Tag Archives: yoga

Intersectionality – a personal essay

“Intersectionality” is getting lots of buzz. (See Chronicle of Higher Education, for example. Google it, for more than you ever want to know.)

I stepped into an intersection yesterday. Not in a street, but at my usual place-of-yoga, the local Hindu Temple. I have a long, comfortable relationship with the Temple. They offer yoga in return for a $5 donation. I speak well of them in the community.

Yesterday the regular yoga space looked different. The amount of artwork on the walls had been doubled, and two beautiful “altars” had been arranged, decked with candles and floral arrangements. What?! I had never seen this degree of formality at the Temple. We learned that a Vietnamese group was holding a meeting or celebration. Preparations had been made. Are there Hindus in Vietnam? I don’t think so. My guess is that the group is Buddhist.

Wikipedia tells me that Buddhism is the dominant religion in Vietnam, carrying with it strong veins of Taoism and Confucianism originating in China. I’m not sure what script I was seeing on the new posters in the Temple. Possibly a version of Sanskrit, but it didn’t match the flowing script seen around the Temple.

The Vietnamese event was not set up in the sacred part of the Temple, with the God images. I couldn’t tell if the human figures on the Vietnamese posters correspond in any way to the Hindu deities, or whether they are intended to be divine. I have so many questions!

So many stories waiting to be told. The world comes to my neighborhood!

Positive Micro – reflections on yoga and language

The prefix “micro” has gotten a bad rap. Nobody wants a boss who “micromanages”. “Micro-aggressions” are committed by culturally insensitive boors. Most of us meet “micro” in science class when the metric system of measurements is introduced. Only some of us learn to love it. (Digression – I’ll do a great deal to avoid the old fashioned “English” system, with its acres and Angstoms and Roentgens and worst of all, “feet of head”. It’s an engineering thing, a unit of pressure. There’s the femtojoule. The exawatt. I’m not making these up.)

But here’s the nicest “micro” you will ever meet – the microadjustment! You can do it yourself. This is the little wriggle that turns an uninteresting yoga posture into a delicious stretch. A little shift of weight. A tiny realignment. Sometimes this movement is so small your teacher and fellow students won’t even see it. Sometimes it’s a little bigger.

In addition to making you more comfortable (or less comfortable in a good way), it signals to your teacher that you have a mind (not to mention body) of your own, and you are going to do things YOUR way. A good teacher will be cheered by this.

The microadjustment is what lets me take ownership of my yoga practice. My favorite five syllable word! May the “micro” be with you.

Kundalini Yoga – Further Reflections

I’ve decided to write a bit more about the two barriers to my further progress along the path of Kundalini yoga. If you read my recent post (March 17), you know what they are – reincarnation and the role of the guru.

I don’t believe in reincarnation. Why? First, no evidence. Nothing has ever happened in my life that requires reincarnation in order to be explained. Second, it’s not the “simplest explanation”, and I operate on the general notion that the “simplest explanation” is often correct. To me, the “simplest explanation” is that consciousness resides in our bodies and disappears with the dissolution of the body. Not comforting, but simple.

That said, is there a problem with believing in reincarnation? Yes, and it shows up in the book Kundalini. The author repeatedly asserts that our current lives reflect the problems and errors of our past lives. So if, in your current life, you are subject to poverty, injustice, disease and misfortune, it’s because of prior sins. If you are good (charitable, devout, austere) you will be born into an advantaged, Brahmin family where you will get the spiritual training that may make it possible to step off the wheel of reincarnation and achieve enlightenment. So charity is a virtue, but the problems of the poor are really their own fault. Great argument for the status quo!

I had read of low caste Hindus converting to Buddhism because the (officially illegal) caste system caused them so much misery. It is no longer legal to discriminate against the Dalit caste labeled as “untouchable”, but old patterns of behavior die hard. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions – conversions on this basis continue. From a blog post (2010): “Buddhism means I can simply say I am not a Hindu. I do not have a caste.”

