orb of some higher realm and power into action like the gliding images of our very own consciousness … it’s interesting to me how obviously this mimicry of human consciousness and supreme awareness is integrated with the visual rhetoric of spirituality in a computer interface. The parallels are there for all to see. We’re offered a ‘cloud’ in which to place all of our personal information, knowledge and data, much like the trust we must place in a guru. The cloud-guru will store everything it knows about you: both are omniscient. Once you place your knowledge and faith in the cloud-guru it’s not going to work if you take your information elsewhere – this operating system (of beliefs) is not compatible with another operating system. You must commit to cloudguru in order to reap the benefits of carefully meted-out rewards / guidance / new products. You will bow and express gratitude to both for being so very wise as to hold all of you at once and in return, the cloud-guru will give you expressive, creative, collaborative freedom and opportunity to fully realise and express who you are. The more you submit to cloud-guru, the more deeply integrated as a customer-disciple you become. There are degrees of accessibility to the cloud-guru too. The more money or time you can donate and bequeath to your cloud-guru, the more windows of opportunity and expression open to you, eventually opening up new levels of accessibility and functionality as you progress through the (operating) systems. If you don’t regularly clean out, burn up or cleanse your data / samskaras, your past will catch up with you, limit you, prevent you from enjoying a future free from suffering…

The analogies are fun to explore but underneath these little theories I’m imagining, Jobs did of course have a committed Zen practice. He designed the way his practice allowed him to think and observe his thoughts. His practice revealed to him the limitless skyscape of his mind, the thoughts just passing clouds. He fused form and function in such a way as to allow the object – the ipad, ipod or Macbook seem somehow inevitable, as if they had always-already existed and had merely been discovered by him and his team of designers. As Steve Silberman writes, ‘Apple devices, you might say, are sophisticated tools for evoking, supporting, and sustaining shoshin, beginner’s mind.’ [http://blogs.plos.org/neurotribes/2015/10/26/what-kind-of-buddhist-was-steve-jobs-really/] My question then is, if Jobs knew that the thinking mind and perceived reality was all illusory, was he ever in conflict about the commercial success of his ideas, or of the spiritual deficit so much time spent in front of one of his products causes?

Possessed by Yoga!

ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

I have been examining three different blog posts (not from our group) warning of the dangers of yoga leading to possession. The three blogs come from three slightly different perspectives. The first one, which instigated this investigation, is by a woman named Corinna Craft, M.A., J.D. Her blog: “What’s the Matter with Yoga” (https://whatsthematterwithyoga.wordpress.com/) and is devoted to her personal experience as a Christian and former yoga teacher and body worker (shiatsu) who claims to have exorcised two personal demons related to her ‘Eastern’ practices. The second blog comes from a non-christian who uses the obvious pseudonym of Bronte Baxter (https://brontebaxter.wordpress.com/). He/she is a former member of the Transcendental Meditation movement who claims that all mantra yoga and meditation is surrendering the self to demonic possession, including Christian prayer. The third blog is a more standard Catholic anti-yoga blog that uses kundalini as its main evidence to show that all yoga leads to demonic possession (http://www.churchmilitant.com/news/article/awakening-the-serpent-within).
All three of these blogs attract a large following of paranoid individuals looking for anything that aligns with their powerful confirmation biases. Comment sections on all three are filled with a variety of strawman arguments to paint yoga as an ancient theological practice that is completely inseparable from the Hindu deities of whom they are only vaguely acquainted. These various attempts to malign an alien practice and often loosely connected faith as demonic, which are tolerated despite their apparent xenophobia and intolerance, manage to be construed as a large conspiracy that needs to be revealed. This same reliance on completely unconfirmed conspiracy theories, as we have seen this year more than ever, can lead to large-scale intolerant behavior, letting Christian and other groups justify unjust behavior towards other groups by viewing their own values as under attack. This misses the irony that they are the ones who are leading the attack, and replaying old models of colonial entitlement.
Our first blogger, Corinna, goes into great detail to describe her past as a yoga instructor who :
thought my yoga practice was kosher. After all, it was touted as a non-Hindu style for people with western sensibilities, devoid of Hindu elements, strictly reformulated as a good workout through the superimposed grid of exercise science. Moreover, I only taught in secular venues: city rec centers, gyms, and colleges, never in yoga studios rife with roving spirits of far eastern religions. In the privacy of my own home, I worshipped Jesus on my mat: I sanctified and reconsecrated the practice to Jesus, or so I thought. But yoga had originated in India for communion with the Hindu divine and the goal of realizing the self as god and for liberation from the treadmill of reintarnation (oops, reincarnation). How did I reconcile that with my Christian faith?
She then details how unhappy her life was, which of course is blamed on a long standing possession she was hitherto unaware of. It is only upon meeting an exorcist that she comes to realize that “shiatsu is satanic”. After being ‘saved’ from paganism by a confession of faith in 1990, she began her Christianized version of a yoga practice. But it was only upon meeting one particular minister that she had an experience that confirmed her belief in possession.
I attended an inner healing and deliverance workshop and volunteered as a demonstration subject. The minister, Gary Hixson, followed the usual protocol, interviewing me about possible entry points of the demonic in childhood and adolescence—any physical, verbal, sexual abuse, neglect, and so on. In the middle of his intake, he stopped.
“I’m getting a word,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I said, “What’s that?”
“Shiatsu,” he said, […] “It’s demonic,”
Mr. Hixson, who runs a website called Deep Healing International (which makes no direct reference to possession or exorcism) then proceeds to confront and exorcise the demon of new age healing that is somehow attached to this gentle, non-theistic massage modality. This encounter is perhaps one of the most telling parts of her blog:
Suddenly, I felt my eyeballs bulging out of their sockets and my teeth clenching. My face seized up like the kabuki mask of a Samurai warrior scowling grimly, crossed-eyed with rage, […] Next, my abdomen and chest began to heave—I mean really heave—with deep, bellows-like, diaphragmatic breathing, to the sound of loud vacuuming inhalations and horse wheezing exhalations. […] Abruptly, my right hand started slapping my right thigh over and over to the point of stinging, and my left foot started stomping on the ground like a homesteader having a tantrum. Somebody was pushing the buttons on the control panel of my being, overriding involuntary organ functions and voluntary motor functions that were supposed to be regulated by my central nervous system and me! I was horrified.
“Is that enough for you?” G.H. said.
I bobbed my head yes. Blow me down!
“How did you enter her?” G.H. demanded, addressing the demon.
“Literature,” I heard in my head.
“It’s saying, ‘literature,’” I said, “and by that it means texts on Traditional Chinese Medicine that I had to read to write my book and teach the eastern paradigm of healing.”
Great! I thought. All that research and all that study came with hell’s hitchhiker! So books can be portals to spiritual attachments…I knew that, but I didn’t KNOW that. What a blooming chasm between knowledge and experience!
G.H. nodded.
“Are you transferable through touch?” G.H. said.
“Yes,” I heard in my head.
“It’s saying, ‘yes,’” I reported. […] G.H. nodded and summarily cast it out.
As convenient as it would be to dismiss her experience, I will simply point out that the mystical experience of any individual is known to use familiar images and tropes that the mystic has prepared themselves to witness. Just as the Christian sees Christ, the Muslim sees Muhammad, and the yogi sees the cakras or deities their tradition teaches, and so on. What one might encounter with the conflicting expectations of kundalini awakening and Christian spiritual possession is hard to guess, but it is reasonable to expect someone’s growing Christian faith to lead to a cognitive dissonance that can be hard to resolve.
Her concept of Hinduism is as dismissive as one could possibly imagine.
I knew that yoga was a Hindu form of worship, one of several paths to enlightenment in the Hindu system: the path of bodily austerity or purification; the physical path of union with the Hindu divine. But after my conversion to Christianity, I knew that the Hindu supreme reality is not reality at all and that Hindu gods are not gods at all, and that YHWH is the one true God.
Yes, not only is YHWH the only true God, but she goes on to explain that the Hindu gods are not real, but that invoking them invokes evil demons attached to their practices. So Shiva is not real, but demons are… If she is working under these assumptions there is no other way for her to interpret her experiences, which makes her faith an extreme limitation on her ability to view other religions and traditions fairly or rationally.
The most remarkable things in this encounter in her world view are the belief that satan can spread by touch, justifying the accusation that shiatsu could be satanic, and the belief that she became possessed through literature. One of the most frustrating claims from any insular group like this is that reading opinions that disagree with theirs is detrimental. The Hare Krishna movement tells its followers only to read the writings of their group while they mercilessly attack their rival schools’ undefended strawmen. This is just like the far-right remaining insular in their news sources, never reading anything that would disagree with FOX news, because it is not about increasing their understanding, it is about confirming what they feel they already know. When a group teaches that dissenting opinions are harmful, this is one of the most blatant attempts to keep people too ignorant to ever disprove a group’s dogma.
She also has a second, self-led exorcism where she dispells a demon of yoga. In this epic encounter, she describes the demon’s resistance:
“Manifest yourself!” I demanded.
“I will not!” it said.
“Do I have authority over you?”
“Yes,” the demon said; then it backpedaled, “He’s not as powerful as I am.” (By that, it meant, “Jesus is not as powerful as I am.”)
“You’re mistaken!”
Suddenly, I felt a pleasurable surge of energy from below erupt toward my head like a geyser—it was a full body rush that made me light up and tingle all over on the inside. I recognized this as kundalini energy.
And she goes on to explain how kundalini is supposedly an attempt by these demons to seduce us with the ‘inferior’ experiences of yoga. Her experience of kundalini combines incompatibly with her experience of a demonic presence. Of course we know that with sufficient conditioning, orthodox beliefs can make sex and chocolate into unpleasant confrontations with evil in the practitioner’s perception, despite their naturally pleasurable natures. Intention and expectation can be enough to totally transform our perspective of any experience. It seems likely that enough years of conditioning from one tradition eclipsed her conditioning from her half-baked ‘Christian’ yoga practice. It is well documented how moments of cognitive dissonance can lead to strong emotional responses, even violence when attempting to integrate or reject information that does not readily fit with a person’s preconceptions. This dissonance is, I believe, the source of all three of our bloggers’ vehement condemnations of yoga as demonic.
Another remarkable aspect of her blog is an attempt to use Mark SIngleton’s book, as well as the book the Raja of Aundh wrote on the sun-salutation, to prove that yogasana is inherently religious, despite the fact that Mark Singleton does not really put that theory forward. In fact, his main point seems to be that the secular yoga practices Corrina combined with her Christian faith are of non-hindu origin, coming from the same Western dance traditions that first led her to yoga. Likewise, the Raja of Aundh’s book is used to point out the sun worship that inspired the sun-salutation, which simply proves that the Hindus honored astrological figures, which is also true of the Christian faith. Even the days of the week are named after the same seven planets and similar deities in the Christian West and the Hindu and Buddhist East. If she thinks worshipping God on Sunday does not have the same ‘pagan’ sun worshipping roots as the sun-salutation, then she clearly has not turned the same critical eye towards the roots of her own religion.
Our second blog is devoted to the theory that yogasana or eastern medicine lead does not lead to possession, but that the mantras used in yoga and meditation are a tool to steal our power by ‘astral beings’. His explanation is that after only 17 years in the TM movement, he discovered (which shows just how inquisitive he must have been) that the mantras that he was practicing contained ‘namah’ which “means I bow down to”. He then extrapolates wildly to say that all mantras and even all yogic meditations are devoted to different deities, including the Judeo-Christian God as “Jehovah was one god among many for the Hebrews. A self-righteous fellow fond of war and genocide, he had to compete with the other local gods for the Hebrews’ allegiance.” Furthermore, he claims that all ‘Eastern’ meditation is based on this.
