Standing in our brahmacharies

My novel YOGA BOOTCAMP describes the events of being initiated into brahmacharya and being given the two strips of cloth cut from the guru’s robe as our new underwear, supposedly to restrain our male sexual impulses. As a bit of real-life evidence, here we are at the Poconos Ashram in Pennsylvania in mid-1972. The girls found it highly amusing, especially since we were all living under celibacy.

At least I didn’t use the title of an old hymn here, “Blessed Be the Ties that Bind.”


Old-fashioned hot spot

The metal grating in the floor of our second-floor bedroom at an Airbnb makes for a fascinating image, but it has a far more practical side. Back when heat came from a central wood- or coal-burning stove, getting the rest of the house warm was a problem. Hence, the hole in the floor.


Blessed bliss

My novel YOGA BOOTCAMP describes group meditation as a central discipline in the daily life at Big Pumpkin’s ashram. As a real-life example, here’s a photo taken at the Poconos Ashram in mid-1972. I’m struck by how young we all look and the fact that most of us could sit in a full lotus position. Makes my knees hurt just thinking of it now!

Yes, I really lived this.

Ten pioneering leaders in American yoga

When I took up yoga in the early 1970s, it was still pretty exotic. In fact, a fair question would ask if yoga was mostly happening in New York. That was my impression from the ads in the weekly Village Voice newspaper, which listed many visiting teachers from Asia, especially.

Not all of the teachers were exactly kosher, either.

The model of the maverick guru was Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon, inspired by the Sufi and Zen Buddhist Samuel Lewis, but my own teacher, Swami Lakshmy Devi in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, and Swami Rudrananda at Big Indian in New York’s Catskills, would also fit much of what I describe in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. All three were born in America.

Here are ten more teachers who advanced yoga’s popularity in that era:

  1. Richard Hittleman, New York, beginning in the 1950s. Hatha exercises.
  2. Walt and Magana Baptiste in San Francisco, early ’50s. Hatha exercises.
  3. Swami Vishnudevananda, arriving in 1958, San Francisco, a student of Swami Sivananda in the Himalayas. While emphasizing hatha, he also advanced other aspects of yoga, including meditation. My teacher was trained at Visnu’s Manhattan center. The network now headquartered in Montreal.
  4. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation in the early ’60s. With the Beatles and others as celebrity followers, his emphasis on teaching meditation rather than the physical exercises became trendy.
  5. Swami Satchidananda, arriving 1966, New York, also a student of Swami Sivananda. His invocation at the Woodstock festival made him celebrity material. With his big beard and smile, he looked the part.
  6. Swami Prabhupada, founder of what were best known as the Hare Krishnas, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Arrived 1966, New York. Brought kirtan, or chanting, and the Bhagavad Gita scriptures to public awareness.
  7. Amrit Desai, arriving in 1968 in the Philadelphia area. His influential organization continues as the Kirpalu Center in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and is known for training and certifying yoga instructors.
  8. Yogi Bhajan presented his Kundalini yoga as hatha and chanting with a Sikh infusion. He founded his Happy, Healthy, Holy Organization in 1968.
  9. Ram Dass, formerly a prominent Harvard psychologist and psychedelic pioneer, published the seminal book Be Here Now in 1971 at the Lama Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. We all wanted to go there, wherever or whatever it was. Its focus was on the philosophy, rather than the exercises – a huge breakthrough, from my point of view.
  10. B.K.S. Iyengar, arrived in 1973 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His focus on technical precision in the hatha exercises influenced many teachers.

The shrinking newspaper page

Cost-cutters have long found ways to shrink the product to meet rising costs or boost the profit. As was said years ago, “It’s getting hard to find a nickel candy bar for a quarter anymore.” I hate to think what it costs now, much less in a vending machine.

Newspaper pages are no exception. The first jolt to tradition came back in the mid 1970s when there was a newsprint shortage. The Canadian suppliers, for whatever reason – a labor strike? – just didn’t have enough to meet demand. One solution was to narrow the width of the page.

In recent years, as the Internet has disrupted the business model of the news industry, the pace of cost-cutting has quickened.

