Winter Vol 17.1
"Something Like Angels" by
From the moment the curly-haired girl, whose name you can’t ever remember, set her first bare foot into the studio, you knew there was something special about her. The glow of her pink athletic tank gave her away. The way her Birkenstocks seemed rugged and worn with no trace of her foot’s imprint, as if she floated above or hovered just on top of them. Without taking your eyes off her sandals, you asked, like you do with every new client, “Have you ever done yoga before?”
And she, unlike most of your walk-ins, said:
“Yes, but not for a while.”
“Yes, but not since I moved here.”
“Yes, but not since I did it at home. Back East.”
And even though you knew from a perfunctory glance of her registration form that “Back East” was something short of a five-hour car-ride away, the words came out with such mysteriousness and glamour, she had to have meant an undiscovered region in the Pacific islands or a speck of earth just south of Thailand. Somewhere that wasn’t here, at least. Here, in your yoga studio, was this person, this girl, youthful and vigorous, who broke the monotony of the Tuesday morning regulars. Someone who hadn’t known you since you were young, who’d never borrowed your baking tins or knitting needles or heard about the singles’ cruise you accidentally took while you were still married, who didn’t know or care to know a thing about your late husband. This was a person who decreased the average age of your gentle yoga class at the Eternal Happiness Day Spa and Ritual Healing Center by ten percent at least, and although you can’t remember her name, you can remember the smooth, looping way she signed it—that vivaciousness of spirit present only in young souls, which exerts itself on things even so small as a pen.
“We’re having class on the lower floor this morning,” you told her that first unforgettable day. “You can leave your sandals in the lobby if you wish.”
Your other clients had kicked their shoes sloppily aside, you remember, forming a tight semicircle of footwear beside the front door, just beneath the display shelf of incense and the vials of essential oils and the clearance case of aromatic tinctures. But the young woman with the curly black hair glided to this slipshod assortment of sneakers, each more petite and white and sensible than the last, and she levitated out of her sandals, which took their immediate repose amidst the flotsam of flats and clogs and flip-flops, which had, somehow, formed a perfect geometric halo around her Birkenstocks, a soulful choir around the throne of her feet, a veritable seraphim of shoes.
“And don’t forget your block,” you said.
And then you handed her this thing, this piece of foam. And you met her eyes with yours. And as the little purple rectangle changed hands, you felt, in that moment, changed—younger. Not younger like most women your age say it, as some purposeless expression of temporary puissance, but actually younger. It was a small, subtle change—no more than the difference a year makes—but even when the curly-haired girl gripped the block and pulled it from your hands, the feeling lingered.
It lingered through your gentle yoga class. It permeated your lunges, plunging you deeper than usual into your crown and sacral chakras. It irritated the regulars in your class, who groaned when they felt the burn in their thighs and the stinging in their knees, but you didn’t groan, and neither did the curly-haired girl, whose black spiral locks fell in front of her bright eyes but never darkened them. You pushed yourself to match her pace, squat for squat, breath for breath, smile for smile.
In the final cycle of the session, just before you initiated the corpse pose flow, your body was in half moon, and your right arm was stretched to the ceiling, and your leg and your head were pulled—as if magnetized—east to west in a straight line running parallel to the floor. You felt the years peeling, literally peeling away as if you were the fleshy rind of a banana headed backwards in time, growing firm instead of growing mushy, while on the floor, balanced on the block, the dry skin of your wrinkled left hand flaked off on its own to reveal that it had been hiding soft, suntanned skin underneath all along, and you thought this can’t be real life, but as you looked forward and sidelong into the eyes of the curly-haired girl, and another year of your life peeled away like the bark of a tree reversing its rings, you realized this is real life but sideways, and you called everyone back to standing position with their hands over their hearts, and yours fluttered hardest and fastest of all.
You didn’t tell your friends about the curly-haired girl, but she told hers about you.
She thanked you after your first session together, but how did you respond? By fidgeting your fingers. By picking at your nails. By building as much tactile momentum as possible so that at any moment your hands might possibly find a way to slip into the conversation and touch the girl one more time. Just how far back might she take you? And just where had she come from? And how by God was she doing this?
