Archive for the 'Exercise' Category

Seventeen women and me

We hosted a yoga retreat at my house last weekend. For the uninitiated, a yoga retreat includes meditation and a series of body stretching poses meant to test the limits of your muscles, tendons and ligaments. After several ninety minute sessions, the desired result is a sort of nirvana that puts the mind at ease and, to the delight of the instructor, a craving for more of the same.

An added benefit for caveman voyeurs is the dress code. Consisting of stretchy tights and peek-a-boo bodices, it leaves little to the imagination and produces imagery that tends to satisfy a male’s basic prehistoric needs.

Jackie takes great delight in organizing these retreats and is constantly in tune with participant needs. Quick to respond to requests and ever mindful of her guests’ comfort, she is to yoga what Pearl Mesta “the hostess with the moistest” was when she produced lavish, well-choreographed  parties for the cream of society.

I, on the other hand, feel relieved when the event ends without a participant’s death or a serious blockage to my fragile septic system. Now that I think about it, septic system failures outrank death. I have learned through experience that toilet paper, even though conspicuously labeled Safe for Septic Systems, is anything but. Over the years, I have accumulated a long list of Don’ts and have placed them throughout my guesthouse. Most prominent among these no-no’s is We are on a very fragile septic system. Do not put anything in the toilet unless you’ve eaten it first.

Immediately after delivering a short sentence of welcome to the seventeen beauties, I repeat the afore-mentioned warning. Laughs generally ensue. So I say it again, just for effect. As I do not have hidden cameras in the bathrooms, I can only hope they take my admonition seriously. As further inducement, I have often considered displaying photos of raw sewage coursing through the guesthouse hallways but, as a gracious host, I have avoided taking that step.

Watching rolls of Kirkland toilet paper disappear down the lavatory maw has more than once prompted me to consider allocating a finite number of sheets of tissue to each participant at the beginning of their stay. Those who may require more could buy surplus tissue from less needy guests, much like buying carbon credits.

Words most often heard at yogi meal time include gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and, my favorite…what’s in this thing? In order to avoid being a conspicuous outcast, I eat the same food as our guests. After several retreats, I find that it matters little what the dish looks like. They all tend to run together much like my late father-in-law’s approach to eating Chinese food. Take a helping of pot-stickers,  cashew chicken, and sweet and sour pork; then mix the whole thing together with a big dollop of rice. Yummy.

Yogis are picky eaters. We ran out of almond milk that had been intended for flavoring coffee. Several of our guests took exception to its mysterious disappearance. Not wanting to be viewed as miserly, and always the gracious host, I ran to my car and drove down the hill to fetch more. I grabbed a half-gallon of stuff whose label screamed Almond Milk. I was a happy man. Upon returning, I looked more closely at the misleading container and was horrified to see the words “vanilla flavoring” and worst of all “sugar” in its list of ingredients. With full disclosure, I served it anyway.

Although I am a myriad of yoga levels below the seventeen goddesses stretched out on my great room floor, I usually try to participate with them in some very basic poses. This was not to be as I had injured myself during my prior week’s visit to the Ojai Yoga Shala. The class was ment for those like me who frighten easily. Overstretching is anathema and, to prove it, the name of the class is Restorative Yoga. Obviously intended for those who may have already injured themselves by doing things you would never do to your own child, the class promises a care-free romp through very basic stuff.

Proving that I nevertheless can do the wrong thing despite the odds, a mix of Downward Dog, Happy Cow and Cat Pose was like child’s play leading me down the garden path. Even though I avoided sinister sounding poses like Bharadvaja’s Twist and the infamous Deaf Man’s Delight, I managed to pull a ligament in my right butt attempting to do the more benignly named Crescent Lunge. I spent the next week and the entire retreat avoiding further injury and doing way too many crossword puzzles.

Leaving Jackie all alone in the clutches of her guests, I took time out from the Saturday afternoon portion of the retreat to attend a memorial service for my friend and neighbor, Ron Helson. He was a career Army man, a Green Beret colonel, and a member of various police forces throughout Southern California. Ron ended his career as a private ballistics expert who, on many occasions, could be heard discharging weapons in close proximity to my home. At such times I felt a strange dichotomy, both frightened and yet secure in knowing that Ron was on patrol.

Attending his memorial service were various comrades in arms, many of whom were in uniform. Presentation by a color guard and words uttered about Ron highlighted his career and his involvement with firearms. The memorial service ended with a flag folding ceremony and a three gun salute that left my ears ringing.

The memorial service with its military man’s emphasis was in stark contrast to the seventeen beauties at the yoga retreat and, in my mind, highlighted some of our cultural differences. The brashness of one versus the quietude of the other.  Neither being right or wrong, yet both being in sharp opposition to the ways of the other.

