Raindrops quickly turned to sleet balls that pounded the table-sized umbrella that Neal Pollack and I were tucked underneath at The Coffee Shop. True to par, the hostess refused to offer anything resembling a smile, even though Neal--in town to promote his new book, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude (HarperPerennial)--tried to soften her up. He didn't know who he was dealing with; this diner is infamous for snobbery. Still, the Union Square staple serves up decent inexpensive food, and we had just arrived in time to see disgruntled chess players, skaters skipping class at NYU and that woman who practically lives in the park selling stalagmite candle holders scatter to the pounding rhythm of the sudden monsoon.
Neal and I had been in e-conversation for a number of months. We easily recognized one another from Facebook contact (the social networking site makes numerous guest appearances in his book). As Neal chomped through his salad and I sipped on tea, he said his angle was "yoga comedy," something which various reviews have verified. This could mean a broad range of things, many of them possibly disconcerting. Given the cordial nature of our prior exchanges and the lively conversation we were engaged in, my suspicions were minimal. We quickly came to realize that jnana yoga, or the yoga of knowledge/study of philosophy, were our chosen paths, which most often makes for good dialogue.
The first thing that struck me while reading this book was that "comedy" is perhaps not the best way to describe it. Yes, it's funny--I often chortled aloud, much to the chagrin of dour subway riders. The man has written books with titles like Alternadad and Never Mind the Pollacks, mind you. His knowledge of obscure comedy movies is mighty. I just don't think that "comedy" gives the book its due. Stretch is the story of an earnest search conducted by a man who once laughed freely in youth only to find himself wrapped inside of the cynical wrenches of 30-something fatherhood. In a prior life he had been published by a then-scalding McSweeney's and David Byrne played percussion on stage behind his words. Then he went from being a "hot writer" according to Rolling Stone to "fat" according to the NY Times. That's when yoga came into his life.
The underlying theme of Neal's work, his hero's journey, was to find his "best me." Along the way he stumbles. Often. He was going to take my class the evening we met, but thought better of his ailing hamstrings, claiming he "always gets hurt." This is evident in Stretch, where flatulence and vomiting are two common occurrences, or when he reignites a Bikram injury falling out of his friend's car en route to a business meeting. Yet within this process of physical understanding he begins to wrap his head around something his favorite teacher, Richard Freeman, says about leaving the physical behind. The craving of perfection of postures is still a desire, and in yoga the practitioner is attempting to move to a state of mind that is beyond clinging.
Having instructed yoga for seven years, I know this desire well. From what I've studied of anatomy, every individual's body is simply constructed differently, and there are things that people can accomplish that I will never be able to. A fused sacrum and L-5 limits my backbending. Numerous broken bones along the way makes yoga therapeutically crucial in my life. Like Neal, it was either a continued life of doctors and chiropractors, or I take matters into my own hands.
Beyond that, as Mark Singleton points out in his fine piece of academia, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, America's fascination with yoga postures has nothing to do with the claimed ancient roots of yoga. Yogis up until the dawn of the twentieth century abhorred asana practice, including Swami Vivekananda, one of the most quoted sages in yoga studio history. Yogis today treat asana like the devout treat Jesus: they can do no wrong. In yoga philosophy, there is never any end point, never an end to the inquiry. There's never that moment of "it just is because god made it so," because that is a statement of deceit, and of defeat. A yoga practice comprised only of postures is an exercise routine.
What is most rewarding is that Pollack never loses his sense of inner questioning. This is no "all is light, fluffy and fuzzy feel good" book. It's much realer than that. Sure, not everyone is going to relate to his observation that chi and midi-chlorians may in fact be the same thing. But most anyone can understand what it means to mess up and feel bad about it. Instead of griping or avoiding the topic, Neal dives headstand first into his own at-times selfish or ignorant actions and attempts to change them. Stretch may have bits of comedy sprinkled throughout, but at heart it's a book about self-realization, though possibly one with more schvitzing than any other ever written on this topic.
What I appreciated most is his lack of idol worship. When one Jivamukti teacher spouts vegan truisms in a packed classroom, he hollers back "bullshit," eventually leaving the studio in a huff when she plays Iraq War commentary during Savasana. (He later meets her again at a Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco and apologizes for his outburst.) While Pollack realized that he handled the situation unskillfully, challenging teachers is one of the most important aspects of this discipline, something rarely offered in the endless and relentless literature available concerning yoga teachers. Respect and unquestioning adulation are two entirely different things, and Neal's skepticism is a refreshing breeze in a stagnant air of rock star teachers, "breakthrough" DVDs and "life changing" workshops.
On his website and in reviews, you'll read about Neal Pollack's comedic undertones, with his events offering anything from guided meditation and comedy sketches to pose requests and asana instruction. So read Stretch if you want to be amused. But read it also because I'm guessing you'll find little parts of yourself in there, those habitual forks in the road where a decision lies before you and you wonder whether to stick to the same old or try to break fresh ground. Namaste to Neal for at walking along a new and unfamiliar path, and for sharing these wonderful dispatches along the way.
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