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Metroland Special Section
Mind Body Spirit


Jivamukti instructors John Smrtic and nancy Polachek

Photo: Josh Potter

Holy Headstands

Two local Jivamukti yoga teachers bring a burgeoning form, steeped in ancient tradition, to the Capital Region

By Josh Potter

A sort of paradox inevitably is confronted when one attempts to describe a school of yoga in relation to its peers. The 5,000-year-old Indian discipline has been familiar to the West long enough for most to recognize the Sanskrit word as translatable to “union,” yet, as the concept grows more common, its popularity seems to be manifesting in a diversity of yoga schools. According to a 2005 survey conducted by Yoga Journal, 16.5 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 practice some form of yoga, a fact that arguably legitimizes the discipline in the American mainstream. The type of yoga practiced in the United States has trended toward those schools developed within the past century or so: Kripalu, Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, and Jivamukti. Since its inception in the ’80s, the latter has become a rising cultural force, stretching out from its headquarters on Broadway in New York City to centers around the world, while similarly influencing larger matters of lifestyle away from the yoga mat. In 2007, the practice came to Albany with two of a fairly small cadre of Jivamukti- certified teachers.

If this plurality seems to belie a yogic philosophy of monism—the belief that every independent aspect of reality is ultimately one—it should. Far from being fractious, Jivamukti spurns the Western propensity to compartmentalize by forging an integral approach to yoga. For John Smrtic and Nancy Polachek, teachers at Heartspace Holistic, paradox is not so much a problem for yoga as a problem in yoga. Indeed, Jivamukti approaches unity by being simultaneously traditional and modern, physical and spiritual, self-reflective and socially aware.

Polachek describes Jivamukti as “vigorously physical, intellectually stimulating, and unapologetically spiritual,” and it’s in this final concession that the practice seems to most distinguish itself from other schools popular in the United States.

“By the time Jivamukti was born in the West,” Smrtic says, “yoga had become a physical practice—and it still is. We strive to bring the original essence to it.”

This essence comes from a lineage dating back to a time when yoga existed as an oral tradition passed from teacher to student. The lineage begins in modern times with Krishnamacharya, widely considered the grandfather of hatha yoga. Hatha is the physical discipline of asana (physical poses) that has come to characterize the Western image of yoga. In the early part of the 20th century, Pattabhi Jois made the practice more dynamic and founded the Ashtanga school. It was from Jois that Sharon Gannon and David Life, the founders of Jivamukti, began mastering their physical practice.

In the manner that Smrtic describes as “integral,” his teachers drew on what they thought were all the best aspects of different yoga practices. Included is an ethic of ahimsa (non-harming), which Gannon and Life refined in their time with Swami Nirmalananda, a silent Himalayan monk who practiced a vegan lifestyle (uncommon even in India), and bhakti yoga, the devotion to a notion of unity synonymous with the Godhead.

In addition to the physical practice of asana, a Jivamukti class may include any number of other traditional practices. Smrtic says, “We also incorporate scripture—whether it’s the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, certain ancient hatha yoga texts—because we want to root our teachings in the deep traditions . . . and sometimes we’ll chant Sanskrit sutras, or shlokas, or mantras to evoke the power of these ancient texts so that we begin to experience it in our lives.” Music, too, factors in for its ability to focus the student on nada, the core vibrational aspect of the universe.

All of these practices, however, remain subordinate to an underlying sense of intention that must be present for the experience of yoga to take place.

“What Sharon and David observed when they first started teaching yoga in the West,” Polachek says, “was that people were not approaching the practice with an intention. It really is empowering. It gathers your prana [life force] and directs it upward so that you actually become a more influential, radiant person and have a greater ability to affect the people around you.”

This intention is the impetus and the goal for the physical aspect of Jivamukti. Through a sequence of postures, linked by breath and intention, the yogi becomes more conscious and present.

In describing the ultimate historical objective of yoga as the experience of oneness with all of creation, Smrtic says, “If you’re doing asana and your intention is to experience oneness and to live with joy and compassion, then that’s yoga. Similarly, you can be doing asana and not really be doing yoga. This is not to say there aren’t amazing health benefits in the strict physical practice, but if you’re doing it to look good, fit into that pair of jeans, or get deeper into your ego-stuff, it’s going to bind you more than liberate you.”

Polachek echoes this risk by describing an observation Gannon and Life made early on. “They saw that if [the practice] was not carefully directed, it could result in people being more egotistical, self-important. The outcome of any sequence of actions is determined by our intention, not just on the mat, but in anything we’re doing.”

This risk isn’t meant to alarm neophytes with the threat of something akin to black magic; the role of intention is actually a fairly mundane observation of human psychology. Smrtic looks at the way many people get swept away in the abstract longings of career, money, material and prestige, losing track all the while of the way time transforms one’s personality. “What this practice on the mat does is make you more aware in your daily life of where you want to go so you’re not saying [as a Talking Heads song Smrtic might play in class also says], ‘How did I get here?’ It gives you subtle, profound insight.”

This insight, delivered, as Smrtic says, through the literal physical alteration of brain chemistry, is intended to cultivate the kind of dynamic flexibility that extends from the body into an all-encompassing worldview.

