Friday, February 12, 2010

Raw, adjective: 10. not diluted, as alcoholic spirits: raw whiskey.



Bartendasana: the huffing-puffing, bending-twisting, sweating-flirting, laughing-cursing embodied moving meditation that is shaking cocktails in a dimly-lit, jazz-infused, oak-scented bar. See also: bhakti ninja.

* * *

Buddha in a microbrew? Meditation in a martini? Santosha in a Stella? It's more plausible than you might think.

Most of you know me as a yogi, or a writer, or a teacher, or maybe a baker; but for a few hours a few nights a week, I'm a bartender. Find me black-clad and spinning circles inside a horseshoe-shaped bar while straining cocktails at warp-speed on any given Friday night, and I think you'll agree: a bartender is a bhakti ninja.

Suspend disbelief for a few minutes here, and consider the possibility that bartending might be a rich source of yoga, embodied meditation, and a kind of active "practice mat" for yogic values like compassion, patience, and peace. Sure, it can often look like just a lot of broken glasses and spilled wine, tipsy blondes and belligerent drunks, but tending bar can also provide a rare opportunity for prana-rich, fulfilling work (what Marx deliciously called "sensuous labor"), nourishing sangha, energizing physicality, and open-hearted karma yoga. My gig shaking martinis gifts me with a living, breathing space in which to practice listening, observation, mental quietude, living well in the body, and balancing the yin of my yogi/writer's life with the yang of a bartender's fast-paced flow. And in that practice comes the softening, the unraveling and the dharma of work that fulfills in unexpected ways.

*

If you'd have asked me ten years ago what I'd be doing on the cusp of 31, I'd have answered easily, breezily, without a beat: a professor, obviously!! I had it all planned out, every little detail: I'd be that stylish sharp mysterious one the undergrads always had a crush on, teaching some badass transgressive social theory shit and inspiring all the idealistic 19-year-olds to revolution. There was no question; I'd always pictured myself behind a lecture podium, not a bar. God no, definitely not a bar. Bartending was for college drop-outs, bums, slackers. Certainly not me.

But after several years lost to graduate school, the straitjacket of academia left me cynical, burned-out, disenchanted. The ivory tower offers so little room for spirit, really; it's devoid of personality, so wrapped up in bureaucracy and rigamarole and pleasing the bourgeois committee-bound powers-that-be. The academic lives such a perpetually footnoted existence; her writing must be stilted, rigid, so highly regulated. And she can't swear. Or wear a low-cut blouse.

As I struggled with those realizations, I fell into bartending on a lark, really. I was knee-deep in a Masters program full of esoteric theory and postmodern theologies, so lost in my head, living and breathing French cultural theory and thick Biblical exegesis and spending my days in the artificial fluorescent light of musty old libraries, and I desperately needed a way to get back into my body. I'd bartended a little when I was living in Scotland in my early twenties, pouring Riojas at a Spanish wine bar in Edinburgh (I know, don't ask), but it didn't really count. I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I didn't know a damn thing about scotch. And I certainly never thought I'd like it.

The idea of being trapped behind a granite slab for eight hours at a time required to engage in obligatory conversation struck me as a miniature version of an introvert's hell. And there were so many class implications involved - a bartender, really, Rach? - and I'd always considered myself an intellectual at heart, or worst-case scenario, a poorly-paid but noble non-profit activist. But then again, the anti-corporate me that burbled within kind of loved the notion of being a highly-educated free-spirit subverting the system by not working for The Man while wearing business casual in khakis and boringly blown-out hair. What was the best way to be financially comfortable by working the fewest number of hours, having time to pursue the arts, and actually living in my body in the process? There was only one answer: bartending. I figured, it could be worse; I could be trapped in politically-correct committee meetings all day determining which bullshit study deserved funding from some other bullshit endowment. And I didn't want that. So bartending it would be. At least there, I could swear.