The ones around here are now 11 inches wide, versus 15½ when I started in the business or one paper where I worked where the page was nearly 18 inches wide.

In other words, today’s broadsheet is as wide as a tabloid was back then, only longer. It’s lost two columns of news on each page – or a quarter of its surface. It’s so skinny I wince.

We never had enough room to print everything we wanted as it was.

Ten Buddhist basics

Thanks to Cassia’s father in my novel What’s Left, she’s familiar with Buddhist teaching and practice.

Here are ten basics.

  1. Siddhartha Gautama: Historical figure who established the teachings in northern India sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. Often referred to as the Buddha.
  2. Buddhas: Transcendent figures found throughout the universe. Gautama embodies one of them.
  3. Dharma: The law or the way taught by Gautama to overcome suffering or dukka (perhaps better rendered as stress or dissatisfaction). One translation has Dharma as the process itself.
  4. Reincarnation: The state of one’s next rebirth is determined by the fruits of an individual’s karma (actions) in the present life.
  5. Nirvana: An eternal state of perfect peace, bliss, and enlightenment, usually achieved through meditation and breaking the chain of further rebirth.
  6. Boddhisattvas: Figures who have attained nirvana but instead of going their immediately, compassionately reincarnate to assist others.
  7. Sutras: The scriptures (literally “stitchings”).
  8. Three major branches of Buddhism: Theravada, prominent in Indochina; Mahayana, the largest and most liberal branch; and Vajrayana, which emphasizes the magical and the occult.
  9. Tantra: Sacred texts in the Vajrayana branch describing secret methodologies and practices.
  10. Mandalas and tankas: Vajrayana visual images to aid meditation.

Gee, I didn’t even get to koans, those mind-boggling puzzles presented to Zen aspirants.

Ten notable American religious communes

While monasteries with wider church support are a longstanding institution in Christian history, independent, self-sustaining faith-based communes have made their mark in America. Unlike a monastery, not all of them were celibate.

Here are ten.

  1. Ephrata Cloister. Pennsylvania, 1732-2008. Founded by Johann Conrad Beissel, the pietist group broke off from the German Baptist Brethren (or Dunker) denomination, which largely continues as today’s Church of the Brethren. It had the second printing press in the American colonies. Its celibate emphasis was gradually eliminated.
  2. Moravians. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1741), and Salem, North Carolina (1753). The denomination dates to Jan Hus (1369-1415), a Czech reformer years before Luther and Calvin led the Protestant Reformation. The American communities initially had common ownership of all property by the church, supervised housing for single men and single women, and likely other communal aspects.
  3. The Shakers. Founded by Mother Ann Lee, it settled in Watervliet, New York, 1774, and spread from Maine to Indiana and Kentucky. Best known of the communal movements, in part for its beautiful furniture and architecture. One village remains.
  4. Hebus Valley. Pennsylvania. Founded by George Rapp, 1824-1906. Christian theosophists and pietists.
  5. Hopedale Community. Massachusetts, Adin Ballou, 1842-1856. “Practical Christianity” with a Universalist base. Utopian ideals included temperance, abolitionism, women’s rights, and spiritualism. Attempted to be part of the surrounding community.
  6. Amana Colonies. Originated in Germany in 1714 and arrived in Iowa, 1855. Communal system ended in 1932.
  7. Bruderhof. An Anabaptist denomination arising from the Hutterites in Germany in 1920, it has communities in Paraguay, Europe, Australia, and the United States (from 1954). Its beliefs are similar to Mennonites – peace, simplicity, adult baptism, and so on. There are currently 17 communities in the U.S.
  8. Hare Krishnas. The best known of the ISKON (Krishna Consciousness) communities is New Vrindaban, West Virginia, settled in 1968.
  9. Friends Southwest House. McNeal, Arizona, opened in 1976. I didn’t even know of this Quaker community, much less of its long life.
  10. Eighteenth Avenue Peace House. Portland, Oregon, opened in 1986. Ecumenical Christian.

Any you’d add to the list?


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