Does a family that meditates together glow together?

The first decade of her father’s presence in the family was one of great growth and deepening personal awareness for every member – especially before all of the children, including Cassia, come along.

For one thing, her parents’ generation is still working on its Buddhist studies together. As I noted in an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left:

You know, Baba will say one night after our family meditation, most of these enterprises wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for one thing.

What’s that?

Rinpoche, the Tibetan master.

Then the room will fall into a profound reverie.

Well, it was all no doubt pretty exotic to all of them.

And then the vision got even heavier:

It’s the concept of living as a people of the Holy One, however we phrase it. A peaceable people. A peaceable kingdom. The great wisdom or enlightenment.

There was even a question of how much diversity they could manage:

Religions? Say the way a piano is a world apart from a trombone or a double bass or a clarinet, even if they rely on the same kind of musical notation? And that was before your Manoula weighed in on some wildly divergent ethnic musics based on entirely conflicting theoretical foundations.

Well, that got too esoteric, even for me! Play it as you will.

Still, not everybody in the family was so high on the Buddhist excitement:

The Temple Room relocates to the first-floor parlor next to Yiayia Athina before moving altogether to a more public location, one having chambers for our anticipated Rinpoche’s full-time residency. Yiayia Athina makes no secret of being glad to see them go. The chanting was getting on her nerves.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Cassia’s family obviously takes all this seriously.

What spiritual practice or source of inspiration is meaningful to you?

Ten perspectives on yoga in America

My novel Yoga Bootcamp stirs up more curiosity. Here are ten facts.

  1. Number of yoga teachers in U.S.: 52,746 registered with Yoga Alliance in 2015.
  2. Number of centers: 18,000.
  3. Number of yoga practitioners in U.S.: 37 million.
  4. Number over age 40: 14 million.
  5. Percentage of women and men practicing yoga in U.S.: 72 percent versus 28 percent.
  6. Amount spent on yoga classes, clothing, and gear: $16.8 billion.
  7. Most popular reasons for practicing yoga: flexibility (61 percent); stress relief (56 percent); general fitness (49 percent); overall health (49 percent); physical fitness (44 percent).
  8. The highest percentages of yoga practitioners: Found on the West Coast and Mid-Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania). The lowest percentages are in New England, the Upper Midwest and Plains states, and the East South.
  9. Circulation of Yoga Journal magazine: 375,000.
  10. Turnover: Only 25 percent have been doing yoga for more than five years.

Looking for a natural high

Just what so intensely motivated her father-to-be to quit everything so he could retreat into monastic Buddhist practice for three years? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer fully. (My parallel experience of living on a yoga farm is the basis of my newest novel, Yoga Bootcamp.)

Still, I’m required to try. In a passage from an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left, the explanation went this way:

Thea Nita suggested another take. Your Baba yearned for the highs, she says.

What about drugs?

You don’t think that was a problem, she counters. Don’t you think I wasn’t worried, at least until Rinpoche came into the picture?

Well, I’d wondered about that with my uncles, too – that whole hippie thing?

Oh, that? Nita chuckles and admits it posed a danger, especially before she returned to town. Barney, especially, enjoyed being stoned when he could. As she says, that could present problems in a commercial kitchen.

And then? They learned they could get a natural high through meditation – if they steered clear of drugs, as they did when Baba, by then a militant practicing Buddhist, entered the scene. Besides, there was no escaping the reality we all had work to do – and it better be done right.

~*~

As Rinpoche told Cassia about her father:

He needed the lightness and even playfulness he encountered in the Tibetan Buddhism – the high, in fact – that he hadn’t found in his Christian past. To be fair, I am finding indications he was discovering that in the Judeo-Christian side, too, during his final years. What a loss, then.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

And then there was her mother’s presence, as Rinpoche explained:

Your Baba found his missing half in Manoula and through her, his place in this world. But he always sensed there was more to life. The rabbi here tells me that when Moses came down from the mountain, he carried two tablets. The first one was about man’s relationship to God, and the second one was about relating to each other. So your Baba was working on something like that. He sometimes referred to it as finding the right balance.

And that mountain?

It was about all that would hold him down. For now. Maybe they were well matched.

~*~

Here we are talking about religion, and I see the question turning to something unexpectedly related:

What makes you smile?

