by Mike Conlon
Beads of sweat form on my brow as I lie arched on my stomach, tugging at my right ankle with my right hand. Our yoga instructor, Ashima, suggests that we concentrate on a spot on the wall, so I stare at a six-legged green horse in a peaceful orange meadow, drawn by “Danny B., Age 5? .”
Though a scenic view high up in the Himalayas with incense wafting gently in the breeze would be my chosen yoga venue. I realize that we novices must start elsewhere. In this case the multipurpose room of a local elementary school with the faint scent of spilt milk and Elmer’s glue emitting from the thin, fading carpet.
We are reminded to calm ourselves by listening inwardly to the breath and the universal sound of peace, “Om.” Unfortunately, I have not yet graduated from the universal sound of pain, “Ow.” Patience, grasshopper.
Though I know there are many mental and spiritual benefits lying in my future, I’m here today at another session basically because of a recently-arrived and insistent back twinge which has made getting out of bed in the morning a carefully-planned, multi-stage procedure. I could lose weight, but that’s only a seasonal activity that takes too long. I could go to a chiropractor, but that’s expensive, and I feel my back needs more than a monthly physical and financial “adjustment.” So … I went for solution to the Far East, the Balm of Buddha, the Zen Bend—Holistic Hatha Yoga.
I briefly considered a local favorite, “hot yoga,” where apparently you walk in looking like Jabba the Hun and walk out looking like Gandhi, but I chose the cheaper, safer route offered through the apparent center for yoga masters, Adult Education via the Capistrano Unified School District.
This was not my first venture into the ancient art. While attending graduate school at the University of Iowa, I quickly realized that I needed a mental and physical break from the endless books and papers, so I located “Intro to Yoga” in the course catalog. Twice a week I entered The Fieldhouse, a former WWII hangar used by pilots in training, then climbed mysterious stairs to an attic-like room that would make Quasimodo jealous. There we practiced a menagerie of poses - Cobra, Fish, Cow, Half-Frog (looks like Chicken), and my favorite, Down-Facing Dog - until I and my instructor abruptly discovered that an average neck wasn’t meant to support a 220 pound teetering man doing a Tower-of-Pisa-like headstand.
It’s somewhat ironic that 30 years later I’d find myself returning to yoga due to a another pain at the other end of my spinal column. Karma, I guess.
In this new class, I was originally the only male. A graying silverback amidst a bevy of middle-aged women who, like me, discreetly covered up every part of their anatomy (that might reveal sagging flesh) with baggy sweat suits, exposing only slowly-arising liver spots on the back of hands or surfacing capillaries around ankles.
Fortunately, I was not quite as self-conscious as I was when I entered my Intro-French class at UCI back in the ‘70s, a four-year parochial master of Latin, the “dead” language, surrounded by 24 co-eds who converted three years of high school Spanish to French with ease. When amo, amas, amat didn’t win over any hearts. I quickly resorted to my newly-discovered favorite French phrase for non-speakers - moi aussi (me, too), which worked like a charm, even though I learned during the course of the year that, among other oddities, I had tried on a cute, red dress, and adored Paul Newman.
Amidst my new yoga venue, however, I had no shame; I was the alpha male with no challengers.
After I had successfully survived six classes and testified to my improving back, I soon convinced my two teacher-friends, Jeff and Ryan, to join the class. Jeff became an instant hit, the man with the flexibility, he-who-can-do-half-lotus, and would have been issued an instant pass to Nirvana except for his unfortunate tendency to fall asleep and snore during Sadukasana, or Corpse pose. This exercise, practiced at both the beginning and end of a lesson, works on awareness of one’s body, followed by concentration on one’s breath, one’s soul. No sooner would we be deeply inhaling then exhaling, Jeff would apparently become one with a lumberjack. His snores would come in increments, first like low thunder, slowly rumbling across the Midwestern plains, then grow nearer, like a slowly-decelerating Harley, revving it’s engine, only to finally arrive in its full fury. The teacher would never wake him, preferring to stay in the moment; however, for us, it became a pitted battle between exhaling to the soft, sensual sound like a seashell at our ear, only to inhale to Jeff’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Ryan posed a different problem entirely. Due to his great coordination and competitiveness, physical activities always came easily to him, whether it was basketball or triathlons, golf or ping pong. However, in this Eastern world of the non-striving, limberness proved to be his very sore Achilles Heal. Though he emerged from each session with a satisfied smile, you’d never know it through all the grunt and groans, under-the-breath mutterings and chuckles. I’d be the only one alongside him in the back, privy to this private dialogue with the instructor.
“All right, everyone, let’s stand on your left foot only (‘This should be fun’), now reach down with your left hand and grab your right ankle (‘Uh, oh’), pull it up to your knee (‘There’s no way’), then raise your right hand toward the ceiling (‘Holy Moly!’).”
Unfortunately for us, Ashima would soon sense Ryan’s misery and come to his aid, making adjustment after time-consuming adjustment (“Here, why don’t you try this…Is that better?…Well, what if we did this…”) while a twenty second pose for the rest of us turned into two or three tottering, spasmodic minutes. It was like listening to a master baker trying to mold a stale breadstick into a pretzel.
At this point, I would have liked to claim that I was the Perfect One, he who accomplishes all poses with poise and serenity. Unfortunately, my problem is deeper, more internal, arising only in certain poses. One is called Child’s Pose, where we kneel down, sit on our ankles, then bending forward, lay our stomach and chest on top of our upper legs, head on the ground. Inevitably, this crunching of my thighs and lower intestines produces what I know, at least in Western Culture, would be an undesirable, voluminous release of tension caused by accumulating gas hurtling down my alimentary canal.
So as the soothing sitar music from Ashima’s pink C.D. player permeates the room, I grit my teeth and begin a strange rationalization of the inevitable - “Perhaps farting during a yoga session is a blessing and a complement, like burping after a good meal in Turkey.” “Perhaps this could be what the Japanese refer to as ‘Divine Wind.’” “If only Jeff would start snoring, so I could try and time it.” And “please Ryan, don’t grunt or groan, or I’ll be stuck with this intensifying gastric labor pain for four or five minutes.”
Gratefully, Ashima moves us off our knees and into our final pose before Sadukasana. This is always a repeat of a pose we did in the beginning, and we are asked if we notice any differences this time. Now, being teachers, the three of us rationally know the value of feedback as a sign of self-education. However, as all women quickly learn, men are biologically clueless when it comes to noticing any subtle differences, such as odor and wrinkles in a once-used shirt, or the fact that one of our children has gone off to college. So we sit in silence, hoping one of the ladies will speak up and soon, the standard answers ensue—“My back is lower to the ground,” “There’s less tension in my neck,” “The pain in my shoulder is gone.”
Unfortunately, this is not enough for Ashima who chooses me as the scapegoat and asks, “So, Mike, do you feel any differences?” Like an unprepared student answers rush through my head, some sane, some not so sane. “My back is looser.” “I can nearly touch my knees.” “I feel pretty, oh, so pretty.” “I have enough gas to significantly alter the current barometric pressure of South Orange County.” Then somehow I blurt out, “My groin seems looser,” which produces some “oohs” and “ahhs” from the ladies, a Buddha-like smile of approval from Ashima and tittering from Jeff and Ryan.
Sitting on our legs with hands folded, our class thankfully ends with the final blessing, “Namaste.” We amble out into the school parking lot at sunset, mats tucked under our arms. Jeff continues to deny his snoring, Brian thinks he’ll have more leverage in his golf swing, and all I can think about is getting into my car, rolling down the windows, and listening to the universal sound of release-“ommmmmmm.” b