Stretching for my inner Zen
It’s been almost three years since I moved to Beijing, and in an effort to make up for all the time I spend indoors avoiding the grey blanket of smoke outside, I’ve made good use of the gym. During my workouts, I’ve been impressed by members of yoga classes who bend into unfathomable contortions while an instructor demonstrates the positions as effortlessly as drinking a glass of water.
I’d smile for a moment, secure in the arena of sweltering men pumping iron with popping eyes. During all these years, yoga was to me, a feminine pursuit akin to teary dramas and swooning over dashing men in Speedos – nothing I needed to think about.
Of course, I knew that men practiced yoga. Advertisements for spas in hotels display images of men who appear to be having the most relaxing time of their lives. But I always believed that being able to wake up at an ungodly hour without worrying about attending work was what really put the smile on their faces.
But I was suddenly thrust into the world of yoga when my dad nearly begged me to join him for a class. At first, I wanted to laugh at the notion of an old bloke like my dad amongst all the nimble yogis. But I could sense his insecurity about being the only man there, and I empathized. My mom encouraged me as well, going on a lengthy spiel about all the benefits of yoga. Her long talks did indeed speed up the process of my slipping into sweats and zooming out of the house to escape her buzzing.
My first class was, thankfully, moderately packed – nobody likes being scrutinized as the new face, and there was bound to be someone as inflexible as I was. At least I knew I was safe in the company of my dad. As I tried to keep up with the instructor, I could see my dad huffing and puffing in the mirror-lined walls while the rest of the class maintained immaculate composure.
In yoga, breathing is one of the most important components. They even have a name for it: pranayama. The instructor guided our breathing, but I often needed to breathe about four times as fast to keep myself from passing out. The thing is, yoga does what bodybuilding can’t; it increases flexibility of muscles and joints that are not on the regular “radar screen,” especially obscure parts of the abs and the backside, where big heavy-lifting motions don’t have much effect. All the funny contortions serve a purpose, massaging organs and glands of the body – as well as stimulating the brain – so they can function in tip-top condition. Meditation is also an integral part of yoga, and it helps create an emotional balance by detaching the mind from the regular onslaught of stress from daily life.
For all the “peace” and “balance” that yoga encapsulates, I personally felt after the class as if I had been running for ages, and I had to convince myself that I wasn’t reversing those benefits just because I was in complete physical agony. My illusion an hour earlier that I was in excellent physical condition had been shattered, but I had to admit that I felt good. My dad looked as dazed as I did, and it was one of those rare instances that we understood each other.
Since then I’ve slowly increased my uptake of yoga. I’m happy to say that I’m far from the young lad who suffered during his first class. Now I enjoy attending yoga, and there are more than a few men there who can say the same. I just hope swooning over dashing men in Speedos won’t interest me anytime soon.