Excusez-moi, parlez-vous yoga?
WHEN I moved to Paris from New York last year, about the first thing I did was seek out yoga. The city, job, language, food, telephone numbers, currency, even the way the milk was labelled: every element of my life from the most major to the tiniest details, had changed. Sure, it was thrilling, but it was also exhausting and humbling. At least on a yoga mat, I thought, I could feel at home.
But where to practice? New York City is Yoga Central, rivalled in its fervour perhaps only by Los Angeles. Manhattan yoga studios must outnumber Starbucks these days, and practically every third person on the sidewalk is toting a mat. You c a n find classes in many styles and levels at just about any hour of the day, in studios, gyms, offices, schools and, in nice weather, in the parks.
The 5,000- year-old practice, like sitar music and batik bedspreads, first arrived in a big way in the United States and in France in a populist wave from India in the 1960s, but the current American yoga boom is sweeping the country in all age groups, from the prenatal to the elderly. The mind-bodyspirit practice has a lot of appeal as a panacea for stress as well as a way to stretch out and get some deep exercise, with the bonus of savasana, a sanctioned little rest at the end and, for those want it, a spiritual context: a Westernised interpretation of the sacred Sanskrit texts.
In recent years, the yoga boom has spilled from the US into other parts of the world, particularly European and Asian cities. American yoga teachers are travelling, opening studios abroad, using translators to train non-English-speaking teachers in various styles of yoga, and offering retreats and yoga vacations from Bali to Biarritz to Costa Rica.
There’s something for just about everyone in yoga: those wary of chanting and invocations of a higher being can find classes where those elements are de-emphasised.
Those who want to sweat profusely with others have Bikram, a prescribed set of moves performed in a hot room. There’s restorative yoga for the tired and injured. Those who like a little circus in their practice can try acro-yoga.
But, Parisians, as the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik notes in his book Paris to the Moon, tend to be less enthusiastic about exercise than they are about – well, cheese.
Finding a class wasn’t as easy as walking down the street; I’d have to travel.
An Internet search led me to Rasa, an airy, skylit studio near the Sorbonne entered through a massive wooden door from rue Saint Jacques and across a postcard-gorgeous stone courtyard. Classes were offered in English and French. “Ah, good for my rusty French!”’ I thought. I chose a class with a teacher exotically named Rajeev. Turned out he was from Chicago. His English was impeccable.
That was more than a year ago; since then I’ve branched out and taken classes with a dozen or more teachers, some Americans, but also French, D u t c h , Lebanese, Venezuelan, S o u t h African and I t a l i a n .
Yoga teachers in Europe do a lot of travelling, more so than in the United States, subbing for each other and taking guest turns at studios in other European cities. In the time I’ve been here the number of classes offered, and class sizes, have swelled.
Yoga knowledge in Paris is spread mostly by word of mouth and fliers. At Rasa I learned of Marc Holzman, a teacher newly arrived in Paris from Los Angeles who was offering Saturday classes at the American Church on the Quai d’Orsay. From that class I learned of a newish studio in the 14th Arrondissement called Be Yoga, a cheerfully painted little neighbourhood place adorned with a string of prayer flags and some bells outside the entrance.
Many other studios dot the city; yoga events are drawing ever-bigger crowds. On October 2 some 3,000 people turned out at the Eiffel Tower for la White Yoga Session, led by Elena Brower, identified in the weekly French magazine Marianne as a grand priestess of “new-yorkaise yoga.” Brower is the founder of Vira Yoga in Greenwich Village.
One of my favourite classes is an energetic Sunday session with an infectiously joyful teacher named Carol. She leads the class in French – “Inspirez ..
expirez!” – but who, inevitably, trained in New York, cradle of Jivamukti.
Yoga in France, at least the yoga I’ve found, is inescapably American.
Two of the teachers whose classes I’ve most frequented, Jackie Prete in New York, who teaches at the World Yoga Centre and Equinox gyms, and Holzman in Paris, are both certified instructors of Anusara, a style of yoga begun by the American John Friend in 1997. These instructors have dedicated themselves to making yoga more global.
Prete started travelling to Japan half a dozen years ago, and has trained teachers in Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya and Yokohama.
“It’s a challenge to work with a translator,” she said. She has learned that the key is to keep instructions clear and simple.
“Sometimes they get my jokes, sometimes they don’t. But the studentship is very high in Japan,” she continued. “The idea of the sensei, the teacher, is afforded a lot of respect.” Holzman is based in Paris but frequently travels to other cities in Europe and North America to teach workshops. He started a community class in Paris at the American Church, which he calls Guerilla Yogi, open to all, with a pay-what-you-can donations box. (Yoga is not cheap in Paris; a class can cost about $26.) Holzman’s goal is to help yoga people in Paris find each other more easily.
“Students would go to the teachers and studios they’ve always gone to – they have their own little kulas – their people. They’d only come together when a visiting teacher showed up,” he said. “It seemed to me we needed a neutral space, a big enough space, where we could all come together.” When I moved to Paris I had the notion that I would be immersed in French life and language; that turned out not to be the case, although I’ve managed to make some progress. I did find a new culture, though, one to which I could belong instantly: the surprisingly large, welcoming expatriate community.
Au pairs, professors, students, filmmakers, actors, in international businesspeople, and P a r i s i a n s who’ve spent time in the States all climb the steps to the second floor of the A m e r i c a n Church for the Guerilla Yogi class. We spread our mats in a light-filled room with views of beautiful-stained glass windows and stone arches.
It’s not just the yoga practice I crave. I could do that by myself at home, and sometimes do. Going to class, a luxurious two hours, is my Saturday morning social life, the place where I see Sebastian, a French Canadian builder full of tales of his escapades the night before; Harriet, an Australian former surfer chick with an enviable backbend; Joel, who’s lived all over the world, works in film and showed up for a spell last winter with the mutton-chop sideburns he grew for a role he played in Sweeney Todd at the Theatre du Chatelet; Sophie, a French professor of linguistics who jumps up to take photos of the class with her iPhone; Sharon, from South Africa, who sometimes teaches when Marc is travelling.
“People feel a sense of belonging around yoga,” Prete said. “If you want to get connected quickly, it’s a good alternative to hanging out at bars. You see familiar poses, you have a familiar way of feeling, that feeling you get in yoga of