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Hum DEAR, READER Welcome to the Yoga issue of Human Kinetics. We hope you enjoy our fresh perspective on health and the human’s body while doing yoga. As always, keep searching for knowledge while taking care of your body, mind and soul. Thanks, The Staff of HK

LEAD EDITOR Annabelle Gould AUTHORS Hannah Peterson | Kinsey Gross | Amy Brumet | Katie Ulvestad SPECIAL GUEST WRITERS Dr. James Atkins | Dr. Felix Wang PHOTOGRAPHERS Kelly Mason | Alissa Wolken SPECIAL THANKS American Medical Association | Gatorade

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Anatomy Yoga 101 The Four Ashrams The 13 Obstacles Interview with Muz Murra

Neuroscience Change Your Brain Learn While Sleeping Does Gray Matter?

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Psychology The Seven Chakras Real Men Do Yoga The Power of Yoga

Physiology Hot Yoga Urban Posture

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Biomechanics Perfect Poses

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ANA the structure of living things

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ATOMY 6

Yoga 101

learning the basics

10 The Four Ashrams stages of a yogi’s life

12 The 13 Obstaclas

overcoming life’s challenges

14 Muz Murray

an Interview with a Guru

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By Kristina Moore

yoga 101

An Introduction

Yoga is a vast collection of spiritual techniques and practices aimed at integrating mind, body and spirit to achieve a state of enlightenment or oneness with the universe. What is normally thought of as “yoga” in the West is really Hatha Yoga, one of the many paths of yoga. The different paths of yoga emphasize different approaches and techniques, but ultimately lead to the same goal of unification and enlightenment. Though yoga’s ultimate aim is lofty, its essence is practical and scientific as it emphasizes direct experience and observable results. It is not a religion, but a practice of personal inquiry and exploration. As the cultural and religious diversity of practitioners attest, yogic philosophy speaks to universal truths that can be incorporated within any belief system.

History of Yoga Yoga’s history has many places of obscurity and uncertainty due to its oral transmission of sacred texts and the secretive nature of its teachings. The early writings on yoga were transcribed on fragile palm leaves that were easily damaged, destroyed or lost. The development of yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago, but some researchers think that yoga may be up to 10,000 years old. Yoga’s long rich history can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice and development.

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temple in Rankut, India ‘spiritual center for Manhanni Monks’ photograph by Kelly Mason


Types of Yoga

Hatha // The Physical Path

Jnana // The Yoga of Wisdom

What we commonly call yoga in the West is technically Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga (ha=”sun” tha=”moon”) attains the union of mind-bodyspirit though a practice of asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing), mudra (body gestures) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). These body centered practices are used to purify the body and cultivate prana and activate kundalini, the subtle energies of the body. Modern Hatha Yoga does not emphasize many of these esoteric practices and focuses primarily on the physical yoga postures.

Jnana (wisdom or knowledge) is considered the most difficult of the four main paths of Yoga, requiring great strength of will and intellect. In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman). This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination that are defined in the Four Pillars of Knowledge.

Raja // Oneness with Meditation Raja Yoga is viewed as the “royal path” to attaining the state of yoga or unity with mind-body-spirit. Raja Yoga is so highly revered because it attains enlightenment from direct control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Raja Yoga an extremely challenging and difficult practice to engage in. Hatha Yoga, what we usually know as just “yoga” in the West is a much easier path. Hatha Yoga aims to control the body and breath to still prana (energy) that in turn stills the mind. Although Hatha Yoga was developed as a preparation for Raja Yoga, they can be practiced simultaneously.

Bhakti // The Yoga of the Devotior Bhakti Yoga is one of the four main yogic paths to enlightenment. Bhakti means “devotion” or “love” and this particular path contains various practices to help unite the bhakta (Bhakti Yoga practitioner) with the Divine.

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“Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.If it were always a fist or always stretched open, you would be paralyzed. Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as bird wings.” - Rumi

hennah, sacred petals ‘the hands of the holy’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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The Four By Cris Flabin

ashrams

The traditional Indian culture promoted four Ashramas, or stages of spiritual life, that provided a simple framework of life planning for the spiritual aspirant. Each Ashrama defined a level of spiritual practice based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life. The four Ashramas allowed the Indian culture to participate in and actively support a rich spiritual life, as well as gave the individual comfort and clarity to progress along the path of Selfrealization. These four stages need not be practiced in a sequential order, and while they were traditionally discussed as lasting 21-25 years, the duration of the Ashramas will vary with the individual.

Brahmacharya (Student) The first quarter of spiritual life is spent as a celibate student, closely studying with a spiritual teacher. In this stage the focus is on yogic training, mental discipline, and learning about spiritual, community, and family life. This Ashrama creates the foundation and overview of spiritual practice that follows in the three other stages.

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pagodas in Bhindana, India ‘pointing to enlightenment’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

Grihasta (Householder) The second quarter of spiritual life is spent as a householder, creating and supporting a family and fulfilling one’s worldly interests and duties. The most appropriate path of yoga for this stage is Bhakti and Karma Yoga, and other practices that can be performed in the context of worldly life and service to others. During this Ashrama one utilizes the training, discipline and knowledge gained from the Brahmacharya Ashrama to live a complete life and to enjoy worldly pleasures. The Householder’s challenge is to “Live in the world but allow not the world to live in you.” He or she must view life as a great teacher and strive towards a spiritual life in the midst of worldly temptations and distractions. The Householder path is considered the most important Ashrama as it supports all of the other three Ashramas.

Vanaprasthya (Hermit) In the third Ashrama, one begins to withdraw from the world to establish a state of hermitage. This is a transition stage, moving away from fulfilling the needs of the family and society to deepening the practices started as a householder in preparation for the forthcoming renunciate stage. A quiet living space is sought, a simple yogic lifestyle is practiced and the close ties with family and community are reduced to the role of a detached counselor.

Samnyasa (Renunciate) In this last Ashrama, the yogi/ni retreats from all involvement in all worldly pursuits and seeks only the attainment of the unitive state of Selfrealization. Becoming a Sannyasin requires committing to a set period of practice and the

ancient sanscrit scripture carvings ‘breath of the weightless’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

taking of spiritual vows, usually including a vow of poverty and the abandonment of physical possessions. In order that all their time, energy and focus could be expended on spiritual practices, the Sannyasin cannot stay in a household, he has to stay in a temple or live in forest or ashram, relying on charitable donations for food. The structures and meanings of the Ashramas have changed over the years due to the loss of caste system and through the influence of Western culture. The distinctions between the Ashramas have over time become blurred, and their overall importance has become diminished. The deeper yoga practices, once only taught to renunciates, are now becoming available to Householders who wish to practice a hybrid path. Unfortunately, these changes have produced confusion and misunderstanding in the modern world of yoga, as the levels and types of yoga practices are missing an overall context. Reviving the idea of the Ashramas will not only provide this missing context, it will also give modern yoga practitioners a valuable long– term plan for their progress along a path of yoga.

