“Exhale, forward bend,” Alison says with a beatific smile, practically kissing the floor as she tucks her head between her knees, her body folding at the hips like a door hinge.
Class members follow her example with varying degrees of success. I can get my fingertips within about six inches of the floor before my back starts complaining and my hamstrings start to cry.
But the routine continues, the forward bend only the first step in a “sun salutation” of bends and stretches that has been practiced for thousands of years. On your birthday, you are supposed to perform one sun salutation for each year of your life; I’m lucky if I can do three.
I’m one of those people who never had the faintest interest in learning yoga. I always thought that yoga involved people sitting cross-legged on the floor, gazing into space and chanting “om.”
So I got involved in yoga for a simple reason: desperation. I had a long history of chronic back pain, with periodic flare-ups that were becoming more common.
The consensus was that there was nothing medically wrong - just that my lower back was a tangled knot of sore, inflamed, inflexible muscles, tendons, joints and ligaments.
Stretching and strengthening exercises helped. Chiropractors helped. But I finally figured out that if I really wanted to keep my back in shape, I needed a regular program to make it happy. So I joined a twice-weekly yoga class, and now I kind of like it. In fact, I’m addicted.
My body was horribly inflexible when I started, even by male standards (women are much more flexible than men - physically, anyway). I could barely bend over. I couldn’t do some of the hip stretches without falling over sideways.
Our instructor, Alison Rubin, a 40-year-old with the body of a 20-year-old, would occasionally giggle at my performance. Then she would come and stomp on my thighs, trying to make them stretch and making me scream.
But after six months of this routine, an odd thing is happening. My body is becoming much more flexible, and my back is much happier.
I don’t notice the improvement that much in class, because everybody else is still more flexible than I am. But I notice the improvement in other sports that I play. I can bend over to tie my shoes without wincing. And when my back does hurt from something (too much tennis, for example), it recovers quickly. Instead of being sore for a week, I’m only sore for a day.
And I have a lifetime to get even better.
I’ve also overcome some fears and anxieties that stemmed from being a clumsy kid in P.E. class who was uncomfortable taking risks with his body. I can now do a handstand - not very well, but I can do it. (I’m not the only person with body insecurities; one person stopped going to yoga because she thought Alison suggested she had chubby wrists.)
I haven’t yet explored much of the spiritual aspects of yoga, though I enjoy the brief period of relaxation and meditation at the end of each class. I like the feeling of serenity that comes with some routines. I enjoy learning the almost-musical names of some poses. I enjoy teasing Alison about her yoga-related moneymaking schemes.
One of these days, in fact, I’ll be ready to attempt my first half-lotus.
And I just love sitting on the floor, crossing my legs, and chanting “om.”