Five-Star Service

OF all the locker room chatter at yoga studios, the juiciest and most delectable ones happen to be the bitchiest, chirped in whisper-soft tones amid the shuffle of busy toilettes. The fodder for such talk tends to revolve around teachers, and rightly so, for teachers are the lifeblood of any studio. 

What they do or don’t do, what they did and didn’t do is a perennial theme—one that could apply just as well to a complaint or a compliment. The former demands civility and discretion (thus the whisper-soft tones); the latter is best writ large and loud, for how many teachers are there in our lifetime who truly matter, who honestly make a difference?

We all know what makes us return to certain teachers over and over again. Whatever those reasons are, they all boil down to one thing: a special feeling. Invariably, this feeling comes not so much from the mere mechanics of delivery, but something else nobler and more nebulous. Let’s call it five-star service.

It’s that uncanny ability to unearth something fresh from the familiar without being overtly creative or overly self-conscious, that gift which leaves you in quiet awe days after, years even.

It’s exactly how I felt after I stepped out of a late-afternoon Hatha class early July, my first ever with this particular teacher—a relative newcomer with youth on her side and a standoffish air that teeters between a devil-may-care coolness and a sassy something or other.

Sure, there was the novelty of opening with a dose of Hafiz, read a little too hurriedly, but it was music all the same to poetry-loving ears. That, however, was the least of it. For a debut class I had attended not out of choice, but mere convenience, the surprise came slowly and steadily, dribbled across the entire hour, not in a jack-in-the-box moment.

What had at first seemed to be distracting and intrusive—those incessant breath counts, verbalized in a low, legato voice—soon felt like a quiet drumbeat, both calming and grounding (“Like a metronome,” a fellow student once observed): inhale, exhale one; inhale, exhale two.

While I couldn’t quite follow the cues perfectly—I still can’t to this day, my mind ever in mischief—I found it gave her a rhythm, a sense of how long she’d hold an asana.

She was, effectively, inviting us to count with her in our minds, so that the cue to come out of a pose would not leap at us out of the blue, or sneak up slowly and slyly as it does by way of that lame ten-second countdown, which always reeks of schadenfreude and a stupid smugness when executed with too much pomp and drama.

With her count-up, time feels more tangible, not like some phantom lurking in the dark, so that each asana has a real value, measured out in breath counts: a table top, for instance, is worth eight breath counts, and a paschimottanasana goes for ten, during which she presses her weight on you, neither too aggressively nor timidly and always in palatable increments, just as her voice resonates boldly at the back of your skull and a vibrant vibrato travels down your spine, coaxing even the most stubborn hamstrings to ease and chill.

This is where not one word, but two must be said about her service ethic: it rests upon her mastery at adjustment and her democratic approach to it.

Mat by mat, she’d move, her progress assured, almost leisurely, starting from the back row to the middle, then the front, until every single one of us has been fed with some satisfying knowledge of how our alignment had been off, or how a subtle movement would yield such a thrilling shift in sensation or lightness.

By the time she reaches that final student—who had, on several occasions, been me—I can’t help wondering: she must have worked it all out in her mind, how long each mat stopover should be for she could even afford the luxury of flying back to you for a mirror adjustment on the second side of an asana, as it makes its reappearance after a sequence of three or four others.

That seemingly effortless command of the floor, right up to the invisible deejay’s volume tweak and the manually-yet-seamlessly-timed segue into a savasana tune, always calls to mind the story of the caravan lady, one my father likes to share to make a point about productivity.

That tale of Madame Caravan hitting the road selling hotdogs or was it tacos, seems to echo Charlie Chaplin’s own one-man-show success story: she assumes the multiple rôles of order-taking, assembly, service, and cash collection, let’s add the arduous, behind-the-scenes prep work, all of which she handles with grace and charm.

In a sense, my father’s travel vignette set in Canada, or maybe the United States, makes an even larger point. His theme may have been productivity, but the overarching story is one of possibility, and somewhere within, stars figure prominently—the five in my mind that tell the other story: give what you’d like others to give you.

No one could have said it better than this very teacher herself: “I teach like how I like to be taught.”

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