Yoga is difficult for the one whose mind is not subdued. — Bhagavad Gita
Despite all the dismissive things I’ve said about patchouli-wearing chakra tweakers, I still wanted to try yoga. Though my inherent impatience inspires me to be proactive in most facets of life, I wasn’t in a rush to get the big blue exercise ball rolling on something that might take away the blankie of stress to which I’d grown so attached. When it comes to ventures such as this, I rely on my friends Rosa and Janet (each an executive in different national big-name corporations) to lead the way. Rosa had generated the email, after which Janet had offered to lend me her extra mat and thrown out a few dates. I had but to say yes and pick a day.
The class was called Yoga Fundamentals. If it were an English course, we would not be tackling sentences or even words — we’d be learning the alphabet. That suited me just fine, as yoga — like Swahili to a Tahitian — was a language of which I was only vaguely aware and had yet to encounter firsthand. Before heading to Janet’s studio of choice, Ginseng Yoga in South Park, I called Rosa to verify that I would not need socks. She mentioned something about blankets being provided — though I couldn’t imagine why I’d need one of those, I refrained from seeking clarification, figuring I’d find out soon enough.
Forty minutes before class was to begin, I parked in front of a charming strip of businesses tucked between residential streets. After about 20 minutes, I recognized Janet’s car approaching; I stopped pacing up and down the short sidewalk and waited for her in the shadow of a tree. As I stood there, I took a moment to enjoy the warm early-evening breeze coming from the direction of the setting sun, and couldn’t help feeling all Zen and shit.
Janet led me into Ginseng’s front room, a boutique that sells yoga-oriented clothes, books, music, and equipment; I presumed the jewelry and paintings had been created using some special artsy yoga techniques. Something about the space made me feel like I should whisper, so I dropped my voice as I greeted the guy seated behind the counter. I filled out an information form, hesitating at the part that asked for an emergency contact. I whisper-blitzed a series of questions: “Why would I need this? Do people get stuck in poses? Is passing out common?” Janet assisted the man in explaining that it was just procedure, you know, for the great “if.” Satisfied, I jotted down David’s name and slid the form back across the counter in exchange for my credit card — one class would have been $15, but I sprang for the extra $5 that would allow me to partake in another class if I came back within ten days.
The studio to which we were directed (the smaller of the two) had just enough room to comfortably set eight yoga mats in two rows of four. It was dark — like the basements of East Coast homes, a few small casement windows (through which leaves of the tall trees outside could be seen), were arrayed along one wall near the ceiling. I rolled out my borrowed mat in the space farthest from where the instructor would likely stand, and Janet unrolled her mat next to mine. Rosa, who showed up late, found her spot in the corner opposite me.
The instructor was a man, which I found surprising until I reminded myself that yoga wasn’t just a chick thing. Then again, there was only one man in the class, which became immediately apparent when our appointed guru for the evening said, “Hello, ladies…and Aaron. My name is Robert, and I’ll be your instructor for the evening.” Robert walked the room, introducing himself individually to first-timers. He wore baggy beige shorts and a white T-shirt, and his long dark hair was pulled back in a low ponytail. Energy radiated from his pores. I guessed him to be in his early 20s, but then he mentioned something about his wife. Because only Mormons marry that young, I concluded Robert must be older and just look youthful — score a point for yoga.
We began with a pose called the “downward facing dog.” This one wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it while partying with my sister Jane in Vegas. Constipated from a weekend diet comprising countless cocktails and a few bites of anything fried, one of Jane’s friends demonstrated the right-angle triangle stance (butt in the air, hands and feet on the ground) as a way to “help get things moving.”
I followed Robert’s instructions and allowed my head to hang down between my shoulders. I pushed the ground with my arms and tried really hard to get my heels to join my toes on the ground, but my calves weren’t having it. After we “walked” our feet toward our hands, we remained for a moment in the “touch your toes” position, which was an easy one for me, thanks to the flexibility I’ve obtained from my daily routine of holding the complicated “face to knees so hair can dry naturally without falling flat” pose.
Robert asked us to rest for a moment, so I dropped to my bum, and then realized I was the only one. Everyone else had arranged themselves into an uncomfortable-looking “peasant groveling before the king” pose, low on their knees with their foreheads on their mats and their arms stretched out in front of them. Jarring the others with the surprising sound of my voice, I said, “Is that, like, the official resting pose? It doesn’t look very restful.”
Robert chuckled with the patient disposition of a kindergarten teacher. “That’s known as the “child’s pose,” which is usually the resting pose,” he said. “But for now, as this is the fundamentals class, you can rest however you like.” I smiled with relief and remained seated with my legs crossed.
We stretched in a variety of positions. Robert offered feedback as to what we were doing right and wrong, often with a demonstration that required him to remove an article of clothing — to illustrate what he meant by “pushing back the shoulders,” he lost his shirt; later, to display the correct placement of the hip during a lunge, his pants came off. I don’t know about Aaron, but the ladies seemed to appreciate the clarity of these visual explanations.
When Robert pointed to what looked like a neat pile of ponchos at one end of the room and invited us to grab three blankets each, all of the muscles I’d been working so hard to loosen clenched back up. The last thing a germaphobe such as me wants to do is climb beneath some skeezy blanket that is undoubtedly infested by the sweaty germs of incalculable yogis, many of whom probably skip showers in their efforts to save our natural resources. It took the greatest strength and concentration for me to handle the blankets. I almost yelped my relief when I realized we’d be lying atop, not under, the scratchy material. We folded and stacked them so that, like a beam, they would lift our backs from the ground. After Robert came by, pulled my shoulders down, and faced my palms to the ceiling, I was actually very comfortable.
“I’m happy this was a more informal class,” Janet said to me once we were outside. “I was worried you were going to make me laugh, and in the class I usually go to, everyone is much more reverent.”
“I can do reverent,” I said, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced I could.
“I like this class a lot,” said Rosa. While on the phone earlier, she’d told me that she didn’t like the chanting, spiritual mumbo-jumbo that she’d been forced to sit through during all the others.
“I don’t mind chanting, especially when I don’t understand the words,” I said. While driving the family from New York to California, my dad would play chants led by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda over and over on the tape deck in the VW camper. Thinking back on Dad’s Eastern spiritual exploits, it’s a wonder I hadn’t tried yoga sooner. “Those reverberations in your chest are like an internal massage,” I explained to Rosa. “Think the chair at Divine Nail Spa, but instead of massaging your back and legs, it massages your organs. Eh?” She seemed un-swayed.
I offered Janet’s mat back to her. “You’re welcome to keep it,” she said. “So you want to do this class again next Thursday?”
“I’m in,” I said, suppressing the voice in my head that balked at becoming one of those people I’ve always delighted in mocking — a SoCal chick with a goddamned yoga mat in the trunk of her car.