Metal Bones Yoga. Photo: smedusa.tumblr.com
I have always hated yoga - an opinion I kept on the down low during my years as a health and fitness magazine editor. I wrote and edited countless stories instructing readers how to execute poses that would strengthen and slim them into yogic perfection, but shunned yoga in my personal life. But, because I have scoliosis, doctors and physical therapists have told me that, outside of physical therapy, there's just one thing I can do to help alleviate the back and neck pain caused by my abnormally S-curved spine: yoga.
I tried neighborhood classes, fancy-trendy classes and Groupon bargain classes and hated them all. Instead of feeling calm, I feel crowded. I hate fighting for inches of space around my yoga mat in roomfuls of people exhibiting an irritating lack of need for instruction. I hate having to hear so many strangers breathe. I feel stupid walking around with half of a yoga mat awkwardly sticking out of a canvas shopping bag, but hate the special yoga mat carrier slings even more. Despite their obvious convenience, they make their wearers look smug, with their overzealously squared shoulders and confident strides.
My disdain for these things is only exceeded by my contempt for the sounds of chimes and chanting.
Metal Bones Yoga. Photo: smedusa.tumblr.com
So I was intrigued when I heard about Metal Yoga Bones, a yoga class set to heavy metal and death metal near my home in Brooklyn, New York City. Metal might not spring to most people's minds when they think of centering tranquility, but I wondered if actually liking the musical backdrop in a yoga class would boost my stamina. Maybe the dark, plodding bass would spur me on as I twist into positions unnatural to my scoliosis-mangled physique. Maybe the atmosphere would be less anal-retentive than a normal yoga class. Maybe the casual approach would prove comforting for someone like me, who's used to rubbing studded shoulders with other rock-n-roll dirtbag types at punk and metal clubs.
On her Web site, founder and teacher Saskia Thode says that her Vinyasa classes are welcoming to students of all levels. But I was skeptical that metal yoga would be much different from traditional yoga, aside from the music. Was it just one in a long line of gimmicks, like dog yoga, pot yoga, naked yoga, laughing yoga, yoga with weights, and yoga on bikes? Would metal yoga prove to be the same "namaste" snootery I was used to, just with tattoos and devil horns?
From the beginning, there were signs that metal yoga was going to be different. Metal Yoga Bones is inexpensive on the yoga spectrum, just $13 for a 90-minute class. (I liked it already!) It's hosted by the Cobra Club bar in a dim back room, accessible through a door next to the pool table. As I waited for the instructor, I stood between the bathrooms and a giant video game that lets players shoot and kill deer that turn into zombies.
The yoga room, which doubles as a stage area for live music, was windowless with red walls. Thode, the instructor, is originally from Germany and is toned like most yoga teachers. But like fewer yoga teachers, she is covered in tattoos and wears a blond braid that hangs past her butt. She began our class in a familiar way, instructing her nine students - seven women and two men - to sit squarely on our mats and take deep breaths, with our eyes closed. Think of all the stresses we'd experienced that week, she said, ball them up in our palms and raise our fists to the ceiling. Then Thode veered off script: Let those stresses go, she instructed, with a few deep breaths - and some loud growling and barking. It was a yoga first for me.
Then the electric guitars started to blare: 'Tormenter' by W.A.S.P., 'Feel the Pain' by Obituary, 'Forever Blind' by At the Gates, and other metal tracks. Thode was sometimes hard to hear over the music, but at least the death metal drowned out any heavy breathing and sniffling from my classmates. She led us through common Vinyasa poses: downward-facing dog, triangle pose, forward bend, Warrior I and Warrior II, to name several. But she was careful not to get stuck in the yoga jargon. When she led us into plank – calling it "plank" instead of "Chatarunga" – she described it as "the top of a push-up" to make sure everyone knows what she's talking about.
Thode accented the class with some allusions to metal culture that made yoga a little more relatable. As we raised our arms high, she shouted, "Make your devil horns!" The gesture — extending my pinkies and index fingers, while holding down my middle two digits with my thumbs — felt more empowering than any warrior pose ever had on its own. Near the end of class, as we laid on our mats with orange foam blocks comfortably wedged under our tailbones, Thode went around the room and challenged us each to do our best evil laugh.
Lying on the floor, with my intertwined legs twisted to the left and my head to the right, I noticed beer splattered on the wall. Maybe metal yoga isn't for everyone, I thought, but it was winning me over. During a long savasana that no one called a savasana ("corpse pose"), we laid in the dark and listened to an appropriately symphonic dark metal song, 'Winter (Requiem, Chapter Three: Finale)' by Celtic Frost. Its haunting piano and spooky chorus made me feel like I was in a '70s Italian horror movie. That might sound nightmarish to some, but it was lovely and relaxing to me, especially when Thode gently pushed my shoulders back and, with her hands under my hair, pulled my head slightly to elongate my neck.
Upright again, we followed Thode's direction to raise our horns skyward and repeat "Praise Satan!" (after which many of us giggled, including Thode). Then we ended the class with a chorus of wolf-like howls. The gestures to heavy metal culture were fun and goofy, rather than contrived, which discouraged everyone from taking themselves too seriously. And we still got a thorough yoga experience.
Finally, I had found a yoga class that I liked - but it was difficult, at first, to put my finger on why. Was it merely because the instructor and many of my classmates had tattoos, like I do? But after some reflection, I cut myself some slack. Despite its Eastern-spiritual roots, yoga is generally given an "uptown" gloss in the West, and no matter where I live, I always think of myself as a "downtown" kind of person. I feel more at home with people who don't see anything weird or off-putting about doing yoga in the back room of a bar. No one in my Metal Yoga Bones classes projected the expert-level smugness I'd seen in other yoga experiences.
The more natural your workout feels, the more likely you are to stick to it. So I'm looking forward to more seamlessly incorporating devil horns into my warrior poses at my next Metal Yoga Bones class, a miraculous realization after years of shunning yoga. Praise Satan.
Virginia Pelley is a writer in Brooklyn, New York. She does not actually worship the devil.