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The Tyranny of Matisse: Yoga and the Elusive Present

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

I am going to see the Matisse exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art this afternoon. I am very excited about this. There will be art! It will be beautiful! I will learn new things! In addition, my husband and I are going together, and it is the closest we’ve had to a date out in ages. So yeah, excited.

However, I am not currently at the museum. I am currently at yoga class. My hands and knees press against the mat. My fingers spread wide, holding onto the earth. My knees, shins, and the tops of my feet line up straight behind me. I lift my face, my heart, my tailbone, and sink my belly down, filling it with air, expanding like a pufferfish. I breathe out slowly, a long, gentle gust of air, as my belly button rises up up up, pressing toward my spine, pressing toward the ceiling, the sky, the stars. My head goes low, stretching the back of my neck. My lower back rounds, seeking concavity.

Again. Again.

Together, the motion and the breath begin to work their magic. My back is tight this morning — every morning — and this slow cycle, the opposition of stomach down, head and tail up, then back rounded, navel high and snug, head and backside pointing down, breath in followed by breath out, helps. My body begins to feel looser and warmer. I slowly nod and shake my head, add a little butt wriggle for fun and because it feels good.

I picture the flat, vivid shapes that Matisse painted. I love the colors. There is a blue that he uses that I particularly adore. Deep, rich blues speak to me. Matisse painted his entire studio red. There is a painting: The Red Studio. L’Atelier Rouge. I have only seen it in books or online. Maybe it will be part of this exhibition. I would like to see it in person. What would it be like to work in an entirely red room? Would it feel warm and womb-like, or pulsing and angry? That would probably depend on the red. Also on the light that day. And the mood of the beholder.

I open my eyes to look at the walls of the yoga studio. In the dim, peaceful light they are a pleasant neutral. Beige, maybe? I don’t usually like beige, but this one is okay.

“Two more cycles of cat / cow, at your own pace,” the yoga instructor says.

I breathe in, ballooning my belly, elongating my neck and tilting my pelvis. Where have I been, during the last few breaths? Here, certainly, on this mat and in this room. I have even, almost certainly, been performing the same motions as everyone else.

But I haven’t really been present. I was away with Matisse. In many ways, I like my mind’s ability to take me places. When I read books, I am transported. I love this experience. But yoga is the polar opposite on the pleasure axis. Instead of disappearing completely into a book, I am trying to find myself in my body and breath.

When I am lost in the future, in plans and hypotheticals, I am not present. I have missed those cat / cow poses, and they are gone forever into the past.

When I practice yoga, I practice being where I am and doing what I am doing. For someone who lives her life in her head, this is a huge challenge. This is why I need practice, and lots of it. When I practice yoga, my body feels good, stretched and alive and satiated. My mind feels good, clear and calm.

When I get to the Matisse exhibit this afternoon, I will breathe slowly. I will position my feet strongly on the ground. I will let my hungry eyes feast on red and blue. Practicing yoga helps me learn how to enjoy the art more fully. And I will probably spend some amount of time thinking about the traffic between the museum and my daughter’s school, and what we might have for dinner. The future is always trying to lure me away.

The tyranny of the future is that it tries to take over my present, to stop me from enjoying this moment in favor of the anticipation of what might be. The danger is that I will spend all my yoga time in anticipation of Matisse, and then spend my time at Matisse worrying about what comes next. I can make the motions, or I can live the experience.

Of course, it’s never as simple as that. Dichotomies are necessarily simplifications. The body and the mind are not separate, they are one. And my focus at yoga will probably never be perfect. Distraction is part of life. But I can smile to myself, when I realize that my attention has slipped away. I can breathe in and out and come back to the present.

It’s okay that I’m excited for Matisse this afternoon. It’s okay that I get distracted and lose that deep, interior attention. I draw my attention back from Matisse and traffic and dinner and into this moment.


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