Michael A. Stusser
Published in Yoga International
Yoga is not some bizarre circus routine whereby sinewy, limber Indian contortionists in need of a shower twist themselves into pretzels to the beat of Sitar music. The reason I mention this is that, prior to becoming a yogi-in-the-making, this was my understanding. Not that there’s anything wrong with being sinewy, from India, or a contortionist, mind you, it’s just that these misconceptions may get in the way of a person participating, thereby missing out on one of the sublime things in life.
My entire yogic experience has been in an Intro class at the 8 Limbs Yoga Studio in Seattle. I’ve been a beginner for several years now, and have no intention of moving on to intermediate or advanced classes (where they actually do twist people into pretzel-like positions). You see, I’m perfectly happy where I am - in the moment - a difficult lesson to learn in this age of multi-tasking, and one of the basic tenants of Yoga.
Lumping mantras, sutras and chakras into the same karmic blend, I began my yogic journey a New Age version of a couch potato; I’d nod my head and relate, but had difficulty getting off my ass. In fact, upon hearing mantras of any kind, my typical response was to say something banal like, “I’m all set thanks,” and balk at further exploration. Clearly some plans are complex scams (the Celestine Prophecy, WTO, and health insurance industry), while others are too complicated for my narrow brain to fathom (E=MC2, Buddhism, mimes, etc.). With yoga, I wasn’t sure if it was a food supplement, dietary discipline or strict Hindu practice (the latter, being a meat-eater and all, sounded extremely problematic).
I went to my first yoga class at the suggestion of my girlfriend Jenny who thought I looked scrunched, hunched, and shrunken. “You used to be taller,” she said, knowing that would get to me. A shooting sciatic nerve had me limping badly, praying for any method of pain relief not consisting of a scalpel, needles or skin grafting. Promising that at no time would I have to put my legs over my shoulders or shave my head, my amor explained the class would mainly consist of breathing and a few stretches. “If you keep it up, you might even lengthen your spine.”
Hoping the gypsy voodoo would release not only my backbone but clenched jaw and furrowed brow, I decided to check it out. The way I figured it, anything over four thousand years old must have some intrinsic value (though this is not true of monarchies or cockroaches). The yoga coterie has included everyone from Buddha to Ghandi, televangelist Richard Hittleman to Aldous Huxley. Even the Beatles thought it was cool, so it couldn’t be all bad. Maybe I’d meet Madonna.
To my surprise, there were no Hindus, hippies or rock stars in the studio. Instead, the place looked more like a Gap ad. A few limber-looking hipsters sat up front, behind them a row of pierced, tattooed tough chicks, alongside a smattering of Bohemians, and finally a back row of folks who looked like they couldn’t touch their toes with a palate of bricks on their backs. I sat with them. Dawn, our instructor, started the class by asking us to unroll our mats, and lay on our backs. I liked yoga already.
The color of caramel, Dawn adorns herself in exotic jewelry, has a strong, commanding presence, a sultry, calming voice, and moves like a sheet in the wind. She fit my preconceived yogic notions in two ways: First, she wore a diamond stud in her nose, something I think I’ve seen Indian women wear in National Geographic or the movie Pocahantas. Second, with picture-perfect posture and her hair tied up in a Dr. Seussian fountain doo, she looked as though she could sit in the “I Dream of Jeanie” Lotus pose for days on end. Dawn was a reason to do yoga all by herself.
“Yoga’s not about being able to touch your toes or stand on your head,” Dawn began. “It’s about being comfortable and aware of your own body. If you find yourself in a posture that’s doesn’t feel good, you’re not doing yoga.” Apparently I wasn’t, as the shooting pain in my right leg could hardly be described as feeling “good.” Moving my legs further apart, I became acutely aware of several vertebrae out of place. If it’s true you’re only as old as your spine is flexible, I’m pre-historic.
The first session was mainly spent lying on the floor and breathing deeply (pranayama), two things I think I’m fairly good at. (In reality, I learned I was using less than 30% of my lung capacity.) “It is said that breathing this way for ten minutes a day can substitute for three hours sleep,” she said, pulling a breath deeply into her lungs and looking very well-rested. Feeling light-headed, I tried to calculate the number of breaths I’d need to catch up on my sleep.
With our eyes closed, Dawn suggested we take “a mental inventory of our bodies;” I counted one spazzing sciatic nerve, a sore ankle, pains in my neck, shoulder and low-back, a groin pull, and - I hadn’t even inventoried the whole store when class came to and end. Afterward I felt refreshed - as though I’d taken a fabulous nap. I exited the studio feeling loose, and hoped I could take some of Dawn’s salubrious suggestions home with me. Ten bucks well spent, I went on my merry way, unscathed, and not yet a member of the Hare Krishna (whew!).
