Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Neal Pollack’s Stretch
October 11, 2011, 1:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Neal Pollack’s Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude is an at times joyful and refreshing look at yoga culture in the States. The “at times” is the key phrase in that sentence; Pollack’s book, which describes his journey from being an overweight, balding, mean-spirited, struggling writer to a “yoga dude,” is at its best at the start of his journey.

Dealing with stress over a poor review in The New York Times and a six-a-day donut habit, Pollacks’ wife urges hm to attend a yoga class with her at the local gym. Unlike his wife, Pollack ends up hooked on yoga. When they move to L.A. so he can pursue work as a screenwriter he gets more serious about yoga; L.A. Is, after all, described as being to yoga what Paris was to writers in the 1920s.

Even when he’s taking yoga seriously Pollack doesn’t take it too seriously. This isn’t a book you’ll be rolling your eyes at as you read, thinking, “christ, gimme a break about this ‘connection with the universe’ stuff.” But he’s at his best early in the memoir, when his skepticism about yoga is still evident to everyone around him. Pollack never hesitates to take jabs at himself, either, but the best come early on, as when he struggles with bouts of gas during yoga class, effectively deflating the world of yoga (which to us outsiders can too often seem composed of people who have never had to do something so crass as race for a bathroom):

If at all possible, I liked for my farts to get lost in a wave of sound. Therefore, the best time to fart, if I absolutely had to, was during the part of the class where we said “OM.” As a beautiful chorus of human voices (including mine) harmonized as one, my colon expanded and contracted, discharging useless gases. I sent them out to the cosmos as an extra blessing, a karmic bonus.

What makes Pollack’s book so fun and accessible is that, when the book opens, he’s willing (even eager) to reveal these aspects of himself, but also that he is such an asshole. Pollack is a contributor to the first issue of McSweeney’s, and the first book published by McSweeney’s is written by him. He views himself on a path to success, and the self-destructive path he heads down (quickly killing off his best contacts) when the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers do make it big, is recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by the unfairness of not being viewed as remarkable as their (assumed) counterparts. The joy Pollack feels in his transformation from the sort of man who publicly rips into a perceived competitor’s book, to one who tries to do headstands without farting, is evident and makes the first third of the book a pleasure to read.

What ultimately works against Stretch is the same thing that makes Eat, Pray, Love a hard swallow: Pollack got a book deal to write about his yoga journey while still on his yoga journey. With the writing he does on articles he writes for journals like Yoga Today, and the Thailand yoga retreat he pays for with his book advance, the last two-thirds of the book read like a journey that’s been designed for its narrative arc. Pollack covers a yoga conference for Yoga Today, travels across the country and attends classes representative of types of yoga, like Bikram, that have defined yoga in America, goes on his retreat and then covers a yoga conference/indie rock fest. His observations about “yogis” in America (like the number of middle-upper class practitioners who wear their $100 lululemon yoga pants while turning their yoga poses into poses for the gaze of others) do effectively skewer the commercialization of yoga, but even this loses its pleasure after a couple chapters.

Pollack writes about finding his “best self.” It’s hard to take that effort seriously, in part because of his habit of smoking a bowl before heading in for yoga practice, but more so because his attempts to craft a redemptive narrative are so apparent. Pollack’s book is at times an entertaining read, but it never quite lives up to its potential.

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