You want to twist, not lunge. The goal is to strengthen the core. Align correctly. Embrace all sensation. In class and at dinner, your tailbone is a topic of conversation. You had never considered the tailbone, except that time when you fell on it, hard, drunk. It hurt to shit and was the only time you celebrated the hangover runs. Now, here, in France, you're commanded to be conscious of your tailbone.
Following class, you will drink blended vegetable and aloe concoctions tasting like a mouthful of spicy grass (but the most exotic, fulfilling, delicious grass ever put down your throat). The women with cryptic tattoos on their inner forearms will discuss the ideal pace for downward dog and scour books on anatomy. "Yoga is about freedom and choices," one says, sounding like Mitt Romney after discovering Buddha body conditioning.
You're instructed to breathe through your fingers, to take in deep breaths though the soles of your feet, suck it into your marrow, force that extended deliberate breath into your blood and make your ribs longer, open your pelvis, thrust your newly discovered superstar tailbone into the center of the earth, hold that air -- the fuel of life and existence from the beginning of time to the end of eternity -- and deliver the largest universal atmospheric suck since Adam from the end of your toenails to the top of your head.
I make the sucking sounds, which resemble a wounded duck with asthma. Then the instructor says, to the 15 yoginis and me, Close Your Eyes. This is a positive development. Now I won't look like an idiot loser. I'll only feel like an idiot loser.
Deep relaxed breathing in a heated room when the AC should be on is supposed to cleanse your body and clear your mind. If being mindless is the desired end result, I should be receiving the Gold Belt in a few days.
But I'm having Danger Will Robinson moments in trying to follow instructions to breathe into the knees and toes. You see, our baking, crowded room in the back of this splendid Villa in the lush hills of the South of France reeks like a high school gymnasium.
Later, it will smell worse after I vomit onto my yoga mat.
But now, the last thing you want to do is suck stifling gym-socks air. Preferable, is to lay next to the gorgeous pool with the high-tech environmentally-friendly chlorine substitute and the view of the Riviera, Nice to the left, Cannes off to the right, soaking in the stunning lush scenery before our personal bazillion-star half-blind chef Stefan prepares another amazing farm-to-table meal proving healthy can be freaking delicious.
The morning's instructor is Ben. It's his Villa, too. Well, actually this plot of paradise belongs to his mother, one of Forbes' top female CEOs. Ben is a fit, shirtless guy with a rich mama and lean segmented muscles he can recite by their Latin names. The requisite tattoos of a modern day yoga instructor run down those well-sculpted arms. Across his tight chest read the scripted words, "Look To This Day," the title of a poem on the wall of his childhood bedroom. Ben can launch into a head stand with greater ease than how I rise from a chair. He can walk on his hands. Any physical thing you can do, he can do better. If Ben's hair were longer, he could be lead guitarist in a metal band that chooses fitness over dope. He reminds one of Freddie Mercury without the overbite and played by Sasha Baron Cohen in the movie. Ben attended UCLA, studied English but admits he didn't make it to class much. Now he teaches yoga in Thailand and Italy, and in private lessons to wealthy women in candlelit upper east side apartments who answer the door clad in revealing lingerie, as well as in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous haunts like our present locale, a breathtaking 10,000-foot Villa here in Tourettes (insert your favorite string of profanities here), courting an international crowd earnestly seeking, well, I'm not sure yet. Better health? Stress relief? The perfect pose? The ideal mind-body-spirit balance? The replacement of one addiction with another? A guarantee to live an almost inhumanly long time and be able to walk perfectly erect to your child's funeral casket?
For me, participating in a week's worth of yoga torture sessions with a roomful of strong, independent women and a sweet stocky man from Chelsea is what can be termed a fish-out-of-water scenario. I was brought up in a strict Baptist household. Women who put their legs behind their heads were known as prostitutes.
Make no mistake, I am here to support my beautiful wife, one of those lithe, strong-spirited women, a terrific yoga instructor in her own rite in New York, trained at the renowned Jivamukti Institute. Plus, I haven't had a vacation yet this year. I also understood that every night following Stefan's haute cuisine, Ben serves an impressive array of local French wines.
Everyone's Lux Yoga mat is flat on the floor in a perfect rectangle. Mine is a wet scrunched-up mess. I drip on it the way the body of a plump, desert-tortured man waters the parched earth in July's midday sun.
Well before my mat became spattered in puke infused with twigs, Ben implored the group to consider that, though he admitted it may not sound very Yogi, this session, and life, is a series of victories. The point is, even if we can't vault from a squat into a handstand, just coming to class on a gorgeous September morning a few miles up the hill from Nice is a singular win. Accumulate victories, Ben urges.