She picked up her sandals and said goodbye, that she’d see you next week, but you yelled out, “No, you won’t!” just before the door breezed shut behind her. She turned around in the doorway and stared at you.
“You won’t,” you said. “I’m going to be out next week. I have a pinched nerve in my neck. I’m going to the doctor.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” said the girl. “I had such a wonderful time. I was going to bring all my friends from school.”
“Your friends? What do they do?” you said. What a dumb question that was. What had you expected she might say? That they’re all from “Back East?” That they’re all a race of something like angels fallen from grace to redeem old yoga instructors like you? That it won’t be long before you’re twenty-two, too?
“They’re students,” she said. “They’re from my school.”
“Oh, of course,” you say. “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you. You bring as many schoolmates as you wish. We can always use new faces around here.”
But that didn’t sit well with Janice, from the front row, who is eighty, who, for the first time in the seven years she’s been coming to your studio, fell over during Warrior Two, and whose aid you didn’t rush to, but instead led the class into Warrior Three. Janice, who saw you talking with the curly-haired girl after class and who scoffed viscerally in your direction on her way out the door.
You didn’t suspect you’d ever see Janice again, but then she turned around and said, “This is supposed to be Gentle Yoga.” And when you surprised her by not apologizing, by not saying anything, she went on to say, “You know, we’re not getting any younger.”
And so that was it—Janice was jealous.
Your daughter seemed more dismissive than jealous when you told her over the phone about the curly-haired girl, whose name you couldn’t quite bring to memory at the moment, but she said the same thing. “You know, Mom, you should be careful at your age.”
And the doctor said it too, when, in the sterile womb of his office, you mentioned that you wanted to postpone your neck surgery at least another week because a miracle had arrived at your studio.
And, yes, you were getting younger. Yes, you were.
Your fifty-minute gentle yoga course at the Eternal Happiness Day Spa and Ritual Healing Center closes with the same exercise every Tuesday morning: corpse pose. In fact, each class at Eternal Happiness, and, allegedly, each yoga course everywhere throughout the world, closes with corpse pose, a restorative maneuver that looks exactly like it sounds. You, and all instructors like you, adjust the dimmer switch and the audiocassette of nature sounds in inverse proportions while the aspiring young yogis and yoginis in the room lie flat on their backs, their arms outstretched just short of T, knuckles down, heels slightly outside mats and pressed into the waxed wood of the floor.
Their teeth, unclenched.
Their jaws, relaxed.
They breathe in for four.
A young woman in the back row sneezes, and the very un-relaxed way she contorts her face afterward reveals that she has become self-conscious, and after all that consciousness-undoing you did. Her eyes dart madly behind their lids rather than focusing their attention on the third-eye center as you’ve instructed.
Next to her, the curly-haired girl starts to move—the best, stillest student in your 10 am class. She’s a rock, a tombstone, and then all at once she fidgets, too, as if she has suddenly exorcised from a dimension of non-motion. She wiggles her nose, lifts her arm to wipe it, tries to let it fall in the same place, but her comfort cannot be replicated. The moment of serenity has passed.
In the next row, a young man in a Greek Life t-shirt straightens his fingers like two firecrackers, and his knuckles explode. Distraction dominoes around the room and echoes off the drywall, and maybe you could get this class back on track for the final five meditative minutes by flipping your cassette from Moods of Nature on the A side to Sacred Chants and Blessings on B. But the tape machine fails you. The deck door won’t stay shut. When you press play, the room swirls with white noise, and you wonder, for a moment, if the old machine is broken or if it is just getting warming up.
Breathe out for six.
“Continue to focus on your breathing,” you say, but how could they possibly focus with you up there and all your button clacking and all the under-the-breath muttering you’re doing? By the time you’ve got things cued up and running at normal speed, the entire class is alight on their elbows, and they leer at you like silent meerkats. They tilt their heads.
The curly haired girl in the back is the last to rise. Though she carries her weight like they all do—held in the stomach and shoulder blades and the obtuse angles of the elbows—she seems somehow more adroit than the rest. They are the beached sea mammals, flopping on their backs, while this girl is the elegant bird perched upon a branch. She is the homecoming queen on the beach towel who might gossip and chat with her classmates all afternoon on a sandy shoreline, but won’t be bothered to turn her gaze anywhere but ocean-ward, toward you.
