Yoga had become largely the province of the same girls who didn’t pick me in gym class, albeit in older bodies.
For as long as I can remember, I have hated organized physical activity.
I always loved to play outside, to climb trees, to swim and to ride my bike uphill for the sheer joy of flying down with my feet in the air. My best friend and I spent hours creating a show ring so that we could “ride,” our bottom halves walking, trotting, galloping and jumping and our upper halves holding imaginary reins.
What I hated was gym class.
In elementary school, I was terrified of Slaughter Ball, a pre-PC version of dodge ball that seemed to be all about big, strong boys whipping red balls at anyone perceived as weak or slow. Often, that same best friend and I hid in the supply closet behind the tumbling mats, pretending to be fugitive orphans fleeing from oppressive matrons.
When I was older, and began to gain weight and develop breasts that jiggled and drew attention, I was plagued by the President’s Physical Fitness program which involved a song with the lyrics “go you chicken fat, go!” I was quickly identified as the chicken fattiest, and began the process of mental disassociation between my lumpy, often mocked body and my innermost self.
In middle school, there was the excruciating necessity of swimming class, after which it was necessary to walk naked from the shower to the little half-door where towels were given out. In high school we played team sports during gym, and every day for three years I spent the first 10 minutes of third hour not being picked until the end.
By that time I inhabited a different universe from the girls with perfect Farrah hair who were on the basketball, baseball, volleyball, and tennis or swim team.
They picked fellow athletes first, then popular friends who weren’t on any team, then skinny unpopular girls and then fat girls. After a few tries at participation, I learned to avoid the action and endure. No one passed to me anyway, or called for me to return a volley; I was largely invisible. Or, rather, large and invisible.
In my last year in high school, I devised a genius scheduling maneuver so that I didn’t have to take gym class. From then on, my exercise was solitary. I went for walks alone or with my dog, and when I was a gym member I hit the weights and treadmill alone, ear buds in, trying to do what I believed was right for my body without triggering the intense suffering of the past.
When yoga started to be a “thing” around here, it intrigued me.
I was not yet a Buddhist, but I associated yoga with all sorts of vague, sandalwood-scented peaceful Eastern stuff. I remembered watching “Lilias, Yoga and You” when I was very young, and remembered her mere screen presence as calming and gentle.
So 13 years ago, I signed up for a beginning yoga class at the community center. It was very basic, with an aging and soft-spoken teacher with long, grey hair in a bun and a motley assortment of students. It was, for the exhausted mother of a 3-year-old, heaven. I came away feeling that I was inside my body for the first time in decades. I couldn’t wait for the next class, and I made friends who are still in my life.
Then things happened, like my parents both became ill and required a great deal of my time, my husband’s job changed and I went back to work, and my relationship with my body alternated between complete neglect and obsessive and unsustainable diet and exercise routines.
There was no more yoga.
The thing was, yoga had become largely the province of the same girls who didn’t pick me in gym class, albeit in older bodies. The same women who had frequented local cafes in perfectly coordinated gym clothes years earlier were now wearing Lululemon and carrying their mats in bags that cost more than my car payment.
I was judging, and I know that. I also knew perfectly coiffed women with tight abs and thighs who were looking for yoga classes where they could burn calories. They liked the “relaxing” stuff, too, savasana and incense, but they seemed to me as competitive and threatening as the team captains from ninth grade. It was a trigger for me, and I was honestly terrified to step into one of their classes with my raggedy ass Target yoga pants and the baby tummy that never went away.
I knew these things: it was wrong for me to judge the women who intimidated me, who had every right to pursue fitness and to include yoga as part of that goal. It was also going to be impossible for me to practice yoga to integrate mind, body and spirit in an environment that automatically sent my mind spinning far from my body, to a place where I was not comparing myself and imagining every eye in the room focused on my inability to hold Tree Pose.
So, I stayed home with Rodney Yee and practiced, never quite sure that I was really doing things right or that I was not going to break one of my increasingly aged bones. It felt okay, but it wasn’t the feeling I had gotten from class years ago. I missed the people, and the barely perceptible hand correcting a posture as the teacher moved through the gym. I needed a class.
And as so often happens when I stay open, I found what I needed.
I found a studio far from the suburbs, a studio that has a total inclusion policy, a community garden and LGBTQ karaoke yoga nights. It’s donation based, and no one in the community is turned away because they can’t pay. It seems fitting to me to pay more than I have to so that someone with less money can have the experience of practice.
In my beginner class there were women older than me, men younger than me, and clothes ranging from “real” yoga gear to gym shorts and Hanes t-shirts. The teacher, the studio’s owner and founder was a miracle of gentle compassion, and (incidentally) a fellow Buddhist. At the end of the first class, sitting in lotus position and chanting Om with a group for the first time in my life, I wept.
Little by little, week by week, I could feel my mind tethered in my body as I stretched, and breathed, and learned not to judge and hate the body that was so strong and so good. I think that I could take a class anywhere now, without shame, and without leaving my physical self to avoid comparisons and suffering.
Mostly, though, I have found a home where all of me is safe, present, and healing.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman