Recent Work By Neal Pollack

The following scene is from Chapter Seven of my new yoga memoir Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude. This particular chapter takes place during my time as a “seva,” or volunteer, at my neighborhood yoga studio. Everything else should explain itself.


One afternoon, midway through a substitute seva shift, I sat on a stool while baked out of my nuts, idly picking my nose until class got out. A handsome young dude entered. He said that the owner had asked him to drop off a seva application, and he handed it to me.

His most recent job had been waiting tables in New York City. Obviously an actor, I thought. Then I noticed that he’d once been an editorial assistant at the Chicago Reader, where I’d worked for seven years. Since the paper, like all papers, was more or less in the process of financial collapse, this probably wasn’t a coincidence that I’d run across many more times in my life.

“The Reader, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I used to write for that paper.”

“Really?” he said. “What’s your name?”

I told him.

Now, when I drop my name to another writer, my expected response is “Oh my God, dude! I totally love your stuff! It’s really great to meet you!” Or at least, “Oh yeah, sure. I’ve heard of you.”

He stared at me blankly.

“Maybe I read you in the archives,” he said. “I spent a lot of time reading the archives when I worked there.”

“So did I,” I said.

Suddenly, I felt old, useless, and insecure. I easily had ten years on this guy. All the yoga philosophy in the world couldn’t counteract the horrifying feeling of obsolescence that washed over me at that moment. Still, I tried to make conversation. We talked about the death of newspapers, but how long can you do that, really? Eventually, as every conversation in my life did, the topic turned to yoga.

“So do you practice a lot?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “But I’m working on a pilot about a yoga studio. I figured I should see what one was like.”

Rookie mistake, kid. You never know who you’re talking to in L.A., or what kind of lunatic ulterior motives they have. For instance, you could be talking to a guy who was working at the same yoga studio, who maybe in the back of his mind harbored fantasies about writing his own yoga sitcom. And maybe this guy felt threatened.

“Do you have an agent?” I asked, hoping that my voice would drown out the sound of my sinking heart.

No, he said. But friends were showing his other work around to agents. It probably wouldn’t take long.

“Cool,” I said.

He left. I took the application into the owner’s office. As I sat there, staring at the paper, I felt a good Krishna hovering over one shoulder and an evil Krishna over the other. Do it, the devil said. This guy is your competition. He’s cutting in on your territory. The angel said, come on, man, he’s just a kid. Give him a break.

The market for yoga-based entertainment was surprisingly fat. I’d done my research and had seen trailers and pilots for a half-dozen independently produced yoga sitcoms. There was the yoga documentary Enlighten Up!, where a skeptical Jewish journalist tries to find inner peace on a voyage through the world of yoga. That hit way too close to home. Then you had the “Inappropriate Yoga Guy,” whose hilarious YouTube videos had racked up a million hits. Will Ferrell’s SNL sketch about achieving a yoga pose where he could suck his own dick had been making the rounds for almost a decade. They were doing yoga on The Office. Scarlett Johannson played a yoga teacher in He’s Just Not That Into You. Couples Retreat had that long scene with the loin-cloth clad Fabio lookalike yoga teacher. Scott Bakula was playing a yoga teacher on Men Of A Certain Age. If you wanted to go even further back, Jenna Elfman did yoga humor in the mid-90s on Dharma And Greg, for fuck’s sake. But at some point, something would tip the scales, no one would be interested in buying yoga material anymore, and that would mean another path blocked by the cruel hand of fate.

As yoga’s popularity continues to grow, it’s no surprise that the industry has expanded beyond just physical practice. Many people turn to yoga for spiritual guidance and seek other forms of self-improvement. This has led to the rise of online platforms that offer various resources such as meditation courses, mindfulness practices, and even psychic readings free of cost. These platforms have become a go-to for individuals looking for holistic approaches to wellness. The yoga industry has evolved beyond just physical exercise and is now a space for those seeking a more profound connection with themselves and the world around them.

No, I thought. Not this time. There may be a lot of competition in the small and unimportant world of yoga comedy, but Karuna Yoga is mine.

And then I did it. I tore his application in half, folded up the halves, and tore them again, and again, and again, until there was nothing left but little shreds. When this was done, I went outside to the Dumpster and put half the pieces in one side and half in another. I wadded a few of the pieces into a ball and placed them in my mouth, mashing them into an unrecognizable pulp with my saliva. I had to destroy all the evidence.

I went back inside and immediately felt horrible. My conscience began to scream. That had been one of the most quietly venal acts of my life.

I went home, put the kid to bed, and was doing the dishes when I called Regina into the kitchen.

“I did something bad,” I said.

She sighed.

“What now?”

I told her.

