The Northville Review
an online literary journal
The Second Rule of Yoga

Laura Walter

The first rule of yoga is to breathe like you have never breathed before: long, ropey lengths of air pulled past your ribs and through your nose. Do this again, slower if possible, and feel the breath move through your insides. Do this until you go blank or until your body hums, or until you forget and open your mouth and realize you have to start all over again.

The second rule of yoga is to stop thinking. This is both the easiest and the most difficult rule. Lie in the corpse pose and practice the breathing from rule one. Clear the mind. Breathe out every thought. Just when you believe you’ve succeeded in not thinking, realize you are thinking more than ever. And worse, you are having the strangest, least useful thoughts of the day. You are thinking: Ice cube trays take forever to freeze. I need to print all my digital photos. Last time I used too much water and the rice turned out soggy. How can I convince myself I practice yoga for the spiritual growth, and how many calories did I just burn?

Snap out of it. Focus. Only thirty minutes have passed since you spread out the yoga mat, and already you have gone through the main poses and are lying there trying to become thoughtless. Usually you practice longer, but you had a bad day at work and came home already hungry for dinner but forced yourself into yoga. Yoga is not about force or tension or strain; you know this. In fact, that’s rule number three.

The fourth rule of yoga is to eat raw foods. The fifth rule is to be nice to the jerks in traffic and the sixth rule is to plant as many flowers as you pick.

You may have noticed by now that not all the rules of yoga involve yoga.

The rules that actually concern yoga are: number seven, that your muscles will shake but after enough practice the shaking will stop. Rule number eight: no one will believe those arm muscles came from yoga alone, but you should not be vain and argue otherwise. Rule number nine forbids going to yoga class to check out other students sweating through their thin tight shirts. The ancient art of yoga is not meant to stir sexual desires, which you probably shouldn’t have anyway because rule number ten tells you to be celibate. You are still working on that one.

No, you’re not. You’re not working on rule number ten at all, and have no intention to. You therefore also broke rule number eleven, which is not to lie to anyone, but especially not yourself

But back to the second rule, which is the easiest because it involves lying motionless in the corpse pose and is the hardest because you can’t for the life of you understand how to stop thinking. While you work on it, your cat circles your head and doesn’t understand you can’t pet her because you have to lie there and not think. She thinks you’re being cruel. Maybe you are. You’re also pretty sure that one of the rules of yoga is being kind to animals. You debate whether this warrants abandoning the second rule to sit up and pet her.

No, stay down on the mat. Another ten minutes and you can get up to make dinner. Something easy and indulgent for a good end to your day: maybe pasta, or garlic mashed potatoes. Start with some carrot sticks or celery slices to cover the raw food rule, but later, pour yourself a nice big glass of wine.

That last part would break rule number twelve, which prohibits alcohol. Number twelve is another rule you’re not working on, though you can see why it is a good one. But sometimes a beer is a beer and sometimes you like to drink wine while watching movies that are so old the color looks funny. So you give in. At least twice weekly you break this rule giddily, maybe even (do you dare?) drunkenly.

But it’s not time for dinner yet, and rule number thirteen is to not fixate on the rules you keep breaking. Instead go back to the second rule, which is to not think. You keep forgetting that one. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in. Hold it until it hurts a little. Breathe out.

Rule fourteen encourages you to make sacrifices. Let yourself think for a moment (just one moment can’t hurt) to consider the following extremes: Give up sugar entirely. Stop buying paper towels and instead use rags, which can be washed and reused. Donate more money than you spend on yourself. For a moment, feel proud of these thoughts. Then remember you’re thinking, and thinking of material things, and sigh out some air and go back to rule number one, the breathing rule, before easing into the second rule. Return to the rule only to fail again. This, at least, is not a surprise.

These rules of yoga amount to a promise. If you do all this, but especially the second rule, you’ll obtain what very few people ever do. It might be enlightenment or inner peace; whatever it is, you’re far from it. It’s possible you experienced it briefly in the past, but then you stopped to think about it and it disappeared.

It might have happened outside, at night, by the edge of the woods with wind in the trees. It might have happened at that camp with the falling stars. You seem to recall it coming when you were a child and the air outside was new with rain. The problem is that these days, you live in a high-rise surrounded by cement and you haven’t felt those blissful moments for at least a decade. This is why you’re on your back on a yoga mat, trying to find it again.

Your cat makes an impatient noise. Your dinner, whatever it will be, sits uncooked in the cabinets. Breathe in and out one last time and decide you are finished for the day. Roll up the yoga mat and tuck it away. Stretch upwards, once. Make that stretch last because finally, here is a stretch without the burden that comes with trying not to think. When you are done stretching open your eyes and see the sun out the window. Start dinner. Make plans with friends. Eat cookies and drink wine and pet the cat.

Tell yourself today was not your day. Tell yourself it will happen another time, after more practice. Because if you try hard enough, or not-try hard enough, this blessed event of not thinking will eventually happen to you. Think of the word blessed, the word bliss. Think these thoughts until they become you. Think them until they become smaller and smaller specs of dust. Think them until they turn to light, to a release in your chest.

Think them until they become nothing at all.

About the author

Laura Maylene Walter is the 2003 recipient of Washington College’s Sophie Kerr Prize. Most recently, she was named a finalist in the Iron Horse Literary Review’s single-author collection contest and Glimmer Train’s fiction open contest. She lives in Ohio with her husband and two adopted cats and works as a senior editor for a trade magazine.