A year and a half ago, I started practicing yoga because I wasn’t feeling well. I could barely touch my toes and felt very self-conscious in yoga classes, but kept practicing because I started to feel better.
I didn’t know why I was feeling better, so I went to the literature. I discovered that most books about yoga are not accessible or interesting. I stopped checking out yoga books from the library and started asking yoga teachers and students my questions.
Recently I talked with Neal Pollack about yoga. Neal has been practicing yoga for almost eight years and just finished a yoga teacher training with Richard Freeman. He answered my questions, even though I was, for the most part, nervous and inarticulate. I suppose I’m just neurotic and yoga helps.
Neal Pollack’s most recent book is Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. He’s the author of the bestselling memoir Alternadad and several books of satirical fiction, including The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature.
The Rumpus: You started practicing because you were feeling bad, because of the bad review.
Neal Pollack: Yeah. Because The New York Times called me fat.
Rumpus: Right. I started doing yoga when I wasn’t exactly well and I’m curious. Why do you think people, who aren’t feeling well, start practicing yoga? What do you think draws them in?
Pollack: Well first of all, people start doing it because it’s offered for free at their gym and some people start doing it because they have a bad back or some other injury. But if you’re one of these people who starts it for some mental or emotional reason, I think you just reach a point where nothing else works and nothing else seems to make sense, so you just throw caution to the wind and say, All right. I’ll give this a try, too. That’s kind of what it came down to.
It was a combination of that and the fact that my wife was also willing to give it a shot and that it was offered as part of our gym membership. That played no small part. I don’t think I would have wandered into a yoga studio in Austin and started my practice. I had never even considered yoga.
Rumpus: I started practicing yoga at 24 Hour Fitness.
Pollack: So did I. That’s just how a lot of Western yoga practitioners get started. I didn’t realize at the time why I was doing it, but in retrospect it came in that period where my conceptions of my self and my ego were completely shattered and completely out of control. It just sort of appeared when it was necessary.
Rumpus: How often do you practice yoga?
Pollack: I try to practice everyday. At the moment, I’ve got this hamstring injury. So right now, yoga is taking the form of rehab. This routine I have seems to work pretty well. It’s the routine that my teachers gave me during my teacher training. So I combine that and I try to meditate and I try to read about yoga and sort of study it.
The style I practice in Ashtanga is supposedly an eight limbed style, which means in addition to the physical, in addition to the postures, you have to practice breath control and you have to practice meditation and live as ethically as possible. It’s kind of an all-encompassing practice.
Rumpus: I didn’t think of it as an all-encompassing practice when I began. I was just looking at yoga as a physical experience and then all of a sudden I was meditating and reading Buddhist books. I got really upset. I felt tricked into having a spiritual life.
Pollack: The thing is that’s part of it, too. My teacher Richard Freeman talks about the fact when you have a purely physical practice, there will come a point where you reach your Rubicon. You reach a point where you either quit or you push through to some of the deeper aspects of the practice.
When you first start, you feel awesome. You think you’re awesome. After a while you’re doing things you didn’t think you’d be able to do. Then one morning, you still are unhappy and you’re still neurotic and you’re still insecure. Or you get injured and all of a sudden you can’t do physically the stuff you were doing that you thought you were awesome at and that is the point at which — this is what he says — a lot of yoga practices, just fail. Or collapse. Or get abandoned. But if you push through and continue, it generally deepens and enriches and these tests happen over and over and over again.
You know I was so excited to get my teaching certificate and really get into incredible physical shape. I was going to be deeply enmeshed. Then ten days before I went, I blew out my hamstring. Not doing yoga.
Rumpus: How did you do it?
Pollack: I just tripped over my suitcase in middle of the night. I was getting up to take a piss and then I felt a little tweak and sure enough, it didn’t go away and it still hasn’t.
It was a constant challenge for me while I was there with people who were throwing their legs behind their heads and walking around on their hands. I mean, not everyone at the training was like that, but a lot of them were. I was forced to sort of just sit with myself and deal with the situation at hand and try to throw away any preconceived notion I had of myself as this yoga guy.
Rumpus: Were you bummed?
Pollack: Yeah! There were moments when I wanted to walk away. This is not what I bargained for. I worked really hard, raising money on the Internet and just really pushed and pushed and got dealt this hand. But I soldiered through and it’s over. It happened. I still got my certificate, which is nice, even if my physical practice actually regressed and it did. I can’t do triangle pose, that’s a pretty basic pose.
Rumpus: But maybe your injury is a way to deepen your practice?
Pollack: One could hope. I find myself struggling with it all the time. A lot of times you use that yoga brain that you get out of a really intense physical practice as kind of a crutch. You come out of that practice and you’re thinking, It’s all good. Everything’s cool. I don’t get that. The practice I’m doing is just not that intense.
One of the reasons I went to the teacher training when I did and wanted to deepen my practice when I did was so I could have a steady mind and a steady attitude in the publication of the book, because it’s stressful to publish a book. I’ve done it before. I’m trying to do that and trying to support my family. Some of the reviews will be good and some of them won’t. There’ll probably be some snark on the Internet here and there and having a yoga brain helps. Now I have to figure out a way to have that yoga brain without the usual methods. It’s a challenge.
Rumpus: I was thinking about how there’s a lot of ego involved in publishing your book and marketing it. I was thinking about how publishing is in some ways a contradiction to yoga. Do you feel that tension?
Pollack: Yes, because yoga is all about diminishing the ego and reducing the self and not promoting one’s self as superior to or different than the rest of humanity. But at the same time, I wrote a book and I think it’s funny and useful and well written. I’ve got rent to pay and a kid to support and I think it’s OK–there’s nothing in the Yoga Sutras that say or the Bhagavad Gita that says, You should not make a living.
There’s nothing wrong with it. The key is then to try and sell the book and do it with a good sense of humor. It’s not like all of a sudden because I’m doing yoga, I’ve become some sort of ascetic person or have become some sort of anti-capitalistic crusader. My essential personality hasn’t changed, but what I’m going to try and do is be more thoughtful about how I go about it. I’m going to do it with a little bit less puffed up attitude and not let it consume me.
Rumpus: I will say that I think your book makes yoga seem really relatable. There’s a misconception about what yoga is and I come across it often. For instance, if I say I practice yoga four times a week, I’ll have someone tell me that I sound like a Silver Lake housewife.
Pollack: What’s weird is that if one had said that in 1974, people’s conception of what that meant would have been completely different. Only recently has yoga become the New Age aerobics for yuppie housewives. That’s a very recent conception of it and a very small percentage of what it actually is.
What I try to do in the book is show how it can be adapted to any kind of life and it doesn’t have to be any one thing. I try to relate my own experience. It’d be nice if people who think they might not be able to do yoga can use my experience–not as a guide in how to behave in their own lives. God knows I wouldn’t want to impose that upon them, but maybe it can give people an idea that yes, they too can do it. If a schmo like me can pull it off, then they can pull it off as well.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.