Walken in the Jungle

The anatomy of yoga teaches us that a lot of our emotions are held in our hips, and perhaps this is the reason why I'm walking quickly, to make sure that nothing will settle, or open up, or release, for too long. I suppose that several years of living in New York, coupled with my inherited biological traits, have programmed me to believe that I must always look like I'm going somewhere, and in a hurry, even when I'm not.
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Hiking in tropical rainforest jungle, Palau, Micronesia
Hiking in tropical rainforest jungle, Palau, Micronesia

Like many a city-dweller engaged in the journey from one place to the next, it seems as though I'm in a constant state of motion. If you were to see me heading west on 23rd Street, and then dashing across the park, and then jumping down the stairs -- two, sometimes three at a time -- of the N/R Station outside the Flatiron, you might think I was just another harried citizen, running typically (read: insanely) late for an appointment, annoyed by any impediments or hindrances he might encounter along the way -- specifically, the tourists outside of Eataly.

The thing is, I'm not late. I walk fast. Very fast. Even for a New Yorker. And so, to this day, I continue on -- my eyes to the ground, my head bobbing from side to side, a pair of 1987-chic, grey Sony headphones plugged into my iPhone, a perpetually overstuffed tote bag slung over one shoulder -- at velocities just short of a run.

Such would be the end of my story if it weren't for one small detail: I'm no longer in New York.

This past January, I moved to a town in the remote jungle on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, to study under Don and Amba Stapleton at the Nosara Yoga Institute, and to earn my yoga teacher's certification, and, in a more general sense, to calm the fuck down. If Costa Rica were to have a national motto, it'd be pura vida -- pure life, with the subtext of enjoy the moment, take it easy, no worries, and it will take at least 45 minutes to order lunch.

Out here, in the hot and dry middle of nowhere, there's an even slower, dustier pace to everything, almost to the point of mandatory enforcement. Many things are slow this way. The Wi-Fi is slow, and I have to watch Downton Abbey in nightly 10-minute installments, not just because that's how long it takes to download a full episode, but also because the pacing of this Masterpiece Classic, in the context of this much slowness, seems like Quentin Tarantino has taken a stab at an unrated director's cut of The Bourne Identity.

In this very strange and strangely wonderful place filled with boundless sunshine and sprawling beaches and rising kundalini and drum circles and goddess circles and various other enlightenment-related entities, I have been made acutely aware of one specific pedestrian problem. I am still walking incredibly, unbelievably fast.

The citizens of this zen-centric town joke about how they see me on the road, through the thicket and from the porches of their cabinas, sometimes several times an afternoon, and sometimes traveling in the same direction, meaning that I'd already circled the entire Guiones section and was back for another loop. If anything, I walk even faster down here, assuming that forward gravity will allow me to outpace -- or, worst case scenario, squash to smithereens -- any of the very many creepy-crawly insect and/or reptile-like creatures I encounter on the jungle path from town during what I perceive to be the seamless wintertime transition from scorpion season to tarantula season. At the best of times, it's as though Groucho Marx has accidentally crash-landed in the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach.

I assume that this walk, outside of any geographical context, is at least partially inherited, for the only man who walks even faster than I do is my father. He stands several inches shorter, and yet is perpetually two steps -- then 10 steps, then lost altogether -- ahead of me, his barrel-chested rib-cage (I inherited this, too) puffed out, his shoulders moving from side to side, a compact model of boundless forward propulsion.

I have spent many an hour, when not in class or in a prolonged attempt to order some food, walking across sandy beaches and up dusty hills, both under the blazing noontime sun and in the darkened moonless night, trying to come up with some grand unifying theory of my walk and, more importantly, how to correct it.

One afternoon at the main yoga studio, Dr. Stapleton, the co-director of our program, took us through a series of exercises to make us more aware of how we move across the earth. First, he had us walk around the room on our tiptoes, our chests thrust forward and our spines arched back, as though we were wearing high-heel shoes. Then, he had us walk on our heels, then, on the outer arches of our feet, and then, on the inner arches. We walked around the room with our toes pigeoned in, and we walked like Charlie Chaplin, our heels together and toes turned outwards, our hips undulating from side to side.

He had us come to a standstill so that we could survey the results. To be sure, these "bad walks" made us hyper-aware about our own natural walks. The experiment needed to be corrected. "Start walking," he instructed, and we did. "Now, picture your pelvis moving up an escalator, and your tailbone moving down an escalator. Lean back slightly. Imagine your sternum moving forward. Now, picture a little rubber band attaching each leg up into its hip sockets. With each step, allow the raised leg to kick ever so slightly. Let that rubber band bring the leg back into its socket." He could see that some of us were still a bit stiff. "While you're doing this," he said, "it really helps if you make a clicking sound with your tongue."

The room was soon filled with clicks and kicks and stomps. We were walking heavily, normally -- slowly.

