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Archive for the ‘Yoga Profiles’ Category

New York Yogis: Exceptional Practitioners From Westchester County & Beyond

Meet Douglas Rushkoff: a heavyweight in the field of media ecology relishes the lightness of being on the mat

by Louise Fecher

Present Shock . . . a media theorist navigates the sea of modern distractions

Your front doorbell is chiming, the answering machine in the living room is recording a message, the drier downstairs is beeping. On your computer, an impatient queue of emails demand attention, including a prod from Facebook reminding you that “a lot has happened” since you last checked in. Tucked in your handbag, your cell phone chirps. You don’t know which call to answer first, which crisis to avert, who (or what) to pay attention to and in what order. Your think your life is all about deadlines and demands, and you want to scream. Do you need a vacation? Probably. Are you suffering from “present shock”? Definitely.

In his latest book, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff explores our relationship to time in the digital age and how our perceptions of time paint our personal, cultural, economic, and political landscapes.  “We tend to exist in a distracted present, where forces on the periphery are magnified and those immediately before us are ignored,” Douglas writes in the preface to Present Shock. He continues, “Our ability to create a plan–much less follow through on it–is undermined by our need to be able to improvise our way through any number of external impacts that stand to derail us at any moment.”

In the chapters that follow, the author deftly sifts through the complexities of what got us here with clarity, passion, and humor. There are five stops on Douglas’s carefully drawn road map to understanding present shock. First stop– narrative collapse–is the inability to create and comprehend stories that begin and end: think reality TV programs devoid of scripts (and intelligence); perpetually raging news program hosts vs diligent reporting and analysis. Then there’s “fractalnoia,” a term coined by the author to describe the desperate desire to make sense of a narrative-challenged world by connecting dots that are not actually related. Conspiracy theories, the author notes, are one result of favoring disjointed patterns over straight paths.

Douglas doesn’t waste readers’ time by decrying the digital world; rather, word-rich and wise, Present Shock offers understanding and awareness. From this place, we can escape trapped-in-the-moment presentism and shape a more hopeful and healthy life, giving each moment, as Douglas writes, “the value it deserves, and nothing more.”                                   –Louise Fecher

Yoga in Yonkers

Douglas Rushkoff spends a lot of time sitting down on the job. “I’m either sitting and thinking, or sitting and writing,” he says. Fortunately, Douglas has a pretty cool job. An intrepid observer and interpreter of media and how communication methods shape our actions, politics, and culture, this New York City native and Westchester resident has written twelve books, created documentaries for PBS, and penned articles for The New York Times and Time magazine. A dynamic speaker, he has lectured at universities and conferences around the world, teaches at The New School in Manhattan, and has been a guest on many radio and television programs. 

The robust response to his Douglas’s newest title, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now (Current, 2013) (see the sidebar at right), has sent the author spinning like a human tornado: one day he’s filming The Colbert Report in New York City, the next he’s doing a signing at a Canadian book store, a few days later he’s lecturing in Washington, DC.

Exciting? You bet. But laboring over a laptop can wreak havoc on the body, as can sitting on cramped airplanes or driving here, there, and everywhere to promote your work. To help stay healthy in body and mind, Douglas has found a refuge: a dedicated yoga practice that is teaching his body to fly as freely as his thoughts.

 Douglas Rushkoff taking flight on stage.

“I [thought] yoga might be a good way to get back into the body and create some time and space for me as a human,” he says. “That it would support me taking care of my wife and daughter, support me not sleeping. I’m working, like anybody, working three jobs to pay the mortgage and the taxes. And the jobs I do are very public. It’s great on a certain level, but when you’re doing NPR, and then a TV thing, and then a press thing, a lot of stress hormones get released in your blood.”

Douglas began working with Karen Safire, a former dancer and a popular Westchester yoga teacher, when he heard about a program that she was starting near his Hastings-on-Hudson office. He’d taken a smattering of yoga classes during college in New Jersey–he graduated from Princeton in 1983–and after, while living in lower New York. (“I would sometimes go to those sexy classes in the East Village,” he says with a laugh.) Later, living on the West Coast (where he earned a Master of Fine Arts from the California Institute of Arts in Los Angeles), he developed a daily tai chi practice. But Douglas was a novice when he walked into Karen’s yoga class two years ago. He wasn’t familiar with the poses and, like many newbies, would struggle to lunge his foot forward from Downward Dog. “You should have seen what I used to have to do to get it up there,” he says, playfully mimicking leg dragging movements.

Douglas is astounded by how far his physical practice has come–“it’s crazy!” he says. He’s even more surprised by his new-found passion for inversions–a class of poses he used to avoid with equal passion.Diminutive and determined, the author continued taking class, going twice a week whenever he was able. Now, sprightly at age 52, Douglas is at home with classmates who are longtime yoga practitioners. He can lunge like a lion, soar like a bird (just last month he found himself poised perfectly in Crow, a challenging hand balance), and in time, will likely be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

 “Now I’m all about the inversions, which I’d never thought I’d do,” the author says. “There’s this moment. You kick your legs up like three times. But then there’s the one when you feel it’s going to happen. It’s like, whoa! I like that feeling; I like it because I was so afraid of it for so long.”

A dedicated yogi knows that the poses are just part of the practice. And for Douglas, yoga offers a sense of community and safety that he often finds lacking in his very public professional life.  For this reason, he declined to be photographed in yoga postures for this article, preferring to keep his personal life off the Internet. “Any photo could end up being re-contextualized and tweeted by ‘haters’ in an effort to discredit my work. Sad, but there it is,” he admits.

If you see Douglas as I do, as a sweet, funny, and supportive yoga classmate (Karen Safire, shown below demonstrating Crow pose, is my teacher as well), it’s hard to imagine hatred being aimed in his direction. But when I asked Douglas about it, he reminded me that his theories and ideas are the target–not him–and he’s learned to accept that.

Karen Safire taking flight in Crow pose.

“The world’s gotten meaner,” Douglas says. “Because the economy’s doing poorly, because the public discourse has degraded into this very polarized clash, because there’s a lot of politicians and a lot of people in media now who are actively fomenting discontent–people who think Obama and Osama are the same person. There are angry people out there. And when you’re . . . up on the stage, on the radio, putting yourself out in front of hundreds of thousands of people a day, you’re bound to run into some mean ones.  So let them attack what you are saying, your belief system.”

But Douglas won’t accept, or do anything to inadvertently encourage, critics bringing his family, his home, his yoga practice –“the most sacred, personal parts of my life”–into the public debate. “Not everything in one’s life can be grist for the mill, or there’s no life left!” he asserts.

For Douglas, yoga provides not only a refuge from daily demands, he’s also found his practice to be a delicious contrast to his professional life. As an author, commentator, and consultant, he must bear the mantle of authority, be an expert. In yoga, he is able to experience the opposite. Although he’s becoming proficient at physically demanding asana, Douglas believes he’s moving into what he calls “an eternal beginner phase.” 

“You make this thing called progress–moving further forward. But when I move forward, I zoom out more, and see that the thing is actually further away,” he muses. “Every time I go into yoga, I walk into this room and be blank. It’s so nice. Today, wherever we are, it’s like discovery every single time. I’m just loving that eternal beginner thing.”

 You can read more about Douglas and his work at his website,

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

New York Yogis: Exceptional Practitioners From Westchester County & Beyond

Meet Mollie Vogel — This 91-year-old Mount Vernon native has spent half a century on the mat

by Louise Fecher

When Mollie Vogel came to Yoga Haven in Tuckahoe to take my Sunday morning class at the studio late last year, she turned many heads. A tiny featherweight white-haired lady, then 90 years old, she gave the impression of fragility to those who didn’t know her. In the studio hallway, students gazed in wonder and stood aside so she could easily pass; in the classroom, where I teach Restorative yoga, students eagerly offered to help Mollie set up her mat and props. After class, a student politely inquired about her age, and when Mollie had gone, people spoke of her in awe: “Did you see that little old lady?”  “How inspiring!” “Wow!”

Mollie, a little old lady? I have been fortunate to be Mollie’s yoga instructor for the past six years at the Sinai-Free Synagogue in Mount Vernon, and have never thought of her as an “old lady”. Mollie looks delicate, but she’s been practicing yoga for nearly 50 years and is made of sturdy stuff, inside and out.

Over the years, her physical practice has become more gentle: she hasn’t done a Headstand in decades (“it never thrilled me,” she admits), and has had to bypass asana altogether after illness or surgery. But Mollie still loves her Warrior poses and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog), and don’t dare try to keep her from Viparita Karani (Legs Up the Wall), her favorite asana. And at the end of every class, her distinctive rumbling “om” is always the longest of all.

Mollie in Downward-Facing Dog.

Active in body and mind, Mollie is a gentle warrior in the practice of yoga and an inspiration to anyone who has seen her on her mat. When she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis several years ago, she refrained from asana until she received the okay from her doctor. But she still came to her beloved weekly class (“I’ll do the poses in my head,” she would tell me) and participated fully in the breathing, meditation, and relaxation components.

