“Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind,” Michael Stone (ed.)

Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind

This summer I led yoga on a month-long Buddhist meditation retreat in The Santa Cruz mountains, and when I returned home to the city this book, “Freeing the Body Freeing the Mind” was in my mailbox. It appeared like a welcome-home gift and a tool for reflecting more deeply on my own joyful exploration of Hatha Yoga and Buddhist mediation as one practice.

I had been pondering the relationship between the two traditions and how the two practices support one another, and this book is a deep reflection of these very themes. In a compilation of 13 essays from a variety of perspectives, the authors of this book explore this intersection and how Hatha Yoga and Buddhist meditation can inform and inspire one another.

Title: Freeing the Body, Freeing the Mind: Writings on the Connections Between Yoga and Buddhism
Author: Michael Stone (ed.)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-801-1
Available from: Shambhala,, and

Michael Stone, in his essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”, asks practitioners to ponder where the mind ends and the body begins, and where the body ends and the world begins. In “Zen Body”, Eido Shimano Roshi writes that studying “the way with the body” means to study the way with our own bodies, directly and with curiosity. And Frank Jude Boccio, in “Mindfulness Yoga”, reminds us that, according to the Buddha, in our exploration of bodily experience we can find discomfort, pain and suffering, but also peace and liberation.

“In order to meditate,” writes Eido Shimano Roshi, “we need our body. We also need our breath.” In his eloquent description of the Ch’an spatial breathing practice, Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata”, writes of a “great circulation of breath”. “The breath, in a free space,” he writes, “will accomplish the absence of limits”.

“Just stop, look up, breathe in and breathe out,” advises Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, in “Body and Mind Dropped Away”. “Breathing is an experience of prana,” writes Chip Hartranft in “Awakening to Prana”, the body being “energetic by nature”, what the Buddha called “a body within the body”. “The yogi abides,” Hartranft says, “observing the body within the body.” He continues that “the yogi’s vision is yoked to the moment of unfolding, of arising and passing away.”

We enter into yoga postures not to complete some perfected image or gesture, but rather to wake up the intelligent union of mind, body and heart. (from Michael Stone’s essay “Practice Maps of the Great Yogis”)

Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities.” and invite practicioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, infusing “our whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” “What is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”

Ari Goldfield and Rose Taylor, in “Joining with Naturalness”, say that “Buddhist Yoga is ideally suited to being practiced right within our daily activities”, and they invite practitioners to “arouse the mind of bodhicitta before every practice”, to “infuse the whole practice with compassion’s power”. O’Hara quotes the Vimalakirti, urging us to “let go of every shred of self-clinging, to drop all notions of a separate self, all ideas of reality, of body and mind, let it all drop away.” Then “what is left,” he teaches, “is the ceremony of daily life.”

Several of the book’s authors challenge the dualistic view of the mind and body as separate, as well as the popular misconception that yoga is for the body and Buddhism for the mind. In “The Body of Truth”, Ajahn Amaro Bikkhu says that “the Buddha encouraged the kinds of practices that would keep the mind full of the body”, while Shosan Victoria Austin, in “Zen or Yoga” reminds us that “mind is not in the brain: mind permeates the whole.” And Sarah Powers, in “Mind and Body at Ease”, describes a practice of “receptive attention”, becoming “fluid, flexible and adaptable” and “coming home to our bodies in a dignified way”.

The deepest yoga makes us realize that the infinite space of our heart is free of any form and is all forms at the same time. (Ming Qing Sifu, in “The Broad Tongue of the Tathagata: Spatial Breathing in Ch’an)

In “Brahma Vihara, Emptiness and Ethics” Christopher Key Chapple explores three points of contact between Buddhism and classical yoga; the practice of the Brahma Viharas of friendliness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity; an understanding of emptiness as described in The Heart Sutra; and the practice of ethics, compiled as the yamas and niyamas. Many of the essays relate Hatha Yoga practice to the Buddha’s instructions on The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, as well as practice instructions which focus on the body and the breath, in The Anapanati and Satipattana Suttas.

