By Russell Case
What is the connection between "celebrity" and "Yoga"? There is the apparent contradiction between the two forms. Pop culture is notoriously self-serving. Yoga can be a path to deny the desires of the personality in service to liberation of the self. How very interesting it is when a celebrated artist allows us to understand this contradiction and then see the profound nature of our selves.
Recently, Richard Freeman visited the Yoga Boutique Space where I work as director of the Mysore program. He helped me to understand how Hatha Yoga developed out of Tantra and the Middle Path propagated by the Buddha. This "middle way" allows us to appreciate the value of the senses as a path to enlightenment. Not just the delight of the fragrance and flesh, but music and poetry brings us closer to ecstasy and/or God. The Beatles are a good example of this. Although many of today's stars practice Yoga-- from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Beastie Boys, Natalie Portman, and even Britney Spears (in a yet another attempt to "ape" Madonna).
Please allow me to place in context Yoga’s explosive popularity this last century. I’ll start with a little port city in India that I have mucked through—Madras or Chennai as it is now called.
In this town was born the most influential Yoga teacher of our time-- B.K.S. Iyengar. He was born into a Vaishnavite Brahmin family just like his teacher Sri T. Krishnamacharya. In fact, Iyengar's older sister married Krishnamacharya and he moved with her to Mysore to study yoga with him. He lived in Krishnamacharya’s home and on his knees watched him practice through the key hole every morning.
The practice that he viewed was an esoteric Tantric practice called "Yantra Yoga" in Tibet and in India, "Ashtanga Yoga"; a hard earned sadhana (practice) studied in the village of Mansarovar, Tibet for seven years. He taught these boys a practice meant to rid them of Dukka – or anxiety. Practiced correctly, this sweaty extreme practice of counter-poses would teach them to fear nothing—not even liberation.
Iyengar has stated that he only ever saw his teacher practice shoulder-stand, head-stand and pranayama. And this, says his fellow classmate Pattabhi Jois, was an attempt to restore ojas- or the essential vitality lost through ejaculation.
Two years later, Iyengar was sent to Bombay to teach a woman’s group in Pune. These students were composed of wealthy middle class Parsis (immigrant Iranians.) His students helped sponsor the book, Light on Yoga, and a documentary. Krishnamacharya helped Iyengar make the film by allowing himself to be photographed. Though disappointingly, when he discovered Iyengar’s popularity he became jealous and abandoned his relationship with him.
This fame, however, gave Iyengar access to a trendsetting group of artists like Yehudi Menuhin, the classical concert violinist. Menuhin was an Israeli and an urbane European who financed Iyengar’s teaching trips to London (a yoga now different from Krishnamacharya’s as he had deleted the vinyasa form of jumping). Iyengar has been quoted in Elisabeth Kadetsky’s book, ‘First There Is a Mountain’ as saying that the jumping "makes your mind like a monkey.” Richard Freeman refutes this and says Iyengar wasn’t jumping smoothly enough. Hanuman, Rama’s monkey general, had the strength to jump with lightness across the ocean even holding the island of Sri Lanka on his fingertips.
Another unusual celebrity student of Krishnamacharya’s was Indra Devi:
Devi was born Eugenie Petersen in Russia 1900 and died 102 years later--an aristocrat thrown from her country in the wake of the Communist revolution. Fascinated by Indian Poetry, she led her husband to India and soon found herself in the distinguished company of Rajendra Wodeyar, who happened to be the Maharaj of Mysore. She was able to convince him to allow her in Krishnamacharya’s class to cure her heart condition. This was an unthinkable scenario. Krishnamacharya was an orthodox Brahmin priest. He would wash himself if he even looked in the direction of a Westerner. But after a year she managed to demonstrate her commitment and so he encouraged her to teach his yoga. She did. Her husband took assignment in Shanghai and she taught an Ashtanga class out of Madame Chiang Kai Shek’s home.
It was during her time in India that Petersen took the name Indra Devi. Indra is the Supreme Vedic Lord and Devi being the great Dharma Goddess. Devi was created out of a conflict Indra had with Mahisha, a buffalo demon and is described by the scholar Kim Knott as the one who “breaks the brahminical image of the woman as dutiful wife. She is warlike and aggressive. She appears to be an ideal woman, being beautiful and amorous, but she drinks wine and is independent.”
This, I think is exactly the kind of self transformation that would appeal to a celebrity.
A little later she moved to Hollywood and found herself in the same circle as Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Charlie Chaplin. She left behind a seed that fed a southern Californian obsession with Yoga that continues to this day. For example, the Oscar winning actress Shirley MacClaine implored Richard Nixon to give Bikram Choudhury a visa to live in her Beverly Hills home in 1972. He did and Bikram taught his Hot Yoga in America for the first time.
