I've been practicing yoga consistently for eleven years, but I have not been able to make myself go lately. Part of it may be that much of the time and energy I devote to exercise has been funneled to Crossfit, but in the past I have combined yoga with weight lifting, running and Pilates, and sometimes all three. My reluctance, I think, has more to do with a loss of faith.
This loss of faith isn't limited to yoga; I haven't been to the dentist, for instance, since last May. All the things people have assured me are good for me are getting a critical look. The more extravagant the claims and the more slavish my devotion, the more pissed off I am that in the moment of crisis they failed me. With yoga, the fact that it is a spiritual system that we in America have transformed into an exercise regimen complicates my attempt to manage my expectations. I realized years ago that yoga isn't church. It can be a community, but it can't be a substitute for other close relationships. It also doesn't make me thin, and I will never be able to do the splits.
Which leads to the inevitable question: what, exactly, is yoga for?
In the beginning it was because my back hurt. That was all. Doing yoga made my back hurt less. But most people I know who do yoga have at least some spiritual yearning or they would get a sports massage instead. For four years I gleaned a Sanskrit word here and there, embracing the tenets unsystematically and uncritically, but then Jasper was born and I experienced my first flat-out rebellion against an aspect of yoga.
After an hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous activity, most yoga classes end with a few minutes of savasana, otherwise known as corpse pose. To the uninitiated it looks like everyone in the class is resting or asleep on their back, and maybe they are, but there's supposed to be more to it than that. One of my more thoughtful teachers spoke very poetically about it when she said that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from the earth. Eventually, we have to give it back. In corpse pose we are supposed to meditate on this eventual surrender, otherwise known as death.
I always had trouble with corpse pose, though not because of the death part. I could never seem to get my mind to stop running over the grocery list or planning what I was going to make for dinner. I couldn't stop thinking about what a passive-aggressive bitch my boss was, or the lamp I saw at the antique store.
After a year or two, in the spirit of self-acceptance, I stopped trying to quiet my mind, or meditate. Sometimes my mind would be quiet, sometimes it refused. I went along with whatever it did.
Once I had Jasper, though, I rejected savasana categorically. No matter what the asana required, I would not relinquish what I had here on earth, even in my imagination. I would not give it back. No fucking way. I was alive and I had a baby and I had to stay alive and he had to stay alive and there would be no surrender of any kind. Surrender was for holier people than I. It was for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Dalai Lama. But I said no.
Instead of planning my day or thinking about my last phone conversation with my mother, I lay on my back, eyes closed, and actively resisted death for fifteen minutes. Every yoga class for at least two years ended with this same battle. It was not relaxing, but I couldn't stop my vigilance. If I relaxed, I felt, death might find an opening, and there was no way I was letting it get in.
Death slipped in anyway, because it does.
When I got pregnant with Balthazar I went to my regular yoga class through the first trimester, but once I could no longer do upward facing dog I switched to prenatal yoga.
The only prenatal yoga class that was offered in my area was taught by a small, dark-haired woman who wore striped knee socks. She had two young boys and was extremely chipper. Chipper people, through no fault of their own, make me nervous.
Each class began with a "check in." We went around the room and spoke a little about how we were doing. This went on for forty-five minutes, because sometimes there were twenty women in the class. The class was an hour and a half. Sitting for that long was very uncomfortable for me. Maybe that's what made me so cranky.
When it was my turn, I will admit I often complained. I complained that my hips ached. I complained that I couldn't sleep. Prenatal yoga pretends to be sympathetic but looks askance at this kind of attitude. It's like Sheryl Sandberg wanting to have consciousness raising groups about women and the workplace but only wanting to hear positive stories. A lot of the other women complained, too, but then they always covered with a self-deprecating laugh, as if to say, silly me, don't listen to me!
I did not emit any self-deprecating laughs.
I tried to engage the teacher I disliked, though from the outside my “trying to engage” might look a lot like “standing disdainfully aloof.” I talked to her about the book Poser, which I had enjoyed. But she always made me feel that I was doing everything wrong. She hated the Baby Bjorn, which I said I was going to use because I already had one. There's a new carrier now, the only acceptable carrier, and she made it sound like if I didn't get it my baby would be a hunchback. And I told her that because of my age I was going to be induced at thirty-nine weeks. Prenatal yoga teachers are very opposed to induction, and if I had been younger or if it had been my first pregnancy I might have felt guilty. Instead I just thought she was a doctrinaire jerk.
Once I broke down crying during the check in, talking about Jasper.
"He's been a fantastically indulged child," I sobbed. "I'm scared about what the new baby will bring to my relationship with him."
Maybe the yoga teacher thought that by fantastically indulged I meant that I had bought him too many Legos. Maybe you'd have to know me and my child better to know that I meant lavished with time and attention and affection. I thought that was at least implied, but she just looked at me like she didn't understand what the hell I was saying. I got that look a lot.
It felt fatuous to me, this pretense that we were all friends, all supporting each other, when in reality we just happened to be gestating at approximately the same time. Women appeared, and disappeared. Some smiled at me or exchanged a remark or two before or after class, but mostly not. Sometimes I heard that someone had had her baby, and upon hearing her name I struggled to remember which one she was.
On April 2, my 41st birthday, I went to prenatal yoga and told all of my faux companions in pregnancy that I was worried. Balthazar wasn't moving very much. I would have said he wasn't moving at all, except I was having Braxton-Hicks contractions and I falsely thought it was Balthazar's bottom pressing toward the front of my belly. My chipper teacher reassured me that everything was fine, that babies move less when they move down into the birth canal as they prepare to be born. "I wish I had a Doppler at home so I could check on him," I said apologetically and everyone laughed.
Afterward I sent her an email on Facebook telling her what had happened. I tried very hard, and I think mostly succeeded, in making it non-accusatory. She didn't email back.
It isn't fair to judge yoga on the basis of this one prenatal yoga class. An argument could be made that it was my inability to connect with anyone that made the class a failure.
After Balthazar died, my long-term yoga teacher gave me a private class for free. Another one told me about a pelvic floor health workshop she thought I would benefit from. Another, who didn't even know what had happened, just saw me sitting in her class crying week after week, wrote me a very sweet note. I'm sure they would all say that yoga informs their compassion. Mostly I thought they were caring young women doing their best.
For a long time I was livid and imagined what I would say to the prenatal yoga teacher if I saw her at New Seasons market. Then, when I calmed down, I realized what had probably happened.
I got an email from her last week which confirmed my suspicions. Someone had recently told her that Facebook accounts have a second, spam email folder and that she should check it. She found my email in there. Her condolences were perfectly correct eleven months after the fact. Blame poor communication, maybe, not yoga. But I do blame yoga, not for the death itself, but for its part in the whole shitty experience. For the way that class made me feel so alone even when my baby was alive.
Yoga, like any other spiritual system, is an attempt to engage with the fact of death. Is it yoga's fault that I am a poor student? The asana tried to teach me, and I refused to learn.
I know I can't categorically reject yoga anymore than I can permanently reject dentistry, because rejecting what frightens or angers you doesn't keep you safe. Some time in the future there will be a more comprehensive engagement with the texts. There will be conversations with other yogis, more breath and movement and meditation. I will do savasana again. But this is not the season. Until I feel ready I will have to peacefully relax into not doing yoga.