My two-week, three-step program to self-actualization was fool-proof:
1) Go to as many yoga outlets as possible. Tell them you are writing a magazine feature about yoga. Tell the instructor you are a total novice. He, or more likely she, will see by your apparent inflexibility that you're being honest and will say something reassuring along the lines of, "I think we're all novices in our practice."
2) Handle the penetrating focus of the instructors. Nod when they talk about intention, integration and internal biases as they unveil the intense benefits each has discovered and hopes to share on your new and unique inner journey.
3) Revel in self-importance, begin to subsist solely off organic bean sprouts and soy chutney and float seamlessly into and out of various transcendental states.
The first two steps went according to plan, and the first two weeks flew by. But then something happened.
I awoke at 6 a.m. and drove to the studio - story "research" already complete - and actually paid for a class. I needed it. The yoginis had won.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
I figured my three-step program was the best way to address the state of yoga in Steamboat - try every option, jumping off the deep end to immerse myself in something I knew nothing about. I didn't know my Bikram from my sacrum. So I went to as many classes as I could, each taught by a different instructor. I wanted to know if it was possible to get too much inner harmony. Like trying to overdose on grapefruit or cuddling.
I was used to the rec league world of competition and outdoor one-upmanship. But everywhere I looked, the more yoga reared its non-threatening head in every Steamboat fitness den or balanced athlete's regimen.
Like many other first-timers, I went to Victoria Strohmeyer.
Yoga found the fourth-generation Coloradan by happenstance when a traveling yogini introduced the discipline/philosophy/science/tradition/practice to Strohmeyer's mother, a physical education teacher in CaÃ±on City. Strohmeyer carried it with her through business school and into hectic 80-hour weeks as an executive for Johnson & Johnson. The years of pressure and tension ultimately came to a meltdown point where Strohmeyer reassessed her priorities to return to Colorado and begin sharing what had become an integral part of her life. After attending the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (Stockbridge, Mass.), Strohmeyer started teaching yoga in Steamboat in early 1992.
Linda Sheean, a fellow Kripalu teacher, had moved to town the previous year and began testing the waters by renting out the basement room of Bud Werner Memorial Library, where she hosted classes and only asked for donations, hoping to break even.
"For me, it felt like the essence of yoga teaching - being able to offer to anyone who wanted to learn and, in a way, introducing something new," Sheean said.
While most American yogis mark Swami Vivekananda's lecture at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago and subsequent tour as the watershed of yoga's introduction to the United States, the Yampa Valley still was a frontier a century later.
"It was hard to find space to do it, and the churches didn't know what it was," Strohmeyer recalled.
But Strohmeyer was determined to host classes and began in the aerobics studio of a Sundance Plaza gym, which she quickly outgrew and moved to the library basement, introducing the practice to future Steamboat teachers such as Jill Barker and Lynda Van Tassle. As numbers grew, Strohmeyer opened the Yoga Rx Studio at the Bear River Center in 1993.
"(The Yoga Rx Studio) solidified practice for a lot of people in this town," said Doug Forney, who also moved to Steamboat in 1991 and was one of the original library basement practitioners. "I'm in honor of Victoria and the other instructors; they have a strong sense of purpose in teaching, and the center was a solidifying force in yoga study."
After 15 years running the labor of love, Strohmeyer recently sold the studio to focus on her private, body-centered psychotherapy and yoga therapy practices. But with this central root of yoga planted, Strohmeyer's studio developed many branches. Now Barker, who schedules the yoga program at Old Town Hot Springs and teaches yoga classes at Colorado Mountain College, maintains a list of 20 active yoga teachers in the Steamboat area. And a trio of teachers from the Yoga Rx Studio mothership branched out further to reopen and refurbish the studio, now called the Yoga Center of Steamboat.
"Our vision is to see yoga continue to grow and benefit the community," Nina Darlington said, elaborating on the same vision and inclusiveness that she, Patty Zimmer and Jeanne Upbin hope to provide with the new center, which offers many styles and all levels of yoga, Pilates, tai chi, meditation and qigong. "We see it as a community studio that caters to all people."
Darlington is one of the studio's longtime instructors. She began teaching 12 years ago, when she jokes the instructors were still "talking to the walls." Now Darlington estimates there are easily more than 1,000 yoga students in the Steamboat area. Even by the modest 2007 U.S. Census Bureau numbers of just more than 12,300 residents counted in the cities of Routt County, that puts Steamboat above average, at about 8 percent. The Yoga Journal's 2008 "Yoga in America" market study indicated that 6.9 percent of U.S. adults (15.8 million people) practice yoga and spend $5.7 billion a year on yoga classes and products (almost double what was spent in 2004). As far as the gender breakdown, Steamboat isn't far behind the national demographics of 27.8 percent male practitioners to 72.2 percent female. In my own limited cross-section of eight classes in two weeks, men made up 24.3 percent - in other words, still double the odds of a mud-season night out on the town.
Before my own yoga journey, I must first narrow options between the slew of modalities and classes. After serious debate, I weed out "Pregnancy Yoga" and "50 and Better Yoga."
The psych-up music playlist leftover from a weekend lacrosse tournament still is cued up in my car. I'm racing, late for a class in which I need to relax. Music blares as I weave through Lincoln Avenue cars: "Move it pal! I'm late for Gentle Restorative yoga!"
Patty Zimmer tells me her restorative class in the Bear River Center studio space is more passive yoga with basic gravity releases for the spine.
"Our core group tends to be people recovering from expending a lot of energy or that are really stressed out or people that just need to unwind and stretch," she says.