Your blue eyes meet her dark ones in the back of the room. She’s looking past you, through you, out the sliding glass door behind you, but you don’t turn away. You hold her stare, and your eyes drink her in.
At the base of her shadowy roots, a dark black spider with thick black limbs escapes from the tangle of her curls and tap-dances down her cheek. There is surprising grace in its scramble. Another emerges from the tender, bare-skinned patch behind her ear and lowers itself onto her shoulder.
“Do you think if we tried Downward Dog for a while,” the young girl says, “we could start the flow again? You know—work ourselves into it? Wear ourselves out?”
And before you know it, the whole class is bent at the hips, heels and palms flat on the mat, rumps in the air, vital and strong like a dozen rounded mountaintops. The curly-haired girl in the back is practically equilateral, her strong shoulders solid as ever, her collar bone jutting against the soft, porcelain skin beneath her throat. Black oil drips from the back of her neck and oozes down her sturdy arms—not oil. What looks like oil—small and globular, but with tiny legs. Spiders again: small at first, their bodies the size of thumbtacks, then as wide as dimes, nickels, Susan B. Anthony silver dollars, and they amble down her arms, across her biceps, nestle in the crooks of her elbows. They lurch across her fingers and sidle onto the floor. By the time they’ve disappeared completely, the curly-haired girl’s curly hair is gone.
“Corpse,” you say, lowering yourself onto your mat, letting yourself curl into a ball like a cat, like a baby.
It’s dark outside when Janice calls your name from the hallway. “It’s nearly time for candlelight Yin,” she says.
How long have you been asleep?
“Let’s try this again,” you say.
The pack of young students returns the next week. You smile at them, but they’re not looking at your smile. They’re looking at the tight white workout pants you’re wearing—out of season and far too young for you. They’re staring at the hi-cut of your panty line, and the way the loose fat of your butt slips through its elastic barriers. You sit down, then lie back. The students listen to the bustle of your hair, strong as steel wool and yet fragile like Easter confetti as it rustles to the mat. Someone near the door chortles, but your focus remains unbroken, the base of your skull flush with the mat, vision focused on your third eye center, a model of perfect Asamprajnyata Samadhi.
“Raise your arms to the ceiling and roll your wrists.” They follow along.
“Now, raise your legs. Point your toes to the sky then flex your feet. Keep a slight bend in the knees if that’s all that’s available to you today. Now roll your ankles.”
When their ankle bones crack in unison, there’s an eruption of laughter, and you use that energy to get their limbs shaking in the air.
“Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle.”
The energy of their frantic limbs electrifies the room. A mere dozen students signed the morning’s roster, but their digits redouble and disperse like an army of fingers and toes invading the counties of Stillness and Peace with reckless abandon. The room’s temperature, slowly, begins to change. Although each student’s spine is planted directly against a long rubber rectangle, there’s a cold front in the building, a storm about to blow through, lightning brewing in the ether. In the preliminary glow just before the first strike, you take command of your students as if you have control over the elements themselves.
You succumb to gravity’s natural dominance, relaxing your frenzied body all at once, letting yourself, the sum of all your parts, fall, open, into corpse. The students follow suit, but they’re so young and graceless. Their bodies haven’t been pumped through with the biological helium afforded by a long, yogic lifetime. Their heels assault the floor with such a thump. You pop at the hips and the tips of the shoulder blades as if you’d been lying on a tight-pulled trampoline this whole time and only just realized.
You sit up silently. One wrong move could snap the steel springs that hold the room in place.
Though they could pass as sleeping to the untrained eye, the students show subtle signs that they feel the floor tensing below them.
If this position above all others is designed to usher the practitioner into an aura of sublime relaxation, then why do the students nettle their brows and grind their teeth? What have you said to stir their anxieties? Or in what way were your directions unclear? What more will it take to get them to focus on their third-eye centers?
In your gentlest tone, you say, “I’m going to come around and make a few adjustments. You don’t need to help me, or talk to me, or even open your eyes.”