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obstacles

The 13

The path of yoga can be long and hard, filled with obstacles, pitfalls, and detours. Luckily, yogic philosophy provides a roadside assistance program to aid you when you become stuck. The yogis who have traveled the path before us have left us a troubleshooting guide called the 13 obstacles of yoga. The nine main obstacles of yoga are: 1 // Vyadni Illness, disease, physical or mental. It is difficult to

do yoga if you are physically sick. Thus it is important to lead a healthy lifestyle for the prevention of illness and promotion of optimal health. 2 // Styana Apathy, disinclination towards performing ones kartavya or duty. By procrastinating, we avoid our practice and create excuses for not being on the path and doing the work. 3 // Sanshaya Doubting ones capability or the result of yoga. We can only come to know Reality, declares the BrihadÂranyaka-Upanishad (4.4.23), when we are free from doubt. It is important to cultivate faith in oneself as well as the yogic path. 4 // Pramada Heedlessness, carelessness, a lack of persistence. Yoga is both a science and art, approaching it without skill, care, respect and devotion will create erratic possible negative results. 5 // Alasya Sloth, inertia of mind or body due to dominance of the tamasic element. Yoga requires discipline, zeal and tapas (will-power) to succeed its path. Laziness prevents you from attaining your highest potential. 6 // Avirati Overindulgence, attachment to pleasurable things. We must learn to “let go” of our attachments to desire and physical objects if we are to make progress in yoga. 7 // Bhrantidarshan False vision, a premature sense of certainty. The development of a false notion about the practice of yoga and its outcome can not only lead one off the path of yoga, but also create harm and disappointment. 8 // Alabadha-Bhumikatva Non-attainment of the next yogic stage or accomplishment. This happens due to faulty or poor practice and creates a feeling of being “stuck” and leads to discouragement. 9 // Anawasthitatwa Instability, non-permanence of a yogic accomplishment or stage. Not able to maintain an attained stage can be a real drag. This again can be a result of faulty or poor practice. When any of these primary obstacles are encountered, four minor obstacles may appear according to the circumstances: 10 // Duhkha Pain or sorrow 11 // Daurmanasya depression, pain caused by non-fulfilment of desires. 12 // Angamejayatwa shivering of the body. 13 // Shvasa-Prashvasa disturbances in kumbhaka or breath retention causing the irregular breathing pattern that comes with mental agitation. 12

Human Kinetics | The Yoga Issue

By Jan VanGillan


standing head to knee with prayer ‘in balance’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

“You will need to be able to remove all these obstacles at will to be successful in yoga.”

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By Gabe Lowerll

muzmurray Muz Murray is a spiritual Master and Mantra Yogi, well-known for his Mantra, Massage and Meditation workshops.

You have been called a ‘real-life Indiana Jones’ in your colourful, adventurous life as spiritual seeker. Could you tell us something of your background before you began this work? That will be difficult in a short interview! But briefly, I studied painting at Art College in Coventry, England, and afterwards worked as a Theatre and Film Décor designer and scenic artist for 10 years in many countries. At the same time I was gaining a reputation as a surrealist painter and poet. In my early days as a bohemian artist, I hitchhiked all over Europe, earning my bread by sketching portraits on the street. Later I lived for a while on the Costa Brava in Spain, with the surrealist group there, becoming friendly with my painter-guru Salvador Dali and the Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp. Then with two fellow-poets I hitchhiked to Israel where we worked on a kibbutz. For further travel money I drilled for copper in King Solomon’s mines in the Israeli desert, trained elephants in Tel Aviv Zoo, painted scenery for the National Theatre and was a singer in a Nightclub in Acco! From there I went to Cyprus where, at the age of twenty-three, the turning-point of my life occurred. Without any preparation or interest in spirituality, without any meditation practice, yoga or drugs, suddenly I was plunged into a state of ‘Cosmic Consciousness’—a revelatory experience in which I became One with the Consciousness of the Universe. In that state I understood many things impossible to know by ordinary means. This event changed my life completely and precipitated me instantly onto the spiritual path. But all that is explained more fully in my book “Sharing the Quest”. After that, I took a ship to Egypt and found a job for six months as Head Designer for Egyptian Television in Cairo. I spent the next three years in Africa, crossing the Sudanese desert to Ethiopia and dangerously hitch-hiking down

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seated toe grab and balencing ledge ‘looking closer in time’ photograph by Kelly Mason


the whole continent, surviving bandit attacks, poisoned darts, swarms of locusts and a terrifying earthquake. I finally ended up as an actor and Art Director for films and theatre in South Africa.

circles of the dance and suddenly I had the mystical experience of being inside the beating of a great heart—like the Heart of the Universe. Incredible! From there on I was sent along a chain of Sufi teachers until I got to Afghanistan. There I was trapped for three months during the Indo-Pakistan war, before I could at last enter into India.

So had you become very involved spiritually at this point? Oh yes, deeply! After the experience in Cyprus, during my travels I studied every spiritual book I could get my hands on, to try and understand what had happened to me. And while in South Africa, I was initiated into Shabda Yoga meditation practice, by a Sikh master visiting from India and very soon lost all interest in a worldly career. After returning to England, I founded a mystical community and magazine called Gandalf’s Garden in London, which I guided for nearly five more years. Our centre became a mecca for Gurus and spiritual travellers from all over the world. But I was always longing to go to India for my own development and eventually, in 1972, I left my community and set off alone on my pilgrimage overland. It took me seven months to get there. In Turkey, after weeks of searching, I was finally led to the secret Mevlana Order of Whirling Dervishes in Konya, which at that time was prohibited by the Government. The Head of the Order, old Suleyman Dede, kindly accepted me as one of his own. One night he brought all the dervishes together to dance and I was privileged to experience their mystical whirling dance in a form they never do in public. It was amazing. Together with the music of cymbals, flutes, strings and drums, and a narrative song from the Sufi scriptures, they incorporated several weird grunting chants of ‘Allah-Allah!’ at different speeds, and the rhythms and movements created an astounding effect. They pulled me into one of the moving

How was India? What did it do for you? How can I squeeze three years experience into a few words? India is a land of amazing extremes. Even my travels in the wilds of Africa did not prepare me for the outrageousness of India. Being there is a vital experience of life in the raw. You can see birth, life and death, actually going on in the streets. There’s none of our pre-packaged, over-protective and hidden-away aspects of life there. Psychically, I felt it was like stepping into a vast pool of consciousness of a totally different mental wavelength. It was an atmosphere like it must have been at the beginning of the world. In India you get to grips with experiencing reality and there you become aware of the madness of your own cultural conditioning. But there is something about the timelessness of India that gives you opportunity to look into the depths of your being.

