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Baba Ramdev is wrong: Kapalbahti & Pranayama won’t bring more Oxygen to the Body

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One of the enduring myths in yoga circles is the notion that the proper execution of breathing techniques (Kapalbahti and other forms of Pranayama), can flood the body and brain with revitalizing amounts of oxygen. As an example, Indian TV Guru Baba Ramdev recently made such a claim in a BBC program (jump to minute 2:20 below):

To understand why such claims are misplaced1, consider the following summary from William Broad:

… The atmosphere of our planet is 21% oxygen, That’s a lot. In comparison, the levels of carbon dioxide are 500 times smaller. The human body exploits this ocean by means of hemoglobin — the remarkable protein inside our red blood cells that soaks up oxygen like a sponge and carries it from the lungs to the tissues. Typically, the refreshed hemoglobin of a resting person is nearly saturated with oxygen, holding virtually as much as it possibly can. The usual figure for the level of absorption is 97%.

For yoga the glut of oxygen in the air and the saturation of hemoglobin in the lungs mean that fast or slow breathing does little to change the levels that enter the bloodstream — as Gune found at his ashram and as I found in the University of Wisconsin. The vital gas is available in large quantities no matter what.

The body’s consumption of oxygen does go up and down. But science demonstrates that it does so in response to changes in muscle activity, metabolism, and heart rate — not breathing styles. As we saw in the last chapter, cardiovascular fitness can raise peak oxygen consumption2.

(1) When the lungs are diseased or impaired, “slow breathing may aid oxygenation”. See here.

(2) A 2010 paper (The health benefits of yoga and exercise: a review of comparison studies, pdf version here), found that “… yoga interventions appeared to be equal or superior to exercise in nearly every outcome measured except those involving physical fitness. The studies comparing the effects of yoga and exercise seem to indicate that, in both healthy and
diseased populations, yoga may be as effective as or better than exercise at improving a variety of health-related
outcome measures.”


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February 18, 2012 at 11:32 pm

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Anusara 5 Years from Now

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I’ve been following Anusaragate mainly through Carol Horton’s twitter feed and blog posts. As Carol points out quite a few other Yoga gurus have succumbed to similar allegations1.

This seems to be a recurring theme in modern Yoga, the hierarchical structure of many schools results in a single point of failure. Instead of encouraging students to study books and papers written by credible scholars (historians, anthropologists, and scientists), most teacher training programs rely on shoddy information2. I always tell my yogi friends that one can appreciate solid interdisciplinary scholarship and research, AND still love/enjoy yoga. Diversify your information sources. Yoga doesn’t need to be defined only through the lens of your teachers and your teachers’ traditions.

Which brings me back to Anusaragate. Anusara is about to open a new complex in Encinitas, and I don’t think John Friend is going to walk away3 from that. Relative to other senior teachers, JF knows and understands the business side of yoga. He definitely realizes that the Anusara brand has taken a major hit. OTOH, he has been around long enough to know that there are ways of recovering from a crisis like this. Heck, Swamis Rama, Muktananda, Satchidandanda dealt with sexual misconduct lawsuits and survived.

Anusara will recover, just as Kripalu did in the late 1990’s. In fact Kripalu is bigger than ever! Anusara was one of the fastest-growing schools before this scandal, so there is clearly something about it that students love. If Kripalu can recover, there’s no reason to believe that Anusara won’t be bigger in 5 years.

For now though it’s all about brand crisis management. To avoid permanent brand damage JF is moving to cede sole control to a committee of peers. I for one wouldn’t be surprised if Anusara emerges with a governance structure that becomes the model for other yoga schools. (They need a radical overhaul to allay concerns moving forward.) That would be quite a comeback from where we are as of today. Anusara’s governance will still be hierarchical in structure, but not as bad as other yoga schools4.

(1) About a year ago, I perused the early editions of the Yoga Journal and found that many of the teachers/gurus they featured ended up being accused of sexual misconduct. So this is something old-time practitioners can’t blame on over-commercialization.

(2) I’m reading William Broad’s book and I keep coming across hilarious examples of famous yoga teachers peddling blatantly wrong information. In particular, he cites many examples of factually incorrect articles published by the Yoga Journal.

(3) Unless he starts getting sued right and left, in which case Anusara is hosed.

(4) While they’re at it, they’ll probably need to revisit the “tantric lineage” stuff JF has been peddling.

