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The Bhagavad Gita

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Heart and Soul recently invited 3 scholars to talk about the Gita: Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad, Professor of Comparative Religion and Philosophy at Lancaster University; Julius Lipner, Professor of Hinduism and the Comparative Study of Religion and Fellow of Clare Hall at the University of Cambridge; and Jessica Frazier, Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Lecturer in Religious Studies at Regent’s College, London.

The result is a very accessible 30 minute discussion on a text beloved by seekers and Yogis throughout the world. Audio below:


Written by virtualsatsang

July 27, 2011 at 2:46 am

Posted in Faith, Yoga


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  • Yoga Tourism in India: I came across this unpublished manuscript by Kenneth Liberman, in an illuminating short paper on Ashtanga Yoga1. In a recent post, I used ideas from a separate paper of Liberman, to come up with a short checklist for finding yoga teachers & classes.

    American yoga aspirants remain very much inside their own cultural universe and have minimal contact with Indian society, except for the commodified yoga they desire and receive. They cannot read any signs in the regional language, leam little about the politics or culture (“We’re only here for a few months”), and keep their focus upon their own practice of asana. The most appalling part of it is that many of them suffer from a smugness that is derived from having completed such a fine, advanced practice of asana early in the morming, entitling them to spend the rest of the day in idleness while bearing a feeling of superiority toward most any other person they meet during the day.

    … Young people seeking fitness, older people wanting to regain youth, most of them self-absorbed with a focused effort to become or remain attractive, focus their energies intently upon what each of them term “my practice.” For one or two hours they direct their energies (and in many cases this energy is abundant and highly directed) upon themselves. Only themselves. Each breath is a celebration of one’s body electric. It may be beautiful, but the danger is that it easily reinforces egotism and self-centeredness at the very time that one’s practice of yoga should be eradicating the self, egoistically conceived. In all fairness, it may be said that a yoga practitioner will inevitably meet other practitioners who are more adept at asana or run up against the limits of his or her body. But a sense of inadequacy is not actually the opposite of egoism, since it is just another form of self-absorption. If Patanjali is to be believed, spiritual lessons are indeed to be gained from a correct practice of asana, but when the practice is distorted by what is already most abundant in the culture – vanity, pleasure-seeking, and self-absorption – is there a fair chance for its cultivation? The metaphor of the camel that is able to pass through the eye of the needle seems appropriate here.

  • The former warden of San Quentin as an anti death penalty advocate: In her new position heading Death Penalty Focus, Jeanne Woodford’s criminal justice gravitas and calm demeanor makes her an effective advocate for eliminating the death penalty.

  • Half of New Testament forged: CNN highlights the key findings from the new book by biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman:

    * At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

    * The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

    * Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

    NOTE: Evangelical scholar Ben Witherington refutes the key arguments in his short review of Ehrman’s book.

  • Overwhelmed caregivers should try meditation: Further confirmation of what Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been suggesting.

    … UCLA researchers Helen Lavretsky and Michael Irwin conducted an eight-week, randomized trial on the effects of meditation exercise on 49 people who were home-based caregivers of a loved one with dementia. About half of the caregivers listened to relaxation tapes for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, while the other caregivers practiced Kirtan Kirya yoga, a meditation exercise. The study’s authors then conducted tests on mental and cognitive health, did brain scans and measured telomere length. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that are protective of cellular health. Measuring telomere length can be used to determine how fast a person is aging.

    The study found strong evidence that a meditative yoga routine improves both mental and physical health. While caregivers in both groups experienced benefits, the caregivers practicing Kirtan Kirya yoga had more improvements in quality of life, cognition and memory. Those study participants reported better sleep and less anxiety and said they felt care-giving was less of a burden than before they participated in the study.

    Surprisingly, the telomere analysis showed meditative yoga also had an anti-aging effect.

  • (1) I highly recommend that paper: “With Heat Even Iron will Bend”: Discipline and Authority in Ashtanga Yoga by Benjamin Richard Smith, pages 140-160, in Yoga in the Modern World

    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am


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  • A Historian studies paranormal activity: Jeffrey Kripal tries to explain to Silicon Valley listeners that paranormal experiences are hard to formally study using the scientific method. I enjoyed Kripal’s previous book on Esalen and the human potential movement, and am generally sympathetic to the views he expresses in the interview below:

  • American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting: If you’re going to be somewhere near SF in mid November, AAR has a session titled “Yoga in Theory and Practice”. Suggested topics include David Gordon White’s forthcoming book (Yoga in Practice), as well as Mark Singleton’s recent book on postural yoga. The registration fee for non-members ranges from $325-$400, depending on when you register.
  • Faith, Education and Income, in the U.S.:

    In every case, the correlation between education and income is extremely strong. As I note in the magazine, the relationship goes both ways: more affluent people tend to produce more educated children, and more educated people tend to earn much more than less educated people. It’s one more reminder that the financial value of education has never been greater.


