In her new book, Revolution of the Soul, social activist and yoga teacher Seane Corn details how ill and awkward she felt during her first yoga class and what kept her going back for more.
After hearing about yoga for years and witnessing the changes it made in David Life, owner of Life Café in New York City, where I waitressed, and Sharon Gannon, the head waitress, I’d decided to see for myself what the hoopla was about. I’d come to Integral Yoga, where everyone dressed in white and everything was absolutely pristine. Except for me. I looked down at my gray sweatpants, grease stains on the thighs from where I had wiped my hands after working on my motorcycle. I hadn’t showered and knew without a doubt that black eyeliner and mascara lay smeared under my eyes. I was a bit of a mess.
I was told to sign in and remove my shoes, so I kicked off my black-leather Screaming Mimi combat boots and tossed them toward the rest of the shoes on the floor, but I left my socks on. Going barefoot in a public place that wasn’t a park or beach kinda grossed me out, plus I often cut and peeled the skin off my big toes and heels when I was anxious and I didn’t want anyone to see that.
The woman behind the counter, also wearing white, looked calm and sweet. I noticed, when she raised her arm to reach for something, that she had a thick patch of armpit hair. I wondered if Sharon shaved her pits. Note to self: Stop shaving, buy something white and… take a bath.
See also How to Change Your Life With Yoga
The woman behind the desk announces it is time for class. I follow the others up some narrow, creaky stairs and into one of the rooms above. The floors in the room are wooden and uneven, the room itself stark and smelling faintly of BO, mold, and incense. I hang back a little to watch what everyone else is doing; then, following their lead, I grab a mat and what looks like a little pillow, which makes a crunching sound when I squeeze it.
The teacher comes in quietly, an air of importance and reserve about him. I’m pretty sure he’s some kind of holy man, like a guru. But he looks more like an uncle or cousin from the Jewish side of my family. Less like a guru, more like a rabbi. He is white and older, with scraggly gray-and-white hair hanging loosely past his shoulders and a similarly colored beard. He gathers up his white pants, kneels down, takes his seat in the front of the room, and drapes a white shawl over his shoulders. He then picks up a pair of metal disks connected by a leather string and clinks them together three times.
The reverberation alerts the students, causing their spines to straighten and the backs of their heads to lengthen on their necks. I glance at the person closest to me and see that her eyes are still shut. I looked to the others and see that their eyes are also still shut. I look at the guru-rabbi. He smiles and makes a gesture with his hands, indicating that I should shut my eyes, too. I do.
I’ve never meditated before. I try to keep my back straight, all the while wondering how long we’ll have to stay there. My thoughts continue something like, I wonder if I’m doing it right. I wonder if I’m supposed to be thinking. But if I’m not supposed to be thinking, what am I supposed to be doing instead? Is everyone else thinking, too? That can’t be right. We can’t all be just sitting here thinking. Are they thinking about me, like I’m thinking about them? I wonder what I’m going to eat later and if yoga can help me stop smoking and if my boyfriend really loves me and if I should take the bus home this weekend to see my mom. I miss my mom. I really love my mom. My mom’s so cool. It’s really hot in here. Maybe it will rain? My nose itches. Am I allowed to scratch it? I fidget on the crunchy pillow, my hips ache, my right foot is asleep inside my sock. There’s no way I’m taking off my socks. Not ever. Maybe I should get a cat…?
Next up, the teacher asks us to breathe, in and out, very fast and deep through our noses. I try, but my whole torso keeps lifting up and down. A light trail of snot escapes out of my nose, and I repeatedly wipe at it with the back of my hand while glancing self-consciously around the room. This goes on for quite a while. Periodically I have to stop to cough, the tar from cigarettes reacting to the quick compression of my lungs.
And then, after a bit, he tells us to breathe normally and reflect on how we feel. The deep breathing makes me feel dizzy and a bit sick to my stomach. I sit there reflecting on my nausea and reluctantly begin the breathwork again when he tells us to. Yoga isn’t particularly glamorous, I think, wiping away more snot and coughing up a lung.
After that, we’re invited to come to standing. “Feet together, straighten your legs,” the teacher commands. “Arms to the side, long spine. Sturdy, like a mountain!” He tells us to feel our feet on the ground beneath us. “Extend your roots deep into the earth, and you will find your strength and refuge there, with the Mother!” I wonder, Mother? Whose mother? I do as I’m told—I think. But, truthfully, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I don’t feel like a mountain. What the fuck does a mountain even feel like?