While we lost some of the disturbing Christian condescension of our first blogger, we encounter an even worse misrepresentation of what Yoga is. Throughout this blog, he explains that all yoga is devotional (a blatant falsity) and that all yoga teaches dissolving the ego into that of a deity (another falsity, as most devotional schools are strictly non-dualist). This misconception may be born of the fact that the Maharishi’s yoga is non-dualist, though it is also largely non-devotional. It is clear that, like Corrina, we are dealing with an individual with a very incomplete understanding of vast category of yoga, who is working hard to bend this understanding to support a belief in spiritual possession.
How foolish and arrogant is it to laugh off the existence of a race of beings who appear in the annals of every civilization? I was amazed to see ex-TMers, who spent years feeding soma to devas through chants and mantras, whose walls are still plastered with pictures of Lakshmi, Kali and Shiva, dismiss with a toss of their head the idea that gods might exist as real persons.
That’s right, folks: your years of meditation and chanting feed astral beings who have presented themselves as God’s throughout history to trick you into worshipping them. This is a reconstruction of some of the Vedic concepts of how sacrifice feeds the Gods, that seems to have mixed with the science fiction of stargate. At no point does he explain how ‘offering soma’ to these ‘demonic beings’ is supposed to affect us negatively, but hinting that when all offerings are stopped, the power of these beings will disappear.
Remarkably, he then outlines his own form of meditation which is in no way different that mindfulness meditations taught by the very groups he attacks. When this is pointed out in the comments section, he uses more strawman arguments to depict the ‘devotionalism’ of non-theistic meditations. When atheistic mantras like ‘so-ham’ are pointed out, he ignores the point in his response, finding more opportunities to dismiss one concept of yoga while upholding another that he simply stripped of the title and claimed as his own. When he says these paths teach abdicating duties, one comment points to the karma yoga of the Gita, which prompts another user to point to the irrelevant example of the Buddha leaving his wife and son, ignoring the fact that the Buddha and Gita do not teach the same thing. Another post says the Gita teaches us to be content as slaves, despite the fact that the text was clearly written for Brahmins and Kṣatriyas, not Śudras. But like many of the radical voices on the internet, his partial understanding of a subject, combined with a vehement and unsupported thesis, creates a belief that he has a heightened understanding of a topic he barely grasps. Once this point is of ‘foolish wisdom’ is reached, it is almost impossible to talk someone down from there.
Our third blog is simply a classic example of a Christian presence on the internet that equates the kundalini experience specifically with demonic possession. In the wish to dismiss all Indian religiosity and spirituality, the blatant misconception is proposed that all yoga is about kundalini awakening. Combined with their scant evidence that kundalini awakening bears the same symptoms as possession (taken from another anti-yoga blog), this then becomes ‘proof’ that all yoga is a gateway to demonic possession.
Many Catholics think Yoga is simply harmless stretching, but is it?
In fact, Yoga is a religion, and its purpose is to awaken one’s Kundalini. What is “Kundalini”? In Hinduism, Kundalini is actually a goddess that resides at the base of the spine and is awakened by the practice of Yoga. In other words, according to St. Paul, Kundalini is a demon.
Given that the purpose of Yoga is to awaken one’s Kundalini, it can be said that Yoga is simply an invitation to demonic possession, contrary to what some ignorant Catholics are saying.
It gives a wide, poorly sourced list of symptoms of kundalini awakening, most of which are also symptoms of a panic attack, describing them as the results of yoga practice, glossing over its unsupported assumption that kundalini is the goal of all yoga. Luckily, most of his readers do not know any better, and happily swallow the misunderstanding whole.
I am happy to say that this blog has attracted a healthy mix of opinions in its comment section, which is still heavily edited by the blogger, and currently closed to comments. A number of presumably Christian voices were happy to give ubiquitous ‘your blog proves everything I suspected’ comments, from those who would believe anything that supports their non-empirical assumptions. These comments litter all three pages, despite their uniform lack of primary sources and even stated unwillingness to engage yogic sources. But we also find a few fun, if not still ill informed, retorts in the comments:
It isn’t the exercises themselves that do the harm. It’s the meditations and things they tell you to do like “become one with the floor” or “empty your spirit” or other weird talk. No exercise can get you possessed I don’t think.. Otherwise there would be people coming in to Exorcism saying “I don’t know why I’m possessed” and the exorcist would say “Did you, by any chance, lift your knee up to 46º exactly and look up?”, “Maybe, yesterday I was going up the stairs and someone called my name from the 2nd floor”, “Darn! You hit a Yoga pose. Instant possession!” hehe
Pilates I think is ok. Many bishops and cardinals do the Pontius variant 😉
Seriously though I don’t think there are issue with them as long as the dress code is modest and moves are not heading in any immoral direction.
These are all mixed in among xenophobic comments presenting as concerned community members:
Our local priest who was from India and thank God he is gone. He suggested to the congregation to practice yoga as part of their “spirituality.” I called him on this and he gave me some baloney how the Indian method was fine. Our new priest is also from India I hope he will not have the same mindset. They [sic] is so much to be on guard for these days and that’s just within our own Church!?
Funny to see here that the “Indian method” is suspect, that a priest’s defense of it is “baloney” (interesting spelling), and that she is worried her new Indian priest will also teach unacceptable yoga. As with others who complain about ‘new age’ practice in their church and community, she never specifies what exactly are the practices she views as ‘the indian method’ or ‘new-agey’. As with the blogger, she assumes a monolithic body of non-christian practices with a singular illegitimate base that can be dismissed wholesale.
A number of other commentators, like our first blogger, Corrina, take particular issue with bodily postures, breathing exercises, and the visualizations they think of as yogic, showing a complete ignorance over the fact that all of these techniques are used in the practices of the first Christian monastics in Egypt, the Desert Fathers, and later developed into an almost identical practice used in Hesychasm as the Jesus prayer where one visualizes drawing Christ consciousness into the heart with the breath, while holding specific postures, focusing on bodily points like the belly button, heart, and visions of light in the head. When anything from their own meditative tradition is taught it is somehow assumed to be yoga. One commenter talks about their own experiences with a progressive priest:
We had a “new age” priest come to Australia last year, Fr Belitz, from San Francisco, who was preaching on all sorts of new age meditation nonsense. He was openly criticised by a friend, Eddie Russell of Flame Ministries, in his open letter to the Vatican (http://www.flameministries.org…. [dead link]
Needless to say, Fr Belitz was allowed to spread his dangerous new age nonsense around various parishes in Perth, and in the article/open letter, Mr Russell posts the update that Abp Costelloe has banned Belitz from preaching in the archdiocese moving forward.
Sadly, Fr Belitz is still allowed to do this elsewhere, even more recently, in Indiana, where Abp Costelloe is mentioned
Even when Hesychasm was growing in popularity, there were elements in the church who famously denounced it as polytheist (because of the divine association with the image of light). The ensuing schism led to the Eastern Church incorporating it while the Vatican banned it. Many Christians are still fighting any attempt to instill an experiential practice of meditation and prayer, without realizing they are just continuing a dogmatic argument that started between Barlaam and Palamas a millenia ago. But, when Galileo was pardoned by John Paul the II, we had a chance to see how quickly the church moves past old quarrels.
Before kundalini became an explanatory phenomenology within select yogic milieus for the mystical states achieved in practice, the techniques of the Yoga Sūtras, as one example, show that the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Yogic ascetic meditational practices were almost identical and certainly overlap much more than many Christians seem to realize. These practices are still central to the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, though I will say remarkably, I have not seen one comment in all these threads that makes any mention of this. One comment even suggests that another poster should use the breathing exercises used by musicians because he ‘doesn’t know any wind musicians who do yoga’. There is already Christian breath meditation, but when they see breath meditation, they assume it is yoga and therefor not Christian. I also believe (from personal research) that the seven cakras, as well as the seven tiered cosmology of the puranas comes from the same Babylonian influences that shaped the Greek, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian and Muslim conceptions of seven heavens through which the soul ascends. The Biblical figures of Enoch and Elijah show stories of living beings entering heaven within their bodies (jivanmukti) through trance states. All that kundalini awakening really shows is an embodied form of the practice of mystical ascent that dominates all Indo-European religious soteriologies, not a demonology. Even the hierarchies of yoginis and demons that guard the cakras seem to exactly mirror the archangels who guard the seven palaces of heaven in Jewish merkabah literature like the Book of Enoch, or who move up and down the heavenly ladder in Jacob’s mystical vision in the book of Genesis.
So is there a way to change the minds of these individuals who view our yoga as demonic and other? How can one convince someone who does not believe in comparative religious studies, but will happily parrot the arguments of other descenters within their fold while condemning the liberal voices inside their own establishment. The effect of the walled garden is very powerful, leading to a small group of self-affirming radicals constructing a contained set of perceived facts that are interdependent, but not connected to or challenged by outside opinions. This is what happens within cults, where all dissent is considered unhealthy. The only way to break someone of these misconceptions is to actually coax them beyond the garden walls and force them into the unpleasant world of cognitive dissonance, which can be psychologically overwhelming.
Unfortunately, one of the most difficult tasks we will have to face is letting some people stay in their ignorance rather than attempting to violently dislodge their heads from the sand. Perhaps we can learn from the patient Jehovah’s Witnesses we sometimes encounter at our door. They proselytize because they believe that if we do not find their faith we will go to hell. They have an urgent mission that brings them face to face with hundreds of strangers a day who disagree with them, and each time they kindly give you their literature, talk with you if you are willing, and let you be when you wish.

