There’s No Place Like Om

[Note that’s completely unrelated to blogging,  yoga, writing, or freelancing: Last night I saw Henry Rollins’ “Frequent Flyer Tour” at the Fillmore. If he’s speaking anywhere near you, see him. Buy tickets. You won’t be disappointed.]

The more I do yoga, the more I realize that I’m the worst kind of student. Passionate, but opinionated. Selectively learned. Obstinate. Judgmental. Somewhat inflexible and occasionally flatulent.

I love yoga. There’s something about stretching that much that makes my body feel the way it’s supposed to. When I wake up in the morning, my joints remind me that I’m not eighteen. From marching up and down five flights of stairs with an overweight dog carried in a satchel, my lower back and thighs are often sore and tight. I’ve developed a nasty habit of clenching my jaw since I moved back to New York. I am nervous by nature, afraid of my shadow and bees, distrusting of humans and wound tighter than a spool of fishing twine. I needed to find something to stop me from developing a bleeding ulcer before the age of thirty. After months of Simon begging me to go to a yoga class, a year ago I did, though I grumbled and gritted my teeth all the way there. It didn’t help that the teacher played Jimmy Buffett at top volume, or that the room of that particular class on Long Island was filled with what appeared to be the female occupants of a convalescent home. I stopped growling ten minutes into the practice and started feeling better. My sarcastic comments when it was over didn’t erase the fact that my body wanted to do it again, and soon. So I found my Margaritaville-loathing self signing up for another class two days later. I’ve practiced regularly ever since.

The differences in my mood, personality, and body were duly noted by those closest to me after I started taking classes. Even though I rolled my eyes and hissed about it being a bougie activity for lonely housewives, I would come home calmer, less frantic, gloating because I was able to perch on my elbows or stand on my head. Of course, in the boudoir, it helped that I could suddenly rest my calves behind my ears or balance on my forearms. Or do both simultaneously. What didn’t help is that I suddenly knew all the lyrics to License to Chill.

The studio I began practicing at on Long Island was like a girl cult. It was awesome. The teachers were hilarious, attractive, and – apart from their taste in music  – exceptionally good. Although they talked a lot about chakra alignment and guided meditation, they also swore, cracked dirty jokes, and drove SUVs. I imagined that they were contradictions like myself, people who wanted to find inner peace and sexy biceps, but who weren’t altogether able to eschew the temptations of modern western living, like reality TV and burritos. I felt at home there, even if it took me a while to be able to touch my nose to my knee. Once I moved into the city and started attending classes at the nearby gym, I traded the quasi-temple ambiance of my old studio for a gymnasium-style room with plank wood floors and all-around mirrors. Gone were my beautiful, lavender-scented lady teachers, instead there were (still adorable) gay men in basketball shorts. I hoped that my quest for a new, New York City studio would lead me to a quiet sanctuary filled with flexible, buxom yoginis willing to bend me into a pretzel and turn me into one of them. I dreamed of supplementing my copywriting income with karma by becoming a yoga teacher. I was convinced that I’d find a new place to call om. (Ugh. The pun gods are going to smite me.)

At the gym, the room is usually filled with blond MILFs flapping their Botoxed jaws on their cellphones, or hippie-dippie NYU students in pajamas. With my tattoos and awkward haircut I look like I’m enrolled in some New Age "meditate away the gay" camp. Not to mention that years of doing athletics has left me automatically competitive. There’s nothing less relaxing then some five foot tall, scowling troll trying to reach her foot "better" than you, especially when you’ve opened class by chanting for peace to the universe and all things. But I have a reasonable gym membership, and it’s cheaper to go to the classes hosted in the club’s basement than to get a separate membership to a yoga studio. After two months of trying to suffer through classes where my awkward self faced off against me, duel-style, in the full-length mirror, I decided I should maybe try some local studios. After all, what was the worst that could happen?

My first exploration in a studio outside of my gym in Manhattan led me to a large yoga "institute" about a ten minute walk from my house. For $17 I would be walked through the basics of Hatha yoga, a style that’s slightly different from the Vinyasa and Ashtanga that I was used to. (For non-yoga people, Ashtanga is a more traditional series of poses that doesn’t vary, it’s disciplined, intense, and hurty. I love it. The other favorite of mine, Vinyasa, is "flow" yoga, the kind that’s wicked popular, though not as trendy as Bikram, aka "hot" yoga. I don’t to hot yoga. It would only have a purpose for me if I were training to be a ninja in a country without air conditioning, or looking to drop a weight class for the wrestling team.)

After paying my dues with a woman who seemed more pissed off than at peace, I took the stairs to the "Lavender Room," where my class was to be held. After taking an uncomfortable pee in a locker-room filled with women getting dressed to go to work, I entered the quiet, nearly empty room. There was a single candle and two pictures, one of a man in orange with a long, gray beard, and one of the Dali Lama. Soon the room filled up, and from the crowd I could tell this wouldn’t be a different style than I was used to. Everyone was over the age of fifty, and everyone was in sweatpants. My workout clothes, while not pricey, were more suited for a Nike ad, while everyone else seemed better dressed for a night at home in front of an Everybody Loves Raymond marathon.

