Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense.
Outside, winter rages. Snow blinds. White out conditions. The wind is a guttural animal against this old upstate building. I swear I feel the sway of this place, feel the cold invading the fissures of the structure. I know after this session I will have to put on my heavy boots and double- thick coat and enter the storm. I know I will have to scrape and rescrape the snow and ice and slush off my car. And I know that every warm muscle I have worked hard to stretch will shrink and tighten as soon as I step foot outside. Yet, right now, I’m here. My three-hundred-seventy-pound Body, occupying this space that is free of judgment, free of ridicule, free of self-loathing.
Peace pervades this yoga studio in Oswego, NY. Incense permeates the space—fragrant and earthy. Candles flicker on windowsill ledges, casting wavering light onto the wooden floors. Buddha presides in the front of the rectangular room. Over speakers is the sound of bells, like the ones tinkling on temples in Thailand.
Today, I am learning to walk.
We go from one end of the studio to the other, twelve of us in varying speeds and strides. Our instructor, Howard, tells us to feel the floor. “You are connected,” he says.
I usually bristle at what sounds like New Age instruction, bristle at anything touchy-feely. Such sayings have struck me as melodramatic and unnecessarily deep —bad fortune cookie fortunes. But I let Howard’s words sink in because I like Howard. I like his patience with me and Body, like his words of encouragement when I do positions Body is unaccustomed to. Plus, his gray beard is glorious.
I fixate on the word connected. I try to merge Body and mind. I say, step. I say, walk. I say, gentle. The opposite happens. My feet slap the floor, startling my glassy-eyed neighbor, who flinches at the sound. The floor creaks and cracks. I am painfully aware of how clumsy Body is, and when that happens I turn on myself. I say, fat. I say, ugly. I say, stupid.
“Walking is difficult,” Howard says. “We never think about it. We are always doing.”
I take another step. Slow. Concentrate. Lift the foot. Place pad of foot on floor. Follow with heel. Shift weight forward. Again.
“This is how we were meant to walk,” Howard says. “No shoes. No socks. Skin against earth. Feel it. Let that sensation spread from the bottom of your body to the top.”
I lose my balance. I stagger. I sigh.
“It’s okay, Ira,” Howard says. He moves behind me. Watches my steps.
Sweat drips from my forehead.
“You’re walking on the outside of your feet,” Howard says. “Make sure the whole bottom touches. Even the little toe.”
I’m conscious of my loud walking, of my audible breaths, thick and hot. The others are like stealthy ninjas, gliding over the surface of the floor, absent of thought, just doing.
“What are you thinking?” Howard says.
I don’t tell him the truth. I don’t tell him how much I hate myself, how much I hate Body. I don’t tell him how much I hate that I can’t walk correctly.
“I’m thinking heel then toe,” I say.
Howard doesn’t buy it. He tilts his head and puts a hand to his bearded chin. It is the look Santa might give when he’s deciphering whether you’ve been naughty or nice. “It seems you are disconnecting. Am I right?”
I shrug, but he is. My mind and Body are not one. Have never been one. They are separate entities. I have disconnected from Body, allowed it to do what it wants, when it wants. I have lost control. I started yoga to get it back. To connect to it. But this exercise of walking—fucking walking—has depleted hope that this will ever happen.
“You can do it,” Howard says. “Give it time.”
Being large and diabetic, time is something I may have little of.
Body as language: You are a fat run-on sentence that feeds like high-schoolers on riblet day—no—hyenas at the feast—no—the famished and you are never sated never happy because you have long since forgotten what happiness feels like—real happiness—not the quick illusion of it every time you sit and eat because that happiness is temporary and what follows is a loathing that makes you want to pluck the hairs off your legs one at a time—no—scream until the throat bleeds—no—tear hunks of your meaty flesh and fling them off because when you eat you have forgotten the sensation of satisfaction the meaning of the word enough or plenty or sufficient or full because the word full suggests there is no more space no more room to justify one more bite of something that will cut your life by another year but the surprising thing is you find more room because there is always more to choke a heart to choke the veins to choke the arteries and still you can’t help but feel that there are places in you that are empty and starving and you can’t seem to feed them the right food can’t seem to figure out this puzzle of hunger and you feel this endeavor is pointless like feeding goldfish pieces of goldfish—no—like a food critic at McDonald’s—no—like a milk shake without the shake or the milk and these moments have become the saddest recognition of your life because it means you are powerless against what hurts you most which means you are powerless against your own self which means you can’t stop what is sure to happen—who can?
