Yoga With My Dad
When you think of a “yogi,” my dad isn’t what comes to mind, unless you’re thinking of Yogi Bear. Like me, he has excessive body hair and a preternatural fondness for luncheon meats. Unlike me, he’s the son of immigrants who barely escaped Germany in 1934, and he served two tours of duty in Vietnam. Also, he watches Fox News at least three hours a day. But when I was in Phoenix for Thanksgiving, my dad and I went to a yoga class together.
Bernie has been taking morning yoga at his gym twice a week for two years. He considers it part of his workout routine. Sometimes he runs on the treadmill, sometimes he lifts weights, and sometimes he does yoga. “My trainer said it’d help my back,” he told me.
“But there must be all kinds of other benefits,” I said.
My dad, possessed of the least-troubled mind in all existence, said, “Eh. I just feel good when it’s done.”
Usually, when I’m in Phoenix, I take yoga classes at a studio near my parents’ house, expensive, sweaty numbers full of snotty people, pretentious flow, and overloud music of the type favored by new-money pseudo-spiritualists. The classes are at my physical level, sometimes even above. Therefore, I sweat acceptably, but I’ve never had a moment of decent conversation or authentic human connection during or after. Meanwhile, my dad goes off to yoga at the gym and arrives home calm and happy while I’m still sitting at the kitchen table in my boxers, staring glumly at my can of Diet Coke.
This time, I thought I’d try it his way. At dinner the night before, I said, “Hey, dad, will you take me to yoga tomorrow?”
He looked pleased, as though I’d asked if I could go to the office with him to see how he spent his day. But since I’d never actually asked for that, this was a fresh experience for both of us. It would be a genuine father-son outing.
“Of course,” he said.
“Do you need a mat?” I asked. “I’ve got an extra in the car.”
“I’ve got one,” he said. “I’ve got two.”
“Really?” I said, as though I couldn’t believe it. “Where did you get them?”
“They sell them at TJ Maxx,” my mom said.
The mainstreaming of yoga was complete.
My dad does his yoga in the workout room of a large chain fitness center near the intersection of Tatum and Shea, halfway between the Paradise Valley Mall and the Barry Goldwater Memorial. The aerobics steps and spinning cycles get moved to the side for the hour. Through the floor-to-ceiling rear glass wall, you can see dozens of people going through their morning workouts while watching Fox And Friends. But yoga cares not about politics and cares even less about notions of authenticity. This gym reminded me where I’d begun my own practice, nearly eight years ago now.
My dad got to class almost 15 minutes early. Just like I do, I thought. He put down his mat near the back left corner of the room. Just like me. He motioned for me to unroll my mat to his left.
“The other side’s for Alice,” he said.
“Who’s Alice?” I asked.
“Oh, just someone who takes yoga,” he said.
Aw, how cute, I thought. My dad has a yoga friend!
As it turned out, he had several, mostly around his age. The pre-class conversation covered turkey and grandkids and college football, quite different than the conversations at my usual classes, which are usually about auditions and cats. By the time the teacher showed up, nearly 50 people had claimed their yoga acre. There are definitely some challenges to teaching classes that size, but most of the teachers I know would stand on their head for hours to get a class of four-dozen people because it would mean that they might actually be able to pay their rent through yoga.
The teacher carried a photo from the recent local Bikram-sponsored yoga championships, of which she’s an aficionado. She showed it to a few students, who murmured that they’d never be able to do the pose shown in the picture. Other than the fact that she wore pink sweatpants with the word “PURE” written across the butt in black letters, this was the only thing for which I could criticize my dad’s yoga teacher. Yoga isn’t about perfecting poses. It’s about living intelligently and kindly in the present moment. Poses, whatever the result, are just a byproduct of the effort and concentration you put into them.
But once the class started, she said pretty much the same thing, having people focus on their breath, calling yoga a “beautiful gift,” leading her mostly-late Boomer crowd through a slow, mindful flow, respectful of their needs and not condescending to them. I made a conscious effort to mind my own practice and not care about what was going on around me. At one point, though I glanced at my dad. He was rolling on his back, knees drawn into his chest, with a look of extreme pleasure on his face like a dog getting its belly rubbed.
I didn’t ever want to see that again.
The only other time I became aware of him was when the teacher called for bow pose, and dad said, “I don’t do that one.” That’s a very excusable admission for a man who’s had rotator-cuff surgery and who once broke his shoulder in a skiing accident. He doesn’t need to do bow pose.
When the teacher said namaste after a short savasana, most of the class applauded. I’ve taken yoga classes all over the world, from a great variety of master teachers. Rarely have I heard such enthusiasm. These people were never going to attend an anusara Grand Gathering or Wanderlust, buy tickets to a “trance dance,” or download an MC Yogi song. They probably didn’t know, and probably didn’t care, about the difference between Ashtanga, Iyengar, or kundalini yoga. None of them would sign up as Lululemon ambassadors. But they’d arrived that day at the gym stiff, or feeling stressed out, or bloated from Thanksgiving dinner, and now they were a little better. Yoga serves no more important purpose. The rest of what we call “yoga” in the West is often just sickly-sweet frosting atop a delicious cake that needs no extra flavor.
Then the 9:45 aerobics people came barging in, as they’re wont to do during gym yoga, and the spell broke. My dad and I drove home, sipping on our Costco-bought plastic water bottles that he keeps cold in the garage mini-fridge.
“So was that different than usual?” I asked him.
“Eh, maybe a little more rushed,” he said. “Big class because of the holidays. Good, though.”
“How was the class for you?”
“I can do some of the poses,” he said. “Some of the poses, I can’t do. It’s fine for me.”
My dad, the yogi.
Photo by Scrap Pile
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