Spreading the vibes through public services

Increas­ingly, spe­cial­ized non-​​profits and ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions are spread­ing the use of yoga and med­i­ta­tion in schools and under­priv­i­leged com­mu­ni­ties, what in yogic phi­los­o­phy is known as seva. Here is a story from Canada:

Toronto Star Yoga pro­gram teaches kids how to cope with stress at school and home
The goal isn’t really to teach kids about poses, explains New Leaf’s exec­u­tive direc­tor Laura Sygrove, who co-​​founded the orga­ni­za­tion in 2007. Rather, it’s to teach them how to under­stand the con­nec­tion between their emo­tions and what they feel in their bod­ies. New Leaf’s work is rooted in a grow­ing body of research show­ing yoga and mind­ful­ness can sup­port young peo­ple who have expe­ri­enced forms of trauma.

ysc-logoThis ser­vice move­ment has grown so much that it has started coa­lesc­ing in broader orga­ni­za­tions. The Yoga Ser­vice Coun­cil is orga­niz­ing its third con­fer­ence  for May14-​​17, 2015 at the Omega Insti­tute. It has a really impres­sive list of founder and mem­ber orga­ni­za­tions, as well as par­tic­i­pat­ing fac­ulty (almost a Who’s Who of yogic lead­ing edge thinkers in North Amer­ica). The YSC has also brought out its first jour­nal issue.

A yoga mat that keeps you grounded

Photo: two yoga mats
The Bare­foot Yoga Per­for­mance Grip Mat on top of my Man­duka eKo mat: a lit­tle longer and a lit­tle narrower.

In 2007, I was des­per­ate to buy a new yoga mat because my prac­tice had out­grown the entry-​​level, low-​​cost one I’d been using. I had my eye on Bare­foot Yoga’s Eco mat, an envi­ron­men­tally friendly com­bi­na­tion of jute fiber and rub­ber, because it got a thumbs-​​up review in the New York Times, For Some Things, It’s O.K. to Be Sticky (Yoga Mats). I vis­ited the online store repeat­edly, but it was out of stock for months. Obvi­ously, the NY Times arti­cle gen­er­ated a lot of demand. I even­tu­ally ended up get­ting a Man­duka eKo mat, as I reported in On Mats and Tow­els.

I’ve stayed loyal to Man­duka since then. I bought another eKo mat at the end of my yoga teacher train­ing in the sum­mer of 2013 because the eKo mat was falling apart. The rub­ber sur­face was com­ing unstuck from the foun­da­tion layer, and the rub­ber was oxi­diz­ing so I no longer had trac­tion, espe­cially when the mat was moist. I hurt myself in a jump-​​back because my toes did not grip the mat.

Seven years later and still oper­at­ing, Bare­foot Yoga has the orig­i­nal Eco mat in stock, priced at $85. as well as an array of Bare­foot Yoga-​​branded mats, and Prana, Jade, Man­duka mod­els. Bare­foot Yoga has evi­dently decided that they are going to com­mit to earth friendly products.  As they explain on their site:

Tra­di­tional mats can be an excel­lent sur­face for yoga prac­tice. How­ever, these mats are made from PVCs (polyvinyl chlo­rides) that release diox­ins and other car­cino­gens into the atmos­phere dur­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing. Toxic addi­tives migrate into their sur­round­ings in the form of gas and small par­ti­cles. Thou­sands and thou­sands of mats and other prod­ucts are made with PVC, and none are biodegrad­able or recy­clable. Hence the need for more eco-​​friendly alternatives.”

But if mats are eco-​​friendly and biodegrad­able, they age and wear out. That’s what biodegrad­able means, break­ing down into non-​​toxic com­po­nents over time. Sun light accel­er­ates the process for rubber-​​based mats, as with my Man­duka eKo mat. I also have a Jade Har­mony mat, a gift from my daugh­ter, that has lost tex­ture and feels like an old, crum­bling eraser. So there’s a downside.