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February 16, 2012 at 12:10 am

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  • Cognitive Bias Modification (therapist-free therapy):

    … A typical course of a modern talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, consists of 12-16 hour-long sessions and is a reasonably efficient way of treating conditions like depression and anxiety (hysteria is no longer a recognised diagnosis). Medication, too, can bring rapid change. Nevertheless, treating disorders of the psyche is still a hit-and-miss affair, and not everyone wishes to bare his soul or take mind-altering drugs to deal with his problems. A new kind of treatment may, though, mean he does not have to. Cognitive-bias modification (CBM) appears to be effective after only a few 15-minute sessions, and involves neither drugs nor the discussion of feelings. It does not even need a therapist. All it requires is sitting in front of a computer and using a program that subtly alters harmful thought patterns.

    … Similar biases may affect memory and the interpretation of events. For example, if an acquaintance walks past without saying hello, it might mean either that he has ignored you or that he has not seen you. The anxious, according to the theory behind CBM, have a bias towards assuming the former and reacting accordingly.

    The goal of CBM is to alter such biases, and doing so has proved surprisingly easy. A common way of debiasing attention is to show someone two words or pictures—one neutral and the other threatening—on a computer screen. In the case of social anxiety these might be a neutral face and a disgusted face. Presented with this choice, an anxious person instinctively focuses on the disgusted visage. The program, however, prods him to complete tasks involving the neutral picture, such as identifying letters that appear in its place on the screen. Repeating the procedure around a thousand times, over a total of two hours, changes the user’s tendency to focus on the anxious face. That change is then carried into the wider world.

  • A Joyful Noise with Krishna Das:

    Adams: How would you describe kirtan to someone new to the practice?

    Krishna Das: It depends who I’m talking to, because I don’t want to scare people away. If I say it’s “meditation with music,” some will be put off by that. In India they call it the “repetition of the sacred names of God,” but I don’t want to say that to someone who doesn’t believe in God. I don’t even know if I believe in God — not the one described in Western religious traditions anyway. In India people understand that God is within. There are Hindu images associated with God — deities like Krishna, Hanuman, and Kali — but when it comes down to it, these deities are symbols of the divine that lives inside each one of us. Indians are more creative about worship, whereas Christians are generally very tense: there’s only one right way to do it and only one God to worship. Of course, there is only one God in the Indian traditions, too, just many forms to symbolize it. It’s ok to worship anything in any way in India, because there it’s understood that nothing is outside of us. There’s only one God, and we’re all it.

    … I’ve been to yoga-teacher trainings and heard people say, “If you don’t understand the deities, you’ll never be a good yoga teacher.” Bullshit. We’re Americans. We didn’t grow up with this. It’s not native to us. I’ve spent a fair portion of my life in India and still don’t have a clue. It doesn’t mean that much to me. There it is: I told the truth.

    All these so-called deities exist inside of us, but we don’t understand that. We don’t know who we are, so we can’t know who they are. Find out who you are, and you’ll know everything you need to know.

    When I lived in India, I went to all the temples and holy places, and I read the history and the stories, but these days I don’t really think about all that, because to me the names simply represent the love inside of me, inside of you. Whether we’re chanting about Kali or Durga is irrelevant.

    … The first place I chanted was Jivamukti Yoga School in New York. I called them up, and they said, “Sure, you can come down on Monday.” They had a program for yoga-teacher trainees, and I sang for about twenty minutes before it began. I started doing this every Monday. That went on for a month or two, and then I showed up on a Monday night as usual, and the teachers weren’t there. I was told they had gone to India and wouldn’t return for months. So I sat down and sang for two or three hours. I did it again the next week, and the next, and more and more people came. Monday night became my night.

  • The power of vulnerability: Social work academic Brene Brown studies “… our ability to empathize, belong, love.”

  • Sex and the Spiritual Teacher:
  • … The problem of spiritual teachers seducing or sexually abusing their students tarnishes every spiritual tradition, in seemingly every culture—and recorded cases go back many hundreds of years. These misdeeds damage the lives of women and men, children and adults, the rich and the poor, the foolish and the wise, the gullible and the discerning.

    A list of spiritual teachers who have committed sexual transgressions during the past few decades reads almost like a Who’s Who of modern spiritual figures, and includes priests, ministers, rabbis, gurus, yogis, roshis, senseis, swamis, lamas, maggids, and imams. Sometimes their misconduct involves other transgressions as well (misappropriation of money, physical or emotional abuse, attempted brainwashing, etc.). This widespread misconduct has created scandal after scandal for these teachers, and much suffering for their students and spiritual communities.

    With very few exceptions, each of these teachers is or was male; each offered something genuinely worthwhile to their students; each knew that sex with their students could have potentially damaging consequences for those students; and each—including those teachers raised in other cultures—understood that the prevailing social norms prohibited such sexual relationships. Many of these teachers were married, and thus had vows of fidelity to uphold, as well as (presumably) willing sexual partners. Some had taken vows of celibacy. So why did they act against the best interests of their students, their own spiritual communities, and, ultimately, themselves?

