The longest day of the year. The first day of summer. The sun at its highest and strongest, offering energy for growth and fulfillment.
I like all that the summer solstice represents, but I especially like that for the last few years, the summer solstice has meant the opportunity to do yoga in Times Square. Finding a personal practice in a public space embodies so much of what yoga means to me, and I was grateful for the chance to shine my light in a crowd of thousands yesterday.
I’ve been doing my fair share of outdoor yoga lately–a Chelsea Piers practice at the NYC extension of Wanderlust, then a free class in a nearby park offered by a local studio, and of course my own versions of asana (heavy on the savasana) when I’m catching sun on the weekends. But nothing tops Times Square.
If New York City is a massive energy force, Times Square is its epicenter. I often avoid the area–too chaotic, too crowded–but on a yoga mat it feels like home. Which of course, it is, with the earth below me and the sky above me. Still, to feel confident and at peace on a sea of cement, surrounded by the biggest of billboards and the flashiest of lights, is truly an “absurd luxury,” in the words of the teacher who led the opening breath work.
I knew people were watching. (I scoped out the scene myself during my lunch break, observing a class led by a Bikram teacher I know.) And yes, that was a little weird. During my teacher training, observing the practices of other students was a definite privilege. But in Times Square it was simply inevitable. The movements of the seven thousand people who chose to participate throughout the day-long event were shown on large Jumbotrons on the walls of tall buildings and also streamed live on the internet. Anonymity was for the most part preserved, but privacy was impossible.
But my yoga is always mine, and when I surrender to the stillness within me, I can relax, whether I’m meditating in my bedroom or surrounded by strangers on the pavement of a city street. And so I let my self-consciousness float up to the clouds as I went through the asanas, and I had a gratifying class. The teacher, Douglass Stewart, did a lovely job of accommodating yogis of all levels and providing accessible guidance while grounding his words firmly in the foundations of yogic philosophy.
And instead of fretting that the occasionally spiritual wording would turn off novices and onlookers, I allowed myself to benefit from the wisdom Douglass offered, to let his words resonate with the truths in my heart. Because when I’m not worrying about what others think, I do feel the vibrations under my body. I am aware of stillness within movement, and yes, I think chanting “om” does something real.
Which is why a grin slid across my face when near the end we tried an om experiment: After three organized oms, we were told to let loose and om at our own pace. The eventual overlap of chants would then create an unceasing cycle of sound that could go on forever–we weren’t given a time limit or an endpoint to aim for. I’d done something similar once before, during my teacher training, and I described it then as “a heavy, hearty vibration of humanity and comfort.”
This time was a little different. When we were guided the sounds were full and thick, but as I continued I began to feel isolated and alone. I could only hear my own voice–I don’t think the people around me felt as comfortable raising theirs. But rather than stop and feel awkward, I remembered my initial discomfort back when chanting was unfamiliar, and I empathized with my peers. It’s better, I think, when we can lift our voices together, but we are together regardless. So I sat tall, breathed deep, and omed loud enough for everyone.