As it is, we have nearly arrived at the studio, The Paquier (Pack-eeay). It’s named after the street and the public park across from it, which could be mistaken for a meadow. Instead of grazing flocks, it is most often swarms of walkers and loungers who are attracted to the benches at lakeside, the green-space and a network of pathways for strolling. The large Sycamores that run along the border give the appearance of an academic quadrangle in my past. In this case however, it’s the performing-arts center, the Canal Vassé (va-say) and the town hall that frame the space.
K and I accompany Chantal and Bernard. They are a couple in a long-term, common-law union. Our paths crossed two years ago while participating in yoga classes. We were neophytes. They were veterans. This evening session will be led by the same Yoga Prof, Cécile. I like to refer to her as a prof, or professor, since it is more polite than calling her a monk. It is her entrancing approach to the practice that is seemingly monastic. We all love her for it, in spite of the aloofness it entails. The demeanor inspires respect, for her and the practice. Plus, she turns yoga postures into dance.
I have been happily looking forward to this evening session with Cécile for some weeks. Happier yet that I could persuade my spouse that it might be a fun, if unconventional, way to welcome in the New year. In addition, I bargained, we can reunite with Chantal and Bernard, who remain close friends after our relocation to Switzerland. The 90 minutes and, at least to some degree, the differences in cultures certainly separate us. On the other hand, it tends to sharpen my fond sentiments for them.
We four have arrived together by car in central Annecy, having come down from their home, a converted barn in Annecy-le-vieux that stands on his family property. This neighboring community is where the Romans first arrived to stake out a settlement, long before his horticulture took seed. The original outpost was established for its defensive vantage, a hill overlooking the lakeshore and the approaching byways of the ancient Annecy basin. The modern Annecy tonight, with its byways choked with traffic, is looking to be, as always, a parking hassle.Unlike tonight, Bernard would often prefer to ride his Kawasaki motorcycle with Chantal behind. She doesn’t much like what the helmet does to her hair, but parking is easier. Even in casual dress, she is always decked out, hair streaked with the latest style, makeup impeccable, if a little thick. Clothes garishly worn by teenagers look good on her. So, while many cars are driving round in circles, looking for a space, I’m not surprised when Bernard shows his usual aplomb and startlingly good parking karma. It’s like his natural touch with plants, and cats and friendships, for that matter. Without seeming to try, things react to him in ways that support the satisfaction and ease of his life. Truth be know, Bernard’s timing is legendary.
We park on Rue du Lac (Lake Street), near Place Saint François (Francis). The presence of this celebrated ecclesiastical figure of the 16th century is noteworthy for several reasons. Not only for the toponymy of this busy square that bears his name, but the church that perches on the mountain flank just above the town, emblematic with its lighted steeple. It bears the local saint homage as the Church of the Visitation, where he founded a monastery and an order of nuns (with the help of with his loyal disciple, Sainte Frances Chantal). He is particularly venerated for his ability to persuade Calvinists (protestants), then hunkered down in Geneva, to return to the Catholic flock, to be sure, a miraculous feat.
A short walk from these saintly realms, the night shadows of an Annecy street reveal the entry door to the yoga studio. We leave behind the pub of smokers and push open the big oak door with its arched granite headstone and three giant, black iron hinges. I expect a grinding squeak, but none comes as we enter the covered alley. It is lit dimly from one side where light pours out of a hectic kitchen scene in a pizza restaurant. Activities for some are underway as New Year’s Eve celebrations bake in a wood-fired oven entrusted to hands dusted with flour.
Upstairs, the anteroom of the studio fills as others arrive. The unadorned loft space has a high ceiling and two large, latticed windows at the far end. Across the narrow street, I see candles burning on several windowsills, the midnight vigil. A heavy curtain divides the cluttered, unisex dressing area from the open yoga zone. Against the walls and banked in corners, heaps of oblong pillows and colored balls, folding chairs, spare space heaters and blankets, all collect in a welcoming disarray. To these artifacts, we add our own change of clothes and containers of food. It begins to personalize the moment. A mood settles as the space takes shape with our presence. I feel the anticipation but remind myself to breath, and decide to avoid treacherous meanderings amongst so much scattered paraphernalia.
A large electrical box hangs on the wall. Its grey panel door is covered with photos of infants; swaddled in hospital blankets or cuddled to a breast. When I study the photos I see a story; how their true beginnings were from the inner health of gentle movement. They document a culmination of a course in Pregnancy (called Bump) Yoga. The prof, Cécile, switches on the lights from the breakers inside the electrical panel. At one point, a breaker pops off and the room goes dark. The space heaters are to blame. Bernard is the first to find the flipped breaker with his iPhone App. It takes some time before the chill leaves the room, so I decide to keep my socks on. I discover that the parquet is slippery underfoot, so shuffle as I walk and it makes me feel younger and lighter.
We are a dozen or so, evenly men and women, ranging in age from mid-twenties to nearly (or already) in early retirement (our age). We are all attracted to the promise of a New Year’s Eve that would be counter-cultural, or, as someone with a knowledge of zodiac declared, a cross-cultural celebration. So be it! We are here, in fact, to participate in a special free-form movement called The Dance of Five Rhythms. As introductions get underway, we learn that it is an hour-long session with music and movement based on a hierarchy of five themes: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. Sounds like closure to my year.
We are told that the dancing won’t begin until seven. It’s shortly after 6PM. Apparently, the jewelry shop downstairs suffers from the noise of pounding feet and an occasional shower of dust from the ceiling. They have complained a couple of times so the prof warns us that we must hold off from energetic activity until closing. That’s our first hint of the activity for the night, something energetic enough to rattle the ceiling below.Next, our friend Chantal describes the segment when she will lead us. Her organizing has the indelible mark of an art teacher. We will cut pictures and words from magazines, paste them to a board and make manifest our thoughts for the coming year, in a creation called Vision Board. The final stage of the evening will bring us across the threshold from old year to new. Lilian, a male meditation instructor, will lead us in thoughtful repose while listening to a Tibetan Singing Bowl that he will play. Whether for saintly or simply contrarian ends, we are each of us here to avoid the usual delirium that characterize the lead up to the change in calendar year.
A lot has been said about the ideals of yoga; personal discovery, a lifestyle form, a dietary dictum, an ancient teaching of sacred, societal norms. There are ascribed all sorts of benefits. Some immediate and directly accessible, others suitable for longer term effort and yet others, meant for beyond to fabled stories of deeply and spiritually inclined people. With this understanding, I have noticed a divide exists between those who passionately attempt to follow the tenets (to the extent possible in a modern context) and others who see yoga as just another exercise trend, a fad like many before.
Where it not for the history of more than two thousand years behind it, I would hold the latter point of view. Yet, I personally derive great and mysterious pleasure from the acrobatic physicality of its controlled movements and postures. More fundamentally, I am intrigued by the breath control certain techniques enlist. I am often reminded of periods of training for hill-running or other mountain activities where intensity of effort merges with the trance of repetition. Breath then was also central. At that time, I was obsessively preparing for this or that “épreuve” (ay-pruv). As the French word implies, it’s the idea of ‘proofing’ or ‘proving’ oneself.
Thankfully, this sort of motivation does not align well to the strictest reading of yoga tenets; which is non-competitive, non-harming, un-achieving, if that is a word. These are cures for me and my sort. That healing continues to this day, in fact to this very evening, when now the music has begun. It stirs sensations and lifts a veil in this meeting of strangers who step forth in the freedom of dance, between one year and the next.