Nikki Vilella / Photo by Tara Eden

Although I have always lived in a body, I live in a body differently since I started to practice yoga in the fall of 2006—& I started to practice yoga differently after I stumbled into Nikki Vilella's class above the Silver Moon Bakery at 105th & Broadway in May of 2007, & through her found my way to Schuyler Grant's Kula Yoga Project, a few blocks north of the World Trade Center pit, up three long flights of green wooden life-shifting stairs.

This video is of the amazing Phillip Askew, a Kula teacher, demonstrating that characteristic Kula balance of bodhisattva & bad-ass, serenity & city, moving through din & obstruction with breath & grace. (The first Kula card I picked up said, "Sweaty. Intelligent. Ecstatic.")  Nikki's versions of this have always reminded me of Bach and Coltrane, in her way of floating a pattern at the beginning of a class & then exploring it from every possible angle—forwards, backwards, sideways, upside-down—as Jay Electronica might put it, looking for the missing note. In Nikki's case this search unfolds via the salt temple of the body, in all its possibilities & limitations—the body-mind, the body-soul—realities which her matchless teaching makes commonplace, but for which there aren't precise words in English yet. Maybe that's where the poet's work comes in.


Notes of an Ashtanga Heretic


I'd been practicing yoga for almost eight years before I started on the path of the Ashtangi, a path I'd been watching all that time out of the corner of my eye.  I'd seen a beloved teacher move from funky, creative vinyasa to Ashtanga and noted the axis of power that formed and anchored her as her practice deepened; I'd helped with a job search at the college where I work and sidetracked the lunch conversation on postcolonial practices when the candidate said she was an Ashtangi.  I'd started spending one semester a year in Havana, which meant I couldn't attend my beloved Kula vinyasa classes and had to figure out something else; but I was accustomed to following the versatile inventions of my creation-minded teachers, and exhausted at both the beginnings and endings of my tropical days, so ended up swimming and doing only a little yoga just before sleep, and returning to Kula classes when I was home.  : Until this past spring :  on the day my youngest turned twenty, March 24, 2014, when that sidelong glance at Ashtanga turned direct.  I was working on five different books and had little other creative energy to spare.  I didn't want to make up sequences.  Yoga was becoming something more and more intimate and private.  I wanted to find an arduous, deep-down practice I could follow without thinking about it for the rest of my life.

I started at a downtown Ashtanga shala whose founding teacher my Kula comrades respected; I loved the atmosphere, the roomful of New Yorkers breathing together at 7 o'clock in the cold Soho morning, but rarely saw the same teachers two mornings in a row, and after six weeks was still doing the beginning of the standing sequence, and listening to complaints about all the lotuses from my fifty-three-year-old knees.  (I should also say I was traveling a lot for work, so although practicing every morning except Saturdays and moon days was not at the studio every day.)  For all the Ashtanga tradition's emphases on individual instruction, there was much less teaching in the Ashtanga context than there was at Kula; the teaching was understood to be in the sequence of asanas itself, the learning not in direct interaction with a teacher nor in individual exploration but in the practice of the sequence, which was understood to fit everyone. 

After six weeks I found an Ashtanga shala on my street, and started to go there; I progressed quickly through more asanas, into the Primary Series, less because I was more capable than because there was one teacher there every day paying that kind of attention.  But my knees were still unhappy, which I mentioned when I had lunch with a former teacher downtown.  Why? she asked, and I laughed.  How can one sequence be right for every body, she said.  Modify.  Yoga's supposed to heal your body, not hurt.

So.  The next morning I didn't practice the Primary Series up to the Marichyasanas, as I'd been so far assigned.  Instead of the Ashtanga Primary Series I made my own.  I started with breathing work, as per my teacher's report on what she does every day, vs. hurling myself into the sun salutations; as I moved through the Ashtanga sequence I tried to think of it as a blueprint vs. an orthodoxy, and put my beloved headstands between the Prasaritas, and instead of standing half-lotuses Trees, and added the single-leg work I loved in Kula sequences, moving from Ashtanga's Warrior 2 to the Half Moons I'd missed, to Chapasana, to revolved Half Moons and Warrior 3, which I hadn't done since the winter.  I shifted a bit of the emphasis from arms to legs, from strength to balance, from Aspiration (stop at Marichyasana and wait) to Today (the big circle of 40-odd asanas, in what would be 5 movements if it were music, breathing to start, five rounds of Navasana in the middle, backbends and my beloved inversions and a sitting sequence at the end).

