Kundalini Yoga at the YMCA

Rob Dinsmoor

For many years, I had been intrigued by the prospect of teaching yoga at the Arkham YMCA and was pleased to discover there was a new opening for an instructor on Friday nights. The Arkham Y was one of the oldest YMCAs in Massachusetts, if not the entire country. Like most YMCAs of a certain period, it had the standard track that ran along a floor overlooking the basketball court.

Nonetheless, the Arkham YMCA was different. It was built and rebuilt over periods that easily spanned over 100 years. In fact, I had no idea how old the building was because information was hard to come by. Whatever public records there had been as to its exact age and the year of its construction had been destroyed in the Great Fire of ’96. What remained was one of the most puzzling structures I had ever seen.

The front entrance was decidedly new, with cinder blocks and glass. Yet, when one went in further, other time periods emerged. Staying to the right, one would find the standard basketball court and track and, beyond that, more modern facilities, including a large open room with plenty of treadmills, stationary bikes, ellipticals, and weight machines, and two aerobics studios.

If, instead of keeping to the right, one ventured to the left, one would discover that everything was made of ornate gray marble. It was reminiscent of Grand Central Terminal in New York City, built around the dawn of the 20th century, and both were replete with unexplained subterranean labyrinths. When no was around, I sometimes explored the Arkham Y, walking downstairs into seemingly endless corridors, but eventually all I could find were doorways that had been sealed shut with cement or bricks and mortar, with names like “The Lovecraft Room” and “The Armitage Room,” named, no doubt, after long-dead benefactors. Was this Y built upon another building, as happened in cities like Seattle and Portland? Such questions would remain unanswered, as it was very difficult to find reliable historical documents in Arkham.

Climbing the stairs, I found yet more locked and boarded-up rooms. Why were all these rooms boarded up? No one seemed to know. I once asked an old-timer on one of the elliptical machines what used to be in those rooms. He didn’t know because they were boarded up even when he was a child. I got the same answer when I spoke with one of the custodians: He had no idea what those rooms were used for or why they were boarded up.

I became especially fascinated by one particular room, located in the marble backbone of the building, with a very heavy wooden door that bore the ostentatious plaque “The Whateley Room.” Unlike the others, it was not boarded up—only locked. I could find nothing about the room in any of the Arkham YMCA brochures. I knew the name, however. There was a Whateley Street in Arkham and, nearby, the Whateley Farm and Whateley Hill, where witches had been hanged in the 17th century.

One night, after teaching a Power Vinyasa class in one of the aerobics studios, something curious happened. After all the students left with their yoga mats, a custodian came in and started mopping. It wasn’t the usual custodian, and I had never seen him before. He was bald and had a strangely shaped skull, one that was more squat than your typical Homo sapiens. He seemed to be keeping his eyes steadily on the job in front of him, and I began to wonder whether he was, in fact, retarded. And then he mumbled something, made even more inaudible by the acoustics of the studio.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I seen you looking around the Whateley Room,” he said, kind of leering at me and making a “no no” gesture with his finger.

“What of it?” I asked.

“Nothing of it,” he said and continued mopping.

“Who are you? What’s your name?” I asked, indignantly, as if I were going to report him.

“Me, I’m nobody,” he said with a queer smile. “I’m one of the Ancient Ones.”

“Whatever you say,” I said, dismissively, and carried my yoga mat and iPod toward the door.

“I’ve got a key,” he said, and that got my attention again.

I followed him up the echoing marble staircase, which left him considerably winded. From his pocket, he pulled a rather large key ring, the kind jailers used to have back in the olden days. Methodically, ignoring my impatience, he found a specific key, one that was massive and made of an unidentifiable metal, removed it from the key ring, inserted it in the lock, and began rattling it around, seemingly without results.

“Maybe it’s the wrong key,” I offered.

“It ain’t the wrong key,” he responded.

Sure enough, after a little more experimentation on his part, some massive, long dormant tumbler turned, making a noise that reverberated from within. When he opened the door, I could have sworn I heard a hiss, as of air escaping a sealed container.

The air inside stank of dust, swamp gas, and mildew, seemed devoid of oxygen, and nearly took my breath away. He flipped a light switch, and I was extremely surprised when the light went on with a loud bang. There was a huge, single dome of light suspended from the ceiling 40 feet above.

