What is it about Yoga that attracts so many people to practise this 5,000 year old tradition? Is it the philosophy? Is it because it grants us an hour-long break from our hectic lives where we can focus on ourselves and listen to our bodies?
Practising Yoga is often a very personal choice as is the decision to grow deeper into its practice. Despite Yoga’s growing popularity, many people still haven’t experienced the wonders of Yoga – maybe the local studio is too expensive, maybe there aren’t enough hours in the week, maybe they feel overwhelmed by the different types of Yoga or maybe they think they aren’t flexible enough.
Believe it or not but you don’t have to be able to twist like a pretzel to practise Yoga nor do you have to break the bank.
In southeast Florida’s West Palm Beach, there is a growing commitment to Yoga – free Yoga! Free Yoga classes are offered four times a week at the West Palm Beach city library – and each class is often filled to capacity. The other is a tremendously successful free annual event open to the public that has grown in attendance each year, West Palm Beach Yoga Day USA, known more simply as “Yoga Day.”
On one Saturday in January since 2007, Jerry Jefferson and Therese Abair, founders of Yoga Day, see their year-round hard work pay off when more than 20 highly-skilled and diverse Yoga instructors teach 21 free classes to 2,000 plus attendees at Meyer Amphitheater, which is a stunning outdoor space that has proven to be the ideal setting.
There are three areas at the amphitheater for classes. The largest is the main area in front of the stage. Therese believes they can fit up to 1,000 mats for a class – this is a goal they hope to reach one day! To the east of the stage area is a berm that provides a stunning view of the intracoastal waterway with yachts parked along the Marina. To the west is a smaller tent that is the only space devoted to non-asana use, meaning there is no physical Yoga classes taking place. This education tent, new addition to Yoga Day in 2012, is where attendees can learn about breathing techniques, see a Thai Yoga demonstration and learn about meditation.
The event is designed for Yoga newcomers but easily accommodates skilled yogis as well. There is no basic fitness required, no age limits and no prerequisites needed to join a class. In fact, you can take all the classes or none. It’s about individual choice.
Yoga Day is the one day out of the year when you can guarantee judgment is cast aside. No one attends to critique someone’s Yoga attire (or lack thereof), compare their Downward Facing Dog with their neighbor’s or see if they can hold postures longer than those around them. No matter if you use a new Yoga mat, old beaten up Yoga mat with faded designs, a blanket or nothing at all – none of that matters on Yoga Day. Yoga is not a competitive sport and, in fact, its philosophy encourages the students to focus on their breathing, focus on the mat (meaning just themselves) and hear the teacher they have inside each one of them.
Priyanka Shanbag, a Yoga instructor who had more than 150 people in her afternoon class, reminded her students that the teacher is inside them. Listen to your body, she said. Close your eyes. Breathe.
Instructions are simplistic in Yoga. Do what you can to your best ability. Forgive yourself what you cannot do. And, if you need encouragement or direction, everyone around is there to help.
Never before had I seen so many people come together for the common good of self, community, spiritual enlightenment and a healthy lifestyle. As a West Palm Beach resident, I know that this city is perfect tourist attraction but now there’s an even better reason for people to escape the brutal winter cold and join in the excitement at West Palm Beach Yoga Day.
One of the most beautiful things about Yoga Day, as I observed this event for the first time, was seeing that people brought their pets, who sat loyally by their side as they participated in class. People brought their children who also participated or sat quietly by them. People brought friends and some brought a book and just chose to sit and absorb the positive vibe in the air. The mood of the day-long event was tranquil and supportive. The weather was perfect so it gave everyone even more reason to enjoy the fresh air the entire day.
Average temperatures in January range from the high 50s to mid 60s and somehow the weather has been beautiful each year. This year, the weather was in the low 70s and there was a gentle breeze that filled the air with the fragrance of the ocean and sweet aroma of the healthy food and incense nearby. The skies were blue and only speckles of clouds passed above. The world could not have served up a more perfect day to be outdoors.
In a world that’s fast-moving, chaotic and stressful, unwinding with thousands of others who are also committed to taking a well deserved break and checking in with themselves is what makes Yoga Day unique. While participating instructors are from Yoga studios it’s not about selling their studio or their style of Yoga. It’s simply an introduction to Yoga and granting people insight to different styles.
There was no judgment. There was no race. There was only a unified community of Yoga lovers who discovered yet another South Florida gem.