We're a long way from wrapping necks with ankles. I pick up the basic, Westernized versions of the asanas, or exercise poses of basic Hatha yoga, from table, standing mountain, forward bend, downward-facing dog to child's pose and, of course, the final corpse pose - savasana. I try to follow direction - inhale pushing my belly button out, elongate through my spine and the crown of my head - but keep thinking, "Is it working?" As I head out of class at a tempered walk along a surprisingly busy 6 p.m. Yampa Street, I notice how odd the ornery old man screaming at a car to slow down seems. I don't mind that the guy I know in the passing truck sees me in my workout garb leaving a yoga studio. I probably feel more relaxed than him.
I soak in the green tinge cutting through Thunderhead Peak and marvel at : wait a second, "it" must be happening.
I return to make sure at one of Strohmeyer's final classes. The 13 adults there for Strohmeyer's all-levels morning yoga class fill the serene space perched above the Yampa River. How weird to see a potential social setting packed in close quarters, concentrating on tuning out - and into themselves. Strohmeyer helps pace my breath as she moves us gently from pose to pose. This is where I realize "it" is not going to be so easy.
I cannot pull one leg over the other without my arm going numb. My shoulders are so tight I can't even rest my arms down flat into the seemingly easiest pose of all, the final relaxation savasana corpse. The perfect timing of Strohmeyer's final "Om" for the class, harmonized with the whistle of the oncoming Union Pacific locomotive rumbling past, seems the most appropriate and authentic way to close a Steamboat yoga practice, and this chapter of Strohmeyer's life.
I must remember Strohmeyer's advice about removing ego from my practice while I attended Becky Holloran's Core Power Yoga class at Steamboat Pilates, Yoga and Fitness Studio. I am the only dude amongst, for my first time, a class with members not only younger than I, but substantially more flexible and, in general, more attractive. Eyes front. Recognizable music plays softly as Holloran directs and motivates the class to rapidly flow through a sequence of linked vinyasa poses. "Flow" equals keeping up with the sequence by inhaling through one pose and exhaling into the next. The giant mirror reminds me that these movements from "the pelvic floor, that place of cultivation" have never been generated that deep.
From a seated position with arms raised, slowly lowering myself back, my body goes from quiver to convulse and sweat flows profusely. Holloran and I joke about this afterward, and she informs me this actually was the advanced Core Power Yoga course. "It was a pleasure kicking your ass," she tells me. Since there's no English equivalent to the closing "Namaste" exchanged between students and teacher - translated roughly to "I honor the light/divinity/spirit in you, which is also in me" - this particular gesture of reciprocation feels oddly more meaningful than the motions of the bowed-head formal exchange. All right, "I honor the ass-kicking impulse within you, too."
Perhaps Steamboat's most common entry point into yoga - the all-levels classes at Old Town Hot Springs - will shed more light. Lynda Van Tassle's 10 a.m. class is packed to the walls, as mostly middle-aged female practitioners jockey for floor space and keep coming in after things have started. I'm distracted as we "explore the interior landscape of self," involving a lot of new twisting movements, awkwardly wrapping arms through legs and each other in very novel ways. Maybe it's because, with mats parallel and perpendicular, we're given the choice of which way to turn, and I'm out of sync with neighboring mat twisters. Or maybe it's my inability to "be open and closed at the same time," embracing the duality push-pull of the overarching "Hatha" label, which itself combines the Sanskrit terms for sun and moon. The busy-calm balance escaping me is one of the main draws of teaching at the gym: "People are comfortable being physical here without being esoteric," Van Tassle says. "It's more challenging, but it teaches you how to do it anywhere, in an airport - you know, we don't live in caves." Regardless, I still feel re-energized.
Next up is Jenn Warren's noon Hatha Flow Yoga at Fusion Fit, a much smaller setting. A la "Fusion," Warren blends yoga with spinning or kick-boxing for half-and-half combination classes, but this "straight-up yoga" flows through the poses much like Holloran's class. I opt for the "yogi's choice" of the simplified versions and grab for the straps for new balancing poses. The more classes I attend, the more I notice the personalized instructor tweaks to help students into the entry-level poses. Nancy Spooner was hosting six weeks of free Tuesday/Thursday evening yoga classes this September in hopes of raising $20,000 in donated funds by year's end for the Cambodian Children's Fund. She breathes powerfully and it resonates inside the rented space of the Masonic Hall. "We live when we inhale, we die when we exhale. It carries your life force," she says, encouraging us to "Ham" as we inhale and "Sa" as we exhale. The mantra keeps my breath tempered, and in these final two classes I start to feel comfortable in the poses, the expansion and the tightening, beginning to grasp at the Jedi-like focus the instructors translate from their Sanskrit descriptors, ever "coaxing (my) muscles to their personal limits," as Spooner puts it.
That's not all I'm noticing. I opt for the grilled chicken in the Wendy's drive-through line instead of the Baconator. I catch myself signing an e-mail with the salutation, "Peace." Then my parents come to town and my mom tells me I've lost weight and suddenly I'm telling them they should do yoga.
What have I become?
After a pleasant weekend spent with my folks, I measure up to Strohmeyer's barometer: "How can you tell if you're developing your practice?" she posed. "It's not how elastic are your hamstrings, it's how's your relationship with your mother?"
Suddenly I'm the guy at the bar telling my buddies they should try yoga. That's how it works - word of mouth. Individual to individual.
Patricia Hansen knows it. She was part of the vanguard of instructors who helped (eventually) bring it to this particular conversation in Steamboat. Going into her 41st year of teaching yoga in Colorado, she claims to have never spent a dime on advertising her practice. She originally studied decades ago with Adeline Morris, "the mother of yoga in Colorado," and in turn, through the Rocky Mountain Institute for Yoga and Ayurveda, instructed Strohmeyer.
Who will be next? This town is too active for people to keep avoiding the discovery of better tools for living in and maintaining their bodies and to keep from being inevitably sucked into the Steamboat yoga fold.