Look. I get it. I’m built like a fire hydrant. I’m not meant to bend; I’m more prone to break.
I’m not meant to say words like namaste without following it up with a giggle. But it’s not like it’s entire foreign to me either. My wife has been doing yoga for years. I’d done yoga three times in my entire life before I got to this point. I’m terrible at it. I know it. Everyone around me knows it. My entire body screams at me to stop what I’m doing immediately or it will revolt and start skunk spraying everyone within a 10 ft radius. That’s never happened. But we’ve been in some perilous poses and times have gotten tight.
But yoga, at least in my mind, is not without some bright spots. My favorite pose of all time is something called Savasana. If you’ve been to a yoga class before, this is the one they do at the end. It’s sometimes called the corpse pose. It’s like lying down in that it’s absolutely just lying down. In a similar vein, it’s like napping in that it’s damn near napping. Child’s pose is cool too. I call it the fetal position, but look, if they want to call it something else that makes it seem artful, I’m all for that. The last time I took a shot to the bangers and mash, I “evolved into child’s pose.” Doesn’t that sound so elegant compared to I crumpled into submission asking my 3 year old why again we found ourselves here. Whoever taught my turd of a child that trick will rot in hell next to the guy who invented car sirens in radio ads and the TSA.
This one actually does a whole lot of good. Honestly.
And believe me, until last year, I struggled to clip my own toenails based on my natural range of motion. I’m terrible at this practice. It’s peaceful but disorienting. Nothing feels normal, everything feels out of balance and off kilter. I sweat more than I should (e.g. fat guy syndrome) but I don’t smell. Ask my wife; it confounds her every time. It doesn’t help that she smells like a goat twelve minutes after every shower. She’ll admit that to you readily. I look like I should should smell like her and she looks like she should smell like me. It’s the yin and the yang.
I think I would be lying to you if I didn’t disclose this up front. This particular experience terrified me. I certainly knew I could make it through a 60 minute hot yoga class. And I knew that my wife was absolutely going to attend this event and delightedly soak up my frustration and failure. Isn’t marriage just the best! Where else can you delight in the wretched suffering of another and still love them deeply enough to want to touch their gibbley bits?
The heat should feel like a deterrent but it’s really not:
And look, I love heat. I revel in it. I moved away from Nashville because I got so tired of the cold during the winter months. Also the grey skies and constant soul crushing traffic. But, I was born to love heat and came by it honestly. I was born in Alabama and lived there until I was old enough to move away and then promptly moved from one side of the state to the other, hotter side. Summer in Alabama can be described as a gnat ridden hellscape of brown grass and red clay. The air didn’t move in my little hometown. It had been built into the Tennessee Valley with the foothills of the Appalachins rising on all sides. And when I say the breeze didn’t blow; brother, the leaves on the trees fell on their own at the end of each season from the sheer exhaustion of having endured an Alabama summer. If you weren’t sweaty the moment you stepped into the sun, you weren’t human and somebody needed to check on you.
I knew going in I wasn’t going to be able to get into certain poses and certainly wasn’t going to be able to maintain others. But I’ll be goddamned if I couldn’t handle downward dog and warrior two. I think in my mind the first downward dog would be the same as the last. As a now experienced practitioner of silently crying to myself during a hot yoga workout, I can tell you without hesitation that the difference between round one and round ten is a whole lot. It’s an entirely different universe.
My first hot yoga class ever was led by a bubbly blonde woman named Libby or Susan or some otherwise innocuous name that belied her sinister nature and deeply held belief in sadism. In my class were four women and three men. One of the women was my wife. There was the instructor and her husband. There was another young couple who didn’t make a sound the entire time. I did not care for them because neither seemed to sweat or breathe hard. If you’re showing off in a hot yoga class, chances are you eat pizza with a fork. And that’s communist.
The remaining two women moved their mats a respectful distance from me when I asked them to be patient with me as I was a beginner and had eaten thai for lunch. They didn’t think it was funny. I was just making small talk but I have that effect on people some times. I overshare when I’m nervous. Anyway, I was directly up against the mirrored wall where everyone checks their poses while in their flow. It was the worst possible space for me. I was now at the center of everyone’s vision at least half of the time. It seemingly could not get worse.