The game hadn't started, however, and I was being shut out. Can't imagine notching a “W” today. Just sitting cross-legged during Ben's preamble pep talk, spine straight and tall as if a hovering nun were about to crack you on the knuckles with a stiff metal ruler for the mere whiff of a slouch, my throbbing right ankle rekindles the break of a decade ago. Our first exercise involves pulling back the fingers. I ain’t exactly Gumby there. More Gumby after six months in the freezer. Holy Moses, can’t even properly stretch my digits! Hand surgery last year. Is it true the word Yoga derives from the ancient Hindu, meaning “Exercises Showing You Suck?"
My body is a sad fucking rebelling disgrace. The ravages of time. And sitting. And shitty food. And too many adult beverages. And the downtown air the EPA and Whitman and Giuiliani, heroic as he was, solemnly attending funeral after funeral and throwing out baseballs at games bonding a wounded city, lied about. Years later, it came out in a multipart newspaper series. The air wasn't exactly mountain clean. Ah, but they had boldly declared: drink up, suck it in, ye brave New Yorkers, hare krishna hare rama, and we were proud defiant Americans beckoned back to the neighborhood as the pile smoldered. I've not been able to run like I used to after the planes. Countless rescue and recovery workers have met a slow, painful, hacking, suffocating death. Breathe deep, indeed.
We haven't even stood up yet. I’m sweating, and screwed. Ben says yoga is not a competition. Focus on your own mat. But let’s be serious. In life, if we focused on our own mat, not a single McMansion would be built. If we focused on only our own mat, half the stores on Madison Avenue would be out of business. Hell, Madison Avenue itself would shut down. Why do women in places like Dallas, Atlanta and LA wear makeup to exercise class? Why the snazzy outfits? If we paid strict exclusive attention to our own mat, why does our instructor own a Rolex? To be human is to aspire to be seen, to desire acknowledgment and affirmation. To be sold a bill of bullshit and apply it liberally. And let me add, to be a yoga novice at an advanced yoga retreat is to be named to the starting lineup in the Super Bowl of Shame and Disgrace.
Man is a highly competitive gossipy animal. I can only imagine the detritus of my impression, wheezing and teetering and stumbling across a slippery unkempt mat. “That’s some James Brown shit you're doing!” exclaims Isaac, who’s assisting Ben, as I wobble like a drunk on a moving tightrope, trying to balance on one leg after failing at other poses.
Isaac, a contortionist who has taught to starry-eyed praise in the underground yoga blogs, later tells me, “I genuinely enjoy your practice.” If yoga is anything, it is pure kindness. Or the ability to lie with a wide smile and gleam in your eye.
As much as I want the opposite, I derive no pleasure from this, other than deep pride in seeing in the periphery my wife’s advanced springy moves, body positions that cackle in the face of advancing time.
The music is nice, though a bit heavy on eastern mystical Indian-type music, which sounds like wailing old men being burnt by cigarettes. There’s the occasional gratifying familiar song on the soundtrack. If I could lift an arm, I'd call for a repeat of the quick dose of Bob Dylan. Anything off Blood on The Tracks, and you'll forget the body’s taunting rank inadequacies, which grow as the lunges and twists and stances become progressively harder to attain and hold.
It would be very easy to leave, here in the last row next to the door. Wait until Ben describes the next truly unreasonable circus-worthy balancing act and just slip out the back, Jack.
Yet, our instructor’s opening pep talk was spot on, here or anywhere else where the humans on my team forge an identity so utterly inferior. I gotta make the best of this. May not get the big victory. But won’t be defeated. It's fucking September 11 after all. Stop being such a pussy and arch your weak back off the mat! Those whose bravery defies common description trudged up the burning-out-of-control skyscraper’s stairs with heavy gear on their back. Yoga is really about being strong to help others, isn’t it? Well, if that’s so, there should be a fireman’s helmet stitched onto each mat.
I push and push, shaking like an addict denied his drugs, testing muscles unused in decades, making an unquantifiable sacrifice in a benign attempt to right the large injustice of this day and the various and sundry injustices of all other days. I grit teeth and spray sweat until the room starts to spin, my stomach churns, and the gourmet breakfast exits right where it went in.
It is now that the vacation pool beckons. Life's way too short for yoga. In every class, somebody's lucky enough to be positioned next to the door.
Tell me this. What good is strength if everyone is strong? The strong are incomplete without us. The mighty are meaningless absent the meek. They are unfulfilled without us. The strong need us. For we are, simply, The Weak.