Takes my breath away

I am not an athlete. In fact, as a child, I was the quintessential anti-athlete: A klutzy brainiac with pointy-tipped glasses. I was the last-picked, farthest-out-in-the-outfield kid on the team.

So, my adult efforts to be more fit read like cover stories from Obscure Sports Quarterly (of Dodgeball fame): cross-country skiing way before it became hip, alpine mountaineering (“A woman’s place is on the top”), and, for the past 10 years, Olympic foil fencing (“The way to a man’s heart is through his sternum”). I may still be a klutzy brainiac, but all these pursuits have room for nerds like me. But as obscure and wacky as these sports are, none of them come close to the one I’ve started dabbling in lately, the wonderful world of kundalini yoga. I’ve done yoga off and on before—Rodney Yee workout videos and the like. When I started taking classes a year ago, pretty much everything seemed fairly similar. Poses, breathing, posture, and so forth. So I expected kundalini to be a riff on something familiar.

Wrong again, sports fan.

Health issues have forced me to back off the competitive fencing, so I’ve been casting about for other ways to get into shape. Two weeks ago I found myself tiptoeing into a kundalini yoga class with Linda at St. Mary’s Center for Health & Fitness. I was a little bit late, but nobody seemed to mind. I settled in and readied myself for the usual round of stretching and poses. Instead, the emphasis was on breathing—some very intense breathing in various poses—and chanting. Linda used the words “lovely,” “powerful,” “beautiful,” a lot, and it went a long way toward putting the class at ease. The bank of west-facing windows and the wall of mirrors brought the mountains into the classroom. Even though many pieces of the workout made me feel quite foolish, like curling my tongue up like a straw to suck in lungfuls of air, I was able to laugh at myself and enjoy it immensely.

Without a doubt, kundalini yoga is not for everyone. It has a very strong and explicit spiritual dimension that is actually the raison d’etre of all forms of yoga but something that has been largely downplayed in the Westernized version of the practice. Internet rumors sensationalize the potential dangers of kundalini, about which I am in no position to comment, having just taken two classes in my lifetime. I am sure there are many out there who might take offense at the idea of someone dropping in to have fun, but, well, for me that’s one of the reasons to go back—it’s fun. It can also be quite challenging. After my second class I could barely make it down two flights of stairs, my legs all wobbly after a set of deep squats combined with intense “fire breathing.”

What I really like about Linda’s kundalini is the integration of the spirit along with the brain and the body. The three flow together in this practice, unlike other things I’ve tried, where the brain tries to control everything. Maybe it’s my age, but I am at a stage in my life where I can truly appreciate something that knits together the various facets of life like that.

Plus, I have a feeling that “fire breath” could come in handy in other contexts, as well—like coping with the child who has just recently figured out she’s almost old enough to drive.