Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hot Yoga, Indeed.

Male Friend: “I’d be interested in taking a yoga class, but I dunno, I feel kinda weird, ya know?”
Me: “Come on! There are lots of hot chicks in spandex bending over. Why wouldn’t you go?”

Why do I instantly advertize yoga’s sex appeal, not the real benefits of the practice, such as stress reduction, lower blood pressure, stronger muscles, mental clarity? Maybe because there is something undoubtedly beautiful and graceful about yoga, even sexy—I mean, there certainly is a lot of bending over.

And as the yogic tradition is enmeshed in Western culture, it shifts and adapts (many, including myself, might say this is a detriment). In a way, Americanizing yoga seems to dilute the pure spiritual nature of the practice. Gyms are lined with mirrors so students spend the whole class checking themselves out, and comparing themselves to others. Many American yogis often buy overpriced yoga clothes and all manner of yoga paraphernalia, from no-slip towels to lavender-scented eye pads. Are we buying our way to nirvana?

For some yoga is not just a path to inner peace, it’s a path to flat abs and tight buns. In fact, this blog was prompted because I just saw a Yahoo! article titled “The Great Sex Yoga Workout.” Ladies, you can do kegels while in bridge pose! At this point, I’d assert that we’re not doing yoga anymore…we’re working out, which is perfectly fine. But to me it ain’t yoga. The intention has shifted from having good holistic health to just having good sex. And then again, who am I to be dictating or judging anyone’s intentions?

So I’m wrestling with the idea that yoga is sexy, because this feels inherently wrong. Maybe that’s my Catholic upbringing. Even so, shouldn’t yoga transcend that first chakra sexual energy into a more aware, centered sensibility (say, third eye chakra)? Of course yoga also fosters self-acceptance, body awareness, compassion for oneself and others. These benefits can (and should) permeate other areas of life, including the bedroom. But I don’t think it should be the whole purpose. On the other hand, sex sells. And the yoga market is exploding at the seams of its lululemon nylon pants.

Even the American Sex Guru is using yoga to peddle skin. In 2009, Hugh Heffner’s Playboy website featured a video of a playmate doing yoga. Naked. (No, I haven’t seen the full video. But am I interested to see it? Um, yeah, yeah I am.) Elephant Journal featured some interesting thoughts on the very subject I’m grappling with. Check it out here, plus a preview of the cleavage yogini in uttanasana. Link: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2009/10/playboy-yoga-videos-with-sara-jean-underwood/

But naked yoga isn’t a new thing. In this discipline stripping down for some sun salutations isn’t supposed to be arousing. It’s supposed to be liberating. Practitioners aren’t focused on sex, they’re focused on accepting and celebrating their bodies and others without judgment…or an erection. These classes happen in studios and clubs in a safe, encouraging atmosphere. While I haven’t tried it, this style seems to have its intention in the right place. But there I go again making judgments. Guess I need to do more yoga. With my sweatpants on.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Art of ZenTravel

There is a quiet mob fomenting at the Southwest Airlines terminal. Zone A passengers are lined up by their designated poles, shuffling bags and secretly scoping out one another’s boarding passes to make sure no one is trying to sneak into a lower number section within the Zone, and therefore getting on the plane sooner, and therefore getting a seat. Meanwhile, Zone B through D passengers hover nervously, ready to sprint to the gate at the slightest flick of the attendant’s microphone.

As if flying weren’t nerve-wracking enough, Southwest Airlines has brilliantly decided to herd customers onto their planes cattle-style, first come first serve. This adds a palpable panic to the air. Will the newlyweds be able to sit next to each other on their connecting flight to Turks and Caicos? Will granny get her aisle seat? Southwest makes us sweat.

Finally on the plane, baggage stowed, seatbelt clicked, awkward/polite nods to seat neighbors completed, I can try to meditate.

Plane rides are the perfect opportunities to meditate because the practice involves sitting straight and still. This is often the biggest obstacle for me at home, where I have so many other options, like a couch, or a Facebook account, for instance. But on a plane I’m already strapped in to a prime meditation posture (seat upright and in the locked position).

