The Secret My First Yoga Teacher Gave Me.
My first yoga teacher in this city was a woman named Rae Kline. I can’t remember when I started taking Rae’s classes—it was either around 1996, before I had my son, or in 1998, when he was a baby. Anyway it was a long time ago, almost 20 years.
Rae used to teach at the Friends Meeting House—the Quaker house, where my recovery home-group is now and where I’ve been going on Sundays for silent Meeting since 1992.
I was a yoga novice when I began studying with Rae—I still am a novice, really—so I don’t know what her discipline was. Yoga was so new back then that nobody talked about Iyengar or Bikram or Ashtanga or gurus or whatever. There was no Athleta or Lulu’s Crackhouse; yoga pants hadn’t been invented, much less recalled for being “too sheer.” Yoga was yoga. Vanilla. Generic. You brought your mat (there were no yoga studios in this city back then) and you did your Sun Salutations and your triangles and your downward dogs.
I learned one thing from Rae that has stayed with me all these years: Yoga is not about performance and twisting yourself into a pretzel. It’s about breath and coming back inside the body.
I did my first down-dog under Rae’s instruction. It was painful. I have broad shoulders and a persistent knot in my left shoulder blade that prevented me from achieving the flat back she wanted to see. “You may have some involvement in that shoulder,” I remember her telling me. I still have it.
But the center of Rae’s practice was the breath. She insisted we breathe into our lower bellies while inside the pose. She’d demonstrate what she wanted: She would sink deeply into the pose and show us that if a woman in her mid-60s could do this, then we could.
Then, after we’d spent what felt like some hours breathing into our lower bellies, she would tell us to “empty the breath from the lower belly,” and we emptied the breath from the belly—all the way. Completely empty. Then start again: breathe into the belly.
The same as what Thich Nhat Hanh says about breathing:
Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.
I remember, around the time I was studying with Rae, being invited to join a friend for a yoga session at her gym. My friend told me it would be a combination of yoga and aerobics. I was like, Huh? But I went. And the session made absolutely no fucking sense to me. Here we were, a bunch of women in Lycra leggings and running shoes, dancing around in semi-triangles and quasi-warriors. I’d put my body into these half-poses, and all it wanted to do was sink in all the way and be still. And breathe into the lower belly.
I didn’t go back. I went home and put my body into downward dog the way Rae had taught me, and I breathed. And even though I was using drugs and headed into addiction, the practice stayed with me. It was a valuable foundation.
This morning I Googled Rae’s name just to see where she might be. Frankly I didn’t even know whether she was still alive. But I should have known better. Her body in her 60s is more awesome than mine is now in my late 40s, and she swore that yoga kept her youthful not only physically but also mentally and emotionally.
It turns out she’s now in California—teaching yoga, of course. Here is a photo of her from earlier this year, from a series of photos National Geographic did of folks who are living well into their old age.
She’s 83. Look at her!! And no Botox, no implants, nothing except her bright red lipstick.
That kind of flexibility can’t be confined to the body. When I become flexible in body, I also become flexible in mind and heart. (Of course the opposite is also true: when I become rigid in body, I also become rigid in mind and heart.)
Rae is the Athena of Yoga and she demonstrates the reasons a basic level of physical fitness is so important to our emotional and spiritual wellbeing. How lucky I was to have studied with her even for a short time.
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