New series alert! Since moving to New York about one month ago, I’ve had quite a few quintessentially New York encounters, experiences and exchanges. This is the first in a series of blog posts about these sorts of uncanny little vignettes, the “Bagel Moments” of my new life here . . . enjoy 😉
Oh the accent
When I walk down to the local grocer and chat for a bit about a West Indian parade coming up in Prospect Heights … it’s a super friendly exchange, he wants to know if I just moved in … and in a thick Brooklyn accent, “Welcome to da neighbahood.” Thanks, man, it’s been a warm welcome so far.
Looking at my calendar, I realize I have six employers, two consultancy clients, and four friends to catch up with this week.
All riched up and no one to love
Last night, standing at the coat check for a function at Questroyal Fine Arts, where the cheapest painting for sale was $19,000, a little old lady came tottering out, the same lady who ate every Hors d’oeuvre I offered that night, talking to no one in particular about her adventure that evening, “Fantastic paintings, fantastic prices!”
“Good you had such a nice time! Are you planning on taking any paintings home?”
She looks up at me, slightly cross-eyed, puts a hand on my arm and shakes her head solemnly.
“My husband’s in a care home. I have no idea what’s going to happen to me. I have so many paintings, anyway, all in my closets, and nowhere to put them. My friend Margaret, she has a huge mansion, paintings everywhere. I have nowhere to put mine. I could sell my house, for the money.”
“Is your husband OK? Do you have any family in New York?”
“No. They’re all dead.”
West Indian grooves
Doing a Caribbean Rhythms class at Crunch Gym (7 days free, woo hoo!), mesmerized by the teacher’s voodoo booty and what feats it’s capable of, I realize, I’m in the middle of Brooklyn, shakin’ it wild style, to some damn fine music, and as an added cherry on top, I meet another yogi in the class who lives right down the road. Solid.
And finally, not so much a Bagel Moment as a Bagel Reality
Living in a windowless apartment with four other perimeter surfers, sharing one bathroom, and lovin’ it up in a very cosy corner of the world – sweet Park Slope, you’re the best welcome New York can give 😉
I think I’m in the right place . . .
A New Yorker is a person with an almost inordinate interest in mental health, which is only natural considering how much of that it takes to live here. – New York Times
Settling into my new spot in Brooklyn’s taken up an insane amount of time. In fact, “time” in NYC takes on a whole new meaning, as I’m quickly finding out. A month’s worth of *stuff* can happen in a day … and yet somehow it feels like no more than a fleeting moment. I finally get that phrase, “a New York minute,” so short and yet so much gets packed in!
But this isn’t a blog about time. Why not? Well, frankly, I don’t have time right now to wax lyrical about anything! Between writing lesson plans, interviewing for jobs, and figuring out how to fill out time sheets, philosophical meanderings have taken a temporary backburner! But it’s all good, I have a sweet blog coming up – Ten New York Thangs I’m Grateful For – and progress is being made.
In the meantime, here’s a great article written by an author who I just discovered and quite admire (and may even try to seek out at some point here in NYC!), Alice G Walton for Forbes:
(And by the way, yes, I think many people/studios in the States have forgotten about Yoga’s true meaning. Many leave the spiritual aspects of existing in bliss behind, and simply take the bucks that come with the seekers. If you’re a yogi reading this, what do you think?)
The Great Yoga Debate: Has Yoga Sold Its Soul?
If yoga is in the market for backwards publicity, it’s doing pretty well. From William Broad’s New York Times piece on yoga’s body-wrecking potential to the dramatic abdication of Anusara’s John Friend, it’s had a rough few months. But more intriguing perhaps is the ongoing discussion of the meandering, or at least evolving, heart of yoga. Some say it’s lost touch with its roots, its history, even its soul – and it needs to some reclaiming of these things. Others say that getting ruffled up over these issues is itself profoundly un-yogic, and we should move on.
