On June 21, I boarded Train No. 650 at 30th Street Station for a first-day-of-summer yoga escape. Destined for a pristine beach oozing tranquillity? An isolated mountaintop exuding transcendence? More like an island – the one immortalized as the city that never sleeps. I was Manhattan-bound; though not to a hip yoga studio, but to the hubbub of Times Square.
An estimated 15,000 other yogis and yoginis and I were participating in Mind Over Madness, all-day outdoor yoga sessions at the “Crossroads of the World” – and a fund-raiser for the yoga-inspired charities Bent on Learning and Urban Zen.
I arrived in the Big Apple in the afternoon, made my way to Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, checked in with a T-shirted event attendant, squeezed into a tight spot, unrolled my mat, and got ready to Zen out during NYC’s Friday-evening rush hour amid wailing sirens, honking horns, accents familiar and not, crystal-clear images flashing frenetically from mammoth video screens, vendors hawking $20 “Rolexes,” stilt-walking Lady Libertys, a man in a wheelchair holding a cardboard sign scribbled with his honest plea for “spare change for beer and pizza,” and a frenzy of more sights and sounds.
By 5:30 p.m. under puffy, cotton-candylike clouds, it was time to channel a little inspiration from nearby Fashion Avenue – and strike a pose. The class was led by husband-wife yoga teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee. Sitting cross-legged, hands in prayer position, we joined our voices with Colleen’s and chanted three “Oms.” Rodney Yee guided us through poses, asanas in Sanskrit: Warrior 2, as a black POW/MIA flag fluttered above; Lion’s Breath, as the illuminated marquee for Broadway blockbuster The Lion King gleamed overhead; and Mountain pose, as we lengthened and stretched our bodies, emulating the towering skyscrapers surrounding us.
Passersby snapped pictures of this unusual (even for New York) scene – this small mass of barefooted humanity inhaling, exhaling, downward dogging. Soon we were in Savasana, corpse pose, lying on our backs, arms and legs outstretched, eyes closed – in the middle of one of the world’s busiest intersections. I became aware that my fellow yogis, the tourists, the commuters, the wealthy, the homeless were all breathing the same air – connected breath by breath.
Rodney Yee offered a reflection on wise words from the dalai lama that went something like this: “There’s so much suffering, unrest, and hostility in the world, yet still I am at peace and full of joy.” I realized yoga really does start once we leave our mats. The challenge is to cultivate peace within, and find ways to radiate it out to the world. I also realized that you don’t have to travel far to get away from it all. You can journey inside yourself and perhaps discover an amazing place.
I felt an inner stillness as we chanted a closing “Om” – and I knew that if I could get my “Om” on there, I could get it on anywhere. Thank you, New York, New York. Namaste.