In the photo, the beautiful, young woman is doing a headstand on the beach, her legs arranged like the wings of a mythical bird. In my mind’s eye, I see myself there, hands in the sand, seeing the world upside down and being at total peace.
So in order to get my real world to jibe with my cracked internal version of reality, I went to a yoga class today. It was the first time in 40 years.
They weren’t doing the headstand that I saw in the photo, but close.
There was a throng of people at the community center, like spring break on a Florida beach. They sat on their yoga mats peeling off their socks. “Am I not supposed to wear socks?” I had hiking socks on, nice and warm, but right away, I saw that they were shedding big pills of wool the way socks will when they’re old. I plucked one pill off and tucked it under my purple mat while the woman on one side stared straight ahead as if already dosed for the day and the woman on the other, perfectly attired in J. Yogi, remarked to me that the Monday class had even more people in it. Grateful for that small break, I arranged myself and waited.
As usual in a class involving physical things, I looked for the weakest link — the crummiest swimmer, the slowest cyclist, the walker wearing an orthopedic boot. The weakest link is my baseline, the person that I will always be better than. It’s an evil little way to think, but I invite no correction. Anyway, as it happens and as you might suspect, I quickly discover that it is me, in fact, who is the weakest link since I a) have no clue what I’m doing and b) cannot hear the little wee teacher whose voice is remarkably similar to the Tiny Tears doll I had when I was six.
Right away, we were all kneeling with our faces on our mats and arms outstretched. “How long are we supposed to do this?” I looked left and then right. Everyone face down. I pressed my forehead into the mat to take my mind off the pain in my thighs. Right away, I thought about the book I read written by a woman hostage in the Middle East who, when in a terrible situation (of which there were hundreds but she did survive), would ask herself, “Are you okay right now, in this moment?” And when she answered yes, she would just go to the next moment. So I tried that approach, but it didn’t work as well for me.
Grinding my face in the mat made my glasses all blurry. “Isn’t anyone else wearing glasses?” I couldn’t tell without standing up and doing an inventory. The other yogis seemed so intact and fit, probably all with 20/20 vision, uncorrected. Or wearing contacts, probably ones that made their eyes extra blue.
We did the thing where you form an upside down V and then you walk up to where your hands are and hang there until you pass out. My T-shirt came up to my mouth while I was hanging upside down and I wondered if my belly was showing. I’d purposely worn my longest black t-shirt but I could feel it riding up, or down as the case may be, along with my bra. I was already sweating. My hands were slipping ever so slightly but I stayed focused on my wool socks, considering new pills to pull off when we were allowed to stand up again. I can do this, I thought, I am okay right now, in this moment.
We did a lot of other things that were unpleasant and then briefly lovely like the warrior pose. I think if all of yoga was the warrior pose, I’d be fine with it. When we were doing the warrior pose, though, the tiny instructor came up behind me and patted the backs of my knees. “Bend your legs just slightly.” I did and it made my legs shake. But stretching out my arms was glorious and triumphant, worth the price of admission as they say. And then she told us to lie down.
Now we were all face down with our arms out in front of us like postulants taking our final vows. I wondered how long we were to lie like this, though it seemed like rest, naptime at kindergarten, or it would have if I’d had a small pillow. I felt like I’d earned this repose until I saw out of the corner of my eye that I was supposed to be raising my head and then my feet, actions that seemed almost preposterous given what we’d already done.
There was no end to it, the world’s longest hour in this sweaty room with these mouth-breathing people. Exhale! Then I saw the perfectly attired woman next to me putting on her socks and rolling up her mat and I took that as permission to leave, which I did, tiptoeing over people deep in their serenity. I acted like I had an appointment, somewhere important I needed to go in my big black T-shirt and hiking socks.
I wondered if I would ever come back. I texted my husband from the parking lot.
“Yoga was hideous. I have to take to my bed.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Oh God, so hard. I almost threw up.”
I could skip out, not come back next week or ever. No one would notice, only me. But then there’s the beach and the headstand, my inner self. What to do with her?
— Jan Wilberg
Jan Wilberg writes about everything from national politics to outwitting rats in the basement with the help of her two sons. She is a mother, grandmother and a formerly hearing impaired person rejoicing in the miracle of her new cochlear implant. Her blog Red’s Wrap has a tagline that says it all: Happiness. It’s relative.