Right on the heels of Monday’s enjoyable (and less epic) Summer Solstice Yoga in Times Square, the jetBlue-sponsored Yoga on the Great Lawn had momentum in its favor. Facebook and Twitter were flooded with tweets and posts from excited yogis (or yogis-to-be) about this huge event. Flavorpill even designed a “twibbon” to overlay on your twitter avatar showing your support for this event. They even had their own hashtag: #YogaNYC
I arrived at 77th St. & Central Park West to meet up with friends, but no one was there. Then I realized I’d forgotten my ticket at work. The ticket. The holy ticket! The organization of this event was impressive, and after registering (and waiting for my name to be selected; only 5000 slots were available), I was sent another email to confirm my attendance, and then another to print my ticket. To make all this cool free yoga stuff happen, I had to agree to the “terms and conditions” and register with Flavorpill. Hmmm.
So I didn’t have my ticket. My intuition flashed: it’s not meant to be!!! Suddenly, what had been a day of anticipation for this event, but which curiously became less fervent as the day wore on, suddenly took a nose dive. It was 5:45pm, 15 minutes after the gates to the event opened. I was literally across the street from Central Park and was about to head home when I heard someone call my name and I saw my friend Neal.
Neal let me borrow his iPhone to check my email and find my ticket, so at least I could prove I’d registered. All the communication for this event had been so corporate, so controlled. The ticket had a barcode and in an ominous black box, a warning: ENTRY TICKET ADMITS ONE – MUST PRINT AND PRESENT AT GATE. This key to heaven I had left at work, but I had the email!
Now a unit, Neal and I wandered into the park and were immediately met with a snaking line. Wait, three snaking lines. With no seeming beginning or end. No organization. No signs. No karma yogis in green t-shirts, as we had been told, telling us where to go or what to do. It was a free for all, but a crowd of yoga practitioners is a well-behaved crowd, so people organized themselves. Into three snaking lines. That had no discernible beginning nor end.
We wandered into a line after reaching the bottom of a hill where the three lines seemed to congregate into one blob. From this blob, people streamed off into one of the lines. One line went north, the other south, the third sort of north-east. It made no sense upon observation, but we had bigger fish to fry, namely, getting into the event. We settled into our line and waited. And waited. The line did not move.
Finally we got some traction and began advancing along a path that passed under Winderdale Arch. As we got closer to the Great Lawn, a reporter from Fox News (Fox News? Tangent, but I have noticed several reports of Fox covering yoga. What’s going on over there?) was looking for men in the line to interview about their interest in yoga.
Then, finally, a sign! It had a pink arrow and said “line continues.” As I looked behind me at what must have been a thousand people, I thought, “oh yes, the line definitely continues.” It was 6:57pm. I told Neal I’m giving this til 7:15. I looked at all the gorgeous empty green spaces that dotted the path we, and thousands others, waited on. Why weren’t people rejecting all these rules, lines, and order and breaking into spontaneous asana on all these gorgeous green patches? They certainly tempted me. Did they tempt anyone else? Did anyone else find it strange that we were standing in line for hours to do yoga on the Great Lawn when there were dozens of smaller, but no less great, lawns beckoning throughout the park?
This is when my BS meter started to tremble. Actually, it began trembling long before, but when in a crowd of yogis, one must be careful of how you express dissent lest you be cast out for being cynical, pessimistic, or as DL Diamond says on SuperJail, a Negaton!
We were now picking up the pace. After turning a corner on the path, the Great Lawn came into view. Along with a jumbotron monitor that was huger than anything I’d ever seen, there was a stage, and what looked like hundreds of yogis spreading out across the lawn. Looked like my 7:15pm curfew would not need to be enforced. At this point in time, I was on the fence about continuing. I’d come so far, but I was already hungry for yoga and had wished several times I’d just left the lemmings, I mean yogis, and gone and did my own thing on the grass elsewhere, away from the fray.
As we turned up the hill by the Delacorte Theater, we finally saw some people in t-shirts and laminates that were affiliated with the event. Class had been delayed until 7:30pm, we were told. Makes sense. There were still at least a thousand people in line BEHIND us!
