It was a Saturday morning in late fall, 2008. A drizzly, downright shitty Saturday morning in early December. No way were our friends going to gather for brunch, so that left nothing to do but head to yoga class. I pulled on my pair of the tall rubber rain boots and tromped out my door down Cortelyou Road, the vena cava of my rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Along the way I met up with Anna, my friend and neighbor. Anna and I sometimes match a little too much. We’re both petite, curly-haired, rubber-rain-boot and down-vest-clad graduates of a small, liberal arts college, and both professional political progressives.
In short, we are a classic specimen of the Saturday morning yoga class demographic, secular Jews on our way to stretch instead of to shul. We tromped along Cortelyou to the neighborhood’s newest yoga place, Third Root, a “community healing center.” It offers sliding scale acupuncture, separate yoga classes for “abundant bodies,” and Chinese herbs prescribed and dispensed by a variety of mostly non-Chinese people. It’s in a storefront with big glass windows acid-etched with flowers and grass. We, of the Saturday morning yoga class demographic, love the place.
Walking along Cortelyou Road, we passed the old bagel store, which had finally gone out of business weeks before. But today the door was propped open despite the chill, and the front window was papered over with large posters. The posters featured small, square headshots of brown people and the round, linked loops of an Asian language. I made an educated guess that it was Bangla, also known as Bengali.
The Bangladeshi community is centered a few blocks north and a bit west of the hip restaurant row that marks the gentrified portion of Flatbush, which covers the stretch from the Q train at Marlborough/East 19th Street to Coney Island Avenue. Our little strip hosts the food co-op, two upscale, of-the-moment American restaurants, a bar that’s also a flower shop, an Israeli hummus place, a natural food market with sushi and organic everything. Plus there’s a school and a library. The Pakistani community is centered on Coney Island Avenue. Or what’s left of the community, after the post-9/11 police raids and mandatory registration and secret deportations and disappearances scattered Pakistanis and Bangladeshis and other Muslim New Yorkers all over the globe, again.
We rounded the corner of Marlborough and saw a blue plastic tarp tied to a tree in front of Third Root, under which a whole group of South Asians discussed something animatedly. Sounded like Bangla to me. I’m no linguistic expert, and my dad’s from Mysore (yeah, the famous yoga town) in the south of India, which is nowhere near West Bengal or Bangladesh. So I speak no Bangla, but I did spend 18 months editing a translation journalism project. It familiarized me with the hundreds of languages spoken and written by New York City residents. We passed the likely Bangladeshis and yanked open the Third Root door, setting the bell at the top clanging. We pulled off our boots and shucked our vests and walked barefoot into the yoga room, unrolled our mats and sat down. Time for deep breaths.
The yoga teacher that day was a sub. Usually, the 10:30 yoga class on Saturday mornings is taught by Romina, who is Argentine, and my favorite Third Root teacher. We hadn’t seen this sub before, but I could tell Anna was on high alert. Once, a Saturday morning sub encouraged the ladies, during savasana, to think about what they would make their men folk for refreshments while they watched the Super Bowl or some other big sporting event. It was jarring, so out of place at a worker-owned cooperative and for the middle-class feminism of not-yet-wholly-gentrified Brooklyn. It also really messed with Anna’s savasana meditation.
Luckily, Derek seemed way more our demographic speed. We sat, breathing, generally in sync with the other women in the class. He waited for others to arrive, then locked the front door before closing the door to the studio. Perhaps a dancer, Derek moved like a large cat. He was a black man, almost certainly gay. He smiled wide, introduced himself, then welcomed the six or so of us students to the class.
Derek suggested we find the compassion in our hearts for the Indians who had suffered so recently in the Mumbai terror assault. He noted we might hear the chatter from outside, but we should not let it interrupt our practice—instead we should concentrate on our compassion for their suffering. Very Buddhist, I thought, and I also thought it was a little weird that he was connecting the people outside to the bombings, but I wasn’t concerned. None of it was my concern, not his confusion, not the Bangladeshis’, not whatever compassion I was supposed to uncover in my heart. I wasn’t there to find compassion, I was there to stretch. That’s what yoga is for me: stretching my body. I’m not into meditation and I’m not into the religion or quasi-religion in it. I don’t like to chant.
I had another reason I could be unconcerned. My parents’ flight had just left India when the attack began, and I had talked to my family, safe in Mysore, far from the guns and explosions. So it was easy to breathe and ignore it. Sort of. I did wonder why that group of rabbis happened to be in Mumbai at the time. But I followed the teacher’s advice, let my thought go, and turned my attention to our practice.
Derek led us through some warm-up stretches, the usual cat and cow. Then some Surya Namaskaras, despite the drizzle and Surya remaining M.I.A. Our teacher talked us through side angle bend, and straightening our front legs and extending our torsos into triangles. “Imagine you are doing this stretch in the space between your refrigerator and the wall. Make your body perfectly aligned, perfectly all on one plane.” I liked that idea and adjusted my hips, trying to manifest it. I hoped Derek would teach at Third Root again. “Remember, it’s a practice,” I think he said. Something about how you have to keep trying, and do as much as you can but not more. And not desiring more, just letting your body be how it is, where it is, today. Usual yoga teacher things.
