You are right, Arjuna; the mind is restless and hard to master; but by constant practice and detachment it can be mastered . . . Yoga is indeed hard for those who lack self-restraint; but if you keep striving earnestly, in the right way, you can reach it. ~ Bhagavad Gita 6: 35–36
Mrs. Rubel’s 1963 pink Cadillac took up an entire school block when parked. Mrs. Rubel’s laugh took up an entire playground. Mrs. Rubel was to fourth graders what the Dalai Lama is to baby boomers. She was the island of refuge between the stern Mrs. Witkins of third grade and the nodding-off, “should-have-retired-when-my-sister-had-her,” Mrs. Alexander of fifth grade. This during a time when school kids weren’t packing guns to school, when parents dressed for PTA meetings, and art classes and sports still had funding.
This is looking like a no-win situation so the only thing left to do is . . . kill them with Power Yoga!
One day Mrs. Rubel’s Cadillac wasn’t in its usual parking spot. Worse than that, Mrs. Rubel didn’t look like herself when she entered the classroom. In fact, a woman half her size, with half her volume, just announced she would be our substitute teacher . . . for . . . the week!
There was a long silence before the class responded with the customary launching of rubber bands, paper airplanes, and all-around mayhem. Support groups immediately sprang up in different corners of the classroom to help process the misfortune. Inside circles of classroom chairs we asked existential questions like, “What did we do to deserve this?” and “How could Mrs. Rubel do this to us?”
Little did I know that in my future I would become a yoga instructor—that one day I would have to walk into a room with an equally unfriendly audience and announce myself as the substitute teacher.
It starts badly. The person at the front desk doesn’t know me, and worse, doesn’t want to know me. (San Francisco’s a BIG place!) So I have to explain who I am. (Obviously she hasn’t been to my website! Just wait till my yoga book is published!) As we talk, the student signing in gets wind of our conversation and the color drains from her face. “Jai isn’t here!” she says, turning to her friend, who quickly chooses not to sign in.
I’ve taken BART under the bay, cancelled dinner plans, and thrown myself into a lion’s den to help a sick friend. This isn’t karma yoga, this is just karma! How would I know that the CD player skips and that the light switch is outside the room? At least I’m not teaching fourth graders . . . or am I?
True they’re not throwing spit wads—well at least not with their hands. But the cool, removed, almost vacant looks at the jokes that my regular students always fall for are both fiery and cold.
I ask them the customary question, “Does anyone have any injuries or concerns I should know about?” (Teacher Training 101.) I assume from the dead silence that the answer is “No” or that my pants have a rip in them.
So, fine . . . I’ll rise to the challenge. After all, I am a yogi. I don’t personalize things. These people are yogis too, so obviously they aren’t attached. Yogis are loving, compassionate, flexible, non-political creatures always going with the flow, right? Isn’t the universe in constant flux, always spontaneously arising new and fresh with every breath?
What is it that Krishna says to Arjuna in the Gita? Something like, “Don’t be attached to the fruits of your actions, to your yoga teacher, your yoga mat, the number of students attending your class, firm abs, tight gluts, or the free parking space you always manage to squeeze into when others put coins into meters?” Doesn’t ahimsa (non-harming) apply to substitute teachers as well?
Since this is looking like a no-win situation, the way the battlefield in the Gita looked to Arjuna, the only thing left to do is . . . kill them with Power Yoga!
Speaking in a soft, soothing voice I’ll make them hold chaturanga dandasana (push-up position) till their bones start to disintegrate! Once they start looking snug in their poses, or assume they know what’s next, I’ll change direction, speed up the tempo, or just flat out make up a pose.
I’ll praise the person barely holding a posture and ignore the person imagining himself at a photo shoot. Then I’ll match the two of them up for a partner’s sequence. Maybe I’ll even turn up the heat till they slip off those colored rectangles they’re so proud of.
But as I reach for the thermostat I wonder—what would Mrs. Rubel have done? Would she have reached for her flask? And what about Arjuna? Would he have taken revenge? And, what of Krishna? Clearly nothing matters to the blue-faced god, since all the worlds are created and dissolved through him.
As the temperature gauge climbs from 89 to 91, a verse from the Gita floats across my provoked mind like soothing sandalwood incense: “Mature in yoga, impartial everywhere he looks, he sees himself in all beings and all beings in himself...When he sees all beings as equal in suffering or in joy because they are like himself, that man has grown perfect in yoga.”
I exhale a bit of pride, dissolving my attachment to being liked.
I exhale a bit of pride, dissolving my attachment to being liked or having circumstances be different. Who and what is this so-called “self,” separate from all others, yet attached to all, anyway?
Turning to the class, I ask them to bring their hands into anjali mudra and chant a mantra for harmonizing and removing all perceived obstacles, “Om gam ganapataye namaha!” And with that, we begin.