Jewish Journal

Meditations on Yoga

by J. D. Smith

Posted on May. 17, 2001 at 8:00 pm

The doctor said that the best thing for my injury was yoga. It would increase blood flow, reduce stress, open my chakras (whatever they are) and make me more limber. I went to get a second opinion but that guy said the same thing.

That week, I left work a little early, sped across town through rush-hour traffic listening to the latest horror story on the radio, circled for a parking spot, ran for the elevator, raced to get changed and then went inside to have someone tell me to hurry up, close my eyes and relax.

The first thing you do is in yoga class is lie down on a little plastic mat and breathe. That sounds easy enough, but I keep doing it wrong. Imagine being told you don't know how to either lie down or breathe. Midway through a difficult pose, the instructor -- or maybe she's a yogi, but Barbara doesn't sound like a very yogish name, if you know what I mean -- says: "Don't forget to breathe," and the whole class grunts out an exhale as one. I take comfort in the knowledge that I'm not alone.

Then, after twisting my spine into a pretzel for an hour or so, she sends us back into the maelstrom and, presto, my murderous road-rage impulse is gone. Some people say you can't put a price on peace of mind. I say it runs $15 for about 90 minutes.

I've now spent a total of 24 hours in something called "down dog," but I'm still terrible at yoga. (All of the postures have deceptively cute, organic names -- there is "tree" and "turtle" and another that I hope will some day be outlawed by the Geneva Convention called "pigeon.") Fortunately, the way yoga works is that it's okay to be terrible. In fact, admitting that you suck is a big step in becoming balanced in your practice. You don't actually want to become "good" at it, because good is an ego thing, and that's bad. Even the really good people in yoga class are only practicing, and they're not even practicing for anything. Unless you're doing it with my sister, yoga is not a competitive sport. There is no big game, no playoffs, no standings are listed in the paper. You never have any idea if you're winning or losing because there's nothing to win.

Frankly, I think the whole idea is un-American. I sometimes wonder why we, at the pinnacle of technological progress and human achievement, look to ancient Oriental health and fitness practices from cultures that have disappeared into history. If these guys were so clever, how come they're not around any more? Why aren't they ruling the world? Got an answer for that one? Were they too busy doing yoga to keep the Huns outside the palace walls? We're taking a page from the losing team's playbook. Knowing how to reduce stress doesn't necessarily help you if your entire civilization is extinct.

At some point it dawned on me that I was surrounded by agile women. (Bonus!) Women love yoga. This is what they do. This is where they hang out. A man going to yoga class is like a woman going to a driving range. You want to catch fish? Fish where the fish are. It's like a singles bar where no one drinks and everyone wears revealing clothes and demonstrates what they're capable of if called upon to perform the "bow" pose as a party trick.

Some of the women in my class have no bones in their joints and limbs that seem to be made of spaghetti. There's one lady who, near as I can figure, must have grown up as a contortionist in the Cirque du Soleil. I'm a little afraid of her. Call me old fashioned, but I don't think you should be able to put your toe in your ear. Then Yogi Barbara instructs us variously to "get on all fours," "spread your thighs" and "go a little deeper." It doesn't require an especially active imagination to get intrigued by the possibilities of applying this learning outside of class. I have to remind myself to breathe.

If someone tells you about a good yoga class, it's one you can't actually do. I go twice a week now, and I'm happy to report that I hurt in so many new places -- places that I didn't even know existed a month ago -- that I've forgotten why I started going in the first place. It's like hitting yourself in the thumb with a hammer to get your mind off a headache.

My friend Karen moved around from class to class until, she said, "I've found one that's so painful and humiliating, I don't need a man in my life anymore."

Exhale, Karen.

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