Six Unexpected Lessons I Learned from Metal Yoga
Nearly every week, it seems like, I read a new trend-piece about yet another yoga + ___ fusion class: Roller Derby Yoga, yoga paired with chocolate tasting, Breakdancing Yoga, Voga (yoga + voguing), Doga (yoga avec puppy dogs), Koga (kickboxing and yoga), Poga (yoga with a pole), Snowga (yoga on the slopes)—you get the idea.
And for a while, almost every time I came across one of these yoga hybrid classes—classes that practically always manage to take one of my very favorite things (yoga) and combine it with one of my OTHER very favorite things, be it chocolate, puppies, or my long-forgotten derby dreams—my reaction was the same: Oh, wow; this looks like SO much fun! I would probably love this. But that initial enthusiasm was often tempered by a rush of yoga-guilt: I CANNOT let anybody know I think this sounds fun. I mean, this isn't even "real" yoga. Oh my God, how un-yogic can I be? So I would push my curiosity aside, silently resolving to do a better job of nirodha-ing my chitta vrittis. And when one of these headline-making yoga fusions would come up in conversation with fellow teachers and practitioners, my response would range from "that's just ridiculous!" to "it looks kind of fun, I guess, but OBVIOUSLY it's not yoga," dismissals that I thought would surely secure my spot in some self-imagined "legit-for-real-purist yoga club."
So I would push my curiosity aside, silently resolving to do a better job of nirodha-ing my chitta vrittis.
But the curiosity kept coming back, and that, coupled with a recently set intention to start embracing and acknowledging the stuff that interests me—even the stuff that I fear will be deemed "uncool" or "unyogic"—convinced me to actually give a few of these unconventional classes a try. At the very least, I figured, instead of merely spouting off what I imagined a "good yogi" "should" say, I could speak from experience the next time Nude Karaoke Glowstick Yoga* came up in conversation.
I began with a quick google search: something akin to "weirdest yoga classes in NYC." After falling through several internet rabbit holes, and grumbling in frustration at all the multi-page listicles, I finally stumbled upon the home page for the Cobra Club, a bar/coffee shop/yoga studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn, that offers Metal Yoga classes every Sunday and Wednesday. (In addition to Metal Yoga, they also offer a variety of other classes—with a surprising number of them geared toward toddlers and babies.) In spite of the fact that I know next to nothing about metal music (outside of some local bands I enjoyed back in high school), it looked like a blast. Thoughts of I will probably love this, but...crept in and I knew this was just what I was looking for. I sent a text to Michael, my friend and Yoga Talk co-host, with a "Let's do this!" and a purple devil emoji. And then promptly forgot about it. That is, until a recent Washington Post article titled "How Death Metal Cured My Hatred for Yoga" featuring a write-up and glowing recommendation of the selfsame class in Bushwick reignited my curiosity and enthusiasm.
The following Wednesday, Michael and I headed to Brooklyn to catch the 6:30 pm Metal class. We arrived about half an hour early, plenty of time for me to nervously sip on an iced green tea while wondering (1) where the yoga class would actually be held, and (2) where I could go to change into my yoga clothes. (Answers: (1) through a door back by the pool tables—a detail I would have known already if I'd read the Washington Post article more clearly, and (2) a bathroom which recently clocked in at #12 in Brooklyn Magazine's list of "The Bathrooms of 15 Bushwick Bars, Ranked from Worst to Best.")
As soon as I stepped into the class space, I noticed that the atmosphere was...surprisingly welcoming. I mean, I've definitely walked into a lot of yoga studios that have felt suspiciously like middle-school cafeterias; a sea of giggles, whispers, and homogeneous designer everything that immediately made me self-conscious of my wardrobe, my body type, my lack of a mani-pedi, or the fact that my mat bag is designed to look like a burrito. This was totally the opposite of that. Despite the fact that I was actually, in fact, in a bar in Bushwick, the pretension level was set to zero. (The vibe was actually kind of reminiscent of my only other metal-related experience: the late-night Midwestern coffee bar where my sister and I would go in high school to listen to local metal bands and perfect our mosh-pit survival skills.)
Michael and I were greeted by teacher and founder of Metal Yoga Bones, Saskia Thode, who was friendly and helpful, letting us know that we could set up wherever we liked, encouraging us (and everyone) to grab some props and make ourselves at home. She even acknowledged the awesomeness of Michael's eyeliner (which he donned especially for class).
So? Was it fun? Was it "yoga"? Did I discover a newfound allegiance to death metal? I think I can best describe the experience in the context of six useful and totally unexpected bits of wisdom that I picked up in class:
1. Embrace the darkness along with the light.
In lieu of the usual Rumi quote, intention-setting, or OM-ing, class began with an invitation to remember someone or something that made us angry, to feel that anger, and then, instead of swallowing it up, to collectively shout, roar, and bang on the floor. Let me just say, as an adult, I don't get nearly enough opportunities to yell, scream, and bang on the floor. My only problem was that on the spot like that I had trouble actually thinking of something or someone to feel angry about. First I went with the fact that the bar was out of iced coffee and I'd had to settle for that pre-class green tea. Then I moved on to an ex-boyfriend or two. I still didn't feel that angry, but honestly, it mostly just felt great to growl and roar and hit stuff in the presence of other people who were also growling and roaring and hitting stuff. And even more than that, it was validating, because, like most humans, sometimes I really do get angry. Sometimes I even get angry in yoga class. And that's often followed by a hefty dose of yoga-guilt: I can't say/think/do/feel that because it's "un-yogic." Even if it's actually something that I really need to say/think/do/feel. And while I realize that it's probably not the best idea to start yelling and hitting the floor the next time I get aggravated in my regular vinyasa class, this opener served as a helpful reminder to acknowledge, welcome, and experience my feelings (even the not-so-yogic ones) instead of dismissing them or pushing them away.
