Why put 12 year-old aged balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy into a chocolate truffle? Well, because it tastes surprisingly great, for one thing. But also, according to Dave Romanelli, one of the presenters at last weekend's flexibly diverse San Francisco Yoga Journal Conference, because it can heighten your yoga practice. Enlightenment through chocolate? We’ll take it.
New York-based Romanelli taught a class called “Yoga and Chocolate,” and like many of the conference’s fifty presenters, he brought a yogic flavor to the conference influenced as much by his personal path to the mat as ancient teachings. In other words, fundamentalist ayurveda this was not.
Referred to as “Yeah Dave” by his friends (as in, “yeah, Dave, whatever...”), Romanelli has penchant for stoner-esque musings that eventually left him with the radical idea that to flourish in today’s fast-paced society, yoga should be made accessible to a broad audience.
In the '90s, Romanelli and a partner started At One, a chain of trendy yoga studios in Phoenix that Romanelli says in an interview with SFBG were meant to “bust through the stereotypes” that yoga is pretentious and unconnected to daily life. In 2009 he published a book called Yeah Dave’s Guide to Livin’ in the Moment, an irreverent manual to enjoying life in the here and now. These days, he travels the country leading workshops that seek to initiate people into a yogic lifestyle through careful attention to the senses – which he engages with the help of wine and exotically-flavored chocolate provided by Yoga and Chocolate co-founder and master chocolatier Katrina Markoff.
“Yoga and Chocolate” was one of over a hundred classes, guest lectures, all-day intensive workshops, and special events that filled the San Francisco Hyatt over the MLK Day weekend, ranging from fiery asana practices to contemplative journeys through yogic philosophy. The scads of famous yogis in attendance included teachers like Ana Forrest, creator of the healing-based Forrest Yoga approach, Seane Corn, an internationally celebrated yoga teacher, activist and humanitarian, and San Francisco’s own Baron Baptiste, whose parents opened the city’s first yoga center in 1955 and who has shared his empowering vinyasa yoga with classes around the world.
With so many presenters -- and with nearly half of conference attendees yoga teachers in their own right -- the expo left the downtown hotel rife with pairs of groovy tie-dyed pants and hundreds of bare feet riding up and down the Hyatt’s escalators. In a city like San Francisco, it's not surprising that the traditional Indian practice could draw such a huge audience – but the sight of so many modernized classes begged the question: Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras no later than 150 BC, and we’ve been mulling them over ever since. How much is really left to learn?
The answer is “a lot” if this year's offerings were to be believed. Joining “Yoga and Chocolate” was MC Yogi’s “Ganesh is Fresh,” a hip-hop inspired retelling of the story of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh, remover of obstacles. (Fyi, if you’re a harmonious hip-hop head, it’s also the name of a track on MC Yogi’s 2008 album “Elephant Power.”) Another high-energy choice was “Bollywood Vinyasa,” a cardio-heavy yogic workout set to bright rhythms of bhangra and Bollywood music.
“I never intended to be a yoga teacher,” said Hemalayaa, the class' teacher and the Canadian-born daughter of Indian parents. “I started practicing as a way to guide myself, be a leader for myself,” she announced to the students before her. The seed of "Bollywood Vinyasa" was planted during darker days in Hemalayaa's 20s, when she would come home and blast Bollywood music as a way of shaking out her troubles. After having grown to the lively beats, she was able to incorporate them into her study of yoga. “Now I teach as a way to continue my study. Being a leader to others helps me stay true to myself.”
Romanelli agrees on the importance of applying traditional yogic teachings in a way that’s applicable to our own life stories. He has no problem using his own life experiences – like having man-boobs and wearing too much cologne on prom night in pursuit of after-party action – to draw laughs and convince his students that self-reflection can be fun.
His style is a definite departure from traditional yogic teaching (ashtanga yogis advocate pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses from external objects, as a means of attending to the inner self). But, in Yeah Dave’s opinion, sensual experience can be the first step toward getting people to pay attention and eventually journey inward.
“In today’s society, how realistic is closing off the senses?” he asks. “People are afraid to be alone with themselves on a three by six mat.” He admits that people often need help to make the first step. “And if it has to be chocolate, then so be it,” he grins.
For information on next year's Yoga Journal Conference stretch out to www.yjevents.com/sf