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New Documentary Portrays the Work of B.K.S. Iyengar

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B.K.S. Iyengar

 

“One cannot begin work on a sculpture without courage.

The nature of a stone is that it is strong;
To transform it into a sculpture, and see the God within it,
Requires immense strength.
If one gives up or is daunted by the strength of the stone or injuries,
the sculpture will never come to life.”

An Indian stone carver, in Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar 
 
Courage, transformation, strength. These are among the many qualities described in a new documentary called Sadhaka: The Yoga of BKS Iyengar by director Jake Clennell and executive producer and senior Iyengar teacher Lindsey Clennell.  
 
B.K.S. Iyengar is known worldwide as a preeminent yoga teacher, and a leading force in bringing yoga to the U.S. The books of Mr. Iyengar have been published worldwide, and his resources support schools and a hospital in his native village in Southern India. 
 
Born a crippled child, yoga strengthened him and transformed his body. Mr. Iyengar’s own physical limitations led him to develop his own unique yoga style that he has taught to multitudes. His contributions to bringing yoga to the masses led Time magazine to recognize him on its list of the world’s most influential people, and he has been awarded the equivalent of a knighthood by the Indian government. At 94 years old, Mr. Iyengar is still active in his own yoga practice. 
 
The documentary highlights the life and teachings of Mr. Iyengar to give viewers a chance to learn about this great man and get a sense of the style of yoga he has developed. To Mr. Iyengar, ‘the body is the temple, and yoga asanas are the prayers.’ 
 
In his own life, he has exemplified the transformative power of yoga for body, mind, and spirit. Through his extensive and creative use of props, Mr. Iyengar has made yoga accessible to everyone, no matter which physical limitations they may bring to the practice.
 
The documentary also demonstrates the powerful effects of yoga on drug addicts and orphans, helping those living confused and painful lives to align with deeper parts of themselves.
 
Crowd-Funding Efforts Offer 22-Minute Preview of Iyengar Documentary
To capture an extended excerpt of the movie, check out the 22-minute trailer at the crow-funding website Indigogo. And should you feel inspired to do so, contribute to help move the documentary into the post-production phase.
 
The first three years of making this film were funded by the director and producer, and the intent now is to raise enough money to take the documentary through post-production. Supporters will receive recognition for their contributions based on the size of their gifts. Once this film is completed, proceeds from the sales and screenings will go to the B.K.S. Iyengar Foundation in support of Bellur Village schools and the local hospital there.
 
 

 

 

Yoga May Decrease Health Complications of Diabetes

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The number of people affected with type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic proportions worldwide, with the highest level of increase yearly seen among seniors aged 65 and above. Diabetes often carries with it numerous adverse complications in those suffering from the condition, and people with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease, bone and joint issues, and skin disorders.

A recent study conducted in India may offer preliminary evidence that yoga may have preventive and protective effects for this people with diabetes by reducing stress and improving the antioxidant defense system. 
 
This study included 143 people between the ages of 60 and 70 with Type 2 Diabetes. Each had a five to ten year history of Type 2 diabetes with poor glycemic control. Participants were all middle class, literate, living with their families, and they continued with their conventional medications without changing any dosages. 

During the study, half the participants were assigned to a study group, which practiced yoga under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher for 90 minutes daily for three months. The control group participated in a comparable control session. 

Blood work was conducted for both groups (glucose, lipid profile, cortisol, and others) at the beginning of the study and on day 90. At the end of the three months, the yoga group showed a decrease in fasting glucose, total cholesterol, triglyceride, LDL-cholesterol, T.chol/HDL ratio and a significant increase in good HDL – cholesterol. 

In addition, yoga participants also showed significantly decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while participants in the control group had increased cortisol levels. Stress is thought to aggravate diabetes; studies have shown that cortisol level tends to increase along with the severity of the condition. Increasing cortisol have been strongly associated with increasing pathophysiology in people suffering from diabetes.
Several markers of oxidative stress also improved in the study group, another encouraging finding, as oxidative stress also plays a major role in the development of health complications in people suffering from type 2 diabetes mellitus. 

The slow rhythmic movements of yoga postures stimulate organs and glands with easy bending and extensions, whereas aerobic exercise can be less effective for older population groups, because of the strenuousness of the movements required.  

Although yoga won’t offer a cure for diabetes, study results indicate that the ancient practice of hatha yoga can help keep the symptoms of diabetics under control and to protect against long-term complications. As such, a regular yoga practice may be a useful complement to other lifestyle changes that can help manage the condition and reduce long-term health complications.

 
Source
Yogic practice and diabetes mellitus in geriatric patients by Rani K Beena and E Sreekumaran
International Journal of Yoga. 2013 Jan-Jun; 6(1): 47–54.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573543/?report=reader
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3573543/?report=reader#!po=3.57143

 

 

Yoga in the Era of the Rock Star Yoga Teacher

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By Carol Horton, Ph.D.

