By Ed Staskus
I found myself tagging along to yoga in the first place because my neighbor Vera had started taking classes. Vera told me she was stiffening up. She was dropping in to the neighborhood studio because her husband Frank had taken classes for a long time.
“He said he went to yoga because he’s a counterculture kind of guy, even though yoga is a 5,000-year-old culture, and everybody does it nowadays, anyway,” said Vera. “Besides, his lower back hurt.”
Yoga never fixed his back, but Vera said he still gets on his mat every day, although mostly at home now.
I meant to start right after the New Year, but with one thing and another didn’t take my first class until the first week of February. February is the month I was born and the same month and year the Beatles first number one hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit number one.
Vera picked me up and we drove to the yoga studio across the bridge in Rocky River. She didn’t hold my hand walking through the front door, not that I wasn’t nervous.
The owner of the yoga studio was teaching the beginner’s class. We all had to say our names and then tell a story. “Tell your story,” said Lindsey. I had no story. “Oh, my gosh!” I said. What story do I have? I thought. “My name is Liz Drake and Frank Glass is my friend’s husband,” I said, pointing to Vera.
Lindsey started laughing. “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever met,” she said.
What? I thought. There are lots of funnier people than Frank, but since Lindsey was smiling up a storm I didn’t say anything. She was a good teacher, but I had no idea what was happening. I had no idea we had to go into poses. I had nothing. I didn’t know anything about yoga.
I had never done it, never seen a class, only a few minutes of it on TV. I had some idea about the mats, but no idea about the blocks and straps.
I thought it was going to be easier than what it was. You’re just stretching, right? We had to sit there, had to close our eyes, breathe, and I thought, is this what it’s going to be like? This is going to be easy. But, then you start doing poses. My God! It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.
I didn’t realize it, but I thought everyone was there for the first time, just like me. When we told our story I should have added I had never done yoga before. I forgot to add that. I had no idea what I was doing. Lindsey would say do this, do that. She had names for all the poses. What is that? I thought. What? I looked around, trying to do it, although I felt I was goofing on everything.
Although everyone else looked like they knew what they were doing, I didn’t even know what downward dog was. It was like when my Israeli ex-boyfriend-to-be convinced me to take Hebrew lessons. He said it was a beginner’s class for people who didn’t know Hebrew, but when I got to the class everyone was speaking Hebrew.
All during the yoga class I pretended like I was on the right track. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner. Lindsey would say, now everybody do this, go into this pose, and everybody would do it. I didn’t want to look like a total beginner, but I didn’t know what I was doing.
After some classes with Lindsey I started going Sunday mornings. Gina was the teacher. The room was always filled with incense at eight in the morning and we had to do weird breathing exercises. I thought I was going to pass out. Maybe I should fake it, I thought. I’m going to pretend I’m breathing, but I’m not going to, because I’ll get dizzy, get flashbacks.
“Pull it up from your core,” she said. Where is that core? I wondered. I never understood what that kind of breathing meant. It didn’t feel natural. Gina seemed to think we had to breathe differently to do yoga.
I liked Gina, but one morning I said I felt like I was doing most of the poses left-handed.
“I don’t even know the names of them. I just look around and hope I can copy somebody.”
“Oh, no, not the D word,” said Gina.
“What? What D word?”
Everybody in the class was so sincere, so serious. They dressed like yogi people with their yoga costumes, special clothes, while I wore a t-shirt and sweat pants. At the end of class we sat cross-legged while Gina told us to imagine drifting down a river, putting all our bad thoughts on a leaf, and then letting the leaf float away. What are you talking about? I wanted to ask.
I moved on to a Tuesday beginner’s class with Tracy. It was at night right after a hot flow class. While we waited in the lobby to go in they were coming out completely drenched. Pools of sweat water were everywhere on the wood floor when we walked into the yoga room. You had to dodge around the pools.
Tracy was good at teaching us the actual poses. She took her time, walking around to help us all, although sometimes I would be in a pose waiting and waiting for her to get to me. I learned every pose as perfectly as could be since she was into perfect alignment.
