Gut Check

He does yoga and he lives healthfully, but Neal Pollack is still coming to terms with his stomach.
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He does yoga and he lives healthfully, but Neal Pollack is still coming to terms with his stomach.

Mike Myers once did a character called "Middle-Aged Man" on Saturday Night Live. Middle-Aged Man had superpowers of sorts, teaching younger people how to do middle-aged man things, like jump-starting cars and fixing cabinets. His theme song went: Caught between forty and fifty-five/Accruing more interest, yet losing his sex drive. In the middle of every skit, he'd shout to someone, "what are you looking at? My gut? Well, I'm working on it!"

I sure found Middle-Aged Man amusing in 1986, when I had the physique of a railway tie and the breath power of a dozen horses. Now, even though the sketches have mostly been lost to the mists of time, I'm finding him more prophetic than anything else. I've reached my own Middle-Aged Man phase, complete with boring advice about how to file your tax receipts.

I also have a gut.

My gut gives me a lot of neuroses. It's not supposed to exist, I think. I practice yoga. And yet there it sits, in all its paunchy glory.

I worry that my gut will flop down and bother me while I'm in a headstand, or that maybe it'll interfere with the form of my Triangle Pose. My gut might damage my twists, I think, or it could bother the rest of the class, popping up over my shirt when I'm bending back in Urdva Dhanurasana. There are times when I'm on the mat that my gut bulges so prominently I feel like I belong in a pre-natal yoga class instead.

But I'm not the first gut-centered practitioner. In fact, few other human activities focus as much on the gut as yoga does. Traditional Ashtanga practice begins with a series of naulis, or gut-churning exercises, designed to get the digestive juices flowing. The first instruction in B.K.S. Iyengar's essential Light On Yoga is that you should clear your bowels before practicing. Many yoga postures, from twists to inversions and beyond, promote and excite strong intestinal health.

And nowhere does it say that, in order to practice yoga, your gut has to be small. You don't hear talk about the "Buddha belly" as something slender; in fact, the Buddha was at his most confused during his 10-year gut-free asetic phase. Ganesh doesn't sit on his throne after eight weeks of Weight Watchers. Take a look at a photo of Patthabi Jois from the 1980s. No one would confuse him with a young Brad Pitt. And yet these are all avatars of yogic health.

My yoga teacher Richard Freeman and I, along with a few other men, were once sitting around talking about our stomachs. Men do that sometimes if yoga has made them temporarily vulnerable to honest conversation.

"My belly is too big," I said.

"No," he said. "You've got a nice happy belly. I'd rather have that than my desperate one."

That was very kind of Richard. He gave me confidence that a thick-framed guy with a bit of a pooch can still practice yoga properly. That doesn't mean you should eat unhealthily, or drink lots of beer, or never exercise. Yoga, if nothing else, is about moderation in all things, not striving to be overweight. But it's also about accepting things as they are, and if you have a gut, then you have a gut. You're hardly the only one. You still belong on the mat.

As for my own gut, well, what are you looking at? I'm working on it!

But not too hard.