Over the past few years, yoga has become something of a New York phenomenon, simultaneously synonymous with Alphabet City hippies, college students and rich housewives on the Upper East Side. Yoga, a traditional physical and mental meditative discipline that originates in India and has its roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, often gets dismissed as a sort of dainty pastime. But it is actually one physical discipline where a skinny girl can do more challenging moves than a big, buff guy.
Practising yoga is supposed to lead to a greater union between the mind, body and spirit to attain self-enlightenment, and this is what I find most attractive about it. For me, an essential part of Islam is the way it connects spirituality with everyday actions, so that religion isn't relegated to the four walls of a masjid during prayer but becomes something that every individual takes with them in their daily lives.
My first experience with yoga was two summers ago when my sister's roommate suggested we try some free yoga classes, of which there are several in the city. "Why not?" I thought. I'm always up for a new adventure. The first thing the yogi (teacher) told us to do was to allow our bodies to be comfortable (not easy with 40 of us squeezed into a room designed for 20), watch our breathing and do what felt natural. "Simple," I thought. Then, just as we were doing some basic bends, one-third of the class started making strange noises as they exhaled, like a group of groaning gorillas. I smothered the urge to laugh but my friend winked at me and started groaning too, so I thought, "When in Rome," and gave it a try.
I'm pretty fit, but that first yoga class was quite an experience. It was only 45 minutes long but some of the poses felt as if they had lasted hours. Dripping with sweat and suspecting that we'd pulled muscles we hadn't known existed, my friend and I completed the outing New York-style by heading for an organic/healthy eaterie a few blocks away. Soy shakes in hand, we walked home feeling absolutely refreshed.
Since then, I've taken a yoga class at university and bought my own yoga mat to practise at home. I enjoy the meditative aspect and the way, if done correctly, you come out of a session feeling much more relaxed. You can't study or concentrate well if you aren't also working on strengthening your body. In a city as hectic and materialistic as New York, it's perhaps not that strange that a discipline with roots in highly spiritual religions and slow-paced cultures has become so popular. New Yorkers easily fall prey to fads, so for a lot of them the attraction is not so much the research that says yoga is the only form of physical activity that provides complete exercise to the body, but that it is something exotic, which comes with its own special clothes, incense, music and so forth, and has a spiritual side.
Yoga is an acceptable way of expressing spirituality in a society that is famously liberal and secular. Professing strong religious affiliations makes people feel uncomfortable, but meditating while contorting your limbs in ever stranger positions is fine. So now the yoga-devotees are a recognisable New York "group": they wear stretchy yoga leggings everywhere, they enjoy a mainly soy-based diet, and they relegate spirituality to one hour a week.