After one of my Turkish students explained to me that she had spent the weekend “Saturdaying”, I thought I’d join the world of the 20-somethings by coining a word myself: Lotusing.
Definition of Lotusing: Spending a perfectly self-indulgent day after initiating it with a session of yoga at Yogaşala.
Since the cliché image is that of a yogi sitting in deep meditation in Lotus position, perhaps many think of yoga as an ascetic practice and therefore not at all compatible with self-indulgence. But indulged and pampered are exactly the words that came to mind after my yoga session at Yogaşala and as I watched a perfect Sunday unfold effortlessly and playfully, far exceeding my expectations.
To be honest, when I started my morning, I was feeling a little ambivalent about attending a yoga session. First because I was feeling very out of practice, as I’d not attended any yoga classes for nearly a year. I feared I’d be the most inept person in class. Secondly, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to expend the energy to try to follow along in Turkish. But in my desire to break routine, I decided to forge ahead and convince my Italian friend Ambra, who had never tried yoga before, to come along with me.
The moment I walked into the newest branch of Yogaşala on Bağdat Caddesi, I was so glad about my decision to come: An immediate relaxation come over me. It was like walking into a day-spa; my senses delighted in the smell of incense, and the uplifting colors as well as the sense of beauty and coziness of the décor.
Since we were early for the class, Ambra and I sat down and helped ourselves to the green tea that was brewing. We then struck up conversation with a beautiful woman with a radiant smile, who spoke perfect English. We then realized it was our lucky day: This was Yara, and she would be teaching the morning Hatha class in English, so we would be able to concentrate on the yoga and not busy our minds with Turkish translation. In addition, we were told that the first trial session at Yogaşala is always free.
Yara explained that she had been teaching yoga since 1993, having learned it in Sao Paolo, where she was born and raised. She came to Turkey in 1995 to work as an architect but has also been teaching yoga while raising 3 children. Merely 15 years ago yoga in Istanbul was nearly non-existent. Now one can easily find yoga classes both in yoga studios and in gyms, though Yara believes that yoga studios provide a more harmonious atmosphere for the practice of yoga.
“Hatha yoga gives a sensation of reconnecting to yourself. This is what makes people feel good and brings people back. It’s like connecting to Nature—you feel expanded. This is because, like in nature, we’re working with the elements: fire, the fluids in our body, prana (air); it’s not logical but we’re waking up the elements in us as we practice yoga.” Yara explained that most people in Turkey think that yoga is about meditating and therefore are reluctant to try it; they feel it is too passive and boring.
Curious to know what the “uninitiated” thought about yoga, I had asked several people throughout the week and the responses seemed to confirm Yara’s observations. Several people indeed said that they believed yoga was meditation, and they didn’t think they could do it if they had to sit still. Several people responded that yoga involved sitting in Lotus position and trying to find a state of relaxation. One young man said it was “bullshit”, while a couple others said it was “a good idea” and would be a good antidote to all the stress in Istanbul. Hakan, who manages the hair salon below Yogaşala had a rather impressive response: “I’ve never tried it, but I know that yoga is something good; our spirit needs nourishing and I think it’s something that feeds the spirit; it helps to bring a balance between the different parts of us--our body, mind and spirit. I heard that some yogis can actually fly….is that true?”
While I couldn’t answer Hakan’s question definitively, I can say that after my session with Yara, at least a part of me was flying! Without a doubt, my body was quite challenged in her session, but her gentle encouragement and reminder to breathe helped me overcome my limiting thoughts. (Ok, I also admit that I found some of my inspiration from envisioning the cookies that were waiting for me at my favorite bakery in Kadıköy afterwards.)
When I asked Yara why people should try yoga, she responded, “It’s like the Nike ad: Just do it! I always say not to think too much! Just try it. People live too much in the mind—they’re too mental, so they feel disconnected from the body, and that’s why they’re unhappy. Yoga is about practice—not learning by reading a book. We have a perfect machine but we have to shake it up. But the way we shake it is very precise—breathing is very important. You wake up prana (Sanskrit word for life force) and you wake it up in a gentle way. Even the German football team is using yoga; they realized that with a very rigid body, you lose strength. From yoga, you get strength, balance, and focus so you don’t face troubles in your life in the same way. Yogis realized that the first source of food was breath; when we’re depressed we don’t breathe; Just by changing the way you breathe you can change how you think.”
