@

Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.

                                            —Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water

 

 

In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.

The day’s first sound was its most abrasive, the bell’s vibrations heavy in the pre-dawn mountain thick. The tolling came closer, so close it was no longer possible to assimilate it into dream, and faded, leaving the air behind it changed. The subsequent lull was slowly filled with the shuffling of blankets against bundled bodies, clumsy footsteps making their way to the light switch by the cabin door, the swishes of clothing being doffed and donned, the key in the latch.

So, I’ve established that I’m really good at corpse pose. But I’m really bad at walking meditation.

This morning, for instance, Jessica and I took a walk through the village, single file. Jessica was showing me how she does her walking meditation so I could do my own. The idea is to move through space without becoming distracted or desirous. To focus on the horizon, living in each footstep. You step only for this one step, not to reach any goal.

White people all over the village are practicing their walking meditation. It’s sort of like Dawn of the Yogic Dead around here. Except that, if we were zombies, we’d be looking for human flesh to eat. But since we’re not, we’re just looking to—um. Shit, I guess we’re just looking to meditate while we walk? I don’t know, I’m new here. And like I said, I’m really bad at this.

At first, walking through the rice paddies, I thought: no problem. I’ll just keep my eyes focused ahead, and let this green sea flow along in my peripheral vision.

But soon we headed back into the village, and I began to wonder how anybody would ever want to transcend such a place. The day was clear and bright. Hot, but not hellishly so. Creamy-white frangipani blossoms literally filled the air; they drifted on soft breezes and landed in the path in front of us as if they’d been strewn there by invisible flower girls. The air was full of their sweet perfume. I instantly started to think about how I wanted my entire apartment to smell like that.  And I wondered if it came in oil form, and if so, if I could buy some to take home for all my girlfriends.

Or soaps! People love soaps!

A few paces ahead, Jessica lifted and dropped her shoulders and let out a long melodious sigh. I refocused my gaze and went back to living in my footsteps. That is, until we passed Balinese women dressed in sarongs of yellow and white, their lacy tops stretched over camisoles or bras and tied at the waist with thick silk sashes. On their heads they balanced large square offering boxes made from palm fronds, their lids stacked high with fruit and flowers. The scent of cooked chicken wafted from the boxes, and it occurred to me that all I really wanted in life was some chicken. Oh, chicken! Oh, delicious meat!

We slowed at the bottom of a hill and looked down into a deep ravine. Its dimples and paths were clogged with garbage, some of it on fire. The frangipani and chicken were smothered by the pungent reek of burning garbage and decomposing leaves. I could hear a river down there somewhere, but I couldn’t make it out through all the trash. The path inclined in front of us, deep grooves on either side where mopeds churn up the dirt countless times a day.

Everywhere I looked, life was being lived differently than at home. I couldn’t help but feel excited by so much possibility. I drank it in, I wanted to become one with it, I wanted to own every second of it, every piece of it.

The wet sheen of the banana leaves, the sweetish smell of jungle rot, the reek of animal dung, the blossoms on the road, the women who passed me, smelling of jasmine oil and incense and a god’s supper.

Who in her right mind would want to transcend any of this?

 

Excerpted from Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment Copyright @ 2011 by Suzanne Morrison. Reprinted by Permission of Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

 

What’s up, Morrison?

Not much. Had a reading last night. I’m eating gluten-free almond cookies and some kind of tea that claims to be able to balance my hormones. Or my chakras. Or, wait—maybe both. I didn’t look very closely at the box.

 

Are you feeling balanced?

Well—no. That’s why I’m drinking the damn tea!

 

Do those teas really work?

Sure, if you’re prone to suggestion, which I am. I’m the perfect candidate for the placebo effect. If you told me that eating a copy of Anna Karenina would make me the world’s greatest living writer, I would do it, and then, I swear to God, I would write some seriously awesome shit. Those less susceptible would merely shit some seriously awesome writing.

 

Are you working on a new book yet?

I am, as a matter of fact. Or I was, anyway, before I became a Yoga Bitch promotion machine.

 

Is your new book about yoga?

Nope. It’s called Your Own Personal Alcatraz, and it’s about coming of age on an island near Seattle. But mostly it’s about my first experience of being in love, of being young and craving both independence and intimacy, and how that struggle shaped me.

 

What are you reading right now?

I’m halfway through Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The dialogue is so good I have to read it out loud to my husband every night. I love Hemingway. I think about him a lot– about his extraordinary dialogue, about how deeply emotional his writing is, and about how, if I weren’t happily married, and he weren’t, sadly, dead, I would be all over that man like white on rice.

It’s also October, so I keep cheating on Hemingway with horror stories.

 

So, you’re into vampires and werewolves, or what?

Ghost stories. I’m obsessed. I have this secret desire (now a little less secret) to write a really excellent ghost story. I want to believe in ghosts the way I want to believe in God: helplessly, because you can’t force belief. But I can play at it.

 

So, you don’t believe in God, then?

Not exactly. I’d like to. I’m thinking about it. There’s a part of me that hopes I’ll write a memoir in my late forties or fifties about how I finally found God and the spiritual life. But then there’s another part of me that thinks that what I’m doing now—reading and thinking and trying on faith—is the same thing. It’s just not very organized.

Part of the problem is that I know my yearning for God isn’t just about desiring knowledge or transcendence. It’s about wish-fulfillment. It’s about heaven. I really love the idea of an afterlife.

 

Angels and harps? You love the idea of angels and harps?

Not even remotely. My husband and I made a pact that we would believe in a very specific afterlife together. It’s Borges’s idea, really: the afterlife as a giant library. I also decided that in the afterlife, everyone you know is an amazing storyteller. You get to hear all the exquisite gossip that no one would ever dare tell in life. I think that’s a crucial part of the heaven idea, because if folks were still tight-lipped around the really juicy stories, heaven would be awfully tedious.

I would also appreciate a screening room in the afterlife, and an endless supply of beautifully shot ghost stories, serial killer stories, and period films.

 

Let’s talk about Yoga Bitch. Have you always wanted to write a spiritual memoir?

