I Was A Special Needs Yoga Student
During the first three weeks of yoga school, I could feel the frustration building among my classmates. Here they were, people who’d been doing yoga for years, who’d studied with great masters in India, and Richard Freeman was spending time teaching about the “internal forms” of triangle pose. We’d practice for 60 or 70 minutes, and then Richard would stop the practice cold to give detailed, specific instructions about something that they already knew. It just wasn’t enough of a workout, some of the other students said. So they practiced at night, on weekends, or very early in the morning, hard, long practices full of sweat and self-righteous sacrifice. This was yoga school, and they were getting it done.
Richard’s plan worked for me, though. I couldn’t abide much more than an hour of practice that wasn’t really practice. Not only were my physical abilities at the bottom quarter of the class, but I was also trying to do it on one leg. In the afternoons, while my classmates went for delightful hikes in the Flatirons or on Boulder bike rides, I limped home through a trailer park to ice my ailing hamstring. One rigorous Wednesday morning, while everyone adjusted one another’s backbends, I instead took my throbbing gam to the emergency room, where they determined that I had a grade-two strain. I received a prescription of rest and athletic compression shorts. At last, I had a medical excuse to sit on my mat and mope.
But then the fourth week arrived, and our morning practice turned “Mysore style,” named after Mysore, India, where Sri. K. Patthabi Jois hatched the punishing and possibly evil Ashtanga vinyasa system. This involves several series of challenging poses, learned progressively, that need to be practiced in the same order every day in order to reach their full effectiveness. It’s yoga for anal-retentive type-A obsessives, which may explain why many German-speaking people love it so.
My fellow classmates’ eyes glowed with excitement. They practically frothed and stomped their hooves at the possibility of finally cutting loose after having been held back for so long. I, on the other hand, moaned with dread foreboding. The field had been given the illusion of equality, but now everyone else would be roostering and alligatoring it up while I bumbled in pain, vainly attempting to fold forward. The rubber was about to meet the road, and I had a deflated tire.
I’d been in Mysore-inspired rooms before. About 15 minutes after practice starts, they become really sweaty and disgusting, which is fine if you’re in the mix, but not fine if you’re sitting around sucking your fingers. I prefer to breathe my oxygen untrammeled by a putrid mix of four-continent hippie b.o. and chest-sweat. Therefore, I hatched my escape strategy. On Monday morning, I set my mat as close to the exit as I possibly could without actually being outside.
But Richard and Mary had a different plan. They’d spent time over the weekend devising my “therapeutic loop”. Mary presented it to me, typed: Some sun salutations, some warrior poses, a few seated marichiasanas, simple backbends, lots of squatting, and several repetitions of what Richard calls “Camper’s Pose,” because when you get into it, you look like a camper taking a dump in the woods. This was, they’d determined, the ideal sequence for my problem. I’d keep pressure off my hams while strengthening the muscles around them; it was therapy, it was rehab, and it was a hell of a lot easier than what the other students had to do. I called it my “Special Needs Program.”
And what a program it was! While everyone else in the room grunted and strained and focused their attention in a very focused, attentive way, I squatted in Camper’s Pose, concentrating on my breath but also looking around at the people twisting their legs behind their heads and realizing, with much satisfaction, that they weren’t necessarily any closer to enlightenment than me. The classical texts all say that a good yoga pose should exemplify both effort and ease. Well, I was certainly sweating in Camper’s Pose, at least a little, but I also felt totally at ease. Ergo, yoga.
When I finished my upward-facing bow and my shoulder-stand sequence (minus plow pose) and my fish poses and my headstand, I looked at the clock. It was 9 AM. Practice still had an hour to go, and I was already done. The therapeutic loop felt like magic.
I sauntered across the studio, went into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet, not because I actually had to take a dump, but because I had plenty of time to do so. Five minutes passed thusly until I got bored, and then I went back to my mat, only to realize, once I got there, that I’d forgotten to blow my nose. So it was back across the studio I went to the tissue box, while the world around me strained in a series of insanely difficult poses designed to be practiced by 13-year-old Brahmin boys with an eye on overthrowing the Raj. Finally, Richard noticed my lackadaisical ways.
He squatted beside me.
“Would you like to see the dessert menu?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said.
“Did you do your finishing poses?”
“Could you do them again?”
“If you insist,” I said.
“I do,” he said.
So I did another headstand, holding it for at least 30 breaths. Then I came down, and then it was still 25 minutes before the group savasana. How glorious.
The next day, I repeated the same pattern. Richard came over to me again. My special needs were proving special indeed.
“We need to find something for you to do,” he said.
Richard got a blanket, and a couple of blocks, and a strap, and began to manipulate them. He didn’t put in 10 years studying with BKS Iyengar for nothing. Before I knew it, he’d trussed me like a Christmas goose. There he left me, for almost half an hour, in baddakonasana. I felt so comfortable that I wanted to whistle. Instead, I looked pityingly at my classmates, who were struggling so, while I got all the personal attention I needed from my beloved teacher, and I wasn’t even going to have to change my shirt after class.
By the end of the course, Richard and Mary had come to realize, as all my yoga teachers eventually do, that they couldn’t push me very hard. During a Thursday afternoon asana class, while the rest of the students attempted to kick up into handstand and its variations, I snored happily while twitching on my mat. Richard didn’t bother me. The next morning, I finished my practice with 45 minutes to spare, rolled up my mat, and pulled a book off the Yoga Workshop shelf. Mary walked by and said,
“That book is interesting, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Very interesting.”
I was reading a book in yoga class, and nobody had said a word, but of course they hadn’t. Once again, I’d learned the most important yoga lesson: That the poses don’t really matter. They’re merely an avenue to deeper realms of exploration about human behavior, the mysteries of the universe, and the true nature of the mind. Whether or not I’d actually traveled down that avenue during my teacher training remained to be seen. But I’d started out in pain, and, by the end, I was in a little less pain, and I felt relatively happy. I’d been grouchy and whiny and depressed, but people had shown me kindness anyway. Yoga had healed me, at least temporarily.
When the day’s activities ended, I went up to Richard and Mary and thanked them for everything. They seemed exceedingly pleased. I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for their hard work.
“I’ll just do my special-needs program at home for a few weeks,” I said.
“And then you can get back to normal,” said Richard.
“Probably,” I said.
“It’s impressive,” he said. “A lot of people give up forever when they get hurt.”
“Eh,” I said. “I’m too far down the road to quit.”
The next day, they gave me my diploma. I’d graduated from the toughest yoga school in North America, bad hamstring, bad attitude, and all. Some things are just worth doing, even if you have special needs.
Photo by gbSk
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