by Claire Dederer
We lived in Phinney Ridge, a North Seattle neighborhood filled with educated, white, liberal, well-intentioned people. Which pretty much describes all North Seattle neighborhoods. Phinney Ridge is notable for being even more liberal and even better intentioned than most. In Phinney Ridge, people don’t have BEWARE OF DOG signs. They have PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF DOG signs.
When I complained about my back, which I did often and with gusto, the people of Phinney Ridge all had the same answer: Do yoga. My doctor said, “There are poses that will strengthen your back.” The checker at Ken’s Market told me I could buy a good yoga video at a nearby New Age bookstore. The homeless guy selling the homelessguy newspaper outside Ken’s Market said, “Be sure to get a mat! It’s really hard to do yoga without a mat.”
I had a number of preconceptions about yoga. I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical twenty-two-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people—basically, to my mind, a suspect dynamic.
Despite these sloppily thought-out but strongly held reservations (my specialty), I had suspected for years that I probably ought to do yoga. I was a nervous kind of person. A self-conscious, hair-adjusting kind of person. A person who practically burned with worried energy. I had a constant tremor in my hands, so that the whole world knew how anxious I was. Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been hanging out at a coffee shop, feeding Lucy bits of cracker and navigating the coffee cup from the saucer to my mouth with trembling hand. A gentleman approached and introduced himself to me as an “energy shaman.” Before I could think of a way to get rid of him, he took my shaking hand in his and pronounced gravely, “You could use a lot of work.”
“Oh!” I said, grinning nervously. “I’m sorry! I just, I have this tremor that I’ve had since I was a little kid, and I’m not getting a lot of sleep because of the baby. And I guess I’ve had a lot of coffee,” I concluded lamely.
“Do you eat a lot of chicken?” he asked. “That can cause energy problems.”
I stood up, spilling my coffee, and swiftly loaded Lucy into her stroller.
“Well, goodbye!” I waved cheerfully, and left the café, fairly thrumming with energy problems.
Yoga seemed like just exactly what I wanted: something to calm me down. It also seemed like just exactly what I didn’t want: a place where everyone could see what a mess I was, could see my tremor and my anxiety and my worry. There was something about holding still, about inhabiting a pose, that was scary. What was under all that anxious chatter?
But now things were different. I had a baby. It was imperative that I be able to lift her. I would do anything to be able to lift her. Yoga class, however, was beyond me. Like everyone else, I was terrified of a roomful of people who were good at it. Little did I know then that only very occasionally in yoga do you stumble into an entire roomful
of people who are good at it. And when you do, they often turn out to be assholes.
I figured a video would be the best approach; maybe I could get the benefits without all the pesky humiliation. On an Indian summer afternoon I decided to head over to the New Age bookstore. Amid much pinching, I wrangled the baby into her stroller. This engendered another form of mother guilt: recently strollers had come under the North Seattle mother’s list of banned substances. Apparently the baby felt alienated so far away from its mother, and preferred to be snuggled up against the mother’s back or—there was no escaping its Perónlike hegemony—her breast. You were supposed to strap your baby into a sling or a Snugli (known around our house as a Smugli). There was some theory about the baby wanting to see the world from the same perspective as its mother. Which looks crazy as I type it, but that was the argument. At any rate, putting your child in a stroller was fast becoming yet another way of letting the world know that a) you didn’t really love your kid and b) you were an uneducated dumbshit.
That was all well and good for people with those lightweight babies made from balsa wood, but my pleasingly substantial daughter and I were devoted to strolling. And so we made our way through the fall afternoon to the bookshop, the baby graciously tolerating her dumbshit, unloving mother.
I had walked by the New Age bookshop many times but had never gone in. Wrestling the stroller through the door, I was hit with the ecclesiastically grubby smell of incense. Everything in the store was dusty and slightly off plumb. The magazine racks tilted; the books were piled haphazardly; the posters of chakras and mushrooms and stars were at various subtle angles.
I found a teetering wire rack of yoga videos. Some of the people on the covers were orange. Some wore headbands. Some were peeking out from behind swirling, vaguely medieval purple writing. I chose a beginning yoga tape. It looked safe. The woman on the cover was not orange and she wore no headgear. The graphics did not look as if they’d been drawn up in an asylum.
I located a yoga mat, and paid, and then the baby and I got the hell out of there.
That night, Bruce gave her a bottle (to which she had adapted nicely, thanks) and I went into the room with the TV, which, like everyone on Phinney Ridge, we refused to call the TV room. I put on my tape. The blond woman gazed into the camera from her serene world, a place where potted orchids thrived. There was some discussion about not overdoing it and going at your own speed, and then the yoga session was under way. The woman sat there with her eyes shut. I sat there looking at her. Apparently we were warming up.
This pleasant state of affairs continued for a while. Unfortunately, soon it was time to do asana. This had a forbidding sound.