Reason #2 air travel is also great for meditation: even though I love traveling and plan to scope out every inch of this fabulous, insane planet of ours, I get a bit shaky at takeoff. What can I say, I’ve been scarred by Final Destination. (The first FD…you know that horrible first plane crash scene I’m talking about--shit scared me so that for years I had to check every tray table as soon as I sat down. I nearly ran off a plane once when my tray table latch was painted red instead of the ubiquitous beige.)

As the metal phallic object I’ve entrusted my little life to is hurling down the tarmac, I get suddenly Catholic. I get suddenly any religion, whichever one will have me at 5,000 feet and climbing. I use The Secret. Happy thoughts: I survive this flight, I envision myself landing, I see my bags chug down the baggage claim carousel, of course they haven’t lost my bags, and so forth. I try to focus on my breath. I deeply inhale the stale recirculated air. A man three rows behind me sneezes violently. Some kid screams. I exhale. Positive, happy, healthy thoughts!

Then the sensation of liftoff: the scoop in my stomach, the centrifugal force, the rush of engine, the lack of control I have over everything happening. It’s frightening and strangely exhilarating. God I hope the pilot isn’t drunk.

Rolf Gates calls yoga “a refuge from our need to control.” It makes sense: we try to arrange our lives in neat, perfect angles. Get the decent job, buy the nice car, the comfortable home, maintain circle of witty and attractive friends, whatever. But things don’t always go our way, and many of us haven’t learned how to cope with that very well. I haven’t anyway (if you have, I’d sure love to know your techniques). Even in yoga and meditation, we try to control the experience. I need a nice, quiet space to sink into a blissful, super-zennified mood.

This is clearly not flight 287 to Phoenix.

But one of my meditation instructors also says that the conditions to meditate will never be perfect. In fact, it’s better to be still in the midst of the chaos rather than when I’m already calm, when the sage incense is already burning. If I can find an iota of stillness on this flight, then maybe I can find stillness at home, too.

At cruising altitude, a little boy behind me looks out the window.

“How cool, I can’t believe I wasn’t looking before,” he says to his mom.

I look out, too. It’s weird and beautiful, the earth carved up and spliced into life. I sit and watch. The plane slips through a patch of clouds like an anhinga through water, white flashes against my small oval window. There it is; the moment. Just breathing, being right now on flight 287 to Phoenix. Until the turbulence. Then I force some deep breaths and pray to every deity I can remember.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

One thing’s for sure: I’m a fraud.

When Gandhi made up his mind about something, that was that. Take meat. One day he figured it was no longer such a good idea, so he immediately cut all meat out of his diet. When he found out his clothes were manufactured by British companies he stopped wearing or buying them. Hence the loincloth. Gandhi’s mind became a solid wood-carved bowl, his intentions clear inside, not getting muddled or distracted. Gandhi wasn’t one to waffle.

Here’s my mind in a recent yoga class:
(looking at a guy two rows in front of me)
Look at this schmuck. I bet he thinks he’s a super yogi. Yeah, buddy, you do two more pushups instead of an updog during vinyasa, we get it, you’re like, behemoth strong. Don’t think I don’t see right through those low lunges in warrior II. You’re showing off and I’m not buying it. Prick. Fuck this guy. Trying so hard, I bet he’s not getting any of the mental benefits of yoga. How can he find inner peace when he’s peacocking all over his mat? Fuck this guy.

That’s one reason why I’m a fraud.

Today I drove to Target, all by myself in my mid-size sedan, turning into the four-story parking garage in a NASCAR-style swarm of other shoppers driving alone in their sedans.

That’s another reason.

When I watch documentaries one of two things happen: I cry like it’s The Notebook or the New Jersey comes out in me and I yell at the TV, telling this politician or the corrupt EPA to go fuck themselves. I’m usually so fired up after these movies that the heft of everything wrong compresses my ribcage and I want to scream and fix it and I don’t know how so I usually zip online and fill out a few email petitions and that satiates me for a while, until the next flick.

The latest one was Fuel, a really well done one about energy consumption and how running my sedan on McDonald’s leftover cooking oil can save this jacked up little planet of ours. My boyfriend and I swore to try and get a biofuel pump at our local gas station, but the past two weeks I’ve been filling up with the regular old devil’s juice. But not at BP—does that count for something?

