Stretching Perceptions

Photo: Neal Pollack at Moe's Books.
Anna Vignet/Staff
Neal Pollack at Moe's Books.

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Photo: Neal Pollack - Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude (HarperCollins)   Photo:    

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For someone unfamiliar with yoga, the practice might seem like a sweaty, foreign land ruled by spandex-clad women and quasi-Buddhist hippies - or at least, in this part of the world, anyway. Between Bikram and vinyasa, alligator pose and happy baby, even the bizarre vocabulary of the practice has been known to confuse those whose top interests don't happen to include Eastern philosophy or alternative fitness.

Before his nearly obsessive immersion in American yoga culture, Neal Pollack fit into the above description as well as an undoubtedly roomy pant size. His new comedic memoir, "Stretch," chronicles the satirist's transformation from an overweight, depressed, cynical pothead to a healthier, happier, not-as-cynical pothead. Full of self-deprecating sarcasm, genuine insight and plenty of wet yoga farts, Pollack bares the intimate, grotesquely funny details of his personal evolution. While discovering yoga's physical and mental benefits firsthand, he navigates its surrounding culture through a witty hero's journey bound to entertain experienced yogis and couch potatoes alike.

Known for his tongue-in-cheek book, "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," the author of McSweeney's fame might seem like an unlikely candidate for penning an expose of his deepest personal issues. After all, Pollack initially made his name in the writing world by faking grandeur as the fictionalized Neal Pollack (The Greatest Living American Writer, as the said anthology advertises).

Although capable of turning everything, including his persona, into parody, Pollack performs a literary balancing act in "Stretch" as tricky as standing on one foot in airplane pose. He makes sincere confessions while flexing his satirical muscles, unrolling the details of his depression, temper-tantrums and physical ailments like musty, unwashed yoga mats. But rather than attempting to mask the unpleasant odor of past experiences, Pollack humorously and openly acknowledges his imperfections as he outlines his feats.

"Yet my bitterness, fear, and horrible attitude persisted. I ripped off my shirt in public and emptied whiskey bottles onto my head. Why was I this angry?" Pollack recalls of his pre-yoga self in the memoir. "How did I become so cynical and self-absorbed, so quickly? After all, I wasn't born a total asshole."

Throughout "Stretch," Pollack operates on several layers of self-consciousness - possibly a symptom of low self-esteem after his relationship with publisher Dave Eggers went more sour than organic kombucha and the New York Times labeled him "yet another, doughy 35ish white man" in a book review. Pollack sees his faults, but he also sees the fault in fixating on those faults. His jokes seem to anticipate the potential reader's criticism of his mental states, body's flexibility and even the flow of the narrative itself.

But rather than throwing its author a self-indulgent pity party, "Stretch" unexpectedly lures the reader into yoga land by demonstrating Pollack's inexperience and continual emotional and athletic progress. During his countless repetitions of warrior pose in studios across the world, he wages a mental battle against his often detrimental ego when faced with self-aggrandizing teachers, awkwardly translated Sanskrit chants and his own bodily injuries.

Pollack earnestly inhales and reaches for self-improvement through his persistent curiosity about different yoga styles. Going between ultra-trendy L.A. studios, a 24-hour yoga marathon and, eventually, Tibet, he becomes a participator but not a dogmatic disciple of the practice and its spiritual roots. A generation X "Alternadad," as the title of his previous memoir proclaims, the skeptical attitude of Pollack's narration allows the reader to observe yoga's various incarnations without feeling like he or she's being indoctrinated.

Despite his relentless self-mockery, Pollack becomes a yoga dilettante, eager to absorb wisdom from any studio he can find. His apprehension and initial awkwardness become the equivalent of Styrofoam blocks and straps for readers who seek a gentler introduction to the discipline rather than a bombardment of hippie-dippie propaganda. Being a carnivorous, baseball-watching stoner doesn't warrant excluding yourself from the benefits of yoga and meditation, "Stretch" trumpets.

Last Friday, Pollack's book tour made a stop in Berkeley at Moe's Books. Yoga mat in tow, Pollack read plot-relevant passages straightforwardly, occasionally stopping to make self-critical asides to a receptive, chuckling audience. Rather than playing a fictional character or drunkenly burning books such as "Everything is Illuminated" as he had done on past tours, this aging party boy appears to have set his gimmicks aside.

Pollack did, however, regale the audience with three yoga poses by request, tipping his torso over into half-moon and executing a well-aligned headstand amid the bookshelves. His placated demeanor seemed to recall a passage in the book when he describes practicing the Breath of Joy with his Canadian carpool buddies: "Here I was, doing silly things in public without judging myself, without suffocating cynicism, without air quotes around everything."

While there may be many paths to inner peace, Neal Pollack's "Stretch" will undoubtedly inspire commiseration and laughter, if not a newfound yoga practice, in its readers.


Try to execute the alligator pose with Nastia at [email protected]

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