The floor is hard, the walls are bare, the light, thin and waning...
Illustration Credit: I Am Here by Andrea Cobb
For my first yoga class in the town of McLeod Ganj, four kilometers north of Dharamshala, I walk down crumbling concrete steps. Chip bags and candy wrappers collect in mounds around my feet. Then I follow a hand-painted sign into a dark concrete hallway where the sounds of televisions drift through open windows along with the smell of curry. After another set of steps, I find myself in front of a blue-flecked metal door with shoes piled on the floor. I push the door open on squealing hinges and enter the yoga studio.
Which is not a studio but a concrete box—a parking garage with windows.
Thousands of miles from my house in northern Utah, sitting in a garage that clings to the side of the Himalayas, I find that my vision of yoga in India—light-filled studios, Eastern-clad instructors, revelatory poses—wilts and fades. The floor is hard, the walls are bare, the light, thin and waning. But when the teacher, Vijay, floats his elegant body to the floor and asks me to close my eyes, open my chest, and listen to the teachings, I feel I my heart stir.
When Vijay starts the class—as we sit with our chests lifted and our shoulders back, our fingers in jnana mudra, eyes closed, our breathing steady and regular—he asks us to listen to the teachings. Be a better human being, he says. It’s the first teaching, deceptively simple. God is one, he then tells us. The reverse is true—one is God—and the corollaries—the person next to me and the one next to him. Be a better human being, he tells us. And then he shows us how.
Vijay’s sun salutations move quickly, the pace exhausting, though we always stop to pause in downward-facing dog. We remain in the pose not to catch our breaths, but to move closer to the ground. In Vijay’s class, I learn, you are either moving toward humility—your body toward the ground—or toward exaltation—your heart to the sky. That constant fluctuation between prostration and bliss tells me all I need to know about being a better human being. It demonstrates two poles of being, poles we can tether to our lives—releasing the ego and opening to joy.
The standing postures come next—triangle, revolved triangle, warrior one and two—and here Vijay focuses our line of sight—limits it—down the nose or between our eyebrows. Not the person next to you, not you nor your shaking legs, not the clock (if there was one), or the mountains exalting just beyond the window (which they do), but the space between your eyebrows. This is the space to which you must attend. My body—no, my sense of my self, who I am—becomes compressed in his classes. Between my eyebrows—that is my world—the space where I can become a better human being.
And I have help finding the way. Reed-thin men move between the rows of students and adjust our bodies. I am not expecting it, the first time one of them touches me. He comes from behind, places his hands on my shoulder while I am bent over my knee, and pushes my chest open. It’s not an “adjustment.” It’s a fact. This is where my body is supposed to be. One man flicks my toes as he passes by; they should be straight. One swats my hips; they should be forward. One places both hands on my head and moves it toward the ceiling. And I grin. Because nothing is approximate, nothing is prettified, gussied up, softened. This is where I am. I am here. And the men gliding through the room insist on the exactitude of my presence.
By the time we make it to the floor, 45 minutes into the class, I’m sweaty and I’m tired, but I’m so very alive—solid, dense with self.
At home, the movement to the floor signals the end—a cool down. Stretch a little and then savasana. Here I learn that floor poses are meant to be active and engaged—not fierce exactly, but very strong. No part of your body rests—your legs are engaged, both arms are twisting and pulling, your shoulders, opening. I think I have engaged my whole body in a marichyasana variation, and then one of the men pulls my shoulder, bends my arm, takes me deeper. I sweat more on the floor than I do in the eight sets of sun salutation that began the class. My focus at this point has moved from my eyebrows. Instead, I am deep inside, and every muscle, every tendon, every heartbeat funnels toward the center.
Backbends, headstand, and shoulder stand come at the end of class. These require the most physical strength and mental focus. In headstand, I count each breath, feel the solidity of a world turned upside down. My heartbeat has slowed, the blood moves thickly through my veins. Understanding—the deep, clear, silent kind—arises in inversions. I am on my head. There is nowhere to go. More to the point, the world has been reversed. Ground, now sky. Head to floor, exaltation and humility reveal themselves for what they are—the same thing. In moving down, I take flight. Laying aside ego, I see divinity.