Monday, December 28, 2009

On Being with Amrit, Yogi Desai & Gurudev in India

The American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow once wrote a story about a wealthy, successful and famous man who sold all his worldly possessions, shucked his social roles, and set off to find a renowned holy man who reputedly lived simply, serenely and happily. Being something of a Donald Trump of his time, the wealthy man's plans were heralded well in advance of his arrival.

When he finally showed up, the holy man greeted the wealthy man warily, saying: "Sir, I have heard of the great sacrifices you made in order to come and see me. I only hope I can say something that will satisfy your hunger for wisdom and peace."

The wealthy man responded gleefully, and pragmatically. "I didn't come all this way to hear you say anything. I came here to observe how you lace your shoes."

This is how I felt about being with Amrit Desai, the person, the Yogi and the Guru in India.

When he was riding on the bus with us, or touring the village where he grew up, he was Amrit Desai. a fellow traveler bursting with enthusiasm to show us, his modern Western friends, the original primal Indian setting where he spend the first thirty years of his life. Having worked with him at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health -- situated on the tony former estate of Andrew Carnegie in the Berkshires -- I was expecting a reverse Horatio Alger moment. An awkward return from riches to rags; a fracture in the space time continuum. Though that notion was quickly dispelled when Yogi Desai casually and personally interacted with the people in the village as though he had never left them and it. Additionally, as anyone who was on the tour and took pictures can show, although the villagers may be poor by American standards, the expressions on their faces did not show the kind of spiritual impoverishment that has become so common in modern Western societies. It actually makes perfect sense that someone coming from such a simple and earthy background would so effectively represent deeper values than materialism and consumerism to the world. When he was talking to any of us individually about personal matters he was also being Amrit Desai -- the caring person and candid friend who comfortably shares from his personal worldly experiences that so mirror our own.

When he led seminars and demonstrated the practice of yoga he has mastered he was being Yogi Desai -- a sublime energy maestro simultaneously traversing both the interior and exterior worlds while effortlessly articulating the ineffable. He was also Yogi Desai whenever he socialized with us informally, conducting himself with august discrimination in speech and action. He was the ultimate Yogi off the mat -- at 73 years of age a living vibrant vessel of health, self-discipline, spontaneity and good will.

And when we got to the temple of Malav, the place where Shrii Kripalvanandji is entombed, a good-natured young Swami advised Yogi Desai and us that -- being as we were in India, and at a sacred site -- we should be observing more of the traditional Indian 'guru-disciple protocols'. So we did. And it was enjoyable to do so -- spontaneous, voluntary, and heartfelt. So when the Swami later told me that he was planning on going to America  I, in turn, advised him to try to enjoy the American protocols of informality and classlessness.


I've been observing Yogi Amrit Desai lacing his shoes (figuratively speaking; I don't think I've ever seen him in a pair of shoes) for going on thirty years. I know him personally as an exceptionally caring person. I look up to him as a role model who was tested by life in a most severe, dramatic and public way and who not only successfully endured the crisis, but came out on the other end a better person as well as a more refined and authentic Yogi. Real princes are made, not born, and for me, Yogi Desai, by working through his obstacles and shortcomings, has became that rare prince among men -- someone who now effortlessly inspires honorable values and wholesome conduct in others.

And I also know that there is a guru in him that contains a wellspring of esoteric knowledge, advanced understandings of human nature, and a transcendental perspective derived from his distinguished lineage of gurus and practice of sadhana. I honor and cherish the fact that that is within him, and in me.


In all the time I've been observing and participating in this grand living experiment of lacing together yoga and America, I have never before seen the person I most associate with being the impresario of this adventure -- Yogi Amrit Desai -- more enjoyably and seamlessly living fully his roles as friend, teacher and sage as I did on the lineage tour of India. It was a blessing for each and all of us to be a part of this exhilarating peripatetic posture flow.

And It's almost enough to make me request an encore rendition from Shrii Santosh Muniji of 'God Bless America'. (Santosh Muniji is the presiding guru at the Temple of Malav and a lover of sadhana as well as all things American, especially its music.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why E-Books?

There are two fundamental and essential reasons why I have chosen to publish my work as e-books rather than as hardcover printed books.

The most important reason involves the concept and practice of freedom of expression. As I point out on this site in About Author, I have been writing professionally for thirty years, first in mainstream journalism and then on my own in various capacities including authoring seven novels.

