Wherof we cannot speak, thereof we must…
Ack! No; no; noooooo. I’ve been making a case for yoga as a demystification project, yet here I am avoiding straightforward questions of how it rooted into me. Here I am falling back on the raised eyebrow and the shrug that are my writing at its most flirtatious and, as the critics have noted, worst.
As I set out on Tuesday, coming to have a practice defied my previous experience of life as flowing forward from my will—a product of my own decisions. With that caveat, a little concrete description of the how’s (with the why’s on the side, to keep my dissimulations at bay) is the most useful thing I can add to Tim’s dataset. He’s asked five questions, and here are answers to the first two, with the others soon to follow.
As I’ve been saying recently, I am just another data point in the Astanga Yoga Research Experiment. Here’s chalking this one up for the archives.
1. The start. What brought you to yoga?
A Honda Civic. Which hit me in the crosswalk in front of my house in October, 2002. When I woke up strapped to a board and swatted at an I-V, an EMT told me to settle down and obey because my neck was broken. Which had the intended effect of paralyzing me for the rest of the night, but the MRIs came out clean except for a chip on the chin-bone. Nevertheless, my mandible had been slammed hard into my head, and the resulting TMJ hell and cognitive-emotional backup were unwelcome visitors in the fifth week of my so-called career as a PhD student. Five months later, after steroid cycles, other wicked anti-inflammatory regimens, physical and cognitive therapies and very many tension headaches, a TMJ surgeon said to me:
“You know, I can help you release some of this tension, but if you’re going to get better, you’re going to have to do some of the work yourself.”
But this is the effect of something somebody did to me. I’m not responsible. Plus, are you implying that I am not a brain in a jar? Don’t pull that mind-body shit on me. We’re both scientists here, Pops: so buck up and talk like a good Cartesian.
But god how the pain and tension fastened into my bones and held there. So I took a hatha yoga class anyway, in the spring quarter of 2003. It was on Friday evenings, at UCLA’s beautiful, shady-hilltop SunsetCanyonRecreationCenter. (I would drive up to the center, sweat out the week, then pick up my favorite cohorts after their Friday seminar and drink pinot noir with them on my balcony until 2 or 3 am.) The yoga teacher was an ahtangi who became my first flow teacher, and whose flow class I still take on Saturdays so that I can continue to learn from her and honor that relationship with a bit of continuity.
2. First class. Describe your first class(es) or practice and your reaction to it.
It occurred to me that yoga might help relax the jaw, because I’d taken a half-dozen classes at SeattleUniversity in 2001. I was a mindless gym-goer in those days, managing my hyperactivity and keeping the endorphin-fixes regular with daily afternoon workouts (I could disappear from my job as a grad program administrator without being missed—o the beauty and the inefficient evil of university bureaucracies).In the spring, there was a Wednesday afternoon hatha class in the carpeted, mirrored ex-aerobics room where I used to do my post-workout stretches. The same way I took the university’s financial planning and software-proficiency classes (all free for employees), I showed up for the yoga too.
The teacher’s name was Cassandra. She had great hair and told us stories about her crazy boyfriend and how yoga helped her stay calm on the drive over from Queen Anne hill. I remember the way my hip popped in Trikonasana and the great distance between my knees and the floor in baddha konasana, and that I was put out to have to front $20 for a mat. My body wasn’t very flexible (in junior high school, the one test that always disqualified me from the Presidential Fitness Award—which goes to students who are in the top percentiles in a series of tests like the mile run, the standing long jump, and situps per minute—was always the “sitting reach”: my fingers wouldn’t go past my heels). As a result of this inflexibility, I had a satisfying and not-exactly-subtle wall of resistance that I could explore. The new sensations were interesting. That was nice, so I added some of Cassandra’s hip and shoulder stretches to my daily post-workout cool-down.
When the class concluded, I started going to the university sauna on Wednesday nights instead. That was equally relaxing.
I don’t think that, even after a half-dozen classes, I had even begun to key in to what is first truly arresting about yoga: the linkage of movement and breath.