Somatics: An Intersection of Modern Dance and Modern Yoga  

by Allie Berger

What is “Somatics”?

In today’s world of easy exchange of ideas and information, it is not uncommon for dancers (especially Modern dancers) to be familiar with a variety of “somatic practices,” including yoga, and to incorporate them into their training. Similarly, many yoga practitioners have become accustomed to asana classes that incorporate flowing, dance-like movement sequences. But what do we mean by “somatics,” exactly? And what are the relationships among this field of somatic practices, modern yoga, and modern dance specifically? There are many ways to enter into this dialogue, but I’d like to begin with a contemporary figure named Sondra Fraleigh.

Fraleigh is a professor emeritus of Dance at SUNY Brockport, founder of Eastwest Somatics, creator of Land to Water Yoga, and author/editor of several books, including, most recently, Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and Touch (Illinois, 2015). I have chosen to begin with her partially because her work embodies the overlapping of dance, yoga, and somatics, and partially because of my own connection to her. Though I have never met or studied directly with Fraleigh, I took a semester-long course in somatics taught by one of her certified trainers and approved as equivalent to Eastwest’s Shin Somatics Level I certification. The coursework of Shin Somatics, reflecting Fraleigh’s eclectic background, includes techniques from various somatic modalities, including Feldenkrais Method, Alexander Technique, CranioSacral Therapy, Myofascial Release, and yoga. (She developed her own method of yoga during a spontaneous asana practice following a meditation at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in India.) Coincidentally (or perhaps it was less of a coincidence than I think), I entered into this study of somatics the same year I began practicing yoga, and I encountered both in the context of earning my degree in Dance.

In the prologue to Moving Consciously, Fraleigh traces the term “somatic” to the Greek soma, meaning “body.” However, she notes that, more accurately, it is shorthand for the combined concept of soma-psyche, the complete entity of body/mind/spirit, or “embodied conscious awareness” (xxi). Somatic movement practices, then, involves intentional observation and application of kinesthetic experience. In general, somatic modalities have the aim of bringing the practitioner to greater self-awareness through observation of subtle movement patterns. The practitioner is guided, through verbal cues, hands-on work, or a combination of both to experience a new way of patterning his/her movement, a new way of experiencing and being in the world.

Intersecting Lineages

The historical intersections between yoga and other somatic and dance practices are too complex to outline in full here, but I’d like to highlight a few of the key figures and movements involved. First, and perhaps the simplest to trace is Ida Rolf. She developed a technique called Rolfing, or Structural Integration, designed to work with fascia and the body’s relation to gravity. She received a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia, but around the same time (1920s) she was also a student of the famous/infamous Tantric yogi, Theos Bernard, and her work might be seen as an integration of these two seemingly distinct paths.

There were also several Europeans whose techniques inspired somatic practitioners and modern dancers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of these men, as Mark Singleton points out in Yoga Body, was Frenchman Francois Delsarte, whose American students included Steele Makcay, Genevieve Stebbins (who created a method of harmonial gymnastics based on his work), and Annie Payson Call (who developed a gentler system of relaxation and gymnastics based on Stebbins’ work). The work spread back across the ocean with a British student of Call’s, Frances Archer. Her contemporary, Mollie Bagot Stack, founded the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, incorporating yoga asanas she’d learned with the popular harmonial gymnastics of the time. (Singleton, 143-151) Other notable followers of Delsarte’s technique were F. Matthias Alexander (founder of the Alexander Technique) and pioneers of modern dance, Isadora Duncan, Ted Shawn, and Ruth St. Denis.

The other influential Europeans during this time were Swiss music teacher Emile Jacques-Dalcroze, founder of Eurythmics, and Hungarian-born dancer Rudolph Laban, founder of Choreutics/Laban Movement Analysis (LMA). They directly influenced Mary Wigman and Hanya Holm, two of the early German modern dancers who helped to shape the form. Laban in particular has had a lasting impact on modern dance and the development of somatic practices. There are several extensive certification programs in LMA, and his students have continued to expand on his work. Of particular note is Irmgard Bartenieff, creator of the Bartenieff Fundamentals, a way of working with movement based on six developmental patterns.

Although it’s not clear whether or not she studied directly with any of these figures, Mabel Todd (1880-1956), founder of Ideokinesis, was at least indirectly informed by the harmonial religion/harmonial gymnastics prevalent at the time. She was certainly situated at a geographical advantage for encountering such ideas, having been raised in Syracuse and educated at Emerson University in Boston. She combined her own experiences of physical rehabilitation with courses she took on movement and vocal techniques to create her method, which combines anatomical information with metaphor to help facilitate the practitioner’s deeper understanding of posture and movement. Her work, in turn, has inspired many others, including Martha Graham dancer Eric Hawkins and founder of Body-Mind Centering, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen.

Common Methods/Divergent Goals?

Singleton asserts that the popularity of harmonial gymnastics was one factor that primed the West for postural yoga. (144) At the very least, I think we can say that postural yoga appealed to (and still appeals to) a similar audience as those who embrace other movement practices aimed at deeper self-knowledge and intentional engagement with the world. Historically, new movements in the arts around the turn of the 20th century coincided with new ideas about religion; we might even say that there was a thirst for religion to embrace the body while there was a desire for the body to include the spirit.

Today, I see postural yoga and other somatic and movement practices as inhabiting a similar methodological space. Some forms of yoga can placed under the larger bracket of somatic practices because they assume a holistic view of self and use intentional movement experiences to increase self-understanding and engage in self-transformation. (I make this distinction of “some forms” knowing that some postural yoga can be performed mechanically and as a way to overcome rather than embrace the body.) However, the danger, if there is one, in grouping many diverse techniques under a single heading, might be in overlooking their potentially divergent goals. Some techniques, such as Feldenkrais present themselves as purely functional; the goal is to increase awareness of the physical body, with no explicit mention of the soul/spirit/psyche. There is still the implication that the self is a multi-faceted whole, but the presentation is secular. Yoga is certainly portrayed as a purely secular in many situations as well, but at least as often it contains an explicit spirituality. And, of course, deeply imbedded in its history are ideas of karma and liberation. So, while it is possible to practice yoga as both a spiritual and a somatic practice, it is important to note that not all yoga is somatic and not all somatic movement practices have the same goal as yoga.

Sources:

Fraleigh, Sondra, editor. Moving Consciously: Somatic Transformations through Dance, Yoga, and

Touch. U of Illinois P, 2015.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. Oxford UP, 2010.

www.rolf.org

www.eastwestsomatics.com

www.ideokinesis.com

Who has the Authority to Teach Yoga?

by Allie Berger

Who has the Authority to Teach Yoga?

On the surface, this seems like a simple question with a simple answer: a certified yoga teacher has the authority to teach yoga, right? However, this answer brings up more questions, such as: Who has the authority to certify a yoga teacher? And, must a teacher certify separately to work with specific populations, like pre-natal, children/teens, veterans, prisoners, and/or to present classes with a specific focus such as restorative? Are “official,” approved trainings the only way to gain the necessary authority, or does “outside” training and experience count toward one’s credibility? Inevitably, such inquiry leads to a discussion of the role of Yoga Alliance in organizing and standardizing yoga teacher trainings, as well as the role of the student in discerning which teachers are qualified to teach.

Yoga Alliance

                First, let’s look at who/what Yoga Alliance is and how it attempts to standardize yoga training. According to information on their website (www.yogaalliance.org), the organization started to take shape in the late 1990s and officially gained 501(c)(3) status in 1999 when two groups, Yoga Dialogue and Unity in Yoga, combined. At that time, they established a small office in Reading, PA that housed only one salaried employee. They moved to Arlington, VA in 2009 and eventually branched into two organizations, maintaining the 501(c)(3) as a charity under the name Yoga Alliance Registry and obtaining 501(c)(6) status for Yoga Alliance, a “membership professional and trade association.” For our purposes, it’s more important to look at the Registry and its guidelines for membership of schools and teachers.

