I had experienced these failures before.
Yoga had happened to me in in 2003 in Germany somewhere, and earlier this year when a friend yanked me from the decline bench at my gym and dragged me into his hot yoga class at Crunch one Sunday.
But this was yoga by Karine Plantadit, dance goddess, life coach, Tony award nominee, ex-Ailey-an, humanitarian and good friend. In a pre-production rehearsal with a handful of other mature artists, the rehearsal directors made the mistake of pairing us for the exploration of a Warren Carlyle Latin number; much to rehearsal their regret, I (we) had more fun doing this than anything else this holiday season.
So when Karine invited lovely chocolate youngster Ahmad, whose name inspiration our mothers' shared, to try her Yang Yin class at noon on Sunday, I was inspired to go to.
The class was so full that there was a waiting list for cancellations. One woman came in asking about class at another time and, upon hearing Karine’s name, said, “Oh yeah, the one with the funky hair? I like her, she’s cool.”
Cool? Really? Instant indignation with “Why don’t you know who she is—Google her dammit!” righteousness ensued. Which was good, because now I had something to tame in this yoga class, right?
I walked into the room and picked one of the last two spots available, up against the stairs in the back of the room. I spread my mat out and laid the towel over it, only so that Karine could suggest that I move to the front of the room right in front of the door where she came in. It dawned on me once I did so that the area I left was the only place from which she could actually teach.
Thus commenced the first of my series of failures.
Horizontal, face up, taking wonderful breaths, inhaling generously through my nostrils and sending from my mouth, I heard Karine ask us to use the blocks to rest our open thighs. Odd. But I put the blocks on top, wondering if perhaps the sensation of even a little bit of weight was all the body needed as impetus to make the inner thighs let go…
Karine took the blocks off and re-positioned them under my knees for support. Oh, that’s what she meant. Resisting laughter out loud at Microfailure #1 was necessary so as not to disrupt all the Zen in the room, which I did anyway shortly after to make Microfailure #2. You see, the moment I realized that my upper body was too tight to facilitate Downward Dog without substantial discomfort, overcompensation and weakness, My hands slid away from me often, lowering my hips, sweat from the heat filling my eyes giving me "Apocalypse Now!" I had to laugh at myself. It couldn’t be helped. Because I might not make it to the end of this movie.
Then I was okay for a while with the Yang portion, robust movements that required us to move in and out of Downward Dog and into things like Warrior 2, which my hips loved. Figure eights for infinity because this is life. Glimpses of Sun Salutation. Karine’s musical voice driving us through with warm reminders—take a beautiful breath, take a gorgeous breath. I surrendered, stopped worrying about whether someone might open the door into my head during the flatback. I celebrated my newfound maturity of not making fun of the poses and renaming them as I did years ago to the chagrin of my mini-(better-than)-me adopted family Kyle when he became a yogi. Yes, yes, sure. Cherie, I am yoga...
Until she asked us to stand on one leg, open up the back hip, look up into the sky, grab our hearts with both hands. And then grab the leg with the back hand to stretch the quad.
“Balance is not stillness but constant motion, a series of small movements…”
I have been dancing professionally for 20 years and the majority of it has seen no dearth of ability to be on one leg, do some impressive things on it in fact. But in this moment, no combination of small movements was going to keep me balancing on this leg. I tried to look up to the ceiling and felt myself falling the five inches into the yogi beside me, a professional with handstands and cobras under his belt. I grabbed the wall desperately to keep myself out of fallonmyassana (sorry Kyle, old habits die hard). Thank God Karine put me there.
The only thing more devastating than this Epic Failure #1, was getting to do it on the other side.
My Zen was gone. It was on the floor next to those blocks I didn't know how to use. Now, I was just trying to survive.
The good news is that I figured out why yoga is so hard at first for bodies like mine. Hypertonic muscles fire all the time, involuntarily and with no effort. It used to be a huge problem for me learning dance technique because I could not disengage the specific muscles that were prohibiting me from achieving whatever small task was at hand—plie, tendu, lengthening, whatever. Success in dance for me has been an evolution of letting go of the right muscles at the right times so that I can get to a neuro-skeletal connection and feel space in my joints.
I’ve figured it out with the staples/fundamentals of most modern and ballet techniques (ask me if you want this scintillating information). So in dance, I can be efficient. I can find a space of peace and Zen inside of complicated movement because it takes only moments to figure out efficiency in them and transcend my physical self. Introduce me to something new and now I have to learn the vocabulary so that I can get out of my head, which applies a Matthew Bourne approach to moving that says "fire everything at will." It just means I need to (and will) take a few more yoga classes to get there__maybe a lot more.
Understanding this nugget was my Big Success in class until we got to the Yin part, the smaller moon consciousness that involves introspection. Stretches. Deep lack of thought. Internal consciousness. Smaller movements. I remember years ago when a critic said to Donald Byrd that I was going to be a brilliant dancer once I figured out how to do handle small movement. How ironic—now they are my safest space. I told Karine after that I need an entire class of Yin Yoga, please.
The beauty is all the laughter that comes out of experiences like these, knowing that all of these failures are actually not failures at all, but gifts of having nothing to prove. Why did it take so long to get here?
Please go take Karine’s class. I don’t care what she’s teaching. Yoga, dance, martini mixing, Home Depot shopping, whatever. Currently, she’s at Modo Yoga in the West Village, 434 6th Avenue.
Just make sure you sign up hours before you go…