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LOL ridiculous…about last

time. This just popped into my radar:

So how about a TV show where you can sit back and egg on celebrities as Wim Hof runs them through an ice-cold gauntlet?

Enter Wim Hof’s Superstar Survival. In this brand new BBC series, Wim guides a slew of celebs as they face “wild and death-defying challenges in Europe’s harshest conditions”. Yeah, we’re hyped too. However you will have to temper your excitement just a bit, as the show won’t air until 2022. Check out the details on the BBC website…

Will this encourage people to do the method? Or will it result in couch potatoes living vicariously through mini-god celebs? Methods require discipline, which I’m not sure that TV can inspire, but let’s see.

We also see a, if not the, dominant theme of the WFM on display in a new pod: “Power of Masculine Energy” brought to us by a smiling blond who, of course, saves women from trafficking and domestic violence. Moral entrepreneurship at its finest.

The first is with actress & activist AnnaLynne McCord. AnnaLynne does a tremendous amount of work combating human trafficking and helping victims of domestic abuse, and she found the Wim Hof Method to be exceptionally effective in tackling her own personal trauma.

In this episode, Wim and AnnaLynne delve into the negative consequences of sub-normal breathing; physical vs mental imprisonment; and how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back.

Oh, wait a second. It’s about “how the masculine/feminine dichotomy is holding us back” and not the “Power of Masculine Energy”? These are quite different themes. No, I haven’t listened yet, but already I have to roll my eyes at the branding. Would no one click otherwise? (Maybe not?)

If masculinity is so “natural” why must you all go on and on about it ad nauseam? If you don’t feel all that masculine–as it’s absurdly defined in the here and now–why not step back and enjoy how you do feel? What you do enjoy? Assuming that you have interests outside of video games and porn, enjoying who you actually are is quite hot.

Some Thoughts on the Relaxation of Human Bodies; and on the Misapplication of the Bark in That and Some Other Cases. London: printed for W. Nicoll, No. 51, in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1783.

As I mentioned in the Circle Jerk post, the women who get the most play on youtube are cheerleader types like Gabrielle Reece and the Red Scare devushki who joyfully (lucratively) prop up masculinity tropes and sell their allegedly submissive sexuality. McCord is the only woman on Wim’s pod thus far.

But I will listen and possibly report back. As with his method, maybe there’s something more there.

Ir, spėk kas? Wim dabar yra lietuvių kalba.


If you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

bamboo squatty pottyWhen traveling abroad way back in the 90s, my then-partner and I talked about how one day we’d have squat toilets in our homes because they are vastly superior to the porcelain gods. But of course, in our post-modern 21st Century, instead we buy some wood so that we can squat in our chairs. This model is bamboo and comes with a fabulous foot massager, though this one is a bit better made. They also come in white plastic, which does blend better with most decors. I have and love the foot massager model, you might guess.

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blog favorites pranayama self-help critique yoga habits

youtube is a circle jerk

Last time, I mentioned turning to youtube for inspiration for teaching breathwork on zoom last winter. First, James Nestor’s Breath: The Science of a New Lost Art popped up, which I listened to on audiobook. (I have too much research reading on my plate now for leisure reads). It’s quite interesting, though like most journalistic endeavors, has its share of historical inaccuracies (e.g. ancient westerners did, in fact, place value on breathing). I nitpick though.

As eye-opening as the book itself was the long line of podcast interviews James Nestor appeared on: Dr. Rangan Chatterjee, Joe Rogan, Lewis Howes, and so on. These pods brought me to Patrick McKeown and the Buteyko Method (mentioned in Nestor’s book), who’s also done the podcast circuit of which I was so blissfully unaware. While Joe Rogan I knew as a generalist talk show host, the others were new to me. They traverse that great American tradition of straight-up self-help (though not all are American).

lewis howes
the titles tend to shout at you

You will not get far in the youtube breathwork world without coming across Wim Hof. Of course I’d heard of Wim Hof, but I’d written him off as the kind of guy who appears on the sidewalk signs of Bushwick coffee houses and attracts masculinity movement followers. But again and again his name came up on the podcasts mentioned above, as well as those of Russell Brand, Andrew Huberman, Dr. Steven Gundry, Tom Bilyeu, and Jordan Peterson.

