the back row yogi: saying yes to no
“You’re Number 41,” Lucie says as I sign in for the 8am class on Saturday, Jan. 4. Nearly 50 people have come in today to sweat out the holidays. Most of us are here for the 20-Day Detox that starts this morning. We pack the hot room in five lines of nine or more and the work begins. Midway through the practice, Anna puts us in a twist and keeps us there.
“I have a new circus company,” she quips, telling us to ask: “How’s business?” How’s business we gasp in unison.
“In tents,” she giggles.
Sure, we can afford a silly laugh. We’re still in the good spirits that consuming plenty of meat, flour, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and dairy engender. We are fools.
But we are ambitious fools.
Three days after Christmas, in the middle of the afternoon, I became suddenly aware that I was (a) sober; (b) not at a restaurant; and (c) not coming from, preparing for, or actually at a party. I was surprised. Then chagrined. Then really ready for the detox that I had heretofore been mostly dreading. Call me a fool.
After the yoga session is over, we detoxers return to the muggy room to meet each other, get our packets, and learn the details of our 20-day adventure. Like most smart routes to deprivation, this one begins by ensuring success. We add to our diets rather than taking away.
For the first three days, we are assured, flesh, blood, wine, cake, and coffee can still be consumed without guilt as long as they’re accompanied by a life-giving extra. A large salad, a draught of coconut water, a spoonful of maca root, a serving of seaweed, and a plant-sourced protein drink like the VEGA shake are listed. Flaxseed, inchi seeds, and chia are also encouraged.
Salads, I’m familiar with. Maca, inchi, and VEGA are new words I’m not certain I trust. I’m not a sushi fan specifically because it consists of raw fish wrapped in seaweed. Could inchi merely be 1/12th of footi? Can flaxseed be soaked into linen? And hey: Aren’t chias pets?
We are told to pick a Detox Buddy, that person we can call, text, and harangue when the scent of French fries accidentally wafts our way, when getting onto the mat seems impossible, or when sitting quietly for 10 entire minutes with just the blank slate of our own minds is too terrifying a prospect to entertain.
Because in addition to changing our diets, we’re committing to an amped-up yoga practice of at least three times a week and a daily 10-minute meditation session—all sluiced by 100 daily ounces of filtered water. This taking away will be adding on a lot.
My Detox Buddy is Nikki, who has just moved here from Florida to become a wine maker after a long career working for Disney. She’s prepping for a trip to Africa and wants to get stronger and slimmer before she leaves. We marvel at the good fortune of meeting. She’s in the wine business and I’m one of its biggest supporters! This won’t be so bad!
I return home brimming with news, carrying a coffee, still wet with sweat. Leon is waiting. He’s promised to do the diet part with me and is disappointed to learn that it’s starting off slowly; he had wanted to quit drinking everything strong and yummy immediately. Um, he can. As for me, it’s the day to take down the Christmas tree, put all of my Santas away, and re-clean the house for January’s calm. After my coffee’s done, I’m having a damned beer.
Nikki sends me a picture of her salad just as I’m making ours. She’s trying the coconut water I’m so leery of. “It’s like a lite Piña Colada,” she reports. “Kind of.” I just like the little box. As I will discover upon returning home later from the store laden down with maca, VEGA, chia, produce, and pretty little coconut water boxes, I don’t like the taste. Probably not even with rum. If coconut trees had dank armpits, I think as I shudder down a sip, this is the liquid that would drip from them.
But I’ve paid for this detox, set my January Saturdays aside for meetings, and don’t want to wonder again at 2pm why I’m still sober or not smeared with cheese. I’m doing this thing, even if it takes a massive attitude adjustment.
Nikki and I text back and forth, describing what we are, and more tragically, what we are not consuming. She sends me a photo. It’s all slats and circles. After a quick squint, I can tell that it’s her wine refrigerator, filled with neglected bottles being needlessly kept at the perfect temperature. We are perfect Detox Buddies.
After three days of adding to our diets, we begin the Great Subtraction. For the next four days, we take away meat, dairy, refined flour, alcohol, sugar, and caffeine. We can do it in intervals or all at once; I decide it’s better to kill all my darlings in one swoop so as to mourn them less.
Feeling a sense of elaborate ritual, I secret my coffee grinder in the far back of the cabinet. Leon’s already got all the good wine stored in the garage, awaiting the cellar he’s planning to dig into the hard adobe clay of our backyard before summer. (On a side note, I must say that I fear this cellar idea, realizing that its footprint would exactly mimic the size of my grave. I resolve to be nicer to Leon.) Flour and sugar belong in cookies, and the massive holiday baking I’ve just concluded does not now endear me to cookies. As for meat, well, we don’t have any just lying around, so phew for that.
Like my fellow detoxers, I fret. Our packet says that we’re not supposed to indulge in anything that comes in a can, box, or bag, but I’ve never opened so many cans, boxes, and bags as I’m doing now. Black beans: can. Maca root: bag. VEGA: canister. Chia: bag. Coconut water: (pretty little) box. Is that OK? Is that what Anna means? Furthermore, and of enormous concern: Eggs. As we watch all traditional sources of protein fade away, can’t we continue to love up the simple perfection found in a pastured chicken egg?
