The Nature of a Body
We are supposed to be talking about the nature of the body. Which is to say, impermanence.
Here one minute, gone the next. Lost to the ravages of time and the elements and age and pesticides. I am in a hollow room, two rows of yoga mats, my tunnel vision on my own purple mat, brought from home. I sit on two bolsters, like a queen, a head taller than the other students, each sitting cross-legged directly on the floor. We are supposed to be learning about the education of the body, and how to guide others through its magnificence and limits.
There is a difference between goodness and passion, between goodness and healing, between goodness and will. You do not have to have goodness to get the rest of it. This, I know. I tell my teacher about the decade or so of pain. No one nods in agreement. One woman lost her dog last year. I wonder if I will be able to walk after class. I stretch my right leg out and feel the spider web of nerves and blood rush from hip to foot.
When I declined spinal fusion surgery, it was mostly out of skepticism. I would not be taken for a ride. I didn’t like what I saw in his eyes: the lust of a hammer regarding a nail. When I decided to become a yoga teacher, it was mostly out of spite: to prove the surgeon wrong, to create what I couldn’t find. I was not even particularly “good” at yoga. In the same way my body was not a particularly “good” body. There is a difference between flexibility and a hypermobile spine. I had not even been practicing yoga very long. No one auditions you for yoga teacher training. If you want to keep showing up to your mat and (more or less) follow along with the class, they’ll let you.
* * *
Scoliosis wound its way into my vertebrae in middle school: an S-curve and a bit of rotation, ringing out my spine like a towel. It lives underneath my right shoulder blade. The first decade was futile: trying everything to release the compression of my nerves and discs, putting ribs back into place, freeing muscles.
Everything is temporary. This is what it is to have a body.
The first decade of pain was standard-issue. Trying everything, nothing working, trying more. The lack of results pointed to a lack of trying, proof of laziness or moral deficiency. The promise of miracle cures. The promise of drugs, over the counter, prescription, recreational. All of which left me more dissociated, less present. All of which failed to lend themselves to anything lasting. Every kind of movement, body work, breathing, belief. Glimmers of rare and fleeting freedom from the pain: inconclusive evidence.
At nineteen, I went to my first yoga class at my university’s gym and hated every single minute of it. I hated my teacher, the other students, my mat, the room, the music, the mirrors, and myself. I could barely touch my toes. This was, the teacher made clear to me, not good. It did not make me calm. My muscles did not feel relaxed. Every part of my body was in screaming agony for sixty minutes, and I was aghast when I learned that most classes are actually ninety minutes. But I kept going back to the windowless room with the hateful teacher because it seemed better than letting someone cut me open for a surgery with a 10% success rate. I eventually found teachers I didn’t hate, who helped me to hate myself a tiny bit less. They helped me to see how my disability could be an advantage to my students.
Six years after my first class, I flew to Santa Barbara for an eighteen-day yoga teacher training.
After the introduction class, where we met our teachers, I crawled over to the most sympathetic-seeming teacher, who had recently had double shoulder surgery and explained my limitations. Apologetic, I told him I probably wouldn’t be able to keep up and I just wanted to learn so I could then specialize in teaching what most training programs refer to as “special populations.” Seniors, people with disabilities, people with cancer, people in bigger bodies. (Basically, anyone who isn’t thin, white, twenty-three years old, and hyper-flexible.)
I couldn’t even look my teacher in the face. I knew I was in the wrong place.
His eyes crinkled with pity, but he smiled. I could do what I needed to look after my body and they’d figure out the rest. I could stay. Which is not to say that everyone was as pleased. Some took it as an affront: if they let the disabled girl who can’t walk some days be a teacher, it seemed to suggest that they might not be as special as they thought.
Impermanence takes another form. Their sense of exceptionalism in peril, they lash out at anything that might be proof that a body is quicksand. This is not the place to stake your life
The days mushed together; in between classes, I soaked in the hot tub and went hiking in the Santa Barbara mountains and took naps in my extremely cozy yurt, all warm tones and tree branch silhouettes in the afternoons.
Sitting on my double-bolster throne, I sometimes needed to wedge ice packs between the waist of my yoga pants and my sacrum, taking copious notes. Sometimes, if the pain was too much, I would just lie down and let the lessons of non-harming or truth-telling wash over me. One hand on my belly, one hand over my heart, a protective gesture to send all of my energy inward, without shame.
Their bodies had not tasted impermanence yet. They had perhaps nibbled around its crispy edges. Mine had been swallowing it whole, like a cherry, pit and all.
I don’t remember her name, but she had been a professional ballet dancer since she was in high school. She was the kind of person who asked you, how you could live like that. Like she would rather plummet off a cliff, as though there were no other pleasures of the body aside from aptitude. Did she not know about the soft body of a cat curled up in your lap? Had no one offered her the crunch of a croissant warm from the oven, oozing its own butter? Surely, she’d had a cigarette on a cold morning, with a cup of coffee in the other hand, staring up at the skyscrapers?
