In graduate school, when my writing professors told me to dig deep, to go to where it was uncomfortable, to let it be messy, to allow for the ‘hurling’ on the page before the cleaning up phase, to not only believe in the process, but to invite it, revel in it, be in it, because there is only the process and nothing else, I jumped at the chance. Writing in this way, in a language that was not my own was liberating. As a child growing up in Iran, striving for perfection in a highly structured and disciplined school system, there had never been any room for error. At the end of each term, the entire school would be gathered in neat, sing-file rows, shortest to tallest, kindergartners to blooming highschoolers, at the foot of the concrete stage, and the pot-bellied school principle with the permanent grimace would summon the top three students in each class to the stage, the megaphone booming the names of the chosen girls beyond the walls of the school. The neat sea of the girls, clad in their state-prescribed navy blue overcoats and headscarves, would tilt their faces up to the stairs, and clap obligingly, even as the seeds of envy and shame for not being called to the stage were planted inside them.
I was the girl who was always called to the top of the stairs.
In graduate school, in America, in a language that was not my own, I worked to release the ghost of my girlhood. I wanted to be free from the games of my own mind whenever I sat to write. The untruths of: it has to be perfect, it has to be the best, it has to be presented at the top of the stairs, it has to be clap-worthy, envy-inspiring, flawless.
‘So with all lives; so with all existence that we can see, feel, hear, or imagine. Everything that is in the bounds of our knowledge is proceeding in the same way, like breathing in and breathing out in the human body. Everything in creation goes on in this form, one wave rising, another falling, rising again, falling again. Each wave has its hollow; each hollow has its wave.’
And with writing, I hit many waves and many hollows. My teachers, like the Virgils that they were, sent to me as I descended the rings of my past, unraveling bit by bit the contents of my carefully packed luggage, urged me to be ruthless. To stare the beast down. To be unflinching in my gaze and in my resolve to tell the truth.
To ride the waves of inspiration, and to not get off them when they turned hollow and smashed me against the rocks of illusion, of doubt, of despair.
Sound like anything else? Oh, yes, Yoga!
‘There is one fact more to learn about this rising and falling. The seed does not immediately become a tree, but has a period of inactivity, or rather, a period of very fine unmanifested action. The seed has to work for some time beneath the soil. It breaks into pieces, degenerates, as it were, and regeneration comes out of that degeneration. In the beginning the whole of this universe has to work likewise, for a period, in that subtle from, unseen and unmanifested, which is called chaos; and out of that comes a new projection. The whole period of one manifestation of this universe—its going back to the finer form, remaining there for some time, and coming out again—is, in Sanskrit, called a kalpa, or cycle.’
At the time when I was learning to love the chaos, as Rilke urged in his letters to a young poet, which I read like a sacred mantra, Yoga was a physical practice that helped with the physical pains in my body. I had never been athletic, nor a dancer. I walked out of several yoga classes, mid sun salutes, because I felt like my heart was going to literally explode in my chest. But I went back. Week after week, I went back. With the same writing teacher who had urged me to be ruthless. We both suffered from sciatica, and decided that we would hold each other to it, that we would show up to class because the other was going to be there. I went, mostly because, I didn’t want to let her down.
You know how the rest of this story goes, no? That’s the funny thing about yoga: you go in for one thing, and you think, wow, look at me: I’m doing yoga. Meanwhile, yoga, is stretching its limbs inside you, and I mean deep inside you, just as you are stretching your physical limbs, and before you know it, yoga is doing you, it’s changing you, it’s transforming you.
The seed becomes the tree; the tree becomes the seed.
A lot happened in my life because of yoga in those first years: I left a marriage that was not right for me. Fears were replaced by taking action. I finally felt my own strength. It wasn’t that I got stronger, I simply felt the strength that was already there, and was able to tap into it. I became less interested in the past: the years in Iran stopped haunting me; the pull of memory became weaker. All of this before I had read a single book on philosophy of yoga or a sacred text. And, yes, the sciatica was, also, a thing of the past.
But what of my desire for perfection? The small girl in the navy blue, Islamic garb, waiting in line to hear her name called so she can float to the top of the stairs, proud of her achievements? What happened to her?
‘Samskara is perhaps best described as a memory trace that has the dynamic quality of a seed constantly ready to sprout.’
She is still in me: she is inside me as I give it my all in every posture, in every class that I teach, in everything that I do on and off the mat. To deny her existence, is to deny myself the process. To deny her existence is to not see her, to not love her. And despite her over-enthusiasm, and the burden of her striving nature, there are many things about her that are worthy of love: she is not afraid of chaos, she is not afraid of the periods of germination, of degeneration, of falling apart. She knows that they are necessary for the cycle to be complete.