“Do you really think you’re not going to get found out?” she said.

“No,” I said. “But….”

“Dude, the universe tested you, and you totally fucked it! You have to make this right.”

“I can do that.”

“Look, I understand the impulse. This is a competitive town. But that’s no way to win.”

“I know.”

“Seriously, you could get into big trouble.”

I went downstairs. Fortunately, the guy was on Facebook. I wrote to him:

“Hey. It’s Neal Pollack, the former Reader employee who was working the desk tonight at Karuna. I wanted to let you know that I misplaced your application. I have no idea where it went. There was a big rush for the 6:30 class, and I had to run a bunch of credit cards, and it vanished in the shuffle. I’m going to email the owner to tell her, but I think it’s best that you come in and fill out another one…I’m really sorry for the hassle, man. I owe you a beer.”

From there, I tried to deploy a more innocent deflection strategy. I said that Karuna is “a really nice studio with great teachers and cool, sincere students.” Nothing topped it “in terms of high-quality yoga instruction and laid-back attitude.” But as far as wacky characters went, I said, there were several other studios in the neighborhood that were better sources. I then named a bunch of studios that I’d never visited.

When that was done, I wrote to the studio owner:

“A guy stopped by the studio around 6 PM to turn in a SEVA application. Then I ended up doing some credit-card transactions for Lauren’s class. When the smoke cleared, I’d completely misplaced his application. I searched high and low but couldn’t find it anywhere. So it’s probably in the studio somewhere, but I have no idea where….I already contacted him on Facebook (it was definitely him), so he knows to come in and request another application if he’s still interested. I’m really sorry about this…I don’t know where my head was tonight. I imagine you’ll be hearing from him soon. Thanks for your patience. I’m sure you’ve dealt with worse.”

The next day, the guy wrote me back:

“Thanks for the heads up. I will drop by and fill out another app. And thanks for the tips on the other, more “eccentric,” studios around town. Great meeting you.”

He included a friend request.

A few weeks later, he started working a regular shift on Saturdays at Karuna. But by then, my mind had righted itself. For help, I’d sought guidance from a handy paperback called 1001 Pearls Of Yoga Wisdom. How would the masters deal with such a situation, I wondered. I found this one from the great Swami Sivananda: “There is no end of craving. Hence contentment alone is the best way to happiness. Therefore, acquire contentment.”

Yes, envy was bad, particularly combined with covetousness. That guy could write a dozen yoga pilots for all I cared. If one hit, I’d even think about being happy for him. I had everything I wanted and needed, right now.

A couple of days later, I heard back from Karuna’s owner:

“Thanks for the update,” she wrote. “No worries. I am glad that you are here at the studio taking care of the community.”

What are the most common questions people ask you about yoga?

The first one, by far, is “what type of yoga do you do?” It’s a totally legitimate and useful question, and yet very tough to answer. I’ve trained in the Ashtanga tradition, but most people either haven’t heard of that, or they’ve heard of it as something Madonna did in the 90s. Then I have a hard time explaining it without going into a historical explanation of the lineage, and by that time most people have already gone back to the bar.

The question gets even thornier, because I’m a somewhat overweight carnivorous stoner with a bad attitude. There’s not a specific “type” of yoga that caters to me. You either practice yoga, or you don’t, and it doesn’t matter if you do it in a hot room, or a lukewarm one, with or without chanting, with or without incense. Who your teacher is doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter to anyone but you. But, as my teacher Richard Freeman is always pointing out, people are desperate to place themselves into a category, to feel like they’re part of something larger.

The mind is tricky that way. Doing yoga doesn’t exempt you from that. In fact, because there’s the illusion in yoga of doing an “enlightened” activity, people let their guards down, and then cult-like activity can begin. No one person’s yoga can exactly mirror another’s, just as no one person’s life can exactly mirror another’s.

Really? Is this how you’re talking now?

Sometimes. An intellectual understanding, no matter how basic, of the yoga tradition is new to me. Until about three years ago, I’d never read a word of Eastern philosophy. I’m like a kid playing with a new toy on the first night of Chanukah. It will, I hope, calm down a bit.

What’s another question?

“Does your wife do yoga, too?” This is a little more annoying to me. It’s like me saying, “I play poker two nights a week,” and then someone immediately asking, “Does your wife play poker, too?” The answer is, on both counts: No. She introduced me to yoga and then gradually got burnt out. “It’s your thing,” she says to me, which makes me feel kind of sad, but I’m not going to try to push her back into practicing. She still indirectly reaps the benefits because I’m a lot calmer, kinder, and saner that I used to be.

So has yoga saved your marriage?

No, deciding not to have a second kid saved our marriage. But yoga has definitely helped.