Stepping in or stepping on?

Tucked behind a lone tree and rusty gate, it took us a week to figure out that the billboard advertising Fitness Basics Gym was directly in front of the gym itself. The first time we noticed the sign, and with it the list of classes, we took a picture and said we’d call.

We still hadn’t the day I looked a bit closer and noticed one more sign inside the gate. “Is it right there?” I inquired. As I did, the picture became clearer: there were stairs leading down just below the second advertisement— and was that music I heard coming from below? Curiously, I wandered in and met Meenakshi, the owner of the gym.

Sure enough, just as the billboard promised, there was a full schedule of classes: Power Yoga, Zumba, Bollywood Dance (!), Extreme Core. Behind the mirrored area were a handful of machines and, further back, some weights.

I joined that night. Every day, I pull my yoga pants up each leg and throw on an oversized shirt to cover my tightly-framed rear.

When I got home last night, Josh rightly noted that my description of my time there never wavers. Interesting, said with a smile, is always my word of choice.

From power outages to rotating teachers in the middle of every class, each experience is never quite what I expect coming in with my Western image of a pristine row of machines and carefully crafted classes. With my and my co-worker’s presence, classes are often interrupted for photo ops. No class has the feel you would expect from its given name; Bollywood feels more like Jazzercise, Zumba, Aerobics and Yoga, Pilates.

We workout alongside three to five older Indian women, still adorned in traditional kurtas, long blouses that hit just below the knee. Then there are the kids, Meenakshi’s daughter and a couple of her friends. A few teenagers sometimes meander in. When the class gets too hard or people tire, they stand and watch for a little while and then wander off as casually as they arrived. The informality of it all is amusing.

Don’t be fooled, though. The lax approach does not indicate ease. The classes are hard. All infused with an Aerobics flare and Kick Boxing techniques, I can feel my muscles gaining strength after just one week. A recent yoga class I attended was probably the best abdomen workout I’ve ever experienced in an asana practice.

And I love it. The chaos. The relaxed nature. The intense burn. Meenakshi and her husband’s small space has quickly become one of my favorite spots in Jaipur.

That’s what I told my student when she decided to join me. Poised for a good work out, we went together yesterday to their Saturday evening Power Yoga.

We arrived a few minutes late. The Bollywood teacher, a muscular man with bulging arms and a no-nonsense attitude, was leading the class. And by leading the class I mean sitting on an exercise ball counting. “One…two…three…four…” he continued through twelve and started again. Meenakshi hurriedly explained it was Namaskar A.

Sun Salutation. I quickly aligned my breath to his count and found a coinciding movement for each number, aware that my salutation looked a bit different than the others in the class.

There was no need to rush, though; we proceeded to do this flow thirty times. For the yogis reading, yes, thirty Namaskar As. Most of the class stood watching my student and I as we continued to inhale into a small back bend, lengthen down, and flow through our Vinyasas. When I tired, I looked to the teacher and then Meenakshi hopefully, “B?” I inquired, wondering where the two teachers who have yoga training were.

Meenakshi wagged her head from side-to-side in agreement and said something to the instructor in Hindi. He kept counting, “One…two….three.” At four, Meenakshi interrupted him, stepping in front to demonstrate chair pose.

It was then her turn to count, having us hold chair for twenty counts. She then had us straighten back to mountain and instructed us to get into splits— a posture no one in the room can do.

“Meenakshi, I am not warm.” I explained to her.

“Okay, okay. Do this.” She told the class as she demonstrated Warrior II. I could see the wheels in her head turning, searching for another posture. I held Warrior II, impatient with the desire to get into a flow.

Asking us to straighten our legs, she moved us into a position that was a cross between two, confusing Triangle’s base with that of Prassarita’s. Impulsively I asked, “Can I teach?”

She eagerly moved me to the front and I began to take the class through a gentle flow. Which then unintentionally became more challenging than gentle; as a new instructor, one growth-edge is appropriately pacing beginner-level classes.

