Learning Asanas

by Lacey Arnold

I sat down in Raja’s classroom with no expectations. They had all been stripped from me the moment I stepped out into the sweet-smelling Indian air. Over the next two months, the mental picture I had secretly crafted of the country and its people would entirely corrode. But I could only understand a fraction of this then.

“Lazy, tell me, do you have menstruation?” was the first thing he asked me besides my name.

The “s” sound in Lacey must not exist in Kannada because the entire state of Karnataka calls me Lazy. For some reason, this was the part of his question I was focused on.

“Um, not right now,” I mumbled, intonation rising.

What he meant was, Are your monthly female cycles regular? They were, but I refused to comment further on the subject.

“It is not fine? I can fix your menstruation with yoga.”

Besides giving me the time of our first yoga class, that was the extent of my first conversation with the man I would never truly understand.

Raja was a short, stereotypically Indian man with a mustache that extended nearly beyond the edge of his face. He liked to make outrageous claims about the mysteriously wonderful powers of yoga and said “my God, man,” when something shocked him. Like most Indian men, his age was entirely ambiguous, masked behind the thick, black fur stuck to his upper lip. If I had to guess, I would place him between 25-40 years old. I really have no idea.

The one way in which he was not stereotypically Indian was in the fact that I could not, and still can’t, pinpoint his religious beliefs. I found this to be the most telling trait of nearly every Indian I know. The Christians were westernized and ate at the Pizza Hut, the Hindus always gave rupees when propositioned, but Raja was much more mysterious. Of course, there was his lack of religious dress when he showed up to classes in his Virgin Mobile polo shirt and swishy pants, but he lacked it in his attitude as well. He may have been the only agnostic in the entire country, but if he were, he would not have let a single soul know of it.

Our first actual yoga session together began the next day at 8 a.m., an impossibly early time in India since even the coffee shops were not yet open. That didn’t matter, though, because black coffee was practically unheard of throughout the entire country. (Needless to say, Starbucks did not play a key role in India’s globalization.)

Raja, though, was on Indian time, which meant he stepped into the classroom at 8:23 a.m. I, on Ohio time still, had had our two mats set up since 7:45 a.m. and was about to call the school that sent him to see what the hell was going on.

“You eat breakfast?” was his greeting, possibly the most often asked question in the entire country. (An Indian colleague later told me that this is because India’s entire social system revolves around food.)

“Toast,” I answered, and realized immediately that I had fallen into his trap.

“No, no, no. You should not do yoga for a minimum 3 hours after eating! It is very bad, very bad to do on a full stomach. Only on a empty stomach should we do yoga.”

So he left, leaving me no chance to mention that nobody had explained to me the “rules” of pre-yoga fasting.

Four sessions in, I had learned that I should always do a number of things in addition to starving before classes: Perform my “nature calls,” as Raja put it (full bladders are very bad when doing yoga!), avoid water, and clear my mind.

Raja claimed he could undoubtedly tell when my mind was not clear. When I could not keep up with his two-minute long inhales and three-minute long exhales that were “essential” to the practice of yoga, he assured me it was because I was not focusing. If I were, of course it would have been no problem.

After seven sessions, I had also gathered some questionable facts: “You should not drink water cold if you have a cold,” (I later found that this is a common wives’ tale throughout the area.) “All babies first words are ‘Om,’” “You will live to be a minimum 100 years old if you practice yoga every day, I promise,” and “You will never be sick a day in your life if you do yoga asanas every day.”

A few sessions later, Raja called to cancel because he was not feeling well.

And this was not the only time he would do so.

When he did not cancel class, he always ended each session the same way: “Do you have any questions? Any doubts?” When I said I did not, he would respond, “No questions, no doubts. I’ll see you tomorrow.” But sometimes, despite the farewell, he would stay for another hour and ask me questions of Americans’ spending habits or the reason for our inconceivably high divorce rate.

His eyes widened when I estimated the amount of money the average American spends on alcohol, and he gave me the response I was sure he had prepared before he even asked the question: “My God, man. That could feed a family for a month here.”

His favorite questions about America, though, were those of divorce. “Now tell me,” he would say, “How does divorce work? It is acceptable in your country?”

He spoke of it with such a stifled reverence, as if he were torn between his own desires and the culturally appropriate expectations that were mandated to him, but he would always end these discussions by purporting the importance of dharma, or duty – duty to his god, his culture, his family, and his vows.

One day after class I began to understand.

It was at the end of our twentieth session. He concluded just as he always did: “No questions, no doubts?”

When I said I had none he began walking towards the door, then without seeming to think much about it, he turned back to me and said nonchalantly, “The only person I ever loved was my father. And he’s gone. Not even my wife.”

Maybe I realized it in that moment, or maybe it had taken me until our thirty-eighth session, but at some point, the mysterious Raja had become a shade more transparent.

I had come to India to leave my sheltered, seemingly-perfect, boring world behind, but in the process I had stepped into the life of a man too bound to what he had been born into to do the same. I realized Raja had been sheltered in India even more than I thought I had been in America. He had never tasted alcohol, never dated, never did anything contrary to his culture’s norms, and couldn’t help but obsess over the possibilities that would come along with a love marriage. Or even a divorce.

This realization made me wonder if Raja’s “not feeling well” was sometimes more than a common cold.

I arrived at our thirty-eighth and final session at 8:19 a.m., as I had slowly learned to do, and Raja was already there waiting. We set up the mats together and performed our asanas in near silence until the end of the session when Raja asked, “Do you have any questions? Any doubts?”

I said I did not, but Raja gave me some advice anyway, which I do not remember. It probably had something to do with giving to the poor and not getting drunk, but it was not important. It was not what he really wanted to say. He was yearning to ask one last question, to hear more about the glorious Americanisms I had been feeding him with for the past months, but he didn’t because he had to say goodbye. To say, “Keep in touch,” and “Email me,” and then to hug me in a manner suitable for a married Indian man to be hugging a young, American girl.

I wanted to ask him things, too, but I did not because I had to say goodbye and hug him back.

“I will miss you, Lazy,” he said, but I did not cringe at the mispronunciation.

“I will miss you, too.”

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Lacey Arnold has been writing all her life, but has never until now attempted to publish any of her work. As a professional writing and editing major ready to graduate at the end of the semester, she now publishes her first short story, a memoir describing a small fraction of her experience studying in India this past summer.