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.

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