Be sure to check out Paul Belitz (Part One) on Humility and Rebellion. Here’s the part of our talk where Paul gets into all things yoga. Brace yourself; he’s very honest.
I saw on your Facebook page a picture of pancakes and it said, “Happy Moon Day.” What is your Moon Day celebration? Do you plan ahead?
I don’t plan ahead. Surfing is always a popular moon day activity. Pancakes are a popular anytime activity.
Do you only surf on a Moon Day?
No. Since I hurt myself I’ve been trying to be a little bit more flexible about doing things in addition to yoga and not worrying about how it’s gonna hurt my practice. Sometimes I feel like yoga makes me too myopic and maybe it’s healthier to do other things, other than the same movements over and over. But that might not work out in the end. We’ll see.
Mostly because it seems to be the yoga with the least amount of bullshit. I like the Mysore room. It seems like a safer environment, where people are less likely to be showing off or getting their egos wrapped up in things. Led classes are more dangerous for me because I can get too wrapped up in seeing everybody doing the same thing and wanting to assert myself. So I really appreciate the the psychological effects of being in a room where there’s no talking and where there aren’t too many external influences.
In addition to that, I really hate the new-age floofy yoga culture. And there’s definitely less of that in Ashtanga, which is a little bit more driven and less touchy-feely. That resonates a lot more strongly with me. Modern yoga culture is like, “Peace! Love! Joy!” And then you meet the people and they’re fuckin’ assholes. Well, some of them are. Modern yoga culture has this aspect that’s very disingenuous. For example, people always portray asana practice as an endeavor to benefit your health. And I think that’s crap. I think it can certainly make you more flexible and it can make you strong, and yeah, it can help you recover from some physical things. But it’s way less effective than a physical therapist or an orthopedic surgeon. So really, who are we fooling?
So why do I practice? It’s definitely not for health. Personally, I practice yoga, to quote Fight Club, to have a “near life experience.” I think most people practicing Ashtanga or even your typical vinyasa class, what they’re looking for is a meaningful experience. And in my experience, yoga induces a state of harmonious psychological and physical performance far more effectively and readily than anything else I’ve ever tried. I’ll go surfing and I’ll go climbing and every 3rd day I’ll have a really good day where my mind turns off and I’ll just move. In yoga, I can enter than same state of union every time I get on my mat. So it’s phenomenally effective. But it does kinda bug me when people are like, “Oh, Come to Yoga! Drink green juice! It will make you healthy and young!” Really? I don’t know about the healthy bit. Maybe marginally healthier but I don’t think that’s the overarching reason that so many people are attached to the practice.
Modern yoga culture and I don’t get along very well. I’m not blissed out all the time. I don’t pretend I am. I don’t think that peace on earth is a reasonable goal. I get tired of all the Om signs and Peace signs on the back of cars.
So, the backstory is that I tore my meniscus about a year ago. I sprained my knee when I adopted my 90-pound pit bull, Norman, who was not leash trained. He yanked at the leash and I very slightly sprained my knee. Then I aggravated it in practice. That had mostly healed when I let my ego get in the way in a led primary. I think it was Janu Sirsasana C but I’m not sure. All I know is that I did all of Primary Series and when I got out of class, I couldn’t really walk. I limped around for like 2 months. Everything healed except I couldn’t use my knee for Primary. I had surgery on it 3 months ago. It was actually a useful exploration of why I practice, why I want to practice and what I get out of practice. Quitting Ashtanga never really crossed my mind. I knew that I wanted to go back. I knew that I had to restructure the way that I think and the way that I do poses. I never want to hurt myself like this again.
At first yoga came very unnaturally to me. The first time I walked into a yoga studio and they said, “Touch your toes,” I said, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” My hands were on my kneecaps. Learning Primary was harder than finishing my PhD. There’s not much doubt about that. The first half of intermediate is a little bit less soul-wrenching.
I started practicing with Tim [Miller] when I sorta outgrew the normal Vinyasa Flow class. I never want to be the most competent person in the room. I’d rather be right at the median. I like being surrounded by people who are more competent than me so that I learn things. So I don’t get complacent.
Was there any way to avoid knee surgery?
I talked to a couple different doctors and Ashtangis who have hurt their knees in this way. I asked if it was gonna heal and they said, “Well no, not really.” I gave it 6 months to see what happened. It never got better in a yoga context. It got strong again so I could climb and surf. I probably could’ve skied on it. But I couldn’t do Primary Series. So, in the end, I decided that going through with the surgery and maybe being able to do Primary again was better than not ever being able to do Primary again.
I drink beer. Nothing artistic, nothing intellectual. I used to read a lot, and then I went to grad school and that kind of squashed my intellectual curiosity. It’s just gone. So I no longer read things because I want to learn. I think, “I spend all day thinking, now I want to sit here and walk my dogs and then go to bed at 8 because of Ashtanga.”
I was talking to my friend who has twins who are 3 ½ years old. She said, “You should come over and help me burn my Christmas tree. How does 8:30 sound?” And I’m like, “Are you insane?” She said, “Well, the girls go to bed around 8:15.” And I realized, “I share a 3-year-old’s bedtime? This is awesome!”
I was sedentary for about 3 days. I was on crutches for 2 days and then I very quickly didn’t want to be dependent on other people. The doctors told me to let pain be my guide, and it didn’t really hurt at all. They gave me a bottle of Percocet and I never used any of them. So now I have a bottle of Percocet. I’ll save it for a rave or something. (I don’t know what people do with Percocet.)
I was really grumpy for those 3 days. Then I was hobbling around the neighborhood with my dogs. And then walking came back super fast. I bought a mountain bike. When I can’t do things, expensive whims gets indulged. I’ve used my new bike less in the past few weeks than I wanted to because of yoga and surfing. The surf’s been good. I like exercise, I guess. I like doing things. I hate sitting around. I sit around really, really poorly. When I was stuck on my couch, I watched about one movie and then I started hating everything and everybody.
I taught a few yoga classes for a few years. I gave them up recently but I enjoyed teaching. My students were really great. When you teach, you start recognizing the projection that you’re offering. If you have a bad day, you can’t go in there with a scowl and stomp around. That would be hugely inappropropriate. And so, that was an environment where I felt like I wanted to portray one particular aspect of my personality. But in the rest of my life I try to portray my whole personality pretty accurately. I figure that being fake around people so that they like me is a fairly meaningless way to get through life. I’d rather be me and if people like me, great. If they don’t, then I’m gonna try really hard not to worry about that.
I feel like we owe it to the world to be honest with ourselves and about ourselves. So if you’re improving as a person, that’s fantastic. But unless you’re actually perfect, don’t pretend that you are. I feel like a certain level of bluntness is not a bad thing. The problem is that I’m both hypersensitive and very impatient. So I try to say things in the way that I see them, but then people get mad at me and I feel really bad that they’re mad. I’m a work-in-progress.