In spite of myself, yes. I think one of the reasons I kept working on Yoga Bitch for so many years (from 2003-2010) was because I needed to get this spiritual thing out of my system before I could work on other stories. Yoga Bitch somehow became the perfect container for all of my mid-twenties angst. It was intended to be this light-hearted yoga smackdown, but ended up being about leaps of faith; in a spiritual leader, a religion, a god, a love. A handbag. I was so cynical about everything at that age, so afraid of having regrets, of making the wrong decision. It took falling in love and ruining my life for a while to grow the kind of courage one needs to have faith. Not blind faith, but active, questing, questioning faith. That’s the kind of faith I’m after.

 

How did you come up with the structure for Yoga Bitch?

Yoga Bitch was originally a one-woman show. In 2004, I decided to adapt it as a sort of roman à clef, and I had a doozy of a time figuring out how to structure it. One afternoon, I was sitting at the B&O café in Seattle, chatting with a PhD candidate I knew, this Spanish guy named Nil, and I asked him how he would structure a spiritual journey. He didn’t hesitate: As a diary, he said. A spiritual journey is so personal, the struggle so hushed and unseen. We need to be inside the character’s head to really experience the sturm und drang of it all.

I couldn’t imagine writing my story in diary entries without it starting to look like my actual diary, which was an unholy mess of narcissism, self-loathing, and sex dreams that I couldn’t imagine being interesting to anyone but myself. So I dismissed the idea and spent the next four years writing the novel in sprawling chapters, past tense.

That novel now sits in a little coffin in my closet, thank God. After it was rejected, my agent suggested that I try to rewrite it as a memoir. I told her I would think about it, but in my heart I knew I was done with the story. Yoga Bitch had already been a one-woman show and a novel. If I went ahead and wrote it as a memoir, and the memoir failed, what would I do next, write it as a libretto? An epic poem?

But about a year later, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea: If I did write a memoir, I wanted it to be a dialogue between the present and the past, between perspective and no perspective. Memoir is uniquely suited to that task, and suddenly the challenge was appealing. When dreaming up how to recreate my life without perspective, there was only one way that really worked: the diary format, broken up by essays from the perspective of today. It wasn’t until I had written the first chapter that I remembered Nil’s good advice from so many years before.

 

You seem quite amused by bodily functions. It’s kind of astonishing how much space you devote to the fact that your yogamates drank their own pee every day. Are you actually a twelve-year-old boy?

No. I just have the sense of humor of one. My idea of a restorative Saturday afternoon is sitting around making fart noises and laughing. I’m simple like that.

 

You end up understanding your fallen yoga teacher through your own love life, which mirrors hers. Were you saved by a man? (You know that’s not allowed, right?)

Yup. Call me Cinderella, I was. And my cousin was saved by her wife. Love saves. It’s just an idiotic kneejerk feminist trope that says we shouldn’t celebrate a love story. There’s nothing better or more important in life than to be cherished by another human being, except, perhaps, to cherish another human being. Feminists need to drop that bag.

 

Are you a feminist?

I dunno. These days I am nothing, really, except anti-ideology. Ideologues make me break out in hives. And that’s a real problem, cause those motherfuckers are everywhere. Many of them live inside my head, and I don’t even know it until I hear what they’re saying in my voice. It’s like I’m possessed, sometimes.

 

Who have you offended with your book?

Clearly, not enough people. If I were more offensive I think sales would be better.

 

How have sales been?

Good! Solid.

 

What do you enjoy most about writing?

The most enjoyable aspects of writing have got to be the night sweats, the panic attacks, and the carpal tunnel syndrome, for sure.

Just kidding! Those parts aren’t fun. Writing is hardly an enjoyable activity; but it is the most engrossing activity I’ve engaged in. I had a professor in college tell me that art will never make you happy, but it will demand all of your concentration. And concentration, he said, is the closest thing to happiness that exists in the world. In that sense, it’s a lot like meditation, or the state of mind that precedes meditation. When I’m not writing, my mind has nothing to chew on so it starts to eat itself. Like right now—that’s why I’m drinking all these hippie teas, because I’m not writing. I start imagining worst-case scenarios, I obsess over past mistakes or future concerns. One minute I’m telling myself I’m amazing, the next minute that I’m a fraud, a fake, a hack. When I’m writing I’m mostly just thinking about the writing. That is such a relief.

 

I am sick of the fucking internet. I’m not supposed to say this because I am a child of technology. When I was 12, my big brother got us on AOL. He was in a chat room for fans of the Allman Brothers Band and introduced me to all these people. As they all said hi to me, I felt shivers running up and down my spine. I was so excited I couldn’t stop moving.

Chat rooms felt like a dark closet full of strangers, outrageously intimate. I liked to engage in religious debates the most. I also wanted a boyfriend but found teen chat rooms annoying. I would stay home when the neighborhood kids went out to play because I didn’t like them and preferred to talk to strangers on the internet. I mailed my cheer-leading pictures to a boy in New Orleans who may or may not have been a real person.

I hang out with real geeks because I wish I was one of them. I am uncool in the non-hipster way of being uncool. As in, I’m too awkward to get along with normal people but I don’t know any programming languages. I taught myself HTML once upon a time and thought I was pretty badass, but I couldn’t stay afloat once CSS came on the scene. I know how to crimp a Cat 5 cable, and I can put together a PC. I married my husband because I thought it was hot when he wrote code.

Every now and then I get this need to be well informed about the world, and I go on a news binge. Last week, it was a combination of Norway, Lulzsec, the debt ceiling and Google News Badges. Those badges don’t update properly. The thing says I read 5 articles about Norway, so I started reading a lot of articles on different topics. Then I read like 20 on Anonymous, but it wouldn’t update. I have a bronze Norway badge. I am disappoint.

Although it damn near made me kill myself over the weekend (only a slight exaggeration), I go back to Google News on Monday like an addict looking for inspiration. There are people out there breaking the law and pissing people off and making a difference in a way I can never do. It’s totally possible that the things they’re doing all completely wrong. I’m not convinced anyone is doing anything that’s not completely wrong.

