For the first 28 years of my life, my body and I were polite acquaintances. We avoided each other if at all possible, like that neighbor you’re forced to smile and nod at when you accidentally make eye contact. So it was with me and the fleshy vessel struggling to lug me around. Exercise was obviously out of the question, with the sweating and panting and myriad other discomforts that accompany it—not to mention my resolute fear of people seeing how horribly uncoordinated I am.
That distaste for movement spiraled far beyond hating gym class or sheepishly avoiding the dance floor; it made me into an almost entirely sedentary human. I could sit at my desk or in front of the TV for hours without a second thought. I mean really, that’s just being efficient: why waste a movement when you don’t have to?
It was a bout with months-long, extreme insomnia that finally forced me to admit efficiency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I tried pills, I tried different pills, I tried Badger Balm and Sleepytime Tea, I tried yet more pills. Nothing worked. (I also tried vodka, tequila, bourbon and a wide array of domestic and imported beers. Those were considerably more fun, but still not helpful.) Finally, my doctor suggested yoga. I laughed in her face. “That’s not really my thing,” I said, eyeing the exit. She wrote me another prescription and left me there in my paper dress.
I had been living in Los Angeles for three years. The mere thought of yoga seemed very “L.A.” to me, as did the image of perfectly willowy women stretching and bending their way to even better bodies. I had felt intensely out of place since moving to California from my native Oklahoma, and the idea of wandering into a yoga studio seemed like walking into the heart of the beast: everything I wasn’t would be proudly on display there. I’d be like Snooki attending a Miss Manners seminar.
Still, I needed sleep. My job performance was starting to suffer, both from the insomnia and my ill-advised attempts to cure it. (See above, re: tequila.) I sat on the couch with my laptop—multi-tasking while barely lifting a finger—and on a whim typed in “yoga Burbank.” The first result that popped up in the search engine was Yoga Blend, a small studio just a few blocks up the street from my apartment that just happened to be offering a free intro to yoga workshop that weekend. Point taken, universe—message received, loud and clear.
Come Sunday, stepping through Yoga Blend’s storefront door was a little like clambering through a wardrobe into Narnia. Everything inside was completely foreign, but somehow tantalizing: soft sitar music coming from a stereo, the smell of deliciously relaxing essential oils wafting through the air, a beautiful painting of Ganesh hanging on the wall. I was a stranger in a strange land, but that was the point, I told myself. “Intro to yoga. You’re not supposed to know what’s going on.”
I removed my shoes, borrowed a mat and found an open spot on the floor. I suddenly wished I had done a better job shaving my legs. A few other brave souls filtered in, and we began. I smiled when I heard the Southern twang in the instructor Christy’s voice—she had moved here from Nashville and had just opened the studio the year before. I instantly felt a little more at home, despite myself. It helped that we hadn’t yet been asked to move.
First we learned about ujjayi pranayama, a deep breathing technique that felt like we were trying to imitate the sound of a seashell held to your ear. My lungs clearly didn’t know what to do with so much oxygen, after decades of sustained shallow breaths while maintaining a steady heartbeat to reruns of Friends. It was new and strange, but not in a bad way.
Next we began to do some light stretches. I was prepared to excuse myself and make a beeline for the door if necessary, shoes and car keys be damned. As I bent into a forward fold, I was surprised by how deep I was able to bend. Sure, my belly was in the way and my muscles were about as supple as the cracked vinyl on your grandma’s favorite lawn chair, but I was definitely folding forward. Okay, more like leaning forward. Christy advised us, “it’s not about reaching your forehead all the way to your knees; it’s about the intention.” And the intention felt good.
Moving through more poses, as we hit triangle I thought, “okay, now we’re doing yoga.” My brain was on overload trying to get all my limbs to do what they were supposed to: left arm up to the ceiling, right arm reaching to the floor, legs scissored straight but not locked—are they locked? And beyond form, there was the added pressure of trying not to fall over in a room full of strangers.
“Now go back to your ujjayi pranayama,” Christy’s gentle Tennessee twang told us. Oh, right. Breathe. I stood there in triangle pose, trying really hard to breathe in and out while blood flowed to places I’d been neglecting my entire life. My adversary and I were working together toward a common goal. Weird. I continued to mediate the détente between my brain and my body through warrior II, downward facing dog and my new best friend, child’s pose.
At the end of the workshop, I signed up for a 10-class series. I figured if I paid up front, I’d be more inclined to go back and get my money’s worth. But the next morning, I could barely walk. It was humiliating and hilarious at the same time; I hadn’t even broken a sweat, how could I possibly be so stiff and sore? Apparently this was the price for stretching muscles you’d never stretched before.
Undeterred, I bought my own yoga mat and went back to the studio for a real class. I was nervous to lose the safety net of the word “intro,” as though the veteran yogis might sniff me out and chase me into the Burbank streets with their disapproving looks. But miraculously, I discovered my yoga mat to be like my very own pink, rectangular fortress of solitude when I needed it to be. It gave me the freedom to focus on what I was doing and not worry about anyone else. Bad balance? Awkward form? Boob sweat? None of it mattered as long as I was on my mat.
After a few classes, my insomnia began to relent. I was learning how to release stress and how to find a peaceful place in my head. And I was shocked to learn that my body had a role to play. I stopped taking the sleeping pills, but these magic movements were curing much more than my sleepless nights. My heart had never felt so full, like it might burst with unadulterated gratitude. And my body felt completely new to me, too, at what seemed to be a molecular level. It felt like my blood cells were plumped up and full of oxygen. That, or I was mainlining dopamine, no chocolate required. As the months went on, friends began to comment that I was a new person. But really I felt like yoga had helped me become a whole person.
I know there are others out there, marooned on the sofa, trapped inside bodies that feel like strangers to them. Christy at Yoga Blend changed my life in one afternoon—and I would love nothing more than pay that experience forward… even if it’s just to help a timid beginner close her eyes, open her heart, and truly see the world of potential around her.
2012 Yoga Scholarship Essay
By: Chana Shwadlenak
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