Yoga is just a part of regular life here in India. Its ancient origins in the vedic scriptures have ensured its place in the life of Hindus in India, not as a religious activity practiced on special holidays, but as an expected component of every day. With 80% of the population being Hindu, that has a big impact. It’s taught in schools and embraced by devotees of other religions as well. While controversy about that is worthy of consideration (check out “Why Muslims in India Feel Yoga Has Been Weaponized”), I’ve mostly been considering its impact on me.
This is my 5th week of regular yoga classes here in India. Our middle class apartment complex has a clubhouse, which sounds way fancier than it is. Basically, it’s a barren first floor room with lots of windows and a tiled floor; a second floor with a billiard table and a ping pong table (both largely unused); a small third floor gym with a couple treadmills, a weight machine, and some free weights; and a top floor where I have been told there is Zumba (although I’ve never seen it). As far as I’m concerned, the free yoga is the best thing about it, with classes available 4 or 5 times a day, 5 or 6 days a week. There’s no posted schedule anywhere so you just have to be in the know, which took me a while.
On my first day of class, I arrived at 5:30 am feeling anxious and inadequate, not sure where to be and just desperately trying to do what everyone else did (leave my shoes outside even though the floor inside is kind of dirty, set up my mat in the back corner and sit on my heels until the teacher arrived). Once Sima got there and smiled at me, I completely relaxed. For that class, she directed the other students with quick instructions, but stationed herself next to me, ensuring that I was focused exclusively on breathing in sync with simple movements. I looked up and down while inhaling and exhaling. I moved my hands apart and back together while inhaling and exhaling. I got nods of approval as my abdomen expanded and “collapsed” with my breath. Sima allowed me to join the rest of the class for two of their twelve sun salutations, but then had me again stand and breathe until we got to pranayama at the end of class, when I joined everyone else in, you guessed it, breathing.
On the second day, she asked me if I wanted to join the class and looked radiantly pleased when I said yes. She then told me that if I kept coming, after one month I would notice myself seeing things differently and responding to them differently. After three months, other people would notice these changes too. That sounded pretty good to me.
Each day of that first week, she allowed me to try more, checking in with me during the class to ask, “Do you want to try this?” and beaming her beautiful smile at me each time that I said yes. By the end of the first week, I was just a regular participant, following along as best I could. When I showed up for the second week of classes, I was given a page with the prayers spelled out.
The class opens with a chanted prayer, there is another prayer before the sun salutations, there is a brief chanted line before each of the twelve sun salutations, and there is a prayer to close the class. I imagined that these were prayers that everyone else in the class knew from childhood and wondered how I’d ever learn them until I was told by a classmate that they all receive these printed prayers after joining the class. I also wondered if it was even appropriate for me to be chanting prayers – praying is not a part of my life in any way – but the vibrations felt during the chanting seem like an essential part of the practice. So I awkwardly mumble through my prayers every day and feel less weird about it as time goes by.
Each class begins with “loosening exercises” to prepare us for sun salutations, and then we do 12 sun salutations (6 on each side) to prepare us for asanas (yoga poses). We always close with meditation and pranayama. Within that structure, there are variations. Loosening exercises seem a bit like old-fashioned calisthenics, some days standing, sometimes seated, and sometimes lying down. Sometimes we follow our 12 sun salutations with 6 more “dynamic” sun salutations at hyperspeed. Sometimes we follow them with two very slow sun salutations where we pause for three cycles of breath in each of the 12 positions. Once we did 24 sun salutations. The asanas are always different, and then pranayama (breathing exercises) are always different.
The 5:30 am class can be anywhere from 5 people to 11 people depending on the day, but is usually around 8. It’s about half men and half women, with most of them between 45 and 70, but a couple younger folks as well. Sima is ageless – I could believe that she is around my age or 20 years older. She just exudes a kind of calm acceptance, but also seems like a perfectly normal person with a perfectly normal body until she effortlessly places her forehead on her knees. I may need to redefine normal here. That might actually be normal. And speaking of normal, it’s clear that this is truly just the way my classmates greet the day. They are not doing yoga because they hope to achieve something – they’re not here to lose weight or treat that back problem or better manage their stress – they’re here because this is and always has been how the day begins.
I like that it’s becoming part of my way to start the day too. I’m not sure I actually notice the new perspective that Sima said I would see, but Tom tells me that I’m more patient now and less frequently jump in to finish his sentences. So maybe it’s reversed for me. Maybe other people can see the changes now and I’ll see them in three months. And even if I never notice any actual changes, I think I’ll just keep doing it because I like it.