So to me, a fundamental belief in reincarnation is a problem. I’m well aware that “my” contemporary American culture has its heavy burden of prejudice and discrimination, and scores of serious social problems, but I don’t feel that I should go seeking enlightenment “elsewhere”.

And why is the need for a “guru” a problem? For me, it just isn’t going to happen! People my age just don’t become devotees. I’ve seen good teachers and leaders go bad. I’m not trusting. I don’t have a priest or minister or even an elder. I rely on relatives and friends, and the occasional carefully chosen professional.

One aspect of the guru/student relationship that might be a problem would be secrecy. If a teacher is imparting “higher knowledge”, are they asking you not to share it? I would find that unacceptable.

This does NOT mean that I don’t appreciate a good teacher! At this point, I have THREE yoga teachers. All women. Each is different – very different! I value those three relationships very much.

“Kundalini” by Vibhakar Pandya

Publisher – Shree Siddhayog Sadhan Mandal. 148 pages.

It’s hard to figure out how to write about this book, because it is different from any other book I own. It was written in Gujarati, one of the languages of India, and evidently translated into English by someone whose English was very limited. Editing and proof reading would appear to have been minimal. It’s the publishing equivalent of “folk art”, which is defined as art produced by someone with no formal training in art.

My copy of Kundalini carries a publication date of 2003 and indicates 1000 copies were printed, so it is a rarity. There’s a recent sticker inside telling me how to find a local meditation group, with a phone number and (!) web site address. I’m very grateful for this contact information, as I am considering increasing my practice of meditation, now limited to whatever a yoga teacher directs in the two or three classes I attend each week.

Within the book is information about buying a mat to use for yoga or meditation, a long list of books for sale (most available only in Gujarati) and information about a magazine. Cassette tapes are also offered.

I’m sure I could track down this author on line (and lord knows what I will find!), but before doing this, here are my impressions: This book is foreign. It comes from an ancient culture so different from my own that I feel uncertain about every word I read. Even when I understand the words on the page, I’ve no confidence that they were translated accurately, or that they may not have, say, three alternate meanings to which I have no key. It is almost incomprehensible. “Kundalini” seems to be a form of energy (strong but dangerous?), a location in the body and also a goddess. In many (most?) people, it is latent, sleeping. If it wakes up without “guidance” it is dangerous. It can bring you to enlightenment.

The list of signs of awakening Kundalini (90 items) includes manifestations ranging from the trivial (yawning during meditation) to the alarming (the whole body starts flapping or fluttering). By western standards, much of this looks like bodily disease or mental illness.

There are several assumptions built into this book. One is the belief in reincarnation. Another is that spiritual growth is entirely dependent on having a devoted master/student relationship with a teacher or guru. Both of these are problematic for me, so my further growth in the path of Kundalini based meditation will be limited.

There’s another barrier between me and this spiritual path. I don’t wish to engage in cultural appropriation. This is a term used to describe a situation where someone borrows too extensively (and perhaps insensitively) from a culture not their own. For example, consider the middle class white American who participates in a few (Native American) sweat lodges and then starts to lead them. Native people may resent having their sacred ceremonials reduced to income producing workshops. I’ve heard both sides of these arguments, and I personally feel that my understanding of Hinduism will always be incomplete and my spiritual growth may best be served by staying closer to “home”, that is, somewhere within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

That said, I can hardly express how grateful I am to the Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, where I take yoga classes and have occasional opportunities to learn about Hinduism and eat wonderful food. I’ll never be a candidate for membership, but I’m honored to be a guest/participant in the life of a local cultural treasure!

“Kismet, Karma and Kamasutra – Survive India or Die Laughing” by Narendra Simone

Attention, yoga buddies! Don’t read this book if you are sentimental about India. In fact, don’t even read this review. There is absolutely no yoga in the book.

Narendra Simone is an Indian who spent most of his adult life in other parts of the world, then returned, mid career, as an executive for a joint venture company. He is a dual national (a global citizen!), deriving Canadian citizenship through his second wife, his companion in the adventures described in this book.

