Guest Column

Meditation on "Gut" Course

By my senior year at UNH I had taken enough extra courses so that I only needed six more to graduate. Granted, I'd signed up for some of the most demanding classes in my degree program, but something about taking only three each semester felt wrong. Irresponsible. Expensive. The waitress-putting-herself-through-school in me scouted around for easy credits. I needed a gut course, something to fill in my schedule.

I settled on Fencing. Cool, I thought. I'll get some exercise and learn an ancient (if obscure) martial art. Visions of sword fights jousted in my head. Friends chided me, called me Zorro. "Nice," said my boyfriend. "Don't go getting your eye poked out."

I showed up for class the first day ready to duel. First we learned the stance-akin to straddling a barrel while simultaneously doing the "I'm a little teapot" arm position with the upper body. Splayed like this we shuffled forward and back. I don't advise trying this at home.

Next the teacher had us poke each other with our pes-long, skinny, flexible swords-so we'd know what it felt like to take a hit. The sensation of the cold prick of metal hitting my breastbone-even through several layers of clothes-startled me. It felt a lot like being stabbed. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. We had to wear white masks that were similar to the face of the character in the horror movie "Scream." Scary. It turned out that fencing was not for me. I dropped the course after one class.

Illustration by Kathryn Adams

Luckily, there was an opening in yoga. Would it be a little too new-agey? After my mother got divorced in 1974, she used to have women friends over to our house to do yoga. I remember that they all wore mud-brown leotards and sat in a circle in our living room. My brother and sister and I thought they were weird. We made ourselves scarce on those nights. Still, yoga was bound to be more palatable to me than fencing. Less violent anyway.

And so it was.

I took refuge in Morrill Hall every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. About 30 of us gathered in a long, dark room. We'd lay down and wait for class to begin, feeling the cool linoleum through our sticky mats. Our teacher led us through stretches and poses-asanas-and deep breathing exercises-pranayama-for an hour and a half each class. An avid walker and hiker, I was surprised at my lack of flexibility. I became aware of muscles and tensions I never knew existed in my own body.

Some of the breathing exercises proved tricky. I felt self-conscious holding my nose during alternate-nostril breathing. Slowly, I eased into a regular practice and could summon a deep, three-part breath anytime, anywhere. My lungs got smarter, my limbs got limber. We didn't wear leotards. I'd come to class in comfy sweatpants and loose t-shirts. I had learned meditation a few years earlier, but this time I really got it, or got there, I should say. To a quiet but alert place. A place where thoughts take a back seat and calm rises like a popover, all warm, delicious, and empty inside. In the flurry of senior year, of worrying about the mystery of life-after-college, I had found a welcome stillness. For the first time, I felt like my body and mind were one entity.

"You're taking yoga? Now there's a gut course. What's the final exam? A headstand?" It has been 15 years since my first yoga class in Morrill Hall (it was a pass/fail course; I passed). Since then, I have practiced sun salutations on top of mountains, stretched and breathed alongside yogis in San Francisco and New York City. Still, I don't think of myself as anything more than someone who struggles through regular practice.

Yoga is an old, familiar habit now. My sticky mat has a permanent spot in my sunroom. My best mornings are when I can find time to move through poses before I go to work. I attend class one night a week in town. I've meditated to help me through deaths in my family. I've used my practice to keep focused through trying times at work. When I've had to ponder difficult decisions about life and love, I always look to my practice to help me find the answers.

As I look around me now, I see that more people than ever are discovering yoga for fitness and well-being. The advertising world has discovered yoga too: it's being used to sell cars, health products, even computers. By a fortuitous accident, and despite myself, I find I am years ahead of what is now a hot, new trend. To think, I owe it all to an innocent little gut course.~

Carol Connare '88 is editor at large for Yankee magazine. She lives in Jaffrey, N.H.

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