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Yoga Kicked My Butt

Intrepid adventure writer Tim Cahill journeys into the wilds of yoga, and barely escapes enlightenment.

By Tim Cahill

As a professional writer, I prefer the opposite strategy, in which the publisher pays you. Enlightenment, my reading has suggested, is an exceedingly poor career path for a writer.

Oh, I knew bliss and enlightenment weren't often achieved. It said as much in each of the books I read. One strives toward the light. Okay, I'd buy that, sure, but what if I turned out to be one of those guys who just happens to "get it" straightaway? What if I was an anomaly? I'd crank out a few asanas, sit cross-legged, thinking-but-not-thinking, and all of a sudden, flash-bang, I'd see it all: the meaning of life, my own connection to the cosmos, and the blinding curve of energy that is the pulsing soul of universal consciousness itself. At that moment I'd know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I was completely and irrevocably screwed.

Enlightened people are dead meat in the publishing industry. I'd lose my jobs, such as they are. My mortgage would go unpaid, my wife would leave me, and I'd wander the earth in ragged clothes, informing the less spiritually fortunate of a consciousness above and beyond their ken. Perhaps those people might give me a few coins with which I could buy a scrap of bread. This is to say that, in my mind, enlightenment and homelessness are synonymous situations.

So I called Todd Jones back at Yoga Journal and said I'd take the assignment, but I intended to resist enlightenment. And if, through some cruel trick of fate, I did become enlightened, I was going to go out there to Berkeley, California, and kick his ass.

Downward-Facing Dog Ripped My Flesh

I had feared, on the whole, that yoga might be too light a workout for me: a bunch of sissy stuff about standing on one leg for a couple of breaths. I typically run (well, plod) two miles a day, occasionally lift weights, and stretch assiduously. I had called Todd before I left and asked if he couldn't get me into a retreat teaching one of the more sweaty disciplines, some kind of Power Yoga.

"If I put you, as an absolute beginner, into a weeklong workshop with a bunch of seasoned Ashtangis," Todd said mildly, "you really would kick my ass."

He was right about that. I was able to do many of the asanas, but it had never occurred to me that once I attained a position, I had to keep working through it. And it never got any easier. If I did it right, I was always working at the very edge of what I could do. In a typical four-hour day, I always felt I'd gotten a pretty good physical workout. Todd was right; I didn't need Ashtanga to get my ass kicked.

The instructors had diametrically opposed styles of teaching. John Schumacher was all about precision. I was amazed that he could stand there, tell me exactly what I was feeling, and then suggest a certain shift of balance that made the asana more steady, more exact, more difficult but somehow more comfortable. The right way felt right. The wrong way did not.

Barbara Benagh, on the other hand, tended to use visualization. You'd be sitting cross-legged, imagining roots sprouting out your butt—or some such—and then she'd have you twist just so, move the other arm, extend the right leg, and suddenly you were up in a complex position you never imagined you could do.

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