Wanting to blend in with the rest of the room, I sat on top of a meditation cushion and waited for the teacher to begin the yoga class.
I fidgeted, rocking side to side, extending my legs, and then crisscrossing them. When the teacher closed the door, she asked everyone to close their eyes and “arrive.” Sitting in a room with about 40 complete strangers, there was no way I was going to be closing my eyes!
This was definitely not going to be the sun salutation warm-up I was accustomed to.
She talked a little bit about letting the day go, and then was silent for over a minute. My eyes remained wide open, looking around at a bunch of fellow yogis of all ages, shapes, and sizes. They all obeyed, sitting straight up on a variety of cushions, some kneeling, some cross-legged, some with their legs extended out in front of them.
Eyes wide open, I stared straight at the teacher. She sat, eyes closed, on a cushion of her own, perched on a platform a couple of feet above the rest of us.
I started doing math in my head. She had just taken about two dollars of my drop-in fee, and I hadn’t moved a muscle. I wasn’t sweating, and at this rate I didn’t think I would.
She said, “I’m going to guide you through dirga pranayama [three-part yogic breath]. Imagine your belly is a balloon, expanding as you take breath into it and deflating as you let it go.” I glanced down at my stomach. I was sucking it all in. I was wearing Lycra and spandex. There wasn’t much room for expansion.
I was a good student, and had been my whole life. I had dabbled in forms of martial arts, and had earned certifications and degrees beyond high school. I was used to following directions. She had us breathe into our stomachs, then rib cage, then chest. I couldn’t believe how hard it was! I kept doing it all wrong, sucking in my stomach and simultaneously forcing air into my lungs.
She was a seasoned teacher, continuously guiding us through this exercise while telling us stories about American society and how women in particular are taught subconsciously to suck in their guts. Maybe I was being paranoid, but I think she was looking right at me as she said that. I had been scrunching up my face as if I had just sucked on a lemon, while using my right palm on my stomach and left palm on my heart trying to do this stupid “prana”—whatever that was.
“Relax,” she said, as she slowly paced through the rows of mats. “Let the muscles in your face go as you expand your belly.” She must have noticed my sour pucker face.
She talked about the nervous and immune systems, and how the present moment is all we have. She wanted us to continue this breath as we meditated, getting our bodies ready for practice.
I had been sitting and breathing all day long—these were two activities I was very good at. I was ready to move and sweat! On top of that, my back and stomach were getting tired. I thought about propping myself up against the nearest wall.
Finally, the class did get my blood and cardio flowing. We did a series of sitting, kneeling, standing, and balancing postures, with some sun salutation flows thrown in. I was ready to show off my chaturanga! When it was time for tree pose, I shot the heel of my foot into my upper thigh. Though the teacher didn’t look in my direction, she asked everyone to start from the ground up, imagining that the heel of our grounded foot was connecting to the students around us. I glanced around. I didn’t want to be connected to these people. Some were saplings, others were maples, birches, or oaks. I was clearly a redwood. “Yoga is not a competition,” said our guide as I swayed my branches faster than anyone else in the room.
The pace was slower than I was used to, but I did work out all the major muscle groups and sweat through my shirt.
Just as my body was warmed up, she cooled us down and urged us to get back on our meditation pillows. I looked at the one I grabbed off the bookcase in disgust. I sat for a living. I was an expert! I didn’t plan on paying money to someone else to tell me how to sit some more.
She showed us an additional breathing technique that we could use at any time during the day. She then said she was going to leave us in meditation for five minutes before savasana. As we started breathing, some people were really loud—sighing and moaning. I wondered how loud they must be in bed. Some yogis looked blissful, some looked so light I thought they would float off their mats, and some just smiled softly to themselves.
Savasana arrived, and fellow yogis took their legs up the wall, placing their soles together and knees out, while others stayed sitting on cushions. My abs were sore from all this sitting up with no chair to support me.
The teacher gave a nice little speech after “waking up” our bodies and before “namaste.” I shot up as soon as the syllable was out of her mouth. Others sat quietly as I violently shook my mat and rolled it up into a burrito. Students had smiles on their faces as if they had just smoked a blunt. They thanked her for a class that was described by people as “amazing,” “just what I needed,” “a great way to end a day,” and “challenging.” I giggled as I threw the cushion back onto the bookcase. I wondered how I had been in the same room with these people for the past hour.
A woman who had her flip-flops next to mine said, “Jess is just the greatest teacher. Of course, all the other teachers here are amazing, but she is something special. You should try out a Sunday morning class. And if you’re looking to move around a bit more, you can try out my Wednesday night flow. There’s a new student special you can sign up for downstairs. I hope to see you around.” Wow! That was really nice, I thought. All the other studios I went to were silent and hurried after class.
I signed up for the cheap new student special. I tried some more flow and power classes, and was surprised that even those classes featured dirga, nadi shodana, bumblebee, sheetali, and ujjayi breaths. Why couldn’t I get the hang of this and feel some of the euphoria I kept hearing about?
I continued practicing and trying new things way out of my comfort zone.
One day, out of the blue, without any explanation, something just clicked. I willingly, without any prompting, closed my eyes. The breath automatically flowed in and out of my belly, ribs, and chest without my having to think about it. The accidental foot-in-my-mouth comment I had recently made to a parent receded, while the gesture of my husband having my to-go cup ready when I got out of the shower flowered. The unnecessary worry about how the latest tax bill was going to get paid disappeared as I filled my chest with the positive energy of those other saplings, maples, birches, oaks, and redwoods that now surrounded me.
This new skill had its way of working itself “off the mat,” as most teachers are fond of saying. One of my favorite teachers likes to say, while holding us in warrior II for an excruciating amount of time, “Spread your arms in front of you, expanding your fingers into the future, while the back hand and fingers push away the past. Balance yourself on your feet evenly, being present right here—right where you are.”
Now the highlight of my day is when a friend places their mat next to mine to practice, when my favorite patron comes into the library and asks me for a book recommendation, when my husband waits for me to eat dinner, or when I get a random text from a friend who thought of me for some silly reason.
I still worry, get annoyed, am burdened, struggle, suffer, anguish, stew, and obsess. But I try to not allow those emotions to linger or control my body and mind. I keep my fantasizing, anticipating, predictions, and expectations to a minimum. And when I get overwhelmed, I close my eyes and breathe in and out of my belly, ribs, and chest.