If you spend any time listening to these, you might be struck by the sheer maleness and, with the exception of Chatterjee, whiteness of the crew. While their credentials range from M.D. to comedian to former pro athlete, they again and again circle back to one another, even hosting each other on their respective pods. While some, like Rogan and Peterson, are known for their 1950s take on gender, Chatterjee, Huberman, Hof, and Brand also serve up a traditional bi-gendered framework of the world–if not offered themselves, like Brand’s announcement that “wellness is for women” (“wellness” ascended in the mid-1970s US, when corporations sought relief from the vertical spike in health care costs, and its first subjects, as with most medical experimentation, were white men), than by their guests. There is little interrogation of guests’ sometimes fantastic statements, though such questioning would make the pods infinitely more informative and interesting, not to mention “authentic” and “deep,” as generally branded.

fix yourself! change yourself! DO THIS NOW!

With the exception of Peterson, whose status as an intellectual or great thinker strikes me as depressing evidence of just how little North Americans like to think (though censoring him is even more absurd. Any honors high school student could critique his sloppy interpretations of Dostoyevsky and Jung, much less his muddled understanding of postmodernism), I actually quite enjoy these pods. I’m just shocked by how male they are. Women seem to be relegated to the candles, makeup and mommy corners of the interwebs, where playing a little dumb is highly rewarded. If that’s your thing, fantastic. If you want a, or want to be a, stay-at-home wife, that’s great. Just don’t ask me to do it.

And I suppose that’s the crux of it. Born in the early 70s, when the promise of equality for all had not quite yet met the backlash of neoliberalism, (no, not just conservatism, neoliberalism), I am always just a little bit shocked that people in the US aren’t allowed to just be, and be with, who they want. Why is that so threatening? If youtube and podcasting are the channels for startup info-tainment self-expression, why are they still dominated by white men? Are my interests–in this case, breathing–more masculine than feminine? More manly?

They are not. In fact, my research and interests tend to fall into what Americans like to deem “female” interests. My request that we sometimes be, rather than incessantly do, could be seen as a “feminine” endeavor.

When I heard about the studies done on Wim Hof’s method, I looked further. It turns out to be tummo breathing (Tibetan kundalini), cold showers or baths, and yoga, all of which I already do anyway, though my cold showers were previously isolated to sauna/banya. As I desperately miss my hot-cold bathing routine under Covid19 and I’ve long sought out others as passionate about it as I am, I got Wim’s book, The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential.

I read the book before watching him on  video, and I recommend that for those who aren’t into the we’re-so-manly, high performance, HACK YOURSELF schtick. The book, which I’ve now given to a few people, comes across as very human and very practical. I have not taken a warm shower since I read it. Of northern European stock, this is not so difficult for me. In fact, I enjoy it.

What I find most impressive about Wim Hof’s method is that he came to it through exploring himself, his body, and perhaps his trauma. He talks about the ecstasy of extreme temperatures (well, cold) that I know and adore from swimming in the winter ocean but also melting in the banya. (In fact, I was recently thinking about organizing a public banya in Brighton so that we can swim and easily warm up after in the not-summer seasons.) While he somewhat annoyingly and inaccurately waxes on about its scientific validity, it is clear that he came to this through his own personal and intense exploration and then systematized it for others. Experiencing my body and learning from it rather than applying “protocols” because science told me so is precisely what I find most valuable, and it is impressively on display in his book. I’m not sure I’ve come across anything or anyone like it.

After reading, watch him in the above videos if you like, but prepare for some yelling and repetition. His method does attract mostly men, from what I can see from the documentaries and teachers, but his method is awesome and I see no reason it’s better for men than women or non-binary people. He even has an app–that used to be free but is no longer–to help you learn the breathing or simply to hold you consistent and accountable.


If you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from the links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

bamboo squatty pottyWhen traveling abroad way back in the 90s, my then-partner and I talked about how one day we’d have squat toilets in our homes because they are vastly superior to the porcelain gods. But of course, in our post-modern 21st Century, instead we buy some wood so that we can squat in our chairs. This model is bamboo and comes with a fabulous foot massager, though this one is a bit better made. They also come in white plastic, which does blend better with most decors. I have and love the foot massager model, you might guess.

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blog self-help critique the yoga consumer what is yoga yoga habits

tell me what you’re running from

About thirty years into yoga & meditation, I look back at the questions and desires I had for it in the beginning. The one that loomed largest was that I wanted some kind of coherent system that brought it all together and made sense in scale. A philosophical and practical system that included both yoga and meditation that would bring shifts that weren’t so gradual I couldn’t sense them, that had teachers who weren’t more fucked up than I was. I wanted both yoga and meditation integrated, not one or the other, or separate.

