I used to practice yoga asanas for several hours each day, most often in the morning. As the first light expanded out of a purple dawn, I felt a corresponding expansion inside me.
For the first several months or so, I revelled simply in the new feeling of beginner postures, in the pulse of other people moving and breathing around me, in the flicker of the stubby candles on the window ledge. I had discovered some new and special place—it felt like a sacred place—and I carried the glow of that place around me like a secret into the rest of the world.
But those first enjoyments soon began to absorb me a little less. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched the more advanced students perform increasingly difficult postures, and I began to want to feel those things for myself. The postures and the bodies that could slip inside them seemed to express freedom, and I was hungry for that freedom. In concrete terms I wanted freedom from the oppressive writer's block that was slowly pressing down, atrophying my life as a writer. And I wanted freedom from my first relationship, which had begun when I was almost still a child and now, eight years later, no longer seemed to fit. But there were more abstract, less articulable ways in which the idea of freedom appealed to me. This more tenuous, capital “F” idea seemed to gesture at the sky, or beyond it, at something unfixed by the narrow namings of language.
The postures and the bodies that could slip inside them seemed to express freedom, and I was hungry for that freedom.
I have a naturally strong and stable physique, so what seemed to stand between me and this nameless freedom was my mobility. Some of the shapes I hoped to make felt very far beyond my reach. Still, like most of the practitioners around me, I spoke about “being present,” about “not chasing the pose.”
”What matters,” we said to each other, “is where we are now, and not where we'll end up.” I felt good speaking these words, and in many ways I meant what I said. I was untangling myself from the product-oriented mentality which had eventually sapped both a budding career as a dancer and my writing projects of their spontaneity and life. But like many things we say, the opposite is also often true, and I began to hunger for the object of those poses. Because of my strength, arm balances came relatively easily and I adorned my practice with them—feeling proud, and admonishing myself for that pride. Other kinds of postures, like lotus, seemed unattainable, and I struggled through preliminary hip-opening postures, uttering mantras of acceptance like curse words under my breath.
I began to turn all physically idle moments into opportunities for stretching. Talking to a friend at a party, I slung one bent leg up onto the kitchen counter and pressed into it, willing my external rotators to soften. She talked about her new job, teaching music to autistic children, and I nodded and asked a question—but really I was preoccupied with that dense point at the centre of my hip, that point that refused to give. I wanted to break through that point as if through the obstacle of my own anxiety. I wanted to become what was on the other side.
The work started to pay off. I began to do deeper and more complicated poses. My leg slid up over my shoulder, my hands clasped behind my back, and at the pause at the top of an inhale I glimpsed the Freedom I desired as if it were a landscape spread out beneath a high peak. One day, coming out of vasisthasana, I felt a searing heat in my pubic symphysis. Then a pop and a disconcerting wobble. My teacher said it was good pain, that I was opening up. So I limped around for a few days feeling the possibility of a new body hanging in that loose, burning space, finally within my reach.
The new body was a kind of non-body, unconstrained by sensation. I craved more and more mobility—partly so I could attain those poses in the books I had pored over, but also so that I could feel less of myself (or perhaps something less like me). In my mind, the new body was inseparable from the idea of a new self—a self untroubled by the hot sparks of my old reactivity, a self that was smooth to the touch, unobtrusive, as if vanishing into the translucency of a perpetual niceness, a flexibility that was more about pleasing others than myself. Some days I felt like water, through which anything could pass.
The new body was a kind of non-body, unconstrained by sensation.
In the morning glow of the studio, I did things I once would never have dreamed of. Meanwhile, I felt two inner voices battling for my attention: the voice of a hunger that urged me ever on, and the voice of something quieter, which began throwing niggling doubts into my heart. Wasn't this precisely the energy, this drive toward, which I had desired freedom from in the first place?
My body—the old one, the actual one, the one inseparable from gravity and old injury and sensation and memory, with the long trail behind me of sturdy-calved, unbendy peasant ancestors—began to reassert itself. I would spend two or three hours every morning trying to deepen and warm and ply myself into someone different, freer, less bound to myself. And for a short while afterward it would seem I had done that. Then slowly, somewhere between the organics section of the local grocery store and the afternoon class I was to teach, I would feel myself begin to stiffen, ache, and twinge. Folding into a first uttanasana in that afternoon class, my hamstrings announced themselves with belligerent reality. “I'm still here,” said the body—the real one, not the hoped-for one, or the one hanging in space or dreams.
I wonder for how many others this arc is true: I came to yoga seeking freedom from old patterns, and I found this freedom in part. To this day, my life is softer for it. But the thing I freed myself from also found me again in the end.
And thank God. Now I wonder if this was yoga's lesson for me—that I can try to change, and I can change a little. That I can envision myself evermore lithe and pliable, in ever-smaller yoga clothes, like some magic vanishing woman with ever-sweeter things to say. That I can buy into yoga's promise of transformation. But the fact is that the specialness of yoga, the set-apartedness of it, slowly wears away, and in the end, there is still only me—a little changed perhaps, but me nonetheless—with my rough edges of anger, my melancholy, my appetites and faults, a slightly twisted sense of humour, and my wish, after all that, to be solid, fleshy, seen. And that that is okay. For a short while, I tried going harder, faster, deeper. I hurt more and more. It was like putting your hands over your ears and shouting so as not to hear what someone is saying to you. It was like walking out into the night with your eyes squeezed shut. In theory, I was all about self-acceptance. It's just that I had not yet transformed into the self I wanted to accept.
These days I still wake up early—but not for yoga, or what I call yoga. At 5 a.m., or maybe 5:30, the baby rises out of restless teething sleep. Or my four-year-old is up, excited to continue some Lego construction left half-finished on the living room floor the night before, or to ask a question I don't have an answer for, like: “Is Garret going to be my friend forever?” My body feels slow and soft, geared without my trying to this space we call “the present.” Light grows slowly in the east, but we hardly notice. The kettle's on.
The tightness of my body doesn't feel anymore like an obstacle, but rather the integral bond that holds me together.
This has been on my mind today because this morning I got on my mat for the first time in a very long time. The baby was napping. The four-year-old was watching a guilty (for me, not for him) video. I have been moving almost every day. I have been running and lifting weights and kickboxing. I have been taking long walks to the water. Sometimes I do Zumba (which my former yoga-only self might have dismissed as the silliest thing in the world, with all that bouncing around to pop hits, but which my present self loves because it feels wonderful—and who cares?). I feel strong and healthy but un-preoccupied with my strength and health. The tightness of my body doesn't feel like an obstacle anymore, but rather the integral bond that holds me together.
But this morning I got on my mat. I got on my mat with the feeling of wanting to write a letter to a dear friend from whom I have drifted apart. I got on my mat to explore again those fleeting moments of internal order where the inhale climbs inevitably to its peak, and then to watch that order fall away, giving way to the unknown territory at the bottom of the exhale, that ordinary experiment with the end of everything. I got on my mat because I am also despondent at what is happening in the world right now; I am shaken with facts and guesses, action and paralysis, grief and anger, and I didn't know where else to go. In downward dog, my heels no longer press easily to the mat, my legs are no longer perfectly straight. I feel everything: my back, my hips, my legs spreading tentatively with the stretch. In downward dog now, my body says simply, “I am a body.” It is a little like that first yoga class—feeling the revelatory strangeness of a foreign shape and the glow of a new mystery.
At the beginning, I asked the mystery, “Where will you take me?” And this morning I think the mystery answered me. It said: “Here.”