My older son left for college in mid-August. The week he left, I applied to train to become a yoga teacher. I had been been practicing yoga for six weeks. I had no business wanting to teach it. And yet, I was 50. I had spent three years writing a book, one year promoting it and eight years teaching writing workshops. I loved what I did but it had been decades since I had to digest large quantities of new material. When was the last time I had to study for a test and feel anxious about passing it? My son was headed off to study statistics and biology. I needed a distraction, a learning curve that was so steep, I risked falling off. Learning enough yoga to teach crow pose (bakasana) and pronounce it properly in Sanskrit might provide that curve.
My husband and I had started doing yoga together weekend mornings at a little place on the Jersey Shore. Wisdom has it that if you've been married a long time and want to stay married, you need to do new things together. My friend Terri, who has introduced me to all the wonderful things in life -- fresh kill chicken, homemade cold brew coffee, the wonders of the pressure cooker, the caterer for our younger son's bar mitzvah, the guy who is redoing our driveway -- pointed out that a yoga studio had opened up in the town where we had been going to every summer since 1998.
"Have you ever been there?" Terri asked.
"No," I said.
"Let's go," she said.
I didn't have a mat so the studio lent me one. The class was taught by a beautiful, blonde middle-aged mom named Ashley. I particularly loved the savasana (corpse pose) nap at the end, during which Ashley lovingly rubbed lemon-scented oil into our temples. As she massaged the backs of our necks and pressed her fingers into our scalps, I decided I wanted more of this. I ran home and told my husband he had to to come do this with me.
I had done yoga a few times before, clumsily and reluctantly. It didn't offer the speed, cardio high or fresh air that spin class or running outside did. But the loud music in spin classes was starting to kill my hearing. My body needed to slow down, even if my brain needed to speed up. My memory and eyesight had been deteriorating. I could no longer read the fine print on my younger son's school calendar, which was taped to the refrigerator. I had trouble finding the little "plus" sign on the double AA battery that had fallen out of my alarm clock. Even Words with Friends, a favorite game for years, had started to make me feel hopeless. The letters were just so small.
My husband and I placed our mats next to each other, near the instructor. My husband was good at side plank (vasisthasana). I could do a handstand (adho mukha vrksasana) and a tripod headstand (sirsasana). When I did a handstand in class, the instructor gave me a hug and congratulated me on learning something new. I was ashamed to tell her that I had that handstand in my back pocket, back from when I had learned to do handstands in gymnastics class as a kid. Not only wasn't I learning anything new, I was yanking out the rusted and ancient. But if I immersed myself in yoga and took yoga teacher training, I would be forced to learn new poses and know them well enough to teach them. I would learn how to spell pranayama (control of the breath) and virabhadrasana (warrior pose). I would learn how to tell the students to concentrate on their breath while they engaged their navels. I would learn how to recite the Togetherness Mantra in Sanskrit.
The yoga training application was 26 questions long. I asked my husband if he wanted to do it with me. He laughed. One of the questions on the application asked, "Speak to these things: Mudra, Mantra, Pranayama, Bandhas, Chakras. How do you use them in your practice?" Now it was my turn to laugh. I didn't even know what yoga meant (to yoke). I found some answers in The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling and Yoga: A Quest for the True Self, two wonderful books by yoga instructor and psychotherapist Stephen Cope. The rest I cribbed from the internet.
A couple weeks later, my husband sent me a link from The Wall Street Journal. It was a story saying that everyone wanted to be a yoga instructor these days, and teacher training was a big revenue generator for the yoga studios, so there were going to be a lot of people like me (assuming I was accepted into the program) training to become yoga instructors and then not getting jobs.
"Wasn't it enough that you got an MFA in fiction writing?" my husband said. Translation: I had already spent a lot of money getting certified to teach in a field where there were few lucrative teaching jobs.
"Could you be any more of a cliche?" my younger son said. "Middle-aged mom tries to avoid mid-life crisis by doing yoga?"
I was accepted into the program. That meant spending 200-plus hours -- 13 weekends, stretched across six months -- practicing and studying yoga. We were assigned mentors and buddies and given reading and writing assignments that sometimes took twenty hours to complete. There were 15 other women in the class. Some were middle-aged moms. Some of them were anything but. Their lithe young bodies were covered in piercings and tattoos. Their hair was blue, purple and green. I tried to remember to suck in my stomach whenever I placed my mat near them.
One of the loveliest things about teacher training was that I was suddenly exposed to and immersed in a community of women and I was not in charge of any of them. If you've been a parent or a teacher, or any kind of adult authority figure, you've probably spent hours every day telling other people what to do or think. In yoga, I do not have to lead, feed, guide or drive. I just have to show up and listen. Sometimes we are discouraged from speaking. Our Sanskrit instructor actively discouraged questions. In many ways, we are treated like children. We sit on the floor or our yoga mats. We pull our hair back into braids and ponytails and wear our soft, pull-up yoga pants with elastic waistbands all day long. If someone farts or burps, we laugh. We sweat during class in the morning so by late afternoon, the room smells ripe.
After the first weekend, my husband asked how it was going. "Are most of the people like you?" he asked. "Dilettantes?" I should add that my husband doesn't normally speak that way -- vaguely insulting -- but I had already proclaimed that I didn't really want to teach yoga, I just wanted to learn it well enough so that I could teach it. Or as the yogis say, deepen my practice. I told him that I was in the minority and most of the women did seem to want to teach yoga.
