A few years ago, before my first-ever yoga class started, our instructor asked us to set an intention for the experience. “I suggest peace, love or harmony,” she said. “But pick whatever feels best for you.” I found my intention while in downward-facing dog. My hands pressed onto the ground, my backside in the air, and with my head hanging between my tensed arms, I repeated the mantra to myself: Please don’t fart. Please don’t fart.
It has been difficult for me to let go in yoga in more than one way.
At 27, I’m more or less in the prime of my life. Yet the indestructible years of my youth are behind me. My love for contact sports and general recklessness have sidelined me with greater frequency—a painfully twisted ankle here, a strained shoulder there, and a recurring month-long tweak in my lower back. I’ve never been keen on lifting weights or swimming laps or those hamster wheels we call treadmills. I wanted to find an activity that can extend my amateur athletic career and take over that part of my life when the cartilage in my knee runs dry. I thought yoga might be the answer.
Besides, the idea of yoga promises to combine stillness and strength, mind and body, into a calm transcendence. Who doesn’t want that? But when I’ve tried yoga over the past few years, that hasn’t happened. I was never able to rise above the material world and silence all the chatter inside my head. And I hadn’t mastered the poses or practice of yoga enough for many physical benefits to kick in, either. I decided that now would be as good a time as any to try to fall in love with yoga.
It turns out that Sarasota is a good place to do that. There are more than two dozen yoga studios in our area, and some 100 instructors. While yoga is cloaked in antiquity, new forms of it pop up every day—like cat yoga, where as many as 10 cats roam the room while you stretch; tantrum yoga; and karaoke yoga. I didn’t find any of those in Sarasota, but I did find a variety of classes that promised relaxation, invigoration and a spiritual boost. I decided to try seven of the city’s most popular studios.
The Yoga Shack
423 N. Lemon Ave. (941) 548-1841
The Yoga Shack is one of the newest yoga places in town. The teachers all seemed to be women in their 20s and 30s, and the clients were about the same age. The recently renovated building feels like a bungalow. The floors are dark, soft wood, and the room is lit only by the sunlight that comes through the windows. Expect the temperature to be toasty—they want you to sweat.
This studio focuses on the Vinyasa yoga technique, the most aerobic form of yoga. “Vinyasa” is Sanskrit for “to place in a special way.” The technique seems to link the breath with the body’s movement and involves a lot of dynamic poses that shift quickly.
I took an early evening Power Vanyasa class with six other people, two of us men. Misty, ethereal music played from a speaker in the corner of the room next to a picture of the Hindu god Ganesh. Though this class was for experienced practitioners, two young women said this was only their second class; but the teacher, Ashley, assured them they would be all right. She would practice the yoga alongside us so we’d have an example of what to do.
The class was physically demanding and I began to sweat. Soon I had soaked my mat. I could barely hold the required poses without slipping. I became aware of my competitive spirit. I kept measuring myself against those around me, even when the instructor asked us to close our eyes. By the time Ashley put her hands together in prayer and ended the class with a “Namaste,” I felt I’d had an intense workout but had a long way to go to achieve the proper unself-conscious yogic spirit.
4141 S. Tamiami Trail, #6. (941) 922-9642
In some new forms of yoga, students combine multiple kinds of exercise with the Eastern practice—for example, paddleboard yoga, which we have in Sarasota. But I decided I’d take a class from an older Sarasota tradition—the circus. I signed up for Flying Yoga at the Circusoul studio off South Tamiami Trail. On two long metal beams on the studio ceiling, a dozen or so brightly colored fabrics hung like hammocks. Flying, or aerial yoga, uses these suspended cloths to aid and intensify yoga exercises.
Throughout the class techno music played that reminded me of the sound-tracks to fighting video games I used to play as a kid. We faced a mirror that covered the entire wall. All but one of us were beginners.
I wobbled with the fabrics at first. The instructor assured us that the fabrics were the same as those used in circuses and could hold the weight of an elephant. When it was time to invert ourselves I was nervous. But after adjusting the cloth and wrapping my legs around the sides, which were attached to the ceiling, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed hanging upside down. The blood rushed to my head and I felt my spine lift from my hips.
After the inversions were over, it was relaxation time. The cloth was manipulated into a cocoon that snuggly held and rocked us. I felt like a baby. I wished the class could last overnight. We got out of the fabrics and ended the class with a Namaste.
1501 Second St. (941) 330-2632
I had heard of Bikram yoga for years. Formed by the yogi Bikram Choudhury in the 1970s, the technique cycles through 26 poses and two breathing exercises over a 90-minute period in a room heated to 105 degrees. What I most remember about the practice was that its founder was under indictment for sexually coercing his students. But hey, I still watch and enjoy Woody Allen movies. So I gave it a try.
