Once the author dude notorious for cynical wit and public displays of toxin-fueled cockiness, Neal Pollack can now be known as the author dude with cynical wit, a calmer mind, and a tendency to stand on his head and quote the Buddha. It’s the new and improved Neal Pollack, the yoga dude! But, don’t worry, he’s still a smartass.
We shot the yoga over the phone with NP about his new book Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, his thoughts on “manly” yoga, Gen X cynicism, getting high in headstand and the meaning of impermanence. Man, did the conversation get dorky.
Read on for the YogaDork Interview!
Neal Pollack Quick Fact Sheet:
- Yes he’s still a toker, but is mindful about OPW (other people’s weed).
- He prefers music in his own practice – Indian Raga or bhangra cover band Opium Jukebox on Pandora. (bhangra versions of Sex Pistols and Rolling Stones songs are good, but Black Sabbath isn’t recommended).
- Favorite Pose: “My favorite pose is, far and away, headstand,” Neal says. “The day that my ashtanga instructor let my legs go and I floated free in headstand for the first time, that’s still my favorite moment in yoga. At that point I thought ‘oh I can actually do this.’ When I do it I feel very strong and confident and good.”
- Least Favorite Pose: “I hate eagle pose. I’m OK with the legs, but my arms are just super beefy compared to the rest of my body so my shoulders just don’t move into eagle pose.”
- Dorkiest Pose: “There’s nothing dorkier than happy baby pose. It’s an open invitation for a fart fest, or…child birth.”
You’re a satirist famous for somewhat grumpified Gen X cynicism, who wrote a funny book about your yoga experience. What is your intention Mr. Pollack?
What I wanted to do with the book was show that yoga is not just for beautiful rich women in Marin County or the tony districts of Manhattan. It can be practiced by everyone and is available to anyone. Whatever your life experience is, the practice is there for you to do whatever you want with it. I’d like to think people can read this and think “Shit, well if this dumbass can do yoga than I certainly can.”
Sounds like you’ve changed! Was there a transformation from where you were and where you are now?
On the most basic level there have been modest physical changes to my body, my upper body is more muscular, I’ve got better arm strength, I’m more flexible, I can hold my breath under water for longer. But that’s been pretty minor because there have been other parts of my body, like my chin and my belly that haven’t really been altered completely.
The more profound transformation had happened mentally. I think when I started I was very consumed by the idea of myself, and of what my place was in the world compared with everyone else. My ego was extremely strong and I had problems with anger, with jealousy, all the seven deadly sins, lets say. It’s not as though I don’t still feel negative emotions now because I certainly do, and I don’t always behave exemplary in every circumstance, but I’m much more mindful of how I’m behaving, how I’m thinking, what I’m thinking and why. I was able to live in what world a little bit more calmly.
That is the most profound change. It’s not as though I suddenly started dressing yoga-ish, whatever that means, or talking in new age pablum. But I’m able to see things a little bit more objectively.
Quoted in the Wall Street Journal you said you’re “20 percent more thoughtful.” In the book you say yoga helped you improve eating habits and to be less of a pervert. Would you say you’re also 20 percent healthier and less perverted?
I may even be MORE than 20%. In general it improved my life in immeasurable ways.
When you first start practicing, and if you’re practicing often, you start walking around in that yoga cloud, you know what they call “yoga brain”. And that’s great, but if you walk around like that all the time you’re just going to be an idiot. So what you learn to do is yoke that and control it and use it in your day to day life to be more thoughtful, kinder, more considerate, more helpful, just nicer in general. Which doesn’t mean you have to lose your humor and judgment. You can still be cynical about some things, you just don’t necessarily have to be a jackass about it.
So you’re saying you can be mindful and cynical?
If you were brought up, like I was, with irony as your default mode that doesn’t necessarily have to go away when you start practicing yoga. Just because you’re doing yoga doesn’t mean the world is any less ridiculous or that yoga culture is any less ridiculous. There still are a lot of annoying things to be cynical about, but I guess the difference is that you don’t take it to heart as much. You see things for what they are, with a little bit of distance and don’t necessarily see them as affecting YOU. I think in a way it allows you to be even more ironic because you can really observe things.
Just like in meditation and observing your own thoughts!
Yeah! What you learn to do is observe your reality in its true state.
You sound like such a yogi! (or a hippie)
(laughs) I know, I know.
