Saturday, September 1, 2012

Earthlings, Martians, Big Oil, the RNC, and how yoga might fit (or not fit) into all this

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reading a collection of early short stories by the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. As you might know, since Dick's untimely death in 1982, a number of his novels and short stories have been adapted into movies, including Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau.

Most of Dick's early stories were very short; written in the fifties, many of them  are less than 20 pages in length. And yet, within these constraints, he was able to paint very vivid scenarios involving space travel and warfare, extra-dimensional beings, and apocalyptic scenarios involving a future in which nuclear war and human excesses have turned this beautiful planet into a toxic wasteland in which humans struggle just to breathe.

One such early story, "Survey Team", paints just such an apocalyptic scenario. The story is set several centuries in the future. Earth has become so ravaged by nuclear war that humans can only live underground, subsisting on food grown in special tanks and breathing air that is highly processed by compressors. Entire generations of children are born never having been on the surface of the planet; as a result of the vitamin D deficiency, their eyesight is severely compromised. A special team--the Survey Team--is sent to survey the various planets in the solar system in search of a new home for humankind. The team concludes that Mars is the only place that may be even remotely inhabitable, and a special team of surveyors is sent to explore and prepare Mars for possible human colonization.

When the team arrives on Mars, they discover buildings and installations left behind by what was apparently a very advanced civilization. They also discover written records left behind by this civilization. From these records, they learn that the original inhabitants of Mars had to abandon the planet many thousands of years ago, because they had depleted its resources. The team also learned that these inhabitants had since discovered another pristine world untouched by development, and have since emigrated en mass to this world. However, upon arriving on this new world, the inhabitants were unable to preserve their original culture. Factions formed among these emigrants, war resulted, and the originally advanced civilization lapsed into barbarism on their new world.

The team members are excited by the possibility of such a pristine world, and they decide to track down this world and emigrate there as well. And then a couple of team members started fiddling around with the equipment that the inhabitants had left behind, and uncovered a very startling piece of information hidden within the equipment: The pristine world that the inhabitants had emigrated to was none other than Earth! Which actually totally makes sense, since Earth is just "next door", in a manner of speaking. What this means is that human beings were all originally descended from Martians, who had emigrated to Earth because they had totally messed up and depleted the resources on their home planet. And then the Martians--who are now Earthlings--went on to mess up and destroy Earth. And now the Earthlings-who-were-originally-Martians find themselves back on their original home planet. They had come full circle (not in a good way), and had destroyed not one, but two worlds in the process.


Pretty heavy reading, don't you think? Especially considering that most people read sci-fi to "escape" from real life. I also can't help feeling that Dick's worldview as reflected in his writings was very ahead of his time, especially considering the fact that he was living and writing in the United States in the '50s, a time of relative plenty in which few people even stopped to consider whether the Earth's resources could ever be used up.

Actually, there are still people who believe that this planet's resources can never be used up; at least, there is nothing in their behavior which suggests that they think otherwise. For instance, I live on the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. The great state of North Dakota has recently become flush with cash, as a result of the oil-fracking boom. The local papers are filled with happy stories of young people who are now able to return to their hometowns from far-away cities to make a good living on the ranches on which they grew up, because of the new-found prosperity that all this oil money has brought. This is so even if there are actually oil pipelines running through their ranches... actually, this is probably what explains their new-found prosperity; I imagine that the authorities have to be paying them quite a handsome bit of cash for the right to run oil pipelines through their land.

Anyway, I often read these happy stories, and wonder if I am in some kind of a time warp: I'd imagine that this must be how Texas and many other places in this country felt like in the fifties, with all this new-found wealth and power... but what do I know?          


Even the yoga world is not untouched by this kind of ideology, the kind of ideology that tells you that you can be totally self-sufficient and do well for yourself, so long as you pull yourself up by your bootstraps, dig deep enough (literally!), stay vigilant, make sure that government is small and limited, and protect your rights from socialists and other undesirables that try to tell you how to spend your hard-earned cash. As many of you who follow yoga news are well aware, Off the Mat, Into The World (OTM) recently collaborated with the Huffington Post to create the Huffington Oasis at the RNC. The Huffington Oasis, according to this Elephant Journal article, is "a unique, alternative space providing yoga, meditation, spa services, and organic food at the DNC", "a refuge where, instead of grabbing a Red Bull and burger between sessions, they could come to reconnect to their bodies, minds and intentions in an environment providing sustainable methods for grounding, health and healing in an otherwise supercharged environment."

Interesting. According to this report by, the massage therapists and yoga teachers who worked at the Oasis were working for free, rubbing feet (and perhaps, licking a few boots too? :-)) while being "essentially conned into believing they were performing a public service."

Well, I'll take back that parenthetical remark about licking boots. That wasn't nice. Gosh, why am I so cynical? After all, most (maybe even all) of these yoga teachers and massage therapists at the Oasis probably really believed that they were spreading some good vibes through their pro bono work. How can I be so unkind? But then again, I think this really says something about how gullible we "yoga-types" can be, that we can be so easily conned into doing work for free, that if we even think of asking to be paid for what we do, we are being "unyogic". If this is not brain-washing, I don't know what is...

