I'm in chair pose, trying to play a complicated game of passing plastic cups of wine back and forth with my instructor. It's supposed to be a fluid motion in which we're facing each other, both squatting, and passing our two cups from behind and between our legs. Except I'm messing up. A lot. And it's not holding a chair pose, or utkatasana, that's tripping me up: I'm tipsy, and the coordination is a challenge. Everyone laughs and moves on to a different pose. I take another sip.
We're in the backroom of the Grey Lady oyster bar and restaurant on the Lower East Side, a cozy space outfitted with string lights, nautical paraphernalia, and the highlight: a wood-panelled bar with six kinds of wine, free for the taking. Kings of Leon plays at a party decibel level. In the next room, there are groups of friends ordering bacon sandwiches and bottomless brunch. But this reporter and two cheerful strangers are here for the new Drunk Yoga class, which Eli Walker teaches once a week on Saturdays at noon. For $30 (£22.78), you get unlimited wine (and not the shitty kind) and a 45-minute vinyasa class, as Gothamist, which we miss greatly, first reported.
"Everyone needs to have a glass with them during practice," Walker starts the class by saying. What I thought would be a normal yoga class with a prelude and epilogue of wine-drinking — a regular occurrence at many yoga studios and retreats — is actually a full-on merging of disciplines. Vino-yasa, if you will. There are plenty of puns like this throughout the beginner-level class (sip salutations and downward-facing drunk, I kid you not), but something about its intent feels serious.
Walker begins with some sun salutations, like in any typical yoga class. Unlike a typical yoga class, we drink between each set of movements. "Now, fold over and take a sip," she instructs. "Now, pick up your cup and raise your hands to the sky." In the context of the class, my wine tastes citrusy and refreshing, moreso than it would with a meal. While we're in a baby cobra pose, she jokes that next time she'll bring straws so we can sip while holding our elbows in the proper alignment.
After the flows, we do some standing poses, like the aforementioned pass-the-booze chair, and try not to fall in tree pose while a Grey Lady staff member photographs us. With my cup in my hand and more than a few sips in my blood, balancing gets progressively more challenging. Blissfully, we skip inversions, like wheel and headstand, in favour of chatting and more wine.
When the class ends, one of the other students, K. Bevin Ayers, 30, an actress, tells me, "It requires a certain amount of presence" to coordinate between sipping and yoga-ing. "I wasn't going deeper into poses because of the alcohol, but I was connecting with my breath better." She adds, "I almost felt proud of how far I could go instead of being self-conscious." (I, too, found myself more able to focus on the poses after a few sips.)
She described so well the overwhelming feeling I have after taking a class with a couple of drinks in me. It's something I do about once a month, sometimes more often, frequently on the weekend but on occasion after a post-work social situation that has made me feel less than comfortable.
I've been practicing yoga for several years, but I go on periodic weeks-long hiatuses due to stress at work, stress at home, or politics-induced stress, and sometimes I just need a little pinot grigio to get back into it confidently. The combination of the tipsiness and the rhythm of the flow helps me get out of my own head — it's pretty much the only time I'm not intensely worrying about something. We all handle stress differently, and while I wouldn't necessarily suggest this is the healthiest way, I'm glad that the wine buzz is sanctioned in this class, rather than something I've added to the menu on my own.
My motive is to help people who are too afraid to try yoga understand that it's not so scary.
Eli Walker, yoga instructor
Walker is a Wisconsin native who went to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and also runs a one-woman show called The Quarter-Life Crisis Monologues. In addition to yoga, she teaches storytelling workshops for kids and adults that combine movement and theater.
"My motive is to help people who are too afraid to try yoga understand that it's not so scary," she says. Alcohol helps with this, she says, because it releases mental tension and increases blood flow, which makes you feel more comfortable.
Like many good ideas, Drunk Yoga started as a bit of a joke.
"I was trying to sell out my yoga retreat to Bali in January, so I was joking with my friend, 'I have all this wine in my apartment that I need to get rid of...maybe I should start giving it to my students to persuade them to come on the retreat,'" she says, laughing.
Then another night, she was drinking at Grey Lady with friends and talking to the owners, one of whom told her, "I can only touch my toes when I'm drunk." She's heard this from non-yogis before. So she decided to utilise the extra space in the restaurant to teach a class that gives people "permission to look silly," hoping to eventually "develop a community of people who want to do yoga to have fun rather than have a real spiritual practice."
The purpose of this is not to get totally wasted and then try to stand on your head.
Eli Walker, yoga instructor
Not everyone thinks drunk yoga is the best idea.
"Alcohol inhibits my ability to focus and perform well," says Holly Rilinger, a coach and fitness trainer. "Physiologically, drinking alcohol before working out can inhibit the circulation of glucose, which the body uses for energy. Alcohol also contributes to dehydration, which means prolonged muscle recovery and increased risk of heat-related illnesses. Drinks after class? Now that’s a better idea in my book."
Walker doesn't recommend over-indulging at her class' open bar, or coming to the class if you have injuries. But in her opinion, this type of Saturday-brunch yoga is safe if you're a reasonably healthy person who takes the proper precautions.
"The purpose of this is not to get totally wasted and then try to stand on your head," she says, adding that you shouldn't stay in any posture that makes you feel uncomfortable. Which applies to life outside of the yoga studio as well.
"It's all about balance," she says, "in yoga and in wine."