Breathe

My journey with yoga began as I imagine many do with a New Year’s resolution. I was twenty-four and had just been diagnosed with pre-cancerous, cervical dysplasia, which, my OBGYN explained, resulted from a virus I picked up during my first, debaucherous, post-college year in New York City. The diagnosis scared me straight. I quit smoking and vowed to get more sleep (no more till-dawn dance parties or after-hours speakeasies) and drink more water (and less vodka). I promised myself I would do all the things I thought good, healthy girls without pre-cancerous cells on their cervix did. And though my doctor had prescribed no medicinal or surgical cure for my condition — she wanted to simply “keep an eye on it” — I took it upon myself to find one. Enter, yoga.

My relationship to my body had always been a disappointing one. At eight I’d compared my relatively short, solid extremities to the willowy arms and legs of my best friend Sarah, and I’d envied her. At eleven I learned to point my toes while sitting on a chair in shorts, lest my thighs spread unflatteringly across the seat. By twelve, envious of another friend’s success starving herself down to skin and bones (she was later diagnosed with anorexia), I began vomiting after meals. I knew what I was doing was called bulimia because, like every child of the 1980s, I’d been forced to watch an after-school special on the subject. The TV program had given me lots of creative ideas about how to be a successful bulimic: Do it only after eating soft foods — foods you want to get rid of — like ice cream and cake, and use the back end of a toothbrush because it’s really hard to get your finger down your throat far enough. 

In the same way I had looked down at my thighs and disapproved of them at eleven, by fourteen, no part of my body went un-scrutinized. My stomach was too soft. My arms were too thick when held at my side. If I drew my head back I had a double chin. I studied myself in the narrow bathroom mirror. There was no part of me I appreciated, and there was no part of me that I saw for what it was — a strong, functioning body that I should’ve nurtured and been grateful for.

The girl in the after-school special hid candy bars and donuts under her bed and gorged herself on them in secret. I didn’t have that problem, at least not at first. I overate sometimes, but I was mostly interested in getting rid of the food I had to eat — like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. As my bulimia progressed, however, and my blood sugar de-stabilized, I began to overeat regularly. Eventually, I all but lost the ability to feel sated. I thought about the girl in the after-school special. Once her family had discovered her dark secret, they showered her with attention and appreciation. Her parents, who’d been pre-occupied with their recent divorce (as mine had been with theirs), snapped to attention and got the girl into an outpatient therapy program. They made time to be together as a family. They made time to tell each other how much they cared for one another. As much as I thumbed my nose at the corny TV program, I held onto a secret hope that revealing my bulimia would have the same effect on my family.

Between fourteen and fifteen, my menstrual cycle stopped. Since I knew there was no danger of pregnancy (I was a virgin), I figured out that it was the result of habitual purging. I told my mother I was bulimic . . . and explained to her what bulimia was (she’d not seen the after-school special). Since I was already seeing a therapist (the same one my anorexic friend went to) my mother made an appointment for me to see her OBGYN. I was terrified. I’d never had a pelvic exam, and thankfully, once I told the doctor about my bulimia, she decided against it. The doctor was sympathetic and seemed genuinely concerned about me, but I lied and told her I had quit purging a year or more earlier. And I minimized how much I did vomit when I was vomiting. It was easy for me to to do that. Even now, twenty-four years later, I have a hard time calling what I had “bulimia.” Perhaps because I minimized it so well then that my mother never brought it up again. The doctor admonished me gently but didn’t suggest any further treatment.

At seventeen, my weight ballooned, and my mother sent me to a nutritionist. He was a diet-doctor-to-the-stars whose palatial office encompassed the twentieth floor of a high rise, perched above glittery Fifth Avenue. I would often see models or actresses in the waiting room while I waited for my weekly appointment. The doctor put me on nine hundred calories per day (I ate his name-brand pre-fab protein bars and mysterious grey smoothies), and he monitored me over the course of a year. I lost thirty pounds. At my final weigh in, when the scale showed I’d dipped below 105 pounds (I’m 5’3), I asked the doctor if he thought I should continue on the program, and presumably lose more weight. He remarked, “Well, there are people thinner than you.” By the time of my cervical dysplasia diagnosis at twenty-four, I’d been binging, purging, and crash dieting for a solid ten years. 

That is when I found myself on a cold January afternoon in New York City, in a small, mirrored dance studio above Astor Place, attempting my very first downward dog. I’d been aware of Jivamukti Yoga Center for some time because I’d been working as a copywriter for an advertising agency around the corner on lower Broadway. Some days, while darting out to grab lunch, I’d walk past the entrance to Jivamukti and look up at their large picture windows, steamy with the breath of lithe yogis who filled their popular classes. I finally signed up that January, after promising myself I would try to heal my body, because my OBGYN was getting nervous about the cells on my cervix becoming cancerous. I had to do something, and yoga, I decided, was the something I would do. 

