It's been a while since I've gone to yoga. I think about the sangha at my teacher's studio most Thursday nights and Sunday mornings, when I know that she's teaching the classes where I'd like to be, but my yoga practice is less active than I'd like these days; though I work well alone, I am motivated best when I'm part of something larger than myself. Given my summer schedule, I decided to try an early morning class at a studio closer to where I work again, hoping it would inspire me to get back to my practice, even if I couldn't get back to the studio I call home.
I admit, my ideas about yoga are heavily influenced by my eight or nine years on and off at YL. I took plenty of yoga classes before then, and I've been to other studios and worked with other teachers, but none of them made me love yoga like my current teacher's studio did. There, they read (and teach) yoga philosophy. They use sanskrit names for asana. There are sadhana classes and kirtan events. But more than anything, when I go to yoga there, I feel like I'm not just stretching my body, but using my body as a vehicle to access the mind.
Sometimes I sweat.
I should have been warned by the class description, which said something about "power" and "panache." Or by the teacher's personal website, which prominently features a slideshow of her--displaying her concave stomach and ribs--in handstands. Or by the studio logo, which is actually a woman in handstand, creating the letter "Y" with her legs in a split.
But uncharacteristically, I didn't notice those things. I'd heard from a colleague that the studio was worth visiting, and from another that there was a special deal for new students, so I figured it was worth a try.
I arrived early, set out my mat, and gathered the blocks and bolster that I usually take out, to sit and center myself before the class began. No one else seemed to be doing that, though; mostly, people were stretching, bouncing, and generally looking as if they were getting ready for a gymnastics class. The room was stifling, because the teacher had turned on the heater (on the third day of New Jersey summer, and no, it was not advertised as "hot yoga"). We began not with mantra or breathing, as I am used to doing from classes at most other studios I've attended, but in a long-held bridge pose, which morphed into dolphin, which quickly morphed into three legged downward-facing-dog, or raised leg plank. Every few minutes we were directed to "hop" into the air with one foot or another or both, which--it became clear--was all about preparation for handstand. Not long into class, we spent a several minutes against the wall doing half-handstands. And many of my classmates spent a good portion of the class in handstand, taking every suggestion to hop as a recommendation to invert. Several times, when the teacher came to adjust me, I felt like she was pushing me to get into handstand as quickly as possible. Unlike when my regular teacher adjusts me, which almost feels like an extension of my mind gently reminding my body of where it is and where it's trying to be, I felt myself wanting to resist her adjustments, to tell her to leave me alone. By the end of the class I was dripping with sweat, which I guess is a good thing if what I wanted was a workout, but I didn't walk away with any thoughtfulness or insight. There was no feeling of community; there was only, perhaps, a sense of cliquiness. I walked away feeling like I'd been to the kind of gym that makes me hate going to the gym.
I'm sure that the studio is the right place for a lot of students. But as I walked back to the office, making a game plan for getting clean using only the sink and hand soap, I thought: my yoga practice, such as it is, is really not about the handstand. It's about anandam.
Sure, it's cool to be upside down. And it's great to develop core strength. And handstand has lots of health benefits. If what I really wanted was to perfect my handstand, I'd be doing everything I could to make it happen. As someone who usually tries whatever "more challenging" version of a pose my teacher offers up, I can understand the appeal. I get it: after all, didn't I just write about trying things just to see if you could do them? And maybe there was an element of that for some of the students in the class; I can't know that, because I'm not inside their heads. Yes, preparation for handstand is part of my yoga practice. But for me, there are so many more layers to yoga than that. And spending so much of community class time trying to get into or stay in handstand (which, by the way, is the goal of every class there; I know this because I went a few times, to make sure) left me wondering where the rest of the yoga was. While I understand why being in a community is helpful if you're working on something challenging (we do that to our seniors writing theses), here, it felt like an isolated exercise, without any larger purpose. It was the kind of experience that makes people think that yoga is just about stretching or twisting yourself into a pretzel, that makes them give up.
At my regular studio, we end every class with the mantra: "loka samasta sukhino bhavantu," which translates roughly to "may all beings everywhere be happy and free." No one chants: "may I have six pack abs."
I'm glad that her students have found a place and an approach that works for them. Maybe I should have been able to get the rest of what I wanted from my inner teacher, as AmarJyothi reminds us each time she ends her classes: "Satgurunath Maharaj ki jai. Jagadambe Mata ki jai." But I need more than handstand from a yoga class, and I think I'll stick with a practice, and communities, that honor purpose and divinity in a way that I can get behind.
This summer vegetable pie is full of layers. And it's light enough for the sweatiest of days.
1 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium red sweet pepper, chopped
2 medium zucchini, thinly sliced
1 10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well drained
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
12 oz. can low-fat evaporated milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 t. salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
10 sheets frozen phyllo dough (14x9-inch rectangles), thawed
Nonstick cooking spray
2 oz. feta cheese crumbles (you can also use goat cheese or ricotta)
Preheat oven to 375F.
Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet, and add the onion and pepper. Saute for about 4 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Add zucchini; cook about 4 minutes more or just until zucchini has just started to brown. Add the spinach, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; cook for 2 minutes more.
In a small bowl combine evaporated milk, eggs, 1/4 teaspoon salt, the black pepper, and nutmeg. Set this mixture aside.
Coat a 9-inch pie plate with cooking spray. Unfold phyllo dough. (As you work, cover the remaining phyllo dough with plastic wrap to prevent it from drying out; this can happen quickly, and then you'll have broken phyllo. Which isn't the end of the world, but does make your life more difficult.) Place the first phyllo sheet in your prepared pie plate and lightly coat it with cooking spray, gently pressing into bottom and up sides of pie plate and letting the ends hang over edges of pie plate. Repeat with the remaining phyllo sheets, placing then in a crisscross pattern. Spoon vegetable mixture evenly over phyllo; sprinkle with cheese. Pour egg mixture over your pie, and fold the overlapping ends of phyllo towards the center of pie plate. Coat the top of the phyllo with cooking spray, and gently press to hold its shape.
Bake about 40 minutes or until a knife inserted off center comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes on a wire rack. Cut into wedges and serve warm.