The outside temperature when we arrived was a balmy 39 degrees. In the Florida Panhandle, that is unusual and frankly a bit scary. But when you’re staring down the barrel of equatorial twister, it’s a gift from above. And so before entering the studio, I breathed deep knowing that I might not feel anything like air conditioning for many hours. When I stepped inside, the room was warmly lit and contained many racks of flowy, earth toned clothes for sale at outrageous prices. There were an overabundance of smooth river rocks with peaceful sayings chiseled into the stone. And directly behind the cashier stood a glass door already sweating profusely. Behind it lay the gaping maw of hell’s foyer. All that to say that this was definitely not the place for me.
My initial reaction upon opening the door was a prolonged gutteral utterance. The first wave of heat hit me directly in the face and forced me to consider that maybe I’d overextended myself by agreeing to do this in front of people who have vivid memories or children. But my wife had promised me something special at the end of this experiment and who I am to steal her joy. The special thing I had been promised turned out to be “the joy of a new experience.” We didn’t talk for several hours after I realized she wasn’t kidding.
We spent several minutes gathering supplies for this hour long event. First we needed a mat. Having done yoga a few times before, I correctly identified the mats available for beginners to use free of charge. I wondered if perhaps I could stack several mats one on top of the others to create a more comfortable environment for the pain that was to come. I was told that stacking mats could lead to a slips during aggressive positions and that I would want to have a more firm contact with the floor to prevent said slippage. I instantly understood that she was now somewhat afraid that I was going to embarrass her in front of her yoga buddies and that she was rethinking the entire exercise of bringing me into her world. I couldn’t blame her. I was at least 50 pounds heavier than anyone else in the room and looked roughly 1/3rd as athletic as my next nearest competitor. Turns out I was on the high side in my estimation as to one and on the low side as to the other. I’ll let you guess which was which.
After gathering my mat (singular; against my will), I was told to gather two yoga blocks. Yoga blocks are made from a very stiff foam. They feel supple but firm. What I don’t get from them is a feeling of stability. They are childrens building blocks. There is nothing about them that screams “I will support you while you hover above me, off balance, and wet from head to toe with sweat.” Rather, they scream “I cannot wait to betray your wrists at my very first opportunity. I hope you have an orthopedic surgeon on speed dial.” But, all that aside, they are miles better than just not being able to touch the ground at all when you find yourself in a painful miasma of complex body movements. I also want to tell you that even during the warm up I had created my own humidity levels in that room. If you go, and I’m going to suggest that you do, do not under any circumstances wear a grey shirt. You cannot hide perspiration in a grey t-shirt. And as I live and breathe, you certainly cannot hide your Flashdance inspired performance on the mat. It’s not happening. You just have to swing through it.
The last thing I needed before we began was a bolster. Which is really just a body pillow masquerading as a tool of the trade. It’s useful though. Especially when you get to the end of this program and enter into Savasana. Remember me mentioning corpse pose above? That’s Savasana. It’s a fancy word for very nearly almost passed out. And the bolster is really just a pillow to lay your sweaty, exhausted and extremely wet head on so as not to completely faint when the experience is over.
I’d like to break right here and tell you the story of a guy named Buckethead. His real name is Micheal and he’s a hell of a nice guy. But his mouth and brain never once got in sync. When Buckethead and I were still young men and competing in high school sports, he made the mistake of running his mouth to the then head cheerleader in my high school about how our workouts (lifting weights) and their workouts (some form of jazzercise or body pump or something close) were in no way shape or form alike. He continued at it until the rest of our team had the urge to beat him to death with his own arms. Mercifully, the head cheerleader, let it slide and walked away with a smile on her face. We didn’t need a battle of the sexes. At that point, any male member of my high school class was not looking to ruin our collective chances with any female member of the same class by claiming any moral or physical superiority. If anything, we were supplicant rather than preening peacocks. We knew the path to paradise lay in shutting up. Bucket apparently did not.
