Finding your Yoga

Just like Goldilocks trying to find the right porridge and bed, this writer had to sample different styles of yoga before settling into a groove that worked for her body and mind.

“You should try yoga.”

It was a suggestion I’d been hearing for years – everyone from my mother, to my doctor, to any number of bendy, mat-toting friends seemed to have an opinion – but it wasn’t until a well-meaning pharmacist delicately noted my frequent splurges on over-the-counter sleep aids that I finally sat up and took notice.

“I hear it helps you sleep,” he said, eyeing my basket full of Benadryl and Tylenol PM.

If perfect strangers were starting to chime in on my to-yoga-or-not-to-yoga debate, I figured it was time to at least give this practice – which had, after all, been good enough for countless Indian holy men for three thousand years – a chance.

And so it was a few years back, a week before completely uprooting my life in New York City for an impromptu move to Martha’s Vineyard, I walked four blocks to the mammoth, glass-walled gym near my West Village apartment. I’d found a class schedule online and, unsure of what the yoga community would be like on the Vineyard, decided I’d better take advantage of the myriad course options while I still had them at my disposal.

I probably should have gathered from the room full of toned bodies – all silently stretching and carefully aligned to face each other and not the mirror – that I was in over my head.

That’s when the chanting began.

An hour and a half, a hundred forward bends, countless thwarted head-standing attempts, and two pulled hamstrings later, I realized I hadn’t just been doing yoga. I’d been doing Ashtanga yoga, a particular style known for its relentlessly fast pace, advanced postures, and emphasis on steady breathing.

That night I crawled into bed, swore I’d never do yoga again, and fell immediately asleep.

Fast-forward two months. I’d started adjusting to my new life on the Vineyard, and it wasn’t long before I realized that if it was yoga I was running from, I’d have to keep running. Everywhere I went and from everyone I met, the “try yoga” refrain became more impassioned and more frequent.

I quickly learned the reason: People on the Vineyard love yoga.

And not in a general, “because it’s good for you” way. More than a trendy form of physical fitness, yoga on the Vineyard is part of a lifestyle – a lifestyle that includes other holistic, healthy choices, like cooking with fresh, Island ingredients and enjoying the outdoors.

Slowly, these other elements of the Island way began to grow on me, and before I could say “downward-facing dog,” I found myself roped back in to the yoga circle.

This time, though, I did a little research. I had just taken a job as a waitress at Zephrus restaurant at the Mansion House in Vineyard Haven, and was eager to try one of the many classes available in the adjacent health club. I selected one from the schedule based on a single word in its description: gentle.

Gentle is good, I remember thinking as I rolled out my borrowed mat and began to reach for my toes.

The teacher arrived and quietly settled herself at the front of the room. We took a few deep breaths. Then a few more. Fifteen minutes later, we’d done nothing but breathe and think about how we were sitting. Once we got moving, I was relieved to learn that I could do just about all of the poses, but with so much quiet, my mind was racing. Every little sound – a neighbor’s breathing, a clank of a dish in the kitchen next door – set off a chain of thoughts that I was powerless to control. As I struggled to lie still in sivasana (the resting pose at the end of class), all I could think about was what kind of sandwich I should order before my shift started in an hour.

Because the class was convenient, I went a few more times, but eventually came to two very important conclusions: In order for yoga to work for me, I would need a little more movement and a little less quiet. Also, I’d need to find a class offered somewhere other than where I worked.

I kept my ears open and, after learning about a studio in West Tisbury, decided to meet a friend there one afternoon. On my way, I popped into Healthy Additions on State Road and bought a mat. I wasn’t completely sold on the whole yoga-for-life idea, but with most studios charging a dollar per class for mat rentals, I figured it would be a wise investment.

Tucked at the far end of a little cul-de-sac across from Cronig’s Market in West Tisbury, Vineyard Yoga can be tricky to find. After driving by once or twice, I turned into the gravel parking lot and joined my friend, already inside. I unrolled my new mat next to hers. We chatted quietly about our days and shared anxious smiles with the few people filtering in around us. The studio was clean and bright, with bamboo floors and one mirrored wall.

It also felt about a thousand degrees.

“It’s pretty hot in here,” I whispered to my friend, peeling off my outer layers.

“It’s always hot,” she replied. “It’s Bikram.”

Bikram? I didn’t have time to pretend I knew what this meant before Andy Estrella, the teacher and owner of the studio, arrived. The first thing he did, I’m pretty sure, was crank up the thermostat. The second thing he did was point us to the front of our mats.

And we were off.

Bikram, I very quickly understood, is yet another style of yoga, made up of a series of repeated postures and held in a room heated to somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred sweltering degrees.

