When I was thirty, I had a baby. It was supposed to be the beautiful start of an idyllic young motherhood.
Then my mom got sick. Then my dad got sick. Then my dad died. Then the dog died. Then the cat died. Then my mom died. And then. And then. And then I was gone. Gone from joy. Gone from vitality. Gone from giving a shit. Gone from pants without elastic. Gone.
Once in a while, I’d try to coax some endorphins into my bloodstream by working out at a gym with all the half-assed effort of my kids unloading the dishwasher. I hated the gym. It had nothing I needed. No love. No help. No humor. The gym had only two things: out-of-date glossy magazines and Barry, the weight-lifting giant.
Barry was so moved by watching me throw my back out on the elliptical machine, fall over sideways, and bust my face open on the floor, that he asked me to be his third wife. I was insulted. Clearly I’ve earned my place as first wife, Barry. Have you seen my bicep curls? My lunges? I can easily bench press your other wives – assuming they are eight pounds each. Do they know about this plan, by the way? And about each other? Also, could you call 911? Because I am bleeding out down here.
I left there that day like a drunk stumbling out of a bar in the middle of the day, surprised to be greeted by the bright sun. Whatever I needed – whatever it was that would help me feel better, whatever future there might still be for me beyond diapers and dying – was not in that gym.
And I would never, ever go back.
Two days later, I walked into a yoga studio and signed up for my first Bikram yoga class. Yes, that yoga. Steamy, 105 degree, 90 minute, mirrors-on-the-wall yoga. I’d been to other yoga studios, but I’d never seen this.
The place was packed with people. People who were fat, young, old, fit. People with big bellies, long hair, no hair, back hair, brown skin, tattoos, thick thighs, six-pack abs, and accents. A recovering alcoholic. A grieving mother. A veteran. A brain surgeon. A widower. Lawyers. Bartenders. College students. High school drop-outs. All there in that hot room. All kinds of bodies, all kinds of people.
By the time class started, I was already miserable. I wanted a popsicle. I wanted a margarita. I wanted a lot of things. Mostly, I wanted the class to be over.
Despite my hand gestures indicating to the teacher that she could freaking wrap it up with the stupid yoga already, she persisted. She said supportive things. She called people by name. She helpfully told Amanda her hips were level. Awesome. Maybe I can rest my plate of nachos on Amanda’s level hips? Maybe we can rename her Duh-manda? Maybe I should knock Duh-manda over and drink her ice water while she cries?
We were guided through each posture with clear, simple instructions: step your right foot out to the right. Bring your arms up over your head sideways. Put your hands on your lower back. I could take all of these directions. I could hang on in this heat. I could do what the teacher told me to do. Until she said this: Find your eyes in the mirror, see yourself.
Find my what in the where? Uhh. No.
Maaayybe, crazy teacher lady, you could find the window and open it? Maybe I could find your face and punch it? Maybe I could find the door and leave?
But I didn’t leave. I couldn’t leave. Because there it was. What I could not find at the gym. What I could not find in the hours of my days. What I was sure had died with my father, and again with my mother. Right there. In the mirror.
Not the mom, the daughter, the sister, the wife. Myself. Me. Sweaty, thirsty, and kinda pissed. But definitely still there. I went back the next day. And the next.
And on and on, and so what? Another middle-aged, white woman writes a self-realization yoga essay in the middle of the night between glasses of wine and checking Facebook. The end.
But listen: I ain’t no yogi.
My practice is basically a montage of me falling out of every posture and mouthing “fuck this” again and again. My meditation is the unquiet:
What’s for dinner?
Why did I yell at the kids this morning?
Mascara is sliding down my face. I thought it was waterproof. That’s stupid. Probably has bat poop in it.
I wish that guy would stop mouth-breathing like a dehydrated cat. I bet he smacks his food too.
Why did my mom die and leave me with SO MANY turtlenecks? Good GOD, how can one woman have ALL the turtlenecks?
Hey, let’s cry. No one will notice. It looks like sweat. I bet that dude over there is crying right now. Crying cuz he smells terrible. Burn those clothes, ok bro?
Holy shit, are we still in this posture? We’ve been down here for 6 hours. We’re gonna die down here.
But, between free associating every ridiculously predictable detail of my easily stereotyped existence and trying not to run from the room, I practice finding my eyes in the mirror. I practice seeing myself.
The truth is, though, I mostly don’t find my eyes, or see myself. I see a cute guy, or a nice woman I might adopt as my grandmother. I see my ankles, or the top of my head. I see the lights, the floor.
In those elusive moments I do truly look, what’s reflected back is never just me alone in an empty space. It’s a whole room full of people, all of whom have a story, all of whom made their way here to practice surviving.
And I remember that if we are going to feel better, if we’re going to be better, we can’t avoid ourselves, or each other. We have to come here and learn how to be crowded in next to one another, uncomfortable in the heat, distracted in the fog.
We have to try again. And again.
We have to find our eyes in the mirror, and see.