Peace lasted a mere 24 hours. The cheerleaders were preparing to work out as the members of the football team dressed for practice below. They knew we gawked at them while they stretched. I think maybe they liked it a little. There was certainly no hiding the effect they had on us. But they also knew we wouldn’t refuse a chance to be close to them during these moments and so they set the hook. A few called out to our team as we headed onto the field; “Why don’t y’all join us tomorrow for a workout? It can be a warm up to practice and you won’t need to stretch when you get on the field.” Made sense at the time. Get close to beautiful women and get stretching done at the same time. Cool. We’ll talk to the coaches. And so we did. And the coaches laughed and laughed and laughed. Some of them were married and knew just how badly we had been had. Some had been divorced and knew even more acutely how badly we’d been had. And so they agreed. What came next was a hell I never want to experience again. We were shanghaied in a way I won’t likely ever forget. The entire school came to watch our shame. And after, as we laid in giant puddles of sweat while our feminine friends touched up their make up and wiped the glow off their foreheads, we as a collective group understood the power of a woman to make a man do stupid things for the half promise of a pay off down the road. I’ve been had that way many times since, so I’m scarred but smarter.
The second time I got crabs, I mean was bamboozled in this way, was New Year’s Eve 2013. I was set to run a 5k the next morning and had found some level of physicality that I had been missing for at least a decade. I had been running consistently for a while and was prepared to get up and run that race like the clydesdale that I am. My wife had been after me for some time to try an experience called Bodypump at our local YMCA. She’d been going for at least a year and enjoyed it immensely. I’d stumble by after pretending to lift weights for an hour and would see her lifting no more than 30 pounds at a time and stepping on and off a tiny little platform repeatedly. I had held my skepticism at bay because 1) I wasn’t looking for a fight; and 2) she was in incredible shape.
So you’ll know, my wife is not a runner. She has run before and not because something was chasing her. She ran a half marathon with me and counts it as the single greatest athletic accomplishment of her entire life. And frankly, I kind of understand from her perspective. She’s got a runner’s body with coltish long legs. But her spirit is that of an offensive guard. Good for explosive bursts of energy in the short term and a huge butt. I’m kidding about the butt. It’s extremely normal size. If you’re Larry Allen. (Extremely Tamatoa voice: “Look it up!”). I can’t remember why, but I asked if she’d like to run the 5k with me. Knowing it would be cold and early, I doubted seriously that she would join me. But to my shock she said sure, so long as I would do body pump with her the day before. I was trying to lose weight anyway so how bad could an hour really be when it consisted of lifting 30 pounds and stepping up and down 6 inches repeatedly.
It was hell. It was such hell that I quit in the middle and just sat in place and stared at all the women around me doing things so effortlessly that my body simply refused to even consider. I’ve been taught the lesson of hubris many times in many different ways. This was the one I remember most. I hadn’t even really opened my mouth to bring karma shrieking down upon me. I had simply watched fluid movement and assumed it was for the weak of heart or those with a predisposition towards estrogen. I was wrong. Lord I was wrong.
I made it home that morning with some modicum of dignity intact. My wife had been so busy paying attention to her own workout that she barely noticed me praying silently for death in the corner of a room. When the class was over, my body was still warm enough to puddle myself into the car and drive us home. I could feel the lactic acid building in every cell of my body. I knew what came next would neither be pretty nor easy. We arrived home and I struggled upstairs to shower repeatedly in the hopes that my sweat glands would arrive at the conclusion that they didn’t have to entirely empty my body of water. Once I had finally cooled down, I struggled downstairs and turned on the television where I intended to stay put for as long as I could before I had to pee. Fate arrived in the form of a doorbell ringing about an hour later. I knew I was in real trouble when my body refused to react in any way to the signals my brain was sending. I’d send the signal to lean forward and my back simply replied “Nah.” I’d try to move my arms and they didn’t even bother with a response. I had a race to run the next morning and I was more likely to wake up a woman than I was to complete this run.
It took me the better part of 10 minutes to navigate my way to the door; cursing my stupidity and hubris the entire time. I wasn’t expecting visitors and I was not in any place to receive gentleman callers. I also understood that whoever had rung the doorbell was certainly gone by the time I arrived shuffling like an old man wearing slippers made of concrete. What confronted me when I finally opened the door was the stuff of nightmares. Not a person at all. Just a small package. Laying on my welcome mat. Dropped off by the UPS man. 1000 miles away from the place my current range of motion would allow me to reach. I left it there and negotiated with my body to get myself back to the couch. I detoured on my way and made it into the bed where I stayed for the next approximately 18 hours. That was the second biggest mistake I made all day.
