I walk into the yoga class. My head is a whirlwind, full of tumbleweeds and dust-devils: Shopping lists, to-do lists, a vague sense of anxiety about the approaching holidays and my lack of preparedness for same. A brief but potently self-critical look back at my life. A moment of self-pity, in which I feel old and spent. The requisite ensuing moment of guilt, in which I think of all the people who have it worse than I do. In short: I am a mess.
It probably does not help that I went to yoga via the sauna first. The sauna is my own personal mini distress tolerance room. I sit. I ignore the hypochondriac voice in my head who likes to tell me I'm dying. I try to forget the episode of The Six Million Dollar Man I saw when I was little in which The Bad Guys try to kill some towel-clad woman by locking her in a sauna. But mostly, I listen to my breathing and try to sweat out the day's crazy. Today the crazy consists mostly of my unbridled and frustrated libido.
"I'm trying to bake my libido into submission," I text a friend.
"That's stupid," she replies. "You sweat in the sauna. You sweat when you're having sex. You're probably fantasizing right now."
I ignore the shirtless guy doing tricep dips on the bench next to me.
"Screw you." I retort. "I'm on my way into yoga. TTYL."
"Have fun! Try not to ogle anybody in class!"
So I throw my mat on the floor. Mountain pose. I close my eyes. I focus on my breath. I align my spine. I think about how much I would really like to have sex sometime before the next presidential election.
Focus. The instructor's voice gives us the cues: reaching, bending, stretching. Intense west stretch. I fold in half, hinging at the hips, letting my head dangle toward the floor. My hamstrings are strung like a guitar. I take a deep breath and as I exhale, I push more deeply into the pose, bringing my forehead to rest on my calves. I feel the pressure around my belly, that extra ten pounds I hate with a white hot passion. The Crazy chimes in, "Who'd want to see you naked?"
Thank god for vinyasa. The poses flow one into another, now: from forward bend to monkey pose. We jump back to downward dog, forward to plank, down to four-legged stick, up dog, back to down dog. Then we do it again, and again. It turns out that awareness sucks. There's that spot in my neck that hangs up. The tightness around my shoulders, my hamstrings, my lower back. My triceps start to tremble in chaturanga.
The Crazy still shuffles around, rattling the pots and pans in my mental cabinet, an ornery ghost. It reminds me how easy this used to be, how weak I've become, what a failure I am in a thousand different ways.
But I'm too focused to listen to it. One pose, one breath at a time. And like taking oxygen away from a flame, the attention vacuum snuffs out The Crazy.
We are laying on our backs. Knees to chest. Then tentatively, I stretch my legs out behind my head, feeling each vertebra creak against the floor, until I've touched my toes down behind me. Plough pose. It is a small triumph. I roll back down, then plant my feet on the mat. We push up into Bridge.
"If you'd like, you can place your hands behind your shoulders and press up into Upward Bow," the instructor says.
I get greedy. I used to do this backbend easily, even heavily pregnant, in fact just three days before going into labor with my second child. But I haven't tried since I hurt my back a couple of years ago. Prior to hurting my back, I was dancing several times a week, jogging, doing whatever I wanted and taking it for granted. After hurting my back, I spent over a year waking up every time I rolled over in my sleep, with pain shooting through my pelvis. Jogging, dancing--both non-starters. Every step hurt. I saw physical therapists, chiropractors, and eventually a specialist who determined I was "not a good candidate" for surgery, a verdict that was both a relief (no surgery!) and crushing (no hope!).
But I've been slowly feeling a little better. I've found a different chiropractor, and he has worked miracles for me. I sleep through the night now. I can dance and jog, though not quite like before.
I decide to go for it. I plant my hands by my shoulders and push up into the backbend. A pain erupts in my lower back and I crumple. I hear myself say "Shit!" Not my finest mantra. For a minute, I think I've undone all the progress. Tears sting my eyes.
Slowly I roll over, rest in child's pose, breathe through the pain, and let the fear slip away. I sit up, then stand, then walk out of class--a little sore, but not injured.
In my fantasy yoga class, life is all Christy Turlington, effortlessly serene and age-defying. In reality, it's more like Woody Allen, a bundle of heavily weathered neuroses. But that's OK. It's hard and awkward and sometimes scary, and much like life, that's a good sign. I'd go so far as to say it's the sign that you're doing it right.
Outside the gym, it is cool and dark. Tomorrow I might be a libidinous mess all over again, plus a backache. But right now I breathe deeply, and the rain feels like baptism.