The workshop flier said, “Yoga for Women”, and I thought, this workshop could go one of several ways:
· The teacher could be a tight-bodied Lululemon model in fuchsia lipstick and eyeliner, who played acid jazz and dubstep to our vinyasas. She could try to bend us into crazy positions and coach us to use our feminine Shakti to make ourselves hotter, more luscious beings (presumably in order to snag or keep some man);
· Or, she could be an “Earth Mother” with hairy legs and no sense of humor, who told us to do malasana over a mirror to look at our yonis, and who would coach us to breathe through our vaginas and smile at our uteruses.
So I was carrying some expectations and insecurities, along with my mat and water bottle, into the studio that day. Still, I wanted to practice yoga with the Lens of Woman on. So often, my practice is the place where I shed all those labels that identify me in the world. Woman, black, straight, liberal: I know that my practice is really effective when those labels have less hold on me, even in our world of over-connectedness, uber-identity and hyper-self-awareness.
But this workshop would give me the chance to identify strongly as a woman in a yoga space. What’s it like to identify on my mat? How does one create a space that feels safe for women of all kinds to come together and practice without getting caught up in our troubles and worries?
Turns out, my worries were wasted. The instructor was a very regular looking white woman in a diaphanous pale pastel shalwar kameez and matching scarf. She smiled a lot, and had a soft, sweet voice. It would be easy to believe that birds and butterflies followed her around, and she sang songs thanking Mother Earth and Father Sky for their gifts.
She told stories about being a librarian and working in India, about teaching yoga to young children. She taught us how to prostrate, to gently stretch ourselves out along the ground in a deep bow of respect and gratitude. She taught us that the inner lines of our body—inner leg lines, inner arm lines—are all feminine lines, and activating them is a way to tap into feminine energy in asana practice. She gave the most wonderful adjustments in corpse pose.
At the end of the workshop we did a long meditation together. It felt like the culminating practice. We stood in a circle while she coached us through a series of visualizations. At one point, she encouraged us to imagine that we were grounding our legs and feet through the floor, into the earth, all the way through the layers right to the center of the planet.
This is common right? Anyone who’s been to a yoga class has had the instructor coach them to ground down into the earth through the four corners of their feet, yadda yadda. But today, I really took her at her word, and I imagined myself growing roots into the earth. I imagined my feet going through the floor, through the floor of the bank below us, through the concrete on Wabash Avenue. I imagined going through basements and sub-basements, beyond sewers and pipes, through dirt, through clay, past the bones of long gone animals—
And then I began to panic. Wait! My feet are flat! My legs aren’t strong! How long have we been standing?! This hurts! I’m simply not strong enough to do this. I can’t hold myself up! My knees began to shake, my legs to tremble, and I imagined blood pooling in my feet. I started to whimper.
Just then, there was a kind of flash behind my closed eyes that was so sudden it took my breath away. It wasn’t like a flash of light, really, just a sudden very present, very powerful Awareness.
Shh! It said. What is the Earth made of? Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, potassium. What are you made of? Calcium, phosphorus, sodium, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, potassium; the minerals of the Earth are contained in your body. The very building blocks of the Universe flow through your bloodstream and comprise the bones in your feet, your legs and arms.
Why are you working to hold yourself up? Trust! Trust the Earth to hold you up! Feel it rise up to meet you. You are made of the same stuff as the Earth; you are a part the Earth, and the Earth is a part of you. You don’t have to hold yourself up. The Earth will hold you, because you and the Earth are one.
I was flooded with such joy. My breath quickened, I was beaming, and in the midst of that silent circle, I wanted to shout, to whoop and leap. We continued meditating for maybe another 15 minutes, but I don’t know if I heard anything the teacher said.
It felt like such a gift, that moment of understanding. I didn’t have to work so hard at staying grounded; I didn’t have to be strong enough to push down. All I had to do was believe in gravity, and trust that the Earth was holding onto me as firmly as I was pressing into her, and that we were essentially made of the same stuff.
Since then, I don’t know how much my day-to-day life has been transformed. I still spend more time on the computer or my phone than I do looking out the window, or looking within. I’m still judgmental when I wish I were compassionate, and still too impatient.
It’s easy sometimes to forget about my connection to the world. I have light and temperature control over most of my internal spaces. I use shoes and coats and umbrellas, lots of devices we all take for granted that prevent me from connecting with Nature. But I never forgot that moment. It’s given me a stronger faith in my own body and faith in the universe around me to care for me as a part of it.
When I think about my existence as an expression of the energy and awareness of the Universe, it gives me hope, a hope that can’t be undone by cruelty or discouragement or pain. I stand on the ground, wet or dry, I look up into the sky, cloudy or clear, and I can feel the universe looking back into me.