On a Sunday in November, less than three months after I move to California, two women ask if I want to tag along for a yoga class after church. People say things like that in California: “Yoga after church.”
In other parts of the country, yoga is seen as apostasy—twisting and folding into ancient shapes with Sanskrit names that must honor pagan gods, but not here in Berkeley. Out on the left coast we’re a little more “flexible.”
How hard could it be? I think. I can stretch for an hour.
Turns out yoga does not equal stretching.
My first class starts like most classes—in child’s pose. Knees to the mat, sit bones resting on heels, belly folded to thighs like a compressed spring. This first pose is supposed to be passive and familiar, a place of resting and ease. But during my first foray into yoga, everything feels foreign.
At the start of the class I’m told to find my breath, like it’s gone missing. I think that’s sort of funny until I realize that it’s true—that I spend most of my day only half in my body and that the depths of my lungs are rarely put to use.
Years later I will meet a man on a beach. He will ask me to dinner and I will say yes. When I see him again he will ask if I’m nervous and I will say no with a bit of confusion. Then he’ll make an observation that will start my journey of learning to be present.
“You haven’t breathed since you got here, Amanda,” he says with a smile. “You’ve gotta really breathe to be here.”
Back in the yoga studio, I hunch over in child’s pose and try to focus on my breath, which I will lose again as soon as I move.
“Yoga is not about doing it right,” says my first instructor. Every other yoga instructor I will ever have will say the same thing, but my first time on a mat, getting it right is all that I want. I don’t know any of the poses or how they connect. I’m not sure what a flow is, but I can tell that I’m not in one. I spend most of my time watching other students bend and glide and cycle with ease as I fake my way through the motions. My arms flail, my hips are tight, and my legs are shaky. I make it through class with a survivor’s satisfaction.
For most of the next five years yoga will be something that I do randomly to relax or socially to connect. It will be a persona I try on, but not a practice that I own.
Then I will meet the man on the beach who shows me I don’t know how to breathe and he will challenge me to get out of my head and inhabit my body. A year later, I will find myself stretched into spinal twists and locked in ankle binds. I will marvel at the things that my body can do, and I will start seeing that yoga is more about living than stretching.
Each class will begin like that first class in Berkeley, with us all on our knees, arms stretched out straight. I’ll be told that child’s pose—the birth place of each practice—is always available, as if it is never too late to go back to the start. I will hear this class after class, but at first I will not understand.
At first I will see it as a sign of weakness when other members of a class break from challenging poses and sink to their knees; when they listen to their bodies say that was enough and acknowledge their own limitations. My fear of failure will rise to the surface and I will believe I am better for sticking it out. I will push my limits and pay for it later rather than sit myself down at the risk of falling behind. I will see that sort of sitting as a weak form of surrender until I start to see it as strength, until I begin to experience the power that comes from knowing both your capacities and your boundaries, your abilities and limitations. Eventually, I will sink into child’s pose and it will be home, and I will realize that it is as much about being as breathing.
I will find satisfaction in the familiar flow from Warrior One to Warrior Two, and the poses that follow, in seeing what my body is up for each time I come to the mat and giving it grace when that’s less and not more.
I will marvel at classmates whose practices are deep and stop judging myself so harshly against them. This will teach me to be kinder to myself and to others, not just on the mat or in the studio, but on the street and in my office.
I will learn to see new poses as invitations to try and fail and then try again. I will fall and fail many, many times. But also, I will start to surprise myself. I will make shapes and hold poses I did not think I could, not because I try just a little bit harder, but because I stop trying so much, because I let it happen or not happen and I try not to judge either outcome as better or worse.
This is actually the hardest work that I will do, both in yoga and in life. Accepting that no one is doing it perfectly, that we are all trying our best and finding our edges, and that pushing past them requires as much gentleness and grace as it does strength and power.
I will learn what it feels like to be fully present in a pose, my muscles lit up, tension running straight from my toe pads through the crown of my head. And I will learn what it feels like to fake it and hope no one sees, as I put my arms and legs where I think they belong without any real notion of power or strength. I will see this translate into my work and relationships as I begin to notice the occasions when I really show up with my whole self for someone and when I split my attention or act without purpose.
I will look forward to shavasna—the death at the end of each practice. I will begin to work hard so that I can rest deeply and I will come to realize that I want to have lived my life the way that I practice yoga—with purpose and strength, humility and grace, able to acknowledge my own limitations and to discern when it is time to rest and when it is time to work. I want to die knowing that my life wasn’t measured by benchmarks or achievements, but by the energy I brought, the space that I held, and the presence and intention I put into all that I did.
I lay back on my mat at the end of that first class and stare at the globe-shaped lamps that hang from the ceiling. I glance right and then left at the bodies beside me, laid out like sunbathers on a beach or corpses in a morgue, eyes closed, lips parted. The instructor tells us to stay in shavasna for as long as we need and I don’t know what this means or why I would need to stay here just laying on my back. But I do anyhow.
Sometimes you have to start by doing, by following a practice you don’t understand and moving through rhythms you can’t yet keep with the hope that the rest will come later. Sometimes you just have to start with yourself, and work the truth through your body before it seeps to your soul.