It is spring and it is warm in California. I haven’t been exercising over the winter because it has been extremely cold for California. I had the bug everyone else had. But, now I am back, and we have just experienced Spring Equinox on March 21st, 2019.
And I am headed back to yoga classes.
Why did I start doing yoga? It’s a good question, since I started as a senior in high school, which would have been 1973. I was a lower middle class kid who had very few resources. I was also from an abusive family, where I was responsible for taking care of my younger five brothers and sisters. This meant I almost always had to come home from school and start peeling potatoes, getting dinner ready for when my father would walk through the door—and hopefully be in a good mood.
I learned to not be around when he walked in that door, because he would take out his anger on whoever was first in his path. I remember thinking this was very smart on my part, and also feeling guilty that I hadn’t imparted this to the other kids. Someone had to be in his path when he got home, and I didn’t want it to be me. I still feel guilty about that—even though as the oldest I was punished physically by him more than the others.
Trigger warning for the next paragraph only:
For instance, one time I remember, there was a dish left in the sink. I had finished the dishes but one got put there after the dishes were done. He dragged me into the kitchen by my ear, smashed my head into the counter and yelled at me about being stupid and didn’t I know I was supposed to do the dishes? I’m not sure what he “thought.” Was I supposed to sit in the kitchen and watch the sink to make sure no one put a dish there? I’m sure; he did not think about it. I’m sure he just needed to vent—and I was in the path. And that’s how he did it that day.
This is the only example I’ll give. It suffices to validate the “extremely abusive” environment I talked about earlier.
Back to yoga.
I remember being in high school- and there was a yoga class offered in the gym. Why? I don’t have any idea now, but what I do know is that the teacher was an older woman doing yoga in New Hampshire in the mid 70’s. This in and of itself was revelatory. My mother did not work outside the home. A home of six children: what if the Catholic Church had been more– understanding? Honest about women’s lives? Cared about women’s freedom and autonomy? She would not have had. But– which in fact she did have. And after, she went somewhat quietly into a life of depression and living in an upstairs bedroom.
I was left to care for them.
So, an older woman working outside the home always intrigued me–I know why now. And a woman exercising in this meditative way? I had never encountered it. I signed up after that first gym class for a longer class—a class that would meet in the junior high for several weeks following that high school introductory class.
I don’t remember a lot about that first night. What I do remember very well is attending and feeling so much love for myself for attending. I felt like– I can manage. I went into what I would call now, a deep meditative state. The woman had lit candles. She wore a complete black leotard set, top and bottom and sat cross legged on the floor in front of us. We meditated, we moved, I felt so strong in who I was that day. Somehow I sensed that I would survive my childhood.
My father was a frustrated artist, with a Catholic wife, and six kids, and an accounting job that he hated by all accounts.
He also was an alcoholic, also a rage-aholic, and a sexual abuser. I was the oldest valiantly trying to protect the children who were younger than me, which was all of them.
However, there was no one between my parents and myself.
What can I say about learning yoga?
Let me start with a vivid memory I have of coming home from that first class. I was maybe seventeen and I thought to myself after that first class–I can take care of me. I can take care of me, too. Because it was all about me taking care of others up until then. And while, I had probably thought this thought before, after that first yoga class, it was really clear. I thought: I deserve this too. Care.
I decided to make liver by myself when I came home. I, by myself and for myself, fried liver, which at that time, in that place seemed like the epitome of health. My mother bought it for our family occasionally and meat was a luxury in a working class home. I fried liver and I sat at the table and ate it with salt, by itself. With every bite I thought, yes, I will survive. I can take care of myself. I will make it.
I don’t remember being punished for eating it by myself, but I could have been. And I don’t remember doing it again in my house—cooking for myself. But, I could have. But that day, I took the liver that was there, and ate it by myself. And it was because of going to a yoga class.
To this day, when I need comfort food, I go to a diner and order liver. Strangely I rarely make it at home, but it is my go-to comfort food, and it still does make me feel like I am taking care of myself.
I felt so strong eating that liver.
And so, of course, I went back to yoga.
The teacher had a short pixie cut of what today I would call hennaed hair, but I don’t think I knew that it was henna back then, but I did know her red hair glowed in the candles she lit. And her black leotards on an older woman’s body made me feel all things were possible. Just to wear a leotard like that and move like that.
The exercises, or poses, as I now call them? I remember loving shoulder stand and I started doing exercises randomly in my life. When watching television I was in a shoulder stand—today I would think—oh my God my neck! But my seventeen year old body and I don’t think knew the difference.
But, maybe I was in a plough, or a cycling pose. Today I think, yes, you must have been in a cycling pose.
In any case, I was in some kind of inversion and my father remarked, “You will live forever doing stuff like that.”
Even in my mind, I thought something along the lines of, if I survive this childhood, I will live.
For years and years, ever since I could remember, after a particularly horrible incident I would go to my room and chant to myself, you just need to grow up.
Yoga was one thing I saw myself growing up into. I would do yoga. I would be an old woman doing yoga.
And at sixty-three, so I am.
When I was on an exchange program from New Hampshire to California and I felt lost—I found my first real friends in California in an outside of school (again!) yoga class.
I have done yoga throughout my life. When I was severely injured in karate, getting my black belt, I had to stop training and I did yoga for a year before going back to the dojo.
When I graduated from my doctoral program and felt lost not getting tenure or job interviews, I went into a yoga training program and got certified with a 500 hour program in Hatha Yoga.
I created chakra yoga sequences and yoga for elders for my 200-hour certification, and using yoga to help you sleep for my 500-hour.
May all beings be blessed. May all beings be blessed. May all beings be blessed.
I don’t know who that woman was, that first yoga teacher of mine, or what her name was. But I bless her this Spring Equinox, for giving me the gift of self-care. May I always have it and help others to receive it.
Marie Cartier has a Ph.D. in Religion with an emphasis on Women and Religion from Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of the critically acclaimed book Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Routledge 2013). She is a senior lecturer in Gender and Women’s Studies and Queer Studies at California State University Northridge, and in Film Studies at Univ. of CA Irvine.