“To see that the same consciousness manifests in all of us, even animal and plant beings (although it may be expressed differently), is profound because you stop seeing beings as something for your personal utility,” says Smrtic. This observation directly corresponds with the principle of nonharming and manifests in a vegan diet. In addition to 300 hours of training, carried out over the course of one residential month—a regimen Polachek describes as the most rigorous yoga teacher training in the United States—aspiring Jivamukti teachers are required to study the mechanisms of agribusiness and factory farming, alongside anatomy and the traditional yogic practices.

“A connection to earth, nature and animals is still pretty revolutionary in this time,” Smrtic continues. “If you talk to people about their food choices, you’re going to be met with a lot of resistance.”

However, as radical as some Jivamukti practices may be, the school is careful not to proselytize. It’s likely that issues of God and ethics will come up in the course of a standard Jivamukti class, but the objective, it seems, is not to inculcate blind theological reverence so much as foster a palpable spiritual connection with people and for people so as to render them Jivanmuktas: beings who are liberated in this body, in this lifetime.

Polachek jokes, “You may even find through your yoga practice that it’s fun to go to mass on Sunday.”

“We may believe in something because it works for us, but we don’t want to create any more duality,” Smrtic says. It is, after all, this duality—of subject and object, East and West, old and new—that constitutes the paradox inherent both to yoga and to the way it has risen in American culture.

“In the end, nobody’s right and nobody’s wrong, but we have to do what works for us,” Smrtic says. “What’s right for us is a practice that creates freedom and brings us closer to yoga.”

For more info: or Heartspace Holistic, 747 Madison Ave., Albany,

Acupuncture for the People

A Glens Falls clinic makes alternative medicine all the more alternative by making it cheap

By Miriam Axel-Lute

Health care is expensive. Everyone may not agree on the way to fix it, but most of us can agree on that. For those of us who have found that alternative therapies sometimes work better for chronic problems—asthma, back pain, headaches—there’s the additional sting of paying through the nose for insurance that then doesn’t cover those treatments, even though they save the insurance companies from having to shell out for surgery or a lifetime of meds.

All of which can make non-Western medicine seem like a luxury for the well-off. Enter the Community Acupuncture Network (CAN).

A national network that has signed up dozens of member clinics in its first few years of existence, including one in Glens Falls, CAN combines a few principles to bring acupuncture treatment squarely within reach of average working people.

First, practitioners rely on a model that uses only “distal” points—below the elbow, below the knee, and on the scalp. This allows people to be treated fully-clothed, on recliners, in a room with many other patients, which in turn allows acupuncturists to see a higher volume of patients. Practitioners claim that this is in fact more true to the way it is practiced in Asia.

The higher-volume model allows clinics to charge less: To be a member of CAN they must have a sliding scale that usually runs from $15 to $40 per session (the first session often costs an additional $10 to $15 for paperwork and orientation). No income verification is required. “This is not about free clinics, alcohol and drug treatment, or becoming a social service agency,” write the founders of CAN. “It’s a low-cost, high- volume business strategy designed to make health care affordable.”

“There’s this neat revolutionary aspect, fighting classism and health care problems at the same time,” says Kevin Campopiano, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had recently started a private acupuncture practice when he heard of the concept of community acupuncture. He realized that “this is what I was looking for the whole time.”

Campopiano now runs the Acupuncture Studio in Glens Falls, using the community acupuncture model. It shares space with two massage therapists and two psychotherapists in the historic McMullen-Leavens shirt factory building.

There are skeptics. Campopiano says he’s heard the model called the “HMO” of acupuncture. But he begs to differ. Treatments are not rushed—clients often sit with the needles in place for an hour or more, and 10 to 15 minutes is generally plenty of time to check in with someone, find out how they are doing, and place the needles. “For that 10 to 15 minutes, I’m 100 percent there,” he says, and then, “I move on and let the needles do the work; the needles and people’s bodies take over.”

How hard is it to change acupuncture’s image from something for yuppies-into-all-things-Eastern to a valuable and accessible health-care option for working folks? Not as much as you might think, says Campopiano. “Some people have a sense that it’s weird, that it’s something you’d find at a spa. [But] I think mostly it’s more people just don’t know what it is, what to think of it.” Not surprisingly, he gets most of his clients through word of mouth; he has had to do very little marketing. Working Class Acupuncture, the studio run by the founders of CAN in Portland, Ore., has 21 chairs and sees hundreds of people per week.

Campopiano doesn’t expect everyone to come in a convert. “It’s great that people are skeptical,” he says. “They say, ‘Do I have to believe in this for it to work?’ I always tell people, it works on dogs and cats, and they . . . don’t believe one way or the other.”

Of course that doesn’t mean he’s not out to do a little more than just prevent the need for dozens of carpel-tunnel surgeries. Part of acupuncture’s power is its enforced stillness. “It’s pretty powerful to stop,” says Campopiano. “We really don’t know how to stop in this culture. Even sitting down, we’re often reading a book or watching TV. The power of being awake and not moving is really something. Even just stopping for one hour. Acupuncture is the back door to meditation, but even if they don’t enter a meditative state, if fight or flight is turned off for an hour, that is powerful.”

