I started doing yoga three years ago. I still remember my first yoga class: My friend invited me to a university rec class, I showed up - the only guy - and then listened as the instructor told me to bend my back like a cat or let me spine come onto the floor like a string of pearls.
I got more of a workout from trying to restrain my laughter and came out of the class with the idea that yoga is just a body sculpt class with poetic narration. I still sort of think that – let the “true” yogis frown down on me from their downward dogs – but I have become a yoga regular and no longer laugh during class. Until I fall out of a pose or someone farts/snores during shavasana.
Since I’ve stuck with yoga, I have progressed in my poses. You can only do child’s pose for so long. And what millennial doesn’t do yoga without the aspiration of a sunset Instagram while scorpion posing? (I’m not even sure what scorpion pose entails.)
Two years ago I learned how to do crow pose. That is the one where you can balance your body on your hands. It looks hard, and it is tricky, but once you do it, you can keep doing it. I remember my teacher saying, “It’s not about your arm strength; it’s about core strength.” I think she should have said it’s about both, because chicken wrists ain’t gonna hold a strong core.
It took me four months to master crow. But I was on my way to sunset Instagram yogi pose status. What could I master next?
That brings us to this summer when I started attending a new instructor’s class. This new teacher is very into inversions in the way Dudley Dursley was into chocolate. And introversions mean *drops eyes* going upside down. The last time I was upside down, I’m pretty sure, was in my mother’s womb. In kindergarten I could do flips, but then I became a roly-poly (aka a fat kid) and that ended.
Meanwhile, new teacher: “Let’s flow from standing like a mountain to hanging upside down in a valley.”
One other time I was in a class where the teacher proposed we practice head/arm/handstands (they're all the same, right?). All that mattered was they wanted all my blood to go to my brain. I played along and positioned myself beside a wall, but I decided right then, on that mat, I had no desire to go upside down. I could live a hundred years and not regret reliving birth canal pose.
But then you sit through a month of a new teacher instructing you from warrior into Cirque de Soleil. You can only fake kick and downward dog for so long until you surrender and say, “Fine, let’s do this.” Except I couldn’t.
I’d kick, and instead of ascending feet-first to the moon, I landed back on my feet. And again. And again. It was a combination of not wanting to truly do it and oh-my-God-if-I-fall-and-land-on-my-neck-the-wrong-way-you-do-realize-I-will-be-paralyzed-forever-right?
Except people do headstands all the time and don’t end up in wheelchairs.
My friend, a former gymnast, tells me she used to have the same fears about headstands. We grow up fearlessly: We roll, we hang, and we twist as children, and then one day we wake up and recognize the consequences if we tumble the wrong way. We face our mortality (and zits and heartache). It’s called puberty.
“I had to relearn how to do handstands,” my friend says.
Me: "I had to relearn long division in college."
I decided, to get over my fear, I should have my friend hold me in the pose so I could get used to it. Bad idea.
We did it in our office. (Grad school offices are different than corporate offices obviously.) I got into the initial pose, kicked up, and my friend grabbed my feet and pulled up. All I remember next is that I was on the ground and my head hurt because, in my descent, I had crushed my sunglasses into the crown of my head.
My friend: "You can't just let go! Why'd you do that?"
Me: *dazed and confused* "I thought I was, but then I just forgot once I was upside down."
My friend: "You forgot?!?!?"
The yoga teacher helped me with my next attempt. I felt bad when I crashed on her, too, like a Jenga tower. I should have warned her of my temporary dementia when the blood rushes to my cortex.
That was six weeks ago. Then I went to Denver, CO. Which sounds irrelevant, and it sort of is, but I had a day to kill in Denver and a suitcase to get rid of until my friend and host got out of her job.
On a bus into the Mile High City, I overheard a woman telling another passenger she was dropping her bags off at a day spa for the afternoon while she explored town. I asked if I could follow her lead, which led me to the day spa: For $15/day, I could board my bags and use their facilities, including showering and fitness classes.
Receptionist: “You might as well take advantage of the amenities if you’re paying. There’s a yoga class at 12:30.”
Imagine my delight when this instructor announced that “since the class is so small today, we can do inversions.” Was it too late to flee?
Maybe it was because I hadn’t worked out before that day (I usually do another workout before yoga) or the Denver altitude, but on this day the teacher demonstrated a headstand for me and then she helped lift my feet up. But then she let go and I didn’t crash. In fact I held it. My shirt rolled down my torso, my pasty abs exposed to the mirror across from me. A brief panic fluttered through me as I grasped that I was balanced atop my head – who am I?! – but then I came down, and I bowed for the cheering crowds.
I texted my friend after the class:
I just did three handstands with no assistance!!
You are my diary for this news
Well, I had the wall
But I kicked up by myself
Or maybe it's an arm stand
Actually it was a headstand. I googled.
The next day I went back to the gym, grabbed a mat, and kicked up. And I went up. And I was upside down. And this time it was all me. And I was no longer afraid.
I could end on that note, but that would be a lie. I’m still afraid - of failing my dissertation, of having children, of not seeing Africa before I die. But I am no longer afraid of hanging like a bat. But I am afraid of forgetting. So now I am that kid in the gym doing headstands against a mirror every other day. One day it will be on Instagram.