One afternoon in New York, I found myself on a street corner in midtown, licking salt off a slightly burned soft pretzel. I gazed about in a wondering daze, transfixed by the LCD nightmare. Time seemed to stop for me just then, as though I were Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen,” only without the continually erect blue penis. Suddenly, I knew that everything in Times Square — the breeze-blown fliers for some outlier porn shop, the vaguely contraband luggage stores, the endlessly replicated advertisements for TV shows that never had a prayer, even the tourists from Nebraska — was part of a larger cosmic reality whose boundaries we can’t begin to perceive. The power of the universe, I realized, is transcendent, infinite, all-knowing, beautiful beyond measure. I quaked at the awesome kindness of its eternal might.
All I needed was to lie down for a couple of hours with a wet washcloth over my face, but I’d made plans to meet a friend for an early evening yoga class at her favorite studio. Once again, yoga had imposed itself upon my life. After a harsh period defined by career disappointment and excessive doughnut consumption, I’d taken up the practice and had been at it for four years, pretty steadily. While yoga’s magical transformational properties hadn’t entirely taken hold, I did feel a little better, overall. So I kept going. Sometimes, instead of meeting friends at bars, I’d meet them at yoga studios. My friend was excited to share this experience with me. Doing yoga at Jivamukti, she said, had made her life so much better.
“Fuck yeah!” I said, when she asked me. “I love yoga!”
Jivamukti (a Sanskrit word that means “liberation while living”) is a yoga method that combines physical postures with scriptural study, music, chanting, meditation, animal rights, veganism, environmentalism and political activism. The practice is adored by many and considered the height of pretension on Earth by others. Later, when I mentioned it to a friend, she referred to it as “Jive-Ass Monkey.” Of course, I knew none of this when I got off the elevator and entered the Jivamukti den, high as an Underdog balloon. I was planning to simply take another class on another chilly spring afternoon. My friend and I would do some yoga, towel off in separate locker rooms, and then go get some tasty noodle soup.
I entered a room the size of a soccer pitch. Students set up their mats so they were nearly touching, in rows of ten. My preference would have been to hide in the middle-back. That way, the teacher might forget about me. But my friend plopped down in the front row, close to the door, so I had to splay next to her. Across the aisle from us, an equally deep number of full rows took shape, like an opposing phalanx in some sort of yoga war. I was used to studying in small rooms with no more than 20 people, and often fewer than 10. This felt about as intimate as getting on the subway.
Several short women wearing white, v-neck blouses walked around the room, hands behind their backs, examining the scene. They looked kind of like massage therapists to me. I grew hopeful — a massage sounded pretty good. Maybe I shouldn’t do yoga today, I thought. Maybe I should get a massage instead.
The instructor entered. She was tall and lithe, and she moved with a healthy, almost ethereal confidence. A few freckles, perfectly placed, dotted her angular face. You’ve had many yoga instructors who’ve looked like her, except that she was hotter by a degree of ten. She walked into the center of the room.
“OK, the thing you have to understand about the world,” she said, “is that most people are totally selfish, right?”
Well, that was always a good conversation starter.
“If you’re being selfish,” she continued, “if you’re only thinking about yourself, then you’re hurting the world. And what you have to understand, you guys, is that the choices you make, right, totally affect the environment. And that you have a responsibility to the world to make the right choices.”
Usually, my yoga teachers never gave a rap longer than, “I’ve had kind of a rough day, and I’ve been thinking I need some yoga to center myself, so let’s get started.” But this went on and on. I wasn’t then aware that Jivamukti instructors are required to give a 15-minute dharma lecture before class. They’re told to stress the yamas, or codes of conduct, for yogic living. These include: Non-harming, non-stealing, non-lying, non-attachment, and the always unpopular sexual continence.
“I like to think of myself as an ethical vegan,” the teacher continued. “And that informs my yoga practice, and it helps me to heal the world. Did you know, you guys, that research has shown if you eat meat, you’re doing more harm to the environment than if you drive an SUV? Think about that while you’re doing your yoga. If 98 percent of the people who drove SUVs stopped driving them tomorrow, it still wouldn’t help the environment because of all the damage that meat-eaters do. So when you’re eating meat, think about all the harm you’re doing to the world because you’re selfish and greedy and don’t think about others.”
This particular dharma lecture confused me. Weren’t yoga teachers supposed to present themselves as humble servants of a higher power rather than moral paragons above reproach or laughter? Also, while I’ve had some raw food episodes in my life, and understand and appreciate the philosophy behind veganism, her science was almost as faulty as her manner was condescending. Someone needed to take her down a notch. The right time to do it, I figured, was during a yoga class attended by a hundred of her followers, while I was toasted to the nines.
“Bullshit!” I said.
My friend looked at me, pained and nervous, pleading with her eyes for me to stop. The teacher heard because she was right in front of me.
