At 5:58 a.m. every Wednesday morning, I find myself facing a moment of truth: I’m awake, mat unrolled, class sequence planned, yoga studio warm and inviting.
I’m ready to teach. But is anyone going to show up? This is a drop-in class. No one pays or registers ahead of time.
As a former loather of early mornings, I stand in awe of my students who are not only able to get up in what feels like the middle of the night to practice, but do so willingly (confession: on the rare days I promise myself I’ll get up early to do my own practice, more often than not I succumb to the alluring heat of my husband’s body curled around mine and switch off the alarm instead of hoisting my body out of bed and onto the mat. My dedicated students might flash in my mind, a brief pang of guilt might pierce my half-awake state, but give me another moment and I’m happily back in dreamland).
But today is a great morning: my eyelids opened before the alarm went off.
I dressed in the dark, brushed teeth and hair, inserted contacts, and in less than ten minutes I was ready for work.
Minimal upkeep is just one of the perks of teaching yoga for a living. I like driving in the quiet to Dragonfire Studio here in Dallas. I enjoy the subtle sounds of the earth slumbering, so I refrain from turning on the CD player and instead roll down my window to let the breeze sing me a song.
As I exit the car, I look overhead. A crescent moon tattoos a tiny arc of light on the skin of the darkness. Under it a single star hangs like some celestial punctuation mark.
Texas summers are searing hot but now that autumn’s arrived, the air in the morning is soothing as a cool hand on a warm forehead. When I unlock the studio door I leave it open, invite the breeze inside with me.
I love the Dragonfire Studio. It’s a cozy, artsy space in a slightly dilapidated white building.
In better days, the structure was a sprawling single family home. But in its current rundown condition, the back half has been divided into three apartments. The yoga studio is the former kitchen, dining room and living room.
Laura, the studio owner, has decorated it in funky country Zen kitsch. There are pretty Chinese paper lanterns adorning the ceiling around the perimeter of the practice space. Two-feet tall wooden dreamlike animal sculptures stand quiet guard in the corners. I believe they ward off nightmares and bad energy.
Two red, distressed leather couches in the entry lounge open their arms like grandmothers beckoning for a hug, inviting students to take their time before and after class.
Atop the front desk sits a pretty lacquered box where students deposit their money or punch cards. And a sprig of bamboo in a chipped blue glass vase offers new shoots of good fortune every few weeks. There’s a subtle hum in the air in this gem of a place, as if the walls have paid attention during countless classes and learned the art of ujjayi pranayama: long luxurious breathing.
I’m the only one who drives to morning practice at Dragonfire. Since the studio is in a residential neighborhood, most of my students live close enough to walk.
It’s the moment of truth again: 5:58 a.m.
I peek my head out the screen door, peer out into what feels more like night than morning. Here come my regulars: Robert ambles up the road with his mat bag slung over one shoulder. He raises a hand in a silent salute.
A couple of yards behind him I see Crispin, padding barefoot on the warm pavement. Her long brown hair shines in a halo of moonlight. For a moment it looks as if she is a sleepwalking angel, floating along in her nightgown. But as she draws near, I see she has thrown a pretty floral shift over her yoga tights.
Yogi, the studio’s unofficial mascot, trots alongside her. Yogi’s a smart cat; he knows Crispin will take pity on him and feed him breakfast after practice if he’s patient enough to wait until 7:15.
Jenny turns the corner from the other direction. She resembles a friendly ghoul with her white hoody atop her head, so I quip “Hi there, Casper,” as she floats in sleepy solitude past me into the studio, a ghost of a smile passing over her lips in response.
As the regulars unfurl their mats, an unexpected guest scoots in the door. It’s Shanda. She’s a faithful attendee of the Tuesday evening class. She has told me before that she’s not fond of morning practice, so I’m happily surprised to see she made the effort this morning. I ring the Tibetan chimes lightly, a soft but sure calling of our bodies and our minds back to the moment, back to the breath.
There’s something about practicing yoga in the early morning hours that feels more sacred than any other time. Even the getting ready has its own special energy.
When I studied in Mysore, my fellow yoginis Sadie, Beth, Dianna and I rose every morning to the raucous din of Indian life that never seems to cease. The cacophony of auto rickshaw horns bleeping, roosters crowing, dogs barking and men laughing were both our lullaby and our alarm.
The morning routine in Mysore was almost exactly the same as at home in Dallas. In some ways it was a comfort, a balm of familiarity against all the disorienting differences you encounter when you’re in a foreign country halfway around the world.
In India, we made two changes in the litany of dressing for practice: We brushed teeth with bottled water. No sense tempting Kali into striking us down with some bacteria or parasite. And we threw saffron hued wraps woven with pretty gold trim around our shoulders before stepping outside our hotel room.
India in February was plenty warm enough to go out in our tank tops, but Mysore is still very much a traditional city. The wraps covered our bare arms and demonstrated modesty. The saffron color indicated that we were on a spiritual pilgrimage. They warded off another form of parasite, young Indian men intent on meeting loose Western women.
The four of us walked about a mile down rutted stone streets to the yoga shala. In our uniform saffron shawls we must have looked like a coven of nuns en route to morning liturgy, which was not far from wrong. More often than not we walked alongside one another the whole way in reverent silence.
Some mornings in India it was easy to get up and go. Others, especially the day after a particularly difficult practice, it felt like I had lead in my legs.
But even on the days when if felt as if we were trudging the road to happy destiny, the trudging never overshadowed the happiness.
I glowed in India. I thrived on performing the primary Ashtanga series daily.
One of my students recently read an article in National Geographic that said that there is a very short period each day when the world is completely still. “It’s a tiny window of time,” Caroline gestured, measuring a miniscule frame with her thumb and index finger to make her point.