After five days my knees stopped complaining; although the new sequence is longer and more challenging, the word 'grueling' stopped coming to mind in the mornings.  I stopped feeling like a soldier and was freshly reacquainted with the path of the heretic:  that devotion to a particular lifeway, the joy of collective participation and inclusion, the learning of the rules; then the simmering sense that something isn't right, the quiet and then not-so-quiet clamoring of something new trying to get born; the attempts to stifle this, to pretend not to hear, to renew the orthodox commitment; the nervousness when the heretic idea first appears, of beginning with the foundation of the old and making a way into something else, something new.  The life in the leap.  Heresy has to live without various consolations but some kind of fresh, raw life comes to meet it--and I forget that consolation and fresh, raw life aren't the same thing while I'm practicing.

June 11, 2014




“With wine and music sit on my grave, with your fragrance,
until out of my mind, dancing, I rise.”   Háfez

for E and for M


She teaches people how to breathe/Before dawn she’s teaching herself
In the dark While the baby sleeps Meeting/the salt air with the sweat on her skin
And before dark again she’s driving to teach/and a girl in a wagon interrupts
Down a steep hill Into the beach road/in front of the car Breathing Then no


It’s a dance Leaning forward Falling back/The interruption part of the improvised
Plan The convergence at the bend in the road/A woman A man Two girls One not
And the music is a father who forgets/he’s whispering his daughter’s name
And blackbirds and the surf in the distance/and the girl’s sister screaming

She dreams she’s in debt and can’t pay and they take her/She dreams her body has turned to steel
She dreams she comes home to two daughters/and can’t remember which is hers
She dreams birds light on her arms and sicken/Dreams the baby under the osprey nest
The talons at the edge of the platform/The baby flapping her arms like wings


Sometimes she can’t look at photographs/Each somehow filled with violence and deceit
A moment torn from its curve of gesture/As if time were a sheaf of fragments like this
In a story someone told her in school/a white man took a Native man’s face
With a camera And the Native man laughed when he saw/the image and heard This is you

Sometimes she finds comfort there/to soothe the ache of what she couldn’t see then
But when she keeps one she keeps them all/The sweet moment seized and the torment relived
When she breathes from where she sits on the grass/watching the baby she can see
The turning dance of all of it/The baby The light Even the oaks move

The earth pressing her soles and her palms/and the bones that made the baby’s gate
Bees searching the thicket of roses/Heat searching her as it searches a seed
The baby crouching and laughing Playing lion/She follows on her hands and knees
And the baby disappears Behind the thicket/Calling Bind me Bind me


Sometimes she can’t eat Sometimes she can’t watch/her husband’s face as it registers hers
Sometimes honey brings her back Smeared on apple/Or at night the morning’s salted corn
In sleep sometimes he can feel she’s forgotten/Her body light and attuned as a heron’s
Standing poised Waiting And then this life/ripples like labor through her dreaming in his arms

Sometimes he and the baby watch/through the window of where she practices
From far enough so they can’t be heard/or hear whatever music she plays
Once as she’s whirling and weeping Her shoulders/whipped at the touch of a terrible wind
And the baby says as she’s said before/Look Mommy’s dancing

Don’t dance with strangers her mother said/but who was he Now bone of her bone
Who brought her asters and let her show him/the cornfield she’d known since she was a girl
At the edge of the dunes The tall rows in August/edged with blueberries and chamomile
Whose shirt she tore as they lay on the ground/trying to lose their way

Making something At the edge of a beach/wide enough to see the curve of the earth
Spilling themselves near the bend of a road/on a summer afternoon
Sagaponack In the words of the banished dancers/whose bones still talk all night to the corn
Making someone In the wet dirt/Mother of us all Quiet as it’s kept