“Jump your feet about three feet apart on the mat,” said the blond lady. This I did. “Turn your left foot in about forty-five degrees, and your right foot out.” Done and done. Check me out! “Extend the right hand over the right foot, and gently rest the hand on the shin, the ankle, or the foot, wherever is most comfortable.” Tippy, but I was on it. “Slowly rotate your torso upward, and extend your left arm toward the ceiling.” Aaand I’m out. I sat down with a thud and watched the woman with her strangely unshifting expression. She was a puddle on a windless day. In a calm voice, the way you talk to old people when you’re convincing them to take a few steps across the hospital room to use the bathroom, she said, “Tri-ko-na-sa-na.” She lingered on the word, obviously enjoying the sound of the . . . what was it? Sanskrit? “Triangle pose,” she translated.
I rewound the tape. I tried again. Right leg out. Feet turned at an angle. Extend right arm. Drop right hand to right shin. I started to worry. How was I going to get that left arm up? How was I going to turn my torso? Oh, shit, now or never. I flung my left arm into the air and twisted my torso maybe a millimeter up. Pinch.
I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the darkened window. I was hunched up like “It’s Pat!” from Saturday Night Live. I rewound the tape again, and followed the directions again, and ended up, again, bunched in an odd shape. I could feel parts of my body bumping together that had never bumped before. Something hurt. I had a feeling it wasn’t supposed to hurt.
Looking back, I can see that I had just learned a paramount yoga lesson: Get a good teacher. Or at least a live one. My back still hurt, and though muscle relaxants exerted a powerful allure, the muscle-relaxant lifestyle was not really doable for me. I made my living as a book reviewer. (A terrible idea, by the way.) When I took muscle relaxants, the novels I read for review tended to improve dramatically. Since my critical faculties were really all I had going for me, I reluctantly went drug free.
There was this notion in my mind that somehow yoga was going to make me better. Better than I’d been, better than everyone else. More virtuous. I liked the idea of myself as a yoga person. (I could not bring myself to say yogi, or yogini.) Lithe, probably thin, with some kind of ineffable glow. And my back wouldn’t hurt. Clearly it was time to try an actual yoga class. The following week, on a rainy October day, I left the baby with my mother and drove across town to the yoga studio my friend Katrina went to. Katrina was sort of nutty, but she had a gorgeous ass, so I thought, What the hell.
Inside the front door of the studio was an entry vestibule, decorated in the style of “Don’t Be Afraid, We’re Not a Cult.” The walls were painted white and screened with tasteful shoji panels; the blondwood floor was uncarpeted and spotless; neat cubbies awaited shoes. All was white and clean, as though the room had been designed for surgery, or Swedish people. The only spot of color came from the Tibetan prayer flags strung over the doorway into the studio.
In flagrant defiance of my longtime policy of never entering a structure adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, I removed my shoes, paid my ten bucks to the wan girl at the desk, and walked into the studio, where eight or ten young women were sitting on their mats. Even though we were there for a beginner class, they all looked incredibly fit and somewhat stern. Their ponytails were glossy and neat. Those ponytails were ready for business. The women sat cross-legged, with straight backs. They all gazed straight ahead into the middle distance, as if they were about to break out into a collective fit of landscape painting.
I smiled apologetically. This is my worst habit, and I hope to break it by the time I’m eighty. When I’m an old lady I’ll finally be able to swagger into a room with a fuck-you attitude. I laid out my mat and sat on it. I felt the onset of the deep sorrow that, maybe peculiarly to me, precedes any new physical undertaking. I have never been good at sports; I always feel like a spectator, even when I’m in the middle of a game.
The shoji screens filtered the light from the vestibule, spreading it on the floor in a grid. My sense of futility grew larger. I looked at the serene ladies and wondered if they really believed that enlightenment would find us here, in a drafty room in a strip mall in North Seattle.
As I looked around at the fair-skinned women and the prayer flags over the door and the little altar in the corner, my preconceptions about yoga seemed immediately and all too amply confirmed. The scene was the very picture of white female self-indulgence. There were no Indian people in this room, that was certain.
A woman in her late twenties entered and rolled out her mat in front of us. Her thick blond hair was cut in an expensive bob. Her eyebrows were fancily mowed. Her outfit was black and tight. She looked as though she had been a step-aerobics teacher until about five minutes ago. She looked like her name was Jennifer.
“I am Atosa,” she said. Like hell you are, sister.
“Come to a comfortable sitting position,” she said. “Please bring your fingers into the gyana mudra. Mudra is the yoga of the hands.” She made a circle with the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and I followed suit. It felt corny but sort of wonderful at the same time. My hands looked enlightened.
