A (Mon)Day with Shiva Rea

Rock-star yoga teachers frequently go on tour; they hit all of the popular retreats, spas, and studios, bringing their personal strain of yoga (and their DVDs, books, and other branded merchandise) to the masses. I have never experienced real-time yoga with a bonafide celebrity teacher (although once I glimpsed Baron Baptiste mingling in his Cambridge studio surrounded by a sweaty flock of disciples who had just labored under his tutelage) because it’s so rare that teachers of this calibre actually make it into the city of Boston — usually they stop at the Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts, and while a weekend of breath, bandhas, and beyond with Rodney Yee sounds tempting, I’d be too busy stressing out over the $500 tuition/accommodation fee to think about anything else.

Somerville Arts at the Armory

But on Monday, Boston (or rather Somerville, but close enough) was blessed by a visit from Shiva Rea, one of the most sought-after yoga teachers with near-universal appeal — she satisfies the younger yoginis who crave nonstop tripod headstands as well as the more mature practitioners who prefer to slowly sway their hips back and forth. Shiva Rea is also my absolute favorite yoga instructor with whom I faithfully practice at least 2-3 times per week — on DVD, of course. Rea’s multi-city “Temple of Rasa Yoga Experience” tour was indeed pricey –$55 for each of the two-hour long sessions, and then $25 for the 90-minute mat-less trance dance at night. I opted to take both of the two-hour long sessions, wincing that I was spending about two-month’s worth of my yoga budget in one day. But… it’s much better to waste money on an EXPERIENCE than a useless material good. (My consolation was that I didn’t have to take the day off of work or call out “sick.” Since my workplace gave us the choice of taking off Columbus Day or Veteran’s Day, I was one of the 10% who choose Veteran’s Day, and then I simply swapped Monday for Thursday.)

Monday morning was dismal and rainy as I made my way to Somerville’s Center for Arts, an armory recently converted into a non-profit community space. I joined a steady stream of mat-toting women in the registration line, stashed my stuff on the balcony, and then claimed a spot on the expansive floor in front of a flower-adorned stage. The floor slowly filled up with mostly women, mostly wearing Lululemon (Lululemmings, as I once heard them called), mostly appearing to be yoga teachers or teachers-in-training. I chatted lightly with the rare guy who was sitting to my left, liking that, relative to the rest of the crowd, he also seemed to be a yoga novice. Together, we counted how many of our present and past yoga teachers we saw (him 3, me 3).

Shiva came out on stage late; the drummer started a slow but enlivening beat and we began our movement. Shiva Rea is all about movement, uninhabited and free-form, doing whatever feels natural in the moment. I usually skip these parts on DVD, because I feel sort of silly frolicking around the study, but it felt pretty good to shake out my body on my mat in a crowded room. I was surprised by how many of Shiva’s “flow” sequences I recognized from her DVDs, and when we started the Agni Namaskar, which is centered around 108 push-ups, I felt pretty comfortable. Hell, it was actually much easier to complete the 9 rounds of 12 push-ups in the armory than it was in my living room. In between each round, we did some standing poses and arm balances. All in all, it was a very rigorous practice, and true to Shiva’s word, everyone collapsed pretty happily into Savasana (also true to her word, the session ran late, although it did not feel like 2 1/2 hours of yoga!) After we emerged from Savasana she lead a series of chants. I’m not a huge fan of chanting, although it does satisfy some primitive proclivity for the primal

Despite the fact I watch her DVDs religiously, I would not have been able to pick Shiva Rea out on a street. Not to sound mean, but she looked older in person, probably because her skin is beginning to succumb to the ravages of Californian sunshine. Her body was enviably toned and tiny (much tinier than her videos, incidentally). Her blond hair looked bleached rather than natural. All in all, she looked pretty damn good, and she sounded good, too., her marvelous voice perfectly blending serenity, power, and confidence.

Shiva Rea

The morning session over, I milled around the armory, sampling some free tea and inspecting the yogic wares of the vendors — clothing, Indian jewelry and statues, incense, etc. I was hesitant to go outside but amazingly the rain had stopped and the sun even peeked out from behind dark clouds. I walked to David Square, sat in a cafe and studied French, ran some errands, and then headed back to the armory with plenty of time for the afternoon session at 4pm.

