To anyone who’s “given up,” check out Arthur Boorman’s transformation. Arthur is a living testimonial for a pro-wrestler-turned-yoga-trainer named Diamond Dallas Page. Yes, it sounds like hype. And Iyengar yoga teachers would be aghast at Arthur’s freewheeling attempts at asana while obese and non-ambulatory. But look at the results. Attitude matters, not just in students but in teachers, too.

If you’re a yoga teacher, how would you have reacted if 300-pound Arthur, dependent on canes to walk, showed up at your class?

Yesterday at the university gym where I work out, I initially didn’t recognize the student staffer at the front desk. But as I pedaled up a sweat, I realized that he resembled someone I hadn’t seen since winter. That guy was much beefier (the overstuffed look of a misguided male trying to “get huge”), with cropped hair rather than this guy’s Brady Bunch curls. A brother, perhaps?

Turns out, he was the same guy. It was his senior year and he’d been cutting his hours to focus on school. During that time he also lost 43 pounds.

“I barely recognized you!” I said. “You look great. What made you change your whole workout and lose that weight?”

“I was 243 pounds,” he said. “I just wasn’t feeling good. I’d get out of breath and everything. Just wanted to get in shape.”

Quite an impressive physical transformation: Losing 43 pounds in less than six months. Growing the hair into a curly mop. Creating a new look that could fool even spies like me.

Transformation and yoga

I was intrigued by this 22-year-old’s turnaround, perhaps because I’m fascinated by all human transformation. When I see it happen, it inspires me. Whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, change is hard.

Change seems especially difficult for adults. A baby morphs from month to month, week to week, even day to day. Growth is inherent in babyhood. Just by being alive, they grow. Adults need to make it happen.

Once, when my Iyengar yoga teacher held us in a challenging pose, a classmate broke the tension with a joking complaint. My teacher responded good-humoredly, and then added, “Yoga is about transformation. And you don’t expect transformation to come easily, do you?”

I often think about her words. I’ve never minded that yoga is challenging. In Iyengar yoga, I can’t get away with sloppiness anywhere. But these very challenges seem necessary for any breakthroughs. While “anything goes” yoga might offer solace for a moment, it is probably less likely to spur real transformation, which seems to need that classic arc: effort, achievement, rest.

Our physical improvement though asana is probably obvious to us all. Barring injury, we can do poses better today than on day one. But I wonder if changes in my body are spurring mental maturity. That is my challenge. I don’t need to lose weight or grow my hair or do crazy arm balances. But I do need to outgrow a mental “bad habit” or two. How can my asana practice spur that change?

Image: Butterfly farm, Costa Rica, 2003

In the February 2010 issue of Yoga Journal, Jessica Berger Gross wrote “An Honest Meal,” about how yoga changed her relationship with food. It’s a neat summary of her memoir, enLIGHTened, which I reviewed in my second blog post, “Do yoga, lose weight,” last August. (I recommend reading the whole book, which more satisfyingly details her backstory and personality.)

While I was a bit underweight in high school and college (being thin had its own stigma, by the way), I could relate to eating hangups. During stressful periods in my 20s, I’d occasionally eat for psychological comfort rather physical need (granola, with its vague portion size, was particularly easy to abuse!). I’d also go through stages of health-nut zeal, eschewing not only meat, butter, and chocolate, but even olive oil and egg yolks! (I’m still vegetarian but on affectionate terms with dairy, eggs, and the cacao bean.)

The issue for me was not weight but control, whether too little or too much. Essentially, I was eating unnaturally. In her book, Gross’s then-infant son and pet dog exemplify natural food regulators. They eat when they are hungry. They stop when they are full. On active days, they eat more. On sedentary days, they eat less.

But even animals can have food hangups. My kitty, Gingy, couldn’t seem to self-regulate her intake. I had to portion out limited servings twice a day to keep her weight in check. She spent her early kittenhood as a feral cemetery stray, which perhaps taught her that food is scarce. In retrospect, I might’ve underfed her and contributed to her compulsion to clean her bowl.

Whether we’re human or feline, eating in sync with our physical needs is key. Our obsession with food has spanned generations and cultures. Food journalist Michael Pollan is just the latest chronicler, oracle, and advisor on our eating habits. He’ll forever be remembered for his seven-word prescription: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

His latest book, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (see New York Times interview here) contains catchy tips on what and how to eat. Have we so lost touch with this basic act that we need a guide to say, “It’s not food if it’s served through the window of your car”? Or, “Don’t buy cereals that change the color of the milk”?

Even those seeking healthful diets can go overboard. I’d heard the phrase “eating like a caveman” to mean avoiding grains and eating primarily plants and unprocessed foods. But, according to “The New Age Cavemen and the City,” also published in the Times, wackos are now trying to go prehistoric by alternating gorging on meat (as if after a kill) and fasting (between kills).

I might pick up the Pollan book. But my current favorite food book is eating my words, an engagingly witty collection of essays by Vancouver-based food writer and yoga teacher Eve Johnson. She captures the way food is family and history, sensory pleasure and scientific experiment—and shows us how a true foodie appreciates food.

