Many and varied are the reasons people do yoga.
Some do it to stretch the body; some to clear the mind; others to relieve stress. I do it because The Wife tells me to.
The Wife has been going to weekly yoga classes now for nearly a dozen years. She is so good at it she even started doing “power yoga” (something that sounds oxymoronic to me). She has yoga pants in the drawer, yoga mats in the closet, yoga videos in the cabinet.
“Downward-facing dog,” the “Child’s pose,” the “Warrior” – these are all phrases that over the years have come to mean something to me. For instance, when The Wife comes home from yoga class glowing because she successfully maneuvered the “Eagle pose,” I actually know what she is talking about.
I, as well as the children, have spent many an hour over the past 12 years pressing down on her back so she could better perform one yoga maneuver or another.
I’ve come home to see The Wife standing on one leg, on one hand, even on her head. Her flexibility amazes me: She can touch her toes without bending her knees. I’m just happy to touch my knees without bending my toes.
For years The Wife suggested that I take up yoga myself, saying it would do me a world of good: relax me, improve my balance, make me more limber, give me greater self awareness. I always resisted.
First of all, the idea of more self awareness doesn’t do it for me – in fact, it gets me nervous. Secondly, I don’t like sitting cross-legged on the ground, it hurts my knees. And finally, I don’t want to be conscious of my own inhaling and exhaling. Some things I don’t want to have to think about. Like breathing, for instance.
No, yoga was not my thing.
UNTIL THIS month. This month, to the amazement of my kids, I found myself at a three-day yoga retreat in rural Maine. Just me, The Wife, eight total strangers, a yoga master named Surya and a whole lot of very healthy vegan food.
Oh yes, and about 100,000 trees in resplendent fall colors, a bee-loud glade (with apologies to Yeats), and a flock of the quietest sheep I’ve ever come across.
The Wife had a milestone birthday earlier this year, and her idea of a fitting celebration was three days of yoga in the fall foliage, while eating butternut squash and cooked kale.
Who was I to argue? “Why are you here?” Surya asked the first evening, as we all sat crosslegged on the floor around him, a thin purple yoga mat all that separated us from the very hard hardwood floor.
One woman said this was her second time at the retreat, and she looked forward to putting life’s hurly- burly out of mind for a bit. Another volunteered that she liked the balance yoga gave her between body and soul. One man said he thought it sounded like fun.
“I’m here because this is something The Wife wanted to do,” I said with total honesty, eliciting some chuckles. The better line – that next week we were going to a bowling retreat – I kept to myself.
SO THERE we were. Three days in the New England countryside that once inspired the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, bending and stretching, pushing and pulling, meditating, contemplating and becoming aware.
We also weren’t supposed to talk much to our co-retreaters. This was billed as a “silent retreat,” which explains why I had to slip out to the glimmering pond one day just to call the kids.
A friend sent me the following sms: “If you are reading this you are in violation of multiple local ordinances. Please cross your legs and get back to meditating!!!”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” someone else quipped when I explained where The Wife and I were headed for a few days. “Three days sitting in silence on a floor eating porridge with sweet molasses. Oh boy, can I come?” And, indeed, during that first hour-long session I thought I had bought a trip to purgatory.
Not because I could not sit quietly for an hour trying to empty the mind of any thoughts, but because the only sensation I was aware of – and awareness is a big part of yoga – was that throbbing pain in my thighs and back from sitting cross-legged on the floor. I was also keenly aware of how much noise the grumbling of people’s stomachs make. And believe me, you hear a lot of stomach grumbling in a completely silent room with 11 people on a vegan diet.
“Honey, are we in a cult?” I whispered to The Wife that first night.
BUT THEN I got it.
For starters, the vegan food was actually not bad. Tofu, beans, lentils – mix it all together with some spices and it tastes like chuck-steak stew. Plus, we had all the free tea we could drink.
I also mastered that sitting-on-the-floor thing. I started enjoying the stretching and meditating sessions when I realized that if I sat with my back against the wall, but still with legs crossed though supported by yoga blocks and blankets, it was workable. Once I could relieve the thigh pain, it was easier to clear the mind of all that mental noise.
And clearing the mind of all the mental clutter is, indeed, not a bad thing to do. Personally, I’m not from the great relaxers. This might be a Jewish thing, having been warned for years about the pernicious nature of bitul zman, of wasting time on frivolous activities.
Even when relaxing, I’m always thinking I should be doing something else. If I’m watching a football game, I think I should be reading; if I’m reading a newspaper, I think I should be reading a book; if I’m reading a book, I think I should be studying Torah; if I’m studying Torah, I think I should be spending time with the kids, if I’m spending time with the kids, I think I should be washing the floor. And around and around it goes.
But not in Maine; not at Surya’s.
There all I had to do was breathe, eat, stretch, look at the trees, sleep; breathe, eat, stretch, look at the trees and sleep.
Oddly, it reminded me a lot of miluim (army reserve duty); days spent in a small outpost on the Lebanese border, when my time was divided – like at the retreat – into distinct and pre-defined periods of eating, sleeping, and spending hours upon hours of silent time by myself on guard duty looking out into beautiful scenery and thinking about what to think about.
While I didn’t have to pay to do reserve duty, the food – and the accommodations – at the yoga retreat were a lot better. And, of course, in miluim I was not with The Wife, who from now until eternity will owe me big time for stepping so far outside my comfort zone on her behalf.
Here’s to the self-sacrificing husband. Or not. All my sacrifices for The Wife should be as difficult and painful as spending three calm days in an autumn Maine setting lifted directly out of a Robert Frost poem.
By the end, while I may not have connected with my inner self as much as I should have, and while I continued to be bombarded by thoughts of the kids and hamburgers and Iran and my bank account, I did master one position: the “Corpse pose,” where you just lie supine on your back. I call it sleeping.