On reflection

Eighteen years ago, one Indian summer Wednesday morning, I attended my first yoga class in Oakland, California. I remember being one of about four dozen people, crammed mat to mat in a large, sunlit room, a sea of royal blue covering most of the hardwood floor. The instructor, a short Asian-American man with the most sculpted arm and leg muscles I had ever seen, flitted about, like the host at a party, greeting students, smiling, finally sitting on his mat in criss-cross applesauce directly opposite me.  “Hi, I’m Rodney Yee,” he said, introducing himself to me and other newbies. His smile stretched across his entire face.

What I remember most about that class and many that followed were his words: ground your heels, root down, plant your feet, let your body soften, anchor yourself, feel the ground underneath you. His voice—those words—sang to me, quieting my wild mind. Married only five years, Philippe and I had already lived on three different continents and I felt anything but anchored. Rodney’s bushy, black ponytail swayed from side to side with his movements, and I watched and listened and tried to do what he said.

xx

Last week, I attended a one-day writing workshop with Sherri Mandell, author of a memoir about loss called Blessings of a Broken Heart. Since the workshop was squeezed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during what is considered a time for serious introspection called the Ten Days of Awe, she chose a most befitting theme: reflection.

Surrounded by hostess Judy Labensohn and 13 other writers, both men and women, I leaned back in my chair and listened as Sherri presented the etymology of the word:

reflection : … from Late Latin reflexionem “a reflection,” literally “a bending back,” … “to bend back, bend backwards, turn away”…  

Using the origin of the word as her starting point, she continued. “So reflection is to bend back, to stop and look back, to double check yourself.” The turns of phrases she used struck me, and I realized I was no longer paying attention. Shivers didn’t trickle down my spine and my body didn’t go weak, but I had a moment of clarity when, for the first time, my two separate selves—my yoga self and my writing self—folded into one.  The answer to the centuries-old, philosophical question who am I suddenly was answerable in two simple words: back bender.

While sitting in that plastic chair, the sun pouring into the house from the sliding glass doors, I thought about what it means to bend back.

In yoga, I draw the fronts of my shoulders back to bring my shoulder blades together in attempt to open across the top of my chest, press my heart up and lean my spine back. Sometimes I bend back while lying on the floor, lifting myself up on my legs and arms into what is called full wheel; sometimes I sit on my knees to bend back, arching my spine up and over to reach for my ankles in camel pose. Regardless of the pose, back bends in yoga make me feel airy and light, like I might float off the floor. My heart lifts and soars, outward, upward.  It’s as if my physical body is unlocking my emotional one.

Camel pose

But back bending and writing are altogether different, seemingly mutually exclusive. Because if you bend back, how can you look inside, exactly that which is required of a memoir writer?

“While action and description tell the story, reflection is how a writer negotiates it… The story is the surface, but then bend yourself, bend your story back to see how you relate to it,” Sherri said, pausing to see our reactions. Had I been a Quaker, I might have stood up, my body quaking.

xx

Oftentimes when people ask when or why I first started practicing yoga, I tell them it was the language that lured me in. The poses bewildered me, some making my feet cramp up and others requiring me to hang upside down with my legs held by a thick and uncomfortable rope contraption attached to the wall, so much so that I remember kvetching, “I can’t” or “It hurts” aloud. But my teacher’s words—to plant, soften, quiet, anchor, settle—challenged me in another way. They made me pause and look inside. Newly 30, married and a mom, I was being asked to use my body as a way to be more in touch with my mind. Where had I come from and where was I going? When peeling back the layers, what was underneath? Sometimes Rodney’s words resonated so deeply that tears filled my eyes.

Years passed and I went from practicing once a week to twice. Then, not long after our move from west coast to east, in spring 2003, I delved even deeper to obtain my yoga teaching certification. At the same time, I wrote—for magazines, websites, anyone who hired me. Until, in the fall of 2004, I enrolled in my first memoir writing class when the teacher, a librarian-looking woman named Harriet, told me to move away from exposition, add more description, include dialogue and create scene. Week after week, I struggled to understand what she meant.

xx

As I sat doing writing exercises on reflection last week, I truly understood that two halves make a whole. I am who I am because I write and practice yoga. I reflect both on the mat and at the computer. Sometimes I bend forward to go inside but mostly, I bend back, to stop and double check myself.