I am a project manager. I am a rule follower. I respect authority.

Every few months, I decide I’m not really a writer. I am angry that I went to college and even more so that I went to grad school. I wish someone had told me how worthless it was. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun or that I didn’t meet lovely people and learn some stuff, but look, I discovered yoga at age 16, and I knew I wanted to teach yoga at age 17, yet I dropped that idea and went to college because that seemed like the appropriate thing to do. I am so tired of the appropriate thing.

If I had followed my instinct, I would have a career by now.

I try to tell myself this is my dharma, that karma put me here. I tell myself I’m here to learn something, and I’m working extra hard to learn it as fast as possible so I can get the fuck out of this cubicle and start doing what I wanted to do all along. Did I really need all those student loans to have this realization, karma? I am $32k in the hole for a degree I will never use.

I don’t mean to be such a downer about it. I mean, I can use a semicolon like nobody’s business, but I rarely do because most of the time it’s pretentious. I fucking love run-on sentences.

I’m tired of buying things. I hate things. I hate stuff. I hate clutter. It’s not just the laptops littering the living room but also the server racks down the hall from my bedroom, and also the ones in the basement, and the miscellaneous cables scattered around the technological wasteland that is my house. It’s also the unwashed underwear, the piles of recycling, the perpetually half done renovation projects, the stacks of unread books and magazines on the floor and dust bunnies, my god the dust bunnies. And furthermore, it’s Twitter and Facebook and Google + and Google Reader and Google News and my two blogs, one of them disused. It’s also IRC and GChat and once upon a time AIM and ICQ. It’s also Skype and Ventrillo and Stickam and Daily Booth and Youtube.

There is a BMW being born on my behalf and a loan check to prove it. I feel like a teen mom except I’m not a teenager, not a mom, and not a reality TV star, but my life does have that familiar ring of this is not really- this- this- this is not really happening

You bet your life it is.

I am often afraid that if I said what I really thought about the world, I would be burned at the stake. Maybe I should just make peace with that. After all, this flame proof suit will not last forever. Maybe sometimes it’s better to douse yourself in gasoline and go for the fucking glory.

Maybe I should be a little less dramatic.


Some days I just want to get a lot of tattoos and become totally unemployable as a way to force myself out of the corporate world. One day I will. If I achieve only one thing in life, it will be becoming unemployable.
I hate the way journalists on television say “hacktivists” like they’re trying to drive home a clever pun. They deadpan the news like the world’s worst comedy troop telling grand sick joke. Why hasn’t anyone hacked Congress yet? Those guys are the real assholes, right? I wonder what kind of delicious secrets they’ve got. Just a thought.
A guy walks into a universe and says “God? Is that you?” and the Pope says, “Yes, son, take off your clothes.” The headlines spew sex scandals and it’s all the same to them whether you’re a rapist priest or a member of congress who fails to grasp direct messaging. If there are genitals involved, they’re all over it.
Sex crimes are our favorite joke, but trading legal tender for an orgasm will cost you your career. Sometimes I hate the world.
Every generation has its drama. We all think we’re in the middle of something new and brilliant. They had Kennedy and Nixon and all those poor dead boys, and we have about half the world protesting, a handful of countries with no governments, and a digital revolution that is not at all what we were hoping for, no matter what you were hoping for.
Tomorrow. I swear. Tomorrow I’m getting that tattoo.


Terry insists we meet at her Kundalini Yoga studio, Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood.  She’s kind enough to treat me to a Yogi Tea before we perform 108 sit ups as part of the yoga class, which is taught by a turbaned, bearded man dressed entirely in white.  Terry is also in white from head to toe, minus the turban.  She says, of the missing headdress, “It makes my brain feel too claustrophobic.”

“Why yoga,” I wonder after class, “when we’re here to talk about writing?”  I have to admit I feel more energetic after all that breathing.  Without realizing it, I’ve given Terry the perfect entrée.

“These days,” she begins, “my yoga and meditation practice are integral to my writing.  When I started publishing in the 1970s, my intentions were more political; I was writing about my life as a woman and a lesbian from a feminist perspective.  I wanted people to confront the oppression of women and lesbians and gays in very visceral ways.”

“So,” I interject, “an example might be a poem like “Safe Sex” [from Black Slip] in which you say:

‘Since childhood
in the brightly lit bathroom
while your father said
there, like that, like that, ooo
and the fat worm curdled in your hand
you could never get
clean enough for jesus after that’?

“When that poem was written in the early 1980s,” she says “few women were talking about the experience of being sexually molested by a family member.  That silence helped allow such behavior to be perpetuated.  Speaking up was a way to tell other women, ‘it didn’t only happen to you and it’s not your fault’ and to tell the perpetrators, ‘I won’t keep quiet about this.’”

“So what’s different now, and what does that have to with yoga?”

“Now I have this aspiration for my work to be uplifting, to produce a change in the consciousness of the reader,” she beams.

“Is that what you were up to in your book, Shadow and Praise?”

She purses her lips.  “I had assigned my poetry students [at Writers At Work] to write a series of linked poems.  They could be linked thematically, formally, through a narrative or by some other means of their own devising.  I started writing a series of kind of nonce sonnets (sonnets that follow some but not all of the formal rules) about shadows, various meanings of the word ‘shadow.’  They’re pretty dark poems and at the end I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just so me!’  I get sick of my own thought patterns sometimes!  So I gave myself the challenge of writing a series of praise poems.”  She laughs.  “I started out praising, I don’t know, sunlight and flowers, and they were SO BORING! Then one day I started writing a poem in praise of denial, something that isn’t ordinarily praised, and then things got interesting.  I further made the rule that whatever image ended a given praise poem, that image would be the next thing I would praise.  So I kept surprising myself, which is what I need to work.”

