Friday, January 25, 2013

Men of Yoga

How cold was it? I froze my toes in yoga class.
However cranky my toes, arches or other cramp-prone places in my feet can sometimes prove during what yoga teachers tend to call "your practice," it's a comfort these days to look around when I am bent over like a croquet hoop, bum in the air in the position known as "downward dog," and discover that a few of the other twisted sisters in the room are actually male.
That's a sea change in my own experience of the "relaxation technique," as a long-ago teacher termed it while leading a class in a high school gym of forty women and me. In those days I was worried about what to wear, and how to keep all of me inoffensively covered as the "practice" pulled parts of me this way and that; while keeping my eyes somewhat aslant from the enormously toned body parts of our white-haired, forever-young instructor, who occasionally reminded us she practiced at home in the evenings while watching TV.
In the world we live in now, where most everyone has a camera and video recorder no farther away than a pocketbook or, as we guys like to call them, a "man bag," image is everything, and body image is even more than that. So I've no desire to be the answer to the question that begins "one of these things is not like the others." I want to fit in. So I'm happy these days to see three or four or more (and always at least one) other male physiques in our group practice.
That wasn't the case something less than ten years ago when I went looking for a solution to my desire to sleep better, breathe deeply, rest fully, cleanse my mind from the ups and downs of the day, and quiet the endless round of too much thinking for too little effect in that busy little mind we all carry around with us -- in a word, life as we know it. And, yes, relax.
I found a weekly yoga class that somehow managed meet all these needs. It met in the early evening and often twilight would arrive while we breathed deeply and persuaded our bodies into some unconventional attitudes -- some of them the kind of thing that seems to shout "don't try this at home!" But it was perfectly safe to do these stretches, and stretch our limits, in the intimate salon a pair of teachers had molded from the insides an old New England house.
It was an environment in which it was impossible to make a mistake. We had incense, candles, sometimes chimes, and a teacher who read verses from the poet Rumi or other spiritually attuned source. The ambiance made you forget that in other circumstances you were made of cold toes, stiff ankles, little pockets of excess flesh here and there, bums and bellies, thickening limbs and too rigid backbones. In the Yoga Salon you were all right. No other possibility existed. You were always, in the words of our teacher, exactly where you were supposed to be.
"Don't look at your neighbor," she told us at one my first classes.
Good advice. I know what she meant was that since every "body" will do the postures differently no one else's position can tell you what yours should look like. But this universal advice mattered to me when everyone else was bound to look different by the mere fact of gender (and, btw, don't look at the guy and giggle because he's trying his best). Yoga class back then was me and the gals.
One season a younger guy showed up, arriving for class as if he had just flown out of the office in his chinos and sport shirt. Dress code, dude! Go home and get your sweats on. Make an effort, can't ya? Men stand out enough around here as it is.
I didn't miss his disappearance -- or, truth be told, long for the companionship of additional Men of Yoga -- in those days because there was something about the Yoga Salon's female ambiance that was intensely comforting. What was it about our sessions that seemed to restore the sensuality of childhood? The teacher's trained, gentle, soothing voice managed to sound maternal, cosmic, caring and -- well, seductive -- all at the same time. Like the Earth Mother you never had.
Combined with the positive reinforcement of that feminine leadership style. Nobody barks at you as they do in aerobics. You're told 'take a break when you need to.' And,'It should never hurt.'
"Wherever your body goes, ends up, how far down you get -- how much extended, stretched -- is the right amount for you. Whatever place you end up is the right place for you... Wherever you are is exactly where you're supposed to be."
Really? Is this principle generally applicable? Can I take it to the bank? Try it on my accountant?
Plus, there's all that time on the floor. How second childhood is that? When do grownups get down there? It's good for you, peeps! Remember, grownups are just oversized children on their way to wearing out.
And then at the end you get to lie down on your back for a good long collapse, a position called savasana. It's not a pose, a stretch, a balance, a flex, a rep. You just lie on your mat for whole minutes with your hands by your size. At the Yoga Salon, the teacher would come around with little natural-fiber blankies and ask if you wanted to be covered to stay warm. You generally did. When was the last time somebody offered to tuck you in?
That's how guys know we're in a different place. We can't remember ever being invited to a "slumber party." Is this how girls did it? Sometimes when you mumbled, "mmm, yes, great" to the blanket query, you'd get touched on the shoulder or arm. It was like Mom checking for a fever.
I would fall asleep during savasana. My mind would float on its little endorphin high after exercise. It was nap time for aging boomers.
But as I said at the start, things are different in my current yoga class, now that the Men of Yoga have arrived. My class is bigger, the space (a gym floor) is huge, and sometimes the turnout fills it. But the biggest change of all is looking around and seeing a half dozen hairy sons of Adam.
OK, guys, I don't blame you for horning in on a good thing. Just try not to louse it up.