That didn’t exist though, largely because of how modern postural yoga has developed in the last century. Yoga schools are mostly postural, and meditation schools are mostly sitting. The meditation done at yoga schools is generally short and visualization based, which is pleasant and valuable but not terribly revealing.

Ducklings
baby ducks lurching over a construction float on the hudson river

On two occasions, I realized that my problem was essentially relational and that sitting silently on a cushion or doing backbends was not going to help my general distrust of people. To be honest, yoga and meditation teachers couldn’t answer many of my basic questions about the psychological patterns the practices can revealor show a way out of them, or even simply support my exploration of them. Whether or not that’s their place is a discussion for some other chat room.

(The problem stems from my father’s untimely death when I was a teen. I was encouraged to chin up and keep moving, and I did. But I shut down my grief and organized my reality to avoid experiencing such destabilizing loss ever again.)

So I found a good psychoanalyst who happens to think that meditation is largely about bypassing and dissociating. No, we don’t agree on everything. Thoughtful people generally don’t.

Yoga does create the body-container and body awareness to hold the psychological work of psychoanalysis and meditation, a concept I learned from the work of Marion Woodman. Decades in, I realized that the combination of my various endeavors, which include breath work, sauna, city walking, country hiking, and summer swimming, are all part of that pat system of yoga I once sought. The philosophy, once so central to Indian, Greek, and other ancient traditions of health, I’ve had to sort out on my own.

Ah yes, the individual.

Perhaps partially due to covid, I also realize that so many things I make part of my day simply because I enjoy them are just as healthy for me as yoga and meditation: getting up with the sun, walking outside (on the river or ocean, if possible), getting outdoors several times a day, swimming in the ocean, talking to friends and neighbors, taking photos, watching the animals of NYC, sauna/banya/pirtis (oh how I miss the smell of heated wood) and the obligatory cold dips or showers that follow, reading books, and so on.

The ocean swimming I knew was good, so to the sauna habit. And sure, the walking, the river, the small creatures. How? I felt it. I paid attention. Much of it, really, feels like yoga.

People find me a bit obsessive perhaps. But in the last year, youtube has informed me that my beloved pastimes are healing. Like, bonafide scientifically healing.

But we knew that? Well, we did know that, but it’s interesting to hear another take. To have intuition confirmed, particularly when you aren’t status quo.

Fifteen years ago, as part of my master’s degree research, I hunted for information in PubMed and various other sources on why sighing felt so good. The intellectuals smiled and said, “Oh, how cute, this yoga teacher,” with a look that suggested my question was trivial. Eventually, maybe five years later while reading about trauma, I found that it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. Okay then.

And now, fifteen years later, the mainstream scientists are studying it. That’s cool. Will more people do it? I hope so. Sauna studies have been going on for a while now, too, though mostly in Finland.

banya sauna pirtis

I turned to youtube over winter break when trying to find new ways of explaining breath work to students over zoom. Most of my students are more into the postural practice, and breath work can seem too esoteric. But I first learned yoga in the early 1990s at a 1960s-style school in the Village, where pranayama was a standard part of class. When I moved on to more vigorous styles of yoga, I noticed that the awesome effects weren’t as long lasting without the pranayama. So I include it in my personal practice, though sometimes my students resist it.

Youtube. I was aware that many of my young students plan on making it big on the small screen, but I had no idea of all the medicalized self-help on offer there. Every other doctor has a podcast on BEING YOUR BETTER SELF because HUMANS ARE PROGRESS THAT’S JUST WHAT WE DO. 

It’s entertaining, it’s maddening, and I love it. I’ve thought about and researched self-help culture for decades because it’s an essential part of the American psyche and storyline.

What strikes me hardest about the youtube strivers is their desperation for progress. It is very upsetting for students to hear that history is not a linear story of progress, and many simply refuse to take that in. And so it is with the youtube coaches. “What are your goals? If you aren’t progressing, you are a loser! Better, faster, stronger! Tune in for more! I will succeed in my goal of saving you with my science-based advice! Here! Buy some vitamins!” (No shade, but I’ll sell you chocolate.)

