Published on July 27th, 2016 | by Rachel Penn Hannah0
WHEN YOU FIND ANGER ON THE YOGA MAT: Rachel Penn Hannah on Parenting a Special Needs Teen and Never Finding the Elusive Calm
Going to yoga on the first Sunday morning of January, I had tensed at the thought of all the New Year’s Resolution people crowding the class. I decided to get there ahead of them, to arrive early, 7:30am for the 8 o’clock class, in order to claim the perfect spot, in front of the one and only pole, limiting the feeling that the person behind me would be looking at my butt when in downward dog, and next to the wall, so I wouldn’t be hemmed in on all sides by people, leaving one side open. When I walked in, only the teacher had arrived. Perfect.
“Hey Julie,” I said to my favorite yoga instructor, the one I get out of bed for when it is still dark on a Sunday morning.
“How are you?” she asked as she turned on the heat in the wide open, wood floored studio. I rolled out my mat.
“Good. Wore my pj’s to yoga today,” I laughed and we exchanged brief pleasantries about the weather, how we both realized we needed to wear something over our yoga pants to travel to class on these cold mornings. I sat down to read in the quiet room as it slowly filled up with light and my classmates and a low level of noise. At 7:55, as usual, I went to the bathroom and put my book in my locker.
When I came back, she had appeared.
She was a tall, fit yogini who wore hand supports, just in case we did a handstand, which we wouldn’t be doing because this was not a high-level class. This was intermediate, this was for the moderately in-shape person who comes to strengthen their body and, more importantly, to relax their mind. Her mat was quite close to mine, as she had squeezed in, but with a respectful awareness of each other, it would be fine, I told myself.
We’d opened with sun salutations. Arms go up and stretch out to the sides like an arch above your head. I moved my mat back a little bit before we started, as much as I could, so we would be staggered. She had room to move hers forward but didn’t. Soon her long left arm was repeatedly opening up over my mat, hitting my right hand, over and over and over again. Her fingers grazed mine with no modifications whatsoever. I tried to adjust myself, but realized my efforts were resulting in my being more confined in space, while she made no efforts to be contained.
In my yoga experience, whenever someone accidentally touches you or touches your mat, the person quickly says “sorry” and pulls back the offending limb. Nothing even close to this happened. She said nothing. There was no indication that she was even aware of what she was doing, but also no possibility that she wasn’t. Then I heard someone moaning softly, as if their yoga experience was becoming orgasmic, and, annoyed, I located the sound to the person on the other side of Ms. Long Limbs. Relax, I willed myself. Pay attention to what is happening on your own mat. Maybe this is a lesson in generosity, an opportunity to practice tolerance, I thought. This was one of those times when I feel “fine” one minute and the next undoubtably not fine. One of those times, I realized, when something small and insignificant happens but my reaction is huge. Calm down Rachel. These were my thoughts, but my body said otherwise. “Stop your moaning!” I wanted to shout. I kept my voice in my head, but I cringed at the anger invading my body, smoldering in my gut.
I started to imagine that Long Limbs might apologize to me at the end of class. What would I say? Perhaps I would smile and say “Yeah. That’s never happened to me before.” Too passive aggressive, I thought. “That was a new experience,” I could say hoping she got the hint that her behavior was rude. No. Perhaps I would simply say “Thank you.” That would be strong, direct, and honest. I would be grateful for an apology. Deep down, however, I could sense that she was totally unaware of me and her impact on me, so an apology would not be coming my way. The fire moved to my throat. Loving kindness, I reminded myself and tried to focus on my breath.
Then from warrior position we were asked to put our hands in prayer, and twist to the right, hooking our left elbow on the outside of our right thigh. Suddenly I was looking directly at Long Limbs, her back twisted so that three folds of skin could be seen bunching up under her tight yoga shirt. Without warning I imagined reaching my right hand over and pinching one of the folds of her flesh. I could almost feel the sensation of squeezing. Hard. I was shaken out of my fantasy by the teachers voice instructing those who wanted to do so to reach their top arm towards the ceiling. What kind of monster am I becoming? The last thing I ever want to do at yoga is touch someone, a challenge for someone with OCD tendencies, but to think of actually hurting someone was outrageous.
Suddenly, I thought of my daughter who can be naively unaware of her own body’s place in space. How often have I seen my daughter be misunderstood as rude when she was simply unaware or anxious? And here I was judging and having aggressive thoughts toward the young woman next to me. I contemplated getting up and leaving right at that moment. This was not me, nor did it jive with why I go to yoga in the first place. I go to yoga because it is the one place I have for myself, the one place I can go to calm my nervous system, to feel at peace. I go with an open heart. By this point felt I didn’t even deserve to be there, but I decided to stick it out, though, because leaving seemed too disruptive.
The next positions took place on our backs and I found my thoughts move backward to the day before at the mall when my husband and I had gotten in a fight. We don’t argue very often, but I should have known it was coming. From me. When I asked him not to bring an open cup of coffee in my bumpy car because he always spills and then says, “It’s just coffee,” as he wipes at it with his bare hand. He laughed and said he would, in fact, bring it in my car anyway. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. After I told him it was a big deal to me, he then suggested he would use my travel mug. I said “No. It’s mine. No one can use it. Everyone else in this family loses their coffee mugs, but I don’t and can’t call many things my own.” Then I heard myself saying, “Get your own goddamn travel mug,” and was immediately horrified. There was no filter. I don’t talk to my husband like that and our daughter’s friend was over in the next room and our daughter asked “Is everything okay?” about fifteen minutes later. I had lied and said “Yeah. Fine,” and then had to walk around the mall with a lead ball in my stomach, which lay the groundwork for the argument.