Occasionally the volume of the chattering outside would increase, and our teacher would remind us to find the compassion. Why, I wondered, did we need to find so much compassion? It’s a neighborhood healing center. They’re our neighbors, congregating. But I pushed my body into the stretches and forced my mind to focus on my breath and not on anything else. I was there to stretch.
We ended with the standard set of three ohms.
After class, the students sat on the benches outside the yoga room to slip back into our boots and jackets. As we suited up again, a student remarked to the teacher that perhaps the people outside should have come to yoga class to work out their suffering.
I was surprised. I looked around at my sister classmates—not all white, but none others brown. The yoga teacher agreed with the student’s point. I didn’t. So I said something.
“Well. They’re probably Muslim, and might not want to do yoga.” Not that yoga is closed to Muslims, not that plenty of Muslims don’t do yoga, the same as my secular Hindu-Jewish self does, stretching the same muscles we’ve all got, regardless of our religion. But yoga originated as a Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practice. The teachers chant mantras, the students chant “ohm,” and sometimes “ohm, shanti.” It may seem secular to an American class, but to someone from South Asia, where such distinctions provoke violence—where they had just provoked violence—and where the communal memory of partition was still stoked in national elections in three, maybe more, countries, well, it might not sound so secular.
“What do you mean?” someone asked.
“Those are Bangladeshis,” I said. “I don’t speak Bangla, but it looks like they’re having some kind of polling or voting for national elections around the corner in the bagel store.” I made this statement with an authority that wasn’t rightfully mine—I wasn’t entitled to it.
“Oh,” said the student who had suggested they come to yoga. “I thought they were having a vigil for the victims of the terrorism.”
“I did, too,” said the teacher.
“No,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that’s not it. Also, not that many Indians live in this neighborhood. It’s mostly Pakistani and Bangladeshi.” That much I did know was true. We were all quiet for a minute, listening to the insistent Bangla conversation and the rain. It sounded like standard G.O.T.V. (Get Out The Vote) to me. But I had worked on elections, so I knew about G.O.T.V., and how chaotic and noisy it could be.
The whole class watched through the etched glass. A man gestured emphatically, checked carefully for oncoming traffic, crossed the street. In the quiet studio, I filled in an imaginary conversation for the strangers, members of our community, on the other side of the glass. Maybe the group was discussing missing call lists or supplies. “Okay, okay, I’ll get it,” were the words I put into the mouth of the man who crossed the street. I named him Abu, because why shouldn’t he have a name? Someone from the group under the tarp called out, “Don’t forget the red Sharpies!” That’s the kind of conversation people have amidst G.O.T.V. There’s always someone yelling for something that’s missing.
Someone else inside the studio piped up: “It sounds contentious.”
So I tried to imagine what my classmates might be seeing. Thanks to me, their local maharani of multiculturalism, they no longer saw a vigil. But what were they imagining now? Maybe they saw the group under the tarp casting out my man Abu—calling him names, perhaps, for being insufficiently pious.
“It’s always contentious in that part of the world,” a yogini shot back from inside the Third Root.
Anna and I exchanged glances. We’ve been friends more than a decade and it was reassuring to see my thought on her face: Are you kidding me? Though my thought ran more along the lines of, Nice shanti, bitch. I bit back that sentiment and shrugged on my vest, looked around the room. We were a nicely diverse group—what the pundits were already calling “Obama America.” It was late autumn of 2008 so my Saturday morning classmates and I had just voted in the 44th president of the United States in an election that was not exactly a stroll through the Botanic Garden. Our neighborhood had gone overwhelmingly for Obama, the blue Hope and Change lawn signs still stuck in the lawns of the Victorian houses on the side streets, still posted in apartment windows along Cortelyou. I’d be shocked if any of these yogis, regulars at a community healing center that holds separate classes for the transgendered community, had pulled the lever for McCain/Palin. We had made it through Drill, Baby, Drill and smear tactics that Obama was a secret Socialist, but other people’s elections were contentious? But what was I to say at this point? If I kept on correcting everyone, I’d become the contentious brown person from “that part of the world” instead of their vaguely familiar neighbor they’d nod at on a Saturday night in the flower-shop bar. Now, when they saw me in the co-op, my cart full of organic groceries, they’d probably avoid eye contact.
Stepping back into my boots, I reflected on how I was sometimes so far outside of the demographic I thought I personified when I stepped into the same boots that morning. Anna and I strode into the rain, waiting until we heard the door slam with a thump and a jingle of the bell attached to it to climb onto on our high horses. It wasn’t until later that I realized all that I knew, or thought I knew, about Bangladeshis, didn’t matter. I could have stayed silent the whole time, seething quietly—or, as the yoga teachers say, let it go. Had I kept my mouth shut, my neighbors would have left class all ohm-shantied out, their hearts full of compassion for their imaginary Indians. But keeping quiet is not my M.O.—I generally chalk up my innate feistiness to my Jewish heritage. And so Anna and I strode past the people voting in the bagel store, talking animatedly, angrily, without compassion in our hearts. The ostensible Bangladeshis, focused on their democratic practice, didn’t seem to notice us.