Written by virtualsatsang

March 14, 2011 at 7:55 am

Posted in Art, Health, Malas

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  • Margaret Atwood on the Publishing Pie: The ideas in this talk applies to all creative types, not just writers. For that matter, yoga and meditation teachers who struggle to make a living have a lot in common with writers and artists:

  • Cartwheels In A Sari: Born into the organization of Guru Sri Chinmoy, author Jayanti Tamm provides an insider’s view into Chinmoy’s organization. As for Chinmoy himself, he “… comes off as a spiritual huckster both ridiculous and oppressive.”
  • Yoga Teacher on a Pedestal: Not that we’re returning to the days when spiritual gurus were fashionable, but as Carol Horton points out, it’s easy to see how Yoga students end up idolizing certain teachers.

    … A yoga instructor stands in a different cultural space than an aerobics teacher or sports coach. Even if students are only interested in “fitness yoga,” most recognize that for others, yoga can involve not only the body, but also the mind and perhaps even spirit as well. Even if it’s not necessarily taken seriously, the fact that yoga is a “body-mind-spirit” practice is a well-known part of its “branding” and appeal.

    Conversely, yoga instructors aren’t considered spiritual teachers along the lines of priests, rabbis, lamas, or monks. Yoga, of course, is not a religion, so that’s appropriate. But it’s also true that yoga teachers are trained in so many different ways, and have so many different outlooks and commitments, that it’s impossible to assume anything about their orientation to spirituality – or any of the “big questions” – at all.

    While this is great in that it allows for openness, innovation, and authenticity, it’s also confusing.

    This is particularly true because yoga, by its very nature, offers people a path into deep psychological and emotional territory. Even if you start yoga simply because you want to exercise and/or de-stress, it’s very common that sooner or later, you’ll start to have much more intense emotional, psychological, and perhaps what you might call “spiritual” experiences anyway.

  • Yoga, meditation program helps city youths cope with stress:

    They found a 12-week yoga program targeting 97 fourth- and fifth-graders in two Baltimore elementary schools made a difference in students’ overall behavior and their ability to concentrate. They found students who did yoga were less likely to ruminate, the kind of brooding thoughts associated with depression and anxiety that can be a reaction to stress. The findings, which focused on a pilot program that took place in 2008, were published recently in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. One program is still active, and researchers are now applying for federal funding to expand the effort into schools across the city.

    … While many studies on yoga are limited, there is “intriguing evidence” that it can have a host of health benefits, she said.

    To test their theories, Hopkins researchers used a curriculum designed by the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore nonprofit founded in 2002 by brothers Ali and Atman Smith and their college buddy, Andy Gonzalez. Upon graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, “the traveling yogis” as they called themselves, returned to their poor West Baltimore neighborhood looking for a way to give back.

    … The traveling yogis combined various yoga disciplines, poses and breathing exercises to create their own blend of practice that emphasizes mindfulness, or awareness that emerges when one is present or “in the moment.”

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February 28, 2011 at 7:44 am

The Fall of the 1970’s Yoga Gurus

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I’m enjoying Stefanie Syman’s entertaining book chronicling the rise of Yoga in America, and one of the joys about it is the rich appendix, filled with references for further reading. One subject she discusses is the (sexual) scandals that engulfed the 1970’s and 80’s gurus, who at the time, were attracting legions of followers and donors. For convenience, I tracked down the articles she cites that are still available online:

  • O GURU, GURU, GURU: A 1994 New Yorker article about Swami Muktananda Paramahamsa and his organization Siddha Yoga Dham of America Foundation (SYDA).

    … One such person is Sally Kempton, a long-term American devotee of Gurumayi’s. In 1974, she left a promising career as a journalist to join the ashram. Kempton, the daughter of the Newsday columnist Murray Kempton, had a reputation as an acerbic essayist for such publications as Esquire and the Village Voice.

    … The New York article on Muktananda was one of Kempton’s last pieces as a popular-magazine writer. By the time it came out, she had joined Muktananda’s entourage; she has been a full-time member of his organization ever since, and in 1982 she became a swami and was given the spiritual name Durgananda. Her defection was a minor cause celebre in the small world of New York journalism. Ross Wetzsteon, a former editor of hers at the Voice, told me that he believes that her immersion in Siddha Yoga diminished her. “Sally was a wonderfully gifted writer, and when she got involved with that place she lost all her wit, all her irony, and all her perceptiveness,” he said. “It was as if her brain had gone completely soft. There was a vacancy. She seemed hollow. People use the word ‘brainwashed’-I know that doesn’t really apply, but it was as if her center had disappeared, not got stronger.”

