The day before Christmas, I got up early, put on at least three layers and went off through the cold city to attend my yoga class on the exposed roof of an old colonial building. I say old, since you might think that colonial was the name of a modern style. At first, it was just me and the teacher, T., a young woman of thirty-something. T. is a modern dancer, as in modern dance, and the strongest woman I have ever met. Plus, an accomplished yoga and Pilates teacher. She is also a beauty, smart and kind. My only lament is that I am not a better student. Younger, stronger, more flexible and better at yoga. More Cirque du Soleil.
At first, I thought T. would justifiably beg off teaching just one person. But then another young woman came, with her son A.—a five year old. I wondered what the boy was going to do the whole time after the teacher decided two was enough to justify giving a class. But the boy settled down on one of the woven reed mats, and T. brought him a yoga matt to lay on top of it.
When we began, A. began as well, throwing himself into each posture. His mother is very good at yoga, so he must have seen her do the asanas before. He stuck with it for nearly an hour, never seeming to lose interest. Once his mother took him off to go to the bathroom, a small journey that took precedence over yoga class protocol, where adults simply do not get up and go looking for a bathroom.
A’s little body was supple, willing and contained. Mine, stiff, willing but sometimes a little too ponderous to lever and bend. Still, I found A. an inspiration. After all, as T. says over and over, it is the intent that matters, and the boy was my refreshing guide in that.
All in all, I would say on the spiritual level, A. was also further along than me. He did not worry about keeping up, doing it right—or doing it at, since at times he simply stopped, turned around and looked at his mother or—with curiosity—over at me. T. made frequent visits to his mat and, with the skill and delight of a kind mother, adjusted his leg forward or back, and said, “This hand” or “Other leg! And: “Eso es!” “That’s it!” That in itself was worth the price of admission.
A. could do the bridge—a kind of back bend—with the top of his head on the mat. I think it should be called the crab pose. I could just barely do it. His mother, like T., can do it with her head far above the mat, forearms extended—a full wonderful upward bow.
Still, I admired A’s attitude, his participation, his interest in doing what his mother did. I knew very little about him, and so afterwards, in that lingering moment of camaraderie, I approached his mother to ask about him.
She asked me where I came from. I said I lived there in the city.
She said, “But before, where did you live?”
“California,” I said.
She took that in. I asked about her child. She is Mexican, the boy’s father, English. I asked the boy’s age and mentioned that I wasn’t sure whether he was a boy or a girl.
“A lot of people have that trouble,” she said.
“He’s a handsome lad,” I said. And a joy to be in a yoga class with, though I did not say that.
A. and I—I realized—might be to some extent exceptional, in the sense that, well, we might be exceptions. How many five-year old’s do yoga? How many seventy-five year old’s? Oh, all right, in the spirit of yoga’s purity, I confess to being seventy-six.
Actually, seventy-six and a half.
His skin is smooth and baby-like, mine more like that of a baby elephant—or rhinoceros. I had been hanging out with a five-year old—he beginning his life, me delaying the end with every trick I can think of. He was mildly curious about me. I delighted in his naturally yogic frame of mind: playful, determined, persistent, unafraid.
What other class have I been in with such an age difference? Alston Chase, at that prep school on a hill, near tears over Ruskin’s descriptions of classical Italian or Greek landscapes, Wendell Clausen, Professor of Latin and Comparative Literature, teaching Catullus’ poems at that college along the Charles. Andrew Jaszi teaching 19th Century German short stories in his Hungarian-accented German. Egon Schwartz doing the same, at the same place, but in German with an Austrian accent. It was shock enough when women from the neighboring famous women’s college joined our classes. But they were roughly my age. Once I heard about a twelve-year old genius studying at the college. But a five-year old? Unheard of.
But this yoga is a different matter. You don’t have to know German or Latin. You just have to have a somewhat in tact spine and a few willing muscles, and joints that haven’t been too neglected over the years. With Latin and German, about poetry and story, the teaching came from the professor. One’s own insights came later, little by little. But with yoga the information comes from one’s body, from inside. It’s as if the teacher says, open this book, read inside it. Loosen this joint, stretch this tendon—incrementally—tighten the stomach and the thighs. Look at the end of your nose—no straining allowed. This is what I can do now, your body says, and if you think about your breathing, it makes it easier for me.
“Be mindful of your intention,” T. says over and over.
A. ponders none of this. He just does it—with varying degrees attention, as is true for all of us.
Regretfully, just do it sounds something like a corporate slogan, by definition devoid of spirituality, subtlety or any real substance—nonsense, like that devilishly good brew that is called “the real thing.”
Except that A. is really the real thing, and me, too. All of us in the class are really the real thing. Our bending and twisting and breathing—most of all the breathing—and I suppose the constant awareness of age. A’s age and my age. He the alpha, me the omega. Contrasts exist, and the trick is—little by little—to accept them and therewith loosen the grip of their significance.