Leaning the Porsche Cayman GTS hard into the first of the three deceptively challenging back-to-back-to-back opening turns of Lime Rock my brain suddenly goes blank. Considering I’m piloting a $100K car at triple digit speeds you’d imagine this would be scary, but I felt great. It was the first time I’d gotten close to getting those turns right. Yoga, bro.
Get me talking and I’ll happily chew your ear off about automobiles, although I’m also almost as happy to talk about yoga if you’d rather not hear me opine about the superiority of Skoda’s design language within the context of the larger Volkswagen Audi Group (if you don’t want to talk about cars or yoga we can always chat about something else, I’m not a culty Crossfit maniac).
Cars and yoga aligned about three years ago when I happened to spend an afternoon at a track down in Texas followed by a long day karting in Detroit. Despite all the running and the little bit of lifting I’d been doing, after both occasions my neck ached, my forearms hurt, and my upper back screamed in pain.
Around the same time, I started running into Neal Pollack, a writer I’d known from my days in Austin who I’d always kind of remembered as a schlub. And yet, seeing him for the first time in years, there was an obvious change. He seemed stronger and calmer and he was able to stand on his freaking head in the middle of the Red Bull suite at Circuit of the Americas while the rest of us, drunk on free champagne, could barely stand on our feet.
The change? He’d fallen hard for yoga. With some disrespect to Neal, I thought that if that pudgy pothead could do then so could I. Conveniently, I also seriously screwed up my knee while training and decided to run a half-marathon anyway. Big mistake.
I was broken. Thin but also weak, with just a cutlet of vanity bicep that did nothing to make me actually stronger or even feel better about myself. I couldn’t run more than a mile at a time and I struggled to keep my head straight up after about five hard laps around a race track.
You can approach yoga from a place of strength, I’m sure, although you won’t get as much out of it. I approached it from a place of humility and weakness and embarrassment. I started going to classes at my gym and I absolutely faltered. I’d sweat all over myself and I’d barely be able to unfold my arms into a crisp Warrior Two. Downward Dog? More like Flatulent Pig.
But I stuck with it. For some reason, no matter how hard it was and no matter how bad I was at it, I felt a sort of tranquil peace when it was over. My wife calls it my “post-yogic nirvana” and it’s one of the few times in my life I can just shut my brain off entirely. I also benefitted from great instruction, with teachers who taught me to accept where I was.
Sure, it can get weird. No two teachers or classes are the same. Some instructors blend actual kinesiological precepts with Vedic teachings in a way that has some connection to reality, while others mix up astrological “wisdom” with Hinduism and Beatles lyrics to create a kind of bullshit gumbo. It’s ok. There’s value in summoning the strength of Hanuman not to roll your eyes when an instructor says something about the position of Venus and its relation to your pelvis.
The chanting, too, can be a bit much.
I’m now almost three years into my practice and I can do things I’d never thought I’d be capable of. I can balance on my head, for instance, or fly like a crow and pop out into a plank and then over to a side plank. More importantly for my career as an auto journalist, I can use my core and my trapezius to keep my body firm and strong while pulling G’s around a race track.
This last week, as you know, we went to Lime Rock to test a few cars. At no point during the day did I feel more than a little soreness in my lower back (which I always get when I spend all day in a car) and I never had any trouble keeping my eyes forward and my head up.
I’ve been noticing when karting that I’ve tended to get faster and faster, but I’ve ascribed that to more experience and more strength and nothing else.
Lime Rock taught me I was wrong.
Granted, the extra strength helps, which is why so many race car drivers do it, but it was far more about my mental state than just being stronger. At the speeds I was going and with the cars I was driving, basically anyone with working limbs could have put a few laps together without serious fatigue.
What yoga has done, more than anything, is allow me to accept where I am and to allow my mind to do repeated tasks without getting distracted.
When I first stepped in the car with Lime Rock instructor Simon Kirkby he assumed I was “One of those HPDE guys” who spends a few weekends a year on the track. I am not. But rather than pretend like I knew more than I did I came clean to him and said that, yes, I’ve driven a lot of amazing tracks and I’m more comfortable than a pure novice, but I’m not a particularly great driver.
Just admitting that allowed me to be open to his fantastic instruction and allowed him to give me more basic advice without risking bruising my ego. It’s a pretty common teaching in Iyengar Yoga that the only time you get injured is when ego gets in the way. Around a track, ego can be dangerous.
So now, sitting upright and with an open mind, I was able to accept the teaching in order to get better. Turn after turn. Sequence after sequence. Lap after lap.
Just like with yoga, driving fast means repeating the same task over and over again while being able to learn and improve with each repetition.
There’s a quote apparently from the Bhagavad Gita (I know, I know) that says:
Little by little, through patience and repeated effort, the mind will become stilled in the Self.
That is, in so many ways, what true driving is.
It wasn’t until I’d gotten in the Alfa Romeo 4C with another instructor and I allowed myself to turn my brain off that I was suddenly able to remember where I was on the track. I didn’t need to be told where to go around each turn or when to get on the power. He didn’t need to grab the wheel and point me in the right direction. It just started to click.
Suddenly the car was in the right position going out of the Left Hander into the Right Hander. When we first got there I’d barely wanted to get onto the gas going into The Uphill but, to my surprise, I was barely out of the no-name straight before I was on the power.
I became stilled in the Self.
Yes, people like Travis and Jack Baruth are better drivers than I am and will probably always be. They’ve been doing this forever and it’s second nature to them. But rather than feel envious, I think that Travis and Jack should be jealous of me. They have to work so much harder to just get a little faster. My journey is just beginning and thus the rewards are sweeter and more immediate.
You see this in yoga all the time. There are a lot of ex-ballerina types in Vinyasa classes and they can twist in ways I can barely comprehend. Yet, they also have to work their asses off to unlock a new sensation. Not me. Even with all the time I’ve put into my Asana practice I’m still a big clumsy dude and the simple act of not falling over in a forearm stand is a victory.
Am I ever going to be Senna? No. But there’s this quote he has where he describes his performance in the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix that, I think, is roughly the same as the one above:
“That day, I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving conscious, and I was in a different dimension for me. The circuit for me was a tunnel. Which I was just going, going, going. And I realized... I was well beyond my conscious understanding.”
There are a lot of ways to get quicker around a race track and your first step should be something like The Driver’s Club at Lime Rock (if you can swing it) or a Skip Barber racing school. Step two? Find a good, flow-oriented Vinyasa class and start turning oms into revs.
Photo Credits: Dave Burnett. Check out his site PUPPYKNUCKLES, it’s seriously amazing.