At the beginning of March, my husband and I drove away from the watery light of Indiana and headed south to Orange Beach, Alabama. Since I live in a small Rust-Belt town with few options for yoga besides my own classes, our vacations tend to include some yoga tourism, and this trip would be no different. I spend most of my yoga practice alone, just me, the yoga classes I stream, and sometimes my husband, sometimes a dog or two. When I practice at home I get set in my ways. I cheat in balance poses and find moments to think about the dust bunnies on the floor. I get irritated every time I have to reach my hands up around the ceiling fan when I stand in extended Mountain pose.
As we drove, I rubbed the knot in my shoulder and the cramp in my hip and wondered where Glow Yoga, the one studio I’d found in Gulf Shores, was in relation to the outlet malls and surfwear shops. Raving reviews from visitors described Glow Yoga as genuine, happy, and an excellent workout.
None of them were lying.
We didn’t make it to GlowYoga on Monday, when we decided to go dolphin-watching (good choice) on the windy lagoon and then eat seafood (potentially bad choice), or Tuesday, when we were recovering from the previous night’s gumbo. But on Wednesday we drove the short distance to Gulf Shores and found the yoga studio nestled by a small lagoon. Wednesday night’s class was GlowFlow–a one-hour, heated yoga class upstairs in “the hot box.” Seven or eight of us arranged our mats and yoga towels in the small room so as to not hit the ceiling or each other. The temperature climbed to 90. “Child’s pose,” Jennifer, tonight’s instructor commanded, and we were off.
An hour, multiple sun salutations, long holds in Warrior II and, thank God, no ab exercises later, we were sinking into our sweat-soaked yoga towels, blissed out and so grateful to not be moving anymore. As we lay on floor with our eyes closed, Jennifer moved around the room. I assumed she might adjust our hands or massage a little oil into our temples. Instead, she laid a chilled, eucalyptus-soaked handtowel on our foreheads and pressed her fingers into our temples. Nothing in the universe could have felt better.
The heavenly eucalyptus handtowel was a feature in all but one class I attended–at least seventy people crammed into the Skybox for Candlelight Yoga on Friday night, making it impossible to deliver that many towels in a five minute savasana. Sweat was also a feature in every class, even the Restorative class, where we did various “wall yoga” poses, like Half Moon, Extended Hand to Toe pose, Half Handstand, and Staff pose; and the Slow Flow class (see an example here) which was a slower, non-heated (but no less challenging) version of a vinyasa class.
When we were signing in for the Wednesday night class, we decided to buy the unlimited week pass for $40. It was the best decision I made that spring break. We came back for Power Hour and Restorative on Thursday morning, Slow Flow on Friday morning and then Heated Candlelight yoga on Friday evening, and PowerHour Saturday morning before we left for the long drive home. Different teachers instructed us each time, in styles that varied, but still felt cohesive and in line with the ethos of the studio. That ethos seems to come down to three things: welcoming, moving, and breathing.
Glow is a studio that attracts all kinds of people. There is no cult of the beautiful and young at this studio; the shirtless middle aged men are as welcome as the college students in cheap leggings and the stay-at-home-moms in LuLu and the middle-aged women nonchalantly wearing crop tops. People with various levels of physical disabilities and abilities sweated together, and the instructors constantly walked the room, ready to assist and encourage as needed.
A studio’s emphasis on hospitality benefits the advanced students as much as the beginners. As a yoga instructor, the hardest part about going to another yoga class is the people in the room, because my first impulse is either to adjust them or compare myself with them. Some studios, regardless of how spiritual they say they are, inadvertently encourage comparison and thus competition. But at Glow, I wasn’t competing for anything, not even space, despite it being pretty limited sometimes.
The studio building itself was also very welcoming–I didn’t feel like I had walked into an exclusive club/cult. They sell some clothing, jewelry, and yoga mats in the lobby, but I wouldn’t be a second-rate yoga student if I didn’t own those items. Bathrooms and storage cubicles are available next to each of the three studio classrooms. If I had one complaint, it’s that there are no showers, but I heard a rumor they’re in the process of installing some over the summer.
In one review I read, the owner of Glow describes the studio’s type of yoga as “workout yoga,” which often gets translated as “Americanized yoga” or even “not real yoga” in some circles. However, while the classes are challenging and leave participants soaked and (maybe) sore, the movement does not come at the expense of mindfulness. In fact, it seems to encourage it. It’s hard to think about where I will go for brunch or what I will wear when I’m transitioning from Crescent lunge to Eagle pose then back to Crescent lunge AND trying to breathe deeply. In a good physical yoga class, the movement should encourage us to stay in the body and focused on each movement.
The pace in the heated classes at Glow is quick; instructors usually call out the pose in English as opposed to Sanskrit, but with limited instructions for how to get into the posture. A typical list of instructions might sound like, “Warrior I. Turn to Warrior II. Breathe. Triangle. Back to plank and flow.” Classes like Restorative or Slow Flow might be better options for the beginning yoga students who doesn’t know the postures or how to smoothly transition between them. However, should a newbie end up in a heated flow class, the instructors do an excellent job of helping and encouraging, and their emphasis on the breath helps.
“We’re all about the breathing,” Breeze, our Thursday morning instructor, told me at the end of class. Rather than telling students how to do a pose, instructors keep commanding their students to come back to the breath. “Inhale!” they say, crouching between mats and expanding their arms like a bellows. “Exhale it out!” and the class takes a collective sigh. My favorite command, however, was Breeze’s simple, earnest, “Breathe ya’ll,” that became my mantra of the week. This breath emphasis is key to a strong yoga practice, and as the instructors remind us to take a break if needs be, but always keep breathing, I was reminded that I wasn’t there to develop strong leg muscles or tight abs or fluid balance and open shoulders. I was here to do something unnatural and essential–to breathe deep and let that breath and mindfulness heal my body. I’ve been practicing for over ten years, yet I always need someone, or in this case, lots of someones, to remind me of that.
On Saturday, we found the last clean yoga clothes in our suitcase and drove to Glow for the Saturday morning Power Hour class. 8:00 a.m. turned out to be a popular time in the Hot Box–we were packed in, inches between us. I had to adjust my mat during class to avoid the sloping ceiling. When we stood up and reached our hands to the ceiling in Mountain pose, I kept mine in prayer mudra at my heart, first out of necessity, eventually out of gratitude. Sometimes space to reach isn’t as important as the people filling the space around us.