Five years ago, when I was living in Utah, I took my first yoga class and felt like a saint. Instead of curling up in front of "Friends," I was uncurling my body into strange poses and listening to Indian music. But the instructor was supercilious, the sitar grew grating, and afterward my muscles felt droopy. I didn't go back. My second yoga class was no better. Held at a big gym near Burlington, it was filled with soccer moms who could stand on their heads. I could barely balance on one foot. This instructor had the warmth of January without the thaw, and was visibly annoyed when she had to interrupt class to correct me.
Still, despite my difficulties with striking a pose, I found myself curious about the Northern Vermont Yoga Conference, a day filled with instruction and information this Saturday, September 24, in Johnson. In the five years since I'd gone to the mat, yoga has exploded nationwide. According to Yoga Journal, the U.S. market is worth $3 billion and 16.5 million Americans practice. A recent New York Times story noted the up-tick in twisting while traveling, including even yoga-and-chocolate retreats, at which a yoga studio pairs with the fancy candy-maker Vosges Haut Chocolat.
As it turns out, hot chocolate may have inspired Vermont's first yoga conference. The idea struck last November at the Bad Girls Cafe, when Johnson Yoga owner Charlotte Clews Lawther was drinking cocoa with Andrea O'Connor, a marketing professional and yoga practitioner.
In a recent interview, O'Connor recalled the questions the women had mulled over that day. "How do you make yoga accessible?" she said. "How do you bring it to people in a form that they're willing to try? How do we as yoga teachers take it off a pedestal and bring it down to something everybody would like to try?"
O'Connor and Lawther weren't looking for accessibility that would be candy-coated, or come in the form of the faddish Iron Yoga, which combines contortions with hard-core strength training. Instead, they decided they would gather Green Mountain gurus at Johnson Yoga, and offer some workshops and classes to the public.
"Everything about the quality of life here is world-class, and yoga is no exception," said O'Connor, noting that there are at least 10 studios in northern Vermont. "Teachers tend to be highly skilled and highly trained; they live their yoga, and there's the sense that we're all on the path of yoga together."
In a survey reported by Yoga Journal last February, 1 in 7 non-practitioners -- that is, about 25 million Americans -- indicated they intended to try yoga sometime this year. But I wondered if yoga could really tumble off its pedestal for me, an adrenaline addict with a short attention span. So I decided to take a class from one of the nine instructors scheduled to teach at the upcoming conference. But who to choose? Kelly Lyons, of Bikram Yoga Burlington, teaches the style in which the room is heated to between 95 and 100 degrees. That sounded a little too toasty for my tastes. Something called "Advanced Flow" from Burlington Yoga's Piper Petrie, didn't seem right for me, either.
I settled on a Sunday-afternoon Kripalu class from Emily Garrett, who teaches at Burlington Yoga and Yoga Vermont. An online description called the style moderately paced, suggesting that it explores "the release of blocked energy and the integration of emotion through mindful yoga practice with gentle, compassionate instruction."
Indeed, the class of about 15 started gently enough, with some breathing exercises and Garrett's reminder to let our minds be still and empty. How- ever, I found this a perfect opportunity to plan that night's dinner, daydream and think about my writing deadlines. Just when I was beginning to feel comfortable sitting in a roomful of stran- gers with my eyes closed, Garrett instructed us to chant "om," the sacred syllable of meditation.
Earlier I'd corresponded via email with Miles Sherts, another conference presenter and owner of a meditation retreat in the Northeast Kingdom. He'd enlightened me on the intrinsic connection between yoga and meditation. "As yoga brings energy and awakens the body, meditation brings energy and awakens the quality of presence in the mind," he'd said. "As we learn to contrast presence with thought and conception, we see how much more peace and focus and high, clear energy there is in pure awareness. The constant mechanical thought-stream in the conceptual mind becomes less interesting and less addictive."
Sure enough, by the third "om" at the Kripalu class, I began to forget about stir-fry and the new season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Instead, I was focusing on the thrum of voices in the bright room, the breath moving through my body, and the slow warming and relaxation of my muscles, which had been plopped behind a desk all day.
"We're the first generation that has sat in front of a computer since we were 18, and that cultural lifestyle is having a huge impact on health," O'Connor had said earlier. "Yoga is a way to offset that."
And my thoughts about food may not have been so bad. Lawther had told me that yoga practice and eating are very closely aligned. In fact, she's teaching a "cultivating mindful eating habits" session at the conference. "The workshop is about how to start noticing: 'What does this taste like, how do I feel when I eat it, what do I think of?'" Lawther said. "And thus: 'Is this a life-enhancing choice or otherwise?"
Like me, Lawther also had been resistant to yoga before she took her first class, about 15 years ago. "I was interested in the stretching, but most classes were too mellow," she said. "I was an excitable teenager looking for more thrill than a purple rubber mat and old men in tights could offer." What turned her around was a class in Astanga -- a vigorous, fast-paced and athletic form of yoga. Lawther began practicing intensely, and last year opened her studio in Johnson.
I'm not sure my Kripalu class had quite the same effect on me: My downward dog was still disastrous, and at times I wished I was playing outside instead. But Garrett was patient and compassionate with my imperfections, and my muscles felt leaner and stronger afterward. I began to imagine contorting my body and calming my mind well into my old age, flexing into sun salutations every morning.
O'Connor practices yoga 90 minutes a day, she told me -- she started with Bikram in 2000, using steam and electric heaters in her bathroom to help her work up a sweat. "I'm almost 50 years old, and I weigh what I did when I graduated from high school," she said. "I can do things that I couldn't do when I was 18 . . . I'm looking forward to being 70 -- I'm going to be doing dropbacks and headstands."