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The Love Songs of J. Brown Yogi

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.


J. Brown makes transparency in the yoga biz bittersweet. He consistently points to the sorrow in the shadow of yoga marketing: perpetual change, impossible economics, anxious upselling, getting older, seeing through the dross, living with pain.

This gem of a post expresses the paradox that many full-time yoga teachers share with clerics: they can find themselves committed to leading a ritual that is neither as personally valuable nor as physically accessible as it once was. As always, he finds the sticky ethics in the economics: “There is an inherent conflict of interest between the financial need for increased attendance and an organic ebb and flow of practice and teacher/student interaction.”

But is my friend overly melancholic? Is yoga really of “marginal” utility? Or is it simply time-limited in a way that the perpetual growth-fetish of capitalism cannot tolerate?

I’ve wondered for years whether asana is something realistic seekers can pursue with intense enthusiasm for any longer than they would spend on a graduate degree. Theoretically, postures and breath refinement never end. But the natural limits of tissues and time eventually intersect with a flattening of that learning curve that was so exciting in the honeymoon period. For the shrewd, the question becomes: what does the high-intensity learning stage of asana allow us to go on to learn? What does leaving it in bits and pieces teach us about dying?

In the hundreds of interviews I’ve conducted, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about a five-year plateau. When they hit it, the rebellious find something else to learn. But some devotees blame themselves for their waning ardour, and double down on the ritual. This five-year thing happens to coincide with an offhand comment Christopher Wallis made over lunch one day: that from a Tantrik perspective, there are a lot of physical practices that are age-appropriate and eased away from within a few years.

“Those of us who wish to carry the torch”, writes J.,  about what lies beyond those few years, “are going to have to forge new models that might retain yoga’s mystical wonder, without the delusion that practice is infallible.”

Perhaps they’ll find inspiration in an old model called the ashramas: the stages of brahmacharya (student), grihastha (householding), vanaprastha (retirement/mentorship), and sannyasa (renunciation). Does intense, exploratory asana fall mostly within the purview of the studentship phase of life? It did for most of Krishnamacharya’s Mysore students. We should remember that Iyengar and Jois were the odd men out for carrying what they learned beyond their twenties. Krishnamacharya’s later work in Chennai was all about adaptation to circumstance, which is why it struggles to be marketable. Capitalism doesn’t adapt to life; it forces life to adapt to it. And it thrives to the extent that it denies death.

What happens when the early asana juice dries up, as it does for everyone who isn’t juicing in some way? Welcoming children, opening a business, or settling on a profession obviously forces asana practice to reorganize. Totally natural for the householding (aka shitstorm) stage. Did we think we’d be sun saluting through retirement and renunciation phases?

J.’s post is embedded in the web of gritty calculus he’s working through as a studio owner in the age of runaway gentrification and the overheads and community breakdown that come with it. So he’s not just talking about the aging bodies of yoga teachers having to embody youth. He’s also troubling the socio-spatial question of what a studio can be.

In a Vastu immersion years ago, I remember Hart deFouw talking about Vedic house floorplans, idealized to embody the ashramas. The dreamt-of house abuts the street with a storefront where the family’s wares or scholarship is on offer. (Seems like an upper-caste vision, but whatever.) Behind it are the family’s living quarters and kitchen. But behind that are the chambers of the grandparents, who would venture out even further into the back garden whenever their children weren’t pestering them for worldly advice. Eventually, they leave the house altogether and wander the earth like Mark Whitwell.

What if the modern studio echoed this floorplan? J.’s Abhyasa Yoga in Williamsburg could have a general asana room to serve the five-year plan, and then a tea room behind that, and a meditation room behind that. Of course, as you “progressed” (aka “got older”) you’d get more and more chill about coming, and J. would feel more and more embarrassed about taking your money when you did.

But could it be organized so that the asana room pays for the other rooms in the same way that younger workers pay into Social Security? Somebody run the numbers! But we’d have to gauge the energy transfer as well: younger/abled bodies doing the sweaty work in trade for less measurable forms of labour.

If we think about it as an ecosystem, it mightn’t be so much about individuals coming into and out of the brawny years of practice, leaving studio owners and teachers trying to keep up with teachers half their age, condemned to moon around like Prufrock. It might feel more like the intergenerational family of Vedic culture (minus patriarchy, heteronormativity, classism, famine, and epidemics): everyone doing different types of work to keep the house both industrious and restful, extroverted and introverted, brimming with equal amounts of new life and fading light.






“But He’s Not Erect”: Rationalizing Videos and Lies

This post might mark a shift of this blog into firmly opinion-column/commentary territory, as a lot of what I’m working on now beyond book projects is mostly higher-stakes investigative journalism, and when I publish on a corporation like Jivamukti, for example, it needs to be on a U.S. site with a U.S. server, because libel laws in Canada are pretty stiff. Here I can be sued on the premise that I’ve harmed a company’s reputation, even if the reporting is accurate. Because the major paying publications in the U.S. yoga world have turned down these articles and I have no independent liability insurance I’m grateful to Be Scofield at Decolonizing Yoga for taking them on.