Sometimes I want to give away everything I own and go to the Himalayas and meditate, even though I’ve got a hunch New Jersey will follow me to Tibet. Sometimes I think, what the hell are you doing with your life, Melissa, you slothful, selfish chump? Go help the people in India, or Japan, or Haiti, or anywhere. Go! Now!

But I stay in Tampa, in a nice apartment, adjacent to a main strip of nightspots and eateries. And I kind of hate that I kind of like it.

I say I’ll join the Peace Corps. some day. Those last two words scare me. I’m worried I’m lying to myself. It’s too soon to tell.

Is it possible to be a beer-chugging vegetarian (with an occasional bite of a chicken sandwich, usually precipitated by aforementioned beer chugging)? Can I come to terms with the fact that sometimes my mind is tranquil while most other times it’s a backfiring switchboard, smoking and sparking with wires coiled tight? Can I strike a balance?

Gandhi had a little Jersey in him. He was sarcastic and hot tempered. But also humble and fiercely compassionate.

Maybe being a fraud isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s all I can ask for right now, and instead of fighting my duality I should embrace it. Maybe this whole split personality thing I feel—one minute zen goddess, the next one a jealous bitch—is keeping me on my toes, making me investigate my mental switchboard, taking a mechanic’s eye to rewire where necessary.

Whether I’m chained to a cypress tree or telling bad jokes at the local watering hole, the other half of me is always there, and for now I’m ok with that.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What Does Singing Karaoke, Puppies, and Yoga Have in Common?

They’re all opportunities to be fully present.
I’ll elaborate.

I was at a lovely little English pub (aka hole in the wall) the other night with my pal Fotios, and we were singing karaoke. (“The Distance” by Cake and “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis to be specific.) And while I was up there, belting my heart out with a microphone in one hand and a beer in the other, I wasn’t worrying about my student loans. I wasn’t worrying about checking my email, or contemplating my car trouble, or anything else. I was just happy, fully alive, crooning “soooo Sally can wait” to a roomful of half-drunk strangers. The past or the future did not matter, because they did not exist. My awareness was entirely entrenched in the beautiful, off-key moment.

You might be thinking “I don’t need to sing karaoke, I don’t really worry about stuff.” Become aware of the thoughts as they float through your head during any given day. You might be surprised where they take you. Maybe your mind swims back to a fight you got into on the playground in third grade (I forgive you, Mark Cohen, for kicking me in the shin.) Maybe you’re obsessing over a future meeting, or scanning through a bazillion possible outcomes. Maybe you’re brain is steeped in a fake argument you invent with an annoying coworker, and your body physiologically responds, clenching your shoulders and jaw—maybe you even mumble a comeback out loud, even though you’re alone in your apartment and this fight is all a figment. (I’ve done this more than I’d like to admit, and I always feel really crazy when I “wake up” from this intense daydream to realize I’m behind the wheel of my car.) The mind is that powerful.

So, what’s your karaoke song?

If you don’t want to sing your way into low-level nirvana, then get a puppy. I find that when I’m petting my roommate’s dog I’m instantly and totally absorbed in the moment. My blood pressure lowers, I’m smiling, gushing in a ridiculous voice: “How is the handsome man?” and “Who is a schmoopy-walla-walla-face-head-Jones-McGee?” (What am I even talking about? I don’t care. I’m happy.) Nothing else matters except for this little bundle of fur and there, hush, I’m present.

And if you have bronchitis on karaoke night and are allergic to dogs, then do yoga. Actually, do yoga regardless.

The practice of yoga and meditation gives us the space to let go of our spindled-up thoughts. We concentrate on our breath and our bodies and our minds without judgment or attachment. Even fifteen minutes of this can be profoundly transformative. And while the first two methods can bring temporal, fleeting sensations of presence, the presence you can develop through yoga and meditation is not limited to your mat. It seeps and sieves into other areas of your life, and suddenly doing laundry is an exercise in pure consciousness. Traffic is a chance to breathe, relax, maybe meditate (with your eyes open, alert, hands at 10 and 2, the whole deal). Chopping celery becomes a sacred task.
Every moment becomes yogic, every moment gets to be the fullest expression of itself.

So go sing, stretch, breathe, and give a dog a hug.
**Thanks to Niji Bentivegna and Alexis Bentivegna's shin, which appears in the photo.