Off the Yoga Mat
Cheryl J. Fish

Off the Yoga Mat

"Cheryl J. Fish’s ingenious, smart, and witty debut novel follows three compelling characters as their lives and desires intertwine. On or off the yoga mat, these characters attempt to expand their emotional as well as bodily flexibility while battling jealousy, rejection, and the stranglehold of the past. Fish’s deep knowledge of yoga and of the psychological, geographical, and sensory terrain renders this ambitious novel absorbing and impressive. Once I started reading I couldn’t stop. Just like her characters, we can find ourselves carried away."

– Lee Upton, author of Visitations: Stories

"Cheryl J. Fish's debut novel OFF THE YOGA MAT is smart, soulful, and surprising.  I found myself deeply touched by the struggles of her flawed characters as they negotiate work, love, and dumpster diving." 

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of Once Upon a River, American Salvage and Mothers Tell Your Daughters

“So much fun to peer beyond the cover to see and relive NYC—and beyond—in 1999! The loves of academics, scholars, yoga instructors, the business world—what has remained the same and what has changed—an entertaining, fascinating message floating across time.”

                Tama Janowitz



ISBN 978-1-60489-306-9, trade paper, $19.95 Sale $15.95





With age 40 looming, Nate, Nora, and Lulu find their lives unraveling, their aspirations dashed. Nate, dead broke, in his eighth year of graduate school delves into yoga. Nate's ex-girlfriend Nora finagles a position in Finland where she tries on men like miniskirts and embraces sisu, the Finnish concept of perseverance, in pursuit of motherhood. And yogi Lulu, Nate’s talented teacher, yearns to get to the bottom of her nightmares of childhood abuse as she travels to her hometown, New Orleans, to care for her ailing mother.

        OFF THE YOGA MAT explores jealousy, bends of the body, and the courage to confront traumatic memory. Told in alternating chapters by Nate, Lulu, and Nora, the novel takes the reader on three risky coming-of-middle age journeys through sensuality, emotional evolution, and breathing deep.

About the Author:

Cheryl J. Fish is a poet, fiction writer and environmental humanities scholar. Her recent books of poetry include CRATER & TOWER, on trauma and ecology after the Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption and the terrorist attack of 9/11/01, and THE SAUNA IS FULL OF MAIDS, poems and photographs celebrating Finnish sauna culture, the natural world, and friendships. She has been a Fulbright Professor and she teaches at City University of New York.

Excerpt from Book:

