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Infernos & assholes: why I practice yoga June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I.

Dante was thirty-five when he went on his fact-finding mission into hell. Well, I got the jump on him by a good seven years.

I started practicing yoga a month after my twenty-eighth birthday in 2008, primarily as a way to get away from assholes. I’d encounter them every day, on the subway and the sidewalk, at the office and at parties. They were everywhere, conspiring, it seemed, to make my world a touch uglier, my life a shade less pleasant. Some people would push onto the train without waiting for alighting passengers to get off; when this happened to me, I saw it is a virtual license to throw up my elbows and deliver a few forearm shivers to the jerks who weren’t waiting their turn. My boss chain-smoked Parliament Light after Parliament Light in his office, operating under the notion that if his door was merely cracked instead of wide-open, then no one else could breath his exhaust. This I took as license slack off and stop working at 3:30 or 4, time to declare the brain too saturated with carbon monoxide to be of any further creative use.

To get through those days, I’d taken to abusing my clonazepam prescription, interpreting “one tablet as needed for anxiety” to mean “two tablets every day after lunch.” The Simon’s Little Helpers could make sixty minutes feel like forty-five (forty on an empty stomach), and they helped reinforce a general “Who gives a shit?” attitude whenever the hairs in my nostrils bristled in protest at the toxic atmosphere of that office. For anyone who hasn’t spent eight consecutive hours trapped inside a smoke-filled office, the traditional “five o’clock feeling” is quite unique, similar to the way you might feel after eating an entire jar of dill pickles–and drinking all the brine–only expansive enough to engulf the entire body and not just your stomach. It also arrives at 10:30 in the morning. Five days a week, I left work feeling pickled and poisoned, soaked in formaldehyde, cyanide, and misery.

In Spring 2008, I started going to Jivamukti Yoga Center, which was just a five minute walk from work. After my four-week Beginner Basics program, once a week became twice, and twice became four times. Practice days soon outnumbered rest days, rest days became less and less satisfying. And then, slowly, it dawned on me: I was an asshole, too! Everyone in my life was an insensitive prick because I had become one myself.

My transformation began that summer at Jivamukti. I listened to my teachers, did everything they asked (at least in class). I showed up after work every night, eager to detoxify and unpickle my physical body. After a few weeks, my psychology began to follow. Jivamukti Yoga is ardent in its belief that every soul is a holy being, and I slowly began to see myself as such. As I squeezed and sweated out the arsenic, ammonia, and soot that each day would permeate my body, I rid myself of feelings of inadequacy, of loneliness and shame. Dharma talk after dharma talk, headstand after headstand, Warrior II after Warrior II, I could understand my holiness as natural and inevitable. I could touch my toes! I could stand on my head!

Eventually, I could patiently abide subway insensitivity! And an inconsiderate smoker could be a teacher and inspiration, an opportunity to embrace as holy and valuable even the most toxic examples of foulness. Jivamukti became–and remains–my land of Katroo, Dr. Seuss’s magical birthday-land where you’re told, “Today you are You,/ That is truer than true./ There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

The assholes disappeared from my life. Oh, inconsiderate souls still abound, and reprehensible behavior is everywhere. But the assholes, well they’ve left the building. Yoga has made me holy, and my world whole.

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