By Jonathan McFarland
Jonathan McFarland caught the bug for studying world religions, philosophy, and literature as an undergraduate youth ministry major at Greenville College. He began teaching high school English in 2005 and earned a Master’s degree in teaching from Columbia College in 2009. Since 2013, Jonathan, his wife, two children, and dog have made their home in Columbia, where he teaches Honors Civics, British Literature, and Classical Ideas and World Religions at Hickman High School. He can often be found on a trail or at the record store.
I started Yoga. I read all the procedures before my first visit, but forgot them all as soon as I walked into the lobby. Fearing I would stand out as a six-foot-two man at the Tuesday-morning Kripalu Yoga class, I got self-conscious and nervous. Nobody was at the desk so I walked straight ahead into the studio and stood there with my mat in hand until the instructor spoke to me: “please leave your shoes in the lobby.”
“Oh my gosh I’m so sorry, this is my first time here.”
That was not the first impression I wanted to make. Of course, the instructor was a kind soul who quickly welcomed me and showed me the sign-in process. As much as she may have wanted to, however, she could not change the fact that I was the only man and the only rookie there. As much as I wanted to, there was no opportunity to explain myself.
Hello, my name is Jonathan and this is my first time doing yoga. I’m here because, as a world religions teacher, I’ve studied Hinduism and I feel like the practice of yoga could be great for me. I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation for a while, and I’m curious about the physicality of yoga. None of the mainstream forms of exercise like the gym, running, or team sports ever work out for me. I always seem to hurt myself doing that stuff. I think yoga could be a good synthesis of spiritual and physical exercise.
Nobody who is paying good money for their hour-and-a-quarter of yoga would want to listen to that, myself included. Also, once we got started, it quickly became apparent that we were each entering our own worlds, focusing all of our attention on our own bodies. Well, for me it was half my own body and half watching the instructor to make sure I was doing it right. Nevertheless, muscles and ligaments that never usually register in my consciousness were lavished with attention. That ankle that sprains easily ever since I hurt it playing volleyball was saying, “Hey remember when we did physical therapy and how you didn’t keep up those exercises? Yeah, I’m still here.”
I got into the rhythm, breathing with my movements that flowed from one position to the next. I used the props -pillow, blocks, and strap- that seemed strange as I picked them up for the first time. I felt all the sensations in my muscles and ligaments and I didn’t fall on my face, not even once. Everything was cool until the very end when we were lying on our backs nearly sleeping (some folks actually sleeping, I think) and my phone quietly buzzed in my bag lying next to me.
That wasn’t bad, but at most I have two minutes until it buzzes again. If this is the group chat I’m screwed. How long do we lay here? Then what happens? I think the bathroom is right over there. I could grab my bag and stealthily dip in there to mute it.
I go for it, and I wait until everything is over to come out. Everything was cool.
My second visit to the studio went much more smoothly. I put my shoes in the shoe shelf, silenced my phone, signed in, found my spot, and laid my mat down. I grabbed the props from the shelf, placed a pillow down on my mat and confidently assumed a meditative posture.
At some point during the session, I was lying on my side with arms threaded through thighs, pulling knees this way or that, when my gaze rested on Ganesha. The statue of the elephant-headed god of new beginnings snapped my mind into a moment of understanding. New beginnings are beautiful. I’ve had many in my 43 years of life: new homes, new schools, new jobs, new friends, new ideas, new pets, new foods, new scenery, new cities, new places of worship, new practices. Maybe yoga will be something I stick with the rest of my life, maybe it won’t. So many times in the past, moving on has felt like failure, like whatever I was leaving behind was supposed to be THE THING. The thing that would sustain me, define me, develop me into what I was to become. At mid-life, I could choose to look back and see a series of failures to land, but as I gazed at that statue of Ganesha, my limbs in a knot, I felt grateful for the gift of new beginnings. I want to keep having them.