The first Yoga centre I noticed was perched above a bicycle shop, a fire station and a food co-op in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I was new to New York City then, an unemployed liberal arts graduate with nothing to do but read and wander the infinite, mesmeric sidewalks.
This was the summer of 2000, before Lululemon, before Target sold Gaiam mats and when few people knew who Bikram Choudhury was. There were just two classes to choose from: hatha or vinyasa.
I walked by the studio one aimless day, and I remembered how, in high school, I’d ripped out a page from Cosmopolitan about Yoga poses and taped it to my wall. I thought about all the time in front of me, the days as blank as pages in a new notebook. I took a schedule and stuck it in my bra.
Learning to practice Yoga
The next afternoon, shy and uncomfortable, I went to a beginner’s class. I unrolled a borrowed mat in the back corner of the room, close to the props and the exit. I sat on a block and closed my eyes, because the others were sitting on blocks with their eyes closed.
The teacher was tall and blonde and tattooed and radiated coolness. The class settled in around me, hitching themselves up on blocks or blankets, while seeming so confident in themselves and what they were doing. My self-consciousness almost swallowed me whole.
Despite that, I did my best—stumbling through sun salutations, slipping in warrior, falling over in tree. Half-moon, Utkatasana, crow pose, Chaturanga—no way.
My legs shook. My arms wobbled. I feared that my face was red as a siren. I hadn’t expected sweat. I hadn’t expected all this effort. But there it was, and then there I was in Savasana at last, with my eyes closed, my heartbeat slowing and my body still and cooling. I feel as calm as a dead person, I thought, and right then, the teacher spoke.
“Savasana,” she said. “Corpse pose.”
That night, I ordered a Yoga mat from an online store that would take two weeks to arrive. It was $14, plus shipping. I was disappointed when I opened the box—the thing was thinner than a quilt, bright blue and oddly spongy. I kept it anyway, unrolling it in the same spot in the same studio, slipping and falling just as I had before.
I unrolled it almost every day from then on, and the more I used it, the stickier it became. It was thin, sure, but it was strong. It held my feet in warrior after warrior pose until I could bend each knee at a 90-degree angle. It held my hands as I attempted crow. It lifted me into wheel. It moulded to my body during Savasana. It boosted me, absorbed my self-consciousness and kept me company.
This flimsy piece of blue rubber became my foundation.
You are devoted
I unrolled my mat on September 12, 2001, when Brooklyn smelled like a foundry furnace. There was ash in the air, and fear and sadness. Some of the firemen from the station next door were missing. Some were dead. Candles and flowers and pictures were everywhere. I laid down on my blue mat and cried.
I took my mat to Dharma Mittra’s class. He stopped me when I was walking out the door. “You are devoted,” he said softly.
“What?” I asked.
“That is your mat. I can see. You are devoted.”
I understood: I could see the worn places where my feet and hands had anchored so many times. “I am,” I told him, honoured that he’d seen me at all.
I sat in the place of a teacher, fighting tears of pride and trusting myself for the first time.
I took my mat to teacher training at the White Lotus Foundation: bending and balancing and stretching and always trying to soften the clangy, too-fast nerves in my brain. I sat in the place of a teacher, fighting tears of pride and trusting myself for the first time.
Five years went by, then another 10. My mat was so thin by then that I could fold it like a map and carry it in my big purse on the subway. I flowed, sweated, balanced. I went to graduate school, got jobs, got married. Pregnant with twins, I slowed down. I talked to the babies inside me. This is what we do, kids. We breathe. We move. We do Yoga.
I went to Jivamukti Yoga Center before my preemies were discharged from the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). I found myself weeping in savasana, like I had 12 years before in Brooklyn. I felt my old self-consciousness return, and tried to stop the tears, but the teacher came to me with tissues and kindness and silence. She knelt on my mat and pressed her thumb on my third eye.
Something broke open. The tears kept coming, but so did everything else: the terror and sadness of new motherhood, the uneasiness and confusion of my life before. It all washed out of me. I didn’t bother wiping my face, and the tears made little pools on my mat.
When the movers came to our house that winter, I took the three kids to a café and to the playground, and my husband was in charge of the packing. He didn’t know. How could he? He tossed the ratty blue thing in the trash.
That mat had somehow held my entire adulthood. Gone. I swelled with anger. I felt betrayed by my husband. I wanted to rage. I wanted to go backward. But I didn’t.
I went to Yoga instead—a new studio, a new city, a new mat. The practice came easy. I flew, the fire of rage filtering into breath, and I let it go. All the apartments, the death of my cat, the terror of childbirth, my relationships, my career, my successes and failures, my past—I let it all go.
Moh mohia janai dur hai. Kaho Nanak sada hadur hai.