Italian Yoga

I rent office space in the TSH Florence Collab. I have my little desk, the corner from which I quietly reign, accorded special respect as the lone American in the joint with a job that the Italians find difficult to comprehend. (Product development and software? Sviluppo dei prodotti e software?)

One of the best perks about the Collab is that, with my premium monthly subscription, I receive 24/7 access to both the office and the rooftop gym. Yes, the one on the south side of the building, filled with light and affording a panoramic view of Florence. As a result, I am now in something close to the best shape of my life. For working parents, easy access to good food and exercise is 90% of the battle. If it is there, I will always choose it. I like avocados, fresh-squeezed orange juice, eggs, and a brand-new gym two minutes from my desk and a view and a shower that is not freezing cold. (Tepid is fine. Hot is awesome. But the hot shower has only happened twice since July.) Hardly anyone else in the rented space goes up to the gym to work out. I think they think I am a bit of a health nut, but really, it is just so easy, and I love the view, and the monthly subscription is not cheap.

In October, an Italian yoga instructor who is running her studio/s from here started a conversation about yoga class in our workspace. Nine Italians and one American showed up to talk about the classes. Do you think the Italians had a mind to actually plan the classes? No. The discourse quickly devolved into a theoretical discussion of the main schools of yoga practice (Ashtanga, Hatha, Iyengar, Bikram, Vinyasa … mamma mia there are too many, I never think of yoga like this and I began to feel overwhelmed) and what each one meant philosophically, since the practice would not work for an individual if the philosophy was not a good fit. The Italians all nodded their heads. They wanted a good fit. They were especially interested in personal transformation and new perspectives.

Word had gotten out that I was some kind of yoga expert since I had naively told Daniela I practiced Iyangar yoga for some years (true) and had been known to substitute for a yoga instructor from time to time for small, desperate, and naive groups of neophyte yoga students (true, and don’t rat me out, as I have absolutely no formal certification whatsoever. I am sure there is still at least one person out there who still remembers my repeated exhortation to “come up into a gentle cobra.”) This resulted in a wide-eyed and wholly undeserved admiration on the part of the Italians. They tried to draft me into teaching a class, but I begged off, citing my lack of any yoga license. I have no poker face and I am sure my eyes were bulging and rolling around my head. I tried to remain calm (it eventually became clear in the theoretical discussion that this means Vinyasa flow is, in fact, a good fit for me) and waited until their multi-threaded conversation came to its knotty and tangled close.

The class times and terms were set a few weeks later, Monday morning at 8 am and Tuesday at 6 pm. Since there is no way in inferno I can ever make an 8 am class for any reason, much less on a Monday which could easily become grounds for divorce, I opted in to the Vinyasa flow class, taught by a woman who works here. Daniela is trim and has a huge smile. She offered to teach Vinyasa on Tuesdays at 6 pm, which is a time I can definitely almost always do, and because she is not affiliated with a yoga studio, she indicated she would not charge. She has been in practice for years, on retreats in the US and the EU, learning how to breathe thoracically with the whooshing sound of the cosmos. She wanted to teach us all this breathing too. I was totally game and started going.

The class is held in an aula (classroom) over on the public side of the office, where conferences and sales meetings happen. Daniela, bless her, had brought a soothing playlist on her iPad, yoga mats, and a bunch of saffron-colored pillows. I won’t lie, she leads a sweet workout. After the first evening I did her class, I was sore for days, and mentally mapped the neglected muscles not really receiving much attention in the rooftop gym. The Italians were game; the women who had been dancers as girls were very good. Others seemed as though they had not yet received the memo that they have a body. I giggled and told Jason, one night over dinner, and he said I was being unfair to judge them with amusement. “The natural habitat of any Italian man is a dinner table or a vineyard,” he said. “You cannot watch them contorting on yoga mats and be critical of them on the basis of that.” I hung my head, corrected, and allowed that it was unfair, but continued to maintain the amusement value of a cross-cultural yoga class in a decidedly non-sporty culture.

A few weeks ago, Daniela asked if I would lead savasana at the end of the class. This is the morbidly monikered “corpse pose” in English, referring to the few minutes after stretching and sweating when everyone lies down and relaxes in the darkened studio.

Sure, I said, I love savasana as much as the next yogini.

Do it in English, she told me. It will be good for them.

Do they speak English? I asked. Do they all speak English? The yoga class is taught only in Italian, which is great for my Italian, but not once have I ever had the impression that they all speak English.

Yes, of course. They all speak English. She smiled at me.

That’s funny, I thought, hardly anyone ever speaks English to me in this office space. But ok. I found a generic savasana script online and adjusted it a bit for the audience.

Last night we all filed in to the aula and sat on our little mats, bare feet out. The class began; Daniela made us all hold trikanasana for a long, long time, and we did many sun salutations of both the A and B variety. As the vigorous portion of the class finished, Daniela and I switched mats so I was in front of the class. She turned out the lights. All the Italians obediently flattened into a supine position, their dark hair contrasting with the saffron pillows, and closed their eyes.

I squinted in the twilight to read my script. “Take a moment to survey your body.” I spoke more slowly than usual, in a low voice. “Relax your face.” I read the whole script from a seated half-lotus position. My left calf and foot fell completely asleep and tingled from lack of circulation. I adjusted and sat for what seemed like minutes. Long minutes. “Begin to awaken your muscles,” I said softly. Daniela began to awake her muscles. She woke up every part of her body as I talked about waking it up. She gently pushed herself up into a sitting position as I narrated. But I know Daniela speaks English and has done yoga retreats that lasted for weeks with groups of Americans on farms in Vermont and Massachussetts. The other Italians were ready to awaken nothing. After I read the waking-up paragraph, they all stayed flat with their eyes closed.

(c) The Yoga Garden

The hall outside the aula got progressively louder. Daniela smiled in a blissful meditation. I had no idea what time it was, and I started to panic a bit. More time went by. Had they even heard me? Were they all asleep, or did not speak English, or both? Soon I was actively trying to stifle my own laughter as I surveyed the silliness of the whole scene. I felt like I was in a Monty Python skit. I wondered what to do next. Daniela was deep in meditation and did not open her eyes to wink at me or give me any signals.

Jason was packing to leave on a long international trip the following morning, and the kids were at home, and our sitter had likely already logged off for the night. Daniela had mentioned her adult daughter to me before. I looked at the single Italians under thirty who were not parents, gently snoring, now looking not at all awkward since their contortions had ceased. How was I going to wake these Italians up? If I read the “wake up now” paragraph again and they did not understand it the first time, why would they suddenly understand it now? I felt a flinch of full panic as I imagined being stuck in the aula for another hour, watching childless Italians nap. The lights of cars and buses slipped by past the windows outside, down Via Lorenzo il Magnifico. I wondered if I could just walk out, but that seemed like terrible yoga etiquette, not to mention bad karma.

I took a deep breath and picked up my script again. Come on guys, wake up this time. “Begin to awaken your muscles,” I repeated softly. I looked at each of them. Were they going to wake up? “Awaken your face,” I said. With relief I noted that one woman twitched a finger. A leg bent up. With an Italian languor, they each followed the instructions this time, pushing themselves up to a sitting position. Namaste, we all saluted one another.

Wow che rilassante, they all said approvingly, che bel riposo!

Daniela asked me if I might lead a lunchtime guided relaxation. Don’t worry, everyone speaks English.