Matt Amsden

Yoga in LA, Part 1

Santa Monica has Yoga Works (Main Street) and Venice has Exhale Center for Sacred Movement, and between them they have Vinnie Marino, Sara Ivanhoe, Kathyrn Budig, Sarah Mato, Kia Miller, Sean Corn, Erich Schiffman, Shiva Rea, Annie Carpenter, Saul David Raye, and Hala Khouri. This is a phenomenal number of celebrity yoga teachers just a few miles apart.

In fact, I've heard people joke that if a bomb took out that 1 mile stretch between Venice and Santa Monica the American Yoga world would be significantly diminished. (Others don't think that would be such a bad thing.

No one is comfortable pairing "celebrity" with "yoga teacher" in public, although that doesn't stop thousands of new teachers secretly hope for a similar fame.)

I decided to start my LA yoga tour at Venice's Center for Sacred Movement.

I just landed in LA, picked up my white rental car, and drove to the beach. Well, I drove to the sand-colored, two story shopping complex that houses Exhale, among other shops and restaurants (including a sketchy CVS pharmacy, a Subway, and a nice-looking organic restaurant) parked underground, paid for my class, and took a walk.

I had interviewed the owner of RAWvolution, a raw foods restaurant, for a piece I wrote a few years ago, and knew it was in this general area, so I decided to check it out. The friendly Exhale desk folk assured me I could get there in 10 minutes, but at a leisurely jet-lagged pace it took me 20.

On the way, I passed cute boutiques selling loose white cotton shirts and dresses, Frye boots, and sun glasses. Familiar brands such as Free People, Patagonia, and American Apparel popped up here and there, and there were a number of “eco friendly” places such as the Natural High Lifestyle Shop, The Green Life, and One Life Natural Foods Market.

Plus, there were places that suggested everything that happened in this 10-block strip was carefully considered, including Mindfulness: Adornments for Your Home, Body & Soul, the Animal Wellness Centers, and the offices for Medicines Sans Frontieres.

There were plenty of coffee and teashops: I counted at least 8, and that didn't include what I glimpsed down the side streets. Not a lot of people were out mid-afternoon, but one guy I walked behind as he assessed the architecture of a bank with his buddy was wearing a standard issue LuluLemon jacket.

Once I got closer to Santa Monica, the loose and flowing clothing stores changed into edgier surf shops and skater supply stores. Younger boys in baggy pants starting appearing, as well as older, iconic buildings such as the Village Car Wash, and Surf Shore Motel, still very much in operation.

At last, I came across RAWvolution, a stone-floored cafe with comfortably mismatched tables and chairs and a big kitchen at the back where the foods were dehydrated and prepared. Everyone working there seemed extremely happy in his or her choice of employment, and everything there was expensive.

I had decided, as a special treat, I would indulge my fondness for kale chips no matter how much they cost. I just suspended all judgment as I handed over $7 for the 2 oz, the size of a small bag of potato chips (that in NYC go for $1.50).

With the help of the milk-skinned staff, I also decided to have a shake---something I could digest quickly before class. The Chai Milk Shake with coconut water, chai spices, almond milk and cinnamon would be too sweet, they told me, and so instead I ordered the Aztec Maca Shake: a low-sugar drink, said the menu. It had cacao, maca powder, coconut meat, coconut water, and mesquite. Maca was a Peruvian root that could boost dragging energy.

"Are you a raw foodist?" asked the wide-eyed guy with the thick bowl haircut behind the counter.

"No, just in town and wanted to check out your place."

"For work?" He asked, and I wondered if that meant I look old.

"Are you a yogi?"

"Yeah," I smiled. Yogi undercover."

“And you work out, you're into fitness?" He asked and I wondered if I looked buff to him, or just skinny.

"No, just a yogi," I smiled.

He looked hopeful for more conversation. I had the feeling he wanted me to tell him something extraordinary, like how I was raised by raw foodists on a remote island long before anyone had heard of raw food, or how I'd had a vision at the age of 3 and knew that I would never eat meat or cooked foods again.

Alas, I am just a curious but confirmed skeptic.

And, ironically, around the time I'd interviewed Matt Amsden, the founder of RAWvolution, I'd had such intense —and regular—stomach pain that I could *only* eat cooked food. Everything raw hurt me. For his part, Amsden admitted that he had just kicked his addiction to Doritos.

I sat at the communal table. In the middle had once been a bouquet of spring flowers, but they were now very dead, stems drooping, and the water mildewy.

Nearby was a deck of cards to accompany the popular New Age book by Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements.

Around the cafe a few people were reading, a couple of friends were playing cards, others were working at their laptops.

Distracted, I picked up the top card of the deck. It said, "stay in the present moment." That must mean stop making so many judgments. Because as much as I wanted to like the Aztec Maca Shake it was unpleasantly thick, kind of gravelly in texture, and so free of sugar that it tasted almost bitter.

It also had an unappealing near-chocolate color. "Carob brown," I thought. It tasted "good for you."

Still, it cost $7.50 so I intended to drink it all.

As I sipped, I glanced around. The walls were hung with framed prints of monks in orange robes and Acro Yogis in partner poses, set again a brilliant blue background. Someone had touched up photographs so that the figures looked smudged and lively, like they were still moving. Robert Storman was the mixed media artist, I read from text on the wall, and his bio said he was the "official artist of 2005's 47th Annual Grammy Awards" and that he's created a "body of work celebrating asana and soul."

I was officially in L.A. now.

+   +  +

"Namaste, yogis!" said Annie, a former dancer, walking off the stage in Exhale's large Sun Room. "Tonight we're going to do forward bends."

Great, I thought. That will totally pacify my nervous system after a long flight and all the work it took to make this trip happen.

The practice space at Exhale has a seasoned wood floor and a wall of glass brick facing Main Street. The side door was open while students filed in, and a pleasant early-evening breeze—and childrens' voices—wafted in, bringing a promise of long lazy summer evenings ahead.

Once we got going, I realized I was being too literal, thinking "forward bending" meant "seated poses."

What Annie meant was deep hip flexion: all those calming forward bends were happening in standing poses. And to do those, we released hamstrings and hip flexors—which after sitting and frowning over manuscript on the plane for 5 hours, were pretty tight on me.

As a former dance mistress, Annie's instructions were all business, and she held us in the poses FOREVER.

"I know, I know," she said, "I did this myself earlier today, just a few more breaths."

And for the first time in a good long while, I broke a sweat in a very slow and precise, alignment-oriented class. It was uber satisfying to feel my scattered, whiny mind focused, and my jet lag shift under the pressure of my concentration.

The class was deep and quiet, but *big,* with 40 or 50 people in it, very few men, and lots of 30s-40s age women with long brown hair.

Annie herself was a dynamo—insightful, thorough, fun—though so skinny that a few times I found myself wanting to feed her a heaping bowl of ice cream.

Maybe because she gave such super subtle and detailed instructions, at one point found myself much deeper into a standing forward bend than usual. Or maybe it was her adjustments. Somehow, in such a big class, she managed to make it over to me once or twice.

In cool down poses my mind was literally blank, and in savasana totally silent. Yum.

I left wondering why the alignment-oriented classes in New York have to leave me feeling like I still need a workout. Annie had worked me well.

After, I still had some kale chips left from my earlier snack. I could've eaten the whole bag on the spot.

In fact, the only thing that stopped me was that 3/4 of the bag were crumbs and hard to eat without spilling them all over myself. I waited to do that later in the privacy of my car.

When I did, I got crumbs all over myself and the car. I thanked the pros at Avis—in my mind— for vacuuming up the sea of small green flecks that decorated the seats and the parking brake.