“We will begin the class with one long om,” Asha intoned. “Breathe in, and om on the exhalation.” I sneaked peeks around the room. The other women looked peaceful and relaxed, as if they were in an ad for bubble bath. I breathed in and let out my om, which came in a wheezing gasp. Atosa’s om boomed and wavered beautifully.
“The om travels up from the seat, through the heart, and out the top of the head. It passes through all the chakras.” Atosa listed all the chakras by name, location, and color. Yoga seemed to involve a lot of talking.
We did a series of wildly uncomfortable movements that I now recognize to be sun salutation A. We reached for the sky, we touched our toes, we lunged one leg back. Then we pulled back into downward dog: both hands on the floor, both feet on the floor, bottom jutting up toward the ceiling. We lunged again, touched our toes again, and there we were, where we started, reaching for the sky. I was red and breathing hard and trembling. As we sank into a deep runner’s lunge, Atosa looked at me with worry. It wasn’t “I’m worried about you” worry. It was “I don’t need anyone collapsing in my class” worry.
“You need blocks,” she said abruptly. She got some foam blocks from a shelf and had me prop my hands on them. She kept an eagle eye on me.
“We’re going to work on trikonasana today,” she said. My nemesis. “Please turn your mats so they’re perpendicular to mine. Jump your feet apart about three feet,” she said, and then we were off to the races.
We did trikonasana over and over: at the wall, in the center of the room, with a partner pulling on our front arm. Each time I bunched up like a cluster of grapes. I shook; I sweated; I clenched. It was exactly as I had always suspected: yoga was a kind of magnifier for my limitations.
Triangle was especially baffling because it was, in essence, so simple. You stood with your feet apart and rested a hand on your shin. Easy as pie. Except it wasn’t. (Even pie itself is not that easy, if you make your own crust.) There seemed to be an infinite number of ways to get it wrong.
Atosa began to lecture us. Well, actually, she began to lecture me. “Think extension. The pose is about creating space.” I thought extension. I tried to create space. I bunched.
At the end of class, we all lay flat on our backs in savasana, or corpse pose, sprawled loosely with our arms at our sides. Even this seemed painfully beyond my reach. My eyes were shut tight, but I could sense Atosa looking at me, noticing my tensed shoulders, my knit brow, my clenched jaw.
Finally we sat up. Atosa led the class in a final om, and said that if anyone had questions to feel free to approach her after class. I took her at her word, more fool I.
“Yes?” she said, raising a perfectly shaped eyebrow.
“Uh, I was wondering if you could help me with triangle.”
“Oh, you mean trikonasana?” she asked.
“Well, you just need more extension. Here, look at this.” She stepped into a beautiful shape, legs angling apart, torso twisting gracefully, eyes gazing upward as if she could see infinity beyond the acoustic tiles. She jumped back to standing. “See?” she said brightly. I was reminded of Julie Peterson showing off her cartwheel in first grade.
I gave it a go. “No,” she said. “Try extending your trunk more. You’re too hunched.”
I smiled apologetically at her and said, “I’ll work on it.” And I left.
I never wanted to see Atosa again. In a just world, she would’ve been deported, maybe to an island populated by fully extended human beings.
Even so, for some reason I still wanted to try yoga. The next week I noticed a little storefront yoga place near my house. It didn’t look like much. It had a stylized brushstroke drawing of a yogi—or was it a Buddha?—as its logo. I didn’t want to do yoga in a place that looked like a half-assed noodle joint. Nonetheless, it was only five minutes away and offered a beginner class at 7 p.m., which is the time of day when I customarily begin to be alert and look around and notice things. I thought I’d give it a try.
It was dark by the time I got there, and the foyer to the studio was a pool of cheerful yellow light.
I approached the desk, which was manned by a serious-looking fellow with a dork knob. My heart sank. After Atosa, I couldn’t take any more coldhearted grooviness. I introduced myself and gave him my ten bucks. “Welcome,” he said ominously, Vincent Price in a tank top.
I went into the studio. The room was filled with not-girls! Which is to say, there were all kinds of people there. A few young men in workout gear and two older women in stretchy purple Lycra and a couple of slightly lumpy women my own age, clearly moms, all but lactating through their leotards, and one old fellow who was wearing jeans and a leather belt. A leather belt! Even I knew better than that. I enjoyed a nanosecond of feeling superior, but was thrown off guard when the students turned and smiled and said hello. In all my days—well, day—of yoga-going, I had never seen anything like it.
Dork knob came in. He sat down silently and I got myself ready for some more vague sanctimonies. Instead, he looked around the room and smiled. Something in him lit up, like there was a big switch on his back that had just been flipped on. He started laughing before he started speaking. “Hi, I’m Jonathan,” he said. “Beginning is hard. But it’s also lucky. Because you have the chance to build something beautiful from the ground up, with no old mistakes, no bad habits.” I know now that this was basic yoga boilerplate, but the thing was,
Jonathan really believed it. He finished the speech and laughed again, like: Can you believe we’re all doing this crazy thing in this room together? I looked around. Everyone was smiling.
