I remember shyly asking my classmates to take off their shoes, the school linoleum cold on our feet as we teetered and crashed into our desks and each other. The assignment for Ms. Rotar’s seventh-grade English class was to give a how-to speech. I had decided I wanted to teach my class to do yoga, despite the fact that I had never actually done yoga. So armed with my books from the public library, I taught my fellow students how to do Tree pose, Vrksasana.
Why I was so determined to do yoga still confounds me. I’d heard about yoga for the first time in the course catalog of my local Jewish Community Center under the classes for seniors, and soon after my seventh-grade speech, I asked my mom to sign me up.
The history of yoga is a bit mysterious—begun as early as 5,000 years ago, somewhere in India, by a bunch of men doing nothing that resembles our modern-day asana-based yoga. Yoga intrigued the Transcendentalists in the 1800s and, as a result, yoga migrated west as various swamis from India came to the United States. Not until Indra Devi came to the United States in 1947 was there a popular female yoga instructor in America. After she opened a studio in Los Angeles, Hollywood starlets took up yoga largely for the effects it had on the physical body.
I’m sure that some Western women today practice yoga because of these physical benefits while, for others, yoga offers a space to seek solace from our fast-paced, image-oriented culture. For me, yoga helps me to feel beautiful in my body—a feeling I didn’t experience at all between the ages of 10 and 30.
In fifth grade, I was sexually assaulted by a babysitter’s boyfriend. Afterward, I felt like I had a secret and, if I told anyone, they would think that something in me had brought on the assault. Up until then, when people told me I was cute or pretty, I felt proud, like it was something I had achieved. But after that, “beautiful” was something that had a tinge of shame, a liability, because in my mind, things happened to you if you were a beautiful woman. I didn’t talk about this to anyone. Instead, what I said to my mother was that I was old enough to babysit myself. When I was assaulted again my freshman year of college, by someone in my circle of friends, I reached out for help, but no one was able to offer any continued support, not even the university police department. And so I assumed that help was not something I deserved.
The assaults left me searching for ways to be comfortable in my own body. Because I wasn’t able to talk about my experiences, I turned to writing as a way of healing. When my poem about being assaulted was published in the anthology Best American Poetry 2004, I was afraid to show my family. I wanted to spare them the details—or, rather, spare myself from judgment and pity. For the longest time, I was afraid to admit that I needed help.
After the assault in college, I turned inward. I continued going to classes and spending time with those friends who had decided to remain neutral since they were friends with both of us. In my mind, I felt that if I could pretend nothing had happened, everything would go back to being “normal.” Years later, when one of my college friends apologized for the way she had treated me and we began to talk about that time in our lives, I was keenly aware of the parts of me that had hardened, creating a locked room in my body—one that even I couldn’t get into.
When I think about it now, I think the part of me that was locked was not only the ability to be comfortable with my sexuality, but also to explore, value, celebrate, and cherish that part of myself. After the assault in college, I went through the typical behaviors of survivors of sexual trauma. I alienated myself from my own femininity. I cut off all my hair and wore baggy clothes in order to protect myself from being seen as a sexual object. Then I went in the other direction. I let my hair grow back, wore makeup and suggestive clothing. I was always going to parties and seeking out male attention. For years, I bounced back and forth between discipline, promiscuity, shame, and a desperate desire for approval. This constant search for happiness and value outside of myself left me empty.
I was 30 when I finally felt something in my life shift. It was the third night of my yoga teacher training at Kripalu. We were practicing meditation in motion, allowing our bodies to move intuitively, letting go of willful control and allowing movement to take the shape of prayer. I had chosen a spot close to the edge of the room because I didn’t want to be seen or watched by others. I remember the chant that was playing, and the way my body was silhouetted in the streetlight or moonlight streaming through the window. Now, years later, I recognize the chant as the mantra Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya, which means I bow down to the divine light within. But, that night, I felt what I couldn’t articulate consciously. My body became the translation of the Sanskrit. I felt as if that light was my own compassionate gaze, watching me lovingly in a way that I had not looked upon myself in a very long time. For those few minutes of movement, the feelings of self-consciousness that I had carried with me for years somehow vanished. I found strength and grace within, my own femininity expressing itself both internally and externally. I felt light and beautiful.
In Sanskrit, yoga means yoking, or union. When, at age 12, I asked my mom to sign me up for yoga classes, I think I knew that this was a way for me to regain the connection with my body that the first assault had robbed me of. I don’t know if that lesson I taught in Ms. Rotar’s class spoke to anyone but me, but whenever people ask me when I started practicing yoga, this is the moment I think of: taking off my socks and standing in my stirrup pants just like all the other girls, feeling part of the group but knowing that there was some other voice out there, one that didn’t need to wear what everyone else was wearing, or listen to the music that everyone else was listening to. I stood there in Tree pose, one foot pressing into the floor, connecting me to my peers and my school. But what captured my attention most was the sensation of my other foot pressing into my thigh as I balanced on one leg, and the warmth and strength in my own body as I held myself upright.
Carly Sachs is a poet and fiction writer and a yoga intern for the Kripalu School of Yoga. Her short story “Tender” was selected by Jennifer Egan as the winner of the Stella Kupfenberg Memorial Short Story Prize. “Tender” was read live at Symphony Space in New York City and appeared on “Selected Shorts” on NPR. She is the author of two collections of poetry, the steam sequence and Yama Niyama, as well as the editor of the why and later, a collection of poems women have written about rape and sexual assault.