I used to assume that the reason that famous yoga teachers were famous was because they were better at yoga than others. After all, every field has its exceptional geniuses: there's lot of rock musicians out there, but a John Lennon doesn't come along too often. So when I thought about famous yoga teachers, I fit them into this paradigm, e.g.: B.K.S. Iyengar is to yoga as the Beatles were to rock. 

Certainly, in the case of Mr. Iyengar (and some others), I still think this is true. But in the past 15 years, yoga has become a multi-billion dollar "industry” and the number of famous “rock star” yoga teachers has grown proportionately. You no longer have to be a genius, who has profoundly influenced the development of modern yoga in order to achieve fame. Today, with so many yoga classes, studios, students, retreats, and products on the market, it's a whole different ball game.

Given the enormous influence that yoga teachers can have on their students, it’s useful to reflect on the qualities that can vault a yoga teacher to prominence today. 

The Rock Star Yoga Teacher: What Does It Take?

What does it take for a yoga teacher to become a famous teacher in the U.S. today? Off the top of my head, I'd suggest the following: 
  
1) Kick-Ass Asana Chops. Teachers who can do amazing things with their bodies wow students. It's impressive, exciting, and can be inspiring. Also, because so many Americans assume that yoga is asanas, pure and simple, being able to do advanced poses is taken to mean being “good at yoga” as a whole.

2) Good Looks. Our society places a huge premium on physical attractiveness. Particularly for women, fitting into mainstream standards of what's considered beautiful generates attention and admiration. While men have a bit more leeway, it certainly doesn’t hurt them to be good looking, either.

3) Charisma. While harder to identify than beauty or asana chops, charisma is actually much more important. Max Weber classically defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities . . . not accessible to the ordinary person." Powerful in any field, charisma is a particularly good fit with yoga, where students are primed to search for a guru, teacher, or leader who can guide them toward the transformation that more powerful forms of the practice can provide.

4) Business Savvy. As the yoga industry, like American society in general, has become more competitive, business savvy has become increasingly important. Yoga teachers need to make a living, too. But with zillions of recent yoga teacher training grads, not to mention Pilates, Zumba, spinning, and other popular fitness options competing for the potential yoga student’s time and money, how does the individual teacher stand out from the crowd? It’s not easy. Having a good head for business helps. 

Is That It?

Am I suggesting that all famous yoga teachers are simply charismatic, attractive gymnasts with a strong business sense? No. I myself have studied with several famous yoga teachers who were famous for good reasons – e.g., they had a depth of knowledge about yoga and ability to communicate it to students that was simply exceptional.

I do think, however, that in today’s environment, these are the qualities that will help someone become “successful” in the sense of being able to attract big numbers of students to their classes, teach nationally or even internationally, sell DVDs or other tie-ins, etc. The qualities of exceptional athleticism, good looks, charisma, and business savvy dovetail with what American culture values more generally. 

I’ve experienced this directly myself. About 18 months ago, I stopped attending the yoga class I’d been going to for years and spent a few months experimenting with new classes. What I saw made a big impression on me. 

I remember going to one class with maybe 80 students packed in mat-to-mat. The teacher bounced in like a radiant cheerleader: pretty, confident, eye-catching, smiling, bestowing good vibes on the crowd. She led us through a nice workout that left me feeling like I’d had some exercise, but not done any yoga. Aside from a brief New Age-y reading at the beginning and end of class, there wasn’t anything that distinguished it from a “normal” exercise class – no work with the breath, no attention to mental focus, and no meditative dimension.

Soon after that, I went to a class led by a woman who’d been teaching in the Chicago area for well over a decade. Her hair was streaked with grey and she had a quiet manner. She was not charismatic. I knew that she’d travelled to India and New York multiple times for intensive study with renowned yoga teachers. Her class had had incredible focus, energy, and depth. It had six people in it. 

As I left the studio, I thought: Wow. She’s been teaching in this city for as long as I can remember and she only has six students in her class? And it was a great class! I found this surprising, and disheartening.
Ethical Ambiguity
 
Of course, someone can have asana chops, good looks, charisma, and business savvy in spades, and also be an incredible yoga teacher.

The problem, however, is that our culture holds these qualities up as an indicator of what’s valuable, aspirational, and admirable. We assume that someone who can float from Crow to Handstand in the middle of the room is “better” at yoga than the rest of us, who can’t imagine accomplishing such a feat.

In fact, however, the ability to perform such a pose is ethically neutral. The person who achieves it may have the personal qualities of a saint, an a-hole, or anything in between.

Similarly, we tend to see physical attractiveness as worthy of admiration in ways that it doesn’t merit at all. Particularly in the yoga world, which has a strong aesthetic sense, we tend to feel that a teacher’s beauty imbues her with other qualities that she may or may not really have: equanimity, compassion, understanding, etc.

