Thursday, October 18, 2007

Yoga Shock

Now that I've moved California, I'm doing a lot more yoga. The boho life of a freelancer makes it easier to find the time. Besides, Berkeley has a dozen or more yoga studios but no actual gyms. There's a grungy Y that's way too child-friendly and an alpinists' club with some weight machines across from the climbing wall. (If you haven't done a free-hand vertical crawl up the face of El Capitan, you're going to feel out of place.) So my best bet for combating middle-aged spread is to move my asana in yoga class.

It 's no suprise that Berkeley offers good classes at affordable rates. After all, California is the epicenter of American yoga culture. There are, however, some things about the yoga scene out here that a bitchy urban East Coast type like yours truly is going to find, well, annoying. That is, of course, judgemental of me, and yogis are not supposed to be judgemental, ever. But I can't help it - it's genetic. Anyway, in an attempt to be a better yogi, I am going to purge myself of these evil, earth-bound thoughts by putting them on my blog. Then, I will go do twenty chatarangas as penance. And now, with great guilt and shame, I give you...


Back East, I would hear about Christians who were uncomfortable with the "religious" aspect of yoga and I'd think, give me a break. It's exercise and meditation with a smattering of Sanskrit. Well, out here, they have a point. While I have yet to see an Indian person teach or take a class, there's a strong Hindu influence to the yoga scene. My main studio just has a discrete little altar with a small, tasteful goddess, a candle and a flower or two, but my back-up studio has a shrine covering an entire wall. Arranged atop a pedestal the size of my dining room table are Ganesha the elephant God, a fierce, multi-armed Shiva, a black, watermelon-sized marble egg with some kind of crown on it and a picture of an earnest looking white-robed caucasian dude with a red shmear on his forhead. Offerings of flowers and candles are laid out in front this guy's photo as though he were princess Di, or dead, or both.

At my back-up studio, the teacher starts class by bowing before the altar and then leading a call-and-response chant in honor of the god-of-the-day. This is precisely what makes this place my backup studio: participating, even perfunctorily, in polytheism really creeps me out. I am a proud secular humanist. I go to church for one of three reasons: weddings, funerals or art history. My concept of a higher power is as abstract as Einstein's theory, and if there is some kind of life force up there, I don't have the hubris to believe it listens to my petty concerns. So when the yoga teacher asks us to dedicate our practice to Lord Ganesh, I have a problem. If I don't pray to a bearded man in the sky, I sure as shit am not praying to an elephant. Which brings me to...

Mahatma, the Sunday afternoon instructor at my back-up studio, is spending his whole life preparing for death. As are we all, I suppose, both literally and existentially. But Mahatma, whose mother probably calls him Doug, is one morbid yogi-downer. His favorite pose is shivasana - corpse pose. Mahatma doesn't just end class with Shivasana, which is pretty standard. He starts class with corpse pose and has us play dead repeatedly throughout the practice. Why? Because, as Doug-Mahatma lugubriously explains, it's important to "Prepare for your own death." Per Mahatma, the relaxation component of yoga is a rehearsal for the ultimate letting go – otherwise known as kicking the bucket. As for the exercise aspect, it's really about building up strength so as to "have enough energy to experience your own death". Oh, goody.

Western meat-head that I am, I always thought of death as the ultimate LOSS of energy, but what do I know? Mahatma is an enlightened being and I am not. Of course, dedicating your life to the pursuit of enlightenment is a great excuse for underachieving in everything else, like having a career, an advanced degree, a mortgage or a savings account. It's all about shunning the trappings of success and staying humble. So answer me this, Mahatma. If you're so darn humble, WHY DID YOU GO AND NAME YOURSELF AFTER GHANDI?!?

Hey, guys, wear a shirt. Doing yoga next to some sweaty, bare-chested guy in a bathing suit really interferes with my mellow. If I want to look at a middle-aged guy in briefs, I'll ask my husband to disrobe.

My studio believes the handstand is a "basic" pose. Now, I have been doing yoga for 4 years, and I have never even attempted a handstand. I can barely do a headstand against the wall. As a kid, I couldn't even muster a decent cartwheel. Now, I am expected to master a bleeping handstand, just like the unnaturally limber septuagenarian in the front or the seriously overweight lady in the back, both of whom can balance on two hands until the teacher cries uncle-asana.