Driving home to Katama after class, it was a struggle to keep my hands on the wheel and my legs from melting into a puddle of jelly. I’d never been so exhausted, and for the next few days I had pains in parts of my body I hadn’t realized had muscles.

My friend was eager to go back, again and again, and though I never quite “warmed up” to the extreme heat, I appreciated the fact that for a solid hour and a half, I was not allowed the time or energy to think about anything other than how to cross one arm under the other while linking my ankles and balancing on my toes.

One afternoon, we showed up to our regular class and realized we’d read the new schedule wrong. Andy was nowhere to be found, and a glowing, red-haired woman informed us that instead of Bikram, her class would be Vinyasa.

By this point, I’d been around the yoga-minded long enough to pick up that Vinyasa simply means a class where the postures are connected by movement and breath, often a repeating “flow” of poses known as sun salutations.

We began gently, but quickly picked up the pace. The studio was warm, but not oppressively hot. Some poses were familiar. Others, like “half-moon,” a one-legged hip-opening posture, were not, but I was pleased to find myself able to guide my body to (approximately) where it needed to be. On the whole, the class was a careful balance of challenging and comfortable, hard and soft, fast and slow. I had time to think, but not too much. Perfect.

After class, I learned that the teacher, Scarlet Jarrell, was leaving the studio to teach out of her home in Chilmark. From then on, I alternated between Bikram at Vineyard Yoga and Vinyasa at Scarlet’s barn. The almost nightly drives criss-crossing the Island took some getting used to, but the benefits of my new routine were impossible to ignore. I started sleeping better. I had more energy. I stopped rolling my eyes when people spoke about their practice. I’d found my yoga – or so I thought.

Almost exactly one year after my first, sardine-packed Ashtanga nightmare, I was traveling around Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. Missing my Vineyard yoga classes, I found a small studio at a resort near the hostel where I was staying. Early one morning, I hopped on my rented bike, navigated the potholes and stray dogs, and showed up just as people were stretching.

A few minutes had passed and I was still trying to figure out where the teacher was, when a bronzed, lithe woman gently tapped me on the shoulder.

“This is a Mysore-style class,” she whispered. “You can start when you’re ready.”

The blank, frozen look on my face must have been enough to let her know that, once again, I was way out of my league.

“Have you ever done Ashtanga?” she asked.

I looked around and realized that on all of the mats around me, people were moving through the very same series I’d thrown myself into that first day in New York, at their own pace and without instruction of any kind.

I was already on my knees, rolling up my mat, when the teacher stopped me.

“I can walk you through if you like,” she offered. “Start with five sun salutations and let me know when you’re done.”

I’m not sure if it was the open-air studio, the palm trees, or the soft crashing of the waves not thirty feet away, but something about this Ashtanga felt different.

I went back to that class every day for the rest of my trip. By the time I returned to the Vineyard, I had books and DVDs waiting so I could continue to learn on my own.

In February, I started working my way toward a 200-hour teacher-training certificate in a unique yoga style called O2, which combines aspects of Ashtanga and Vinyasa.

Some days I do Ashtanga at home on my own. Sometimes I go to a Vinyasa class at the Mansion House. When I’m feeling in need of a particularly cleansing workout, I’ll go back to Bikram. And after a few years of training my mind to settle and tune out distractions, I even find that the occasional visit to a “gentle” class can be restorative as well as its own unique challenge. Although my yoga journey ultimately led back to Ashtanga, the very style with which it began, each of these classes was a necessary and important stop along the way.

And now, when I’m rambling on to people about my practice and recognize the familiar look of disinterest or confusion in their eyes, I can only hope they have yoga-loving friends as persistent as mine were.

Or, at the very least, a nosy pharmacist.

Finding your yogi

Though some studios on the Island post regular schedules, many yoga teachers rent whatever space they can get. As a result, class times and locations can be difficult to pin down. And with instructors coming and going – whether seasonally or for maternity leave – it can be a challenge to find a regular class that works for you. If you’re ready to try yoga but don’t have a studio in mind, here are some tips to get you started:

Ask around. Like most things on the Vineyard, the best way to find out about a great yoga class is by word of mouth. If you have a friend who does yoga, find out where and with whom. But consider the source: If your friend is a triathlete and you prefer a brisk walk, chances are your ideas of the “perfect yoga class” will differ too.

Keep your eyes open. Community bulletin boards are the first stop for most yoga instructors when posting fliers and class schedules. I’ve had luck at Cronig’s Markets in Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury, the Chilmark Community Center, and Mocha Mott’s in Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.

Go online. Simple search commands like “yoga” and “Martha’s Vineyard” will send you directly to the websites of a number of teachers. Even if schedules aren’t posted or don’t appear to be up-to-date, the sites will usually list a number to call. A new website, , with an extensive listing of classes, began this summer.