September 23, 2003 ~ Phoenix, AZ
Renée makes me drive. I don't want to. It's raining-I can't remember the last time it rained here-and I'm nervous, but now that I'm sixteen she's all keen for me to get my license. She wants to buy me a car. She wants me to start thinking about college too, but I'm not ready for that yet. How am I supposed to know what I want to do with the rest of my life when I haven't even finished high school?
And boys. She probably wonders why I'm not more interested in dating, but I'm not ready for that either. Most of the boys at school, I don't even think about in that way. And the cool boys don't even know I'm alive.
She'd never ever say it, but I get the feeling what she really wants is for me to grow up and leave the nest so she can start a life with Phil. I really think they're going to get married. Since his team got knocked out of the pennant, he's always around, fixing stuff, cooking dinner; you name it.
He's nice, and he makes my mom happy, but sometimes I wish it was still just her and me. Does that make me an ungrateful daughter? I don't mean to be. It's just . . . I don't know . . .
The lot's full, so we have to park half way down the street. Renée's pleased because it's a chance for me to practice parallel parking, but in the end it's her that has to bring the car to the curb. She's not so pleased then.
The sign on the door of the yoga studio reads "CLOSED", and I feel a wave of relief. Maybe she got the day wrong and there's no class tonight after all. I'm used to being dragged along to take part in her hobbies of the week-sometimes they're even fun, like the pottery class we took, but I really tried to draw the line this time. It's a recipe for disaster: a clumsy kid like me taking part in a yoga class.
The studio windows are dark, but my increasing hope is soon dashed by the sight of a dozen people milling around the front door. It's clear they're not waiting to get in to the convenience store next door.
"Check out the Lululemons," Renée snickers, entirely forgetting that she's also decked head to toe, in the same name brand Lycra as everyone else. I clutch my rolled-up sticky mat to my chest-it's brand new, purple, and it still has that fresh PVC smell-and follow her meekly, hoping no one I know will see me here with my mother. Nobody cool does yoga.
Some of the loiterers are soccer moms, probably killing time between their kids' games, taking part in the latest fitness fad just to say they've tried it. I hate to admit that I lump my mother among them.
Others look like they come to class regularly; they have the long, sinewy muscles of marathon runners. No one here is close to my age, except for the girl with the purple hair who looks like she might be in college. And nobody told me that this class was co-ed! She's talking with two men, both wearing shorts and sporting shaved heads. They've got heavy-duty yoga mats rolled up under their arms.
I'm gripped with panic-completely intimidated. This was a really bad idea. I have absolutely no business being here.
"Hey, Renée." One of the Lululemons waves and beckons us over to the group. The other women turn to look at us, but their stares are friendly.
"Haven't seen you here in a while." It's Mrs. Martin. She lives in a bungalow two doors down. "You take a break for the summer?" She gives my mom a peck on the cheek.
"Oh, you know how it is." Renée flicks her hand in the air, dismissing the whole season just past. "Busy, busy, busy."
"Tell me about it." Mrs. Martin's wearing Lycra and she really shouldn't be. It leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. She tucks a lock of hair behind her ear with a well-manicured talon, and looks surprised to see me.
"Well, hello, honey. Joining Mom for a workout tonight?"
No, I'm just hanging out here 'cause I have nothing better to do. Don't you know that yoga mats are the latest teenage fashion accessory? I hate the condescending way she talks to me. Next she'll probably comment about the fact that I've finally started growing boobs.
Renée, seeing my unease, turns and pats my hair in that way that I hate. She chuckles as I look away. Thankfully, their motherly attention is taken by the approach of a slender young woman with a nose ring, and a tattoo peeking from under the straps of her tank top. She unlocks the door and smiles politely at us loiterers, gesturing that it's all right for us to come in. She flicks on the overhead lights and heads straight to the reception desk.
I follow Renée's example, leaving my shoes in the gathering pile by the front door and line up with the plebes-the lamb to the slaughter. Renée scans her membership card and then addresses the receptionist proudly, handing her a coupon.
"This is my daughter, Bella, and it's her first time."
Great. Thanks, Mom. Like everybody doesn't already know that.