Charisma poses the trickiest issue, because it is the most invisible yet the most powerful attribute contributing to fame. While charisma can be harnessed to truly effective teaching, it can also be used to manipulate, dominate, and disempower. All of the cult leaders who have eventually fallen from the weight of years of abuse inflicted on their students were powerfully charismatic. Charismatic leaders can twist meanings so effectively that their followers become completely out of touch with reality. This can be extremely dangerous.

Similarly, business savvy is an ethically neutral talent. It’s possible to be in business and be visionary, responsible, and positive. It’s equally possible to be reactionary, manipulative, and negative. You can succeed financially either way. Sure, it’s probably harder to stay on the high road. But it’s certainly not impossible.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that I no longer assume that more “successful” yoga teachers are somehow “better” at yoga than those who aren’t. I don’t hold their fame against them. But I don’t consider it a guarantee of anything that I value, either.

Conversely, I don’t assume that because a teacher has only a small number of students in her class that she’s lacking something important. (In fact, the one class that I make an effort to go to regularly is quite small.) A teacher may have small classes, because she is new, inexperienced, and not capable of leading stellar classes. But it may just as well be because she is seasoned, knowledgeable, and committed to teaching classes that are true to her practice and don’t cater to mass market tastes.

The American yoga world is changing fast. As such, it’s a particularly important time to reflect on just how ambiguous the relationship between market success and ethical substance really is. We need to think carefully into the dynamics of what makes one particular method or teacher more popular than others. Most of all, we need to question the commonly assumption that “successful” necessarily means “better.” It doesn’t.
Share Your Thoughts! Has yoga become a mile wide and an inch deep, as Judith Hanson Lasater once put it? Or is the teaching of yoga just right? Share your thoughts below (comments are moderate to avoid spam, so it may take a short while for comments to appear).

An earlier version of this article was originally posted on Think Body Electric

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

 

 

Artist Robert Sturman on Yoga and The Poetry of the Body

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Robert Sturman

 

Robert Sturman, an artist from Santa Monica, Calif., recently traveled to Kenya to document the work of the Africa Yoga Project, a nonprofit organization that teaches and employs more than 70 local yoga teachers and conducts up to 300 free yoga classes for more than 5,000 people weekly in orphanages, prisons and other locales throughout the country. 

The result? A series of stunning photos that capture just how universal a language yoga has become.
 
“Yoga is a beautiful, poetic expression of the body,” Sturman tells the New York Times in this interview, which also displays a sampling of his stunning photos. “I wanted to go to Africa to celebrate human beings aspiring to reach their full potential.” 
 
More than perhaps any artist before him, Sturman has made it his mission in life to capture the poetry of the body via yoga asanas.
 
"It is the study of yoga that has triggered one of the most creative periods of Sturman's career, resulting in a series of stunning portraits that capture the beauty and poetry of asana, the repertory of postures included in the practice of yoga." says Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times.
 
The visit to document the wok of the Africa Yoga Project proved memorable. Sturman traveled to orphanages, prisons, and remote villages.

“Visiting the Kenyan prison brought me unexpected joy,” says Sturman to The New York Times. The inmates, some of whom are H.I.V.-positive, told me that yoga has become a rare source of happiness in their daily lives. After a yoga class, I looked at the people in the class and I saw the hope in their eyes that they could become a part of something positive."
 
For more on Sturman and his beautiful photography of yoga asana, visit his website at RobertSturmanStudio.com

 

 

Yoga in Encinitas Schools – Trial on Hold till Late June

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The trial challenging the teaching of yoga in the PE program of the Encinitas Union School District has been put on hold till June 24, pending the testimony of more witnesses before closing arguments.

“This is 21st century P.E. (physical education) for our schools. It’s physical. It’s strength-building. It increases flexibility but it also deals with stress reduction and focusing, which kickball doesn't do,” says Superintendent of EUSD, Timothy Baird, who testified at the trial. 
At the heart of the issue is the attempt to define yoga narrowly as either religious or not. 
 
As author Philip Goldberg points out in a blog post on Huffpost, entitled, The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga Is Religious, Only It's Not.
 
“Yoga" means different things to different people, has a broad spectrum of applications and can legitimately be presented in a variety of formats, contexts and rubrics. In fact, its adaptability is among its greatest strengths.
 
If yoga is interpreted as religious, it must be the most nonsectarian, nondenominational, trans-traditional, interspiritual, universal expression of religion imaginable. It would also be the least religious of religions, since it demands neither allegiance to a specific tradition, nor faith, nor the acceptance of any doctrine. Few Americans for whom yoga is central to their spiritual lives call themselves religious, and even fewer think of themselves as Hindus. Indeed, none of the gurus and yoga masters who brought yoga to the West ever asked anyone to convert or to accept their teachings on faith. To them, yoga is a practical science that has value for people of any religion.
 
