By Claire Conway, Lindsey Clennell, published on July 1, 1994 - last reviewed on June 22, 2006
The Big Apple is taking its toll on our new editor—a Californian born and bred. We suggested she find a method of stress-detox. Yoga, it is.
I'm on the bus heading down the West Side for my first yoga session. This is it, the beginning of my journey to inner peace, all-knowingness, release from anxiety—my virtual constant state of being. My editors' theory is that yoga might help me relax and free up all that angst-ridden energy so I can redirect it toward actually enjoying my life. But the day has already gone bad. I awoke to an empty box of coffee filters with no time to jerry-rig a paper-towel replacement.
This is my first bus ride in NYC—I just couldn't take the assault of the subway this morning—and it's infuriating. Granted, I have a seat, but the guy behind me is blowing in my ear and the kid beside me is acting out his twisted fantasy life with Batman figurines. Hey kid, ever eaten an action hero? This bus—this city—is starting to get to me. Come to think of it, I haven't seen blood in my knuckles since I left San Francisco.
I sprint three blocks, knock panting at 8 A.M. sharp, and Lindsey opens the door. I've wasted my breath, this is clearly a guy for whom tardiness is not a problem. He's got white hair past his ears, John Lennon glasses, a kind of intellectual, hip look—Andy Warhol without the gender confusion. Thankfully, there's no trace of crystal on his person, no incense, no books on goddess worship. Hold it, is this guy really into yoga?
The plan is that I will be striking poses, or asanas as they are called in Sanskrit, from 8 A.M. to 10 A.M. for the next 10 days. There are about 100 of these poses or postures, some done while standing, others while sitting, and the rest, upside down. Lindsey thumbs through a book showing pictures of the people doing the postures, while telling me a little yoga history. But I'm distracted by the pages of people contorting their bodies like circus performers. This I know: My body will not bend in these ways. I cannot even touch my toes, for Chrissakes.
He tells me yoga originated in India as part of the Hindu religion and was written up by a guy named Patanjali in the bible of yoga, the Yoga Sutras, some 2,000 years ago. (I guess that predates the New Age Movement, right?) But yoga had been practiced long before Patanjali wrote it down. The actual word means yoke; it's a metaphor for yoking the body to the mind, a kind of unification of body and soul. Lindsey says the principles of yoga—meditation, ethical conduct, physical exercise and breathing—are all directed at perceiving and integrating the different aspects of one's consciousness into a whole. So yoga synthesizes the material self, our bodies, with the emotional self, our feelings, and the intellectual self, our thoughts. And then it takes our integrated selves and links us to the collective consciousness, the cosmos. Connection with the cosmos? Someone please tell me the connection between wrapping your leg around your neck and the cosmos.
He lays the book down and does a shoulder stand. He is upside down, literally standing on his shoulders, with his neck at a 90 degree angle to his body. Is this what I'm working up to, I ask? No, I was supposed to do it right then. I lie on my back, swing my legs into the air, brace my back with my arms and elbows and bang, I'm up. Lindsey keeps yanking my legs even higher into the air. This is hard work—my arms are straining against the weight of my body. But Lindsey is clearly psyched. Apparently I have potential.
I look at my watch: Two hours down. Nine days left to connect with the cosmos.
Claire arrived at my apartment already dressed in shorts and kind of running on the spot. She was thoroughly gripped with the sort of tension that sets into creative people under pressure. I immediately liked her for it and felt relieved. She just might be willing to experience yoga teaching for 10 days at an intensity that would give her more than a superficial understanding of the subject—something more than health and beauty. I told her she must have been Florence Nightingale in a past life to have earned the good fortune to land a job where she actually got paid to have me, a fellow sufferer, teach her yoga. She laughed easily.
She wanted to talk yoga, but I kept the discussion short, avoiding esoterica. Yoga is a practical subject. It gives ethical guidance, improves physical and psychological health, and is a tool for spiritual development. That spiritual development starts with a desire for happiness and harmony. Essential to achieving this is being good to yourself, friendly to others, and strengthening the ability to direct your attention where you want it. Feeling good is an important indication that you're headed in the right direction.