I’ve published four articles on the now-settled sexual harassment case against the Jivamukti Yoga School. One about what the plaintiff actually had to say after the school essentially called her a liar, one on how JYS and other yoga groups use silencing tactics when complaints emerge (including the failure of the Ashtanga world to address the open secret of their guru’s sexual harassment), one on how the case has provoked a powerful discussion about the need for trauma-sensitivity training in yoga culture generally, and a fourth on how JYS and Michael Roach, the charismatic and controversial American Buddhist leader, exchanged both form and content from 2003 to 2012.

This post is about a side-issue that’s emerged in the online dialogue surrounding these articles.

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How I Teach Yoga Philosophy

Well first of all, as with Ayurveda, I don’t really teach. How could I? What – do I know something? Not really. Even less as I get older. But I have gathered a ragged bouquet of question techniques that range from musings to proddings to provocation. Gentleness is key, because the discussion has to explore and penetrate belief, which is sometimes all a person thinks they have in defense against despair. Musings are good icebreakers for where we are frozen; provocations require familiarity and trust.

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His body is a golden string your body’s hanging from: Leonard Cohen and the disgraced guru

an excerpt from Cohen Koan, first published on yogaforsmartpeople in May of 2013 — thank you Tracey.


I believe that you heard your master sing while I lay sick in bed. In the late 90s I opened a magazine and saw a picture of Leonard Cohen sitting beside his teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, both of them zen blank-and-stern in brown-black robes, bone-white rings at their left breasts. In recent years I had lost track of his biography, and had no idea that I was mirroring it, thirty-five years his junior. I cut the picture out and put it on my altar next to a picture of myself with my very own crazy Buddhist teacher – Geshe Michael Roach. Cohen’s zen uniform had a kind of continuity with his grey-blue suits, and perhaps the gabardine his father had worn in the Canadian Army, or the racks of suits Cohen would have seen hanging in his father’s haberdashery. Renunciation and militarism for him have always seemed cut from the same cloth, en vogue.

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śruti and smṛti: intertextu-orality, phenomenology, and the so-ham behind the swan

(This post is a draft of a section from the introduction to a work-in-progress called Yoga Philosophy Digest: three core texts for students, in which I’ll be trying to present the most helpful reading and contemplative strategies for students who wish to navigate theBhagavad Gītā, the Yoga Sūtra-s, and the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. Any and all feedback is appreciated.)

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The Guru as Artist

My first writing mentor, Luciano, quoted Yeats to me one day. I think I was seventeen.

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Negotiating the anxiety of influence (threads of yoga ephemera)

An excluded section from threads of yoga.

There is a Oedipal subplot to this book that I would like to make transparent. It’s been fuelled by a subconscious drive: by definition, I won’t be able to tell the whole story. But I think I have some idea of how I’ve loved and hated Patañjali, how I’ve wanted to steal his fire, strip his book down for parts and bury him – but then, still dream of him in my bones. I’m at least partially aware of how this desire is but one shade of my general feeling within the grip of history and language.

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A few pages from an abandoned novel, circa 2003

Sunday morning, this beautiful empty winter in Wisonsin Dells. Neon vacancy signs in front of a hundred 50s motels go pastel in the crystalline sun. A few old pickups outnumbered by leased minivans prowl the parkway towards church or a sleepy buffet of powdered eggs and maple-flavored corn syrup. Matchbox-flimsy roller coasters cut cubist arcs against the frigid blue, icicles glinting from the cross-ties. The outdoor water parks are barren but for their enormous cartoon sculptures grinning down at summer’s absent children, and across drained blue pools like bedpans of molded plastic, kidney or pear-shaped, the twigs and leaves and beer cans gathered around the drains in frozen halos of inconsequence. Transports hum on the interstate behind the Wal-mart and Home Depot at the town limits. There is everything to buy, but spending begins again in spring, in preparation for Memorial Day, which should be called something else.

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Mic Check: how the Occupy movement is creating empathy through communication

Of the countless intersubjective graces unfolding in Zuccotti Park and around the Occupy world, the “human microphone” is recapturing something as old as human learning. This is something sacred: a repurposing of voice, ear, and content that may serve no less than the re-membering of a more coherent human consciousness.

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notes on bhakti: up the down staircase

The power of the ‘divine’/’human’ dream is that each perspective beckons the other. The micro is not broad enough, and the macro is too distant. The mind seeks pleasure in the transitional zone between the two, its pleasure deepening as its focus widens or narrows in a surge of learning. Becoming god is ecstatic, being god is not. Becoming man is entastic, being man is not. It is not enough to see that the categories of human and divine are dependent and intrinsic. The categories seduce only where they meet. The child does not play on the slide by resting at either the top or the bottom.

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