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Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi by Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf : Kripalu Yoga

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi

Kripalu Yoga

By Brian Leaf

Take the attitude that what you are thinking and feeling is valuable stuff. — ANNE LAMOTT, Bird by Bird

Different types of people, with different constitutions and dispositions, can find what they need in one of the various yoga styles. Power yoga makes you feel more, well, powerful and gives you a heck of a workout. Iyengar yoga makes you feel embodied and correct. And Kripalu yoga makes you feel, well, you’ll see.

I don’t think there’s a formula for which style will speak to a practitioner any more than there is a formula for who will fall in love. Match.com can put you in touch with people who share your interests, but you have to date to see if there’s chemistry. We can say, “Aha, you like a vigorous workout, try Power yoga,” but ultimately you have to date a few styles to see which one ignites your passion. And that passion, just like the chemistry of love, is quite magical and special and transformational.

In Hoboken I stumbled onto that kind of chemistry with a style of yoga being offered around the corner from my apartment in the attic of a natural foods market. Shopping at the store on a Saturday, I spotted a flyer for “Yoga with Yolanthe.”

The Hoboken Harvest was an old-school health food store — the only kind of health food store in 1994 — the kind that existed before Whole Foods Market introduced Newman-O’s to mainstream Americans. Before Whole Foods propagated the concept of the whole foods supermarket, health food stores were small, purely organic, and dusty. They carried only organic produce, though the produce was kept in substandard conditions, making it either half-frozen or wilty. The stores smelled of the unmistakable combination of patchouli and vitamins, and had small cafés operated by idealist vegans.

The café of the Hoboken Harvest was run by a fellow by the name of Guy. I had a real-life Abbot and Costello conversation when I asked someone at the store, “What’s the name of the guy who runs the café?”

“Guy.”

“Yes, the guy who runs the café.”

“Guy.”

This Guy was a character, a Vietnam War veteran turned vegan who, like every health food store café operator in 1994, was not shy about sharing his political opinions, espousing his conspiracy theory, or selling you a share in his blue-green algae distribution network. I miss those places. My aunt has been a vitamin-taking, patchouli-burning, macrobiotic-eating meditator since the 1970s, and her apartment somehow carries a hint of that original health food store smell and vibe. It makes my muscles melt and my heart open every time I smell it.

The yoga classes were held in the attic of the Harvest. The showroom of the Harvest was dusty, so you might expect the attic to be a nightmare, but local yoga teacher and longtime Hoboken resident (she lived uptown with the artists and yogis near the YMCA) Yolanthe Smit had co-opted this space and made it lovely. She cleaned it assiduously. She draped beautiful Indian scarves and tapestries, she burned incense (only before class so it would scent the room but not interfere with our yogic breathing exercises), she changed the lighting, and she created an altar. She even played CDs of bamboo flutes and birds chirping as we practiced. It was a sanctuary.

I attended Yolanthe’s classes three times a week. Her classes were called Kripalu (meaning “compassion”) yoga, named for Swami Kripalu, the guru of Amrit Desai, who founded the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts.

Amrit was called at that time Gurudev, meaning “beloved guru,” and he was ever present in the class — on a poster demonstrating the yoga postures and on the altar at the front of the room.

I loved everything about the class. I loved the smell of the sati incense. I loved the music and the altar and the pictures of Gurudev. I loved that the class began and ended with chanting “om,” and that we shared with the group about our day. I loved that we were led to ignite and follow our own body’s guidance and wisdom as we practiced. I loved that we were invited to “sound” and emote. To sound basically means to moan, either from the blissful pain of the stretch or from the release of tension or emotion that a posture might trigger.

I even loved my walk to class — I felt like an insider, a member of a secret society as I marched straight through the store, past the tofu pies and organic black bean corn chips, and headed for the back stairs. I’d nod to Guy, keeper of the stairs, as he polished his counter or mindfully flipped a Sunshine burger. I felt like part of something, or even part of a revolution, attending secret insurgent meetings in the attic of the Harvest. In a way I was an insurgent, at least in the minds of my parents and my Georgetown business school friends.

Yolanthe’s class captured my spirit in a way no other class had. I loved Oskar’s Sivananda yoga class at Georgetown. I loved Janice’s Iyengar yoga class at the gym in Jersey City. But Kripalu yoga gave me permission to be me. It invited the whole me to show up, and really, I’d say that was the first time that the whole me had been invited anywhere.

A typical class in the attic of the Harvest started with all of us sitting cross-legged in a circle and the following introduction, called a “centering,” by Yolanthe:

“Close your eyes and tune in to your body. (pause) Notice your buttocks on the ground. (pause) Notice your clothes resting on your body. (pause) Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath. (longer pause) Notice when your mind wanders away to think about lunch, work, or your to-do list, and bring it back to this room — to feeling your body, your belly rising and falling with each breath. (long pause) For today, for the next hour and fifteen minutes, give yourself permission to be fully here in this class with nothing else to do and nowhere else to be — nothing else to accomplish but paying attention to your body and hearing its messages, for the next hour and fifteen minutes. (long pause) Ahohhhmmmm. Ahohhhmmmm. Ahohhhmmmm.”

Sometimes I’d hear the whole intro. Mostly my mind wandered off, uncontrollably reviewing my morning or planning my afternoon, and I’d hear Yolanthe’s voice faintly in the background. But I loved the idea and the intention.

Occasionally, I actually succeeded in giving myself permission to be only there. Sometimes I could set aside planning and problem solving until after class. No one had ever asked me to do this before. And no one had ever asked me to listen to what my body was tell-ing me.

At first I tackled this project with the same diligence and anxiety I had used throughout school. I was obsessed. “I’m listening to my body...I’m listening to my body...Oh, I think I feel the stirrings of a pee! Better go.” I’d get up, tiptoe around everyone in their frog postures, and head to the bathroom to pee. Three drops.

Later, I’d realize, “Oh, wait a minute, I think I might be cold! Better put on my sweater.”

I wanted an A in this assignment. Plus, I was asking my body, for the first time, what it wanted, and like a six-year-old who’s allowed to chew gum for the first time, my body wanted a mouthful.

And my body and I, as new acquaintances, needed some time to get to know each other. I had not had this type of consciousness before. In fact, I’d say that this lack of body consciousness had contributed to my colitis. If I was stiff, I didn’t think to stretch. If I was stressed, I didn’t think to take a few deep breaths. I just ignored all that. And if my head hurt from studying or if my stomach hurt during a debate tournament, I didn’t think to take a break; I just popped some Tylenol or downed some Pepto and kept going.

I became quite fond of Yogi Amrit Desai as he sat blissfully framed on the altar and in his poster demonstrating janu-shirshasana (head-to-knee forward bend). He had created Kripalu yoga, and to me he represented this new sanctuary I had found. •

Next: Becoming 'Most Real' »

Excerpted from the new book Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi © 2012 by Brian Leaf. Published with permission of www.newworldlibrary.com.

Brian Leaf Brian Leaf, M.A. is the author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. He draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. More »

Updated 1/17/14