I came back to the retreat in time to say good-bye. I hope they come back again. Next time I won’t worry so much about toilet paper.

Yoga Music

A month ago, I took a series of four yoga classes at Ojai Yoga Shala on Matilija Street just across of Java and Joe.

Before leaping into it, I read the material on the Shala website where I became cautious when I saw the names of the various classes. Earth Chakra Workshop, Soulful Sunday, Vinyasa and, my favorite, Sweet Vinyasa. Most seemed too challenging. And then I found Gentle Flow and was hooked. It was designed for guys like me. Old, a little creaky and with a C-minus in flexibility.

I threw caution to the wind and, despite a won’t-go-away shoulder problem, I put myself into the hands of the Shala’s Alana Mitnick. She deftly guided me through the basics and left me feeling like I had almost mastered the first one percent of the mysteries of Yoga. The most difficult part of the evening involved exiting Shala’s dimly lit building without embarrassing myself by falling down those pesky steps that are designed to further shorten a senior’s active career.

My aging eyes are no match for moonless nights. They can be a recipe for disaster when coupled with Ojai’s insistence on the obliteration of outside lighting that might ruin the delights of viewing the evening skies. Enhancing one’s viewing pleasure also runs counter to Ojai’s other predilections of sharing the road with bicycle riders, and the leap-before-you-look mindset adopted by the I-challenge-you pedestrians who death defyingly enter the street within or without a crosswalk. Dueling with a two-ton mass of metal is a favorite hobby for many locals.

Last week, furthering my yoga career and taking full advantage of my house which hasn’t seen a prospective home buyer since the Armistice, Jackie planned and delivered a two-hour yoga retreat that attracted twenty-three yogis. The attendees included a number of what appeared to be pre-teens, as well as buffed out young men and lithe, charming young women. I had the over-fifty category all to myself.

The yoga part of the evening was led by Tiffany, a young lass with a soft voice and a matching demeanor. Since it was my home that Jackie had donated to the event, I was invited to participate in the session. I asked Tiffany, “Is this going to be a gentle flow session or do I need to ask my mother if I’m allowed to join in?” She smiled and said, “Not to worry, I will be kind and you won’t suffer.” She should have appended the word “much.”

I found a cloistered spot next to Jackie and unrolled my yoga mat. I have always wondered if there is a correct side to the mat. However, given my beginner status, it probably doesn’t matter. My tush firmly grounded, the games began. It was no surprise to discover that I could barely hear the posing instructions emanating from sweet Tiffany’s mouth. My declining ability to hear the high-end of the sound spectrum matches my inability to see well in dark surroundings.

If I had been an accomplished yogi, I probably could have figured out Tiffany’s commands. It was not to be and I resorted to watching those around me for clues. This only succeeded in over stretching my neck and produced an annoying ache that fit in nicely with my aging eyes and diminished hearing.

Being a nanosecond behind the young, lithe bodies surrounding me only added to my discomfort. By the time I figured out what Tiffany was saying, the group had already moved to the next yoga pose. I’m quite sure my poses bore little resemblance to the real thing but I probably shouldn’t have worried since I was unable to perform most of the poses anyway. I merely grunted and moped while others twisted their bodies in ways that surely must delight chiropractors.

The Down Dog pose is pretty much just a push-up. Something that I gave up in my first year of college. However, looking for some degree of accomplishment, I did what seemed to be several dozen Down Dogs. And I further injured my left shoulder in doing so. After what seemed like a fortnight of yoga, blessed relief arrived in the form of laying flat on my mat, not stretching anything, and just being inert as I mentally inventoried my body parts.

And then it began. Cello music. Tiffany had invited a friend to end the two-hour session with his cello. An accomplished musician, Jeremy had spent many years in the pit at New York’s Metropolitan. He moved to Ojai a week before last year’s Thomas Fire and was now a composer. His choice of music for our yoga retreat was perfect. Robust but calming, it enriched us all.

Lying on my back, staring at the dim ceiling lights, with only the cello making itself known, added a bit of mystery to the night. Confirmed by Jeremy, the acoustics were wonderful. I had never heard them before in this great room. It was as though a new chapter had been added to my life with this house. The music ended, people arose and smiled. Not just a dutiful smile, it was spontaneous and heartfelt.

I asked Jeremy if we could do this again, maybe without the Down Dogs.

Yoga is fun, so they say

Went to a yoga class last night.

I decided to try it again after some gentle encouragement from Jackie. She is a yoga fanatic. Much like my daily habit of visiting the athletic club gym, Jackie lives and breathes yoga. A day without it affects her much like a coffee addict who has failed to meet her daily quota of caffeine at Java and Joe…only worse, much worse.

