Tuesday, January 24, 2012

yoga – a personal history

I recently started a new yoga class. Restorative yoga to be exact. And it's sent me on a mental retrospective of my encounters with this practice. Oh, won't you join me as we trip through the land of yoga memories?

My very first experience with yoga was at a studio outside of Washington, D.C. A friend and I went to check things out and found ourselves in a light-filled room with a dozen others game for the challenge of twisting ourselves into pretzels – or whatever this class would turn out involving. We did a few classic beginner things – downward dogs, warrior ones and twos – and then it was time to go.

At the end of the class, as we relaxed on our mats, eyes closed, the teacher spoke in a sing-songy voice about releasing this and that, ending her speech by calling our attention to our toes which she suggested were like “little stars.” “And now they are twinkling!” she gushed. This would make the whole hour worthwhile. I dared to lift my gaze and found, as suspected, my friend shaking almost uncontrollably on her mat, attempting not to burst out in raucous laughter. Of course, I joined her, both of us straight as twigs in a violent wind storm, sniggering and snorting in the back of the room.

It was the kind of place that had lots of free merch – magnets and such. White on black bumper stickers that read “I'd Rather Be Doing Yoga” with their website address underneath. We went to a couple more classes, but the twinkling toes only sustained us so far before other things like happy hour filled in the space.

There were more unnoteworthy classes over the years before I landed at a quiet little studio in Pacific Grove, California. Isaac was 10 months? 11? Something in that range of major separation anxiety and in order to attend, I'd first have to pry myself out of his clutches, shouting “I love you!” and slamming the door while he screamed on the other side. It was helpful. The yoga, that is. It was a “gentle” class I took with another friend, also post-partum, with lots of personal attention from the serious woman who owned the place.

Sometimes the instructor wrote a column for the local paper that she'd copy and hand out to us. They said what any newspaper column in 700 words by an “expert” says, which is to say, they said nothing.

Much later I'd go back to the same instructor when my back was so f-ed up I needed to do something and so I tried a private yoga class from the serious woman. It was around that time that she warned me away from another yoga studio I'd later attend, much closer to where I had moved to. They wouldn't know how to take care of my back, she warned.

This woman had many environmental allergies and when they started air-spraying the county for the “plague” of the brown moth because Schwarzenegger's friend owned the planes, she informed us she was leaving town and didn't know when she could return. I'd have to find someone else to force me to stand in tree pose, it seemed. But time does funny things and later I saw she was back in town and working at the studio she'd warmed me about.

I took yoga classes in tiny, beautiful studios where everyone whispered and instructors would wander around while people reclined under their eye pillows saying things like, “I'm just going to adjust you slightly, Kathryn.” Then, Invariably they'd say, “There, is that better?” And invariably, it wasn't.

I've been to a prenatal yoga series where extra time was built in so we could talk about how we were feeling. This never worked well for me and I always left feeling like I'd revisited middle school and I still wasn't popular.

I've also taken many yoga classes here and there at the local sports center where instructors come and go with more frequency than help at the fast food counter. It's like taking a survey class in college where there is a huge room of people a few of whom know something about what they are doing, many who are checking their watches regularly, and several who just showed up because it fit in their schedule.

One of the instructors there was a woman who was fond of yelling out “If you aren't breathing, you aren't doing yoga!” If you aren't breathing, you probably have bigger problems than whether or not your sun salutations are smooth and flowing, but who's keeping track?

These classes are always a blend of a Madonna concert, with the chick up front bounding around on her headphones, and Psych 101, where the professor and the girl in the front row discussed Skinner and the rest of us 100 peons are ignored whole-heartedly.

I spent time in each new scenario trying to describe or support my claims to past yoga experience. I'd admire the pretty candles, trying to remember that “this is my practice” and if it doesn't feel good I shouldn't do it...except the one and only one time I tried out hot yoga. At that one the teacher, who was dressed in something like spandex fatigues, told us all we could do every pose fully, today if we just wanted to. I left wondering why she hated us so much.

I once took yoga in a filthy gymnasium at a closed school. There was a stage filled with old props and sets from high school theater productions and lots and lots of folding chairs folded along the sides of the room. It was run out of the city's rec department and consequently cost almost nothing and went on for weeks and weeks. It was heaven. The woman leading it often sent us to beaches and mountains on guided meditations. Isaac was a toddler by now and my need for relaxation was at such a level and my selfishness so highly developed that I once stayed on in class though Mike was home trying to take care of him while vomiting copious amounts of bile. I was glad I did. Palm trees, baby. White sand and the sound of waves washing over pebbles. You were good until your arm would stretch off the mat and hit the cold, grimy gym floor.

But my all time favorite was a restorative yoga class given in Seaside, California.

Now, your average yoga instructors tend to have certain features in common. Their hair is perfectly smooth and framing clear green eyes, mascara perfect, skin unblemished. They are petite and slim. My instructor for restorative yoga was probably four and a half feet tall and quite charmingly plump. I never noticed her mascara, probably because she didn't wear any. Two or 3, or at most 4 people would show up to class and she would greet us each every time like it was our birthday. There was no talk of “challenging ourselves” and every pose was held for at least 20 minutes and pretty much designed to put you to sleep. I'd routinely come to my senses in a puddle of drool, hugging my bolster. Jeanni knew what she was doing and I loved her for it. She spent her time bouncing among us offering extra blankets. It was like a class in sleep. Pure magic.

The studio was located on a busy street and it was impossible to completely block out the sounds of the real world. Maybe that could even be another reason why it worked for me. No one was pretending that we were sitting on top of a mountain in India, or that we'd rather be doing yoga above anything else in our lives, or that pregnancy was bliss, or that pressing our heels into the ground more deeply would save us. We were just tired.

So pass the eye pillow and elbow me if I snore. And if, as I'm drifting off, I can still hear a low rider driving by screaming the wail of Mariachi music as it zooms through the intersection, maybe that's not such a bad thing. It may not be palm trees, but the lights dancing in a bright blue pattern around the license plate that I just know are there, those are pretty, too.


Barb said...

Wow -- such a great post! You have a gift for words and humorous essay writing, really. Such apt details! Had to laugh at the "this is your practice" and the twinkling toes. Really enjoyed this :-)

Rita said...

Goes double for me! You can certainly capture aspects of the human condition!

jaykaym said...

You have captured some kind of universal yoga experience through which we all must travel.

My friend, however, actually took a class in "how to put yourself to sleep". She loved it! It was like a class you wish they had for babies in how to settle, relax and self-soothe, only it was for adults. They even had practice sessions in sleeping!

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