Most people think Boulder is a ski-town. They are probably right. But in fifty years, I would not be surprised to hear that most people think Boulder is the Shangri-La of the fifty states. Can you imagine Lhasa transfigured into a half-college, half-resort town, replete with snowboarders threading the base of a miniature, coniferous Himalayas like raindrops down a coral clad swami’s balding scalp as he exchanges metaphysical quips with college kids in Volcom sweats? If you can do that, I’d say you have Boulder pretty well pegged. There is a booming yoga community in New York City, in Las Angeles, in Boston; in just about any major city you’ll find people doing yoga, but there is no other city, that owes itself to this practice, that offers itself up to its calling, the way Boulder does. The streets of Boulder are studded with Yoga Studios and Tibetan Restaurants. Shambhala Buddhism was founded here, and the golden stupa atop the central temple stands tall over downtown Boulder. If you take a stroll along Pearl St., the city’s central commercial artery, you’ll find souvenir stores that’ll make you second-guess you’re not in eastern Nepal. But before arriving in Boulder, I was like anyone else. I thought Boulder was just a ski-town.
Understandably, I saw many eyebrows rise quizzically when I told people I was going to spend my spring break in Boulder doing yoga as part of a civic engagement initiative. Colorado of all places to bend your back! Yoga of all ways to lend a helping hand! To make matters worse, I knew little about yoga. I had once held myself in Warrior II pose on my parent’s copy of _Wii Fit_, and had even done a few headstands in my high school cross-country days (purportedly helps to drain the lactate from sore calves). I had seen other people—yogis—bend their bodies into grotesque convolutions seemingly named after the flora and fauna of a traditional haiku: eagle pose, child pose, downward facing dog pose, dolphin pose, boat pose, standing tree pose, falling tree pose—ouch! Was yoga Sanskrit for contortionism? If not, where lies the dividing line? I could offer no convincing rejoinders to those raised brows. All I could offer as demystification was what anyone who had read the compact mission statement on the application website could offer. The weeklong yogic sojourn was an enterprise endorsed by Princeton’s Pace Center aimed at exploring how yoga could be used for community building, self-inquiry, and empowerment. We were going to teach yoga to underprivileged populations. The venture even had a neat all-summarizing title that you could fold and fit snugly into your pocket: Yoga and the Practice of Nonviolence: Boulder, Colorado. The concept sounded less tenable with every approaching day, less grounded in reality and more like a caprice in new-age idealism. Looking back, these shades of cynicism, which I saw as a mark of a learned skepticism, was nothing more than the wrinkles of a nascent disillusionment that I would later seek to abolish.
We were twelve of us blowing westward into the Boulder Valley, mostly yogi wannabes hardly able to hold liquor legally, barely able to hold the padmasana for too long. Our trip coordinators, the campus yogi Elizabeth Cooper and dancer Nisha Rao, guided the rest of us into the ancient arms of the Rockies partly by way of preemption, partly by way of dharma. A kind yoga instructor and entrepreneur responsible for a new caffeine-free energy drink had offered his homestead in Longmont, so out of the Denver airport in rented Ford Flexes, we rolled toward the Boulder suburb right away. We got into the Valley too late the first night to see all the Buddhist prayer flags hanging over the Boulder shops and restaurant counters, to see the town painted with those crazy rags of elemental colors blue, white, green, red, and yellow. But the constellations did not dim, and the first sounds heard upon reaching our place of stay was “Oh my! Oh stars!” The wind was probably howling a transcendent mantra, but here the sky opened itself to us revealing hidden diamonds, and I was too busy staring into the great lucid darkness above to listen. What other shrouded jewels would I find here? There were days to listen, days to stretch one’s arms out. In the morning, looking into the mountains, I remembered Kerouac’s Sal Paradise lying under a Longmont gas station, half-dosing in his last respite before reaching Denver for the first time. As he had seen them, the snowy Rockies and the tremendous old trees are all still there among the rolling farm fields that have sat browning all winter, stunning the beholder into a naturalistic submission. The air was crisp and clear; visibility was high—at about 5000 feet above sea level, the air was light, almost flighty, and breathing called for a conscious pull of the lungs. But every full breath seemed to fill me with a vastness I had not known. I would learn in the days to come that yoga is balance itself, and breath is the most vital balance of all. As we coursed through the roadways from Longmont to Boulder, I felt equalized and absorbed into the grandeur around me, and my eyes trained themselves to appreciate the space between things. There was so much of everything all spread out immensely. The specks of cows grazing lazily, studding the honey-bleached landscape, the horses rushing along the grass and carrels, the plains stretching far away, filling in where there wasn’t anything else, the clouds stretching even farther, the air pure and invisible, the cars and the people all on their ways to somewhere, anywhere, someplace.
