In 1977 I was studying History and English in Dublin, attending Trinity College as a one-year American student. After being cast in a production where I played Sylvia Plath with two other women, one of whom would remain my friend for many years to follow, I saw a sign advertising a yoga class in one of the common rooms costing, I believe 50p. My Irish actress friend and I decided we would attend but first we would visit our favorite Pub and run some lines, drink hot sherry, smoke some cigarettes and eat some crisps (potato chips). Thus fortified we tumbled into a dim room where a candle was lit, something mystical was spinning on a record player and several people were in corpse pose. This we could do. Later we managed a few other poses except my friend attempted a standing backbend and landed on her head. Our teacher, a no-nonsense German, stood over my friend and suggested we not drink before yoga class. Afterwards, she reassured us, was fine. We were hooked.
Later that year I would wind a scarf around my head and attempt to levitate in what was billed a “Man-powered flight contest”. I ended up on the front cover of the Irish Times, my bottom securely anchored to the ground in a passable lotus. My bank manager, even the destitute in Ireland had bank managers, laminated the newspaper clipping and hung it in his window. I was a celebrity.
Thus it started, my lovely relationship with yoga. It has lasted through three husbands, countless jobs, many geographical alterations, moments of incredible joy and personal tragedies. When a drunk driver killed my sister in 1984 I didn’t eat for a long time. One day a friend persuaded me to attend a yoga class and when we were finished I discovered I was still breathing. I traveled to a Buddhist monastery in the Catskills for a weekend workshop and ended up moving in part-time for nearly two years. The Renzai Zen tradition was a harsh discipline. We sat Zazen for many hours in the Zendo and frequently rose at 4am to chant and sit and do work practice. But we also practiced yoga. It was Iyengar with references to skin sliding down bones and props to open and strengthen your body. My teacher sent me to see a famous Iyengar instructor in Manhattan who told me I had fat feet and implied I would be on his list of sexy students if I could drop more weight. “I love my fat feet,” I said, having recently returned from the near dead. I walked away and never returned. For me yoga meant acceptance, it meant non-judgment, it meant I was breathing and above all, safe.
In 1993 I was living in London, hugely pregnant and blissfully happy. The birth practice I was in specialized in water births and yoga practice for its mothers. It did not believe in Caesarians or pain medicine unless absolutely necessary. We did yoga twice a week, countless kegels, squats and various other things to build our strength and flexibility. I was in hard labor for 72 hours. My son, who had been turned in my stomach from a breech position, ended up in a bad place for a speedy birth, his back against my spine. Days passed in a blur of boredom, fear and anticipation; finally he was born with me standing up after a long epidural inspired nap. I was able to take a walk that evening, no tearing, not a single physical scar except the usual pregnancy related body issues. (Oh my God! Is that my body?) When the doctor asked me how I managed to last so long and recover so fast I said, “Yoga.”
We moved to Dallas from London and Texas was not a positive fit. I worked out hard with a trainer who listened to me complain about the shopping malls, driving everywhere, football and big hair. I was restless, lonely and discontent. I avoided Yoga like the plague afraid of confronting my own personal demons in a practice that forced me to see things as they were.
When we moved to Chicago my marriage was on thin ice, I had not published anything in ages and, just like Dallas, I knew no one. Within a year I was separated from my son’s father and facing my forties as a divorced mother who had two novels published, taught at several schools as an adjunct, and who felt like a huge failure. My son attended a child’s camp where there were yoga classes and I found myself back in a dimly lit room trying to quiet the voices in my head.
From that point, I stayed. Tracy taught so perfectly in her imperfection, her support, and her challenging sometimes really hard, sweaty classes. She had a sense of humor but she was dead serious. I went to yoga in the heat, the rain, the snow, after 9/11, after another break-up, when my novel was purchased for lots of money, and when the same publisher rejected the two that followed. I got divorced finally, remarried, my son became a teenager and did terrible things, my father became horribly depressed and twice a week (when possible) I picked up my mat and went to yoga. I remain a beginner in this sanctuary, I remain flawed and in need of adjustment. I remain humble and grateful for the flexibility and soft discipline of my teacher and yoga.