*

You can find yoga wherever you're willing to look for it. I go to a yoga studio to practice my physical asanas, the bending and stretching most people think of as yoga; I retreat to this little blog to practice my writing, as a virtual literary-intellectual yoga mat of sorts; and over the years, the bar has become my other bhakti yoga mat. Though I love my physical asana practice, I'm much more interested in the ways we practice yoga "off the mat" (often unknowingly) in the unexpected corners of our lives, the ways in which we bring yogic theory down from the clouds into the "real stuff of life," finding opportunities to practice yoga in ostensibly non-yogic situations. I don't believe that yoga has to be the province of an elite wealthy white demographic, ensconced firmly in pristine soulless studios; I like to imagine yoga instead as an embodied populist practice, a mind-body-spirit union available to all of us in each moment of our lives. Yoga philosopher Sally Kempton once wrote memorably that "a yogi turns everything to his advantage by turning every moment into yoga," and once you're able to do that, well, my loves, the whole world changes color.

*

I grew up in the church; my Pops was a Lutheran pastor, so the sibs and I spent our weekends in the back pew, singing familiar liturgies and eating leftover communion bread washed down with stolen sips of cheap communion wine after the service. Now that I'm a bartender and spend my weekends at a bar rail instead of at a communion rail, I see the many ways in which my father's job and mine are functionally much more similar than they might first appear. Pastors and bartenders do the same things, really: ideally, we build a community, make people feel like they matter, remember their names, quite literally create a "sanctuary" where they have a place; we listen to drunken confessionals; we watch the "sinners" repent and fall off the wagon again, come crawling back for redemption, welcome them home, pat them on the back, pour them an iced tea instead. It's all pretty much the same gig, once you trim out the vestments and the dogma and whatnot.

A farm kid at heart, my father always taught us that no matter how educated you might be, and no matter how many exotic ancient languages you may have learned, or how many big words you can throw around, you should always stay grounded in the day-to-day projects, the dirt, the reality of being alive. The cleaning and the washing dishes and the filth and the sticky forearms and the smells of bartending, well, they certainly do that; that inherent grime remains perpetually humbling, gratifying, grounding, forcing the bartender to keep it real in the mess and the mire of bodily life in a way which other professions manage to excise. Most of us are so removed from those base physical realities in much of our lives, and yet they're the ground of who and what we are, the fuel behind our goings-on. The very base functions of eating and drinking in community are fundamentally equalizing and incredibly humanizing. We break bread together for reasons beyond physical nourishment, to be sure.

Bartending is a supremely literally sensual experience: listening, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching. You learn to practice paying attention, to read people's body language, watching their eyes dart or drift or darken. You spot the empty glasses, you spot the empty eyes, you spot the empty pockets. Your senses grow hyper-attuned; you hear every conversation across the bar at the same time your co-worker is whispering instructions in your other ear. Your sharp scanning eyes take in the whole horseshoe of the bar without anyone even knowing you're so intently watching his every move. These same eyes collect every little detail: when the bar turns, who looks angry, who's impatient, who's shy, who's afraid to meet your gaze. You draw them in, bring them out, fill every empty glass, pull every dirty plate. You are always paying attention, even when - and especially when - it doesn't look like it. And yoga is nothing if not paying attention, being present, being here, now, actively listening.

*

The sociology of a bar is kind of like that of an airport; it's fluid, dynamic, ever-changing, never the same twice. You get little consistencies: the same faces every Monday night for red bean soup, or annual office parties, or Jim and Jim after their weekly Sunday golfing routine, or what-have-you; but mostly it's more evidence that sangha - the Buddhist word for community - is never wholly permanent, that all relationships are a composition of bodies that cannot be clung to, always in flux, "all beginnings ending in separation."

Yoga's so much about undoing, softening, unraveling - tight muscles, sore shoulders, stored-up sorrow. It's fascinating to see those same processes unfold from the backside of a bar. You watch people soften as they loosen up - courtesy of the liquor, of course - moving from uptight buttoned-up cold stiffs to buttoned-down hug-it-out brethren (artificially induced as that intimacy may be - the vodka has a lot to do with that, yes). Painfully shy people open up to you slowly, some taking years, warming, cautiously, yes, but eventually, always, yes. Suits and locals and sports stars and suburbanites; they all start hard, and soften, loosen, let go, breathe more deeply, un-self-consciously, than they did before that first or third or fifth Macallan 12.