Now, I am not a historian with any formidable knowledge of Colorado, but the infrastructure of its history that I do know is the part that intersects with my own journey: In 1974, the supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries and the eleventh in a line of Tibetan lamas, Chögyam Trungpa, moved into Boulder after his escape from Tibet to India and his studies in Oxford to found Shambhala International—a meditation oriented school of Buddhism aiming to create an enlightened society—and Naropa University, which is just one of two accredited Buddhist universities in the United States. That same year, Allen Ginsberg (who, as a Haré Krishna swami purports, was the first to put the Haré Krishna chant to the oriental wail of the harmonium and the boisterous rhythm of a drinking song) and New York poet Anne Waldman helped Trungpa establish Naropa’s school of Writing, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics (_disembodied_ because Kerouac was dead at the time of founding). In the following years, the school became a hotbed for contemplative psychology, religion and spirituality. Inevitably, Naropa’s spiritual gravity drew in our yogic voyage.
A short walk from Pearl Street, Naropa University is a snug set of buildings located a few hundred meters outside of the Colorado University campus, just past the geodesic football stadium. Walking onto the compact campus green, we were greeted by a collection of floating stones underneath a sycamore tree. Closer inspection revealed the stones to be hanging from mesh wire tied to the large boughs above. As I discovered these seemingly magical rocks were indeed supported by a real foundation, so I came to see that the alternative practices studied at Naropa are grounded in robust philosophies. After interacting with the students and faculty in fields such as somatic intelligence (neuropsychology of the peripheral nervous system), traditional Eastern arts, and peace studies, the underlying principle was evident: the attainment of a universal balance—yoga.
Yoga comes in many forms. Hatha yoga is what most people envision when they hear the word yoga. It is the practice of attaining physical balance in posture and breath, in hopes that the mind and spirit will follow suit. Another form is Raja yoga, which Ghandi himself practiced fervently—striving for perfect balance through meditation, balancing the mind. There is also Karma yoga, which seeks for balance by helping others. It is an interpersonal yoga of altruism. Karma yoga is essential for all social workers, for how can one help others put their lives back in balance if they themselves are listing unsteadily? All of these balances are inextricably entwined. Healing and helping others requires guiding another out of pain and struggle, but in doing so, one must sympathize with that pain and struggle—taking the suffering into oneself and making it one’s own turmoil. Thus yoga admonishes us that the suffering of another is akin to one’s own. Helping another escape such suffering moves oneself out of pain and struggle. But such internalization of the suffering of others leads to the possibility that one will, in overcoming this suffering, let go of the other’s hand in selfish escape. Thus the practice of yoga calls for constant communication between the altruists and the victims, for a helping hand must pull both parties out of the mire. Though I gravitated toward this ideology, I still wondered how teaching yoga to special needs patients, underprivileged Latino mothers and children, and the homeless would address the issue of nonviolence.
Nonviolence is an interesting agenda for a civic engagement mission because, as the word reveals, it involves a negation of action. Taking the statement at degree zero, our little group was completely successful in accomplishing our nominal goal; not a single fight broke out among us, not a single streak of violence showed itself—save a small incident involving a fellow yogi stumbling into a rocking chair in the dark, and if bacteria should be so construed as to wage warfare against our immune systems, one of our ranks fell sick for a couple of days to strep and another was convalescing from a recent bout of pneumonia. None of the group really thought our agenda touched on the issue of nonviolence. It seemed that to truly address nonviolence there must be violence present to begin with, but there was none to be seen, none the day we taught the homeless, none the day we taught the underprivileged Latino families, and none the day we taught those special needs patients.
On the plane back, reflecting on discussions with local yoga gurus, a fellow yogi brought up the idea of how, as college students, we myopically fashion our minds toward our pursuits in times of high stress, while neglecting other essential parts of our lives, such as proper dietary and sleeping habits. This is a subtle violence imposed upon us everyday; its existence owes to the entropy of the universe. Violence is a destruction of desired order, an annihilation force. In this way, despite the lack of bloodshed, violence presents itself to us day to day. Thinking back on our episodes of service, a whiteboard on the wall of the homeless shelter said “No fight in 576 days.” The stress of the homeless life wipes away serenity, incites anger and frustration. Most of the underprivileged mothers must have never expected to perform yoga—such a chic fad that belonged to the world of the affluent—another bar separating them from the well off, imposing a violent pressure against their egos and self-image. Those special needs patients also seemed awfully scrunched up into their own little worlds, absolutely frightened of interacting with the outside world. They felt a violent vibe from the world and in retaliation addressed the world with turbulent attitudes. One patient kept giving us the middle finger. Another would cast glares from his corner. This was violence stemming from misunderstanding, an imbalance in trust. After each of those sessions, everyone seemed more calmed, in balance with the world, and the yoga seemed to make sense. When people feel perfectly balanced with themselves and with each other, there is no need to tilt the order with violence. With such insights I found myself growing idealistic, as my soul began a yoga-tropic expansion and the old wrinkles of cynicism stretched away into inexistence.