The soundtrack of my life has certain lyrics on repeat: "Focus on your breath," "Step or hop your feet forward," "Find your flow," and "Take your hands to heart center." This is how I know yoga has crept into my daily schedule. As a San Francisco resident, yoga studios are my sanctuary from the buzz and constant movement of the city.
But what if I could incorporate the city into my daily yoga practice? What if I didn't have to escape or hide from the cars, the views, the tourists, the sirens, and the bums to reach tranquility? Could noise and distraction actually help me reach a natural state of bliss? I set out on a journey to redefine the urban yoga experience.
I began my exploration by visiting a studio with a particularly urban
essence: Yoga To The People. It's located at 16th and Mission, a
crossroads where two groups beseech God: evangelicals preach for
junkies to get clean and junkies pray for good scores in the open air
Walking down Capp Street on my way to class in my "the opposite of sexy" yoga outfit, I pass by four men drunk in broad daylight (it's 12:30 p.m.). I don't know what about my baggy t-shirt and Uggs signals "hot" to these fine gentleman, but the catcalls are slurred and fervent. They make a chain so I can't pass by them. Unable to will them away telepathically, I step off the sidewalk and into the street to pass by.
Now hurrying, I make it to the entrance of Yoga To The People, an old shoddy building
on 16th. Huffing and stomping up the five flights of stairs, I finally
reach the studio. My shoes come off and I am in a large beautiful space
filled with light, worn hardwood floors and a breathtaking view of
downtown SF. I set down my mat and breathe.
The Vinyasa Flow class begins and things start heating up quickly. With this type of yoga I have to move fast and the speed means I don't really have time to linger on my earlier encounter with the borachos. In the background, an iPod mix plays music ranging from The Beatles to The Magnetic Fields.
Even though I am in a studio, I can appreciate the city: the semi-seedy locale, skyline view, attractive hip-looking attendees and even the music mix feel very San Francisco. Even the blaring sirens and bum fight outside remind me of who I am — a city dweller. The best part? The class is donation based, meaning anyone can come and join. A socialist form of yoga — how very SF indeed.
My next exploration is through something called Hiking Yoga led by Eric
Kipp, an outdoor fitness enthusiast and trainer. Not a morning person,
I blearily hop on BART and head down to the Ferry Building on Saturday
at 8:30am. Half of the city is already there jogging past the
Embarcadero with their golden retrievers or hefting bags of Farmer's
Market green garlic and organic chard blends. A line has already formed
at Blue Bottle.
A group of about 12 friendly exercise clad peeps circle around Eric. I'm amazed at the perfectly sunny sky – nary a cloud in sight.
We speed walk towards Jackson Square, making our first stop to do some
initial stretching at Sidney Walton Park. Introductions are made, and
we head for the hills.
This lesson will focus on stairs – lots and lots of stairs. We hike up the Broadway/Lyon St. stairs, the Vallejo St. stairs, the stairs to Coit Tower/Telegraph Hill and finally descending upon the Filbert St. stairs. In between each set, somewhat short of breath, we stop to do some basic yoga poses and lunges, utilizing the benches nearby. This is not the yoga that I am used to.
Thank goodness the group is chatty; this becomes the saving grace of all these hills. Talking seems to distract from the pain of the climbing. As we ascend, the view expands. At the Broadway steps we look over the Ferry Building, with the East Bay and Bay Bridge waving at us. When we finally make it to the top of Coit Tower we can see the grand Golden Gate Bridge. The parrots of Telegraph Hill are out in full force. At this spot, Eric pulls out some mini yoga mats for us to use for our final practice of the day.
I am a bit unfocused from the 5,000,000 steps that I just managed to climb, the group of tourists snapping pictures, the toddler running through the grass and the especially talkative group members. I find that my yoga practice would like a little more structure and fewer stairs. But I do enjoy the adventure, the cardio, and the group. Eric even maps out our route walk and emails it to us afterward.
Still, I hadn't quite achieved nirvana: could I combine the best parts
from my previous adventures — urban studio based yoga at Yoga To The People and being
outside in the sunshine at Hiking Yoga? I decide to host a Pop-Up yoga
class with local Yogi Nadine Johnson, who subs at Yoga Tree. By pop-up, I mean an impromptu
class outdoors. Nadine is an Ashtanga studio yoga teacher who's agreed
to be adventurous with me.
We decide to host a free class at Dolores Park on Sunday at 10 a.m. I barely put the word out, but a small group still manages to roll out of bed, hangovers and all, to join us.
A few friends are hesitant to attend because of the public nature of the outing — they're not sure the world needs to see a display of their downward dog pose. One friend wrote, "The sky throws off my balance," to get out of it.
Our fearless group lays our colorful mats onto the dewy grass and starts out with traditional yoga poses moving through the Vinyasas. The park is pretty quiet, with a teenage couple still sleeping off last night's revelry. We are set up in the same location I've spent many hours imbibing cheap wine and completing crossword puzzles. "Ah, Dolores Park, your uses are exponential," I think to myself as I hold plank.
Nadine's melodious voice and calming presence help push the city away. Even the sound of the nearby tennis courts with the thwack thwack of the tennis ball takes on a rhythmic pace matching my own breath as I enter into cobra. The sun shines upon us, warming my body and allowing me to stretch deeper. Throughout the instruction we hear the sniffles of curious dogs out on their morning walks.
Particularly when we take pigeon pose, one dog stares in befuddlement and probably wonders if we are half bird. The incline of the hill and squishiness of the ground are the day's only faults. When we finish I feel calm and ready to take on the city's hustle and bustle. I breathe into the warrior pose with strength. I am a warrior. I am an urban warrior. Bring it, San Francisco.
Yoga To The People is a donation based studio with 3-4 classes daily. Hiking Yoga has classes every Saturday and Sunday at 9:00am, meet with the group at the Ferry Building directly under the clock tower. Yogi Nadine Johnson subs often at Yoga Tree. Nadine says that she wants to do more Pop-Up yoga after our adventure. Keep your eyes peeled for more info on this as of April 1st. Or feel free to connect with your fave Yogi and see if they are up for an outside adventure too!
Pop-up card by Renée Walker and Heidi Meredith