Michael Stone explains that “what Yogic and Buddhist teachings share is a radical challenge to the way we conceive spirituality.” New to me were the ways Patanjali, the author of “The Yoga Sutras” was influenced by the Buddha, and the counter culture roots of both the Buddhist and Hatha Yoga traditions. Both Shakyamuni Buddha and Patanjali questioned Brahminical orthodoxy and the rituals of the Vedic tradition.

Chip Hartranft describes how both the Buddhist path and Patanjali’s Hatha Yoga path rely on “direct seeing”, in a practice centered in the present moment.

What struck me as I finished the book was the depth of the commitment to practice of each of the authors, and their clarity in sharing their wisdom. I read the essays out of order, depending on my mood each day, and when I finished the last one I felt like I had been on an intensive Buddhist Yoga Retreat, led by the authors of these 13 beautiful essays. This book itself was an experience and, for me, the reading of it became a daily practice. I recommend this book as a valuable resource and encourage taking time to savor it.

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Meditation in hospitals, and formidable women everywhere

Hospitals and meditation are coming together, what with the growth in mindfulness-based programs that started with Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction several decades ago. Sutter Hospital, in California, is one of the latest to add a Meditation Garden.

Meanwhile, at an Asheville, North Carolina, hospital, meditation is being used to help breast cancer patients. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times, a study “found patients using the body/mind/medicine therapies, including guided imaging, reported lowered blood pressure, heart rates and anxiety levels.”

In military medicine circles, the army’s plans to build up mental ‘resilience’ in soldiers serving in Iraq include a meditation room with stained glass windows.

There’s an Asheville connection with regards to Rev. Teijo Munnich, who is said to have been called “relentless” when it comes to her style of meditation, because, she says, her tradition has such a “macho” reputation. Munnich moved to Asheville in the mid-1990s and founded the Great Tree Zen Temple, where one of her intentions is to involve more women in meditation.

Not really a news story, this, but Karen Maezen Miller, “wife, mother, Zen priest and author of Hand Wash Cold” (her book will shortly be reviewed on Wildmind) has a piece in the Huffington Post on 8 Ways to Raise a Mindful Child. It’s all simple, down-to-earth stuff.

Also not strictly a news piece, but Zen Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson is interviewed about her new book, Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters. Just in time for Halloween, there’s a delightful description of Zen Zombies. You’ll have to read the article for clarification!

And one more from the ladies. If you remember that recently Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler was campaigning against the practice of yoga because of its connections with eastern mysticism. Well, the five formidable women of Down Under Yoga are likely to give Mohler a heart-attack, devoted as they are to bringing yoga back to its spiritual roots. They’re concerned by the commercialization of yoga, and wish to promote yogic values of ahimsa (non-harm), and and aparigraha or non-possessiveness. “My worry is that . . . what we do in the yoga room is becoming the same as what we do outside the yoga room. Which is behaving like lunatics,” says yogini Natasha Rizopoulos. “The minute yoga is packaged and branded, you’ve lost it,” adds lawyer-turned-yoga-teacher Justine Wiltshire Cohen.

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East meets west. There’s some wariness at first. But they end up liking each other.

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As well all know, mathematics is dangerous — especially trigonometry. Rooted as it is in ancient Greek religious practice, young minds exposed to mathematics become open to unwholesome — possibly demonic — spiritual influences. Nah, just joking. The bit about math being rooted in religion is true, naturally, but the possibility that the hypotenuse is the straight line to hell seems far-fetched, to say the least. But Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler believes something very similar about yoga, according to an article in the Clarion Ledger. Yoga comes from the Hindu tradition, but of course dressing in a leotard and stretching your hamstrings doesn’t strike most people as much more than a way of calming down and getting in shape. As the article says, “Mohler’s posture has drawn a mix of bafflement and criticism from those who practice yoga, which is taught in many churches and which many people see as unrelated to its ancient roots in India.”

