The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Mirrors, mats, and a change in mindset: How yoga shaped my life beyond the mat

I arrived to my first yoga class with skewed intentions. I had no idea how much the practice would come to change my self-perception.
Shaely Odean
Martha Gordon practices yoga in her studio in Iowa City on Thursday April 11, 2024. Gordon has practiced yoga in Iowa City for over 20 years. (Shaely Odean/The Daily Iowan).

When I first met my yoga instructor Martha Gordon last August, I arrived at her weekly hot yoga class physically and mentally unprepared for how her practice would change my life.

I had done yoga only once before, and not by choice. A parent of one of my fourth-grade classmates convinced my mother to sign me up for her after-school program. While she read from a cartoonish children’s book of Hindu deities to a semicircle of nine-year-olds, I was too distracted by her bunions to retain anything.

But Gordon’s class appealed to me in another way, one that was depressingly young adult-ish: On her website’s description of the practice, she wrote that hot yoga, in particular, boosted metabolism and burned fat.

As someone who has long struggled with a dysmorphic obsession of  my appearance, these words drove my sole intention for attending her class: to lose weight.

The Monday night class is taught in her home studio, a sunlit alcove atop a renovated two-floor garage, tucked away in a residential corner of Iowa City. At 75 minutes long, each Bikram hot practice covers five vinyasas, or five meditative sequences of postures.

From the moment I met her, it was clear Gordon possessed an indomitable human spirit and a passion for the history and culture of her practice.

At 70 years old and no more than five feet tall, Gordon exudes the candid strength and unadulterated stamina of someone twice her height and half her age. She is the type of person everyone wants to respect and be respected by.

Once the group shuffled into the studio, Gordon instructed the eight of us to stand at the top of our mats and face the floor-to-ceiling mirrors adorning the walls. I immediately began picking apart everything I hated about my body.

Without missing a beat and as though she could hear my thoughts, Gordon stated the mirrors were not placed to fulfill vanity, but rather to help us ensure the fullest, most accurate expression of our poses.

My ego felt stripped and vulnerable. I wanted to retort: How am I not supposed to think about my appearance in a room full of mirrors and strangers?

Throughout the entirety of the excruciating practice, I flailed. Gordon, however, could contort with an ease that stunned me and encouraged me to prove myself physically capable of taking her class.

On many occasions, much to my chagrin, she would pause the group practice mid-pose to correct my posture.

“Straighten your back,” she’d say with a maternal cadence. “Your left foot should be flat on the floor.”

Timing my poses with my breathing became all I could focus on. Then, somewhere between Warrior 2 and Standing Eagle, I was no longer fighting my mind.

Over the next seven months, each time Gordon brought our sweaty, tired bodies into savasana — the relaxing “corpse pose” — at the end of our practice, I felt myself letting go of the mindset I brought to my first practice.

When I sat down with Gordon in her studio last week to propose this story, I confessed to her my initial shortcomings, my skewed intentions, and the progress I’ve made in championing these obstacles. Then, I asked her if she at all related to these challenges.

To my surprise, she did. Though she was a physical person all her life, her decision to become a certified hot yoga instructor came after a period of ultimate mourning when Gordon’s youngest brother, her mother, and her father all died within six months of each other.

Martha Gordon closes a window in her studio in Iowa City on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Shaely Odean)

“I was going through a heavy-duty transition,” Gordon told me while we sat on her sofa, her hands occupied in the fur of her Pomeranian. “My heart was broken open.”

Soon after, Gordon had a chance encounter with a hot yoga class during a trip to Florida. There, she was forced to pour her full attention into her body.

For 90 minutes, amid one of the darkest periods of her life, Gordon had completely let go of her life beyond the yoga mat.

“[The instructor] would say, ‘Martha, pull your shoulders back. Martha, pull your head up,’” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except not falling out of the posture.”

Gordon said she left that class feeling completely drained, but also a little lighter. For the remainder of her vacation, she returned every day to practice at the studio

Not long after she returned home, she went back to Florida and undertook stringent training under the guidance of Jimmy Barkan at the Yoga College of India in Fort Lauderdale with the prospect of receiving her certification. She described this experience as the most challenging, yet rewarding, years of her life.

For the next 24 years, Gordon dedicated herself to learning everything there was to know about hot yoga.

She said that, in her experience, people often find yoga during a major transformation in their lives — whether or not they’re even aware of it.

“When you go to these trainings, this is what you find: people who are seeking peace,” she said. “They’re either getting divorced, or they moved, quit smoking, are trying to break an addiction, or someone died. Either way, everyone is mourning something.”

As true as this was for me and Gordon, it also resonated with one of her regulars, Ayron Messerschmitt, who first took her class about 15 years ago.

Messerschmitt, who described his younger self as “intensely cerebral” and by no means a gym rat, studied the spiritual texts within yoga and meditation but would have never imagined his first practice to be so intensely physical.

“I didn’t care about the poses,” he said. “I thought I was going to sit down and, you know, picture a black egg in my throat or have some kind of revelation.”

Before becoming a regular at Gordon’s studio, he didn’t know what it meant to be present in his body.

After an uncomfortable first practice, he emailed Gordon to tell her he could no longer come due to financial reasons — an excuse he fabricated in lieu of admitting to his physical limitations.

“It was total bullsh*t,” Messerschmitt said. “But Martha was just one of those handful of people in my life [who] completely understood it was bullsh*t.”

Gordon responded to his email. Messerschmitt recounted how it read something along the lines of: “Congratulations! You get the ‘Sensitive Guy’ award for the first-ever Martha’s Studio yoga scholarship. Free yoga for a year — no excuses, just get on the mat.”

The accuracy of her intuition shocked him, and Messerschmitt had no choice but to keep showing up.

During our conversation, Messerschmitt recalled a time he was able to complete a challenging pose to its fullest expression. As he spoke, he abruptly brought his foot inches away from his face to mimic the moment of his epiphany.

“I was just like, ‘I’ve never experienced my foot this way.’ I’ve walked on it, looked at it, and touched it, but being able to put it on my face was like a new relationship to something I possess,” he said, still holding the pose. “I can’t think of anything more brain-changing than to extend the range of your physical experience of the world.”

For many yogis, it is impossible to make hot yoga our sole commitment. Beyond the mat, I’m still a workaholic and a natural contrarian to the spiritual aspect of hot yoga.

Martha Gordon practices yoga in her studio with client Avi Lapchick in Iowa City on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (Shaely Odean)

However, each time I leave practice and find my mind is a little less separated from my body, it carries me through the week until my next practice.

Gordon began practicing late in life compared to the yogis she trained with. However, this never deterred her from what she feels is a means to honor her body. To her, hot yoga is about longevity.

“I’ve never spent a lot of time worrying about what my age is. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t be doing [hot yoga],” Gordon said. “Jimmy always said find your fullest expression and find your next inch … I’m still improving, and I just keep going to the mat.”

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About the Contributors
Avi Lapchick
Avi Lapchick, Arts Editor
Avi Lapchick is an arts editor at The Daily Iowan. A fourth-year student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Iowa, she previously held the positions of staff photojournalist, summer arts editor, and assistant arts editor at the DI. She is happiest when she is writing or painting.
Shaely Odean
Shaely Odean, Photojournalist
Shaely Odean is a transfer student at the University of Iowa, currently in her third year. She is pursuing double majors in Journalism and Strategic Communications, as well as Sustainability Sciences. Shaely works as a photojournalist for The Daily Iowan, and her passion lies in environmental issues. Before joining the University of Iowa, she attended Kirkwood Community College, where she served as the photo editor for the Kirkwood Communique.