|Yoga Kicked My Butt
Intrepid adventure writer Tim Cahill journeys into the wilds of yoga, and barely escapes enlightenment.
By Tim Cahill
I am not a yoga kinda guy. Yoga people are sensitive, aware, largely sober, slender, double-jointed humorless vegans who are concerned with their own spiritual welfare and don't hesitate to tell you about it. They are spiritually intense and consequently enormously boring in the manner of folks who, in their own self-absorption, feel you ought to be alerted as to the quantity and texture of their last bowel movement.
Or so I used to think.
When Yoga Journal editor Todd Jones called and said he wanted me to write my impressions of yoga, I warned him. Listen, I said, my only encounter with yoga was pulling a string through my nose and out my mouth for sixth-grade show and tell. No problem, said Todd; he was looking for "a view of our subculture from the outside." That seemed fair enough: I was certainly outside.
So there I was, taking my first yoga class, in an open-sided bar/restaurant while, a few hundred feet below, the Caribbean Sea exploded off the high coral cliffs of Negril, Jamaica. I was doing some position—like a wrestler's bridge—that required arching between my head and hands at one end and the soles of my feet on the other. Hotel employees had removed tables and chairs from the restaurant for this class, and because I was apprehensive, I'd positioned myself in the area where I felt most comfortable—which is to say, next to the bar. In my field of vision, I could see an upside-down line of several bottles of rum, and, above them, a black and white picture of Bob Marley, the patron saint of Jamaican reggae. There is a picture of Bob Marley in every single bar in Jamaica. (I know: I've done the research.) One of Marley's best songs has a line that goes: "Every little thing's gonna be all right." That, I decided, would be my mantra.
Macho Man vs. the Weenies
I'm a writer, of sorts. My job requires me to travel to remote countries, where I have, in the past few decades, covered the drug/guerrilla war in Colombia, investigated the murder of an American in the jungles of Peru, dived with great white sharks off South Africa, and sat negotiating my fate with Taureg warlords in the southern Sahara. Pretty hairy-chested stuff, but the truth is, I was a little scared about meeting all the yoga folks in Jamaica. There's a lot of testosterone involved in what I do. I assumed that yoga people would perceive me as some sort of throw-back: a Neolithic macho, and an abyss of awareness.
Well, everybody wants to be liked, and I deeply feared the scorn of the assembled yogis and yoginis. The books I read before coming to Jamaica had calmed me somewhat: Yoga, I learned, is not a religion, and you can take from it what you will. Go only for the physical benefits: Fine, yoga doesn't have a problem with that. Use it for stress relief and meditation: Sure, Okay. Or a person might opt for a total yoga lifestyle, which includes diet, meditation, and the search for enlightenment. Take from it what you will: Yoga, according to the books I read, doesn't give a rat's ass.
But I assumed that people who would choose to spend their vacations doing four hours of yoga a day would be lifestyle folks, the kind of weenies who might sneer at my own rather soiled lifestyle. I feared my classmates would be holier than thou, or, in any case, holier than I, which is pretty much a slam-dunk.
In fact, my classmates—a couple dozen of them—did not appear at all the way I thought yoga people were supposed to look. The men were not little weenie guys, for one thing, and there were several of them—I only say this out of journalistic integrity—who could probably have taken me at arm wrestling. The women—whose ages spanned a couple of generations—were not hippie burnouts and acid crawlbacks. None wore patchouli oil and an extraordinary number of them were highly attractive. The rest were just conventionally good looking. Don't misunderstand: I was with my wife, and I am not single and looking. But if I were, I'd take yoga classes, if only to meet women.
Our instructors—John Schumacher of Unity Woods Yoga Center near Washington, D.C., and Barbara Benagh of The Yoga Studio in Boston—started the first class by asking us to introduce ourselves and talk about our experience with yoga. Several of the students had studied for 20 years or more. My wife and I were the only total beginners, but, when my turn came, I told the assembled yogis, "I haven't done any yoga physically, but I've read three entire books and figure I know everything there is to know about it."
There was a brief moment of silence, and I thought, Yep, humorless. And then the class burst into laughter. Not a lot of it. It wasn't that good a joke.
I looked up at Bob Marley and thought: "Every little thing's gonna be all right."
