Are You There God? It’s Time For My Workout.
Observations on the oddities of yoga class and the desire to just... feel something.
You’re lying on your mat before class, compressed by a heavy veil of heat. There’s a pube near your spot, you notice, that won’t budge when you try to blow it away. Years of human sweat and toil have permanently laminated this pube to the floor.
Your 16.9 fluid oz. Poland Spring bottle glistens beside you, freshly refilled with electrolyte-infused water from the touchless fountain before class. It cost you $35 for a drop-in and 3 minutes of your life for this water, which you spent staring at the trapezoidal back of the guy in front of you while he filled his gallon jug from the “No Excuses” line to the brim.
You and your Poland Spring are already beading with sweat, so you reach for your hand towel. In your peripheral vision, you see a topless man saunter over to the mirror pecs-first, like Johnny Bravo, to assess his physique. A lady in long black leggings and a sweatband is doing pre-class obliques in case the teacher decides to skip “the abs portion.” Across the room, an unofficial Alo ambassador kneels on her mat in the front row, confronting her Medusean, Insta-ready reflection.
You eye your neighbor—a balding guy with a doughy tummy. He’s probably never done this before, you think. Just then, he strains for his toes in a seated forward fold, and you see the cupping welts all over his back.
“Do not leave the room while class is in progress. Take small sips of water. Everything I say is a suggestion, not a command.”
Class has begun. You pour over your mat like you’ve never poured before, panting, perspiring, striving. Every now and then, you notice the woman behind you has traded “child’s pose” for the fetal position, or that Johnny Bravo is flinging himself into a handstand every sun salutation.
But it’s the cupping fanatic who repeatedly steals your focus. He sounds as if he is on the brink of orgasm. Each time the teacher says “Take an inhale, and exhale-ahhhhh,” “HAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he roars. In time, you’ll learn every class is guaranteed to have at least one male soloist. These tend to be the same people who see an advanced classmate graduate from a semi- to a fully-bound extended angle, and nearly soil themselves trying to replicate the maneuver.
Faster than expected, the postures eddy to a legato. You are guided through a series of butt stretches, and your brain swims with cotton candy-colored effervescence. Demolished, dead as a doornail, you’re lowered into savasana, and the teacher’s voice goes quiet. A thought flickers through your mind: that this room, which wanted you incinerated 20 minutes ago, now embraces you like the coffin you’d happily die inside.
“You open your eyes. Across the room, 1-Gallon Guy stands before his reflection. In a single stream of motion, he dumps the contents of his jug onto the floor, wrings a sweat-drenched shirt over the puddle to garnish, collects his belongings, and leaves. ”
Just then, you hear Cupping Guy emit a string of ecstatic grunts—“Unh, unh, unhhhhh”—and you poke an eye open to skewer him with your gaze. He’s finally unclenched his buttocks from a gratuitously long bridge pose, and he descends, pelvis floating sweetly down like an autumn leaf.
A voice pierces the post-class sweat miasma. The room is yours for as long as you like, it says. When you feel it’s your time to go, please move gently so as not to disturb the other students in the ro—. The rustle of mats, knocking over of water bottles, and post-class murmurs alloy the teacher’s momentous “namaste.”
You open your eyes. Across the room, 1-Gallon Guy stands before his reflection. In a single stream of motion, he dumps the contents of his jug onto the floor, wrings a sweat-drenched shirt over the puddle to garnish, collects his belongings, and leaves.
New York yoga studios have long served as a kind of “third space,” much like the subway, where weirdos from around the city could gather to get a workout in, tend to their God-sized holes, and navel-gaze (if their thoracic was flexi enough).
But studio owners have always flirted with insolvency, even before the pandemic. Sheer overhead costs whittle down budgets to shoestrings, and businesses often go looking for ethical loopholes in order to lengthen them.
Even if you don’t “practice,” you may have heard of the infamous “Greg” of NYC’s defunct donation-based yoga depot Yoga to the People (YttP). YttP malfeasance showed how rotten some studios can get behind the scenes, and the case depicted an extreme example of how countless yoga businesses operated pre-pandemic: Enlightenment lore and cult teachers who kept students hooked. Round-the-clock teacher trainings—which net tens of thousands in tuition—to float their enterprises. Today, brick-and-mortar operations are still chiefly run by fleets of “Karma Yogis,” who provide entry-level maintenance labor in exchange for free yoga.
And who’s here to replace the boutique studios who shuttered due to Covid-19? It’s the chains and franchises, most of which are hot yoga studios.
Hot yoga is a different breed: For one thing, they cost an arm, a leg, and a tight pelvic floor to maintain. Their milieu primarily includes “sensation seekers”—people who get their kicks from any number of extreme activities, whether in pursuit of fitness or a limit-experience. Many were able to weather the pandemic better than their unheated indie counterparts by delivering a consistent, risk-averse, inherently brutal product.
I have no data to back up the following observation—just vibes. But as a daily practitioner, I’ve seen a lot more freaks infiltrate the chain I patronize, like a guy I saw recently who tied a festive bandana around his face and practiced without the use of his eyes.
I myself have joined this league of wandering yoga freaks. Dispossessed of a home studio, we guiltily subsidize the ongoing conquest of third spaces in New York, accepting an insistent torpor of the soul that comes with it. Naturally, there are those who’ll say commercial yoga has always been soulless, whitewashed, eviscerated of its supposed “ancient” essence. A guru would tell you nothing has an essence; we’re all just swimming in hot karmic soup.
On June 7th of this year, a photo of fitness devotees on a rooftop made viral rounds. In it, a collection of bodies assumed Warrior II pose on a geometrically perfect grid of Equinox mats, the city skyline before them gauzed in wildfire smoke. Commentators were quick to point out the photo’s “apocalyptic” top notes—namely, the absurd incongruence between our commitment to self-optimization and apathy in the face of sub-optimal climatic conditions.
I found the display delightful: an ensemble of bodies, all pelvises akimbo, obtusely bent front knees, the exquisite little “flick” that one guy in the front is doing with his hands. It reminded me of when studios quietly reopened during the pandemic, and I took up hot yoga obsessively, an obligatory mask hanging off on my chin like a soiled diaper.
Admittedly, my own dependency on yoga—hot or not—stems from a constitutional drive to “sensation seek,” which got a whole lot worse during a spiritually anesthetic pandemic. But whether we’re basting in an increasingly chaotic climate or a temp-controlled inferno surrounded by infuriating classmates, we have virtually no control over our surroundings, our circumstances, even our bodies. Really, I’m just grateful to be able to feel something again.