Last week I had the opportunity to practice several times at Laughing Lotus, a well known and well established Vinyasa Flow yoga studio in New York City. I took classes four days in a row, and tried out a variety of teachers and class formats. The studio was recommended to me by two friends who used to live in New York, so I wanted very much to like the classes and the teachers, especially after having spent the last week on the road without doing any yoga. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a great experience at Laughing Lotus, even though I do have a number of positive things to say about the space and the teachers.
My review of Laughing Lotus will be in four sections: Studio Environment, Class Safety, Class Style/Quality, Teachers.
Studio Environment: This studio is absolutely beautiful. It’s colorful, playful, inviting, and it smells nice, to boot. As soon as I walked into Laughing Lotus, I was reminded of a place in L.A. called Liberation Yoga, which has a great “locally owned” vibe to it. A lot of yoga studios these days are becoming gobbled up in Corporate Yoga, turning into impersonal, money-making machines completely lacking in any warmth or sense of community. In refreshing contrast, Laughing Lotus seems to be one of those rare studios that exudes the genuine love and care of the owners. From the free tea and cookies to the spacious changing rooms, I could tell that the founders of Laughing Lotus really thought about the students and wanted to create a space that was more than just place to go and exercise.
Class Safety: As much as possible, I try to be open minded about yoga teachers who teach in ways that are different from what I’m used to. I recognize that there’s a wide range of approaches to yoga, and that in different parts of the country, people come to yoga with many unique and creative approaches.
There is one thing I’m not open minded about, though, and that’s safety. Yoga classes can be very demanding, both physically and mentally, and despite popular misconceptions, yoga injuries are quite common. It’s imperative, then, that the teacher be in full control of the postures and sequencing. This requires the teacher to have an intimate knowledge of anatomy, the asanas, and the best (i.e. safest) ways to transition between asanas. Also, this requires the teacher to give useful and pointed instructions, even in an advanced class, so that students don’t hurt themselves.
At Laughing Lotus, I often felt that the classes were not sequenced well in terms of safety. Here’s an example. One teacher instructed us on several occasions to transition straight from Warrior 1 into Triangle Pose. What’s wrong with this? A safe transition (in my book, at least) is one that doesn’t require the student to change too many elements from Pose 1 to Pose 2. The more elements you have to change and adjust during a transition, especially in a fast-paced class, the greater the risk of injury. If you just go straight from Warrior 1 into Triangle (without, say, passing through Warrior 2 in between), you have to do a crazy sort of dance, shifting your feet, opening your hips, rotating your shoulders, folding towards the ground, etc. all in one swift motion. Who the heck has the coordination to do this safely? Certainly not me, and certainly not anyone in the classroom at Laughing Lotus. Just looking around at the other students, I witnessed all sorts of mangled Triangle Poses and jerky, awkward transitions. Even if these ungraceful transitions did not result in any immediate injury, there is still the risk of long-term, repetitive stress injuries from bad transitions (if you don’t believe me, just talk to someone who’s suffering from shoulder or wrist pain due to years of working a bad transition from Chaturanga to Up-Dog…).
Maybe I’ve spent too much time at Yoga Works and have become excessively concerned with safety. I do believe, though, that there is a way to be safe while keeping a class fun, creative, and spontaneous. Laughing Lotus teachers were certainly fun and creative, but they were rather nonchalant about alignment and safety–so nonchalant, in fact, I don’t think they were thinking about these things at all.
Class Style/Quality: One common thread in all the classes I took at Laughing Lotus was the quick, almost frantic, pace of the flow. The flow was so fast that there was no way I could keep up and still maintain Ujayyi breath. So what? Well, the connection of (deep) breath and movement is the defining characteristic of Vinyasa Flow yoga. This connection is what allows the practice to become a moving meditation, instead of being just an aerobics class.
If you breathe deep and slowly, as opposed to quickly and shallow, you should be spending upwards of 10 seconds in each pose. In most of the Laughing Lotus classes I took, we held poses just a second or two, frequently passing so quickly between the poses that I didn’t even have a second to get the alignment right. Eventually, I just gave up on paying any attention to alignment or my breath, and from what I observed around me, so had everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong–I love a fast-paced class that gets my heart rate up. But there is a difference between a fast-paced and frantic. Even in a fast-paced class, you have the opportunity to savor the poses, and to move with your breath. In a frantic class, you are striking poses for the sake of passing through them, and not for the sake of being in them. The breath goes out the window, you lose focus, your mind becomes hectic and agitated.
Teachers: I took classes with four different teachers at Laughing Lotus. All of them, with one exception, devoted an inordinate amount of time in the beginning of class to chanting, pontificating, and other quasi-religious stuff that I prefer not to have in excess in my yoga classes. I acknowledge that this is a matter of personal preference. Certainly, many people do want their yoga teacher to be a kind of spiritual leader/guru to them. I happen not to be one of them.
Personally, I prefer to get my dose of spirituality from yoga through the poses, through my own private connection between breath and movement, and through quiet meditation. In general, I don’t want to hear a sermon when I come to yoga class, nor do I want to listen to “wise” aphorisms and stories from the “sacred” texts of yoga. I am actually very interested in yoga philosophy (I am getting a PhD in philosophy, after all), but I seek out scholars and books by scholars when I want to learn about yoga philosophy, not my yoga teacher.
With all that said, I did find the teachers at Laughing Lotus to be very welcoming and, for lack of a better word, enthusiastic. There’s no shortage of energy at Laughing Lotus, and the styles and personalities of the teachers might indeed be a good fit for certain students.