I’m having a difficult time moving my body today. And no, it has nothing to do with my recent illness.
It really mostly has to do with my own sad un-athleticism and lack of doing anything remotely representing a workout for years and years of my life. That is, of course, until Daniel and I started yoga.
When you move to India, everyone seems to think that the natural thing to pick up is yoga – why not learn about America’s favorite Indian import in the land of yoga itself? But for a long time I avoided doing yoga much like I’ve avoided doing anything athletic my whole life. As a New Yorker you can convince yourself that you don’t need to work out because you walk so much. And for me this was always a bit true – I’d walk the dog every morning and night. I’d walk to and from work. I kept up a brisk pace in all this walking. It seemed to me like I was moving enough to avoid a gym.
But in Mumbai, there’s not a lot of walking. There aren’t a lot of places to take a stroll. And even when you are near a place you could stroll, the weather (monsoon or extreme heat) usually makes it seem sort of unappealing. So Daniel and I both agreed, after living here for some time, that we needed to try something in order to not resemble the elderly when walking up a flight of stairs. Yoga it is.
To avoid extreme embarrassment we agreed it would be best to have a teacher come to the house. Luckily here that ends up being cheaper than most large yoga classes you’d find in New York. On recommendation from a friend we were put in touch with Niranjan, a yogi who specializes in private instruction. We agreed he would come four times a wee, whip us into shape and perhaps give us a little enlightenment.
He showed up for the first class and we introduced ourselves. Phoebe was jumping around excitedly, as she always does when a new person arrives, and he leaned down very slowly and calmly to pat her. He quietly asked if we were ready and then led the way. He certainly had the demeanor of a yogi – every step seemed deliberate; every move was fluid. I began to think that he was in for a big treat with us.
We began with breathing exercises that made my head feel light. Niranjan assured us this would get better with time. Then we started with some asanas, or positions. Our flexibility was certainly in question. Daniel couldn’t really cross his legs, and needed the help of a pillow to do it. I kept losing my balance when I needed to stand on my toes. But with every apparent failure Niranjan would just smile and say, “In time, you’ll be able to do.”
Phoebe found this all quite a bit more exhilarating than we did. She didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was going on, but to her it seemed like one big game. With every move or position change she’d try to lick our faces or sit on the yoga mat or run in circles expecting us to follow. She sized up Niranjan and would only sit quietly next to him, looking up and hoping he would give her another pat. She certainly didn’t understand why her parents looked so tired and strained. I’m sure Niranjan began wondering very early on whether the pathetic white people with the overly-excitable dog could ever really accomplish anything.
By the end of the first lesson I was starting to look forward to the asana where you lie flat before going into ‘cobra’ pose. My arms were like jelly and my legs were stretched to a point where it was tiring just to stand. Our ‘Yoga for beginners’ is not an easy route to greater flexibility and balance. It is an all-out full-body workout with an instructor who corrects us when we’re trying to cheat and and ensures us that we actually can go into our sixth mountain pose, even if we’d rather just lie down and take a nap. He does this all while maintaining his unbelievable air of calm and demonstrates every pose that is being done incorrectly with indescribable ease.
By the third lesson Niranjan seemed to beleive that we had already begun to improve flexibility. “Look at how much further you can go toward your toes?” he said as I leaned over, grasping more for my calves than my toes. He put his hand on my back and pushed me to try a little harder, grab a little further. Daniel was able to cross his legs without the pillow.
I know these are not drastic improvements. I was still winded by the end and my body still hurts today. But slowly, with a lot of practice and a lot of help, I think we’ll get better. I’ll still probably look forward to the breathing and meditating more than the asanas, but it all comes as a package. Four mornings a week we’ll do salutations to the sun and hope we’re improving our bodies a little bit too. India style.