Beginning Yoga with Virginia Woolf

January 11, 2013
Katherine Austin Wooley

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By Betsy Cohn

I first experienced yoga in 1986 as a senior at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, in a course called "Psychology and Religion."

It was a course that people took because it was easy, unless it coincided with a painful transition, as it did with me. This experience shook me to my core and left me with huge existential questions – amazing considering I skipped the class day when we actually did yoga!

Katherine often says that we come to yoga when we're meant to, and that's what happened with me. Ironically, my first yoga class was at Karma Yoga, about two years ago, not long after my mother died, following years with Alzheimers - years I spent bending more and more to find a way to connect to her, as her understanding, then her emotions, then her language, then her mobility, and then anything that was left evaporated.

My mother was left with an immobile body whose hand we held and head we kissed, hoping there was recognition in her that we just couldn't see. As she slipped away, I loved her and missed her and felt angry for her and pity; I pledged that I'd always see her, bear witness, which hurt, but there was no other place I'd have chosen to be.

I came to Karma hoping it would help me to stand again, now in a very different world. I didn't realize that standing again would begin by being so shaken up.

My first class was with Nancy McCaochan. I dressed too warmly—sweats and a long-sleeved T-shirt that I kept pushing past my elbows mid-cat, mid-cow. I didn't own a mat so I rented one. I felt shy and self-conscious prowling in bare feet.

As Nancy guided us through poses I'd never heard of and I tried to quiet my nerves, she came by repeatedly to massage my neck and tell me to "let go of my head," a directive I'm still working to understand. Nancy's hand on me was more than a touch. It was a current that both intrigued and scared me and left me wanting more.

It was unlike anything I'd experienced.

Then Nancy sealed the deal. After savasana, she gave her parting thoughts, which started with reflections on Virginia Woolf, a gift to an "English person" like me, and then led to reflections on Being.

She talked about the challenge of existing in this world, of having to negotiate degrees of "permeability," of finding the point where we're permeable enough to really connect into wholeness without becoming so permeable that we dissolve into otherness.

At least that's how I heard her. In mere seconds, she seemed to aim herself right at my longtime struggle to figure out how to stand and how to bend, how much I should ask of and do for others and how much they should expect from me. She helped me begin the journey to figuring out who I am separate from circumstances, what my core consists of.

After that first day, I was in some ways distressingly upturned, but I kept coming back to her, then to Katherine (who flustered me during my first class by standing in front of me and telling me to be "brighter" and who praised the shaking I was trying to hide), and then Lynn and others.

Today, I still feel nervous coming to class and sometimes leave feeling uncomfortably shaken up, but I also feel at home and extremely grateful.

In 1986, I was certainly not ready for yoga; I'm so glad that it waited for me.

Betsy Cohn teaches English full-time at Henry Ford Community College, where she lists her rescue dog, Rosie the Rambunctious, as her teaching assistant; Rosie thinks down-dog was invented to make licking faces easier and thinks the point of everything is to laugh. Both Rosie and yoga have been teaching Betsy well.

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