That’s a First / Reflections on my first downward dog
Editor’s note: Once a month, reporter Justin Papp chronicles his efforts to try something new on his path to self-improvement in 2018. In February he practiced yoga — hot yoga at that — at Fairfield Hot Yoga located in the Fairfield Sportsplex. You can find last month’s story where he trained in taekwondo online by searching for “That’s a First.” For March he will be learning to cook.
Since 2010, Rich Failla has brought his dog, Yogi, to work with him every day.
Yogi is nearly 10 years old, but from his spot seated on the floor just beyond the welcome desk at Fairfield Hot Yoga, the stiffness in his back legs was less apparent than his giant German shepherd head and his 108-pound frame as I walked into my second yoga class.
Rather than test the temperament of the dog, I stalled and let others — mostly middle-aged and young women, but a surprising number of men — arriving at the Monday evening class pass by first.
Fairfield Hot Yoga
85 Mill Plain Road, Suite E, Fairfield
I learned then that the dog was a mush, probably positioned partially blocking the hallway as he was to attract more pats from those on their way to class, and that my fear was unwarranted.
I learned 30 minutes later that what I should have feared was the class.
“We get guys from Crossfit who come in here all jacked up and they can bench press 500 lbs, but they come in here and try to muscle everything and they’re done in 20 or 30 minutes,” Failla, 57, said later, seated next to his business partner and fiance Abbey Chase, 46, as Yogi whined for them to stop talking and throw a tennis ball.
“You have to relax and hold back in order to open up,” Chase added. “It’s really an endurance thing.”
I am not a guy from Crossfit and I am not all jacked up. But I entered class with a confidence in my body based on a time years ago when I could play basketball all day in a sweaty field house in the dead of summer and not once reflect on my misery.
Those days are passed.
My arms and legs shook only a few poses into my first power vinyasa class. An hour of hot yoga’s two sets of the requisite 26 poses — 13 standing and 13 seated — left me light-headed and overheated.
“Whether you’re feeling euphoria or extreme discomfort, it’s normal,” Chase said, as she led that particular class. The word euphoria does not describe my experience in any class. I struggled with the high heat and my inflexibility. But once I had cooled down after each session, my mood soared and I found myself excited for my next class.
Fairfield Hot Yoga has been in the Sportsplex since 2010. After being coaxed to a yoga class by a dog sitter in the early 2000s, Failla became passionate about the discipline. During the course of a 30-year police career, and as a martial artist, weightlifter, runner and barefoot water skier, Failla abused his body and suffered many injuries. Yoga, and especially hot yoga, became his go-to form of exercise.
“If I go to a gym where the air is conditioned to 68 degrees, it takes me a good half hour before I start to warm up and be able to stretch,” Failla said. “It’s not as safe to be in a cold room stretching. In heat, you come in five minutes early and your body is warm, you get deeper in the poses — it’s safer.”
As he became more flexible and stronger in his poses, Failla decided to pursue his certification in Bikram (hot) yoga, attending the last Los Angeles training by the controversial yoga icon, Bikram Choudhury.
“It was a nine-week course, 500 hours. You’d start at 8 a.m. and you didn’t get out of there till 6 p.m., at the earliest, or sometimes until 1 or 2 in the morning, depending on his lectures,” Failla remembered. “You’d do two classes a day. The standard (duration) as you know is 1 and a half hours, but it’s Bikram on steroids, so it’s longer and hotter and more intense.”
Failla completed the training and opened the studio in January 2010, while still a member of the Westport Police Department. For six years, he regularly worked 80 hours a week as an officer and business owner, before leaving the force to focus on his studio fulltime in 2016.
Chase, a long-distance runner for most of her life, had also suffered injuries and was convinced by her brother to try a class. Yoga soon overtook running as her preferred mode of exercise. After stints in New York City and Boston, Chase found herself in Connecticut and began taking classes at Failla’s studio in 2010. By 2012, she was a partner.
The studio offers two distinct styles of yoga taught by a group of eight teachers. The first is Bikram, or hot yoga, and the second is power vinyasa.
“Bikram is 26 postures, 13 standing, 13 on the floor. No matter whose class you come to, you will always do the same sequence. And it’s always the same heat: 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity,” said Chase.
“The power vinyasa is a flow class. The sequence is designed by the teacher,” she continued. Each teacher teaches differently and they have creative license to sequence whatever they want. Those are an hour or an hour and 15 minutes, and they’re 90 to 95 degrees. They’re more upper body weight- bearing, with music and they’re a little bit light-hearted.”
Each style attracts different yogis. I prefer not to know what to expect from a class, so vinyasa was my favorite. But both Failla and Chase like a balance of both.
“It’s like anything, you don’t want to go to the gym and use the same machine every time. You want to mix it up,” Failla said.
Each instructor differs in the way they teach. Failla, tall and ruggedly muscular, is quieter as he calls out poses and slightly more aloof, the combination of which creates a feeling of calm in his classes. Chase, svelte and tan, is more apt to engage directly with her students, pushing them with her hands deeper into stretches and ensuring good posture.
All the teachers with whom I took classes encouraged me to go at my own pace and make my “practice” — as the spiritual/physical act of taking a yoga class is referred — my own.
“The whole mindset is you’re never going to be perfect, you just keep practicing,” Chase said. “For all of us, no matter how deep or not we go, it’s always a practice.”