I got a better spot at the 4pm session because I had moved my mat front and center right after the morning session. I was blessed with another conversant neighbor, a very mellow girl in her early 20s who is just finished her teacher certification in hatha yoga and who studied in France for a summer. “Parles-tu francais?” I asked slyly. “No,” she said. “I actually studied Sanskrit.”

The 4pm session featured a sitar player in addition to the drums (it’s amazing that these musicians can continuously play for hours on end). The afternoon practice focused on backbending and “heart-opening,” and was less vigorous than the morning… although it did not lack in challenges! Again, being well-versed in Shiva’s DVDs prepared me well for this radiant heart flow, and while I normally find this particular sequence too boring to do at home, on Monday I never wanted it to end. Every pose was heavenly; in downward dog, we’d peddle our feet to own own inspiration, in locust we’d move our arms and legs like abstract swimming, and then we’d get on the floor and roll to the right and then the left… and all this movement was so creative, dynamic, yet strangely restorative, without a twinge of self-consciousness, and without once thinking “I paid $55 to roll on a floor with 150 strangers for 2 hours.”

It was absolutely worth it, by the way, because I will now watch Shiva’s DVDs with absolute appreciation and renewed understanding for her practices. Plus, a moment burned in my memory: during the 4pm session, Shiva Rea gave me an assist! We were in a Vasisthasana (side plank) variation (one leg in plank, the other leg bent in front) and we were bringing our free hands into the air with a tiny backbend when I felt a hand on my wrist gently pulling my arm longer and higher than it would have normally gone, and I heard Shiva’s voice behind my head as she spoke in the wireless mic headset, something about liberating or enlivening or empowering or devoting or something like that.

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There’s No Such Thing As Free Yoga

On Sunday, I dragged my husband to a free community class at the local hot yoga studio, which is still trying to ramp up its lukewarm class attendence. About 11 people attended — a record, from what I’ve seen. Before the class, the studio’s owner asked if she could take pictures of the class — “only flattering ones, of course.” No one objected. The class was very relaxing and afterward we enjoyed some refreshments as we chatted with our fellow class attendees. Altogether, it was a pleasant experience.

And then today I went to the hot yoga studio’s website to check out the schedule, only to find the following picture all splayed out on the studio’s home page:

Dear lord. Yes, that’s me, the woman smack in the center wearing all black with her blond hair in a clip, in the superlatively unflattering pose of upward-dog. On the Home Page! (I hesitate to include the studio’s URL, as I don’t want them to know I blog about them).

On the Schedule page, there’s:

Which is just horrifying, because you’ll notice the outside edge of my back foot is not pressed onto the mat as it should be, and my right leg barely looks like it’s bent at all, let along at a 90-degree angle. That is one pitiful Warrior I.

On the Events page, right next to the notice about the beginner’s series, there’s:

That’s my husband on the right, checking his balance. Though he was mortified to see this, he forgot all about it after he saw the Rates page:

That’s when we realized: there is no such thing as free yoga.

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Hot Yoga is No Match For My Inner Ire

The hot yoga studio that opened last spring down the street has finally amended their ridiculously inconvenient class schedule. Initially, the earliest weekday class was 7:30am-9am and the evening class was 5:30pm-7pm. Since the studio is within a densely-residential but suburban neighborhood, their schedule precluded any 9-5 slave from ever attending a weekday class. I mean, here’s a hot yoga studio that was effectively alienating yuppies. Not a good business plan!

Some wanna-be students (including me) suggested an early-morning class, so last week they added a 6:15am-7:30am class. And since I championed it, I’ve felt compelled to actually get out of bed and go. I used to be a slightly insane morning exerciser, but life with Mr. Pinault has relaxed/subdued/sedated me to the point where I can’t get out of bed before I’ve gotten 8 1/2 hours of sleep or, at the very least, tranquil prostration.