Were you seeking a Guru there? Not really. I had already accepted the late Ramana Maharshi of Arunachala as my inner guru. His view of Reality related perfectly to my Cosmic Consciousness experience. And also I already had a Master of Mantra—Sri Ramamurti (Dr. Mishra). However, I was open to all other teachers and received initiation from many different masters and traditions. When I explained to some masters that I had already been initiated, they told me “Yes, but I want to initiate you.” So I ended up with quite a few spiritual names and the saffron robe, a begging bowl and a turban. So I travelled as a wandering sadhu, or spiritual mendicant, meeting nearly all the famous Gurus and hundreds of lesser ones. But only a handful had real quality and most turned me right off.

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“Some are in it for the glory, for the money, or for easy access to western girls.” Did you had some negative experience with Gurus? Indeed! Gurus—or so-called ‘Gurus’—come in all qualities. Some are very heavy egocentric power-trippers and enjoy lording it over their devotees. I’m sorry to report that some are petty despots, or simply self-indulgent conceited oafs. Some are in it for the glory, for the money, or for easy access to western girls. And so many western seekers are too starry-eyed and naive to notice it. Even so, there are still some wonderfully deep spiritual teachers to be found in unexpected encounters and unlikely places. But many of the most profound are little known to Westerners. Perhaps because they only speak Hindi or some local hill dialect, so communication is limited. But sometimes they can suddenly zap you with the power of love from their eyes, or the radiance of their inward vision. One of the people I was most impressed with was Sri Goenka, a Bombay businessman, and teacher of Buddhist Vipassana Meditation. And another was a radiant sweeper-up in an ashram in Mathura, a humble low-caste man who was more spiritually advanced than his Guru, without knowing it! But as I often say, India herself is the greatest Guru. She will put you through more physical and spiritually problematical situations than you’ve ever dreamed.

You say that with some conviction. Well, I went through a great deal myself. And I put myself into many different situations and austere practices to try and understand them and my own capacities. Such as living with power-mad Gurus, for example, or trying Bhakti (devotion to the divine), fasting, or eating only one bowl of offered food per day, sleeping rough in the jungle or temple, or sleeping on a metal cot and letting the mosquitoes eat me (for ahimsa’s sake) or practising Hatha, Raja and Mantra Yoga and other yogic techniques, celibacy, and word-fasts— where I wouldn’t speak for a month or so, and things like that.

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bent bow ‘open to the power ponts’ photograph by Alissa Wolken


Tantra Yoga

Demystified Tantra Yoga is a relatively modern revamping of the ancient vedic and yogic spiritual practices. The Tantrics developed innovative yet unorthodox techniques for allowing one to experience the reality of the true Self, the oneness of the entire cosmos. The Tantra Yogis emphasis on personal experimentation and experience led to radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence. The famous “Left Hand� schools of Tantra used unlawful practices of consuming sex, alcohol and meat as powerful tools for transformation. Tantra Yoga encompasses a huge range of techniques, yet its underlying focus is on using the body as a temple to worship the all-encompassing oneness of life as sacred. In Tantra Yoga, the subtle bodies of energy and spirit are developed to create a bridge from the physical to the Devine. The development of energy is focused on the purification and cultivation of prana and the activation of kundalini. The physical body is used to activate energy through the practices of asana, pranayama, mudra and shatkarma. Thus, the Tantra yogis developed the yoga postures (asana) and breathing exercises (pranayama) that are most commonly used today in Hatha Yoga. Mudras include hand gestures and an intense fusion of asana, pranayama and bandha. Shatkarma (often referred as kriya) are esoteric exercises and techniques to purify the body and cleanse the energy pathways. The devotional practices of mantra, yantra and puja are used to develop the spiritual body. Mantras are sacred Sanskrit sounds that are manifestations of the divine power. Yantras are sacred geometric forms used for concentration and visualization in Tantric rituals. Puja is the active devotional worship of a chosen deity through offerings of food, incense, light, water and gems. Tantra enables the practitioner to directly experience the Divine and to taste the oneness of the cosmos. Tantra offers a smorgasbord of yogic techniques to bring one into the state of ecstasy representing a vast synthesis of spiritual knowledge.

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NEUROSC the study of the nervous system

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CIENCE 20

Change Your Brain

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Learn While Sleeping

by changing your mind

streatching has lasting benefits

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Does Gray Matter? fit bodies lead to fit minds

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change your brain,

By Changing Your Mind.

By Dr. James Atkins

When it comes to managing stress, the Eastern traditions may be especially effective. The Western health model is based on diagnosing the underlying cause of a problem and then finding an active medical or behavioral intervention to remove it. People with chronic illness are often urged to “stay strong,” or to have “a fighting spirit.” Eastern medicine has a more holistic view of disease as indicating a lack of balance or an energy blockage. The solution is to bring the body and mind back into balance using gentle, noninvasive techniques such as herbs, manipulative techniques, movement, or meditation.

Central to this form of meditation is a focus on the breath to bring the mind back to the present moment when it wanders off. Over time, this leads to greater conscious control over attentional focus, such that more primitive alarm responses are less able to control our thoughts and behaviors. The final goal of the meditation training is to integrate present-moment awareness into every aspect of daily life. Research over the past 10 years or so has begun to show how meditation scans of brain development may change the brain and improve mental and ‘thoughts in black and white’ photograph by Alissa Wolken physical wellbeing.

How the Brain Processes Emotion Our lower brain centers, such as the amygdala or hypothalamus, were made to detect and respond to threats, such as a tiger about to eat us. They generate an immediate “fight ot flight” response to increase the odds of survival, but they can become hypersensitive, interfering with our ability to experience the present moment in an open and relaxed way. Daily meditation practice can help to correct this imbalance and allow us to retrain our minds so we are less likely to overreact with intense anger or fear to psychological threats, such as rejection. Being less chronically stressed can also help our immune systems function more efficiently to fight off disease.