Test­ing a new mat

Why do I men­tion all this? In early August I got an e-​​mail from Car­olina Mills at Bare­foot Yoga Com­pany, Seat­tle, Wash­ing­ton, ask­ing me to a do a review of one of their mats, either a Hybrid Eco-​​Lite Mat ($23.95 on sale, $26.95 reg­u­lar) or a Per­for­mance Grip Mat ($59). I chose to test the sec­ond one, but I told her that I would not get to it until after I came back from my Euro­pean trip, say Octo­ber. Car­olina sent me a demo right away.

The mat stats mea­sures 24″ x 72″ x 4mm,  and weighs 5 pounds. It is made of Poly­mer Envi­ron­men­tal Resin (PER). “It does not con­tain phtha­lates or heavy met­als, and its method of pro­duc­tion is com­pletely non-​​toxic and latex free,” says Bare­foot Yoga’s write-​​up. It comes in three col­ors, black, char­coal and espresso, a rather somber selec­tion but that may have to do with the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

The mat comes with a life­time warranty:

Life­time war­ranty cov­ers one-​​time replace­ment of your Grip Mat due to any defects that arise as a result of nor­mal use of the product.

Con­sid­er­ing the mid-​​range price and eco-​​friendliness of the mat, these terms are extraordinary.

Ini­tial assessment

Photo: three yoga mags
You have three color choices: black, char­col and cof­fee, Sorry, no happy pas­tels. Photo: Cour­tesy of Bare­foot Yoga

First, the mat is excep­tion­ally light and com­pact, easy to roll up and slide in a bag (none of the strug­gle as with a tra­di­tional sticky mat). I have no prob­lem car­ry­ing it around.  As men­tioned, the mat comes in one size. In my case, I pre­fer a wider mat, say 26-​​27″, but I’ve dis­cov­ered that I am not as picky as I used to be. How­ever, if Bare­foot Yoga wants to cater to male buy­ers (taller and broader), they might want to offer a selec­tion of wider and longer mats.

Since get­ting back to my yoga prac­tice, I’ve taken a low-​​key approach: yin, restora­tive and nidra yoga mostly, as I try to tame a Type A+ inten­sity that has pre­dom­i­nated in my practice. The Grip Mat was designed for a more active prac­tice so I have not put the mat through a stress test. Its grip should get bet­ter as it wears down. I wiped down the mat with a sea salt and water mix­ture, as sug­gested on the Bare­foot Yoga FAQ page, to speed up the break-​​in process.

A few days ago, my daugh­ter, Stephanie, told me that while I was trav­el­ing, she used my Bare­foot Yoga mat for her prac­tice. From the start, she found it had a great sur­face that kept her from slip­ping, even though it’s not “sticky”.

If you want cush­ion for hands, knees and feet, you may want to use a yoga towel or cut-​​up mat squares for padding. This mat is not a big, flat sponge.  Per­son­ally, I appre­ci­ate that I don’t feel as if  I am sink­ing into the mat. I am balance-​​impaired and have periph­eral neu­ropa­thy. Too much padding intro­duces a kind of sen­sory noise. With the Per­for­mance Grip mat, I sense a firmer foun­da­tion under my feet, and I can move through my sequences with con­fi­dence. In fact, the more I use it, the more it grows on me (or under me).

Since this mat’s strength is dura­bil­ity under heavy use, I will come back later and review it for this char­ac­ter­is­tic at a later time.

Old job, new job

Photo: a man seated with laptop in an empty meeting room
Writer at work. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2012

Last Mon­day morn­ing, DMI Human Resources told that “due to chang­ing busi­ness con­di­tions and require­ments” the com­pany was ter­mi­nat­ing my job. Within 90 min­utes, I was dri­ving out the base­ment park­ing garage with my box of per­sonal belong­ings in the trunk. I was not the only one.

