Yoga class offers sweat equity … and a meal |

Yoga class offers sweat equity … and a meal

It may seem like a stretch, but class combines yoga, feasting

On the surface it seemed kind of absurd and potentially disgusting. It also smacked of yuppie elitism and foodie fetishism: Do an hour of pop music-accompanied Vinyasa (“flow”) yoga, then immediately chow down on a gourmet meal.

Led by Santa Monica, Calif.-based yoga teacher and Grateful Dead fan David Romanelli, the first session, dubbed “Jam Sessions: Yoga for Foodies,” was held in New York earlier this year and written up by the New York Times. Many readers were highly critical of the pairing.

“Yoga has become so utterly pretentious and materialistic that it has lost its very soul,” lamented one.

“Yoga is, at its best, a discipline which has little to do with luxuriating in your senses and self-indulgence. It has been perverted by charlatans,” wrote another.

Yet another called the notion “a tacky idea” and “just another way to try and make a fast buck.”

I vowed to reserve judgment until after I tried it.

The California cool (and seemingly un-charlatan-like) Romanelli, who co-founded At One Yoga studios in Arizona and gives online advice as a Yahoo! Wellness Expert, visited Chicago last month to preside over his newly arranged marriage at Province restaurant (161 N. Jefferson). Having toured extensively for years extolling the virtues of yoga, wine and chocolate (aided in part by his good friend, Katrina Markoff, Chicago-based founder of the ever-growing Vosges Haut Chocolat empire), Romanelli hopes his latest variation will catch on as well.

“A lot of the chefs that I’ve known in my life are sort of like yoga teachers, because their whole mission is to get people into this otherworldly state of sensory ecstacy,” he says in a corner of the sparsely populated main room of Province about an hour before his 6 p.m. session begins. “And the chef does it through the palate and the yoga teacher does it through the body. So if you could create a point of intersection where the chef and the yoga teacher work together, I thought, there could be something really meaningful.”

In this case, meaningfulness doesn’t come cheap. A dozen participants, ranging in age from twentysomething to septuagenarian, paid $95 each to attend.

“I think when people are in the right mindset, they are very much open to a lot of different and new things,” Province chef and partner Randy Zweiban says before hosting the first of two Romanelli-led sessions. Zweiban isn’t much of a yoga guy, but he does meditate.

“And I’ll give you a good example. When a guest comes into my restaurant, they’ve had a really rough day at work and they sat in traffic to get here and their boss gave them a hard time. They’re not necessarily in the best of all mindsets to sit down. So it takes them about 45 minutes to have a cocktail, relax and then sort of get into the experience. And so I think in a lot of ways this whole yoga thing sort of does that, where it puts you into this wide-open happy space [where you’re] feeling good and then open to this food experience after it.”

Fellow Chicago chef and longtime yoga practitioner Rick Bayless — the force behind Chicago’s celebrated Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco restaurants — agrees.

“When you’re doing yoga, you are heightening all your senses,” Bayless says. “You have to. And, of course, food’s going to taste better if you’ve got your senses heightened.”

Bayless notes, however, that the yoga and food worlds “are not necessarily very hospitable to one another.”

“The yoga world tends to be somewhat austere and there is no sense of feasting among a lot of the people that do it,” he explains. “It’s that you should eat just the minimum amount of food that it takes for your body to survive and that you need to eat only vegetarian food, and don’t get too excited about flavor. It tends to be slightly puritanical in that regard.

“And the whole idea is when you’re doing your yoga practice, you’re purifying your mind and your body. And I personally think that’s only one side of life and it’s an important side of life. But if you don’t balance it with great feasting and revelry, you’re missing out on so much of what the world has to offer.”

In the zone

The lights are low and the air is mercifully cool. None of that heated Bikram yoga. A bare-footed Romanelli stands up front in sweatpants and a T-shirt, prepping his pupils.

After this is done, he tells us, “you’re going to find that everything tastes better and you’re able to enjoy it that much more — that you’re so much more willing to want to talk to the people around you and really create an experience around that. Not just rush through it, pay the check and get the hell out. So that’s our mission tonight.”

So begins a rather atypical hour of yoga, sprinkled with bits of learned wisdom and underscored by a mellow mix of tunes from Romanelli’s iPhone.

“Sometimes joy is the source of your smile,” he says at one point, quoting a Buddhist monk. “Sometimes a smile is the source of your joy. Which basically means even a fake smile can relax your body and make you happy.”

As he leads us through such standard yoga poses as warrior one, downward-facing dog, cobra and child’s, we breathe deeply and exhale completely. Small speakers fill the room with songs by U2; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Ziggy Marley; Tori Amos; the Samples; Paul Simon. Occasionally, Romanelli proffers individual compliments and adjusts off-kilter poses.