As a teacher, the minimum requirement for registering with Yoga Alliance is to complete a 200-hr training with a Yoga Alliance-registered school. All hours must come from the same training; a teacher is not permitted to combine hours from multiple trainings to meet the 200 hours. Additionally, as a membership organization, Yoga Alliance charges an annual fee of $55, plus an initial application fee of $50. So, for a new teacher registering for the first time, the total fees would be $105. They would then continue to pay the annual fee each year, plus an additional $50 application fee any time they upgrade their designation, from 200 hours to 500 hours, for example, and for any specialty certifications they might acquire, such as Children’s Yoga. To maintain status as an RYT, a teacher must also complete 45 hours teaching and 30 hours in continuing education every three years. These hours do not need to be completed with a teacher or organization registered with Yoga Alliance, but if coming from an outside source, must be “Someone who has both professional experience and substantial education related to one or more of the Yoga Alliance Educational Categories. The Provider must be able to document or demonstrate his/her relevant experience and education, and may provide Continuing Education only in their area(s) of expertise.”

The basic requirement to be a 200-hr Registered Yoga School is to submit a syllabus that outlines at least 180 contact hours, broken down into the following categories: 100 hours Techniques, Training and Practice; 25 hours Teaching Methodology; 20 hours Anatomy and Physiology; 30 hours Yoga Philosophy, Lifestyle and Ethics for Yoga Teachers; 10 hours Practicum. The other important qualification for a school is that the teacher trainers must themselves be RYTs, or “have a relevant degree, certification or substantial education in the subject that he or she will teach, which must be related to a Yoga Alliance® Educational Category, plus a minimum of 500 hours of teaching experience in that subject and/or the equivalent of two years of relevant experience in that subject area, as demonstrated by either documentation or an attestation by a RYS Owner or Syllabus Manager.” The Lead Trainers/Faculty have stricter requirements, and must have a minimum designation of E-RYT 200, meaning that they have taught for at least 2 years and 1000 hours after completing their 200-hour training. Schools are also required to pay application and annual fees. The minimum (a single designation) is a $200 application fee and $200 annual fee. If a school is applying to register multiple programs (200, 300, and 500-hour), both fees increase.

A New Guru?

Before Yoga Alliance, there was the authority of the guru. Certainly this tradition has been a longstanding part of Indian culture, but it also characterized the early transmission of yoga in the west. Some organizations, such as Siddha Yoga still embrace this model and uphold the grace of the guru and the power of shaktipat as ultimate authority. However, the spread of yoga in America has largely been a process of making the practices more public, more accessible, and more mainstream. Part of this process has also been a shift of power out of the hands of a single guru and into the shared space of student and teacher. I see the rise of Yoga Alliance as a natural expression of yoga’s integration with the ideals of secularization, democracy, and capitalism. In the absence of the authority of a guru, the yoga community looks to the authority of beaurocracy.

As with any governing body, Yoga Alliance has its benefits and drawbacks. It originally grew out of conversations among yoga teachers and a collective desire to organize in a way that would preserve the integrity of yoga as it continues to spread. This desire forms the spirit of the requirements for becoming a Registered Yoga Teacher or School in that they encourage both trainers and trainees to uphold a certain level of standards and to engage in continued education. They also strive to include all styles of postural yoga. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it is a way to hold all teachers to a similar level of standards.

On the other hand, it is difficult to enforce the specific training needs of any one style, and once the training has been approved there is no foolproof way to evaluate its success (though Yoga Alliance has instituted a “social credentialing” program, which requires graduates of a training to complete a survey before they can register through Yoga Alliance). These standards are also directed specifically at postural yoga, perhaps in response to concerns of physical safety. And, of course, there is the concern present in any credentialing organization that not all teachers who complete the same training end up being equally skilled. Finally, there are many experienced teachers who trained before Yoga Alliance existed and who are not eligible to register through them (as of August 31, 2001) unless they complete an additional training through a Registered Yoga School. For more criticisms of Yoga Alliance, see the following article by James Brown: https://americanyoga.school/yoga-alliance-ruining-yoga/

Is There an Alternative?

There is no legal obligation for a yoga teacher to certify and register through Yoga Alliance in order to practice. Certainly, there are many studio owners who will only hire teachers registered with Yoga Alliance but there are other teachers and studio owners who uphold rigorous standards without participating in Yoga Alliance or its Registry. In fact, some teachers have expressed concern that the perceived authority of a Yoga Alliance-approved certification may give new teachers an inflated sense of knowledge. Similarly, a student might see the Yoga Alliance RYT designation behind a teacher’s name and take everything they say and do as truth without a critical eye, not unlike the way a student might treat a guru. Recently, a friend and fellow yoga teacher posted the following on Facebook (minor typos corrected for ease of reading):

Dear Yoga Community: My silence is taken as acquiescence and I’d assumed I was being compassionate; we’re both incorrect. A basic 200hour YTT entitles you to teach a basic yoga class in the style in which you’re certified. It’s not a cart-blanche license to teach specialty classes like yin, aerial, restorative, prenatal, kids yoga, or meditation. Teachers (and studio owners): Too many times I see new YTT graduates offering advice on diet, meditation or postural alignment, etc… stop; it’s dangerous, disingenuous and cheapens the profession-not to mention unethical and against Patanjali’s Sutras. Take the time and invest in specialized and advanced trainings where you must embody and master the techniques you presume to teach. You owe it to yourself and your students. Students: ask your teachers where and from whom they learned. Who are your teachers’ teachers? It is important and you have a right to know. Demand academic excellence and professional ethics; it is your time and your body. Jai Ma.

This post makes several assertions about modern yoga practices:

1.       Most new yoga teachers have completed a single 200-hour teacher training.

2.       Such trainings do not provide sufficient knowledge about teaching specialty classes or populations

3.       The way to gain sufficient knowledge in these special topics is to take special trainings.

4.       Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is (or at least should be) a touchstone for all yoga practitioners.

5.       It is the joint responsibility of the teacher and the student (and the studio owner, if applicable) to examine the teacher’s qualifications.

The author of the post simultaneously insinuates that a 200-hour teacher training is necessary and also that it is not sufficient. I’m not sure I agree that an “official” (Yoga Alliance sanctioned) training for each individual specialization is what is necessary to prove one’s qualifications. Not all knowledge is so easily put into distinct categories. However, I do agree with the main point, which is that the prerequisite for teaching something is putting forth a genuine effort to become immersed in (I’m not sure I would go as far as to say “master”) and embody the technique. This requires humility and the ability to admit when something is beyond one’s level or area of expertise. The other point I think is important here is that it’s not only the responsibility of the teacher to uphold a high level of standards; students also play an important role in discerning which teachers have the types and levels of skills for their needs. In fact, encouraging students to become familiar with their teacher’s background furthers the democratization of yoga and makes Yoga Alliance (or any similar organization that might arise in the future) not the determining authority, but simply one factor among many to consider in a teacher’s resume. 

Yoga and Women: A Platform for the Female Voice

By: Gabriela Ayala

There is a diverse and endless discussion on whether Yoga is a religious practice or not. I am not going to necessarily be arguing for one or the other. However, I will be taking an informal look into how the practice and teaching of Yoga can be considered an alternate platform to the lack of opportunity for women in established religious leadership. This is not to say that there are no women who hold religious leadership positions but that is not the norm. An article title recently posted by The Guardian reads Pope Francis Says Women Will Never Be Roman Catholic Priests. In this article Pope Francis explains that “Saint Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stand,” and when the reported asked again if he feels that this could never change, the pope replies, “If we read carefully the declaration by St. John Paul II, it is going in that direction.” The pope is using the thoughts of another man as proof as to why this particular tradition in the church should remain the same. I find this confusing coming from a man who has built a reputation on challenging many aspects of the church that no pope has done before him. I suppose challenging women’s leadership role in religion is a bit too far.

