by Maura O'Brien
followed by Q&A
He was the kind of teacher who was aware of everyone and no-one. Sometimes he put his fingers to his temples as he smiled and nodded his way in and out through the mats. A girl over by the wall smiled back at him. Silly, Helen thought. “That’s it,” he said to the girl. “Lovely”. Helen went deeper into the stretch until it began to hurt.
“Now there will be discomfort. Feel the discomfort, be aware of it but try to stay there. Just for another little while.”
He had a way of singing words here and there that made you want to please. ‘Little’ became liiihhh-tel. Helen knew she’d gone too far but she’d stay because he sang liihhh-tel.
“And breathe. Always breathe.”
Helen held her breath.
“Well done everyone!”
“That’s a hard one. Trikonasana. Let’s just take a minute to get our breathing back.”
He wasn’t tall. He was neat. Like he was always new and shiny, taken out of a box and put to work. He had a white-toothed smile, wide. Going right from one side of his face to the other. His hair was long enough to be pulled back into a ponytail. And his voice. That was the thing. It bubbled, it danced, it eased its way around corners and through gaps. That’s why his class was always full, Helen thought. That and because he made jokes. He wasn’t all heavy and intense like some of the others.
“You guys have been to far too many serious yoga classes. Relax! Groan and grunt if you need to!”
Sometimes there was no space left in his class and people were turned away so Helen always came early now, just to be certain.
The end of class: Savasana. Helen imagined her bones had been stretched and kneaded like pieces of rubber and now became heavy and weighed her down, down into the floor. She lay on her back, palms facing upward.
“Anyone need a blanket?” he said.
Helen always put up her hand. He tripped in and out through the mats gently dropping blankets. Once he had draped it over her. She remembered the surprise of it. The brief contact, his hands touching her shoulders for a second. Being tucked in to sleep like a child and woken up wide awake at the same time.
The lights were dimmed and incense filled the room. There was soft music. Bells ringing. His voice purred.
“Now, don’t fall asleep. I know you all want to.”
That soft ripple of laughter again.
“Your mind might be busy, racing, especially if you’ve pushed yourself hard. Now, it’s time to let everything go. In every muscle. If there’s any tension, tense up that muscle for a second and let it go. Curl your toes in and point them out. Good toes, bad toes.”
There was no laughter now, everyone was starting to rest. There would be smiling though. Helen felt she could hear them, the smiles.
“Then relax them. Wriggle your fingers aaannd relax.”
Helen’s leg was throbbing. Really throbbing. She would try to take her mind off it. Sometimes, she liked to imagine bumping into him. In a shop, maybe. Or a café. She would be sitting in a café, reading. What would she be reading? Her hair would be down and blow-dried and—
“Try not to daydream. Daydreaming just gets in the way. Look at the thoughts racing through your mind and then go back to the breath. Inhale, exhale.”
Helen saw herself in the café reading a big heavy hard-backed book. There were frosted windows and soft lights. Listen to the breath, listen, she reminded herself and the book, the window, the café became smaller and smaller till they were gone.
After class he was in the corner talking to a lady with silver hair.
“You run a beautiful practice,” the lady was saying.
Helen rolled up her mat. She had definitely pulled something. Idiot. And Ian was coming over later too. He would joke. Thought yoga was supposed to help, not hurt. He might cook dinner and they would watch television and after a while she would begin to enjoy it. And lying in this big room on the floor would seem strange and separate.
Sometimes, during class, Helen liked to imagine the lives of the people around her. She sensed that their lives were different from hers. That they ate healthy foods and read more books and travelled and had other friends who did the same and they would meet in cafés and talk about real things and had jobs that they enjoyed and were interesting. And when they went to class it wasn’t just like a sandbank in a sea of stuff that clogged up their time, it was all part of the same flow. They had lives where one thing flowed into the other. This is what Helen imagined people meant by “wholeness”.
The silver-haired woman was still talking to him. They were talking about Nepal. Ashram, what does this mean? She would look it up. The woman had a young face even though her hair was grey.
Helen lingered near the doorway and bent down to put on her shoes. Her leg hurt. Once he had walked her out and stood talking to her while she put her shoes and coat on. He’d told her about some Friday nights at the centre when they got in a DJ and everyone brought food and just sat around and ate and talked. “Look out for the next one,” he’d said, smiling.
Helen groaned when she straightened up and the woman at the desk smiled at her. She felt a blush rising up her neck.
Helen had to use deep heat and limp around for a few days. What kind of teacher is she if she lets you hurt yourself? Ian wanted to know. Ian had no time for all that hippy bullshit. Next thing you’ll have me eating lentils or something. Helen had thought about making lentil soup. There were recipes pinned up at the centre. Quotations too. What was that one she liked? The only tyrant I accept—she would write it down if no one was looking. Or memorize it.
