This morning, a new student walked into my yoga class. I say “my yoga class” with a loose sense of ownership, the way when you’re on vacation and you’re out being a tourist, someone says, “let’s go home to clean up before dinner,” referring to the hotel or Air BnB they’ve adopted after sleeping there for two nights. I’ve only been to this yoga class about five times, a relative newcomer compared to many of the regulars. The teacher doesn’t even know my name yet. But I’ve done many hours of yoga and by now I know this class’s routines, its unique pacing. I know to anticipate that the teacher will walk in not more than one minute before the class begins, will encourage people to rearrange their mats to make space for everyone, and then will take a few minutes to explain how those people who think they are just here for a workout are missing the point. “Yoga is about achieving peace. Some people might think inner peace is a sissy kind of idea, an easy thing to do, but it actually takes incredible strength,” she’ll say with a Jane Fonda-like panache. Her words will hang gently in the air, landing softly on our closed eyelids and then dissolving away. But today someone spoke out in response.
I couldn’t see him at first, I could only hear him: “Did…did you say peace takes… st…strength? Whoa.” Hearing a voice other than the teacher’s caught everyone by surprise at first. Very quickly it was clear that this student wasn’t only new to this class, he was completely new to yoga, to the whole culture of yoga as it is practiced by predominantly White and Asian upper middle class people on Saturday mornings on the island of Manhattan. The interruption was both naïve and bold, his bravery and ignorance on full display in a room full of people who had been at this for years, some for decades. Besides the interjections into the teachers’ monologue, a few other things gave away this student’s newness immediately: he was wearing a large gold watch and a multiple chains around his neck, and he yawned audibly anytime there was a lull after a vinyasa. As the hour-long class progressed, some of his questions struck me as disarmingly childlike (“What is your heel?”), while others were radiantly abstract (“How do you know if you’ve hit the bottom floor of your consciousness?”).
In a class where the average age leans closer to retiree than first-job-out-of-college, the new student, who couldn’t have been beyond his mid-twenties, poked fun at an Asian man two mats down whom the instructor was adjusting, using her body weight to push him deeper into triangle pose: “C’mon, old man!” the new kid chided. The room stiffened. But when the teacher laughed, the rest of us exhaled and chuckled under our breath. For the rest of the class, no one could resist letting loose a “Come on, old man” every fifteen minutes or so. By the end of class, as we walked barefoot across the floor, placing our mats and blocks in the supply closet, the difference in the atmosphere was tangible. It wasn’t as serene, contemplative, or peaceful, but it was more fun and light-hearted. This new student had transformed the whole environment of the class and we had let him. On my walk home, I spotted him smoking a cigarette under the awning of a Mexican restaurant off 3rd Avenue. I smiled at him. His eyes grew wider as he caught my gaze and he smiled back.
Classrooms of all kinds everywhere have a culture created through codes of conduct, some explicitly stated and some gleaned through observation or trial and error. But when a new student enters the class who doesn’t know the code, it changes the entire feel of the practice at hand. It also makes the rest of us who have been following the code more aware that the rules are somewhat arbitrary. There is not only one way. On a rainy Saturday morning, people had shown up to this yoga class to find silence, to reflect, to stretch, but this new student left us all more flexible in a different way. This morning made me think about new students who walk into my other classrooms. How will I welcome them? Will I stay flexible if they upend our routine? This morning reminded me to loosen my grip and to receive the unpredictable a bit more gracefully: sometimes you need to resist, but sometimes you have to allow yourself to be transformed.