“So, did you create happier, more uplifting poems?” I ask her.  We’re driving in her 16-year-old Honda del Sol to her writing studio, Writers At Work, which she founded in 1997 and at which she teaches weekly workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

With a sigh she says, “I said that was an aspiration.  I keep aspiring.  A lot of the praise poems are still dark, but we’re in a Dark Age.  Through my meditation, I’m cultivating the belief that everything that happens is for our benefit; our only job is to figure out how to make use of it to benefit ourselves.”

“Everything?” I ask skeptically.

“In retrospect I can see it clearly,” Terry answers.  “Break-ups that were devastating to me turned out later to bring huge growth and expansion to my life.  Jobs I didn’t get freed me up for better opportunities.  Even growing up in my alcoholic, incestuous family forced me to go on a journey of self-exploration that might never have happened if I’d grown up comfortable and secure.  The challenge is to remember that in the present when something doesn’t go the way I think it should.  But really, I’m lucky.  If my worst problem is things not going my way, I have no problems.”

We reach Writers At Work, a large open room situated above a hair salon in Silver Lake.  The walls are painted bright orange.  Two walls are mostly windows.  On another wall is a bulletin board featuring the covers of books published by her students over the years.  A big table dominates the space.

I change topics.  “You call yourself a literary artist, and you’ve published in several different genres—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, drama.  What’s behind those choices?”

She grins wryly.  “It’s branding suicide!  I always tell my students, ‘if you want a writing career, don’t do it the way I’ve done it.’”  She laughs.  “I didn’t study writing in an MFA program.  I went to art school [the Feminist Studio Workshop, a two-year program at the Woman’s Building and the reason Terry moved to Los Angeles from Detroit, where she grew up.]  I worked alongside and collaborated with painters and sculptors and graphic designers and video artists.  Until my late 30s I worked primarily in performance art.  I gave that up to concentrate more on my writing.”

She offers me tea, then continues.  “So I have this restlessness in my work to always be doing new things.  I like to set challenges for myself, to learn to do what I don’t know how to do.  Even within a genre, like poetry, my process keeps changing and so does my work.”

“Right,” I say.  “Shadow and Praise is really different than Embers.”  In Embers she’s written [from “Witness”]:

“In my stepfather’s battered black Cadillac,
filled with the blue smoke of cigarettes,
we waited, idling, in silence
outside the state hospital for the insane.”

and in Shadow and Praise, her form has moved to prose paragraphs [from “In Praise of Pregnancy”]:

“Fifty-year-old mother-to-be, knocked up by my own exaggerated expectations, my greedy longings.  I will name this offspring Outrage, raise her to be an enemy of the state.  Scrambled from eggs long past their expiration date, she’ll have lidless eyes, cursed to see too much.  Nursed at my bitter trough, she’ll wear green and inherit my inability to whistle.”

“I don’t exactly think of Embers as a poetry collection,” Terry gently contradicts.  “I meant to write a historical novel based on the life of my step-grandmother, but I eked out a few pages and it seemed so dull.  Then it occurred to me that using the vehicle of poetry—73 poems that function as ‘chapters’—I could convey the multiple versions of her life as well as all the aspects that were unknown.  But after writing narrative poetry for the 6 years I worked on Embers, I didn’t want to do that again for a long time, so I began exploring more lyric poems and then more fragmented and experimental structures.  The kind of poems that make people roll their eyes and say they don’t understand poetry!”

“How do you deal with that?”

“I try to get people to relax about it.  People are accustomed to reading for information, what theorists call efferent reading; they think they should walk away with a sound bite.  Poetry, especially experimental work, requires aesthetic reading, the ability to appreciate the choices of language, image, sound, visual structure and assemble a meaning for themselves, one that may be different for each reader.  I try to encourage people to trust themselves in whatever they take from a given poem.”

This seems to be a good time to ask her about her teaching.

“Numerologically, I’m a “5,” she responds.  “That means I was born to be a teacher.  When I was little I used to assemble my stuffed animals, take roll in a roll book, and offer little lessons. I’ve been teaching creative writing since the late 70s.  I love the opportunity to encourage people’s creativity and to impart skills to help them accomplish their goals.  I’m a Virgo, a natural problem solver, so I love to look at someone’s work and say, ‘Have you considered this?  What if you tried that?’ And I feel like I get to know the best part of people, the part that is inspired, that is trying to craft something to be the best it can possibly be.  That’s such an incredible level on which to interact with someone.”

“Somehow I think you might be a hard teacher,” I venture.

“If I’m hard it’s because I want people to achieve their excellence,” she says, unapologetically.  “If I want that more than the student does, she or he is going to find me hard.  I’m not going to applaud someone just for having a pulse.  I want them to be great.”

Before our conversation is over, she tells me she wants me to see her garden.  As we once more climb into the somewhat battered del Sol, I notice the bumper sticker: “May the longtime sun shine upon you.”  I recognize it as a line from the song we sang at the close of the yoga class.

The garden is as colorful and eclectic as Terry’s work—succulents beside native plants next to a wall of bougainvillea, adjacent to a vegetable plot where beets and peas reach toward the sun.  “I never make a plan,” she says with a tinge of regret.  “I just go to the nursery and buy what strikes me; I come home and try to find a spot for it.  It’s all impulsive and usually overcrowded.  But it makes me happy.”

“What’s next for you in your literary life?” I ask.

“I have a novel coming out this summer—Stealing Angel.  It’s kind of a spiritual thriller, about kidnapping a child and whether one can do the wrong thing for the right reasons.  And I’m collaborating with composer David Ornette Cherry on adapting Embers as a jazz opera.  I’m shopping a new book of poems and a collection of lyric essays—but getting published is even more challenging these days than when I was starting out!  And I have another novel with a complete first draft that is waiting for me to bring my attention back to it.”

My eyes widen a bit at the list, but she waves it away.  “I used to think that producing a lot of work would bring me happiness.  I know now that it doesn’t.  Connecting with the infinite in meditation, tending the garden, taking time to watch the moon rise, laughing with my partner—that’s the real source of joy.”