“Somewhere right around three thirty in the morning, every living thing sleeps. The birds tuck into their nests, the other animals quiet down. And if the wind isn’t blowing and you hold your breath and listen hard, you would almost swear the earth had stopped turning.” Her eyes shone like a delighted child at the revelation.
“Imagine,” she continued, savoring her discovery. “Everything still. No television, no radio, no car alarms. Nothing but quiet.”
In the summer of 2005, I assisted at the Chicago Forrest Yoga Teacher Training. It’s an arduous twenty-four days: teacher trainees arrive at the studio for meditation at 6 a.m., followed by a two-hour intensive asana practice. They get a two-hour break, then return for a full afternoon of instruction. They learn how to teach and how to make adjustments on students.
They also journal, answering questions such as where they hope to be and what they hope to accomplish in the next year, three years and five years, and what obstacles stand in the way of their success. They contemplate mortality through a sobering Zen death meditation. It’s an emotional time, with just a two-day respite mid-way through the training.
More than once during my own training in 2001 I had wondered whether I had the stamina and emotional wherewithal to complete the course.
I got to measure my progress and dedication toward my practice by my attitude about rising early in the morning. As a teacher trainee in 2001, I got up at 5:15 each morning. I remember grousing to anyone who would listen about how much I missed the luxury of staying in bed until 6:30 or 7 a.m., and feeling smugly superior to anyone who confessed to a later wake up time.
When I agreed to assist at the 2005 training, I discovered Ana Forrest required her assistants to practice with her prior to the students’ meditation and practice. Our practice was two hours long. The students arrived for meditation about quarter to six. This meant we met for practice from 3:30 to 5:30 a.m. Yes, a.m.
I groaned when I learned we’d be getting up in the middle of the night every day for twenty-four days.
Was I a masochist? Was practicing really worth my precious time in bed? Would I hear an alarm going off at 3 a.m.?
I could recall nights when I hadn’t gone to bed until that hour, but I was pretty sure I had never gotten up then. And before the training, there was only one word I could think of to describe awakening at that hour—ungodly.
I told everyone who would listen about my plight. Most were sympathetic, though some pointed out that I was choosing to participate. I stopped talking to them for the duration of the training.
Morning one found me fueled by adrenaline. I’d flown into Chicago the night before and had dinner with my mom, then tried to go to bed at nine, but read for two hours because I just wasn’t tired. It felt wrong to turn in while the sun was still shining. I bolted out of bed when the alarm buzzed, excited to see my teacher and to practice.
Day two was agony. By 8 p.m. on day one, I was looking for toothpicks to prop my eyelids open, literally falling asleep in my dinner plate. I crashed hard, and although I got eight hours of sleep, at 3 a.m. I yearned to crawl back in between the sheets instead of onto the mat.
Days three through seven passed in a sleep-deprived blur as my body struggled to adjust to the new schedule. But by day eight, realization dawned: I was beginning to enjoy and even look forward to my middle of the night sojourns. I awoke in the dark and often went to bed in the light, but the quiet of the early morning hours had somehow snuck its way into the rest of my life.
I found it easy to make excuses for afternoon naps, and everyone understood why I couldn’t stay out late on a school night.
There’s something compelling to me about the mystery of the night, and I found a comfort in the dark hours, the lull of the day. Every morning I drove down Chicago Avenue to the studio. Most mornings there were only a few cars and hardly anyone on the streets. But Fridays and Saturdays, revelers poured from smoky bars onto the sidewalks out front, looking in vain for an errant cab or necking with drunken passion in shadowy alleyways. I drove slowly past. My body might have been achy and sore from lots of inversions, and backbends, but seeing those people left me grateful for the hangover I wouldn’t have when the sun came up.
I’d meet Ana, her partner and the other assistants at the studio.
The Shaw’s Crab House neon sign lit up the night immediately in front of us, but beyond that lay a dark frontier. We’d climb the steps to the second floor studio space of Moksha Yoga, lay out our mats and get down to breathing and stretching.
We alternated days between practicing with music and practicing in silence. Each had its own gifts. After we warmed up, we’d step to the top of our mats, and in faithful expectation we’d begin surya namaskar, the sun salutation.
What an act of faith, to flow through vinyasa after vinyasa, convinced that regardless of the thick cloak of blackness covering the city outside the studio window, the sun would eventually come up to say hello.
If you stay awake willingly, the hours between dusk and dawn seem like a bonus, like you’re cheating time into giving you more than you’re entitled to.
It’s a great time to scrub floors, organize closets, go for a long, long walk. A great time for any activity that leaves your mind free to wander your inner darkness.
Out of dedication to my practice, I’ve seen and experienced the sun rising from the mysterious dark of night in cities across the United States.
Back at Dragonfire, it’s 6:35 and still pitch black out.
I smile to myself as I realize that I know from firsthand experience that it stays darker here later in the morning than in the Midwest.
Ten minutes later, the first faint tinge of light rolls the darkness away. It’s that time again. I turn to my students and direct them into the sun salutations. And together we witness this wonderful, ordinary miracle: the dawning of another day.
Bridget Boland is a Dallas and Chicago-based writer, doula, shamanic energy practitioner, and Forrest Yoga instructor. Her debut novel, The Doula, was published September 2012 by Simon and Schuster. Bridget’s work has appeared in Conde Nast, Women’s Sports and Fitness, YogaChicago and The Essential Chicago. Excerpts from her work have won the Writers League of Texas Memoir Prize, and the Surrey Writers Conference Nonfiction
Ms. Boland teaches writing classes on fiction and memoir, coaches other writers, and offers seminars on yoga, energetics and writing as life process tools. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a JD from Loyola University of Chicago, and is the recipient of five residencies at The Ragdale Foundation for Writers and Artists.
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