During the following week, my body returned to Hunchback status; I found myself grinding my teeth and trying to breathe deeply without much success. I’ve always been into “quick fixes” (in fact, chiropractic adjustments, massage and espresso kept me upright), and was hoping a single session of yoga might cure my ills. The last thing I wanted was a long-term commitment to a Far Eastern doctrine to screw up my routine, but apparently one more class was in order to ease the pain.
The second session began as had the first, lying on our backs and breathing - trying to get oxygen to the back half of the lungs (there’s a back half of my lungs?). Aside from some wheezing and phlegm-related discharges, everything was fine. We then moved into our first poses (asanas).
Faster than you could say “Paschimottanasana” I found myself in Sesame Street sounding lugs: “Downward Dog,” “Child’s Pose” “Tree” and “Sun Salutations.” Each asana was first explained by Dawn, who would contort her body and show us what not to do before demonstrating the correct posture. Apparently yoga is an at-your-own-pace practice - a member of the “there are no wrong answers” school - which is a good thing when you’re as flexible as a tree stump. Starting with a basic stance (say, standing upright with feet firmly planted in “Mountain”), we were able to remain there, or move into more difficult variations: raising one leg off the floor, cranking a leg up the inner thigh, pushing the palms together, raising the arms, then juggling three pies while the instructor threw knives at us. That kind of thing.
Throughout the series of poses, Dawn interjected facts about yoga, some theoretical (“Sages have said yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind”), some more singly specific (“This is a great pose for wringing out toxins you may have accumulated over the weekend”). Turns out there are yoga asanas for relieving migraines, allergies, menstrual cramps, and - best of all - bad backs (a.k.a. lousy posture). I’d gone to cure a sciatic nerve, and left thinking about the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind. That’s deep.
Months went by, and Tuesday after Tuesday I found myself sweating to New Age music in an effort to grab my own toes. I rarely find time for anything new in my hectic, scrambling life (unless it’s a designer drug). I once tried to read a book on time management, but couldn’t find the time to finish it. Somehow, my 5pm yoga class became a priority. Meetings could be pushed off, hoop games suspended, cocktails with friends postponed. The main reason for my weekly return? Selfish joy. I simply felt better after each class. It wasn’t that I’d converted , grown more flexible, or healed my back. It was something bigger; a slow trickle of consciousness, and a knowledge that my life would be worse without it.
Thank God (or whatever spiritual deity you believe in) for the invention of structured yoga classes. Without a teacher cracking the strap each week, I can’t say I’d be constant (and if the only classes available were at 6 am I’d definitely be sleepin’ through my practice). Jenny (now herself a yoga instructor) also played a subtle, vital role in keeping the yoga ball rolling. Buying a bolster for my birthday, she set the solid oversized pillow in my office and said I could lie on it “if you feel like it,” and that it might feel good. Soon a mat with my name on it appeared, then a book on yoga you can do in your sleeping bag.
Obviously there’s more to yoga than sitting on a mat once a week and stretching your hamstrings to the music of Dead Can Dance. The difference between hatha yoga (physical) and yoga in its entirety is sort of like the difference between eating a salad and being a farmer; with hatha you get a taste of the concept, but don’t have to buy the farm, milk the cows or quit your day job.
In terms of expertise, I’m clearly at the beginning of the long-limbed yogic journey, one that hopefully winds its way to nirvana - or at least the Grateful Dead. While yoga may be a full-service program of physical discipline, ethics and practical theory, I’m taking one step at a time. (According to Patanjali’s yoga sutras, yoga has eight limbs, the last of which, attaining enlightenment, involves so many steps you’d need a turbo-charged Stairmaster to get there in one lifetime.) The physical practice is more than enough to chew on at the moment.
Unfortunately, my path to wisdom is still filled with financial potholes and relational roadblocks I don’t fully control (“Grab hold of the wheel, Man!”). I watch TV with the newspaper in hand and a phone cradled to my ear - and that’s just in the car! I’m selfish, self-centered, and stuck in the material world.
I’ve still only got one foot in the transcendental waters. Chanting embarrasses me (if we could only chorus “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” or something, I’d feel much more demonstrative). Ying and yang are unclear concepts. I’m not sure how Buddhism ties into the mix. I can’t find my third eye, much less my third chakra. Even so, I can feel the benefits spilling into parts of my life. I take deep breaths when staring at my VISA bill. I’m becoming more aware of my life’s pace. I’m less anxious and concentrate on tasks at hand. I’m taming my “monkey mind” and looking into Tantric sex. And four times a month I find myself in a candle-filled room, twisting my limbs in bizarre positions and trying to “be there” in mind, body and spirit - a Herculean task in this age of attention deficit disorder.
In yoga, it is said there are only so many breaths in a lifetime, and that if you can lengthen these (by inhaling more deeply and pausing in between), you will extend your lifespan. It’s not how many years you may have, but how many breaths you have left. I’m holdin’ mine, and taking yoga for the duration. Plus, it seems to have made me several inches taller.