10/15/2013 10:41 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Half Silence

"Ardha navasana," she says gently, then exhales audibly through her nostrils.

I look down at my feet, hovering a few inches above the ground. My body weight is balanced on my upper buttocks and lower back as I hold my abdominal muscles taut.

"And come down in your own time," Kali instructs.

I probably should have taken more time coming out of the asana, but I let my legs and shoulders drop to the wooden floor with a soft thud. I guess that was my own time.

Kali, our teacher trainer coordinator, lies for a moment on the wooden floor, eyes closed, satisfaction on her lips. She gently makes her way to a cross-legged position, padmasana, as she likes to call it. She glances at us, taking in our expressions, hoping to see the light of epiphany in each face, the mystic balance that each yoga posture can bring.

I avoid her glance. I slump to the side, leaning on my arm, looking down at the fringed edge of my yoga blanket and wondering if I've made a mistake. A yoga retreat at an ashram in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains sounded great, especially when billed as a part of a yoga teacher training program at an institute in New York City.

"Can anyone say what the translation from Sanskrita to English is for this asana?"

Nothing is more pretentious than using the Sanskrit word for "Sanskrit." I can't help but roll my eyes. I hope Kali doesn't catch this, but if she does, I am pretty sure I can convince her that it was an impromptu netra vyayamum, the traditional and seemingly pointless yogic practice of eye movement intended to maintain eye function... and give you a pounding headache.

A hand shoots up across the circle, the hand of a boy about a decade younger than I and a million times more enthusiastic.

"'Navasana' is boat pose," he says proudly.

"Good, Kanistha," Kali says, calling him by his assigned spiritual name. "But 'ardha'?" she presses gently. She does everything gently. It is maddening.

Kanistha (actually Kyle) is stumped. He looks ashamed.

"It's OK," Kali reassures him. "Can anyone help Kanistha?"

"'Half'!" I blurt out before I can think. "It means 'half,'" I say in a softer tone.

"Good. That's right, Hutch," she says, referring to me by my nickname, which I have chosen to go by rather than my assigned spiritual name, Hridyan. Seriously? I could hardly pronounce it, much less spell it.

Kali finishes up the lesson on half-boat pose, explaining how some people lack the abdominal strength for full boat. I might lack the abdominal strength to keep down the vegan enchiladas I gobbled in the ashram's dining room.

"But ardha navasana can still give you some understanding and benefits of the posture. Let's end with some light meditation. And remember, we practice mauna until morning."

I suppress a groan. Come on. I understand that we are here to deepen our practice, to find a sense of inner stillness, blah, blah, blah, but I see no reason that I have to spend the rest of the evening and the next morning not talking.

As I haphazardly fold my blanket, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn to see my friend Abhijja holding her finger to her lip. At first I think she is telling me to be quiet, then I realize she's holding an invisible cigarette.

Abhijja is my one close friend in our teacher training group. She is a beautiful black woman who owns a place in Queens but doesn't seem to have a job to speak of. I don't know her real name, but her spiritual name seems to make sense. Especially since she chose it herself.

"Yes, please!" I mouth. I'm not much of a smoker, but I'm dying to get out of this house. We tiptoe to the coat rack, bundle up without a sound, and slip into the cold November night.

"We're not doing this mauna thing, right?" I say as soon as I'm sure we can't be heard.

"Hell, no," she says, and lights her cigarette.

We walk away from the house. We giggle about the other people in our group, how ridiculous all of this is, to be here in November. We find a little wooden bench by a small lake. Abhijja puts her cigarette out on the bottom of her shoe.

The trees are crowded by the water. I instinctively feel as if I should be on guard, inspecting the shadows, but then I realize I'm at an ashram. What the hell can happen?

The full moon is as clear in the still surface of the lake as it is in the sky. The light of the stars speckles the water. We sit in silence, as if any word we utter might break the surface, shattering the stillness of the night. A large waterfowl -- a goose or a swan, I can't tell -- swoops down out of the night, landing near the moon and sending ripples through the universe.

And for a moment, I am lost -- not in a scary way, but a way in which I completely forget myself, who I am, what I am. In that moment I am the lake, the sky, the bird, the moon, the stars, the reflection. I am all of it, and it is all of me.

We sit there for what feels like hours but must only be minutes. In silence. Impromptu mauna. Neither of us speaks, but at some point we stand and begin to walk back to the house. We don't say good night. We don't say anything.

The next morning Kali breaks our meditation with a long "ommmmmm." She opens her eyes and takes us all in.

"So. Did everyone practice mauna last night?" Her knowing gaze falls directly upon me.

I glance over at Abhijja. She returns a half-smile.

"Well," I begin, thoughtfully, "I suppose maybe we practiced... ardha mauna."

Kali looks confused.

"Half silence," I explain graciously.

"Oh," she says after a moment. "Well, I'm sure you have a deeper understanding of the practice."

I guess she was ardha-right.

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