“The pope went on to say women did ‘many other things better than men,’ emphasizing what has been called the ‘feminine dimension of the church’.” This is an incredibly over-used statement in the history of mystical and religious practices. In the shadow of this statement many declarations are being said. It is saying that men are better suited to define all issues related to morality and faith. They are better suited to interpret biblical passages and other religious texts using his authority to reach the faithful. Lastly, cannot leave out the other major responsibility of the pope: he is most suited to run the billions of dollars that the Catholic Church controls in investments and properties. Why does it matter that women have a role in this particular field? I am going to focus on one main reason and I promise this will lead back to Yoga.

The first is that by never having a woman in this leadership role ever, there is a large population of practitioners of any religion that will never be fully considered or understood. It is a matter of perspective and representation. It is a recognition that each person has a unique perspective and voice that is worth hearing. Yogi, teacher, and healer Nischala Joy Devi gives the first translation of the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text that is considered the foundation for traditional Yoga, from a feminine perspective. While she takes a lot of liberty in how she translates the Sanskrit text and expansion on its meaning, the point is that she is giving a perspective that has not been seen or considered before this. With her interpretation we have a new way to consider an old text and thus to have a richer understanding. This same principle applies to the potential benefits of having more women in powerful religious leadership roles. It is not to say that the women would perform the role of the pope better than a man. She would bring a new perspective that would lead to a better understanding and truer representation of the populace of practitioners.

Yoga teachers and the roles of religious leaders have several overlaps. This does not apply to all yoga teachers but perhaps mostly to those who focus on social activism, healing, and therapy with their teaching. The main roles of a religious leader are as follow: witness, educator, advocate, mediator, direct actor. To witness means that “religious leaders are often embedded within their communities in the midst of conflict, and can assess and report on how the community is faring and responding” (Hayward & Marshall,11). To educate means that many “religious leaders activity educate members of their community through formal and informal teaching at places of worship as well as schools and universities” (Hayward & Marshall,11). To advocate means that “religious leaders may speak out in defense of a just peace” (Hayward & Marshall,11). A mediator means, “religious leaders can serve as trusted intermediaries to help communities or individuals settle disputes” (Hayward & Marshall,12). Lastly, a direct actor means, “religious peacebuilding action [which] includes direct intervention” (Hayward & Marshall,12). To summarize those roles a religious leader is someone who takes action, is a trusted adviser, a teacher, a guide, and a voice for the community. This exact summary can be applied to the role of a yoga instructor. In my experience as both a student and teacher, you look up to your instructor and you can feel that pressure and responsibility as a teacher. In this dynamic, I believe it is an example of something like a religious leadership role.

I am not focusing on people who are considered famous in the yoga world, for they are not always the best leaders. I am focusing more on the potential of small scale leaders, the everyday yoga teachers. I am also not advocating for women to stop fighting for larger roles in organized religion, rather I am observing that being a yoga instructor can be a very powerful leadership role and potential proof that women would do well in major religious leadership roles. I am also not advocating for yoga instructors to be treated like religious leaders, that could be potentially dangerous. I am saying that being a yoga teacher is a huge responsibility. It is an opportunity for women to take on a unique role where her voice, instruction, advice, and presence is respected and listened to. While the west has done its best to secularize yoga, its undeniable that yoga originates from a system that is mystical, spiritual, and religious. Women have rarely had a respected role in the history of any mystical, spiritual, or religious practices. From that I conclude that the very role of a female Yoga instructor significantly challenges that history and creates the groundwork for an inclusive future in these sorts of practices.

BOOK REVIEW: Hell Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr

by Megan Mack

Hell Bent chronicles the author Benjamin Lorr’s journey from his first yoga class though his first national asana competition.  It is a story of the love, disillusion, and science behind Bikram practice.  Lorr not only recounts his own experiences but conducts hundreds of interviews with yogis, doctors, and scholars in an effort to understand the both the draw and the impact of yoga.  Lorr ended up in his first Bikram class by chance.  He was twenty-nine pounds overweight, a zealous drinker, newly single, recently injured, and looking for a way to shed some weight.  He decided to begin an exercise program and a Bikram studio just happened to be the closest health-clubish-venue to his home.  With a constant practice Lorr quickly lost the weight and became enamored with the concentration and push that yoga asked of his body and mind. Lorr explains it as, “An hour and a half of staring at ourselves in the mirror, of self-critique being masked as self-improvement, of being told we are healing because we were punishing ourselves.  It was and is irresistible” (213).  However, he struggled with his love.  He was aware of the controversy aroused by embracing the extreme heat, pain, perfectionism, and competition emphasized in a Bikram practice.  Moreover, he was troubled by the moral shortcomings of Bikram as a guru.

Lorr writes with a tongue in cheek sense of humor.  He is a hot yoga junkie, yet he is always looking at those more inside than himself and questioning.   He is at the same time wary of the group and searching for inclusion. Lorr refers to himself as a skeptic addict.  Unlike the controversial anthropologist who might compromise his/her impartiality when going inside the group, the closer Lorr gets to center the more distrusting he becomes.  He intersperses excerpts of subjective personal practice with objective interviews.

Presidents, doctors, priests, teachers, gurus are supposed to be examples of impeccable morality but their ethics are not always in line with their ambitions.  These figures often evince a belief in a higher standard than is their habit or ability. Bikram is an example of the modern guru as a celebrity surrounded by an entourage and groupies instead of just a spiritual guide with assembly.  Beyond that, he is a multimillionaire business man with copyrights, clothing line, and business models, heading an empire that benefits from the failure to differentiate yoga as a spiritual practice from yoga as a commodity.  Bikram’s blinding charm and charisma conceal his faceted and fault filled humanity. Lorr allows, “A better guru would never have been our mirror” (213).  Many of the polemic aspects of his patented practice are exactly the same things that have given him a niche in the yoga world and contributed to his success.

One of the most contentious aspects of Bikram yoga is the heat.  A Bikram sanctioned studio is a minimum of 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40% humidity.  The Bikram website gives the following reasons for the heat: “Keeping the body from overheating (contrary to popular misconception); Protecting the muscles to allow for deeper stretching; Detoxing the body (open pores to let toxins out); Thinning the blood to clear the circulatory system; Increasing heart rate for better cardiovascular workout; Improving strength by putting muscle tissue in optimal state for reorganization; Reorganize the lipids (fat) in the muscular structure.”  These claims have all the appeal of the Western mirage of unproven scientific legitimacy. Lorr investigates the true repercussions of heated yoga with sweat specialist, physiologist Susan Yeargin from the Department of Applied Medicine and Rehabilitation at Indiana State University.  The takeaway is that Bikram has succeeded in creating a human oven.  Not only is the ambient studio temperature heating practitioners from the outside in but the muscles are laboring to create metabolic heat and heating the body from the inside out.  Sweat is the body’s defense but it can only cool and lower the body’s temperature when it can evaporate.  At an internal temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit organs begin to fail followed by coma and then death.  Dr. Yeargin makes the point that while children tend to stop when their bodies give them signals it’s too hot, adults do not listen to their bodies, push through warning signs, and put themselves in greater danger.  Alternately, Santiago Lorenzo of the University of Oregon speculates that much like altitude, heat can be used as an acclimatization method to stress the body and cause the body to adapt. Adaptations include a lower temperature at which sweating starts, increased oxygen consumption, higher plasma levels, increased exercise efficiency, less glycogen consumption, and lower lactic acid production.  His study of twelve trained cyclists shows a cardiac benefit and marked increase in performance.

