The first time I tried yoga was like the opening scene of a porn movie. I was bombarded by raw flesh, exotic smells, male body parts, new physical sensations and way too much camel toe.
I was 27 years old and living in Nice, France. It was 1997 and Yoga was not on every street corner like it is now. My best friend Tim was curious about it. He was always in the know about all things chic and ahead of the curve on anything having to do with your health. Tim moved through life in first class and with an entourage. I was his entourage.
Neither of us had ever tried yoga before. Tim researched the top studios in Nice and arranged for us to have a private lesson together. I wasn’t crazy about going, but did anyway because his royal highness had a way of making anything fun. He convinced me that we were in for an adventure and that my outsider view of yoga being pretentious was wrong and that all people who practiced yoga were not nuts.
We arrived at the address and were greeted by a beautiful iron gate covered in bougainvillea. As we headed down the gravel driveway, I noticed a full size gong by the front door. I wanted to bang that gong. Tim opted for the buzzer and we were let in. I was not prepared for what was on the other side of that door. Instantly, I was overwhelmed with the funky smell of incense and the view of a man dressed in a loin cloth. The only other thing covering any part of his body was a mustache on his upper lip that would be the envy of every hipster in Brooklyn today. He was in immaculate shape and possibly even good looking if one could get past the loin cloth. He reminded me of Tarzan.
The smells, the loin, the gong… I was in sensory overload and I could feel my fight or flight kicking in. Tim greeted Tarzan and their conversation faded to noise as I noticed the framed pictures on the wall. Life-size photos of Tarzan in his loin cloth doing contortion like poses lined the hallway. I was 5 seconds from walking out the door when his wife popped in. She could smell my fear. “Hi, I’m Jane” she said with a posh British accent. She smiled and shook my hand. “I will be your teacher this evening.” Thank God! I was not ready for yoga with a dude in a thong.
Jane was the spitting image of a young Jane Fonda. Totally fit and wearing a Fonda-esque leotard, this English rose was a great teacher. Her class was fun, but very difficult. I could barely participate. Even though I was an avid runner, my core and upper body strength was no match for yoga. Jane was incredibly patient and did not patronize me one bit for sucking. I loved dear Jane except for one issue. One of her yoga philosophies seemed to be, “don’t wear anything under your leotard”. We noticed this point later in the class while we were hanging upside down from a ballet bar holding onto a rope with her crotch in our face. Yikes. Neither of us needed to see that. I had one of my very own if I wanted to look at it and Tim, well, Tim was allergic.
Iyengar (the style of Yoga taught by Tarzan and Jane) is not for dilettantes. It’s pretty hard core and a difficult place to begin a yoga practice. I left the class exhausted and defeated. As we walked out the door, I banged the gong in frustration. No plans were made to return. The next day at work, I was so sore that I couldn’t lift a pencil. I returned to my usual workout routine of running and said avoir to yoga.
A few weeks later, Tim and I were hanging out at our favorite local beach, Castel Plage. We were just putting our stuff down when I noticed my friend’s grandmother, Marie Claude, stepping into the Mediterranean for a swim. Marie Claude was an amazing person. Her grandson owned the gallery that sold my work. She was a local celebrity as she had been one of Picasso’s lovers back in the day. No one knew her exact age, not even her grandson. I would guess somewhere north of 80 based on her skin. Marie Claude’s skin was the only giveaway of her age. I had never seen such wrinkles in my life. She seemed to be wearing a coat of wrinkles on her skeleton. When talking to her, I felt like there was a 25 year old under that coat looking at me with piercing blue eyes and excellent posture. If you found yourself walking behind her on the Promenade des Anglais, you would swear you were following someone in the prime of her life. The night of my art opening, at her grandson’s gallery, I asked her how she maintains her joie de vivre. She told me that she swam almost every day of her life and has practiced yoga for over 30 years.
Tim and I watched in wonder as she swam up and down the beach in her bikini. Marie Claude exited the ocean, dried off and began her yoga practice. Seeing an octogenarian whip out a perfect chaturanga, obscure arm balances and a head stand is something you don’t forget. When she was finished, she sat for what seemed like an hour in meditation before leaving. We waved to her as she left the beach. I remember thinking, I want to be in that kind of shape when I am 80. I have got to learn how to do yoga. As our day continued, I totally forgot about it and went back to drinking my diet coke and planning our trip to the ballet in Monaco.
An entire decade passed before yoga would cross my mind again. I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and having numbness in my legs and hands as a result of a lifetime of running and sitting at a drafting table. A few Dr. visits and an MRI later, my neurologist advised me to hang up my running shoes and try something less impact like yoga or swimming if I valued the integrity of my spine long term. I immediately thought of Marie Claude. I had to learn how to do yoga.