  • Greg Boyle on giving jobs to ex-gang members:

    I had the honor of witnessing Lorenzo’s seven-month journey from convict to accounting assistant, watching as he became the young man God had in mind when he made him. But despite his remarkable turnaround and the many things he had to offer an employer, Lorenzo’s prospects for finding a job outside our program were dim.

    Opportunities for second chances are few for people like Lorenzo. Homeboy Industries is about the only game in town. Most employers just aren’t willing to look beyond the dumbest or worst thing someone has done.

    Another “homie” recently came to me for help after, for the third time, he was let go from a job because his employer had discovered he’d done five years in prison. He told me the boss said, “You’re one of our best workers, but we have to let you go.” Then, with a desperate sadness, the young man added: “Damn, G. No one told me I’d be getting a life sentence of no work.”

    The business of second chances is everybody’s business. We lose our right to be surprised that California has the highest recidivism rate in the country if we refuse to hire folks who have taken responsibility for their crimes and have done their time.

    Even in this alarming economic climate, where the pool of prospective employees is larger than ever, we need to find the moral imperative as a society to secure places in our workforce for those who just need a chance to prove themselves. This can’t be the concern only of a large gang rehab center; it must also be part of our collective response to keep our streets safe and our communities healthy.

    As a society, we come up lacking in many of the marks of compassion and wisdom by which we measure ourselves as civilized.

    We are among the handful of countries that has difficulty distinguishing juveniles from adults where crime is concerned. We are convinced that if a child commits an adult crime, that kid is magically transformed into an adult. Consequently, we try juveniles as adults. We still execute people. And we belong to a small, exclusive club of countries that brands felons forever and denies them voting rights, access to employment and, sometimes, even housing.

    Delegations from all over the world visit Homeboy Industries and scratch their heads as we tell them of our difficulty in placing our people in jobs after their time with us. Americans’ seeming refusal to believe in a person’s ability to redeem himself strikes these folks as foreign indeed.

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    May 13, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Sufis and Yogis

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    I’m in the middle of reading William Dalrymple’s beautiful book on Spirituality in Modern India, viewed through the lives of amazing individuals he encountered through his years of travels in South Asia. In one chapter about Sufis in Sindh, he recounts the 18th century Sufi master Abdul Latif, a spiritual seeker at home in the company of people of other faiths. Sadly Latif’s modern-day Sufi descendants, are being hounded by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan.

    (Ratif) … set off wandering through Sind and Rajasthan in the company of Hindu sadhus and Nath Yogis, a sect of ash-smeared Shaivite mystics who invented hatha yoga in the twelfth century …

    (Ratif) … reflects on the three footloose years he spent wandering the deserts with these yogis, visiting both Hindu and Muslim pilgrimage sites. For Latif, there is no distinction between the different faiths: the divisions, as he sees them, are between the bigoted and orthodox, on one hand, and itinerant and free-thinking mystics on the other.

    From the Sur Ramkali chapter of Risalo, by Shah Abdul Latif:

    Yogis are many, but I love these wandering sadhus.
    Smeared with dust, they eat little,
    Never saving a grain in their begging bowls.
    No Food in their packs, they carry only hunger,
    No desire to eat have they,
    Thirst they pour and drink.

    These ascetics have conquered their desires.
    In their wildemess they found the destination
    For which they searched so long.
    On the path of truth, They found it lay within.

    Hearing the call,
    Before the birth of Islam
    They severed all ties,
    And became one with their guru, Gorakhnath

    Now, sitting by the side of the road, I look for them.
    Remembering these sargrasis, tears well up.
    They were so very kind to me.
    They radiated brightness.
    Yogis are many, but it is these wandering sadhus that I love
    Says Latif

    Written by virtualsatsang

    April 11, 2011 at 7:51 am

    Posted in Art, Faith, Yoga

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    Recent notable Women’s memoirs

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    Eat, Pray, Love gets most of the attention, but below are a few other recent memoirs that I enjoyed even more than Eat, Pray, Love. (A side note: I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent book, should have been the subject of a longish magazine article. A whole book on her vacillation about marriage got a bit long for me. I’ve also read Poser, and thought it was funny in parts, but I prefer the books listed below.)