And then they appeared: the gates! The pearly gates! In this case, they were metal, but with the intoxicated look everyone around us had to get past these gates, they may as well have been pearly. We took out Neal’s iPhone and brought up my email showing I’d registered, although a volunteer had told us it should be ok for me to get in.
To paraphrase the Sutras again, “and now, the goodie bags.” While in line, we saw many people leaving the park. Wait, but class hasn’t started yet. Ahhhh, but they had the GOODIE BAG, which contained the much-fabled “free mat.” What was this mat going to be like? Would it be a high-quality mat like the free Mandukas given out yesterday in Times Square (made of rubber, a renewable, non-toxic resource)? Or would it be one of those plastic slippery mats that are the kind you can now buy at TJ Maxx and Marshall’s in “yoga kits”? Upon closer inspection, we saw that it was not only the plastic slippery kind, but it was also emblazoned with jetBlue’s logo, Gaiam’s logo, and some marketing gobbeldy-gook about “finding your true self” followed with jetBlue’s tagline “true blue.” We also received a sweat-absorbing wristband, a chocolate brownie treat from a low-carbon restaurant who’s name I can’t recall at the moment, and a bottle of SmartWater. And the goodie bag itself, a reusable tote.
We entered the Great Lawn and saw the aspiring yogis being herded like cattle. Literally. There were “handlers” whose job it was to guide people into neat rows. Neal and I instinctively, without even talking about it beforehand, drifted out of the lane created for the sheep, I mean yogis, and got scolded by a handler who begrudged us to “don’t stop there!” What happened to being with whatever arises?
We settled ourselves in, so far away that the jumbotron looked the size of a YouTube screen. I looked up at the sky. Wasn’t looking good. When we entered the park, it was sunny and breezy. But conditions had begun to change as we inched along the line. There was a rain feeling in the air.
Neal and I laid out our mats and waited. Reggie Watts, the awesome beat-boxer/actor/comedian/performance artist, was in the middle of his advertised opening set. It was getting closer to 7:30. He said he was going to do a song called “Yoga” and he started “yo”…”ga”…”get your yo….ga!” He finished then said “if you believe in yoga say HELL YAH!” The crowd weakly repeated “hell yah!” “I didn’t hear you! If you believe in yoga say, HELL YAH!” A louder hell yah went up.
I was now thoroughly in the throes of cynicism. First of all, yoga is not a belief. You don’t BELIEVE in yoga. You believe in religion. You believe in Santa Claus. You KNOW yoga, you EXPERIENCE yoga, you DO yoga. You don’t do it with your brain, you do it with your spirit, your body. It’s not something you have to think about. It’s something that is so obviously real, it proves itself to you with unerring clarity. Yoga is not BELIEF. It’s not religion, it’s not rules, it’s not dogma. It’s science, philosophy, and meta-physics.
I was getting a little un-yogically pissed off.
Then helicopter overhead couldn’t drown out Reggie Watts’ powerful voice and professional mic handling, but when the teacher donned her headset (Elena Brower, owner of Virayoga in Soho), hearing anything she said became a practice in itself. And to paraphrase the Sutras again, “and now, the Rain.”
What had moments before been a blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, was becoming ominously gray. I felt a drop. A lone drop. I looked around to see if anyone else had. Then a few seconds later, another. The air pressure changed, the breeze changed, the very scent of the air changed into that heavy, green scent that comes just before the sky’s about to open up.
Instructions were passed to us in the back more by monkey-see monkey-do than by the teacher’s voice. The helicopter overhead completely drowned her out, but we understood it was time to Om. I heard something about the Gulf, something about 10,000 people. We Om’d. Another drop. We stood up. We reached our hands to the sky. Elena Brower said something about opening your heart center to the sky. I looked around and saw a lot of collapsed lower backs and jutted out hips. How can you accurately convey an esoteric instruction like “open your heart to the sky” to a group of thousands, which contained a large number of obvious novices?
And then the sky opened. It began to rain. Big, fat, heavy raindrops. Instantly people began to run for the exits. They covered themselves with yoga mats, goodie bags, and many had umbrellas. Neal and I hunkered under his umbrella and waited. The instruction from the stage, where some of NYC’s most elite yoga instructors, like Sadie Nardini and Alison West were seated, was to roll with it.
