Nature did not intend this combination.
I’m entering menopause right when my two-year-old’s tantrums start pushing every button I have. I discover yoga and it’s just what the doctor ordered: 90 minutes of calm forming a peaceful island in my hectic life. But yoga is just yoga. A class to take once a week.
I hear other students talk about what they read in well-known yoga publications. My teacher says she does yoga for aerobic exercise. Are these people fanatics whose whole lives revolve around yoga? I go to the gym or ride my bike for “real” exercise. Please, don’t make me chant or learn Sanskrit.
But I notice how much better I feel after class: loose and soft and—dare I say—open-hearted. I’ve staked out “my” spot in the room, and the rubbery smell of the mat starts to slow my breath. The itch of the wool blanket becomes comforting.
After a couple years, I’ve worked my way through the intermediate poses and get brave enough to sign up for an advanced class, where they start teaching headstand and—are they kidding—handstand. Will the teacher kick me out?
I decide I will do a handstand by the time I’m 50—still five years away—and shock myself by achieving this goal within a year. I might be turning into one of those fanatics—sneaking in a read from yoga magazine, going to group meditation sessions and yes, even memorizing the Sanskrit. The truth is, my marriage is on the rocks and my yoga island is growing larger, becoming a refuge.
I get into the woo-woo side of yoga, feeling my energy, aligning my chakras (energy centers), meditating on my third eye. I sign up for teacher training, learn the advanced breathing practices, delve into yoga philosophy, cleanse my sinuses each morning with a neti pot, analyze my Ayurvedic doshas (body constitutions) and use them to guide my diet. Coffee and hot peppers are out: too aggravating for pitta—the heating element of the body.
My teacher talks about having become addicted to bhastrika breathing—the bellows breath, sometimes called “breath of fire.” She says she found herself doing it in line at the grocery store, driving in her car. Yoga is supposed to be about balance, not extremes, she cautions. But the practices fill the void in my life, giving it meaning to make up for an empty marriage, a boring job and a difficult child.
I move my clothes out of the walk-in closet and make it a meditation space. I practice tratakam—single-pointed visual concentration on a yantra, a swirling black-and-white spiral that I tape to the wall at eye level. I’m supposed to gaze gently at the yantra, letting my eyes produce tears to cleanse them. But despite my teacher’s warnings, I do go overboard. I stare so long and fixedly at the yantra that, when I finally stop, I’m blind. Not figuratively. I literally cannot see for nearly an hour. That scares the shit out of me so I resolve to take it easy.
My teacher confesses to having drunk her own urine. Really? When I earn my teaching certification, I splurge on the $125 book from India that is a virtual encyclopedia of every weird-ass yoga practice known to man. Drinking urine? Yup, it’s in there. They suggest first peeing in the bathtub and then drinking a little urine, diluted in water. Is urine-drinking good for you? Or is it supposed to help you overcome aversion to the unpleasant?
I lose 20 pounds and start buying my yoga pants in the children’s department. I can do the fancy arm balance poses. One day I get into an extra-deep full lotus, flopping onto my belly to really open those hips. It feels great, but the next day something is wrong with my right knee. I’ve torn the lateral meniscus, and no amount of yoga can fix it. Eventually I go under the knife but am back to teaching in six weeks.
I travel the country to study more yoga, learning from men who make bare-chested yoga videos and grace the pages of “that yoga magazine”, which I now subscribe to. My marriage is tanking, and I turn to yoga philosophy for guidance. According to the Yoga Sutras—an ancient text—around one who is solidly established in nonviolence, hostility disappears. It’s my fault if I can’t be yogic enough to stop my husband’s angry rages.
But he loses his job and doesn’t seem motivated to find a new one. I start teaching more yoga classes—as many as nine a week—on top of a part-time office job. I start to resent my students for getting this wonderful savasana—guided relaxation—at the end of class. Why don’t I get a chance to relax?
Because I’m not taking a yoga class, I realize, the thing that got me started on this whole adventure. I remember, shimmering on the horizon like an oasis, the bliss of 10 or 15 minutes to lie on the floor. Nothing to do but breathe.
Eventually, I get a divorce, my child grows up and I scale back my teaching to a reasonable level. I am not tempted to drink urine or stare myself blind. I eat a healthy vegetarian diet, using all the hot peppers I like, but I no loner fit into child-sized clothes. I do still use the neti pot. A basic yoga practice—always with savasana—helps me navigate life’s rough waters. It sustains me as I swim away from my yoga island.
Author: Enid Kassner
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Felipe Ikehara/Flickr