“If someone disagrees with what I’m saying,” she said, “they’re obviously not well-informed and are speaking from a position of insecurity.”
“I’m not the only one,” I mumbled under my breath.
This wasn’t going to go well. She huffed haughtily and resumed her dharma talk. Finally, our physical practice began. It pushed way beyond any level I could handle. The flow moved too fast, and many of the positions were new to me. I stumbled around, flinging sweat off my head onto other people’s mats, huffing and sighing. The instructor, by now, had me in her crosshairs. She kept giving me adjustments, though the most effective adjustment might have been to put me in a chair and leave me there.
“Maybe you should practice a little bit before you start criticizing,” she said.
“Maybe I should.”
“Maybe you should.”
“That’s what I just said.”
She walked away. I don’t think I was her type of student. Then again, I’d yet to find a yoga teacher who was naturally drawn to sarcastic, incompetent fat asses. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the practice. Then the teacher’s voice lowered about two octaves, and she started talking much more slowly. In fact, it sounded like another voice altogether.
“Now,” said the voice, “keep your heart open — wide open — and move your shoulder blades apart as you slide your hands into warrior two.”
I opened my eyes as I moved into the pose. One of the women in white was now guiding the practice. This teacher had assistants, for god’s sake.
“Is this some sort of cult?” I said.
My friend, realizing she’d made a horrible mistake by inviting me, drew her lips together with a loud SHHHH.
Yoga teachers don’t need assistants, I thought. Sure, if you’re Patthabi Jois or B. K. S. Iyengar or some other nonagenarian whose near-divine presence has made practice possible for millions of people, you’ve earned the right to sit quietly while your senior disciples do the heavy lifting. But for the love of Krishna, if you’re a sexy Manhattan broad at the height of your powers, don’t pawn your extra vinyasas off on underlings!
At some point, after she’d retaken control of the tiller, the instructor made a joke. By now, we were doing the seated poses, so I could at least breathe. I don’t remember the joke, but, for some reason, I laughed.
“Oh, so the comedian thinks I’m funny,” she said. “I must be doing something right.”
Lady, I’m no comedian, I thought. I’m a comic writer. There’s a difference.
Finally, we got to savasana. Boy, did I need it. I lay down on my rental mat and prepared for ten minutes or so of sweet relief from the nightmarish yoga journey I’d just endured. Then I heard a voice. Some sort of recording was being played. The voice was British, with the hint of a Middle Eastern accent, and as preachy as Noam Chomsky being interviewed by a college-newspaper editor.
“The United Nations estimates,” said the voice, “that more than four hundred thousand people have died in Iraq since the start of the Gulf War. The estimated profits made by U.S. corporations since that time have equaled …”
“Are you kidding me?” I said.
“Please don’t do this,” said my friend, rapidly becoming my former friend.
“In 1980,” said the tape, “Saddam Hussein met with Donald Rumsfeld …”
I stormed out, mat in hand. Sure, I was against the war in Iraq and all, really against it, big time. I’d organized a group to march against George W. Bush’s first inauguration, for god’s sake. My lefty bonafides didn’t need proving. But the last thing I needed to hear during savasana was a recitation of recent U.S. war crimes in the Middle East.
I went into the lobby and gave the desk clerk the crazy druggie eye.
“WHO DOES THAT TEACHER THINK SHE IS?” I said.
The desk people ignored me. “I WANT TO FILE A COMPLAINT!” Still, they ignored me. “THAT WAS AWFUL, WHAT WENT ON IN THERE! ALL THE POLITICAL RANTING! THIS IS YOGA, DAMMIT! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! THIS PLACE IS A NIGHTMARE!”
It didn’t occur to me that the people working behind the desk at Jivamukti might side with the teacher in any disagreement.
Five minutes later, my now former friend came out of class. We went downstairs to the street. “I can’t believe you did that,” she said.
“That bitch,” I said.
“I don’t care if you disagreed with her. This place is important to me, and you embarrassed me in class.”
“That was totally humiliating for me.”
My friend wanted an apology. So, about six months later, I emailed her one. The incident continued to trouble me, though. The teacher had preached, didactically and unpleasantly. But what I’d done in response, I finally realized, had been totally wrong and disrespectful. It took months for me to look Jivamukti up online, to understand that I’d gone blindly into one of the founding studios of modern yoga, thrown a fit worthy of a toddler so far gone that no shiny object could distract him from his rage, and left with nothing in return.
Before the yoga, I’d behaved that way fairly often. It was about as far from my best self as I could get. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call it my bad self. But even serious yogis, I was learning, are often tempted to get down with their bad selves. Trying to contain it was the true yoga practice, the real discipline and dedication, and getting there, I began to understand, would take a lot more practice, and maybe a little less drugs.