The other night, as I was sipping the head off my third beer, I started to contemplate the complex relationship I have with my yoga teacher—even though she only knows me as Beefy Lady in the Colorful Headband. Although I have recently discovered subtleties in my relationship with this woman, mostly I’m afraid of her.
For one thing, her aura is cloudy. I suspect that if I were walking in front of her down a sidewalk on a rainy day, and I slipped in a puddle and fell with an ignominious splash onto my gluteus maximus, her reaction would be to stop, stare condescendingly, and then, after a scornful beat, say, “GEEZ. Get up already. What are you? A whiner? The longer you sit, the wetter you get.”
Sometimes, during yoga class, I fear she might belittle my hamstrings.
She’s not a harpy. That’s not what I mean. But she’s tough—like an over-salted T-bone steak grilled for ten hours on a well-stoked hibachi in the middle of August in the hottest part of Death Valley. There is no nonsense brooked in her yoga class, and woe to he who comes late, locks his elbows while in Plank position, or refuses a clearly-necessary foam block to bolster the buttocks during Pigeon pose.
These feelings about my teacher don’t align with the general woo-woo vibe of yoga and the ways in which those pursuing their practice generally regard their instructors. Yoga practitioners want to wax on meltingly about how nurtured, safe, and harmonized their yogi leaders leave them feeling.
I’m well acquainted with this brand of chakra-opening yoga teacher love because I’ve experienced it. Ten years ago, when my husband, Byron, and I first started attending yoga twice a week, we went into the initial session as skeptics, with Byron threatening, as he entered the studio, “There better not be incense. That’s all I’m saying.” Five minutes later, a lovely young woman with long auburn hair floated in, unrolled a mat in the front of the room, and asked winsomely—her voice tinkling with silver bells—if anyone had allergies, as she didn’t want to trigger them when she started burning incense. Smitten, Byron extended his hand toward her, a lit match pinched between his thumb and forefinger. Moments later, as she picked up two small cymbals and sent their tone ringing, I felt all tension leave my body, and when she announced, “Let’s begin with the Breath of Fire,” Byron and I exchanged a glance that said, “Yes, yes, let’s do start with the Breath of Fire! Whatever that is!” At the end of the hour, warm, cleansed, full of peace, we staggered out of class, leaned into each other, and hummed a new mantra: “Yummmmmmmmmm.”
Silver Bell Teacher cranked up our woo-woo something fierce.
In contrast, my current yoga teacher gives the impression that she could order All the Positive Energy in the Universe to go sit in the corner and think about what it had done, and APEU would comply with no sass, no backtalk, not a single protest of “But I didn’t even….” What’s more, my current yoga teacher has a cadre of regulars she knows by name and with whom she shares insider “I like you more than the others” talk. Her no-nonsense attitude, coupled with the implication that she prefers certain pupils, is intimidating in a way that leaves me feeling guarded instead of flooded with ananda, that blissful feeling of utter joy that is—DUH—an essential quality of the ultimate Reality.
So why is she my teacher? Why do I attend her classes?
She’s really, really good. That’s why. Her classes are challenging, no doubt, but she knows her Sanskrit, and her cues for each position are detailed and clear. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s her natural speaking style that makes her seem terse. The way the words come out of her mouth doesn’t accurately reflect who she is inside. In fact, she laughs and chats easily—even though I still quiver and brace for a slap as she socializes. My perception of her is as much about my own insecurities as it is about what she’s emitting. She’s a nice person. I just don’t think she’d have much patience for tears at the dinner table.
Having such knotty feelings about this woman, I would never have predicted that I’d rely on her—heavily—during some grim and painful hours.
You see, I had a root canal a few months ago.
This is the point where Third Beer Brain is tempted to send my yoga teacher into the endodontist’s office so that she can startle him with a brusque command to set down his barbed broach and step away from his reamer. Third Beer Brain wants Yoga Teacher to defy my 220-pound endodontist, a bit of a crabby beast in his own right, to attempt Standing Half Moon pose right there in the office. When he gives it his best shot, she’ll clip out, “This. is. not. a. side. bending. pose. This. is. a. side. stretching. pose.”
The thing about Third Beer Brain is that it’s not buzzed enough to be dishonest. My yoga teacher has never met my endo, much less barked at him in a way that would result in a strengthening of his core. With my luck, if the two scaries ever do meet, Yoga Teacher will suggest he release his ego, at which point they’ll devolve into fits of laughter at the very thought and, in the space of three minutes of friendly giggling, realize they have much in common, for they are both deep tissue practitioners. A week later, I’d encounter them when they’re out on a date having chai, and the ensuing shock and distress at seeing my life’s most-frightening people at a table together would result in a need for therapy I can’t afford.
Clearly, it’s a good thing Third Beer Brain is a regular Abe Lincoln when it comes to probity.
