Ujjayi Breath

Ujjayi Breath

Ujjayi Breath 1920 1317 Kelle Schillaci Clarke


“Fill your lower body,” she says, though I can’t actually see our yoga instructor over all the bent bodies filling the small, hot room as she cues up an instrumental set list on her iPhone, connecting it with a chirpy blip to the Bluetooth speaker. “Now let your breath rise up to your lower rib cage, reaching your third and fourth chakras.”

As we collectively inhale, my breath lodges in the back of my throat, causing a slight tickle that quickly threatens to escalate. By the time she moves from the upper chest to the throat chakra, vishuddha, I am no longer breathing. I am fighting for breath, fighting the cough that eats the breath that destroys the moment. I sense others shifting as my coughing continues. Still, I’m convinced if I can pull just one deep cough from the diaphragm, I will release the pure, clear breath beneath; cultivate the soft purr of ujjayi in time to re-join the symphonic group exhale that will lead us into this stretch and that twist. But it won’t come. I can’t breathe. Not now, not here. Damn it.

“Breathe out through your nose,” she guides, but my asana practice is flawed, distracted. I give up, quietly rolling my mat and gathering my shoes, beanie, and metal canister of dandelion tea placed beside the crackling fireplace. I head to the back of the community center and make my way down the damp stairs outside. Only then can I allow the tickling cough to surface once again, this time exploding in an eye-watering volcano of spit and phlegm. And just like that, it’s over. But I can’t go back inside. It wants me to go back inside, but I’m onto its sick game. Fuck you, I tell the tickle that has now disappeared entirely from my throat. Fuck you. I take a swig of tea, which, due to new technologies in metal heat-containing devices, is far too hot for human consumption and burns my throat going down.

It’s wet outside; a passive, post-rain moisture that clings to cold air, so I use my wool beanie to warm my hands as I walk toward my car. Several houses on the block are still strung with holiday lights, despite it being well into February, some of their undressed windows revealing intimate displays of progressive domesticity: family rooms warmed by fireplaces rather than television screens, where parents read library hard covers while children build fortresses of obscenely priced geometrically-shaped magnets. I slow my pace, looking for openings into the life landscapes held captive on this nearly silent wintry street: a beautifully restored Craftsman with curtains tightly drawn; a colorful bungalow, shuttered and sprouting a handmade For Sale sign from its unkempt lawn; a mid-century modern, the lower end of the split level radiant with warm light, but blocked by withered rose bushes primed to bloom explosively come spring. At the end of the block, I am drawn again to the vertical, modern monstrosity, its acute angles trimmed in bold red and black. I am desperate suddenly to know who would build, buy, or live in such a thing. It’s more of a wood and steel cage than a home, its giant picture windows brightly aglow like giant TV screens poised to attract moths and curious passersby.

I set my yoga bag down and lean forward, arms stretched in front of me, ardhauttanasana, then straighten my spine and inhale deeply, allowing the air to expand my lungs – one…two…three…four…five. Safe in the silence of my breath and calmness of my throat, I eyeball the quiet block—not a dog-walker in sight—and begin making my way through the sustainable green landscape of the contemporary home. I know to carefully tiptoe over the dark puddles and the plump earthworms that have found refuge on the raised cobblestones beside them; but this time, I push further inward and find an alcove just beneath the raised porch. I close my eyes and test my stillness, then open them and readjust to the darkness outside, the warm light within.

From this protected vantage point, I can see in from eye-level to the boxy first floor. A man and a woman are inside; a mother and father, perhaps, though there are no clear signs of children, no obvious mess of toys or food-stained high chairs. There is a man in the kitchen. I see only his back side, his narrow shoulders leaning over to heat a small pot on a comically large Viking range. She is in the next room, a young woman, seated cross-legged on an orange couch, snuggled up to a tablet propped on a fuzzy pillow in her lap, like a cat.