In that first class all I could think about were Madonna’s biceps. It was the late 1990s, and Madonna had recently become as famous for her toned physique (attributed to her recent interest in yoga) as for her music. As I looked at myself in the mirror of the studio, awkwardly trying to follow the instructor’s gentle guidelines, I wondered if Madge’s muscle tone would be a happy by-product of my journey into health. “Bring your attention to the breath,” the instructor said, while gently lifting my hips, which were already trembling from exertion. Madonna, her biceps, and my own body scampered away from my attention, as I shifted that attention to my breath. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. On my way home on the subway, faced with the mild anxiety that always seemed to accompany me into cramped spaces, I tried to do the same. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. I found the worries of my “monkey mind,” as I would hear it called later, were somehow quieted by simply breathing.

Jivamukti offered a four-week introduction to yoga class, and I dutifully attended each one. By the last class, I asked the instructor what the spiritual and psychological significance was of the seated twists I seemed to be struggling with. Madonna floated into my mind at the start of each class, to be sure, but I learned that the postures I was attempting, and the breathing I needed to rely on to get into them, left little room for fantasizing about toned guns. Madonna came, and Madonna went, and I carried on breathing.

Coincidentally or not, I was simultaneously exploring Christian spirituality. My brush with illness had caused me to see my body, and thus my life, as frail, impermanent. Matters of eternity were suddenly of paramount importance to me. I started visiting a church that met at the 125th Street YMCA and befriended a girl about my age who was a British expat “planting a house church” in Brooklyn. She and I would often meet for coffee or vegetarian burgers after my yoga classes and talk about God, church, and even yoga. She wasn’t against yoga, but I could tell after a few weeks of meeting with her regularly that my deepening interest in yoga made her uneasy. She told me that the yoga postures had spiritual implications, that they held meaning. I knew this was true, and I appreciated the link between spirit and body that I’d found in yoga. But something about the spiritual significance of the postures bothered my friend. 

One thing that made my foray into yoga so different from the other ways in which I had historically tried to shape my body is that it required movement. Movement was not a strength of mine. In sports, I’d been horribly uncoordinated. In dance, the same. In gymnastics I was too afraid to fly upside down on the bars or over the horse, so I quit before I could really get good at it. I saw my body only in segments, the segments I could see in the bathroom mirror, and I didn’t like what I saw—a fleshy arm here, a fat roll there. In that first yoga class there were plenty of fleshy arms and fat rolls. There were also Madonna-grade thighs and abs, but we all seemed able, at least in the space of the class, to co-exist in harmony.

I had an epiphany in one of those early classes: I’d long seen my body as a distant constellation, a foreign planet to be navigated, excavated and subdued. But I’d never seen my body as a planet of one — not foreign, but intimate, precious, unique. Christianity invited this perspective also. According to my new Christian friends, my spirit and my body were “made in God’s image,” and the same God who had created the actual constellations had taken as much care in the creation of me. I understood, finally, that my body was the only one I was going to get. It was all I came into the world with, and all I would take with me.

I also grasped, though in a wobbly way at first, that yoga is a practice, both spiritually and physically. Though hyper-fit yoga instructors and practitioners are legion, proffering physical mastery and 101 ways to a better you, a practice — of any discipline — is one that recognizes and celebrates the evergreen beginner inside each of us.

When I left New York for Houston in the early part of the 2000s, a few years after a simple surgery cured my cervical dysplasia, I went looking for a yoga class. By then I’d begun practicing at home, working on my “ujjayi breath,” a powerful, controlled breathing technique that helped me hold difficult postures like chaturanga dandasana — or “four limbed staff pose,” without collapsing. I had even considered attending a teacher-training course offered by my studio in New York. 

In Houston, I took a few classes at a place called the Yoga Institute. I appreciated the (optional) chanting and the incense they burned; it wasn’t a glorified aerobics class, which was the default mode of several yoga classes I had tried. Simultaneously, I was getting more and more involved in my local church, and though yoga was important to me, I found that in my limited free time, and the early days of my new marriage, I didn’t want to fight Houston traffic to make it to class. I also found that some in my new church community shared my New York friend’s unease about the spiritual meaning of the yoga postures. They saw my interest in yoga as evidence of what they believed was the spiritual battle raging in the heavens for possession of my soul. Though no one said it explicitly, I knew that some believed I couldn’t be both a Christian and a yogi. The proliferation of “Yoga for Christians,” yoga-style classes promising a Jesus-friendly re-invention of the postures, made it clear to me that many in my new tribe — the Evangelical Church in the American South, were not cool with yoga. Instead of “downward dog,” you could practice “Praise Moves,” an alternative as goofy as its name. I wasn’t interested.