The receptionist smiles warmly. "Your daughter? Oh, that's fantastic! Wow, she really looks like you too, except . . . "
"She's got her father's colouring . . . " She says it like it's an unfortunate blemish I've inherited.
My parents get along well-better than the married parents of most of my friends, in fact-but they both still like to get in their little jibes about one another. She'll complain that I'm growing up to be a hermit, just like him, and the next time he phones, he'll make some comment about Renée's boyfriends getting exponentially younger the older she gets. He also doesn't like it that she lets me call her by her first name.
"Ohh." The receptionist nods, looking me up and down-as if Renée's explanation had solved the mystery of the century-then scans the barcode on the coupon and puts it in a drawer. Flashing me a genuine smile, she says, "Well, welcome, Bella. I'm Hilary. I'll be your instructor tonight."
Uh, oh. Strike one. I should've known by looking at her that she wasn't just a receptionist.
"Have you ever been to a yoga class before?" she asks, and I shake my head, feeling my cheeks flame up.
"No. She's a complete newbie." My mom answers for me.
"Are you sixteen yet, honey?" Hilary obviously wants me to answer for myself, but again it's Renée who butts in.
"Just last week." And she gives me a wistful look that says Oh, where did the time go?
So embarrassing. I'd like to hit my mother with something. Or poke her. I'm pleased when Hilary reaches over the desk to hand me a clipboard and a pen. A nice, pointy pen. Hilary's eyes meet mine sympathetically, and she raises them briefly to the heavens. Maybe she has an embarrassing mother too.
"Well, happy birthday!" she says enthusiastically, but then she's all business. "And since you're sixteen, you're old enough to sign your own waiver. It's nothing to worry about," she adds, seeing my worried look. "It's standard procedure for all new members. Also, there's a questionnaire on the back. If you have any injuries or pre-existing medical conditions I should know about, I'll be able to give you modifications when we get into some of the more challenging asanas."
Wondering what asanas are,I swallow and look around me. The line of suburban yogis is rapidly moving forward into the studio. It's not a very big place, and it's filling up fast.
Renée motions for me to give her my mat. "I'll save you a spot," she stage whispers, and goes inside too.
I sink into a beanbag chair, and begin to fill out the waiver. Hilary was right: there's nothing here out of the ordinary. It's just like the ones we have to take home for our parents to sign when we go on field trip at school-releasing the studio from any form of indemnity if I get injured or something. I don't know how to answer the questions about pre-existing medical conditions on the back, though. Does chronic clumsiness count? What about minimal muscle tone, or absolute zero flexibility? Matchstick girl, that's me.
I finish filling it out and give it back to Hilary, who rapidly enters the information into the database. Since Renée brought me here as a guest, my first class is free. She's offered to pay for my membership if I like it enough to go back. At this point, I'm unconvinced.
"Welcome to Yoga Vista." Hilary really does seem nice. She gestures towards the studio entrance. "Take a few moments to get settled on your mat before class starts." Another woman has arrived at the desk behind me, and Hilary turns her attention to getting her signed in.
I pause at the door, blinking like a deer in the headlights. Not that it's bright in there or anything. The overhead lighting is soft, and there are votive candles on the floor at the front, around what's obviously the teacher's mat. There's new-age music playing on the stereo, and it's as warm in here as it is in the desert outside. Don't yogis need air-conditioning, I wonder?
Timidly, I scan the room for my mother. Oh God, she's picked out space right at the very front of the room. Why couldn't she just let me hide out in the back somewhere? Quickly, I realize that's actually a good thing, because the two mountain bikers have staked their mats down in the very back row. I'd be scared to work out next to them. They look old too-probably forty. How gross would that be to have some old guy staring at your butt while you work out? It's bad enough the way the boys at school stare. I pull my hoodie close around me, even though it's warm. I know I'm blushing again, thinking about boys.
I step gingerly around the mats, threading my way to the front of the room. Some people are lying on their backs with their eyes closed, others are already contorting themselves into pretzels-poses I know I'll never ever be capable of achieving. Still others, like my mother, are sitting cross-legged, with the backs of their hands on their knees and their thumbs and forefingers forming a little 'o'. Renée turns and grins, patting my purple mat, staggered to her right.
