March 11, 2016

How a Yoga Inversion Led to a Life Conversion.


“Imagine your nipples like headlights pointing straight forward.”

The year was 1995. We still used a blender to mix margaritas and milkshakes, not green smoothies. “Warrior 1” was not yet standard American English. I was wobbling through my first-ever yoga class.

The teacher continued her driving metaphors. In the exercise room at the YMCA, she guided us into a seated twist and suggested we imagine looking over our shoulder to park a car. This was before a screen in the dashboard told you where the rear bumper is.

The teacher seemed old to me, confident. Now I’ve reached the age I estimate her to have been, mid-forties. She had medium-length dark brown hair, creamy skin and a mischievous look in her eyes. I trusted her and did what she said. When she placed us in viparita karani, with legs up the wall and back flat on the floor, my perspective on my body literally changed. “Picture a jack-knife,” she said, urging us to nestle our buttocks closer to the wall.

I don’t remember this woman’s name, but she changed my world. It’s as if I hopped on a bus to a part of town that had always been there but was brand new to me. Everything I saw and experienced in the 90 minutes assured me that life was for the curious. Everything I heard annotated my previous learning. I was a teacher, too, of literature and writing, and recognized in this yoga teacher the combination of creativity and logic, tempered with the caring that makes a teacher effective.

That tiny word—“yoga”—is a small submarine that took me into the deep ocean of physical, philosophical and ethical explorations.

One class. One teacher. New life. I thank my BFF for suggesting the Y. I’m grateful I accepted.

After high school, apathy had slid between Phoebe and me. Both bright but unfocused, pretty but not gorgeous, talented but not genius, we drifted to different regions, Phoebe to the Midwest, I to California, searching no doubt, as youngest siblings do, for someone or something to create a surface on which we could recognize ourselves. When we reconnected by chance, literally bumping into each other at an art gallery in Ann Arbor, the university town where our husbands were temporarily studying, we served as each others’ looking glass.

Always ahead of the curve, Phoebe’s older sister was teaching yoga in Washington, D.C. When she came home from college we admired her insouciance and elegance, her red Chuck Taylor high tops and the scarf draped across her collarbones. When Phoebe saw the YMCA class advertised, she pressed me to attend. I was a jogger with a sporadic weight-lifting habit left over from rowing crew in college. But I’d been studying Buddhism for 10 years and figured cross-legged yogis might have something in common with meditators. I agreed to one class. “I don’t think this is for me,” I said meeting up with Phoebe at the gym’s entrance on West Washington Street, clad in gray sweatpants and a “Coffee is my friend” t-shirt.

Curious about yoga in the last century, I searched online. There you can find an interview with Sting from the December 1995 Yoga Journal. As a Gen-X-er, Sting is one of my heroes.

“I feel it is a path that is involved enough to keep developing,” the singer tells Ganga White. “It’s almost like music in a way; there’s no end to it.”

In high school, Phoebe set the volleyball and I spiked it. She is lithe, a dancer and a pianist. I’m wiry, built for long walks and swimming. By the time I attended the Iyengar class at that Ann Arbor YMCA, years of stooping over children’s desks had wrecked my posture. Photos in the family album say I’d once been at home in my body, climbing on monkey bars, racing across the neighborhood park with my dog, playing the role of Athena in the fourth grade show. Along the path from adolescence to adulthood, I became alienated from my six-foot frame.

Experiencing savasana on that Michigan night with my childhood friend, I was 10 years younger than Sting when he started yoga. I get what he’s saying, though. I’m a writer, aware even in my teens that I’d stay on a creative path by hook or by crook. Yoga is practical and myriad. Since that first class, I’ve studied with dozens of teachers. When I felt ready to teach yoga, I trained first at a small Sacramento studio where I was a regular student. One of the guest teachers, Richard Rosen, emphasized that yoga asana is preparation for meditation. I’d discovered this in home practice. A strong body and fluid breath lead me into stillness. A year and a half later, Cyndi Lee’s advanced teacher training, with its Buddhist strand, brought me full circle in my work and personal lives.

When Phoebe visits our hometown of Washington, D.C., where I live again, and we meet up for coffee, the word “join” comes to mind. On a lark, I joined her for that yoga class. In the 20 years since, yoga — which teachers love to remind us translates as “union”—has joined me with friends, students, ideas, opportunities and insights that make me who I am.
“I’ve learned to trust in the power of love,” Sting says. “Love for oneself, love for the people you’re with, your family, your friends. Love for simplicity, love for the truth. I think that without love, none of it makes any sense.”

Recently, one of my yoga students entered viparita karani—that legs-up-the-wall pose—in a lunchtime class in a company gym, fluorescent lights blazing, TV blaring. Thighs, calves and ankles flush against the cold mirror of the basement wall, she peeked at me and said something remarkable: “I’ve never really felt my back before.”

Same pose, different person, years later. Everything can change in a moment.





Author: Alexa Mergen

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Amy

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