Simone describes India as “the land of mystique, ancient culture and culinary delight”, which he then translates into “intense corruption, complicated bureaucracy and severe stomach cramps”. He also quotes the saying “A black man’s misery is a white man’s adventure”. In other words, he is NOT happy to be back. So he plays the whole thing for laughs, and there are many.

To be a returned Indian executive is to be a “mark” for every hustler in the country (as you are assumed to be ridiculously wealth), and to be constantly told that the reason you don’t understand the most preposterous decisions, explanations and situations is that you have lost your culture and become contaminated.

Simone’s description of a visit to an Ayervedic doctor is hilarious. The doctor assured him that since he had several siblings who died young, he would undoubtedly live for 100 years.

Simone and his family managed to have a good deal of fun along the way, but his parting words are “The only way to cope when your company offers you a position to work in India is don’t…Honest, take it from me. Just say no.” And he returned to Canada!

Celebrating the Season

I set a personal record over the Christmas holiday – I participated in “religious” events at six different locations during a two week period! (I didn’t plan this.)

The Saturday before Christmas was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. A friend organized an event based on the labyrinth, a tool for walking prayer/meditation from the Christian traditions of Europe. Our labyrinth was outlined with CANDLES. This was a first time, seat of the pants, open-to-the-public event. I helped with the set up, in a field next to the local volunteer fire hall. The organizer picked a spot and started to lay out the labyrinth pattern with cord. We helpers opened white paper bags, put in sand and tea lights (votive candles). The afternoon was breezy, and we worried that a strong gust of wind could disrupt the whole project. By 5 pm we had done what we could (assembled over 500 luminaria!) and scattered for dinner. When we returned, the wind had dropped, it was still warm for December, and the candles were being lighted. I was the first to step into the labyrinth, and I wondered what would happen if I made a mistake and led the whole line astray… But the candlelight was bright enough for me to see the cord on the ground. When I reached the center and started back out, I relaxed. Friends and neighbors were walking quietly, happily… We had been encouraged to concentrate on renewal and transformation. Celtic music added to the atmosphere. Emerging, I stood and absorbed the sheer beauty of what had been created. The candles flickered warmly. The labyrinth was a circle of light in a dark, quiet night. I was reminded of campfires I have enjoyed, but the candles cast a much gentler light. I could look up and enjoy the stars. For an event that only been very casually advertised, a good number of people came, maybe 75. And many more said they wished they had known about it, or that it had fit their schedules.

The next day, the Sunday before Christmas, I was in my usual place, at the small Quaker meeting I have attended for many years. Our worship is unprogrammed and based on silence. Nobody has to create an Order of Service or write a sermon. I always enter feeling expectant, because I don’t know who may speak or what subject may arise. We have our “customs”…

  • allow silence before and after each spoken message,
  • speak only once (unless you really MUST),
  • listen carefully (because you may hear the word of God).

Yes, people did speak. No, I’m not going to tell you what they said. After worship, we shared a potluck brunch. That’s as close as we came to a Christmas party this year. Simplicity.

Then I hit the road, fetching up in Boston in the company of family. On Christmas Eve, I wanted music, and the rest of my family was ready for food and TV or games. They walked me to Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church near Boston’s Public Garden, then left on the T (subway). The Church wasn’t open yet, so I strolled the upscale neighborhood, encountering the homeless as well as well as the wealthy.

Half an hour later, I settled into a box pew at the Arlington Street church, holding an unlighted candle. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist. Arlington Street, like the church of my childhood, is a relatively formal place. The service I attended was listed as a “family” event, and the families were there. So was a live lamb! The children were delighted. The service consisted of familiar readings and familiar music. The candles were lighted starting from the front of the church, and the lights were dimmed as the candlelight spread. We sang Silent Night in the darkened sanctuary. It was as magical as the evening services I remember from my childhood. As I left, the grandmother who had sat behind me apologized for her grandchildren’s “noisiness”, but I assured her I enjoyed their presence. They were much too cute to be a nuisance.

