By Caryn Maconi on September 24, 2011

I stand awkwardly on the stairs leading into the basement of the prAna store, peering into the yoga room ahead. It exudes a soft yellow light, and I can hear sitar music playing on the stereo inside.

It’s 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, and I’m at the prAna climbing and yoga apparel store on Pearl Street in Boulder. I’ve come here to observe the Power Vinyasa Flow class, one of the many free events prAna offers in its basement studio.

One by one, people start to tiptoe around me and into the room. Most are dressed in stretchy capris and tank tops, their hair pulled back into ballerina-like buns. The room is filled with college-aged women, but a few older men and women and one fit-looking young man also file in. They spread their own yoga mats on the floor or pick one from the stack in the corner of the room, stretching or talking quietly as they await the instructor’s arrival.

I consider myself an athlete, but in here, I feel out of place. I’m wearing a T-shirt and cargo shorts and toting a notebook and camera. I take off my flip-flops and leave them by the door, as seems to be the custom here.

I gaze at the artwork that fills every wall. I notice a series of framed illusions, each one accompanied by a whiteboard on which viewers can write down their interpretations. Several squares of cloth with Eastern-style art are strung across the front of the room.

The instructor arrives a few minutes late. She is a tall, 20-something blonde with hair past her shoulders, wearing gray running shorts and a tank top. I approach her and ask if I can observe the class. She says she doesn’t mind, and I glance around the room to see if anyone else objects. I feel stares; I can’t tell if I’m intruding or if people are just curious. I pick a spot on the floor in the back and focus on being as quiet as possible.

It’s time to begin. The instructor, Michelle Pitcher, sits cross-legged on her mat facing about 15 participants.

“With the fall equinox, now is a good time time to focus on what you want to change in your life,” Michelle says, signaling a few moments of meditation.

Vinyasa, which means “breath-synchronized movement,” is a type of yoga that focuses on inhaling and exhaling in time with certain motions. Encouraging her students to think about audible breathing, Michelle begins to guide them through a set of six or seven poses that flow naturally into one another.

Michelle stands and walks around the room, occasionally making comments like, “Grow your branches by reaching up to sky” and “Find length in both of your side bodies.” I try to write down names of specific poses, such as “Utkaṭāsana,” or “chair pose,” but at the time, I can’t even imagine spelling them correctly.

The motions get faster and faster. Every once in awhile, someone breaks out in a pose of his or her own choice or holds one of the given poses longer than the rest. Some participants are incredibly graceful, while some, like the 50-something man wearing a baseball cap and spectacles, are a little clumsy. What I notice in all of them, however, is a mental focus so intense, I’m convinced they’ve forgotten I’m here.

A few times during the hour-long class, I stand up or walk around to snap photos. At one point, the room turns quiet as the participants engage in an extended relaxation stretch. I want to capture the peace of this moment, but I wish I knew how to mute the noises my camera keeps making.

In the final moments of class, Michelle instructs her students to clench all their muscles, even in their faces, and then release.

“Just relax and let go of everything,” she says.

Each person lies flat on his or her mat, arms outstretched and palms facing up. The sitar music stops. There is utter silence in the basement, while upbeat rock music can be heard playing in the storefront area upstairs. For several moments, I am afraid to breathe.

“Begin to awaken the body by wiggling your fingers and toes,” Michelle says, easing her students back into reality with her soft voice. “Stretch like you just woke up in the morning. Roll onto your side in a comfortable fetal position, using your arms as a pillow … now slowly roll up into a seated position, keeping your eyes closed.”

It is 11:15. Michelle asks her students to conclude class with “one final Om.”

I am shocked by the decibel and vibration of the participants’ voices as they say, in perfect unison, “OMMMMMMMMMMMM…..”

Michelle says, “Namaste,” an Indian salutation meaning, “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you.” Her students respond in kind: “Namaste.”

The students roll up their mats and begin to file out. Even though I wasn’t participating, I feel more relaxed and clear-minded than when I came in. I feel as if I am feeding off the tranquility and mental focus of everyone in the room.

While Vinyasa is one of prAna’s more popular classes, the Boulder establishment also offers more obscure sessions, such as “Tree of Life Healing,” “Basic Argentine Tango” and “Hoop Fitness.” There are three to six regularly scheduled classes each day, and all are free.

PrAna employee Brandon McMullen can’t remember which one it is, but he swears he can hear animal noises coming from the basement during one of the classes.

“It’s the one with really weird breathing patterns like ‘breath of fire’,” McMullen said.

While classes like these seem bizarre or overwhelming to people like McMullen and me, they are a necessary way of life for others.

A young male participant from the Vinyasa class, Tomás, talked to me after the session about the purpose of Vinyasa yoga.

“Awareness of unification of body and mind is an important practice,” Tomás says. “It helps you get out of your own way and be present for yourself and others.”

I entered the PrAna store this morning thinking I would just watch some people stretch for an hour and be done with it. The more I reflect on the experience, though, the more tempted I am to go back in there and try it myself.