I’ll admit it, I’m a weekend warrior when it comes to enlightenment. Usually I seek this redemption at the end of a particularly long weekend, one that requires some sort of atonement for too much alcohol and not enough sleep. This is all too apparent as I stand flop sweating in the midst of a Zuda Yoga Power Vinyasa class one Sunday, detoxing “craft cocktail” out of every pore as I struggle to still my quaking quads; my knees are bent deep in a position I call “the punisher” but the world calls “Warrior II.” The instructor walks between similarly grimacing students and poses a question to the hot and desperate room. “It’s easy to breath deeply in a restful position, but can we take a few deep breaths when things get tough? How do you react,” he asks with a dramatic pause, “under pressure?” Taking the cue, an assistant hits play on the stereo and the opening notes to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” pulse through the room, the mass of students collectively collapsing from tense poses to relieved laughter.
At Zuda Yoga, the Power Vinyasa classes held in their heated studios are so popular that instructions to extend your right arm to the right, “which is going to mean resting it on the person to the right’s shoulder, and extend your left leg to the left, resting it on that person to the left’s hip” are pretty standard in a room holding upwards of 60 students. “If you’re wondering what’s going to happen next, there’s going to be a lot of this,” instructor Matt Tucker says, but he isn’t joking, and while it’s hard to feel confident in a room full of women wearing brand-name stretch pants and un-ironic sweat bands, a class at Zuda means getting comfortable because there’s no room not to be.
This is yoga, American style, where even the most ancient of soul-seeking traditions becomes clothed in spandex and promises a tighter, lifted ass. Even Abercrombie & Fitch jumped on the bandwagon with their “perfect butt” yoga pant collection, though the only real connection to Hinduism is that their products are made on the Indian subcontinent, as ruefully noted by an October 2013 Elle article sub-titled “Nirvana Is The New Black.” Many of those devotees who have seen yoga through its various incarnations since it really took hold in the U.S. in the 1970′s bemoan the recent commercialization of what has become a $10.3 billion a year industry according to the most recent Yoga In America study, though the fact is, the commercialism isn’t all hype. In today’s high-tech, overdrive environment, droves of people are discovering yoga as a soul detoxing panacea to lives rife with tweets, traffic, and social anxieties.
Last year, Forbes named the SF Bay Area the top yoga “city” in the U.S. with residents there 59% more likely to practice than the national population, a trend that seems to be naturally expanding to Sacramento. Take a ride through the grid and it seems pretty obvious. The city blocks are inescapably punctuated by yoga studios offering classes, workshops, and lifestyle accouterments, but what are they really selling, I often wondered. How can there be so many studios in town, and can they really be that different from one another? Unable to tell my Vinyasa from my Bikram, I decided to investigate, perusing issues of Yoga Journal and dropping in on classes throughout the city to see if I could tap in to what’s captivated Sacramento and simultaneously making good on my new year’s resolution to be able to wrap my legs behind my head- a killer party trick if there ever was one.
Unfortunately the process takes a little more time than I’d initially been led to believe, a couple classes being insufficient for meeting my Gumby goals. But how was I to know? Do an image search and it’s clear that the “yoga body” is misleadingly marketed as aggressively as any other beauty form these days. The yoga woman we strive to be is slender, strong, financially successful while shunning material possessions, and may be actually glowing. It’s an ideal that many women long for without the critical eye we reserve for the air-brushed images of fashion magazines because it claims to be based in discipline rather than brand names or beauty creams, though it certainly has those things to sell. In a way, downward-dog has replaced the Nike swoop and namaste is the new term for “just do it.” Distinguishing between the inspirational and unrealistic is a battle all its own.
“The implication that rippling abs can be yours with a couple of yoga classes a week…[is the creation] of corporations who want you to buy all the necessary yoga accouterments your yoga body needs,” says Danielle Olson on her health and lifestyle blog Body Divine Yoga. While yoga can offer these benefits, Olson asserts that it takes time and dedication to attain them, achievements that the manufacture of a false ideal ultimately undermines while sweeping away the greatest merits yoga has to offer.