But coincidentally, Dr. Michelle Belfer Friedman, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, has a column in The Jewish Week, offering advice to a woman who’s worried about her husband’s dabbling in yoga and meditation. Dr. Friedman’s advice — basically talk to your husband and get to know what he likes about his new pastime — is very sound.

A less fraught east-meets-west story is to be found in Massachusetts, where a Thai sangha have just been granted permission to build a 60 foot Theravadin temple, complete with a golden spire. The photograph in the article looks lovely, and apparently there were no objections raised at the planning meeting.

And the interfaith harmony goodness extends to North Carolina, where Pitt County Memorial Hospital has just dedicated an ecumenical chapel. The new chapel cost 2.3 million dollars and was built thanks to private donations.

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Jailhouse bliss-out: Teaching yoga to prisoners

Laura Sygrove teaches downward dogs to downtrodden kids. The 33-year-old yoga instructor, certified in 2005 for clocking 800-plus hours of pretzelled enlightenment, is executive director of the New Leaf Yoga Foundation, which brings yoga and meditation to youth detention centres throughout southern Ontario. Ms. Sygrove spoke to the Post’s Nick Aveling about teaching young offenders to take a deep breath.

Q So you go to prison and teach kids yoga?

A Yeah, New Leaf goes into youth custody facilities. We also run a couple projects for youth outside of custody who have been identified as at-risk. It was founded by a group of us who are all yoga practitioners and teachers who ourselves have been profoundly impacted by yoga. Based on that personal experience we feel really strongly that yoga can be an amazing tool to help youth with the difficulties they’re going through, and incarceration is a difficult experience.

Q Yoga, I would imagine, is rarely practised by young offenders. Is it really such a novelty?

A I understand that it’s difficult to imagine. I remember looking up in my first month of teaching and seeing these five boys in meditation with their eyes closed. In jail, closing your eyes is a big step for a lot of people. They looked really calm, sitting totally still, and I thought, I wish someone could walk by and see this; I get to see this, but nobody’s going to believe me. I feel like that’s a small part of my mission: to help people understand that a lot of these kids have the capacity to be more peaceful.

Q Surviving high school, let alone prison, is often based on projecting toughness. Yoga’s not always perceived as the most masculine pursuit. Has that been a roadblock?

A Sometimes, but something that we really emphasize is meeting youth where they’re at and making yoga really accessible. That could mean leading a really active class to challenge assumptions that yoga is all about stretching, or just meant for girls.

Q How do you avoid coming across as a kickin’-it-to-the-youth caricature?

A We basically just try to be ourselves. If you come across as preachy you’re going to be met with a lot of resistance, so this isn’t about telling youth we have some kind of solution for them. It’s about saying, “This is something that helped me in my life and maybe it’ll help you, but you never know until you give it a shot.” It’s an approach that I think tends to be empowering for them. Kids are used to people trying to force answers on them.

Q Is it working?

A Youth are telling us they notice a difference in their ability to concentrate and deal with anger. They’ll use breathing techniques instead of fighting. We also hear a lot from the staff, especially the social workers, who say they’ve noticed a difference. I often think of one youth I’ve worked with for quite a long time–he’s in on some quite serious charges, and I only know that because of the length of his sentence –who told me he thought the first two classes were “mostly bulls—“. Fast-track a year-and-a-half and he credits yoga with being one of the things that have really helped him change. Another youth told me it’s the only time he feels like he’s not in jail. And we have waiting lists, both in terms of youth who want to take classes and facilities who want us to go in. We need more funding.

Q Do you think the involvement of svelte, yoga-sculpted instructors could help explain the program’s popularity?

A I’m not naive about the fact that youth might be coming for lots of different reasons. For some of them that could be part of the initial curiosity. But, first of all, our female teachers are very modestly dressed when they’re teaching the classes–there are no tight yoga outfits going on. Second of all, yoga is really hard work, and if they’re only coming for that reason they won’t last very long. Also, our teachers are all different shapes and sizes–by all means they don’t fit into that cliche–and some of them are male as well.