Luckily, the hot yoga studio is a five-minute walk from my bed, meaning I can wake up at 6am (eek!) and be on my mat in time for the opening om. Helping me immensely is the laid-back teacher, a trained massage therapist who gives spontaneous massages. I can be in downward dog, and she’ll sneak behind me and exert a marvelous amount of moving pressure on my lower back. Ahhhh. Plus, she always explains the anatomical benefits of poses, which means that during the silence during prolonged poses, she does not make vague mystical pronouncements like “this stimulates the green chakra, which will make you more trusting and open to new things” and “the longer we hold this poses, the longer the ego –the little self– starts to grow quiet and still.” Instead, she’ll say “this pose is opening the lower back and strengthening the thighs” — simple, neat, and nondogmatic.

But for me, yoga is not about strengthening or opening or any of the dozens of health benefits that are ascribed to it. It is all about the breath. For the first time in my life, I am engaging in deep, purposeful breathing. (Well, for a purpose outside of inhaling toxic fumes into my lungs.)

All of this breathing melts away my characteristic stress like a iceberg that’s suddenly been transported to a massive hot tub. Those who know me in meatspace are well-acquainted with my edgy, anxious personaility. I can get worked up over the most minute things, and they will consume me to point of utter mental and physical distraction. Like last weekend, when our neighbor parked in front of our house with his big-ass truck, blocking both of the potential parking spaces. “Who does he think he is?” I seethed. “I’m going to write a note and put it under his windshield. And for now on, I’m going to park in front of his house and see how he likes it. No, forget all that, I’m just going to key his car!”

“Relax!” Mr. Pinault will sooth.

“I’ll relax when I’m dead!”

It takes a lot to relax me. A lot of wine, that is.

But yoga works too. So I’ll come home after the morning yoga class at 7:30am, totally blissed out for the day, having pumped my lungs and body full of oxygen and gotten a spontaneous massage to boot. I shower, dress, and prepare my breakfast/lunch box with utter contentment about spending the rest of the day hunched over a computer in a tiny cubicle 20 miles away. It could be worse. I could be, like, a coal miner.

I skip to the Jetta, turn on some upbeat rock music, and head to the town center towards the highway. The congestion is, typically, horrendous. I sit 20 cars back at a left-hand turn signal that has the lifespan of a gnat. Three, maybe four cars can go at one time, then it goes red for three minutes. I think to myself, “How great that I can be stuck at this light, for now I can replenish my body of liquids!” as I sip furtively from my water bottle.

I watch the cars turing left, felling a bit irked when I notice that a car didn’t start to turn until the light was yellow. Who can sit at the light for 10 minutes and not be rearing to go when it’s finally their turn? There is a gigantic trash truck ahead of me, and the wafting smell of garbage is getting irritating. When the truck is at the front of the line, it takes so long to start moving that the light turns red by the time it’s halfway through the turn. Freaking trucks that size shouldn’t be allowed on the road during rush hour. What hazards!

I am staring at the Toyota Camry in front of me. By then it’s been 12 minutes since I joined the stifled procession of left-turning cars, and I can’t stop thinking what a horrible person the girl in the Camry is. She’s young, plump, with brassy blond hair and black eyeliner, and she peers constantly at herself in her visor mirror as she alternately gazes at her phone. When the Audi in front of her moves up, it always takes her a full 20 seconds to respond, so consumed she is with herself and with her mobile device. Soon the Camry is the first car in line, and I watch her peering at her phone, her white thumb flickering as it pounds out a message. The left arrow turns green, and I sit for one. Two. Three seconds waiting for her to move. The absolute nerve of the woman, knowing that there’s about 50 cars behind us waiting to turn left, and she can’t be bothered to maximize the left-hand green arrow because something in her vapid, shallow life is compelling her to react with a no-doubt moronic text message. I lean on my horn — not a tap, but a prolonged lean, a fuck you blast of horn that prompts her to finally look up and move her car forward. I continue the horn for a few seconds longer than necessary, which is my way of saying Bitch, you owe me a yoga class!

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108 Push-ups

I was looking at the photos that my husband took on a recent trip to Cape Cod. “What’s that thing on my arm?” I asked, pointing to a shot of me on my beach towel, posing coquettishly. I looked closer and realized it was my arm, bulging against my upper back with a fold of blubber.  “Sweet Jesus! Something’s wrong with your camera! It totally… intensified my upper arm, like some sort of fish eye lens!”