At the yoga studio, my favorite time is the darkness at the end, after we have worked out every muscle, after we have sweated and strained. Howard turns off the lights and we get into our relaxed positions—lying supine, legs raised on a chair—and concentrate on breathing. His voice leads us into our relaxed states.
“Close your eyes,” Howard says, “and release all your worries.”
The darkness is a comfort. It is a body pillow I cling to. In the light, Body is front and center. In the dark, it disappears. It ceases to matter.
“Relax your shoulders, your neck, your back,” Howard says. “Chase away that tension with your breath.”
I spend most of my day trying to disappear. Trying to squash Body. I have, in many ways, created a perpetual darkness in my life. Many fat people do this. To hide ourselves, we exaggerate another part of our personalities. I put on a wide smile. I nod voraciously. I ask questions. I make people laugh. In this way, I place persona in front of Body. I make people see someone else entirely. This, perhaps, is why fat people have been stereotyped as jolly or good-natured, why fat people are expected to smile and tell a joke. What people forget, however, is this is a mask. We deny ourselves true feeling; we belittle our suffering. What people forget is that it takes a lot of energy to wear this mask day in and day out. Yet, at the same time, we live in the darkness because we fear what would happen when we let the light in. We fear what we might discover. Worse yet, what others might discover.
“Imagine your stresses as paper,” Howard says. “Crumple them up. Throw them away.”
Darkness hides our flaws—yes—but it hides us, too. It is the reason the boys in my neighborhood loved playing hide-and-seek at night. Darkness provided extra cover. Darkness provided shadows. If you wore black, you could disappear entirely. One of us would never be found because he hid so well. We’d call his name. We’d say the game was over. We’d say it was time to go home before we got in trouble. And out came the best hider. He would emerge—usually climbing down the tallest tree or crawling out from underneath a Dumpster—and we would register his physicalness. First the outline of his body. Then his individual parts, the fingers, the feet. Then finally his face. His smile. He would be found. He would be part of this world again.
“Breathe deeply,” Howard says. “Allow yourself to be only here, in this space.”
I would have remained hidden. I would have stayed in my hiding spot for as long as I could, never answering to my name when called, never acknowledging my existence. I would have gladly stayed in the dark. Weeks, months, years. And maybe I would’ve been forgotten. Maybe I would’ve become someone’s good memory—”Remember that kid Ira? Best hider on the planet.” Or, maybe, just maybe, the songs and stories about me would be absent of the word fat, would start first with he loved the world too much, so he decided to vanish.
“Open your eyes,” Howard says.
The lights come on and the other students gather their things and there I lie, blinded by that sudden change, shocked back into the world, and for a second I forget about Body, forget its bulk, until I roll on my side and heave myself up.
Some days I take a shower in the dark. I keep the lights off, bring down the shades over the bathroom window, close the door. Taking a shower in the dark is not a conscious choice. I simply do it, and when the water hits me, when I grope for my shampoo and soap, I wonder why I decided on this act of cleaning myself without light. During these moments I realize Body sometimes makes his own decisions, moves on his own accord, imposes his own will. I read once a man can see a fan spinning and he knows it will hurt but he can’t stop his hand from touching the blades anyway. Experts say our bodies react to a set of neurological, psychological, and psychiatric conditions, that showering in the dark is a response to one or all of those conditions. Experts also say there is no difference between showering in the light and showering in the dark. But in the dark, I finally understand how well I know Body. My hand, without any visual cue, washes everything with care and precision, without pause. I slow down. I make sure every inch of Body—the dark crevices below the stomach and in between Body’s legs—is covered with soap. In the light, the purpose of showering is to clean. In the dark, the purpose of showering is to explore.
