After six months of darkness during a winter at the bottom of the world, I'm awed by the beauty of the sunrise over Antarctica. Golden light spills from the horizon, warming the cab of the tractor I use to groom snow roads on the frozen Ross Sea. When I've put in 10 hours rolling over rough drifts, I hurry to the Chapel of the Snows for Annie Lowery's yoga class.
The sun dips behind the jagged silhouette of the Royal Society Mountains as I enter the warm wooden building. I leave my bulky red government-issue parka in the entry and join my fellow students, who include both marathon-running vegetarians and whiskey-drinking cigarette smokers. We gather here to offset the effects of working long shifts, six days a week, on the coldest, windiest, driest continent on earth.
Everyone from cargo loaders and supply clerks to marine biologists and bulldozer operators relies on self-discipline and calm to cope with the lonely cold of Antarctica. "Yoga is a huge stress reliever, which is exactly what we need down here in the heart of winter," says Phil Spindler, a native of Minnesota who works in laboratory supply. He isn't kidding. Temperatures here can drop to 100 degrees below zero. A few years back, before the advent of yoga classes, someone snapped and hit his supervisor on the head with a hammer. At the old Soviet base people spoke of an altercation involving an ax.
Yoga also eases our physical woes. We practice backbends and Downward-Facing Dogs to rejuvenate our bodies after long hours in cramped vehicles bumping over sea ice. Deep breathing lowers our blood pressure and helps us maintain our equanimity in this fragile community whose numbers drop to 250 in winter and swell to 1,200 in summer.
"With yoga, I find myself," says head baker Johannes Busch, of Denver. "Yoga creates a temple of peace for me."
The sessions progress from easier poses on Mondays to more advanced asanas at the end of the week; by Friday we're going from Downward Dog to lunge without instruction and even practicing inversions like Headstand, Shoulderstand, and Plow.
As winter drags on, it gets harder to stay motivated and make it to the chapel. "My practice does falter a bit," admits Lowery, who works in the station's supply department and serves as the volunteer teacher. The conditions of Antarctica are in stark contrast to the two months she spent practicing six hours a day at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India.
Still, the yoga is worth the effort for the peace and fortitude it offers during the months of darkness. Now that the sun has come back, it's bliss in the chapel, where light gleams through blue-and-gold stained glass. I can't wait for the next class—but first I have to finish another 10-hour shift on the ice.