BY MARK EPSTEIN
The yoga class was just beginning, and I had not been coming for very long. I was pretty much in my own world and concerned with getting myself set up properly. The class was a little late getting started, and we were all lined up expectantly on blue sticky mats, like overgrown preschoolers ready for nap time. Ready with blocks, blankets, and belts, we waited for the teacher to gather himself into his leading role.
I was fond of this before-the-beginning beginning; it was a between-state, a bardo, a passageway from one world to the next. Dressed in our yoga clothes, we could be anybody, or nobody, but we were unmistakably ourselves. I could not even see very well, having left my glasses and keys askew in my shoes at the back of the Manhattan studio. The feeling in the room was anxious but cautiously optimistic, as it is in the therapy office when a new but eager patient has just come in, before she has told me much of her story. I like this period because of how unstructured but brief it is; it never goes on long enough for me to start getting anxious but gives me a needed respite from the rest of my structured day. As when flying between cities in an airplane, I am suspended for a time. The remnants of my outside life can settle down before the tasks of this inside practice take over.
I do not intend this to be mean, but I was taken aback by what happened next. (The unconscious knows no negatives, I was taught when studying Freud. If someone tells me they don’t mean to offend me, I know they probably do.) Nothing out of the ordinary really happened. The new yoga teacher sat down in the front of the class and took a deep breath. He told us to sit up straight and close our eyes. He sang a mantra and asked us to chant it back to him. It was not an unfamiliar mantra, but something in his tone disturbed my reverie. What was it? I wondered. He was only chanting Om, for goodness sake. But something else was coming through the sound, an insistent quality, not quite a demand but an expectation.
I felt a wall going up around me and noticed that he got a tepid response from the class. “It’s not just me,” I consoled myself; other people had also contracted. He continued, bravely, but his song had more of that unrelenting tone. He wanted something from us, all right. It was there in his voice. I was reminded of visiting a friend in Minneapolis and walking around one of the lakes with her one summer afternoon. Everyone we passed was so resolutely cheerful, I had trouble believing they were real. Their greetings seemed to carry an implicit demand that I be cheerful in return. Our yoga teacher had a similar agenda for us, and the class did not appreciate it.
The teacher only repeated the mantra three times; the whole thing was not a big deal. It would have been nice if we had come around and started to sing and turned it into something positive, a big exhalation, but we did not do so. A few people ventured a response. I did not give much of one. I thought back to another teacher’s chanting, though. Her class was the first I ever attended and her singing, too, caught me off-guard; it had never occurred to me that there would be chanting during a lunch-time yoga class.