From sissified gym-class dropout to yoga monster.
“Downward Facing Dog, ” calls out Kay Wescott, my beloved yoga teacher. Like a dog doing its lazy wake-up stretch, she stands on all fours and stretches her front out long, her body a sinuous upside-down V.
I do my best to follow suit, spreading my fingers wide and pressing my butt into the air (now you be respectful, this is an ancient spiritual tradition). My spine is elongated and I press my heels down toward the floor to stretch out my hamstrings. I am breathing harder now and the sweat begins to drip from my face and pool between my hands. Breathe, I think. As part of my mind calms with the meditative focus on the exertions of my body, another, not-so-quiet voice at the back of my mind whines “How long can this go on?”
“Crescent Moon, ” calls Kay. My mind is momentarily relieved to let go of that Down Dog pose. I bring my right foot between my hands into a “runner’s lunge, ” relax my left leg to the floor, pressing my hips forward, then calmly bring my hands to my heart in prayer position and breathe. All composed and perfect? As I'm ready, I clasp my hands together and reach them toward the ceiling, pressing my chest forward to gently arch my back into the beautiful curve of a crescent moon. I notice in the mirror that my beautiful moon is tilting just a little. “Okay yoga-monsters, back into Down Dog, ” cheers Kay. And so it goes through the hour: stretching, pressing, breathing, thrusting, holding, focusing. Calm mind. Whining mind. Vain mind. Humble mind.
We’ve seen yoga. Sun Salutations on Good Morning America and Rosie O’Donnell. According to the statistics, as many as 12 million Americans do yoga. Forty per cent of health and fitness centers offer hatha yoga. A recent search on Amazon.com pulls up more than 1,350 yoga book titles. And now Madonna. America is abuzz about yoga.
Celebrity interest in yoga has definitely fueled the media hype. During the ’70s Jeff Bridges, Ruth Buzzi, and Tom Smothers posed for Bikram Choudhury’s yoga text. In the ’80s Sting and David Duchovny became devotees and Ali MacGraw released her own yoga video. During the ’90s Julia Roberts said to In Style magazine about her yoga regime, “I don’t want it to change my life. Just my butt. ”
And, of course, in the ‘90s the one-time material girl herself, Madonna, got serious about her daily yoga practice. Her last recording, Ray of Light, was deeply inspired by yoga teachings. She studied Sanskrit and chanting for one of the songs. In The Next Best Thing, co-starring openly gay dreamboat Rupert Everett, Madonna plays an ashtanga yoga teacher (ashtanga is an advanced style of yoga requiring more strength and endurance than the better known hatha yoga). A chance to get paired with Rupert—lord gracious, that’s more than enough spiritual inspiration to take up a serious yoga practice.
But aside from the hype and the heavy breathing, Westerners find yoga one of the most accessible and profound of the Eastern disciplines. Yoga translated from the Sanskrit means “union” or to “yoke” together, yoga’s goal being to “yoke” together the body and the mind; the more spiritual, esoteric, forms of yoga emphasize clearing the mind, calming the spirit, and enhancing the body-mind connection. In India, there are various limbs of the path that attract different personalities and spiritual temperaments. These are controlling the intellect (raja), mastering the body (hatha), spiritual action (kriya), selfless action (karma), heartfelt devotion (bhakti), knowledge or wisdom (jnana), *** ritual (tantra), sacred sounds (mantra), and subtle energy or chakra (kundalini). Each limb, or school, has centuries of sacred texts and teachers to draw from. One’s relationship to one’s mind and one’s body becomes a spiritual path.
1994 was the turning point in my relationship to my body. The previous year had been a doozy. I watched as my friend Michael Mosley’s body and life were ravaged with the last stages of AIDS. The Enchanted Garden, a business I co-owned, closed leaving me substantially in debt and physically and emotionally exhausted. Being one of those sissified and brainy kids in school, I had hated gym class. In 35 years I had rarely exercised my body. 1993 saw my muscles weaken, my breath shorten, and my weight mushroom to 316 pounds. I decided that drastic measures were needed.
I enrolled at The Lomi School in northern California. As a massage therapist, for years I had heard of Lomi Work, a synthesis of rolfing, gestalt psychotherapy, polarity energy work, meditation, aikido, and yoga. Ann Lasater, one of my massage mentors, is a Lomi associate. Her work and life demonstrated the profound effects Lomi could have when applied with constant focus and attention. When she told me that Robert Hall, one of the school’s founders, was an openly gay man, I knew I wanted this work. I know of so few gay men who have committed their lives to spiritual transformation. To attend, I traveled to San Francisco one weekend a month for 11 months, plus went to a five-day residential retreat over the summer.
