When the Student is Ready
Why did Em always do this to herself? She was getting stressed about being late, even though she knew it didn’t really matter. Nothing mattered anymore.
Covent Garden Market was packed with shoppers, street performers and suited executives heading for the subway. As she made her way through all the chaos, Em thought about her new home. She’d only been in London for a few weeks, but she was already getting used to it. The cars might drive on the wrong side of the road, but apart from that, it wasn’t so different from Boston where she grew up.
It was easy to get lost in the crowd here, which suited Em fine. It helped her keep an embarrassing secret. Ever since her world fell apart two years ago, Em found herself randomly crying for no reason. The tears always came when she least expected them, but right now she didn’t have time for self pity. Em was meeting her roommate, Steph, at the gym. Determined to keep it together, she marched up to the entrance with a furrowed brow.
The guy at the front desk gave her a big grin and a fluffy white towel. Inside, the place was heaving with the after-work fitness crowd. Steph was waiting in the cafe area, her face screened by a curtain of long, curly hair as she leaned over her phone. “You’re late,” she said. “We better get moving or we’ll miss the class.”
They changed quickly, raced to the studio and barged through the doors, laughing and panting all the way. Inside, the lights were dimmed and incense was burning. It was stiflingly hot and oddly silent. Everyone in the class was staring at them. Overwhelmed with embarrassment, Em grabbed Steph’s arm and was about to leave when she noticed the yoga instructor smiling.
Their regular instructor was a super-fit and insanely flexible guy called Mike, whose wardrobe consisted entirely of skintight Lycra. But today the class was being led by someone Em had never seen before. He was shirtless, wearing just a pair of shorts. His dark brown hair cascaded in flowing curls over his shoulders. A full beard covered much of his face, but couldn’t conceal his kind, smiling eyes. There was something almost hypnotic about them as he held her gaze.
Before Em and Steph could make a quick getaway, he gestured for them to take the two remaining spaces right at the front of the class. A little sheepishly, they put down their mats.
The instructor nodded and continued from where he’d left off. “Now ask your body to rela-a-a-a-x,” he said, drawing out the vowel sound in a long drawl. Then he began a breathing exercise, telling them when to inhale and exhale.
This style of yoga was completely new to Em. Mike normally gave them a serious workout. He was constantly in motion and the positions he adopted were often so challenging, she struggled to keep up. But their new instructor’s approach seemed to consist entirely of sitting and breathing. In fact, it was hardly a workout at all. Em glanced at Steph, wondering if she was thinking the same thing, but her roommate appeared totally engrossed in the class. So Em reluctantly closed her eyes and began to slow her breathing. Her mind emptied of distractions and a deep relaxation washed over her. She felt her limbs soften, as if they were melting. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. The sound of the group breathing together got louder. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
There was a balance to her breathing now. It felt good. She was in control. All the stress of her late arrival was forgotten. Nothing entered her conscious awareness except his voice and her breathing, until she noticed a warm sensation against her skin. Without thinking, she reached up and touched the amulet hanging around her neck. She held it tightly as she continued to breathe. Em’s mom had given it to her two years ago, on the night she died. It was a pill-shaped silver pendant with an elephant’s head engraved on it. The elephant looked almost human, with a benevolent smile.
“Now stand.” The entire class rose from their mats. Here comes the workout, Em thought. But it didn’t. At least, not the kind she was expecting.
“You are standing and visualizing a tree growing from your feet. And as you see the tree, you are feeling more and more rel-a-a-a-a-xed.” Em felt a sudden jolt. Her whole body convulsed. It was like that feeling you get when you’re just about to fall asleep and then something snaps and you’re wide awake. Em opened her eyes and looked around. The room was different. It was dimmer and somehow more distant. She could barely make out anyone else. And then she noticed a vivid green glow emanating from beneath her feet. It shot out in front of her, forming what looked like a small green plant made entirely of light. The plant grew. Its stem thickened into a trunk and offshoots developed into branches right before her eyes. She blinked, but it was still there, forming elaborate patterns that shimmered and sparkled in the air.
Em’s ears hummed with a low-pitched buzzing and there was a strange metallic taste in her mouth. She turned to look at Steph again, wondering if she was seeing this too, but she couldn’t make out her friend clearly. It was as if the entire room was filled with murky water that was obscuring her view. The only thing that she could see clearly was the glowing tree, which was now growing rapidly.
How was this happening? Was it some kind of magic trick?
She blinked again, and suddenly the room returned to normal. With a quiet sigh of relief, she saw that the tree was gone and the instructor was visible again. He was pacing up and down, surveying the room carefully with his hands behind his back. There was the faint trace of a smile on his lips, but his eyes had a laser-like focus as he looked at each of them in turn. Em felt his gaze fall on her, like a dazzling searchlight picking her out from the darkness. She felt embarrassed and looked away.
“Now you are taking a step forward,” he said. “And as you are walking down one branch, you are walking down all the branches.” Although he was addressing the entire group, his voice was soft and intimate, as if he was speaking only to her and there was no one else in the room.
Em looked down and saw the tree had returned. She carefully, deliberately, took a step forward. For a moment, her vision seemed to go double, like she was cross-eyed. Something felt very wrong. She quickly stepped back again, overcome by a wave of nausea.
“And now you are taking another step,” he went on.
Em waited for the nausea to subside. Swallowing her anxiety, she tried again. This time, her foot seemed to divide in two, like cells multiplying under a microscope. It was more than just double-vision. Her breathing quickened, and she felt pins and needles in her feet. She pulled her foot back instinctively, and it merged into one again. Em stumbled and almost fell, but somehow regained her balance. She tried a third time, boldly taking a full stride with her eyes tightly shut. When she opened them, things got seriously weird. She had a disorienting sense of being in two places at once. It wasn’t just her feet now. Her entire body had divided into two, like an out-of-body experience, except she was in both bodies at the same time.
“And now you are taking a step backwards and, as you do, you are feeling rela-a-a-axed.”
As Em stepped backward, her two bodies merged back into one, and she sighed with relief.
When the class was over, Em watched as everyone quietly rolled up their mats and left. She felt dazed. No one seemed particularly surprised or excited by what had just happened. Maybe they hadn’t seen it. She lingered, wanting to talk to the instructor, but she wasn’t sure what to say.
“Wake up!” Steph gave her a gentle nudge in the ribs.
Em rolled up her mat and followed Steph to the door. She paused, taking one last look over her shoulder. The instructor was standing on the far side of the room, gazing directly at them with an enigmatic smile. It was strange the way he could stand in a large empty room and still occupy the entire space with his presence.
“Come on!” Steph called out. She was already halfway down the corridor.
Em broke out of her reverie, realizing with embarrassment that she’d been staring at the instructor for several seconds. But he was still looking straight back at her. She turned and hurried down the corridor to catch up with her friend.
In the changing room, Em wanted to ask Steph if she’d seen the tree too, but it all seemed so crazy, she didn’t know where to start. Besides, everything was back to normal now. The showers were slightly too hot, as usual, the house music was blaring, as usual, and Steph was performing her complex rituals with the hair dryer, as usual. Glowing trees and being in two places at once seemed like a distant memory. Maybe she just imagined it all, but Em couldn’t shake the feeling it meant something more. Could the hallucination be a sign her cancer was back?