PRETZEL LOGIC: The Life Yogic, Part I

Side ways Crow
Ashtanga doyen David Swenson is no geologist, but he knows a good natural mat when he sees one.

by Leslie Anthony

Living in a mountain resort town brimming with overt and unbridled devotion to any number of sports and activities, I tread carefully when referencing someone’s religion, but here’s the thing: I frickin’ hate yoga.

Strong words, even when wielded in a somewhat Seinfeldian ode to the occasional revulsion I experience to tribal pretense, stinky mats, yappy instructors, headstands, horrible music, Sanskrit chanting, proselytizing of any kind, and the widespread abuse of yoga-branded clothing as a panacea for corpulence.

Yes, I’m objective enough to realize this as my problem, and suffering these annoyances is made all the more challenging by some interesting counterintuition: I also love yoga.

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Without consciously seeking it, yoga has taught me about patience—both with myself and others. Helped me through a depression. And, after five years of more-or-less regular (sometimes occasional) attendance, delivered noticeably more strength, flexibility and balance. I ski far better. Up-perform, in fact, in every sport, get injured less, recover faster (though perhaps I’m imagining this one), and find it obviates the repetitive strains of writing on a laptop all day, every day. Of course I’m not the only one on this train, outdoorists from climbers to paddlers to, yes, even mountain bikers all swear by the flexibility-, strength- and core-enforcing wonders of yoga.

So it’s love/hate; open embrace/cynical dismissal. And within this dichotomy dwells an entirely new level of the very yin-yangism underlying yoga’s stated philosophic quest to effect reunion with the universal spirit; in less-flaky terms, to find the connectedness with ourselves and nature left behind as we become, well, more annoyingly human. You can cue Eckhart Tolle here—and with good reason. On a messed-up planet whose problems are all traceable to the increasingly unconscious actions of humanity, any activity whose essential tenet is to explore awareness can only be seen as a force of collective good—not to mention being a great way to stay fit. Perhaps this is why people have turned to it in droves.

Explosive success, however, has also become yoga’s burden: popularity breeds devotion, growth, and commerce, but also attracts posers, hustlers, and hijackers—the inevitable Demons of Disenchantment.

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Yoga: for some, the torture never stops.

Despite its overwhelming veneer of benevolence and positivity, offer anyone on the yoga continuum a chance to dis it—naysayer, contemplator, practitioner, acolyte, teacher, businessperson—and muck bubbles up like a clogged drain being plunged. As a test, once upon a time at a dinner party I wondered aloud whether anyone had any issues with yoga. It was like firing a starting gun. I couldn’t record the responses fast enough—most of them from those who actually practiced yogaand much of it was aimed at one sub-genre.

“Oh my god—the whole thing is a friggin’ ecosystem, with its own lowlifes and rednecks, and Bikram [hot yoga]—that’s the scum at the bottom.”

“Some Bikram studios have trouble with insurance because doctors say it’s too stressful; I see so many injuries in my work [massage therapist] from 30-day yoga challenges—torn hamstrings, back problems, c-spine tweaks from crazy extended neck positions.”

“I tried Bikram. I’m emotional but not that emotional; I felt awful and cried.”

“Bikram is westernized yoga. We’re conditioned to ‘working out’ so it fills our demand for immediate results—moving, sweating, not just holding a long stretch and meditating.”

Whoa—this was some surprising vitriol. But Bikram, in being a self-avowed extreme format practiced in rooms warmer than body temperature (a modality its very rich founder has famously and litigiously franchised), is an unfair target. “Criticism of Bikram” seems to have become it’s own counter-practice after a 2004 New York Times article entitled “When Does Flexible Become Harmful? ‘Hot’ Yoga Draws Fire,” and continues in sporadically publicizing the woes of a statistical few. But no one forces folks to find out if heat-stressing the body and the various forms of attachment that hold it together is good, bad, or indeed even for them. Perhaps, like myself, they shouldn’t even have been there.

He forgot to add: Don’t stare at the person next to you.

About 15 years ago, my first-ever yoga experience was a dawn Bikram session at the behest of a girlfriend. Hot yoga? Never heard of it. “It’s great,” she’d enthused, “you’ll love it!” Well, I loved her, so in typical male fashion foolishly believed everything she said.

Never mind that we’d drank copious amounts of wine the night before. Never mind that the compensation for this sin that I decided on wasn’t—as it should have been—rehydration, but an eye-opening, diuretic triple espresso en route to the studio. Never mind that I have never done well in heat. Here’s what I remember: a great chatter of anticipation among the assembled women (of course I was the only guy); chicks swooning when the sinewy teacher dude in pastel muscle-shirt finally appeared; someone deciding it wasn’t hot enough and plugging a towel under the door; the ends of all my fingers dripping sweat in unison like mutant shower  heads before we’d even started; having no idea what was going on during what seemed a militaristic routine and thinking Downward Dog was sadistic; seeing my reflection in a pool of my own sweat (not pretty); becoming woozy a half-hour in and having to step out for a few minutes; stepping out again 15 minutes after returning; leaving the studio for a third time, with 20 minutes left in the class, and sitting on a bench; waking up there, slumped over, as everyone filed out. I’d blacked out completely.

Jeezuz. From morning coffee to medical emergency.

Although clearly the comic fault of my own ignorance and naïveté, I nevertheless deemed the scene cultishly mad and it tainted my notion of yoga. It would take several years for the scales to fall from my eyes…

Next time: from darkness to light with great yogis I have known