Years ago, I took yoga classes. My not-too-flexible body did not bend easily. It was hard to hold each pose. Not the Corpse Pose. That I loved and could hold. I looked forward to yoga to do the Corpse Pose at the end. Partly because my gung-ho yoga friends claimed I’d reap immeasurable benefits and find my inner-Zen, and more because I am not a giver-upper, I hung in for a while. And I did reap benefits.
-- I began to meditate.
-- I became more aware of my breathing.
-- I became more aware of how much I didn’t like yoga.
I switched to Pilates. For three 10-session classes, I had the same patient instructor. She loved teaching. She made Pilates fun. It became part of my routine.
But a few months ago after a friend showed me the Plank and Boat Poses, I resolved to try yoga again in a committed way and registered for a 10-week course. The course began after the yoga injury excerpt from William Broad’s book THE SCIENCE OF YOGA appeared in The New York Times Magazine, giving even longtime practitioners pause. “Make sure your teacher doesn’t go too fast or make you do too much,” the friend suggested.
Of course. Before our first Saturday morning session, I asked the teacher--Yvette I’ll call her-- if she’d read the Times piece. She hadn’t. She hadn’t heard about it. She had already informed us that she woke up earlier than she wanted after a late night out and took two subways to get to class. A nursery school teacher Monday through Friday and a former dancer, she may or may not have been a real yoga instructor. She answered my question with, “People get injured walking across the street, you know.”
I’ve been teaching my entire adult life. The most important part of my job--particularly at the beginning--is to make my students feel safe. I sensed Yvette didn’t want to be there. Neither did I. But I’m not a giver—upper. I got on my mat between two co-eds and listened to what Yvette called her “meet and greet” talk: a monologue about her dancing days and her tough job with her “babies” at nursery school, and an explanation on what we should expect: aches. Next she told us to stand. That I could do. Then the five others--ranging from twenty to thirty something--stretched and contorted into poses I could not hold. Or pronounce.
I did what I could. My body ached. I came out of the poses long before the others. I felt like Woody’s Allen’s fumbling cellist in the marching band in Take the Money and Run.
Yvette walked around adjusting limbs and saying, “Uh huh. You got it.” To them.
Me, she adjusted. Adjusted and twisted, pulling my body parts into different directions from each other and into directions they didn’t want to go. Her response to my injury inquiry had made me tense. Now I was tense, resistant, and in pain. I went into the Child’s Pose. A lot.
“Much of why we do and can’t do things is in our heads,” Yvette said, looking at me.
Brilliant! Did she share that wisdom with her nursery school babies when they first used finger paints?
When we got to the Plank Pose, I improved. I had been doing it at home. I could hold it. I told Yvette why when she gave me my first and only “Uh huh. You got it.” Then I asked, “Do you know if there’s a yoga class for people who can’t do yoga?”
Despite my physical pain and our bad start, I wanted Yvette on my side. She was The Teacher here. She might still have plenty to teach me.
She may also hurt me. A picture of an erstwhile boyfriend, whom I took to a yoga class—his first—15 years before came to mind. He twisted his body so far with one sitting pose, he got stuck. He looked like a pretzel. Had the teacher not unwound him, he might still be in that classroom on his mat in the Pretzel Pose.
Fortunately, Yvette stopped pushing my body around. Instead she had us breathe through alternate nostrils, closing one at a time. Easy! Stupid, but easy.
“Any questions?” she asked at the end.
“Will we get to the Corpse Pose next week?” I asked. “That’s what I came here to do.”
I bought Epsom salts on my slow walk home. I soaked in the tub. I napped. My body hurt all weekend. And beyond. I don’t know if Yvette got to the Corpse Pose. She did not become my spiritual master. I never went back to her class.
I figured I could close one nostril at a time at home.