Mindfulness Meditation Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Therapy (MBSR) is a meditation program developed by John Kabat-Zinn and researchers at Harvard Medical School to help people living with chronic pain. 20

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Improved Immune Response A 2003 study by Richard Davidson and colleagues, with healthy employees, showed that 8 weeks of meditation practice changed the pattern of electrical activity in the brain. There was greater activation in the left hemisphere among meditators than people assessed at the same time who did not have meditation training (control group). The researchers also looked at immune response to an influenza vaccine and found that the meditator group had more antibody titers to the vaccine than the control group, indicating better immune functioning. These benefits lasted for months after the intervention.


evolving brain tissue ‘thoughts in motion’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

Changes in the Brain’s Grey Matter A more recent controlled study showed that meditation was associated with increased grey matter in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory, and decreased grey matter in the amygdala, which is the initiator of the brain’s pre-cortical alarm system. These physiological changes parallel the theory that meditation increases conscious control over emotional, behavioral, and attentional response to threat.

Reduced Pain Sensitivity Researchers are also beginning to show that meditation can change the way we experience pain. Chris Brown and colleagues at the University of Manchester showed that a Mindfulness Meditation course led to less unusual activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex when subjects expected to receive a painful stimulus (such as a small electric shock or contact with a hot object). Those who meditated reported finding the pain less unpleasant as well.

Shift From Negative to Positive Affect Patients in another mindfulness study demonstrated significantly greater changes in brain electrical activity from activation in the right to

the left cortical hemisphere, from before to immediately following meditation and several months later, compared to a control group. This pattern of brain activity is associated with a shift away from negative and towards more positive emotional experience.

Does a Briefer Intervention Work? One reason why people resist meditating is the time it takes. The original protocol involved eight weeks of mindfulness training sessions plus 45 minutes a day of at-home practice. At the beginning, many people find it difficult to sustain attention on the breath for that length of time. Logistical and time considerations make patients more hesitant to sign up or result in dropout. A briefer intervention that could be used more widely in hospital, employee wellness, and outpatient mental health settings might be more costeffective and palatable to patients. A very recent study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that a briefer meditation protocal produce similar changes in cortical activity. Researcher Christopher Moyer and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Stout assigned subjects at random to either a 5-week Mindfulness Meditation group or to a group put on a waiting list for services. Data showed people in the meditation group practiced at home a couple of times a week for about 25 minutes each time, on average. These meditation subjects showed the same changes in cortical activity as those who got the full intervention in earlier studies; that is, a significant increase in left hemisphere cortical activation. The waiting list group did not demonstrate these changes. This is an exciting finding, since it suggests even shorter meditation periods can significantly increase positive emotional experience in the brain. June 2011

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pagodas in Bhindana, India ‘pointing to enlightenment’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

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“The most important pieces of equipment you need for doing yoga are your body and your mind.” -Rodney Yee

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study of the mind and behaviour

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PSYCHOLO

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OGY

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The 7 Chakras Muladhara Base or Root Chakra

Swadhisthana Sacral Chakra

Manipura Solar Plexus Chakra

Anahata Heart Chakra

Vishuddha Throat Chakra

Ajna Brow or Third Eye Chakra

Sahasrara Crown Chakra

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Real Men do Yoga

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The Power of Yoga

helping to level the playing field more than a movement

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“Be Content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”

-Lao Tzu

practicers in the park, mid morning ‘reaching to the light’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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The 7

CHAKRAS Muladhara

Anahata

Base or Root Chakra

Heart Chakra

Swadhisthana

Vishuddha

Sacral Chakra

Throat Chakra

Manipura

Ajna

Solar Plexus Chakra

Brow or Third Eye Chakra

Sahasrara Crown Chakra

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By Dr. Anne Crasten

SVADHISTHANA

the second chakra

The second chakra, located in the abdomen, lower back, and sexual organs, is related to the element water, and to emotions and sexuality. It connects us to others through feeling, desire, sensation, and movement. Ideally this chakra brings us fluidity and grace, depth of feeling, sexual fulfillment, and the ability to accept change.

gabe and cia at home ‘hanging out’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

want [DO YOGA] better [DO YOGA] sex? [DO YOGA] Western science offers three approaches to treating sex problems: (1) psychological counseling to improve the relationship, (2) sex therapy to correct erotic misconceptions and encourage whole-body sensuality, and (3) for men, medications to treat erectile dysfunction (ED) and premature ejaculation. Meanwhile, another less publicized approach also shows tantalizing benefits, yoga. Classic yoga has eight components, but American practitioners typically focus on two: meditative breathing (pranayama) and movement (asanas). A growing body of research shows that yoga is good for sex and may even prevent and treat sex problems. Great sex begins with deep relaxation, which concentrates blood in the central body where it’s available to the genitals, instead of being directed to the limbs, which happens when people feel stressed (the fight-or-flight reflex). Deep relaxation becomes sexual arousal, the arteries that carry blood into the genitals open (dilate), and extra blood flows into the penis and vaginal wall. In men, this extra blood produces erection, in women, vaginal lubrication and in-

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practicing arches ‘in synch’ photograph by Alissa Wolken


gabe and cia taking a break ‘extra credit’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

creased clitoral sensitivity. Anything that reduces anxiety/stress or elevates mood improves sexual function by aiding the deep relaxation fundamental to lovemaking. Yoga is deeply relaxing. Indian researchers assessed anxiety in 50 medical students, who then began practicing yoga. Their anxiety levels plummeted. Other studies show yoga reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and elevates mood. Palo Alto, California, sex therapist Marty Klein, Ph.D, recommends yoga. “Stress contributes to sex problems and sex problems cause stress. This can become a vicious cycle. Yoga reduces anxiety, so it enhances sex, helps prevent and treats sex problems.” Beyond deep relaxation, sex requires robust arterial blood flow. Anything that improves arterial blood flow improves sexual function, for example, regular, moderate exercise. Exercise has also been shown to help prevent and treat ED. University of California researchers enrolled 78 sedentary older men in a walking program or a vigorous exercise class. After nine months, the strollers reported some slight decline in sexual vigor, but those in the exercise class had less ED and a much greater sexual satisfaction. Key risk factors for heart disease (smoking, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure) all damage the arteries and reduce blood flow to the genitals. Several studies show that yoga reduces risk of heart disease by improving arterial blood flow. Indian researchers urged 42 men with heart disease to eat a hearthealthy diet. Some also began practicing yoga. A year later, the yoga group lost significantly more weight and had lower cholesterol and fewer angina attacks. Similar studies show that yoga helps treat diabetes and high blood pressure. Because yoga improves the health of the cardiovascular system, it’s no great leap to suppose that it improves sexual function and helps prevent and treat sex problems. Yoga also improves orgasm. Orgasm involves rapid contractions of the pelvic floor muscles that run between the legs. In Western medicine, Kegel exercises strengthen these muscles and intensify orgasm. (To do Kegels, contract and relax the muscles that squeeze out the last drops of urine.) In yoga, the pelvic floor muscles are known as moola bandha. Yoga strengthens them, providing benefits similar to Kegel exercises. Finally, one Indian study suggests that yoga helps cure premature ejaculation (PE). The researchers offered men with PE either a daily one-hour yoga routine or drug treatment. The yoga group reported significantly improved ejaculatory control. I take three yoga classes a week, and my wife teaches yoga. Even if yoga had no impact on sexuality, we’d still value its many contributions to physical and mental health. But the studies touting yoga’s contributions to sexual vitality are icing on the cake. June 2011