But enough of all this ranting. It's not going to get me or you anywhere. Perhaps we should really try to take a more charitable view of this whole thing. Maybe the people who worked in the Oasis really did believe that they could change the world, one pair of Republican feet and one tight over-stressed Republican body at a time. Very possible. After all, people are essentially the same, whether they are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, or Tree-Huggers. Whatever our political persuasions, we all have minds, bodies and spirits. And minds, bodies and spirits can always be aligned and set right through a good yoga practice, which helps us all to make better decisions and be more effective in the world. 

The big question, of course, is: Set right in what way? Become more effective in what way? If I were, say, a Tea Party Republican who does yoga (maybe even, God forbid, Ashtanga Yoga) everyday, six days a week, will I become a more effective exploiter of the Earth's resources, finding new ways to drill for oil in ways never before imagined? Or will I perhaps come to see the error of my ways, and switch sides to become a Libertarian, or even a Democrat? The possibilities are endless...


Gosh, this is becoming one long drawn out neither-here-nor-there post. And I still don't know where I'm going. Maybe I better quit right now while the going is still (relatively) good. Well, maybe I'll end with something fun (at least, I think it's fun). I recently learnt that Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan is actually an exercise enthusiast. According to this article, he actually does P90-X! Which means he does some kind of yoga at least once a week! Interesting... well, here's the question I'll pose to you: If Paul Ryan (or maybe even Mitt Romney) asks you to teach him Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (for a reasonable fee, of course), would you do it? Yes, I know this is a sensitive question, one which you may not feel comfortable answering directly. So, in the name of good, clean, anonymous entertainment, I have set up a poll in the right-hand corner of this blog for this question. Please participate generously! I'll love to see what your views are on this. I think this is going to be fun. I hope you do too.       


  1. Frankly I'm finding it so disappointing more and more when there is so much injustice in the world and people are standing up and saying something about it, protesting, and even getting arrested for peacefully demonstrating, but the yoga teacher community is still talking about, well just a lot of yoga crap. That said, thank you for approaching the issue.

    1. This is true. But I also like to think that ultimately, political action encompasses many more things than standing up and speaking out directly, or protesting and demonstrating and getting arrested for doing so. Ultimately, we vote not just at the polls, but also with our daily actions. So even "talking about, well just a lot of yoga crap" has political meaning. I think I learned back in Political Science 101 that ultimately, everything is politics, whether or not we are aware of it.

    2. Indeed. I guess I was thinking along the lines of "America Needs a Buddhist President." Of course, as individuals we vote in many significant ways beyond the ballot box, but also I look around and see a world that is kind of shitty right now, and wonder where are the Yogi's and Yogini's? The for real ones.

  2. And besides, apparently from the ad calling for volunteers to "make a difference" they were nothing more than used as spa accessories for the delegates. A con for sure.

  3. I find it abhorrent that you use a science fiction story to "prove" your opinion that using energy resources is BAD for civilization. 200 years ago nobody cared about oil since wee didn't have cars (or ambulances, fire trucks, police cars, school buses). If we run out of oil, we just won't use those forms of transportation anymore. The world won't end.

    To suggest that yoga is only for a certain person with certain point of view misses the universality of yoga. To contemplate whether to teach someone yoga because of political views is pathetic. It's no different from not teaching someone based on race, religion, or any of the other holier than thou for diversity boxes some like putting people into to determine worthiness.

    I'm no Republican but I do identify with Libertarians and the Tea Party (started by Libertarians). I do yoga every day and have for years. I do ashtanga, iyengar, power flow yoga, hot yoga. My opinions are more clear now than ever and they haven't changed. I don't think they need to.

    I teach yoga to serve others. I hope to help them live better regardless of whether I agree with them or not. It is too bad that you can't agree to disagree without hating the person you disagree with. Sad really. Namaste.

    1. Hello Brian,
      thanks for sharing. You bring up some interesting points. But first, I'm a bit confused: What is so abhorrent about using a sci-fi story to illustrate a point? People use stories and examples from pop culture to illustrate what they are trying to get across all the time. Besides, in this case, I actually wholeheartedly endorse Philip K. Dick's view, which is that it is simply irresponsible to use non-renewable resources in such a way as to bring destruction upon the Earth, humankind and the ecosystem.

      Which brings me to my next point. My opinion is not that "using energy resources is BAD for civilization"; it's that using non-renewable resources in a way that harms ourselves and the environment is bad, not just for civilization, but for everything around us, really.

      And by the way, it's not true that "the world won't end" if we run out of oil: if we continue burning fossil fuels and leaving the huge carbon footprint that we are doing now, the world as we know it will end way before we run out of oil. Unless you believe that global warming is a hoax. In which case I have nothing more to say.

