If You're Not Into Hot Yoga, Part 1
I first met yoga in the community center of my hometown when I was on summer break during college. Our mothers were already regulars and convinced Christine and I to join them once a week to roll around on spongy foam mats and then toddle off to the local fish house for steamed salmon and baked sweet potato (to maintain the healthy vibe of the evening). These outings were more of a mother-daughter bonding exercise than anything else. The instructor, with Birkenstocks and wispy armpit hair, was deadly serious. She would talk about energies and tap a little felt mallet on some sort of brass chime and make us chant ommmmmmmm at the end. To an athletic 19-year old, this was not exercise. It was like light stretching with a side of excellent people watching. A highlight would be when someone would pass wind while in happy baby pose or snore during savasana. I could not make eye contact with Christine during these sessions or I would dissolve into a puddle of snorts and giggles disguised as throat clearing or coughing. There was no music to drown out the involuntary bodily sounds and the hour seemed to go on forever. There was sometimes joy and there was always fun, but there was no peace in these classes.
When I was a little older, I also occasionally took yoga classes while on vacation or, even less regularly, at spas. In little, brightly lit studios with balls and straps and lucky bamboo strategically placed. Or on the beach at sunset with a sweeping view but uneven footing and a ragged sea breeze that made hearing the instructions difficult. These vacation yoga instructors were also always sending happy thoughts to my body parts, saying things like “smile at your sacrem” or say “good morning to your shoulder blades.” I found this creepy.
Pre-kids, I had tried to make yoga part of my routine but after two long commutes, stressful work days, chores, errands, etc., the last thing I wanted to do was change into skin-tight clothes, schlepp out to the gym, trawl for parking, angle for a good spot in the studio and then listen to someone tell me how to inhale and exhale. I know I should have been more open-minded to this, but I just couldn’t do it. And I didn’t even have kids yet. It became a sheer impossibility once I did.
Many years later, things fell apart with my husband about the same time a new hot yoga studio opened in town. I don’t know if I actually wanted to go to yoga or I just wanted to get out of the house. But what yoga did was get me out of my own head. I had a tendency to get stuck there, repeating conversations (both sides), developing strategies, organizing decision trees. Lately, I had been stuck trying to wrestle my life back to some recognizable form where my husband wasn’t in love with someone else. Understandably, I also wasn’t sleeping well. I’d go to bed angsty and coiled and wake several times a night, at the smallest sound, the gentlest dream.
I forget who suggested it – my then-husband, my mom, probably Alex. But one late spring day, I just went to yoga. I called my soon-to-be-ex, told him I had a “thing” (which was what he was always telling me) and showed up to class with my water bottle. I quickly realized that my erratic prior attendance in classes called “yoga” gave me no advantage. Walking into the studio felt like getting off a plane in the Amazon. It was over 95 degrees and foggy from the high humidity. Instantly, sweat ran down my hairline and beaded on my upper lip. Several people introduced themselves – there was a Janet, an Ashley, a Robert. Of course, Ashley was there for two classes in a row, quipping “bikini season is coming!” I hope I didn’t roll my eyes. Selecting a spot in the back of the room, I stretched, which seemed like the right thing to do. It was nice to be out of the house, to be someplace different, to be sweating. I realized I hadn’t actually sweat, on purpose, for years. Maybe decades.
When the instructor came in, he was a clean-cut, soft-spoken guy several years my junior. No tattoos, no facial hair, no piercings. I don’t know what I was expecting. But a close shave and an Underarmour shirt were not it. Shane put on the music, which actually had lyrics and was not the background zen spa twinklings I had experienced in those short-lived gym classes. His method was firm but quiet. He started slow but then increased the pace until he was almost barking orders – in a very polite, hushed kind of way. Breathe now, hold this pose, chin lifted, kneecaps up. He would wander slowly between the mats, lifting an arm here, twisting a foot into place there. Coming over to my mat mid-way through the class, he said in a voice low enough not to be heard by others, “Your shoulders are not supposed to be so close to your ears.” Shane would give corrections frequently but quickly. Pay attention or you’re on your ass. I couldn’t think of anything else during class or I’d have toppled onto the person next to me. (And we were all dripping sweat everywhere, which, for me and my phobias, was very clear motivation to do well, stay upright and not touch anyone or anything.)
The hour class felt like a minute and a year — I blinked and time jumped ahead and stood still. I was slippery as frog snot, achy all over and bone tired. But my head was clear. Whether it was the physical exhaustion or mental acuity or both, I slept well for the first time in months – a phenomenon that was to be repeated every Wednesday night. I loved peeling myself off the yoga mat, literally sliding into the seat of my car, taking a cool shower and then collapsing onto the couch with a glass of red wine. This was the only time I was ever relaxed during this time of my life. Those nights, I would sleep with the curious combination of peace and urgency, waking up sore and rested. It was like a drug.
Yoga turned out to be a pre-divorce boot camp, preparing me for the months to come. The months of loneliness, misgivings, negotiations and, not least of all, management. I managed the hell out of my divorce. I negotiated the agreement, refinanced the house, bought my husband out, counseled my kids, packed lunches and made it to all of the school concerts and plays. Usually sitting next to my ex, waving proudly. Showing the world that I “had this.” And at times I totally did. Other times, I absolutely did not. But yoga was the one thing I did for myself that actually helped me get through the rest of it.
Especially the sleep. I had never liked being the only one home but when I packed up my husband’s shit and made him move out, I figured being alone in the house was the lesser of two evils. I rationalized that I was not really alone – after all, I had two kids with me – not realizing how much stress that would add. Being the only adult to respond to middle of the night coughing fits, sudden fevers or requests for water. Having sole responsibility to handle any emergency whether it was a low-battery beep in a smoke detector, sensing a slight odor of natural gas in the basement, or making sure all the doors were locked. These duties weighed heavily on me and my already-poor sleep became even more sporadic. I’d lay awake worrying about not sleeping, trying to figure out what woke me up (a barking dog, a home invader, a blood clot) and watching the clock until one of the kids awoke. Except for Wednesday nights.
After I had been attending yoga for a while, several months at least, there was an unfortunate confluence of events that robbed me of that one night of sleep per week. I like to think that anyone would have been put off by what happened, that it wasn’t just me. Now I realize I was particularly vulnerable. At that time, my husband had been out of the house for a while, our divorce agreement had been finalized and filed, and we were simply waiting for our court date. There was nothing left to do. Quite suddenly all the paperwork and focus that had consumed me – refinancing the mortgage, compiling tax records, bickering with my husband about drop-offs and pickups and holidays – was completed. I was back to garden-variety chores like laundry, meal preparation, homework supervision.
I now know: when there is a void, my brain will fill it….