That Friday, Helen went out to the pub with her work mates. They drank beer, then went on to shorts and danced right there in the pub where they had been sitting. At the end of the night, when she started to feel tired, she thought of the yoga centre—people sitting on the floors in the dim light, food balanced on their laps, heads bobbing to the music. She tried to imagine being there too but couldn’t. When she left the pub she started walking in the direction of the centre instead of toward home but only got half way there. Her hangover had already started. When she rang Ian, he was annoyed that she was walking around the city on her own. Where were the others? He would come and find her.
Ian stayed till Sunday afternoon.
The following week, he offered to pick her up from yoga class. They could get a pizza, he suggested, in that Italian around the corner. But Helen heard herself say that she didn’t want stodgy pizza and wasn’t sure what she was doing after class anyway. Then Ian had gone all quiet on the phone and she knew he was hurt.
Helen was lying on her mat when the teacher came in. Footsteps as light as a dancer’s, tip-toeing through the mats. “Well, how is everyone?” he said to everyone and no-one. Helen stared at him, look at me. Look. I’m here. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach as class began.
After a while the nerves began to settle and Helen started to enjoy it. She let herself be pulled and twisted and wrung out until she felt light and soft, ready for anything.
“Now our next position can be tricky. Take it slowly. Anyone finding it too hard can try a different version.”
Two women on the other side of the room opted for an easier position and he went over smiling, nodding in encouragement.
“Put your left leg here and your right leg—Yes. That’s it, just there. That’s it, just like we did last night.”
His favorite joke. The women giggled, careful laughter rose and fell around the room.
Helen tensed, felt something else in her stomach. Not butterflies, something hard and sharp. She looked over at the two women and copied the alternative position but he was down at the back of the class now. When he walked by her mat, he said nothing. When he turned to face the class, he smiled and his eyes seemed to focus on a spot above their heads.
At the end of class they lay down for Savasana. Helen’s whole body bristled. She would talk to him after class. She had decided. Tell him about her sore leg, ask about that position. She had worn makeup. A little. Enough for it to look natural but better. To cover the grey circles under her eyes, to highlight her eye lashes. She looked good in her tracksuit and tight t-shirt. She knew that. Ian told her that every week. No. Don’t change, come here, leave it on.
“Corpse Pose,” the teacher was saying, smiling. “Corpse Pose. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty.” He paused. “That’s the Tao, not me!”
There was laughter again but Helen didn’t feel like laughing.
“No. Seriously. This pose is about letting yourself be empty. Empty of ideas, dreams, goals. Those old anxieties, those midnight worries, this is a time to have a break.”
Helen took a deep breath, right up to her shoulders and let it out. She counted five breaths and stretched her arms and legs like in a yawn.
“Let your mind move over your body. Over any tingling or odd sensations. Let them go. Relax your scalp, your face, your tongue.”
Helen heard his feet pad around the room as he was talking. His voice at the top of the room, then beside her. Someone was talking outside the room in the corridor. She thought of Ian’s voice on the phone, kind, worried. The teacher’s voice here on a Friday night “Relax!” it was saying, laughing. Helen saw herself there too, sitting on the floor. He was looking at her, smiling. Then it all moved further away, his voice, the smile. She felt her skin, her blood as she started to shrink into the floor. “Helen?” a voice came from above her. “Helen?”
When she came back, he was sitting at the top of the room.
“Well done everyone,” he said when they were all sitting up. “I think we had some sleepers there!” He tutted and shook his head.
Behind her, someone giggled.
“Great class. Try to take something from it, a small piece of the strength and calm we found here tonight and use it, use it in your week ahead. Well done. Namaste.”
Helen dawdled. She folded up her blanket and tidied the ones that had fallen down. He was speaking to the two women he had helped in class. They were talking and laughing at the same time. One of the women had an accent and long blonde hair that shook when she spoke. Helen had nothing else left to do. She put her coat on and her hat. Her gloves. Everyone else was gone except Helen and the three talking at the top of the room. They hadn’t even rolled up their mats yet. “No way!” he was saying. “Unbelievable!” The room still smelt of incense and wooden floors and something else human, something female.
Helen stood near the door. She was about to leave when he noticed her. Though she knew he knew she was there all the time.
“Helen, can I help you? Do you need something?”
Helen wasn’t sure she could find her voice; it felt so tight around her throat.
“No. I just. Wanted to ask. No. It’s fine. See you next week.”
The two women had turned and stood waiting. When she left she heard them talk and laugh again. Like she had laughed with him before.
