Reprinted from the January edition of PineStraw magazine
Two winters ago, while visiting for the holidays, my daughter, Maggie, made a point of asking me to get her up at the crack of dawn so she could go off to hot yoga class.
At that time I’d only vaguely heard the phrase “hot yoga class” around town. It conjured a charming picture in my mind of thoughtful people concerned about declining yak populations and freeing Tibet and other such noble enterprises, sitting peacefully après group meditation in a peace circle on a warehouse floor or a redwood log in the forest, drinking organic hot cocoa or maybe green tea, sharing cleansing quiet.
Then again, I’m a 60-year-old broken-down golfer with a dodgy right knee from football donkey years ago who still limps around the golf course carrying his own bag for exercise and sometimes, weather permitting, walks to work.
“Happy to get you up,” I said. “Hot yoga sounds like fun, especially if they give you hot cocoa.”
She stared at me incredulously, as if I’d made an impolite yak mating noise. “Dad, they don’t give you hot cocoa. And I wouldn’t exactly call hot yoga fun, though it is fabulous. I’m totally addicted to it — go twice a week back in New York. It’s what keeps me sane.”
“No hot cocoa?”
“No. But you really should try it. Seriously. The stretching alone would be great for that old athlete’s body of yours. You’ll feel so wonderful after you finish a session. And the place I’m going to here is such a beautiful space. They play gorgeous meditation music and place lavender-scented cloth on your head and massage your neck with relaxing oils at the end.”
“Sounds great,” I agreed. “I guess I can always buy my own hot cocoa afterward.”
“So you’ll go?”
“Wonderful. You’ll thank me!”
But, alas, I didn’t go. Over the next year, in the interest of exercising more and improving my health, I limped around the golf course a little more than usual and steadfastly avoided setting foot in the Taj Mahal of a health club where we belonged, simply because the multitudes of people exercising there — especially the old ones — were so frightening in their dedication to physical fitness.
They wore headphones and huffed along on computerized treadmills and other machines that required a basic engineering degree to operate until they looked half-dead, at which point they mopped their brows and sauntered past flabby sometimers like me wearing a look of pure Teutonic smugness. And this was just the old ladies!
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, when I blew out my right knee from idiotically stepping on a kicking tee while playing football, nobody except guys who pissed off the coach by sitting on their helmets during games or lonely aces who couldn’t get a date if their own sisters invited them out went to the gym to actually exercise. The gymnasium wasn’t at all cool except with bodybuilder types who shaved their armpits and actually dated their sisters.
In the ’80s, I played a great deal of pick-up basketball with college dudes 10 years my junior, plus shortstop on two different fast-pitch softball teams. I also hiked in the mountains and ran a couple of 10K road races with a crazy girlfriend who ate tofu by the crate and planned to live forever. Trying to keep up with a skinny girlfriend with the approximate body fat of a Serengeti cheetah, I learned, is no fun at all. She literally left me somewhere around mile five and that was that — for romance and road racing.
In the ’90s, I built my own house on a hilltop in coastal Maine, rebuilt old stone walls, planted stuff, chopped and stacked wood endlessly, and shoveled more snow than one man should probably have to shovel unless he’s in a Soviet gulag in Siberia.
I walked a golf course twice a week and even joined my first gym, which I belonged to for about three weeks, until I realized the people reading “The Bridges of Madison County” on the Stairmaster machine and taking their own pulses actually liked going to the gym. Also, I didn’t like being naked with strangers who loved to admire their toned bodies in full-length mirrors. Had the strangers been female, well, that might have been a different story.
Anyway, flash ahead 20 years — lots of chopping and walking and working like a convict in a garden, keeping me more or less in what I called “farmer shape” — to the winter day I finally took my daughter’s advice and showed up at the yoga studio for something called “Warm Flow Yoga.”
I was the first to arrive for class on the appointed Saturday morning and discovered the instructor was an attractive young gal named Lisa, who was so charming and blessedly fit, I was tempted to turn and bolt for the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.
Lisa quickly put my qualms to rest, placed me on a rented yoga mat, and explained that the purpose of yoga is to achieve a proper balance between the body and the spirit through various timeless meditational poses meant to exercise the body and liberate the dude within.
Being a yoga rookie, I was advised to watch others as they performed the various traditional asanas (postures) and warm-ups and to “listen to my body” by doing only what I felt my old body could handle.
“There’s no right or wrong here,” she emphasized. “Yoga is a learning process, you must do at your own speed.”
Seven women and one guy joined the class and immediately began stretching out. I started stretching out too, pretending I knew what I was doing, which I didn’t, but rather liked doing anyway, greatly enjoyed in fact, especially watching all these fit middle-aged women in skimpy outfits warming up all around me in the candle-lit room with serene flute music coming from a Tibetan mountaintop.
I vaguely wondered if this might be why they call it “hot yoga,” but then the class started and all such worldly distractions disappeared as Lisa led the class though a host of flowing postures and breathing exercises meant to still the monkey in the mind, to free our spirits from past and present concerns, to find peace and sacredness of the moment, the simple act of being.
Truthfully, Warm Yoga nearly killed me at several points, especially when my dodgy right knee refused to cooperate on a difficult one-legged pose. But somehow, with Lisa’s gentle guidance, I even got through most of the challenging poses. By the time I was lying flat on my back during the final recovery period, breathing deeply and covered with sweat and relaxed as a steamed lasagna noodle, I truly realized why Maggie and 30 million other Americans find this ancient form of exercise so completely and utterly beguiling.
I’d completely forgotten about that final glorious touch — a soothing cool cloth smelling like my old lavender garden back in Maine, placed over the eyes. For a few lovely moments I was back in my old Maine garden, and in a bit of heaven.
I left the studio feeling like a new man with an old body that was eager to return as soon as possible. With or without the hot cocoa at the end.