On and Off the Mat
I leave the house too late and drive aggressively to make up time. It’s 11:16 am and class begins in minutes. I whip into a spot, park and dig for change. The sun warms me as I gather my things, get out and slip the silver coins into the slot. I jog up the stairs to the studio, flip-flops thwapping. My bags slip off my shoulders into the crease of my arm. I juggle my keys, water, sunglasses. Others seem to saunter in with minimal belongings and ease. I wonder why I always travel like a sherpa, prepared for many Maybes.
Once in the studio, the heat and humidity of the last class greet me. The scent of sweat hangs in the air. I find an empty metal hook and hang my things. I enter the room.
I find a spot and unroll my yoga mat. My mental chatter clanks about:
Why is there so much fuzz on my mat
and when will I be able to do a handstand
and my frizzy hair is in my face
and of course NOW I remember the things I was supposed to do that I didn’t
and back fat
and schedule the doctors appointments
and buy snacks for the thing
and oh the painful interaction with the kids
And. And. And. And. And.
The thoughts, while predictable, are irksome.
When I was younger, I thought A Perfect Life was an achievable station. I honestly believed that if I could just do it right, and find the right partner, career, pants, and exercise, I could unlock the code. Life would be easy. That the moment would arrive when everything was aligned and stress-free. It’s a compelling, albiet maddening, belief.
I step onto my mat. I never know quite what to expect. Sometimes it’s a magic carpet that whisks me away and others it’s a fun house with distorted mirrors and maniacal laughter.
I fold forward, tie up my hair and feel the stretch of my hamstrings. Sharp inhale. I breathe. I try to nod to the pinging thoughts and tell myself that they are normal. That I am normal.
Class begins. The lights are low. The dimness allows me to begin focusing on my breath while I try to quiet the negatives–my critiques of my physical imperfections, my wavering self-esteem, or the CouldaShouldaWouldas.
You’ve made it to your mat, given yourself an hour to reconnect with your breath. My yoga teacher curates this space for us. His quiet wisdom permeates as he supports us and our practice with quiet encouragement, guidance and acceptance. He welcomes us exactly as we are. A stark brick wall holds our space to the right. A sparse light fixture is affixed to the bricks, a bare filament glowing within. I often focus on this as I attempt to Be Where I Am and breathe.
A yoga practice constantly evolves. When I first started, I learned the basic poses. After I gained that elementary understanding, I would work so hard to get into new poses. And when I accomplished that, I would realize in order to hold the pose that I also held my breath. I am fairly certain that breath-holding is the exact opposite of yoga. I realized how much I needed to learn about breathing. Funny, isn’t it? Breathing is our first task after making our way into the world. But here I was, learning to breathe. Or, maybe better stated, I was UNlearning to breathe. I needed to stop holding it–breath doesn’t need to be held. It needs to be received and expelled, accepted and let go.
Each student comes to class with bags full of their own life, bringing all of their emotion with them. Grief. Joy. Blah. Hunger. Contentment. Energy. Anger. Over-caffeination. Exhaustion. Excitement.
Each time I arrive, I am self-involved. I am my own axis in my own world. During the course of a practice, a shift occurs. The low lights blur the edges between our lives, between me and them. Our breath softens the stark edges of separateness. As we flow through our class, we morph into a living, breathing unit. Like twilight where daytime and nighttime coexist, the edges of our oneness smudge into a collective WE.
I go into down-dog and my eyes flicker open. A woman with a beautifully athletic body practices several rows away. I envy her svelte stomach, her smooth back, her grace. I am immediately angry. I am pissed at my belly fat and back bulge. I am pissed about my spreading ass. Damn french fries and diet coke and red wine and chocolate. And chin hairs. Damn gravity.
Jagged fragments of past hurts tumble into unkempt piles at my pale feet, an unresolved jumble of swollen puzzle pieces. A shameful pang sears as I remember how I handled my anger, or how I was too sensitive, or too certain.
A pose becomes too hard. I sink into child’s pose to rest.