Every other class, one of the teachers will suggest that we help our "friends" get into a pose. This means laying your hands on the waist, rump or grody feet of the complete stranger next to you, and then letting them return the favor. Since I rarely have time for a pedicure before yoga class, I am rather self-conscious about anyone grabbing my cracked heels. Besides, outside of my immediate family, I am not a touchy feely person. You can imagine how I feel about "stabilizing the hips" of someone I don't know from Adam. Flesh-eating bacteria, anyone?

Meet Morticia (not her real name). Morticia is an example of a certain type of youthful Anglo-Hindu, or Dharma punk. A white chick in her mid twenties, Morticia has snake-like blue-black dreads that fall past her bottom. Her nose is triple-pierced: a stud in each nostril and a ring in the middle. Both her ears are studded along their entire circumference. Huge plugs have distended her earlobes nearly down to her chin. The buddha-lobes sway when she moves. Morticia's brows are pierced, completely shaved and painstakingly redrawn. Her right arm is tatooed from wrist to shoulder with technicolor Hindu gods. Her more sparsely decorated left arm has elbow-to-wrist spike-tipped black stripes. Morticia wears flowy black yoga pants and a sports bra. The skin of her belly is adorned from the braline to somewhere just above the groin with two huge, identical peacocks. Both birds bend have their long necks bent low so they can peck at the twin studs adorning Morticia's navel.

Now, I know yoga is all about focusing on yourself but that's challenging when you have ADD and you're exercising next to the illustrated woman. No matter how hard I try, there's one question I can't get out of my mind. If you are so into artifice that you're willing to pierce and tatoo your entire body, WHY THE HELL CAN'T YOU SHAVE YOUR ARMPITS?

I am not talking about the traditional OHHHHHHHHMMMM. Ohming with your eyes closed in communion with a room full of yogis is actually kind of cool. All the voices blend together in one deep, primordial vibration, the Eastern equivalent of a Gregorian chant. But the classes I've been taking actually require you to memorize and sing Hindu invocations. If I don't sing, I'm a Western philistine party pooper. If I sing, I'm going against my beliefs and, for all I know, swearing lifelong allegiance to Hanuram the Monkey God.

What is a "kidney loop"? How do I "inner spiral" my thighs? Why do I need to "soften my eyes" before I can strengthen my legs? When am I twisting deeply enough to "massage my liver"? It's enough that I've learned the Sanskrit names of the most common poses. English shouldn't require translating.

VANITY FAIR recently did a photo essay on the most influential yogis in the United States. These folks have put their own spin on the traditional poses. For some, it's all about alignment, and you have to hold the pose a very long time as you make minute adjustments to get it right. For others, it's about getting a good workout by flowing energetically from one pose to the next, sacrificing a certain exactitude in the process. Different schools of thought advocate doing yoga in an overheated room, adhering to an exact order of poses or adding strengthening moves that have their origins in pilates.

I'm not dissing these gurus for trademarking their methods, putting out books and CDs or franchising studios. All the more power to them: that's how capitalism works. What I find a little freaky is the frenzy that occurred at my main studio when John Friend, the illustrious founder of the Anusara method, came for a visit. He gave a lecture on "Tantra in the 21st Century" in San Francisco and it was the talk of the studio for weeks. Classes were cancelled all weekend so the instructors could study with Mr. Friend and the students could go hear him speak. Instructors rhapsodized about how "transformed" they were after his presentation, and how difficult it was to come off of such an ecstatic experience and have to go home and do your laundry. Every student I know went to the presentation - which involved driving into the city on a Friday night - and they were all moved, changed, inspired, blown away. Folks, Mr. Friend may be a brilliant marketer, a dazzling speaker, a human pretzel and even a heckuva nice guy, but Martin Luther King he ain't.

The week after the great man came to town, one of the instructors was still carrying on about the visit when a lady in the class admitted not knowing who John Friend was. The teacher explained that Mr. Friend was the founder of the Anusara school of yoga. "John Friend, huh?" the student mused."I bet that's not his real name."

I hope I see that lady again. I think we could be friends.

Yoga is not a competitive sport. It's all about finding your edge and your center and modifying the poses to fit your level of competence. Unless you are a self-righteous, obsessive and probably vegan type A yogi. Last week, I got to class early and set up my mat next to a skinny, grey-haired fellow in his early sixties. While the rest of us did a few langorous stretches waiting for the instructor to show, this guy basically rolled through the entire class in ten minutes. He performed a dozen high speed vinyasas. He did multiple handstands. He twisted into exotic arm balances that would land him a slot at Cirque du Soleil. He seemed oblivious to the rest of us but I wasn't fooled. The guy was showing off - nearly as big a yogic faux pas as being judgemental.

