Yoga by Ceci, Dacia and Gina in Rogers Park, Chicago IL

Conversing With Shadows

Let’s be honest with each other; I used to make fun of yoga.  I didn’t believe in it.  How could something so still, so about BREATHING, so like a religion, possibly be a mode of exercise?  I thought it was for old people.  I found its devotees suspicious.  I thought so many things.

I preferred to run relentlessly, charging at full speed towards some invisible goal.  I was training for marathons when I was 19.  I liked intense tests of will, and I liked to exercise alone.  I would run, and run, and run some more.  While I ran I counted…it was a mindless way to mark the footsteps.  For the first two miles, I couldn’t stop the counting, but eventually the nonsensical numbering would give way to imaginary arguments with my parents, fully formed fictional fights developed between me and my friends and I would have them out with them whilst I ran.  I ran all over creation this way—in bewildered fury.  I used my run each day to exorcise the demons of my day, my relationships, my life; it was, truly, the most inexpensive form of psychotherapy I could afford.  And it was therapeutic to suddenly erupt in monologue, to rage at no one, to dissemble the peace and quiet of the suburban Long Island nights with my cathartic outbursts.  Oh, yes, I was that dramatic.  This was my modus operandi until after the marathon, when I stood—medal in hand— completely at a loss for what to do now that this marathon training was over.  I couldn’t think about anything except for flip-flops.  I couldn’t arrive at this “great accomplishment” the way I felt I was supposed to. I was confused.    I felt tired.  My knees were weak.  My lower back remembered every footfall on the pavement that I had made for the past year.  I did not feel like I had a “great accomplishment” in my hands.  I felt wrung out and used up and I was only 19.   I never wanted to run anywhere again unless someone was chasing me. And so the long chapter of inactivity began counting itself into the pages of my life.

A few years later, I was blessed to live at the southernmost tip of a temperate rainforest that began in Alaska and cascaded down the coast in a triumphant display of hundred foot redwoods.  It was epic.  I saw the Pacific Ocean everyday, and sent her salutations, and took long walks with her, loving her like a friend.  I was at peace in my environment, many miles away from the struggles of my life on the East Coast—thousands of miles from that marathon— and my body was resolving itself into womanly luxuriance, soft and comfortable.   I had given up the intense tests of will, the vegetarianism, the running.  I did not notice the symptoms of stagnation.  I walked.  I hiked.  I worked.  Surely these things were signs that I was in evolution still?  Surely.

But eventually the body remembers.  In the middle of one peaceful blue evening in California, I woke from sleep with a screaming urgency in my knees.  Pain!  It was pain I hadn’t experienced since mile twenty-two of our marathon training, and it was indefatigable.  I started taking chondroitin from ½ gallon pill bottles, but still the pain woke me.  I condemned my body, assumed that it was going bad on me after years of contact against the earth.  And, unaware of the incredible instrument I had, I stopped playing it.

Enter a hero.  In September, just as the Indian Summer was carpeting the hills and forests in blackberries, my best friend from Kindergarten found himself stranded in San Francisco with his piano and no place to live.  We had not spoken a lot in recent years—isn’t it interesting how we distance ourselves from old friends when we start to become uninteresting?   But when I heard that he needed space, I knew instantly that I could offer it to him.  And so, all 6 and a half feet of Jamie, in his blackberry picking, piano-mashing splendor, came to live with me in my big blue house for a month.  In trade, he taught me Forrest Yoga, every night after work.

I started out way dubious.  “Breathe into my pelvic floor?”  Right.  Telescope your ribs.   Relax your neck. Breathe.  It felt like the first day behind the wheel, like realizing you have cruise control in your car two years after buying it. It was hard to believe I had spent my entire life attached to this marvelous, complicated machine and not done any research about it.  I did not have any experience with yoga, and Jamie hadn’t done any teaching yet, so we laughed and giggled our way through it.  We made hilarious character voices, and played Pat Benatar so loud.  It was absolutely the hardest thing I had done in years, and it was so much fun.

I was discovering for the first time, a quarter century into my life, that there was wisdom in my body, and joy, and memories. I was fascinated by this physical expression of subconscious emotions; I fell hard in love with the study of it.  Together, Jamie and I moved tears from my eyes, shields from my heart, blinders from my eyes, and weight from my shoulders.  I learned how to administer therapeutic breath to the clogged, stressed, stagnant, arrogant, impatient parts of me.  I began to shake off the resolute layer of dullness that had been creeping over my body.

In difficult poses, I learned what it felt like to have a conversation with my own shadowy parts—not a reckless screaming match, the kind that leaves you feeling wrung out—a dialogue, one with the support and power of intentional breath.  We accomplished things that I would never have dreamed to be possible just “sitting” on a mat.  I had never worn changes so proudly.

When I ran my marathon, they gave me a medal.  When I wore it, I was at odds with its meaning because I felt it rewarded the embattling of my legs and back, and all those months of internal combat. So, instead of wearing the medal, I went out and got a tattoo.  It said, in Greek, (the language of the very first marathoner) “Be Joyful!  We are victorious!”  Five years and so many lifetimes later, I finally felt like it was true.


Leah Ellenbogen

June 2012

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