A month ago, I woke up at 1:00 a.m one Tuesday morning so I could run a few miles on my dark street. A full moon hung in the west, and firelies lit up the dark edge of my street. Bullfrogs sang a baritone jazz hymn. This part of being awake was not so bad.
But then I got on a small bus with nineteen other people headed to Chicago O’Hare. We were flying to China, and to ensure Chicago traffic and any unknowns wouldn’t slow us down, we were leaving at 3:00 a.m. I had grumbled about this part. I hate to waste time sitting. While it’s true that sitting at a gate for hours is more relaxing than running to it, my personal travel plans often default on the side of at least a brisk walk to the gate, especially when I could be sleeping an extra hour at home. But this wasn’t my trip to plan. I was going as a chaperone, not as a leader. The Pitta part of Katie who likes being the master of her own ship struggled (the Vata part of Katie, who despises planning schedules and budgets, was pretty grateful to not be in charge though).
Part of my change in thinking about this four hour layover came through Chicago O’Hare’s dedicated yoga room in Terminal Three.
This room is nothing short of a gift of the travel gods. Several airports, including San Francisco, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Burlington, VT, have yoga rooms as well. The Chicago yoga room is in the rotunda in heavy, concrete Terminal Three, on the mezzanine level. Frosted glass lets light in but allows privacy from the kids sprinting around the rotunda. The hefty door knob will disturb anyone in savasana, but does keep out the merely curious (as does the “For Yoga Only” sign on the door). Along one wall is a mirror, on another, a television shows scenic vistas of American cities and muscled men doing inversions on wooden blocks. Blue loaner mats sit in baskets on the floor, and while the mat wipe container was empty when I visited, this appeared to be a temporary omission.
From the first down dog my hamstrings rejoiced. Because I’d tried to maximize marathon training the week before I headed to the unknown running environment of China, my legs ached. My spine was tight, my shoulders compacted from bus slumber and a heavy backpack. In every pose I reintroduced myself to my body the friend, not my body the beat-up transportation device. I could even forgive my midsection pudge–a particular injustice when training for a marathon.
But I wasn’t sure the four other yogis practicing near me would feel the same. I startled a woman out of savasana when I walked in. I dripped sweat, landed in awkward jump-throughs, and cracked my joints while two middle-aged women practiced gentle postures. My headstand lurched while a younger, thinner woman began sun salutations. I kept waiting for one of these yogis to tell me my alignment was off in Warrior Two, or that this particular yoga room was no place for my rowdy, sweaty ashtanga. I realized halfway through the Primary Series that I was expecting to re-experience my college weight room days, where a bro in a tank top was going to be telling me what was wrong with my dead lift or in this case, down dog.
One of the first commandments of yoga is to keep your eyes on your own mat. I am slowly learning to follow this advice (which I give every time I teach), because otherwise I’ll critique too much to enjoy my own practice. But despite fixing my eyes on my sweaty mat and not on the woman nearby, I expected her judgment anyway. I expect it out of everyone. My ex-husband and I volleyed criticism and defense at each other our whole marriage, and long before we met we learned the pattern from our families. Every year I wait for horrific evaluations from colleagues and students. Even after years of therapy and meds, lots of yoga, and a healthy relationship, my judgmental streak still assumes faults in others while waiting for them to point it out in me.
But my fellow travelers never said a word, not even when I landed hard on the hollow spot in the floor. Perhaps they were frequent fliers who knew how to turn the creaky door knob gently, the best spots to line up the borrowed mats, how long they could practice before rolling their carryons to their gate. Perhaps they knew what yoga room annoyances to expect and ignore. Perhaps they knew how wonderful they would feel on their flights if they tuned out the person next to them long enough to practice.
After my practice, I sat in gratitude meditation, silently naming each thing I was grateful for, such as my husband. My dogs, who never judge me. My yoga mat. The ten dollars in my pocket that would be going towards breakfast. The chance to go to China for free. Gratitude works best when criticism doesn’t, because reminders of the 1:00 a.m. alarm and the bus ride never interrupted my meditation.
When I opened my eyes, the thin girl in yoga shorts and a sports bra was moving through Sun Salutation B. I rolled up my mat; my spine felt three inches longer, my whole body like a promise granted. Even when I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders. Even when I walked out of the room, towards a fourteen hour flight and twenty-one days of unknowing. When I passed the girl, she was paused in her own beautiful, spine-lengthening upward dog. Once upon a time, I’d have hated such a perfect person. That morning, my thoughts were something closer to blessing.