What LaLanne’s life says about yoga in the West. If anything.
Jack LaLanne died Sunday at the venerable age of 96.
Mr. LaLanne’s was the life of a guru, you could say.
He found, early, sure steps to a better life and he took those steps every morning, whether he felt like it or not.
His steady practice made him impressive. At 45, he did 1,000 jumping jacks and 1,000 pull ups in an hour and twenty-two minutes. At 70, he, cuffed and shackled, swam one and a half miles—all while pulling 70 boats and 70 people .
His practice made him happy, and he knew it.
And this happy knowledge made him a guru, of sorts. From 1951 to 1985, he had a television show about diet and exercise. In each episode, Mr. LaLanne is urgent to make his knowledge another’s.
In a 2001 What Is Enlightenment interview with Andrew Cohen, Mr. LaLanne, when compared to the spiritual masters and gurus “in the east,” sees just how apt the comparison might be:
When I opened my first official health club in 1936, I’d go to Oakland High School at noontime. I’d pick out the fattest and the skinniest kids I could find, and I’d get their phone numbers and addresses and names. I’d go to fifty kids’ homes, and I’d sign up fifty out of fifty—I never missed. I’d tell their parents, “I’m going to save this kid’s life; he’s going to have the greatest life anybody can have, and if he doesn’t sign up, he’s going to miss out on it.” Then I’d tell those kids, “If you wear clean clothes, you’re not going to be a follower, you’re going to be a leader. I want you to cut your hair, I want those clothes to be neat and clean, and if you get lower than a C grade in school, you’re OUT.” Come to think of it, I was their guru—I was their mother, their father, their best friend, their everything. I knew about their sex lives, about how much money they spent, their aches and pains and all their problems. They came to me, I was their consultant, and we were family. And I worked those kids, I’ll tell you—you wouldn’t believe it. It’s a wonder some of them didn’t die!
I found the interview after I had already made the comparison myself.
As soon as I saw Mr. LaLanne’s death top Google News, I wondered how I might give the story an elephant-appropriate angle. Two minutes in and I hastily—and pragmatically—concluded Jack LaLanne was one of the closest things to an asana-less yogi America has ever had. Four minutes in and I was wondering if Mr. LaLanne’s lack of asana precluded his being a yogi at all. Ten minutes in, after reading a few obituaries mention Mr. LaLanne’s role in creating the modern fitness industry (he invented some of the first pulley machines and he pitched supplements and juicers), I was wondering if Mr. LaLanne wasn’t—innocently enough—instrumental in making Western yoga a spiritless shadow of what we’re all told it should be (and, in the East, supposedly still is).
The wondering went something like:
(1) Western yoga is often disparagingly distinguished from its Eastern incarnation by being
(a) focused on fitness instead of enlightenment
(b) corrupted by the temptation to make too much money off the misleading promise of a suddenly happy, peaceful, problem (and problem area) free life.
(2) (a) and (b) are especially Western vices because of the close association between America and the modern fitness industry.
(3) Wait, didn’t Jack LaLanne father the modern fitness industry?
So there I was, wondering what blog post angle to take on the death of Jack LaLanne. (It’s a rich life I live.) Was he a Western yogi? Or did he father the culture that threatens yoga’s pure passage through the States?
The two are, of course, compatible. But there was nonetheless a tension, somewhere, behind my wondering.
I decided the tightness had something to do with my inability to precisely say what is and is not yoga, an inability that grows all the greater (weaker?) in proportion to my desire to precisely say what is and is not yoga.
I used to think diet and exercise were the surest steps to living a good life. I ran every morning, lifted every afternoon, and generally sat at the feet of the modern fitness industry. (I once belonged to two gyms because my favorite gym had spotty hours on the weekends. My less favorite of the two, by the way, was Bally’s Fitness, which, incidentally, was what became of the gyms Mr. LaLanne used to own.) Then I came to think reading and writing were surer steps still and that athletics were valuable only insofar as they helped me think more clearly. At some point I started sitting and came to think both athletics and academia were only handmaids to meditation. They cultivated some of the same virtues necessary for sitting (repetition, discipline, attention) and derived their essential worth only insofar as they simulated those practices necessary for enlightenment.
This attitude—that Jack LaLanne was merely onto something good, something that the likes of Shunryu Suzuki and Pattabhi Jois had come to fully possess and share in all its purity—is one I have today. I think my pursuits form some progression whose perfection will be the perfection of my meditation practice, not the perfection of my mile or one-rep max and not the perfection of my intellectual pursuits. (And that’s not just because my mile, one-rep max, and intellectual pursuits are all pretty unimpressive stuff: because my sitting practice isn’t all that great either.)
Sometimes I think this.
Other times I think yoga just is the eternally vain pursuit of perfection, a pursuit that, like holding tightly to a stick till your knuckles whiten, pays off only when you let go and the blood flows all the better. Yoga is just becoming “yoked” to an arbitrary pursuit or activity and isn’t attached to any particular set of practices or postures. Yoga just is the joyful, therapeutic art of catch and release and my desire to find some single practice that most fully incarnates yoga is, well, only the catch (22?) of yoga.
Most of the time I think I have absolutely no idea what yoga is and, accordingly, no idea whether Jack LaLanne was a yogi and no idea whether Western yoga by and large misses the (small? large?) boat to nirvana.
So I’ll end by simply deferring my doubt to someone whose life as a yogi isn’t in question:
In a recent interview, Richard Freeman, when asked “What is yoga?,” answers, with care across his face,
One way of doing that is to explain that yoga is when you become really absorbed in enjoying something
and then goes on to suggest that absorbing yourself in music, nature, and food would all be examples of yoga.
I’ll also end by saying that someone who, at age 70, pulled 70 boats and 70 people across one and half miles of water while handcuffed and shackled, died, 26 years later, on Sunday.
Dan Slanger lives in Boulder, Colorado. He’s looking forward to his next hike and the new Terrence Malick movie.
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