As blogger Carol Horton points out in this blog post on the Encinitas yoga law suit, the basic issue with the case is trying to narrowly define yoga as either religious or not. Yoga as taught in the U.S. today is a varied as the American culture itself. If we try to box it into concepts narrowly defined by prevailing culture wars, everyone loses out. 
 
Watch a brief recap of the case here and stay tuned for more updates when the trial resumes in June:
 

No More Excuses—The Gift of Yoga

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Reasons people give saying they can’t do yoga:

–I’m too stiff.
–I have arthritis.
–I’m overweight.
–I have a bad back.
–I’m too old.
–I’m a guy.
 
Let me describe the people in one of my recent classes: 
-Their ages range from 42 to 82. 
-One is blind. 
-One has scoliosis and deals with chronic pain from post-polio syndrome. One has fibromyalgia. 
-One’s a guy. 
-Half of them can’t touch their toes. 
 
Let me describe their teacher:
I am 54. I took my first yoga class in 1995, shortly after I learned I had advanced osteoarthritis in my left hip. I had been told at age 25 that I suffered from early-onset joint and disc degeneration and that I had the knees of an 80-year-old. I had my first joint surgery a few months later. It left me more crippled in the knees than before. I had suffered from crippling back pain since I was 18.
 
By the time I took that first yoga class, I could walk about a quarter mile. I could go up and down stairs only with assistance. I had to use my hands to move my feet onto the gas pedal and brake to drive to that first class. I sat on the floor and burst into tears from the pain. My teacher gave me a stack of towels to sit on and I could stop crying. 
 
An hour and 15 minutes later, the back pain was gone.
 
I began studying how to teach and then began teaching yoga in 1997.  Fifteen months later, I had to have that left hip replaced. The doctor told me I would have been there much sooner if it hadn’t been for the yoga. Three months later, I had the second hip replaced. 
 
My recovery period: five weeks. At week four after each replacement, I was walking up and down Mt. Rubidoux, a 3.5-mile round trip on a big hill in my hometown. My doctor also attributed that recovery pace to the yoga. The doctor also noted that my entire spine was degenerating, as were all my joints.
 
In 2004, although my back pain was mostly gone, I was aware that damage existed and I had sharp pain in my neck. I had X-rays and then an MRI done. The lowest disc in my spine was completely gone; next one up was half gone; I had ground bone away from my lowest vertebra; I had bulging discs and bone spurs in my neck. I set to work on the neck problems in my yoga practice, and the pain was gone in about two weeks.
 
When I started practicing yoga, and for years after I started teaching, I couldn’t come anywhere close to touching my toes. I couldn’t do backbends, I couldn’t do forward bends, my standing poses were narrow and wobbly. Even as a teacher, I felt frightened in most poses all the time. I still do.
 
What got me going in yoga: pain.
 
What kept me there: Hope. Hope and inspiration, deriving from the constant, small, but steady progress in dealing with the challenges I have been dealt in life. And ultimately, this is the gift of yoga, and this is what keeps us all coming back to the mat again and again.

 

Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her Web site is www.christieyoga.com.

 

 

Yoga on Trial: Encinitas and the Need for a New Paradigm

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By Carol Horton, Ph.D. - 

The legal battle unfolding in Encinitas over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools is now on hiatus; the San Diego Superior Court will resume hearings in late June. At this point, it’s impossible to predict the outcome of the trial. It’s a good time, however, to pause and reflect on what we may or may not be learning in the course of this historically unprecedented case. 
 
The Encinitas lawsuit against yoga in schools is a complex mélange of legal, political, historical, educational, cultural, and religious issues. While the long-term impact of the case remains to be seen, it will likely frame the debate over yoga in schools going forward. Beyond the status of the Encinitas program itself, the question of whether yoga can be successfully integrated into important social institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons is extremely timely, as the movement to do so has been growing exponentially in recent years. 
 
Yet as this trial demonstrates, critical questions about the nature of yoga and its legitimate place in public institutions are only starting to be asked. And unfortunately, the most important issues raised in the Encinitas case have been very poorly addressed to date. 
 
Rather than acknowledging the complexity of the legal, educational, cultural, and religious issues in play, the opposing parties have squared off into narrowly defined and sharply polarized camps. Each is equally committed to defending an overly simplistic, one-dimensional paradigm that leaves little, if any room for nuance, compromise, or finding a much-needed middle ground. 
 
Hopefully, the presiding judge will decide the case in a way that parses the issues presented much more finely. Because if he sticks with the paradigms presented so far, it won’t be good either for yoga, public education, or our collective health and well-being. 
 
Exercise or Religion?
As it stands, the plaintiffs in the case – a group of aggrieved parents led by Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock – have been arguing that yoga is inherently religious, and consequently unconstitutional to teach in public schools. In response, the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) is insisting that yoga is exercise, pure and simple. 
 