With all the reflection, the digging in and bending back, it’s as if we as writers are opening our mouths in astonishment and saying wow, Sherri proceeded. Because there’s something lurking behind, and we must bend back to see it.

May this year be full of back bending, perhaps a new way of reflecting.

Leave a Comment

41 Responses to “On reflection”

  1. Shlomo Liberman September 15, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    I loved the piece with the jumping back and forth
    between yoga and memoir writing.

    I didn’t understand the meaning of the Quaker sentence-
    maybe an American culture thing?
    There must be some grammatical error in the sentence
    ” woman with named Harriet”
    Either the “with” is superfluous or it it should read
    “with the name Harriet/who was named Harriet”.

    But that’s just my proofreading mind taking over again.
    I have to stop doing that when I start my MA in Creative Writing
    at Bar-Ilan next month!

    Yr former student
    Shlomo

    • Jennifer Lang September 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      Thank you, Shlomo. Quaker is a religion in America. When you feel something strongly inside your body starts to quake and you stand and quake. To learn more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quakers
      Thanks for typo slip up. It does happen. Enjoy Bar Ilan. I hope you love it!

  2. Sharon September 15, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    Bravo, Jen! Loved reading this and learning more about you. Very elegant blending of your two “halves”!

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:40 am #

      Thank you for reading. ANy chance I’ll catch you on the mat in the near future? I’d love to have you again. xo

  3. Doris Fankhauser September 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm #

    Loved to read your reflections. I had my first yoga class about 35 years ago….!
    Going to classes 4 – 5 times a week and thoroughly enjoy every minute!
    Your trip to Thailand sounded wonderful as well and most interesting. I was in Switzerland for a week in June and now I am busy with last minute arrangements for our daughter’s wedding on October 12th, very exciting time ahead of us.
    Be well and keep on writing
    xoxo Doris

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:40 am #

      That is super exciting to be planning a wedding and mother of. Congratulations! You’re telling me you practice yoga/go to class 4-5 times weekly now? Amazing. Just amazing. Awesome in fact. Feel good and love to all.

  4. Sharon September 15, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    This is brilliant. Loved it. Miss you. As usual.

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      You are always, always so, so kind. What I’d give to read your writing for a change. Hint, hint. And much love!

  5. Dorothy September 15, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Wonderful, Jen!! Much Love, Dorothy

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:38 am #

      Love back at you! Feel good.

  6. Amy September 16, 2013 at 3:52 am #

    That is what I always loved about your classes — your reflections at the beginning. Always a different theme, not just “yoga”… So at least the rest of us knew you were a harmonious whole, even if you didn’t! :)

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Thanks, Amy! I hope you are still practicing BTW, in Brooklyn or wherever your travels take you.

  7. Noemi September 16, 2013 at 4:14 am #

    Dear Jennifer,
    My daughter forwarded your piece to me. It is lovely.

    I have been a Yoga student for many years and now, in my older age, I am becoming a writer. Writing a memoir, something I have been doing the past couple of years, is indeed ‘bending’ backward but it is also stretching, grounding, opening up and even weight bearing, all that we do in our Yoga practice. You have connected the two beautifully in your piece.

    Have a good and a productive year!

    Noemi

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:37 am #

      Thank you, Noemi. I remember when you came to class with Yael last year. It was so nice to meet you, mother of two women I now know separately–one through my yoga self and the other through my writing self. Keep on writing and practicing!

  8. Lauren September 16, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    So special – thank you for sharing…love, L.

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      It was one of those odd ah-ha moments. Had to write it out. Make more sense of it with the words. xo

  9. Amy September 16, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    Wishing you a fulfilling year of back and forward bends, Jennifer.

