The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the Divine voice in my own soul. Period." --Sue Monk Kidd
It's been more than two years since I inadvertently stumbled into the class I'm about to describe. I've debated for a while whether to write about it, but yesterday a friend and I got into a rollicking discussion of "New Age Fundamentalism." She doubted whether such a thing was possible, asserting such rigidity and control could only happen in conventional religions with strict ideologies and followers. Or maybe in something rare like Jim Jones or David Koresh.
"Au contraire," I protested, laughing, stirring my matcha tea.
Then I told her this story.
I was in Hayes Valley one day, realizing I'd never make it back to Berkeley in time for one of my favorite teachers. So I simply wandered into a nearby studio and signed up for the next class, about to be taught by an initially-sane-enough-seeming attractive long-haired woman.
I unrolled my mat in the back row.
In a flash, she crouched beside me.
"Excuuuse me, do I know you?' she asked. "Have you ever been to one of MY classes?"
"No," I answered. "I was just in the neighborhood. The schedule said this was open level."
"Well, look around pleeeeze. All these people are here because they study with me. " I did notice the room was indeed quite full. Then she went on, holding my gaze. "I'm at the most advanced level with my own teacher. And so they come here for me." She took a deep exasperated breath. "Anyway, do you even have a yoga practice?"
"Yes, I like to call it that," I couldn't help but giggle, hoping to inject a little mirth. "You know, fifteen years of unrolling this mat one spot or another. Sometimes in someone's class, or my bedroom, or even the beach."
"One place or another?" The veins popped in her forehead. "So that's why when you walked in I knew you weren't a seasoned yogini. You just flit around without absorbing ANYTHING to ANY old teacher?"
By now the writer in me was riveted by her skill at vaulting to conclusions.
"Wow," I said calmly, despite a rising feeling of intense claustrophobia. "All I've done is sit down. But you know it's ok... I don't think this is really gonna work for me. I'll leave before we even begin..
"I mean, I think of the yoga as coming from inside, not from an outside authority. The teachers are just the guide. Yoga has taught me how to listen within."
"Well, isn't that sweet?" she almost growled. "Sister, you're gonna get to end of your incarnation one day and realize too late you learned nothing. NADA. Just a big ole zero...
"Look around. Everyone in this class has surrendered to ME. They come 6 days a week and when they practice its my voice they hear in their own hearts. That's why they're any good..."
My mind drifted off as she ranted on and I found myself musing about what her background might be. I wondered what dark secrets her own childhood might hold; I suspected at the least she often was derided this way. I felt a wave of compassion for her arise unbidden in the midst of it all.
I slowly rolled up my mat.
"Well," I said, exhaling softly and looking in her wild green eyes. "That was fascinating. Memorable even. But really, time to go."
When I got outside, the open blue sky and bustling traffic felt like the embrace of a long-lost love. I found myself taking deep gulps of air like someone who had almost drowned. Then I took my mat to Dolores Park for some vinyasa under those palm trees that overlook the whole mad, shimmering town.
I remember sending that crazed yogini a heartfelt blessing or two.
Sometimes I still do.
I hope she's okay.
And the people that "study" with her too.
Tosha Silver's first book Outrageous Openness is available in San Francisco @ Books, Inc (Market Street), Scarlet Sage (Valencia), Sacred Well in Oakland and Lewin's Books in Berkeley. It's also available online via Amazon.com and as an audiobook (and iTunes if you're outside USA).You can reach Tosha at Toshasilver.com and on facebook. This article first appeared at The Examiner.