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 major yoga brands today

In the decades since I took up yoga in the early 1970s, the movement has had its ups and downs. For a while, it looked like it was about to peter out altogether, especially as scandals hit many of the teachers or their organizations.

And then came the boom in popularity, far outrunning the earlier flowering.

Today, it’s hard to keep up with many of the trends, especially as they take on commercially branded identities. Back in the day, we knew it essentially as hatha, raja, karma, and so on … but not anymore. When you’re looking for a class, it can be rather confusing.

  1. Here are ten on my radar. Many of the details come from Kristin McGee’s fine overview at the MBGmovement website.
  2. Iyengar: Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar after his arrival in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1973, this system relies heavily on props to help students to perfect their form. The positions are held for longer periods while focusing on details of the pose. Photos of the props still disturb me. Guess I’m just old school.
  3. Restorative yoga: Focused on winding down and relaxing after a long day. As an outgrowth of Iyengar yoga, includes props like bolsters and blankets.
  4. Astanga: (Also spelled ashtanga.) Popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois in the ’70s. Very physically demanding sequence of postures with an emphasis on continuous movement. No props, no music – I wholeheartedly approve, but I am from a line that had long rests in the corpse pose between asanas. Aah. Our goal was meditation, more than physical fitness.
  5. Vinyasa flow:  Adapted from astanga in the 1980s, it is more varied, depending on the teacher and students and the intent of the day. It may include props and music. Vinyasa is considered the most athletic of the popular styles, more suitable for students with previous yoga experience.
  6. Jivamukti: Founded in 1984 by Sharon Gannon and David Life as an outgrowth of vinyasa flow, this includes teachings from Hindu philosophy with an Earth-conscious connection. Many of its followers are also vegetarian.
  7. Hot: Supposedly intended to simulate the steamy jungles of India where yoga was practiced, this covers a range of styles as long as the room’s hot and humid. It’s intended to produce a lot of sweating. I’ll assume that’s to sweat out impurities in the body. One of its earliest strands is Forrest yoga, developed by Ana T. Forrest.
  8. Bikram: Founded by Bikram Choudhury in the late 20th century, it’s the best-known form of hot yoga. Its 90-minute class format has postures each performed twice in a 105-degree room with 40 percent humidity, great for producing sweat. The certified teachers have a standard patter to accompany the workout. He seems to be very proprietary.
  9. Yin: Slow paced and meditative. This system dates from the late ’70s with the work of Paulie Zink, a Taoist and martial arts expert, and developed by Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers.
  10. Anusara: A more traditional hatha yoga with a focus on heart-opening and spirals to align each part of the body. John Friend in 1997 and now continued by a nonprofit school that certifies its teachers.
  11. Acroyoga: The most gymnastic of the systems, this features partners exercising in acrobatic poses. It requires three people – a base, a flyer who will be elevated off the ground, and a spotter to break the fall, if needed. The couple on the cover of my upcoming novel Nearly Canaan are shown in one of its poses.

Note that they’re all focused on physical fitness of one sort or another, rather than the meditative or ethical dimensions of the underlying religious foundation. Where are the swamis nowadays, anyway?

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.

Ten popular Hindu deities

Nobody knows how many gods and goddesses there are in Hinduism. Some say more than 100,000. They’re likely to pop up in places like the ashram in my novel Yoga Bootcamp.

Here are ten of the most popular.

  1. Shiva. The destroyer, especially of evil.
  2. Parvati. His wife. Goddess of fertility, love, and devotion. Also known as Uma.
  3. Vishnu. The preserver or protector.
  4. Lakshmi. His consort and shakti (source of energy). Goddess of wealth, fortune, and prosperity.
  5. Brahma. The creator or self-born.
  6. Saraswati. His consort. Goddess of knowledge, art, music, learning, and wisdom.
  7. Ram or Rama. The seventh avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.
  8. Krishna. The eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu.
  9. Ganesh or Ganesha. A popular, comical son of Shiva who gained his elephant head as the result of one of his father’s wild rampages with a sword. A kid can’t go headless, can he? Let’s see what we can find as a substitute.
  10. Hanuman. He’s monkey-faced and an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. Some versions have him as a son of Shiva. He’s popular for all kinds of reasons.