I was too new to the Christian faith to know that the concept of breath — the foundation for my yoga practice — is also one of the oldest known symbols for God. The book of Genesis describes the Ruach Elohim, or Breath of God, hovering over the formless dark like a mother bird hovers over her nest. Pneuma, the Greek work for breath, appears in the Hebrew Bible as well as the Greek New Testament and is translated as “spirit.” But I had many years to go before I would look into the original Greek and Hebrew of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. I was content to let the pastors and teachers I surrounded myself with understand these things for me, and before I knew it, four years had passed. 

When I became pregnant with my daughter, I bought a prenatal yoga video online and waited eagerly for its arrival. By then the church’s yoga anxiety had all but vanished, at least among my friends, and I was eager to find a form of exercise I could safely do with a rapidly growing belly. I bought a new yoga mat and rolled it out in front of the TV in our living room. I found it hard to comfortably wedge myself between the glass coffee table and the television without crashing into either, and in the end, I only attempted the video a few times. Practicing without the company of other people proved something I didn’t want to do. Pregnancy was isolating enough. When I wasn’t working, I was sleeping or eating, and the prospect of yoga alone at home depressed me.  

Yet as my belly grew, I found it hard to sleep and breathe. I tried to repeat the breathing exercises I’d learned in yoga, but I found I could manage little more than shallow, pant-like breaths. My growing, healthy baby needed all the real estate my body had to offer, and until I delivered her — on a hot, August morning — I had a hard time catching my breath.

My little girl brought — and brings — profound joy into my life, but her birth also triggered a crippling bout of postpartum depression. I’d gone to yoga in the past to try and heal my body, but the fog from the emergency cesarean section and the preceding panic of my delivery (which, to my chagrin, did not make use of my breathing techniques as I’d thought it would have) had crippled me. My body was once again a foreign planet, unruly and out of control, and the idea of post-delivery spandex was something I was simply unwilling to entertain. Yet, like many women, I struggled to lose my pregnancy weight, and the pressure of motherhood in the midst of the hormonal roller coaster I was on added to my dis-ease. 

When my daughter turned six months old, I relented to a prescription for an anti-depressant. Shortly after beginning it, my darkness seemed to simply lift in the way that medically treated depression can. I felt like a new person. The weight came off and I saw, literally, sunshine as if for the first time. My daughter grew and life carried on. I got busy, and yoga got further and further down my list of priorities.

I returned to it, though, after my miscarriage. My daughter was five, and my husband and I had been trying to become pregnant with a second child for three years. Our joy at the positive pregnancy test was quickly flattened when the doctor revealed that the embryo I was carrying had failed to thrive. There was no heartbeat. I had minor surgery to remove what the nurse called “evidence of conception” and a few days later found myself in a yoga class. 

I wish I could say that that first yoga class after the long absence was the beginning of my road back to health, to fertility, to self-acceptance. But I got light-headed and nauseous in class. I wasn’t breathing and nearly fainted. While others around me were sailing through athletic poses, I curled up, ironically into child’s pose, and cried. My decision to go to yoga then was much like my decision to go to yoga following my dysplasia diagnosis. I felt helpless. My body was making decisions — big decisions — without me. Perhaps if I’d been paying it more, and better, attention, I thought, I wouldn’t have had the miscarriage. 

It took another two years of yogic abstinence, and then a return to the mat not in crisis but curiosity, to realize how wrong I had been. I got an e-mail for a cheap Groupon for the yoga studio I’d visited after my miscarriage. Since it had been more than ninety days since my last visit, I was eligible for a month of unlimited classes. I threw on some leggings and grabbed the long-disused mat from the bottom of a storage basket. I was careful not to entertain illusions of grandeur — i.e., rock star biceps — nor to get too preoccupied with the deeper meaning of the postures, at least not in my first class. I needed to care for my body as it had been too long since I had. But once seated on my mat, I found myself silently judging everyone around me. I was trying to make myself feel better for my long absence, not only from yoga but from any form of exercise.

“This is a beginner’s class,” the teacher announced, “but we’re all coming from different levels of experience.”

“Don’t worry about what the person next to you is doing,” she continued, in characteristic yoga-teacher gentleness. “Just breathe.”

As I dragged my attention away from my ass, and everyone else’s ass, and brought it back to my breath, I remembered that it was breath that had carried me through the roller coasters of life some fifteen years since that first yoga class. Breath had sustained me through illness — self-inflicted or otherwise — through joy and grief alike. As I breathed, I moved with confidence, with lightness, with a sense of power I had forgotten I had. 

And as I had two years earlier, I began to cry. And breathe. 

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.


Cameron Dezen Hammon is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative nonfiction at Seattle Pacific University. Her essays and poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from KillingtheBuddha.com, Columbia Poetry Review, Gigantic Sequins, Nylon Magazine, This Zine Will Change Your Life, and others. She received an honorable mention for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize from Ruminate Magazine, and was the recipient of the Adamson Award for student writing at Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and daughter.

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