I found a cute yoga studio close to my apartment. There was no incense or nude photos lining the wall, no one tried to show me their crotch as I entered and my fellow students were peers. This studio taught Vinyasa yoga. Vinyasa was a better fit for me. Vinyasa is more about movement vs static poses. I actually enjoyed it.
My favorite teacher was a young actress named Alli who taught yoga by day and sang on broadway by night. She is one of the most positive people I have ever met in New York.
Alli’s yoga classes were the perfect combination of inspiration, perspiration and relaxation. The most delightful part of each class was her one of a kind closing statements. An example of one of her nuggets of light would be: “Think of the thing you most need to hear at this moment” followed by a few seconds of silence then “Now say it to yourself.” a few more seconds of silence then “Wouldn’t it be great if people spoke to each other in this way?” Priceless. Was she for real? Yes, she was and that is what made her so awesome. This kind of positivity without cynicism is rare. Many New Yorkers dismiss this brand of thought as naivety or possibly a learning disability. Not me, I find it quite the opposite. When I encounter it, I enjoy it. It’s like finding a unicorn.
During this phase of my yoga life, I discovered inversions. Being upside down made me feel charged and alive. They provided a daily physical change in my view of the world and an instant mood lift. In no other realm of adult life did I find a similar fountain of youth that took me straight back to childhood except creating art.
Good news, my numbness was now a thing of the past. Bad news, I had to leave my little UWS studio. Life was happening. I got married and moved to Greenwich Village. I had to find a new yoga teacher.
Lucky for me, New York City has fantastic yoga teachers about every 3 feet. My next yoga studio was quite a production. They also taught Vinyasa, but in a unique stylized way. Let’s call them the Happy Flower Studio. Happy Flower had their own brand of yoga that fused eastern and western traditions with a strong serving of dance.
Happy Flower Studio had a big following. Classes could have upwards of 60 people. On my first visit, I was shocked at how crowded it was: body to body from one side of the room to the other. Sitting next to me was a young guy from Queens. He was the only man in the room. I remember thinking… bold move dude. I couldn’t figure out why more men weren’t taking yoga. I had been trying to get my husband to take yoga and I had used the “exercising in a room full of beautiful women angle” to get him to try it.
My argument didn’t work at first. I hired Alli (my favorite yoga teacher) to give Peter (my ex-husband) a few private lessons so he would feel comfortable going to class with me.
Peter is 6 ft 5 inches tall with a commanding presence. I knew he would stand out in my yoga classes. What I didn’t know was how much the teachers would bend over backwards to make him feel welcome. Once Peter figured out that yoga classes WERE actually full of beautiful supportive women, he was totally game every weekend to go with me. The teachers at our yoga school always gave him special attention and I swear they all but clapped for him after each class. THANK YOU LADIES!
These were the salad days of my yoga practice! I was in the best shape of my life. Everything was rolling along just fine and then life happened again. I got knocked up… by my then husband of course. I kept attending classes as long as I could stand it which was about 5 months pregnant.
As my belly grew and grew, physical activity in the company of non-pregnant people was embarrassing. I wanted to be amongst ladies in my same condition. I started prenatal yoga. It was extremely therapeutic to be around other women going through the same thing. Many of the teachers were also doulas. They prepared us for our big day. In addition to doing yoga, they taught different ways to manage pain and how to position ourselves during delivery. I went 4 times a week throughout my pregnancy. I even went to yoga the very morning I went into labor. That day, I left the class feeling annoyed and tired. I went into labor a few hours later and Stella was born the next morning. Without the gory details, I gave birth to a 10 pound baby and walked away unscathed for the most part.
If you think it’s hard to work out while you are pregnant, just wait til your little one comes out to play! I am now a working parent with no time. I practice at a yoga studio 2 blocks from my house because that is as far as I can make it in my allotted time for exercise. I have lost my baby weight. Yeah! I then gained a bunch of it back (booooo!) Let’s face it, fit parent is something hard to achieve and even harder to maintain. I am holding on to my exercise time with my teeth in the dashboard. I know it’s not impossible to stay in shape during this time of my life, it just really feels like it.
I always think of Marie Claude when I’m too tired or when I am having to move heaven and earth just to get to a class. My health and sanity are worth it. Marie Claude gave me the simple answer to longevity all those years ago. She exercised her entire life almost every day (swimming and yoga to be exact). I don’t know if she is still alive, but I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if she were.
The joys of parenthood out weigh the daily challenges of maintaining some semblance of life balance. Keeping healthy is even more important now because a tiny human is watching me. Stella is learning her entire baseline concept of everything from me (and her father). Showing her the importance of taking care of yourself by example is important to me and for her. My “A” game may be in need of repair, but I am still a super model to someone and I’m going to strike a pose!