My dislike of partner yoga started with a stranger's sweaty thighs. I had just moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I was working my way through a Sunday morning Vinyasa class with the same discipline, determination and Type A drive I bring to most attempts at relaxation. But I kept getting distracted by the young man next to me.
To be specific, I was distracted by the moisture he was producing. No sooner had we started sun salutations than the man began to sweat, energetically and abundantly. By the time the class was halfway through, drops of perspiration rolled off his nose with the regularity of a leaking faucet, and a puddle had formed on the floor in front of his mat. Instead of wiping off his face with a towel, he removed his shirt. Now sweat began to drip from a new spot: his nipples.
I, too, was disgusting. Perspiration comes easily to me; I like to say I have a gift. So I was caught off-guard when, after a lovely series of hip openers, the instructor asked us to pair up with a partner. First, I was confused. (A partner? For what?) Then indignant. (I hate group work.) Then anxious. (What if no one wants to be my partner?) By the time I had worked through my emotional process, everyone else was paired up. The young man was mine.
It turned out the teacher wanted us to do a "partner exercise" -- a playful five-minute break in which you assist someone with a difficult move, use your weight to deepen each other's stretches or, in extreme cases, do balancing poses on top of one another's bodies. I watched in horror as the room, formerly quiet and calm, burst into an excited buzz. It was like my yoga class had morphed into a cocktail party.
I had done yoga before -- many times, in fact. By the time I moved to California, I was used to chanting to gods and goddesses I didn't believe in; I had learned to endure the smell of patchouli. I loved it when the teacher touched me to adjust my position or deepen my stretch -- it was the equivalent of a free massage from a trained professional. But in all my East Coast yoga experiences I had never, ever had to touch anyone else.
In this particular move, I was supposed to help my partner work on a handstand by putting my fist between his legs so he could squeeze it for support. The young man looked at me with excitement: Was I ready? I nodded and braced myself as he popped his legs into the air with such force that I had to catch them against my shoulder to keep him from toppling over. The impact sent a drop of sweat onto my cheek. Instinctively, I grabbed onto his calves, and slipped my hand into position, using his leg hair to provide traction against his slick skin. Standing on the man's moist yoga mat, my fist wedged between his upper thighs, I kept coming back to one thought: This would never have happened in New York.
I've since found out that partner exercises have spread, like a contagious disease, to the East Coast as well. And if you ask my instructor Thomas about my thigh incident, he will tell you that I did the exercise wrong. ("In my defense, I said knees," he insists. "Knees!") But, although I tried to accept partner yoga, something in me snapped when a different teacher, a likable and energetic woman named Laura, demonstrated a move where your partner does a downward-facing dog while you attempt a backbend over their body. I felt a knot of dread in my stomach -- a dread that proved justified as I threw myself backward over my partner, shimmied myself up over her bottom, and got stuck. Belly up, arms and legs dangling, I felt like a human sacrifice.
That's when I decided to find out what was going on.
First, I asked friends. Was I the only person who abhorred partnering? Apparently not. "I hate it," wrote one friend in an e-mail. "Hate holding sweaty hands and pressing together mutually filthy bare soles. Have no interest in smelling my partner's groin from a short distance, or having anyone besides a loved one grapple with my sloppy midsection while I bend awkwardly forward." Another told me about a partner yoga exercise sprung on her in Dallas. It involved a stranger's head between her legs -- on the first day of her period.
But when my classes explode into partner exercises, most of the other students don't join me on emergency trips to the bathroom. Was I missing something? And why were my instructors using partnering in the first place? I decided to ask them.
"I've noticed that when students have to engage with each other, it can immediately wake up the room," explained Laura. "People have to pay attention and take care of each other, and I like that it helps people share their practice."
Thomas -- a former offensive lineman who plays Madonna songs between his classes -- reassured me when he said he wasn't always a fan of partner exercises, either. "I'm a big, sweaty guy," he admitted. "I was like, ugh, people have to touch me? I'm sweating my brains out." Since he started teaching, though, Thomas' attitude has changed. "It's a great way to figure out the mood of a class," he said. "It's almost a foolproof way of getting people to lighten up, because it gets people out of their minds. It makes them interact."
This was exactly what I hated about partner yoga -- the interaction. But I also wanted to know how partner yoga fit into traditional yoga. Does it exist in India? Was having my face in dangerous proximity to a stranger's crotch helpful for my meditative state?
Thomas suggested I talk to his own teacher, Dharmanidhi Sarasvati Tantracarya, a yogi and guru who founded Yoga Mandala, the studio where Thomas teaches. (It's one of the few yoga studios in the United States that is also a functioning Hindu temple.)
"He might tell you that partner yoga is bullshit," Thomas said. "But maybe that's what you want to hear."
Thomas was correct on both counts. (I believe Dharmanidhi referred to partner yoga as "a joke," rather than "bullshit," but the sentiment seemed the same.) Dharmanidhi, who is a recognized guru and Hindu priest, told me he thinks teachers who use partnering exercises to help their students gain more sensation and awareness "might have their hearts in the right place," but what they're doing isn't yoga. As Dharmanidhi explained it to me, the goal of yoga is to "achieve union with your essence" through a combination of physical and metaphysical means, including postures (asanas), breathing exercises and meditation. (Unlike the impression given by most American yoga classes, physical postures make up a very small part of this package.)
Traditionally, yoga is taught one-on-one, takes years to master and has nothing to do with improving the definition of your shoulder muscles. It also emphasizes emotional detachment, which is difficult to achieve if your head is in someone's junk. But Dharmanidhi's biggest point was this: Yoga is an integral part of Hinduism, and Americanized yoga -- whether it's called Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram, Vinyasa or anything in between -- is a bastardization of a spiritual practice.
