Maybe There is No Such Thing as a Freedom Sky
essay - nonfiction
Tracy’s faded mala tattoo begins on her right shoulder and snakes itself around her arm, stopping at the elbow. I watch it (the tattoo) rise and fall as she elegantly lifts her arms and eyes to the ceiling, cooing: let’s raise our wings to the freedom sky! for what feels like the hundredth time. I don’t know Tracy personally, and I have no desire to, but she feels the need to call us a family. A family of yogis she says. I feel my eyes rolling back towards my brain stem as my palms press against one another, my hips hinging forward into a fold. I release my fingertips onto the ground and peddle out my heels, not because Tracy told me to, but because it feels nice. The rest of the class keeps moving, responding with their bodies to Tracy’s words, but I stay in my fold, flipping my hands over and stepping on my palms. This is known as Padahastasana, gorilla pose. It’s a great massage for the wrists and also a decent hamstring stretch. If you let it, this position can cause your nervous system to relax. Allegedly.
If I was anything like Tracy, which I can tell you right now I’m not, I would pride myself on the fact that I am currently, somewhat successfully, practicing three of the eight limbs of yoga:
Asana. These are the poses. Western standards of yoga primarily only acknowledge the asanas.
Pranayama: breath work. In Vinyasa yoga, what I practice, you breathe in through the nose and out through the nose. The lips stay closed.
Pratyahara: withdrawal or sensory transcendence. It is believed, through the culmination of the initial limbs, one can achieve pratyahara - the ability to look at ourselves objectively, and in a sense, remove attachment.
So perhaps maybe not so much Pratyahara, but pretty close. I’m not attached to Tracy, I’m not attached to this forced family of yogis, or the limbs. Without cueing, I open-mouth exhale and release my hands, shaking out my wrists.
Despite the fact that this is a heated class (the room rests between 87 and 97 degrees, though it can increase based on the number of bodies in the room), Tracy is wearing a beanie and eyeliner.
Imagine what it would feel like to abandon stress and expectation! Tracy says in a voice that feels slightly forced Californian: airy, breezy, laissez-faire. Spiritual. I don’t feel that I have the ability to actually do this, so I abandon caring for the time being instead.
Many white people don’t know this, but in India, it is free to practice yoga. I guess technically you only need your body to practice yoga, which in a sense makes it free, but in regards to a space to practice, there is a cost. In America, you can become a member of CorePower or any other local yoga studio for around $150 a month on average. To be recognized as a member of the Yoga Alliance and thus granted authority to teach the asana practice of yoga, one must complete a teacher training certification. 200 hours is the first requirement, though 300 hour trainings exists as well, which must be obtained after the 200 hour certification. The process requires (obviously) 200 hours of course time, observation, reading, practicing, and mentoring, and usually takes about three months to complete. Virtually any yoga studio can provide a teacher training for the cost of a few thousand dollars. You are not only invited to purchase enlightenment but also the possibility of a job despite the fact that the yoga community is so inundated with teachers both skilled and unskilled that you will, if you are lucky, probably teach a donation-based class on a Saturday that you don’t get paid for. It is truly an honor. You should not, under any circumstances, complain about the attendance level of your class, because it is about the practice and the honor to share your teachings with the room, regardless of how many people are inside it.
Because I have done this, and by this I mean obtained the 200 hour certification, I have the challenge of listening and not listening to Tracy for the next 60-ish minutes. The listening because my ear has been trained to listen, not completely unlike the way a musician listens for notes. The nonlistening because I’ve learned, over the years of practice, over the months of studying, over the rooms filled with sweaty yogis I’ve talked at, that I’m the boss of my body, and I know what’s going to feel the best, and I have developed perhaps the most important skill of a human being/yogi: what to take and what to leave. That doesn’t make anything any easier, physically, but it helps me keep a distance.
