Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi
My Humble Quest to Heal My Colitis, Calm My ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness
By Brian Leaf
New World Library Copyright © 2012 Brian Leaf
All rights reserved.
I didn't plan on getting so involved with yoga; I sort of stumbled into it.
When I was a senior in high school, my brother, Larry, was attending the University of Virginia. The school is very large, so it can offer all sorts of fun electives, and there are enough students to fill even the most peculiar classes. During his first semester, Larry took kung fu and riflery, and in the second semester he took skeet shooting and a class that helped train him to run a marathon. After the marathon, Larry's nipples were so chafed from rubbing against his sweaty shirt that he had to wear a Band-Aid on each side for a week.
Larry's kung fu and riflery classes had us joking that he was covertly training for the CIA, but after the Band-Aids, as well as a miniature golf elective, we dropped the joke. We couldn't see James Bond needing Band-Aids to protect nipple boo-boos.
So at the end of my senior year of high school, sitting on my toy soldier–themed comforter, I was preregistering for my Georgetown classes, and I wanted to round out my humanities and business courses with something similar to what Larry had taken at UVA. Georgetown is a smaller school, so fewer courses are offered. I was choosing between jazz dance, squash, step aerobics, and yoga. I selected yoga as the most exotic choice.
Five months later, on day one of yoga class, I'm sitting on a long bench outside a classroom in Georgetown's Yates athletic building waiting for the teacher to show up. This is 1989, so as you visualize this scene, incorporate lots of very tight spandex, neon sweatbands, leg warmers, and feathered hair. It will also help if you include a few Members Only jackets and a pair of acid-washed jeans, and perhaps hum Bon Jovi's "I'll Be There for You" or Madonna's "Like a Prayer" as a quiet sound track.
I'm waiting on the bench as woman after woman shows up. We've got freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and grad students, and they're all women. No other men. At all. I am brand-new to yoga, so I have no idea what's going on. I am seventeen years old and surrounded by thirty-one women, all wearing tight spandex. You'd think I'd feel great about this ratio, but, frankly, I'm terrified. I wonder if I am mistakenly sitting outside a woman's gathering of some sort. Perhaps "Menstruation and You" or "A Woman's Guide to Dating at Georgetown," or, worst-case scenario, "Aquatic Jazzercise."
Why were there no other men on the bench outside that yoga class? Answer: this was 1989, before many guys did yoga. Men can now hug and cry and do yoga and drink white wine and wear an apron and cook free-range chicken picatta. But in 1989 we were pretty much hemmed in between Al Bundy and Magnum P.I. — limited to watching televised sports, eating large pieces of meat, and drinking cheap beer stored in a small fridge next to the couch.
Even with the skewed demographic on the wooden benches, before long I knew I was indeed in the right place, waiting for a yoga class, because soon the yoga teacher showed up. And he was unmistakably the yoga teacher. Either that, or he was from the drama department and had come straight from Georgetown's production of The Ten Commandments.
Oskar even looked Indian to me (though I later found out that he was Peruvian). He had a big Alan-from-The-Hangover beard, his clothes were all white, and he was wearing leather sandals. These days, stockbrokers, accountants, and off-duty construction workers proudly wear Birkenstocks, but back then leather sandals on a man sent a very specific message, a message like, "This man and these feet are free, as God made them. And this man thinks about foot health. And he likes to close his eyes and smile placidly as he breathes deeply in the fresh air. And he does not own a TV and certainly has not seen Michael Jordan's Nike commercials."
* * *
Right before that first yoga class I had been at the Georgetown University debate team building. I had not been recruited to Georgetown for debate, and I had not even contacted the coach; I was planning to be a walk-on to the team. But first I showed up anonymously to check it out. Really, I think I just wanted to make a dramatic entrance when I finally announced to the coach and to the team my true identity as debate royalty (being debate champ of New Jersey is like being ice-dancing champ of Russia).
But, during my anonymous tour of the place, I was appalled. One of the debaters, who resembled Draco Malfoy in every way, showed me around and informed me, "No one walks onto the Georgetown debate team." Then I sat with Coach Snape and learned that debate team at Georgetown was a full-time gig and that the people I met, including Severus and Draco, would be my new family.
Here's a transcript of my thoughts as I left the meeting to rush off to my first yoga class:
"I was debate champ of New Jersey, for sobbing out loud. I have to join."
"But I don't want to."
"You have to. There are expectations. And you're very good at it. "
Enter Oskar in his sandals, beard, and all whites.
Yoga class began with the prayer of St. Francis, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love" and ended with "Let there be peace on Earth. Let peace begin with me. Let there be peace on Earth, the peace that was meant to be."