A mountain but made of flesh and she moves/Upsweep and down and a four-limbed staff
To guide the hard way In the dark before dawn/Summer into autumn into first snow
Practicing She’s a dog A leap/Not a monk A mother Of two girls now
Pause empty Flare the ribs So the earth/can whisper You’re mine and press and she breathes

My ways will be your ways now/Sacrum to occiput Heel to crown
She’s a tuned instrument the darkness is playing/She scatters and gathers Flares and recedes
Pause empty If my life is sweet/I will live it she thinks Almost laughing
Empty You might fall or never breathe again/Or open Or see Or fly

She’s a crow A heron A peacock An eagle/A horse A locust A camel A gate
A warrior but there is no war here/No paid plague of death made by kings
Just this woman sweating in the dark/The ocean of being threatening to break her
Exigent Unrelenting Faithful/Until she says All right Come in

What is a stranger The world she knows/seems to have emptied of them now
The sound of her daughter’s first breath/the voice of a creature from another world
The sound of her daughter’s last breath/as if it came from her own body
She opens Scapula to ribs Head back One/foot planted like a cornstalk Dancer’s pose

Foot to earth Source of pain and sustenance/The three lotuses at the end Rooted in dirt
Floating on water/Jewels not for keeping Flare of mystery
For when the dance is done Savasana/As it is Not as you would wish it to be
The garland cast out over the waters/Tears down her temples Then no


She’s a monkey But she leads no army/Hanuman but not a king
One leg east One leg west/The wind’s daughter with a scar on her chin
Not a soldier Someone new/She can’t distinguish strangers and friends
The plant she finds in a rock crevice/she brings to the battlefield the earth has become

And gives it to both sides of the wounded/The wind’s daughter A mountain who moves
Her home a place between places/Her body a bridge for the lovers to cross
For a moment Split and entered by the wave/she rides in the dark Settling Dancing
In silence except for the sound of the breath/of no one in the room

She’s slipping She forgets her name/All the names Stretched as if she will break
Taut across the impossible distance/She’s a fragrance The smell of the sea
Dancing at a bend in the road/by a girl with a wagon on a summer afternoon
One leg east and one leg west/One eye here and one eye where

A fragrance dancing with a girl and a woman/who loves her A stranger not a stranger On her knees
On her knees in the practice room then drawing/her legs back into the human world
The lintel dividing this room from the next/She looks and remembers what morning is
The birds and the baby’s first gabbling/Her ankle itches and she’s thirsty


The girl was a dancer In the steps/of the dances of her ancestors
She liked to swim She liked to dress up/and pretend she was in another world
She had a sister She had a fish/She’d told her father she was thirsty
He’d stepped inside for a moment/to get her something to drink

Her mother wasn’t there Another/weeping woman torn between
Searching for the plant in the rock crevice/and Not this world if it includes this
Torn by the husband she clings to and wants/to destroy By the daughter who lived
By the days By the nights By the stranger she wants/to tear as she has been torn

She who tore her way into this world/Who tore in her lover’s embrace
Who tore around her daughters’ crowning/in the labor of getting them born
Who tears now when her husband describes/the stranger’s eyes and her tenderness
And now When she wants the dance to be done/and her daughter says Mama I’m thirsty


When she and her friend practice together/they take turns being the earth and the wind
Anchoring and casting off Leaning/into each other’s courage and fear
Through the winter in the small light with the babies/sleeping Into the raw spring
Into the whirlwind Making one axis/for a moment For places they can’t go alone

Back to back they forget the division/for a moment The friend between her knees
First after the torn caul/to see the baby’s face
First to find her that afternoon/when she’d forgotten her place in this world
For a moment The dancer tipping/and she catches her and they trade again


In the space between her collarbones/The space between the bones of her hips
The spaces between her ribs As if/she’s taking off a shirt she’s outgrown
In the space between her feet and the dirt/Between her mouth’s arch and the sky
Sometimes she can taste it dancing/Free Here



from Homeland

         When there's no curfew there's a midnight class in the yoga studio downtown by the pit, and sometimes instead of practicing Kai plays; tonight she's wandering through the alap of a raga, the tabla player waiting and listening beside her, in a room full of people a handsbreadth apart, listening and not listening, breathing, saluting the sun in the middle of the night, the ground note somewhere between the pitch of the refrigerator in her childhood kitchen, when she'd get up and hear her father playing in the shed out back, and the pitch of the mosquitoes in Dhaka when she went there to learn. She's playing one her teacher there taught her, one that spreads its fragrance near midnight, in the rainy seasons, autumn or spring; the teacher is saying something about Krishna and his sixteen thousand concubines, and Kai remembers his favorite, Radha, whose breast he paints with ashoka leaves and blossoms, the city in the distance, as she sits in a garden with him, across his lap, another man's wife.