The room it illuminated was beautiful and charming, in its own way. To the left were very tall arched windows, but the glass had been frosted, or perhaps even painted over, so they afforded very little light. To the right was a small, thin wooden door to what I assumed to be a utility closet. The chamber had hardwood floors and a massive walk-in fireplace. On the wall was a portrait of the strangest looking young man I had ever seen: his skin seemed quite yellow, although that may have been the result of some oxidation of the oils used to paint the portrait. Moreover, he had most unusually wide lips and what appeared to be pointed ears partially disappearing behind locks of brown hair that resembled fur more than human hair. In a bizarre juxtaposition, this queer human was dressed in very tasteful and expensive clothes. Beneath the portrait was a plaque that read: “Wilbur Whateley, 1913-1928.”

“You could instruct your yogurt classes in here,” he suggested, and rather than correct him, I nodded. It would indeed be a great place to teach yoga.

“You read my mind!” I said, chuckling.

Not getting my joke, he looked at me solemnly and said, “No I didn’t!”

“What I meant to say is that I’d love to teach my class here some night,” I explained.

“Here’s the key,” he said, handing it to me. It felt oily, or at least slick with something. “Don’t tell nobody.”

When I went to the Miskatonic University Library, the largest and most reliable library in Arkham, I discovered that none of the local newspapers had made it into microfiche. Instead, they were bound in huge volumes and placed, more or less chronologically, on the shelves in the very back of the 6th floor. I took the rickety elevator up to the 6th floor, where not another soul was to be seen, and burrowed through the dark, narrow aisles until I found the 1927-1928 volume of the Arkham Chronicle. I pulled it off a chest-high shelf, dislodging what must have been a decades-old blanket of dust, and carried it over to one of the spartan wooden desks in the corner. I dusted it off, fought back a sneeze, opened the book and, because it was so dark, turned on the little lantern in my cell phone. I leafed through page after page until I found what I was looking for: Young Wilbur Whateley had been fatally attacked by a guard dog in 1928, while breaking into this self-same Miskatonic library! The published accounts of the day were perplexing, with the coroner variably stating that the remains were “not quite human,” “animalistic in nature,” and “almost human,” before refusing to talk anymore with reporters. In the end, the body disappeared, the coroner having claimed that it melted. Poring through these tomes for another hour, I could find nothing further on Wilbur Whateley.

I was very excited to teach a class in the Whateley Room. I chose the last slot on a Friday night. As I was finagling the time slot, the fitness director warned me to end the class promptly at 10:00 p.m. because the YMCA closed soon after. After that, we would have to scour the building for the nighttime custodian in order to get out of the building.

I made signs that I posted all the way from the aerobics studio to the Whateley Room: “This way to the yoga class! Bring a mat!” Not surprisingly, the room had no sound system (save the ruins of a dusty old Victrola in the corner), so I had to bring the portable sound system that I hooked up to my iPod.

Roughly a dozen people filed into the Whateley Room somewhat hesitantly. Even though yoga is supposed to keep the mind flexible, I’ve found that yoga students actually welcome routine and feel a little uncomfortable when it is disrupted. But I was here to provide them with a new experience. Little did I know how truly novel it would be.

They placed their mats in a semicircle around me. I couldn’t really see that well because it was so dark, but I didn’t take note of a single familiar face in the group. Nor did they smile, laugh, or talk amongst each other. They seemed dead serious about their practice. There was a bit of a draft, the source of which was not apparent to me, so they kept their outer layers of clothing on. Once they were settled, I closed the big wooden door, with an echo that made it sound like the door of a crypt, and walked back to the center of the semicircle.

“Today we’ll practice Kundalini yoga,” I explained. Now, what made me decide on Kundalini yoga that day remains a mystery to me, as my usual practice is a kind of Vinyasa flow. “Kundalini yoga is about using the breath in conjunction with spinal flexion to awaken the Kundalini. What is the Kundalini, you might ask? It is essentially the snake at the base of our spines. This may sound very metaphysical to you, but please remember that, in our earliest embryonic stages, we are essentially snakes—that is, a head and a spine. It is only later that our appendages form. It is as if, as we develop as embryos, we pass through every stage of evolution to become human. So, our spines are very ancient. Our spines are a vestige of what we once were in the early stages of evolution—and that is reptiles. Whatever makes us human, such as our prefontal lobes, are very recent developments in terms of evolution. It is our spines that make us living, breathing vertebrates. And there is a power in that primitiveness.”

