March 18, 2011

Yoga is Not My Boyfriend. ~ Amie Newman

Photo: Andreas Ivarsson.

“If yoga was a man, I may have gotten divorced years ago.”

After 20 years of practicing yoga on-and-off, I’m still not sure what my relationship exactly is with yoga. When I say I’ve been practicing yoga for 20-odd years, what I mean to say is that I have been dedicated at times, I have been lax at others, and for many years I’ve done no yoga whatsoever. I have also been ambivalent, confused and non-committal.

Yoga is something I’ve had a beautifully ephemeral relationship with, and I don’t foresee that ever changing. If yoga was a man, I may have gotten divorced years ago. Gratefully, yoga remains committed to me no matter what. It’s stuck with me even when I wanted nothing to do with it.

I guess I can start at the beginning. I am home. Well, as much as my mother’s apartment on Long Island can be called home. She and my stepfather are just separated after 17 years of marriage and they’re on their way to divorce. I am a recent college graduate who, after having worked a mere three or four months with a Manhattan record label, runs shrieking from the work-a-day world, and straight into a trip overseas.

Emlyn Stokes

With very little money and an overwhelming desire to float through worlds I’d never seen before, I head to London to visit my brother and travel Western Europe. From there, I stumble into a cross-country road trip, which lasts for months.

Afterward, I land back in New York jobless and moneyless, in my mother’s same apartment, on the periphery of a shipyard, on top of a small warehouse for a printing press.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is never the less the auspicious beginning of my own adulthood.

One day, on a whim while shopping at Goodwill, I purchase a book about yoga. Its cover is orange and it features an older man wearing only a white-pinned cloth to cover his crotch, his frame so skinny you can’t believe with each turn of the page he’s able to contort his body into such poses without shattering his ribs and cracking his bones. I almost cheer each time I find him gently twisted into each new pose, so beautifully poised in black and white.

I was a gymnast for some years when I was younger, and it was the only form of physical activity I had genuinely loved. My body is naturally flexible and I’m somewhat physically strong, but I have also struggled with eating disorders and body issues for much of my young adult and adult life.

As I experiment with each pose on the floor of my mother’s tiny wood-paneled den, I do yoga as if I’m preparing for a gymnastics meet; it’s almost competitive in nature. I bend, spread, kick, grunt, splay and clench. Some of the poses are easy for me and my ego is on fire. Others seem so far out of reach, I can’t even understand where this man’s arms end and his torso begins.

Photo: lululemon athletica

No matter. Every day I end up on the shag carpeted floor of the dark den, doing yoga.

I don’t remember paying much attention to how I felt in each pose. I didn’t understand anything about breath work, or drishtis or finding that beautiful place of balance. I corralled yoga into propping me up and giving me a reason to wake up each day under a dark cloud of depression. It worked.

I greeted my lonely mornings with a series of sun salutations even when the light seemed far away. I welcomed the feeling of inversions, which reminded me of my gymnastics practice as a teenager.

I even experienced moments of love for my body, which I had been in battle with for so long. Mostly, I felt welcomed into a world that seemed provocatively familiar and excitingly new all at once.

It took at least another year for me to get up the courage to find a class to attend. By then I was living in North Carolina, with my boyfriend at the time, working at a food co-op and learning how to rock climb in my spare time.

A young woman who opened the basement of her blue-shingled, small home led the class on the outskirts of Chapel Hill. A random gathering of enlightenment-seeking strangers showed up each week, searching for the strange combination of joy, calm and electricity that yoga seems to offer. It was still, however, primarily a physical practice for me, albeit with moments of awakenings.

Eventually, I brought my practice outside. I moved to a converted yellow school bus, on the Eno River. I discovered that yoga amidst uncontrollable breezes, the smell of flowers, the rush of the river, the tickle of a spider was an exercise in my “being” practice. Could I focus on my yoga practice with the wild care of nature surrounding me? My soul slowly uncovered some of the spirituality of yoga.

It dawned on me (yes, I’m a slow learner) that yoga could be so much more than an opportunity to push my body into poses held as if for performance, on view for an audience, which sits in judgment only in my mind. I’m not exactly ego-less quite yet. If I’m completely honest, I feel unabashedly proud when I push effortlessly into wheel pose or balance in crow.

Photo: Canon in 2D

I may experience — at times — a less-than-stellar streak of jealousy when the curly-haired dancer to my right practically floats into the most graceful one-legged King pigeon pose (Eka Pada Rajakapotasan). I’m not the yogi of my dreams yet.

My relationship with yoga is far from over, though. It’s all been worth it – the falling in love, the confusion, the ambivalence, the passion, the pain, the “Jesus Christ, I need a different hobby” and the rare moments of glorious nothingness when it all seems to come together in a pose. I know the ups and downs of my yoga journey will last a lifetime. It’s in my blood and my breath.

Gratefully, I’ve used Ujjayi breathing more times than I can count to deflect some potentially unsavory road rage incidents. Standing in line seems like a good time to relax into mountain pose (Tadasana).

And after a long day of work, juggling children and activities, a mountain of dishes and dogs that need walking, a calming night-time yoga session is like one of those “Calgon, take me away!” commercials, only better.

These days, I do yoga almost daily. I’ve developed a solid home practice and, when I have the time, I take a class at my favorite studio – simply to connect with others and feel the collective playfulness of a room full of people’s flowing energy. I’ve learned that yoga is many things. It’s the energy that fuels you, the calm that centers you, the love that cradles you, and the spirit that sways you.

I suppose it’s all of that for me, and each of those, at different times in my life, even at different times throughout the day. I may not have a hold on what yoga “Is” but I know that whatever it may be, I’m willing to continue the journey for as long as my breath flows, my heart beats, and my mind wanders.

Amie Newman was most recently the Managing Editor for the award-winning web site RH Reality Check, a daily publication of the UN Foundation covering global reproductive and sexual health news and information. She has also been a staff writer for the Women’s Rights section of Change.org. She has been published at or contributed to articles around the web and in the traditional media including Alternet, The Huffington Post, MSNBC.com, Feministe, Womens eNews, Common Dreams, Truthout, and interviewed on NYC’s Pacifica Radio. She lives with her husband and two beautiful children in Seattle, where they tend to their dogs and chickens. In her spare time, she loves yoga, music, hiking with her family, reading and trying not to fall asleep during movies.

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