We sat and breathed for a while. Then Jonathan popped up and said, “Tonight we’re going to work on triangle!”
I got ready for the bossing: First we would jump our feet apart, then we would try to extend, whatever that meant, and then I would look like “It’s Pat,” and then the teacher would frown at me. Alrighty.
Jonathan did have us spread our feet apart, but we didn’t jump. We just lazily separated them. Once our feet were positioned, he said, “We’re going to work on angulating our hips. That’s all triangle really is. It’s a hip position.”
His right foot was in the leading position. He cocked his left hip to the left and said, with excitement, “Look! See how the simple action of pulling my left hip back creates a crease between the top of the right thigh and the hip? That crease is what we want. That’s where triangle comes from.”
We all cocked our left hips. As one, we gazed down at our right thighs. And, lo! There were creases. We beamed.
“Look at those hip creases. That is triangle,” said Jonathan. He looked genuinely happy for us. “You are doing it. You can add more. You can extend the right arm out over the right leg, and drop the hand, and turn the body, and raise the left arm to the ceiling. But those are all additions. You are doing triangle right now.”
I cocked my hip over and over again, and watched that crease appear. I had been living inside of my body more than thirty years, and it was showing me a shape I had never witnessed before.
After a while, we tried gesturing forward with our right arm. It felt great, like the movement was growing from that creased hip. Then we dropped our right hands. “Just anywhere,” said Jonathan. “Anywhere that feels good.” Mine landed on my knee. We turned our bodies gently. And then we raised our left arms as best we could. Mine was not exactly straight up. It was in the general direction of up. It was the beginning of up.
Jonathan walked around the room looking at us. He stopped by me and said, “Try pressing the little toe of your back foot.” I tried it, and all of sudden the pose made more sense to me. I was able—or abler—to understand what I was doing, and didn’t feel quite so much like I was at war with my own body. I was amazed by the change. It was like having someone show you that you could fix a car’s crankshaft by adjusting the side mirror.
Here was a place where someone would tell me what to do, and there were identifiable results. Unlike motherhood, where the rules seemed to shift all the time and the standards seemed as high as the moon.
Of course, this was no different from what happened at any exercise class—at step aerobics, for instance, they were only too happy to tell you what to do, and had the headsets to prove it. But I intuited, or guessed, or, let’s be honest, devoutly hoped that in yoga there was another outcome. You would do what they said and you would be better. Yoga would allay my anxiety by teaching me to breathe and relax. But it would also allay my anxiety by elevating me to a more superior, evolved state of being, where I would no longer have to worry about whether or not I was doing everything right.
Jonathan continued. “Imagine your body is being pressed between two huge planes of glass. Gently pressed, of course.”
I tried to imagine this. It seemed sort of silly.
Jonathan went on. “This plane, this space between the two imaginary panes of glass, is called the coronal plane. You want to keep your body within this plane while you do the pose. Don’t lean your torso forward or let your behind stick out. Keep it within this coronal plane.”
This seemed like the most pointless piece of information I had ever heard. In fact, triangle itself was an exercise in pointlessness. Who could imagine herself into being a triangle? It brought to mind that old They Might Be Giants song about “triangle man,” who goes around beating people up. Maybe that song was secretly about yoga.
These thoughts ran through my mind as I tried to fit myself into a triangle. At the same time, Jonathan spoke with such confidence, as though the coronal plane and fitting oneself into it were crucial information. Maybe he was right. Anyway, I couldn’t quit now. I just stood there and held the pose. This small submission would yield huge and strange returns that would reverberate across the next few years. Yoga had come into my life, with its strange, unknowable, even funny logic. For good or for ill, it had arrived. What the hell, I thought, as I extended my hand toward the sky, and creased my hip, and tried to fit myself into the coronal plane.
At the end of class, we lay in savasana. I felt tired and content. The immobility had a pastoral quality to it, as if trees swayed overhead.
Jonathan’s voice was quiet now. “Thank you for sharing this evening with me. In yoga, we say ‘Namaste,’ which means ‘I bow to the divine in you.’ ” He bowed his dork-knobbed head and said, “Namaste.” We bowed back and mumbled, “Namaste.” On my tongue, the new word felt as though it contained its own foreign spice.
Excerpted from Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Posesby Claire Dederer. Copyright @2011 by Claire Dederer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giraux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Claire Dederer’s first book, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, was published in the U.S. and the United Kingdom in January 2011 as well as the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Brazil and Korea. A longtime contributor to The New York Times, Dederer’s articles have appeared in Vogue, Real Simple, The Nation, New York, Yoga Journal, on Slate and Salon, and in newspapers across the country. Poser was recently released in paperback by Picador in January 2012.