People of People’s Yoga August Edition: Anna Canning

I walked into my first yoga class in an inner-city YWCA about a year and a half ago. The instructor sprinted in two minutes after 6AM, breathless from the spinning class she’d just taught. Her voice had the harsh twang of a hopeful Liz Phair impersonator as she intoned, “Circle sweeping the arms up; swan diving down.” Up, down, up, down, and then we’d get to the push-ups. 55 minutes of something resembling sun salutations, then we’d spend the last five minutes of class laying “in our safe happy place” while she ran out to unlock the cycling studio again.
After about three classes of that, we had our first sub. She made us connect each movement of that mad caper to a breath—inhale up, exhale down. Like the difference between being hooked on phonics and real reading, the jerky motions acquired a cadence as they came into focus on the movement of the breath. My curiosity was piqued: with approximately 30 years experience holding my breath in stressful situations, I wondered what would happen if I cultivated the habit of breathing. And so I kept showing up, day after day, 5-6 days a week.

I first showed up at a yoga class because it was a cheap, conveniently located antidote to grueling Minnesota winters and sedentary 60-hour work weeks. My expectations were pretty low: do something that didn’t involve those treadmills under the blaring TVs, but didn’t exceed the boundaries of my Y membership, so handily subsidized by my health insurance at the time.
A motley assortment of seniors, a few dudes in baggy jeans, and the occasional marathoner visiting for a quick stretch, it was the perfect group for me. After we’d rushed through our day’s sequence, we bowed to the mirrors, the teacher in front of them, and the impatient crowd queuing up at the door for 7AM Zumba class. Everyone would intone the requisite “namaste”–except for me.
Raised in Eugene, I was skeptical of anything that smacked of the loose new age-Eastern-self-help-feelgood spirituality that was proclaimed from bumper stickers and dangling prayer flags. I’m one of those people who actually reads things before I sign them and I couldn’t bring myself to recite a word I only understood another slogan. And so I’d incline my head, silent but full of a wordless gratitude.

I didn’t expect that my yoga habit would follow me when I moved to Portland, especially when I discovered that the only place I could afford on my meager freelancer’s budget would be a 5-mile bike ride away. Perhaps it was my favourite spot under the sky light, perhaps the lovely teachers, but once I found it, I kept making that trek across town to People’s.

It’s too soon to tell what sort of a difference yoga makes in my life, or at least to make a statement that sounds impressive. For me, it’s the small things: Slowly I’ve been working on the habit of breathing, in, out, up, down. Some days, I’m completely bowled over by trying to stand on all four quadrants of each foot. A new angle of a hip reveals some nuance of posture that engrosses my attention for a week, on and off my mat. This week it’s been my index fingers: those slightly stumpy digits can change the sensations of a pose all the way back to somewhere around the waistline. I hold out hope that some day my elbows will get with the program, or at least give me a few hints about their program might be.

And yes, I did eventually come round—if you end up practicing next to me, I’ll be saying namaste along with the rest of the group. There wasn’t a grand conversion moment, just one day at the end of class, Suniti offered one of her simple glosses of the term. Oh, that? That’s one of the things I believe. Check.

The People’s community is a great group of people. Where else can I find a sympathetic group of mostly strangers to laugh along with me as I fall flat on my face, or otherwise teeter about? As a confirmed perfectionist, that’s the sort of thing that nightmares are made of, but, regardless of the class, this group makes it pleasant.

When not at the studio, I keep myself occupied by biking all about and doing a range of things for love and money. I’ve worked in fair trade coffee for nearly a decade, most recently doing freelance communications, copy writing, etc. Between 8 and 5, you can find me at Equal Exchange, one of the pioneers of the fair trade movement, working on making international trade more fair, transparent, and equitable for everyone involved.
When not at work, I put words together for fun and money. On the side, I generally comport myself like a granny: gardening, preserving things, sewing, and knitting in public places.