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 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 MailLulu-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.