Interview: Neal Pollack, author of Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

By Scott Alexander

“Yoga hasn’t made writing some easy magical thing for me. Perhaps it made me slightly more honest, slightly more careful about what I put on the page.”

Neil Pollack first appeared on the cultural radar as an early contributor to McSweeney’s and a satirical novelist. One of the most cynical of a strikingly jaded generation of writers, he enjoyed a meteoric rise followed by a blistering descent as he alienated his peers (with his behavior) and his agent (with poor book sales). But something happened on the way to the cut-out bin. Pollack found yoga. And with it he found authenticity. In his highly entertaining new book, Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, he chronicles his journey from self-absorbed (and self-loathing) enfant terrible to open-hearted, uncritical student of asana and meditation.

I spoke with Pollack during his current Stretch book tour.

At the beginning of the book, you outline the early arc of your career. It seems like there was a lot of stuff bound up with ego and fame and wanting to be known or recognized.
Yeah, a lot of look-at-me-ness going on. Ostensibly, I was parodying that impulse and making fun of the contemporary literary scene, but there was a large part of me that was actually consumed by it. I got this great opportunity and I seized it, but kind of over-seized it. It’s like a relationship where you’re too clingy and you want it too much and you smother it.

By the end of the book, you’ve shown several different styles of yoga, including a very appealing portrait of the home yoga as opposed to what one of your teachers calls “capitalist yoga.” You also run across people like Duncan Wong and Bikram Choudhury.
Yoga rock stars.

Do you think that getting that kind of fame in the yoga world is toxic to the practice of yoga and its emphasis on, for lack of a better term, ego reduction?
Well, I wouldn’t know from first hand experience because I don’t have that fame in the yoga world. I think some are probably better integrated than others. But there’s nothing in yogic literature or philosophy that says you shouldn’t be known for what you do well. There’s no vow of poverty you have to take to become a yoga teacher. So I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with becoming rich and famous. It happened to some people kind of accidentally, and some people are smart and design things a certain way. Famous yoga teachers are famous for a reason. There’s a lot you can learn from them. And the vast majority of them are super nice and generous with their time. Even the most egomaniacal, capitalistic yoga teacher is teaching you.

You mentioned that you currently mainly practice by yourself. Do you ever feel like you’re missing anything?
Not really. I have a regular teacher who I’ve been studying with–Patty–and I go to her classes on a pretty regular basis and I’ve also been assisting her in class and learning a lot that way. But you can’t depend on your teacher too much. At the end of the day, you are the only person inhabiting your future corpse. If you’re calling your teacher a guru, if you’re following them around and getting attached—that’s a problem. As Richard [Freeman] would say: that would just lead to more suffering.

Richard Freeman ends up being an important figure in the book. What drew you to him?
The first time I met him he told me that “yoga is a great opportunity to do nothing.” This is one of the yoga masters of the world talking. It completely transformed the way I looked at it. You think that you’re doing something very active and working really hard, and then a great teacher tells you that, in fact, the essence of yoga is doing nothing and thinking about nothing. And God knows I can do that really well. The way Richard teaches yoga, it’s sort of a comprehensive life philosophy that involves all aspects of your life, not just the two hours you spend on your mat contorting. I admire his teaching because he promises you nothing and gives you a lot. He’s just a really cool guy and a great teacher. I’m not going to call him my guru because I think that would be a dangerous path.

All the same, the idea of the guru looms pretty large in yoga culture.
I see it as just another attachment that the yoga community throws up. Eventually your guru is going to disappoint you. They’re going to charge you too much for something or they’re going to touch your butt or say something snarky. Essentially, they’ll reveal themselves to be human. And then you’ll have to deal with that. The less attached you are to them, the better you’ll be able to deal with it when they inevitably disappoint you. If you become attached to something it will inevitably disappoint you. Does that make sense? Or do I sound like Dr. Phil?

I can’t picture Dr. Phil saying that.
No one’s going to be perfect. And if you feel disappointed, okay, be aware of it, think about why, and then that will make it go away a lot quicker. You won’t carry it around and let it fester and ruin your life. I don’t like it when yoga people say, “Let it go, let it go.” I’m like, “Okay, I will let it go—soon. But first I’m going to live with it because it’s happening to me.” Negative emotions are a part of life. You’re going to get angry and envious and disappointed and you’re going to want to eat too much and all that stuff. You’ll probably have a couple beers too many and there’s nothing wrong with that, but you need to recognize it for what it is.

Speaking of eating too much, there’s a lot of beef jerky in this book.
Yeah, I do like meat. And I respect vegetarians and vegans. At times when I have eaten that way I felt really good, but I haven’t adopted that lifestyle. There may be stuff in yogic literature that says you need to have a healthy diet, you need to have a vegetarian diet, but there’s also stuff that indicates that may not be the key to yogic happiness. I think anything that is dogmatic or didactic or totally prescriptive is contrary to the practice. It’s all about direct observation of immediate reality. It’s like Buddhism–it’s all about the middle path.