"Imagine you go into a Catholic Church and there's something called genuflection, where you go down on one knee," he said. "What if a person comes out of the ceremony -- which is supposed to be about their relationship with God -- and they say, wow, my legs feel a little sore! And they go home and open up a shop and have people do genuflection for an hour to disco music. And partner genuflection, at that! It's completely taking it out of context."
No one seems to know the origins of partner yoga, but its popularity probably has something to do with two of American yoga's most influential figures -- Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who popularized Ashtanga yoga (which led to Vinyasa, also known as "flow"), and B.K.S. Iyengar, who developed the Iyengar system. Both trained in India, but, according to Dharmanidhi, they focused most of their energy on asana practice rather than pranayama (breathing) or meditation, and the popularity of their systems cemented American yoga's emphasis on physical poses.
What's more, many of the current wave of American yoga adopters are athletic types who also gravitate toward activities like dancing, martial arts and gymnastics, which all involve frequent work with partners. It's unsurprising, then, that when these people started teaching yoga, they incorporated partner work into their classes. This confluence of factors -- a culture that emphasized the physical aspects of yoga, teachers with backgrounds in other partner-based athletics, and the American desire to always be doing something new -- eventually led to the development of partner yoga. Toss in a healthy dose of New Age "body awareness" and pushing of "comfort zones," and you've got a bona fide fitness fad.
Indeed, there are entire movements devoted to partner yoga -- from Contact Yoga to Trust Yoga, Danskinetics and Yogassage, to name just a few. (That's not even mentioning other non-partner-based atrocities, like disco yoga, reggae yoga, punk yoga and, not kidding, naked yoga.)
At the moment, the trendiest of the partner-based versions seems to be Acroyoga, a San Francisco-based movement that combines "the spiritual wisdom of yoga, the loving kindness of Thai massage, and the dynamic power of Acrobatics." In other words, you do some yoga moves with a partner and then spend an hour or so climbing on top of one another. It sounded like my own personal hell. But when Thomas jokingly invited me to come with him to an Acroyoga class, I decided to say yes.
Partly, I went out of guilt. My conversation with Dharmanidhi had left me feeling self-righteous about my dislike of partnering -- but also dishonest. I mean, I care about the definition of my shoulder muscles. I'm far more likely to sign up for a California yoga class than for a year in an Indian cave getting in touch with my essence. It seemed hypocritical to base my aversion to partnering on traditional yoga and Hinduism, since I don't practice either. Also, I wondered if experiencing such an extreme might help me get over my aversion to partnering in normal yoga classes. After all, according to the Web site: : "Through practicing AcroYoga, we experience a deepening trust in ourselves and others, and realize that by working in a partnership, we manifest more than we ever could alone."
Thomas and I met on a rainy night. I was ready to manifest.
Things started off poorly when the AcroYoga teacher instructed us to sit back-to-back with our partner and attempt to match each other's inhalations and exhalations. "Try to find something you enjoy about this," he said. He made it sound like the challenge was to pick just one.
Next was the "circle ceremony," which consists of standing in a circle with your classmates, putting your hands on each others' shoulders, and staring purposefully and intensely into their eyes. I couldn't do this without laughing, so instead, I visually bonded with several people's ears and, in the case of one woman, armpit hair. After some brief hand holding and shoulder rubbing, we went back to our mats with our partners, flowed through some sun salutations and moved on to the meat of AcroYoga -- helping your partner to "fly." Basically, it's a gymnastic version of the children's game "airplane."
One of the more memorable poses was the "bat": me dangling upside down above Thomas' head in a cross-legged position with his feet wedged into my hip creases to support my body weight. I felt like I was in the Cirque du Soleil. Unfortunately, the teacher had a habit of helping us get into weird positions ("Great! Now extend your legs forward into an upside-down pike!") and then walking away before explaining how to get out of them. When Thomas' legs began to cramp while I was suspended above his skull, I realized, with sudden clarity, why I'd had to sign a waiver.
By the end of the night -- which concluded with some silent bonding and a massage circle -- I'd been in positions with Thomas that I've not shared with any other man. It brought us closer (how many people have pressed their ass bones with yours?) and parts of it were actually fun -- it helped that Thomas wasn't a stranger. But it definitely wasn't what I would describe as yoga. I might have had fewer objections if it had been called, as Dharmanidhi suggests most Americanized yoga should be, "yoga-based exercise." But trying to turn it into something spiritual made me defensive of a religious tradition that I don't even practice. "Why not just call a sweaty acrobatics class a sweaty acrobatics class?" I wanted to ask. By any other name, it would still smell just as bad.
As I drove home from the class, I thought back on something my favorite teacher from Brooklyn told me. She explained that, according to some yogic philosophies, the physical poses are preparation for meditation (that is, a way to get the body ready to sit still); in others, the movement itself is the meditation. In either case, she thinks partner exercises interrupt students' concentration and thrust them back into what Buddhists call the "monkey mind" -- where your thoughts jump around like a monkey hopping from branch to branch.
That was it: I didn't like the forced intimacy with strangers, but mostly, the partner exercises took me out of whatever fragile moment of internal calm I might have cultivated and pushed me back into my normal, hyperactive mind. Maybe other people have better attention spans; my brain, however, is as frisky as a chimpanzee, and will take any excuse it can get to run away. When I go to yoga, it's because I crave solitude. I do not want to think about other people and their potential foot fungus. I do not want small talk. I want to be left alone.
So I decided to take a different approach to partnering, and I think both Thomas and Laura will approve. Now, if a teacher asks me to do a partner exercise that I don't want to do, I -- respectfully, of course -- am just not going to participate. Instead, I'll stretch my hips, imagine that I'm back in Brooklyn and practice yoga the way that makes me happiest: silently, peacefully, and with no one's fist between my thighs.