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By Tristian Cobb

I used to know a graduate student who was perpetually stressed out. He was so anxious that he had insomnia on a nightly basis. When I suggested that perhaps he try a yoga class, his reaction was almost violent. I asked why he seemed so anti-yoga and he proceeded to explain to me that no man - even one who is highly in tune with his feminine side - would be caught dead in a yoga class. Now I know for a fact that not all men feel this way about yoga, but there seem to be quite a few that do. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 10 years; I spent the first 7 doing Hatha yoga in rooms full of lithe young women wearing shirts with words like “Namaste” and “Shakti” written on them. Usually our yoga class would be about an hour long and begin and end with a period of meditation. Careful stretching and balancing would be set to the soothing sounds of rustling leaves and Native American flutes. To be honest, these classes were break dancing with zen ‘yoga for the gentlemen’ photograph by Kelly Mason

at times boring, but they made me feel a lot less stressed out. A few years ago I tried a new form of yoga, Bikram yoga, and in my very first class I immediately noticed something different: there were men in my class! Not a lot, but I saw at least a few. In the Bay Area I’ve been to Bikram yoga classes that are nearly divided 50/50 in terms of gender. Now for those who aren’t familiar with Bikram yoga its important to know that its much more like military boot camp than a long, peaceful trek through the woods. A Bikram class consists of 90 grewling minutes of 26 postures, done in a heated room with a temperature of approximately 105 degrees (although I’ve been in studios that are much hotter). You will stretch every muscle in your body during the class while sweating off buckets. You’ll also find your heart beating rapidly, which is not something I’d ever experienced in a yoga class before. So given this description of Bikram, its not too hard to figure out why it seems to be the one form of yoga that’s recruited a male following. In fact, it’s not just a more masculine form of yoga - it’s a more American form of yoga, with its emphasis on physical performance and sculpting the body. But enough about Bikram - where does this leave us in terms of gender and exercise? My point is really that there are definitely “acceptable” ways of exercising for men and women. This seems silly in a way, but given that most people exercise in the presence of others, it’s not that surprising. The good news is that yoga is very beneficial and, after only one session, there is a noticeable drop of stress hormones in a person’s body. To me, that means that no matter what it takes to get somebody to the yoga mat is probably a good thing.

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By Ken Johnson

POWER the

of yoga

Stars do it. Sports do it. Judges in the highest courts do it. Let’s do it: that yoga thing. A path to enlightenment that winds back 5,000 years in its native India, yoga has suddenly become so hot, so cool, so very this minute. It’s the exercise cum meditation for the new millennium, one that doesn’t so much pump you up as bliss you out. Yoga now straddles the continent — from Hollywood, where $20 million-a-picture actors queue for a session with their guru du jour, to Washington, where, in the gym of the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and 15 others faithfully take their class each Tuesday morning. Everywhere else, Americans rush from their high-pressure jobs and tune in to the authoritatively mellow voice of an instructor, gently urging them to solder a union (the literal translation of the Sanskrit word yoga) between mind and body. These Type A strivers want to become Type B seekers, to lose their blues in an asana (pose), to graduate from distress to de-stress. Fifteen million Americans include some form of yoga in their fitness regimen — twice as many as did five years ago; 75% of all U.S. health clubs offer yoga classes. Many in those classes are looking not inward but behind. As supermodel Christy Turlington, a serious practitioner, says, “Some of my friends simply want to have a yoga butt.” But others come to the discipline in hopes of restoring their troubled bodies. Yoga makes me feel better, they say. Maybe it can cure what ails me. Oprah Winfrey, arbiter of moral and literary betterment for millions of American women, devoted a whole show to the benefits of yoga earlier this month, with guest appearances by Turlington and stud-muffin guru Rodney Yee. Testimonials from everyday yogis

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and yoginis clogged the hour: I lost weight; I quit smoking; I conquered my fear of flying; I can sleep again; it saved my marriage; it improved my daughter’s grades and attitude. “We are more centered as a team,” declared the El Monte Firefighters of Los Altos Hills, Calif. Sounds great. Namaste, as your instructor says at the end of a session: the divine in me bows to the divine in you. But let’s up the ante a bit. Is yoga more than the power of positive breathing? Can it, say, cure cancer? Fend off heart attacks? Rejuvenate post-menopausal women? Just as important for yoga’s application by mainstream doctors, can its presumed benefits be measured by conventional medical standards? Is yoga, in other words, a science? By even asking the question, we provoke a clash of two powerful cultures, two very different ways of looking at the world. The Indian tradition develops metaphors and ways of describing the body (life forces, energy centers) as it is experienced, from the inside out. The Western tradition looks at the body from the outside in, peeling it back one layer at a time, believing only what it can see, measure and prove in randomized, double-blind tests. The East treats the person; the West treats the disease. “Our system of medicine is very fragmented,” says Dr. Carrie Demers, who runs the Center for Health and Healing at the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and


Philosophy of the USA in Honesdale, Pa. “We send you to different specialists to look at different parts of you. Yoga is more holistic; it’s interested in the integration of body, breath and mind.” The few controlled studies that have been done offer cause for hope. A 1990 study of patients who had coronary heart disease indicated that a regimen of aerobic exercise and stress reduction, including yoga, combined with a low-fat vegetarian diet, stabilized and in some cases reversed arterial blockage. The author Dr. Dean Ornish is in the midst of a study involving men with prostate cancer. Can diet, yoga and meditation affect the progress of this disease? So far, Ornish will say only that the data are encouraging. To the skeptic, all evidence is anecdotal. But some anecdotes are more than encouraging; they are inspiring. Consider Sue Cohen, 54, an accountant, breast-cancer survivor and five-year yoga student at the Unity Woods studio in Bethesda, Md. “After my cancer surgery,” Cohen says, “I thought I might never lift my arm again. Then here I am one day, standing on my head, leaning most of my 125-lb. body weight on that arm I thought I’d never be able to use again. Chemotherapy, surgery and some medications can rob you of mental acuity, but yoga helps compensate for the loss. It impels you to do things you never thought you were capable of doing.” A series of exercises as old as the Sphinx could prove to be the medical miracle of tomorrow — or just wishful thinking from the millions who have embraced yoga in a bit more than a generation. Yoga was little known in the U.S. — perhaps only as an enthusiasm of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other icons of the Beat Generation — when the Beatles and Mia Farrow journeyed to India to sit at the feet of the Maharishi Mahesh

