In other parts of the country, yoga is seen as apostasy—twisting and folding into ancient shapes with Sanskrit names that honor pagan gods or invite untested spirits. I’ve watched evangelicals share online articles that denounce the dangers of yoga or the perils of meditation, but not here in Berkeley. Out on the left coast, we’re a little more flexible.
How hard could it be? I think. I can stretch for an hour.
Turns out yoga does not equal stretching.
I enter a room full of humans splayed out on colorful strips of spongy rubber. I hear one exhale a moan and see another on her back with her legs spread open, hands on her feet. There’s a bench in the front with a small stack of books and a large golden bowl that sits on a pillow. They are tools of the trade, but they seem out of place. I don’t see the connection between body and mind. I’d never been told that a bowl could sing.
I feel a bit out of place as I pick up a green mat and find a spot in the back, near a stack of foam blocks. The class quiets down as the instructor walks forward, the sleeves of her sweater falling softly behind.
My first class starts like most classes — in child’s pose. Knees to the mat, sit bones resting on heels, belly folded to thighs like a compressed spring. This first pose is supposed to be passive and familiar, a place of resting and ease, but during my first foray into yoga, everything feels foreign.
I’m told to find and focus on my breath like it’s gone missing. I think that’s sort of funny until I realize that it’s true — that I spend most of my day only half in my body and that the depths of my lungs are rarely put to use.
In the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the Spirit of God is characterized as a wind or breath, as the ruach within that bears witness alongside the nefesh of life, the breath of the human. These two words delineate in Hebrew what we blend in English, the breath where all of our power comes from, all of our life on all of its levels.
“Yoga is not about doing it right,” says the instructor. Every other instructor I will ever have will say the same thing, but my first time on a mat, getting it right is all I can think about. I don’t know any of the poses or how they connect. I’m not sure what a flow is, but I can tell that I’m not in one. I spend most of my time watching other students bend and glide and cycle with ease as I fake my way through. My arms flail, my hips are tight, and my legs are shaky. I make it through class wondering if I’ve actually done yoga at all.
For years after that first class, yoga will be something that I do randomly to relax or socially to connect. I’ll go to yoga the way that some people go to church — when I’m invited or when I feel like it, but only if it fits into my life. It will be a persona I try on, but not a practice that I own.