At first there was church, of course, but there had always been church, and probably always will be. Then there was therapy, some of it encouragingly productive, though one shouldn’t dispense stars for service well rendered on such things, like online restaurant reviews. There was always walking, more walking, no shortage of places to walk. And drinks with friends, staunchly loyal and present, and drinks without friends, but not too many, or, at least, not too many too often, I’m pretty sure. It all helped, some of the time, or maybe, when times were tough, it just comforted me to know I was trying.
But the motivation to keep searching remained. So, one dark day when the joints were complaining, the back stiff, and the spirit low, I accepted the encouragement of a wise neighbor and turned up at the appointed time. I choose a place near the back, close to an escape route (rather like church, come to think of it). I sit, watch quietly and wait.
Except you’re not really supposed to watch, intones the person at the front of the room, oozing meditative calm from every pore. It’s not about what others are doing. It’s about you.
That’s not something accepted easily by those of us with the overly anxious, driven nature, but it’s too soon to give up, instructs the driven voice inside. I settle for surreptitious observation, rolling the eyes various directions to clock what is happening without noticeably turning my head. Instructions commence and movement begins, while it remains very quiet, with little sound but the gentle beat of the low Hindu background music.
Meanwhile, it is plenty loud inside my head, where I am silently shouting frantic responses to the flow of action. Balance on my what? Recline like a pigeon? I am almost positive pigeons never recline unless they are dead. Down dog? Will someone give me a treat if I do this correctly? Dang, the people behind me look weird from this angle.
My doctor said this would be relaxing. He must be insane. I am 55 years old, and it is my first yoga class.
That scene, more than four years ago, came to mind recently when I incurred my first yoga injury, a painful pinch in the shoulder joint. It seemed prudent to take a break while it healed up. Away from the studio for longer than I’d been in awhile, I couldn’t help but wonder again if I’m too old, too unfit, too whatever to keep up the practice. How many women who stroll into the average class with their long legs clad in designer tights and ponytails swinging cheerfully look like me—25 pounds overweight, short arms, short legs, a noticeably unfashionable yoga wardrobe?
The answer, it took me years to discern, is no one knows, or cares. There’s no question the physical benefits can be profound and enduring. My early-stage arthritis, stiff knees and back remain drastically improved as long as I practice. At first, I viewed yoga as a more rational cousin to pilates and hoped to build strength, flexibility and better breathing habits. I told friends who inquired about progress that the stretches and movements are great, but I’m not very good at the “ohm stuff”.
It was true. It took me two years to learn to close my eyes when instructed (afraid I would miss something), and even longer to lay still all the way through the closing pose, savasana, without sitting up prematurely. (Savasana translates into English as corpse pose; who wouldn’t love that?) I was too busy running through my grocery list in my head to absorb the teacher’s closing chant. Yet somewhere on the journey I realized, as wiser heads have known for many centuries, that the “ohm stuff” may change your life more than flattening your palms on the floor in a forward fold. I still can’t. Not even close.
When I finally opened my heart to stillness of mind during practice, startling, sometimes unsettling, visions occupied the space that opened there. One day, I surrendered to stillness in savasana more out of complete exhaustion than anything else, and behind closed eyes I suddenly saw a bright, moving series of images of my beloved father, who died three years before. They flowed rapidly from one memory to the next, like still photos blended into a documentary video clip. Tears rolled down the sides of my face and onto the mat.
When months turned into years and I persisted, I finally saw the gift of yoga that for me, matters most—more than flexibility and better posture, more than learning and remembering to breathe more fully. When I opened my ears to instruction, not just in stretching or balancing or breathing, I finally heard it.
Yoga teaches self-acceptance, a state that eludes so many of us, for some strange reason, for most of our lives. If you are looking for encouragement to do still more, to build reps, go faster, push harder, to shave seconds, those goals might be right for you, but you must go somewhere else to achieve them. Yoga practice is the ultimate counter-pose to that mindset.
There it was again yesterday. “Remember,” the teacher said as we extended forward in a seated fold (in my case, mere inches, the hamstrings pleading for mercy), “wherever you are in this pose is perfectly okay. Contentment with where we are is a very important part of our practice.” And: “When we move to the second side of this pose, you will notice that one side of your body is more available than the other. That is because you are human, and that’s how human bodies work.”
This foundational concept will always be a stretch goal (pardon the pun) for me, something to nurture and feed long after I get my palms on the floor, if I ever do. Serious yogis know it is the journey of a lifetime. Even those who begin that journey very late still can, I’ve learned, take tiny, baby-sized, forward steps.
One of my favorite classes is led by a teacher** who tells jokes deep into the vinyasa flow. Probably sacrilege to some, but I adore it. Once when we students were on our backs, extending a leg straight to the ceiling and stabilizing it with clasped hands behind the calf, he came by and saw me struggling to reach higher on the back of my leg, silently cursing my short arms and stiff hamstrings. I’m not very good at this one, I whispered as he gently nudged my leg higher. I need arm extensions.
“No, you don’t,” he insisted, kindly. “You can do this.” That tiny spark of encouragement somehow bestowed additional breath, which in turn relaxed me and magically increased my range. Just for that treasured second, he was right. My arms, my effort were just fine.
And that’s what keeps me going back.
**It’s time to share my deep gratitude for the folks at Sanctuary Yoga in Nashville, Tennessee, for fostering an environment that is both enlightening and inclusive. Special thanks to teachers Tom Larkin, Liz Stewart, and Melissa Eltringham for bringing such positive spirit and good humor to class, every single time.