Please note that I am not dis­parag­ing DMI for mak­ing busi­ness deci­sions that had a lot  more at stake than my lit­tle job.  As an upstart com­pany that is not risk-​​adverse, DMI took a gam­ble hir­ing me a year ago. I had no expe­ri­ence writ­ing Fed­eral IT pro­pos­als. I under­went a “crash course with train­ing wheels.” At the end of my tenure, I know that I bring value and pol­ish to any pro­posal. I also “grok” how to lever­age my other tal­ents, knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence for max­i­mum impact. I am grate­ful for the oppor­tu­nity and priv­i­leges that come with a com­pany that wants to cre­ate a pro­duc­tive work envi­ron­ment. I was told that my ter­mi­na­tion was “busi­ness, not performance-​​related” (the cor­po­rate equiv­a­lent of The God­fa­ther adage). In a busi­ness heavy in human cap­i­tal, cut­ting over­head is really about ter­mi­nat­ing people.

Today, I join LCG, a tech­nol­ogy provider for health IT, sci­en­tific research and grants man­age­ment in the pub­lic sec­tor, in Rockville. I believe that LCG (re-​​branding for Lau­rel Con­sult­ing Group) did not make a high-​​odds bet with my hir­ing. For over a month, they had been look­ing for a pro­posal writer who could actively engage stake­hold­ers and boil down the inputs into a pol­ished prod­uct. Once I inter­viewed last Wednes­day, they acted promptly to acquire a resource that fits in their cor­po­rate needs.

I start work on Novem­ber 17.

A yogi gives his take on drug abuse and treatmenet

One of the most acces­si­ble online resources about sub­stance abuse gets down with a lead­ing advo­cate of includ­ing yoga in treatment:

The Fix The Next Phase in Recov­ery — The Tommy Rosen Solu­tion
Ninety min­utes later, hav­ing come through an inti­mate and pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence, I would be directed to lie down, relax com­pletely, and let the full weight of my body rest upon the earth. This was savasana or corpse pose. The feel­ing was elec­tric — energy hum­ming through my body. I felt like blood was pour­ing into areas of my tis­sues that it had not been able to reach for some time. It was reliev­ing and heal­ing. It was sub­tler than the feel­ing from get­ting off on drugs, but it was detectable and lovely, and there would be no hang­over, just a feel­ing of more ease than I could remem­ber. I felt a warmth come over me, sim­i­lar to what I felt when I had done heroin, but far from the dark­ness of that insan­ity, this was pure light — a way through.

Also see Yoga and Recov­ery: Three Ways to Start on The Path To Well­ness.

The Dalai Lama and lululemon strike a deal

Photo: Dalai Lama and lululemon althelica CEO wave hands at camera
The Dalai Lama and lul­ule­mon althe­lica CEO are all smiles – Cour­tesy: lul­ule­mon atheletics

We have another ker­fuf­fle about the inter­sec­tion between “yoga busi­ness” and high-​​minded, spir­i­tual pur­suits, in this case the yoga gear maker lul­ule­mon ath­let­ica (brand­ing wants lower case) and the Dalai Lama’s Cen­ter for Peace + Edu­ca­tion agree­ing on three years of fund­ing for the Center’s activities:

The Globe and Mail – Lulu-​​Lama? Part­ner­ship between yoga wear maker, Dalai Lama sparks out­cry
They cited the dis­con­nect between a lux­ury retailer that sells pricey fash­ions such as $100 yoga pants and the Dalai Lama who preaches a mod­est life and advo­cates for the poor. Oth­ers said they were offended that “pol­i­tics” play a part in Lululemon’s mar­ket­ing, and sev­eral said they would stop shop­ping at the chain.

The orig­i­nal announce­ment from lul­uleon, plus the Dalai Lama Cen­ter and its press release.  A take on the reac­tion of the “yoga scene” is in YogaDork. Both lul­ule­mon and the Cen­ter for Peace + Edu­ca­tion are based in Vancouver.