A teenage girl in the front row, in the same spot where Janice one lay, squirms.
“If you’d prefer I didn’t touch you, you can fold your arms across your chest.”
Her palms rise from the floor, levitating indecisively. She peeks at the boyfriend lying next to her and, seeing his hands limp on the floor, decides to keep hers where they are as well. She sighs.
“Focus on your breathing.”
But she can’t focus on anything besides the soft approach of your bare feet. Her form is all wrong. Her shoulder blades are pinched tight and her arms are too close to her body. You could focus an entire fifty-minute session on the fine points of Savasana, but instead, you yank the girl’s ankle, calibrating her hips. A sneaky, relaxed smile breaks upon the tremulous ocean of her face.
You sweep the room like a fairy in a ghostly ballet. You rest your hands on stomachs and feel them inflate. You reposition arms and tug on necks, and when you come to the girl in the back, the one with the curly hair, your best student, her arms form an X on her chest and she settles like a corpse.
You advance anyway.
“Focus on your breathing,” you say, floating closer.
“It’s fine,” she whispers. “I’m fine.” She doesn’t open her eyes. “It’s just corpse pose,” she says.
When you lower your hands onto her collarbone, she flinches. Your hands are cold.
“Breathe in through the nose.”
When the curly-haired girl exhales, you press into her chest. This stretches her spine and forces her breath into a deeper chakra.
“Focus on your breathing,” you say again. Your words come out as a challenge. “It’s harder than you think to play dead.”
Her next inhalation comes all the way from her crown shakra, the highest one, the apex. Most gentle yoga students are only beginning to learn how the patterns of their breaths can unlock the causeways of their minds, but this is not the breath of a beginner. A beginner breathes in for four, holds for four, exhales for six. But the curly-haired girl breathes in and continues her breathing without respite. You push down harder on her chest, and she inhales the wrinkles from the loose skin of your face, she breathes the bobby pins out of your hair, and your dry, blonde locks fall loose around your head. And now your hair is breathing in, absorbing the moisture from the room, cascading in waves like it did in your high school portrait, at your junior prom, when you were eight years old, and your mother would kiss you right on the hairline before she tucked you in and called you the most beautiful girl she’d ever seen.
You push harder. The past crowds around you, rushes toward you, reaches out to touch you. You are Ponce de Leon, and you have discovered the Fountain of Youth, and everyone you know reaches out to scratch your armor, but you keep pushing and pushing because there’s not enough to share. There’s not enough to go around.
The curly-haired girl stops inhaling and holds her breath. Lilly. You remember now—all the loops of the pen. You wonder how long she might go without breathing. The rest of your students wiggle their fingers and their toes, but Lilly keeps her eyes closed and her hands crossed flat against her chest, your best, and stillest student.
You lie down next to her. You touch her lips and her nose and her earlobes with your tiny, smooth hands.
The students, following your lead, caress each other about the face and neck, and coo happily, but the curly haired girl doesn’t move—just exhales. And she breathes out a wind that radiates around the room and snuffs out the circle of essential lavender candles and starts the bamboo tube chime going. And she continues to exhale, and her belly shrinks and flattens, and her black, curly hair trembles wildly. Then, a spider—no—the entire clutter of spiders leaps from her head and simultaneously falls about you, spirals around you, floating ever downward with their webs streaming behind in a beautiful and terrible crystalline helix. Hundreds of them with more legs than you could ever count, and each of them puncturing your skin like ten thousand tiny pinpricks, releasing all the toxins inside from inside your pores. The spiders tickle your legs and your underarms and that tender space beneath your ribs. They dance across your eyelids. One goes in your mouth. They prod and spin and weave until you are swaddled in their silk.
As you lie on your back, frozen in the perfect cocoon of your youth, the spiders leave you. They resume their place atop the curly-haired girl’s head. She sits up, Lilly, and rolls her yoga mat slowly, as though it were paper thin, thinner, as if the thing might fall apart with one false caress from her slender fingers.
“Namaste,” she says, and bows.
One by one, the young people leave, until you are left in the studio, alone, in the dark.
Focus on your breathing.
Breathe in for four.