Q Is it possible you’re asking too much of yoga?

A Again, it’s naive to say I think yoga’s going to solve all the problems these kids are facing. That’s not realistic, because these kids are facing complex, long-term issues. But what I see with yoga is that it works well in conjunction with other things. So we’re not saying, “Do yoga! Quit therapy!” In fact, doing yoga can help people in therapy because they’re able to deal with emotions that might get dug up. And it can help people in school because it teaches them to concentrate.

[Nick Aveling, National Post]
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Meditation group learns peace, eases stress

It’s early Saturday morning, and a group of eight people are sitting around in a circle with their eyes closed at the Carver Ranches Library. Leading the group on an inner journey is African-American meditation instructor Ed Stevenson.

“Think about the positive traits that define you,” he says, in a soft voice. “Everything that happens to you depends on how you see yourself.”

Among those sitting side by side are an executive, a chef and a writer. Some are return visitors, while others have never taken a meditation class before. For the next 45 minutes, the group follows Stevenson on breathing and relaxation exercises and grapples with philosophical questions such as, “Who am I?” “What is it that I need to improve to have a better relationship with myself and others?” “What values not encouraged by this culture must I work to develop?”

“I come because sometimes it is too painful to acknowledge what is really going on, deal with it,” said Gladys Francois, 60, a native of Haiti and regular attendee. “Meditation keeps your mind peaceful; you learn how to be calmer, forgiving, and forget about what others may think of you.”

Stevenson’s Raja yoga meditation group has been meeting since January at the 10,000-square-foot library in West Park. The free sessions, said former Miami-Dade College teacher Roz Reich, who helps run the group, are meant for deep spiritual contemplation, and to help unwind and connect with reality.

“It has been said that this is the age of rage, we see the levels of anger rising. Peace of mind is something so precious, and many of us find that in these troubled times we have lost it.”

Elizabeth Lindley, the library’s manager for the past five years, says that as the unemployment rate has risen and people have sought refuge from the harsh economy, spirituality-related materials have become increasingly popular — not only among those whose lives permit extended time-off, but also recent college graduates and professionals.

“These meditation sessions offer tools that are helpful to ease the stress, pain, and fear that come with these difficult economic times,” she said. “Participants learn how to get rid of negativism, develop good qualities — they learn that this too shall pass.”

For Laura Larriviere, each meeting offers a brief respite from a chaotic life, a glimpse of self-awareness, and a chance to connect with others “also open to improvement.” Once overwhelmed with depression and the rigors of motherhood, she said she found a haven in the meditation groups.

“Since the first time, I have an instant feeling of coming home, being where I wanted to be, in peace with myself and others.”

The positive effects of meditation in her life were many: by learning to slow down and acknowledge her thoughts, Larriviere says she learned to keep sadness from snowballing and stopped taking medication. A more respectful stance towards her body followed — she got rid of cravings, adopted a healthier diet and, over the course of a year, lost some of the weight she had been struggling with.

The 33-year-old said Stevenson’s teaching is particularly appealing as “he speaks up front, is not scared to tell you something you don’t want to hear, which encourages discussion and a deeper personal journey.”

Stevenson, 54, has been teaching Raja yoga meditation in South Florida for 20 years, and juggles the teacher role with his job as a chef at the French kosher restaurant Weber Café in Aventura. A regular student at the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University in Mt. Abu, India, he says that practicing meditation and teaching meditation are different packages, and both provide vital input into his life.

“Teaching is sharing. Guiding others to watch what they are thinking, stay present, catch emotions and address them helps me think deeply about my knowledge,” he says; adding that meditation is particularly useful as it helps one move away from automated thoughts, and encourages creativity. “Any hard time one has is because of negativity – fighting or resisting is wrong, learning to deal with things is the right attitude.”

