Change We Can (Almost) Believe In

On the eve of a famous guru's manslaughter trial, one flawed man explores the self-help spectrum for the secret to personal growth

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Photograph by Juliana Sohn for TIME

Yoga teacher and Sanskrit scholar John Campbell taught the author a style that promises to "boil the blood"

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What I needed was grounding, a chance to quiet the buzzing apiary of my mind. With Landmark's admonition to break out of old habits fresh in my mind, I looked to a pursuit I'd disdained in the past: yoga. I enrolled in an Ashtanga class in my neighborhood led by John Campbell, a limber yogi with a blond ponytail and a penchant for making "adjustments" to my poses that feel as if he set my cartilage on fire.

Ashtanga, I found out, is a particularly stern form of yoga. There is almost no talking. Everyone works at his or her own pace. The more advanced you are, the more your poses look like Dante's description of the damnation of fortune tellers: "mute and weeping" bodies with "their faces twisted toward their haunches." Also: students are allowed to breathe only through the nose. There is no music. The only sounds are Campbell's whispering and a chorus of pneumatic hell breathing.

I am not a smoker anymore, but I am doughy and inflexible and wholly nonspiritual. Still, within days I began to appreciate the intensity of Ashtanga. In the 118 years since Swami Vivekananda first made an impression as "the Hindoo Monk of India" at the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the U.S. has changed his raja yoga into a booming growth industry. There's so much yoga lite available now — a quick Netflix search called up titles like MTV Yoga, Yoga Flava and Yoga Booty Ballet — that it's refreshing to be in a class that doesn't ignore the fact that yoga is at heart an ancient and esoteric tradition.

But how exactly would twisting help me get centered? I didn't know it when I signed up, but Campbell isn't just any yoga teacher; he's a leading Sanskrit authority in Ashtanga circles, a Fulbright scholar and Ph.D. who is teaching a seminar at Columbia University this spring on the texts and theories of yoga in India. He also studied under the late K. Pattabhi Jois, the guru who exported Ashtanga to the U.S.

Jois liked to boast that Ashtanga "boils the blood" and maintained that 10 years of daily practice was needed before a student could gain new understanding. When I asked Campbell for a sneak preview of what insights a decade of practice might reveal, his answer sounded a lot like Landmark. Or Buddhism. Or, according to Campbell, Freudian psychoanalysis. Basically, we are "psychotically misinformed" about who we are. We overestimate our importance to the universe and are therefore stingy with our time, our love, our attention. Yes, being in better shape can enable us to play catch with our kids, but the real benefit is that we can lose ourselves when immersed in meditative physical practice. "Yoga's goal," he says, "is to strip away those misconceptions and then build ourselves back up." In other words: transformation.

After five months of somewhat dedicated practice, yoga is still difficult for me. I still look and feel ridiculous at times. I do not believe that the Infinite is going to reveal itself to me because I sit in half-lotus. But I am beginning to see that the sequence of Ashtanga poses, the breathing, the daily ritual of it all, can help reorder my life in the right direction. As it has for many Americans — even those who see it as just a workout — yoga has made me more comfortable with stillness, silence and time away from the 3G network. Small wonder that the Web show DadLabs, whose Austin studio is a mancave-garage filled with enough power tools to make Tim Allen jealous, began live "Dad Yoga" broadcasts in January. Calmness is not everything, but for fathers of young children, it's an important start.

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