Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yoga For Cynics, an Introduction

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Walt Whitman

That said...what the hell is “Yoga For Cynics” supposed to mean?

A couple years ago, I thought of creating a blog with the stipulation that all posts would be written under the influence of at least half a six-pack. Though the Web cried out forlornly for more drunken rants, that one, somehow, never made it past the “ask somebody how to set up a blog” stage. Some time later, I managed to put a different one on-line with a few posts which turned out to be...sober rants, angst without the died unmourned. More recently, having, somewhat improbably, gotten seriously into that mellow, positive downward facing dog thing, I came up with an idea for a magazine article called “Yoga for Cynics.” That never actually materialized either. However, in a moment of mystical rapture—or perhaps merely heavy caffeination—the inspiration came for...another blog!

That paragraph didn’t really answer the question, did it? This one will try harder, perhaps even going so far as to organize its ideas in a clear, outline-like fashion (this blog is gonna be disciplined! Far more yoga-like than cynical in that respect. Maybe), like so: a) the yoga aspect will (hopefully) provide a much needed balance to the cynical aspect, and b) a couple months ago I went on this week-long yoga retreat to a place called Maya Tulum, in Mexico (organized by legendary yoga teacher Jennifer Schelter) (who seriously kicks ass) (in a positive, nurturing kinda way) ( There I encountered this amazing writer/performer/teacher/holy lunatic named Ann Randolph (, who inspired the idea of writing posts in twelve minute bursts, holding back nothing (though I’m not actually doing that with this post) (and probably won’t with some others) (most likely I’ll also cheat by thinking before and editing afterwards) (hell, it’s my damn blog). Anyway, we’re talking about free flowing inspiration from the core of one’s being and...well, actually we’re probably only partially talking about that, but it certainly seems like a cool idea. Let’s see how it goes....

If that’s not enough, there’s also c) the basic concept of the unwritten article, which may not end up having a hell of a lot to do with the blog. Nonetheless, it probably would’ve been something along the lines of: as “spiritual paths,” “means of attaining inner peace” or “traditional/holistic/post-hippie alternatives to taking truckloads of psychopharmaceuticals to keep from diving off a cliff” go, yoga is ideally suited for those who can’t write “spiritual paths,” etc. without putting said terms in quotes yet still feeling kind of embarrassed for using them in the first place. This has something to do with that “mind, body, spirit” thing your yoga-obsessed cousin’s always going on about in trying to get you to eat her macrobiotic vegan okra muffins.

Alright, so, obviously, that “spirit” part’s gonna a sticking point for the skeptic, since, contrary to the solemn intonations of that guy you know who dresses in bright pastels, has the world’s smallest ponytail, plays the didgeridoo, talks about his crystals as if they were children, uses “healing” as an adjective, and claims to have been Native American in a previous life, concepts like “spiritual energy, the “immortal soul,” and the very notion of “enlightenment” remain highly questionable. Hell, even Ram Dass said that anyone who claims to be enlightened probably isn’t (then, I don’t exactly trust Ram Dass, either). And that’s not even getting into the really metaphysical stuff like reincarnation, karma, discorporating into a floating glowing being of pure love, or, of course, the big G. Sure, there’s that great history of spiritual traditions followed by wise men throughout the world’s societies, but isn’t that at least balanced out by the bloody history of organized religion? James Baldwin wrote, “if a concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of him.” Some might say that this would entail dumping much of the world’s “life of the spirit.” (By the same token, Pat Robertson’s denunciation of yoga as Hindu idol worship does give it a certain appeal in a spiting-the-religious-right kind of way) (though, on second thought, spite might not be the best motivation for doing yoga).

So, then, there’s “the mind”—also a ludicrously vexed concept, and one that remains so poorly understood that many of today’s respected mental health professionals actually think it’s a good idea to pump Adderall and Ritalin and god knows what else into any kid intelligent or creative enough to be bored silly by an educational curriculum based on standardized test preparation. Nonetheless, the notion that contemplative practices can be useful in dealing with depression, anxiety, addiction and so on has been steadily gaining ground (Yoga for Depression is a really good, accessible book on the subject by Amy Weintraub, who, I might mention, was extremely kind and gentle in waking me up every time I started snoring doing those yoga nidra things at Kripalu) (the program started at 6:00 AM for chrissake...). Still, despite what people in your local coffee sangha might say, many of those who get their information from empirical research rather than channeling the spirits of druidic warrior goddesses are still pretty dubious on the subject (though, admittedly, medical researchers channeling the spirits of pharmaceutical companies providing their funding can produce dubious results as well). So, ultimately, while meditation, tai chi, and yoga are certainly a step closer to rational acceptability than past life regression or praying to the Holy Virgin, they still might not be close enough to make those of inherently doubtful dispositions want to do headstands.

