How yoga did NOT change my life

In the early 1970s, I was living dangerously — I smoked, I drove a Ford Pinto, I worked in a steel mill outside Chicago because it was the quickest job I could get after graduating college, and I was unhappy and didn’t know why — or blamed the wrong things for being unhappy. On my first vacation, I decided to do something special — go to a week-long mime workshop in Wisconsin. I had picked up some mime in college, helped form a troupe and put on several performances there, but had no real technical grasp of the art form.

At the workshop, at first I had trouble fitting in because my blue-collar, non-theater persona did not seem to mesh with the artsy, semi-hippy environment. On the daily schedule, there was an informal yoga group practicing at dawn. It was not a class. Since I was already in an adventurous mode, I mustered the courage to show up, even though I had never done yoga before. The first morning, I found a dozen people in a studio going through Sun Salutations and other poses that I could not name. I joined in as best as I could, nervously glancing at other people as they went through the movements and poses, trying to match my movements to theirs. I did my best, but I was grunting, gasping and hissing, having no awareness — much less control — of my breath.

At the end of the session, the workshop instructor who was leading the yoga practice pulled me aside. He said that he could not allow me to disrupt the other people’s practice with all the noise and commotion that I was introducing. He would appreciate me not coming back. I felt humiliated. I almost threw in the towel on the whole workshop and went home. I consoled myself by sleeping in and stayed on, learning a lot about mime and theater.

Months later, I learned that my troubled breathing patterns were also part of my mime routines as well. I was holding my breath, spewing it out in sputters and grunts. A friend mentioned this to me, and I worked at relaxing my breath and coordinating it with my movements. My mime improved.

When I recently started thinking of picking up yoga, the Wisconsin incident stuck in my mind like a thorn. I feared that I once again would make a fool of myself in front of the other students. I overcame that resistance and have never regretted the decision. At least, I had read enough about yoga and done routines at home so that I was not completely lost.

Today, I wonder:

  1. What if the young instructor had drawn attention my breathing trouble, suggested that I start out gradually and ease myself into the routines?
  2. How I would have found a place to learn yoga in the Midwest in the 1970s? Aside from joining a commune or hooking up with one of the early pioneers?
  3. How difficult practice would have been working shifts at the steel mills?
  4. What if I had run off to India instead of Latin America, as I did four months after my close encounter with yoga?

These are the kinds of questions that run through my mind when at 55 you discover the world of good that yoga is doing for me and kicking myself for not starting earlier. In my first trials on a mat in my basement, I remember saying to myself “Boy, this feels so right!” Of course, a whole life had had made me thirsty for this fresh rendezvous with yoga, one that I am trying not to let slip by me.