A couple of years ago, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) launched their “Take Back Yoga” movement. It was sparked by the realization that the word “Hindu” was habitually absent in a premiere yoga magazine. “A few of us at the Hindu American Foundation were avid readers of [the magazine],” says HAF’s senior director, Sheetal Shah. “We noticed that our sacred texts, philosophical ideas, and deities were consistently being referred to as ‘yogic,’ ‘tantric,’ ‘Indian,’ etc. We wondered, ‘How many different ways can a magazine avoid using the word Hindu?’” When the magazine responded to the concern by saying that “Hinduism carries too much baggage,” the movement was launched.
At the center of “Take Back Yoga” is the concern that the practice today is too obsessed with the physical (asana), and has largely lost its more cerebral or philosophical side, which, one could argue, is what it’s all about in the first place. Asana and pranayama (breathing) are integral, says Shah, but there are six other “limbs” of yoga, which are largely forgotten in the West.
As Shah says, “Just because someone can rock the forearm stand does not mean she is practicing yoga – it just means she has mastered the ability to balance on her forearms. If yoga is just about the body’s flexibility, then what makes it different from Cirque du Soleil? Why call it yoga? If it’s just physical, it’s not yoga.”
The HAF website is even more blunt: “The popularity of yoga continues to skyrocket in the Western world as yoga studios become as prevalent as Starbucks and the likes of Lululemon find continued success in the mass marketing of $108 form enhancing yoga pants.”
Yikes. On the other hand, this idea that at least in the U.S. yoga has become diluted into a shallow but widespread phenomenon is not particularly new. Many have lamented this trend – some have even applauded it.
Yoga has changed for sure. But how much does this matter?
Not so much, say some critics, or at least not in the ways we think. One reason is that, as Jennifer Schmid, who lives and works at Ananda Ashram in New York State, says, “to say that Yoga has gotten away from its roots, especially its Hindu ones, presumes that Yoga belongs to any religion… Yoga, which is classically defined as “union,” both encompasses and enlivens ALL religions, countries, cultures and people, while ultimately teaching us to go beyond them.” In this way, arguing over origins and derivations doesn’t matter a heck of a lot to yoga, which encourages people to step outside of themselves, and ultimately, outside of itself as well. To argue about its definitions is almost an oxymoron.
The other, more straightforward argument is that to welcome the greatest number of people, yoga has to dilute itself a little. Schmid argues that “perhaps the adaptation of asana and pranayama practice is what enables yoga to be accessible to the masses. But most practitioners and especially teachers connect to a deeper, more subtle experience, even if they can’t or choose not to explain it in words.” In other words, people may come for the asana but stay for the pratyahara – the loftier, psychological stuff, and part of the key to transcendence and bliss. Not every teacher touches on the psychological/philosophical parts of yoga, but many do, and if students are interested in exploring yoga in its fuller, original sense, they can seek it out.
Ultimately, if yoga is to be conceptualized as a single entity, we have to take into account all parts of it, good, bad, and ugly, according to Traci Childress, who works with Omega Institute. She suggests that yoga should ultimately be thought of as a matrix spanning physical to mental, lofty to ordinary, and everything in between. Thinking of it as having a linear evolution, she says, is less beneficial, and less accurate.
“Each thread is part of what yoga is, though not every thread is equal, or equally supportive to the evolution of the field or of any individual practitioner. As a matter of fact, some of the “threads” may even get in the way of individual’s personal evolution. For example, the intersection of western asana practice with the fashion world and the ideal of the perfect thin body, might reinforce unhealthy choices that have little to do with personal evolution.” Other areas of the matrix are more internally valuable.
In the end, yoga exists in the present, and this is the place from which we should work. Our concept of yoga, says Childress, “must be made up of all of the many intersecting practices, institutions, individuals, texts, and traditions with which it comes in contact. It must include the cultures and histories of all of these pieces…It is a practice, an evolving technology, and thereby made up of the relations, the interactions, and the intersecting components that continuously produce it.”
