A confession: up until yesterday, I could not touch my toes. I first realized this in the presidential physical fitness challenge, fifth grade. I couldn't even come close. On a good day, I can graze about halfway down my shins. I blame this on genetics--my family of origin, with a few exceptions, are woefully uncoordinated and inflexible--and eighteen years of regular running ratcheting my hamstrings.
Because of this humiliating fact, prior to our move to Utila this past summer, I have only dabbled in yoga at eight waddling months pregnant, where any inability to reach my toes could be blamed on the human being slung around my midsection. I used inversion (headstanding) to successfully turn Max, who was breech, and the meditation time to dream about the little person I would soon meet.
Still, after the babies, with no excuse for my lack of flexibility, and the baby weight to lose, I popped the kids in the stroller and returned to running. In my late teens, I'd found this, a solitary athletic pursuit where you are your own goal setter and the only person who views your shortcomings, when you break stride going up a rough hill, is yourself. (You can read more about my relationship with running here.)
This past August, we packed up the family and moved to the South Shore of Utila, where my husband warned running might be limited by terrain, bloodthirsty bugs, island dogs and water boundaries. He suggested this was the place to try something new--with the wide ocean just steps from our front door and our new neighbor Andi had recently started a yoga studio. Yoga Utila is a grassroots organization that welcomes visiting instructors, provides discounts to Honduran locals, and donates to those in need--providing hardship families with things like electricity and medical care, and feeding and sponsoring homeless dogs. It felt like something I wanted to support. With some trepidation, I bought a mat at Five Below in the States, and threw it in my bag.
I gritted my teeth through my first few weeks of classes. The kids were with a Spanish tutor in the mornings on the South Shore so I was using the time to ride into Town by boat, write and exercise. My first class was Ashtanga, fifty percent English and Spanish, one hundred percent misery. I hated nothing like I hated downward dog--a cruel hamstring torture and humiliating arch exposure. Until you have walked through the gritty streets of Utila Town in flip flops, you have never been so self-conscious about flashing the dirty soles-that-should-be-touching-the-mat to the yogis behind you. Who, I might add, are all doing it right, like they know what's coming next, like they have done this hundreds of times. I was not listening to my breath or quieting my thoughts. I was wondering what was the difference between foreward fold and half-lift--other than that in neither of them was I anywhere near as sandwiched as I should be? And how many times were we going to keep doing these same poses--and what the hell is the difference between chataranga and a push-up?
I only went back to be polite to Andi, who was giving me rides into town, because I wanted to like it, and because it was there. When in Rome...
I tried Anusara, intro to yoga, gentle yoga and Ashtanga again. The only part I looked forward to (other than the lolling around and the little lavender pillows over the eyes at the end) was the fact that it took place on the outdoor dock of Coco's bar over the ocean and in tree pose (which I actually didn't suck at) I could enjoy looking out to the lighthouse on the reef as my drishti. And every time Andi said in the opening, "You are here, practicing yoga on a dock over the ocean in the Caribbean. Welcome the sights and sounds of the sea and the community to be a part of your practice," I realized just how lucky I was. The trouble with yoga was not the instructors or the inspiritaional location; it was me.
I still sort of hated it, even as a month passed and I realized I was improving in the tiniest of increments. It was a surprise one day when I went to a beginner's class and felt that it was too slow, too easy. Over time, my heels inched a little closer to the mat, while I cursed through my clenched teeth in downward dog. My mantra was a very un-yoga: I hate this I hate this I hate this--peppered with expletives.
Plus, to be honest, it didn't feel like a sport. Yoga didn't give me the same rush or sense of accomplishment as running, not that I was finding much of that in my ten-minute-mile stumbly, stunted jaunts runs back and forth on the South Shore, carefully watching every placement of my feet on the uneven terrain.
I confessed my true feelings for yoga one afternoon to a group of full-on converts.
"Why do you hate yoga?" A friend's husband asked contemplatively in his lovely Norwegian accent while we sipped coffee on his porch looking out over the sea.
"Because," I sputtered, "because I'm so bad at it!"
"But... you cannot be bad at yoga. You can only be new to the practice."
And then Yoga Utila moved all but their sunset classes to a real studio space over the supermercado, and three visiting instructors came to the island, which is how I ended up on a steamy Monday morning in a freshly-painted studio in an Ashtanga class with Kim Johnson from Kansas City. Because the purpose of Ashtanga is to heat your body from the inside, sweating is encouraged. No air conditioning, no fans, on a ninety-degree, humid day in the Caribbean. Kim, a former fitness competitor led the class like an athletic exercise--fast, hard, challenging, a pose for every inhale and exhale. I didn't have time to generate my loathing for down dog, because I was jumping through to triangle! It was pure exhilaration.
I have never sweat like that in my life. Not in summer field hockey camp, not in labor, not in my longest runs in Grand Cayman. Sweat ran down my arms to pool on my mat, stung my eyes and snaked up inside my nostrils while in headstand. The class went long, almost two hours, and I left feeling completely high. My experience was enhanced by having slept over at Andi's the night before where she talked me through a history of yoga/primer--complete with print-out visual aids. Going into this transformative class, I had the basic knowledge that for every bending movement, there would be an extension; so this was the difference between forward fold and half-lift!
Since then, I admit that every day, I hate yoga a little less. Kim and I have talked about how I can continue to do both yoga and running, depending on what I need, and yoga will help my running, (but running won't help my yoga). On my last class with her before she returns to the States, we all dashed through a rainy season deluge, starting out as soaked as I usually end my classes with Kim. For the first time in our opening downward dog, I felt something I had been anticipating--the soles of my wet feet, my heels, kissing the floor.
Afterwards, as we said goodbye, Kim pointed out the improvement that has come with continued practice, the ways yoga is changing my body, and my demeanor.
"Well, yes, but I still can't touch my toes." And as I went to show her, I realized I could.
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Huge thanks to Andi Ryon, for founding Yoga Utila and leading inspiring classes, to Aura for my introduction to Ashtanga, to visiting instructors Rachel and Amber for welcoming me and the boys into your classes and to Kim, for truly beginning the transformation.