September 1, 2011

Union Warrior. ~ Julie Balter

Sally Field as Norma Rae

Around the time OJ was acquitted, I relocated from the urban inferno of Miami to a sleepy, southern town in North Carolina. I came there at age 28 for a new job with my company, where I worked as a union representative in the film industry. For cost savings, Hollywood had erected a huge studio to crank out films in a corner of the Carolina coast. In this little town it wasn’t uncommon to see the cast members of a certain hit TV series sipping lattes at the local coffee shop, right around the block from the Confederate statue in the town center.

It was a little surreal, like “Movie Stars invade Mayberry,” – or seeing how far away the town was from any cities, maybe more like when famed Hollywood Director Harold Hecuba was marooned on Gilligan’s Island and recruited the castaways for “Hamlet: The Musical.” It seemed like all of the townsfolk could recall a time they’d worked as a walk-on, or would advise with an air of authority which film boasted the best craft services. In the cafés, local patrons might debate heatedly over hush puppies whether Dustin Hoffman was a friendlier fellow than Robert “Bobby” De Niro.

The bagels in that town were terrible and the radio seemed to mostly play songs about love of Jesus and the U. S. of A. I remember that, too. It’s what I always talked about whenever anyone from home asked how things were going.

But it was my first foray into yoga.

Seeing how local resident Katie Holmes and I never got around to becoming BFFs, I found yoga only because I was looking for something to do. Although my job was interesting, I was also very stressed out; union organizing in the Deep South sometimes made my shoulders hunch around my head. Granted, the film industry wasn’t exactly a textile factory, but it was still a lot to take on by myself, and especially at that age. Also, at 5-feet-ish tall and around 100 lbs, some might say I did not have what is known as “a physically intimidating presence.”

However, I liked to remember that neither did Sally Field, who was then more associated with her role as a pixyish flying nun than tough talking Norma Rae. For close to ten years I kept a framed photo in my office of Sally as Norma holding the union sign. What’s so interesting to me now is that as I was writing this, I realized her iconic celluloid image assumes the exact essence of Warrior One, the asana that is my latest obsession.

In that famous scene of the movie with the same name, Norma Rae has reached her turning point. She turns off her textile press, stands on top of a factory table, and without uttering a single word, boldly raises both her arms, holding the UNION sign high above her head. Slowly, all of the other workers, both mighty and meek, shut off their machines, until they are standing together in a unified silence that fills the entire factory.

Incidentally, the word yoga, literally translated from Sanskrit, means “union.”

To yolk together, to join as one. The interconnection of all things.

My yoga class was held every Friday at 6:00 pm inside the Unitarian church. Classes were $6.00, which you dropped in a basket on the honor system. If you didn’t have exact change, not a problem, you just paid next week. Because it was definitely the kind of thing you’d want to return to.

It was the most basic of basic classes. We did the warriors, downward dog, and a triangle in which we tried to imagine ourselves “squeezed between two sheets of glass.” I might even have touched my toes, but I don’t remember breaking a sweat often, at least at that beginning stage. Still, by the time we lay down for savasana, my entire body felt “as light as the feather,” the mantra we once chanted at tween-age slumber parties when we prepared to levitate off our parents’ living room floors.

I’d always hated exercising. In my early 20s I had a roommate who was an aerobics instructor and whenever I took her jam-packed class, it was all I could do to keep from screaming aloud, “make this stop right now!” But yoga was so different. I no longer had a need to yell at anyone. The stretches were so simple, but with such unique ways of opening our bodies, sweeping away the mind-clutter, and uncovering the shut-down spaces in our hearts.

I sauntered home in such a sublime state of bliss that I soon started staying home on Friday nights to create a ritual for myself. I wiled the evening away sitting outside on my balcony, wrapped in a wool blanket, inhaling the still unfamiliar piney wood that tingled my nose, awakening my senses. I watched for the first time what my mind would reflect upon when it wasn’t gripped with any worries or wants. For that moment I no longer missed Miami’s jasmine air or the way we’d speed our cars across the neon night.

Part of me felt anti-social, speaking silently with the stars and the trees on a Friday night, and yet a part of me understood on a subtle level that there in that little town with its terrible bagels, twangy country songs, and bizarre celebrity culture, I could catch a glimpse of the universe.

Since that sweet time in my life all those years ago I’ve stopped and started yoga many times before it took hold, as I always knew it one day would. And these days, as with most people who practice, classes are squeezed into our too busy lives. We rarely have time to savor the afterglow of our savasana, but that’s okay, because really, one of our greatest lessons is to learn how to take yoga’s effects out into the world.

Now, as I start to teach, I want my students to explore their own inner warriors, and to recall what it feels like to be as free as their twelve-year-old self, pretending to levitate off the living room floor. I hope their senses will stir with the pine-scented memories of sacred places inside of themselves. Maybe they will learn, as I did through yoga, that in actuality, in this universe we’re all like sparkly movie stars chilling together in a very small town, and we’re each deserving of our pedestals. But most of all, I hope they’ll discover in their own way what it means to connect with something greater than ourselves, and to embody and experience the ultimate power of union.

Julie Balter is a film industry veteran, a yoga teacher rookie, and a writer at heart. She blends these three passions and personas in Yogi After Forty: a blog about bending, stretching & growing up. The blog explores the poetics of yoga practice and the metaphors we take from the mat, often drawing from her slight obsession with cinema and 1970s pop culture. Julie just completed her yoga teacher training at Prana Yoga in Miami, Florida where she now works as an instructor. Her teaching style interweaves storytelling and symbolism with a challenging practice that inspires students to explore their potential, while embracing a sense of humor.

Julie is also a former student of Goddard College’s MFA Creative Writing Program, and hopes to complete her degree in this lifetime. Her writing has been featured in several periodicals and the anthology The Thong Also Rises: Further Adventures of Funny Women on the Road (Travelers Tales). Articles and writing samples are available upon request through [email protected]. In her free time, Julie is learning to draw yoga stick figures from the great masters and dedicates too much time to creating musical playlists for class, even though she knows she’s not supposed to play the music too loud.

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