Sunday, August 21, 2011

However You Can Get It

The 75-year old man at the start of the race was slim and fit. This was his 12th 5K this summer and only my second in a year.  He was the third person that week unsolicited to tell me how important yoga was for the body. "As you get older, stretch more and run less," he said.

When I checked out his finishing time after the race, I was convinced that someone was trying to leave me a message and that I should try out yoga on a more regular basis. When I reach 75, I hope I can run 8 minute/miles like he did.

My gym (which is not fancy, basically a local Y) offers a regular schedule of yoga classes.  I never really had an interest in attending, though. It's not that I haven't taken a few classes before, it's just that I'm not into the whole "religious" experience side of it.

"Breathe in, breathe out. Feel as if all your worldly weight is lifting out of the top of your head as you stretch forward with your arms but leave your shoulders behind." Then at the end of class, they all look around at each other and wish everyone, "Namaste".

I don't know what "namaste" really means. But if it translates into: "your callused feet that you shoved near my face during that last stretch were so nasty, don't ever come near me again," then maybe I'll say it.

Also, the whole stretching and breathing thing is hard for me to coordinate. I know it's important to breathe and I seem to do it unconsciously everyday, I just can't focus on both things at once. Especially, when there are a bunch of limber women on their stomachs who can bring the soles of their feet to the tops of their heads. Who wants to put dry, cracked skin feet onto their heads?

I'm no gymnast or contortionist. I find these women intimidating. I know they are trying to show off and prove my stretchable inadequacy, so I don't like being around them. Fortunately, my gym now offers a class called Yoga for Men. It is described as a simple approach with a focus on muscle stretching and relaxation, period. No mention of getting in touch with your inner self and tickling your ears with your toes. And it's just for men.

The class is taught my a male instructor who I actually know, so I knew if I had some questions I wouldn't be afraid to ask. Like, is it safe to do the downward facing dog in an all-male class?

Remind me not to complain about being in a class attended predominantly by women ever again. It seems Yoga for Men is an invitation for a every geriatric and overweight guy in the gym to show up in their cargo shorts, short-sleeved buttoned shirts, and tennis sneakers. Absolutely uninspiring.

It's when they pulled out the layers of mats, foam blocks and pillows from the supply closet that I grew more passionless. I watched them surround themselves with these materials as if they were building a nest. We were either going to have an all-male Lamaze class or it was going to be nap time.

But not wanting to be the odd man out, I followed suit. I fashioned my cocoon like the other idiots and waited for Dan, the male instructor to show up.

It seems Dan forgot to tell us he wouldn't be teaching the class that weekend so for 20 minutes the 9 of us sat in the room quietly, each unsure of what to do.

Finally, I sat up and said out loud, "Doesn't look like there's class. I'm packing it in." The others nodded but continued to sit there, bewildered. Perhaps, they didn't know what to do next. Or maybe they just didn't to shuffle along the hallways until their wives collected them up at the top of the hour.

As I started putting my stuff back in the closet, a cheerful voice entered the room."Hello, guys. Sorry I'm late. I just found out I was supposed to be subbing for Dan. Oops."

It was Tami, the hottest instructor at the gym. She walked in with her fire engine red yoga mat rolled up under her arm, her form-fitting black leotard that enveloped her sleek yet shapely body, her golden brown kinky locks that rested just above her shoulders, and her Ugg boots which reached just below her knees. Who cared that it was still summer and she was wearing winter boots? She was smoking!

There was an unanimous response from the room: "That's okay, Tami."

I quickly pulled out my mat, pillow, and foam block and reclaimed my spot on the floor. I wasn't going to miss a second of this. I nodded knowingly to the gentleman next to me, who took off his fishing cap and swatted down his comb over.

"Okay, let's start with some deep breathing," she said.

Breathing? Really? She spoke quietly and slowly. Like a snake charmer she entranced me. "Take deep, long, throaty breaths. Push them in and out. Force it. I want to hear your male power roar through the air." Do you know what it's like to be in a room with older men breathing that hard and trying to push air out of their mouths? It's like they were all trying to take a massive crap.

"Pull the energy out from below and turn it into expelled air. Imagine reaching down to your sex organs and thrusting the air up from that area. Release." Yes, Tami actually said 'sex organs' in the all-male class. I never knew how important breathing could be.

If she had stopped with that exercise it would've been good enough for me, but she continued. She had us perform some of the basic poses. Not that I'm anywhere near an example of what the proper pose should look like, I was light years ahead of my classmates. While I can balance on one foot and even bend my legs in a certain direction, the other guys looked like toddlers just learning to walk. They wobbled uncontrollably off their mats catching themselves before any serious collisions could occur. I wouldn't say they bending to reach their toes, but they did sort of lean forward and point to where there toes were supposed to be.

Tami had the utmost patience throughout all of this. She walked the room, observing and guiding the men as to what they were supposed to do. She rubbed their backs with an "atta boy" encouragement pat and whispered something into their ears.

That's when I realized I had it all wrong. Instead of trying to do the pose correctly, I started acting like the other guys. During the downward dog, I made sure I couldn't arch my back and thrust my butt into the air. Instead of holding an almost 90 degree angle at the hip, I kept it flat.

Tami knew I could do better. I was a bad boy. She stood behind me and reached both hands around my hips and pulled up. My butt pressed into her stomach as she gripped me. "Keep it firm," she said. "Suck in the stomach muscles." Oh, it was going to get firm I thought. Then she leaned forward near my ear and whispered: "Is that comfortable?" I nodded vigorously and received a pat on the back. I had made her happy.

Unfortunately, the next time I took the class. Dan actually showed up. You could see the look of quiet disappointment amongst the other members. Interestingly, the class seemed to have grown in size from the previous week. I guess word-of-mouth works at any age.

And while most of these guys have 20 years on me, at least we all understood the value of yoga and were willing to keep it at it. Perhaps Dan would mysteriously fall ill and need a replacement some time in the near future. Until then, I now had an answer to my question: Yes, it is safe to perform the downward dog in an all-male class.