"Lydia's Hands," © 1985 The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, courtesy Art + Commerce Anthology
“Lydia’s Hands,” © 1985 The Estate of Robert Mapplethorpe, courtesy Art + Commerce Anthology

I fell in love with yoga sixteen years ago, when I was twenty-three. I was living with two massage students in an adobe cabin on the southern border of Santa Fe, out where the art galleries and million-dollar villas disintegrated into a tattered fringe of vacant lots and trailer-home parks. Our cabin smelled of mouse droppings, a comforting smell reminiscent of the gerbil cages in second-grade classrooms. There was a wood stove in the kitchen, and an abandoned chicken coop in the yard, and an enormous teepee out by the woodpile, where my roommates and I used to gather to bang on congas and rattle gourds while incanting visualizations of our futures: “If it is for my highest good,” we’d begin, “I create a reality in which . . .”

There was always a certain amount of anxiety in these prayers, as though God were a moody and unpredictable waitress, and if we forgot to mention that we wanted cream in our coffee or a lover who wasn’t secretly already married, there would be no chance to change our order.

It was my roommate Lori who took me to my first yoga class, taught in the early morning at her massage school by one of the students, a slender man with muscles so clearly defined that the massage teacher used to strip him to his underwear and use him as an animated anatomy text. My main reason for going, frankly, was that I couldn’t afford to get Rolfed. I’d been reading about Rolfing in one of my roommate’s massage manuals: how your skeleton could be popped apart like a two-year-old’s Barbie doll and put back together in better alignment. I longed to be remade like that—a fresh start, from the bones up, like having your engine rebuilt by God. But Rolfing was $60 a session, way more than I could afford on my $5-an-hour part-time job as a product tester for an interactive video company. So I decided to try yoga instead.

The carpeted room smelled of almond body oil, sweat, and steaming brown rice. The teacher stood at the front of the room in threadbare gray sweatpants, naked from the waist up. As he swung his arms overhead in a Sun Salutation, slabs of muscles slid around his chest and back; then he folded in two at the hips. I took a deep breath and dove in.

At twenty-three, I wasn’t a newcomer to Eastern spiritual practices. Two years earlier I had graduated from Princeton University with a degree in comparative religion, concentrating on Buddhism and Hinduism. I had spent months in my dingy basement carrel at Firestone Library in the flickering, greenish glow of fluorescent lights, drinking metallic decaf from a vending machine and taking notes on texts that told me Buddhism couldn’t be found in books. For my senior thesis, I’d gotten a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to produce a documentary about Zen in America and had spent a month at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with my filmmaker boyfriend, videotaping interviews with teachers and practitioners. I’d started an intermittent meditation practice, sat a couple of Zen sesshins, and had begun thinking of myself as a Buddhist.

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