Halfway through class, the teacher made the dreaded announcement: partner yoga time. I was assigned to the Yogi Extraordinaire. And then he did something unprecedented. He refused to partner. The instructor's jaw dropped. I tried to smooth things over. "That's OK, I'm too inhibited to do this as well." Mr. Type A gave me a withering look. "Oh, I'm not inhibited." He replied. " I just don't want to be handled by someone who doesn't know what they're doing." I could have told him to get over himself, but I don't think he ever will.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Onward and Uphill

We don't know a soul in the Bay Area, but we do have some deer friends. That's "deer" as in Bambi, not dearly beloved. Since moving to the Berkeley Hills, we've been visited by a four point buck, a doe and a truly impressive six pointer that would send my brother-in-law running for his rifle. These creatures are larger than the East Coast deer I used to see around Rock Creek Park back in DC, and they're grey rather than tan. I affectionately refer to them as Bucky, Mrs. Bucky and Big Poppa.

Deer encounters drive Winston, my neurotic Yorkie, nuts. His brain oscillates frantically between fight and flight. " Grrrrr! Kill! Kill! I must attack. No, wait a minute. This thing's way bigger than a squirrel. I think I'll hide behind my mommy. No, doggonit! I'm gonna kill that thing. Wait, hold on. There's a tree on its head. I might get skewered! Save me, master, save me!" Still, judging by the assortment of droppings I pick up in the yard, Winston and our deer friends manage to coexist when we're not around.

Most of my walks with Winston are short and devoid of deer sightings. The truth is, taking a stroll in this vertical environment leads to knee pain, oxygen-deprivation and very unladylike ring-around-the-arm-pit. And since the streets are laid out like the tunnels of an anthill, you also have to have faith in your sense of direction, or be a Catholic and pray to the patron Saint of the lost. (This is confusing - I looked it up. Saint Anthony covers lost property and Saint Jude covers lost causes, but it didn't say who to turn to for just plain lost). Still, I can get motivated to take a hike. A few afternoons ago, I caught a glimpse of my butt in the mirror and, fueled by self-loathing, headed for the hills, dog in tow.

The first law of hill hiking is to save downhill for the home stretch. I started walking up. Within a quarter of a mile, Winston had filled two poop bags and was panting like Marion Jones on steroids. Rivulets of sweat ran down my forhead and into my eyes and my legs were starting to burn. I kept a steady pace, past eclectic hillside homes, each wildly different from the next, the antithesis of "little boxes on the hillside". I could catch snippets of people's lives. A hippy couple barbecuing ears of corn. Two men in their middle years discussing George Bush's shortcomings over cigars. An old lady trimming a rosebush. A black lab watching me from a window while a fat gold Budha watched him.

The street was winding more now, and there were no sidewalks. Deciding which side to walk on required constant calculation in the event a car should come around a blind turn. By this time, I was in the zone. I was walking up as long as there was an up. I reached a fork in the road and randomly chose to turn right. The street dipped down a little and then climbed back up before deadending onto a steep patch of grassy mountainside, overlooking the Berkeley campus, the town, and San Francisco Bay.

We were well into the late afternoon golden hour, when everything starts to look like a Maxfield Parish Painting, minus the nymphs and faeries. A trail began where the street stopped, curving steeply down about 200 feet. Momentum pushed me downward, with Winston dragging behind. The path petered out over a steep drop overlooking a couple of administrative buildings that probably belonged to Berkeley University. I took stock of my position, looking up from where I'd come. Next to the trailhead was a long fence that ran the width of the clearing. Where the fence ended, I could see a street. It might be fun to go up there and explore a different way back.

I scrambled up the hillside. This time, the dog took the lead. Four legs beat the heck out of two on an eighty degree incline. As the slope got steeper, I made like Winston and got down on all fours, grabbing large handfuls of grass to steady myself. By the time we reached the top, the sky was pink, and sunset not far off. I found myself at the opposite end of the fence that bordered the clearing. Someone had a very private property with a big chunk of land and a panoramic view. There was a little gate in the fence, with a mailbox next to it. Fifty yards away was the street I had seen from below. On closer look, it had a fair amount of traffic, and again, no sidewalks - probably not ideal terrain for walking after dark with a small dog. I realized I had no idea where I was, or how to get home from up here. The trailhead was visible at the other end of the fence, but the terrain was too steep to cut across. The only logical move was to go back the way I had come.

