In my kids’ yoga classroom on the Lower East Side, two hundred elementary school girls still in their uniforms take the shape of a cow. Knees under hips, hands under shoulders, they spread their fingers wide to make hooves. They drop their bellies, widen their hearts. Together we explore what it means to fold the human form into the animal.
There are all the other animal poses—Crow. Pigeon. Cat, Dog. Enough creatures to narrate a children’s book. But today’s posture is simple, bovine.
There are limits to our posturing—there is no way to make our eyes their beautiful orbs. But we can make their sound if we want (in kids yoga, we want.) Moos fit the shape, round and heavy, an OM backwards.
In India, the home of yoga, cows are sacred. As life-givers they straddle the two realms. On the Upstate farm where I grew up, there were kept or killed.
It strikes me most of my students have never seen a cow.
I am six.
Dusty in hand-me-down boy overalls, I reach for her pink bubble gum nose. Her mouth opens— teeth like wide erasers. And then, the tongue! A long ribbon upward, flicking her nostrils. She throws her head back. Her eyes close like a doll’s in two perfect circles.
She opens her eyes. She wants my hand. Like me, she’s just a kid. She thinks my hand might give milk, which is a mother’s love.
I’ve seen my father extend his hand and let the cow just grab onto it, fooling itself with fake nourishment. I’m too afraid of the slimy saliva, the strength of that jaw, how she could chomp down on my hand, back up her whole black and white body—take all of me with her.
I teach in a school that houses three: one for special needs kids, a general public school, and our girls’ school, a new project. At least once a week cops come to take a kid away who is misbehaving. Once, when walking to work at 7 AM, a sniper posed on the roof of the apartment building next to us, aiming at yellow buses. Each morning I arrive, new shreds of padding are ripped off the walls in the gym, as if by claws. FUCK and YOU scream in Sharpie in a way that seems personal.
I want to shield the eyes of the girls I teach.
Sometimes I feel stupid teaching yoga here—what can it do, really? Other times this work seems like everything—no matter what chaos is going on around us we can breathe, placing pretend cotton on our nerve-endings. We can learn to give peace to ourselves, without asking permission.
The calf steps back into mud. I reach, and the metal of the thin fence brushes my forearm. Electricity zaps me. I land on my butt in dirt, with the world blotted, howling in tears.
I hear Frank, my father’s coworker, shout my name. He runs for me from across the road. Collapsed, my bones grind into themselves. My father emerges from the milk parlor, props me up and feels for my pulse. He’s far away.
As the scene crystallizes, I search for her, but the cow has receded with the others.
“She’s healthy, she’s lucky,” my father says.
I can’t make out who he’s talking about, or who I was reaching for.
In the hallways between classes I see straight rows of girls—my girls—led from one spot to another. The rule is strict: NO TALKING IN THE HALLWAY. The hallways are orderly. No volume, no breaks in the line. Faces forward. They are contained, bound. Obedient.
Still, when I pass they silently wave and jump behind their teacher’s back.
Hey yogurt! They whisper, meaning yoga, meaning me.
I don’t remember the parlor, the glass snow globes filling with fresh milk.
I don’t remember how warm the silver vat was when I put my small palm on it.
I don’t remember waiting in my father’s work office, the coffee mug stains like half-planets in crowded constellations, the calendar girl with the bikini pinned to the wall.
I don’t remember the men, and how when my father took me to the auction, a lone female cow would emerge from backstage to the center of a ring.
I don’t remember the fast-talking auctioneer: Djoifaiojfdaioeaj dkafjeoiajfai
I don’t remember the whack of the wooden cane on the hind bones of the animal.
She twirled like a dancer in a music box.
I don’t remember feeling the whack in my own body and how, after, we went across the driveway for pie and milk.
I don’t remember the calf on the dirt outside, her neck thrown back and ribbon extended, her eyes open and dead.
I don’t remember realizing my father took cows to be killed.
On weekends, my older students prowl the avenue in packs.
