By Stewart Mandel
There has only been one time in my life when I truly thought I might die.
It was a hot, July day and I was trapped inside a small, un-air conditioned room on the 12th floor of a Manhattan building. There were about eight of us there, and a strange woman was delivering instructions to us from the front of the room, forcing us to crouch our bodies to the floor and hold them there for inordinate amounts of time.
Mind you, she was talking to us with a calming, somewhat sensual voice, and there was tranquil music playing in the background. Still, I’d never felt so physically drained in my entire life, so fearful I might faint at any moment.
It was my first yoga class.
I’d reluctantly accepted an invitation to a yoga studio (technically, a “wellness center”) from my friend Dave, a trained marathon runner and recent yoga convert who swore by its benefits. I went in with all the expected trepidations of an oblivious male — that I’d be the only guy in the room (untrue), that I wasn’t flexible enough (surprisingly untrue), and that the people there would be excessively earthy and weird (pretty much true).
What I never anticipated was how freaking hard it would be.
After I’d removed my shoes and socks (which, in a room of complete strangers, left me feeling strangely naked) and laid out my borrowed mat, the teacher led us through some basic warm-up exercises. Nothing I couldn’t handle. Eventually, however, we started doing yoga “poses.” One of the most common poses, I would soon find out, is called “downward-facing dog,” in which you plant your palms and tip-toes on the mat and lift your ass high in the air, as if you’re about do an extremely unconventional push-up — only you don’t come back down.
“Hold yourself there for five breaths,” said the teacher.
With that, the entire class positioned themselves like dogs drinking from a bowl, doing so as naturally as a basketball player taking a jump shot.
I, on the other hand, awkwardly mimicked some slight resemblance to the pose, hanging there for only a couple of seconds before my arms started quivering like a cokehead. Beads of sweat dripped from the tip of my nose onto the mat like a broken faucet, and my T-shirt suddenly felt like it weighed 10 pounds. This was not what I signed up for!
I thought yoga was supposed to be all about breathing and relaxation. I thought the point was to become one with the universe. How are you supposed to “be mindful of your base chakra” when you’re too busy worrying whether or not you’ll survive the next 10 minutes?
But I had only myself to blame for my predicament. I was woefully out of shape at the time, as I have been for most of my adult life. In fact, that was one of the main reasons I was there. Besides playing softball — not a big calorie-burning activity — I’d yet to find a form of exercise I enjoyed enough to keep doing. I was hoping this would be the one.
Growing up, I never had to worry about my fitness. Between gym classes, impromptu pick-up basketball games and backyard football scruffs, there was always some sort of physical activity in my life. I never considered the possibility there might come a day when five minutes of running would leave me hunched over and broken, when even a long walk would leave my legs feeling rubbery, when I’d need a time-out during sex just to catch my breath.
One of the rude awakenings of adulthood is that you’re forced to actively seek out forms of exercise. Like so many other New Yorkers, I voluntarily fork over $80 a month for the privilege of standing in line at a smelly, claustrophobic gym just to be able to spend a half-hour running on a treadmill that 20 other people have already sweat on that day. There is a certain segment of the population that seems to truly enjoy this ritual. They are the people at the gym who you see crank up their IPod, set the machine to some absurd speed and grunt with satisfaction every time their heart rate jumps above 160.
For whatever reason, I’ve never experienced this brainwashing. Going to the gym may make you look and feel better, but going to the gym still sucks. Which is why I’ve never managed to go regularly for more than a few weeks even when my protruding belly reminds me daily that I should.
Over the years, I’ve undertaken numerous endeavors in my fruitless quest to become “fit.” One time I hired a personal trainer. At first, I felt empowered, like I was Tom Cruise preparing for his next Mission Impossible movie. Under my trainer’s direction, I would undergo my own personal boot camp and emerge from it a finely tuned machine.
However, there’s a big difference between the type of personal trainer that works with Tom Cruise and the type of “personal trainer” that works at New York Sports Club. Tom Cruise’s trainer (I imagine) is a highly seasoned professional. My trainer, Eric, was a recent Penn State grad with no apparent career direction (at various times he talked of going back to school, joining the marines or getting certified to be a “master trainer”) that had completed a few basic classes to attain his job. About every fourth word out of his mouth was either “cool” or “sweet,” and I felt he didn’t set the greatest example by showing up for work hung-over and sleep-deprived. (I know because he didn’t hesitate to tell me.) At least I knew he worked out daily — he wouldn’t shut up about that, either.