As inspired as we were by Yara’s words, Ambra and I realized that at that moment our focus was less on our breath and more on our growling stomachs. We were more than ready to indulge in the second source of food, so we headed to Kadiköy Çarşı (bazaar) in order to try out one of the newest additions to Kadiköy’s booming café scene. Always on the lookout for a good new café hang-out with quality coffee, I was eager to experiment. So, we enjoyed our post-yoga morning coffee at “Montag Coffee Roasters”, which offers not only excellent coffee, but a perfect view of one of the main squares in Kadıköy’s Çarşı.
But even more delightful than the coffee and the view, was the spontaneous conversation we struck up with Burak, who is the co-owner of this “Third Wave Coffee” café. Though he is new to the café business, as a former graduate student in Marxist Economics at University of Massachusetts Amherst, he is certainly no novice! Ambra and I were treated to a brief history of the coffee tradition in Turkey, including the advent of Third Wave coffee and the newest contraptions it employs. He explained that he had a certification in specialty coffee offered by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). Coffees qualifying as Specialty Coffee are those with a grade of 80 or more on a scale of 1-100 and these are the only ones served at Montag Coffee Roasters. He explained that it was his goal to honor the coffee tradition and that it is the job of the roaster to bring out the flavor of the beans.
So why did this sax-playing Marxist Economist leave academia for coffee-roasting? “I remember a quote by James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, who once asked, ‘how can something that smells SO good, taste SO bad?’ I guess I always had the urge to do something in perfect detail. Turkish people need to learn the art of detail. We always prefer short-cuts. I guess I want to be honoring of coffee-making in the way that the Japanese honor the tea tradition.”
And why the German name of Montag? (Monday): “Well, I guess I was a bit influenced by my 8 years in the Austrian school. I also remember the main character in the book Fahrenheit 451, is named Montag, and also there’s a Ms. Montag in Kafka’s Trial. But more than that, I think I just always remember that Mondays were always traumatic in high school!”
Well, now that I am no longer a Syphon-filter coffee virgin, I can guarantee that coffee in Montag will be the best cure to any variety of the Monday blues. (Perhaps the potential of trauma could lie in listening to Burak’s in-depth knowledge of the technicalities of coffee-making and coffee-grading BEFORE your own coffee has arrived!)
With mind and spirit gratified, it was TIME for pure stomach gratification, so we grazed a bit at Çarşı Fırın, one of my favorite bakeries, before reaching our final destination. (For fans of savory, the feta cheese and dill poğaça and the mini muffins with white cheese and a touch of red pepper are exquisite!)
When we arrived at the Gözde Gurme Şarküteri ve Meze Evi (Gourmet Charcuterie and House of Tapas/Appetizers) nestled in the fish market, we now faced the most challenging task of the day: choosing from among the large array of tantalizing mezes that this place is famous for.
As we sat down to enjoy our long-awaited lunch, we noticed a TV camera behind us, which was focused on a table that was arranged with over 30 small plates of the meze on offer. Longing to get a picture of this amazing display, I approached the cameraman and reporter and asked permission to photograph. We struck up conversation and I learned that the reporter, Emre, was doing a story on the charcuterie as part of his ongoing series on Show TV (a nation-wide tv channel) in which he features his favorite local markets and restaurants in Istanbul.
He then asked permission to film us as we devoured our plates and I oohed and aahed over my favorite dish: Bezirgan Salad, which comes from Antakya and features pieces of tandoor bread, tomato paste, pomegranate sauce, walnuts, red onion, garlic, and red pepper. Soon we were invited to join Yücel Gündüz who is not only the owner, but the master meze chef! Yes, a young MAN is responsible for the entire array of daily mezes. And the bigger surprise: he didn’t learn it in culinary school. In fact, he got his Masters in International Business in London before returning to Istanbul where he changed course and decided to dedicate hours to learning this art, alongside his mother. His motivation: pure love for mastering flavors and new creations. He urged me to try one such invention: a yogurt dish featuring parmesan shreds, and speckled with roasted pistachio. I asked Yücel who cooked in his family. Emre spoke up and announced that he and Yücel were examples of modern men, as they are both the food experts and the cooks in their families. (Can we clone you?)
After polishing off my plate as well as multiple samples of Yücel’s creations, my stomach was sufficiently indulged. I was also fully satisfied by the spontaneous and delightful treats that the day had brought my way. It seemed as if yoga had not only aligned the internal energies, but the external ones as well. (The additional surprise was learning that I had made my first appearance on Turkish TV that night with a scene of me stuffing my mouth and saying, “Çok beğendim!” (I really enjoyed it!)
As I wandered towards home after my day of lotusing, I felt a calm contentment washing over me. Maybe I wasn’t yet a flying yogi, but I was a happy one…and already planning my next day of lotusing.
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Photography by Christine Mager Öz