In addition to being somewhat crazy—a shrink once diagnosed me with borderline personality disorder, which I thought was a bit of a stretch until I realized that, like everyone else, he just wanted to have sex with me—I am a yoga teacher. I don’t know what your idea of a yoga teacher is, but should you, recoiling in horror as you read along here, find yourself asking, "But how does someone like this become a yoga teacher?"—the short answer is that I gave a man with a beard and his hot wife $3,200 dollars. The long answer is… well, I’d like to say that it's because if I hadn’t gotten obsessed with yoga I’d probably be dead, because that’s what people always say about things like this: “If I hadn’t discovered writing, I’d be dead,” “if I hadn’t found Alcoholics Anonymous/married my amazing wife/started making autumn-inspired hand-knit legwarmers and selling them on Etsy, I’d be dead.” But saying, "without yoga I would probably be dead" would be, frankly, a little overdramatic. Let’s just say that if I didn’t do yoga everything bad about me would just be worse, and what is bad is already bad enough.
Now, because you can’t get something for nothing, there's a problem. Which is, Yoga Can Be Extremely Annoying. So if you’ve been meaning to get yourself there but have been thinking, “I’m afraid it will annoy me,” here’s some good news: You might be crazy but as far as this particular fear goes, rest assured, it's the product of whatever shred of sanity you may have retained.
There's no getting around it. Yoga has moments of such profound annoyingness that after I finished Eat, Pray, Love (needless to say, I read the ashram section 100 times) all I could think was, “You wrote an entire book about yoga and meditation and you never mentioned, 'oh, by the way, sometimes you will want to punch these people in the face'?" And this is where I perform my public service; in yoga we call that a "seva" (how annoying is that?). All the stuff Elizabeth Gilbert was too high on homemade pizza and Javier Bardem penis to mention, you need to know. Everyone’s always telling you how great yoga is, and that’s true, but then you go there and maybe the studio smells like onions steamed in cat pee, and it might have been helpful to know about that beforehand! You need to know exactly what will disturb you before you get there, so you can prepare; and you should also know that, even though everyone around you will seem perfectly unperturbed, someone—someone who stayed—feels your pain. Oh, and by the way, I want to underscore that what follows below is what bugs me about yoga; everything else is a glittering gift from Lord Shiva. Namaste!
People who just saw each other yesterday will hug like one of them was just rescued from a burning airplane. I’ve always thought of a hug as a slightly protracted, lightly physical way of saying hello to people I know fairly well or have not seen for a long time. Regular practitioners of yoga see hugs as a great way to spend an afternoon. You will want to stare at them and wonder, "Are they really pressing their whole bodies together?” (yes); "are their eyes closed?" (they are); "do they really have dreamy looks on their faces?" (yes, yes, yes). But remember, while you're staring you're wasting valuable time in which you could be cultivating your “I am not the sort of person who likes to be hugged for long periods of time” vibe. This is easier said than done because you will sometimes see people at yoga—like, people who you actually know, who are your friends—with whom you may wish to make brief, friendly physical contact. Engage in such exchanges as you wish, but realize that you are setting yourself as a person who willingly receives hugs, and these people will not take the extra mental step to say, "oh, but above-the-waist hugs,” or “hugs that only last a second.” Make no mistake: these people are looking to soul-blend. To avoid: Arrive early. Lie down with closed eyes. Bring flip-flops—they're essential for a hasty exit.
