by Neal Pollack
Yoga, despite my best intentions, is an activity that I've never done with any regularity. A cranky body mixed with limited flexibility made it easy for me to get discouraged and give up any sort of schedule I'd made for myself. And yet, simple stretching is one of the few exercises that someone with chronic fatigue syndrome can regularly do, so I am trying to get back into some meditative basics. With that in mind, I finally started reading Neal Pollack's Stretch, which had languished in my to-read pile for the better part of a year. Pollack details his yogic journey from skepticism to borderline evangelism with a great sense of humor, and like the best "sport" memoirs do, he makes it interesting to a person who has no idea what asanas are.
Pollack first made a name for himself as one of the writers in the first issue of McSweeney's, as well as the author of the satirical The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature: The Collected Writings of Neal Pollack. He spent much of his time making fun of other, more successful writers, and generally tried to be Mr. Rock n Roll, up until the point the New York Times made fun of him for doing so, calling him an "ordinary humor dork, yet another doughy, 35-ish white man with a goatee and thinning hair."
That was the worst possible thing anyone could have said about me. Oh, boo-hoo, you might think. Poor wittle baby got a bad review in the Times. I know. I know. In context, though, it hurt a lot. I may not have been The Greatest Living American Writer, but I certainly thought I was better than ordinary. Somehow the world had missed the Pollack point. Whether or not I was a doughy 35ish white man, I could still make my mark. Something unordinary had to lie ahead for me. I couldn't bear the idea of living otherwise.
All the grief and anxiety of the past four years poured out of me in a great neurotic wave.
When it was over, I picked my face up out of a viscous puddle of salt water and boogers. I looked up at Regina, sniffling, my eyes lost and pleading.
"What now?" I asked.
"You should do yoga with me," she said.
Though his wife would later lose her dedication to yoga, she remains generally supportive of Pollack's new obsession, with only a few jokes about his new "yoga brain" and about becoming a "yoga widow." Pollack starts only leaving the house to attend Dodger games and attend yoga classes, which make quite the change from his usual haunts of bars and clubs. He finds himself searching for the right kind of practice and right kind of teacher that best suit his personality.
For one thing, Pollack's still a stoner and a bit of pessimist, so anything too touchy-feely, straight edge, or activist has him rolling up his mat and searching elsewhere. Still, he takes the time to talk about the different practices offered by so many different teachers explaining some of the history and terminology of that particular yoga flavor. He tries out everything from the super-hot Bikram to political Jivamukti to his preferred lower-key methods, hatha and ashtanga.
Not every bit of Sanskrit wording is explained, but I liked seeing some of the attempts at English translation, as I have bits of Sanskrit tattooed on my body (including the phrase hatha yoga, which translates to "willful union," and is accompanied by my date of marriage). Mainly, it's because I like the font, but being married to a Buddhist adds significance. Sanskrit has always struck me as an economical, but also lovely and thoughtful language. Pollack is not Buddhist either, but like me, he appreciates and incorporates many of its practices into daily life.
In general, English, a fine language for profanity, political speeches, and broadcasting baseball games, is a poor translation choice for profound lyrical sentiments from ancient texts. To wit: the subtle humiliations of shul, which I attend in the reform tradition because the services are pretty short. When I chant Hebrew prayers, I feel like I'm tapping into an ancient culture of devotion, bonded through ritual to multiple generations of long-forgotten ancestors. When I try the prayers in English, it sounds like I'm reading promotional material from Yahweh, Inc. The same applies to Sanskrit, which says beautifully, in three or four words, that which requires seemingly endless blather in my native tongue.
Perhaps Pollack's biggest success as writer is being able to take one of his obsessions and turn it into something for which he is paid. Before long, publications like Yoga Journal are sending him to cover different events and to interview major players in the yoga world. Not only is he paid, but he gets to travel and reap the benefits of free classes. Pollack fully admits his cheapskate ways, and as a writer with a few obsessions of her own, I think, "That's right, Neal, make no apologies for free swag!"
Principles are easier to stand by when you're no longer wondering how to pay all your bills and still eat.
Stretch is a fun, informative journey to contentment, complete with a side of holistic questions. Yoga, Neal discovers, is not about desiring more "things" in your life — stature, wealth, and the like — but rather finding contentment in the now. It is not about dismissing goals, just reframing them. While death may be inevitable, one must be aware of their life's path, and trust the goodness when it comes. As someone who operates with a near constant sense of impending doom, I have a lot to learn. One cannot control a bad review from a major press, but after the smoke and sobbing have cleared, the next step is nothing but possibility.
Full disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.