And that (ridiculous as it may seem to anyone who knows anything about yoga) is essentially it: Yoga is either religion or exercise! Take your pick. 
 
When presented with such one-dimensional positions, anyone with a reasonably informed understanding of contemporary American yoga would immediately respond that yoga is neither simply exercise, nor inherently religious. For most regular yoga practitioners, it’s beyond obvious that yoga is a multidimensional practice that’s much more complex, nuanced, and adaptable than either of these simplistic (not to mention, profoundly polarized and polarizing) positions permits. 
 
In our culture, yoga is commonly described as a “mind-body-spirit” practice. True, this phrase is used very casually, and lacks clear definition. Nonetheless, it communicates the fact that yoga as we know it today is a richly multidimensional practice.
 
Yoga in America is alternately understood and experienced as exercise, fashion trend, self-improvement technique, physical therapy, stress reducer and/or spiritual practice. There’s a huge variety of yoga methods, classes, teachers, and practitioners. There are radically different – and in many cases, sharply opposing – approaches to the practice. To boil such a remarkable degree of diversity down into an argument over whether yoga is “exercise or religion” would seem ridiculous, if it weren’t already being taken seriously in a court of law. 
 
Mind, Body – and Spirit?
Of course, it’s the “spiritual” part of this mind-body-spirit picture that presents the problem. In this case, the EUSD wants to deny it exists (or equate it with something akin to a “runner’s high”). Meanwhile, the Sedlocks and their supporters want to subsume this vague term of  “spirit” into a made-up category of “yoga religion” that simply doesn’t exist in the real world. 

In 15 years of practice, as well as several spent studying contemporary yoga in the course of researching my recent book, the only striking pattern I’ve seen with regard to the “spiritual” side of yoga is that it’s extremely variable and undefined.
 
I’ve met many people who take their practice very seriously who would never describe it as “spiritual.” Alternatively, I’ve found that those who do see yoga as “spiritual” can’t really explain what they mean by that well. Most significantly for the purposes of this case, I’ve also become convinced that a solid majority of American practitioners simply aren’t interested in the spiritual side of yoga at all. 
 
Yoga Journal’s 2012 market study, which offers the best data available on the American yoga “industry,” backs up this observation. When asked to report the top reasons they practice yoga, a representative sample of the American population replied as follows: “increase flexibility” (68%), “stress relief” (62%), “improve physical health” (61%), “enjoy class” (“57%), “improve mental health” (51%), “increase strength” (50%), “physical fitness” (50%), “weight loss” (31%), and – last but not least – “spiritual development” (30%). 
 
Particularly given that the term “spiritual” is extremely elastic and vague, the fact that only 30% of American practitioners cite “spiritual development” as a reason to practice belies the claim that yoga is “inherently religious.” However, it also counters the assertion that yoga is “simply exercise.” As these data indicate, American yoga is a diverse phenomenon. While most commonly prized for its physical benefits, it’s also valued for its psychological effects – and, in a solid minority of cases, as some sort of undefined “spiritual practice.” 
 
Finding a Middle Ground
If it’s understandable why the conflict in Encinitas arose, the fact that it’s polarized into the two simplistic positions of “yoga is religious” versus “yoga is exercise” is problematic. Both are grossly inaccurate ways of describing the variety and complexity of American yoga. Plus, they are polarizing positions that encourage people to dismiss each other’s concerns out of hand, torpedoing potential conversation and compromise. 
 
To stick with the polarizing paradigms presented in the Encinitas case could potentially undercut the growing trend toward teaching yoga in schools and other publically funded institutions. This would be terrible, as it’s an important movement that offers much of value to not only to our children, but society at large.
 
It’s particularly stupid to stick with these simplistic positions given that both parties agree that the public schools have no business directing kids’ spiritual and/or religious development. Rather than fighting over one-dimensional definitions of what yoga supposedly is or is not, they should be working together to develop classes that are appropriate for a public school setting. As such, the yoga taught should not only enhance children’s physical and psychological health and well-being, but also respect the diverse religious commitments of a multicultural society. 
 
Hopefully, Judge Meyer will write an opinion that recognizes the legitimate concerns of both parties, but rejects the one-dimensional nature of their positions. Ideally, the Encinitas case will contribute to a productive conversation about how best to adapt the ever-evolving practice of yoga to meet the needs and concerns of our troubled and unhealthy society. Rather than reigniting the culture wars, we need to reach across the fault-lines of our deeply divided body politic, finding ways to continually re-create yoga as the healing, unifying, and empowering practice that it can and should be.  
 
Many thanks to Gary Warth, reporter for the U-T San Diego, for being so generous with his time in answering my questions about the case. All views expressed in this article represent those of the author alone.  

 

Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

 

 

Could GMOs Potentially Cause Leukemia in Humans?