As I turned to retrace my footsteps, the little gate swung open. A tall, trim, craggily good looking fellow emerged with a big golden retriever. He nodded. I nodded. The dogs nodded. And then I noticed the state park sign next to the fence. It read: Warning: You Are Entering a Mountain Lion Habitat.

"Excuse me!" I called after Mr. Handsome. "Are there really mountain lions up here?" He shot me a look of disbelief and kept walking, his answer trailing behind him. "Where there are deer, there are mountain lions." Subtext: " idiot."

Of course. How could I be so ecologically naive? Our deer friends had predators big enough to eat me, and if not me, certainly an oversized, overweight Yorkshire terrier. I looked down at Winston. In the deepening twilight, he was starting to resemble a bratwurst with hair. I wished my brother-in-law were here. With his rifle.

As I started down the hillside, it came back to me: the second law of hill walking. Never go up unless you're sure you can get down, especially if you don't like walking sideways in near-darkness, doing your damnedest to avoid a 200-foot tumble. They say animals can smell fear, or perhaps it was a whiff of mountain lion pheromones, but Winston started to panic. All that dog knew was that he wanted to go home. Now. And the best way to let me know was to yank on his leash until he pulled me off the mountain.

The second time I lost my footing, I decided my feet were not to be trusted. I was going down this hill on my butt, the same butt that had gotten me into this mess. By now, my heart was pounding so loudly, I'd never hear the mountain lion's warning growl. Probably just as well. The end would be quick, and I'd never know what bit me.

Finally, my feet touched on a flat area. I had reached the trail! I jumped up, dusted myself off, pulled a few burrs off the seat of my pants and hoofed it back up the path, Winston scampering cheerfully by my side. I kept him on a short leash: You never know when you might have to placate a hungry mountain lion.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Chinese Eggplant and Armenian Cucumbers

In the interest of partial disclosure, I'll reveal that I am half French. Perhaps my earliest memory is of accompanying my grandfather to the outdoor market near my grandparents' Paris apartment. Kindly merchants would cut me a sliver of cheese or hand me a plum while "Papapa" examined the day's offerings. He was brutal. The swiss he bought last week tasted soapy, the grapes were overpriced, the peaches were hard as cannon balls. You call that a peach? The merchants nodded stoically. Ultimately, we had to bring home whatever "Mamie", my grandmother, had put on the grocery list - or else!

Naturally, Berkeley's outdoor farmer's markets hold an irresistible attraction for me. There are three, each with its own location and day of the week. On Thursday, the vendors set up shop on the grounds of the local high school. Tuesday and Saturday, farmers hawk their wares on cordonned-off side streets. So far, I've checked out Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday is small but 5 minutes from home. Thursday is big enough that three old Black guitarists and one white chick with an accordeon can simultaneously play for their suppers without creating a cacaphony. As for Saturday, I'm pacing myself. I have a feeling it's the mother of all farmer's markets.

Just the smell of fresh-picked organic produce makes me feel virtuous. After all, I'm buying organic, supporting local agriculture, and stocking up on enough fiber to keep my entire neighborhood regular. Fact is, shopping here better make me morally superior, because it sure isn't making me richer. You'd think, since these folks eliminate the middle man by shlepping and selling their stuff themselves, it would result in savings for the consumer, right? Wrong. I could get myself a dozen long stemmed roses for the price of a single bunch of arugula. That's a lot of green for not a lot of greens.

The fruits and vegetables may be pricey, but the experience is priceless, even if nobody takes American Express. First, you do a once-over, to find the best of the best. I can almost hear Papapa's running commentary. The pears were picked to soon, but the baby lettuces are beautiful. We're not buying that meat - it's wrapped in cyro-vac! (At the insistence of the California Board of Health). I imagine my grandfather's indignation in front of the soy cheese booth. "Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette cochonnerie?" Loosely translated: What kind of pig slop is this?

Once you've cased the joint, you double back and start shopping. Can you say cornucopia? Can I spell it? One couple sells nothing but tomatoes. Tiny pear-shaped, bite-sized tomatoes. Gigantic misshapen heirloom tomatoes in wierd colors like bright orange or lime with vivid green stripes. Deceptively average-looking red tomatoes that teleport you to Tuscany in one bite. One stand over, a large Asian family keeps their pretty daughters busy putting out slivers of plums for tasting. Shoppers cluster around the sample bowls like bees. Each bowl is labeled: There's Flavor Queen, Flavor King, September Flavor, and my favorite, Flavor Grenade. They're all delicious, and by the time you've tasted them all, you've forgotten which is which and you have to start over. Then, you feel so guilty for gorgeing yourself, you buy enough plums for an army, which just might explain "Flavor Grenade."

