When I first started getting sober, and I mean first started, like 36 hours into it, I had some ideas about what I needed to do. So, instead of bracing up and going to a meeting and doing the 12 Steps like a normal alcoholic, I joined the YMCA. Part of my problem, I’d deduced, was that there was a lack of physical discipline, that I needed to get my life into shape and I should naturally start with my physical health.
So, I found myself in hot yoga. This was a terrible idea, and I strongly discourage anyone coming off of years of drinking every day to confine themselves to a sealed room at 104 degrees and force their bodies into positions that resemble Indian snakes curled in trees. But, I didn’t know any better, and, using my master’s degree-level-reasoning, I thought the sweat would be good for me.
The class was taught by Larry, who, in his bio picture was seated with both ankles behind his neck, and Larry looked like a redneck Gandhi when Gandhi was fasting during the salt protest. He was skeleton and sinew, tan, with salt-and-pepper hair that he wore long and loose so that it flowed over his head and to the tip of his shoulders. My guess was that he started his practice in the 70s in California because in books the guys who were doing yoga in the 1970s were in California, and they all looked like Larry. Larry wore nothing but a pair of yoga shorts. Loose, short yoga shorts.
I arrived exactly on time, but I was late, according to Larry’s withering look. All the other women were on their mats, breathing, in a lunge stance with their fingers pointed to the ceiling in the “here’s the steeple” church configuration. The only spot left was in the middle of the room, because that’s the heat vortex, and so I rolled out my mat and smiled apologetically, but no one would look at me. And they weren’t looking at me for the same reason that cadets don’t look at the slob who shows up late for boot camp. If you sympathize, you, too, get targeted.
Now, I’d taken a few yoga classes before this, and they were all of the focus-on-your-breath-and-gently-move-into-rod-pose-type led by sweet, naive white girls who had dreams of a better world. Hot Yoga With Larry was not like this. There was nothing kind about it, and nothing American, as far as I could tell. For 75 minutes, he yelped Sanskrit words and everyone in the room moved with military precision into knee-on-ground-hold-heel-to-lower-back-while-extending-your-arm-to-the-sky except for the pathetic, strung-out looking 30-something who wasn’t sweating but, instead, producing sheet flow. By the time I could figure out where my limbs were supposed to be and what was and was not to be bending, the group had moved onto the next purushutajahranishtriasana, and Larry’s frustration with me grew until he was standing over my mat literally moving my joints like I was an action figure that had grossly disappointed his expectations. I had wanted to run, but now I was trapped, peeing sweat out of my face, breathing 18 years of Jack Daniels and Bud Light toxic residue into the swampy air, and wishing I had died that morning instead of choosing Hot Yoga at the YMCA.
The class would jump down on their mats in a plank. They would extend their right legs sideways, they would hold that leg in mid-air by the big toe, and they would steel themselves for the next few minutes. Larry stood over me until I’d secured my big toe, and then he would stare as I wobbled, trying not to topple over. I have a lot of pride, you see, and at this point I would have pooped my leggings before I would have lost my balance in front of Swami Larry and his Sanskrit-shouting, Haight-Ashbury, patchouli-wearing, tendons-poking-out, ways. And, by then, I was much more concerned about how close I was to passing out or projectile vomiting, which took a lot of my concentration away from the fact that I was way out of my yoga skill level.
By the end of the 75 minutes, I hated Larry. I mean, really hated him in such a non-yoga-like way, and then I decided to hate yoga, too, because when you get right down to it, it’s stupid. And physical exercise that involved commands not in English–I hated that, too. But, I didn’t puke or black out, and I only fell over once, but that was at the beginning of the class before I realized the severity of my situation.
To my knowledge, I have never sweated in my life like I sweated that morning in Hot Yoga.
Until last night.
Most of you know that I’m a dancer, and some of you have even been following this blog the whole time so you know that I’m currently on a magical mystery tour that was started last October when I got in that bad car wreck and my entire life re-routed to the path I had been praying for.
