Yoga opened doors she had long ago closed

Except for some false starts, I stayed clear of yoga for years. Around 2001, my then-husband renewed his interest in it and began going daily. To do this meant he was away for the morning and then spent a few more hours looking exhausted.

He kept assuring me that I'd love it, that it would be the best thing for me, that it would give me energy, that I'd be less stressed. I looked at him and saw that he looked paler than usual.

I said no and chose instead to sit, quite possibly angry, at my desk when I was home.

About that time, I began a commute that put me in the car for three hours a day. I drove out of my San Pedro neighborhood, port lights still very bright, at about 5:45 a.m. and headed south. It was no joke when I'd say that I really woke up somewhere just past where the 710 and the 405 freeways meet; I wasn't ever ready to be awake at that time.

But part of getting to work before it started meant that I suddenly and for the first time in my life had about an hour every day in which it was hard to do anything but write. The hall was empty. The building silent. It was then that my writing practice became regular and steady.

It was also during this time that sitting for long stretches began to wreck me. Those days were often broken up with drive-thru fast food for lunch and, later in the evening, whatever dinner jag we were on. Sometimes, it was takeout Mexican for weeks. In one particularly busy season, I gave up cooking completely; we'd go out and I would eat hot wings, fries and a beer about four nights a week.

A few years later, at the age of 39, I moved my writing time to the evening. I was working hard at revision. By then, I was separated and living very close to work, and after being in my office all day, I'd come home and write for about three hours.

Around Christmas, I woke up with back pain, a thing I'd never felt. I was not a back pain person; I was a stomach-upset person. It didn't go away and it occurred to me that my body was now falling apart. It didn't help that things were generally difficult that year, nor that I found myself reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Crack-Up" at night when I couldn't sleep. The title essay finds Fitzgerald "cracking" at the age of 39; he writes of himself in the third person: "[T]his writer told about his realization that what he had before him was not the dish that he had ordered for his forties. In fact -- since he and the dish were one, he described himself as a cracked plate, the kind that one wonders whether it is worth preserving."

The back pain stayed. I was wounded. With my ex-husband no longer encouraging me to try yoga, I thought to go just like it had been my own idea. I went for my back. I went because I couldn't sleep. I went because going daily from desk-at-work to desk-at-home was depressing me even if I didn't know to call it that.

What kind of writing practice sends you to the doctor? Who cares about revision when it hurts to sit? Who can think of a word when a dull ache speaks louder than whatever one is trying to say, even to herself? So, three years ago on New Year's Eve -- because I don't believe in resolutions -- I tried one yoga class. A holiday from my hairshirt of a schedule; a break and then back to the chair.

What happened, of course, is that one day turned to four or five a week. It's true that yoga took nearly four hours out of my day -- changing clothes, driving, going to eat or cooking afterward -- and put off my writing for the night sometimes. And it was a gamble, the sense that I was trading one practice for another, a betrayal of time I'd just learned how to put to use.

But in yoga, as anyone and everyone who's ever benefited from it will say, all kinds of things became possible. I was there only to breathe; nothing to revise or make again. The yoga instructor -- more than one, really -- would walk by me and say, "Soft face." Sometimes the teacher would put her fingers into my furrowed brow as she passed.

I may not have been calm. I may not have been supple or limber. I may not have been still or steady. But the more I went, day after day, I was different. I was flooded with pictures and images, the memories of open houses. Sometimes I'd see the curbside view, sign swinging in the wind. I'd close my eyes and breathe in through my nose and see houses my ex-husband and I considered buying, thought about, tried to buy. Houses in San Pedro. Houses on Walker. On 19th below Gaffey. Patton. Weymouth. Averill. Houses out at Point Fermin facing water. Big windows. Doorways. I saw myself walking through all those empty houses; what could be stored or born there? What projects? What meals? Who would visit?

This could be a home, I thought, whenever we'd walk inside a new frame like that.

I did lose some writing time. I also made a new space for what I was ready to do. Not disappointment and ache. But possibility and thresholds. I saw myself in the past, walking into yards and past neat hallway cabinets. I saw myself walking, with countless folded fliers, this home could be yours, in my purse.

Atkinson is the author of "Mean," a collection of poetry, and associate director of the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine.

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