Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Yoga Made Hard

Michael and I have been taking yoga classes off and on for about three years. On for five or six months, off for five or six months, then on again and so forth. The reasons we haven't been consistent has been lack of easy access to classes. Getting programs in our neighborhood has been spotty, with our yoga provider of choice, Texas Yoga Center, trying to establish a presence in Cypress and pulling out twice because of logistics problems or classes too small to support the venture.

For the last several months, we have had yoga at an outpost they set up at Natural Retreat and Spa about two miles from our house. You can't get much more convenient than that. The spa is what I would call a beauty shop, with the availability of massage services, facials, and other personal indulgences. Nowadays, that makes a beauty shop a spa. Perhaps my trip to Costa Rica and experiences at actual natural retreats with spas included has jaded me.

The people who work at the spa are very nice, though, and speak to us pleasantly when we come and go. They know our names. And they made over two small rooms into a large yoga room, which I appreciate. Taking classes at the outpost has been unpredictable. Who would be the teacher tonight? It could be any of several regulars or a completely unknown substitute. How many people would be there tonight? We might find a crowded room with eight or more people or it might just be Michael and I get a private lesson. The Texas Yoga Center decided that they couldn't live with the stress of these difficulties, so they pulled out the second time in eighteen months.

Their original location, where we started three years ago, is in Copperfield, our home community twenty years ago. It is perhaps eight miles away from us now, but the traffic between the two locations is terrible and it takes longer than it should to get there. We are often going to evening classes and by the time Michael gets home from work, we have dinner, and change into yoga clothes, we can't always get there on time. It just doesn't work very well for us and we want to be closer to home.

The spa people decided they would try to have their own yoga program, a good idea if for no other reason than they remodeled their shop and people were used to coming there. Unfortunately, they cut back classes to two evenings a week and no Saturdays. Taking classes two days apart with a five-day gap before the next class is not ideal, but the teacher they got, Jessica, is delightful and one of the best we've had, so we are trying to adapt. Jessica is quiet and encourages rather than pushes. She moves about the classes, adjusting poses, offering suggestions for more comfortable ways of getting into the same pose. She is very aware of different students' limitations and protects us from tackling poses that are too challenging.

Still, the Natural Retreat and Spa is still a beauty shop first. They cancelled this Monday's class because the stylists all went to a conference on Sunday and Monday, and no one wanted to come by and open up the shop that evening. In fact, the beauty shop is never open on Mondays, and the Monday classes are in constant jeopardy due to the inconvenience it causes for them.

Our yoga journey has progressed to the point where we feel deprived if we don't get classes on a regular basis, so Michael decided to try some other yoga studio. He searched a bit and found one three or four easy miles away and we tried it last night. Wow, it was the fanciest yoga studio I ever saw, occupying an entire very nice, very new home. (For non-locals, the Houston area doesn't believe in zoning, so if you are not in a planned community with deed restrictions, anything goes property-wise.)

The owner, Sharon, greeted us warmly. The interior had an open floor plan, displaying nice furnishing - professional, but cozy - and walls filled with shelves of every kind of Ayurvedic, alternative medicine, and yogic cultural items you could imagine. Sharon asked us to fill out new student forms, and then invited us on a tour of the establishment. (I should add, by way of clarification, that Michael had talked to her on the phone earlier in the day and told her about our various medical issues and limitations, including the fact that I have lupus.)

Sharon told us she practiced Ayurvedic medicine. She showed us her office, complete with a table for patients draped in an Indian print cloth. She showed us the kitchen, where green tea was available at all times and encouraged us to stay after class for tea and conversation with other students. She introduced us to four students sitting together and talking before class. She showed us another exam and treatment room for her practices of alternative medicine. Its walls were covered with bottles of herbs and pills neatly stacked on shelves. She took us down the hallway to another room that had, oddly, I thought, twin beds and regular bedroom furniture.

