The Journey In
A flyer taped to a bulletin board inside a Lower Eastside bar - Experience Yoga, Beginners Welcome. To be held in the basement of a church on the eastside of Tompkins Square Park. Sponsored by a guy named Life.
Manhattan, circa 1985, Tompkins Square was home to the homeless, the pushers, the punks, dopers, artists, activists, and people like me during the winter in the coldest month of my late-blooming youth, searching, yearning. Yoga in a church sounded good.
Down the narrow church steps I went to a small candle-lit room, where two rows of yogis sat, waiting, facing one another. No mirrors. The teacher calmly guided us through chants and deep physical movements – all the while reminding us to simply witness our breath.
A head rush after every forward bend. A guttural release after each back bend. Tears in savasana.
Trash swirled in the winter wind as I stepped out of the church much later. How long had I been down there? Was there still daylight? Some guy, carrying a bagged-up bottle, staggered toward me, seeming to say something but then just stopped and stared at me. I felt completely undressed. Exposed. Naked.
I headed toward the nearest corner sign to figure out which way was homeward, west. All the along the way there, every passing stranger seemed to be looking right through me. I bundled up tighter, walking the long walk across the alphabets and avenues until I reached my one-room walk-up where I bolted the police lock, and exhaled…
What was that?!
I wasn’t sure. But I kept going back.
The practice was hard. The teacher didn’t make it hard. I did. Every time I faced a pose that challenged me – I laid into myself. It took time for me to even realize it. The anger. The frustration. The name-calling.
Our body can be one big looking-glass distraction. Too much focus on poses can confuse the journey – making some believe that the ‘mastering’ of a pose is proof of enlightenment, one pose closer to God. But the poses are simply a guide. What does a particular pose resonate within us? What does a pose make us see in ourselves?
I see now that that first yoga class had not exposed me to the world around me. It was something far more intimate. Yoga was simply exposing me to myself.
With time, that inner voice has softened from anger to compassion, frustration to acceptance.
Like my own practice, that humble yoga school continued to evolve, blossom, and grow. I followed it as it moved into a nearby loft, and eventually, it outgrew that space too. You’ve probably heard of it. It’s called Jivamukti – liberation while living…
This article was originally appeared in MANTRA magazine - May 2014