Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Social Movement of Movement

Twin Cities Yoga Creatively Connects Minds and Bodies

Illustration by Lisa Luck
Illustration by Lisa Luck.

Rock Om,  Rock On

On a March Saturday, a crowd gathered outside First Avenue. It was an archetypal image of the Twin Cities, except that there were no tickets, no bands, and each person under the Avenue’s trademark stars held a yoga mat. The throng was let inside to unroll their mats onto the expansive black floors, clean of the previous night’s sweat and beer. It was a diverse crowd with a connecting passion. Couples set their mats next to each other; strangers met mid-stretch; toddlers watched their mothers assume yogic positions and made games out of tiptoeing along the open floor space between yoga mats.

A word-of-mouth wonder, Gorilla Yogis is a monthly gathering of yoga enthusiasts in unlikely places, bringing yoga “out of captivity and roaming the urban jungle.” The brainchild of Jes Rosenberg and Nan Gane Arundel, two local and seasoned yogis, Gorilla Yogis holds events for practitioners of every level in arenas like the Guthrie or Target Field rather than traditional studios.

“Like attracts like,” Rosenberg says, referring to the crowds at Gorilla Yogis events, each one drawing between 75 and 250 people; over 120 showed up for the inaugural event in March 2010. But “like,” when it comes to yogis in the Twin Cities at least, is pretty broad. Rosenberg recalls a Gorilla Yogis event where two parents did yoga around their swaddled baby while nearby elderly yogis practiced in jeans or simply watched from a chair, each yogi connected to the others in the space not just through the postures—though a yoga practice often bears striking resemblance to choreographed dance—but through synchronized breath, simultaneous relaxation, a common movement toward a common goal of unity and community through a largely personal and private act.

With no formal advertising, its momentum sustained solely by social media and word of mouth, Gorilla Yogis really is a grassroots social movement, channeling the Twin Cities’ passion for yoga into fundraising for local nonprofits. A new charity benefits from each monthly gathering. And the charity is the only one with a monetary gain in this venture; a suggested donation of $10 is asked of attendees, and those running the event make no profit.

At First Avenue, with a few inevitable jokes about the last time they were sweaty and half-clothed at the venue, an assortment of local yoga instructors lead the standing-on-your-mat-room-only crowd in an hour-long yoga practice, to tunes spun by a live deejay. It would mark the first time that anyone held a yoga class inside the Twin Cities landmark, and the first time that many of the yogis present had ever held a downward facing dog to the lyrical stylings of First Avenue superstar Prince.

The positive, almost celebratory, energy in the room was palpable. But what was being celebrated? Creative yoga instruction? Philanthropy? Prince?

On some level, the event embodied the unique, nearly contradictory experience yoga offers the contemporary urban world. An inherently individual practice, it is also largely communal. It is about looking inward, but also connecting with everything outside oneself. It is exercising your physical body, but quieting your mind.

“Yoga is a way to center yourself and be drawn inward, yet you’re going into a studio with a bunch of people,” Rosenberg said.

Stress-free Sweating of the Small Stuff

About six years ago, at the close of my college career, I first started practicing yoga. It was held in our campus group fitness room, which was usually the scene of athletic undergrads sweating to pulsing dance music to prime their nubile bodies for sweating to pulsing dance music in different venues in no less revealing outfits. Yoga was the first place anyone ever told me to concentrate on my toes—really think about them. I had grown up a dancer, but up until then, it was “point” or “flex”; no one had ever asked me to contemplate my toes. Or to breathe: really listen to it, slow it down, count it out, feel it in your belly,
b r e a t h e.

When I tried to describe why I was so instantly and fully hooked, why I kept returning to this class, why I had purchased my own yoga mat and was willing to pay the $7 for each session (a veritable fortune for a college student in a town with bars that boasted $3 all-you-can-drink nights), the only thing that made sense was to say that at the end of each class I felt like I had gotten a really great workout and taken a really great nap at the same time.

