The way I look at it, if you can’t find something to laugh at in your own behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and appearance, you’re probably not being honest with yourself. If you’re not being honest with yourself, it’s hard to grow. And there’s a good chance you’re not fun to sit next to on long plane rides, either. I began doing yoga when I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until sometime around the year 2000 that I began a vigorous daily (when possible) practice. I love the discipline and the routine, and I believe that in a multitude of small and large ways, it’s made me a healthier, happier, and calmer person.
I’m more flexible, in every sense of the word: I tend not to take things as personally as I used to; a shoulder injury I incurred about twenty years ago finally stopped bothering me; I don’t revert to rebellious teenager mode when I see my mother’s phone number on caller ID. And so on.
I’ve done just about every style there is, from Ashtanga to Iyengar to Bikram and back, and I’ve found something to learn from and love in each of them. And yes, even while learning and loving, I’ve found plenty to laugh at, too. But more on that in a minute.
A few years ago, I conceived of a series of three novels set at a yoga studio in LA’s Silver Lake district. As a concept, it seemed like a no-brainer. For an increasing number of people I know—women especially—the yoga studio has become a place to make friends, organize social causes, and find a little more balance. Gather together a group of five friends with complicated lives, put them in a yoga studio, and plot points are definitely going to fly.
I wanted the books to be fun and engaging, and I wanted them to underscore the huge benefits of the practice, both physically and emotionally. But when I sat down to write the first sentence, I discovered—your subconscious tells you things when you’re writing fiction—that the main character, a devoted yoga teacher who had just finished teaching an exhilarating class, was craving…a cigarette! Very un-yogic, but, for better or worse, very real and human.
That sentence pretty much set the tone of the books for me. I realized they weren’t going to be earnest and reverential guides to the world of yoga, but lighthearted novels with a gently satirical edge. They would celebrate everything wonderful about yoga, even while laughing at some of its sillier aspects and some of the more amusingly human qualities of its practitioners.
I ended up dealing with commercialization, hundred-dollar halter tops, sermonizing raw foodists, the passive-aggressive yogis who glare at you if you take “their spot” in the practice room, and the on-the-make guy who shows up for class dressed in “white stretch pants that scream I’m serious about yoga, ladies—and circumcised.”
The first novel, Tales from the Yoga Studio, came out last January. On the whole, the response was very positive. Fourteen countries bought foreign rights, Yoga Journal gave it a rave review, and at the Wanderlust Festival in Vermont last summer, an exuberant yogi almost knocked me down with enthusiasm when she found out I was the author of the book.
The five main characters in the book are transformed by their yoga practice in ways most yogis can appreciate. They let go of old loves, find new ones, drop some bad habits, and learn to laugh at themselves. They don’t revert to rebellious teenager mode when they see their mothers’ phone numbers on caller ID. And so on.
At the same time the book was getting praised, I heard from a few people who were upset by scenes in the novels that poke fun at the way some studios have become obsessed with the more commercial aspects of yoga—setting up elaborate clothing boutiques near the front door, hosting workshops involving yoga, wine, and chocolate. They seemed to resent the fact that I was airing dirty laundry and being somewhat irreverent in my tone.
My second book, Head Over Heels, is about to come out, and I have a feeling those same folks are not going to like it much better. The novel follows the same five women to new places in their personal lives and their practices. They’re all trying to strike the right balance of inner peace and outer success. Among other places, their journeys take them to a Wanderlust-like festival in the Sierras and to a lot of hybrid classes with awkward names like yoquatics and yogalates and Yoga de Janeiro.
If, as yogis, we’re not open to a little good-humored laughter at our own expense, we are, I believe, doomed to become the super-serious, ultra-earnest caricatures that have spawned a thousand YouTube and SNL parodies of yoga classes. As we all know, there’s nothing more hilarious than taking yourself too seriously. A little humor about the goofier aspects of the yoga world can only be a good thing, especially if it comes from within.
Laughter has one especially distinctive quality—it’s spontaneous. You can’t plan it, and if you try to fake it, you invariably fail. As a reaction, spontaneous laughter cuts through to the heart of all that’s false, foolish, absurd, or just plain ridiculous. In that sense, it has a healing, corrective quality.
Like practicing yoga, laughing at yourself can help you clear out the cluttered thinking, the pretentious attitudes, and see yourself as others see you. Far from creating negative energy, laughing at yourself can illuminate the world around. It can lead to all kinds of enlightenment. And really, it makes you feel as good as the best yoga class you ever took.
Stephen McCauley practices yoga and teaches writing among other things. Books written under Stephen McCauley’s name include The Object of My Affection, Insignificant Others & The Man of The House. HEAD OVER HEELS is the second book in the Tales from The Yoga Studio series written under Rain Mitchell, the first book of the series is also the name of the series.~Editor: Seychelles Pitton