“I am an athlete. I don’t do that hippie sissy yoga shit.” Something the voice in my head had repeated several dozen times in response to my best friend’s regular invitation to join her at her yoga practice over the course of at least a year. Yet, there I stood in an incense filled lobby, shaking hands, introducing my Team RWB teammates to the staff and putting my favorite red Nikes in the tiny little boxes that lined the wall under the pine bench that ran the length of the entryway. My life was slowly unraveling, though few knew. I was trying to juggle the pressures of a 70+ hour a week job, leading my chapter of Team RWB, and outrun the emotional tsunami that was about two months from reaching the shoreline of my life. A week before, after a few margaritas and an exhausting day at work, I finally accepted Gina’s offer to attend yoga class although my master plan was only to attend so that I could get the ball rolling, get it added to our weekly Team RWB event calendar, then pass it back off to her to be the point of contact at which time I would conveniently find myself unavailable and unable to cut my workday short to make the 50 minute drive during rush hour every Monday in order to arrive at the studio before the doors locked.
Now barefoot, as I waited for the rest of my teammates to arrive, I worked on fortifying my mind against whatever version of spirituality they would surely start preaching once they had us all trapped in that room without a method for discrete exit. I wondered, as a Christian, what practicing yoga meant for me. The night before I had googled “Should Christians practice yoga?” and got mixed responses. The jury was out. Luckily, I told myself, I wouldn’t need to come back again. I just needed to get through the next 75 minutes of what I was convinced would be an assault on my faith and some lame stretching and then I could go grab a drink and some Mexican food with my teammates. I opened the door and the wall of heat knocked the list of potential taco eateries right out of my thought bubble. “Hmmm… okay. Well, this is going to suck!” I surveyed the room and its exposed brick walls and old wooden beams overhead. The industrial yet warm vibe drew me one step further in. My eyes found the quote on the chalk poster in the front of the room. “All of the glory comes from daring to begin.” I took a reflexive deep breath in. The words hung in my mind as the humidity hung thick in the air making it feel like there was no oxygen with which to fill my lungs. In the four months preceding, my life had been turned upside down after spending a weekend with Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, and deciding that after a lifetime of running from my story, I would own it and commit to living my bravest life by daring in all aspects of it. The room reached out to me and called, “Come in. I’ve been waiting.” Not being a believer in coincidence, my mind started to churn. “How could God meet me here, in this place? I am certain I saw a Buddha bust and mala beads in the lobby!” My gaze drifted down the wall to the next chalk word art. “I do not understand the mystery of grace. Only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.” What if that grace, God’s grace, is the same grace spoken of in Grace & Glory Yoga?
My best friend unrolled her mat next to mine, handed me a block (“What the heck is this thing for?”), and sat down. And so it began. As a catcher, a goalie, a forward in basketball, a Spartan Race finisher, and as in much of everything in my life – I powered through my first power yoga. My team and I giggled our way through the first set of “Ohms” and through the beginning awkward moments that inevitably come from being the only ones who had no idea what they were doing in a room full of people all moving and breathing loudly in synch. I looked around searching for Darth Vader, as I swore he was in that room somewhere. Ten minutes in the urge to giggle stopped. My shoulders, arms, and legs quivered and burned. I clinched my jaw tighter the more I felt the fire in my muscles build. I sweated more than I ever had in all of my years of sports, even more than when crouching behind the plate in full catchers gear in the baking 95 degree summer heat for 14 innings of a double header. The sweat stung my eyes and turned my mat into a slip and slide. As I slipped around and struggled not face plant during down dog I watched my neighbors out of my peripheral as they moved with ease through their vinyasa. (Note to self: Bring a larger towel!) Twenty minutes in I began wondering if I had done something to upset my friend. It was the only explanation for her invitation: she was seeking revenge on me for something. Thirty minutes in I cursed myself for not wearing a watch and wondered how the hell I was going to survive the rest of God-only-knows-how-much-time-left, and by the 70th minute I laid on my back completely exhausted and drenched in sweat thinking about how I needed to go home and practice so I could perfect this yoga thing and do it better than the girl in the first row in the blue Lululemon pants, who, during dancer pose, I had dubbed my yoga rival. Up until the time I joined Team RWB my brain functioned in a linear fashion with one goal when it came to athletics, exercise, and just about everything else in life: win. Though much of that was thankfully rewired when I found acceptance by wearing the Eagle and was able to unhitch my self-worth from my trophy collection, being in unfamiliar territory and underestimating my opponent (the “hippie sissy yoga shit”) lead me back to my old familiar friends: competition and comparison.
Throughout that first practice, Gina, in seeing me struggle, occasionally motioned to suggest a modification or whispered a word of encouragement. She was next to me on her mat and also had been next to me throughout life for the past 14 years. She had been “a stand” for me, a yogi term I would come to know, long before I understood what that phrase meant. We have seen each other through our darkest days and shared our greatest moments together; in doing so I had come to know her presence. I knew it so well in fact that a few weeks into my yoga practice as that emotional tsunami drew closer to shore, when we laid in shavasana (final resting pose) with our eyes closed and the lights dimmed, as the hot tears burned down my cheeks and the invisible weight resting on my chest was crushing and suffocating me, I could sense her hand several feet away reaching out for mine in the dark. I reached back in faith, eyes closed, feeling around, hoping that I had sensed correctly, and in finding her hand, grasped it as if it was the only thing keeping me from drifting away. My thoughts were filled remembering the pivotal moment three months earlier sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, completely vulnerable and incredibly brave, after twenty four years unlocking the truth of my past to people who were unwilling to acknowledge or accept it. I thought of the afternoon a few weeks after that as I sat at my desk, trying to find space in my mind to complete my tasks for work, and hearing the my friend’s voice on the phone, a friend who had seen me through the aftermath of that painful disclosure now telling me she was being deployed to the Middle East. While concerns for her safety swirled in my head I found myself forced to read the texts that were flooding in and take the incessant incoming call which would not stop interrupting us. It was the last thing I wanted to do. After weeks of not speaking with my parents, it was my dad, and I didn’t want to see his name on the caller ID let alone hear his voice. He was calling to tell me my mom was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer and was asking for the support and empathy that they found impossible to provide to me. Staring up at the wooden ceiling, trying to bring myself back to being present in the studio, I thought of the sod fields rushing past the car window as a friend, who I had completely exposed my unarmored heart to by revealing all of who I was to her, spoke sharpened words to me that conjured the darkest most awful things I had lived my life believing about myself: that there was something so wrong with me that made me unlovable. I thought of my mom, somewhere in a hospital recovering from her first chemo treatment while at the same time I was laying on my yoga mat just trying to keep breathing. All of the voices that I had worked so hard to keep silent had, in the stillness of the practice and in my exhaustion, come at me with a megaphone. But the love in the squeeze of Gina’s small hand and the long, tight embrace that followed was louder. It said, “Hold on. I’m still here.” The same protective walls which crumbled during my 75 minutes of practice which allowed in the voices of shame also let in something else: Love. Grace.
Maybe this yoga thing wasn’t going to be about competing with the girl wearing the blue pants in the front row after all.