Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hyperventilation and the Headstand: The Jivamukti Yoga Studio at Broadway and Thirteenth Street

I accidentally had a religious experience yesterday at the Jivamukti Yoga Studio at Broadway and Thirteenth Street.

For the past several months I have been going to a wonderful, flaky yoga class on St. Mark's place called Yoga To The People. My first time, I was very skeptical. I was really going to yoga? I was going to be one of those people? If yoga really helps you relax, why are most yoga studios filled with - and run by - tense, anorexic women?

Actually, it turned out to be great. I rarely sit still and do nothing for more than 30 seconds at a time. (Think about it - do you?) When my mother visits me in New York she tells me she wants to throw a sheet over my head to stop my constant overstimulation, so that I'll stop moving around for just a few minutes. She thinks I'll be less exhausted that way. Yoga allows a person to feel like she is still doing, you know, something, while in fact long periods of nothing are involved.

When you are doing yoga well, you are aware of every single inhale and exhale breath. All other sensations are secondary - including the sensation of fatigue or muscle exhaustion. The repetition of the breath and the movements of your muscles actually free your mind to wander. The complexity of the poses uses up the part of your mind that is usually wasted anyway, worrying about whether you should cancel your Netflix account, whether you've gained weight, whether things are going well at work. With that annoying voice quieted, your mind can free associate, can pursue long chains of improbable connections until - sometimes - you stumble into a realization that seems perfectly obvious after you've already got it. Often this is something like "I should do what will make me happy" - a thought that would totally annoy you if you read it on a Starbucks cup, or that you would brush off if your parents told you (and they probably already did), but that is a genuinely earthshaking revelation when you get there on your own. Plenty of rhythmic activities have the ability to free up your mind in this way - I've also gotten there through painting and long-distance running. I'm sure that prayer, for the practiced, has the same effect. For me, prayer has never been absorbing enough to have this effect. I have plenty of nervous energy left over to watch the clock, adjust my clothing, and ponder my Netflix account. How to take a step deeper into it?

Yoga To The People lacks most religious overtones. Classes there are primarily calm, peaceful workouts, and you pay by leaving a couple bucks in a Kleenex box on your way out the door. A thoughtful, poky, slightly paunchy mid-30s guy usually leads lessons (I almost wrote "services"). He limits religious overtones to mild exhortations to "think about your breath," "think about your whole being," and "be loving to other people." (In fact, he is sometimes so overwhelmed by his own directives toward lovingness that he often spends the last five minutes of class - while the rest of us are lying peacefully on our mats - making out with his wife.)

I guess that sounds creepy, but it doesn't really bother me. Much more creepy, to me, is the interaction (whether literal or symbolic) in the more traditional American yoga cosmology between Smiling Wise Old Male Yogi and Thin Young Earnest Female Acolyte. As a young woman I have a strong suspicion of old gurus of any kind. Thanks, Santa Claus, but no way I'm gonna sit on your lap. Even if you can do a really great headstand.

The change from my usual peaceful gang to the Jivamukti Yoga Studio (where my friend Allison got a free class by bringing me) was quite dramatic. Jivamukti is huge - there are about six big classrooms and many classes run simultaneously. The hallways are wide and noisy, and are filled with posters encouraging you to eat vegetarian and say no to fur. Nine out of ten people there are women - generally slender and dressed in correct yoga attire (sleeveless top in solid colors with built in bra; three-quarter-length black spandex pants). Classes at Jivamukti will run you 17 bucks.

Allison and I picked an "open class," which means that you can go whether you are a beginner or an Advanced Yogi, and you'll basically be able to figure out what to do. Our instructor was named Paisley. She was tense and very thin, with long blond hair and Horus Eye and Sanskrit tattoos on her feet. Paisley sat down at the front of the room in front of a shrine with icons of Hindu deities, a potted plant, candles, and a bunch of photographs of old yogis with the usual Clintonesque grins on their faces. We all sat down cross legged on our mats facing her. She began to chant, rocking back and forth, one line at a time, and we called the lines back to her. I have no idea what they meant. I was going to ask her afterward but I was too intimidated.

Actually, the singing was my favorite part of this class, and also the most religious-feeling. Paisley sang in loud, low, open throat tones that almost reminded me of women's singing from the Balkans. I completely buy that singing like this helps you relax - you can't produce those noises unless you are pretty relaxed in your whole throat and chest. My opinion of Paisley improved.

After the singing, unfortunately, the class deteriorated pretty quickly into a Series of Hard Things I Couldn't Do, and that I Particularly Couldn't Do Quickly. This included the first Hard Thing in the class - forced, huffing, hyperventilating breaths for a minute at a time, followed by maybe 20 seconds of breath holding at a time. Repeat. Repeat, Repeat. Ever been in a room with 20 people hyperventilating? It's terrifying. Their bony backs shake with the effort as their lungs expand and contract. Just as breathing slowly relaxes you, breathing quickly stresses you out. I gave up trying to follow the hyperventilation very soon, but my heart started racing anyway, in panicked sympathy.

Here are other things I couldn't do (particularly within the span of one inhale or exhale as commanded by Paisley):

[Thin, reedy cry:]"Inhale!" (Kneel, wrap left leg over right leg, thread left arm under left knee, wrap right hand behind back and grab left hand.)

"Exhale!" (Kneel, place forehead to floor, clasp hands behind head, press elbows together, raise self to handstand)

"Inhale!" (Full split, with left leg forward and right leg backward)

There was one guy at the front of the room who was literally in a handstand three quarters of the class. Showoff. My religious experience degenerated into, I guess, the equivalent of counting the pages until the Oneg: watching the guy in the handstand, sneaking glances at the clock, staring reproachfully at Allison.

Finally it was over and Paisley gave us a soft "namaste," with a humble, tense smile. We trudged out. She had totally schooled us. Next week I'm going to be back in the beginner class, where I belong.


melinama said...

Throwing a sheet over your head is much cheaper.

Anonymous said...

Loved your thoughts about yoga and Jivamukti, and I have some too. I once took a class there where the teacher began by condeming the use of psychotropic drugs. She said that psychological problems could be solved with "the breath." I told her after class that "the green pill and the blue pill" (as she derisively referred to them) save lives and allow others to participate more fully in life. She apologized, but then rambled on about how she was proud that yoga supplanted the need for therapy in her life.

What I look for in religion or spirituality is practice in holding opposites in equilibrium, practice in living with ambiguity. I guess because it's billed as a discipline, Yoga attracts and, in the case of Jivamukti, fulfills the natural human need to compartmentalize, polarize, simplify life. At its worse, it's a manifestation of the same fundementalism that's got America in a death-grip...

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Anonymous said...

Handstand pose can be really great for core strength. And it’s not as challenging as it looks. For pointers, Leeann Carey has a great free yoga video that I thought your readers might like:

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kedar said...

yoga is not hyperventilation , we hold our breathe in order to increase the pressure of co2 in our body . check out you will understand why yogis give lot of importance to retaining the air .