I think for a lot of yoga folk vegetarianism comes out of the principle of ahimsa [non-harming or non-violence].
I totally understand why people would do that. Hence, one should probably attempt to eat sustainably farmed meat and all that stuff that the locavores and foodies tell you to do. One should try to live as ethically as possible, but sometimes the bacon is sitting right there in front of you and it looks so delicious. So I observe my bacon lust and then I observe myself eating the bacon lustfully. And if I eat too much of it, then I observe the gross feeling in my stomach and my brain.

You’re also very up front about your pot and alcohol use in the book.
Yes. Well, there is quite a bit of that in my life, especially the pot; I’m really not much of a drinker. I’ll have a beer or a glass of wine here and there. In general, I find that drinking is really bad for me mentally and physically. Whereas, pot, to me, is kind of a mixed bag. Weed is my major attachment in my life. I definitely struggle with it, but at the same time if I’m careful and moderate about it, I don’t see it as such a big deal. If you do it in excess it can mess you up and distract your attention. But I think if you’re not hurting anyone else, do whatever works for you.

So if it feels good, do it?
I’m not preaching “do whatever you want.” You have to be committed to the practice, but you don’t need to let it transform your day-to-day existence. Ultimately, it’s all internal and about the way you perceive reality. What kind of asshole would I be if I were like, “I practice yoga now so I don’t need the bourgeois trappings of marriage and parenthood. Sorry guys, I’m off to India.”

Do you think that think that yoga did anything for your relationship with your wife?
It’s definitely helped my relationship with my wife. I wouldn’t say that my marriage was troubled before I started practicing, it was one of the more solid and stable aspects of my life. But I’m a lot calmer and less neurotic and easier to deal with now. That makes the whole package easier. Even more noticeably, it’s helped my relationship with my extended family. We just had a family vacation where we all got together for a week, and there were 40 of us, 15 under the age of 10. That’s a recipe for turmoil for any family, even more so for a loud, emotional Jewish family like mine. I was able to just float through it all pretty easily without being spacey or rude. I credit yoga for that.

Has it helped your writing process at all?
It hasn’t made writing some easy magical thing for me. Perhaps it made me slightly more honest, slightly more careful about what I put on the page. It might have slowed me down a little bit. But I wouldn’t say it magically transformed my writing.

When did you realize you wanted to write a book about this?
Basically, I was practicing and friends of mine thought my stories about yoga were funny and thought that the fact that I was doing this at all was funny. They said I should write a book about it and I was looking for a book topic, so I wrote up a proposal about it and sold it. It wasn’t like one morning I woke up and thought, “I will write a yoga book because I’ve seen the light through awareness.” I was just telling funny yoga stories.

How many of the experiences in the book occurred after you decided you wanted to write a book about it?
Probably the back two-thirds. I told myself I’d write a book about my direct experience as it unfolded. This was not a systematic attempt to cover the waterfront about every aspect of yoga. I wanted to write a book about what it’s realistically like to go through this process.

A big part of the book’s appeal is summed up in the tagline: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude.
It’s funny, when I started, I was an unlikely candidate. But now it seems like the most likely thing in the world. I was so cynical and bitter and caustic and stoned. I was just mean. Essentially mean.

Do you feel like yoga made you less mean?
Unquestionably. It’s worth losing your edge; edge only gets you so far.

We hadn’t met before now, but my impression of you from afar was that you were a deeply cynical person. I find it amazing that all of these over-earnest, occasionally soft-headed people don’t have you walking around with a constant internal monologue of “Oh god, seriously? Did you really just say that?”
I do have those moments. There’s plenty of eye-rolling and I run into annoying people, but this too shall pass. Sometimes I feel annoyed and sometimes I even express it, but I don’t take it personally. And even right now hearing myself say that, I loathe myself and think, Aw man, just have an opinion. Say something caustic. But it doesn’t occur to me as often as it used to.

They got to you.
Yes, and you know what? I’m happier. What can I say? I mean, you don’t want to become a new age moron. You don’t want to become someone who doesn’t have an opinion and thinks everything is beautiful and okay and we’re all one, because that’s a lot of hooey. You want to keep an edge in that you want to keep your mind sharp but you don’t want that hipster stance of “edginess.” To have an edge just means to have a brain–to be a thinking person, or as they call it in yoga, a “discriminating awareness.” Not that I don’t have opinions and I’m not cynical sometimes, but I don’t go around with a big chip on my shoulder. Most of the time.

Finally, Neal Pollack, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Yoga made me slightly less crazy.


VISIT Neal Pollack’s website.

FOLLOW Pollack on Twitter.

JOIN Pollack’s Facebook page.

WATCH a trailer for Stretch on YouTube.

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