The temperature in the cramped room has been cranked up to 110 degrees. Through the dimmed lights I can see my reflection in a wall of mirrors but I’m just a blur in the fogged glass, wearing a bright sports bra and black leggings. We are stuck in a series of twenty backbends, bridge position. Our yoga mats are so slippery with sweat that hands shift, feet give way. The girl next to me is crying. I have the strength to keep pressing but my back, distorted from scoliosis, starts to scream at having to bend this way again and again. But I keep lifting. The instructor, a petite brunette woman with a mouth full of equal parts curse words and New Age praise walks among our arched bodies with a microphone headset snaking from her ear to her lips.
She wants to break us. She wants us to push through pain. Grow beyond pain. We can do so much more. We’re the ones holding back. One more time! She screams and crying, grunting, gasping, the trainees in the room thrust their hips and plant their hands and feet in puddles of sweat then collapse, shaking, only to be called up again, to standing.
I grit my teeth together and bite my lip. The muscles along my spine twitch electrically, shooting pain deep into my bones. There are tears in the corners of my eyes but I keep reaching, trying to overcome myself. The studio owner, a lean man who has been assisting the instructor stands close to me.
‘Are you ok?’ he asks, ‘you look like you’re in pain.’
I can barely speak for the shearing of my spine. It’s my back, I tell him, it’s never hurt so much before.
‘Don’t push yourself. Take care of your body,’ he whispers.
My eyes are hot with tears, but we’re supposed to push through pain. She said to ignore it.’
‘Not real pain,’ he clarifies. ‘We don’t want you to hurt yourself.’
I nod and screw my eyes shut. Tears roll into sweat and slide off my cheeks. I’m hot inside, not from the pain, not from the heat pouring out of the overhead vents, not from the warmth radiating off of the bodies next to me, but from anger. I feel betrayed by language, by the slippery force of metaphor.
In 2017 I went through a 200-hour yoga teacher training program with the hope that I would be able to share what the practice had brought to me with others. The training was offered at the yoga studio where I was a member. I was finishing my graduate degree at the time and working as a director at an urban nonprofit farm. Yoga, I thought, would be the perfect part-time gig. I dreamed of hosting sessions out at the gardens which I tended during the day or up at my property in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I expected that I would be able to make a little bit of money off of these sessions, certainly enough to eventually cover the thousands of dollars I invested in my training. That investment was put out in earnest. Yoga was the place where I felt myself move gracefully on the earth, a practice of peace which offered me, for many years, some reprieve from the punitive relationship that otherwise defined my connection with by body. I wouldn’t say that I hated my body. Rather, I desired to alter it through any means necessary.
I have always been hard on my body. I began dieting at the age of 8. My mother had given birth earlier that year to my youngest sister and signed up for Weight Watchers to regain her figure. I’d go with her to her weekly weigh-ins and wait, with anxious joy, as she stepped onto the scale to see if she’d been “good” that week. What an instant acknowledgment of achievement – of worth! For each amount of weight lost my mother would receive a little award and we’d celebrate in the car together, her commitment, her strength.
I started to practice yoga while I was in therapy, trying to heal from a sexual assault. In the course of a monumental upheaval in my life caused by a divorce, quitting my job, and moving out of the state with a new love, this assault, which had occurred years prior, suddenly rose to the surface, like a sunken ship pried off the ocean floor by a storm. I couldn’t connect to my body in the process of talking about that trauma, it was foreign to me. I felt betrayed by its complicity, by its silence and I punished it, as I had for years by concocting new diet plans and following them like unholy grails but all this beating seemed only to distance the assault from me.
Therapy cleaved my memory from my body and left me feeling dizzy and distant. In an attempt to reunite myself I bought a membership at the hot power yoga studio. I wanted to get back into my body, to explore its creases and curves and to lengthen and love its terminal points, not compact it like trash. The mirrors in the room forced a reconnection. I locked eyes with myself, my body reflected endlessly. There was nowhere to look but within.
Language is important. For someone at their breaking point language can be essential. Some people turn to religion but I turned to the wellness movement. I was drawn into yoga and by the following summer, I had enrolled in a teacher training program. Wellness was a new term for me. In the past I had claimed a specific goal, a weight on the scale, a size on the tag of my jeans, a record lift, or mile run time but wellness was different. Wellness, this yoga word which blossomed into culture like a bruise, spread itself far beyond the body. Wellness is blanketing language. It implies the shaping not just of the physical form but of the spiritual and emotional realms. Wellness is, simply put, the most inclusive marketing term of the self-improvement industry. It will tell you how to move, eat, sleep, work, love, communicate, spend, think, dream, and create.