Another time I tried to take up running. In recent years, an increasing number of my friends have trained for and completed marathons, and many of them had once been every bit as unfit as me. My college roommate once spent four nights a week at Burger King and regularly used the deep fryer in our fraternity’s kitchen to cook up batches of Crispitos. Ten years later, he adheres to the South Beach diet, wakes up at 4 a.m. in the summer to run before the Phoenix heat sets in and has completed the past two Chicago Marathons.
While I have no desire to run a marathon and/or set my alarm earlier than 9, I figured it might help to follow some sort of organized regimen like the ones my friends used to train themselves. Plus, I figured, it would allow me to escape that cesspool of a gym and enjoy the scenery of Central Park. So I went out and bought $120 running shoes and instructed one of my runner friends to stay on me. I dutifully followed his prescribed regimen for about three months and watched my stamina grow by the week, but because it was winter, I still did most of it on a treadmill. When the weather finally warmed up, I took my legs outside only to find it far less invigorating than I’d anticipated. There are hills out there — and no TVs in which to plug your headphones.
Even the most menial recreational activities have proven embarrassingly daunting. For instance, the same New York recreational league that sponsors my softball team offers just about every co-ed sport imaginable, and one winter I signed up for dodgeball. They hold the games at elementary-school gyms around the city and even provide the red rubber balls.
I lasted one week.
It turns out dodgeball is far more taxing than it looks in the Ben Stiller movie. There is a lot of running involved. Each team plays three games in about 45 minutes, and by the end of it I was panting like a dog. And oh, by the way, getting drilled by a rubber ball might not hurt, but it’s still incredibly degrading.
All this time, however, a certain word wouldn’t stop popping into my ear: Yoga. The spring following my ill-fated first attempt, I visited a friend who was studying in Paris and found she’d become a virtual yogi, practicing several times a week. She raved how it had saved her from the stress of her graduate program. That summer, while in Los Angeles for a friend’s wedding, I watched my buddy Pete — a hard-drinking, old-school sportswriter if ever there was one — frantically search for a yoga studio to partake in his newfound hobby. “My back has never felt better,” he explained. Then I started dating a girl who said her mood had improved markedly since she started regularly attending yoga classes.
It was time to give this thing another go.
A friend recommended taking a few private lessons, which, while expensive, would afford me personal attention from the teacher while I tried to figure out what the hell I was doing. Genius. This way, if I embarrassed myself as badly as I had the first time, at least I’d do so in the privacy of my own apartment.
To my considerable surprise, however, I didn’t struggle nearly as much the second time around. While the various poses were confusing, they weren’t impossible, and my teacher, Karen, would gently reposition me whenever I strayed too far off course. While she threw around a bunch of foreign terminology (never before have the words “plank pose” and “bridge pose” been uttered so close to a set of Rock Band instruments), with repetition, the muscle movements became more familiar. After a few lessons, even “downward-facing dog” had become manageable.
My friends were right. Like Pete, my lower back — long a source of chronic pain – never felt better than it did at the end of our lessons. And how can you not feel relaxed following the only known form of exercise that ends with a pseudo-nap?
Thanks to yoga, my new favorite word in the English … er, Sanskrit language is “Savasana.” It is the pose that ends each session, and it literally consists of lying flat on your back with your eyes closed, relaxing every muscle in the body. No matter how difficult the first 55 minutes were on my body, it was all worth it when Karen dimmed the lights, went eerily quiet, even massaged the back of my neck (the personal touch that comes with a private lesson) while sleepiness enveloped me. I never actually zonked out, but that’s probably because I’ve never been particularly good at “staying in the moment.”
These days, I’ve finally worked up the courage to start attending regular classes at Karen’s studio. I am the improbable owner of a yoga mat. Never in a million years would I have imagined myself clasping my hands in a “prayer pose” or lying in a room full of strangers chanting “ooooooooooollllllllllmmmmmm.” The socks-off thing still creeps me out a little, though. Shouldn’t we at least go to dinner first?
I’ve definitely noticed the benefits from just a handful of yoga sessions. For one thing, my forearms are stronger, which is already paying dividends. In our first softball game of the season, for example, I ripped two doubles — and for once I didn’t get tired running to second.