I want to know what they have in their sub-zero refrigerator, what they eat for dinner – does he grill seasoned steaks on a barbecue out back; does she slow-simmer pasta sauce; do they slice vegetables together for a tossed salad? Is Taco Tuesday really a thing? But I’ve missed that golden post-twilight hour of meal prep. It’s too late for dinner now. He worked late, perhaps, and the food she prepared for them is long put away, dishes washed, quartz counters sprayed and scrubbed raw. He looks up repeatedly from the pot to where she sits a room over, as if talking to her, but her eyes are glued to the tablet. The giant wall-mounted television exudes blueness, a cable company’s logo bouncing off the sides of the enormous screen, never quite reaching its corners.

He walks toward the living room, and I am forced to stand on my tiptoes to keep them in view, calves stretching. He’s holding the pot and waving a wooden spoon like a conductor might, using it like punctuation. He is tall but slim, a runner’s build, his face a puzzle of bones and angles. He points the spoon at her, then at the TV, then at himself, his jaw working up and down in a way that could be comical. But since he’s not chewing, he’s probably yelling. Her temperament is unlike mine; she is less quick to respond. But her body is rigid, her locked expression and clenched jaw reflecting only the screen’s yellow glow.

He brings the spoon down hard against the rim of the pot, then again. Something flies up from it and splatters the wall. Her face, still calm. He now holds the pot close to his face, his other hand motioning at it with the spoon, as if it is something special, something sacred, something to be looked at, worshiped. Finally, I see it: a shift in the set of her jaw. She slams her tablet against the thick wood-slab coffee table and leaps into an upright mountain pose, tadasana, a rigid posture, the peak of a sun salutation. Then she is gone, down the hallway, the door slammed behind her. He stands clutching the pot, then looks toward the window. I turn to see what he is looking at and realize it could be me. I duck quickly into the shrubs.

This is my chance to run, but my calves are strained from standing on tiptoe. I squat instead, knees pulled to my chin, invested fully in their plight now, needing to know what will become of them. I instinctively bring my hands together flat in front of my heart, namaskarasana. There is motion within, I sense it without hearing it, but I am afraid to look inside. Perhaps he has thrown the spoon, or the pot. Perhaps she is back on the couch. Perhaps they are together, discussing what to do about the stranger at the window, dialing 9-1-1. I am afraid to move, afraid not to. Breathe, reminds my yoga instructor, and so I do: One…two…three…four…five.

In the dirt where I am squatting, I discover a tiny, crayon-written “welcome” sign, held by string no thicker than dental floss, attached to two teensy twigs shoved deep into the saturated soil. Behind it, a miniscule white metal bistro table and two diminutive chairs, perfectly dimensioned, are set beside a circle of painted pebbles. A ceramic gnome and plastic princess sit sipping tea from tipped acorn shells, which I carefully manipulate with my fingertips to turn upright. The pair gaze toward a raised stage made of stained popsicle sticks, upon which a fuzzy hedgehog performs, using a light saber microphone. A row of mushroom-shaped cottages with multi-colored thatched roofs blends into a thicket of mulchy leaves —all of this tucked neatly beneath the shadow of the shrubs, out of sight to anyone but children. Or snooping voyeurs. There is a secret life of fairies alive in the undergrowth, a village of manicured pathways paved in pebbles and populated by ceramic wood-creatures, gnomes, action figures, holiday ornaments, and fairies. The bottoms of my boot-cut yoga pants sink into fresh mud as I lean in to explore further, wishing myself smaller, so I could inhabit the rich and peaceful thicket.

A door swings open above me, and despite my years of steady practice, the muscles required to sustain the extended squatting position give out, my legs bend outward, and I am now sitting butt-deep in cold mud. The tickle in my throat returns, as if on cue, and I employ my stomach muscles to suppress it.

