There is so much more involved in wanting core work when someone dares to speak up in a yoga class to meekly say, “Please, can we have more core?”
Yoga teachers sometimes roll their eyes – albeit silently and hidden in a reverent bow of namaste. I’ve been that teacher, bowing reverently in my Namaste, hiding the thought, “Come on! Yoga isn’t about core and anyway, every yoga pose works core!”
And I’ve been that student – just something grabbed hold of me and it wasn’t that my favorite jeans had started fitting awkwardly around my thighs, pulling the backside and making the button dig into my belly when I sit. Something grabbed hold and I spoke it, I asked for more core at the beginning of class, risking sneers, glares, and blaming from the students around me, disdain and annoyance from the teacher – albeit silently and hidden in a reverent bow of Namaste.
It’s not about six pack abs, though. I knew it would never happen in my twenties, and after twins, a hysterectomy, and close to ten other abdominal surgeries, Hollywood style six pack abs won’t ever happen for me. Core is a feeling of connection. Core is the independence a woman feels when she stands to dance on her own, knowing no one may join her, that all eyes will judge her, but that when it is time to dance, there is no arguing.
I’ve been thinking about the word core as I design classes around the idea of core strength, core stability. I think of P.E. and timed tests of sit-ups in grade school. I remember holding my best friend’s feet for the dreaded minute to help count how many she could do. I remember her hard, angry breath, and the intense strength of her jerking legs as she got into the rhythm and I knew she would beat my number. Her sheer intensity told me, her breath, the way she looked at me. I think of the girls who could wear cut off shirts to show off their abs in their tight white jeans in junior high and high school. I think of the girls who seemingly never once got stuck with some fluff hanging around that area.
I think how after my surgery on my pituitary gland I shot up about three or four sizes. I bought a long black skirt, thinking it would hide me back then. And it did – because in it, I felt cold and alone and that feeling inside shielded me from anyone’s gaze. Then I went back down below my average three or four sizes. I think of a long black form fitted, mermaid swish dress I got to wear once that made me feel beautiful – and how it hangs in my closet still, taunting and haunting and jeering at me. I threw out the black skirt without even saying thank you.
Core is more than the numbers on that dress, that skirt.
I began to feel my core first as a swimmer – one season when I finally figured out that if I pulled deep and hard enough through the water, I could ride over a wave by pulling in my core muscles. And what does anyone mean by core? It’s really anywhere between the shoulders and hips, front or back. That’s a wide range and really, let’s be serious. When someone says core, we only think of abs. But I argue it is so much deeper than that.
Even to speak the word core must invoke something deeper, something richer, something maybe we are missing. When we speak of core, we can think of so gyms or kitchens, diets and regimes. But what if, like a true yogi, we accept our core as it is? We accept the body we are in here in this moment and consider what the core might be from a full life perspective, from a perspective filled with the realness of life, the realness of bodies, and the beautiful magic of the stories that make our lives full, round, and magnanimous.
When we talk about core, we invoke all kinds of matters. There’s an edginess there, a finding of something, a cliff that must be explored and eventually leaned over.
We had a drill when I was swimming in college to teach the lungs to move past their screaming edge. Sixteen widths of the eight-lane pool on a thirty second interval, swimming entirely underwater with a streamlined dolphin or flutter kick. If you missed one width, you had to start over until you could complete sixteen in a row. The first time, I started strong with dolphin kick, the wise choice. Dolphin kick comes from the core, if you can manage it, and it will save you in a challenge like this. I started faltering. My somewhat core-induced dolphin started wavering into flutter kicks without the power I needed. The first time, I never made it. The boredom of the rest of the team standing around watching, blaming, and waiting for me to finish while goggles and suits dripped and practice time ate itself away wore on me, steadily defeating me. I had to quit.
It was an uneasy feeling for me, as I had never been challenged in such a way that failure was truly an option. (Of course, now in my forties, I can easily and almost proudly, list failure after failure as life must be filled with them in order to be well-lived.) In fact, no matter when we did that drill, I always failed. My chest got tight, my stomach flipped in panic, I could not breathe, and when I did, I could only fill the smallest top portion of my lungs. Each time I did worse than the time before, knowing the eyes that would be judging me. Each time my panic deepened when I saw “widths” scribbled in black marker on the practice white board, looking around pretending to adjust my goggles, silently hoping someone worse than me might be at practice that day.
