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The life yogic: bend this way

Living in a small town brimming with overt and unbridled devotion, I tread carefully when referencing someone's religion, but here's the thing: I frickin' hate yoga.

Living in a small town brimming with overt and unbridled devotion, I tread carefully when referencing someone's religion, but here's the thing: I frickin' hate yoga.

Strong words, even when wielded in a Seinfeldian ode to the mild-to-strong revulsion I experience to tribal pretense, stinky mats, yappy instructors, headstands, horrible music, Sanskrit chanting, proselytizing of any kind, and the widespread abuse of yoga-branded clothing (note to those who attempt to cure corpulence with too-tight tights: no, you don't look good in that and it does make you look fat).

Though I'm objective enough to see this as my problem, suffering these annoyances is made all the more challenging by some counter intuition: I also love yoga.

Without seeking it, yoga has taught me about patience - both with others and myself. Helped me through a depression. And, after three years of more-or-less regular attendance, delivered noticeably more strength, flexibility and balance. I ski far better. I up-perform, in fact, in every sport, get injured less, recover faster (though perhaps I'm imagining this one), and find it obviates the repetitive strains of writing on a laptop all day, every day.

So it's love/hate - open embrace/cynical dismissal. And within this dichotomy dwells an entirely new level of the very yin-yangism underlying yoga's stated philosophic quest to effect reunion with the universal spirit; in less-flaky terms, find the connectedness with ourselves and nature left behind as we become, well, more human. Cue Eckhart Tolle - and with good reason. On a messed-up planet whose problems are all traceable to the increasingly unconscious actions of humanity, any activity whose essential tenet is to explore awareness can only be seen as a force of collective good - not to mention a great way to stay fit. Perhaps this is why people have turned to it in droves.

Explosive success, however, has also become yoga's burden: popularity breeds devotion, growth, and commerce, but also attracts posers, hustlers, and hijackers - the inevitable Demons of Disenchantment.

Despite its overwhelming veneer of benevolence and positivity, offer anyone on the yoga continuum a chance to dis it - naysayer, contemplator, practitioner, acolyte, teacher, businessperson - and muck bubbles like a plugged drain. As a test, at a recent dinner party I wondered aloud whether anyone had any issues with yoga. It was like firing a starting gun. I couldn't write responses fast enough - most from those who actually practiced .

"Oh my God - the whole thing is a friggin' ecosystem, with its own lowlifes and rednecks. Like Bikram [hot yoga] people - they're the scum at the bottom."

"Some Bikram studios can't get insurance because doctors say it's too stressful; I see so many injuries in my work [massage therapist] from 30-day yoga challenges - torn hamstrings, back problems, c-spine tweaks from crazy extended neck positions."

"I tried Bikram. I'm emotional but not that emotional; I felt so awful at the end I cried."

"Bikram is westernized yoga. We're conditioned to 'working out' so it fills our demand for immediate results - moving, sweating profusely, not just holding a long stretch and meditating."

Whoa - surprising vitriol. But Bikram, an extreme genre practiced in rooms warmer than body temperature (a modality its very rich founder has famously and litigiously franchised), is an unfair target. Criticism began with a 2004 New York Times article entitled "When Does Flexible Become Harmful? 'Hot' Yoga Draws Fire," and continues sporadically to publicize the woes of a statistical few. But no one forces folks to find out if Bikram is indeed for them. Perhaps, like myself, they shouldn't even have been there.

A decade back, my first-ever yoga experience was a dawn Bikram session at the behest of a girlfriend. Hot yoga? Never heard of it. "It's great," she'd enthused, "you'll love it!"

Never mind that we'd drank copious amounts of wine the night before. Never mind that the compensation I decided upon wasn't rehydration, but an eye-opening triple espresso enroute. Never mind that I don't do well in heat. What I remember: a great chatter of anticipation among the assembled women (I was the only guy); chicks swooning when the sinewy teacher dude in pastel wife-beater finally appeared; someone deciding it wasn't hot enough and plugging a towel under the door; the ends of my fingers dripping before we'd even started; having no idea what was going on during the militaristic routine and thinking Downward Dog was sadistic; seeing my reflection in a pool of my own sweat (not pretty); becoming woozy about a half-hour in and having to step out for a few minutes; stepping out again 15 minutes later; leaving the studio for a third time, with 20 minutes left, and sitting on a bench; waking there, slumped over, as everyone filed out. I'd blacked out completely.

Jeezuz . From morning coffee to medical emergency.

Clearly the comic fault of my own ignorance and naïveté, I nevertheless deemed the scene cultishly mad and it tainted my notion of yoga. It would take a few years for the scales to fall from my eyes...

Next time: from darkness, light with yogi Julia McCabe.