I’ll admit it, I have attachment issues: To places, to people, to times of my life now shelved in gold and glittery boxes in my brain. Call it the Cancer sign in me, but I can wax nostalgic with the best of them, conjuring shinier, happier times (whether they were authentically so or not). But my yoga memories live in box all their own, on the highest shelf away from the others. They are unique in the sense that they are not always happy and joyful memories, but they are Real with a capital R.
The yoga box contains snapshots of me as a sobbing puddle in the middle of an emotionally charged hot yoga class in Boston, and also houses moments of euphoria as I bursted from studios near-floating down the sidewalk, feeling as light and buoyant as Buddha himself. From New York to Boston, and from Palm Springs to Paris, yoga has served as my well-worn security blanket, the common mat if you will, connecting all my life experiences into a neat little yoga bundle.
I should start by admitting that I don’t actually own a yoga mat. While some yogis swear by their trusty Gaiams and Mandukas, I somehow prefer to rent or borrow mats from the studios, imaging the hundreds of yogi toes and flattened palms that have pressed into those well-worn bamboo and rubber fibers. Plus I’ve always walked or taken public transportation just about everywhere I’ve lived, and prefer a streamlined commute, sans mat. In the beginning, before yoga regained its mass popularity, it was rare to own yoga swag anyway.
When I transferred to Simmons College in Boston in 2002, I was so pleased to finally find a college community where I felt both at home and safe; my Barnard days had been marred by the 9/11 tragedy a mere 10 days after my arrival in the Big Apple, and the city’s devastation continued to rumble at a low boil under the Manhattan sidewalks throughout my freshman year. And so Simmons brought me back to life. It was through a campus-wide program offering free extracurriculars that I discovered yoga that year: A short, semester-long series of intro-level classes offered in the campus dance studio (where, much to my dismay, no dance classes actually took place).
Instead, I sought solace in the near-lyrical flow through Warriors Ones and Downward Dogs, and at the conclusion of the series, found myself craving more. The instructor was from a Baptiste Power Yoga studio on Arlington St (Ahh-lington, according to the MBTA conductor), in downtown Boston, and it wasn’t long before the 2-mile trek there and back became my daily ritual 3-4 days a week. I can still close my eyes and place myself on the thinly worn, moss-green mats, the 100+ degree heat and humidity enveloping me like an everlasting embrace, and the sweet, pungent smell of Nag Champa incense and sweat mingling pleasantly in the hallway and stairwell. That particular studio shut down quite a few years ago, but I could conjure it up in a heartbeat, a mirage of a studio hovering on the backside of Vigo’s Italian Deli, behind frosted glass windows. It was during that time that the studio owner, Baron Baptiste, was a celebrity yogi on the rise, and so he would still come to personally teach classes once or twice a month, instructing us in his slightly nasal and yet oddly hypnotic voice: “Don’t think, just sink,” he would croon, as we settled into an intense Crescent Moon pose, shoulder to perspiring shoulder.
Ironically, my favorite Boston yoga memory comes from one New Year’s that I spent in a midnight class at the Baptiste studio across the Charles River, in Cambridge – the only time I ever visited that particular space. It must have been hovering in the single digits outside but inside, 100 yogis were packed into the steamy room that easily reached 115+ degrees F by the end of the 90-minute class. At the stroke of midnight, as the class concluded in 3 rounds of chanting Om, the doors to the studio were swung wide and steam rushed out and upward into the frigid starry night in great, rolling cotton candy waves. To passersby it must have looked like a house on fire, but the sidewalk studded with glistening bodies parred down to their sports bras and shorts told a different story. Those Baptiste studios were also the first space where I acknowledged deep, painful wounds that were fueling my eating disorder in those years, and though I was still many more years away from seeking meaningful, life-changing help, those many, many mats, each holding an anthology of stories to which they had silently and solidly born witness, were the very first step to finding peace.
My 2005 migration to Santa Barbara at the age of 22 necessitated a grand change in my yoga life. No longer did I have my warm cocoon of a studio to serve as a safe incubator for the adult I was slowly becoming. Emerging from the chrysalis, I made my way from the humble, welcoming walls of the single-room Source Yoga studio on De La Vina St behind the laundromat, to the church-like sanctuary of Santa Barbara Yoga Center, to the sunny studios and whimsical ways of Eddie Ellner’s Yoga Soup, tucked away on tiny Parker Way. Several years into my SB stay, Power of Your Om, an affiliate Baptiste Studio, opened and provided a brief moment of familiarity and a link to my past, but I quickly discovered that what I thought I had been searching to reclaim all along was actually right where it belonged: In the past. I was ready for the next phase of my yoga journey, but it would take several more years of exploring various teachers and studios (even discarding yoga entirely for a year to try Bar Method classes, in hopes of recapturing an even earlier period of my ballet life), until I alighted on Divinitree, a yoga studio that opened in Santa Cruz and spread its wings to Santa Barbara in the Summer of 2013.
Initially, I was leery of the goddess paintings splashed on the walls of the studio, and feared an almost cult-like experience with too much pagan ritual for my New England sensibilities. What I have come to learn is that Divinitree is like a giant smorgaasboard, allowing you to create the yoga experience you choose. Don’t know what you want? Even better; you are free to create something entirely new that you didn’t even know existed, changing yourself in deep and powerful ways in the process. I have tried out more rituals, chants, breath work, and meditations in 2 short years than I ever imagined I would invest in in a lifetime, and it as been my saving grace all over again. For at the core, it is still simply yoga: Body and breath, on a mat (not my own!), in a studio set up for the sole purpose of housing the weary, the athletic, the curious, the broken, and the reborn, for a few cleansing hours a week.