“I’ve got a rockin’ yoga body. Unfortunately, it’s hidden under my donut body.”
I try this joke on Ryan as he checks me into class.
“Mmm, that’s enough of that,” he says. He looks around as if the owner could hear us. “We shouldn’t even be talking like that in here.”
“Now go choose your row based on your body image,” Ryan tells me.
Of course, he doesn’t say that to me. No one would say something like that out loud. Yet for so many years, that’s what I did. And I practiced in front of the fewest number of people possible.
But today, as I have for about the last year, I take my mat to my now-usual place in the front row.
How I Became a Front-Row Yogi
No, I am not one of those yogis—the ones who do a Handstand on the way to Chaturanga in a sports bra. The ones like the bendy French ballerina who practiced in the front row of the studio I went to when I was still a newbie, almost a decade ago.
And yes, while this studio is an oasis of body positivity, I live most of my life in the desert of body acceptance that is Instamerica, 2019. Even while I practice, I think things that I know: I shouldn’t even be thinking about that in here.
I actually ended up in front by way of the back row.
I’d been doing yoga steadily for years when I took a three-month break to travel. Upon my return, I sent myself directly to the back, in my shame corner, next to the bathroom door and the clock. The way the exposed ductwork runs along the ceiling, between the light and the back wall, I was literally in the shadows. It was just me, my atrophied triceps, and my thoughts.
I can’t believe I let myself slack off so much. Ugh, I suck at Dolphin Pose. Why can’t I ever get my hair to look messy yet pleasing? I wish I had a dinosaur tattoo. I miss the armpits of my twenties. Great, I can’t do Crow Pose anymore. I wonder what brand those yoga pants are. Can I just lie down yet? How much time is left? How much time is left? How much time is left?
Because I was hiding, I wasn’t doing my best. Because I wasn’t doing my best, I felt like hiding. It took me a few months of this to realize just how much it was not working.
Back when I was a little slacker failing in middle school, my mom had called all my teachers and made them move me to the front row, where I would have an easier time paying attention.
So, I pulled the same move on myself, slapping my mat down in the front where I could sit there and think about my intention. My only protection was a pole behind me, just wider than the light switch that was on it but enough to prevent anyone from being right behind me.
And I had a great class. Focused, integrated, and challenging. With nothing in front of me but an aqua-painted wall, my monkey mind had less to feed on. With the accountability of being in the light and seen, I owned my effort.
So I stayed. I stayed because practicing in the front is better for me, even if it doesn’t feel great imagining people viewing the widescreen of my tail end. I don’t practice yoga at home because without anybody seeing me, I’ll be laying on my mat scrolling through Twitter ten minutes into my “practice.” I need a some social pressure not to quit.
Dispatches From the Front Row: Lessons I’ve Learned
Truthfully though, when you’re in the front row, you are on display. People can see me, and do see me, and sometimes follow what I do. Once, I lifted the wrong arm, and like dominoes, the person behind me, then the person behind her lifted the same arm I had. I had to do that “Sorry!” glance back in their direction.
But by now, aside from the occasional right vs.left mishap, I know yoga as well as anyone would know anything they’ve done at least weekly for the last decade. My yoga mat has been worn of its rubber where my feet have dug in a thousand Down Dogs, I’ve been around long enough to know my Utkatasana from my Virabhadrasana, and, after all this time, (can I say it?) I do have things that are worth being seen—and even followed.
I know the pose modifications available when my leg doesn’t bend that way. I know I can just lie down whenever I want to, and sometimes, I do. But mostly, I know how to fail. After a decade of failing experienced, I am well-failed.
When I was a novice failer, every time I fell I would shake my head, huff, and grab a drink, as if conveying, "Yes, everyone, I'm disappointed in myself, too!" Now that I am an expert failer, I respond to a fall by pausing, regaining balance, and trying again. I know enough to know that the failure is the only thing that gets you to those moments of joy, where you can suddenly do something you always figured would be out of reach. I have enough experience to see the failing and the succeeding as parts of one thing, the very thing we’re all here to do.
Just by being there up front, I'm showing that I'm not ashamed of my yoga practice because it doesn't look perfect or I don't look perfect doing it. I’m showing that we don't have to sort ourselves by row as a judgement of the bodies we walk around in or the advancement of our attempts, but by where our practice is right then and there.
People practice in the back for many reasons, but I know mine was along the lines of this: This does not deserve to be seen.
Now, I practice in the front row because it’s what works for me to get the best out of myself. Whatever I do up there, I know it registers and is known. Sometimes, that’s starting my Savasana 15 minutes early with a pleased little grin on my face. Sometimes, it’s going for that Side Crow and feeling a little bit like a bad ass.
My goal in yoga is not to get to Handstand or a Split or the weight of my college years. I mean, those are my ego’s goals—but my deeper self’s deeper goal is to create an integrated mental, emotional, and physical experience that feels closest to real me, real life. Sometimes, I’m right there. Other times, I’m like, “Oh my god, think it’s time for a pedicure at least if you’re going to humiliate yourself in so many other ways?”
It’s all good, worthy of the light.