Sikhism: The Fifth Largest Religion in the World

Sikhism symbol

Sikhism: A Tradition Striving for Unity and Truth

Sikhism guru_nanak
Guru Nanak

Sikhism is the fifth largest religion in the world(one of the fastest growing, too) and originated in Northern India in 1469. Sikhis (meaning disciple or learner) are monotheistic, believe in the unity and equality of all mankind, engage in selfless service, and strive for the prosperity of all life. There are over 25 millions Sikhis in the world.

Sikhism originated in a guru tradition in 1469; Guru Nanak was the first to establish what because a religious tradition over the course of centuries. Ten gurus followed in Guru Nanak’s footsteps and after the death of the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh, the Guru Granth Sahib became the literal embodiment of the eternal, impersonal guru and serves as a guide for Sikhi’s.

The Ten Sikhi Gurus (each represents a divine attribute) are:

  1. Guru Nanak – Humility
  2. Guru Angad – Obedience
  3. Guru Amar Das – Equality
  4. Guru Ram Das – Service
  5. Guru Arjan – Self-sacrifice
  6. Guru Hargobind – Justice
  7. Guru Har Rai – Mercy
  8. Guru Harkrishan – Purity
  9. Guru Tegh Bahadur – Tranquility
  10. Guru Gobind Singh – Royal Courage

A couple of the Sikhi gurus are also Bhakti saints giving Hinduism an interesting relationship with the origins of the Sikh religion. The goal of the Sikhi is unison with the divine and they believe that no one tradition has a monopoly on the divine and emphasizes the “five thieves” of god’s presence: lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit.

The Origins of Sikhism

Sikhism was created in the Punjab region, which is between India and Pakistan. In the time of the first Guru, Guru Nanak, there were two competing religions of the Muslims and Hindus. Legend says Nanak went into a river at 28, proclaimed there is no Hindu or Muslim, only god and that he continued to bring Sikhism into the world.

The 5th Guru, Arjan was a scholar and helped to build the Sikh religion by creating the first scripture. However, he was seen as a threat by the state and executed for his faith in 1606.

The 6th Guru, Hargobind eventually moved to militarize the community and the Sikhs learned to fight to preserve their faith. They became relatively peaceful until Tegh Bahadur, the 9th guru, was executed in 1675 by Aurangzeb, the Moghal Emperor. The Moghal Empire consolidated Islam in South Asia, and spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture as well as the faith.

The 10th Guru, Gobind Singh, created the Khalsa as a military group so that they could forever defend their faith.

The Sikhs continued to rebel against Muslim oppression and eventually became a state of their own. But then they were defeated by the British. Then they became peaceful for a while, until 1919 when there was a massacre of over 400 dead and 1,000 wounded by British soldiers who fired on a crowd of protesters. A few historians signify this event as the beginning of the decline of the British Empire in India.

The Sikhi god: Ik Onkar

Ik Onkar is the Sikhi word for god and means ‘all pervading spirit’. This spirit has no gender, is beyond time and space, is without form, beyond the comprehension of humans, but not completely unknowable. The spirit is visible sikhism_ik_onkareverywhere to the spiritually awakened through the heart or “inner eye”. The religion prescribes meditation to allow for communication between god and man.

The Opening Line of the Mool Mantar:

“There is but one all-pervading spirit, and truth is its name! It exists in all creation; it does not fear; it does not hate; it is timeless and universal and self-existent, you will come to know it through seeking knowledge and learning!”

The ultimate goal of a Sikh is to be completely united with god. They achieve this state of liberation (mukti) by focusing on god rather than themselves.

Maya: the Worldly Illusion

Maya is a spiritual concept that has evolved over time and crosses over nearly every eastern religion in one way or another. Literally, Maya means delusion, extraordinary illusions of power, the veil of perception, magic, and “unreality”.

These worldly illusions are viewed as a direct opponent of realizing god in this lifetime (the goal of the Sikh is to realize god). It is believed that the object of Maya, or object of the senses, lust, desire, attachment, ego, greed, and anger which are known as the 5 thieves and are believed to take away from the individual’s relationship with god by distracting and hurting the individual.

Once god is fully realized, the individual is considered jivanmukta and liberated in this lifetime, which is a belief also shared in Hinduism. After this liberation, the individual is ceaselessly united with Brahman (the supreme truth underlying all of reality, but hidden by it). Sikhs also believe in reincarnation and karma.

The Khalsa – the Nation of Sikhs

The Khalsa is the collective body of all Sikhs. The Khalsa was initiated on March 30 1699 by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh guru. The word Khalsa means “sovereign”, “free”, or most often “pure”. Being initiated into the Khalsa is a type of baptism and males are entitled Singhs (lion) while females are titled Kaurs (princess).

The Khalsa is responsible for all executive, military, and civil authority in the Sikh society. They are considered the pinnacle of Sikhism and perform no rituals and believe in no superstitions. They only believe in god who is the master and creator of all, the only destroyer/creator.

A Sikh is defined as any human being who faithfully believes in one immortal being; ten gurus, from Guru Nanak to Guru Gobind Singh, the teachings of the ten gurus and the baptism bequeathed by the tenth guru.

Culture, Observations, and Rituals of Sikhism

Most Sikhs wake up early to meditate on the name of god. Then he/she bathes in a pool of nectar (I’m not really sure what this means, probably some type of sweet herbs and spices). Then he chants the name of the lord. All sins, misdeeds, and negativity is erased through this process. When the sun rises, the Sikh is to meditate on the name of god again. The idea of the Sikh’s existence is to worship god so that they can maintain a close relationship to god.

There are 5 K’s(panj kakaar) or articles of faith that baptized Sikhs are obligated to wear:

  1. Kesh – uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in a Dastar (a style of turban)
  2. Kanga – a wooden comb, usually under the dastar
  3. Kachera – cotton undergarments worn by both sexes to symbolize chastity
  4. Kara – an iron bracelet, a weapon and a symbol of eternity
  5. Kirpan – an iron dagger of differing sizes. In the UK it is very small and in Punjab it can be up to three feet long.

