When I heard about Yogathon 2009 I thought it was brilliant. Wokai , a young microfinance fundraiser non-profit that I had just read about in the papers, was putting on the event and I could spend a day in the ultra hip ‘798’ art district pushing my “downward dog” with friends. Proceeds from our tickets would benefit Wokai’s microlending partners in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia. I’d get to call myself some kind of “thoner” for charity (“marathoner” is too much of a stretch for me).
When I signed up online I eagerly clicked the “8 hour practice” option. All the Yogathon practice and music sessions looked interesting and it cost less than a single Bikram session would in Beijing!
On Saturday, I got dropped off at the gate and walked around the sprawling 798 campus looking for the T Arts center. Along the way, I passed old factory buildings still bearing Maoist slogans in fading white paint. Their external facades were made of red brick, the way they were built thirty years ago, but the interiors were now glossy art galleries.
The all-white T Arts Center was a few blocks down on Road #2. With its cheerful red “Illy” sign, clusters of deck umbrellas outside, and modern construction, it looked like an Ian Schrager hotel, but a “Yogathon” sign outside indicated I was in the right place.
Inside, a Wokai volunteer greeted me enthusiastically. It was just ten-thirty and sixty or so people had already arrived, taking up position on yoga mats laid out in rows. The bright cavernous interior of T Arts Center was perfectly set up. A large triptych painting in pink provided an aesthetic back drop for the instructors up front. Even the path to the bathroom was a tour of the current exhibit of oil paintings.
As I settled into my mat I realized that I had underestimated the cold. This was no Bikram studio. Yogi’s all around me were braving it in fleece jackets and outerwear. As the mats filled up, the day kicked off with a session of traditional sun salutations. This was basic stuff that I’d countless times, but the resonance of a hundred voices chanting “Om” in unison and two hundred arms reaching up to the sky was uniquely uplifting.
Following the two-hour session, a band took the stage while yogi’s mat-hopped to greet their friends. It was kind of like camp for do-gooding grown ups (or it’s what I imagine camp is like since I’ve never been to camp!). There were devoted yogi’s, Chinese and foreign, milling about. Freelancers, ex-investment bankers, study abroad students, musicians, photographers, accountants, volunteers, organizers, just about every kind of sun saluter with a social conscience you can imagine!
The break was followed by a challenging session, including binds and birds of paradise postures. As journalists and photographers busily captured these fanciful poses, I conquered my personal yoga Everest. I’ve dreamt about springing up into a handstand in the middle of a room the way mountaineers dream about scaling unforgiving peaks. Anna, a charismatic instructor who had just come in from LA (and taught her class while wearing a parka), went about teaching us how to do a handstand without the help of a wall as if it were as easy as one-two-three. It sounded so simple the way she demonstrated with a volunteer. If I followed her instructions, my spotting partner would be little more than a safety net. I would just lift my legs up and, voila, the handstand would happen. I was excited to try it out, but could it be that simple? I’ve tried it so many times before and it never “just happened.”
With ninety-nine other floundering yogi’s in the room I could put aside the fear of embarrassing myself. I got into position, heard my partner give me the go-ahead, and up I went! It really did just happen. My partner gave me the support of a finger to tip me into balance, but after that, it was all me. No walls, no halfway ups, just a strong tall handstand all by myself. When I came down I was on such a yoga high that I zipped across the room to tell everyone what I just did. My heart wouldn’t stop beating from the exhilaration for a long time after.
At lunch time, I watched a presentation byARDY, a Wokai partner who administers microloans, and by Sara Ho, a Beijing-based business development manager for Wokai. Sara shared her story of traveling to a remote village where she met a little girl, the daughter of a borrower. When Sara asked her, “What do you want to do when you grow up”, the girl burst into tears. This simple retelling moved me to understand what Wokai is working with. Real poverty is when a ten-year-old child carries the despair and worry of an adult, not daring to dream or hope for the future. This is what I hope I have contributed to changing, in a small way, by being at Yogathon today.
The tempo and heat picked up in the afternoon. Matthew, a Kabir and Rumi-quoting burly guy who could drop into a perfect split instantaneously, led a crew of Beijing’s best yoga teachers to show us partner yoga techniques. This got people moving around, getting to know their mat neighbors, and learning to deepen each other’s practices. A mellow band added to the warm buzz with their acoustic guitar and bongo drums.
I checked my watch and realized that I had sat through six hours of yoga, but probably only actively practiced for four. I was already tired and sore. I decided to pack up, content to call myself a “half yogathoner,” and I was dying to try handstands wall-free again at home. When I left it was already dark outside, but inside, the T Arts Center was still aglow with the warmth of happy people and happy sounds doing good for their bodies and good for the world.
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