Remember around this time last summer when I published that handy guide on how to make it look like you’re exercising without actually having to do anything? Apparently I didn’t either, because I went to my first ever yoga class this week. (Not counting those trial classes of Bikram yoga I took three years ago. That was less about exercising and more about not dying from a heart attack, heat stroke, or the stifling stench of hipster B.O.)
Besides, this yoga class was free!
As it happens, I’m away for an opera gig for the next three weeks. One of the perks of this particular contract (apart from getting to stay in a fabulous estate on Martha’s Vineyard) is a free gym membership. So despite my hated of all things exercise, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Because honestly, the only thing I hate more than exercise is turning down free stuff.
I chose yoga class because I already own a mat with matching bag (both of which have been languishing in the trunk of my car for the last eight months) and I thought it was high time I got some use out of them. Also, because my only other option was to hop on an elliptical machine for an hour, which usually ends with me becoming so engrossed in watching my fellow gym-goers or a Maury Povich marathon on TV, that twenty minutes will go by before I realize my legs have stopped moving.
So I went to yoga. It had a fancier name, but I don’t remember what it was called. I only know of two types of yoga anyway: the unbearably hot, imminent death-inducing kind, and regular. This was regular yoga.
As expected, I fell down a lot.
The instructor’s name was Sian. Not Sean or Shawn, but SheAhn. She was lovely, and British and impossibly flexible with wild hair and lots of tattoos – the epitome of cool.
The way I see it, if your parents name you Sian, there are only two possible career paths open to you: yoga instructor or massage therapist…possibly a nutritionist or an herbalist or a life coach, but you’re for sure going to be working in the health and wellness sector.
Sian had us put our mats in a circle so we could make eye contact with one another, and so no one (namely me) could hide in the back.
I placed my mat next to an elderly woman we’ll call Agnes. I’d put Agnes at about eighty-three years old, roughly 5’7 and 160-170lbs. Compared to all the other toned, tanned, middle-aged women (and one dude) in the class, I felt my chances of looking like an idiot would be somewhat diminished if I sat next to someone who was both elderly and probably at least a little bit infirmed.
The class started and Agnes gave me an encouraging smile. I smiled back and before I knew it, I was ass-up in child’s pose, breathing loudly through my nose as per Sian’s instructions. I tried to quiet my mind and focus on my breath, but I couldn’t seem to shut off my inner monologue.
What the hell am I doing here? Everyone else looks like they’re a professional yogi and I’m wearing sweat pants and an old t-shirt. If I’m going to keep doing this, I should go to Lulu Lemon and buy some proper yoga clothes. I also should have gone to the bathroom on my way to class. I wonder if that hot guy will still be in the weight room when class is over? I’m really glad I remembered to put on make-up before I left the house. Man, I could go for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich right now. Oh crap, everyone else is standing up. Get up, you mouth-breathing mongoloid!
My inner monologue can be kind of a bitch sometimes.
On top of that, I kept getting distracted by the smears of make-up and sunscreen staining my pristine new mat. I tried to wipe them away as discreetly as possible, but I didn’t have a towel or anything, so the only cloth at my disposal was my black sweatpants, which was infinitely worse.
Note to self: Wearing zinc-based sunscreen and a full face of makeup to the gym was not your best idea ever.
As the class progressed it became increasingly clear I was out of my depth. I had to take a knee, or drop into child’s pose – the yogic equivalent thereof, several times. Sian was very understanding and encouraged everyone to work at their own pace, though for most people it meant contorting their bodies into even more frightening positions in order to ‘increase the stretch.’
When we got to side planks my arm was shaking so violently I fell down. Twice. As I lay panting on my still trembling forearm, I noticed Agnes’ arm was solid as a rock. A rock with a lot of underarm flab, perhaps, but a rock nonetheless. I couldn’t help but be impressed and I silently cheered her on as I hoisted myself back up and moved into downward dog pose.