In the two years before I moved to Chicago, the only thing that was keeping me from ending my life were my two cats and yoga. I was living in the smallest bedroom of a rundown three-bedroom apartment. I was trying to work as a freelance writer with little success from that room, and I didn’t have a car because I had totaled it in an accident.
The day it happened I was picking up a friend to take him to his haircut. Because his apartment was just a ten minute drive away, I hadn’t put on a bra or even brought my wallet. As I was pulling out of the alleyway (probably too quickly, probably a bit distracted) another car came down the road, catching the front of my car and sent us both spiraling. The front of their car was scratched and the front right tire was flattened, but my car lay in pieces, undrivable, unsalvageable.
Even though my father always told me to never, no matter what, admit fault in any way in an accident, I continued to say I’m sorry, I’m so sorry to the couple. But the wife, like my car, was unsalvageable. After she walked away from me, her husband told me that they had been on their way to the fertilization doctor and that this was their last chance to try for a baby, and that they were running out of money to make their family. It’s not your fault, he had said to me, she’s just emotional right now.
The insurance people, who were kind and patient with me on the phone, said as long as everyone is alright, that’s all that matters. As long as no one is hurt. I kept saying that no, no one is hurt, but it felt like a lie. At that point in my life I was constantly in agony. I had gone through a messy and heartbreaking divorce, I was at odds with my mother and we weren’t speaking, and I had become reliant on drinking myself to sleep every night as a way to avoid reality.
I was able to call my roommate and have her bring me my wallet before the cops arrived, who were also gracious and patient despite my bare feet and nipples showing through my shirt. The most important thing was that no one was hurt they said. That’s why they’re called accidents.
The destruction of my car felt like yet another thing that was taken from me, that had been yanked from my grasp before I was ready. My marriage, my friendships, my jobs, my happiness. Ironically, the accident ended up being the thing that forced me into the yoga studio just a block away, because it was walkable, the place where I eventually became a teacher. I spent a few months working the front desk, a trade system for free classes since I didn’t have enough to pay for a membership. One day while I was working, I noticed that class was getting dangerously close to starting, but the instructor had not arrived. I received a frantic call from the manager, saying that there was no one coming. I remember saying in a voice that didn’t feel like mine that I could do it, I was certified, that it wasn’t fair to send all of those people home.
And so I taught it, and so more and more opportunities came to me to keep teaching. In the same way it felt like things had been forced out of my life, yoga felt like a thing that had been forced in. I had practiced on and off for many years prior, but had avoided teaching after my certification because I believed I had nothing to offer. I was afraid that the room would know how broken and ugly I was inside, and that all these inside things would become outside things, like a virus infecting a larger host.
Before and after obtaining my certification, people (yogis) kept telling me how transformative it would be, how life changing. It is hard for me to acknowledge that, most days. But some days I can. The thing is, despite how annoyed I get, how much the “community” makes me crazy, I always find a sliver of beauty, of peace and tranquility, when I practice. It’s a complicated experience.
The hardest part about yoga is the slowness. You have to move very slowly, with purpose, to advance your physical movements. This also means you have to sit. You have to sit with things and feel things that are uncomfortable. The more you do this, the softer it feels. By it, I mean everything.
I’ve been fascinated by the human body for as long as I can remember. Not just the way it breaks down food and heals itself and shrinks and grows, but the way it moves. The limitations of each individual’s anatomy, the way you can strengthen them, work around them, damage them. Perhaps this interest comes from the fact that I’ve constantly battled against the notion of destroying my own body. Yoga gives me the opportunity to strengthen the inside and the outside of my body, deeming it less of a target for my impulses.
The image of the thing is not the thing. A teacher I respected said this to me once after I had confided in them that I didn’t feel like I should teach anymore, because I felt like an alcoholic and a drug abuser and a liar. Somehow he was seeing me in a different way than I was seeing me. It is hard to believe that the image of the thing isn’t as important as the thing itself. Or at least the same. Search the hashtag yoga on Instagram and you will be met with thousands of images of women with perfect bodies in perfect outfits doing poses that seem impossible, improbable. If yoga is about the breath, the insides, the journey, why would we take the pictures in the first place? There are so many squiggly lines in yoga that I try to turn into straight ones, but I just can’t.