I arrived at class one morning with an extra ice pack, the pain tunneling my vision, protecting me from unnecessary information. For two hours, we did therapeutic poses—the kind to calm your nervous system, the kind to ease the stress on pain receptors in the body. The idea was to teach us what to do if someone with a body like mine came to class. It was said with a sense of foreboding. I was a specter, sent to haunt them, to darken doorways and to act as a harbinger of the impermanence they tried not to acknowledge. The calming did not work for some; as I entered the dining hall for lunch, the ballet dancer had worked herself to a fever pitch:
“I don’t know why we have to mold our classes around the lowest common denominator. I want to stretch further, not pretend like I’m disabled.”
We hold the mistaken belief that we’re already supposed to be “good” at something before we ever try. We believe that our skill will make us excellent educators. And that “goodness” is even a goal. What could be further from the truth?
It took a lot of work to convince studios to let me teach, but eventually I had a few classes a week that were all mine. I gained several dedicated and regular students, who thanked me for not hurting their feelings or trying to convince them to do things that were unrealistic for their bodies. This was, for most of them, their only yoga practice. Many were older, with bodies that wouldn’t have appeared on yoga magazine covers. Not white or thin or young enough. Some of them couldn’t touch their toes, so instead of letting them hate themselves for this, I simply placed a block where they could rest their hands.
They had greeted me with skepticism: white and thin and in my twenties. But slowly, together, we illuminated the body: not the glorified one, but the real ones, in this room, right now. Not the someday body or the once-upon-a-time body. Look, feel, touch what is with you in this moment. Here is the asymmetry, here is the pain, here is the curve that is supposed to be straight. There is no place to go, I explained. There is no place to hide. This moment is all of it, and then it, too, will pass away. Some bodies do not have fluency as a destination, but they still speak clearly. It doesn’t mean they aren’t worth hearing.
Some days, I wonder if I “count,” if I am disabled enough, if I am exploiting the word; soon enough, my body reassures me that I am not, with a whole day in bed to think about the ways I have dismissed myself.
I woke up one morning with neuropathy in the sole of my right foot—the pain was so intense I was convinced it was a stress fracture. But instead of, as some might, going to the emergency room, I hobbled to teach class. It took me twice as long as usual to walk from the train station to the studio, but I made it.
Several of my usual students were already there, which made me nervous: they were used to a range of motion that was not available to my body that day. There was a promise of consistency in my teaching. A bit unsure of how class would go, I walked to the front of the room, found the wall, leaned against it, and slid down it. Bending over to sit down was out of the question, and my legs splayed out in front of me, rather than crossing neatly in front of my hips.
This is the practice. Not a pose, but the showing up itself.
I took a deep breath and began:
I woke up this morning barely able to walk and rather than canceling class and staying home, I am here. I cannot stand up and demonstrate poses, and I will not be offering adjustments. Instead, we are going to talk about the impermanence of the body, and how a body like mine can be an instructive lesson in how we meet grief and fear in the face of inevitable death.
I let go of anything my teacher training had taught me about everything, and I assassinated my own ego in front of my students.
Telling students about the inescapability of their own mortality is always a gamble. But then I watched each of them kill their own egos, too. By the end, everyone was crying with joy at the sheer miracle of how we all ended up in that room. How this came to be. How this will never be precisely this ever again.
Eventually, I walked away from teaching yoga because (among other reasons), I was never a great yoga teacher. Because, in the end, I do not actually care whether people do yoga. In fact, when we talk about yoga, we are generally only talking about the part of yoga that involves the body. The poses, the stretching, the muscles, the strength, the insistent breathing of our lungs. This is the tiniest fraction of what yoga is, but in the U.S., that’s all that’s offered. And I cared less and less over time what people chose to do with their bodies. It does not matter to me what you choose to do with your wild and precious life, and whether it involves the physical poses of yoga or not. If yoga works for you, godspeed, good luck to you.
As an educator, what I have come to care about is facilitating an experience that allows people to have a more intimate relationship with their own precious nature. The brief and glorious being of aliveness, however it expresses itself. I cannot walk today, but if I am still worthy of love, then so are you. Even if you haven’t returned that phone call or screwed up a report at work or can’t lift your arm like a ballerina. Eradicating our egos means eradicating the ableism that lives within each of us, so that we can be free.
Christy Tending (she/they) is an activist, writer, and mama living in Oakland, California. Her work has been published in Newsweek, Catapult, HuffPost, Electric Lit, and Ms. Magazine, among many others. She is a nonfiction editor with Sundog Lit. You can learn more about her work at www.christytending.com or follow her on Twitter @christytending.