O Venerable one, what good is the enjoyment of desires in this ill-smelling, insubstantial body, a mere conglomerate of bones, skin, sinews, muscles, marrow, flesh, semen, blood, mucus, tears, rheum, feces, urine, wind, bile, and phlegm? What good is the enjoyment of desires in this body, which is afflicted with desire, anger, greed, delusion, fear, despondency, envy, separation from the desirable, union with the undesirable, hunger, thirst, senility, disease, sorrow, death, and the like?
~ Maitrayani Upanishad
The Church says: The body is a sin. Science says: The body is a machine. Advertising says: The body is a business. The body says: I am a fiesta.
~ Eduardo Galeano
At age twenty six, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It took me five months. At one point, near the end, I got off for my brother’s wedding. He asked what I thought about out there, walking the trail all day, and I was surprised by my own inability to answer.
Before starting the trail, I’d thought a lot about what I’d think about—the big philosophical questions, certainly, but also…everything else…all the most difficult passageways of a difficult past, present, and future—every scar and issue, all the hidden bitterness, fear, pain, and confusion working through me like a purifying fire as I pushed my body through wind and rain and snow and overwhelming heat, coming out, in the end, healed, strong, complete.
As it turned out, that wasn’t what happened. Went to stay at my parents’ house for a while, healthy and happy, for the moment, but with a raging metabolism—believe me, twelve hours of strenuous exercise with a heavy pack every day allows for a lotta Ben & Jerry’s, and the desire’s still there once the exercise stops—no money, no home, no job, no practical plans for my life, or much else to get excited about. I’d thought, when starting the trail, that I might have have a smart, raven-haired girlfriend to come back to, even though we’d only just gotten together—hitch-hiked from the trail to small town southern payphones to stand in the rain listening to endless dial tones—though, alas, while I was out on the A.T.—temporary home of multitudinous single men, she was back in Colorado, home of multitudinous single men, one of whom she met and took off with to Oregon. I got fat and depressed.
I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed
~ Willie Dixon
And, then, while on the trail I’d learned something about the benefits of life as a couch potato. Early on, it seemed like every time I got to a town where there was a place hikers could stay for free—there were lots, particularly down south; locals tend to be highly hospitable, and certainly appreciative of the incredible appetites hikers satisfy at their restaurants and grocery stores—the place would be like a hospital ward—full of hikers nursing injured legs, hoping to get back to hiking in a week or two. The thing was, those suffering were generally more athletic-looking types, and almost none of their injuries originated on the trail. Their stories were strikingly uniform: “broke it playing basketball in high school,” “blew it out running track when I was fifteen,” “it started when I was playing football in college….” And the thought came to me: “thank god I spent those formative years getting fat in front of the T.V….”
Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym.
~ Woody Allen, Annie Hall
Then, the way they taught gym in my school was just about guaranteed to inspire those who weren’t particularly athletic to stay that way. If anything, it probably increased the rate of childhood obesity. Rather than encouraging long-term physical fitness, it seemed to be about creating and encouraging hierarchies—or at least giving official sanction to those that formed on the playground—glorifying the big kids, the tough kids, the bullies, and teaching the rest to feel like losers who’d never measure up, no matter how they tried.
god…not another fucking triangle pose…
~ unidentified yoga student
Yoga, of course, is different…or at least it’s supposed to be, and, in my experience, usually is. One thing that’s not said enough, though, is that it can suck. This, I think, is the reason so many start only to quit after a couple classes—not, actually, that it sucks, but that people are led to believe that it doesn’t. That sounded way more like a koan than I intended.
Listen: if you read up on the subject—particularly in books and articles intended to introduce people to yoga—you’ll no doubt find lots of descriptions of the first yoga experiences of folks who’ve since become yoga teachers saying shit like “as I did my first triangle pose a mystical warmth streamed through my heart chakra. My entire being glowed as its every fiber merged with the Absolute. A full mind body spirit orgasm soaked my shorts as I began to levitate through the ceiling….” I suspect my own experience was a good deal more typical: for the first month or two, soreness and exhaustion and utter mystification about what all that mystical shit had to do with that agonizing downward facing dog thing. The only apparent change in consciousness involved a deep understanding of just how pathetically out of shape and how out of tune with the spiritual vibes that were supposed to be emanating through the room I was. In time, that changed, and I commenced making my teacher wonder if I was serious when I said “whoah…that was cool” after every class, but it took a while…and, certainly, a major part of the change involved lowering my expectations and learning to take the experience for whatever it was.
…in spite of how it feels when you inhale, you are not pulling air into the body. On the contrary, air is pushed into the body by atmospheric pressure that always surrounds you….The energy you expend in breathing produces a shape change that lowers the pressure in your chest cavity and permits the air to be pushed into the body by the weight of the planet’s atmosphere.
~ from Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff, Amy Matthews, and Sharon Ellis
Might there be there something strangely liberating in the notion that life’s most basic act is not, as we Americans might be wont to think, one of grabbing and consumption, but opening ourselves to whatever might enter?
Anyway, back to the Appalachian Trail and my brother’s question: I thought about food, about keeping myself warm and my sleeping bag dry, about having a place to sleep protected from rain and insects. When those needs were met, I was happy. A town, with ice cream and pizza and a warm shower and maybe even an actual bed to sleep in was paradise. By the time I got to New England, I’d started writing “life is good” in trail registers, despite everything unresolved in present, past, and future, and all the big philosophical questions that remained unanswered.
*adapted from an even longer and more rambling version a long time ago at Yoga for Cynics*