Part of this path for me is to learning to follow my intuition and say yes to what truly makes me joyful, with the trust that I will become Love in a practical sense and my life’s meaning will cease to be about me; I mean, this is the spiritual journey, as least as best as I’ve been able to parse out. Early on, when I began to be willing to know my true self and agree to meet God there, someone asked where I feel God. What? What do you mean?
“You know,” she said to me, “like when someone says something truthful, I feel it then. Or in music. Sometimes I see a painting and I feel it.”
And I was like you’ve got to be kidding me. It can’t be that simple. That would mean I am with God at the ocean, during certain songs, when I am laughing with my brothers. When I write.
And I suppose, if I had to say, the time when I feel the presence of God so strongly that I feel like I am going to blow up or lose my mind is when I hear the drum. Percussion, especially African and African-inspired, transports me straight to the source.
“Go where you feel God,” she said. “Put more of that in your life and see what happens.”
So I started a little bit, and as the years have gone on, I’ve been able to explore more and more about my spiritual connection in writing, in laughter, in music, in the company of others, in dance. In March 2011, while I was still in Wilmington, an Afro-Brazilian dance company called Viver Brasil came to town to perform at the University, and they gave an open samba class. I attended, and I got there early. I have always been very self-conscious and insecure about my dancing abilities, but I dance anyway because I’m compelled to and I can’t help it, so I am always nervous before any dance class. Especially ones with professional dancers.
But, I have to tell you, when the percussionists started rolling in their carnaval drums, the little excitement engine that lives in my gut started to rev. That night we learned samba, born in the streets of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil, and the company, mostly Brazilian natives, implored us in Portuguese, that ginger-spiced and hot-honeyed tongue, to move to spirit, move for spirit, open up and let it through, you are trying too hard to do steps!
I did it. I went for it. I didn’t care if I looked like an asshole, I was going where God lives for me, and I was coming with joy. I had a blast that night; I think everybody did, even the people who had never taken a dance class before. At the end of the class, the director told us all about a travel program they do every August to Bahia, the birthplace of Afro-Brazilian culture, to immerse people in the songs and dances of that region.
I heard myself say I’m going, and then I saw myself take an info sheet, and I went home. At the time, I was drowning in financial burdens, Michael and I were losing our footing in our relationship and were starting to slip down a rocky slope towards our breakup, and my old passport had expired years ago and I didn’t have any money for a new one.
But, as life would have it, things changed. I didn’t go last August to Bahia. I wanted to, but it was impossible then. What happened was that I kept the trip in the back of my mind, so when my tax refund money came back this year, and it was the exact amount I needed for the trip, I emailed Viver Brasil and asked if I could go with them to Bahia for 2012.
They said yes, and I’m leaving in August. To dance to drums. To laugh. To write. I even bought Rosetta Stone Brazilian Portuguese, and I can say
As criances esta lendo. Uma maca esta verde. Eles nao estao nandando. And As muljares nao tem livros vermalhas.
“The children are reading,” “an apple is green,” “the men aren’t swimming,” and “the women don’t have red books” respectively.
While I’m excited about what I do know language-wise, it isn’t very helpful in my capoeira class, which is where I was last night when I was sweating as much if not worse than I was when I took hot yoga with Larry.
I signed up for the class two weeks ago to get back in shape and have something Brazilian to do, and capoeira is a Brazilian martial arts dance form. It is the long-lost cousin of breakdancing–the battle-dance idea, at least–and capoeira is fought, or played, in the streets of Bahia. It’s a non-contact martial arts, and the idea is to display your moves and your body control.
At this point, I have neither, and my capoeira teacher, Humberto, spends a lot of his instruction with me repeating “no, the other leg. The other leg!” So, there’s this beautiful woman named Sainya who is from Bahia who’s come to teach the class for the summer. She doesn’t speak very much English, therefore her class is in Brazilian Portuguese. Fortunately, Humberto’s 14-year-old daughter, who is amazing at capoeira and also gorgeous and bi-lingual, translates for me although she seems to get a perverse enjoyment out of the fact that I am obviously retarded on so many levels.