But let's not romanticize: just like the most strenuous of yoga asanas, people can be a real pain-in-the-ass. Usually it means they're miserable. They're fighting a great inner battle, they're lonely, they're bearing serious pain. You learn quickly that the most awful, the most abrasive, are the most broken, and you do what you can to breathe deeply and put on your tough skin and welcome them more warmly, realizing you might be their only friend, realizing they look forward to spending the evening with you in this dark warm smoky place they've claimed as some semblance of home. Urbanity does have its own strange anomie, particularly for those who are far from any beloved, and their desperate grasping for a stronghold comes through in the faces you sometimes see, searching, across the bar, smiling, sanguine, betrayed by the "ruin in their eyes."

Therein lies the bartender's vast opportunity for practicing being anahata (unstruck, tender, open-hearted, devoted). Therein comes the time for really embodying compassion, or karuna (Corona, what?), when push comes to shove, and you crack open the heart, and tie back the hair, and dig in to that very real, very interpersonal bhakti work. Watching these people across the bar, reminding yourself to see God or Krishna or Buddha or Christ in each of them, you realize a few things right off the bat, really, a few basics about human nature: that we are all just looking to be loved. We are all just looking for a soft place to fall. And how easy it becomes to want to be kind, to strive to be gentle, if you can somehow manage to remember that in the fast-paced chaos when some demanding bitch orders 16 mango mojitos and the last thing you have time to do is muddle 16 lime-and-mint-leaf concoctions because you're already buried in vodka tonics and maraschino cherries and sauvignon blanc.

Your yogi eyes come to see quickly, easily, that people are so very lonely, so much more than they ever let on. And that's where bartending becomes so much more about tending hearts than filling glasses. There are the men like Ed, 70-something, who comes in alone for his 2 glasses of Cab before dinner, wandering forlornly into your empty bar at 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon, seeking company. You pour him a glass, try to build a warm cocoon for him in the process, try to make him feel seen when he feels so very invisible; there are so many like him, the tired and the bereft and the disconsolate, and you learn to feel with a heart wide open and find therein a vast capacity for giving back more.

In the midst of all that, you remind yourself to just stay (because isn't yoga really at the end of the day just all about staying?), and watch the barstools turn. Sometimes that means staying in the midst of agitation. You stay, being present, while Jim Bob goes on about how great Palin is or how awful health care reform is or (my latest favorite) about how he talks with the angels. You stay when "Kristin" (real name: Josh) asks if you want to get a pedicure with him tomorrow. (Hello, Foot Fetish Guy; welcome back!) And you do your best to bring on the compassion, bring on the anahata love, bring on the patience for this fragile creature who so desperately needs your understanding and your care.

Yoga teaches us that we can choose how we react, that we can learn how to breathe through difficult moments, that we can acknowledge that we have a choice whether we freak out or let agitation blow right by. And in any given night behind the bar - a night that's often full of spilling cocktails, cracking bottles like eggs on the floor, and breaking endless glasses - you realize quickly that those kinds of errors are so small and negligible and impermanent as to engender little reaction. You break a glass. You pick it up. You throw it out. You keep going. That's it. Easy. No drama. Unless you choose it.

Sometimes when it's slow, I stand behind the bar and practice my metta meditation, directing that old familiar mantra toward guests when they're not looking: "May you be free from suffering. May you find peace." It's definitely a practice, this compassion thing, and a tough one at that, especially when people are barking at you and rolling their eyes, impatient for the dirty vodka martinis they wanted five minutes ago, and I am lucky to have three nights a week wherein this practice can unfold, because I certainly fail at it more often than not. I read Steve Ross's book Happy Yoga some years ago and was struck by his emphasis on the yogic notion that all we must do to fill our hearts is BE the love we want to receive. It's not always easy, to be sure; but nothing worth doing ever really is, right?

*

The pace of an evening builds the same way the vinyasa builds heat in the beginning of a yoga class, starting quietly, coolly, knowing the intensity will come soon enough. You prepare yourself mentally and physically for the onslaught of the crush and the eventual organic natural decline that ends in exhaustion and fulfillment and hopefully a little bit of wealth, too, and maybe a phone number or two, as well. You learn to watch the breath, remembering to inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale when the pace gets so unbearably fast and you lose 5 hours without realizing it because you are so busy springing around like a ninja. Countless times I've caught myself using Ujjayi breath (Darth Vader's in the house!) in stolen moments at the beer tap or the cash register. It calms. It works. It does the trick. It gets you through.

