SO I HANG by my hands on a bar raised high over the bench. Toes pointed to the grass below and grip firm but everything else open to gravity. I do such things these days. This I do to try to stretch my shoulders out of their sockets. If you get what I mean. I am not trying to dislocate my shoulders. I’m just trying to get them to be a bit more “loose.” I do the postures too, or what I can, given the height of the bench and that everything is wet from the rain. I realize there is a guy staring at me as I bend over, way way down, try to pull my torso flat against my legs, the instructor’s voice in my head, “like a Japanese ham sandwich” (ie. pada-hasthasana). He lingers around, he seems troubled. He walks past me and walks back and around the tree and hovers by the edge of the grass. I spy him upside down from behind my knees. He comes up to me. His shirt is blue bright in the dark. Clean cut, neat collars, neat khaki pants.
He blurts out:
“Excuse me. But what are you doing?”
I tell this guy I am stretching. I unbend from the pose. “It’s exercise,” I say. He is still confused. Like maybe this is the weirdest thing he’s seen in his whole life. “That looks SO weird,” he says. For a moment I think that maybe he doesn’t have a very interesting life—THIS is weird to him?—or, maybe, I think, maybe my half moon asanas look like part of a pagan ritual. Like I’m maybe trying to invoke the ancient gods to open a portal right there, on the grass. (It occurs to me belatedly that it was the solstice that night, too.)
He asks me, “are you a dancer?” I correct him and say it’s yoga. He seems even more perturbed by this. (But then he leaves me alone.)
I am not the yoga type. Not the type to engage in meditation, anyway. Or all that spiritual stuff. I’d need Ambien to get my “ohmmm” on, I suspect. And prior to this year I did no exercise at all. Was not interested in exercise. Like, no.
But now, yoga. Yoga every day. Yoga every which way. In this time and age yoga is not all that entrenched in meditation, I learn. My mat is perpetually unrolled next to the mattress I sleep on. I do the downward dog every morning, coupled with whatever I feel like twisting myself into. A “sun salutation,” sometimes. I used to do the entire Bikram series—26 postures—every day; with time constraints in my schedule I do whatever I can. In a few weeks I managed to pull off the standing head to knee posture. (Note: try this out for a dose of pain.)
I found my way to yoga because of the state of my spine. Plainly: it sucked. I had poor posture. I hunched. It ached. I suspect I may have scoliosis, though I’ve never gone to the chiropractor to check. Yoga, purportedly, improves posture and alleviates back pain—one I suffer from at end of the day; after standing around at, say, the art galleries I visit; after a stroll in the park; after sitting for hours at my desk.
So did my back pain go away because of yoga—
Now I am in even more pain because of yoga.
My spine is perpetually only two inches of movement away from pain. I push myself. The backbends hurt. Half moon. As some instructors would say: reach for the sky. Drop your head back. Look at the wall. Open your chest like a flower. Bend back. Gooo back. Waaay back. More back.
More back pain.
But it was the good kind of hurt. Strange and masochistic as it may seem. This pain (in my case, it should be noted) meant something good: I was realigning my body—my bones, my muscles. My back and hip felt more “open” after two weeks, even when I was doing this all on my own.
The aphorisms in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali call yoga the “stilling of the changing states of the mind”—a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline geared toward peace of being. Yoga today is mainly exercise. Westernization plucked the “physical” aspect of it—called hatha—and turned it into a successful regimen for people who want to get fit. It promises still to give peace of mind, sure. But the most popular forms of yoga to date are hatha—Bikram, Asthanga, “power” yoga, “flow” or vinyasa—more emphasis on the body.
Bikram appealed to me from the beginning. Twenty-six postures done twice in a room heated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat makes you more flexible. The heat makes it less painful. (It is the heat, also, that scares away the uninitiated—don’t let it.)
It was the cheap first-timers’ package—roughly $20 for one week—that put me in the studio, the hot room. Lying on my mat. Staring at the sterile dome of this Bikram place downtown. Savasana. The corpse pose. But we haven’t started yet, and this. Heart racing to the heat. It clings to you, like a lover.
Seven days later: still that and more.
I shed weight even though I didn’t need to. I toned up. A friend tells me I look younger (which means—I’m in my 20s—that I look 19, he says). I rarely run out of breath (and I used to smoke). Back doesn’t hurt now. I still hunch, but not as much. (I will never be that sit-like-a-rod kinda kid, that straight-backed straight-A girl in class who sits out in front, hand in the air every five seconds like a squirrel on cappuccino.)
And I’ll never be that Namaste-type yogi who’s always chill and “one with everything.”
Others yet will say that they sleep better, think clearer, feel at peace after a class of yoga, whether it be Bikram or something else. Not all of the above applied to me (the think clearer part, mostly)—and yet I didn’t mind. It’s different for everyone.
For hatha and other intensive yoga, here’s what you’ll need: 1) your mat; 2) determination; 3) high tolerance for pain.