The other day, along with the rest of the yoga world, I found out that OM Yoga Center is closing its doors after 15 years.
OM was where I got my first job in New York at age 22 (this was back at the old space, on 14th Street), and where I did my yoga teacher training in 2003 (at the new space, on Broadway). In working on my thesis/book about the back injury that ended my dance career, I’ve been writing about those early days in NYC at OM. Below is a tiny excerpt. (Eric, who is mentioned, was my first ever yoga teacher, a wonderful man and teacher who opened and runs Solaluna in Oberlin, Ohio.)
This little ditty begins right after my first class at OM. Enjoy!
For all the slick yoga practices I’d seen in that room at OM, there was no pretension or false gravity to the place. The digs were on the shabby side: inside both the studio and the foyer, white paint was peeling in thick slabs from the walls. Class cards had clearly been cut up into wallet-sized shapes with a pair of scissors. The whole place reeked of grease—grilled cheese and bacon and egg sandwiches from the deli housed on the first floor.
And then there were the signs around the entryway alluded to the place as hOMe. As humiliating as this sounds, the play on words worked its magic on a lonely 22-year-old wannabe New Yorker.
I hadn’t thought I could be a “real” yogi like Eric—a calm, sober ascetic—but these people were different. They wanted to move, to try crazy physical things, to strengthen and stretch their muscles, to breathe deeply, to quiet down, to rest—and then go on with their days, just as I did. Perhaps the effects of the practice would seep off my mat, but other than the hope that all those downward dogs would strengthen my arms, this wasn’t my concern at the time.
Not to mention the fact that, much to my amazement, yoga—this ancient, stoic ritual, which I had thought required arrows and diagrams and a loss of affect—could be fun. Not just eat-your-vegetables fun, but joyful, exhilarating, laugh-on-your-mat, I-want-to-go-back-for-more fun. Was I being disloyal? Was this really yoga? The class schedule read, OM yoga is a practice of flowing yoga asanas informed by precise attention to alignment and supported by the relaxed wakefulness of Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
What was “Buddhist mindfulness meditation?” Had we done that? I had no idea. But I couldn’t ignore how revitalized my body and mind felt. What did it matter what it was called?
After class, in the crowded foyer, I waited for the 6pm crew to rush in and begin ohming before approaching the cute boy at the desk who would later become one of my very dearest friends. “Are you hiring?”
Soon I was checking hundreds of frazzled New Yorkers into class. This meant that I could pay my rent and practice yoga for free, which killed two birds, as it were (although as a yogi, we didn’t talk killing). What I didn’t know then, however, was that the actual practice of asana was only a tiny piece of the riches I would incur from OM over the years: Within a few months, I would know everyone’s face and name, and they mine. New York was full of strangers, aggressive bodies trying to take your seat on the subway or cut in front of you in line at Rite Aid, but people exited the elevator on 14th Street and smiled. They were happy to be there. (Of course many first-timers were scared, too, but they usually came out of class feeling better.) Here was my New York family. This family—unlike my own biological one—put the body at its center, as its driving curiosity, its reason for being. OM became a sort of Cheers, me its sober, friendly bartender, dishing out the drug, at $15 a pop.
Of course, later, when I had been in New York and at OM a while, I found out the truth: that people could surprise you with kindness at Trader Joe’s, offer up their seat on the 2 train, and be rude beyond belief at yoga, but for now, I chose to believe that sitting behind that shabby desk or on my mat behind a closed door, I had stumbled upon a little patch of magic.
When I excitedly called my parents to tell them the good news—I must have reached them from a corner payphone because there was an awful lot of noise in the background and I didn’t yet have a cell—my mother paused, then in her overly fretful voice said, “You’re working at a yogurt shop?”