When Mr. Gooddirt and I went to our first-ever yoga class in Chicago in the mid-2000s, we only knew a little bit of what to expect. We hoped it would change us from being tight-hamstringed runners and cyclists into better athletes. I’m not sure mindfulness, or whatever, was really of interest. But since then, we’ve found ourselves repeating over and over again a phrase that first yoga instructor we had used. For me, the phrase has become a little bit of a situation barometer. (I’ll explain below.)
Since then I’ve been to several more yoga classes and encountered several different instructors, obviously. Some were great. Some were downright terrible, including one right here where I live who felt it her right and place to engage in publicly shaming people in class. (Yes, I complained. No, they didn’t care, which just underscored the impression I sometimes have of yoga here in America being the domain of the privileged—see here for more reading.)
But I want to tell you about the ones who stuck with me in positive fashion:
Chicago Parks System, 2006ish? 2007? Can’t remember exactly
It was almost always cold and dark when we walked the two short blocks to our yoga class at an offshoot of the Chicago Parks System. It was winter, and I think we were looking to try something new. Our instructor was about as far away from the modern interpretation of a yoga instructor could be: short, in her late 60s, maybe, tight curly hair and dressed in a tracksuit. The room was huge, lots of space for everyone, and darker than I expected.
Her pacing, tonally, was about what you’d expect, though, slow and measured, and out of her mouth, with every stretch and bend, came this phrase:
With this gentle phrase, she encouraged everyone to take their muscles and limbs a little further, and also, to bend a little the bounds of what you think your body can do.
I don’t think we went to very many classes, maybe a handful? But that phrase is linked now to every situation where there might be a squishy variable:
“Our timing looks tight tonight. Do you think we can get Huckleberry to the dog park for a little bit?”
“I don’t know. Let’s just play it by ear.”
“I don’t know if I can make it up this hill.”
This instructor’s voice happens internally, too, whether I’m sending out submissions or puréeing veg for a little soup. “Ooh. I’ve never tried this before. Let’s See…what…it…will…do.”
It’s a remarkably handy phrase.
Claremont Club, 2017ish sometime
If I could take this next yoga instructor around with me in my handbag, I totally would. Her name is Emily. We don’t belong to the club anymore, but she is easily one of the most supportive people I know on a cursory level.
In contrast to the yoga instructor I told you about earlier, she’s exactly what you’d think of when you think of a yoga instructor. Tall, but muscular. I wouldn’t call her willowy. Perfect manicure/pedicure every time I’ve seen her. Long dishwater blonde hair. Great yoga clothes. Emily runs her classes without using a mat herself. She’s confident and also intimate. If you need to approach her about a problem you’re having (I first started coming to her when I had a back problem) she sits down across from you and talks to you about it, taking all the time you need before or after class.
She is demonstrative. She spends a huge chunk of her time walking around the class, showing people poses from different positions, correcting you when she can, using her body as ballast or support for you if you’re trying something new. She’s hands-on, and hands-down, my very most favorite ever yoga instructor. I did my very first headstand in her class, and I did it because of rambling commentary like this:
“What’s going to happen if you fall over? Nothing. You’re not going to fall very far. Just try it. And see if you can touch the floor. Ready? Boop! Touch the floor.”
(I wish I could remember what pose we were doing when she said this. It was some kind of warrior into half-moon into crescent pretzel horrible thingy.)
Emily is a master at sound effects. It turns out she’s a kindergarten teacher, which explains so much. I was encouraged to do stuff in her class I never even thought I could do. I got stronger.
I spend a good portion of my energy trying to be like Emily to others.
Hangar 18 Climbing Gym, last week sometime
Genuinely unlike any yoga class I’ve ever been in. This one takes place in the upstairs loft portion of our climbing gym, which we only recently joined after giving up our stupidly expensive membership to the Claremont Club. ($179 a month for two of us, and the benefits weren’t what we wanted, although the facilities were gorgeous.)
The space is freezing, because the windows are open to accommodate sweaty people climbing and bouldering downstairs. It’s in the 40s outside. People are falling off walls onto mats and calling out that they’re on belay or climbing. It’s a climbing gym, so high walls and echo chambers are everywhere.
Our instructor is a young man in glasses that are my favorite shade of blue. He’s in climbing pants, which are basically pants you might see on the hiking trail. There’s very little yoga garb in here, because a lot of people have probably come straight from climbing to yoga.
Because of the noise, Tylor has to shout. Like each yoga instructor I’ve mentioned above, he’s encouraging, but he doesn’t come by and correct you or anything, although he does position himself so folks can see what he’s doing from different angles. And he does verbally target things you’re probably doing wrong. “Pull your shoulders away from your ears.” Oh, hey! That’s me.
This is a different type of class. I get the sense we’re not working on our practice or whatever, we’re getting stronger with an end purpose in mind. Of course, this could just be me.
At the end of the class, when we’re in corpse pose for way too long for such a chilly, chilly space, Taylor talks his way up our bodies, from toes to crown of head, telling us that we should be mindfully encouraging our individual body parts
He repeats this over and over again, shouting over the noise in the gym. When you get told
over and over again, some part of it probably begins to sink in. Now, recalling it, I remember, certainly, how cold I was. But I also remember Tyler voice, yelling “to relax,” and although the grammar bitch part of me wants to tell him to change up his phrasing so that we just hear “relax” instead of the infinitive, well, there’s something weirdly, uh, relaxing about hearing that phrase over and over again.
It’s weird, the things that stick with you over time. I’m glad for things like this, popping up in unexpected places, that give me tools to play with at times when I might need help.
What phrases have stuck with you over the years? Tell me in the comments below.