Hopefully many will gravitate to the areas of yoga that “support the quieting of the mind,” rather than the ones that focus solely on the development of the yoga butt. But that’s up to the individual. Schmid agrees that at its heart, “Yoga is the cessation of the thinking mind.” Perhaps, therefore, we should get away from obsessing about it too much.
Something I’ve noticed, having just moved to New York from studying in India for five months, is how body-oriented and almost militant the method of teaching yoga can really be here. It’s as though teachers want to cram as many asanas in a class as possible – more bang for your buck! – a typical American approach to, well, just about everything. In India, pranayam & meditation are still quite prominent, and other forms of yoga, like Bhakti and Karma, are just as popular – if not more so! – than Hatha.
It had me wondering just where I fit into the big picture here, how I could contribute something beneficial to my new community …
And then, voila! This hope-filled article from the NY Times discusses a “new trend” in bringing meditationback to the mat here in NYC. I find this both thrilling and kinda funny for a few reasons. For one thing, meditation has always been a part of yoga. The earliest scriptural evidence we have (the Rig Veda, written between 1700–1100 BC) discusses yoga as a meditation – in fact, asana is not even mentioned for hundreds of years later. So, the yoga scholar (read: nerd) in me scoffs at this notion that meditation was ever not a part of yoga.
Then again, when you look at the way so many schools have popped up here, and how the physical aspect of a yogic lifestyle came to be so central in the definition of yoga in the West, indeed, many people have lost sight of the “real yoga” on this side of the world. Recent publications have highlighted yoga’s modern body-oriented history, like Mark Singleton’sYoga Body, and Elizabeth De Michelis’s A History of Modern Yoga: Patañjali and Western Esotericism.
At the Yoga Journal Conference here in New York last weekend, I noticed the master teachers’ language had really changed. Their verbiage was a kind of response to this accusation/observation that American yogis had become all-too obsessed with the body. Rodney Yee even came right out and said, “Yoga is not just about acrobatics, it’s about more than that,” the frustration in his voice unmistakable. He led the class through a sushumna-focued asana class, referencing ahimsa (one of the yamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first document to comprehensively outline yoga as a practice and philosophy, though it had been cited in several scriptures previous to its compilation somewhere between 500 BC and 300 CE).
That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
In any case, here’s the article from the Times. Get ready for some meditation, NYC, lawd knows you could use it!
April 20, 2012
Putting Meditation Back on the Mat
By CAREN OSTEN GERSZBERG
SEATED cross-legged on a black cushion atop a yoga mat, I struggled to keep my eyes closed and repeat the Sanskrit mantra in my head: ham-sa — I am that. Outside, on Third Avenue, police sirens wailed and cars honked as I tried to sit still in a room with eight other meditation students, keeping my breath slow and steady. Just as I was about to lose the focus on my breath, a soothing voice nearby chimed in: “You can hear the noises without getting attached to them. The attention comes from the inside.”
The voice belonged to Michael Bartelle, a tall, slender yoga and meditation teacher. The city kept up its racket, but for the next 18 minutes, Mr. Bartelle thoughtfully guided our midday meditation, occasionally offering encouraging comments. It was part of a one-hour class at Ishta Yoga that included movement and breathing exercises.
Ishta Yoga, with studios in Greenwich Village and on the Upper East Side, is one of a growing number of yoga centers in the city that are reporting increased meditation on the mat.
The asanas, or poses, of yoga are traditionally meant to prepare the body for meditation. But as yoga has been consumed by the gym and physical fitness industry in recent years — to the tune of an international yoga championship — many people have come to yoga for the workout, period.
Still, once they are there, they are often introduced to meditation, as well.
“Yoga is the gateway that opens the door for people to try modalities that they normally wouldn’t,” said Beth Shaw, founder and president of YogaFit, a fitness education program, based in Los Angeles that trains many of the yoga teachers at the city’s more than 50 New York Sports Clubs. A team from the clubs recently discussed with YogaFit the possibility of a meditation workshop at its annual conference for fitness professionals, which will be held in November in New York.