Yogi in 1968. Since then, yoga has endured more evolutions of popular consciousness than a morphing movie monster. First it signaled spiritual cleansing and rebirth, a nontoxic way to get high. Then it was seen as a kind of preventive medicine that helped manage and reduce stress. “The third wave was the fitness wave,” says Richard Faulds, president of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass. “And that’s about strength and flexibility and endurance.” At each stage, the most persuasive advocates were movie idols and rock stars — salesmen, by example, of countless beguiling or corrosive fashions. If they could make cocaine and tattoos fashionable, perhaps they could goad the masses toward physical and spiritual enlightenment. Today yoga is practiced by so many stars with whom audiences are on a first-name basis — Madonna, Julia, Meg, Ricky, Michelle, Gwyneth, Sting — that it would be shorter work to list the actors who don’t assume the asana. (James Gandolfini? We’re just guessing.) David Duchovny practices Kundalini yoga; Julia Louis-Dreyfuss prefers Ashtanga. Sabrina the Teenage Witch stars Melissa Joan Hart and Soleil Moon Frye throw yoga parties. Jane Fonda cut out aerobics for it; Angelina Jolie buffed up for Tomb Raider with it. The newly clean Charlie Sheen used yoga and dieting to shed 30 lbs. Add at least two Sex in the City vamps, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis. All three Dixie Chicks. Sports stars from basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Yankee pitcher Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez are devotees. And speaking of athletes, who showed up the other day at Turlington’s lower Manhattan haunt, the Jivamukti Yoga Center? Monica Lewinsky. Where there’s a yoga blitz, there must be yoga biz. To dress for a class, you need only some old, loose-fitting clothes — and since you perform barefoot, no fancy footwear. Yet Nike and J.Crew have developed exercise apparel, as has Turlington. For those who prefer stay-at-home yoga, the video-store racks groan with hot, moving tapes. The Living Yoga series of instructional videos taught by Yee and Patricia Walden occupies five of the top eight slots on Amazon’s vhs best-seller list. “Vogue and Self are putting out the message of yoginis as buff and perfect,” says Walden. “If you start doing yoga for those reasons, fine. Most people get beyond that and see that it’s much, much more.” By embodying the grace and strength of their system, Yee and Walden are its most charismatic June 2011

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“Yoga is where you find it and how you want it, from Big Time to small town.” proselytizers — new luminaries in the yoga firmament. “Madonna found it first, and I’m following in the footsteps of the stars,” groans Minneapolis attorney Patricia Bloodgood. “But I don’t think you should reject something just because it’s trendy.” Bloodgood had the bright idea to commandeer part of the lobby in the office building where she works for a Monday-evening yoga class. Yoginis can spend a weekend at (or devote their lives to) such retreats as Kripalu, where each year 20,000 visitors take part in programs ranging from “The Science of Pranayama and Bandha” to African-drum workshops and singles weekends. In L.A. they can mingle with the glamourati at Maha Yoga (where students bend to the strains of the Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man) or Golden Bridge (where celebrity moms take prenatal yoga classes). Yoga is where you find it and how you want it, from Big Time to small town. In the Texas town of Odessa, Therese Archer’s Body & Soul Center for Well-Being has 15 dedicated students, including an 18-wheeler diesel mechanic who drives 50 miles from Andrews, Texas, to attend classes. “He is very West Texas,” Archer says, “and I thought he would flip when he saw what we did.” Yet in eight months the mechanic has sweated his way up from beginning to advanced work. At the 8 Count exercise studio in Monticello, Ga., Suzanne McGinnis runs a “yoga cardio class” that mixes postures with push-ups, all to the disco beat of tunes like Leo Sayer’s You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’. As yoga classes go, this is not an arduous one, but the students don’t know that. They grunt and groan exultantly with each stretch, and are happy to relax when McGinnis stops to check her teaching aids: torn-out magazine pages and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Yoga. So yoga can be fun or be made fun of; it can help you look marvelous or feel marvelous. These aspects are not insignificant. They 46

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demonstrate the roots yoga has dug into America’s cultural soil — deep enough for openminded researchers to consider how it might bloom into a therapy to treat or prevent disease. The sensible practice of yoga does more than slap a Happy Face on your cerebrum. It can also massage the lymph system, says Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiac surgeon at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Lymph is the body’s dirty dishwater; a network of lymphatic vessels and storage sacs crisscross over the entire body, in parallel with the blood supply, carrying a fluid composed of infection-fighting white blood cells and the waste products of cellular activity. Exercise in general activates the flow of lymph through the body, speeding up the filtering process; but yoga in particular promotes the draining of the lymph. Certain yoga poses stretch muscles that from animal studies are known to stimulate the lymph system. Researchers have documented the increased lymph flow when dogs’ paws are stretched in a position similar to the yoga “downward-facing dog.” Yoga relaxes you and, by relaxing, heals. At least that’s the theory. “The autonomic nervous system,” explains Kripalu’s Faulds, “is divided into the sympathetic system, which is often identified with the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic, which is identified with what’s been called the Relaxation Response. When you do


yoga — the deep breathing, the stretching, the movements that release muscle tension, the relaxed focus on being present in your body — you initiate a process that turns the fight-or-flight system off and the Relaxation Response on. That has a dramatic effect on the body. The heartbeat slows, respiration decreases, blood pressure decreases. The body seizes this chance to turn on the healing mechanisms.” But the process isn’t automatic. Especially in their first sessions, yoga students may have trouble suppressing those competitive beta waves. We want to better ourselves, but also to do better than others; we force ourselves into the gym-rat race. “Genuine Hatha yoga is a balance of trying and relaxing,” says Dr. Timothy McCall, an internist and the author of Examining Your Doctor: A Patient’s Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care. “But a lot of gym yoga is about who can do this really difficult contortion to display to everyone else in the class.” The workout warriors have to realize that yoga is more an Athenian endeavor than a Spartan one. You don’t win by punishing your body. You convince it, seduce it, talk it down from the ledge of ambition and anxiety. Yoga is not a struggle but a surrender. It may take a while for the enlightenment bulb to switch on — for you to get the truth of the yoga maxim that what you can do is what you should do. But when it happens, it’s an epiphany, like suddenly knowing, in your bones and your dreams, the foreign language you’ve been studying for months. In yoga, this is your mind-body language. In daily life, that gym-rat pressure is even more intense: our jobs, our marriages, our lives are at stake. Says McCall: “We know that a high percentage of the maladies that people suffer from have at least some component of stress in them, if they’re not overtly caused by stress. Stress causes a

