Sunday, December 29, 2013

Cool Yoga Manifesto


Bikram Choudhury has been accused of rape by five women as well as sexual assault and false imprisonment ( )


These allegations have not been proven, and we should not assume guilt. Bikram's generally reprehensible behaviour as a Yoga teacher inclines many of us to believe the accusations, but the principle of innocent until proven guilty should remain uppermost in our minds.


That said, I have to admit that after I read of the allegations I found myself thinking, "Well, if these are true perhaps it will weaken or end the Bikram empire." Just to be clear- I very much hope the allegations are not true. But I would be happy to see the end of Bikram as a Yoga teacher, and the dissolution of his empire.




I think that the spread of Bikram's style of Yoga, under his or any other name, is one of the worst things to happen to Western Yoga. For those not familiar, Bikram's

"Hot Yoga" involves practicing a difficult set of asanas in an artificially heated room, usually in front of a wall of mirrors. The heat in the room makes dressing skimpily mandatory, so this usually results in groups of sweating people doing Yoga in their underwear in front of a wall of mirrors. In our body image obsessed culture this is hardly a recipe for transcendence.


Students in the classes skirt the edge of dehydration, and sometimes go over the edge. People are known to faint, become nauseaous, and even pass out- even the young and fit. The classes are dangerous for anyone, especially for the overweight, elderly, or underweight, all of which I commonly saw in class when I tried a trial month of Hot Yoga about a year ago.


My first reason for wishing Hot Yoga would disappear is that it is medically dangerous. This danger is often reinforced by teachers who are trained to encourage people to practice through pain- terrible, terrible advice.


My second reason is that practicing strenuous Yoga in intense heat is against Ayurvedic principles. According to Ayurveda physical exertion should be to the point of breaking a light sweat, no more. Intense heat is sometimes used in the form of a sauna as a cleanse, but this is certainly not a daily practice! According to Ayurveda heat ages the body, and excess exposure to it will shorten your life. Now you may not agree with that, but I still object to a practice with bills itself as "Yoga" and flies in the face of the Ayurvedic principles traditionally used to inform medical uses of Yoga postures.


Third, one of the goals of Hot Yoga is "cleansing", defined as removing impurities from the body through sweating. I don't see how deep breathing for over an hour in a room whose air is thick with other's people's sweat can be imagined to be cleansing. Sure, you yourself sweat, and that can feel great, but I would bet that your immune system is getting a heady workout from breathing in the evaporated bodily fluids of 40 other people. And wait a second, aren't they suposed to be sweating out impurities? So that would mean you're breathing in........?


Fourth, what about the environmental crisis? If Yoga is a spiritual practice, mustn't that include caring about our destruction of the environment and the beings that depend on it, both human and animal? And isn't our currrent culture of ecocide intimately connected to waste and misuse of our energy resources? How can we feel comfortable about artificially heating a room (beyond what is necesary for health) to practice Yoga in? For the last 3,000 years Yoga has just done fine without artificial heating. The irony of all this, of course, is that at the rate we are burning up our fossil fuels, we may soon not need to artificially heat rooms to practice in. We'll just need to go outside and enjoy the cleansing benefits of global warming.


Cool Yoga


Yoga is not about sweat, heat and intensity. In fact one of the oldest metaphors for the goal of Yoga, spiritual freedom, is "nirvana" a which literally means "putting out the fire". The Buddha defined the goal of his practice as putting out the "three fires" of greed, hatred, and delusion, and often referred to saints as people who were "cooled".


This "coolness" sought by the Buddha does not, of course, mean being "cold". It is the coolness of calm, gentility, compassion and tenderness. It is the cool of clarity, humility, and non-attachment. That coolness, by one name or another, is the traditional goal of Yoga.


What I most bemoan about Bikram's Yoga is its place in the general "heating up" of our Yoga practice here in the West. Our classes are faster, harder, and more stimulating to the senses every day. We are getting further and further away from any sense of "pratyahara", the calming of sense stimulation Patanjali said was necessary for Yoga.


I recently met a Yoga teacher on her way to teach a class in a black lingerie slip and armed with Barry White CDs. "Its sexy evening Yoga", she told me. It would be hard to imagine anything more foreign to the traditional techniques and goals of Yoga. I was going to write "What's next, twerking?" but sadly I imagine somewhere it's already been done.