His classes, loosely structured, are filled with dialogue and anecdotes. Participants are encouraged to partake in discussion, but can also choose to keep their thoughts to themselves.

“Whether you come to just listen or to actually improve yourself, there’s always some sort of experience that is beneficial to come for,” Larriviere said.

This is a sentiment that Etta Stevens, who took on meditation 7 years ago when hard times struck her family, said she understands. Committing to a more spiritual life brought her awareness on how to contribute in meaningful ways, even when the economy does not cooperate. She became more aware of her values, more accepting of others, and reaches out by writing about her experiences in a local newsletter.

“When we change, the world changes,” she says, with a smile on her face. “We must make the change.”

[Juliana Accioly, South Florida Times]
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Russell Simmons: Green juice and twitter prayer

Russell Simmons, 52, hip-hop pioneer and founder of Rush Communications, helped bring the rhymes of Public Enemy, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys to the masses as a partner in Def Jam Recordings. He injected his hip-hop sensibility into clothing with Phat Fashions and moved into television with “Russell Simmons’ Def Comedy Jam.” Mr. Simmons recently created, a Web site for the hip-hop community. A native of Queens, he has since migrated to a penthouse in Lower Manhattan.

MORNING MEDITATION I usually wake up about 7 on Sunday. I take a steam and a shower and I meditate. Some mornings at 8, the monk comes by. I call him the monk. He’s a T.M. (transcendental meditation) teacher, Bob Roth. He’s renunciative. We meditate, at least 20 minutes.

IN FRONT OF AN ALTAR? My crib, the whole thing’s an altar.

COMPUTER TIME I play on the computer and see what headlines we have up on Global Grind. We don’t do anything negative on there. If I see something negative, I pull it down immediately.

BIKE OR STROLL For breakfast, I have a shake. My nanny — I call her that, the woman who takes care of the house — makes it. I go bike riding up the West Side Highway. I go up to the 50s, then down past the World Trade Center, then go back up a bit to Liberty Street. It’s not exercise. I go slow. I have a little toy bike, a girl’s bike. It’s not a racing bike. I ain’t racing nowhere. Or I walk aimlessly around SoHo, looking at art, the people, stop at Cipriani, Da Silvano, Liquiteria, where I have the shake and have a green juice or two. I bump into 100 people.

CHANTING AND SWEATING I go to Jivamukti. Sunday I can pick what class I can go to. I’m free. There is a lot of chanting and praying and sweating like a slave. With Jivamukti, the teachers have studied the texts of yoga, the psychology, the anatomy; they have studied Sanskrit. They do chanting and discussions every month. They do the yamas, the social law, and teach the asanas, all eight parts of classical yoga.

VEGAN, MOSTLY I became a vegan about 10 years ago. Every so often I have fish when nobody is looking. I try not to. I do it for compassionate reasons. I don’t want to put anything in my body to obstruct justice. If I wanted, I could drink Coca-Cola. I just don’t want to. It tastes toxic.

MOVIES, IN OR OUT After yoga, I see a movie or something. I have a movie theater or I go to the movies. Michael Moore recommended one to me recently on Iraq, with Matt Damon. “Green Zone.” It was a thousand times better than “The Hurt Locker.” It was amazing. Everyone in the theater was going crazy. “Death at a Funeral.” It was so funny. “Hot Tub Time Machine.” It was really silly. I like those.

COMPANY CALLS It’s nice to have people come over. I’m not a big dinner kind of person. I like small stuff. We have popcorn and stuff. Vegan pizza from Viva Herbal Pizzeria. They have a veggie-based cheese. It’s not rice or soy cheese. It melts like crazy and it’s amazing. On 11th Street and Second Avenue.

TWEET PRAYERS, THEN TO BED I put on those striped Gap pajamas. They are like seersucker-looking things. I play around with the Bhagavad-Gita. I tweet a lot of prayer, quotes from the Bhagavad-Gita or the yoga sutras. I’m in bed by 12, if I’m lucky.

