Personal Journey: It's 'Oms' Square, New York, as 15,000 practice mass yoga

Yogas and yoginis in Times Square on June 21, marking the longest day of the year with Mind Over Madness yoga classes.
Yogas and yoginis in Times Square on June 21, marking the longest day of the year with Mind Over Madness yoga classes. (MARY ALTAFFER / Associated Press)
Posted: January 20, 2014

On June 21, I boarded Train No. 650 at 30th Street Station for a first-day-of-summer yoga escape. Destined for a pristine beach oozing tranquillity? An isolated mountaintop exuding transcendence? More like an island - the one immortalized as the city that never sleeps. I was Manhattan-bound; though not to a hip yoga studio, but to the hubbub of Times Square.

An estimated 15,000 other yogis and yoginis and I were participating in Mind Over Madness, all-day outdoor yoga sessions at the "Crossroads of the World" - and a fund-raiser for the yoga-inspired charities Bent on Learning and Urban Zen.

I arrived in the Big Apple in the afternoon, made my way to Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, checked in with a T-shirted event attendant, squeezed into a tight spot, unrolled my mat, and got ready to Zen out during NYC's Friday-evening rush hour amid wailing sirens, honking horns, accents familiar and not, crystal-clear images flashing frenetically from mammoth video screens, vendors hawking $20 "Rolexes," stilt-walking Lady Libertys, a man in a wheelchair holding a cardboard sign scribbled with his honest plea for "spare change for beer and pizza," and a frenzy of more sights and sounds.

By 5:30 p.m. under puffy, cotton-candylike clouds, it was time to channel a little inspiration from nearby Fashion Avenue - and strike a pose. The class was led by husband-wife yoga teachers Rodney Yee and Colleen Saidman Yee. Sitting cross-legged, hands in prayer position, we joined our voices with Colleen's and chanted three "Oms." Rodney Yee guided us through poses, asanas in Sanskrit: Warrior 2, as a black POW/MIA flag fluttered above; Lion's Breath, as the illuminated marquee for Broadway blockbuster The Lion King gleamed overhead; and Mountain pose, as we lengthened and stretched our bodies, emulating the towering skyscrapers surrounding us.

Passersby snapped pictures of this unusual (even for New York) scene - this small mass of barefooted humanity inhaling, exhaling, downward dogging. Soon we were in Savasana, corpse pose, lying on our backs, arms and legs outstretched, eyes closed - in the middle of one of the world's busiest intersections. I became aware that my fellow yogis, the tourists, the commuters, the wealthy, the homeless were all breathing the same air - connected breath by breath.

Rodney Yee offered a reflection on wise words from the dalai lama that went something like this: "There's so much suffering, unrest, and hostility in the world, yet still I am at peace and full of joy." I realized yoga really does start once we leave our mats. The challenge is to cultivate peace within, and find ways to radiate it out to the world. I also realized that you don't have to travel far to get away from it all. You can journey inside yourself and perhaps discover an amazing place.

I felt an inner stillness as we chanted a closing "Om" - and I knew that if I could get my "Om" on there, I could get it on anywhere. Thank you, New York, New York. Namaste.

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D.A. Gleason writes from the Pennsylvania suburbs.

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