Anna sighs. In trying to make our choices easy, she hadn’t reckoned on the varied predicaments of West Coast Foodie Culture. Gently, she explains. Kettle chips: bags. Cap’n Crunch: boxes. French foie gras: cans. And, mostly importantly—eggs: yes.
The first morning, I make a VEGA shake with frozen blueberries, almond milk, chia, and maca. The chia quickly expands into a weird gelatinous state I hadn’t anticipated, making the shake too thick to drink. I add coconut water to thin it and mournfully spoon the bright blue coldness into my mouth. It takes me days to realize that the chia is culprit and stop adding it to my morning meal. Suddenly, the smoothie is smooth enough to actually drink. By day five, I crave the thing each morning with my green tea. I leave the chia bag out on the curb for the homeless folks who crowd our street. Nothing ever stays long once left out, but the chia bag remains there for days.
As sober vegans, Leon and I try Boca burgers. He is thrilled to see their hard little discs defrosting in a pan. I make lentil soup and he exalts over the cleanness he’s feeling. I make a vegan cassoulet without sausage, chicken, bacon, breadcrumbs, or butter. He praises its lightness and asks for seconds. I forget to make us lunch and he goes on a light-headed pizza-demanding rampage, insisting that we walk down to Rosso’s for a fix. (I heat up more cassoulet.) I start to make us an undressed salad only to discover that the last two avocadoes in the basket are black on the inside. I actually want to weep. Leon howls, “I’m so hungry I could eat a dog! A BOILED DOG!” I wipe my eyes and set out a bowl of almonds.
On days nine and 10, I am convinced I’m getting the flu. I’m weepy and cold and depressed. I’m not getting the flu; the detox is kicking through me, whacking me about as it goes. By day 11, I feel like myself, only better. Lighter. Nicer.
And then we enter The Trough.
It’s not called The Trough in the packet. Rather, it’s sprightly referred to as “the cleanse,” restricting us to summer fruits and leafy greens. The West Coast Foodie Culturists mutter. Cherries in January? Peaches and nectarines and plums? The homely lentil banished, Leon and I decide to juice our way through The Trough. We go to the Juice Shack with the same anticipatory glee others reserve for a table at Chez Panisse. We watch cooking shows while we sip down our meals, chef Lidia Bastianich making complex meatballs and fresh pasta; Anthony Bourdain quaffing cold beers in Peru. We go to bed very early.
We eventually climb out of The Trough, back to just being regular sober vegans, which seems like old times to us, not some new thing we’re just trying for three weeks. Beans and grains and legumes, oh my.
There’s a strange, released-from-prison feel to the last regularly scheduled Saturday meeting even though we still have six days to go. That afternoon, Leon and I pick up a Pinot shipment from one of the wineries to which we belong. Do we want to taste anything? Oh, yes please. This leads to lunch. Which leads to the question: Would we like wine with lunch? Oh, yes please. Mussels and fries with garlic toast. We greedily devour our meals and nearly lick the last drops of wine from our glasses. The next day, my stomach hurts and my digestion is off. The lapse feels bad. We’re not happy until we have a VEGA shake and an apple for breakfast. That, it now seems, is more like it.
In two, three, four, fix, six. Out two, three, four, fix, six. For 10 minutes. This is the hardest freaking thing I’ve ever done. Sit, just sit, and breathe. My meditation centers on how much I hate meditation. Enlightenment, alas, may never be mine.
We’re told to come more often and to try varied classes. Flow enthusiasts are to attempt Power and Power regulars to assay etcetera. I’m a habitué of the 6:30am Morning Benders, but one day I come to a 9am class. As the time draws near and the door is closed, I realize that there are only two people in the class: Me and Anna.
I experience a quick burst of teacher-love excitement, rarely felt since third grade. I have her all to myself! But then I begin to feel sorry for our teacher. It’s like a test for her. Can she get her boss up and down on the mat and still keep her job? I focus on her continued employment, barely peeking at Anna, whose ponytail whips as she does upward dog in a way that I realize is really very sweet.
So yes: I also ate fried chicken one night. And had buttered toast with my vegan beans on another. But mostly, Leon and I stayed true to the packet. Nikki lost 13 pounds, I went down a pants size, and Leon strangely didn’t appear to drop an ounce.
(I say “strangely” because men usually lose weight simply by declaring their desire to do so. It falls away on the spot, right that second. My resolve to be nicer to Leon so as to avoid the wine cellar/grave he’s planning to dig precludes me from mentioning any of this to him.)
At the end of the last day, we go to a blow-out dinner in which a local butcher cuts up half a hog while we drink wine and watch. The meat is handed to two San Francisco chefs who transform it into our meal. We sit at long communal tables with strangers and eat charred pork shoulder and smoked potatoes with black garlic and pork loin with brussel sprouts and fisherman’s stew and parsnip cake. We have fresh cheese and koji bread smeared with lard and kefir butter and cultured squash. Oh, yes please, we sure as hell have wine.
The next morning, Leon gets up and makes our green tea. I blend VEGA shakes. We have an apple.
After three long weeks, saying yes to no just feels right.