The Perfect Living Space
Our gentle yoga teacher, a doe-eyed woman of maybe twenty-five, stands before us. She’s holding out her Affirmations and Positive Thinking collection of cards.
“Pick one,” she says. Dozens of cards are splayed out like the spiritual version of “Go fish,” only it’s enlightenment we’re seeking. You’ve got to be kidding, I think.
I chose a card and read the words on its pastel blue-green surface: “I have the perfect living space.” Underneath is a simple drawing of a house, tall and red, and decorated with flowers. I flip the card over, and on the back: “I see myself living in a wonderful place. It fulfills all my needs and desires. It’s in a beautiful location and at a price I can afford.” Our teacher suggests that we hold on to these affirmations throughout class and directs us to lie on our backs, as her bare feet slap on the lacquered wood floor.
“Allowing your bodies to sink into the mat. Into the earth. Relaxing…surrendering…letting go…”
I take off my glasses and stretch out, body shivering and exposed. Fingernails still dirty from weeding in the garden that morning; elbows and knees reluctant to give up their rigid bend. I’m not even close, nowhere close at all, to surrendering.
Normally I like my yoga straight up, just plain Hatha; no chanting or New Age readings, please. I’d winced as I paid the $16 drop-in fee, although I’d declined a five-class card. However, during savasana in our last class, the teacher had given us an “aromatherapy massage.” I was lying on my green Hugger Mugger mat, my tired, achy body finally at rest. I figured she was going to light some incense or spray something fruity into the air. Why not? Instead, she crouched behind each one of us, offering a brief, scented caress of scalp, forehead, ears, and neck. This, after she brought a purple bolster for under my knees. Tucked in the colourful, striped Mexican blanket tight around my cold toes.
It was the unexpected nature of these small, generous acts that threw me. For the rest of the afternoon, I strolled around in a patchouli-scented bliss.
“What’s that smell?” My husband wrinkled his nose, after I’d been at home for most of the evening. Our five-year-old daughter barked in the background, prompting our real canine, a yellow mountain dog, to run for cover. I half-sipped, half-gulped a glass of white wine.
“Patchouli,” I said. “From yoga class.” He raised his eyebrows. Enough said.
From corpse pose, I sneak a look at the three other yogis, all women who are well into mid-life like me. All of us look a little battle-worn, a little soft around the edges, unlike the lean, fresh-faced Vinyasa girls around town, who bike to class sans helmets, long hair flowing in the breeze. Rolled up yoga mats strapped to their backs like wellness warriors.
“Continuing to rest, fully, in this moment, noticing sensations in your body as you relax…”
Our young teacher paces, barely casting a shadow as she moves through the dimly lit studio. My thoughts keep circling back to the positive affirmations card, to my right on the floor. My chest swells: The perfect living space? I’ve got this one down! Meanwhile, my joints ache, inflammation ranging through each limb, and my mind drifts from the room.
Last September, we’d purchased a spacious, large-windowed home in the country. For over a year, I had longed for an escape from my husband’s commute to a suburb far outside the city, which left me manning the before- and after-school shifts with my whirling dervish of a daughter, all alone. And I wanted more space: For full-sized pumpkins, not the mini’s I’d trellised up the backside of my next-door neighbor’s fence. I entertained an urban homesteader’s collection of dirty fantasies: about bushels of heirloom tomatoes. An orchard of fruit trees. Swaying rows of corn.
“Do you hate the city, Mommy?” My curly-haired daughter asked from the backseat, as we drove through our old neighborhood. Uh-oh: Had I sighed, again? I held my breath as I weaved through streams of kamikaze cyclists, throngs of pedestrians carrying fair-trade coffees and murky, homemade concoctions in Mason jars.
“No, sweetie. I just don’t like driving in it.”
Or maybe living in it, I eventually conclude. I’d created a clever story for myself: Our small, liberal city was like the cool college roommate I never had. We had fun together. I admired her choice in music and food, her witty although insular group of friends. I just hated how she woke me up at night, dragging in at 2am in a cloud of essential oils; how she chatted me up every time I stepped out onto the front stoop. Many mornings, we waved to the neighbour’s kid, who watched us eat from his upstairs bedroom window while I sat at the breakfast table, hair sticking out at one side, hoping that my breasts didn’t show from beneath my pyjama top.
The first time I walked into our new house, it smelled like childhood: lots of spaghetti dinners, moss and old wood. But with a spanning view of the forest, and an open floor plan that carried my daughter’s laughter from one end to the other. So we seduced our city-worshipping daughter into the country with tales of chickens and bonfires; maybe even a goat, a little brother, a second dog. On our first night, after the moving trucks had left, we held a three-person dance party in full, defiant view. Pandora turned up high, woodpeckers and wild brown hares bearing witness to our family’s delicious, newfound freedom.