Cyndi Lee, the owner of Om Yoga near Union Square, which recently announced it would close its studio in late June, has an explanation for the seemingly greater enthusiasm for meditation among yoga students.
“The yoga community in New York City has matured,” Ms. Lee said. “I remember a time when we started with five minutes of meditation and a woman got annoyed and said: ‘I want to move. I want to sweat.’ Now they want to meditate.”
In August, Om Yoga introduced a meditation teacher-training program and has been running twice-weekly meditation classes. The Integral Yoga Institute, Jivamukti Yoga School and Pure Yoga, all in Manhattan, are among other centers reporting more students in their meditation classes.
At Ishta Yoga, Alan Finger, the founder and co-owner, said: “There’s a flood of more people wanting more meditation. I used to have about three classes a week — I stepped it up to five.” (A sixth is taught by Mr. Bartelle, alternating with Peter Ferko.)
Mr. Finger says that students often get a sense of what meditation is like by being in savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of a yoga class.
“At first, when people are in savasana, they may have a little snooze, but as they come and get more into it, they start to feel a different presence and say, ‘That was like meditation,’ and they start to explore more.”
Though most studios charge a fee for meditation classes that involve instruction, some, like the Jaya Yoga Center in Brooklyn, include meditation on their schedule simply to provide a time and space for people to come and sit, free.
“When people come in after a day of work or wake up in the morning, they are happy to shift their attention to something that’s a little more relaxing,” said Carla Stangenberg, who owns one of Jaya’s studios and co-owns the other. “Focusing on the breath and some phrases just calms you down, especially in New York City, where everything is just spinning around.”
A staff member keeps the time, and the rest is up to you and your breath. But why not just do it at home if you’re not getting guidance?
For many people, meditating in a group provides a deeper, more satisfying experience.
“Meditation is kind of like a dance class in that it’s better with other people,” said David Grotell, a student at my Ishta Yoga class. “There’s something about the energy. It would seem that if you’re not talking to people you’re not in contact, but you somehow feel close to others when you are meditating in a way that is not obvious.”
The heightened interest in meditation in yoga studios may be part of a larger movement toward the practice, which is clearly more mainstream than during the transcendental meditation craze of the 1970s.
When Sharon Salzberg, a meditation expert and teacher, began giving meditation workshops at Tibet House in the Flatiron district in 1999, about 30 people were in attendance. This winter, her class filled the room to its capacity, 135 people, with the overflow crowd finding space to sit on the floor.
“Meditation is no longer seen as fringe, esoteric and weird,” Ms. Salzberg said. “Its main association is now its link as a stress-reduction modality, and not just for coping, but also for flourishing.”
The Art of Living Foundation, an educational nonprofit organization, once offered a single meditation workshop a week at its office in Midtown; it now has four a week because of rising demand.
In addition to offering workshops at its Manhattan office, I Meditate NY, an initiative of the foundation, has teamed up with partners to offer meditation at various branches of the New York Public Library and at Whole Foods’ Wellness Club in TriBeCa. The next event, currently in its planning stages, is a meditation workshop in Central Park.
City College of New York is scheduled to begin a 10-week evening class next month called Introduction to the Organic Meditation Process. Part of CUNY’s Continuing and Professional Education Program, it will be open to those with and without meditation experience.
“Meditation helps you learn how to not be controlled by your emotions,” the teacher, Antonia Martinez, said. Or as Ms. Lee of Om Yoga put it, “People are realizing that meditation is a way to work with your mind, and the benefits are said to bring strength, stability and clarity.”
Hiking Yoga is the quintessential modern American yoga practice, the mind child of Eric Kipp, founder, yogi, athlete and family man. One of the most prominent features of American yoga is the multitude of fusion practices popping up on a regular basis: Yogalates (yoga + pilates), Forrest Yoga (Native American spiritual techniques + yoga), and one of the more extreme versions of yoga synthesis, Yoga and Chocolate. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a full on choco-phile myself, but diving into the pleasures of my favorite goo from the gods is hardly compatible with pratyahara (sense withdrawl)!
