I've always said that whenever you feel like you’re in a rut in your yoga practice, you plateau, or become bored, or simply hunger for something, try branching out and take classes from a place or a teacher that is completely new to you. And hey, why not do it with a group of your friends? This is how I decided to bring a group of people with me to one of the best towns for yoga in the country.
A few months ago, I flew to San Francisco from Salt Lake City to help a friend and fellow yoga teacher, Garrick Peters, by teaching his classes for him while he was recovering from knee surgery. It’s always fun to teach a new group of people in a new environment. I loved getting away momentarily from my teaching routine in SLC and happily brought my wife and son along for the trip.
While in San Francisco, we met a dear friend, Maya, from Salt Lake City, for dinner and drinks at a chic neighborhood haunt in Noe Valley called Hamlet. Maya is a fellow intelligent movement enthusiast, an expert Pilates teacher, and over the years she and I have worked one-on-one with each other sharing our love for somatics through our different disciplines.
Maya also just happened to be in San Francisco on her yearly girls trip where she and a girlfriend fly out to SF to revel in the obscene amounts of great yoga and to live it up at night at SF’s lively and unique restaurants and hot spots.
There we were, after a long day of teaching at taking yoga classes, laughing and enjoying cocktails and small plates when the idea dawned on me. . . Why not expand Maya’s idea of coming out to SF for a yoga tour and invite a bunch of people, rent out an apartment in the city, and share this towns abundance of extraordinary yoga, decadent food, and verdant wine country?
As a career yoga teacher, I’ve lead dozens of yoga retreats and this would be the first excursion where I get to go and TAKE all the classes with my students. At this retreat my role was more of curator than instructor.
So, a few months later, I found myself pulling up to SFO in a large, rented van and gathering a group of yogis. The SF Yoga Tour was on! We wasted no time and drove directly into the city for our first yoga class with Sean Haleen at Yoga Tree Valencia.
While Sean was new to the many yogis in our group, I had taken several classes from Sean and even co-taught with. I knew how good this was going to be and I couldn’t wait to share this experience with my friends. I felt like a tour guide who was sharing the gems and wonders of the yoga world to open-eyed yogis.
Class with Sean was even better than I had imagined. He focused on some technical aspects of opening our spine by the angle of our pelvis with the help of relaxing our glutes. I learned several new ways to open my shoulders as well techniques using straps to help open my spine in self-limiting backbends like Shalambasana and Dhanurasana. It was the perfect way to start our day, especially for my guests after sitting during plane ride that morning.
Sean Haleen is a gifted teacher but one gift that shines brightly is his ability to lead a class, deliberately and with precision, in a way that doesn’t appear didactic or labored. His easy demeanor and sense of humor adds to his expansive knowledge of the body and makes you feel like a friend who is along for an exciting ride. Yoga with Sean is informative but more importantly it’s fun and inviting.
Speaking to his friendliness, Sean knew our group was coming to his class and after, went with us to Arizmendi, a friendly and opulent neighborhood bakery for coffee and baked delights. We sat outside and basked in our post-yoga glow, no doubt aided by the coffee, warm corn muffins, and the sometimes-rare warmth of a bright spring sunshine.
We took our time there, said goodbye to Sean and then eventually traveled to Fillmore street for strolling and some shopping. After a few hours, we were ready for a meal and I took everyone to Roam, a bay-area favorite for incredibly fresh salads and grass-fed burgers.
After lunch, we dropped luggage at the beautiful and hip apartment we rented on Henry Street, near The Castro, and went back to Yoga Tree Valencia, this time to experience a yoga class by Jason Crandell. Jason’s class was a great compliment to Sean’s class earlier that day with more shoulder openers and backbends.
Jason’s class felt like every pose he directed and even every word he used was laser-precise and absolutely deliberate. My body appreciated the arc of the experience, never coaxing us into strain, always leading us to an intelligent place. And as skillful as Jason can place a poses, Jason could insert the perfect bit of humor here or there to keep us relaxed despite the vigor of the class. I left class feeling open in my shoulders, energized, and ready for another great meal.
For dinner we stayed in the mission. I wanted to show everybody the legendary Gracias Madre, a restaurant that doesn’t compromise flavor or cultural connection for their commitment to plant-based, sustainable food, and therefore a deep honoring of the Divine Mother.
Later that night we crashed in our hip and cozy apartment and slept like the dead.
The next morning, we made our way to Yoga Flow SF Ocean where we had the rare pleasure of catching a special class from Rusty Wells who just happened to be in town that weekend. Rusty’s class was a rare treat, having left San Francisco years ago when his studio’s landlord quadrupled his already expensive rent. Well, this week he was back in San Francisco, this time at Yoga Flow SF Ocean. He calls his style Bhakti Flow, a sweaty, quick-paced class blended with chanting, music, and heart-felt good vibes. I loved to sweat so much in class. I left that 120 min. class feeling cleansed, grounded, alive, and in love with the world, pleased as punch to have shared this experience with all my friends.
Still glowing from class, we lost no time and drove directly to Tartine Bakery, the apotheosis of baked goods, and grabbed coffee, coconut cream tarts, and morning buns to eat while basking in the sun and overlooking the city at Dolores Park. After a lazy few hours at the park, we made our way down to the Embarcadero for a view of the ocean and some lunch.
That afternoon we ventured to Yoga Tree Hayes for a class taught by Amanda Moran. Amanda is Jivamukti-trained teacher (look for a NYC Yoga Tour to visit Jivamukti). Amanda is a serious teacher with a big heart. One of the things I loved about her class was the magic potion she rubbed on my neck and shoulders during warrior 1 which left my entire upper-body feeling light and free.
