Saturday, October 29, 2011

Suzanne Morrison Talks About Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment

Come on, how could you not love a book that's called Yoga Bitch? Suzanne Morrison's tale of enlightenment is a fresh, hilarious look at how we try to reshape our lives. I'm deliriously happy to have her on my blog (especially considering my own Yoga trauma.) Thank you, Suzanne!

Your book is so, so funny! I just loved it, especially after my own yoga trauma. (I got yelled at after refusing to do a freaking handstand in the very first day of beginner's class. "You look like you need challenge!" the teacher told me. )

First off, that is an example of the absolute worst kind of yoga teacher, the one who makes you try something you aren't ready for and then guilts you into it. That's not yoga, that's asshole acrobatics.
 (Asshole acrobatics: Oh, the images that come to mind!)

When I got to the part where all the yoga people, except for you, are drinking their pee, I was laughing so hard that I nearly peed. But I still wonder, why didn't you leave then? I know you said it was penance, but don't you think reward acts just as well?

Ha! Well, I considered leaving. But the thing is, I’m prone to inertia. Once I’m in a place, it’s very hard for me to pick up and leave. I’m not one to change horses in midstream. (Midstream! Insert pee joke here!) Also, I was fascinated. I mean, the world is full of so many different kinds of people. So many crazy motherfuckers. I’ve always been attracted to people who are completely different from me, and this was an opportunity to be embedded in this weird, foreign world. If we were talking about pissdrinking on day one, I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d discuss on day twenty, you know?

So, people always tell me that someone rushing around all the time and agitated (like me) would really benefit from slowing down with yoga. But it didn't work for me at all. You seem sort of similar to me--do you think that statement is Kool-ade or does it have some merit?

Well, I think it all depends on the kind of yoga you were to try. If a person told you Christianity would help, that could mean being a Catholic, a Baptist, a Calvinist, a Unitarian, one of those crazy Westboro Jerkfaces . . . same with yoga. There are a kajillion types of yoga out there, and I think if someone wants to do yoga, they’ll find their type. But, well, you have to want to try it. Seems like you might be drawn more to a yoga teacher who’s wicked and smart and funny, maybe one who comes from a more intellectual yoga tradition as opposed to one of the more airy-fairy types or the drill-sergeant Iyengar type.

Folks who are more agitated and rushing around all the time, like us, can go in a few directions: some of us prefer slower, more restorative yoga (where you basically lie around on the floor pretending to be dead for ninety minutes) because it chills us out (I’m in this camp, usually) or we need something to burn us out a little, like a flow class, where you sweat and move a ton, and by the end you’re exhausted. Some of us need to exhaust ourselves first before we can relax. If I’m mad at someone, that type of yoga is very good for me.

BUT! That said! There are countless yoga proselytizers out there, trying to convert the masses. They can’t help it—yoga has changed their lives and they want to share the wealth. It doesn’t mean they’re right about it working for you, too. 

For me, if I sense that a teacher is really happy with herself, really satisfied with her spirituality and her flexibility and her vegetarianism or whatever; if she really knows she has a lot to teach us, because she’s figured out so much? I run like hell from that teacher. I’m a lot more attracted to the Woody Allens of yoga, the neurotic, searching, questioning yogis who suspect it’s all a house of cards. Those are the teachers whose classes I return to again and again. Who knows, maybe you would too?
Then again, maybe you should just stay home and watch some TV. I love TV. Add some chocolate or bacon to the experience and you just might reach enlightenment.

 I know that yoga is about limitlessness, but your wise, funny and acerbic account makes it seem limiting and even cultish. (I know, I am showing my bias). why do you think it isn't as accepting of the unique? You, frankly, were the one person in the group, that I would have wanted to talk to!

Aw, thanks Caroline! You would have liked Baerbel, too—she was smart and funny and very grounded. Whenever I felt myself becoming too ethereal, I would run to her house for a good, sarcastic conversation.

As for accepting the unique, I think yoga studios attract certain types, for sure. One studio will be bursting at the seams with yoga bitches in overpriced workout clothes. Another will be full of smiley, happy people who’ve cooked their brains in overheated rooms and become very compassionate as a result. You’ve got your classes full of people who admit they have no idea what they’re doing in yoga, that they don’t know why they even came to class, that they know they’ll never touch their toes, but jeez, here they are, so they’re going to try, however sheepishly. (I love those people.) You have the smelly throwbacks to the sixties and you have the power yogis who look like bodybuilders.

But there’s that one type of yogi that seems so ubiquitous from the outside, the judgey, yogier-than-thou, perfect yogi, at once an acrobat and a self-appointed guru. This type has figured it out. She gets it. Anyone who thinks differently than she does simply does not get it. She is to be avoided at all cost. She strongly believes that your uniqueness would be vastly improved if it were remodeled in her image. Run.

Part of why you went on this retreat was because you were afraid of death. What about now? (and why or why not?) You were also trying God on for size. How is the fit? It it different now than it was when you were in Bali?

Oh, I’m still afraid of death. I don’t have any equanimity about death whatsoever. I’m completely against it. I don’t know how one “gets over” death, or why I ever imagined I could do that. I mean—it’s death. You’re over. Done. It’s appalling, a major design flaw. But what’s nice about yoga and meditation is that they both really do help me to be more in the moment, so I’m thinking less about all my various psychic cancers and the probability of my dying of lupus or some rare type of encephalitis.