      I'm not saying that yoga is only for people with certain points of view, although I honestly do think that Tea Partiers have some rather misguided views. I would happily teach them if they asked me to; I actually have friends who are Tea Partiers. I certainly don't hate them. But that doesn't change the fact that I don't stand for many of the things that they believe passionately in.

      I came up with the poll because I thought it would be a fun way to gauge people's opinions on these matters. It is never my intention to tell people not to teach yoga because of this or that political affiliation. Actually, it is never my intention to tell anybody what to do. Honestly, I think it is tood bad that you didn't get where I am coming from. Sad really.

  4. Well said Brian. Namaste.

  5. “Old man, stiff man, weak man, sick man, they can all take practice but only a lazy man can’t take practice.” Sri K Pattabhi Jois

    Someone's personal political and religious views shouldn't have any bearing on whether or not they are worthy to be a student of the practice.

    For example, I know several Ashtanga teachers who are vegan. Not all of their students are vegans, correct? Certainly, while teaching their non-vegan students, these teachers likely don't judge, they don't express a dogma saying, "You must NOT eat any products from animals whatsoever, else you cannot be my student!" Hopefully, they also do not look down on the student as "less evolved" than they are because they eat meat. Sure, perhaps secretly, they hope that their own example of right living and ethical treatment serves as a means to show their students a possible path toward more conscious, ethical living. Nothing wrong with that, really. But when we begin to get dogmatic about who or who isn't "worthy" to do this practice, we start to veer towards a fundamentalism that is the antithesis of Yoga.

    As a teacher, you can only show the path, you can't make people start walking on it the same way you do, nor should it be a requirement for starting the trek. Show them the practice, show them your own right action as you perceive it, and respect them their own right actions according to their own dharma. We all just have to do the work - and not be lazy about it!

    All can take benefit of the practice, and a good teacher would not expect their own opinions and beliefs to be adopted by their students, or use it as a litmus test for "worthiness" to be part of the community. Teachers who require a set of standards to follow want to control their students, and not set them free to do the work on their own, frankly. (See John Friend and Anusara, et al for a good example of where mandating ethical requirements and behaviors as part of participation in a "kula" can come back and bite you in the behind.)

    1. Thanks for sharing, Michelle. I totally agree with everything you say. I'm very sure that Guruji himself (and Sharath too) would teach absolutely anybody, regardless of their political opinions and affiliations. I will too.

      That said, I do think there are right and wrong ways of living in this world, and I often express my opinions about these things, especially on this blog. But as you say, "you can only show the path, you can't make people start walking on it the same way you do, nor should it be a requirement for starting the trek." I always try my best to keep this in mind and respect this.

    2. Gosh, Nobel, I just came back to your blog after a week away, and I have to admit, this blog comment of mine is truly condescending - please forgive me, seriously. I hadn't practiced yet when I wrote that and had a bad case of the holier-than-thou's apparently. You're blog's always a pleasure to read, and you definitely keep things respectful and light - which is not easy to do. Anyhow, mea culpa.

    3. No problem at all, Michelle. I didn't (and still don't) find your comment condescending at all. On the contrary; I thought what you wrote was very thoughtful and well-taken. :-)

  6. Yoga can be dangerous in the wrong hands lol. Exhibit 1: Brian. How ridiculous to argue we can use and abuse our environment, our world, for riches and greed, that not only degrade our environment and quality of life, but the use of (oil), being violent not just to the earth, but the wars being waged currently in the name of. But who cares? According to Brian, it's all good! And he's been doing yoga FOR YEARS!!!! Therefore, he must be right.

    It's unfortunate the many pitfalls of yoga practice, as pointed out in the Yoga Sutras. Self delusion, ego aggrandizement, spiritual conceit. Fools us into thinking we are always right. Yoga is about Truth and self study. What's true is true and what's false is everything else. If Truth keeps us from going to teach one of these political war mongering liars (Republican and Democrat are equal in that sense) then so be it.

  7. oh and i forgot to add my

    I think it means, everything I just said is right, and even though you are wrong, hey, I'm spiritual and therefore forgive your wrong way of thinking.


    1. Hahaha...

      "I think it means, everything I just said is right, and even though you are wrong, hey, I'm spiritual and therefore forgive your wrong way of thinking."

      Well, here's another way of parsing this: "The best self in me bows to the best self in you, even though you are obviously too ignorant and blinded by your wrong way of thinking to see it. But I bow to you anyway, because I am so superior..."

      Damn! I can now write an entire post on how different people mean very different things when they say "Namaste". Thanks for the inspiration!

    2. Someone asked me why I don't say Namaste at the end of class. Or they phrased it as "you don't say namaste" and i was like "nah." But in my mind I was like, we were just doing that for a whole hour, now i have to say it too??

      And I had one woman who would say it to me and give me a look like it was required of me to say it.

    3. "And I had one woman who would say it to me and give me a look like it was required of me to say it."

      That's funny :-) For some reason, this makes me think of the way Ogden the Inappropriate Yoga Guy says Namaste (remember him?). Except that this will have to be a female version, I guess...

  8. Haha yes. Kinda like "here I am, look at me" Om the loudest too. lol