By: Jacqueline Skokna
Head face down on the mat, you start in child’s pose. The usual. It opens the hips and shoulders and is supposed to make you feel grounded, at peace. But peace couldn’t possibly exist in a room just shy of one hundred degrees. This class just began yet here you sit in this uncomfortable position, feeling small beads of sweat form along your forehead and limbs. Focus on your breathing, you tell yourself – or was that the instructor who said that? Either way, the Ujjayi pranayama breath, the breath of victory, begins to calm your chaotic mind. Thank God for the air. Thank God for your lungs that can breathe it.
Slowly move toward table-top position, says the instructor, and you open your eyes to a soft gaze, placing your hands beneath your shoulders and your knees beneath your hips. You like that you are aligned perfectly – five minutes in, and your perfectionist nature is going steady. You like the assurance that comes with doing things right – it makes you feel like nothing you ever did was wrong. Never mind that yoga is supposed to be about embracing imperfection, feeling okay with your weaknesses.
You become more aware of your body, and it scares you. It has a past, like you. It has felt the fingertips of young men whose names you can’t always remember, depending on how much you drank that night. You feel ashamed of this – shame on you. Think of how the guys at school would call you slut, whore, loose if they knew. Slut. This is a name reserved for women, a scarlet letter we get handed like a gift, but there is no joy in receiving it. Catholicism forbids your actions. You know the good girls at school wear their true love waits purity rings because that is what guarantees a happy marriage. Guys don’t want girls who have had multiple partners; don’t you know. You are unwanted.
The instructor says to begin cat-cow movements, shrinking the shoulders down and caving the spine in, then opening them up and looking toward the front windows. Every time you move from cat to cow pose, the sunlight pours in, hitting your face, and you breathe in the cinnamon-smell of incense traveling its way from the top of the fireplace to the very corner of the room where your mat lies. It’s glorious, that smell. Reminds you of autumn, things changing, you could be changing.
Back to downward-facing dog.
You peek between your legs, and notice there’s a handsome guy behind you, with a tattoo along his bicep: it reads, “what does a fish know about the water it swims in?” and has you thinking intermittently about the meaning of existence for the rest of class. The guy may be in his late 20’s, but you’ve always liked guys who were a bit older. They offer you some kind of protection, validity, and the way they found you so lovely and innocent, and could articulate these qualities like a poet, was attractive. Heck, one even was a poet, and he never took you out on dates, but when you two were alone on his couch his hand ran along your upper back and spine and that was enough to keep you interested, fill you up. The guy didn’t call after, but he did send a text saying that he was still thinking of you, which was nice of him, sweet of him. But he never showed you his poems, even when you asked. You learned to expect nothing more than nights like these; it was easier than trying for something more.
You hope for a brief second the guy behind you is checking you out, will ask your number over by the locker room after class. In your head, you laugh at how ridiculous you are. Why is it you crave validation from the male eye like a drug? Who taught you to be this way? You don’t attempt to answer these questions. They embarrass you too much.
The class continues and you don’t have time to think anymore – you are only body, composed of merely skin and bone and muscle. You feel okay with this. High crescent, twist to the right, forward fold, same thing on the other side. Chaturangas separate each sequence and you gulp in air during up dog, using your core to slide back into down dog. Then comes inversion time – it’s crow pose, bakasana. You plant your hands shoulder-width distance on the front of your mat and rest your knees on your triceps, tilting forward and staring at a fleck of dust on the wood floor in front of you. You try to focus, but fear settles in. You don’t feel strong enough for this. You hold it for three whole seconds – your personal best – before falling flat on your face. You get back up quickly. No one really noticed; they were too focused on holding their own crows, facing their own fears.
Finally, sixty minutes have passed, and you’re in savasana, corpse pose, when you’re supposed to be okay with letting go, with stopping movement entirely for five to ten minutes. This shouldn’t be hard – this should be the easy part, the resting, the calm. But it’s like the dark thoughts were collecting the whole class, whole handfuls of them, and they decided to reveal themselves the moment you stopped moving.
It is fitting you are lying down like this, vulnerable to attack, because right now, you are unable to stop the thoughts telling you you are dirty and used and unloved. The thoughts darken the fingerprints of every young man who ever touched you, reminding you that you wanted it to happen – well, most of the time. There were a couple nights you didn’t want them to touch you, to go so far, but were too scared and frozen to object. So you looked away from them and let a few tears fall, hoping they would notice the tears were speaking for you, telling them no, I am not ready for this tonight. Please, not so far. They did not notice.
At least you still have the air to breathe, even if it’s coming in smaller mouthfuls now. A voice tells you you might as well be dead, and the sad thing is, you believe it for a moment. When did your body become so still, and who was the last man to touch it? Dizzy and powerless, you feel your head spinning like when you’re on that Zipper ride at the summer carnival back in your hometown, the one that left you sick afterwards.
This is how it goes those summer days while you wait in line with the small green tickets in hand: you think it will be fun, you want to take a risk, you want to learn how it feels to be flown into the air, in circle after circle, limbs crashing against the crisscrossed metal cage. So you sacrifice control over your body for ten minutes of adventure. Afterwards, you realize it wasn’t worth it. You lean over the garbage can under the shade of trees, physically sick from your bad decisions, a little angry at yourself and no one in particular, and you hope, with whatever hope is left within you, to choose differently next time.