I want Claire to do yoga and feel it rather than think about it. There was a lot to cover.
Today we begin in earnest. I am geared up and confident that I can beat this thing called yoga. After all, I can run seven miles—in a row.
First we just stand there, perfectly balanced, with arms at our sides. This is called the mountain posture. Then he brings his hands to his chest and jumps gracefully into the triangle posture. His feet are four and a half feet apart and turned sideways, his knees are locked stiffly, his right hand is on his right ankle and his left hand is straight in the air. I follow self-consciously. I can't reach my ankle for the life of me, so I settle for my knee. Why is this so painful? I'm just standing, aren't I? And it's so effortless for him. Looking like a lunging Boy Wonder, minus the tights and mask, he tells me my knees aren't locked hard enough, my back is hunched over, and my arms are too bent.
Let's get this straight, minor adjustments these are not. They require constant clenching and concentration. Think of arm wrestling—that's the level of concentration I am talking about. Imagine that same physical and mental intensity simultaneously in your elbows, knees, ankles, neck, and back while in a lunge position, extended knee locked tight and bent knee sustaining your body weight.
But yoga is not about striking the perfect posture, Lindsey points out. There isn't a panel of judges scoring you on form and style. It's the concentration, awareness, and stretching involved in striving for the posture that counts. If you master the ability to direct your attention to different parts of your body, then why not use those skills to set aside emotional chaos and enjoy your life?
Some try to achieve this by running, he tells me while pantomiming a frantic, breathless jogger. (Easy, tiger.) But from the yoga perspective, running is "somewhat crude," he says. It does violence to your body. Plus, running, aerobics, and sports in general are all too achievement oriented, too steeped in calorie burning and pulse lowering, says Lindsey. You may attain great thighs on the StairMaster, but it won't enhance your consciousness.
Aerobic fitness is fine, I tell her. But mindless, repetitive exercise with clanking machines under fluorescent light, or running in circles with zombies in Lycra is a doom-laden and commercialized jock consciousness. She laughs and so do I.
I want her to leave the jogging mind-set behind for a while and concentrate on the subtleties of what I am asking her to do. I want her to learn to focus her awareness without effort and be more conscious of the tension within her body that the postures reveal and release. And when she is faced with mental or physical discomfort, I want her to be able to free herself of it.
And she should also have a feel for what yoga does health-wise. The postures work on a physical level with the muscles and joints, on a physiological level with the internal organs and nervous system. When muscles are relaxed, and the internal organs are working more efficiently, then the nervous system works better and emotional health improves. Properly practiced, yoga postures bring about improved circulation and lymph movement, digestion that is less impaired by stress, and more efficient heart, lung, liver, and kidney function. Different groups of postures stimulate and refresh different organs—twisting postures work on the liver, forward bends affect the kidneys. Through the postures, natural detoxification occurs, the immune system improves, and energy increases.
I learned my lesson yesterday: Never eat before yoga. I decided to limited myself to coffee today, then brushed my teeth. Lindsey thinks coffee causes paranoia. God, I hope he can't smell it on my breath.
So I'm a little sore today. It's to be expected right? It's not that I'm out of shape or anything, I mean I have run three times in the last six months.
I hold the poses a little longer and more precisely today, though I still strain against the tension, which Lindsey reminds me is in fact my own body. What an insight. I am truly fighting my own body, not some diabolical gym machine. He can read me through my face; apparently I look as if I am silently screaming. So he constantly nags me to release my forehead, jaw, and neck and relax into the posture. Relaxing into pain, that's a little sick, isn't it? But I do and somehow the tension subsides. Maybe it's because I am redirecting the energy and strength it took to grimace toward extending my arms, opening my chest, and straightening my legs.