As I stroll along the river early in the morning, I watch the bodies and faces of people running, walking, and working out on the pier. I wonder if they’re enjoying themselves as they struggle along, forcing their bodies farther and faster. They don’t stop to admire the cormorants drying their wings on the old pier stumps, the baby ducks lurching over a construction float, or the common terns on their wild and erratic nosedives into the river for fish.

I have no idea, really, if the strivers are enjoying themselves. Sometimes I am tempted to ask.

If you don’t enjoy moving, why do it? How do you even make yourself, if it isn’t fun?

Does everything have to be quantified to be valuable?

I’m not suggesting we only do what we enjoy or that we never push past discomfort. I’m just wondering if that’s all there is. And if moving isn’t fun for you, then stick around, because I can help with that. (Yes, I too, am a self-help guru.)


theo chocolate w/o emulsifiersIf you’d like to support my work, buy stuff that you need from the links on the site. Some of them send us kickbacks at no cost to you, but a wee cost to the empire.

If you’d like to eat chocolate that does not wreck your belly with detergents (ok, emulsifiers), Theo and another kind with a blue package are the only bars I’ve found that are free of guy-destroyers and delicious. I stick with 85% chocolate because there’s as much fiber in it as sugar. (Really.)

 

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non-cheesy yoga = awesome

Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Yoga

Is yoga spiritual? Is yoga religion? Is yoga science? What is yoga? These questions matter to me because it affects how I relate to students. I teach yoga in a university gym largely because I have the autonomy to do what I want, as I’ve yet to find a like-minded studio in NYC (great teachers, yes, but they all seem to be pretty autonomous as well). At Columbia, I’m not pressured to teach a certain way. For example, I don’t chant because most Columbia students aren’t comfortable with it. In fact, it can take them a few weeks to exhale with a sigh at the end of class (but once they do!..). The spirit is in the breath. Because I find that the subtler aspects of yoga happen through the experience of refined breath and focus rather than coaching (they certainly don’t happen on command), I don’t have a vocabulary for them. Wooey juicy-KrishnaLove-healing-chakra babble just does not describe my experience of the energetic experience of yoga. It’s not that I don’t believe. Genny Kapuler once explained that she doesn’t talk about the chakras much because there are entire libraries written about them. She doesn’t feel her knowledge, acquired in over thirty years as an Iyengar teacher, is adequate to teach them well. To boil down the fourth chakra to “My heart chakra was stuck so I really had trouble finding the right guy. But I took a workshop and could feel it open. I’m so excited about the possibilities!” is wanting, at best. I’m very hesitant to talk about energetic and emotional experiences in yoga not only because I don’t have the words, but because it’s important that we speak intelligently. Yoga practice is powerful and immediate. When energy and spirituality is discussed flippantly, it’s too easy to be thrown out as New Age nonsense. Horton conveys a “weirder experience” of yoga in her book Yoga PhD:

One day, during a deep hip opener (Pigeon pose, for those who know it), I had an intense, PTSD-like flashback of an emergency C-section that I’d undergone eight years previously. Holding the pose, laying forward with one leg bent under my torso, the other extended straight back behind me, eyes closed, breathing deeply, feeling inside, and suddenly, BOOM. I could see the operating room – smell it, even. It was intense, enveloping, vivid, real. But – and this is the crucial thing – it was not overwhelming. I was able to psychically revisit what had been a highly traumatic experience without panic or pain. On the contrary, I felt solidly anchored in that abiding, compassionate center that’s often called “witness consciousness”: that is, the part of the mind that is capable of staying calmly present in any storm.

(Yoga PhD, p. 9.)

This story is good because she communicates effectively. We all hold. And we all resist letting that go. What does that even mean, let go? It’s become a platitude. But when it means something, it’s a tricky thing. Here Horton “let go.” She wasn’t told to let go. She wasn’t looking to let go (at least not in that moment). But she did. I hold. In my chest and upper back, especially, and my lower right pelvis/hip. Sometimes I feel close to it. But I’m afraid, frankly, to be overwhelmed by the pain of it. That witness consciousness can take over in the experience is all very nice, but not everyone’s pain is as clinical as a C-section and this experience far more cleansed and tidy than the reality for many. In fact, according to neuroscientists like van der Kolk, such removed experience “psychically revisited” may not even help, as the healing is in processing the held, unfelt pain, rather than watching from a dissociated state. Unfortunately, facing and feeling this isn’t always as proper and removed as Horton suggests. This doesn’t mean we don’t have the strength to do it—simply that it might not be so sterile and detached as to keep a school marm comfortable.

