All-male yoga and the quest for comfort
When I was assigned to cover all-male yoga at Shaare Torah Congregation last week, my initial thought was what to wear. As a runner, I have drawers of neon shirts promising both visibility and breathability. Similarly, my running shorts are designed to increase flexibility and performance. Believing that an hour of yoga would be akin to a light jog, I donned a short-sleeve shirt, running shorts and a base layer of running tights — we were going to be indoors, and with so much leg exposure I didn’t know whether I would get cold.
Having never done yoga, I had no idea what to expect.
When I arrived at the synagogue on lower Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill on Wednesday, June 1, I was told to head upstairs to the main sanctuary’s anteroom. Apparently, by choice, the room was sweltering. I quickly realized that humidity and tights were not the best combination.
Apart from me, there were five other men in attendance, including Daniel Wasserman, rabbi of Shaare Torah Congregation.
“I have been wanting to do yoga for a long time, both for flexibility and stress management,” Wasserman said.
Prior to this evening, Wasserman had attended men-only yoga at the Kingsley Association in East Liberty. There, he met Felicia Lane Savage, our instructor and founder of YogaRoots on Location.
“Rabbi Daniel is very progressive,” Savage told me during my sweat session at Shaare Torah.
With a voice that belies her name, Savage’s tones were so soothing that even unfamiliar instructions resounded in relaxing ways.
“Focus on your nostrils,” she said. “Notice the air as it’s coming out of your nostrils.”
Until that moment, my nostrils only received attention during allergy season; though for the sake of the story I was ready to pay them additional due.
“Exhale fully and completely.”
This one was easy.
“Slowly transition to your hands and knees.”
That also was not too bad.
“Pretend you’re a sloth.”
And this is where things started to go downhill. While I was lying on my mat, I started panicking. Thinking back to the Wildlife Treasury cards that I had somehow accumulated as a child, I couldn’t remember the difference between an anteater and a sloth. Was there a difference? Was one a quadruped? Am I supposed to have claws, and why do I keep thinking of porcupines?
For no reason whatsoever, I contoured my body like a roly poly. With my head tucked between my knees and the heat index reaching unmeasurable levels, I again regretted wearing tights.
“Make sure on yoga days you drink water,” she told us.
Note to self: Next time bring a straw that connects to the nearby water fountain; constant fluids are necessary.
For nearly an hour, Savage worked us with animal-themed directives.
“Cobra, downward facing dog, high push-up, downward facing dog, cobra …”
I didn’t realize my friend Dave was going to be in the class. I don’t know if he is a yoga expert, but while I was trying to move my mat farther to the back in an effort to hide, Dave was killing every move. It was like being 13 years old at a bar mitzvah party: Marcia Griffiths comes on and it’s time for the electric slide. As you’re sipping your Shirley Temple off in the corner, you see your only friend from Hebrew School somehow in the middle of the dance floor wearing neon sunglasses and a Hawaiian lei above his silk shirt. He’s holding the DJ’s microphone, there is a dancer nearby, and the two of them are screaming out loud, “But you can’t choose it, it’s electric. Boogie woogie, woogie.”
Interrupting my humiliation was Savage’s tranquilizing command, “Now we are going to do the whole vinyasa.”
Or as I translated it, “Adam, it is a good time to take pictures for the article.”
Before the class concluded, Savage gave us other instructions: Engage your common sense; struggling is not yoga; and notice the gentle rise and fall of your belly button.
The wisdom of these words was only part of what I kept in mind beneath my sopping red, white and blue headband.
“Getting in touch with our bodies is getting in touch with our spirits,” Wasserman told me at the end of our class.
“People get nervous that yoga comes from Eastern traditions, but if you look at our traditions, we see that we put it into the context of our traditions, and the namaste is one example.”
On a handout that Wasserman distributed to the group, he wrote:
“Namaste is a greeting that means ‘I bow to you.’ It is a recognition of a divine spark within each person. It is an idea that the Torah and Jewish life understands and has taught for thousands of years. As stated in Breishis 1:27: ‘Hashem created man with His image, in the image of Hashem He created him, male and female he created them.’ So, Namaste is a recognition of what we call the “tzelem elokim” in each person.”
“What I want them to be is be in their bodies,” Savage told me of what she aspires her students to attain. People should have a greater sense of “being comfortable in their bodies.”
Although achieving comfort in sweat-drenched clothes seemed personally challenging, I exited Shaare Torah and entered my car. As I headed up Murray Avenue, I listened to the sweet synthesizing sounds of Europe, the 1980s Swedish rock band. As I sang aloud to the chorus and pumped my sweatband-clad arms in the air, I realized with greater sense (perhaps due to yoga, perhaps due to the onslaught of air conditioning) that this was the apex of achieving comfort.
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.