Enlightenment? No Thanks
Todd had mailed me the books in question when he asked me to write the story. He sent yoga books appropriately addressed to dummies and idiots, along with Erich Schiffmann's Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness, which I found well-written but a bit on the ethereal side, at least for me. I figured yoga kinda guys might get a lot out of it.
What I was able to glean out of all this material was that the poses, or asanas, were developed thousands of years ago to give people control over their bodies. Such control is essential for yogic meditation. The purpose and goal of meditation is the bliss of eventual enlightenment. That stopped me cold. Enlightenment? No sir, whoa Nellie. None of that whoop-dee-doo for me, thank you very much.
The Enlightened Masters I have read are invariably incomprehensible and entirely incapable of constructing a single coherent English sentence. I'm not discussing someone like Erich Schiffmann, who's actually a very good writer. What I'm talking about here is Flat Out Enlightenment, which is mostly unintelligible gibberish and reads to me like someone swimming through a thick custard of delirium.
And don't think I don't know my Enlightened Masters. I've been to ashrams in India, "power spots" and "convergence points" and "vortices" in California and Colorado and New Mexico. I have spent time chatting to a woman with many, many followers who lives near my home in Montana and who channels Enlightened Masters all day long, as if taking calls on a cellular phone.
The link between them all—the convergence people, the gurus, the Enlightened—is that they don't make any sense (in their written materials, anyway). For that reason they all are self-published—which is to say they pay someone else to publish their work.
As a professional writer, I prefer the opposite strategy, in which the publisher pays you. Enlightenment, my reading has suggested, is an exceedingly poor career path for a writer.
Oh, I knew bliss and enlightenment weren't often achieved. It said as much in each of the books I read. One strives toward the light. Okay, I'd buy that, sure, but what if I turned out to be one of those guys who just happens to "get it" straightaway? What if I was an anomaly? I'd crank out a few asanas, sit cross-legged, thinking-but-not-thinking, and all of a sudden, flash-bang, I'd see it all: the meaning of life, my own connection to the cosmos, and the blinding curve of energy that is the pulsing soul of universal consciousness itself. At that moment I'd know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I was completely and irrevocably screwed.
Enlightened people are dead meat in the publishing industry. I'd lose my jobs, such as they are. My mortgage would go unpaid, my wife would leave me, and I'd wander the earth in ragged clothes, informing the less spiritually fortunate of a consciousness above and beyond their ken. Perhaps those people might give me a few coins with which I could buy a scrap of bread. This is to say that, in my mind, enlightenment and homelessness are synonymous situations.
So I called Todd Jones back at Yoga Journal and said I'd take the assignment, but I intended to resist enlightenment. And if, through some cruel trick of fate, I did become enlightened, I was going to go out there to Berkeley, California, and kick his ass.
Downward-Facing Dog Ripped My Flesh
I had feared, on the whole, that yoga might be too light a workout for me: a bunch of sissy stuff about standing on one leg for a couple of breaths. I typically run (well, plod) two miles a day, occasionally lift weights, and stretch assiduously. I had called Todd before I left and asked if he couldn't get me into a retreat teaching one of the more sweaty disciplines, some kind of Power Yoga.
"If I put you, as an absolute beginner, into a weeklong workshop with a bunch of seasoned Ashtangis," Todd said mildly, "you really would kick my ass."
He was right about that. I was able to do many of the asanas, but it had never occurred to me that once I attained a position, I had to keep working through it. And it never got any easier. If I did it right, I was always working at the very edge of what I could do. In a typical four-hour day, I always felt I'd gotten a pretty good physical workout. Todd was right; I didn't need Ashtanga to get my ass kicked.
The instructors had diametrically opposed styles of teaching. John Schumacher was all about precision. I was amazed that he could stand there, tell me exactly what I was feeling, and then suggest a certain shift of balance that made the asana more steady, more exact, more difficult but somehow more comfortable. The right way felt right. The wrong way did not.
Barbara Benagh, on the other hand, tended to use visualization. You'd be sitting cross-legged, imagining roots sprouting out your butt—or some such—and then she'd have you twist just so, move the other arm, extend the right leg, and suddenly you were up in a complex position you never imagined you could do.
Barbara's overall plan for the week, it seemed, was to guide the students through a program to get energy running back and forth from the groin to the back through what she called the lumbar bridge. This may not be entirely correct: I sometimes lost the thread of what Barbara was saying late in the class. I couldn't always feel physically what she described; perhaps the concepts were too advanced for me. But one student who had been practicing yoga for several years told me that he'd been working on those very concepts for the last year and that he was in the midst of a kind of mental and physical breakthrough, thanks to Barbara.
