One man’s journey to tranquility
Photo by Bill Harris
Never one for introspection, I nonetheless recently found myself on a minor path of self-reflection, beyond my usual morning epiphanies over a grande latte. Thankfully, like a good double-shot espresso buzz, that profound yearning dissipated quickly. But I was left with a little guilt about my expanding waistline, and an increasing level of generalized angst.
Having tried many things to inspire a better me, to little lasting effect, the next three options on the self-challenging bucket list included skydiving, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and yoga. The decision was easy, yet complicated.
The thing is, there are many different kinds of yoga: Ashtanga, Hatha, Forrest, Power, and Bikram—the popular hot yoga discipline. There’s even Kyudo, a highly meditative form which incorporates archery and seems to be about controlling your breathing and heart-rate, and actually “being” the arrow.
Already in over my head, I sought guidance from a good friend who is a self-described authority on all things. He’s also disgustingly fit and treats his body like a temple, as opposed to a storage shed like mine, so I hate but respect him.
My friend John discovered yoga rather late in life, after many years punishing his body doing extreme sports, triathlons, martial arts, military training, and suffering various bike mishaps which led to a diagnosis of stenosis and spinal misalignment. With few options, he took up yoga as a last resort, and three years later he practices on a near-daily basis, happily contorting and balancing his body in seemingly uncomfortable, if not unnatural, poses as others dole out party tricks.
“I’m more flexible than most 20-year-olds,” he says smugly, “and I feel calmer and more focused than ever. It’s not just an exercise, it’s a religion.”
While not quite ready to convert, I listen to a long list of yoga benefits that seem more exhausting than enlightening. There are mantras, inversion perspective, and awareness of the physical state as a refection of one’s emotional state. That’s just the beginning. At higher states of yoga-induced euphoria comes respect and dedication to exercise as therapy and philosophy that’s inculcated through spiritual cleansing, dedication and empathy. It becomes a way of life.
For me, exercise is hard enough on its own, without all the meditation, mindfulness, and soul-enriching. I’m just looking for some gentle stretching and simple balancing so I can tie my shoes without grunting.
There are a number of gyms, studios, and wellness centers in the area offering a variety of yoga classes. But fearful that while wearing spandex I would run into someone I know, I donned a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants, and snuck into an introductory family class at the local YMCA. I was thinking that somehow having kids there might make it more fun, or at least less embarrassing and weird, than exercising with super-fit women I might see in the grocery store or the school pick-up line.
Indeed, there was at least one woman I recognized from years earlier when our kids were in middle school. Catching our reflections in the mirror, she noticed me and smiled. I couldn’t remember her name, but I nodded with a knowing “good for you” return smile.
I looked behind her, to the right, at a roundish blob of a man in old sweats and a T-shirt who clearly did not belong. I laughed soundlessly for a second, doubting he’d last the whole class. I then experienced a moment of truth when I realized it was me. I was staring at myself in cruel judgment. Now that’s enlightenment!
I spent the next 30 minutes breathing and stretching, calming my mind, and opening my thoughts. I did the Upward Facing Dog and the Easy Camel poses. Then there was the Table, Right Bend, and Easy Boat poses.
I found I mostly like the poses with the word “easy” in them, where I could sit, or even better, lie down. I had a bit of trouble with the Right Triangle pose, where I had to touch my toes, and the Tree pose. Who knew standing on one foot could be so difficult?
As feared, I didn’t make it through the whole class, enduring injury and embarrassment from a weird pop of my knee during a Half-side Plank pose. It was funny at first, even the kids laughed. But I limped away to the sympathy of everyone, especially the woman whose name I couldn’t remember. I quietly offered my apologies and an explanation just loud enough for most to hear: “Old football injury,” and escaped.
Outside, I took several deep, cleansing breaths, clearing my mind before deciding that what I had to do next was get a nice big latte. Namaste.