"Over here, honey," she whispers.
No duh. I grin through gritted teeth and sit down on the mat, pulling my knees up close to my chest so I can wrap my arms around them. I glance surreptitiously around; no one's staring-nobody else has paid any attention to my arrival at all, in fact. If this was gym class at school, there'd be whispers and someone would have made a snarky comment by now. I'm relieved, but still apprehensive about what's in store. I try to mimic Renée's cross-legged posture, but I can't close my eyes like she does. I'm too jumpy.
"You should take it off," she suddenly hisses, startling me. She's opened her eyes, and it's very clear she means my hoodie. "You'll be too warm."
I'm already too warm, but I'm not about to strip now, in front of everyone else. I shake my head 'no.' She nods hers 'yes', then, knowing she won't win this argument, rolls her eyes and shrugs, resuming her meditation. We sit in silence for several more minutes, and I stare at the flickering votive candles around the teacher's mat, and listen to the wind-chime music. When are we going to get started?
The instant I wonder that, I hear the door close at the back of the studio, and the soft padding of Hilary's bare feet threading their way through the supine bodies to the front of the room. She moves some of the votives behind the heavy- duty mat and lays another one on top of it. It's bright pink, exactly matching the waistband at the top of her pants.
She switches the CD in the player for another one, and hits play. Goodbye wind chimes, hello new age chanting. Om, nom . . . nom, nom, nom . . . that's what it sounds like to me. I snicker, thinking of Yogic Cookie Monster, cross-legged on his mat, hoeing into a big bag of Oreos.
What? Renée turns to look at me.
Nothing! Why doesn't she just mind her own business?
Cookie Monster's furry blue legs wouldn't be sticking to his yoga mat the way mine are. I shift around, cursing the fact that I wore shorts tonight instead of the long yoga pants that Renée bought me for my birthday. I refused to-no Lululemon would I be-but I'm regretting it now though, because I'm starting to get sweaty and the flesh of my legs is totally sticking to the mat. It makes a sound like a Band-Aid being ripped off as I pull away into a more comfortable position.
Hilary takes her place on her mat, assuming the same cross-legged position as Renée and I, and smiles serenely.
"Good evening, everyone. Welcome to Gentle Flow. I'm Hilary, for those of you who don't know me. I'm subbing for Adonia, who's at a retreat in Baja this week, lucky thing.
"I know most of you from my Vinyasa One-Two class"-she scans the room, and her eyes rest briefly on me-"but I see a few new faces."
Thankfully, she doesn't single me out. We don't go through the mandatory meet-and-greet I always dread when Renée forces me to join in on her kooky new projects. Hi, I'm Bella. I'm here 'cuz my mom made me come . . . I have it all rehearsed.
Hilary continues. "Those of you who attend on Thursday nights know that my style's usually a little more . . . er, vigorous . . . " She winks, and there are a few knowing chuckles behind me. I wonder what I've gotten myself into. "But, don't worry: I'll try and be gentle with you."
She takes a deep breath in, lets it out, and inhales again. "Those of you on your backs, make your way to seated. We'll begin with a few moments' meditation to bring ourselves into the room."
Wasn't that what we were already doing, I wonder? But she's speaking in a dreamy voice now, about how we should center ourselves on our mats . . . let go of the day that's passed, and not worry about what's to come later . . .
"You've set aside this time for you . . . for your practice . . . make the most of this time because you're never going to get it back."
I am so not going to like this airy-fairy crap; I can tell that right now.
"You can take a mudra with your thumb and forefinger"-and she demonstrates. It's the position Renée's been holding-"directing your energy-your chi-out to those around you. Or, if your energy is low tonight, you might simply lay your hands on your knees and direct it within."
I peek at her after a few seconds, and see that her own eyes are closed; she seems totally into this. Renée is too. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see she's kind of swaying a little, from side to side.
Now we're supposed to be focusing on our breathing-filling them, feeding them with oxygen. For some reason, I think of Cookie Monster feeding his face again, and I have to stifle my laughter. It's all a bit silly.
And it gets sillier. "If you choose to practice with ujjayi breath, you can engage that now." She explains the breathing technique for those of us who don't know what it is, describing it like the sound of ocean waves flowing in and out.
