Pairing off for a new level of yoga

Classes for couples offer a way to share mind-body experiences

Fitness

July 01, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

"The word yoga means union, to yoke or connect," instructor Christy Thorndill says at the start of her Friday evening class in Canton.

It's 7 o'clock. Happy hours are in full swing all over the city. People are smoking and drinking, exchanging phone numbers and gossip, looking to connect with somebody special or maybe just meet the perfect plate of Buffalo wings.

But not everyone's out on the town.

Four pairs of curious souls - now sitting cross-legged on rubber floor mats in front of Thorndill - have chosen to pass up the apres-work bar scene for two hours of "Couples Yoga."

Thorndill, 29, and companion Dug Baker want to spread the mind-body gospel of yoga to the masses. Conditioning loves company. Why fly solo? Thus, they've posted handbills in coffee shops and bookstores, advertising these classes as "a way to enjoy real quality time together."

Brian McVicker is president of Trapeze School New York, which runs a summer-through-fall satellite program at the Inner Harbor. He and colleague Erin Gutierrez are both yoga beginners but nonetheless undaunted.

"There's so much similarity," says McVicker, "to the kind of balance you do on the trapeze."

While Thorndill markets this as a date-night activity, it's not intended to be the drive-in-movie experience on a higher plane. Each participant has to sign a good-behavior waiver, acknowledging that couples-yoga positions can be sensual "in all kinds of ways, and that my Partner and I are welcome to explore these at home on our own time."

In other words, this is blissing without kissing.

"We can be very physically intimate with someone without it necessarily being in a sexual context," Thorndill observes, as waves of New Age music wash over the room. "That's something lacking in our culture."

Muscle flexibility and patience also are in short supply. That may explain why only about 20 percent of yoga enthusiasts are men, according to several surveys conducted by Yoga Journal magazine.

Savvy teachers see couples yoga as one way to lure those reluctant guys into class.

"I think it is a good introduction," says Heather Wittington, a yoga instructor who does a lot of twosome teaching in Frederick. "The thing about couples doing yoga, though, is that any edges in the relationship are going to show up."

It's no different, really, than dancing the tango or going on a canoeing date: Without teamwork, the thrill is gone. Fast.

Thorndill, who is 6 feet tall and admits to having been "klutzy" as a kid, teaches a slow-paced, "mindful" yoga. She begins with elementary poses: Each couple sits tall, back-to-back, and breathes deeply and slowly.

Still seated, they hold their arms out and intertwine them, dipping to one side and the other, doing tandem trunk rotations.

"What sensations do you notice?" asks Thorndill. "Is your partner shorter or taller? Does it feel like your partner is relaxed or are they tight and timid?"

The poses get progressively more involved. For example, partners stand face-to-face an arm's length apart, hands placed on each others' shoulders. Then they lower into a deep knee bend, lift their right legs, extend that leg until it's parallel to the floor. Theoretically.

At moments like this, couples-yoga class seems like a roadside sobriety test for Olympic athletes.

"See if you can think of finding your own balance," says Thorndill, who is knotted up with Baker, "and sharing it with your partner."

Some positions qualify as mildly erotic. Others are similar to the stretches that baseball and football players will double up and do on the field before a game.

Following Thorndill's lead, Baltimore cinematographer Tom Schnaidt lies on his stomach. His girlfriend, Molly Van Meter, stands behind him and picks up his right leg and lifts it high, as if she's throwing a railroad switch.

"You can go more straight up if you can," Schnaidt says softly. "That feels good."

Lean into that elevated leg and brace it with your right knee to accentuate the stretch, says Baker, who has Thorndill's leg raised perpendicular to the floor.

After leading the class through about a dozen positions and Thai-style body massages (they literally tiptoe across each other's muscles), Thorndill dims the lights.

Cool-down time.

"Take a moment to lay side by side," she says. "We'll hold hands while we're relaxing to keep that connection between us."

When the lights come back on and class breaks, McVicker says he found couples yoga to be "relaxingly intimate."

But that's coming from a professional man on the flying trapeze, somebody in way-better-than-average shape.

Sarah Brennan, a 26-year-old University of Maryland graduate student, has a more measured reaction to her first-ever yoga date with boyfriend Peter Addicks.

"At times it worked perfectly and it was smooth," she says. "At other times it was like, `What are you doing to me?' "

She and Addicks feel loose and mellow but aren't rushing out the door to go explore hot yoga moves at home on their own time.

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