Boiler Room Yoga–From YOGA IN AMERICA–In Response to “Are Yogis Yuppies?”

Richard Wall

In Nashville, Tennessee, which is the city where I teach, there is a “perfect” yoga studio.  I have seen it.  It is an oasis, with soft music, perfectly adjustable to the size of the class.  The floors are spotlessly clean, yet not slippery.  The lights are soft, a combination of direct and indirect lighting, adjustable for any time of day.  All the equipment is there, mats, straps, blocks, bolsters, pillows, and wall ropes.  It must be heaven to teach in that space.  It must be heaven to take classes there.

I teach in a boiler room.  Well, not literally a boiler room, but you perhaps get the metaphor.  Each week I get e-mail about yoga in Caribbean Islands, pristine havens of quiet and solitude, far from daily life.  Often they even are removed from aircraft routes, so there could be no interruption to the silence and solitude, no sound but the ringing of the prayer bowls as the students stretch in the warm sea breezes.  I can imagine myself teaching in that place, watching the sunrise and sunset in the quiet.

I teach Boiler Room Yoga.  Over the past 10 years I have taught classes in community college classrooms, YMCA “group fitness” rooms, health clubs, conference rooms, and unfinished floors of new office towers.  Boiler Room Yoga is far from ideal.  The spaces are seldom really clean, and students may have to stack tables before class and reset them at the finish.

One such teaching space was set up for employees of an investment company.  The floors were sealed concrete.  Fluffy gray stuff covered steel beam ceilings with open ductwork trim, and there were no walls except the outside stud walls of the finished suites.  Windows were not covered.  It was on the same level and directly next to the air handlers, huge machines that wheezed and squealed to life, usually at the most inappropriate moments of final meditation.  At least the air was usually warm.

In most fitness clubs, if you are blessed to actually have a room separated from the weight machines and rock music, the rooms are set to aerobics temperatures, making the beginning and ending of each session a sort of chase against hypothermia.   The students quickly learn to like sun salutations, which help them warm more quickly in the frigid air. 

In one corporate fitness center, there is no door to the room in order to meet fire codes and regulations; there is a breeze to accompany the regular clanking of lifting weights and fans in the next space, and a constant droning of treadmills, which punctuates our sessions.  The temperature varies by the season, in reverse.  We freeze in summer and fry in winter.

Wherever I teach there is noise, from the aforementioned clanking, rock music playing, people talking outside the room, traffic or aircraft.  One class recently was held in a lovely old chapel, formally a Catholic school, with lovely windows and a perfect wooden floor which could have been cleaner.  It turned out that the chapel was in the flight path of the helicopters from the local trauma center a few blocks away, so the windows would rattle nicely during the low approaches and departures.  There were helicopters constantly flying above as now and then strangers would wander into the old chapel. 

In one teacher training class, we were encouraged to “use the walls” to help teach students.  Most places there are no walls available, with various chairs or equipment stacked or thrown into unlikely heaps.  At one YMCA, they built a sort of low carpet covered bench around the perimeter of the room, which frustrates any attempt to use the walls.  Equipment is not available, missing or nil.   New students may have to stand or lie on old carpet of questionable cleanliness.  Mats are a sanitary necessity for regular students.

Some of my classes are held in regular classrooms, with the beginning class moving the chairs and tables out of the way, ending by putting them back.  The floors are questionable at best, with tossed staples stuck into the carpets like tiny foot-ripping land mines.  Some floors are plainly uneven, so that in one class the teacher is on a concrete “hump” covered in carpet, which can throw your balance off in standing poses.

Yes, I often wonder about that perfect studio.  Yet, I notice something about Boiler Room Yoga.  My students must truly learn to acknowledge but not react to distractions.  They perform postures under far from perfect conditions, learning to practice whenever and wherever in “diverse” surroundings, not waiting for the perfect moment at the perfect time.  After a while, most learn to relax and meditate, even though there is sound and fury just around the corner. 

They learn that the practice is not about “blocking out” the world that surrounds them, but about being aware, yet non-reactive and non-judgmental.   As I tell them, “You cannot stop the ocean, but you can learn to surf.”   This is a metaphor that they quickly learn to appreciate as well as to live.  There may be a smell in our yoga classes, but it is not the “stink of enlightenment”, of a practice too precious and airy to live in the real world.

Most of my students are not upper class; they will likely not have the money for a week in Curacao at the feet of a master.  They learn when and where they can.  The lessons learned in the boiler room still work, the postures still have power and energy when performed under less than ideal conditions.  Some of my students move on, to practice and even to teach in more perfect places.

Boiler Room Yoga is not easy.  It is not easy to teach or to take.  For some of us, it is the only yoga we have to give, and so we do.  The perfect studio is out there, and some of my students may yet take yoga there and even teach there someday.

Richard W. Wall

I teach an eclectic style of yoga based on Sivananda.  I never intended to teach yoga, it was the inspiration of Bill Kuckler which brought me to the head of the class. 

In 1994, I taught my first YMCA “stretch relax” class in Nashville, so called because the management there could not call it “Yoga”. 

The teaching continued, and in the past few years, I began to be influenced further by Erich Schiffmann, John Delmonaco, and Cora Wen, among others.  For the past 7 years I have taught in various local corporate, college, university, and private settings. 

My Certification is AAAI.  I am a former board member of the Yoga Society of Nashville.

Yoga in America


~ by Bob Weisenberg on June 14, 2009.

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