I hurt my back a couple of years ago and was out of aikido, my usual exercise. So I took a yoga class, as soon as I could sort of walk again. Believe me, there may be malingerers out there, but back pain is massively incapacitating. I got tired of crawling around my house and wanted more (or less) than a surgical solution. Steroids got me on my feet again. But clearly, my back was now damaged. Permanently. So I found a yoga class. And an instructor who is kindness itself. Or so I thought until we got to the end of the first class.
There we are, lying on our backs on the floor. Those of us with bad backs have our knees bent, others are flat down. Let me first explain that although I think of myself as non-competitive, I am. So all class I have been struggling to keep up and worried about not doing whatever as well as the woman next to me. So now I am reduced to competitively relaxing.
“Relax your toes,” David intones. I flex and then relax my toes. By the time I’ve finished, he’s up to the knees. Trying to stay relaxed, I race to catch up. This isn’t competition, I remind myself. It is, indeed, the very opposite. It is supposed to be the very opposite. By now he is telling us “walk your attention up our spine.” My mat is sticky. The room is hot. I don’t like the smell. I am not relaxing. The person next to me breathes elaborately slowly, noisily. My attention is not walking up my spine.
“Now let go your personality muscles,” the instructor goes on. I’ve missed the neck and shoulders, so I struggle to relax my face: mouth slackens. Years of smiling fall away. Words dribble out of the softened lips. My crow’s feet fly away, laugh crinkles melt back into the flesh of my face. Personality, character drain into the floor, leaving me plain. Mother lines, wife lines, grief, fear, intelligence all go. I sigh out a deep breath, imagining my face null, my life gone from it. Terror grips me, but I no longer have a face to register it. I lay there, blissfully outside myself. For a moment
David’s intrudes softly over the breathing of my neighbor as he tells us to wiggle our toes and feet. To imagine energy coming back into our bodies. “Listen to the sounds in the room.” My neighbor’s stenotic breathing. “And the sounds outside.” A dog barks somewhere. It is raining. “When you are ready, open your eyes.” Open them? That would mean using those muscles I’ve let go. It would bring back my crow’s feet. Deep breath. Open my eyes. Return from the oblivion of deep relaxation. I roll over, tuck my legs up under me and stand, relaxed. Not sure I want my personality back. Maybe I could get another one? What happens to them as we relax? For a moment I imagine David shuffling them among the people lying on their mats, oblivious. But he calls my name and says goodnight, so I am fairly sure I am still myself. I look in the mirror. Yep, my crow’s feet, my worry lines. But more relaxed. I walk out into the rain.