With every sequence, I became more aware of our language barrier. Cues and adjustments that work well in my normal classes fell on deaf ears. Varied options to accommodate different levels were not available, for everyone was doing what I modeled. Verbal adjustments were not accessible unless I used my hands and my body to demonstrate the correction.

I quickly lost an older woman. The kids stayed for just two sequences more. At that point, I tried to step aside, aware of what an interruption (and imposition) I had made. One eager student insisted that I keep going, and I did not see Meenakshi or any other instructor around.

Three dedicated women stayed and Meenakshi returned from a phone call outside. I  kept teaching, through the scheduled hour and unknowingly into the next session.

One newcomer arrived for the next class and chastised Meenakshi for letting me teach. “I do not have the strength for this,” she explained to me, “I have too much fat to do it! You should go.” I agreed with her conclusion and went to stand up, but Meenakshi chided her and told me to finish the class. Moving to a cool down, I led the dwindling group in a few final stretches.

The further along in the class we got, the worse I felt about my engagement.

When we finished, I thanked Meenakshi for the opportunity and apologized for stepping in. “Next time, I promise I will come and only take class.” I told her.

“No, no!” She exclaimed, “I learned a lot from you. You teach very well.” Her kind eyes and smile lit up her face

…I wanted to cry.

There is a tragic irony in me, a westerner, coming to the east and ending up teaching a healing art founded here. One reading of this night is that I was responding to need. It is true that my privilege is such that with a 200-hour training and access to various yoga studios and yoga schools, I have more technical experience than she. I know that she was genuinely grateful to learn from me.

But that, I suppose is the problem. You see, another interpretation is that what began as an authentic and fun cultural experience, I turned into an obnoxious exercise of power. And this is where my tears come from—knowing that I would never walk into a gym or studio in the States and in the middle of a class suggest I lead.

I am dismayed at my unbridled dominance.

And to what end? If I wanted to practice asana led by me, I could have stayed at my house and done it there.

It seems that pride and unchecked privilege were the drivers in this decision. If I wanted to help— a word and framing that still needs careful consideration (read: deconstruction)— I could have begun with a conversation. Outside of class. Where we could have seen if there was an interest and need I could support them in or provide.

Not in front of all of their students halfway through a workout.

Instead, I assumed myself to be better equipped and subsequently desired, living out the hierarchies I claim to dedicate my life to challenging.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that there is no role for me to teach or support the work at my new gym. It is how I take up my role that is the question at hand. And perhaps even more significantly, how I think about myself in relationship to others, particularly given our varied and intersecting identities with very specific histories attached.

I suddenly found in myself the arrogant development-worker with the assumption that they know best. The teacher who is an “expert” with  the “right way” to impart on passive students. It is this relationship to power that I lament now.

Furthermore, it seems that in my time at Fitness Basics, I’ve divorced the physical yoga postures from the heart of yoga, one that is not at all about pride or “achievement” of any one position.

Embodied prayer is how I normally describe my yoga practice. A difficult situation in a class, then, is an opportunity to breathe through the lessons available. Instead of accepting this chance to practice humility and patience, I chose to take control.

With all of this, I am left with the unsettling feeling of oppressive tendencies realized and a host of questions begging for attention. How do I work on correcting my relationship with Meenakshi? Is there a way to help make our relationship a more horizontal one? How do I need to conceptualize Meenakshi, the gym, and myself differently? What privilege and pride do I need to get into check? What can I do to re-infuse the heart of my practice into my life and my relationship with Fitness Basics? What does love look like in all of this?

I plan on returning tomorrow. Perhaps arrive early to sit and talk with Meenakshi.

In class, I hope to learn from  the veneer of the building— humble and unassuming, with all the good parts housed quietly inside.


4 thoughts on “Stepping in or stepping on?

  1. I love you Stace, and as always love reading all your posts! I just want encourage you today and tell you I think you are wonderful! Miss you!
    Love always,


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