I want to like yoga. I really do. In fact, I want to love it. I want to love it as much as my friend Monica does. She gets up at 5:30 a.m. every weekday to do a 90-minute ashtanga yoga class, in which she runs through a strenuous sequence of vinyasa poses she’s memorized. Monica says the practice has been “life changing” since she began it three years ago. She’s less judgmental, calmer about conflict and more open-hearted. And she doesn’t feel the need to read self-help books anymore “because, ultimately, the answer comes from within.”
And she can stand on her head.
“Isn’t it hard to get up that early every morning?” I ask her.
“Sometimes,” she says. “But it makes the rest of the day so much better, and when all those days are strung together, it makes life better.”
I want to be more like Monica. I’ve gone to about a dozen yoga classes in my life and find it’s a lot like married sex: you feel the glow afterwards but just don’t feel compelled to do it very often.
Next to meditation, yoga is the most popular practice of spiritual agnostics like myself. Its benefits include cultivating awareness, quieting the mind and building fetching glutes. In the Bhagavad Gita Hindu scripture, Krishna has this to say about the ancient bendy practice: “Free from anger and selfish desire, unified in mind, those who follow the path of yoga and realize the Self are established forever in that supreme state.”
I’d like to have what he’s having.
Maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough — or found the right yoga class — to unleash my inner yogi. So I decide to embark on a yoga pilgrimage. A ticket to Rishikesh, India, the birthplace of yoga, is a little beyond my budget, so I stick closer to home.
I start by tagging along with Monica to her ashtanga class. I begin with a respectful sun salutation, assert myself in the warrior pose, flail at the extended, hand-to-big-toe pose and surrender in a passive heap in the child’s pose. I can’t keep up with these advanced practitioners who huff forcefully through their nostrils as they seamlessly move through jump-throughs, back bends, the plank, the splits, and headstands. Instead, I spend much of the class anticipating the sweet relief of the corpse pose, where all you have to do is lie down and play dead. When I roll up my mat at the end of the class, I think about the pain that I’ll be in the next day. Monica, meanwhile, is positively glowing and ready for a swill of refreshing, chilled kombucha.
I also consider trying out other types of yoga that might be less fierce and a little more fun. I pass on naked yoga (there’s too much exposure during the downward dog), pot yoga (I don’t smoke the stuff), snowga (it’s the wrong season), tantrum yoga (I’m too old to scream in public) and Christian yoga (it’s just too religious).
Photo courtesy of Anne Bokma
But goat yoga sounds appealing. I head out to Brantford’s Holly Hill Hobby Farm one bright Saturday morning along with a few dozen other folks who unfurl their mats on an expansive green pasture. I meet Henry, the smallest of seven miniature goats, who prances over my mat, tries to nibble at my straw bag and lets out an adorable “meeeh” in place of the requisite yoga “ooom.” These goats are remarkably social creatures who wag their tails like puppies, might mistake your raised backside for a mountain ridge, and clatter up and over you. They might also poop a small mound of pebbles onto your mat, which is what happened to the man next to me. He just laughed, shook out the mat and resumed his sun salutation.
I’m too distracted by the sheer cuteness of the goats to focus on my poses. And at one point, I wander off to give Henry a handful of corn and stroke the soft felt of his fuzzy white ears, which feels incredibly calming. Nearby, chickens scratch at the dirt in an enclosed pen, a rescued horse nods its head in a friendly greeting and a barnyard cat scoots by. A bunch of small children also tear around the property, squealing after the goats who seem delighted by the frisky chase. These kids, both the human and animal variety, spread a joy that’s contagious. Goat yoga doesn’t provide me with much of a physical workout, but there’s no beating the inner lift I get.
