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When I first began practicing yoga, I thought I could keep my body young by doing it. I had turned 40 and had spent the previous twenty years taking care of four kids, as many houses, a high maintenance husband and a marriage. The marriage wore itself out, the child-rearing duties didn’t go away, and I found myself entrenched in a new career as a journalist, in a high stress job that fed my bruised ego and taught me more than I thought my brain could absorb every day.
I would exercise and keep myself sane at the same time, I figured, so I signed up for class at the yoga studio not far from my house. Bikram yoga — a 90-minute workout in a steaming 105-degree room — was new then, and I signed up for the Bikram Challenge, a promotional bargain that cost a dollar a class if completed.
Twelve weeks and 60 classes later, I walked out of the super-heated Bikram class dehydrated, never to return. But my adventures in yoga had just begun. I moved on to Iyengar class and a tough little taskmaster named Mary Beth who roamed the room tugging our bodies into alignment. After a year, I could no more imagine a week without yoga than I could a week without sleep, and that is still true out here in the middle distance, a relative lifetime later.
Why do I love yoga? The clothes are great. Soft and cotton. No zippers and buttons to dig into a middle-aged belly. But seriously, why? Not because it has kept my body from aging; it has not. I can no longer push up into a full backbend like the nimble young college students around me; gravity and years have taken their toll. But in yoga class, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Standing on my mat and moving through asana practice, I feel like a dancer, light and supple, arms extended, feet carefully placed.
Why do I love yoga? When my family was upended a few years back by sickness and too many deaths, yoga was the only comforting constant. I never knew what physical, mental, and emotional challenges the day would bring, but I knew that in the yoga studio I could leave them at the door for an hour. My refuge was The Yoga Haven, a lovely old brick-walled studio in Galveston, Texas. My teacher there did not engage in the specifics of my sorrow and grief, nor in the troubles of anyone else in class. She attended to the business of yoga — yoking our bodies to our minds and spirits as often as possible in a peaceful, safe place.
A year into my Galveston sojourn, on September 12, 2008, Hurricane Ike barreled across the Gulf of Mexico and buried all of Galveston Island, including The Yoga Haven, in six feet of murky salt water. Our daily lives became a relentless slog through ruined houses, sodden streets piled with debris, the stench of rot and mold, insect infestations. Our beloved yoga instructor evacuated to dry land and family in New Mexico, but the owner of the building decided that Galveston needed yoga and went about the business of drying out the Haven. It became one of the first downtown businesses to reopen after the storm, and its name took on new meaning.
Weary and exhausted islanders came to class and sometimes just lay prone through the hour. The bamboo floors had been destroyed and replaced with remnants of hotel carpet, but the studio was spotless and bare and smelled fresh. An intrepid young instructor guided us through postures and savasana, and we reinvigorated ourselves for the task of rebuilding. Our old teacher eventually returned, and with her, grace and beauty.
Why do I love yoga? Because when I left Galveston and returned to Colorado and another family disaster last year, the yoga studio once again became my haven. My new teachers had turned a nondescript 1960s dry wall and linoleum storefront into a magical place of greens and golds and peace and spare beauty, of chanting and quiet and movement. I could enter the yoga studio, leave the complications of loss and death at the door, and tune in to bone and muscle and nerves, raw but at peace, at least for an hour.
In yoga class, we can fall to our knees whenever we want. Our practice bends on gratitude. And sometimes all we need to recognize our deliverance is to bow deeply and remember that despite the detours, our destination is life, full and simple.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.