One day there was a big guy who came to Tracy’s class. He was wearing funny plastic pants. Our class was usually mostly women. Sometimes there might be a guy or two, but after one or two times you never saw them again. Before we started, the plastic pants man said, “This is easy.” Once the class began he started sweating to death. He’s never coming back, I thought.
I never saw him again.
I never sweated, although I drank a lot of water.
I liked the crazy twists, for some reason, but standing on one leg was hard. I don’t have good balance because I can only see out of one eye. Whenever we did balancing poses the picture I got was, I’m going to fall down!
By the middle of summer I was ready to move up the yoga ladder. Tracy told me I should try Monica’s’s Basic Hatha Flow class. I bought a thicker mat. It was great for my knees. Some of the poses are hard on your bones, but that’s what you have to cut your teeth on. At least, that’s what Monica said.
She was tough, almost like a man, but I went to both of her weekly evening classes for five months the rest of the year. Most teachers had a soft voice, but Monica’s was never that soft. It became my main class, even though I dragged myself there. The whole drive to the yoga studio, even though it was only a few minutes, I would complain to myself. She’s going to come and push, she’ll walk around looking for me, I thought. She would push you down, sideways, all ways.
One time she pulled me when I was in a standing pose and I fell down. I just started laughing. You don’t want to be the center of attention, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
She made us hold poses incredibly long until my legs would burn and shake. I remember my thighs burning. I couldn’t even control them.
“What’s wrong with that, that’s good,” she said, “It’s good that your legs are shaking.”
I kept going back. She was top-notch.
One day she stood behind me and pulled my shoulders.
“How does that feel?” I started laughing, thinking, are you kidding me? Go to somebody else.
It didn’t feel good. But, it was a good pain. I liked being stretched.
A small man came to class and acted like he knew everything. “I’m doing this really great, aren’t I?” he said. But, he was just jumping around, moving fast. Afterwards he asked Monica about taking a more challenging class. “You have to be careful, basics would be best for the time being,” she said.
He wouldn’t listen, even though it was Monica telling him what for.
He had heard about Ashtanga Yoga and that’s where he went. I remember thinking, OK, buddy, you’re almost twitchy in this class, sweating, crawling out of the place. The next time I heard about him was when a story went around about a newcomer to the Ashtanga Yoga class who fell and cut his head and had to get stitches.
I was laughing.
Monica was the kind of teacher you were kind of scared of. When she told us we were going to be standing on our heads, I thought we had to do it, no question about it. But, I said to myself, Oh, Jesus! I don’t even know where to start. I never stood on my head in my life. She tried to get all of us to do it, but finally said, “If you don’t feel comfortable, you can sit this one out.”
“I’m glad you said that,” I said. Until then I had been ready, even though I was scared. I just give in and do it. I found out later that standing on your head is an advanced pose.
The one advanced pose I liked was wheel, especially when Monica walked over, got her hands under my back, and pulled up. It’s so hard on your back and hands. How much can you lift yourself? I remember thinking keep your hands there, right there, that feels great.
The whole thing about yoga was that I felt great at the end of class. Otherwise, why would anyone go and do it? I felt better, felt taller, all smoothed out. You had to take the pain of doing it to feel good once it was all over. That’s why I went back week after week, even though I knew Monica was going to push, make us stay in poses until it hurt.
It was because I felt darn good afterwards.
I didn’t want to give up on it, but it was so expensive after awhile. I went for a long time, almost a year, but then I thought I could do it at home. Frank Glass was doing it at home. Vera said he practiced yoga almost every day. If he could do it I could do it, for sure.
I started, but then stopped after a few weeks.
You have to be disciplined to do yoga at home. Whenever Monica saw anybody in her class slacking off she would say, “What’s wrong with you, get going.” At home you can say I’m not doing this pose today. The next day you can say I’m tired and won’t do anything today. I finally didn’t do much for more than a month, and when spring came I started working in the yard and going for walks in the park with my fox terriers.
That was the end of yoga for me.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”