Monday, July 21, 2003

Ready, Set, Om

Baseball games Violin concertos. Hot-Dog Eating contests. Presidential elections. Nursery School admissions. There is no end to the list of things in which we'll compete, things where we are determined to name a winner. Doing well for its own sake, satisfaction at having tried as hard as we could... well-meaning platitudes, to be sure, but not the reality with which most us live. We tell our kids that triumphing doesn't matter, that sportsmanship is more important than winning... and yet at the end of the little league season, when the standings start to count, you know which kids will be sent to the outfield and why.

Yet, even in the midst of this constant ranksmanship, there are enclaves where peace and tranquility are the ultimate objectives, not championships. Take reading... no, sorry about that, schools have reading competitions to encourage kids to pick up a book. Well, then there's walking... oh, yes, that's been an Olympic sport for years. Well, at least there's gardening... whoops, my mistake, they award prizes for the best flowers and fruits.

In other words, there is almost no safe haven from the race to name the best. It would seem that in order to find a quiet place where no one will judge you, you have to turn inward. For many, traditional organized religion is where they find serenity. For others, it means exploring different belief systems and structures. And to some, it means trying to get in touch with their inner selves through yoga.

After all, what could be more peace-inducing, more self centering than an 5000 year old, ancient eastern philosophy whose entire focus is... well, focus: focus on your self, focus on your body, focus on your energy. If you can understand and master those elements, it would seem that regardless of what anyone says about you, you will truly know who you are and be comfortable with it. Biggest? Best? There's no place for that when the pitch is your inner self.

Or is there? From the left coast comes a different point of view. From a throne in his studio in Los Angeles, Bikram Choudhury, the hot fitness guru of the minute, is holding a competition among his nationwide legion of devotees to crown those with the best yoga poses. Choudhury, who has franchised his yoga technique and teaching approach, is looking for the Reuben and Clay of the Yoga Idol set. In doing so, he is seeking to emulate what in his view is the perfect approach to accepting and dealing with today's mass market lifestyle. No, not Judaism or Christian Scientist or Baha'i, but Starbucks.

And so a panel of judges at his studios is ranking extended puppies, downward facing dogs and cow faces (to the uninitiated, those are poses, not pets), with an eye towards finding the person with the best form for function. Gracefulness and appearance count, as do the lack of distractions like jewelry, nail polish and body hair. And while it's being done in a low-key manner, the goal is no different than the World Series of the NBA Championship or a Julia Roberts divorce... to come out with a winner. And that means it's just a matter of time...

"Live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, welcome to ESPN's exclusive coverage of the US National Yoga Bowl, brought to you by Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. Now, here's your host, Al Michaels."

"Thanks and welcome to this year's competition. The place it packed, the incense is burning and the leotards are pressed... all in preparation for tonight's big pose-off. I'm joined in the broadcast booth by John Madden and Maharashi Papadum Choi Massala. John, let me turn first to you. Who do you like in the field?"

"Well, when you talk about desire, when you talk about commitment, you have to talk about Helen Faranda from Troy Hills, Michigan. She's been training 8 hours a day, focusing on her Muladhara Chakra. She's a Mountain alignment specialist, and her move from that into Caterpillar is nothing short of awe inspiring. But she'll be given a run for her money by Milton Kevlar of Pascagoula, Tennessee. Kevlar's Balancing Bear was a sensation at the regionals in Atlanta, and his Plank sets the standard. Al?"

"Thanks John. Let me turn to the Maharashi. Papadum, what should we be watching for?"

"Al, I think we're going to see a battle tonight between the two main Yoga paths for achieving enlightenment. Will the classical path triumph, as the posers still the fluctuations of mind and prana through inner focus, concentration and meditation? Or will the tantric path shine, as the competitors uncoil the serpent releasing kundalni to rise up the susumna channel through all seven chakras to unite Shakti with Shiva? It should be exciting, indeed!"

"Uh... sure... whatever. The ashram will be rockin' tonight, no doubt about it. Thanks, Pops. We'll be back for the first salutation, right after this word from one of our sponsors, Ben Gay."

You might wonder which part sounds far fetched. Well, we've already determined that there is a competition in yoga poses. So expanding the audience is just the next logical step. After that, it'll become just another big time sporting event, complete with agents, music videos and the inevitable doping and cheating scandals. And perhaps we'll hear excuses such as that immortal line from Woody Allen, "I cheated on my metaphysics exam. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me."


