I'm the last guy you'd expect to try yoga. What I discovered stretched my understanding of the practice - and (pop!) of myself
AFTER SPENDING MY YOUTH CONVINCED OF MY INDESTRUCTIBILITY, I'M SPENDING MY MIDDLE AGE IN DENIAL ABOUT MY FRAGILITY
I don't bend well. Can't touch my toes; can't limbo under a bar lower than eye level. I can flex 10 degrees to either side, 15 degrees if someone tugs on my arm. At 48, I just don't have many moving parts - I can feel the little rubber bands that hold my body together stiffening forever into place.
I'm just as inflexible upstairs, where my mind is stretched tight around the junk of modern life: a constantly mutating schedule, a to-do list with the length and complexity of a Russian novel, transcripts from too many emotional dramas, and maddeningly precise memories of the Burt Reynolds movie Stroker Ace. It's hard to find a clean sightline in there.
Now, mine is generally a la-di-da attitude toward wellness - if I'm not dead, I'm well enough - so I didn't grok my bodily hardening and mental untidiness as problems. That implies they can be fixed. To me they were simply inevitabilities to be endured, occasionally medicated and mostly bitched about. I figured it was all just an older guy thing. A brain-weary, overweight, older guy thing. Nothing could be done.
Trying yoga never crossed my mind. Not even close.
WHAT I (THOUGHT I) KNEW ABOUT YOGA: A MORE OR LESS COMPLETE LIST
Achingly physical; requires excessive pliability and potentially embarrassing poses.
Practiced by thin, pretty, affluent people with lots of free time.
Moves have funny names - something about a Downward Dog? (Snicker.)
Just another Eastern cultural tradition appropriated by callow yuppies trying to season their bland, capitalist lives with a little exotic woo-woo.
Not for me.
BUT MAYBE IT'S TIME FOR A RETHINK
Then, one day, climbing a set of stairs totally winded me. Damn! That day was actually a while ago; it took more stairs and more fish-faced gasping before I entertained the hard question: Should I maybe do something?
Jogging? Not unless it was a 100-yard run directly toward an emergency room. Walking? Two words: Bor. Ring. A friend hooked me up with a trainer, who promptly tried to murder me with a treadmill. I quit.
More stairs. More gasping.
A different friend said, You should try yoga. Loosen you up, clear your mind.
WHAT IS YOGA?
It's a set of mental, physical and sometimes spiritual disciplines developed centuries ago in India - according to abc-of-yoga.com, 3,000-year-old carvings depict yoga poses, although the founding text of the practice, the Hindu Bhagvad-Gita, dates to about 500 BC.
There are eight strains of emphasis in yoga, ranging from ethics to tolerance to physical exercise to breathing to meditation. Different styles of yoga have sprung up around combinations of those elements. Hatha, the most widely practiced variety in America, is big on gentle physical movements; bikram is practiced in a heated environment to better purify the body; kundalini focuses heavily on breath control (although breathing techniques are important to all practices).
"It's a natural progression of integrating your mind and body into better health," says local yoga instructor Ana Maria Rydell. "All yoga is designed for you to get to that meditative state. If you exercise your body and be aware of your breathing, you'll get to a place where you can meditate."
Cheryl Slader, of Blue Sky Yoga in the Arts Factory, elaborates: "Yoga does not begin until the fluctuations of the mind end." The allure of that notion is reflected in steadily climbing participation rates: According to the National Sporting Goods Association, in 2009 almost 16 million Americans did yoga; other studies suggest that three-quarters of them are women, many of them past their 30s.
"A lot of people go into it thinking it's just a physical practice," Slader says. "And with the stress of the economy and everything, more people are getting into it for the stress-relief aspect. There's always the hope that people will realize it's also a spiritual practice, and try to live it off the mat."
"The perception of what a yoga person is - well-heeled, fit, middle-aged - is a relatively recent perception," says writer Neal Pollack, whose latest book is Stretched: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. "In the '60s and '70s, the vision of that person would be more hippie-ish, less athletic. The idea of yoga changes according to time and place."
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: ME?
Okay: In this time and this place, I couldn't picture my big round self, popping sweat and snapping tendons, amid a floral arrangement of thin, gently bending, perfectly centered people on their custom yoga mats. That seemed less likely to clear my mind than overload it with fresh anxieties.
But it needn't be intimidating, Rydell says. "Yoga kind of starts with what I call radical self-acceptance - where you are is exactly where you need to be." Note the underlying dynamic of my mental image: me versus them. Comparison. Yoga, on the other hand, is inward-directed. "Just be," she advises. "Don't worry so much about what it looks like."
"I got into yoga because the New York Times called me fat," Pollack says. In reviewing one of his previous books, America's newspaper of record referred to Pollack as "doughy."
"It got to me," he says. "My wife said we should take a yoga class, so we did." He'd never thought much about yoga. "I was really ignorant, which was a good place to start."