I remember when I was learning how to do crow pose. In crow, or Bakasana, you squat low to the ground and place your hands firmly on your mat. You then bend your arms and place your knees on the backs of your arms, on your triceps. When done correctly, you lean forward and balance on your arms. Your feet suspend in the air and you hold the pose. My initial attempts were clumsy, at best. I tettered. I tottered. I fell, usually back onto my feet. One time I fell forward and my head firmly hit the hardwood floor. And it hurt. An Ouch, That HURT escaped my lips. Then, a giggle because somehow falling on my head struck me as funny, as did the fact that I spoke out loud in yoga practice.
Not until I put these words to paper did I realize that this all took place with acceptance–without judgment or my usual attachment to perfectionism. Each time Bakasana was a part of my practice, I’d try again. One of my big toes would leave the mat, the other big toe would leave the mat and I’d get the pose for a half second. Enough. Each half second built and then, one day, I held crow pose. Or maybe, it held me.
I flow through my practice. An essay idea saunters down through the clanging in my head, tempting me with a glimpse at a first sentence. That creative rush flushes my brain, swilling like smoke and whiskey, whispering promises of tomorrow. It’ll be epic. Powerful. BRILLIANT. I fall hard for these first words. But when I later try to capture them, they’re illusive; that sexy sentence is unwilling to commit.
A fellow yogi practices next to me and exhales a contented sigh, and I imagine a smile tugging at her mouth’s corners. Her exhale reminds me that in this space, 37 other lives are being lived, thoughts are being thought, bodies are being judged, worths are being questioned. My yoga teacher often says that by being connected to our own breath, we give others around us more strength, more sustenance.
Her exhale encourages my breath to take charge, stoking and building. I allow it to chart my course.
The beginning strains of Mumford & Sons Awake My Soul fill the space,
How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes
I struggle to find any truth in your lies
And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know
My weakness I feel I must finally show
I unspool into half-moon. My foot grounds to the earth while I hold hands with the sun, my head stretches west to the Rockies, my other foot reaches east to the Atlantic.Then, I feel
The nothingness. The everything. The being. Not back there, not yesterday, not tomorrow or this evening. Now.
How is it that this moment holds such a paradox–simultaneously holding everything and nothing? I started out controlling my breath and then my breath takes charge and in so doing, allows me to let go.
I’ve become a compass and my breath is my true north.
I continue riding the fire and flow into revolving half twist. My hand anchors to the ground and tributaries of sweat stream down my arms, around my biceps. My arm is a land of its own, salt mines and follicles. My breath sweeps me away and back to the moment and suddenly, I am once again whole.
I am invincible. STRONG. Powerful beyond measure. I am the Fabulous Tattooed Woman who Says Dig when I tell her I enjoyed practicing next to her and that her body art inspired me. I am the Woman Who Just Gave Birth, with young toddlers underfoot, round with life and breasts heavy with milk. I am the Woman Who Shuffles aimlessly, ragged skirt over ripped pants, shoes two sizes too big, her eyes two empty pools. I am a Mother, cleaved in two as she mourns the loss of her son, her grief haunting every moment. I am the Artist Living and Working in a loft in Brooklyn, rough-hewn hard wood floors at her feet, vast, pebbly canvases stretching before her. In each hand she holds a huge paint brush, thick with vivid color. Her slight arms are instruments of the world.
I head home, the sunroof open. Wind and sun whips about the car. I have the urge to lie down in the grass to feel the slight tug of the earth’s spin and the curve of her belly. Instead, I begin to tend, once again, to the particulars of my life. The blinds to be hung. Screen time limits to be set. Judgments. Groceries to purchase and dust bunny colonies to evict. The ToDos, the hard stuff, the good stuff. But because of my time on my mat, communing with my breath and the breath of those with whom I practice, I have shifted.
I turn this thought over in my mind: such a thin, porous membrane separates each of us and everything. When I begin to see hard lines separating me from others, my yoga practice reminds me to try to see oneness. I struggle. I’m an asshole. I forget. I react. I’m still human, but I am reminded that a breath has the power not only to give sustenance and life, but acceptance.
This life. It’s a hard, sad, glorious ride.
These edges of life are softened by breath. I use the earth to ground and then she allows me to rebound and shine brightly. She holds a space for all of it, all of us, all of me.
I am a part of it all. This life. This living. One breath. One light. One.