August 10, 2013

Practice What You Preach. ~ Beth Lifson

What the Yoga Community Can Learn from the Community Center.

I’ve done yoga in all kinds of places.Gyms, ashrams, corporate chains and local studios; you name it, I’ve been there.

I’ve taken Ashtanga, Vinyasa, hot yoga, Hatha and prenatal classes. I’ve done yoga in places like Bethesda, Maryland where everyone is in fancy clothes and has the perfect fake nails, tans and, often, boobs.

I’ve also done yoga in the Alberta Arts district of Portland, Oregon where classes are an affordable $8 a pop and tattoos and patchouli are the dominant themes. And I’ve enjoyed all of them.

In all of these venues, the teachers inevitably talk about the meaning of yoga and many times reference the “yoga community.” In these talks, the idea is that by coming together as a class, we forge a communal bond and feel more connected. It is great lip service to a great idea; we come to a room together in sometimes no more than our undies or pjs, we sweat with (and, in hot yoga, sometimes on) one another, and we thus become a yoga community.

But how well do we really know those we practice with?

I spent over three years practicing everyday at the same yoga studio. I did get to know every one of my teachers; they knew my name, my profession, my dog and other details of my life. But rarely did I talk to other practitioners aside from a brief greeting. We all know what it’s like in yoga classes; most times, people come in, say hello by nodding and smiling, and then go to their spot without any other words spoken. This is part of what I love about yoga: the quiet, the peace and solitude. But if that’s the point, then why all the talk about community? Why the platitudes at the beginning and end of each class?

When I found out I was pregnant, I had to stop going to my normal studio, which was a hot yoga studio. I did non-heated and prenatal yoga as long as I could and then, upon the suggestion of one of my yoga teachers, tried water aerobics. I stuffed myself into a maternity swimsuit and went to the community center near my home.

When I first walked in to class, the first thing I noticed was how every age, race, body type, gender, ability and ethnicity was represented. Much has been written about the homogeneity of yoga classes, so I won’t retread old ground. Suffice it to say, I was struck by the diversity of the crowd. As I waddled into the water, I was immediately greeted not only by the teacher, but also by my classmates. Everyone welcomed me, said hello, and asked about my pregnancy.  I immediately felt at ease.

One woman from my daily class had to drive her motorized wheelchair to the edge of the pool before entering. She gained over 100 pounds after taking Prednisone, and water aerobics is the only kind of exercise she can do. I know this because over the course of the last month of my pregnancy, I got to know her.

I also got to know Amy, a forty-year-old woman with Down Syndrome who never misses a day unless it is to visit with her nephew in Seattle. I got to know Eileen, the high school English teacher; Gail, the postal worker; Rita, the fitness instructor; Susan, the retired professor; and Tom, the 70 year old flirt of the bunch.

In just a month at the pool, I became a part of a true community. They missed me when I wasn’t there and asked where I was. They asked if they could buy me a shower gift (I declined, but said for sure I would bring the baby by). They shared stories about their own children and lives. We became friends.

White, black, old, young, able-bodied or disabled: we were there together everyday and at the end of each class, we would form a circle and hold hands, singing “Reach out and touch somebody’s hand, make this world a better place, yes we can.” Then, each of us would share one thing we could do that day to make the world a better place.

 More than any Om I’ve ever chanted, this little bit of song and sharing made me feel as though I was a part of something: a community.

How is it that in less than a month, I felt more a part of the water aerobics community than I did after 3 years of daily practice at a yoga studio? Was it that we were all in bathing suits, and thus on a level playing field? Was it the non-competitive nature of water aerobics? Was it that water aerobics at the community center is cheap in comparison to yoga ($30/month as a opposed to over $100 at most yoga studios in my area)? Was it that we had more time to talk because there’s not the silence-before-class etiquette? The difference was striking and profound.

Of course, my experience might not be indicative of every yogini’s experience: I know that others have found a strong sense of community from their yoga studios. Is it a matter of finding a new studio? Or is it something I need to change in me? My suspicion is that it might be a little bit of both.

While we can’t close every yoga class by singing Diana Ross, and in a class of 50, it’s not possible to have every person share something with the entire class, there’s got to be a way to bring more conversation, connection and community to yoga classes.

I plan on returning to yoga as soon as I can postpartum; I miss all the things that yoga does offer: the calm, the strength, the breathing.

These are things I don’t get from other forms of exercise. But as I return to yoga, I know I’ll miss that welcoming spirit I found at the community center; I’ll miss how the center reached out to me and made my world an infinitely better place.


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Assistant Ed: Andie Britton-Foster/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Beth Lifson