Heeding these words I decide to give the zen approach a try, slipping into the cozy but comfortable Yoga Shala through its inauspicious entrance at the side. Here yoga men and women radiate a “born again” enthusiasm. They were once as I was, dropping in on the occasional 30 Days for $30 challenge at various studios through town, only to quit sore and exhausted two weeks later, and then they found Shala. Or Yoga Shala found them, enfolding all into that promising haven of flexibility and strength that turns the dabblers into the disciplined. Wednesday evenings at Yoga Shala are for the growing group of Kundalini lovers, a branch of yoga focused on energy balancing and meditation where mouth-breathers are spurned. Kundalini, the tentative yogi should know, is not for the allergenic, as attempting to breath through a single nostril while stuffed up may actually kill you, if not from lack of oxygen then by humiliation when you blow an unintended snot-rocket at your instructor’s yoga mat. Their Vinyasa offering, while excellent, isn’t much easier. Throughout the week, classes are filled by advanced and dedicated students where the standard pose is complicated and the variation is proof that yoga may actually take a lifetime to perfect. As we take the final savasana, or corpse position, the lights go down and the teacher prompts us to clear our mind, but I don’t like being told what to do and I’ve got a lot to think about. Yoga Shala leads its students in the kind of yoga I long to do, the kind of yoga I would love other people to see me doing, the problem is it’s some next level shit and I haven’t got that game, but more obstructing is it’s really expensive.
At most studios, paying a drop-in class fee from $15 to $20 can feel a little un-zen, but in Sacramento, high-minded community organizations are helping to strike a balance. Sacramento-based operation Yoga Across America (YAA) is one of many groups that’s made delivering yoga’s benefits to students and in-need communities their primary goal. Under an umbrella of organizations, YAA offers free and donation-based classes on military bases for veterans and service personnel, as well as in high schools, food banks, shelters, and public parks, granting access to health and fitness to those who have typically had the least access of all. Every Saturday, YAA’s arm of Yoga In The Park holds free community classes in McKinley Park at 9AM, by summer in the open field and by winter in the park’s heated Clunie Center. On Wednesdays you’ll find their similar offering in Oak Park’s Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services at 6:30PM.
Elsewhere in Sacramento, the future of yoga is still unfolding. Practice Yoga located alongside a busy stretch of 16th Street, is busy bridging the old and new, offering traditional Hatha classes that help to reinforce students’ knowledge of fundamentals and then, when students feel they’ve hit a wall, letting them strap a harness to it and keep practicing.
Practice Yoga’s paradigm-changing Yoga Wall is a comfortable and modern version of a slightly older system that connects harnesses to recessed hooks in the wall, suspending students in cushioned slings that look like playground swings. Imagine playing on a swing set: Sitting on a swing, you hold onto the chains, leaning back so far that you could wrap your legs around the chains and hang upside-down hands free, the swing seat holding you firmly around the butt and your head, presuming the swing were high enough that you wouldn’t hit it on anything, dangling freely toward the ground, the playground now upside-down in your vision and your hair standing on end as you scream, “Look at me! Look at me!” Imagine this and you can very well visualize what happens to me at my first Practice Yoga session.
Half acrobatics and half Vinyasa, the mid-week Yoga Wall Masala class has myself and a large group of first-timers calling on our inner possums, hanging in deeply relaxing inversions before rolling around in our slings to perform variations of previously innocuous yoga poses. For much of the 90-minute session I work on gaining confidence in the harness, my watery vision focused on the instructor hanging calmly upside-down on the opposite wall, his legs crossed in a comfortable position as he demonstrates the upcoming set of moves while promising that I will not fall.
With a morale boosting bowl of chocolate candies near the door and a view of the gleaming and cake-like Governor’s Mansion right outside the floor to ceiling windows, the studio’s still been slow to catch on in town according to Jim Cahill, the owner and instructor. Despite the classes’ ready accessibility to any skill level, they have remained the territory of the athletic thrill seekers and fringe fitness lovers, though “anyone can do this,” he assures. “I’m 55 and I have never felt better.”
Cahill’s not too concerned. When the yogis inevitably grow tired of the repetitive Bikram and Power Flow classes so ubiquitous in Sacramento, his studio will be waiting, offering the next variation in a 5,000-year-old practice that never gets old.
Sitting at home with a bottle of anti- inflammatory three weeks into my yoga foray, I’m still searching for an easy definition of the experience. Is this a consumer trend, is it a lifestyle, is it the sort of thing you can pick up and put down at different stages in your life, like an old friend you only call for kind words during breakups and moments of bleak, personal turmoil? Maybe yoga is simply whatever you need it to be, and what it means to a devoted and mystical yogini is quite different from, but equally valid to, the infrequent student dropping in on a class out of the blue. Maybe the greatest flexibility yoga provides is its ability to be all of these things to all of us, or maybe I’m just validating my own selfish ends. Human pretzel, you are a harsh mistress.
*A version of this article ran in the SN&R on Feb. 13, 2014 entitled “Yoga, Sacramento Style.“