The teacher was blond, older, and wore what looked like an all-white aesthetician’s uniform. She led us through very few poses that involved movement, instead opting to lead a never-ending group chant and walk us through meditations on the body, the self, and some other stuff that I fell asleep during. This was one very expensive nap. I left there edgy because I hadn’t been able to really stretch and sweat a little (to build up heat, or "tapas." No, not Spanish appetizers, the Sanskrit word for heat.) Basically this was yoga I would recommend for my legally blind, emphysemic grandmother. I know that’s not exactly the most zen thing to say, but for the amount of research I put into trying to find a new studio, and the amount of money it cost for me to enter that purple room, my chakras were knocked even further out of alignment.

I should let it be known, I really don’t like chanting. It feels like cultural appropriation, and I’ve never been good at call-and-response exercises, as was evidenced by my blessedly brief high-school cheerleading career.

handstand

Another studio that sounded good was Om, which is up by my alma mater on Broadway, near The Strand bookstore. On my way there I got a little turned-around, as there’s another yoga studio across the street and up a block. Eventually I made it into the right building, onto the correct elevator, where I felt really awkward standing with people who obviously were in the middle of their workday, coming in from a cigarette break. They got out two floors below my destination, and when the doors opened it was like I was transported to another world. The dimly lit, spacious lobby area totally radiated that crunchy granola, New Age goodness that I’d been looking for. I paid $28 for an introductory package of two classes, which, while way more money than I’d wanted to spend, seemed like an okay deal. There’s a reason why yoga in America has become more closely associated with wealthy suburban housewives than its traditional hippie roots.

The class was taught by a woman who commanded all thirty or so students with a passionate and intelligent series of insights that ranged from basic anatomy to humorous visualizations. Although it wasn’t as challenging as I’d hoped, that was my own fault for choosing a "basics 2" class as opposed to an "open" or "intermediate" session. I thought the space was beautiful, almost cavernous, and fellow students were friendly and non-intimidating. The music was also a marked improvement, I caught tracks by Beirut on the speakers at one point, which instantly improved my mood. There was even a smoking hot, tattooed student studying for her teacher training who sat in the back and quietly observed. It felt like a community, which was what I was missing. But for nearly $20 per session, along with either a $6 cab ride or a lengthy walk, Om might be more of an occasional luxury than a daily sanctuary. Which bums me out.

Of course, the fact that they have a teacher training program is a big draw. I had been signed up to attend one on Long Island, but my mother’s death and subsequent house sale left me short on time and even more short on focus. I’m not sure if becoming a teacher is something I should do, either. I’m slightly dyslexic when it comes to right and left, which would be a bit of a hindrance to my ability to get people to follow directions. I also hate chanting, like I said, and would have difficulty opening the class with an "om" or closing it with a "shanti." My musical taste is also a bit out of touch with most of my other teachers, except for one woman named Stephanie who played The Cure, Puscifer, and Sigur Rós, and who made every class feel like an exploration in awesome. Differences aside, teaching could be a way to make peace with my wallet…in theory.

On average, a yoga instructor makes about 35K a year, less than a well-educated public school teacher. Private lessons can be somewhat lucrative, with a cost of anywhere from $110-$250 per hour and a half, with all of that going straight into the teacher’s pocket. Of course, the area you live in, and how many studios/health clubs you get gigs at greatly impact your earnings. Specializations, like prenatal yoga or yoga for kids, can make you more of a hot commodity, but they also come with a price. Even preliminary teacher training certification courses run into the thousands. It’s a lot to spend only to be entering a field where a profit isn’t guaranteed. Moreover, though it should surprise no one, you don’t get health insurance as a yoga instructor. Not exactly a comforting fact, when you think of all the inversions and arm balances that can go wrong.

Ever since the economy tanked, it seems as though yoga classes are packed. People who are unemployed are flocking to the mats, hoping to find a little solace. As that teacher Stephanie once said to me, "The economy sucks, so business is booming. People feel shitty, they do yoga. Or they feel shitty and they drink." (She moonlighted as a bartender. That’s my kind of yogi.) Although yoga is reported to have done well during the recession, that doesn’t mean that teachers are necessarily meditating atop cushions made of cash. A New York Times article followed a Manhattan teacher as she tried to stay afloat. She had specializations up the wazoo, both prenatal and children’s yoga certifications, yet as of last year she was on food stamps and struggling to keep a roof over her head, and the head of her six year old son. Scary.

I admit to being a sardonic, cynical bitch. I admit to paradoxically viewing yoga as an upper-class white woman activity while also looking at it as a lifeline. I’m drawn to it, I adore it, and I wish I had the talent, cash, and time to get certified and share this gift that I love so much. I’m not sure if I expect my personality or outlook to change while practicing something that boasts bolstering inner-peace and acceptance, but I know that if it can work to make this batshit-crazy, neurotic twenty-something chill out even a little bit, it must be good for everyone.

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