A subway asana series.
The inspiration for the Subway Series came as I watched a group of young street performers tumble and press themselves into a variety of acrobatic feats all while on a moving train as it coursed through the depths of Manhattan. I realized suddenly that not only were they doing many of the same poses that we do as yogis but they were communicating it – bringing it forth to inspire and that is exactly what is needed with the asanas, with Yoga. So, I grabbed my camera, called up some of my favorite yoga teachers and headed into the subway.
The reactions we incurred and provoked were everything from surprise, curiosity and nonchalance (this is NYC, of course, and people have seen just about everything) to a very real interest in yoga. When Bobby Clennell, a Senior Teacher at The Iyengar Institute, did Tree Pose on the platform of the Castle Hill stop in the Bronx, a 911 survivor stopped to watch her. He followed us onto the 6 train and asked many questions, marveling at Bobby’s strength and agility as she did Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana. He told us of his chronic pain and PTSD due to being in the Towers when they fell. We informed him of the healing powers of yoga both for the mind and body. He left us vowing to give yoga a try and I felt that we had really accomplished something. At the very least we had planted the seed that there was a way for him to heal and it is within his control.
New York City with its noise and frenetic energy is a challenging place to be mindful in. Everyday, however, we are afforded the opportunity to practice our “practice” — to be steadfast and respond to every situation with as much calm flow as our breath. And as Robert Thurman once said in a lecture at The Tibet House, “Why do we call it a practice? We should perform.”
These teachers perform beautifully. Kirtan Smith was luminous in the Astoria station. And as so often happens, what is put out returns to us tenfold. Jennifer Brilliant shone out in the tunnels of Brooklyn and over the Manhattan Bridge. She was inspired enough to write about the experience on her own.
When I asked Steven Cheng how this had changed his practice he replied, “Often when we say or hear people talk about taking the yoga practice off the mat and onto real life, we usually mean the compassion and quiet we get after practice. The fact is you really can take the yoga asana practice onto real life as well. The thing that kept me from doing that before was that I felt odd or pretentious doing asanas in public, unless it was a demo or something intentional. My own reservation regarding the shoot was that I would draw attention to myself. But actually, the reactions from bystanders were curiosity, amazement and amusement. I didn’t feel odd at all. Ok, maybe a little—because I had someone photographing me. But once I detached from my fears and other people’s judgments and saw that no one really cared, that they were in fact delighted, I realized I projected more drama than there was. That is the lesson. We sometimes project upon ourselves much more judgment than is necessary or even exists.”
Steven also pointed out that this experience was a reminder that yoga should be for the everyday person—big and small, young and old, and from all social and economic classes.
Carly Sachs told me that the significance of the project was both inner and outer. “I thought of myself as a short, curvy Midwestern Jewish girl. And even though I’m much less zaftig than I used to be, it’s still difficult to take a compliment about my body or my yoga practice. For me, the practice is about healing and learning to release. It’s much more internal and so I was excited about the challenge of letting my practice be seen. For much of my life, I tried not to let my body be seen. And while it was cool to do a forearm stand in the middle of the Jay Street Borough Hall station during rush hour, the poses that produced the better images for me were the simple poses that were about offering such as a simple back bend or dancing warrior. In fact, much of the shoot was about trying to stay calm and grounded inside. Balancing on a subway platform when a train is approaching and the ground is shaking can be unnerving. There was a lot of falling and a lot of laughing – something essential in my practice. And there was a lot of dirt and grit, but overall, there was so much joy. One of my favorite moments was meeting a little girl who could do a full split (I still can’t) and her family. We took a picture with all of us. So this was yoga union, a practice that brings connection within, to each other, and to our environment.”
And for me, as a photographer, writer, and yogi—it was the brilliant confluence of all that I had learned and was passionate about that allowed me to give forth through my practice. That, and it was a hell of a lot of fun running around the subways and avoiding the cops.
Gina de la Chesnaye is a contributing writer, photographer and Meditation Blogger for YogaCityNYC (www.yogacitynyc.com) as well as a Yoga Instructor and Competitive Kickboxer. This fall she will be teaching a Liquid Steel class at Alison West’s new Yoga Union Studio (www.yogaunion.com) in Manhattan which utilizes asana and strength training with mindfulness. Her photography can be seen atwww.delacamera.com.