T Minus 40: Namaste

One of my longest running relationships in life has been with yoga. I spent the second quarter of this year writing and exploring the story of that relationship. This is an excerpt from that piece.

The first time I practiced yoga I was a snarky 20-year-old college junior full of the blind confidence that comes with youth. I didn’t take it very seriously. Yoga was the prescribed movement class for my summer course of study at The Meisner Extension, a division of the Undergrad Drama department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I didn’t understand it as a discipline. I didn’t see the usefulness beyond keeping my body loose for use on stage either in faux combat or for physical comedy bits like pratfalls.

I had completed a semester of Tai Chi at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute my freshman year and it left me unimpressed. One Friday morning I nearly passed out while trying to hold some ancient pose for an extended period of time while outrageously hungover.

We were working with partners that day to help each other with form. I could feel myself sweating even though I was a bit chilly and a creeping nausea was building inside of me, but I knew what was causing it so I was determined to power through. Standing with one leg forward and one leg back, weight in front, arms at chest height forming a semi circle with hands outstretched at an angle was requiring all the strength I had. Suddenly my partner’s face turned from it’s usual upbeat smile to panic. Apparently, I turned ghostly pale right before I started to topple and though I didn’t actually faint, I came the closest I ever had in my life.

I explained to the instructor, a wonderful character of an older Chinese woman called Jean Kwak who treated us all like her children, that I was fighting a cold (my usual excuse for morning impaired-ness). Actually, I had been out drinking Jameson for sport at my preferred watering hole the night before and had gotten about three hours of sleep before class at 9am. Jean let me lay down in the corner of the studio for the remainder of the class. I wished she had sent me back to my dorm, because then I could’ve at least had a smoke on the walk back. According to her though, I was in no shape to walk myself the six blocks from the Institute to Brittany Hall while fighting off such a horrible “cold”.

Armed with my snarkiness and my limited Tai Chi experience, I waltzed into the studio where my first yoga class was to begin. I was ready to laugh it off as just another movement class in my career as an acting student at Tisch. I was convinced that it would in no way help me win my eventual Oscar or land a role on One Life to Live.

I sat on the floor in a circle with my fellow students and listened to the spiel. The teacher asked us all to offer up any experience we had had with yoga and several of my classmates actually had something to offer in the conversation. I immediately thought they were hippies or ass-kissers or weirdos, never pausing to consider that six weeks later they might be my friends. I was never very into the “art” part of my arts education. I wanted to work. I didn’t make the connection back then and I surrounded myself with people who felt the same way. I didn’t diversify much when it came to friendships. When one of my female classmates demonstrated her downward dog skills and expounded on the virtues of her summer yoga camp experience all I could think was, spoiled summer-camp-going bitch.  

Introductions were made and eventually the conversation landed on me. I wanted to be as humorous as possible. To me, this meant sarcasm with a touch of disdain.

Amy, how about you? Do you have any experience with yoga? 

No. I did take Tai Chi at Strasberg, but I never found my inner ‘whatever’.

The teacher took this quip with the patience of a true yogi and responded. Well, that’s ok. No experience is necessary here. Her voice had a lightness to it. Her tone, an evenness that portrayed a gentle confidence and some kind of inner wisdom that eluded me at the time, and is something I strive for now.

During that first class we worked on breathing. This was not my first experience with a class full of breathing as a young actor. We breathed in acting class, we breathed in voice, we breathed in dance, in movement, in singing. I never realized how little we humans actually breathe in a given day until I had to concentrate on it for course credit.

In the early classes we set out learning the poses for a sun salutation or suyra namaskar. We began with suyra namaskar A, and practiced a modified version for a room full of relative beginners. We started with tadasana, or mountain pose.

I thought to myself, ok, so we stand here. I’m totally getting an A in this.

As we moved through the poses from tadasana to uttanasana (forward fold) to plank to chaturanga to cobra to downward facing dog the teacher came around and made corrections in our posture and reminded us to breathe, something I still have to do for myself on a daily basis.

The weeks progressed. My body decided it enjoyed the asanas immediately. Something felt natural about them and I appreciated how much of the work was internal. I even befriended the hippies and the weirdos. The ass-kissers and I never got along though and the one girl really did turn out to be a spoiled summer-camp-going bitch, but you can’t win them all.

I never expected this practice to become something I looked forward to, but it did. Yoga class became the highlight of summer session. I was fearless. I tried every inversion. Every tough pose the teacher offered, I went for it, always opting for its full expression. We were hardcore back then, I practiced mainly without a mat. Sometimes my vegan, hippie friend Jen and I would do handstands for no reason while we were hanging out in front of 721 Broadway or at her on-again/off-again summer boyfriend’s apartment on Bleecker. We thought we were so badass.

That six week summer session was my first experience with daily practice, but it was purely physical to me. I only barely noticed the changes in my mental and emotional state. At age 20, I wasn’t very aware. I wasn’t at all aware of the mind/body connection. That would take time.

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