“We’re talking about practice.” These famous words from former NBA star Allen Iverson speak volumes to the sort of person and player he was. Games and the big stage were important to him, missing a few practices had no effect on the game in his mind. Ask anyone who knew Michael Jordan personally in his playing years and they’ll usually use one word to describe his practice habits: maniacal. Now Iverson was amazing, and great at times, but Jordan is considered the greatest. Why? He eliminated flaws in practice until he was beating teams with his brain more than his physical gifts. To Jordan and the greatest athletes, practice holds more importance than games because it is where all of the tools are sharpened.
In terms of practice, 2011 has been a very full year for me. I took minimal rest days, explored the wonderful world of perfecting calesthenics, ran distances I was once scared to try, and I tried out a few yoga studios. The yoga held it all together, and I wrote some reviews and really refined my idea of a good place to practice yoga. In choosing the latest studio I’m reviewing, I really took the time to pick a place the would be convenient, challenging, friendly, and full of high-level yogis. Without fully accepting it, I was looking for a permanent studio.
Mike's focus was built in practice, where all the great things happen
I’ve worked near New York Yoga (@NewYorkYoga on Twitter) for over a year, and I’d always seen the HOT HOT HOT sign for it on Eighty-fifth Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and thought “I’m a robot, Bikram is the only hot yoga,” and dismissed it as a knockoff. I say this as if I was well schooled on various yoga styles at the time. Then I got to experience hot vinyasa yoga, first at Hot Yoga New Jersey in Westwood, NJ then at Yoga Sutra (R.I.P.), in addition to a bevy of other positive yoga experiences and emerged wanting different things from yoga than I once did. I honestly didn’t know what my practice was or why I did it or how really dedicated to it and its reasons I was. After a month at New York Yoga, I knew my reasons, and I’d found a studio to begin my first real yoga practice.
Before going there, I read a review that said both New York Yoga studios (there is a non-heated studio on Eighty-sixth Street and York Avenue) had inexperienced teachers, and at times, I’ve found this to be true, especially in the donation based “yogi’s choice” classes, although it matters so little to the overall picture of my practice. My practice is first about surrender, and the roundabout focus that comes from it. I surrender to every teacher because they are leading and they will hold more knowledge than me until I am a teacher, when I will respect them as a peer and surrender to them just the same in a class. If you can’t surrender to your yoga, then you’re a yoga snob. That means that anything out of the ordinary will disturb your yoga and even if your practice is deep, it is not built on granite-like focus. Yoga wasn’t created for you, it exists within you. (Like an internal version of a higher power, it is the higher power of you) Besides, this isn’t big business like YogaWorks, and although I love YogaWorks, yoga snobbery is a little counter-productive.
New York Yoga doesn’t have yoga snobs, and you can bet you’ll get a warm smile out of any staff member or student that you make eye contact with. Warm, friendly, cuddly, fuzzy, it is one of those places. Businesses, teams, everything has and builds its own culture. Yoga studios are not only in this group, but culture seems to be the deciding factor in students becoming regular members. At all fitness facilities that ask for the members’ discrectionary income, regular membership hinges upon the things that make the place: What is the philosophy of the place? What sort of yogi or fit person is the place’s overall style trying to build? How is the individual member or student treated? What does the staff accept from students or members and what do they not accept? Are the classes challenging or basic? Before this year, when I’d start at a new studio I would never ask these questions, now I’m totally concerned with the answers to these questions meeting my standards.
Hard to miss where the hot yoga is.
At New York Yoga, the answers and their culture meet my needs. I go to the hot studio. The teachers are friendly and helpful. No teacher I’ve had has shied away from aiding with sweaty adjustments for anyone. The teachers are all also very secure in their own practices and philosophies. Rachel Page leads the class in chants. Kelly Stackhouse has you place fingers where the action is happening, whether that’s breath in action or thoughts in action. Peyton Biederman’s class is slow and deliberate. Sometimes a teacher has been late or absent, substitutes show up with their own methods, and it is easy to continue to build the practice the same as one always does even though sequences will be different.
The resounding element of the culture of this place lies in the amount of regular practices I see developing. At other places I’ve been, friendships and cliques are not built on yoga. Maybe people will meet over conversation about how much they dislike a particular teacher or pose. Maybe they will be reacting to something outside of the yoga: “Didn’t the traffic suck on the way here today? When will this rain stop?” Maybe the room was just too hot and two deep complainers might form a bond of weakness and be friends for life because they shared in their reactions. At New York Yoga, friendships seem to be built on frequency of practice, and what that builds is a community of yogis respecting yogis. With Bikram Yoga, a branded hot yoga designed specifically to lure in the ill-focused and uncultured American, teachers and students alike are judgmental, superficial, and harsh, all because this is what sells to the individual American who practices yoga to lose weight. With most other styles, and New York Yoga’s philosophy fits into this mold, the student is respected and trusted as a human being. Only the student knows how much he or she is struggling, and based on their practice, they know if they need to take a break, drink some water, or leave the room. Bikram Choudhury tells his trainees in so many words to never trust the student to be honest about their practice and abilities on that day. In a little over a month at New York Yoga, I’ve attended only one class where every student stayed for the entire class, and while students leaving during class was to me blasphemy at one point, I now accept and trust anyone who leaves to use the bathroom, take in some cool air, or calm their nausea is doing so only after giving full effort to their practice. This shared trust is everywhere and given the difficult nature of the yoga (no matter the teacher, classes at the hot studio are challenging), it is generally understood when someone “doesn’t have it” that day and had to check out early.
I know Bikram teachers who would call the action of leaving the room during class or drinking water during a posture both soft and disrespectful of other students. But that’s because nothing motivates us more than the threat of judgment. Some might say it builds a communal strength, but towards what goal? I’ve been in quite a few yoga rooms this year, but my most focused, purpose-filled practice came in vinyasa classes around good yogis with teachers who were about helping you understand your yoga.
Finding out who you are and want to be on a yoga mat is life-altering. Finding it out as a straight, black male is just different. Even more different is knowing that my body might respond well to yoga, but it is not flexible, and far from perfect in practice like some I see, but I’m not judged here on my differences, and I appreciate this immensely. New York Yoga is a fun, but small place to practice your yoga. The class sizes are mostly small, but fifteen mats will easily fill the room. Classes with twenty or more make the hot room a little unbearable at times. Still though, it is yoga and just yoga. Everyone has a smooth balance of risk-taking and surrender, and even though these classes can leave you pretty sore, the regulars seem to show up every day. My new goal is to be a regular, and have a regular practice. My body, career, and mind are all asking for it. Now that I’ve found the place, it is time to explore yoga to levels I’ve never known. It is time to be about practice, because practice can turn the game of life into a cakewalk, and make you the greatest.