Lindsey has a problem with my posture. Years of bunching over keyboards while sitting in rickety office chairs have left me with the posture of a 70-year-old. He believes my chronically slouched shoulders are a reaction to inner tension and stress that is so ingrained in me that I'm not even conscious of it. By doing exercises that will push my shoulders out and straighten my back, Lindsey ensures that I would be working toward freeing myself of that tension physically and emotionally. He sees it as an alternative to psychotherapy.
He gave me the exercises, but it took me days to learn how to maneuver my back in the right way to achieve them. Obviously my body just naturally crumples into this haggard posture. But somehow, Lindsey taught me to access muscles I didn't know I had by articulating the movements with strange clarity. Somehow, when he asks me to drop my shoulders, leaving a space between my shoulder blades, or to move the skin of my sternum toward the ceiling, I can find the sensation and extend my body still further. You can't help but develop a sort of body intelligence, as Lindsey puts it, by doing yoga. With my mind consumed with fine-tuning my movements, there is little room left for the anxieties that had plagued me only hours before.
By this time I knew that Claire was very focused and learned fast. I wondered how she would react if I pointed out that she had a body-posture problem with her upper back and shoulders. I took a couple of polaroids to make the point and they were far from flattering. But despite the horror of confronting her imperfection, Claire got more interested. I did not really want to get into yoga therapeutics, this was a Psychology Today deal and the ancient yoga practice of exercising the body as a way of developing the mind was at the top of the list.
But we worked on her body posture anyway. As a runner, she needed a lot of space for her heart and lungs and not the compressed rib cage she was creating with her upper back posture. I knew she would realize the benefits of more lung space. Or maybe not; sometimes even knowledgeable people do not connect with the most basic workings of their own body. So I continued to work on the idea that her body posture was something she did, rather than something that happened to her. I gave her extra exercises that would familiarize her with the correct way of holding her upper back and release the tensions that were keeping it rigid. I did not want to push her too hard, because body posture can be heavy emotional stuff, but she was not phased at all.
Tension consumes a lot of energy makes us feel tired and freaked out. It can be an expression of some sort of trauma that you subconsciously carry with you, clenching your spine in a certain way. But it's not fused forever. You can get at it by doing poses that require relaxation, educating the back to surrender to the natural shape of the body, as opposed to the unconscious tension. When the tension is freed, so are the attitudes that created it. But it's a subtle change, not some sort of instant release.
Claire was getting the idea and starting to let go. She surprised me by picking up on the new movements quickly. My gamble of going into the deep end with her looked as though it might work out. I hoped so.
Lindsey opened the door to my rain-soaked body and ever-bulging briefcase this morning. Apparently the work angst that I had left behind the day before had found its way back into my head. Thankfully, he suggested we devote the day to recuperative postures, breathing—pranayama in Sanskrit—and relaxation.
I glance into Lindsey's dining room and notice the chairs have been cleared from the table. I'm feeling a little queasy. Next thing I know, I'm sprawled over the table, with my torso dangling toward the floor. The weight of my legs is keeping me securely anchored to the table; I find this very disheartening at first. But, all in all, for the 10 minutes I was up there, I was completely relaxed and oddly energized.
After reluctantly climbing down from the table, I did some back arches over chairs and footstools, with my stomach in the air. I have to confess, these positions were more nauseating than relaxing.
Finally, he talked me through a relaxation session, while I lay on the floor, with a holster comfortably lodged beneath my back. He told me to inhale, and then exhale slowly, taking twice as long. I was to concentrate only on gravity and the feeling of my skin touching the ground. Just as I felt totally relaxed, I realized I was still taut in some part of my body and relaxed even more. Finally, as I imagined my temples drooping toward the floor, a deep sense of calm enveloped me. I wondered, had I ever truly been relaxed before? Perhaps the sensation I felt after a long run isn't relaxation at all, but exhaustion from beating my body into submission.
I gave Claire an overview of the differing psychological effects of the various postures. Standing postures create emotional stability; forward-bending postures are calming; back bends elevate mood; and inverted postures (shoulder stands and headstands) give more energy and a sense of well-being.
