My gaze settled on the ceiling’s nucleus: a sparkly silver disco ball surrounded by ceiling fans. Contrasted by dark purple walls and accompanied by scantily clad, sinewy torsos, the space began to resemble a dance club more than a yoga studio.
Steadying myself in tree position, I wedged my right foot into my left thigh and pressed my sweaty palms together in prayer position against my chest. I sought an eye focus (drishti) to maintain concentration, settling on the Nike swoosh adorning the neon pink tank top in front of me. As long as the blonde woman wearing it refrained from erratic movement, I could use the logo as my Polaris.
Even with complete silence the tree position challenges my balance. With Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” playing in the background, it proved even more difficult; my mind wanted to dance, not seek inner peace through stillness.
This was a typical Friday afternoon hip hop yoga class at Back Bay Yoga (BBY). The unconventional nature of the modern, music-oriented yoga class hasn’t deterred students from attending. In fact, the yoga hybrid’s upbeat, unorthodox tactics themselves may provide the mass appeal it has garnered.
While yoga purists may balk, these rigorous hybrids have generated a loyal following. Hip hop yoga is one of BBY’s most popular class, evident in the maximum-capacity turnout. I arrived 20 minutes early and still added my name to a waiting list. Americans want to sweat, and they’re willing to pay a lot to do it.
BBY owner Lynne Begier has branded the class, making it her studio’s signature offering. She registered the trademark Hip Hop Yoga in 2012. One of her employees, who prefers anonymity as she is not speaking in an official capacity, says that hip hop yoga is one of the studio’s most popular classes. Offered nearly every day, it often attracts an abundance of students willing to take their chances on a waiting list. She claims that most classes can accommodate even those on the wait list, but recommends advance registration, which is available on the BBY website.
Indeed, on this Friday, all 30 of the students, including the wait-listed stragglers like me, made the cut and squeezed into one room. With accompanying mats, blankets, foam booster blocks, towels and water bottles, we compromised personal boundaries with strangers for some booty-shaking yoga.
The studio’s website describes the hip hop class as “FUN yoga accompanied by a rockin’ playlist of hip hop, pop and dance music––class will be vinyasa flow with a good stretch and cool down at the end.” It includes a disclaimer about the music: “Please note that true to hip hop music, there may be some explicit lyrics and content.”
Those expecting gongs and a round of “aauuuuummm” run the risk of leaving disappointed.
Instead this class attracted a cabal of Lululemon-clad veterans who blaze trails to enlightenment with rap music. In the front row, a man and woman who could both pass as body builders used the wall to display their headstand abilities. To my left, a teenager flaunted her flexible hamstrings and sense of rhythm like one of J-Lo’s back-up dancers. A trio of 20-something blondes claimed the back corner, chatting over their iPhones before class started.
The instructor, Kimberly Rajotte, introduced the session in a traditional way: relaxed and quiet, with a focus on the breath. After a few mindful inhalations through the nostrils, she asked the students to look inward and offer appreciation for ourselves.
This was familiar territory, and I settled into my comfortable yoga routine. The lingo resembled that of many yoga classes. The music, however, did not. Sounds that accompany yoga instruction usually include chanting, sitar music or silence. This one opened with a remix of the 1992 dance hit “Rhythm is a Dancer.” While in downward dog position, my hips swayed as though acting on their own.
Rajotte did not crank the heat, but students began to perspire from rigorous movement and close proximity to one another. Beads of sweat dripped to my chin as old school beats elided into more recent pop music.
Only rarely do I listen to hip hop music on my own, but somehow all of these songs sounded familiar. I started singing along in my head, lagging behind in the postures.
“Drop it like it’s hot, drop it like it’s hot…” Snoop Dogg seemed to mock me through the speakers as my right leg lifted with effort.
Lyrics about pimps, pigs and cribs dominated the room while sweaty, white Bostonians stretched their arms into warrior pose, and remained still for several seconds. My focus darted from the disco ball to various drishtis of company logos to this ironic image. I couldn’t help but smirk, and noticed that no one else cracked a smile.
The following 60 minutes included sun salutations peppered with f-bombs and ‘hos, cobra pose set to explicit lyrics, and gems of yogic wisdom proffered by Rajotte. She turned off the music and ended the class in a welcomed way––with corpse pose (shavasana), a posture of stillness and relaxation. We all completed the session seated cross-legged, bowed our heads, and said in unison, “namaste.”
Feeling both groggy and upbeat, in equal and unsettling parts, I stumbled into the lobby. Chilled beverages and merchandise summoned me. A mini cooler displayed $5 bottles of coconut water and kombucha tea. Colorful yoga pants and tank tops with aums and cartoon Buddhas lined the back wall. Shelves above them showcased best-sellers by Benjamin Lorr and Pema Chödrön, and colorful water bottles advertising the BBY logo.
Over the last two decades, I have attended various yoga classes––ashtanga, vinyasa, Bikram, yin, kundalini, Iyengar––but never an unorthodox fusion like the one I experienced in hip hop yoga. It was a distracting, mind-boggling, counterintuitive experience that subverted my expectations.
When I slipped into my boots and wandered toward the exit, the front desk woman asked, with that trademark smile, “See you next time?”
“Yup,” I said, nodding. “I’ll be back.” I slung my mat over my shoulder and realized that I meant it.