THE UNBEARABLE TIGHTNESS OF BENDING
Really Ignorant, reporting for duty.
It's 8 a.m. on a November Friday, and I'm stepping onto the mat upstairs at Xtreme Couture, suddenly reminded of something I'd momentarily forgotten when Rydell agree to let me sit in on a beginner's class. She teaches mixed-martial artists. So it was five tough, buff dudes in peak physical condition - and me.
Yoga is deceptively simple. The first move has us on our hands and knees, arching our backs, chins to sternums, breathing deeply. Easy enough. Before long we're in the Downward Dog - no snickering, please - which requires us to be on hands and toes, tailbone up. Again, easy enough. But as the moves combine, extending a leg and arm, or bringing a knee to the chest, always
... breeeeaaaathing ...
... deeeeeply ...
the exertions become cumulative. I sweat. My tendons snap, though not as audibly as I'd feared. I have zero flexibility, which doesn't bode well for my future. ("If you don't do it for any other reason," Slader had told me, "do it so you can tie your own shoes when you're 80.") Rydell is a willowy presence on the front mats, talking softly over a prerecorded "ommm" sound as I heave through a move that has my left leg wedged under my thorax, trying to unknot the tensions of this century with the dimly understood techniques of another.
I try to empty my mind. Somewhere back in the circuitry I hear my late father's voice: Shouldn't be too hard for you, son. And, in truth, it is surprisingly easy. When you're as large and unmuscled as I am, the sheer industry required to hold even the slightest pose eventually blanks your mind. I didn't do most of the moves properly and couldn't do several at all, but hey: Where you are is exactly where you should be, right?
Still, someone's gonna have to sanitize the mat where I left a body print smeared in sweat.
HERE ARE IMPORTANT SOME THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND
1. Breathing is paramount. "That's where people carry their tension," Rydell says. The physical and the mental meet at the breath - it oxygenates the blood and calms the mind. "You inhale, you pause, you exhale," Rydell says. "Concentrate on the pause."
2. Try to still your mind. This is not easy. What do you think about to stop thinking? According to Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, our hyperlinked, constantly refreshing, multitasking way of life has eroded our ability to concentrate, to hold something - or in this case, nothing - in deep focus. There's always a phone call we should be making or an e-mail we really need to respond to. "That's the key to the peace of it, to occupy the space between thoughts," Slader says. Without that, yoga becomes just a stretching class.
3. Remember what's important. "You don't need a hundred-dollar yoga mat or expensive yoga retreats," Pollack says. "What you do need is a teacher you can trust and a non-attachment to results."
4. Don't get attached to results. This is not easy. Millennia of evolution have wired us to be competitive, and contemporary society has made us goal-oriented. These mindsets are antithetical to yoga's purpose. "I would tell people not to have a goal, not to put pressure on yourself to achieve," Rydell says. "Once you have a goal, you're not really doing yoga." But she concedes that it's not easy: "It's a little frightening not having a Point A and Point B to get to."
5. Be realistic. "It won't give you an awesome body, peace of mind and solve all your problems," Pollack says. "I still get sick, I still get hurt, I still have to deal with problems. The practice itself is its own reward."
6. It can be as totalizing as you let it. When Slader talks about "living it off the mat," she means transferring the principles of yoga to other aspects of life: "What you're putting into your body, what movies you choose to watch, who you're hanging out with." Finding balance. "If you can do a headstand and remain calm and not fearful, maybe you can be that way in traffic."
On the other hand, there's Pollack approach: "I'm still lazy, smoke pot, eat meat, drink and watch football. And I also meditate."
THE UNBEARABLE TIGHTNESS OF BENDING 2
The MMA yoga sesh draws to a close with a small ritual: As we lay on the floor, feet up, Rydell oils her hands, gently pounds the soles of our feet with her fists, and, using an essence of peppermint, touches our temples and foreheads.
I'm first, so I lay there as she slowly anoints the rest and then rings a tiny, echoing bell; the peppermint spots seeping deeper into my awareness - temples, forehead. My mind may not be totally empty, there's a bathtub ring of anxiety circling my skull that will never be gone, but I'm as relaxed as I believe it's possible for me to be.
Class ends with a few breathing exercises. The fighters smile and murmur about how happy and peaceful they feel. They use those words, these guys: "happy," "peaceful."
"Now you can go beat people up," Rydell says brightly.
"When you're happy and peaceful," one responds, smiling, "it's easier to do." I'm not sure that's not the classic definition of living it off the mat, but I get what he means.
I don't expect you to buy this; I expect you to shrug it off as a phony sentiment I'm inflating so as to end this story on the pleasing, reaffirming note these things always take. But: I feel effing great afterward. (Italics mine.) Really. My wrists, arms, ankles, hammies, thighs, waist, back, shoulders and neck ache - but don't hurt. Dopamine sighs lightly in my brain - but I'm not wired. My emotions are calm. It won't last all day, but for now I'm really feeling the Ommm.