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By Susan Olshuff - 

The widespread use of foods with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has long been a cause of concern for health-conscious consumers. Sixty-four countries around the world now require foods containing GMOs to be labeled as such. Despite numerous consumer initiatives in the United States to introduce GMO labeling, the Food and Drug Administration so far has resisted enforcing the labeling of genetically altered foods.

If you’re wondering about the safety of GMOs, a new study may provide yet another reason to stay cautious. The study indicates that biopesticides engineered into GMO crops to make the crops resistant to pests, may be contributing to blood abnormalities ranging from simple anemia to blood cancers like leukemia. The study was published by the Department of Genetics and Morphology at the University of Brazil in the Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases.

Bt spore-crystals have been in use in US agriculture since the late 1960’s as an insecticide applied to crops. However, with the advent of recombinant DNA biotechnology, Bt toxin-producing genes have become inserted into the plants themselves. Genertically engineered plants containing Bt toxins have been commercially produced in the U.S. since the mid-90s, and they are now ubiquitous in the US food supply.

In September, 2012, a link between genetically modified food and cancer was confirmed in a French study on rats. The current study goes further and reveals that different binary combinations and doses of Bt toxins can target mammalian cells, in particular, red blood cells, resulting in cell changes that indicate significant damage, such as anemia. The study also found that Bt toxins suppress bone marrow proliferation, resulting in abnormal lymphocyte patterns found in some types of leukemia.

Researchers in this study fed mice various doses of GMO toxins called Cry proteins or Cry toxins. After only one dose, the toxins caused a number of blood abnormalities, which continued to worsen until the seventh day after that single exposure. Damage was seen in the bone marrow cells, ranging from anemia at the lowest dose tested, to higher counts of white blood cells, which are associated with leukemia.

These results, according to researchers Mezzomo and Miranda-Vilela at the University of Brazil, indicate the need for further studies to clarify the mechanism involved in the hematotoxicity found in mice, and to establish the toxicological risks to mammals – before concluding that these GMO control agents are indeed safe for human health.

In short, the jury is still out when it comes to the safety of GMOs for human consumption. If you prefer to play it safe until the health effects of GMOs are more fully ascertained, a little bit of smart shopping can help you stay clear of most of the foods currently containing GMOs. 


 
Source: Hematotoxicity of Bacillus thuringiensis as Spore-crystal Strains Cry1Aa, 
Cry1Ab, Cry1Ac or Cry2Aa in Swiss Albino Mice. Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases, Volume 1, Issue 1.

 

 

Savasana Under Lockdown: Teaching Yoga in Jail

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By Carol Horton, Ph.D. - 


I taught yoga in jail for the first time yesterday
.
Or, more accurately, I got my first intro to teaching there by assisting the beautiful Jenny Boeder, who teaches at Yogaview, one of the best studios in Chicago.

I met Jenny through Yoga for Recovery (YFR), which is expanding into a full-fledged nonprofit from a small core of volunteers who’ve been teaching yoga in the Cook Country Women’s Detention Center for three years. I connected with YFR through Street Yoga, whose excellent training I took earlier this year.

“How was it?,” my husband asked when I came home. Good question.

Savasana Under Lock-Down

The first word that came to mind was “bittersweet.”

Both of the two back-to-back classes that Jenny and I taught went exceptionally well. They were at capacity (10) and the students were really engaged. By the time everyone was lying in Savasana, I sensed that same palpable magic that I always feel at the end of a really good yoga class.  As I closed my eyes and breathed together with everyone else, I surfed the powerful wave of peace and spaciousness that we’d created.

But then, the students left – as a group, under guard. Jenny and I collected our I.D.s and walked outside. Through the thicket of security guards, many of whom seemed slightly startled, pleased, and curious to see the two of us – who looked like we’d dropped in from a parallel universe (which, effectively, we had) – passing by.

We walked through a bleak courtyard with high walls topped with menacing spirals of barbed wire cyclone fencing.

And it cut my psyche, just a bit.

I got just a little, tiny glimpse of the reality of incarceration. And that was painful enough. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have that be my everyday world.

During the break between classes, Jenny and I had talked about how most of these women were likely in jail because of nonviolent offenses like drug possession. (And statistically, it’s true: about 80% of women in Cook County Jail have been charged with non-violent crimes.) “Like nothing that we didn’t do in high school,” said Jenny intently, wearily, indignantly. “I mean, did you feel like any of those women seemed like they needed to be locked up?”

Risk and Hope

No – I didn’t. There’d been no vibe that felt threatening whatsoever. Quite the contrary: Instead, what I’d felt was a degree of openness to the deeper dimensions of yoga that far exceeded what I’d experienced teaching most of my studio classes.

Which didn’t surprise me. It was very much the same as when I’d taught yoga at Sarah’s Circle, a drop-in center for homeless women, last year. In part, I think this is true because these women are willing to take a risk. They’re stepping out of their usual routines and doing something that for them is radically new (not surprisingly, most have never done yoga before). And they’re taking that risk in the hope that it’ll prove worthwhile – who knows, maybe even bring them something positive.

