South By South Yoga

Teaching at South by Southwest in Austin, Neal Pollack takes on the ultimate yoga challenge.
Long lines at SXSW.

Long lines at SXSW.

photo: Laurel Chesky

South By Southwest hit my hometown of Austin this week, and I participated in it fully, as a panelist, a party-goer, and an aging scenester. I gave friends rides from the airport in exchange for tacos and beer, went to movies, and had long talks with strangers at bars that I rarely visit in my normal day-to-day. It was an overwhelming, endless party of free rock-n-roll, cheap meat, conversations about the world's shining digital future, and no small amount of high-volume shameless hucksterism.

In the middle of it all, I taught yoga.

SXSW had four yoga instructors this year, two visiting from New York and two of us Austin locals, one of whom, Arianne Stiles, organized the affair. She had to submit yoga to the festival as an official "panel," because that was the only way we could get the room at the convention center, premium real-estate even early in the morning, when most attendees are still sleeping off their BBQ and Lone Star hangovers. There it was on the third floor, Room 8A, Saturday through Tuesday from 9:30 to 10:30 AM. SXSW Yoga.

My class happened on Monday. I arrived bleary because I'd been out late the night before seeing a showcase of Japanese punk bands. The previous sentence indicates why yoga is such a hard sell at SXSW. The rules for yoga at the convention center were simple: no props, no yoga clothes, mats optional. I planned to teach a very simple, non-aggressive class accessible to students at all levels. There's no other choice, because the floor, though carpeted, is made of wrist-breaking concrete not designed for hard-core Chaturangas.

About 20 people showed up, twice as many as last year. All of them said they'd tried yoga at least once before. A handful looked ready to rock the Ashtanga primary series. I warned them not to expect too much, though I did throw in an optional headstand toward the end so they could feel like they'd done something difficult.

I led the class through some very basic flows and some modified Sun Salutations. We focused carefully on our breath, counting in slowly to four, counting out slowly to four, or six, or eight. I gave very few physical adjustments or instructions. Fifteen minutes in, I had everyone lie down, put one hand on their belly and another on their heart, and just breathe rhythmically. As the class progressed, the convention center began to fill up with people and noise. I told my students to listen non-judgmentally and absorb the sounds into their field of awareness. It was advice I needed to heed myself.

We rested, meditated for a minute, and said OM together three times. It was lovely, beautiful, and calm. Then the room doors opened, the volunteers came in to start putting down chairs for the next event, and we were all disgorged into the techno-dystopia.

The rest of the day, I struggled to maintain the deep sense of peace that I'd managed to carve out during my yoga hour. It wasn't easy. I found myself feeling unimportant and small in the face of blindingly fast cultural change, and wondered why I wasn't wealthier, more famous, or more innovative. Also, I may have been slightly dehydrated. Regardless, as I sat on the curb between two parked cars eating my vegan Frito pie, I tried to look at SXSW as the ultimate yoga challenge.

The world can often be noisy, confusing, and unfair. It's always been thus. But yoga teaches us that reality as we see it, while endlessly fascinating, is also transitory. Meanwhile, something permanent, unchanging, and endlessly joyful exists inside. When we focus on our breath, or our bodies, or the sound of our voice, we tap into that part of ourselves, if only for a little while. We can transcend our blathering minds and our messy physical reality and tap into something meaningful, eternal, and even a little blissful.

I'll try to keep that in mind on Thursday night in case I can't get in to the secret Spotify party.