Based on my preliminary research on the Baptiste family, when I entered the Baptiste studio in Cambridge, I was expecting broad shoulders and cut abs. I was almost surprised to be greeted by a friendly young man with a comfortable human shape to him (who I later observed to be more flexible than I am -no mean feat!). When I had heard that the yoga would be "hot yoga", I mentally prepped myself for a sweltering sauna, in which I would start dripping sweat the moment I entered the room. Luckily enough, I had picked the one class that wasn't technically considered hot, and so while the room was far warmer than most, the heat served to relax my body, rather than melt it. And while power yoga appears to be considered more of a work-out and exercise regime, rather than a meditative practise, our teacher started the class with deep breathing and an attempt to relax our minds, rather than fifty jumping jacks and twelve laps around the room.
The yoga class I went to was entitled "Relax and Renew" and was publicized as a much less intense class than the standard power yoga exercise regime. I didn't quite know what to expect from that particular class, but I did know that power yoga seems to be more focused on the physical side of yoga than the forms we do in class, and have much less to do with the internal bettering of oneself. While the teacher did not specifically focus deeply on how to bring oneself fully into the present, she did present deep breathing exercises and meditation, and urged us to still our minds and reduce the toxins seeping into our brains.
Through the course of the ninety minute class, the teacher said two things that particularly resonated with me. The first was, when leading a pose, she specifically mentioned that we should be arranged so as to reduce pain because "there is so much pain in the body already". It was clear that she was not talking merely in a physical sense, and it struck me as a particularly true sentiment -part of the yogic ideal is to be able to drift away from the mental pain of being, and find ourselves in a calmer, more centered part of our mind.
The other thing our teacher mentioned was how humans are like a sponge -we take in our environment, not just in a literal sense with the air we breathe, but in a metaphorical sense, as we absorb our surroundings through our five senses, and as we gain information and reflect emotion as we interact with other people. I know that I have a tendency to be somewhat empathic when with friends --when a room full of people is excited and happy, I reflect that by joining in, when the same room gets stressed and worried, I find myself wanting nothing more than to curl up in a corner. Thinking of myself as a sponge was an interesting new way of looking at that empathy.
From a sensory point of view, everything was arranged to help draw out that feeling of relaxation, and push the participant into a meditative state reminiscent of dreaming, with a healthy balance between the subconscious and the forebrain. The room was dim when we entered, and when I later examined the space, I realized that there were no actual lights on -for our evening class, someone had very cleverly realized that the streetlamp outside the building provided a generous and mellow lighting scheme, filtering in through the sheer-curtained windows. The room itself was large and plain, without any distracting art upon the walls.
As I settled into the first relaxation, my nose filled with a soft scent of incense, burning unobtrusively on a corner shelf. The smell was strong, and at the beginning of the class was a bit much for my scent avoidant nature, but it was not especially cloying, and no doubt helped to cover the less pleasant scents of sweat from classes earlier in the day in the hot room. As the class progressed, I realized I was no longer smelling the incense at all, lending further support to its subtle nature.
While the sprung wood floor would creak gently as the class moved, most of the standard sounds of movement were covered by light background music. The music cycled in long repetitive chants and sounds, nothing I could latch on to, which means it served its purpose perfectly. Our teacher pitched her voice above the music, while still managing to soothe as she guided us through each pose. Her voice drifted across us like the sounds of a dream -after the class, my partner remarked on how difficult it was at some points to tell whether she was talking in reality or merely in his head.
When practicing yoga forms, ones concern is generally less about the tactile sensations from outside the body as much as they are about the feeling from within, and how the pose stretches the muscles and warms the body. While I appreciate the internal stretch, I did also take the time to observe how my surroundings felt to my body. Most notable was the heat of the room -while I was not doing official hot yoga, the class before had been, and the room was extraordinarily warm --certainly warmer than most other buildings, especially in contrast to the winter air outside. I found the room to be almost uncomfortable, and I'm very glad indeed that they did not push it up that last bit to be official hot yoga -similarly, I'm glad that I was engaging in a relatively low impact and gentle yoga practise; had the poses been more strenuous or the pace more intense, it would have been very difficult indeed to keep from sweating away ever drop of water in my body.
As for the poses themselves, they were relatively basic and simple. Instead of focusing on twisting oneself into a pretzel, the class was based around holding each pose for five minutes or more, letting the heat soften muscles, and the pull of gravity gradually deepen each pose. The soothing situation made it easy to quiet my mind, and drop into each pose --while I went into the studio a ball of stress and nerves, I exited feeling at peace, and much more relaxed.
Additionally, I found the use of blocks to be an interesting change of pace from our usual class fare. In the "relax and renew" class, there were many soft rectangular blocks available, and the teacher encouraged the use of them to make poses easier on the body, and remove or reduce stress from certain muscles. Even poses which i am perfectly capable of doing without any external support had a variant with the blocks, some of which was revealed to be more comfortable, or better able to support myself. Especially interesting to perform with the blocks was the forward bend -instead of just letting the upper half of my body hang, I could reduce some of the strain on my lower back by resting my elbows on a convenient stack of blocks.
The history of the Baptiste yoga center is a vivid one, and goes back as far as the mid fifties. The studios in Cambridge and Brookline were founded by Baron Baptiste, who has been doing yoga since he was five years old -before it had become quite so much of a cultural phenomena.
How did he manage to get into the yoga business so early? His parents are critical figures in the history of yoga in America. In 1955, Baron's father, Walt Baptiste, and mother, Magana Baptiste, opened the first yoga studio in San Francisco. They are credited with having "opened the doors for everyone and likely introduced over one hundred thousand people to Yoga.", and while it may have taken a few years for their strange new exercise form to take off, by the sixties, "yoga caught on, and their thousands of students over the next four decades would include socialites and celebrities, from Lenny Bruce to Herb Caen"
Among other honorifics, Walt was named "yogiraj" or "King of Yoga" by Swami Sivananda. In 1999, the Mayor of San Francisco named Walt's birthday as Walt Baptiste Day, to honor him. Though Walt died a few years later, his wife is still going strong -Magana teaches yoga twice a week, and can still "arch her back till her head's nearly touching the ground".
Baron Baptiste has been founding and directing his schools throughout the last eight years, and has seen an enormous number of students walk through the doors of one of his three studios in that time. Additionally, he has compiled a collection of over forty affiliate schools, who have teachers taught by Baron himself, in one of his week long intense teacher workshops. Among other things, he has published several books, and spent four years working as a physical coach for the Philadelphia Eagles.
While the Baptiste studios are focused on power yoga, and outwardly seem to be more of an exercise scheme than an actual practise of yoga, there are still plenty of traditional meditation and breathing techniques in the class and the form. The website faqs provide a particularly striking explanation "If you think you need to go to a health club to be fit and beautiful, think again. If you think that you need to escape to a cave in the Himalayas to find the enlightenment that yoga promises, think again." While Baptiste yoga is certainly not as rigid as more traditional yogic practises, it still manages to bring that spirit of inner peace. I enjoyed getting a new perspective on yoga in general, and was fascinated by the idea of a class more focused on the figures than the background. It may not have been hot yoga, but it was certainly fun!