Marc Wollin of Bedford flexes his instep before getting out of bed, hoping to achieve inner peace. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Friday, July 11, 2003

Cutting It

With summer upon us, it's officially time to break out the tennis racquets, golf clubs and Frisbees for the masses. After a long, cold winter, people are just itching to get out and take up the athletic activity of their choice. But to do so means getting your gear in shape. That means greasing the chain on your bicycle and pumping up the beach ball. You have to clean off your cleats and dust off the croquet mallets. And if you're David Bostad from Taurmarunui, New Zealand, you have to tune up your chain saw.

Bostad is just one of the competitors whose idea of sport is to saw, climb and chop anything that's made of cellulose. Along with a small but dedicated band of enthusiasts, their focus isn't the field of dreams, but rather clearing it. These boys and girls of summer don't want to use a wood bat to hit a ball... they'd rather cut it in half. It's almost July, so welcome to the world of timbersports.

An outgrowth of the competitions that kept loggers from being bored during a long tour deep in the Canadian woods, these contests are not for the faint of heart. They require strength, skill, and a certain amount of disregard for personal safety. After all, it's not everyone who would dash to the top of a 65 foot pole with a razor sharp saw tethered to their body... just a true competitor.

But that's just one of the contests you can catch if you tune into the Great Outdoor Games or the Timbersports Challenge. Like any Olympic-esque competition, from the X-Games to the Goodwill Games, this suite of head-to-head battles is no one trick pony. If you can cut it, climb it or roll it, there's a face-off designed to see who is the best.

For example, there's the Timber Speed Climb. Using specialized spurs and a rope sling, competitors power themselves up a 65-foot spar pole. Once at the top, they must touch a line a line strung between the two poles with their rope or body. But at that point, they're just halfway home: the contest doesn't end until they complete a round trip. In their descent, climbers are required to "spur" the pole in each of the designated sections, so freefalling is not an option... though competitors come very close. Time is not called until the climber hits the ground with all limbs intact.

And then there's the Timber Springboard. Typically one of the most grueling timber events, the springboard requires a number of specialized skills. Competitors must first chop notches in the side of an upright pole. Then they must set their "foot boards" into those notches. Once the board is set, they climb up onto the board and repeat the process one more time. Now eight feet in the air and standing on a wooden plank sticking out of the side of a pole, the competitors must chop a piece of wood that is attached to the top of their springboard pole. Time is called when they have completely severed the block of wood at the top.

And of course, no outdoor woodlands contest would be complete without the classic Log-Rolling and Boom Run. In the first, rollers square off... two at a time... in an effort to roll their counterpart off the log and into the water. Starting with wider logs and becoming progressively narrower, rollers roll the log with both forward and backward revolutions, changing pace and direction to disrupt the balance of their competition. In each pairing, the first to win two falls moves on to the next round.

The Boom Run features a series of logs connected end to end by a short chain. The logs are floating, and are generally soaking wet on top and bottom. The goal is to sprint from one dock to the other and back across this moving platform in the shortest amount of time. Note that there are only two things a boom runner can hit if they have a misstep... the water or a log. There were more than a few black and blue marks obtained last year on both the male and female side of the draw.

Finally, to crown the best all-around lumberjack and lumberjill, the Timber Endurance contest is the decathlon of the wooded set. Competitors have to master and perform three basic skills. The underhand chop requires severing a block of wood set in a horizontal cradle with an ax. The standing block asks for the same skill, but with the target placed upright. Finally, in the single buck, competitors use a saw to make a single cut through a pine log. For added drama... and sore muscles... the events are placed back to back, and the winners typically accomplish all three in about a minute.

But the marquee event has got to be the hot saw competition. Extremely loud and lasting no more than 10 seconds, it features competitors using modified engines on their chainsaws in an attempt to make the fastest three cuts in a large log. These dragsters of the cutting world can weigh up to 80 pounds apiece and rev at extremely high RPMs. They look a little like someone bolted a jet engine to a moving battle-ax and added a handle. If you've got the power to hoist the saw and pull the starter cord in under 1 second, you need to control it well enough to cut three complete discs from a 20 inch piece of wood... all from a standing start without slicing off your leg.

So you can get out the bocce set and set up the badminton net if you're of a mind. But just remember that to some, summer isn't summer until you've put a steak on the grill, made a pitcher of sangria, and sliced and diced an oak.


Marc Wollin of Bedford excels in the yet-to-be-recognized outdoor sport of gutter cleaning. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.