Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack. We give it orders which make no sense. —Henry Miller
Outside winter rages. The wind is a guttural animal against this old upstate building. I swear I feel the sway of this place, feel the cold invading the fissures of the structure. I know after this session I will have to put on my heavy boots and double-thick coat and enter the storm. I know I will have to scrape and rescrape the snow and ice and slush off my car. And I know that every warm muscle I have worked hard to stretch will shrink and tighten as soon as I step outside. Yet, right now I and 375-pound Body occupy this space that is free of judgment, free of ridicule, free of self-loathing.
Peace pervades this yoga studio in Oswego, New York. Incense permeates the space, candles flicker on windowsill ledges, and Buddha presides at the front of the rectangular room. Played over speakers is the sound of bells, like the ones that tinkle at temples in Thailand.
Today, I am learning to walk.
We go from one end of the studio to the other, twelve of us in varying speeds and strides. Our instructor, Howard, tells us to feel the floor. “You are connected,” he says.
I usually bristle at anything touchy-feely. Such sayings strike me as melodramatic and unnecessarily deep, like bad fortune- cookie slogans. But I let Howard’s words sink in because I like Howard. I like his patience with me and Body, like his words of encouragement when I do positions that Body is unaccustomed to. Plus, Howard’s gray beard is glorious.
I am painfully aware of Body, and when that happens I turn on myself. I say, fat. I say, ugly. I say, stupid.
I fixate on the word “connected.” I try to merge my mind and Body. I say, step. I say, walk. I say, gentle. The opposite happens. My feet slap the floor, startling my glassy-eyed neighbor, who flinches at the sound. The floor creaks and cracks. I am painfully aware of how clumsy Body is, and when that happens I turn on myself. I say, fat. I say, ugly. I say, stupid.
“Walking is difficult,” says Howard. “We never think about it.”
I take another step. Lift the foot. Place pad of foot on floor. Follow with heel. Shift weight forward. Again.
“This is how we are meant to walk,” Howard says. “No shoes, no socks. Feel it. Skin against earth. Let that sensation spread from the bottom of your body to the top.”
I lose my balance. I stagger. I sigh.
“It’s okay, Ira,” Howard says. He moves behind me, watching my steps.
I’m conscious of my loud walking, of my audible breaths, thick and hot. The others are like stealthy ninjas, gliding over the surface of the floor, absent of thought, just doing.
“What are you thinking?” Howard says.
I don’t tell him the truth. I don’t tell him how much I hate myself, how much I hate Body. I don’t tell him how much I hate that I can’t walk correctly.
“I’m thinking heel then toe,” I say.
Howard doesn’t buy it. He tilts his head and puts a hand to his bearded chin. It is the look Santa might give when he’s deciphering whether you’ve been naughty or nice. “It seems you are disconnecting. Am I right?”
I shrug, but he is. Body and I are not one, have never been one. I have disconnected from Body, allowed him to do what he wants, when he wants. I have lost control, and I started yoga to get it back. To connect to Body. But this exercise of walking— fucking walking—has depleted hope that this will ever happen. “You can do it,” Howard says. “Give it time.”
Being large and diabetic, time is something I may have little of.
Body as language: You are a fat run-on sentence that feeds like high schoolers on riblet day— no—hyenas at the feast—no—the famished, and you are never sated never happy because you have long since forgotten what happiness feels like— real happiness—not the quick illusion of it you experience every time you sit and eat because that happiness is temporary and what follows is a loathing that makes you want to pluck the hairs off your legs one at a time—no—scream until your throat bleeds—no—tear hunks of your meaty flesh and fling them off because when you eat you have forgotten the sensation of satisfaction, the meaning of the words enough or plenty or sufficient or full, because full suggests there is no more space no more room to justify one more bite of something that will cut your life by another year. The surprising thing is you find more room, because there is always more to choke a heart to choke the veins to choke the arteries.
Still, you can’t help but feel there are places in you that are empty and starving and you can’t seem to feed them the right food. You can’t seem to figure out this puzzle of hunger and you feel this endeavor is pointless, like feeding goldfish pieces of goldfish—no—like a food critic at McDonald’s— no—like a milkshake without the shake or the milk, and these moments have become the saddest recognition of your life because it means you are powerless against what hurts you most. Which means you are powerless against your own self, which means you can’t stop what is sure to happen—who can?
The darkness is a comfort. In the light, Body is front and center. In the dark, he disappears. He ceases to matter.
At the yoga studio, my favorite time is the darkness at the end. Howard turns off the lights and we get into relaxed positions—lying supine, legs raised on a chair—and concentrate on breathing. His voice leads us into our relaxed states. “Close your eyes,” Howard says, “and release all your worries.” The darkness is a comfort. In the light, Body is front and center. In the dark, he disappears. He ceases to matter.