The sun is setting as we sit on her front porch, gazing out at the front garden.  A breeze stirs the wind chimes that hang from the roof.  Her white cat, Annie, jumps into her lap and licks her arm a few times before settling down.  It calls to mind a part of a new, unpublished poem she shared with me earlier this day, “Turtle Songs”:

We sing of the unseen, all that dwells
beneath, what the heart learns
on a moonless night


I’m thinking I need to start thinking so I can write a piece called, “What I Think About When I Should be Thinking About Nothing While I’m Doing Yoga.” I’m thinking I need to write this because while I should be thinking about nothing during yoga, while I should be focusing on the present, focusing on my breathing, I inevitably start thinking. I think writing about it will help me stop. Thinking that is.

When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”

What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison!  I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.

More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks

“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”

Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.

I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.

I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.

Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been  instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it  still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.

The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.

The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.

As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.”  Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.

I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in  this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.

Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.

I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in  a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.

Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.

Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.

See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.

The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.

Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.

So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.

I want to go home.

One who has control over the mind is tranquil in heat and cold, in pleasure and pain, and in honor and dishonor, and is ever steadfast with the Supreme Self.” -Bhagavad Gita

 

It is Monday morning and I am pulling on the smooth wooden handle of the sauna door at the North Boulder Rec Center. My eyes adjust to the dim light and I step inside under the watchful gaze of two men sitting at opposite sides of the bench facing the door. I smile without meeting either of their eyes and take a seat at the small bench next to the stove on the right. The bench burns the undersides of my thighs and I fidget under the sting of heat and male eyes above me. In a rush, I make for the empty, high bench opposite me, turn backwards and boost myself up with my palms so that I can sit with my back to the men and my eyes to the door as if we are in an elevator conceived in the mind of a man named Bikram.

I breathe in slowly.

I am out of practice with saunas, having spent the last few years of my life with a baby on one hip. Even so, I like to think of myself as one who enjoys the all-encompassing heat. I like the mental exercise—the progression of thoughts that branch in my mind.

My first thoughts, of course, spider toward Hell. But despite my evangelical roots, it’s not a particularly biblical image of Hell, favoring instead the imagination of Dante or Bosch. Demons goad. Bare breasted women with rotted out mouths taunt. Unshaven men limp from chamber to chamber with various impalements. All pathways are circular.

My next thought is that I don’t believe in Hell anymore.

After this, I remind myself that I enjoy heat. That I was born in the middle of a Sacramento summer. That I was born for this.

I remind myself that heat is a test of endurance. That surviving it—choosing to stay in it when easier air is only four feet away—is a matter of resolve.

My next thought is of a story Scott once told me about a massage parlor he visited in Hong Kong. There was a stretch of hot pebbles on which people were meant to walk in order to increase their sex life. Every minute on the rocks was an equivalent increase to one’s sex life. He said he watched one little, old man walk back and forth on the rocks the entire time he was there. Back and forth. Back and forth.

I remind myself that I can and must handle anything.

I remind myself that I am as strong as I will allow myself to be.

I breathe slowly, savoring the sensation that my nostril hairs are being singed.

I think of ovens. Crispy Peking duck. The witch in Hansel and Gretel. Jeffrey Dahmer.

I have had enough.

In spite of the fact that I have already traveled from Sacramento to Hong Kong with a stopover in Hell, in human terms I have only been in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center for about 45 seconds. I am just out of practice, I excuse myself weakly. I have had babies. Babies do not mix well with extreme heat. It says so quite clearly in the Operating Instructions. I can’t remember the exact wording but it was something like: “Saunas: No babies.” Behind me, the older man shifts his weight and lets out a deep sigh.

I study my legs pulled up in front of me to an upside down V. Since it’s dark, I don’t notice all of the imperfections I normally obsess over. Uneven color. Nicks from the razor. Little blue veins. I am wearing a steel gray swimsuit. It is a two-piece that covers my tummy and has halter straps that tie around the back of my neck. It says to anybody who is looking too hard or thoughtfully at it: I have had babies. Babies who don’t belong in the sauna.

And please stop looking at my tummy.

The bench behind me crackles and groans and the older man appears in my peripheral vision. He exits the sauna in a rush of air. The air feels like life.

When the door closes, I sit as still as the wooden planks surrounding me. I am aware that the water from the pool has evaporated from my body and I have commenced a slow bake. I wonder when I will begin to sweat. I long for this release.

Behind me, the young man pushes off the bench. I expect him to leave like the older man, but instead he stops, facing the door. I wait. From his lithe back, I surmise he is in his late twenties. His skin is tanned the color of the wood door and he has long Jesus hair, which tickles his back as his shoulders rise and fall once. He turns abruptly and hangs a light blue towel on the rail in front of the stove as if he intends to dry it out faster. I wonder if he is stupid.

He stands with his sweat drenched back to me and fills his lungs with air. From my place on the scorching planks I watch as his chiseled back expands with his breath. He stares at the door, blocking my entrance to it.

Sauna etiquette is not much different than elevator etiquette. No talking. No eye contact. Face the door. If you cough, you say, excuse me. If someone else coughs, you wait a full minute before bailing so it doesn’t appear you are leaving on account of them and their diseased lungs. Having never met this person before, I am fully prepared to play by the rules. I sit perched on the high bench, flanking him at 3 o’clock. When he turns around, I drop my eyes as if I don’t see him. As if I am so consumed with my own world of razor burn and the sex drive of little, old men that I don’t even register that he is there.

To our left, the stones hiss as he empties a ladleful of water over them. He turns toward 9 o’clock and stretches his back left and right. He exhales the slow leak of a loud, aspirated ‘h’.

Not stupid, I realize then. Enlightened.

Watching him over my shoulder, I realize I have made a mistake entering the sauna. The truth is, I don’t really enjoy the heat. That was something I just told myself when I was fresh out of the water and the thought of detoxing my pores appealed to me. I may have mentioned this before, but I am a lightweight. Babies and all.

Just then he drops his torso forward and reaches down for his toes, releasing as he does this a yogic groan that not only aligns his chakras, but mine as well.