Sikhs are also very interested in music, many instruments were supposedly created by gurus. These instruments include the Rebab, the dilruba, the taus, the jori, and the sarinda. They would often play drums or Nagaras while marching into battle.

The Modern Sikh and Sikh Statistics

There are about 27 million Sikhs worldwide and 83% live in India. 76% live in Punjab where they form Modern_Sikh2/3rds of the populace. Sikhs were some of the first to migrate to Britain from India and were used in the Indian Civil service and so were spread out over the entire British empire. Many have spread throughout Europe and Northern America.

The caste system is still very prevalent within the Sikh religion, even though their gurus denounced the system. Untouchables, or Dalits still face harsh discrimination.

The first gurdwara (place of worship) was established in the United States in Stockton, California.

Discrimination against Sikhs has risen since the 9/11 attacks. They are said to be often confused with Arabic or Muslim Middle Eastern men because of their turbans and CNN suggested an increase in hate Crimes against Sikh men after the attacks. I’ll leave it to a few clips from CNN and other news to show you what I mean by discrimination (it involves racism and persecution because of ignorance).

  • The U.S. has the highest murder rate of affluent democracies. America had an extreme homicide rate of 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2008-2009, compared with a 1.43 rate in England and Wales and a 1.3 rate in Italy. Japan has 1/10 of the murders of the US. Don’t be surprised about how often this happens.
  • [September 24th, 2013] A Columbia University professor who wrote about hate crimes against Sikhs may have become a victim of one himself when 12 to 15 people attacked him while shouting anti-Muslim slurs, police said.
    Prabhjot Singh, a Sikh and a professor of international and public affairs, said the attackers were yelling “get Osama” and “terrorist” when they swarmed him Saturday night near Central Park in New York.
    “There were about 20 of them. A few surrounded me, and started punching me,” Singh said, according to the Sikh Coalition. He suffered injuries to his face, including displaced teeth and a possible fracture in his lower jaw. CNN ARTICLE
  • [August 5th, 2012] There was a shooting of 6 people in Wisconsin in a hate crime on August 5th 2012. ‘He said members described the attacker as a bald, white man, dressed in a white T-shirt and black pants and with a 9/11 tattoo on one arm — which “implies to me that there’s some level of hate crime there”.’The gunman started shooting in the parking lot, then entered into the temple and proceeded to open fire. Most of the victims were leaders of the church, men with turbans. CNN ARTICLE
  • [September 13th, 2015] A Sikh American man says he was taunted as a “terrorist” and “bin Laden” by another driver this week, and then beaten unconscious in his car. Police in the Chicago suburb of Darien are investigating the alleged incident as a hate crime and a road rage incident that escalated into a violent attack, Chief Ernest Brown said. CNN ARTICLE
  • [January 6th, 2016] A $10,000 reward is being offered in the slaying of a 68-year-old Sikh man brutally murdered in a central Fresno convenience store on New Year’s Day. They have video of a light-skinned suspect between 16 and 18 with a red hoodie that waited outside for about 5 minutes for a man named Gill to be in the store alone. Once Gill (Sikh man without any Sikh attire on) was within about a foot, the suspect stabbed Gill repeatedly. Gill tried to push himself away, retreated and picked up a golf club. The suspect knocked Gill to the ground before returning to the cash register, which he could not open. He then took something from a shelf and walked out of the store in the same direction from which he approached. Gill died of his wounds minutes later. Sikhs were anxious about heading back out into the community because of another attack that occurred on December 26th. FRENSO BEE ARTICLE
  • [March 2nd, 2016] Balwinder Jit Singh says a passenger beat him while calling him a terrorist and a suicide bomber last year in Inglewood. YAHOO NEWS ARTICLE

So this is very real, and its happening right now. This article from THE INTERCEPT talks about how Donald Trumps campaign makes it extremely hard on Sikh’s because hatred and violence are condoned. These are Americans that are discriminated against in our own country. And in lots of cases the police turn a blind eye, refuse to investigate, or whatever nonsense racism and ignorance they can make up. But this seems to happen a lot and we, as a nation, should not allow this kind of intolerance or ignorance. This is the 5th largest religion in the world!

 

References:
  1. Institute of Sikh Studies
  2. Sikhs dot-org
  3. BBC Religion
  4. Sikh Coalition
  5. Sikh Net
  6. Maya Wikipedia
  7. Sikhism Wikipedia
  8. Religion Facts

Sustainable Life: 5 Actions you can take NOW

Sustainable Life

Sustainable Life for Humans

Humans are on a crash course with our destiny. If we don’t find a way to live sustainable life, our species could become extinct. Over the next five-hundred, the extinction of our species will looms above us, as it has in the past. Will we fall into the oblivion of our over-consumption and completely destroy our eco-system? Or can humanity persevere into sustainable life and even become something greater than we have ever imagined? Could humanity bring life to new worlds and expand into a universe of global consciousness? Anything seems possible with human ingenuity.

There is no doubt that there are major issues that threaten the survival of the human species, namely our consumption patterns. There are five major actions you can take today for humanity’s future.

  1. Stop eating meat; move to a vegetarian or largely vegan diet. Cavemen were opportunistic carnivores; we will discuss these implications for your diet and for planet Earth. This is something you will almost never hear about, but has the biggest implications for our planet.
  2. Make your own things. If you need to buy something, understand the product life-cycle before buying (especially cars!). This is called “ethical consumerism“. We’ll come back to this.
  3. Try to drive less on a daily basis, but enjoy traveling long distances a few times a year. Your oil consumption matters, but there are other things that you consume that matter more. (hint: go back to #1)
  4. Stay away from authority. (police, judges, courts, politicians, bosses, anyone with a gun, or that thinks they can tell you to do something; teachers often also fall under this category when you a young). The idea is to limit your encounters with these types of people as much as possible to avoid conflict and destructive behavior.
  5. Enjoy a nice meditation, stretch, or even some yoga. Spend more time away from TV, screens, and stimulation/electronic radiation. Walk, run, hike, be outside, find outdoor activities. You’ll look better for it. Remember to enjoy the present moment whenever you can. It’s all that we really have.