As an over-educated white girl from the suburbs who’s never been in serious trouble with the law, never been homeless, and never had any close friends or family imprisoned, I feel like I’m making something of a parallel move from the other side when I teach in a jail or homeless shelter. Because I, too, am choosing to step out of my usual world and into a radically different one in the hopes it’ll prove worthwhile – and, who knows, maybe even be really positive.

And I can honestly say that in my experience, it is.

To me, teaching yoga to under-served, socially marginalized populations such as women in homeless centers or jails feels very worthwhile. And, in a weird, bittersweet, and paradoxical way, it also makes me feel more peaceful and centered, and less fearful and anxious.

Experiencing Yoga

Of course, it’s important not to romanticize “serving the poor.” We also need to be thoughtful about where we can truly be helpful. A certain amount of training and life experience is necessary to work sensitively with groups of students that will undoubtedly have much higher levels of trauma than those of us from more privileged backgrounds are used to.

At the same time, however, I think it’s important to celebrate the fact that teaching yoga in a jail or homeless shelter can be positive and uplifting.

“Really, you’ll see, it’s fun,” Jenny and the other experienced teachers told us newbies at our first Yoga for Recovery meeting. “While there’s always issues, the students are great.”

And it’s true. Though for me, “fun” and “great” are just placeholders for an experience that’s much more meaningful.

That bittersweet experience of feeling embedded in a collectively generated magic of positivity and peace, and then walking out through that barbed wire fence back to the reality of a society in which those same women and I are radically divided by race, class, education, and culture – that, for me, is yoga.

Much as I wish that it were not the case, it’s simply true that there’s a huge social chasm separating me from the women in Chicago’s jails and homeless centers.

At the same time, it’s also true that when we both step out of our everyday worlds and meet in the neutral space of a yoga class, we can co-create an experience that transcends those differences, generating an energy that I believe – or at least hope – is healing and energizing for us all.

This post was originally featured on Yoga Modern (September 27, 2011).

Barbed wire photo credit: geezaweezer


Carol Horton, Ph.D., is the author of Yoga PhD: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body (Kleio Books, 2012); and Race and the Making of American Liberalism (Oxford University Press, 2005). She is also the co-editor (with Roseanne Harvey) of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics and Practice (Kleio Books, 2012). Carol holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Chicago, served on the faculty at Macalester College, and has extensive experience as a research consultant specializing in issues affecting low-income children and families. A Certified Forrest Yoga teacher, Carol teaches yoga to women in the Cook County Jail with Yoga for Recovery, and at Chaturanga Holistic Fitness in Chicago. To learn more, visit her website at carolhortonphd.com.

 

 

 

Yoga as a Universal Journey: Iyengar Teacher Birjoo Mehta on the True Meaning of Yoga

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By Christie Hall 


Christie Hall is a writer, yoga teacher, and long-term Iyengar yoga practitioner. In this article, she describes some important lessons learned at the recent national Iyengar yoga conference in San Diego, titled Yoga, Universal to All, or Sarvabhauma Yog. Particularly noteworthy were the sessions headed up by Birjoo Mehta, a senior Iyengar yoga teacher and increasingly, a leading force within Iyengar yoga. 

Birjoo Mehta lept lightly to the stage the first evening of the Iyengar Yoga conference and convention in San Diego, May 10-15. He was to spend the next several days showing us how to create steadiness and balance as a means of bringing consciousness into our poses. 

He was a child when he began studying with BKS Iyengar in 1974. As a young man, he traveled with his teacher through Europe, the United States and Australia, demonstrating poses. An engineer by profession, he has led Iyengar yoga conventions in the United Kingdom since 2001, and he traveled to China in June 2011 with Iyengar, teaching the evening sessions with guidance from his teacher. 

My teacher, Manouso Manos, had urged us all to get to the conference to experience Birjoo’s teaching, but I achieved far more comprehension of the purpose of yoga than I ever dreamed I might.

"’Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness’ (Yoga Sutras I,2] Yoga is seen as the study of the workings of the mind. The way the mind interacts with the senses, the breath and lays down emotional imprints. It is a study of consciousness.”  ~ Alan Goode

The message from BKS Iyengar has always been twofold: Find the correct alignment in the pose and let consciousness spread until the pose itself felt whole. For some such as me, however, learning alignment has been such a task that spiritual accomplishment has been even more elusive than the turn of a femur. At some point, I mostly gave up trying.

Birjoo brought us a simple how-to message, however, a map any individual can follow to find that stillness in a pose. We should worry less about making alignment corrections in a pose, he taught. Instead, we have to use our minds even more than we use our bodies. As Manouso often notes: Finding resolution with the physical body is considerably less threatening.