Ah, the body thickens. So I hastened to my Yoga DVD collection and pulled out Shiva Rea’s Creative Core and Upper Body, which I bought last year in the midst of all-out Shiva Rea mania. I had been disappointed to discover that this 25-minute yoga routine is centered around 108 wide-leg prostration push-ups — like gym class, like the military, only before each of the 9 rounds of 12 push-ups, there’s a serene, smiley blissed-out blond yogini offering flaky motivational tips like “make a dedication in your heart.” I would like to dedicate this round of push-ups to all of the malnourished children in the world, for it is their twiggy physique that I secretly covet.

Still, a push-up is a push-up, and I loath calisthenics like I loath school cafeteria food. I took a Ultimate Total Body Pump Bootcamp class last month, and the instructor was an equipment minimalist who had us warm-up with squat thrusts. “Huh! I haven’t done squat thrusts since third grade!” I thought, fondly reminiscing about my elementary school gym teacher, who I now realize was a stereotypical lesbian. Nostalgia quickly turned to pain, and about two squat thrusts, I wanted to puke. It wasn’t the squat so much as the thrust.

Despite my difficulties with any exercise that involve my own bodyweight, I try to do Shiva Rea’s push-up workout at least once a week. Because push-ups really will improve one’s yoga practice by giving them the ability to indefinitely hold Chaturanga Dandasana (aka Four Limbed Staff Pose, aka Low Pushup, aka I’m Only Pretending that My Stomach Isn’t On the Ground).

I know that spot-reducing is a myth and that push-ups, however yogic, will do little to counter my accumulating upper arms. But it can’t hurt to have a little bit of muscle definition supporting that droopy flap of flab. It makes me look just threatening enough to ward off any suppositions of sloth.

Buy Local Hot Yoga

The good news: A yoga studio just opened about three blocks from my home. Joyous ommmms. No more hyper-stressful rush hour odysseys into Somerville or Cambridge, my eyes glued alternately to the unyielding bumper of the car in front of me and the clock. Ten minutes until yoga class… nine minutes… will the gridlock let up? Will I find parking? Will there be any space left in the class? Will the class afford enough relaxation to cancel out the damaging levels of stress necessitated by getting to the class? Wouldn’t it just be healthier to go home and watch Seinfeld re-runs?

The bad news: The yoga studio that just opened about three blocks from my home is a hot yoga studio that heats classes up to 100 degrees. Just in time for summer! I’ve taken enough Bikram yoga classes to know that vigorous yoga in a hot, humid room causes me to literally sweat rivers. Of course, that’s the point — the profuse sweating supposedly helps flush toxins out of the body (and if you believe that, I have some magic anti-cellulite cream I’d like to sell you).

This yoga studio seems a lot like Bikram Yoga, what with the heat and the same sequences of poses, but this isn’t a Bikram-certified studio. Rather, the owners seem to be renegade Bikram enthusiasts who saw a gaping hole in the hot yoga market and decided to open their own place… and make the wife the chief instructor. If opening a coffee shop is the secret ambition of every coffee shop denizen, then opening a yoga studio is the parallel dream of yoga junkies. “Imagine… I could just hang out and do yoga and sweat as much as I want, and make money for doing it!”

The pursuit of money is, of course, a secondary goal to the pursuit of enlightenment, but money is a necessity. The studio has only been open a week and I’m already worrying about its existence based on the two classes I’ve attended. The Saturday morning class consisted solely of me and a similarly-aged man who seemed to have traveled from a distance out of personal loyalty to the owners. The Monday night class consisted of me, a Bikram veteran, and an older woman who had trouble holding many of the poses and spent much of the 90-minute class cowering in child’s pose.

