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Archive for the ‘Jivamukti’ Category

Last week, The Financial Times profiled Russell Simmons, hip hop pioneer and co-founder of Def Jam Records.  Simmons, an avid yoga practitioner, is currently promoting his new book Super Rich: A Guide to Having it All, and is apparently spreading the word by inviting unsuspecting journalists to yoga classes.  Enter FT journalist, Vanessa Friedman, who accompanied Simmons to a master class at Jivamukti Yoga Center in New York City:

Jivamukti, a form of yoga that began in New York in 1984, involves practice both physical (the positions) and spiritual (chanting and a dharma discussion). Simmons has been a devotee for more than 15 years. He will do almost any kind of yoga – Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar – though rarely Bikram (which involves extremely hot rooms and heart-rate-elevating speed) but Jivamukti is his favourite, because of the teaching and philosophy.

Simmons was introduced to yoga by “Bobby Shriver and his girlfriend, Emma Watts, who is now President of Fox movies and used to be my intern, because I wanted to see hot girls, and I knew I’d be in a class with 58 women and us two guys.” They went to Maha Yoga in Los Angeles, to a class taught by Steve Ross (who is known for using loud rap music) and Simmons came away amazed. “All this noise that was always in my head, and which I associated with my success – this anxiety that I thought fuelled my drive – had stopped; I was totally calm, but I also felt so relieved, and I realised that was what I needed.” He went back the next day, and never stopped.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” he says, of both the postures and the philosophy. “You just realise how much more you have to learn.”

Simmons credits his yoga practice with being the catalyst for his vegan diet, practice of transcendental meditation, becoming an animal rights activities, and running several charities.  For him a daily practice is key:

He meditates for about 25 minutes every morning, does yoga for at least an hour and a half every afternoon, and meditates again at night. It is, he says, the part of his day that is “non-negotiable”.

“They know,” he continues, talking about his staff, “that every day I have to do yoga. It’s the most important thing in my life.” It is, he says, the place where he gets all his ideas and inspiration, where he can “quiet his mind”. This despite the fact that he prefers to practise in a class, and the more crowded the better.

“I like being surrounded by people who are also dedicated to yoga,” he says, which is why he asked me to join him at the masterclass, a three-hour session taught by David Life (Jivamukti’s co-founder) to 250 students.

Simmons says most of his new book Super Rich was inspired by yogic philosophy:

“I wanted to do it, because the text is really derived from yoga, though most of the people here would probably think it was baby food,” says Simmons. A teacher, Ruth Lauer-Manenti, came up and he told her that she inspired him, and that he had put a story from one of her dharma talks in his book. She smiled and said thank you and then told me: “Russell comes and supports everyone; he attends class with all the newest teachers. He is so humble.” When we went into the ballroom, she took the mat next to his. Before the class, I had explained that, while I have done some yoga, I’m not that familiar with it, and he said, “Don’t copy me! Copy Ruth.” Then he told me not to worry, everyone just did the best they could. When Simmons talks about yoga he is very serious, and I asked him if he had ever thought about becoming a teacher himself.

“I live with a woman who has gone through the Jivamukti program, and did her apprenticeship, but I can’t remember my Sanskrit, and I forget half the names of the postures,” he says. (Simmons was divorced from Kimora, the mother of his two daughters, in 2009 but they are still friends.) Then he laughed, and knelt on his mat, and Life began to murmur instructions: “Downward-facing dog to plank; bend knees and chin; upward-facing dog to downward-facing dog; jump forward, straighten legs, prayer up, bend back, dive down, step back to downward-facing dog.” Trying to follow along, I looked over at Simmons, and he – who is responsible for 13 different businesses and foundations – had a face as clean and cloudless as a summer sky.

Gotta love Uncle Russ.

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Last night, my friend and I attended the premiere of “Titans of Yoga” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.  The theatre was packed to the gills with all manner of yogis.  We had a few rockstar sightings, and by that I mean Shiva Rea and Vinnie Marino.  As we took our seats in the theatre, I breathed a sigh of relief when the gaggle of kundaloonies (I say that with love) did not take their seats in front of us.  I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have been able to see the screen over their head gear.  Prior to rolling tape, we settled in for an introduction by the director of the film, Johannes Fisslinger.  I would have liked for him to take that time to provide the audience with a context for the film.  Going into it, I wasn’t sure what aspect of yoga he was trying to explore, or what question he was trying to answer.

Quite frankly, I’m not sure I got an answer.  The film opened with a montage of images showing yogis yoga-ing around the world and proceeded into a collection of interviews where the subjects apparently answered a series of questions the practice of yoga.  The first question asked the 25 “titans” a simple yet immense question:  what is yoga?  The answers ranged from cringe-worthy, to thought-provoking, literal to esoteric, and straight-forward to baffling.   It was with the second question that provided, for me, the highlight of the film and the most vocal response from the audience:  how did you start yoga?  David Swenson regaled the audience in his typical easy-going and hilarious way. His anecdotes about practicing yoga with his brother in a park in Texas in the 60’s, which led to his near arrest for devil worship, filled the house with laughter.  Bryan Kest explained that it was an ultimatum from his father, then a youthful quest for vanity, and eventually a spiritual awakening.  David Life explained that yoga offered an escape from a punk rock lifestyle.  Lisa Walford’s story that it was initially an injury which ended her dancing career, followed by a startling diagnosis that she was HIV+, was one of the more poignant parts of the film.  Several interviewees acknowledged that it was, in fact, emotional unravel which led them to practice.  The remainder of the film was simply an amalgom of answers to why.  Why practice yoga?  The answers provided were seemingly so similar in nature that Mr. Fisslinger was able to divide them up into subtopics such as breathe deeply, be present, feel freely, etc.

Ultimately, “Titans of Yoga” left me scratching my head . . . which, I don’t think, was intended by the filmmaker.  Let’s start with the title of the film, which suggests that it would be more about the master practitioners of yoga rather than yoga as a practice.  This was the direction I hoped the film was headed when Swenson et al began to tell their personal stories.  When these stories ended rather abruptly, I was disappointed.  My second problem with the title was, well, really?  Are these the people generally considered to be the titans of yoga?  I don’t mean to say that these people don’t have commendable personal practices, or to devalue the fact that they’ve changed the lives of many others with their messages.  Sure, there were several obvious participants who likely belonged in such a film, but there were more than several individuals missing.  Like, some of the Indians?  Uh, Iyengar, anyone?  TKV Desikachar?  If the filmmaker was approaching this from the western perspective on yoga, he should have explained that in the film and discussed why.

The other obvious question the film left me pondering was, who was the audience Fisslinger intended for this film?  Was it for the school students benefitting from his Yoga Recess program (to which all proceeds of the film are being donated)?  If so, I can’t imagine that the likes of Gurmukh and Swami Kriyananda would stir up any sort of excitement for yoga in school-age children.  Was it for adults who have never practiced yoga?  In this case, the film’s only success was reminding us of the litany of reasons to practice yoga.  Or, was the film for people already practicing?  If so, it offered little in the way of new points of view and was essentially preaching to the choir.  In the end, if this film were a yoga practice, it was most certainly lacking in two important concepts: focus and intention.
Did you see the film?  I’d love to know your thoughts!

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