Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Yoga Adultery

A long, long time ago - like in the early 90s (?!) - the Ashtanga method of yoga came to town. Formerly, it had only been available in happening centres like NYC, London and Santa Barbara. But it did arrive in TO in fairly short order, this is that kind of city, and I remember the moment when first I heard about it.

I was a strict Iyengar practitioner at that time, a teacher. To go to another studio - to learn another method was like fucking around. A similarly renegade yoga friend conspired with me to attend one of the first classes at the studio on Spadina Ave., in the fashion district. Back then, it really was a fashion district (in the manufacturing sense of the term) and the studio was in this hideous, hole in the wall factory space up a creaky flight of stairs and down a long hallway. I was totally midtown back then so you can only imagine my horror. I spent the meditation intro looking for bugs.

It wasn't too long, however, before things got into full swing and I had no chance to think about anything other than my body in motion. I was mesmerized by a practice, the likes of which I'd never done before. It was a scandalous sort of yoga, to my mind, as theretofore, I'd  been indoctrinated in a method that espouses structural (re)alignment, and long-holdings over everything. It was so fast, so free, so relentless (in a different way than Iyengar), so grungy. When I finished that class - and there were maybe 5 of us in the room - I was lighter than air. And nauseated. I had never sweated so much.

Don't misunderstand, it in no way compromised my love of (and belief in) my first method - if anything it entrenched it more deeply. But I was young and monogamy was hard to do. I secretly began to take a weekly Ashtanga class.

Over time, when the method became popular, my (non-teacher) friends would ask to join me. Sure, said I, I love a yoga companion. Inevitably they would lose it half way through the class (and I should clarify that these were very traditional ashtanga classes, not the hybrid kind that one sees everywhere these days). These women were fit, but they were not yogis. I saw near-injury more times than I care to remember.

Around the same time, someone in the yoga community told me about this crazy video that had been released by Crunch studio - a yoga video! I read a review in Yoga Journal. I was intrigued. I secretly bought a copy of it for my VCR. It cost a fortune as it was imported from America. I watched the video. I tried the class, with guilt - I mean, it was a fitness video pretending to teach yoga. I was pretty uptight back then.

Here's the thing. I didn't hate it at all. I was all ready to judge it, but it was a fascinating little class. Please note: It was in no way yoga! Sure, it was called "The Perfect Yoga Workout" but it was more of an homage to yoga through a fitness lens than anything strictly yogic. There was much talk of breathing, and very little instruction about it. The poses were rarely named, much less in Sanskrit.

As I watched the video, it came to me. This was the perfect segue from gym-yoga to ashtanga. (Y'all know it's always the gym-goers who want to take up the yoga known for burning the most calories.) It was perfect, not because it inculturated anyone to any kind of yoga, but because it moved through many of the required poses and even introduced vinyasa sequences of sorts (though not the Ashtanga ones). It did this quite intuitively. The instruction was clear (if light on yogic specificity). It was safe, unlike your average ashtanga class for your average class-doers. That was unusual back then (and maybe it is now too?). It was also challenging, if not really challenging.

The most egregious thing about this video was the way the (very sweet and adorable) teacher pronounced the word "forward". In any given yoga class, that word is used 100 times, and every time this woman said it incorrectly (foe-word), I got a little bit more hostile.

From then on, when a friend asked to come along with me to Ashtanga, I'd lend her the video and suggest to her that she do it twice in a row (that's about 75 minutes or 15 minutes shorter than an average level 1 studio class). If she felt entirely comfortable with all of the actions and the pace (which is on the moderate side, IMO), if she didn't sense that she had struggled with the flexibility/strength ratio, then it struck me she'd be ready for the physical aspects of an ashtanga class in principle. In truth, you need much more strength and flexibility in an actual class, in my experience, than you'd ever need to do that video. But it was a better indicator than, say, a gym yoga session or, worse, a step class.

You may be wondering why the hell I'm telling you this.

Well, I've been looking on the interwebs for crazy fitness videos to (theoretically) do at home and, quite accidentally, I came upon The Perfect Yoga Workout on You Tube. Like for free. The world has change so much, Fitness Seekers! It had been years since I'd thought about Sara Ivanhoe, the instructor, but I was instantly compelled to try it again.

And, you know what? It hasn't aged badly! Of course, the word "forward" is as problematic as ever it's been, but maybe that won't upset you.

If you're wondering whether you should try a studio Ashtanga class, or how (if your fitness life is on a non-yoga track / you're of a certain age) you could incorporate a bit of vinyasa at home, try this twice in a row and see how you feel:

And of course, please tell us!


  1. I was so curious about which regional accent might be in play with 'foe-ward' that I went to the google. Yeah, still no idea where Ms. Ivanhoe grew up, but some fascinating factoids: she has some real academic street cred, with a BFA from NYU, & a Masters in Yoga Philosophy. If you decide to run the 'it's not yoga' thing by her, you must promise to print her response. ;o)

    I'm apathetic (at best) about yoga, but I well recall how annoying mispronunciation is. I remember from my years living 5 miles south of the Canadian border, the teeth grinding irritation of hearing "agayne" "aboot" and "ante-BEE-I otics". And when I lived in the UK, of hearing garage said as 'gair-idge', & worst of all, taco defiled as 'tack-o'. Being from the Rocky Mountain region myself, I just had to close my eyes when I heard turquoise pronounced as 'tur-kwoz'.

  2. I love your yoga posts - if you did a yoga blog, I would read it for sure.

    I do yoga classes at the YMCA - 3 times a week. I'm not even good at all the postures, but I feel much better than before. I'm trying to work on my balance, which unfortunately sucks right now...

  3. Ooh thanks for sharing that video - it looks very like a class I used to do and really enjoyed at the time !

  4. I must admit I gravitated more to Pilates than yoga because I felt that I didn't have the respect for the spiritual aspects of the practice that I should. And I must admit I was a little freaked out when people started talking about the profound emotional 'breakthroughs' they had during yoga sessions. I have spent years repressing my childhood traumas - I would prefer they not spring out of my subconscious while I'm trying to work out. :)