I want to leave but also fully realize that my departure at this point might be considered rude. We’re in Boulder, after all. What he is doing isn’t that strange. Everyone does yoga here. The organic produce section of Whole Foods alone is practically filled with people doing yoga. Mountain pose to reach the salad sprinkles. Warrior pose to reach the kiwi and mango simultaneously. Triangle to procure cucumber. Would I make him feel uncomfortable if I left? Would he feel bad knowing he drove a fellow sauna sitter away? Would it set back his progress toward enlightenment?

I consider my possible responses and their effect on his dying ego. And if I leave now, what does that say about me? That I’m squeamish? Insecure? A Republican? He rights himself and turns back in my direction. My eyes snap to the door. Certainly I can handle a minor chakrasm alone in a sauna with a hippy version of Adonis himself.

When I lived in Hong Kong, there was a small English style pub I used to visit. There was only one bathroom in the pub, inside which was a toilet and a urinal separated by a curtain. There was no lock on the main bathroom door. Once I had just ducked into the toilet when the door swung wide and some guy walked in to use the urinal on the other side of the curtain beside me. I couldn’t do it. I stood up, zipped up, and left. Behind me, the man apologized profusely through the door insisting that we could somehow work it out between us. I don’t mind, he kept repeating. Come back!

He is now facing the back of the sauna. With arms raised, he bends his torso right then left. If I raised my left arm, my fingers would leave a trail through the sweat up his side. The closed door beckons me. He is slowly rolling his shoulders now and commencing pranayama. In my peripheral vision I watch as he fills his abdomen, then lungs; then he empties his lungs, then abdomen. He does this eleven times.

I am confused. I want to leave, but I no longer know how to do so gracefully. Clearly he has a regimen. From the looks of his slick and hollowed-out face, I estimate he has been in the sauna for at least three hours. If I leave now, he will understand. He will know it is not simply because I was made to feel uncomfortable or because he has detracted from my own karma with his practice. I may not have ridden it out to the lengths of, say, a Libertarian, but maybe at least to that of a Democrat. It would be all right. We have an African American president. I have simply had enough of the sauna. I will leave at the final emptying of his abdomen so as not to interrupt his Nirvana.

Without warning, he begins to make sharp, even bursts with his nose. I turn to look and see that his forehead is slightly bent forward and his eyes are closed. He increases in tempo until he is performing nearly three breaths per second. I have missed my opportunity. I wait for him to finish this respiratory miracle in the midst of the oppressive heat. My head is swirling now, having mastered nearly four whole minutes in the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center. I wait for a pause in which to make my exit. But the pause doesn’t come. When he finishes his Breath of Fire, he pitches forward and umbrellas his Jesus hair over his toes. He groans with pleasure.

Not enlightened, I realize then. Asshole.

The thought alights on my shoulders like a lotus petal caught and fallen in the morning breeze. I can not believe I did not see it earlier. He wants me to leave. The entire time he has been trying to make me uncomfortable so that he can be alone. So that he can have the sauna of the North Boulder Rec Center all to himself. Right on cue, he begins gyrating his hips in slow, large circles with his head now thrown back to get a better look at eternity through the planks in the ceiling.

I hold my eyelids open with effort and watch him as he stirs the heat slowly with his kundalini. Suddenly he stops and looks my way. I look back at the door.

All this time I have been secretly admiring his lack of ego—his ability to break the social mores of the sauna-elevator classification—when in reality he is trying to drive me out of the sauna. His sauna.

I continue to stare at the door as his egoless ego bores a prana-shaped hole into my psyche. He has declared war.

It is enough. All at once, I give in to the heat and let my eyelids fall like a tankini over a stretched out stomach. I lean my head back against the wall for support—for when the unconsciousness will soon overtake me—and smile, just as somewhere in the background, the elevator musak switches tunes to that of a desperate om.

The following scene is from Chapter Seven of my new yoga memoir Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. This particular chapter takes place during my time as a “seva,” or volunteer, at my neighborhood yoga studio. Everything else should explain itself.


One afternoon, midway through a substitute seva shift, I sat on a stool while baked out of my nuts, idly picking my nose until class got out. A handsome young dude entered. He said that the owner had asked him to drop off a seva application, and he handed it to me.

His most recent job had been waiting tables in New York City. Obviously an actor, I thought. Then I noticed that he’d once been an editorial assistant at the Chicago Reader, where I’d worked for seven years. Since the paper, like all papers, was more or less in the process of financial collapse, this probably wasn’t a coincidence that I’d run across many more times in my life.

“The Reader, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I used to write for that paper.”

“Really?” he said. “What’s your name?”

I told him.

Now, when I drop my name to another writer, my expected response is “Oh my God, dude! I totally love your stuff! It’s really great to meet you!” Or at least, “Oh yeah, sure. I’ve heard of you.”

He stared at me blankly.

“Maybe I read you in the archives,” he said. “I spent a lot of time reading the archives when I worked there.”

“So did I,” I said.

Suddenly, I felt old, useless, and insecure. I easily had ten years on this guy. All the yoga philosophy in the world couldn’t counteract the horrifying feeling of obsolescence that washed over me at that moment. Still, I tried to make conversation. We talked about the death of newspapers, but how long can you do that, really? Eventually, as every conversation in my life did, the topic turned to yoga.

“So do you practice a lot?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “But I’m working on a pilot about a yoga studio. I figured I should see what one was like.”

Rookie mistake, kid. You never know who you’re talking to in L.A., or what kind of lunatic ulterior motives they have. For instance, you could be talking to a guy who was working at the same yoga studio, who maybe in the back of his mind harbored fantasies about writing his own yoga sitcom. And maybe this guy felt threatened.

“Do you have an agent?” I asked, hoping that my voice would drown out the sound of my sinking heart.

No, he said. But friends were showing his other work around to agents. It probably wouldn’t take long.

“Cool,” I said.

He left. I took the application into the owner’s office. As I sat there, staring at the paper, I felt a good Krishna hovering over one shoulder and an evil Krishna over the other. Do it, the devil said. This guy is your competition. He’s cutting in on your territory. The angel said, come on, man, he’s just a kid. Give him a break.

