Some weeks back, I was on the schoolyard chatting with two Mom friends while we were waiting for the kids to be let out. The topic of yoga came up. I listened to them talk about how much they enjoy yoga and find it relaxing. I thought about my own experiences with yoga and told them that I didn’t like it, this fake Americanized strip mall yoga. I didn’t like being trapped in a room with a bunch of women attempting to free themselves from their self-imposed prison, the heavy burden of over-scheduled kids, and their even heavier burden of lacking a sense of humor, all the while having to stop myself from asking the woman next to me if that was a fart or did she just quiff? In all the yoga classes I’ve ever taken, most of the tightly-wound participants looked like they’d sue me for spilling their green tea on their trendy mats, colored cheap imitations of aubergine or celadon.
Two months ago I went to the Vedanta Society of New York with my friend Kelly, who told me this is her “yoga church.” It was a pretty Sunday up on the Upper West Side. Swami Vivekananda, who was the first teacher of Vedanta to come to the West, founded the Vedanta Society of New York in 1894. Kelly told me this was where yoga began in the US. We listened to one of the Swamis speak for an hour. I did feel like I was at church—rare as it is that I ever go—but as always, my mind drifted off to the naughty place that takes up most of my daydreams.
It was nice to be there; it was peaceful, modest, and sincere. They have a lunch after the talk in the basement, prepared by the followers, and for anyone who attends. I thought that was beautiful and kind. When I told Kelly about my feelings about yoga, I was afraid she’d be hurt. But she agreed, and told me strip mall yoga is not even yoga at all and that most instructors seem to not even know the basic teachings. It’s about a removal of the ego not about how great your ass is being lifted. She told me that one of the founding principles is non-harming. I thought about the last yoga class I ever took and how the instructor certainly meant me harm.
When I was in my very early twenties I saw an ad in the Philadelphia Weekly for Hot Yoga. It sounded appealing enough, especially at the end of winter. I don’t think the word hot was over-used yet, it later used to describe everything, making me cringe, like the sight of Paris Hilton supporting John Kerry. I had taken less than half a dozen yoga classes by then. I was still open to falling for it at the enthusiasm of friends but I wasn’t connecting to it. It felt phony, whereas running alone over the Ben Franklin Bridge felt dangerous and breathtaking.
The “studio” was off South Street. I walked into a small dark dirty room, with black velvet curtains and wall mirrors, front to back. It looked much more like a place I’d get my cards read by an expressionless woman, age unclear, and fronting an entirely different business. Three women were sitting on the floor waiting for the class to begin. I smiled and said hello, attempting eye contact with all of them. The reply I received made me question if I had, in fact, walked into a rape victim support group. Jesus Christ, out of respect for the people in this world who are truly suffering, maybe these women shouldn’t have taken themselves quite so seriously, or would have found a charm school more beneficial than a yoga class.
I shrugged my shoulders, sat down. The instructor appeared from behind the curtain. Her body language was extremely tense but loosely covered by her wardrobe of wannabe-centered calm. The instructor asked me if I had ever taken yoga or hot yoga before. I replied. And then she said one the most unbelievable sentences ever said to me. Get this. Ready? She said, “This is going to be the hardest hour of your entire life.”
Now I really wanted to know based on those three girls faces and this sinister proclamation what the hell was going on in this dirty room. I was going to point out that I was pretty sure that digging deep into my humanity, which I am certain we most likely part with when separated from the master cells of our cord blood at birth, that to forgive the person who with one hand at my throat pinned me to the hood of his car and with the other punched me in the face, was probably a bit harder then the next hour would be.
I didn’t reply. I willed myself to not sweat in her 105-degree room and to mimic her every pose with precision. She commented on both at the end, encouraging me to continue. I was a natural, she said. I stared at her for a few moments too long, and enjoyed her growing discomfort. I smiled slowly while putting on my coat. Reaching for a Camel Light, I continued to burn my dark brown eyes into her weak crappy soul. As I reached for the door, I told her she was a natural at being an asshole and I stepped out, lit up and walked four blocks home.
It’s not likely I will ever take a yoga class again. For me, having to behave all day by being nonconfrontational or listening to conversations that begin with “oh, my favorite flavor of Crystal Light is definitely lemonade” when really I’d like to talk about hermaphrodites or the blight that killed the American Chestnut tree, forces me to do all the pretending that I’m calm or centered I’m capable of.
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