Our first date was a private yoga class at Jackie’s house. I struggled to achieve poses that for her were second nature. It was as though my aging ligaments had been replaced with inelastic twelve-gauge wire. My back hurt. My ego was bruised. I was a failure looking for a graceful exit. A tough first date.

During the last year I have tried to redeem myself. I participated in Robert’s yoga class at the club. Robert is an excellent trainer who teaches yoga to punish people like me who think they can master the art. He takes no prisoners. I spent the better part of his class watching others do things that seemed second nature. Attempting to emulate their contortions left me several minutes behind the thirty more experienced participants. I drew menacing stares from the women on either side of me as I violated their space, awkwardly fumbled with bolsters, blocks and straps, and made impermissible contact with their body parts. I was the poster boy of yoga, reaching out for help and release from a self-imposed sentence. It was the longest hour of my life. I promised myself never again.

Like all other resolutions, events conspire to make a mockery of them. The athletic club houses a bevy of yogis, predominantly women, who enter the facility with their personalized yoga mats tucked under their arms. They are serious about their yoga; especially their lungs.  For them breathing is not just a way to stay alive, it is a religion that puts one in spiritual contact with mind and body. Failure to breathe properly dooms one to eternal purgatory.

Over the last seven decades, I have developed some familiarity with breathing. Never thought about it much. It either happens, or it doesn’t. That laissez-faire attitude began to crumble when Robert became my trainer. Lifting weights on Tuesday and Thursday required a change of thinking. Breathing is no longer a mindless exercise. Lift and breathe in. Relax and breathe out. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Or is it breathe in through the mouth when lifting and out through nose when relaxing? Sorting through these choices occasionally causes me to hold my breath and black out, making further yoga participation highly questionable.

Yet I have ongoing exposure to yoga in every form, necessitated by the coordination of my schedule with Jackie’s. It would be easy if her sessions were limited to one yoga venue. There are a multitude of yoga studios in Ojai. Add Ventura and it multiplies ten-fold. Selection of the studio-of-the-day is further compounded by the choice of yoga instructor within the studio. Evaluations of the various instructors are at times as intense as the awarding of a Nobel Prize. The focus of the chosen instructor’s class is the final ingredient in the selection process. Healthy Joints, Yoga RX, Postural Restoration, Yin Yoga and Chakra Flow (in multiple levels) hardly scratch the surface of the available flavors of the day. A recent arrival, particularly appealing to someone with lizard-like skin, is Hot Yoga. Locked in a room super-heated to 110 degrees, yoga takes on the punishing characteristics heretofore only available on Devil’s Island.

When not doing yoga, one is often seriously absorbed in discussing it. Community newcomers offering their own unique specialties are often the subject du jour. The reasons causing the departure of old studios are often dissected and, at times, lamented. Yoga instructors are microscopically investigated and, at times, discarded as over the hill, out-of-touch and attitudinally defective. Others are embraced on the same order as the messiah.

So, much like the pastor’s wife, I am involved with but not participating in yoga. However, being immersed vicariously tends to wear away my resistance. Always seeking ways for self-improvement, and with Jackie’s continuing search for the holy grail, I found a Start Yoga five session course at Ojai Yoga Shala. Session one was last evening.

I arrived and was welcomed by the instructor, Alana Mitnick. She scanned her attendance sheet and identified me as Fred. Not difficult, as I was the only male in attendance. Four women rounded out the class, none of whom had yoga experience exceeding my own. I was also the oldest participant, giving me a built-in handicap in the event that I messed up. This was going to be my coming out party.

I collected my equipment, mats, bolsters, blocks and straps. So far so good. On to breathing, something I had practiced in anticipation of the class. Moving my hands up and down my body, while erotic, did little to reveal the mysteries that surely lay ahead. Lifting my tailbone, thrusting my pelvis and arching my back seemed all in a day’s work. Feel anything yet, like a revelation?

Leg and arm stretch, bending and kneeling, balancing and rocking. My ability to earn an A+ was only limited by my ability to hear Alana’s instructions. A lovely young lady with Mother Teresa’s warmth, she was blessed with a gentle voice. A voice that limited hearing much of what she was saying. Surreptitiously spying on my neighbors’ poses filled the gaps.

Alana’s long day at the mats revealed itself when she regularly praised the group without opening her eyes to look at us. Despite this chink in the armor, her lithe movements made me yearn for similar results, knowing full well that I probably would not live long enough to emulate her.

The session ended well beyond its advertised time. I did not celebrate its end like someone who can’t wait for a bad movie to be over. I had neither soiled nor disgraced myself. Neither had I found Nirvana. But I had found enough to bring me back next week.


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