The Institute. That’s what we called it. In the beginning. The Institute was like a beloved family pet and we were a family. That’s what I thought. A new family. A self-chosen family. An adult family.
The Institute was the structure,. In the beginning. The reason. The focus. The thing we could point to and say because.
It was a sweet haven. So clean and orderly with a precise and correct way for doing everything.
It was sweet in the beginning: the piece of orange thick cotton fabric that covered the small square window of the front door that looked out into the stairwell. The narrow entranceway with the impossibly small bathroom on the left and the sliding door on the right leading into the dark meditation hall. We left our shoes in that space by the front door, tidily, in rows, never more than ten people here at a time, usually only about five of us.
This was the first Institute, the lobby, changing rooms, office and two back rooms wall-to-wall carpeted in a low-pile olive green that we vacuumed daily. We wiped the baseboards of the whole Institute every week, every Sunday. Sunday was cleaning day. In the beginning.
Who were we?
When I arrived – I arrived on Sunday, March 15, 1981, six weeks after returning to New York City after living with a boyfriend in Los Angeles for three years. I had never lived in New York City without him. Even during the years when he was a student (if that’s the right word, which it isn’t) an hour and a half away, he was still my boyfriend, someone I could call and think about and be connected to. But I had resolutely snapped that cord. No more boyfriend. No more sadness. But New York City – my city, my place, my friend – was not folding its arms around me and making it easy like I’d thought it would.
Til this yoga place.
I was almost 24. Pretty old. College had come and gone. I should have it together by now. I really should. All I have is this ridiculous 9-5 job and yes, I am not a secretary anymore, I’m an editor with a private office now and business cards, but it does not feel like anything. I feel I’ve been trapped, the 9-5 machine got me, the bastard, and I must escape. This is humiliating.
Who else is there? Who else says “the Institute” with same affection? Of course, there is Natvar, but he is so huge and obvious that I will leave him til last. At his right hand, when I first arrive, is Anjani, a petite, dark-skinned woman with white-white hair that she wears pinned up. She is elderly, somewhere far beyond middle age, but she is pretty. I have never seen such an old woman who still can be called pretty. She dresses in white cotton yoga clothes: a long top, loose trousers, bare feet. She takes the yoga classes Natvar teaches with us, standing at the back so she can operate the dimmers and bring the lights up and down at the right times during the class. It is she who has the tea ready for us at the end of class – hot water in a saucepan with pieces of real ginger floating in it. We sit on the floor of the small lobby after class, after nine at night, drinking tea, talking shyly whoever has been in the class. We don’t know each other very well yet.
There is a small bookstore – everything is in miniature here. A set of built-in shelves, and slanted display shelves, offering just a few yoga paperbacks. Some incense. A beautiful curved wooden incense burner that I want so much to buy and send to the boyfriend back in L.A. I don’t buy it. It is too expensive and I am supposed to not be in touch with that boyfriend. I am supposed to be independent and busy.
There is Eve who is a little older than me and seems very at home here. She wears a small diamond in her nose. I have never seen a non-Indian woman with a diamond in her nose. She has long mousy hair and is a painter. She is not beautiful, but she goes to see the guru that Natvar and Anjani go to see. I don’t listen to their guru talk. I am not interested in the books in the bookstore. The pictures on the walls – especially the one of some goddess that promises if you give her money she’ll make sure that more comes your way – make me uncomfortable. I am more interested in the burgeoning East Village scene that Bill is introducing me to. I cut my long hippy hair down to a spiky upstart punk cut. But I come to yoga class every Tuesday after work.
Mark is there too. He is young, maybe, like Eve, a few years further along than me. He has an open friendly face. He smiles. His eyes are blue. His blonde hair is already receding from his broad forehead. He says he is a dancer. His calves are firm, his foot curves in a strong arch. I know he is gay the moment we meet.
These are us in the beginning. And Natvar. Who teaches every class, almost every evening of the week. Except on Fridays when he runs out to catch the last ferry to Staten Island to see his wife and kids.