"Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha." If you had asked me what these words meant nine weeks ago, I wouldn't have had an answer for you. But now, sitting cross-legged on the stone patio in front of my house, facing the Sangre de Cristo mountains, I'm trying to repeat this tongue-twisting Sanskrit chant 108 times per day for 40 consecutive days. I'm on day two of my fourth attempt.
Eight weeks ago, I started a 200-hour, 12-week Vinyasa yoga-teacher-training course at Body, a local high-end fitness studio with a vegan café and a boutique full of organic-cotton apparel. Holding yoga school is a first for Body, and attending yoga school is a first for me—as is chanting.
I've been practicing yoga for over 10 years, first dabbling in 104-degree Bikram classes from Los Angeles, my hometown, to Boston, where I went to college. The rigid structure of a Bikram class—the exact same 26 postures repeated in the same order—appealed to me. It was like running, consistent and in-control. I became addicted to it. In Brooklyn, just after college, I couldn't afford my yoga habit so I offered to clean sweat-damp mats at a local studio in exchange for free classes. Thank god yogis are altruistic.
Five years ago, I moved to Santa Fe and fell in love with the free-flowing, creative sequencing of Vinyasa, and the fact that music is inherently tied to the practice. My instructors would play everything from lung-wrenching Janis Joplin to violin renditions of Lady Gaga. Suddenly, yoga became less about sculpting the physical body and more about toning internally.
The fact that the class I frequented was hosted an all-too-endearing teacher didn't hurt.
"Yo-ga." Emily Branden, in her thirties with wavy reddish hair, is swirling this word around in her mouth like an oversize lollipop, sitting in half-lotus in front of 40 of her students at the Body studio. "I'm from Green Bay, Wisconsin. When I was living in New York City and first heard about 'yo-ga'"—she over-accentuates the syllables again—"I was like, what is that?"
Branden, one of the two teachers at Body's Yoga School, understands the balance between the depth of yogic tradition—like swapping mouthwash for sesame oil, an ancient yogic health tradition known as a "Kriya"—and today's modern society. She's welcoming, inviting her students to "Move like yourself today. It's your practice."
The other instructor, 41-year-old Josh Schrei, an endurance athlete, helms the school most days. Hailing from a Buddhist Zen Center in upstate New York and an ashram in India, Schrei originally picked up Hindu philosophy from comic books (his mind is now a library on the stuff). He moved to Santa Fe in high school, but he knows the mechanics of the body like an Ivy League med school valedictorian.
Both Branden and Schrei have cult-like followings: Their hour-long lunchtime classes regularly see around 50 students each. To dive deeper into their philosophies feels something like finding the fountain of youth.
Somehow, amidst the physical postures, the asanas, I completely bypassed the spiritual traditions. Devotion, offering, intention, the Divine and the Universe are all words and concepts we've talked about in Yoga School. The attitude towards this stuff is not preachy, however. It's "be well versed in it, but when it comes to your personal practice, take it or leave it."
Schrei and Branden have designed the course so students get a healthy-but-digestible dose of philosophy paired with an equivalent amount of perfecting poses and practice teaching. Some days are devoted entirely to a certain tradition, like Shiva, for instance, in which devotees offer their blessings in the form of milk, ashes and flowers to a rock, which represents the material that comprises this universe. In class one day, one by one, we made offerings to the Shiva as Branden strummed an acoustic guitar and sang "Om Namah Shivaya" over and over. My heart was buzzing.
But not all of the students are alike. Some sat back and simply observed. After learning about the chakras and their elements, one student brought everyone smooth, pebble-sized pieces of obsidian to help absorb negative energy. Often, there are open conversations about God or grace or vegetarianism or death. No matter the differing opinions and personalities, the overarching atmosphere is nonjudgmental and understanding.
Since Yoga School started, my triangle and camel poses are deeper, but most importantly, my heart's changed. I've let go of the daily stresses that made my mind flutter with unproductive thoughts, like money and "success" and fear. Judgment of others and myself along with general negativity has taken a backseat, if not the trunk. And I'm working to make daily decisions from the heart, which carry more heft, but in a featherweight way.
"Om Gum Ganapatayei Namaha," a chant to the Hindu deity Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, is still coming out of my mouth daily. But I can't honestly say I'm a full believer just yet—that still feels like a homework assignment. Living from a place of grace and compassion? That's something I can stand behind. A deeper downward dog is just a bonus.
Body’s Yoga School: July 10-Aug. 17, Body, 333 W Cordova Road, 986-0362, bodyofsantafe.com.