Thirty-Five Years of Yoga Everyday
I met Hedy Tower in September of 1982. She was teaching an adult education class at the high school just across the street from the house I’d recently moved into with my first husband and my kids. The class was interpretive dance.
I have danced spontaneously and by myself with great joy for as long as I can remember and balked at every attempt that was ever made to inter me in a dance class where I had to follow steps. I loved to dance but since my then husband didn’t; I hadn’t had much of a chance to do so for years and here was this opportunity, right across the street from me, and it was exceedingly inexpensive as well, so I signed up.
Hedy was the instructor of the class. She was a tall, very thin woman whom I would later discover was in her 80s. I was in my late 30s at the time and no judge of age. She looked “older” to me but I had no idea how old until much later when I got to know her better.
I am, by nature, a relatively disciplined person and so Hedy’s insistence on opening every class with about 20 minutes of what she termed “stretching exercises,” was not a problem for me… and I quickly grew to love the exercises, doing them on my own every morning at home. I came to discover, years later, that the exercises she’d been teaching were yoga poses. Since none of them had involved the Lotus pose — which, beside the headstand, was the only pose I knew about — I hadn’t recognized what we were doing as yoga.
Besides being relatively disciplined, I have also, for as long as I can remember been insatiably curious and so had taken to reading at an early age because in the 50s the opportunities for self-entertainment were severely limited unless you like to play games, which I didn’t. But I did like to learn. So I had taken early to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Books of Knowledge, both of which were installed in the bookshelves that lined our living room. It was in the Encyclopaedia Britannica that I first saw a photograph of a Yogi; he was, to my eyes, almost naked, wearing what looked to me like a diaper, and he was, so the caption explained, sitting in the Lotus pose.
It was not what you would call an attractive picture. The man looked to me as if he were possibly 100 years old, all skin and bones. But I could not look away. And I would go back again and again to that page and read about yoga. I suppose it must have been that part of me that I have said is disciplined by nature that was attracted to it. At the time I was simply fascinated and that’s all I knew.
That very day, though, I began a small, unobtrusive obsession with yoga. I knew — as the above account of my dance class with Hedy Tower has demonstrated — precious little about yoga but I had seen that picture of the Lotus pose in my youth and whenever I felt moved to, I‘d try to get into that pose I’d seen the old man dong. Some years later, I’d also come across a shot of an athlete doing a headstand which I then learned was also a yoga pose. In my junior year of high school, when our class took a trip to the shore for the weekend, while all of my classmates were scouring the local beaches for boys, I was back at the house, making the most of my privacy, working on my headstand. I wasn’t much better at that than I’d been at the lotus pose but at least, with the support of a bunk bed, I could get an idea of what it felt like.
Hedy’s class was my first actual exposure to being taught yoga, though she never referred to it as such. Every morning from 1982 until 1988, though I had by then moved far away, I did Hedy’s yoga poses. In 1988 my body began to manifest the symptoms of what would eventually be discovered to be a rapidly advancing case of diffuse progressive systemic sclerosis, a disease which, slowly but surely, turns its carrier into a mass of solid collagen. I squeaked when I tried to walk; that’s how bad it was. Yoga poses? My body didn’t think so.
But I thought so… literally. Every morning I set aside time to do my yoga poses in my head, imagining my body as it had once been, soft and flexible, moving the way it once did, from one pose to another. Every morning without fail, I’d also remind myself, when I’d ask myself, “Why are you doing this? You’re going to die,” that you never know… you just never know.
The disease was supposed to kill me, at least the doctors said it would, that’s what it generally does, kills people. But apparently in one case out of a gazillion, it turns around. And after three years, it began to do just that. Slowly but surely, I returned, a sixteenth of an inch by a sixteenth of an inch, month by month over time, to a somewhat more movable body and to a foundation for the start of an actual yoga practice.
It took quite a while before I could do the poses I used to do, years probably; I wasn’t counting; I was just doing what I could do every day. Every once in a while I’d book a yoga teacher to help me refine what I was doing, to make sure I was on the right track. I’d never taken to the idea of a yoga class any more than I’d taken to the idea of dance classes, let alone the fancy garb that went along with a public display of yoga. I knew what I wanted to do, so I read books, looked at pictures, and eventually made so much progress that I began to expand my menu, adding to Hedy’s poses, doing however much of the poses I could manage until finally, many years later, when most of my body was almost normal again, I decided to try the one pose I’d never been able to do, even as a kid, the Lotus pose, the very first one I’d seen that Yogi doing in the picture in the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
It only took me seven years of preparation. And I can do it now. So my next step is working on lifting myself up off the ground on my gorilla knuckles while I’m in the pose. I have no idea how many years this will take me but I have already put at least a little space between me and the floor. There was a time when my hands couldn’t have done the job, a time when the skin would simply have split open on my knuckles, but even though all my fingers are still determinedly bent in towards my palms, the skin has softened a bit and I’m taking advantage of it.
Like most people, I had taken my body for granted, but scleroderma (the ‘nickname’ for the disease I had) changed all that, changed me. What was once “my body” has become My Beloved Body. We’re a team; it leads, and I follow and I have never enjoyed life more.