Wellness language is all about acknowledgment and acceptance but also about transformation, pushing through to a new layer which we are told has something to do with thanking yourself for “making the time” to come to yoga class. It is the key and the breaking point. We say “to show up” but we also mean to pay, to dress, to arrive ready to perform, to look hard in the mirrors – mirrors which are meant to correct and align movements but which are used, even if no one admits it, for posing, for sucking in belly fat, for standing in a way to makes you look like a person you are desperate to become.
The yoga teacher training took place over several months. We met for five hours on Friday night and ten hours on Saturday and Sunday. Our daily schedule consisted of several brutal yoga practices in which we were yelled at and encouraged to move beyond our bodies, to surprise ourselves. Save for one participant and the studio owner, all those bodies were women’s bodies. Between yoga sessions, we were given anatomy lessons and the “flow”, the pattern of positions taught by this particular style of yoga, were deconstructed, one by one, until we’d memorized cues and corrections for all sixty of them. There was a short intermission for lunch, during which we’d air our bodies out on the porch that ran along the building, our plastic mats draped over the railing like stiff prayer flags. We were starving but could only eat so much. You didn’t know if you’d be called immediately into an inversion posture bringing your lunch back up from your stomach.
I cried the weekend we were asked to go on a “fruit cleanse” eating nothing but fruit and water for three days to clear our bodies of “toxins” and “reset” our digestive systems. My relationship with food had been so broken that I feared that the cleanse would push me back into the disordered structure that had plagued me for years. When I said I didn’t think I could, that I was worried, I was told by the instructor that I would be surprised by how little the body needed, how light I would feel. I knew what that felt like. The dizzy sensation of fasting. The joy at carving yourself down to nothing. How many slices an apple could be cut into to stretch a meal into many bites. But I also knew the hot, shameful joy of the binge that would follow, salt and fat and carbs, the thrill of breaking all the rules, and the self-hatred that followed like an after taste. I followed the fruit fast as instructor required and battled myself for weeks to eat in a normal way again. But it was essential to my training, I was told. It was necessary.
Language was the real tool inside the wellness movement. We learned to sharpen it as yoga teachers in training. A woman was chastised for “not showing up”. She was a single mom who was in the program so she could make more money to support her son. To attend the training, she had to leave the boy with her ex, a man she didn’t trust, and during the day she was driven to distraction worrying about his well-being. She was called out at least once a weekend and told to remain “in the moment”. Every honest confession was met with the same thin layer of care as if all pain was the same pain. As if we were all qualified to help.
One morning, after our tough yoga practice which was meant to “bring us into the space”, the instructor informed us that our “energy was off”. She asked what we were thinking. A woman raised her hand and described how last night she’d started bleeding. We’d all seen her get up and go to the bathroom several times during the practice. She was pregnant but hadn’t told anyone yet, just her husband and now she was worried she was having a miscarriage. She didn’t know what her body was saying but there was so much blood. We were given a ten-minute break to “decompress”. In the locker room, we all gathered around the woman, touching her shoulder, brushing back her hair. One trainee called her friend who was an OBGYN and passed the phone to the woman who was bleeding. She slipped into a private changing stall; her conversation muted by a thick curtain.
When we returned to the studio, we said nothing.
Language has a way of deceiving subtly. A war of words is a soft battle, a battle that becomes internalized. What we were being taught was how to reshape and recast the words of the wellness industry which relies on the underlying assumption that everyone can be improved and that everyone is broken. What separates “wellness” from “fitness” is the depth of that rift. Wellness is everything, a whole being, the complete consumer, body, mind, and spirit.
In the type of yoga, I was studying the instructor does not demonstrate movements, they lead through voice commands. The cues we were trained to give weren’t specific physical commands that would help a person figure out a posture. Instead, they were vague metaphors like “lift your heart center” which sounded like a riddle or some gem of insight buried in scripture. “Ground down to lift up”. In poses that were held for a long time, the instructor would offer a sort of “take-away” sermon. Here, we would parrot back the language we’d heard, mixed with song lyrics, Biblical quotes, inspirational posters, and bumper stickers.
“The focus of today’s practice is: (choose one)
Music was a tool too, capitalized to cue emotion. As we began constructing our own classes, we were encouraged to create playlists, a mixture of insight and trendiness which when compiled in a certain way reflected growth and demonstrated progression. J-Lo during the abs portion of the flow. Adele wailing through the long-hip stretches. This was a cheap way to grab other people’s language and use it for yourself. It was also a way to “connect” with your “community”, the clients who would hopefully attend your classes. And you needed “community”. Community was what paid the bills after all.
