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Going to the Mat: Confessions of a Yoga Guinea Pig

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A few years back, I got a call that would change my life. That sounds like a dramatic cliché, something from the movies. But that was the point. It was my friend Kate Churchill on the phone. She wanted me to be the subject of Enlighten Up!, her documentary about yoga. Not that I was a yogi. At the time, my idea of a sacred cow was a burger from the Corner Bistro. But Kate had a theory that yoga could change anyone, and she was looking for a hard case. After six months of intensive yoga, a man who couldn't touch his toes would reach enlightenment.

The ensuing journey would bring me across the country, studying with and interviewing many of the biggest names in the yoga world. I played a dual role, serving as both yoga guinea pig and journalist in pursuit of the true story of yoga -- where does it come from? What was it meant to achieve? -- and followed the thread all the way to the heart of India.

I enjoyed yoga as much as the next guy: the stretching, the core strengthening, the gender ratios in class. Still, I couldn't figure out the connection between yoga class and spiritual enrichment. Downward dog is a great hip opener, but was it a path to nirvana?

To find out, I undertook (or was subjected to) an intensive regime of stretching, breathing, and chanting things in an ancient language that I didn't understand. I twisted myself into postures otherwise only achieved in a car accident. I even discovered body parts I never knew existed (For instance, I didn't know I had a "xiphoid process" until a particularly rigorous 4-hour session of pranayama breathing caused this weird, semi-ossified cartilage at the tip of my sternum to poke out of my chest like an alien impregnating Sigourney Weaver. Who knew you could injure yourself breathing?)

While awaiting the spiritual payoff from all this stretching, I looked for empirical answers. And my research divulged some surprising things:

The yoga we practice these days, although dressed in the trappings of ancient Hindu authenticity, was born about one hundred years ago, largely under the influence of western culture. While the yoga world routinely refers to yoga as a five thousand year old tradition, it is only a little older than Bollywood.

The REAL yoga, ancient and obscure, was nothing like the feel-good hippie stretching of today. It was more like black magic: transforming one's semen into magical nectar, flying around and taking over other peoples bodies, and the like. Yogis were like boogeymen and dark sorcerers. This according to David White, the leading American scholar in ancient yoga, who noted, "I haven't seen them teaching this stuff at the local yoga studio."

In a rare interview, BKS Iyengar, the 90-year old ambassador of yoga to the West, told me that his yoga, as taught to him by his master, was a purely physical exercise and completely unrelated to ancient philosophy. He says he invented and refined much of it himself. It wasn't until 1960, while on a visit to London, that English intellectuals introduced Iyengar to the ancient "yoga sutras". Five years later, he combined the yoga poses and the Hindu teachings together in his book "Light on Yoga," which then sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the United States. And voila -- the modern yoga craze was born. But it was basically a new age invention, not an ancient practice.

What did all this show me, beyond the savvy of yoga marketers and the credulity of American spiritual wannabees? It gives the lie to the notion that one yoga is more "authentic" than another, or that we in the west have somehow bastardized yoga into a profane exercise craze. It was already a crazy 20th century hybrid of calisthenics and khirtan when it got here.

Along my yoga odyssey, I encountered a western yoga culture struggling to reconcile ad hoc philosophy with modern life, exemplified by the teacher at Jivamukti in New York City who told the class that we shouldn't get too negative on the war-mongering Bush Administration, because negativity is "unyogic."

But as the weeks went by I eventually settled into a rhythm of yoga practice that formed its own logic. The pain eased, and I began to feel myself growing longer and stronger, and more sensitive to the slight maladjustments in posture and bodily symmetry. I learned to close my eyes, breathe in and visualize the oxygenated blood trickling through my veins. My shoulders began to settle back and my chest expanded, bestowing the sensation that my heart was opening to the world.

I found most precious moments always came during final relaxation. Once, I became gradually aware of a wash of green light trickling in from the windows of the room, like the dark ether at the bottom of the ocean. I sunk deeper into meditation and for the first time I think I really began to dream while awake.

I was still bemused by yoga philosophy, but even when the yoga teacher was saying something inane, like "Remember, your hamstrings are a symbol of your ego, so we must all just let go" - I found myself increasingly susceptible to this benign, new-age propaganda. Lying there all sweaty and exhausted, I began to send out healing and love to all beings on the earth - hell, even the Martians -with only a little tongue in my mental cheek.

And as much as I resisted the belabored classroom lectures and dime-store wisdom, I nevertheless found myself measuring my own behavior against them. Because frankly, practicing things like non-attachment and universal love and cross-legged headstands is pretty great, even if they can be found in the self help for hippies section of the bookstore.

And so what if yoga's ancient pedigree is kind of a myth? Why do things have to be ancient to be worthwhile? I mean, human sacrifice is ancient, but that doesn't make it cool. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement was invented in a 20th century, East-meets-west, Gandhi-meets-King Asian fusion. And that's pretty cool.

Despite all the misappropriated hype about karma and enlightenment, yoga practice is still a powerful tool. The stretching and breathing, when coupled with a meditative, focused intention, can make you feel pretty damn good, even if the whole thing is choreographed to a Kanye West track. And one important day, working it out on the mat, I realized I needed to call my mom more often. And by measure of this subtle, earthly transformation, I guess Kate may have proven her hypothesis after all.

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