Another trademark of the Bikram practice is pain.  Pain is expected and accepted in this practice. Lorr recognizes, “It feels like the worse type of adolescent masochism, Nietzsche filtered through David Blaine” (11). Pain is part of the lineage.  It is what Bikram was taught and it is what he teaches.  Bikram’s oldest student, eighty-three year old Emmy Cleaves says, “You need to learn to re-label the agony of stretching into the luxury of release” (117).  Pain is also openly viewed as a Bikram rite of passage.  Lorr chronicles numb fingers, black and blue hamstrings from over-stretching, throwing up, and hallucinations.  He speaks of classmates and friends having their “regular” seizures.  Bikram says “People come to me and think yoga is relax.  They think little flower, little ting sound, some chanting, hanging crystal….No!  Not for you! Waste of time!  Here I chop off your dick and play Ping-Pong with your balls.  You know Ping-Pong? That is yoga” (312).

In his own yogic journey Lorr goes from merely dealing with the pain to actively seeking it as he strives to become a competitive yogi and joins the Backbending Club.   The Backbenders lead by Esak Garcia attend two week long intensives filled with almost continuous practice interspersed with eating and sleeping.  Lorr describes that, “Backbenders are not like you or me.  These are practitioners for whom two classes a day is an unsatisfactory beginning.  Who sneak third sets into regular class.  Who stay long after everyone else has left.  Who work on postures quietly in the corner until the studio owner gently asks them to put on some clothes and leave.  Bodies so finely muscled, so devoid of fat that they’re basically breathing anatomical diagrams.  Innards so clean, their shit comes out with the same heft, virtue, and scent of a ripe cucumber” (8).  This extremism is demonstrated by the Backbenders’ usage of their namesake pose.  Backbenders wall walk sixty or more times per day pushing themselves to deeper and more intense back bends.

wall-walk

During such a retreat, when the author loses full range of motion in his left shoulder, he is almost congratulated and met with comparable stories from fellow Backbenders.  Conflicting with the stories of damage and struggle, are the stories of the healing though Bikram yoga that Lorr uncovers.   He interviews stroke victims, recovered substance abusers, the chronic pain afflicted, and disease sufferers who have found yoga therapeutic.

These explorations of the features of Bikram yoga lead Lorr to the broader questions: What is Yoga? and “How much of the yoga is the yoga?” (274). He contextually places yoga through light examinations of Feuerstein, Eliade, Patanjali, the Vedas, and Upanishads.  Lorr concludes, “Yoga is simply one of those things impervious to certainty, as incapable of corruption as it is of authenticity.  And no about of bossy, possessive attempts to claim a ‘real yoga’ will make it otherwise” (49).

Street Yoga

by Megan Mack

“Sunny day sweepin’ the clouds away; On my way to where the air is sweet; Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” How do yoga and children’s programming intersect? When I searched over 1000 channels for “yoga,” up popped a list of workout videos and an episode of Sesame Street, the long running children’s educational television show. The program opens with the instruction to keep listening for the word “balance.” The camera zooms in on a friendly, fuzzy, colorful street filled with Muppets listening intently to Leela (Nitya Vidyasagar), an Indian-American woman who runs the Sesame Street laundry mat, lead a yoga class.

As Leela instructs, the ambiance is filled with the twang of non-descript stereo-typically Indian sounding music. The inhabitants of Sesame Street follow along gamely as told “Breath in, breath out.” The stringed and stuffed practitioners demonstrate their versions of triangle pose. Leela then suggests that they all try a variation of the flamingo pose with arms opened to the side, balanced one leg with the other leg extended anteriorly. The group finishes the practice with a hearty “Namaste.” Telly stumbles upon the ending class and expounds: “What is that? It’s unbelievable.” He is given the answer, “It’s a special kind of exercise that comes from India. It’s called yoga.” Someone else jumps in to add, “And all that breathing and stretching makes you feel good.”

Is this an appropriate answer? Is this an overly simplified answer suitable for children but not adults? I do not think it is a wrong answer but merely incomplete. The extensive history of yoga makes it more than a one liner in the best of circumstances. Imagine LMU green-lighting a master in yoga studies program if yoga were commonly whittled down to the practice of amaroli. I have a measure of gratitude that the common and truncated definition of yoga is so universally acceptable and inoffensive. Asana is the calling card of yoga. For marketing, it stands apart and is easily recognizable. The common definition may not encompass classic yoga, but it is a good description of the majority of experiences.

Telly is upset that he has missed his chance to participate in yoga. His friends Elmo and Rosita offer to teach him what they did during class. They demonstrate postures that they call frog, crescent moon, flamingo, the salty pretzel. Telly rushes to try, only to be told that the first thing you have to do is breath and “You have to do a special yoga breathing.” While magical music plays, Telly is told: “Breath in, breath out, arms up, arms out, leg up.” He repeatedly falls over, getting more and more discouraged. Telly tries to stay balanced by holding onto his friends and holding onto stationary objects to no avail. What are our expectations of children’s participation in yoga and what they should gain from the experience? Should it be a gym class, a path toward enlightenment, entertainment, a lesson in ethics?

In Sesame Street the moral of the story is to “Keep trying. Don’t give up.” Studies of yoga for children show that it aids executive function development, weight management, psychological well-being, improvement of static motor performance, spatial and verbal memory test scores, intervention for attention problems, and relaxation. Are we trying to disseminate a lifestyle of health to the children? Are we sending kids to yoga to change behavior or improve them? Are we looking for a spiritual indoctrination? Or are we only looking for an alternate child care while yummy mummies do their own practice? Are some exercises suitable (other’s not) for children? Which ones? Are the goals for children different than those of adults?

5 Reasons Yoga Pants are Crucial to Your Yoga Experience

by Danielle Tatik

What makes a perfect yoga experience? Is it the ambiance of the studio, the juicy sequence taught by your instructor, or dharma talk given at the beginning of class that struck just the right chord with you? Maybe it’s the eclectic music that helps you melt out of your mind, or the scent of the essential oil during shavasana? All these components together can be the perfect yoga experience. I mean, nothing really beats walking out of a yoga class blissed out of your mind with the scent of lavender lingering on your sweaty neck while you remember that day’s inspirational quote such as “we only seek that which we have found already” leaving you ready to take on the world. Still, I find something missing from this equation and must acknowledge that this experience would not be complete without the help of the perfect yoga pant.