Southern California was such a fertile place for Yoga that Paramahamsa Yogananda set up his Self Realisation Fellowship headquarters near LA. A hundred years before his death in 1952 the Transcendental Poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau had borrowed heavily from the Bhagavad Gita to write their poems. Walt Whitman, the most influential American Poet, had also used Indian Mysticism in his opus ‘Leaves of Grass’.
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air
1892 -- the year Whitman died -- a Vedanta teacher in Yogananda’s lineage, Swami Vivekananda, visited the US. His talks on Yoga drew wide acclaim at the Parliament of Religions. His crucial point that would have the biggest impact on Americans nervous around this new quasi-religious movement that called itself yoga, was a question on the nature of divinity. He states in his work, Raja Yoga, that Yoga is not a religion but a science. All consciousness, all personalities, in fact all matter (prakriti) is but a holographic projection of a super-consciousness bent on entertaining itself (purusha). Many scientists, poets, anarchists, and even communists embraced his vision of Yoga.
Perhaps what is most exciting about this notion of the self is its fabrication. The personality that we believe we own is but a creation of our Karma and our own self-identification. Liberation from our patterns of behavior is something of great interest to artists. In Yoga, first we change the conditioned existence either through diet or asana or daily habits, then transformation occurs. This happens principally because what we believe is possible changes. An artist like Allen Ginsburg would have felt great anticipation by reading Walt Whitman or Swami Vivekananda. Being gay and Jewish living in the stultified order of Post-War America Tantra Yoga must have seemed like a breath of fresh air.
Tantra is often identified with the principle of Paravritti or Antinominism or “going against the grain.” It is not unusual at all to see in India tantric avadhatus or “saddhus” covering themselves in the ashes of the dead to stimulate awareness of the fleeting nature of life.
From Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.”
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz, who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-ment roofs illuminated, who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war
Allen Ginsburg was an influential poet but also quite the satellite of the venerable masters coming to the US in the 1960’s. He was able to meet the Vajrayana Buddhism master, Chogyam Rinpoche, and founded his center in Colorado. He was also able to meet Swami Prabhupad of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (or the “Hare Krishnas”) and helped promote and found his order in NY. Bob Dylan often cited Allen Ginsburg as his main poetic influence and a good friend.
Dylan was someone who famously put on many different masks. Though born in a small town in Minnesota in the mid 60’s he presented himself as a wild eyed boxcar riding Glam Rock hobo lit up on amphetamines scaring the truth out of the bourgeoisie like a shamanistic soothsayer. And that was quite different from the working class folk singer he presented himself earlier in the decade or the proselytizing Christian cowboy he appeared to be in the 70’s. This is Dylan’s Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. A song that Ginsberg said he wept to when he first heard it.
“Where have you gone my blue eyed son? Where have you been my darling young one?”
And the response:
“I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests, I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans, I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard, And it’s a hard, And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.”
This is the focus on death and temporality that is at the heart of Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan Tantra). It is this emotional gravity that impacted the Beatles into transforming themselves from a spirited boy band into more sophisticated lyricists. Their subsequent fascination with the Indian 12 tone system and the use of the sitar is well documented as is their trips to study yoga in India. It could be said that it is their use of lyrics about super conscious states of mind that drove their generation towards yoga. Such was the popularity of their music.
Similarly Madonna has used Yoga to transform her public persona. Like the gruesomely sexual Kali, the man destroyer, Madonna was the archetype of the virgin man eater. And, like a commercially minded saddhu, she sold her music through what sexual barriers she was willing to make a travesty of in public. And each season was an opportunity to transform herself into a new icon of seething sexual bravado. However, in 1997, she produced the album Ray of Light. This album was the first in history to include the ashtanga yoga mantram in the lyrics of a pop song. She used the ashtanga-vinyasa method to transform her body and that album to transform herself into a beatific mother figure. Women all over the supermarkets of the United States were heard to remark “I want Madonna’s arms.” Perhaps the many arms would wave behind.
The possibility offered through yoga is the possibility of actual transformation by imitation. Through putting on the face of the Buddha we can actually change our feeling. Daniel Gilbert in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, has demonstrated that this is physically true. When we smile, our brain produces hormones that feel like happiness. Then the practice of yoga must physically produce change that feels like yoga.
What these artists and celebrities have done is transform themselves-- broken free of society’s boundaries through the discipline of their craft. This Tapas (work) is only the first stage towards liberation. But paradoxically their craft is so artful that it allows a clear view of the end of our journey.
Russell Case learned Ashtanga Yoga from Suddha Wiexler while attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. While finishing his graduate degree in painting in NY he met Guy Donahaye. Due to the idiosyncrasies of that relationship he married an English woman and was there after forced to work in Asia as an economic migrant. He continues to write on the Jewish history of yoga today in Taipei, Taiwan.
Photo "Richard Freeman and Russell Case" courtesy Russell Case.