[via New York Times]
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The theft of yoga

Aseem Shukla (co-founder, Hindu American Foundation), Washington Post: Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition–that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.

Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins.

It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism–the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands–a protection not available to the originator of their brand–Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.

The Los Angeles Times last week chronicled this steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism. “Christ is my guru. Yoga is a spiritual discipline much like prayer, meditation and fasting [and] no one religion can claim ownership,” says a vocal proponent of “Christian themed” yoga practices. Some Jews practice Torah yoga, Kabbalah yoga and aleph bet yoga, and even some Muslims are joining the act. They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millenia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of yoga’s spiritual roots.

Not surprisingly, the most popular yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell. These journals abundantly refer to yoga as “ancient Indian,” “Eastern” or “Sanskritic,” but seem to assiduously avoid the term “Hindu” out of fear, we can only assume, that ascribing honestly the origins of their passion would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, on its Web site, completes this delinking of yoga from Hinduism thusly:

“The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries…The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions.”

So Hinduism, the religion that has no known origins or beginnings is now younger than yoga? What a ludicrous contention when the Yoga Sutras weren’t even composed until the 2nd Century BCE. These deniers seem to posit that Hinduism appropriated yoga so other religions may as well too! Hindus can only sadly shake their heads, as by this measure, soon we will read as to how karma, dharma and reincarnation–the very foundations of Hindu philosophy–are only ancient precepts that early Hindus of some era made their own.

The Hindu American Foundation (Disclosure: I sit on the Foundation’s Board) released a position paper on this issue earlier this year. The brief condemns yoga’s appropriation, but also argues that yoga today is wholly misunderstood. Yoga is identified today only with Hatha Yoga, the aspect of yoga focused on postures and breathing techniques. But this is only one part of the practice of Raja Yoga that is actually an eightfold path designed to lead the practitioner to moksha, or salvation. Indeed, yogis believe that to focus on the physicality of yoga without the spirituality is utterly rudimentary and deficient. Sure, practicing postures alone with a focus on breathing techniques will quiet the mind, tone the body, increase flexibility–even help children with Attention Deficit Disorder–but will miss the mark on holistic healing and wellness.

All of this is not to contend, of course, that yoga is only for Hindus. Yoga is Hinduism’s gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one can ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or to convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga asks only that one follow the path of yoga for it will necessarily lead one to become a better Hindu, Christian, Jew or Muslim. Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.

But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization–that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths–that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate–since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage–not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

Original article no longer available…

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India inmates take yoga to reduce their jail sentences

BBC: Prisoners in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are being freed early if they complete yoga courses.

For every three months spent practising posture, balance and breathing the inmates can cut their jail time by 15 days.

The authorities say the lessons help to improve the prisoners’ self-control and reduce aggression.

Some 4,000 inmates across the state are benefiting from the scheme, and many go on to become yoga instructors.

‘Angry thoughts’

The state’s inspector general of prisons, Sanjay Mane, said: “Yoga is good for maintaining fitness, calming the behaviour, controlling anger and reducing stress.

“When a prisoner attends yoga sessions and fulfils some other conditions, he will be considered for a remission if his jail superintendent recommends his case.”

Prisoners can also gain credit for attending adult literacy courses or studying for degrees.

An inmate at Gwalior central jail, Narayan Sharma – who has now moved on to become an instructor – says it helps to banish the “angry thoughts” in his mind.

“It was these thoughts that made me commit crimes,” he said.

“I hope that after we are released, we can use what we have learned and promote yoga in society so that people no longer commit crime.”

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Chairgasm in the basement: My intro to tantric meditation

Neal Pollack: Faster Times

When I went to my first San Francisco Yoga Journal conference in 2009, I mostly found myself wandering around the Hyatt confused, frustrated, physically exhausted, and waiting for lunch. This year, I returned with a strategy, a curriculum of sorts. I’d barely do any physical yoga at all; with that, I’ve become all too familiar. Instead, I’d begin my journey into yoga’s subtler aspects, its deeper mysteries. It was time for an introduction to Tantra.

