Over Labor Day weekend, I’ll be attending a four day yoga and writing workshop in Ojai, California. Lidia Yuknavitch will lead the workshop on corporeal writing. I’m a strident fan of Lidia’s writing because it’s beautiful, but also because it involves itself with the grotesque, gorgeous, painful, and sublime experience of being an embodied and sentient being like no one – man or woman – I’ve ever read. But as a woman and trauma survivor (god, I hate the word “survivor”), I have an especially visceral connection with her writing as well. There is no one better suited to lead a discussion on corporeal writing than Lidia Yuknavitch, and I’m honored and privileged to be able to attend this retreat.
But then there’s the yoga.
I fucking hate yoga.
The thing about yoga is that, for reasons I’ve never gotten clear about, it elicits from me a nearly immediate and overwhelming sense of rage. The first time it happened, I was in my early 20s and I took a yoga class at the local community center with my ex-husband, long before our marriage. I learned downward dog, and that was fine. I tackled upward facing dog, and that was okay, too. But then something happened when it came time for the sun salutation. As I moved through each pose, I found my movements were five seconds slower than everyone else’s. That I grunted more. That I couldn’t get my hands aligned right. That when I was told to go left, I’d go right and then by the time I was able to correct my pose, everyone had moved on to the next position.
I looked around the room at the other people and no one else seemed to be struggling. In fact, everyone appeared to be frustratingly at ease. I looked at my boyfriend, also a newcomer, and he was following the instructor’s gratingly soft voice like he’d been doing yoga for years. And that’s when I felt the frustration start to rise up inside of me – a frustration that rapidly changed to anger. But I stuck with it, even though I was nearly in tears. I resolved to just try harder, but when the next pose came along, I was turned around, out of alignment, and even more angry. By the time the instructor started guiding us through the next movement, I actually was in tears and I excused myself from the room.
Not long after, the class ended and my boyfriend joined me outside. I was bawling uncontrollably. When he asked me what was wrong, I started screaming. I told him I thought it wasn’t the right class for me, that the instructor moved through everything too quickly, and that I wasn’t coming back. We had an enormous fight about my leaving class and not sticking with it and “dealing with it.” Finally, I agreed to return.
My second visit was just as rough. Worse, even, since I started experiencing the anger earlier – pretty much the moment I felt out of sync. By the time I called it quits, I was fighting mad and I stormed out of the room. That class ended with another huge fight between my boyfriend and me. He told me he thought I had some trauma stored in my body and that I needed “to work that shit out.” I never went back to that class.
I knew then, as now, that a huge part of the struggle I was facing is that I am an awkward human, a stranger in a strange land nearly everywhere I go. If Mary Katherine Gallagher and Napoleon Dynamite procreated, I would be the offspring.
Believe me, I’ve tried yoga half a dozen more times since that first experience, always with the same result: instant, unbridled rage. This, even though I’ve been in therapy for 11 years, my frontal lobe has long completed its development, I’ve left an unhealthy marriage and built an incredible life for myself as a single mom, and much of the insecurity of youth has given way to an inability to give a shit most of the time. Despite all this progress, I remain comically uncoordinated. And yoga remains a nemesis that reaches in and yanks out some latent, ancient madness nothing else seems to tap into.
I don’t think it’s just the matter of being physically awkward, though that’s definitely a part of it. After that first experience with yoga 16 years ago, my boyfriend/ex-husband’s words to “work out” the “shit” that was possibly stored in my body stuck with me. Muscle memory is generally accepted to mean “a form of procedural memory that can help you become very good (or bad) at something through repetition.” But there’s also research that suggests “emotions are also stored in our muscles and these emotions can be triggered through body work…”
Through therapy, I’ve tapped into the varied and replete traumas of my past. And while you (or I, anyway) would assume that the most likely sources of my yoga rage are sexual and physical traumas, when I reflect, the two memories that rise to the top are actually far less extreme.
When I was three, I was involved in a car accident with my family. My dad, drunk at 3:00 in the afternoon, was driving. My mom was a passenger, and my sister and I were in the backseat of the family’s VW Bug. We hit a patch of ice and crashed into the car next to us. My mom’s leg was nearly severed off with the slicing metal of her door as it buckled. We were all taken to the hospital to be examined. Being charity cases, my mom was given a penrose drip and about seventy thousand stitches (give or take) and we were all deemed “fine” and sent home.
About a week later, though, my mom noticed that I had been hugging my left arm to my chest nonstop for days. I didn’t say anything, but she could tell something was wrong. She tried to pull my arm away to see if it was broken, and I screamed out in pain. A trip to the ER revealed that my clavicle was broken. The doctors set it and I was given a brace to wear for the next month.
The summer I was 12, I moved from southern New Mexico, where I’d been living with my mom and stepdad, to Las Vegas, Nevada to live with my birth certificate father. Things went poorly from the start and by the time 7th grade started, I unexpectedly found myself living alone with my stepmom and siblings. My stepmom wasn’t thrilled about this, and let my sister, who is 17 months older than I, and me know on a regular basis. Because she didn’t know “what to do with us,” my stepmom enrolled my sister and me in an afterschool program – the NALA High on Life Youth Program – a rehabilitation program designed for youth who were ex-gang members and drug users.