So far, Campopiano’s clinic is getting mostly local clients, though many travel from Saratoga County, some from as far as Albany, and quite a few come down from the Adirondacks. He thinks it’s only a matter of time before the model spreads further in the region, and is keeping his eyes open for anyone interested in opening sister clinics.

And what put the “community” in community acupuncture? “It’s a community, all within one big room,” Campopiano says. “You don’t know why anyone else is there, you just know they are there to heal. They have needles sticking out of them just like you.”

For more info: The Acupuncture Studio PLLC, 71 Lawrence St., Glens Falls, (518) 615-0505,

To Sleep or Not to Sleep . . .

Is the question really that difficult? For some of us, yes

By Amy Halloran

Family legend purports that I did not sleep through the night until my mother and father left me with my aunt. I was 6 months old. An interest in staying awake has persisted, and I am alternately pleased with and plagued by my sleep habits—or lack thereof.

My first serious bout of insomnia lasted most of fifth grade. The social studies teacher kept warning us of a diorama project, and once I turned out the light, the threat loomed over me like a barking shadow. I slaved over my farm scene for weeks and was sorely disappointed when hodgepodges of Elmer’s glue, cereal boxes, and plastic cows got the same A as my lovingly-rendered cottonball sheep did in their carefully-tempera-painted pasture.

When I was a teenager I began to play with my sleep patterns. Inspired by the fact that we spend a third of our lives asleep, I stayed up late reading Camus and listening to Led Zeppelin. I got up early. By the time I was in my 20s, I was exhausted. I had made major overdrafts on my sleep bank and was constantly nervous that I might not get enough rest. Every bedtime became a battle.

A generalized anxiety about sleep continues to haunt me, especially since I am now marching through my 40s. My female body keeps me well aware of the hormonal fluctuations that influence my pursuits at the pillow. I have, however, learned a few tricks to woo the sandman. I exercise daily and regulate my sugar, caffeine and alcohol intake like a gambler strategizing at the roulette wheel. I use yoga CDs and DVDs with practices geared toward relaxation. If I awaken too early, I get up and start working on the Great American Short Story.

Mystics have used sleep deprivation as a tool to divine the Divine, and I try to consider extreme sleepiness as a kind of wisdom when it strikes. However, I am better described as irritable than spiritual when tired. There’s no surprise there, as sleep deprivation has been used as a tool of torture.

“Chronic sleep loss does impair moral reasoning,” says Dr. Joshua Rotenberg, medical director for Academy Diagnostics LLC Sleep Center, and fellow for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, by phone from San Antonio, where he is a neurologist and sleep-disorder specialist. “I take care of a lot of kids with autism, and their parents are chronically sleep-deprived, because kids with autism have insomnia; its just hardwired. It’s really amazing to see the difference in the whole family when the kids are sleeping better.”

I experienced a rash of sleeplessness during my children’s young lives, and my attitudes toward sleep have shifted. My changing thoughts somewhat mirror varied cultural approaches to rest. I was happy to find a reason to discount sleep, partially because I am a little hyperactive and ready to glom onto extreme ideas. However, living in a land that encourages productivity while discouraging rest impacted my thinking, too. As a country, Japan exceeds the American obsession with activity, but there is also a general appreciation of sleep.

Napping is seen as beneficial rather than lazy in many Asian cultures. It was, perhaps, the common Japanese nap palaces that inspired Yelo, the first of its kind in Manhattan, to open late last year. The facility allows people to take power naps inside specially outfitted sleep cabins, and offers massage services to supplement the restorative effects of 20-to-40-minute naps. Now, I dream of sampling sleep while nestled into a contoured bin in the humming heart of Midtown.

Changing thoughts on sleep are entering the national dialogue. The effects of chronic sleep deprivation are tied to cardiovascular problems, and notorious accidents, such as the oil spill at Valdez, may be linked to sleep shortages. The National Institute of Health reports that nearly 30 million Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, and the National Sleep Foundation’s polls over the last decade note that half of the adult population suffers some symptom of insomnia on a weekly basis. We are building a sleep debt that compares to the numbers of our pre-bailout fiscal deficit.

The National Sleep Foundation aims to increase our understanding of the importance of sleep. In March it will host Sleep Awareness Week, and the foundation has a plethora of resources on its website (sleep You can find reading for a lifetime of wakeful nights, Q and As, self-help quizzes and FAQs galore, and research local medical resources like doctors who specialize in sleep disorders and sleep clinics.

But what if your sleep life runneth over, especially in the winter? Are you a bear attempting an interrupted hibernation?

“There is a tendency to sleep more during the winter, especially at latitudes where there is less daylight,” Dr. Rotenberg explains. “Melatonin is a natural hormone our brains make to signal it’s time to go to sleep. Dim light sets off the release of melatonin.”

Gather those extra Z’s while daylight is still short. Perhaps you can invest in an invisible national sleep bank, and someday you’ll be able to make payments to people who are sleep-poor. Maybe someday sleep will equal dollars, and the deficit will disappear. . . . Now that’s the stuff of dreams.

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