As far as I know, I am not the strongest man in the world. I doubt I would ever be mistaken for the fastest either. But I think I can say with a high degree of confidence, that if there were a category in the Guinness Book of World Records for the world’s MOST INFLEXIBLE HUMAN BEING, my picture would appear.
Our family recently joined a health club. What a terrible mistake that was. This past week, I took my very first YOGA class ever. Oh My God. Somehow – don’t ask me how – I made it through it. But if you’re over 50 and have never tried yoga before, let mine be a cautionary tale. Don’t even think about trying yoga – unless you enjoy intense pain coupled with public humiliation.
My competition in the class looked harmless enough: 15 women of various ages and sizes and three men of Indian descent who appeared to be in top physical fitness. These 15 women and the three Indian men (who, as best as I could tell came straight out of yoga central casting) all came equipped with their yoga mats, matching yoga outfits and bare feet. There was this one lone middle-aged white guy who came in without a yoga mat, wearing a dorky T-shirt that read “I’m in shape. Round is a shape” and sporting conspicuous white socks and sneakers. That middle-aged white guy would be me. In retrospect, I’m surprised an alarm bell did not sound the moment I walked through the door, declaring that a yoga pretender was attempting to break into this yoga sanctuary. I had absolutely no business being there.
It was clear I served only one purpose in this room – to make everyone else look remarkably fit and flexible by comparison. I became the poster child for how not to do the various positions and exercises. You name the exercise, I did it wrong. I lost count of the number of times the instructor would say in her calm, soothing voice “See how that man over there has his left foot bent in front of his right knee? Don’t do it like that. You’ll hurt yourself….”
I was in pain and tightness from the moment we began until the moment the torture was halted 90 minutes later. My nonstop misery was only compounded by the calm, soothing voice of Amber, the 23-year old, impossibly svelte yoga instructor, as she guided us through what everybody else apparently thought were very simple moves:
“Okay, now, let’s assume the downward facing dog position. (I am not making this up. That’s an actual yoga term.) Now, gently lift your right leg into the air until it is directly above your head. As you do this, rotate your hips so they are facing away from your right leg. Good. Now reach your right arm under your left arm until it is clasping your left ankle, keeping your left leg at a 90 degree angle with your shoulders. Now, gently rock back into the plank position (another yoga term) and touch your left hand to the heel of your right foot. Very good, everybody. Except for that man over there. Sir, you’re not doing it right. Now, everybody else, as you rotate your right arm behind your lower back, lift your left leg and touch it to your right shoulder blade. Very good.”
According to my math, by now I should have had precisely no legs and no arms in contact with the floor. So that pretty much leaves levitation as my only option. But there everybody else was, like members of the Cirque du Soleil traveling circus, all contorting their bodies in ways I have not done since the time I was with Susan Donahue back in college in the back seat of her 1972 Chevy Malibu– but I digress.
Throughout the yoga session, I felt like I was playing a demonic version of the old board game TWISTER: Move your right arm to green; move your left leg to yellow: move your right leg to blue – only in this version, the dots were above, below and behind me, and twelve feet apart… and mocking me.
Just when I thought I might survive this purgatory, Amber, the sadistic instructor, brought in some torture equipment. She forced me to take a strap and attach it to a clip on the wall. Apparently I was being punished for not doing the previous exercise properly. Through a sequence of painful steps, I ended up upside down, with my head on the floor, my body held in the air only by this strap, pressed against the wall. (I swear I am not making this up!) I am pretty sure I saw a Dateline investigative report where they showed this torture technique being used at Guantanamo to get prisoners to confess.
I think I lost consciousness only briefly. I was just about to confess that I had indeed stolen my older brother’s Playboy magazine back in 8th grade, when the instructor mercifully took pity on me and decided I had been through enough. As if my self-esteem were not low enough, the heartless yoga instructor felt it necessary to compound my feelings of helplessness by continually inserting Indian words into her instructions, which everybody except me seemed to comprehend just fine. The following exchange was typical:
“NAMASTE, everybody. Now let’s all get into our BHUJANGASANA position. Please take three deep breaths through your nostrils as we get ready to do our HAMSA KUMBHAKA. (I could be mistaken, but I think this was position #27 of the Kama Sutra.) Very good everybody. Will someone please help that man with the white socks over there get into his HAMSA KUMBHAKA? Thank you.
“Move your left leg until you’re in the Warrior One position. Hold this position (for an eternity) before shifting into your PADMASANA two position. By now you should be starting to feel your inner PRANA. Now continue to breathe slowly, until your core is united with your VINYASA. Very good. Now let’s all return to the ARAVAM position. Wonderful. Don’t you all feel more relaxed now? And you sir, in the back – do you need any help untying your arms from your legs?”
Throughout my ordeal, my typical facial expression was what you would expect from someone who had just been strapped into the medieval torture instrument known as the rack. As I grimaced, I would occasionally look around the room. Nobody else was grimacing – even slightly. How is it possible that you can be asked to wrap your left leg around your neck and touch it to your tailbone without grimacing? Explain this to me. Another thing I could not fathom was the fact that nobody except me seemed to have the slighted hint of perspiration. At the 20-minute mark, my t-shirt was already soaked. By the end, my spent perspiration could have filled a backyard pool. But the others in the room looked like they had just walked off the set of an Irish Spring soap commercial.
Over the course of 90 minutes, I stretched my body in every conceivable direction. I had entered the session with the misguided notion that yoga would help me relax and work off stress. I was so naïve. Clearly the goal of yoga is to stretch your body in a variety of convoluted positions not found in nature until you beg forgiveness for all your past sins. At the end of 90 minutes, the only part of my body that I was fairly certain had not experienced excruciating pain was my left ear lobe.
I strongly believe there should be some sort of warning sign – like a warning label on medication – that you should be required to read before you can legally sign up for a yoga class. It would say something like: “Warning: Do not sign up for yoga if you are a white male over the age of 50 who considers it a major physical accomplishment to get up from your La-Z-Boy recliner on the first try. Do not try yoga if you have the flexibility of a piece of granite. Do not try yoga if the last time you looked down and saw your feet while standing was 1985.”
Only through some inner reservoir of strength I didn’t know I possessed and the sheer determination to survive long enough to see my kids one more time was I able to make it through this nightmare called yoga alive. When it was over, I couldn’t get up off the floor, wanting just to lie there, motionless until years later the health club building would eventually be shut down and replaced by a bowling alley. But I found the courage to get back up onto my feet. I limply waved goodbye to the cruel instructor, Amber, who calmly and soothingly whispered to me “Namaste”, which I was pretty sure meant “I don’t ever want to see you here again.”
It’s been a six days since I had my near-death yoga experience. Miraculously, I appear to have made almost a complete recovery. My wife bought me a yoga mat – and an English-to-Hindi dictionary. Turns out that the curse the instructor had said to me, “Namaste,” loosely translated, simply meant “Have a nice day.” So perhaps she was not trying to kill me after all.
I just might have to give this yoga thing one more try. But then again, I see that there’s this other class the health club offers called “Intensive Core Power Lifting & Total Collapse Cycling” – not recommended for beginners or white men over 50 wearing dorky T-shirts.” Ah, heck, I survived yoga. How hard can this class be? I think I’ll sign up today.
That’s the view from the bleachers. Perhaps I’m off base.
© Tim Jones, View from the Bleachers 2010 – 2011