    … SYDA’S first taste of scandal came when, shortly before his death, Swami Muktananda was accused of failing to live up to the principles of celibacy by which he set such store. The accusations saw print in a 1983 article by William Rodarmor, published in CoEvolution Quarterly (now the Whole Earth Review). Rodarmor’s article was based on twenty five interviews with members and former members of SYDA, and it detailed sexual activities Muktananda was alleged to have engaged in with female devotees, many of them fairly young. According to the article, members of Muktananda’s inner circle had overlooked his behavior, or tried to rationalize it, for years.

  • When Betsy Met Sally (Two ‘It Girls’ Face The Material World): Speaking of Sally Kempton, here is a 2002 NY Observer article that came out just when she re-entered civilian life. There were damaging quotes attributed to her in the New Yorker article from 1994, I was unable able to find follow-up articles articulating her side of the story. Perhaps she stills stands by the quotes from 1994?

    … Scores of active devotees eventually left SYDA after hearing about the allegations against Muktananda; some never resumed their practices. “My personal opinion is that it’s not OK, regardless of whether it’s a time-honored tradition,” I was told by a female ex-devotee who had spent much of an anguished year trying to find a satisfactory explanation of the whole business. “It was sex and it was abuse.” The same woman, who had been a member of SYDA’s inner circle, was informed that she was unwelcome at the ashram after she found that she couldn’t deal with Muktananda’s alleged sexual activities; she told Durgananda (a.ka. Sally Kempton) that she was leaving because of issues of personal integrity. “And what she said-I’ll never forget it-was ‘Well, you have the luxury of integrity. People who are committed don’t have that luxury.’ It just raised the hair on the back of my neck.” Durgananda says that she does not remember making this remark.

    … Durgananda told the therapists that she knew a number of the women quite well and was convinced that whatever had happened had been beneficial to them, but that the swamis had never talked about it, because they thought it would be more appropriate to be “discreet.” The therapists have now left SYDA. When I phoned Durgananda and told her what they had said to me, she said, “My memory is that I did deny it to them,” and she added that, whether the allegations were “true or not, it doesn’t really change our understanding of Baba.”

    [Update (2/9/2011): Sally Kempton talks about her introduction to Muktananda and her decision to disrobe. ]

  • Yogi Bhajan’s Synthetic Sikhism: A 1977 Time article about the controversial founder of 3HO (“Healthy-Happy-Holy Organization”).

    Bhajan has repeatedly been accused of being a womanizer. Colleen Hoskins, who worked seven months at his New Mexico residence, reports that men are scarcely seen there. He is served, she says, by a coterie of as many as 14 women, some of whom attend his baths, give him group massages, and take turns spending the night in his room while his wife sleeps elsewhere. Colleen and her husband Philip, Bhajan’s former chancellor, who quit last year, say they could no longer countenance Bhajan’s luxurious life-style when so many of his followers had to scrimp along.

  • Egg on my Beard: Ram Dass’ 1976 Yoga Journal article on his short-lived experience as a follower of (the still controversial) Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho (Brooklyn-born Joyce Green).
  • Brother-Sister Gurus Now Lead Yoga Movement: A 1983 LA Times article on Swami Muktananda’s immediate successors. Unfortunately I couldn’t track down a free copy of this article.

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November 3, 2010 at 7:56 am

Posted in Health, Yoga

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Bo Lozoff on the Spiritual Search and Interrupted Bliss

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From “We’re All Doing Time” (p. 29):

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the spiritual “search” that we lose sight of the fact that it’s an inner journey. Our greatest discoveries are gained simply by learning how to be still. That’s all meditation is when you get right down to it: Sitting perfectly still – Silence of body, silence of speech, and silence of mind. The Buddha calls this “The Noble Silence.” It’s just a matter of STOPPING.

Bo Lozoff is the co-founder (along with with Ram Dass) of the Prison Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation, non-profits that have active programs in many areas including prison reform, social justice, and clean energy. Far from being isolated and withdrawn from the world’s problems, Bo has has had a long-term commitment to social justice, particularly prison and criminal justice issues. Along with service, members of the Human Kindness Foundation are committed to living “… a simple lifestyle and a personal spiritual practice”.

In the videos below, Bo describes how his work with prisoners continues to shape his views on spirituality. An activist whose actions are grounded in a strong spiritual practice, the world could use more people like Bo.

[Update (10/29/2010): At a gathering tonight, a friend who has known Bo and his wife for many years mentioned that there have been disturbing allegations about Bo (abuse of power, inappropriate sexual behavior). My friend said that after a year away from his community, Bo is back in North Carolina and his wife continues to stand by him. Like other supporters, my friend still supports Bo’s work with prisoners, but is disturbed by the allegations. I for one get a bit wary of organizations when a hierarchy emerges and decisions are made by a guru. Groups should regularly revisit their organizational structure as a safeguard against the centralization of authority.]

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October 7, 2010 at 7:04 am