Spring was late last year in coming to New York. The first week of May had been a washout – brooding grey skies that gave way to sudden, violent downpours, and weather warnings sent by text alerting us to nearby floods. It rained so hard that the subway steps at Bleecker had become a waterfall; commuters emerged from its exit spattered in a sidewalk slop.
Our apartment was in Nolita, half way between Bleecker and the Bowery.
Not so very long ago, before it was rebranded, Nolita used to be just the northern end of Little Italy, while the Bowery was once the site of North America’s punk HQ. But the Bowery lost its edge some time ago: CBGBs is now a designer menswear shop, Joey Ramone is dead, and the incessant roadworks at the intersection with East Houston is the nearest thing the Bowery has to a snarling, hardcore drumbeat.
To walk along the Bowery now is to pass a Whole Foods superstore on the corner, a vintage clothes shop with Lindy Bop dresses in the window, restaurant supply retailers, and a whole block dedicated to the art of fancy lights.
While the Bowery may have lost its edge, it is to one of its yoga studios that I go in search of mine, half jogging through puddles with an umbrella held against the rain.
‘The edge’ in yoga is a largely indeterminate place. One that exists at the furthermost point a body can push itself to without sustaining injury or resulting in collapse. As a concept, it possesses inherent fluidity, changing with each pose, one’s mood, over time and with practice. According to my yoga teacher back in London, the edge is ‘the place where all the magic happens’. The place one needs to be in yoga to get the most back out.
These days I find I’m short on magic.
It’s a symptom of a common enough condition, the knowledge of which does little to alleviate the accompanying despair.
Other symptoms include a generalised anxiety and a preoccupation with death as relentless as it is profound. And then there are the mood swings, the insomnia. I pace the house at night and end up watching rolling news throughout the small hours. When I doze off on the sofa, I dream of terror attacks and military strikes; blood, violence, earthquakes.
I have been reading too much of Jung, of late—a fact that likely constitutes a symptom in itself—but no-one affords the middle years as much gravitas as he does. Nobody frames its fallout in such reverential terms.
To be middle–aged in modern life is frequently to find oneself in the middle of a crisis. Varying by degree, extent, onset and duration, the cause of the crisis is psycho-spiritual, says Jung, and experienced most profoundly in societies that have become unmoored from clan and God.
Yoga is another manifestation of this particular stage in life. It is a fairly recent habit: more virtuous than blowing savings on a sports car, less ruinous than running off with the au pair.
It is part crutch, alleviating anxiety and distracting the mind with its ritual, precision and focus on the breath. Throughout the long, unsettled nights, I have also begun to think of it in terms of exploration—uncertain, halting, borne of gloom—a larger canvas, perhaps, against which to plot the journey forward. If time has closed off all the avenues that were once were familiar, and fear bars the roads that lie ahead, then yoga is the map to navigate the impasse.
I have been considering kundalini yoga for a while now. In London, where I live, there’s a regular class held three tube stops away. And yet I’ve so far shied away from it, put off by kundalini’s other-worldliness, with its overt emphasis on the esoteric, where nadis and chakras are accorded the same weight as limbs, and where the human is said to have 10 bodies of which the physical is only one.
Part of the Tantric tradition, kundalini yoga was introduced to the West by Yogi Bhajan in the 1960s. Born Harbhajan Singh Khalsa, he arrived in Los Angeles from the Punjab just as the Summer of Love was in full bloom. Witnessing the flower children first hand, Bhajan persuaded large numbers to exchange LSD for meditation. He set up yoga centres and taught that the transcendent state they sought through psychedelics was God by any other name.
As part of a wider study of Hinduism, Jung also practiced Yoga. He was interested in kundalini from a psychological perspective, describing it as ‘the divine urge’, a universal trait, one capable of guiding the psyche on the path towards completeness.
The yoga studio on the Bowery is through a narrow door and up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs there’s a glass door with a juice bar on the other side, a wooden table (canteen style) and a sofa topped with cushions. It is clean, bright, homely. Normal. A stick of Palo Santo burns in the corner, filling the space with a herbal-smelling smoke.
At the studio’s reception desk, I sign up for a kundalini yoga class scheduled for the following day. I’m told by the guy who takes the booking that the class will be quite small.
‘Kundalini classes usually are,’ he says.
A memory: I am dressed from head to toe in Communion white – veil, dress, buckle shoes. One girl in a row with others, and all of us are dressed the same. Across the aisle sit the boys. We are a church of tiny brides and bridegrooms, fidgeting on the wooden pews and trying not to laugh. From a side door the priest sweeps and kneels before us in the aisle. Today, he tells us, our souls are whiter than our clothes.
What to wear to yoga class?
Kundalini practitioners dress head to toe in white, said to strengthen and protect the aura, and cover their hair with a turban, to direct the body’s energy inwards and shift the mind into a more contemplative space.
Overly-complicated, fraudulent to assume; for me, turbans are a no-go. There are practical considerations, too, that come with dressing all in white. How to keep it from getting stained or dirty? How not to attract attention?