I understand that feeling now as centering. Yoga can be a really great workout, but so is kickboxing/tennis/water aerobics/rollerblading/chasing after your dog/toddler/runaway shopping cart. Many workouts get you huffing and puffing enough to blow a house down; yoga asks you to breathe deeply, slowly, and through the nose.

Breathing is something we do constantly and generally not consciously. But that is exactly why it isn’t trivial, says Rosenberg, an E-RYT 500 Yoga Alliance yoga teacher. Most people, most of the time, use only about 20 percent of their lung capacity to breathe. In yoga, you take real, full, deep breaths through your nose, releasing endorphins (the “happy hormone”). Breathing through your mouth, on the other hand, triggers the fight or flight response; less happy, more panic.

Full-time local yoga instructor Bre Atkinson teaches at CorePower, Sigh Yoga, and LA Fitness. A fan of setting her yoga classes to soundtracks featuring the likes of Dessa and Devotchka, Atkinson has found a veritable groove in the experience of yoga. Over soulful melodies and modern beats, she reminds her students to breathe, to let go, unclench jaws, uncurl toes, while at the same time putting their bodies in positions foreign, strange, or uncomfortable. She talks about yoga as a way of taking control of what is controllable in your mind and body.

Your mind and your body are related, of course, and connected closely by stress. And we are, if you haven’t noticed, living in a fairly stressful time, what with widespread economic uncertainty, a couple wars, $4/gallon gas prices, and the prophesied end of time just over a year away. With the stress-reducing effects of yoga, it should come as no surprise that the practice has become so popular.

“Physiologically, you can control certain parts of your body,” Atkinson says. “Your breath is really fascinating because it works by itself without you and then you also have control over it. But if you can really harness and engage the breath, overall you just begin to feel better because you’re detoxing your body naturally… One of my really great teacher friends said this to me the other day: ‘Your body doesn’t know the difference between you bouncing your rent check—that anxiety—and you running away from a lion—that anxiety.’ It doesn’t really know the difference. Anxiety is anxiety. When you get anxious or stressed or upset, your body starts to pump blood more quickly, the fight or flight syndrome turns on, your body starts to salvage fat and hold onto sugar so that you can use it for running away from a lion when really you just want to go home and eat a pizza and maybe watch a crime show… Your body doesn’t really know the difference, but your mind does… So that’s why you talk to people who run or people who bike or people who practice yoga and they feel a lot better afterward. It’s because they’re actually utilizing that energy for a purpose.”

Asanas for Toddlers: Connecting Mind with Body at the Beginning of Life

Sarah McKenzie, editor at the Journal and Southwest Journal, writes Twin Cities Yogi, a “hub for news and musings about the yoga community in the Twin Cities and elsewhere.” The blog was born in 2009 out of a genuine personal curiosity to explore and connect the local yoga scene. McKenzie, who practices at CorePower, wanted to know who else in the Twin Cities felt the same way, where the yoga studios were, and what the stories were behind their beginnings. Her hunch was right: the yoga community here is booming, and it’s tackling just about every market there is. Yoga is popping up in elementary schools and senior centers; there are yoga book clubs and clubs like Gorilla Yogis that take yoga and its practitioners to unusual places. There really are no age or ability limitations; there are not just prenatal yoga classes, but also parent-baby yoga classes and toddler classes.

Toddler yoga harnesses the practice’s more free-spirited and interpretive elements. With poses with names like downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog, cat, cow, and frog, the practice seems suited to the toddler staple: games with animal noises.

“Kids don’t need yoga. They don’t; they’re perfect,” says Colleen LaSota, whose yoga and wellness studio Four Gates offers a variety of classes for the very young. “But it’s a way of introducing them, planting the seed in their mind that a yoga studio is a place where you can come and have fun.”