So what’s the story with Hiking Yoga? Is it worth checking out?
The program started in 2009 and is now offered in 15 cities across the States. It’s run by Eric Kipp and his wife and has seen press coverage as luminous as a feature in Forbes, Self, Men’s Journal, and this fine little article from Well+Good New York.
For an hour and a half, classes are led through local trails and parks, stopping four times along the way for asana sessions.
Although you could choose to make the hiking portion of the program a more meditative experience, or an opportunity to connect with nature, many friends, couples and singles come out to chat it up and have a good time. One of the best perks of this set up is the students get a lot of valuable time with knowledgeable yoga teachers
Hiking Yoga just launched in NYC’s Central or Prospect Parks, and with this Groupon you can get a hearty discount off the regular fee. So get your shoes and sunscreen on, kids – Hiking Yoga NYC is on!
So if you’re following my adventures on The Weekly Jo, you know I just moved to Brooklyn about ten days ago (hence the lag in postings!). Betwixt attending/assisting at the Yoga Journal Conference (review to follow), interviews for jobby jobs (a reference inspired by my run-in with Snoop Doggie Dog in Central Park the other day – no really, I saw him! You could feel the dude walking by, he’s such a big presence!), trainings for Hiking Yoga, hunting down a room (windowless but in a prime location!), and catching up with friends, I’ve been a busy little monkey.
And as with any major movement (just ask Bellini!) dramas are sure to ensue. I’ve seen a few potential explosions this last week, and put out quite a few before they could ignite. Others, well, let’s just say very little was destroyed in the fire!
Read on for 5 Moving Dramas I’ve experienced, and how – thanks to yoga – they could probably be avoided!
1. The anxiety of finding the “perfect” match. We all wanna live in our ideal spot. I can’t tell you how many times I went over pros and cons list of moving to New York vs. Hawaii vs. London vs. Seattle, but at some point, a decision had to be made.
And then you just gotta roll with it.
Probably the most versatile tool in my yogic belt’s been this brilliant little concept of santosha, translated from the Sanskrit as “contentment.” It’s the ability to be neither thrilled nor saddened by your situation, but to position yourself in a place of satisfaction. You can do this in any number of ways – eliminating your expectations and curbing your desires are the biggies that come to mind. Everyone has their own method, but keeping santosha at the forefront of your mind during a move will ease a lot of the tensions that come with all the new-ness.
I’ve heard the phrase “Fake it til you make it” a million times, and that same message resonates here from Thich Nhat Hanh, a prolific Vietnamese writer and Buddhist monk, and one of Martin Luther King’s major influences:
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”
So smile, and be content :o)
2. Where did all the time go?! Logistics take time. Trolling through Craigslist for your brand new pad, interviewing with potential roomies/landlords, credit checks, monthly payments, calculating distance from the subway, fitting in furniture, buying new furniture, changing all your addresses, getting a new phone hookup, the works!
Going through this process, making sure I’m doing something to help me move forward each and every moment of the day, I thought back to this cool video I found on Karma Tube. It explains cultural perspectives on time, and though it doesn’t include the yogic perspective (that time is really just a man-made concept, so in this case, do as much as you can when you can), it does shed some warming light on how others might view this all-pervading idea.
3. Finding yourself on the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’
So you’ve overcome the logistics of the move, some of the boxes are unpacked and you say to yourself, “I could really use a little adventure in my new hood,” and off you go, into the great abyss, crossing this way and that, in search of nothing but open to all.
Maybe you took a map, maybe you didn’t, but you do know it’s about time you get to know your new little corner of the world. Fair enough. But as I found out, just one week into my romance with Brooklyn, it’s not hard to end up in a touch of a danger, especially if you don’t know your new terrain.
