B. K. S. Iyengar, who helped introduce the practice of yoga to a Western world awakening to the notion of an inner life, died on Wednesday in the southern Indian city of Pune. He was 95.
The cause was heart failure, said Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar, his granddaughter.
After surviving tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria as a child, Mr. Iyengar credited yoga with saving his life. He spent his midteens demonstrating “the most impressive and bewildering” positions in the court of the Maharaja of Mysore, he later recalled.
Scott Carney wrote a long piece for Details about “India Syndrome” — one of may place specific menal disorders (see Wired’s coverage of Jerusalem Syndrome, which mentions that the majority of people dealing with these syndromes have pre-existing psychiatric issues).
But particularly interesting is a bit about the potential negative sides of meditation (something that we’ve discussed herebefore):
Less discussed are the disorienting and damaging side effects of meditation. Neophytes have reported seeing walls move or rooms change color. The introspective state that is one of the goals of meditation can induce feelings of paranoia and terror. According to Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University who studies the effects of meditation on the brain, practitioners can perceive small sounds as cacophonies and lose the sense that they are in control of their own actions. Britton has claimed that this experience, which some refer to as the “dark night,” has caused numerous people to wind up on psych wards under suicide watch. Guided visualizations… are “designed to completely psychologically rearrange you,” says Paul Hackett, a lecturer in classical Tibetan at Columbia University. In a foreign setting, that kind of experience can be even more traumatizing, especially when you take into account the way some Westerners in India tend to snack at the country’s spiritual smorgasbord—a little Ashtanga yoga here, some Vipassana meditation there. “People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos,” Hackett says. “It is no surprise that people go insane.”
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain. They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.
B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965, exemplified the change. His book made no mention of Hatha’s Tantric roots and praised the discipline as a panacea that could cure nearly 100 ailments and diseases. And so modern practitioners have embraced a whitewashed simulacrum of Hatha.
Broad goes on to discuss some of the studies linking yoga to sexual stimulation and speculates about how that could relate to some of the various guru sex scandals that have plagued yogis for decades.
Broad also recently wrote for the times How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, an extremely interesting piece that’s made frustrating by its lack of comparisons between the number of injuries in yoga and the number of injuries in other types of strength training. But here’s a taste:
Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.
Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Rationalising India has never been easy. Given the country’s vast population, its pervasive poverty and its dizzying array of ethnic groups, languages and religions, many deem it impossible.
Nevertheless, Mr Edamaruku has dedicated his life to exposing the charlatans — from levitating village fakirs to televangelist yoga masters — who he says are obstructing an Indian Enlightenment. He has had a busy month, with one guru arrested over prostitution, another caught in a sex-tape scandal, a third kidnapping a female follower and a fourth allegedly causing a stampede that killed 63 people. […]
His organisation traces its origins to the 1930s when the “Thinker’s Library” series of books, published by Britain’s Rationalist Press Association, were first imported to India. They included works by Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin and H.G. Wells; among the early subscribers was Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
The Indian Rationalist Association was founded officially in Madras in 1949 with the encouragement of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who sent a long letter of congratulations. For the next three decades it had no more than 300 members and focused on publishing pamphlets and debating within the country’s intellectual elite. […]
Exposing such tricks can be risky. A guru called Balti (Bucket) Baba once smashed a burning hot clay pot in Mr Edamaruku’s face after he revealed that the holy man was using a heat resistant pad to pick it up.
“Tantra is the original ‘holistic’ way of life, yoking body, mind and spirit into living life as a whole. Polarities of good and evil, pure and impure, matter and spirit are done away with as unnecessary barriers to a direct experience of cosmic consciousness. With great finesse, tantra uses material reality for spiritual unfoldment. Lets play an associative game. What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Tantra’? If you aren’t a practitioner or scholar or one who has delved into Tantra, chances are you will think ‘black magic’, ‘human sacrifice’, ‘skulls and bones’. You will also probably experience an adrenaline rush that screams, “Danger ahead. Run!”
This ‘fight or flight’ response to Tantra among most of us in urban India is not surprising. Ghastly news reports of criminal activities like murder and rape by so-called ‘tantriks’ are frequent, as are old wives’ tales of black magic where the villain is invariably an evil ‘tantrik’. Bollywood films and TV serials that portray tantriks as bizarre, crazy and villainous have reinforced this negative image. So that to a lot of us, Tantra feels like a cross between voodoo, the occult, and sorcery—bad stuff done by evil people.
For our counterparts in the West, the association is slightly different. Westerners who are ‘into’ eastern forms of spirituality have at some point or another heard of Tantra, and nine times out of ten, it has been in the context of sex. If one Google searches for ‘tantra’ on the internet, an overwhelming majority of websites that turn up on the computer screen promise ‘sacred sex’ and offer steamy pictures of acrobatic sexual positions. So what is Tantra, really? What best describes its practices—sex or sorcery? Since reality is never black or white but most often a synthesis of the two, there are several layers and shades to Tantra that belie a narrow either/or view.”
“According to a fascinating report printed in the London Telegraph in 1880, a man was buried “?in a condition of apparent death’ for 40 days and survived. No tricks or tomfoolery were involved, so how did he do it? It’s often the case that when someone professes to be able do something remarkable, that great gift of human nature kicks in – skepticism. So when Maharajah Ranjeet Sing heard from an Indian fakir who claimed he could come back to life after being buried for several months in an apparent state of death, the Maharajah could only reply with one statement – proof or it didn’t happen.
At once, the fakir, named Haridas, was summonsed before the Maharajah – who regarded the idea as possibly fraudulent – to act out exactly how he could accomplish this amazing feat. In full view of the Maharajah and nobles of the court, within a short time, the fakir appeared comatosed. One of the witnesses at the time, an Honorable Captain Osborn, made his own account of the event:
“When every spark of life had seemingly vanished, he was … wrapped up in the linen on which he had been sitting, and on which the seal of Ranjeet Sing was placed. The body was then deposited in a chest, on which Ranjeet Sing, with his own hand, fixed a heavy padlock. The chest was carried outside the town and buried in a garden belonging to the Minister; barley was sown over the spot, a wall created around it, and sentinels posted.”
Soma is a group therapy where people come together for about 18 months to do physical exercises and engage in personal and political discussion. It combines ideas from Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich, capoeira Angola, and anarchism. And unlike traditional psychotherapy, Soma rejects the authority of the therapist: during a session, a therapist is present, but he or she participates equally with the other members of the group and does not draw conclusions or make analysis. There is an emphasis on pleasure and physical release. The documentary shows Soma groups deep in physical play, doing theater and movement exercises. Participants call the work difficult but “delicious.”
Now decades later, Soma has spread across the world and is still liberating modern-day revolutionaries — young people, artists and students — who are fighting against the bourgeois and seeking liberation.
“Researchers say they’ve taken a significant stride forward in understanding how relaxation techniques such as meditation, prayer and yoga improve health: by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress. The changes were seen both in long-term practitioners and in newer recruits, the scientists said.
“It’s not all in your head,” said Dr. Herbert Benson, president emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “What we have found is that when you evoke the relaxation response, the very genes that are turned on or off by stress are turned the other way. The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes. The mind is not separated from the body.”
One outside expert agreed. “It’s sort of like reverse thinking: If you can wreak havoc on yourself with lifestyle choices, for example, [in a way that] causes expression of latent genetic manifestations in the negative, then the reverse should hold true,” said Dr. Gerry Leisman, director of the F.R. Carrick Institute for Clinical Ergonomics, Rehabilitation and Applied Neuroscience at Leeds Metropolitan University in the U.K.”