Four nights of staying up way past midnight in New Orleans over spring break were followed surreally by three nights of eating dinner at 5 pm with my grandma and shuffling from the coffee shop back through the lobby where a group of people were playing a crossword out loud together (“Tippecanoe and ____ Too!”). On my last morning at her retirement community, my grandma asked me to do a yoga demonstration. She’d watched me go through some asanas and thought it would make “good entertainment.” Since yoga is more or less the way I pray, this didn’t feel right to me, and yet I didn’t want to let her down. She was so excited that she stopped people in the hallway pointing to me as she spoke: “You have got to see what she can do!” I felt a bit like a monkey.
When we got to the exercise room on Thursday morning, our car already packed for the drive back north – as though for a speedy exit, a group of folding chairs was set up in a circle. I was to put my mat in the middle and “do your thing,” according to grandma. I still hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do – how I would please her and not disappointment my audience, let alone my own self.
How does it feel to be in a body as it loses tone and strength. As it gains new bumps and unexpected humps. How does it feel to live with the inevitable?
Looking around at the faces, all framed by gray hair, I wondered what these people’s relationships was to their bodies at this juncture. I made no presumptions. Having visited my grandma’s place on about a half a dozen earlier occasions, I was no longer too thrown by being surrounded by octogenarians. Oxygen tanks aren’t unusual. Nor is the spirited woman who got in the elevator with me one morning and started up a lively conversation about the Indian god Hanuman who was on my t-shhirt. On earlier visits, I’d been depressed by the place. It scared me. But now with my next birthday taking me closer to fifty and ever further from the days when I hardly had to think about my body because it was just effortlessly there, I found myself with more curiosity and empathy for these folks. How does it feel to be in a body as it loses tone and strength. As it gains new bumps and unexpected humps. How does it feel to live with the inevitable?
“Well, get going!” my grandma prodded me, my own personal P.T. Barnum. Her energy was toward the manic. She’d recently lost her partner, dear Roy, and she was swinging between melancholy and the hyped energy of a kid on Sweet Tarts. I didn’t think it through, I just went and stood behind her and asked her to inhale while raising her hands overhead as I gently but firmly put one hand on her sternum and the other on her upper back. “Again,” I said, and though I imagined she was somewhat annoyed with me, I could also feel the breath doing its magic. Part of me was back at Kripalu, in that great room, surrounded by trusting faces – a place where touch was always trusted and appreciated. My grandma released back toward the ground, out of the ether to where her excitement had taken her. I turned to the rest of the group, who looked open to anything — if not now, when, right? — and asked them to do the same. We spent the next moments breathing together.
Afterward, I wished I could have stayed. I’d spent so much energy dreading the yoga “performance” that it hadn’t occur to me that I might want to sit with a group of older people and remind them of their breath. For the first time since I’d arrived in Florida, I felt I had something meaningful to offer.
“I think some of the old guys were looking at your boobs.” I made a face at him.
When we were driving home (having a grand time switching around on Spotify from the Carpenters to James Taylor to Willie Nelson to Prince), Chris looked sideways at me with a sly grin: “I think some of the old guys were looking at your boobs.” I made a face at him. “They’re not that young,” I protested – referring to me, not the men. “If you’re 80-something they are!” His face became gentle and sweet, radiating a knowledge of time and mortality, of love for me now and in the future, of acceptance with ourselves – our breasts, our breath, our spines – wherever they are just now.
Tonight I went to a yoga class with a visiting teacher. The room was crowded and the temperature was turned up high. A young couple in front of me went through their arm balances before class as though doing a few calf stretches prior to a big race. I hung out in the back row, and as the class progressed I stayed with every pose. When my ankle tweaked, I backed off. When leaning into a backbend in pigeon felt not only within reach but satisfying, I let my body unfurl. Through the 90 minutes, I stayed with the teacher’s voice, my mind focused on little more than his instructions – right leg up, right foot forward, Warrior I, open to Warrior II… It was fast and fluid. “Some day your mind won’t wander,” he said at one point. I smiled to myself; it was one of the first times a yoga instructor has given one of those “some day” words of advice and it actually seemed like I’d arrived. Yeah, after 20-odd years, it’s a prayer, a breath, a chance to practice with my eyes open but turned inward.
I drove home with the windows open, the radio cranked, my grandma on the road before me, my daughter in the rearview mirror. Everyone is just where they are supposed to be. Including me.