To a dancer, the floor is paramount: it is both a physical and a psychological partner. You learn to depend on it, to lean on it, to leap off it. One of my favorite pre-class rituals involved lying on my back in the studio, bundled in thick sweatpants and a hoodie, feeling my bones make contact with the wood, those solid, orderly slats. It felt like meeting an old lover. Like coming home. When all else failed — I mangled the steps, I felt clumsy or lost — the floor was always there.
At 26, I’d been a downtown modern dancer in New York City for almost five years. It was a life I’d cobbled together in the rinky-dink fashion we thrived on in those days: with a farcically cheap rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn, a flexible job slinging coffee, and good yoga-teaching gigs all over town. I had, in some ways, arrived, although I didn’t believe there was a fixed destination, and if there was, I was sure I hadn’t gotten there. There was always more, more, more — it was a career that required saying yes to everything.
The day-to-day of it was so far from glamorous that some wouldn’t dare even call it a career, but as it turned out, it was my kind of life, one built on and through my body, a body I had, since childhood, found immeasurable joy in using to its fullest.
One evening in dance class, I kicked out my leg and felt a sharp pain in my lower back. I hobbled to a corner of the studio and got down on my hands and knees to assess. I didn’t know it then — wouldn’t believe it for years — but the floor, my home base, had been pulled out from under me.
Six years later, I found myself in a hovel in Paris. An old French woman named Noëlle had her fingertips on my spine and was screaming “Up! Up! UP!” in my ear.
By then I was 31, and I had lived with chronic pain since that day in class. For years, I kept dancing. Cooks work with burns, medical residents with sleep deprivation, dancers with pain: this was my logic. Eventually the ache in my back and hip crept down my leg, causing debilitating nerve pain — sciatica — that stayed there, no matter what I did. My career fell apart. With it, any sense of my identity toppled.
Restorative yoga, acupuncture, massages, physical therapy, an anti-inflammatory diet, Chinese herbs, cortisone injections, fistfuls of Aleve, narcotics, disk surgery. When none of those provided any relief, I got on a plane to France.
My friends and family thought I had gone insane. Perhaps I was, finally, unhinged, but this is what pain does to you — it stalks you, insinuating itself into every facet of your life, growing in volume, until there’s nothing else left.
Although Noëlle had been B.K.S. Iyengar’s first Western-yoga student, she was entirely unknown in the yoga circles in which I’d traveled (or, really, in any yoga circles). She’d even appeared in Iyengar’s biblical tome Light on Yoga, which features photos and detailed explanations of every single posture in the alignment-based practice. Noëlle was in the only photo Iyengar shares with another person — in a striped bikini, sitting on the floor, with her legs extended in front of her. Her face is being crushed into her thighs, because Iyengar is balancing in a quasi-handstand on her back, his hands scooping around her ribcage. They look like some sort of Chinese circus act.