When people start yoga and do a series of different postures, they usually feel much more relaxed after it and less anxious. If they go on to practice the postures and breathing/meditation exercises regularly they will experience profound changes in their stamina, energy level, concentration, and psychological well-being. I suggested that Claire might notice some changes over the next few days. She was open minded, but a little skeptical. Her version of well being was coffee and an aspirin sandwich.
Lindsey did a fast-forward version of his usual two-hour yoga session for me this morning. The postures I'm lucky to strike for 30 seconds he holds for two minutes. And then he escalates to handstands and headstands that require enormous body strength, balance, and flexibility. By sheer concentration he can will his elbows to extend an inch or so past their normal range.
So that's the physical part; what's in it for him mentally? In the 20 years he's been doing yoga, he's become less fragmented, he says. Hold it, 20 years, did he start when he was 20? No, 32. This man is 52. He looks about 45, and his wife, Bobby, looks 37; she' s 51—reason enough to give it a shot.
He says he's better able to concentrate and fend off anxiety and anger since he took it up. Because, he says, to achieve these postures, you have to clear your head of nagging thoughts and learn to direct your attention to isolated areas of your body. So, if he's feeling an edge from jet lag—he's a filmmaker and flies all over the world—or work anxiety, he will whip himself into a back arch or a headstand, whether at home or in a Third World hotel room. And when he senses an impending creative burnout, he doesn't grope for a double espresso—he just breathes deeply to contain his scattered thoughts.
You know what I like about this guy? He's living in my world; he's capable of that strategic elbow required to nab a seat on the morning subway. And he too flinches in self-consciousness when talking about "connecting with the cosmos." These words were written thousands of years ago and translated from an ancient language, but they're all we have, he tells me.
It's easy to be put off by the orange robes and shaved heads of people who claim to be "into" yoga, he confides. But what counts is the discipline. Without it, the rest is affectation.
Claire asked me to put yoga into a personal context; not so easy. Bobby and I have been together since 1964, brought up two sons, staked out careers and still managed to explore yoga thoroughly for the last 20 years. And in that time we've been to India a dozen times to train with our teacher, Iyengar, a yoga master.
So we've given yoga a road test and I made an enormous difference in the of our lives, practically and spiritually. Bobby is an artist/animator, a profession knee-deep in concentration that yoga has helped her hone. Making music videos, commercials, and documentaries also demands focus, but tolerance and calm as well—especially when working with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Mother Teresa, and Mikhail Gorbachev. Sometimes I flew first class on these ventures, sometimes I rode the bus, but all the time, I did yoga to smooth the journey.
I don't think life is a roller coaster designed by God to give everyone a hard time. It just looks that way when you are convulsed by terror. It is easy to forget yourself and what you can do. Yoga gives me that perspective. But it's a subjective art. Practice it for a while and explore nature, intelligence, consciousness, liberation, and yourself. And start with the standing poses.
I left Lindsey's apartment for the last time this morning, with a sigh of relief and a sense of envy. Yoga, my ticket to inner peace, unencumbered by anxiety, has ratcheted up the stress factors in my life a few notches. You see I've rolled into work around 11 A.M. for two weeks now, so my work load has spun out of control. In fact, a stack of journals to read, stories to write, and copy to edit now teeter precariously on my desk. But before I can get to it each morning, I have to write about my yoga instruction, asking myself what I have achieved today, picking it apart analytically and self consciously. This is no way to treat yoga, I think to myself as I picture Lindsey doing a handstand at dawn, calm to the very marrow of his being on the 14th floor of a Manhattan apartment building.
Suddenly I become conscious of my office mates peering at me and my towering stack through the corners of their eyes, just waiting for me to crumble beneath my work load. But I haven't lost it yet. The stress is there, don't get me wrong. But instead of refilling my cup of black coffee and hyperventilating, I take slow, deep breaths and focus on my computer screen, which was terrifyingly blank just moments ago.