A student wrote on an evaluation this semester “Non-cheesy Yoga = Awesome.” It’s true. Personally, I find it hard to focus, much less be open, if someone is telling me to let my shoulder blades kiss, or to enjoy a juicy hip opener. I also find it hard when someone is barking at me to open my chest. “Hey! Heartache! Be gentle!” I silently cry. This is where a personal practice can create a space you can explore in, taking time in poses when you feel something going on there, something that can be difficult in a class. It is hard, as a teacher, to make a space for this experience, especially in a gym-type environment. But the possibility is there. Horton:

When I first started practicing yoga, the idea that its psychological benefits could be just as, if not more beneficial than its physical ones wouldn’t have made any sense to me. It’s funny looking back. Because today, I take it for granted that one of the things I cherish most about my practice is that it weaves an organic process of psychologically healing and growth into my everyday life.

(Yoga PhD, p. 61.)

Because this is true for many practitioners, it’s time to work on my vocabulary for, and comfort with, talking about this aspect of yoga.

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the yoga diet

Many yogis are obsessed with their diets. It stands to reason. We are pressured to look a certain way, and the majority of food on offer is not only fattening and unhealthy, but not really even food. There is a multi-billion dollar industry that banks on telling us how to eat for health, though that is usually a marketing euphemism for thin. So, figuring out what is actually good for you can be difficult.

We are neurotic about what we eat. This is why I don’t have much to say about yoga and diet. Eat what you want. If you really pay attention to what that is, after a few chocolate croissants you will likely discover that you want food. Real food. Michael Pollan has a number of rules around this idea (indeed, a whole book). Those of most interest to me are (paraphrased):

  1. Don’t eat food your great grandparents wouldn’t recognize. My addendum: unless it’s from a different culture.
  2. Don’t eat food products with more than five ingredients.
  3. Don’t eat foods with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  4. Eat as simply and locally as possible.

That’s it. That’s all you need. “But what about the traditional yogic diet?” you cry! Yes, it’s vegetarian, with dairy. There are all sorts of ideas about tamasic and rajasic foods, and people become quite obsessed. I know. I’ve been there. Garlic and onions? Stimulating! Bad. Coconut? Unfolds love and compassion! (I just learned that now.) Good. Meat? Violent! Very bad. Mung beans? Cleansing and light. Very very good.

While it’s important to be aware of what you eat, and what makes you feel good and bad, it’s a problem when people are overly preoccupied with what should and shouldn’t be eaten. It is not healthy. It is not social. The desire to control what is eaten seems like an unconscious attempt to control life itself, or at least have control over something. There is also a desire to nurture, or reject nurturance, through the foods we eat (or don’t). Sweet, rich foods can be soothing. It can be difficult to understand what we really need and when. (For excellent books on eating, emotions, and intimacy, read Geneen Roth.)

This is where the yoga comes in. When you pay attention to your body, if only during your yoga class a few times a week, you begin to learn how you feel. And once you begin to connect to how you feel, you understand when you are hungry, and even what you really need to eat. Protein. Salad. Pork chops. Whatever. You might notice that you want chocolate to avoid a feeling you have. Even if you still eat the chocolate, you know what you’re doing. You might notice that a few blocks of chocolate do better than a few bars. A few bites of ice cream instead of a few cones. You know that feeling gross for a day is not worth a gallon of comfort now. Your body tells you, not your control freak ego. The more you get to know your body, the less you think about food. This was my experience. And that yoga has its own way of nurturing.

Yes, I’ve tried all sorts of food crazes. I studied nutrition. I was a vegetarian for four years. I had so little energy I thought there was something wrong with me. While a vegetarian diet is unquestionably best for our furry friends and best for the planet, I discovered I need to eat meat a few times a month. (Did you know the Dalai Lama eats meat?) My iron levels demand it. I also do well with protein and fat. If I eat too much carbohydrate, I feel heavy and sleepy. That’s my body. I have a vegetarian friend who can eat salad and beans and be full of energy. I can’t. But that’s what works for me. Bodies vary greatly in what they need. Maybe it’s ethnic, maybe it’s genetic. It’s probably many factors that don’t really need to be teased out.

