Thursday, February 27, 2014

Namaste: My Yoga Experience

The room was hot and humid, and I liked it that way. I could taste the heat. It pressed against my skin, my hair, and even my teeth. I could feel the sweat dripping, and the calories burning away. I could feel my body and mind becoming one. This was Bikram yoga.

I was in the tree pose, the tadasana. I stood up straight on my right foot with my arms in prayer. My left foot carefully crossed over my right thigh. While others prayed only in pose, I literally prayed to remain balanced. I looked around, and the yogis stood calmly with ease and peace. The teacher was very proud of them. My body tensed as I did my best to not fall flat on my face. My cheeks reddened, and sweat dribbled off my forehead.  I wobbled and lost the position. I tried again and nearly fell over. I pictured hitting my neighbor and starting a domino effect where by the end, we would all be on the floor, and I would be the one to blame. I concentrated harder and tried to harness my inner soul.

The male teacher who was clearly hitting on the attractive, fit, and skilled female students did not help my confidence. In a deep lusty voice, he approached his mentees.

He edged over to a gorgeous brunette in blue spandex: “Very good, Angela.”

And then to the perfectly balanced and perfectly stacked blonde: “Yes, Diana. Very firm.”

He then glanced in my direction and did a double take. His voice and demeanor instantly changed: “Blue shorts…what the hell are you doing?!”

I didn’t know. Harnessing my chi? I was a cross between a pretzel and a one-legged drunkard. I fell to the ground and was asked to go to Child’s Pose, a euphemism for the Pose of Shame. I bowed my head asking for forgiveness.

Several years before, I became fascinated with yoga when an ex-girlfriend took me to my first ever class in Brooklyn. It was my birthday present.  I had very little knowledge of the practice, but I loved to exercise, and figured this would be another great outlet. My knowledge of yoga, pilates, yogalates was almost zero. For the longest time, I thought pilates was a type of dumbbell. But it turned out I was the dumbbell.

The Brooklyn class was a yoga/pilates mix. We used walls, and ropes, and chords to stretch our muscles and aid our core. I was nervous, but my ex-girlfriend was supportive and so was the teacher. I was gaining confidence until the final pose: the headstand. This was clearly a joke. Who could stand on their head?

To my surprise, I looked around and witnessed my classmates balance on their melon, better than I could balance on my own two flat feet. The teacher assured me that I need not try, but I was determined to see what the world looked like upside down. The teacher guided me slowly onto my head, and then I started to lift up the rest of my body. That’s when I realized something important, something very important. If I made a grave mistake, I could break my neck and die.  Fear of death is always a difficult obstacle to overcome. I lost concentration and my confidence in one full swoop. I was upside down and panicking, never a good combination. The teacher held my shaking legs, and I nervously announced to the class: “Oh my God. I think I’m going to die!”  

The response was a yoga teacher’s nightmare. Everyone laughed and laughed hard. It was inner chi versus slapstick comedy. Who would win? The teacher chastised me as she watched her dedicated students rapidly unfold from the headstand while laughing hysterically. Comedy was victorious. The students would regroup for another go while I was asked to sit quietly and not make any more jokes. Once again I was relegated to the Pose of Shame.

I was deterred from my rookie experience, but it didn’t stop me from returning a few years later. Two of my co-workers told me it was time to try again, and I agreed. Truth to be told, both co-workers were very attractive and had they suggested we swim in the sewers of Manhattan, I may have joined them for that too.

This is how I discovered Bikram yoga. Despite my negative experience as “Blue Shorts”, I enjoyed the workout. I would sweat, drink coconut water, and I even made friends with another classmate: “Black shorts.” We both felt like impostors, basketball players posing as yogis. But we needed it, and it helped. My joints loosened, my flexibility increased, and I felt more athletic.

There were other clear benefits to yoga too. The class was made up of mostly fit woman who wore next to nothing. I could shed pounds, and stare at the girls in front of me, and not look like a complete weirdo. I could reflect about poses with my scantily clad companions after class, and bond over bottles of water.  And although this led nowhere, it was certainly a nice perk that sent me home in a good mood.  

To be honest, I didn’t know what half the words in class meant, but I didn’t care either.  Uttitha Hasta Padangusthasana.  Ujjayi. Asana. For a while, I thought they were calling me an Asana because I kept making mistakes. But I just watched and mimicked the pretty girl in front of me and did the best that I could.

I entered each class announcing to the teacher that it was my first, and I always sat in the back. That way, they took it easy on me and there were minimal expectations. I could fall, stumble, or slip, and it was acceptable. But soon, the yoga masters recognized me and I couldn’t pull that off anymore. Yoga became harder because I was expected to improve. The instructors pushed me more even though I felt like I had reached my potential. In my mind, I wasn’t going to let myself get hurt doing yoga. This was just a hobby. It wasn’t like I was trying to make the team. But the instructors did not understand my yoga philosophy.

As I struggled with being pushed, I started noticing little details of yoga that bothered me. Maybe it was just my strategy of finding a way out. The rented mats smelled terrible. Or was it the rug? It smelled like a combination of body odor and ammonia, and they didn’t cancel each other out. When I was asked to take a deep breath, I literally couldn’t do it sometimes. This wasn’t fun. I noticed the regulars in the front row and wondered if I ever wanted to attain that status. The men could bend like a pretzel, but they were “rib cage” skinny and eccentric. I enjoyed the after class banter, but most of the topics were beyond my knowledge like alt rock bands and kale chips.

It was then that I realized yoga was not for me. Despite the positives, I’d rather be on the tennis court or basketball court or running through the park.  I wasn’t meant to do backbends, toe touches, and headstands.  I wasn’t a yogi.

Every year I feel the same way until the long and brutal winter hits. I am shut in and out of shape. The courts are wet and cold, the streets are icy, and the gyms are overpriced and over packed. And I need to get my body moving again. That’s when I walk by a yoga studio and it calls my name.

Recently, I returned to yoga. I took part in two classes, and within moments my body and mind thanked me for it. I felt looser, and at one point almost even touched my toes without bending my knees. But during the classes I still struggled, and the instructor and I took part in a familiar conversation. She was kind, and tried to help, but didn’t realize that I had a yoga disability. I had the knack to frustrate and perplex even the most skilled yoga teacher. She was calm and patient at first, and eventually just let me be.

I instinctively transformed into Child’s Pose, but this time she stopped me. She encouraged me to just be me. This was a huge relief. I proceeded to fall a number of times, but this time with a smile on my face. It may have been embarrassing, but it was my embarrassment. I may have accidentally knocked into the woman next to me a few times, but I apologized. And I may have done the poses incorrectly, but it still felt good. It was my way. It was my yoga. I no longer felt ashamed. I had found finally found my peace.  I hope you find yours too.