The way I teach is not like the way Tracy does, because I am not like Tracy. But because I’ve encountered many Tracys over the course of my interaction with the yoga community, I know to leave them where they are. The first limb of yoga consists of yamas. Not a far cry from the 10 Commandments, yamas are basic rules/practices that allow one to move through life with ethics and integrity. The yamas are a practice within a practice. There are five yamas and they go as follows:
Brahmacharya: continence, and
I’d like to think I adhere to these well enough, except for maybe Brahmacharya, because in the yoga world that means abstinence. I always feel like there’s a non judging yama, because to me the only way someone could actually navigate through this type of life, this heated, spiritual, hypocritical existence of contracts and top buns and overpriced leggings is to completely let go of judgement. Not just judgement towards, let’s say, the studio owner who has not one, but two constantly running fridges stocked full of single use plastic bottles and $9 meat sticks for sale at the front desk. You’d have to find a way not to judge the people around you, sweating more or less than you, who are more or less flexible than you, huffing and puffing and staring so deeply into their own eyes in the mirror while they practice you can’t figure out if they’re about to transcend or just make out with their reflection. You’d also have to find a way not to judge the women like Tracy, who are leaning into their half wannabe Californian, half porno voice, and their son named Phoenix and their newfound sobriety (from alcohol only because weed is a plant, it comes from mother nature), and you have to dig really deep not to judge everything and everyone when a resounding OMMMMM comes out of their mouths after the godforsaken sixty minutes of fake enlightenment and sweaty stretching finally commences. But since there’s no non judging yama I guess you’re in the clear.
I feel like the battle I have with yoga is similar to the one I’ve had with myself for so long, this wanting to trust and embrace alongside this dark pit of hate and frustration and disgust. Something that keeps a lot of people away from yoga is the very fact that it is a practice. Which means it never ends. Which means you can’t win. Which means there is no finish line or trophy. You just keep going and going as long as your body will let you. I suppose because I made the decision to keep my body, to keep trying to keep my body, I can understand this world with a little more patience from time to time. But not all the time.
When I was doing my 200-hour training, which took about three months, I didn’t make friends with anyone. We’d always spend so much time talking and I wanted to move my body. I wanted to understand my body in a way that was elevated, so I could get paid to tell other people how to move their body. I remember working through a pose once: Ustrasana, camel pose. You’re on your shins, you rise and push your chest forward, lifting yourself enough that you trust your head to relax behind you. The other women in my class would burst into tears after this pose, claiming that their hearts were just so open, so many things were coming up. They’d always say that: so many things are coming up for me. I never knew what they were crying about.
At the end of class Tracy presses her thumbs to her third eye, the space between the eyebrows, where your intuition is supposed to live, and whispers a gentle namaste to the room. The class responds with the same word and we bow forward, letting our third eyes rest on the ground (our mats). I never really know how long to keep my face on the mat but I always think about the word: namaste. In the direct translation, nama means bow, as is I, and te means you. So, I bow to you. We’re bowing not only to each other, but we’re recognizing that our insides are all made up of the same things. Some people translate namaste to mean: the light in me recognizes the light in you, or versions of the same idea. This is nice in theory, in the same way that yoga is nice in theory, in the same way going to church is nice in theory, though in actual reality, it’s very, very hard to do. But it is a good way to wrap up class.
I wipe the sweat out of my eyes and roll up my mat and go home. I want to be the type of person who takes my yoga off the mat, which is to say I want to maintain the same sense of composure, mindfulness, slowness, namaste-ness out into the world. Anyone who exists on planet earth knows that this is not an easy feat. Unfortunately Gwnyth Paltrows and Elizabeth Gilberts are part of our current cultural zeitgeist, which had caused a vast number of middle aged white women to think that some version of sparkly, the-universe-is-in-my-favor enlightenment is right there, you’re just not trying hard enough to get it.