These are just a few principles to help you live a simpler, more economized, sustainable, and efficient lifestyle.

Now, let’s talk about sustainability.

You want your life to be sustainable. You want your children to enjoy what you have enjoyed in your life. And through your life, you’ve realized what is important and it is surely not things! If so, you are living excessively! When there is excess, there is stagnation, we see it in all kinds of royal families throughout history and now in the wealthy corporation owner families like Wal-Mart. They always get slaughtered and killed in revolutions and replaced with leaner governments with more representation from citizens. This might happen soon in this county, but there are actions you can take to stop your over-consumption and to be a lean consumer.

The truth is that no one really values sustainability. Everyone wants more because they think that it will make them happier. Corporations want you to believe this! But this type of consumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

You do not value things. You can lie to yourself all you want, but if there is a bigger TV out there, you are going to want it! This means that anytime you buy a TV, this will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction, whether it is because a larger/more inexpensive TV is being produced, or the TV that you have breaks. Understand the tricks that your mind plays on you. You want things that will last, especially when you invest lots of money into these things.

The First Steps

Your meat consumption will have the largest effect on your world. Consider this: animals are living breathing beings just like you and they need to be taken care of. This includes water, food, warmth, medicine, and social interaction. Right now, we can’t even give the animals social interaction because they are too numerous. We over-medicate them because they are too numerous. The whole system is completely unmanageable because everyone wants to eat meat.

A human diet optimally contains mostly vegetables, fruits, legumes, and nuts for health. Most people don’t need meat and can subsist on a completely vegan diet. However, some people do need meat in their diets. These people can absolutely live on chicken and bug proteins (just like our ancestors). Human beings are absolutely not meant to eat red meat in large quantities. We simply do not have the stomach acid to break it down, which results in acid reflux, compacted digestive systems(think about old men with huge “beer bellies”; meat is the real culprit here), and slowed metabolism and digestion because of nutrients that are too densely packed for a human stomach to efficiently digest. Advancements in science are also helping to improve this, making fake meat tastier and closer in texture to real meat, but really our ancestors had very limited access to meat. You only need it occasionally.

Be Aware of your Water Consumption

We Americans use the most water of anyone in the world by at least 2x. Japan is the only country very close to us. How do we use so much water? Beef. Cows drink enormous amounts of water and they are an extremely inefficient converter of energy. Cows are the biggest reason why we Americans consume so much water.

We also take long showers, wash our cars, water our lawns too much and waste water on completely unproductive plants and animals. The key here is unproductive land. We need to use our land to cultivate healthy and nutritious food for ourselves and stop relying so heavily on mass farmers so they can be reasonable about their crops. We undervalue food in this country. I’m not talking about fancy restaurants; I’m talking about produce aisles at the grocery store.

Vegetables require far fewer nutrients, water, care, and money than cows do. That’s why you’ll never hear about this in the news, or on T.V. People have literally been killed over it. There are billions of dollars in beef and the beef companies want to keep it that way.

Showering for shorter times helps. Doing laundry only when clothes are really dirty also helps. Not watering your lawn is also a huge contribution. But rest assured, beef is the #1 culprit for water loss in this country.

Stop Being a Mindless Consumer

This is really all that you have to do. This falls under what we talked about earlier in the second point about ethical consumerism. Understand that all of the products in target and Wal-mart are made in China, basically in labor camps forced by the Chinese Communist government. They would do the same to Americans if they could and they do get away with quite a bit already! That is what you are supporting when you want to save money at those stores. All of fast-food comes from factory farms. They are the worst ones! I’m sure that McDonald’s cow’s aren’t loving anything that is being done to them. Neither are the pigs or chickens from all of the other fast-food chains. Deli meats are no better, don’t try to kid yourself. You wanna look lean, sexy, and be healthy? Stop eating meat altogether. Give it a try, don’t try to kid yourself that you need it after a week. You could survive without food for something close to 3 weeks. I’ve gone 5 days myself and didn’t lose too much weight, but I was also very thin and already living in India.

If you want high-quality, long-lasting products, then we have to invest in the art and craftsmanship of the people around us. The paintings that no one knows about have the highest mark-up anyways. Products with character and durability are getting harder and harder to find and its a shame. It’s an art to create beautiful crafts and we need to remember to value that and support the people who make it.

So it’s simple. Sustainable life is all about your decisions. Your existential power in this universe. Consider where your money goes, how it is funneled into the economy. Be serious about understanding your own patterns of consumption, and then you can run on next to nothing, or sustain yourself completely.

You can do it!

Taoism and Modern Yoga

Laozi

In Westernized yoga, there appears to have been a bit of a confounding of eastern traditions in regards to their application in yogic philosophy. We tend to mix up Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, even Jainism and put them all into the same category of “mindfulness” aimed towards stress reduction and happier, more meaningful living. Not that mindfulness isn’t an appropriate subject, but I think it can be important to differentiate between the Eastern religions especially to understand their unique, individual philosophies.

Yoga doesn’t really have a category. Traditional yoga is very similar to Buddhism, but the yoga sutras of Patanjali seem to be the most authentic “yogic” teachings from a historical perspective. Many scholars would also agree that Patanjali’s sutras are heavily influenced by Buddhism. Ujjayi breathing is influenced by Taoist practices and many of the meditational practices in yoga come from Jain and Buddhist traditions.

Most modern yoga teachers seem to be most influenced by Buddhism when teaching, focusing on concepts of Dharana and Dhyana for meditation that are the same in buddhist texts.  Many bring modern science and anatomy into the practice which is a more efficient way to practice because it allows us to understand what is happening while we are performing asanas. With these tools we can avoid injury and progress safely into a fuller and easier practice.

Buddhism teaches that at the center of all things is peace, which is a bit different from the Hindu belief that all things have a divine core. The yoga sutras of Patanjali seem to be more influenced by the Hindu side of things and his concepts in the 8 limbs of yoga support a divine core of all beings. However, the Buddhist state of Nirvana and the Hindu state of Samadhi seem to be very similar conceptually.