Svadhyaya, or self study, is a major part of yoga practice. It is not obsessive, compulsive or product oriented. It is largely quiet and observational. If you practice and pay attention you can tune in to how you feel and tune out all the idiotic food trends (is any community more susceptible than ours? I’m sorry, a seed will not save you). When this happens, food can be fun and an anxiety-free joy.

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the thing about gurus: a kumaré review

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

Gandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!” from his friends.

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

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yoga and the true non-self?

What can you feel? I practice yoga because it helps me feel, which is something I’d trained myself to avoid. It’s an internal exploration that is unspeakably beautiful, and precious few teachers convey this. (Do I? Probably not well.) It’s partly because not many are looking for an internal practice, which means that sticking with an internal focus requires gumption, and partly because it takes far more than language to convey. And perhaps it has never been the point of the practice. Feeling in its raw form essentially alerts us to what we need and don’t need so that we can use our reason accordingly. But many of us are so threatened by our feelings that we repress them entirely. Yoga can help us to sense them again.

Instead, the trend is to use yoga to numb and discipline ourselves. The ancient Yoga Sutras, a non-physical, philosophic text which had limited relationship to physical practice until the 16-19th centuries, when they were slowly integrated, is commonly used by teachers to guide practitioners toward the “true self.” As I’ve noted before, there’s much confusion around this. It is not unusual for an “expert” on the Sutras to spend an hour lecturing about the non-self, and then wrap up his hour with, “Well, I hope you can see that this philosophy provides us with the tools we need to be our true selves.”btke

Huh? Aside from confusion around what in fact a “self” is, traditionally, yoga (in any of its forms) was never about finding the self, but obliterating it, transcending the self to be one with God. Or emptiness. This search for the self via yoga is a distinctly modern endeavor. That we imagine ourselves to be one with the ancients by using the Sutras essentially as a self-help method is bizarre. But if it works for you, excellent. Go with it. The idea that American yoga is a good-for-you-ancient-physical-philosophical practice is a pop-culture norm, propounded by the likes of The New Yorker and The New York Times, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps the most common part of the Sutras expounded upon in American yoga studios are the Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, moral precepts that read much like the Judeo-Christian commandments deeply embedded in Western Culture. We might take a look at the history of the last 2000 years and ask if these precepts have served us. If we find they haven’t, why are we so quick to snatch them from another tradition, particularly when that tradition aims to obliterate the self? Aside from a special few, this is not what we’re after at all.

On the importance of attachments and ego

In the last few years, uninspired by the teachings and praxis in our yoga communities, and frustrated by the deep push back against self-awareness that permeates both yoga culture and American culture at large (I’d argue that American therapeutic culture is about creating the appearance of a “happy” self, generally at the expense of difficult or deep self awareness, though I realize this is debatable), I’ve been exploring ideas of the self in European philosophy and psychology. Philosophers the world around (East and West) often hint there is no actual solid, unchanging entity we can call self, and neuroscientists often agree. Evan Thompson, a philosopher known for his work on cognitive science and Buddhism, said in an interview: “In neuroscience, you’ll often come across people who say the self is an illusion created by the brain. My view is that the brain and the body work together in the context of our physical environment to create a sense of self. And it’s misguided to say that just because it’s a construction, it’s an illusion.”

This supports what I’ve come to believe and work with: humans identify as selves. How do we make the best of this? How do we cultivate a healthy, flexible ego that allows us to operate in the world rather than perpetually escape into fantasy?

Let’s say a larger oneness connects us all, if only in that we all share a planet. As developmental psychology posits (psychological ideas are deeply embedded in American culture, so if you’ve grown up here, they impact you whether you endorse a ‘psychological worldview’ or not), as infants, slowly we learn that others are other, separate from us, and with the help of secure attachments to these others, we develop an ego that mitigates our otherness and provides us with a healthy sense of self that helps us relate as separate beings. There is no ego without the other, no me without you. We develop our selves in relationship to the people and culture around us. It is a deluded, neo-liberal fantasy to imagine ourselves to be perfectly independent—but a fantasy that the popular imagination endorses. As humans, we are never fully separate, nor are we never fully merged into oneness (partially, sometimes, but not fully). Many have noted, from Foucault to Ehrenreich, that such a limit experience would blow out our nervous system. This, as I understand it, is where the mad tend to dwell, a little further into the realm of oneness than society deems acceptable. A little blown out.