It was free.
Part of the program required that this group of recovering youth travel to high schools and tell their stories. We all attended Toast Masters regularly to prepare. A lot of the stories were truly inspiring. Some were heart wrenching. I was intimidated because what did I have to say? Should I tell this crowd of strangers – all peers, or older – that I had recently been the victim of child pornography? That I had fled my hometown because an uncle had kidnapped, raped, and murdered a schoolmate and buried her naked body on my grandparents’ cattle ranch? That I was only here because my stepmom didn’t want to hire a babysitter?
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was that this traveling band of ne’er do well motivational speakers also had a special rap and dance they performed. And though I practiced and gave it my all, it was impossible to learn the dance moves. This was 1988, the time of The Roger Rabbit and the Running Man. The last year of Solid Gold. Dancing and rapping was an important part of the zeitgeist at the time. I was a scrawny 12 year old whiter-than-white girl from Hayseed, America with absolutely no rhythm whose first concert featured Roy Clark from Hee Haw on banjo.
It wasn’t just that I couldn’t get the dance moves that was so traumatizing about this experience – it was the reaction from the openly hostile members of this group, all of whom found me to be nothing more than an irritating interloper in an otherwise insular group that was literally the difference between life and death or life and prison for almost everyone there. So there’s this one moment that replays over and over in my mind sometimes. It’s of me, off in a corner, trying to make myself small and invisible while watching the instructor guide us through the movements of the High on Life dance. Everyone goes left and I go right. While everyone else can do the head/shoulder roll gracefully, fluidly, I look like I’m having a grand mal seizure. While everyone else is getting into the rhythm of it, I’m fighting back tears. Then, my worst nightmare is realized: someone notices me. She points and laughs. The practice stops. Now, everyone is pointing and laughing at me. “Look at Gloria! Oh, god! Look at her!” Even my sister is there, pointing and laughing. I shrink into myself in that moment. I go to a place inside of me that is safe and I stay there for a long, long time.
The second of these memories especially fits into the standard psychological examination of rage. It postulates that “rage is considered to be an emergency reaction that humans are pre-wired to possess. Rage tends to be expressed when a person faces a threat to their pride, position, status, or dignity.” So, yes. When I’m performing yoga and I’m unable to glide between poses, it’s emotionally threatening. Sure, maybe I would benefit from working through these emotions, like the way a massage therapist kneads out kinked muscles. But the feelings are so private. I’ve had people tell me to just stick with it and remind me that even though I want to run from the room screaming, “STOP LOOKING AT ME!” I need to remember that, in fact, nobody actually is.
But, nope. They have no clue what they’re asking for. And frankly, neither do I, and I’m terrified of what will come out when that shit cracks open.
Actually, I prefer the Greeks over the psychologists when meditating on the idea of rage. First of all, there’s Lyssa, the female spirit of rage, who is identified as “the daughter of Nyx, sprung from the blood of Ouranos“—that is, the blood from Ouranos’ wound following his castration by Cronus. Fatherless Rage, daughter of Night, sprung from the blood of Sky when he was castrated by Time. Here, we capture ideas of fertility, movement between time and space, and blood, which can both heal and kill.
And then there’s Pandora, the first woman on earth, formed of earth and water on Zeus’s orders. Famously, Pandora opens a jar (sometimes erroneously referred to as a box) containing death and many other evils, which were released into the world. She hastened to close the container, but the whole contents had escaped except for one thing that lay at the bottom – hope. I find this metaphor more soothing and apt than the Incredible Hulk.
And, I don’t know. Maybe my reaction to yoga does have something to do with my childhood sexual trauma. After all, it forces one into positions I associate largely with sex acts. These are intimate, vulnerable, prone positions, after all. That could reasonably have something to do with my discomfort-turned-rage.
Maybe it’s that I’m afraid of what will come exploding out if I stay in a room full of strangers when I feel this way.
Maybe I really do prefer to hold my pain close to my chest.
Or maybe – and, I mean, far be it from me to miss an opportunity to over-analyze every single last thing – but just maybe I simply don’t like fucking yoga. I do understand this is a strong possibility.
I know, though, that yoga teases out all my private things – my blind spots and hidden places – while in a room full of strangers and while poorly performing acts I associate with sex (which is the only physical act I’ve ever felt competent at) in a painfully incompetent way. It’s possible it’s just not for me.
Either way, though, I’m going on this retreat in a few weeks. And, yes, I’ll give yoga another shot. I don’t have any illusions that it’ll “take” this time, but I do have a renewed faith that my rage won’t kill me and that the value of the writing workshops will be transformative. And I’m not worried. After all, as Lidia Yuknavitch says, “…it’s important to learn to face the fact that the brutal and the beautiful always co-exist, often right next to one another.”