The cab driver eyed my mat.
“Things have really changed,” he announced. “Yoga didn’t used to have a very positive connotation.”
He warned me that dabbling with mystical forces might open onto a nightmarish rather than an awakened relationship to the world. As with so many Pandoras, Eves, and Bluebeard’s wives, the pursuit of a higher knowledge could have unforeseen and irreversible consequences.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not planning to raise any dead today..! Yoga’s about calming the mind through steady breath and movement, about cultivating physical intelligence through controlled exertion. About the relationship between the mind and the body, see? Nothing exotic to speak of.” Well, I said something like that, anyway.
As I sat in the first conference session of the day, “Flying, Floating and Handstanding,” I wondered whether the sight of David Swenson beginning his class with imitations of his pet cat would have dispelled or confirmed his suspicions (!).
When we jump,” David was saying, “we have a tendency to tense up.” Cats, as he sought to demonstrate, do not. Their bodies only flex when they hit the ground; in the air, they slacken. Between bounds, their limbs hang freely; their jaws stay so relaxed that their jowls flap. Instead of gritting our teeth and muscling our way from Uttanasana down to Chatturanga, or from Down Dog back to the top of the mat, we, too, should allow for a wobble in the jowls and a dangle in the legs. A bit of springy propulsion upwards to raise the hips, a transfer of weight in the direction of our destination, an optimistic setting of the gaze — and then relax, float, drop. We sought to experience this feline efficiency of movement with partner-assisted jump-backs and jump-throughs and, finally, in group-work handstands where a deluxe team of four provided each other with the stability to isolate the element of give and relaxation required in the posture.
I thought again about my cab driver friend later that morning, when Alan Finger introduced the class to a tantric practice known as the “whispering method”—so-called because the power of the techniques demanded that they be orally transmitted under the careful tutelage of a master and, even then, sotto voce. Addressing the triad of “Survival, Sex, and Spirit,” Alan advocated the interweaving of transcendental consciousness and effective action in the earthly world, a dynamic focused within each body as the quest to unite Shakti and Shiva. Explaining that Shakti, the earth force, is often mired by unreflective desire in the “plumbing department” of our bodies, Alan guided us through a pranayama practice designed to clear an upward channel for Shakti to reunite with Shiva, or enlightenment, at the crown of the head.
Class ended with an extended seated meditation with Alan hovering nearby, poised to lend “immediate, roadside Triple-Om assistance.”
Making explicit a principle evoked in both David’s and Alan’s classes, Richard Freeman elaborated, in the final session of the day, on the dialectical aspect of yoga. David had drawn our attention to the play of strength and relaxation involved in flight and balance. Alan had set us the goal of uniting two opposed and complementary forces in our bodies and, more broadly, in the relationship of enlightenment to everyday life. Richard, in turn, suggested that we think of practice as a conversation between Prana, the expanding inhalation, and Apana, the downward-rooting exhalation.
“Your job,” he told us, “is to bring Prana and Apana together. That’s all. Then you need to get out of the way so that they can do whatever they want to do with each other.”
Through slow repetitions of Surya Namaskar A and B, we followed the back-and-forth flow of Prana and Apana, each contraction inward and opening outward of the torso so deliberate that we drew out each breath to the merest thread. Then, bearing in mind the feeling of rounding forward the muscles from the shoulders down the psoas (Apana), and broadening the chest (Prana), we worked on the balance poses Pincha Mayurasana and Bakasana.
As I left the conference that evening, my thoughts turned a last time to the conversation I’d had that morning.
The cab driver may not have been right, but my response hadn’t mapped the entirety of the matter, either. And, in the dialogue between us that continued in my imagination through the course of the day, there was something resonant with the physical practice: something dynamic yet fluid, open yet focused.