Led • 22 March 2009

Strangest sight in town: 3:30 in the morning, pitch dark and cool, rounding the neighborhood corner occupied by the KPJAYI. In the street are 30 foreigners sitting like ivory chess pawns in four perfect rows facing out from the gate. Dead silent and still, just sitting, so serious, looking down at the ground. They are covered in clothing and shawls, so only their solemn faces are visible.

Friday I slept through my alarm and missed all this, instead sprinting across Gokulam at 4:15 (4:30 shala time), certain I’d be too late. But I ran right in to the back of a clump of ashtangis pressing themselves into a single-file stream up the stairs to the shala. No space anywhere—Sharath was off to Bangalore to pick up a visa so the two led classes had been collapsed in to one—so the last yogins scuffled to stake matspace in the lobby, or tiptoed through the mat-to-mat main room to pitch down in the changing rooms. Somehow I caught the eye of a svelte young Mexican rolling out on the marble stage a hair’s breadth from Guruji’s big chair. Is there space here? Yes yes. Of course, come in. By the end of the big yogi shuffle, there were six of us up there flanking the chair, facing each other perpendicular to the others.

Saraswathi was brilliant—a deep alto chant strongly enunciated, and no hesitation. The first thundering moments of my first led class were obviously magic, especially since they were up on the stage, inches from her and that chair, with all the giant photos of this practice’s history angled down right over us.

She counted in English at first but switched to Sanskrit when the numbers went above five—except at the end, when we finally got to hear her call Yeeeight in sarvangasana.

In Prasarita C, she called Waaan, Toooo, (slap!) Treeee…. And I imagined everyone in the room wished they too could take the liberty to kill mosquitos mid-posture. A lot of people were being eaten alive, no doubt—though like everywhere else I travel, in India the bugs have no interest in me.

In parsvo, it occurred to me that this was going to be the most effortful, grueling practice of my life. There was no oxygen in that room, and once we got to the floor it felt like we were doing the vinyasas on Jupiter. What do they call that… apana? So much effort demanded to move the body. The insane difficulty was part of the delight and solidarity of it all right from the start.

But then I got an out. In MaryC, a breeze wafted down through the cracked window right next to me. Amazing: I instantly felt the oxygen strengthen the muscles and make my body light. Practice became easy again, in a way the others out in the dense middle of the room, probably could not imagine.

This morning, also a led class, was a smaller group—many of the winter retreatants and scenesters left town Saturday, and others peeled away for the led 2S given after the 4:30 primary. So it was a merely full (not bursting) room for Sharath.

I settled in to the second row with the cotton shala rugs making lumps under my mat and the smell of tiger balm coming at me from four directions. Sharath is a shy, glassy-eyed trickster, tired but good humored, with a clear strong voice and a great economy of movement and speech. He set up a folding chair behind the throne-chair, took padmasana and called the standing postures from there. Later he circled the room, and returned to call finishing from a seated position on the floor at the front. In ut pluthehee he stood in front of me on my mat for counts 6-10 and dryly said Don’t cry as he made the 9 and the 10 last approximately forever. (This level of efforting past me edge feels like having a personal trainer… and what is it with me and him and ut pluthehee?) The big chair itself stayed empty throughout.