Yoga begins with the poses, but it is so much more than the physical practice. It is only through physical movement that we begin to reach deeper into the psyche, the soul, the essence of who we are without our titles and the accumulation of all our experiences and influences.
For nearly a year now, I’ve been requesting to be changed to a different school. All schools generally have the same problems, and the challenges that come from the higher administration in the Ministry of Education are the same as well. I know that no matter what school I may be assigned to, there will be difficult challenges. But the animosity between local teachers and the Western staff at my school has become extreme. And as head of the English department, it was nearly impossible for me to do my duties with the majority of the staff refusing to look at me or even acknowledge my existence.
In my current yoga practice, it’s only me and the teacher, Dr. Amar from Mysore, India, the seat of traditional yoga. He teaches classical yoga. One thing that means is that we hold the poses for 5 long counts, but his counts, one for ever two or three of mine, don’t even begin until he sees that I’m in my optimal expression of the pose. By the time he starts counting, I feel I’ve been there long enough and am ready to collapse.
But I don’t.
“Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.” “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” And so it goes. I am already sweating before he gets to count “one”.
About a month ago I made my request to be moved to a different school again, this time stronger, clearer. Finally, my boss went into action. By mid-week last week, my replacement had been chosen. I was one foot out the door, but to WHERE, no one knew. My boss had only one offer: a boys’ school. Though I’d refused that possibility all along, I now felt I had to consider it because in just 2 days, my replacement would be sitting at my desk and I had to be in a new school. Though I knew there were other needs, he didn’t offer me any other options.
We begin our yoga class with 5 deep unjayyi breaths, the powerful breath that roars through the body like the ocean’s waves at high tide: rolling in, crashing against the sea wall, crashing against the back of my breast bone, receding, recoiling, returning to the vast waters beyond, emptying my body, leaving a hollow in my belly just in time to rebound, return.
Then we move into Sun Salutation A, holding in downward dog. First, he reaches from behind me, pulling back my thighs. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.” He presses into my back with one hand. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” Then he leans into his hand on my back, all his weight over me, eventually pressing his full weight on top of me. He lifts his feet from the ground. His body presses me deeper into the pose. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Three.” I taste the salty moisture of sweat dripping from my chin over my lips. I hang in there. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Four.” Just one more long count to go.
I can do it.
Discipline is a major problem in the Emirati schools. In the girls’ schools, it’s ridiculous; in the boys’ schools, it is dangerous. For my physical and emotional safety, I have always been adamant that I would never step foot in a boys’ school. And yet, I went on Wednesday of last week with my boss to see the boys’ school. At that time, the school was generally quiet, and the principal was relatively warm. I heard myself say, “OK”.
That afternoon and into the evening, my phone was blowing up with calls and messages from colleagues across the district telling me of the dangers in that school. The stories I heard confirmed my initial resolve to never go to a boys’ school. I didn’t sleep that night. My stomach was in knots and my heart raced with anxiety.
I desperately want to bend my elbows and knees and find refuge in child’s pose. But I don’t. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Five.” The pose is released.
My breath strains to stay steady.
My mind tells me it’s OK to break the concentration, to break out of the pose and fold into child’s pose. The teacher must sense my temptation: “You are fine,” he tells me. “Stay.” I stay in the pose. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”
Only count one?? I feel the panic, but I don’t want the teacher to know.
“Arms straight,” he coaches. “Stay with your breath,” he reminds me. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Two.”
On Thursday, my boss came to my school to finalize the details of my move. I greeted him in the school lobby saying, “I don’t mean to make your life more difficult, but upon more consideration, I am not able to take the assignment at the boys’ school.” We sat down and the pressure began. He tried one way after another to convince me.
I began to cry.
I told him I understood that he had to do what he had to do, and so, if he needed to fire me, I would make it easy: I would sign the papers, no hard feelings.
And then he tried again to convince me to go to the boys’ school. Again, I refused, tears now streaming down my face as I gulped at the air. Administration staff, other teachers, and students padded carefully past, aware that I was distraught, but not knowing why. I didn’t place my head in my hands as I sobbed; that would have been a posture of defeat. Instead, I pulled my shoulders toward my spine, and lifted my heart ever so slightly. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “One.”
My boss told me to just go on the first day, and then, if I ran away by noon, he would understand. I thought for a moment. Yes. I could do that. But then, I realized how stupid that was – knowing I would run away by noon. It didn’t make sense to suffer all weekend worrying about it. So again, I said “NO”.
“Exhale” (long pause). “Two.” He continued to push. I continued to breathe, cry, and refuse. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Three.”
My body begins to quiver as the class proceeds, struggling to find strength in the depths of muscles. I take my attention to my breath. My breath controls the quivers. I stay because I know that count five is coming. I realize this is a kind of faith. I do this because I know it is good for me.
My boss continued to push. I requested to be sent to a girls’ school. He continued to push for the boys’ school. I took my attention to my breath as I counted the number of times that I said “NO”. I got to eleven. Who knows how many times I’d said it before I began counting. My breath controlled the sobs. I stood my ground because I knew it was good for me.
Finally, he said he would assign me to the girls’ school in the village where the boys’ school is.
“Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Four.”
I tasted the salty moisture of tears sliding over my lips. I licked them away. “Inhale.” (long pause). “Exhale” (long pause). “Five.”
Savasana is the time for complete relaxation, the time when the body receives the benefit of the practice. All muscles relax as body, mind, and soul are restored.
My new challenge lies ahead; I cannot yet relax, but I know I have received the benefits of my practice: I stood my ground.