Sandy pumps jazz through the speaker system – not sitar. “Yeah, okay, you guys, if that’s how it’s going to be today,” she says, padding down the rows, the heft of her middle-aged behind like uncooked dough in navy leggings. She watches us give up, one after the other, elbows caving in because she’s kept us too long in plank. People say they come to her class because of the challenge. She laughs in our faces when we can’t rotate our ribcages clockwise on all fours. “I didn’t tell you to do the tushie dance,” she says, a southern lilt in our chill New England bringing charm to the taunting. “If you aren’t here to give your all you may as well go home and eat potato chips.”
“Oh, Sandy,” an older woman with a kerchief and purple fingernails protests.
“Well, what?” She tosses her hands in the air and slaps her thighs as she brings them down. She lowers herself to hands and knees. Gyrating, her face pokes out between bony freckled shoulders, sort of a pornographic leer. She gathers her curls to one side so that we can better view her midsection. She’s wearing a leotard. At the bottom of her stretch pants, stirrups cup her heels. There’s an eighties vibe, a Jane Fonda thing going on, what with the fuzzy pink leg warmers slouched by her ankles and that perm. The spring of those curls makes me wonder about the hair between her legs.
I’m all the way at the back of the studio wedged between a man and a wall. The man ends up next to me every class. We ignore each other until it’s time to do something strenuous, and then we fight to stay up longest. I enjoy watching his meaty triceps shake. Yoga doesn’t favor the big man. It also doesn’t cater to egomaniacs like myself. If I were a true yogi, I’d find another spot to spread my mat, abandon the competition, ahimsa or whatever. But I’m not exactly here for enlightenment. I come for Sandy’s hands on my hips, my back, my head. Younger teachers make a big show of asking if it’s okay to touch you. One of them passes out colored flags from the kids’ classes and has you put the red at the top of your mat if you’d rather not be physically assisted, green if you’re good to go. She gives you both because “your desire for touch will wax and wane.” I feel like a deviant when she says that. Sandy doesn’t bother asking, and unlike the pixies who graze you so lightly you hardly know they’re there, her hands knead and pull, grabbing my limbs and stretching until my joints pop. We all crave touch, that’s my justification. But I’m totally using this woman. I’ll purposely work too hard, and she’ll press on my shoulders, whispering her vegan breath at me. “Rebecca, relax.”
Before class begins the man stacks foam blocks and sits in meditation. I lie on my back with my legs thrown up the wall and patrol him; I want to catch him peeking. I can’t buy that he’s actually centering himself. He has to be looking for attention.
Now I peer sideways and find him struggling to mimic Sandy’s movement. It’s not so much that his ass is swaying, as his entire torso. He moves side to side like a skulking animal. Sandy strides back to our row and mounts him from behind.
Her legs squeeze his sides like the thigh master my cousins and I discovered in my aunt’s closet at the Cape house. Bowing forward, she grabs his shoulders, trying to stabilize them. “Small circles. Just the ribcage, Glen.” He bucks, and suddenly her feet lift off the floor. It doesn’t appear that he’s done it on purpose, though I wouldn’t put it past him. Veins bulge in his wrists under wooden mala beads. “Whoa, Glen!” As she tries to steady herself, one hand flies up, and it looks like she’s spinning a lasso. When he straightens himself, she hurries down.
“We’ll work on it,” she says, patting her curls. She bends by his reddened face. “You alright? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Still on all fours, he brings his chin to his chest. His shoulders are shaking. It becomes clear that he’s laughing, so everyone relaxes and laughs along. “Could hardly even feel you.” A bead of sweat leaves his chin and splashes his high-end mat.
“Well good then.” She’s embarrassed and trying not to show it. She turns from us to light a stick of incense. I’d say if she doesn’t want to find herself in compromising positions, she probably shouldn’t be riding people like animals, but I love her too much. “We’ll keep practicing this. Good for the chakra belly.” She turns to face us and rubs her ribcage behind her leotard, like she’s just had a good meal.
Her bio online reveals an alcoholic past. Only through her practice has she been able to maintain sobriety. After warmups she pulls out her notebook for a pithy spiritual lesson. She lowers herself into a deep squat. I wonder if she had her children in that position. They’re grown now, older than me. Apparently there’s some rift between her and them, no doubt caused by her former debauchery. She’s trying to mend fences; this I learned before class, the older women who arrived early and stole all the spots up front asking after her kids, thinking they had a right to that information. Sandy answered freely, cutting into class time to describe an overture she’d made to her son’s wife. I brought myself to a seat and leaned back on my hands, so as not to look as eager as the prying practitioners, and also not to appear rude. The man, Glen, had continued to meditate during their chit chat, and I liked him in that moment.
With her elbows prying her knees apart she presses her hands together in prayer. Closing her eyes, she touches her fingertips to the space between her brows. “The pure crystal takes color from the object nearest it.”
The woman with the kerchief nods thoughtfully, teardrop earrings trembling at the sides of her face. I like to think I’ll be so outward focused when I get old. That things like social justice and eastern philosophy will by then have crowded out all the junk in my head. I’ll have nurtured deep friendships, platonic relationships with women in which we nevertheless are allowed to hold each other, to nod in understanding, our wrinkled necks wrapped in colorful scarves. I have no idea of the way to there from here.
Dropping her hands and letting them dangle between her legs like an ape, Sandy explicates. “Patanjali urges us to steer clear of troublemakers. Let me tell you – sometimes we’re the troublemakers.”