“If you think about how over-stimulated our minds are, sometimes it’s really hard to just kind of come on the yoga mat and peel yourself away from everything that binds you to the world,” he says. “It’s sort of like peeling a Band-Aid off a really hairy arm. It really hurts. But then you get it off and thank God you got it off.”

Our hour has almost elapsed and eyes are closed in contemplation. Romanelli opens a bottle of lavender oil from the French Alps and rubs some on the necks of unsuspecting students — mine included. Now I’m sweaty and slippery and intensely fragrant. No matter. It’s almost over. There’s a rumbly in my tumbly, as Pooh would say, and I’m looking forward to quelling it. Which means I’m not in the moment. Which isn’t very yoga-like — or so I’m told. My downward-facing dog stinks, too.

After washing up and wiping down with a paper towel from the restroom, I join my fitness-clothing-clad cohorts at two tables near our makeshift studio for part deux. Time to find out if pre-grub yoga really does make the food taste better, as Bayless, Zweiban and Romanelli all suggested.

Soon a cavalcade of mouth-watering morsels begins. Upon delivery of each course, Zweiban offers pithy descriptions of what we’re about to inhale. I mean, savor. Beef from a family farm that slaughters only three animals a week. Organic turnips and onions from Iowa. Nothing is chosen at random. Everything is eminently sustainable and earnestly ecological (even coasters for the dessert are the soon-to-be-recycled scraps of an old menu — which was itself made from recycled paper).

Virtually every bite makes the taste buds tingle. A brief sampling: farm-raised shrimp with grits, spice-seared Hawaiian tuna with serrano chiles, sea salt and citrus yogurt, market beets with cara cara oranges, shaved machengo and olive oil. There’s also a chocolate parfait made of chocolate creme, chocolate crunch and chocolate sorbet. Wine, too. Small glasses of red and white to complement each dish. An acai blood orange cocktail kicks things off.

“I think it’s just a new way of experiencing yoga,” says Gail Konop Baker, 49, an author, blogger and yoga instructor who traveled with her college student daughter, Abby, from their home in Madison, Wis. “I go to workshops all over the place and I heard great things about this yoga teacher. I liked that he was combining music, yoga, food — the sensual elements all coming together.”

Yoga devotees and Hyde Park residents Howard Siegel, 74, and his wife of 49 years, Roberta, are here with their friend Jane Upin to celebrate a succession of recent birthdays. “Yoga and food. It doesn’t get any better than that,” the now-retired women’s clothing manufacturer declares.

Before long my tablemates and I (plus Romanelli, who floats back and forth between yapping gaggles) fall into easy conversation. There’s talk of traveling, writing, singing, diet, music, inventions, running, the poetry of Homer, the wisdom of Socrates. Food arrives, empty plates leave. We’re in the zone.

“It’s a magical blend and I’m all for it,” an enthusiastic Upin says, praising Romanelli’s approach.

Seizing the moment, a yawn-stifling and weary-looking Romanelli hawks autographed copies of his book, Yeah Dave’s Guide to Livin’ the Moment, for 15 bucks each.

And while the cuisine is top-notch, I sense that my supposedly heightened senses aren’t the only reason I’m digging Zweiban’s cooking — even more, perhaps, than I would have in a less enlightened (and less smelly) condition. It’s also the chilled-out lingering, the sharper-than-usual focusing (on other people’s words and their facial expressions), the frequent laughing. We’re more attuned to each other, more attuned to ourselves. No one’s checking watches or Blackberries or iPhones. Everyone’s clicking, everything’s flowing.

And the concept of flow, I’ve learned, is very yogic indeed.

Bottom line: don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. And if the steep price tag is what’s holding you back (as it would have me if not for this story), Romanelli’s working on that.

“This is kind of a glamorous thing” with an elitist air about it, he readily admits. But he claims it’s merely a fancy way of getting the word out. His aim is to cut prices considerably so the less moneyed, less yoga-fied masses can give his newfangled experiment a try.

His message, though, will remain unchanged.

“The analogy I make in class is when you’re a kid and you play tag and you touch home and you’re safe,” he says. “And if you don’t touch home you’re exposed and you’re out. So you have to have that moment in your day where you touch home, where you let go of everything and [don’t] feel like you have to solve all your issues and battles, but that you can relinquish them for a little piece of time.

“Which is what I think you get when you come to this yoga experience. You come in and you’re rattling everything through your mind, trying to figure it out. And then you get to that point where you’re in class and you can lie there with nowhere to go, no one to be and nothing to do. And you remember that the formula for happiness is not that complicated.”

For more on this story, please visit The Chicago Sun Times.

Posted on: April 7, 2010