"This is for patients in detox," she said, adding that they offered a 21-day cleansing program. "Also, we have guest teachers who use it and sometimes our students just need a break from their home lives and they can come here to get away for a bit." Then, smooth as silk, she said, "You can detox here when you're ready. It is great for lupus."

The tour continued. What would have been a three-car garage was the yoga studio, very nicely equipped and full of students. We put our yoga mats on the shelves she indicated and continued the tour, seeing, on the opposite side of the house, rooms dedicated to massage and other types of personal care services such as color therapy and Reiki.  As we walked back towards the yoga studio, Sharon said, "Today you may watch me to see what I am doing and after that you keep your eyes closed during class." Tour finally complete, we went back to the yoga studio to prepare for class while Sharon changed clothes.

Michael and I each use two mats when we do yoga. We learned almost immediately in our yoga adventure that old knees do not like hard floors and we found it difficult to tolerate the hands-and-knees work without some extra help. We also each had a foam mat, the type one uses for gardening, to use on particularly knee-unfriendly poses, like cat/cow stretches. As we rolled our double mats, an unknown person in the back of the room called out, "Look, two mats!"

Not knowing if I was being addressed or laughed at, I answered as cheerily as I could, "Old knees need two mats." After a brief titter, the students began talking to each other again and no one except Sharon spoke to us the rest of the evening. Sitting there on my mat, I noticed that as students arrived they went to the cupboard and picked up large bolsters and woven blankets. Not knowing why, I just watched. I figured Sharon would tell us what we needed to know.

That proved to be incorrect. The bolsters were put into use almost immediately, so I got up during the practice and retrieved one for myself and another for Michael. We knew many of the poses Sharon included in the practice. She flowed from one pose to another at a quick pace, did not move among us adjusting poses as we had been used to, and directed us to do a number poses I had never seen before or considered doing in my wildest dreams. Balancing on one leg is okay and I can do that fairly well. Holding the raised leg straight out in front is more difficult, but I gave it the good old college try. Folding the extended leg back to the body and laying it on the opposite thigh exceeded my abilities considerably. Bending the entire body over into a one-legged front fold sent me into a seated pose on my mat, waiting for reason to return to the room.

I couldn't see many other students, so I don't know how well they did on these things, but Sharon very easily and smoothly performed a series of yogic feats that simply defeated me. The culmination came when she had us extend from a seated lotus position - feet placed on top of the opposite thighs - and place the top of our heads on the floor. I am actually quite limber, so I could do that. Then she had us rock forward so we were on our hands, our knees and our heads, still in a lotus position. Next, the legs unfolded and the knees went to the elbows. I quit there, while Sharon went on to stand on her hands and head while her body balanced above her.

Thankfully, the session ended shortly thereafter. Sharon directed us into corpse pose - laid out on one's back, feet dropped to the side and arms alongside the body, palms up. It is the ultimate relaxation pose in yoga and at that moment, my sweaty, stressed body felt entirely corpse-like. She instructed us to cover ourselves. Ah, that was what the woven blankets were for. Not long after Sharon dimmed all the lights, I felt the soft caress of a blanket cover me from chest to toes. It felt nice.

When class was over, I looked around the shelves while Michael paid our fees. The merchandise included stones and crystals, prayer wheels, yoga mats, Ayurvedic soap, herbs, yoga clothing, and many other items related to yoga, Ayurveda, and alternative medicine. As soon as Michael had paid, we left. We were both quiet. I didn't want to find out that Michael loved the place, because I felt profoundly unsettled by it. He asked me what I thought; I bounced the question back to him. In the end, all I could think of to sum up my feelings was, "She's no Jessica."

When we arrived home five minutes later, I turned on my iPad to check email. I had some new messages, including one from Sharon. She welcomed me to yoga class and offered several other services available for purchase at her studio. "Look at this," I said to Michael. He looked and shrugged, replying, "Well, she is in business." The Natural Retreat and Spa is in business, too. And Texas Yoga Center is in business. I just never noticed it when I did business with them.

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