Ralph Gardner Jr: Yoga 101

Mar 17, 2018

I didn’t choose yoga. Yoga chose me. Or rather my body told me there was no excuse at so youthful an age – I’ll keep my age to myself, thank you – to have legs so stiff that you have to descend the stairs a half step at a time.

Especially when there’s something you can do about it. And friends who have adopted the practice boasted of, if not quite miraculous results, the ability to accomplish everything from sitting upright to skiing down a mountain with an absence of pain.

Indeed, my friend Bruce Shenker was named student of the month at Supersoul Yoga in Chatham, NY. He testified on their website about how reporting diligently to the studio several times a week and assuming the Downward Dog position hasn’t just made him limber again but also helped develop a circle of friends with whom he can have breakfast afterwards.

Also, both my daughters are yoga devotees and Gracie offered to accompany me to an evening class last week, for moral support and to summon an ambulance should things go terribly wrong.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve taken yoga. But the events were so widely spaced over the years that the only benefits were that they provided good stories.

On one occasion I took a class with Colleen Saidman, a celebrity yogini, and a brand ambassador for a California winery, according to the story I subsequently wrote about the experience in the Wall Street Journal.

I don’t recall much about the occasion except feelings of paralyzing self-consciousness.

Another time I joined a Sunday morning yoga class at a friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah in the Hamptons. For some reason the class was populated with Ford models who looked lovely assuming the peaceful warrior pose, though I must confess it distracted me from my own spiritual practice.

Gracie and I attended a 6 p.m. class led by Alec Butterfield at Supersoul’s attractive studio on Main Street in Chatham. Even though it was a weeknight at least a dozen students showed up and listened as Mr. Butterfield discussed mantras and launched into a sound meditation, the rest of us joining his chants, resonant “oms” included, as he accompanied himself, and us, on the harmonium.

My understanding, having subsequently been debriefed by my daughter, is that the goal is to somehow get your body and soul into alignment through the focused application of breath.

Unfortunately, when I do yoga I find myself contemplating just about everything other than the cosmos. For example, and in no particular order, the story or column that might result from the experience, the likelihood I’ll have a heart attack and have to be rushed to the hospital, and the pity my classmates are undoubtedly heaping on me as they watch me wrestle with a monster cramp while they’re happily standing on their heads.

I’m not exaggerating. At one point during the evening I looked over and, priding myself that I no more than a half step behind, discovered that while I remained upright the rest of the class was upside down.

I’m pleased to report that while Gracie couldn’t have been more encouraging – even setting up my mat for me – she wasn’t distracted from her own practice while I floundered around like an arthritic fish.

Mr. Butterfield also couldn’t have been more supportive or encouraging. Indeed, I feared he might be accused of favoritism as he positioned blocks under my hips and a pillow behind my back to abet in my efforts to avoid self-harm.

Gracie tells me that the hardest thing for abject beginners, at least one of them, is learning the poses. When Mr. Butterfield announced “Savasana,” the corpse pose, or “Tadasana,” the mountain pose, everybody gracefully assumed the position.

I, on the other hand, felt like I was always playing catch-up.

My daughter assured me that if I attended regularly, assuming something like the Uttanasana pose – that’s where you bend over so far, stretching hip, hamstrings and calves, that you can touch your toes – would become second nature.

I appreciated her encouragement, though I don’t think I’ve been able to touch my toes since I was eight and doubt I ever will again, whether I become a yogi or not.

Perhaps my favorite point of the evening came when I managed to leave the studio unaided and we walked down Main Street to the Chatham Brewery and shared a pint of one of their tasty offerings.

I’m definitely planning to return. The alternative eventually seems a walker. However, my hunch is that the secret to improving my personal yoga practice is to sign up for classes that cater to individuals even more decrepit than me.

It’s easier to feel good about yourself, and to assuage your brittle ego, when you’re not competing against twenty-four year old yoginis.

I know that’s not the authentic Zen attitude but it would do wonders for my morale, at least in the early going, if I wasn’t the only person in class who required a spotter.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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