When I fell in love with yoga, I was 22 years old. It was 15 years
ago, and I was living with two massage students in a tiny adobe cabin on the southern border of Santa Fe out where the art galleries and million-dollar villas disintegrated into a tattered fringe of vacant lots and trailer-home parks. Our cabin smelled of mouse droppings, a comforting smell reminiscent of the gerbil cages in second-grade classrooms. It had a wood stove in the kitchen, an abandoned chicken coop in the yard, and an enormous teepee out by the woodpile where my roommates and our friends used to gather and bang on congas and rattle beaded gourds while incanting visualizations of our future.
"If it's for my highest good," we'd begin. "If it's for my highest good, I create a reality in which..." There was always a certain amount of anxiety in these prayers, as if God were a moody and unpredictable waitress, and if we forgot to mention that we wanted cream in our coffee or a lover who wasn't already married to someone else, there would be no chance to change our order.
It was my housemate Mollie who took me to my first yoga class, taught in the early morning at her massage school by one of the students, a
slender man with muscles so clearly defined that the massage teacher
used to use him as an animated anatomy text. My main reason for going,
frankly, was that I couldn't afford to get Rolfed. I'd been reading
about Rolfing in one of my roommate's massage manuals: How your skeleton could be pulled apart like a 2-year-old's Barbie doll and put back together in better alignment. It sounded like having your engine rebuilt by God.
But Rolfing was $60 a session, way more than I could afford on my paychecks from my five-dollar-a-hour part-time job as a product tester for an interactive video company. So I decided to try yoga instead.
The white-carpeted room smelled comfortingly of almond massage oil and
steaming brown rice. The teacher stood at the front of the room in
threadbare gray sweatpants, naked from the waist up. As he swung his
arms overhead in a Sun Salutation, slabs of muscles slid around his
chest and back; then he folded at the hips like an ironing board. I took a deep breath and dove in.
An hour and a half later, I floated out of the class, my body thrumming
like a plucked guitar string. Energy buzzed and tingled in my spine.
When I breathed in, my rib cage opened like a great pair of wings. I had never imagined feeling like this--like I had spent my entire life living in a bicycle box that someone had finally opened, letting me out.
As I drove home, the mountains were gold with aspen. The cold autumn
wind smelled of pinyon from a thousand woodstoves. I thought of one of my recurring dreams: that a wall in my bedroom had rolled away and revealed a whole other room that I hadn't even known was there.
Since that day, I've unrolled my yoga sticky mat at least 6,000 times--
in Paris flats, Arizona motels, California redwoods, grubby Indian
hostels with rickshaw horns blaring outside the unscreened windows. I've done tens of thousands of Downward-Facing Dog poses. I've folded into forward bends, arched into backbends, twisted and turned upside down so many times that the motions feel like part of my identity, as familiar as my face in the mirror.
With so much repetition, it's easy to start to take this practice for
granted--to imagine that I "know" Downward Dog, to let my mind drift as
I flow through a Sun Salutation on autopilot. I no longer tumble
effortlessly into that sense of being a trailblazer in the wilderness,
my awareness forging ahead into unexplored territory in my neck, my spine, and my heart. I catch myself moving automatically, the way I brush my teeth--my mind recounting my disappointments and dreams, lamenting the ways my life and my body have failed to live up to my expectations, reciting the litany of the daily tasks that lie ahead.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's
mind there are few," wrote the great Zen master Suzuki Roshi. The
challenge for me now is to become a beginner again.
For who am I to think that I know my body, my yoga practice, my mind, my family, and friends? Our lives, our bodies, the people we love--they are endlessly recreating themselves, born fresh in every breath they take. This is the radical teaching that yoga offers: to focus my awareness like a magnifying glass on the familiar tinder of my life until it bursts into flame.
My first yoga teacher left town a few months after I took my first
class--he drove off to enroll in a massage school in Florida. But it
didn't matter. I began practicing every morning in the chilly living
room of my adobe cabin. My roommates and I were running out of firewood
and didn't have money to buy more. One day to keep warm, we began
burning our old papers in the woodstove--bank statements, love
letters, file cabinets full of notes from college classes. In
the heat of burning my past, I did my first wobbly headstand, and
felt my whole world turn upside down.