While Barbara and John had been teaching this "yoga vacation" together for more than 15 years, they were quite dissimilar. Barbara, for instance, loved marathon-length mountain biking sessions, and she was an avid swimmer, racking up as much as a mile a day before teaching class. John, on the other hand, felt yoga, done consistently, was all a person needed to stay in good shape.
"Well," I said, over dinner with the both of them one night, "you've gotta do some cardiovascular stuff, running or whatever."
John didn't think so. Yogic breathing, properly practiced, was all a person needed. He had recently had his cardiovascular system tested and he'd scored pretty much off the scale. He never ran. "I think all that stuff about keeping the heart rate at such and such for so many minutes is a real cave man way of doing it."
Well, yeah, I thought, if you're John Schumacher, maybe you can keep your heart healthy through a combination of breathing and asanas. I wasn't John Schumacher, and I was going to just keep plodding along in my own Neolithic fashion, but throw in a couple of hours of yoga a week as well. I had discovered that it made me feel good.
Living La Vida Yoga?
I was standing at the bar after an afternoon class, having a beer and a cigarette, when John stopped by for a chat. I was wearing a Unity Woods Yoga Center T-shirt I had bought from him. The shirt featured a large triangle whose legs read: "Serenity," "Knowledge," "Health."
"I suppose," I said, "I'm a bad advertisement for Unity Woods."
"Not at all," John said. "We'll just add the words 'Not Applicable.'"
There were several people at the bar, and though some undoubtedly lived a full-on yoga lifestyle, others did not. No one talked about Obstacles Along The Path. Several drank alcohol, though hardly in the quantities I find refreshing, and there were even a few smokers. A "yoga vacation," I was told, is different than a "yoga retreat," where I might have felt considerably more out of place.
There was a guy who taught stress reduction at various corporations, an engineer who'd worked in the Middle East (among other places), a woman who'd been to India several times and studied with a man named Iyengar, who, I knew from my reading, was considered hot stuff and one of the modern masters.
There was a psychiatrist, and we talked a little about my preconceptions. "Exactly," the doctor said. "I don't tell people I practice yoga for that reason. Some people automatically think it means you also do crystal healing or some such."
The stress-reduction guy told a yoga story that made me laugh. "I was at a convention in one of those big hotels. I check in, strip naked, and start on my yoga. So I'm doing a Headstand, and the door opens. There was a mix-up at reception and they'd given someone else my key. The guy says, 'Whoops,' and closes the door. All I ever saw were his shoes. All he ever saw, I'm sure, was, well, what he could see from his level. I spent three days looking at people's shoes, wondering which guy it was. He probably figured I was some strange kind of pervert."
"Ignorant people think that about yoga," I said, from the lofty perspective of a 12-hour-old yogi.
I spoke with the woman who'd studied with Iyengar. Her husband told me about the time he accidentally poured out her cake batter before an important party. "I thought it was a dirty dish," he explained. His wife discovered the transgression just after her yoga class and didn't yell at him very much at all. "I decided then and there that I'd encourage her to take all the yoga she wanted," he said.
By the end of the week, my preconceptions about yoga people had been pretty well demolished. There was a singular lack of sanctimony among the assembled students. To my surprise, my wife and I became friendly with several of our classmates. Indeed, several of us made plans to return next year.
Since I wasn't able to absorb the whole discipline and philosophy of yoga in a single week, I resolved to work hard on my asanas, come back next year, and make the lot of them look like rank beginners.
Given that state of mind, I suppose it hardly needs to be said that I successfully avoided enlightenment. Happily, I suffered not a single stab of cosmic awareness, though I fear that if I keep yoga up for any length of time, I may have to fend off serenity. That's something I'll need to work on: this creeping and insidious tranquility. I'm a nail-biting, chain-smoking, hard-drinking deadline junkie. That's my life. I love it, and worry a lot about the curse of incipient equanimity. In my worst moments of serene composure, I reassure myself that, even though I am currently practicing yoga, enlightenment is a long shot and I'm not going to get there. Not ever. Thank God.
Tim Cahill's latest book is Dolphins, a companion to the IMAX film of the same name.