If Yoga is a practice of union, our Yoga at times seems to be drawing us into an ever tighter embrace of our own greed, competitiveness, addiction to stimulation, and body-obsessiveness.


All is not lost, of course. There are many good Yoga classes being taught out there, and many studios and teachers with integrity. I still hear about people who have taken up a Yoga practice and found increased freedom from pain and stress and greater access to calm and perspective- greater coolness. So, for those of you who are still practicing cool Yoga- more power to you, keep the dream alive.













Saturday, July 6, 2013

New Article on Elephant Journal

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Truth Beyond Us And Them

When I was younger I used to go to protest marches. Although initially energized by the solidarity and sense of positive power that gathered around the protesters I usually found that by the end of the march I felt alienated and dispassionate. I felt that way not about the cause, but about the gathering. It was hard to put my finger on what the problem was at first. Something about the tone: angry, self-righteous. Confrontational. In one phrase: Us against Them.

I don't deny the existence of bad guys in the world. But I do think they are exceedingly rare. Duplicity, self-absorption ignorance, opportunism- these are very real, and all of us are guilty, or at least I am. But real villains- they are few and far between. What I disliked about the energy of the protests was the sense that we were on the side of heaven- righteous, possessed of the truth, and in a holy wrath- and our opponents were benighted, evil, ignorant, and even subhuman- "pigs", as you-know-who were repeatedly referred to at one march.

There are three things I dislike about this approach. 1) It is not true. 2) The sense of righteousness- the sense of moral and intellectual superiority- can itself become an addicting brew, intoxicating the conscience and leading one to a view life through a distorting glass that renders everything falsely black and white. 3) This approach, so often hostile and dehumanizing, is both violent and ineffectual. It is violent because it is tainted with ill-will, and ineffective because it blocks off communication between parties in conflict and instead of reaching out to and activating the good in the other side. It provokes defensive postures with all the blindness they also bring.

Of the three the last may be most serious. As long as we demonize our opponents we will provoke them to withdraw behind defenses and in turn demonize us.

Gandhi developed a strategy of political transformation which worked in precise opposition to the above dynamic, which he called satyagraha. It consisted of a combination of a commitment to non-violence with an appeal to what was highest in one's opponent. "I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion....there must be no impatience, no barbarity, no insolence, no undue pressure." (Prabhu and Rao, The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi).

Interestingly, Jesus used a similar method. A case in point is the story of Jesus and the tax collector Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In this story Jesus is passing through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, having avoided the town's desire to give him hospitality. A chief tax collector (ie. a wealthy Jewish colloborator with the Romans) runs ahead of Jesus and climbs into a tree to see him. Jesus, seeing Zaccheus, tells him that he will stay at his house. The crowd, up until now in love with the new celebrity preacher, becomes incensed. They would have expected Jesus to upbraid Zaccheus for being of the "1%" and lecture him on how he should quit cooperating with Rome and make restitution to his own people, afflicted with poverty and crushed beneathe the heel of the Romans. But he doesn't do that- instead, recognizing the potential good in Zaccheus, he appeals to that, showing the man honour and going into his house. Zaccheus, moved, in fact does pledge to make restitution to his impoverished people, and of his own free will.

As the great African-American mystic Howard Thurman, colleague of Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in Jesus and The Disinherited, it is surely a very important fact that when God's messenger arrived he was born as a dirt poor member of an oppressed minority living under colonial domination. As such Jesus made three important choices: 1) between resistance and accomodation he chose resistance; 2) between violence and non-violence he chose non-violence; and 3) rather than hating his enemy and cataloguing their wrongs he preached, "Love your enemy" and catologued his own people's wrongs.

This takes courage. When the Roman government is taxing you to death, outlawing your religious freedoms, killing your leaders as political dissidents, and who knows what else, it takes an amazing hutzpah to wander the villages pointing out to your fellow Jews what they need to do to set their own spiritual and moral integrity in order.

What most interests me about Jesus and Gandhi's approach is the way it undercuts the us versus them approach on two counts: 1) it disembowels the two-headed beast of self- glorification and demonisation of others, with all the blindness it brings in its wake; and 2) makes room for dialogue through appealing to common humanity.

