I remember the first time I attended a yoga class after my husband’s death. I had been a widow for almost four years. I didn’t really want to be on that mat. I felt uncomfortable, shy, and raw. Up to that point, I had been so consumed by grief that I wore nothing but dark black clothes. Still, I was willing to give yoga a try. It promised to provide some of the healing I so desperately needed, for myself, and for my children who were then ages five and three and a half.
My husband, Sergeant Errol M. James, was affectionately known at “Doc” in his unit. He deployed to Iraq as a combat medic in March 2003 and went to Afghanistan as a trauma specialist in February 2005. On his second tour in Afghanistan, at the age of 29, my husband died at Forward Operating Base Torkham on August 4, 2008. At the time of his death, I was pregnant.
The lights were dimmed in the studio. I placed myself close to the back of the room, right next to a side wall, a spot where I felt safe in this unfamiliar territory, where I thought I could hide and not be seen, as if I wasn’t even there. The teacher, a lovely woman who opened the studio to find her own healing after her mother’s death, guided us through a breathing exercise.
As I laid on my rented mat, I thought, ‘She picked this exercise and her words just for me.’ I began to relax. She invited us to let go and breathe. I followed her prompts and felt my eyes filling with tears. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to cry in public. I wasn’t ready to answer any questions, I didn’t feel strong enough to let the stares bounce off of me, and I even felt too weak to receive compassionate hugs. So I held my breath and swallowed the feelings that rose to the surface.
Once I felt calm enough, I continued with the exercise. I switched from a short, shallow breath to a long and deep one. And when I did, the floodgates opened once again. I bit my lips in an attempt to stop the tears that were already running down my face. I pressed myself onto the mat beneath me to gain control, because as soon as I let go, I simply melted into it. The more I relaxed my body and breathed freely, the more I dissolved into tears.
And that’s when I realized that, for the past three years and nine months, I was holding my breath!
During that time I had to pull myself together and take care of my sons. I couldn’t break down. I couldn’t melt. I had to be strong and upright to carry them through their young lives, not lay on the floor, too weak to lift them up. It seemed like my breath would do that for me, make me go either way. If I allowed myself to breathe, I would crumble under the pain, drown in the tears. So for the most part I stopped breathing, unconsciously, tensing my body, to make it strong and firm, to weather this hell of a storm.
I was in a paradox of chastising myself into near suffocation in order to survive.
The next time I found myself on the mat, it was another four years later. It was a different studio, a different mat. This time it’s my Yoga Mat. After sixty minutes of hot yoga (I specifically did NOT want to do hot yoga, and yet THAT’s what I end up with!) I asked myself ‘Why on earth did it take me so long to get back on the mat!?’
People kept recommending it to me, over and over again. And I believed them as much as the books and articles I read about it. I wanted to go. But I didn’t. And here I was, still needing a tremendous kick in my butt to get on my mat again. This made me resist even more. I don’t like to be told what to do. Who does? But my essential self gave me that final push. It knew this decision was in my best interest. So I listened and followed the call to my Yoga Mat. Again, the tears. But this time tears of joy. Again, the breath. But this time it makes me float. I immediately felt like I belonged. This was where I need to be. I finally arrived.
Every time I enter this space, I feel safe and at home. It’s like I’m under that protective, magical bubble they put around Hogwarts in the 8th Harry Potter movie to shield themselves from Lord Voldemort. The only “cruelty” I come across here is a pose named after the Dark Lord. It’s one of those that let me appreciate the fact that I happen to have found the perfect spot for my mat where I conveniently miss the mirror by about exactly an inch so I don’t have to look at my grimacing face.
Yes, my physical flexibility can definitely still benefit from a deeper practice. But I’m fine with where I am right now. I can smile at my not-folding body — it cracks me up. This is what’s so beautiful here, at and on my Yoga Mat. There’s no pressure, no competition, no expectations. It’s not a race, and there’s no comparing. There’s no striving for perfection. It’s just me and my mat, wherever I’m at, whatever I need in the moment. What I receive are love and support. And full acceptance! It’s a safe place. A place of positive energies and healing.
My Yoga Mat holds me. It is soft and warmly embraces me. It is firmly grounded underneath my feet and helps me stand in my own power. My tree takes root here and is able to grow, even transform. My eagle spreads its wings and takes flight. My dancer blooms into sensuality and grace. My boat’s strong core takes me across the waves of life with integrity.
Here, in this undiscriminating and forgiving atmosphere, even my inner child feels welcome. The little girl in me, that so often gets left behind, I always bring her to my Yoga Mat, include her, see her, and honor her. Yoga Mat fits us both. There is enough room for all of me, in my entirety. I am whole. I am ME.
Yoga Mat is my island, a place where I and my tribe feel at home. From here my warrior goes on a voyage beyond the reef towards its North Star.
With my Yoga Mat I gain balance. I breathe, and my goddess thrives!
Gold Star Survivor, Warriors at Ease Teacher & member of the Yoga Mat tribe.
Yoga Mat, is a Warriors at Ease affiliate yoga studio located in Clarksville, TN close to Fort Cambell, home of the 101st Airborne Division.
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