“And one more… That’s right… Let your hips float up to the ceiling. You’re all doing beautifully.”
Not me. I’m a freak.
I am bad at downward facing dog, which is a terrible sign for my new relationship with yoga. Down dog is the most important pose. Everything comes back to it. No matter what you do, you end up in down dog, contemplating the fickle, meandering course of your life.
I have to keep shaking out my right hand, which seems to be filling up with blood, so it doesn’t explode — so blood doesn’t spatter the sleek blond ponytail of the slender, stunning girl in the Columbia tank top next to me. I am like a three-legged dog. I’m panting a little. I feel people’s eyes on me, and it’s possible they’re wondering if I have rabies.
Go home! my back is yelling. Watch TV! You are not designed to move. You are made to slump. And this is actually true, my back is not exaggerating. I have scoliosis. I am literally made to slump.
I should not be here. I should leave this whole yoga-ing thing to the graceful, extremely pregnant woman to my right, the 70-year-old man in those very shiny, very tight pants, and the beautiful young woman in the Columbia tank top, who does not appear to have broken a sweat in the past year or so. I should return to the laptop from whence I came. But I don’t, because my mom’s voice pops into my head. Or rather, my mom’s back. Maybe both.
“Stand up straight,” said my mom, constantly, when I was a kid. “Shoulders back. You’re slouching.”
I was always slouching. My shoulders rounded in, and as an awkward teenager, I felt self-conscious about thrusting my chest out and my chin up. I thought people would whisper, “Well, look who thinks she’s the Queen of England!” And then I’d have to say, “Not me! I don’t think that! I’m just like you guys, and I’m from America!”
My mom tugged on my shoulders, and I pushed her hands away. Alone in my room, I looked in the mirror and experimented with straightening up. I discovered that I couldn’t.
I was 14 or so when I was diagnosed. “Your back curves like a dancer’s,” the doctor said. A dancer! I thought. I must be pretty! “This is not a good thing,” he added quickly. “There will be problems down the road.” He didn’t elaborate.
My lower back really did look pretty. My waist tapered dramatically. My upper back and shoulders were not so lucky. That part reminded me of a turtle (a dancing turtle! Hmm…not great). The doctor told me to stand against a wall for 20 minutes every day. I nodded and tried to look obedient. And then I went home and never stood against a wall. Not even once. What can you do when you’re standing against a wall for 20 minutes with your shoulders pressed painfully back? You can’t even make out with your boyfriend like that for very long.
So I did the understandable thing: I ignored my back. And I ignored my mother with her perfect posture and her outmoded beauty ideals. Even models slouch. My friend who wanted to be a model was always practicing her slouch. It was nearly perfect.
And then I did another understandable thing: I grew up. I went to college and moved to New York City, and like everyone else, I became a body image blogger. I realized almost immediately that every other woman in the city, and possibly the world, did yoga and never seemed to have time to eat. So I distinguished myself by eating a lot of pizza and not doing any yoga at all. I felt defiant. I sat hunched over my laptop all day, every day, writing about how cool and defiant I was. And how much pizza I could consume. The pain in my back and shoulders was like a consistent, low buzzing in the background. I didn’t listen. I was busy. I was… Turtle Girl! Mild mannered writer by day… um, the same by night. With even worse posture. And this trend continued until my mom’s spine fell apart.
She didn’t tell me — I heard from my dad. It was already bad, by the time she finally went to the doctor. She had been quietly bearing the pain, and now it was excruciating. She woke up screaming in agony in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she had trouble moving. For a few weeks, smiling seemed like a huge effort, and the pain was visible on her face. “I’m okay,” she said, annoyed, when I asked. She didn’t want to talk about it. After a litany of tests, she was told she had spinal stenosis, a degenerative spinal condition and the first of many diagnoses. Her doctor recommended surgery. My mom refused. Self-reliant and stubborn, she chose yoga instead. She went nearly every day. She practiced on her own, too.
During her examinations, the doctors found that she had always had scoliosis. Some of them suspected that she’d been compensating for it in harmful ways for years, which had accelerated and possibly caused her other spinal problems. Her physical therapists and later the Alexander Technique practitioners she met with helped her work towards undoing the damage of a lifetime of unaddressed back issues.
“You have to go to yoga,” she told me. “I don’t want this to happen to you.” There was fear in her voice. Fear that I never heard when (if ever) she talked about herself.
Suddenly, my spine was at stake, and the aching stiffness I experienced every day struck me as dangerous, instead of normal (What? Doesn’t every 25-year-old’s back hurt like hell in the morning?). I went to a doctor, and explained my mom’s situation. He took out a prescription pad, and wrote “Iyangar” on it. A type of yoga.
“You have to go,” he said. “You need to strengthen your spine.”
And so, grudgingly, wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, with toenails that knew nothing of pedicures, I went. Straight to the back of the yoga studio, I went, with my borrowed mat that smelled of failure and feet. And in that spot, I endured great humiliation and the occasional tiny triumph. I went into my three-legged downward facing dog and wondered if there was such a thing as a hand aneurysm. I tried and failed to “gently rock back and forth” on my sitz bones. I was completely and utterly incapable of ever, ever touching my toes. And then I tugged my collar up and slapped some sunglasses on as I exited the building, in case anyone might recognize me and realize that I was now yet another woman who did yoga. I treated myself to large, greasy lunches afterwards, to prove that I wasn’t, really.
After six months, the yoga worked for my mom. Her pain subsided. She was able to garden again, and she didn’t list to one side when she sat. She didn’t stop going to yoga. She was great at it now. She loved it.
“You know what’s the most relaxing pose?” she said when we were talking on the phone one day.
I waited, dreading it.
“Downward facing dog. You’ll see.”
She was doing yoga as we spoke. I was eating my way through a box of mini cupcakes, lying on the couch.
“Welcome… Let’s go around the room and share our names and any concerns we might be having about our bodies today.”
When it’s my turn, I say, “Kate, scoliosis.” Just like I say every time. It feels a little less embarrassing now. Columbia girl never has anything wrong, but I’m over it.
Yoga doesn’t save my mom’s back, in the end. Her spine is stubborn, just like her, and her pain shifts higher up, and begins a new attack. She can no longer practice, and she misses yoga terribly. But she is right about one thing:
In a few months, though I refuse to buy yoga clothes or even a mat, I am able to hold downward facing dog for five whole breaths. My hands do not explode. My back does not break. I feel victorious. Maybe I’ll never be able to stand up perfectly straight. And I will never give up on cupcakes and pizza. But damn it, Turtle Girl is getting good at yoga! She wishes she could save her mom’s back, too, but if she only manages to saves her own, that would still be pretty heroic.