“Relax your shoulders, your neck, your back,” Howard says. “Chase away that tension with your breath.”
I spend most of my day trying to disappear, trying to squash Body. I have, in many ways, created a perpetual darkness in my life. Many fat people do this. To hide ourselves, we exaggerate another part of our personalities. I put on a wide smile. I nod voraciously. I ask questions. I make people laugh. In this way, I place Persona in front of Body. I make people see someone else entirely. This, perhaps, is why fat people have been stereotyped as jolly or good-natured, why fat people are expected to smile and tell a joke. Yet at the same time, we live in the darkness because we fear what would happen if we let the light in. We fear what we might discover. Worse yet, what others might discover.
“Imagine your stresses as paper,” Howard says. “Crumple them up. Throw them away.”
Darkness hides our flaws—yes—but it hides us, too. It is the reason the boys in my neighborhood loved playing hide- and-seek at night. Darkness provided shadows and extra cover. If you wore black, you could disappear entirely.
“Breathe deeply,” Howard says. “Allow yourself to be only here, in this space.”
If I could, I would have remained hidden in the darkness. I would have stayed in my hiding spot for as long as I could, never answering to my name when called, never acknowledging my existence. I would have gladly stayed in the dark. Weeks, months, years. And maybe I would’ve been forgotten. Maybe I would’ve become someone’s good memory—“Remember that kid Ira? Best hider on the planet.” Or maybe, just maybe, the songs and stories about me would be absent of the word fat, would start first with he loved the world too much, so he decided to vanish.
“Open your eyes,” Howard says.
The lights come on and there I lie, blinded by the sudden change, shocked back into the world, and for a second, just a second, I forget about Body, forget his bulk, until I roll on my side and heave myself up.
Some days I take a shower in the dark. I keep the lights off, pull down the shades over the bathroom window, and close the door. Taking a shower in the dark is not a conscious choice. When the water hits me and I grope for my shampoo, I wonder why I decided on this act of cleaning myself without light. During these moments I realize Body sometimes makes his own decisions, moves on his own accord, and imposes his own will. Experts say our bodies react to a set of neurological, psychological, and psychiatric conditions, and that showering in the dark is a response to one or all of those conditions. Experts also say there is no difference between showering in the light and showering in the dark. But in the dark, I finally understand how well I know Body. My hand, without any visual cue, washes everything with care and precision. I make sure every inch of Body—the dark crevices below the stomach and in between Body’s legs—is covered with soap. In the light, the purpose of showering is to clean. In the dark, the purpose of showering is to explore.
We need to explain who we are.
We want to have good reasons to explain our choices and decisions. But what if we don’t have good reasons? What if we stopped going to yoga because it made us too aware of ourselves, because it spotlighted our every flaw, because when we were asked to bend and contort, we couldn’t? Instead of finding some sort of peace of mind, we found another activity Body had prevented us from enjoying.
So we stop. We decide to let Body take over. “Here you go, Body,” we say. “Take the helm. Do your baddest.” Body has been waiting for this opportunity, and now that he has it, he does nothing. Nothing is the best plan he can think of. Nothing is the fastest route to destruction.
We want to have good reasons to explain our choices and decisions. But what if we don’t have good reasons? What if we stopped going to yoga because it made us too aware of ourselves.
Sometimes Body speaks.
Sometimes he says, “Downward-facing dog. Really?”
Sometimes he says, “Remember that time you took yoga? What a joke.”
So, we spend hours on the couch. We spend hours hating ourselves. We eat and eat and eat. We do this nonstop. We are killing ourselves, but we don’t know it. We hate ourselves, but we don’t say it. We want to die, but we can’t.
Years speed by, and we are looking at the scale at the doctor’s office. It reads 390 pounds. We are tired—so, so tired. This is the line we lean on. “How’re you feeling?” the doctor says. “Tired,” we say. “So, so tired.” Could be the pounds we lug around. Could be the blood sugar we can’t control. Could be the fact that most days are spent in one place.
We know what the doctor will say: lose weight, exercise.
As a joke, we quote Raymond Carver’s short story, “Fat”: “Believe it or not, we have not always eaten this way.” The doctor won’t understand. To him, Body is about cause and effect, about rational decisions. What he doesn’t take into account is that our mind has become irrational. We ask for antidepressants. He looks at us and takes notes. He asks if we are suicidal. We shake our head. He doesn’t believe us. Why should he? Look at us. Look at the fat hanging over the chair. Look at our cheeks, our chins. He signs a prescription pad and then puts a hand on our shoulder. “Try this,” he says. “Cut out a picture of a body you admire—a celebrity, perhaps, an athlete—and paste your face to it. Hang it up so you look at it each day. Believe in the power of the mind.”