Don’t get me wrong. Having lived in London and San Fran, I do have some semblance of street knowledge under my belt. When I decided to go wandering about Prospect Park alone to figure out the new Hiking Yoga path, I was sure I was well within the realm of safety. It was light out, I was wearing pretty non-descript clothing, there were loads of other ladies walking about the place. And yet, as I turned a sharp corner, out came this nasty figure, hooded up and shuffling, who groped me somethin’ nasty, and just kept on walking!
I took a photo of the creep running away and called 911 in the hopes they could catch him, question him, and somehow find some rehabilitation for his sick little mind. It all went down so fast and with so little eye contact I’m sure he’d done it before!
So what was I to learn here? What yogic technique could help a sister out?
Well, the first thing that comes to mind is not so much yoga as a swift kung fu smack down!
But, staying true to the yama of ahimsa (nonviolence of thought, word and action!), I sat down for some time and contemplated what message was really at play here.
And I’ve come up with viveka. According to Swami Sivananda (founder of one of my yoga alma maters), viveka is “discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the permanent and the impermanent, between the Self and the non-Self.”
So, in our spiritual life, we strive to discern between what seems to be going on, and what’s really going on, from the big picture perspective. Maybe you’re in a tough spot now, but the only constant is change, so … tough it out and know that the trouble isn’t a permanent reality. It’s just one of an infinite number of ever-changing circumstances that’s bound to be followed by a new circumstance.
In this instance, and in every instance, really, we can only benefit from utilizing full yogic discernment. Before you jump into a binding lease, a house full of strangers, or a park full of weirdos, take a moment to become fully aware of what that entails. Approach not with fear, but with unwavering focus and vigilance – and a can of mace probably wouldn’t hurt!
4. Gettin’ the “Lonely City Blues,” surrounded by 8.2 million fellow homo-sapiens.
It happens. We all know that niggly feeling of loneliness, being in a new place, even if it’s just a new workplace, or perhaps not even in a new place, but in a place you’ve lived for what feels like ages.
It’s natural, it’s human. And sometimes, it’s a little self-indulgent.
Fact is, if you’re feeling lonely, and you’re not simply pampering some underlying need to revel in the soft familiar comforter of your good ‘ole self-pity (*sigh*), there are a billion ways to meet people these days. You could join OKCupid, or some other nu-skool dating site, and seek out your 99% match, even if it’s just for a friendly coffee rendezvous. (Watch this space to hear more on that little experiment…)
But from a yogic perspective …. Vedantins would say your loneliness is an illusion. Not very comforting, I know.
Bhakti Yogis would have you sing a song in praise of the Divine.
My favorite yogi answer to this inevitable little conundrum: Karma Yoga.
Just go out there and offer self-less service to some charity or organization that gives something to your community. You’ll never regret this kinda move. You meet loads of other peeps who’re down to lend a helping hand, and the hearts you touch through your efforts will warm you up faster than you can say, “Sweet Mama Theresa!”
“If you would contract, you must first expand. If you would weaken, you must first strengthen. If you would overthrow, you must first raise up. If you would take, you must first give.” Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching.
5. No money, no honey.It’s a fact: moving costs buko bucks. Trucks, movers (if you’ve got enough junks), new furniture, higher rent (hey hey hey, New York!) – the list goes on and on. So far I’ve come to grips with the fact that – at least for a while – I’ll probably end up being a lot like the immigrants in this all-too-appropriate skit from In Living Color (one of my teenage faves):
In other words, or rather, in yogic words, tapas is what we’re talkin’ about here. It’s a focused effort, usually leading to purification, that often requires the renunciation of certain worldly luxuries. Pinch your pennies, eat like a pauper, and give up those decadent $5 lattes, because those first few months (at least for me!) are definitely gonna require a reeling in of hedonistic tendencies.
(A few solid sites that’ve helped me stay healthy while living on a tight budget are Groupon and Vitacost. The latter is the cheapest site I’ve found for health foods, supplements and toiletries, definitely worth checking out!)
I’ve also been lucky enough to have a really supportive network of friends and family both in NYC and on the other side of the planet.