I assiduously applied myself to having those novels published by established publishing houses, including Knopf, Bantam, Ballantine, Soho Press, and many others. None of these publishers would have expressed interest in my work and interviewed me personally if they didn't think the quality of the writing and story telling was not of a high quality and worthy of publication.

The perennial point of contention and separation in each and every case ws their inability to understand and appreciate why I was writing about what I was writing about -- racism, Draconian drug laws, intentionally skewed national economic policies to favor the few over the many -- and how all these things add up to creating a cultural tinderbox of race and class relations in our society that in my lifetime has always seemed on the verge of flaring into an uncontrollable firestorm of violence.

In regards to publishing The Kripalu Story, I found a similar dynamic at work. Literary agents and publishers who knew I enjoyed a professional and personal relationship with Yogi Amrit Desai were eager to entice me to exploit that relationship by providing them with personal analysis of his shortcomings. But all the money in the world could not make me write about Yogi Desai -- or any one else for that matter -- as though I could possibly know what was going on in their hearts and minds at the time they were acting duplicitous. I describe the events as they happened and allow Yogi Desai to express his thoughts and feelings bout them. I believe it is up to the reader to form their own opinions about him and his actions, not follow mine.

Another important reason for publishing these works as e-books is economy and ecology. My novels are available at on-line bookstores on average for about $35.00. They are available as e-books on my website for $10.00. If the Kripalu Story were printed, mass produced, and distributed by a book publisher it would cost between $25.00 and $35.00. It's available at 32 Beach Productions for $15.00.

There is also a significant savings of energy by publishing books electronically. The standard high cost of (over)producing books is rendered obsolete by the practice of ordering books on demand as wanted. And it removes the very costly practice of physically transporting books.

In the end, there is nothing to lose by purchasing books digitally. The books are professionally formatted and edited. Plus, you are also helping to promote and maintain independent-minded expression as well as conserving your own finances.

Most large book and music publishing companies started out small with the purpose of producing fresh, new work. Then as they grew, financial pressures caused them to lose sight of their original purpose in order to produce works that could more easily and quickly turn a profit.

Small arts production companies have always been the lifeblood of artistic life and community in America, and I am hoping and working hard to make 32 Beach Productions a part of that vital tradition. For the reasons I've already pointed to above, e-books will play an important role in enabling a Renaissance of freedom of expression. E-books are the wave of the future in book publishing. Get ahead of the curve and embrace them now.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is this thing we call Yoga?

I just Googled the word yoga and received 70 million, 200 thousand hits. Wow!

So what does it all mean? Of course there is no one answer. The best we can do is share our experience of it and learn from others.

I am going to do just that here and now and hope that many of you in turn will take a little time and also contribute your stories.

I took my first yoga class during the 1970's at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village, NYC. The New School started out in the 1930's as a hot bed for socialists and anarchists. Now it is a fully accredited university with a distinctly progressive bent. Several years ago, I worked there with Terry Williams, author and faculty member who also leads the Harlem Writers Crew of which I was a member. Terry's books exposed for the first time the relationship between public housing and the crack epidemic that lead to dramatic changes in the subsidized housing system.

But I digress just a bit.

The reason I took my first yoga class was directly related to what I'd spend the best part of the rest of my life doing, writing. And what would also become my entry to experiencing yoga directly from a Yogi.

In the 1970's, I was in my twenties. I had been writing short stories since I was a teenager. In my final year of college I started writing a story that wouldn't stop. After graduating, I put the yellow pads with the handwritten story on them into a large envelope and along with a single suitcase and portable typewriter flew to Paris, where I was reunited with a young woman I had met the summer before.

I chronicle this adventure in a memoir/ novel called 'A Summer In Time' that I promise to eventually post on this website. But the short version is that with the inspiration of Paris and being in love -- what a combination -- I manged to write what would become my first novel, 'AREA'.

When I got back to the States, now married and working as a writer at the college I graduated from, I was confronted with the task of actually typing, editng and finding a publisher for the work.

I discovered that the duration of my concentration was not up to the task. The reason so many people say that they really want to write a novel or a book, and have a great story to tell but never do it, is because it is one of the most difficult challenges one can ordain for one's self.

I can't remember exactly how I got the notion that doing yoga would improve my concentration, but that's why I went to my first class. The yoga instructor, an American Caucasian with long matted hair who looked like he just emerged from a cave in the Himalayas, also gave me my first taste of yogic snobbery. Even though he was willing to take the New School's money to teach the class he was needlessly and arrogantly condescending to the school and us. If we really wanted to learn yoga we should go to the ashram where he resided.