Anyhow, having had a root canal a handful of years ago, and having found it fairly traumatic, I headed into this recent procedure plagued by nerves. The night before I went into the endo to have him open the afflicted tooth, I was chatting with a friend on the phone, attempting to explain my trepidation. This friend has never had a root canal, but she was sympathetic to the sustained and invasive awfulness of the process, noting, “I can only imagine what it’s like to sit there and have part of your skull scraped out with a drill and a baby toothbrush. I’m pretty sure I’d have to cope with the whole thing by doing yoga in my mind.”
Wazzat, Harmony Borealis? You’d have to huh?
As we say in the Midwest: real good then. You go right ahead, honey, and imagine you could visualize your way into a sun-dappled mental state, a place where chataranga dandasana trumps three hours of dental dam. Realistically, though? Having a team of professionals pour bleaching agents into a well that’s been drilled into one’s gums isn’t something a person can tune out.
Of course, nothing is more familiar to me than a feeling of superiority being brought sharply to heel.
Because, um, well, you see, the next morning, er, well, uh,
the endodontist had to give me twelve shots before my mouth would go numb (which was in NO WAY related to my body’s well-developed tolerance for painkilling substances, so hesh up your observational thinking already; if you want to be such a smarty pants, maybe go read the studies that prove redheads require more Novocain before they feel the effect and lay off my love of beer… and wine… plus the odd vodka-gin-rum…). After the twelfth injection, when finally he was able to get down to serious drilling, I felt my innards trending towards panic.
As hysteria was cresting, my yoga teacher’s firm voice floated into my head, and BAM, just like that, my consciousness detached from the drilling and traveled onto a mat in a darkened studio illuminated only by strings of Christmas lights. For the next three hours, every time my nerves started to rise, Yoga Teacher would lead me through a sun salutation or set me up in a balance pose. She reminded me to find a drishti and keep my eyes focused on that point; she reminded me to breathe so that my ribs expanded out to the sides; she reminded me to tuck my shoulder blades into their sockets like wings. She got me through.
I was entirely on my own over the following weekend, however, when my opened tooth abscessed, and my face swelled up with pus so that I looked like Eric Stoltz in Mask.
After calling the endodontist to establish that the size of my face was abnormal, I went in that Monday morning to have him look at it. One glance and he pulled a syringe out of his hip holster: it was time to numb again. As the first shot slid into my cheek, the pain was so intense it made me long for an un-anaesthetized C-section, simply so I could hurt a little less. Agonized moans and sobs rolled out of me and echoed throughout the office.
In the waiting room, my husband put his head between his knees, but in the examination room, the endodontist took enough of a break to issue a quick, firm talking-to: “Listen, there’s no way around this. I have to give you these shots, and, quite simply, it’s going to hurt”—as if I could control the anguish.
When he leaned into my mouth with a needle once again, admonishing me that naturally I was sore from the twelve shots a few days before, I mentally lifted my arms to the sky, did a swan dive to the ground, planted my hands, jumped my feet back into Plank, and slowly lowered to the floor, tucking my elbows into my ribs. There, resting in Cobra pose, I heard my yoga teacher’s voice overtake that of the endodontist, drowning out his scolding as she cautioned me to raise my chin, for if my gaze was lowered to the floor, my breath would be impeded. My chin lifted. My breath flowed. The doc inserted yet another needle. I moaned and sobbed. Then my yoga teacher’s voice slid in again, with the instruction to raise myself up and push back into Downward Dog. She left me there, resting, for five breaths. By the end of the five, my face was numb, and the endo was making an incision into my gums so that he could insert a drain.
I left the doctor’s office that day understanding that his gruffness protected him from his own feelings about being the instrument of someone’s pain. Perhaps more importantly, I left his office that day with a prescription for penicillin, a desire for a long nap, and a respect for the virility of oral bacteria.
When I went back a few weeks later to have the endodontist finish cleaning out my canals before jamming a filling into the hole in my head, I told him that I had been worshiping at the altar of penicillin and was infinitely grateful to have been born post-WWII, during the age of antibiotics. In reply, the endodontist pointed out that all the penicillin in the world wouldn’t have helped without his work lancing and draining the abscess.
It’s a marvel that man can walk without tripping over the hubris swirling around him. Wanting to be done with my time in the chair, I cast about for an ego-massaging reply. Fortunately, at that moment, it was Yoga Teacher who gave me voice, who was tough as an over-salted T-bone steak, who helped me slurp out a response:
“Definitely, it was your expertise that got the pus out of my face. I was just giving credit to everything that aided in my recovery, including that prescription. I’ll tell you what, though, in the interests of absolute honesty: there are two things that are going to help me long-term much more than the excellent lancing you gave my soft tissues.”
The endo raised an eyebrow and snapped the dental dam onto my back tooth as he asked, incredulously, “Oh, yea? What would those be?”
Grinning and enunciating as clearly as the dam would allow, I informed him, “Yoga. And beer.”
Huge thanks to Byron for drawing images to accompany this story. If you like his work, you can visit his blog at: www.layingfallow.com.