The other day, thanks to a recently-purchased Groupon, I ended up going to a class I’d like to call bro-ga. Bro-ga is what happens when guys who seem like surfers or extreme mountain bikers or fraternity brothers (and perhaps they are these things, too) do yoga. Bro-ga involves shirtless dudes showing off their tribal tattoos and competing for who can do the most radical head stand. It seems to be mostly a west coast phenomenon, and if you’re unfamiliar with the type, consider Bradley Cooper’s character in Failure to Launch, a movie in which I happen to make a small cameo*.
Anyway, I don’t have a problem with Bro-gis. I think yoga is great, and anyone who wants to do it should do it, including the bros. I just hadn’t expected that this new yoga studio was going to be quite so full of them.
I showed up to class, rolled out my mat, and looked around. The class was about half women and half men, and all of the men were shirtless twenty-somethings.
“Heeyyy guys,” Matthew, the instructor, said in a long, drawn-out voice, sounding like maybe he’d just smoked a bowl before class. “So, I just want you guys to know that, like, you are your own teachers tonight, OK? So listen to my instructions, but, you know, do what you feel.”
Matthew settled onto his mat and looked at each of us dead in the eyes. He was deeply tanned, and when he smiled, his teeth looked too bright for his face. “You are not this fragile body,” he intoned over the increasingly loud sounds of chanting monks coming from the stereo. “Soooo, what do you guys think that means?”
I didn’t want to answer. I was here to do yoga, not to have a philosophical discussion, and the way that Matthew was staring at us was disconcerting. I thought longingly of my usual power vinyasa class at Yogalife in Queen Anne. The instructor was a plucky, down-to-earth blond girl who had given me practical advice on how to do side crow. I suddenly wished I was there, in that simple, roomy studio instead of here, cramped into a tiny space that smelled of patchouli and feet.
“Don’t all talk at once,” Matthew said after a moment of silence.
I didn’t want to say anything. The answer to his question seemed obvious. Of course we are more than watery sacks of flesh and bones and blood. We are something more than our biological body. Duh. This was something I’d been hearing at yoga classes for years.
“It means, like, we’re stronger than we think we are?” said a bro at the back of the room, sounding unsure of his answer. He wore a pair of baggie surf shorts, and his hair was shaggy and blond.
“Totally.” Matthew nodded enthusiastically. “Anyone else?”
“I means that, like, I am this… I am this fucking cosmic being of energy and light and fucking love,” a forty-something woman yelled, smacking the wood floor for emphasis. She had a pile of dreads the size of a porcupine on top of her head, and a crazy gleam in her eye like maybe she’d just smoked a bowl, too. “And I’m only fucking renting space in this fucking fragile vessel, that’s what it means.” The woman smiled, satisfied with her answer.
Matthew nodded. “Exaaactly. Right on, sister.” I had to bite my lip to keep from smirking. He was such a west coast bro, it was ridiculous. I might as well have been taking a yoga class with Jeff Spicoli.
Finally, we stood up and began our vinyasa practice. We moved from one pose to another while Matthew walked around the room giving us helpful suggestions like “shine your heart towards the sky” and “let your energy fly.” It was hot in the tiny room, and instead of doing the sun salutations and various poses I was used to, Matthew was having us do a fast and crazy sequence I’d never heard of that involved “helicopter arms” and a lot of clapping of hands and slapping of the floor. Also a lot of deep squats that made my thighs ache for days afterwards.
Pretty soon, everyone was sweating profusely. The shirtless bro in front of me, who grunted every time he came into downward facing dog, was sweating so much that the towel under his yoga mat was completely soaked, and when he flung his arms out into warrior two, flecks of sweat went flying from his body and onto my face. Bro-ga does tend to be sweatier than regular yoga, but this was getting excessive, and a heavy, hippy-ish smell began to fill the room. Apparently most of the class participants had eaten garlic hummus for lunch and were now sweating it out their pores. I was having trouble doing my ujjayi breathing when it smelled like we were in a small tent on day five of the Rainbow Gathering.
“You are not this fragile body,” Matthew reminded us. “Breathe through the pain.” I tried to take a deep breath, but my chest was seizing. I was having trouble with my vinyasa. The poses weren’t what I was used to, and my leg muscles were screaming from all the squats. I wished we could just do regular stuff. I was good at pigeon and crow and cat-cow. Instead of feeling graceful and confident, I felt awkward and self-conscious. I thought again of my Yogalife class where I knew what to expect and how to do the poses.
“Right on, everybody,” Matthew said. “Stop thinking so hard and just listen to your body. It knows what to do.” I shook my head slightly. Obviously, my body didn’t.
Finally, we rolled onto our mats to cool down. I was relieved it was almost over. Then, as we were doing happy baby, Matthew started up with his philosophical musings again.
“We all know instinctively,” he said, “that we are not our bodies. If I die, you would point to my body and say ‘that’s Matthew’s body.’ You wouldn’t say, ‘that’s Matthew.’ You know that I’m gone. So, question one. Where did I go? Retorical question, don’t answer that!” He laughed. “But, OK, so, question two is, where was I to begin with?”
I thought about this as I lay back into shivasana (“corpse pose.”) I am not this fragile body. At the beginning of class, when Matthew had asked us about this, I’d practically rolled my eyes at him. I was used to hearing yoga teachers say this that I’d become desensitized to the idea. In fact, I had become desensitized to a lot of things about yoga. I’d started thinking of it as something I already knew, instead of something I do in order to learn.
And Matthew was right for us to give the idea of the body the careful consideration it deserves. When I die, my body will be “Eva’s body.” But right now it is something more than just a body. I am more than this fragile body, but what else am I? What is it that makes me me? That’s a mystery worth pondering.
There’s a temptation to want to stick with what we’re used to: to keep doing what we understand, what we’re good at, what we’re comfortable with. Trying something new feels awkward and uncomfortable. But if you give it a chance, you might do a new pose you sort of like, tighten muscles you forgot you had, consider an old thought in a new way. You might find that your fragile body is more limber than it seems, and your mysterious mind is more open, more humble, than you usually act like it is.
After shivasana, we sat up and said three “oms.” The bros competed for the loudest, deepest-sounding om so that the chant rumbled deep in my belly and reverberated off the thin walls of the yoga studio.
“You guys were awesome,” Matthew said. “Thanks so much for sharing your practice with me.”
“Thanks,” I said. And I truly meant it.
Maybe the bros know more than I give them credit for.
*Here are some pictures of me (in overalls) and my friend Andrea (pink shirt) being extras in the movie Failure to Launch. It was filmed in New Orleans, LA.