What I didn’t tell them is that there had been recorded testimonials over the years, most of them apocryphal, about people going mad or at least having hellish episodes of anxiety while practicing Kundalini yoga.

I could hear wind blowing outside, which puzzled me. When I came into the Y earlier, it was a balmy, tranquil day.

I led them through a number of exercises. The first one was a breathing exercise in which we interlaced our fingers, pressed our palms toward the ceiling, and chanted, “Sat! Nam!” What made the chant especially unusual was that we exhaled on the “Sat!” and inhaled on “Nam!,” thus awakening the involuntary nervous system—and the Kundalini. We went through my entire repertoire of Kundalini exercises: essentially, performing all manner of isometric exercises while engaging in Kapalabhati breathing—a mode of respiration that involved pumping the diaphragm muscles vigorously.

Once they were warmed up, I had them come into Cobra Pose, in which they started out flat on their stomachs and then lifted up their chests so that they were staring straight ahead—like a cobra raising its head. These students were particularly adept at the pose, and some of them could draw their arms behind them and still keep their chests lifted, all the while breathing noisily. The net effect was like being surrounded by hissing cobras, but I tried to put that image out of my mind.

All the while, the wind seemed to pick up outside. I heard the wooden doors shifting, and perhaps there was some kind of draft coming through the closet on the right because I continued to hear squeaking and thumping from within. A couple of times, the overhead light flickered, and I wondered whether there was about to be a power outage.

After the vigorous practice, I had them lie down for savasana, a relaxation time also known as “corpse pose.” I turned off the light with a clap of thunder, and the only light now was what came through the door frame from the hallway outside.

“Feel  the primal energy coming up from the base of the spine. It’s your Kundalini. It’s your snake. AWAKE THE SNAKE!”

And that’s when the lights went out with a bang, and now there wasn’t even light from the door frame. Except for the faint, filtered purplish blue coming from the outside through the arched windows, we were in total, absolute darkness. I could see nothing.

But I could hear something. I could hear some scrambling that sounded as if it were coming from inside the closet. Rats, perhaps? After all, this room had not been opened in God knows how long—and the closet had been untouched for at least decades—and what better place for these randy rodents to take up residence! In addition to that, I heard what sounded like footsteps coming up from below the closet, but I quickly dismissed the notion. When the wind blew outside old buildings, they settled, and it often sounded remarkably like footsteps, or at least that is what I tried to convince myself.

And what if I had miscalculated the time? Maybe they had closed the Y and shut off the lights and we were all alone with the rats—and whoever or whatever was coming up the stairs!

Then I remembered that my trusty cell phone was in the small backpack I always carried into class. I turned on the lantern within it—and lo! There was light!

But no students.

Under the eerie light of the cell phone’s lantern, their mats were still there, but they were unoccupied. How was that possible? They would not have been able to exit through the stairwell door without my seeing them. Panic took over me as I looked around.

The door to the closet was slightly ajar, even though it had been closed and locked when I had come in. I moved gingerly toward it because, for all I knew, it was full of rats. I opened it slightly more and shone my cell phone within. There were no rats, but I could have sworn I saw the tail of a snake disappearing behind the old, dilapidated chairs that were stored there.

I eventually got out and managed to navigate the stairwell and the corridors below until I found an emergency exit. I stepped out into the Arkham night, where things were as normal as they had ever been. In the years that followed, I stopped teaching yoga altogether and my visits to the Arkham Y became less and less frequent.

No matter how often I went to the Arkham Y, I never saw any of the students or the Ancient One again.

About the Author

Rob Dinsmoor is the author of three fictive memoirs, Tales of the TroupeThe Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime. He also co-authored a children's picture book titled Does Dixie Like Me? Recently, he appeared on stage on The Moth Story Slam. He lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts. Visit his Website at www.robertdinsmoor.com