I pass up the bakestand where bearded young men in wool caps sell brown bread lacking in sugar, salt and basically, taste. Nearby, frighteningly articulate small children with uncombed hair and mismatched clothes beg their mommies for something from the taco stand - a great place to stop for some saturated fats if you're starting to feel too healthy. Across from the moveable taqeria, an old Chinese gentleman is selling vegetables that look like something from a Star Trek movie. Those long, mint green wart-covered things? Armenian cucumbers. I play it safe and pick up some Chinese eggplant and four miniature bok choy. I'm also part Armenian, but it's a very small part.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Love Fest 2007

My husband grew up in the Bay Area, but that was decades ago, and until this move, I'd only been to San Francisco as a tourist. What that means is that the only people we know here are our landlord and his wife. This is not a huge problem for my introverted better half, who is happy to wait for me to meet people and occasionally bring them home for dinner. For me, it's a different story. I crave conversation. I'll bond with the drycleaner, the pharmacist, the nice old lady walking her cockapoo. I'm forever chatting up strangers and embarassing my kids. So when I heard two friends and former coworkers were coming to town on business, I immediately made plans to have them for dinner at the crazy Japanese house. Wine, artisanal cheeses, sunset on the bay - we had the makings of a lovely evening.

Since my friends were without wheels, my husband and I offered to pick them up. We decided to drive into town early, and take a long walk before meeting the ladies at their hotel. As soon as we hit the Bay Bridge, we knew something was amiss. It was 12:30 on a Saturday afternoon, and we were stuck in 5:30 rush hour traffic. The bridge finally spilled us out onto the hopelessly gridlocked streets of San Francisco. The only logical move was to find a place to park and start our walk early. Granted, the Tenderloin isn't the best place for a stroll, but we gamely parked the car, tightened our shoe laces and and got going. Meanwhile, my 14 year old son called, and I began chatting distractedly on my cell phone as I walked.

It seemed all manner of colorful people were headed in the same direction, and the sidewalk kept getting more and more crowded. We all converged upon a barricaded street lined with portapotties. A friendly police officer was letting people in past the barrier, in groups of twos and threes. He waved us through and we found ourselves in a vast public square choked with people. We had stumbled onto Love Fest '07, San Francisco's annual outdoor rave - definitely a new experience for a nice, straight, middle-aged couple with two kids and a yorkie.

As Electronica thumped, thousands of Love Fest Revelers danced, tranced and groped themselves or each other. Breasts bounced. Earplug-distended lobes swayed. Cellulite dimpled cheerfully. Judging by the frenzy surrounding us, the street vendors were selling more than just beer and souvlaki. There were blue mohawks, purple wigs, leather chaps, clowns in white face and women in tutus that barely grazed their panties. Fishnet, preferably hot pink and torn, was the uniform du jour for both sexes. Women tended to wear it on their legs, but the guys prefered fishet tanks, with so their nipple piercings could poke through. I held the cell phone up in the air so my son could hear the music - attending a rave could only be good for my street cred. We kept walking, looking for a way out. My husband complained of feeling overdressed - the chinos and flannel shirt did seem a tad formal.

He wasn't the only one without a costume. As we reached the center of the square, we came upon a butt naked reveler. Surely, I thought, he's wearing some kind of g-string, cod piece, figleaf - perhaps a giant bean pod from New Guinea, to conceal his manhood? Nope. Mr. Johnson was definitely on display, relaxed, meticulously shaved, and working on his tan.

"Hold on a second!" I shouted into the phone. "I have to compose myself. There's a guy here who's totally naked." My son, who thinks everyone over forty is senile, made the natural assumption that I was hallucinating. "Mom, they have laws against public nudity."

Not in San Francisco, they don't. At least not at Love Fest. I looked around and realized Mr. Burma Shave had a bevvy of friends dressed just like him, all middle-aged and none even remotely resembling Michaelangelo's David.

50 yards from another police check point, we picked up the pace. And then, dazed and relieved, we were out of there. Perhaps we should have made plans with my friends for Sunday instead. Or perhaps not. Turns out Sunday was the 24th annual Folsom Street Fair, described in the San Francisco Chronicle as "A celebration of leather culture and sexual fetishism." I guess I'll just have to wait until next year to have myself publicly flogged.