I can’t blame her, really. The co-owner was instructing on Monday night and I instantly disliked her for how she forcefully adjusted me into deeper poses (unlike the Saturday morning instructor, who would reassuring massage us with supportive hands). I mean, is it really healthy to goad people into intense exercise in 100-degree heat? Frequently she would instruct us to hold a pose “For five… four… keep your lower belly tucked in and the outer edge of your left foot grounded. Three… Make sure your hips are squared to the front of the room. Two…direct your gaze at the ceiling. Keep your shoulders down and your fingers spread open. Create space between your fingers. Every pose should create space…” And I’m there, sweating pouring down my face, my legs, my chest, willing her to say “One” so I can release the pose and mop myself up with my sodden towel. It was about as relaxing as jogging on an endless desert road.

“Take breathes without an agenda,” she instructed, causing my next breath to have a very distinct agenda: To stifle a giggle. At the end of the class, she beamed into our sweat-soaked faces and proclaimed, “It’s been very special practicing with you all today.” Special? Was it the way that sweat cascaded down my back as she made manual adjustments on my shoulder muscles? Or was it how I resisted her attempts to fiddle with my perfectly fine Warrior II?

I’ll support my local hot yoga studio, but in definite moderation, because sweating is overrated, and July and August are upon us.

Sunday Salutations

Mostly-crappy weekend weather had me taking multiple trips to the yoga studio to milk my $50 unlimited month-long membership before it expires. I’ve attended 8 classes so far, meaning I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth since the going per-class rate in the Boston area is $14-17. But I’ll pass on the $105 monthly membership because driving to this Davis Square yoga studio has become the bane of my existence. For now, I’ll continue to poach introductory “new student” offers at area studios — hopefully ones with better parking.

On Sunday, I wasn’t the only person looking for a sheltered place to do Sun Salutations. The 9:30am class was already packed by 9:15am. Three times I moved my mat to eek out a few inches of free space so someone could unfurl her mat. I felt very un-Zen for irkly noting that the front of my mat was centimeters away from the back of a mat upon which a tall, hairy man in baggy gym shorts fought to touch his knees. I know I’m progressing in yoga because it wasn’t the prospect of catching glimpses of his fleshy, woolly body parts that bothered me — I’m so focused on my body and my breath that I hardly notice my classmates. Unless, of course, I get kicked in the head during three-legged dog pose.

I don’t get distracted during class, but before class, I totally check out my fellow yogis. My stealthy gaping probably stems from my own cluelessness about how to occupy myself before the instructor takes command. Many people lay down on their mats with their legs either in bound angle pose or full-out savanasa, but I can’t bring myself to do this when my morning energy is jangling like a slot machine. Some people are stretching or even doing pose sequences, which is sort of like snacking on bacon before a roast ham dinner.

I can’t help but to assign some meaning to a person’s choosen pre-class activity: What does it say about you and what you’re looking to get out of the yoga experience? Are you gung-ho about flexibility and muscle tone? Or is yoga your time to redress stress? Once I sat kitty-coner to a woman who was taking advantage of being barefoot and idle by peeling dead skin off the ball of her foot with a serene, blissed out look on her face. Obviously, her mind was on a higher plane.

This may well be my last class at the fancy Davis Square yoga studio. I sit cross-legged, my spine drinking in one last slouch, my palms planted behind my hips. I watch the women tip-toeing around the studio, looking for vacancies.

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6pm Yoga Class

I got a sweet deal on a month-long membership for a yoga studio in Somerville. The only problem is… it’s in Somerville. Getting there after work is an odyssey of gridlock traffic and serendipitous street parking. It’s a great way to ratchet up the cortisol right before 75 minutes of deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation take my bodily stress down to vacation levels, if only temporarily.

It was 5:45, and I was in my car, aiming to make the 6pm class. I was 1/2 mile+ from the studio. In front of me was a metered space, beautifully void. Do I press my luck and try to park closer to the studio, or do I accept this gift from the parking Deities? Did I mention it was pouring rain and I didn’t have an umbrella?

I took the parking spot, grabbed my yoga mat, and ran through the downpour to the studio. I arrived with sopping hair and heaving breath, and splayed my soggy mat in the only obvious space left in the room. Next to me was a brunette in her mid-20s who I recognized from a previous class due to her arm-band tattoo. The class started and I gradually felt my body begin to unwind, to release the cares of my day, of my life, and become focused on doing crazy things, like putting my shoulders underneath my knees (almost there!)