It is so nice to feel one is on the side of angels. Canadian and not American where I come from. A worker and not a boss. With the Palestinians and against the Israelis. A treehugger, not a resource manager. An atheist and not a religious nut. Or vice versa. But people, and life, are endlessly more complicated. Only with a careful, loving understanding can we come to anything like the truth of our common humanity, common needs, common guilt.

And why do we need the truth? An old Jewish saying points out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת) when written in in Hebrew, uses three letters that all have two legs. Falsehood, by contrast (שקר) is written with three letters that each have one leg or sit on a curve. The lesson? Falsehood is a bad foundation; only truth lasts.

Matthew Gindin April 2013


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Articles On Elephant Journal

I've recently published a few articles on Elephant Journal, a grassroots Yoga webzine. The first covered the question, "When Does Yoga Stop Being Yoga?" The second discusses actionless action and violence in the Bhagavad Gita, and the third Ayurvedic Healing and romantic relationships.

The fourth and most recent article advocates keeping Kirtan, a communal devotional practice in Hinduism and Sikhism, on a donation basis, or on other words, free to attend. This last article, called "Paying to Pray" has provoked surprising amounts of hostility, as well as some interesting debate and some happy agreement.

All four can be found here:

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pole Dancing Yoginis Raise Questions

New piece published on Elephant Journal:

Monday, August 6, 2012

Shila, Samadhi and Prajnya

I recently read about this psychological experiment in Alison Gopnick's excellent book "The Philosophical Baby". In this attention experiment a number of people are told to watch a video of several people throwing a ball back and forth and count the number of times the ball goes from hand to hand. This takes some effort since the people are all weaving around, and as Gopnick says, it is similar to trying to track the movement of the pea in a shell game. At the end of the exercise the viewers are asked if anything strange occured on the field, and they answer no. The video is then played back and they are told, this time, not to count the ball throws. To their amazement they now realize that someone in a gorilla suit walks slowly right through the middle of the field.

The lesson? When we focus our attention on one set of facts we can overlook something very significant happening right before our eyes. This is the case with many of the truths pointed out by the great Yogic religious movements like Vedanta and Buddhism. The truths these religions point to- truths like interbeing, emptiness, impermanence, not-self, the unborn and undying nature of awareness or the featureless plenitude of Being that all phenomena arise from, are right in front of our eyes. We do not notice them because we are too focused on counting ball throws. Sometimes when trying to explain one of these truths to someone I will get the feeling that they think I am playing a mind game or trying to pull a fast one on them. It's kind of like I'm saying, "You didn't see a gorilla just walk through here but one did and you didn't notice." The person will not be impressed until they themselves have seen the gorilla. Nevermind another person, often my own mind reacts that way. "What do you mean I should attend to emptiness or impermanance, can't you see I'm counting ball throws here? Counting ball throws is very important."

That is why both Vedanta and Buddhism have advocated monasticism, of course. It is not out of a morbid fear of sensuality or an obsession with purity, seclusion, or quietness, nor a hatred of women. Normal life consists of an endless sequence of activities which require you to focus on the ball throws. And this counting of ball throws is not a neutral experiment or afternoon's diversion. We feel that everything depends on our counting, and we are driven to track the movements of the ball by fear, greed, ambition, love, envy, anxiety, and anger. But according to the Buddha or Shankara, everything depends on you seeing the gorilla walk by. Once you see it then you will realize that things are not what they seem. Small details of life which seemed peripheral were actually, all the time, containing the secrets of freedom.

The Buddha taught that there are two levels of seclusion: kayaviveka and cittaviveka. Kayaviveka consists in physically withdrawing from involvement in the world, as in monasticism, sesshin, or a retreat. Cittaviveka consists in withdrawing the mind from such involvement. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta is it described as meditating "having put aside greed and distress with regards to the world".

This activity of putting aside greed and distress is shamatha, calming meditation, known in the Chinese cultural sphere as "stopping" (the "zhi" in zhiguan). This is the stopping which precedes "seeing", and is an essential part of our practice. Before we can see the gorilla of impermanence or selflessness we must stop counting the ball throws.