It is almost 9:15 on a Sunday which means I will be taking Tracy’s class again. Not dissimilar to the way people flock to church on Sundays, Tracy’s classes are filled with the same faces, usually with their mats in the same positions in the room. Because I have committed to writing about yoga as an art, I make a promise to myself to actively listen to Tracy’s words, and to the movement of my body, maybe even my mind. I am likewise committed to finding and highlighting the beauty in this contradictory practice that I can’t help but show up for. I want to understand all the parts, the good ones and the bad ones, the same way I want to understand me.
The unfortunate thing is that I’ve been hit with a wave of depression this week, primarily stemming from a Galentine’s Day work party that left me feeling exhausted and emotionally wrung out. Something about forced interactions with women who believe that empowerment comes from standing around in a room drinking mimosas and boomeranging weird compliments at each other really drains me. But I’m here, and as any practitioner of yoga (or AA) will tell you, that counts for something. It seems impossible that I will ever feel as dark and trapped as I did before moving to Chicago, but the thought of being in a mental prison like that again has followed me around like a needy cat ever since I recovered.
The thing about depression is that it works like yoga in reverse. When you continue to create physical space in your body via stretching, reaching, expanding, folding, controlling - you notice your insides do the same, you notice your mental state shift in a similar fashion. Some people call this growth. With depression, the thoughts and fears and residual anxiety shrink the space inside you, cultivating in a dark, bottomless pit that works its way out through your bones and skin, leaving you feeling achy, detached, compressed, useless, hateful.
So I try, I try over and over again to show up for class, to show up for myself, to not actively hate and judge the Tracys in the studio and outside of it, to not actively hate and jude myself, because I acknowledge (namaste) that all of these people in this room are probably hurting in some way, like me, and and like me, they’re trying to make it stop. Or at least be distracted from their pain for an hour.
I’ve been thinking a lot about coincidence and attraction. About accidents. If I had not gotten into my car accident, would that woman have become a mother? Did I take something from her, rather than her from me?
It does not at all feel like an accident that Tracy themes class around the artistry of the mind-body connection. She calls the post Virabhadrasana II, Warrior II, an expression of strength and grace: we stretch our arms forward and back, we align our shoulders over our hips, we are steady in our stance yet we are buoyant in our upper body. I reach the top of my head a little higher. I sink into my bent knee a little deeper. I close my eyes. I try to trust. If I were to paint a picture of you what would it represent? Tracy asks the room, her voice breathy and sensitive. If you were to step outside of yourself, looking at yourself without judgement, what would you see? These questions aren’t meant to be answered, at least not out loud, but I humor her and I try, perhaps because she isn’t wearing a beanie today.
If I were to step outside myself and look at myself, sweating, stretching, trying, trying so desperately hard not to throw up and cry (not because of the heat, because of the deep dark depression pit, remember), trying so hard to be the person who can be in a room full of women and just enjoy it, sincerely, to be the person who believes that this fucking practice will make me better somehow, I probably, honestly, would hug myself, would forgive myself for all of the darker parts - the accidents - and I would tell myself that it’s okay. The acknowledgement that all this lives inside me feels like a slap in the face with a freezing palm.
Yoga is like a buildup of music with no crescendo. You move in the same way over and over, for what? You don’t learn yoga to fight. You can’t put yoga on your resume. You never go anywhere besides your mat. When a class ends, you are instructed to lay on your back like a dead person. The position, savasana, literally translates to corpse pose. Every class ends with a death. You then roll onto one side like a fetus, sit up, and do it again tomorrow. You are reborn. Over and over.
Tracy instructs us to release our posture and relax our arms and face the front of the room and close our eyes. I resist my desire to squirm and keep my eyes open. I resist my desire to look at my reflection. I try to look at something else. Something inside. And as if Tracy sees me seeing me, she walks beside me and holds onto my hand, squeezing it for just a second, and then lets go.