“The bathroom is on your left, and you can store your shoes in one of the cubbies behind me,” chirped the receptionist. I nodded and walked around her desk. In place of running shoes, cubbies full of street-wear sneakers looked back at me. I hung up my sweatshirt on a rack otherwise filled with leather jackets. Faces I recognized stared at me from the opposite wall: Rihanna, Drake, Snoop Dogg. Emblazoned across each was a pun relating the artist to breathing techniques: Life after breath, Work hard Pray Hard, Namastay Fresh.

This was not just any yoga studio. This was hip hop yoga.

 

Since joining ClassPass, I’ve tried out at least 15 different gym studios. The first time in any class takes courage. Regulars quickly pick up on the person who stalls class because they don’t know what they are doing. I’m sure they resent the fact that the instructor spends the most time helping someone who didn’t pay full price.

It’s hard on the newbie too. You never know if the workout will be too easy and feel like a waste of your time. Or worse – you find yourself in over your head. I shuddered to recall a dance class where the girl next to me got up and moved to the other side of the studio because I kept kicking left into her when she (and the rest of class) was kicking right.

The studio door swung open and a wave of damp air swept across the waiting room. I slipped in as the last class’s bodies were still spilling out. I was not about to get stuck in the front row. Inside, the room looked more like a dungeon than a yoga studio. The only light came from a few flickering candles, and all four walls were painted over the color of night. I reached to put up my hair, and realized that there were no mirrors to help me fix my ponytail. I tied up a bun to keep my hair from sticking to my neck. The class description said they keep the room around 90 degrees.

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Slowly the studio filled. I noticed most of the women around me peeling off their tops to work out in just their sportsbras. This doesn’t happen in other classes. Usually one or two people will remove their shirts. You know the type. They cross their arms to pull off their shirts in a single deft motion, revealing the body of a statue. During class, their muscles behave like soldiers, refusing to quiver even during the deepest chair pose. If you hide in the back and can’t see the teacher, you can always look to the shirtless person to guide your form.

Here in hiphop yoga, there was no shirtless showmanship. Some bodies were of the statue variety. Others were of the I-eat-pizza-on-the-weekend variety. For a second I debated taking my own shirt off, but decided against it.

“Happy Monday 8:15ers.” bellowed the teacher as she strode in. “Any first timers?”

I lifted my hand just above the height of my face.

“Great. I’m Emily. I’m glad you’re here.” Emily turned toward the room. “Let’s begin – arms up!”

Emily could move. Each pose lasted a breath at most. But the speed turned out to be just right. I couldn’t focus on my anxiety or I’d risk falling behind. I moved with the class.

“Alright, you have five minutes to redo the first flow on your own. Go at your own pace, and modify as you like.” The record in my head scratched. Emily flicked on a Rihanna ballad, and the class began to move without me. I scrambled to mirror the body in front of me. What were the steps again? But the body to my right moved at a different pace. And the body diagonally to me seemed to follow a different sequence altogether.

I realized this is what my classmates indicated with their shirtlessness: No one was keeping score. I began to move on my own.

Emily took us through three more yoga sequences, and after each one we were on our own for five minutes. With each sequence I found myself gaining confidence. Instead of trying to keep up with the women next to me, I looked to them for inspiration as I modified Emily’s flow. I was also losing water by the bucketful. By the final flow my hands were squeaking along my mat and mascara dripped from my chin. I must have looked like I had been through hell. And yet, there I was, bobbing to Ludacris’ “How Low Can you Go’ while my thighs struggled to stabilize a low lunge. As my pores drained out onto my mat, I found myself reaching to pull of my own shirt.

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