January, 1999
Chapter One


     “When others achieve success, how does that diminish you?” Nathaniel Dart didn’t care to consider this question from a talk-radio host. He was about to leave the apartment with a spasm in his back. His friend Gil, and his girlfriend Nora, had finally convinced him to take a trial yoga class in a studio a few blocks away. As he shuffled down Second Avenue, the success of others gnawed away at him. A cash bonus Nora received at the end-of-the-year—she deserved the money for a job well done—but he hadn’t grabbed her around the waist or smiled in a swell of support. Nor had he taken her out to celebrate. And when Gil won a lottery for affordable housing nearby—which meant more space and rent stabilization—of course Gil rubbed it in his face, mentioning Nate’s dark studio apartment with moths burrowing in the closet. Nate had no choice but to resent him. One other victory throbbed against his bony vertebrate.
     His old study-group mate Monica Portman landed a teaching job in Boston, a position that Nate should have applied for, could have applied for…if only he’d finished his thesis. He struggled to accept Ralph Waldo Emerson’s credo that “Envy is ignorance.”
     He stopped suddenly on the sidewalk to watch dumpster divers pick through garbage bins outside the supermarket. They’d cook what was still edible; someone shouted through a megaphone about the futility of waste in New York City. Determined to find freshness in what had been declared foul, the freegans sorted through packages past expiration dates and found perfectly decent bags of bagels, cookies and cut-up carrots. He heard them complain about tossing food when there were hungry and homeless folks everywhere. Nate felt disgusted by the vast inequalities in society; this topic mattered more than revising his thesis on jealousy as an evolutionary trait in humans.
     Nate’s research combined a trifecta of disciplines: science, literature and psychology. He knew it sounded loopy when he claimed a jealousy hormone benefited not only those species studied by Charles Darwin, like the blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos, but also Homo Sapiens. Envious rage might motivate men and women to loosen their desire for control, and the result could turn out for the better. Yet jealousy was no walk in the park—it caused primitive rage and destruction, something Nate witnessed everywhere. In his thesis, he proved his point by examining jealous characters in Shakespeare’s Othello and King Lear.
      How does their success diminish mine? He wished he could put that thought out of his mind. Nate spent countless hours in his swivel chair; one could say he lived where he sat.
      In the yoga class, a tingling numbness ran down his legs: pain and trembling too. He stood in a darkish room; a teacher asked them to bend from their core towards the floor. He couldn’t reach past his knees. I am not a yoga guy, he thought—I have more in common with the freegans. I should have never set foot in this dusty old hovel. He felt others staring at him.Nate contemplated his future on all fours doing cow and cat, rounding his back like a feline. Or should he flatten it like a bovine? Who named these postures? The students stood in unison, placing a bent leg along their thigh for tree pose. He grabbed a beam.
      “Focus on one point on the wall,” said the teacher, a strikingly fit woman named Lulu Betancourt, who welcomed them warmly and insisted they obey their own bodies. “Take a three-part breath and be mindful. Let air seep out like a leaky balloon.”
       Nate smirked. He visualized a giant balloon emptying with farting sounds. He filled his lungs then exhaled, just as he was told. Relaxation could wash over him.
       She soon introduced them to the series “Salute to the sun.” A set of flowing movements that started with standing, progressed to rolling to the floor and rising into the cobra and plank positions with a rhythmic grace, and then ended with an upward curl, palms pressed together in gratitude. A subtle choreography he punctuated with jerking motions. If Nate could reach an inch nearer to his toes and roll down without collapsing, he felt like he would celebrate. His version might be called parody, not salute. But he was determined to modify his moves, like the barnacles, finches and beetles Darwin observed.
       “Melt into the earth with a rushing sensation, rain drenching fields,” Lulu said in a soft yet determined voice. She leaned against the wall, bowed her head.
       Nate tried to experience rain. Instead, he thought about money. He benefited neither from the loopholes in capitalism that let the richest prosper, nor from a critique of its corruption. I am an academic serf living on rice and beans, he thought, and no one could care less. He was deep in debt from loans. He should apply for another fellowship or take an adjunct position at a City University campus. He wondered about the job mentioned by his advisor in his recent nasty note. Offendorf had scribbled dismissive comments on the pages it took Nate many months to write, and even more months to find the courage to mail to the university down in Maryland (with Nora’s goading). Offendorf had the nerve to reply:
      WAY TOO MUCH time spent on Darwin. It may be trendy to consider evolutionary theory, but I don’t care for that approach. Take out feminism and limit psychoanalysis. You’ve inserted too many footnotes. Let’s put this baby to bed. When are you coming to campus? Bring the revision−we’ll talk defense date. Oh, and I might know of a teaching position.”
       As Nate considered whether the job was real or just another one of Offendorf’s bluffs, he was instructed to twist his torso, knee cutting across his folded leg. This position evoked the twists and turns of Nora’s desire.
      “Let’s conceive a millennial child,” she said. Nineteen-ninety-nine high stepped like a marching band through her ovaries. Fear of her upcoming—their upcoming—fortieth birthdays felt like annihilation.
      “Nora. I can’t give you a baby now.”
      “I knew you’d say that,” Nora said. “There’s never going to be a perfect time.”
      “I’m not in the position to be a dad.”
       "You’d be very loving.” She stroked his hand. “My salary can tide us over.”
       His inability to care for a child felt like a character deficiency. He needed to finish his degree before procreating—not focus on the milestone of age forty. When his mom visited from Long Island the other day, she slipped him a wad of cash.
       “Don’t say anything to your father.”
       “You don’t have to keep doing this,” he said, feeling sheepish and small.
       Nate’s spine cracked. Lulu headed over to his side during dandasana, a forward bend that segued into a seated, wide-angle pose. She crouched. “Breathe into your stretch.” He noticed a beady-eyed frog tattoo near her shoulder—green and black, sinister. Lulu smelled of rose oil.
      “What’s wrong?” she whispered.
      “I can’t concentrate.” What made her want to ink a frog into her skin?