I’m probably the loneliest, most puritanical, self-conscious 29-year-old female to ever find herself wearing a long-sleeve cardigan at a yoga retreat in the tropics. And I’m not even a yogi.
Lucky for me, however, my best friend here is—a "love your body, be comfortable, breathe, have compassion with yourself" kind of yogi, in fact. When you’re a volunteer writer/photographer at a Costa Rica retreat center, you’re bound to meet a few of them.
So recently when I found myself the lone female with him in a program on sensuality and intimacy during a gay men’s retreat, I couldn’t help but be struck by my issues with body image and touch, the self-consciousness that’s my constant companion.
I keep my body covered, tight. Shoulders raised, back hunched over, chest sunken. Between fabric and nerves, I’ve my own emotional suit of armor. When somebody touches me I feel like it’s probably out of politeness—and possibly against their will.
I keep my body covered, tight. Shoulders raised, back hunched over, chest sunken.
Outside of my mom, sister, and all dogs, I really don’t touch anyone.
I shake. I’m self-conscious about it. I try to cover this uncomfortable quirk with firm, swift handshakes, aggressive high-fives, and playful punches to the collarbone.
But lingering touch, that’s different. It’s a stalemate. Dinner blessings (or at least the old-fashioned, Southern type I was raised on: hands clasped, heads bowed) are excruciating for someone obsessing about whether the person to the right or left minds trembling hands in theirs. Surely, they’re waiting for an "Amen" so they can abandon my unsteady grip.
With my yoga friends, my community away from home, it’s a bit different, however. For many, touch is their language and calling, their talent or job. Bodyworkers, yoga teachers, Reiki practitioners, healers—each in their way has helped me feel more at ease in my surroundings. And more importantly, my yogi best friend is helping me find ease within myself.
So though I tried valiantly to wiggle my way out of the gay men’s program on intimacy—a talk about what was surely tantra, arousal, and attraction—my yogi friend was firm. He’d charged himself with roping the bull and leading her straight into the china shop; his yogic wisdom said I needed prodding out of my comfort zone. He didn’t appear to care that I felt like some kind of ovarian interloper.
There were maybe ten men there, looking at me warmly, slightly confusedly, or totally unfazed—all draped in beautiful sarongs, sweaty workout clothes, or stylish swim trunks. I was hyper-aware of my cardigan.
My friend signaled a spot for me to be seated. The group started to bum-shift to make room. Oh, God, I thought. They’re scooting to make room. How annoying of me. I’ve been here 90 seconds and already I’ve ruined everything for everyone.
My friend leaned over and rubbed my leg gently, as if to say “You’re welcome here” or “Calm the hell down.”
With me, no touch goes unnoticed.
I tried to still myself. Now and again, my yogi checked in with a pat on the knee or a grip to the shoulder.
The men discussed everything from Shiva to Sour Patch Kids to sensual massage. I felt dizzy at all this talk of closeness. But something somebody said stuck: “Real intimacy means showing up in truth.” My truth was that my foot was shaking neurotically, even as my yogi friend pressed into it with his own. After a minute of worrying whether he meant or minded this gesture, I surprisingly started trusting it. I began to steady myself. I began to really listen and digest the things that were being shared.
The men discussed everything from Shiva to Sour Patch Kids to sensual massage. I felt dizzy at all this talk of closeness.
When the talk was over, the men congenially thanked me for coming. I balanced embarrassment and graciousness before bolting out the door.
At dinner my friends inquired and I joked about the scenario, my displacement—what a comedy of errors. And I waxed lyrical and made broad, general statements about the forum being on a "universal human experience."
Later that evening, I was recounting everything in my journal when there was a knocking. “Leahjoon?” called a familiar voice, before my yogi unapologetically heaved the door open and tossed himself onto the mattress.
I’d been content under my bed’s mosquito net alone. It picks up where the cardigan sweater leaves off—a layer between myself and the world. But I lifted the swaths and invited him in. We laughed like fools about the twists the day had taken, listened to sweet-tempered music—and casually clapped our hands together.
With me, no touch goes unnoticed.
“This is the most I’ve touched anyone in a while,” I mused. I hadn't needed to say it: he already knew it was important—bouncy, fun, and light as the moment was.
Not fretting over shakiness, I even had compassion for myself.
He wasn’t a leader adjusting a posture, or a healing practitioner energizing my chakras or getting my digestive system moving with a fancy wave of his arm. He was just a pal, clapping my hand.
And in particular, I was clapping his. This felt like intimacy—a universal human experience I don’t often encounter. Tickled, trusting, carefree. Not fretting over shakiness, I even had compassion for myself. You’re welcome here, so calm the hell down.
In hindsight, attending the gay men’s group wasn’t all that bizarre, but it was a little brave (and definitely comedic). And friendship with a yogi isn’t always comfortable. But both have pushed my capacity to reach out.
Slowly but surely, my armor is melting. I’m showing up in truth. And still, no touch goes unnoticed.