To me, it's the sound of two-dozen crappy imitations of Darth Vader, breath rasping in and out in an asthmatic chorus. Inhale . . . exhale . . . What is thy bidding, my master? . . . inhale . . . exhale . . . You don't know the power of the Dark Side . . . Do yoga, or die!
Darth Vader's probably the last character in the Star Wars trilogy I'd ever associate with yoga. If I could see any of them as a yogi it would of course be Yoda. Even if his name wasn't an obvious word-morph, he's always seemed very Zen to me. Can't you just imagine him, sitting there on his log in front of a studio of Lululemons just like these?
Judge me by my size, do you? And well you should not! Do, or do not do yoga. There is no try.
I watch those old Star Wars movies when I visit my dad. It's sort of our thing. When I was little, we used to hold entire conversations in Yoda-speak. We even went to a Sci Fi convention once, and I met the actor that rode around inside R2-D2. That was cool, but it's not something I tell my friends at school about. I know I'd get teased if that ever got out. It's hard enough just getting by in high school, flying under the radar. But I digress. What I'm saying is that I've never heard anything so ridiculous as this ujjaiyi breathing, and I refuse to join in.
While Hilary's got us rasping and wheezing, she asks us to set an intention for our practice tonight. It might be to stretch a little further into a more challenging pose, or to give extra care to a body part that's recovering from injury.
"You might want to dedicate your practice to someone, or something you care about. Anything at all that you want from this practice, name it now and let it become your focus," she encourages. "We'll return to it at the end of class."
I intend not to embarrass myself like a total dork. Does that work?
"Let's come forward onto all fours, and warm our spines with some cat-cow poses."
I manage to mimic what she demonstrates without too much difficulty. Hopefully, I don't look too much like the Hunchback of Notre Dame meets the Swaybacked Mule. This isn't too threatening to start with. If it doesn't get much more strenuous than this, I should make it to the end without embarrassing myself.
After that, we're up off our knees, and onto our toes, into Downward Dog. Immediately, it's apparent that my choice of outerwear was a mistake. Damn hoodie keeps falling forward over my face and I can't see a thing. I have to sit down and take it off. I refuse to dignify my mother's smirk by paying it any attention. She is so childish.
"For many of you, it's probably your first Downward Dog of the day, so really bend your knees, and shine your hipbones to the sky. Feel free to pedal out your feet, one, then the other. Say hello to your calf muscles."
"Really shine those hipbones," she exhorts, starting to pace the room now. She comes to stand behind me and pulls gently back on my waist until my body takes the shape of an inverted 'v'. It doesn't hurt; actually, it feels kind of good. Like all the kinks in my back that I didn't know were there are being worked out.
"Feel those hamstrings waking up. Yeeaahhhh!" She groans the last word out like a porn star. Not that I'm into porn, or anything; I just happen to know that.
I'm also not into the idea of sticking my butt into the sky. I wonder if that's why the men at the back come to yoga-so they can stare at ladies' butts, and other . . . parts? From my position at the front of the room, I can't help but notice that some of my female classmates' yoga tops don't fit so well, Mrs. Martin's among them.
I quickly realize I'm way off base about those men anyway, when my sneaky backwards glance reveals that the only thing they're staring at right now is the billowy velvet curtain dividing the studio from the washrooms at the back.
After Downward Dog, we curl up on our knees, stretching our hands out in front of us into Child's Pose, which is supposed to be a resting pose.
"If you're new to yoga, or feeling fatigued, you can always return to Child's Pose. Know that it's always there for you whenever you need to rest and reconnect with your breath. In fact, you can spend the whole class in Child's Pose. You're still doing yoga. This is your practice, and I'm just here to be a guide for you. There's no judgment here."
I like Child's Pose best so far. I consider staying curled up like this for the rest of the class, hiding away like a turtle in my shell, but I promised Renée I'd give this yoga-thing a real try.
We move on to the Sun Salutations, and I already know I won't like them. I know because I watch Renée roll out her mat every morning in the living room and she does this series of exercises over and over. It's a whole lot of up, down, all fall down, get back up and start again . . . Repeat. Repeat. Repeat, 'til you can't stand it any more. It's a little too much like calisthenics in Gym class to me.