rise of blood pressure, the release of catecholamines (neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate many of the body’s metabolic processes). We know that when catecholamine levels are high, there tends to be more platelet aggregation, which makes a heart attack more likely.” So instead of a drug, say devotees, prescribe yoga. “All the drugs we give people have side effects,” McCall says. “Well, yoga has side effects too: better strength, better balance, peace of mind, stronger bones, cardiovascular conditioning, lots of stuff. Here is a natural health system that, once you learn the basics, you can do at home for free with very little equipment and that could help you avoid expensive, invasive surgical and pharmacological interventions. I think this is going to be a big thing.” McCall, it should be said, is a true believer who teaches at the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Center in Boston. But more mainstream physicians seem ready to agree. At New York Presbyterian, all heart patients undergoing cardiac procedures are offered massages and yoga during recovery. At Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, cardiac doctors suggest that their patients enroll in the hospital’s Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center, which offers yoga, among other therapies. “While we haven’t tested yoga as a stand-alone therapy,” says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, the center’s director, patients opting for yoga do show “tremendous benefits.” These include lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increased cardiovascular circulation and, as the Ornish study showed, reversal of artery blockage in some cases. Yoga may help post-menopausal women. Practitioners at Boston’s Mind-Body Institute have incorporated forward-bending poses that massage the organs in the neuroendocrine axis (the line of glands that include the pituitary, hypothalamus, thyroid and adrenals) to bring into balance whatever hormones are askew, thus alleviating the insomnia and mood swings that often accompany menopause. The program is not recommended as a substitute for hormone-replacement therapy, only as an adjunct. Some physicians wonder why it would be tried at all. “Theoretically, if you pressed hard enough on the thyroid, you possibly could affect secretion,” says Dr. Yank Coble, an endocrinologist at the University of Florida. “But it’s pretty rare. And the adrenal glands are carefully protected above the kidneys deep inside the body. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that you can manipulate the adrenals with body positions. That’d be a new one.” June 2011

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In 1998 Dr. Ralph Schumacher, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Marian Garfinkel, a yoga teacher, published a brief paper on carpal tunnel syndrome in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The eight-week study determined that “a yoga-based regimen was more effective than wrist splinting or no treatment in relieving some symptoms and signs of carpal tunnel syndrome.” Letters to JAMA challenged the study’s methodology. The authors replied that it was a preliminary investigation to determine if further research was merited. They said it was. The most cited study around — Ornish’s in 1990 — tested 94 patients with angiographically documented coronary heart disease, of whom 53 were prescribed yoga, group support and a vegetarian diet extremely low in fat — only 10% of total daily calories (most Americans consume 35% in fat; the American Heart Association recommends 30%). Cholesterol changes among the experimental group were about the same as if they had taken cholesterol-lowering drugs. After a year in the program, patients in this group showed “significant overall regression of coronary atherosclerosis as measured by quantitative coronary arteriography.” Those in the control group “showed significant overall progression of coronary atherosclerosis.” The findings were well received but open to a major challenge: that the severe diet, rather than yoga, may have been the crucial factor. In 1998 Ornish published a new study, in the American Journal of Cardiology, stating that 80% of the 194 patients in the experimental group were able to avoid bypass or angioplasty by adhering to lifestyle changes, including yoga. He also argued that lifestyle interventions would save money — that the average cost per patient in the experimental group was about $18,000, whereas the cost per patient in the control group was more than $47,000. And this time, Ornish says, he is convinced that “adherence to the yoga and meditation program was as strongly correlated with the changes in the amount of blockage as was the adherence to diet.” Ornish hoped for more than the respect of his peers: he wanted action. “I used to think good science was enough to change medical practice,” he says, “but I was naive. Most doctors still aren’t prescribing yoga and meditation. We’ve shown that heart disease can be reversed. Yet doctors are still performing surgery; insurance companies are paying for medication — and they’re not paying for diet and lifestyle-change education.” (Medicare, however, recently 48

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agreed to pay for 1,800 patients taking Ornish’s program for reversing heart disease.) Why have so few studies tested the efficacy of yoga? For lots of reasons. Those sympathetic to yoga think the benefits are proved by millenniums of empirical evidence in India; those who are suspicious think it can’t be proved. (Says Coble: “There seem to be no data to substantiate the argument that yoga can heal.”) Further, its effects on the body and mind are so complex and pervasive that it would be nearly impossible to certify any specific changes in the body to yoga. The double-blind test, beloved of traditional researchers, is impossible when one group in a study is practicing healthy yoga; what is the control group to practice — bad yoga? Finally, the traditional funders of studies, the pharmaceutical giants, see no financial payoff in validating yoga: no patentable therapies, no pills. (Ornish’s prostate-cancer study was funded by private organizations, including the Michael Milken Foundation.) at the heart of the western medical establishment’s skepticism of yoga is a profound hubris: the belief that what we have been able to prove so far is all that is true. At the beginning of the 20th century, doctors and researchers surely looked back at the beginning of the 19th and smiled at how primitive “medical science” had been. A century from now, we may look back at today’s body of lore with the same condescension. “In modern medicine, we’re actually doing a lot more guesswork than we let on,” says Demers. “We want to say we understand everything. We don’t understand half of it. It’s scary how clueless we are.” Desperate patients consult half a dozen specialists and get half a dozen conflicting opinions. “Well, of course,” Dr. Toby Brown, a Manassas, Va., radiologist says impatiently, “it’s not as if medicine is a science.” Hence the appeal of alternative medicine: aromatherapy,


“I used to think that good science was enough to change medical practice, but I was naive.”

