Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Fifteen years ago, on a cold winter’s evening in New York City, I showed up for my first yoga class ever, dressed in stiff jeans, cowboy boots, and a boiled-wool turtleneck. I’d made it to class on the recommendation of a friend who was concerned about my chronic back pain. But she had not mentioned, and it had not occurred to me, that I should wear something more athletic to class. Honestly, I had no idea that I would be expected to perform anything physical during the practice of yoga. Forgive my ignorance, but I’d somehow expected, I dunno, a lecture? Handouts and a syllabus? Anyhow, whatever was coming to me that evening, I knew I would need energy to get through it, so I stopped at a pizza joint right before class for a chicken calzone and Diet Coke.
Do I need to say here that I was just a tad disconnected from my body during those years? Perhaps a better way to say it is that, up to this point in life, I had been treating my body like a rental car—a mere loaner, a beater, a lemon that existed for no reason whatsoever except to transport my head from place to place so that I could see things, worry about things, think about things, and solve things. And my body got that job done, even though I never took care of the thing. Or at least my body usually got that job done—until my chronic back pain would get so bad that it kept me from sleeping, and even from going to work when the muscles around my spine were in such deep spasm that I couldn’t lift myself off the carpet.
But that would happen only a few times a year! And that sort of thing was perfectly normal! Or at least it was normal in my family. I remember performing in high-school musicals and field-hockey games with a sore back. I’ve waited tables and ridden horses and fallen in love and danced at weddings—but always with a sore back. All of us Gilberts have “bad backs.” It didn’t occur to me that I could ever not have a sore back. But a friend, worried about the increasing episodes of my back pain, had suggested yoga, and, what the hell—without giving it any thought, I went.
I could pretty much tell right away, as I stepped into the studio, that this yoga stuff wasn’t going to be for me. First of all, there was that solemn smell of incense, which seemed excessively serious and sort of ridiculous to somebody who was far more accustomed to the smells of cigarettes and beer. Then there was the music. (Chanting, heaven help us!) At the front of the classroom was something that actually appeared to be a shrine, and clearly not meant to be a joke. And the teacher—an earnest, aging hippie in her earnest, aging leotard—started prattling on about how the sound of Om was the primordial cause of the universe, and so on.
Frankly, it was all a little too much for me to take. I was, after all, a young woman who never left her apartment without strapping on a tight, protective vest of sarcasm. And speaking of tight, my wool turtleneck had been a serious sartorial misjudgment, because the room was sweltering. Also, my jeans cut into my belly every time I bent over to reach for my toes—and the teacher made us bend over and reach for our toes again and again, which seemed a little pushy for a first class, to be honest. Worst of all, that calzone I’d just eaten kept threatening to make a reappearance. Indeed, for most of the class, I felt rather like a calzone myself—stuffed and baked and surrounded by something very, very flaky.
And yet. And yet, about an hour into the class, as the sweat was running fiercely into my eyes (eyes that I had been rolling in sardonic detachment the whole time), there came this moment. The teacher had us do this thing—this strange, twisting, lying-down thing. She put us flat on our backs, had us pull our knees up toward our chests, and then invited us to slowly (and I’m quite certain she used the word “lovingly”) tip our knees to the right, at the same time that we stretched our arms wide and turned our heads to the left.
Well. This was news. This was, in fact, a revelation—and I knew it instantly. I knew without any doubt that my spine had never made this simple but precise shape before—this twist, this reach, this profound extension. Something shifted. Something lifted. And even in my tight jeans, even in my itchy sweater, even inside my impenetrable sarcastic vest—somewhere deep below all that—my spine started speaking to me, almost crying out to me. My spine said something like, “Oh my God, oh my dear sweet heavenly mercy—please don’t stop, for this is what I have always needed, and this is what I will need every day for the rest of my life, finally, finally, finally…”
Then that goofy old hippie in her goofy old leotard came over and pressed one hand gently on my hip and another on my shoulder to open that twist up just a tiny bit more…and I burst into tears.
Please understand—I don’t just mean that I salted up a bit or sniffled some; I mean that I started weeping, audibly. As I lay there crying and twisting open, full of longing, full of prayer, full of doubt, full of the wish to be a better human being, full of the daring plea to become the first person in my family’s history whose back would not ache every single day, full of the sudden and shocking realization that there was a different kind of intelligence in this life, and it could come to us only through the body…well, I didn’t know the word for any of this stuff back then, but I have since learned that I was filling my lungs and heart with a little something folks in the yoga business call shakti.
This yoga stuff was not just a possible solution to lifelong back pain, but a revelation. A homecoming. A felt a sense of being one with the energetic undercurrent of the universe. Wow!
I sort of limp-shuffled home, in a daze.
I need more of this, I kept saying to myself. I need much, much more of this. So, in the 15 years since that night, I have given myself more of it. Much, much more. I’ve given myself years of yoga, in fact; I’ve practiced all over the world, wherever I happen to be at the moment—from Mumbai to Nashville to Santiago and everywhere in between. I have stuck with this discipline in a way that I have never stuck with any other “hobby,” which only shows that yoga is not a hobby for me but a haven. For me, finding a good yoga class in an unfamiliar city feels the way it probably felt for the old-timey Catholics when they stumbled unexpectedly on a Latin mass being celebrated in some foreign capital: At the first familiar syllables of the ritual, they were back “home.”
And you know what? It doesn’t even have to be a good yoga class. Garrison Keillor once said that the worst pumpkin pie he ever ate wasn’t that much different from the best pumpkin pie he ever ate, and I feel exactly that way about yoga classes—that even the sloppiest or most rudimentary studios have provided me with the opportunity for transformation. Mind you, I have experienced some truly transcendent teachers, but I have also, I’m afraid, experienced some real dingbats (including one woman who kept urging our class, “Push it! Look at your neighbor and try to do what she’s doing!”). Either way, it doesn’t matter that much. Once I had learned the basics of my own yoga—once I had discovered the limitations and needs of my body—I knew that I could always reach my own point of perfect practice within somebody else’s instructional guidance, no matter how flawed they (or I) might be.
Over the past decade and a half of practice, I have come again and again to yoga classes tired and burdened and lacking, but something always happens, almost despite my weakness or my resistance. You are not what you believed you were, I told myself that night as I walked home from my first class in my tight jeans and sweaty sweater—and I have learned and relearned that lesson routinely, for years now. There always comes that one holy moment, usually somewhere in the middle of the class, when I suddenly find that I have shed my pain and failings, that I have shed my heavy human mind, and that I have metamorphosed for just an instant into something else: an eagle, a cat, a crane, a dolphin, a child.
And then I go home again in my own skin to take another stab at living, and to try to do it better. And things are better, so much better. And the impregnable vest is gone forever, by the way. And no, my back does not hurt anymore.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, was recently published by Viking-Penguin.