Behind the Gas — A Review of Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude by Neal Pollack

Throughout this trying semester of college, which has found me floundering about in my introductory film production course and dissatisfied with my “General Education” requirements, if there’s been one thing I’ve never found reason to turn away, one thing I could never possibly do without, it’s comic relief. I welcome all funny anecdotes, puns, comic strips sent from home. Sometimes, though, when the work pile is too high and my time for a social life nonexistent, I become numb to all jokes told. I depress myself. I recoil. I read.

Occasionally a writer comes into my life who comically succeeds where my friends and family fail. At the tail end of this summer, one such author was Rachel Shukert, whose travel memoir Everything Is Going To Be Great was a joy to read for many reasons, chiefly its consistent humor. Shukert’s twitter feed, too, has been a constant source of comic comfort. Like Shukert, Neil Pollack (also published by Harper Perennial) knows how to tie tourniquets around my funny bone during times when it seems hopelessly broken.

Another quality Shukert and Pollack’s writing share is the ability to make me feel self-conscious about my sense of humor. Both memoirs feature page-long jokes about farts that had me laughing embarrassingly loud in public; in Shukert’s the farts belong to a theater friend, while Pollack writes unabashedly about his own yogic flatulence. This undermines what both books accomplish, though. Behind the gas, there’s real heart in both Shukert’s tale of vagabondage and Pollack’s search for his “best self.” Before starting Stretch, I hadn’t thought that Pollack, a humorist writer, would imbue his story not only with great, sometimes crude, comedy, but also reflections on self-shame, envy, vice, and the impermanence of all things.

Yoga, as a topic for memoir, lends itself very well to a type of spiritual writing. Pollack’s writing isn’t that, it’s too wonderfully irreverent, but the themes he explores often concern existential and cosmic matters. Memorably for me, he reflects on what the great yogi masters (many of whom he writes about in conducting a brief history of the exercise tradition) would think of his almost religious fandom of the L.A. Dodgers:

Baseball fandom is exemplary of what yoga gurus refer to as an “unnecessary attachment.” I get the concept; unless you actually play or work for the team in question, their achievements aren’t exactly yours even though you pay Frank McCourt’s extortionate parking fee. You shouldn’t allow your emotions about sports teams get in the way of your actual life, your search for a better self. But after Kirk Gibson’s 1988 home run to win game one of the World Series, I felt a level of ecstatic transcendence that I haven’t since. I definitely had best-selfness going on that evening, and I wanted it back. This was the Dodgers. They meant something to me. Couldn’t they be yoga, too?

Yoga seemed like the least likely cure to the near-mid-life crisis Pollack found himself experiencing toward the start of the memoir, but it ends up, in a way, saving his life. (I think the concept of, and scene generated around, yoga has an inherent absurdity that contented Pollack in ways other, dryer hobbies wouldn’t have been able to.) The message inherent here is an encouraging one. Sadness, disappointment, and self-pity may be inescapable to some or all of us, but we can find activities that push these negative feelings, “negative energies” a yogi might say, to below the surface, where they lose their intensity. Replacing sadness, on the surface we can acquire ordinary happiness, physical fitness, and a sense of purpose and place in our lives, no matter how young or old you may be. In one of the book’s most tender moments, he reflects on meeting and talking with a flight attendant who practices yoga. They spoke about seeing the world with “fresh eyes” and keeping a “yoga mindset,” and Pollack jokingly but seriously remarked that they sounded like “a couple of fundamentalist Christians.” After their conversation:

My heart felt full. That was how I’d once connected with people all the time, when I was young and free, before time and the world made me bitter and hairy and flatulent. There had been no artifice on that plane, no judgment, just pure joy and good wishes. I’d made a profound human connection at thirty-five thousand feet, seen into the essence of another human soul. Could my best self have returned at last?

Pollack takes his story in every direction a successful humorist should; i.e., everywhere that ridiculousness reveals itself. And with yoga as your subject there’s obviously a bounty of ridiculousness. He expresses disgust at the commodification of yoga (disgust which he is self-aware enough to recognize as humorous), briefly examines yoga’s effect on his sex-life, and, throughout, unsparingly makes jokes, mostly of a warm and lighthearted nature, about people who turn to yoga for their spiritual or physical needs, including himself. He is self-deprecating to a fault, a writing/comedy technique that is often charged (in most cases justifiably) as veiled narcissism, but in Stretch, it works very well. It’d be hard to imagine Pollack describing his journey from being an ironic, embittered, yoga-loathing writer to an ironic, enlightened (if you could call him that), yoga-instructing writer without ever making light of his life on and off the mat.

There are too many enjoyable moments, even single lines/jokes, in Stretch to not seek out a copy for yourself. The chapters on the Yogathon, a 24-hour marathon of yoga, alone are worth the paperback’s price. Its easily digestible chapters make it a quick, worthwhile read, even if the work pile on your desk show signs of toppling, as mine did while I read Stretch. It helped me rediscover the sensation of laughter (for which, there is apparently a yoga) over a period of time when I was mostly at a loss. And I like to think of my laughing self as my “best self.”

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