How Yoga Got Scary

I have one other friend who's never done yoga. She lives halfway across the country. Since everyone else we knew was already a nascent expert with her own mat (if not a certified teacher) we'd decided to dive in together:

She was going to come to New York. We were going to find the least-intimidating class imaginable. We had it all planned. We were psyched. We'd finally get in on the physical and mental benefits we'd been afraid of. Then she got pregnant, and put on bed-rest. She is fine, but we both put yoga off - again.

When did yoga, that most serene of practices, get scary? When I was little, it was something my California-bred mom did at the local community center with a serene aging hippie. A friend's father taught us some stretches and easy poses when we were little, and we'd giggle at our inability to master the Lotus. Then everyone was doing it, and loving it, and it seemed great. And then, suddenly everyone had cute mat-cases and accessories and all my friends were really advanced and it was like not ever having tasted sugar. Casual mastery of yoga, its poses and language and ethos, was so ubiquitous as to be an easy punchline on Sex and the City, or in Breaking Upwards. Or take this, from yesterday's "Modern Love":

A few weeks after I got engaged I was in a yoga class with rows of women in various stages of flexibility, their torsos folded, arms reaching for the sky. On almost every left hand was a band indicating not only that they belonged to someone but that they belonged, period. They had mothers-in-law to clash with and decisions to make about light fixtures and printed return-address labels. They were rooted to the world. And soon I would be, too.

The Times put it thusly:

"The irony is that yoga, and spiritual ideals for which it stands, have become the ultimate commodity," Mark Singleton, the author of "Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice," wrote in an e-mail message this week. "Spirituality is a style, and the ‘rock star' yoga teachers are the style gurus."

For those of us without the means, this can be intimidating - not to mention, off-putting.

And yet, apparently, the tide is turning. Studios like the "yoga to the people" chain are all about bringing it back to basics, and that studio even has the motto, "There will be no correct clothes, There will be no proper payment, There will be no right answers ... No ego no script no pedestals." Of course, that's intimidating in its own way - strip away the trappings, and the discipline looks more fearsome, in a way - but is that the point? As a professional instructor friend wrote me, "don't worry about anything...there is a studio and an approach for everyone! It's just a question of finding yours." I must admit to being tremendously heartened when I read the new novel Balancing Acts because - get this - it involves two women in their thirties who have never done yoga! And who master it! Don't get me wrong, I trust my yoga-teacher friends, and could certainly learn a lot from their physical and mental flexibility, but they're all so far-removed from the anxiety of the beginner that it can be really encouraging to hear about the unflexible, the unspiritual, the self-conscious reaping benefits, too.

One friend who took a long time getting into yoga - although she'd been drawn to the physical benefits - said her objection was to what she perceived as "facile spirituality that people could don as they chose." In her words, "I thought, either this is a serious holistic discipline, or it's an exercise class with scented oils. That to most people it seems to be something in between bothered me." She's a quester, and shopped around for more than two years before finding a class whose balance and rigor she found appealing. And now she says, "at worst, you'll do some healthy stretching." Then Anna North recently mentioned an unintimidating nearby studio suitable for the ambivalent beginner. A friend is going to come teach me some poses in the privacy of my home. Both say one need not own a mat. (Although having one is kind of nice.) "It should not be a source of stress," wrote the teacher. So obvious, and yet it needs saying.

A Yoga Manifesto [New York Times]
Anchors Don't Come In Pretty Boxes [New York Times]