To this end, there was a push to identify and build our own “brands”. The ex-gymnast with crazy flexibility could capitalize on her contortionist poses. The Columbian woman was encouraged to run a fun, dance, centered class. The girl with the sweet voice sang during the final resting pose, in the wavering clarity of a southern-Baptist raised in the Appalachians. This branding created a group of followers that could identify with each specific type of yogi on their social media accounts. It became clear to me that setting up your phone camera and being able to capture the right pictures or videos of your body in practice was essential to becoming a successful teacher, even if the process of photographing myself on the mat felt like the opposite of the deep privacy with which I’d returned to yoga.
In the wellness movement, you needed followers to become those paying class members which means that you had to deliver a marketable product, some combination of looks, style, music, flow, and message. Appearance mattered, despite how many other words were used to describe that fact. You could be “present” “whole”, “aligned”, “radiating”, “authentic”, but you had to look like someone another person might want to become. Lululemon, as well as several other luxury athletic brands, offers anyone who teaches a class at a fitness studio a deep discount allowing me and the other trainees, to afford a rotating wardrobe of on-trend bras, leggings, and tops. The women who moved around me, who sweat and pressed and cried, wore fake eyelashes, expensive mani-pedis, and make-up that wouldn’t run in the studio’s punishing heat. These were not bodies exposed, unshelled. This was a picture painted for a viewer, whether that viewer was a woman, a man, or our own eyes in the mirror. The goal was visibility, not honesty.
At the end of our training, we wrote down “what we were leaving behind” on a rainbow of post-it notes and then burnt the slips of paper in a small fire. We washed the smoke over our faces like water. My smoke words, “hating my body” followed behind me like a shadow twin as we returned, single file, to the warmth of the room. Back inside the studio, we danced to a Black-Eyed Peas song, each trainee pushed, one at a time, into the center of a circle. When it was my turn, I closed my eyes, bright red with embarrassment, and did something with my hips that I hoped would pass. Then we were handed framed certificates, one by one, while the whole room erupted with applause.
The studio owner promised us all jobs as instructors. We took a group photo on the porch which was shared hundreds of times and which, each year, comes back up in one of my feeds. In the photo we’re pressed together on a set of metal stairs, our arms and legs jutting out, our yoga tights a bouquet of color. We look joyful and light but I remember being grateful that it was over. My body was aching. My brain was a scramble of words, like magnetic refrigerator poetry. I was exhausted from trying to glean meaning from nonsense.
By the end of the 200 hours, something had shifted in me. I didn’t want to look in the studio mirrors anymore. When I did yoga, I wanted silence. I couldn’t imagine standing in front of people and speaking, telling them what to do and how to feel. I lived in a place of examination, trying to rebuild decades of painful pathways through the language in my head. If anything, I wanted to listen. I couldn’t serve as a guide anymore. The leaders in the wellness movement are those who are the most lost, the ones who are willing and able to pay thousands of dollars with the hopes to be made whole again, people like me. They know their deep well of want and they’ve been given the language to create that same need in others. After all, it’s pain that drives us back into the heat.
It turned out that there was no job at the studio. There was only more training, and more volunteering with the promise of a few paid hours a week, if you were lucky. I stopped going to classes at the studio and practiced at home instead, in my quiet living room. There was no heat, no music, no mirrors. When the new studio leader noticed that my attendance had dropped, she sent me a curt email, requiring a certain number of classes before we continued with my training, I needed to prove my “commitment to community”, I needed to “show-up”. I didn’t reply. I could have said that I was “exploring my home practice”, I was “stepping back”, I was “sitting in silence” with myself. But I was over it. I’ve turned against wellness.
Wellness constantly narrows in on a person’s weaknesses while providing solutions. Always, there is a solution. There has to be, of course, for wellness to continue to be financially viable. This promise muffles our ability to accept the fullness of life with its diversity of challenges and seasons. The need to better ourselves can sometimes be a reductive act. We all hurt. But even though pain is one word it contains multitudes of expression, a scale of suffering. Some pain you push beyond, some pain you live in, some pain is your body’s house guest for a season, while other pain scars you heart forever. Being told we can overcome this through wellness is a promise that keeps us forever broken so we can keep paying to be repaired.
Megan Baxter holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and a BFA in Poetry from Goddard College. Her first book, The Coolest Monsters, A Collection of Essays, was published in 2018. Her memoir Farm Girl is forthcoming. Her essay collection The Body(Electric) will be published by Ohio State Press. Her numerous national awards include a Pushcart Prize. Her work has been listed in The Best American Essays of 2019. Recent publications include pieces in The Threepenny Review, The Florida Review, and Creative Nonfiction Magazine. She teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College.