On Spiritual Practice Between a Sci-Fi Meditation Dome and a Himalayan Cave
I have been a fan of body bending in the name of the spirit since early 2000s when yoga gingerly arrived on the fitness scene in Prague. I was a shy college student and the upheaval a simple Warrior pose caused within me was like nothing I’d experienced before.
Back in early 2000s it was taught by aerobics instructors who called it poweryoga, or just ‘flexible strength,’ and swore that it had nothing to do with sitting crosslegged and god forbid, meditating. Poweryoga was in fact repurposed Ashtanga yoga decidedly divorced off any spiritual meaning, and adjusted to “modern fitness needs.”
Many years later, yoga is as common as running on a treadmill, and New York (and even Prague) is drowning in yoga studios that don’t shy away from sitting in lotus. In fact, a very persuasive argument has been recently made that meditation--the once considered new-agey, highly suspicious practice that makes us do scary things such as go inward--is going mainstream. Apparently, meditation studios will soon be as common as yoga studios are nowadays.
Naturally if modern New Yorkers will meditate on the reg, it better cost them at least $18 a session, otherwise how do we even know we did something right? And the emptying of our minds better be guided by a pleasant female voice with a gentle Australian accent, all the while seated in a fancy studio that is aligned with our luxury lifestyles. It’s all about “modern, secular, and accessible meditation experiences,” as Khajak Keledjian, CEO of Inscape, a fancy new meditation studio told NY Magazine in November.
I might sound snarky, but I too pay my monthly subscription fee for Headspace app, because I do need a crutch to keep my meditation practice going. And I am intrigued by Inscape’s dimly lit dome that looks like a hybrid of an alien spaceship and Scheherazade's tent.
So what do we, the modern-day New Yorkers, really hope for when we sit to meditate, or bend into a Warrior 3 pose? Do we want happiness? Or better yet contentedness? Do we want enlightenment? Sure, but only if it doesn’t get in the way of our careers, our achievements, and our luxury. If it helps us become the bigger-than-life versions of ourselves, we take it.
But is it even possible to achieve a change without really changing our lives and mainly, our egos? And do we even want to hear about our egos?
Shortly before I read about Inscape, the VC-funded meditation startup that includes an Equinox-like meditation studio in Flatiron and an app, I read a novel called “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent” by Karan Bajar. The protagonist is a successful finance guy from New York who after his mother’s death leaves the city to look for deeper meaning in ashrams of Indian Himalayas. He hopes to become a yogi--not the skinny, Lululemon-clad, yoga-mat-carrying kind, but someone who lives in a seclusion of mountain caves, who walks in the snow and ice barefoot and casually levitates. His journey is sinuous, and leads to a faraway ashram where he practices yoga in its original meaning of a union of oneself with with the One that is. Yoga (with the capital Y) in this case includes yoga--as an exercise for the body, as well as meditation--as an exercise for the mind, and a simple lifestyle of giving to others.
The difference between Max’s pursuit in an Indian mud hut and the Flatiron’s meditation dome is abysmal, and it makes me feel a little uneasy about Yoga becoming an industry and thus becoming just a shell of itself--just a pretty trinket, an item of luxury, a symptom of a status, everything but the path to Oneness.
Naturally, not everyone can or want to leave for India and live in a cave or a mud hut. And from a personal experience, I know that even a 33-minute (or shorter) daily meditation session performed anywhere, has a hugely positive impact on our everyday wellbeing and health. Six years of near daily meditation has literally resculpted my brain into a happier, more content and stable version of its former self. Science seems to be slowly but surely backing up my feelings as well.
So I do want to be more accepting of the trinkets of Yoga in whatever shape and form they come. Perhaps a luxury meditation dome seems tasteless in the face of true Yoga, but it is a beginning. No one can decline that it is a way of getting people on board with going inward, with feeling okay about sitting crosslegged with their eyes closed for extended periods of time. Perhaps in a decade or two will be ready to take the practice even further, and come even closer to the Truth.
In 1995, Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, who is credited with creating Ashtanga yoga and bringing it to the West, wrote in a Yoga Journal about then newly emerging poweryoga: “I was disappointed to find that so many novice students have taken Ashtanga yoga and have turned it into a circus for their own fame and profit [...] It would be a shame to lose the precious jewel of liberation in the mud of ignorant bodybuilding.”
But the truth is that many of those early poweryoga students, myself included, later found Ashtanga yoga, and other, more authentic forms of Yoga as well. The super-simplified version devoid of ideology that might be hard to swallow for a beginner proved to be successful as an introduction to a rich and rewarding world of spiritual practice.
So how do you meditate, Williamsburg?
Cover image: Inscape