I imagine that these blessings were part of Georgetown's compromise with Oskar in allowing him to teach yoga at a Jesuit school. For most of my yoga classmates, these prayers probably evoked thoughts of Easter bonnets and dusty church pews. But I had grown up Jewish and had never heard them before (I imagined they were straight from the Bhagavad Gita), so I heard them with fresh ears, and they, along with the yoga warm-ups, poses, and guided relaxation, awoke something in me. After forty minutes of breathing deeply and bending myself in all manner of new ways, I felt more relaxed and at ease than I could remember.
I felt like I was in exactly the right place. I had been faking it as a debater. Debate was work, and while I enjoyed the praise I received after winning, I had never enjoyed the actual debating. I don't even like to argue.
Oskar's yoga class touched the right chord and made my soul sing. I had signed up for yoga on a lark, but even in that first class, I knew what I had found.
Lying in relaxation pose at the end of class, I realized:
"This feels good."
"I'm going to be doing this a lot."
"Wow, I am not going to join the debate team."
This was a telling moment of insight that describes how I have attempted to make decisions ever since. I seek not to decide but to relax and calm my mind enough to simply realize and feel the correct path before me. I know that this places me dangerously close to the decision-making behavior of an invertebrate, or even of George W. Bush, but I will clear that up later on.
I became a yoga zealot pretty quickly. I loved feeling, for the first time, the muscles between my ribs as I stretched in setu bandhasana (bridge pose). I loved the prayers — this was the first time I had taken seriously a charge to effect world peace — and I loved the relaxation. Oskar's deep, euphonic voice soothed every muscle in my body, and when he said "relaaaax," I melted.
One day after class I told Oskar about my colitis. He recommended that I practice "[insert deep, relaxing voice] moooola bannnda" sixty times a day. He explained, "Tense ouup and then relaaaax your anouuuse" thirty times every morning and thirty times every night.
Say again? Oskar had a pretty thick accent, and I was sure that I must have misheard him. He could not possibly have told me to tense and then relax my anus sixty times a day.
In fact, I doubt that I had ever, in my eighteen years, heard anyone speak about my anus at all before. Sure, I had heard the word used, but not in the context of my anus and certainly not by a bearded and sandaled yoga teacher dressed all in white.
Pursing my lips, squinting slightly, and bobbing my head like I was earnestly considering his wise counsel, I thanked him politely as I backed away. For days I shook my head and puzzled at what in the world he possibly could have said that sounded so much like anus.
All life is an experiment.
The more experiments you make the better.
— RALPH WALDO EMERSON, journal, November 11, 1842
I wanted to practice and study yoga as much as possible, so I incorporated it into my Georgetown classes in every way that I could. For philosophy class, I wrote a paper entitled "Was Plato the Founder of Yoga?" (Unlike many modern philosophers, let's say, for example, Woody Allen, Plato believed that a sound mind requires a sound body, and in fact, the word Plato means "broad shoulders.") And for Catholic imagination class I wrote "Did Jesus Do Yoga?" (By the way, believe it or not, he did. Maybe. There is some pretty good evidence that sometime during his "lost years," between the ages of twelve and thirty, Jesus might just possibly have journeyed to India and Tibet and intensively studied yoga and Buddhism.)
Sophomore year of college I moved with a bunch of friends into a house way off campus. To avoid the extra round-trips to school, I took a semester off from Oskar's yoga at Yates and found a class right around the corner from my house. This class offered a different style of yoga, called Iyengar. Until then I had not imagined that there could be different schools of yoga. I thought, "Yoga is yoga, like basketball is basketball."
But I learned that Oskar taught a type of Sivananda yoga. A Sivananda yoga class includes a bit of everything: chant, breathing exercises, meditation, poses, relaxation. And if Sivananda yoga is the five-course meal, or even the buffet table of yoga, then Iyengar yoga is the curmudgeonly dietician who demands that you sit up straight while you chew.
My Iyengar yoga class met in a junior high school gymnasium. We were supposed to bring a towel to practice on, but a towel offered little padding, and I usually forgot mine anyway, so I'd wind up practicing right on the hardwood floor. This was 1990, before the popularity of the now-ubiquitous "sticky mat" that you can purchase at Whole Foods, Target, and any gas station. (Okay, maybe not the gas station, but I think they're headed there soon, along with the full line of Prana yoga wear.)
Beyond the superficial discomfort of elbows and knees on the cold gym floor and the resulting flashbacks of elementary school dodgeball humiliations, I enjoyed the class. I missed the relaxed flow of yoga postures and the overt spirituality of Oskar's yoga classes, but I appreciated the Iyengar teacher's detailed instructions for the proper alignment in each posture.