At that age I did not understand my core. I did not understand my own being. How could I breathe deeply enough to calm the panic if I had no idea that my very own breath, taken in deeply enough could calm and bring warmth and light to the very center of my fear. I don’t think I actually feared drowning – I had almost drowned once on the river and my father saved me, allowing me also to hear swear words for the first time. I felt that the drills could drown me, but since I knew I wouldn’t actually drown, I got myself stuck in a quagmire of the levels of possible drowning and when to cheat for breath. My head took over. But still I felt everyone around me succeeding. I feared them. I feared the water allowing them to move. I feared they knew something that led them into a club whose door I might not ever be able to see.
In Ustrasana, camel pose, I can feel the same panic. I start in kneeling position. I reach over easily enough, grab the tops of my heels gracefully even. And then. My heart starts racing. I swallow (a cheat from swimming to trick the body that it has just breathed.) I start thinking quietly, “Please, let this be short. Please, let’s move to the next pose.” I hold my breath.
Then I start thinking angrily, “Seriously, why does this have to be the “peak” pose? This is what we were working toward? This is going to be it? This is all we’ve got? This stupid pose?” I horde my breath.
Then I blame the teacher, “You knew I hated this pose. You smiled when I came in knowing you were going to do this to me. Why do you hate me so much? Why this pose today? What is wrong with you?”
Finally, I gasp. And with loud all capped, all dark bold words I scream in my head: I AM GOING TO DIE. I CANNOT BREATHE. I WILL DIE. DIE! I AM PANICING AND I AM GOING TO DIE!!! GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT OF THIS POSE!
And I collapse quickly and roughly, throwing my body in a half-arced awkwardly flung “FWUNK” onto the floor, pretending the whole way that I needed some extra child’s pose for meditation. I breathe fast and furiously.
With my face in my mat, time and time again, my cheeks taking on the grooves of the mat itself, the breath finally slowing, I have found a type of answer. When I flop my face into the mat, I fleetingly believe that if I look up, I will see every other person in class, staring at me with expressions that clearly read, “You freak. You fool. You failure. What is wrong with you?”
Each time, though, when I finally get the nerve to look up, yearning for a breath of new air, not one person has stopped their practice to ogle my failure. And I breathe. I just breathe. No one puts a hand on a hip to snark, no one makes a joke to cut my attempt into foolery, no one looks down from a perfected ustrasana to show me how I have failed. And I breathe. I just breathe. Deep into my belly, deep into myself, I breathe. If anyone catches my eye, a smile is given to me. A small smile. And then we all move on. My stomach relaxes completely, no swimsuit modelling here. And I breathe. I feel the calm in the room. I feel the calm in my body. I remember for a moment that this pose is simply a pose, that it will not last forever, that maybe if I breathe, that maybe if I find something in it of joy, that maybe I will stay in the pose a bit longer.
When I reach again into camel, I breathe. I don’t make a checklist of all the things I’ve been able to do in my life previous to this moment to prove I should be able to do this. I breathe. I don’t think, I hope this doesn’t last long, counting the seconds, judging how long a person can stay in a pose. I breathe. I don’t silently curse the instructor for her awesome form or super cute yoga pants. I listen to my breath. I don’t give myself an army cadenced pep talk of how I will not fail. I let my breath reach my belly, filling it, forming it into the rounded bowl I have cursed in dressing room mirrors. I let my breath noisily ride over my throat, making itself known in the silence.
And when I am ready, I let my belly squeeze into the breath, allowing recognition of my hips, my waist, my ribs and every layer I have earned and marked as rings in the trunk of a towering magnificent tree, all the way to that small shining iridescent spark that is me, that tells me, “Do it. You can. Do it.” And I press my heart through, reaching back further even, and in that split second, the word “core” means nothing because it is all of me, the word “breath” means nothing because it is me. I hang in a moment of freedom – drifting as if underwater and perfectly calm, experiencing all that my body is capable of in one single lighted moment of life. I inhale again to sip in one more timeless second of perfectly existing in my own body, bounding out of the confines of my mind, and experiencing simply what is called living. And as I exhale, I release to the mat, quietly smiling to myself this time. Because reverberating through my core with the beat of my heart is this:
I can do it.