Rick’s first yoga class: A cautionary tale

Writers never sit in the front row.

Yogi Bear

Okay, so perhaps I misspelled something in my Google Images search.

Not at meetings, classes, groundbreakings, sporting events or anything else requiring, well, rows. That’s because it’s hard to report fully on an event when much of it is behind you.

And we’re still wary of having our backs exposed after being tagged with all those “Kick Me” signs back in school.

Business majors can be so cruel.

If I had my druthers – and if I actually knew what “druthers” were – I would have avoided the front row when I attended my first yoga class.

But the Yoga Room”s rules dictated that all newbies be at the front of the class. This made me feel all the more conspicuous when I later attempted the downward dog pose, my ass raised to the heavens and my head headed toward hell . . . .

But more on that later.

* * *

Jerilyn Santiago runs the Yoga Room, a sanctuary of peace and tranquility camouflaged deep in the back of a strip mall. She used to be a schoolteacher, making her as deserving of peace and tranquility as anyone. Santiago has taught yoga since 1987, longer than one of her Wednesday night students has been alive.

That kid participated in class with his grandmother, and they did so much better than I did, I thought they would make fun of me.

(They probably waited until after class. Grandmothers are sweet that way.)

At the Yoga Room, students learn basic hatha yoga, which eschews recent “extreme” yoga variations in favor of classic stretching exercises and poses. Students get to know their bodies better, stretch and strengthen muscles that often go unused in modern life, and let go of stress and tension.

Also, they learn how to do something Santiago contends most people don’t know how to do right:

Breathe.

Time out. I’ve survived a few decades, so I’m pretty sure I’ve got the breathing thing down. I can do it 24-7 without taking a single break. If anyone knows how to breathe, I do.

Then again . . .

“You need to learn to breathe deep, from the bottom of your lungs,” Santiago says. “Feel your belly expand, not just your chest. Your lungs go deep.”

No deal. I’m a guy. I’m a not-getting-younger-guy. I spend the day sucking in my gut, not sticking it out. And I’m not pot-belly breathing in any public forum . . . much less in a class filled with women.

Eventually, though, Santiago won me over, because you don’t want to cross her.

She can make quite a chore out of the seemingly simple act of sitting up straight. Especially for some out-of-shape, sedentary slug who spends most of his time hunched over a computer keyboard, rambling incoherently under the pretense of writing an article . . . .

This, of course, is a hypothetical example.

* * *

I was eager for class, as my day had been stressful. Granted, some people just don’t appreciate how hard it is waking up at noon every day. (Reality: That means you have a lot less time to get things done, which can be very stressful.)

Wednesday’s group class proved more popular than ever. About 20 students packed the single, large room. Though most were women, there were three other adult men and two boys participating.

Students staked out positions, removed mats from a chest and positioned them on the floor. A classmate suggested I also obtain a couple of “blocks,” small, hard foam cubes. The blocks, she said, work as helpers. For example, a standing person who could not stretch all the way to the floor could stop at the top of a block.

No problem, I said. I can touch the floor with ease. So I showed her.

Now try it without bending your knees, she suggested.

Now, that’s entirely different.  Without bending my knees I can barely touch my. . . knees.

So I accepted the blocks and was ready to rock. After a series of stretches against a wall, we got on our mats, massaged our muscles and started rubbing our faces.

Hold up. This face-rubbing was getting weird.

Santiago had us use our index fingers to massage our temples, rub the sides of our noses and knead our foreheads. This apparently is very good for working out tension in these areas, she said.

Sure, but what was it going to do to my complexion? Using my greasy fingers? Maybe I should have cleaned up first. Or maybe I shouldn’t have stopped at Taco Bell on the way over.

When, I wondered, do we start with the contortions? I wanted to figure out how to fit into a breadbox, mostly because that would freak out my cat. It was time to get on with some freaky postures.

Ask and ye shall end up in the downward dog pose.

* * *

Downward Dog

Downward Dog pose. This is what I did. Except I did it much less impressively. Mine was more of an Old Yeller Dog, right before the credits roll.

We did a lot of exercises in one position: Sitting up straight, our legs fully stretched in front of us, without using our arms to support our weight.

Just sitting like this was my greatest challenge. Sad, isn’t it?

My abdominal and back muscles strained under the stress of keeping my torso erect. I had to cheat – bending my legs, curling them toward me – to relieve the burden. My body shook with fatigue simply from sitting up straight.

Then came the downward dog pose.

You begin in a stance similar to a push-up. But then you bend your head down until you’re almost kissing the floor while raising your behind as high in the air as you can, all while keeping your back straight.

I thought I had it pretty well down until Santiago came over, pushed my head down closer to the floor and prompted me to provide a little more altitude to my posterior.

So much for letting the writer skate.

This is why the front row is so wonderful. Hey, my posture said to my classmates, say hello to my ass. My quest for inner peace and physical health had turned into a Jim Carrey movie.

I owe an apology, still, to the woman stuck directly behind me. I hope she had her head close enough to the floor to avoid having nightmares for years.

After the exercises, Santiago instructed us to lie down on our mats and systematically relax each and every part of our bodies. Personally, I might have spent a little too much time on the spleen. I couldn’t wake that bad boy up even hours later.

Santiago dimmed the lights, and in the solitude and quiet of the dark, we meditated.

At least, I figure, that’s what everyone else did. They probably floated off to some higher plane, got in touch with their inner children and took them out for a day at Chuck E. Cheese.

But I was exhausted, and I just plain fell asleep. Had someone’s cell phone not rung, I might still be there now, snoring away. Lucky break for me, since cell phones are strictly verboten in yoga class. (That’s been a hard-and-fast rule in all yoga classes since, I believe, about 250 A.D.)

Honestly, I did feel great after the class. I couldn’t remember when I felt better. My body felt healthier, my stress was gone, my mind was clear and focused, and I was 3 inches taller.

Okay, I’m no taller, but the rest is true. Yoga class was a wonderful experience and I plan to go again, if only to work my way out of the front row. With time, I’ll be watching the poses from the back of the class.

It’s funny how in yoga class, the more you get ahead, the more you get behinds.

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