Most people, if they’ve heard of Tantra at all, would say, “Oh, yeah, that’s that thing Sting and his wife do before they fuck.” Until pretty recently, I’d have said the exact same thing. And now, though I know far less about Tantra than I do about, say, the mechanics of the NBA Draft Lottery, I’ve begun to acquaint myself with some basic facts.

Essentially, Tantrism is a school of yoga that began to emerge around 800 A.D. in reaction to certain facets of Vedic orthodoxy. Yoga at that time had grown quite practical, rigid, and exclusionary, and Tantrism brought a mystical element to the proceedings, the possibility that yoga could be practiced by anyone, including, shockingly, women. Tantric practitioners saw yoga as a way to tap into the “divine energy” of the universe. Sometimes this was achieved through identification with traditional Hindu deities, but, since many of its practitioners were Buddhist, that pantheon didn’t always apply. Alternate paths to the divine included meditation, scholarship, mantra (either recited privately or sung with a group), and other, more complex “secret practices” that probably cost a lot of money.

The popular Western yoga form that most closely resembles traditional Tantric practice is kundalini, what with its chanting and its coiled-snake energies and all. But Tantra is actually a complex, variegated body of spiritual work that has only really begun to leach its way into contemporary yogic study. You’re more likely to find a class about paganism than one about Tantric yoga.

But at the Yoga Journal conference, which caters largely to extreme yoga weirdoes like me, Tantra can carry the day, as it seemed to this year. There were lectures in Tantric philosophy, courses on Tantric history, and intimations of larger things to come. I tuned in to some of those, and also took a class called The Art Of Tantric Meditation.

The class leader, Sally Kempton, was (and is) an extremely advanced meditation teacher, which either made it totally ironic or completely appropriate that the class took place in a thin-walled basement conference room in the middle of the convention’s noisy and crowded Yoga Marketplace. From the crackling walkie-talkies and guys who occasionally walked through the room whistling and wearing beige work shirts, I gauged that we were also directly adjacent to some sort of maintenance closet. It was noisy in there. We sat in straight-backed conference chairs, the color and consistency of old puke, and attempted to connect with the divine.

As any master teacher worth his or her cushion would, Sally Kempton told us to ignore the sounds. More accurately, she asked us to let the sounds penetrate our consciousness, notice them, meditate on them, and then let them go. The sounds were, like our breath, or bodies, our thoughts, and everything around us, part of a greater cosmic energy. I found myself somewhat distracted by the extraordinarily hot woman sitting to my left, so close that our knees were almost touching, though the distraction had less to do with the fact of her extraordinary hotness than with the fact that she kept fidgeting with her cell phone by pulling it in and out of a plastic Bakugan backpack. Why, I wondered, did this woman have such a backpack, and how could I incorporate the backpack into the Tantric idea that all physical things are really just a condensed form of “divine light”, or sound vibration? This was a difficult question that our teacher wouldn’t be able to answer, because there was no way in hell I would ask.

In any case, we did many different meditations over the course of two hours, including one where Kempton taught us an interesting technique to intensify and then expel negative emotions. Then arrived the moment of truth, the money shot, so to speak. The teacher announced that we would now do a sexual energy meditation.

In traditional Tantrism, sexual-energy rites were practiced by obscure sects as a kind of clan initiation, and had very little to do with mainstream belief. In contemporary interpretations, they’re a way for middle-aged hipsters to blend their Shiva and Shakti energies together into a series of million-dollar orgasms. What we did in that basement conference room was neither obscure nor wealth generating, but it definitely felt good.

