‘I had no idea yoga meant learning a new language. We were told to engage our locks—I would have been happy to oblige if I’d known what they were, but I didn’t dare ask.’
There’s nothing more disconcerting than to be the weakest person in a room filled with women, but that’s often what men confront when they step into a yoga studio. They say this is your practice, that no one else in the room matters, but I’ve struggled with this concept, and I’m convinced that men and women do, too.
I’ve learned the hard way, pulling groin muscles, throwing out a disc, bruising toes. It took me years to build up enough strength to refrain from postures I wasn’t ready for. Looking back on that first time, it’s a wonder I had the guts to ever return.
I’d worked out at my gym for over a decade and had never wandered into that room with the frosted windows where mostly women went to do yoga and Pilates. To be honest, I had mixed motivations.
I was recently divorced and I had run into a friend’s ex-wife who was now a yoga instructor. She encouraged me to try it, but before I took a class from her, I wanted to get a handle on it at my gym.
I slipped off my shoes, grabbed a yoga mat, and held my breath as I stepped into that room with the frosted windows. The studio was rectangular, sparse; the light was soft. New Age music floated in the air.
A woman stood on her head in the center of the room on a hardwood floor. She was short and stocky with tight-cropped blonde hair. She reminded me of an old-school Russian gymnast.
Several other women were in yoga positions. One looked like a lotus petal, another was folded into thirds like a piece of origami. I rolled out the blue mat in a spot farthest from anyone. I lay down on my back and stretched my legs the way I did back in Little League.
The woman who had stood on her head now walked toward me and asked, “Have you done yoga before?” Her voice was boot-camp tough, like a high school gym teacher’s.
“Is it that obvious?” I said lightheartedly.
“This is an Ashtanga class, a vigorous form of yoga. I don’t recommend it for beginners.”
“I didn’t realize,” I said honestly. “I just wanted to give it a try. I was unaware that there were different types.”
She sighed. “You can stay, but I won’t give you much guidance because it will only frustrate you. Just watch. Rest whenever necessary in child’s position. Listen to your body.”
I wanted to ask what child’s position is, but was too afraid. The instructor then called everyone to the front of their mats. “Close your eyes and bring your hands to heart center.”
We began by chanting a Sanskrit prayer. The class knew the words. I kept quiet until the om. The vibration was soothing and reminded me of the time I stayed in a Buddhist monastery in the Japanese Alps with my ex—tatami mats, simple meals, an evening bath in a hot tub.
I missed the next instruction because I was thinking about that trip. The class went into some sort of “A” salutation. I tried to follow, but it was like doing the tango if you’ve never danced. By the time I’d figured out the sequence, the group had moved on to “B” salutations. This sequence was even harder. I did my best, but it wasn’t pretty and sweat pooled on the mat.
Now everyone but me was standing with eyes closed.
The postures had odd names, which I assumed were also Sanskrit. Prasaritta something and Chattanooga Vondashinu came next. Everyone must have spoken this language because they moved with the precision of a soldier and the grace of a dancer. I, on the other hand, played the role of the court jester, out of step and breath.
I had no idea yoga meant learning a new language. We were told to engage our locks—I would have been happy to oblige if I’d known what they were, but I didn’t dare ask.
The instructor reminded me of Mr. Frostman from ninth-grade gym. If I showed any weakness she might make me run laps, do a hundred push-ups, or worse, give me detention. “Slide into downward dog,” she instructed. “Relax into this resting position. If it doesn’t feel restful, retreat into child’s pose.”
I was on all fours making an upside-down V, but this was no rest area. My shoulders were on fire, but I was too weak to retreat into child’s position because every woman in the room held firm.
Maybe it was the name that made this difficult. Couldn’t they have called it something more masculine, perhaps a pit stop? I was dying to pull off the road, cool my burning shoulders, but I’d suffer a muscle pull rather than be the only one retreating into a kid’s posture.
Finally the instructor claimed we’d come to the most important posture of the day, shavasa something, translated as dead man’s pose. At first I thought, that’s appropriate, I feel like a dead man, exhausted and embarrassed. But then I realized that despite no ball to hit, or points to score, my body felt the way it did after a great workout. Yep, I was tired and sore, but it was all in a good way. I may have put in a poor showing on all the postures leading up to dead man, but there was no doubt I had nailed this one. Next time—and I had already decided I would have to give this another go—I would do better.