I can’t say the same about the Namaste Niagara yoga session at the base of Niagara Falls. It leaves me more rattled than relaxed. After descending 150 feet through ancient bedrock in an elevator, I walk out onto a large observation deck, where 40 of us gather to literally fall down in awe before the majesty of the thundering falls. Some 2,800 cubic meters of rushing water hurls over the brink every second, creating more of a pelting shower than a dewy mist. I’m annoyed that I’ve forgotten my yoga mat and try spreading a towel on the solid, cold rock. Within a minute, it’s soaking wet, and I can’t get much of a toe grip to execute the poses. Gulls cry overhead, the water keeps up its everlasting forward motion and there’s the promise of a rainbow over Horseshoe Falls. Instead of being impressed with the grandeur of it all, though, I’m groaning inside, praying for this torture to end. The hood of my raincoat is bunched so tightly around my face that it’s leaving crease marks. I can’t see through the rivulets of rain streaking my eyeglasses and my Lululemons are weighed down with what feels like a bucketful of water. No one else looks quite as miserable as I do. After the class, I complain about being cold and wet to the woman next to me, but her takeaway is different than mine. The session was like “a metaphor for life,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s incredibly beautiful, and sometimes it’s harsh and cold. It’s a test of your endurance.” It’s a test that I fail miserably.
I’m more hopeful about aerial yoga, a combination of acrobatics and yoga developed by one of the founders of Cirque du Soleil. I sign up for a class at Circle Studios, where I’ll be high and dry as I swing on yards of stretchy, silk fabric, which is suspended from high-grade hardware secured to the ceiling. The fabric forms an anti-gravity hammock that allows even the more rotund to fly through the air with the greatest of ease — and even invert themselves without hurting the spine or putting pressure on the joints.
But my first class is a bust. I commit a yoga no-no by scarfing down an egg salad sandwich minutes before climbing into the hammock. As it begins to sway, so do the contents of my stomach, and I realize that I’m about to toss my lunch. I make it to the bathroom just in time, though, and hope that the other participants can’t hear my loud hurls on the other side of the wall. I’m a little green when I return and spend the rest of the class as motionless as a caterpillar while wrapped in my silk cocoon.
My return visit (this time on an empty stomach) goes much better. I start with aerial lunges, keeping one foot on the ground and hoisting a hip onto the hammock, before moving my leg gently back and forth for a satisfying stretch. I manage the Superman-style swoosh — my body parallel to the floor, supported by a band of fabric across my hips, and my arms outstretched in a rescue stance. And I’m giddy with a sense of accomplishment when I actually flip upside down, with my hair grazing the floor and my feet moving up in the air while wrapped around the fabric. Despite several attempts, I can’t quite manage the backward cape flip. Ditto for the skirted star and the swan dive. Aerial yoga inversions are said to boost circulation, ease joint pain, and some believe that its spine-lengthening benefits can temporarily increase body height by up to an inch. I’m not quite ready for the big top, but I do leave the class walking a little taller.
The final stop on my yoga journey is a seniors’ home in downtown Hamilton, where Kathryn Kimmins, a certified laughter yoga coach, is trying to limber up about 15 elderly folks who sit in a semicircle in a community room. Most of them are in walkers and wheelchairs — some with their heads slumped and arthritic hands curled in their laps. They likely haven’t been able to bend and touch their toes in years. But laughter yoga isn’t so much a physical workout as a psychological one. It’s based on the idea that forced giggles are just as effective as genuine guffaws in terms of the benefits to both the mind and body.
Kathryn works hard over the next hour to try and make everyone laugh. At first, it’s a tough crowd. Some of the seniors look confused as they try to follow along to the beat of her hand clapping. And one grim-faced older gentleman wheels himself out of the room and doesn’t come back. But the group starts to perk up when she gets them to engage in such playful pantomimes as an imaginary watermelon seed-spitting contest, a pretend weight lifting class and a raising of a nonexistent glass of champagne in a toast. Things get even more lively when the group starts imitating the antics of old TV show characters, twitching their noses like Samantha Stephens in Bewitched, giving a Tarzan-like yell like Carol Burnett and laughing like Woody Woodpecker. Kathryn doesn’t focus on what their bodies can’t do; rather on how their spirits can still be lifted. At the end of the class, they sing along enthusiastically to Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and become children once more. Their hands — prominent with veins and age spots — hold tight to an imaginary string as their smiling faces look up toward the ceiling to see their kites soar up through the atmosphere.
The writer Tom Stoppard said that “if you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.”
As I’m leaving the seniors’ home, an ice cream truck pulls up outside of the front door, and a line of wheelchairs begins to form. I think about what Kathryn told me me at the end of the class: “Children clap all the time. And then one day, they just stop.”
I then get in line behind the wheelchairs. Suddenly, it seems very important to me to have ice cream.