05/31/2012 10:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Looking Ridiculous, Giggling and Flailing on the Yoga Mat


In or around -- who knows, for certain -- the winter of 2008, my lumbar spine separated between L4 and L5... and I went right on practicing level III/IV Iyengar yoga, and teaching, through significant pain, til even I, who had spent over half a lifetime on the mat, had to admit something serious might be wrong with my back.

Spinal fusion surgery and a year of recovery later, I returned to my daily Iyengar yoga practice. But, only now, some three years after surgery, will I return to teaching... beginners.

I could look at this as a ghastly and cascading visitation of setbacks. After all (and those of you who've read me before can attest to this fact), I am a card-carrying pessimist and doomsayer but, astonishingly, when it comes to yoga, I seem to inhabit another's skin, another's more optimistic and more reasoned sensibility, entirely.

In yoga, I tend to just go with the flow. And, many, many times, the flow in life is dammed, diverted, dries the hell up, slows to an almost invisible trickle... and you, with it.

In matters of the heart, finance, armed conflict and whoever's currently in the seats of power, I vacillate, suffer, howl and sink. On the yoga mat, however, I take what comes, even when nothing comes, even when what comes is pretty laughable... or damned unbearable.

I am two things, this-incarnation-around, a writer and a yogini, and I understand the underpinnings of only two things fairly well, writing and yoga.

Doesn't mean I'm a master or an adept, in either field. Just means I have some understanding in and of each, and that suffices.

Iyengar yogini Inez Baranay, author of Sun Square Moon: Writings on Yoga and Writing, says it well:

The work of writing is in rewriting, just as the work of asana is not in striking the pose, but in the adjustments you make to it. The asana is rewritten, the sentence is refined. The work that has gone into the final effect usually remains secret; at best, the clarity and precision achieved make this effect appear natural and inevitable.

I do my best writing with the eraser-end of the pencil. I achieve my best asana, my most perfected yoga positions; after much tomfoolery and tinkering.

In the photo accompanying this column, you see me on a Greek rooftop, clowning around with my best friend, photographer Doris Athanassakis (always invisible behind her camera). I'm trying to get my body into Karnapidasana, a pose that comes -- sorry: used to come -- as naturally to me as breathing.

Since my back broke, however, and since titanium screws were inserted to stabilize my lumbar spine, I sometimes flail more than a bit getting into "knees-over-ears pose."

Doris usually waits for me to yell, "ready!" before shooting but this time, she caught me en route to Karnapidasana, and there is something about this picture that I love -- something that makes me smile, even laugh out loud.

It's the pose before the pose. The writing before the editing. It's the broke-back yogini working her way into what once came easily but which now requires some feet-flailing fluctuation.

For some reason, after the fact of my gobsmackingly expensive surgery, and the suffering that preceded and post-dated it, I remain hopeful and light, laughing and yet centered, on mat (or roof). In the night, I may down Advil(s galore) and weep, but while practicing yoga, and I hope while teaching it, I am The Giggling Yogini, unwilling to compete with any other, unwilling to compete even with my former self, unwilling to be anything but in the moment.

Mr. Iyengar's training, and my adherence to it all these years, has given me a backbone that cannot be broken, it seems. An invisible adamantine shaft of bone that holds up and supports the other 206 analog bones of my body.

In practicing asana, I experience what yogi Gary Kraftsow, the author of Yoga for Transformation, calls a release from "the tyranny of our self-importance -- whether it reveals itself as pride and arrogance, or self-pity and low self-esteem."

Kraftsow continues, "And if we make this the spirit and foundation of our practice, then surely, as the Buddhists say, we will have 'attained the stream' that will lead us to the river, that will return us to the ocean from whence we came."

We will go, you and I, giggling, with the flow.

Photo of the author on a Santorini rooftop by Doris Athanassakis, October 2011.

For more by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, click here.

For more on yoga, click here.