A Year of Yoga

A journey through asanas, blindfolds and oms takes a yogi from one end of the county to the other — and transforms more than just his exercise routine.

In my younger, wilder days — last year — I was a rambler; a yoga gypsy partial to every beautiful bargain that walked in the door. What’s this, a $10-for-10-days special at Red Dragon’s sweet new studio in San Rafael? Where do I sign?

I didn’t set out to be a yogic nomad, traveling the length and breadth of the county, from Yoga Toes in Point Reyes Station (charming!) to Yoga Mountain in Fairfax (great instructors, love the space) to the YogaWorks studios in Larkspur Landing and Mill Valley (very good classes, slightly more commercial vibe). But when you’re starting out, the cyber-coupons and new-student specials offered by many of the yoga studios in Marin make the gypsy method the least expensive way to go. Of course, once you’re no longer a “first-time student,” you’re paying full freight. And it’s time to settle down.

I’d been to a handful of yoga classes. In my mind (and, let’s be honest, the minds of anyone who saw me), I sucked. I couldn’t sit cross-legged; my knees kept wanting to point to the ceiling. The chanting at the start of class made me feel self-conscious. I was reluctant to replace what I thought of as a real workout — a good, long, hard run or bike ride — with a session on a mat. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

This last year, about 12 or 15 years after I should’ve given yoga a chance, I gave it a chance. Rather than rue that decade-plus of stooped shoulders, unconscious breathing and general rigidity, I’m just grateful to have seen the light — or, on the day I signed up for Eric Monkhouse’s blindfolded yoga workshop at YogaWorks in Mill Valley — the darkness. Monkhouse is a transplanted Brit; an ex-rugby-playing surfer with a blond mane and great dimples who also happens to be a DJ, musician, gourmet cook and expert in Thai massage. Toward the end of that blindfolded session, he handed us dark chocolates to place on our tongues.

“I prefer to savor the experience, letting it melt slowly,” Monkhouse told us in his lilting accent, and I could sense, if not see, that he had the full attention of his female students. I remember thinking, Dude, give the rest of us a chance.

While I am aware of, and appreciate, the pulchritude on display at most yoga classes, it’s not what got me in the door or what keeps me coming back. I was in a rut. I didn’t realize how deep the rut was until I ventured into the warm room.

A few years ago, I’d reached a point of diminishing returns with my exercise routine, which consisted of what a Buddhist friend once described as “the punishing workouts of the West.” Even here in paradise — running the trails on Mount Tam, cycling the gorgeous byways of West Marin — it got … stale.

Plus, I got tight, and not in the good way (the way Hemingway meant). Over the years and decades, my range of movement had shrunk to the point where, a couple years ago, I stood in a chiropractor’s office and was informed that my posture left much to be desired, that my sacrum was crooked (or something), and that one shoulder was several inches lower than the other.

Finally, last December, during a break in my travel schedule, I dropped into the Fairfax studio now known as the Yoga Lab, which offers a hatha flow class in a warm room. The heat was an eye-opener. It wasn’t Bikram-hot (say, between 105 and 110 degrees), but it was warm enough to have me drenched with sweat 15 minutes into the 90-minute session. One reason I’d been slow to commit to yoga was a reluctance to sacrifice what I thought of, in those days, as a real workout — a ride or run. Trust me, this is a real workout.

All that cycling and running was my ally in strength poses like Crescent Lunge and Warrior I. But those same bunched, inelastic muscle groups ensured a slapstick outcome when I attempted, for instance, to get the crown of my head near the floor in standing straddle. The first few times I tried to get into Double Pigeon — “a wonderful hip opener,” the teachers never fail to say — I toppled like Humpty Dumpty. I now sit on a block, approximating the pose while counting the seconds until we move on to something else.

Which is silly, really. Because the lesson from every instructor is, this is not a competition — even with yourself. Whatever your body can do that day, in that moment, is … correct. We seek non-judgment, non-attachment to outcome. We seek to remember to turn our cell phones off before class. (Seriously, do it. You don’t want to be That Guy.) The point is to dwell in the process, to link breath to the movement — a series of asanas (poses) in vinyasa (a sequence). The point is not necessarily to show up in class on Saturday morning with the sole purpose of sweating out your hangover.

My favorite instructor parted ways with Yoga Lab, so I did too. Thus began my period of yogic promiscuity as I roamed from Fairfax to San Rafael (for a brief, unsatisfying fling with Bikram) down to Larkspur Landing, sampling the instruction of James Higgins, with his highly creative sequences and intriguing digressions, and the lighthearted, luminous Lisa Maria, whose class I never leave without thinking it was exactly what I needed.

Farther south, I ascended the steps to YogaWorks’ Mill Valley studio, alternating between Monkhouse, whose classes are an addictive blend of yoga and music (he invites students to raise their voices in song and circulates among us playing his signature didgeridoo), and the exciting, exacting Sharon Lape, whose class is easily the most challenging I’ve taken. I like that a lot, just as I like her Paul Harvey monotone, which seems slightly odd at first, until such time as it draws you in, then hypnotizes.

In the end, I returned to Fairfax, this time to Yoga Mountain, a studio that’s taken on the welcoming, nurturing, radiant personality of its owner, Sienna Smith. Seeking work a few years back, Smith walked into the now-defunct Yoga Loka and asked the owner if she was looking for someone to manage the studio. “I’m not hiring,” came the reply, “but I am selling.”

Six months later, Smith sat in Bolinas Park, across the street from the studio — now her studio — and asked herself, “What am I gonna do with this thing? What am I doing here?”

Having healed herself (Smith began practicing in her early 20s to alleviate chronic neck pain, the result of schlepping heavy backpacks many miles in her previous life as a field biologist), it has become clear that she is in Fairfax to help heal others. And not just in her popular classes, which combine healing asanas, breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques.

Smith is also a kind of healer in the community. After a recent class, she counseled a woman whose back had been giving her trouble, then was grilled by a woman whose husband wanted to practice but had injured his shoulder. Smith, who says that’s typical, is continually stunned and delighted by the ways her studio has knit itself into the fabric of the town.

“I would say our studio is humble, connected to yoga’s traditions and considers the whole person as a unique individual.” She’s proud that in addition to bringing many years of experience to the table, most of her instructors “live here; their kids are in the schools; they get the vibration,” she says.

I get it that it’s no big deal that my knees still don’t want to come anywhere near the ground when I sit cross-legged. No one really cares. What have improved, rather dramatically, after my first year of yoga are my posture and sense of physical and (to a less quantifiable extent) spiritual well-being. And my chanting. I truly feel as if I can ommmmm with the best of them.
I still drop in on Monkhouse and Lape and Lisa Maria: we’re blessed to have so many amazing teachers in this county. But it’s nice to have a studio that feels like a touchstone, a sanctuary. Be it ever so humble.