Although in Zazen practice we do not intentionally cultivate "stopping" we are in fact stoppping when we sit down, assume our posture, and begin letting go of "gaining mind".

In Zazen we do not aim at seeing anything in particular, we simply withdraw from counting the ball throws and cultivate a mind which sees everything. Even should we see a man in a gorilla suit we do not exclaim "a-ha!" but rather are simply aware of the gorilla and keep on watching. The reason for this is that Zazen attempts to sit directly on the feild beyond balls and gorillas, beyond anything in particular. The reason for seeing the gorilla of impermanence is to free our mind from attachment; this is the same reason we want to see not-self or interbeing. Perhaps we should add to this, as Mahayana practitioners, that we also wish to cultivate compassion.

In any case, Zazen, being self-confessedly an embodiment of the teaching which does not rely on teachings (or methods) but points directly to the heart and wakes Buddha, starts by immediately dropping into the non-attachment that is supposed to be the result of the insights that other schools of Buddhism cultivate methodically and gradually.

Reflecting on this I think it is important to realize that although in a sense Zazen is the simplest of all practices, it is also a very advanced one. Truth be told most of us are not ready for it. In my Sangha the teacher, Eihei Peter Levitt, does not in fact teach Shikantaza to beginners, but teaches a kind of shikantaza flavored Anapanasmrti, Mindfulness of Breathing. I think this is pretty common in Zen circles, and was also done by Shunryu Suzuki. This is, of course, a stopping technique.

In my own practice I have found again and again that just sitting Zazen is not enough. I must also cultivate both stopping and seeing, Shen-hui be damned. As well as mindfulness of breathing, mantra, qigong, I must use kayagatasati- mindfulness of the body and its movements throughout the day, mindfulness of eating and drinking, of walking and laying down. I also need to pay attention to and think about my experiences in the light of the Buddha's teachings. I need to attend to dependent origination, to karma and its results, to interbeing, not-self, impermanence, and emptiness.


I need to because withdrawing my attention from my obsessions and their objects, calming my mind and body, and seeing into those obvious aspects of reality that I relentlesly overlook, reduces my siffering and that of those around me. They are Bodhisattva activities, and they actualize the Buddha's compassionate project here and now.

I have to confess that I occasionally find uncompromisingly suddenist teachings like that of the Linji Lu tiresome, no matter how brilliant or intense a manifestation of awakened insight. The reason is that if I cannot be less iriitable with my wife, if I do not view the people around me with the eyes of compassion; if I do not follow the precepts and consume and act mindfully; then of what concrete, visible here and now (ehipassiko) use is the Buddhadharma?

I have met too many non-dualists who let their bodyminds roll on unconfronted, focused on recognizing the immanent presence of the absolute, on being one with their activities, or on developing the mind beyond right and wrong. These seem to me to be legitimate points in our practice, but where is the caring heart of the Bodhisattva? Where are Dogen Zenji's "three minds" of kindness, parental love, and expansiveness? Where is it for real, here and now, visible to all, rolling the wheel of the Dharma? Where is the cool breeze for the sentient beings sweating in the burning house of samsara?

In making the above argument I realize I am also arguing for the importance of the third factor in the traditional Buddhist triad that includes Stopping and Seeing. In the traditional teaching stopping equates to samadhi, seeing equates to prajnya, and the third factor is shila, or good conduct. The Buddha argued that without good conduct the mind would be too much of a mess to be able to stop, and he also argued that good conduct benefitted other beings, increasing both their long term happiness and wellbeing and our own. He also said it was the greatest of worldy gifts: that of abhayadana, the gift of having nothing to fear from you.

All around us people crave for examples of integrity, of non-hypocricy, or some degree of purity and what one might call "rectitude". I am not suggesting that we abandon cultivating the mind beyond gain, or lose our flexibility and non-dogmatism. The Diamond Sutra should always be in the back of our minds. I am suggesting though that we need to take a hard look at whether we are walking our talk as practitioners of Mahayana Dharma in every detail of our daily lives. The fact that we will constantly fail to a greater or lesser degree is not the issue. As Dogen Zenji famously said. "Practice is one continuous mistake." To whatever degree we succeed we will have reduced our own suffering and the suffering of beings everywhere, and we will have repaid our debt to the Buddha by embodying his teaching in the world.