Underbelly • 1 September 2012

Ladyboys of Bangkok 1

The white tents of Denver airport showed up again, in Edinburgh. They're pitched in the Meadows in the middle of town, and home to one of the Fringe Festival’s naughty shows: The Ladyboys of Bangkok. For this past moon cycle, I’d pass each morning at 4, walking .8 miles north through the city to practice. The circus lights outside the empty tents would still be on… very Lost Boys. Those lights bounced off the peaked tarps, and the first sun from out over the Atlantic outlined the cragged dome of Arthur’s Seat.

There is a north-south promenade bisecting the Meadows, and a white line down its center. Pedestrians on the west, cyclists on the east. But at four in the morning during Festival, it was just me and couple dozen sweet, dancing drunks.

One morning was quiet: just me and another guy. He entered the top of the promenade as I entered the bottom a quarter-mile away. Under the lights, I could see him weaving. Like a drunk driver attempting to follow the white line down the road, his lurching made a helix. So I walked the line, shushumna to his pingala; me north to the shala, him godknowswhere. I was loving this order-chaos dance, but as we neared each other, he tripped over his heel, spun in a circle so that his canvas raincoat flapped like a sail, and then gently laid down in savasana. Then he moaned: Oh noooo ohhhhh noooooo ohhhh noooo. He was semiconscious, his breath deep, when I passed. Good place to sleep it off.

Further north, at the end of the commute, there is an inflatatable, upside-down cow udder. Like a bouncy-castle, but purple and enormous. It sits at the center of Bristo Square, the geographic heart of the Festival. There is an granite Benedictine church-hulk on the north side of this square: its monks have released the old rituals and given the space over to spirituality by other means: upstairs, a “wet” refuge for drunks who won’t go off the sauce, and in the basement, the yoga shala. And below that, I suspect by way of Patanjali’s methods, are layer upon layer of my ancestors' bones.

This whole zone of the city is called The Underbelly, in reference to the historic Cow Gate at the bottom of the next cobblestone hill. It took me two Festivals to understand that the giant purple bouncy castle was an udder, and that according to this metaphor we are all walking around on the belly of a gigantic tipped-over cow.

But since my first visit last August, I’ve called this shala—like the now defunct AYSF in The Haight—The Belly of the Whale. Jonah meets Matsyendra. Practice in that vestibule is hot and safe and honest. And, being a refinement process, said practice steeps in itself and finally gives more energy than it takes. There is a sort of purifying, attractive heat radiating out from that place, moving up, moving down, moving out. As above, so below.

For this intensive, the planners called our workshop Practice in the Belly of the Whale, and in the evenings I taught on Pratyhara. Sense withdrawal is not the self-denial we post-Puritans can misunderstand it to be, but a ripening ecstasy of reversing the ever-seeking senses to the inside. Imagine you had two ear trumpets, and two eye searchlights, and so on, so that you could suck your perception inside your bodymind and delight in the yoga of your subtle and subtler selves.

I rather prefer imagining the shala in the belly of a whale than in the interlocking mala of a cow’s four stomachs; and then again, the shala owner's ishta devata is Ganesha. Whale, cow, elephant. Who knows. But it feels accurate to understand ourselves – doing this ashtanga yoga—as being digested over and over again by some huge immortal animal we can't quite perceive.