Bartending really is its own vinyasa, a flow, a dance; each night has its own rhythm, its own cadence, the getting in the flow, in the zone, a slammin' Saturday night churning into its own athletic workout. Pour shake clack fill strain garnish present; wash rinse repeat. It's a distinct choreography that your body eventually takes on unthinkingly. Your mind turns off; the chatter stops; the thinking lulls. Just like at some point in your yoga practice you no longer think about every little particular detail of Downward Facing Dog or Child's Pose, your body just goes there because it craves it, because it knows that Up Dog follows Chaturanga follows Plank follows Down Dog follows Child's Pose; so do you pour a Lemon Drop or stir a Manhattan without thinking what's in it, or how, or why.

The whole thing becomes a kind of unspoken pas de deux with your fellow bartender, like an oft-produced tango, carefully choreographed, meticulously rehearsed. Dancing together the same nights of the week for months, getting it down, testing out new moves, getting rid of the inefficient or the graceless, in the flow with Tom, Ben, Claud, Jill, Heidi, more. The partners come and go over the years, but the general dance stays the same. You naturally get used to different bodies, speeds, sizes, energies, spirits. One bumping Friday night, Tom laughingly compared our easy broken-in rhythm with that old familiar ease of making out with a former lover. There are no longer any awkward fumbles. Your bodies know the natural curves, the twists, the turns, the spins, the shifts; you know one another's pace, tempo, speed, style, swing by heart, without thinking, wondering, watching, you just go, you're just there, it just flows.

*

The bar community creates its own rituals; there's often a certain whimsy, an irreverence, that looks like Bundt Cake Saturdays or Fourth of July fireworks or New Year's Eve champagne toasts long after midnight when the work is through. The sangha that develops shares holidays, serves as a substitute family; you watch the seasons change together, moving through football, basketball, baseball and again to college football at the same time that you share Mother's Day and Valentine's Day and all the solstices and sunsets in between.

The yogi bartender learns to watch. She pays attention. She attunes her senses, seeing the flow of time and the inevitable flux of life carry people away in its currents. She witnesses the shift, the change, the natural progression of things. From time to time, she has the rare experience of watching the whole human drama unfold; she sees couples meet at the bar (some one-night stands, some lasting longer), date, get engaged, marry, have children, buy homes, move to the suburbs. The same young couples that once came in buzzed for late 10 o'clock noshing sessions now come in at 4 for an early dinner, baby carriers in hand, diaper bags in tow.

At the same time, she watches relationships bloom and flower and wilt and die. She sees the same men come in with a revolving cadre of women over the years, none of them right, pretending tactfully, of course, to know nothing about the previous dames. She cringes with vicarious awkwardness at the one-night stands that burn with sexual tension when regulars who ended up going home together late one tequila-soaked night appear again unexpectedly at opposite ends of the bar trying to be cool and pretend they're not heart-rushed and anxious and shy.

All she has to do is watch. It is all just a matter of paying attention.

*

Bartending has blessed my life in so many ways.

I can't do it forever, of course, but for now, it is enough. Santosha (contentment) is my practice: it is enough to make more money than I need, and save it easily, and work so little; it is enough to have great health insurance and so much spaciousness built into my life, having time for the arts - to write, go to the MoMA, play piano, hit up the opera, do 3 hours of yoga a day; it is enough to be blessed by wonderful regulars and an out-of-this-world SF minimum wage; it is enough to have great flexibility in my schedule; it is enough to feel so embodied, to not be tied to a desk, to savor the beauty of making a living in my body and going home at night spent, lived-in, exhausted.