Most modern yoga is geared towards balancing the body not necessarily towards complete purification. This is because the whole body purification is more of a youthful activity, it requires a lot more effort once you are older and the body is increasingly more toxic with age (at least as a general rule). Aging well in a yoga practice is not necessarily aligned with yang style of ashtanga or Bikram yoga, but rather a combination of Yin and Yang style of exercises. In this way, modern yoga is more Taoist than Buddhist or Hindu.

The yoga sutras are undoubtedly Hindu, but they borrow many buddhist teachings and concepts. The past of yoga, Hinduism, and Buddhism seem to be vastly intertwined with the rest of the eastern traditions, most notably Taoism to produce a modern hybrid western style of yoga. Patanjali’s famous quote to still the fluctuations of the mind might be very similar to finding Lao Tzu’s Tao. It is important to remember that eastern traditions tend to be less ordered and regimented than western religions because the religions tend to cross over into each other. If you get a chance to read Patanjali’s yoga sutras then enjoy searching for the different influences of the texts.

The True Meaning of Yoga

yoga_dancer's_pose

Yoga provides exercises and experiences that allow you to experience life more fully and vitally. This means that the breathing exercises, stretches, calisthenics, abdominals, standing poses, back-bend, inversion, spinal twists, and hip-openers that you do during a yoga class are pretty useless by themselves. The idea is that they free you up inside to be present to everyday life and can therefore appreciate everything a little bit more and make you healthier to enjoy them. I think this is why looking at pictures of people doing yoga can feel so hollow, there is so much going on in that simple picture and you can’t really see the after effects of what the yoga is doing.

A human being performing an asana, or a positive postural alignment of their body is an incredible thing, if simply because the human being is alive and functioning in the compromised position, especially if they are doing ujjayi breathing. When you start to combine muscular stretches and skeletal alignments to focused the consciousness of that human in asana, postures can assist their body in realigning, strengthening, increasing flexibility and endurance. Yoga does this by innervating muscles that may not normally be flexed or contracted and distributing weight evenly among muscle groups while inversions provide your circulatory system with some much-needed filtration and release from gravity’s constant pressure. Yoga can help your body to recover from intense exercise and to stay young by keeping the fluid systems functioning properly.

Yoga is much more than an ancient Indian philosophy because it has evolved alongside American culture in today’s world, even if it is very romanticized in much of the western world’s culture of yoga studios, classes, teachers, etc. It is a part of the West’s culture now in a way that people really do appreciate and take advantage of in a good way. It is also a part of Hinduism and may be very old in India.

From science we have learned that the biggest benefits of yoga are usually the stress releases. Yoga is a powerful tool for mental and physical sensitivity, meaning that it gives you a good idea of how functional parts of your body are and how much endurance you have. It is especially useful in aligning nerves, which is why lots of people with sciatica find relief in yoga. We are just beginning to explore the effects of exercises such as headstand, shoulderstand, back-bends like camel pose, reclined hero pose, wheel pose, bow pose are all extremely powerful postures that science still has a lot to learn about. But it seems to have huge effects on nearly every system in the body because of the controlled levels of stress input and release and overall stimulation and fitness of the body’s muscular systems.

Yoga becomes an aspect of appreciating life. Sometimes yoga may come and go and I really think everyone experiences a little of this from time to time and that it isn’t a big deal. Sometimes life is just good and we are very happy and yoga can be in the background for a while, especially if everything is really good. But yoga is something that doesn’t really leave you. When you stand up straight, when you stretch your back while standing in line, the yoga is still a part of how you do things if you internalize it. The #yogaeverydamnday hashtag is kind of funny because I don’t think anyone does yoga 365 times a year. Even Ashtangis are supposed take the full moon of every month off.

Yoga doesn’t have to be something very formal, we don’t even really know much about the origins of what we practice now. Its not super religious, or ultra sacred, or anything more than what you want to make of it. You can practice in small quantities by yourself at home to really get things moving for your body in terms of flexibility and mobility. Teachers are good for more advanced things like inversions, breathing exercises, or advanced arm balances and advising you on how to advance in your practice. But its also something you can learn on your own and that can provide stability or whatever you may need it to be.

Dear Berlin, I love you (but not you Hitler)

Adolph_Hitler_Berlin

Berlin was a breath of fresh air after a long time of journeying in Vietnam, taking night buses and trying not to get scammed every day. It was a bit weird to be completely anonymous again, but nice all the same; I was able to practice Ashtanga in the park all three days that I visited Berlin without any interruption or even people staring at me which is something I have come to expect.

Berlin, Germany is a city of history and pain, which I must say is probably the vast majority of European cities. WWII history dominated the city, but in one of the most touching and personalized war exhibits I have ever seen (Austwitz was more personal, but the site’s history is also much more intense). Hitler and the Nazi regime were in full public view in one of the exhibits in the south of the city and the history of the wall was nothing short of incredible.

Berlin_wall
preserved portion of no-man’s land at the Berlin wall

The wall was up for 28 years; many people thought it would only last a few months. 1,000 people were killed in attempts to cross the wall and 5,000 or so were able to make it; but the fear and mental effects on the people were far more impacting.

It becomes pretty obvious that the Soviet Union was the driving force behind the creation of the wall; their tanks reinforced its creation and it wasn’t until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 that the wall was brought down. In addition, the people of Berlin were nearly all against its construction and it tore the city apart; government officials deliberately told the people there would be no wall and many thought it would only last a few days, maybe months. 28 years later, a church, cemetery, apartments, and countless lives were victims of the wall. The tributes to the people were personalized and specific; reading the stories brought you to the time period and it was easy to understand the grasp that fear had on the Berlin people.

There was another exhibit in the South of Berlin, near Potzdamer Platz that displayed details of the Nazi’s rise to power, making full view of Hitler and his regime’s eventual control over Germany, especially over Berlin. The feature picture of Hitler is from that exhibit. It is amazing to see the political climate that created the third Reich and the amount of control that it took over the German population. There was no explanations, simply facts and personal stories that allowed me formulate what it could have been like back in the 1930s and 40s in Berlin.

