Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Feeling my way through the dark

I am walking up Broadway, dazzled by colour. A segment of green in a street vendor’s umbrella. Converse on a shelf behind glass– orange, pink. The sunlight cuts shapes out of shadow, on brick, on steel. After ninety minutes of having my eyes closed, each detail of the street is reflected back at me, as if brand new.

I have just come from a yoga class, Elena Brower’s yoga class, which I’ve been making it my business to get to every Tuesday at midday. When I first started coming I couldn’t get over how many other people made the effort too – fifty or sixty of them sometimes. Who were they, these people, who had two hours to spare in the middle of their day? Were they actors, freelance designers, stay at home mums? Maybe they were unemployed? Last November, when I first came to class, I used to wonder about these things. But I don’t anymore.

Elena is a teacher I happened upon by accident. I’d been going to Vira Yoga whenever I was in New York, and of course I’d heard of her, of course people had urged me to try her classes. But for some reason, I resisted. I don’t know why – maybe I was nervous that it might be too hard, maybe I couldn’t spare two hours in the middle of the day, back then. And so it was only when a botched attempt to see Sianna Sherman one lashing August Sunday, led me to a workshop she was doing with Elena the next day, that I realised this was where I was supposed to be all along.

Each class has a theme that builds on the last, and lately, we’ve been going very deep into our bodies. You might be thinking – ‘doesn’t all yoga go deep into the body?’ – and yes, it is does, but this is different. It’s like we’re explorers, miners, adventuring down through layers of tissue, burrowing through sinew and peering under bones to find out what is happening deep inside, really happening. We circle around the sensation, listen to what it has to tell us, before letting it diffuse through the rest of our cells.

If it sounds all heady and new agey, it’s not, or maybe it is, but I don’t care because it’s telling me a lot about myself, that in 37 years I had somehow managed not to know. These are not things I always want to know, mind you, but things I need to. The thoughts I have, the feelings, the spaces where my body contracts and clenches, these are what make me who I am. Surely it is in my best interests – never mind everyone else’s – to spend some time reading my own user manual?

Today, sitting with our eyes closed, she starts to tell us about a student of hers who is also a teacher, who teaches yoga to people who are blind. We go into all fours, still with our eyes closed. I am getting the point – the attention paid to sensation is greater when vision is taken away – and I hope she is going to make it through one or two poses, not a whole class. But no, we are in down dog, plank, chataranga, up dog, all in self-imposed darkness. My eyes flicker open. My feet are wonky on the mat and I see she has turned down the lights. I close them again.

As we move through the poses I am glad that I take this class regularly, that this sequence is familiar, and yet it is not familiar at all. Right foot forward between my hands – where are my hands? – left high, for standing split. Even though I often practice getting deeper into poses with my eyes closed, it is not like this, it is nothing like this. I never shut my eyes during transitions, never move into the darkness. I wait until I am grounded in the pose, settled. Safe. Perhaps this is the point.

I run my fingers along the edges of the mat, checking where it stops. My foot finds the ground somewhere behind me. Steps on something – someone’s fingers? Navigating this 6 x 2 feet rectangle of rubber feels as terrifying as if it is balanced on a ledge of one of the city’s skyscrapers. I feel the fear in my body, ripples of it, waves, moving into each pose, followed almost immediately by relief when I land at my destination.

Through the blackness Elena’s voice is strong, clear. I trust it. I follow it. I am learning to trust myself.

We pick up speed. I can hear my breath, the breath of the girl next to me. Occasionally our arms graze. Who is in each other’s space? Does it matter? Bending forward we are instructed to feel our collar bones widening, an instruction I have heard many times. There is a tiny movement somewhere I didn’t think could move, it feels like the bone itself is stretching. I have never felt this before and as well as understanding the point of the class in my head, I feel it too now, in my body. Feel how removing the floodlights of vision allows me to hold the torch beam steady, into the recesses of myself I can’t usually see.

Buoyant with my new insight I push into down dog again, through plank and onto the floor. The rhythm of the class is changing, I know it well, can feel the trajectory towards a slower, stiller place. Lying with my head on my hands I reflect on the progress I’ve made since starting yoga four years ago. When I first came to the mat it was a shock to see just how much I compared myself to other people, just how competitive I was. I always knew I liked to be good at things – OK, then, better at things – but yoga was something at which I had to get used to being bottom of the class. People who were older than me, heavier than me, newer than me, didn’t seem to struggle to open their bodies the way I did. It took me a long time to realise the only person I was competing with was myself.

I smile, right before I realise that the pose I am in feels all wrong. My eyes pop open – I can’t help it – and everyone else is lying flat, while my knees are on the floor, one arm reaching back awkwardly for the opposite foot. I lie down quickly, cursing myself for not listening, chastising myself for still not being able to stay present for a full ninety minutes, before I remember that my job is only to observe, never to judge.

After class is over, we move as if in a daze, putting mats and props away, our gazes mostly on the wooden floors, occasionally glancing at each other shyly. In the changing room I unfold my jeans slowly, as if they are precious, a gift. Maybe they are. It is crowded but we move out of each other’s way easily, as if it was a dance, that somehow we all know, even though I don’t remember ever learning it.

In the hallway I put on my shoes, head towards the stairwell. As I open the heavy metal door I hear a voice – I think I do – calling out: ‘Goodbye, Yvonne.’ I can’t see anyone, there is no-one there, but it might the woman in the reception area who said it, from her room at the end of the hall. I peer down only there’s a shadow across the desk and I can’t see if she’s there or not, if anyone is there.

‘Goodbye!’ I call out anyway. And I smile, just in case she can see me. Because I’m beginning to realise that it’s OK if I don’t see everything, all at once. That sometimes it’s enough just to be seen, to be seen, exactly as I am.