“Place your left arm under your right arm–don’t confuse the two,” says the Yorktown Bikram yoga instructor during Eagle Pose. “Now twist your arms together like ropes.”
“Are you kidding me?” grunts my left shoulder.
“Now,” says the instructor, during Standing Separate Leg Head to Knee Pose, “with your smiling happy face, place your head exactly on your knee…lock your knee…lock your knee…lock your knee!”
“Not happening,” whispers my knee.
I am your basic hard-working American male who is as flexible as the Tin Man. I don’t belong in this yoga class. My 58-year-old body has been molded, shaped, and injured by a lifetime of competition in traditional American sports—baseball, football, basketball, and boxing.
For the past year, I have been trespassing into this Bikram yoga class and I have discovered it to be a refreshing change from the monotony of my usual gym. There are no barbells, no competition, no winning, and no losing. I sit on my blue yoga mat and simply sweat out toxins, reflect on my life, and combat old age.
I’m trying to stretch my old muscles in this hot, 105-degree yoga class, but I’m still as inflexible as a slab of concrete. How could something as easy as yoga be so hard? “Why kid yourself?” I whisper. “I should go back to my old gym with the barbells where I fit in. Here, I’m an imposter.”
Now, almost everyone in the room is squatting down doing Tree. I can’t. I’m feeling like a chubby child miscast in a ballet class, or a VW Beetle racing in the Grand Prix. I am the little engine who can’t.
I make up for my lack of flexibility with effort. I grunt, groan, and grimace. But grunting, groaning, and grimacing is so un-yoga-like. “Hey, gang, I’m sorry you’re forced to listen to my mid-life crisis,” I’d say, but, once yoga class has started, there is no talking.
“Breath through your nose,” says the instructor.
“Yeah, right!” scoffs my crooked nose. “That’s a funny one!”
I am the sweaty one panting through his mouth instead of breathing effortlessly through his nose. I take desperate gulps of air—preferably when the instructor isn’t looking. I am the third-string yogi.
I can’t shake the sneaky suspicion that my being a yogi is like a dog trying to be a cat, or an ugly duckling attempting to be a graceful swan. Recently, I spotted a copy of Yoga Journal lying on a bench outside of class. It featured an article entitled, “Yoga for Building Strength and Grace.” The closest I come to grace is a grimace. Is grimace on the road to yogic grace?
If I were young, lithe, female, and weighed 95 pounds, I’d be a first-string yogi. I’d be a superstar, if I didn’t suffer spinal damage from a car accident on Route 35, or if my shoulder wasn’t separated from football, or if my hamstring was never torn rounding third base, or if my hand and nose were never broken in the ring, or if my elbow wasn’t injured while playing tennis with my young daughter. Or if I wasn’t so old and fat.
I’m looking in the mirror at my body and I sigh. It is what it is. I’m seeing an angry young boy-bomb who now has grown up to be a calm, happy man. I see love-handles and a receding hairline. It’s all good. But I must admit, yoga has been excellent for me. The pain of my sports and car-crash injuries has drastically lessened, my posture is better, my breathing has improved, I eat healthier, I haven’t been sick all year, and I sleep like a baby.
“Camel Pose,” says the instructor. “This is the deepest backbend of all.”
“Excuse me…” I’m looking up at the instructor with my mouth hanging open. “I hate this posture. Let’s just skip it today, okay?” is what I say in my mind.
I’m bending my head back.Somehow, this posture is dredging up long-forgotten childhood memories. I’m bending back farther. Oh, no! Do I feel like crying? Wouldn’t that be a hoot? A grown man weeping in a yoga class? I’m bending back. This posture is bending me into my past, turning me upside down, and twisting me inside out. I’m moving contrary to my years of rigid athletic training and contrary to my stoic family upbringing. I’m bending back. I’m sticking my soft belly up to the ceiling and pointing my sweaty head down to the floor. My hands are now gripping my heels…
Congratulations, me. Without a whimper or a tear, just a grunt, I accomplished Camel! My body finally allowed itself to bend, to trust, and to be confident. Is there a subtle budding of personal growth germinating within me? Is yoga teaching me delicate lessons I had never learned from baseball, football, basketball, or boxing? Am I evolving?
Maybe, at age 58, I’m becoming stronger without the barbells—and more graceful, just like that Yoga Journal article said. Maybe I’m not trespassing after all. Maybe I’m exactly where I belong. Maybe I am the little engine that can.
Peter Wood teaches at White Plains High School and is the author of three books.