The woman is on the patio above me, and through the open door I can hear their angry voices, joined now by the shuffling feet of a scared young child. I have chosen an eventful night to occupy their shadows, and I am flushed with regret as the sleepy voice of a young girl asks where are we going, mama? What’s happening? The woman—the mom—moves swiftly down the stairs to my left, and I am now stuck in the mud, my rear an inch deep in it, my legs crossed in front of me like a schoolgirl, sukhasana.

The woman is whisper-yelling at the man, concerned with disturbing the neighbors, and the man, above me on the porch, whisper-shouts back: Go then! Go! Leave! And she does, dragging by hand the little girl, both of them drenched now in porch light that travels over the dark bit of shrub-lined garden where I sit mostly hidden, my breath shallow and controlled. She is in front of me now and older than I’d thought. All of her couch-calmness is lost as she whisper-screams and whisper-swears at the man, pointing now with the fingers on her free hand, while the other clutches the hand of the girl, who is standing silently beside her in fuzzy Little Mermaid pajamas, clinging to a dingy stuffed rabbit and trying to figure out where to set her gaze. It settles softly on me, her dark eyes directly connecting with the stranger sitting cross-legged in the dark, at the entrance of her fairy garden.

She watches me intently, but makes no indication, instead bringing her thumb to her mouth. She seems too old for thumb-sucking—four, maybe five, it’s hard to tell—but she does so with a kind of fury, as if to devour the appendage whole. As she stares, I set the back of my hands on my bent knees, touch my index fingers to my thumbs, creating a meditative seal, mudra, tuning out the sound of the adults as they whisper more obscenities to one another, focusing only on the girl with the too-long dusty bangs covering eyes that could be my daughter’s, if we’d been able to have one, or any young girl’s. She squeezes her mother’s hand tightly, her only hint of fear, which in turn squeezes my heart, but her needful gesture is ignored, and my heart breaks for her. But still, I remain silent. How would I explain myself?

I reach for the ceramic turtle posed beside the tiny rock waterfall to my left, and the plastic Princess Tiana ornament seated at the bistro table to my right. I hold them out like a puppet show, wiggling their bodies as if they are speaking to one another, or engaged in a silly dance-off. She allows the hint of a grin to escape the edges of her mouth, around the thumb. I can’t understand why she hasn’t blown my cover, but my heart quickens at the fact that I have made her smile, even if only from the corners of her mouth. I reach for the ceramic frog lounging by the bistro, and I have the princess gently kiss its nose. We both know where this story is going, but then realize that the hushed hollers of her parents have grown quieter. I set the figures down as another throat tickle threatens to expose me to the grown-ups. I hold one finger to my lips – shhh– and all is suddenly, magically, silent.

We freeze in suspended animation, as they enter a new argumentative phase: the stand-off, both completely unaware of their daughter as they confront one another in a silently twisted Shakespearean balcony scene.

“Come inside,” he whisper-urges from the porch. The woman stares up at him, jaw clenched. “Come. Inside….Please.”

“Ok. Come on,” she says, finally, her eyes reflecting porch light as she tugs the little girl’s arm. The girl follows, offering me an almost imperceptible wave from the pinky of her thumb-sucking hand, which I return.

I wait a couple minutes, allowing my heart rate to slow down a beat or two, then slowly make my way to standing, the mud thick and heavy on my pants from waist to ankle. I take a deep forward bend, uttanasana, stretching my cramped legs, and reach for my big toes, padangusthasana. One…two…three…four…five.

I stand and allow my blood to settle, then rush to my car parked around the corner.
Once home, only blocks away, I stand on our porch and contemplate the weight and appearance of my pants, smothered in mud, in the seconds before my body movement triggers our patio’s sensor light and my husband is at the door, as if he’d been awaiting my return.

“What the fuck happened to you?” he says, as the dog makes a run through the opened front door and leaps for my legs, ecstatic to see me, as if I’d been gone for weeks.

“Yoga,” I say, walking past him into the house, leaving a trail of fresh mud in my wake.

Header photograph © Harshal Desai.

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