During hard poses, women and gay men will remain silent and straight men will laugh self-deprecatingly. Imagine being at a gym. Men are lifting heavy weights. They strain, grit their teeth, sweat. But they don’t laugh. So why, here, as they sink into their thighs in Warrior Two or lift their chest skyward during Upward Facing Bow, do they feel the need to let out a little chuckle? More importantly, why does this irk you so? Because, my friend, you are witnessing An Unconscious Assertion of Masculinity. That little laugh is their way of letting you know that hey, they're not really embarrassed about being so bad at this, because they're not even supposed to be here, they're not really doing this, they're good at other things, like, for example, sitting in an airport bar working their way through a 1-dollar-for-the-upgrade double scotch, a bowl of nuts and a "Two and A Half Men" re-run on the corner TV. Of course, there is also the other type of straight guy in yoga, the guy who can wrap his arms around his ankles and turn himself into a perfect circle, the guy who can stand on his hands in the middle of the room, and he is his own version of Hell. Why, you ask, does this man wear his hair in a bun, on top of his head? There are some secrets that no amount of enlightenment will reveal. I will tell you this: These guys tend to get a lot of ass, so laugh as you will, but know that they're getting the last one—upside-down.
There will be Yoga Overachievers. You will be doing Cat-Cow at a normal pace, and they will be bucking and heaving like mechanical bulls. You will be expending an amount of effort somewhere in between “challenging yourself” and “able to retain sufficient muscle strength to remove shampoo bottle from shower caddy." They will be straining, grunting, grimacing. When the pose is over, they will often emit some hideous but presumably cathartic howl. I always want to say to those people, “The auditions for the high-school production of The Trojan Women are in the Lotus Room today,” but I don’t think I need to tell you that your basic yoga overachiever does not have the greatest sense of humor. Then, when class is over, and everyone does that weird little bow, the Yoga Overachiever will bow down for, roughly, an hour. Seriously. You will have already taken your own little I’m-so-spiritual-and-humble-before-the Creator bow, put on your flip-flops (good job!), hightailed it away from the would-be hugger/soul blenders, made and consumed a meal, masturbated to some violent pornography and be just about to crawl into bed with the fall Anthropologie catalog, and they remain on the floor in the yoga studio, thanking God for making them, well, them. As these people have a tendency toward spraying you with saliva and noxious BO (see next item) you should give them a wide berth, and don’t attend any functions at their homes, because, for reasons with which the universe has not yet supplied me, they’re almost always horrible cooks.
People will have chive crotch. I developed the term "chive crotch" when, as a mere girl, I was visiting a friend in Oregon and attended a county fair with her. This was my first time on the West Coast. I had smelled body odor before, of course, but never body odor strong enough to make me almost pass out. This was not mere sweat, this was, I said to my friend, the scent of a person who, after carrying around the same bunch of chives in their underwear for an entire summer, had found themselves mid-August with no shower, no clean underwear and, needless to say, no fresh bunch of chives. This is what about 15 percent of people smell like in yoga class. Look, I will confess to having mild body odor myself at times. But I believe smelling like a person who showered recently, applied a non-Alzheimer’s causing deodorant or crystal to her pits and sweated a little in the car is a far cry from chive crotch. The thing that’s really annoying about people stinking is they always have this look on their faces like smelling bad makes them somehow closer to the earth, more spiritual, than evil clean people who have used up precious natural resources and unleashed sodium lauryl sulfates into the environment for the mere purpose of not befouling the rooms they share with others.
There are teachers and students who think flexibility is some kind of indication of how good a person you are. A teacher once said to me, "Your hamstrings are tight is because your mind is not flexible." I said, "Have you ever taken differential calculus?" She said, "What?" I said, "Have you ever taken differential calculus?" She had not. She said she was terrible at math. I said, "Well, I am very good at math." (This was not strictly true, but I was quite confident I was better at math than she was.) “Is there something wrong with your mind that you aren’t?” (No, this was not just a strategy to stop this person from soul-hugging me, but it did have that fortunate side effect.)
