Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Why I Practice Yoga, and How I Got Here

I tell people that I’ve been practicing yoga for almost 20 years. That’s true and it isn’t true.
I started practicing yoga in 1992, in high school. The only class around was an Iyengar practice at a local health club. Yoga was still fringe in Connecticut. You couldn’t just go buy a yoga mat; you had to already know where to find one, usually in earthy-smelling, slightly fetid health food stores, piled up under a table of wheat germ. Wheat germ was as weird as it got in 1992.
I did yoga off and on through college. When things got tough, I hit the mat. Weeks would go by when I would repeat my Patricia Walden videotape over and over, sometimes twice a day. It was a 22-minute practice and seemed endless to me; it took all my discipline to just finish the “stress relief” practice. There were also months when I hardly unrolled that blue sticky mat. It started sticking to itself, and got pretty yucky, so it got tossed into a dumpster behind my little garden apartment in Boulder. When life was OK, that videotape just collected dust, or got pushed behind my VHS copy of “The Lost Boys”.
Yoga was what I instinctively turned to when life got rough, sad, or miserable. So, even though I didn’t practice consistently, I did consider it my lifeline.              
Which is what I needed when Max was born. Max was a colicky infant, and a needy and miserable toddler. He didn’t sleep and couldn’t be disciplined. We had sticker charts, expert consultations, long meetings, and expensive assessments. By the time Max was two, and my second child, Henry, was born, I was a wreck from the inside out. I felt like my nervous system was on the outside of my body and up in flames.
The closest yoga studio to my house was a “Hot Yoga” practice. The teacher looked exactly like Jennifer Garner, and had trained with Bikram Choudhury himself. She gave minimal instructions through the 26 postures. She’d say, “bring your left foot up to your right hip crease”, and we’d stay there in Tree, noisily offering ujjayi breathing until she told us what to do next. She rarely made physical adjustments or offered anything spiritual at all. Occasionally, she’d drop a pearl from the master himself, “Bikram always said…”.
The class was perfect for the raw nerve that I was. It was predictable, with no music, and no changes, ever. After a few classes, my body knew what would come next before my brain had to think. I could completely check out mentally, watching my body fold into postures from above. I practiced like that for a few years, going to several classes per week. My favorite class was “Follow the Yogi”, which included no directions at all. The teacher would lead the practice through the sequence, just quietly uttering “change” when it was time to move to the next posture. It never occurred to me to practice at home.
Then things changed at the studio, and I had to move on. The Jennifer Garner clone had reportedly gotten divorced (I never knew she was married) and the studio was sold to a less reliable, and very different teacher. She was wild, emotional, all yogic philosophy, and talked through every moment of every posture in the class. I couldn’t handle it.
I tried to practice Bikram at a different studio, but it wasn’t the same. A teacher suggested we “look at the person on the mat next to you and try to do better than them”. I was done with Bikram right then. Up until then, I had rarely noticed that there was anyone next to me at all. It was jarring.
 So I went in search of a new yoga, and found a gorgeous Vinyasa studio, with rock-star Amazon teachers. With dark wood floors and saffron walls, it was everything I ever wanted a studio to look like. At my first class there, I received extensive attention from a beautiful teacher eager to get the Bikram out of my postures. I felt like a newly baptized initiate of the Church of the Skinny and Bendy. I lapped up the attention like milk, and began coming to classes a few times a week, breathing in and out on command. I chaturanga’d, and down-dogged and sweat and stretched. I felt my hips and shoulders open in a way I never had in Bikram. I developed incredible biceps and deltoids. I looked for more ways to show off my back muscles. I was leaner than ever.
I felt like the vinyasa was hardening me, which I needed. Max had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was bouncing in and out of pediatric psychiatric units. I was being bossed around by a parade of young, unmarried, and childless social workers, who accused me, almost simultaneously, of breastfeeding for both too short and too long a time.
Yoga was my defense through all of this. The social workers would tell me that I was anxious, and therefore causing Max’s problems. One suggested I start doing yoga. I told her that I’d been practicing for years, and was currently practicing several times a week. Baffled, she said quietly, “that’s good”.
Classes at the Vinyasa studio were always full to bursting, with an occasionally celebrity sighting. The Connecticut Gold Coast clientele was always decked out in the latest Lululemon, hip bones jutting aggressively against black size 2 yoga pants. You could almost smell the Botoxed discontent. We were looking for something in that room. I never found it, though. I loved the practice, wanted to be this practice. But there was always a call for “more, more, more”, an almost macho demand that I put out in the form of one more Wheel than I could really handle. The practice dominated me in the studio, but never asked me to take it home for more.
And then I spent a long weekend at Kripalu, a yoga center in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. I went for a three-day seminar on Digestive Health, having been suffering with gut pain for years. I had been meaning to go to Kripalu for a long time, just to retreat and practice yoga, but had never made it my priority. But now Max had been diagnosed with autism as well as bipolar disorder, and there was nothing but will holding me together. I needed to fix my body so that I could try to hold things together at home.
At Kripalu I discovered the sources of my belly pain, gluten and dairy, but I also found my yoga. This yoga was one of inquiry. I found myself more open to my practice than ever. My thoughts became less critical of my body, and more interested in it. Instead of wishing the my heels would touch the floor, and criticizing my own flexibility during down dog, I found myself thinking, “I’ve never done this down dog before…it will only exist once, so I might not want to make assumptions about it”.
I had always been really resistant to using props. In my vinyasa practice, they seemed to be looked-down upon, and I felt pathetic when I needed them to make a posture more comfortable or accessible. But then a teacher named Grace said, “I was resistant to accepting help, but found that once I was willing to take help on the mat [by using props], I was more willing to accept help off the mat, too”. Tears sprang to my eyes. This was my truth, too.
When I came home from Kripalu, I began a daily practice. It’s never long, only 30-45 minutes, and it isn’t always elegant or good-looking. As my favorite yoga teacher taught me, “this isn’t ballet; it doesn’t have to be pretty”. Sometimes it’s well-balanced with standing postures, sitting postures, balances, and inversions, and sometimes it’s just backbends. But it’s totally mine. And always interesting. And I conclude with a 10-15 minute savasana. Because it’s a gift I can give myself.
This is my yoga. And I accept that it isn’t everyone’s yoga, or isn’t everyone’s yoga at every point in their lives. When Max was small, and life was chaotic, the order of Bikram was soothing, and when I needed a hard shell, vinyasa helped me build it. But when I was ready to be authentically myself, to be curious, and playful, and sometimes serious, it was Kripalu yoga that brought me home to myself.

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