This is why non-self and non-attachment practices can be slippery for those who didn’t have easy beginnings, with safe, secure attachments. Some estimates suggest that 50% of the American population are not able to create secure attachments. Children who lack safe, healthy attachments often develop very rigid, defensive egos required for self-protection and survival, rather than flexible, healthy egos that allow us to take in and negotiate the vicissitudes of life. Rigid egos are so heavy that we often seek the divine, or spiritual release, or limit experience to escape them, if only momentarily, until the cage comes back down. Neither scenarios are effective in dealing with the day to day, or with putting one’s self out there in all the ways that tend to make humans feel happy and fulfilled: connecting with others, creating, sharing, giving, receiving.

New agers talk about human fluidity and oneness, arguing we need to work back to it. While most of us are far more boundaried and defended than necessary, the urge toward a total fluidity and unboundaried existence is ridiculous. Unless you’ve moved to a cave and renounced world and self alike, you cannot exist without boundaries and the ego and attachments that provide them.

At a meditation retreat awhile back, that guy dominated the discussion, a thirty-something determined to show off what he thought he knew, rather than dialogue. He launched into a story about a relationship he fast became bored with (or afraid of), and when he decided to end it, he told her (and us, as a punch line), “You know, there’s one thing that you can count on, and that’s change!”

Awesome. Buddhist platitudes in the service of avoiding close relationship. Just what we need. I’d wager that this was not change for him at all, but quite likely his habitual, uninformed reaction to intimacy. It’s happened 10, 20, 30 times, and without some serious intervention on his part, will keep on in that vein. And he’s justifying it in terms of spiritual non-attachment? Lordy. This spiritual bypass is sadly common, and these endless platitudes create the fabric of the pseudo-self-awareness of the yoga community.

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to practice or not to practice: ladies’ holiday

There are as many takes on yoga asana practice during menstruation as there are euphemisms for it. Ladies’ holiday, your moon (not to be confused with the moon), ladies’ days, your flow, the curse, crimson tide, the rag, that time of the month, and, refreshingly, your period, are a few you’ll hear in wider yoga discourse.

The official line in Ashtanga is not to practice at all during your “moon.” Iyengar discourages twists, inversions, deep backbends and binds, and suggests specific practices based on what you’ve got going on (e.g. heavy cramps, bloating, no period at all). You can find these in Geeta Iyengar’s Yoga, A Gem for Women. Many schools advise not to invert, while others say listen to your body and figure out what’s best for you. I’ve heard Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga advise that women should invert, because it’s only a patriarchal edict that tells women they can’t. Honestly, I see the logic in all of it.

Don’t practice at all? This is the Ashtanga way, as K. Pattabhi Jois told women not to practice during their periods, and for traditionalists, what Jois says, goes. Yes, it’s easy to forget that is Yoga is a tradition developed by and for men. In India, women write books with lengthy introductions to convince readers that yoga is something women can and should do (e.g. Yoga, A Gem for Women). It’s hard to imagine in the female-majority yoga rooms of the west, but yoga is not historically a women’s endeavor.

I didn’t even have to add “yoga” to the “tampax” image search.  Of course she’s wearing white pants. And yes, it really says, “Who would have thought a tampon could get me to that Zen place?” Nothing like a mixed metaphor for ragtime practice.

While not practicing might sound silly to you, understand that Ashtanga is an intense practice that demands mula bandha, which is quite difficult to do during menstruation. I find it’s quite hard to pull up and in when I’m a bit swollen and tender. Do I practice? Usually, yes, but it depends on how I feel. There are some days a year I wake up and say, “No way will that feel okay right now,” and I go back to bed. But often (like last week), I feel great when I’m able to move and stretch my body, which actually seems to tighten and lock up in the days before, but relaxes again when my period starts. I like to practice.

To invert of not to invert? This debate has been going on for quite some time, and it seems to have three camps. The first: Traditionalists who believe that inverting interferes with apana, the downward flow of energy in the body. It is advanced in a retro-ditz-delicate-flower piece by Kathryn Budig on elephant journal. “I officially mark myself as senseless during the preceding days as the first few of the actual holiday. When you can normally find me working flips in a handstand till I can’t see straight, this time of the month it’s more common to find me propped up on the couch, my handy Jane Austen novel du jour next to me, and an artillery of spoons ready to attack a fresh mint and chocolate chip gelato.” Senseless, eh? Hmmm. What exactly is a Jane Austen du jour? Doesn’t she only have 5 or so novels? And Ms Budig reads one every day? How many spoons does one need to “attack” fresh gelato? I prefer to let it warm and soften a bit, so that it glides from bowl to spoon to mouth. In fact, I like to lounge about reading and eating chocolate every day of the month. I certainly don’t limit it to that time.