Jes Rosenberg created The Adventures of Super Stretch, a yoga based fitness program for ages 2 and up in 2001. She also teaches a monthly kids yoga class at the Om Collective and held a kids yoga practice at the Current’s Rock the Cradle. Rosenberg refers to doing yoga with kids as “chaos theory at its finest.” Two-year-olds can’t be expected to breathe in unison or stay confined to a two-by-six mat on the floor for any length of time. Child and toddler yoga, by necessity, involves a lot of games and general silliness. But it goes deeper than that, Rosenberg says. She sees a real purpose behind introducing the elements of yoga to children, besides play and fitness.

“Yoga’s all about compassion. We have to be compassionate to ourselves in order to be compassionate to others,” she said.

Rosenberg cites the first principal of yoga, ahimsa. It is the principal of nonviolence, a continual focus on right thought, right speech, and right action. Yoga, after all, is about harmony and balance, within oneself and within the greater community. For yogis of any age, the practice is a way of tapping into who you are, finding a balanced center, and taking that out into the world.

A Connecting Practice: Finding Community as a Solo Yogi

As yoga has become a bona fide industry, you no longer need a guru or yoga instructor to practice. All you need is a DVD player and a space wide enough for a yoga mat in front of your TV. But there’s something about the yoga on DVD thing that just doesn’t vibe with the rest of the culture. At first you think maybe it’s the fact that after using the DVD a few times, you have the soundtrack memorized, anticipating when the spandexed instructor, practicing on a color coordinated yoga mat between a babbling brook and a lotus flower, would elongate the second a in chaturanga or stumble over the number seven in a countdown, experiencing the DVD yoga practice like an overplayed pop song. Trying a fresh DVD is similarly disappointing. You quickly realize that it isn’t the predictability of the sounds and sequence: the atmosphere is wrong. You are alone in your living room; there is no community of yogis around you. For a practice that’s so much about going inward, it seems like this shouldn’t matter. But it does. You go inward to improve how you are able to interact with the world, or go outward. It is solitary, and yet it’s not at all.

Sarah McKenzie said she found a common thread in her talks with different members of the local yoga community, namely that when you get right down to it, yoga really does make everything else a little bit easier. I have heard many a yoga instructor say: yoga meets you where you’re at. It may just be the most accepting friend you’ll ever have. It prepares you, mind and body, for the mundane reality of stress and pressure, and simultaneously offers a temporary respite from those things as well.

We are all flawed and there may be no one among us who can take a zen approach to everything all the time, but yoga at least prescribes a different point of view.

“I could get really stressed out…and sometimes I still do because I’m human; sometimes I get pissed and I’m yelling in traffic–but…being a yoga practitioner…has changed how I look at stuff. It just changes how you look at stuff,” Bre Atkinson says.

Predating written history, yoga’s certainly not a new thing in the world, and it’s not a new thing in the Twin Cities either. But we’ve hit a yoga boom in the metro, with new yoga studios cropping up in nearly every neighborhood, and throngs of new yoga enthusiasts ready and willing to join.

In the beginning, many of us can’t verbalize why we choose to do it. We don’t yet understand it ourselves. There’s a plugging in in the unplugging, a connection in the inward reflection. It’s like McKenzie says: when you’re doing yoga, you’re not checking your phone, you’re not sending a tweet—and maybe it’s as simple as that. It’s taking a step back to take a step forward.

We are living in a high anxiety time of rapid-fire technology changes and constant social networking. The conscious or subconscious craving for yoga stems from what’s conspicuously absent from so many of our lives today: grounding and true connectedness—to oneself and to the ever-growing community of practitioners.

Just so you know: A Twin Cities Runoff crew member works with CorePower Yoga, but she had no influence in the origin or editorial process of this story.

Ashle Briggs Horton is a freelance writer. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and a cat named Bijou.

Lisa Luck is a fine artist and illustrator located in the Twin Cities.She is currently showing Flower Face painting series and Zodiac prints at Caffetto Café on Lyndale Avenue.