12/12/2011 10:41 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

Dummy for Yoga

In the middle of my sixth decade (at age 54, Oh Best Belovéds), I abandoned the life of the mind, as I once conceived it, and gave myself over, quixotically, to inhabiting, more fully, my achey-breaky body.

I began to spend some ten to twelve hours a week practicing Iyengar Yoga, and taking a lot of Advil. (My timing, in life, has always been paradoxical, oxymoronic; well, let's face it, ass-backwards. But better late than never, is what I say.)

I was introduced to Yoga in my late 20s. We all were, if we were children of the 1960s. But the discipline didn't begin to "take" till I was in my 30s, in Greece, and stumbled into the class of a gentle Hatha Yoga teacher named Jenny Colebourne. But the practice known as "Hatha" I found to be deliberate, meditative and laid-back--and my body, then (and now) was asking for something more rigorous.

Boy did I ever get what I was looking for, too ... if some 20 years later: Iyengar Yoga: Yoga Definitely Not for Wimps.

I compare B. K. S. Iyengar -- he was born in 1918, of Pune, India -- to George Balanchine; to Bob Fosse; to Martha Graham. The very old, very limber man who is "our" guru is one hell of a taskmaster.

You can look Iyengar up on Wikipedia, or see very early films of him practicing as a young man on YouTube. Or you can pick up a copy of Light On Yoga, originally published in 1966 (I got my 1979 copy from, for a song). What you will see is a human body accomplishing impossible things -- and for over seven decades, thus far.

As Yehudi Menuhin, the late, renowned violinist, writes (musically) in his introduction to Light On Yoga: "The practice of Yoga induces a primary sense of measure and proportion. Reduced to our own body, our first instrument, we learn to play it, drawing from it maximum resonance and harmony.

With unflagging patience we refine and animate every cell as we return daily to the attack, unlocking and liberating capacities otherwise condemned to frustration and death."

The study of Iyengar Yoga is an apprenticeship, and it's not a fast-track-diploma-at-the-end-of-six-months phenomenon, either. It's very non-Western in that regard. You don't go away to a retreat in the Adirondacks or at Big Sur, stuff your head full of anatomy and "sequences of asana," and then return to sea-level, Voilá, an instant Yoga Adept. Would that it were so easy.

Instead, you find "your" teacher, if you're truly fortunate, and then you work. And, sometimes, that "work" feels a lot like "suffering."

When I was a child, compelled to take ballet (and French and piano lessons) by my so-deprived-in-her-own-Southern-childhood-Mother, I balked the first day we put on toe shoes. No way was I going to endure that agony, and Madame's tyrannical teaching methods. At six and seven, I wasn't ready for pain and precision and three-hour classes.

But, by the age of 50, a late, late, late, late-blooming Boomer, I was ready . . . for the man I affectionately call "The Yoga Nazi." Jay Bolsom, who teaches at Teaneck's funky little boxers' and weight-lifters' gym, Club Fit, and who has all the gentle, pedagogical skills of Tamerlane, was just what I needed.

I was terrified of Hand Stand, but learned to do it by crawling up the inside of a doorjamb. I couldn't hold Warrior Two for 30 seconds; three years later, I could hang in it, nonchalant, forever. My Sanskrit still stinks but, eventually, a few years back, I actually taught my first Iyengar Yoga class. For Absolute Beginners.

And Reader, we all survived.

Now, I began teaching university-level English Literature, Creative Writing, Latin and Journalism classes at age 20, so you'd think going to the head of a classroom would have been a breeze for me.

Not so.

The night before my first class I had, and woke from, what would have been three hysterically funny dreams if I hadn't been this old lady about to demonstrate some pretty demanding asana on the morrow.

In Dream No. 1, my Yoga classroom had been taken over by the Ebenezer Baptist Church's choir, who were in full . . . what? . . . voice, when I and my students showed up. The choir very politely offered to give up the room to us but, first, they had to locate their coats, hats, scarves, gloves, and purses and, by then, our class time was up.


In Dream No. 2, the Yoga room had been commandeered by a daycare center, and all the various props we use for Iyengar Yoga (sticky mats, bolsters, blocks, straps, ropes) were being used and cheerfully demolished by a small army of preschoolers. There was yogurt and juice all over the wood floor, and lots of wailing was going on. Yoga class canceled.

In Dream No. 3, the Yoga room had metamorphosed into a trendy 22nd-century club where, the moment you walked in the door, you were automatically "attacked" by a martial artist . . . a sort of combination of S & M and performance art deal, complete with full bar. I stuck my head in the door and was knocked out cold by a kick-boxer. Yoga class? Forget it.

In real life, of course, no such "deliverance" eventuated: I showed up for class that Thursday evening, my eight students showed up for class that Thursday evening, and we were off, with me on what felt like entirely the wrong end of the classroom.

But, as I wrote Jay online, later, there is something you discover if you've been through Iyengar's method of instruction, or initiation.

When you--eventually--walk to the head of the class and lay down your sticky mat, your teacher (and his or her teacher, and his or her teacher back on into the mists) is there with you. I could hear Jay's voice ringing around in my head, as well as the softer cadences of Jenny.

So, we all survived my very first class as "student teacher," I came home and downed my Advil and, then, some of my first students, and a lot of new ones, showed up for me, Jay, Jenny, and Mr. Iyengar, the next week.