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Q+A with Neal Pollack, Jeopardy’s Winningest Yogi Ever! (As Far As We Know)

in Public Display of Yoga

neal-pollack-alex-trebek

What’s it like to be a smartypants yogi on the 30th anniversary season of Jeopardy!? We checked in with author/yoga teacher/punk rocker/three-time Jeopardy! champion Neal Pollack to find out.

Today’s foremost yoga murder mystery writer is now a three-time champion and new official Jeopardy! Hall Of Famer - one of only 300 or so contestants in the show’s 30-year history who can make that claim – AND an honorary member of the YD Dork of Fame.

Neal, fresh off a three-day winnings streak totaling $60,798 (with maybe more to come), gave us the dirt on how he became a contestant on the show, how yoga and meditation helped him prepare for the competition and just how much that silver-haired Canadian fox Alex Trebek loved talking about yoga.

YD: Hello, sir. Congrats on your threepeat! That’s huge. AND you talked more about yoga than any other contestant we’ve seen (since we’re admitted big J! dorks). So how did all of this get started? Have you always wanted to be a contestant on Jeopardy!?

Neal Pollack: Yes, I have always wanted to be on Jeopardy! I can’t say that I’ve watched it for thirty years STRAIGHT, but I’ve come in and out since I was a teenager. I used to read trivia books and almanacs as a kid and have just always had a relentless thirst for knowledge. I’m intellectually curious and that’s the first hurdle to clear.

When I lived in Philly in the early aughts I did a story on Quizzo, their version of pub quiz. I loved it and started playing. And when I lived in L.A. I played pub quizzes, too. And I was pretty good. So I thought, hey, this might be my sport.

Yoga isn’t your sport?

Yoga isn’t a sport. It is a way of life.

Trick question. Please go on…

After I moved to Austin, my friend John Erler, my former neighbor, posted something on Facebook about the Jeopardy! online test.
He had won a game in 2012 and encouraged people to do it. I trust John, because he is smart and funny and genuinely warm–I don’t mean to the touch, necessarily, but kind–so I thought, what the hell, I’ll take the test.

So I did. And I guess I did well, because a few weeks later, I got an email inviting me to a regional audition in San Antonio. I will admit that I didn’t study for the test. Maybe I should have, but I just winged it.

What happened next?

So I went down to San Antonio, took another test, this one written, played a mock game with some other contestants, and did a personality interview. They said we were already finalists to be in the show and that they’d call us sometime in the next 18 months.

They called me in June. We taped in August. I was part of the first wave for the new season 30th anniversary season. And that is when I started to take it seriously

Did you do lots of studying to prepare?

There are Jeopardy knowledge sites and books. You know, I didn’t really prepare for the test or audition. I just practiced a lot of yoga and tried to stay positive. I went full in with my yoga philosophy–existing in the present moment with no attachment to results. If you’re not attached to success or failure then whatever happens is fine. There is no success or failure, there is only experience. I tried to tell myself that.

Do you think that gave you the edge or just helped you personally get in the Jeopardy zone?

I don’t know about the edge, but it gave me a lot of confidence. I knew that once I got the audition that I was in good shape. I know how to do an audition.

From your improv days?

Yes. I’ve been an actor–a bad one–but an actor, since I was a kid, and I’ve been on TV a few times, so I wasn’t scared. Once I passed the knowledge gauntlet, I knew I could get through the rest

You definitely seemed comfortable, and probably the most animated and expression-filled contestant on the show since Colby Burnett.  

Yeah, I like being on TV. It’s fun! I am not afraid of the “teevee.”

Did you do any special yoga techniques or extra meditation to prepare?

Yeah, I did some deep Yoga Nidra meditation, intention setting and the like. I also did a daily physical practice. I lost 15 pounds doing asana and eating mostly vegetarian. Cut out gluten and heavy meat.

No juice fasts and sweat lodge to clear your mind?

I juice fasted for a week. No sweat lodges. And I also–this was the big sacrifice–stopped smoking weed for TWO WHOLE MONTHS. I went up there and said, I am going to live in the present moment and not get too flustered. Whatever happens happens and it’s OK.

Alex seemed to really like that you’re a yogi and brought it up each time he did the mini contestant fun facts chat. Your answer to his question about teacher training in Ashtanga was particularly interesting – about how you studied with Richard Freeman, but you don’t do the traditional vinyasa practice because you keep hurting yourself.

It’s true! Ashtanga, as people practice it, is too intense for me. Richard Freeman showed me a middle path where, yeah, you work hard, but you also can relax into it and modify to suit your aging body. I annoyed him a bit because I was so lazy in my teacher training, but I was always listening…focus on your breath, be kind to people, live in the present moment: I try to hold true to those principles as much as I can.

Also, have a sense of humor because life is ridiculous. It was good preparation for Jeopardy! But you also need to study your science facts because you never know when shit might come up. Just doing yoga isn’t going to cut it. As I’ve learned, it also helps to know a lot about David Hasselhoff.

On the scale of life’s accomplishments and difficult tasks, where does this rank?

The hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

So…you have another night to defend your title. Do we have more yoga convo to look forward to?

I cannot say! It’s all yoga conversation.  I just feel really privileged to be able to represent yoga on national TV.

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Neal Pollack will be back on Jeopardy! tonight for the fourth time to defend his title. Check your local listings!

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