What one of my teachers tells me, you learn to see reality as matter in a process of constant transformation so you can watch it from a distance, but also while participating in it at the same time. So your mind doesn’t shut off just because you start doing yoga. It’s just, you learn that you are not your mind. The mind is chattering and going, but you can watch it and learn how to control it a little bit.
Right on, man. Are we going to see you as Neal Pollack, the yoga missionary now?
I don’t want to be going around telling people “have you heard the good news about yoga?” I’m not knocking on people’s doors handing them Yoga Sutra verses and forcing them into sun salutations. I just like to think maybe through careful explanation and example and enthusiasm some people will get into it and find their own way.
I’m not a preacher. I’m basically a comic writer who wrote a funny and hopefully informative book about yoga practice and culture. But I’m not Joel Osteen.
In the book you talk about lots of characters in the yoga world. Who stood out as a favorite to write about?
There was the chapter where I take the road trip up to the Yoga Journal conference in San Francisco and I travel with these two Canadian yoga people. They were so quirky and so cool and we went on this road trip and were like a bickering family from the first minute. We went to a beach and one of them made me practice the breath of joy while the other one was sitting there meditating. And I just thought man yoga is full of freaks! And they don’t give a crap. And that was the moment when I realized these were my people. They sort of showed me a path toward existing in your authentic self. They were also super annoying. But at the end of the day we were all friends and did yoga together at the hotel.
Speaking of characters, you had a section about Bikram Choudhury and his yoga competitions in your book. What do you think about his chances of achieving Olympic dreams?
I wouldn’t put anything past that guy! He’s a very charismatic personality.
By the way, Bikram yoga is often referred to as “manly yoga”…
There’s lots of quote on quote manly yoga, but the problem with “manly yoga” is that there’s only a certain kind of man who can do it – meaning a young guy who’s pretty fit already, or a young guy who can get fit. If I were doing power yoga every day I would be dead! I can’t do it, I can’t keep up. I’m 40 and I didn’t start when I was 20.
OK, but you are definitely a yoga dude, so help the brothers out. What should yoga dudes wear to class?
Wear a tshirt and a pair of athletic shorts and probably wear some underwear so you’re not showing off your ass crack too much. Wear either a tank top or tshirt that fits reasonably tightly that isn’t going to flop over your face when you’re going upside down. I’ve done a couple of videos and I’ve looked and said ‘oh my god that’s my hairy belly’ because my shirt slid down while I was doing my headstand… just a couple inches away from a treasure trail – it’s not fun to look at!
Ya know, guys should just wear what’s comfortable. I would say that for women too, but I’m not going to start advising women on what to wear to yoga class. I’m not qualified. In general I would say, just keep looking good ladies.
A question from a YD commenter asked about the ad for your book in which you’re upside down in sirsasana smoking a joint. Nice multitasking! How did that go, and did you get stoned?
We did about 10 takes and I probably burned through 3 joints. I did get stoned, but I didn’t inhale. I was kind of puffing out because I’d actually been smoking those joints I would’ve been insentient the rest of the day.
Also, the guy who was filming it was European and so he mixed them with tobacco. I don’t smoke tobacco but it actually kind of helped for the purpose of what I was doing that day, not to get me completely baked out of my wits.
So has your yoga habit affected your weed practice?
I smoke other people’s weed a lot less often, I’m a little more mindful in that way.
What’s next for the new calmer, mindful Neal?
Gonna go on tour, do some reading, do some yoga. I’ll just continue to write, continue to practice yoga, continue raising my son.
And teaching yoga?
I completed a teacher training, I have a certificate. When and if I teach I don’t think anyone’s going to look to me for awesome asana instruction. I can barely remember my left from my right foot. But I feel like maybe I can help explain the more arcane aspects of yoga philosophy and culture in a palatable, modern way.
I’ve been assisting one of my teachers and feel like assistant teaching is always a good way to go. There’s nothing worse than going to a class and getting shitty yoga teacher who doesn’t know what they’re doing. I don’t want to be that guy.
You can practice yoga for 6 or 7 years, but then there will be something that happens and that’s what’s so cool about yoga - it’s kind of endless in what you can learn how to do whether it’s a pose, a new breathing technique, some sort of meditation trick or a new philosophical take on it. No matter what path you go down there’s an endless stream of things you can learn and do. Which I guess is a true sign of a yogadork.
NEW YORK LIT CRAWL NYC
BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL
With Stefanie Syman and Elizabeth Streb.
BROOKLYN POWERHOUSE ARENA
More dates at nealpollack.com