Next I went to an even bigger, cathedral sized church, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, two blocks away. Again I was pleasantly greeted and provided with an Order of Service, which looked really long and included Communion, open to all. We sang and read our way through the Christmas story. There were a few unfamiliar hymns – which surprised me, since I sang in choirs for years and know the Protestant hymnology well! We stood for every single hymn. The program said “stand as you are able” and I thinking about staying seated as my knees accelerated their protests. The officiants sometimes chanted, and there was a “gospeller” who sang and chanted from the Bible. Then came the special event that caused me to pick this church over other options – Bach! This church has a resident instrumental ensemble and a professional choir. The music, performed in setting not significantly different from the churches Bach wrote for, was ethereal, glorious, sweet beyond words. I closed my eyes and thought about angels. 

When I left the Episcopal church, I considered returning to Arlington Street, which offered TWO more services featuring the Boston Gay Men’s Choir, a group with an excellent musical reputation. However, my family was keeping dinner warm for me, so I jumped on the T and headed for Allston. I had enough music in my head to satisfy my Christmas cravings.

Another Sunday came around… I was in Connecticut with my sister and her husband. They have two church affiliations, and we settled on “his”, a small Lutheran church in Hartford. Attendance seemed light, but the Pastor smiled and assured us that the turnout was excellent, as the preceding year’s Sunday-after-Christmas service had been attended by only eleven people! I looked around. There were at least 22 of us there, maybe even 33. I felt welcome and important. Our singing sounded strong for our numbers. The lay readers were teenagers. Usually coffee follows the service, but someone forgot. No coffee. As a member of a tiny congregation, I feel sympathy with this kind of screw up. Besides, Grace Lutheran has an astonishing record for feeding people. They serve dinner every Friday night to ANYONE WHO WALKS IN THE DOOR. The neighborhood is mixed. Some people are hungry. Some are lonely. Church members join in. When I visited a year ago, 25 or 30 people turned up. Many were “regulars”. The food was great.

And my sixth experience? This morning (as on most Saturdays) I went to yoga class at my local Hindu Temple. Because of the severe cold, we practiced, not upstairs in the usual drafty space, but downstairs in the sanctuary. This room, which might be 10% of the Temple, houses the gods. There are about 15 of them, of varying sizes, dressed in glorious colorful fabrics. Since my last visit to the sanctuary, the names of the gods have been posted. I practiced in front of Mma Sarasvatri. I used to think of the gods as “images”, but I’ve gradually learned they mean something more to the worshippers. Each god is a channel. When you look at a god, he or she LOOKS AT YOU. It’s a relationship. The sanctuary (in addition to being well heated) is a lovely place to practice yoga. A mantra runs on a continuous tape. Listening carefully, I think I was hearing 10 syllables, but I don’t know what it means. The room smells faintly of incense. Temple members come and go, performing their devotions. I relax, and leave feeling as if I have been on a vacation. I go to a distant country without buying an airline ticket. Thank you, Vaikunth Hindu Jain Temple, for making us welcome!

So,,, tomorrow I will be back at Quaker meeting, with music and ceremonies in my head. I will think about the people I visited, and wish them well.

“Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga” by Benjamin Lorr

Competitive yoga?? I had no idea… And plenty of other things turned up in this book about which I had no clue.

First of all, this book is funny. Lorr’s descriptions of yogis and their students are penetrating and often wry.

A major feature of this book is its critique of Bikram yoga, often known as “hot” yoga. Lorr practiced hot yoga and trained (to teach) with Bikram Choudhury, a yoga rock star who has gotten rich (and gotten sued) by franchising his style of yoga. Bikram, as he is called, is flamboyant, narcissistic and charismatic. His style of yoga, the repetition of 26 highly specific postures in a room heated to 110 degrees F, is popular with a sector of the American yoga community. Lorr’s discussion of Bikram’s history and personality is fascinating. How could a person be so crazy and so beloved simultaneously?

I recently learned that “hot yoga” is available near me. Will I try it? Hmm… I tried a sweat lodge once, out of curiosity. I was apprehensive. I cheated by putting as much skin as possible against the cool floor. I know that I became slightly dehydrated – I don’t like that headache-y sensation at all. Maybe I can find some “warm yoga”.

Lorr also discusses the physiology of yoga, with attention to its therapeutic value.