*Featured Image: “Transforming” by Barbara Carter
I’m sitting on a borrowed yoga mat, in my work clothes, dropping my right ear to my right shoulder, then my chin to my chest, then my left ear to my left shoulder. Ambient music murmurs from a small speaker in the semi-darkened room, and everyone breathes slowly. I hesitate, then reach over to pull my shoes on, sure that the stink from my feet must be more distracting than my non-choreographed movement.
I’m part of a small group of faculty members invited to an eight-week seminar on mindfulness. Today we’re on the mind-body connection, learning how smiling improves the mood, how nodding the head produces a positive attitude, and, especially, how being mindful of the body creates peace. I just wish mindfulness could empower me to think away my body odor—and that of the guy next to me.
Mind-body meditation, our leader explains as she appropriately zens out my nonconformity, also has the potential to heal emotional wounds. “This is not about repressing our feelings,” she cautions in her silky voice as she leads us through a body scan. “It’s about identifying them and releasing them.” With eyes closed, we imagine the breath we had just taken passing into specific areas of our bodies where it could trigger emotions, which could then be released with the outward breath. I think of it like the wet vac I recently used on my living room carpet. First I spray soap and water over a spot, then suck it back up, pulling dirt along with it. Sounds good, but that doesn’t mean I’m succeeding in conjuring up emotion from my ankle.
I haven’t been a jerk the entire seminar. Mindfulness actually fascinates me, and I have been a fully-engaged participant—doing all the homework each week, buying and reading and sharing the recommended books, introducing centering techniques to my students. Each session so far, I have sat behind a desk, smiling and nodding my head.
But today we pulled the desks to the sides of the room and put our mats on the floor so we could do some mindful yoga. “Don’t worry,” our guide says, as she often does. Perhaps my face reveals more than I think it does. “This is basic yoga and very low impact.” But I’m uncomfortable anyway, even in what she calls the “easy pose”—sitting cross-legged while we roll our necks and shoulders. It’s not just my stinky feet that make me self-conscious. I’m a middle-aged, overweight woman who has no business sitting on the floor.
Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t have felt this way. When I was slim, I communicated with my whole body in large, confident gestures; I enjoyed being front and center. But I’m no longer thin. To deal with difficult emotions over the years, I sucked in chocolate and potato chips rather than deep breaths, and fat isn’t released with an outward sigh. So now I hide. I put myself in places where I cannot be fully seen, and I make small gestures that are carefully calculated. I don’t like the mirror to see what I look like, let alone colleagues sitting in a circle around me. But I’m determined not to opt out, not to be that person. I have been huddling a long time. Perhaps stretching is just the thing I need—for both my muscles and my courage. And so I sit crossed-legged (in my heels), rolling my neck.
Our leader announces the next stretch, the Sitting Eagle. “Extend your arms straight in front of your body,” she instructs.
I have a jolt of fear. It’s not only my body size that will be exposed through this activity. My right hand and arm, which were disfigured in a car accident when I was a baby, are now front and center.
“Drop your left arm under your right. Bend your elbows, and then raise your forearms perpendicular to the floor.” I obey, even though it feels like putting my handicap on a pedestal. “Wrap your arms and hands, and press your palms together.” I can’t quite reach, but the effort projects my right hand even further. “Lift your elbows and reach your fingertips toward the ceiling.” As I display my defect to this circle of peers, I am shocked to realize the strength of my desire to hide. I didn’t think I cared much what my hand looks like. I’ve lived with it all my life; I even crack corny jokes about missing fingers. But as we hold this position, humiliation creeps up my neck and face in a slow, hot crawl. If tears escape now, I won’t be able to wipe them away.
I’m pretty good at stopping myself from crying. I’ve had lots of practice. Perhaps I couldn’t detect any emotion in my ankle during the body scan because I’m so good at deflecting. Because I don’t dare to feel anything anymore. I remember driving home from my MFA residency about a year ago, leaving early because my daughter was missing. The news hadn’t surprised me. My decision to leave home for two weeks had been risky, and I was glad to have made it this far without incident. With Rachael’s personality disorder, she is reliant on me for routine, guidance, security. I almost didn’t go at all but was determined to thwart codependency. “It’s time to take your life back,” I told myself firmly, which would be just as healthy for her as it was for me. Besides, staying home was no guarantee she wouldn’t have bolted. I had no idea how to reduce Rachael’s recklessness. As I drove toward home, toward the place she wasn’t, I stared at the yellow line zipping by, feeling nothing.
“Keep your shoulder blades pressing down your back, toward your waist.” The music is still playing softly. No one looks at anyone else. No one looks at me. “Square your hips and chest to the front wall.” No one looks at my hand.
Yes, I’ve been huddling a long time. Perhaps it’s time to start looking up again.
“Draw your belly in and up. Gaze at the tips of your thumbs.” I gaze at my thumbs and realize I am fine. I’m actually enjoying the stretch. Nobody cares that my hand looks a little different. I don’t need to hide. “Breathe smoothly and evenly. Focus on your breath and keep your gaze fixed and soft.” I soften my gaze. Relax my defenses.
We clasp our hands behind our backs, opening the chest.
We do side stretches, left and right.
I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m great.
“Let’s move into a supine position. Lay on your back with legs extended. On your in breath, stretch your arms above head. Point your toes for a full-body stretch. On your out breath, bring your arms back down to floor.”
