Last week I rode a borrowed bicycle with a brand new friend to a yoga class. Astrid, a German with a thick accent and friendly exuberance, was navigating and missed a turn so we lost our way for a bit. She remedied her mistake and set us back on course but we had trouble finding the studio as well. Astrid messaged the instructor and she sent down a fellow yogi to guide us to class. By the time we arrived, the session was well under way and I walked carefully through a crowded floor of women in child pose. I bolted toward an empty mat and immediately moved into downward dog with the rest of the class. A moment later the instructor tapped me on the shoulder to inform me that the mat I had taken belonged to the woman she had sent out to show us the way. My face, already red from the heat and the bike ride and the climb up the stairs, flushed even deeper. She handed me a mat and silently pointed me to an empty spot at the front of the class, where I stared straight into my sweaty, crimson complexion in the mirror directly in front of me. I bent my body into a forward fold, relieved to look away.
I once read a blog post from Brene Brown where she talked about feeling like a turtle with no shell in a briar patch, and I relate. China is my briar patch and familiarity was my shell. Three weeks in and I feel so exposed, all the time. I am a firm believer in authenticity and vulnerability and leaning into the awkwardness of making new friends. But if ever I have felt overstimulated, I do now. It’s too much vulnerability, it’s too much awkwardness. Authenticity be damned, I will conform if it means acceptance.
As I tried to power through my shame at the front of the yoga class I counted Lululemon yoga pants and realized my attire was dated and out of style. Everyone was flexible, tan and toned. I tried to mentally draw upon my resources of self-acceptance and self-love but that well was dry.
These days I am not exposed to the warm reassurances that friendship and familiarity provide. The things that made me feel secure a month ago are now gone. Small things I took for granted like the routine of a school pick-up, where I would see faces of people I knew, and they would acknowledge me and I would feel the belonging of community. Daily tasks were not emotionally risky or fraught with opportunities for embarrassment. I had relationships where I knew that I could say something and the person across from me wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. People who know you well have a good sense of what to expect from you. But now I am spending time with people who don’t know me, and as wonderful and kind as they are, don’t have any expectations of what or how I might express my feelings. And since I don’t know them I censor myself and tread lightly. I am in the habit of wanting to manage people’s perceptions of me, and this is an exhausting practice when dealing with new people and new friends. I become paralyzed with fear that I’ll be too much, or share my feelings too freely or express a thought or idea that makes them uncomfortable. In fact, I have done this and the ensuing silence was a new kind of painful; a quiet space where I project all my insecurities into their lack of a verbalized response.
As we relaxed into savasana I took some deep breaths and closed my eyes. I’ve always done yoga just for these last few minutes- a transcendent moment beyond the surface feelings. Tears welled up behind my eyelids and I let them. I lifted my lids to let the tears fall and they did, they poured down over my cheeks. For a brief moment I wondered if my instructor was watching me, I was sure she was, and then I let the thought go and went back into my feelings. With each breath I let myself gently re-live a painful moment from the day, and then the week and the salty rivers continued down under my ears and onto my neck. My chin quivered and my chest heaved. I did what I’ve been taught in many hours of meditation and focused on my breath. Eventually my heart rate slowed and the intensity of the feeling ebbed and I blinked again.
I can reason my way through these difficult days of feeling raw and tender. I can reassure myself that I’ve made friends in the past and I’ll make friends again. I can intellectually comprehend that I won’t always feel this way. But logic and reason can’t reach the place from which my yoga tears flow. Logic and reason can’t be my turtle shell. Only time and familiarity can protect me again from the prickles of everything that is new and scary.