I was living the dream. I had finally found a space I could call home.
I bring my attention back to the mat, as the gentle yoga class is moving through cat/cow alterations. I round, then arch, feeling the familiar fused areas of my spine, the places that refuse to bend. Stubborn, like the rest of me.
“Moving slowly now into child’s pose…allowing your body to take the shape that it might need. Remember, this is your practice, your time. For you.”
The room is quiet, beyond the sounds of the flute- heavy soundtrack playing from the tiny speakers on the floor, the occasional cough from another student. The atmosphere is Goldilocks-right; not too warm, not too cold, not too dark, and not too bright. My mind has nothing to object against. No boxes to pack, or garden beds to hoe, after a long day’s work at the office. I’m left with bare awareness, here, in the presence of my body.
Why in the world is this called ‘child’s pose?’ And then my mind pounces onto another thought, a familiar one, although unwelcome: the presence of my empty womb, my ‘not-child’ womb, which is cradled by bent knees as I kneel forward on the mat. My mind toys with the thought, like our overweight house cat, who did unpleasant things to the mouse that scurried out from behind the washer/dryer in our new home.
“As you engage in the pose, bringing to mind, again, that intention. Allowing it to weave itself into the practice, as we transition now from child’s pose to plank. Arms strong, but not stiff.”
The perfect living space… It fulfils all of my needs and desires…
Most of us shaking, at least a little, with the effort, as we lengthen our bodies. My triceps are sore from my weekend warrior shifts in my huge garden plot: Russian kale and purple carrots, blue potatoes and leeks, oh my! My left shoulder interjects, with a familiar note of complaint. I realize I can name all of these pains, like a mother recalls the birth of each child:
The constant, sometimes fierce pain of my lower back, after I rear-ended a Chevy Suburban in my ancient hatchback in 1992, at the age of 20. The big-haired woman driving that beast sang a litany of complaints, while I sat, shaking, on the curb, the EMT’s voice floating down to me from the grey sky.
Knee pain, from deciding to run, randomly, back on the potholed streets near our first house, my chubby German-Shepherd girl panting at my side.
Wrists and elbow tendons aching, from that hellish year in 2004 when all I did was commute hours each day to internship; battling with my dissertation; trying month after bloody month to get pregnant. And when there was nothing else to do, I’d wheel-barrel loads of dirt into my tiny garden, tired body struggling with the weight of it all. That dirt, at least, was something I could move.
And finally, my shoulder, which began speaking to me after I’d returned to hatha yoga, years after we’ve given up on the fertility treadmill; completed not one but two rounds of adoption proceedings. By then, we’d been placed with a squalling baby girl, who’d grown into a chunky little spider monkey that clung to my proud, leaning frame. I’d thrown myself into one downward dog after another, revealed in my ability to form a sharp tent (be a mother!) at long last.
Now, as we bend our bodies downward, my tight hamstrings are quivering. But begging to be stretched, all the same. I work the edge of tension and pain; backing off, then pushing. But gradually, the latter becomes more like a question: This? Or more of this? Like it’s a lover’s body I’m beginning to explore.
“I see myself living in a wonderful place. It fulfills all my needs and desires. It’s in a beautiful location and at a price I can afford.”
It occurs to me that a $16 drop-in studio fee is much cheaper than our outrageous new mortgage, or the student loans I’ve accrued after spending half of my adult life in school. I remember something I read in a Smithsonian article, about home being a space so familiar that you don’t even have to notice it. A place of refuge; somewhere you can come back to, over and over again.
There are no mirrors in the studio, but as we move into a seated forward fold, I grasp my bony ankles with each hand, gaze at each chipped, sparkle-polished toe: I have known them all my life. With every breath, I allow myself to soften deeper and deeper into the fold. Settling, even surrendering, into my own body as a whole. This tired, sore, forty-something body, which has carried me through a lifetime of moves, of desperate searches for home. To deathbeds, and memorials. Three graduations, and one divorce. This body, which has refused to grow a child in its womb, year after year, but cradles an adopted daughter in its arms each night. Wakes up, still breathing, each morning.
As we near the end of class, I realize I’m waiting. I perk up when I hear our teacher’s words – “raise your hand if you do NOT want an aromatherapy massage” – and quickly position myself on my mat. Make sure to keep hands down, at all times.
Before too long, I hear her feet pad toward me, smell the familiar cloud of patchouli overhead. And I bound home, to my body.