That year, I also began practicing a bit of yoga every day on my own, even when I went home to New Jersey on school breaks. (Though, in New Jersey, when someone goes into a room by himself to "meditate" and emerges thirty minutes later looking glassy-eyed and refreshed, there is all sorts of elbowing and winking, "Yes, he's been meditating, if you know what I mean, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.")
To connect with other yogis, I started subscribing to Yoga Journal magazine and visiting yoga centers in Washington, DC. I even sent away for a giant laminated poster of Dharma Mittra, demonstrating 908 postures. It's fair to say that if there had been a yoga chess set in pewter, I'd have had two. I was a full-scale yoga buff.
It was also that year that my colitis flared up again. My doctor had told me that colitis comes back at intervals and that everyone has their own period of return. It looked like mine was two years. I was devastated and flew home to New Jersey to see my doctor, get violated by three feet of rubber tubing, and start treatment.
After a very long weekend, I returned to Georgetown armed with a pharmacy bottle of sulfasalazine pills and several six-packs of Rowasa enemas. I think I can speak definitively for all nineteen-year-old boys when I say that amid the busy schedule of studying, partying, and attempting to meet women, I had no wish to steal away into a dorm bathroom and issue myself an enema. I was no fonder of colitis, however, and so I did it several times daily, feeling quite deflated and sullied each time.
Over the next three weeks, my symptoms persisted, even with the treatment. I began again to lose weight and become lethargic. Two years earlier Dr. Brenner had told me that when the symptoms returned they might be more difficult to control. He had even mentioned the possibility of surgery and a colostomy bag. I was sad and scared.
The doctor had also told me that the medicine would make me temporarily sterile, but that I could go off it later in life when I wanted to have children. Even at age nineteen, when I felt as close to having children as to retiring, this side effect disturbed me. Something that made me temporarily sterile seemed a pretty harsh substance to put into my body.
As fate would have it, though, I needed the meds for only a little longer, because the following week something unexpected and somewhat miraculous happened.
One evening in October 1990, I noticed that my symptoms were worse on days that I had skipped yoga. And I wondered, therefore, if doing more yoga would lessen the symptoms. For me, this was a giant leap. I had never heard of a mind-body connection. I had no clue that the choices I made could affect my health. I know that sounds crazy, but I was that ignorant.
Once I made the connection, I decided to medicate my condition with yoga. I self-medicated with four sun salutations, followed by ten minutes of deep relaxation, five times a day.
Taking these twenty-minute yoga breaks five times every day was a huge time investment. But it felt like the right thing to do.
I was a man on a mission. I was Rocky in Rocky IV.
And my effort proved worthwhile.
Because three days later my symptoms were gone.
No losing weight and becoming lethargic. No medicine that made me sterile. No colostomy bag.
I was elated.
* * *
It actually makes perfect sense that yoga would help colitis. Sun salutations involve a repeated sequence of forward- and backward-bending yoga postures. These poses stretch, relax, and massage the muscles and organs in the abdomen and stimulate circulation and energy flow — all of which increases oxygen levels and improves cellular waste removal.
Furthermore, colitis is an ulcer in the colon, and like any ulcer it is affected by and possibly even caused by stress. Exercise, and especially gentle exercise paired with deep, relaxed breathing, triggers a parasympathetic nervous response (referred to as a "relaxation response") that helps relieve the stress. Many people, like me in 1990, spend all day in a sympathetic nervous state (a fight-or-flight stress response), and yoga literally resets the body's stress switch from stress response to relaxation response.
Yoga also helped me gain awareness of my body and my belly so that I could notice when I was tensing up and then release and relax those muscles. In addition, yoga taught me to stand straight rather than slouched over. I used to stand like Bull in Night Court. Perhaps I didn't want others to feel small, or maybe I was just trying to hear my girlfriend, who measured in at a grand total of four-foot-eleven.
Better posture is good for the organs. Picture your colon or liver working hard but being squished in an awkward position between your hipbone and ribs as you slouch over a computer. Now picture your organs resting freely in your body. Uncramped, they have better circulation and are better able do their jobs. Indeed, improving posture to uncramp the lungs is the first thing singers are taught: "If you want to project your voice you need bigger lungs, so stand up straight."
You can try this right now. Slouch and try to breathe a slow, deep breath. Then do the same thing while sitting up straight. In fact, a full, relaxed breath, impossible while slouched, actually triggers a relaxation response.
Ten minutes of deep relaxation five times a day would change anyone's life, whether or not he or she suffered from colitis. Imagine how relaxed and focused we'd all be, all that tiredness and irritability gone. I think we'd see the end of all war and hostility, a full-scale Age of Aquarius, if we all rested for ten minutes every three hours. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi by Brian Leaf. Copyright © 2012 Brian Leaf. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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