After my husband had kindly finished his coffee in the house, probably wondering who the hell he married 25 years ago, we had taken our daughter and her new friend to the mall. Sounds really normal for two 15 year olds, but it was not for my daughter who has not had a friend outside of school in years, not for two girls who are both on the autism spectrum, who both also happen to have mood disorders. They both have less experience navigating the social world than most teens their age. They both get overwhelmed with too much stimulation. But they wanted to go to the big, crowded mall to walk around for a couple of hours by themselves. My husband and I aren’t used to normal with our youngest child. Things have been atypical for her since her first breath, which was delayed as she was born blue and needed oxygen. So when our girl said she and her friend want to go to the mall like any typical teenager, my husband and I agreed cautiously, knowing she would need a little extra support.
For these reasons, we also stayed at the mall, walking around together while the girls tried some independence. We have come to the point that we try to look at anything we get to do alone as a date even if it’s going to the pharmacy together to get a prescription. Any opportunity to spend some time together as a couple. The argument came quick. After sharing a soft pretzel. We argued in the middle of a cell phone store, which is a ridiculous place to argue—“you aren’t listening” replacing “can you hear me now?” My husband is analytical in purchases; I am cost-conscious but also impulsive when I know I’ve saved for a purchase and a sales person approaches me at the right time. The timing was off, though, for us together. The details of the argument are unimportant, other than that our two styles clashed in that small, white and red, sterile Verizon store.
By the time we left the phone store, without a phone, I was mad. Seething mad. My husband, frustrated, said “Just go back, buy the phone then,” and I replied, “No. This has taken all the joy out of it. I don’t want to.” Just like a four year old with a pouty face. We started snaking through the aisles of Macy’s Department Store clothing, still arguing, not seeing anything, no longer able to take anything in, no longer able to look. Finally, we decided to sit down on a bench near to where we had designated to meet the girls in a half hour. As we calmed down, I tried to reach out a bit by showing my husband some photos our other daughter, at college, had just texted me. Fun photos of her and her roommate and a good friend who was visiting from home.
“I’ll text the girls to see how they are doing,” I then said.
“How much longer do we have to endure this?” my husband said with a small smile.
“You mean, how much longer do you have to endure this?” I said, smiling back.
“No. I meant both of us,” and our eyes met for a moment of quiet understanding. Then I saw a text back from the girls that said “We are ready to go. Now.” Thirty minutes early. They were waiting for us outside.
We jogged to the door and found our daughter sitting on a bench with her friend. She was breathing deeply with her hand to her chest. She explained that in the small, busy store that caters to teens, she had lost her wallet which contained all of her Christmas money, which she realized when it was time to pay, and that then she had dropped her things on the floor as she looked through her purse, that she then gave all of her stuff, the t-shirts and purse and jacket in one big heap, to her friend to hold while she zig-zagged through the crowded store retracing her steps looking for the wallet with no success and then after practically having a panic attack, she said, came back to her friend, looked one more time in her purse and there it was, the wallet snug in the inside pocket. But boy, was she stressed and worn out. They both were. So we drove home with both of them commenting on how much they definitely do not like malls.
From this memory, my awareness came back to yoga, and I realized we were done with the work of class and laying on our own yoga mats to prepare for Savasana. “If you need to leave you can,” my teacher said but I did not want to leave now. This is the good stuff. Corpse position. A death. The death of the practice and, I hoped, the birth of something new. My closed eyes were wet, tears of anger I felt toward my yoga neighbor layering on top of my frustration with my husband which covered my anger and sadness at my daughter’s situation. Not my daughter. But at her situation. By the end of this weekend we faced making a big decision, once again, about what to do about her schooling. To say that school has been an awful battle since she was in kindergarten every single year, would be a significant understatement. The difficulty has escalated over the past couple of years because she is getting older, more is expected of her, and because of anxiety doing school seems less and less possible. In ninth grade she started in the public high school with the help of a classroom that supports those who struggle with emotional issues. She was supposed to be in that class 1-2 periods a day, mainstreamed the rest. By the time we took her out three months in, she was either refusing to go to school altogether or, if she did go, staying in the special class all day, in a state of intense anxiety, unable to do any school work. We put her in a teeny tiny private school (40 kids) and prayed a lot. Things were a lot better in that she actually went to school for the rest of the year. Homework still did not happen, she said she didn’t “like” school but she went anyway which was huge. This year she is in 10th grade and things have gotten worse again. She often refuses to go to school, when she does go she frequently leaves her small classes because she becomes overcome with anxiety, and she still does no homework. We are at a crossroads. The school will accept her back this semester if she starts doing homework or they will accept her back for electives only two days a week or she can go back to the public school system or we can start to consider a therapeutic boarding school. The latter I simply do not think I am capable of doing.
As I lay on my mat deep in thought, I am aware of how helpless I feel, how ineffective I feel mothering our youngest child, how sad I am. I hear the voice of our teacher bringing us out of Savasana, inviting us to chant the most beautiful mantra I have heard. The words are Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu. It means may all beings everywhere be happy and free. I am not one to chant. I never ommm. Too inhibited. But I do sing this chant with the class. Every single time. And I feel it deep in my chest.
Today as I sing the chant I send warmth toward my yoga neighbor, the one with the long limbs, relieved to feel the human connection between us. The anger, melted away. I feel the forgiveness toward her that I wish I could feel for myself.