From there, we begin to move. “Inhale arms reach up, exhale fold forward, bend your knees, place your fingertips to the floor, inhale look up, exhale step your left leg back, knee down, inhale arms reach” … it goes on like this for a while. I feel awkward, but eventually my body settles in and moves more easily, as though it instinctively knows what to do next. I am naturally strong and flexible, which makes me feel like maybe I’m not so out of place after all.
The teacher leads us from pose to pose, and except for the constant nausea, a slight headache, and an overall achiness in my muscles, I feel pretty good. Finally, he tells us to “prepare for Savasana.” I lie down with the rest of them and completely pass out. The clanging of chimes startles me awake. I sit up cross-legged, like the others, and bring my palms into prayer. Another chant is followed by an Om—my first Om. The teacher ends class with a “Namaste.” I feel both settled and utterly sick to my stomach. I roll up my mat, nod a thank-you to the teacher, and leave. In the bathroom downstairs, I lean over the toilet and puke.
See also Off the Mat and Into the World
I continued going to Integral, mostly because I liked telling the people at Life Café that I did yoga, too. The nausea I felt initially was apparently a sign that my system was cleansing itself from my diet, my smoking habit, and the environmental factors I was subjected to every day, such as car exhaust. The teacher said it was normal.
Although I didn’t notice many changes in my personality and wasn’t exactly having glimpses into enlightened states, the more I practiced, the more aware I became of how my behaviors impacted my physical health. Eventually, I didn’t want to put things into my mouth (or up my nose) that didn’t feel good—and that included alcohol, junk food, drugs, and, finally, cigarettes.
After a long night of tending bar at Shescape, a lesbian party that floated among different clubs around the city, I managed to open my eyes about noon. I lay there staring at the ceiling. I was 22 years old, living with yet another boyfriend, and stuck. I didn’t feel particularly connected to anything. I felt purposeless.
As I lay there, I could feel my anxiety rise. I knew that if I called any number of friends, I could hang with them. Maybe we could grab an afternoon drink or smoke a joint? But I really didn’t want to drink or do drugs anymore. I thought maybe I could hook up with that guy I had recently stopped seeing. He had a girlfriend, but it was OK since I had a boyfriend, so it didn’t really feel like cheating. But I didn’t want to lie anymore. Crap. I sat down on the floor in the middle of my apartment, frozen with indecision. Not knowing what else to do, I looked around, picked yesterday’s sweats and T-shirt off the floor, threw them on, and headed out the door, trudging my way through the snow to Integral Yoga.
“Feel your feet on the floor, thighs lift, tailbone in, breathe!” the teacher commands. I am limp in my poses, and he keeps adjusting me. The changes he asks me to make are uncomfortable, requiring more strength than I have, and I can hardly keep my balance. He keeps saying, “Seane, focus, ground, breathe! You’re not breathing!” I think, Obviously I’m breathing, asshole, otherwise I’d be dead. He is picking on me! My body feels thick and tight.
See also Behind the Scenes with Seane Corn
During Savasana, I fall asleep, as usual, but this time my snoring wakes me up. I feel disoriented and embarrassed. I place my hands into Namaste, bow my head, chant a feeble Om with the class, roll up my mat, and split.
Outside, it has started to snow. New York is eerily beautiful when it snows; everything looks crisp, clean, and enchanted. I exhale completely, watching as the white mist rises from my mouth, and then take another full breath in. Suddenly, I stop in my tracks, exhale, and wait. Something is not quite right. I pat my pockets for my keys. Check. I open my bag to see if I have my wallet. Yep. Everything is where it should be. I look up at the large clock above Greenwich Avenue just as the sun is setting, and I see its pale-pink reflection against the white backdrop.
Slowly, I smile. Something is different. That something is me.
I stand there, my arms to my sides, my face still turned up toward the pinkish sky, and I know that everything in my life is truly OK. That everything is unfolding perfectly, and I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The word “trust” keeps bubbling up from deep inside. I speak the word, quietly. “Trust,” I whisper again. “Trust.”
My heart is full, so absolute and satisfied. Most days I leave yoga feeling good, but this time is different. This is beyond the body. Nothing has changed, I still have no sense of purpose, but somehow I know it will all work out. I place my hands on my heart, the snow settling on my face, and smile. I am immensely grateful.
Excerpted from Revolution of the Soul: Awaken to Love Through Raw Truth, Radical Healing, and Conscious Action. Copyright 2019 by Seane Corn. Excerpted by permission of Sounds True.