February 25, 2006
I NEVER thought I'd find myself standing on one leg in a mirrored room heated to 105 degrees, staring at my ''third eye'' while pretending to be a tree. But then again, I never thought I'd be reckless enough to bust my back riding a polo pony for the first time in 30 years. Funny how the old yin tries to reconnect with the young yang when the executive pursuit of pleasure becomes a pursuit of pain relief at all costs.
Of course, I knew from the moment I entered the Zebra Yoga studio in Sag Harbor that I wasn't supposed to think at all. I was supposed to clear my brain of noise and imagery. Allow my mind and body to become one. Just let it go. But I couldn't let it go -- not with the reflection of my chimerical evil twin, Larry, smirking at my every awkward move.
Stripped down to identical black bathing suits and white T-shirts, Larry and I looked like sweat-soaked slow-breathing spitting images of each other. But there was a critical difference in focus. Instead of staring at his third eye, Larry kept glancing over at the reflection of the yoga teacher, Lienette Crafoord.
A strawberry blonde with robin's egg eyes and an athletic figure wrapped in black spandex, Lienette prowled the floor like a self-enlightened lioness, offering a nonstop stream of yoga instruction.
''You're standing tall and proud, reaching to the ceiling,'' she purred. ''You're inhaling and exhaling through your nose. Your mind is clear. Your mouth is closed. Your face is relaxed ''
I squinted at my reflection, trying again to clear my mind, but it was no use. I kept thinking about how Larry had led me to yoga in a classic case of doing the right deed for all the wrong reasons. It all started the previous Saturday when we joined Lienette and a crowd of local businesspeople at the Sag Harbor Village Ladies Improvement Society's annual fund-raising ball. Next thing I knew, Larry made his move, preceding me like a bad reputation.
''You have this glow about you,'' he told Lienette as if it were just a matter of fact, extending his right hand and then introducing himself by my name.
''A lot of people notice it,'' Lienette returned, grasping his outstretched hand. ''A lot of people want a part of that. That's why they come try yoga.''
Larry barreled through that opening quicker than you can say Buddha, affecting the air of a high-rolling corporate executive and putting foot in mouth when he should have had tongue in cheek. ''Just hurt myself real bad playing polo down in Palm Beach,'' he said, groaning and twisting his torso from side to side ''Early in the season; horses were too fresh; like riding jackhammers.''
Larry grabbed the bar rail, arching his back. ''Brand-new Ferrari Modena stalled twice on the way back to the boat,'' he continued. ''Canceled the sail to Lyford Cay, jumped right in the hot tub. Thank God, I had the corporate jet that weekend. Never would have made it flying commercial.''
Lienette just kept glowing her glow and smiling a blissful smile, as though she could see right through to Larry's lying soul and it didn't faze her at all.
''Many people come to yoga because of injury,'' she said. ''Then they discover it's not just physical. There are all these opportunities for emotional and spiritual healing. Suddenly, having come for an injury, they go on a journey of self-discovery.''
Larry immediately signed us up for sessions at Lienette's studio, leaving me, as usual, to do the due diligence. I quickly discovered that there were about as many kinds of yoga as there are words in the Kama Sutra. Indeed, yoga had undergone an explosion of popularity over the last decade with an estimated 15 million people in the United States practicing traditional disciplines like astanga, Iyengar and vinyasa, and innumerable new-age variations.
Lienette taught Bikram yoga, also called ''hot'' yoga. It was invented in 1974 inBeverly Hills by Bikram Choudhury, a three-time national yoga champion fromIndia. It consists of 26 poses performed in an indoor space heated to over 100 degrees, the equivalent of working out in a sauna. According to the Bikram Web site, the heat enhances the healing of chronic injuries by enabling you to ''work deeper into your muscles, tendons and ligaments to change your body from the inside out.''
Once disparaged as a Hollywood fad, Bikram yoga has attracted numerous celebrity followers over more than 30 years. But entertainment industry students like Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch and Quincy Jones have recently been joined by former world-class athletes like John McEnroe and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and by the conditioning coach of the Seattle Seahawks football team, who prescribed it not only for injured players but also for those seeking an edge in flexibility and endurance.
A former triathlete and professional sailor, Lienette had turned to hot yoga to heal a nagging hip ailment. Amazed by the overnight results, she went on to study with Bikram Choudhury for nine weeks in Beverly Hills to become certified as an instructor.
After consulting at various studios for four years, she moved to Sag Harbor to become the operating partner in Zebra Yoga. Her classes cost only $20, and they attract lawyers, bankers, real estate executives and entrepreneurs looking to relieve workday stress, as well as ''weekend warriors'' hoping to heal sports injuries.
''I'm a yogi, you're a yogi,'' Lienette said when Larry and I arrived. ''If you're practicing the connection between mind and body, you're a yogi.''
The only yogis I knew had the last names Bear and Berra, but I figured this might be my last legal hope for lasting pain relief. I had learned on a visit to a chiropractor that my borrowed polo pony had pounded my L-5 vertebra, sending my iliocostalis and quadratus muscles into spasms. After massaging me with electrical current, the chiropractor had adjusted -- make that yanked -- my back so violently, I felt as if I'd been hit by a truck.
It took me only one 90-minute session to realize that Bikram yoga was not for wimps, either. Lienette guided us through 55 minutes of standing poses with names like half moon, standing bow and awkward pose, which demanded that you do a knee bend perched on your toes. I stumbled and wobbled a lot more than I posed, straining muscles I never knew I had and feeling like a doddering fool. Larry's reflection kept smirking at me in the mirrors.
We then spent 35 minutes on the mats, twisting ourselves into human pretzels. I was supposedly striving for a ''tourniquet effect'' by compressing my organs into the postures, then releasing the postures to flush my organs with oxygenated blood. But my beleaguered system seemed to flush only sweat, tears and malodorous bile. ''There are a lot of toxins coming up,'' Lienette allowed, ''especially when you've been injured.''
By the end of the session, I felt as if I'd been run over by another truck. I spent the rest of the evening in bed practicing savasana, the so-called dead body pose. Larry ran off to a local pub, purportedly to lubricate his system.
But when I awoke the next morning, I was stunned. My old yin had reconnected to my young yang. I rolled out of the sack without crippling back pain for the first time in over a week. Elated, I rushed over to Zebra Yoga for a second session.
Upon entering the studio, I saw Larry's reflection in the wall mirrors. I immediately disclaimed him and all his misbehavior. ''You are whole and perfect just as you are,'' Lienette said. ''Nothing should be stealing your peace.''
Moments later, Lienette guided me into a half moon. I stole a glance at the wall mirrors -- almost all of my back pain had miraculously disappeared and so had Larry's reflection.