My First Zen Moment Through Yoga

Perhaps it is the milky-white pallor of my Eastern European skin exerting some kind of outside-in influence on me, but I am not even remotely Zen. Inner peace and a unity of the mind and body—much less with the world around me–evade me. Most days I am a Quasimodian mess of tensed muscles and twitching eyes, groaning when I stand up from my keyboard, where I work, converse, think, procrastinate and, most days, eat at least two if not three meals. One day a future archeologist will no doubt reconstruct my existence out of the universe of crumbs and sticky bits inhabiting the bottom of my keyboard. Will they try to chart my emotional state? Happy days, stressful days, days requiring the assiduous administration of Diet Coke and Cheez-its; it is written there, the crumb trail of my life, lounging obstinately and perhaps permanently under the Q and the J keys. I am an urban sea creature, coiled in my work station, scuttling away from treacherous threats.

I reckon the folks who invented yoga never met a keyboard, much less had to dine over one under the unremitting and disapproving glare of a set of fluorescent lights. There is no “typist” pose in yoga–instead there is “tree” pose, “warrior” and the well-known “downward facing dog” (though my cynical eyebrow does raise at the ever-so-slightly depressive connotations of that particular name).  Sometimes I imagine a yoga series of the modern world: the “commuter” moves down to the “desk” pose, which goes out into the “texter” and then up again into “bike messenger”.  Yogis, at least in the popular imagination, tend to spend their scantily-clad existences in remote, serene, mountainous places, majestic and inspiring, devoid of cell phones, subways and rush hour traffic. Nonetheless, I determined to take my amply-clad doughy self to a yoga studio to see if I could snag a little of that serenity in the middle of a very flat, very noisy, very bustling city.

Where I live, in Chicago, yoga is often treated as a power sport, a bit like a training exercise for the Israeli army or something gladiators might have tried their hands at while baiting tigers and lions in an amphitheater full of raucous Romans. I am not what you might call in shape, unless that shape is the first pancake or a deformed amoeba, and my attempts to keep up with lithe, volleyball-playing spin class addicts who are sampling yoga like one might sample an unusual smoothie flavor render me tenser, angrier and with even less self-esteem than before. It is usually at this point that I speak to one of my friends who have practiced yoga for years who assures me that yoga is not a competitive sport, that it is utterly and completely focused on the self and one’s personal journey. It is a gentle, contemplative and introspective process she says. Uh-huh. Tell that to Ms. Sparkle Spandex Pants who appears to be the love child of Jane Fonda and that P90X infomercial guy.

Still, I would give anything for a little relief from the tension and relentless strain of the modern world. Feeling the burn doesn’t do it for me; I know there are people who can punch, kick, run and sweat their way to peace and personal salvation but these things make me want to lie down in the street and take a little nap for fifteen hours or so. After all, Zen is most commonly thought of as a serene state of being, a oneness of mind and body in solitude and mindfulness, and a sweaty frenetic fit just doesn’t seem like the best way of achieving that elusive mode. As a Zen saying gently proposes: “Sit quietly, do nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.” A little like cellulite. Or the mounting muscle knots in my shoulders and back, longing for flexion, relaxation and maybe a nice massage courtesy of a pair of strong, lavender-scented hands. But I digress.

So off I set, in search of some calmness, a bit of gentle exercise, and a welcome break from the “desk” pose. Can you achieve Zen when Zen is the end? I think in this case Yoda might be wrong (and my apologies to you Star Wars fans out there for my bastardization)—there is no do, there is only try. I could not conjure up a lot of Zen people to mind, the famed Bulls’ Coach Phil Jackson’s cool demeanor notwithstanding, few individuals seem to manage a neuroses-free daily demeanor. We only glimpse of it, like seeing a single, miniscule, individual snowflake against its brothers and sisters in the sunshine, glinting, brilliant, consuming our gaze for a moment, then gone. I hoped to sustain at least a few of these luminous moments in my Yoga for Beginners series, although I think at the time I would not have been able to put words to my goals. A vague and dimly understood higher plane was my ambition, that, and firmer thighs.

My class was divinely and purposely small, just a handful of us, about half men who looked as though they wandered in from cleaning the garage or patching a hole in a dinghy—no jaguar-esque gurus here. The women were blissfully bereft of spandex; instead they were all dressed like myself, in slouchy old college t-shirts and sweat pants or shorts. The studio had no dress code, and I was not yet apprised of the correct (or better) attire for yoga practice. The beauty of the small class was that the teacher could spend long minutes on each pose, helping each person carefully into proper position, making adjustments one by one. I remember the first time she yanked my hips up in downward facing dog; I went from ungainly washer-woman breaking a fall on a slippery floor to my cat in the morning, stretching, graceful but strong and sturdy—OH! I thought, this is how it is supposed to feel. The other benefit of the small class was the room to spread out. We each truly had a little kingdom of our own, and after the first 30 minutes or so of the first class, sneaking looks askance to see how we compared to our classmates, to determine who could do which poses best and most beautifully, was no longer important. All that mattered was our little island, arranging our tight, contracted limbs into unfamiliar positions, waiting excitedly for the instructor to come visit our patch of the studio to help pull, push or twist an arm, hip or leg into place, making the pretzel-like positions all of the sudden make sense.

But it wasn’t until the end of class that I experience my first moment of Zen. My first introduction to “corpse” pose (I am a champion at “corpse” pose, by the way), the instructor asked us all to lie down, eyes closed, and gave those of us who wanted an herbal eye pillow to lay across our eyes while she dimmed the lights and we concentrated on our breath, in and out, in and out. In that clean, bright white space, I finally found a moment of peace. Keenly aware of my breath, finally having shut down the incessant monologue of my brain, feeling my shoulder and “sit” bones as they are called against the wood floor, I relaxed. I compared myself to no one. I did not attempt to accomplish anything. I did not worry how I looked, who was present, when we would finish, why we were doing what we were doing, what I should be doing instead, how much the class cost me, whether I was doing it well, whether someone else was doing it better, or what I might do next. For a brief moment, I was able to (just) be. Zen, in corpse pose, with lavender-scented pillow. It sounds like a painting you might see in the Louvre.  For me it furnishes hope and perhaps proof that yoga can quiet even the most wretched of us modern creatures.


  1. Andrew says

    This is one of the most accomplished articles I have read on any topic, not just on Yoga – comic, serious, surprising and wonderful.

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