Another thing I loved about Amanda’s class was her dedication to address both ends of the intensity spectrum. She led us through intense focus with a 7-minute meditation and later intense asana as she encouraged us keep our breath steady while we held a handstand at the wall for a full 15 breaths, which she counted to ensure the proper duration. She taught a great, well-rounded class.
After yoga, we took our time getting back to the apartment and rested for a bit before heading out to dinner. That night we traveled back toward Noe Valley. I was thrilled to take everyone to Hamlet, the chic neighborhood haunt where I first came up with the idea of the SF Yoga Tour. As we toasted our drinks, at ground zero of the SF Yoga tour, we celebrating an idea turned to the fruit of a reality. It was a sweet moment, indeed. The sweetness of that moment could only be topped by our trip to Bi-Rite Creamery which we visited after for ice cream.
The following morning, we found ourselves at Yoga Tree Castro for a class from the inimitable Janet Stone. We knew that there would likely be a full house (130+ people) in that beautiful studio and wanted to come early to avoid feeling rushed. As suspected, the room filled quickly and buzzed with the happy cacophony of expectant yogis.
When it was time to begin class, Janet simply sat in place, looked out over the packed class, and slightly raised her mala beads. Without a word, the entire class fell silent and was ready to hear her voice as she spoke clearly and loudly without a mic. Janet taught me about presence.
To begin class, she evoked Durga Ma, the divine mother, sacred and fierce. Durga means "invincible." And while we were chanting our Durga mantra 108 times, I couldn’t help but be aware of the parallel to the spirit of Gracias Madre, the Divine Mother who nourished our bellies two nights earlier. Same mother, different incarnation. As powerful as Durga, Janet embodies strength, gentleness, and presence. Though her voice is beautiful, clear, and piercing, she doesn’t need to say much to steer that ship. This class was certainly a highlight for me.
After yoga, we took the rest of the day off from yoga to get away from the city, drive into Sonoma Valley, and tour the country’s finest wine country. I made reservations at two vineyards, Keller Estates and Deerfield Ranch.
Keller Estates was elegant, not busy, and offered one of the best Rosés I’ve ever tasted, good enough to buy and bring home.
Deerfield Ranch was an absolute delight. They boast “clean wine” and practice reusing water and cultivating an organic wine low in histamines and sulfites. We arrived to the estate headed into the wine cave, 200 feet into the mountain, to an open salon, humming happily with several content visitors.
The owners Robert and PJ Rex were there with their gentle dog, a standard poodle named Obi Wine Konobi (I know). They were relaxed, sitting, drinking wine and talking with guests. The wine cave was both relaxed yet elegant. Being at their vineyard felt like being home. We tasted several wines, both whites and reds, and reveled in their delicious and complex flavors. It was impossible to leave Deerfield without buying several bottles.
Before we drove back to the city, we picnicked outside on the grass in front of the vineyard on homemade sandwiches we made from sourdough baguettes, tomatoes, olive oil, avocados, and Cowgirl cheese, a local creamery in San Francisco.
We took our time getting back into the city and drove directly to North Beach, Little Italy. With several bookish people in our group, we had to make a pilgrimage to City Lights Bookstore. Once our Beat Poet sensibilities were satisfied, we hiked up Grant Street for our dinner reservations at Ideale, an Italian restaurant that felt like a transplant directly from Rome.
Even with our large group, the staff all met us with warmth and treated us immediately like family. Their zucchini salad with truffle oil is famous and for good reason. We also enjoyed homemade ravioli, lasagna, and bucatini. We couldn’t stop at dinner and had to sample their dolci—gelato and port with biscotti. We ate so well that we practically had to be rolled out of the restaurant by our loving hosts.
The following morning, Sunday, we finished our yoga tour with the perfect yoga class: Sunday Morning Flow with Garrick Peters, again at Yoga Tree Hayes. Garrick is a 6’7”, happy guy who’s heart is larger than his height. He is serious about yoga and delivers a unique yoga experience that touches and gladdens the heart. His class is exactly what we needed on a Sunday morning: moving but not crazy-intense, fun and heart-felt, and yet a full and complete practice.
He used an incredible play list with the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Patty Griffin, Bonnie Raitt, etc., to create a great vibe that complimented not commandeered the vibe of class. Garrick’s also uses his own LoopFlow tracks that he created to direct a flow sequence in time. We left that class feeling open in body, free in heart, and clear in mind.
Before gathering our stuff and heading out of town, we walked across the street from Yoga Tree Hayes to Boulangerie, a great bakery for coffee, croissants, and quiches. As we sat around the table, we all reminisced about our time together and commented on the different classes and teachers, etc. Everyone had different favorites and for quite different reasons.
After days of outstanding yoga, incredible food, laughs and fun with friends, etc., I felt renewed and whole in body, mind, and spirit. A catch I’d been having in my upper-back seemed miraculously dissolved. I felt invigorated and excited to go back to Salt Lake City and see all of my wonderful yoga students back home, having sampled such quality teachers in SF. I was grateful to have passed several days with such a wonderful group of people.
All of us on the retreat agreed that there is so much quality yoga in San Francisco, even at Yoga Tree Studios alone, that it’s like a 24/7 yoga festival. Add to that the incredible dining, fantastic sweet delights, wine country, etc. and only one question remains: when is the next SF Yoga Tour?
Maybe NYC . . .Seattle . . . L.A. . . . Austin . . . Portland. . . .