Of course, I don't remember my first breath, but my first conscious breath came when I experienced childbirth for the first time. The Lamaze Method of giving birth taught a type of breathing that was a kind of panting breath to help you get through the contractions when they became closer and more intense. The breathing was a welcome distraction, and it also gave you a sense of control over a situation you had absolutely no control over. That breathing technique was quickly forgotten the minute you had the baby. After all, there were more important things to do than breathe.
It was about ten years later that I was once again reminded that breathing consciously can change your life. I had moved across the country to California, the land of fruits and nuts — and yogis. I hadn't heard much about yoga on the East Coast, and what I did hear made me suspicious. Yoga was considered weird and even cultish. This was in the early 1980s. The Catholic Church viewed the practice as pagan and whoever practiced it was committing a sin. Well, these views made me want to find out about it all the more. There's nothing like the forbidden fruit to get your curiosity up.
So I asked around town and I was very happy to learn that yoga classes were being offered here in Ukiah at the Sun House. It was the beginning days of Yoga Mendocino. Apprehensive and a little fearful, I decided to attend the class simply by dropping in. I entered the room where the class was being held and didn't recognize one person. The Yoga teacher, Mary, greeted me. She realized I was new to the class and new to yoga.
I was totally intimidated as I assessed the situation. Most people had their own mats and other yoga tools, and they all seemed so at ease and "in the know." I didn't have a mat; I had no idea what they were used for. Luckily, these were the days before "trendy upscale" yoga attire, so I did fit in with just my baggy pants and a T-shirt I earned by walking in "The Russian River Run," one of the many fund-raising events in our community.
The yoga room was quiet. Shoes were left by the door. Soon, people started laying their mats on the floor side by side. What? You mean we lay next to each other on the mats? I was so intimidated I almost left the class.
But the yoga teacher started the class before I could flee without totally embarrassing myself. She pointed to an open spot where I could lay my borrowed mat and begin the class.
Oh god. I was between a guy and a woman who both looked like they did yoga for a living. We started with deep breaths — slow breathe in, slow breathe out.
The class continued with poses that were so foreign to me, not to mention their Sanskrit names, but with the teacher's gentle instruction and knowledgeable guidance I was able to do most of them.
At one point she asked us to partner up. Now, this really was out of my comfort zone. First, lying next to total strangers, and then actually touching them in some unknown yoga pose? I totally wanted to escape.
Mary must have sensed my fear and quickly said she would be my partner. She said we would be doing up-the-wall handstands and our partners would be our spotters and guide us for safety. What? A handstand? I hadn't done a handstand since I was 12. How did I get myself into this situation?
Before I knew it she had me in a full-on handstand up the wall, and then to my astonishment — off the wall. This woman was amazing. The class continued with poses I struggled with and names I struggled with, but each time Mary gently adjusted me into the poses. I noticed she did this with everyone in the class with a kind of magic touch.
At the end of the class I had one more "out-of-the-box" hurdle to jump. It was time for meditation. What? Meditation was not listed on the class description. This required sitting in an upright position, legs crossed, with eyes closed and being silent for like ten minutes! Can I possibly sneak out the door when everyone else closes their eyes? I couldn't be still like that for 10 minutes. I had monkey brain going on. But that sorcerer, Mary, talked us through it. She started with the ring of an ancient bell — a tone that would put anyone in a stupor. Intermittently she would repeat a phrase that would prompt a silence in our mind, the main prompt being: focus on your breath. Slow breathe in, slow breathe out, silence your mind.
I went into that class feeling like a fish out of water. I left that class knowing yoga would be a lifelong practice for me, and I can say that the skill of my first yoga teacher was the reason. Her encouragement and her deep knowledge of yoga brought the gift of deep breathing, meditation and caring for my body that has benefited me for over 20 years. I rely on what I learned through her classes to get me through days of stress and days of delight. I try to practice daily and often I will unconsciously start stretching into a pose no matter where I am. My co-workers often see me sneak into a downward dog or doing hip openers when there are no customers in the store. And in the retail business slow, deep breaths are a must.