After class, I was in the lobby area putting on my shoes and socks when I heard the brunette talking quietly with another woman. ”I’m just waiting for someone to start drinking water during class to see what happens,” the brunette said.

“Probably get kicked out,” the other woman said with a smirk before walking away.

After a minute, I asked the brunette: “Did I hear you say that you can get kicked out for drinking water during class?”

Smiling, she made a face. “The studio sent out an email last month asking people to refrain from drinking water during class because it was disruptive,” she said.

My brain struggled to process a statement with so many layers of absurdity. Who drinks water to the point of disruption? Who gets upset about it? Who dares to rebel against modern society’s cult of hydration… in this economy?

“Interesting,” I said. “I can see how that could be controversial.”

“I used to go to a studio where people texted during svanasana,” she said. “Drinking water… I mean, pish.”

The walk back to my car was magnificent. The rain had stopped and the air was cool and fresh; dark clouds dominated the sky, but a ray of sun broke through, casting cheery light on the building tops. I wish I had a camera to capture not only what I saw, but also my own inner serenity. My hair was still wet from the rain, but I wasn’t thirsty.

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Your Moment of Om

Until this morning, I hadn’t attended a real, live yoga class in about two months.

The suburban gym that I switched to when I switched jobs heavily caters their class offerings to the only people who can afford to go there: Old people looking for a legitimate reason to go to the gym so they can sit in the luxurious whirlpool. They don’t ashtanga, vinyassa, or power yoga… they want corpse yoga.

I only have time to seek out other yoga classes on the weekends, and since skiing takes precedence over yoga, I haven’t gone to a studio since before Christmas. In order to keep my hips open and my shoulders strong, I’ve been relying on my Yoga DVD library, which is dominated by the famed instructor Shiva Rea, a tall blond woman whose can do poses that look like special effects. Of course, the majority of her practices are accessible to beginning-to-intermediate yoginis, and Shiva demonstrates everything with unerring clarity and a spacy smile on her serene face. I couldn’t hold a conversation with someone who looked so internally blissed out, but learning yoga from them is entirely suitable.

But this morning, I dragged myself out into the cool sunshine and headed to a yoga class in Cambridge. The class was advertised as Ashtanga Yoga, though the instructor didn’t follow the series of poses that typify that style; rather, we did slow sequences with many gentle variations. Which was fine by me, because I realized that 2-3 months of yoga DVDs really spoiled me. I regularly skip segments that I’m not in the mood for (balances, inversions) and focus mainly on Sun Salutations and standing poses. In other words, I do the poses that I’m good at.

So it was jarring to be in a yoga class and forced to do poses that I may skip or that Shiva Rea doesn’t do. As I struggled to hold a standing split, I remembered what I liked about yoga in the first place: it challenged and enlivened my focus. It put my body in positions it never had to be in. And like many things in life, yoga requires constant practice. In fact, all it requires is constant practice. So, with all due respect to my Shiva Rea DVDs, the fact is… the revelation will not be televised.

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Why is Yoga So Expensive?

I was initially excited to hear the Yoga Journal would be holding a conference in Boston April 6-11. How inspiring it would be to immerse myself in yoga for 1 or 2 weekend days? Well, it would be totally inspiring… and totally expensive. According to the pricing info, a weekend pass is $495, and a one-day pass for Sat or Sun is $285. And no, that doesn’t include meals, lodging, spa treatments, or a personal concierge.

Why are all the cool yoga events and retreats so expensive? I would love to take a trip to the Kripalu Center in Western Mass., but most of the weekend events run upwards of $400 (room and board included).

I can appreciate that it costs money to put together conferences and to run a yoga center, but … why aren’t there more cheap, accessible yoga retreats that focus on instruction and community, not luxury or big-name speakers?

There are a series of special events that are free and open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis, so maybe I’ll go hang out  in Back Bay and try to assert my way into a community yoga class (description:

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Meaty Pictures

Perfect Dinner #1: Pork and Brussel Sprouts

Perfect Dinner #2: Steak and Salad

Delivery from the Meat CSA


Meat Fondue


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