Bartending has given me a kula, a sangha, a community, not unlike that of a den mother. We - especially those of us in transient urban centers like SF - create our own tribes, our own families, and I now live in a city of countless adopted aunts and uncles and cool cousins who'd throw down for me if I'd even say the word. They bless me with bundt pans and birthday trips to Vegas and weddings in Palm Springs. They bless me with laughter and concern and genuine care. There are interludes with very famous athletes and musicians and politicians. There is challenging physicality and thriving athleticism, and way more money than I should be paid to flirt and pour a few drinks, and that builds prana like you wouldn't believe. And there is the satya of truthfulness, the gift of assertiveness gained, the strength to cut people off, to put the smackdown, the freedom to be authentic, the gift of longterm friendships with regulars who after awhile have learned to see right through you, and the loveliness of that emotional translucence that comes after knowing someone long enough, and not even in the context of a remotely intimate relationship.

And then there are the intangibles. The buzz of connection, the wild rush of flirtation. You have the potential, the unknown; you never know who's going to walk in that door on any given night. It is the pranava, the Om: every day is always new, again and again; you never know what a new evening will bring, nor whom, and the watching the door on slow nights, and the wondering, bring curiosity and intrigue and great unspoken potential.

And, sweet santosha - it is enough.

At the same time, for the yogi who values balance, it is an industry in which equilibrium is elusive. Not just the sore muscles and the physical imbalances that come of shaking martinis with the same right arm for 5 years. Witness, too, the high percentage of alcoholics and drug addicts in the industry. These are hard hours, and long draining exhausting shifts. It's no wonder there's so much substance abuse. Even my hippie granola nutrition freak self has relied on far too many Sugar-Free Red Bulls over the years in order to be perky enough to get through a long fast-paced evening of chatter.

But at the end of the day, you leave it all behind; you clean the bar, wipe down the counter, polish the bottles and tuck them away for the night. You learn to let go, walk away from any of the drama or the trauma or the mistakes of the evening. You slow your breath, take down your hair, haul your tired body into a chair, and exhale. You come home spent, sprawling out in a well-earned savasana, smelling of tequila and Anchor Steam and citrus instead of sweat and incense and lycra, but a savasana nonetheless, a little death, a release, an undoing, a being undone.

And there, then, in that moment, you've done your yoga.

*

Take a look at your labor, at your work, at the ostensibly shadowy corners of your life, and see if you can't uncover some unexpected yogic meaning and motivation in the seeming drudgery of your daily work. Wonder if there isn't some kind of peace, some kind of parallel, in the pain-in-the-ass aspects of your own daily grind, whatever that might be. Remind yourselves that though we are not our jobs (or our cars, or our clothes, or our relationships), we can serve as empty vessels for the divine by living out our yogic principles in our very non-yogic work settings - even if those empty vessels look like martini glasses waiting to be filled with a strong pour of gin and the slightest swirl of dry vermouth. Your yoga could very well be waiting for you at the bottom of the glass.

10 comments:

Pauly And The Crackers said...

This is really good. I smell next article.

Mariah said...

Wow Rach, loved it. Inspires me to write about dance therapy. :) I agree...next article!

Jen said...

Wonderful! Thank you

RgMania said...

I wanna start bartending, how can i become a bartender?

Marilyn said...

Absolutely, batendasana...I can relate, from the other side of the bar............barstoolasana, as a regular for the past 10 yrs, at the local British pub, pub as in public house, neighbors coming together to discuss the days events, .........a bringing of my yoga everywhere I go.......I see this barstoolasana as important work, in bring light to that section of my community, as you no doubt, do, my friend ..

kamala said...

knob creek, neat, ginger back. no fucking around....can i borrow rosso's book from you? i have a yoga practice around borrowing (aka asteya), so it will be consumed and safely returned~

Susan said...

when I was surrounded by grad school I paid the rent by working behind a make up counter. Another type of granite slap, where people would approach seeking beauty. I'm still grateful that I had such balance between study and the up close and personal. still proud to tell teenagers to go away and not ask me to sell them foundation. Any wild color of lipstick or eye shadow, yes; anything to cover up their glowing skin, no. ;)

Sarah L. said...

Rachel!!! This is wonderful!! Inspiring to those of us contending with who we are now, what we thought we would/should be and how the 'yogi' is inside of us regardless of the external costume. "Commonwealth" magazine worthy (at least!!!). Thank you for sharing.

Kerri Gagne said...

just finished reading! beautiful beautiful beautiful :)

khel Sahitya Kendra said...

Wow, this is probably one of the coolest tutorials I’ve seen. Need to get into this ASAP!

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