    • Jennifer Lang September 16, 2013 at 10:35 am #

      Right back at you. Despite the aches and stiff spine and tight hammies… xo

  10. Osi September 16, 2013 at 11:25 am #

    Really enjoyed it!

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Toda ve chag sameach!

  11. Laurie Luongo September 16, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Hey Jen,

    I enjoyed your piece and flashed on Rodney’s radiant smile. I like to think of back bends as full circles – may the circle be open yet unbroken. xoxo

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:59 am #

      Radiant is a great word. Or dazzling. Glowing. Do you think he knows?

  12. Robin September 16, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Love this piece. Beautiful connection between reflection and back bending.

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:58 am #

      Thanks, Robin, for reading and commenting. I love knowing you’re out there and think of you and the charts you made for me and shared before my move. A lot! xo

  13. Lisa September 16, 2013 at 8:06 pm #

    Great post Jen and very relevant to all writers! Need to bend back to dig deep!

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      Am thinking it could be a bumper sticker–bend back to dig deep! xo

  14. Lisa September 17, 2013 at 12:37 am #

    You always did love that drop back! Beautiful piece my beautiful friend.

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      I hope to continue dropping back for many more years. What a feeling! xo

  15. honi September 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    such a beautiful piece!!! beautiful insights. can i forward it to anat for the association?

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:57 am #

      Thank you for reading, Honi. It poured right out of me…

  16. Mary Thomas September 17, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

    Beautiful, my friend. I share your love of the language of yoga. I can get lost in the beauty of how poses are described and/or in the metaphor of a single practice’s goals. Great piece.

    • Jennifer Lang September 18, 2013 at 8:56 am #

      Yes, yes, yes… agreed. Exactly. LOVE!

  17. Katrina Kenison September 19, 2013 at 1:39 am #

    Jennifer, I’m so glad to have read this post, the first I’ve ever seen about the intermingling of the yoga life and the writing life. Love the reflections on back bending as a slow opening, and the analogies you draw between writing and practicing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  18. Iris Cohen September 20, 2013 at 2:41 am #

    Jennifer,

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing your post. I felt like you were writing about me.

    By the way, my son, Ilan was in a month-long summer program at the Technion and he mentioned this really impressive boy with the last name of Lang. Any chance it was your son?

    Iris

    • Jennifer Lang September 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

      So funny about your son, and, yes, mine. Ben is in army but lives on his own and very involved in Israeli hi-tech scene. That Technion group asked him to speak at Google about what he does. Amazing!
      On another note, I just decided after 2 years to adhere the leaf wallpaper that you have in your studio and I brought with me…. finally my studio will be finished. Thank you! Happy new year.

  19. Jill September 28, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Hi Jen,
    I enjoyed your reflection on reflection very much. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense… (I guess that’s the point.) Hindsight is 20/20 because it’s the look back, the pause for reflection that opens us to truth ~ even if we couldn’t grab it the first time around. Yogic backbends often bring me sense of joy, euphoria even. I wish you the same in the new year and may your two halves combine to make a whole bigger than the sum of it’s parts.
    Sage is doing well. We miss you and look forward to feeling closer through your writing!
    xo, Jill

    • Jennifer Lang September 29, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

      Thanks, Jill, for your reflection as well. I love it! Love to everyone at Sage from me. Enjoy the changing of the leaves!

  20. Patty Holmes September 29, 2013 at 11:48 am #

    Hi Jen, Thanks for including me on your list! Very much enjoyed reading this and love the idea of bending back to reflect…Yoga has that amazing ability to be the ocean where all the rest of my life swims in. Can’t tell you how perfectly my voice teaching and yoga teaching overlap…it’s a beautiful thing! Glad to see you sharing your gifts.
    best, Patty

  21. Patty Holmes September 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    Ahh..synchronicity! I literally just left the elephant journal site. lol

    • Jennifer Lang October 1, 2013 at 10:18 am #

      Love synchronicity. Even just the word. Enjoy!

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