I’m devouring Claire Dederer’s evocative memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, and it has me thinking of all the ways yoga has been there for me in the stages of my life. To rail against in adolescence, to try to cheat death in early adulthood, all through my pregnancy to connect with my baby, and now, to re-member this postpartum jumble of a body.
I was first introduced to yoga in a stuffy auditorium in southern Connecticut, by my beleaguered gym teacher, Mrs. Ball. Looking back, I am appalled at how I reacted to this introduction, and feel sympathy for Mrs. Ball to the point of pity. Here she was, in one of her ubiquitous and unfortunate multi-colored track suits, in the midst of yet another pregnancy, trying to expand the minds of these New Englander children, and perhaps have a week of not having to run after us as we escaped her clutches by hiding underneath the bleachers. But I, newly “saved” and “on fire for Jesus”, was not having that shit. In my dualistic 15-year-old mind, “yoga” meant “devil worship”. Doing Tree pose would clearly send me straight to Hell. If I truly believed Jesus saved, why was I so untrustworthy of Him that I believed that in doing a forward lunge I was endangering my very soul? I was new to Christianity, and I was using it to find order and structure in what was an increasingly chaotic inner world. I felt that if there were Rules, Rights and Wrongs, then perhaps I could avert feeling like such a fuck-up all the time. And if I had to follow the Rules, which was so much less fun than my old life of getting drunk on the tennis courts before the Halloween dance, then everyone else should have to, too. Understanding this mind-set is what helps me actually have some empathy for Tea Partiers today. Anyway, my best friend and I caused a big stink and we moved on from yoga to Ballroom dancing, which I had no beef with, probably because I was better at it. I look back on my behavior with embarrassment, but also with some kindness for that old self, because in some ways I was on to something. Yoga is a spiritual practice, and Mrs. Ball pretending that it was just a series of movements to gain strength and flexibility smacked of inauthenticity to me. And if there’s one thing any teenager can sniff out and pounce on in an adult, it’s any whiff of pretension.
I didn’t try yoga again until college, when I willfully signed up for a Yoga & Pilates course, looking for a way to combine spirituality and movement and maybe lose my Freshman Fifteen. My teacher here was a huge upgrade – a sassy, energetic woman with bright eyes who laughed a lot and was incredibly encouraging. Her name was Chris, and she was so charismatic that I ended up joining her ultra-liberal open and affirming Baptist church, and following in her footsteps to become a Pilates Instructor. So, the start of this was innocent enough. But shortly after I joined the class, my dad got sick with cancer. It was an aggressive strain, and I moved home that summer to help him through what would be the last months of his life. In this time, I got fanatical about my health. I started working out several hours a day, following a strict vegan diet that included ridiculous amounts of cardboard-tasting Kashi food. Not satisfied with Hatha Yoga’s slow beauty, I started doing vigorous Ashtanga yoga in my living room, dripping with sweat, willing myself never to be sick. Again, looking back, I try not to judge myself. I see what I was doing, and have some kindness for the desire to will myself through my grief with the use of endless chatarangas. I’m glad yoga was there to help me through that terrible time in my life. But I still wasn’t really doing yoga. I was using it to make my body look as emaciated as I felt within, and to store up “health points” that I hoped would keep me from one day contracting a disease as terrible as the one that had just claimed my beloved father.
When I moved to San Francisco, I got a job teaching Pilates at Satori Yoga Studio, a truly wonderful place, an oasis in downtown SF. As an instructor, I got to take free classes at the studio. Four years in to doing yoga, this is probably the first time I started actually practicing it. I no longer strove to lose weight, claim forever health, or attain perfection. I just showed up on my mat and was present with what met me there. Most of the time, that meant confronting really uncomfortable emotions. Why on earth, when I did Crescent Lunge, was I confronted with so much anger? I inwardly cursed my teachers through the whole first half of the class, furious with them for thinking I could do another vinyasa. But by the time the class was ending, I was usually in tears, releasing all that rage in a healthy way. And I was no longer addicted to it! I did yoga about once a week. I exercised less and ate more, filling out my curves and finding love for them. They were not an assurance that I would die of cancer, that was simply how a woman’s body looked.
Doing prenatal yoga was incredibly sanity-inducing. My classes with Jane Austin (with a name like that she’s sure to be trustworthy) at Yoga Tree were intuitive, challenging, and most of all, validating. I could walk in and say in the check-in “I just feel like I’m going off the rails a little bit” and Jane would turn to the class and say, “Who else here feels crabby and out of control?” Forty water-retaining hands would reach for the sky. “In pregnancy everything is BIGGER. Your personality, whatever it was before, is larger than ever. You need more SPACE for everything.” And then we would do Juicy Hips for an hour or so. Her classes also really prepared me for the wonder and agony that is natural childbirth. Breathing through the pain, doing things you never dreamed you could (or would) with your body — yoga helped me practice that along the way.
After I pushed out my little bundle of joy (which took far longer than you want to know, especially if you have not had a baby yet), my body was unrecognizable to me. Yoga was the first form of exercise I returned to, to find myself in this body again. I went back to Jane for the Mommy & Me classes, but I was overwhelmed by all the babies in the room! My baby has an incredibly sweet disposition, and all the cranktastic babes in there were seriously stressing both of us out. It was cool to see all the other moms, though. Two women who looked just as lumpy as I did and had babies who were several months older than I asked Jane quietly “When will I start to lose weight?” There was hope and a little desperation in their voices. “Oh, you’ll hold on to some extra fat as long as you’re lactating. At about a year you’ll be thin again.” We looked at each other, probably wondering what would happen at a year if we weren’t exactly thin before we had a baby.
Anyway, Mommy & Me was not for me, and I went back to dance class soon after, which is where I got my main exercise. But I was plagued by an anxiety the level of which I had never known. I have never been a very fearful person, but having a child is fricken terrifying. Going back to work, I found myself walking down the street with my hands on my belly, sorely missing my phantom limb and imagining terrible fates for her while we were apart. I knew I needed yoga, but didn’t know how to fit it back into my schedule. Thankfully my bestie Amanda is a yoga practitioner with the awesome Healing Yoga Foundation, and she came over and helped me devise a personalized vinyasa I could do in the 10-15 minutes I have when I get home from work before Joel comes home with Olive. It quiets my mind, strengthens my back, and prepares me to spend my evening parenting. However, it is not quite enough. I am itching to get back into a regular yoga class, to sit in that space with others as we breathe and move together. I don’t know when it will be possible, but I hope it is soon.
Yoga is a form of prayer-in-motion that I can see myself doing for the rest of my life. As I age, my yoga will continue to shift and change. After 10 years of doing yoga, I still feel 100% like a beginner. It is not just a cliché — I don’t fully understand yoga but I feel it waiting for me, like an ocean that is welcoming me to plunge its depths, the waves both inviting and bone-tingling.