The food was great, but the Germans seem to eat about 90% meat (the other 10% is potatoes) which is just not my favorite style of food. I did end up having some Currywurst and Snitchzel, though I’m glad I don’t eat it on a daily basis. The people in Berlin were very kind and even though I didn’t go out at night, you could tell that there was a raging night club scene. If I go back, which I really hope to, that is something I will be doing my best to experience in full throttle. I needed to rest after two weeks of night buses and non-stop traveling in Vietnam.

I stayed in two hostels, both were good, though we stayed at the Pfefferbett and it wasn’t amazing; toilets flooded at night, their magnetic key system was absolutely horrible and the WiFi was bad, but it was pretty clean and the beds were nice. The East Seven Berlin hostel was stellar, clean, WiFi was great and the people who worked the hostel were very friendly. I definitely see myself heading back to Berlin in not too long, maybe for some music! That would be cool.

I recently put some new google Ads up on the site, I’m definitely going to keep them up because I think that they are completely non-intrusive and honestly, I’ve worked hard on this blog and think that I deserve at least some compensation for putting so much work into my writing and what it has become. Also, nothing is free; this blog takes money to maintain and I have been shouldering the cost completely. Think of it like I’m trying to get to the point where this blog is self-sustaining, because right now it isn’t.

So please don’t be turned off, understand that I have to eat like anyone else and I really want to get to the point where this blog sustains itself. Nothing is free. I am also completely out of space on my server so this might be my last couple of pictures for a while. If you are interested in supporting my writing, you can just send me an email @ [email protected]

Otherwise, have a great day, I’m off to explore Prague, possibly the most touristic city in Europe (seriously, tourists are everywhere here). More travel blogging on the way 😉

 

The Wanderer, Part 22

"White Mountain CA" by JonathanLamb (talk · contribs) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:White_Mountain_CA.JPG#/media/File:White_Mountain_CA.JPG

This story is part of a series, this is the twenty-second part.

You can read the first story here: The Wanderer, Part 1

and the most recent story here: The Wanderer, Part 21

Tas woke up with a jolt. Chills coursed through his body; the alpine air was fresh and crisp and their fire had died down to embers. Yao was snoring loudly and his wispy white beard floated with the wind and his loud snores. Tas’ eyes were hazy and his mind was blurred with fatigue from the day before, but the chill seemed to take only moments to wake him.

They were out of water, but during the past days Yao had taught Tas to build sturdy fires in the cold, to melt snow, and even a bit of rudimentary hunting, though he hadn’t shown Tas any of his expert trapping yet. The old man had caught three hares in a single snare two days ago, but he insisted that Tas wasn’t near ready yet and that he would simply hurt himself if he tried. Tas couldn’t argue; he had never seen snow before the days they had trekked up into the thin mountain air and he was still adjusting. He had never hunted. It was cold, harsh, and darker here, though the sun seemed to shine brighter during the day.

There was a dusty layer of snow on the ground so Tas took to cleaning out their temporary fire pit in the ground then went to collect more dead branches from the bottom of trees. He took his time to build the fire in a square with plenty of space in the middle for dried pine cones, pine needles, small sticks and some other kindling he could find. Using the flint that Yao had given him, he sparked the fire after only 10 minutes of trying; Yao could do it in just a couple, but it had taken Tas nearly an hour the night before.

The fire began to build and Tas took the small copper pot Yao had brought and began to fill his water skin first. When he was done, he woke Yao, knowing that it was time; the sun was rising in the sky and they needed to keep up their pace. Who knew how long they had until Grethatch or Melkar would find them.

Tas woke Yao by prodding him with a stick in the arm; the old man shuttered awake and for a moment his eyes were wild in defense and he looked ready to spring upon an assailant. Tas had learned to stay away from the old man when he woke him from snoring. He laughed as the old man gained his bearings, then moved closer to the fire, a grin of pure satisfaction crossing his lips.

“Good work boy! Maybe your cause isn’t lost after all,” he winked, and took the pot from Tas, filling his own skin, then drinking from it. He had another small vessel full of small leaves that he added to the water, then invited Tas to share in it.

“You think Grethatch will find us?” Tas said wearily. It was undeniable that his body was tired from the long days of trekking to higher and higher altitudes. His breath grew shorter faster and he found his muscles beginning to fail him at times.

“Yes.” Yao said sternly. “He has methods of doing so that I don’t understand, but they are powerful. You saw Melkar’s attack on the monastery; it was planned to perfection. Except for his overestimation of his own strength. It is probably his greatest weakness.” Another wide, this time sinister grin returned to Yao’s bearded and wrinkled face. “The only exception might be his underestimation of me. And by extension, you.”

Tas sat and thought for a moment while drinking the warm tea, feeling his entire body elevate with the hot liquid coursing into his body. It was ecstatic.

“We have two more days until we reach the village where I was born Tas. So now, you need to learn my story. Why I am who I am.”

“I know you were born a hunter Yao, then banished, but I don’t understand why. What happened?” Tas had been waiting for this since he had met the old man. Had it been months, years? He realized he had no idea.

“I wasn’t banished boy, I was exiled. The difference was my choice to leave. There was a corruption in my village that would have strangled me if I had stayed. I did what I had to.”

“What do you mean?” Tas was confused. This was not what he had understood from the little conversation they had shared on the subject earlier.

“My people are bloodthirsty Tas. The same rage and thirst runs through my veins, but I have tempered it, mostly with Fei’s help.”

“He disappeared!” Tas exclaimed. “Do you think Grethatch or Melkar capture or killed him?”

Yao laughed wholeheartedly in response, giving Tas instant relief.

“Fei may look harmless, but he’s as slimy as a snake and quiet as a mouse when he needs to be.” Yao’s expression grew more serious, “Never under-estimate the power of a monk, they dedicate their lives to learning themselves and by extension, their world. You saw Paj’s power. Fei’s is even more potent, which is why he commands the respect of the entire monastery.”

“It’s hard to think of him as so powerful; he’s so kind.”