We move into sun salutations. I find myself hustling even more than usual. The man, Glen, is high from having been sat on. His form is suddenly graceful. Deep reserves of energy keep him from panting during a three-minute hold of Warrior 2. When we’re given the option to take an inversion or to rest, I fling myself into a handstand with too much momentum, tip and land on the person in front of me.
“Ow!” she cries, rubbing her back where my legs struck.
“Sorry!” I scoot away like a crab.
“Hey, crash test dummy,” Sandy yells at me, hurrying back. Everyone’s spun around. She bends to the girl, who is my age – in fact, I’ve seen her on campus. We’ve bumped into each other on the T on the way here a couple of times, and as with most of the people I might get to know, both looked down at our phones.
She groans, rolling onto her side. She’s wearing only a sportsbra, she’s one of those, and as I watch Sandy’s age-spotted hands move up and down her bare skin, it’s like I’ve been dunked into the frozen harbor. I consider stepping into the lobby for air but notice Glen stacking his blocks again, climbing on for another round of meditation. He’ll show us – monkey mind has nothing on him. He’ll take the high road. He’ll detach.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper to my knees, backing into the wall. Sandy continues to soothe the girl but gazes at me in the dim light.
“We’re all imperfect beings,” she says. I try to maintain eye contact but find myself having to look away.
In their online bios, the studio’s spritely teachers face the camera head on with piercing intensity, nose rings glittering in the sun, or they hold stunning poses on mountaintops, head thrown back toward a raised leg, mouth poised to swallow foot. Sandy’s photo is a burst of nothing. She isn’t posing; someone caught her in a fit of laughter. You do see shots of other yoga teachers laughing, even with their eyes closed, heavenly beams falling from off camera to illuminate untethered souls. This isn’t that kind of photo. The motion sensor didn’t work, she moved and her features dissolved, leaving only the grin and a flash of unruly hair.
A busybody from the front tiptoes over to see if she can assist in any way, but Sandy shoos her. “Let’s all take child’s pose.”
We bring our knees to the mat and drape our bodies over our thighs, burying our faces. My fucking schoolmate sniffles. I will Sandy to leave her and come see me. I have the sense I’m going to disappear. My limbs are growing numb. A serious lump clogs my throat. The trip of the jazz coming through the speakers begins to wear on me, and the nag champa smoldering in a ceramic dish on the windowsill burns my lungs. Finally Sandy gets up, goes to her phone, and changes the music. Out comes something she hasn’t played before, lutes and sitars moaning like elephants in grief. There isn’t anything cool or ironic about it. Do I know this woman at all?
I slowly roll my brow against the mat to soothe a pounding headache. My roommate is broke, gets free yoga on Youtube, I think she might be onto something. Craning my neck I see Sandy scribbling in her little notebook. She’s recording my transgressions. A candle in an ivory cup flickers at her face; with her eyes at half mast I can’t reassure myself.
I look down the rows. With everyone bowed toward her, we could pass for a cult. We’d remain bent with our faces smashed into the floor all night if she forgot to tell us to get up. Glen is the only one who’s upright, on his blocks. He’s absolutely perfectly still. I stare, willing him to open his eyes; I’d give him the finger. He remains impassive, though. I suppose he’s entered nirvana.
For the remainder of class she takes us through the standard fare: hip openers, bridge, spinal twists. She cracks the occasional joke – “wind releasing pose: you don’t have to take it literally, people” – and when I try to laugh along my face remains frozen. If I smile, I’ll break.
The Indian instrumental recedes into the background as she leads us through breathing exercises. “Ocean sounds. Calm that nervous system.” And it works, the lump melts, but only temporarily. As she guides us into savasana, a cacophony of nervous coughing erupts, but soon we’re all quiet, and the sarangi grinds in with a plaintive cry.
I tune my ears toward Sandy’s bare feet stepping around our corpses, the kissing sounds of her sweaty arches peeling off the floor. When the footsteps pause, I know she’s chosen someone who looks in need of additional soothing, and that she’s bent over them, rubbing their temples with lavender oil, tugging on their earlobes. The floor creaks and she’s up again. It’s like she deliberately fills us with a tenuous hope, a schoolgirl clasping a bouquet of lollipops in a sweaty hand, watching everyone beg. She squats down by Glen. He lets out a groan. Savasana only lasts so long. I’m supposed to be letting my thoughts drift away but instead I picture the bone-gnawing cold I’m about to head into, the icy walk back from the train to the dorm where my roommate’s boyfriend has become a permanent fixture. My breath will cloud the air and my nerves will remain on high alert, urging me to look back every two minutes to make sure nobody’s following me through the city streets. Why, my mother asks on the phone, do you insist on going everywhere by yourself?
I’m reminded of something I read for my world religions class, something about the abiding joy. According to certain Buddhists, you can be happy while sad. Bullshit, I think. Sandy places a hand on my heart.
Heat circulates through my chest, up to my throat, causing the lump to thaw again. She bends over my face and whispers so that only I can hear, “I feel a well of loneliness.”
As she releases me I hold my breath, training myself not to be like my whiny classmate, chipping away at other people’s silence. I hold my body still by gripping the sides of my mat and let tears slide into my ears as I think, Is it okay if I use you like this? And is this really going to cut it?
We meet her in cross-legged position. She’s turned the lights off completely so that only the candle kindles her face. The rest of us sit in shadow. The man won’t see me cry.
She brings prayer hands to her heart, her lips, her forehead. We mimic her, the meaning lost. “Namaste.” She bows and we follow. She grins on the way up and I think she’s addressing me – though everyone thinks that – when she casually translates, “I see you.”