A salty pool has collected on my yoga mat. I can no longer even approach downward dog without starting to slide onto my belly. Mark Morford is weaving between the dozens of us, delivering instructions over a background mix that goes from Beyoncé one minute to Journey the next. He says casually, “Put your right leg back into a lunge. No, I changed my mind. Put your left leg back. Actually, put your right leg back. Now keep switching legs with the breath.” It’s his cute trick to get us doing an aerobic kind of move where we’re leaping between lunges, adding even more sweat to our impressive puddles.
This is exactly the kind of yoga class I would not have come to 10 years ago: music, a celebrity yoga teacher who writes a sassy newspaper column, an $18 fee, and near Bikram temperatures. But this is part of my reintroduction to yoga after years away, an attempt to appreciate the evolution of the art I left behind.
Let me explain.
Imagine for a moment that your last name is Yogis. (The name is Lithuanian, but that’s beside the point.) The year is 1979 and the feel-good funk of the ’70s has faded. You hold onto the vestiges, though, by naming your newborn son Jaimal after your Indian yoga teacher’s teacher’s teacher, Baba Jaimal Singh. Your son is now named Jaimal Yogis, which you realize may raise some eyebrows in America, but you’re not too concerned. Yoga is still obscure. Sure, the Beatles did it in India, but it will never become that popular.
It may be hard to imagine such a scenario at a time when San Francisco has more yoga studios than free parking, but naming me Jaimal Yogis is what my parents did. I’ve always liked the name, but it made my relationship with modern yoga a bit confusing.
Like any kid named Jaimal Yogis whose mom needed to do yoga more than she needed to eat, I got into yoga pretty young. My sister and I liked doing the animal poses with her when we were little – cobra, lion, pigeon. And after high school, I lived in an ashram for a summer and learned to meditate, chant in Sanskrit, and touch my toes. A couple years later, I trained with an orthodox Indian yogi, began studying yoga in the Himalayas, eventually worked at Yoga Journal, and even taught for a while.
This was all happening while yoga was going from being something that most Americans thought happened with patchouli oil and ankle bells to something that practically every star in Hollywood needed to do to keep a yoga butt. I turned up my nose at this sort of
thing. I was a yoga snob. I didn’t vocalize my snobbery, but I internalized it and the end result was that I stopped doing yoga altogether.
About five years passed like this. And I found myself having all sorts of issues: back pain, too much stress. It took a back injury to make me realize what I’d done: In my puritanical resistance, I’d tossed out one of the healthiest parts of my life. “Enough,” I finally said. I decided I would give the new yoga a chance. And now I’m here dripping wet and getting all spiritual with Beyoncé.
This is a level 1-2 Vinyasa class. Mark has us moving rapidly between poses, doing a Vinyasa (a push-up, followed by a cobra arch followed by a downward dog) between every posture. I think of myself as being in pretty good shape, but that view is repeatedly undercut by the 65-year-old bald man in front of me who seems to be able to follow every one of Mark’s instructions – including the no-hands half-moon! – with ease. Actually, everyone around me seems to be flowing just fine. How did these 40 randoms in the level 1-2 class become master yogis while I was away? And what the hell does a level 3-4 class look like these days?
I think I subconsciously chose Mark’s class first because I often read his column in SFGate.com. It’s great writing, but Mark writes about politics and sex and culture in that snarky I-just-downed-five-espressos sort of way. I thought he might also teach yoga that way and this would leave me a chance to go back to my beliefs that all this pop yoga is cracked-out American mumbo jumbo.
Unfortunately, Mark is very calm. He gives excellent anatomical instruction, speaks steadily and peacefully, and has us do some chanting after the strenuous poses that infuse the class with a sense of tradition. I was so ready to rag on him, but the fact is the class is awesome. I hear that Eminem line in my head while in savasana: “People, people – it feels so good to be back.”
I’m breaking down barriers. So a few days later, I go to a class that I really would’ve scoffed at in my puritan days: hiking yoga. “Combines a great workout with seeing the city,” says Hikingyoga.com. “Oh puhlease,” I hear my curmudgeonly yogi voice say. But when I actually think about it, hiking yoga might be just my pace. I could barely keep up with Mark and one of the reasons I have a hard time motivating for classes is I like to work out in the outdoors.
We meet Sunday morning under the Ferry Building clock tower. Christine, who is from New Jersey but has a super healthy yoga look (how much more proof do you need?) proceeds to lead us
through Chinatown and up a gorgeous set of stairs to Ina Coolbrith Park on Russian Hill. Overlooking downtown and the Bay, we do triangle pose and a warrior series. Occasionally, the curmudgeon yogi starts to tense about all the talking and giggling going on, but come on—what’s not to like about this?
We wind through alleys and small gardens, ending with a 30-minute sun-salutation routine on the labyrinth in front of Grace Cathedral where Chinese tourists end up taking photos of us in tree pose. We laugh. This is all fun and loosey-goosey. Curmudgeon yogi is trying to relax, breathe into the unknown.
Time to really push the boundaries. I venture out to the Marina where I’m sure the classes will be $40 for 30 minutes and buff guys in Nike spandex will be hitting on blonde women in all white. The class is at Aha Yoga with Kerri Kelly. Kelly’s classes are known to be tough, I hear, and the two people who told me are a former champion acrobat and an All-American lacrosse player. Great, we will probably do jumping jacks while she shouts, “Come on, girls!”
Not surprisingly, I’m wrong on all fronts. Aha Yoga gives me its intro-package deal of 10 classes for $10 (yep, $1 per-class). Kelly is not only incredibly sweet and very anatomically correct, she also works for a nonprofit, Off the Mat, that combines yoga and various do-gooder projects.
There is a buff guy in spandex up-front, but he is actually just a really flipping good yogi and I don’t see him hit on any of the blondes (none of whom are in all white); and really, who cares if he did? Kelly makes us sweat an Olympic-size swimming pool, but trembling in warrior III, with Kelly’s specific modifications, makes me realize something about why yoga is really popular. It hasn’t been a race to the lowest common denominator. It has just gotten really, really good. Kelly’s class is honestly one of the most challenging and best I’ve ever taken. I feel great.
But I do have one question: Whatever happened to yoga being mellow? I’m all for sweating through my eye sockets once in a while, but yoga classes used to be about relaxing. Now they seem to be all about dripping. I test the waters by coming back to Aha Yoga ($1!) for MeiMei Fox’s candlelight flow. MeiMei, a popular writer and life coach, starts us off by doing repetitive sun salutations. I’m starting to pour buckets again and Mr. Curmudgeon starts piping up: That’s the problem with this modern yoga, nobody can just relax.
But before long, I’m wrong again. MeiMei winds us peacefully down into some slow, blissful leg stretching. We eventually wind up in frog, where you’re lying on your chest with your legs splayed out, sinking into a hip-opener that is at once relaxing and agonizing. “This is what real yoga is about,” says MeiMei. “Going to that uncomfortable point and not reacting, not running – going deeper into the discomfort and seeing what’s there.” Why I was running from the new yoga, I’m still trying to figure out. But I do know this: I’m diving in now. My back feels better than it has in months.
You hardly need instructions to get into yoga these days, but Aha Yoga and Yoga Tree seem to have particularly great teachers and nice package deals for first-timers. Yoga Tree has four different locations and offers three classes for $20 if you’ve never been. Aha Yoga offers 10 classes for $10 for newcomers, but you have to use all of the classes within 10 days.