Tag Archives: yoga

“Celestial Bodies – How to Look at Ballet” by Laura Jacob

Basic Books, 2018, 223 pages, with notes, bibliography and index.

When I was eight, I wanted ballet lessons, but my parents decided I should learn piano. I wasn’t very cooperative, but I kept at it for five years. Piano was supplemented by ten years in church and school choirs. I can’t imagine my life without that musical training!

Years later, I signed up for the beginning ballet class in an Adult Education program. Our teacher did us the wonderful favor of taking us seriously, teaching us carefully, and EXPLAINING ballet. Over time, our creaky stiffness gave way to increased strength, flexibility and body awareness. And we began to learn how to look at dance and dancers!

Celestial Bodies is a wonderful book! I found it quite by accident on the Library’s “recent arrivals” shelf, and I couldn’t put it down. Laura Jacobs is a dance critic who is in love with ballet at every level – musical, visual, historical… Early in the book, she discusses one of my fascinations, “pointe”, or dancing on the tips of the toes.  Pointe is just for women. How do they DO it?? Why is it so interesting and pleasing?

Laura Jacobs approaches ballet from many angles, even discussing yoga as she details how a dancer uses the foot and positions the body. She specifically mentions the yoga posture called Warrior III and its relationship to “arabesque”.

Jacobs many references to specific ballets make me glad to live in the age of U-Tube. I will be able to look at the works and artists she lovingly describes.

This book is highly accessible despite the use of French terminology and dance jargon. Read and enjoy!


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 thought 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.

Yoga, India and Me

I will be posting about several books on the subject of yoga, and a few weeks ago I wrote about the book “Leaving India”. Here’s the disclosure statement to explain why yoga and India are important to me.

I was introduced to yoga in my early 20s, when someone showed me a version of the Sun Salutation and told me it was a cure for insomnia. Yoga was not mentioned. Maybe ten years later, I started attending the occasional yoga class – a few sessions in adult education, etc. I enjoyed it, but never managed to arrange for any continuity. So I didn’t make progress. Sometimes I wandered off in other directions, like tai chi, or got my exercise from an early morning TV show.

Maybe 15 years ago, a local Hindu group bought a large warehouse a few miles from my house and renovated it for use as their Temple. The first time I visited was a week or two after September 11, 2001. The Temple hosted an interfaith prayer service in it’s social hall, and passages about peace from several cultures were read. Candles were lighted. Afterwards, I wandered into the small sanctuary, the sacred part of the Temple. I removed my shoes and stepped into a room containing at least twenty statues of gods, of differing sizes, all elaborately dressed in bright costumes. Temple members wandered in an out, pausing to pray and, when leaving, sounding a bell to draw the attention of the gods.

Later I noticed that the Temple was offering yoga at $3 per class, four times a week. The weeknight teacher, K, was a member of the Temple. Her classes (almost the same every session) were strength oriented and fast paced. Initially I found them quite difficult. Attending twice a week, I gained strength slowly. After six months, I could “do” the whole class, with a few modifications. Since the group is large, little is offered by way of corrections or adjustments. I now consider this my “baseline” fitness activity, and I think I am strong and flexible for a woman over sixty.

The Saturday teacher, S, is an American woman with one of the standard American yoga teacher credentials. Her class is never the same twice! Sometimes it is far too difficult for me. (Downward facing dog to tripod? Are you kidding?) Sometimes S teaches “yin” yoga, which involves long times (3-5 minutes) in postures designed to encourage surrender to gravity. This is supposed to loosen ligaments and joints, rather than building strength in muscles.

Our yoga classes at the Temple are normally held in a medium sized room with no obvious assigned function. I think it is often used for birthday and anniversary parties. It’s smaller and better heated than the social hall. But once in a while we practice in the sanctuary, surrounded by the colorful, glittering gods. It’s a sensual treat, like having heavy cream in coffee! The gods get new attire frequently, probably five times each year. Their costumes are color coordinated, one time all red and white, another time all in shades of yellow and orange. Obviously someone dresses them with great devotion.