The classes are Tuesday and Thursday nights, and I’ve noticed that on Thursdays, I’m usually the only student there. Humberto’s family takes the Thursday class, so it’s me and his wife, who is also gorgeous and bi-lingual, and his teenage daughter who kicks ass and has braces. And now it’s me, his wife, his daughter, him, and this Brazilian warrior-goddess who doesn’t speak much English.
In last night’s class, the only attendees were the daughter and I. I don’t know the words to the moves I’m learning, and I certainly don’t know how to spell them, but I pronounce them anyway, and as far as I’m concerned, I’m making up sounds. Negacheeva, parash keyva, holo, mea lua de frange, jinga, ho lay. And we also do handstands and cartwheels, but we have to do them slowly and with our upper body strength, so I find myself in the same position of just trying not to poop my leggings or topple over.
I want to point out that the daughter can, in a handstand, scissor her legs back and forth as if she is repeatedly kicking me. I know this because she did this move on me as we were fight-dancing in the circle on Tuesday, which I think is called the houda, and I couldn’t recall any appropriate counter-move, so I stood there and clapped and said “yay!” I’m middle-aged now, so I’m not embarrassed that I stopped the game to clap and go “yay,” but I am ready to know enough so that I don’t do it again.
So if you only have two people in a capoeira class, you have to do a lot of exercises. I am at my most unattractive when I am crying and when I am over-exerted; in both instances my face turns a coral-reef shade of blotchy red and where it is not red, it is paper-white. I look like a peppermint exploding in slow-motion, and, as I said, I stop merely sweating and start running water.
In my defense, I note that for the last six months I’ve been sitting behind the wheel of a van. I am in terrible shape, I mean like truck driver bad shape, so all of this leg-swiping, staying low, and then popping up to half-moon-kick before ducking and rolling is killing me.
Is it worth it?
You’d better believe it, sisters and brothers. I enjoy it, but I have to keep my sense of humor and check my pride at the door otherwise it’d be Larry’s Hot Yoga class all over again except that Humberto and Sainya are chilled out about the fact that I end up facing the wrong direction and I can’t for the life of me figure out the transition between the negacheeva and the puras keyva. Part of that, too, is because there is nothing in my life that prepared me for fighting an opponent. I can’t quite grasp the fact that I am battling Humberto’s daughter, although she gets it, and she hides her smile when I end up doing my half-moon-kick and my back is facing her.
So last night, after two consecutive water breaks when Sainya is observing my face go from pink to red to pending-heart-attack, she calls the class so we can stretch for the last ten minutes. I know she does this because I look like I just breached the birth canal, and I hope, desperately hope, that the time will come soon when I can make it to the end of class without limping or having an external body temperature high enough to cook food. Humberto’s daughter is glistening prettily, and she wears a look that suggests she might feel sorry for me. Not in a condescending teenage way, but in a touching look of real concern. I try not to let it alarm me. I remind myself that I will not die tonight although punching the clock in a capoeira class would be a pretty great way to go. Ola!
As I lay on the floor with Sainya stretching my hamstring, I felt my sweat stream into my ear canal. At that moment I remembered Larry and the hot yoga, about where I was almost exactly five years ago. The sweat tickles, and it is gross–surely a metaphor for life? I’m not going to tell you I feel the presence of God in my capoeira class right now because I don’t. I’m too busy worried about myself–the world is so strange, and I am so far outside of it, but I am learning the language, the moves, the way to trust the music and my body. Capoeira is not like dancing, at least not the dancing my body knows. I’m a dumb child in this class, and Humberto and Sainya and even the daughter understand that, and I wish I was comfortable, but I’m not–although I am having fun, and I know I will get it eventually. I don’t mind the class being mostly in Portuguese and partially in broken English to ensure the new girl doesn’t break her kneecap off; on the contrary, the language reminds me there is so much I do not know, that there is so much cool stuff happening all over the world all the time, so many cool people. I have a long way to go, but I remind myself that I can walk with ease this Friday, whereas my ass muscles wrenched and complained vociferously every time I tried to get out of a chair two Fridays ago. How do you say where’s the Icy Hot in Portuguese?
They do not cover that in Rosetta Stone.
Enjoy your day, beloveds.