Yoga in New York: A beginner’s guide

Last year Thought Catalog ran a great article contrasting New York and LA. One key difference that rang really true to me, was the attitudes of each city’s women toward fitness. In LA everyone wears their workout gear in public so you know they’ve just come from the gym. They talk about their diets and cleanses and their new trainer loudly at parties: they want you to know how hard they’re working to look good. In New York, though, effort is anathema. Girls at parties want you to see the rib bones poking out of their Balenciaga tops and assume they’re that skinny either through impeccable breeding or a dangerously chic drug habit. Thus, in New York gym-going is done clandestinely, early in the morning or late at night and in neighbourhoods where no one knows you.

Yoga could be the exception though. It is New Yorkers’ look-at-me exercise of choice. Everyone is walking around with telltale rolled up mats; hair up in buns, buns in Lululemon lycra. Women speak in hushed tones at dinner parties about their instructors, with the kind of fervour I imagine women in LA reserve for their cosmetic surgeons.

Having done a few beginner yoga courses in Sydney and Brisbane, I was reasonably confident I could hold my own in a basic class in New York and set about finding one at the right price. Ie, free, if possible. Yoga To The People seemed to fit the bill – a non-profit organisation started in California aiming to bring cheap yoga to all. They had cool young teachers, played indie rock instead of chanting monks and windchimes, and asked only that you pay-what-you-can for an hour class.

I went along to their East Village studio, deep in hip St Mark’s Place. The address led me to an unassuming brownstone. After watching some whippet-thin girls with their telltale mats in tow buzz their way up, I summoned my courage and followed suit.

The scene that greeted me was far from my beloved studio in an old Queenslander in Brisbane’s Paddington. There, the windows would be thrown open to let in a breeze and some magpie song. There, I would feel quite lithe by comparison, in between a motherly woman in her 60s and a bloke mid-midlife crisis who would occasionally fart mid-pose. Here, the mats were packed in barely an inch apart and filling fast with what looked like all the girls who’d moved to Manhattan to become models. I knew their kind all too well. Short of paying work, they spent their time stealing all the cute boys and the street photographers, and reminding we mere mortals of our place.

As I took my place and cursed my outdated pedi, fresh-faced stick insects whipped their shiny ponytails around and slipped into effortless splits to warm up. They touched their toes with a bored air, seemingly aware I hadn’t been able to do so since primary school. A gorgeous girl – who looked like she was used to being followed by MTV cameramen as she lunched, bludged through a fashion magazine internship and tearfully fought with her BFF at nightclubs – bounced to the front and began barking instructions in a somehow soothing way. Unfortunately for the uncoordinated (ie, me), these teachers offered plenty of verbal direction but not so much demonstration of the poses. I found myself scrambling to copy the girl next to me, somehow getting everything backwards and three seconds later than everyone else. It was like my first (and only) ballet recital back in 1991, all over again.

Here’s what you need to know about yoga in New York:

  1. Everyone is expert at it. Perhaps they are all indoctrinated at preschool or shipped off to camps under cover of date rape drugs in college? Or, perhaps more likely, the uncoordinated like me are so put off by the sheer perfection they never come back.
  2. Americans are much more earnest than us, and less prone to taking the piss out of each other. So all the things that seem too silly to do at home – loud expressive moaning, wildebeest-like grunts of release – are embraced wholeheartedly.
  3. Attend in summer and you will sweat like you have never sweated before. Sweat will pour down your every limb until each new down-faced dog seems like you’re risking a back injury. Your hair will somehow frizz and become greasily lanky at the same time. You will curse the shapely cheerleader urging you to hold the pose a little longer for not opening the windows. And this was NOT the Bikram class.
  4. There will be boys there. They will be cute. Some of them may even be straight.

By the end of the class I lay panting gratefully in a puddle of my own exertion as the teacher banged a gong, read an inspirational quote and finally let us be.

The assorted models rose gracefully refreshed, rolled up their mats and headed out to catch the Sartorialist’s eye with their rosily glowing (high-set) cheeks. I spent the subway ride home avoiding eye contact with anyone who might see my hair and wild-eyed look and take me for a demented cat lady. Pretty much like all subway rides, then.

A week later I decided to skip St Marks and try the Yoga To The People studio that had just opened in my Brooklyn neighbourhood, Williamsburg. You might have heard of it. It’s kind of like ground zero for hipsters. I hoped there would be less models. Sure enough, everyone was arriving 10 minutes late rather than 20 minutes early. There was more space and I felt less stressed about my chipped toenail polish. Here the girls were just as beautiful and flexible, but at least they had the decency to be tattooed DJ-slash-models and party-photographer-slash-models rather than just model-models.

I persisted with the Williamsburg studio. It was still gruelling, but at least I’d found a pool nearby in ghetto Bushwick, where I could cool down afterwards and feel like I was in a Jay Z video. Soon I found my favourite instructor, too. He had the most clichéd hipster drawl you’ve ever heard. Imagine Ira Glass, stoned, in drop-crotch fisherman pants and telling you to, like, just breathe through it? He dropped animal pose names like he was recording a Pitchfork podcast. But somehow he made those classes bearable, maybe because every now and then, beneath his ironic facade, he seemed to find the whole situation as hilarious as I did. And in my experience there are few things harder to find, anywhere in the world, than a yogi with a sense of humour.

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