         When you come to the edge of what's permitted, the teacher's saying, as Kai leans against the cello's richness to find the edge of the sitar's steel, remembering the one made in Calcutta of deer horn and toon wood, raw and closed at the beginning; You have to be patient, her teacher said, You have to call and when you get no answer call again, Kai back and forth in her awkwardness day after day between the unfamiliar instrument and the strangeness when she went back to her own. Past the closed windows the garbage trucks are going back and forth with the sirens, sometimes enemy notes and Kai tries not to hear, listening to the people breathing the room hot, a conspiracy, people breathing together, and sometimes companion notes and she plays with them, and the people move, raising their arms, blurring the difference, finding it, balancing, tipping out, looking for the place where the rawness opens and you can hear the overtones, the shadow of all the other notes not being played.

         When you can't do it the way they say do it, the teacher is saying, Then what, at the edge of some place Kai's wandered into that reminds her of the Passion, the baritone's Patience, Patience, and the bass asking, What further need have we of witnesses?, the sweet voices of the women singing in German, He deserves to die--You're one of them, Your accent betrays you--the Evangelist's eyes closing in the high place, making the notes for Peter's tears, after he says the words that shame him--I don't know this man--and she moves from there into echoes of the village songs, or they move into her hands and she follows, neighbors who didn't know each other before tonight, Seko, I'm thirsty, the thirst that comes from division, and Give me the key, The key has disappeared, and she's missing the tabla player but her part's not finished yet, breathing and learning to wander by herself, like the sun across a raspberry thicket on a June day. When you come to an obstacle, the teacher is saying. When you come to a wall. What do you do?

         Do you run, Kai's asking, making the arpeggios that sound like running down a dusty village road in the rain, feeling the bodies move differently then, the divided notes moving together as the bodies in rows fold and hide their faces, Grace's in the back Kai used to see sleeping, in her stroller by the Next, a woman's face now, Rita's in the back sometimes but not tonight, except in Kai's wandering, planting seeds and remembering the places to come back and water, come back and weed, come back and harvest, come back and plant again, home and away, making subsequent notes sound as if neither came first, introducing neighbor notes so they blur, the way the bodies blur breathing beside each other. The part where she's alone is almost done, and she smiles remembering her teacher's hands slowing near the end of something, and the words from the Bible that startled her one church Sunday, as if Solomon's lover were a cellist: His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me. Then the goat hooves of the tabla land lightly beside her and they smile and keep on together, somewhere else. When you come to a wall, the teacher is saying, Take it up.

         Three steep staircases down is the dark place under a fire escape where Rita first kissed her; they'd been practicing beside each other for weeks and talking, sometimes walking together to the train, sometimes with Gina, sometimes with Grace. They knew each other from the neighborhood, from the Next, where she'd dash in for tea, Earl Grey with milk, always late, and Kai would smile and ask where the fire was. That night Rita had taken off the gold chain around her neck and put it in the baseball cap by her mat, and Kai had forgotten the bandana she usually brought to tie back her hair; when they paused to bring their mats to the wall, Rita reached across, the thin gold stream spilling from the edge of her hand, Here, she said, For your hair, and Kai smiled and noticed how it fit, so easily she forgot it was there. When she got downstairs Rita was waiting and she remembered and apologized, taking it off, and Rita held her wrist as she reached forward and said, That's not why I'm waiting, the night sending a message many times unanswered, but for some reason that night getting through.