We need reasons to explain who we are. We need reasons to explain our choices and decisions—good or bad.
But what if we don’t have reasons? What if we stopped going to yoga because it made us too aware of ourselves, because it spotlighted our every flaw, because when we were asked to bend and contort, we couldn’t? Instead of finding some sort of peace of mind, we found another activity Body had prevented us from enjoying.
So we stop.
We decide to do nothing. We decide to let Body take over. “Here you go, Body,” we say. “Take the helm. Do your baddest.” Body has been waiting for this moment. He has been clamoring for this opportunity, and now that he has it, he does nothing. Nothing is the best plan he can think of. Nothing is the fastest route to destruction.
Sometimes he speaks.
Sometimes Body says, “Downward-facing dog. Really?”
Sometimes Body says, “Remember that time you took yoga. What a joke.”
So, we spend hours on the couch. We spend hours hating ourselves. We eat and eat and eat. We do this nonstop. We are killing ourselves but we don’t know it. We hate ourselves but we don’t say it. We want to die but we can’t.
One, two, three. Four, five, six years speed by, and we are looking at the scale at the doctor’s office. It reads three hundred ninety pounds. We are tired—so, so tired. This is the line we lean on. “How’re you feeling?” the doctor says. “Tired,” we say. “So, so tired.” Could be the pounds we lug around. Could be the blood sugar we can’t control. Could be the fact that most days are spent in one place.
We know what the doctor will say: lose weight, exercise. As a joke, we quote Raymond Carver’s short story, “Fat”: “Believe it or not, we have not always eaten this way.” The doctor won’t understand; most doctors don’t. They are a breed who believe in logic and reason. To them, Body is about cause and effect. Body is about rational decisions. What he doesn’t take into account is that our mind has become irrational. We ask for antidepressants. He looks at us and takes note. He asks if we are suicidal. We shake our head. He doesn’t believe us. Why should he? Look at us. Look at the fat hanging over the chair. Look at our cheeks, our chins. He signs a prescription pad and then puts a hand on our shoulder. “Try this,” he says. “Cut out a picture of a body you admire—a celebrity, perhaps, an athlete—and paste your face onto it. Hang it up so you look at it each day. Believe in the power of the mind.”
We nod. We say this is a great idea. We thank him for his services.
Outside, the sun beats on us, and it is then we remember one yoga pose: Sun Salutation, a series of twelve moves, consisting of lunging and bending and arching. We never got it right. But it didn’t matter. Not that first time. Not any of the times. The point was we made Body move. We made Body realize it could be a flexible vessel, even when our sweat dripped onto the mat, even when our legs trembled, even when our stomach got in the way.
We’re not saying this was the moment we would try again. We’re not saying we went home and did not eat the mountain mound of rice. We ate. We’re not saying we decided not to watch TV and opted for a walk instead. We watched. But something curious happened that day. We took the doctor’s advice, but modified it. We took the body we envied—actor Brad Pitt—and cut out Brad’s head and put it on our body. And now Brad Sukrungruang was doing the Sun Salutation. And now he was Downward Dogging. And now he was doing a headstand and realized what gravity does with fat. We laughed. Outside, in the summer heat, we laughed. Outside the doctor’s office, we laughed.
It sounded foreign from our mouth, but familiar, like the word love spoken in a different language...
Read the Full Story, and 16 other honest, inspiring, and witty stories in:
Join me and Ira on Saturday, Feb. 3rd at the beautiful Lotus Pond Yoga Center in Tampa, FL for our WRITING the BODY workshop:
What are the stories behind your scars, the "I'm not good enoughs," the litany of gratitude for the miracles of bone and breath and pulse?
This empowering, dynamic workshop will give you the opportunity to use language to reframe, re-story, and rewrite your relationship with your own body.
Using mindfulness, creative writing prompts, and reflection, we will dive deep, write from the heart, and begin to heal your relationship with yourself.
The Lotus Pond Center
6201 Lynn Road, Tampa, FL
Cost: $28 ($125 for the whole Yoga & Creative Writing mini retreat!)
2 Credit Hours for Yoga Teachers and YTTs