In celebration of National Yoga Month, enjoy a beautiful article by my sister and writer, Mikaela Ann Conley.
Thank you, Kae. You find words for speechless moments.
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I started practicing yoga during a time in my life that I like to call the Dark Abyss. It was the age-old story: a man shattered my heart and I’d return to him. Again. And again. And again. It took years to untangle myself from it all, from the pieces of glass that surrounded me, the pieces that drew blood.
I’d call my older sister on the bad days. Drained again, alone again, lost again. And she’d listen to my woes. Sitting, advising, becoming frustrated at times, listening some more.
Between all the advice and guidance, she’d always sprinkle in one sentence: “You should go to yoga.” She was learning to become a yoga instructor, and she promised it’d change my life.
Yeah, maybe, I’d say, brushing her suggestions aside. My past life as a gymnast had faded away, and my flexibility went along with it. We had always been a family of runners. And, so I’d run. And run and run.
You should do yoga, she kept saying. Day after day, she added those four little words to whatever conversation we were having. Over the phone, via email and Gchat, at dinner.
I gave in. The effort was more to quiet my sister than to pursue any sort of curiosity I had about the exercise. I Yelped the closest yoga studio to my apartment, bought a yoga mat at TJMaxx and went on a whim one Saturday in May.
I positioned my mat at the back of the room, where I felt the fewest number of people could watch me embarrass myself. Men and women stretched, sat quietly, bended and twisted in ways I had never seen. The class hadn’t even started and I was already embarrassed.
The women on either side of me were as still as glass as they paused in different poses. They were ballerinas. They had to be. Straight from Nutcracker rehearsal and just stopping in for a yoga class in their Brooklyn neighborhood, I concluded.
The music began. The instructor, muscly and bendy and seemingly walking on a floor that was bouncier than the one I was on, told us to quiet our minds. I tried. There was no quieting. I thought about the usual things that raced through. In fact, telling me to quiet it almost seemed to make it louder. Work, life, food, friends, laundry, family, this relationship, relationship, RELATIONSHIP. THIS RELATIONSHIP.
Uh, that’s not what is supposed to be going on here.
I tried again. I was now in Downward Dog, and blood was rushing to my head. We were then in Cobra and moving through a Vinyasa. I was standing in Warrior position and my arms burned. Oh, they burned.
All I’m doing is holding my arms up. This is pathetic.
As if the yoga instructor walking on a cloud could hear the ticker in my mind, she reminded us to be patient with our bodies, to be mindful and feel the blood flow through us.
I began to shake—a telltale sign of a rookie who is out of shape. I run every day. How is this happening?
The shaking became ridiculous as we moved on to Standing Splits and Half Moon. But I was determined to hold the positions, to prove to myself I could do it like everyone else. My mind began to wander. I started thinking about my shattered heart again: I’m such a cliché, I thought. But then I lost my balance and nearly fell to the floor.
Focus. It’s the only way to get through this godforsaken class. I had to concentrate on what was happening in my body, to focus on one point in front of me, just like the Nutcracker ballerinas were doing, if I was going to make it through the shaking and the sweating, which had become so profuse that I had to clutch the sides of my mat so as not to slip while in plank.
About halfway through the class, I might as well have taken a dip in the Hudson River. My mat glistened as it gathered sweat beads, creating a small puddle. I gave a quick glance around to make sure others’ sweat glands were acting as mine. They were. Everyone was drenched.
I was surprised when the poses seemed to get easier instead of harder as the class went on. I felt more flexible than I had in years.
Soon we were moving through the positions slower. We quieted, did a few crunches and we were given a closing “Namaste” for our efforts.
No one rushed out the door of the studio after class officially ended. Instead it seemed that the practitioners took a moment to gather up their thoughts and belongings before returning to their lives outside of the studio’s walls, the soothing music, the yogi’s direction.
But then everyone slowly moved toward reality, and I followed suit. I walked out the door and onto the busy Brooklyn street, toward my apartment, hair in a sweat-slicked bun, my thighs feeling like Jell-O.
Then I was crying, right there in the middle of the sidewalk. I had heard about this. Crying after yoga. Come on. But the tears continued to puddle in my eyes, and I didn’t know whether I was crying for my relationship that had gone so terribly wrong, or my sore muscles, or the thankfulness I felt for, in that moment, a mind more still than I had experienced in months. I walked the five blocks, receiving a few sympathetic glances from passersby along the way. I caught a glimpse of my sweaty self in a store window. My posture was better. I stood up straighter. I felt more awake.
I returned to the yoga studio the next day. And then I returned two days after that. A few weeks later, I could touch my toes again. I hadn’t been able to reach them since my gymnastics days. I shook less and less while I held poses and I began to attempt positions that seemed like impossible feats during those first few classes. I continued to run and run. And when I did, I felt faster, my legs felt stronger, my knees, which had been the bane of my existence (thanks to those same gymnastics days), troubled me less and helped me out more.
It took time to leave behind my relationship that we both gripped to with bloody fingers, and to ease the self-doubt that could sometimes swallow me up. I can’t say whether yoga played a significant part in any of those changes, but after seeing myself in that Brooklyn storefront reflection, I saw an outward appearance that seemed more confident than I had seen in years. I wanted to see more of it. I wanted that to move inward. I’ll never be one of those Nutcracker ballerinas, still as glass and full of grace, but throughout my yoga years, I can safely say the confidence that may now appear on the outside comes from within.