homeopathy, ginkgo biloba. Proponents may be crusading scientists or snake-oil salesmen, but either way, their pitch falls on eager ears: each year Americans spend some $27 billion on so-called complementary medicine. “One lesson of the alternative health-care movement,” McCall warns, “is that the public is not going to wait for doctors to get it together.” Late last month the National Institutes of Health held the first major conference on mindbody research. “There is a major reason that many in biomedicine reject mind-body research: it is the pervasive sound of the popularizers,” noted Dr. Robert Rose, executive director at the MacArthur Foundation’s Initiative on mind, brain, body and health research. “The loudest voices, the most passionate and articulate spokespersons for the power of the mind to heal come not from the research community but from the growing number of gurus... the hawkers on TV for alternative treatments, herbs, homeopathy, handbooks.” Rose distinguished the nostrum pushers from those seeking to bring yoga and science together. “Thousands of research studies have shown that in the practice of yoga a person can learn to control such physiologic parameters as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory function, metabolic rate, skin resistance, brain waves and body temperature, among other body functions.” Critics are quick to note that few of those studies

were published in leading science journals. Two oddities attend yoga’s vogue. One is that America has the fittest people in the world, and the most obese. Yoga, typically, is practiced by the fit. Exercise, the care and feeding of body and possibly mind, is their second career. The folks in urgent need of yoga are the ones who are at the fast-food counter getting their fries supersize; who would rather take a pill than devote a dozen hours a week to yoga; for whom meditation is staring glassily at six hours of football each Sunday; and who might go under the surgeon’s knife more readily than they would ingest anything more Indian than tandoori chicken. Here’s another peculiarity: this ritual of relaxation is cresting at a cultural moment when noise and agitation are everywhere. We work longer hours, with TVs and portable radios blaring as the sound track for frantic wage slaves. If a teen isn’t trussed to his headphones or plugged into a chat room, it’s because his cell phone has just beeped. America is running in place, in the spa or at work. And after Letterman and Clinton, nobody takes the world seriously; everything is up for laughs. In this modern maelstrom, yoga’s tendency to stasis and silence seems at first insane, then inspired. The notion of bodies at rest becoming souls at peace is reactionary, radical and liberating. If it cures nagging backache, swell. But isn’t it bliss just to sit this one out, to freeze-frame the frenzy, to say no to all that and om to what may be beyond it, or within ourselves?

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PHYSIOLO functioning of living systems

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OGY

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Hot Yoga

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Urban Yoga

surviving the enlightenment

taking zen to the streets

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This IS NOT stretching, it’s; _2 hours _110º F _60% humidity This is surviving.

hot yoga class, texas ‘group pain and conquest’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

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HOT YOGA

dunes in Kjahani, Egypt ‘mars on earth’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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Hot Yoga

By Zelda Apple

holding toe stretch ‘the tree and i’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

The parking lot outside my health club is, as always, dog eat dog, and by the time I find a spot, I’m sure I’ve lost out on prime classroom positioning. I may end up next to the Grunter, which would, I have to say, harsh my mellow. But in the spirit of the yogic tradition I choose not to view my exasperated state as a negative thing. Instead, I congratulate myself for my good judgment in getting to this yoga class on a Sunday morning at the godless hour of 9:15. I am a conscientious but nondenominational exerciser, and coming to Bikram (a.k.a. “Hot”) Yoga began more as a scheduling convenience than devotion to its unvarying regimen of 26 poses (asanas), each performed twice and held for what can seem like forever over the course of the nearly two-hour class. Yoga comes in almost as many guises as there are yoga instructors, but most classes build on the same basic foundation of poses performed sitting, standing and lying down. Although some, like the Sun Salutation, consist of a progression of steps, more often the goal is to work gradually toward a single ideal shape: the bow, the triangle, the cobra. My needs are simple: I want supervised, intensive stretching, and every yoga class I’ve ever attended offers at least that. The truth is, I hated this Bikram class when I started. At first I returned only because I was desperate—the victim of a musclekinking bout of business travel (cramped airline seats and strange beds). Our teacher, Leah Weisman, seemed to talk incessantly. The room was always full, from 30 to 50 people. And the space was intentionally overheated. True Hot Yoga requires a room temperature as high as 105ºF, supposedly so muscles warm up quickly and stretch more easily. This gym’s drafty old studio achieves only Balmy Yoga—about 81ºF—which is just as well. I’ve experienced optimal Bikram 54

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temperatures just once, and frankly, that’s way too much bodily fluid shared and dripped and flicked around among a bunch of people who know one another in anything less than a biblical fashion. But the thing I hated most about the class was that at the very end, while everyone was resting for a few minutes in the stillness of Shavasana, the corpse pose (designed to quiet the mind), Leah broke into song. Classroom scuttlebutt is that she has been known to sing On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever, but I’ve only heard her sing verses from New Age-y folk tunes that mention planets spinning around the sun and the Earth Mother calling her children home. Why torture myself so? Simple: love triumphs over hate. As it turns out, Leah is an excellent teacher. Week after week she goes through the same routine without ever falling into autopilot. She is very “present in the moment,” as she might describe it. Leah offers cautions about overexertion, suggestions on how to do each pose at various levels of challenge, and great good humor. Last week she talked about a meditation seminar she had attended and called the impromptu lecture her “sermon on the mat.” As a gasping heater blows lukewarm air around the room, she intersperses practical instruction (“Pull up your quads as you pull down your hamstrings”) with abstract concepts (“Remember, you’re burning new neurological pathways”) that I


half camel pose ‘reaching to the sky’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

lotus and prayer ‘being rooted’ photograph by Alissa Wolken

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take or leave, depending on my mood. Leah wanders among the students, propelling the class forward even as she stops to adjust an arm angle here or perform a thyroidmassaging chin tuck there. She urges noncompetition, with oneself (“However you do the posture today is how you should do the posture”) and with others (“How can you compare yourself to your neighbor? You don’t have the same body!”). Her monologue becomes a mantra, returning my oft-wandering focus back to the pose I’m attempting. Where is my center of balance? Can I feel my spine stretch if I imagine my head and tailbone pulling in opposite directions? How does my alignment shift when I turn my foot three degrees to the right? Some people criticize Bikram for being too arduous, but as with all yoga, much of the responsibility falls to the individual. I welcome this opportunity to eschew faster, higher and stronger in favor of deeper. In this regard, the simplicity of Bikram’s poses is one more way to avoid being distracted from myself. To spend this much time slowly and gently stretching is a luxury that I enjoy nowhere else in my life. At the end of the class, after Leah has thanked us for letting her teach and told us to congratulate ourselves for getting up so early, I feel calm and loose and energized. Muscle kinks have dissipated. I feel more powerful, the rest of the day standing straight is a relief rather than a discipline. As for the singing, I wouldn’t mind silence in those final minutes of rest, but I’m starting to see it as Leah’s goodwilled send-off into the day. And every week I find myself eternally grateful that at the very least, Leah can carry a tune.

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standing arch with prayer ‘changing perspectivet’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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Yoga is no longer an inside activity as we look at yoga being done in all kinds of urban environments.

camel arch, Chicago, Illinois ‘chich and flexible’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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URBAN YOGA

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tree pose and prayer ‘brudging the gap’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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seated elbow to toe, San Fransisco, California ‘coming full circle’ photograph by Kelly Mason

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