THAT YOGA STUFF IS GOOD
by Janna Leyde
It was around the time of my umpteenth draft of He Never Liked Cake, the book about my dad and our relationship with his brain injury, when I was able to give yoga credit where credit was due. In fact, I had a bit of an epiphany. It was my yoga practice—which had thankfully snuck off my mat and into the rest of my life when I didn’t have time to pay attention—that had been helping me cope, understand, accept, and move forward with years of fears and feelings. It was my yoga practice that had been helping me harness the passion and the discipline that I needed to get this story on paper.
So if yoga could help me that much, didn’t it deserve its place in my narrative?
Yes, I would put it right there—in words on the page—the first time I did yoga with my dad. There would not be enough chapters or time left (not in this book, anyway) to do something grand, but I simply had to share how much I was beginning to think-hope-believe-meditate-on yoga becoming my dad’s practice, too—his way to cope, understand, accept and move forward.
And if you’re following this lovely little blog, then you know the yoga story beyond the book ends well.
And here’s where it started, an excerpt from Chapter 20:
“Are you ready for this?” I asked, my voice sounding too much like my mother’s.
I pulled the plastic wrap off my dad’s new yoga mat. He sat down on the steps, waiting as I pondered how it would be most feasible to do yoga in my parents’ hallway. He said nothing, just sat and watched me choose a spot for the mat and stomp it flat, fighting the cheap rubber from furling into itself. I turned it over and it bubbled up, convex. But at least it no longer looked like fat little blue logs constantly rolling toward each other.
“There?” he asked, pointing at the mat, which was framed by the fish tank, the front door, the steps and an antique lamp.
He stood up, the hardwood floor creaking under his 205 pounds.
“Okay, come to the top of your mat.”
My voice was now disturbingly yoga-teachery. I watched his feet as he took tiny steps toward his mat. He didn’t wear bare feet well, not like he used to. His feet were mangled, stiff, and he moved them as if they were two bricks attached to the bottom of his legs rather than feet. They were swollen, his toes like sausage links, and I could tell how little he clipped his toenails. This, I’m sure, was one of things that bothered my mother.
He stood on his mat, facing the fish.
“Not like that.” I put my hands on his shoulders and turned him. “Like this. Face front, the steps. This is the top of your mat.”
I tapped the top of the mat with my toes, perfectly manicured with red polish.
“Okay,” he said.
“Now, bring you hands like this—prayer position.” I brought my hands together in front of my chest, the flesh of my palms, fingers and wrists perfectly flush. “Like this, in front of your heart.”
He sounded so obedient, but he looked like the Tower of Pisa, tilted, crumbling, old.
His hands met mismatched in front of his chest. Fingers like tangled brambles, all bent and twisted, growing from knotted and knobby knuckles. He could only straighten a few fingers on the right hand, and looking at his left hand, I was reminded of the many surgeries he’d had to keep it functioning following various unfortunate incidents with mowers, band saws and a nerve disorder he’d developed, post-accident.
His left foot jutted out to one side. His hip sunk down on the right. He had no butt, but the straighter he tried to stand the bigger his belly grew. His thin arms, creased at the elbows, resting on the fat of his belly, looked like raw chicken wings. I couldn’t find his shoulders. I palmed the flesh around where the collarbone and scapula met and concluded that the muscle was gone, nothing left to hold them up, no carriage. Wrinkles under his chin piled in folds. He was holding his head back, too far back, as if that would help him with his posture somehow. It was something rigid, something strong that he could do.
He looked sad.
“Dad, okay. This is called Ta-da-san-a.”
He fought to say the word right.
“Yes! It means Mountain Pose. And this pose will be part of all the others you’ll learn.”
“Okay.” He stood rigid, patient, waiting for me to start. “Ta … dasana.”
I worked from his feet to the crown of his head, demonstrating the way each body part should face and feel. Slowly, deliberately. I moved each stiff appendage and shifted his torso. His body resisted. It was like trying to work with old, hardened clay.
Then I taught him how to breathe, the right way, telling him to blow on his hand like he was fogging up a window. He did so perfectly. It struck me. Strange: almost no one ever got the ujaji breath on the first (or fifth) time.
“Dad, that’s great!” My voice reeked of condescension. I had to temper my enthusiasm or I would lose him. “I mean, it’s perfect. You’re doing it right. Breathe like that through everything we do.”
As we talked about weight and balance, tension and muscles, I thought about the last time I had felt the movement in my father’s body. Years, at least. A decade? My eyes welled up. I felt ashamed of the daughter I’d become. He, even somewhere deep below his fucked-up brain, was an extremely loving and affectionate person. He had a soul. And he was a really good hugger. He filled my childhood with hugs. The hugs didn’t happen anymore, and that was my fault. He’d still rub my shoulders—25 seconds of a deep attack on my muscles from his warped hands. But it felt funny to hug him. I always half-assed it, wrapping one arm around his shoulder kissing him on the cheek, like I was saying good-bye to someone on a New York City sidewalk. I felt cheap every time.
I was thankful for the yoga—a new kind of affection I could share with him—it was something good for us both. I chose the most elementary asanas to teach him, and he tried each one with me. He did them all exactly as I asked, and he let me help him and move him when he didn’t understand. He even asked questions. Two full hours, taxing on both his body and his mind. Taxing on mine, too.
“What did you think?” I asked as I peeled his sticky mat from the floor.
He pointed at the floor to where chunks of cheap PVC mat material had stuck to the wood. It looked like patches of foamy blue moss had sprouted up.
“Shit!” I said, kneeling and plucking at the bits.
“The yoga?” he asked, kneeling next to me, pulling out his pocketknife.
“Yeah, what did you think?”
“It’s good,” he said, scraping at the floor. “It’s very interesting.”
“Interesting?” I hated that particular nondescript adjective. “Just interesting?”
“Yes, I like it.”
Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. I watched him scrape at the mat pieces, leaving little pocketknife scars in the floor’s waxy finish.
“And it has been around for thousands of years and people are still doing it. I think that is interesting.”
I suppose that was interesting.
“But, Dad, how do you feel?”
“Oh, I feel good.” He was brushing the blue bits into a neat pile. “Yes, I feel like I worked all my muscles and I stretched.”
“Good! That’s great!” That damn over-enthusiasm again. “I mean, that is exactly how you should feel.”
“Will you write it all down for me? All the poses?”
“Yes, and I’ll send it to Mom and she can print it out for you.”
He picked up the fuzzy blue pile, crawled on one hand and two legs to the steps and hoisted himself up to stand. Then he walked over and threw the pile in the trash can. I hoped the yoga would make simple things like this easier. I felt bad. I hadn’t even helped—just stood there yapping at him while he cleaned up our mess. Just stood there watching him crawl around the floor, limply holding a pocked yoga mat.
“That will be nice. I like it. I can show it to Abbey.”
I handed him the rolled mat.
“I’ll keep this behind the TV?”
He took it, and sat down on the steps to put his socks and shoes back on. I went into the kitchen to make us smoothies. I felt good. Not stretched-out-and-moved-around good, not good like he did. I just felt good. I felt good about us.
We had yoga. Something we could share, like waterskiing. Something that was trying, cumbersome, unfamiliar, and, in time, utterly satisfying—except yoga was something I was teaching him.
Janna Leyde is a yogi and writer living in Brooklyn. When she’s not on her mat or at the front of the room teaching, she is working on publishing her first novel, He Never Liked Cake, a coming of age memoir that tells the story of growing up with her father’s traumatic brain injury. Oscillations: A Yogic Exploration of the Brain offers her perspective on the practice through the lens of the complex human brain.