         The teacher is telling about the Buddha's net, as Kai and the tabla play hide and seek in the village, the rain's ruin, the rain's relief, back and forth, as the teacher tells the people to open their hearts and they do, You crazy motherfuckers, Kai thinks, smiling, the people trained to see each other as opponents, breathing each other's sweat and breath the way they do on crowded trains, when they want to light the net like a fuse and make the others disappear. All the meshes are connected, the teacher says, Fuck this bullshit, Kai almost always thinks when she's practicing, driven to the wall, pouring sweat and dizzy, someone's fingers brushing her shoulder, at the edge of the next impossible thing--Open my heart in this world, she thinks, Are you out of your mind--as the people trained for hardness bend, wrapping the net around their wet shoulders, if one part rips breathing it back, breath to make your occupied head clear and shine, breath of victory but not the kind you thought, breath of fire, the greed and hatred pouring over the floor like oil and burning with sweat as a residue. At the end they sleep like Vishnu, on their sides, Grace with one leg held behind for a pillow; What if you brought this out the door, the teacher says. What if everyone had a place to sleep tonight.

         Savasana is bodies laid out in rows, the music and even the breathing almost gone, the tabla player's eyes closed and Kai watching, remembering Lina's story of her uncles' town and how the soldiers assembled all the men and called seven forward and shot them so their bodies lay in a line, and how when she got on the train from Calcutta to Dhaka someone told her that some of the people sleeping on the station steps would be dead by morning. There was a woman selling lemons with a scarf around her head, who reminded her of the ghost who came to her in the middle of the city when she was twelve, a scarf around her head, who told her the patrols were checking passes for runaways, near the pen at Locust and Fourth, and brought her to where people were sold on the courthouse steps. There were chained people lying on the pavement in rows. The woman was thin and held her body like she wanted to put it down. A rain of Buddhas, the teacher is saying, Like the sands of the Ganges, so many, after the lotus sutra, Were you with murderous intent. Thrust within a fiery furnace. May all beings be free from sorrow, she finishes, May all beings live in peace, without exception, May all beings be free, Namaste, which sounds like part of what Mr. Ahmed answered when Grace asked how his mother said hello. As they sit up from bowing the teacher says, Anyone coming with me, meet by the door.

         On the street they keep close to the shuttered storefronts, moving together, the climbers mixed in with the others, a little flock or a little swarm, depending, past the park benches by City Hall to the ones by the MCC where people taken didn't come out for years; from the dark at the bottom the climbers start up, quickly, six of them, two trios, little chalk sacks at their belts, each trio linked by one furled banner, black bandanas around their faces, the rain cleared enough to see the curve of moon coming up, quicktime passacaglia for two masked trios, the teacher between a man and a woman, Grace between two men, the people on the ground trying to film in the dark with their phones and Kai wondering what she'll say to Grace's mama when she sees her daughter dancing up the side of the prison, turning her head to her partners so they move together, stretching the way Hanuman did to make a bridge, up to the tenth floor, her body like an x over one glazed window as if the architect is cancelling a mistake in the design, so the man in one of the solitary cells would have seen a shadow passing, I have no one to talk to because of the measures, one said--and each trio hangs a banner from the window edges, one that says Innocent Until Proven Guilty, and one All Beings Without Exception, and they slip down to the flash of blue lights beginning, to the fourth floor, the third, separate now without the banners, jumping at the end and finding the trees where people eat their lunches when it's warm and discuss games and movie stars and their own children and whether it will rain--and before she walks back to the studio as if she had forgotten her purse, Kai finds one of Marco's proxies and sends him the video of shadows, and he sends it to nobody 43,000 times, all over the world, and the 43,000 send it to more, Yeah, New Amsterdam in the house, Grace will smile later, and Gina will pass the Next shaking her head at Kai, I'm sorry, I just can't talk to you right now, and Fish and Laura will watch on his phone, Yeah, Movie night at 10 South, and 201 Varick, he'll say, They should see this, and Laura will describe it when she broadcasts the next night--and Rose listening and smoking by her window will remember Inge lost for leaflets, and the Germans erasing Lidice for hiding people, how the French tortured seventy-seven thousand Algerians in twelve days and called it Operation Champagne, how in Guatemala they're still trying to drain the sea to kill the fish, but the operation has not been completed, not here, not yet, not tonight.


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