The first day of class began what would be our daily training routine. One hour of sitting meditation followed by an hour of yoga. As the 24 students were led through a series of yoga postures that first morning, I was the only one in the room who couldn’t do the poses. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, or in Texas for that matter. Robert Hall, just turned 60 years old, was radiant and amazingly flexible. I knew he had something I desperately needed. That sissy-fied kid from grade school decided to stick it out. Thus began my fascination with a 5,000-year-old discipline.
Flash forward, back to Kay’s yoga class. Kay is leading us in The Crow, an advanced pose that challenges even her. Me, I groan audibly in frustration. I just can’t seem to get it. The idea is to crouch forward, balancing your knees on your arms, and holding up your whole body with your hands. Yes, I agree, it does not sound possible, but I’m trying, shifting my weight forward and teetering precariously on my hands and big toes. In the perfect world I’d lift my feet into the air and balance gracefully, gazing serenely into the mirrors ahead. In reality I’m huffing and puffing and my face is contorted with struggling. Kay encourages me to be patient and to respect the gifts and limits of my body this morning. She also reminds me that I’m a big crow. I relax my frustration and vow that this year I will master The Crow. The Chinese say it’s the year of the Dragon. I say it’s the year of the Crow!
It’s the year 2000. My weight is down 35 pounds. Yoga has become part of my three-part exercise program: aerobic, strength, and flexibility. I walk, bike, and climb steps for aerobics; I weight-train for strength; and practice yoga for strength and flexibility. In these six years, I have seen how yoga complements the body work I give to clients and that I receive myself. The effects on the muscles and connective tissues are dramatic. I know my own posture is improved and I feel more graceful as I move through space. Thanks to the yoga asanas, or poses, I know I’m more flexible.
Flexibility sounds relatively superficial—”Eh, so I can’t touch my toes, what does it really matter?” But it really reaches much deeper than that. The recent Yoga Journal said about flexibility:
“Even if you’re active, your body will dehydrate and stiffen with age. By the time you become an adult, your tissues have lost about 15 percent of their moisture content, becoming less supple and more prone to injury. This normal aging of tissue is distressingly similar to the process that turns animal hides into leather. Unless we stretch, we dry up and tan. ”
Our bodies are a living matrix of tissue, which connect bones, muscles, tendons. Yoga helps keep these connective tissues supple and vital. And since we know the mind and the body are basically intertwined—remember the “yoke”?—this yogic flexibility in our deep-down tissues plays out in our monkey minds. Robert Hall, my Lomi hero, teaches that the microscopic level of connective tissue is where our thoughts and our physical bodies come together. If thought patterns are fearful and contracting, the connective tissues will contract, which distorts the carriage of the skeleton. If the thought patterns are open and expansive, the connective tissue is fluid and flexible. The body remains balanced and poised. Caroline Myss puts it this way, “Your biography becomes your biology. ”
“Are you ready for that Corpse Pose?” Kay teases. “Lie down on your back and do some long body stretches. ” I roll my head from side to side a few times to allow it to find its natural resting place. I let my feet splay out. I consciously scan and relax my body. This is the reward after an intense hour of breathing and stretching. As my body cools I’m aware of the peace I feel. My mind is, finally, focused and calm. My emotions are crisply on the surface of my awareness. My spirit is grateful and soaring. Sure, I’m aware of other tightnesses in my body. And yet I am pleased with the progress I’ve made. Of who I am in this brief moment of relaxation. Satisfied is the feeling that floats across the still surface of my mind. And this is the real reason I continue to practice yoga.
Alan Davidson is the co-author of Healing the Heart of the World with Prince Charles, Carolyn Myss, John Gray, and Neal Donald Walsch. Alan, a Registered Massage Therapist since 1988, is the owner and director of Essential Touch Therapies in Houston, Texas. He has a B. S. from University of Houston, Downtown, with an emphasis on psychology, sociology, philosophy, and religion. Alan is fascinated with the intersection of bodywork, psychology, ritual, and spiritual practice. Having taught massage, meditation, yoga, and human transformation since 1990 he is currently on the teaching staff at NiaMoves Studio. Alan wholeheartedly believes, “Life is for the fun of it!” Alan can be reached at http://www.throughyourbody.com