September 28, 2013

Back Bend, Look Inside & Write. ~ Jennifer Lang

One Indian summer Wednesday morning 18 years ago, I attended my first yoga class in my hometown of Oakland, California.

“Can I squeeze in?” I asked some strangers on either side to make room for my thin blue mat. Looking around, there were at least four or five dozen people. The sunlit room buzzed with energy as the instructor, a slight Asian-American man with picture perfect biceps, greeted students, smiling; finally sitting cross-legged on his mat in front of me.

“Hi, I’m Rodney Yee,” he said, introducing himself to me and a few other first timers. His smile radiated warmth and spanned across his entire face.

My strongest memories of that class and so many that followed were the words: ground down through your feet, plant yourselves into the earth, soften your body, anchor yourself, feel the ground underneath you. His voice—the language—quieted my crazy mind.

Married only five years, Philippe and I had already lived in three different countries and I felt anything but rooted. I gravitated toward Rodney’s words and tried my best to follow his instructions.

Last week, I attended a one-day memoir writing workshop outside the hills of Jerusalem with Sherri Mandell, author of a memoir about loss called Blessings of a Broken Heart. Since the workshop was crammed between the first two major Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during what is considered a time for serious introspection called the Ten Days of Awe, she chose the theme of reflection.

Surrounded by a dozen other male and female writers, I listened as Sherri explained how she thought the etymology of the word “reflection” was far more interesting than some Websters’ Dictionary definition:

“From Late Latin reflexionem ‘a reflection,’ literally ‘a bending back, to bend back, bend backwards, turn away’”
“So reflection is to bend back, to stop and look back, to double check yourself,” she continued.

Her word choice fascinated me and I realized I was no longer paying attention. My body didn’t fall out from under me and goose-bumps didn’t dot my arms, but I experienced an aha moment, a moment of clarity when my two separate selves—my yoga self and my writing self—became one. Suddenly, I had the most befitting answer to the centuries-old, philosophical question:

“Who am I?”

I am a back bender.

With the sun pouring into the house from the sliding glass doors on the outskirts of one of the holiest cities in the world, I thought about what it means to bend back.

On the yoga mat, I try to draw my shoulder blades together in attempt to open across the top of my chest, lift my heart up and lean my spine back. Sometimes I bend back while lying on the floor, lifting myself up on my legs and arms into urdva danurasana or full wheel; sometimes I sit on my knees, arching my spine up and over to reach for my ankles in ustrasana or camel pose.

The action of bending back with my body makes me feel like I can fly, like I might float off the floor. It’s as if my physical body is unlocking my emotional one.

But back bending and writing seem mutually exclusive. How can a memoir writer bend back and look inside, exactly that which is required?

“While action and description tell the story, reflection is how a writer negotiates it. The story is the surface, but then bend yourself, bend your story back to see how you relate to it,” Sherri said, occasionally stopping to look at us.

When people ask when or why I first started practicing yoga, I tell them it was the words that reeled me in. So many of the poses puzzled me, cramping muscles I never knew I had or asking me to lift and spread my toes, which were clumped together and impossible to separate. I remember whimpering, “I can’t” or “It hurts” to my teacher. But Rodney’s words “to plant, soften, quiet, anchor, settle,” bewildered me in another way. They required me to stop and take a deep look inside.

Recently 30, married and a mom, I was being asked to use my body as a way to gain access to, or perhaps, understand my mind.

Where was I from and where was I heading?

When gazing in, what did I see? Sometimes Rodney’s thoughts and words struck me so deeply that I welled up with tears.

As time passed, I began practicing twice weekly until we moved to New York, where I obtained my yoga teaching certification. All the while, I wrote for websites, magazines or whoever hired me and early in the fall of 2004, I signed up for my first memoir writing class. In that time, the teacher commanded me to use less exposition, include more description, learn how to write dialogue and create scenes. However, throughout the eight week course, I floundered, struggling to understand what she meant.
While doing a timed reflection writing exercise last week, I truly understood how my two halves make a whole.

I am who I am because I write and practice yoga.

I reflect both on the mat and at my desk. Sometimes I bend forward to look in but usually I bend back, to stop and double check myself.

“As writers, it’s as if we’re opening our mouths in astonishment and saying wow when bending back and reflecting,” Sherri said.

Because there’s something behind us and we must bend back to see it.


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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana / Ed: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Centre of Gravity}

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