The rituals are the same the world over. You and your fellow practitioners have a common language – not the local patois, but an ancient language, a language of ritual. You recognize the melodies. You are welcomed as one of the tribe, and you feel at home.
No, I’m not talking religion – I’m talking yoga.
On my travels of late (all domestic, and mostly for work), I have made it my mission to find and attend local yoga classes. (My other travel obsessions include farmer’s markets, public transit, coffee shops, botanical gardens, and local breweries. A girl on a business trip barely has time to work.)
The arc of the class is familiar: the sun salutations, the relaxation at the end. Of course, there is the ritual language: the Sanskrit words, sure; but also the platitudes, which seem to be the same, down to the punctuation, from my home in Newton, Mass. to Great Falls, Montana:
Let the breath move you. Fill the pose with your breath.
This is your practice, no one else’s. Listen to your body; it will tell you what it needs.
Observe your thoughts without judgement, and let them pass.
I spent last week in the Pacific Northwest, and yoga was in ample supply. First stop: Roseburg, Oregon, a rural community in the southwestern part of the state. I am thrilled to find the Body Balance Yoga Studio – an adorable storefront, right downtown.
And they have a 5:30 class! It will be cutting it close after I wrap things up with my clients; but I pull on my yoga duds and hop in the car at 5:20. GoogleMaps says the drive should take only 4 minutes – the studio is just on the other side of the railroad tracks.
I stop at the traffic light. Inhale, exhale. The light turns green – and simultaneously the railroad bridge lowers and a freight train thunders past.
And thunders past.
And keep on thundering.
I hold the position for 10 cycles of breath. Then for 10 more. It is 5:33.
Observe your thoughts without judgement, and let them pass.
I observe the thought that I will not make it to class. And I turn around and head back to the hotel.
Eugene, Oregon is full of yoga studios. The one with the most appealing name is Sweaty Ganesh; but since it has rained ceaselessly for my first three days in the region, I decide that I’m soggy enough already.
I do I make it to Everyday People Yoga for a late afternoon class. It is a lovely, high-ceilinged studio, with a beaming Buddha presiding at the front. There is a donation box near the door, under a long, apologetic statement about why it is reasonable that they should presume to ask for a donation from participants. There are teachers to pay. There is rent. And is the requested $8 - $12 donation really such a high price for enlightenment? Lacking change, I leave a $20, feeling that Buddha would approve.
Class begins. I inhale. I exhale. I let the breath fill my downward dog pose. I observe my thoughts without judgement.
I am observing thoughts of tacos. There is a apparently a robust Chicano population in Eugene: on my walk to the studio I passed at least half a dozen taquerias, one smelling more enticing than the next.
Tacovore must be a local favorite, judging by the long lines at all times of day; but should I choose one of the more-authentic taco shacks further down the street? I am doing my best not to judge these thoughts. But still, I wonder, is it permissible to judge the tacos themselves?
Listen to your body; it will tell you what it needs.
Mudra Yoga is my second Eugene studio. Like the first, it is light and airy, and white people with dreadlocks are well-represented among its clientele. It is Saturday morning, I have not slept well, and my body is being particularly inarticulate about its preferences. I think my body is telling me that it needs caffeine. Maybe from that cute little coffee shop I passed on the way here…where was it, exactly? I observe these thoughts and try to let them pass, but they settle in for the duration.
Urban Yoga Spa in Seattle is not donation-based: it is a vigorous celebration of commerce right in the heart of the shopping district. There are scores of payment options, none of them needs-tested. Weekly! Monthly! Packaged with a facial and a massage! And if you have more money burning a hole in your pocket on your way into class, you can buy outfits!
The studio here is anything but light and airy: it is huge, windowless, painted gray, crammed with bodies – 50, 60, maybe more – for a popular after-work session. And it is heated, steam-heated, to 105 degrees.
I am observing thoughts of mildew. They fill this place with heat and steam six or seven times a day. And there are no windows. How can they ever air it out?
I exhale. I inhale. I fill my downward dog pose with breath, and probably also with mold spores.
No dreadlocks in this downtown Seattle studio, and no ripped T-shirts; but lots of Lululemon wrapped around perfectly-sculpted bodies. 20-something bodies, 30-something bodies. I look around eagerly for other middle-aged patrons, and I’m delighted to see a man on the other side of the room whose hairline suggests that he and I might be of similar vintage. But on closer inspection (difficult enough in this steamy room, especially when my attention is supposedly focused inward, observing those thoughts I am not judging), I find that he’s just another 20- or 30-something. Bald By Choice. Alas.
This is your practice, nobody else’s. Listen to your body; it will tell you what it needs.
CJ, the teacher in this Seattle class, intones these phrases even as he spits out rapid-fire Boot Camp style instructions. The perfect-bodied, Lululemon’d blonde to my left has apparently taken him at his word, since she stays inert, in child’s pose, for the first half of class. Good, I think—I can be my middle-aged self here in the studio steambath, faux-baldies notwithstanding, finding my own balance of exertion and ease.
Then suddenly my blonde neighbor unfolds and launches herself into an absolutely flawless and utterly impossible arm balance – a Flying Llama or an Inverted Bound Red-Crested Chickadee – which she holds for an improbably long time. After which she folds herself back into child’s pose, where she stays for the rest of class.
My body is telling me I need a shower and a nap. And who am I to judge that?