We nod. We say this is a great idea. We thank him for his services.
Outside the sun beats on us, and it is then we remember a yoga pose: sun salutation, a series of twelve moves, consisting of lunging and bending and arching. We never got it right, but it didn’t matter. The point was we made Body move. We made him realize he could be a flexible vessel, even when our sweat dripped onto the mat, even when our legs trembled, even when our stomach got in the way.
I’m not saying this was the moment we decided we would try again. I’m not saying we went home and did not eat a mountain of rice. We ate. I’m not saying we decided not to watch TV and opted for a walk instead. We watched. But something curious happened that day. We took the doctor’s advice but modified it. We took the body we envied—actor Brad Pitt’s—and cut out Brad’s head and put it on our body. And now Brad Sukrungruang was doing the sun salutation. And now he was downward dogging. And now he was doing a headstand and realized what gravity does with fat. We laughed. Outside the doctor’s office, in the summer heat, that laughter sounded foreign from our mouth, but familiar, like the word love spoken in a different language.
Body says, “Enough. I’ve got things to say, too.” Body says, “First, never again eat Nacho Cheese Pretzel Combos.” He reminds me of that day when we were in first grade and our mother bought them for the first time—such an ingenious concept, she thought, a tubular pretzel with cheese in the center— and we kept shoving our hands in the bag and popping them into our mouth.
Body says, “Would it hurt to eat something green?”
Body knows that when I look in the mirror, I cringe. When Body looks in the mirror, Body sees a boy who still doesn’t understand limits, who insists on treating Body as if he were expendable. Body knows that I am looking to point a finger. This whole essay seems to be an invective against him. He understands it’s easy to place blame, to put words in Body’s mouth. Body wants to wrap his arm around me, push me into his flesh, two softnesses merging, melding. Body wants to whisper apologies.
Instead, Body says, “I am not to blame. I am only a body.” Body says, “It’s time we stop talking.”
Body says, “We need to make this work.”
Body says, “It’s time.”
I don’t know what prompted it. I woke one day in the fall, and instead of finding my spot on the couch, I got into the car, drove three miles east, and found myself in front of a gym. I didn’t hesitate like I had been doing for months, years, talking myself out it, spinning and spinning my wheels. Perhaps it was the doctor and the diabetes and my wife and family. Perhaps it was vanity—pure vanity— because I would give anything to be skinny just once, to be lithe and bendable like Howard the yoga instructor. Perhaps—and this might be the ironic part—perhaps it was my body that prompted change. Whatever it was, I was in a gym. I was taking aerobic classes. I was losing. Parts of me. Chunks of me. In a year, I lost over a hundred pounds. I found myself in the yoga studio again. There was a noticeable change in my body. Not just the weight and heft of it, not just the space I occupied. This was a change that affected the air I took in.
The world appears brighter. Visually stunning, as if a gray film has been lifted from my eyes. I hold on to this moment for as long as I can. I keep breathing—oh the joy of breathing!—and open my eyes to a feast of color.
Before she leads us into our first pose, Maria, my new yoga instructor, tells the class to breathe deeply. She says we should prepare our bodies. My mat is in the front of the room. I sit, legs crossed, in baggy basketball shorts and a baseball cap. I take in air through my nostrils. My eyes are closed. I feel the air fill the inner cavity of my nose, feel it spread to every region of my body, down to the tips of my toes. I feel it enter my belly, a cool swirl like a tender wind. I take five breaths and open my eyes. The world appears brighter. Visually stunning, as if a gray film has been lifted from my eyes. I hold on to this moment for as long as I can. I keep breathing—oh the joy of breathing!—and open my eyes to a feast of color. The world has moved, and I understand, only for this moment, that I am connected to it. I understand that you can’t separate mind and body and spirit, that they act in conjunction with one another. Then I realize I am becoming New Agey, and the thought makes me self-conscious, and I am back to hating myself.
But I’m allowing for this. I’m allowing for vulnerability. I’m allowing for sadness. You can’t stop it, but you can understand it.
Maria stands. I stand. She lifts her right foot. I lift mine. She places it against the other leg. So do I. And then we raise our arms straight into the air, lengthening our spine, opening our chests, our hearts, letting our fingers grow like branches. “Hold that pose,” she says. “Feel how rooted you are to the Earth.” I do. I am a tree, for this moment, standing against a hard wind, knowing I will shake and tremble but not fall.