In 1996, I took my first yoga class. I only took a second one because I had instantly developed a crush on my teacher. I would like to offer my youth as my excuse – I had no idea yet that this was definitely misguided and unhelpful, and potentially kind of icky.
Let’s call her Sandy. She was tall, blonde, athletic but oddly deadpan and unexcitable (I also had no idea that these personality traits would describe many Iyengar method teachers I would encounter over the years.) It seemed to me, as she effortlessly demonstrated poses, that she had clearly mastered this yoga thing. There was only one sticking point in my image of her – a shockingly large varicose vain that coiled just like a snake up the back of her right calf. I had come to yoga with the idea that it offered potential perfection of the body, so if she had perfected yoga, why hadn’t she fixed that, or better yet, avoided it in the first place?
My feelings made this first round of yoga classes a bit of a mine-field. It was doubly mortifying to be attempting to grunt my way into plough pose, making no actual, perceptible movement while she squatted over me looking concerned and slightly perturbed. It stung all the more when she seemed offended that I shouted “Jesus Christ!” upon kicking up into my first accidental handstand. (And if you’re wondering what in the hell I was doing in these poses when I was a beginner, you might peruse my interview over at Teacher Goes Back to School in which I explain how I foolishly signed up for a beginner’s class for people already in a high level of athletic condition – not because that described me in the least, but just because I didn’t want anything that would go too slow and be boring.)
I had a lot of these funny ideas about yoga then. Another one was that it was a great precursor to a sit with my friend Lisa – who had dragged me to this class in the first place – at a coffeeshop, for a latte and a few cigarettes. This was Seattle, after all. Caffeine was so delightful when feeling so relaxed, and cigarettes so delicious after priming the lungs with deep yoga breathing. I know. I was young.
The crush did not last long. Neither it, nor I made it to the second of the six-week series. The fatal blow was hearing her mention to a fellow student the Volvo dealership she ran with her husband. Excuse me? The not gay piece was not nearly as devastating as the selling cars piece. Besides “able to perfect the body”, I also had already assigned yoga teachers the quality of “more spiritual than me.” Car salesmanship did not fit this story one bit. I stopped going to class and skipped right to the coffee and smoking.
Over the next few years as I dabbled in yoga, I had mainly teachers that I didn’t care for much at all, which was a much better situation, as it left me free to discover that I actually liked it. And finally, eventually, many years later, I found teachers that I admired, respected, and wanted to emulate. Women like Mary Paffard and Maggie Norton, who wear their flaws with as much grace and humor as their accomplishments. As, in retrospect, I think Sandy may have, I just wasn’t ready for my yoga teacher to be also a human being.
I am sure it is pure coincidence that I now have a grumpy varicose vein that has risen on exactly the same spot on my right calf. The universal law of karma couldn’t possibly act that swiftly and specifically, or with that good of a sense of humor, could it? When I am not busy being appalled by its mere existence, or offended by the fact I can’t seem to cure it, I try and let it remind me not to assign the job of perfection to anyone – my teachers, my companions on this journey, or myself.