This photograph of me was taken some time around 1985. My little hands were perfectly positioned in Anjali Mudra (palm to palm & at the heart). Anjali means "offering" and has become a familiar gesture in the world of yoga. As a small child, the depth of what this hand position encompassed was completely unknown to me and at the time, I had no idea how much it would one day come to mean to me. This sacred greeting, also referred to as Namaste or the prayer mudra, would show up again and again in childhood photos of me. For that reason alone, I cannot help but be curious about this favorite pose. Had I known all along how I would come to cherish the practice of yoga some day? I may never know.
Yoga eventually found me 17 years later with the help of a friend. At that time, I was living in south Florida waiting tables where she and I both worked. At work, we'd talk about yoga and the morning class she regularly attended. Despite the fact that I would usually sleep until noon because of my work schedule, I agreed quickly when she asked me to join her one morning at 8:45 AM.
I was half asleep and eager to arrive on time, but even so, I managed to take a wrong turn along the way. I quickly realized that I was heading in the opposite direction of the studio. I wasn't lost for too long, but long enough to make me late.
When I arrived, class had been in progress for about 10 minutes. Little did I know, I would be walking into a traditional Sivananda class. In this style of yoga, the first 15 minutes are always allotted for an initial relaxation.
The room was eerily quiet, full, and very dark! I strained to see what appeared to be bodies stretched out everywhere. I wondered if they were all asleep. With no windows to spare some illumination from the morning sun, I struggled to find an open space. I sighed and gathered as much grace as I could as I made my way. I tripped, stumbled, & apologized my way through the sea of hopeful students who craved relaxation. I was embarrassed, uncomfortable, and out of my element, but thankfully, I finally found a place to land. Somehow, I made it through the remainder of the class and hurried out the door the moment class came to a close with a chorus of "namaste."
After such a bumpy first experience, I was left feeling unsure of how to feel about any of it. My untrained mind created a story informing me of my failed yoga adventure and my ego followed up with tales of how I did not belong. Silently, I vowed to never return.
My ego was without a doubt bruised, but my body told me a different story. I was feeling so spacious, free, and also conflicted. My mind went on to elaborate on my failure that day and my vow to never return played on repeat for days. Yet, I still felt different in my body and that, I could not deny. I so badly wanted to shut down, never to return. Thankfully, the story my body expressed was louder and made more sense than the one my mind had tried to convince me of. Despite my internal struggle, I signed up for class the following week at the last minute.
While in that second yoga class, it became apparent to me that something was happening. I couldn't quite put my finger on, but I didn't need to because whatever it was had worked its magic and had already convinced me to give it another try before class #2 was over.
Two thirds of the way through class #3, the teacher was leading us into bridge pose. This was new one for me. Bridge is an energizing back-bending pose (as most back-bending poses are) that is entered from a supine position. The arms begin with resting alongside the body and palms down. The knees are bent with feet flat on the ground. To come fully into the pose, one presses into the feet and arms, causing the hips, belly, and chest to rise toward the sky. The head and shoulders remain planted on the floor and the breath feels glorious while in it.
Coming into bridge felt exhilarating! Especially when paired with an understanding of what it means to breathe mindfully. I'll always remember the sing-song voice the teacher used when he'd cue the breath. Each time, his reminders to "Innnhhaaaalleeee, exxxxxhhaaaaleeeeee" came at the exact moment I needed to remember to breathe. He would often elaborate on yogic breathing and when he did, he'd ask us to fill the lungs fully until the belly expanded like a balloon. When we exhaled, he told us to feel the belly relax and then fall, bringing the naval to the spine. His direction painted a perfect picture necessary to breathe with awareness and to get the most out of each pose.
The breath hadn't been easy for me and could have been the most challenging aspect of my first two (and 2/3) classes. If it wasn't for that moment in bridge when everything came together, I don't know if I would have given it a fourth try. During that pose, I realized how disconnected I had been from my body, my breath, and the present moment, possibly for my entire life up until that point in time.
In a Sivananda yoga class, poses are held for a few minutes at a time. The longer held poses proved to be very helpful at the second or third minute while holding bridge that day. Just as he had done many times prior, the teacher guided us to breathe deeply, fully, and completely. I could feel the strength and flexibility already gained from the first few classes I had taken, but I was becoming tired and wondered when he'd cue us to come out of the pose. My body was starting to shake and I was prepared to come out of the pose early when I decided to take one last breath. When I inhaled, I felt my lung expand and my abdomen expanded outwardly - like a balloon! I was shocked. I took another breath to see what would happen and it happened again! My fatigue turned into excitement, causing me to stay in the pose with my breath after he signaled us to bring our backs to the floor. I didn't want to exit the pose. I wanted to feel like this forever and wanted to move my body and breathe in such a way that made me feel this alive every day of my life. In that moment and the moments that followed, I felt more clear, connected, and in my body for the first time in my life. My entire being was buzzing and my breath had a depth to it that I had never before experienced. I was hooked in that moment during bridge pose, 2/3 of the way through my third-ever yoga class. It was there that set my heart was set ablaze and the path that I'd follow until the end of time was illuminated.