Relaxing With Rembrandt

I’m a wannabe yogi.

Yes, I envy the cool outfits, cute mats, and the Instagram opportunities.

But more than that, I envy the relaxation and “zen” state that yogis are able to achieve.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty much as anxiety-ridden as it gets. I’ve been told for years that I should try yoga, but the thought of entering a class without knowing what I was doing gave me MORE anxiety. I had tried a class here and there with friends or through my sorority, but then months and months would pass before I’d try another. And that time in between gave me plenty of opportunity to overanalyze and be nervous again.

A month or two ago I came across a link online to sign up for a yoga class at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I texted my friend Katie and had us signed up before you could say “namaste.”

Courtyard at the Gardner

Courtyard at the Gardner

love museums. I’m not the type to sit and stare at each piece and analyze the hidden meaning. I don’t know very much about artists or mediums. But I just love the feeling that comes from being surrounded by it all. It makes me feel connected to something way bigger than myself. Call me corny, but there’s something about being in a room with pieces created centuries ago that makes you feel present.

I figured the Gardner would be the perfect environment to put myself at ease – I would get to have a cultural adventure while also testing out the yogi life.

The price of our class included admission to the museum itself, so Katie and I got there early to explore. The architecture was breathtaking – the museum is a Venetian-style palace that Isabella herself once lived in. Each floor of the building surrounds the main courtyard, which was my favorite part. It transports you to another time and place.

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It’s certainly worth noting that twenty-five years ago, the Gardner Museum was the victim of the largest art heist in American history.

Yeah.

The story is that two thieves, impersonating Boston police officers, came in during the wee hours of the morning, lured and tied up the only two guards on duty, and managed to take off with $500 million worth of art from the walls. It sounds like an alternate ending to The Town, doesn’t it? Of the thirteen pieces of stolen art, not one has been recovered. The stolen pieces include works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Vermeer. Although an elderly mobster is suspected to be part of it, the heist is largely still a mystery.

As you walk through the museum, you’ll notice that the frames of the stolen art are still on the walls – empty. One of the Rembrandt pieces was in the center of one of the rooms. All that’s left is a huge empty space and “Rembrandt” etched underneath. It’s very eery to see. If you didn’t know any better, you might think at first glance that the empty frame was an intentional statement piece. You never can tell with art, can you?

But since I’m no FBI agent, I’ll get back to the yoga.

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In the time between signing up for the class and actually attending it, I bought a beginner’s pass to Bikram yoga with a friend. I have a love/hate relationship with it – it takes so much out of you (it’s hot as Hades) but leaves you feeling accomplished. Unlike some types of yoga, you really feel like you got a workout in with Bikram. However, because of the temperature and pace of the class – and my beginner status – I find myself getting a bit anxious during the class. The instructor says it’s normal, and I’m sure it subsides over time, but I was curious to try a “normal” form of yoga and see what happened.

The class at the Gardner was slow flow Vinyasa. As the class began, I was having some anxiety (what else is new) because the instructor wasn’t actually doing the poses full out. Rather, she was simply saying them, and it seemed like many of the attendees knew what she was talking about. I didn’t.

Luckily, the class got much more relaxing after the initial struggle. The poses were so slow and calming. The instructor, Izzy VanHall, had the most soothing voice. Even just the words she used made me feel like I was already a yogi. She walked around the class as we did the poses, so if anyone needed help she was close by. Instead of just telling us to move our bodies in certain directions, she asked us to feel specific parts. Trust me, at first I thought it was far-fetched too, but her recitations actually helped me relax my body – one part at a time. Izzy would tell us to focus all of our breathing in our left shoulder, for example, and I actually felt it happening.

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The class emphasized focus not on perfecting the poses, but on isolating parts of the body. I could actually feel my mind quieting down – and I can assure you, that never happens.

There was no rush to get up from one pose to the next. Each pose was very individualized, including adjustments for different bodies and levels of flexibility.

At one point, Izzy asked us to close our eyes and appreciate this moment. She reminded us that we were laying on the ground of a museum, practicing yoga, and that that’s not something that happens every day. I was so glad she said this. I took the few minutes of silence to think about the fact that I was practicing yoga amongst famous paintings from what seems like a million years ago. I imagined the look on Isabella Stewart Gardner’s face as she exited her gilded bedroom upstairs and saw all of these modern people in tight outfits stretching out on her floor. I don’t know about you, but that puts a smile on my face. An appreciative one, at that.

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My favorite part of the experience was at the end. Izzy had us lay down in savasana (corpse pose, how could you not love it?) and close our eyes. She then went through the entire length of the body, one by one. First she asked us to relax our toes. Then to release the balls of our feet. Next to let go of our ankles. She did this all the way until reaching the top of our heads. We even relaxed our eyeballs.

It may sound silly outside of the class, but I swear this last portion was the icing on the cake of a peaceful, relaxing day. Because of my anxiety, little instruction can actually be hard for me. When all I’m told to do is to get into warrior pose (or whatever the case may be) my mind wanders. I look at other people to see if I’m doing it right. I worry that I’m not breathing correctly. But the specific instructions to focus on single breaths in single body parts helped me get out of my own head.

Unlike Bikram, I didn’t leave the class feeling like I completed my workout for the day. But I did leave feeling like I was on top of a cloud.

It’s a shame I had to sit in traffic right after.

In all seriousness, though, I’m so glad I got to be a part of Yoga at the Gardner. Thank you to Izzy and the entire staff for putting this together!

Namaste, yogis 😉

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