The rain seemed to lighten for a moment, and the field, now a few hundred people lighter, rose to their feet. And now, the chaturangas. Elena Brower took us through the rest of the sun salutation, and on our first one, instructed chaturanga! This is an advanced asana not applicable for all practitioners and DEFINITELY not appropriate for novices! There was NO instruction given on what chaturanga is, or how to get into it. We also went straight into upward dog for our first backbend.
With no disrespect to Elena Brower, this class (if you can call the one sun salutation we did a class) is NOT appropriate for all levels. Despite being marketed as an event for all levels, chaturanga and upward facing dog are not, especially with no instruction on how to achieve them correctly. Looking around at the upward dogs near me, lower backs were caved in, shoulders were hunched up to the ears, wrists were strained. And we still couldn’t hear, because the helicopter overhead drowned out any relevant instruction Brower may have been giving.
Why was that helicopter there? Was it for security? Or to take aerial photography? What was the true intention of this class? Was it to mark the summer solstice and celebrate the wonderful, joyous practice of yoga? Or was it to capitalize on the trend of yoga and get fabulous aerial imagery of everyone on a blue jetBlue yoga mat (personal yoga mats were NOT ALLOWED on the Great Lawn)? Or perhaps it was to break the world’s record for world’s largest yoga class, which apparently this event did.
Whatever the event’s true intent was, I was left feeling disappointed, stressed, and un-nurtured, the exact opposite of what happens when I practice yoga in more modest surroundings. For all the dozens of blog posts emerging today, spinning the event as an amazing experience which even the rain couldn’t darken, I hold a dissenting opinion.
I think the spin is just more of the conventional me-too-ism that seems to have infected New York City in recent years. Put enough marketing dollars and media connections behind something, and everyone will swear it’s amazing and go out of their way to stand in line to say they were there…even if all we really did was stand in line. There was no organization to this event for the thousands of people who stood in line without any signage, volunteer, or announcement to give us an update. There was insufficient sound at the site. And the helicopter boggles my mind. Why was it there? Isn’t security on the ground enough? I suspect it was for aerial photography.
If you can’t HEAR the yoga instruction or SEE it (the jumbotron could only help those closest to it; we in the back were out of luck), are you even in the class? Or are you just part of a majorly hyped, outdoor, New York City en-masse event? If all you got out of it is the mat, like a t-shirt, “I was there,” what message are you getting? Is yoga just another commodity, something to be marketed like any other identity? One can argue we’re already there, but this event emphasized how there is a divide in the yoga world which I am beginning to see far more clearly: yoga as spiritual practice vs. yoga as trendy exercise.
Along with the thousands of others now literally fleeing the park for dryer, higher ground, I pondered what I had just experienced and really wished I’d left when I’d realized I’d left my ticket at work. That was the sign: don’t go there. On the other hand, I got to see something with made it all the clearer to me which is my path, and which is the path I will represent whenever I have the honor to serve others by teaching a class, or by talking about yoga with anyone who’s interested, or simply by living and being true to myself.
I’m not in yoga for a tight butt (although it’s a nice perk) or a cool wardrobe of stretchy clothes from Lululemon (I can’t afford them). I do yoga because I love it and because it has helped me find inner peace. It has cured my depression, made me a far happier person (even if this blog post might make you doubt that statement), and helped me find what I believe is my purpose, which is to serve and to heal.
I did not find much that was healing in last night’s experience, and I was fortunate enough to be able to donate my jetBlue mat to an organization that teaches yoga to public school students in low-income neighborhods, so I was able to be of some service as well. But last night’s event felt like a marketing-driven, demographically-targeted event to get some awesome aerial shots of 20 and 30 something NYers down-dogging on blue jetBlue mats. And that’s not yoga.
I would love to know what Alison West, Sadie Nardini, Dharma Mittra and the rest of the elite really feel about last night’s event, and its true intention (and result, other than breaking a world record). If I were a yoga elite, and had been sheltered from the rain on a fancy stage with a cool backdrop, near the big jumbotron, would I still feel this way? I hope so. And I think so too. But I won’t believe, even if Reggie Watts wants me to say hell yah.