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THE PATH TO RADIANT PAIN : Compared to the Shame of Failing at Push-Ups in Ashtanga Yoga, the Rest of Life Seemed Effortless and Serene

March 06, 1988|EVE BABITZ | Eve Babitz is a Los Angeles writer

WHEN YOU live in L.A. you occasionally run into people who have lost lots of weight, started exercising and suddenly look as though they've been run backward through a time machine--which was what must have happened to my old friend Karen. I barely recognized her when I ran into her at an art opening a few years back. But then, Karen had gone too far, for not only was she slender and willowy, she also seemed to possess something else--an alarming grace. Whereas I didn't even have a flat stomach.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

"I'm doing yoga now," she said.

"Oh," I sighed. "You poor thing."

I had once gone through two months of taking yoga seriously, and I knew that yoga was too hard--and it hurts.

"Come to the Yoga Center with me," Karen kept saying. But I kept thinking of the place as the Ivan the Terrible school of yoga, because when I had gone there, an instructor named Ivan used to make us stand in the Warrior Pose until we got it right--which meant that I couldn't walk down the stairs afterward.

I had heard that yoga was supposed to be relaxing, but Ivan had been a devout student of B.K.S. Iyengar, who didn't think yoga should be relaxing at all. He thought it should be perfect. Iyengar's idea was that unless I held poses until my nose fell off, I was a straggler.

"Is Ivan still there?" I asked Karen one day.

"Ivan who?" she replied.

"You're sure there's no one there named Ivan?" I insisted.

"That must have been a long time ago," she said. "Now they've just got Eric and Patricia and Chad."

So I found my old brown leotard, some tights and a barrette, and I agreed to meet Karen for one class.

There was a guy in the center of the room who was bending over to touch his toes, only instead of touching his toes and getting up, he kept his hands flat on the floor and his legs went up in a handstand. I gasped because nobody had ever done handstands when I was there before, and I'd never seen one done like this. This man removed one of his hands from the floor, folded his legs in the lotus position and just held it.

And that was Eric.

Anyway, as I recall, he only made us hold the Warrior Pose until our arms fell off, and not forever, which I felt was a nice change. But I did notice that we didn't do the Sun Salutation right at all--for instead of the liquid series of moves that I remembered, this thing involved the amazement of push-ups and these tiny jumps that seemed to me very undignified and unyogalike. Suddenly, I had the feeling that Eric had made this routine up that minute out of a perverse impulse to throw yoga to the wind and just go crazy.

I had never seen anything like it. I made a mental note to ask Eric to please never make us do this again, but by the end of the class, I forgot and decided to sign up for a month.

At the Yoga Center you can pay for one month and take as many classes as you like, and I decided to take maybe three a week--except with me, I can't do anything in moderation, and before I knew it I was there the next day. When I realized another teacher was making us do the same weird variation of the Sun Salutation, spiked with push-ups and stupid little jumps again, I was extremely incensed.

The name of this exercise, I found out later, is Ashtanga yoga. Two things I noticed right away: One, nothing that happened to me the rest of the day, no matter how terrible, even remotely struck me as painful. Nothing, not emotional things like getting rejected, nor spiritual crises nor dragging three bags of groceries straight uphill, which left everyone else panting, came close to just a few minutes of burning with shame, unable to do push-ups. All my pain was in that room and the rest of my life was simple. No wonder Karen had looked so noble and serene.

And two, I had a flat stomach. In a month.

In fact, I began to look great, and after just a few months of all this, I was up to my ears in an affair with a man I thought of as the Last Rock Star. The thing is, I never really liked rock stars. Only now I was living with one.

The only good thing about it was that the way he behaved, which had in the past driven other women up and over walls, was--compared to yoga--a distant disturbance.

The Ashtanga routine I was doing--10 minutes of perhaps an hour-and-a-half class--was nowhere near what a true Ashtanga class did: solid movement, push-ups, jumps and sweat for an entire class. After my friend Lois took the class, she told me, "It's two hours, Eve. I thought my wrists were going to snap--and the thing is, I loved it. But when I came home afterward, my husband . . . . Well, I was just too much for him. I decided, for the sake of my marriage, to stop. Because unless you're both doing it, it's too weird. You become too advanced, in this metaphysical and physical and spiritual way--and the other person, they know."

"What do you mean," I said, " 'they know'?"

"They can see it," she said, "you're sort of--I don't know--too radiant."

"Too radiant?"

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