After years of denial and protestation, a climber finally comes to terms with yoga
Story and photos by Bruce Willey
Like most people and a few mules that are set in their ways, I harbor a lot of preconceptions and I’m not easily converted. So I’ll just say my wife made me do it.
She’s a gazelle-like creature whose been doing—or “practicing” as they like to call it—yoga for most of her adult life. She cajoled (“It’ll be good for your climbing”), begged (“Please, for me”), manipulated (“You’re going be a creaky, old man”), and threatened (“No sex for you”) until one day she just hauled my stiff ass to a yoga class.
Driving to my first toga class I dug deep into my extensive prejudices against yoga. These included a litany of complaints and shrewd judgments: Yoga is for women and if men are into it they’re only doing it to pick up women. Yoga is a multi-billion dollar business that, in a blatant colonial sort of way, appropriates another culture for its own gain. Yoga is a spiritual enterprise for Indians that is wholly confused as a yuppie exercise regime. And so on.
Satisfied with this denunciation of the yoga industrial complex, my imagination turned to the impending class, a class no doubt that would be crammed with stern and rubbery women in Jane Fonda wear, contorting their limbs around their necks, disproportionately strained and sweaty.
We arrived at a dance studio in downtown Bishop. Yeah, the Mule Capital of the World, pop. 3500, has a dance studio. Or did. This was nearly five years ago. Inside I was led into a small closet holding the tools of the trade—cork blocks, belts, bolsters, and mats—props that I would soon come to know as munificent Roman torture devises. We quietly sat down on the wood-floored room that was filled not with stern, overly serious woo-woo women, but a lone man and the yoga teacher, Mary Devore.
We Omed three times in unison and sang a sweet little song. So far it felt like kindergarten. And then Mary called out a pose and I imitated, as best as I could, the wife and the man who wore old jeans. I’ve long forgotten what poses we did that day, but I do recall struggling through each of them as if learning a new (body) language all the while thinking this was the most ridiculous way to humiliate one’s self.
But it indeed stretched tendons and muscles I didn’t know I had, and stretched time, too. I kept looking at the clock on the wall, wondering when this fresh hell would be over. And the man in jeans, struggling through the poses like me? He turned out to be John Fischer. I figured, if a bad-ass mountaineer like him could muster the humility I could too.
Almost five years later I’m still a long ways to be converted. I don’t own a stitch of yoga-specific clothing or possess my own rubber matt, though it has crossed my mind to attend class in a loincloth like yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar is seen wearing in the black and white photographs hanging in the Bishop studio simply to shock my classmates.
So if not full circle, at least I’ve come a long ways. And that’s why they call it practicing rather than doing yoga. It’s the process that counts. The results are just a by-product. Am I a better person? A better climber? Yeah, maybe. I stoop a bit less. My former back pain has vanished. My posture is more self-assured. Climbing-wise, my high steps are higher, my stemming is wider, and on a good day my concentration is more refined. Best, I’m less biased and more open-minded to try new things. Or at least I like to think so. The wife says I’m still stubborn, though.
Being away from Bishop for large chunks of the year has meant that I’ve been forced to sample other yoga teachers and classes, all with mostly disastrous results. One class in Berlin stands out as particularly angst-like and brutal. The only English word the teacher seemed to know was “Streeetch!,” a word he used with certain malice and authority. “Danka” and “Nein,” were the only words of German I knew, none of which I had the foresight to employ until the class was thankfully over.
It was a level one class, but Germans, if I may be allowed one sweeping cultural stereotype, do everything twice as long, twice as hard, and twice as intense. After that class I vowed to never break my monogamous teacher-student relationship with Mary. After all, she had tender knowledge of every previous, current, and future injury lurking in my frame, and with limitless compassion knew the limits of my own faith in yoga to heal these afflictions.
She also possessed a sixth-sense; an intuition about what kind of class would offer my body and mind the most restoration. Coming down from a multi-day backcountry climb the class focused on the legs. A week pounding nails or gardening and we worked on the upper body. I never thought I was capable of saying this, but on the Eastside, deep in the deepest valley where Birkenstocks are shot at by cowboy boots, the universe is possibly aligned. To what extent and aligned to what, I’m not sure. But perhaps its time to contemplate that Bishop might be another one of those numinous vortex zones like Mt. Shasta or Sedona. The local chamber of commerce probably won’t mind since Main Street (Hwy 395) lives and dies on tourist dollars.
In the last five years the Bishop Yoga and Massage Studio has grown too. It has its own space and is thriving despite what many naysayers believed would be a short-lived misguided experiment; the wrong business for the wrong town. “I didn’t have any expectations,” Mary Devore says.
Mary began practicing yoga with her mother at the tender age of four. Her grandmother had taught yoga and meditation in Oregon back in the 1940’s, long before most Americans had even heard of the 2200-year old devotional practice. After obtaining a doctorate degree in botany and climbing extensively throughout the West, Mary developed a following in Santa Cruz, where she taught yoga for 10 years. But climbing and her husband/climbing partner, Tai, lured her away from a place where yoga studios are as ubiquitous as mule stalls and fishing stores are in Bishop. Through quiet persistence Mary has built up another strong following and nowadays it’s advised to show up a little early to claim a spot for you and your mat.
And that’s what I do once a week on Thursday mornings. It’s a wall class, which means we use straps attached to the wall to assist in getting deeper into the pose. Sort of like training wheels for the yoga set. The class is popular, filled with kindly, generous, unserious women who don’t at all look like Jane Fonda. I like them all and look forward to their company. Though yoga is about getting to know the self better, this class seems more about community, a community of women who for various reasons—age, injury, enlightenment, or just staying in shape—are attune to their bodies and minds. If, on rare occasions, a man shows up, I’m the first to tell him that he’ll need to earn his alpha male status … From me.
So what exactly is this practice of yoga? I’m obviously the wrong guy to ask. So I asked Mary one day after her class.
“Yoga is the stilling of the mind,” she says, “and the way you do that is stilling the fluctuations. You have to control the fluctuations and the way to do that is through all the limbs of yoga.”
Mary could tell I was confused just as she could see my long-ago surfing injury deep in my knee.
“You still the fluctuations of the mind through practice and detachment,” she continued. “Practice is practicing the moral and spiritual disciplines, Asana (poses) and breath. And the whole part of detachment is when you start working on concentration, meditation. Because once you’re in a state of concentration you’re focusing on one point. At that point you don’t have time to have fluctuations. You detach from worldly desires. And when that one point goes into a steady flow, then you have reached a point of meditation.”
Ah! Which is, without putting too fine a point on it, exactly like climbing.
“Exactly,” she says.
Mary says yoga is complimentary to all kinds of sports, but especially the kind of sports that meld a full state of concentration with deep physical activity—surfing, climbing, running, cycling, skiing, in other words.
“Flexibility, strength, meditation, concentration, balance. It’s huge,” she says. “When you come to know the postures, when you are strong and firm in the postures, the mind becomes steady and the spirit, the soul becomes delighted, becomes happy.”
From Bishop to Berlin, Bruce Willey does his small part to support the yoga industrial complex, recognizing it does indeed benefit his climbing and marital relations. See more of his work at www.brucewilley.com.