Class began with an invitation to remember someone or something that made us angry, to feel that anger, and then, instead of swallowing it up, to collectively shout, roar, and bang on the floor.
2. Yoga doesn't have to be complicated to be challenging.
As far as the poses were concerned, Metal Yoga was simple, yet challenging. There were no wild arm balances, precarious inversions, or big-foot-meets-head backbends, but that doesn't mean it was an "easy" class. We held planks, standing poses, and lunges (including one of those hovery quad-screamy lunges where your back knee is halfway off the floor) for a long time. (The class description on the Cobra Club's website put it best: "We will be holding poses until we are feeling their hellish fire creeping into our bodies." Accurate.) We built up heat moving through sun salutes. (Saskia taught everyone a modified version first, then after a few rounds offered options to make the flow more challenging—and she managed to language this in such a way that the "advanced" options weren't presented as any "better" or more acceptable than the "easier" options—skillful teaching that I noted and admired.) We even jumped around and danced. This was not a heated room, and while I'm normally not a super-sweaty human, I was perspiring quite a bit by the end of class.
3. I'm not the only one who wants to scream during long holds.
Vocalization was definitely encouraged in Metal Yoga, even beyond the aforementioned opening yell-fest. For example, when we'd been holding a standing pose for so long that I felt like I wanted to scream, lo and behold, Saskia would suggest it. Again, validating. Instead of feeling alone in my challenge, it was like the the whole class was in it together. A reminder that "yeah, duh, this is a hard thing; I don't have to pretend it's not. And we're all pretty badass for doing it."
4. It's not about showing off: nobody else really cares whether or not I can do that arm balance.
Intellectually, I know that my practice is about me—doing what's best for me in the moment, I mean. And that nobody else is watching me and silently judging me for wobbling during eagle pose or choosing to do legs up the wall instead of shoulderstand (and even if they are, really, who cares?). But even so, sometimes in class I feel compelled to pick a more advanced option in order to affirm my yogi street cred. As though catching my foot in vashisthasana will make people think I'm more spiritually evolved or something. But I didn't feel that way in metal yoga. Not. At. All. Maybe it was because I was too caught up in the fun and novelty to care, maybe it was the overall noncompetitive vibe of the class rubbing off on me, or maybe it was because in a Metal Yoga class I didn't feel like anyone expected me to BE "spiritually evolved" in the first place. For that hour and fifteen minutes I spent practicing in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn, I didn't feel like I had anything to prove.
5. It's okay to fall.
This is actually something that I've heard a lot of teachers say (and have often said myself), but it's still nice to be reminded—especially when you know the person saying it really means it! If there's a pose category that I find particularly challenging, it's standing balance poses, and when I'm wobbling or start to feel my feet cramping up in eagle pose or warrior III, it's easy to drop into negative self-talk. That's why it was especially nice, in the midst of a seemingly never-ending tree pose, to hear: "Don't fall—well, actually, go ahead, fall if you want to!" To reiterate this point later, Saskia asked us all to to take a warrior stance and walked around giving everybody a little push—a gesture that helped remind me that shifting, teetering, swaying, and sometimes even falling out of a pose is all part of the practice.
6. Sometimes I can be a yoga snob. It is really annoying and interferes with my ability to have fun and enjoy life.
I think I needed this Metal Yoga class. I needed it because I needed to lighten up. To quit worrying about whether or not I was yogic enough (whatever that even means) and to be in an environment that encourages that sense of fun and acceptance. For real, you can't really do poses like "crowd surfing pose" (warrior III with hands making devil horns), "the destroyer" (warrior I with devil horns), "fuck you pose" (warrior II with only middle fingers extended), or swap out the closing "namaste" for a "hail, Satan" while taking yourself SO super-seriously. You just can't.
Who Should Check Out Metal Yoga
If you're reading an article on Yoga International, I'm assuming you probably (at least sort of) like yoga. But maybe you have a friend or loved one who's not so into it. As the title of the previously mentioned Washington Post article might imply, if ever there were a class to recommend to those who don't really like yoga, this might just be it (the woman behind me, for example, even shouted an enthusiastic "fuck yoga!" when we were asked to yell, growl, and roar in a downdog). Basically, if you've been dying for your bestie/significant other/sibling/whomever to join you for a practice, but they're kind of turned off by the typical studio scene, this might be a fun, unintimidating class for them to try.
But what if you know nothing about metal? Um, that would be me. I was a little nervous that my lack of metal knowledge would brand me an outsider, but the fact that I couldn't name a single song that played mattered to no one.
While I probably won't be permanently practicing my standing poses with devil horns anytime soon, I'm glad that I tried Metal Yoga, and I'd be down to try it again.
And is it "really yoga"?....Eh, depends on who you ask, I suppose. No, I wouldn't expect to find self-realization in crowd surfing pose, but it's not like I'm expecting to find it practicing "mating dragonfly," or "wild thing" in a more mainstream yoga class either. Did I leave feeling more uplifted, grounded, and relaxed than when I arrived? Yes! And to be honest with you, I felt a lot more steadiness and ease when I was laughing along with the rest of the class while practicing "the destroyer" than I do when I'm in a more typical vinyasa class getting frustrated that my arms aren't as straight as the yogi next to me in bakasana, (and subsequently scolding myself for caring that my arms aren't as straight as the yogi next to me in bakasana), or feeling self-conscious about the brand of my yoga pants. While I probably won't be permanently practicing my standing poses with devil horns anytime soon, I'm glad that I tried Metal Yoga, and I'd be down to try it again.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!