Stuck in the middle

For a while now, I've been trying to find my core. I'm not talking metaphorically here. I am referring to that powerful and mysterious set of muscles in front and back that other people are always talking about activating and strengthening. Lately, I've been worried that maybe I just don't have a core—that my abdomen has the physical equivalent of a borderline personality.

I've always told people that the reason I don't do yoga is because yoga makes me cry. And it's true: Yoga does make me cry. But while my yoga-devotee friends have always seen this as a positive sign—proof that yoga is clearly helping me reach previously inaccessible pockets of grief stored deep inside my muscle memory—I've finally had to admit to myself that the crying is really just an adult form of tantrum. It's not an ecstatic release; there's nothing noble or profound in it. It's simply my being angry and frustrated about being asked to do something I don't understand how to do—combined with the embarrassment of doing it poorly in front of people I don't know, people who are far better dressed for the occasion. 

(A word of warning: This is probably the blog post where I get a little Eat, Pray, Love on you. If you're not into that kind of thing, this is your chance to click back to Facebook and watch that video of the Humpback whale jumping on top of those kayakers. Spoiler alert: Everyone's OK.) 

I first had a meltdown about my core a year ago, when Amy was trying to show me how to do a yoga stretch for my back. After several unsuccessful attempts on my part and an exchange that felt a little like an elaborate physical Who's on First routine, we finally got to the heart of the problem—the core. Amy tried to show me where my core was by showing me where her core was, but it's hard to find your own core by looking at someone else's. (Perhaps I am speaking metaphorically after all.)

I coped by simply tuning out all things related to yoga and Pilates. (This made it difficult to read Us Magazine on long plane trips, but I dealt with it.) However, when I was first talking with my friend Julie about my plans for the sabbatical—all of which involved various ways to exercise my brain—she asked, "Are you planning to do anything physical?" Right. My body. The thing my brain is attached to.

Cut to this morning. I can't really afford to venture to Bali on this sabbatical, but I did decide to splurge a bit in the Mission. That's where my friend Barbara's office is located, and where she conducts training in the Gokhale Method—a proprietary approach designed to alleviate the bad posture and back pain born of modern life. Its founder, Esther Gokhale, draws much of her inspiration from what she found in indigenous cultures—where she observed that people have naturally J-shaped spines instead of the S-shaped ones we now see in the typical American X-ray.

Admittedly, the pictures of indigenous people on the Gokhale website made me want to dust off my old Frantz Fanon books. And I am a little wary of faddish self-improvement methods, so it didn't help matters that the New York Times had dubbed Gokhale "The Posture Guru of Silicon Valley" a couple of years ago. Then again, the article appeared in Business Day not Sunday Styles, and Gokhale has managed to create something that even Matt Drudge and lefty Google execs can agree on.

Plus, there's the fact that Barbara swears by it. She's a deeply respected and widely beloved chiropractic doctor who has been in practice for more than two decades, and she says the before-and-after transformation she has seen in the posture of patients trying Gokhale—after just a few sessions—has turned her into a true believer.

It probably helps that Barbara herself is kind of magical. She reminds me a bit of Santa Claus—that is, if he were a lesbian, more stylish and in better shape, and had an office on Valencia Street. She has a Clausian kind of exuberance, and she brings you little gifts when she sees you—albeit largely in the form of tips about your posture. This summer, we were standing in line with a few friends to see a film, and when I took out my phone and started to look down at it—with that tell-tale sloped neck we all seem to have now—Barbara gently and wordlessly moved the hand cradling my phone up to eye level, all the while staying in unbroken conversation with the person next to her. 

So, this week, I decided to give Gokhale a try. If nothing else, it would finally allow me a chance to make good on another long-broken promise to my mother—to sit up straight. That's how I found myself with two other women in Barbara's office this morning, looking at pictures of sleeping babies, African farmers, Ubong tribesmen, and cross-sections of compressed versus elongated sheep spines. The first class is all about basics. First, there was some education via those slides—along with an explanation of how American backs started their decline around the time that "the debutante slouch" was first popularized in the 1920s. Then, we learned how to make kidney bean feet and sit in a chair while hugging its back and gently stretching our spines.

Everything was going really well until Barbara asked us to lie on our backs and practice the proper sleeping position. That's when she used the C word. But rather than cry, I simply said: "I don't think I have a core." (And much to my relief, one of the other women in the class chimed in that she felt the same way.)

"Of course you have a core," Barbara said. "Let's see if we can find it." And in the same easy way she nudged my hand up to eye level this summer, she had me lie down, take a deep breath, and exhale while she pushed gently on my muscles.

"Feel that?" she asked. I didn't.

I thought this would be the start of another game of Who's on First, but then she said, "Make sure you exhale all the way out this time. Get completely empty." I did as she instructed, and for the first time, instead of numb blankness, I felt a distinct tug in my abdomen.

It turns out I do have a core. And I don't even need to cry in order to find it.