Two Cats Led Me to Down Dog

I hated yoga. For quite a while, it felt like an exercise in making myself feel worse than I already did. Classes took place at a dance studio, which meant there were mirrors on the walls, which meant I could see the yogi bodies next to me, in front of me, behind me; and all of them were flexing more easily than I could. When we sat on the floor for forward bends, their foreheads touched their knees. When we V-ed our legs for side stretches, their ears were close enough to the floor to hear whatever the hardwood was whispering.

Effortless headstands. L-o-n-g headstands. Equally long one-leg balances.

Perfect pedicures.

Why was I even there? Week after week, why did I return?

What led me to yoga was a fluke asthma attack that sent me to the E.R., where a doctor mentioned that yoga might help with my breathing – and with the stress that might have been one of the triggers of the attack. My father had suffered severe asthma, but it had never been a problem for me before, and (knock wood!) has only been a mild concern since. But thanks to that one attack, which happened during a weekend visit at a friend’s house – a cozy, antique-filled Craftsman inhabited by two long-hair felines – I learned I had developed allergies to cats and to feather pillows. I was in my mid-40s; apparently my body was changing.

A few years earlier, my whole life had changed when I adopted a four-month-old baby boy, who quickly became the center of my universe. At the time of that weekend visit, he was three. I loved carrying him, running after him, swimming with him, riding him on my bike; but it would be difficult to continue all that activity if I was struggling to catch my breath. As a single mom, I got a lot of help from my own mother who lived near us. She was an exceptionally attentive and loving grandmother, but she was also a cardiac patient whose need for my support increased year by year.

In short, I had to get a handle on this breathing situation. People depended on me. When the doctor suggested yoga, I said “Okay.”

At first, going to yoga really was like taking medicine, but I committed to (forced myself into) making it a weekly thing. My datebook told me when to go; so, obediently I went.

I liked the teacher a lot and it was a friendly group (though their excellence in the mirrors was still daunting). Then one day we all arrived for class, but the studio doors were locked. I can’t remember why. My house was nearby; my living room wasn’t huge, but if we pushed aside all the toys, we’d have plenty of space.

“Come on.” I said, “Let’s go to my house.”

That’s the day when yoga changed for me. I was in my own home with no distracting wall mirrors, so I wasn’t prompted to make comparisons. Together we rolled out our mats and lay down. Soon I felt comfortable enough to close my eyes. I was aware of being surrounded by others, of being part of a group. Together we created an invisible net of safety, and within it, I could let everyone else disappear. All the action was taking place inside of me, and it was inhale and then exhale.

The following week, back in the studio, I didn’t look at the mirrors, which meant I wasn’t looking at anyone, not even myself. To figure out what to do next, I relied on nothing but my breathing. By now, I recognized the names of the poses, more or less, and though my down dog was, for sure, not the deepest in the room, it didn’t matter. What I did notice was that my down dog felt a little deeper than it had the week before. My balance was a bit better on my right side than on my left. This was useful information being delivered from my body to me. I felt the studio walls disappear. I was floating on nothing but my mat, which for that hour, was my terra firma. And that hour? It was mine.

Claimed it!

Through the years since then – as my son’s childhood gave way to his high school years, during which he learned to drive, after which he went off to college – I unapologetically claimed my yoga time at least once weekly. As my mother’s health declined and then after she died, I turned to yoga even more frequently for consolation. I still go to class regularly.

Most mornings I do a five-minute progression of stretches, nothing more challenging than a child’s pose, but it makes my spine so happy. At bedtime, I sit in the corner of my bedroom for a five-minute meditation. Throughout the day, at random times – while my coffee brews, as I wait for the photocopy machine to free up at work or stand in line for self-checkout at Target – I simply close my eyes and inhale. It was utterly unexpected when my body developed those new allergies. Even more surprising has been the way yoga has moved into my bones and muscles, my heart and lungs. Sometimes, mid-pose, I remember those cats. I thank them for where they led me.


You can pre-order Anna’s new book “After Italy: A Family Memoir of Arranged Marriage” at Barnes & Noble.

anna monardo
Anna Monardo grew up in Pittsburgh with strong ties to her Calabrian family. Her memoir, "After Italy: A Family Memoir of Arranged Marriage," is the story of her family’s immigration to the U.S., facilitated by her parents’ and grandparents’ arranged marriages. She is also the author of two novels: "The Courtyard of Dreams" and "Falling In Love with Natassia." Anna teaches in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Learn more about Anna at her website.

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