My first yoga class was in the NYU gym. I was 18 and on the bagel, pizza and cereal diet of a student. Holistic wellness wasn’t necessarily on my radar and I went to class mostly because I wanted a bohemian experience that would fuel my assumed New York artiste persona. That was the same year I pierced my ear, wore yellow tinted glasses, and sported a beret on occasion. Yoga was to be another fashionable accessory.
In my spectacularly unfit shape, I got totally confused by a barrage of Sanskrit, strange movement, and a sweet teacher winning a losing battle with the cacophony of clanging weights, basketball dribbles, swimming pool echoes and cardio kickboxing classes outside. But something felt right. My friends (many of whom still have yoga in their lives) and I continued. One friend had the unique experience of taking a yoga class all semester for university credit. She described her teacher as ‘older than the earth, and containing all its wisdom’ and frequently spouting such terrors as: ‘after holding this pose for many breaths in class today, you may tonight experience violent nightmares.’ I had no idea what that meant, but I appreciated its drama.
Eventually, I learned a few of the Sanskrit phrases, and could keep up with the pace of the class. I moved on to a dedicated yoga studio in Union Square, where a more experienced teacher started to teach me how to use my body to find its own individual way into the poses. I would recruit friends, one of whom unceremoniously fell on to me during an ill-fated handstand attempt. Yoga even appeared in my writing and acting classes with a professor taking us through their own version of a yoga warm up followed by a melodramatic anecdote like ‘[insert famous award winning playwright] cannot write anything unless she does her yoga in the morning.’ But I believed then and still do that taking the time to come into the body and the breath is a prerequisite to creativity.
By the time I finished my degree, I had shed the earring, the yellow glasses and most of the poor fashion choices, but yoga held on. Even though I was still clumsy, inflexible, and weak, I knew that in its own mysterious way, the combination of posture and breath connected me to an energy and presence that was helping me have the courage and conviction to find my way through my then terrifying 20’s.
There were years when I didn’t practice yoga, and there were years where it was all I did. I was frequently the ‘guy in red, lift those arms up, what are you doing?!’ in class, chided by the teacher. I heard about twenty different opinions on how to work with my tight hamstrings, sometimes with conflicting opinions coming from the same teacher. Practicing inversions a bit too keenly at a mirrored wall, I left a heel shaped glass shatter for posterity. For years I had no idea what I was doing and came nowhere near any ‘full expression’ of a pose (whatever that really means). But I never let myself care too much about what I was supposed to be doing, and stayed focused on what I was feeling and how each class and each teacher contributed to a more joyful and productive expression of my life. For it’s life that matters, not being able to get your foot behind your head. Let’s make that a sutra.
As a beginner, it’s important to remember, to quote Dorothy Fields, ‘it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.’ We’ve all had to begin somewhere, usually far far away from any mystical finish line. And the paradoxical thing is, you never finish. As you reach your maximum in a pose, your body or your life changes. Just when you think you’ve answered all the questions, the questions change. Take the long view, be patient, and let the practice and all its joys, mysteries, embarrassments, laughter, challenges, and comforts reveal itself with each class, each practice and each year. We’ve only just begun.