Taking a flexible approach to what is yoga
From Acro to Broga, niche offshoots have been designed to attract people who might not practice on their own
‘Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets, trying to find you.” So say magnets on display at the Breathing Room yoga studio in Harvard Square.
It needn’t look far. I’m lying on a mat, slightly reluctant to move, as instructor Justin Bernold — a sanguine, self-described “recovering lawyer” — lulls students into a lucid, relaxing yogic sleep called yoga nidra. Come and get me, happiness! Or, hey, at least grab me a pillow?
I’m on a mission to evaluate some of the Boston area’s quirkier yoga classes. Yoga itself has existed for thousands of years, an ancient practice that links breath to movement for improved health and deeper relaxation.
But today, yoga has spawned dozens of subvarieties that incorporate a whole range of other cultural phenomena. There’s AcroYoga, blending yoga with acrobatics; Broga, a registered term for classes tailored to yoga-shy men (and women); and hip-hop yoga, where students can work out to the beats of Jay Z and Beyoncé. There are classes for people who want to practice atop paddleboards, while performing karaoke, and even alongside their pets.
I’d always thought of yoga as the provenance of beatific, pretzel-like souls with positive outlooks and unbelievable posture. In fact, I’d flirted with it for years at my local Arlington studio, Black Crow. I felt refreshed after each session, limber and relaxed, but let’s face it: Most of the time I put on yoga pants, it was for comfort, not to down dog. I was either too busy, too distracted, or too inflexible to find a long-term groove.
These yoga hybrids seemed designed for people like me. Yoga is a state of mind and awareness — as flexible as its postures — and these niche offshoots are intended to attract people who might not practice on their own.
“People do yoga and realize that it’s a life-enhancing practice: You’re more sensitive, aware, or more present for a conversation; maybe food tastes sweeter. People find yoga enhances their hobbies, whether you’re a foodie or a kayaker,” says Micah Mortali, director of Stockbridge’s Kripalu Schools of Yoga and Ayurveda. Ergo: Yoga on poles or set to the rhymes of Snoop Lion.
I start with yoga nidra, because the practice is physically soothing yet mentally challenging. (“Nidra” refers to sleep in Sanskrit, a fact not lost on my sweat-shy self.) A fundamental part of yoga is connecting intimately to the body’s sensations, something Bernold gently encourages us to do while lying flat on our mats.
“In yoga nidra, you’re not just your body. You are your breath, your energy. Then there is a layer past there, like a Russian doll. Body, breath, energy, emotion and sensation, consciousness where you notice, say, that your ears are hearing — and then a sense of oneness with the universe,” Bernold explains to me later.
“Find a sanctuary within yourself,” Bernold murmurs as we lie still. “You are staring at a lotus flower, and inside the flower is a baby” — at this point, my eyes open wide — “and the baby is being rocked by the mother ocean. And the baby is you.”
Bernold must notice that I’m staring at the ceiling contemplating diapers, because he places a soft pillow atop my eyes. We end the hourlong practice with stretches, eyes still shut. Then he moves across the room, rustling a bag.
“Raise your hand if you’re vegan. Raise your hand if you’re nut-free. Raise your hand if you’re gluten-free,” he purrs. Then he takes an aromatic pastry from the bag and places it in my outstretched mitts.
“Chocolate,” he murmurs. “From a cafe, just down the street. How does the texture feel? How does it smell? What do you think it is?” Too late: I have broken concentration and inhaled the treat. Thankfully, this is a judgment-free zone.
Upon leaving, Bernold bounds over, smiling. “You might want to try this next,” he says, pressing a pamphlet for a class dubbed “Yoga for the Modern Jedi” into my hands.
I’m not ready to become a Jedi warrior quite yet. Instead, I try out a hip-hop yoga class at Back Bay Yoga. Instructors here sometimes teach accompanied by a live DJ spinning house music; I also spot an ad for a class in Yoga for Emotional Resilience.
Though I fear I’ll be asked to twerk like a tone-deaf Nicki Minaj, the reality is calmer. Instructor Kate Robinson creates a playlist that bounces from Paul Simon (hip-hop? who knew?) to Biz Markie, and save for a few rubbery souls doing handstands mid-class, everything proceeds smoothly. Recognizable songs make time pass fast — the lyric “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you” takes on new meaning while upside down — and Robinson is more a genial coach than an “American Idol” critic.
“Lift up those feet like you’re trying to fit an old credit card under there!” she urges at one point. Finally, a workout I can relate to.
I find myself more out of my depth at an evening Broga class at Medford’s Borealis Community Yoga studio. With several certified Broga teachers, Borealis is known in the yoga community as Greater Boston’s Broga hub — a place where limber dudes can flex without feeling feminine. The style was created by Martha’s Vineyard native Robert Sidoti to make yoga more accessible to men, though the instructors welcome both genders.
“It’s hard for guys to go to regular yoga. There can be societal misconceptions, or men might think they’re not flexible. The goal is to get men more in tune with their bodies and play to their strengths,” says Borealis instructor Tim Griffin.
I half-expected a bunch of guys sipping beer on mats. Instead, there’s a slight majority of men with a number of women mixed in, all staring intently at our instructor. Griffin is encouraging but direct, an even-keeled coach presiding over a softly lit room. There are no bouncy pep talks or funky beats. We’re led through challenging sequences accompanied by a folksy rock soundtrack. Each new movement is geared toward the male anatomy; twisty postures are replaced with hamstring stretches and lunges.
All is fine until we arrive at the burpee portion of the evening. In this Brogafied take on a common workout move, we move from standing to squatting to a plank position, pushing a folded blanket to and fro along the floor with our feet all the while. My mat-mates power through with ease. I end up splayed on the hardwood like a deranged chicken.
Instead of being embarrassed, though, I’m able to laugh it off. Even if my athletic ability hasn’t changed overnight, my attitude has, thanks in large part to the buoyant atmosphere. Around me, my classmates leave the room pumped and aglow — including two dudes who high-five each other like they’ve just won the Super Bowl.
Happiness has found me, indeed. And, for all their modern twists, the permutations I try convince me that yoga doesn’t need to be intimidating. In fact, it may be the most egalitarian workout around.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned from yoga is that it’s OK to fall on my butt and laugh about it,” says Bernold, the former lawyer.
It resonates. Today, burpees. Tomorrow, perhaps, Beyoncé.