Here are a few of my own knee-​​jerk  questions:

  1. Given that many yoga hard­lin­ers dis­trust lul­ule­mon, is this move noth­ing more than PR ges­ture to acquire a spir­i­tual smoke­screen for its cor­po­rate greed?
  2. Given the poor rep that lul­ule­mon has acquired over the past few years, what does the Dalai Lama get out of  this arrange­ment? Just money?
  3. Should we ask the Dalai Lama to show us his entire list of donors to find more contradictions?
  4. For that mat­ter, who else is lul­ule­mon back­ing finan­cially? After all, it’s tax deductible.
  5. Why do a size­able part of the reac­tion see the move as mix­ing busi­ness with polit­i­cal causes? Oh yeah, the Dalai Lama was the head of the Tibetan gov­ern­ment in exile before step­ping aside recently.
  6. Does this alliance mean that lul­ule­mon will change its mar­ket­ing tar­get to become more encom­pass­ing of lower-​​income yogis and yogi­nis? Is lul­ule­mon going to open more out­lets to avoid the crit­i­cism that they sell $100 yoga pants? Why do we have to fly to Orlando or upstate New York (Woodbury)?

Slave to a USB cable

Over the course of our Euro­pean trip, we relied on our iPad, Kin­dle Fire, Galaxy smart­phones, cam­era bat­ter­ies, elec­tric shaver, and backup bat­ter­ies to carry out basic func­tions that kept us plugged into our infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Because T-​​Mobile is our wire­less provider, we had rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive phone cov­er­age in port in Europe (we have not got­ten a bill yet so I may with­hold judg­ment on that sales pitch).  We had a voice line and mes­sag­ing, maybe e-​​mail as well, but qual­ity var­ied from coun­try to coun­try If we were sail­ing close shore, we might pick up the avail­able wire­less carriers.

On board, the options were less than opti­mal. Ships use a satellite-​​based com­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vice (Imarsat). For pas­sen­gers it is a throw­back to the days of Amer­ica On Line and Compuserv: NCL charges by the minute for use of Wi-​​Fi, Inter­net access and phone. They did have WiFi from stem to stern, but you paid for the Inter­net access. At Kasadasi, we skipped the excu­sion so that we could spend the after­noon in Inter­net cafes and Star­bucks using the free or inex­pen­sive WiFi and Inter­net access. We had sev­eral loose ends in our travel plans that had to be locked down ASAP to allow us to enjoy the vacation.

Some of the plugs, adapters, cables and batteries that I needed to keep powered up and operational
Some of the plugs, adapters, cables and bat­ter­ies that I needed to keep pow­ered up and operational

But the real prob­lem was recharg­ing all our devices. While on the cruise, it was easy to go ashore for sight-​​seeing and return to recharge our bat­ter­ies, using both Euro­pean and US elec­tri­cal out­lets in the cabin.  Before the trip, I had pur­chased one travel uni­ver­sal adapter and surge pro­tec­tor, but that was not enough. In Spain, I bought a phone charger with Euro­pean plug., which helped. When we struck out on our own and did not have the con­ve­nience of Euro­pean and US out­lets, it was more com­pli­cated. All US-​​style plugs were use­less. In France, I bought another adapter/​surge pro­tec­tor, which  also came with a USB out­let, the equiv­a­lent of hav­ing another Euro­pean plug. When we were able to stream elec­tri­cal cur­rent to four devices, the rou­tine became manageable.

But an addi­tional prob­lem turned out to be get­ting reli­able USB cables. I’d find out that a phone or device did not charge at all overnight so I had to trou­bleshoot the problem. Two cables wore out quickly from rough treat­ment while trav­el­ing. I had left a zipped pack­ing bag that had extra USB cables at home so I was already under-equipped. In Barcelona, I bought two USB cables that did not func­tion (what do you sell a cus­tomer you know will never come back?).