Which brings us to the somewhat obvious reason so many people are doing reverse triangle at your local strip mall: the physical benefits, including the justly celebrated, round-and-firm-as-a-pair-of-ripe-grapefruit “yoga butt.” Much of what goes on within this recent craze might, of course, be characterized as the yoga equivalent of that “smooth jazz” crap they play on the radio—often virtuosic if completely lacking in substance. But does this, necessarily, damn the agnostic to a Kenny G. approach to yoga? I’m more inclined toward what might be called a John Coltrane/Miles Davis version—requiring a reasonably open mind and willingness to at least try and calm the mind and ponder whether the “spirit” actually exists as something more than a mass of badly confused cells in the brain while doing a hundred and eight sun salutations. Should none of that ultimately work out, it won’t change the fact that I’ve saved my knees, overcome chronic tension headaches, and generally become more studly (though, y’know, that won’t matter so much once I’ve overcome the ego).

That said, this blog probably won’t have much to do with asanas (that’s the physical postures of yoga, for those of you who get irritated rather than feeling mystical energy crawling up your spine when you see Sanskrit). That’s also a good thing. Not long ago, this woman I was kinda sorta involved with said she was curious about yoga and wanted me to teach her some. I told her I’m still working on not hurting myself by overstretching my hamstrings. Hell, I’m still not even sure what hamstrings are.

In the end, whether this blog actually has anything to do with yoga or not is for the reader to decide. I’m just gonna write it.


Gypsy at Heart said...

And here was also the answer I needed to the Tulum thing of course. Sometimes I think forwards instead of backwards. Can't believe nobody commented on this (not kissing fit yoga bottom or anything mind you) marvel of an explanation for the why's and how's of your blog. You make me dizzy with how fast you jump from one thing to another but it all ties in and makes sense. I loved this post. Going to keep on reading.

Brunhilda said...

Now I get it a bit better . . . hooray for archives!

Anonymous said...

I think this is the umpteenth time today I am going to use the word "brilliant".. *lol* but I'm going to anyhoos. I'm creative like that. :P

Brilliant intro to a brilliant blog! (There ya go, two in one)

There's so much about your writing that strikes a chord within me. I am a new 'disciple'. :)

How serendipitous.. my word verification: "crumi" :D

Unknown said...

I think you spent more than 12 minutes on this... call me a cynic!

Lisa Nanette Allender said...

I LOVE this explanation of "Yoga For Cynics"--thanks for visiting me at Lisa Allender Writes blog.I'll be reading YOUR blog, regularly.

Anonymous said...


you rock! I laughed, I mean belly laughed. (excellent for diaphram awareness) So glad I found you again.

Eleanor said...

Good stuff! I teach yoga and I have to say it is not quite the 'classical' variety - so your commentary is valid for me and my students.

roseanne said...

This is more than an introduction ~ it's a manifesto. After reading through your archives, I see that you've lived up to what you set out to do. Nice work! I'll be back again & again.

kerry wills said...

since yoga is a giant of a subject, i don't think it will matter what you choose to write about in the end. it's a great start of a conversaton...

but you gotta get that idiot deepak chopra (the ad for an online program) off your blog, or you're going to have image problems with your followers. at least, i'd hope you would, b/c he is the definition of credulous (did you see that debate he did on nightline with sam harris and michael sherman?

his ideology is potentially damagaing and cynics should revile him ;)

Monty Brower said...

I am totally humbled by and in awe of the honesty and clear presence of this statement. This is yoga in action through written expression. I just published an illustrated collection of poems of yoga and meditation, The Earthen Vessel, verse and visuals by yours truly ( I thought I had something to say, but after reading this, I can see I need to get back to the mat. Namaste and thanks for the wake-up.