Relationship status between yoga and me: It’s complicated. Bitter even. Tempestuous. So why the hell did I stand on a yoga mat with 807 people in a public square in Portland, Oregon? It has something to do with smiley-face socks. I first practiced yoga in the B.L., P.M. era: Before Lululemon, Pre-Madonna. In 1973. I was 15, and I learned the poses from a teen magazine article about miracle weight loss. The young woman in the pictures had shed more than 100 pounds, and she credited yoga for helping her do it. She was skinny in her black leotard and white tights.
Carol’s yoga classes were gentle and thorough. Best of all we went out after night classes to eat waffles in order to stave off Carol’s cigarette cravings. Balance and moderation in all things.
Even though I figured out how to do a kickass bridge pose and could roll forward in the lotus position, I didn’t lose weight. Yoga didn’t give me what I wanted. So I quit. Yoga and I didn’t get back together for 15 years, when I befriended Carol, a movement therapist. Carol, a former dancer, studied at a center in bucolic western Massachusetts. Carol’s yoga classes were gentle and thorough. Best of all we went out after night classes to eat waffles in order to stave off Carol’s cigarette cravings. Balance and moderation in all things. Carol’s class led me to a few visits up to the center, which was at the time led by a charismatic guru. I loved the quiet, the natural beauty, and the giant candlelit class in a deconsecrated chapel. No chance of my becoming a disciple: I was too big a fan of sex (forbidden to single residents) or coffee (forbidden to all). But I practiced every day, even after I got back home, to a tape I bought in the center’s very large gift shop. And I did genuinely believe that over time, yoga changed people—made them softer, easier on themselves and the world. Not everyone thought so. My friend Jane watched the guru speak and said, “If he says ‘Life is timeless,’ why is he wearing an expensive watch?”
Then celebrities started doing yoga. Yoga Madonna didn’t look soft. She looked like a coiled, angry spring. So I quit again. I’d dip back in for an occasional class, but I was older and stiffer and it seemed as if yoga had become big business that required a lot of equipment.
I didn’t have an answer. Then the guru was forced to resign for conducting improper relationships with female disciples. He and his family left the center for good. The center got sued, disciples who thought they had found a home for life had to return to the outside world. It was wrenching. Then celebrities started doing yoga. Yoga Madonna didn’t look soft. She looked like a coiled, angry spring. So I quit again. I’d dip back in for an occasional class, but I was older and stiffer and it seemed as if yoga had become big business that required a lot of equipment. Maybe that was the inevitable American way. Eve Ensler once said, “Capitalism comes for us all.” Then, this year, I got an invitation to participate in something called “The Great Namaste,” a yoga event that was trying to break a Guinness World Record by having the most people ever doing a series of yoga poses in succession. Think: a sports wave at a stadium, only it’s an asana. The Great Namaste was produced by the World Domination Summit
(WDS) Team in conjunction with Yoga Rocks the Park. I was in Portland for WDS. It’s not what you think—no whips or chains or evil super-villains. Its themes are adventure, community, and service. The people who speak there are earnest world-changers and inventive business people, and the attendees seek to answer the question: How do I live a remarkable life in a conventional world? The Great Namaste was scheduled to take place in Portland’s Pioneer Square, which has been nicknamed “Portland’s Living Room.” And it kind of is, if your living room were a 60s-style conversation pit the size of a city block—with fountains and pillars and Portland’s very first Starbucks. I signed up. If I chickened out, I could always get a cup of coffee.
The poses were simple; the process was hard. Standing still with hands in prayer position is easy for a minute, even two. But to hold it while waiting for 800-odd other people get into the pose—that was brutal.
The morning of the Great Namaste was warm, especially by Portland standards. Volunteers checked us in on iPads and led us to our mats, which were emblazoned with the WDS logo. My line mate, Carlos, was a Spanish aeronautics engineer who had founded Fly Beyond Dreams
, a program that goes to countries like Nepal and Colombia and teaches kids aeronautics principles to inspire them. Carlos pulled out a baseball cap rigged with a GoPro camera and put it on his head. “I film everything,” he said, grinning. There was a lot to film: 800-plus participants, a stage full of yoga instructors, spectators practicing yoga to pulsing music, a passerby sneering.
I talked with two nimble little girls, sisters Maren and Ashton, who were there with their yogi mother. Ashton, 10, was dressed in a candy-colored fleece hat and pullover, one rainbow-checked sock with hearts, and another sock with smiley faces. Maren, 9, was dressed more simply, but they both knew their way around a lotus position. The poses were simple; the process was hard. Standing still with hands in prayer position is easy for a minute, even two. But to hold it while waiting for 800-odd other people get into the pose—that was brutal. The skeptic in me shut up. I wanted us to win, to break the record, so I held on, as did everyone else (with an occasional glimpse at our mobile phones). The heat rose and the clouds vanished. Ashton took off her hat and pullover as the sun climbed higher. It was clear she wasn’t going to quit, but she was uncomfortable. And then a big shadow fell over her. It was one of the volunteers, a middle-aged woman with curly hair who had noticed her discomfort. The volunteer stood there for many minutes, keeping the little girl cool until we finished: a solid mountain protecting a yogi in hearts-and-smiley-face socks. Of all the yoga I saw that day, that was the best pose of all.