I found myself get­ting up in the mid­dle of the night to check on charg­ing and switch out devices. At each port, I looked for a con­ve­nient elec­tron­ics store or wire­less ser­vice cen­ter. Some­times, it was just a ques­tion of not hav­ing enough time to stop at a store with­out being left behind by the guide group. Other times, I could not bring myself to buy at jacked-​​up prices for tourists. Finally in Paris, I got a new USB cable, plus the adapter/​surge protector.

Now I under­stand the TV com­mer­cial show­ing trav­el­ers hud­dle around power out­lets in air­port ter­mi­nals, try­ing to recharge their phones, tablets and lap­tops. It’s sim­i­lar to being a smoker, hav­ing to plan your life around when and where you can find an appro­pri­ate place to light up and feed your habit. Our addic­tion to con­nec­tion and infor­ma­tion is what shaped a lot of our plan­ning in Europe.

Yoga helps war veterans deal with trauma

More evi­dence that yoga and related dis­ci­plines can help heal the body and mind of peo­ple suf­fer­ing from post-​​traumatic stress dis­or­der or PSTD:

Wash­ing­ton PostYoga helps war vet­er­ans get a han­dle on their PTSD.But the new study is the first of its kind to pro­vide sci­en­tific sup­port for the ben­e­fits of yoga’s breath­ing tech­niques for PTSD patients in a ran­dom­ized and con­trolled (though small) long-​​term study which mon­i­tored effects of yoga over the course of the year.

The study cited in this arti­cle actu­ally deals with the prac­tice of sudar­shan kriya, a sequence of breath­ing exer­cises cre­ated and pro­moted by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But he does not have a monop­oly on the ben­e­fits of yoga practice.

Please note that the arti­cle was orig­i­nally pub­lished in The Con­ver­sa­tion, Sep­tem­ber 14.

Mindfulness in museums and sensuous overflow

The Phillips Col­lec­tion is intro­duc­ing a mind­ful approach to access­ing the art work on dis­play there:

Wash­ing­ton PostAt the Phillips Col­lec­tion, view­ing art through mind­ful med­i­ta­tion:
As with tra­di­tional yoga prac­tice, the mind­ful view­ing pro­gram focuses on breath­ing and its restora­tive power, says Kan­ter, who teaches at Yoga Dis­trict in D.C. and Wil­low Street Yoga in Takoma Park. “Even just slow­ing down the breath, notic­ing and deep­en­ing the breath,” she says, can trig­ger “your relax-​​and-​​renew response. When you can mind­fully attune to your breath and start to influ­ence it, you trig­ger deep changes in your body. So that imme­di­ately has an impact on how you feel.”

The new approach ben­e­fited from yoga ther­a­pist Eliz­a­beth Lak­shmi Kan­ter‘s insight. The Phillips will make the pro­gram avail­able via a smart phone app. Many Euro­pean muse­ums already hand out head­sets that pro­vide infor­ma­tion and com­men­tary in the lan­guage of the vis­i­tor, but I did not notice any mind­ful tones in the nar­ra­tion of the head­sets that I used.

Pro­po­nents of mind­ful­ness have long empha­sized the power of breath in man­ag­ing stress. “It’s like we mimic the relaxed state by breath­ing more slowly,” says Klia Bass­ing, a mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion instruc­tor and founder of Visit Your­self at Work, a stress-​​reduction pro­gram based in the Dis­trict. “It’s a state in which the body is more able to heal.” That shift, she says, can stay with you beyond the imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence, such as con­tem­plat­ing a work of art. “A body at rest will stay at rest,” says Bass­ing. “A body at ner­vous­ness will stay at ner­vous­ness.” (Does using a cell­phone as a medium for mind­ful­ness dis­rupt the mind­ful moment? Not nec­es­sar­ily, says Bass­ing: “It’s still effec­tive in bring­ing the body and mind into a state of present awareness.”)

Photo: tourist crowd in from on Michelangelo's Pietà
The crush of tourists at major muse­ums makes it hard to appre­ci­ate the art work.

