VARKALA, India — I’ve exercised my entire life. I don’t remember a season in my youth when I wasn’t playing organized sports or a period in my adulthood when I wasn’t regularly going to a gym or cross-training. Weightlifting. Running. Swimming. Cycling. Hiking. It’s part of my daily life as much as brushing my teeth. Yoga?
Yoga was a joka.
I never got it. As so eloquently put by my favorite sports radio talk show host and old friend from Las Vegas, Colin Cowherd, “Yoga is a Hindi word for ‘stretching.’”
Can I touch my toes? Yes, I can touch my toes. I bend my knees and touch my toes. That’s what knees are for. Why bend so far at the waist when you can bend at the knees? Besides, why do I never need to touch my toes? I only cut my toenails once every three weeks.
Am I flexible? No. I don’t care about flexibility. I want to look good. I want to feel good. I want to sweat. I’ve walked by yoga classes in my various gyms and it always looked like a room full of people praying in their pajamas.
But when in India …
Traveling is all about adventure and discovery. Yesterday morning I discovered the adventure of crawling up a wall backwards. I figured if I was going to discover yoga, I should try it in the country where they first discovered it 2,500 years ago. I walked down Varkala’s cliffside path about 50 meters to a small office called Progressive Yoga. I was met by a very young couple: Oscar, 19, a tall, husky, tanned Englishman with a big head of black hair; and his 18-year-old girlfriend, Hermione, a beautiful, shapely, brown-haired goddess. Oscar was a yoga virgin, too. We dressed like it. We both had on baggy shorts and tank tops. His said Kingfisher, India’s national brew; mine said Boracay, an island in the Philippines. We looked more appropriate for a beach kegger.
We walked upstairs to the yoga studio, featureless except for a huge wall artwork of a woman sitting cross legged with her eyes closed, deep in meditation. Joining us was a diminutive Indian man with a handsome face, trim moustache, taut physique and a 6,000-rupee haircut. Ullas Kumar, 46, has been a yoga instructor for 20 years. He has taught yoga in Switzerland, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, Austria and Germany. His advertisement out front shows him holding himself up with his hands on a yoga mat with his legs pointing straight out to the side. He looked like the letter F. I couldn’t do that with pipe cleaners.
Ullas explained the basics of yoga. In a soft voice barely audible over the quiet whooshing of the fan above, he said, “Yoga is not something you show and do. It’s something that must be experienced. We live in a sensory world. We have five senses to deal with the universe.”
He then explained the one Sanskrit word I knew.
“It is three syllables,” he said. “Ah. Uh. Ma. They are letters in the ancient language of Sanskrit. They represent Jagrath, a wakeful state, Swagna, a dream state and Shushupthi, a dreamless sleep state.”
Great we were going to take a nap.
No, I promised I wasn’t going to be cynical. I’d keep my mind as open as if I just landed in the airport of a new country. He had us join our forefingers and thumbs in the traditional little “o” and we chanted, “OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM.” Maybe I’m missing one or two M’s. I can’t remember how long we mmm’d. But we mm’d our entire exhale as he chanted, “Sir-YA-ya!” Apparently, that’s a Sanskrit word for the sun which I was starting to miss.
My back was already sore from trying to sit upright Indian style (called lotus position in India), a sitting position that has always caused me more pain than dentist chairs. Then the “stretching” started. We kept our legs crossed and put our right arm over our left shoulder and turned our head to the right. We were essentially turning into a figure 8. I looked at Hermione and she was looking straight at the right-side wall. The wall wasn’t even in my peripheral vision. I couldn’t get my head past the wall in front of me.
If I was any stiffer they’d fit me for a coffin.
We returned to the torturous lotus position and he taught us how to breathe properly. Apparently, I’ve breathed wrong for 58 years. Ullas said in a voice so soft it could put a meth addict to sleep, “Inhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaale … 1 … 2 … 3 …4. Exhaaaaaaaaaaaale … 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6 … 7 … 8.”
I scuba dive and part of our training is to exhale for 30 seconds while surfacing from about 50 feet. Counting to eight was easy. However, my back was about to leave my body and find a soft spot of sand on the beach.
Ullas peppered the 90-minute session with philosophy and definition. Such as, what is yoga? In Hindi, yoga means “spiritual discipline.” It started in the 5th or 6th century B.C. in India although artifacts dating to 3000 B.C. show yoga poses. Today it has grown into a $27 billion industry with more than 20 million practitioners. One statistic immediately made yoga more attractive: 83 percent of the practitioners are women.
It is based in ancient Shamanism in which the primary goal, according to book, “The History of Yoga,” is “to heal members of the community and act as religious mediators.” In other words, the state of mind is a privilege and not a right. As Ullas said, “Yoga means a state that must be obtained.”
How do you know when you’ve obtained it? When you can touch your toes? When you can touch your toes to the back of your skull? When you become boring talking about it in cocktail parties? When? I know I needed more time. The only state I felt like I’d obtained so far was Nebraska. (I don’t know what that means, but in my cynical state I needed the obligatory Nebraska slam.)
We then did more stretching. We lay flat on our backs and stretched our arms out behind us. We got on all fours, lifted our left leg straight out and our right arm straight out. We reversed limbs. We put our hands and feet straight on the floor, came down to our chest, stretched our head to the ceiling, then got in the push-up position and slowly moved our feet toward our hands.
Hermione had essentially bent herself in half. She could hold a pose 5-10 seconds when my limbs hadn’t been stretched that far in their entire existence. I wasn’t breathing heavy. This isn’t cardio. But sweat came from my brow, my shoulders, my legs. Yoga is hard. In the distance, over the fan, I could hear the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. The song of the Sirens could not have been more tempting.
Then came the real hard part. He had us lean over on our hands and bend our arms. We then had to lean over and place our knees on our elbows. I weigh a little more than 200 pounds. I go to the gym six days a week. I can hold my own in a weight room. Holding up 200 pounds on bent elbows took every ounce of strength I had. While I was struggling to stay upright without toppling over like a bowling pin, Hermione was so comfortably on her elbows she was sipping a lassi through a straw. Oscar was shaking.
We then moved our mats to the side wall. We put our arms out straight and with our feet to the wall, slowly started to crawl up it.
“Form an L,” Ullas said.
He took some pictures of us and my body was in the shape of, very ironically, a question mark.
Resting periods consisted of a few minutes more of “OMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM … SURYAYA!” I broke the silence.
“What are we supposed to think about when we chant?”
“Focus on the sun,” he said. “The mantra represents sun. We are saluting the sun. It gives us light, energy.”
It also gives us respite from heat, sweat and filth. I focused on me laying on my purple sarong on the beach, reading Tom Clancy and jumping in the warm surf every 10 minutes.
After 80 minutes, we laid back and rested, remembering the chants and the hidden meanings behind the ancient Sanskrit words. I got more out of this physically than spiritually. There is no question yoga has changed lives, sometimes even saved them. Prisoners say it helps them survive solitary confinement. Alcoholics say it keeps them sober. Divorcees say it gives them recovery.
I had none of those experiences, but I can’t knock yoga. It has become the jogging craze of the 21st century. It has been an escape for so many, the low-impact exercise that benefits the mind as well. I’m still not convinced it will help fat people become thin. Can it make stiff people flexible? Maybe but I don’t care about flexibility. I’m not a gymnast.
What I care about are experiences. In India, the land where yoga began, this is a lifestyle that has stretched, literally, to every corner of the globe. I don’t know if I’ll stay part of it. But my sweat-soaked tanktop suggests maybe I should.