When I woke up the next morning, I immediately knew something was wrong when I felt the urge to pee but my head wouldn’t lift off the pillow. None of my body worked. Not one single muscle worked in concert with any other. Everything that should have been fluid like a stream was more similar to a whitewater rapid. I didn’t fall out of bed so to speak. I simply dragged a foot behind me to the toilet. I stretched for an hour before going to run the race and finished in a respectable time; I mean respectable if I had a neurological disorder. But I finished. And I went home. And after arriving home, my wife said “you know what would make you feel better…yoga.” Fuck. We went the next day and I laid in Savasana for an hour while my wife chuckled under the breath.
And so here I am, sitting in this sweat box preparing to begin a series of movements my body has not yet heretofore been coaxed into performing. I was nervous. I was sweaty. I was fat. And nothing was going to change any of those things until I got into the heart of this endeavor. And so we began. Our instructor began by asking us to find our heart center and lifting our hearts to the moon. She asked us to consider the moon and how it shone light into the dark. She asked us to focus our breathing through our navel. She asked me to make less noise while breathing as it had only been a few minutes and people were already concerned. It was a heaping helping of hippie granola bullshit.
What came next was a series of movements that were so unnatural to me that I felt out of balance the entire time. I watched helplessly as lithe bodies shifted in and out position with no hesitation. It was as though the other members of the class had practiced fluidity and had understood intuitively that weight could be shifted with little or no resistance from gravity or fear. I, on the other hand, was not prepossessed with such confidence or grace. I lumbered. I hopped. I chatarunga’d as best I could. And I never once felt in control of my body, my breathing or my practice. What I did have was several moments of solitude in my own head. And that I would have paid for that bit of quiet over and over again. What I can tell you for certain is that my day before this class was one of the worst in my career. I won’t bore you with the specifics, but rest assured I had way more on my mind that just being aware of my breath.
But in the middle, zen appeared. I didn’t have time to think about the office or any of my other side projects. What I concerned myself with was just not dying. Or falling. Or farting. Or any of the other ways my body was prone to fail me. I never once considered payroll or whether a certain client had paid their bill. I was unable to fit that much worry in my head as I contorted and breathed and lived. I wasn’t happy. I don’t know that yoga is about happiness. It isn’t to me yet. I’m not good enough to find joy in my physical failures. I was satisfied that I’d shown up and let my body take over and shut my brain off for a while. That’s hard to do as a business owner and entrepreneur. I enjoyed the silence I suppose. I even enjoyed the little wins of seeing my body get into a position that looked remotely like what everyone else was doing.
I learned to use my blocks and bolster. I learned to discreetly breathe heavily into my armpit when things got particularly difficult. I even learned to be still when the moment called for stillness. And I listened. Everyone else in the class was struggling in their own way. Some with getting into the moment. Others with maintaining a particularly taxing position for a long period. Everyone brought something into that room that they wanted to set aside for an hour. Mine was fear and shame. No one laughed at me that I could see or hear. I’m not sure anyone even noticed that I was there after the first 2 minutes. In fact, the instructor corrected me less than anyone else in the rest of the class. I’m sure she had given up on me before we started so I’m not counting that as a win.
And I know something about myself now that I don’t think I had a good read on before. I enjoy the physical discomfort of trying to get my body into those pretzel like positions. And I really truly suck at it. Too many beer and pizzas have robbed me of any hope of getting into warrior three with any degree of grace. But I can get better. And maybe that’s why they call it a practice. It’s a way to have something you can never hope to attain perfection in at all. It’s a simple recognition that the body is better when it moves. And the brain is better when it rests. I needed that moment of clarity in that room. I don’t know that the heat did anything extraordinary other than make my heart work extra hard. But I felt like I had worked out hard when it was over. I laid in Savasana and didn’t pray for the sweet release of death in the way that I had thought I might. I was at peace. It didn’t take long for the thoughts to come back in. But for an hour, all was quiet in my head. I’ve spent way too much over the years looking for that kind of calm. Turns out, the easiest path was to sit still and let it find me. The light in me recognizes the light in you. Namaste. Assholes.