IMG_0024For perhaps a year now, I’ve noticed an overweight fellow working out with a personal trainer at the gym. Actually, he was morbidly obese and stood out amid the university students, varsity athletes, and diehard gym rats. Perhaps in his early 30s, he worked out frequently, quietly following his trainer to this or that apparatus. Months passed and he looked exactly the same, with no apparent weight loss.

Today I saw him again for the first time in weeks, maybe all summer. I was taken aback. He was noticeably lighter.

Of course, he’s still heavy; but those months of effort finally paid off. Bravo, I silently congratulated him.

This man’s gradual transformation reminded me of an article, “The Open Secret of Success,” by James Surowiecki in his New Yorker column, The Financial Page. In comparing the success of Toyota to the failure of the American auto industry, he highlights the Japanese concept, kaizen, “slow and steady improvement.”

Toyota “defin[es] innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis … Instead of trying to throw long touchdown passes, as it were, Toyota moves down the field by means of short and steady gains.”

Surowiecki notes that Toyota’s innovations “have focussed on process rather than on product, on the factory floor rather than on the showroom.” Doesn’t this sound rather yoga-ish and Bhagavad Gita-ish?

In Japan, the concept is primarily a bottom-up business management model. In the US, land of self-help and pop psychology, UCLA psychologist Robert Maurer applies it to daily life in One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

Most books on finding happiness or achieving success are interesting only in theory. But Maurer’s points are simple and sensible. Take small steps. Baby steps. Break down big problems into almost-ludicrously doable ones. And keep going.

Immediate results are gratifying. But sometimes progress is silent and invisible. Whether the ultimate goal is to lose weight, learn a language, finish your dissertation, control your temper, meditate in padmasana (lotus pose) … even a little daily effort pays off.

Seeing that gym goer’s weight loss reminded me of kaizen. It took months for his workout regime to make a visible difference. But over time those steps are taking him far.

enLIGHTened Book CoverAfter the barrage of memoirs published since the 1990s, I’ve learned to set expectations low, especially for female-written ones. I’m female and a writer, so misogyny is not a factor. It’s just that too many are overwrought, Sad Sack, navel-gazing about emo issues: unrequited love, mother issues, infertility, jealousy, sibling issues, feeling ugly.

So I was quite delighted about a new memoir, enLIGHTened, by Jessica Berger Gross. It’s about yoga, weight loss, family trauma, and finding one’s true self (yes, all chick-ish topics) and YET it was intelligent and sympathetic. It takes a good memoirist to be revealing but not toorevealing.

Gross grew up with an abusive (verbally and physically) father in Long Island, adopted her mother’s coping mechanism of overeating, and struggled throughout her youth, into her 20s, with obesity. At 5′ 2″, she weighed 150lb before she finally learned to moderate: to eat when physically hungry, not emotionally. Around age 30, she shed 40lb; today, at 36 or 37, she’s kept the weight off and lives with her husband and toddler son in Vancouver.

Her intro to yoga came early, during a drama camp at age 14. But it took a decade for the yoga to stick and become a dedicated practice. Still, though the intervening years, she dabbled with more gusto than the typical class goer (that is, she might have been wayward but she was never a sheep). She’s studied with many big names: Baron Baptiste, the Jivamukti school, Patricia Walden, Judith Lasater, Marla Apt, Bobby Clennell, and currently with Louie Ettling.

The book is mainly memoir, but those with short-attention spans (or who expect website-type distractions) will be pleased to find vegetarian recipes (she’s a fish-eating vegetarian), asana descriptions, Yoga Sutras, quotes by the greats (TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga, among the best guides out there, is most-oft quoted), and catchy lists (eg, Top Six Signs You Are Eating Too Much).

Gross is a very-likable narrator and that counts for a lot. In one anecdote, she describes a Baron Baptiste teacher-training retreat. In a touchy-feely group session, participants talk about their bodies, sharing bouts with eating disorders, diets, the competitive vibe in yoga classes, where there’s pressure to be thin and dressed just so.

While others seemed to feel fine about their bodies elsewhere but sometimes self-conscious in the yoga world, Gross was just the opposite: “As unsure of myself as I felt in the rest of the world, the yoga room was the one place where I felt beautiful, where I’d forget all my self-doubt and the extra weight I carried.”

Overall, I’d give it a thumbs-up. No major flaws in her writing. But here are three gripes about Gross’s food choices:

1. Pineapples are her staple fruit, but can a self-described locavore justify eating three or four of these Hawaii-grown imports a week?

2. Gross discourages eating meat (for health, animal compassion, and eco reasons) but encourages eating fish and shellfish. But what about overfishing? What about the environmental mess caused by shrimp farming in SE Asia? See www.seachoice.org.

3. Raw, cold tofu is not “disgusting”! Ask any Japanese-cuisine aficionado. Or read Judith Thurman’s fascinating 2005 article on artisanal tofu in The New Yorker.