Melani McAlister:

See, I don’t want to be part of a yoga world of happy talk about unending potential and perfect happiness. I don’t have much time for the kind of self-impressed platitudes that give yoga a bad name. Like so many of the secular, health-oriented, somewhat prideful members of my clan, I do yoga to quiet my brain, not to fill it with nonsense. And yet nonsense abounds. Last month, I dropped in on a class at another studio. As class began, the teacher offered her thoughts about the goodness of the world and its benevolence toward us. “If you just reach out with your intention,” she said sagely, “the universe will rise to meet you half-way.” I almost walked out. The earthquake in Japan had happened the day before.

…The point is that the practice of attentiveness—the fundamental practice that yoga cultivates—should lead us to contemplate the full reality of our life, which includes its inevitable end. As the yogi Richard Freeman puts it, “Yoga is a rehearsal for death.” That is the universe rising up to meet you.

For me, this discussion was a rare moment when I had some inclination of what “yoga spirituality” might mean, particularly for someone who doesn’t actually believe in spirituality. In this version, there is no promise of health or happiness. There is only our embrace of reality, in both its quiet joys and its suffering. We recognize ourselves as part of the universe, and we accept that universe’s fundamental indifference to us. Then we see what flows from that. I suspect that this embrace of death, and life, doesn’t arise from an act of will or from reading the right books. Maybe, though, it comes from the act of the placing one’s feet in exactly the right alignment, and paying attention.

I started doing yoga when I was twelve years old. I took a copy of a 28-day program by Richard Hittleman that my mom had on the shelf, and every day for the next month, I would get up at 5:30 and go through the routine, dutifully lying still after each pose and “being aware of the changes going on in my body.” Mainly, I just spent that time wondering what exactly I was supposed to be noticing, worried that the Karma Police were going to nab me for not doing it right.

I’ve kept at it off and on lo these many years since, mixing traditional yoga poses with regular calisthenics and strength exercises. I’ve never been to a class for it, mainly for the reasons McAlister mentions; I just like the attentive act of feeling my muscles stretch and following my breath. No thought of enlightenment or physical gain, just the enjoyment of holding still and being quiet. In fact, I’m going to get up and go through some exercises right now.