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 16, 2011 at 7:56 am


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    • Women Conquering Holy Ground: BBC’s Heart and Soul profiles women from three major faith traditions who are venturing into traditionally male dominated roles — presiding over worship rituals.

    • Hula HoopGirl:

      Zamor is magnetic and incredibly talented, but what sets her apart from other Bay Area hoopers is her avid following, cultivated by Hooping! The Book!, an array of instructional DVDs and 72-hour teacher training program that has certified 570 instructors in 16 countries. Zamor is HoopGirl® — a persona that not only has allowed her to whittle her waist and tone her tummy but to explode into a fitness franchise.

      … “I wasn’t really looking for hooping,” she says. At 27, Zamor was a UC Santa Barbara PhD student struggling to find academic support for her interest in ethnomusicology and drumming. Frustrated, she dropped out from her program after receiving a master’s degree, traveled to Senegal to study djembe, returned to the States, enrolled in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s master’s program in mythology and depth psychology, and began working as a personal assistant. Amid the confusion, she says she didn’t have the power to envision a life outside her studies. “I wanted to be a healer but didn’t know it,” she says.

      … Next up, Zamor will be working on bringing that whole-body healing to women who may not be willing to step inside the hoop. She has expanded her business to include empowerment classes that honor the “divine, delicious feminine” and that will help women become a more supple, radiant, and luminous version of themselves, she says.

      These classes in “hooping outside the hoop” are geared toward helping others uncover the empowerment and sense of self-worth that Zamor has found through HoopGirl. Of course, unless Zamor is planning on turning out hundreds of successful fitness revolutionaries with profitable book deals of their own, it’s hard to say whether her personal transformation will be replicable. But with one irresistible smile from Zamor, it’s easy to see that the hoop has worked for her — and difficult to resist the urge to run out and buy one for oneself.

    • DIY Criminal Appeals Law: Sadly, this tragic story of an innocent man sent to prison for 21 years, is far from rare. (See for example this documentary on the Daryl Hunt case.) When overworked investigators and prosecutors rush to judgement, their mistakes end up sending innocent people to prison. Based on the many examples of botched investigations that have surfaced in recent years, there are probably many innocent people in death row. The self-taught investigator Carl King profiled in the story, personifies seva!!


      … is a large-scale participatory art project that transforms messages of personal identity into pieces of artistic work. Everyone is challenged to use black and white photographic portraits to discover, reveal and share the untold stories and images of people around the world. These digitally uploaded images will be made into posters and sent back to the project’s co-creators for them to exhibit in their own communities. People can participate as an individual or in a group; posters can be placed anywhere, from a solitary image in an office window to a wall of portraits on an abandoned building or a full stadium. These exhibitions will be documented, archived and viewable virtually.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 7, 2011 at 8:11 am


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    • Journey Into Buddhism Trilogy (the Yatra Trilogy): Just stumbled upon these gorgeous (travel) documentaries from writer/director John Bush. The cinematography is mesmerizing, and you’ll learn about Buddhism as practiced across several Asian countries. Highly recommended!
    • The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview:

      Having lived in Cambodia and China, and traveled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to fac­tor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

      Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality. Their suggestion that science does these jobs better is pretty convincing. As Harris puts it, “I am argu­ing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” I agree with Harris here and even spilled significant ink myself, back in 2001, to show that Stephen Jay Gould’s popular science/religion diplomacy of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (what many call the fact/value distinction) is incoherent. The horse­men’s mistake is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, eth­ics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is cer­tainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practi­tioners would even notice.

      Buddhism, for example, is about finding a form of psy­chological happiness that goes beyond the usual pursuit of fleeting pleasures. With introspection and discipline, Buddhism and other contemplative tradi­tions attempt to find a state of well-being that is outside the usual game of desire fulfillment. Bud­dhism aligns metaphysically with the new atheism and psychologically with the humanistic tradi­tions. Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite be long with the oth­er religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

      … Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of na­ture. Its chief virtue is as a “coping mechanism” for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.

    • A Workout Ate My Marriage: There have to yogis and yoginis in a similar boat as the couples described in this WSJ article.

      With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. “Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist. Newlyweds have long recognized the risks of potential sickness, infidelity and ill fortune. But few foresee themselves becoming an exercise widow. After all, the idea that one’s beloved will take the occasional jog sounds appealing—until two miles a day becomes 10 miles, not counting the 20-mile runs on weekends.

    • What is spiritual materialism?: This old lecture, reminded me a of a recent Dharma talk (by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron), which I highlighted earlier.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    February 7, 2011 at 7:20 am