Through hats and jeans and rhinestones and volume and swagger and freedom, they’ve transformed into an older confidence.
Their body language is big, boisterous. They howl. They prance, they stomp. They take new shapes, nothing I’ve taught them.
Passing them in my neighborhood, it takes me a minute to know who they are.
I had a lot of jobs before this one.
Art school admin. Restaurant hostess. Ice cream scooper. Personal assistant. And, briefly, in my early twenties, commercial model. I roamed the city on go-sees with other girls—they called them cattle-calls—and we signed in by giving the name of our agency on check-in clipboards before receiving a card with a number.
Cows are tagged by their numbers. Big yellow flaps stapled to their ears. The men knew them by their digits: 108. 126. Unless they loved them, then they gave them a nickname based on how they look. Brown Eyes. Spot. But still, always, a number as a place in the line.
I booked jobs because of my red hair and freckles—traits unusual in the herd.
Red, some people called me, not knowing I hated it.
At castings I stripped down to underwear behind a screen and walked to the center of a room. I strutted, eyes forward, popped a hip, strut back, held my card. Say your number into the camera. Say your height and weight. Men and women with clipboards on the side. I never knew what they wrote on them.
We fooled ourselves into thinking—because we were seen one at a time—we were seen at all.
It was that age when I first started remembering.
My dad calls it The Vacation.
The field where milkers go to rebuild their bodies after producing for cycles.
A cow gives milk because she’s artificially inseminated, a father with a plastic glove sticking his hand up there, and then, boom, pregnant. The calf taken away, the milk for the calf goes to us, not the offspring.
On Vacation, the animals are so large and tired they sit in the grass all day, spaced out from each other. Each her own universe.
They seem to know what will happen to them when they leave there.
Rose is in third grade when she gets her period. Someone tells me it’s because of the milk.
It’s the hormones in the cows, they say. Makes you develop.
Rose is beautiful with pink cheeks, large eyes and something quiet about her. I know she hates gym because the gym teacher (I’ve seen it) makes the girls warm-up by running one at a time around the basketball court and Rose has breasts and hips that jiggle. She is still a child, but her body is running ahead of her. Mortified is the word I mean.
In my class, she sits on a yoga mat in the front row every time. Yoga is a practice, not a perfect and there is something everyone can do. Balancing in Crow pose, Rose shines with the temperament of someone who has found something.
What I lost:
My schoolgirl desire to be a Dairy Princess, the shiny blue gown, the sash with the word DAIRY, a stage, a float, a cheese wheel, a vanilla ice cream cone, a camera. One of those special waves.
First, there was the feeling of my body balancing perfectly on the seat of my pink Huffy bike when I set the kickstand on the farm driveway.
Then, there was a feeling of floodlight heat as hallway boys yelped at my walk from one class to another. The kid in the chair behind me snapping my bra strap.
Then, a slip of my center.
My own underfeeding.
My period gone, but I didn’t miss it.
I am walking up one side of a stairwell, and the girls are walking down the other. Outside on the playground a tree explodes into birdsong. No one knows they’re going extinct.
These are the kindergarteners, still young enough to miss their mothers. Still young enough to do a cow pose with a full-bellied MOO and laughter. Little, enough to feel safe in their bodies without needing to relearn it. Their eyes dance when they see me. Their small bright faces squirm behind the stairway’s metal bars. Joy. With their teacher’s back turned they balance in tree pose, throw me chin mudra.
MOO they say.
I put my finger to my lips, raise my eyebrows. I don’t want to get fired—I have to mirror for them silence, my job as teacher, the protocol. But secretly, with my eyes I try to transmit something else. I’m glad for their volume, the rebellion of it. I want them to keep it.
Run, I try to say.
Sarah Herrington’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Slice, LA Review of Books, LATimes, Poets & Writers Magazine and she’s the author of four books on yoga and a collection of poetry. She is currently an MFA candidate at NYU and is at work on a book of creative nonfiction. She lives in New York. www.sarahherrington.com