I went to a yoga class once in 2001, a couple times in 2002 and in 2003, and maybe once in 2004. In 2005, I gave it my strongest effort, attending a handful of anusara classes at the only yoga studio in the small town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Back in San Francisco, I bought my own mat, which inspired me to avoid yoga for all of 2006 and 2007. During this time, in the first of many Yoda-grasshopper moments, someone said to me, “When you are ready for yoga, you will open to it.” By the time I set foot in the Castro Yoga Tree only a few blocks from my house, I had attended maybe a dozen classes in a half dozen studios over the course of almost eight years.
Going in, I was aware of some of my struggles. I tried not to let the anxiety provoking length of a 1.5 hour class get to me, and I promised not to berate myself for my novice yoga skills. It turns out this was the whole point of mellow flow, a class that isn’t easy like restorative, but sets the challenge for all of us to go easy on ourselves. The teacher, the much-loved Janet Stone, reminds us of this repeatedly throughout the class, and occasionally I listen. Her classes draw over a hundred people and we all line our mats up, mere inches apart, so that we are nearly sweating onto one another in the warm but not Bikram hot room. As dusk settles onto our Friday, darkening the barn-sized studio, we are instructed to let go of the week’s stress and the American mantra of harder, faster, better. Once a week, I told myself, just go to this class once a week. Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t.
I followed directions well. If Janet said to close my eyes and wag my tail, I did. If she said to take a deep breath and let it all out with a great big sound of relief, I did. Upon command, I introduced myself to neighbors. I chanted off-key. I mooed and meowed. I did this all, perhaps, because I was in the midst of a break-up and I lacked the energy that self-consciousness requires. I needed to blindly trust in something; I was either ripe for a cult or yoga or the cult of yoga.
It took me months to try a different teacher and a different class. I started going to the Sunday morning bhakti flow class because a few friends attended it as part of their forays into yoga. The four of us would set up in the corner, the only ones, or so it seemed, following the level one instructions. Once, during the new age sermon that carries through every class, the teacher said that yoga was an event. All of a sudden, I stopped considering yoga a workout or meditation or something I did for a couple hours in between other things, and I began to think of it as the highlight of my day, an activity of grand importance, an event.
I also treated yoga class like a 12-step meeting in that there was always one going on, waiting for me when I needed it. If I was having a bad day, and for awhile there were some real rough ones, I would look online, find the next class and go. I always learned something enlightening about myself and my body, and I collected words of wisdom like these: “We are here to breathe. If we decide to do some poses, that’s great. But we are here to breathe.”
My favorite part of yoga class is the beginning. We are encouraged to come up with an intention, to think of a person and offer up our wants and needs and benefits of our practice to them. I change up the person every time, but I always hold someone I love close to my heart. I like to start with that person and imagine my well-wishes rippling in concentric circles out through the studio, the city, the world. I can’t help but picture the slow-motion images of a nuclear bomb, spreading not annihilation, but radiations of warmth and light from my own personal point of impact.
I also like the poses themselves. I like to root my hands and feet into the ground, spreading my fingers and toes wide, envisioning them gripping the earth. I like to concentrate on pulling my kneecaps up, elongating my rib cage, letting my shoulders melt into my back, and relaxing my jaw. I like trying without trying to feel the presence of my entire body, to engage muscles it would never occur to me to use in a certain stance. I like the names of the poses, the Sanskrit words and their English counterparts–tree, mountain, warrior, frog, fish–each one rich in metaphorical significance. I like the focus on balance and strength and awareness over achievement.
The other day one of the instructors approached me during a session with guidance on a pose, and he told me my practice was blossoming. I was surprised, convinced that none of my instructors had noticed me. Feigning amazement, or showing teacherly encouragement, he asked me how I did it, and although the question was rhetorical, I spent the rest of the class alternating between beaming pride and a variety of answers to his question.
I wanted to tell him that I was facing the biggest challenges of my life, that I got to the end of the road and it said, “Not a through street,” that I ran out of places and ideas and escapes from the discomfort, that breathing into it was my last ditch attempt at living. I wanted to say that I came to yoga in desperation, or in a failed attempt to battle desperation, I came in resignation. I considered saying that I’m an addictive and obsessive person, and now that I’ve gotten a taste of the spiritual enlightenment revolution, finally a bite of that bliss, I’m back for more, again and again, because I can’t get enough. I wanted to say that my mind is so full of chatter, and I listen when you tell me to place my head on the ground and let the contents spill out, or that I need to hear that yoga is endless, which is why it’s called practice, or that I think I’m being kinder to myself, softer, and more thoughtful to others, or that I feel physically alive, more in touch with my body than ever before, or that when my thoughts become a runaway train, I need someone to remind me to say “thinking” to myself, smile, let it go, and show up on the mat again.
Yesterday, I tried a new teacher. He asked if it was anyone’s first class, and one person raised a hand. The teacher told him, “Happy Birthday.” It was my 28th class in the last five months. I know because I got curious and had the desk person check the computer. I said “Happy Birthday” to myself, commemorating the big event that is my every class. During that session, the teacher mentioned a few different types of breath. He said, “If you have no idea what I’m talking about for a decade don’t worry about it.” I had no idea and I didn’t care. I spent the last decade on the path to yoga, understanding finally, that I am here to breathe. It doesn’t surprise me that I will spend the next decade learning how to do so.