Every Tuesday evening, men and women carrying yoga mats converge at Grace Church Cathedral. They come from all parts of San Francisco to this sacred space in Nob Hill. Darren Main, a well-known and respected yoga teacher in the Bay Area has been teaching Yoga on the Labyrinth for two-and-a-half years. It is a donation-based yoga class open to all levels, from beginners to advanced students. Everyone is welcome. No one is turned away for lack of funds.
On average, 200 to 300 people come to the cathedral for the hour-and-a-half “gentle” yoga practice beneath the Gothic arches and stained glass windows. As Darren calls the class to attention, the last rays of the sun filter in through the spectacular rose window. It is 6:15 pm. He speaks into a microphone fastened discretely on a headpiece and reads the opening meditation from his iPad.
Darren’s assistants are scattered throughout the cathedral, ready to provide hands-on adjustments and additional instructions to students. The cathedral practice space is so vast and yet still constricting. On both sides of the double row of pews and through the center aisle, individuals claim their rectangular space, squeezing their yoga mats closer to each other as more people file into the church. The thin cushioning of the mats separate bodies from the cold stone floor. Up above, the looming arches almost fade into darkness, a false starless sky. Only the lights set up at the ceiling of the church belie the illusion.
Seven years ago, yoga instructor Jamie Lindsey created Yoga on the Labryinth at Grace Cathedral as a way of bringing his Christian faith and his passion for yoga together. When Jamie moved to New York in 2009, Darren took over the program and invited musicians to perform during class. The idea is to use live music to bring students to a deeper state of meditation. Depending on the week, the sounds of a harp, singing bowl, or didgeridoo reverberate up toward the clerestory windows. Yoga on the Labryinth refers to the indoor limestone labyrinth of Grace Cathedral, located on the floor directly in front of the main entrance. Modeled after the medieval labyrinth at Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres in Chartres, France, it is a place for walking meditation. On Tuesday nights, the labyrinth is still a place for meditation, but of a different kind.
At 7 pm the heavy clock tower bell begins to strike, momentarily drowning out the sounds of the cable cars running up and down California Street. As the last deep gong begins to fade, the low churning grumbles of a didgeridoo fills the space. Its player walks between people lying on their backs, gazing up from the labyrinth floor.
“Bring your foot to your ear. It’s just like answering a telephone. Except it may feel like it’s a bill collector on the other line.” Darren pauses for dramatic effect, “But really, it’s your hip opening up.” He delivers his punch line calmly, with little inflection. The humor percolates, surfacing as a chuckle here, a grunt there, and finally an appreciative release of laughter from the supine crowd.
Darren moves through the church, checking in with his assistants throughout class. His instructions are simple and clear. For the most part he leaves personal commentary out, occasionally bringing in humor to encourage patience and acceptance when the poses become more difficult. Darren’s manner is quiet, understated even, as if he were allowing the cathedral’s space, and the added elements of music and asana-the physical shapes of the yoga practice-to lead the class. He reflects, “There is something so healing about doing an Eastern practice in a Christian church with students of every age, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and physical ability. Everyone [is] seeking peace-having a unique spiritual experience, and yet finding harmony with hundreds of others through the live music and the awe-inspiring architecture.”
Completed in 1964, Grace Cathedral was designed in the French Gothic style by American architect Lewis P. Hobart. It is the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in the nation and known for its open-minded environment and progressive policies. The current dean, Dr. Jane A. Shaw is the first woman dean and the first openly gay dean of Grace Cathedral. Given the prominence of Grace Church in the Episcopal community-plagued by internal struggles over full inclusion of gays and lesbians-the appointment of Shaw was a historic moment, for both the Episcopal community and the city of San Francisco.
After the final closing meditation, a reading from Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, people pack up their belongings, pausing to drop off their donation or to thank the assistants and the musicians. “I think it’s very San Francisco-that this class is donation based and in such a beautiful space,” says Dina Solomon, who had come to class straight from her workplace in Berkeley. It was her first time to practice yoga at Grace Cathedral.
Soon the church is quiet again, as the last of the people file out of the main entrance. Once again the labyrinth is uncovered, free from mats and bodies. Until next Tuesday evening.