I could have used more than a mind­ful­ness app when Teresa and I were trot­ting through muse­ums dur­ing our recent trip to Europe. We were there in Sep­tem­ber and early Octo­ber when crowds had dropped off a bit. But it was hard to slow down when thou­sands of multi­na­tional tourists are being herded through the Vat­i­can museum and St. Peter’s Basil­ica. You almost feel bad when lin­ger­ing in front of a par­tic­u­lar art piece because you’re hold­ing up others.

Of course, you can develop plenty of mind­ful­ness while wait­ing in long queues to buy tick­ets, get in the front door or get passed security.

You can only take in so much visual input and stim­u­lus, espe­cially at the major Euro­pean muse­ums that flaunt their riches with national pride. Dur­ing our trip, there were sev­eral moments when we had to say “Stop, enough is enough.” At the Orsay Museum in Paris, after feast­ing on Impres­sion­ist artists all morn­ing, we walked out and found the sun light a relief from the over­pow­er­ing bril­liance inside the museum. We sat by the Seine River, ate some fruit, and let the emo­tional over­flow spill into the river.

Photo: vaulted, glass roof of Orsay Museum, Paris
The inte­rior of Paris’s Orsay Museum

Venting about yoga cliques and Sanskrit names

Irasna Ris­ing in ele­phant jour­nal makes some cogent argu­ments that I’ve been think­ing for a while, but have not had the time or energy to put into a coher­ent package:

Why I Left Yoga (& Why I Think A Hel­luva Lot Of Peo­ple Are Being Duped)
San­skrit, like Latin, is a dead lan­guage. Let it go already. The Catholic Church let go of the Latin Mass after Vat­i­can II back in the early 1960′s. Chant­ing in san­skrit does not make you look cool nor does it make you an auto­matic Hindu. Or, an author­ity on yoga, Vedic stud­ies or Indol­ogy (yes, that is a real aca­d­e­mic subject.) Nor does hav­ing a made up Sanskit-​​derived moniker name make you any more real either with names like Blis­sananda, Gane­shananda, Seren­ityananda etc.

This com­pacted extract is just one of seven points that she makes about how yoga is unfold­ing in the States. Irasna (her byline is Earth Energy Reader) is an eth­nic Sikh so her com­ments carry some weight.

Photo: a foot on a yoga mat
Get­ting off on the wrong foot: our grasp of yoga is unbalanced.

On the other hand, we should note that there is no one “yoga” grafted on soc­cer moms, super mod­els and gurus-​​in-​​training that obsess about hav­ing flat abs, round but­tocks and enlight­en­ment. Although there are plenty of aspir­ing peo­ple who would love to play “yoga cop” to enforce authen­tic­ity and the Yoga Sutras, there is no ortho­doxy, no doc­trine, no dogma, no priest­hood for North Amer­i­can yoga. That option started fad­ing away about the same time my gen­er­a­tion got over their Wood­stock high and ashrams were tainted by sex­ual scan­dals. In a more con­tem­po­rary vein, there is no “Amer­i­can yoga indus­try” just because Under Armour wants to steal mar­ket share from Lul­ule­mon, and every yoga stu­dio has to turned into a bou­tique and a teacher train­ing acad­emy. That is a cash flow problem.

What we have are three dis­tin­guish­ing traits of the North Amer­i­can yoga scene: (1) a cap­i­tal­ist mar­ket­place that wants to dress every­thing up as a brand, (2) an enor­mous spir­i­tual hole in our col­lec­tive psy­che stem­ming from our Judeo-​​Christian roots, and (3) a groundswell of psycho-​​somatic suf­fer­ing (trauma) that West­ern med­i­cine and psy­chi­a­try are unable to soothe, much less heal.

I am sure that I could think up other fac­tors in the yoga enigma, but this vent­ing will allow me to get back to my own per­sonal con­tra­dic­tions and inad­e­qua­cies. And I’m not leav­ing yoga. Yoga is not a place; it’s a state of mind-​​body.