The old dance hall above Radio Shack is crowded, and it sounds like the ocean when I close my eyes. In yoga class, we breathe only through our noses, and I pray the person next to me isn’t smelly as the teacher shuts all the windows and we stretch our arms above our heads.
There’s a rough shifting of gears as we settle in with ourselves. Child’s pose is home base. You can come back here later if you need to, the teacher tells us, but let’s move on. Warming up, positioned like a child about to crawl, I extend one arm and the opposite leg, priming my spine like it’s a camp stove about to ignite. Tailbones reaching to the sky find space between vertebrae. Blood rushes to my head, and hot air fills my lungs. I hope I make it through without blowing a gasket.
Lunging into warrior poses, we expand tissue that’s stuck together, ungluing it with oxygen while we touch places that even the best massage therapist cannot reach. If we get hurt, it’s our fault; and if we get healed, it’s our claim. Lost in our breath and fluidity of movement, our practice becomes a dance, and sweat drips on the mat in front of our toes.
Today we may have a commercial actress in our class, the teacher says. He says he doesn’t care who we are—it doesn’t matter to him and it doesn’t matter to our practice. Some of you may not have a lot, he says. You may not like your job. Maybe you don’t even have a job. But you have your practice.
He can tell if we cheat, and he’s not afraid to call us out on it. Cheating is looking around at the other people in the room, but we don’t have to look around to get distracted. It’s easy to get distracted just looking at ourselves.
“Oh, look at my toes!” the teacher says, mimicking us. “My toes are painted pink to match my yoga mat! I have a pink Lululemon yoga mat and a new yoga outfit. I am a commercial actress. I have everything; but I have nothing because I have no peace of mind. I can’t even keep my eyes closed at yoga class I am so distracted by my pedicure!” (To my credit my toes do look good with a pink yoga mat.) We are busted. And we’re humbled, our egos slipping away even if only for a moment.
I struggle with my balance, standing on one leg, my torso parallel to the ground, the other leg floating behind me. He says, take your hands off the floor, and lift your arms like airplane wings. This is impossible, but I do it anyway and end up laughing when I fall. I’m not alone. Seriousness is overrated.
“I hope you fall,” he says, “but fall with some awareness, some equanimity.” The bar is lowered and raised at the same time. “Now turn your head and look up to the sky.” This is even harder but it’s not like we’re going to stay in this position all day. I do the best I can, and for once that’s enough. Acceptance is a beautiful thing. I manage to stay calm for at least thirty seconds until its time to do the other side. This is a good opportunity for a bathroom break.
“Come on everybody, fly with me like the Condors did when they flew over Santa Monica.” We like him, so we do it. We soar over the California incline down to lifeguard station #26.
“Before we killed them all,” he adds. A dark cloud falls over the room as bliss turns to shame. We feel bad about having killed the condors, and reluctantly we stand on one leg with our arms a little droopier. Our practice can be confrontational. The teacher says don’t feel bad, there are still some condors, but not as many.
“Look, down below, there’s my favorite Starbucks!” This breaks the gloom spell. We don’t have to feel bad about drinking coffee. Opening our chests without straining our necks requires some cobra in our spines. We are condors and we are airborne.
At the end, lying on our backs with our eyes closed, there’s a little glow of alpha waves or accomplishment, floating over the group. Rising slowly, rocking back and forth, balancing a new perspective, we roll up our yoga mats, collect our belongings, and scatter over Santa Monica Boulevard incessantly checking our cell phones and heading for the nearest coffee shop, pinned by gravity, sustained by air current.
Tamara Adelman is a massage therapist, triathlete, and freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California with a certificate in Creative Nonfiction from UCLA.