Inhale Up, Exhale Down–
First stop on a 40-year journey
It’s 1972. I’m 20 years old, working the swing shift as a unit secretary at the local hospital and living with my boyfriend and three friends in a dilapidated house on the outskirts of town. My hippie days are quickly coming to an end and adulthood is breathing down my neck. The ideals I hold of living in a country, a world, where there is love, peace and a brotherhood of mankind, are on life support. The drugs, sex and rock & roll don’t proffer any answers to the mess the world is in and that kind of lifestyle has already driven many of my friends right into a ditch. I know I can’t stand still. But what’s next?
It’s January and my then-boyfriend (now husband) is up to his elbows in motor oil trying to fix my 1962 VW bug (for the third or fourth time), when a high school buddy of his stops by to tell us about yoga. He has just finished taking a kundalini yoga teacher training course in Phoenix the month before and is wide-eyed with zealous inspiration. I immediately go on an all-systems red alert. He goes on and on about the amazing “high” you get by breathing, stretching, by (Oh, my God!) meditating. My boyfriend is excited to try it and right away makes plans to go to one of the classes Michael is teaching at a local grade-school gym. There is a churning deep in the pit of my stomach and I know—in the words of the Buffalo Springfield—that, “Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Resistance is a teacher and not a particularly kind one. You have to listen to it and what it has to say is usually not very pretty. My resistance to yoga, to meditation, to having any kind of practice that sought to elevate my state of consciousness, was immense and furious and so, so determined to save me from…from what?…from having my heart broken again by the promise of connecting with something bigger than myself. I didn’t know it then (we rarely do), but it was the hope, the promise, of yoga that freaked me out, that made me scream, cry and put my fists up to fight off even the slightest glimmer of possibility of a “spiritual” experience. I’d only found hypocrisy in religion and a woeful lack of unity of purpose in the movements of the ‘60’s. I was convinced that the promise of living a more enlightened and purposeful life, the promise yoga offered, would be another broken one. I just couldn’t risk it.
This is where grace comes in, because had not my boyfriend been so taken with doing the yoga, had he not lit candles and chanted in our bedroom, had he not been the most patient and loving man on the planet, while I raged against anything to do with this crazy, new-age bullshit, then it all would have turned out differently. Very differently. He doesn’t push, he doesn’t insist and soon, as water wears down the stone, I agree to go to a friend’s house one night for a party, a different kind of party, where we’d do some yoga before we ate, drank a few beers and smoked some weed. Okay, I think, it’s not like I’m signing my life away.
We sit in a circle, about ten of us, in our jeans, t-shirts and scraggly, long hair. We are stiff, a little smelly and definitely uncomfortable with being sprawled on the floor stretching, breathing and repeating tongue-twisting “mantras.” The final exercise of the evening, we all join hands and come into a circle, squatting on our haunches. Michael instructs us to inhale and stand up, lean back and expand our chests to the sky and then exhale and return to a squatting position. “Keep your eyes closed, breathe deeply,” he tells us. “Focus at the third eye.” (What the heck is that?) We do this for a couple of minutes, slowly increasing the pace, inhaling up and exhaling down. My thighs begin to burn in the first 30 seconds. I struggle to keep my balance and the big, male hands I’m holding on either side, are sweaty and slippery. “Last 30 seconds,” he says, “increase the pace—make the breath deeper, stronger. Go for it. Inhale up. Exhale down. Inhale up and hold! Hold the breath. Stretch up. Focus at the brow. Hold. Hold… Exhale and slowly come down.
My legs wobble, my heart races and the whole room swirls into some surreal alternate universe, a little like being on an acid trip without the “crazy” part. I don’t know who I am, where I am or what’s real. But, in this moment, in these breaths, something deep inside of me stirs—something lost and forgotten, buried under all the broken promises of the spirit. It is a flicker—a fairly faint one—but it does have heat, it does have life. There has been an awakening.
next month: The Summer Vacation that Wasn’t: How My Heart Chakra Cracked Open on a Hillside in Elk County, California
Interview with the author: Life Light and Kundalini Yoga with Hari Bhajan Khalsa