While we certainly hold tension, trauma and rigidity in our limbs and joints and muscles (otherwise The Universe wouldn’t have given us Bengay), there is no reason to imagine there’s some absolutely direct correlation between how well we can move and how functional or healthy our mind is. I seriously doubt that Einstein or Susan Sontag had less flexible minds than, I don’t know, Rodney Yee. My point is, some physical limitations can be aided through the practice of yoga and some can’t and no one needs the increased pressure of someone telling them, every time they strain to get their heels on the floor in Downward Facing Dog that this is because their mind is all fucked up. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but you just wait until the day when there's a public forum where people can pay $10-$18 dollars to get in a room with other people to demonstrate how good they are at math. Actually, there is such a place and I guess that would be called "school" and it goes on much longer than a yoga class and often costs much more and it scars people horribly and makes them grow up angry and thinking of ways to humiliate people who can’t touch their toes.
So if, one day, your teacher says, we hold a lot of stuff in our hips and hamstrings and as we begin to let this stuff go and become our authentic selves we will be able to wrap our arms around ourselves eight times, look around the room. You will probably see a guy who can do that, while smiling, and I’ll bet you a $100 prAna gift certificate that you will eventually hear from someone in class about the time he flew into a rage and broke a car window with a shop vac. When your hamstrings become authentic, maybe they can help him.
Teachers talk like Yoda’s MSW-having Mom. If you were to ask your yoga teacher, “Can my newly authentic hamstrings help the angry guy?” she might say something like, “That depends on whether they were coming from a space of pure intention.” The word "honor" is used a lot, as in “honoring yourself,” or “honoring your practice.” Other popular words: "Joy." "Integrity." "Space," but not as in outer space, as in “Go into a space of,” and "place," but not as in “that place next to Shoe Pavilion,” as in, “Let yourself come into a place of…" When class is over, the teacher will say something like, “Bow to your inner wisdom,” or “take a moment to thank yourself for committing to your practice,” which always makes me intone the prayer, “Please, God, make me less fat than I was an hour and a half ago.”
The worst part about yoga world vocabulary, of course, is how quickly you may find yourself learning and using it. The hope is that because yoga has made you—I’m sorry, I mean, allowed you to open up a space to become—so much more self aware and less narcissistic, you will only talk this way in front of other people who talk like that too. And now that you are friends with so many of them, because you have, after so thoroughly mocking this world basically joined it, that means practically everyone you speak to. My final warning, when you are talking to one of your new yoga buddies, do not accidentally buttdial an old friend, especially if he is a sniping, gym-going homosexual, and allow him to hear you speaking the lingua franca of Yogaland, because, after seeing the record of the call and hoping he heard nothing, you will receive a text message reading: "YOU ARE SO FUCKING BUSTED BITCH – YOU’RE A LOSER!" and no amount of yoga will ever mitigate the shame.
"How are you?" is not a simple question at yoga. No one at yoga is ever just fine. They’re “working through a lot of heavy stuff,” or “dealing with a lot of craziness.” That said, when people ask you how you are, don’t say anything bad. If you are broke, the universe is just trying to teach you a lesson about how much you already have. If someone dumped you, the universe removed that person from your life for a reason. (And that reason is that person is no longer interested in having sex with you!) The universe is very busy in the yoga world, always trying to show you things. I have simply let the universe know, hey, I have seen enough. I have learned enough. Until you can give me a billion dollars and a soundproof room filled with 2002 Zinfandel and organic goat cheese cheddar where all I have to do is watch "Foyle’s War" until I drop dead, please leave me alone. But it's determined to keep pestering me. At any rate, when people ask you how you are at yoga, don’t tell them anything bad has happened to you unless you’re prepared for the suggestion that you look at your misfortune with an attitude of grace and gratitude. And while I think grace and gratitude are both wonderful things, I also think they are attitudes best preceded by bitterness, rage and self-pity.
So yes, in the beginning it’s all about slipping the car keys inside the flip flops so that all the tools of your escape are in a neat little package. But just keep showing up. In no time you will become sufficiently like all these people that they won’t bother you at all. And then some crazy asshole will make fun of you. Is the circle of eternity beautiful or what?
Photo courtesy of lululemonathletica.