We began with breathing exercises in which you interlocked your hands and placed the knuckles flush under your chin. You’d breathe in deeply and push back your head as far as it could go while simultaneously raising your elbows. In less than a minute, I was covered in sweat. Then the poses began. They were mostly familiar, but the heat intensified them and helped you stretch more deeply. It began to feel masochistic. It didn’t help that I was out of shape. At one point, the instructor had us get in “camel pose.” With our lower legs flush against the ground, we were to bend over backwards and grab our ankles and look at the back wall. It was hard to breathe.
“Don’t worry if you feel any pain,” the young, tanned female instructor said. “Just keep going.”
My shirt became totally drenched and I took it off. We would get sporadic breaks where we got to lie down and rest. Dear God, it was hot. Even the resting pose felt like a workout. I looked at the clock, praying that the class was almost done. I could barely make out the hands of the clock because the glass was fogged over. I found myself getting mad at the concept of time. I couldn’t wait to hear the instructor say, “Namaste”.
Outside, I wrung out about 10 pounds of water from my towel and T-shirt. The next day I hurt. My hamstrings were tight, my neck would cramp up if I turned too far and I couldn’t drink enough water. I decided I should try some yoga that focused less on physical intensity and more on the mindful side of the practice.
Yoga on Siesta Beach
Siesta Beach by the red lifeguard stand.
Someone recommended I check out a yoga class on Siesta Public Beach at 9 a.m. The drive from north Sarasota to the key was unpleasant, and my road rage was unleashed: “Get the hell out of the way so I am not late to my yoga class, idiot!”
When I arrived, I watched as the instructor, Ava Csiszar, 63, stretched, curling her entire torso between her legs. Six years ago, she moved to Sarasota from Hawaii, where she taught yoga and surfing, to spend time with her ailing mother. She has, undoubtedly, the best yoga studio in town. The sun was soft and crisp and the steady wash of the shore reminds you to breathe. On occasion, during the class, I found myself in synch with the Gulf.
Ava teaches Hatha yoga. While Hatha yoga has meant different things over time, today the practice is associated with a gentle form of yoga. You can expect to sit in poses for longer than you would in a Vinyasa class. You can also expect breathing exercises and periods of focused meditation. At one point, Ava had us sit in easy pose, our legs crossed lightly in front of us with our backs straight as if against an invisible wall. The stillness was surprisingly excruciating. My hips and back ached.
To try to alleviate the pain, I started to peek at my fellow yogis. Of the 30 attending, only three of us were men. This was the case throughout my yoga experiences.
Later, I asked Ava why she thought this was. “Men are shy about doing things they’re not inherently good at. Women are naturally more flexible,” she said. “There is also a softness and inwardness, unlike in competitive sports, that is more feminine as well. But men need it more than women do! Plus, they can potentially meet the love of their life here. It’s better than a bar.”
“But shouldn’t we be focusing on ourselves during class?” I asked.
“All voyeurism is for after class.”
I did not meet the love of my life at Ava’s class. Nor did I fall in love with Hatha yoga as challenging exercise. Except for the difficulty of stillness, I could do all of the poses and I never felt like I had exhausted myself. I also did not feel any spiritual tingling. I wondered if there was something wrong with me, or if I need a more explicitly “spiritual” practice.
Prana Yoga and Healing Center
3840 S. Osprey Ave. (941) 928-2137
At the Prana Yoga and Healing Center, I signed up to take an hour-and-a-half long Kundalini class. The instructor handed me a piece of paper that explained what Kundalini is. Among other things, it is a “complete science” and a “perfect tool for strengthening the nervous system, bringing mental clarity and focus, strengthening the immune system, [releasing] past karma and experiences, and connecting you with your dharma, the true path of your destiny.” Wow. I wanted some of that.
I was one of three people taking the class. The other two were an older married couple on vacation from Quebec. Our instructor passed around a vial of frankincense for us to rub on our necks and the bottoms of our feet.
“That’s where the largest pores on the body are,” she said.
The stretches were basic and mostly performed while seated. She encouraged us to breathe. The Quebecois man breathed strangely, like he was getting punched in the gut. I find it very difficult to focus when someone in the class has a particularly grating tic. Could this guy please shut up so that I can love every living thing? But perhaps that is just another test of reaching inward that I regularly fail in yoga.
After the floor stretches it was time to chant. Our teacher told us that we would say Sa Ta Na Ma while applying five pounds of alternating pressure to each finger with our thumbs for 11 minutes. We were to imagine an L-shaped energy emanating from our third eye. The song began and I chanted. But after about three minutes my back began to ache and impatience set in. I couldn’t help but feel this was silly. I didn’t feel anything. I tried to imagine the L-shaped energy but I couldn’t decide which angle it should be. I opened my eyes and surveyed the room. On the walls were small portraits of yogis and Hindi gods and other spiritual beings. After the chanting ended, the class was over. Perhaps I should try something a little less spiritual.
