Monday, March 31, 2014

Discovering an American city: Austin

In mid March I had the pleasure of taking a break from New England’s brutal winter to visit the succulent city of Austin, Texas. I was long overdue to visit my best friend Isabelle Barron, who moved to Austin over a year ago.
Isabelle and one of Austin's massive Agave plants
I picked a high demand time to be in the city, which was gearing up to support a hundred thousand tourists for South by Southwest (SXSW). A two-week long film, interactive and music festival and conference taking place in downtown Austin. Isabelle and I had no tickets to any of it and Isabelle had little interest in being anywhere near it. I quickly learned that although SXSW is the highest producing revenue event for the city, its also a huge headache for Austin locals. Many of Isabelle’s friends were fleeting the city letting tourists stay in their apartments through Airbnb.

I didn’t mind not being able to attend SXSW, I was more curious to see every part of this unique American city that until this point I knew little about. Austin is a young city most people looked to be twenties or thirties. I distinctly remember the one elderly person I met and thought they seemed out of place. Most people have tattoos, I felt unorthodox not having some part of my body inked.
We hiked the arid landscape of the Barton Creek Greenbelt trails, ate fried avocado tacos from Austin’s infamous Torchy’s Taco Truck and shopped at thrift stores in South Congress neighborhood.
An amazing herbalist shop great for unique gifts! 
However what I became well acquainted with was Austin’s thriving yoga community. Throw a rock in Austin you will most likely hit three yoga studios. Isabelle also had just received her yoga teaching certification a few weeks before. Yoga isn’t just a weekly workout for her it’s a lifestyle. In Austin every yoga class we attended was packed with no sympathy for tardiness, locking out anyone who is five minutes late to class.
My first Austin yoga class was lead by teacher Annick at Yoga Yoga Studio. Annick had the face of a 60-year old women but the body of an 18-year old gymnast. Annick took us through a series of flow Hatha yoga poses, which engages physical and mental strength. Annick had a thick accent. The only time I could understand her was when she told us we would never recover if we fell too deeply into a mere body pretzel pose she put us in. Although her class was rigorous my body felt tension free after. I later learned Annick is South African and has studied yoga at Kripalu. When she started yoga she couldn’t touch her toes.
Our post hike taco feast at Tacodeli
Everyday I was in Austin the SXSW masses poured into the city. Downtown Austin turned into a SXSW theme park. SXSW was drawling all types of noteworthy people to the city including Girls creator Lena Dunham, rapper Snoop Dog, Photographer Brandon Stanton of Human Of New York and even the Internet most celebrated Grumpy Cat. In the midst of this were two girls trying to make a 6 p.m. yoga class on time in the heart of the SXSW nightlife.
A young man with curly black hair named Joshua Wise was our yoga teacher. We set up our mats in a circle in the center of the studio. Wise told us it would be a Prana class, which focuses on meditating and chanting. Wise turned on a meditation box from India that played a droning sound throughout the studio. He told us to sit upright, close our eyes and to say “OM.”  Like a chorus we would “OM” together take a deep breath and ‘OM’ again. Although my body was still in the studio with every chant I felt my mind become numb and simple. Our chants filled the room with a hum like the sound of a buzzing beehive. After 45 minutes of chanting my mouth unconsciously wanted to keep going. At the end when I opened my eyes I had to remind myself where I was. After the class I decided to ask Wise what got him into yoga.
“My life was totally falling apart,” said Wise. “I graduated college with no job I knew I was in debt and I was freaking out. I went into a donation yoga class and I left feeling amazing. I was hooked I practiced yoga before, but never when I was in such a desperate place. It saved my life.”
Run DMC graffiti on the Sugar Mamas Bake Shop
After hearing Wise’s reasoning I realized that most of the yogis I met in Austin got into yoga for similar reasons. They were suffering from a traumatic event or dealing with depression and yoga became their medicine. Isabelle has suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I have known her.
“Self-love has been an issue my whole life,” said Isabelle. “I think I had tried literally every way to cope with it besides being kind to myself.”
Although Isabelle tried yoga on and off since she was a child, it didn’t become essential for her until she moved to Austin. Moving to a new city alone was difficult and not long after she suffered a personal tragic event. While on the phone crying with her father he told her to leave her apartment and walk to the nearest yoga studio. Isabelle listened to her father, took her first Austin yoga class at the same studio she would receive her yoga teacher training.
“It was helping me so significantly and quickly it was amazing," said Isabelle. "I have never experienced anything quite like that and I still feel it everyday,” “Some people go to twelve step meetings, I have to practice yoga. I have to meditate and I have to practice mindfulness.”
Isabelle doing standing bow pose  

Coming from a small town in Connecticut where yoga teachers struggle for enough students to hold class, I was fascinated being in a place immersed in yoga culture. Each class took me out of my comfort zone. If I was holding a pose that was uncomfortable and I wanted to stop I kept going and eventually the discomfort would pass. Yoga teaches us that when dealing with a painful situation in life to face it because in time that pain will also pass.
By the end of my time in Austin I had completely fell in love with the city. I loved the gigantic aloe plants on every street, the abundance of delicious taco trucks, the unbelievably kind Austinites and the yoga community that taught me there is always room to grow.
Isabelle and I on my last day in Austin

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