I’ve never been one for trends or fads. In fact, I’ve been behind the curve on just about every craze except for Beatlemania, to which I am a lifelong devotee.
And so it was with yoga.
It took a medical crisis for me to give yoga a try. A year ago this December, I woke up one morning and knew that something was seriously wrong with my back. I had missed a few chiropractic appointments (okay maybe six or seven months of them) and my chiropractor was heading off to sunny Mexico. I decided to treat myself to a massage but that just made the situation worse.
My chiropractor agreed to make a house call on the way to the airport and he attempted to adjust me and show me a few of the most elementary yoga poses that he thought would sustain me until he returned.
I was too far gone, though, and could not even manage a child’s pose or the downward dog, I was in so much discomfort.
The next day, I somehow made it to work, where a friend of mine took one look at me and said, “You really need to give yoga a try.” But first, I needed a professional medical opinion.
A different chiropractor and physiatrist would arrive at the same conclusion — I had stenosis and several herniated discs manifesting in unbearable sciatica.
After I got out of the acute pain phase and was cleared for physical activity again, I went to my friend’s class, which was an Iyengar yoga class. Iyengar emphasizes precision and alignment in the performance of posture and breath control and uses props such as belts, blocks and blankets that help students perform their poses correctly and avoid injury.
On my first night and for many nights thereafter, I was astonished to see that I was the only man in the class. Protocol required that I put the brakes on some of my more annoying habits, such as whistling in class or talking out of turn.
Most of the terminology was strange to me. I had no idea how to “crown my buttock bones,” for example, and I kept trying in vain to visualize the Sanskrit phrases my instructor uttered so effortlessly.
Fearful of failure, I often watched the person in front of me and copied her form. But this didn’t always work because my teacher provided classmates with different options for poses, so I would often get corrected. “You’re not Danielle,” was a phrase I heard more than once during my first month. I also found that if I got corrected, I had a tendency to panic, compounding my mistakes. My friend joked that I was “directionally challenged.”
Fear of public humiliation is right up there with my terror of heights and spiders. That first month or so, I wished that I could either drop by trap door into a secret compartment far from prying eyes or somehow disappear, Alice in Wonderland-like, into the puddle of perspiration forming on my yoga mat.
I began to feel like something I always wanted to be — the class clown — but for all of the wrong reasons. I tried not to take it personally that my instructor labeled me a “three-blanket person” or a “vertical block man.” Perhaps my greatest shame came the first time I heard my teacher tell the class to grab their feet. I couldn’t do this when I was at my most flexible, in my teens, before the ravages of time transformed my body into a foreign country I’m afraid to visit.
But I was determined to try. After all, I had the best role model on the adjacent mat — my office mate — who everyone referred to as “Gumby,” a nod to her flexibility.
So I strained and I grunted, probably audibly, reaching for my feet, hoping something worse wouldn’t happen, until I was red-faced and quaking like a pneumatic drill operator.
My instructor happened to walk by just as I was at the height of my palsied state.
“You’re a shin man,” she said as the class erupted in laughter. And so it was decreed. The most outspoken member of the class took to calling me “Mr. Shins,” I hoped affectionately, and the ice was broken.
I know from years of playing sports that acceptance often comes once you are christened with a nickname. Not long after that, the poses started to come a little bit more naturally to me. I have a long way to go but I will always cherish the day my teacher, who doesn’t give out compliments lightly, told me, “You did great tonight.”
I am certain I will never attempt a headstand. But it’s alright. I am no longer green with envy watching my much more supple classmates impersonate human pretzels. And I just renewed my membership for the third time, because I don’t want to fall back into old habits and feel like the Tin Man, creaking when I walk and in need of a good lube job. All of my body parts are finally talking to each other again.
And I’m loving the conversations they are having.