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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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.