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Book Review: Stretch:The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack

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“Disgusting.”

These are the words of one of my student employees after I encouraged him to read a segment from Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack that I found particularly brilliant, in which Pollack details a gurgling fart incident in one of his first anusara yoga classes.

“Don’t you mean hilarious?!” is my reply. I start to worry that he will not take my authority very seriously after this.

“Oh yeah, it is very funny, but also very gross.”

I imagine Neal Pollack would be okay with this assessment, although I for one find Stretch to contain humor to rival the top comedic authors of our day, with honesty and a questioning of life that surpasses them.

In Stretch, Pollack, who may not be a household name, but who was one of the first writers for McSweeney’s, an accolade which really means something to the hipster generation, describes his transformation from a prematurely surly thirty-something writer on a downward slide, to an uplifted yogi who, despite some serious skepticism concerting yogi rap and some forms of chanting, has found something to believe in and a way to feel calm, good, and happy with himself.

The bare plot outline of the book is that Pollack attends a yoga class with his wife and becomes addicted to the point that much of the book revolves around activities such as a 24-hour yogathon, a Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco, and a yoga retreat in Thailand. Stretch is more than just a funny memoir filled with fish-out-of-water anecdotes about a balding sports fan farting his way through yoga classes throughout greater Los Angeles.

Pollack actually knows a lot about yoga, and Stretch is just as valuable as a guide to the types and principles of yoga as it is a humorous, easy read. Imagine David Sedaris explaining the sutras in one of his essays, and you have an idea of how Stretch reads; but somehow Pollack pulls the flow together perfectly so he can move flawlessly from painting a disturbing image of himself doing a sexy yoga dance for his wife in his briefs to explaining the yogic concept of brahmacharya.

Pollack is a surpassingly sympathetic and easy-to-relate-to character. As a youth, he wholeheartedly believed in the beauty of the world and the goodness of humanity, and was ready to publicly link arms and cry with other teens at Anytown USA summer camp because of this belief. Yet, after a couple more decades of success and then failure, Pollack had lost that boy who joined a group called H.U.G.S. in high school within the slightly pudgier physique of a cynical misanthropic man. Which among us has not felt that creeping cynicism of the years, and wondered exactly which hard knock was the one to knock our optimistic youth out of our increasingly aching head? On top of all that, he is openly narcissistic, which strangely makes me even more favorably disposed to him.

As Pollack goes deeper and deeper into the yoga world, the clichéd idea of “finding one’s best self” comes ever more to the fore. And yet, while he is always self-conscious of the cheesy connotations of this idea, the fact that he really is finding a better version of himself through yoga is apparent, and gives weightiness to his thoughts that progress in meaning from the farting jokes in the first part of the book. Pollack is able to keep a healthy skepticism concerning the cultish or pretentious aspects of some yoga retreats or studios, while truly appreciating the valuable teachers who embrace the true concepts of yoga.

Of course, it is these criticisms of consumer yoga, of oversexed yoga teachers who inappropriately flirt with their slutty students or over-enthused ones who introduce yogi rappers with phrases such as, “He’s hot! He’s hip! He’s holy!” that make some of the most entertaining passages. I also appreciate his condemnation of Bikram yoga, as I have always thought that paying to do a physically-trying activity in a 110 degree room was a bit absurd. Pollack writes that Bikram once told Business 2.0 that his yoga is “the only yoga” because, “I have balls like atom bombs, two of them, 100 megatons each. Nobody fucks with me.” When I read this, I assumed it was Pollack being funny as usual, but then I looked it up, and Bikram really did say it. I take this as further evidence that practicing Bikram yoga turns the brain.

One of the ways in which yoga benefits Pollack is to turn him from a misanthrope into someone who will strike up a conversation with a flight attendant he sees reading a yoga magazine about the difficulties of detaching from the annoyances of life. He slips back into his curmudgeon-y ways at times, but yoga has provided him a way to come back to the pure joy of human interaction in a way he had not experienced since his Anytown USA days. Yoga also opens him to life, and he unabashedly describes doing the Breath of Joy on a public beach with two Canadians as the best feeling he has had in 20 years.

I personally started doing yoga after taking a class on Buddhism, and as a person attracted to the philosophy behind yoga, I was snobbishly concerned by the masses who turn to yoga for a toned ass and don’t know the first thing about non-attachment. But Pollack taught me a lesson, though he certainly has his own brand of yogic elitism: that no matter the reasons a person may turn to yoga, they do not preclude that person from gaining valuable life lessons from the practice. And Pollack has certainly done a lot more yoga in his life than I have.

Pollack keeps the reader hooked on his yoga adventures through all three hundred pages, and just as yoga makes Pollack feel more alive, his well-crafted prose and the inevitable laughter that follows will heal any reader’s soul. Plus, I have always had a soft spot for those chubby, profusely sweating males you find in any yoga class, who seem worlds away from the typical toned females wearing yoga clothes designed by Christy Turlington.

But more than any other reason, I love Stretch because it reminds us that is it okay to have fun when contemplating the serious questions of life. Indeed, this is the only way to truly live. Awakeness entails a recognition that the mundane realities of life are in fact fascinating, but, even more so, that they are entertaining and worthy of sharing.

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About Kerri Shadid

  • http://kimcrawley.blogspot.com/ Kim Crawley

    I ‘tweeeted’ your article. Great review!