Observations From the Mat #6: Returning to Yoga Classes During COVID-19

After a three-month-long order from Governor Gavin Newsom to close all gyms in California, the governor lifted the closure order on June 15. Though I only practiced yoga once at home during that time, I still felt wary about going to any place where there might be a lot of people breathing hard in a small room. During the second week of the reopening, I had to get back on the horse, even if I didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing so. My wife jumped right in and reported to me how things are at the club with the group exercise schedule pared back quite a bit. In the meantime, I found a video on the club’s Facebook page explaining how the gym is addressing reopening during this time of COVID-19.

So, on the second Thursday after the reopening, I attended one of the new yoga classes offered. There are new rules that give the gym a less than warm feel to it. Still, the staff is as friendly as ever, even if you can’t see their smiles under their PPE.

A sign of the times.

When I arrived, I immediately noticed social distancing sandwich boards and other cautionary signage, a closed-down snack bar, and a friendly masked face behind the front desk that was barricaded with end tables against it to ensure I kept my distance. The nice young woman did walk up close enough to take my temperature with an infrared thermometer, though. I tried to surrender my membership card per procedure, but the young woman pointed to the scanner at the corner of the desk. It was now the member’s job to scan in their card. The lobby was as vacant of people as my office, where most of us are now working from home. I currently work once a week to perform tasks I can’t do remotely.)

Damn, I forgot my combination!

I approached the locker room wondering how the social distancing was going to work there. But if the lobby seemed sparsely populated, the men’s locker room was virtually empty, which is nice because I recall many times being uncomfortably packed into the locker areas and the showers. I’m still emotionally scarred over the time I was trying to open my locker with someone’s penis inches away from my face.

When I got my locker open after having to get the combination from the front desk, I noticed a giant hole in my mesh laundry bag with my boxer briefs halfway out of the bag. My gym shorts and shirt were gone. The standard procedure when this happens is to go to the laundry room and have someone from Housekeeping help me find my stuff in their dauntingly large bank baskets full of wayward sports garments, but my class was starting soon. I’m glad I keep two sets of gym clothes in my locker.

I dress down, put my mask back on, and head for the yoga studio all the while wondering if I will have to wear my mask during yoga. Breath is a big part of yoga, and, when I can remember, I practice Ujjayi breathing when I practice. That could lead to a very hot mask during practice. (If you want to know what Ujjayi breath, or and some aptly call it, “Darth Vader breathing,” check out one of my favorite teachers show you how it’s done.)

Entering the yoga studio, I find a bunch of Stages indoor bikes in the room. I check the group exercise bike studio and notice it now only has about half of the bikes, and they are all six feet apart. My yoga studio is now a stock room. (I would later find out another group exercise studio, as well as the once busy elliptical exercise room, had both suffered a similar fate.) Where will I be practicing yoga tonight? It turns all of the group exercise classes in these COVID-19 days are taking place in—the basketball court.

The popular online yoga site Do You Yoga offers “8 Ways Your Surroundings Can Make (or Break) Your Yoga Session.” Here they are in my own words with my comments on how the new place measured up:

  • The Right Temperature. I’ve practiced in a studio that was too hot. Well, a couple of times, then management brought in this massive fan, the teacher turned off the music, and we practiced to what sounded like a being in a hanger with a running P-52. As for the court, the temperature was about right. PASS
  • The Right Lighting. Standing at the door to the gymnasium watching two guys. dribbling and shooting hoops, I was at once struck by how tranquil this environment wasn’t; the lighting way too bright., but it was perfect for shooting some hoops! FAIL
  • Aromatherapy. As for this element, I usually don’t care too much for how a place smells, just that it doesn’t, but if there were a bunch of sweating basketball players finishing league play it would have failed at this element miserably. I have only attended one class where a teacher, with an exotic scent, visited every student during Shavasana and rubbed the necks and shoulders of each student with eucalyptus oil. I could see how aroma could benefit a practice. I’ll give the room a PASS on the aromatherapy.
  • Peace & Quiet. I couldn’t meditate before the class: the cacophony of two arrhythmic bouncing balls and the THUUUNNNGs of the vibrating basketball rims ruined any chance of preparing for the practice. “That’s it,” said a fellow practitioner as she abruptly ended her pre-session warm-up. “I can’t take the basketballs!” and left, returning just when the class started. But, to be fair, when the class started, I did experience “peace and quiet.” I’ll give it a weak PASS
  • Neat & Clean. A “neat and clean” environment was debatable, It was clean, but the towels, sanitizing spray bottles, and stacked steps and raisers (used for other classes here) made it seem more like a basketball court/storage area during a viral outbreak) Another weak PASS
  • An Inspirational Place. The place did not fill me with “inspiration,” it’s a regulation NCAA/NBA 94’ x 50’ basketball court with about ten feet extra past the sidelines and baselines, not a yoga studio, which usually fills me with inspiration. FAIL
  • Enough Personal Space. While there was plenty of “personal space,” the 6-feet markers for the mats did not make the experience intimate. But “intimate” was not a criterion, so PASS.
  • Appropriate Music. Appropriate music is more critical than someone not into yoga might think. I’ve attended classes with teachers who believe somehow MC Yogi is suitable for a yoga session. (Yeah, I know the rapper is a yogi, and I enjoy his music, but that doesn’t make his music appropriate for practice. My first class back at the club had no music, which was better than the wrong music. The second class featured music and was low enough for me to hear the teacher in the cavernous space. PASS