“Fei is rare indeed; power nearly always corrupts those who grasp it. Honestly, he is one of my few friends in this world, Tas.”

“All of mine have been left behind.” Tas said, lowering his eyes and thinking back to his village. Tears suddenly welled in his eyes as his thought of his mother and father; where were they now?

“We leave behind everything in the course of our lives Tas. But looking back is important.” Yao said with a weak smile. “The past will always be behind you and that’s where it belongs.”

Tas didn’t really understand what Yao meant, but it comforted him all the same. He thought again to where they were going, taking Yao’s advice.

“So we are going to the village where you were born? Do you think we will be safe there?”

“I do not know.” Yao said seriously, his expression grew darker. He refilled the copper pot with snow and placed it near the fire, that was beginning to turn to embers. But it was still hot.

“My people are warriors, Tas. They do not know sympathy; they deal in death, honor, and strength. We will have one chance to find safe haven amongst them. I can only hope that chance will be on our side.”

“Chance? What does chance have to do with strength and honor?” Tas said curiously.

Yao laughed again, his normal hearty chuckle that Tas had grown terribly fond of. “Everything Tas. And do not be deceived by the tenets of honor; men are deceptive and sometimes evil beings. We are easily corrupted Tas. My biggest fear is that Melkar, or perhaps his allies hold have over my people.”

“You think he might have already been and corrupted your people? What drives that demon anyways? What does he even want with us?”

“He wants me dead. That is sure. As for my people, they are not easily corrupted; but I have thought the same of friends that have fallen to the shadows. So truthfully, I do not know.”

“And Melkar?”

“Melkar is a being of hate and greed. He likely wants your apprenticeship to wound me. That is why I believe he let you live while only corrupting you.” Yao grinned again, darkly. “A big mistake on his part.”

Tas thought back to the nightmare where he had been corrupted by the wyrm. Yao had to be right; Tas should have died that night.

Yao began to pack up their blankets and packs and they put out the fire. Tas felt rested and a bit worried, but happier to know where they were going and why. He couldn’t help but think that Yao was so different from his expectations. Gritting his teeth, Tas hauled his pack, took a long swig of cold mountain water, then followed his master up the slope into the chilled air of the alpine.

 

The Human Body is an Ecosystem (Part 2 of 5: Skin Micro-Organisms)

By Photo Credit: Janice Carr Content Providers(s): CDC/ Segrid McAllister [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Part 2: Micro-organisms on the Skin

Please see the other parts of the article; once they are completed the links will be active:

Part 1: anatomy of the human microbiome
Part 3: micro-organisms in the mouth
Part 4: micro-organisms in the gut
Part 5: implications for modern medicine

On your epidermis (skin), there is an estimated 1 trillion micro-organisms known as skin flora, or skin microbiota. The word microbiome actually refers to their genomes, and there are about one thousand different species. Most live on the top-most layers of the skin and on the top of your hair follicles.

Skin flora are usually commensal (non-harmful) or mutualistic (beneficial). A primary benefit from these micro organisms is protecting against transient pathogens (traveling from another host) by competing for nutrients, secreting chemicals, or stimulating the skin’s immune system. Resident microbes (native to your skin) can cause skin diseases and enter the bloodstream creating illness and disease, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.

There are three different categorizations for the ecology of skin flora: sebaceous (oily or fatty), moist, and dry. sebaceous areas tend to have the greatest richness of bacterial species. The spaces between fingers and toes and inside of the belly button are the most diverse, and the nostrils and back tend to be the most similar between people. Interestingly, one study has shown that the area behind your heel has the greatest fungal diversity of the body. It also seems that as you go up the body from the ground (feet to head) there is a decrease in diversity of fungus, which intuitively makes sense because the ground has a huge amount of bacterial diversity that your body probably wants to protect against. Your feet have lots of fungus and the oily places on your body have lots of bacteria. Interestingly, most of the species of bacteria studied occasionally have pathogenic capabilities. It seems that there is a balance on the body, that when disrupted, can lead to many of the micro-organisms to become pathogenic. Let’s look into that a little bit more.

Flora can be beneficial, pathogenic, or commensal (non-harmful). Often, they can be all three, depending on the strength of the hosts immune system. I recommend reading this study on the balance of flora on the skin and how they interact, because it is extremely complex and very interesting. Essentially, the work in balance to keep each other from becoming too numerous and killing one type of bacteria can lead to growth of fungus.

Odor, interestingly, is not caused by sweat. It is caused by bacteria consuming it and creating byproducts that we consider smelly and unattractive.

Lets get back to the idea that the bacteria on your skin are actually mutualistic and beneficial when in balance. The skin creates antimicrobial peptides that control the growth of skin microbes. One example is cathelicidins which in addition to directly controlling bacterial populations, secretes Cytokine, which induces inflammation, skin regrowth, and blood vessel regrowth. Atopical dermatitis is linked to suppression of cathelicidin production; a major factor contributing to its production is Vitamin D3 (which actually isn’t a vitamin because the body produces it instead of needing to ingest it).

Your skin is slightly acidic when healthy. It has a PH of 4-4.5 due to lactic acid in sweat and produced by skin bacteria. Antimicrobial substances secreted by the skin are enhanced in acidic conditions and in alkaline conditions are more easily shed. The shedding of skin is one way that your body manages the buildup of flora on its surface. The immune system can produce cell mediated immunity against microbes, but some fungi have evolved to limit the immune response against them.

Micro-organisms also play a role in non-infectious skin diseases, like acne, atopic dermatitisrosacea, and psoriasis. Damaged skin can cause bacteria to become pathogenic. P acnes is a particular bacteria that causes acne, which can be healthy in some people and pathogenic in others. Probiotics are being used to balance the imbalance of skin bacteria that can cause acne.

Atpoical dermatitis is linked with low bacterial diversity; low gut microbial diversity in babies have been associated with increased risk in dermatitis. Other diseases will likely have probiotic cures in the future, used again to balance the populations of bacteria on the skin. These bacteria can also build immunities; the use of bacterial and fungicidal soaps will inevitably lead to bacterial and fungal populations which are resistant to the chemicals employed.

