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Do Sweat It! Enjoying yoga and perspiration August 1, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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For the first few years of my practice—and indeed, occasionally today—I was self conscious of my sweat. For whatever reason, there’s something about an asana room that opens the floodgates more than other torrid spaces, and I’ve often chanted my three OM’s with a trace, then a trickle, and then a torrent, of perspiration running down from my shoulders to that uncomfortable spot behind the manufacturer’s label of my shorts. I used to shy away from adjustments, for fear that the teacher would be disgusted by the incessant dripping; and I used to seek out real estate on the edges of the room so that I wouldn’t be boxed in by students whom I assumed would be revolted. Though I knew yoga to be a purifying practice, I felt that there was something embarrassingly wrong with me, and I tried to protect others from my freakishly copious moisture.

Sometimes during my regular practice, I’d look with envy at fellow students who’d created beautifully geometric sweat circles and patterns on their shirts over the course of their practice–on all but the chilliest days, my T-shirts are completely saturated by the third surya namaskar. Now, there’s something to be said for my “comprehensive” style of perspiring—it’s like having the box set instead of the greatest hits album—but the art of selective sweating can be wonderfully literary as well and, given my verbal inclinations, I feel like I’m missing out. Tom Wolfe describes in A Man in Full,

Croker stared at the upright middle finger and squinted and stared some more, and his face grew red. And then Peepgass saw them . . . the saddlebags! The saddlebags! The saddlebags had formed! They were complete! The great stains of sweat on the tycoon’s shirt had now spread from both sides, from under the arms and across the rib cage and beneath the curves of his mighty chest until they had met, come together, hooked up—two dark expanses joined at the sternum. They looked just like a pair of saddlebags on a horse.

Oh, Peepgass loved it! Harry had done it again!—gotten his saddlebags—even with a tough old bird like Charle Croker!

Fellows here at the PlannersBanc at the end of the table were nudging each other and smiling. They’d noticed it, too. Peepgass was elated. Somehow Harry had redeemed them all. He turned toward the Artiste and said, behind his hand, “Saddlebags, Harry! Saddlebags!”

Ahh, the aesthetics of perspiration! How could Tom Wolfe’s Charlie Croker be so splendidly skillful at sweating while I’m just a slowly melting man? It’s Yoga 101, of course but, as usual, it’s all about intention.

We’re taught the intention that engenders an act is just as—if not more—significant than the action itself. So to find a less judgmental frame in which to watch my sweat, I practiced hot yoga, where if you don’t sweat as much as I do, you’ll overheat like a stalled semi heading over the Grapevine into L.A. If instructors didn’t want to touch me when I was more Swamp Thing than man, then, well, it was their own damn fault for teaching hot yoga.

John and Yoko

Clearly, she doesn't mind the sweat generated by this pose.

To get the full experience, I took a 75-minute class at Prana Power Yoga here in New York City on what was, at the time, the hottest day of the year. (Last month’s heat wave has since relegated that day into bronze-medal position as far as hottest day of the year goes, but it was still somewhere between 95 and 100 degrees.) Despite the weather, though, it was still hotter inside the asana room than it was outside.

Like most yoga classes, Prana turned me into a raisin. Because I expected it, though, I enjoyed it, indeed felt sympathy for those whose mat-pools were only half the size of mine. I hoped the instructor would come over to witness the wetness she’d wrought.

If sweating could be enjoyable and encouraged in one yoga class, why couldn’t it be so highly regarded in others? Embrace your waste, and you’ll never feel embarrassed again.

On the cleanliness of trash: thoughts on saucha July 5, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Flickr photo by lara604.

One of life’s biggest hassles concerns proper maintenance and disposal of “yoga clothes.” Now, one need not practice yoga to have “yoga clothes”—you might have “work clothes,” or “lab clothes,” or “gardening clothes”–and when I played soccer as a kid, my yoga clothes comprised mud-and-grass-stained socks and shorts, sweat-soaked shinguards, and two (or three) pairs of soccer shoes with mud and dirt (mercifully) or dog doo (unmercifully) clotted around the cleats.

These inevitably reeked and in high school, I took to leaving empty soap boxes in my duffle bag to absorb some of the smell. At that time, my family bought Lever 2000 soap which had become, after its successful 1996 launch (That year, the company sent bar after bar of free samples to our house), the first non-Dove soap to be used in family showers (Though like Dove, Lever is a Unilever product). I preferred it as a deodorizer to other soaps because, quite frankly, it was the strongest stuff on the shelf. Seriously–you could open a box of Lever 2000 in Portland and they’d feel fresher in Seattle in less than five minutes.

After graduating from college, I pulled a three-year stint as a professional baker, and “bakery clothes” became the new yoga clothes. These were caked in flour, dribbled in egg white, and smeared with brown sugar, honey, and molasses; vanilla extract, butter, and blackberry juice; cake yeast, cinnamon, and the occasional mutilated raisin. Of course, those of us who wander into bakeries always marvel at the delightful smell wafting out of the ovens, but when the raw ingredients are concentrated, tinctured with sweat and early-morning funk, then caked onto a hardworking T-shirt, the resultant odor is decidedly less pleasant.

Today, of course, my yoga clothes are, well, yoga clothes, and though I need only contend with one adulterating substance–sweat–the problem is essentially the same as it was after soccer practice or a baking shift. You don’t have to practice Bikram Yoga to work up a sweat, and in my daily go-rounds at Jivamukti, I feel cheated if I haven’t soaked through an entire shirt within ten minutes of practice. When class is over, it’s not unusual for people to mistake me for having just taken a shower, not a yoga class.

I’ve always been drawn to activities that encourage making a mess. To me, there’s something satisfying in the temporary desecration of cleanliness, that is, in the physical manifestation of “breaking a few eggs to make an omelet.” In my mind, it helps strengthen one’s commitment to non-attachment; after all, when they’re seen as necessary ingredients in the creation or production of something beautiful (a tray of muffins, a yoga practice), how can “leavings” be considered any less esteemed than the final product? Those sweaty T-shirts are ingredients, not by-products, of my sadhana, and I try to regard them as such.

And if you’re able to confront so-called waste with admiration, then how can that consideration not then extend to everything we deem “essential” or “complete?” When you look at waste as the equivalent of produce, it then becomes imperative to treat it as such. You sort food, leaving perishables in the fridge, frozen food in the freezer, so why wouldn’t you sort recyclables, or hand-me-downs, or (if possible) compost? Venerating garbage (Well, that may be a bit extreme) makes taking out the trash, drying yoga clothes, recycling Coke cans, part of your practice, as necessary as asana to purify your body.

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