The market for yoga-based entertainment was surprisingly fat. I’d done my research and had seen trailers and pilots for a half-dozen independently produced yoga sitcoms. There was the yoga documentary Enlighten Up!, where a skeptical Jewish journalist tries to find inner peace on a voyage through the world of yoga. That hit way too close to home. Then you had the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” whose hilarious YouTube videos had racked up a million hits. Will Ferrell’s SNL sketch about achieving a yoga pose where he could suck his own dick had been making the rounds for almost a decade. They were doing yoga on The Office. Scarlett Johannson played a yoga teacher in He’s Just Not That Into You. Couples Retreat had that long scene with the loin-cloth clad Fabio lookalike yoga teacher. Scott Bakula was playing a yoga teacher on Men Of A Certain Age. If you wanted to go even further back, Jenna Elfman did yoga humor in the mid-90s on Dharma And Greg, for fuck’s sake. But at some point, something would tip the scales, no one would be interested in buying yoga material anymore, and that would mean another path blocked by the cruel hand of fate.

No, I thought. Not this time. There may be a lot of competition in the small and unimportant world of yoga comedy, but Karuna Yoga is mine.

And then I did it. I tore his application in half, folded up the halves, and tore them again, and again, and again, until there was nothing left but little shreds. When this was done, I went outside to the Dumpster and put half the pieces in one side and half in another. I wadded a few of the pieces into a ball and placed them in my mouth, mashing them into an unrecognizable pulp with my saliva. I had to destroy all the evidence.

I went back inside and immediately felt horrible. My conscience began to scream. That had been one of the most quietly venal acts of my life.

I went home, put the kid to bed, and was doing the dishes when I called Regina into the kitchen.

“I did something bad,” I said.

She sighed.

“What now?”

I told her.

“Do you really think you’re not going to get found out?” she said.

“No,” I said. “But….”

“Dude, the universe tested you, and you totally fucked it! You have to make this right.”

“I can do that.”

“Look, I understand the impulse. This is a competitive town. But that’s no way to win.”

“I know.”

“Seriously, you could get into big trouble.”

I went downstairs. Fortunately, the guy was on Facebook. I wrote to him:

“Hey. It’s Neal Pollack, the former Reader employee who was working the desk tonight at Karuna. I wanted to let you know that I misplaced your application. I have no idea where it went. There was a big rush for the 6:30 class, and I had to run a bunch of credit cards, and it vanished in the shuffle. I’m going to email the owner to tell her, but I think it’s best that you come in and fill out another one…I’m really sorry for the hassle, man. I owe you a beer.”

From there, I tried to deploy a more innocent deflection strategy. I said that Karuna is “a really nice studio with great teachers and cool, sincere students.” Nothing topped it “in terms of high-quality yoga instruction and laid-back attitude.” But as far as wacky characters went, I said, there were several other studios in the neighborhood that were better sources. I then named a bunch of studios that I’d never visited.

When that was done, I wrote to the studio owner:

“A guy stopped by the studio around 6 PM to turn in a SEVA application. Then I ended up doing some credit-card transactions for Lauren’s class. When the smoke cleared, I’d completely misplaced his application. I searched high and low but couldn’t find it anywhere. So it’s probably in the studio somewhere, but I have no idea where….I already contacted him on Facebook (it was definitely him), so he knows to come in and request another application if he’s still interested. I’m really sorry about this…I don’t know where my head was tonight. I imagine you’ll be hearing from him soon. Thanks for your patience. I’m sure you’ve dealt with worse.”

The next day, the guy wrote me back:

“Thanks for the heads up. I will drop by and fill out another app. And thanks for the tips on the other, more “eccentric,” studios around town. Great meeting you.”

He included a friend request.

A few weeks later, he started working a regular shift on Saturdays at Karuna. But by then, my mind had righted itself. For help, I’d sought guidance from a handy paperback called 1001 Pearls Of Yoga Wisdom. How would the masters deal with such a situation, I wondered. I found this one from the great Swami Sivananda: “There is no end of craving. Hence contentment alone is the best way to happiness. Therefore, acquire contentment.”

Yes, envy was bad, particularly combined with covetousness. That guy could write a dozen yoga pilots for all I cared. If one hit, I’d even think about being happy for him. I had everything I wanted and needed, right now.

A couple of days later, I heard back from Karuna’s owner:

“Thanks for the update,” she wrote. “No worries. I am glad that you are here at the studio taking care of the community.”

In part two of my interview with Storm Large, Storm, Quenby Moone, and I continue our discussion about pretty much everything: feminism, Sarah Palin, every possible euphemism for a woman’s girl parts, and werewolves. Storm also shares a simple and delicious recipe for pot candy, called Marijuana Meltaways.

This part of the conversation picks up where part one left off, which was at the end of an anecdote involving Prince’s management team and hypocrisy.

What are the most common questions people ask you about yoga?

The first one, by far, is “what type of yoga do you do?” It’s a totally legitimate and useful question, and yet very tough to answer. I’ve trained in the Ashtanga tradition, but most people either haven’t heard of that, or they’ve heard of it as something Madonna did in the 90s. Then I have a hard time explaining it without going into a historical explanation of the lineage, and by that time most people have already gone back to the bar.

The question gets even thornier, because I’m a somewhat overweight carnivorous stoner with a bad attitude. There’s not a specific “type” of yoga that caters to me. You either practice yoga, or you don’t, and it doesn’t matter if you do it in a hot room, or a lukewarm one, with or without chanting, with or without incense. Who your teacher is doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter to anyone but you. But, as my teacher Richard Freeman is always pointing out, people are desperate to place themselves into a category, to feel like they’re part of something larger.

The mind is tricky that way. Doing yoga doesn’t exempt you from that. In fact, because there’s the illusion in yoga of doing an “enlightened” activity, people let their guards down, and then cult-like activity can begin. No one person’s yoga can exactly mirror another’s, just as no one person’s life can exactly mirror another’s.

