- katherine halligan
Bodies are curious things, and the more mine ages, the weirder it gets. When I first started practicing yoga, 25 years ago (how is it possible that I now measure my life in such massive tranches of time?), I was 21 years old, and as flexible and fit as I would ever be. Even as a beginner I could perform peacock pose, in which you lie on your stomach, cock your elbows with your hands beside your hips and then proceed to lift your entire body off the ground (the whole thing, so only your hands are now touching the earth) and, as your body cants forward, your toes naturally lift toward the sky like the tail of a peacock.
These days, my yoga practice is just a wee bit different because, more than twice as old as I was then, my body is almost unrecognizable. My joints may still be hypermobile, but my muscles most definitely are not. There is more of me to love these days, so I can’t reach around my more-is-more middle to tie myself into knots. Plagued by various aches and injuries, there are things I simply can no longer do. Or don’t want to do. And, in the spirit of yoga, in which we learn to accept what is and to live in the present moment, that is all completely fine.
When we first moved to California, I stumbled across a beautiful studio, very appropriately called Harmony. Located in a beachy, breezy, stylish outdoor mall, the space was large and airy yet also intimate; the vibe was very decidedly chill; the teachers were excellent. Whatever their individual style, the yoga was nearly always gentle (I tried one “power” class and spent days hobbling around afterward) and definitely always deeply relaxing. As the name suggested, the more I practised at Harmony, the more I began to feel in harmony. After a seriously stressful stint of solo-parenting-while-commuting-to-demanding-job, I was in need of all the harmony I could pour into my battered soul, and I was accordingly deeply grateful.
I also lowered the median age by many years in every class I attended. When I told people where I practiced, they would say, “Hey, that’s where my mom goes!” It was yoga with the oldies. But please do not assume that meant it was in any way easy. These peppy, sassy, funny, kind women were incredibly fit and flexible, truly humblingly so. I was definitely not front row material when I started; I would sit towards the back, by the wall, until I slowly found my rhythm again, my stiff, weak muscles slowly softening and strengthening until I could pretend to keep up with the grannies. And as my body healed and rebalanced, so did my mind. I pushed my demons off my mat, practiced gratitude, and rediscovered how to breathe. I loved every minute of my time there.
Which turned out to be a good thing, because within days of the stay-at-home order, Harmony closed its doors… for good. The wonderful owner could see that the uncertainty ahead was too much and she would not be able to continue to pay the hefty rent on that lovely space. In the cruel tension between the creative and the commercial, a place like hers could not survive. Multi-billion-dollar industries are bailed out and yet the things we need most are crushed. I cried when I heard the news. I was, and am still and will likely always be to some extent, out of Harmony once more.
We are all out of harmony these days, as individuals and as a nation. Never have Americans needed more desperately the balance and the peacefulness that we strive to practice in yoga. Even those of us who don’t know it need it, perhaps them most of all. We need to understand the necessary tension between softness and strength. We need to embrace the collective energy we create by sharing space with kindness. We need to inhale and exhale unitedly until we find peace and — I will say it again because it bears repeating — harmony.
Thankfully the universe is pretty good at opening a window when it closes a door. I could go on about instances of these new windows we are (re)discovering on a public level, but this is about the personal. One of my very favourite teachers (ever, in all the whole wide world) had just opened her own studio in January, and almost immediately after we all started sheltering in place, she began creating an online library of beautiful practices. Never has yoga mattered so much to me: if I practice, I am calm and centered and things hurt less; if I don’t, I am ratty and tense and sore. It’s that simple. So she has become my two-dimensional guru, a lifesaving presence in our living room. She has not seen me in months, but I see her almost daily. When my children hear her voice, they know to stay quiet. Sometimes they join me, but more often they just breathe easier, knowing that a kinder, gentler mommy will emerge at the end of each precious session.
This weekend Orange County joined the rest of the nation in starting to reopen. Despite rising infection and death rates, we are emerging from our cocoons. Like moles blinking at the bright sunlight, we are finding our way out and about once more. Our own little burrow has been a true shelter, a space of safety and — in those precious moments when no one is falling apart — harmony. I am reluctant to leave it.
After a previously unthinkable 11 weeks at home, punctuated only by walks around our neighborhood, our local park, or occasionally on the trails of the nearby wetlands overlooking the Pacific, this week we are finding new ways to see friends and to interact with the world around us. Our smiles behind masks, our gestures cautious and tinged with fear, we begin to leave behind the two-dimensional social world we have come to inhabit and rediscover the three-dimensional one we have longed for and missed.
Now that it begins to be possible, I am faced with a decision to practice yoga again with other humans, not at Harmony but perhaps in some kind of harmony. But I have decided — for now — to keep my fellow yoga practitioners safer by turning inward, still, again, and practicing here, alone in my little burrow.
Are you going out these days, now that we’re allowed to?
Nah, I’m a stay at home.
Or, as we yogis would say, namaste at home.