Photo by Pavel Chusovitin on Unsplash
By Stella Orange
In yoga class, my teacher encouraged us to bend our knees a little bit. “Notice the personal places inside that are tight or hard,” she said, “and instead of trying to fix them, try and see if you can slide your breath in there.”
My yoga studio is an eight-minute walk from my house. I recently walked there in the sunlight of early evening past one of my young neighbors, who was standing in front of her house with her parents and grandmother. When I asked, she gave me a high-five. When she caught sight of the mat slung across my back, she said, “Did you do yoga?” I replied, “Not yet.” Holding both her mother’s hands, she walked up her mother’s legs and turned a flip. “Have an excellent time at yoga!” she yelled as I walked down the sidewalk. “I’ll do my best!” I shouted back.
Signing in on the clipboard at the studio, I was greeted by one of the people who works behind the front desk, trading work for yoga class. “I haven’t seen you in awhile,” he whispered. “Good to see you again. How are you?” I whispered to him that I was in an excellent mood, because the sun was shining after a stretch of coldness and rain. He agreed, and we chuckled that we weren’t the only ones. When the weather is nice, folks in the neighborhood get out on their front porches and sit on their front stoops, and everyone’s in a good mood, calling out to passersby. We agreed: as pedestrians in sunny weather, we become beauty contestants, smiling broadly at nothing and waving and blowing kisses at everyone. He and I both waved, adjusted our imaginary crowns, and blew kisses for good measure.
Which is how I found myself on a yoga mat in a retrofitted bank building in the hood where there are still sometimes shootings. And where I’ve noticed some of my young male neighbors wearing red caps, shirts, and shoes, which I suspect is gang-related. But inside the old bank-turned-studio, it is peaceful and I feel safe.
My yoga teacher bought the building and made this sanctuary over a decade ago. She begins class by inviting us to notice the beauty of the sunlight, and the beauty of the space we are in.
And then she invites us to lay on our backs and breathe as we begin.
Laying on my back, belly-up, is a vulnerable position to be in. I am used to standing firming on both feet, or walking, or sitting down facing other people. Laying on the floor, spine on the earth and breasts and belly facing skyward, I must surrender my ability to move or respond as quickly as I can on my feet.
I choose to do this because I sense it is good for me, as a human being, although it takes me time to sink into the position. When I think about it, this yoga studio is one of the few public spaces where I feel safe enough to drop my guard and allow myself to be physically vulnerable around other people. I can drop my guard at home. I can drop my guard in nature, out on a hike or sitting by a river. And I can drop my guard in this old bank building. But that’s pretty much it.
Elsewhere, I never know what is about to come at me, so I must be alert and watchful. I cannot let my guard down, because it exposes me to situations and people who are not as gentle with my softness.
What is curious to me is that I did not know this about myself for many years. I did not know how tender I was. I did not know that I am soft, like a rabbit, or a child, or a flower.
Earlier in the week, I’d had a full day at work. It was a good day, full of interesting conversations and fascinating people, but I was full. I was talked out. I needed stillness, emptiness, quiet. I had a little time before yoga class. I went out to the front yard to water the plants. After a few minutes, my next-door neighbor popped out from his backyard. I like him; he gives me gardening advice and we chat whenever we see each other. But I wasn’t in the mood to talk, so I told him hello and that I was feeling quiet after a full day at work.
“Oh, you don’t feel like talking? That doesn’t seem like you!” he said. And then he, this man I consider a friend, lifted his hands and made them talk to each other like chatty puppets. He meant that I’m a talkative woman.
(Side bar: the trope of the talkative—or lippy—woman has been with us for ages. In sixteenth-century England, speaking your mind or refusing to shut up as women should were characteristics of witches. This is just one example. Look, and you’ll find more.)
Even though I was standing on my property, it was all too public space. My guard was down. I was unprotected. I had let myself be soft with a person who was unprepared for how to be in relationship with someone like me.
I felt my eyes well up with tears, and I was defenseless to stop it. I had done everything I had learned to do. I had told him that I was soft. I had told him that my cup was full. I had asked for what I needed. But he did not catch my signals.
This is what it is, sometimes, to be a soft one. I try very hard to let things go. I have developed a fabulous toolbox of interpersonal, relational, and self-mastery skills that I deploy daily. And yet, sometimes, when I am full or tired, it is not enough. And if the other person has not had to learn how to be soft, if they have not noticed that I’ve shape-shifted from a jovial neighbor to a robin’s egg, a baby bird, a grape—or they don’t care—I get hurt.
Had my guard been up, I would have told my neighbor about the witches, and how, as a gay guy, he should know better than to resort to tired stereotypes. Had I been harder, I could have poked fun back at him, giving him a taste of his own medicine. Had I had more capacity within to choose my response, maybe I would have even given my energy to smoothing things over between us after the rupture he created. But I did not. I stood, watering my plants, quiet and breathing through my held-back tears and disappointment. It was awkward. I let it be.
Because this can be a hard world, I’ve spent years of my life shrugging off these hurts, sweeping them under the rug of my psyche. Oh, I’m just sensitive. Oh, they didn’t mean it. Oh, you just need to toughen up. But what if softness only comes when we allow it within ourselves and when we practice it with each other?
This why I practice softening. Why I experiment with openness and receptivity. Why I tinker with letting my guard down in small doses, and letting the chips fall where they may. Because maybe, just maybe, we are all soft ones. Or we all were, long ago. Maybe there are more of us than we think. Maybe we are here, not to fix things, but to bring more softness where it’s hard. Where it’s tight. Where it’s clenched.
As I walked home after yoga class, I passed a group of kids playing in front of their house as the sun set. One kid rode past me on his bike. He caught sight of the mat slung across my back and said, “You just do yoga?” I replied, “Yeah.”