What’s up with you? Ian wanted to know a few days later. Is it me? But they picked up where they had left off. Their familiar routines: cinema once a week, the odd take-out, pub on a Friday. It was all she knew of this city—Ian, work, and now, yoga. One night Ian cooked her spaghetti Bolognese and set the table, lit candles and everything. I know you have a thing about atmosphere, he’d said. He would try to do stuff she liked more. They could try to do different things together. Ian’s eyes were kind, like there were layers of colours behind them.
That night almost made everything seem fine.
A week later, the weather was bad. It had been snowing all day. You’re not going out in that are you? You’re mad, said Ian. I’ll walk you, he offered. Don’t go. Stay in.
The snow came down in large flakes. Helen had never seen the city like this before, so still. She saw snow resting on windowsills and bins like a thick layer of icing. Now and then a car crawled by. No one was out except groups of teenagers pelting snowballs, laughing and shouting. They were the same groups that she crossed the road to avoid every week but now they just seemed like big dazed children.
The yoga centre was quiet too. The usual woman at the desk, a few people hanging around near the door getting ready to go out into the cold. There were red and green Christmas plants in pots on the floor and candles that smelled of cinnamon flickered in the draft. A poster on the wall said “Friday Night Winter Potluck. Bring family and friends!” That Ghandi quotation was still there, the one she liked:
The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still small voice within me.
Helen was the first to arrive for her class. She rolled out her mat, sat down and waited. A door banged on the corridor. “Here! Over here!” someone shouted outside. Snow was piling up on the windowsill of the small square window. Helen felt calm, waiting there in the big empty room. There was no need to panic, everything felt different in the snow.
Then she heard him, near the door. “Hello?” he called. Helen sat up and turned but he was gone. She smoothed her hair—it smelled of shampoo. She was wearing the same tight red t-shirt, the one Ian liked. A few moments later he came to the door again.
“Hello! I didn’t see you there over at the side. I wasn’t expecting anyone.” He was still wearing a hat and jacket.
“So, it’s just you. Let’s give it five more minutes and see if anyone else shows, OK? Music?” His movements were light and quick. He turned on the music: bells again.
“Tibetan singing bowls in the snow, there’s something about that, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” Helen said, smiling. She wanted to say something else but he was gone again. Now the butterflies were back and the hard, sharp thing from before and a whole lot of other things too. She lay down. The room was cold. Like there was a layer of cold air close to the floor, swirling. Helen lay as still as she could and tried to feel calm again. She listened to her breathing, the in breath and the out breath. In and out. She exhaled in shreds.
“Right.” He padded back in quickly, this time without his jacket. Helen stood up.
“Well? Shall we leave it for tonight or do you still want to have a class? I doubt anyone else will show. Good for you by the way, getting here in the snow.”
He smiled with his mouth closed and looked at her. His eyes said nothing.
“I—I don’t know,” said Helen. “Since I’m here, we could do a short class or something?” She gave him her best smile. “Or we could just talk for a while? About yoga and—”
“Right. Mmm. I’m just a bit worried about the weather getting worse. You could get a refund or take an extra class at the end of the course? You should try Vinaysa Flow sometime, you’d like it.”
“But, I walked,” Helen found herself saying. She heard her voice insistent, rising. “I
walked in the snow. I walked all the way here. I …”
“Look.” He gestured towards the small square window, now divided into two rectangles,
one white, one dark.
“If it's about the money, you'll get a refund.”
“It's not about the money. It's about … about… ”
His eyes were like dark glass. Helen looked down at her feet.
“Is there someone who can pick you up? Or meet you? My friend’s stuck on the other side of town. I might try to get over there.”
“Yes, of course. Go ahead. It’s fine,” Helen said. She looked at a dark spot on the floor.
“Right, so,” she heard him say. His little feet and his thin legs padding over to turn off the music.
Helen felt the cold air swirling near the floor. She imagined it circling like white smoke. She wanted to lie down and be covered with a blanket. She wanted to go back to a moment before, to the moment where he first came to the door and said “hello.”
She felt him linger at the back of the room. “See you next week?” he called. Helen sat on her mat, closed her eyes and listened to her breath. Inhale. Exhale. She didn't turn around.
Maura O’Brien lives and works in Dublin. She has an M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin. She has previously published in Cyphers magazine and her short story “Routines” was shortlisted for the 2011 Francis MacManus Short Story Competition. Maura is currently working on a collection of short stories.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Corpse Pose began on a snowy walk to a yoga class last December.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: I would like to be a French Horn but fear I’m a bit fluty.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Alice Munro, Katherine Mansfield, Carol Shields,James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Henning Mankell, Colm Toibin, ….and more.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: At my small blue desk in the bedroom or lounging on my bed.