Budig goes on to say that she believes not practicing on her period is a form of respect. For what? Her teacher? The moon? Patriarchy? Jane Austen? While she doesn’t like the suggestion that “blood will get stuck” if you invert (I’ve never heard it put quite that way before), she does argue that, “logistically speaking if something is trying to get out, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to turn it upside down. Or twist it. Or strain it. Or do anything more than supine postures, snuggling a bolster, light walks and all those bites of chocolate.” Well, logistically, if something is trying to “get out,” it makes a lot of sense to twist it, no? If you wanted fluid out of something soft, you’d twist, right?

This careless argument doesn’t do much to convince me to lie around during my period. And many are turned off by the red-tenting of women around the time of our periods. This second camp is well-covered in this Go With the Flow article on Jezebel. The medical risk of inverting involves retrograde menstruation, which some argue causes endometriosis. While most doctors say this myth has been debunked, Kathleen Lea Summers, MD, PhD, argues that as of 2011, “Retrograde menstruation remains the prevailing scientific hypothesis for what causes endometriosis. It’s complicated, and other factors play a part—things like genetics, epigenetics, immune function, environmental toxins, etc.”

“For sure women who have more frequent periods, those that bleed heavier, and those that have a blockage to normal flow through the vagina are the most likely to develop endometriosis. That indicates the amount of backward flow is important in development. While there are no studies looking specifically at whether or not women who practice inversions during their periods are more likely to develop endometriosis, prudence is wise. Anyone with a personal or family history of endometriosis should never do inversions while on their period. Other women need to be careful too, especially during the days of heaviest flow. If they choose to invert during menses, then time in the posture should be limited to 30 seconds.”

That said, there are doctors, including Mary P. Schatz, M.D., who state that inverting won’t cause endometriosis, but it can cause vascular congestion (heavy bleeding). I’ve talked with a number of teachers and students who have found this to be the case. We are of the third camp—try it out for yourself and see how you feel. I inverted when I started years ago, but on several occasions got really intense cramps afterward. I’d never heard anyone else complain of this until a commenter on the elephantjournal article said the same thing. I also tend to bleed more. Further, I just really don’t feel like spending ten minutes upside down when my belly is heavy. So, while once is a blue moon (sorry), I will feel up to inverting, I usually don’t.

Bodies are all extremely different, from person to person, but also from cycle to cycle. The only way to know what’s best for you is to pay attention. I find I’m often (but not always) extra stiff before my period starts. Some months I don’t even expect it (meaning no PMS) and other months, I do. Sometimes I feel tired and heavy, sometimes I’m energetic. I notice, and behave accordingly. The reason the Budig piece grates? It advances the notion that women are “senseless” and unable to work during their “moon.” In once sentence she tells her students, “Notice what is happening in your body and mind before you race past it to where you think you should be.” Then she races past everyone to tell us how we feel and where we should be—on the couch with bon bons. “Same goes for ladies’ holiday. Don’t ignore it by trying to keep life the way it is everyday.  Stop, acknowledge, observe, respect and rest. Honestly ladies, we’ve earned it. Period.”

We’ve earned it? What does that even mean?

Outsmart Mother Nature, Ladies 🙄

An old friend, Lena Kim, MD and Assistant Professor of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UCSF, advised: “There is no evidence that yoga and/or inverted positions are harmful during menstruation. If anything, exercise in general decreases menstrual cramps.” If you have personal concerns about irregularities, definitely seek out the advice of your doctor.

Do consider how you feel when you practice and invert every day of the month, and make your decisions from there. Yes, oddly, there is a huge social and political lens that will color how we look at this, instead of just feeling our bodies. It’s kind of weird, really. Having experienced everything from light, unnoticeable periods to some extremely intense cycles, my only advice is to pay attention to your body and do what feels right. You’ll know what that is in the moment.

Soon I’ll give some ideas as to what asana and pranayama help me at the more difficult times. They aren’t what I expected, but the doctor was right!