Therefore, the new “yoga studio” gets a barely passing grade on the Do You Yoga’s test with a 75 percent. Not great, but we’re talking about exceptional times, and my health club is not exclusively a yoga studio. I’ll have to make do with what they can offer its members. Anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if dedicated yoga studios have either gone out of business or cut back on their services.

We rolled out our mats over the designated spots—no chance of accidentally touching a fellow practitioner during a supine trunk rotation. Moments when you inadvertently play handzies with the student next to you were now geographically out of the question. After we warmed up, we executed a seated spinal stretch to the left. That’s when I noticed there are ten other members spread out so far that one of them was near the opposing goal line. There was one of the club’s trainers taking in the class at the free-throw line (Center), another two at opposite sides of the three-point line (Guards), another near the far baseline across from me. (That would make us both Forwards, I guess.) And five more near the mid court line and back on the opposing goal line. When I stretch the opposite way, I saw the barrel of basketballs near the door where we came in, and at once, I thought, “We have enough bodies in this gym for a pickup game!” Meditation didn’t go out the window; I never even began to go down the mindfulness path. Looking back on it now, I could have used “Alley-oop” as a mantra.

My favorite teacher, Heather, who used to teach classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, was not present. Nor was she on the schedule. Heather bailed early–a week before the club closed three months ago. In her place, now was Robert. Many yoga students and teachers have told me that Robert is one of the best yoga teachers in Sacramento, and I have practiced with more than one teacher who calls him either mentor or teacher.

He had a class at this club before the shutdown, but I had only attended it a couple of times. Many yoga peeps have told me that anyone can walk into a yoga studio never having practiced and do a session of Power Yoga or advanced Vinyasa Yoga–you just go at your own pace. But I have tried practicing in advanced classes and found it too frustrating, having to take multiple breaks and feeling as if every eye is on me–the loser (though know no one is looking at me; “no judgments” is a common motto with most, if not all yoga teachers). Still, I find trying to practice yoga above my abilities quite the opposite of beneficial and not blissful or inspirational. Anyway, Robert’s pre-COVID-19 class was too advanced for me.

For anyone who reads this blog, they might remember Robert as the kind teacher who was leading the class where I cut a loud fart. I don’t know if he recognized me as the guy who fouled his practice. Still, he did make an effort to talk to me after the class just like he hung around the front door of the club, post poot, possibly to catch me and tell me I was doing a good job [Read: “Don’t worry, Grandpa Sphincter, that’s your Root Chakra, tooting its appreciation for your practice!]. That embarrassing moment was so long ago I only hope Robert forgot about it.

One of the many amenities found in a high-end club like this one is that the establishment provides mats, blocks, rollers, straps, and as many towels as you need (or don’t need, but feel so entitled to use anyway). But these days of the novel coronavirus, the club, like everywhere else, is practicing “contactless” service, so it expects members to bring their mats. Thankfully, the front desk keeps a few mats for dullards like me. I’ve always wanted a folding mat but had only frivolous reasons to invest in one. I finally broke down and bought one, and yes, it is quite portable, but the two milometer-thickness kills my knees!

On my way out, I spoke with Housekeeping to see if my missing gym shorts and shirt were in the laundry room. My items appear to be lost; casualties to the three-month closure and a worn-out laundry bag. They gave me a new bag, but I’ll need to bring more duds.

That’s my yoga practice in a basketball court story. As I post this, COVID-19 cases have spiked in California. Governor Newsom is shutting down bars and restaurants–again. I’m guessing gyms will soon follow. (Though here’s an NPR story about how to work out as long as your gym stays open.) Perhaps I need to start a home practice, though I have mentioned on this blog countless times how undisciplined I am about following through. Just think, Jocko, you could build your own yoga space! Use the “8 Ways Your Surroundings Can Make (or Break) Your Yoga Session.” and your copy of the glossy coffee-table book Yoga At Home: Inspiration for Creating Your Home Practice by Linda Sparrowe as guidelines. I could even rub my shoulders and neck with eucalyptus oil. If only I knew how to, I shut up my chronically barking dog I might achieve zen in the middle of a pandemic!

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