Writing does that, too—anything that requires complete concentration is good for eradicating, or at any rate postponing, fear. (There’s a reason artistic types tend to have an affinity for yoga and meditation—we engage that kind of focus on a daily basis. Concentration isn’t a foreign concept when you write books or music. It’s a requirement.) So I find that in concentration there is some relief from the fear of death, from fear of anything, really—change, illness, aging, loss, financial devastation, nuclear war, boils, taxes, all the things I fear when my mind isn’t occupied. The goal is to be that focused all the time, when chopping carrots, writing, having a conversation, waxing your legs. That’s enlightenment, in a nutshell.

As for God, I’m still looking. I think I’ve come to a place where I can admit that I’m on the hunt, that I’m deeply interested in religion and spirituality, and that might be enough for me. To be sort of a hobbyist at religion. I try to pray, to meditate, and I fail all the time. I think I’m doing it almost as an experiment, like, what will happen if I pray to Mary every night? It’s a challenge, almost. But I don’t know if I can believe in God as defined by any of the world’s religions. That’s why yoga’s a good fit for me, I think. It’s a great way to engage in spiritual inquiry without feeling like I’m getting boxed into something that feels fictional.

Why do you think it took you eight years to see how you had changed? And can you talk about that a bit here?

Well, I can be slow. I think that’s part of it. But mostly it took falling in love, which felt like starting a whole new life, to be able to look backwards and see the path that had led me there. It wasn’t until I had that perspective that I knew what the story was.

That’s why I structured the book the way I did, as a sort of dialogue between perspective and lack thereof. I went on my yoga retreat in Bali thinking that wisdom and self-understanding was something you could schedule, or pick up at the store, like a loaf of bread. (I think the wellness industry encourages this notion, too, and I am very susceptible to it.)

But of course that’s not how it works. I picked up a lot of tools for developing self-understanding while on retreat, but I didn’t come home with everything figured out the way I had hoped I would. I came home more confused than when I’d left! Here I’d thought that I would return to the States as wise and grounded and certain about myself as the yoga teacher, Indra, I admired. I thought she had found everything—God, herself, the love of her life—through yoga. I thought that if I just followed in her footsteps, I would find all of those things, too. Instead I left Bali thinking Indra might be a huge fraud and that I wouldn’t ever be able to truly change my life.

If I hadn’t responded so powerfully to Indra I wouldn’t have felt the need to write this story. But for years, I couldn’t stop wondering why I had believed her to be so perfect and why my disillusionment was so disappointing when she turned out to be—well, a human being.

And so the story is partly about how those tools I picked up on retreat became useful to me as I learned how to use them over time. There was one moment, many years after the retreat, after I had finally ripped my life apart and sewn it back together, when I felt like I finally understood what had happened with Indra. When, for the briefest of moments, I had insight into my life and compassion for the woman I had idolized. That was when I knew I had a story, because I knew where it ended.

 Do you think any sort of journey, other than yoga, can take people to where they need to go, if they are willing to self-examine?

Absolutely. For one thing, anything you do can be considered yoga. So you might never chant Om or do a downward dog or read a sutra, but if you’re living an examined life as a garbage collector, you’re doing yoga. If you engage your life honestly, you’re doing yoga. The idea is that you’re trying to acknowledge what’s real. What’s real might be that you’re an asshole, and if you recognize it, and say, “I am an asshole,” then you are doing yoga. If you are an asshole, and you tell yourself “I am not that bad. I’m not a real asshole, compared to that guy. Compared to that guy, that Hitler guy, I’m a real peach,” then you are not doing yoga. You are warping reality instead of allowing it to be what it is. Embrace the asshole. It’s what’s real.

Self-inquiry is everything. Honestly looking at yourself will take you all kinds of fascinating, harrowing, hilarious places. You don’t need to do yoga to go on that journey. You just need to pay attention, and invite your whole self to the table, not just the nice parts.

What's obsessing you now?

My new memoir is about my first big relationship, and how it changed me. I’m very interested in the struggle in my late teens/early twenties between my desire for independence and my need for connection. I thought I had figured the whole world out before I fell in love for the first time. But suddenly I found myself in a whole new world, one I didn’t understand at all. And most of all, I didn’t understand myself in it. I didn’t know myself anymore, with a man. I’m fascinated by that sort of alienation we can experience from ourselves.

I’ve also been doing a lot of research in the past couple of years on serial killers—my new show has to do with Ted Bundy, who was a friend of my parents’.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

Which foods would you trade enlightenment for?

Chocolate, crème brulee, salt & vinegar potato chips, bacon, a perfect cup of coffee, Fritos, Doritos, Tostitos, Taquitos, Burritos. Pretty much anything that ends in an –os. A hamburger crammed with dill pickles and ketchup. Any cheese or dairy product except for cottage cheese, which I’ll eat but am not truly passionate about. Skim milk is for people who hate life, so that’s out, too. Crispy buttery chicken skin, with or without the rest of the chicken. Chocolate with almonds, chocolate with hazelnuts, chocolate with caramel, chocolate with mint, chocolate with chocolate, double chocolate, triple chocolate supreme which is something I think I just invented. Hot chocolate—I love hot chocolate. Chocolate covered bacon is very good. I also like wine with a chocolatey bouquet. Also, sausage. 


Anonymous said...

I love that an author can ask another author "What's obsessing you now?" and it is a logical part of the conversation. There are many folks who would take offense at that question, although I understand it completely.

Caroline Leavitt said...

Ah, authors obsess. And actually, I admit, because I get to ask the questions, I want to ask the things I personally am always thinking about--and what obsesses someone is usually the most interesting thing about him or her!