God, I hate Gym. Mr. Leary, with his big gut and booming voice makes me shudder. And I hate the way I always get picked last for teams. I can't imagine Mr. Leary taking this class. He'd be panting, slipping around in the sweat dripping onto his yoga mat by now. I swear that guy starts panting and sweating the moment he steps out of bed in the morning. I'll be so glad next year when I don't have to take Gym anymore.
For the next hour, Hilary leads us through our paces-our Vinyasa Flow, I should say. Turns out, it's not that bad. I actually kind of like the way the names of the poses describe animals and shapes, and stuff. Some, like Triangle and Tree are pretty obvious. Others, like Half Lord of the Fishes, make me wonder exactly what those swamis were smoking when they thought them up. Oh wait: Swamis don't smoke. But, you know what I mean.
Some of the poses are really hard and some I can't do at all, not even with the modifications Hilary gives. But nobody laughs when my Tree sways in the breeze, and I fall out of it. I'm pretty sure that nobody's going to hang around waiting for me the foyer afterwards to tell me how much I suck either.
I'm not the strongest or the bendiest yogi in the class, not by any means, but I'm not a total feeb either. For once, I'm happily mediocre-amazed actually to discover I can get into poses that Renée can't even do, and she's been coming to class for a while.
And somewhere during the hour, I stop caring whether or not anyone's looking at me or judging me. I find myself going with the flow. I catch sight of my face in a wall-length mirror once and I'm shocked to see that it's kind of . . . serene. I still won't do that stupid ujjayi breathing, but it doesn't bug me the way it did at the start of class.
At the very end, we do Savasana. Corpse pose. You lie on your mat like you're asleep, only you're not supposed to actually fall asleep. You're supposed to clear your mind of all thought-just relax and absorb the benefits of the practice. I can hear the breathing of the other yogis-like an ocean. I can hear the soft pops and sputters of some of the candles up front, and the cicadas chirping in the gathering dusk. And I can't help myself from thinking about stuff, no matter how hard I try.
I start thinking that maybe all the touchy-feely talk Hilary spouted at the beginning of class actually might not have been so stupid after all. I think I might get the point of all this. Yoga isn't about being number one, or scoring the winning goal. It's about being the best you can be in the moment, and making the most out of it because you'll never get it back.
I can't believe I'm actually considering returning. It occurs to me that if I get my license soon I could drive myself to class. And I like the idea of not having Renée hovering over my shoulder like a proud mama-bear. Gotta cut the apron strings sometime.
After Savasana, Hilary asks us to revisit the intentions we set for ourselves at the beginning of class. I'm a little sore, but I'm happy I didn't embarrass myself. And I wasn't a complete dork. It's the first time I've reached the end of anything resembling a physical education class without having my self-esteem crushed to a tiny pulp.
She asks us to join her in one final Om to finish the practice and I do, but not loud enough that anyone can hear me. I smile, thinking about the Cookie Monster, all Zen and happy on his yoga mat . . . Om, nom . . . nom, nom, nom . . . And I think about Yoda on his log.
"Thank you all for sharing your practice with me this evening," she says, and that's really nice because she's the teacher. "May the light that shines in me also shines in you. Namaste."
She bows to us, bobbing her head-Namaste to everyone. The rest of the class knows what to do. There are Namastes all around, some even directed to me. I shyly Namaste a few people back.
"So, what did you think?" Hilary comes over while I'm rolling up my mat. My mother's right beside me and I don't want her to know that I actually enjoyed this. Not yet.
I stand up straight, trying to look cool. "It was all right. Not as hard as I thought it would be."
She seems pleased. "Think you'll come back?"
I give her a non-committal shrug, but I don't want her to think that I hated it either. My shrug turns into a little shoulder bob.
"Aha! We'll make a yogi out of you yet," she predicts.
Renée and I walk back to the car in silence. I know she's dying to find out what I really thought of it, but she can read me well enough to know when not to pry. When we get back to the car, I hold out my hand for the key.
"I'll drive," I tell her.
~ fin ~