Really? Is this how you’re talking now?

Sometimes. An intellectual understanding, no matter how basic, of the yoga tradition is new to me. Until about three years ago, I’d never read a word of Eastern philosophy. I’m like a kid playing with a new toy on the first night of Chanukah. It will, I hope, calm down a bit.


What’s another question?

“Does your wife do yoga, too?” This is a little more annoying to me. It’s like me saying, “I play poker two nights a week,” and then someone immediately asking, “Does your wife play poker, too?” The answer is, on both counts: No. She introduced me to yoga and then gradually got burnt out. “It’s your thing,” she says to me, which makes me feel kind of sad, but I’m not going to try to push her back into practicing. She still indirectly reaps the benefits because I’m a lot calmer, kinder, and saner that I used to be.


So has yoga saved your marriage?

No, deciding not to have a second kid saved our marriage. But yoga has definitely helped.



 

I’m standing in a kind of spontaneous Tadasana, feet on the bare wood floors of this, our ninety-year-old house, arms at my sides, before I step outside.  These soft floors have held countless feet and now mine stand among them. My heels press down, making an even deeper footprint, my toes spread apart.  I take a full breath, inhale and lift my spine, each vertebrae, as I exhale away from my center and back in. The storm’s center is it’s softest point. That’s where I need to be.

The windows around the front door look like aliens. I seem to be the only one who recognizes it, but it’s so obvious. They are tall, skinny aliens with arms that reach down to their knees. Their bug-eyed heads are elongated just like the aliens on TV, except that the top comes to a little point like a dollop of whipped cream. As a kid, I ran up the stairs feeling their noodle arms reaching out to grab me and pull me out of my world and into theirs. I always felt them just an inch behind me.

Standing in the laundry room, if I tapped unexpectedly on the metal surface of the washer or dryer, the noise might be startling, and suddenly I was thinking, “What if that’s the signal?” The signal for ghosts or aliens or whatever might be waiting in the ether for its moment, its chance to come abduct me or just to show itself, thereby ruining the reality on which I had an already tenuous grasp. I would do it again to disrupt the signal — rap on the washer once quickly, try to make the exact same noise — was it once for yes and two for no? I don’t remember. Do it again just in case. What if I have said something I don’t even understand in their alien language? Tap out a complicated rhythm to indicate a scratching out of what has inadvertently been written on the paper of time-space continuum. If all else fails, run out of the room and all is forgotten.

I experienced life in fast forward and slow motion at the same time, a contortion that threatened to tear the flimsy tape of continuity. It starts with the combination of silence and the ever-present humming in my ears. No one is speaking, no power is running, yet there is a subtle ringing in the upper reaches of my inner ear. Careful about tuning in to that. It’s not an imagined noise. It’s the sound of the ear existing. Catching air or whatever.

Listen too hard, and things get twisty. Internally, things are faster. Externally, I am surprised by the slow sound of my own voice. It comes out syrupy. I try to talk faster to catch up. I try and think slower. Things are out of sync.

I had dizzy spells for no reason. When I was still very young, they were fun. I would lay on the soft carpeted floor of my bedroom and let the experience envelop me. I didn’t have a word for it, yet. It had not occurred to me to ask if this is normal. The room shook. My heart raced. I just lay there and enjoy the natural high of overactive nerves.In high school, it would become a problem when I had to grip the sides of my desk to keep from falling out.

I have trouble wearing nail polish. I can’t keep it on. The minute there is a crack, I have to peel it all back. I chip it off, bite and scrape, leaving little flakes on my desk, clinging to my skirt, and stuck with sweat to my palms. I’m bent on deconstruction. When the nail polish is gone, I start on my cuticles. You would think I could outgrow this. You would think I’d eventually figure out there is nothing but blood under there, but I don’t. I keep digging. If not cuticles, then scabs or zits or dry skin — have you ever soaked your feet in a warm bath until you could just run your fingernails along your heel and come up with an inch long strip of skin? It’s not really skin anymore.

I learned my triggers, and then I felt funny about using this word, “triggers.” It’s got to be some kind of AA jargon, but I’ve never been in AA, so I must have picked it up from one of my friends who went to AA or NA, and I feel like a phony for using their lingo. I mean, they’re the ones with the real problems, right? Who am I? What right do I have to sit here and feel sorry for myself? But anyway, phony or not, I know my triggers: Alcohol, laziness, Sunday evenings, those things make it harder. Coffee, sex and exercise make it better.

I like to read about philosophies and religions that point us toward making peace with ourselves. I like Buddhism, but I don’t like to sit still for meditation. I don’t like to go to church or listen to preachers. I want a teacher, but I wouldn’t listen. I’m all I’ve got, then. But I do like the idea of oneness. I appreciate the fantasy of melting into a larger identity, not just for the delight of finally getting out of my skin but for the escape from being a person who must get dressed every day, and go to work, and pay bills, and be nice to people. Briefly, I can imagine that if I melt into the larger whole, I would be something much larger, much more magnificent than my little self with my little job and my chipped nail polish.

Sometimes I practice so-called magic, making creative use of salt water and a handful of herbs, knowing intellectually that it does nothing, and yet the ritual gives me comfort. I direct my unruly energy toward a cup of salt water on my desk and feel better about things without knowing why, exactly. The logic of the anxious is a bit more flexible. Solutions don’t need to make sense if the problems don’t make sense. I was sitting at my desk thinking the world was going to end, and a cup of saltwater made me feel better.

If I write down everything that makes me anxious, somehow, this makes it better, too. I apply words like a salve to this mysterious wound. I practice these home remedies until it stops hurting, and then I live like a normal person until it starts hurting again.

If I’d known the word vegetarian when I was a kid, I wonder if the shift would have happened sooner. Back then, there was no Lisa Simpson giving pop culture credence, no easily available information, and no role models in my social circle.

I was an unusual tyke in that I liked almost every fruit or vegetable I tried. Steamed artichokes, smooth avocadoes, fresh cherries with pit and stem, even maligned Brussels sprouts.