WHEN I NOTICED a sign at our hotel offering yoga lessons, I told my friend Sholeh, “Let’s sign up.” I had been practicing at home and was determined to take yoga in India, where it all began.
We changed into our sweats and went to meet our instructor, a young man in his early 20s, lanky and big-eyed. He led us to a room that looked like a dining hall, but the tables and chairs had been pushed against the walls. He instructed us to lie down on the concrete floor. The air conditioner hummed from a wall unit in the corner, circulating cold air with a hint of cardamom, lemon polish, and mop water.
We were his only students.
“Do we get mats?” I asked.
“This is real yoga. No mats.”
Determined to do “real yoga,” I followed his instructions.
“The floor’s a little cold,” Sholeh said.
“You will become warm,” our teacher told us. He went over to turn off the air conditioner and opened the window. The brackish, humid air pushed into the dining hall yoga studio.
Our instructor then came back over and kneeled down on the floor between us and yanked on my leg. “I must pull your leg this way,” he told me, “to stretch it.”
“What about the asanas?” I asked. “Don’t we do the poses ourselves?”
“Don’t you want to do Indian yoga?” He left me and edged over to Sholeh. He sat down cross-legged next to her, rubbing her arm.
“It just seems strange,” I said. “It’s not like home. Not even a little bit.”
“Have you done yoga in India before?” he asked.
I admitted that I had not.
“Well, this is real yoga.” He progressed from massaging Sholeh’s arm to tugging on it, as if trying to dislodge the arm from its socket, so he could bring it home with him. “Ouch,” Sholeh said, so he went back to a slow caress.
“My teacher at home studied in India,” I tried. “And we don’t do it this way. What about sun salutations?”
“But this is India. 25,000-year tradition. Do you argue with that? Things are very different in India.” He reluctantly left Sholeh’s arm and instructed her to lay in shavasana until he could return to her. He then came over to me and wrenched my leg with vigor.
“That’s too hard,” I said.
“You have children?” He continued his stretching work.
“No. Ouch. Why?”
“And your friend?” He pointed to Sholeh.
“I have two children,” she said, still in corpse pose.
“Well, the reason you are inflexible,” our teacher told me as he jerked at my leg, “is that you have too much thigh fat.”
“Yes. You have thigh fat and that’s why you don’t stretch. And no children!” He shook his head with disdain. “Your friend, she has an excuse — two children. But you…?” He wagged his finger at me. “You have no reason and more thigh fat than your friend with the two children. You have no excuse whatsoever.” He yanked on my leg, nearly succeeding in popping it from the cradle of my hip.
Here’s where I should have asked him not to pull so hard, said that it hurt and he needed to stop. But for some reason, though I am not usually shy, when I am at the mercy of anyone performing a service on me, from dentistry to bikini waxing, I can’t seem to stand up for myself, even at home. The last time my hairdresser said, “I’m going to do something fun!” I ended up with purple highlights. Though my college students said they thought my new hair-do was “rad,” the lavender highlights didn’t exactly suit middle-aged me. But it’s even worse when I’m traveling, because I’m unfamiliar with cultural cues and expectations — I suppose what it comes down to is not wanting to look like what I am: another clueless tourist.
Our yoga instructor finally left me and my thigh fat and walked back over to Sholeh, who looked like she might have gone to sleep. He called to me, “You can do your sun salutations now if you want.”
So I got busy with my sun salutations, thinking about how I knew this wasn’t right, knew that just because this was India, that didn’t make it real yoga. Then I thought about how during yoga, I should notice my thoughts and let them go rather than engage in internal arguments. I tried to concentrate on my breathing, wondering what would come next, wondering if my ideas about yoga had been wrong all along? Maybe after years of practicing yoga at home, I still didn’t know what yoga was?
I tried, without success, to still my mind. Maybe this was real yoga. After all, I never realized I liked Chinese food until I actually went to China. What did I really know?
A week earlier in Khajuraho, we had stayed at a Holiday Inn with a billboard in front that read, The Place to Stay Where You Can Be Yourself. They meant that hotel guests would enjoy the modern conveniences that Americans and Europeans are used to, that we could feel like we did at home. But that wasn’t the experience I was looking for, or at least that’s what I told myself. But maybe this yoga lesson proved that I really did want everything, or at least something in India, to be just like home.
After ten sun salutations, I practiced my ujjayi pranayama breathing in downward facing dog. I stared at my thigh fat, mad at myself for not lying to the instructor about having children.
Our yoga instructor continued to pull at Sholeh’s arm while she rested in corpse pose. She opened her eyes and said, “I think I’ve had enough Indian yoga for now.”
As we left, he called to us: “I can come to your room for private lessons. For yoga. Or for massage. And I’ll give you a very good discount.”
We tipped him and waved goodbye.
“That was strange,” I told Sholeh as we walked back to our room. “I mean, have you ever done yoga like that?”
“I’ve told you before,” she said. “To enjoy India, you must let go of your expectations.”
I nodded. The lesson had nothing to do with yoga. Or maybe, just maybe, it did.