This was all well said and done in the yoga studio, but in the real world, where, for the most part, we have to wear shoes and worry about not looking crazy, remembering these cues was a bit of a challenge.

With the outline of these exercises firmly planted in my mind, I again took to the beaches. At sunset, all sorts of New Age-types gather to salute the waning sun with chants, dances, and, for lack of a better term, gestural movements. I figured that the sand and surf might impede my trajectory, and also that clicking-to-oneself-while-walking might perhaps be one of the more normal activities that happens here. Instead of listening to The Smiths, I started piping through my headphones a curiously addictive song by Hawaiian musicians Raphael & Kutira, whose work might best be described as making Enya seem like AC/DC. The song, introduced to me by one of the instructors at the institute, was meant to invoke the slow and meandering spirit of a humpback whale giving birth (I'm not making this up). It would be the new soundtrack to my walks.

Click, click. Click, click. Click, click., I went as I perambulated across the sand, the interpretive whale-birth music providing the correct dash of pace. Unfortunately, these personal motion experiments were interrupted by an added olfactory dimension by another sea creature, specifically, a dead sea turtle that had washed up on shore. It had already baked under the equatorial sun for several days, and, in harmony with the accompanying buzzards, stank to high heaven. The carcass didn't seem to be moving out with the tides. And so, having changed out of my New Balances and into a pair of Rainbow flip-flops, back to the town I took.

To and fro, hither and thither, I tried to move as slowly as molasses -- and on a very literal level, this wasn't too difficult. For many kilometers, the roads are unpaved, and to keep the dust in check during the dry season, a large truck drives around, from the back of which workers do, in fact, pour piping hot vats of molasses onto the streets.

The air smells faintly of gingerbread cookies and the inside of a diesel carburetor, and brown puddles of goo get stuck on everything -- legs, t-shirts, body hair. By the side of the road, there's a graveyard of discarded shoes, most of which have fallen victim to the ensuing mess. Indeed, such was the untimely fate of my Rainbow flip-flops who, after three weeks of service, came to an early demise when one of the straps broke.

Around the time my flip-flops ended their service, I remembered that this wasn't my first trip to the jungle, or the first occurrence of such seemingly insurmountable problems of momentum. When I was in college, a group of us took a school-sponsored trip to study the ecology of the rainforests of Ecuador. On that trip, we spent many long, uninterrupted hours of attempting to quietly shuffle through the jungle, on the lookout for a long-toed tree sloth, or a superbly large caterpillar, or just about anything that wasn't a tree. We had to be very quiet, and it was, in no small part, as boring as any human endeavor one could possibly imagine. To keep us entertained, and to maintain our slow meander through the jungle, a friend and I came up with a routine. It was an homage of sorts to the crooning, staccato voice of Christopher Walken, principally as it pertained to his appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons.

"Scooch closer, children. You're not scooching," we'd whisper to each other at markedly serious moments, or when we moved too fast. In fact, whenever we did gain too much speed, we'd simply have Mr. Walken make his way through a cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "Feeling Groovy" (something that he should totally do in real life). "Slow down. You move. Too fast," one of us would warble in a terrible impression of Mr. Walken's voice. "You've got. To make. The moment. LAST!"

The snickers that ensued scared off any wildlife found within a five mile radius. Naturally, we called this routine "Walken in the Jungle." When we returned home, we were going to have t-shirts made.

Back on the remote, molasses-splattered streets of Costa Rica, my own voice, instructing me in the exacting art of hip placement, pelvis angle and forward thrust, was soon replaced by that of Mr. Walken's. I wish I could say that this was the resolve of my own particular story, and that, thanks to Mr. Walken, I'm now ambling through Nosara at a relaxed, steady gait. But such would not be true.

The anatomy of yoga teaches us that a lot of our emotions are held in our hips, and perhaps this is the reason why I'm walking quickly, to make sure that nothing will settle, or open up, or release, for too long. I suppose that several years of living in New York, coupled with my inherited biological traits, have programmed me to believe that I must always look like I'm going somewhere, and in a hurry, even when I'm not. And I then see my time down here -- the range of its purpose and the length of its duration and the gravity of its scope -- in this hot, dusty and dry middle-of-jungle-place as a distraction from the speed at which I have always lived, the only remaining manifestation of which being the clip of my step.

At nighttime, as I navigate the series of roads and beaches back to my cabina, I sometimes turn off my flashlight and take off my shoes and this changes the landscape quite a lot, and I tend to slow down a little -- but not much -- using sense alone to guide me home. As I do this, the image of Groucho Marx sometimes comes to mind. Apparently, he's crash-landed into my own particular motion picture, dressed in a bowtie and tails and -- strangely enough -- a hula skirt, which seems appropriate, because my image is that of him gently, comically dancing to a Raphael & Kutira number. If Mr. Marx were still alive, it'd make an excellent cover song.

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