Then Sian instructed us to move into three-legged dog, which is basically regular downward dog with one leg in the air, knee bent like you’re about to take a leak on a giant invisible fire hydrant. Feel the stretch as the hip joint opens. But all I felt was hot, tired, and a little bit ridiculous. There we were, an entire room of adult women (and one dude) bent over with their legs in the air. I wondered idly if three-legged dog was a real yoga pose at all and not just some inside joke known only to yoga instructors that they trot out whenever class starts to get dull.
My musings were put to an abrupt end when Sian moved from three-legged dog to standing split, which looks exactly like it sounds – one leg straight on the ground, while the other is stuck straight up in the air…or hanging limping at an eighty-degree angle if you’re me.
Agnes couldn’t do it either.
We moved on to some standing poses after that and my confidence grew. It’s a lot harder to fall down with both feet on the ground.
I was bent over in a wide stance, my finger tips barely touching my mat and my head hanging between my legs, giving me a clear (though upside down) view of Agnes, who was in the same position except her head and forearms were resting gently on the floor. I watched in horror as she braced her arms beside her head and slowly lifted her legs into the air until she was standing on her head. THEN rather than falling to her knees to come out of it like a normal person, she flipped her legs in the other direction, dropping into a back bend.
Bitch did a headstand AND a back bend! At eighty-three! I can’t even touch my toes! While I was hunched over on my mat in a sloppy semblance of child’s pose, head turned to the side so as not to drown in a pool of my own sunscreen-tinted sweat, there was Agnes, upside down, smirking at me, like the back-stabbing bitch that she is.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so betrayed.
I left class in a bit of a snit that day. But I was determined to go back and show that Agnes a thing or two. So the next morning I dragged myself out of bed and, despite the fact that all of my muscles were screaming in pain, I made my way to class.
This was a different type of yoga. I think it was called Kripalu, which, roughly translated, means you will walk with a limp tomorrow.
The instructor for this class was a woman named Jennifer. Her teaching style was very different from Sian’s. Where Sian was badass, Jennifer was gentle. In Sian’s class the music ranged from Tuvan throat singing to “Purple Rain” while Jennifer seemed to prefer mostly repetitive, new age, chant-like tunes.
Jennifer’s class, while by no means easy, was definitely more my speed. Which is to say, slow. I fell down a lot less in her class. Make no mistake; I still fell down during side planks, just not quite as often.
Agnes wasn’t in this class so I couldn’t flaunt my vast improvements, which was a shame.
Even without Agnes the showoff, there were still plenty of opportunities for me to feel ridiculous in class. For instance, Jennifer had us do this weird breathing exercise where you take a deep breath and on the exhalation you stick your tongue out and open your eyes really wide. She called it a lion’s breath.
I call it a Gene Simmons.
Then she gave us five minutes of free play at the end of class, or as she explained it, time to explore the ways in which your body wants to move. Then we took a ten-minute shavasana. (Which, for all you non-yoga folks, basically means naptime.) I felt like I was in kindergarten again. It was pretty awesome.
I still think I prefer Sian’s class though. She’s much more straightforward. Apart from letting us know which pose came next and how to move your body to get into said pose, Sian didn’t talk much. Sometimes she would get us into a pose and leave the room for a few minutes, whereas Jennifer gave almost nonstop encouragement and instruction. Things like…
Let’s be in conversation with our hamstrings.
Explore and honor each life-giving breath.
Allow your mind to focus on the space between the thoughts.
She also had an annoying habit of describing the various poses without using any articles or pronouns.
Head floats above shoulders. Shoulders float above hips. Hands press to earth.
How am I supposed to talk to my hamstrings, honor my breath and focus on the space between my thoughts when I can’t stop mentally correcting her grammar?
This is why I don’t think I’ll ever be good at yoga. I really do want to become stronger and more flexible, but I fear the spiritual aspect may be beyond my reach. For me, turning off the mind and observing without judgment is even harder than side planks.
I’ll try again tomorrow though. I’m far too stubborn to let an improbably flexible octogenarian or an undisciplined mind get the better of me. Well, that, and it’s free.