I lay flat, and doubt flickers. Why do I always try to pretend things are great? I think of the narrative—the fairy tale, really—I have been telling myself most of my life: I grew up on a beautiful hobby farm with chickens and cows and horses and goats. My parents were loving, and my many siblings made life exciting and full. I attended private schools where friends and teachers knew me well and supported me fully. My parents sent me to an excellent college, and I was married to a good man soon after. I got a divorce, yes, but it was amicable, and my new husband and I are so much better matched. My kids are smart and beautiful, and I love them more than life. I’ve had an exciting career, and still have many opportunities before me.
All that is true. But so is this: I am physically handicapped. I experienced the death of a child. I was raped by a stranger. I went through divorce. I’m raising a bipolar child. As I point my fingers and toes away from each other, feeling the stretch, I wonder if I have my storyline all wrong. I hate sounding like a victim, but am I foolish for not admitting how hard life is—how hard my life is? Why do I keep trying to convince myself it will all work out, that life is good?
I recently came across an old photo of myself, probably taken by one of my kids. I was standing under a huge rock that appeared to be precariously balanced, acting as if I were singlehandedly holding it up. We laughed at the pose enacted by tourists from around the world; but looking at the picture again all these years later, I felt as if the weight was real. I stared at it for a long time, suspending my disbelief, wondering how I could hold so much for so long.
“Bring your knees to your chest, then extend your left leg.”
What would happen if I let go?
When driving home from my MFA program last year to find Rachael, I stopped for gas and passed a small road that curved uphill toward an unknown destination. Trees lined both sides of the road; it was deep summer, and the green branches touched each other. To enter the road would be like going under a bridge into some magical realm. It tempted me. I wanted to go toward the promise of happily ever after—not home to heartbreak.
I didn’t take the road, of course. I had to press on.
“Now switch. Slowly bring your left knee to your chest, then extend your right leg.”
What if I let go?
I spent that summer chauffeuring Rachael around because she was too afraid to take her drivers’ test and because I was determined to keep her active. She was dating a charming young man who had recently started attending our church; he and his mother had just moved here from England, and Rachael couldn’t believe her luck in finding a “black dude with a British accent.” We took Rheon everywhere with us—on college visits, to church events, to amusement parks, to our home for lazy afternoons—and introduced him to Rachael’s entire circle of friends. I was thrilled to see her connecting with a normal kid with good prospects, and he seemed to bring out the best in her. While driving home, staring at that yellow line, not the green canopy over fairy tale lane, I wondered what had happened in the past two weeks to drive them apart and her away.
“Bring both knees to your chest, and place your right arm out along the floor, palm down.”
I think back to the photograph. I want to let go. It’s time.
“Shift your hips slightly to the right. Then place your left hand on the outside of your right knee. Exhaling, drop your right knee over the left side of your body. Keep your left hand resting gently on your right knee.” This position sounds complicated, so I focus; the result is amazing. In this pose, there is no room for stress. “Twists are a great way to decompress and squeeze out the anxiety and frustrations of your day, like wringing out a sponge.” I don’t worry about the tears trickling down the sides of my face.
My brother, seven years older, once brought me down the road less traveled. Every day, when he drove all of us siblings home from school, I would beg him to turn into a campground we passed that could not be seen from the road. This lane led downhill toward a lake, not uphill like the one on the route home from the MFA program; but it too had trees that kissed each other over the road. “Let’s see where it goes,” I begged. “Please!” Every day he said no, until one day he didn’t. “Why the hell not?” he said. The others groaned, but my big brother didn’t care. “Let’s show Heather this damn road.” I don’t remember what the campground looked like. I just remember the cuss word, which itself was kind of risky, and the right-hand turn onto a road I’d never been down. I remember the thrill, the freedom—and some nervous giggles.
“Ok, let’s shift.” We twist our bodies into the mirrored position, squeezing out the last drops.
This morning Rachael—who now has her driver’s license, has been holding down a full-time job in a childcare center, and is taking other healthy steps toward independence—asked to borrow gas money from me. My first instinct was to bail her out, but I had to say no because she already owed me for car repairs. This was not the answer she wanted, so she threatened to move out, which was no threat at all, and accused me of not believing in her, a button that has been known to work in the past. She had a meltdown, complete with cussing and tears and raised-volume accusations. I’ve learned to resist manipulation; so I calmly and briefly responded to her emotion but didn’t allow myself to get sucked in. But now, as my body is stretched across a classroom floor, the tears keep spilling out. I wish I could help her. I wish I could hand her ten bucks without enabling her. I wish by not handing her ten bucks I could teach her responsibility. I wish she didn’t struggle so much. I wish life were easier.
In the Table-Top Position, I do the Cow and the Cat, stretching my back. I attempt the Spinal Balance, wavering just a bit. I do the Child’s Pose, Down Dog, Butterfly. I feel the weight of emotion—not just in my ankle, but in each stretch with every breath.
“No yoga session is complete without the final pose, the Savasana,” our guide says. “The body needs this time to understand the new information it has received.” She has us lie on our backs, letting our feet fall to either side and our palms facing upward. “Relax the whole body, including the face.” She doesn’t tell us that this is also called the Corpse Pose, but I sense my mortality. I feel death. My body is so heavy I don’t know if I can move again.
We stay in the Savasana pose a long time. I’m surprised when our guide speaks again. “Begin to deepen the breath. Then move the fingers and toes, awakening the body.” In time, I find myself able to move again. I sit up slowly and look around. Others are doing the same. We smile at each other. We giggle.
I feel as if just we made a right turn down a new road.