She contorts and her shoulders disappear. From where I stand, she looks grossly disfigured. Armless.
I imagine she’s from a long line of Russian circus performers: Her babushka wore a red velvet leotard and feathers in her hair while she hung from a tightrope, twenty feet above a roaring lion. Or her father was that Lycra-clad acrobat that climbed to the top of the circus tent and somersaulted through mid-air before being caught by bear on ice skates.
Today there are no big tops or wild animals, only a handful of ladies with grey mats in an empty, old gymnasium staring at this wildly flexible woman. We are poised and waiting for The Contortionist to instruct us. There are no sequins or fishnet stockings, just the usual get-ups: the lady in the yellow cow-print Capri pants and matching tank-top, the woman with the thick single braid pinned atop her head like a crown, and too there are the fancy ones in their matching Nike yoga outfits with perfect manicures and oversized diamond stud earrings.
As The Contortionist moves, she speaks. Through every slight bend she communicates to the group in a soothing, Russian whisper. They follow, as if in a trance.
I do not understand a word.
Instead of focusing on my breath or holding the position like a true student of yoga, I glance nervously around the room. I lag behind. I fumble like an out-of-sequence dancer in a perfectly choreographed ballet.
Last year I’d started attending this yoga class. Religiously, I’d showed up to find the same group of women in the same outfits, stretching, reaching, breathing, in synchronicity . Afterwards, we’d move, still in sync, like a school of fish toward the bathroom. The chatting would begin as we showered and changed. With this simple routine, I almost felt like I was part of a community, finally finding a home in Russia, a place where I fit in. But after a few months, I realized that no one was speaking to me. No one responded to my simple greetings. I got no dobryj dyen, no do svidaniya, not even a zdravstvujtye.
Despite being socially ostracized, my body responded well to the yoga. My muscles began to loosen, my posture improved. A friend once said the only reason he goes to yoga is for Savasana—I held onto that. At least at the end of class, I could lay still, let my mind release, and relax (okay, when I wasn’t looking around to make sure everyone hadn’t left and I was alone in the gym.)
But I was conflicted. Could I really find inner peace in a place where I was so uneasy? Could I find community where I was outcast? Unsatisfied, I grew restless. After one particularly frustrating class I boldly approached The Contortionist:
“Do you think you could do some of the commands in English? Now and again? Maybe?”
We were at the English-speaking gym, but apparently that was irrelevant. I was the only non-Russian amongst us and The Contortionist was standing firm. This was the fallout from a choice I made when we arrived: I’d have childcare for 24 hours each week and, instead of using it to study Russian, I would use it to write and work. So that left me out-of-luck and out of place. And when The Contortionist left to have a baby and class was canceled, I took it as a good sign to give it up.
But today, five months later, the class resumed. The Contortionist gave birth and returned looking tinier than ever. My aching hip and stiff back forced my bruised ego back to the aged gymnasium. I stood at the front and stared at my dry feet and chipping three-month old pedicure. Again, I spent the hour glancing around the room to see if the others shifted position. I felt as awkward as ever, as lost as ever. I was always one position off. And when the class ended, I was as sore as ever.
But this time, as the crowd moved toward the locker room and the chatting began, someone addressed me. When The Contortionist left, she thanked me for coming (in English!). Maybe, despite my inability to sync, I’ve stuck around long enough for them to finally engage with me. Or maybe The Contortionist saw my black nail polish and thought, with enough training, I too had potential for circus work under the Big Top. Either way, I’ll be back next week, and if it helps, I’m willing to wear a red velvet leotard.