Once a year, more or less, the reassuring cycle of classes is interrupted. K goes to India, to see family and do pilgrimage. Volunteers take over her classes. Yoga potluck! Sometimes the substitute teachers are announced in advance, sometimes not. Some are familiar, others total strangers. One taught a system that involved the seasons – I think we made it through Spring and Summer and halfway through Fall. One yelled like a high school football coach. Ugg! One gave instructions in a chanting voice, very uplifting. Another spoke in a soft, affected drawl that grated on my nerves.

I love yoga potluck season (often February or March), and I love the return of K. I’m sure I need at least two teachers, and the K and S combo works very well for me. S has been the main influence in the development of my yoga philosophy. She asserts that the position at which you arrive matters very little, so long as you move into it mindfully and find a pose that suits you. She often refers to her classes as “ego free yoga”, in order to emphasize that comparisons between students should be avoided. (I think there’s a good deal of ego in some parts of the yoga world!) So I often practice with my eyes closed.

I’ve bought into the idea that modifications are good and that there are at least five “right” ways to perform any yoga position. I’ve got physical “issues” – messed up knees and wrists, a dodgy neck, etc. I’m not pushing my luck in a yoga class or elsewhere. Sometimes, I am subversive! I don’t do shoulder stands, and got tired of the alternative offered by K, which was endless leg lifts. Sometimes I just put my feet up against the wall and relax. It’s an inversion, and that’s the point. I’ve seen a few students copy my approach. And others have copied modifications I use to spare my now-delicate wrist joints.

Yoga is a big part of my life. A best friend took yoga teacher training locally last year. My sister is now doing the same near her home in Connecticut. We compare notes and classes and encourage each other.

Meanwhile, the Temple is more than “just” a place to take classes. It’s a window into another continent, and an observation post on the path that turns immigrants into neighbors and friends. I’ve shared the Temple meals during their holidays. The smell of their cooking could bring me in from miles away! Occasionally we yoga students are invited to a lecture or event. Sometimes, in a small way, I have the opportunity to act as a “culture broker”, explaining or facilitating something. Mostly, I can say to MY community “Hey, I know those people. They are OK.” In these troubled and somewhat xenophobic times, with immigration issues on the front burner, I think it helps. I hope so.

Stay tuned for discussion of books about yoga and India!

“Leaving India – My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents” by Minal Hajratwala

This book was a special find because it deals with emigrants from Gujarat, where most of my Indian neighbors come from. I study yoga at a local Hindu temple. Some (older) temple members speak only Gujarati.

This book also deals with a specific caste, the Khatri. There is tangential mention of “Patel” as a caste. It is a very common last name here, usually the most common name among our high school graduates, with 5 or 7 or 9 in a graduating class.

Members of the Khatri caste historically were weavers, but have moved into trade. Around here that means motels, restaurants and a wide range of small businesses. The author of this book is atypical. She is a journalist. Her father was an engineer/scientist, her mother a physical therapist. Their family of four included four nationalities – Indian, Fijian, New Zealander and American, the later two being the birthplaces of the author and her brother. (Possibly some of them have dual citizenship.) The family was in New Zealand at a time when Indians were normally excluded by racial quotas, but Hajratwala’s father had urgently needed scientific skills.

Hajratwala is also exceptional in being openly gay. (I may be jumping to this conclusion. I don’t know the local Gujaratis well enough to be sure.)

I cannot imagine having SO MUCH FAMILY! Hajratwala travels around the world visiting cousins and aunts and relatives by marriage… She records their life stories in vivid detail. 

This is a great book for people adjusting to or curious about America’s current level of diversity, or for anyone with a geographical frame of mind and/or an interest in India. (It says next to nothing about yoga or meditation, which seem to be most irregularly distributed around the Indian subcontinent.) The focus of the book is on individual and family experiences. A little religion, and no politics.

I originally read this in October of 2009. Four years later, I’m still happily going to yoga class at the Hindu temple two or three times a week.