The one thing I hadn't counted on was that yoga training might take place on a weekend when my older son came home from college. One of the beautiful things about yoga training was that it was so time-consuming, it distracted me from the fact that my oldest had left home for good. When your first child goes off to college, it's liberating and bewildering. They're off on a new adventure. At first you're like, Hurray! And then you're like, Oh no!
Needless to say, my oldest was coming home. Midterms were over, he needed a break. I had yoga training and it was the weekend of "Inversions," i.e. handstands and headstands, the two poses I could actually do. I couldn't miss training but I really wanted to spend time with him. I started to feel guilty. Why was I spending my weekends away from my family again?
I decided to do the one thing that always helps me cope: Cook. I would feed him and make him snacks to bring back to college. Saturday afternoon, I raced home after the twentieth headstand and made a big batch of Persian chocolate bark (from my book) and a huge container of barbecue sauce so that I could make barbecue chicken for my kids to eat the next day for lunch. The barbecue chicken recipe is from Ina Garten's cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa. This cookbook is an oldie but a goodie. Every recipe in that book works, and works well.
While the sauce was simmering, I did a headstand in the family room. My younger son was watching TV. To my great shame and his great horror, I asked him to take a picture of me. I texted the picture to my older son. "Wow, Mom," he said, with approval. "You really look like you're in the zone."
The next morning, I poured the sauce over the chicken and put it in the oven. The sauce was truly glorious -- spicy, sweet, delicious -- and I spent ten minutes licking the extra sauce off the tin foil. I kissed my older son goodbye and arrived at class half an hour late. He would be on his way back to school by the time I got home. During break, I called him.
"Did you pack up the Persian Bark? Did you like the barbecue chicken?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "I loved it. Thank you for all the love this weekend. I left you a note in your book about it."
When I got home, I grabbed Ina's book and read his note. "Chicken was awesome. Thank you so much, Mom. I really love coming home to you guys."
I read and reread that note. Why had I not spent the day with my son? What was so great about yoga that I had skipped spending time with him to do it? I thought about Lauren, our yoga instructor that day and one of the leaders of the program. She was funny, astute and attractive, with a three-month old baby and a toddler at home. It couldn't have been easy for her to spend the day with us. Two of the other women had missed yoga class that morning and Lauren had gently reminded us that we might all have families and other things to do, but on days we had yoga training, we had to show up on time and make yoga a priority. My family had always been my priority but with one son out of the house and another one heading in that direction, maybe the paradigm was shifting.
I looked down again at my son's note and thought about what Lauren had said after a particularly tough sequence of poses: "Bring your hands to your heart and pause."
(adapted from Ina Garten's The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook)
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
1 chicken, quartered, back removed (2 1/2 to 3 pounds of chicken.
You can use any combination of two to three pounds of chicken. I made this chicken several times: Twice, I used a whole chicken, cut up. Once, I used two pounds of boneless chicken thighs. If you are cooking chicken on the bone, cook for 45 minutes. If you are cooking boneless thighs or breasts, cook for twenty minutes.
(This recipe will make enough sauce for six pounds of chicken. I suggest you use half of it for three pounds of chicken, and put the rest in the fridge for another meal next week.)
1 1/2 cups large yellow onion (1 large onion)
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup tomato paste (10 ounces)
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup honey
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 cup soy sauce
1 cup hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
In a large sauce pan on low heat, sauté the onions and the garlic for 10-15 minutes, until onions are translucent but not browned. Add the tomato paste, vinegar, honey, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, chili powder, cumin and red pepper flakes. Simmer uncovered on low heat for 30 minutes. Use immediately or store in fridge.
After you have made the sauce, cover a sheet pan with tin foil and place chicken parts on sheet pan. Brush or pour marinade onto chicken and marinate chicken for a few hours or overnight (I only did for an hour).
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Cook chicken for 45 minutes to an hour. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Also delicious cold the next day!
Persian Chocolate Bark With Cardamom and Coffee
(from Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping)
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli)
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ cup dried mulberries
¼ cup dried tart cherries (I doubled this and used ½ cup)
¾ cup almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
½ cup pistachios, toasted and coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons coffee beans, coarsely chopped
Pinch of coarse salt (I used sea salt)
Grease a baking sheet and line with parchment paper.
Melt chocolate in saucepan over a pot of simmering water. Add cardamom and stir to dissolve for a couple of minutes. Turn off heat, remove pot from heat and stir in half the mulberries, cherries, almonds and pistachios.
Pour chocolate onto prepared baking sheet. With an offset spatula or rubber spatula, spread chocolate in a wide rectangle about ¼ inch thick. Sprinkle with remaining nuts, dried fruit and ground coffee beans, and press gently into chocolate. Dust with salt.
Cool in refrigerator for about 2 hours, until hard. When firm, slide chocolate onto cutting board and break into pieces. The chocolate gets soft quickly so keep refrigerated until just before serving.
Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, available from Amazon, BN.Com, Words Bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Parnassus, Bookworm, Book Passage, Bloomingdale's and Canyon Ranch. She is at work on a new book, Syllabus: On Teaching and Being Taught.