As I bend backward, pressing my knees into the mat and my hips forward, with my hands pressed into my low back, I concentrate on dropping my head backward, seeing the wall behind me, and pressing the middle of my rib cage up towards the ceiling. I try to take little sips of air as the yoga instructor says, “breathing should be easy now; we’re opening our lungs.” Breathing in this position is not easy for me, and my heart is pounding with an unsettling sensation. I investigate the feeling, while trying to remain calm and still in the posture. The sensation is coming towards the end of a 90-minute, humid, sweaty class. Is it simply fatigue? Do I need to back off and rest? No, it’s definitely more than that. Suddenly it comes to me. This is fear.
My heart is pounding in terror. I acknowledge the feeling, and unlike classes in the past when I might have immediately come out of the posture, I try to stay. It’s okay, I tell myself. I am safe. Just hang in there a little longer. The instructor starts a slow long-winded count down of 10 more seconds until the end of the posture, and I make it to “4” before finally baling out of the posture and lying in Shavasana, heart still pounding and fear still coursing through my body. Breathe, I tell myself. “I can, I can,” I exhale as a mantra. Still, in Shavasana, I gently press the scar along my bikini line, the scar where twice my babies were pulled from my body, both times preceded by moments of life and death terror. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, pressing outward from the scar. It’s okay, and now the sensations of fear have subsided, and my heart is still beating rapidly, but now just from the exertion of a strenuous class, and nothing more.
Four months prior, I had begun experiencing numbness in my right big toe. I got treatment from my chiropractor, but the numbness persisted, usually in that toe, but sometimes in other toes and the whole foot, or even on my left side. At night when I tried to sleep my hips felt weird and sensitive, not necessarily painful, but restless. The uncomfortable sensations kept me awake at night, sending me to the bathroom frequently to empty my bladder, and leading to the numbness in my lower leg or legs in the morning. At the same time, and I assumed unconnectedly, I was experiencing heightened general anxiety.
As the numbness continued, two different health practitioners who used muscle testing told me, that the numbness had to do with my nervous system, but also that its cause was “emotional.” What on earth did that mean? They couldn’t tell me, but one of them also pinpointed my c-section scar as the originating site of misalignment problems in my body that were contributing to the numbness and hip and bladder discomfort. In the meantime, in the hope of helping address the structural problems causing the disruption to my nervous system as well as my anxiety, I returned to practicing hot yoga, which had stopped after I became pregnant with my first child six years ago.
Hot yoga had once been an integral part of my life. I practiced most days of the week. I started like most Westerners, determined to power through, determined to get to the edge in every posture. In a head-to-Knee pose, I wasn’t satisfied unless I was pressing my face into my shins with my knees locked. In standing bow-pulling posture, my objective was to balance for 60 seconds with my chest parallel to the ground, even if, in retrospect, I wasn’t actually getting the intended back-bending benefits of the posture due to incorrect positioning of my upper leg, or the “bow” portion of the posture. That I was all “arrow” and no “bow” was an apt metaphor for my practice back then. Perhaps predictably, it wasn’t too long before I injured myself and had to alter the way I approached my practice.
As I recovered from the back injury brought on by the combination of my overzealous yoga practice, hypermobile ligaments, and chronic strength imbalances, I learned the beauty of developing the “bow” part of my practice, or the art of subtly and supplely pulling back and finding just the right balance of strength and flexibility. I learned to listen to my body, to notice my breathing and heart rate as cues for just when to push and just when to back off. And I learned when to not listen to my mind. For example, I learned to stop worrying about thoughts that used to preoccupy me during class, like what time is it and is the room hot enough or too hot, and shouldn’t the teacher open the door now? Like the teacher who once told me as I lay fanning myself in Shavasana, “that will actually just make you hotter,” I learned that the best way to recover from feeling hot, fatigued, overwhelmed, whatever it may be, was just to lay still and let the feeling pass. Most often, nothing more was required.
Over the years, I learned that the key to hot yoga is balance. For each muscle that is stretching, there is an opposing muscle pulled taut to support the posture. For each period of intense work holding a posture and pushing to the limits, there is a period of rest that can be equally if not more challenging to surrender fully into. One of my favorite instructions from a yoga teacher was the bark of, “quick relax” each time the class went into Shavasana. It sounded like a contradiction at first, but I learned that those brief moments of relaxations between postures were the bones of the practice, sustaining all the effort that happened in between, and the rest periods were so fleeting that if you didn’t lean into them fully and immediately, recovery wouldn’t happen and the next postures would suffer.
Unfortunately, the lessons of my yoga practice didn’t follow me fully though my six-year hiatus. I leaned in fully to motherhood and career without even brief moments to rest and listen to the recovery of my breath. Soon I was battling intermittent bouts of anxiety and depression, and finally, like so many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout. Then also came the mysterious numbness.
When I returned to my hot yoga practice, six years after trading it for prenatal and then tot yoga, I set out to see if I could find the same healing magic once again. I told myself, just go and try it; don’t worry if I spend the whole class laying on the ground, too hot and out-of-shape to keep up with the other yogis. And to my surprise, the lessons of listening to my limits came right back to me and allowed me to stay within myself and finish the class without skipping a single posture.
Fortunately, that life force was reawakened in me, the lessons of balance and recovery have quickly flowed over into the rest of my life. Now, when I’m feeling worn out, it’s time for a “quick relax,” a brief but all-important moment of self-care to acknowledge my humanity and need for rest. When the effort of the moment seems overwhelming, it’s time to find my breath and let it sustain me.
As for my yoga practice, after the sensation of fear had been released that day in camel posture, the numbness left me as well. A week or two later, as I was carefully practicing my camel posture, the teacher asked if I could reach back and grab my heals, something I hadn’t done since my back injury. I could not, I assured him. He told me it looked like I could. When I expressed reluctance to push my body too much, his partner, practicing next to me, defended me, saying that if my mind wasn’t ready, then it didn’t matter if my body was. I felt reassured by that, but also curious. What if perhaps my body was capable of more than my mind knew. The next class, when it came time for camel posture, I took a deep courageous breath and reached back and grabbed I heals, pressing my heart up to the ceiling and feeling no fear.
Who knows whether the subsidence of my chronic numbness was due to yoga stretching and strengthening my body, loosening the scar tissue from my c-section, or allowing me to release fear held deeply within my body? Whatever it is, class by class I feel my body and mind healing and growing more supple and resilient.