Saturday, May 21, 2011

Yoga, Smoking Cigars and Judgment Day

“I shall tell you a great secret my friend. Do not wait for the last judgement, it takes place every day.”

 Albert Camus

There used to be a yoga studio just across the street from where I live here in Moorhead, Minnesota. It was a small, independent "mom-and-pop" studio located in a new up-market-looking building. The studio offered classes in a variety of yoga styles, as well as Pilates classes. I only went to a couple of classes there, and that was because my fiancee went to classes there regularly (she had a monthly membership there), and so I tagged along a couple of times. As far as Ashtanga goes, they did have an Intro to Ashtanga class, but I figured that I could get more out of my daily practice than from this class: According to my fiancee, the class was taught by this well-intentioned middle-aged guy who peppers his classes with platitudes like "It's not about the postures", "It's about the journey, not the destination"; seriously, I need to do my practice, not listen to somebody preach about how to do the practice while I am doing the practice. But maybe I'm being judgmental here. All in all, it's a great thing that somebody is stepping up to the plate and igniting the flame of yoga, especially in this part of the country. So who am I to be sitting on the sidelines and judging others' efforts?   

But all this is neither here nor there. A couple of months ago, the studio had to move out of that building. I'm not quite sure what the exact reasons were; according to the local grapevine, it had something to do with the high rent of the building space. Fortunately, the studio has since relocated to a smaller, less swanky space about half a mile away. There is now a smaller range of class offerings, but I think the important thing is that it is surviving and keeping the flame of yoga alive, no matter how small.

Here's what's interesting. In the space that used to house the yoga studio, a new business is now being set up; in fact, as I'm writing this, I can look across the street and see workers loading furniture and stuff into the space out of a big truck. Guess what this new business is? I'm sure you'll never guess in a million years. It's a... cigar shop! Yes, what used to be a yoga studio is now a cigar shop.

How should one react to this development? It is all too easy to go off on this big hackneyed rant about how unhealthy lifestyles and habits are easier to sell and capitalize on, and how they can be more easily made to seem appealing to more people. After all, doing yoga actually takes some effort and doing, while taking a drag on a cigar takes a lot less work, and seems to offer more pleasure, at least in the short term.

But I think there's a more interesting and hopefully, refreshing way to look at this development, especially in light of recent developments in the blogosphere and in the "real" world. Here are a couple of thoughts:

(1) In a comment on a recent post by Yyogini, Sereneflavor paraphrased Michael Stone's explanation of mula bandha. Stone said that "those of us who had smoked a cigarette or whatever would recognize the upward movement the pelvic floor makes when you inhale smoke." I am not advocating smoking anything, but if this is true, then it is quite possible that what smokers are craving are not cigarettes or cigars per se, but deep breathing: Taking a long drag on a cigarette or cigar is the only way they know how to take a deep relaxing breath. Which is probably why so many smokers claim that smoking relaxes them.

So perhaps this cigar shop plays the exact same role in the lives of certain members of the community that the yoga studio plays in the lives of others: It gives them access to what they need in order to attain a certain relaxing experience. Again, I'm not advocating smoking anything: All of you politically-correct yogis out there, hold off on your eggshells and stones.

(2) As many of you already know, many fundamentalists claim that today (May 21st 2011) is the Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever. If this is true, then I may already be dead/undead even as I am writing this. Or maybe I am one of the unfortunate souls who have been left behind here on earth? If so, I am in good company, because as I look around me, many people are still around, going about their daily business. Or maybe these people are just empty shells of their former selves; maybe their souls have already ascended to wherever-ascended-souls-go-to, leaving their earthly bodies behind to continue with the clockwork motions of daily life? Quite possible, but I guess I'll never know one way or the other.

This is where the cigar shop comes into the picture. If we have indeed entered the Age of the post-Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever, then it means that those of us who are left behind are now condemned to live forever on this barren earth with no hope of any possible salvation for eternity. Which means that it probably won't make any difference what you do or do not do to take care of your body. Which means that it's not going to make any difference to your body whether you seek to achieve a relaxing experience by means of doing yoga or by means of taking a puff on a cigar or cigarette: One way or the other, your body will last forever.

So why am I still doing the practice? Why put my body through two hours of sweat and suffering (did I just say this?) in the name of self-realization when I might very well be able to achieve the same thing through puffing away on a cigar?

Again, I'm not advocating smoking anything. If you are thinking of throwing an e-stone at me, remember this: Let he who is without samskara cast the first stone. (Since we are now in the Age of the post-Day of Reckoning/Judgment Day/Rapture/Whatever, I feel that I can't properly quote Jesus anymore).   


  1. oh yes, if we are in hell I am buying and we are both having a cigar! ;-) this is funny Nobel

  2. your view on smoking might help me understand the Chinese and their humongous numbers of smokers. not. i can't wait for the government to ban it from public buildings. wait, it alread has. the poorly ventilated stairwells in office buildings are the smoking rooms. the rules have not extended to restaurants and most public places.

  3. Ex smoker here talking: smoking just doesn't give the same kicks (I'm stating the obvious here). Annnnd,smoking really stinks. That's the sum of my lessons with smoking and yoga. Hee hee

  4. Claudia: :-). I wonder if smoking cigars would have the same effect on stimulating the digestive system as drinking coffee?

    Arturo, I think you might be on to something. My brother smokes a lot, and he claims that it helps him to de-stress from his very stressful job as well as bond with his colleagues who also smoke (incidentally, he's also an architect).

    yoginicory: Yes, I have always thought that smoking doesn't give the same kicks, even though I have never smoked before. Thanks for the perspective :-)

  5. As someone who smoked heavily for 7 years, I think I can speak on this topic with some authority. In my opinion, it's probably true that smokers have an easier time understanding and developing ujjayi breath, or any type of breath control practice. That is, of course, not to say that the smoking does not also impede these practices. Clearly it does. However, awareness of the diaphragm is key to pranayama and smoking brings that awareness.

    We (smokers, though I am not one any longer) are careful not to draw the smoke in too quickly so it doesn't burn too hot, or exhale it too quickly which causes uncomfortable dryness in the throat. Smokers know how to slow down the breath for these reasons and are probably familiar with the landscape of the lungs, at least in terms of sensation.

    That being said, I think any pursuit in life that develops internal awareness of the breathing process, such as singing, would offer the same advantage. But in response to your thought about what it is that smokers are craving... it's the nicotine. Strong stuff.

  6. Thanks for your perspective on this, Megan. Now I'm starting to wonder if there might be a way to smoke without actually smoking; maybe some version of those quit-smoking kits that you see on infomercials? I can see how a modified version of such a device might be useful as a teaching tool for learning breath control in yoga. Just thinking...

    Actually, I also used to sing in a choir, and I agree with you that the diaphragmatic breathing that one learns in singing is also very useful in developing breath control in Ashtanga.

  7. I missed reading this yesterday?? Rats! Megan gives an excellent description of the smoker's inhale/exhale, and I agree that there are less lethal props that can be used to learn that. And yes, in my experience a cigarette, particularly accompanied by an expresso really does speed up your digestion. But again there are equally efficient and less dramatic ways of doing that. Camus & smoking on rapture day Nobel? You outdid yourself!

  8. "a cigarette, particularly accompanied by an expresso really does speed up your digestion..."

    Interesting, sereneflavor. Not that I'm planning to try it :-) I'm happy that you like the reference to Camus and smoking.

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