“Got my doubts about it, oh but I try, oh make it work with tears in my eyes.” ~ Some Peace of Mind, Van Morrison
Cow Face is a funny name for a pose.
We cross our legs at the knees and press our sitting bones down on the mat. I’m not sure how this resembles a cow’s face, and I’ve never thought to ask.
Most of the English names for the yoga poses make sense to me. They have purpose: Chair pose. Side Angle. Handstand. They have power: Warrior One. Warrior Two. They have beauty: Half Moon. Crescent Lunge.
But where is the grace in a name like Cow Face?
The other night at yoga, I got to find out. I was at a power class that takes everything I’ve got.
Right away, there are Fire Jumps and handstands and early Crows and arm balances. At the start, I wonder how I’ll ever do it. But in the end my practice always shows up, and I’m left to wonder how I ever could not!
I unroll my mat and start to pace, re-acquainting myself with my space. I watch as others fill the room and lay out their mats, too. Already acquainted with theirs, most of them sit down to wait. The instructor arrives and calls us to the tops of our mats. I stop pacing and step to the top of mine, with my feet together and my arms at my sides.
I hear the instructor say, “Surya Namaskar A!”
She takes us through the Sun A’s, using Sanskrit names and some English ones, too. We reach up and look up. We fold forward and lift halfway. We jump back to a low plank and move through to an Upward Facing Dog and then back to a Downward Facing Dog. And then we rest for five breaths before we do it all again.
It doesn’t take long for my body to integrate the purpose and the power and the beauty of the poses. I listen to the names of each pose, and I move as instructed. I lift and fold. I fill up and let go.
We continue to the Surya Namaskar B’s, incorporating Chair poses and Warrior Ones and inverting with Fire Jumps during the breaths in between. I press my hands to the mat, lock up my bandhas and jump lightly into a handstand.
Tonight I seem to lift as if by magic.
I’m encouraged when my handstands appear so early in the practice. When they do, it’s as if I’m getting a message that I’m doing okay, even though such thoughts are against the rules. We’re not supposed to attach ourselves to what it is that we can do.
It’s time for the standing series, and I stretch into Extended Side Angle and Reverse Side Angle. I bind and balance and fly in Bird of Paradise and in Reverse Bird, too. Later I glide into Triangle pose and grab my big toe and open up into Half Moon. And then I let go and turn my hips for Standing Splits, raising my back leg even higher and placing my hands on the mat before lifting into another handstand.
I can’t explain what it’s like to move like this. All I can say is that I feel free when I do,
and that the movement helps me to build my strength, too. For me, the practice brings to life the phrase, “Dance as if no one’s watching,” because at yoga, no one really is. We have the support of each other, which lets us practice together with the utmost care, and that puts aside any need we might have to compare.
We do our Mula Bandha checkups, and I sit in straddle while placing my hands on either side of one leg. This is my good side, and so I lift up easily onto my hands and tuck my legs under, ducking into another inversion. And then we move to the other side, where my bandhas aren’t as strong, and here I barely squeak out an arm balance before jumping back for another vinyasa.
Finally, it’s time for our Wheels, or backbends, and we do just three, on our own and in our own time. These days I’m working on straightening my arms and pushing my chest through in an effort that never gets old.
Tonight I feel connected and strong. We do lots of variations of seated forward folds and twists, and at this point I’m flexible enough to fold fully in half when I extend my legs.
The instructor comes by to give me an extra press, and my nose dips down between my knees and kisses the mat.
We are winding down, and I’m figuring that we’re just about done when the instructor suddenly calls for Cow Face. I had no idea that anything more would be in store, much less a pose that’s not often called for.
“Okay, listen!” she says. “We are going to place our arms in Eagle!”
Her words sound out a warning, but I can’t imagine for what. I’ve always thought of Cow Face as a somewhat harmless pose. I cross my legs at the knees for what I think will be a reprieve. Wrapping my arms at the elbows to match the wrap at my knees, I sit tall and broaden my back between my shoulder blades.
And what comes next is a big surprise! I am suddenly so overwhelmed that I don’t know what to do. Tears well up in my eyes but then quickly subside when it’s time to switch to the other side. I unwrap my arms and legs and re-wrap them the other way. And then it happens again! On this side, too, I have some tears to blink away.
I can’t fathom my reaction in this pose, especially after such a hearty practice. How is it possible to sit here, rooted in strength and possibility, and yet have such a struggle arise in me?
But those feelings that so quickly arose are gone as soon as I release the pose, and before I know it I’m lying in Savasana for our final rest. Although I can’t seem to rest. I want to know what happened, and I know that’s going to take some writing.
Writing always helps me figure things out. It’s a lot like the practice in this way, especially at the beginning, when the page is blank. That’s when I wonder how I’ll ever do it. But, in the end, as with my practice, the words always show up, and tonight they don’t fail me. They help explain what happened.
I don’t know if anyone else felt it as well, but when I wrapped myself up in Cow Face, two things occurred at once. I experienced the burden of constriction, yet at the same time I sensed the strength of expansion. And for just a moment it was almost all too much.
I just became overwhelmed. But that’s okay, because I know that this is how the practice works. It makes me aware of my struggles and helps me build my strength. And sometimes it does both at the same time, because collisions can happen when we dare to dance as if no one’s watching.
And now I know that it was never the handstand energy that earlier informed me; rather, it was Cow Face with its colliding subtleties. This pose, which before tonight had never meant anything, now suddenly means just about everything.
I had found the grace in Cow Face! Tonight it had purpose and power and beauty, all three; and for just a moment, on both sides, I got to see the same in me.