When I arrive into the pre-dawn air of Mumbai, softness greets my skin. Humid and warm at 4:30 in the morning, the air is comfortable enough for me to sit outside and witness the honking lineup of taxis and the crowing of birds. This air sets me at ease. Partly because it is familiar--I lived in the Deep South for 13 years--but also because of something else.
At the sea, I realize what it is. The heat brings me into my animal nature. My protective winter shell has melted away. On my first full day, I don't wake up until 2:30 pm due to jetlag, so it is warm--mid-80s--when I practice yoga in the open-air shala where sea breezes puff the mosquito-netting curtains. The heat creates a softness that brings me out of my human mind and takes me to the place where sweat curls along my skin. I deliberately squeeze the muscles of my legs for contrast, and an electric bolt of power shoots up through me.
But the animal that I am wants to rest and be in the heat. No moving, no striving. I am as languid as the Indian dogs that sleep throughout the day. Salt-tinged air blows across my skin. Palm leaves chitter quietly, clapping in the breeze.
Usually when I think about fire in regards to my yoga practice, I am striving for strength. Associated with the third chakra, the fire element is found in the body at the solar plexus, between the navel and the ribs. Fire is stimulated by abdominal exercises that bring power into the body, which burns from the effort of chair pose, boat pose, leg lifts. In winter in Vermont, an abdominal-strengthening practice is as warming as a wood stove.
Here in the summer weather on the sunny coast of Goa, however, softness is required. There is no sense in fighting the mighty waves. There is no running from the sun. Every yoga class I have attended so far begins with us lying on our backs, becoming soft. "When you're soft, you can feel," one instructor--a British guy--says. "When you're soft, you can open." Though this sounds like hippy-dippy nonsense, he makes his point by keeping us in a seated forward fold for at least 10 minutes, or maybe 20.
My hamstrings hate me. "Soften, soften," the teacher says.
This is a long time to be bent in half. "Soften, soften," he says again. "When you're soft, you can go deeper."
Though I want to chuck my metal water bottle at him, I am practicing being soft.
This practice serves me well when later, I go to the train station. I have discussed my ticket with the man behind the counter--who seems to speak English--and I tell him that I want the seat on the Monday train. I stand there in front of him for at least 10 minutes, or maybe 20, and watch him silently peck at his keyboard.
"Don't you need my name for the ticket?" I ask finally, patience exhausted. He snaps out of his trance and hands me a form to fill out. Within four minutes, I have my ticket. Although I could scream at him for keeping me standing in the hot, empty train station with its grubby yellow walls when I could be getting back to the beach, I soften by laughing to myself at this situation, which I could never imagine happening at home.
Soft. The warm air and tropical plants bring out my softer, southern self: Miss Amanda. When I first get to my resort, a Vermont girlfriend also staying here reports that the other people "kind of keep to themselves." So I resolve to smile and say hello to all who pass my hut on their way to the beach. I have smiled more in the past two weeks than I have in the past two months. People even smile back--almost gratefully--and I am happy that the world is more friendly. (Except for the mouse people, a group of people studying here with an old Danish woman. They all have sheared heads and carry a stuffed-animal mouse with them at all times. None of them reply when I say hello. A staff member calls this group the "crack people.")
But there is always the balance. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, said that to perform the yoga poses correctly, one must balance effort without strain and relaxation without sluggishness. Similarly, softness must be supported by strength. Fire melts ore to liquid, but then that liquid hardens into metal. The soft friendliness that gained me a new Indian friend, male, had to be put aside when he insisted that I stay overnight at his house. My strength allowed me to walk home, alone, in the dark and pouring rain, at 3 am. (And, when he sat by me the next day, to burn him in the third person when I loudly reported to my girlfriend that he wouldn't give me a ride home in the rain because I wouldn't sleep with him.)
I have a tendency to push my students towards building strength, because most of us need encouragement in that direction. But now that I'm on the other side of the world, in another season, I'll switch it up. I'm sending some fire home in the form of this guided meditation that I recorded by the Arabian Sea.
This souvenir is for anyone. Even if you don't "do yoga," you can lie down somewhere warm--turn on an extra heater, grab a blanket--and join me. It's only 12 minutes long, so don't tell me you don't have the time. Let this fire that I'm sending soften you. Let yourself relax into the deep mystery of who you are.