Visualize this: I’m lying on a mat on my right side, stretching out my left leg at a right angle to my body, with my right leg bent and pulled back behind me. I should be able to grasp my right foot with my left hand, but the only way I can remotely do that is with the help of a long strap of blue fabric. My left shoulder is dipped toward the floor but nowhere near touching it, and my head is straining to look to the right.
Cat pulling its tail is the name of this pose. I had a black cat named Karly, and I swear I never saw her in this convoluted shape. Amazingly, it’s actually reputed to be good for you, a way to open up the spine and relieve stress. It feels more like a medieval form of punishment.
Our teacher, Alicia, bends down over me, calmly whispering to remember to breathe.
“I have to breathe, too?” I gasp.
Welcome to the wonderful world of yoga, I tell myself dryly.
Until now, yoga and I were strangers. For years, my sport was running. I relished the free-flowing sensation of moving forward at my own speed in the great outdoors. My attitude toward yoga bordered on haughty. How could any activity performed when you’re standing or sitting still in a studio be called a sport?
Besides the obvious health and fitness benefits, running was my way to explore new destinations when I traveled. Totaling on average 20 miles a week, I made sure to run on my birthday, New Year’s Day, and both my wedding day and anniversary as a celebration of life. When I needed to mentally wrestle with a situation or draft a press release or write an article, running was my creative, productive time. I developed deep friendships with girlfriends as we shared stories of our lives and solved the world’s problems while logging miles. Competing in 5K and 10K roads races was a way to test myself while enjoying the camaraderie of other like-minded athletes.
Running also was part of my profession when I managed the L’eggs Women’s Running Program for a decade. Our company held 10K road races in Dallas, San Diego, and Chicago with local chapters of the YWCA, and sponsored the L’eggs Mini Marathon in New York, the original long-distance road race for women.
Running was integral to my identity until one cloudy spring morning in Pittsburgh in 2008. I was on a training run for my first marathon, when hot, stabbing pain from runner’s knee, a bona fide medical condition that had been threatening from the wings, literally stopped me in my tracks. I hobbled home sobbing buckets, knowing my days of pounding the pavement were over. Fast walking has replaced running, but nowhere near adequately.
Now yoga has entered the picture during an extended stay in Kenwood, CA. I regularly drive on the two-lane Highway 12, also called Sonoma Highway, the main artery that winds through the lush vineyards of Sonoma Valley. A long rustic-looking, one-story wooden building called The Kenwood Farmhouse sits back from the road, noticeable but unobtrusive. The red sign on the window says Lion Heart Yoga and features a purple lion’s head. I Googled their website and found a beginners class scheduled for the next day.
Without fully understanding why, other than believing travel should open you to new experiences, I showed up. I’d always known the prospects for my success with yoga weren’t promising. Yoga requires flexibility, and I went AWOL at birth when the flexibility gene was handed out. Various fitness instructors, doctors, and masseuses over the years have called me “solid,” and “a 2 x 4 piece of lumber.” The only way I can touch my toes from a standing position is to drop onto all fours.
I was upfront with Alicia when I registered, telling her my ability to participate was iffy. She kindly advised me to do what I could because proficiency is a process, and follow her instructions to modify the movements.
The best way to tell the rest of the story is repeat my conversation with my friend Gil. He’s a devotee of Bikram yoga, a demanding series of 26 poses done in a room heated to a minimum 105° and about 40% humidity – in other words, the tropics. Gil’s tried to talk me into joining him, but no deal. The Scottish genes I did inherit don’t want me anywhere near the equator.
“So Gil,” I said. “I’ve finally taken a couple of yoga classes.”
“That’s great!” Gil replied. “Of course you remove and stash your street shoes at the front door so they don’t bring any dirt onto the wood floor.”
“WHAT!? I didn’t even notice anyone doing that. So I wasn’t supposed to take them off at my mat and leave them beside me during the workout?
“You know to take off your socks.”
“WHAT!? I should be barefoot and risk picking up who knows what kind of foot fungus?”
“Well, you could wear yoga socks. They have little grips on the bottoms so you don’t slide around on the wood floor.”
“WHAT!? They make socks specifically for yoga?”
“Surely you don’t talk during class.”
“WHAT!? When Alicia told us to sit on the floor with our legs straight and touch our toes it was wrong to laugh aloud and scoff, ‘Well, that’s not going to happen.”?
“You know when you lie down flat at the end of class in the savasana pose, the small of your back should be flat against the floor.”
“WHAT!? You could drive a mini van under my back!”
I proudly told Gil I helped the class by walking into the middle of the room during a session to pull the cord that turns on the ceiling fan. I figured if I was hot, so was everyone else.
“WHAT!?” he exclaimed. “You disturbed the flow of the class, plus didn’t ask permission of the teacher and the other students?”
Note to self: Pay attention to yoga etiquette. Note to Alicia and my fellow classmates: Thanks for welcoming me with grace, generosity, and acceptance despite my multiple, though unintentional, faux pas.
Surprising myself, I attended the next class. And the next and the next. I pay closer attention to my surroundings and yoga rituals, and am becoming better acquainted with my classmates. I stash my clunky athletic shoes in the shelves next to everyone else’s streamlined flip-flops. I relax to the soft music that plays in the background and Alicia’s soothing voice. My stiff, uptight, unbending body actually is starting to respond (slowly, very slowly) to the foreign stretches, twists, contractions, and inversions.
It will take light years of practice before I can assume any pose correctly, but I nevertheless already feel different in a good way.
At the end of each class, Alicia reads a quote.
“To move a mountain, begin by carrying away a single stone,” she says one day. That analogy fits my new yoga life like a glove.