Last August, I spent a long weekend at an organic farm with a group of dreadlocked, free loving, neo-hippies who tried to talk me into practicing yoga. A number of part-time yoginis were throwing together an impromptu morning session on the grassy knoll across the way from the composting toilet, and it wouldn’t matter that I had no prior yoga experience because, as a particularly pungent stranger assured me, the first time is all about “finding your body.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I was more than a little put off. I wasn’t aware that my body was ever lost. Where could it be, and how was yoga supposed to help me find it?
I sought clarification. Not one to plunge headfirst into foreign activities, I canvassed friends and strangers with a flurry of yoga-related inquiries. Apart from the whole body- finding issue, I was especially concerned with one particular question: what was so great about yoga that warranted the risk of making an ass of myself in front of a horde of spiritually liberated flower children? “It’s good for the body and the soul,” a friend advised me. She spoke with great authority on the subject, and if I weren’t both a curmudgeon and a skeptic, she might have convinced me.
The fact that I was in this situation was strange enough on its own. While I consider myself to be something of a free spirit and maybe even a little earthy, any honest self-evaluation would suggest otherwise. I don’t know how to set up a tent or start a bonfire; I will always choose coffee over herbal tea; I eat meat, white flour, and refined sugar; I pay for haircuts and I shave my legs. I am the stilted progressive of my circle of friends, and after years of denial I’m mostly okay with that. However, my boyfriend is the co-director of Samba Elegua, one of Toronto’s most hippie-friendly Kensington Market party bands, and I often find myself in situations where I have to defend my staunch closed-mindedness. On the occasion that a well-meaning samba artsy suggest I tag along to a yoga class, I politely respond with a pointed, “I’m not that kind of girl.”
In the context of Toronto’s urban jungle, my notion of “that kind of girl” generally referred to one of two things: either a totally un-cynical granola muncher, or a yuppie. While I simply felt boorish compared to the former, I have always been secretly terrified of turning into the latter. These are the women who, when I worked in an upscale Annex boutique, would traipse into the store pushing $1,500 SUV strollers with yoga mats strapped to their backs, sipping green tea lattes as I feebly tried to sell them artesian handbags. I would watch these women with disdain as they examined themselves in the mirror, immaculately coifed and flawlessly accessorized, and realize that given a few years and an actual income, I would likely be swayed into entering their photogenic world. The possibility was so tragically un-badass that I rebelled. No yoga, no pilates, no meditating for me. Bring on the coffee and beer. Non-organic, cage-bred chicken with a side of Funyuns? Yes, please.
I held out until this January. My friend Cara had acquired free passes to a new hot yoga studio and insisted that I try it out. I would have resisted if it weren’t for the fact that her own daily yoga practice had rendered her petite frame into what those in the know like to call “the yoga body.” In a few short months, my slightly curvy and vertically challenged friend had achieved the kind of long and lean silhouette that people pay money for, and she seemed boundlessly happy and energetic to boot. Some people use drugs to get high; for Cara, it’s all about the yoga. While I wasn’t sure about “finding my body” in the spiritual sense, if I could “find” some muscle tone within my shapeless figure, this yoga thing might be worth the plunge. Besides, a little serotonin never hurt anyone.
The studio, situated above Future’s bakery, was a clean and quiet space. The practice room was lit with natural light that poured in from two well-windowed walls and smelled vaguely of essential oils. After a few minutes of laying in the misleadingly monikered “corpse pose,” a kindly-voiced instructor roused the class into a series of gentle stretching postures. “Don’t worry if you can’t do everything I’m doing,” she told us, knowing there were newcomers among the crowd. “Be okay with where you are right now.” It was a stark contrast to the workouts I was accustomed to, grueling half hour stints on elliptical machines made possible by the little drill sergeant inside my head that berated me to push through the pain, lest I surrender to pussydom. I may be a glutton for punishment, but permission to be a bumbling novice was surprisingly reaffirming.
After I finished my first 90-minute hot yoga session, I was drenched in sweat and utterly exhausted. I was surprised to find that every single muscle in my body felt as though it had been worked. Yet, the process had hardly been torturous. It’s a lot easier to push yourself to the limits of your physical ability when a soothing voice is encouraging you to breathe and relax than when you’re bullying yourself through a boring cardio routine. Whether or not yoga suited my rep—which I’m pretty sure only exists inside my head, anyway—those wacky poses had me at hello.
I became a yoga tourist. Most studios offer rookies a $20 “first week” of unlimited yoga sessions, so I signed up for one after the other, bouncing from studio to studio, practicing almost daily. After about a month, I ran out of hot yoga studios within a 20-minute walking radius and considered making further treks, until I found out about my favourite studio’s “energy exchange” program. As it turns out, most yoga studios operate largely through volunteers who perform weekly reception or cleaning duties in exchange for free, unlimited sessions. I got a hold of the studio manager, and within two weeks I was set up with a work trade.
It’s been about a month since my Saturday nights became devoted to cleaning my yoga studio. It’s a tiresome job, but I don’t mind it so much. It may be annoying to scrub sweat stains off the floor at 10 p.m, when everyone else in the world is getting their weekend on, but those few hours per week have allowed me to keep up with my practice, and it’s worth it. Ever wondered about the widespread evangelization of the “yoga lifestyle?” (If you’ve ever walked through the Annex, you should know exactly what I’m referring to.) Try a session, and notice how it makes you feel afterwards.
I, the eternal cynic, now practice yoga in a 37-degree room three times per week. Granted, I still have some problems with certain aspects of yoga culture, particularly its inaccessibility—unless you’re doing an energy exchange, practicing yoga at a studio can be quite expensive. But, at the same time, I consider myself proof that you don’t have to be a downtown yupster or patchouli-scented bliss case to get a kick from Downward Dogs and Tree Poses. I’m benefiting tremendously from my own practice and am trying to encourage others to take up this ancient art, either through studios or more affordable places like Hart House, U of T’s Athletic Centre, and the YMCA. I love that it gives me something positive to focus on for 90 whole minutes at a time, and also appreciate the fact that, for the first time in my entire life, my body looks better naked than clothed.