The teacher said: Imagine something extremely sexually arousing. I initially thought of Lynda Carter, circa 1976, but that seemed like kind of a cliché, so instead I concocted a few other scenarios that I won’t share with you right now. Regardless, as she instructed, a warm feeling, almost like intense light, began to emanate from my genital center. No, it wasn’t a boner. Don’t be perverted. This was a higher sensation that transcended mere sexual pleasure.

Then she told us to take that divine feeling and move it through our bodies, starting in our toes, and then into our ankles, and then our calves, and then our legs, and then our thighs, and traveling upward through various meridians and chakras. Getting to such a place wasn’t so hard, really. I’d been meditating all morning, even all weekend, and my mind was primed. As I sat there in that shitty chair in that shitty room with its shitty carpet, a strange kind of semi-ecstasy permeated my every pore. My body began to involuntarily shudder with pleasure.

Next to me, the hot woman with the Bakugan backpack went “OHHHHHHHHHH!” Then the woman sitting next to me on the other side, in a slightly lower tone, went, “MMMMMMMMM!” Not wanting to be left out, I murmured a deep, low, “AHHHHHHHH!” The room had reached a state of Samadhi, where our individual selves had dissolved into a greater cosmic consciousness, probably fueled (though not in my case, I swear), by fantasies of having sex with George Clooney.

Then it was over, and our teacher released us into a room where entrepreneurs were selling stretchy pants and massage balls. A few hours later, after I’d gone to The Ferry Building to quite wisely invest $3.50 on a mixed “meat cone” from Boccalone, I returned to the conference to attend a lecture on the future of Tantra in the West. On the way there, I ran into the woman who’d been seated to my left.

“So, that workshop…” I said.

“Yeah, that was kinda weird,” she said, without looking me in the eye. “What’s up?”

And then she walked away, spastically and hurriedly, carrying the secrets of the Tantra in her Bakugan backpack.

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Indian prisoners find yoga is key to getting out of jail

For centuries swamis have peddled yoga as a means of unshackling the mind. Now jail inmates have found that sun salutations and the cobra posture are the keys to a more tangible freedom. Prison authorities in India have agreed to an early release scheme for convicts who regularly practise the ancient exercises.

Inmates in the central state of Madhya Pradesh will have up to 15 days taken off their sentences for every three months that they do yoga. The offer is being extended even to the hardest cases, including murderers serving life terms, in a startling vote of confidence in the calming effects of stretching routines, deep breathing exercises and chants of “Om”.

“We’ve seen that meditation and yoga work our inmates into good shape physically, mentally and spiritually,” Sanjay Mane, the region’s inspector-general of prisons, who oversees more than 100 jails and 50,000 inmates, told The Times.

“Since we began the project last month we have seen their behaviour change . . . prisoners are learning to manage their emotions. The ambience in the jails is improving.”

Inmates have to complete an hour of yoga every morning to qualify for early release. About 4,000 have signed up and several have claimed that it has rehabilitative effects.

Narayan Sharma, an inmate at Gwalior central jail who wants to become a yoga instructor, said that the sessions had helped to banish the “angry thoughts” in his head.

“It was these thoughts that made me commit crimes,” he said. “I hope that after we are released, we can use what we have learnt and promote yoga in society so that people no longer commit crimes.”

A strategy to cut tension levels in India’s prisons — institutions that could have been designed to plant “angry thoughts” into the most placid of minds — was overdue. Most jails are overcrowded, underfunded and filthy. About two thirds of the 350,000 inmates are awaiting trial for minor crimes.

For those awaiting trial, the state of the Indian legal system is enough to trigger a deep existential despair. The High Court in Delhi is so behind that it would take up to 466 years to clear the backlog, it was revealed last year.

Prisoner yoga has precedent. During his eight spells in prison under British rule, the first of which was in 1921, Jawaharlal Nehru, who became India’s first Prime Minister, improved his yogic skills.

The Indian Army found in trials that giving meditation precedence over physical drills produces a deadlier fighting force. A prison in Norway found, however, that some prisoners became more aggressive after being offered yoga classes.

Times Online

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