Rather than focusing on the fine points of alignment, Birjoo put much more emphasis on the meaning of yoga – stilling the fluctuations of the mind to reach an awareness of our true, unchanging self. He set out the process in a pragmatic fashion, likening it to a corporate initiative, outlining the steps from vision to accomplishment:

1. What is the vision of yoga? Developing the ability to perceive our permanent form.

2. What is the mission of yoga practitioners? Stilling the fluctuations of thought – in order to perceive our true, unchanging self.

3. What is the strategy for accomplishing our mission? Practicing yoga asana.

4. What tactics shall we use in our strategy? Finding alignment in yoga postures.

Like his teacher, Birjoo brought joy to his teachings. He made us laugh with implied threats of long holds of Kapotasana. His hands wove like birds as he spoke. He smiled, he coaxed, he reached for analogies to help us understand how to perceive consciousness within yoga postures and, once perceived, to command its use. By the second day, his voice was a bit hoarse.

I began to understand some writings that had long been obscure to me:

"From fluctuation to stillness, stillness to silence, and silence to sight of the soul is the journey of yoga." BKS Iyengar in Tree of Life p. 121 

As much as I longed for the state described in Yoga Sutra 1.3, that having stilled the mind, “The seer resides in his own true splendour,” I was very much stuck in 1.4: “At other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness.” (Iyengar, pp. 52-3.)

Birjoo's theme of awareness and consciousness in the pose vs. physical actions proved disconcerting until I had the faith to actually try it. Here are some reflections from Birjoo’s sessions on how this principle applies to the practice of yoga asanas.

Finding Tadasana in Every Pose – Samasthiti

This pose is like the unchanging self at the center of all our fluctuations. It is the touchstone, the place of quiet at the center of a practice. The other poses all become variations. The key to envisioning this is in the name Samasthiti: sama – same; sthiti – steadiness.

To find the quiet within fluctuations of other poses, Birjoo directed us to bring an element of Tadasana to each pose. In Utthita trikonasana, Birjoo suggested we maintain the back leg actions of Tadasana in both front and back legs as we slowly lowered into the pose.

I kept the back leg and buttock in the neutrality of Tadasana, and connected the front leg buttock bone firmly toward the heel. Although physically exhausted after a challenging day of standing poses, I found that a surprising kind of steadiness resulted; a quiet, unfluctuating mind translated to a pose that felt grounded.

The next afternoon, he brought Tadasana to the practice of Bharadvajasana 1. Once we had turned the abdomen and chest, Birjoo asked us to recreate the torso of Tadasana. One side of my body had become noticeably shorter. Once I opened and lengthened it, again quietness descended. 

We touch back to universality when we bring Samasthiti to other poses.

Balancing consciousness

For any other physical activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.

The second day of the conference, Birjoo asked us to add another layer of awareness to our poses. In all the asymmetrical standing poses, consciousness concentrates in one leg or the other, he noted. He described it this way: activity, the movement itself is the point. In yoga, the asana starts when the activity and movement of creation stops. We pay attention to the details of the pose as we create it, then, once in the pose, we let awareness move to where consciousness is. Then we seek to balance the consciousness throughout the pose.

Where there is excess consciousness, the pose is more dense. Where there is less consciousness, the pose becomes light.

Birjoo outlined this process in Utthita trikonasana, where the back leg becomes light, with consciousness concentrated in the front leg. He suggested moving the bones where consciousness, density remained, and to move from the flesh to bring consciousness to the pose where it was light, such as the back leg. 

Another consciousness-balancing technique works through awareness of opposites. He suggested that where the flesh was puffed out or extended, excess consciousness existed. He also equated this with ahamkara, sense of self. On the opposite side was an interruption of consciousness. To balance consciousness, we had to reopen that interruption. For example, a locked elbow produces excess consciousness along the inner elbow, and we must release the back side of the elbow to create evenness. In Uttanasana, the puffiness of the upper or lower back requires an opening of the front chest or abdomen.

These modifications required something much different than what he termed the beginner’s approach of paying attention to aligning the pose. Instead he invited us to arrive in a pose and explore, to be open to the areas calling for our awareness.

Once we find heightened perception in one area, we next draw that awareness to the opposite region of the body to balance awareness, consciousness throughout the pose. All in all, the conference gave me a whole different level of understanding of the subtler levels of experience in yoga asana and of the amazing depth of the teachings of BK. Iyengar.

 

Christie Hall began studying yoga in 1995 to cope with crippling back pain. Her home practice started with the book, Yoga: The Iyengar Way. She started teaching in 1997 after studying with Iyengar teacher Karin O'Bannon and she has studied as student and as teacher exclusively with Iyengar teachers, including BKS Iyengar in Colorado in 2005 and Geeta Iyengar in 2007. More of her writings can be found on her blog: www.pratipaksha.com. Her Web site is www.christieyoga.com.

 

 

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