Skin flora also do not readily pass between people. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wash your hands after the bathroom (fecal bacteria are different from skin bacteria and make up close to 50% of your feces). The most effective (60 to 80% reduction) antimicrobial washing is with ethanol, isopropanol, and n-propanol. Viruses are most affected by high (95%) concentrations of ethanol, while bacteria are more affected by n-propanol. Unmedicated soaps are largely ineffective at controlling bacterial populations.

Over washing your skin can lead to damage through loss of water creating dryness. There are lipids in the skin that can be removed by detergents and alcohols and wearing gloves can exacerbate the problems of already irritated skin. Damaged skin can lead to normally mutualistic or commensal bacteria to become pathogenic.

Skin flora is less diverse than gut flora. Both are less diverse than soil flora. Next time, we’ll talk about oral bacteria and how your mouth has an ecosystem all its own. Stayed tuned for part 3: Oral microbiology.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments, or to add anything you’ve found in your own research. Always happy to start a conversation.

<3 from Vietnam, Elliot

 

Overpopulation and its Potential Effects on Humanity

overpopulation: John B Calhoun rat universes

Overpopulation and Humanity’s Destiny

If we don’t halt population growth with justice and compassion, it will be done for us by nature, brutally and without pity- and will leave a ravaged world.

-Nobel Laureate Dr. Henry W. Kendal

 

By the year 2050, the Earth’s population is estimated to reach a staggering 9.6 billion people. Many scientists would consider this to be overpopulation of the planet. It is currently believed that there are 7.2 billion people on Earth, but this is just a guess. In reality, we don’t really have any idea how many people are on the planet, just a lot of supposedly “good guesses”. And unless we make some major breakthroughs in the fields of energy, ecology, climatology, and agriculture the human race has a good chance of experiencing a severe decline in population, possibly even extinction because of overpopulation. A lot of things need to change in our civilization’s infrastructure if the human race wants to survive for the next millennia and even more if we are to prosper.

I’m not an alarmist. There’s no need to panic. But you should probably reconsider your consumption patterns, because you will be economically pressured to change them in the next 20 years. Especially if you live in the United States. But the world isn’t going to end in the next 6 months. In fact, Earth will be fine, especially in the long run. We live on a planet that is incredibly good at balancing itself, which we are seeing now with the effects of climate change (see my review of ‘Chasing Ice’ if you want some good evidence of what is happening to the glaciers of the planet). But weather patterns are going to get more and more severe unless we can find ways to mitigate the greenhouse gas effect and humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels.

A Tipping Point for Humanity’s Population?

It is entirely possible that human’s have reached what scientists call “peak oil”. At this point, we might be running out of oil, even though in the last 6 months we have isolated and reproduced a fungus that can produce petroleum. We might also be able to clean up the world’s largest oil spills with a different type of fungus. Advancements in science are what is going to save us. If you don’t know about the scientific method, you should read this article.

All of these developments can be attributed to the massive growth in human population at the cost of our environment. These problems WOULD NOT exist if humanity was better at living symbiotically with our environment. Yes, I say this with 100% certainty. We tend not to look at situations holistically and see only what is in front of us. In this overpopulated state, we need to either mitigate the effects of our oil use while simultaneously finding sustainable sources of it, or we need to find an alternate, sustainable fuel source for the world’s transportation.

Alan Watts said that the fundamental problem with the current state of society is man’s isolation from nature. This allows for our overpopulation of the planet. Things like A/C, cars, roads, airplanes, deforestation, warehouses, skyscrapers, and dams are all examples of destruction of the environment rather than cultivation. Some of these things can be symbiotic with nature if architected properly (ie climate regulation, terraforming, sustainable fuels, nuclear fusion, etc.). Watts said that in the 60s.

The problem with humans is that we view ourselves as separate from our environment, when in fact the two are the same. Religion is a huge cause of this. For some reason, we feel like we are better than our environment, better than animals, because god made us special. In my last article on human microbiota, I explained how humans have a hole inside of us, called the gastrointestinal tract or gut, that is really a part of the outside environment. So in reality, humans and our environment are the same thing. It is largely our ego and search for control that has led us to believe that we are ‘superior to’ or greater than our environment.

The problems are rather simple. Yet people have a tendency to  be so over-reactive to seeing how humans have affected our environment. This allows news companies and especially shitty internet journalism to get an emotional rise out of us. And after this emotional reaction, we tend to become inactive and hopeless, rather than adjusting our behavior. I’ve witnessed this personally within myself. I waste energy on an emotional reaction, rather than thinking about how much waste I create on a daily basis. There are examples in our modern culture. Water consumption in southern California is an excellent example. Some people don’t even believe that there is really a drought.

Americans, as only 5% of the world’s population, use 24% of the world’s energy; some sources estimate the average American uses as much as 160 gallons of water a day. So instead of writing emotional facebook posts, being reactive and emotional about the issue take matters into your own hands; take shorter showers, try to drive less (obviously you have to drive to work and to get your kids to soccer and all that stuff because our infrastructure isn’t setup symbiotically). Try to use less energy, wash only dirty clothes, turn off your lights. Then you can stop worrying about our planet because that’s all you can do. Manage yourself.

We need to consider what it might be like if we had to live in 100% unity with our environment; which sooner or later will become a necessity if we are to survive with such a large population. Cities will be rebuilt. Freeways will be redesigned. We are already seeing the beginning of some amazing developments.

Answers to the problem of overpopulation?

Nuclear fusion might be the answer to our energy problems, but that technology is expensive and we’re going to have to wait for it. However, creating and harnessing the power of stars is how we will survive for the next millennia. There are a few awesome projects happening that might excite you for the future, rather than scare you away from it. The international thermonuclear reactor project is an exciting project underway and Lockheed Martin has somewhat suspiciously said that they have an even more compact reactor on the way (the scientific community is very skeptical because they haven’t yet released data). Our ingenuity will be the key to our survival.