“I feel deprived if I don’t go to yoga,” she says. “After injury or surgery, as soon as I can do yoga–with limits–I do. I feel it’s an important part of my life, my well-being.”

Born and raised in Mount. Vernon, Mollie celebrated her 91st birthday in early March with a festive family brunch at X2O Xaviers on the Hudson on the Yonkers waterfront.  The oldest of three children, she graduated in 1937 from A.B. Davis High School (now Mount Vernon High School) and started working as a bookkeeper in Yonkers.

She met her future husband, Seymour Vogel, when her family moved next door to his in the early 1940s. In 1944, the couple wed. Together they raised four children (their eldest is now 63) and sent them through college. (The Vogels now have four granddaughters.)

After the couple’s children had grown, Mollie, then in her 40s, returned to school. While working part-time as a teaching assistant in a nursery school, she studied at the College of New Rochelle, earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts. (Later, she took graduate courses and earned a teaching license.)

Mollie started practicing yoga in the late 1960s. She heard about a Hatha yoga class offered at the YMYWHA in Mount Vernon. Accompanied by her younger sister, Adele Arpadi (“she was the first one of us to stand on her head,” Mollie says), she showed up to learn–and never left. It was definitely a case of love at first squat.

“I had always walked a lot, but I wasn’t an athlete,” she says. “From the start, I felt good doing yoga, and it never left me with a feeling of exhaustion.”

Mollie in Child’s Pose.

The practice of yoga was different then, Mollie insists. “There weren’t so many types–you just did yoga!” she says with a laugh. You didn’t practice in yoga pants or comfy sweats, either–leotards were de rigueur, Mollie recalls. And her yoga “mat” was made of stair carpeting, cut to size. “We got the measurements from our first teacher, Atmananda Lesser, and had the carpeting cut at a five-and-dime kind of store,” she says.

Mollie loved doing the poses–especially Sun Salutations–but the practice was never only about asana: friendship and building community were just as important.  The students attended retreats in the Catskills, made a pilgrimage to the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and held practice sessions at each other’s homes when the class went on summer hiatus.

“Through the years, yoga has had ups and downs. Sometimes it was very popular; other times it fell by the wayside. But we were always there,” Mollie says proudly.

Her much-loved class has gone through many changes: teachers have come and gone (past instructors include Barbara Kestenbaum, Tao Porchon-Lynch, and Reyna Gonzalez); the class day and time have varied; and six years ago Mollie had to find a new location for the class when the Mount. Vernon Y closed. Her sister Adele left the practice after a series of strokes, and several former students have passed away. But new students have come to take the elders’ places, and all the students, both veterans and newbies, look to Mollie as the class leader.

Mollie and her classmates: clockwise from Mollie’s left are Francoise, Irma, Virginia, Alida, Marilyn, and Rhoda.

“I once had a T-shirt made up that said ‘Ask Mollie’,’’ says Rhoda Rothman, a longtime classmate who moved to Mount Vernon from New York City in the 1960s.  Still spritely and elegant at 88 years of age, Rhoda describes Mollie as a record-keeper and organizer. “Whenever we had a question, we always turned to Mollie,” she says.

Mollie’s youngest classmate is Mount Vernon native Virginia Cramer, age 70.  “Mollie’s practice is remarkable; she’s still very limber,” Virginia says, adding that “everyone in the area knows her–people call her ‘Mayor Mollie’ and go out of their way to say hello.”

When Mollie celebrated her 90th birthday, her classmates took her out to celebrate. (They often go out for brunch after class, too.) She warns that she expects the same treatment when she turns 100.  To help her get there, she takes an exercise class (also at the Sinai-Free Synagogue) two times weekly in addition to her Tuesday morning yoga. She walks whenever she can, and dutifully practices the physical therapy exercises she was given when diagnosed with spinal injury. “If I don’t have that much time for them, I can count to ten real fast,” Mollie jokes.

Of all the choices Mollie Vogel has made throughout her lifetime to benefit her health and longevity, yoga is the most dear to her. A reliable friend in good times and bad, her yoga practice is forever woven into the fabric of her life.

“It’s not only physical,” she says. “It’s a comfort, too. A lot of my cohorts are no longer with us, but yoga gives me a connection to the old days. From the very start, I felt that yoga kept me going–and it still does.”

(For information about classes taught by Louise, click here.)

Saturday, April 9th, 2011
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