The relationship between writing and yoga has, for me, been ongoing ever since then. I had never heard of Kripalu Yoga or Yogi Amrit Desai until I was asked by a magazine to visit their original retreat in Pennsylvania. They were putting together an article about alternative healthy holiday vacation places.

Then later, it was my professional writing and editing skills that allowed me to meet Yogi Desai and work with him on a book about Kripalu Yoga -- Meditation in Motion.

If I write any more on this I will only be telling again what is already in the book, An American Yoga: THe Kripalu Story.

But I would very much like to hear from you about how it is you first got into this thing we call yoga.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Shaktipat Diksha and Kripalu Yoga

I wrote An American Yoga: The Kripalu Story in large part because I  felt compelled to say something about, and describe as best I could, the phenomena of  Shakti and Shaktipat Diksha.

I capitalize these words intentionally in order to designate something that I feel is profound, invisible and largely beyond our everyday mortal grasp. But understanding and experiencing such things are, for me,  the real purpose of Yoga (or any advanced spiritual discipline).

I can't describe in a blog what it took me years to experience, write, rewrite, and detail in the book, but suffice to say that if Yogi Amrit Desai did not receive Shaktipat Diksha from Shrii Kripalvanandji there would be no Kripalu Yoga and all that came with it.  Kripalu Yoga would have been just another new but regular way to practice yoga postures and meditation.

Clearly, that isn't what it is and that's not what happened. Yogi Amrit Desai is now acknowledged as being one of the original 'spiritual pioneers' to bring some of the most esoteric practices of Yoga to the West, and The Kripalu Center he founded flourished in his wake, becoming the largest yoga-based retreat and educational institute  of its kind in the world.

Many writers have acknowledged the phenomena of Shaktipat and attempted to dissect and analyze it; but none have described the unique effect it has on human development and how it plays out in the real world in story form.

Until now. I therefore invite you to read The Kripalu Story, experience it, and share your thoughts and comments with me.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Blog

On this, the first Thanksgiving Day I will spend without any immediate members of my family still alive (I have a sister but we are estranged), I would like to give thanks to all the people who helped me while I was taking care of my mother, who died in August of 2009. The home aids who, like me, enjoyed her upbeat company and to the Hospice workers whose diligent care made her last few months more than just livable.

I would also like to make a more general comment on the attitudes displayed by our culture toward the terminally ill and their caregivers. From the first time I went to a pharmacy to fill a prescription for Aricept -- that Alzheimer's wonder drug now made infamous by those TV commercials depicting patients as zombie-like -- I was met by the stigma that is Alzheimer's. The pharmacist glumly forecast that this was going to be a lot harder on me than my mother.

Among friends and acquaintances, the mention of the word Alzheimer's was too often an immediate conversation stopper.

The American Dream, such as it is, does not include discomfort or even the mention of anything that will make one uncomfortable and possibly lose their focus on attaining that ever-elusive dream.

In these difficult economic times, it is my hope that people become more humble in their aims and more empathic toward those going through difficult times -- be they financial or health-wise.

It was a long and rambling road that got America to the top of the proverbial hill. Now that we have gotten there it would be nice to see some maturity -- in the way of showing more genuine caring and charity for others.

There are people all around us in need of something right now who will not tell you about it because of the stigma of not being a part of the dream, or, even worse, a drag on it.

Find them, encourage them, help them -- then when you give thanks for what you have it will mean that much more to you.

Good Day.

(Shortly, a memoir/guidebook I wrote on my experience of caring for my mother will appear on this website: An Alzheimer's Story.)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welcome to 32 Beach Productions

As the founder of 32 Beach Productions and author of An American Yoga: The Kripalu Story I would like to welcome and invite everyone to contribute their own Kripalu Story. I know there are many.

I decided to write and publish mine after working with Yogi Amrit Desai as a book editor at Kripalu during the 1980's. Afterward, we continued a professional and personal relationship that continued on after Yogi Desai was dismissed as the spiritual director of Kripalu in 1994.

IN 2007, I traveled with Yogi Desai to India where we visited the village where he grew up as well as the places where he had his seminal spiritual awakening experiences -- that led directly to his discovering Kripalu Yoga in America in 1971.

I wrote the Kripalu Story in order to preserve the story from any attempts, inadvertent or otherwise, to change or diminish it in light of recent events. The story is the story, and the Kripalu story is an authentically lush one.

I've written mine so now I invite you to read it and contribute your comments and own experiences on this blog.

Thank You,

James Abro