I hang upside-down, my hands and feet planted on a blue rubber mat, beside a dozen-and-a-half women adopting the same position. The dusty studio is tucked away on a higher floor of a Manhattan library, up the stairs from a children's reading area and next door to a computer classroom. The three small windows facing north, cracked open, admit a few notes of urban cacophony, our only reminder that we are in the city.
I have suspended my disbelief, as surely as if I had entered a movie theater. Our full-figured leader calls out commands with her radiant smile, and my compliance feels to me like liberation. We stretch and we stand and we lunge. With arms outstretched in opposite directions, we assume what they call the pose of the warrior. After each maneuver we return our bodies to the shape of the inverted V, and again the room looks upside-down, almost deconstructed. In the novelty of this vista I find another moment of psychic escape.
Yoga in the United States has attracted its share of criticism. Hindus bemoan its secularization, while the Vatican warns against its perceived conflict with Christianity. Others point out that the trend fetishizes another culture while catering mainly to the white and affluent. (Think the scene in Annie Hall where a Los Angeles partygoer mutters anxiously into the phone, "I forgot my mantra.") Enter Compass Yoga, a nonprofit organization that teaches free beginner-level classes at five different branches of the New York Public Library, in the belief that yoga should be accessible to everyone.
In a Compass Yoga class, I don't feel the squick of being a well-to-do cultural tourist. Twisting and reaching on these blue mats are seekers of all races and income levels, of all ages and abilities. My arthritic-looking white-haired neighbor won’t feel pressured to achieve every pose, just as I don’t feel pressured to dress in ninety-dollar leggings.
It is fitting that we are doing free yoga in a public library: here, knowledge and physical peace alike carry no price tag. It feels pure. Agnostic though I am, I find pleasure in being told, “Bring your hands to prayer in front of your heart,” just before we are asked to thank ourselves for having shown up.