White brings with it problems of association. It is inherently kookish, cultish. The colour Jim Jones wore as he cruised around Guyana cooking up the Kool-Aid. The colour of David Koresh’s robes beneath the burning Texas sun. Outside of wedding ceremonies and science labs, white is problematic. In New York City, in inclement weather, it makes no sense at all.
When I get to the studio, I’m relieved to see that the one other woman arrived for class has dressed pretty much like I have: her hair scraped back, black joggers, vest top.
Our teacher, on the other hand, enters the studio in a long white shirtdress, dispensing high-fives, before starting to wind a long white scarf around her head with a minimum of fuss.
Rachel—as she introduces herself—is more beautiful than spiritual practices are normally comfortable in allowing, and younger than me by at least a decade (or maybe more – I’ve never been too good with ages).
We all chat about the weather while Rachel secures her scarf into a turban then switches on the visuals. The Bowery studio sells itself on offering a ‘multimedia experience’. The walls change colour, to a deep shade of lilac; the studio reminiscent of the Starship Enterprise when Sulu throws it into warp drive, before the visuals are changed again. This time it’s a DMT trip and the walls fill with fractals, morphing round the room in kaleidoscopic brights.
‘Maybe not,’ says Rachel, switching a third time and settling on one that turns the walls into the stratosphere, where clouds roll by us, unfurling at speed. From the corner of the room a music track begins to play, some kind of Bhangra-House mix, then Rachel starts to jump around and tells us both to follow.
The other woman looks at me and shrugs. Both of us start to sway. Then we start to laugh. Then all three of us are laughing and dancing in a studio that’s no longer on the Bowery but somewhere in the sky.
Another memory: a warehouse, this time; London. In the middle of the night. Sweat-drenched, the crowd euphoric, dancing to a heavy beat. Part of me got left there that night; part of me remains – wrapped in rhythm, pupils blown, a body that’s devoid of weight. The crowd all around are luminous beneath the strobes, and dancing, it feels, the very dawn into existence.
Kundalini is regarded as the life force—a feminine energy—conceptualised as a serpent, coiled tightly at the base of the spine. Yoga’s purpose is to awaken the serpent from its sleeping place and travel it up the spine, through the body’s energy centres, to the crown, and towards enlightenment and bliss.
In one sense, kundalini yoga is designed to get you high, and in another, to reach your Higher Self – or the highest version of yourself. Your atman/essence/spirit/soul.
The practice is hands-off with no physical contact from instructors. Unlike most styles of yoga, there is no tweaking of limbs or correction of postures; nothing that might yank the practitioner out of, or prevent them from entering, the meditative state. And it is intense. Over the next hour, Rachel takes us through a set of kriyas that combine physical postures with yogic breathing, visualisation and mantra.
It’s hard and it hurts. At one point—squat down, weight thrown forward onto the balls of the feet, thighs parallel to the ground, arms stretched out—the sweat is running off me and my heartbeat becomes irregular, thrashing like a trapped bird.
In moments of distress, I tend towards extremes. I think of my husband, working uptown, who has no idea I might be having a cardiac event down on the Bowery. I think of the waiver I’ve signed that exempts the studio from any liability if I croak it on the mat. Any hope of pushing through the pain by focusing on the breath is shot out of the window by the heart’s gymnastics.
Stifling a sob, I drop out of the squat, lowering my heels to the floor until the palpitations stop.
At some point the visuals change again. The clouds across the wall recede and the studio became bathed in green. We’re bug-sized now; fire ants in some verdant forest where the leaves are huge and palm fronds vast. Shoots push up at speed through soil, buds uncurl, dew drips on the forest floor.
The hard part is over. This is the place beyond the edge. We sit cross-legged, eyes closed. The sound of a sarod plays in the corner. It is droney, dreamy, introspective. Over the top of it, a mantra is layered; an electronic heartbeat that is Har Har Har Har Har…
An almost-memory: I am back in the womb, only there are three of us this time—triplets—weightless in water and waiting to be born. There in the background, the echo of the first
percussion. Unfolding, evolving; still connected to the source.
Leaving the studio via the narrow stair case afterwards, my yoga classmate turns right onto the Bowery, walking in the direction of Chinatown, while I make a left and head back to Nolita.
It’s lunchtime. On the corner, there’s a stream of people leaving Wholefoods carrying small deli boxes in brown paper bags. There’s a traffic tailback along Houston, stretching down as far as Broadway and the Calvin Klein hoarding that’s bigger than the sky. At the junction, men wearing hard hats are resurfacing the road and shouting to each other above the boom and pound. The rain has stopped and the world returned to normal – returned to its loud, confused, collective self. But for a while, beneath the noise, amid the city’s push and hustle, there among the crowds I hear the Har, Har, Har, Har, Har.
Victoria Briggs is a writer with work published UK, US and European publications including Structo, Unthology, The Stockholm Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Litro, The Offing and The Nottingham Review, among others. She lives in London, where she works as a journalist, and tweets @vicbriggs.