The perfect yoga pant really can make for the perfect yoga experience. You might be thinking, “Yoga is about separating from the body and material possessions, working on how I feel on the inside not the outside isn’t it? So why does it matter what I am wearing?” Ok, yes, ancient yogis did wear a loincloth or some cotton fabric wrapped around their bodies, and rubbed ash on their bodies. But, the yoga we practice now is a far cry from the yoga of ancient India. We have contributed amazing innovations to the yoga world such as Sculpt Yoga, Buti Yoga, Hot Yoga, and Power Yoga. These styles incorporate some traditional practices and definitely calm the mind and bring relaxation into our lives but they are also strongly focused on the physical body and our outside appearance. This is not (and I repeat, not) a bad thing. In fact it’s wonderful. I am all for anything that makes me stronger, more confident, more aware, and feeling good about myself. So, how does the perfect yoga pant give you a perfect yoga experience? Let me count the ways:

1) Express yourself. Animal prints, chic black, sparkly, neon pink, NYC skyline, unicorns, pizza, palm trees… what’s your mood today? There is definitely a yoga pant out there to fit it. Are you feeling loud and proud? Reach for the hot pink! Are you feeling like your day could use a pick-me-up? Throw on that sparkly pair you have in the back of your drawer. Or maybe you are feeling like you want to let your inner cat- go ahead grab those leopard Teeki pants! You can also always grab those trusted Lululemon black wonder under crops, guaranteed to make you feel your best. Today’s selection of yoga pants allows you to express your inner yogini of the day. Nothing like a little color or fun print or a perfect fit to allow you to feel comfortable in your skin and drop into your yoga practice.

2) Move that awesome body! Each yoga pants is designed for a particular type of yoga. The right choice will allow your body to move from up-dog to down-dog seamlessly, melt into a long yin posture, move in Kundalini kriyas, sweat it out in Bikram, or shake that booty in a dance/ yoga class. It’s your choice ladies: tight, loose, crop, full length, short shorts, spandex, cotton, bamboo, or luon or luxtream. This is a very important decision, how do you want to feel during your yoga experience? Nothing worse than a constricting pant in a yoga class, or one that falls down your backside showing the top of your panties….so I urge you to think about the type of yoga class you are attending and what pant is going to make you the most comfortable and give you the best ability to do your yoga.

3) Sweat, Sweat Sweat! Are you a hot yoga addict? Or maybe it’s just really hot where you live? Either way, we all know the feeling of a sweaty yoga class in the wrong pants… they become thick and wet and heavy and stick to your skin so much it’s hard to stretch your legs apart. For this reason the yoga Gods have blessed us with the amazing lululemon sweatwicking pants which don’t hold onto your sweat and allow your skin to breath. We have also been given the Onzie line and their colorful patterned comfortable to sweat in pants and shorts, and several other brands designed for sweat. Don’t make the mistake of wearing your comfy 100% cotton yoga pants to a sweaty class, choose the comfort of sweat appropriate pants to support your hot practice.

4) Life happens! That it does. Sometimes your day is busy and you don’t have time to change after work to make it to your favorite evening class. Luckily brands like ALO and Beyond Yoga make chic looking yoga pants that can also be worn to work. Girls on the go need to be prepared for anything: that last minute drink date with the cute guy you’ve been texting, a stop at the grocery store, post yoga coffee with the girls. You can’t be expected to always have a change of clothes on hand. Luckily, you understand the importance of the perfect yoga pant and are already looking cute in your pant choice of the day. Just throw on that over shirt, and your boots, and you are ready to take on the world!

5) Confidence booster! Yes, I said it. Boost your confidence with your yoga pants. Why not feel your best while doing a practice to connect to your best self? We all know the feeling of the perfect yoga pant that hugs your booty just right, fits your waist perfectly, and is just your color, making you feel like the beautiful, sensual, powerful, amazing woman you are. Yes ladies, yoga pants have that power. So dig through your yoga pant collection, find the ones you love and keep them at the top of the pile. Or dare I say treat your self to a chic and functional new pair? Feel your best, be your best, and have the best yoga class you can. You deserve it!

You Are Flexible Enough to Practice Yoga

By: Gabriela Ayala-Cañizares

I was hired to do the videography with my partner for a wedding this past weekend. Alongside us, capturing every moment of this day were two photographers. After a long day of work, we had a moment to sit down, eat, and chat. One of the photographers asks me, “what are you studying in school?” and I get to once again tackle the awkward moment when that person has to decide how to respond to, “a Master of Arts in Yoga Studies.”  On an anthropological level, it is genuinely fascinating to see the range of responses that come from that answer. This particular woman answered with a phrase that has progressively bothered me more and more. She slowly responds, “oh, cool. I am totally not flexible.” I’d like to credit this answer to the possibility that in her head she is skeptical, “what in the world is that and what can you do with it?!” but the other factor is that flexibility has become a synonym to yoga in our culture.

Throughout my years of practicing and teaching yoga, I have come across this phrase a lot and it never used to bother me the way it does now. The reason for that is because a part of me believes that the general public’s understanding of yoga has changed for the better. By that I mean that people have started to understand that yoga is not all about the body. However, in my everyday interactions with people about yoga, people still seem to be pretty convinced that flexibility is a prerequisite to practice. I have spent a time trying to figure out the best response to this and the finest I’ve come to is, “Would you not join a Spanish class because you don’t know Spanish?”. While this has proven to be convincing to some people, it is not satisfying to me because it doesn’t tackle the main issues with that original statement. The first is this continued belief that yoga is just a physical practice. The second is that in believing there is a body requirement to yoga, the practice becomes exclusive, limiting, and intimidating. It is true that some people are naturally more flexible than others, thus it is seen as a characteristic you’re born with. Having a pre-requisite to yoga that is based on something you may or may not be born with is a dangerous connotation in my eyes and not something I want yoga to be related with. Many people know that by practicing yoga you can become more flexible but the aspect of coming into a room of people who can stretch farther than you from the beginning, is a little too much to handle for some people.

I am naturally flexible and when I first started to practice yoga, I cannot deny that it made me feel successful in the practice. I was never strong but I could become a pretzel and that felt like enough. Doctor’s explain that, “better flexibility may improve your performance in physical activates or decrease your risk of injuries by helping your joints move through their full range of motion and enabling your muscles to work most effectively” (Stretching: focus on flexibility, 2016). While all of this is true, flexibility is not as defined a term as it may seem and too much flexibility can actually cause more injury. I was satisfied with only focusing on my flexibility until I hurt myself from pushing it too far. I never took the time to focus on balancing this with strength. Why do we care so much about flexibility? It could be for health, but I would argue its more because of the images we see of yoga postures. They equate to an incredible level of flexibility. This is a type of flexibility that most of us cannot attain and it would not be healthy to try. It’s our competitive culture and our endless need to compare that stops those who may be interested in trying yoga but do not feel like they can.

For those of you who feel like your flexibility is less than adequate, the truth is it is not a necessary characteristic to practice yoga. Just as our bodies are unique in shape they are also unique in its range of flexibility. Whether you are feet or inches away from your toes, truly does not matter. It does not equate to your success in this practice. Your success is defined by you. If you are still concerned with flexibility, then I suggest playing with the idea of developing a flexible mind. By this I mean a development of skill that allows you to stretch your preconceived ideas of yoga, yourself, and life as a whole. This is most likely not an easier concept to convey to those who are insecure with their level of flexibility. Though it may spark more curiosity as to what the development of a flexible mind can look like in real-life. In the end, you may not develop physical flexibility or a flexible mind by practicing yoga. Like I mentioned before, whatever your idea of success is in yoga is defined by you. However, the idea of flexibility of the mind is healthy, inclusive, and self-empowering so why not start there? If it is what you want, yoga is for you.

References:

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/stretching/art-20047931