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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.