Yoga From the Heart
2010 Pine Terrace, Suite B. (941) 929-9878
I decided I would try Yoga From the Heart, which was started in 1998 by Lynn Burgess and is one of Sarasota’s oldest studios. Lynn was our instructor; we 10 students faced her and a pair of sliding glass doors that led to a small courtyard and a stone Buddha sitting in the lotus position. The practice at this studio is influenced by Iyengar yoga, an anatomically precise technique that was developed by the recently deceased B.K.S. Iyengar and uses props like blocks and blankets to help students achieve alignment.
Lynn seemed to know everyone’s name and would call attention to us when we were doing well. It was a small space and I had to watch out for the people to either side lest I accidentally smacked them in the face. At 6 feet, 3 inches, when I raised my arms above my head, something we did frequently, I would touch the ceiling with my second knuckle. We ended class in shavasana, or corpse pose, with the aid of rubber blocks, a cylindrical pillow and straps. We put our feet together and let our knees drop to the side. I felt like a dead bug on its back.
After the requisite Namaste, I felt good but not any more enlightened than when I walked inside. I stopped to talk to Lynn.
“Before yoga, I worked in corporate America,” Lynn, 51, said. “There was a lot of downsizing. I feared that any day I could be next.” She had trouble sleeping, her right eye twitched and she had a short fuse. Then, at the suggestion of a friend, she took her first yoga class.
“I knew what I was supposed to do for the rest of my life,” she said. “It was a passionate love affair.”
“See, that’s what I want,” I told Lynn. “But for some reason I can’t find it.”
“There are so many offerings in yoga,” Lynn said. “People can become confused. They see it on TV, Dr. Oz talks about it, it’s in health magazines. People don’t understand that it is a lifelong practice.”
I wondered if my relationship to yoga would be a lifetime of searching.
Rosemary Court Yoga
810 Central Ave. (941) 952-5280
Rosemary Court Yoga presents many classes in a number of different styles. The studio is an old, two-story house, and the classes take place in rooms with wooden floors. The studio is operated by 35-year-old Liana Sheintal Bryant, whose family owns Rosemary Court. Liana started yoga 13 years ago. “I was a cheerleader in college and did gymnastics before that, and after graduation, I wanted to do something physical,” she says. She tried different classes at gyms, but “I didn’t connect,” she says. “When I took my first yoga class I connected immediately.”
I told her I was jealous that she had instantly connected.
“What’s good about the diversity of yoga practices is that there is something for everyone,” she assured me.
I took the noon Vinyasa class. It was all women over the age of 50. When I shook while holding poses, I’d glance at the women around me. They seemed perfectly still and blissful. The instructor singled me out several times for improper technique. Playing team sports, it had never bothered me to have coaches yelling at me aggressively. But her sweet, constructive criticisms unnerved me.
“Now, everyone, we are going to go into tadasana, or mountain pose,” she said. “Imagine your favorite mountain. Now be your favorite mountain.”
My mind raced to think of a mountain, any mountain. I grew up in the flats of Florida. The first peak that came to mind was Mount Everest, but it wasn’t my favorite mountain and I certainly couldn’t be the mountain I’d never ever seen in person.
Because there are so many different classes at Rosemary Court, I tried another Vinyasa course, this time in the evening. Throughout the class, the teacher, Laura Mahoney, reminded us to breathe. I started to realize how often I’d find
myself holding my breath during a pose. She also played a few Beatles songs. The absence of gooey, Eastern-sounding music was a nice touch. I left her class feeling good. In both the classes I took here, the teachers paid close attention to the students. They asked people what was going on with their bodies and what they’d like to work on.
I began to see yoga practice as both ritual and community and realized I had been looking too inwardly. Besides strengthening your body through yoga, there is a whole world of relationships and community to be found. The one common theme among these varied studios was that each place wanted to make you feel good.
Perhaps I had been expecting too much too soon. I had assumed I’d find the one perfect class that would provide me with instant karma and the ideal workout. I’d been treating yoga like those Renaissance indulgences Catholic priests sold to sinners. But for most of us, it doesn’t work like that. Every class had offered me something challenging and done me some good. But no one class would suddenly get me to where I wanted to go.
In some ways, there is nothing special about yoga. Physical fitness can be achieved in countless ways, and a transcendent state of mind can be reached from folding your laundry, from frying onions or walking your dog and picking up after it. But yoga does feel good, and when done properly, is good for you. And if you can’t find a good yoga class in Sarasota, you aren’t really looking.
Isaac Eger has written about sports and travel for The New York Times and GQ. He’s working on a book, Courting the World, about playing pick-up basketball around the globe, and wrote “Crystal New Persuasion” in our December issue.