I am trying to say that hopelessness is a silly conclusion and that hope is key to survival and prosperity. One way to inform yourself of some of the negative possibilities in our future is to learn about John Calhoun’s mouse paradise experiments on overpopulation. It is a concept known as the behavioral sink, or societal collapse due to overpopulation. However, even Calhoun left his studies with hope for the future of humanity, especially considering that there were rats that seemed to be resilient to the effects of overpopulation. His studies involved creating mouse utopias, then allowing the mice to overpopulate. In his studies he found

“Many [female mice] were unable to carry pregnancy to full term or to survive delivery of their litters if they did. An even greater number, after successfully giving birth, fell short in their maternal functions. Among the males the behavior disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep. The social organization of the animals showed equal disruption. […]

The common source of these disturbances became most dramatically apparent in the populations of our first series of three experiments, in which we observed the development of what we called a behavioral sink. The animals would crowd together in greatest number in one of the four interconnecting pens in which the colony was maintained. As many as 60 of the 80 rats in each experimental population would assemble in one pen during periods of feeding. Individual rats would rarely eat except in the company of other rats. As a result extreme population densities developed in the pen adopted for eating, leaving the others with sparse populations.

[…] In the experiments in which the behavioral sink developed, infant mortality ran as high as 96 percent among the most disoriented groups in the population.”

-John B Calhoun from “Population density and social pathology”(1970). California medicine 113

We have Hope for the Future

Over-reactivity from fear is something you should actively fight within yourself. Overpopulation is a problem that humanity can work together to solve. There is no need for fear. Find hope, reasons to belief in your own ability to consume less, if no one else’s. Fear and panic are the enemies to social order. Stop believing the news, especially internet articles aimed at reactivity. That’s what they want, to shock you into reading. If you can fight your fear with hope and action you will lead yourself to more action oriented at personal results, therefore affecting the collective in the greatest possible way that you personally can. See what  you can do, challenge yourself, experiment with alternate lifestyle behaviors. You’ll surprise the shit out of yourself 😉

Practicing Ashtanga with Saraswathi Jois

Saraswathi_Jois_Shala

Tuesday marked the final day of my practice at the Pattabhi Jois yoga shala (kpjayi) with Saraswathi Jois. I feel extremely lucky to have been able to spend the last couple of months practicing with her and exploring the lineage of Ashtanga yoga.

Learning there was a bit of a unique challenge in my case because I have practiced for five years before I even got to India. There were certain asanas that I hadn’t done regularly and certain asanas that I was very proficient at in the advanced and intermediate series, but didn’t practice because of how late they are in the series. Even the first day was weird. Saraswathi belted out some commands to me, which I tried to enact (her english is not amazing) and we got up to the Maricyasanas. I worked through them for a while then a couple weeks later moved into kurmasana and supta kurmasana and Bhujangasana and was able to work on the finishing sequence since the beginning of practice. Eventually, 25 breaths of headstand are pretty much effortless.

My daily practice has completely transformed and now I have something to work from. I deviate into variations and stretches that I am craving and work in back bends and some of the intermediate series at the end. Soon, I will start working on the first few poses of the sequence (I’ve been working on Pasasana for over a year, except while in Mysore). And as much as I want to say that I do not care about progression, I do care about deepening my Samadhi and I find that new poses and deepening certain existing postures is a part of that. Supta Kurmasana taught by itself has deepened my practice in many ways, same with the Maricyasanas, so I am grateful for having the opportunity to learn them.

I didn’t get to drop backs or Setu Bandhasana, but that is fine with me. I will work on the intermediate series and the primary series, maybe I will even come back. I enjoyed the alone time and the doing nothing but writing a little, making some music, and making room to practice yoga every morning and meditate during the days. Having experienced the atmosphere of India I can really understand how yoga came about and why it is so powerful for the human body. History I’ve been reading makes a lot more sense now after seeing the environment that Indians live in.

Saraswathi is traditional and you really can’t blame her for that. She teaches the sequence the way it was taught to her and she is a powerful voice for many things, but ultimately you have to regulate your own injuries if the (re)occur. So with the Ashtanga practice in general comes an enormous responsibility to know your own anatomy and to increase your awareness for the functioning of your body. Without a heightened awareness, you can easily injury your knees, shoulders can get used to being hyper-extended in down dog(this happens a lot), and muscles can be easily strained. In doing yoga, you are increasing your sensitivity to your body, especially in a practice as intense as Ashtanga. This allows your to better manage your body, which increases the steadiness of your mind, because your are more aware of the consequences of your actions and of the actions of your environment, which have direct effects upon your body.

So ultimately Saraswathi wakes up early and facilitates the yoga of her students and is very committed and so are her assistants, but the Ashtanga yoga method is usually not suitable for beginners. Especially when you are older, you should have pretty much mastered sun salutations and at least practiced most of the postures. Also knowing and using yin yoga can be a great addition to an Ashtanga yoga, even though it isn’t prescribed by the KPJAYI.

If you want to take a couple of months off, practice a yoga practice that you conform to and focus on those postures for a few months while quieting your mind, the Ashtanga Institute is a great resource and so is Mysore, more specifically Gokulam.

Gokulam is an amazing place, a quiet repose in the midst of a semi-busy city that supposedly is a prototype for southern India. I didn’t get to visit too much else, but Mysore itself is an amazing city, full of animals and wildlife and scooters. The pollution there is bad as well, but I am told that as far as India goes, the pollution in Mysore is minimal.  Basically I didn’t have to wear a mask every day and the streets were walkable, though just barely.

The yoga institutes are hidden away from the city in much quieter Gokulam, with plenty of facilities to practice yoga quietly. It was an experience I will remember as having quieted my mind, as well as given me some great experience with yoga’s history.

So if you are looking to come to the source to practice yoga as it has been taught for the last five decades or so, Saraswathi is great. Ensure you know the sequence, at least the beginning and end, when you arrive. You can also take your time to learn, they are very accepting at the shala, but keep in mind that personal attention from the teachers isn’t something you should rely on. But if you need more, Saraswathi is the one to go to simply because she has fewer students and you are learning the method and not a teacher.